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Essays in Medieval Studies 18 (2001) 83-110

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Affective Literacy:
Gestures of Reading in the Later Middle Ages

Mark Amsler
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


In this essay, I use the term "affective literacy" to denote ways we develop emotional, somatic, activity-based relationships with texts as part of our reading experiences. One aspect of affective literacy involves the immediate somatic ways we touch, sense, perceive, vocalize, or perform a text with our eyes, hands, mouths, and bodies. Another aspect involves the emotive, noncognitive, paralinguistic things we do with or to texts during the act of reading--for example, holding a book close like a charm for comfort or protection, or touching or kissing reverentially a page in a prayer book. A third aspect of affective literacy is the range of emotional, spiritual, somatic responses readers have to a text, such as crying, laughing, becoming angry, or becoming aroused. While practices of "affective literacy" are certainly associated with late medieval affective piety, they are not restricted to religious or devotional experiences. The term "affective literacy" locates a broad range of somatic, emotive responses to reading a text. Affective literacy seeks out the life principle, messy and complex, threading through reading activities and gestures toward bodily economies of reading and transacting texts.

Somatic technologies

In the Middle Ages, ideas about reading and reading practices themselves were produced within a semiotic network of textualities, acts, and bodies. Gestures of reading, and representations of gestures, reveal some of the somatic interplay between medieval readers and texts, how reading practices maintained and transgressed the borders of bodies and texts. These practices organized somatic literate technologies, such as coordinating one's eyes and voice when reading aloud, running fingers or hands across the page to note words and lines, gesturing with hands or eyes while reading aloud, articulating phonemes, morphemes, and syllables [End Page 83] clearly and expressively with lips, tongue, and voice, and displaying or revealing affect or emotional responses to the text being read. Such technologies (in Foucault's sense of strategies of power for organizing and implementing regimes of truth) elicited different kinds of attention at different times, but overall were cultivated and anxiously regulated during the Middle Ages. Gestures toward the text--e.g., kissing (or not touching) the page, moving (or not) one's body performatively when reading, voicing or not voicing the text, marking or erasing part of the page--indicate how some later medieval reading behaviors challenged norms of acceptable reading and blurred the edges between orthodox and heterodox literacies. Some gestures and the persons performing the gestures (lay person, woman) were considered transgressive. Gestural technologies were thus sites of struggle for literate authority and textual power.

These reading activities and affects suggest how some medieval writers, readers, and reading groups acquired literate power by disrupting traditional, orthodox literacy frameworks organized around clerical exegesis and authority. As a site of discursive struggle, the material page is assimilated into the reading situation, the "hinge of reading" linking reader and text. Access to the page or book is the ground of literacy. Affective literacy displaces literate ideology in performative practice, through the construction of interactive textualities, textuality beyond the page. As a potentially unruly practice, affective literacy challenges the assumption, in the Middle Ages and today, that reading is unilateral consumption and a text is a discrete object. In this respect, affective literacy foregrounds the hinge of reading which opens and closes a gap between reader and text, between the skin of the page and the reading body, between understanding and response, repetition and difference.

Reading has often provoked anxiety. In the ancient and early medieval worlds, the gestures and affects of reading aloud were sometimes described as nodes of literate identity. Silent reading, or reading without ostensive affect, provoked suspicion. 1 Vox makes the visible but silent text manifest, intelligible, and appropriate in the public oral domain. Medieval grammarians and physiologists defined vox as meaningful speech or as the capacity to vocalize, produce, and comprehend meaningful linguistic sound, as opposed to sonus, audible but not necessarily linguistic sound...


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