A medieval ‘knock-knock’ joke

Bute Psalter, Paris ca. 1285
LA, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 46, fol. 12r via @discardingimages

The meta-literary mock legend of St Nemo is the result of one of the more sophisticated linguistic jokes in the medieval period. The Latin indefinite pronoun nemo means ‘no one’ and is found, naturally, in many medieval texts. In the Bible, we are told that ‘no one is accepted as a prophet in his own country’ (nemo propheta acceptus est in patria sua, Luke 4:24) and that ‘no one saw their brother’ (nemo vidit fratrem suum’, Exodus 10:23). In several medieval manuscripts, the text is explained with reference to Nemo, an important figure, a biblical prophet even, enjoying scriptural recognition. The Vulgate Revelation seals St Nemo’s canonicity: ‘And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one [Nemo] will shut, who shuts and no one [Nemo] opens. (Rev 3:7)’.  When St Augustine writes ‘For who has seen a black swan? For this reason no one [Nemo] remembers it. Yet who cannot picture it?’ (De Trinitate, XI, 17), it becomes clear that St Nemo is like no one else (pun intended).

In quasi-Ovidian fashion, the indefinite pronoun gets metamorphosed into a fully-fledged, authoritative figure, right in the manuscript gloss. We’re not too far from Captain Nemo and his later incarnations.

In rhetoric, this kind of pun is a subtype of paronomasia or adnominatio, the figure of using words that sound alike but that differ in meaning. It’s something like ‘Knock, knock! Who’s there? No one. No-one who?’. Very funny indeed.

The origin of this pun may not be medieval, however. In the Odyssey, Ulysses tricks the Cyclops into thinking that his name is ‘Nobody’ so that when he and his companion ram the pole into Polyphemus’ eye, the giant’s wailing ‘Come quickly, no one has blinded me!’ makes no sense. The Greek word for ‘no one’ is oὖτις, and works exactly like the Latin ‘nemo’. I do not know to what extent the Ulysses’ clash with the Cyclops was known in the medieval West. For instance, the 13th-century Old Irish retelling of the story in Merugud Uilix maicc Leirtis  (The Wanderings of Ulysses son of Laertes) doesn’t include the linguistic cunning.


The legends of medieval books

This blogpost is not about myths and legends, but about editorial legends, the written explanatory matter accompanying an illustration, map, chart, explaining how visuals are to be read and understood, or what they stand for.

Despite their widespread use, legends are not modern. Medieval scribes, scholars and the manuscript culture these worked in made good use of legends, filling that silent space between scribe and reader with insights into the modus legendi (how to read a text): ‘Dear reader, this means that…’.

Legends exist because some illustrations are not self-explanatory or that they might serve a purpose that is not self-explanatory either. Legends point to graphics which point to something else. I wish to briefly discuss these by looking at two examples: an early 12th-century ‘Bible reading plan’ from Glastonbury, England and a late 12th-century history-book browsing tool from London.

The first example comes from a collection of readings (lectiones)  from St John’s Gospel for the use of the monks of Glastonbury Abbey. The readings are grouped by chapters and numbered in red, as in the image below.

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The list of pericope readings from St John’s Gospel in British Library, Harley MS 5958, f. 87v – this leaf was separated from BL, Harley MS 1916.

The initial usefulness of this text was enhanced by a later scribe who realised that some of the readings were also required weekly readings during Lent when the monks met for breakfast and lunch in the refectory (the Benedictine origin of watching TV while eating). Scholars remind us that ‘the monastic custom of reading during meals is described in some texts as an explicit literalising of the metaphor of consuming a book as one consumes food’.

As Tessa Weber explains, ‘since the sequence of gospel pericopes from John during Lent does not follow the ordo narrationis (i.e. the narrative sequence) of John’s Gospel, the reader in the refectory needed some assistance to find both the relevant homily and where to commence reading, should the pericope begin at a later verse than that with which the particular tractatus commenced.’

The instructions on how to find the relevant passage for any given week was entered at the bottom of the leaf, as in the image below. The modus legendi of this Lent reading plan links the chapter numbers, the relevant passages and an extra-textual reference into a system whereby the reader may find what passage ought to be read in any given week during Lent.

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British Library, Harley MS 5958, f. 87v showing the legend for the reading plan.

The legend says:

While at the refectory table, the reader who wishes to know which passage he ought to read in this book during the whole period of Lent, he should look for the first letter of the alphabet written over the relevant feast day to the first week and from the next to the following and so on according to the letters and he should find the location of the reading.

