Literal and literary beauty

Codex Aureus of Echternach, around 1030, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg

For all their obsession with beauty, the ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t care much about beautiful books. The papyrus rolls of the ancient world were objects of truth, of knowledge, of wisdom, of passion, but never of beauty. There is no evidence to suggest that readers appreciated the written word as a place, rather than a vehicle, of beauty.

The book of beauty was born later, in the dark recesses of medieval Europe. Objects of light and splendor emerging from the so-called dark ages. Light of and off the page.

The centuries following the fall of the Roman imperial structures in the West were followed by a double conquest, that of Germanic tribes and peoples, on the one hand, filling the void and displacing old Roman authority, and on the other, the advances of Latin Christianity, filling the void and displacing authorities as well.

And in the midst of these radical disruptions, the book of light converting hearts and minds, the blinding light of a new order. The beauty of the book, once seen cannot be unseen. The gospel books made in Ireland, England, Francia or Germany turned the history of the book on its head. If beauty had been a function of texts written and read in the context of widespread education and literacy, the new books of the new centuries had something else to offer: a vision of light and beauty never to be achieved in this world, but glimpsable in the illuminated, gilded sheets of the parchment codex.

Since then, we have been unable to unsee this great medieval achievement, and whether in books or elsewhere, the call to light, never clear, never unambiguous, is always around the corner. The darkened corner.

Blessed variety

Our books may be diverse and inclusive, but our book cultures are not. Book genres are exclusive, most books resemble each other in shape and form, and while we find a multitude of topics and ways to approach each one, every book seems closer to each other than their authors may claim.

And certainly we’re subscribing to far more rules and constraints about book writing today than a thousand years ago.

Medieval book cultures, despite their limited impact, weak signal and restricted reception, were highly diverse. Their books were highly inclusive – not in the sense we understand inclusivity today, which is from a social point of view, but from a literary point of view. When it came to medieval manuscript books, everything went. With no powers telling writers and binders what books should be like, it was up to the latter two to kickstart blessedly varied traditions of bookwriting and bookmaking.

Not every such tradition took off, but each one that did came from a place of radical deregulation. A manuscript about theology could include an overview of plants and animals. A book of history may feature astronomical treatises and diagrams of the universe. Many works were classable – and classed they were by intrepid scholars and librarians – but most were untaggable. Many didn’t even have titles, or overviews. And the matter they treated of didn’t became obvious to the reader until quite late during perusal.

Scholars have often made the case that the Internet is restoring some of the features of premodern book cultures back to life. That the messiness of medieval letters became apparent in the blogospheres and ecosystems of Web2.0. That the coexistence of orality and literacy so prevalent in medieval vernacular texts has been waging war on post-Renaissance book cultures from the safety of social media networks.

Modern regulae

The refectory of Lewes Priory © Andy Gammon 2010

Chapter 38 of the monastic Rule of St Benedict stipulates:

‘Reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers’.

Reading in medieval refectories or dining halls was very common, not to say it was the rule. While the monks dined, another used to read a passage from a sacred or monastic text, like the Bible or the writings of the Church Fathers.

Eating and listening were part of a sacramental experience. Hearing the Word of God and eating the gifts of the Earth were juxtaposed in the same sacral moment.

That moment we laymen never get to experience. The modern regula, the Rule, is to turn the TV on, that speaker on the lectern, and listen and watch it as we eat. We are a different kind of congregation, poised to absorb something, anything. We stream, but the words stream to us in waves of immanence.

Silence is not a value in our culture. Quietness, however much we crave it at times of high anxiety, is not something we desire for the rest of the time. We find our refuge in nature, but is it really a refuge? No sooner had we touched it with our fingertips that we long for the crowds, and the noise, and the options to choose from.

The medieval monk feared distraction, which was, for many traditions, a grave sin. We have the intuition of the deleterious effects of boredom, but the only strategy against it is, for us, an immersion into more distraction. In Romanian, the word for entertainment is ‘distracție’, whose root is the same as the English distraction. Dis- tragere, dragging apart. We are dragged apart in the hope of reaching a centre, but the more we drag, the farther we get away from ourselves.

The halo effect of medieval cathedrals

The west porch of Metz Cathedral revealing its interiors ©

The Cathedral of St Stephen in Metz has one of the highest naves among churches built in the medieval period. Construction started in the 14th century and ended in the early 16th. It has stood there undamaged through revolutions and geopolitical upheavals.

