published on February 5, 2016
Rediscovery of the Medieval Reader
This article looks at the medieval culture of reading, and suggests that medieval readership and modern reading strategies have significant points of contact including a tolerance for ambiguity, engagement with chains of intertextuality, and an embrace of the fragmentary nature of knowledge. It argues that the medieval reader was not a superstitious bumpkin, but rather a sophisticated interpreter within a complex system of signification. The medieval reader engaged in sophisticated coding, decoding, and recoding. While this article argues for similarity of strategic modes of reading between the medieval scholar and modern reader, similarities should not be mistaken for equivalencies. Where the modern reader embraces intertextuality for its own sake, the medieval reader’s assumption of divine truth served as an anchor to the chain of intertextuality. This article examines Umberto Eco’s reading of Dante’s theory of language to give us insight into medieval approaches to signification, and applies those insights to St. Augustine’s Confessions. As one of the “four doctors” of the Catholic Church, Augustine served as a model of readership for many theologians to follow. St. Augustine’s practices of readership and signification would establish a practice of reading as encoding and decoding sophisticated networks of signs.