bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Trump the Merovingian

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 25 February, 2017

Satire is a potent tool in the face of the arrogance of power. Laughter punctures pride more fatally than any righteous anger. And it has not gone unnoticed that one of the winners of the election of the latest US President has been humour itself — laughing at him, not with him. Print media have, for instance, noticed the twitter phenomenon that is Donaeld the Unready, recasting the new incumbent of the Oval Office as an Anglo-Saxon bretwalda. My own favourite is this one:

However, I want to suggest to you today that if the President is a reincarnation, his former self was not content to live in the alter orbis which was the British Isles; he was surely a denizen of mainland Europe. How can I know this? By invoking the noble art of palaeography.

trump-signatureThere are some things, of course, which are beyond satire – and that includes Donald Trump’s signature. Graphologists have had a field day with this, though I am not convinced by some of the claims, like the suggestion that it shows him to be protective of the family. I cannot see that and, instead, find it hard to avoid concluding that there is something psychotic in his willingness to overwrite not just the typed words but his own letters — look at that final p which is turned into ascender crossing over the bowl of the letter. It looks assertive but it also is self-destructive. This President unwrites himself.

That jagged motion of final p creating a pointed hat worthy of the Ku-Klux Klan serves no necessary purpose beyond ostentation: it is what palaeographers would call an otiose stroke. Such features were often produced with a turn of the nib to create a thinner or even hair-line stroke. In Trump’s handwriting, though, there is no differentiation between thick and thin, just as the straight lines are rarely combined with any curved movements of the pen. For instance, a letter like n is formed with a diagonal joining the two minims (rather than the linking it the top). There is little variation and no subtlety here.

Let us, though, consider President Trump’s approach to mise-en-page when placing that signature on an Executive Order.trump-signing-executive-order

Note how his script insists on taking up space, being equivalent to five or six lines of typed text. This is by no means unprecedented. It reminds me, for instance, of cases of Henry VII of England adding his name in large thin gothic letters below the beautiful italic of his secretary, Pietro Carmeliano (whom I have discussed on this site recently). In such instances, the royal writing looks ungainly in comparison to the script above but that serves only to enhance the impression that the monarch is emphasising his taking ownership of the page, even as he compromises its calligraphy. Its purpose is to show that the king does not need to master penmanship for he is the master of those who have done so.

Yet, that is not the only historical parallel one can draw. Over the long tradition of script, the balance between the minims (eg m and n) and the ascenders of tall letters (eg d and l) has shifted: in the bookhand promoted in the Carolingian empire, when there was an expectation of clarity of writing, a minim would be about half the size of an ascender; in late medieval culture, the gothic aesthetic which saw beauty in the uniform aspect of a page, ascenders were reduced to being often little more than residual. President Trump has decided to reject both of those practices: it seems that he feels his hands must make ascenders, and bigly. They dwarf the minims by a ratio of about 3:1. Once again, though, such a contrast is not original to him. It was a frequent habit in medieval charters, particularly on the top line. It is seen, for instances, in specimens of Merovingian chancery script, though when I mentioned this in conversation with an eminent palaeographer, she accused me of making a comparison that was slanderous to Merovingian civilization.

I would certainly not want to give the impression that this sense of proportion was confined in time or location. It was not only a habit of chanceries drawing up official documents but was also seen in certain bookhands. The example below is in many ways more elegant than anything achieved by a pen wielded in the 45th President’s hand — it knows the value of combining curves with straight strokes — but it shares an affection for extended ascenders.


Paris: BnF, MS. lat. 9427, fol. 19v

It is a famous manuscript, a lectionary from the Abbey of Luxeuil in southern Burgundy. We have several witnesses to this script which was developed in that cloister. We also have an end-date for their production: in 732, the abbey was burnt to the ground and its monks massacred by a daring raid by Muslim Moors. Do not tell that to President Trump.




That EU Referendum: the limits of history

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 21 June, 2016

However far one goes to try to escape the febrile atmosphere of Britain at the moment, it is impossible to run from the referendum. I was in Padua the other week, to speak at a conference entitled ‘Shakespeare and Padova’ organised by the exhaustingly energetic and molto simpatica Alessandra Petrina. Most conversations while I was there turned at some point to the possibility of Brexit. The Italians I spoke to were worried but, all the more, bemused. In a café where I sheltered from a thunder-storm, the waiter recognised I was English (I wonder how) and expressed himself a lover of all things British but, he added, ‘does Britain think it can stand up to China and to States on its own? I’m sorry…’. In the conference hall, it felt as if we are talking about the referendum even when, ostensibly, we were discussing events four or five centuries older.

You may, gentle reader, have already stumbled and wondered what on earth I could have had to offer to an event devoted to Shakespeare. I was not – you will be relieved to learn – attempting to extend my repertoire into what is called ‘the English Renaissance’ (erroneously so – but that is another story); rather I was providing a comparison with the fifteenth century. The theme of my opening lecture to the conference was to encourage the delegates to consider the possibility that the English perception of Padua had, in the plays of Shakespeare, lost the sharpness of focus that it had in the 1460s and 1470s: at that earlier point, English graduates of Padua were perceived as providing unwelcome imports which threatened the English ‘way of life’ but, I argued, by the 1590s, Padua had become less dangerous because it was, in effect, more distant. Closing the conference, the true expert on the English in Padua, Jonathan Woolfson, suggested something which appears diametrically opposed, emphasising an increase in contacts in the 1540s and 1550s as the backdrop to the sustained Elizabethan and Jacobean existence of a community of Englishmen passing through Padua for education and entertainment. What united our talks was the clear sense that there had been a significant shift – and I would suggest the contrasts over the nature of that shift are reconcilable. The question remains of the causes of that shift. The impression hung in the air that the destabilising effects of the Reformation were a prime source, though this surely needs to be linked with other economic and cultural factors. In Jonathan’s discourse, the very instability released new possibilities and new perspectives, where mine dwelt on the diapositiva of that: let us recall what was lost as much as what was gained.

