Monday, 20 November 2006

Walled Gardens

I recently heard a discussion about Wi-Fi on the radio and they used the expression 'walled garden'. It is a marketing and e-commerce term used to describe the way a company providing a service, such as Wi-Fi, will only allow you to access and purchase products and services provided by them. It essentially creates a monopoly, which can be for profit, as in the case of company, or for protection, as in the case of schools that have a closed network environment. The term's creator is thought to be John Malone (former owner of Tele-Communications Inc., bought by AT&T), but I can't resist citing the Wikipedia entry on this term, which under History says:

"The first use of the term "walled garden" to describe a protected collection of information may date to Alcuin of York, the English scholar who established Charlemagne's famous library. In 796, he sent some of his pupils back to his old school at York to retrieve a number of rare manuscripts: "I say this that you may agree to send some of our boys to get everything we need from there and bring the flowers of Britain back to France that as well as the walled garden in York there may be off-shoots of paradise bearing fruit in Tours."

Alcuin is probably punning on the etymology of 'Paradise', which is from a Persian word for enclosed garden. The background of such an image is undoubtedly the Canticum canticorum, and the image of the hortus conclusus (for example at Ct 4. 12; translating ּּגַּן נָעוּל). It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word gan (garden) shares the same root as defend (ganan), whereas the Indo-European root of the word, gher, means to grasp or enclose (see Blomley, 'The Borrowed View: Privacy, Property, and the Entanglements of Property', Law and Social Inquiry, 30 [2005], 623). So the 'walled garden' has a complex set of associations between protecting/defending and enclosing or cutting off.

Look, too, at the illustration, which is from Vienna, Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, MS 2617, f. 53r, a copy of the French translation of Boccaccio's Teseida. This manuscript contains an extraordinary set of illuminations by Barthélemy van Eyck commissioned by King René of Anjou. In the above illumination you see Emilia sitting in her enclosed garden, surrounded by all manner of flowers, as the two Theban prisoners look out at her from their cell. There is even an article that identifies all of the flowers in this garden and tries to tell which month of the year it is: Marie-Thérèse Goussett, 'Le jardin d'Émilie', Revue de la Bibliothèque Nationale, 22 (1986), 7-24. Emily is being protected in her garden, cut off from male company, essentially a kind of prisoner. The two men, looking out from their window, are prisoners too, but have the 'freedom' to look, and both fall in love with her at this moment. Notice how she does not engage with them, she has her back to them and is engrossed in making a garland of flowers. In the Italian text she is a bit of a flirt with the boys and she knows that they are looking at her.

And think then of the 'walled garden' in Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, and how he is playing with the genre of the sacred paradisal garden full of wonderful birds and flowers, but also containing a structure, in which we find Venus, and those who have been destroyed by love. It's a kind of nightmarish claustrophobic hot-house within the walled garden. And like surfing the net within a 'walled garden' environment, Chaucer is trying to make sense of love with what he is allowed access to within the garden.

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Peter S. Hawkins, Dante: A Brief History, Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006)

Eagerly anticipated, Peter Hawkins' new Dante: A Brief History is a wonderful read. There are five chapters in all, 'Dante's Life and Works', 'Dante's Journey to God', 'Dante's Beatrice', 'Dante's Religion', and finally 'Dante's Afterlife'. Since Hawkins' principal interests in Dante have been from a theological perspective, teaching as he did for some time at the Yale Divinity School, and now directing the Luce Program in Scripture and the Literary Arts at Boston University, the book is very much a meditation as much as it is 'A Brief History'. It is not aimed at a Dante specialist, but rather at a reader interested in some of the 'big ideas' around Dante. So Hawkins returns again and again to the idea of Beatrice, what she means, how she is to be interpreted. Indeed his chapter 'Dante' Beatrice' is a powerful and very challenging reading of this difficult figure. And Hawkins is not content with the standard view of the Commedia, and it is this that is so refreshing about the book. In the prologue he recounts how he returned to his undergraduate copy of the Commedia, to the great crowning scene in Purg 27, only to find his youthful marginal comment: 'Yawn'. His reading was taken up with greater enthusiasm in graduate school and subsequently and Hawkins wonders how the Commedia turned from a Yawn to a Passion. Unembarrassed questioning is the hallmark of the book.

