The neo-scroll turn

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We are so surrounded by books that we forget how revolutionary the emergence of the codex – the bound book made up of stitched sheets stacked together and enclosed between a case – was to the cultures around the Mediterranean and beyond. The book as we know it.

Writing predates the advent of the book by several millennia, but the success of the latter was no less momentous than the invention of script. In the history of human culture, there was a scriptural turn in around 3200 BC, but also a codex turn around the 2nd century AD. That’s when the parchment codex began to replace the papyrus scroll, an Egyptian invention, in areas around the Mediterranean. The world of writing, reading and study wouldn’t be the same again.

The codex proved a superior technology in two key areas: resistance and handling/searchability. The leaves of animal skin which the codex quickly incorporated (literally) fared better in humid climates, away from the sands of Egypt and neighbouring regions. Vellum is still the most resilient soft writing material with its low tear-and-wear factor and slow burning property. For example, it’s a lot easier to destroy a piece of papyrus or delete a magnetic or digital file than it is to burn a scrap of parchment. The codex is also easier to handle and the text written on pages (a feature of bound books) is easier to locate than a scroll/roll is to unravel or a particular piece of text inscribed on a membrane (the ‘page’ of a scroll) is to find. On the other hand, scrolls are more space-efficient and easier to carry or conceal.

The fortune of the codex was such that the scroll meekly left the European stage, except for a stopover in medieval England and few other places, where scrolls were still used for government records. But even there, the poor searchability capacity of the scroll was quickly (re)recognised. It should also be said, however, that in Judaism, the scroll was never to lose its pre-eminent place as a sacred support.

More recently, however, we’ve witnessed a strange comeback of the scroll which may be called the neo-scroll. This is not a scroll in the traditional sense, but a new writing support which borrows heavily from the ancient exemplar: the webpage. I submit to you the fact that the webpage is a curious misnomer: the webpage should really be called a web-scroll, for that’s what it really is: an e-membrane unfurled endlessly on a digital roll. Our vocabulary acknowledges this simple fact: we don’t turn a webpage backwards and forwards, but we scroll it up and down. Yet, the fact that we call it a webpage testifies to the enduring success of the codex through the centuries. The internet, however, is not organised like a library of codices, but more like what I’d call a rollotek: countless (sc)rolls of text stitched together through hyperlinks.

The digital age beckoned the neo-scroll turn. Imagine navigating the web like flicking through the pages of a Kindle, it doesn’t really make sense. Instead, huge rolls are being deployed and unrolled with one or two of our fingers. The original searchability limitation has been circumvented by the power of instant search. Problem solved.

The codex turn might be turning a corner in many areas of modern literacy, but it does well to remind ourselves that writing didn’t start with the scroll or the codex, and it most likely won’t end with either. We need to keep the ball rolling, sorry, the page scrolling.

Knocking at each other’s door

The ancient Greek and Roman poets would be thrilled to learn that one of the key motifs of their poetry has become routine these days.

The world of lockdown is also one of paraclausithyron, the doleful cry of a lover standing at the beloved’s door, begging for entry and bewailing the exclusion. The ‘lament at the door’ is one of the enduring concepts of ancient erotic poetry. Think Romeo and Juliet, think Pyramus and Thisbe (R&J’s archetypes, in fact), or Dirty Dancing. Love often encounters a palisade, whether it be a metaphorical door, a mythical wall, or a genuine social-distancing measure.

For the Roman poets Horace and Tibullus, the door’s the enemy. For the other masters of the paraclausithyron, the enemy is that which causes the door, the wall, the separator, to isolate the two lovers. In our own inarticulate rendition of the motif, we blame the deus-ex-pestilentia of Covid-19 for prompting a daily paraclausithyron for our loved ones – we are all exclusi amatores, excluded lovers.

The lesson we learn from the ancient lovers’ conflict with the claustral door is that temporary separation should not lead to despair, but to hope and to a renewed desire for each other.

An offence against language

It is one of history’s gravest ironies that in a medieval world sanctioned by the modern observer with illiteracy, ignorance and obscurantism, the 10th-century grammar teacher Gunzo of Novara should be censured by his contemporaries for a Latin mistake he inadvertently made. To be sure, criticising a 19th-century scholar for bad philology or a 21st-century scientist for a faulty application of the scientific method is one thing, but maligning an 10th-century intellectual for getting his Latin wrong is like giving Clio,  the muse of history, an overdose of Prozac.

And yet, poor Gunzo had to enter history – and be stuck there – as the medieval grammarian who didn’t live up to his contemporaries’ high expectations. But what happened?

