Spaces for Reading

I recently had a chapter published in Spaces for Reading in Later Medieval England, edited by Mary Flannery and Carrie Griffin (New York, 2016). My bit’s about the various fixed physical markers for navigation that we find in medieval manuscripts—tabs, string, leather balls and so on—and I think it’s rather good—although I would say that, of course.

These little objects might seem less interesting than written marginalia, and aren’t as mobile as book ribbons or as mechanically sophisticated as book wheels (see this blog post for a good quick overview of all these types). But book ribbons and book wheels could move, and almost certainly all have moved since our period, and so we can’t now use them as evidence for readers’ attention to specific parts of books. Fixed markers, however, do let us track readers’ attention, or at least to track the parts of books which they expected to want to access rapidly.

Things get especially interesting when we can track fixed physical markers across lots of copies of the same text, revealing multiple different approaches to creating points of access in that text. Furthermore, there may be some correlation between types of physical marker and kinds of reading: markers which required more time and more materials seem to be added more programmatically, in ways which respond to texts’ own pre-existing navigational schemes, while markers which can be created quickly seem to be deployed in more idiosyncratic and immediate ways.

My chapter is as far as I know the first detailed discussion of this kind of evidence, and I hope it might be a useful resource for anyone else encountering tabs and string in medieval manuscripts and casting about for methods with which to approach them.

But the rest of the book is good too, quite possibly better! I’m not going to recite the contents page, but among other things it contains a chapter on Margery Kempe and the physical contexts for religious reading (by Ryan Perry and Lawrence Tuck) and a chapter by Stephanie Downes which both reminded me how much I have to learn about the French of medieval England and helped me get some of that learning underway.  I’d like to thank the editors and commend the book to you.

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