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Textualization of Experience

Studies on Ancient Greek Literature


Paweł Majewski

The book is an analysis of Greek Hellenistic literature with the help of conceptual tools of cultural studies and media theory. Its main aim is to describe the cultural process during which Greek authors in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. made the “textualization of experience", that is, transferred phenomenalistically understood qualities of human sensory experience to the categories characteristic for textual description – as far as possible for them. This process is shown by examples from the works of Xenophon, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Philitas of Kos and Archimedes. The author also tries to show some of the consequences that the phenomenon of the Hellenistic textualization of experience had for the later epochs of European culture.

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Appendix. Two medieval traces of experience in the text

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Appendix. Two medieval traces of experience in the text

1) The structure of Isidore’s of Seville Etymologies; or, about the discontinuity of the European cultural remembrance

Isidore (ca. 560–636), the bishop of Seville, whom pope Clement VIII canonized in 1598, Innocent XIII granted him the title of Doctor of the Church, and John Paul II made a patron of the Internet, computer scientists and computer users, is treated by many modern scholars somehow condescendingly. Although Ernst Robert Curtius described his Etymologies as “Grundbuch des ganzen Mittelalters” [a basic book for the whole Middle Ages], Isidore enjoyed, and often still enjoys, the ambiguous fame of a naive erudite, rewriting everything he read from the earlier authors without order or composition. Even William M. Lindsay, a great connoisseur of late and early medieval lexicographers and erudites, the author of the only complete critical edition of Etymologies to date, wrote:

An editor’s enthusiasm is soon chilled by the discovery that Isidore’s book is really a mosaic of pieces borrowed from previous writers, sacred and profane; often their “ipsa verba” without alteration. For example, the accounts of Logic in Book II and of Arithmetic in Book III are practically transferred word for word from Cassiodorus. And the huge number of MSS. scattered throughout the libraries of Europe demands not merely enthusiasm but time and money from an editor. Still, although a great part of the Etymologiae is already available for us in the works of extant authors, a portion comes from authors whose works have been lost and offers us the means of recovering them. The Prata of Suetonius is to be reconstructed only by the help of Isidore. The presence too of quotations from the lost literature of the Republic demands a reliable text and an adequate apparatus.195

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So even Lindsay – who has spent many years and probably also a lot of money on developing a critical edition of Etymologies based on nearly a thousand medieval manuscripts scattered all over Europe (at the beginning of the twentieth century, the researcher could only finance this type of research from his own private funds, because nobody had ever heard of grants or subsidized research projects at that time) – even he sees it only as a link in the message of a few otherwise missing ancient texts, which means that he does not give this work an intrinsic aesthetic or cognitive value. And it is worth remembering that Lindsay specialized in authors such as Nonius Marcellus or Pompeius Festus, whose works, antique lexicons, and spelling dictionaries, consisting only of enumerations of thousands of words with concise elliptical definitions, are not narrative texts at all. This means that he mainly worked on texts very distant from the commonly understood spirituality of ancient times and did not expect from the objects of his inquiries either the intellectual depths of Euripides or Virgils’ artistic styles. Today, when one appreciates late-Ancient erudites and antiquarianists, such as Athenaeus or Aulus Gellius, and tries to find self-contained cognitive structures in the thousands of quotations and minor cultural facts they have gathered, Isidore is also seen by some researchers with a more gracious look. However, the opinio communis of the academic humanities continues to replicate Lindsay’s view which, as I have already mentioned, remains to this day the author of the only full critical edition of Etymologies, since the new edition – in progress for almost forty years – is far from being completed.

Here, I attempt to place Etymologies against their cultural background and to define their role and function in the world in which they were created. It is not my goal to analyze the history of the text of Etymologies – so I do not take into account, for example, the fact that the adopted layout of their content divided into books and chapters does not come from Isidore himself, nor do I analyze the form assumed n particular manuscript families by Greek words and other terms exotic to medieval copyists and readers (such problems have so far interested almost all researchers of Etymologies). In short, I am dealing with Isidore’s work not so much from the perspective of philology as from the perspective of cultural anthropology.

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The first problem to be tackled from such a position is the criteria of disposition of the material contained in Etymologies. Researchers often claim that the twenty books compiled by Isidore are just a chaos loosely based on the scheme of artes liberales, sometimes mocking the supposedly clumsy, naive arrangement of the whole work. I quote here a representative example:

This systematically arranged encyclopedia, packed with information and misinformation on every topic from angels to the parts of saddle, descends so often into false etymologizing and the uncritical parade of absurd bric-á-brac that it cannot be read without a smile. But Isidore wins one’s respect, and even affection, by his obvious appreciation of knowledge for its own sake. Hostility to pagan literature is explicit in some of his public pronouncements, and he was more at home in the neutral pages of the scholiast and compiler than in the classical authors themselves, whom with the few exceptions he quotes at second-hand; but his curiosity knew no barriers and he took for granted the independent value of profane culture. When he culls from the fathers of the Church the scraps of classical poetry and pagan learning that they contain and re-allocates them to their proper place in the traditional system of knowledge, this bishop is paradoxically recreating in a resecularized form the basic structure of ancient learning.196

This recreation, however, was not as simple as the authors of Scribes and Scholars see, who, let us add, quite biasedly listed two extreme enumeration points contained in the Etymologies – angelic choirs and saddle parts – side by side, giving the reader the impression that this kind of juxtaposition, absurd in terms of functionality and common sense, is on the agenda in Isidore. As I will try to show, it is quite different.

It is precisely the ambiguous, borderline position of Etymologies situated in the style of two very different cultures that is one of the main objects of reflection for someone who wants to look at them from a perspective other than strictly textual. The problem is that Isidore juxtaposed elements of ancient culture, which, in Visigothic Spain at the beginning of the seventh century, was a culture completely absent ←185 | 186→from practical life, but still present in the cultural memory, despite its fragmentation during the turmoil after the disintegration of the Roman Empire. But in order to create as coherent a picture as possible, he used the instances of the text that were available to him, that is, the manuscript remains of the previous era and his own – already medieval – handwrittenness. The clash of restored antiquity with early medieval intellectual and writing practices is, in my opinion, a key factor in understanding Etymologies.

Considered from the perspective of “modern science” (I will explain later why I put this term in quotation marks), the system of Etymologies could be compared to the famous “Chinese classification,” which Jorge Luis Borges included in his essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” and which has served hundreds of authors as a stand-alone example of the conventionality of text references organizing cultural experience:

On these remote pages it is written that animals are divided into: (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.197

Seemingly, in both cases we are dealing with a quasi-rational, but in fact paranoid, or at least nonsensical, division of reality into peculiar categories that do not fit together, do not manifest any overriding principle of organization nor consistent relations that would make it possible to determine why these and such elements were placed next to each other. Isidore’s Visigothic Spain and Borges’ mythical medieval China appear to be the same to a viewer educated in the heritage of modern Western culture – namely, objects of a ridiculous or fantastic tale in which one could possibly find some secret logic, some peculiar principle, especially after having made an obligatory lesson in academic relativism (of the simplest ←186 | 187→possible kind, the one that most often takes the form of a condescending or even mindless gesture of recognition of a “cultural difference”), but this logic, this principle, is certainly too foreign to our safe understanding for us to be able to appreciate its essence. It is a principle on the borderline between reason and dream, it is an illusion or parody of the Order we know from “serious” books, i.e. books whose contents are governed by structures of written alphabetical discourse formulated by Plato and Aristotle, introduced into the practice of the text by their Hellenistic successors, and finally fully developed within the typographic framework of European modernity.

But such a comparison only apparently has any explanatory power. Famous Borges’ classification is a melancholic pastiche of the world’s textual experience, a pastiche whose author is painfully aware that this experience is just falling apart, losing its legitimacy in the face of the ever more violent detachment of words from things in the process of the disintegration of premodern categories of reality organization. At the same time, Isidore, who lives, acts, and thinks a thousand three hundred and fifty years earlier in a situation very distant from the climates of relativistic irony cultivated on the ruins of modernism, attempts to produce a real representation of the heritage of cultural memory and the structure of the world known to him – and to reconcile them with each other within a single intellectual and textual structure. What is more, he makes this attempt using a handwritten text and performs his work in a pragmatic context dictated by his era.

That is why I put the term “modern science” in quotation marks. It does not mean the refutation of scientific practices as such and their results, but the relativization of the process of the practicing and conceptual modeling of science within cultural history. The results of scientific research, especially in areas other than the humanities, are not subject to this relativization, but from the viewpoint of the anthropology of cultural communication, it is subject to a set of specific language practices that organize within the practices and institutions of science the intersubjective experience of its participants, and it is this set and the relations between its elements that make up the expression of the content of science.

Etymologies are testimony to a different system of such linguistic practices, a system which, in the eyes of positivist humanists operating ←187 | 188→with the tools of nineteeth-century science and criticism, seemed ridiculous and naive, but in the time of Isidore himself, it served certain well-defined purposes, which I will try to outline. The primacy of the linguistic practices of the nineteenth- or twentieth-century humanities over those of the early Middle Ages is conditioned historically and pragmatically, but this does not mean that old practices should be ignored just because they are alien to our own – or compared to ours to their disadvantage.

