Tag Archives: Orality and Literacy

How the technology of writing shaped Roman thought

I have two bits about the Romans: the first is noted in the head for this posting and the second is about a chance to experience a Roman style classroom.

Empire of Letters

This January 8, 2019 news item on phys.org announces a book about how the technology of writing influenced how ancient Romans saw the world and provides a counterpoint to the notion that the ancient world (in Europe) was relentlessly oral in nature,

The Roman poet Lucretius’ epic work “De rerum natura,” or “On the Nature of Things,” is the oldest surviving scientific treatise written in Latin. Composed around 55 B.C.E., the text is a lengthy piece of contrarianism. Lucreutius was in the Epicurean school of philosophy: He wanted an account of the world rooted in earthly matter, rather than explanations based on the Gods and religion

Among other things, Lucretius believed in atomism, the idea that the world and cosmos consisted of minute pieces of matter, rather than four essential elements. To explain this point, Lucretius asked readers to think of bits of matter as being like letters of the alphabet. Indeed, both atoms and letters are called “elementa” in Latin—probably derived from the grouping of L,M, and N in the alphabet

To learn these elements of writing, students would copy out tables of letters and syllables, which Lucretius thought also served as a model for understanding the world, since matter and letters could be rearranged in parallel ways. For instance, Lucretius wrote, wood could be turned into fire by adding a little heat, while the word for wood, “lingum,” could be turned into the world for fire, “ignes,” by altering a few letters.

Students taking this analogy to heart would thus learn “the combinatory potential of nature and language,” says Stephanie Frampton, an associate professor of literature at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], in a new book on writing in the Roman world.

Moreover, Frampton emphasizes, the fact that students were learning all this specifically through writing exercises is a significant and underappreciated point in our understanding of ancient Rome: Writing, and the tools of writing, helped shape the Roman world.

A January 3, 2019 MIT news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Everyone says the ancients are really into spoken and performed poetry, and don’t care about the written word,” Frampton says. “But look at Lucretius, who’s the first person writing a scientific text in Latin — the way that he explains his scientific insight is through this metaphor founded upon the written word.”

Frampton explores this and other connections between writing and Roman society in her new work, “Empire of Letters,” published last week by Oxford University Press [according to their webpage, the paper version will be published on February 4, 2019; the e-book is now available for purchase].

The book is a history of technology itself, as Frampton examines the particulars of Roman books — which often existed as scrolls back then — and their evolution over time. But a central focus of the work is how those technologies influenced how the Romans “thought about thought,” as she says.

Moreover, as Frampton notes, she is studying the history of Romans as “literate creatures,” which means studying the tools of writing used not just in completed works, but in education, too. The letter tables detailed by Lucretius are just one example of this. Romans also learned to read and write using wax tablets that they could wipe clean after exercises.

The need to wipe such tablets clean drove the Roman emphasis on learning the art of memory — including the “memory palace” method, which uses visualized locations for items to remember them, and which is still around today. For this reason Cicero, among other Roman writers, called memory and writing “most similar, though in a different medium.”
As Frampton writes in the book, such tablets also produced “an intimate and complex relationship with memory” in the Roman world, and meant that “memory was a fundamental part of literary composition.”  

Tablets also became a common Roman metaphor for how our brains work: They thought “the mind is like a wax tablet where you can write and erase and rewrite,” Frampton says. Understanding this kind of relationship between technology and the intellect, she thinks, helps us get that much closer to life as the Romans lived it

“I think it’s analagous to early computing,” Frampton says. “The way we talk about the mind now is that it’s a computer. … We think about the computer in the same way that [intellectuals] in Rome were thinking about writing on wax tablets.”

As Frampton discusses in the book, she believes the Romans did produce a number of physical innovations to the typical scroll-based back of the classic world, including changes in layout, format, coloring pigments, and possibly even book covers and the materials used as scroll handles, including ivory.

