Tim Spence (email@example.com)
42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2007
Western Michigan University
BABEL Panel: Premodern to Modern Humanisms
The Book of Hours and iPods, Passionate Lyrics and Prayers: Technologies of the Devotional Self
Imagine identity as a shining star transmitting energy across a million midnights throughout the heavens. In any age, identity transmits its existence through many forms and across several media. One common form that identity uses to express what might be described as a universal feeling of shared experience is the lyric. Like beautiful waves of light, lyrics pulse their way into the memories of individuals, born by musical figures that enable audiences to imagine and experience emotions without much narrative constraint.
Every now and again stars implode. Depending on their original mass, they may form black holes, white dwarfs, red dwarfs, perhaps even wormholes. In other words, magical, transformative things happen to stars when they die. These radiant clusters of being change into something entirely new—something different, yet still quite powerful. The lyric, and I would argue the very identities that use lyrics to define themselves, also demonstrate a capacity to collapse and to be reinvented in almost every period of history.
Like a massive star, identity collapsed in on itself in Western Europe with the rise of revolutionized devotional cultures from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries. These cultures of devotion focused on pathos, seeing the mortal and divine united in emotions associated with and accessible through meditation on Christ’s Passion. Devotional culture at this time was based on interweaving highly emotional confessions, praises, petitions and thanksgivings for Christ’s suffering, Love and Mercy.
The technology that enabled the construction of this devotional self was the Book of Hours. Individuals used the Book of Hours in private to activate emotions through which they experienced a sense of communion with the corporate body of Christ. Devotional books, in other words, enabled an experience of transcendence based on discovering the divine from within their own subjective, human identity. The mass production of Books of Hours in the vernacular amplified this turn to the individual human. For the first time in history, significant numbers of people could afford to own a book that enabled religious devotion. The massive growth of vernacular devotional books engendered by the printing press enabled more and more people to spend time reflecting on their own personal lives, their own shortcomings. Perhaps it is through this inner reflection that the black hole of modern subjectivity, Mr. Cogito, emerged from the dense center of this devotional practice.
Identity is once again imploding at the dawn of our Digital Ages. Information technology now pervades our most intimate moments at several levels. Tragically, with the recent massacre at Virginia Tech, we’ve all become too much aware of how rage transmits itself in a digital age. For better or for worse, what unfolded in and through the media around this horrid event demonstrates that, at least in the rural mountains of Southwestern Virginia, life is intimately and already enveloped in a digital web of instantaneous information technology. Individuals experience the world with and through their digital information devices.
From within this labyrinth of digital media I form my major conceit: the collapse of the identity in the Digital Ages has a structural similarity to the collapse of the identity in the High Middle Ages. The implosion of identity enabled by the Book of Hours from the 13th through the 15th centuries in turn engendered a self in harmony with a greater corporate body. This collapse seems to be very similar to the current collapse of identity in the Digital Ages.
Now, imagine a laboratory. Turn on the lights. In their soft, electronic glow you see two technologies sitting on individual lab tables. On one table is a Book of Hours, a portal within the manuscript technologies used by cultures of devotion to perpetuate a life of emotionally-driven meaning. On the other table is an iPod, a portal within the digital technologies used by cultures of devotion to perpetuate a life of emotionally-driven meaning. This paper hopes to take you to a place where we can begin to see vital similarities between post- and pre-modern cultures, the Middle and the Digital Ages, which bracket the mythical Modern Ages like a linked pair of parentheses. Both curve away from the Modern, and they curve in different directions; yet both curves reflect and depend upon one another to complete their meaning.
The iPod and the medieval Book of Hours are two seemingly alien technologies that have surprisingly similar effects on the people who use them. In essence, I believe that today’s Ipods are yesterday’s Books of Hours. I think we can learn quite a bit about the culture of devotion that produced a boom in the production of prayer manuals in the fourteenth and fifteen centuries by thinking of these manuscripts as akin to the Ipod and Mp3 players in today’s popular culture. These devices help to “individualize” us, while at the same time habituating our emotions to function within a larger corporate structure.
