Saturday, May 14, 2022

Michelle R. Warren's "Holy Digital Grail"

Michelle R. Warren is Professor of Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College, Her publications include History on the Edge: Excalibur and the Borders of Britain (2000) and Creole Medievalism: Colonial France and Joseph Bédier's Middle Ages (2011), along with several edited volumes.

Warren applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Holy Digital Grail: A Medieval Book on the Internet, reported the following:
Page 99 is a great representation of my book. If the browser opens here, the first words are actually in the header right next to the number 99: “Merchants, Chivalry, Data.” This is the subtitle of Chapter 2, which is about the medieval London guild for fur traders and artisans, the Skinners. Surprisingly, these three words also express really well the overall topic of my book: medieval merchants created a book about chivalry whose meaning has been transformed by digital technologies. Throughout my book, I analyze how data both preserve and erase the past—and how merchant capitalism is still making books on the internet, creating new cultural values just as chivalry did in fifteenth-century England.

The rest of page 99 tells three interconnected stories that also illustrate themes that weave through the whole book: how literary texts interact with historical events, how nationalism motivates book collecting, and how religion becomes political.

The page starts with a heresy trial that took place in 1415: the accused, a skinner named John Claydon, was condemned for owning a book that challenged church doctrines. The second paragraph turns to a related event in church politics that took place a few years later: in 1417 English officials claimed that English Christianity was the oldest in Europe because it had been established by Joseph of Arimathea, who cared for Christ’s body after the Crucifixion. Page 99 ends by noting that around the same time, Joseph’s story was translated into English by Henry Lovelich, a skinner like Claydon.

Remarkably, all the main characters of my book are mentioned on page 99: the translator Henry Lovelich, his patron Henry Barton, their guild the Skinners, Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail, and King Arthur. Together, Lovelich and Barton planned an illustrated book that would have enhanced the social status of their guild. The book was designed to make merchants more like the aristocracy in their reading practices, knowledge of national history, and ownership of luxury goods like illustrated books. Later, the book was preserved for its value to the English Reformation and then variously catalogued, edited, and photographed over the centuries until it reached the internet in 2009 as part of Parker Library on the Web. By following this one book through its many transformations, my book shows how myths endure despite drastic changes in technology, language, and culture.

When I was writing Holy Digital Grail, I tried to imagine that readers could start almost anywhere—and the page 99 test has shown how true this idea can be!
Follow Michelle R. Warren on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue