The new heights of Mont Ventoux

“To-day I made the ascent of the highest mountain in this region, which is not improperly called Ventosum. My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer.”

Thus Petrarch begins the account of his ascent of Mont Ventoux in April 1336. To believe the story, Petrarch’s humanist impulse pushed him to climb a mountain for the sheer pleasure of it, something nobody had done since antiquity. Having reached the top, he sat down and pondered the human condition. He didn’t take selfies, but the story is itself a kind of selfie – more about Petrarch than the landscape.

Indeed, the account foregrounds the Italian scholar as a man in search of new heights and meaningful elevations from which he could survey the whole of humanity. At 1,909m of altitude, the Provençal mountain is the embodiment of the essence of humanism, an ancient text whose vantage point offers the best view in every direction.

“At first, owing to the unaccustomed quality of the air and the effect of the great sweep of view spread out before me, I stood like one dazed. I beheld the clouds under our feet, and what I had read of Athos and Olympus seemed less incredible as I myself witnessed the same things from a mountain of less fame. I turned my eyes toward Italy, whither my heart most inclined. The Alps, rugged and snow-capped, seemed to rise close by, although they were really at a great distance; the very same Alps through which that fierce enemy of the Roman name once made his way, bursting the rocks, if we may believe the report, by the application of vinegar. I sighed, I must confess, for the skies of Italy, which I beheld rather with my mind than with my eyes.

It may be doubted whether Petrarch actually climbed Mont Ventoux. Scholars have pointed out that the letter in which Petrarch tells the story was written much later than the alleged date of the ascent, and the sequence of events make it unlikely for the ascent to have taken place as Petrarch described it. Be it as it may, the Italian humanist makes an important point. We are, as the medieval thinker Bernard of Chartres may have said, dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, but if we want to see the giants, we need to find a higher elevation. The modern viewpoint was born.

Yesterday I too climbed to the top of Mont Ventoux in the Vaucluse, hoping to find out something about Petrarch that I didn’t know. Instead, I found the most breathtaking views which would make anyone feel small and insignificant, and the most glorious light which would make everyone feel precious and unique.

Martial’s three offensive lessons for writers

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A 15th-century manuscript of Martial’s Epigrams – Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut.35.37

In a ranking of the ancient world’s most offensive writers, the Roman epigrammatist Martial (1st century AD) arguably deserves the top position. There are writers who offend general sensibilities, there are writers who offend precise individuals in writing, and there are those who, like Martial, do both with gusto and without apology. In his Epigrams, he lampoons Roman life in all its contradictions, not sparing anyone on the way. The verb ‘to satirize’ doesn’t quite do justice to Martial’s pasquinades. To ‘martialise’ would probably be more suitable.

Martial’s epigrams have come down to us precisely because they are offensive. I doubt that most 21st-century controversial writing would fare equally well, given recent impulses of direct and indirect censorship in certain milieux. But back to Marcus Valerius Martialis.

If Rome’s most objectionable critic has something to teach us, it can’t be an easy instruction to swallow. To aspiring writers, Martial has three lessons to offer :

  1. A good book is not necessarily one that is widely admired (and I have a separate list of such books at hand). The converse is equally true.

Perhaps my own books are not lauded in such terms but at least people read them!

And those who do are not only poets but the common people, everyone except those stuffy pendants who pore over ancient dusty tomes! (Epigrams, IV, 49).

  1. Writers have a sacred duty to their readers in that they should get their works published as soon as they’re finished. Nothing should be left unshared, except due to suicide or untimely death. This is particularly good advice for those among us who finished their thesis half a decade ago and, though under contract, still haven’t published it:

Sosibianus, your desk is full of manuscripts,

and they’re piled high to the ceiling,

all of them unpublished. Why is that?

You tell me your heirs will publish all the work posthumously. When will that be?

Are you sick or planning to kill yourself any time soon? Your work should be read now.

There is no reason to keep it hidden.

