Category Archives: general

A week in the life of a medieval female writer

You wake up one day. The year is 1405. You look out the Gothic window and you see the Paris cityscape. You try to say a few words in the language you know, but what comes out is a strange variety of French in a Venetian accent. You were born in Venice in 1364, your name is Christine de Pizan, you like Veneto wine and you’re a hell of a writer. You’re married, you have a son, but most of all you have an itch to write down your thoughts, as they cascade through your mind. You’ve had an idea for a story set in an allegorical city of ladies meant to criticize male-dominated society. You’re aware no woman before you has tackled this kind of subject before. You’re dizzy with excitement. You settle on the title: The Book of the City of Ladies. You’re pretty sure the story will be better than the title.

Docendo, discimus – by teaching we learn.  You prepare to embark on your writing project, but first you must instruct your son Jean, introducing him to the ideas you’ll develop in your books. Writing is just a notch on a large spectrum which includes learning and teaching, giving and receiving. It is a circle, where the author becomes a reader and then an author again. You know that, but you’d like to be reminded from time to time. Being a good person makes you a good mother as well. Nobody will remember this, but your son Jean will appreciate it.


Chantilly, Musée Condé, 492

You sit down to write. The first draft goes so well that even your dog named Crenelle won’t budge. It all feels neat, the nib scratching away at the parchment, fingers hustling on the yet-uninvented keyboard. It feels good, you’re wearing your Sunday best, even though you don’t care. You have completed the first few pages, the universe feels in balance, you have achieved equanimity. Even your hairdo looks good, though there is no one to appreciate it.


London, British Library, Harley MS 4431

You realise writing all the time may not be very productive. You remember those suffering from hypergraphy or compulsive writing and you say a prayer for them. Then you invite your friends for a show-and-tell of your latest book acquisitions, as you dare not share any of your own work. It’s work in progress, anyway.


London, British Library, Add MS 20698

You go back to work, your back bending a bit more than last time you sat down. You are starting to panic that writing is not going as smoothly as before – you fear the approaching writer’s block. For you, it’s writer’s sword. You start imagining a broadsword hanging over your head, though there are moments when you think it is just outside your door, wielded by a fearsome female warrior. You keep writing lest the terminatoresse should get to you. You’re on the edge of your seat, scribbling furiously.


London, British Library, Harley MS 4605

Despondency sets in. You throw away your headdress and sigh hopelessly over your hopeless opus. Your dog has abandoned you. Writing feels like ploughing with a team of oxen in the Mojave Desert. The walls of your room are white, but you are at such a low point that you are seeing them painted blue.


Chantilly, Musée Condé, 494

You remember your faith and your hope is restored. You keep writing, while someone comes in to let you know that the books you ordered at the Champagne fair last summer have arrived. Finally, you can plagiarise some other authors in a purely medieval fashion. It is the 15th century, so no one gives a damn. Copyright has not been invented yet, and you can easily control your reputation because your pal is the wacko King Charles VI of France.


Chantilly, Musée Condé, 493

You have been at your desk for days, writing with purpose and convinced that your books will still be read 500 years from now. Nevertheless, sleep overtakes you and you slumber carelessly over your book. Its wooden boards feel softer than a pillow because the words they enclose are sweeter to you than honey. You keep the door open for some fresh late-medieval air. There is a wind of change blowing from Flanders, a new kind of devotion in the air.


London, British Library, Add MS 20698

It’s finished, done and dusted. You make the last changes to your work, checking the spelling and punctuation, even though you’re writing in the vernacular, which has no written rules. ‘If only male expectations of women were like the rules of medieval French – your language of choice – that is, flexible, open and transgressive’, you excogitate. You dedicate your volume of poems to Isabeau of Bavaria, who’s attended too many Oktoberfest celebrations to fully appreciate your poetic gift. You find her obnoxious, so self-absorbed that she’s asked all ladies in waiting to wear the same headdress as herself. You don’t like sucking up to her, so you are reluctant to offer her the book. You remember that she’s sponsored you, and you feel better about it.


London, British Library, Harley MS 4431

You go home exhausted from writing and from securing funding for your next literary project. You fall asleep again. This time you have a strange dream. You see yourself in a medieval classroom teaching a group of obedient male students of all ages and occupations. They find you fascinating, brilliant and courageous. They listen to your every word as though it were Scripture. Where you see yourself as a woman, they see you as a master, an authority on the subject at hand, a great mind worthy of emulation. You feel there’s something wrong with this vision – you have a hunch that half a millennium later, this won’t be the case. You have a hunch that men will still find it strange to see you in a seat of authority. Your vision breaks down and you wake up. It was only a dream.


