[Humanist] 22.564 back to the 13th Century!

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Feb 25 09:44:06 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 564.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 25 Feb 2009 08:37:47 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: back to the 13th Century!

In "The Development of Research Tools in the Thirteenth Century", in 
their book, Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and 
Manuscripts (Notre Dame, 1991), Mary A. and Richard H. Rouse describe 
the sudden appearance and character of a new genre, "works designed to 
be used, rather than read": the alphabetical collections of biblical 
distinctiones, verbal concordances, alphabetical subject indexes and 
location lists. What they say about these research tools will resonate 
with many here:

> Even though, in the thirteenth century, the various reference tools
> emerged in many milieus simultaneously, independently of one another
> and among communities quite different superficially, they all bear a
> certain family resemblance. These tools embody the concept of
> utility, of plain practical usefulness. They are made to be used, as
> the humble word "tool" implies and as these devices themselves repeat
> time and again in their prologues: "ad utilitatem predicandi," "ad
> utilitatem simplicium maxime, quosdam casus utiles," "valde utilis ad
> predicandum," "utilem et salutarem scientiam apprehenderis," and so
> on. But there is a further level, a second tier of utility, so to
> speak: These tools are intended, as well, to help the reader use the
> texts to which they are keys. The notion that the text of the Bible,
> or the works of the Fathers of the Church, should be useful would
> have been strange, and likely repugnant, to monastic thought. But a
> preacher composing sermon after sermon, a teacher looking for the
> authoritative quotation that would support his argument, a writer
> seeking an appropriate phrase, would feel very much at home with the
> utilitarian attitude inherent in reference tools. For example, Robert
> Kilwardby explains that his index pertains not merely to the text of
> Augustine's De Trinitate but to Augustine's chapter-prologues as
> well, "because they contain many useful things" (quoniam utilia plura
> continent). Tools were both conceived and used for practical
> purposes.
> In order to render the tools both useful and usable, their creators
> devised new techniques and applied old techniques in new ways, often
> in quite individualistic and idiosyncratic fashion. For that reason,
> in examining the techniques of tool-making we must remember that this
> is less a question of technical evolution than an untidy mix of
> adoption, adaptation, and innovation of techniques. (pp. 239-40)

Rouse and Rouse ascribe three main reasons why these tools were created, 
"when Western religiosity and Western instruction had thus far been 
content with the minimum of technical apparatus, that the thirteenth 
century saw the creation of a multitude of reference tools and aids to 
searching": (1) the needs of preachers, stimulated by the church's 
renewed emphasis on preaching and inspired by "an evangelical return to 
the original sources and a faith-inspired search for appropriate tools"; 
(2) as a result, scholarly "attention on treating the text as an 
integral whole, even to the extent of valuing the integrity of an 
author's oeuvre"; (3) hence the growth of professionalism and 
professional training, in the universities, creating an audience for the 
new tools.

"Much the most impressive scholarly tool of the thirteenth century was 
the verbal concordance to the Bible, created by the Order of Preachers 
at the University of Paris" (p. 251), as many here will know. Rouse and 
Rouse go on to point out that the concordance, like the other tools, was 
first produced by conservative traditionalists for traditional purposes, 
as "a means of penetrating as deeply as possible into the core of the 
Christian tradition". But then, one might say, the tools took on a life 
of their own in the hands of other scholars, who "quickly recognized 
both the value and the flexibility of the index-creating such tools, for 
example, to facilitate access to newly preached sermons of Fishacre, or 
to newly translated works of Aristotle. The schools of law and of 
medicine borrowed the theologians' invention to create indexes and other 
alphabetical reference tools adapted to the needs of their own 
professions" (p. 251).

The effects? R&R quote one scholar who has argued that such tools caused 
preachers and writers to turn away from reading whole texts and so were 
"in large part responsible for what he saw as the declining vitality of 
expression that marked the late Middle Ages". They comment:

> If a writer used such tools mechanically, the results were
> predictably insipid. But if tools were used to find a sought-for item
> of information, they instead represented a positive factor, in the
> sense that they afforded a writer greater flexibility and freer
> expression.

They find a corollary for the modern historian of the period, who "must, 
in other words, study not only an author's thought but his working 
methods. Too often, it is the unsuspected reference tool that has, in 
fact, set the literary horizons of an author" (p. 254).

Referring to the now standard argument for the sea-change brought about 
by printing, R&R conclude:

> The entirety of these thirteenth-century scholarly tools comprises
> the foundation of all later attempts to provide access to the written
> heritage.... The fact remams that indexes and other finding tools
> were invented because there was need for them-not because it was
> easy, or practical, to make them at a certain time. In devising these
> tools, medieval man pushed the manuscript book to the very limits of
> precision; and in the final analysis the uniformity and much greater
> precision of the printed book were essential before the reference
> tool could advance further. It is certainly true, as well, that many
> works were alphabetically indexed for the first time upon first
> printing. Both the methods and the motives, however, were inherited
> from the Middle Ages. (pp. 254-5)



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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