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God’s Librarians – The New Yorker

11 months ago

350 words

The Vatican Library enters the twenty-first century.

One day early in the sixteen-twenties, in a quiet room near the heart of the Vatican Palace, an archivist working in the library of the Holy See stumbled upon a text that certain people had been trying to get their hands on for the better part of a thousand years. Painstakingly written in tightly curling Greek characters, the manuscript had been copied out sometime in the fourteenth century, but the work itself had been composed, apparently in secret, around 550 A.D. Until it was rediscovered that day, a handful of enigmatic references to it had tantalized scholars: an entry in a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia, for instance, tersely described the book’s shocking contents. But the text itself seemed to have disappeared.

The Greek title, “Anekdota,” means “unpublished writings,” but the work is generally known by its Latin title, “Historia Arcana”—“The Secret History.” The reason it had not been circulated during its author’s lifetime was immediately clear to the historians, churchmen, and statesmen who read it soon after it appeared in book form, in 1623. The author was the distinguished Byzantine historian Procopius, who in two published works admiringly chronicled the achievements of his emperor, Justinian, who went on to be celebrated as the last great Roman emperor and a model of European kingship. But “The Secret History” painted a devastating new portrait of Justinian and his inner circle as venal, corrupt, immoral, and un-Christian. The tidbits about Justinian’s wife, Theodora, were so shocking that Nicolò Alamanni, the librarian who found the manuscript, omitted them from the printed edition. (It is to “The Secret History” that we owe the Empress’s famous complaint that Nature had granted to womankind only three orifices by which to be satisfied.) So controversial that some readers decided it must be a hoax, “The Secret History” set off a bitter debate about just who Justinian was, and raised questions about the way history is written—about the relationship of power to truth—that have persisted to this day….

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