Latin: Mense lector refectorii scire volens locum quo debeat legere per totam quadragesimam in hoc libro, querat primam litteram abcedarii supra quamlibet feriam scriptam ad primam ebdomadam, secundam ad secundam et sit ad singulas ebdomadas sequentes literas et inveniet loc[um] lectionis.

Simple capital letters explain which chapter should be read in which week in Lent. The legend accomplishes two things in this case: it clarifies the use of special symbols (letters) in the chapter list and confers a special function to this text.

Others went even further. Some legends can even introduce a system of iconographical symbols/icons that connect the text to what the icons signify. The 12th-century English historian Ralph of Diceto (died around 1202), a canon of St Paul’s, London, came up with an ingenious plan to create a thematic index for his chronicle Abbreviations of History.

He sets out by creating twelve thematic categories corresponding to the main historical areas of interest and political/ecclesiastical issues of the day, which he thought would comprise most of the information readers of his chronicle would be interested in. These are (see image below):

  1. The persecution of the Church (De persecutionibus ecclesie).
  2. Schismatics (De scismatibus).
  3. Church councils (De conciliis).
  4. Coronations of kings (De regum unctionibus).
  5. Privileges of the archbishopric of Canterbury (De privilegiis Cantuarie ecclesie).
  6. Elections of certain archbishops of Canterbury (De quarumdam archiepiscoporum Cantuariensium electionibus).
  7. Dukes of Normandy (De ducibus Normannorum).
  8. Dukes of Anjou (De comitibus Andegavorum).
  9. Controversies between kings and prelates (De controversiis inter regnum et sacerdotium).
  10. Relations between Kings of England and the dukes of Normandy (De regibus Anglorum et ducibus Normannorum).
  11. Relations between Kings of England, dukes of Normandy and counts of Anjou (De regibus Anglorum et ducibus Normannorum et comitibus Andegavorum).
  12. The conflict between Henry the Second and his three sons (De dissensione que fuit inter regem Henricum secundum et tres filios suos).
British Library, Cotton MS Claudius E III, f. 1r showing the twelve topics and the corresponding icons.

Ralph then assigns a pictogram to each topic, either as an abbreviation (PS for persecutiones, SC for schismatici, CO for concilii), or a painted icon, ranging from a simple crown (no 3), staff (no. 6), cross (5), sword (7) and lance (no. 8) to a geminated C-monogram standing for ‘controversy’ (no. 9) and a crown pulled by two hands symbolising Henry II’s struggle with his sons (no. 12). The relationship between the text and the icons is that of an anacolouthon, a rhetorical trope whereby one word is substituted with another whose meaning is very close to the original, but in a non-reciprocal fashion. A crown pulled by two hands may be substituted for or reduced to Henry II’s conflict with his sons, but such an icon cannot, on its own, convey the same connotation.

Ralph hopes that his readers will find the information they want by locating these icons in his chronicle. The instructions on how to do it are as clear as the presentation of the twelve categories. He says:

Therefore, if you discover certain signs placed in the margin while diligently reading through the time of Grace (i. e. the years since the Birth of Christ), do not rush to criticize them as if they were useless.  For these signs are of no little use so that the memory might be more easily stimulated.  That there are twelve types of signs, you should also not think this is pointless. That is because, while the nature of chronicling always runs infinitely down [in time], and new developing crises and controversies require new entries to be made, if the condition of the entire (little) book doesn’t offer you anything complete, you may at least be able to find a little completeness in the chapters contained under the aforesaid number, and in the narration of the matters particularly relevant to the same number.

Latin: Itaque si, tempus gratie diligenter percurrens, quedam signa repereris in margine posita, non hoc statim quasi superfluum reprehendas. Ea namque sunt ad memoriam facilius excitandam non parum accommoda. Quod autem signorum varietas sub duodenario comprehenditur, nec hoc reputes otiosum; quoniam cum cronographie conditio semper in infinitum decurrat, et novis emergentibus tam causis quam casibus nove fieri soleant annotationes, si continentia totius libelli nichil tibi perfectum obtulerit, in capitulis saltem sub numero praedicto contentis, et in excursu rerum ad eundem numerum specialiter pertinentium, aliquantulum perfectionis poteris invenire.

British Library, Cotton MS Claudius E III, f. 1r showing Ralph’s prologue in red.

