In 825, when Walahfrid Strabo was a teenager at the monastery of Reichenau, he started a notebook. The notebook went with him when he left to study at Fulda, and it followed him home when he came back to Reichenau as abbot. Walahfrid wrote a lovely poem about gardening, so it’s tempting to think that even when the abbot was traveling on a royal mission or tutoring the emperor’s son at Aachen, his heart was deep in the weeds—but his notebook, now in the abbey library at St. Gall in Switzerland, offers a sense of the learning that ran through his mind as he tended his wormwood and fennel.
Across 394 pages, Walahfrid copied mathematical tables, medical texts, and excerpts from chronicles and calendars. He transliterated runes, and he doodled a labyrinth, but he filled nearly half of his notebook with grammatical texts: examples of Latin usage, excerpts from the works of great writers, and guides to poetic meter. Many of these texts were centuries old, but Walahfrid copied them into his vademecum and went about his business, presumably delighted by the access to education and technology that allowed him to take Priscian, Seneca, Isidore, and Bede with him wherever he went.
I thought of Walahfrid’s notebook when Books, Inq. pointed readers to “Resisting the Kindle,” a piece by Sven Birkerts in The Atlantic. Birkerts imagines printed books disappearing, which I don’t think will happen, and he describes the advent of e-books as “apocalyptic,” which I don’t think it is. Although he makes a reasonable case, Birkerts can’t help but panic about the impending “decimation of context”:
So if it happens that in a few decades—maybe less—we move wholesale into a world where information and texts are called onto the screen by the touch of a button, and libraries survive as information centers rather than as repositories of printed books, we will not simply have replaced one delivery system with another. We will also have modified our imagination of history, our understanding of the causal and associative relationships of ideas and their creators. We may gain an extraordinary dots-per-square-inch level of access to detail, but in the process we will lose much of our sense of the woven narrative consistency of the story. That is the trade-off. Access versus context. As for Pride and Prejudice—Austen’s words will reach the reader’s eye in the same sequence they always have. What will change is the receiving sensibility, the background understanding of what this text was – how it emerged and took its place in the context of other texts—and how it moved through the culture.
The change Birkerts predicts isn’t “apocalyptic,” nor is it even new; multidisciplinary conversations about context occur every time someone studies or teaches a medieval work. When medievalists read a text, they often don’t know who wrote it; its original audience may be unknown; and it may be an edition based on a manuscript that was decades or centuries older than any copy the original author saw or touched.
Birkerts frets that e-books “will also have modified our imagination of history, our understanding of the causal and associative relationships of ideas and their creators,” but this semester, my bright students discerned, all on their own, that layers of context support the translations we read. They grasped that the Penguin Classics Mabinogion is a translation of an edition of a copy of a manuscript that the anonymous author or authors may never have handled or seen—and that the translation is also a conscious response to earlier translations, which are themselves products of their times. What Birkerts finds so terrifying—authors “no longer cohering in historical imagination but fragmented into retrievable bits of information”—is already a normal part of dealing with the ambiguity of any pre-modern work.
Twelve centuries ago, Walahfrid himself faced the question of context when he came across a copy of Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne. He didn’t panic; instead, he wrote a prologue that offered his own take on the historical background, and he alerted posterity to the handy section headers he’d inserted. In Walahfrid’s day, monks were copying texts in an innovative new handwriting, saving ancient works like Cicero’s Philippics for future scholars to contextualize—while happily copying, and thus making portable, the texts they also found vital for personal use.
My hunch is that the young abbot of Reichenau would have been more confused by our modern cult of the author than by devices like the Kindle, which promise to be a fancy codex, scroll, reference library, and vademecum all packed into one. Of course, Walahfrid knew what medieval monks knew, and what medievalists have learned from them: that the uncertainty ahead of us is nothing compared to the fog that we face when we turn to the past.