paleo Ideofact

Friday, January 03, 2003
More on Reuchlin
A few days before Christmas, a reader sent an email suggesting that the Hermetic/Cabalist interests of the Renaissance thinkers played a central role in the development of the scientific method; that while these thinkers might have started out dabbling in magic, they ended up working out the laws of motion. His email (he hasn't yet given me permission to post it) reminded me of a book -- yet another by Frances Yates -- that I've been meaning to get around to reading, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, which addresses this theme.

While reading it, I came across this interesting passage on the Johannes Reuchlin-Johann Pfefferkorn controversy, about which I wrote here, and later here and here. In brief, Pfefforkorn was a Jewish convert to Catholicism who in 1507, at the urging of the Dominicans, argued that Jewish books -- books written in Hebrew -- were filled with blasphemies against Christian belief. Reuchlin, a Hebraist, a student of the Cabala, a humanist, and an attorney, was asked for his recommendation on the subject; he wrote a legal brief arguing against the book burning. (That brief, by the way, is well worth reading.)

Frances Yates sheds additional light on the incident in The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age:
Some years before the publication of De arte cablistica a fierce movement of antisemitism, instigated by a converted Jew called Johann Pfefferkorn, had broken out around Reuchlin. It was the usual kind of virulent attack on Jewish religion and character, directed particularly against the books of the Jews which it was proposed to confiscate and burn. The attack was not, ostensibly, primarily against Cabilist books, but against Hebrew prayer books and Talmudic treatises.

Pfefferkorn's antisemitism is chiefly remembered because of the brilliant satire on monkish ignorance, intolerance, and immorality which it aroused. This was the famouts collection of Epistolae obscurorum virorum which appeared anonymously around 1516-1517. The letters of the 'obscure men' violently attacked Reuchlin and the Jews, but the imaginary authors, supposedly monks and scholastics, betray their vulgarity and ignorance in every line. Hence the attack is turned against the attackers, and this extremely clever satire covered the reactionaries with ridicule, protected Reuchlin, and helped prevent the confiscation of the books of the Jews.
There's a sample of the letters here, in which one of the obscure men argues that Pfefferkorn, who didn't know Latin (and probably didn't know how to write) was nevertheless the author of the antisemitic Latin work that bore his name.

Thursday, January 02, 2003
Writing, memory
Two seemingly unrelated topics sparked some personal memories. Doctor Weevil begins a long, interesting post (which he nevertheless suggests is "shameless and tedious introspection") by noting
Colby Cosh tells us how much he misses manual typewriters. I don’t even miss the electric ones. If word-processors had never been invented, I would never have written anything substantial. I tend to be hopelessly obsessive about revising my work, not to mention a fairly inept typist, and could never finish anything of any size.

Since word processors were invented, I’ve published about four dozen articles on classical literature, mostly short and fairly technical. They average around 3 ½ pages as published, include lots of untranslated Latin and Greek, and are mostly on narrowly-defined topics -- strictly for specialists, in other words. Most took years to finish, and I’ve got dozens more in process at any one time, plus several ideas for possible books, none of which is anywhere near finishing. Of course ‘in process’ can mean a two-sentence summary of an idea that would take two or twenty or two hundred pages to defend properly.
He goes on to quote some statistics generated by Microsoft Word on the number of revisions and hours of editing he lavishes on files. Personally, I share Cosh's fondness for the manual typewriter -- I first learned to type on one, and I found it much preferable to the electric Smith Corona that went to college with me. But in reality, I've become computer dependent for writing. In college I used to write out my papers longhand before typing them; I continued the practice even after I got my first computer, and, much later -- when I was out of school but still writing for pleasure -- my first laptop. At some point in the last five or six years, however, when time became tighter, I gave up the pen. On the few occasions in the last year or so when I've been forced to write without benefit of a computer, I've felt almost helpless. Perhaps there are some things I could still write out longhand, but it's really a bore. I can type much faster than I can write, and the rhythm in which I compose prose is at a tempo more suited to the keyboard than ink.

Yet when I take notes, or interview people, I still use a pen and paper. I know I type faster than I write, yet my written notes are always more useful than my typed ones, largely, I think, because I can listen better and pick and choose what I write down, as opposed to my hamfisted attempts to type everything someone says. Which brings me to a query raised by David of Cronaca, in which he comments on the InstaPundit inspired comment fest on Web surfing in class. David writes,
Leaving aside the issue of using laptops in class for purposes unrelated to the class, I do wonder about taking notes on a keyboard. It certainly is advantageous in allowing one to search one's notes afterwards, and it makes sharing and comparing notes much simpler. Nonetheless, when I take notes with pen and paper, I can (and do) make extensive use of connecting arrows, diagrams, and sketches -- none of which is easily done with most laptops. And though I am a good touch typist, I know that when typing I cannot focus on what I am hearing to the same degree that I can when scribbling with a pen.
I think it goes beyond merely focusing on what one hears. I find that I remember things I've written down far better than things that I've typed. In fact, as an undergraduate, I used to study by going through my notes and copying out the sections that I thought were important to remember. I've continued using this technique -- on the rare occasions that I have to give some prepared speech, I usually type out what I want to say on my iMac, then print it out and copy by hand the remarks. For whatever reason, I find I can retain the information far better, and don't have to keep staring down at a printout to remind myself of the next point I wanted to make.