Or is there? (Epigrams, IV, 33)

  1. Reviewers and critics should put themselves in the writer’s, er, quill before condemning a piece of writing. This argument is as old as the profession itself, but I believe Martial’s is its earliest articulation. In an ideal republic of letters or tower of song, every poet is a critic and every critic a poet.

Your reviews of my books are consistently negative. I know you get pleasure from panning my works,

in all the major journals.

Why don’t you put down your critic’s pen

and write some poems yourself, if you’re so smart, or do you think so little of your own work

that you refuse to publish it? (Epigrams, I, 91)

Script as a source of authority

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The history of writing may be broadly divided into two large periods: the instrumental and authoritative stages. In the first period, ranging from the invention of script to around 1100 AD in the West (yes, the West, as there is always a point of view from somewhere, and this is mine), writing was conceived as an extension of human memory, like an external hard drive set up to complement the internal memory bank. This was a period of human history dominated by orality. Some things were recorded for special commemoration, it’s true, but most of the memorising, storage (through socialisation, for example) and retrieval (through ritual performance, for instance), mobilised the human memory, both individual and collective.

The other period, stretching from the central Middle Ages to our present day, has been one where writing doesn’t play second fiddle to human memory any more, but has instead achieved a special status including, but not limited to, the power of adjudicating on an increasingly large number of social issues: epistemological (scientific, forensic, even religious knowledge), legal and, often, political matters. If before, roughly, 1100 AD, an oral eyewitness account could trump a written record in a court of law, this is far less likely to happen in a modern court. If Judaism, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have absorbed orally transmitted wisdom (later coded into various texts, Talmudic, Mishnaic, patristic, etc), no orality as a source of divine knowledge was admitted in the constitution of the emergent protestant churches during the Reformation, which belongs to the ‘authoritative’ period of writing. This was, and continues to be, an age of ‘sola scriptura’ writ large (no pun intended). Luther’s slogan was not so much the rallying cry of a new faith than an acute insight into deep cultural change.

The authority of writing in the modern age is an indisputable fact. It led to the development of modern science, which cannot be conceived outside of script (just imagine a purely oral scientific community). The authority of legal writing (the written code, the written jurisprudential record) was one of the factors which helped establish writing as an objective reality and an unequivocal source of authority. Writing may originate in a subjective environment, but once it leaves its headspring, it acquires an objective existence and may be shared between individuals and groups. Writing doesn’t cease to be instrumental, like in the first stage outlined above, but it is no longer just an add-on. Quite the opposite, fewer of us rely on our own memory for storing information when we know that the information is available in written form. Thus, human memory becomes an add-on to writing, reversing the thousand-years-long evolution which led to the authoritative stage.




Is destruction a form of reception?

To trust our common parlance and the idiosyncrasies of our language, we’d think the worst destroyers of public property had been the Vandals. You’d thiNk they were the first to vandalise Europe, to deface the cityscapes with their taste for destruction. But the Vandals are no more vandalising than the Gothic style belongs to the Goths.

In what looks like a renewed age of riots, disturbances and contestation, the Vandals are making a comeback on our lips these days, even if it’s only as a lower-case return. There are no riots without the assault on the shared space. The Black Lives Matter-inspired iconoclasm is by no means archetypical. The Arc de Triomphe in Paris had been vandalised in another set of riots, and similar cases of public destruction are recorded each time the angry crowd gets on the move.

If use and abuse are part of the way in which an object may be received, handled and transmitted in and through history, then can destruction also be thought of as a form of reception? To destroy, topple and uproot is not always the same as to forget (though it sometimes is), although in the absence of a ‘place of memory’, the memory associated with the object is gradually lost. A great deal of loss of cultural capital from previous centuries was due to acts of violence. We remember Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury, but we don’t have it anymore, as it was destroyed during the Reformation. We remember the medieval streets of Paris, but they’ve been levelled to make room for Hausmann’s modernising project.

A way whereby destruction might be made a form of reception is to promote what might be called creative destruction. Instead of toppling, smashing or blasting the uncomfortable past out of existence, transformative ways of dealing with it might be found, where the meaning is reversed, though the body remains.

