Centre for the History of the Book

Elaine Treharne

Distant and Resistant Reading

In this paper, I’ll focus on issues of 'the legible’ in earlier medieval Britain, highlighting major themes that have a direct bearing on reading practices throughout history. Principal among these will be literally distant reading—a common mode of reception for the majority of participants for centuries. What does it mean to hear something being read? What does the book as source of information signify to a participant who only hears the book? Deictic pronouns ‘this’, ‘your’, and ‘that’ preceding the noun ‘book’ suggest the physical presence of a textual object, but what did the reader-hearers experience of the book as phenomenon? This is a particularly important question given that illustrations of books in medieval manuscripts intimate hapticity as one core element of the object itself.

A second core element of many medieval books is their inherent spirituality, with a concomitant demand for contemplative engagement. This paper will close by focusing on this ‘resistant’ reading—a willful scriptibility on the part of manuscript artisans that places the legible at the bottom of a hierarchy of interpretative strategies. Taking as its inspiration William Morris’ claim that ‘there is no art without resistance in the materials’, I’ll explore Gospelbooks and Psalters to exemplify the significance of the deliberately obfuscated—the mystery that is at the heart of the facture of many notable manuscripts.


Elaine Treharne is Roberta Bowman Denning Professor of Humanities and Professor of English at Stanford University.

View her staff profile at Stanford University