The thesis I want to prove is as follows: Isidore’s Etymologies are neither an example of naive erudition nor a quasi-scientific classification, but represent an early form of textual absolutism, in which the belief in the permanence of the notation in the face of a break in cultural continuity in the historical process is manifested. Moreover, they are also a manifestation of early medieval textual encyclopedicism as a form of “storage memory” in the sense of Aleida Assmann – and thus a resource of knowledge extracted from the heritage of previous eras, not only to serve as a guideline for current activities but also to create an archive of the past functioning as a generator of timeless cultural values.

The presentation of the structure of Etymologies is a difficult task inasmuch as this work consists of twenty books divided into four hundred and forty-eight chapters in total. A thorough analysis of such a rich layout would be lengthy and tedious. I will therefore confine myself to presenting here the division into books to define, on this basis, the internal logic of the structure of knowledge contained by Isidore in his work, which, for the time being, I do not designate with any of the names used in modern culture for texts describing the widest possible fields of reality. In what follows, I cite in full the “table of contents” located in many of the manuscripts of Etymologies and focus on its individual elements.

Index librorum [Analytical table of contents]198

Ut valeas quae requiris cito in hoc corpore invenire, haec tibi, lector, pagina monstrat de quibus rebus in libris singulis conditor huius codicis disputavit, id est ←188 | 189→in libro [So that you may quickly find what you are looking for in this work, this page reveals for you, reader, what matters the author of this volume discusses in the individual books – that is, in Book –]

We are dealing here with a “speaking table of contents,” frequent in the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages, which imitates the voice of a living lector and introduces the reader into the structure of the presented work. At the time of Isidore, this practice was still underdeveloped and rarely seen, because the tools of “text handling,” such as the table of contents and index, did not become widespread until the mature Middle Ages. In this case, it was forced by the volume and complexity of the text structure. We are not sure whether this table of contents was present in the oldest manuscripts. The quasi-oral turn to the reader is in this case an intermediate form between the ancient invocation and the medieval introduction, and it is significant that it does not serve to introduce the reader in general to the diegetic reality of the text, but to explain the intricacies of the layout of the text – from which it results, that the projected viewer was not to read Isidore in order to “feel” the story he was presenting, but to obtain a purely textual knowledge, highly intellectually mediated and already fully adapted to textual (and not quasi-sensory, as in the case of oral narratives) reception. However, one should ask what kind of reality Etymologies were supposed to represent and what kind of experience were they supposed to textualize?

  I. De Grammatica et Partibus eius. [Grammar and its parts.]

 II. De Rhetorica et Dialectica. [Rhetoric and dialectic.]

III. De Mathematica, cuius partes sunt Arithmetica, Musica, Geometrica et Astronomia. [Mathematics, whose parts are arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.]

The first three books of Etymologies are devoted to seven artibus liberales, which means that they cover the canon of late antiquity and early medieval “higher education.” Here Isidore follows the scheme defined by the lawmakers of ancient culture from Cicero to Martianus Capella, but for him this scheme is not the same as the full foundation of human knowledge. On the contrary, it is only a basis, a starting point for further categorization and classification. At the same time, beginning with grammar (that is, a field roughly corresponding to contemporary ←189 | 190→linguistics), Isidore presents the metatheory of his own intellectual activity, as he describes his own cognitive tools – language, writing, and rules of using them.

IV. De Medicina. [Medicine.]

 V. De Legibus vel Instrumentis Iudicum ac de Temporibus. [Laws and the instruments of the judiciary, and Times.]

The fourth and fifth books concern areas of theoretical knowledge relevant to social and collective life – medicine, laws and principles of measuring time on small and large scales. In these parts of Etymologies, the complexity of their structure begins to be clearly visible, as Isidore gives here both information about his own current historical and cultural situation and information about a very distant historical or even mythical past. For example, he gives information about the foundations of Roman law from the late Republic and about the counting of the years according to the Olympic games in Greece – even though both were dead cultural institutions in his own world. The third type of knowledge that appears here is knowledge that is independent of the cultural situation, for example, knowledge about diseases. All this information is interwoven with “etymologies” based on phonetic or graphemical similarities between supposedly related words, which makes the textual and extra-text order (“theory” and “practice” of knowledge) intertwine constantly in the system adopted by Isidore. For all terms referring to the recipient’s extra-text practice are at the same time treated as elements of a strictly textual reference system created by a network of pseudo-ethymologies. This is a unique model, unprecedented neither in antiquity nor in modern times within one intellectual literary project.

 VI. De Ordine Scripturarum, de Cyclis et Canonibus, de Festivitatibus et Officiis. [The order of Scripture, cycles and canons, liturgical feasts and offices.]

VII. De Deo et Angelis, de Nominibus Praesagis, de Nominibus Sanctorum Patrum, de Martyribus, Clericis, Monachis, et ceteris Nominibus. [God and angels, prophetic nomenclature, names of the holy fathers, martyrs, clerics, monks, and other names.]

VIII. De Ecclesia et Synagoga, de Religione et Fide, de Haeresibus, de Philosophis, Poetis, Sibyllis, Magis, Paganis ac Dis Gentium. [Church and synagogue, religion and faith, heresies, philosophers, poets, sibyls, magicians, pagans, gods of the gentiles.]

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The books from the sixth to the eighth are devoted to the issues of religion, theology and worship. Interestingly, Isidore not only provides information about Christian, Jewish, and pagan religions on an equal footing, but also includes information about ancient libraries, writing tools, and the circulation of books in the ancient world. Such a juxtaposition indicates that this author is highly aware of the role that writing and text played in the transmission of the most important content of culture and religion. It is likely that, for Isidore, the truths of faith depended not so much on the existential message of revelation as on the textual transmission of that message. It is also important that the issues related to the religiousness of the people of antiquity are linked in his work with data on their philosophy and literature (extremely modest, because in Isidore’s time the people of Europe knew almost nothing about these fields of ancient culture, especially Greek). All these areas of human intellectual activity are therefore for him equivalent correlates of textual messages.

It should also be remembered that, for people living in the times of Isidore, the ancient world was a world accessible almost exclusively through texts – unless they were in the immediate vicinity of its visible material remains, for example in Rome or Athens. It can be assumed that even in these cases, the awareness of the historical identity of the ruins of old buildings available for their glance was at best weak.199 In other words, people of the early Middle Ages imagined and made present the previous epoch only through manuscript texts. This circumstance must be borne in mind when considering the cultural roles of works such as Etymologies.

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IX. De Linguis Gentium, de Regum, Militum Civiumque Vocabulis vel Affinitatibus. [Languages of the nations, royal, military, and civic terminology, family relationships.]

 X. Quaedam Nomina per Alphabetum Distincta. [Certain terms in alphabetical order.]

The ninth and tenth books are devoted to what we would call “social sciences” today. After discussing a number of specific areas in Book 9, Isidore dedicates the next book to an alphabetical listing of several hundred terms related to the social life of the people of his era. All these explanations are also accompanied by pseudo-ethymologies that derive the current meanings of words for Isidore and his readers from the supposed meanings of “ancient,” and it is already clear at this stage of his argument that the role of etymology here is not to determine strictly linguistic affinities (as modern philologists have assumed), but above all the cultural affinities. Isidore, in the face of an overt break in the continuity of early medieval culture with the culture of antiquity, tries to restore this continuity at the level of lexical items, operating on an uninterrupted transmission of linguistic material, i.e. on one of the important forms of intangible cultural heritage. In this sense, the substitution of the lost political and social continuity becomes the continuity of language practices, and these are realized on a larger scale as text practices. The text thereby becomes a metonymy of the whole cultural world. Again, as in the case of Theophrastus and Archimedes, but for completely different reasons, the text is a world.

 XI. De Homine et Partibus eius, de Aetatibus Hominum, de Portentis et Transformatis. [Human beings and their parts, the ages of humans, portents and metamorphoses.]

XII. De Quadrupedibus, Reptilibus, Piscibus ac Volatilibus. [Four-footed animals, creeping animals, fish, and flying animals.]

These two books cover knowledge of the human physiology and zoology, thus starting the second half of Etymologies, mainly devoted to applied sciences. Here one can observe the oscillation of textual structures between the knowledge inherited from the Ancients and the attempts to incorporate into this established body of knowledge the new knowledge that is being formed in the current historical circumstances of Isidore. However, the modest number of such attempts clearly shows that Isidore’s aim was not to update the state of knowledge, which would have been ←192 | 193→difficult to achieve if only because of the poor circulation of information in seventh-century Europe, but to incorporate the available state of current knowledge into a much broader corpus of “old knowledge.” The parties of Etymologies devoted to natural sciences are a good example of the notorious “lack of empiricism” in medieval people’s thinking about the physical world around them. Without going into the details of this problem (different for each phase of the Middle Ages), I merely point out that Isidore provides many examples of a phenomenon in which the textual authority inherited in the message from past eras is accepted without the need to verify it through non-textual experience. Isidore’s world – not only cultural, but also natural and material – is to a large extent a “textual world;” its form, structures and principles of action are determined by the mutual relations of the words recorded in the notation, not by material processes or relations between the practices of the participants of culture, and “naïve” (from the point of view of modern scholars) etymologization is to further strengthen these purely textual relations. In such an arrangement, cultural memory is almost completely reduced to textual memory – a process which found numerous examples in the culture of the entire Middle Ages.

