Liturgical grounding

A manuscript roll made in Italy in 1136, Paris, BnF, NAL 710 rouleau

Liturgy is one of those allergenic words people often associate with organised religion. It conjures up images of conformism, blind faith and irrationality that can’t be farther from the claims of modernity. And on the common reading of Western cultural evolution, liturgy belongs to the Dark Ages, when the individual hadn’t emerged from the background noise.

But liturgy is wired into our way of being into the world. Liturgy goes deeper than religion, at least the kind of ‘religion’ concept post-Enlightenment exegesis has accustomed us to. We are grounded in liturgy just like we are grounded in transcendence – it doesn’t have to be about the gods or God, but, to paraphrase theologian John Caputo, there is a weak force stirring in the name nobody likes or knows how to utter. Done properly, social and political life are a liturgy of the everyday for the everyman, which is to say that it’s a liturgy full stop. The smallest possible group is a symbolic incubator. Whenever a gesture, uttered word or object (which are the three vehicles of liturgical performance) are thrown in between individuals willing to risk their walled gardens in order to welcome each other, a liturgy is conducted.

We may reject sacrality without ceasing to be sacred and act in a sacred way. And we may reject the idea of liturgy while continuing to live liturgically with others. We arrange our lives (and our living rooms) around significant objects, our language around significant words and we develop new signs to mark out the living temples of our lives.

The blessings of loss

The faces of a lost world. A 15th-century illustrated chronicle (chronica figurata) featuring figures from ancient Rome (Paris, BnF, Latin 9673 f.27r)

To have a renaissance, a death certificate is first required. Without the collapse of ancient Rome, the disintegration of ancient culture and the loss of much of its intellectual and literary output, the Renaissance would be a word without meaning. You have to die first in order to be reborn.

It is not just a matter of words. The European humanistic revival and then the Renaissance weren’t merely a rediscovery of the classics, although they wouldn’t have been anything without the recovery of Rome’s written works and cultural achievements. Key to the significance and impact of the Renaissance was the long period before the Renaissance – the so-called medieval period.

The loss of much of the works of the ancient Greek and Roman world in the centuries following the political dissolution of the Empire in the West has been the object of endless jeremiads by those who, like the men and women of the Renaissance, consider the Middle Ages as being nothing more than a ‘middle’ cavity, a millenium-long entr’acte between two shows. Thank God for the Renaissance. But thank God for the Middle Ages which led to the Renaissance.

During the Renaissance, Western Europe was able to move from the mere rediscovery of ancient words to the creation of a modern world. It is a remarkable fact that a faraway world such as the classical world could give rise to what we now call early-modern art, literature and science. But since history, like nature, does not make a jump, the sweeping force of the Renaissance cannot be explained without taking the millenium-long entr’acte into account. To get to 16th-century science, one has to pass through medieval scholasticism. To get to perspective and genre painting, one needs to cross the medieval bridge of sacred art.

But continuity is not all. Like grapevines, cultures need scarcity to achieve great results. The medieval West created a culture out of scarcity, and achieved a higher level of creativity than the Renaissance itself, engrossed as it was with classical models and the imitation of the ancients. In their relative cultural poverty, the medievals couldn’t imitate anyone, so they innovated. Despite their contempt for all things medieval, the men and women of the Renaissance were carrying the debt of the preceding age.

Banking on the memory bank

The allegory of memory from a 13th-century manuscript

Culture depends on memory and communication. Without the ability to transmit stored information, human cultures would be stuck in the eternal present, and would dissolve after one generation. Without the ability to store information, human beings would still be able to communicate with each other, but every generation would have to start from (the evolutionary) scratch.

The two most important memory tools ever invented are books and the historical method. These are relatively recent inventions. Humans have managed their cultures for thousands of years without either. Oral speech and collective memory ensured that yesterday’s achievements would not be lost tomorrow.

The memory revolution. We didn’t just wake up, we couldn’t forget anymore. And the obsession with the past – the cultural investment fund – became an obsession with memory. Wherever this revolution occurred, the cultures involved underwent exponential growth and accelerated development. A written culture developed to keep up with the human productions which cultural agents were no longer willing to forget or leave to chance.

