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Sweat or Inky Fingers? · LRB 1 July 2021

According​ to Jeremias Drexel, who published a guide to notetaking in 1641, reading well was as effortful as goldmining – and potentially as enriching. His book, the Aurifodina, was illustrated with a frontispiece showing two kinds of work. On the left, miners raise picks high over their heads, chipping gold from the rock. On the right, a scholar bends over his desk, carefully selecting passages to copy. Both miner and scholar work under lanterns, in the depths, while garlanded allegories of learning stand barefoot in the daylight above.

In the early modern period, scholars were treasure-seekers. Classical texts survived only in manuscript copies made by scribes and monks in the Middle Ages. So Renaissance humanists went manuscript hunting in the monasteries of Europe, searching out ancient texts by Cicero or Vitruvius or Lucretius that had been thought lost. They begged, borrowed and copied manuscripts from their friends’ libraries, amassing their own collections; they bought Greek manuscripts from scholars fleeing Byzantium after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans. These ancient Latin, Greek and Hebrew texts had been copied and recopied by generations of scribes – including some who were not fully literate in ancient languages. Manuscripts were strewn with errors, but were still precious evidence of the history, culture and poetry of a lost world. They contained great riches – if only the reader could rid the texts of centuries of emendations and additions.

Jean Mabillon, a 17th-century scholar of medieval manuscripts, compared his expertise to that of a goldsmith: ‘Genuine documents have a sort of stamp of truthfulness about them, which often ravishes the eyes of experts at first sight. In the same way, expert goldsmiths sometimes distinguish real gold from fake by touch alone.’ Like gold chipped from rock and then worked by an artisan, knowledge of the past was gained only through hard graft and expertise. Scholars used specially designed equipment to enable them to spend long hours in the study: rotating bookwheels for unwieldy volumes, spinning chairs for greater ease in consulting multiple texts, grids of hooks for storing thousands of slips of notepaper. They devised health regimes to sustain themselves in the lonely hours of the night. Erasmus advised eating only ten small raisins while working: ‘they exude moistures slowly, and stimulate brain and memory.’ Marsilio Ficino wrote that the scholar’s body was governed by Saturn and as a result suffered from an excess of black bile, which brought on a ‘divine madness’: this might lead to work of creative genius, or plunge the scholar into darkest melancholy. To ward off melancholia, he advised that scholars rise before dawn and meditate while combing their hair forty times front to back. Intellectuals were constitutionally distinct: sensitive, moody, prone to bouts of mania and gloom. More celestial than merely vocational, the vita contemplativa was just that – a way of life. But this didn’t mean the scholarly life was easy. Scholars made much of their ethereal diets so as to emphasise a caloric miracle: only someone devoted to the pursuit of genius could efface the body so completely.

In nine portraits – of antiquarians, palaeographers, philosophers and polymaths – Anthony Grafton describes the texture of intellectual life from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Grafton’s work has charted the development of scholarship, books, the classical tradition and of history writing itself in early modernity. He has written intellectual biographies of major thinkers (Leon Battista Alberti, Girolamo Cardano, Joseph Scaliger), and explored early modern scholarly practices (the footnote, forgery, marginalia). He has always approached his subjects with levity as well as gravity. His protagonists are polymath, polylingual geniuses, but they are also winningly human: they have friends, they scribble on their books, they complain about their aches and pains. And they crack jokes, even if the punchlines are so learned they require a page or two of exegesis.

In Inky Fingers, Grafton continues to emphasise the active, demanding ways that early modern readers engaged with their books, through notetaking, marginalia and cross-referencing. As Drexel advised, good reading meant writing too: recording valuable excerpts from the texts of the ancients in a notebook. These notebooks, or commonplace books, were organised thematically. Areas of interest ranged from the erudite (epicurism, eloquence, ecclesiastical discipline) to the earthy (eggs, ears). An early modern reader would gather phrases or dicta on eggs or eternity in these books, allowing for the comparison of differing ideas. As historians like Grafton and Ann Blair have argued, compiling such commonplace books was a research method, a way of reading through writing and of organising the world through text.

One of the most dedicated commonplacers in early modernity, and the subject of one of Grafton’s portraits, was the German scholar Francis Daniel Pastorius who included in his commonplace book not only excerpts from ancient texts but also jokes, stories, reflections, recipes and even bits of his friends’ journals. Pastorius handed down the manuscript, his prized possession, which he called the Bee Hive, to his sons, instructing them to record in it ‘all remarkable words, Phrases, Sentences or Matters of moment, which we do hear and read’. He had begun it by citing Macrobius: ‘In this Book all is mine, & Nothing is mine. Omne meum, nihil meum.’ Pastorius meant that by assembling bits of the old, he had created something new. It took considerable intellectual discernment – and long, cramped hours of reading and notetaking – to create a masterpiece that was at once his own and a compilation of others’ writings. The Bee Hive exemplifies what is so puzzlingly postmodern about early modern textuality: it was both individual and collective, unique and pastiched.

