New habits die hard

Daniel van Heil, Burning Troy, around 1650

Petrarch had an idea: what if the ancients could speak again? He and those inspired by his momentous idea set out to recover the lost voices of the ancient world. This was the age of humanism, the moment the Middle Ages began to dig deeper than ever before, to think of roots and lost worlds.

Humanism was all about the recovery of the authors of the ancient past. And no author was more ancient, more illustrious and more venerable than Homer, whose epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey laid the foundation of Western culture, the deep grammar of its stratigraphic self.

During the Middle Ages, Homer was known in the West, but his works were not. Unlike the Byzantine world in the East, the West preserved the memory of the Greek bard, whoever he may have been, through references, summaries, epitomes and other derivative texts and poems which were as far removed from the Homeric epics as ancient Greece was from the 15th century. The West was not to blame for this. As knowledge of Greek disappeared from the Latin West, and as the relationship between the Latin world and the Byzantine Empire weakened and soured, the hope that the Iliad and the Odyssey might be read and transmitted in that part of the world was pretty far-fetched. Until at least the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century.

As Byzantium came to an end politically, many Greek scholars exiled themselves to the West, bringing with them the books and texts of Homer which the West hadn’t seen for over a millennium. Then something surprising happened.

You’d think that the humanism which was well apace by the time Constantinople fell would welcome Homer with open arms. Not quite. Even after Homer returned, textually, to the West, scholars didn’t seize on him with the rapacity one would expect. In fact, they weren’t impressed at all.

And it wasn’t because Homer wasn’t cool. He was even considered the father of poetry. The problem lay elsewhere, not in PR.

What the medieval West inherited from Homer was the memory of the Trojan War. And then it coupled that memory with something bigger than life: the shadow of Virgil and his Aeneid. The Aeneid had been shaped by the Iliad, and the story of Aeneas sailing from burning Troy to found a new city and a new civilization was such a foundational myth for the Latin West that slowly the Trojan War was taken to be historical fact – the staging point of an entire civilization.

And that is when the West had its first immune system reaction. A kind of anaphylactic shock. For Homer, who had inspired the fictions which became fact in the medieval West, was suddenly not deemed to be historical and factual enough. After the Latin West had ceased to read Homer, it started to read accounts of the Trojan War based loosely or not at all on Homer. Two accounts in particular, which enjoyed in the medieval period the popularity Homer would only achieve in the 19th century. These were the so-called Dares Phrygius’s History of the destruction of Troy and Dictys of Crete’s Journal of the Trojan War. Deemed to be eyewitness accounts of the war, they surpassed the Iliad and the Odyssey in their claim to historical truth. And by the time Homer made his way back into the West, history was all humanists could think about when they mentioned Homer and Troy.

So the shock of Homer’s return to the West was absorbed by the texts which claimed to tell a better and more reliable story. To us, the humanists were asking the wrong question: who’s the better source instead of ‘where’s the real merit’, forgetting that both Dares and Dictys’ texts were hugely indebted to Homer’s epic – and poor shadows thereof at that.

The humanists took a lot of self-convincing that Homer was what they should seek. The new medieval habits of historicising fiction and distrusting fanciful poetry had the effect of slowing down the return of the arch-giant of European literature to his homeland.

Sometimes asking the one good question takes several bad questions – and a lot of narrative grief. And sometimes new, rather than old, habits die harder. Or not at all.

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