Slow Conversations

Jonathan Green received his doctorate from the University of Illinois in 2003, and is currently teaching German at the University of North Dakota. He is the author of Printing and Prophesy: Prognostication and Media Change 1450–1550, and offers some reflections on this year’s theme of Publication. —bM

As a scholar of late medieval and early modern culture, publication is not only part of my scholarly activity, but also one of the most important types of evidence for my research. How I publish and how people made their work known hundreds of years ago are not fundamentally different. In most cases, we merely occupy opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to tempo or economic cost.

blank_spaceThe pixels that comprise this blog post do not have to justify their existence. They aren’t entirely free, of course, but the cost of viewing them compared to the personal expense or the international infrastructure that has made viewing them possible is so miniscule that they might as well be. The Internet offers a practically unlimited blank space, and these words fill one small part of it.

Publication hasn’t been like this in a long time. At the beginning of the vernacular literary tradition that I study, parchment was ridiculously expensive compared to the writing surfaces of today. A text had to fulfill an essential function in education or administration or devotion in order to justify its existence. But every text also created blank spaces at its borders in the form of unfilled margins and untouched flyleaves where the productive filling of gaps could take written form. The earliest German texts with literary aspirations—the Lay of Hildebrand, the Wessobrunn Prayer, Muspilli—are just such texts that fill the blank spaces of manuscripts. It required no small investment of time and material to commit words to the orderly columns of a manuscript page, but for a few people who lived among books, the gloriously blank end pages and margins were relatively free space where writing was not subject to such severe criteria. The growth of literacy and book-making opened access to all manner of empty space, allowing texts to circulate from the flyleaves of one manuscript to the blank leaf of another, separate from and parallel to the institutionally sanctioned copying and distribution of didactic, literary, practical, or devotional texts.


Muspilli. Munich, BSB Clm 14098, ff. 119v-120r.

Print changed all that. Not that there was no more white space—just the opposite, actually—but print created an observable distinction between the written and the published word. You could still write whatever you wanted in the margins of your books, but getting your own work published (which soon came to be synonymous with printed) was another matter. Printed words have to justify their existence. You had to either own or pay for access to a press, ink, paper, type, and skilled labor, and none of that came cheap. Unless a wealthy institution was footing the bill, printing only made economic sense if you could sell hundreds of copies (as many printers who overestimated the market for their wares learned to their sorrow).

This is why manuscripts and printed books are different kinds of evidence, by the way. A manuscript tells me that one literate person in one place thought that a text was worth recording. Even a single fragmentary leaf of a printed book, on the other hand, is evidence that someone was convinced that at least several hundred people within reach of a printer’s distribution network would also find the text worth reading; a second edition of the same work tells us that that conviction proved correct.


Illustrating the “flood panic” of 1524.

And that is why paying careful attention to edition history is important. Most of the prognostic booklets, popular prophecies, and astrological pamphlets that I examined while working on Printing and Prophecy are not highlights of humanistic thought or triumphs of Renaissance literary achievement (although it’s almost embarrassing how many well-known humanists and Renaissance scholars occupied themselves with these works). The pamphlets are instead valuable because they expose the hopes and fears, the resentments and pragmatic accommodations of early modern German society, and because their publication reveals how common and widespread such concerns were in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

It can come as a surprise to first-time authors of academic monographs today that their words also have to justify their existence. Editors and book designers have to be paid, and the only way that will happen in these austere times for university presses is if a book can sell enough copies to keep the accounts balanced. A book has to be inexpensive to produce, or be sold at a high price, or appeal to enough buyers—or better yet, all three—to justify the expense of producing it. It may not be the ideal of academic discourse, but it is the reality. Brilliance is good; turning in clean manuscript copy more or less on time is even better. Most of us will get 100,000 words to make our point, and a half-dozen author’s copies to show for it.

And it’s worth it. There are many kinds of scholarly conversations, from the ephemeral give-and-take of round-table discussions and Twitter to the advances and counterattacks of journal articles over a decade to the centuries-long accumulation of scholarly effort in libraries. In some long-established fields in the humanities, it’s not unusual for the most recent serious treatment of a particular text or topic to have occurred in the nineteenth century; in one egregious case I recently stumbled on, the citation edition of an essential medieval work was printed in 1690. After writing a few footnotes citing a book published over 300 years ago, it’s hard not to wonder how many decades or even centuries from now someone will open my book in search of a conversation only I can provide. Some of the most interesting scholarly conversations are those in which maybe three people in any given century are serious participants, and the dusty-booksscholarly monograph is still the best medium for them. The monograph as cenotaph: few may spend more than a few minutes seriously engaging with my work a century from now, but those who do will find the footnotes properly formatted and the references unambiguous.

I also want to be part of scholarly conversations among those now living, of course, but the traditional vehicle for that, the journal article, has some drawbacks. At least a year and sometimes several years pass between the time that I conduct research and publish an article, and access to readers is limited by declining library budgets and rising costs for journal and database subscriptions. In order to address the shortcomings of the journal article as a medium for scholarly communication, I maintain a research blog that I update once a week or so with what are essentially footnotes. My goal is to provide scholars with similar interests deep access to my work in progress. My research blog isn’t hard to find, but it’s mostly of interest to scholars who are interested in the precise things I’m working on. I hear from them from time to time, with tips about sources I didn’t know, or responses to something I’ve written, or inquiries about publishing my work. The electrons that make up my research blog have more than justified their existence.

green_imageJonathan Green teaches German at the University of North Dakota. He is the author of Printing and Prophecy: Prognostication and Media Change 1450-1550, published by the University of Michigan Press (2012), and the forthcoming The Strange and Terrible Prophecies of Wilhelm Friess: The Paths of Prophecy in Renaissance Europe. His research blog is called Research Fragments

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