Category Archives: daily

Opening new worlds

A stab at the Greek alphabet from the quill of a Latin 12th-century scribe, British Library Arundel 173

Unlike learning to ride a bike, learning to write is vehicle-specific.

Learning to write is learning to write a particular language in a particular script.

If you’ve only learned to write English in the Latin alphabet, you won’t know how to write Arabic, Korean, Sanskrit or, closer to ‘home’, Greek.

Learning a new script is like learning to write all over again – the pen feels unsafe, the signs don’t make much sense, it’s all about imitation, and the learning curve is usually less steep. Many give up, while the rest go on bleeding.

A language is more than a tool enabling us to exchange information with others – it is a gateway into new universes of being, familiar and strange at the same time. The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

Language and script, universe and territory.

It is reasonable to expect great difficulties in learning new languages and new scripts. New worlds are seized through strife and industry. Ad astra per aspera.

The Western medieval scribes were masters of Latin writing, plowing on with pen and parchment for days, weeks and months, blackening the whiteboards of culture. Yet, when they had to write Greek or Arabic – the two most common scripts outside Latin Christendom, they generally failed. Those worlds were closed to them as much as their failure to master the Greek and Arabic scripts.

The limits of their world were the limits of their script.


Many words are yet to be coined. One of them is ‘errorology’.

Errorology is the study of errors. Not any errors, but errors of transmission. I’m obviously thinking of texts. Texts are transmitted either humanly, or mechanically. Texts in manuscripts are subject to human reproduction. Printed texts are transmitted mechanically.

The errors between printed copies tend towards zero. The errors between handwritten copies tend towards one. Printing reduces difference, manuscripts multiply it.

A transcription error in a handwritten text is as significant a gain to the history of that text as is the genetic relic in an evolved species to the study of that species.

Errorologists, whose profession hasn’t seen the light of day yet (but which comes close to that of the philologists’), have an eye for difference, since errors are simply departures from a perceived canon. ‘Correct’ texts are often the result of identified and expunged errors, whose presence helps reconstruct the right text, which is most often absent.

Errorologists realise that errors are all there is, as presence leads to absence and traces, fading away as tracks in the snow, provide only a distant echo of another story.

Errors are purely human, and there is nothing diabolical about persevering in them, only the age-old scribal practice of cultures who had to find ways to move on while leaving tracks in the snow.

Culture is a flow of scribal errors in the reproduction of a text which was never finished to be reproduced.

Defying death

Like a music album released after the death of the singer, a book carries the pulsations of life beyond life. If only for a line read posthumously, death is made nothing – scripted life has conquered. The words may have flown into nothingness, but the letters are still here, within reach, to be grasped and eaten alive.

Oral traditions are beautiful, but they are fragile as they depend on human carriers. Books are also fragile and in need of custodians.

Make no mistake, all record is fragile, no matter how materially solid. If all the world’s books were inscribed on slates of granite, their survival would still be precarious as the skill and knowledge required to read them cannot be preserved in stone. You may copy a book about cuneiform script unto an indestructible rock, the ability to read it in order to decipher the script will always be at risk of extinction.

Hence the paradox: a book may defy the death of the word, but the live word is the guarantee of that defiance.


Screenshot 2020-01-13 at 11.05.14.png

An illustrated copy of the Notitia Dignitatum, a document detailing the administrative organisation of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires in the early 5th century AD. This manuscript was commissioned by Pietro Donato in 1436.

There are many book lovers, but few bibliophiles. Bibliophilia means of course love for/of books, but it is not enough to love books to be a bibliophile.

While social media buzzes with declarations of love for reading and for books, true bibliophilia is only rarely achieved. At least the kind of bibliophilia which makes all famous bibliophiles belong to the same family.

A bibliophile loves books and loves reading, but also collects books, writes about them, and promotes the life and ecosystem of books. The Venetian humanist Pietro Donato (1380-1447) was a bibliophile who commissioned manuscripts, collected all he could find, furthered the cause of book learning, and engaged with the literate community on the subject of important texts and the volumes which contained them.