You may already have sensed how we were liable to read our own interventions in the light of present events. I teased Jonathan after his paper that he had made the case for Brexit: short-term unrest and economic pain might create a period of isolation but one which could be the precursor of a rediscovery of ‘Europe’ on new terms. Jonathan certainly did not intend such a parallel and it has an obvious central flaw. Those in the reigns of Henry VIII, his son and his younger daughter who looked to continental innovations and urged a purging of the state and a break with tradition did so because they believed the losses were not just acceptable but essential for the salvation of themselves and their neighbours. What was at stake was nothing less than God. That is motivation indeed but where, in the Brexit campaign, is there anything similar? There is surely a duty on them to provide a commanding vision for a future Britain. What we hear instead is, on the economy, the counter-intuitive and unsubstantiated claim that it will be fine; what we hear asserted would be a gain is that there will be fewer foreign faces in the community – even though immigration would become more ‘in your face’ when the camps into which refugees are concentrated would be placed on our shores. If this is a vision, it is a nightmare. Is this the Britain we would want it to be?

That is the fundamental question and one which shows how high the stakes are. The interventions of historians in the debate has, on both sides, been too often ‘history teaches…’, suggesting that there is something elemental about a British identity. As has been pointed out, Britishness is itself a short-lived concept, masking a plurality of identities defined by country or region, by social status, by gender and by ethnic background. Yes, there are some factors we cannot undo, just as, in Padua, I could not avoid the identification as British and so be associated with the referendum that has been placed upon us. One of those factors is undeniably that, for at least the English (and, the polls suggest, most Eurosceptic) part of the United Kingdom, its traditions have been shaped by its time as a Roman colony, and by its continuing place within – and intermittent struggles to be without – the shared civilization of Europe. Even that, though, allows much room for manoeuvre: it is not history that will determine our next step, it is our free will.

What history also does not teach, as any academic knows, is that there is a grand march of progress. For some, in the nineteenth century, the nation state was the apogee of civilization, an achievement beyond what their ancestors could have dreamt of achieving (Charlemagne clearly not being thought of as an ancestor). In the later twentieth century, understandably disillusioned by the evils wrought by those same states, the natural evolution was seen to be supranational structures. We can believe that those structures, whether across Europe or embodied in the United Nations, are welcome, but we cannot assume they were inevitable. Progress does not march; improvements stumble forward, uncertain on their feet. They are piecemeal, hard-won and fragile. When we recreate ourselves, we can also make ourselves worse. This is where we surely stand now. This Thursday, our nation has the opportunity to stand up and shout ‘Britain first’ in the face of immigration; we could let loose humanity’s baser instinct. We need not hold on to the self-image of ourselves as a nation where decency rules and where we pride ourselves in standing up for the underdog. We can – but at what cost to our souls?

A disordered sister and her unwomanly boldness

Posted in Offbeat observations, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 28 September, 2015

A last will and testament is by its nature a formulaic document. It opens with assurance that the person expressing their wishes is of sound mind, lists the bequests to family, friends and institutions, and closes by establishing the executors who are to see to the fulfilment of the will. Within the standard wording and the list of gifts, so defined by cultural convention, there are moments of light when a human voice seems to speak above the murmur of what is standard and expected.

One such passage comes from the will of a man whose posthumous reputation has been, at best, ambivalent. Otho Nicholson was an agent for James I, whose task was to help fill the royal coffers and, by the bye, enriched himself. He seems not to have had any university education but was one of those who sought to create an assocation for himself later in his life: he provided Oxford with a water-supply reaching the city at Carfax Conduit. One of the pipe-lines from the conduit was reserved for Christ Church, whose Library Nicholson also ‘restored’ (and so he appears in the introduction to the catalogue of Christ Church’s manuscripts, the revisions of which I am now completing). We might like to think that Nicholson was virtuous for being a benefactor without even a sense of pietas to impel him to his generosity; the less maganimous might see in his ostentatious donations a desire to buy respectability.

His good deeds in Oxford are remembered in his will, but only briefly. The larger sequence of bequests is reserved for friends like Fulke Greville and, all the more, for his family. Through them we might be able to trace his extended family tree but little here tells of what he thought of his relatives – except for one passage. Here it is:

Item I give unto my disordered Sister Anne Lee one Annuitie of Ten pounds per Annum To be payde to her quarterlye duringe her liefe Uppon condicion nevertheless that shee leave her unwomanly boldnes in gaddinge daylye to the Courte and troublinge the King, Queene, Prince and divers honourable Lordes and Ladyes there with her Counterfeitt clamors (as heretofore she has too often done) And that shee give herself to a civill carriage of lyfe and followe her needle for her better manytenans Shee having good knowledge to use the same…

You sense how Nicholson’s heart sank when sister Anne walked in the room, how he must have feared the good contacts he had made at court might be undermined by what he perceived by her meddling. We also get sight of what was considered to be a more appropriate lifestyle for a lady – and might wonder whether Anne stuck the needle through the cloth a little sharper when thinking of her patronising brother. Most of all, perhaps, we might feel that, among the references to people who are little more than names in this will, she comes alive and is someone whom, in her fiestiness, we might like to meet.

There is a coda to this: Nicholson’s will was proven in July 1622 but it was found that the lavish range of bequests that he had so thoroughly arranged exceeded the monies remaining at his death. Perhaps, then, Anne never received her annuity and was thus free to continue gadding daily to the Court.

