Cosmopolitan cities and speakers

Alexandria was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the ancient world. By the late middle ages, the city was understood to be something quite different, as this illustration of the city of Alexandria imagined by a 15th-century French illuminator. The image depicts Alexandria after the death of Alexander the Great in a universal chronicle, Le Puy-en-Velay, Cath., 4 

The modern metropolis may be a hub of languages and cultures, a shared space where strangers become less strange and everyone finds a place. Yet the Industrial Revolution which produced the modern city, vertical, busy, industrious, was not particularly inclined, it seems to me, towards the form of urbanity that we are so familiar with today. The Industrial Revolution was the progeniture of the age of nations, with which the small community, the mingling of races, languages, customs, did not find much favour. The modern city emerged as a proclamation of national power, of national industry, of a common purpose derived from an understanding of a common history and destiny – conformity, uniformity, the dissolution of difference in the face of monolithical identities. There had been cities before the Industrial Revolution, but they were nothing like the big industrial urban centres which developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. In many such cities, workers started arriving en masse from outside the cities to fill the factories and to build new ones. Milan, for instance, had been a city in Roman times. It was another before the Industrial Revolution, quite another afterwards and certainly a beast of a different kind after the Second World War, when multitudes of Neapolitans and Sicilians were drawn to its new industries.

The ancient city, on the other hand, was a haven of multiplicity. Just to take the example of the Roman world and of the cities in the Roman Mediterranean, languages were so diverse that the only language common to all was a language which didn’t belong anywhere and which hadn’t developed in any defined community. This was common Greek, the koine of the Hellenistic East and of the New Testament. A language which, though unique, betrayed the linguistic multiplicity of its speakers.

Cosmopolitism and multilingualism may seem very modern, but they are in fact as ancient as democracy itself. The ancient cities of the East were cities (poleis) of the world (kosmos) where the collision of languages and cultures assured a gentle instability  between the local and the global. We find it hard to understand how interwoven identities, languages and cultures were in the cities of the ancient Mediterranean, and we are shocked to find out that not all Romans spoke Latin, or that code-switching was as common in Alexandria and Antioch as it is in Luxembourg, Zurich or Singapore. Once again, it seems that the wheel has already been invented.

The Inferno of History

Just as there is a history of Hell, there should also be a Hell of history, the Inferno of the historical profession.

One of the many things we are indebted to Dante for is that he’s put Hell on the map. Before him, Hell was a place. After him, it is not only Others, but also a self-sufficient universe, hierarchically organised, mappable and perversely enticing. In giving us Inferno, he typologised Hell, making it a template for other possible worlds, circles, bolgie, warts and all.

So the historian’s Inferno may now be sketched. In Limbo, the visitor encounters those researchers who, coming from various fields, never quite crossed the line into history. They must remain forever outside.

The subsequent rings host various kinds of historical sins, crimes against the writing of history, whose penalty is eternal damnation. There are the lustful after the kind of evidence that would support their thesis, not the other way around. The avaricious who never shared their research findings with their peers at conferences are doomed to incomplete footnotes. The wrathful never understood that historians need to be relaxed and serene about their topic, and ponder the issue at hand in tranquility.

As she goes further down, the visitor encounters the flatterers, who embraced history only because it gave them an opportunity to praise and be praised in return. The hypocrites who say one thing at workshops and publish another, the thieves who steal ideas and claim them their own, the sowers of discord who dream up fancy controversies and useless debates, finally the falsifiers who are just thieves with a penchant for plagiarism. At the bottom of the pit lie the traitors, those who sold their talent, time and scholarship to dubious agendas, those who bring together, in their abysmal and diabolical nastiness, all the sins mentioned above, and many more. These stand forever condemned, a reminder of how easy it is to slide into the inverted cone.


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Papyrus fragments of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri from the 1st century AD, inscribed with the lyric poetry of, perhaps, Sappho, P.Oxy.XXI 2299

It would be interesting to see which of the two media, papyrus or digital files, will have had a higher survival rate. Both writing supports suffer from chronic fragility. Papyrus stands no chance in damp climates, while digital files make no sense in a world without electricity and high tech. The latter observation may be objected to on the grounds that even when papyrus survives, it takes a palaeographer, at the very least, to render the writing intelligible, just as a machine would be required to read the documents embedded in those digital files. Yet, in one case or another, the medium alone would be required to safeguard the inscribed text, regardless of questions of transcription.

