Endangered letters

Imagine what it must have been like to own one of the largest libraries in the West at a time when books were rarer and thinner than the air on mount Everest; and to do it in the knowledge that you are safeguarding one of humanity’s most valuable capital: knowledge and culture, truth and beauty.

Despite the numerous cultural, social and political disruptions of the past several thousand years, our failing imagination cannot conjure up any other icons of cultural disarray than end-of-the-world storylines, environmentalist on/off-switch dystopias.

For the 9th-century Frankish abbot Lupus of Ferrières, the state of European letters was apocalyptic. The classical past was truly passed, and it was up to a handful of men, Lupus included, to salvage the literary achievements of Antiquity. In the manner of a figure of the Renaissance, Lupus blurred the boundaries between scholarship, politics and philosophy. He recovered, copied and corrected old texts and manuscripts, exchanged letters with other scholars and leaders of the time and shaped the political culture of the post-Carolingian age. Inspired by a genuine love of the classics, Lupus was one of the earliest to recognise the double helix of Europe’s cultural DNA: the classical past and the Christian present.

Lupus contributed to what is commonly known as the Carolingian Renaissance, an age of cultural recalibration and self-rediscovery through a renewed connection with the classical past. Central to any renaissance is the recognition of endangered letters, the awareness of systemic decadence and the hope for renewal. Lupus understood all of these things and sought to relight the beacons of the past. He may not have managed to relight them all, but he paved the way for future scholars to continue his work. Whether spiritual or secular, or secular because of spiritual, Europe’s continuous renewal would become the driving force of its history. Perhaps the old continent is in need of a new Lupus of Ferrières.

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