In the early 1400s, when Lady Vivianne Schoen (the hero of my book The Last Summoner) lived, one of the largest libraries in Europe was at the University of Cambridge; it held an impressive list of 122 books. That library currently houses over 7 million books.
Books were a work of art in the 1400s. And part of an elite. Delicate, large and beautiful, they were created in the language of the church—Latin—and in turn copied entirely by hand by the monks. With the dimensions of a current newspaper, but much thicker, these large illuminated manuscripts sometimes weighed more than 50 pounds.
There is a scene early on in The Last Summoner where, under the tutelage of Pere Daniel at her father’s castle in Grunwald, Vivianne learns this arcain craft of manuscript copying.
An illuminated manuscript, the exemplar, and its parchment copy, still in progress, lay on the desk top; both were held down from curling by several hanging weights. Ink pots, gold leaf, a pen knife and a quill lay beside the sloped desk-top—the scribe’s tools.
Père Daniel had studied the art of manuscript illumination, scribing, binding and even parchment-making at the Sorbonne. Last year he’d begun to teach Vivianne the art of creating illuminated manuscripts and she had eagerly begun her own, finding that she had a steady hand at illumination. Père Daniel had shown her how to make parchment from the skins of deer that the Baron brought back from his hunts in the Grunwald forest. Despite the availability of paper, parchment was preferred “because it is velvety, folds easily and gives an agreeable flexibility to pen strokes compared with the unyielding flatness of writing on paper,” the chaplain reasoned. He always gave a reason for the painstaking preparation that involved flaying, soaking, stretching and scraping: “Parchment wants to curl onto its darker, grain side; and hastily prepared parchment wants to do it more.” Nothing was better than parchment made from game “because the vein marks left from blood in the skin when the animal died is the animal’s contribution to the art of illumination,” he attested with the fervency of a man with a passion.
Père demonstrated with exacting care and infinite patience how to use the illuminator’s tools and create a professional-looking manuscript. He provided Vivianne with parchment, a quill for a left-handed scribe, a penknife to sharpen her quills, a pot of ink and a sloping desktop. He taught her how to make iron-gall ink by mixing a solution of tannic acids and copperas with added gum arabic from the dried-up sap of the acacia tree as thickener. It was important, said the Père, to pick a mature oak-gall, one that bore a hole from the matured wasp that had developed inside and left a juicy concoction of gallic acids. The galls were then crushed up and boiled for a long as it took to recite the Pater Noster three times, he’d said. The blackness, he told her, resulted from the chemical reaction of the oak-gall potion when copperas was stirred in. He’d shown her how to create the vermillion color, commonly used in headings, which he made from brazilwood chips infused in urine and stirred with gum arabic. Vivianne never asked Père Daniel where he got his urine. She and Père also raided Theobald’s kitchen to hunt down the outer right wing pinions of a goose for making a quill pen that naturally curved to the left, because she was left-handed.
Père showed Vivianne how the height of the written area should equal the width of the whole page in a well-proportioned manuscript. Père also showed her how to rule the guidelines for the script and make the initial under-drawing of her illumination in plummet then in ink after which the gold leaf was applied. Vivianne had become adept at applying the gold leaf over the raised gesso, that she made of slaked lime and white lead mixed with pink clay, sugar, a dash of gum and egg glair glue. After painstakingly painting the gesso where she wanted the gold leaf to remain and letting it dry, Vivianne then carefully lowered the fragile tissue-thin leaf over the gesso and pressed down through a piece of silk then buffed the gold to a brilliant finish with a dog’s tooth by vigorously rubbing back and forth until it was smooth and the edges where there was no gessocrumbled away.
Making books was called “black art” from the black ink that stained the worker’s hands after a long day of creating type. Readers were mostly scholars and the religious elite. In fact, reading was an elite occupation. The majority of people at the time were illiterate and had no interest in books. Moreover, books were written in the language of the church, not in the commonly spoken language of the countryside such as English, French, German or Spanish.
So, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the revolutionary printing press in 1452 to publish the Gutenberg Bible, neither monk nor Joe peasant took much notice. The monks considered the product inferior to their works of art and dismissed the new technology—until it had largely replaced their trade.
In fact, the presses formed the very basis of the artistic Renaissance, the religious reformations and the scientific revolution, wrote Elizabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. “The printing press allowed the spread of information that couldn’t be controlled by the clergy, kings, politicians, or the religious elite,” adds New York Times technology reporter Nick Bilton in I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works. Storytelling was no longer confined to an elite clergy; books could be created by anyone and shared in the spoken languages of the people.
Bilton shares another interesting fact: Gutenberg’s printed books were as heavy and unwieldy as the original handmade books of the monks. It was much later, in 1502, that Aldus Manutius of Venice invented a more portable book that could fit in a large jacket pocket; essentially inventing “the mobile phone of his day” wrote Bilton.
Historian Alistair McCleery wrote that the political and religious leaders initially panicked over the potential for the uncensored sharing of new and varied ideas among the lay public (which brings to mind similar fears of what the internet was providing to and enabling in the lay public: uncensored self-expression by the masses for the masses). Up until then, sharing stories among the common folk was limited to oral storytelling, which suffered from inconsistency and other limitations of the oral tradition. Within a short period of time, the ability to record and share “stories” had moved from a closeted elite to the world citizen. That is what the printing press—and the Internet today—did. Both have shifted the zeitgeist of an entire world.
Storytelling today is changing again. While many people still read books and go to the cinema, watch pre-programmed TV or rent DVDs, many more enjoy their stories through other devices like computers, downloads, mobile phones and e-readers that provide material through other media and venues such as Indie and self-publishing, amateur YouTube videos, interactive games and social networks. We stand poised on the edge of a wonderful cliff that celebrates the expression — and consumer choice — of the individual. The music industry shows this the best, where people dismissed the prepackaged albums and CDs and opted to create their own unique playlists through individual song downloads. The publishing industry is currently struggling with its own painful yet thrilling metamorphosis as is the visual arts industry. In fact, they are all blurring into one large integrated amalgam of artistic expression.
The information you get today is coming “more and more through your friends and through your social network. It’s being distributed through channels of trust and the trust isn’t necessarily the BBCor The New York Times. It’s people,” says B.J. Fogg founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University.
During the days of packaged content, leading storytellers were published authors, journalists and writers of newspapers and magazines. “Now distribution channels matter less and anyone with an appropriate device can be a storyteller,” says Bilton, who shares that on the internet we tend to follow individuals we trust (e.g., Clive Thompson or David Carr) as much if not more than established organizations (like Wired Magazine or The New York Times). Accessible technology, platforms, free applications and software has truly enabled the individual. No longer confined to the written word via paper books or visual expression through movies or TV shows, storytelling has embraced many forms. Amateur and professional have equally blurred.
It comes down to content. Technology and format aside, nothing compares to a good solid story. We all listen to or watch stories. We all tell or show stories, some of us more than others and some better than others.
With the advent of new and accessible technologies and applications available to individuals, the art of storytelling has entered a new renaissance. Good stories, like good content, will always prevail and surface into prominence, like cream in milk. They have just been released into a sea of possibilities like a stream previously confined in a gorge, spilling joyfully into the ocean.
Harnessing the opening range of technologies available to us will only give us more choices to tell our stories. For instance, my latest book Outer Diverse (the first book of The Splintered Universe Trilogy) was published by Starfire World Syndicate in print form and e-format and will soon be available in audio format through Iambik. I have also created associated YouTube promotional videos and am working with colleagues to produce a short story musical video on the book. Another colleague has embraced the image of the strong female hero with a jewelry line called the Rhea Hawke Collection and is looking at other “storytelling” merchandise. I am discussing with other colleagues possibilities for a graphic novel and an interactive video game version of the trilogy that will offer reader participation in storytelling.
The future embraces story in all its possible facets. Our role as storytellers is to embrace the future in all its facets.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.