The chapter on 'Dante's Religion' is one of the most succinct and interesting treatments of the subject I've read in a long time. One might think that such a subject would be necessarily full of platitudes and truisms but much that is fresh is brought to his analysis of the 'personal faith story' in the Commedia as well as some wonderful pages on the many smiles of the poem (pp. 122-130, which readers will recognize as a sythesized treatment drawn from his recent PMLA article).

The final chapter is a gorgeous discussion of 'Dante's Afterlife', mainly concentrating on visual workings and reworkings of the poem. Nothing is out of bounds, nor too low-brow for discussion. It's all in the mix, and it's a great mix. We get Robert Mankoff's cartoons for the New Yorker discussed with Edward Frascino's, or the Dante's Inferno Hell Test you can do online, or William Blake beside the wonderful Botticelli's drawings. Especially interesting is the lengthy discussion of Sandow Birk, whose 'Puppet Movie' I hope to see soon, and Birk and Marcus Sanders' three volume 'translation' into California youth-speak. There is also much on Gary Panter's reworking of the story, especially his Jimbo in Purgatory. I really didn't know the work of these post-modern interpreters of Dante and I'm very glad to have done so. The chapter made me rethink some old divisions and boundaries between so-called high and low culture. For example, think of Dante's own re-writings of the Aeneid at the beginning of the Commedia, how it is at once a rewriting and a surpassing.

He made me really think again about the importance of parody, humour, and anachronism in 'reading' and 're-reading' texts. Look at the rather wonderful Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog, for instance and think about how consonant it is with Chaucerian textual strategies, and the extremely interesting dynamic with the 'guest bloggers' Katherine Swynford and Sir John Mandeville. Think about the way that the paratexte is nothing if not a polyphony of voices around the text, an interaction, a reading, a misreading, and think about the way many medieval commentaries and glosses are just like medieval blogs. The blog page sends you to links of other blogs, but also to other more general websites. And the links themselves are clever, like the link to the 'New Me Society'. Quotes, pointing hands, notae, page numbers, all occur in the margins, all direct your attention to somewhere else, all invite you to reread, to rethink.

It's fair to say that Dante: A Brief History got me thinking and rethinking. It's a significant contribution to recent criticism and will be enjoyed widely. Read it.

Friday, 10 November 2006

Archaeology Ireland 20/3 (2006), Special Supplement on The Faddan More Psalter

It is hard to imagine a more important manuscript discovery in my lifetime than that which occurred in July of this year.

Reports have mainly been restricted to the national and international press, necessarily undetailed and somewhat sensationalist. Archaeology Ireland 20/3 (2006) have now published a special supplement (ISBN 0953442640) entitled The Faddan More Psalter, providing more detail and superb photographs. There are six pieces in the supplement: Patrick F. Wallace, director of the National Museum of Ireland, has a short piece entitled 'A Stroke of Extreme Good Fortune'; Eamonn P. Kelly, Keeper of Irish Antiquities, National Museum of Ireland, has two pieces, the first called 'The Manuscript Discovered', including a fairly detailed description of exactly what is there, and the second 'Other Finds from the Faddan More bog'; Raghnall Ó Floinn, Head of Collections, National Museum of Ireland, has a piece entitled 'Identification', about how he copped that the only fragment of legible text, in ualle lacrimarum, came from Ps. 83. 7, and how that is the Gallican number 83, not the Hebrew 83, but the Hebrew 84, and no it was not about the destruction of Israel, and no it was not a sign of the novisssimi, which seemed to be what some wanted to believe; a learned piece by Bernard Meehan, Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College Library, helps to contextualize the importance of this discovery (more anon); and finally, Rolly Read, Head of Conservation, National Museum of Ireland, has a piece on the enormous conservation challenges presented by the codex.

Meehan's piece summarizes what is important about this MS. Its date is early, c.800, making such a discovery truly exceptional. Its original leather cover or wrap has been preserved, and only two other comparable manuscripts have covers, the Cadmug manuscript, and the Book of Armagh. The manuscript was produced on a lavish scale, not much smaller than the Book of Kells or the Macregol Gospels. A peek at the top corner of the first page (which is still too fragile to open yet) reveals a highly decorated page. It seems to be the letters TUS, and the higher parts of the other letters are just visible. It could be BEATUS, which might well be BEATUS UIR, the opening lines of the first Psalm. The image of a bird is visible, as well as other decorative features such as inked lozenges and a yellow and red positive-negative cross design. From the folio estimations made by Kelly it appears to have 52 or perhaps 54 leaves (104-8 pages, that is), and at ten words to a line, and 29-30 to a page, the Faddan More Psalter had plenty of vellum for the complete text of the Psalms as well as a couple of other pages of decoration. Meehan says that he only ever expected that we would widen our codicological knowledge of the period with a leaf or two turning up in the binding of a book somewhere, but never in his wildest dreams could a complete manuscript be discovered. Meehan also poses a number of questions that have you hopping off your chair with excitement: Will a fuller examination of script and decoration confirm or alter the initial supposition about the date of the manuscript? To what extent is the manuscript decorated? Does the manuscript contain any text other than the Psalms? Does a colophon name the scribe, his monastery or the date he was at work? Was there more than one scribe? Was the text glossed? What kind of pigments were used? Is the leather cover contemporary with the manuscript, is it attached, and is it decorated?

