European studies blog

24 September 2014

Silence is golden

Silence is out of fashion nowadays.  A recent report  found that:

‘Most people would rather be doing something than sitting alone thinking, a new study finds, even if it involves self-administering a painful electric shock ... What is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.’

Early literature was all for silence. Religious writers recommended the potential contemplative who wished to get closer to God to cease inner monologue. M.J. Woods describes how in attempting to get into the mind of the sixteenth-century mystics such as St John of the Cross ‘I was aware of my liberation from another habit which had become so ingrained over the years that its presence had seemed an automatic fact of life, that of the inner monologue of verbal thoughts which had previously accompanied most of my waking moments’ (p. 43).

Moralists of a less religious hue, although they recognised that society would break down without speech, impressed upon their readers (often young and impressionable) that silence trumped speech any time. In the words of Cato: ‘nulli tacuisse nocet, nocet esse locutum’ [it never harms anyone to have been silent; it harms to have spoken].

‘Solon cum aliis loquentibus taceret interrogatus a Periandro utrum propter inopiam verborum an quod stultus esset taceret respondit: Nemo stultus tacere potest.’
[When he was silent while others talked, Solon was asked by Periander why he was silent: through a shortage of words or because he was stupid. He replied: ‘Nobody who is stupid can be silent.]

Martin of Braga, De Moribus (attributed to Seneca): ‘Qui nescit tacere nescit loqui’ [He who does not know how to be silent does not know how to speak].

In their study of mediaeval works on the sins of the tongue, Carla Casagrande and Silvana Vecchio list: blasphemia, murmur, mendacium-periurium-falsum testimonium, contentio, maledictum, contumelia-convicium, detractio, adulatio, iactantia-ironia [I’m not sure I like irony being a sin], derisio, turpiloquium-scurrilitas-stultiloquium, multiloquium, verbum otiosum-vaniloquium, and last and by all means least tacturnitas: one sin of silence against dozens of speech-sins.

A page of quotations on garrulityEntries for ‘Garrulitas’ (above) and ‘Silentium’ (below) from  Josephus Langius, Anthologia, sive florilegium rerum et materiarum selectarum … Editio postrema ... correctior ... auctior (Strassburg, 1631) 1075.h.10.

Two pages of quotations on silence

By way of visual illustration, we show pages devoted to ‘Garrulitas’ and to ‘Silentium’  from one of the many (and ever fatter) editions of the Polyanthea of Mirabelli issued between 1503 and 1681, a crib for many great authors such as the Swan (Shakespeare) and the Phoenix (Lope de Vega).

So remember that next time a librarian tells you to shush.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


M. J. Woods, In the mind of the Spanish mystics (London, 2000) YC.2000.a.12949

B. L. Ullmann, ‘Joseph Lang and his Anthologies’, in Middle Ages - Reformation - Volkskunde. Festschrift for J. G. Kunstmann (Chapel Hill, 1959),  pp. 186-200. Ac.2685.k/9.[no. 26]

Carla Casagrande and Silvana Vecchio, I peccati della lingua (Rome 1987). YA.1988.a.11900

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence : a Christian history (London, 2013) YC.2013.a.17221


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