Introduction [chapter]

Ricarda Wagner, Christine Neufeld, Ricarda Wagner, Christine Neufeld, Ludger Lieb
2019 Writing Beyond Pen and Parchment  
When Marshall McLuhan wrote The Gutenberg Galaxy in 1962, he argued that the invention of print-and with it mass communication-changed not only society, but human consciousness itself. McLuhan's predictions were eerily prescient: with text-generating devices never far from our fingers, and advertising campaigns conquering even the sanctuary of our lavatory cubicles, we contend daily with what it means to live in a text-saturated world. But what of the time before print, the Middle Ages, when
more » ... t of society could neither read nor write? What kind of work does writing do in a non-typographical society, a society without the mechanical means to mass-produce texts? For the medievalist this question involves looking not only at manuscript culture but also at other kinds of text-bearing artefacts in the Middle Ages to understand the role of writing in medieval society. For a literature scholar in particular, this means asking, what can stories of magical inscribed rings or prophetic writing on walls tell us about how writing was perceived before print transformed this world? Archaeological studies have brought to light a great number of medieval artefacts that bear writing. In addition to codices and single sheets of parchment or paper, objects like swords, rings, tombstones, crosses, and clothing were also used to transmit texts both poetic and mundane. These inscriptions might range in length from single words (a craftman's name on a candleholder, for example) to longer compositions in verse, as on the monumental Ruthwell Cross. We may find these text-bearing artefacts preserved in museums and can also encounter them in the literature of the Middle Ages. An inscribed sword-hilt in Beowulf tells the story of how a race of giants perished from the earth. In some version of the Arthurian legend, the Grail displays the written word of God, and the ominous warning on the gate to Hell in Dante's Divina Commedia continues to fascinate readers. Rather than adding to the excellent work that has been done on actual text-bearing artefacts from the Middle Ages, this book focuses on "narrated inscriptions", that is, inscriptions imagined in medieval European literatures. By "inscription" we mean all writing whose material differs from the medieval standard of ink and parchment or paper. A prototypical inscription, such as a stone epitaph, is incised, its letters formed by scraping off the material surface of an artefact. But this volume also considers additive inscriptions, in which a text is affixed to a surface, as in the case of a leather belt beset with gems spelling a word. Narrated inscriptions as opposed to physical ones allow us to explore different perspectives on the powers of the written word in the Middle Ages. By looking at literary accounts, we may uncover not only medieval practices of textuality, but also medieval conceptualisations of extraordinary forms of writing. Since fictional events are not necessarily committed to the laws of physics, narrated inscriptions may provide us with fresh insights into the imaginative and sometimes fantastical potential and Open Access.
doi:10.1515/9783110645446-001 fatcat:v4ieqco5dzfrvoldxhgoxkfhsu