While papyrus, like most physical materials, can survive in fragments, a digital file, once corrupted or fragmented, may not be recoverable. A fragmented file does the opposite of a physical fragment: it undoes itself, it is as if it doesn’t exist, a simple trace in an archeological park.

Survival is also related to destructibility. A book, however small it may be, burns a lot more slowly than it takes a digital file to disappear from a memory stick or SSD drive. And while you may kick a book out of a fire and rescue some of it, there’s not much you can do once you’ve clicked that delete button.

Time, chronicles and Arabic numerals

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The opening text of Roger of Crowland’s chronicle in London, Arundel MS 10, where he discusses how time had been and ought to be measured.

As I keep working on my book, I thought I’d share one of the most exciting ways in which a medieval chronicler thought about time and chronology. The year is 1212 or maybe 1214, it’s not clear. The author of the chronicle I edited for my doctoral project, and whose identity has largely been accepted as that of a monk from Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire England, (and whose name may very well have been Roger, a well-read chap sensitive to the challenges of time-reckoning), sets out, in good medieval fashion, to give an account of the history of mankind, starting as far back in time as possible. His project was not unlike the totalising books of our time, trying to make sense, in one go, of everything that ever happened, from the beginning to the present day. In the Middle Ages, the easiest way to do this was by means of a universal chronicle, listing, year by year, the deeds of the past, progressing thus up to the present age.

Roger was a bit obsessed with time, which was a good thing, since this was one of the ways which has allowed me to lift him up from the anonymity he had buried himself in. Like most authors of such works, Roger didn’t write his name in the text. If a good publishing record allows a modern historian to get a book out, medieval monk historians could count on the expectation of modesty to get the message a cross. And by not giving his name, Roger was being modest.

Before he gets the ball, or better yet, the annals running, Roger pauses to think about chronology. I mean, it’s only fair, if you’re getting ready to cover over 2,000 years of Christian history, you want to make sure the year numbers are right. So he gives a remarkable exposé of the opposing theories about the age of the universe, the types of time-reckoning (when day should each year begin), and how Easter, which is a moveable feast, ought to be calculated. To be fair, Roger comes a bit late to the stage. In the West, the issue of time-reckoning had more or less been settled, but he knows that a good historian needs to consider the framework as well as the content. So he acknowledges the opinions of his predecessors and makes a decision to be as intellectually inclusive as a chronicler can be. For each year starting at the birth of Christ and ending in the 13th century when he’s actually writing the book, he lists the events according to two main systems. One of them is that which we still use today: the anno domini (AD) or, more recently, the common era (CE). The other, which had puzzled historians, but never quite caught on, was a revision of the AD system, based on a monk’s calculations that Jesus’ birth occurred 22 years later than previously thought. Roger is ambivalent about these two systems, although he gives them both each time– and for 1220 years, that’s no small business’ , he explains that the AD system is the true one, based on the Gospel, while the other one, based on later speculation, is false. And then he does something even more extraordinary. He decides to write the ‘true’ years with Latin numerals, while the ‘false’ numbers would be given in Arabic numbers, which by the 13th century had started to be used in European scientific works. Roger stands alone in the history of Western historiography for his use of a dual numeral style which correlates Latin and Arabic numerals, each corresponding to a different chronological system.

Stranger things

From Homer to the Renaissance, there was a constant appeal for stranger things. Hybrids, mutants, incredible stories, fantastical episodes, all had a claim on the European imagination. Strangeness is ambivalent, it can’t be dismissed as false, but cannot be welcomed as true either, it sits on the precipice of credence, risking to fall into belief or dissolve into incredulity.

In the Middle Ages, strangeness was welcomed as a fact of life. Some animals had been tamed, while others were still wild – the unfathomable sea was confined by clear shorelines, the deep forest ended where the cultivated land began. The drama of strangeness developed on the margins of these lands, at their points of intersection. We find that strange today, because we’ve lost our appeal for strangeness, or we’ve let it develop into a stranger form of attraction to strangeness. We like saying ‘that’s weird’ all the time, using the Old English word ‘wyrd’, which calls on the power of fate or chance whose ambivalence again makes it the arch-enemy of reason. And reason is what we seek in everything, it’s no surprise that weirdness is seldom weird, and more often a halting-place on the way to a rational explanation. But weirdness endures, whether we like it or not, since we cannot explain everything; and the belief that we will one day explain everything there is, is, on the scale of human history, a weird thing.