Ralph’s legend, both as the prose instruction and the explanation of the twelve symbols, ensures that a reader interested in any of the twelve topics will find the relevant matter in the text of the chronicle.

It is clear from the two examples that medieval scribes and scholars did not lack the conceptual framework to devise semiotic and referential apparati in their works. In fact, the transfer of meaning on which legends of this kind depend was the underlying principle of allegory (not to mention all the other tropes of substitution), which the medieval mind – geared towards poetry or theology – easily lent itself to. To think of something instead of something else was as natural for the medieval thinker as it is for us to read music, charts and code. It is fascinating, nevertheless, that the application of allegory, metonymy, metalepsis, anacolouthon, etc, to a structured text enhanced its readability by making it easier for the reader to find information in it – and also memorise it.

Authors policing the page

The hyper-literacy of medieval glossed books can sometimes achieve postmodernist levels. In a 12th century Psalter (Cambridge Trinity College B.5.4) that once belonged to the Anglo-Norman scholar Herbert of Bosham (active 1162-1189), the main text of the Psalms is glossed with commentaries from different patristic and early medieval sources (Augustine, Jerome, Cassiodorus, etc). The main text is literally wrapped in layers of textuality, which explicate and interpret it. If our modern footnotes could become side- and header-notes, then they would come close to the medieval glossed format.
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The general layout is impressive, but what I find most fascinating are the marginal pictures of various authors (mainly Augustine, Cassiodorus and Jerome) added to signify that a given gloss, parading in their name, has been mis-attributed. Thus, a figure of Augustine points a spear to one of the marginal annotations added in his name, bearing a banner which says ‘Not me!’ (Non ego). Disapproval over attribution expressed itself in ‘banner/scroll’ notes such as ‘I otherwise’ (ego aliter), ‘hic michi caveas’ (I avoid this) or ‘ego non approbo’ (I do not approve).
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It may be true, as many scholars have pointed out, that in the logic of medieval literacy, what made authority were texts, not people. Texts became authoritative through circulation, glossing and internalisation in the minds and memories of readers. Yet, as the Bosham Psalter clearly shows, authorities were also thought of as authors, people, who did not shy away from making intrusion on the page, albeit in the margin, to caution against sloppy quotation or interpretation. The layer of ‘authorial review’ in the Bosham Psalter gives us the measure of the almost postmodernist character of the medieval page – an unstable ground of debate and criticism, where authorial intent and control are struggling against  a background of literal insurrection.

How to write and publish in the Middle Ages: Eadmer and St Anselm

Unknown, Eadmer of Canterbury (English, about 1055 – 1124) De Vita et Conversatione Anselmi Cantuariensis, 1140 to 1150, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

We moderns easily forget that the medieval texts we read in manuscript or in print are the result of a complex process of composition; that writers didn’t just ‘pen’ words and sentences as they came to them; that we are not the only ones to struggle on the agonising road from ‘idea’ to ‘final draft’. As Mary Carruthers pointed out long ago, textual composition in the Middle Ages was a function of memory (not to be reduced to memorisation), cogitation and collation. Composition was independent from writing. The latter merely fixed and ‘authorised’ the author’s ‘text’, by making in known publicly.

One of the most fascinating descriptions of a medieval author at work is Eadmer of Canterbury’s account of St Anselm’s (1033-1109) difficult composition and publication of his short tract Proslogion in the late 1070s, sometimes translated into English as Discourse on the Existence of God. Eadmer was Anselm’s biographer, and he’s given us one of the best glimpses into the life of a 11th-century writer. Eadmer describes how Anselm struggled with the work’s ‘subject matter’ – something we may liken to the modern ‘writer’s block’; how devising the text kept one so focused that it caused disruptions to one’s lifestyle; that backing up one’s drafts was as important in the 11th century as it is today; that one has a responsibility to respond to reviews, especially when they are negative.

Most importantly, Eadmer’s story shows the importance of memory as an organic library of information and the fragility of a text’s existence before it is committed to parchment.

