A Wellcome blog: the sounds of science

As the winter solstice approaches, it is time to bring a bit of festive cheer by adding a few blogs to fire your spirits over the coming weeks. Janus-like, the blogs will offer an opportunity to revisit some of the talks and subjects discussed at the centre previously, while also highlighting new and exciting things to come.

This blog will discuss a recurring subject and theme of our various activities over many years: exploring the nature of spoken Latin and Greek verse. The society has been an important supporter of verse events stretching back to the mid-20th century with the annual schools verse competition. For the last ten years there have been various talks (by former Professor of Humanity at Glasgow Roger P H Green among others) in Glasgow on the vibrant early-modern tradition of public and educational Latin and Greek verse recitals – especially the Muses Welcome of 1618, and astronomy teaching at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. We have also had talks on the sounds of spoken verse in antiquity, in particular by Dr. Armand D’Angour, whose presentation of new evidence for the sound of Greek verse was without doubt one of the highlights of our recent programmes.

A recent event on Latin poetry and science at the Welcome library on November 22nd, at which members from the CAS and the Society for Neo-Latin Studies participated, brought together these two themes. There were a series of fascinating talks on literary and artistic spaces for science (Professor Claire Preston, Queen Mary, London), the verse promotion of contested scientific discoveries like Harvey and the circulation of the blood (Dr. Victoria Moul, KCL), and on the various uses of poetry as a formal educational tool, with particular emphasis on astronomy and mathematics. The Wellcome Collection then brought out some of their many treasures on these subjects to emphasise the quantity and quality of the literature.

Two rare editions of the poems of Serenus Sammonicus and Remmius Palaemon provided the classical foundation upon which the Wellcome Collection’s display (see above picture) of didactic poetry on science was arranged. These two poems, one on medicine generally, the other on weights and measures and their general scientific applications, highlighted how important the verse tradition had been for knowledge dissemination by educationalists in antiquity. While browsing the display of these rare texts, the public were then treated to a number of recitations of educational verse in the Latin language, with accompanying contextualisation by the specialists present on the subject of each poem  – moral and natural philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine.

The recitation of the poetry of 16th-century educationalist George Buchanan and late 16th-century doctor David Kinloch provided an opportunity for those present to hear how two excellent Latin poets shaped their verse to replicate specific ideas contained in their poetry (in Buchanan’s case, the rising of cosmic bodies articulated through verse manipulation). A wonderful discussion then followed with the collection’s staff, the public, and the guest speakers examining evidence of public lectures in verse in antiquity and early modernity, with many asking the extent to which these ‘songs’ contained a recognisable rhythm.

This question led to a general discussion on quantity and accent familiar to those who dabble in verse, during which talk turned to the work of Dr. D’Angour mentioned above, as evidence of new ways of approaching how verse sounded and was delivered. It was a happy coincidence that, thanks to a mesmerising taster video, which has just been released, and brings to life much of the research (see video below), it is possible to enhance our conception of the sound of hexameter poetry.

From a classical perspective, it is quite amazing to hear these sounds and marry them to the texts we have all read for so long in a particular way. It adds a dimension to the contours of the cultural landscape from whence the poetry came and also provides us with a greater appreciation of its function within it (not unlike seeing paint bring to life a bleached-white statue for the first time). As we heard at the Wellcome collection’s event, many of the paraphrase poems of George Buchanan were set to music. Indeed, they were set to music specifically for King James while he was still a boy. The process of setting them to music was an explicitly educational one, where the importance of memorisation was emphasised. This raises the question more generally: were the Latin didactic poems recited to King James also set to music? If so, how then should we understand the rhythmic nature of the elementary scientific verse taught by Buchanan and others in Scottish universities?

The fact that we know now that Latin and Greek poetry were used to teach science in the universities further highlights how erroneous our picture of dusty classrooms filled with the prose monotones of Aristotelian philosophy in the renaissance is. The quest now is to find out how much more colourful it may have been…

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