Surely there must be a circle in Hell reserved for literary critics who maliciously misread Dante.  John Carey's discussion of Dante Alighieri in his latest book, A Little History of Poetry (Yale, 2020) has little on fairness, while being quite big on latter-day moralism. To wildly paraphrase Ben Johnson, A Little History has, at least... Continue Reading →

Are we complicit?

Human law has always understood the concept of complicity. Every legal tradition has struggled with the problem of how to deal with those who encourage, help and abet others to commit a crime. Under Roman law, accomplices were treated as if they themselves were the perpetrators. In common law, complicity is a recognised type of... Continue Reading →

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 of... Continue Reading →

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 medieval... Continue Reading →

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 →

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 pax... Continue Reading →

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 germinating... Continue Reading →

The quills of torment

The subversive power of text is usually captured by the saying 'the pen is mightier than the sword'. The problem with this adage is that it is not taken literally. Only an arsonist will understand the true meaning of fight fire with fire, and only the worst mother will get to the bottom of the... Continue Reading →

The Covid-19-prisoner’s dilemma

According to this renowned game theory postulate, cooperation is not always the best way to maximise individual benefit. The key thing about the prisoner's dilemma model is that what you don't know prompts you to adopt the position of lowest risk. The classic illustration offered by Albert Tucker involves two criminals who have been arrested... Continue Reading →

Survival kit

It's not that bad, but it's not too easy either. Many of us are lucky to have a place where we can comfortably reflect on our discomfort. If we continue to lament on social media, it means we're not doing too bad. The restrictions make us too easily forget what we still have and that... Continue Reading →

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