The mind mapping turn

The so-called ‘Byrhtferth of Ramsey’s diagram’ integrating  man (ADAM in the middle) in the cosmos (the four elements in the outer roundels connected to the seasons, etc) in a 12th-century manuscript containing mathematical and astronomical information for the use of calculating time. British Library, Harley MS 3667

We all use mind maps, diagrams which organise information and help memorise ideas and structures. They are very popular because they are efficient. They just work. And they feel very modern, on the cusp of our technological age. Except that they aren’t.

Mind maps are a product of the medieval West. By the 12th century, the few intellectual centres in Europe had gathered enough writing and information on all areas of knowledge that some housekeeping was in order. The first age of information was dawning. This was Europe’s first attempt to systematise knowledge and to find ways of organising what appeared to many as a fast-growing intellectual mess. Synthetic tools were found which made it easier to grasp a large field of information such as philosophy, ethics or even history. Knowledge continued to grow, but many thinkers, and especially teachers, sought ways to make sense of all that had been written in a given field.

Mind maps developed as complex tools of dealing with a large body of structured information. By the mid 12th-century, intricate diagrams and mind maps emerged, many of them as elaborate as any modern mind map. Though the impulse for creating mind maps came from the jumbled state of knowledge in the West, the justification for such an approach lay in the belief that everything in the universe, physical and human, is interconnected, and a totalizing picture may be arrived at diagrammatically. For this reason, many medieval mind maps, such as Byrhtferth of Ramsey’s diagram above, can be all-inclusive, seeking to contain an entire field in a single image.

The mind mapping turn had important consequences in the West. As knowledge was systematised and tamed, scholars found it easier to access information. No stone was left unturned. Almost every field of inquiry could be reduced to a diagrammatic image. To help his students memorise the figures of the Old Testament, for instance, the 12th-century theologian Peter of Poitiers wrote a chronicle where text served to explain a multi-page diagram of Old Testament characters meaningfully connected with each other via lines and medallions like genealogical trees. The first age of information was raging.

Diagrams explaining the genealogy of Christ from Adam in a 12th-century manuscript of Peter of Poitiers’ Compendium historiae in genealogia Christi, Walters Art Museum, Walters Ms. W.796

Discovering arguments

According to Cicero, the discovery of arguments was the most important of the five aspects of rhetoric, and also the most difficult. This was known in Latin rhetoric as inventio, it gave us the word invention, but it means finding or discovery. Inventio was the first stage in the construction of a speech or written argumentation, providing the meat of the argument, the arguments behind the expostulation. Finding arguments in favour or against a person, a topic or a course of action, in praise of or to denounce a living or deceased person, was key to an effective speech. Once this ground was secured, everything else, including arrangement, style, memory and delivery, would fall into place. Arguments were the hardest to find (we still say that we find them), and criticism against a speaker or a text would normally be directed against the arguments deployed. 

Of all the ancient arts dear to the Greeks and the Romans, rhetoric didn’t experience a heart failure during the middle ages, like, for example, drama or erotic poetry. What’s even more, rhetoric managed to secure a front seat in the medieval education curriculum as one of the trivium arts, along with grammar and logic. This was not the rhetoric as the ancient masters like Cicero or Quintillian would have recognised, but it was enough of a legacy to keep the discipline and its texts alive. And inventio remained the keystone of the rhetorical edifice. One of the principal areas where the discovery of arguments was key was in the writing of history. Here, the arsenal of ancient rhetoric, repurposed for medieval style and content, was put in the service of writing about the past, praising one historical agent and castigating another, explaining the how but also the why of historical events, and mastering a language of causation which allowed historians to try different types of testimony, each with its own degree of reliability.  


Legal deposit in the ancient world

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This is the earliest surviving fragment of Homer’s Odyssey made in the age of Ptolemaic Egypt (3rd century BC). It measures 19.1 cm in length and it was found in Hibeh (modern-day Tayu-djayet in Egypt) in 1906. It is now preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Under legal deposit legislation, copies of publications must be submitted to certain public libraries. In many countries, a copy of every published book has to be sent to the national library, thus ensuring that everything that gets published also gets to be publicly available as well as safeguarded.

It is always easier and a greater benefit to the public weal to set up a law requiring publishers to submit new books to a state library than for private book collectors to build their own private, inaccessible libraries.

The first to have understood this was Ptolemy II, the pharaoh of Hellenistic Egypt (283 – 246 BC) and one of the benefactors of the Library of Alexandria. A patron of scholars and poets such as Aristarchus, Euclid and Theocritus, Ptolemy sponsored the expansion of the Library, both architecturally and in terms of its collections.

