It is a part of the back-to-school process that I loved, if not also dreaded (because it meant the end of summer break), and that is the buying of new school supplies. When I was in public school, this meant buying new clothes, pens and pencils, notebooks, and assorted other goods which were to last me the year. Now, in college, this back-to-school shopping takes the form, primarily, of textbooks; or, said less menacingly, of books.
In the world of Harry Potter, Harry and friends must do the same in the magical world of Diagon Alley. As Alexandra Gillespie remarks, “Rubeus Hagrid takes him (Harry) ‘to buy parchment and quills’” (62). As fans will remember, Harry has a grand old time buying his school supplies: though, Hagrid must talk him out of buying a solid gold cauldron. Though for Ron the process is less exciting because of his economically disadvantaged working-class parents, he still relishes it as the start of the new term and when he will be able to see Harry and Hermione again.
Like many things in the world of Harry Potter, buying and selling books has a medieval past which Rowling’s works hint.
During the middle ages, for example, sellers of books were called “Stationers”. This title came from the word “stationary” which meant paper (parchment) and feather quills; meaning, the basic bread and butter of writing. However, stationers “did not start off by selling ‘stationary’… Instead, stationers were traders, lenders, and appraisers of secondhand books. In the late 1200s and 1300s, they set up stations—and so acquired their name—around medieval universities in Paris, Bologna, and Oxford and in great cities such as London”. Remember, as we learned in the last post on medieval bookmaking, books in the middle ages required a great deal of effort to make and required a great deal of technical skill. One did not simply throw a book away; one sold it and it circulated in the system for many years; so, though in Harry Potter, Flourish and Blotts books contained both new and old copies (63), in the medieval book seller’s station, all books were secondhand.
Buying used books is a time-honored tradition for both the collector as well as the frugal shopper. But in the magical world, however, the used books one finds at Flourish and Blotts, can take on a darker tone. After all, it is because the Weasley family relies on buying cheap copies that “Ginny Weasley comes to have ‘a very old, very battered’ Transfiguration book in her shopping cauldron into which Lucius Malfoy can then slip another used book, Tom Riddle’s diary” (63). In the modern day, we know the risks of buying used books—heavy annotations and perhaps even less than welcoming commentary scribbled on the pages can make for haunting many buyers are ill prepared to handle when they merely wanted to save a penny on their textbooks.
Thankfully, though, bookmaking processes evolved; just as in our world the printing press was developed, so did the methods evolve in Harry’s own world. “In Deathly Hollows, he (Harry) encounters more efficient writing techniques. At the Ministry of Magic, Harry passes ‘a frowning wizard who was murmuring instructions to a quill that floated in front of him, scribbling on a trail of parchment”. And even this is primitive, though, compared to how The Quibbler is made—on an “old-fashioned printing press”. Thus, Muggle and magical history collide once more!
To conclude, from this short post we can see that the world of Harry Potter has connections to the medieval in more ways than we can initially imagine. Even as something as simple as books has direct connections to the medieval past as is our experience in buying and selling of those books. It is extraordinary but common none the less. It is a reminder that whether magical or non-mag, everything material is connected and we only just have to reveal those connections to learn from that past.
Gillespie, Alexandra. “Beastly Books and Quick-Quills: Harry Potter and the Making of Medieval Manuscripts.” P. 55-72. Harry Potter and History. Ed. Nancey R. Reagin.