Monday, October 13, 2014

From the Desk to the Great Beyond of Books

A good place to imagine a medieval world
This is the chair in which I read a great deal about the denizens of medieval Europe and imagine, in as much detail as possible, the minutiae of their world: their gestures, their speech, their petty grudges and their epic grievances. The work of visualizing this world often prompts me to sit, looking out the window next to my chair, and muse on many of the details omitted from or glossed in historical texts.

Though it now seems an obvious and necessary facet of visualizing medieval culture, one of the things that I had not envisioned was what I would look like in this world. I spend my days bent over a computer, a notebook, or a book, mostly working from this chair or the kitchen table. But scribes and scholars of the premodern era had different furniture for studying and writing, which necessarily made their work look and feel differently.

So - how did medieval academic work look and feel? This weekend, Erik Kwakkel, of the Medieval Books blog, posted a most enlightening article addressing this very topic, describing a variety of medieval and renaissance desks and study practices (with pictures!).

Detail of Albrecht Dürer's 1526 portrait of Erasmus. Image from Medieval Books.
Like the space I use at home for my own studying, medieval study spaces tended to be limited and allowed for only one book to be in use at a time, as seen above. Kwakkel explains, however, that these limitations were readily circumvented by various space-saving inventions.

Rotating book wheel. Image from
Medieval Books.
Scribes would have a stacked desk, with the manuscript to be copied perched above the scribe's own copies. Others would have long desks, allowing for side-by-side reference of several books. In both cases, the desks were tilted to almost a 45 degree angle, likely to assuage wrist cramping or back discomfort caused by hunching over a text.

In my opinion, the most ingenious of these desk arrangements were those that rotated, like a lazy-Susan, enabling the reader to view multiple open books at a time without taking up more space than would a regular desk. This design was rendered, in the 17th century, into a rather large rotating book wheel (see image at right) that permits the simultaneous browsing of many books.

As much as I would love to use a desk that revolved and allowed for easy use of 5 or more open books at a time , I also appreciate the way limited space narrows my focus and forces me to deeply read a single volume, operated solely by my hands.

The reading technology of today allows for an almost infinite number of books to simultaneously appear on one's "desktop," but I suspect that the practice of envisioning precise details and specific emotional contexts of medieval people and events could be damaged by an over-commitment to too many sources simultaneously.

One book, one chair, one dog. It's a good ratio.
In the intense weeks of actually writing an article, books lay open all about the house, covering any available surface (like they do in the image of Christine de Pisan below). But this is only after I have looked closely at each one individually and am able to see the cover and know the sights and sounds of the world contained within.

Christine de Pisan applying the classic method of propping books open all
over her desks. Image from Medieval Books
I have been doing so much reading lately, for both work and pleasure, that it makes sense to reflect on the mechanics of how that reading gets done. If we owned a couch, I am sure I would prefer to stretch out there. But for now I am happy to sit in my comfy chair, with two of my most loyal companions: my dog and a good book.

"You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." -CS Lewis
Until next time - keep rustling!

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