London, British Library, Harley 4431

In praise of the letter S

Dijon, Bibliotheque municipale, 169 (dated to 1111 AD). The decorated ‘S’ opens the word ‘servata’, which is itself also decorated.

The letter S is a graphic stunt. Having grown out of the w/tooth-looking Proto-Sinaitic Shin letter, it stood up on its Greek-Σ feet – littera erecta – before shedding its angles for more alluring curves.

Both the letter S and its ancestor sigma Σ are drawn in zigzag, right to left, left to right, and so on until the sign is complete. This kind of zigzagging was a common way of writing in stone in Ancient Greece and is called boustrophedon. The word means ‘in the manner of oxen’, because ploughing with oxen is bi-directional, in a zigzag across the field.

The manner of drawing the letter S may hark back to bi-directional writing, before it was replaced by left-to-right or right-to-left script systems, like Greek/Latin or Hebrew/Arabic, respectively. The letter S is bipartisan, finding common ground while ploughing the entire writing field in sweeping motions.

It is a stunt – an act of graphobatics, we might say. Like several other letters, it doesn’t need pen lift – staying close to the ground. Unlike any other letter in the alphabet, it is graphically recursive without any pen lift: it can be repeated vertically without lifting the pen off the page, like an unending zigzag going down.

Nowhere is the letter’s stunt-potential more clearly emphasized than in a decorated initial from a 12th-century manuscript, displayed above. The anthropomorphic design shows 4 jugglers testing the limits of the letter with dangerous activities: one is juggling with knives while two appear to pass a sword between themselves.

The imagery of technology

Emerging technologies always generate language seeking to describe the most fundamental human processes in their own terms, providing specific imagery for understanding the world, each other and ourselves.

The advent of writing and the advances of literacy between the 8th and 3rd centuries BC gave rise to an understanding of the world as grounded in word and discourse. The philosopher Karl Jaspers called this period the Axial Age. New ways of thinking appeared in Europe, India, Persia and China. The universal religions emerged around the same time. For the Greeks, it was the intelligible and intelligent logos, reason, the ground of being. For the Old Testament, it was the Tablets of the Law. Sacred scriptures replaced archaic, oral-exclusive religion. The paradigm of the written word became a model for thinking about the divine and about the relationship between humans and gods.

In the West, the advances in literacy fuelled the fascination with writing in the medieval period. In the Divine Comedy, Dante imagined the universe as a bound book: “In its profundity I saw—ingathered and bound by love into one single volume— what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered…'” The book metaphor is totalizing, seeking to explain our place in the world.

In our age, digital technology creates its own imagery and mythology. Building on a neo-Cartesian dualism between mind and body, digital tech generates a vocabulary seeking to describe human beings in tech-intrinsic terms: our memory as a hard drive, the brain as CPU, the body as mainframe, personhood as hardwired to malleable software.

Of course, tech-inspired imagery is not something peculiar to technology – it is peculiar, essential even, to human beings. Our ability to bestow transcendent meaning on the tools we use, our ability to move beyond the rules of the game to generate new symbols, new rules and new games, finally our capacity for self-surprise, is what makes us unique.

We may be an open book or a marvellous piece of software. We are neither because we are all.



Scarcity and abundance

There are far more books out there than we’ll ever be able to read in a lifetime. That’s depressing enough. There are far more books out there than we’d be able to read in several lifetimes. Far more than we’d manage to read if we shared the burden as a community. There’s simply way too much.

700 years ago the task of going through most of the books in circulation was both imaginable and actually achievable. An intellectual person in the ancient world, the medieval period or the Renaissance could have easily written an overview of all the readable books on the market. Some even accomplished this astonishing feat – the equivalent of listing all the books and authors available on Amazon, at least on the short tail. Statista reported that there are currently more than 45,000 writers and authors represented by the bookstore industry at any given time.

The book market has been flooded for decades. This is a good thing. It keeps the mind hydrated and the spirit moist with fertile encounters.

Our culture has changed as more books became available, to the point that a single person may not even have an idea anymore of everything that is published. This superabundance of print has created a wild division of labour and fragmentation of personal preference and taste. It was easy in Cicero’s time to devour everything written. It was convenient for Thomas Aquinas to peruse all the books on philosophy, theology, science, classics, etc, for the development of his profuse mind and his monumental Summa. For Dante to synthesize all Western European literary culture – literally – in his diamantine Divine Comedy.

