The evil scribe

What if Descartes’ demon was a medieval scribe and we were all trapped in a manuscript illuminated initial? What if our experience of reality was the result of parchment, ink and finesse? The medieval scribes and illuminators responsible for the inebriating patterns and decorative lushness we find in so many manuscripts may have had an…

Hearing voices

Every silenced voice is like the o excised from voice. It’s a vice. History is an invitation to recover lost voices and to listen to what they have to say. It’s not a dispassionate adventure. The refusal to listen is an attempt to silence the past, to pretend it’s not there. For pre-modern cultures, the…

Humility to begin with

One of the most widespread rhetorical strategies in medieval writing is the deployment of humility. Especially at the start of a book, the author would mix retraction, litotes and protestations of weakness, insufficiency and imperfection to point out that the text he or she is about to write would have been done better by someone…

Visible speech

There’s no escaping the fact that the way we speak has been shaped by the way we write. You could say that in a literate culture, speech tends to follow script, which is the opposite of what is called phonemic orthography, the writing of words based on the spoken sounds (graphemes matching phonemes). It seems…

For a different kind of virology

Information is infectious. Like a living organism, it brings about changes in the host which, though unnoticeable to the naked eye, are no less significant. A body may recover from a pathogen, but its immune system comes out transformed. It is perhaps unfortunate, not to mention portentous, that the rapid and widespread circulation of media…

The pain of lorem ipsum

I’ve created several quizes for different sets of people during this lockdown season and I one of the questions was always the same: If the Latin word ipsum in the well-known editorial gimmick lorem ipsum means ‘himself/itself’, what does lorem mean? Latin dictionary is allowed, but reference to Google & Co is not. Everyone who’s…

Retrofit writing

The history of human culture is also the history of the technology that humans have developed and used through the ages. Tech is not an extra to the human story, but it has always been at the centre of it. Nothing evolves in a vacuum, but everything depends on everything else. Until yesterday – in…

It’s all jargon

If Jack Dorsey and the other co-founders of Twitter had been more etymologically minded in 2006 (there’s some evidence that some of them have since improved), then instead of Twitter we might have had ‘Jargon’. Only the coolest and least angry birds know that the origin of the word ‘jargon’ has to do with the…

Building walls

Echo chambers. In a monopolar or heavily polarised environment, what strategic value do professions of faith have? In a monopolar culture like those during the European age of faith, holding strong views benefits the person holding the view, giving her a sense of achieved righteousness. In a polarised world like the 21st century West, strong…

The orphanage of history

The 13th century was an age of information. Arguably the first one. The main challenge for the European writers and scholars of the period was the organisation of information, novel ways of processing the chaotic body of knowledge amassed during the late antique, early and high medieval period. Major breakthroughs were achieved in the area…