Historical blindness

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Augustine writing at his desk in a 15th century from Urbino, Vatican, BAV, Urb.lat.72

This late-medieval Italian illustration of St Augustine writing at his desk highlights two of our many misconceptions about pre-modern cultures:

  1. that these cultures were wholly different from ours (this is the first step towards a second, which says that anything of value, we’ve come up with it);
  2. that artefacts from these cultures obey the rules our own artefacts obey. The result is short-sightedness, which is really a form of historical blindness.

In one case, we assume we’re too different. In the other, that the way we ‘read’ texts and media today has always been the same for everyone at any point in the past. We bounce between over-relativism and imperialism, without leaving either behind. Let me explain.

With respect to 1) – Augustine was a first-rate scholar who developed his own ideas in response or reaction to schools and traditions of thought. No other author from the classical period is known to have written more than Augustine, and he surely used, read, consulted even more books than he wrote in developing and writing his own. In depicting Augustine surrounded by other books, the artist reveals the fact that things were not that different in the 15th century, when this illumination was completed, and Augustine scholars reassure us that we should indeed imagine Augustine consulting countless other books and in dialogue with other authors and textual traditions. Augustine is very far, but also very close to our own time, and insofar as he was a scholar, he was one that modern scholars may feel as one of their own.

With respect to 2) – In this illustration, as in most, if not all, medieval depictions of writers and scribes, there is an uncomfortable scarcity of books wherever writers happen to work (I refer you to a tentative classification of scribal portraits I came up with some while back). We can see the book the writer is in the process of writing, another he/she may be reading/copying/working from, perhaps yet another on some shelf, but that’s it. Personal libraries seem undersupplied. Raised as we are on the knees of photographical art, on the one hand/knee, and realist cultural hermeneutics, on the other, we expect all depictions to respond to the double requirement of realism and true-to-lifeness which describes our modern sensitivity. We approach pre-modern art with the same cultural-relativism-vitamin deficiency, however much we tell ourselves that each culture should be approached on its own terms, as generations of anthropologists and ethnologists have taught us. In the case of poor Augustine above, we know, as I pointed out earlier, that he used a very large part of the existing body of written works at the time, and also that he wrote enough books to fill a room – not shelves – with. Ancient and medieval artists were more sensitive to the power of the metaphor than we are, and metonymy (the substitution of one part for the whole, or one attribute for the thing itself) played a far larger part for the medieval consciousness in the way reality was represented. The medieval reflex was metonymical, ours is photographical. The medievals conveyed a multiplicity of books on Augustine’s shelf through a handful, we expect a room full of books to be, well, a room full of books.

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