Narcissus admiring himself in a spring, from a manuscript of Roman de la Rose, one of the medieval bestselling books heavily influenced by Ovid (Chantilly, Musée Condé, 482, around 1350 AD)

Most people will have heard of at least one ancient myth captured by the Roman poet Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses, at least by name, if not by narrative. And if not of Daphne who was turned into a laurel tree, or Arachne into a spider, or of Pasiphae and the Minotaur, then surely they will have heard of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection in the water or of Hercules and the Centaurs.

Most figures in Ovid’s poem have become types. There’s a Narcissus on every street, a vengeful Medea in every city, a lyrical Orpheus in every poetry club. Ovid didn’t invent these stories, he collected and downloaded them from the ancient cultural database and gave them a new spin, a new poetic twist. If the stories have proved almost perennial, that’s because of Ovid’s enduring legacy. What keeps the work together, allowing him to tell over 250 stories in fifteen books as if in one breath, is the principle of transformation. The metamorphosis, I’d like to argue, is not just a title, not just a poetic convenience, but also the constitution of the ancient world. It’s the ancient Greco-Roman profession of cultural faith, the creed of an age, the primer for deciphering an alien world.

The metamorphosis is the enemy of essence. When something changes into something else, there are no guarantees. A woman becomes a constellation, a man becomes a fish, a couple become a pair of trees. The natural order is exposed in its fluidity, unnaturalness, the stone becomes clay and the rule the exception, forever resisting permanance and stability. The modern world abhors the idea of metamorphosis, of things that are this way but also that, of necessity in constant risk of falling into contingency. The only modern approximation of metamorphosis is the miracle, itself under attack, but even that feels mineral compared to the porosity and malleability of the ancient metamorphic event.

The ancient world believed in metamorphic transformations because it was itself metamorphic. The classical universe was inhabited by hybrids, by ambiguities, by wonders whose unpredictability was a source of amazement but also fear. The ancient world was a haunted river flowing in all directions, bathing all beings, human, not human and everything in between. It is precisely this space in between that accommodated the spirit of transformation, the power of metamorphosis. Certitude was a risk only a few philosophers were willing to take. For everyone else, the world was a space free for all, a rich paste of ambiguities and equivocations which was impossible to break down into its constituent parts. The Christian Middle Ages inherited this enchanted paste, but forces were afoot for separating the elements, bringing order, banning one ambivalence after another, until the duality of mind and matter, and the vaccuum between them, became the blueprint for another world, closer to us, anticlassical, modern.

Immanent self-flagellation

If there is one statue that very few are keen to bring down, it’s that of modernity. Between Charles Taylor, Gaston Bachelard and Bruno Latour, the mythology of the modern age, its certainties, Supreme Scientific Court, incontestable faits faits (forged facts, Bachelard), its ‘Constitution’ (Latour) and ‘immanent frame’ (Taylor) is exposed, disassembled and shown for what it is: a centuries-old project of ambivalence and sweet delusion.

“The immanent frame is haunted”, Charles Taylor once noted. Latour went even further, stating that ‘we’ve never been modern’, if by modernity we understand the fundamental myths we’ve been telling since the 17th century about ourselves and the world around us.

Wherever you stand on the issue of ‘taking the knee’ within the current racial polemic, two things should be more or less clear: first, ‘taking the knee’ is an act of self-flagellation, which itself has a long tradition in the West. The second thing is that the act is meant to transcend the individual who does it, connecting him or her with values and ideals which are bigger than them. Although we think of ourselves as inhabiting a world we built, a party that the gods cannot gatecrash, a universe subject to the laws of nature and to the whims of human culture, we throw stardust in the air so that a Mount Olympus may emerge. The immanent frame is haunted by the spectre of transcendental presence, and that gives us a sense of purpose, the zeal to fight for purification and the enthusiasm for things beyond us.

