Laying Out Layout

I’m not usually big on book and essay reviews, but I’ll make an exception for M.B. Parkes. His paper – “The Influence of the Concepts of Ordinatio and Compilatio on the Development of the Book” – has come up in a couple of my classes, and every time I read it I learn something new. If you want to read the paper for yourself, it comprises the third chapter of Parkes’ book called Scribes, Scripts, and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation, and Dissemination of Medieval TextsThe book is pretty well known among book historians, so head to the library and pick up a copy if you want to impress people. If you just want cocktail party material, though, read on!

So what is this paper about?

In “The Influence of the Concepts of Ordinatio and Compilatio on the Development of the Book,” Parkes discusses the establishment of scholarly reading practices and, subsequently, scholarly thinking practices. He begins with a review of the common explanations for the shift from meditative monastic reading to analytical scholastic reading during the twelfth to fourteenth centuries. These are: the development of a professional academic culture; the development of new religious orders (namely the Franciscans and the Dominicans); and the development of an organized book trade. Parkes then offers an additional explanation for the shift: the development of ordinatio. Ordinatio, he explains, refers to the functional features and the organizational arrangement of a written work to aid reference. Features of ordinatio include marginal numbers, running titles, and analytic tables of contents. Parkes argues that this new mise-en-page (i.e. layout) fostered new ways of thinking about texts.

So, you’ve told us what ordinatio is, but what the heck is compilatio?

The increased availability of books nurtured the new “concern to study an argument from beginning to end” sparked by ordinatio. Readers once reliant on twelfth-century glosses for elucidation of a text could now make their own informed judgments through study of the author’s original and unabridged corpus, thereby studying “auctores in toto.” To facilitate this study, compilatio became a common practice. Compilatio is the redeployment of parts of a text into discrete units to better reflect lines of reasoning, helping readers follow complex arguments. Parkes argues that this textual structure, alongside the mise-en-page caused by ordinatio, promoted the development of the analytical and systematic reading of texts to which contemporary scholars are accustomed.

What do you think of Parkes’ argument?

Parkes’ hypothesis is convincing. After all, contemporary readers continue to expect such ordinatio and compilatio – organization and division – in scholarly texts. Not only do these features make texts’ information more accessible and easy to reference, but they also adhere to contemporary conceptions of how scholarly texts should look. Contemporary academics value not just the content of a text, but also its mise-en-page and structure.

However, Parkes oversimplifies the shift in reading practices, sacrificing suitable representation of particularities for brevity. He presents information in a way that suggests a sudden change in reading practices and a rapid develop of analytical thinking but, more probably, such a drastic shift happened over a prolonged span of time. Moreover, Parkes does not account for geographic or social variation. For example, complementing Parkes’ work are numerous scanned plates of manuscripts from Oxford and Paris – two cities with flourishing academic book trades by the thirteenth century. The reader is not told, though, whether rural or monastic communities also embraced the shift. Presumably rural communities had limited access to reading material and hence cared less about books’ changing physical appearances. However, these potential differences go unacknowledged.

Further, Parkes does not acknowledge interplay between readers and those involved in book production and distribution: he explains ordinatio’s development as exclusively a response to academic readers’ demands. Certainly ordinatio thrived because it fulfilled readers’ needs. However, Parkes ignores the potential influence of book producers and booksellers who may have promoted ordinatio and compilatio for their own financial gain. For instance, the pecia system, in which sections of a text were rented to students or scribes to copy, would have benefitted from the sectioned compilationes. Parkes’ paper would have been enhanced by recognition of these actors’ roles in promoting the new features.

Finally, examination of the effects of reorganizing a text through compilatio would have provided readers with an understanding of why study of this practice is important. Compilatio presents material from an author’s corpus in a more systematic and convenient way, thereby assisting readers in “finding their way about in a highly sophisticated and technical argument.” Contemplation of notable passages can be encouraged. Parkes, however, does not acknowledge that to rearrange an author’s corpus requires the compiler to have a thorough understanding of the material and its context to avoid distortion of authorial intent. Even with a thorough understanding, any alteration of a text may result in new interpretations. In rearranging the text the compiler potentially changes how that text is read and understood. Whether these compilationes may then be regarded as altered versions of the originals or original texts in themselves is a question that Parkes leaves unanswered. However, it is an important question that may challenge contemporary notions of authorship.

I just skimmed to the end of this post for a summary. Give it to me in three sentences.

Malcolm B. Parkes persuasively argues that the new mise-en-page and textual structure spurred by the development of ordinatio and compilatio promoted academic reading practices. However, such a drastic shift in reading practices could not be as simple as Parkes insinuates. Recognition of geographic and social variation, as well as of the complications sprung by compilatio, would have increased the academic value of Parkes’ paper.

In short: read the paper for yourself. It’s good, I promise.


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