Eadmeri Vita Sancti Anselmi. The Life of St Anselm by Eadmer, ed. by Richard W. Southern (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), pp. 29-31:

For the Latin text, go to the end of this post.[1]

He [Anselm] also composed another small book, which he called the Monologion because in this he alone spoke and argued with himself. Here, putting aside all authority of Holy Scripture, he enquired into and discovered by reason alone what God is, and proved by invincible reason that God’s nature is what the true faith holds it to be, and that it could not be other than it is. Afterwards it came into his mind to try to prove by one single and short argument the things which are believed and preached about God, that he is eternal, unchangeable, omnipotent, omnipresent, incomprehensible, just, righteous, merciful, true, as well as truth, goodness, justice and so on; and to show how all these qualities are united in him. And this, as he himself would say, gave him great trouble, partly because thinking about it took away his desire for food, drink and sleep, and partly—and this was more grievous to him—because it disturbed the attention which he ought to have paid to matins and to Divine service at other times. When he was aware of this, and still could not entirely lay hold on what he sought, he supposed that this line of thought was a temptation of the devil and he tried to banish it from his mind. But the more vehemently he tried to do this, the more this thought pursued him. Then suddenly one night during matins the grace of God illuminated his heart, the whole matter became clear to his mind, and a great joy and exultation filled his inmost being. Thinking therefore that others also would be glad to know what he had found, he immediately and ungrudgingly wrote it on writing tablets and gave them to one of the brethren of the monastery for safe-keeping. After a few days he asked the monk who had charge of them for the tablets. The place where they had been laid was searched, but they were not found. The brethren were asked in case anyone had taken them, but in vain. And to this day no-one has been found who has confessed that he knew anything about them. Anselm wrote another draft on the same subject on other tablets, and handed them over to the same monk for more careful keeping. He placed them once more by his bed, in a more secret place, and the next day—having no suspicion of any mischance he found them scattered on the floor beside his bed and the wax which was on them strewn about in small pieces. After the tablets had been picked up and the wax collected together, they were taken to Anselm. He pieced together the wax and recovered the writing, though with difficulty. Fearing now that by some carelessness it might be altogether lost, he ordered it, in the name of the Lord, to be copied onto parchment. From this, therefore, he composed a volume, small in size but full of weighty discourse and most subtle speculation, which he called the Proslogion, because in this work he speaks either to himself or to God. This work came into the hands of someone who found fault with one of the arguments in it, judging it to be unsound. In an attempt to refute it he wrote a treatise against it and attached this to the end of Anselm’s work. A friend sent this to Anselm who read it with pleasure, expressed his thanks to his critic and wrote his reply to the criticism. He had this reply attached to the treatise which had been sent to him, and returned it to the friend from whom it had come, desiring him and others who might deign to have his little book to write out at the end of it the criticism of his argument and his own reply to the criticism.

Eadmeri Vita Sancti Anselmi. The Life of St Anselm by Eadmer, ed. by Richard W. Southern (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), pp. 29-31:

Fecit quoque libellum unum quem Monologion appellavit. Solus enim in eo et secum loquitur, ac tacita omni auctoritate divinae scripturae quid Deus sit sola ratione quaerit et invenit, et quod vera fides de Deo sentit, invincibili ratione sic nec aliter esse posse probat et astruit. Post haec incidit sibi in mentem investigare utrum uno solo et brevi argumento probari posset id quod de Deo creditur et praedicatur, videlicet quod sit aeternus, incommutabilis, omnipotens, ubique totus, incompraehensibilis, justus, pius, misericors, verax, veritas, bonitas, justitia, et nonnulla alia, et quomodo haec omnia in ipso unum sint.3 Quae res. sicut ipse referebat magnam sibi peperit difficultatem. Nam haec cogitatio partim illi cibum, potum et somnum tollebat, partim et quod magis eum gravabat intentionem ejus qua matutinis et alii servitio Dei intendere debebat perturbabat. Quod ipse animadvertens, nec adhuc quod quaerebat ad plenum capere valens. ratus est hujusmodi cogitationem diaboli esse temptationem, nisusque est eam procul repellere a sua intentione. Verum quanto plus in hoc desudabat. tanto illum ipsa cogitatio magis ac magis infestabat. Et ecce quadam nocte inter nocturnas vigilias Dei gratia illuxit in corde ejus, et res patuit intellectui ejus, immensoque gaudio et jubilatione replevit omnia intima ejus. Reputans ergo apud se hoc ipsum et aliis si sciretur posse placere. livore carens rem ilico scripsit in tabulis, easque sollicitius custodiendas uni ex monasterii fratribus tradidit. Post dies aliquot tabulas repetit a custode. Quaeruntur in loco ubi repositae fuerant, nec inveniuntur. Requiruntur a fratribus ne forte aliquis eas acceperit, sed nequiquam. Nec enim hucusque inventus est, qui recognoverit se quicquam inde scivisse. Reparat Anselmus aliud de eadem materia dictamen in aliis tabulis, et illas eidem sub cautiori custodia tradit custodi. Ille in secretiori parte lectuli sui tabulas reponit, et sequenti die nil sinistri suspicatus. easdem in pavimento sparsas ante lectum repperit, cera quas in ipsis erat hac illae frustatim dispersa. Levantur tabulas, cera colligitur, et pariter Anselmo reportantur. Adunat ipse ceram, et licet vix. scripturam recuperat. Verens autem ne qua incuria penitus perditum eat; eam in nomine Domini pergamenas jubet tradi. Composuit ergo inde volumen parvulum, sed sententiarum ac subtilissimas contemplationis pondere magnum, quod Proslogion nominavit. Alloquitur etenim in eo opere aut seipsum aut Deum. Quod opus cum in manus cujusdam venisset, et is in quadam ipsius operis argumentatione non parum offendisset. Ratus est eandem argumentationem ratam non esse. Quam refellere gestiens; quoddam contra illam scriptum composuit, et illud fini ejusdem operis scriptum apposuit. Quod cum sibi ab uno amicorum suorum transmissum Anselmus considerasset; gavisus est, et repraehensori suo gratias agens, suam ad hoc responsionem edidit, eamque libello sibi directo subscriptam, sub uno ei qui miserat amico remisit, hoc ab eo et ab aliis qui libellum illum habere dignantur petitum iri desiderans, quatinus in fine ipsius suae argumentationis repraehensio, et repraehensioni sua responsio subscribatur.