What’s the purpose of a conference? Reflections on RSA2015. Part II

Posted in Offbeat observations, Renaissance Studies, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 5 April, 2015

I have suggested that it would be worth the Renaissance Society of America going meta and studying the anthropology of its own ‘Annual Meeting’. The advantage of this little proposal is that it would help us stand outside our own experience and look in at ourselves. At this point, I should probably put my hand up and admit to not being a habitué of the RSA’s annual get-together. The last time I attended was ten years ago, when it was in Cambridge (UK – not MA). There have been several reasons why I have been unable to attend in the intervening years, but I have tended to justify my absence with reference to the conference’s amplitudinous nature – how can, I ask, an event which is so gargantuan continue to have the quality of a conference? Aristotle described how a city could be so large that it failed to have the character of a city. We too might wonder at what stage a conference becomes the equivalent of a megalopolis and is too massive to retain a single identity. I must stress that I enjoyed my experience of the RSA this year and was glad to have been persuaded to contribute (thank you, Piers Baker-Bates, Tom True and Oren Margolis). I did hear a few shockingly poor papers (given by established academics) and some very stimulating ones (many – but not all – given by early-career scholars). I feel guilty that I did not sit in on more panels; struck by end-0f-term exhaustion, I crept away on the first afternoon to preserve my energy for presenting the next day, and on that day, the sessions were so stimulating – excepting (modesty forces me to say) my own intervention – that I was drained by the evening without the stamina to go to the plenary lecture I had very much wanted to hear (I am getting old). Perhaps, though, I should not be too hard on myself: my absence was not, I sense, egregious. Yet, that such selective non-attendance – like Poggio Bracciolini travelling away from Constance – was perhaps not just acceptable but the norm says something about the expectations of the event. The worry is that those expectations clash with the basic concept of a conference, as I at least have seen it practised on other occasions.

The differences of concept were reflected in an exchange of views I had with another attendee the day after the RSA ended. I would like to claim the exchange was full and frank but, as we were both British, it naturally fell short of that. The person with whom I found myself in discussion complained that there was no consistency between sessions about when questions were asked so that it was difficult to time moving between papers; her preference would have been to have a 30 minute slot for each paper, including questions, with the chair’s job to be making sure that each paper and discussion on it was confined to that half hour. She may have been thinking aloud, or felt goaded to suggesting it by my own joking proposal that at the start of each panel, the door should be locked to avoid the disruption to the session caused by people entering and leaving when they please. For my interlocutor, moving between sessions is an established habit at such a conference and helps ensure one can attend as many papers of interest as possible. For me, in contrast, it is both ill-mannered and counter-productive. The organiser of a panel has taken the effort to bring together a group of speakers with some sense of connexion between their topics. This, of course, works better in some sessions than others but, unless a session is obviously a medley of disparate elements without any rationale, then, to my mind, we should show respect to both the organiser and the speakers by attending the whole session, however interesting another panel might be elsewhere.

That explains in brief why, on my submission, panel-popping offends good manners; that is not to say that there may be occasions on which for an individual it is nearly unavoidable but it is to suggest that it should be discouraged as an element of conference etiquette. I said a moment ago, however, that I also consider the practice counter-productive and I should explain that. If the intention of moving between sessions is to maximise one’s intellectual stimulation then it can only do that if one is not interested in hearing or engaging in the discussion section of a session. Personally, I find that at times the most exciting part – when the chair or members of the audience can draw out threads that linked the papers together and when a discussion can develop involving all speakers and some of the others in the room. That, I would suggest, is at the heart of what a conference is – it is a collective experience where speakers and attendees alike learn from each other and develop their thinking through the exchange of ideas.

Yet, of course, a conference where part of its claim to importance is its very size – like not only the RSA but also the International Medieval Congress at Leeds – can never manage to hold all its delegates together as one collective. The fact that such events tend to be organised in significant cities where there are plentiful distractions in itself must dissipate that to some extent (I know that Kathleen Kennedy would point out that Kalamazoo, home to another International Congress of medievalists, is an exception in being a small venue for a heavy-weight event). Such conferences’ need to have multiple parallel sessions – in Berlin, it was over 50 to each time slot – encourages the proposing and organising by societies or groups of a series of panels on one subject area, with the result that there are several mini-conferences happening in the same place, often with delegates who have paid to travel from afar sitting in a room speaking mainly to colleagues they could more cheaply have gathered together elsewhere. Those involved in such sessions are not unaware that it makes little economic sense to work this way but they calculate it has advantages – the fact that many of the arrangements are another’s responsibility, let alone the attraction of being seen at the ‘premier’ event – which keeps them doing it. These mini-conferences act like the rioni or quarters of a medieval city, with the conference itself being the municipality which gives them space – and which ensures they do not come to blows (not that I have ever heard of such things happening at the RSA or IMC but, then again, perhaps I am out of the loop). Yet, if one is not a full member of such a mini-conference or, as few of these strands run through the whole of the event, when ‘your’ section is not in action, then the structure demands that one creates an individualised experience of the conference. In such a context, the pattern of panel-popping my partner in conversation was proposing as appropriate behaviour is not simply likely to happen, it is, in effect, encouraged. The question is whether that matters.

