the big picture more important than specific text

The Book of Kells is the most lavish European manuscript surviving from the early medieval period.  Probably created about 800 GC on an island off the western coast of Scotland or perhaps in Ireland, the Book of Kells includes many brightly colored illuminations with fractal-like intricacy.  The beautiful calligraphy in further enhanced with many decorated letters and additional small illuminations scattered across most pages. The extent of decoration is extraordinary:

The decorations are all high quality and often highly complex. In one decoration, which occupies a one-inch square piece of a page, there are 158 complex interlacements of white ribbon with a black border on either side. Some decorations can only be fully seen with magnifying glasses, although lenses of the required power are not known to have been available until hundreds of years after the book’s completion.

The Book of Kells was produced to be a special treasure.  It has been appreciated as such since its production.

Chi Rho initials from the Book of Kells

While the Book of Kells was enormously costly in materials and time to produce, the literal quality of the text is poor.  The text of the Book of Kells is the four Christian Gospels — the central texts of Christian revelation.  The Irish monks who produced the Book of Kells dedicated their lives to following Christ. But that dedication apparently did not include dedication to textual correctness:

The impractical and muddled nature of the manuscript’s text — even by the standards of the day — is well established.  Nearly every page of text contains decorated initials, yet, with the exception of a few folios at the beginning of John, no Eusebian markings.  The Old Latin Breves causae [summaries of sections of the Gospels] do not match the mixed-Vulgate text.  The text is further marred by a large number of conflate readings, or ‘doublets’, and poorly copied contractions.  Additionally, the syllabification of the text is erratic.  Even the ornate display script contains its share of textual errors….[1]

Many persons who gaze on the Book of Kells today probably don’t realize or care about the literal quality of its text.  Did persons in early medieval Ireland, even the monks who produced it, look at the Book of Kells the way many tourists do today?

Lack of investment in the text of a lavish manuscript is not a unique feature of the Book of Kells.  Elaborate picture bibles produced in Paris early in the thirteenth century, known as Bibles moralisées, also had poor quality biblical text. A study of the Book of Ruth in these manuscripts observed:

two gross errors…strikingly ignorant / a ‘biblical’ text so bizarre as to be (unintentionally) amusing / there is no event in the biblical Ruth that remotely resembles what is narrated here / The priest of the law who gives Ruth to Boaz is an invention of the author without any basis in biblical narrative. / it is striking that the author is ignorant of the sex of the child and of his name, since a major element of the importance of the Book of Ruth (in terms of medieval Christianity) lies in the role of Ruth and of Boaz’s son Obed as the progenitors of David.[2]

These manuscripts were intended to provide moral instruction.  Their illuminations were made at great expense, probably for royalty.  Yet apparently little investment was made in ensuring the literal quality of the biblical text.

While Christianity is a religion of the book, it is also a religion of the word made flesh. Perhaps among medieval elites, Christianity was so institutionalized that the textual specifics of Christian revelation were in practice not given great importance.[3]  More generally, persons who perceive a big picture don’t literally read textual specifics.

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[1] Pulliam, Heather ( 2006) Word and image in the Book of Kells ( Dublin: Four Courts Press) p. 32.  Examples of errors include the text of Mathew 10:34, where Jesus declares, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.”  The Latin text of the Book of Kells erroneously replaces gladium (“sword”) with gaudium (“joy”).  It thus creates the much different statement, “I have come not to bring peace, but joy.”  The immediately subsequent text of Matthew (10:35: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother….”) jars sharply against the Book of Kells’ erroneous text.

[2] Lowden, John (2000) The making of the Bibles moraliseés. 2, The Book of Ruth (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press) pp. 72-3, 129, 171, 185-6.  The backslashes above separate non-contiguous quotations from this source.

[3] The thirteenth-century Morgan Bible of Louis IX did not originally include any text.  On that work, see Galbi (2003), Sense in Communication.

Kang on burdens of manliness among academics

Ugolino fearfully considers his choices

John M. Kang’s article, “The Burdens of Manliness,” recently published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, displays well burdens of manliness among elite academics.  The conclusion begins:

We are justifiably well aware of the myriad injuries that men have inflicted upon women as a group.  Without ignoring the importance of acknowledging such injuries, I have sought to argue in this Article that men have also been subject to forms of discrimination because of their gender.

