E-books and the medieval book trade

I recently tweeted a link about a researcher in Oklahoma who was working on a new and definitive English translation of Wigamur, an early German medieval novel that forms part of the Arthurian canon, but so obscure that even the German version of wikipedia only has a skeletal entry.

Arthur, and the knights of the round table, were a medieval phenomenon. Somehow the tale, found in our old friend Geoffrey of Monmouth, spawned a whole set of derivative tales, blendings and reworkings.

Medieval novels were like open source software projects – there were original bits, borrowed bits, bits that were put in because the sponsor, or local lord, wanted it and so on.

The same holds true for the texts – copies were individually commissioned so, if someone didn’t like stories about dragons, out came the dragons. I’m being facetious here, but in very simplistic terms this explains why different manuscripts sometimes contain differing versions of ostensibly the same story.

Of course, to medieval people this didn’t matter very much. Books were not particularly common, and they were often read out loud, and as a performance – where a reader would read the book out loud, doing the voices and so on, and perhaps with a little bit theatre thrown in. Yes, some people did read privately, or to a group of friends, but rather than today’s silent reading it was more akin to a dvd binge watching session with friends.

None of this is new. But what is interesting is that the Arthurian canon can be viewed as a whole set of tribute novels, just as today we find people writing and publishing sequels to Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone, or indeed Jane Austen crime novels, and the whole slew of science fiction tribute literature.

There’s also supposed to be a whole slew of Russian and Chinese Harry Potter tribute novels out there.

Now, I suspect that people have always made up stories about their favourite characters from well loved novels. And quite a few may have also published them. However what is interesting is that the ease of e-book publication is such that it is relatively easy for someone to get their book out, just as in the medieval period there was no need to pitch it to a publisher.

Actually, I suspect that’s not exactly true. Because books were performed, tales only became written and copied if someone liked the tale, an ad hoc performance by a travelling troubadour did not. On the other hand there was no need to assess the saleability or otherwise – if someone like it, they commissioned a copy, just like used to happen in CD shops in Morocco, where individual shops would put together compilations to sell, and if you wanted one, would burn you a copy on the spot.

So with e-books we have a similar situation – people can publish and through Amazon’s self publishing platform make their books available, and people download them if they are interested, which is a kind of reversion to the medieval model of book creation …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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