In order to figure out what prayer books and iPods have in common, we should begin by defining some key terms about the social contexts in which these technologies operate. French anthropologist, Pierre Bourdieu, provides a helpful comment on the relationship between tradition and stable identity within a specific culture: “In a determinate social formation, the stabler [sic] the objective structures and the more fully they reproduce themselves in the agents’ dispositions, the greater the extent of the field of doxa, of that which is taken for granted. The culture of devotion from the twelfth through the fourteenth century (via the Book of Hours) and the culture of musical devotion in the twenty-first century (via the iPod) both take a great deal for granted; there is a considerable amount of invisible scripting involved in both world views. The Middle Ages and Digital Ages share another important characteristic: both epochs are extremely multivalent—both worlds are comprised of a variety of interrelated cultures.
But for the moment let me explain what I mean by “invisible scripting” and leave the complexities of cultures operating in these periods to another place and time. What the monks did with classical theories of rhetoric in the twelfth century is very much like what Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Michael Dell did not too long ago. Both groups of individuals figured out how to make information accessible in a whole new way. The monks and the techno-nerds discovered codes, grammar and syntax that enabled the communication of nearly limitless pieces of information. If you want to encode information today, you need to know how to manipulate the code: MS-DOS or Macintosh OS. These (and a few other) deep “languages” enable the effective communication of information in the Digital Ages.
Classical rhetoric was the basic code or operating language for the Medieval Church—it was the MS-DOS and Macintosh OS all in one. All competitors, like those who scripted oral codes in songs and folk incantations, were wiped out or converted, will they or nil they. By the end of the 11th century, systems of power based on written documents began to rule most of Europe. Scholars such as Thomas Clanchy and Emily Steiner have greatly enhanced our understanding of how literacy and textual-based methods of documentation shaped not only the legal, but poetic imaginations of England from the 11th through the 14th centuries.
The power of this script gives both ages great revolutionary potential. Social unrest in both periods comes primarily from two sectors of society: the highly educated unemployed and the extremely poor and marginalized sectors of society. To round out this abbreviated list of shared characteristic between the Middle the Digital Ages, we should note that both periods depend upon a technology that enables individuals to habituate themselves into a corporate mode of devotion.
Of course there are differences between the devotional book of hours and the iPod in terms of information technology. I’d like to mention one in particular. The Middle Ages assumed that the Word had been made Flesh. Parchment, which was the medium of all written documents in Europe until well into the 13th century, was made from animal flesh. This sort of fact would have had extra emphasis in a culture whose savior himself was called the Word made Flesh. Today, however, in our Digital Ages, we assume that the Word has become electric.
But what does this change in media really mean? How have electricity and the media it conveys changed our lives? How does digitization change the way we interact with and perceive the world around us? How does the digitized lyric move us, how does it habituate us to the world when we consume music in a private sphere? Music in silence—that’s a concept, which, from an empirical or scientific perspective, sounds quite impossible. 100 years ago, music was of necessity a shared experience. If you would have told someone in 1900 that you alone could hear music while standing in a crowd, you would have been labeled “crazy.” Today, however, when someone plugs into their iPod, she is immediately, emotionally and privately transported to an electric state of mysticism. Oddly enough, fourteenth-century mystic, Richard Rolle also equates his mystical states of being to musical harmony.
We’ll come back to Rolle in a minute or two, but I would like to emphasize that as an historian of devotion, I am interested in the modes of being people occupy on a daily basis through rituals and regimens. I understand a “mode of being” to be the same as a habitus, which is a very popular term in many fields of study. Because of its popularity, habitus is a very complex concept—several people study the concept of embodiment, habituation, and technologies of self identity from several different and occasionally confrontational perspectives. Here’s what a quick trip down that slick and slippery website, Wikipedia, rendered for “habitus”:
Loic Wacquant wrote that habitus is an old philosophical notion, originating in the thought of Aristotle and of the medieval Scholastics, that was retrieved and reworked after the 1960s by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to forge a dispositional theory of action suited to reintroducing the inventive capacity of agents within structuralist anthropology.
that clear things up? Probably not. That’s okay. Just
focus on the words “the inventive capacity of agents.”