One of the most common reactions people have when they see a Gothic cathedral rising above the neighbouring rooftops is to wonder how such a tech-challenged age as the medieval period managed to build something so sophisticated that is still standing hundreds of years later. After all, we see apartment blocks, bridges and other structures built at the height of modern engineering collapsing less than a hundred years later.

What we fail to observe is the unobservable. For every medieval church still standing, dozens collapsed soon after construction or many times since then.

We only see what we can see, and disregard what we can’t, assuming that because we can’t see it, it never was. That’s the so-called halo effect.

Most medieval architecture was precariously built, despite the astonishing examples still with us today. Sometimes it was pure luck, other times a relentless game of trial and error.

To get to a nave height of 41 meters, Metz Cathedral needed countless other churches to collapse. And indeed they did. What didn’t crumble was the engineers’ and builders’ commitment to go ever farther, to perfect ever more deeply, to innovate. We just don’t see the construction sites, only the results, and we take them for granted. But we really shouldn’t.

We often get blinded by halos. We take the visible to be all there is, forgetting perhaps that behind every success there is a multitude of necessary errors, the pangs of birth of every achievement. And as the creators didn’t give up, we the onlookers shouldn’t give up on recognising the pain and effort lying, hiding in plain sight. It just takes a different way of looking.

Numbers, more than letters

Numerals have a long history behind them. The earliest numeral notation appeared about 6,000 years ago. But it is only recently that numbers have declared war on letters. Only recently have we, first in the West, and then nearly everywhere else in the world, started to replace letters with numbers.

The ambiguity of the written word is being ‘resolved’ by numbers. Statistics instead of hermeneutics. And it all began with the ‘discovery’ of the number zero in Europe, which of course was not a discovery at all, but an import from faraway lands, in particular the Hindu-Arabic zero already at home in Muslim Spain in the 11th century. The word ‘zero’ itself comes from the Arabic sifr (صفر) meaning ‘noting’, also the root of ‘cipher’.

But a word or a sign in this case can hardly do anything on their own. The Zero Revolution in the West opened new possibilities in maths, leading to scientific breakthroughs. The zero-led Scientific Revolution was a zero-sum game, shifting the focus from a word-based understanding of the world, the Logos of ancient and medieval metaphysics, to a number-obsessed cultural paradigm.

Next time you count your likes on social media or seek the truth value of a claim through recourse to statistical analysis, or decide which view to give credence to based on fact and logic, you should remember how indebted we are to the place of numbers in our culture.

It is the numbers rather than words that have the last word. It is the numbers that decide, numbers that carry the weight, numbers that build and that everything is built on.

In the beginning may have been the Word, but the Number is in charge.

Zigzagging down the page

Heather Blanton, Abstract Skiers Downhill

Reading has more in common with skiing that one might suppose.

A fast reader is a slalom master, negotiating hard turns through the narrow gates of meaning.

Not every adventure is a descent, as any cross-country skier knows. And the best experiences are not downward turns, but arduous ascents up the hermeneutical mountain.

But a book remains a slope and every run counts. No skier worth her salt will ever only attempt a slope just once. It is through repetition that technique improves and the mountain may be tamed and made one’s own.

Some texts are off-piste and that’s why they need to be tackled with care. There are cracks between the lines as there are crevices on the mightiest of glaciers.

Equipment is key. The unequiped reader may attempt an exegetic run at her peril.

Falling is part of the experience, as is failure and suffering. An accident on the mountain may have limited, albeit dire consequences. One in a text may ruin several generations, as a good critical editor knows.

One doesn’t need a reason to open a book and put the skis on. The compulsion to conquer, the desire to know, to experience, to embark on a journey, is what makes one turn one page after another.

A closed book may be a silent mountain, but it is one which seduces from afar, gently but resolutely.

Finding the right route

Almost every other modern philosopher may be found to have said, like Emerson, that it’s not the destination, but the journey that matters.

The logicians and rhetoricians of the ancient world wouldn’t have gone onboard with this. For them, it was the destination that mattered. Persuasion in rhetoric, conclusion in logic.

Finding the right route in both proved to be harder than for a medieval sailor to find their way on the high sea. It took all of antiquity and the medieval period to hone and refine the cartography of reasoning and persuasion. From Aristotle to Port-Royal and from Cicero to Lorenzo Valla, the focus was fastest, shortest, most energy-efficient and accurate route to target.

