Tuesday, July 27, 2010

We Have Always Been Distracted, So There

So the new thing now is that the Internet and iPhones and Google are shortening our attention spans and destroying our brains' ability to focus on a single concept for long periods of time, and turning us into a nation of distracted, drunken bumble bees, buzzing around checking Facebook and e-mail and G-chatting. Or anyway, I think that's the new thing - the article was really long.

But! It turns out multi-tasking is not unique to our modern digital age. Way way WAY back in the day, folks were embedding hypertext into illuminated manuscripts.

"WHAT" you may well ask. What indeed.

First of all, this is an illuminated manuscript:

I'm sure we remember these from school, or forced museum trips or whatever.

Anyway, according to an article by Elizabeth Drescher, these ancient tomes were filled with "hypertextual" asides, passed around from author to author, and included script in the margins that was sometimes on and sometimes off the topic of the original work.

"The function of these images in illuminated manuscripts has no small bearing on the hypertext analogy. These “miniatures” did not generally function as illustrations of something in the written text, but in reference to something beyond it. The patron of the volume might be shown receiving the completed book or supervising its writing. Or, a scene related to a saint might accompany a biblical text read on that saint’s day in the liturgical calendar without otherwise having anything to do with the scripture passage. Of particular delight to us today, much of the marginalia in illuminated books expressed the opinions and feelings of the illuminator about all manner of things—his demanding wife, the debauched monks in his neighborhood, or his own bacchanalian exploits."

There you have it - irrefutable proof that we have always liked to have a lot of things going on at once, even in old old old religious books with shiny gold pages. If those guys would have had Twitter, I'm sure they would be like "@crazycoolmonk, writing this passage about mules is making me hungry for a BURRITO!"

If you are intrigued by this subject and would like to learn more about illuminated manuscripts, and even MAKE YOUR OWN illuminated manuscript (complete with as much distracted text as you want), why not check out our class The Art of Illuminated Manuscripts? with instructor Kelly Williams. You will go to the Getty to check some out first hand, and then retire to the art studio to experiment with making your own.

Article from Religion Dispatches (via Kottke).

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