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 hardContinue reading “Living in dark times”

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 consciousnessContinue reading “History and timelines”

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 rangingContinue reading “The enduring charm of hybridity”

A different kind of tourism

It is often said that the origins of modern tourism go back to the medieval European pilgrimage. Many people travelled in the Middle Ages, but out of all the eligible categories, the pilgrim is often singled out as the ancestor of the tourist and holidaymaker. Not the warrior, not the merchant, not the itinerant student,Continue reading “A different kind of tourism”

Pseudonyms and fake news

Despite speculation and hard-headed scrutiny, nobody knows who the person behind the hyper-famous name ‘Elena Ferrante’ is. We might never find out. The French writer Romain Gary received the Goncourt Prize twice, once for a book written under his own name, the other for a book written under the pseudonym ‘Emile Ajar’. Nobody suspected anythingContinue reading “Pseudonyms and fake news”

Of individuals and crowds

News travelled very slowly in the past. Just as it took months for individuals to reach distant lands, so did news reports reach different individuals and communities with significant retardation. In premodern Europe, oral information circulated more speedily than written reports. In the medieval period, necrologues travelled quickly from one monastic community to another. BeforeContinue reading “Of individuals and crowds”

Omo sanza lettere

At the turn of the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci described himself as an ‘omo sanza lettere’, a man without letters. He most likely meant that he had, to paraphrase Ben Johnson, little Latin and even less Greek. Leonardo was one of the last men of the Middle Ages and one of the first ofContinue reading “Omo sanza lettere”

Language acquisition

It has often been said that the childhood is a creation of the modern period. Indeed, ancient and medieval sources occlude discussions of the first age of the human individual, the baby and toddler years. Premodern representations of children emphasise size, rather than any other features, to designate youngsters. From the baby in the cradleContinue reading “Language acquisition”

To inhabit a letter

What was the snuggest spot to inhabit on the medieval manuscript page? It couldn’t have been on the text, that was always shifting, the handwriting was not always steady, the spelling not always the same, the words not always in the right place. Scribes were tired and the light was generally bad in the medievalContinue reading “To inhabit a letter”