A Few Ideas Comparing the Past and Present

I was reading a book a while back about the importance of a handful of beverages in social history. Coffee was one and the coffee house was really the main focus of the chapter. Basically, in the Enlightenment (18th century Europe) the coffee house was the one of the social and intellectual centers of life for most people. While I had some problems with how the book in question presented and interpreted its information, it got me thinking about my own habits in coffee shops. Since I was in graduate school, the local Milwaukee coffee shops were where I got a lot of my academic stuff done. They also were good meeting up places for social get-togethers. When I moved half a country away, one of the first things I did was find the local places, and there’s been one or two added since then (about 5 years ago).

Two now come to mind: one, the current pandemic and social distancing practices, and two, what would the medieval equivalent have been?

I can’t think of a general equivalent of such a location for the Middle Ages that matches well; it would have to be somewhere that had both practical/business and social functions, as well as cater to a wide range of different kinds of people. Taverns could be an option, but those weren’t quite as socially diverse as a modern coffee shop, at least not to my knowledge. Certainly there were such places for the nobles and places for the upper class peasants and places for the lower classes, but was there much or any intermixing? It’s either too bad most libraries are closed right now, or this could be a chance for trying to research like most students would want to start (as in, To the Google!). Church or local festivals of public functions might be another option, but those are less about location and business, at least in some ways. It’s an interesting question in terms of history, but also in terms of modern society. How socially open are modern coffeehouses? Starbucks for example is supposedly open to any and all, but when you go into one, there isn’t necessarily a wide mix in terms of social standing.

Medieval Europe also has experience with pandemic and plague outbreaks, although Black Death was bacterial not viral. The bubonic plague of the 14th century does have some significant parallels including the social panic and distancing (think the frame of Boccaccio’s Decameron), as well as the origins of the term “quarantine”. Again, the details are quite different than the now, but the general parallels do make for interesting ideas.

Besides adapting to a lot more life and work online, I’ve also noticed another phenomenon with connections to the medieval past including the roles of books and reading, and personal written works. I kept a diary when I was younger (as in 20 years ago) but I have over recent years started to keep a journal when travelling. That’s unlikely to be much of thing for me this year since most of my summer travel has been canceled or postponed, but I have started to keep track of what goes on in daily life since social distancing went into full effect in my area, not quite two weeks as of this moment of writing. Looking at what I’ve got so far, it’s mostly just listing off things done, but also includes some general observations about for example how exciting it was to see a display of toilet paper and paper towels that wasn’t totally empty in a grocery store a few days ago, or how I took my fairly new car through a drive through for the first time ever (as in first time for the car, not first time ever for me). The travel journal was a major genre in the middle ages, to the point where now it’s hard to tell some of the fact from the fiction. For example, the Book of John Mandeville and the Book of Margery Kempe both contain aspects of actual travel as well as interpretive observations and thoughts and feelings about what’s been going on for the author. Then you’ve got the more household familial texts, like the Paston letters. The interesting thing here is that the forms are not quite what we might now call a journal, since Mandeville and Kempe’s are travel texts (at least as one of their main genres) and the Paston books are epistolary collections. The personal diary as we know it becomes a thing a bit later in history.

Then there’s the reading. Books as objects especially in the earlier part of the what we might call the medieval era would not have a been a common item in most households, since the printing press wasn’t around yet, and even towards the end of the fifteenth century when it was still a newer thing. Storytelling might have been one general option, and the popularity of the story telling collections from this time (Boccaccio, Chaucer, Christine de Pizan – not necessarily in any kind of order here) suggest this might have actually been a possibility. Today, there’s a lot on social media about how some people plan to catch up on their reading, but there’s also responses about how realistic of an expectation this might be. Fiction definitely seems to have some kind of social effect, not just for the entertainment value (although it’s certainly that) but also for the ‘escapist’ factor. I would be willing to bet that there’s a good bit of promise in the idea, since I know that there’s plenty of scholarship on the book as an object. I also have to wonder how far a research project into the use of fiction as a coping mechanism could go without a research library since I for one find great value in shelf browsing. Not that the databases etc. aren’t good places to go, they are, but sometimes finding exactly the right search is a struggle, and you find the best sources by checking out what’s near whatever it was you had found in the catalog.

There have already been some more public comparisons to history of pandemics and outbreaks of disease, and this one here is by no means detailed or comprehensive. I’m mostly considering a series of general ideas and how they might apply both to the past and to the present, and maybe a little intot he future.

End of the year review: sort of

Maybe it’s just the people I’m around on social media, but it seems like nearly everyone was ending 2019 and/or starting 2020 with goals concerning reading, nearly always in the form of a goal number of books to be read or finish reading. Take Goodreads: it’s an easy way to keep track of what you want to and already have and are currently reading. It’s also pretty good for helping decide if a book is something you might want to add to your reading list, with the reviews. And it lets you do all this in public, in front of everyone you know via digital stuff. I’m reasonably sure you can’t turn off the feature that sends you an email every time you list another book as “Read”, although you can turn off or block the daily notices about what your friends are reading, adding, or finishing. So one question this all brings up is something of a paradox: reading is largely a solitary activity, and yet it has become a fairly public performance. The question then is how much of this is due to the oversharing/bragging/trolling (frequently anonymous) opportunities offered by social media, or how much of it is something else?

