Omo sanza lettere

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A leaf from a manuscript containing works by Manuel Chrysoloras, who contributed to the rebirth of Greek letters in the West, Vatican, BAV,

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 the Renaissance. During the medieval period, the inability to read and write Latin was a barrier towards career progression, but not to know Greek was absolutely alright. Most rulers couldn’t read Latin anyway. Few aristocrats invested time and money in the kind of education that included the learning of Latin. To be ‘without letters’ during most of the medieval period meant to lack access to Latin. Then something changed in the 14th and 15th centuries. Greek, like Ulysees, came back home after a long exile abroad.

The memory of ancient Greek never left the medieval West. Men and women of letters were well aware that Greek was as authoritative a language as Latin, that the New Testament had been written in Greek, that many Church Fathers wrote in Greek, that Cicero, the great master of rhetoric, therefore of language, had mastered Greek. But with no-one to teach Greek or to give Western culture intellectual challenges requiring knowledge of Greek, the West did happily without.

Things began to change in the late 14th century when a first wave of Byzantine scholars  arrived in the West as a result of diplomacy and political crises. Manuel Chrysoloras was one of the first who brought the West out of Hellenic amnesia. Many followed in his footsteps, to the point that by the 16th century, Western humanists were trained in both Latin and Greek. The return of the Greek language to Western shores meant also the return of Greek literature to Western readers. One after the other, the works of Greek antiquity recovered their old markets and conquered new ones.



Language acquisition

It has often been said that the childhood is a creation of the modern period. Indeed, ancient and medieval sources occlude discussions of the first age of the human individual, the baby and toddler years. Premodern representations of children emphasise size, rather than any other features, to designate youngsters. From the baby in the cradle or in the mother’s arms, the human child stands on her two feet like a miniature adult. Artistic sensitivity to early youth is very low in this period. That’s because the child, the argument goes, doesn’t really exist.

And yet, there are occasional medieval reflections on the childhood years of human existence. And they are instructive. Instead of launching into a survey of literary sources for ancient and medieval childhood (there are numerous books on the topic, anyway), I’ll focus on language acquisition.

Plato was one of the earliest thinkers ever to discuss the humans’ innate ability to acquire and use language. While his ideas were extremely influential through the ages, his observations were purely theoretical. He didn’t invite Socrates or any of his other thoughtful dialogists to talk about their or any other people’s children’s ability to acquire speech. We’d have to wait for St Augustine to give us an early glimpse on what happens when children are in the presence of speech and how they might acquire it. And not any children, but himself as a child. Introspective autobiography meets empirical observation.

In the first book of his Confessions, Augustine describes his infancy and the moment he started to acquire human speech. The account is remarkable:

I remember this, and I afterwards observed how I first learned to speak, for my elders did not teach me words in any set method, as they did letters afterwards; but myself, when I was unable to say all I wished and to whomsoever I desired, by means of the whimperings and broken utterances and various motions of my limbs, which I used to enforce my wishes, repeated the sounds in my memory by the mind, O my God, which Thou gavest me. When they called anything by name, and moved the body towards it while they spoke, I saw and gathered that the thing they wished to point out was called by the name they then uttered; and that they did mean this was made plain by the motion of the body, even by the natural language of all nations expressed by the countenance, glance of the eye, movement of other members, and by the sound of the voice indicating the affections of the mind, as it seeks, possesses, rejects, or avoids. So it was that by frequently hearing words, in duly placed sentences, I gradually gathered what things they were the signs of; and having formed my mouth to the utterance of these signs, I thereby expressed my will. Thus I exchanged with those about me the signs by which we express our wishes, and advanced deeper into the stormy fellowship of human life, depending the while on the authority of parents, and the beck of elders. (Confessions, Book I, chapter 8)

Augustine’s realism is unsurpassed. He understood that non-verbal behaviour and imitation are at the heart of the child’s ability to acquire speech and understanding. Nor was he ignorant of the fact that expressing one’s will is ultimately a speech act, something we might call, following John Langshaw Austin, a locutionary act. First-language acquisition is a matter of identifying signs and making them your own.

