Virtually Anglo-Saxon: Old Media, New Media, and Early Medieval Studies in the Late Age of Print, Part 1

By Jesse McDowell

Foys, Martin. Virtually Anglo-Saxon: Old Media, New Media, and Early Studies in the Late Age of Print. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007. $29.

Martin Foys’ seminal monograph establishes the surprisingly practical and compelling proposition that New Media theory should play a role in every sub-field of medieval studies. One cannot read scholarship concerning New media theory without happening upon the term “remediation,” as it is central to the task of rethinking how we as scholars have studied medieval artifacts. Indeed, that is certainly what Foys enacts in the work, both discursively and pointedly: the re-investigation of Old Media like print in order to realize the almost untapped potential of the New. He shows that for decades now (even centuries), scholars in the field have looked upon artifacts through the typologic and static lens of print, a medium that, as useful as it is when one reads a Tolstoy novel, is rendered useless when it attempts to capture medieval expression. And that is also what is of central importance to Foys: the modes in which medieval expression occur. Only, what we have come to understand about relics, tapestries, and manuscripts, are the deeply remediated forms of those artifacts through the limited lens of print. As an example, Foys shows us that the Nunburnholme Cross, an artifact crafted by different sculptors of varying creeds and cultures (scholars agree it has three different sculptors who had separate and often clashing agendas attested to on the same object) itself resists any nominalization of its varied and conflicting expression. To use Foys’ words here, “[w]ith its three (or more) sculptors, its unknown purpose, and its complicated historia, the Nunburnholme Cross resists fettering or benign reduction to “the minimum required by its definition.” In a significant way, the cross in its layered history appears all but a fragment of that history in a printed edition of it. There is much re-thought in this book that takes place when we think about print. Walter Ong (who Foys takes much from in terms of characteristics in orality) explains print in this same manner: we have to intentionally re-think writing because we have already deeply interiorized it after centuries of printed works. Besides rethinking, there is a great deal of exploration: in digital media, we see “new textualities” that form because of the potential that New Media can offer the study of medieval material. Each chapter in Foys’ work sets out to emphasize, and ends up emphasizing, both how remediation in print delimits the medieval expression found in each artifact considered (Anselm’s Orationes sive Meditationes, The Bayeux Tapestry, Various Mappamundi, and finally the Nunburnholme Cross) and what digital media can offer to rerepresent artifacts in nonlinear formats that can reflect the often layered and multifaceted condition of these, and all, medieval artifacts. In addition, Foys offers an epilogue on the practical uses of digital tools in previous projects and ones to come, which enlivens and encourages future work in the field.

Beyond this epilogue one can ask: “how have we not come to these conclusions before?” Shouldn’t we have understood that a cross cannot be adequately represented in print form? Besides the sheer fact that Anglo-Saxon materials have received scant attention in their own cultural weight on the whole (though now that proposition has been somewhat untrue for a number of years), print slowly became the dominant form of scholarship for both practical and subtle reasons (one being the long and unrealized interiorizing of writing). Before I give a rundown of chapter topoi, I want to emphasize one more item that garners this book’s usefulness, notably that of the parallel between digital media and medieval manuscripts’ use of text and image. Simply put, Foys displays the curious juxtapositions of illustrations and script in manuscripts of Anselm’s meditational devotions meant for reading and prayer, portraying how medieval readers commonly gathered meaning from image as much or even more so than word. This reminds one of Clanchy’s work in Looking Back from the Invention of Printing (who, of course, Foys consults) in how “sacred literacy” called for readers to first look upon the handiwork of the scribe to purvey God’s splendor. This ontological given, that image is the conduit to word, and word the conduit to understanding, is seen commonly throughout artifacts and even architecture of this “sacred” literacy, to borrow Clanchy’s term. Foys importantly notes that New Media theorists draw similar parallels between electronic media and medieval manuscripts’ intimate connections between text and image (58). This parallel becomes especially useful in pedagogy: the university students I teach now in 2017 come to class already with a very developed aptitude for garnering meaning from both text and image due to their constant interaction with the digital world. It is both rewarding and encouraging to see them quickly grasp medieval expression when they see a Google image of a historiated initial next to Gothic or Anglo-Saxon minuscule and inherently understand its telos. I personally am not even sure if John Josiah Conybeare of Oxford (who began as a classicist), Franciscus Junius, or any other early philologists in the high age of print would be able to so easily make that connection (though figures such as he and others like him began the work that we have now built on today).

Chapter 1, “Print and Post-Print Realities in Anglo-Saxon Studies” offers a brief review of the scholars’ work  concerned with what role electronic media have played but also should play in studying medieval material. In addition, it situates the goal of subsequent chapters in terms of both re-thinking print and imagining what New Media can offer in particular applications of this theory. Borrowing from Peter Robinson, Foys sets out to posit a path to “Level Four Information and Anglo-Saxon Studies.” Chapter 2, “Anselm’s Hypertext,” fluidly posits the nonlinear and fourth-deminsional ontology of Anselm of Canterbury’s devotional writings. Mentioned above, the Orationes sive Meditationes manuscripts have clear directions from Anselm himself for the reader (a monk in devotional life) who should read in an alinear fashion in order to tap into a higher spiritual connection with the divine. Here, Foys draws the aforementioned parallels from medieval to electronic media in terms of text and image when considering various manuscripts of Anselm’s devotional work. Here and throughout the work Foys considers seriously the role of virtual reality as an important contender for re-seeing medieval expression, and to better understand the hyperreal properties of Anselm’s work. The video game MMO experience he draws parallels to here is Riven, a fully immersive PC / MAC video game from the League of Legends line, furnished with similar exhortation (as Anselm to his readers) from the game makers to become immersed in a virtual environment to adequately experience their creation. On a personal note, the MMO Elder Scrolls Online exhibits a later form of similarly fully immersive, and almost completely overwhelming sense of reality in virtual space, and is also increasingly enjoyable.

To Be Continued in Part 2:

Chapter 3, “Hypertextile: Closure and the Missing End of the Bayeux Tapestry,” Chapter 4: “The Virtual Reality of the Anglo-Saxon Mappamundi,” and Chapter 5, “Cyberspace, Sculpture, and the Revision of Medieval Space,” and “Epilogue.

Part 3: “Not to “Extend”, but to “Invent”: My Explorations in Working on the Aelfric Scriptorium.”