XIII. De Elementis, id est de Caelo et Aere, de Aquis, de Mare, de Fluminibus ac Diluviis. [Elements, that is, the heavens and the air, waters, the sea, rivers and floods.]

 XIV. De Terra et Paradiso et de Provinciis totius Orbis, de Insulis, Montibus ceterisque Locorum Vocabulis ac de Inferioribus Terrae. [Earth, paradise, the regions of the whole globe, islands, mountains, other terms for places, and the lower regions of the earth.]

Books 13 and 14 cover meteorological and geographical knowledge. Here, the mutual osmosis of at least three types of knowledge inherited from the “ancients” that Isidore tries to combine – religious knowledge, proto-scientific knowledge, and “naming” knowledge – is particularly evident, which, being the basis for constant etymologization, is at the same time the foundation that corresponds in contemporary cognitive undertakings to both “resources of sources” and the “factual layer, but not being either in the cultural and textual reality of Isidore’s himself, because the components of this knowledge are nomina nuda, pure names taken by him from ancient texts and not combined in his experience with extra-linguistic ←193 | 194→correlates, even because of the already mentioned lack of visual imagery related to antiquity. Isidore almost always deals with “signifiants” without “signifies” that are lost in the course of the enormous turmoil of history between the end of antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. But he treats them as if these “bare words” were full, complete linguistic, and cultural entities. In this sense, the form of textual absolutism that he practices is different from both his earlier forms (such as Aristotle’s scriptism200 consisting in the textual categorization of cognitive processes) and later forms (such as the primacy of text in positivist science subjecting all other areas of experience to it).

XV. De Civitatibus, de Aedificiis Urbanis et Rusticis, de Agris, de Finibus et Mensuris Agrorum, de Itineribus. [Cities, urban and rural buildings, fields, boundaries and measures of fields, roads.]

In this book, we are dealing with a conglomerate which consists of elements of the history of urban planning, history of architecture, building construction theory and agronomy. The features of the argument, which I indicated in my previous remarks, are repeated here.

XVI. De Glebis ex Terra vel Aquis, de omni genere Gemmarum et Lapidum pretiosorum et vilium, de ebore quoque inter Marmora notato, de Vitro, de Metallis omnibus, de Ponderibus et Mensuris. [Earthy materials from land or water, every kind of gem and precious and base stones, ivory likewise, treated along with marble, glass, all the metals, weights and measures.]

In this book, Isidore, like Pliny the Elder in Natural History, combines the knowledge of the natural origin of inorganic substances with the knowledge of their cultural use. The textuality of the argument is marked here not only by constant etymologization but also by the enumeration of the signs with which individual substances and minerals were marked in the manuscripts of that epoch.

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XVII. De Culturis Agrorum, de Frugibus universi generis, de Vitibus et Arboribus omnis generis, de Herbis et Holeribus universis. [Agriculture, crops of every kind, vines and trees of every kind, herbs and all vegetables.]

XVIII. De Bellis et Triumphis ac Instrumentis Bellicis, de Foro, de Spectaculis, Alea et Pila. [Wars and triumphs and the instruments of war, the Forum, spectacles, games of chance and ball games.]

XIX. De Navibus, Funibus et Retibus, de Fabris Ferrariis et Fabricis Parietum et cunctis Instrumentis Aedificiorum, de Lanificiis quoque, Ornamentis et Vestibus universis. [Ships, ropes, and nets, iron workers, the construction of walls and all the implements of building, also wool-working, ornaments, and all kinds of clothing.]

XX. De Mensis et Escis et Potibus et Vasculis eorum, de Vasis Vinariis, Aquariis et Oleariis, Cocorum, Pistorum, et Luminariorum, de Lectis, Sellis et Vehiculis, Rusticis et Hortorum, sive de Instrumentis Equorum. [Tables, foodstuffs, drink, and their vessels, vessels for wine, water, and oil, vessels of cooks, bakers, and lamps, beds, chairs, vehicles, rural and garden implements, equestrian equipment.]

The last four books of Etymologies are devoted to practical areas that are important for social life and related to activities undertaken by human communities. In them, Isidore goes through agriculture and horticulture, the military and the institutions of public life, and then discusses the various types of tools and products for meeting human social needs. In the contemporary humanities, these books are probably best suited to cultural anthropology, because it is only in this field that the reflection on material and non-material elements of culture is consistently combined. This is the part of the work, where the greatest number of textual elements have clear material equivalents in the world of Isidore and his contemporaries are found.

At this point, at the end of the “reasoned” table of contents of Etymologies, it may be worth recalling that the “angelic choirs” and the “components of the saddle,” mentioned next to each other by ironic Englishmen, are in fact at the extreme, opposing poles of the textual structure of the representation of reality constructed by Isidore.


What are Etymologies? How can we define this extensive text, which was supposed to encompass all the cultural knowledge available to its author, and at the same time provide practical or even advisory information? To whom, and in what way, was it supposed to be useful?

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The textual tools available to Isidore were chirographic writing space (where he could write down words and sentences in a generally linear order and draw simple diagrams) and a stock of manuscript texts containing the works of his predecessors, but it is rather certain that this stock contained few ancient texts as such, mainly early-Christian works, the authors of which have quoted extensively the earlier writings (Isidore’s dependence on such authors as Cassiodorus, Boethius, or Jerome is obvious, among the “classics” he most often quotes Virgil, the Greeks he knew only from the second or even third hand). Using these tools in the court environment of the Visigothic Spain, Isidore explored heteronomic phenomena, coming from distant historical and cultural contexts covering the world of the ancient Middle East, Greece, Rome, and the circle of myths and cultural symbols functioning within them. However, in constructing a detailed picture of the world experienced in these cultural models, Isidore did not have access to the original contexts in which these particular cultural facts were created and played their main symbolic roles. In other words, most of the elements of knowledge that he operated on could not make sense to him as they had at the source of their existence.

Therefore, the bishop of Seville collected the pure signs of the writing, passed on to him by his predecessors, whose texts he read, but without any extra-textual correlates (references, denotation, pragmatic function). At the same time, however, he knew that such correlates must have existed in the past. One might risk a comparison, according to which the text was for Isidore what the results of excavations are for the archaeologist: an artifact devoid of its own meaning and demanding that the “finder” give it meaning in an act of risky, because based on speculative premises, interpretation. The process of constant etymologization that permeated the whole of Isidore’s work was an equivalent of modern and modern interpretation, its substitute, one might say, if the actual interpretation could not have come about because of the lack of context.

Isidore’s work on the construction of a textual world to replace – for both him and his contemporaries – the lost material and mental reality of previous eras resulted in a text that combines the characteristics of several distinct textual genres in later eras, namely:←196 | 197→

a linguistic dictionary (as indicated by the presence of words, names and terms definitions);

an etymological dictionary (explaining the origin of words and their alleged primary meaning), this layer of text is the main link with the cultural past;

a lexicon (since Etymologies are to a large extent a collection of terms that cover all areas of cultural and social life);

an encyclopedia (because it is also a set of terms intended to completely cover the common knowledge);

a classification (because it divides the material according to principles designed to order an extra-text reality, which is in fact absent, but is brought to life as a “textual phantom” – and to divide it into clearly defined areas suitable for unambiguous textual analysis);

a universal history (since Isidore usually gives concise data on the historical development of the various topics he discusses in most areas).

What cultural functions could result from such a structure and disposition of the text and from such a particular cultural and historical location of its author?

The bishop of Seville was creating Etymologies, being at the borderline between antiquity and the Middle Ages. It is not about the “limes” marked out by school periodicals, but about the border separating two worlds of cultural experience. During Isidore’s lifetime, Visigothic Spain for more than a century and a half had not participated in Roman culture, which itself had already melted into the turmoil of the barbaric peoples migrations. There was a break in the continuity of transmission and reception in the evolution of the cultural system, but it was not a violent break at all – in whosecase there would be no transmission, and both Isidore and we today would know no more about antiquity than about Palaeolithic cultures. Barbaric peoples slowly and gradually disintegrated the structures and processes that defined the culture of the late Empire, leading to its final disintegration in the fifth and the sixth centuries – but at the same time leaving incidentally the narrow channels of transmission of its symbolic forms in the form of texts. Centers such as the Vivarium of Cassiodorus or Benedict’s Monte Cassino, and a little later the Iro-Scotic monasteries made it possible to transmit the remnants of ancient ←197 | 198→Latin writing (at the time few people in Europe knew anything about the Greeks, if not count the Byzantine territories).201 However, in such conditions, it was not possible to transmit knowledge about the extra-text circumstances of the circulation of these texts. The “Dark Ages” were dark mainly because of an impenetrable curtain hung between them and the world that preceded them. This veil did not manage to be removed in any later epoch – neither the Renaissance humanists, nor the Romantic Hellenists, nor the positivistic philologists, nor the supporters of the “third humanism” in the first half of the twentieth century, nor the postmodern anthropologists of antiquity – even though each of these formations introduced new methods of discovering antiquity and reproducing – or rather, as we see today – producing it.