It is very fragile, and much of it will probably never be recovered, but what is left might well change the way we think about the ninth-century Irish and their Psalters.

Sunday, 5 November 2006

Italian Culture, edd. Ó Cuilleanáin, Salvadori & Scattergood (Four Courts Press, 2006)

Languages appear to be in decline here in the UK. Annual surveys show that large numbers of students have stopped studying foreign languages at schools. Such declines will have a sharp effect on university teaching and in turn how departments rise to the challenge of teaching such students. Whether they will choose to learn a language at university is quite another hurdle.

When the professor of Italian Studies at Trinity College, Dublin (my alma mater) retired, there was a celebratory study day to mark her many years of service to the department. The papers given comprise the articles in this book. The title contains no reference to it being a Festschrift, and Professor Salvadori is in fact one of the volume's editors, so it should be considered a testament to the intellectual vibrancy of the department and to its broad range of interests, as much as it should be considered an homage to its former head of department. A highlight is Peter Armour's contribution on poet-friends in Dante's Florence, a paper he had to deliver sitting down he was so ill. His death, shortly thereafter, was a sad sad loss to Dante studies.

The opening article, written by Corinna Salvadori, is a moving and fascinating account of the history of Italian in the College. Provost John Hely-Hutchinson thought it would be 'highly useful to have Professors of modern languages established in the College', and before long two professorships, one of Italian and Spanish, and one of French and German, were established (in 1776). It was not met with universal approval. One Senior Fellow described the decision as 'pernicious', and wondered would the next step be a Professorship of Horsemanship. Languages, like horsemanship, were 'polite accomplishments' and 'teachers of modern languages, fencing, and dancing masters, and horse-riders, are not always the most eligible companions for youth' (p. 13). Part II of Salvadori's article then discusses the subject in College from the 1960s onwards. It is the story of dedicated teaching staff faced with neglect and disinterest. It is stunning to read the account of Provost Watts coming in to Salvadori's office to explain calmly that the department would remain open simply because it was the cheapest department in the College to run and thus its closure would make no significant saving. The department was for years run by just Corinna Salvadori and Clotilde Soave Bowe, both of whom taught a breadth and load that would not be considered possible now. External examiners would consistently praise the high quality of the degree and with incredulity learn it had all been done by just two people. In the 1980s the department expanded slowly but steadily offering ever stronger and broader preparations for its students. Medieval studies has certainly been the department's forte with two of its staff, Salvadori and Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, being accomplished critics of the work of Dante and Boccaccio respectively. And it is Dante who looms so large at the absolute heart of the department, the man who made it all worthwhile.

He is the good man behind the great woman in this story.

I beg indulgence for a moment while I tell one anecdote. I was coming to the end of my first year in Italian and was feeling martyred at the huge amount of work we had to do. I'd taken Italian ab initio and felt I was utterly suffocating under verbs and paradigms and god knows what. An evening of poetry had been arranged in the department and Seamus Heaney was invited. Having extricated myself from some piece of work, I went along. Heaney read his translation of the Ugolino episode, in his Fieldwork (1979). It was stunning and beautiful. Corinna Salvadori got up to read the Italian. You could hear a pin drop. She read it with beauty and music and power and horror, and the hair raised on the back of my neck and my stomach churned, and I realized I was in the presence of something great. That evening I made my mind up to continue with Italian and to make an Eramsus application to go to the University of Bologna for a year. And after that all was changed, changed utterly.

It seems that people are returning to this idea that languages are a 'polite accomplishment'. Nothing is further from the truth, nor a more dangerous fallacy. A language that produces something like the Commedia cannot be accurately described as either polite or an accomplishment.


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