Surrounded as we are by SSD drives, USB sticks and sticky Clouds, we tend to forget the impact material memory has had on human culture over the last three thousand years. We deplore of outsourcing of human memory, but we should remember that it is precisely because of outsourcing it that our species has made it this far, out of the cage of the immemorial present instant and into a a world of recollectable possibilities.

Urban bliss

The City of God, Paris, BnF, Français 21 f.2 (Paris, 15th century)

Everyone wants to live in a big city. Cities attract talent and workforce. It is in cities that dreams are made and unmade. The urban elite may dream of green pastures, rivers and 0% population density, but surely that’s more of a ‘retreat dream’. Sociability, good ideas, urbanity, diversity, inclusiveness, cosmopolitanism happen in the big city. We’ve called for the defunding and abolition of everything except the big city. Everyone should have a holiday or secondary home in the countryside, but the city is the hub, the convergence plane, the terrarium of a life worth living and a spirit worth growing. We can’t live outside the city, and if we claim otherwise, it’s often the case that the rural is seen as the new urban, a new type of city environment at small scale. City-dwellers have always despised the country folk, the citadino looking down on the contadino, the bourgeois on the farmer, the converted on the pagan.

It’s never been a tale of two cities, but one between a city and the rest. Augustine’s City of God and the city of man, which, to believe the great Christian thinker, is not really a city.

For the ancient Romans, the city was a despicable place. The sentiment was echoed by the genteel folk of the Renaissance, who adopted the Roman resentment for the city as quickly as their love of Cicero. The Romans genuinely dreamt of green pastures and bucolic lifestyles, and it’s not a surprise that the Roman understanding of the afterlife had more in common with the Cotswolds than with the Champs Elysées. The city was nevertheless the centre of the Roman lifestyle because politics was at the centre of the Roman elite. But every aristocrat – meaning those who could afford the lifestyles they chose – couldn’t wait to run away to their villa(s) in the countryside. The urban landscape was a concession. The ideal environment was one of demographic scarcity and natural immersion.

We owe the rehabilitation of the city to Christianity and to its emphasis on the heavenly Jerusalem. No more Elysian fields, meadows and riverbeds, no more mountain greenery where God paints the scenery. The crowds of the saved populate huge cities – in fact only one, whose layout and architecture has tortured theologians for the last two millennia. The end is an urban new beginning. The Book of Revelations is the disclosure of the eternal city. The universality of the Gospel could only find its accomplishment within the wallless heavenly city, where the cosmopolitan redeemed find their own place in the crowd.

For all of the world’s rejection of Christianity, it seems it still cannot commit to a pagan rurality. We may have excised ‘of God’ from Augustine’s formulation, but we’re still wandering through the empty streets of our secular urban selves.

Or, as U2 has it,

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields […]
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls […]
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for

The vehicular language which made Europe

All languages that bring cultures together are artificial. Whether through free exchange or imperial domination, the connecting language is not anyone’s vernacular. It may be an offshoot of a given vernacular, but it ends up being something else. Each historical region has its history of such languages. In Europe, Greek first, and then Latin, provided what scholars would later call a lingua franca, a bridge language used to make communication possible between peoples speaking different and non-mutually intelligible languages. Koine Greek was the first identifiable common, or vehicular, language (koine means common in ancient Greek), and dominated Europe during the Hellenistic and ancient Roman period. In the medieval West, Latin replaced it, especially among the cultured, most often ecclesiastical, elites.

Communication depended on a bridge language to cover increasingly larger populations and cultures. Latin enabled cultural exchange across disparate cultural areas. Latin served the spread of ideas through books, of human capital through exchange networks, monasteries, churches, schools, universities, chanceries, etc, and of science by providing a language common to all engaged in theoretical, speculative or experimental science.