The self-flagellatory practice of late brings with it the DNA of its evolution – the humility of the bowed head, the genuflected leg of the self-condemned, but also the sense of penitence of the ones doing it and that of penance-inflicting on the part of those demanding the act, all in the name of truths, values and beliefs which command, from a realm beyond our grasp, our allegiance and self-mortification. The medieval penitent, for instance, would humiliate herself for the sake of ideas belonging to a belief system which transcended her – and she knew that. Our belief system is supposed to lie within us, since we’ve cancelled all metaphysical spaces. But in fact, our acts give the lie to our profession of faith(lessness).

Identity crisis

‘I hate the man, I can’t watch any of his films or read any of his books. I just can’t!’, a friend recently told me. Many are indeed finding it hard to separate the author from the work, especially when one or the other clashes with deeply-held views and beliefs. If an author has sinned in his private or public life, his or her work will be sacrificed. If the work appears to have sinned, then the man or woman will suffer the consequences.

We live through the age of identity, but not just one of identities claimed by individuals and groups who wish to gain acceptance and promote their own values and views. Ours is also the age of an identity crisis, one where the categories get blurred, and one in which the plurality of views are reduced to single, sweeping narratives. This is the identity crisis of those who cannot see the complexity of human history, the various rivers and rivulets which have fed into who we are as a culture or cultures today. Reductionism becomes the heuristic principle of discovering historical truth and establishing guilt or innocence in the present age. Historians are wary of offering causal explanations for historical developments and often show epistemological defeat before the complexity of the historical record. Yet, mythology has always been more potent than any historical enquiry, and more are won each day to the cause of reductionism. Many historians are unable to reach the general public (their books are too scholarly, too expensive, too arcane), and those who do bring historical ideas into the marketplace are rarely sensitive to the complications of the historical method. ‘Histories’ of everything have taken over the bookshops and everyone claims to understand how A led to B and then to Z. The vacuum left by professional historians has been filled by eloquent yet impatient writers, whose work hypothesis, if they have won, serves as both prologue and conclusion.

We rarely get to talk about the identity crisis of our own past. When Columbus is dismissed as a proto-imperialist, or at best, as an enabler of one of the most regrettable systems of exploitation the world has ever seen, we forget that our ability to cast judgment on him and on so many others along the same lines was made possible by Columbus’ legacy of exploration and discovery. Perhaps the time has come to bracket off bracketing off and to embrace the entanglement as well as the grandeur of human history. We’d spend more time sitting in discernment and less time standing in summary judgment.

The iconoduly of iconoclasm

There is no outside text, Jacques Derrida once wrote, and immediately the waters of deconstruction flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty years.

The project of iconoclasm hasn’t started with the tumbling and defacing of statues in the wake of the George Floyd murder. Nor should iconoclasm be considered solely as a reaction against physical images.

Iconoclasm in the West began with the Reformation. Although Martin Luther was not an iconoclast in the classical sense (quite the opposite), what he himself and the Reformation pioneered may be seen as the overture to an age of iconoclasm which extends to the present day – and probably tomorrow.

The destruction of images, which had been happening before Luther (the Romans did it, the Byzantines did it and coined the term, the Spanish did it), extends beyond statues, artefacts and physical icons. It is an act of contestation, of rising and raging against the ikons of authority, tradition, established doctrine and dogma. The iconoclasm of the Enlightenment, of the French Revolution, of 1968, of the 1970s, of 1989, and so on, are all tributaries of this great sacred river of opposition.

The upheavals which shaped the present age have all been fundamentally iconoclast.  But the major difference between ‘classical’ iconoclasm and modern iterations is that the representatives of the latter have become iconodules of their own iconoclasm. The iconodules (from ikon and doulos for servant, the serving of images) of the 8th and 9th centuries upheld the veneration of icons, which the iconoclasts disputed. Iconoduly had the final word in the iconoclastic controversy in Eastern and Western Christianity, and the cult of icons and other religious symbols was maintained to this day in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Unlike religious iconodules, the modern iconoduly of iconoclasm rejoices in the constant or periodic destruction of the images of the past and ends up sacralising the simple act of legitimised destruction, which becomes the founding gesture of an entire dialectic of progress and liberation.

