Barbarities

Ulysses and the cyclop Polyphemus For the ancients, the barbarian was someone who had a speech defect. Barbaros, said the Greeks, was someone who sounded like gibberish. Blabla, bar bar. A speech defect, therefore a thinking or cognitive defect. A cognitive defect, therefore a substantial or being defect. The barbarians were the utterly different, the... Continue Reading →

False friends

The trouble with language is that it can't be trusted. No matter what we do, it still ends up betraying us. There are tensions in any language as there are in any human group. Structure is never stable. Relationships are never to be fully trusted. Synonyms are never perfect, the rules are never binding, exceptions... Continue Reading →

Perennial drama

Ancient drama is great because it is true. The humour is true, the fine analysis of the human condition is true, the problems, conundrums and paradoxes it reveals are all true. We still go back to them. And not just for Freudian explorations, but also for entertainment/problematisations and for a sense that the stuff they... Continue Reading →

Five medieval anxieties

Addressing your worst fears, a cleric and the Devil conversing candidly, Paris, BnF, Latin 11534 f.26v (12th century, France) In addition to being a period of ignorance, superstition, illiteracy and unchallenged authority, the Middle Ages have a reputation of being a time of silly certainties, cozy resignation, cognitive autopiloting and simple-mindedness. But the medieval men... Continue Reading →

Plucking and seizing

It is an evolutionary cultural thing that Horace's adage 'Carpe diem' became world famous, while Seneca's pronouncement 'Omnia tempus edax depascitur, omnia carpit', hasn't made it beyond the Latin textbooks and classroom. Voracious time devours everything, time seizes everything, writes Seneca the Younger in Epistle 107. Why on earth would we wish to remember that,... Continue Reading →

Spelling bee damned

The narrative of the Holy Grail in a manuscript from 1316 written in Old French, British Library, Add MS 10294. Whatever humans touch turns to status. High or low, always relative to other things and to other people. Nothing escapes the status game, not even language. There is one thing invented in the medieval West... Continue Reading →

The road less travelled by

Dante lost in the woods, hands in the air, confused, in a 14th-century Italian manuscript, Bodleian Library MS. Holkham misc. 48. We know that Dante found himself in a dark wood, but we aren’t told where he had been before. He didn’t choose the road, the road chose him, by procuration. For he had lost... Continue Reading →

On the outside looking in

A 9th-century manuscript containing the works of Gregory of Tours, whose title or 'incipit' is given in red ink at the beginning of the text: 'Here begins [incipit] the first book of miracles...' Titles tend to be located as much outside the text as inside. It took titles centuries to achieve this ambiguity. In the... Continue Reading →

Punic puns

Cato the Elder There are times when repetitions are annoying, and times when they are exactly what’s needed. In the 12th century, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, used to annoy King Henry II of England with his insistence, repeated demands and protestations. Eventually the king could’ve have it anymore: ‘Will no one rid me... Continue Reading →

Oral lock

Amphora with red-figure painting of a rhapsode, an oral performer of poetry (490–480 BCE). British Museum 1843,1103.34. Image via the British Museum. Some of the best books should have never been written. Some of the world’s best stories should have never been put in writing. When I was a child, my parents read a poem... Continue Reading →

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