Guest Post – M. Wendy Hennequin: How Medieval People Composed

I am no rhetorician.  Granted, I have a professional interest in composition because I teach it, and I’ve served as the Freshman English coordinator in my department.  But the study of composition just doesn’t ignite my scholarly passions.  I’m a medievalist.  Give me Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight any day.

But recently, I became very personally interested in how medieval people composed.

Last January, I broke my right wrist.  Yes, I am right-handed.  The cast immobilized my right arm and my right thumb, and partially restricted the movement of my fingers.  I could not write or type or use a keyboard.  Yet I needed to compose a paper for the International Medieval Congress in May.

Normally, I compose the way all the manuals prescribe: brainstorming, research, outline, drafts, revision, revision, more revision coupled with editing, and proofreading.  We think of this process as mental, but it depends heavily on physical acts: writing or typing notes and ideas; writing or typing research notes; using the notes to compose an outline, either in writing or in typescript; and then using these manuscript papers and typescript files to compose the paper, again either by writing or typing.

I literally couldn’t hold a pen or type, so I got to work using the only tool I could still wield: dictation software.

Composing a paper—a difficult process at best—presented a new set of painful challenges when using the dictation software.  The software isn’t as accurate as the manufacturers claim, and my composition process became an adventure in proofreading. The dictation software would render everyday words incorrectly: “act” as “ask”; “she is” as “choose”; “define” as “to find.” (Strangely, the software accurately rendered the foul language I used to curse its inefficiency.)  Dictation software also requires the user to dictate everything that appears on the page, including punctuation and capitals.  The simple sentence, “The comitatus bond has its roots in Ancient Germanic society,” becomes, when dictated, “open quotes cap the comitatus italicize that [pause while software complies] bond has its roots in cap Ancient cap Germanic society period close quotes.” Then I can go on to the next sentence, so long as the software doesn’t render “society” as “so sigh at tea.”

Taking and organizing notes was also cumbersome, because it involved switching between multiple documents, and dictation errors in my notes sometimes confused me. Worse, the dictation software made mistakes in almost every sentence, even after I added words to its dictionary and trained the software on the words.

Drafting with dictation software took an enormous toll on the ease and quality of my composition.  The constant distraction of fixing mistakes and dictating punctuation interfered with my thought process.  I often lost my place and, worse, my ideas.  My argument flowed in fits and starts, paragraphs came out fragmented, and sentences were roughly worded.  The paper got done, finally, but it was a draft, a horrible one.  Composing it took so long that I had no time to improve it—and the process of revising through dictation software would have been just as frustrating.

I knew there had to be a better way.  Medieval and ancient authors composed long works, but they could not have composed drafts the way we do, because they had limited resources for physical writing.  They didn’t have a huge supply of scrap paper for research notes or drafts.  They had wax tablets, but nothing large enough to hold long, multi-sectioned works.  Even light was limited.

Granted, some, like Homer and possibly the author of Beowulf, composed orally.  The oral-formulaic theory posits that highly-trained poets composed the lines ex tempore, hanging well-known formulae (stock phrases or parts of stock phrases) onto a narrative outline like ornaments on a Christmas tree.  These poets eventually dictated the poem to a scribe, leaving us with works like Gilgamesh and The Odyssey.

But most medieval and ancient authors were not oral-formulaic composers, but literate authors who carefully crafted and revised their works without unlimited access to physical writing and written drafts.  Chaucer did it this way—whatever this way was.  Virgil did it, too.  Boccaccio, Aristotle, Alfred the Great, Christine de Pizan, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Malory did it in prose, as did all the medieval and ancient historians.  Even Milton did it—and he was blind. There had to be a way to compose these longs works without physically writing, because these authors had done it.

Facing with the possibility of surgery and another six months of dictation software, I was determined to learn their secret.  But I discovered I knew the secret—and I had already used the technique myself.

As I was laboriously constructing my conference paper, my snarky Muse hit me with an unexpected story idea.  My adventures with the conference paper demonstrated to me vividly that I shouldn’t even try to compose this story on the computer.  For one thing, the proper names and terms would trip up the dictation software.  For another, the constant corrections and insertion of punctuation would fragment the story, just as they had done in my conference paper.

Since I intended the story for storytelling anyway (yes, I have weird hobbies), I tried another approach.  After some research, I started hashing out the plot in my brain, setting up events and shuffling them around, adding things in and taking them out.  I paced in the living room as I hashed out the plot. I stared at the bedroom ceiling as I planned the exposition.  I rejected ideas and injected new ones as I drove to work.  And I muttered to myself a lot.

