In defence of ignorance

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Ulysses in Hell recounting his last voyage to Dante and Virgil In Hell (Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, It. IX, 276), 14th century.

We’re not going anywhere these days. So let’s glance back in time. Our stop: the Middle Ages, Homer and creativity.

The medieval period has been called many things: the age of faith, the Dark Ages, lowercase/uppercase, the age of chivalry, of castles, the age of the Gothic, the post-classical period, pre-Renaissance, pre-modern, epithets galore, forever multiplying and titillating our imagination.

The medieval period was also the Age of Bricolage, a period of abundant creativity and copious creation using limited material. Never has the human spirit achieved so much with so little. If ancient Rome was about the imitation of ancient Greece, and the Renaissance about the recovery of Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages was about being itself, equally careless about and oblivious to both. If Rome wanted to be Greece and Renaissance Europe wanted to be Rome, then the medieval West just wanted to be itself.

And it went on being itself, creating its own forms, spawning its own creations. An example will suffice: Homer.

The medieval West knew Homer, but not like the ancients or the scholars of the Renaissance knew him. He was remembered as the poet of Troy, but his Iliad and Odyssey as we know them had been lost. Although retellings survived, the details, the hexameters, the beauty of Homer’s poetry was in an age-long confinement. Little about the world of the Iliad and of the Odyssey made it into the Middle Ages in the West.

No big deal. The medievals made do with what they had, and created new stories, new figures, often made in their own image and in that of their culture, but brilliant, sparkling and seductive. A Ulysses redivivus went on an expedition in search of knowledge and truth, but forgot himself and drowned on the way in Dante’s creative mind. Some Trojans escaped the fall of their city and dispersed throughout the Western Mediterranean, founding cities and fathering dynastic heroes. Everyone’s great grand dad was suddenly Trojan.

Let’s pause a little and think what ancient Rome and the Renaissance did with Homer. To put it simply, they walked closely with him, watching his every move and reporting them in their stories and studies. They had access. The medievals didn’t – and they started weaving an invisible yet prolific thread. They were ignorant. They didn’t know. They acted on their ignorance and created new things. Their imagination was as wild as their ignorance of the original texts.

That creativity came to an end when ignorance vanished, and the age of discovery dawned. Then the close walk resumed, and we are none the richer.

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