When we think of textual production today, it seems innocuous. We go to the store and buy our book or movie; sometimes we may think of how it was produced and imagine great printing presses mass-producing innumerable pages with thousands of gallons of black ink, or we may briefly glean a clean high-tech factory in China rolling out tens-of-thousands of shiny new Blu-Ray discs. But for the most part we do not think of textual production because the reason for thinking about production never penetrates into how our labor is exploited; textual production is not our field and so we regulate it to the back of our minds, content to let those whose job directly concerns production to deal with the nuance of production.
However, our medieval ancestors did not have this ability to shun production. Back during a time when technology was limited to the oxen-drawn plow and perhaps some handy infrastructural contraptions (windmills, castles, moats, depending on the time period), to produce a writing text was an arduous affair. Yet it was an affair which was vital to the spirituality of the community and necessary to transmit its cultural legacy.
Before the 14th century, when hand-made paper began to be made in large quantities, thus allowing for an expanded reading audience, the traditional material used to record information was specially made animal skins. Since, as Elaine Treharne remarks, many texts in this period were either of a legal or religious nature, these skins– the documents written on the skins to be more accurate– produced in what was called a ‘scriptoria’ (24, Medieval Literature: A Very Short Introduction). Essentially, a scriptorium was a place where religious scribes copied sermons in what was probably the closest that epoch got to an assembly line.
Needless to say, this was a laborious affair; you can imagine copying down page after page of sermon, by hand, using an ink-feather pen and well as a writing system, with little light to work by, and sympathize with those overworked scribes who worked themselves to the bone in the belief that they were doing God’s work.
Since conversion to Christianity was often the cornerstone of this copying, it is unsurprising that texts would be produced in fashions other than parchment and skins. Enter, the Franks Casket and the Ruthwell Cross.
Each of these artifacts displays a high level of literacy and act as testaments to artistic creation. The Franks Casket, an eighth-century whalebone casket, has “runic and roman letters carved around the panels in a mixture of Old English and Latin show the richness, multilingualism, and complexity of this early literary culture” (7). Because it was not discovered until the 19th century, and because we know that a text may be a reproduction of an earlier mother text, it is possible that this casket was part of a larger tradition in burials and art; the Ruthwell Cross, a large preaching cross which depicts the story of Christ, combines both artwork and poetry to inspire. Emblazoned with the poem “The Dream of the Rood,” which tells of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, what the reader witnesses is “the combination of image and word, Germanic rune and Christian subject, anonymous authors and artists, public communal text and demand for personal contemplation” (7). Each artifact reminds the onlooker that textual production was not merely regulated to scraps of hide or paper, but life itself and any material capable of transmitting a message.
Of course, the transmission of these messages can sometimes be hard to decode. Not the least bit because of the availability of translation and language learning guides left behind by our ancestors, but because also of our inability to know when a text was originally composed. Since many classic texts that we know today were only carried on through the ages as oral legends, recited by bards and other performers, when they were copied on paper at different historical conjunctures, it would fall to the learned scribe of the moment to edit and translate to the best of his abilities; this means, for us, taking into account the lingual conventions of the period, the training that the scribe may have had and what literary theoretical framework he may have ascribed toward, and how its performance effected its translation into text and how each subsequent translation would differ from the next translation, how over time each translation would sediment into a textual history which future readers (i.e., you and I) may have missed due to either mere educational difference or lost knowledge (textual translations, for example, being destroyed in times of conflict or pillaged and lost to time). So, when researching the origins of textual production, it is vital to remember that often times a text may, in fact, have earlier origins than we currently know and that new and exciting research is always taking place to understand and master the history of literature.