“Writing and Books as Technologies” (from syllabus – sorry I’m not creative!)

The class started out with Alex going around the room and doing a sort of “name test” for himself – which he passed with flying colors. After he said everybody’s name, he mentioned that we were all going to have to learn each others names and my heart immediately sped up because I thought that Alex was going to make us go around the room and say everybody’s name and I have to admit, I would’ve epically failed. Therefore, throughout this journal entry, I will refrain from using names on account of not wanting to spell anyones name wrong (and because I may not know what it is…shhhh).

We dove into class going over the logistics: no markers = verbal agenda, scribal blogging, and changes to the syllabus. Here is what has changed on the syllabus: pointed that out in class Weeks 9-12 are switched around. Moved up Frankenstein to spread out workshops and library visits. Week 9 and 10 are flipped – weeks 11 and 12 flipped. The case for readings and for scribal blogging are also flipped. Alex then reminded everyone about receiving invites to the wiki, the blog, the schoolology site (we have to accept invitation- he can’t manually enter us in).  So here’s the verbal agenda we were give for today’s class:

  • Agenda:
    • writing as a technology – reflecting on Phaedrus. The damage writing brings to memory and to the soul itself.
    • 13th century – fear reemerges in a different way in the middle ages.
    • Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Prologue. 2 important manuscript copies of Tales. Visual analysis – into to bibliographic description.
    • Chaucer’s textuality – way he talks about Canterbury Tales – what is a medieval book and what is its relationship with the reader (Miller’s Prologue).
    • Scholarly essays read for today.
  • Homework: workshop starting next week – illustration of a poem – bring into class a poem (not long preferably) as hard copy. Space required to illuminate it (will be doing in class). Just one copy for yourself.

And then, we dove right in.

  1. Socrates and Plato – manuscript illumination written by Matthew Perris (spelling?). Medieval manuscript. 13th century (?)

– relationship between Socrates (is Plato’s “main guy”) and Plato

– Once the image was up, we launched into a quick write – write description of image (what captures your attention in image? What perplexes you/ surprises you about how they are depicted in image especially in light of last class’s reading) given about 5 minutes.

– Once our writing time was up, we got into groups of 3 to have a discussion about the image, share our thoughts about what might be going on in the image, and what grabbed our attention/ what was significant.

-My group discussion: Socrates is the teacher (we all wrote it backwards). I found that this mistake we all made of picture Plato as the teacher spoke to the tone of the picture. Socrates appears mad, trying to teach the teacher. Socrates is demonstrating: He’s on high chair, Plato is in the background = power of position? Plato is drawn very basic, whereas Socrates has more shading and more detail which could speak to this position of power.

Class Discussion:

-There were many different physical descriptions that were shared regarding Plato and Socrates. For example, someone mentioned that Plato looks as though he’s cautioning (inquisitive) or concerned with what’s happening. Others mentioned that Plato looked aggravated with Socrates and that Socrates looked aggravated with Plato.

– Then we launched into a conversation about their relationship. Who is the authority? We said that the picture is drawn as the opposite of what you would expect. Student and teacher: Socrates was Plato’s teacher- image appears flip flopped. It looks as though Plato is dictating text to a his student, the writer. Socrates appears to be in authority as he is sitting on a throne, BUT, it’s actually Plato. Plato’s face looks scolding as if he caught a mistake, whereas, Socrates looks annoyed. We discussed how Plato wrote through the voice of Socrates (puppet type of relationship) Plato and Socrates’ hands are similar. Someone mentioned how Socrates’ name is capitalized and Plato’s is not which could refer to the hierarchy of scale, which is something we had talked about within my group. We posed the questions: why did the illustrator chose this moment? Maybe more about Plato’s authority? We noticed how it was hard to see whose arms are whose. Plato and Socrartes’ bodies seem molded together as one.

-It was really interesting to hear that within Medieval times, writing was a group effort. And that group effort even translates over into this Plato/Socrates image because the image appears as though the illuminator did not write the names of Plato and Socrates (which could account for the errors within them). Images often had what is called a rubricator (often in red) whose job it was to add titles – perhaps he made a mistake when labeling pictures.