As Grafton shows, this unglamorous technology of reading was also the basis for new approaches to the study of the past. By comparing the writings of authorities and their historical contexts, scholars could identify omissions and points of disagreement, making their own judgments. In this way, the commonplace book facilitated the comparative study of ancient cultures and religions on a more ambitious scale than had previously been imaginable. Collecting what contemporary sources had to say about ancient Roman culture, religion and everyday life, the Italian humanist Filippo Beroaldo found that elements of the Roman past had persisted into the rituals of early Christianity: ‘As I keep thinking about those customs of the pagan cult,’ he reflected, ‘I come to the view that almost everything pertaining to the celebration of our rites has been taken over and transferred from them.’ This was comparative cultural history in the making, and a means of connecting the Roman past to the Christian present. Polydore Vergil, who studied with Beroaldo, examined the afterlives of Jewish customs in early Christianity. He showed that early Christian priests had worn the same garments as Jewish rabbis and that the rituals of the early Christian church had their origins in Jewish ceremony. For Vergil, an understanding of the historical origins of the Christian church would allow readers to ‘lead a peaceful and joyous life here and look forward in firm hope to a heavenly life elsewhere’.

Vergil wasn’t the only scholar to brush up against the limits of earthly knowledge. The manuscripts that early modern readers studied were full of gaps, with letters, words or even whole passages missing. The rites and ceremonies they described were barely possible to reconstruct, their referents in the physical world – temples, statues, monuments – long obliterated. Too much had been lost to be confident in interpretation. So readers fashioned themselves as diviners, approaching their books with a sensibility that was more mystical than strictly scholarly. Ficino wrote that Saturn had lent him the ability to correct textual errors: ‘I emended these diligently, in keeping with my power, relying on my vocation as a prophet, so to speak, rather than as an interpreter.’ One scholar complained of a particularly difficult text that the ‘passage is so corrupt that we need an oracle of Delos to restore it’. Poggio instructed that ‘one must divine, not read.’ What was the difference between interpretation and prophecy? For these men, scholarship was a combination of precise philological skill and something closer to magic – an ineffable sensitivity to past cultures and styles.

It was in the printing house – a humming workplace where scholars debated the interpretation of texts with printers, typesetters and the girl who brought the beer – that scholarly work was at its most material. Here, correctors prepared manuscripts for printing and proofed texts; they often made significant changes. The editor Daniel Heinsius laundered the reputation of Joseph Scaliger, quietly excising many of the insults that peppered Scaliger’s letters. (In one, Scaliger had called Martin Delrio ‘the devil’s shit’. Delrio replied: ‘The devil does not shit.’) The corrector Andreas Osiander added an anonymous preface to Copernicus’ De revolutionibus in 1543, informing readers that Copernicus intended his radical ideas to be a stimulus to debate, not a description of empirical truth. Of course, the truth was precisely what Copernicus knew he had uncovered, but Osiander’s mealy-mouthed preface moderated the book’s radicalism and kept it in circulation. Despite their obvious significance in the production of books, correctors were treated like manual labourers. One complained that he and his colleagues ‘would be off like a shot from this sweatshop’ given half a chance, ‘to earn their living by their intelligence and learning, not their hands’. They worked long hours, bent over proofs, smeared in thick ink. Scraping by on low wages, they lived alone in other people’s attics. One worked in a ‘study’ that doubled as a fuller’s shop: the analogy between editing text and washing wool would have been lost on no one.

We learn from Inky Fingers, then, that the distance between head and hand was slender both in the early modern study and the printing house. But scholars, philosophers and scientists were keen to draw distinctions between manual and intellectual labour. Scholars were mostly the middling sort, sons of lawyers or secretaries: they were at the mercy of rich families who needed a Latin tutor, or of the boom-and-bust cycle of the early modern printing business. A scholar might state that commonplacing was like goldmining, or that correcting texts was like washing wool, but these comparisons were intended to varnish their own work, to give it the industrious associations of manual labour, rather than to endow the miner or the fuller with intellectual powers. When Lorenzo Valla wanted to ridicule Poggio’s shoddy Latin grammar, he wrote that he had overheard a cook and a stable boy pointing out Poggio’s many errors: this wasn’t a boast about the intelligence of the servants. I wondered what a group of miners would have made of the comparison evoked in Drexel’s frontispiece. As Gramsci argued, homo faber is not so plainly distinguished from homo sapiens. Stable boys also think, as they muck out the stalls.

So what was proof of an honest day’s work: sweat, or inky fingers? Scholars wanted it both ways: to be distinct from other kinds of worker, governed by a saturnine temper with powers of divination, able to exist on ten raisins a day – and to be indistinguishable from toiling labourers. They at once argued that their work was collective, a republic of letters, while prizing singular genius; they derided the irrational while calling themselves prophets; they mocked the stable boy while comparing themselves to miners. These contradictions in the nature of intellectual work remain disorienting. Is intellectual labour a calling, a labour of love, or (just?) a job? If your job is to think, when – if ever – are you off the clock? Do you have to sweat to be exploited? Over the past few years, I’ve been confronted with these questions while on strike from my academic job at Sheffield, a place where any claim to symmetry between intellectual work and mining is especially fraught. Scholarship is a kind of heroism in Grafton’s account, his nine protagonists’ aching backs and tired eyes evidence of their valiant dedication to the pursuit of knowledge. But I was relieved to find that even these men occasionally admitted that scholarship was work: no more, but, just as important, no less. When I read Mabillon sighing that ‘whatever time I spend in dictation, in rereading, in correcting, is so much taken from my life,’ it was hard to resist whispering: ‘Join us on the picket line.’

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