Entrepreneurs, Monks and Magic

One of my favourite authors is the Cuban-Italian Italo Calvino. His ‘If On a Winter’s Night A Traveller’ is now counted as one of the first multimedia novels, in that instead of the usual straight line narrative, it is capable of being read in several different ways, and on several different levels.

He was also Italy’s equivalent of the brothers Grimm, and his collection of Italian folk tales is both extensive and wonderful. (watch John Turturro reading one aloud here. http://www.openculture.com/2011/10/john_turturro_reads_italo_calvinos_animated_fairy_tale.html

Another one of them is an alternative reading of the Rapunzel story, in which the girl in the tower’s lover turns into a bird and flies through the tower window when the pages of a book are turned, and resorts to his normal form when they are turned the other way.  This is a genuinely original story, and feels like a direct link to an age when books were both rare and full of words quaking with magical powers.

Folk tales are always derived from truth on some level, and the design of many of the illuminated manuscripts, which were produced in European monasteries from when papyrus scrolls were replaced by bound volumes of animal hide until made redundant  by the printing press. Books such as the Lindisfarne Gospel and the Book of Kells show an incredibly high standard of illustration, text and layout, which were no longer separate elements but interweaving and merging with each other, to the point of near incomprensibility. This may be the origin of the notion of the magic of the written word in this story.

Illuminated manuscripts produced for different purposes across the mediaeval period, but they fall into 2 main groups: those that were made by the monks for their own use, ie reading aloud and prayer, and those that were produced by lay craftsmen. What is really interesting is the first group were responsible for the really beautiful, detailed and original designs, which were expecially found in Britain.

It is not just that the monks had more time on their hands to produce these gorgeous works of art – I cannot imagine anyone putting deadlines on them – the books must have taken as long as they took to finish. But it also shows the basic principles of entrepreneurship which gained these islands the label of a nation of shopkeepers. The hallmark of entrepreneurs from Richard Branson to scores of small businesses  is that they produce what they need and cannot find in the market, ie they are producing goods for their own consumption, so have a passion and interest in it that could not be found if they were working for someone else.


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