Lost and found in translation
By the 13th century, Aristotle was making a comeback in the West. Here, a 13th-century manuscript of a translation from Arabic of Aristotle’s treatise on meteorology also known as Meteora, accompanied by a Latin commentary by Avicenna, the great Persian philosopher. British Library, Harley MS 3487, ff 140v

Of all the cultural developments of the late Middle Ages in the West, none was more momentous than the (re)discovery of Aristotle’s works in the 12th and 13th centuries. Virtually every field of knowledge and inquiry was disrupted by works which had not circulated in the West for half a millennium. Essential to this were the countless translators who undertook the colossal mission of making the works of the Greek philosopher accessible to readers of Latin.

Aristotle’s philosophical, scientific and political works, what scholars refer to as the Corpus Aristotelicum, had circulated in the ancient West in the original Greek, as educated Romans would’ve been able to read those texts without the need for a translation. Once Greek ceased to be part of Western education, as it happened in the transition from late antiquity to the early medieval period, works written in Greek became irrelevant and were no longer being copied. Gradually, access to Aristotle’s works which had not been translated into Latin, such as Boethius’ partial translation of the Organon, was barred.

In the East, Aristotle’s works saw no interruption of circulation. The only interruption was that of interaction between the Byzantine East and the Latin West. But the Arabic world proved to be the bridge on which Aristotle was allowed the cross the river. In lands conquered by the Arabs, the works of Aristotle had been translated and commented on in Arabic. Most translation had been made directly from Greek, but some had passed through other languages, such as Syriac.

By the 12th century, Latin translations of Aristotle’s works which had been translated into Arabic began to appear in the West. But so did works of Aristotle translated directly from Greek, such as James of Venice’s translation of Posterior Analytics (logic), Bartolomeo da Messina’s Magna Moralia, or Robert Grosseteste’s translation of Aristotle’s chief ethical treatise, the Nicomachean Ethics.

By the time Dante wrote his Commedia, Aristotle had become the chief philosophical authority in the West, the Glorioso Filosofo. The Aristotelian age was dawning, and Europe was headed to new pastures.

Life and death

Languages don’t die, they simply evolve, creating new idioms and generating new forms and variants.

The death of a language is an artificial judgement, removed from the realm of language and bathing in the cold waters of objectification. No speaker of a given language has ever witnessed the death of their language.

Languages are pronounced dead by coroners far removed from the scene of the crime.

No speaker of Latin ever woke up one day saying: Latin is dead. Instead they may have woken up one day speaking a language closer to the Romance idioms which developed out of Latin, like French, Italian or Spanish . Speakers of Latin today communicate in code, like Whatsappers using emojis to convey their feelings or programmers using code to elicit responses from a machine.

Usage keeps a language alive.

Languages evolve stealthily. They hit fast and have no patience for linguists or historians to assess their viability. They run through time to the best of their abilities, transforming their speakers and being transformed by them.

Closing the parenthesis

In his book ‘Les Démons’, Simon Liberati writes that good letters will return to our society when we’ve exhausted the resources of new technologies of communication, the foundations of secondary orality. In other words, the Gutenberg parenthesis that Walter Ong and Lars Ole Sauerberg have described will reopen to allow fresh air to flow through the written words again.

We are surrounded by words, but writing has been taking a back seat. We may think of ourselves as hyper literal, but script has been slowly assuming a fetish role that it used to have during the formative ages of literacy. We print words on our skin, our t-shirts and our walls, but language is becoming more auditive than visual. In many corners of the Western world, words are reduced to pictures, syntax to pictogram. Like the ancient Egyptians, we communicate our culture in rebus, rather than alphabet. Emojis, the new hieroglyphs, are fulfilling a function which until yesterday had been assured by morphology.

A certain ‘secular sacrality’ of the epigraphical word may be observed. The inscription is coming back, but not in stone or wood. Instead, an epigraphical and even epigrammatic urge is detected in the impermanent digital medium, where ubiquity and instantaneity make up for the lack of durability. We carve words in crumbling stone, but the abundance thereof doesn’t seem to puts us off.

Takeovers and mediation

Just as a culture’s committment to literacy has made it nearly impossible for people to live their lives outside the written word, so has our age’s commitment to digital media driven by portable and wearable computing made it almost impossible for us to live a life unmediated by these (no longer) new technologies. As the medieval historian Michael Clanchy once pointed out, literacy impacted the medieval West to such a degree that even peasants, the last bastions of orality, couldn’t do without letters. The pandemic has brought before our eyes, and in the space of only several months, the remarkable phenomenon of a technology’s radical takeover of social life. Access to Internet and the ownership of a connected portable device are becoming as fundamental to human life as literacy was to become towards the end of the Middle Ages. Lately, I’ve been adding myself the question, how would someone without a laptop or a smartphone be able to do this or that, ordering food at a restaurant or paying their bills and taxes, things which had once been less mediated by technology.

