Somersaults and leaps

The medieval manuscript page is the embodiment of a culture anxious about its own becoming. Nothing in a medieval parchment manuscript is permanent except its own material permanence, as vellum is the most resistant soft writing support. Everything else, however, is a leap into the unknown, a somersault twisting and turning texts, images, genres, on their head, moving from one to another, blurring and mis-toeing the lines, bluntly rejecting the comfort and steadiness of what have become the categories of the modern world. That is why we can have images of obscenity in medieval religious texts. That is why several texts can co-exist on the same page without eating each other out. That is why an image can be textual and a text can be imagistic.

To my view, the manuscript page reflected the anxiety of the medieval reader. I like to imagine the person stooped over the page as the human figure inscribed within (or caught in) the entangled arabesque initial represented above. This male figure appears to be blown away by a mysterious wind, sucked into the text of the Book of Kings. He holds on to the arc of a letter C, while his hoisted body acts as an arm, turning the C into an E, the first letter of the word group ET REX DAVID SENUERAT [Now king David was old] which opens the text of Kings. There is no better metaphor for that of the immersed reader, being at one with the text of the book in front of them, or better yet, beside them. The acrobatic initial makes room for another suggestion: that a text may be incomplete without its reader. Without our fearless gymnast, the E wouldn’t come to be, and the text would ultimately be incomprehensible. Every text needs its reader.

Easier or better

Languages with high levels of heterography, the discrepency between how words are spelled and how they are pronounced, suffer the most when literacy in their constituancies starts to decline.

Heterography survives on high doses of book-based education and linguistic policing. In the absence of any formal pressures towards the norm, a word like ‘enough’ would normally career towards being spelled ‘enuf’, as it is already spelled in millions of text messages and Emoji-inundated sentences. It’s shorter and more homographic, which feels more natural to the unpractised pen.

We make, sell and read more books than ever before in our history, but the writing quality of the educated is in decline. This is due to a mix of factors, among which a steady de-emphasis of grammatical and rhetorical instruction existing alongside laissez-faire gatekeepers in a hyperliterate culture.

And, of course, heterography doesn’t make things easier. English is one of the most heterographic languages in the Latin-script world. Words are never the sum of their parts, i.e letters. Groups of letters form sounds different from their constituent parts. The letters ‘ee’ don’t just make a long or emphatic e sound, they give rise to a new sound, iː, like in ‘leek’. And the ‘ea’ in ‘leak’ is pronounced the same, despite having a different spelling.

Languages keep evolving. The spelling and phonetic rules we now have are the result of linguistic development. Spoken and written language, all languages, were very different two hundred years ago, and extremely different five hundred years ago. But our age is very different from previous ones. We don’t believe in language change anymore. We may not live at the end of history like some in the 90s, misreading Fukuyama, believed. But we seem to be living at the end of written language. All has been accomplished, all that is left for us to do is keep within the lines and preserve. Except that we don’t. And the challenge comes from the margins, from the Spartacan revolt of new media and its users.

A manuscript page containing Hugh of St Victor’s Didascalicon, one of the most influential didactic manuals of the pre-modern period, British Library, Sloane MS 1580

Learning is a universal human project. Whether orally or through writing, we are all learning all the time, even when we don’t think much about learning. But while every human being, to survive, has had to learn, only a few of us have stopped to think about learning.

Learning how to learn may be harder than learning itself. It is certainly far more reflexive and requires a deep understanding of what learning is meant to achieve. The ancients had a thing or two to say about how learning works, but they were far more interested in education than the cognitive processes involved in the process of learning. Aristotle, for instance, understood the importance of education and advocated for a well-balanced diet of theoretical, practical and technical knowledge. Cicero discussed the method of loci, a mnemonic strategy, and its role in learning and cognitive performance.

But the real heroes of meta-learning, or learning how to learn, were the medievals.

The medieval scholarship on pedagogy was luxuriant. To read the sources, one gets the impression that the medieval scholars and thinkers, especially after the 12th century, suddenly realised the true potential of the human mind and started reflecting on the nature and relationship of different types of cognition. In his massively influential work Didascalicon or on the Study of Learning/Reading, the German theologian Hugh of Saint Victor explores in remarkable detail the workings of the human mind involved in learning and provides a model for optimal study. His understanding of memory and memorisation became authoritative for the rest of the medieval period.