Opening the Overton windows on the Middle Ages

How do you turn an unthinkable idea into one that everyone can accept, one that becomes a cultural commonplace? Not quickly, is one answer. Another answer is by squeezing it through the Overton windows.

The Overton window is a concept named after Joseph Overton which tries to explain the political acceptability of a policy at any given time, as it moves across a number of degrees of acceptance ranging from unthinkable (farthest removed) to policy (accepted, embraced and made practice). Although the Overton window is usually applied to political ideas, it is relevant for a broad range of cultural ideas, of which political ones are a subset. So a new idea like same-sex marriage reaches the public and political discourse as an unthinkable idea first. As the larger spectrum moves towards freedom and civil rights, the idea becomes merely radical. Through subsequent steps, it is rendered acceptable by the public, then it is seen as sensible, popular and finally becomes policy. This admittedly simplistic schema may appear linear, but in reality things are never so. Nevertheless, the Overton window is a useful approach to understanding that every idea in every age has sat in such a window, gazing at the shifting levels of acceptability in the public domain.

When we turn to premodern societies (or any society for that matter), we notice that the Overton window was still open. In the West, the translation of the Bible into the local language was unthinkable before, say, the 1300s. As the spectrum of acceptability in regards to the capacity of vernacular languages to express the perceived complexities of the Latin Bible and the people’s suitability of reading the Bible for themselves shifted etc, the idea of translating the whole Bible moved one window towards admissibility. The Reformation compelled the idea to switch windows pretty quickly. Today, the spectrum has moved so much that reading the Bible in Latin, unless you’re a scholar, is close to unthinkable.

If we look at even earlier periods, we find the same shifting of windows. Magna Carta was a success because the right Overton windows were suitable opened when it appeared, and it appeared because the windows were open. A historic impossibility, like having Magna Carta in the 9th century, for instance, instead of the 13th, is another way of saying that the Overton windows were closed, or the wrong ones were open.

The medieval Cloud

Back in 1994, the engineers at the American software company General Magic started using the word ‘cloud’ to describe what later came to be known as ‘cloud computing’. The cyber-skies became seriously overcast in 2000 when Amazon pushed the first cloud product, called Elastic Compute Cloud.

All of us push data up into the cloud these days, and it comes down to us in down(loaded) pours. The cloud is the computing system over our heads, following our chats, documents, images and other documents we own, share and care about.

A different kind of cloud condensed in the 14th century – it was named the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ or, in Middle English, The Clowde of Unknowyng. The Clowde is a mystical text written by an anonymous Christian monk (perhaps Augustinian, like the later Martin Luther). The text offers the reader a guide for the practice of an advanced and austere form of contemplation. Drawing the full force of the medieval mystical tradition, The Clowde invites the contemplative to lift up (upload) her heart to God in love and bracket off all other distractions until she feels in her will a naked intent unto God, Who is conceived beyond gender, ‘not sonship nor fatherhood’. Only when everything’s been denied, forgotten and silenced (this is the meaning of the Unknowing, or mystical wilful ignorance, in the title) will God’s grace come down (download) in showers on the fixed mind and the loving heart.

Medieval Clowdes used to be saved in manuscripts, but now manuscripts are saved in the Cloud.

A copy of the Clowde surviving in British Library, Harley MS 959. The title of the work (Clowde of Unknowyng) takes up the second and third lines from the top.


The paradox of the medieval page

The extraordinary Eadwine Psalter (12th century) containing three Latin translations of the psalms in parallel columns. The smaller bits of text between the lines and in the margin are glosses explaining the main text and they are in French and Old English. The illustration is a visual summary of the psalm, here Psalm 4, Cambridge, Trinity College, R. 17. 1

Preparing a medieval parchment page for writing was as difficult for a scribe as typesetting a page was (and sometimes still is) for a printer. The parchment was cut, folded, pricked, ruled, and the rules governing these essential operations evolved throughout the medieval period. It accounts for the changes in manuscript book layout, from the Latin antique codex to the Gothic book.

