Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Plague of Dreams Re-visited.

I suppose I consider myself to be a person of average intelligence. And, for the most part 'stable'. This is not to say that I've never had any 'What was I thinking?!' kinds of moments. I have had plenty of such, especially in social situations where I have impulsively blurted out some comment I wish I hadn't, and which typically got me into hot water of one kind or another. To tell you the truth, I am quite inept in social discourse. I say all this in preface as an explanation perhaps, for how it was I wound up at a small obscure university in Nova Scotia immersed in academic activity that increasingly removed me from the contemporary reality in which I performed so poorly. Who, in their right mind would spend endless hours poring over hand-written medieval manuscripts in search of font aberrations or eccentricities in scribal penmanship? But, it was my destiny it seems, to toil away in a library of forgotten texts, becoming more and more like a monastic scribe myself, cloistered away in some labyrinthian tower of ancient papers written by people long since turned to dust. It was as though I was a spy peering in on ancient history like a cryptographer decoding the subliminal and possibly sinister intent of a sentence that makes no sense today. I actually became quite adept at discerning the subtleties that took place in the evolution of hand-written manuscripts prior to the invention of the printing press. And while I did publish several notable discourses on the shift from Textura to Angelia cursive script styles in the early to mid 14th century, I was finding myself increasingly unable to have normal conversation with my contemporaries. One cannot hope to attend a faculty cocktail party and find an audience when bringing up the subject of the evolution of the way a medieval pen was cut as it comes to bear upon the individual stylings of 15th century scribes, when they would just as soon contemplate the weather, or how to get into their graduate student's pants. I was increasingly lost in a world of matters that mattered to no one. In case you are interested (though likely you are not..), it is quite clear that the artful scribe of the medieval period had little room for creative interpretation. His art was that of copying in the most minute and precise way, the important manuscripts of the day. No re-phrasing. No poetic license. No interpretation. His task was to create a hand-penned duplicate or clone of the original work. In the best exemplars of this exactness, it is virtually impossible to denote any difference at all between an original manuscript and its copy. Thus the evolution of the scribe's pen, and the emergence of Mixed Hand script in the 15th century was quite significant. It is here we see some expression of individuality emerge. Texts reproduced in Mixed Hand at first appeared to be an individually styled rendering of the (post-Angelia) Secretary script by an occasional scribe who got carried away in brief moments of self-expression. A Bastard Secretary script, if you will. But, as later history will confirm, such experiments with lines, letters, inked flourishes ascending or descending beyond the line, and so on, had some impact on the first fonts to be applied in the emergence of the printing press. While teaching a graduate course on codicology and paleography, I was poring over term papers written by my students. It is a tedious thing to go over these pages of redundancy as a rule. I was perhaps half-asleep in my easy chair and sipping an apple brandy when I came to the paper of one Meredith Merriweather, one of my favorite students among the 75 or so faceless nameless bodies that occupied the seats of my lecture hall. And it was as I got about three pages into her work, that I came across her most startling finding. She had identified a few passages in a lengthy and boring late 14th century accountant's document inventorying the cargo holdings of a vessel owned by an early Genoese shipping company, that made my hair stand on end. Miss Merriweather stated she had chosen this manuscript despite its lengthy and tedious accounting of the ship's holdings, simply because there was no record that any scholar to date had taken the time to peruse such boring detail. In these passages it bcame clear to Miss Merriweather that the unknown scribe had slipped into some cryptomnesiac state describing an event he could not have actually experienced, but which was written as though he had. He describes with exacting detail the stunning beauty of a woman named Alatiel, daughter of a sultan of Babylon. We know very little about Alatiel other than Boccacio's passing mention of her in The Decameron. But we do know, that while sailing away to escape the plague of the Black Death she was shipwrecked on the island of Majorca and held there by Christian captors. And there is evidence she went to great lengths to conceal her identity during that time. The scribe went on to recount conversations he had supposedly had with Alatiel, and in one instance quotes her as having said: "The blue-eyed scorpions have tainted the well, thus casting a spell on all who would drink thereof. And it is their fate to stagger henceforth through dream upon dream of love." While we do know that Alatiel was known to have had promiscuous, even licentious affairs with many men, orgies, if you will, there has never to my knowledge been an accounting of her ways in her own words. Miss Merriweather's discovery is noteworthy on several accounts. Cryptomnesia in the form of automatic writing as evidenced in the scribe's account was not even conceptually identified until the emergence of such scholars of the unconscious as Freud and Jung. In fact, it was Carl Jung who first pointed to its existence in the writings of Nietzsche. Secondly, while mass hysteria in the medieval period has been noted in numerous ways, Alatiel's words are perhaps the first reference to hysteria as being founded in the world of dreams. Clearly her cryptic poem suggests a conscious rationalization for her sexually wanton behavior as having had something to do with 'the water' as a symbolic catalyst unleashing repressed desires. In this, Alatiel prefigures the discoveries of Freud and Jung regarding the role of the unconscious, by centuries. As a footnote, I am happy to say that Miss Merriweather went on to become a foremost scholar on the role of dreams and the unconscious as evidenced in medieval instances of mass hysteria. And, I by association, gained some notoriety for having discovered her. I also went on to three years of Jungian analysis in an effort to understand myself and subsequently regained a foothold on contemporary reality again, and later even married Miss Merriweather.

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