Only that Latin was no-one’s mother tongue. It wasn’t a vernacular language, characteristic of an indigenous population (from the Latin vernaculus for domestic or indigenous). When people say that Latin is a dead language, they often refer to the artificial idiom which persisted, in many areas, until the end of the 19th century. This language isn’t dead because it was never alive. At least not alive in a spoken language sense. The Latin that midwifed Europe is not the Latin of Cicero or Virgil, but the vehicular language of medieval and early-modern Europe. And this was more akin to computer code than human language – an artificial construct based on natural language (this artificial Latin was a product of literary, and therefore written, classical Latin, just as computer code is a product of algorithm and formal logic).

When European vernacular languages such as English, French, Italian, German, achieved literary status, this Latin idiom was recognised for what it really was: code. A functional, tongueless tongue, formalised to the limit, open-sourced and truly in the public domain. Kepler, Galilei, Newton and Linnaeus published their works in Latin, which is to say in code. Europe was born on a bridge, and the bridge was made of Latin.

… in a healthy body

Everyone agrees with Juvenal’s famous hexameter half-line:

mens sana in corpore sano

A healthy mind in a healthy body.

This has never felt more urgent and more true than this year. With mental health deteriorating in many countries affected by Covid-prompted restrictions, the Roman satirist Juvenal feels very modern. Look after the body, but also after the mind. Syntactically, if not also philosophically, the mind comes first, the body follows. Although everyone assents, there is a growing awareness that we’ve let the mind down as we’ve focused almost exclusively on the body during the crisis. But who am I to say? I’ll just note that if Juvenal were here, he’d urge us to check out the rest of his Satire 10 where his dictum occurs, and especially at the next couple of verses.

For context, the full line in which the adage occurs is this:

Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.

One should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.

But then Juvenal goes on to say:

ortem posce animum mortis terrore carentem,
qui spatium vitae extremum inter munera ponat

Ask for for a strong heart which has no fear of death
Which regards the number of days the least of nature’s gifts

A complete English translation of Satire 10 is available here

The petition for the mind-body hygiene is conditional upon a worldview that rejects future-proofing. The investment in the mind-body capital serves the present moment, not the future. It is meant to enable life in the here and now. It is not a life insurance or an appeal to eternization. Juvenal invites us to look after our mind and body out of fearlessness, not out of a sense of apprehension for what tomorrow may bring.

Fake quotes

King Darius I is listening to the speeches of his bodyguards (Paris, BnF, Français 1753 f.130v)

Based on their works, ancient and medieval historians were closer to modern documentary-makers than to professional historians. What mattered most for them was not methodology, reliability of information and discoverable fact, but the mise-en-scène of all of it. Something more akin to entertainment than to science humaine. Persuasion rather than information. History was the daughter of rhetoric and for a long time it was taught – when it was – as an application of rhetorical principles to the recovery of the past in view of clear aims, whether judicial (to accuse or defend), deliberative (to persuade or dissuade) or epideictic (to praise or blame).

History being subservient to rhetoric, factuality was fluid for this kind of history writing. It took modern historians long to rise up to this view and start subjecting pre-modern historical texts to reliability tests. A hundred years ago, it was still possible to take a chronicle or an ancient historical text at face value. Today, we’ve ramped up our exegetical suspicion and we see potential rhetoric and deception at every corner.

One key area where ancient and medieval European history departed from factuality was that of speeches. These histories are peppered with political and military leaders giving speeches to crowds that nobody would have been able to record or jot down as they happened. Except for a few extant eyewitness accounts, history has always been about hindsight. And hindsight is all about reconstruction in absentia.

Fake speeches and fake quotes.

Modern historians agree that most, if not all, speeches recorded by ancient and medieval historians are fake in that they are misrepresented quotations. This was not necessarily a deceptive technique. The fake quote contributed to the narrative atmosphere, filling the space around a dry statement of fact or a subjective view. Fake flesh on factual bones.

It would be unfair to disparage the use of fake speeches and fake quotes in ancient and medieval history. They had their use within the genre, just like the liberties history documentary makers take with their subject, such as simplification, appeal to authority, suppression of source criticism, etc. Nobody would want a documentary to read like a scholarly article or a monograph. We want it informative yet entertaining, grounded in historical truth but making a point, factual yet rhetorical. And this is just what our ancient and medieval forebears expected from their histories.