As everyone who’s seen a medieval manuscript will know, the page layout was never left to chance. A concern for uniformity, proportion and beauty seems to have always been there, built into the very DNA of bookmaking. Surviving ancient and medieval wax tablets show careless writing and almost no layout (unsurprisingly so), whereas manuscripts are carefully prepared and meticulously executed. The most careless layout appears quite laborious. To make a book was an expensive project: the parchment was costly while to produce a bound book required tens if not hundreds of hours of human toil.

Yet for all the careful preparation and arrangement of the medieval page, the writing was more fluid than print could ever be and the page served as a space on which several texts could co-exist. A written page could be far messier than the original layout expected it to be, with texts taking up all the available space. A read manuscript often looked more like a notebook than a book, at least the kind of book we’re used to. The manuscript page was a mode of textual engagement which could easily blur the lines between reader and writer, main and secondary, bringing into fruitful, noisy and tangled dialogue several voices, whom the modern scholar seeks to recover. The transition from a manuscript to a printed book culture in the West was also a movement away from fluidity towards rigidity, from classlessness to taxonomy, from open spaces to enclosures. In other words, the hallmark of modernity.

Titling the untitled

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A typical medieval library booklist (13th century), including titled and untitled works in the manuscripts from the library of the Premonstratensian abbey in Arnstein (British Library, Harley MS 3045).

Just like the fish in the water that take the water for granted, so are we immersed in our culture(s) so deeply that we find it hard to imagine that things were once very different from what they are now.

Imagine looking for a book that doesn’t have a title, how would you ask around for it? Or how would you find out about it in the first place? Or when you’ve found it, how would you tell others about it? We have books and we have expectations about books, how they should be, what they should look like, what they can do for us, how to read them, and even how to write others like them. In Michael Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys, a writer is asked by a guy with a funny hairdo: ‘Your book, what was the story?’. ‘I don’t know’, the writer answers. The editor, sitting next to the writer, tries to explain: ‘What he means is, it’s difficult to distill the essence of a book sometimes. It lives in the mind.’ The guy with the funny hairdo then asks, ‘Yeah, but you gotta know what it’s about, right? I mean, if you didn’t know what it was about, why were you writing it?’

Why, indeed, and also how?

Not all books used to have titles. The printing press brought us, among other things, the dictatorship of the book title, enshrined in carefully-cut book plates. Modernity gave us the ubiquity of book titles to the point that we now can’t think things could be otherwise. But during the premodern period, some books had titles, others did not. The majority of texts in extant medieval manuscripts don’t have a title, while for those that did, the title was often bestowed by the reader, not the writer. Our current notions of authorial control (over title, among other things) collapses for this period. This is evident even for the manuscripts which didn’t survive. When we look at library booklists and catalogues made during the Middle Ages, we see that most books don’t have a title, and what appears to be one is actually a description of what is contained in the book.

When a text in a medieval manuscript has a distinguishable title, that’s no guarantee that the author of that text (author, not copyist) gave the title as well. Often, we see texts circulating anonymously in some areas, but under a title (or several) in others. Manuscript cultures cannot control how manuscripts are copied and texts reproduced. A title may be lost in one manuscript which is the source of ten others, and in a couple of generations, the title is forgotten completely. Or several titles can exist at the same time. The situation on the ground was and remains, for those fearless scholars out there, quite messy.

The library of secrets

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A 14th-century copy of Secretum Secretorum, including a portrait of a modern-looking Aristotle, to whom the text was attributed, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut.83.2 (14th century)

Who doesn’t like a medieval secret? One of the enduring features of the medieval period is that of an age of secrecy. There’s a secret in every corner, the dark centuries are replete with mystery, teeming with hidden treasures, shrouded, cloaked, clouded – with secrecy. Not really.

If the medieval age of secrecy is more a legacy of Romanticism than historical fact, the interaction between concealment and disclosure was a very familiar dynamic in medieval thought. The secret of sacred knowledge disclosed itself through exegesis. The invisible is made visible through upward reasoning, also known as anagoge, which is also the mystical approach to understanding.