We are unable to do this kind of thing now. We work in tight niches, write narrowly and read sectionally. A trip to the local bookstore exposes us to an average of 30% of the books on offer. Libraries can barely keep up with the supply of published works.

The Renaissance key to innovation

One apparent paradox about cultural change is that often great innovations are immediately preceded by even greater imitation – and that the road ahead is best followed by staring into the rear-view mirror.

The originality of the Renaissance in art, letters, philosophy and science was the result of huge imitation. In letters, it all started with imitating Cicero. In philosophy, it was all about recovering the lost body of ancient thinking. In science, the exhaustion of ancient and medieval ideas led to the emergence of radically new ones. Copernicus had studied Hipparchus and Ptolemy obsessively before he developed his own ideas. There was no eureka moment for any of the figures of the Renaissance – their achievements were the result of recovery, imitation and emulation. In the long run, this backwards stare became a forward march towards new ideas and new horizons.

The lesson is that before we reject an idea, let’s make sure we’ve known it inside out and exhausted all its potential. Or, as George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air said: ‘Before you try to “revolutionize” my business, I’d like to know you actually know my business.’

The freedom to propagate

The adoption and diffusion of new things have less to do with technology than with concerted opposition. The success of an idea, a movement or a model depends more on the freedom it enjoys than on the channel it uses to disseminate. A good example is the Reformation.

The popular opinion is that Martin Luther’s ideas became mainstream in 16th-century Europe because of the impact of the printing press. It has been assumed that without print, the Reformation would not have taken off the ground. That the success of the theologian from Wittenberg depended on the printer from Mainz. These, in turn, depend on other assumptions: that the printing press disrupted the scribal culture of the Middle Ages – the keyword here is revolution. That mass communication underlying Luther’s movement was an essentially 16th-century phenomenon that print made possible. That mass communication was born in the wake of the printing press.

Over the last fifteen years, medieval historians have argued that’s not the case. Print replaced the manuscript culture only gradually – it was faster and cheaper, but there was no overnight adoption. For a while, printers imitated scribes and scribes imitated printers – books looked like manuscripts, and manuscripts looked very much like books. There was more coexistence than conflict, especially in the first decades of print.

Then there is heresy. The medieval period had its own heretical movements, several of which had been very successful centuries before Gutenberg. There was also medieval mass communication in the form of preaching and dissemination of moral, biblical and theological information orally from the pulpit and carried far and wide by ear-pricked churchgoers. Networks of Franciscan and Dominican friars created a web of information across Western Europe.

Luther’s movement did not succeed because of mass communication enabled by the emerging technology of print. It succeeded because of the lack of concerted opposition. Previous heresies had not been that lucky – they encountered serious political resistance everywhere they spread, and that put an end to them. Luther did not. His ideas became widespread mainly because they went relatively unopposed. When European leaders woke up to the magnitude of the Reformation, the movement had gathered enough momentum to be a serious force for cultural change in Europe. There was no going back.

Publish or perish

In 1942, the American sociologist Logan Wilson published a book titled ‘The Academic Man: A study in the Sociology of a Profession’. In it, Wilson identified the pressure to publish academic work faced by those who want to succeed in an academic career. He noted that academics have the choice to publish or perish. This academic Damocles sword still hangs today, and the publish-or-perish alliteration Wilson coined is the distress call of many contemporary academics.

Publish or perish recognises that writing doesn’t come naturally – that there is a basic anti-writing tendency, a human entropic bent towards leaving the page blank, the document at 0KB. Just as you eat to stay alive, you have to publish to stay academically alive.

What if things were different? The Roman satirist Juvenal noted that many of his generation suffered from an ‘itch to publish’, cacoethes scribendi, literally a disease (cacoethes is a medical term) of writing. He may have been describing the behavioural condition known as hypergraphia or compulsive writing. What if you can’t stop writing, and write more than the publishers can keep up with?

The Italian poet Petrarch may have suffered from hypergraphia, but he was in creative self-denial. In his allegorical book ‘Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul’, Reason complains to Joy that ‘everybody is busy writing books’, to which Joy confesses that ‘the urge to write is enormously strong’. Reason goes on: ‘One hears of innumerable kinds of melancholy (i.e. mental issues). Some throw stones, others write books. For one, writing is the beginning of madness; for another, it is the end.’ The Italian poet and scholar may be using Joy as the proverbial friend: ‘Doctor, I have a friend who….’.

Petrarch’s chief concern in the Remedies dialogue was fame, which writing brought about in the emerging age of humanism. For a scholar, late-medieval fame also had to do with a successful academic career.

Publish, perish or become mad. Your choice.