Almost a millennium later, Dante picked up Augustine’s ideas and incorporated them into his theory of natural language which he laid out in his essay De Vulgari Eloquentia (On the eloquence of the vernacular language), the world’s first treatise on historical linguistics. Dante was the first to point out that the mother tongue has qualities that an artificial language such as Latin (check my previous posts if you’re offended or confused by my use of the word artificial), or other acquired languages such as French or Provençal, do not. One’s mother tongue feels closer to home, is a language of the heart, acquired from close interaction with one’s mamma and babbo, the homely Italian words Dante uses for mother and father. While it may lack the precision and efficiency of a conventional language such as Latin (at least in Dante’s time when the vernaculars had not achieved literary status), the mother tongue is part of one’s identity and constitute’s one’s cultural legacy to future generations.

Medieval multilingualism

I’ve never been fond of big narratives, linear descriptions, watertight explanations. For every book claiming that history moves from X to Y according to principle Z, there are a dozen others which show that reductionism is not the way to do history. From Hegel to latter-day brief histories of humankind, the temptation to explain big cultural change through simple principles has been irresistible. And yet, as any good course in historiography and historical criticism will show, the big is almost never reducible to the simple. And the simple is hard to see, anyway. Unless it’s in our head, in which case it seems clear and compelling.

One way historians methodologically challenge the reductionist urge of many authors and cultural pundits is by throwing exceptions, so to speak, into their wheels. Nothing is more irritating to one’s explanation than to realise that it doesn’t really apply to what it was meant to apply to or that there are enough exceptions for it to lose its explanatory edge.

An example is multilingualism. While many still believe that the West moved from the ignorance and darkness of the ancient and medieval periods to the knowledge and enlightenment of the modern age, it can be shown that in the area of multilingualism, the upward trend actually runs downwards. Few would argue that multilingualism is a culturally insignificant phenomenon. Access to other languages enlarges one’s mental horizon, reduces prejudice by exposing one to the lingually different, and contributes to the development of novel ideas.

In the 21st century, there are more people capable of reading, if not speaking, more than one language in Europe than there were in the 1st century BC or in the 12th century AD. No one’s going to argue with that. The historical progress in literacy and education was such that more of us today can understand people outside our closest circles than our distant ancestors did. Yet, when we shift the focus from the whole population to that of intellectuals, scientists, and other cultural movers and shakers, things begin to look different.

Take intellectuals, the thinkers and professionals of the written word.

The medieval West enjoyed a very peculiar linguistic arrangement, which I had opportunities to rant about in previous posts. While most people spoke their mother tongue then as they do now, Latin was the language of the elites, the language of culture, government, administration, both secular and ecclesiastical. Latin wasn’t the luxury of academic oddballs, but the key equipment of every intellectual. Despite the rise of vernacular languages as idioms of culture in the 12th century, Latin reigned supreme for the whole of the medieval period. To be an intellectual, a man (or sometimes a woman) of ideas and letters, one had to speak Latin, that is, speak a second language, since Latin wasn’t anyone’s mother tongue. This was true to the extent that Latin illiteracy was a instant disqualifying criterion for anyone aspiring to be taken seriously in the world of thought.

Now, fast forward to the 21 century. How many academics and intellectuals in highly developed countries can only speak one language? I haven’t seen any stats on this, but just based on my personal experience of countries such as the UK, US, France and Italy, I can say, there’s quite a lot, and what urges me on in this thought is that academic activity and intellectual distinction aren’t hampered by monolingualism. After all, there are enough tools out there for monolingual intellectuals to overcome their weakness.

This state of affairs is not surprising. Nor is the fact that monolingual intellectuals may more likely exist in countries where monolingualism is generally the norm, like the UK, the United States, France, countries sitting on the linguistic laurels of the past and present.

