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From Parchment to Cyberspace

Medieval Literature in the Digital Age

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Stephen G. Nichols

From Parchment to Cyberspace argues the case for studying high-resolution digital images of original manuscripts to analyze medieval literature. By presenting a rigorous philosophical argument for the authenticity of such images (a point disputed by digital skeptics) the book illustrates how digitization offers scholars innovative methods for comparing manuscripts of vernacular literature – such as The Romance of the Rose or texts by Christine de Pizan – that reveal aspects of medieval culture crucial to understanding the period.

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4. The Work of Reading

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What does it mean to read vernacular manuscripts? And why talk of the “work” of reading them? Do the questions imply that we’re meant to read differently today than we did in the past? If so, how did we read medieval texts then, and what might we be doing differently today? While not particularly nuanced, such questions remind us of a basic issue that we tend to overlook: reading follows form. By which I mean that reading practices respond to the conditions of the activity, including that of the medium that conveys text to reader. That should hardly surprise us. After all, reading is a cognitive response to complex symbolic representations. These may be solely discursive in nature, or else multimodal, involving pictures, symbols, abstractions, with words thrown in. Moreover, why and what we read at any given moment has a great deal to say about how we read.

At its most basic level, reading is perception processed as thought. At a primitive level, it’s what happens when we obey a traffic signal or stop sign, or slow down in response to the brake lights of the car ahead of us. More reflectively, reading complex texts sets in motion mental processes, including memory, that deploy a broad range of acquired information to make sense of a work, synthesize its data, and assimilate it to our horizon of knowledge.

Clearly, a traffic signal or stop sign will not greatly expand our knowledge base, any...

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