Intellectual property

Albrecht Dürer’s monogram

It’s unlikely that the first ever court case in history was won on equity rather than strength or ruse. It’s reassuring to know that the world’s first copyright case was reportedly won by the plaintiff fair and square.

In 1506, the German artist Albrecht Dürer was visiting Venice as an agent of a German trading company. He had arrived in the Serenissima the year before.

The Italian artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari reported that Dürer’s engravings and woodcuts were so prized in Venice, that many artists were copying and selling them as genuine Dürer art along with Dürer’s famous monogram. One such artist was the printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi. Although an engraver, Marcantonio is now known mainly for his prints reproducing famous paintings, more of a laser printer than a printmaker. Young Marcantonio Raimondi saw Dürer’s woodcuts in the Piazza of San Marco and began to counterfeit them selling with the monogram.

When Dürer found out, he took Marcantonio to court and won. A small step for the German artist, a giant leap for European art and copyright law. According to the ruling, Marcantonio could continue to copy Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings, but he could no longer use Dürer’s monogram. The trademark would  now serve to distinguish the original item from other versions of it, not just to promote its author, as it had been the case intermittently since ancient times. 

Within reach

Before I push the rant of the day out, a brief announcement.

If you’re a frequent flyer on this blog, you’ll have noticed that I’ve stopped posting new stories on Sundays. After a year and a half of strictly daily blogging, I thought I’d loosen the grip a little bit, especially as more work assignments and life commitments have recently started eating away the edges of my time availability.

To be available is to be within reach. To touch with the hand. A hand within reach is a hand ready to write, to serve, to answer the call of duty. The Romans had a word for the available hand, ready to take notes, to record one’s thoughts on paper (actually papyrus), to defy the cruel entropy of vanishing sound.

This word was amanuensis. While it is still extant in English and Danish, it doesn’t seem to have been extremely widespread in Latin. It’s a dis legomenon, a word appearing only twice, in Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars, and only there. A rarity given a new lease of life in the modern period, since the word is first attested in English in 1619.

Culturally, an amanuensis is a secretary, a copyist, someone who takes down your notes and converts sound into script. Etymologically, amanuensis is the reduction of a manu servus, the slave ‘from/of the hand’. Talk to the hand!

The word may have made its way into English via Suetonius directly, since the record of its circulation in other Latin texts than Suetonius’ in 17th century England approaches zero. Unlike other Latin words, amanuensis didn’t make it into Italian, French or Spanish.

A rarity indeed, but still within grasp.

A poorly-documented hypothesis has it that the origin of the word has nothing to do with writing, but everything to do with shadowing. An amanuensis would have been a slave ‘within hand’s reach’, a kind of good-for-all slave, a factotum – the Latin is unavoidable – always ready to help, to give a helping hand, from within hand’s reach. This meaning, if it ever had currency, was lost on us. Even the word amanuensis itself is becoming vintage, as fewer and fewer of us ever have need of one. It now survives as the name of a scholarly project, a piece of software for researching Roman Law.

But aren’t Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant latter-day amanuenses?

The evil scribe

What if Descartes’ demon was a medieval scribe and we were all trapped in a manuscript illuminated initial? What if our experience of reality was the result of parchment, ink and finesse?

The medieval scribes and illuminators responsible for the inebriating patterns and decorative lushness we find in so many manuscripts may have had an inkling of Descartes’ famous hypothesis: that we may be controlled by a malicious demon who uses all resources to deceive us into thinking that a fiction is real, that the world contained on a parchment sheet is the limitless universe experienced by those in it.

The ancient Greek philosophers agree with the latest thinkers in that we may be trapped in language, the logos that the Presocratics discovered and the post-moderns refined. The limits of our language are the limits of our world, but what if the language is a product of deception? In many ways, that’s true, if we look around us. But how can we be sure that there is a book beyond our page, a bound codex beyond our single sheet?

What if the hybrids of the manuscript page rose against their scribes, extracting themselves from the embedding fibres of calf skin and assuming the freedom their scribes once possessed when they conjured them up out of thin air and viscous red-ochre paste?