Are you also well aware of the myriad gifts men have bestowed upon women?  How is acknowledging men’s past gifts and injuries to women relevant to considering today sexist selective service registration, sexism in reproductive rights and in legal imposition of parental obligations, or sexist attitudes toward life-span and occupational hazards disparities?

Whereas women have had to suffer the discrimination that derives from being perceived as physically and emotionally weak, men have had to endure the discrimination that derives from being perceived as bearers of physical courage. Various laws and judicial opinions, I have suggested, have drawn upon the latter image in a manner that urges men to conform to an ideal of manliness that celebrates violence, militarism, and an obsessive refusal to admit fear.

Admitting fear isn’t necessary.  Your fear screams out between the lines of your article, from the note attached to your name to the beginning of your conclusion. You are deeply justified in fearing that you, as a man, are communicatively vulnerable.

Communicative fear, like any other fear, is a bodily condition of real, specific, evolved human nature.  In the U.S. today, the word of law, resting on authorized state violence, forcibly confines in jail or prison about two million men, ten times as many men as women. No man’s physical strength and courage offers protection against the law’s violent force. But acknowledging the importance of violence under law is deliberatively unpropitious for academic lawyers, at least once the initial thrill is gone.

This ideal of manliness {“manliness that celebrates violence, militarism, and an obsessive refusal to admit fear”}, with the support of the law, has unduly burdened men’s right of self-definition, a right that I have argued is protected by the Equal Protection Clause.

Persons who aren’t academic lawyers won’t appreciate the subtle legal reasoning that connects a misandristic ideal of manliness to an abstract, disembodied “right of self-definition.”  But every man today understands the burdens and fears that this article displays.

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Read more:


The quotes above are from Kang (2010), p. 477. Law students, scholars, and practitioners have been negligent in understanding legal gender bias. An influential law review article declared in lofty abstractions:

Legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death. This is true in several senses. Legal interpretive acts signal and occasion the imposition of violence upon others: A judge articulates her understanding of a text, and as a result, somebody loses his freedom, his property, his children, even his life. Interpretations in law constitute justifications for violence which has already occurred or which is about to occur. … Neither legal interpretation nor the violence it occasions may be properly understood apart from each other.

Cover (1986) p. 1601. Recognizing the gender ratio of persons being violently killed and the gender ratio of persons being forcibly held behind bars in justice systems isn’t difficult. Gender bias in law review articles is part of the problem.

[image] Detail of sculpture, Ugolino and His Sons, by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1865-67), held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. According to Dante’s Inferno (canto 33), Pisan traitor Ugolino della Gherardesca was imprisoned with his sons and had to choose between starvation and cannibalism.


Cover, Robert M. 1986. “Violence and the Word.” Yale Law Journal. 95:1601-29.

Kang, John M. 2010. “The Burdens of Manliness.” Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. 33:477-507.

bloggers beware: learn from writers' suicides on Grub Street

In Old Regime France, literary elites cruelly abused hack writers even after their suicides.

What happened when a literary hack committed suicide?  Sadly, the lowly denizens of France’s Grub Street could expect little in the way of a posthumous career: no reflective éloges or well-attended funerals, no postmortem editions, no Festchriften by bereaved peers in the field.  In fact, the opposite generally occurred: the literary press often maliciously mocked the suffering and disappearance of a trivial man of letters, sensationalizing the circumstances of the death and turning tragedy into an entertaining fait divers.  When suicide came to Grub Street, the scurrilous press followed shortly behind.  Self-inflicted death, after all, afforded one last opportunity for the cultural establishment to exploit the tribulations of the ‘literary proletariat’.[*]

Bloggers, do not retreat into Twittering or Facebooking.  Do not commit suicide!  That will only make your situation worse.

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[*] Caradonna, Jeremy L. (2010), “Grub Street and Suicide: A View from the Literary Press in Late Eighteenth-Century France,” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, v. 33 n. 1, p. 23.