In logic, the art of reasoning, the rules governing the passage from premise to conclusion, the pitfalls, the fallacies, the non sequiturs (a 16th-century coinage derived from classical logic meaning ‘it does not follow’) – built the charts of verbal reasoning, the motorways of ratio moving from here to there, but not to anywhere. The destination was everything, but only certain paths led to the X marking the spot.

In rhetoric, the journey mattered as long as the destination blew everyone and everything out of the water. The principles and rules were created by those who never used them to achieve the desired result. At the far end of rhetoric, where manipulation lies, the end always excuses the means. When adhesion and conviction are concerned, the pathways didn’t matter. All eyes on target.


In most areas of social and cultural development, the advent of the modern world and the modern state means that things which used to look and feel differently in different parts of a country or across Europe slowly began to resemble each other. Weights and measures, regulation, law, even language, as national, official languages conquered regional idioms and dialects. Our expectation to find the same Starbucks from one end of Europe to another, and the same coin, metric unit and trouser size scale, has a long history behind it.

But this didn’t seem to have happened to book design. Despite uniformisation and standardisation operating at all levels, books look very different whether you buy them in the UK, in France, in Italy or in, say, Romania.

Take the book designs in the UK and France. You’ll rarely find a paperback or a hardback published in the UK in the last twenty years, whatever the publisher might be, that doesn’t feature a photographic cover design. By contrast, in France, the most prestigious publishers like Gallimard, Seuil or Flammarion, to name a few, won’t give up on a geometric, almost minimalist cover design: author and title framed within a layout that hasn’t changed, for Gallimard for instance, in nearly 100 years.

The size will also be different. And French books, for instance, will rarely be sold in hardcover unless they’re part of a collector’s edition, like the Pléiades. While the Livre de Poche, with its regonisable in-16 size which can supposedly fit in a pocket (a mystery to me), has never been attempted in the islands across the Channel – despite the features the Poche shares with the Penguins, for instance.

My personal taste is for variety in book designs, and I rejoice that countries print differently from each other. Especially when PDFs, mobi, epubs and other ebook editions flatten the playing field without enriching it at all.

Ghosting the ghosts

Gustave Doré, The vision of Purgatory and Paradise by Dante Alighieri (London and New York: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin [1868?]

What is writing if not a congregation of ghosts, a reunion of traces? Disembodied presence, tangible absence, the past peeking and claiming underdetermined time.

Every text is new, but every word is old. Some are newly coined, freshly recomposed, but their parts are old and must be old. Meaning depends on wear and tear. The new is always confusing, borderline nonsensical. The challenge with the old is that it’s complacent, worshipping its own shadow. Old words are venerable, but they can easily become hackneyed. Use runs the risk of overuse.

We need as many ghosts as we can get. When a word dies, it goes to Humdrum Plains, where the land is flat to the point of platitude. There are no ghosts in this wordly Inferno, only discarded images and repudiated signs. Before they reach the Plains, they take a detour via social media. There they metastasize into clichés, formulaic disembodied and disemboweled smudges on the face of texts.

But the ghosts are what makes up the land of living words. Ghosts of transformed language, of evolved meaning, of rhetorical acrobatic, of compassionate connotation. These ghosts run in the machine of language-making. No living idiom can do without them. They come from afar, they come slowly and they come in pairs, the sign and its meaning. Sometime they become estranged, but in the end they find each other.

The territory and the map

An Italian portolan map from 1476, used for sailing navigation, Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 81

Navigation has always been an arduous conquest. A conquest over culture as the map is over the territory.

Finding the way takes time. Evolutionary time. X may mark the spot, but how do you know how to put the X in the first place?

The history of writing and of the book is no less of a conquest and no less of a navigational marvel. Locating sounds and concepts in language, turning them into signs, signs into strings of signs, strings into chains, chains into weaved text, textus, texere, texture, interweaving, tissue into bodies, corpora, bodies of text into books, volumes, codices and tomes.

Once words become without number, the mind gives up on locating them. Memory can take so much in. Then it stops taking more in, and starts thinking of ways of making things easier for itself. Like the index, page numbers, tables of contents, running titles, references. It starts referring itself to itself. Chapter verse. X and Y. The mind plots the best ways to plot coordinates, and thus grab Ariadne’s thread.

We take most of these nav aids for granted. We know where to look because others before us didn’t have where to look and innovated new ways to find the way out of the maze.

The world has always been huge and we’ve always been small. The distance between two points was the same 2,000 years ago as it is today. But our maps have changed. While the territory has stayed the same, we’ve inhabited it differently, armed with laser pointers, ordnance survey maps and search engines.

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