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  • Monday, November 7, 2022 - 5:15pm to 6:30pm

Class of 1978 Pavilion, sixth floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library

We will be welcoming Peter Stallybrass (Penn) for a talk entitled “The Erasable Ten Commandments: The Decalogue as Wax Tablets.” Peter writes:
The Ten Commandments are meant to be remembered — even if they need to be copied on stone a second time after Moses has smashed the first two tablets. Why, then, is the Decalogue usually depicted in the High Middle Ages not as written on stone but as inscribed on erasable wax tablets? Perhaps this has been so often overlooked because we tend to think of writing as typically black (or at least, dark) on a support that is white (or at least, whitish), whether that support be paper or parchment. But that is not how writing on wax occurred either in Classical Antiquity or in the Middle Ages. To the contrary, the wax was dyed black (or green, red or blue) and the writing, in the form of inscriptions in the wax with a stylus, appeared as white against a dark background. This is what we see again and again in medieval depictions of the Ten Commandments.

The main questions that I want to raise in my talk are when and why do “illustrations” not illustrate and, indeed, create counter-narratives to the text? And, more specifically, what is the role of erasure in the bible both visually and textually?

Peter Stallybrass was the founding director of the Workshop in the History of Material Texts at the University of Pennsylvania. He has a long-standing interest in the history of erasable writing and co-wrote with Roger Chartier, Frank Mowery and Heather Wolfe “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Erasable Writing in Renaissance England.” He is at present completing an essay with Joshua Calhoun on “Remembering to Forget.”