A tale of two whores: Dante, Luther and the Pope

I am preparing an introductory talk on Dante’s radicalism and I thought I would seize on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to offer a brief reflection on one of the hot issues in both Dante’s work and Luther’s ministry: the Papacy as the whore of Babylon, the prostitute enslaving the Church.

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Luther’s vituperation against the papacy is well-known. His critique developed over time, in stages, as Scott Hendrix noted, and found its best expression in the pamphlet The Babylonian Captivity of the Church published in 1520. Luther wrote:

But after hearing and reading the super-subtle subtleties of those coxcombs [i.e. Eccius, Emser and their followers], by which they so ingeniously set up their idol—my mind being not entirely unteachable in such matters—I now know and am sure that the Papacy is the kingdom of Babylon and the power of Nimrod the mighty hunter.

(Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, trans. J. J. Schindel and C. M. Jacobs, intro. Albert T. W. Steinhaeuser, in vol. 2 of Works of Martin Luther with Introductions and Notes, 6 vols. (Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Company, 1915), p. 179.)

In the New Testament book of Revelation, the whore of Babylon is a figure associated with the Antichrist: “Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters.” (Rev 17:1). A popular image in medieval apocalyptic writings as well as in the popular imagination, the Whore becomes, in Luther’s polemical works, synonymous with the papacy. Engravings in various early editions of the Luther Bible show the whore wearing the papal tiara, as in the above image.

More than 200 years earlier, the poet Dante Alighieri had expressed a similar, almost identical idea. Towards the end of Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy, after the pilgrim’s ascent to the top of the mountain and into the locus amoenus of the Earthly Paradise, Dante offers us a performance of God’s providential history and a mise-en-scène of ‘Apocalypse Now‘ as a cinematic procession: the Book of Revelation‘s whore of Babylon is sitting in a chariot surrounded by the beasts of the Apocalypse:

Just like a fortress set on a steep slope,
securely seated there, ungirt, a whore [puttana],
whose eyes were quick to rove, appeared to me;
and I saw at her side, erect, a giant,
who seemed to serve as her custodian;
and they—again, again—embraced each other.

(Purgatorio 32.148-50)

The strong allusion to the papacy was clear to most early readers of the Comedy. Earlier in Purgatorio, Rome was depicted as a widow, the papacy as a prostitute, and Italy as a whorehouse (6.76-90).

Nevertheless, the force of Dante’s condemnation was quickly weakened by a subsequent commentary tradition that emphasised the allegorical and biblical character of the imagery. It was not uncommon for the papal puttana to be scaled down to an embodiment of sin, as in the Holkham manuscript illustration above. In a sense, it was the early Lutherans who ‘recovered’ the radicalism of this idea and used as a weapon against their Catholic adversaries.