An idle thought about ancient otium

An otiose-looking Cicero from a 14th-century manuscript (Troyes, Bibliothèque Municipale, 552)

The opposition between work and rest goes back as far as history can see. In the Bible, it goes back to Creation itself. God worked for six days and rested on the seventh. In ancient Rome, the opposition work-rest was captured by the concepts of otiumnegotium. Not every Roman who wrote about this and whose writings survive meant the same thing. However, the two terms were understood to be in opposition. Otium denoted the leisure time spent away from the civic duties and activities associated with negotium, the time devoted to work and business as part of one’s profession.

While the meaning of negotium was clear – it meant work, but not manual labour, which overlapped with servile work –, otium remained an ambivalent term, whose meanings ranged from commendable intellectual pursuits (outside of working hours) to hours spent in downright idleness, hence the Latin word otiosus for idle, which gave ‘otiose’ in English, meaning useless. The English word business, the quality of being busy, stands in perfect contrast to otium understood as idleness or inactivity.

The more otiose among us will be pleased to know that a certain understanding of the two concepts placed otium first and negotium second, which inverts our own understanding of work and free-time. For the Romans in the late Republic (1st century BC), negotium was a denial of otium: nec’/g (not) + otium (leisure). First came leisure, then work, unlike us, who following the book of Genesis, think of leisure as a follow-up to work. For those Romans, work is the absence of leisure: Mihi nec otium est (I have no free time!), which makes leisure the normal state of the citizen. The author of Homo Ludens would surely agree, as would most Romans, nay, Italians, today. The quintessentially Italian dolce farniente (literally ‘sweet idleness’) should be seen as the rightful heir of the ancient otium. 

The earliest attestation of otium, however, is not in opposition to negotium, but to bellum, to war. Otium was time spent by soldiers away from war, in peacetime activities. This early understanding of otium as repose from war (and later, by metonymy, from urban work), might help understand the ambivalence of the term struggling between the worthy pursuit of non-lucrative projects and the anxiety around idleness as a source of potential disorder. Anything can happen during those hours of inactivity.

Go to hell

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Dante conversing with the sinners in Hell, Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Palatino 313 (14th century)

One remarkable thing about Dante’s Divine Comedy is that it doesn’t try to cancel any voices. Dante has often been accused of settling scores in the Underworld. If only for this, I think the disenchantment of the West has led to an important loss. With the Hell relegated to a merely poetic or idiomatic reality, we’re forced to deal with people we don’t like in this world and in this world alone. Sending them to Hell has lost its edge. Oh, Hell, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory? In any case, Dante is no de-platformer.

Dante’s critics forget that dispatches to Hell were common in the Middle Ages. The 13th-century English historian Matthew Paris had at least once aligned his disapproval for a pope with his belief that the pope must be on his way to hell. ‘Go to hell’, medieval writers assure us, was an imprecation full of meaning and direction.

Once in Hell, Dante’s detractors don’t lose their voice, although they might lose other things. The Inferno is an opportunity for the poet to engage with the world’s (as well as his personal) worst people while eluding the issue of damnatio memoriae. No infernal resident is guilty enough for Dante to deprive him or her of their voices. Admittedly, it’s not a fair hearing, but it’s a hearing nonetheless. The individuals Dante encounters in Hell continue to hold the same views and to endorse the same behaviour as they did in their lifetime, so there is no potential there for persuasion or change. Dante asks us to reconsider our idea of Hell as a hot place. It’s a frozen world, a kind of Narnia where evil remains cryogenically isotropic. The worst place in Hell is also the coldest. In this, Dante is as subversive of his own cultural heritage as he is when he refuses to cancel sinners out of existence. Hell may be a frozen realm, but it is also a chatty place where sinners tell their story, show no repentance, are privy to the future but can’t change one bit of their own destinies.

Dante’s Hell is a powerful place of memory, a museum of speaking artefacts where each convict is an example from whom the pilgrim, and us, may learn something. Far from making things better, excision removes the public memory of evil, which leads to more evil in the long term.