Isidore was in the immediate vicinity of this curtain and was probably not very aware of its existence. He experienced the disappearance of cultural competence in the reception of texts inherited from the decaying world of antiquity, but at the same time his quite favorable geopolitical location made him hopeful of restoring this world, at least in the image he created in his own text for the use of his contemporaries. In this sense, Isidore’s undertaking is somewhat reminiscent of the work of the Florentine Camerata from the end of the sixteenth century, which resulted in the creation of the opera as a replica of Greek tragedy. Both replicas were not entirely successful, but it turned out that they had an independent existence. The difference is that Isidore’s replica was purely and exclusively textual.

←198 | 199→

The legacy of antiquity appears in Etymologies as a text torn out of its own contexts, stripped of pragmatism and cultural practice, and instead endowed with a new, independent existence as a text almost absolute, self-sufficient and independent from its original sources. When Umberto Eco decided to title his first novel with an allusion to the sentence of Bernard of Morlay written in the poem De contemptu mundi – “Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus” (“The old rose remained only a name, bare names are all we have left”) – he pointed to this very feature of medieval cultural communication through texts, and, in a sense, also a feature of any cultural communication in general, which is being stripped of existential experience and henceforth the main goal of its creators and recipients is to re-construct this experience through the experience of the text.202 Isidore of Seville is one of the precursors of this impossible project, a task which is utopian in its very intention.

The particularity of the cultural communication in which Isidore participated lies in the fact that he wanted to do more than just reproduce records – like the brethren from Monte Cassino or a little later Iro-Scottish monks. He wanted to give the inherited knowledge a new structure, as coherent as it was possible for him in his own conditions. To this end, he filled the context gaps with pseudo-ethymologies and “frivolous” juxtapositions of recorded elements of the dead tradition – the only ones he had access to. Thus, Etymologies are something different in practice than for example Pliny’s Natural History or late-antique word lexicons. This has been an attempt to extract meanings from texts that have fallen out of a constant complex cultural message, as a result of which their contextual meanings have been blurred. The “falsities” and “ridiculous naiveties” in Isidore’s works, treated with pity by philologists, are the result of a largely “blind” (i.e. without the knowledge of extra-textual aspects of cultural memory) attempts to restore these meanings.

If one compares Etymologies as a “basic book of the Middle Ages” with Diderot’s Encyclopedia as a “basic book of modernity,” the differences in situations and cultural roles of these texts will immediately become clear. ←199 | 200→Isidore tried to resurrect the pragmatically dead ancient culture, and the result of this attempt was a qualitatively innovative text-centered image of the world, which had a significant impact on the textual categories of medieval culture. Diderot and other encyclopedists, in turn, aimed to organize and democratize the knowledge of culture, which was currently “here and now” for them, and were fully aware of the non-textual, pragmatic aspects of this knowledge – and the result was the first encyclopedia in the modern sense of the term, and at the same time a model for all the others, right up to Wikipedia.

In many manuscripts of Etymologies, there are six letters from Isidore of Seville to abbot Braulio, who was his friend, encouraged him to work, and probably also divided the material collected by the bishop of Seville into twenty books, which I analyzed in this essay, assuming that Braulio did not interfere with the disposition of the text, but only extracted the particular parts of work according to the author’s intention. In these letters, Isidore regularly recalls the topos of “make oneself present,” stressing that in a situation where he cannot meet the addressee himself, his texts will be a satisfactory substitute for his personal presence. “Text as personal presentation” is a theme already known in classical antiquity. However, in the case of Isidore, it may have a slightly different meaning than within either antiquity or the Renaissance, when the circulation of texts took place within coherent systems of material and symbolic culture that gave them the necessary attributes of a process of understanding. The text of Isidore, as I have tried to show in the previous pages, was created in radically different conditions where the presence of pragmatic contexts was at least problematic. In such a situation, Isidore’s words about making his own person present in the handwritten codex that reaches the addressee take on a special meaning, because this text not only makes his author present but also, in a phantomatic and wishful thinking, brings with itself the whole great dead culture of antiquity.

According to the interpretation presented here, therefore, Isidore’s Etymologies are a text-based prosthesis of the dead cultural memory, a prosthesis that played a huge role in the process of reconfiguring the structures of cultural memory of Europeans in the early Middle Ages. From this point of view, appointing Isidore of Seville as the patron saint of the Internet and its users acquires at least a double significance. ←200 | 201→The work of Isidore is in fact a testimony to the break in continuity of cultural memory on our continent and attempts to restore it. Michel Foucault followed in the footsteps of another “great break” that was to take place at the turn of the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries and led to the breakdown of the clear relationship between “words” and “things.” I think, however, that the break between words and things has been happening in our culture continuously since the beginning of writing, since the days of the sophists and Plato. This is precisely Benjamin’s “continuous presence of catastrophe” – as well as the textualization of experience occurring “not here” and “not now,” as analyzed in this book. Isidore of Seville is one of the most important witnesses to this catastrophe.

2) The copyist’s suffering and the calligrapher’s joy: on the psychodynamics of writing in medieval Europe

When reading a translation of Antigone or Aeneid in a freshly printed book, we rarely think about the fact that the text we have before our eyes is in a certain (sometimes large) degree a translation not of Sophocles’ or Virgil’s own text, but of a philological construction, about which we can only say with some probability that it reflects something that could be named an autograph. We do not have a single antique autograph203, not many medieval ones – and this situation will not change significantly in the future. In the case of Greek and Roman works, many centuries have separated our oldest complete copies from the dates of their creation or the first written edition of their texts.

Modern classical philology was involved in the construction of old texts as ideal entities. The physical features of the old manuscripts, on the other hand, have been the subject of areas included in the auxiliary sciences of history – palaeography, codicology and diplomatics for at least two hundred years. Researchers representing these disciplines developed very subtle methods of analysis, thanks to which they were able to present ←201 | 202→a coherent picture of the history of Greek and Latin writing and the evolution of old book forms (first of all, the codex, and in cooperation with papyrologists, also the scroll). In their research, they sometimes also drew attention to the cultural contexts of the manuscripts – the forms of their circulation, distribution channels, social conditions of their production – but the methodology of the auxiliary sciences of history, shaped during the period of domination of text-centered models of thinking about Western culture, did not allow them to make too frequent leaps toward such “unspecific” issues. It is for this reason that their work, contained in hundreds of detailed dissertations and dozens of great syntheses, is today often disregarded by cultural scientists, anthropologists and cultural historians who treat it as a useless collection of archives. Meanwhile, the works of nineteenth-century palaeographers and codicologists hide a lot of information which is a valuable source of knowledge for contemporary cultural scientists.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, manuscript subscriptions became a subject of interest for researchers. “Subscriptions” are called written records made by people transcribing someone else’s text – these records almost never appear in modern printed editions of ancient and medieval texts, because they are not an integral part of them, and usually do not even have a loose connection with their content (unlike glosses and scholia, which are usually scholarly commentaries on texts, intensively researched and developed in separate philological editions).204 Subscriptions are a rich source of information on the circumstances of transcription and on the psychophysiological states of the scribes. They can be a signature of the text, a testimony of the identity of its author or scribe, or a guarantee of the accuracy of the copy. Such situations are encountered in the earliest manuscripts, but also when the procedure of transcription of the text takes place in the conditions of cultural crisis experienced by the participants of culture (as it happened, for example, in the fifth century in Rome, when representatives of the dying senatorial aristocracy personally ←202 | 203→transcribed decades of Livy). The oldest antique subscriptions available to us survived because they were rewritten together with the texts themselves during subsequent copies. Subscriptions may also include a request to the user to show care for the manuscript he has in hands, to copy it faithfully or to say a prayer for the author/scribe. Many medieval records contain curses against book thieves and people who carelessly handle them. There are also many subscriptions with prayerful thanksgiving formulas in the medieval manuscripts, as well as a lot of subscriptions with humorous or even frivolous content; the authors of the latter were usually young clerics and students who were busy rewriting texts for profit. It is impossible to properly discuss in a few sentences the variety of subscriptions known to us today, which were created in European manuscripts from the fourth to the sixteenth century – their detailed specification can be found in the studies listed below.

A pioneering study on subscriptions was Otto Jahn’s dissertation Die Subscriptionen in den Handschriften römischen Classiker published in 1851. The author collected the most important subscriptions from ancient Latin manuscripts. The medieval subscriptions were more widely taken up by Wilhelm Wattenbach in his work Das Schriftwesen im Mittelalter,205 and later another set of them was given in two articles by Lynn Thorndike, who called them “copyist’s final jingles.” Based on these studies, an extensive collection of detailed analyses was created in the second half of the twentieth century, whose authors either collected subscription corpuses from different eras and areas, or subjected their resources to attempts at philological, historical or literary interpretation.206

However, the authors of all these works were not interested in the psychology or psychophysiology of the writing process. This lack is shared by contemporary theorists of writing, who analyze cultural processes on ←203 | 204→a social or at least community scale. In the works of Clanchy and Stock, which are fundamental for the theory of orality and medieval writing, there is no mention at all on this subject. In the more recent works by Saenger on silent reading and Parkes on punctuation, there are few of them (besides, both of these monographs deal mostly with the process of reading the text, rather than the creation of its record, which is treated in them as a correlate of the reading process). Therefore, I think, it is worth trying to reflect on the psychodynamic meaning of subscriptions. These records bring us closer to the situation of a medieval script probably more than any other testimony. While reading them, we are dealing with a personal testimony which, even if it is shaped by the conventions of the epoch, still retains quite a clear mark of the individual state of consciousness of the writing person – and it is this type of mental state that is most interesting for a researcher trying to reconstruct the psychodynamic properties of cultural practices.

