Reading Cultures in Early Medieval to Early Modern England

Reading is again in crisis. The 1990s digital revolution was thought to generate the unqualified good of more readers with access to vastly wider ranges of reading material. Yet thirty years into the digital era, there can be no question that the picture is darker. In an era of normative literacy, the ubiquity of digital reading is changing our habits of thought and feeling and cultural attitudes at individual and societal levels. Although online communities have wrested the new technologies towards collective expression, activism, and pleasure, they have also isolated the members of those communities from any larger public forum. The continual use of digital media encourages mental multi-tasking and discourages deep reading. Many are anxious about the effects of screen media on ourselves and our children, the proliferation of conspiracies, and the very wiring of our brains.

In looking to the past to make sense of the present, our gaze may be drawn to the print revolution of the sixteenth century, when a new technology and its attendant reading cultures aggressively restructured discursive, ecclesiastical, and political worlds. The historical narrative often celebrates the triumph of print culture, and yet it presaged 150 years of violence in western Europe. What if our gaze shifts to the centuries before Gutenberg and Caxton? The twelve essays in The Practice and Politics of Reading, 650–1500 weave together a longer chronological span and a wider range of reading practices, which collectively speak with compelling relevance to the crisis of today’s digital culture. Medievalists have productively explored the history of reading for many decades, often highlighting its relevance to contemporary culture. Brian Stock, for example, has called attention to parallels between eleventh- and twelfth-century monastic settings and digital communities. Both modes encourage what media theorists have called “social reading,” that is, communal interpretive experiences rooted in shared commentary and dialogue between readers.

The Practice and Politics of Reading offers a variety of case studies that illustrate innovations and anxieties across a chronological range extending from manuscript to early print culture in England. It begins with essays illustrating “The Practice of Reading” which, explicitly or not, have contemporary twins, such as, for example, the physical and cognitive act of reading itself. Essay after essay reminds us of the tremendous variety of practices elicited by innovations in manuscript culture, such as modes of writing calculated to ward off distraction, reading that toggles between surface and depth or between text and image, and reading that transports the reader into a new identity among networks that include texts, people, and institutions. 

Essays gathered under “The Politics of Reading,” situate their topics among institutions regulating what counts as orthodox or official, and how they might be disseminated to the less powerful. The politics extend to stereotyping and persecution, gender and class, and community-formation. How should one read the Bible? Even beyond the Bible, does reading provide a path for remediation, or is it fraught with potential error, calling for regulation? How do Christian efforts to cherry-pick Jewish biblical exegesis contribute to Jewish persecution? How do public pageants create a textual community? Are they successful, or do interpretations escape their efforts to control? Attempts to regulate and control what one reads are hardly limited to today’s digital culture, it turns out, nor are creative responses defying those controls.

Taken individually or as a group, the essays in The Practice and Politics of Reading, 650–1500 demonstrate that early textual communities have much to tell us about our historical moment.

This guest blog post was written by Daniel G. Donoghue, James Simpson, Nicholas Watson and Anna Wilson.

The Practice and Politics of Reading, 650-1500
Edited by Daniel G. Donoghue, James Simpson, Nicholas Watson and Anna Wilson
9781843846413, hardcover, £45.50 or $68.25

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