I don't know why this technique works for me, but it always has.

Of course, memory is also possible without writing, as a book by Frances Yates, The Art of Memory, demonstrates fairly well. When writing materials were scarce, before the age of printing, techniques for remembering were far more elaborate, and, out of necessity, probably far better:
Few people know that the Greeks, who invented many arts, invented an art of memory which, like other arts, was passed on to Rome whence it descended in the European tradition. This art seeks to memorise through a technique of impressing 'places' and 'images' on memory. It has usually been classed as 'mnemotechnics,' which in modern times seems a rather unimportant activity. But in the ages before printing a trained memory was vitaly important; and the manipulation of images in memory must always to some extent involve the psyche as a whole.
The whole book is fascinating, and the technique it traces -- which at various points is described as impressing memories into the brain as letters into a wax tablet -- had influences beyond its utilitarian function. In the early age of printing, the art of memory entered its most ambitious phase, incorporating hermetic and neoplationist strains. And then, it disappeared completely, almost like the manual typewriter...

Wednesday, January 01, 2003
4th century feminism
A friend gave me a copy of Norman F. Cantor's Medieval Lives: Eight Charismatic Men and Women of the Middle Ages. I don't much about Cantor, beyond his rather dismissive attitude to Lynn White's work on medieval technology, but I figured what the heck, I'd give it a read. The first chapter is a biographical sketch of the mother of the Emporer Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emporer. The Dowager Empress has a conversation with a tavern servant about women's equality, empowerment, and the patriarchy (both Roman and Hebrew). First, what this is doing in a book of Medieval lives is beyond me, but further, does Cantor really believe that women in the fourth century didn't speak all that differently from those in his faculty lounge?

Monday, December 30, 2002
And another...
And now I'm adding a third, Cronaca, which I first came across via Out of Lascaux. David, the site's proprietor, offers everything from news of medieval toilet discoveries to information on flintknapping seminars in Tucson. Oh, and a fair amount of intelligent commentary as well...

I added two new blogs to the Ideofact favorites list, Camassia and Rumination.

Sunday, December 29, 2002
More crackpots
Doctor Weevil offers some classical counterparts to the medieval missing time "scholars," whom I first mentioned here. H.D. Miller of Travelling Shoes provided the entry for the Enclyclopedia Crackpotica here.

Of the four theories Dr. Weevil offers, number two seems worthy, in my humble opinion, of inclusion in the Hall of Fame (the idea that the Greeks decided to hold the Trojan War in the Baltics rather than Asia Minor is inspired).

I'm back
And with not much more to add to that bit of news, beyond noting this interesting piece in the New York Times that goes into the controversy over the authorship of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I was particularly struck by these paragraphs:
One of the earliest and most vocal critics of the Essene hypothesis has been Dr. Norman Golb, professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization at the University of Chicago. In the 1980's, he was struck by the multiplicity of Jewish religious interpretations and practices recorded in the scrolls. This did not seem to him to be the work of a single sect like the Essenes.

Instead, Dr. Golb argued that the scrolls were written by a variety of Jewish religious thinkers and were hurriedly moved from Jerusalem libraries when the city fell to the Roman army in A.D. 70. Refugees hid them in the caves near Qumran for safekeeping.

In that case, the scrolls would have had nothing to do directly with Qumran itself, which Dr. Golb contends was a military fortress.

His is no longer the voice in the wilderness it once was. Many at the conference were open to the possibility that the scrolls were not the work of the Essenes, though no one presented solid evidence that Qumran had been a military base throughout its occupation.

But Dr. Golb was not invited to the conference. "Others don't want to acknowledge that mine is the best hypothesis," he said in a telephone interview.

So contentious is the entire subject of Qumran, Dr. Galor said, that some scholars who were invited agreed to attend only if some others of opposing schools of thought were excluded.
I don't know enough about the Dead Sea Scrolls to have an opinion one way or the other, and it may well be that Dr. Golb's hypothesis is so far from the consensus view on the Scrolls that including him would be counterproductive to a discussion. But the idea of scholars only agreeing to attend if their opponents were excluded is, in my view, good enough reason not to invite the excluders.