Manuscripts then and now

For any writer there are few experiences as satisfying as the transformation of one’s manuscript into the finality of a published book. When at last the precious assemblage of thousands of mulled-over sentences emerges into print publication, a surge of pride mixes with huge relief at the culmination of a long and laborious process.

“Manuscript,” of course, literally means handwritten. Although it’s seldom the case these days that producing a manuscript (conventionally abbreviated “ms”) is a matter of putting pen to paper in the way that authors did for centuries, in its modern usage the term is no misnomer. For while a computer now does the work of converting what we compose into a readable form, we still use our fingers to tap out every word.

But imagine how much more painstaking – and how final – the production of a manuscript used to be before the mid-15th century, when Gutenberg perfected the art of printing with movable type. Until that revolutionary technology appeared, there was virtually no distinction between a manuscript and a publication. Books were entirely written by hand, each copy being unique even if it was transcribing something already written.

From the 8th-century Codex Amiatinus (discussed by Hamel): Ezra writing beside his bookshelves.

I’ve just finished reading Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Penguin, 2018), a wonderfully detailed account of a dozen outstanding medieval books. Hamel invites us “to accompany the author on a private journey to see, handle and interview some of the finest illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.” Its chapters are framed as celebrity interviews with famous documents that are inaccessible to most people. “It is easier to meet the Pope or the President of the United States,” Hamel remarks, “than it is to touch the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry.” So under Hamel’s expert scholarly guidance we visit each beautifully decorative ms in its particular archival setting, questioning it about its often complicated physical production, historical significance, changing ownership and serendipitous survival.

Hamel is the perfect companion, not only a brilliant palaeographer but also a warmly witty writer with a gift for lucid exposition and lively narrative. “The life of every ms,” he says, like that of every person, is different, and all have stories to divulge.” Mss he discusses at length range from the 6th-century Gospels of St Augustine (belonging to an era when a new Christian literacy was emerging from the collapse of Ancient Rome) to the 16th-century Spinola Hours (a gorgeously illustrated work, embodying a culture of high Renaissance luxury).

As I read his book, it occurred to me that some of my own earliest “publications” were childish versions of the kind of production that de Hamel celebrates. Hand-written and hand-illustrated, co-authored with one of my primary school classmates, they testify to the immense pleasure that the physical making of a book can yield.

Looking at them now, I recognise how tritely formulaic they are, how full of verbal and visual stereotypes. But those home-made thrillers were also amateur in a better sense: we loved the process of putting them together ourselves. Nostalgically I salute here The Valley of the Headhunters, Pioneers of Space, The Creeps of Crumbly Castle and our other humble latter-day examples of the art of the illustrated manuscript.

Though we produced those little books of our own accord and primarily for our own enjoyment, they did reach a wider audience: an indulgent teacher read them aloud to our school class. In this respect, too, our publication method echoed what had been normal practice in the Middle Ages, when the literate few gave voice to words on the page for the benefit of groups of listeners.

Did any readers of this blog have similar childhood experiences of hand-producing books?

5 thoughts on “Manuscripts then and now

  1. I wish I could claim that my titles were as good as yours were, both now and in our respective pasts! Titles will occasionally fall out beautifully for me; more usually, I have to yank away at them like a rotten molar.
    I was very much into exercise books as writing compendiums cum “books” when I was in lower primary school. The earliest ones I had contained massive line spacings and alternate blank pages for drawing illustrations on. The lines got closer together as we supposedly ‘matured’. My best friend at the time also wrote stories, and her father was a teacher, so she had access to a stash of the old style blue and white WA government issue exercise books, which had gone out of print by then. We loved those.
    Later on, my whole class actually had a system whereby we would draft, proof, and then ‘publish’ stories. The ‘publishing’ was done on A3 sketch paper, written and illustrated by each pupil, and then bound by the teacher (stapled and sticky-taped) and stuck on the shelf for anyone to read. The trouble was, this took up so much time that we hardly got any maths training in those last couple of primary years; I suspect there was a degree of avoidance on both sides with this. It meant I had to really shape up or ship out when I got to Year 8.

  2. Ah, Glen, the romance of those lined school exercise books! I still have some of mine – another example of my incorrigible retentiveness, which could have been added to the confessions in my earlier post on “Hoarding and Writing.”
    The collective class publishing efforts that you describe testify to a more coordinated and better organised system than the one I remember from an earlier era…

  3. It was ludicrously well organised, actually. We were given special folders to keep our writing in, and we had to get another class member to proof our first drafts for us. Then, I think, the teacher had to approve our subsequent ‘for publication’ draft before we could go ahead and ‘publish.’ To reflect the co-operative nature of it, the process was actually called “Conference Writing”, which strikes me now as a most peculiar and comic label (shades of early Frank Moorhouse? If only there actually had been…)

    On the subject of “hoarding and writing”, I’m drawn to Amanda Curtin’s recent comment, “What is clutter, if not history?” It’s only the people around you who have no personal investment in your mess that bellow at you to clean it up and throw it out…

  4. “Conference writing,” for better or worse, partly reflects the involvement that I (and others, of course) had in curriculum development for school English in the 1980s. My book The Making of Literature – see Publications section of this website – belongs to that push towards a more central place for student writing in the classroom. It’s good to know that in at least one case (yours) it doesn’t seem to have harmed the emergence of creative talent, and (who knows?) may even have encouraged it.

  5. Well, golly gosh…so I have you to thank for all that! I don’t think that anything I wrote at that stage was much to shout about, but I certainly loved the process at the time. And yes, it was in the late 1980’s. The process was only “formalised” in this way when I got to Grade 6 and 7, but there was plenty of furtive and not-so furtive writing going on for me before that.

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