The little we know about Gunzo comes from the letter he wrote to defend himself against the libellous attack he sustained from the monks of the Abbey of St Gall in the Swiss Alps. Arriving at the abbey in the winter of 964, he let his grammar guard down and started chatting casually with the monks in the refectory. I imagine him over a nice cup of ale, not too pale to make him forget his Latin syntax, but stout enough to cause him to substitute an accusative for an ablative Latin word, which is actually what happened – the equivalent in Latin literate society of using ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’. He immediately realised that he was surrounded by purists for whom, he says in his letter, ‘to misplace a clause was a capital sin’. The jury decided and the judge ruled that Gunzo was guilty of lèse-majesté against language. The apologetic letter which followed was not so much apologetic as searing against St Gall, while affording, at the same time, an opportunity for Gunzo to let the monks of Reichenau, to whom the letter was addressed, know what a prodigious intellectual he was. In pitch-perfect oratorical style, Gunzo proudly explained that his error was not due to ignorance or carelessness, but to an excessive colloquial familiarity with Italian, which at that point was breaking away from Latin to become a language in its own right.

Palinodes or the courage to say ‘I was wrong’

Intellectual honesty is a virtue universally accepted, and any perceived departures from it are usually condemned. The ability to act on the available evidence and to speak one’s mind – truth and freedom –, are features of a healthy intellectual environment and the characteristics of an honest thinker. But often the evidence changes, the views shift, and the statements no longer apply. What you once considered truthful, reasonable and appropriate may not be the case anymore, and you might want to change your mind about it. If it’s something you’ve written, you might want to un-write it. If you can’t or won’t un-write it, then you might consider writing a palinode.

A palinode was originally a song, poem or ‘ode’ in which the writer withdrew a view expressed in an earlier work. Like most ancient words, the palinode (meaning ‘back-song’ in Greek) became a general concept for any work in which the author retracted an earlier view.

There are ancient examples of palinodes, but the historical record suggests that the practice of retracting one’s views in writing was quite popular in the Middle Ages. In a sense, the Western medieval period is bookended by two of the most remarkable palinodic gestures ever made: St Augustine’s Retractationes and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

St Augustine’s ‘Revisions’ (Retractationes in Latin, which ended up giving us the verb to retract or withdraw) were an opportunity for the great Christian thinker to revisit his earlier works in chronological order and occasionally review his views and position on many issues. Augustine died before he could finish the project, but, just like his Confessions, it foregrounded the issues of the self, of intellectual honesty and self-growth for subsequent centuries.

Dante, on the other hand, went even further and in his characteristically radical manner, cast Beatrice, the embodied (not allegorical, as in previous writers such as Boethius) female teacher in Paradiso, as his palinodic voice. Beatrice more than once modifies Dante’s view on different topics (from optics to theology), rendering the palinode in astounding versified dialogue whereby Dante the pilgrim/student is proved wrong by Beatrice-the-teacher and compelled through rational demonstration to recant his earlier, erroneous views.

Augustine and Dante’s palinodic writings offer us a glimpse into how these pre-eminent writers understood the evolution of their own thought. They hold up the promise that to be wrong on an issue is not a flaw, as long as you acknowledge it with openness and the commitment to rise above it.


The Romans always win until they don’t

One of the most fascinating inscriptions from ancient Rome is the so-called ‘Hisma inscription’. Written in Greek by someone named ‘Lauricius’ in probably the late 2nd century AD, it proclaims that: ‘The Romans always win’. The sandstone slab was found in South Jordan, in Roman Arabia, on the edge of the Empire.

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The Hisma Greek inscription (G. Tanner
‘Greek Epigraphy in South Jordan’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 83 (1990), p. 194)

The Romans kept winning until they stopped winning, and then the empire collapses into successor states. In the East, it became the Byzantine state centred around Constantinople. In less than 400 years, Lauricius’ statement became a museum piece. Roman Arabia was lost to the Sasanian Empire of Iran in the 610s.

Lauricius’ optimism is a historical constant. Every tribe, city, state, kingdom and empire at every point in history asserted its permanence and its ability to conquer the future tense. Always is a big word, but its never too big for those who believe tomorrow will be a reiteration of today. In retrospect, we smile, but we rush to make the same mistake. Past performance is not a guarantee of future success. This is true of school grades, economic estimates as well as political statements.

No amount of historical precedent will mitigate our enthusiasm for our world’s imperium sine fine, empire without end, as another epic optimist put it, the perdurability of the world as we know it. It is unlikely the world of the 2010s will survive the current crisis unscathed, yet most of us profess a belief in a ‘return to normality’, understood as a reversion to the status quo ante, the world as ‘before’. ‘We always win’ are words which seem to resound on the tongue of millions of modern-day Lauriciuses. But history doesn’t really care about our sandstone slabs, hopeful op-eds or dinner table optimism. Nothing is ever written in stone even if may be carved in stone. The museums are there to prove it.

