Thursday 13 December 2012

On Ontology and the Medieval Manuscript

During this time of year I always evaluate my library, or its beginnings at least. I labouriously make a list of the books I have yet to obtain and yet another list of the books that I most likely will never have the privilege of acquiring. This year, in addition to my bibliographical wishes, I began to think about how scholars approach the evaluation process of a medieval manuscript. More importantly, a question arose that I had yet to consider: how should we as academics begin to understand what certain manuscripts might have meant during the medieval time period? I cannot claim to have the definitive answer to such a distinctly difficult query; however, I will suggest that an ontological evaluation of various manuscripts may begin to shed light upon a probable answer.

The medieval manuscript is a multivalent object. It embodies many attributes such as text, without which many histories may have been lost due to the evolving nature of orality, and a visual programme that is reminiscent of the artistic developments during its time of creation. Some examples of the uses of manuscripts were to mirror aspects of patron ideals, act as a vade mecum, represent regional socio-political and cultural currents and serve as a container for closely guarded magical formulae. With such a large repertoire of functional aspects, one must question the amount of ‘vitality’ some medieval manuscripts were thought to have held. According to Richard Kieckhefer’s monograph, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century, a manuscript (specifically a book of magic) not only contained rites, but also shared the numinous qualities of the rites with which it was inscribed.[1] Hence, upon the destruction of a necromantic, or demonic, manuscript ‘[t]he burning thus served as an exorcism; the very pages seemed quite literally infected by demons, who needed to be banished.’[2] Kieckhefer’s account of the supernatural power that the pages of a necromantic manuscript were thought to hold leads us to consider aspects of the manuscript culture during the Middle Ages and their theoretical underpinnings with respect to the ontological debate.

In Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects, ontological realism is described as a thesis that is about the being of objects ‘whether or not we exist to represent them.’[3] Ontological realism serves as an explanation of the metaphysical position that manuscripts may have held. Moreover, the perspective of particular interest is the idea that the ‘being’ of an object is unshackled from human intervention, which is indicative of the potential efficacy a manuscript's components may contain as well as the manuscript's aptitude as an autonomous object. It supposes that although a human hand created a manuscript, the book holds the capacity to evolve due to the very essence of the contents it was created to house.

In consideration of this theory, the different components within a manuscript (text, illuminations, marginalia, etcetera) may in turn be independent of each other, yet serve a purpose of providing an understanding of the whole. For example, many manuscripts that were produced during the Middle Ages were for liturgical purposes and were thought to contain the Word, or essence, of God. Oftentimes, the illuminations within these books were used to underscore the content of the text, yet at the same time embellish known aspects of the religious oral culture. Irrespective of the creator’s original intention for the illumination, the fact that it was housed within an object that embodied the 'essence' of God redefined its functionality. The illuminations, along with the Word of God, became a representation of God on earth. Thus, it may be suggested that any illumination within the manuscript mirrored the intention of God instead of man. If this suggestion were to be true, what then can be said about manuscripts that are liturgical, or devotional (such as a book of hours), but contain aspects that may not have been considered godly?

The medieval manuscript, and its components, has been meticulously considered by academics. However, the manuscript as an embodiment of being should continuously be analysed with regard to how its autonomous elements have the propensity to redefine the creator's intention. Such a shift over time may also suggest a break from the hierarchical attributes assigned to a creation by its creator. 


[1] R. Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites, Penn State University Press (1997), 4.
[2] Ibid, 5.
[3] Levi R. Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2011), 18, accessed March 24, 2012,


  1. Thanks for this - it really resonates with some of the things I've been thinking about/researching recently. Manuscripts have such a presence, and it has taken me a while to realize that I shouldn't dismiss that as sentimentality but consider it a part of their nature. You make some good point about how to work in that direction.

    I also thought you might like this if you don't know it: Riddle 24, from the 10th-century Exeter Book compilation of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
    Exeter Book riddle 24:

    A life-thief stole my world-strength,
    Ripped off flesh and left me skin,
    Dipped me in water and drew me out,
    The hard blade, clean steel, cut,
    Scraped-fingers folded, shaped me.
    Now the bird's once wind-stiff joy
    Darts often to the horn's dark rim,
    Sucks wood-stain, steps back again
    With a quick scratch of power, tracks
    Black on my body, points trails...

    It continues on to describe more of the transformation of raw materials into a book, perhaps a Bible. It's concerned more with the past of the book than it's function extending into the future, but is cool to consider in terms of what you have to say here, I think.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Ontology in reference to the manuscript is a facet of my research that I am still developing. However, I wanted to share it not only as a means to further develop my work, but also to reach out to other people who may have inquiries along the same lines. The riddle is quite interesting as it does touch upon the purpose of the entry rather well, I specifically like the manner in which the book is speaking in the first person.