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  • Madeleine Perham

Why do we write things down?

Greetings excellent folk! I've been away at the Palace of Versailles on the trail of historic rogue Julie D'Aubigny. Among her many arrest warrants (I like to think she used the paper to line her scabbard, shredding them with time and gun-like punctures from every time she put the bloodied sword back), around 1695 she defeated three men in the centre of a royal ball, ducking between giant skirts and beheading fancy wigs, while she was star of the Opera Garnier (where, 200 years later, the Phantom of the Opera found a nice semi-drowned basement free for a ghost who likes an audience). Julie is excellent and I'm currently reading Kelly Gardiner's semi-biographical novel about her (I'm also working on my own historical rom-com about another Julie adventure, which I'll explain soon).

A tour guide instructed everyone not to swing from the chandeliers. Yes, in Julie's time they would've been melting under flaming candles, but you kinda wonder if she had a go ...

Today's question came from a kid who was, understandably, not in love with notemaking and colour-coded highlighters. Next post we'll look at medieval literacy, but here's the response she got:

Short answer: it's so we don't forget stuff. On Tuesday I found a sticky note with Remember Shark in a frantic scribble. Which shark? Why didn't I remember them? And worse - did the shark remember me?

(I think it's about the megalodon post from the other week. That said, I desperately hope no shark hurls itself through the window to correct me).

Hmm. Blue. Past Madeleine telling me to never go in the sea again ...?

Long answer: so we don't forget everything. Even if we fixed our whole lives around remembering the people who lived before us, and the people before that, and everything they ever realised, we'd always lose someone (and we'd never have space for the new stuff). Even commas are useful - if you're trying to remember the exact way someone told a story, you need to keep the dramatic pauses.

My favourite example is Beowulf: a story wafted from Viking Europe to England by sea air and wooden ships where your worst nightmares are yawning through sharp-toothed carvings on the front. It's your classic man-meets-monster, man-loses-monster-but-keeps-monster's-arm, man-fights-monster's-mum-and-dragon-but-sadly-is-not-dragon-proof kind of story. There's possibly eight different versions - but we only have one written down, and we're not even sure when it's from: it could be a scrappy first draft, an alternate universe rewrite or the final polished tale that olden warriors wanted young'uns to read (mostly so they knew not to challenge any dragons).

It's even written down by two different monks. Did the monks have the same version? Or in the first monk's version, would Beowulf roast the last monster on an open fire and thank the gods he survived the end? Would adventure stories where a lone hero faces down teeth and schemes and fire (Hobbit, Avengers, Paul Blart: Mall Cop) exist in the same way without two monks in scratchy horse-hair robes straining their eyes with a library that's lost and a candle that blew out a thousand years ago?

The 'Hwaet' at the start can either mean 'Hello' or 'Oi'. Depends on how grumpy the monk's feeling.

A recent study by Science Magazine suspects we've only got 5% of the pages written between 600-1450. We don't know how many stories we've lost, or family histories (what we've got before 600 isn't thrilling: our first surviving text is Caedmon's Hymn, where a monk prays for the gift of song before receiving musical genius and improvising such a glorious hymn to the heavens, they had to write it down. If any ancient English text is suffused with Disney potential, it's this one). If you look further through English history then family bibles, bound in blotched leather that probably came from the family cow, are the most popular way to record who's passed through the family, with ink-stained names scratched into the front page - to the point that many bibles were and are sold with blank record pages, waiting for a legacy. But the bibles are often lost when a family line ends or houses are abandoned or cities are invaded, so you can often find old bibles on sale at auctions meant to shade in a small world's history more clearly, or throw a family legacy into light.

So, if your pockets are, like mine, forming a society of torn shopping lists and coded sticky notes that a wiser you left behind - they might not have value, but generally writing things down really does. At best, they can be the bridge to a genius thought for the next generation, like Beowulf leading Tolkien to a world of monsters and Caedmon maybe inspiring Cinderella (blessings = godmothers). At worst, you can live in the smug knowledge that no one else will ever understand Remember Shark either.


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