To be completely illiterate today is to be excluded from most of modern life. We sometimes refer to those who don’t master the basics of internet and digital media as illiterate. Perhaps it is worth contemplating the implications of letting our lives be mediated by yet another layer of technology. The conquest of human life by then written word in the modern age has had the consequence of creating the myth of humanity as narrative, that is as written text. Who knows what the consequences of the digital takeover will be for our self-mythologising.

Coming on top
The Roman theatre in Malaga, built on Phoenician ruins, standing in the shadow of the Alcazaba

History doesn’t have time for housekeeping and tidying up. History is messy and expedient. A city’s ruins are another’s foundations. Time conquers and consumes, but it also makes room for more.

History loves layers. The hardest thing is to knock something out of existence. Destruction is seldom complete.

The cities of the ancient Mediterranean are such layered loci of endurance, hotspots of memory and civilisational density. When the Romans burned Carthage to the ground and razed it off the map in 146 BC, the memory of the Punic city endured. We’re still talking and blogging about it. Carthago delenda est, but it is never quite deleted.

Every attempt to erase something out of history and time was met with the stubborn resistance of memory. Humanity’s greatest gift and achievement is its ability to remember. To preserve, in the smallest and unlikeliest of places, on the dusty shelf or in the ground, the traces of the past, layers of existence that history can’t unburned itself of. Make no mistake, there is no such thing as the silence of the past – only unheard voices and yet untold stories.

Resistance to novelty

Nearly all pre-modern societies were loathe to experiment, try new things and embrace novelties. A measure of how modern we are is how difficult it has become to defend tradition, established practice and old stuff and resist the language of innovation and new-must-be-good.

As a species, we are risk-averse. We save energy and make decisions to capitalise on individual achievements to serve the collective.

We are naturally suspicious of things that have not been proven to be efficient or beneficient. Things grow old because they have been successful. Even an old individual human being is proof of his or her own succes as an individual. He or she survived. They proved their salt. For most of human history, wisdom has been associated with old age. That’s no surprise. Old age has escaped the equivocation of youth. It worked. A young specimen, on the other hand, is always at a crossroad. Will he make it? Will she pass the test of time? Old people tend to disdain the young. Insofar as they break away from established rules and ways of being, the youth reenact the wager which the elders thought they’d won.

For ages which had not yet made progress one of their defining missions and change their rallying cry, all things new were met with either suspicion or denunciation. After all, epidemics, so feared in the ancient and medieval world, always begin somewhere else. The familiar microorganism, bacteria or virus, can never kill you. It is the pathogen from far far away that can inflict the worse damage in a population. Epidemiologically speaking, the new, rather than the old, is to be feared.

I can’t read this!
The banality of Gothic. Widespread, though very difficult to read, almost every word is abbreviated. This is a German manuscript from the 14th century written in letters which would’ve been very familiar to Petrarch (Basel, Universitätsbibliothek / B IV 8)

In one of his letters, the 14th-century Italian poet and proto-humanist Petrarch complained that he found it hard to read the Gothic writing of the manuscripts of his generation. His grievance was not against some local scribes whose handwriting made reading slow and painful. Petrarch articulated an objection against the evolution of Latin script towards illegibility, just like he had previously described the period between the fall of Rome and his own time – our ‘Middle Ages’ – as ‘surrounded by darkness and dense gloom’.

Any book script is a reflection of its own age. According to Petrarch, the ‘Dark Ages’ had produced illegible writing, not ‘neat and clear letters’ (littera castigata et clara), as he would have hoped to find in the manuscripts with which he surrounded himself.

Petrarch lived at a time when book letters (or hands) had never been more uniform across the Latin West. The dominant type of letters in circulation was what he now refer to as Gothic script, and which though easily recognisable as ‘Gothic’ from as far away as the Moon, the letters were – and still are – incredibly difficult to read. The letters were packed together tightly, the space between them was minimal and they were heavily abbreviated according to ‘codes’ which were becoming increasingly more labyrinthine. All in the name of space saving.

But Petrarch didn’t care about economics. His point was simple: books need letters which are easy to read, instantly ‘decodable’ and, above all, beautiful – and beauty was a function of legibility. He and later generations of humanists found the letters they were looking for in old manuscripts that they had set out to rescue from destruction and oblivion. Inspired by Petrarch, the humanists’ mission was to recover the writings of classical antiquity preserved in manuscripts which had fallen out of circulation and were languishing in European monasteries. The oldest books they were hoping to find had been copied in the 9th and 10th centuries. The irony is that these manuscripts were themselves ‘medieval’, the letters having been developed during the period known to us – and not to Petrarch or later humanists – as the Carolingian Renaissance. The letters the humanists thought Roman, were in fact medieval, dark-agey. That Petrarch and his book-hunters never knew this spared them a lot of anxiety and disappointment.

Utopias and apocalypses
The ideal island state of Utopia as conceived by Thomas More, illustration from Louvain, 1516: Wormsley Library, Oxford.  

A telling distinction between the distant Renaissance and the familiar 21st century is the popularity of utopian thinking during the former, and the appeal of dystopias and apocalyptic-dreaming during the latter.