Some, obviously, would say not – or would, indeed, celebrate such structures, pointing out that as a metropolis gives an individual the opportunity to be who they want to be, not controlled by the collective habits that mark out village life, so these large events give opportunities that break down established structures of authority and empower the individual. There is undoubted merit to that argument and it could be taken as a rationale for the organisers of a large conference facilitating as many sessions as possible, though, as the argument over the lack of women among the RSA’s plenaries shows, size does not necessarily ensure diversity. There is a further danger about continuing expansion: I wonder when the metropolis turns into the megalopolis and the individualised becomes the atomised. That aside, and to repeat my central point, if we see a conference as an event which fosters a collective identity and a sharing of thought-processes among contributors (speakers and listeners), then the RSA or IMC would not fit the definition. Admittedly, neither of those two gatherings actually calls itself a conference. The RSA has its ‘annual meeting’ – though, with so many present, there are so few you do actually meet: you bump into friends you did not even realise were going to be there, and you fail to find others who are lost in the mass of people and of sessions. IMC, like Kalamazoo, terms itself a congress, hinting at the difference of its nature from smaller-scale or more old-fashioned (and more human-sized) gatherings. What is at stake, though, is not an issue of terminology – though this could help if, that is, we are alert to the nuances of terms and share a single language; that in itself must be in doubt considering the slippage that seems to occur between ‘colloquium’, ‘symposium’ and ‘workshop’, for instance. What I want to insist matters is that we all – as organisers and as attendees – consider reflectively the implications of size has for the nature of intellectual engagement at an event. Perhaps others do this and I am slow on the uptake but the way in which the patterns of sessions alters little between different types of conference suggests otherwise. The RSA (to continue with this example) envisage ‘panels’ and ’roundtables’, to which are added ‘plenaries’ as the basic structure. If, though, we want to foster more interaction and more exchange, are there not additional ways in which to achieve this – could not, for instance, there be occasions where the chair of each session or an appointed rapporteur feeds back to a wider audience? And does social media – beyond twitter feeds and storify (take a bow, Liesbeth Corens) – give opportunities to achieve such a sharing of experience (always remembering that a substantial proportion of the delegates are likely to be off-line during the conference itself)?

That is, of course, assuming that such sharing, with the assumptions of a single collective identity, is desirable at such an event. But have I misunderstood the anthropology?

What’s the purpose of a conference? Reflections on RSA 2015

Posted in Offbeat observations, Renaissance Studies, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 4 April, 2015

In the summer of 1435, the Artois town of Arras was over-run. This was a peaceful invasion, unlike others in its history, for Arras was to be the site of a congress intended to end the major international conflict of northern Europe between the kingdoms of France and England by bringing them – and the allies of the English, the dukes of Burgundy – to the negotiating table. The congress was overseen by the Bolognese cardinal, Niccolò Albergati, in whose entourage were two future popes, Nicholas V and Pius II. Whatever the future greatness of some of his household, his companions formed a relatively modest following, particularly when compared with that of England’s premier cleric, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, who rode into town with a retinue of five hundred. Attendance at the congress, moreover, was not drawn simply from the main protoganists and the representatives of the papacy – its participants came also, as one orator presented noted, ‘from Cyprus, from Denmark, from Poland…’. For a town whose population was probably in the mid-twenty-thousands, these visitors must have swelled its numbers in a way that both provided economic possibilities and stretched its resources to near-breaking point. Where would all of Beaufort’s retainers stayed – in tents outside the town walls? How would the taverns have coped with the increased demand for food which there surely must have been, even if some of the attending dignitaries came with their own cooks and supplies? And the Congress of Arras, let us remember, was one of the smaller international conferences of the early fifteenth century. It could not compare with the General Councils of the Church – with Constance or Basel (especially in its early days) or with Ferrara-Florence (the pope’s riposte to Basel at which the Christian churches beyond the Catholic West were represented). Spare a thought for the locals of each of those towns who had to suffer as well as profit from the influx of strangers, with their colourful clothes, curious manners and incomprehensible languages.

The dress code among modern academics offers more subtle variation between national types than was the case in the age of the Councils. At an event like the Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America that ended a week ago in Berlin, there were some differences on display: the wearing of what looked suspiciously like pre-made bowties was considered appropriate fashion by some of one nation, while a few brave souls (and I use ‘brave’ in the sense of foolhardy) of another country unblushlingly sported braces (Amer.: suspenders – but let us not pursue that difference in usage). And this is only to comment on the practices of male couture. These examples remind us that the RSA, like the congress at Arras, was highly cosmopolitan, but without the advantage of having a universally owned lingua franca between scholars (ubi colloquia in lingua latina erant?); the event had instead to be polyglot, with at least lip-service paid to speaking in tongues. This contrast with Arras is one among the many significant differences, but, standing in the reception of the Humboldt University, I could not shake from my mind the sense that this ‘conference’ – and I will explain the scare-quotes in the second part of this discussion – with its 3,200 delegates, plus its support industry like the well-stocked book-stands (one of the few temptations to which the latterday academic fails to be immune), shared something of the character of one of those quattrocento Councils or Congresses. Moreover, I would humbly suggest, a future RSA could usefully include a panel or two on those Councils seen through the anthropology of the RSA.

I mooted this suggestion with a few of those attending – when I say a few, I mean roughly 0.15% of the delegates. They proposed some interesting topics. Of perennial fascination is the contrast – and sometimes conflict – between different styles of presentation, usually assumed to be a matter of national educational traditions, though the panels often also provide evidence of the movement or assimilitation of others’ habits; this could provide insight for those of us considering the process of the international adoption of humanist techniques of oratory in the fifteenth century. Equally valid would be to consider the range of audience engagements in a panel, from styles of questioning to the tradition of the intervento. Related to these subjects might be the sub-cultures created among attendees by what they do away from the conference venue – so compare the adventures of a Poggio Bracciolini at St. Gallen (or, indeed, Baden-Baden) with the opera outings of colleagues or the late-night drinking sessions (the membership of these events may be found to overlap). Such escapades could also allow a study of the impact of the sudden arrival of so many people on the local economy; there were certainly mutterings that the Berlin restaurants were caught unawares by the dietary expectations of the members of the RSA. Then, as was pointed out, there is the nature of gift-giving at such events which in itself reflects patterns of patronage some of which pre-exist while others are created at the event, either for its duration or with longer-term results. That, too, is linked to the matter of the after-tremors of the earthquake which is such a congregating of people: to the flurries of e-mails and follow-up meetings we may now be having could be parallelled the possibilities of renewed contact that were nurtured by an acquaintance made at a General Council. And, beneath and beyond all these smaller issues, the anthropological approach could allow us to consider the range of purposes and results of such an outsize gathering, in a such a way that we would be invited to consider how those other elements enhanced or undermined its ostensible raison d’être. It is, indeed, on its declared rationale that I want to concentrate in the second part of these reflections.