So to go back to the 12th century and to those intellectuals who could converse with Cicero as well as with the local market vendor in different languages. Those individuals were products of their own culture, one that had inherited the burden of Rome to which it superimposed its various ethnic layers. What should we say of medieval England with its documents issued in English, French and Latin by the same scribes, or Emperor Frederic II’s Sicilian chancery switching between Latin, Greek and Arabic? And what shall we say of modern-day US and UK with its overwhelming monolingual populations, proud that all you need is English nowadays in order to converse with Cicero, haggle with the market vendor or write silly blogs?


Guilty pleasures

The Ashburnham Pentateuch, stolen by Guglielmo Libri from Tours in 1842 and sold to the Earl of Ashburnham in England, was returned to France in 1888. 
Since the 14th century, many book lovers have been born in Florence or its vicinity. The Renaissance was, since its early days, a book rush, especially one for rare, lost, unread, unknown, neglected volumes. The humanists of the Renaissance were avid book finder and collectors.

The Florentine scholar Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) made some incredible finds during the first decades of the 15th century. His love for old texts in old manuscripts was undeniable. His pleasure for collecting volumes forgotten on centuries-old shelves and boxes acquired approval from everyone. It was not a guilty pleasure. Poggio loved putting his arms (his name Bracciolini ultimately comes from the Italian word braccio for arm) around the books he loved. There was nothing wrong with that.

Some 420 years later, Florence popped out another book lover. This time it was someone whose affection for books preceded his birth. His name was Guglielmo Libri, his last name Libri meaning ‘books’ in Italian. You can’t get more predestined than that. But sometimes life takes its cues from novelists, and Libri’s life was going to be an essay in cosmic irony. There is no question that when he was appointed Chief Inspector of French Libraries in 1841, he considered himself the luckiest bibliophile on earth. Unlike Poggio the Book-Hugger before him, Libri used his position and a general state of national gullibility to remove rare manuscripts from French libraries. Unlike most heist fictions, his didn’t go wrong and he was never caught. Although condemned in France, he lived as a free man in England and Italy, where he died in 1868.

Libri’s guilty pleasure left traces all around Europe. Many of the stolen manuscripts were sold in London, and from there they were resold elsewhere. Volumes were still being returned to their rightful repositories as late as 2010.

To simply dismiss Libri as a book thief is to miss an important slice of the picture. Libri was in love, and as every lover knows, he was in search of possession and intimacy with the object of his love, the manuscripts of his affection. And as any lover would do, he took them home.

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 indoors (unless you chose to write in the garden, which there is absolutely no evidence of).

Would it have been on the edges of the page? I doubt it. That’s where the cropping went on century after century, ravaging the page. To set camp in the margins would be like building a house in a coastal-erosion area. Unfortunately, bookbinders were Procrustean bed experts, making the pages fit the covers and not the other way around. After all, in a manuscript culture, the leaves and pages come first, the covers second.

The safest bet would be the decorated initial letters. In medieval manuscripts, the first letter of important sections of the text (beginning of the book, of a chapter, or any other division) was often made larger than the others and was painted. Each region and each period had its favourite decorated initials, which also depended on the texts they appeared in. Because there are so many decorated initials in medieval manuscripts, historians have classified them, and the taxonomies are long and boring. Some initials, like the one above, contain figures within them and are called ‘inhabited’ – because the figures inhabit or live within the initial. And so I can say that these are the homiest places in these manuscripts – places of rest and imagination.

When texts want to break free

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A page from a 12th-century manuscript of the Gospel of St John with several explanatory texts (glossed) linked to each other in ‘medieval hyperlink’, British Library Add MS 8091

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, which is to say the fixed layout, the mechanical reproduction, the hegemony of the main printed text over marginal inscriptions, glosses, annotations, and corrections, took the beating heart of the manuscript text and locked it in a box.