Richard de Bury, whom you will have an opportunity to hear more about on this blog (see about this blog page), lived a generation before Pietro Donato and expressed his bibliophilia in a famous book called Philobiblon (written about 1345). Even more remarkably than Donato, De Bury espoused the cause of books at a time when Europe was waking up to the importance of literacy, learning and education. Some of the chapters of the Philobiblon have an early-modern, even modern ring to them: ‘The Complaint of Books against Wars’, ‘Who Ought to be Special Lovers of Books’, or ‘That it is Meritorious to Write New Books and to Renew the Old’.



Nothing is really random. The decorative design of this initial letter B follows a careful ‘ductus’. Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 6

There is either leading or being led. Changing or being changed. Action or passion. And of course the manner of leading or being led – ductus, from ducere (to lead).

In palaeography– the study of ancient writing –, ductus is described as ‘the overall, general “nature” of the production of a given script, defined in terms of the “number, sequence, and direction of the strokes used in forming each letter of the script’s alphabet’.

In art history, ductus is also sometimes referred to as the manner of structuring a ‘readable’ space, most often a sacred space, where symbolism, metaphor and embodied space converge to create a space of interpretation. Medieval churches were structured in such a way so that the hermeneutic ductus would be easy for the visitor, meaning that anyone entering the church and the following a pre-established track would be confronted with a narrative inscribed in the architectural space itself (nave, transept, column capitals, paintings, objects, etc).

The story you want to tell will qualify your ductus. The way you write will shape the ductus you follow. To communicate is to structure the space in between and to create the channel in which your ductus will pass through.

The decline of private libraries


The Humanist Library of Sélestat (Alsace) preserves a collection of over 600 volumes once in the private library of the German humanist Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547) 

To read is to have time to read. Time which would otherwise be spent in more productive and economically profitable ways, at least for most people in pre-industrial and industrial societies.

To read is to have time to read but also to have money to buy education and books. The modern world tends, sometimes slowly, sometimes more radically, towards universal education and the affordability of literacy. Books have never been cheaper and never have more people had access to education. There is progress, and there is real achievement.

The desire for knowledge, passion to read and the cost of them both led to the rise of the private library. As literacy democratised and the book trade ballooned, institutions ceased to be the sole keepers of books. They were not the only ones to keep libraries. The family library came into its own. By the end of the 20th century, from aristocratic Britain to communist Romania, the family library was a familiar feature of many urban homes.

Today, more people can afford to buy and preserve books. Books are cheaper, and there are also Ikea shelves. And yet, few urban homes in the West boast a private library. At least one which numbers more than a handful of novels, self-help books and travel guides. Nor has the private library been replaced by a proportionate virtual library of e-books. Widespread in the affording classes during the 20th century, the private library is now in steep decline.




Shifting ground


A leaf from a liturgical book (Sacramentarium Gelasianum) written in a particular type of script known as ‘Rhetian’ (typical of the Eastern Alps), St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 350

Natural reproduction is never about creating perfect copies. Far from it, evolution gives rise to genetic drift, a process through which the genetic pool in small populations varies due to a random selection of genes. The more organisms reproduce, the higher the chance of variation, in both small and large populations.

Script shifts, too, but only when it is subject to similar laws, which really affect only handwriting. Today we use handwriting for strictly private purposes, while sharing it less and less with others. We write brief notes on a piece of paper to give to family, friends and colleagues, but the days of writing long letters in controlled script, going for several pages, are long gone. Making one’s handwriting public is an extraordinary thing and is usually restricted to exhibitions and art galleries.

A manuscript-dominated culture of literacy means that most if not all writing is handwriting. Script is generated through direct human input and depends on cultural reproduction – rather than mechanical replication – to survive from one generation to another. Handwriting is organic and shifting all the time. While print hasn’t shifted too much from the 16th century to our own day (proof being that anyone who can read this blog can read the letters of an Italian printed book from the 1480s), handwriting had drifted and changed considerably during the period before. If you manage to read 14th-century Gothic script, that is no guarantee you can decipher the letters of 8th-century Beneventan script or, worse, Roman cursive of the 1st century AD.

During the long manuscript age of Western Europe, writing was in a constant state of flux. The more Europe wrote, the more script shifted. The evolution of script is still a hot topic to historians and palaeographers, who are constantly discovering ever smaller shifts in local scripts affecting the general evolution of writing.

The Latin proverb Verba volant, scripta manent is right. Spoken words fly away, but written words remain. However, the script of those very written words often flies away, too. Nothing is ever really set in stone.