Lucky D?

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 25 August, 2014

The Times Literary Supplement has been running — and then attempting to call off — a hunt for references to itself in literature. It occurs to me that there are other noble publications that could compile a similar (albeit rather select) collection. Here is my own favourite for reasons that will become clear. It comes from a novel which is more period-piece than classic, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954). The young academic anti-hero, the dypsomaniac medievalist James Dixon has arrived on campus:

‘Oh, Dixon, can I have a word with you?’ To its recipient, this was the most dreadful of all summonses. It had been a favourite of his Flight-Serjeant’s, a Regular with old-fashioned ideas of getting an N.C.O. out of the men’s hearings before subjecting him not to a word but to an uproar of abuse… Welch [the Head of the History Department] had revived it as a short maestoso introduction to the allegro con fuoco of his displeasure over each new item in the ‘bad impresssion’ Dixon had been building up… Intellectually, Dixon could conceive of such a request leading to praise for work done on indexing Welch’s notes for his book, to the offer of a staff post on Medium Aevum, to an invitation to an indecent house-party, but emotionally and physically he was half-throttled by the certainty of nastiness.

Beyond the intended humour of the passage, there is something comical about the idea that an academic journal like Medium Ævum should have a plethora of paid positions, even or perhaps especially in the early 1950s when it was barely itself in its teens. And I should know because, of course, I have myself had more than a passing acquaintance with said journal — more recently, I should rush to add, than in the mid-twentieth century. I am the person who, for a while, had the post to which Dixon dimly aspired. There is, then, an association between him and me, which makes we wonder or worry: what other similarities might there be?

That is for me to worry about — the challenge for you is to see if you can help add to this start of a catalogue of literary references to medieval studies’ small but, oh, so perfectly-formed green-backed periodical.

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Thoughts from Trier

Posted in Offbeat observations, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 15 September, 2013

Octavius Rooke's drawing of the Porta Nigra from his Life of the Moselle (London, 1858).

Octavius Rooke’s drawing of the Porta Nigra from his Life of the Moselle (London, 1858).

Last month saw me on annual leave (thus my yet-longer-than-usual silence) and our travels took my companion for life and myself to the ancient city on the Mosel: ‘Augusta Trevirorum of the Romans, Trier of the Germans, and Trèves of the English’. Practice has changed since Octavius Rooke wrote his account of The Life of the Moselle in 1858, and it is standard in English now to use its German name. Indeed, if we had taken Rooke’s work with us as our guide, we would have been lost, but I packed it for its historical quaintness rather than any practical value – and certainly not for the quality of the verses he sometimes includes, which would be a worthy candidate from the McGonagall Prize for Literature. More successful are the drawings from his travels that Rooke provides, including one of the imposing Roman gate to Trier, the Porta Nigra (following the example of another Englishman, William Clarkson Stanfield). And he makes some observations that caught my eye, one of which, as will become clear, acted as a stimulus to this attempt to gather my own thoughts. At the same time, Rooke is interesting for what he leaves out: for instance, he provides no mention of Trier’s most famous son, even though, at the time of writing, he could not have been unaware of The Communist Manifesto or of its British-based mastermind, Karl Marx.

Karl Marx's childhood home near the Porta Nigra - complete with tourist train.

Karl Marx’s childhood home near the Porta Nigra – complete with tourist train.

Trier has little compunction about increasing its capital through Marx’s fame. His iconic status is the subject of an engrossing temporary exhibition at the civic museum; a permanent site for pilgrimage is Brückenstrasse 10 (once Brückergasse 664), the place of his nativity in front of which frequently congregate shoals of smiling Chinese visitors. Where you do not see them gathering is Simeonstrasse 8, the house to which the Marx family moved the year after Karl’s birth and where he grew up, even though this building with its prospect onto the Porta Nigra must have provided his first formative memories. The square which the young Marx could have seen when he was tall enough to peer out of the window was for a while in the century after his death known as Adolf Hitlerplatz.

That the cult of Marx should focus on his birthplace rather than where he spent his formative years is partially a result of the Nazi years: they had commandeered the house in which he was born, which had been bought by the Social Democratic Party in 1928, and burnt all the memorabilia gathered there associated with the philosopher of Communism. The history that thus accrued to the place perhaps made it inevitable that it should be re-born as the site of veneration after the Second World War. Earlier, when it was first identified as a focus of celebration of Marx’s life and influence, there may well have been practical reasons for attention centring there: presumably, it was available while the house in the prime location next to Porta Nigra was not. And, yet, there is still something notable about the selection: the sense that the birthplace has a particular poignant status, where the figure we visualise with manly full beard and know as the father of an unforgiving politics was at his gentlest and most vulnerable, a crying baby, the result of hours of anguished labour pains for his mother. The birthplace celebrates his beginning but also it honours beginnings, the elemental moment in family life. This is where and how it all began.