– We discussed the proportion of Socrates compared to Plato and found that his head substantially bigger. Not only are the sizes different but the faces differ as do the shading and detail within each person. The two varying proportions give the image the feel like two separate artists drew this. Maybe the original image was just of Socrates and a second illuminator came in and drew Plato.

– We went on to talk about the piece of wood that was on Socrates’ chair and we all had varying ideas as to what that piece of wood could represent. Some speculated it’s a wooden leg? Perhaps it’s a feature of the chair? Maybe it’s a scabbard (clerical warrior)? Perhaps there’s a type of pen and sword symbolization happening? Then Alex threw a curveball to the conversation by statin that many viewers of the image has suggested that the wooden piece on Socrates’ chair is Plato’s penis penetrating Socrates from behind. If this is in fact Plato’s penis then that changes dynamic between the two, behind sex and writing, etc.

– After looking into the wooden chair, we discussed the writing implements and how one is a writing pen and the other is one to fix mistakes. This brought up the conversation about scribing and Chaucer’s poem titled, “To my Scribe, Adam” which is Chaucer’s complaint about how his scribe is always making mistakes and he has to go back and rub/scrape/correct. The scraper is a Medieval eraser  in which you have to scrape off the top layer of skin (paper was primarily animal uterine skin, goat skin, calf skin). However, no matter how hard you scrape, the imprint of the quill never goes away so even though its been scrapped you can retrieve it.

– Once we took a look at the writing implements, we examined the hands that are holding said writing tools. We noticed how the hands are in type of compositional space between Socrates and his page. There also appeared to be multiple hands which contributed to the idea of group project, multiple genius going into a piece of writing. This launched us into an interesting conversation about the history of the training of writing. Writing training took place in  Universities (developed late 11th century) whose primary functions were to train writers. Law Schools needed people to write down the law. City States were becoming ruled by Prince’s of city states and whole governments required documents to justify and continue judgements. Therefore, the writing of training was developed to train lawyers and/or monasteries. For those who didn’t know how to write: writing was a suspect art. Only elite people could do it so those who could write were distrustful – they may be manipulating things that those who cant write don’t have access to. This ties into the history of the 1066 Norman invasion (taking over France. Scandinavian tribe) who brought language to England. They were very much a documentary culture in that everything they owned, ruled over, had authenticate ownership over, etc. was written down. They took over England  and people immediately began to question them and their claim over England.

– Speaking of monasteries, this took us into the direction of taking a closer look into Socrate’s hood which certainly could not have fit over his magical looking hat. The class mentioned that the hood looked like a monk’s hood which is fitting because monks often did writing of manuscripts. Use of hood may be similar to hands  – drawing someone who is writing as if you were drawing them as a monk because they were they ones who typically wrote.

– Lastly, we closed the discussion of the image by talking about the origins of it. The image is made famous by Jacque Derrida as a subject of meditation for his work called “The Postcard” (Socrates to Freud) which expressed his thoughts on psychoanalysis. The lowercase p in Plato’s name intrigued Derrida which inspired him to write his piece, “The Postcard”. It also descried Derrida’s exploration of trying to see the original manuscript which is held in Oxford. Then, he finally encounters image and meditates on its physicality and magic of finally getting to original. Derrida was raptured by aura of image and how writing is depicted in this image.

After this lively discussion, we moved onto item #2 on the agenda.

2. Chaucer and General Prologue

– Alex posed the question: What is the role of books in the General Prologue? Indication of books in Chaucer’s era?

-We were immediately taken to line 180: Monk’s role is to write and read books and follow what these books say. Particular text (Rule of Saint Benedict). Cloistered – in an enclosure (monetary) not made to go out and about. This monk wants none of that life- he wants to hunt. Doesn’t want anything to do with what makes him a monk.

-Then we were brought to the Philosopher who was described as someone who is only ever buying books and wants his friends to give him books. Line 285 – Clerk (bureaucrat being trained to write – student at Oxford. Clothes are terrible. Spends all his money on books.) Reading Aristotle (the most important Medieval philosopher. Wrote in Greek. Very few in Medieval world new Greek – got in touch with Aristotle through Arabic which was translated into Latin.) Opposite on monk, he fetishizes books. Focused on precision which is not a virtue of any other of these voyagers.