The ideas of a Leon Battista Alberti, a Thomas More, may be contrasted with Hollywood’s proclivity for apocayptic films, with our focus on environmental pessimism or the talk of a post-AI humanity. Where the men and women of the Renaissance saw a golden future of quasi-Lennonesque brightness, our own century expands huge brainpower on millenarianism-style destruction and deaths-of-the-world by a thousand-and-one cuts. Just as the spirit of the Renaissance leveraged the resources of the classical past and latter-day scientific progress, the 21st century harnesses the latest developments in science, tech and social theory to make Cassandra’s doomful voice the loudest in the agora. The Renaissance, it may be argued, was just getting started in its humanist optimism, while our zeitgeist is one of spent energy, a sense of being at the end of a journey. A journey, however, that doesn’t end with us walking into the sunset – but a blood-red sunset of wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis and rocks falling from the sky.

We now seem to live in a Gaulish village ruled not by the likes of Asterix or Obelix, but by Vitalstatistix whose daily fear is that that the sky may fall on his head tomorrow.

The Renaissance man loved humanity. What a piece of work man is! The 21st century despises humanity and seeks release from the shackles of the body. The Renaissance celebrated the fullness, messiness of man. The 21st century, in its mad reductionism (or, at best, dualist equivocation), hangs garlands on the altar of anti-speciesism, while the pontifex maximus is preparing to carve up the sacrificed tofu and to offer it to the gods of transhumanism.

A dictatorship of letters
Bernard de Meung was one of the theoreticians of the ars dictaminis. His work Summa dictaminis written in the 1190s, was hugely influential. Here, a leaf from a manuscript of his works, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius C VIII, f. 131r.

There were many dictators in late medieval Europe, but not the kind of dictators you’d expect. Not the autocratic rulers that the Renaissance and the early modern period would produce, but men and women in control of their pen, expert writers of letters, virtuosi of the epistolary game.

Known as dictatores, these people were responsible for the rebirth of rhetoric in Europe and a renewed sense of the power, beauty and grace of the written word. For most of the medieval period, the art of rhetoric, the skills of literate persuasion, were taught and practised obliquely, especially through the writing of historical prose. In particular, the art of speech writing, so important to the ancient Romans, had been nearly lost in the West, surviving only in the sermons delivered by prelates before an often-uncomprehending audience.

But the 13th century saw the rise of the dictatores, the practicians of the ars dictaminis, the art of letter-writing. Through a renewed focus on the rhetorical power of language and a reaffirmed interest in classical writers like Cicero and Seneca, the dictatores helped bring about the humanist ideals of the last centuries of the medieval period. Most dictatores came from the Italian city states, where an emerging civic culture helped foster a forceful written culture focused on persuading and dissuading, accusing and defending, praising and blaming. The humanism of the Renaissance was born out of the womb of rhetoric and owed its advent to the effort of countless public servants, lawyers, notaries, theologians, secretaries, whose relentless pen drove the light dictatorship of letters forward.

The engrossing dance of letters and words
A beautiful example of a text written in Caroline minuscule, 9th century, Oxford, Bodleian, MS. Laud Misc. 134, f. 15v

It’s not just that we have access to more texts, books and written knowledge today than at any other point in history. It’s also much much easier for us to read anything. Since most of us only read texts produced within the last half-century, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that reading has always been as easy as it is today – the cognitive engagement with uniform, space-separated letters laid out on a clear, neat page, subjected to a stack of layout rules, clarity and intelligibility.

The truth is that reading has been and still is evolving, and that new and better ways of reading are constantly being developed. Intelligibility and reading accessibility have always been on the table in the history of the bound book.

The script in use in the West today admittedly goes back to the ancient Romans, but doesn’t come down from them in a straight line. A complex and fascinating history of Latin scripts connects our scribal practices today with their roots in antiquity.

One of the secret and mildly guilty pleasures of palaeographers (expert readers and deciphers of ancient texts) and manuscript scholars is that of showing an ancient or medieval text written in letters of the Latin alphabet to a layperson and asking them whether they can read it. Even a Latin manuscript from the 5th century AD prompts a certain sense of familiarity in someone who approaches it for the first time. Their letters resemble our own and some words stand out. But familiarity doesn’t mean intelligibility, and fascination, awe and confusion begin right there.

It is also incorrect to assume that ancient and medieval readers found it as easy to read their own manuscripts as it is for us to read our printed or electronic texts. There is plenty of evidence that the ancients often found it hard to read the texts of their own age and they surely wouldn’t have been able to make out the text in a manuscript, papyrus roll or parchment codex, as easily as we do with our paper printed books. One of the things the Emperor Charlemagne is famous for is for having identified a Europe-wide script-intelligibility problem and to have called for a sweeping letterform reform. Thereout emerged the hugely influential and world-shattering Caroline minuscule (Caroline for Carolingian and minuscule for its introduction of lower-case letterforms, another huge invention), a type of letterforms which serves as the proximate ancestor of today’s types and fonts.

So next time you read something, including the last paragraph of this post, toast the long history of the human mind’s engagement with the written word and remember how lucky we are to be sitting here, on the shoulders of giant readers and writers, gazing at the engrossing dance of letters and words, on the page or on the screen.