“Book as Mobile Device”: Medieval Belt Books in ‘The Atlantic’

There’s a great little piece up at The Atlantic titled “Book as Mobile Device: No Really, A Medieval Almanac That Attached to Your Belt.” The writer is Rebecca J. Rosen (@beccarosen on Twitter), who also gave us an interesting story a few weeks ago on the medieval background of the recent papal resignation. Featured in the current story are several portable almanacs from the Wellcome Trust, the British Library, and the Rosenbach Museum studied in depth by Hilary M. Carey, a medieval historian at the University of Newcastle whose published work Rosen consulted as the basis of her article. “Transporting large quantities information has always been a challenge,” reads the lede, “including when that information was astrological tables and your medium was vellum.”  Here are the opening sentences:

Nowadays we are used to having a wealth of information at our fingertips. Nobody has to remember anything anymore, it is widely observed, because you can just look it all up the instant you need to know something. But memory has always been a faulty mechanism, and humans have often needed informational assistants (Freud called them ”mnemic apparati”) to go about their business. For medieval physicians, the mnemic apparatus of choice was what is sometimes today known as a folding almanac or a belt book. There are thought to be just 29 such almanacs that have survived to the present day.

The piece includes some lovely images of the manuscripts. It’s nice to see a writer for a magazine like The Atlantic take a continuing interest in the medieval resonances of modern technologies, politics, and so on. Rosen writes with just the right combination of depth and flair about these sorts of subjects, and I hope we’ll see more Atlantic medievalism in the months ahead.

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