Prayer books and iPods enable individuals to “create” themselves in inventive ways in the most intimate of daily spaces. These technologies enhance the inventive capacity of agents by assisting an individual to become habituated into a habitus, or mode of living, filled with potential meaning. Everything becomes symbolic in the habitus of devotion. Within this construct (the habitus of devotion), we have the ability to equate prayer with literacy.
To be able to recite a prayer from a Book of Hours prompt was a considerably powerful act in 14th-century England, as powerful, I would say, as putting in earphones and cranking the songs that move you most. My devotional prayers include the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” David Bowie’s “Quicksand,” John Cameron Mitchell’s “Midnight Radio,” and Pavement’s “Filmore Five.” Prayers affect emotions like songs.
I'm interested in prayer and prayer composition, however, because I see prayer as an intentionally developed cognitive technology of considerable social import. The cognitive machinery of prayer enabled individuals to “program” their minds by a particular habituation to exist within a particular, perhaps even pre-determined, world. In the 14th century, this habitus of devotion would have been endemic to a life of prayer. My interests in the culture of devotion also compels me to define this culture more broadly. In short, I am interested in the society of devotion, which in the Middle Ages evolved around prayer composition. Devotional prayer compositions were passionate lyrics presented in a very moving form. 
Books of Hours were technological devices; in essence, they served as a multi-media platform that tapped the individual into a broader conceived multi-media experience of devotion in 14th-century England. For example, in the opening full-page illumination of Hollins University’s McVitty Book of Hours, we see St. John himself, sitting on the island of Patmos, presented in a medieval landscape, writing in a book. That gives the devotional technology itself, this beautifully executed manuscript, corporeal authority: the Book of Hours is the Word of God transmitted “live” so to speak, through the Word made flesh. The ability to use this manuscript in private devotion functioned very much as a cultural literacy for the people who practiced a life of prayer in 14th-century England (and across Europe). But, as I’ve indicated early, “literacy” is a sticky word. Let’s see what Michael Clanchy has to say about literacy in his authoritative study, From Memory to Written Record:
“Medieval assumptions about functional literacy differed from modern ones.”
“Literates were expected to function primarily as believers in Christian scripture”
“The emphasis in reading (and writing) was therefore put not on mass schooling for the state’s and industrialists’ purposes, but on prayer: collectively in the church’s liturgy and individually at home with a Book of Hours.”
“Until the . . . nineteenth century, individual prayer (whether Catholic or Protestant) remained the foundation of European literacy.”
From the logic that weaves these statements together, it is easy to glean the underestimated cultural power of prayer. Prayer was at least a twelfth-century gateway drug into full-blown literacy, if it was not literacy itself. The banality of medieval prayer books obscures the presence of the cognitive technology, i.e., prayer literacy, which depended upon the physical codex for its broadcasted transmissions. Likewise, a thousand years from now post-humanists will scratch their heads at the mountains of silicon chips and burned-out monitors, understanding very little how these strange artifacts related to literacy at the dawn of the Digital Ages.
To learn more about the literacy of prayer in 14th-century England, let’s listen to what Richard Rolle tells a young girl, probably no older than 13, who is preparing to take vows of a nun: “If you are resolute in burning love for God while you live here, there can be no doubt that your seat can be allotted for you very high up and most happily, close to God’s presence among his holy angels.” Rolle’s words would have connected this girl to a very vivid realization of his image: she would have recognized the images of stained glass windows, which figuratively embodied an entire field of hierarchical knowledge regarding angels and their various roles in the Divine Cosmos. So the girl knew that if she could impassion herself, move herself emotionally, she would find her place in eternity in the here and now of her prayers. Aren’t we similarly “impassioned” by the music that flows directly into our brains along an electric wire? Being able to persuade yourself emotionally was what the rhetoric of devotional prayers was all about. Reason had very little to do with it.
