Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

How the Rediscovery of a Poem Helped Kickstart the Renaissance

All terrors of the mind vanish, are gone,
The barriers of the world dissolve before me,
And I see things happen through the void of empty space.
I feel a more than mortal pleasure in all this.

Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman poet-philosopher, wrote those sublime lines in his masterwork, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) just as Western history began turning from the pagan past toward the Christian era. The 7400-line poem became well known and admired in its day—Cicero called it "rich in brilliant genius"—but Lucretius himself was a retiring and modest man, and through the long centuries of Rome's decline, the world utterly forgot both the poem and the poet.

Then in January 1417 an adventuresome papal secretary and avid book collector from Florence, Poggio Bracciolini, found a 500-year-old copy of De Rerum on a dusty shelf in a German monastery. Instantly recognizing its value, Poggio had the newfound volume copied and sent the copy off to scholarly friends in Florence who in turn made more copies, and De Rerum began a second illustrious life that continues, still blossoming, to this day.

In his painstakingly researched book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of De Rerum's rediscovery and second life as one significant thread in the tapestry of humanism, the overarching philosophy that embraced the cultural revolution we call the Renaissance. After more than a millennium of God-centered theology dominated by the Catholic hierarchy, European thinkers, artists, scientists, and architects—DaVinci, Galileo, Erasmus, Cervantes, Michaelangelo, to name a few—began to cast off the blinkers of divine doctrine and to put human life at the center of their work.

De Rerum Natura fit the new humanism like a glove. A devout disciple of Epicureanism, Lucretius wrote his poem as a paean of praise to the philosophy, born in ancient Greece, that declares that this life we have on earth, good old daily life from birth to death, is all we humans have or ever will have to deal with. No afterlife exists, neither heavenly nor hellish; no God or gods, no angels or devils, no supernatural miracles. Humans are not the unique and superior beings we like to think ourselves; we are instead life forms like all other life forms, and the best thing we can do is to enjoy life to the fullest and to face death when it approaches with all the equanimity we can muster.

What are we and all life forms made up of? Of an infinity of atoms, say Lucretius and his master Epicurus, tiny particles that combine, dissolve, and recombine with other atoms to make up the myriad facts and forces of life. Sound familiar? Yes, indeed, for De Rerum's two-thousand year-old philosophy, after energizing the Renaissance and the Enlightenment— Thomas Jefferson, Greenblatt tells us, owned five copies—is still energizing much modern social, political, and scientific thought.

Greenblatt's prose cannot match Lucretius' poetry either in elegance or eloquence, but I recommend both The Swerve and De Rerum Natura to anyone who wants to learn why we think the way we do today. I especially recommend The Swerve to writers so they can see what being a writer meant six hundred years ago. We may complain all we want about balky computers and uncaring editors, but I assure you, my fellow-sufferers, compared to the scribes of Poggio's day we've got it easy!

First, few writers had their original works sold by publishers, and those who did write for money got paid only by dedicating their books, with fulsome praise, of course, to aristocratic patrons. Being a writer in 1400 meant being a copier or scribe, and with few exceptions, scribes, scribae in Latin, were monks who sat at desks in large writing rooms (scriptoria) hour after hour copying ancient texts from the Christian and pre-Christian era. Silence reigned, and senior monks patrolled the scriptoria to see that no brother wasted time in whispered chat with brothers at neighboring desks. Questioning what the text being copied meant was absolutely forbidden, nor were the scribes allowed to correct mistakes they found in the originals. They could, however, correct their own slips of the pen by carefully scraping off the ink with a razor, then painting the blank spot with medieval white-out, a mixture of milk, cheese, and lime which, when dry, could be written over.

Paper was not in general use in Poggio's day; papyrus imported from Egypt filled its place, but making good papyrus, as Greenblatt describes the process, was as much an art as an industry:

Rolls of papyrus…were produced from tall reeds that grew in the marshy delta region of the Nile. The reeds were harvested; their stalks were cut open and sliced into thin strips. The strips were laid side-by-side, slightly overlapping one another; another layer was placed on top, at right angles to the one below; then the sheet was gently pounded with a mallet. The natural sap that was released allowed the fibre strips to adhere smoothly to each other, and the individual sheets were then glued into rolls.

Papyrus grew dark and brittle over time, and for longer-lasting works, the monks used parchment, the skin of cows, sheep, goats, and sometimes deer. Vellum, processed from calf skin, made the best parchment, and uterine vellum, from unborn calves, made the best of the best, its brilliantly white and smooth surface reserved for precious volumes often encrusted with gems and golden filigree. Few monks, however, got to write on uterine vellum. Most made do with rough hides as their raw material, and along with pens, ink, and rulers their basic tools included pumice stones to rub away any remaining animal hair, bumps, or imperfections. Greenblatt writes that monks often voiced their complaints with notes scribbled in the margins: "The parchment is hairy";  "Thin ink, bad parchment, difficult text." "Now I've written the whole thing, for Christ's sake, give me a drink."

Aside from dampness, mold, and fire—not to mention war, plague, and religious politics—bookworms posed a threat to the longevity of ancient texts, eating their way with equal appetite through Ovid and Horace and the Old and New Testaments. Here's a portrait of the voracious beast as seen through an early microscope:

a small white silver shining Worm…its head appears big and blunt, and its body tapers from it toward the tail, smaller and smaller, being shaped almost like a carrot…. The hinder parts terminated with three tails, in every particular resembling the two longer horns that grow out of its head.

Books were so rare, expensive, and laboriously produced that the few people who could read, write, and learn from them, treasured their tattered leather-bound volumes. In his correspondence with other collectors Poggio often referred to books as if they were the writers incarnate: "Lucretius has not yet come back to me," he complained to a colleague, "although he has been copied." Petrarch, a pioneer of the Renaissance's intellectual awakening, declared his love of books with an almost sexual passion:

Gold, silver, jewels, purple garments, houses built of marble, groomed estates, pious paintings, caparisoned steeds, and other things of this kind offer a mutable and superficial pleasure; books give delight to the very marrow of one's bones. They speak to us, consult with us, and join with us in a living and intense intimacy.

For you and me, books are so easy to find and so cheap to buy that we quickly forget the arduous ancient history that precedes our modern ease.  Yet on seond thought, how much has truly changed? Looking up from the computer where I'm typing this to the bookshelves above my desk, I see my beloved Balzac paperbacks, my Dreiser hardcovers, my Dickens, King James Bible, Trollope, George Eliot—plus a Penguin Classic edition of De Rerum Natura—and so many other inspiring friends and bosom companions, that I think, even say aloud, "Petrarch, old pal, I'm with you ten thousand percent!"

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.