In his commentary on Hippocrates’ Epidemics, the physician Galen recounts how Ptolemy’s love of books prompted him to pass a law requiring all books onboard ships alighting in Alexandria and other Egyptian cities to be brought to him, and from there to be copied into new manuscripts. Galen explains that ‘he gave the new copy to the owners, whose books had been brought to him after they sailed there, but he put the original copy in the library with the inscription “a [book] from the ships”.’, effectively creating the world’s first legal deposit arrangement. It was a win-win situation, especially in an age where the antiquity of a manuscript book underlined its fragility rather than its value, as it is for us. The Egypt-bound book owners would benefit from a free duplication (and, therefore, renewal) service, while the Library of Alexandria would build the largest collection the ancient world had ever seen.

A climate of debate

A portrait of King Arthur in a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-historical chronicle in Paris,  BnF, lat 8501A (late 12th century).

Despite having access to the same sources and resources, and despite living in a climate that fostered conformity and homogeneity, Western medieval scholars developed a written culture of disputation, dissent and polemics. They reached different conclusions after reading the same works, critiqued each other, vied for having the last word on questions of philosophy, ethics and politics. There was agreement on fundamental issues, but much detail was left for authors to differ on.

In the 11th century, authors were debating calendar reform. Should the year begin on 1 January, or on the Annunciation, or even at Christmas? How old was the universe? Was Christ born on year 1 or some 20 years later? From England to Italy, authors picked up the pen to expound their ideas and critique those of others.

The literary legacy of the Greco-Roman world had never been cancelled in the West, despite some voices periodically calling for a clean break from the pagan past. The classics, those whose works survived the precarity of scribal culture and the frailty of literacy and education in post-Roman Europe, found a place in the curriculum of the medieval schools, whether monastic or secular. While the culture of the pre-Christian past was accepted, it wasn’t clear who was to be included in the canon and who wasn’t. Scholars debated that, too.

How far can sensational history go before it’s dismissed as fiction? Writing in the 12th century, the Welsh ‘historian’ Geoffrey of Monmouth presented King Arthur, Merlin and his world of knights and magic as a historical fact. He didn’t have to wait till the age of textual criticism for his ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ to be dismissed as pure fiction. His own contemporaries, such as the English historian William of Newburgh, rose against Geoffrey’s claim that the fantasy world he described was part of British history. William was furious, accusing Geoffrey of ‘inventing ridiculous fictions’, ‘unscrupulously promulgating mendacious prophecies of one Merlin’ as a ‘person ignorant of ancient history’. The frontal attack takes us to the heart of the medieval culture of disputation and polemical debate. To imagine the colourful world of the medieval West as a monochrome frame of plainchant-type thinking and writing is to fictionalise the past and miss out on a lot of exciting stuff.


The banality of paper

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A paper manuscript from around 1464 made in Bruges and containing a French version of a 12th-century classic, Honorius Augustodunensis’s encyclopaedic work ‘Imago mundi’, British Library, Royal MS 19 A IX 

It’s always hard to dislodge established technologies and replace them with new ones. In hindsight, the advantages of newer technologies appear clear and unmistaken. But in the fray, things are never like this. Newer isn’t always better, it might be exciting, but at the end of the day, you may want to stick with the devil you know.

The success of Gutenberg’s printing press wasn’t due only to the invention of the mechanical press. In fact, the press wasn’t that much of an innovation any way. Europeans had been transferring moulded designs unto soft materials by means of imprints for centuries. The printing press was not essentially different from engraving in metal, stamping in silver and sealing in wax. The really innovative technology which goes farther in explaining the success of the press was the development of paper. But, as we all know, it is not always enough to develop a new technology, the real challenge is to secure its adoption by the appropriate groups.

Paper appears to have arrived in Europe through contact with the Arabs, which had been using it since the 8th century. The town of Fabriano in the Italian Marche established itself as early as the 12th century as one of the earliest centres of paper-making in Europe. By the 15th century, rag-cloth-based paper was successfully competing with parchment. Although far less durable than parchment, paper was cheaper to make and also more lightweight. Using paper instead of parchment significantly cut the cost of production, making manuscripts a lot more affordable.

The parchment manuscript of the Middle Ages was arguably the most costly type of book to make. Parchment was hugely expensive to produce, and so was the manual labour involved in writing the book. Together, these two factors would never have allowed the book to become an object that most people could afford. For that to happen, paper had to replace parchment and the press had to take over from the toil of the copyist.