It might be technology, but a medieval manuscript is not an iPad

Why analogies between medieval and modern technologies should be used with care.

Those of you who’ve read my review of Judith Peraino’s interesting new book, will know that one of the things that pressed my ‘huh?’ button there was her insistence on drawing analogies with contemporary technologies that I thought just didn’t work. Peraino was comparing medieval refrain citation to sampling, without allowing either for the important layers of mediation present in medieval sources (musical notation chief among them) but not present in modern sampling, or for the significantly different social and artistic structures underpinning the two practices.

As I said in part in my review of Peraino, I can understand why one might do this in a teaching context, orally, especially if the session is a fairly introductory one to students who live in a world with no palpable medieval echoes. But that’s no reason to commit it to print, especially when a hundred, fifty, even perhaps twenty years from now, both these practices might be equally historically opaque to the readers, much as if we were to read an eighteenth-century account of an ocular harpsichord, comparing it to the cat piano: we’d have to look them both up and then puzzle out what the eighteenth-century writer could possibly have thought related them.

Hamburger talk poster

Peraino, however, seems to be in good company. A few weeks ago I was at Jeffrey Hamburger’s Medieval Studies Lecture in Oxford, a wonderfully well attended event and a great one-hour talk on the subject of ‘Script as Image’. Whizzing us through a powerpoint showing dozens of fascinating manuscript images, at one point I’m pretty sure Hamburger said that a Book of Hours was ‘the medieval equivalent of an iPad’ because at that point one of my graduate students, who was sitting in front of me in the hall, turned round and gave me a meaningful look. This was because when my grad and postdoc group had last met, they’d discussed the demerits of this very same analogy — ‘these books, the iPads of private devotion’ (p.174) — in medieval musicologist Emma Dillon’s most recent book.

Now Hamburger’s might just be a throw-away comment (although it didn’t sound like the first time he’d used the analogy) and Dillon’s is another example, I think, of a teaching strategy making its way into a research monograph. But having heard why my graduates and postdocs were so irked (in that completely delightful way that people get reassuringly ranty because they have strong views and musicology matters to them!), I find I, too, am disquieted. When added together, the three medievalists mentioned here seem to represent a pretty high-powered trend in making medieval technologies comprehensible by what I (and my grads and postdocs) find a glib and, more importantly, misleading comparison to our own everyday technology.


What might an iPad and a medieval manuscript, specifically a Book of Hours, have in common? Both are designed to be held in the hand, although the iPad is considerably larger (and, yes, I know there’s now iPad mini, but there presumably wasn’t when this analogy was formulated); both can be put on a small portable stand; they are both things one looks at, reads, and spends time with.

Book of Hours

Beyond those fairly generic similarities (each of which could be said of all sorts of other objects and is inflected with a degree of difference, too), there are many more very significant differences. The iPad is a mass-produced commercial object, designed with built-in obsolescence so that you don’t keep it for more than a few years; the Book of Hours is a singular luxury item, designed to last a lifetime and even be passed down to one’s offspring within noble households (how many iPads will survive in 650 years?!). Getting sucked into the analogy, one might say ‘ah, but Books of Hours are mass produced, too, according to a sort of cut-and-paste set of contents’. But this is nonsense: the users of Books of Hours are not a mass, but a small, significant, elite section of Europe’s population in the Middle Ages. And the atelier is host to steady but small-scale and highly specialized artisanal production of items which are specifically adapted for their users.

And that’s before we even get into the nature of the content — intrinsically dynamic, fluid, changing, connected on an iPad and made with light, electricity and glass compared to  flat, static, palpable, pigment on skin with no power source for a manuscript book. Again, the analogy might lead some to claim that the interconnection to the web of the iPad is like the intertextual connections of Books of Hours to images, sounds, and texts outside it, but these require human agency and memory to uncover — not Google — and the use of the Book of Hours is all about contemplating them, whereas typical iPad use is hardly about long-studied contemplation. As a Director of DIAMM (and ardent social media advocate), I can hardly be said to be a luddite, so could it be that conversely it is those making the analogy — despite all making it in the home of the iPad, the US — who fail to appreciate the exact nature of the possibilities offered by the iPad? Actually it’s not just for women who want to contemplate the Psalms! An iPad is for sending emails and other forms of direct communication with non-present individuals, for playing games, for playing music and video, for making and sharing music and video, for drawing (as David Hockney’s use of it makes clear).

And I could go on, but I think the point is made. In print especially, there is no need to mis-compare the technologies of writing, musical notation, and manuscript book-making with the technologies that are currently interacting with our own cultures of writing, reading, and listening. It might seem to provide a handy short-cut, a way of insisting on the magical, special, and contemporary nature of the medieval book, but in my view the connections are too vague and general, and the risks of eliding difference and misunderstanding too large.


  1. Amen. And for similar reasons, I am wary of using trite analogies (except perhaps in the introductory pedagogical situations you describe) between computational technologies and the introduction of writing in the Latin West – which is not to say they never emerge from my mouth at unguarded moments, such as on day four of a conference after [fill in the blank] sociable pints… Apart from a brief ‘hey, yeah!’ moment of recognition, what these analogies provide in terms of genuine insight is far outweighed by their gross erasure of the essential historical moment that produces ideas, things and actions: i.e. the physical and social context, mentality, and meaning of objects and/or practices both ‘then’ and ‘now’. And if we’re happy to leave it at that, we are no longer doing historical study, but performing some kind of ahistorical analysis that reduces all human activity ever to a flat (and boring… and inadequate…) explanation ultimately derived from a static notion of ‘human nature’ and a fixed teleology of human action.

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