Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Summary of Lecture Seven

The Merovingian era is one of the most obscure periods of European history. It may be that its "curse" has arisen anew, as I inadvertently omitted to post the Summary of Lecture Seven. Here it is, after a week's delay--and out of sequence.

As we noted on a previous occasion, the notion of the "Dark Ages" was coined by Petrarch in the 14th century as a universal label of opprobrium for the entire Middle Ages. Since it seemed little of significance happened during that regrettable age of superstition and tyranny, there was scarcely any need for differentiation of historical sequences. It was all one dismall blur. Gradually, however, it became clear that major cultural accomplishments had occurred during the later Middle Ages, the era of the Romanesque and Gothic. Nor could Byzantium, capable of transmitting its culture through much of the Slavic world, qualify for the epithet.

Many hold, though, that the period from ca. 500 to 1000 in Western Europe, sometimes termed the age of the barbarian kingdoms, was a genuine Dark Age. Perhaps so. There was an undoubted social and economic decline, but nonetheless the period did make some major cultural advances, one of the which, the majuscule-minuscule balance in typography, is still very much with us.

After the failure (after 565) of Justinian's overambitious project of reunification of the Roman Empire, the still-prosperous East eseentially wrote off the errant Western provinces. As long as these regna barbarorum acknowledged the nominal supremacy of the great basileus in Constantinople, they could be left to stew in their own juice.

All the same, things were stirring in that dispised juice (so to speak). This period saw a process of ethnogenesis, in which the nations of Western Europe enucleated: Italy (with its Ostrogoths and Lombards), Spain (Visigoths), England (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes), and France (the Salian Franks). The Frankish kingdom is sometimes termed Merovingian, after a putative early monarch.

The era also saw an important process of glottogenesis, in which the primordial forms of the modern vernacular languages emerged. Latin ceased to be spoken in Gaul about 770, replaced by Old French (even though written Latin continued to be an attribute of those few educated people who survived). If the term is apt, Latin became a dead language from this time forward. Latin was a synthetic (inflected) language; French (and its romance sisters), an analytic tongue. The contrast may be illustrated by translating the Latin phrase "casus belli" into French, where it becomes "la cause de la guerre." In addition to the articles (lacking in Latin) we note the appearance of the preposition "de," which does the work of the genetive ending -i, attached to the word for war.

And there were important lexical changes. The older word for war, "bellum," yielded to "guerre," derived as in English from a Germanic root, "werra." Neglected by the French educational system, the Germanic Franks left a major impress on the French language and culture. To this hybridity (romance and Germanic) French culture probably owes much of its incomparaple capacity for irradiation. As examples of the Frankish heritage we noted "boulevard" and "bourgeois," so important for 19th- century society. Frankish military customs led to feodalism (reflecting a Germanic word "fief," originally referring to cattle) and chivalry, the civilized transmogrification of the crude warrior code. (The word chivalry itself derives from the Vulgar Latin substitute for "equus.")

In the last analysis the spoken language is the basis for the written language, which is what will shortly concern us. Since the vernacular was not written at this point, Merovingian scribes had to struggle with their imperfect knowledge of an exotic language, one moreover that was tinged with religious awe, as the Christian scriptures familiar to them were written in ecclesiastical Latin. This condition of juggling two languages (often heard on NYC streets) is termed diglossia.

Some Merovingian manuscripts (such as the Gelasian Sacramentary in the Vatican) show an almost childish glee for color and for a proliferation of creatures such as birds and fish. The Sacramentary of Gellone shows the first mermaid known to me. Perhaps
it is not too much of a stretch to say that Merovingian scribes invented the child's coloring book. In its original context, such adornment may reflect a magical world view, one understandable among people who had just learned to write.

However that may be, they did two things of utmost importance. 1) They created minuscule script made of up lower-case letters out of earlier attempts at cursive writing. As noted on the blackboard, the essential difference between majuscule (A FLY) and minuscule (a fly) is that the former can be written in a two-line stave, the latter, the new invention, required a four-line stave. Most of the text you are reading is composed in minuscule.

2) They created a binary system in which majuscule is used for headings and capitals at the beginning of sentences, while minuscule rules in the body of the text. This binararism stands in stark contrast to Roman script-monism. To the best of my knowledge all original Latin inscriptions and manuscripts are written only in majuscule capitals. These came in several varieties, including the stately capitalis quadrata and the more compact capitalis rustica. But as in Henry Ford's precept "You can have any color you want, as long as is is black," the ancient Romans (like the ancient Greeks) offered no relief from the ruthless hegemony of capitals. IMAGINEHAVINGTOWRITEEVERYTHINGLIKETHIS. The Latin scribes rarely observed breaks between words or syllables. This wall-to-wall treatment reflects the fact that the ancients read texts aloud. Silent reading began to come in only around 400 CE.

We briefly noted the more elegant version of this binarism (majuscule mingling with minuscule) in the manuscripts of the Carolingian era. A brief glance at the front page of the New York Times showed how these principles still prevail.

Across the English channel the Hiberno-Saxon cultures flourished contemporaneously. We briefly examined the wonderful, color-drenched jewelry recovered from the still pagan burian at Sutton Hoo near the East coast of England. The prevalance of red shows an affinity with modern works such as Matisse's "Red Studio" of 1911.

The Irish illuminators of the Books of Durrow and Kells showed various innovations. The use of flatness, as seen in the Matthew of Durrow, is an important precursor of modern flatness, as are, in a different way, the carpet pages, showing as they do Joseph Mashek's Carpet Principle. In script the innovation of the decrescendo (letters decreasing in size) at the start of texts has not been generally followed--except perhaps in graphic novels, where one sometimes finds phrases such as "AAaargh" rendered in this fashion.

We posited a relationship between the ornament of Louis Sullivan, as seen in the entrance to the Carson, Pirie, Scott building, and the Book of Kells. More generally, the art nouveau honors a debt to Hiberno-Saxon ornament, as seen (e.g.) in the interior of Victor Horta's Tassel House in Brussels from the 1890s.

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