Judging a book by its covers

Don’t judge a book by its covers, they say. The inside is what counts, they say. The advertising community is not so sure. The cover design is said to increase the marketability of a book by 50%, by a conservative estimate, and by as much as 80% in some cases. Which means that while weContinue reading “Judging a book by its covers”

The enduring charm of hybridity

In at least one respect, we’re not too far away from the Middle Ages, and that’s in our cultural bend towards hybridity. I’m not taking about hybrid cars, or maybe I am. One question historians very rarely ask is: what’s in a hybrid? Sure, the word is familiar enough, and it conjures up images rangingContinue reading “The enduring charm of hybridity”

To put the pan in the demic

I’ve noticed that the words ‘pandemic’ and ‘epidemic’ have recently been used interchangeably in the media and in everyday speech. Any extensive outburst of a contagious disease is a pandemic or an epidemic, depending on which prefix you prefer or comes to mind first. Pandemic sounds a bit more catastrophic, while epidemic has a scientific,Continue reading “To put the pan in the demic”

A different kind of tourism

It is often said that the origins of modern tourism go back to the medieval European pilgrimage. Many people travelled in the Middle Ages, but out of all the eligible categories, the pilgrim is often singled out as the ancestor of the tourist and holidaymaker. Not the warrior, not the merchant, not the itinerant student,Continue reading “A different kind of tourism”

Dea Febris

Every age and every culture has its own way to respond to viral diseases, plagues and epidemics. While we have medicine, technology and social services, the ancient Romans had Dea Febris, the goddess of fever, the protector against malaria and other infectious diseases, though by no means the only one. According to one theory, FebrisContinue reading “Dea Febris”

Pseudonyms and fake news

Despite speculation and hard-headed scrutiny, nobody knows who the person behind the hyper-famous name ‘Elena Ferrante’ is. We might never find out. The French writer Romain Gary received the Goncourt Prize twice, once for a book written under his own name, the other for a book written under the pseudonym ‘Emile Ajar’. Nobody suspected anythingContinue reading “Pseudonyms and fake news”

The art of writing letters

Amélie Nothomb once said that while novels and poems are texts where others are allowed to enter or not, letters and epistles cannot exist without the other person. You may write a letter to an imaginary friend, to a deceased addressee, even to a fictional figure – a letter is always a social gesture, involvingContinue reading “The art of writing letters”

Of individuals and crowds

News travelled very slowly in the past. Just as it took months for individuals to reach distant lands, so did news reports reach different individuals and communities with significant retardation. In premodern Europe, oral information circulated more speedily than written reports. In the medieval period, necrologues travelled quickly from one monastic community to another. BeforeContinue reading “Of individuals and crowds”

Omo sanza lettere

At the turn of the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci described himself as an ‘omo sanza lettere’, a man without letters. He most likely meant that he had, to paraphrase Ben Johnson, little Latin and even less Greek. Leonardo was one of the last men of the Middle Ages and one of the first ofContinue reading “Omo sanza lettere”

Language acquisition

It has often been said that the childhood is a creation of the modern period. Indeed, ancient and medieval sources occlude discussions of the first age of the human individual, the baby and toddler years. Premodern representations of children emphasise size, rather than any other features, to designate youngsters. From the baby in the cradleContinue reading “Language acquisition”