To produce a printed copy, it was no longer enough to sit down and copy the text, but it was now necessary to amass enough capital to purchase a workshop and enough manpower to operate a press. To create a new edition of a text, it was no longer enough to recopy the text making the required changes to it – but it was now necessary to get editorial approvals from organised institutions. The press led to a stabilization of the text which in previous ages had been more volatile, certainly more precarious, but also more likely to grow unencumbered. A suitable metaphor here is, I think, that of gardening – the manuscript culture was like a woodland made up of various trees and plants, all growing together and also rather chaotically. The age of print was the clearing of the woodland and its replacement with a jardin à la française.

The electronic age of word processors, the internet and social media has brought the woodland back. One of the most significant effects of this development has been the growth of texts clustered around texts in hyperlinked kinship. The organisation of information online is more reminiscent of texts taking up a page of medieval manuscripts, where several texts, commentaries, glosses, translations could co-exist without impoverishing the user experience, than the printed page.

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 Romana ushered by Octavian, the first Roman emperor, was neither long-lasting nor congenial to the old continent. European imperial projects were attempted but they always failed, sooner rather than later.

The medieval period has the reputation to be a period of orthodoxy and equilibrium through stagnation – with either the Church, emperor, or local kings in control. But that is so far from the truth. At no point was there stability: paganism against Christianity, the Church against the state, Romanity versus Germanity, the Pope against the Holy Roman Emperor, nominalists against realists, archbishops against the king, kings against kings, barons against barons and against the king. The catalogue of conflicts is endless.

Some macro-narratives of European history claim that the European exceptionalism lies precisely in the conflictual matrix out of which Europe grew. That the West cast its shadow over much of the world because the perpetual conflict and fragmentation which ensued allowed a relatively modest landmass to develop intellectually, culturally, and politically in ways which equipped it for world domination. There might be some truth in this, altough I am naturally skeptical of such large-stroke narratives. But surely things would have been different if the West had achieved the same intellectual, cultural and political monolithism which characterised the august empires in the East. One thing is clear, any project begins to fall apart once complacency sets in. But conflict keeps the waters fresh and the minds on edge.

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 into new mythologies.

The men of the Renaissance bequeathed the Middle Ages to us, a contemptible period, they said, in the history of Europe serving as a bracket between the illustrious past of classical antiquity and the expectant present. But not everything sitting in the middle is necessarily a bracket(able) irrelevance. Many of those men delivered the historical charge in languages which hadn’t existed before the medieval period. While those who used Latin were forgetting that the ‘middle’ period had been, first of all, an age of transmission enabling them to stand in judgement at the gates of the Renaissance. The humility of the dwarf standing on the shoulder of giants quickly turned into the proud champion marvelling at her own eminence.

From a language point of view, the medieval period may be described as a Linguistic Age. It was during the 1000 years or so between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance that most Western European languages came into their own and, what is even more important, they achieved the level of respectability once exclusive to Latin. Seen from this point of view, the Middle Ages also represented the great approchement, like a courtship period between lovers. You may test this: if you’re an English speaker (and hopefully not a linguist or a historian), try reading Beowulf and then Chaucer and see which one makes more sense. If you’re a French speaker, try reading La Chanson de Roland and Brunetto Latini’s Trésor and see which one you can understand. The same goes for most other Romance and Germanic languages. The reason why we understand texts from the 15th century and not from the 10th (unless we don the philological armour) is that the middle ages were the great linguistic forge in which the modern age was hammered.

Where two or three gather in human fellowship, there mythology is with them. Societies never cease to give birth to new myths, and our age is no different, despite what some neo-humanists may argue. Nevertheless, the medieval period was also a myth-factory for the modern age. The Renaissance admittedly rediscovered many ancient myths and stories, which the Middle Ages had brushed aside. Yet these never kept Western world in a tighter grip than the myths forged during the 1000-year bracket. Chivalric romance, nationalism, correctness and orthodoxy are just some of the many medieval dividends we’re still cashing out today.

