habits of touch; parallels between medieval liturgy and contemporary screen culture

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The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, c. 1512, fresco at the Sistine Chapel. Detail of hands.

The habits of both medieval and contemporary people share many similarities. One such habit expresses a deeply human desire to connect and interact, and it revolves around touch – specifically, the touching of images.

During the Medieval period, devotional prayer books – manuscripts, missals, the Book of Hours etc – were very often manipulated and interacted with on a physical level by their readers, or ‘users’. From these instances of touch, we can mark discolouration, staining, tearing, smearing of ink, and general wearing away across the pages of these books. In these lasting and tangible traces of touch, we can see emotional responses the Medieval user had to these books, and learn much about the relationships Medieval people had with devotional objects and religious imagery.

In countless cases, images taken from Medieval missals – depicting scenes from the Bible such as the crucifixion, Eve’s temptation, the Devil, etc – have been completely worn away through repeated touching, kissing and smearing. I find it strange and moving to see an image of Christ having been totally kissed away, the ink from his face and body gone, leaving weird, formless empty spaces on the page. These rituals demonstrated the Medieval person’s devotion and piety, tangibly. I sit to pray and kiss the body of Christ, and I have done it so many times. His image is not even there any more. How devoted I am; how religious, how good.

As well as these positive rituals – kissing, stroking, etc – the devout Medieval people would also bring to their liturgy expressions of the negative. These negative rituals included the violent smiting, stabbing and rubbing of scenes of evil. For example, they would efface a depiction of the Devil, and in doing so they showed their condemnation of immorality, exorcising these images of sin. I am so moral, so God-fearing and so pious. See how I denounce the sinful. I have rubbed out the Devil; may he burn in the fires of hell.

The worn pages of these books show sustained piety over a period of time. They are signs of devotion, bruises which show the emotions of the user. I like the idea of an image being altered due to your interaction with it, and indeed increasing in value via its marks and blemishes. So often in contemporary culture we mount images and artworks on precious pedestals, commanding that they remain as they are in order for them to retain their value.

The similarities between these Medieval habits and our contemporary interaction with touch screens is notable. The touch screen is our modern day manuscript; both the screen and the missal offer us something visual to interact with via touch. However, the Medieval user used their devotional books to connect with God; perhaps now we connect with something else.

In both cases, touching these visual objects is sustained, habitual, even addictive. Yet now, no wear or tear is left by our repeated swiping, tapping or stroking. The screen is at once a barrier and a window – it allows us access to a visual world, yet the world within it is removed. Images remain pristine.

By using touch screens we are accessing a world that is other to ours, much like the Medieval people before us, who in the images of their missals accessed holy worlds of heaven and hell. And our actions via which we connect with these images are the very similar, centred around touch and the movements of our hands and fingers. Admittedly, kissing the pages of a book is more inviting than kissing an iPhone; but we sit before the screen, double tapping pictures on Instagram to show our love. Swiping right on Tinder to express our approval, or left, dismissal. Though we cannot blemish the images themselves, these are our instances of wear and tear; we mark the image with one more ‘Like’; we smite another with one less ‘Follow’.

Touch is intrinsically linked with connection. Images can be more tangible than words, and we can connect with them deeply. Touch and images both speak of our desire to connect; and in combination, through touching and interacting with images, we connect powerfully; we can bridge worlds. Contemporary touch screen culture is arguably just an advancement of ancient liturgical practices; we created these modern devices the way we did, because we have an innate desire for connection, and an innate appreciation of the visual. The touch screen is a modern phenomenon but its success lies in ancient human desires, and in an increasingly secular world the touch screen allows us to connect with each other, with the other, and with numerous heavens and hells.

Canon page from a missal, showing damage where the priest repeatedly kissed it. Missal of the Haarlem Linen Weavers Guild, North Holland (Haarlem?), ca. 1400-10, tempera and gold on vellum

Folio of a prayer book (fol. 14r), showing discoloration from handling. Prayer book in Latin, Eastern Netherlands (near Arnhem), ca. 1475-85, tempera and gold on vellum.

The various layers of a touch screen set up.

Further reading: Dirty Books,  by Dr Kathryn Rudy.
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