Of the numerous types of subscriptions, the most interesting from the point of view presented here are those, in which the scribes refer to the physical effort and fatigue involved in the activity of writing or rather rewriting.207 I would like to stress that this is only one of many types of ←204 | 205→subscriptions, and it cannot be said with certainty that it represents a situation that is commonplace, but its themes are repeated with a puzzling regularity. Let us therefore look at some of these entries.208

Laus tibi sit Christe, quoniam liber explicit iste.

[Hail to you, Christ, for this book has been completed.]

Laus tibi sit Christe, finite [sic] est liber iste.

Laus tibi sit Christe, quia finis advenit iste.

Laus tibi sit Christe, liber et labor explicit iste.

Finis adest libro, sit laus et gloria Christo.

Est finis libri, sed stabit gratia Christi.

Finito libro referamus gratias Christo.

Finito libro reddatur gratia Christo.

Here is the first of the most common types of subscriptions that relate to the hardship of a scribe – the scribe thanks Christ for having finished his work. One might think that this is not so much about gratitude for the end of physical labor as about a symbolic culmination of the work itself (as can be seen in other entries which compare the completion of a book to the calling of a ship to a safe haven), nevertheless many subscriptions are played with the word “liber/labor,” and the word “labor” quite clearly indicates the concreteness of the physical labor done on real resistive material. In any case, we also find more outspoken entries, for example:

Laus tibi sit, Christe, quoniam liber explicit iste,

Detur scriptori merces equata labori.

If a scribe postulates a material reward for his work (and one that will match it), it means that he treats it not as a symbolic and glorious effort undertaken for the glory of God, but as an exhausting duty for which he expects concrete gratification. In such entries, the activity of writing appears to be a task that has little to do with the ideal of a pious monk’s work.

←205 | 206→

However, should this argument also not seem convincing, another group of entries could be cited, based on the “three fingers” motive.

Alba manus cessa, quia digiti michi fessa.

Tres digiti scribunt, vix cetera membra quiescunt,

Dextere scriptoris careat gravitate doloris.

[The white hand stopped because my fingers got tired.

Three fingers are writing, the rest of the body is not resting much,

Let the right hand of the writer not experience the burden of pain.]

Qui nescit scribere, nullum putat esse laborem.

Tres digiti scribunt, totum corpusque laborat.

[Whoever can’t write thinks it’s not difficult.

Three fingers write and the whole body gets a lot of effort.]

Sicut navigantibus proximus est portus,

sic et scriptori nomissimus [sic] versus. Tris

digiti scribunt et totum corpus laborat.

[What’s the nearest haven for a sailor,

that’s the last verse for a writer. Three

fingers are writing, and the whole body is working.]

Tres digiti scribunt, totum corpusque laborat.

Scribere qui nescit, nullum putat esse laborem.

Dum digiti scribunt vix cetera membra quiescunt.

Reading such phrases (and scholars have gathered so many of them that one could juxtapose a large but rather monotonous anthology), one can no longer have any doubt that their authors are primarily concerned with emphasizing the physical effort, fatigue, and inconvenience associated with the writing process. However, knowing the differences between the forms of consciousness of medieval people and people living in later epochs, and wanting to avoid the presentistic error, we should now ask the question – are they expressions or formulas? Do these sentences express the actual experience of specific people, or are they just customary records, similar to colloquial formulas taken from the language of religion or to today’s courtesy phrases?

This question may seem important, but in fact it is itself a testimony to presentism, since it presupposes the existence in the minds of people of the Middle Ages a form of subjectivity specific to the modern era. This is the only thing that allows us to distinguish the linguistic expression “authentic” with regard to the experience from the “conventional” empty phrases in which modern literary languages abound. The ←206 | 207→subscriptions quoted here are both “formulas” and “expressions,” or rather they are neither, because in the epochs in which they were created there was no such concept of “self” in Western culture that would correspond to modern standards. The very distinction between “authentic” verbal testimony and “non-authentic” convention presupposes that there is a distinct, autonomous subjectivity or subjectivity of the speaker/writer, which enables him/her to be an independent gauge of his/her own existence.

Now, let us take a look at some of the longer notes Wattenbach is quoting. The scribe of the codex of Visigothic laws in the eight century wrote in the manuscript:

O beatissime lector, lava manus tuas et sic librum adprehende, leniter folia turna, longe a littera digito pone. Quia qui nescit scribere, putat hoc esse nullum laborem. O quam gravis est scriptura: oculos gravat, renes frangit, simul et omnia membra contristat. Tria digita scribunt, totus corpus laborat. Quia sicut nauta desiderat venire ad proprium portum, ita et scriptor ad ultimum versum. Orate pro Martirio indignum sacerdotem vel scriptorem…

O, most blessed reader, wash your hands and only then take this book, slowly turn the pages, keep your fingers away from the letters. As one who cannot write thinks it is an easy work. Oh, how hard it is to write: the eyes are weary and the kidneys feel pressure, and all the body parts are tired. Three fingers write, the whole body works. For as a sailor wants to reach the nearest port, so does the writer – to reach the last verse. Pray for Martirius, an unworthy priest and scribe…

At the same time, the scribe Warembert wrote in Corvey very similarly:

Amice qui legis, retro digitis teneas, ne subito litteras deleas, quia ille homo qui nescit scribere, nullum se putat habere laborem, quia sicut navigantibus dulcis est portus, ita scriptori novissimus versus. Calamus tribus digitis continetur, totum corpus laborat. Deo gratias. Ego in dei nomine Vuarembertus scripsi.

My friend who reads it, keep your fingers away so that you don’t rub the letters quickly, as a man who can’t write thinks it’s an easy work, and as for the sailors the port is nice, so for the writer is the last verse. The pen fits in three fingers, the whole body works. Praise the Lord. I, Warembert, wrote in God’s name.

With similar records are filled many pages of Wattenbach’s monography, and it would be difficult to consider that they are merely customary formulas, not having any coverage in the sensually experienced reality. We can also add a colophone from the manuscript Silos Beatus (12th century):

←207 | 208→

If you do not know what writing is, you may think it is not especially difficult… Let me tell you that it is an arduous task: it destroys your eyesight, bends your spine, squeezes your stomach and your sides, pinches your lower back, and makes your whole body ache… Like the sailor arriving at the port, so the writer rejoices on arriving at the last line. Deo gratias semper.209

Moreover, there are independent testimonies with identical content in the medieval Greek colophones, which can be seen as further evidence of the intertwining of “formality” and “authenticity” (and indeed the pointlessness of distinguishing them). Here is one of many examples (partially reconstructed):

me katagelate tes graphes […]

tou ka[t];agelontos to skelo[s] […]

[hos hede]os anepausa tous tre[is daktylos]

[don’t mock the writing…

the leg of a mocker…

how nice to give three fingers a rest]

So let us repeat once again: the question “formula or expression” can be answered in this case by “formula and expression.” Just as in oral culture the style of the form with its repetitive phrases was used in each performance of a song to express or produce an individual and unique expression of experience, so in medieval manuscript culture based on a rather narrow (from our point of view) collection of texts and ways of verbal expression of reality, formulas and expressions had to reflect in some way the content of real experience. The dispute over their existential (non)authenticity is therefore rather barren.

The medieval motive of the bodily hardship of writing returns today, in the poststructural inquiries about the essence of the text and reading, and more specifically – in those moments when the relationship between the body and the text is mentioned. So here is Michał Paweł Markowski writing in one of the essays that make up the volume of Występek [Excess] and consist mainly of quotations and cryptic quotations; this is how he writes with someone else’s writing:

←208 | 209→

One of the scriveners monks at Saint-Aignan Abbey writes a warning to the manuscript reader: “Watch your fingers! Keep them away from my writing! You don’t know what it means to write. It’s a miserable fate: it bends your neck, eclipses your eyes, squeezes your belly and ribs. So pray, my brother, for poor Raoul, the servant of God who rewrote the whole book with his hand in the abbey of Saint-Aignan.” Another one still warns the reader so: “My friend reader, take your fingers away, don’t you dare touch the writing on these pages; a man who is not skilled in calligraphy does not even suspect the evil we do to ourselves. Just as the haven is nice to the sailor’s heart, so the last line is sweet to the writer. Although three fingers hold the stilus, the whole body suffers and works.”210

True to his initial assumption, Markowski does not reveal the provenance of the tissues of his text: we do not find out where these quotations come from. However, they are very similar to those quoted by Wattenbach.211 But even if Markowski rewrote them from some French apocryphist, a medieval Quignard, they still echo the complaints of exhausted scribes many centuries ago. The motif “tres digiti scribunt” is therefore extremely durable.

←209 | 210→

The main question that can be asked now is: where did this effort come from? Why does a medieval European scribe complain so often about the torment of writing?

