The medieval magic of books was a constant of the Middle Ages university: exotic mutterings, alchemic symbols, a wand for instruction… and reading.
Modern education starts somewhere in the 11th century – so long ago, no one is even sure of the exact year – at the University of Bologna. The universities were an outgrowth of the medieval cathedral schools, which trained young boys to be priests and to fill other clerical duties. That is an important insight: clerk, cleric, and clergy are all related words, and all originated from the same educational traditions.
The great research tool of the medieval university was the book. Buying a book today for a few dollars, or even reading a free book on-line, would have been incomprehensible to the medieval scholar. And reading books was incomprehensible to the commoner.
All books at the time were handwritten and handmade, often gorgeously lettered on vellum, a durable writing surface made from calf skin (‘vellum’ is related to the word ‘veal’). The preparation of the vellum, the laying out of the book, the tedious but exacting copying of the words and letters, and the adding of painted colors, gilt, and other illuminations, was slow work; it might take a monk two years to make a book. A Bible could easily require decades, even a career.
Now the clergy weren’t rocket scientists by any means, but they were the closest thing available in their day. They were the best-trained intellectuals and the brightest minds that the medieval world offered. As monastics, of course, their payment consisted of nothing more than food, a few pieces of clothing, and a tiny chamber with a hard, cold bed. But for the sake of comparison, let us say their time was as valuable as that of an engineer today.
The average annual salary for a modern civil engineer is $90K. So for an idea of the two years of labor to make a book, think about $180K in modern money. But then remember that, like any well-run business, the monastery had overhead and needed to generate some excess above that price, to cover buildings, fuel, administration, care for sick and elderly members, et al. Looked at in that way, by today’s standards a modest book might be worth a half million dollars. But that was a typical book. Clearly, a Bible would cost many times that.
You can begin to understand why cathedrals and monasteries carefully guarded and protected books, which were often encased in metal and chained down. It also explains why Bibles were frequently adorned with silver or gold, and encrusted with precious jewels.
Obviously, lowly cathedral and university students couldn’t be allowed to handle such expensive items. So students sat and listened to someone reading books aloud, a priest or other teacher who the authorities trusted to handle such a treasure. The Latin verb for ‘to read/to recite’ is lego, the past participle of which is lectus. Students sat in classrooms and listened to ‘lecturers.’ In England, in fact, the universities still call them ‘readers.’
In the lecture, students wrote down what they heard, and then turned the notes into their own cheap, abbreviated versions of the book. With time, university towns generated entire industries focusing on transcribing lectures, rewriting them, even binding them for the students.
The Lingua Franca
University students came from all over Europe, perhaps even further, and spoke many, many more languages than exist today. Each region had, at the very least, a distinct dialect of the dominant language of the larger country, and some regions had completely different, unrelated languages (we still cannot identify the origins of modern Basque and Finnish). So they needed a universal language was necessary. Hellenized Roman Jews led the early church after Titus destroyed Jerusalem, so the primary medieval language was Latin, and the secondary language was Greek. Like all medical students, I struggled to master an enormous, vocabulary based on obscure Latin and ancient Greek. The irony is that early anatomists actually gave anatomical features and diseases the most obvious names they could think of.
It’s just that they thought in Latin and Greek.1)I took Latin in high school, and picked up the rudiments of Greek letters and words along the way; with a great reference on scientific roots, I estimate that I was able to memorize medical terms in less than half the time as most of my classmates.
The modern reader might miss the Medieval magic of books in all of this, and it all might seem tame, even boring. Nevertheless, it was the rocket science of its day. Or more than that: to the illiterate commoner it was all incomprehensible. Medieval magic, and the magic of books was everywhere in the medieval university.
To look at a piece of paper and know what the king had said, what the outcome of a battle was, what happened long ago – or, most impressive of all, to know what God said and meant – was medieval magic, the magic of the educated classes. Consider that our tropes about magicians such as Merlin, Gandalf, and even Dumbledore from Harry Potter come from the university lecturer.
Remember, commoners couldn’t read books. So when they saw someone look at squiggles on a page or carved into a stone, and then produce language from it, was medieval magic, the magic of books.
The Magic of Books
The university scholar’s inspiration for the Medieval magician is hard to miss. First of all, within his discipline the university lecturer was a doctor, or at least a master—the modern English word, and the university degree, are both shortened from the Latin magister, also related to magician. The university professor wore an academic gown with arm-length sleeves that flared deeply at the end (there were pockets in the sleeves for carrying food and… books). He wore the Medieval magician’s pointed hat. When lecturing from those precious, magical books, he used a stick, a wand, in order to point to words in the book, to indicate formulas on a slate, or even to direct musicians (hence the conductor’s baton). He often muttered phrases in incomprehensible Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, clearly Medieval magic. His Latin prayers and incantations give us the phrase, ‘to cast a spell’. In fact, modern scholars suspect that both hocus pocus and abracadabra originated from scholastic medieval languages. And the academic used cabalistic symbols to describe the heavens, and to indicate their counterparts in the minerals of the earth. This overlap between astrology and alchemy produced some of our earliest theories, about what would happen with esoteric mixtures, and what would happen in our lives.
And the supernatural power of medieval magic, and the magic of books, can be seen in inscriptions which invoke curses for those who didn’t return them to the lender.
For the uneducated, unwashed masses, the Medieval magic of books was everywhere in the medieval university. And as we will see in upcoming posts, modern concepts of education are still influenced with the awe of the magic of books.
Continue reading: Rote/Wrote, Memorization vs Education.
Picture of ‘Chi Rho’ from The Book of Kells and the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram courtesy of Wikicommons.org.