Essaying Essays (6th Week, MT)

It’s interesting that the etymology of the word essay goes back to the Latin word exigere, which means “to weigh, or put to the test”. While in Oxford the word does typically just refer to “a short piece of writing on a particular subject”, that older definition is actually feeling pretty accurate at the moment.

More or less at my instigation, my supervisor set me a 2000-word essay on the topic of “Counsel & Advice in the Specula Principum of 13th-Century France”.

Side Note: Specula principum (“mirrors for princes”) are a popular medieval genre of moral and political treatises which were designed to instruct a prince so that he could better establish just and wise rule in his kingdom. They tend to quote extensively, and often more-or-less haphazardly, from other sources, particularly Scripture but also older classical and Christian works.

Conveniently, there are indeed a number of prominent “mirrors for princes” originating from my research period of 13th-century France. My job for this essay, therefore, was just to look through a few of them and see what they said about the prince receiving counsel and advice from others (a key theme in my upcoming thesis research). It sounded easy enough.

Only most of the texts are in Latin. And they haven’t been translated–at least not into English. And much of the key secondary literature about them is in French or German. So what was supposed to be a nice easy way of whetting my historical teeth very quickly turned into me burying myself in the Bodleian, attempting to translate likely-looking Latin passages word-by-painstaking-word, assisted by a fuzzy understanding of the editor’s introduction in French.

The passages I attempted ranged from the impenetrable to the actually rather nice (I quite liked: Vinum novum amicus novus; veterescat, et cum suavitate bibes illud. “A new friend is like new wine; it will age, and you will drink it with pleasure.”) I did squeeze out some helpful nuggets about counsel and counsellors and have indeed managed to cobble together a kind of essay around them which I hope has not entirely butchered the texts’ original meaning.

So now I just need to present it to my supervisor. And that’s where that whole “putting to the test” definition starts to come in . . .


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