Quinten Metsys, (1465-1530), Virgin and Child, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels
I recall reading my first word. It was STOP on a traffic sign. My parents remember it as a winter’s day, as the car pulled into a side street and my nose was glued to the backseat window, marvelling at the moving cityscape. STOP. An ironic way to start my journey into literacy.
With an ever-diminishing gap, the modern world has achieved full literacy. Children learn to read at the earliest possible age for our cognitively marvelous species. But the historian in me can’t help marvel at ages where literacy was as widespread as the understanding of quantum mechanics or machine learning is among the population today.
Among pre-modern cultures, the ancients were literate, as were the medievals, though to various degrees, and wildly less so than us moderns in the West. And while the ancient Greeks and Romans had achieved levels of literacy that were, for various reasons, higher than those of Western medieval Europe, it was the medievals who left us the best evidence of how marvelous it is to read, memorise, retrieve and use text, written language and meaningful signs. It was the scholars of the 11th and 12th century in particular who, giving in to their sense of wonder, awe and trembling, constructed the most fascinating theories of literacy and cognition. We read by chewing the cud of the words our eyes extract from the page, before the digested text makes its way into the inner vaults of our memory for storage and easy retrieval. Words have multiple meanings, that was clear enough for the ancients. Yet, the medievals gave us the full picture of what words can do, the levels they work on, and the use we can make of them. The earliest theories of mind, the links between language and cognition, the neural networks avant la lettre, emerged and developed within a context of quasi intoxication with the power of the written word.
If only we can recover the awe a child feels before a sign that suddenly feels more than just a picture and becomes a portal into a novel universe, a new dimension of existence, even if the language is not quite there yet to capture its full extent. STOP! And then enter.
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