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”

Medieval multilingualism

I’ve never been fond of big narratives, linear descriptions, watertight explanations. For every book claiming that history moves from X to Y according to principle Z, there are a dozen others which show that reductionism is not the way to do history. From Hegel to latter-day brief histories of humankind, the temptation to explain bigContinue reading “Medieval multilingualism”

Guilty pleasures

Since the 14th century, many book lovers have been born in Florence or its vicinity. The Renaissance was, since its early days, a book rush, especially one for rare, lost, unread, unknown, neglected volumes. The humanists of the Renaissance were avid book finder and collectors. The Florentine scholar Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) made some incredible findsContinue reading “Guilty pleasures”

To inhabit a letter

What was the snuggest spot to inhabit on the medieval manuscript page? It couldn’t have been on the text, that was always shifting, the handwriting was not always steady, the spelling not always the same, the words not always in the right place. Scribes were tired and the light was generally bad in the medievalContinue reading “To inhabit a letter”

When texts want to break free

One of the achievements of electronic media has been the recovery of what may be called the live text. If Gutenberg’s printing press was the museum in which letters came to repose in fossilizing slumber, then the computer woke them all up and brought them back to a special kind of life. The printing press,Continue reading “When texts want to break free”

Conflict and change

It’s hard to find a time in European history when conflicts recede and stasis takes over, like in the history of the great Asian kingdoms and empires. The European ancient period was a cycle of conflicts between small city-states, tribes against tribes, factions against factions, senators against dictators. In the long classical period, the paxContinue reading “Conflict and change”

Language and myths

When we look back over the last thousand years, we see the formative stage of our European culture today, just like seedlings caught in the process of becoming full plants.  In particular, we see two things: we see European languages developing and becoming fully-fledged idioms of communication and literacy, and we see proliferating stories germinatingContinue reading “Language and myths”