How was print produced and distributed during the early Medieval period?
October 5, 2009 11:28 PM   Subscribe

How was print produced and distributed during the early Medieval period?

I've been doing a lot of reading lately on early Christian thinkers, and I was wondering how much influence their writings could have on the general Christian public if this were before say, movable type. For example, Origen's writings are listed as being highly controversial in his lifetime, but how many people really had access to them? Was it really only the academic elite? Did they have to be manually copied?

I feel like I can't truly appreciate the ideas without understanding the context.
posted by slowcat to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Your question as phrased is impossible to answer - printed texts didn't exist in early Christian or early medieval Europe. It was only the introduction of block cuts then movable type which allowed exact reproduction of texts and images. As a result, no print was produced or distributed in the early medieval period. Before that, as you say, they all had to be manually copied. The Wikipedia pages on manuscripts and the scriptorium - basically a human-powered copy shop - will give you a bit more context. Inevitably this places a limit on the number of copies you can produce. Another limit will be literacy rates, which are notoriously difficult to estimate with much accuracy for this period but would have been low (as would the ability to speak Latin or Greek).

So that does place a significant brake on how far ideas can spread through the written word. Nevertheless, you shouldn't discount the fact that manuscript publication existed as part of a web of other types of communication. The historian Robert Darnton has illustrated this well for eighteenth-century France with a "schematic model" of a circuit of communication, involving sites like marketplaces, bars and churches and methods like spoken conversation, printed texts, hand-written letters, etc. You can imagine a similar model - obviously with different sites and different methods of communication - for the period you are interested in. Imagine that someone who is literate has read a work by Origen, who in turn writes to a friend about it, who in turns speaks to other friends about it, who tell their friends, etc.
posted by greycap at 11:46 PM on October 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

You also have to consider literacy rates among the general populace, which would have been close to zero.
posted by bardic at 1:00 AM on October 6, 2009

It's true that most people in the Middle Ages would never have had the chance to read the works of the early Christian fathers, or even handle copies of their writings. However, many of the ideas of early Christian writers like Augustine were transmitted to the general populace through sermons, often via secondary texts such as the Glossa Ordinaria, one of the standard guides available to preachers (compiled in the twelfth century) which gave the text of the Bible together with a commentary drawn from patristic writers.

Siegfried Wenzel's work on medieval sermons suggests that it was quite common for preachers to quote from the Christian Fathers, even in sermons delivered in an ordinary parish setting. To be sure, much of this material was heavily moralized and allegorized, but it still formed a bridge between 'elite' thinkers and popular audiences:

Next to the Bible [the preacher] would use quotations from the writings of the Church Fathers and teachers. Among them St Augustine always holds pride of place, but he is followed by many others who lived through the centuries until the fourteenth .. Sacred writers are joined by secular ones: Aristotle and Avicenna, Seneca and Pliny, Ovid and Cicero, and many more. The basic message is then further illustrated with a host of images, similes and stories (exempla). These are usually applied to the doctrine on hand by means of allegorization, frequently point by point. (Wenzel, Latin Sermon Collections from Medieval England, pp 245-6.)

For more information, see:

Siegfried Wenzel, Latin Sermon Collections from Later Medieval England (2005), limited preview on Google Books.
Siegfried Wenzel, Preaching in the Age of Chaucer: Selected Sermons in Translation (2008), limited preview on Google Books.
David d'Avray, The Preaching of the Friars: Sermons diffused from Paris before 1300 (1985), limited preview on Google Books.
posted by verstegan at 3:26 AM on October 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

Hand copied
Hand carried

distribution was a bit limited
posted by caddis at 4:28 AM on October 6, 2009

See, this is why I love Metafilter; anywhere else would have contained "it wasn't. See Gutenberg".

I have no formal references, but I'd say that their writings as such wouldn't be widely shared, it would depend on which of them was read aloud more frequently, paraphrased into songs or poems. In other words, general literacy = zero which means the elite were the only ones able to read, and only a few of those would have access to a manuscript.
posted by variella at 5:42 AM on October 6, 2009

Note that 'Origen's lifetime' wasn't during the usual definitions of 'medieval'--Origen died during the Decian persecutions, under a pagan Roman emperor, mid 200s.
posted by gimonca at 5:45 AM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are whole courses on book history and the transmission of texts during the medieval period. If I'm remembering correctly from the one that I took, Ralph Hanna III has written a lot about this; see London Literature, 1300-1380 and an edited collected called Pursuing History: Middle English Manuscripts and their Texts. Hanna talks mostly about vernacular literature but should give you a good sense of how texts were transmitted in the period. Hopefully there are some medievalists/book historians here (I'm not one) who can weigh in on this better than I can.
posted by pised at 6:28 AM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

You may want to look into what forms of correspondence survive from the period/writers you are interested in. Many collections of letters exist that can give you some idea about the audience the writer is addressing and the types of issues that were of interest. (I guess Paul's epistles would be the most obvious example of this.)

For Origen, I don't know how easy it would be to get your hands on either his "On First Principles", and I can't remember if any of his letters to people survive.

The contents of oral culture are difficult to re-construct, so I'm not sure what advice to give on that angle... it may be you could find histories that mention the popular preaching, or religious concerns of the people... like Gregory of Nyssa's:

"Every place in the city is full of them: the alleys, the crossroads, the forums, the squares. Garment sellers, money changers, food vendors - they are all at it. If you ask for change, they philosophize for you about the generate and ingenerate natures. If you inquire about the prince of bread, the answer is that the Father is greater and the Son is inferior. If you speak about whether the bath is ready, they express the opinion that the Son was made out of nothing."

- Gregory of Nyssa, Oration on the Deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit, 558
posted by ServSci at 6:32 AM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

There was a really interesting thread about being a famous author in the middle ages a few years ago.
posted by frecklefaerie at 6:55 AM on October 6, 2009

A bit over a hundred years before Origien there are the Vindolanda tablets - an accidental survival of everyday letter writing. To my recollection there aren't any big philosophical themes in them, but they do demonstrate that people wrote to each other, wrote about what was on their mind and so on - exactly the sort of context where they might write about something they'd heard in the street, which could well be a method of exchange of ideas.

Don't underestimate oral transmission. De Locis Sanctis is a description of the Holy Land, written by a monk who lived his entire life in Ulster and western Scotland, and probably never even got as far as southern England. However, he had talked to a Frankish monk who had been to the Holy Land, and who gave him the basis of his book.

And people could go out of their way to find things out - Bede wanted to know some details about the early Christian missions to England, so sent Nothelm to Rome to find the information in the papal archives. So if there was time and money people could be quite determined in seeking out things; a wealthy Christian hears about Origien, they could be very active in seeking out his writings.

Of course, all this is more difficult in an atmosphere of persecution, but I'm a medievalist at heart so I don't really know about that.
posted by Coobeastie at 8:01 AM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

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