Hugh’s work on meta-learning was not an accident of history. The 13th century saw an explosion of scholarship on the topic. This in turn led to fresh understandings of the relationship between mind and language, gauging new depths of logic and horizons of inquiry.

A manuscript of Thomas Aquinas’s theological works written in his own (difficult) hand, Vatican LIbrary,

The world is full of books. That is to say, full of copies. Whether printed or made by hand, what sustains a book culture is not the original books, the archetypes, the autographs, but their multiple copies, and an autograph’s success is measured not by any intrinsic value, but by its ability to produce copies. Its success lies outside of itself.

As the manuscript written in the author’s own hand, an autograph represents ground zero of an editorial project.

In the age of print, autographs don’t circulate. They go straight to the author’s archive and later, if they make history, they might find a place in a public library or exhibition. In the age of scribes, however, autographs always circulated. Sometimes a book was its autograph, and most books written in the Middle Ages weren’t copied.

The long tail of the market was made up of autographs devoid of copies. These are the books most unlikely to have reached us. It is those who didn’t make it through time, where the friction of each age pulled their life expectancy down.

Discovering an autograph manuscript is like coming home, like rewinding the tape to the start of the roll. But for all the books of the ancient world, there is no homecoming, as the autographs have been lost. The books we have today, the manuscripts and the printed books produced through the ages, are mere glimmers of those books that started the journey, miles and centuries ago, beacons of light the world and carry humanity on their shoulders, wrapped within their covers.

All words are not equal

Words may have been born free, but they are everywhere in chains, subject to the rules of language. They don’t float around in nondescript clouds. They are tied to speech acts, shackled in links of meaning, struggling to live independently, fighting against referentiality, aspiring to freedom, but never quite getting it.

And most of all, they are not equal to each other. Language reminds us that inequality is built into the fabric of all things. A sentence is incomplete without a verb, a modal always requires a main verb, prepositions cannot sustain themselves without a noun or pronoun and articles don’t make much sense on their own. In the realm of language, some words are independent, but most are not, living and feeding off each other. And this wild ménagerie are the tools that help us get things done, create and communicate, build community, express the invisible, put hopeful flesh on bony dreams.

From time to time, words mutiny. This happens so surreptitiously that nearly nobody sees it happening. Words change meaning, shift into one another, evolve. Language is carried into this maelstrom from which new languages may emerge, while others decay and die. Some words become unrecognisable, others become so popular that they try to reduce all language to themselves.

A slip of the pen

To err is human. But some are more human than others. Especially scribes. Writing in the age of scribes and copyists saw the proliferation of textual errors. Nowadays, we are used to introducing mistakes into a text only at the authorial and editorial stage. The printer doesn’t err, it simply reproduces the errors which have already been entered.

The scribes, on the other hand, were experts of error. It is astonishing that the reproduction of written culture was still able to reduce the rate of error to levels which didn’t impact the substantial quality of the texts involved. Imagine broadcasting an image which multiplies the noise geometrically each time it is emitted. What you end up with is a different image altogether, 100% noise which makes the original picture completely unintelligible. But the scribal culture developed means of reducing the noise. The scribes multiplied the errors through the simple act of manual copying, but they also helped reduce them through correction and revision. Not every text copied before the Gutenberg printing press was corrected and revised, and we may estimate that only one in a hundred manuscripts underwent serious correction. But this was nevertheless enough to keep the errors level within acceptable limits so that the written culture of the ancient Mediterranean could survive, when it did survive, in textually reliable form, into the 15th century. Scholars are still struggling to correct some errors due to layers upon layers of scribal oversights – layers so thick that they tended to become normative, leading to significant semantic shifts.

So we may say that the scribes had the poison but also the cure of the reproduction of textual culture. The villains and heroes of the same piece.

Hands and bodies

Fewer and fewer things are today made by hand. In fact, we celebrate handmade products, whether clothing or food, as high-quality goods, and we are willing to pay a high premium to acquire them. The mechanisation of all things keeps accelerating. The retreat of the body from production means that all activity is being focused in the human mind and in the machine. It feels inevitable, but many of us also feel a sense of loss, of disjointedness. We don’t so much rebel against this state of affairs than lament its advent and its often nefarious consequences. And our lamentations and litanies are almost always recited in the digital temples we built using those very things we petition against.