I mused on this because I sensed a parallel with the life of several of the major monuments of Trier, where their history has been effaced so that they can return to something closer to their pristine condition. The Porta Nigra itself now stands as a testimony to the Romans’ engineering prowess and to the city’s importance as Augusta Treverorum, but when Marx gazed it as a child, he was surely told that only a few years before it had been a church and monastery, its arches filled in and its west end adorned with a tower. That those medieval accretions are – for the most part — no longer standing was the result of an intervention begun by Napoleon and completed by the Prussians who followed him as rulers of Trier: Bonapartist anti-clericalism freed the Roman building from its Christian reuse. Half a century later (when Marx was in his British exile), a pro-Protestant agenda drove the re-building of the so-called Basilica, part of the Emperor Constantine’s Palace which had once housed the bishop’s fortified dwelling and which had been threatened, in the eighteenth century, with complete demolition to make way for the new Electoral Palace. That removal had been only half achieved, and the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV decreed it should be restored in order to be the new Lutheran church of the city, consecrated in 1856. War has twice played its part in creating its present setting, the open space that affords a vista on it being originally created as a drilling yard for Napoleon’s troops, while the austere interior is the result of post-War reconstruction after the Allied bombing had left the Basilica in ruins and without its roof: the nineteenth-century decoration which emulated the marble of Italian Romanesque churches like San Miniato above Florence was damaged and not replaced, so the walls were laid bare and unadorned.  It is, then, only since the middle of the twentieth century that visitors to the Basilica could imagine they were entering into an ancient space, unmediated by later additions.

South-east of the Basilica, the destruction of war also freed the ruins of the ancient baths (never, in fact, used for that purpose) from much of their later accretions, as the Allied bombing flattened their surroundings. It was not the case, however, that all its medieval connotations were removed, for the baths, which acted as a corner of the city walls through which a gate passed also became inhabited by a tower which now appears integral to the remains. But it is not because of its presence that tourists are invited to pay a visit to the Kaiserthermen.

These re-formations of a classical identity speak to or help define our cultural sensitivity; they exemplify an impulse to the pristine, undefiled by later interventions, allowing us to stand face-to-face with our ancient forefathers. It is a mentality of what might be called pristinism in which the accretions of the centuries are perceived as unfortunate degenerations from the original with which we want to have immediacy. But the later history of the buildings can rarely be entirely effaced: if we admire the Porta Nigra from outside the city we are taking in not just Roman construction and Napoleonic destruction but also Romanesque intervention – the curved wall to the left of the structure is the medieval apse of the church (as can be seen in Rooke’s drawing). My response to this was not what I expected: it was not the sense that the medieval inhabited a classical inheritance like baggy, once elegant hand-me-down clothes, too large and simply too refined for their new wearer, but rather a feeling of the grandeur of the Romanesque, able to compete in height and mastery with the Roman remains it made useful again by its own handiwork.

I had a similar sensation when first seeing the twelfth-century frontage of the cathedral which, with its western apse, appears audaciously to present its back to the visitor. We spent our first evening sitting in the square with it and its younger neighbour, the gothic Liebfrauenkirche, as our companions.  I was spell-bound by the stonework of the cathedral and only realised later that I was looking in the wrong direction, at least for nineteenth-century tastes. This brings me back to Octavius Rooke and the comment that inspired my musings in the first place. Describing the two churches, Rooke was lyrical about the Liebfrauenkirche, ‘a beautiful Gothic edifice, with noble arches of extreme lightness and delicacy of appearance’, and went on to compare it to its neighbour:

‘The Cathedral is a fine building and stands side by side with the Liebfrauen Kirche which it far exceeds in size but to which it is inferior in beauty…’

The Cathedral of Trier, with the Libefrauenkirche to its right.

The Cathedral of Trier, with the Libefrauenkirche to its right.

The under-valuing of the Romanesque reminded me of words that Proust puts into the mouth of M. de Norpois, berating the young narrator for his liking of a style that ‘in no way seems to foreshadow … the delicate inventiveness of Gothic architects, who could work stone like lace [ne laisse en rien présager l’élégance, la fantaisie des architectes gothiques qui fouillent la pierre comme de la dentelle]’. It was when reading those words that I felt I first gained insight into a cultural preference which I find so alien. I would not want to deny the Liebfrauenkirche with its star-shaped design held up by slender columns its accolades but I think that our contemporary tendency is to seek out the less intricate, seeing more beauty in the apparent simplicity of the Romanesque. But perhaps this taste is itself informed by the tradition of pristinism which expects the original to be unrefined, like the bare walls of the Basilica, transporting us back, as it were, to the unclothed new-born. If I am right in my assumption that this is an element of pristinism, then that attitude cannot be considered simply a form of classicism. What it is, instead, is a sort of post-humanist condition, in which the call ‘ad fontes’ has been transferred beyond its own original limits.

More fundamental than this – it struck me, walking Trier’s history-heavy streets – is the need to choose, the imperative for taste to compare and so to devalue as well as to prize. Taste and tourism, both: a monument or a city must be sold with a headline, not a narrative, and so you are enjoined to visit Trier in order, in the words of the Rough Guide, to ‘wander Europe’s most impressive Roman remains’ (the adjective ‘northern’ must have dropped out of that sentence at some stage). In this mindset, that the Porta Nigra spent much of its life as a church or the Basilica decades in ruins are accidents of each building’s nachleben that unfortunately cannot be ignored but can be relegated to being matters of incidental interest; they are not part of the essence of the building or of its valency. And if that mindset is necessary to tourism, it means the heritage industry is in the business of privileging in a building or a place a single element of its heritage and employing a process of industrial cleaning which washes away its other aspects like specks of stubborn dirt.

Trier's semi-detached Basilica and Electoral Palace.

Trier’s semi-detached Basilica and Electoral Palace.