A catalogue of Cassandras

Cassandra praying in a temple, Lille, Bibliothèque Municipale, 391 (c 1460 AD)

Do you remember Cassandra, the prophetess of the ancient sad countenance who possessed the gift of true prophecy but could never be believed? She was reportedly murdered by Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra along with her husband, but the truth is that she’s still alive. The rumour has it that she married the boy who cried wolf and that their powers, as well as their curse, increased twofold.

Cassandra is certainly not dead. Every crisis has a Cassandra, every impending disaster calls for a Cassandra, or rather Cassandra calls out to us, who fail to acknowledge her gift and our own incredulity. She is a post-factual figure, honoured after the fact, when it matters least, after the event consumes itself. Her prophecy bears its own destruction but also points to our own, to our inability to learn from our mistakes, to close the vicious circle and jump onto a different orbit.

As far as I know, nobody has ever attempted to track Cassandra through the centuries, to outline the meanderings of this wandering Greek priestess, and classify her failures. For she always fails. Hers is the voice of the one who whispers: ‘I told you so’. She’s the one who doesn’t shout anymore because all she did was shout but you didn’t listen anyway. Now she gloats over her proud ruin seeing that the greatest of powers is always misunderstood. That the future is always closed onto itself, and that our ears are tuned for the present. A present blind to the lessons of the past and deaf to the warnings of the future.



Have you ever tried Dante-dating?

Let’s be clear about this. I’m talking about Dante-dating, not dating Dante. However brilliant the poet was, I have my doubts the average man would have liked him – or that the average woman would have dated him. Yes, he’d write you some beautiful sonnets, he’d even make you famous for 700 years (and counting), but whether you’d have a good time with him on a date, I’m not too sure. Beatrice may have missed on a lot because of her untimely death, but at least she was spared what could only have been the poet’s rollercoaster temperament, the ups of heaven and the downs of hell, seasoned with overdose resentment and a larger-than-life personality. If we can’t imagine Date smiling for a second, there’s a good reason why.

But as I said, I’m not here to talk to you about dating Dante, but about a new form of dating, which I call Dante-dating, following an unsuspecting suggestion from a good friend recently.

Dante-dating is all about confinements, so the time has come for this kind of activity. Under this dispensation, two eager individuals may get together in the underworld for a nice chat. It’s not against the rules, and social distancing may be observed – there’s plenty of space where the light never shines. There are rooms of all shapes and sizes there, and users may choose the level they want to set the date in. This should not be chosen lightly, as it will impact the kind of conversation one is to have with their date: about lust or anger or dishonesty. If there is a place where two people who hardly know each other may broach the subject of cheating and jealousy, then this is it. If you’re looking for a lifetime partner, you’ve come to the right party.

There’s no need for virtual backgrounds in the underground. The conical shape of this dating environment is conducive to a channeling of strong emotions, culminating in all sorts of fascinating syndromes and complexes going all the way down. Nevertheless, there is no risk of judgment, as that needs to be completed before logging in. Everyone’s too busy thinking about their dates in there that they don’t have time to pass judgment on others. It is a safe space complete with triggers and signposts, so you won’t get lost or offended.

The real good thing about Dante-dating is that you can’t get stood up. That’s because the passage of time is impossible to perceive in the underworld. But that’s a bit like life above ground these days, isn’t it?

It’s surprising that Dante-dating hasn’t gone viral yet. The area is hot, humid (on some circles, at least), and there is enough activity to draw the keenest viruses in. But that shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. The terms and conditions of this arrangement make it very clear that once a match has been made in hell, the party moves to the heavens: Why would you want the moon, darling, if we can be there tonight? And for a fee, you may take a detour across the mountain for a hand-in-hand alpine hike to purge whatever you want to purge.

Say yes to Dante-dating! Hell, yeah!

Wooden myths last forever

The Trojan Horse being led into the city in a 14th-century Venetian manuscript (London, British Library, Additional 15477)

I just love it when myths come back to bite us (in the ass), like Sartre’s annoying flies. Most cultural artefacts do not originate in fact, but in mythology, which is not to say fiction. And myths keep coming back, they are more resilient than any stone foundations. Long after the last ruins have faded in the undergrowth, the myths will still be with us, if we’re still around.

Take the Trojan horse, one of the most enduring ancient myths, which despite being made of wood, was designed to withstand all types of cultural weather. From the height of European myth-making, the Horse is still being built and deployed, the soldiers are still in, the city still gullible and on the brink of destruction. Whether Homer invented it, or whether there was a Homer at all, or whether the horse was first enlisted for the annihilation of the city of Troy and its people is absolutely irrelevant. Whoever built it – the myth, not the horse – was one of the creative minds the world has ever seen.

Thousands of years later, the Trojan Horse is still Trojan and it’s still a horse. Metonymically or literally, the Horse has been galloping freely through the European fields, rolled down into new situations, proving as effective now as it’s ever been. Like a fisherman’s rod tricking one amnesic fish after another. You’d think myths lost traction over time, people would outgrow them, become wise and start seeing the helmeted soldiers hidden in the wooden horse’s underbelly. Think again.

