Contact and exchange

Things are always moving, even when they seem to stand still. History unfolds, ideas grow, technology develops, culture shifts. When different things are thrown into the mix, things tend to change even quicker. The most burgeoning ages are also the ones where contact among different people was high. Heterogeneity leads to cultural change. The Hellenistic…

Letter shapes

Our history has been shaped by the shape of the letters we write. With this pronouncement ends the second part of the BBC documentary The Secret History of Writing. We are the language we use. We are the letters we write. Cultures generate and respond to scripts, alphabets and letter forms. The scriptorial ecosystem of…

Medieval blogging

Say, it’s the 12th century and you want to blog something about the politics in your region. You have no excuse that blogging hadn’t been invented yet. You pick up a chronicle which someone else, perhaps a colleague or a brother, had started some 50 years ago and you draft your post. You make sure…

Bestsellers

Any popular book today is by definition a bestseller, as most books are being sold on the book market. Authors don’t become well-known unless their books get into as many hands as possible. And that can’t happen unless books get sold. The popularity of a writer is a function of the market. There are many…

The banality of writing

It’s hard to underestimate the conveniences of modern writing. It’s never been easier to put pen to paper, if indeed that is still something we do. Economically, things have never been better. Pens are cheap, paper is even cheaper, stationary is widely available and literacy is acquired for free almost everywhere in the world. The…

An island of mediocre relevance

History’s greatest strength is also its deepest weakness. When history ceased to be the application of rhetoric to the knowledge of the past in view of informing the present and warning about the future – models of behaviour to follow and unethical examples to avoid -, it also lost most of its popular appeal. The…

Vegan writing

Writers and readers like to eat letters and words. Elisions, ellipses, “saut du même au même”, omissions occur in nearly every act of handwriting and human reading, either intentional or not, leading to words being unfastened from the page. But the letters and the words themselves also like to eat. They eat off the surface…

Survival of the fittest vestige

Many types of history have become history. But most kinds of history-writing are still with us. We no longer write genealogies, annals or universal chronicles. Our histories bow to the scientific imperative, they are evidence-based, the best possible explanation, always on the brink of revision despite the inalterability of the past. History is a branch…

Reading aids

In our post-literate society, we are surrounded by reading aids, tools that improve our reading and memorisation and help us organise information more effectively. It’s so pervasive we don’t even see it. Pictograms, infograms, highlighting, typographical emphasis (boldface, italics, underlining, etc), colouring, rubrication, tagging, annotation, the list is truly endless – they feel second nature,…

Aware and transparent

What makes a good historian today? The debate has been raging for centuries and shows no sign of abating. Whatever the answer might be, everyone agrees that the historical profession has come a long way since its foundations were laid in ancient Greece over 2,500 years ago. Looking back, modern historians feel that ancient and…