Saturday, April 20, 2013

De Diversis Artibus

I've recently read the famous work of Theophilus Presbyter, De Diversis Artibus. It's known mostly as a medieval how-to book. It's contents range from how to make paint to how to make an elaborate silver chalice to how to make glass, all with medieval technology. Sounds like something I would read, so I did. I had no idea how deeply moving and spiritual this text really is. I was surprised to find meaningful philosophy scattered amongst the instructional sections. And for all its merits, I think the greatest worth of this text can be found in its prefaces, especially in the very first:

"We read in the exordium of mundane creation that man, made after the image and likeness of God and animated by the inspiration of the Divine breath, was also, by the excellence of so much dignity, raised above other living creatures; as capable of reason, he merited to participate in the counsel and genius of Divine providence, and, gifted with free-will, he beheld superior to himself but the will of his Maker and the obligation to reverence his decree. Wherefore, miserably deceived by diabolical astuteness, he lost the privilege of immortality through the fault of disobedience, yet he transmitted his power of wisdom and intelligence to his posterity, that whoever would supply care and application might be able to acquire a capability of every art and science, as by an hereditary right.
In this manner, human industry, seizing upon this faculty and applying itself in its divers acts to gain and to pleasure, transmitted it, through the development of time, to the predestined epoch of the Christian religion, and it came to pass that a people devoted to God converted to his worship that which Divine ordinance had, to the praise and glory of His name, created. On this account, the pious devotion of the faithful may not neglect that which the careful prevision of our predecessors transmitted to our age; and may man embrace with all avidity that which God has conferred upon man, an an inheritance, and labour to acquire it.
Skillful in which let no one glorify himself inwardly, as if received from himself and not from elsewhere, but let him be thankful humbly in the Lord, from whom and through whom all things are received, and without whom, nothing; nor let him wrap his gifts in the folds of envy, nor hide them in the closet of an avaricious heart, but, all jealous feeling repelled, let him with cheerful mind answer with simplicity to those seeking him, and let him fear the judgement of the Gospel upon that merchant, who, failing to return to his lord a talent with accumulated interest, deprived of all reward, merited the censure from the mouth of his judge of 'wicked servant'."

That's an incredible way to start a book; I was really taken aback. In not so many words, Theophilus is saying that God gave man life, reason, and free will. Man applied those gifts, devising new arts for his benefit and pleasure and making them available to his descendants, provided that they put forth the effort to learn them. As such, craftsmanship is the inheritance of all mankind. To be a craftsman is to embrace that heritage, that gift from our ancestors, that ability given to man by God to make life on Earth more wholesome, and to preserve it. And since the larger part of a craftsman's knowledge is nothing but the summation of knowledge of those that came before him, and not his property alone, he should share his knowledge openly.

I had no idea that I would find such wisdom in this book; I really underestimated Theophilus. He had profound insights into what it means to be a craftsman and a thankful human being. There's much more to his work than these few passages, but these made a distinct impression on me and I wanted to share them. I encourage you to check out this book for yourself if you're at all interested.

I'm still very green to my craft, and I have a lot left to learn. But nearly everything I've learned so far about bladesmithing I picked up from the good people of Don Fogg's Bladesmith Forum ( Those smiths exemplify Theophilus' sharing principle, and if you would like to learn more about metalworking, leatherworking, woodworking, or a thousand other "divers arts", join the forum and ask around. It's a great community of extremely talented and good-hearted craftsmen, and I feel very lucky to be a part of it. I also encourage you to check out events like Arctic Fire ( I say that like there is more than one event like this one; there isn't, and if you ever hear of another one, let me know! This is a pretty unique showcase of some of the greatest craftsmen of our time, all sharing what they know and how they feel about doing what they do. It's awesome.

And, all else failing, the best way to learn an art is to "labour to acquire it", to learn by doing, which is exactly what I plan to make some time to do today.

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