Mediaeval manuscripts were copied onto parchment, the skin of (usually) sheep or goats scraped free of hair and bumps. Parchment turned out to be extremely durable but took a lot of time to prepare and so was re-used. Monks would wash and scrape away an original text and copy another on top. If the original ink was tenacious, traces of the original text can be deciphered. These layered manuscripts are ‘palimpsests’ – ‘scraped again’. This is one of many insights into the business of books and texts from classical times to the 15th century that I picked up from the marvellous The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt.
This image of the layered manuscript came to mind as I read on through The Swerve. The books is – on its surface layer – about a specific historical episode, the discovery in a remote German monastery by Italian papal bureaucrat (and obsessive text-hunter) Poggio Bracciolini of De Rerum Natura (On The Nature of Things) by Lucretius, a long philosophical poem that had been unread for nearly a millennium. Greenblatt argues that the subsequent recirculation of Lucretius’ long-lost book had a cumulatively decisive influence on the course of history. De Rerum Natura sets out a fundamentally modern view of the world. That matter consists of atoms, that humans are not central to the universe, that there is no life after death, that religion is a cruel delusion, that nature experiments and life as we know it is the result of that trial and error, and so on. Lucretius also argued that there are absolutely unpredictable ‘swerves’ in the course of the movement of atoms, and those minimal motions set off entirely new chains of events, with ultimately large consequences. Poggio Bracciolini’s 1417 discovery triggered one such ‘swerve’ in the course of history.
This is a cracking story, as told by Prof Greenblatt. But I see another layer underneath. In recounting the loss of scholarship, and rise of Christian dogma, through the Dark Ages, and in setting out the random sequence of events that enabled the rediscovery of knowledge a thousand years later, the book offers a cautionary tale for our own times. Writing of the destruction of Alexandria as a great centre of learning, he writes:
“Libraries, museums and schools are fragile institutions; they cannot long survive violent assaults.” (p91)
Even in Poggio’s time, he and other humanist scholars combined their passion for ancient texts with mudslinging arguments that sounds just like the nasty polemics that now take place online between bloggers purporting to be engaging in public debate:
“The extravagance and bitterness of the charges …. discloses something rotten in the inner lives of these impressively learned individuals.” (p146)
The Papal court was so corrupt that its own employees were openly scathing about it and evidently felt a high degree of self-disgust. As for On The Nature of Things, Greenblatt notes that very many people even now would contest its arguments even as they benefit from the ample fruits of scientific discovery. The Swerve ends with a strong sense of the fragility of learning, and an implicit but urgent moral for our own rather bitter and rotten times. He writes of the poem:
“It survived because a succession of people, in a range of places and times and for reasons that seem largely accidental, encountered the material object – the papyrus or parchment or paper, with its inky marks attributed to Titus Lucretius Carus – and then sat down to make material copies of their own.” (p261)
The Swerve has been widely reviewed – see for example The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Telegraph. They are all a bit sniffy, suggesting Greenblatt is over-straining the scholarly argument to focus on one text, even if this provides a good device for a popular book. I’m neither a literary nor Renaissance scholar, so one of the hoi polloi as far as the eminent critics are concerned. So perhaps I’m reading far too much into the (sub-)text, but I enjoyed this cautionary tale more than any other history book I’ve read recently.
This story is