Nostalgic wanderings

One thing which is missing from ancient and medieval literature is nostalgia. True, Ulysses can’t wait to see his wife, his kingdom and his native shores. The medieval mind dreams about the Kingdom of Heaven and adopts the restlessness of the pilgrim, the viator, keen to complete the journey and oblivious to present comforts. But the pain of the return, the essence of nostalgia (from the Greek nostos for homecoming and algos for suffering) is somehow missing from the picture.

And yet there are traces of wistful backward glances and homesickness in the outlook of the medieval mind. Neoplatonism is partly responsible for that. The thirst for joining the primordial being never left the West. Nor did its desire to return to its origins, even though that takes the form of recovery of once-possessed-now-lost rather than a commitment to turn back time. I guess the myth of progress, which was to mature in the post-medieval period, but growing in those times, prevented the medievals from dwelling in the past. The future is so important and the duty to making oneself ready for when the time comes is so important, that there is not much space for nostalgic sullennness. Regrets yes, but not the romantic struggling of the soul with the oppression of time and the nothingness of existence.

The bored ones get the best of Hell

Wedged in the slime, they [the slothful] say: ‘We had been sullen in the sweet air that’s gladdened by the sun; we bore the mist of sluggishness in us: now we are bitter in the blackened mud.’ This hymn they have to gurgle in their gullets, because they cannot speak it in full words.” (Inferno 7)

Dante’s Hell is a place of extreme pain and suffering. This is partly the reason why generations of modern readers have found Inferno so much more exciting than Paradiso or even Purgatorio. The farther one moves away from excruciating pain, the boring the story gets, right? This is not how I feel, but I recognise, along with Victor Hugo who was the first to explain the modern obsession with Inferno, that hellish pain generates action, which turns the engine of storytelling. The general principle is that people prefer stories where things happen. That’s why Spiderman and the Lord of the Rings will always sign up more viewers than ‘Un homme et une femme’ or ‘The Great Beauty’, where not much goes on.

Yet, Inferno has its own pockets of non-action, active or passive, pain inflicted or pain received. And this is why, if you ask me where the sullen victims of confinement, those men and women who are bored out of their minds as they are forced to stay home for months – where in Dante’s Hell they should find a spot, I’d say: beneath the river Styx.

Under no circumstances am I passing judgment on these people, I merely exercise my literary and historical imagination. Besides, I sometimes join their ranks, if only for a little while.

Surprisingly, the bored, the weary, the sluggish get the best of Hell

According to Western medieval philosophy, what we call boredom may approximately be captured by accidia or sloth, one of the deadly sins. Whether it’s a sin or not, it’s not for me to say, but I guess everyone who’s ever been bored knows there’s something wrong or at least uncomfortable with that state of mind. For Dante, following Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, accidia was a deficit (of love or wrath), and that made it sinful.

In Hell, we find the accidiosi, that is the bored guys, making bubbles under the swampy river Styx. There is no evidence that they are suffering physical pain. They can’t speak, but it’s not always a good idea to open your mouth anyway. The way Dante’s penal colony works is that the condemned sinner preserve the sin they’d been convicted of, while the punishment mirrors the sin via an original formula called contrapasso. As medieval slothfulness is a moral vitamin insufficiency, the punishment meted out to these people reflects the inertia of their worldly lives – and pain is as lethargic as their lifestyle had been. Which is to say that they’re quite good where they are.

They were bored with life, now the afterlife is bored with them.

Forced or voluntary confinement makes us susceptible to accidia – to be sure, this was well known to medieval thinkers. Dante’s son Pietro and one of his earliest commentators, wrote that ‘the sin of sloth is very common among cloistered monks.’ This new form of urban monasticism which we experience these days, whether cenobitic or eremitic according to how lucky or unlucky you are to be stuck with someone else at home, makes us all wonder whether we shall escape the fiendish grip of accidia.

Try not to get bored. If you do, there’s a comfy place for you in (Dante’s) Hell.