This is one of those wonderful moments in which something one reads for “breadth” turns out to be an essential spark for restarting the engine of the project one is supposed to be working on. But perhaps that’s not so surprising: the brain becomes attuned to thinking about certain things. It might not even strictly be thinking, because while new flashes of insight can come of it, it is really a kind of mental path of least resistance through which new information is processed by reference to old. The brain – or perhaps I should say ‘the mind’ – likes patterns. As shown in the famous, or infamous, pigeon experiment discussed by Richard Dawkins in The Enemies of Reason (above), it is attuned to seeking them in the exterior world; it is equally attuned to performing them in the interior mechanisms of thought. Thinking about, or returning to the familiar idea of codes and encoding as a mode of producing and understanding texts (whether we mean then or now) is one of my ‘mind habits’, as some readers may know.

So, speaking of patterns, I suppose no one ought to be surprised that this comment leapt out at me from Michael Camille’s discussion of Derrida’s engagement with the image of Socrates and Plato from Matthew Paris’ copy of The Prognostics (Oxford, Bodleian, MS Ashmole 304, f. 31v.), videlicet:

[a] message… is encoded and its decipherment is dependent upon the addresser and addressee sharing the same code.[1]

This is something I would regard as a fundamental assumption of my work. I do bang on quite a lot about the shared context or contacts of person A and person B that might permit B to understand a particular subtext in a letter from person A; to find it flattering, or persuasive, or off-putting, or even offensive. I maintain that good letter-writing in the high middle ages, or indeed any old time, is basically a balancing act in which received formulae have to be personalized and particularized without taking them out of the realm of the recognizable. The code, in other words, has/had to hold true, without the message appearing completely predetermined: disconnected from time, place, or person. That’s no easy task, and I don’t think the scribes and notaries of ‘formulaic’ texts get enough credit for their ability to put the needs and desires of individuals credibly into appropriate phrases. So far, so much like what some of you may have heard me talk about (perhaps ad nauseum?) at various conferences…

What suddenly struck me reading Camille this week was that for those outside the immediate communicative context of a given text (i.e. for those of us for whom understanding the addresser’s intended meaning isn’t an urgent or complete motive, whether it be through the luxury of academic distance or just the passage of time), perhaps not sharing the code, or understanding only part of it, or understanding it but also having other codes notionally available forms a fault line capable of generating new ways of theorizing communication in general. I don’t mean that misunderstanding the original message is desirable in a historian. However, it seems to me that thinking about it ‘sideways’, as it were, might be a productive philosophical exercise. It might be a process through which we can see the meta-communicative strategies and elements that were/could be at play without those hypothetical persons A and B even knowing.

Does that make sense? Or do I just need more sleep, and/or coffee?

Either way, Happy New Year!


[1] Michael Camille, ‘The Dissenting Image: A Postcard from Matthew Paris’, in Criticism and Dissent in the Middle Ages, ed. Rita Copeland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 115-50 (p. 120).