Cults of Devotion emphasize Pathos
David Bowie's youthful persona, Ziggy Stardust, embodied in an exemplary manner what I would call a post-modern mysticism swept up in the pathos of a cult of devotion. We can see Bowie playing with the image of a visionary, both in his costumes as well as in his lyrics. For example, even though Bowie’s “Quicksand” tells us “I’m not a prophet,” he goes on to say that he’s “just a mortal with potential of a superman.” I would argue these lines translate the visionary mode of devotion from a religious past to a post-Nietzschean present. The next stanza takes another swipe at the religious mystic, drawing attention to “bullshit faith,” but what really compels me is the deepening “anti-modern” tenor of this stanza and the following. Bowie’s lyrical “I” laments the fact that it “tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien,” drawing attention to the limits of logos that had attempted, at least since the time of Locke, to eradicate pathos from the rhetoric of Modernity. The line from which this lyric gleans its name, “I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thoughts,” expresses the emotional darkness of Modernity’s rational gaze.
Today in our Digital Ages, nearly thirty years after Bowie’s mystical lamentations, the society, or cult of devotion still uses lyrics to move their audiences emotionally. Look at these lines from John Cameron Mitchell’s “Midnight Radio”:
Rain falls hard / Burns dry / A dream / Or a song / That hits you so hard /Filling you up / And suddenly gone // Breathe feel love / Give free / Know in your soul / Like your blood knows the way / From your heart to your brain / Knows that you're whole // Here's to Patti / And Tina / And Yoko / Aretha / And Nono / And Nico / And me / And all the strange rock and rollers / You know you're doing all right / So hold on to each other / You gotta hold on tonight
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Mitchell’s brilliantly conceived drama built around a trans-gendered persona, opens with a lyrical description of music itself, a medium that “hits you so hard, filling you up, and suddenly gone.” The second verse focuses on the emotional fullness of song: “Breathe feel love.” Hedwig’s vision, like Bowie’s, champions pathos and a somatic way of knowing that is in opposition to the rational parameters of logos: “know in your soul, like your blood knows the way, from your heart to your brain, knows that you’re whole.” It is not reason that will discover the wholeness of being for this post-modern mystic: it is the emotional force of rock and roll, and the body that feels its powerful love.
Hedwig’s spiritual lyric also includes a litany of saints, martyrs and heroines, exemplary individuals to whom she can turn to in her desperation: “all the strange rock and rollers / You know you’re doing all right / So hold on to each other / You gotta hold on tonight.” Like a 14th-century prayer of devotion, Hedwig’s invocation of rock and roll saints serves as a means of stabilizing devotion for both herself and any strange rock and rollers who might participate in her song in a digitized repetition.
In short, I compare the prayer book’s habitus to
habitus because I see both technologies involved in enabling cultures
of devotion. Both habituses embody a process that uses the individual’s
actions, via rituals, to compose his or her individuality; yet the very use
of these technologies moves that individual into participation with something
in excess of the individual, a corporate body that is both omnipresent and
often invisible. For both mystics and rock and rollers, an emotionally-driven habitus brings
both pleasure and pain:
Breathe feel love
Know in your soul
Like your blood knows the way
From your heart to your brain
Knows that you're whole
And you're shining
Like the brightest star
On the midnight radio
And you're spinning
Like a 45
Dancing to your rock and roll [Hedwig]
My song is in sighing, while I live in this way:
My life is in longing, which binds me night and day . .