Leaving aside the economics of tourism, does this have to be so? After all, it is surely our human flaw that we can only perceive partially, that we have to select where we concentrate attention. At the same time, we can recognise that elements need to be understood in dialogue with each other, particularly in a place like Trier where we cannot avoid seeing a combination of identities jostling together in one place. This is best epitomised by the remarkable cohabitation created for the Basilica with its neighbour the Rococo Electoral Palace, where Friedrich Wilhelm’s building project entailed the demolition of part of the palace so that they could co-exist as semi-detached properties. Similarly, we might be able to appreciate that the Liebfrauenkirche was built next to the Cathedral not to distract attention from it but to provide in unison with it a focus for devotion. If we can understand this, then we should also be able to comprehend a single building as having had several lives – Porta Nigra, gate, hermitage, church, monument. Or  Brückergasse 664, legal offices and family home, memorial to the birth of Karl Marx, Nazi offices, tourist attraction for visiting Chinese.  But we can only reach that comprehension if we shed our post-humanist instinct to seek the source, the original – if, that is, we move beyond a pristinism that denudes a place of all but one of its histories. But would such a step be itself a return to a purer accommodation with the past?

Renaissance Man becomes Essex Man

Posted in Offbeat observations, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 3 September, 2013

Some subtle changes have been made to this site’s homepage, updating my life. For, after years when my only affiliation has been the Univeristy of Oxford, I have taken up a post as Lecturer in History at the University of Essex. Quite a change, you might be thinking, but it is an opportunity I am relishing. Did he want the job (you may be asking) because the 1960s architects of the new campus claimed it was inspired by the hill-top towers of San Gimignano? No, and I suspect you can only recognise the resemblance after the third bottle of Vernaccia. But doesn’t Essex believe that history starts in 1500? It is true that that is the cut-off point which was decided upon when the department in the university was established — an interesting reflection on the traditions of historiographical periodisation — but the department is welcome to my teasing away at those edges. And, in addition, they have established a Centre for Bibliographical History and I am very much looking forward to using what organisational skills I have to help that develop.

This new life will mean I need to shed some other responsibilities, with regret. Specifically, I am standing down as Executive Officer to the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, a role I have much enjoyed fulfilling in the past five years. It is sad to move on but I can look back at a time of real success and development for the Society, from its growing membership to its increased number of events and grant-giving.

Not all is change, however. I continue to be based in Oxford for a whole host of reasons, not least among them because I have my special lectures on English Humanist Scripts, up to c. 1509 coming up this autumn. Have I not told you about those? Another post to come then. But, as you can tell, it is going to be a very, very busy time. And that’s how I like it.

The town of San Gimignano and the University of Essex — may they be in some way related?

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I have been petrified

Posted in Offbeat observations, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 23 June, 2013

The other week saw a jolly event: the second launch of Roscoe and Italy, a collection of essays edited by the indefatigable Stella Fletcher. The volume discusses a wide range of aspects of the intellectual life of the Liverpudlian pioneer of Renaissance studies, William Roscoe, including chapters on his friends, including one by myself on William Shepherd, first (and so far only) British biographer of the adventurous humanist, Poggio Bracciolini.

The first launch of the book was in Roscoe’s hometown, an event at which I could not be present. Not to be outdone by Liverpool, Florence decided to have a presentazione, at the British Institute. It involved elegant speeches by Stefano Baldassarri, Mark Roberts of the Institute, and John Law, followed by a lively discussion. During that, I pointed out how wonderfully inappropriate the event was: Roscoe, as is well-known, never left the shores of Britain and, indeed, found travelling to London too unpleasant. He would not have wanted to journey to Florence, and preferred to conjure up its Renaissance identity through the books and paintings with which he surrounded himself.

All the same, it was a pleasure to be able to celebrate both the author and the book about him on the banks of the Arno. There was much praise for the work and it is certainly a stimulating and, indeed, well-produced volume. Of course, no book is without its imperfections, and I am sure sharp-eyed readers will catch some misprints or other infelicities. I myself noticed one on first opening it, but this was a matter of amour propre. On the page with the list of contributors, it is stated ‘David Rundle is Corpus Christi College, Oxford’.

As a battle-cry, it cannot equal ‘I’m Spartacus’ but it is still an impressive claim. The weight of the college’s Headington stone walls sit heavily on my shoulders… It is a bold statement that has left me asking existential question about the meaning of ‘is’. Is ‘is’ as in the cinema bill boards, where to say Helen Mirren is The Queen suggests a representation so impressively real that you could the actor has inhabited the being of the person portrayed? It reminds me of a theatre studies exercise at school in which we each had to act one of the buildings of Macclesfield — I was to be the church (I am told my spire was not up to much but that I made a wicked nave).

Or is ‘is’ to suggest that somehow I capture the quintessence of the institution? I appreciate that my work on humanism in England makes an association between me and the foundation of Richard Fox which was praised (beyond reality) by Erasmus. I am not so sure, though, that that is the entire identity of Corpus now, nor am I sure I am, in character, any more a Corpuscule than I am a Houseman (Christ Church being my alma mater).

But then, perhaps, ‘is’ means here simply that I have come to look like the crenellated quadrangles of the small but complex College. If that is the case, I truly am petrified.

An error not to be exonerated

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 28 October, 2012

Yesterday evening saw me sitting in the gods, with the young people, at Oxford’s New Theatre for a performance of La bohème – an experience that made me rue how many years I have wasted not going to the opera. I think the last occasion I was in the New Theatre was when it was still under its old designation of the Apollo, for a production (like this one, by Welsh National Opera) of Richard Strauss’s Elektra. That, a quick internet search suggests, was a full two decades ago; what time I have lost! I fear that I have stayed away because I made what would be called a category error: I imagined opera to be a sub-set of theatre. I realised last night how wrong that was and how free from the constraints of the logic of plot or characterisation an opera could be, driven on by the dynamic of its music, with an orchestration as complex as any contrapunctual masterclass. I finally realised how opera could find its purpose in expressing the drama of emotion — how it can voice the heart’s strings.