Let us start with an issue on the background of which the question itself seems perhaps to be more relevant. At a time when monasteries in Europe were full of tired scribes, in China and Japan calligraphers wrote treatises on the art of drawing ideograms. In their recommendations and theoretical reflections on the art of calligraphy, statements about the pleasure that this art is for its adepts are repeated time and again. We have seen how scribes complain about the inconveniences and pains associated with their writing activities. Some of the descriptions are almost clinically accurate in terms of physical sensations – you count the sore back, stiff neck, numb fingers, cramped guts. It is hard not to be surprised when comparing these testimonies with the testimonies of the sensual pleasure that the art of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy was associated with. In Makoto Ueda’s twentieth-century essay on the art of calligraphy,212 we find that Yūshō, an excellent Japanese calligrapher from the seventeenth century, compares the written character to a harmoniously constructed, ideal human silhouette, and, on the other side of the spectrum, juxtaposes pathetic calligraphy with a dead human body or dismembered corpse. According to him, characters can be animated, dead, or sick – it depends on the ability of the calligrapher who creates them, and every calligraphy student should strive to create living characters.

The seventeenth-century theoretician, quoted by Ueda, formulated a set of principles that should guide calligraphy. The following principles are intended for beginners:

  1. Keep your body upright and your soul righteous as you take up the brush.

  2. Write with a calm mind carefully studying the forms of characters.

  3. Be gentle in the use of the brush.

  4. Put flesh to the characters.

←210 | 211→

  5. Let the characters observe the prescribed form.

  6. Pay close attention to the soul of the brush and of the characters.

  7. Consider the weight of each character.

  8. Pay attention to the rhythm of the brush.

  9. Thoroughly understand how to handle the brush.

10. Give heed to the way of connecting one character with another. (p. 174–175)

Of the ten rules for advanced, let us quote three:

1. Write with force, while retaining gentleness in the brushwork.

2. Consider the length of the proposed phrase in proportion to the size of your paper.

3. Create a harmony among the ink, the brush, and the paper. (p. 175)

Already from these random examples there emerges a completely different approach to the writing process from the European one. The shape of the ideogram should resemble a human silhouette in the eyes of a calligrapher. In Europe, the human figure was also inscribed in letter patterns. The point is that this has only been done since the fifteenth century, i.e. since the print appeared.213 At the same time, however, it is vain to search medieval literature for recommendations for scribes, which would at least in part correspond to Japanese rules – i.e. they would contain guidelines as to the position of the body to be occupied when starting to write (let us remember that throughout the Middle Ages in Europe scribes wrote in such positions where a European of the typographic and even less so electrographic era would not be able to write a single sentence), or as to the symbolic proportions of drawn letters or the spirituality contained in them. It is clear that the writing process in both cultural circles was governed by completely different factors and based on different configurations or cultural patterns. Why were such recommendations not adopted in the European Middle Ages? Why was there no treaty on the art of drawing letters?

It is worth noting at this point that on the European continent “calligraphy” – the kind that roughly corresponds to Chinese and ←211 | 212→Japanese – also appears only after printing. It is only after mechanical massification of process of producing the texts that handwriters can focus more on the activity of drawing the letters and their shape. The blossoming of Renaissance and Baroque calligraphy resembles the emergence of impressionist painting, which only developed after photography when painters were freed from the obligation of mimesis. Scripture freed human memory. Printing freed the hand of a scribe. But what had it been tied up with before?

Ueda in his essay informs us that:

Calligraphy and painting, both having the elements of space art, share the same principle of visual balance and harmony. […] The beauty of balance is after all the beauty of nature. A character drawn by a calligrapher should in its abstract way have the balance and harmony of nature. […] Another element of balance is the harmony of written characters with the paper: the size of characters and the length of lines should match well the given space. Furthermore, there should be harmony among the ink, the brush, and the paper: a certain kind of paper requires a certain kind of ink, of brush, and so forth. […] All these are the cases of visual harmony common to all pictorial arts, and the calligrapher must observe them, too. (pp. 179–180)

Already in these few sentences the basis for cultural differences between Eastern calligraphy and Western writing is outlined. Calligraphy practiced in ideographic writing is a kind of synthesis of arts, which is due to the nature of this writing. In alphabetical writing, the pictographic features were obliterated at the very beginning of its evolution, while Chinese and Japanese ideograms never lost their connection with the images of objects they originally symbolized, and calligraphers was well aware of this. The word “synthesis” is, moreover, misleading in this case, as it suggests a prior separation of arts, in this case of writing and painting, while on the ground of eastern calligraphy such a separation never occurred. This calligraphy is halfway between literature and painting,214 and its practice remains an ←212 | 213→aesthetic and ethical activity. In medieval Europe this type of synthesis did not occur. This is the first reason for the torments of the copyists.

Reading medieval subscriptions, one can also draw the conclusion that, for the Europeans of that time, the activity of writing was often subordinate to what was written. Scribes complain about their efforts, but they also write down these remarks:

Finito libro scriptor saltat pede leto.

[When the scribe has finished the book, he can get some fun.]

Finis adest vere, pretium vult scriptor habere.

[At long last that’s end, the scribe wants to be paid.]

Scriptoris dona sit bos et pulchra puella.

[The scribe should be given an ox and a pretty girl.]

Scribere cum penna docuit me pulcra puella.

[A pretty girl taught me to write with a pen.]

O pulchra puella, si essem in tua cella.

[Oh, pretty girl, if I were in your cell.]

Hic nihil deficit nisi ea et pulchra puella.

[There’s nothing missing here but a pretty girl.]

Scriptor scripsisset melius si potuisset.

[The scribe would write better if he could.]

Scriptori pro poena detur pulchra puella.

[Scribe is to be given a pretty girl for his efforts.]

Detur pro penna scriptori pulcra puella.

[In exchange for a scribe’s feather, he’ll get a pretty girl.]

Finis adest vere, scriptor vult potum habere.

[At long last that’s end, the scribe wants a drink.]

Explicit, expliciat, ludere scriptor eat.

[Finished at once, the scribe goes to have fun.]

Heu! male finivi, quia non bene scribere scivi.

[Eh, I ended up badly, because I didn’t learn how to write gladly.]

Istum scriptorem, bone deus, fac meliorem.

[That scribe, good God, make better one.]

O bone, non ride; vis melius scribere? Scribe.

[Don’t laugh, buddy. Can you do better? Write, but not muddy.]

Lauda scriptorem donec vides meliorem.

[Praise the scribe until you can’t better write.]

←213 | 214→

Tho moy rim, kuffel a piwo w nym.

[That’s my rhyme, a beer and wine.]

Dum bibo pywo stat michi kolano krzywo.

[Till I drink beer, I write queer.]

Such entries never appeared in early medieval manuscripts. It is enough to think how different they are from the atmosphere of the Vivarium of Cassiodorus, Monte Cassino monastery shortly after the formulation of the Benedict Rule, or the Iro-Scottish scriptories. But more than five hundred years have passed since then – and the ethos of the scribe has apparently undergone far-reaching changes. Why has it happened?

Of course, this is largely because in the late Middle Ages copying of texts ceased to be an activity reserved for clergy. Probably most of the entries quoted here come from lay people, craftsmen like woodcarvers or shoemakers, who no longer had any formal reason to tie their work to some higher purpose, as defined by the monastic rule, principles of faith or special historical circumstances. But even if they did, why did they not treat their work as “pure art”? Why was the activity of writing so culturally degraded that even its performers disregarded it? And why was the profession of a scribe strictly separated from the profession of a miniaturist or illuminator, or even a rubricator, who was concerned with what we would call a layout today? But why, in turn, was it that even in the days of the greatness of the scribes-monks there was no reflection on the issues that permeated the problem of writing in Asia so strongly? There are many comments about the discipline of monks in Benedict’s rule, but contrary to popular opinion, there is not a single word in it about writing, and there are only two mentions about reading, from which we learn that a monk should borrow one book from monastic resources during Lent and read it from beginning to end. In another place, the patron saint of Europe mentions the writing tablets, but only in the context of the consideration of whether the monk can have anything to own – the conclusion is negative. There is not a single word there, let us repeat, about the activity of writing as such.

If we collect all these questions and threads, we find that the possible answer is in the alphabet.

The alphabetical writing has been separated from the image of things discussed in the languages written in it. Theorists of Western writing ←214 | 215→stressed this independence as one of the main advantages of the alphabet over other writing systems. They also showed how much this decontextualization has influenced the thinking of Europeans and their culture. However, they did not point out that alphabetization also influenced the psychodynamics of the writing process. Writing the letters is a completely autotelic activity – it has no connection either with imitating external reality or symbolizing it. A man who writes letters does not feel any connection between his activity and the outside world. These relationships exist in relation to the content of what is written, but not in relation to the signs of writing themselves, and thus to the activity of their production. For this reason, the scribe was not an illuminator. This is also why he did not link the shape of the characters he drew with their content, and the actions of their drawing with the ideas contained in the text being drawn up. Finally, it is for this reason that the awareness of possible connections between the writer’s actions and his physiological states has not developed in the culture of alphabetical writing. The suffering of the copyist was partly due to the fact that he wrote letters, not ideograms.

