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‘Substance and accident’: blogging about medieval books

September 12, 2012

Here are some thoughts on my hesitant foray into the blogosphere, at the prodding of DH23Things.

I’d been considering blogging for awhile, but was reluctant to set foot in the internet arena. It’s so very public, so noisy and so crowded – what would be the point? But the guides to academic blogging included in our additional readings, especially the oft-linked Professors – Start Your Blogs, stopped this generalised whining and made me wonder if academic blogging might be a useful exercise for me.

Setting up the blog was easy. I thought, mistakenly, that my only issue was the blog’s name. I’m still not sure I’m comfortable with ‘Bokspels’ (Middle English for ‘tales about books’), particularly as googling it put me into fantasy game territory in one-click, always a concern for a medievalist. But I’ll let it stand for now and see what sort of reactions (if any) it garners. And then the second issue arose. I’d posted a very rough draft of this post by accident, but wasn’t worried: who would find it anyway? But, cringe, someone did and, eek!, commented. Mortification ensued. Thankfully it was our kind leader, Helen, who was very charitable in her interpretation of my ramblings. In fact, her comments guided how I finished this post and not just this mea culpa. The best lessons are the ones that hurt and I got two lessons for one dose of embarrassment. The obvious first lesson: Don’t post drafts. And the almost paradoxical second lesson: Blog posts don’t have to be polished or definitive to attract intelligent and helpful comments. I won’t be posting a draft again, but I’ll be less worried about posting tentative, questioning, perhaps even half-baked ideas here.

As suggested, I went in search of blogs in my research area. I work on late medieval manuscripts and early printed books in England (predominantly in English, but also Latin). There are some interesting blogs on medieval literature and medieval history out there; and, unsurprisingly, the digital humanities projects, like Digipal – an on-line resource for paleography, have impressive internet sites. (And even non-medievalists might like Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog? He doth tweet too.) But there seems to be a big gap between the general focus of the literature and history blogs and the specialised, often technically difficult, focus of sites like Digipal. I suppose I want to read a blog by someone like Prof. David McKitterick, the great book historian and Librarian at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Of course, that’s not the sort of blog I’m capable of writing, but I would like this blog to be one about the study of medieval books primarily. It would be aimed at an academic audience, but I hope could be read by non-specialists as well. Perhaps as Helen suggested, a group blog on these and related issues would be the most useful and successful. Group blogs were some of the best I found, although looking at the comments, there seemed to be an insular circularity to some of them. A small focused group need not be a problem, but I’d prefer a more inviting forum if possible.

Finally, after all this enthusiasm for blogging, I must admit two fears about this blog. The first is theoretical: is there something oxymoronic about a blog on book history? Book historians are interested in the material of books, in their messy physical substance: bindings, leaves, foliation, scribes, handwriting, decoration and marginalia. Something about this materiality fits uncomfortably with digital media, where even the best digital reproductions are still only images. My current position is to ignore this fear and plunge ahead: I don’t think the immateriality of the internet is a fatal flaw, just an issue that needs careful thought and management. The second fear is practical and a much greater problem: online images can provide the next-best thing to gazing over a physical book (see for example, Parker on the Web), but – as anyone without a Cambridge log-in found when trying to look at the Parker manuscripts – access to most of these images is restricted. Discussing or asking for help with my research would be so much easier if I could put an image of a manuscript online. Without a change in copyright law or unlimited funds/time (it takes days to get permissions from libraries) – this isn’t an option. A fatal problem or are there practical solutions?


From → DH 23 Things

  1. Looks like WordPress has posted a draft of a post – thank God for edit buttons, eh?
    I don’t know if there’s a community already out there on medieval book history and religious writing, but you’ve already made yourself know to someone with very similar interests *coughs meaningfully* so quite by chance, your first foray into the blogosphere has started something off! It might be than a group blog rather than an individual one would work well in this case. Fourteenth century vernacular German compilations of religious writings for the laity, in my case – any use to you?

    The question of audience is a good one – depending on your aim, is success a wide readership, or actually being found by a narrow group of people? A digital format, unlike print, has different measures of success, given that it doesn’t need to cover its costs and you only need to have a conversation with those you need to talk to, which may be a small and very specific group, but that’s fine!

    it would be interesting too to unpack the risks involved and balance them against the very different nature of a blog, which is more of a dialogue, and understood as more tentative and fluid, than the definitive statement of a journal article. Blogging and seeing the readers’ reactions, showing development of your ideas visibly online in this fluid medium, might save you from committing to a less-thought through statement in print, which is harder to distance yourself from!

    and I liked your blog title!

    • Thanks for the useful comments – they truly helped me finish this first post. And I’m very interested in your work on vernacular German compilations of religious writings. Hurrah! A relevant connection already. One of my thesis chapters is on hagiography in fifteenth-century Middle English miscellanies – I’m sure there would be interesting overlaps and differences in the types of works included alongside saints’ lives.

  2. Only one post down, and I found just seeing my own thoughts in (digital) print helped me consider and (re)form my opinions more clearly, never mind hearing the responses others may/did have. I certainly wouldn’t be shy of posting ‘tentative’ ideas, certainly while the DH23Things course is running anyway.

    I’m also interested by your idea of discussing distinctly non-digital topics by digital means: while there is a threat posed by the advance of technology here, surely treating it with excessive suspicion will only accelerate the problem? Opting out completely will only encourage the perception of, in this case, the study of book history as ‘old-fashioned’…though, as always, there is a balance to be struck, not least with the legal issues you mentioned…

    • I completely agree that ‘old-fashioned’ subjects like book history need to work with digital technology and opting out is not an option. I like your concept of balance – it’s not as good as having an actual book in front of you, but it can be the next best thing if handled properly. What I’m interested in is how to convey the concrete thinginess of books, as material objects, with this technology. Just a simple thing like how to convey size is so difficult on-line. I’ve been looking at the ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’ BBC site, and they provide information about the size of each object in the side bar, but all the images are the same size when you first view them on a screen. For me, it’s quite a mental exercise to then work out actual size – something that is almost unconscious in the real world becomes a conscious effort. These sorts of things fascinate me – my inveterate materialist way of thinking!

  3. re your theoretical fear – it occurred to me that a blog has some similarities to a palimpsest. Not sure where that thought might go, but it might be worth pursuing…. *thinks*

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