Longing on me descended, for love which I can’t leave,
Love has me quite ended, yet grief will it relieve;
Since my heart was branded, in Christ’s sweet love alive,
All woe from me has wended, here no more to arrive. [Richard Rolle]
Devotional prayer was a technology of self that enabled a particular, emotionally-based habitus. By 1215, the Church’s Parish system united all of Europe, North, South and the Atlantic Islands, into a corporate body of Latin documentation. Everyone in Europe, lay and religious alike, was responsible to compose a prayer of confession—to document their sins—in such a way that they reacted emotionally to it. Prayers of confession were scripted to make the orator feel compunction, a sorrowful guilt for one’s act of transgression. The impact of this emotional rhetoric was the gateway into a habitus of lived prayer, a habitus developed by monks in the twelfth century. The rhetorical “code” of literacy was acquired by studying grammar, rhetoric and logic. It is in their research into classical arts of rhetoric that 12th-century monks discovered a process that would enable individuals to code emotionally moving prayers at will.
Monastic prayer technicians working in the 12th century adapted the cognitive technologies of ancient rhetoric (inventio dispositio elocutio memoria and actio) to fulfill a specific cultural need. The medieval monks had sworn to live a life of prayer. They obeyed, in other words, in a very literal sense, Paul’s commandment to the church at Thessalonica, “Pray without ceasing.” Prayer technicians used the principles of rhetoric conveyed by progymnasmata to develop a culture of devotion. This pedagogy, or rhetorical method of teaching, developed the cognitive skills necessary to live a life of continuous prayer, i.e., continuous mental activity.
When we look at 14th-century devotional cultures, we can make several statements regarding the function of prayer:
We can conclude from these statements that prayer was used as a tool to access the individual’s passions. Similarly, digital technologies like MP3s and the iPod allow us immediate access to our private passions. Yet, I’m not quite sure we are as aware of what we embody when we partake of the digitized words, the sample, or sound bite. Look again at another image from iPod’s Shadow Campaign [see also image at beginning of this paper]:
Notice that the individuals are there, yet not there in both of these images. Nothing distinguishes the individual; she and he are sublimated through his or her own ecstasy. Each now becomes a living icon for the IPod.
The mystic and rock and roller stand as bookends opposed to Modernity. Both icons extend far beyond Mr. Cogito’s reason, the logos of the printed Word. Richard Rolle embodies—and tries to instruct others how to embody—a constant state of sweetness in the form of a song. Rolle’s notion of embodiment has much more in common with Hedwig’s angry inch than either do with Grey’s Anatomy. The mystic rocker embodies a habitus of devotion based on complex imagery. The images of these cultures of devotion focus on a limited number of themes, including personal suffering, particularly in love and fighting. Unlike a habitus based on scientific reason, the mystic rocker embraces emotions as a viable medium for cultural memory and social communication. By habituation, the mystic rocker orders its lives in a spiritual manner, using emotions as vehicles through which individuals might experience a particular physical sensation—oftentimes describable as “bittersweet”—whenever s/he wants. In 1407 the most popular vehicle, or media, for an intimate and immediate invocation of this pleasure/pain through spiritual devotion was the Book of Hours; in 2007 it is the iPod. But the intimacy of the devotional manual and the intimacy of the iPod belie their corporate function. Using a prayer book or an iPod habituates an individual into a mode of being that links the emotions to a corporate identity that is both omnipresent and invisible.
2. Carruthers, M. (1998). The craft of thought : meditation, rhetoric, and the making of images, 400-1200. New York, Cambridge University Press. Bynum, C. W. (1978). Docere verbo et exemplo : an aspect of twelfth-century spirituality. Missoula, Mont., Scholars Press.
3. Bynum, C. W. (1991). Fragmentation and redemption : essays on gender and the human body in Medieval religion. New York & Cambridge, MA: Zone Books; Distributed by the MIT Press. Bynum, C. W. (1982). Jesus as mother : studies in the spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Berkeley, University of California Press. Bynum, C. W. (1995). The Resurrection of the body in Western Christianity, 200-1336. New York, Columbia University Press.
