A non-fiction detective story involving the rescue from obscurity of the classic Lucretius text On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), peppering the world with the idea that atoms are the basic building blocks of life and the Epicurean way of life is best, written 50BC-ish. Our hero is Poggio Braccioloni of Florence, a high-ranking scribe of the papal court, who dashes off to monasteries across Germany to discover forgotten manuscripts once his pope (Baldassare Cossa – aka Pope John XXIII) is arrested.
Apparently some of the scholarship underlying this work is questionable, so caveat lector. Not being an expert of medieval history, I loved the focus on book-worship, found it quite readable. The deep-dive into rules from monasteries that “he shall be compelled to read,” is awesome. Poggio uses books as an escape to not think about greater events wreaking havoc around him, in his letters he would write, “sometimes I am free for reading” which is such a powerful impulse in my own life. Part of the disputed section is how the West turned to pursuit of pain over pleasure in the dark ages (e.g. rise of Christianity).
Need to get this as an imprint on any books I loan out, a curse laid onto a manuscript by a monastery in Barcelona:
For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Word that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.
Motto over Epicurus’ garden urging people to linger: “here our highest good is pleasure,” but to explain further, Epicurus explains “when we say that pleasure is the goal, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality… an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, sex, eating fish or other delicacies of a luxurious table” cannot lead to the peace of mind necessary for enduring pleasure.
* 1378 full-scale bloody revolt where gangs of artisans ran through the streets screaming, “Long live the people and the crafts” attempting to get a higher wage.
* Funny that the stereotypes were quite different centuries ago: Poggio’s “constrasting vision of anxious, work-obsessed, overly disciplined Italians and happy-go-lucky, carefree Germans” when he’s viewing the behavior at the baths at Baden.