-Next we close read the doctor who knows all medical texts but never once read the Bible.

– We discussed how the Canterbury Tales are a dramatized tale of how all these pilgrims went on a pilgrimage. Chaucer is recording these tales – he becomes the “scribe”. Taking oral tradition and writing it down.

– Then we examined two images of the Canterbury Tales

– two surviving copies: the El Manuscript (Early 15th century copy ): opening page to the General Prologue. Alex how us spend a few minutes writing: What do you notice?  What type of observations do you make- describe visual, details? What captures your attention, details suggest how book was used/read?

-Our observations were as follows: Not much room for annotations.

-Far right hand side of page: something scratched off, bled through, different type of writing occurring or have occurred. Faded or someone scraped out.

-Looks like its written in a completely different era (19th century?).

-Design: looks like it was used for special events. This copy was not meant to be annotated, instead, it looks as though it is meant for decoration only.  Details provide frame for the text. Colors are luxury colors associated with royalty (red and purple). Preservation of the color is strong. Medieval artifacts are durable due to them being on animal skin which is much more durable than paper. (3 boxes – unusual, indignation for a new paragraph? – Yes, and initials. These drawings within the manuscript often contain stories within themselves. They are defined as historiated initials which are in deluxe manuscripts. The faint line that connects to the top design – connects both stars on right hand side – looks almost as if the scribe gave the reader directions on where to take notes. Bleed through on other side? Lines everywhere in red = ruling, marks the area where text would go. Medieval manuscripts don’t have page numbers. Recto side of the page – right side of the page. Text exists within the drawing. Enclosure in closing the text. Organic unity. Plato’s complaint that writing is like painting connects here in the intricacy of the designs. Little drawing that is in the middle of the page looks as if someone added it in later on.

-Illustrations look as if they are part of the narrative of the story, as if they called for a dramatic opening. You almost expect the story to interact with the design (with the dragon and what not). On the Knight’s Tale page, there is a picture of the knight on his horse. So we concluded that the designs do in fact interact with the story in a way.

– Chaucer wasn’t necessarily “the writer” of these tales

– The Canterbury Tales is the last piece of writing he wrote before he died.

– Author term = of dead authority.

The Hengwrt manuscript: held in Wales. Most contemporary with Chaucer’s writing.

-in comparison with El Manuscript: determined that if this was written by Adam, same scribe who wrote the Tales.

-The design looks either worn away or torn away.

-Not as fanciful.

-Stain on the page. Seen use or abuse. Darkness of page may reflect this. Not preserved as well. Perhaps no cover? because second page is lighter.

-There are some annotations present but they decrease dramatically as the story goes on.

After closely viewing the two manuscripts, we moved into our conversation regarding the scholarly readings we did for homework.

3. The Book History Reader

– Free Write: Graduate students focus on Mckenzie “Book as an Expressive Form”.

“How does D/M define ‘the history of the book’? What does this history include or exclude?”

-match up with partner. Share thoughts.

-Group Discussion:

– Darnton: (9)- “communication by print” – cycle of how a book is made and how it starts with the writer, editor, publisher, seller, reader, and cycles back again. Author has different ways of interacting with the text as does each person in the steps. Was about how books are consumed, brought into consumption, how each part interacts, etc. History of capitalism (Volatair) and history of the book (can’t talk about them separately). “Ideas transmitted through print and how exposure to the printed word affected the thought and behavior of mankind during the last five hundred years” (9) – central debate in the history of the book: cultural forces that effect technology as technology effects cultural forces.

– Darnton: Books had to be smuggled in order to get them into book shops- eventually book shifted away from assessment and emotions came into play – humans want to read and will do anything and everything possible to do so – French seller (didn’t have many books but had all the books his audience wanted). Author plays a very large role (not the case for the history of the book).

– Darnton: exclude = role of libraries, focused on printed book (popular in the history of the book to be focused primarily on the era of the printed book).