Constructing the prose was somewhat more difficult.  The exact wording in my stories is important, but since I didn’t want to mess with the dictation software, I had no way to record the wording except in my own memory.  So I started speaking the paragraphs out loud to myself, correcting my wording as I went, adding and subtracting and revising, then repeating sentences, paragraphs, and finally sections aloud to myself until I had memorized them almost completely.  I then added one section to another, repeating them, making them work together, revising even more.  Finally, I began rehearsing the completed story and testing it with listeners—again, correcting myself as I spoke, revising where I needed to, refining the wording where it needed polish and ease.

I started composing at the end of February.  By the middle of April, I had a complete story in its final form.  I did not type the story in writing until the end of August.  The story is 1422 words—no Summa Theologica, but a pretty significant length for an orally composed prose work.

I had unknowingly duplicated medieval composition processes to create this story. According to Mary Carruthers’ The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (2nd ed., Cambridge UP, 2008), we only have a few records of medieval composition, but these generally include:

  • Meditating, praying, and talking to oneself until basically completing a mental draft called the res;
  • Refining and revising the res, mentally, orally, and /or with written notes on an easily reusable surface, into a more formal draft called the dictamen;
  • Dictating the dictamen to a scribe;
  • Correcting the scribe’s transcript, sometimes with revision based on others’ input. (Carruthers 235-65)

Note that the physical act of writing is absent from most of the medieval process.  The early stages depend almost entirely on mental composition, and even the written aspects are fragmentary, until the scribe’s transcript.

Unexpectedly, I had achieved the Holy Grail of composition without writing.  But no Holy Grail ever solves problems as advertised.  Yes, I had composed a story successfully, but I knew I could never compose a modern scholarly paper as I had composed my story.  On one level, the medieval, non-written composition process mirrors our own: we still brainstorm until we find our res and organize it, then we draft more formally, transcribe, edit and proofread our work.  But we depend on written records, either paper or electronic.  Paper, computers, and phones have become external, retrievable, physical records of our res and dictamen.  Our technologies of writing—pen, paper, print, typewriter, computer, word processor, printers, and the Internet—and their easy availability have not only changed the process of composition, but have also changed our standards of research and scholarship.

Carruthers points out in The Book of Memory is that medieval scholars practically memorized their research.   We don’t.  For one thing, our writing technologies of writing make memorization unnecessary.  For another, we have access to so many more sources that memorization is impossible.  My conference paper had over twenty sources, including Beowulf, and amounted to close to 4,000 pages of text.  Brain space aside, there simply isn’t enough time to memorize all the sources.

And because we have so many sources to deal with, we’ve become very particular about citation.  What we would call outright plagiarism was commonplace in medieval scholarship, and medieval scholars cited very casually when they cited at all.  A medieval author quoting Plato might never mention whether he’s referring to The Republic or The Symposium—and in fact, he might be quoting Aristotle instead of Plato.  But a contemporary scholar must be painstakingly specific.  Which work by Plato?  Which translation?  Which edition?  Which manuscript?  And the quote had better be correct, too, because someone will be looking it up when we publish it.  Scholars build their work on other scholars’; we rely on each other’s ideas to feed our own, and we rely on each other’s accuracy to be able to trace and adjust and (especially in the sciences) correct and disprove other theories.  There is no way that today’s scholar could accurately reproduce all research, and all the details of the sources, by using the medieval composition process.

We are victims of our technologies.  The proliferation and availability of books and other sources, increased literacy, and the easy access to writing and writing material of all sorts has, in a way, forced us to move our memories from our brains to papers, tablets, notebooks, and computers.  It’s a vicious cycle: we have access to more sources and more detail, so we must use more sources and give more detail and do so accurately.  We have more; therefore, more is expected of us.

Is this change for better or for worse?  Or simply change?  Writing technologies help us retain and transmit knowledge more efficiently; preserve and dissemminate knowledge far more accurately; and possibly increase our production of knowledge.  As a scholar, I acknowledge that these are consummations devoutly to be wished.  But our expectations of writers have correspondingly increased, and my own experiences show how much our composition process is intertwined at almost every stage with some sort of physical or electronic writing.  We are paralyzed when our notes disappear or our Internet connection freezes, when our hands break or the power goes out.  Medieval authors carried their notes and their libraries in their heads; though they had fewer sources, they never lost access to their knowledge, their work, or their tools.  Their process was slower, less efficient, but produced great results.  Perhaps the pressure and work of composing was just as great and onerous as it was to us. Certainly, my experience with medieval composition techniques required more brain-power, memory, and time than composing with technologies.  Yet, I found composing in the medieval way was far more enjoyable, and far less frustrating, than composing with malfunctioning technology.  It is telling that we begin our writing in a storm, and they began with meditation and prayer.

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