Language barriers

Sometimes, the best way to overcome a barrier is to build a smaller one, place it close to the first barrier, get on top of it and jump over the first one. For ancient language learners, this often meant turning language barriers into columns of equivalence, and leaping back and forth over them.

When writing takes flight

Spoken words fly. Verba volant. But written words may take flight too. Especially if they’re written with a quill, which is, as the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam once put it, ‘a small piece of bird’s flesh’. Writing is upward-facing, even when the words are written down. Writing is lift-off, the act of inscribing meaning on a hard or soft surface transcends the hand which does it. As soon as it’s written up, the text abandons its maker to start a life of its own. And that life begins up there, where no-one can grasp it, though everyone can see it. There is nothing more renegade than the written word, whose allegiance lies nowhere, as it leads a guerrilla war against time and decay.

The messiness of it all

History is messy. Nothing ever fits perfectly. The evidence never quite matches the theory, and the theory is always in need of new evidence if it wants to survive. The historical record is there, but what does it mean that it’s there? Is it accessible, meaningful, approachable by virtue of its being-there? 10 historians approach…

Standards of writing

Standards are associated with quality control. ISO, industry standards, standards of beauty are about making sure that items pass quality assessments. But standardisation is not about quality, but range. In other words, it’s about quantity. One of the earliest gestures towards standardisation happened in literature. The numerous versions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were circulating…

Make room for the classroom

It may be argued that the most enduring institution in European history has been the school classroom. In the passage from the ancient world to what we call the medieval period, the classroom seems to have been the least disrupted space. In one form or another, pupils kept learning their grammar and their letters, their…

Poets and prophets

The prophets have gone, but the poets remain. The secular age has exiled the prophets, but has exalted the poets, as long as these give up any prophetic pretensions they might have. But why should a poet claim to be a prophet? For most of the history of poetry, poets were also instruments of prophecy….

The greatest beauty

For premodern Europe, the quest for justice went hand in hand with that of truth and beauty. The path towards one led to the others, since the universe was conceived as an ordered physical and metaphysical whole where the three axes were aligned. What was true, was just and beautiful. The beautiful had to be…

Monks or wonks?

When we think of medieval monasticism, the last think we associate monks and nuns with is expertise. Admittedly, you’ll say, there’s the expertise of prayer, contemplation, devotion, writing even, but beyond that there isn’t much else in the way of prowess and competence. And yet, monasteries were post-Roman Europe’s seedbeds of knowledge, science and progress….

Wine not?

Some of the lesser known figures of Greek mythology are also the most delicious. These were the Oenotropae, the three sisters who had the power to change water into wine, fields into grain and berries into olives. Between them, they ruled the Mediterranean world from their island of Delos, where their father Anius, a priest…

Old stories

The oldest stories tell fundamental truths. Under the varnish of lost civilisations, the inaccessible language, the strange furniture, the world’s earliest narratives are also the most enduring. Why do we still talk about Homer, why does the Aeneid still matter? Why are the 1001 Nights 100% cool in our time? Certainly because others before us…