-McKenzie: “study of the sociology of texts” (37) books in social context. Not excluding anything. Attacking the book historian who is going to exclude oral visual, numeric data, etc. “A ‘sociology of texts’…historical explanation” (38) – book historians treating book as analysis – don’t care how its received, its relationship to “non-bookish” things – we should be focused on physical state of the book – an object that you’re observing, avoid interpreting too much = problematic for McKenzie – how its treated by the audience is vital to its understanding. Make it more scientific than it really is – McKenzie has a problem with as well.

After this scholarly conversation, Alex handed out a double sided sheet which contained the information below:

4. Timeline for Course Worksheet / Selection from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale

– Highest ranking person in the pilgrimage so naturally he would go first (Knight).

– Miller: really drunk. Interrupts host and says he is going next. Churl’s tale – body/explicit. Chaucer (narrator) recording this. He has to write down all tales, he has no choice. Lots of these books were performed (yheere). Reader plays an active role – if you don’t want to listen to this tale, turn to another leaf. Rhetorical device – best way to get someone to read something is tell them not to read it. Book of Leaves – epigraph “this book is not for you” – idea that there is something provocative inside —> Chaucer is mirroring but also talking about listening and reading practices.

**I apologize if these notes are a big fragmented. This is how I write my notes in my own journal and therefore, I thought it appropriate to share that in our class journal since it’s supposed to be like a diary entry of sorts.**

And there is the notes and conversation from yesterday’s class!


The Start of a New Chapter (Get it??? Because books… I’m adorable.)



  1. Syllabus
  2. What is a book?
  3. Blog/Daily Scribe
  4. Break?
  5. Readings
  6. Medieval help desk
  7. Writing as a technology
  8. Plato’s Phaedrus

Hello all! Since I have volunteered myself to go first, I’m just going to dive in headfirst and hope for the best. I gotta confess, going first felt like a better idea earlier, as I now find myself anxious about straddling this line between diary/journal entry and actual helpful information to you, my classmates. But I digress and let’s go for it.

First of all, I want to say how terrible it is to have the semester start on your birthday, which today was for me. But I had a pretty decent class line up so it wasn’t the worst thing in the world but still. We started class by going over the syllabus, as usual. Here is where I expected to get let out early but as we all know that is not what happened. But I was weirdly happy to just immediately jump into this class because this class is easily the coolest concept ever. I love the idea of tying together history and literature and the logistical aspects of books and then also a bit of philosophy like we did today. So onward into today’s events.

After some brief syllabus overview. Alex posted the question: what is a book? While I went super abstract, more so focused on the emotional aspects of a book (what it does, is there such thing as a “real” book, etc.), a lot of people went literal (binding, production, etc.).  We started in pairs, discussing our writing on the question, and then eventually dovetailed into a group discussion. This led to discussions of not only what makes a book but what does a book do, as well as whether or not e-readers count as books. (Spoiler alert: they do!) This is where I attach a picture of all the notes on our discussion because I’m the best. img_3487

From there, we briefly talked through the wiki page and then scribe duties. And here is where I volunteered to go first. Then we took a class vote on whether we wanted to do breaks halfway through class or end early, and more of us voted to end early than to take breaks. I wonder whether the split was grad vs. undergrad, grad students preferring the shorter class to a break. Not that it really matters either way but it’s interesting to think about. I digress. Then we did a little more “syllabus-ing” (direct quote) before discussing the meaning behind the image on the wiki.

Alex then showed us a video of a medieval help desk, spoofing the modern IT desks, which got us into a conversation on how writing serves as a kind of technology, which led into an even deeper conversation on the difference between the reaction to books and the reaction to computer technology. (Spoiler alert: both times people swore society was going to crumble. Both times, of course, society did not.) This is where Plato came in, and we split up into more groups to dissect and discuss his fears and opinions on writing. Of course, like all older generations exposed to new technology, he wasn’t exactly digging it but he allowed that as long as younger generations were still contributing to the ideas people were now writing down, we as humans would probably be okay.

And that was today’s class. See you all next Monday!