The degree of complication of the writing systems of China and Japan prevented their widespread proliferation in society and made writing an elite skill reserved for a narrow group of specialists, which resulted in the functioning of societies and states. This fact was indicated by the first media theorists as a flaw in comparison to alphabetical writing.215 However, they ←215 | 216→overlooked another fact – that Chinese and Japanese writings remained halfway between word and image, so that they could combine what in Europe is called literature with what in Europe is called painting. Summing up his reflections on the individualism of calligraphy in the process of drawing lines, Makoto Ueda writes, “in calligraphy and painting, the works of Prince Son’en and Sesshū are bony, while those of Shōkadō and Kanō Tan’yū are fleshy. One cannot say which is better” (pp. 182–183). Here is another difference. In Japanese calligraphy, there are no two masters who would write in the same way. In Europe, all scribes have been using the same type of script for centuries, be it the uncial, Visigothic, or insular script. The scribes’ lack of individualism was explained by the influence of religion, but this was mainly because they explained it in such a way to themselves. It is possible that this lack was also related to the overwhelming annoyance of the writing process – both of which resulted from the separation of the word from the image and the writing process from the sensual experience of reality, a separation whose final effect will be subscriptions with compensatory fantasies about pretty girls.

There is no doubt that “palaeography of calligraphy” is a contradiction, at least if it were practiced according to the European rules. The point is that palaeography hinges on the assumption that there are certain unchanging rules for the evolution of handwriting – and with regard to the European Middle Ages this assumption is entirely correct, since tired scribes obediently replicate the inherited type of writing. But in Japan:

The calligrapher, then, is required to show his expert skill and delicate sensitivity in every movement of his brush. […] The artist must have complete control over his instruments. Those are, however, the most basic principles of the art of calligraphy. A master calligrapher would go beyond them by pouring his emotion into his work. Calligraphy is not only representative but also an expressive art […]. “It is commendable for a beginner to be observant of the rules,” Yūshō says. “It is bad, however, for an advanced student to be enslaved by them.” A calligrapher blindly clinging to the rules may be compared to a scholar tied to obsolete words […]. He must, Yūshō says, “follow the rules and yet depart from them.” […] A spontaneous expression of emotion, then, is to be recommended for a calligrapher. (Ueda, pp. 183–184)

A European can express him- or herself in what he or she writes (although this statement does not apply much to pre-modern Europeans). A Japanese can express him- or herself in what he or she writes and in how he or ←216 | 217→she writes.216 This difference is also due to differences between alphabetical and ideographic writing. There is a serious somatic-mental difference between these writings, or more precisely, between the processes of their creation, which I try to reflect in these inquiries. Maybe calligraphy is a synthesis of “world” and “speech”? Maybe it is both a word about the world and an image of the world? An analysis of experience, its particular textualization – and experience itself? In this arrangement, the handwriting of medieval Europeans would be on only one side of these alternatives.

Without going into such a general argument, one can point out that, for Japanese calligraphy theorists, writing was a correlate of the writer’s internal balance. Summing up his deliberations, Ueda states:

Only those who are pure at heart can produce a good work of calligraphy. […] Calligraphic disciplines are ultimately spiritual and moral. The art of calligraphy becomes a “Way,” that is, a way to ethical and religious perfection. (pp. 184–185)

So writing is for a calligrapher almost what the experience of Ideas for Plato is. Let us repeat: there are no testimonies in Europe that would indicate the possibility of achieving this kind of experience by writing. Through the written record – yes. But not by writing. For a European, writing is a work, not a creation and definitely not a means of inner spiritual improvement. Creativity is what is written. An instruction of perfection is the finished text, not the practice of writing it. And it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the cause of this state of affairs is also the opposition of alphabetical and ideographic writing.

In the history of Europe, there are only a few cases in which the activity of writing itself gains a high symbolic rank, but even then it is a matter of strict ethics rather than existential aesthetics. Members and clients of ←217 | 218→the Nicomachii family, who rewrote Livy at the end of the existence of the Empire, did not, as far as we know, complain about the hardships of writing, let alone write frivolous jokes in their copies. Their subscriptions, retained in copies rewritten later, which they subscribed the ancient history of their dying world rewritten by themselves, are marked with sad seriousness. It was these records that Otto Jahn examined at the beginning of scientific reflection on subscriptions. They may have attracted the scientist’s attention precisely because they were marked by this mark of the individual situation of the writers, which was lacking both before and afterwards.

In its contrast to vita activa and vita contemplativa, Christianity also influenced the physiology of writing. The religious rules mentioned above leave no doubt – monks were supposed to write for God’s glory, not for sensual pleasure and not to enrich their own mental interior. But, paradoxically enough, in the early stages of medieval literacy we find premises that are probably the closest to the principles of the East. Here is Cassiodorus announcing in Institutiones:

Still, I have to admit that of all the tasks that can be achieved among you by physical labour, what pleases me most (not perhaps unjustifiably) is the work of the scribes if they write correctly. By repeated reading through Scripture they instruct their minds and by writing they spread the beneficial teachings of the Lord far and wide. A blessed purpose, a praiseworthy zeal, to preach to men with the hand, to set tongues free with one’s fingers and in silence to give mankind salvation and to fight with pen and ink against the unlawful snares of the devil. For Satan receives as many wounds as the scribe writes words of the Lord. (Institutiones, 1, 30, 1)217

And St. Jerome in 412 AD recommends to the young monk Rustic:

Twist lines too for catching fish, and copy out manuscripts, so that your hand may earn you food and your soul be satisfied with reading. (Epistulae, 125, 11)218

←218 | 219→

In these directives, formulated by authors who have enjoyed great authority, writing activities are associated with the intellectual development of the people who carry them out. The very process of writing is supposed to become – by means of an ethical approach – an element of the process of improving the mind of the writers. However, it should be noted that the recommendations of Jerome and Cassiodorus were not popularized among medieval scribes, not necessarily because of the spiritual deficiencies of the latter, but perhaps precisely because the alphabetical writing medium was not conducive to cultivating these aspects of the writing process.219

When dealing with the psychodynamics of medieval writing, one has to consider the fact that sometimes scribes wrote not on the basis of a copy as they saw it with their eyes, but they wrote “by ear” – the text was dictated to them. This is the reason for the huge discrepancies in the graphic representation of names found in the Middle Ages and for some mistakes in the transmission of texts, apparently caused by a wrong listening. This form ←219 | 220→of text copying was mainly used in the early Middle Ages – as a residuum of orality and at the same time as a practical way of overcoming the deficit of texts. It is not very relevant to the intercultural issues discussed here, but it undoubtedly changes the image of psychodynamics of writing within Western culture, because writing according to the “ear-hand” model is clearly different from “eye-hand” writing. However, it is an issue of psychophysiology rather than media theory and history, so I cannot deal with it more broadly here. Moreover, it seems that regardless of whether the scribes read or heard the texts being rewritten, they were just as tired upon them, as evidenced by another variation on a subject we already know: “Tres digiti scribunt, duo oculi vident, una lingua loquitur, totum corpus laborat.”220

It should also be noted that, unlike Eastern calligraphy, European scribes (especially early medieval ones) often did not understand the texts they were transcribing, especially works of antiquity, specialist treatises, for example in the field of medicine or natural sciences (more generally – from the area of Fachliteratur analyzed in this book). This is evidenced by certain types of errors, consisting in such a distortion of the text that some phrases or sentences lose their meaning and grammatical structure or even become series of meaningless letters or syllables. A situation in which the writer does not understand the meaning nor sense of the text he is writing is probably an extreme manifestation of the breaking of the link between writing and the written, between the very activity, the writing practice and the cultural and existential function of writing. Writing becomes a culturally alienated work.

The writing of medieval Europe is written by three fingers, not by the body. The whole body of the writer is involved in writing ideograms. The writing of Europeans is therefore non-somatic, while Eastern calligraphy is not only a synthesis of arts (from the European point of view) but also a synthesis of sensual experiences. Neither the alphabet, which detaches ←220 | 221→concepts from objects, nor the resulting Aristotelian metaphysics, which detaches the mind from sensual experience, work here. Alphabetical writing in various ways separates the writer from the experience of the surrounding reality in the process of its textualization. This separation takes place not only on the level of philosophy and science written in this writing, which was noticed a long time ago. It occurs – if the reasoning presented here is correct – also at the level of the act of writing itself, the writing practice. Once again, it turns out how strongly the so-called spirituality is intertwined with physiology in human condition.

Could such statements be made in relation to other writing systems? How and what could a Sumerian scribe feel when pressing cuneiforms? Or an Egyptian, painting holy signs? Or a Maya, drawing what we call Codex Dresdensis? We will never answer these questions. And with the progressive disappearance of the practice of handwriting as we see today, in the age of keyboards, perhaps writing by Europeans will soon join the museum of dead cultural activities.

←221 | 222→

195 William M. Lindsay, “The Editing of Isidore Etymologiae,” Classical Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 1 (Jan., 1911), p. 42.

196 Leighton D. Reynolds, Nigel G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars. A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, 4th ed., Oxford 2013, p. 85.

197 Jorge Luis Borges, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” in his: Other Inquisitions 1937–1952, trans. Ruth L. C. Simms, Univ. of Texas Press, Austin and London 1965, p. 103.

198 All translations from Etymologies are taken from the English edition: Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, Oliver Berghof et al (eds.), The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, Cambridge Univ. Press 2006, p. 34.