What I find most fascinating about the myth of the Trojan Horse is that it seems to be the foundational gesture towards the invention of fake news. The lesson which Homer teaches us – in the Odyssey, since the horse is strategically not mentioned (though arguably alluded to) in the Iliad, where any modern novelist would have inserted it – is that the power of deception seasoned with the illusion of service (i.e. gift-giving) is stronger than the strongest army. And the mythological charge of this is that this truth is as terrifyingly true now as 2,700 years ago.

Judging a book by its covers

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A 10th-century treasure binding of a Gospel Book, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 9393

Don’t judge a book by its covers, they say. The inside is what counts, they say. The advertising community is not so sure. The cover design is said to increase the marketability of a book by 50%, by a conservative estimate, and by as much as 80% in some cases. Which means that while we profess that a book is not about the covers, we behave otherwise. We may not judge a books by its covers, but we fall for books with cool covers.

The consolation from this distressing truth is that we’re not the first to be cover-gullible. The medieval Christian missionaries understood this over a millenium before any creative director. The treasure book bindings of some early medieval manuscripts illustrate the ‘marketing’ strategy of those who, in the centuries before the year 1000, brought the Gospel to the pagan West. For them, the Word of God was to be judged by the covers. Many manuscript covers adorned with ivory work, gold and precious stones were designed for what can only be called the Holy Elevator Pitch. Such books were displayed in churches and other places where the early missionaries encountered a pagan audience: crowds of faith customers sensitive who, like us, were sensitive to the charm of book covers.

The modern assumption of cover design marketing is that if the covers are appealing, the book must also be attractive. The corresponding medieval assumption was that if the covers are like nothing you’ve ever seen, then the book must be from another world and the truth contained in it must be trustworthy. Many were won to/sold the new faith through the fascination aroused when in contact with these books.

The practice of producing deluxe bindings didn’t end with the evangelising project. The marketing strategy continued throughout the Middle Ages in those churches which could afford such costly items. Their charm renewed the faithful’s devotion when they saw them on the altar, and by this the congregation were constantly being ‘sold’ the books, even though few read them and even fewer could afford to purchase anything like them.

The enduring charm of hybridity


In at least one respect, we’re not too far away from the Middle Ages, and that’s in our cultural bend towards hybridity.

I’m not taking about hybrid cars, or maybe I am.

One question historians very rarely ask is: what’s in a hybrid? Sure, the word is familiar enough, and it conjures up images ranging from the hybrid cars I mentioned to creatures of fantasy and science fiction.

But I insist, what is a hybrid? Anyone will say that it’s anything made up of two different types of elements. A hybrid vehicle is part combustion part electric. A sci-fi hybrid is part human part machine. And so on.

But a hybrid is culturally so much more than a blend of two irreconcilable elements. Here, the Middle Ages may educate us because the medieval period is really the elevation of hybridity to the status of a reality to be reckoned with.

In the Middle Ages, there were many hybrids. The Western medieval culture was itself hybrid, a blend of classical and Christian parts knocked together to work together. The fact that we had a Renaissance, a revival of the classical part, proves that the Middle Ages didn’t resolve its hybridity into a monolithic whole. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Medieval hybridity is responsible for so much cultural development. The medieval imagination was populated with hybrids, many of them inherited from the classical past: centaurs, satyrs, fauns, harpies, sphinxes. Others were purely medieval coinages, though most don’t have a name, such as the countless figures in the margin of manuscripts: half- human half-pig half-fish half-whatever. Don’t be fooled by the apparent randomness of all this monsterdom. The medieval hybrid was symptomatic of an inner cultural tension: the unpredictability of the unknown.

It is no wonder that the medieval hybrid lies on the edge of things. The edge of the manuscript, the edge of the world. The farther one moved from the centre – the central text, the known, familiar world – the more likely was one to encounter hybrids. The hybrid embodied the fear of the unknown, though not every hybrid was potentially deadly or dangerous. The East, which for the medieval mind was akin to the great beyond (=the great unimaginable) was littered with hybrids, with the so-called ‘monstrous races’: people with eyes on their chests, with large lower lips, the sciopods (having one leg with two feet), or the cynocephalae (half human, half dog).

The hybrid belongs to the future, to the unknown liminal space which only the imagination may conquer. In that respect, the modern world hasn’t budged from that existential stance.

The post-industrial imagination is replete with hybrid visions of transhumanity: half human, half-machine. The augmented human, too, belongs to the edges of the known world, captured by a vision of a future half-desired, half-feared.

The enduring charm of hybridity points to an enduring feature of our humanity and of our shared culture: the fear of the unknown, the desire to go beyond the mark, the spectacle of endless possibility.