What strikes me is how much this resembles medieval practices in some ways. Books, or at least the contents of books, essentially were a form of social media, they were a prestige item, they had social and solitary aspects to them, and people had opinions about them. Books also existed in multiple formats, much as they do now, although obviously some of the forms themselves have changed.

Take audio books for example. I’ve never really been able to get into this method of experiencing books, but it is quite popular. Back in the Middle Ages, this way actually how a lot of people would experience books. The origins of the term “lecture” comes from the Latin for “to read”, and that’s how higher levels of education were often provided. The instructor would read from the lone copy of the textbook, and possibly commentate, while the students took notes. In some cases students could copy out their own versions of the book, but this would need to be done by hand, either by themselves or someone they paid. There are also records of medieval monasteries that indicate that it was a practice to have someone reading from scripture or other religious text while everyone else was eating.

Certain forms of ebooks also have medieval analogues or at least general comparisons. On several online platforms, including GoogleBooks, you don’t flip through the pages, you scroll. The modern book through which one flips or turns pages is a descendant of the codex, while the scroll through counterpart is the much older roll or scroll. You read as you unroll and re-roll. There’s actually an older hilarious video called “Medieval Helpdesk” (you can find it subtitled on Youtube, since it was originally done in Norwegian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQHX-SjgQvQ) that makes the very real suggestion that, at one time, the book in the shape that it’s now most commonly known for was a revolutionary thing.

Books had a social function much as they do now as well, especially if you follow platforms like the above mentioned Goodreads. People would leave comments in the margins containing critiques, comments, and sometimes even discussion threads. One of my favorite examples is from the Devonshire Manuscript (British Library Additional 17492). This book was originally passed around a group of lady friends at Henry VIII’s court, and one page has a poem composed by a gentleman hoping to court one of the ladies. Here is Cynthia Roger’s description of the thread:

Poem 8 on fols. 6v-7r is a declaration of love to Mary Shelton from one of her admirers. The first letter of each stanza spells out her last name. She seems to have known the author, as she writes a tart reply to his poem just below it— “Undesired service, requires no hire (payment).” Margaret Douglas seems to have also known the author and the fact that her friend was rejecting him, as she writes out to the side of this poem, “Forget this.” Mary, being a little more charitable, writes underneath Margaret’s comment, “It is worthy.”

Manuscripts like this also show people sharing favorite bits of text, much in the way we might now retweet or share a post we particularly enjoyed or wanted to share, and many such examples still survive.

Reading in the Middle Ages and beyond was commonly a public activity. In times before the printing press and better sources and methods of production came along, books were not something readily available. So, in this time which was also before modern forms of entertainment like television and streaming, people might get together and read to each other.  We get a look at this even in stories, like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. After Pandarus has agreed to help Troilus win Criseyde’s affections, he goes off to find her, and he finds her and two companions listening to a fourth lady reading out loud:

Whan he was come vnto his Neces place,

“Wher is my lady?” to hire folk quod he;

And they hym tolde and he forth in gan pace

And fond two othere ladys sete, and she,

With-inne a paued parlour, and they thre

Herden a mayden reden hem the geste

Of the siege of Thebes while hem leste.      (II.78-84)


Reading could also still be a private activity in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, especially when it came to producing and collecting books. The anonymous writer of the lyric “Pangur Ban” for example describes a scene in which the monk studies alone, while his cat pays attention to the mice. Such scenes of personal solitary reading or study also show up in a lot of dream visions, like the introductions of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and Parliament of Foules. Many medieval books that still survive come to us from private collections gathered during the Early Modern period and later, and possessing such a personal or private library would have been a sign of wealth or prestige, or in other words, something only a few people could or did do.

Bookmaking was itself both a solitary and group activity. A monastery scriptorium for example was a public space used by many, but each copyist or artist was largely working alone on his part of the book.

Finally, the reviews. In addition to marginalia, medieval versions of reviews and trolls and fan fiction still survive, even in highly respected literary works. Gower and Chaucer and Lydgate all participated in such activities. Towards the end of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer makes a dedication to “moral Gower” a label which stuck and has been taken as a slight insult towards his acquaintance and possibly friend. Lydgate frames his Siege of Thebes as an additional Canterbury Tale. While it’s not possible to definitively prove Chaucer’s intention in his remark about Gower, it has long been taken as snarky in a way that might pass for light-hearted trolling. It is possible to prove Lydgate’s fan-fiction though since Lydgate directly places himself within the frame of the Canterbury Tales, and he wrote admiringly of Chaucer in other works, such as The Fall of Princes.

There is a good deal of serious research and scholarship that has been done on reading as practice and what it meant culturally in medieval Europe, not to mention a good deal of modern scientific work on how the human brain may have evolved or adapted to/for reading and how it manages what appear to be several complex simultaneous processes that need to happen in order for reading to be done. While I’m not touching much on those details here, it is worth realizing that the idea of reading as well as the practice is far more complicated than most people realize. It’s something worth thinking about, even if only in terms of personal practice.