Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Studying Palimpsests Naked

Okay, I admit it: I wrote this title just to get you to read this blog.  I admit, too, that I have done so before, when I wrote “The World’s Best Naked Exercise Program” last year.  So, I confess, too, that the word naked is, if not gratuitous, at least meant to be an attention grabber.

Well, the rock isn’t exactly an ancient manuscript, but you get the idea.

But this time, I would argue, it is really justified, because almost no one knows off-hand what a palimpsest is.  So “naked” just offsets the inherent boringness in the word “palimpsest,” even if no one knows what it means.

Not exactly a manuscript, but you get the idea again.

So what does it mean? And what does it mean to study a palimpsest naked?  For I didn’t just put naked in the title exclusively to offset any potential ennui.  Rather, I put it in for a reason, for a palimpsest is a text, normally written on vellum (calf skin) that has been written smack on top of another text.  The original text has been scraped off, normally in the middle ages, because vellum codices were then, of course, very high-dollar.  That scraping process stripped the text bare, removing the original text so that a new one could literally be superimposed upon it.

The problem is, of course—at least for philologists like my friend about whom I write from time to time—that the really important text is the earlier one.  More often than not, there are numerous copies of the tawdry superimposed text, but very few, very rare copies of the first text.  The process of making that text naked nearly destroys it.

Fragment of text New Testament (dating to the 6th century); reused in the 13th century

And then I thought a bit, as I often do, and I thought how, if we can think of ourselves as books for a moment, maybe who we are, how we present ourselves to the world, is really represented by the second layer, our “second text.”  Life circumstances have, too often, stripped away the joy of our youth, the hope, the optimism, the idealism that we once had and replaced them with, well, “morals” but morals that really aren’t moral, “sincerity” that really isn’t sincere, human-made “rules” that really aren’t binding. 

But when we were kids, we knew that when someone promises something, they should do it. When our mom promised a birthday party, we were excited, and we never thought for a moment she would renege, would change her mind or forget about us on our special day.  We knew she would put together a nice little party, with silly hats and balloons, a cake and friends. 

Our younger selves, our first text, as it were, believed in that kind of thing—not birthday parties, per se, but people keeping their word, keeping their promises, and we tried very hard to keep our own because as children we knew innately that there was such a thing as right and wrong.  And, though the specifics of right and wrong can vary a bit between cultures, that there is such a thing as right and wrong—well, nearly everyone knows that, or at least nearly every kid does.  And we knew it was right to keep our word.

But the palimpsest that forms our lives, well, that seems to have been inscribed with a second text that isn’t too pretty—I speak for myself. It is kind of political, it’s kind of judgmental and, if we are honest, it’s sometimes kind of pissy, for lack of a better word.  But we have that first layer still, all these years after our idealistic childhood, if we’re lucky enough to have had a dash of idealism in that childhood.  But we can’t get back to it. Or can we?

Well, if we were inscribed with good stuff originally, then it may take a clever palaeographer to bring to light for us the original creation.  You see, if we’re all palimpsests because we were in a library where the head librarian was too cheap to buy fresh vellum, then maybe a new, a far more gracious Librarian can help us see who we were created to be, to discern what our original text was meant to read.  It may be that that new Librarian, because he has been away and out of our lives so long, has to buy back the entire library at a very high price, as such a rare-book library might just house a lot of semi-sacred volumes. 

It is not hard to imagine that that would be the case, as manuscripts, as we said above, are not cheap. And old, precious manuscripts with richly humanistic tales to tell—say the Odyssey of Homer or the Aeneid of Virgil or Augustine’s Confessions—well, those kinds of works cost a lot of money. They are irreplaceable. And, perhaps to our surprise, they are greatly valued by the new Librarian, even of the old one despised them so much as to allow—even to cause—them to be written over with a less than salutary text.  Perhaps it is so with us. We are so used to our second text being read over and over again and we’ve allowed our pages to be turned by so many rough-handed library visitors that we have become that second text—or so it seems, if we only look at the words written on us. 

But there are other words, less visible, hidden beneath. They are beautiful words, far more beautiful than the more common text written over them.  And now maybe that new Librarian can allow that text to come to light, to be restored.  Maybe our first story isn’t merely worth reading—maybe it’s something far more significant than merely a good read, for it’s the real story of our lives.

So, my friend, that’s what reading a palimpsest naked is all about.  I hope you’re not too disappointed that the palaeographers in this story who examine the manuscript are not actually doing so in the raw 😉. Rather, I hope sincerely that, under the angelic flutter of the wings of that new Librarian, we all can find the deeper text, and written on it, deeper meaning.