5.1 Word Power

This wide-ranging theme is concerned with the widest possible impacts of the written word in literate and non-literate contexts, much of it stemming from the cultural importance of the Bible and its associated texts. It is very much concerned with the written word as a constructed artefact but also in the interface of language and materiality, including the naming of people, places and things. It is concerned with the deployment of scripts (including inscriptions – on sculptures and portable objects), their contexts of production and dissemination (including monastic and non-monastic production and the material evidence for books), their spectrum of meanings (from literate and intellectual to amuletic and apotropaic, the intersection of writers, patrons and audiences and the interface with orality and music. Scotland boasts one of the pre-eminent examples of complex book culture, The Murthly Hours. This book was commissioned and produced in Paris in the 13th century for an English noblewoman before passing via marriage to the MacDougall’s of Lorne in the early 15th century and similarly, at a later date to the Stewarts of Grandtully and Perthshire. On its journey it acquired an amuletic function, supporting and supported by its religious text and images. In the late 14th or early 15th century Gaelic texts were added to it and reciting them in combination with touching the book or drinking water blessed by the hand that had just touched it was a cure for the sick (Higgitt 2000). Thus the changing, varied content of a text was transmitted not just through literacy but through a range of sensory perceptions, an issue returned to below.


Two pages from the Murthly Hours. Right: folio 170r, from the Office of the Dead for Matins (or night-time). Material-text here shows and tells us about Christianity-wide rituals for the dead, including the apotropaic use of hand bells. Left: folio iiv, an originally blank page to which French, Latin and Gaelic texts were added, all of them prayers or charms. The Gaelic text was added last, in the late 14th-early 15th century, above and below the French and Latin. All the additions were written on the page to protect the book’s owner from either spiritual or physical dangers. The reproduction is made with the permission of the Trustees of the National Library of Scotland.

The roles of the written word and the transition from orality to text, has generally been the province of historians and anthropologists. The best of this work (including McKitterick 1989, 1990; Clanchy 1993; Goody 1977, 1986) recognises the materiality of the written word and deserves the engagement of archaeologists. To paraphrase Ong (1982, 82, 91) as critiqued by Ingold (2007, 27), writing (hand-written or printed), in representing words, turns them into things. The scribe is someone who works with their hands and the act of inscribing – words, musical notation, graffiti – is a work of material culture. The act of inscription is both a visual representation of verbal sound and a physical echo of the hand movements that produced it. Even silent forms of communication, whether signed language or the range of gestures that frequently support verbal communication are not themselves acts of material culture, but they do have a dimension manifest in material culture. Monastic sign languages for silent communication were explained in written form in medieval manuscripts for example (Banham 1991, Sherlock 1989, Sherlock and Zajac 1988 and Barakat 1975). To turn Ingold’s phrase around (2007, 28) ‘signed words are no less thing-like than spoken ones.’ The study of text is not the study of the inevitable rise of the paramountcy of written evidence nor is it about the written word as a benchmark of progressive civilisation but the study of a technology, a ’technology of the intellect’ its potentialities ‘dependent upon the kind of system that obtains in any particular society’ (Goody 1968, 3). For medieval Scotland there are numerous examples of medieval texts – the Declaration of Arbroath and the already mentioned Murthly Hours included – almost the sole preserve of historical analysis. A number of approachs can be indicated:

  1. A wider, material cultural analysis of this 'technology of the intellect' remains highly desirable. A solid foundation for the early medieval period has been laid by the work of Forsyth for example both in her analysis of the inscriptions of Pictland and the implications for our understanding of multi-lingual, socially stratified literacy (Forsyth 1998, 39-61) and in her contribution to the interdisciplinary understanding of the 10th century Book of Deer manuscript (Forsyth 2008a, 398-438).
  2. An archaeological approach to the materiality of word power for the whole medieval period in Scotland would have the advantage of bringing together materials (sculpture, manuscripts, metalwork for example) that are normally treated separately by diverse specialists, into a more integrated social analysis of the different forms of literacy and deployments (including illiterate) of word power. Many excavations of medieval sites in Scotland produce some evidence (be it a single, humble book clasp) that bear on the understanding of literacy (be it intellectual or magical).
  3. Revisiting museum collections with a fresh eye to reassess those objects with inscriptions will be a vital contribution to this work (as demonstrated for example by Hall and Owen 1998). An innovative new approach to the Icelandic Sagas endorses this call for a wider analysis of books and manuscripts as artefacts or ‘cultural material.’ Rich in information about identity, meaning and the application of power in the 13th century, sagas have ‘a place in the landscape and can be explored and experienced as a cultural artefact. The saga writer, like an architect or a builder of a castle, manipulates the landscape and gives it meaning’ (Hjaltalín 2009, 243).

If one is considering writing then one also has to consider reading, which anthropologist Tim Ingold (2007, 15) has characterised as listening to remember, an act which allows writing to speak with past voices. Certainly in a medieval context, what links the materialisation of thought that is writing and reading with wider aspects of material culture is principally the act of remembering. From Late Antiquity to the Renaissance, writing was most valued as a memory aid. It enabled the creation of mental pathways along which the voices of the past could be retrieved and recontextualised in the present. Writing therefore was not primarily a recording exercise but one of retrieval and remembrance (Carruthers 1990, 1998, Ingold 2007, 15). Writing and inscribing are further enmeshed in material culture through their exemplary status as lines. Lines, as Ingold (2007) has demonstrated encompass many facets of human culture, whether as a thread or as a trace. Approaching the manifestation of lines places writing and inscribing in the context of various other human activities including weaving, drawing, singing, storytelling and walking. A further vital element to memory is commemoration, encompassing keeping chronicles, writing histories, acknowledging and celebrating Saint’s days, having prayers said for the dead. For archaeologists in particular, commemorative acts can be accessed through burial monuments and relics (both secular and sacred).

There are so many ways to research and understand medieval artefacts, but unless it is appreciated that many of them have qualities beyond their mere functionality, and were often cherished out of any obvious context of time and place, the past will never fully be understood.

Research in this field up to now has largely been concentrated on a few well known surviving relics in museum collections. There is a need to identify and classify medieval relics and create a corpus. Much of this work will be documentary, and will identify relics that no longer survive. Perhaps the most important reason for gaining a greater understanding of our relics is that, by definition, they were valued. They provide a contrast to so many of our artefacts which are mundane and of pan-European type.


See also the ScARF Case Study: Writing beyond the book