5. For other recent discussions of prayers as machines, see Fulton, R. (2006). "Praying with Anselm at Admont: A Meditation on Practice." Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies 81: 700-33 and Carruthers, M. (1998). The craft of thought : meditation, rhetoric, and the making of images, 400-1200. New York, Cambridge University Press
6. Fulton, R. (2006). "Praying with Anselm at Admont: A Meditation on Practice." Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies 81: 700-33. Wieck, R. S. and Pierpont Morgan Library. (1997). Painted prayers : the book of hours in medieval and Renaissance art. New York, George Braziller in association with the Pierpont Morgan Library. Wieck, R. S. and Walters Art Gallery (Baltimore Md.) (1988). Time sanctified : the Book of hours in medieval art and life. New York, G. Braziller in association with the Walters Art Gallery Baltimore. Sandgren, E. L. (2002). The book of hours of Johannete Ravenelle and the Parisian book illumination around 1400. Uppsala, Uppsala university library. Higgitt, J. and British Library. (2000). The Murthly hours : devotion, literacy and luxury in Paris, England and the Gaelic West. London, the British Library and University of Toronto Press in association with the National Library of Scotland.
7. Seminar in the History of the Book to 1500. Conference (2nd : 1988 : Oxford England) and L. L. Brownrigg (1990). Medieval book production : assessing the evidence : proceedings of the Second Conference of the Seminar in the History of the Book to 1500, Oxford, July 1988. Los Altos Hills, Calif., Anderson-Lovelace. Myers, R. and M. Harris (1994). A millennium of the book : production, design & illustration in manuscript & print, 900-1900. Winchester Delaware, St. Paul's Bibliographies; Oak Knoll Press. Hanna, R. (1996). Pursuing history : Middle English manuscripts and their texts. Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press. Rouse, M. A. and R. H. Rouse (1991). Authentic witnesses : approaches to medieval texts and manuscripts. Notre Dame, Ind., University of Notre Dame Press. Nash, S. and British Library. (1999). Between France and Flanders : manuscript illumination in Amiens. London, The British Library and University of Toronto Press. Kerby-Fulton, K. and D. L. Despres (1999). Iconography and the professional reader : the politics of book production in the Douce Piers Plowman. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press. Binski, P. and S. Panayotova (2005). The Cambridge illuminations : ten centuries of book production in the Medieval west. London, Harvey Miller.
8. Clanchy, M. T. (1993). From memory to written record, England 1066-1307. Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, USA, Blackwell. See also Brewer D. (1982). ”Medieval Literature: Chaucer and the Alliterative Tradition,” in The New Pelican Guide to English Literature, B. Ford, ed.
9. “One of the most successful post-modernists is the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. In the late 1960s he developed the character of Mr. Cogito, who appears in many of the poems he has written since. Mr. Cogito is slightly foolish, slightly flummoxed and always sincere as he confronts the problems of our age.” Quote by Stephen Dobyns from The New York Times Book Review, printed on back cover of Herbert, Z. (1993) Mr. Cogito. Hopewell, NJ, Ecco Press.
10. “D. Brewer in The New Pelican Guide to English Literature suggests that in England ‘probably more than half the population could read, though not necessarily also write, by 1500” (M. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, p. 13). According to Apple's quarterly financial results (from 2002 Q1 to 2007 Q1), total iPod sales reached 88,701,000 units as of January 2007.
11. See Malthrop, S. (1991). “You say you want a revolution? Hypertext and the laws of media.” Postmodern Culture 1(3) [Online].Available: http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/pmc/text-only/issue.591/moulthro.591 .
12. See McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McGraw-Hill; and Haraway D., "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.
14. My study of the McVitty manuscript, a 15th century Book of Hours in the Hollins University collection, has led me to see how both IPods and Books of Hours work as technologies within similar cultures of passionate devotion. The illuminated image of St. John on the Island of Patmos shown here comes from this wonderful artifact.