By the 14th century, the secret (secretum) had become a literary commonplace. Petrarch wrote a strange little book in which he investigated his own conscience in dialogue with St Augustine. The book is widely known as ‘The Secret’, but the original Latin title translates ‘About the secret conflict of my troubles’. The book was kept secret from readers until after Petrarch’s death, but it’s not clear whether the author had intended it. In the book, Petrarch lays open the secrets of his heart for self-probing, confessing to weaknesses and asking for advice. If Boethius, writing in the 6th century, was seeking consolation from Lady Philosophy while on death row, Petrarch, in the 14th century, was seeking consolation from Augustine and ‘Lady Truth’. Unlike Boethius, Petrarch was not waiting for his execution, but his conscience – to believe him –, found itself equally under an axe, if only an existential one.

‘The Secret of Secrets’ (Secretum Secretorum) was a different kind of book. Attributed to Aristotle and claiming to be the Greek philosopher’s letter to Alexander the Great (there’s no better pedigree for a book), it was actually written in Arabic around the 10th century, though its authorship remains clouded in mystery. Written in the style of a Hellenistic philosophical letter, the book treats of ethics, law, medicine, politics but also hygiene and divination. It is a hotchpotch of texts characteristic of the late Middle Ages. That it proved to be one of the most popular books of that period is not surprising. Secrets die hard, not to mention the secret of secrets, and to hold several in your hand must have been formidable.

The medieval library was full of secrets, but they were not likely to give anyone the heebie-jeebies. Instead, the books of secrets showed the power of disclosed knowledge and self-knowledge, even if the former was sometimes questionable.


A tale of three classical manuscripts

The three oldest surviving illustrated manuscripts of classical literature have three things in common. They are all written on vellum, were made around the 5th century CE and went almost completely unnoticed for 1,000 years.

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‘Vergilius Vaticanus’, Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana,

If popularity is one of the main factors in assuring a book’s survival over the centuries, then this is true of the literature of classical antiquity. Out of more than 1,000 different works of classical authors in circulation in the West in the 5th century, Virgil’s Aeneid was arguably the most popular. It was first of all a textbook, and continued to be one well into the medieval period. In the East, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey had a similar fate. So it’s not surprising that the most popular texts of antiquity have survived complete with illustrations in the 5th century. They were the most numerous at the time. However, we only have three. Two Virgils and a Homer.

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‘Vergilius Romanus’, Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana,

The manuscripts known as Vergilius Vaticanus and Vergilius Romanus are both preserved in the Vatican Library. They were both produced in the 5th century and are similar in layout and style. There origin is unknown, and so is their provenance during the 5th and the 16th century. Vergilius Romanus may have been made at at the abbey of St Martin in Tours, but that is based on the fact that the manuscript shows up there in the 9th century. It may have been made elsewhere. As for the provenance of the Vergilius Romanus, even less is known. Some have conjectured that it may have been produced in Britain, but the evidence for this is flimsier still. More importantly, these manuscripts were hidden/neglected/forgotten until the 15th, when the humanist of the Renaissance took an interest in them, and they both ended up in the Vatican. Written in a style known as rustic capitals (see images), they wouldn’t have been of much use to medieval readers. There were copious contemporary copies of Virgil’s works during the medieval period, so there was no need to consult these manuscripts. The imagery may also have been regarded to ‘paganising’, so it was wilfully ignored. There is no evidence of any manuscripts inspired by these exceptional specimens.

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The ‘Ambrosian Iliad’, Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Cod. F. 205 Inf

The third manuscript belongs to the Eastern tradition and is a volume containing Homer’s Iliad. This is the manuscript known as the Ambrosian Iliad (see image). Like the two Virgil manuscripts, this one was clearly made in the 5th century, but its provenance remains as unclear as the other two. It may have been written in Constantinople or Alexandria, based on the imagery. And just like the other two manuscripts, the Ambrosian Iliad was forgotten until it joined the library of an Italian collector at the end of the 16th century, but it is not clear where it had previously been preserved.

The loss rate of ancient and medieval manuscripts is staggering and has made every scholar cry, at least once in their lifetime. Yet, we should consider ourselves lucky that such beautiful artefacts have crossed centuries of every possible kind of upheaval and reached us safely.