Go to hell

One remarkable thing about Dante’s Divine Comedy is that it doesn’t try to cancel any voices. Dante has often been accused of settling scores in the Underworld. If only for this, I think the disenchantment of the West has led to an important loss. With the Hell relegated to a merely poetic or idiomatic reality,…

Living in dark times

No other historical age has suffered more at the hands of historians than the so-called Dark Ages, the period between the 5th and 15th century AD. The medieval period as a dark age has been one of the most enduring legacies of past historiography, while scholars – medievalists, but not exclusively – have tried hard…

Early questions

It could easily be argued that all the fundamental questions which are still with us today find their starting point in ancient Greek thought. We may have new ways to address them, new technologies to handle and new concepts at our disposal, but the questions are essentially the same as those first raised by the…

Of heroes and heroism

In 1898, the German pharmaceutical company Bayer developed a morphine substitute which they called ‘Heroin’. The name was inspired by the Greek word heros meaning hero. Instead of bravery and heroism, this Circean potion led many to doom and ruin. The ironic hero was born. I remember my first contact with heroes and heroism. It was…

Twitter and the ancient epigram

Whether we know it or not, we love epigrams. Whether we like it or not, the ancient epigram has never left us, although we may have left the term ‘epigram’ behind, except when scholars talk about it. The epigrammatic style has always been one of the most popular: concise, funny, incisive. Not anyone can do…

To put your quill where your mouth is

Each one of us is an archeologist, a witness, active or passive, of the history of the material and immaterial culture around us. We don’t have to be academically-minded grave-diggers or shovel-wielding students of antiquity to exercise our archeological sense. An archeologist is someone who understands that he or she is surrounded by ghosts, and…

Let us make the past in our image, after our likeness

What can medieval manuscripts contribute to the current debate about whether questionable items from our past (the past understood as a shared experience and/or collective identity) should be excised from memory or removed from places of memory? Western medieval manuscript art testifies to the endurance of the human disposition to recreate the past in the…

History and timelines

One thing which distinguishes medieval from ancient history-writing is the timeline. From Herodotus to the historians of the Roman Empire, time was a stream flowing in a circle. It’s not that ancient historians didn’t understand the passage of time – they had a very good idea of what time does to matter and human consciousness…

Fiction and non-fiction

One of the peculiarities of the Anglo-American book cultures is, to my mind, the habit of dividing prose into fiction and non-fiction. As far as I know, no other cultural tradition does it. In French bookshops, books are categorised as literature (novels) – subdivided into French novels, foreign novels, youth/teenager novels, fantasy/science-fiction and detective/thriller/crime novels,…

The enduring charm of hybridity

In at least one respect, we’re not too far away from the Middle Ages, and that’s in our cultural bend towards hybridity. I’m not taking about hybrid cars, or maybe I am. One question historians very rarely ask is: what’s in a hybrid? Sure, the word is familiar enough, and it conjures up images ranging…