“The Romans were engineers, that’s [one thing] they were famous for,” Frampton says. “They are quite interesting and innovative in material culture.”

Looking beyond “Empire of Letters” itself, Frampton will co-teach an MIT undergraduate course in 2019, “Making Books,” that looks at the history of the book and gets students to use old technologies to produce books as they were once made. While that course has previously focused on printing-press technology, Frampton will help students go back even further in time, to the days of the scroll and codex, if they wish. All these reading devices, after all, were important innovations in their day.

“I’m working on old media,” Frampton says, “But those old media were once new.” [emphasis mine]

While the technologies Carolyn Marvin was writing about were not quite as old Frampton’s, she too noted the point about old and new technology in her 1990 book “When Old Technologies Were New” published by the Oxford University Press in 1990.

Getting back to Frampton, she has founded an organization known as the Materia Network, which is focused on (from @materianetwork’s Twitter description) “New Approaches to Material Text in the Roman World is a conference series and network for scholars of books and writing in Classical antiquity.”

You can find Materia here. They do have a Call for Proposals but I believe the deadline should read: December 20, 2018 (not 2019) since the conference will be held in April 2019).

Also, you can purchase the ebook or print version of Frampton’s Empire of Letters from the Oxford University Press here.

I have a couple of final comments. (1) The grand daddy of oral and literate culture discussion is Walter J. Ong and I’m referring specifically to his 1982 book, Orality and Literacy. BTW, in addition to being a English Literature professor, the man was a Jesuit priest.

Reading Ancient Schoolroom

(2) The University of Reading (UK) has organized over the last few years, although they skipped in 2018, a series of events known as Reading Ancient Schoolroom (my August 9, 2018 posting features the ‘schoolroom’). The 2019 event is taking place January 23 – 25, 2019. You can find out more about the 2019 opportunity here. For anyone who can’t get to the UK easily, here’s a video of the Reading Ancient Schoolroom,

According to the description on YouTube,


Published on Feb 22, 2018

The Reading Ancient Schoolroom is a historically accurate reconstruction of an ancient schoolroom. It gives modern children an immersive experience of antiquity, acting the part of ancient children, wearing their clothes and using their writing equipment. It was developed by Eleanor Dickey at the University of Reading. Find out more at: www.readingancientschoolroom.com

There you have it.

Interacting with stories and/or with data

A researcher, Ivo Swarties, at the University of Twente in The Netherlands is developing a means of allowing viewers to enter into a story (via avatar) and affect the plotline in what seems like a combination of what you’d see in 2nd Life and gaming. The project also brings to mind The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson and its intelligent nanotechnology-enabled book along with Stephenson’s latest publishing project, Mongoliad (which I blogged about here).

The article about Swarties’ project on physorg.com by Rianne Wanders goes on to note,

The ‘Virtual Storyteller’, developed by Ivo Swartjes of the University of Twente, is a computer-controlled system that generates stories automatically. Soon it will be possible for you as a player to take on the role of a character and ‘step inside’ the story, which then unfolds on the basis of what you as a player do. In the gaming world there are already ‘branching storylines’ in which the gamer can influence the development of a story, but Swartjes’ new system goes a step further. [emphasis mine]The world of the story is populated with various virtual figures, each with their own emotions, plans and goals. ‘Rules’ drawn up in advance determine the characters’ behaviour, and the story comes about as the different characters interact.

There’s a video with the article if you want to see this project for yourself.

On another related front, Cliff Kuang profiles in an article (The Genius Behind Minority Report’s Interfaces Resurfaces, With Mind-blowing New Tech) on the Fast Company site describes a new human-computer interface. This story provides a contrast to the one about the ‘Virtual Storyteller’ because this time you don’t have to become an avatar to interact with the content. From the article,

It’s a cliche to say that Minority Report-style interfaces are just around the corner. But not when John Underkoffler [founder of Oblong Industries] is involved. As tech advistor on the film, he was the guy whose work actually inspired the interfaces that Tom Cruise used. The real-life system he’s been developing, called g-speak, is unbelievable.

