Before you read on, you may want to check out the previous post, which sets the stage – or the arena – for this quick rant on ancient and medieval acrobatics of reading.
The trapeze. The eye soars and swings in search of support. It finds grounding in text itself grounded in other text. The mind continues to soar from one meaning to another. Where we ordinarily have two levels of meaning, the literal and the figurative, the medievals identified four levels: those two, the figurative they called allegorical, then moral and anagogical. The latter two connected the mind to the ethical and apocalyptical (i.e. about the end of time) writings in Scripture. Reading was a constant negotiation of these meanings, the leap from one level to another, the discovery of new and renewed approaches.
Next, contortion. Text is all about mobility, transportation and transference. Words convey lots of things, ferry across expanses of space and time, bear loads. But the medieval book was a contortionist’s paradise. To save space and train the mind, scribes found innovative ways of abbreviating recurring text. The most forceful abbreviations were those for the most frequent words in a book. The modern ampersand, for instance, has almost completely lost all resemblance to the letters that produced it, e and t, making the Latin conjunction et, and, the word with the highest frequency in most texts. Packing the the two letters into a sign that can be written quickly and economically was a kind of violence done to the text, but one that liberated the eye and toned the mind.
Finally, the trampoline. One of the lost arts of medieval scholarship was the text commentary. Some educational traditions today still require students to provide a detailed analysis and commentary of a literary text in the form of a structured exposition, moving from the language used to the meaning conveyed, picking up all leveraged.references and citations. A springboard for reaching the text on different ways. The medieval commentary was the trampoline on which text was made to jump and reveal its different facets and lights.
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