As I read Gailey’s reflections on the aspects of a text that markup-assisted “distant searching” may miss (like the identification of Whitman’s “my Captain” with Abraham Lincoln), I was reminded of an iconic moment of misreading from Piers Plowman: Mede, having triumphantly cited “as holiwryt telleth / Honorem adquiret qui dat munera &c” (B.3.342-3), is rebuked that if she had only turned the page, she would have found a “teneful tixte” that reverses her intended significance (B.3.344-53). This passage, like others in the poem, demonstrates the crucial role of that “&c” as a kind of manuscript hyperlink to another text; in order to interpret faithfully, medieval readers were often expected to supply entire verses or passages from memory, even when an incipit alone appears in the text at hand.
Just as Gailey and her colleagues choose whether or not to translate dialect, editors must choose more or less interventionist supports to the reader: identifying those snatches of Latin, tracing them to their sources through an intervening manuscript history, supplying the lines left implicit in the “&c”? If we go beyond the quoted words, how do we know when the intended passage ends? Does “eloi, eloi, lamach sabathani” call up the entirety of Psalm 22 (Vulgate 21), or is it an unintelligible performative utterance that evokes power through its historical connection to the cross of Christ—or both, in different contexts and for different readers? If we trace not only verbatim quotations but also allusion and resonance, the chains or networks of intertextuality are potentially infinite, and in determining where to cut them we very quickly enter the realm of interpretation.
Many scholars have noted the similarities between manuscript culture and hypertext, whether in the shifting mouvance of scribal variation or the hovering commentaries of the Glossa Ordinaria. The case of incomplete texts or incipits that summon their previous contexts highlights the most important difference between medieval techniques and modern technologies for linking texts. As Carruthers shows, the culture of memory that made manuscript “hyperlinks” possible was fundamentally moral in orientation; memnotechnique was a means of disciplining the mind, internalizing wisdom, and embodying the virtue of one’s readings. Although over the centuries, medieval readers were increasingly assisted by indexes, concordances, and other apparatus, this ideal of memory as an ethic practice endured into the early modern period. Mede’s failure to turn the page is thus not only a hermeneutic blunder but a sign of vice, as she self-interestedly cherrypicks prooftexts instead of reverently hearing and obeying the indivisible word of God. (This idea, of course, lives on in secularized guise: we teach close reading as a formative practice through which students develop salutary capacities of attention, care, and responsibility.) Technological, rather than mnemonic, “links” remove this ethical dimension of the reading practice, as certain responsibilities are externalized to digital tools rather than internalized as formative disciplines.
Or do they? What I found most interesting in these readings is the suggestion that digital editing does not so much reduce the attentive labor of close reading as redistribute it, so that the producers of an archive engage in meticulous, forensic examination of the text on behalf of its users, who can search or scan at a distance only on the strength of the producers’ previous interpretative work (e.g. Gailey 128). In this attentional economy, specialized division of labor allows novices to profit from the skills of experts, increasing the total efficiency of output. The possible objection that this deprives novices of certain morally or intellectually important practices is ultimately rooted in the Protestant conviction that each believer must search the Scriptures for himself or herself. Many medieval Christians, in contrast, accepted a division of labor between the estates, or differentiation of the members of Christ’s body, by which the clergy could study and interpret on behalf of lay people who benefitted from their labors, reading “distantly” (through sermons, stained glass, and heavily interpretive translations) rather than “closely” (the bare text). So digital technology may replicate manuscript culture, not only in its prolific hypertextuality, but also in underlying assumptions about the distribution of scholarly labor that encourage experts to mediate meaning for nonspecialist readers, who have no particular need to access the raw text.