But talking of category errors, I am not the only one to have laboured under a misapprehension. The programme for last evening’s performance included an essay by Adrian Mourby that begins engagingly:

Once upon a time in a city called Paris the gendarmes raided a nightclub and accused a poet of stealing the Mona Lisa. The year was 1911, poet [sic] was called Apollinaire and to get himself off the hook he fingered his disreputable boiler-suited friend, Pablo Picasso, for the crime. Both men were later released and exhonorated.

Now, from the context, we can surely assume that Messrs Apollinaire and Picasso had (on this occasion) the onus of blame lifted from them and so were exonerated. How could the author, or his copy-editor, have got the spelling so wrong that it begs the question how the programme received its imprimatur? How come they mangled the word into something which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary,does not exist in our language? Is it because a Cardiff accent aspirate an ‘o’, I wondered? Or was it because they had been misled by some half-remembered crossword clue (let off, the old flame sounds like they got a gong. 10 letters)?

Of course, as I have noted elsewhere, even the  OED is not wholly comprehensive – wonderfully so. It cannot pretend to be au courant with every English usage. So might it be permissible to fangle anew the verb ‘exhonorate’? There are two problems with that: first, it can hardly be accounted a recent invention. Some ‘Hints for Teachers’ that appeared in The Classical Journal eighty years ago, in 1932, comments:

There are many Latin derivatives beginning with the combination “exh”-“exhaust,” “exhort,” “exhume.” Students of Latin know why the “h” is in these words. It is because they are derived respectively from haurire (haustum), hortari, and humare. But what would you think of “exhonorate,” “exhorbitant,” and “exhuberant” – three atrocities which I encountered in newspaper copy within a week?

However, it is not an error that had to wait for newspapers to be invented. To give one example, in Richard Grafton’s Chronicle — I have used the 1569 edition [STC 12147] — the author talks of Edward IV’s anxieties, saying ‘his minde and phantasie, was not clerely exhonorate or dispatched, of all feare and inward trouble’ (p. 715). The spelling generally in that passage reminds us that we are dealing with a period before any strict standardisation, but might Grafton’s spelling of the (now obsolete) adjective suggest that the route ‘exonerate’ took into the English language from Latin picked up on its way some French influence, with the ‘h’ imitating the pronunciation of the verb exonérer?

Whatever the precise trajectory taken by the term in its early years in English, Grafton himself was not consistent in his usage: just a few pages on from the passage quoted, he used ‘exonerate’ (p. 720), and others among his contemporaries employed that spelling which has become the accepted form. And with good reason, for the second and more significant problem with deviation from ‘exonerate’ is that it suggests also a change of meaning. As the American Willis Ellis, the author of the ‘hint’ quoted above, went on to note ‘”Exhonorate” would mean (if it meant anything) “to deprive of honor”‘ – the spelling seems obviously to announce the Latin noun ‘honor’ (our ‘honour’) as its root. Indeed, there is a late Latin verb, albeit a fairly rare one, ‘exhonorare’ which means ‘to dishonour’. In other words, if the French poet and the Spanish painter were ‘released and exhonorated’ that would suggest that they had been let go but not let off — they walked from the prison cell, but not without their honour somewhat compromised, poor chaps.

The point is that we all read new words most days: some so confuse us that we glide over them in blissful igorance, some we come to grasp by bothering to learn from a dictionary, while others we can grapple to comprehend by using knowledge we have already — we understand them through cognates or by intuition based on etymology or by mentally pronouncing terms we may have only heard spoken. The opera programme’s ‘exhonorated’ probably came about through the corollary of the last of these processes: whether direct or repeating another’s error, it presumably originated as a phonetic attempt to record in writing a heard word, ‘exonerated’ — except, of course, it perpetrates two slight mispronunciations. What makes that process a problem is that, as we each use the range of techniques to make sense of the words before us, the shifting of a term to a spelling that suggests another root is liable to cause miscomprehension.

We should, then, delight in the variety of usages that our language allows — but always accept that there are limits and there are errors. The question, of course, is how to know when something is a permissible alternative and something simply an unacceptable mistake. I do not intend to attempt a full answer to that, and will confine myself to drawing out a comment implicit in the example I have just given: that is that common usage can surely not be reason sufficient on its own either to prescribe or, indeed, to proscribe. Let me end, instead, with a plea and a suggestion. First, the plea is to on-line dictionaries. In trying to understand how this error came about, I typed in ‘exhonorate’ — the Free Dictionary on-line immediately directs the viewer to ‘exonerate’, without explanation. The OED, on the other hand, simply returns a ‘no entry found’ notice. Would it not be more helpful if both noted that mis-spelling as such and so helped those in error to mend their ways?

Finally, the suggestion. We can know ‘exonerate’ is more likely to be correct than ‘exhonorate’ if we think of their etymology — we know ‘onus’ and we know ‘hono(u)r’ and we understand what the prefix ‘ex’ does to a term. The origin of both the real and the cod word would be Latinate, but that does not mean it is beyond understanding — we all live with Latin, even when we imagine we are solely speaking English. Delving into a word, unearthing its history and, indeed, watching the tergiversations it has taken on its path to its place in our modern language enriches our understanding of our quotidian vocabulary. So, we have had a history of the world in a 100 objects; is it not time to have a history of English in one hundred words?