- From Parchment to Cyberspace: Medieval Literature in the Digital Ageby Stephen G. Nichols
F romP archment toC yberspace: Medieval Literature in the Digital Ageraises a series of key questions about the intersection between digital medieval book history and literary studies. It is particularly interested in the effects that mass digitization has had on the study of medieval literature—what kind of work we once did, what we can perhaps no longer do, and what new work the advent of digital manuscripts makes possible. Structurally and stylistically, it is experimental. It combines personal narrative and reflection amassed through a life in scholarship with short, pointed arguments on the nature of digital manuscripts, and with slow, unfolding analyses of a wide variety of manuscripts, poets, and philosophers. In this way, it reads less like a traditional monograph and more as a series of interlinked essays. This approach allows Stephen Nichols to reflect on a wide range of topics, and suggests the broad readership From Parchment to Cyberspacewill likely have.
Rather than offering a single argument for the book, or a chapter-by-chapter overview, the introduction, "Why I Wrote This Book, or Medieval Manuscripts Unchained," offers Nichols's personal narrative, connecting the rise of the New Philology with the widespread digitization of medieval manuscripts. Eschewing an impersonal tone, Nichols's story moves from his own early dependence on print editions, through a moment of transcendent archival connection and his special issue of Speculumon "The New Philology," to the creation of what would become the Johns Hopkins Digital Library of Medieval Manuscripts. While all careers have these underlying personal narratives, few share them so openly. As such, the introduction offers a valuable perspective, showing how there can be a profound coherence [End Page 499]between the commitments of literary scholarship and the work of building digital manuscript repositories.
In Chapter 1, "What Is a Manuscript Culture?," Nichols pushes against a type of modern reading habit that privileges main text over paratext and demotes illuminations to the status of supplemental illustrations. Arguing against the supremacy of the print edition, Nichols seeks to uncover what he calls "the unique form of multi-media literacy" developed in preprint manuscripts (21). Ultimately, he argues here that—in our digital age—one should not choose between engaging in either literary scholarship or manuscript study. Instead, he argues that literary scholars can gain important insights by closer, sustained analysis of digitized manuscripts.
Chapter 2, "Materiality and Mimesis: Anatomy of an Illusion," is Nichols's contribution to the ongoing debates on how best to theorize digital manuscripts. He begins again in the anecdotal mode, recalling how a group of students at a seminar strongly resisted his pro-digitization message by arguing that "digital artifacts undermine the materiality of the object" (44). Most scholars who work seriously with digital manuscripts have experienced similar conversations, and Nichols's personal narrative gives a space to consider the impact of those casual encounters on the scholarly conversation today. At the same time, the story-like quality of the opener raises questions: the event recounted took place "some years ago" (43). Have objections changed in the intervening years? How? Deeper engagement with specific "digital skeptics," as the book calls them, and with recent criticism on digitization might have strengthened the case here. More broadly, the chapter situates modern debates on digital manuscripts within what Nichols calls "an age-old antagonism between 'original' and 'imitation' or 'copy'" (45), with particular interest in Plato's Cratylusand The Republic. Nichols argues that we ought to move away from perpetuating this long-standing suspicion of copies and suggests using performance theory to frame digitized manuscripts as performances of the literary work. It is a slim chapter (in fact, I wish it were longer) and will likely provoke much discussion.
Chapter 3, "No Fool Time: The Paradox of Manuscript Transmission," considers the "mutable stability" common to vernacular medieval literature (94). The chapter...