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22.05.26 Brylowe/Yeager (eds.), Old Media and the Medieval Concept

22.05.26 Brylowe/Yeager (eds.), Old Media and the Medieval Concept

If you follow recent debates, you might notice that an increasing number of voices deem the edited collection a dead medium. If you wish to look for a forceful argument why this is not the case, Old Media and the Medieval Concept is a brilliant example. The volume, edited by Thora Brylowe and Stephen Yeager, as well as the series it inaugurates, takes as its aim a new understanding of media and their ecologies in the premodern period. This is a bit misleading: this collection covers topics and issues well beyond that time scope. It is an interdisciplinary volume that will be useful to very diverse audiences in the fields of medieval history, manuscript studies, media theory, digital humanities, and computer science.

The book has two sections, each consisting of three essays, preceded by a preface to the series and by an introduction to the volume. The introduction by Brylowe and Yeager sets the book up as an open contribution, both scholarship- and public-facing. The authors start by pointing out crucial continuities between the medieval and the modern epochs. They situate the discussion about medieval media in the context of the digital humanities, but also modern medievalism, be it in film or in computer games. Doing so, they link such phenomena like the origins of programming with medievalism in popular culture. To achieve this, they work through various pop cultural definitions of the Middle Ages. In the process they point out commonalities between medieval and digital media, thus stressing a unique position of medieval studies in digital humanities. The introduction, setting the methodological and theoretical framework, has at places a lot of heavy lifting to do but this should not detract the reader from the crucial points that it makes: that medieval studies and medieval media require to be studied in their own right and that they can contribute to important current debates.

The first section, “The Long Durations,” opens with Brandon Hawk’s essay on the origins of the concept of the digital and the digital/manual and digital/analogue interactions. By focusing on the very tangible, manual origins of the word digital, Hawk makes a series of important observations that help us appreciate the manual labour in the production of medieval manuscripts and in the practice of medieval science. His observation of the connection between the hidden forerunners of modern digital encoding in the practice of medieval code-switching is brilliant and deserves special attention. Hawk in his lexical analysis is masterful in connecting medieval phenomena to modern, digital concepts. How we think about what is digital is deeply rooted in the medieval understanding of the term, he argues. Hawk’s piece is an urgent intervention, a kind of methodological critique that digital humanities (and computer science) sorely need right now. Next comes the most theoretical of chapters, Stephen M. Yeager’s contribution on protocols and regulations. Yeager uses his framework to conceptualise periodisation as a tool of control. His distinction between protocols seen as lists of choices and regulations seen as lists of disallowed consequences (57), which he traces on phenomena as diverse as the witan of early England and internet broadband networks, allow him an attempt at establishing the methodology of the digital in the Middle Ages. This is perhaps the most hermetic of essays in this collection that rewards close reading and careful consideration, but it is also the most universal one. Yeager’s work can be applied in a truly interdisciplinary way. The author goes to great lengths to provide necessary differentiation and context, thus toning down the sometimes-stark methodological distinctions. The section is closed by Kathleen E. Kennedy’s paper on the history and remediation of coconut drinking cups, written in an engaging, essayistic prose that takes the reader on board from page one. Kennedy takes the “ecologies” of the series in which Old Media appears as a methodological and stylistic cue and makes a great us of it. Her observations on how media can transcend narrow boundaries of object/text and how they can be “invasive species” (79) are thought-provoking and much needed. Kennedy takes readers on a journey from medieval England to Indo-Christian New Spain, but she also opens up the media discussion by a series of questions: How do media act outside of their original ecosystems? What can be an “inscribed object”? How to theorise medieval media in the global context? Her use of the coconut cup to elucidate the complex nature of pre-contemporary media is illuminating. Kennedy’s work is a great example how to do involved, rigorous and open global history.

