Twitter and the Middle Ages

Sermones de laudibus sanctorum
Will your idea fit into a margin? If not, it might need a re-write. Image courtesy of Burns Library, Boston College/Flickr/Creative Commons

The medieval concept of writing and authorship was very different to our own.

Today, when someone writes a book, composes a song or creates a piece of artwork, they are protected by copyright law and attributed for their work.

But in the Middle Ages, some authors were known as ‘compilers’ – people who assembled books according to personal interests – revealing a very different concept of authorship as something done in collaboration with others.

Medieval manuscripts were also the site of collaboration between writers and readers in the form of marginalia: annotations within the margins of a manuscript that usually contain the authors’ thoughts and interpretations of the text. The equivalent of what we see today in the tattered copies of Romeo and Juliet that line student lockers and high-school English shelves.

But last week, while examining a 15th century manuscript at university, it occurred to me that no matter how different our ideas of authorship might be, some things at least, haven’t changed since the Middle Ages.

Namely, the problem of space.

You don’t have much space to compose an essay in a margin, just in the same way that 140 characters on Twitter isn’t designed to produce a novel. But margins and Twitter both force you to get to the point.

So, when stuck on identifying what you’re trying to say, think about using Twitter as a writing resource. Ask yourself how you would frame your idea in 140 characters.

If that doesn’t work, draw yourself a margin and annotate your thoughts within just that tiny space. You may be surprised by how helpful a simple margin can be.

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