In Defense of Manuscript Culture

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Daniella Choynowski


EL 336: Topics in Media and Culture

Dr. Jerz

In Defense of Manuscript Culture

           Manuscript was once a prestigious skill, but with the development of the printing press and typeface, the art has been devalued. “Handwriting is…a begrudged substitute. Many of us resort to handwriting only when we have to” (Baron 60). “Handwriting moved from an art to a science” (Baron 58). Manuscript was once seen as an expression of social rank and a mirror of the individual soul. Manuscript culture transformed the world; it changed how we thought, how we judged others, and preserved information that would have been otherwise lost. Instead of standardizing society, the standardization of print brought out the individual self.

           Handwriting involved the writer deeply. “It is “the instrument of the mind” (Baron 59). “Until phonetic writing split apart thought and action, there was no alternative but to hold men responsible for their thoughts as well as their actions” (McLuhan 32). Writing split thought and action; that is, it caused us to think about our actions before hand (because we had been trained to think about what we were writing down). Before that, thought and action were one. Humans would blurt out what they were thinking, which doesn’t always make sense to the receiver without some refinement. Thoughts can be rash. Writing stops us from making rash decisions that often turn out badly. Writing causes us to think about the words we communicate. And proof-reading allows you to think once more about what you want to say. People were now able “to form their letters as they formed themselves, through moral self-evaluation and physical self-control” (Baron 59).

“Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form” (Ong 316). Writing by hand immersed the writer in the subject; he had to dive deep into himself. It was a time for reflection. Johannes Trithemius, a monk, wrote of the value of copying sacred texts. “While he writes, he is illumined; his sentiments are enkindled to total surrender…he is gradually initiated into the divine mysteries and miraculously enlightened” (473). Because the monk is so immersed in what he is writing, his entire mind is consumed by the subject. Thinking long and hard on a subject can give a person a deeper understanding.Oral speeches can only hold a person’s attention for so long; they might get distracted and only hear part of the message. “The exhortation of the preacher is lost as time passes on; the message of the scribe will last for many years…” (Trithemius 473). A textual speech can be revisited time and time again for clarification of message. “The sermon, once it is heard, vanishes into thin air; its text, if written down and read even a thousand times, does not lose its impact” (Trithemius 473). People have short memories. Nothing in the mind is forever permanent. Alzheimer’s disease causes the elderly to lose their memories, their banks of valuable information. I suppose the fading memory is why the memoir is such a treasured genre. Experiences of the past can help guide us in the future. Religion is an institution that relieves heavily on the textual. The printing press was not invented until centuries after the time of Jesus. “We would never know his will had not the zeal of the scribes put it into writing. Scribes, therefore, are the heralds of the divine” (Trithemius 472).

“Writing stays there-“down in black and white” (Elbow 136). The oral tradition was only useful for as long as a person lived. “Everybody, or almost everybody, must repeat and repeat and repeat the truths that have come down from the ancestors. Otherwise these truths will escape, and culture will be back at square one” (Ong 317). The problem with oral culture is that people have to spend so much time preserving the past that there is little time to move forward. People can die out of existence and entire cultures can be lost. “Only the tiniest fraction of languages have ever been written or ever will be. Most have disappeared or are fast disappearing, untouched by textuality” (Ong 318). Societies that never were introduced to the written word have faded from existence. It is almost as if they never were because we know nothing about who they were or their culture. We can only hypothesize through their earthly remnants. Pots and tools can only tell so much.

The style in which someone wrote often reflected how they were perceived by others. “…a gentleman’s private amanuensis [scribe] generally wrote in “secretary hand”...gentlemen themselves were likely to use the newer Italic humanist hand” (Baron 58). The scribe used a style which reflected his lower, albeit valued, status in society. People could now “evaluate the social significance of a letter-from a male? a female? a clerk? -simply by noting what hand it had been written in” (Baron 58). Script could reflect how fast a person was writing, indicating that they were taking down dictations (scribe), or how prim and proper they were (a gentleman had years of schooling and practice on penmanship). “The reader can “hear” the writer and gain a sense of her persona” (Elbow 135). Handwriting analysis, a craze that began in the late 18th century with Lavater, judged criminal activity, prospective mates, “employees and business partners” on the basis of their handwriting (Baron 58). Handwriting was used as a tool with which to judge a person, “an unfailing index of…character, moral and mental” (Baron 58). Handwritten plans on crimes could lead into the criminal’s psyche, possibly revealing motives and clues about their personality. Someone who has very legible handwriting must pay close attention to detail.

“The more standardized the type, indeed the more compelling the sense of an idiosyncratic personal self” (Eisenstein 128). We could no longer read a person’s character through their handwriting. “Sixteenth-century specimen books stripped diverse scribal “hands” of personal idiosyncrasies” (Eisenstein 126). So began the trend of the informal essay, initiated by Montaigne. The standardized print made people more aware of “their shortcomings in heir assigned roles…also of the existence of a solitary, singular self, characterized by all the peculiar traits that were unshared by others” (Eisenstein 128). Differences fascinated people; moreover, shared differences connected people to others. The essay was a “new basis for achieving intimate contact with unknown readers…[Montaigne] provided a welcome assurance that the isolating sense of singularity which was felt by the solitary reader was…capable of being widely shared” (Eisenstein 129).

“The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper…the most you can expect a book of paper to live is two hundred years” (Trithemius 474). Paper is filled with chemicals and acids that eat away at it over time.

Parchment, which was made from the “scraping and polishing of animal skin,” had a much longer shelf life (Ong 321). Now science has invented acid free paper, but that is only a recent invention. How much history has been lost because it was printed, not written, on paper?

Works Cited

Baron, Naomi. “The Art and Science of Handwriting.” Writing Material: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age. Tribble, Evelyn B. & Trubek, Anne. New York: Longman, 2003. 54-61.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth. “Some Features of Print Culture.” Writing Material: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age. Tribble, Evelyn B. & Trubek, Anne. New York: Longman, 2003. 124-134.

Elbow, Peter. “The Shifting Relationships between Speech and Writing.” Writing Material: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age. Tribble, Evelyn B. & Trubek, Anne. New York: Longman, 2003. 135-155.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Guttenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967.

Ong, Walter. “Writing Is a Technology that Restructures Thought.” Writing Material: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age. Tribble, Evelyn B. & Trubek, Anne. New York: Longman, 2003. 315-337.

Trithemius, Johannes. “In Praise of Scribes.” Writing Material: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age. Tribble, Evelyn B. & Trubek, Anne. New York: Longman, 2003. 469-476.



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