The next section, “Affective Affordances” is very much manuscript oriented. Fiona Somerset opens it with a piece on anonymous mnemonic verse tags, showing blurry borders between oral and written media in the Middle Ages. The key term for her is “protean”: Somerset nimbly demonstrates how these verses were a medium easily adaptable to changing circumstances and varied needs. Thus, she makes her excellent case that this understudied genre should get more attention, as it can reveal much about the processes of learning and thinking. These verses, she argues, give us an unprecedented insight into how thinking about texts as diverse as law or the Bible was structured. Afterwards comes Jonathan M. Newman’s piece about epistolography and authority. He investigates how the highly regulated authority inside a letter related to in-person authority. He correctly identifies letters as means of maintaining social cohesion and stability (partly due to their regulated, to use Yeager’s term, protocol, form). Newman sees the roots of bureaucratic revolutions of the twelfth century in the structures developed first in epistolography. Letter as “both an artifact and event” (126) underpins this analysis. One wonders if these findings would not have been strengthened by a foray into late antique and early medieval epistolography--a look at Ruricius, Avitus, Alcuin or Boniface would have put the analysis of letters of Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter the Venerable in a tradition of epistolographically underpinned social coherence that stretches beyond the twelfth century. It seems necessary to root these developments in the earlier collections--especially as these were still read and copied well into the high and late Middle Ages. The section ends with an investigation of biblical commentaries, specifically the Ordinary Gloss, by Alice Hutton Sharp. Her strong focus on materiality, the tangible effects of the mise-en-page not only on form but also the message, is very welcome. She relativises the twelfth-century glosses as aspirational and not authoritative texts and makes a coherent and convincing material argument to support it. She shows well how the production methods of medieval manuscripts enabled new forms of text. In Hutton Sharp’s essay the living authority of the glosses is reflected in the physical form of the gloss as a medium. The last ten years of manuscript studies have shown that materiality is extremely important, and Hutton Sharp presents a model of how such an approach brings tangible results.

This is a very accomplished collection that possesses its own internal ecology. It always maintains a connection with the digital and is not devoid of methodological coherence. As such it is an important contribution to the discourse about medieval media and about the role that medieval studies can play in the critique of the digital world. Many of the essays demonstrate well how to “do” medievally focused digital humanities. There are some questions about the way the Middle Ages are framed. In the series description Yaeger, Sommerset and Kline speak of “the conquest of Rome by Alaric” (xiv) as the beginning of the period this series investigates, a worrying, if not misleading, chronological qualifier. It is a rather early choice, and the impact of Alaric’s actions remains disputed. Additionally, there is a certain blurriness, perhaps intentional, in thinking about periods here. This blurriness increases as we move backwards in time towards the high and early Middle Ages, making the readers acutely aware how fluid periodisations are. Perhaps that is also a poignant contribution of this book: it underlines how our understanding of medieval culture is still in thrall of the “falls of Rome,” real and imagined. When it comes to the waning of the Middle Ages, the editors make a sharp distinction between “print” and “medieval” media (24), but one may ask, especially from a global perspective, is print not also a medieval medium? These questions remain a testimony of how thought-provoking this collection is. They should make us more aware of what we mean when we write and use the term “medieval,” and of the inner divisions of our period.

From a different perspective, as someone deeply involved in pedagogical practice, I can very much imagine an entire seminar taught around this book and the objects and texts it investigates. This collection is a gift to any teachers of cultural and social history, regardless of the epoch on which they focus. The fact that this book can be read in many directions--as a book about the theory of media, about manuscripts, about inscribed objects or about the digital world--makes it an instant scaffolding for many university courses. This is only strengthened by the citation practice which is open and inclusive as well as the diverse bibliography.

For a book about media, it seems only fitting to mention that the quality of the publication is outstanding. The cover, layout, and format make the book even more accessible (even though, purely subjectively, endnotes are not the best solution) and complement its contents. Some editorial choices might raise eyebrows, as for example, all Latin is translated, but the Middle English passages are not. The fact that the whole publication is available to read for free through the Concordia University Press website, in an aesthetically pleasing interface, is an additional boon. A PDF download option would have been a good addition.

Complementing its diversity, this volume has an inner coherence, underpinned by common research questions and a dialogue with similar methodologies and theories across contributions. Brylowe and Yeager have managed to gather authors working on diverse subjects and give them a common framing, no mean a feat for an edited collection and exactly what makes a successful one. The book will surely be a start of many important conversations.