Thursday, October 30, 2014


The Quill Is My Plough

In his poem "Digging," Seamus Heaney pays tribute to the skill of his father and grandfather in working the soil. The poem ends with the lines:
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, tr. Willard E. Trask (1953; rpt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), pp. 313-314, delves deeper into the history of this metaphor:
Isidore further says that the Romans first used an iron stylus for writing on wax tablets and later one of bone. In proof he quotes from a lost comedy by the poet Atta, whose name alone is known to us (Et., VI, 9, 2):
. . . Vertamus vomerem
In cera mucroneque aremus osseo.
That is: "Turn we the ploughshare upon the wax and plow we with a point of bone." Isidore knows too that the "Ancients" made their lines as the ploughman his furrows (Et., VI, 14, 71), that they wrote "furrow-wise."22 The metaphor "ploughshare" for "stylus" (vomer for stilus) occurs, so far as I am aware, nowhere else in Roman literature, but is found in medieval poets. Wherever we encounter it, then, it must stem from Isidore. The basic comparison is of course older. So early as Plato, we find the comparison between the dressing of a field and writing. The Romans seldom used arare as a metaphor for writing. The compound exarare ("plough up") is much more frequent, but seems no longer to be felt as a figurative expression but simply means "to write," "to compose." I do not find the line of writing referred to as a "furrow" before Prudentius (Perist., IX, 52 and IV, 119; Apoth., 596). The two passages quoted from Isidore would seem to have been decisive in inculcating the comparison into the minds of medieval writers and maintaining it as a standard mode of expression. The parchment is the field, the writer knows the art of "cleaving the book-fields" ("bibliales . . . proscindere campos"; Poetae, I, 93, 5). He knows that the Emperor Charles tolerates no "thorn bushes," that is, no scribal errors, as a note in an eighth-century codex informs us (Poetae, I, 89 f.). The metaphor "plough" for "write" passes from medieval Latin literature into the vernacular literatures. In a manuscript of the eighth or ninth century, preserved at Verona (a Mozarabic prayer book), the following notation was discovered in 1924: "Se pareva boves alba pratalia araba et albo versorio teneba et negro semen seminaba";23 that is, "He urged on the oxen, ploughed white fields, held a white plough, and sowed black seed." By altering the forms and order of the words, an attempt was made to turn this into a rhymed quatrain in early Italian and it was given out to be a precious relic of popular pastoral poetry. As a matter of fact it is a scribal adage of erudite origin. The white fields are the pages, the white plough the pen, the black seeds the ink. Our examples from Plato, Isidore, Prudentius, and Carolingian poetry clarify this imagery. Once again the phantom of "popular poetry" has misled scholars. That solitary masterpiece of the declining Middle Ages in Germany, the Ackermann aus Böhmen, which occupied Konrad Burdach for decades, also employs the image of writing as ploughing. Chapter 3 begins: "Ich bins genannt ein ackerman, von vogelwat ist mein pflug." In vogelwat (Vogelkleid, "bird dress") Burdach rightly recognized a "riddling description of the writing quill." But in the word ackerman he insisted upon seeing a reference to a mysticism of the ploughman, and attempted to demonstrate it with a lavish display of erudition. It was Arthur Hübner who found the correct interpretation (Kleine Schriften zur deutschen Philologie [1940], 205 f.): "The quill is my plough—this is a well-known scribal adage." It goes back, I might add, to the Latin Middle Ages.

22 In Greek βουστροφηδόν: turning like oxen in ploughing, writing from left to right and from right to left alternately.
23 G. Lazzeri, Antologia dei primi secoli della letteratura italiana (1942), 1 ff.
Related post: The Scholar's Life.

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