Fragmentarium: because manuscript fragments count, too

Let’s not be codicists! Manuscript fragments also have a story to tell, and it’s usually far more dramatic.

Here’s where the freshly-launched Fragmentarium website comes into play.
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Rolled out on 1 September 2017, Fragmentarium is an international digital research lab for medieval manuscript fragments that enables libraries, collectors, researchers and students to publish medieval manuscript fragments, allowing them to catalogue, describe, transcribe, assemble and re-use them online.

Collaborating with 16 partner institutions throughout Europe and the USA, the project aims, over the next years, to lay the foundations for research on medieval manuscript fragments by providing open standards and guidelines.

Fragments of medieval manuscripts offer an as-yet largely unexplored field of study. Except for isolated initiatives and individual, often spectacular discoveries, traditional manuscript research has so far only marginally undertaken work with fragments. The Internet offers extraordinary potential for overcoming some of the chief difficulties of traditional fragment research. Building on the technology developed by e-codices – Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland, Fragmentarium offers an application for scholarly work with fragments. Collaborating with 16 partner institutions throughout Europe and the USA, the project aims, over the next years, to lay the foundations for research on medieval manuscript fragments by providing open standards and guidelines.

This is one of the collection’s earliest fragments (so far): this was once part of a psalter (mainly Romanum, with readings from the Mozabicum, and glosses and corrections from the Gallicanum by a later hand) made sometime between 600 – 700 AD. (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, Cod. Sang. 1395 III)
More information, and the first digitised fragments may be found on the project website at http://www.fragmentarium.unifr.ch

Dante’s Big Bang

Un punto vidi che raggiava lume…

One of my favourite scenes in the Commedia is that of Paradiso 28 where Dante, arriving in the proto-heaven of the Primum Mobile, describes his experience of reaching the engine of the universe, a place of strong ontological instability, thus pushing the envelope of poetic expression to the limit.

Dante’s implicit metaphysics requires that the Empyrean be not a place, a thing, a moment. In the neighbouring Primum Mobile, Dante is just a step away from no-thing.

William Egginton has shown how, since the 19th century, mathematicians have understood Dante to conceive of the universe as a hypersphere, a finite yet curved space – actually not so much a space as a mode of being. Creation, Christian Moevs tells us in The Metaphysics of Dante, is not a materialist coming into existence of matter, but an inflection or restriction of the verb ‘to be’, which lies, forever in the infinitive, in the mind of God. The Creation of the world doesn’t happen in time, because this declension of the infinitive Form, itself creates the fabric of space-time, allowing matter to embody the form. Reaching the Primum Mobile, Dante is on the verge of the describable, on the edge of the infinitive becoming present tense, of Oneness falling into multiplicity.

Dante’s creation of the world is the projection of the extensionless point of the Divine Nous, which generating space and time, spawns the hypersphere and the heavenly orbs. When Dante experiences this foundational moment, he has before his eyes an inside-out view of the universe, a re-enactment of its dawn – and the image is quite striking:

I saw a point that sent forth so acute
a light, that anyone who faced the force
with which it blazed would have to shut his eyes,

and any star that, seen from earth, would seem
to be the smallest, set beside that point,
as star conjoined with star, would seem a moon.

Around that point a ring of fire wheeled,
a ring perhaps as far from that point as
a halo from the star that colors it

when mist that forms the halo is most thick.
It wheeled so quickly that it would outstrip
the motion that most swiftly girds the world.

That ring was circled by a second ring,
the second by a third, third by a fourth,
fourth by a fifth, and fifth ring by a sixth.

(Paradiso, 28:16-30, Mandelbaum’s translation)

The earliest extant manuscript of Dante’s Comedy dates from just before 1335 and is Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Ashburnham 828, known by Dante scholars as ASH. Folio 96v starts the passage quoted above: ‘un punto vidi che raggiava lume’

The best modern approximation of this image is that of the Big Bang. Emanative rather than explosive, the Dantean universe comes into existence through the paradox of a process outside time which itself creates time and space. Although outside time, the blinding punto generates so much energy and speed that no words can describe the appearance of its velocity to the poet’s eyes. At the centre of the Ptolemaic-scholastic cosmos  is the potentiality of form and matter which emanates being, desire and virtue to the rest of created space, informing the hierarchy of matter. The heavenly spheres are engendered out of this emission, and they begin to spin through Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Scientific American contributor Davide Castelvecchi has some interesting insights about Dante’s universe and the findings of the ‘New Cosmology’ here.