Imperfect pictures

Every picture is imperfect, every angle is limited, every focal point only approximate. What is perfect however is our dogmatic belief that our picture is complete, unlimited, focused.

This applies to how we see the world but also to how we understand the past. The record is never complete, the past is never fully recorded. The work of the historian always comes closer to recovering the full picture, but the honest historian knows that the whole picture is impossible to recover. I’ll give two examples from the distant past: one is Pliny the Younger’s (c. 61 – c. 113 AD) description of his Laurentine villa (Letter 23), the other is the so-called ‘Plan of St Gall’ made in the 830s AD.

Pliny the Younger’s letters are a treasure trove of information about Rome during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. It is from one of his letters that we know about the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder, the Roman encyclopaedist, in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Pliny is also an early source for the growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire. But he has also left us the most detailed description of a Roman country house, his own villa in Laurentum. You may read the letter here.

An imagined plan of the Laurentine villa by Louis Pierre Haudebourt based on Pliny’s letter (1838).

Pliny’s descriptive account of his Laurentine country house is so detailed that since the 17th century scholars and architects have tried to reconstruct its plan, even though no-one even knows where the villa was exactly. There are a few certain elements, such as the fact that the house was built on the coast, that it featured a number of porticos, halls, rooms and facilities, but to produce an accurate plan based on a narrative source is elusive. Every scholar or architect who’s ever tried to turn the text of Pliny’s letter into a architectural plan has produced a different layout. No other similar descriptions survive from the ancient world (with the exception of Pliny’s description of his other villa in Tuscany, less detailed than this one), and many have taken Pliny’s unparalleled level of detail for accuracy and definitiveness. It is neither, and his description, tantalising as it might be, remains limited and imperfect.

If we fast forward 8 centuries later, we get to what could very well be the most suitable bookend to Pliny’s ‘architectural’ letter. This time, we have a visual representation of the Abbey of St Gall (in present-day Switzerland) made in the 830s, the best architectural plan surviving from the medieval period.

The ‘Plan of St Gall’, which was never built, St Gall, Codex Sangallensis 1092.  You may view a full-size copy of it here.

Nothing comes close to the plan’s level of detail in the 9th century or even until the Renaissance. For centuries, scholars have seen in this drawing a representation of the historic abbey of St Gall. But archeology and source criticism have shown that the plan, however detailed as it might be, doesn’t describe the monastic complex in St Gall as it was in the 9th century when the plan was made. Since then, theories have multiplied as to what the plan might have been for. The best guess is that it may have been intended for a construction project which never took off. In the absence of contextualised narrative sources, we’ll never know.

Pliny’s description of the Laurentine villa and the ‘Plan of St Gall’ tell the same story: a source is always partial, incomplete. It is a view from somewhere, which leaves out all the other views from somewhere else. A jigsaw puzzle delivered with missing pieces. We must seeks the other pieces, but only after we’ve understood that we will never have the full picture. This is not to discourage us, but to teach us humility as we renew our efforts to recover what’s missing, and not to be afraid to constantly review the picture as the evidence requires.


Alter egos and friends

In one of his letters to his good friend Atticus, Cicero wrote: ‘I am reproaching myself far more than you, and if I do reproach you it is as my alter ego’. By that, Cicero meant that Atticus was like a second self to him, a close and trusted friend.

Before Franz Mesmer and Freud buried the ‘alter ego’ in the folds of the human self, the ‘alterity’ of the alter ego lay outside of the individual in intersubjective exchange. In calling Atticus his alter ego, Cicero saw his friend as his double, a projection of himself unto the other, but also, potentially, a source for self coming from outside of self. In perfect alignment with Cicero’s theory of friendship, the alter ego explains how friends shape one another, how one becomes a voice for the other but also a source of criticism and self-examination. Friendship, according to this reading, is about giving and receiving and about exposing one’s porous self to the presence of the other. It is no surprise that modernity’s focus on the individual – and on relationships as erotically irrational, socially reasonable and politically contractual – would turn Cicero’s coinage into a solipsistic tool: the double lies within us, and is subject only to the mechanisms of our own conscious and unconscious selves. Whatever the modern theories of friendship are, one thing they are not: my friend is not an extension of myself inasmuch as I am an extension of theirs. Perhaps we might want to give Cicero another chance.