Oblong hasn’t previously revealed most of the features you see in the later half of the video [available in the article’s web page or on YouTube], including the ability zoom in and fly through a virtual, 3-D image environment (6:30); the ability to navigate an SQL database in 3-D (8:40); the gestural wand that lets you manipulate and disassemble 3-D models (10:00); and the stunning movie-editing system, called Tamper (11:00).

Do go see the video. At one point, Underkoffler (who was speaking at the February 2010 TED) drags data from the big screen in front of him onto a table set up on the stage where he’s speaking.

Perhaps most shockingly (at least for me) was the information that this interface is already in use commercially (probably in a limited way).

These developments and many others suggest that the printed word’s primacy is seriously on the wane, something I first heard 20 years ago. Oftentimes when ideas about how technology will affect us are discussed, there’s a kind of hysterical reaction which is remarkably similar across at least two centuries. Dave Bruggeman at his Pasco Phronesis blog has a posting about the similarities between Twitter and 19th century diaries,

Lee Humphreys, a Cornell University communications professor, has reviewed several 18th and 19th century diaries as background to her ongoing work in classifying Twitter output (H/T Futurity). These were relatively small journals, necessitating short messages. And those messages bear a resemblance to the kinds of Twitter messages that focus on what people are doing (as opposed to the messages where people are reacting to things).

Dave goes on to recommend The Shock of the Old; Technology and Global History since 1900 by David Edgerton as an antidote to our general ignorance (from the book’s web page),

Edgerton offers a startling new and fresh way of thinking about the history of technology, radically revising our ideas about the interaction of technology and society in the past and in the present.

I’d also recommend Carolyn Marvin’s book, When old technologies were new, where she discusses the introduction of telecommunications technology and includes the electric light with these then new technologies (telegraph and telephone). She includes cautionary commentary from the newspapers, magazines, and books of the day which is remarkably similar to what’s available in our contemporary media environment.

Adding a little more fuel is Stephen Hume in a June 12, 2010 article about Shakespeare for the Vancouver Sun who asks,

But is the Bard relevant in an age of atom bombs; a world of instant communication gratified by movies based on comic books, sex-saturated graphic novels, gory video games, the television soaps and the hip tsunami of fan fiction that swashes around the Internet?

[and answers]

So, the Bard may be stereotyped as the bane of high school students, symbol of snooty, barely comprehensible language, disparaged as sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, representative of an age in which men wore tights and silly codpieces to inflate their egos, but Shakespeare trumps his critics by remaining unassailably popular.

His plays have been performed on every continent in every major language. He’s been produced as classic opera in China; as traditional kabuki in Japan. He’s been enthusiastically embraced and sparked an artistic renaissance in South Asia. In St. Petersburg, Russia, there can be a dozen Shakespeare plays running simultaneously. Shakespeare festivals occur in Austria, Belgium, Finland, Portugal, Sweden and Turkey, to list but a few.

Yes to Pasco Phronesis, David Edgerton, Carolyn Marvin, and Stephen Hume, I agree that we have much  in common with our ancestors but there are also some profound and subtle differences not easily articulated.  I suspect that if time travel were possible and we could visit Shakespeare’s time we would find that the basic human experience doesn’t change that much but that we would be hardpressed to fit into that society as our ideas wouldn’t just be outlandish they would be unthinkable. I mean literally unthinkable.

As Walter Ong noted in his book, Orality and Literacy, the concept of a certain type of list is a product of literacy. Have you ever done that test where you pick out the item that doesn’t belong on the list? Try: hammer, saw, nails, tree. The correct answer anybody knows is tree since it’s not a tool. However, someone from oral culture would view the exclusion of the tree as crazy since you need both tools and  wood to build something and clearly the tree provides wood. (I’ll see if I can find the citation in Ong’s book as he provides research to prove his point.) A list is a particular way of organizing information and thinking about it.