199 To make oneself aware of the experience of “living among the old ruins,” it is enough just to look at the engravings of Piranesi or read the descriptions of early medieval Athens and Rome by Gregorovius. Travelers penetrating the Middle East in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries reported that the people who inhabited then the areas dotted with the remnants of ancient civilizations answered the question about creators of these structures that they were some sorcerers or divine beings. Before they became monuments connecting us with the distant past, “Ruins” were, on the contrary, a source of experience of deep alienation.

200 This concept was introduced by Roy Harris in his book Rationality and the Literate Mind, which was already mentioned here, to mark with it a phenomenon almost identical to what I call the “textualization of experience.” The difference is that Harris was not interested in the transferring of the Lebenswelt realm into the text, but only in the transferring of mental processes into it, which is why he analyzed mainly the Organon, i.e. the corpus of logical and methodological writings of the Stagirite.

201 See, however: Walter Berschin, Greek Letters and the Latin Middle Ages. From Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa, tr. J. C. Frakes, Catholic University Press, Washington 1988; this study is dedicated to proving the thesis that medieval Europe has not lost touch with Greek and Greek cultural heritage. I think, however, that we are dealing with a misunderstanding: nobody has seriously claimed that medieval Europeans did not know at all about the existence of Greece, its culture, and language. The thing is that, until the fourteenth century, this knowledge was limited to very narrow circles or even to individuals like Eriugena or Roger Bacon, but there were no solid centers of its cumulation and transmission in Europe. Berschin’s book, which contains testimonies of this “punctual” knowledge of Greek in medieval Europe, in fact confirms the thesis that its author wants to disprove.

202 See: U. Eco, “An Author and His Interpreters,” in: R. Capozzi (ed.), Reading Eco: An Anthology, Indiana University Press 1997, p. 66.

203 If one does not count the papyrus records as documents of social life. As for texts considered “artistic” or “philosophical,” there are no exceptions.

204 They are sometimes referred to as “colophone,” but it also means the part of the manuscript’s surface on which the subscription appears, not just the text itself.

205 Its third, expanded edition was published in Leipzig in 1896 and was reprinted unchanged in 1962.

206 In the Polish literature, it is worth mentioning in this context the extensive book by Mieczysław Mejor entitled Antyczne tradycje średniowiecznej praktyki pisarskiej. Subskrypcje późnoantycznych kodeksów (Antic Traditions of Medieval Writing Practice. Subscriptions to Late Ancient Codexes, Warszawa 2000), which provides a lot of data on the subject I discuss here.

207 It is doubtful whether writing and rewriting are psychodynamically the same thing. The problem is that, as I have earlier observed, we do not have access to ancient autographs (not only because such ancient manuscripts have not survived, but also because ancient authors often dictated their texts and did not write them down personally) nor to most medieval autographs. Therefore, we do not know whether and what subscription records were placed in them by the authors, and in the ancient and medieval texts any information about the author’s activities and their psychophysiological states appears extremely rarely. It is known that medieval authors were often the first copyists of their own texts. However, in Lucianus (Remarks addressed to an illiterate book-fancier, chapter 4) we find information that Demosthenes prescribed the Thucidydes’ Peloponnesian War eight times at a young age in order to learn it by heart. If this is a fact and not an element of the great orator’s myth, this fact would be a good contribution to the topic addressed in the first chapter of this book. In the works of ancient erudites (e.g. Aulus Gellius), there are references to autographs of various classical works, but already then they have a flavor of bibliophilic legends.

208 The examples are taken from Thorndike, Wattenbach and Mejor, unless otherwise stated. Specific attributions are omitted. The manuscripts come mainly from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, but some even from the sixth or the seventh century. Each of the quoted entries appears many times, in different manuscripts.

209 I quote this translation without the original version according to a popular study: Georges Jean, Writing. The story of alphabets and scripts, tr. Jenny Oates, H.N. Abrams, New York 1992, p. 83.

210 Michał Paweł Markowski, Występek. Eseje o pisaniu i czytaniu [Excess. Essays on Writing and Reading], Warszawa 2001, pp. 46–47.

211 One of these records can also be found in Léo Moulin’s popular book Vie quotidienne des religieux au Moyen âge (Xe–XVe siècle) [The Everyday Life of Monks in the Middle Ages (5th–15th Century)], Hachette, Paris 1978. It sounds: “Watch out for your fingers! Do not touch my writing with them! You don’t even know what it means to write! It is a terrible struggle: it bends your back, dims your eyesight, causes pain in your stomach and ribs… Pray for poor Raul…” (p. 196). The French author does not mention the source either. Instead, he draws attention to the “fastidium” or tiring boredom of the copyist’s work and cites another entry (unfortunately, also without reference, only with the remark that it comes from the times of Charlemagne): “Since I have no consolation in such an arduous work of a copyist, I address to You, Lord, the following prayer: may my hand, which shapes the letters, may my eyes, which look into the shape of the words, not prevent my heart from penetrating the mysteries of dogmas; may my heart be diligently vigilant inside, and outside, may the work of my hand never cease” (p. 197). This quotation is an excellent example of the separation that took place in the consciousness of the scribe between the physical work of the writer and the symbolic content of what is inscribed. This distinction will play an important role in the subsequent discussion here.

212 Makoto Ueda, “Aesthetic Elements of the Line,” in his: Literary and Art Theories in Japan, Cleveland 1967, pp. 173–185 (all quotations from this edition).

213 I mean regular writing of the proportions of the human silhouette into the proportion of a letter. Deformed or caricatured human figures woven into initials are often seen in medieval manuscripts, but these are not representations whose creators would be guided by the principles of regularity of the “human shape – letter” ratio.

214 See, for example: S. N. Sokolov-Remizov, Literatura-kalligrafija-živopis’. K probleme sinteza iskusstv v chudožestvennoj kulture Dal’nevo Vostoka [Literature-calligraphy-painting. Towards the Problem of Synthese of the Arts in the artistic Culture of Far East], Moskva 1985. Calligraphy as an independent field of creativity concerns only single ideograms or short texts, especially poetic ones. Writing long continuous texts (yearbooks, encyclopedias, historiographical, philosophical, and medical works) did not fall into the category of calligraphy. But even with this reservation, the basic cultural difference between the work of a calligrapher and a scribe remains valid.

215 In the course of internal criticism of the orality/literacy theory, this thesis was considered a manifestation of eurocentrism. This type of criticism was promoted especially by Brian Street, whose views are referred to by Grzegorz Godlewski in his book Słowo – pismo – sztuka słowa. Perspektywy antropologiczne [Word – writing – art of word. The anthropological perspectives], Warszawa 2008. To the remarks placed there, one can add that the optics of “Eurocentric” researchers, who considered the alphabet to be a better tool than ideographic writing, were shaped primarily by premises based on thinking in sociological categories. Hence, they were unable to see other than social ways of functioning of writing systems. However, it should be stressed that, in his more recent publications, Jack Goody, one of the founders of the theory of writing, revoked some of his early strong “alphabetocentric” theses.

216 It should be noted, by the way, that the European field called graphology does not apply to eastern calligraphy, despite its individual diversity. Like palaeography, graphology has been shaped in the world of alphabetical writing, so for the same reasons it is inadequate for the world of ideograms. The lines drawn by a calligrapher are not intended to reflect his innate psychic characteristics, but are intended to provide a picture of his internal development, which is an intentionally designed process. Moreover, the graphologist would also be helpless toward the calligraphy of a modern European, because the very essence of graphology lies in the conviction that writing reflects the personality of the writer in a way that is beyond his control.

217 Cassiodorus, Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning and On the Soul, translated with notes by James W. Halporn and introduction by Mark Vessey, Liverpool University Press 2004, p. 163.

218 Select Letters of St. Jerome with an English translation by F. A. Wright, London, William Heinemann Ltd, New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons MCMXXXIII (Loeb Classical Library 262), p. 419.

219 In the mature and late Middle Ages, there are several heralds of the modern process of “individuation through writing” – but this process will not become stronger until the sixteenth century, to become one of the main elements in the construction of the identity of modern man over the next four centuries. Writers, diarists, thinkers – all these people in modern Europe will explain themselves and the world to themselves and the world by means of written records. And then, in the age of print, when handwriting is no longer a duty to transmit culture, but becomes an activity of creating culture – complaints about its inconvenience cease. It is possible that modern writing “self,” writing with “self,” as opposed to the medieval “rewriting of culture,” was not a boring activity for its performers precisely because of this change in its cultural role. Whether this thesis can be defended and whether it can be linked to psychodynamic processes are questions that should be put aside for another text. Perhaps, it can be put into simpler terms – writing a text is not tiring when the writer writes it as an independent creator aware of his authorship, making an intentional expression of his autonomous self. In any case, it can be assumed that the transition from handwriting to printing had no less significant consequences for Western culture in terms of creating and experiencing culture than the transition from speech to writing – something that media theorists, usually focused on only one of these transitions, do not see so far. The intuitions at these issues thrown by McLuhan in his texts were ignored by most of his successors.

220 More on this subject: Paul Saenger, Space Between Words. The Origins of Silent Reading, Stanford 1997, pp. 48–51, with subscription cited.