But there is one area which is not receiving enough petitioning, where the choir is rather faint: writing. The testimonies of a generation brought up on a diet of handwritten word show the extent to which the human body was complicit in the act of writing.

Before handmade there was bodymade.

Handwriting is a misleading word. A culture based on handwriting, one where the first printed word hasn’t yet been printed, is one of sore backs, stif necks, strained eyes, weary bones, an aching body redeemed by the dilligent hand. To think that written culture was able to piggyback its way through centuries of violence and illiteracy on the literal backs of tireless scribes is one of the great mysteries of history. It is all the more mysterious as it is incomprehensible how those very scribes didn’t just give up. To say that copying by hand is manual labour is to miss the point – it is not manual, but utter labour. And that’s why we welcome mechanical writing, the press, the typewriter, the word processor. But leaving our bodies behind in the act of writing comes at a price. We forget our bodies count as much as anything else, and we fall into the cognitive bias of cognitive bias, that the mind is sovereign, our bodies optional, and us disembodies writers, nay, typers, delivering new worlds into a world which is as disembodied as we are.


The greatest plagiariser in history has been History itself. The universe may be endless but it is experiencing a creative crisis. Unable to write a new chapter down, it rehashes bits and bobs that weren’t great to begin with.

Some of us have had an intuition of the great Recycling. It used to go by the name of the Myth of the Eternal Return. Not everyone was convinced. Dasein was slumbering in age-old pyjamas. Some took a shot with ennui, it worked for a while but then that too was exposed for the plagiarism it really was.

It’s becoming harder and harder to find new words to describe new things. So we retrofit our eyes for repetition.

There are days when I think that the chroniclers of the Middle Ages got it right. History is a compilation of existing material, pasted ribbons of recollection finding their way into new tomes. Is anything really new? Is anything really old? Each new sentence fills the footprint of old treks. And yet we believe.

Copyright laws don’t extend to the workings of Being. I blame the novelty bias, of which we are all guilty.

In the junk yard of heaped days and nights, we are all shopping for new trinkets.

An error

I am an error introduced by a tired scribe copying an old manuscript. I was born one evening when the candle was flickering and the wind blew the shutters of the dusty workshop, startling the old man. I was so close to being aborted, had it not been for the man’s hunger and failing eyesight. My existence was conceded, and my body perdured on the dry skin. I felt the penknife approaching, but it didn’t come for me.

I was born prematurally, before the old man had a chance to recognise the error of his pen. I have no logic, I carry no mystery other than the riddle of my old name written in charcoal ink. I beg no question. I am a surplus of text, a slip of the hand, nothing more than a momentary lapse going unchecked, unaccounted for.

I have the patience of centuries before recognition.

I am the only begotten son of an exhausted scribe. He lives through me.

I offend syntax and I do violence to meaning. I am misplaced, ill-conceived, misconceived, I have no right to exist.

And yet I am. More indelible than the wind which conspired to sire me. I am the remains of a gust, unsung and misunderstood.

I am an error of script, and yet I am justified. I insinuate myself in other tomes, spawning my scions under cover of ignorance and neglect. Others take me for genuine, yet I am a fraud. I deceive, but my deception is light.

When I’me exposed, that’s when I become famous.

The unholy trinity of translations

The most divisive coexistence in literature is that between authors, translators and their readers. Each of the three has her own dilemma. The author is only an author in relation to the translator, who in this configuration is the author’s only reader. The translator is torn between being a transformer and an author herself, open to the temptation of coming forth as an author encroaching on the jurisdiction of the translated author. As for the readers of a translation, they have to decide whose voice they are reading, the author’s or the translator’s.

The tripartite unity of a translation-in-action is unstable and may collapse at any point. We are accustomed to view a translated written work simply as a transposition, a switching contraption responding to the demands of comprehension. Like changing one word with another and making sure it makes sense. But a good translation is never just about that. The best translation, in my view, is one which never succeeds – it’s one which multiplies the interrogation about authorial intention and remains trapped in the space between choices. The best translation never sees the light of day because it never manages to commit. There are no best translations, because all available translations have been completed. But then whose work do we read? And what about the author, who are her readers in all this?

%d bloggers like this: