Apr 17, 2015

Writing as encoding

Unicorn seal from Harappa, c. 2200 BC. Image: Harappa.com.

This project explores the history of medieval information technology by modelling writing as code. But what, exactly, does writing encode? Answers to this question are complex, significant, and richly productive.
what does writing encode?

The easy answer is that writing encodes information. The earliest forms of writing seem to have been used for accounting. However, there is some debate among historians of writing over whether visual semiotic systems that encode non-linguistic information should be considered ‘writing’. This is perhaps a semantic quibble, but it underlines a very important historical development: at some point, every writing system commonly used today was adapted for linguistic information. Since the most commonly and frequently used method that humans use to create, store, transmit, and process information is verbal – that is, humanly usable information is mostly linguistic – this tight linkage of writing and language became overwhelmingly powerful. It is easy to think of writing only as a representation of language, and of spoken language in particular.

Apr 6, 2015

The marvels of Hesdin

Now that April 1 is well past, it’s probably safe to try this little diversion about something weird and wacky from the Middle Ages: the entertainment mechanisms of Hesdin Castle.

Image: Rob Zeldenrust.
[Image, left: detail of Wedding Party at the Park of Hesdin, 16th-century copy of a lost original possibly by Jan van Eyck.]

Hesdin was built by Count Robert II of Artois (1250-1302). It was, sadly, demolished in the 16th century. Our fullest account of the contraptions installed in the castle and its park comes from the accounts of the dukes of Burgundy, who spent a greal deal of money on the renovation and upkeep of Hesdin. In particular, an entry from the accounts of 1432 describes in detail the mechanisms on which Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy spent 1,000 livres to renovate or install, paid out to valet-de-chambre and painter Colard le Voleur: