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The Book and the Transformation of Britain: c. 550–1050 (review)
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The Book and the Transformation of Britain, the latest work from the distinguished scholar of manuscript studies and former curator of illuminated manuscripts at the British Library, Michelle Brown, provides a thoughtful and considered introduction to the functions of books and literacy in early medieval Britain. Brown argues that the movement toward literacy and the increasing status of books reflected Christianity’s increasing influence and its emphasis on the written word. She situates her work in the ongoing discussion of what literacy meant in this period, exploring the issue through the multicultural and multilingual history of Britain and its political, cultural, and religious shifts in the early Middle Ages.

The book is dived into three chapters that explore literacy and the book from different perspectives while also progressing historically through the period in question. The first chapter, titled “Conversion: Scribes, the Sacred and Social Change,” explores the ways in which Christianity changed how texts were composed by putting increased responsibility on the written word. While early biblical texts were not necessarily always treated as sacral objects, she concludes that the fourth century edicts of toleration brought the codex “out of the closet” and books became “honored receptacles of sacred text for a powerful established religion” (21). Furthermore, literacy in Britain is connected with the appearance of images in biblical texts beginning in the fifth and sixth centuries, and in this section the many color plates will be of particular interest for the reader. In her study of the transition from oral to written texts and the role of images, Brown focuses her energy on highly evolved Insular art that, in representing and creating an intertextual relationship with the biblical texts, showed a high degree of not only Latin, but also pictorial literacy. This section then serves as a jumping-off point to examine the zeal with which Insular scribes engaged with the written word using punctuation, word separation, and normalized spelling to move texts out of the realm of “transcription” and into “transmission” (30). She points to the power of writing to “bear witness” as the reason writing came to be valuable for Anglo-Saxon laws, as well as to its power in establishing legitimacy for kings. Connecting this to paleography, Brown notes that as writing moved into the secular space, scribes needed to create a hierarchy of scripts that conveyed the appropriate level of auctoritas (32).

Having established the role of writing and the book in Britain, Brown turns her attention to what exactly literacy was and how it functioned in her second chapter, “Creating Communities of Reading.” Brown begins by noting that “literacy is more complex than simply the ability to read, and to write…the ability to ‘read’ has, after all, as much to do with the ability to comprehend meaning as with the technical ability to decipher graphic symbols and form them into words” (57). The chapter focuses on three areas that demonstrate the spectrum of Insular literacy: vernacular texts, women readers and visual literacy. Much of the chapter explores the function of Old English and Irish in Insular book production and examines the roles of Augustine and Bede in fostering vernacular texts for conversion suggesting a unique British cultural connection that valued vernacular literacy. The chapter then moves rather quickly and abruptly to examine medieval women as book producers and readers. The examples in this section are ample but the chapter does not spend enough time considering the ramifications of female readership and production on our concept of medieval literacy. For the interested reader the third chapter extends the discussion, but given how often book production by women is overlooked in the history of the manuscript, more depth in this area would have been welcome. The chapter concludes by taking up the question of visual literacy again. In what could serve as a slogan for this section, Brown writes that “the visual literacy of the early Middle Ages is characterized by the interaction of words meant to be seen and images meant to be read” (84). Not only is this distinctive of British manuscripts but it should be expected given the Celts and Anglo-Saxons’ history with mythological designs in pre-Christian crafts. Not surprisingly...

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