The quills of torment

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Apologies for the poor quality! Here Grammar is depicted as a woman holding a book, a pen and a rod, with a classroom full of pupils brandishing their wax tablets (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana S. Marco MS 190)

The subversive power of text is usually captured by the saying ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. The problem with this adage is that it is not taken literally. Only an arsonist will understand the true meaning of fight fire with fire, and only the worst mother will get to the bottom of the baby and the bathwater.

But back to the pen and the sword. Bulwer-Lytton’s aphorism has been so powerful that it can only be taken figuratively, for after all, the might of the pen resides in the effect  writing has on those who decide to act on what they read.

Let’s take it literally for a second and suppose the pen is at the origin of violence. No metonymic thinking needed: the pen and not the text is the mighty one, as strong if not stronger than an iron sword. There are two ways to illustrate this mad speculative exercise, and they are both drawn from the medieval West.

The first comes from the ancient and medieval practice of violence in the classroom. And by classroom I mean the grammar school. In medieval representations of grammar teaching (think literacy and language), a master is often holding a book as well as a rod. The rod is meant to punish the pupil’s Latin mistakes and to link physical discipline to reading and writing skills. St Augustine points out in his Confessions (Book 1) that the beatings he received at school hid a more terrifying truth about the world of the grown-ups. (A truth as terrifying as the fact that the verb ‘vapulare’ which he uses to describe the beating is active in grammar but passive in meaning – to be beaten). Despite lacking a clear understanding of what violence accomplishes in pedagogy (Ben Parsons), the medieval culture of the West made sure that the erratic pen of a careless pupil felt almost like a sword blow on his back.

The other illustration about the power of the pen comes from a piece of medieval fake news. John Scotus Eriugena was one of the most eminent thinkers of the 9th century and one of the reasons the Middle Ages should never be called dark. A prolific writer, Eriugena was a master of the quill. The cause of his death is unknown, but in 12th century England, an urban myth (well, not quite urban, for it originated at the rural abbey of Malmesbury) arose according to which Eriugena was stabbed to death by his pupils’ pens. The jury is still out as to how this tale emerged, but I suspect Eriugena would have enjoyed this poetic death in fiction. For whoever lives by the pen shall die by the pen.

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