History of Writing in the Middle Ages - Book Review

Tuomas Heikkilä. Piirtoja ja kirjaimia. Kirjoittamisen kulttuurihistoriaa keskiajalla. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, Helsinki, 2009 [Tuomas Heikkilä. Strokes and Letters. Cultural History of Writing in the Middle Ages. Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki, 2009].

Jyrki Hakapää

Piirtoja ja kirjaimia is the latest proof of Finnish researchers’ lively interest in medieval book culture. It sums up many recent findings and research results for a wider readership and succeeds admirably in creating an overview of a European history of writing through the Middle Ages. While writing in the European context, Tuomas Heikkilä (acting professor of general history at the University of Helsinki) seeks also to reveal “an open secret” of Finnish history, as he points out in the first pages of the book: although for a long time Finnish scholars have known the presence of writing and books in local societies at least from the 12th century onwards, that is, from the time when Catholic church arrived to south-western shores of the current Finland, this knowledge has not reached wider acknowledgement. Drawing from a number of examples, Heikkilä shows that medieval Finland and its writers and readers were full-blooded participants of European cultural activity and heritage during the late Middle Ages.

Heikkilä begins by explaining various equipments and raw materials that were needed for writing and creating the final product the manuscript. He continues with presenting the environment for writing: how the church, administration, educational institutions and business created the need and possibilities for putting texts on parchment or paper. He introduces the history of various styles of writing and discusses the uses and influences of writing and written texts in the medieval times. At the end Heikkilä shortly presents the emergence of the printing press and the gradual decline of the medieval scribal tasks.

The challenge for Heikkilä's task of combining a European tradition to Finnish culture is the scarcity or anonymity of original material in Finnish archives. Only a dozen or so locally produced or used medieval codices have survived to modern times. Other sources have revealed only few bishops' and monasteries' acquisitions and library collections. Collections of fragments have been left unexplored.

Especially the last-mentioned fragments are a difficult source material: as the promotion of Lutheranism progressed in the late 16th and early 17th century Swedish realm, the administration broke old and in the new settings infidel catholic manuscript books in sheets. These sheets disappeared for example to the sky as firework wrappers or artillery’s pouches for gunpowder, or to the garbage cans as candy and spice wrappers. However, in the end we might have to thank the civil servants of the early modern era, because many sheets were used to cover official document collections and have survived until today. These archives have been now explored, and Heikkilä and other Finnish medievalists have recently taken the task to find, save, identify and study over 10 000 fragmentary sheets as well as finally to digitize them – a project, which will surely be presented in this blog later on. The project greatly increases our chances of understanding medieval societies both in Finnish and European contexts.

In Piirtoja ja kirjaimia, the Middle Ages are not one continuous entity, but have multiple periods. Heikkilä mentions three renaissances – the Carolingian renaissance, renaissance of the 12th century, and the proper Renaissance – as periods which witness the emergence of written culture’s modern elements. The book concentrates on the late medieval centuries from 13th century onwards and follows the research tradition to separate the monastic and secular eras of medieval writings. Heikkilä concentrates on the increase and distribution of scribal culture and its products as well as the secularization and professionalization of the book culture during the last medieval centuries. He takes part in the discussion on the influences of the printing press by arguing how many of the elements of the print culture – various bibliographic terms, font styles, range of punctuation marks, sizes and forms of codices, isolation of various tasks and professions of the book business, use of vernaculars etc. – had been created already during the age of manuscripts. His vision continues the discussion on the continuous and evolving history of the book culture which took place from the 13th to the 16th century, over the emergence of the printing press. His book works much in the spirit of Marcel Thomas’s introduction on late medieval book culture into Lucien Frebvre's and Henri-Jean Martin's L’Apparition du livre as they both seek to connect the late medieval book history to the history of the printed books.

Heikkilä's book proves that researchers of the medieval manuscript culture adhere to many of the ideas developed within the modern book history. The need to understand the chain of production, distribution and reception is apparent. Especially the need of various skills for producing a copy as well as the living and working conditions of the artists and artisans responsible for this are described well. Heikkilä succeeds also in showing the importance of the writing activities and texts in the medieval societies.

While one can criticize Heikkilä’s insistence on the significance of the medieval scribal culture for the later developments in book culture, he convincingly argues for the necessity of combining the study of the book cultures of the late medieval centuries and early modern period together. Too often, at least in the Finnish context, researchers tend to study either the medieval manuscripts or the later printed books, but rarely are they put together in one research project. While Piirtoja ja kirjaimia is an admirable work on medieval history of writing, it also makes intriguing suggestions for studying the oral, manuscript and written culture together.