bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

De minimis curat eruditus

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 19 July, 2008

If bonæ litteræ seems a curious title for this blog, think how much more curious it would seem if it read bone littere.

Bonæ litteræ – literally, ‘good letters’ – is well-known in humanist circles as the term favoured by Erasmus to describe polished literature. It was one of a chain of fashionable slogans used by devotees of the humanist enterprise. The earliest, and most enduring, was studia humanitatis, a phrase signifying ‘the studies of what it is to be human’ or, perhaps better, ‘the understanding about how to become truly human.’ The exact meaning matters less than its resonance: this was a phrase in a re-found oration of Cicero’s which could succinctly signify the commitment of a coterie of early quattrocento Florentines to rediscover and revive classical learning. Later in the century – and this is what the textbooks emphasise – studia humanitatis became to signify a defined educational curriculum. At that point, the phrase lost its innovative glow, and other slogans took its place.

The early humanists – men like Leonardo Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini – not only wanted to write afresh, they wanted their texts to look fresh. And so, there was a reform both of handwriting and of the presentation of the book, with a large display script of separated letters – the origin, when manuscripts turned into printed books, of Roman type – and an insistence that margins should not be stuffed with commentary in a tiny hand but should stand wide and white, so as not to detract from the classical or classicising text in front of the reader. As one small but significant part of this agenda, there was a reform of spelling. In Latin, there are several words which have two vowels together which make one sound, what is called a diphthong. If one of those vowels is missed out, it can transform the word into a completely different one: so, for example, aequus means ‘fair’ or ‘right’, but equus means ‘horse.’ In medieval script, the two words had become indistinguishable as marking the diphthong had fallen into disuse. So, ‘bone littere’ would be a thoroughly medieval name for this blog. The early humanists insisted on returning to the full spelling and writing both vowels, which would give us bonae litterae. But the humanist also tended to elide together the two vowels to signify they should be pronounced as one sound, and the most usual form became that which you see in this title.

In short, it may be that de minimis curat non lex: the law may not be concerned with the tiniest matters – but a scholar certainly should be.