The fertility of medieval history writing

The medieval period was a lab experiment in history writing. The historiographical legacy of classical antiquity had been rich, but the types and methodologies of history-writing developed between around 500 and 1500 CE were not only more vast, but also formative for how history was to be written in the West.

To the ancient canonical genres of history, universal history and biography, medieval historians added new types such as the universal (and local) annals, the chronicle (scholars have been debating the difference between the medieval history, chronicle and annals for over a century now), the urban history, the dynastic history, the institutional history. the illustrated history, the genealogical history, the national history, etc. The proliferation of historiographical species and subspecies during the medieval period is unquestionable. Now, methodologies varied, as did world-views as well as political, social and religious commitments, not to mention the tools available to historians, such as access to information, to other books and to other perspectives.

The curious thing about medieval history writing is that it belonged nowhere. There was no place for it in formal education. All the slots in the trivium and quadrivium of medieval study were taken, history was not taught in schools and no university offered history degrees, in the way they offered programmes in theology, philosophy, medicine or law. Despite being left out, history always kept a foot in the door. There is no shortage of historians at any point during the medieval period. Even for the so-called dark centuries of the early Middle Ages (the period before 800 CE), historians kept the flame of literacy, scholarship and knowledge alive. Though marginal, history was at the forefront of the events, but circumstances were such that the medieval chroniclers and historians worked independently from one another. The traditions of historical scholarship which emerged during the period were not due to these writers of history books meeting to discuss method or substance; instead, they were due to the silent growth of historical schools where one generation of writers had been the readers of the previous generations. This explains two typically medieval types of chronicling, which are the annals and the compilation, where one author expands on the work of another, keeping the book open and dust-free.

The wasteland of popular history

Every author has to walk a fine line when writing a book. Fiction requires the creation of a hall of mirrors, or illusions hiding the cluttered backstage where the authors work their tricks. Many writers of non-fiction who deal in ideas and persuasion need to make sure they target the right audiences and don’t upset the very people they’re trying to prevail on. Writers of comedy are careful to make you laugh hard enough and long enough to satisfy the requirements of humour: not too much and not too little. It’s an art each time, a fine-tuning exercise, an experiment in precision and clarity.

Popular history writing requires a similar form of tightrope walking. It may be argued that the fundamental challenge involved in this type of writing is irrigating the wasteland lying between scholarship and penetrability. Of course, no scholar would ever say that scholarship is impenetrable, but this applies more to the scholarly community than to the outlying readerships. In practice, the wasteland remains a no man’s land, with scholarly books rarely falling into the hands of non-specialists. Often, these books are not only unapproachable, but they are also pretty costly. Some in fact are so expensive that only libraries and research institutes can afford them, and those few students and researchers who manage to purchase them feel like someone who’s bought a car after years of saving up.

On the other side of the wasteland lie the plains of friendly writing. This type of writing captures, most evidently, the largest numbers of readers. However, it has a genetic weakness. There is an inbuilt risk to popular history, and that is sacrificing scholarship to accessibility and readability. There are many reasons for this fragility, not least the general expectation that popular history is synthetic – and therefore washed down –, that it lies outside the verification and falsification mechanisms which scholarship, like science, must be subject to, and that simplification is necessarily a blow to knowledge, etc. Because of this, very few writers, equipped with the necessary skills and talent, take up the challenge of fertilising the wasteland lying between the two segregated spaces. The sad truth is that too few historians manage to arrest the interest of the general public for works where vulgarisation, simplification, readability and accessibility are not hallmarks of a lack of scholarship, but the result of a dexterous balancing act and a skilled tightrope walking effort, reconciling the two extremes.