Sortes Virgilianae -- and the future of the book
Until last night, I had never experimented with the sortes Virgilianae. It's that do-it-yourself form of fortune-telling which involves opening a text of Virgil at random, plunging your finger in, and whatever phrase it lands on, that's your answer.
It's got a long and noble history going back to the Roman world itself (the emperor Hadrian is supposed to have done it, for example) and beyond. One of the most famous modern consulters was Charles I, who went to the Bodleian specially to consult a copy (didn't he actually have one in his palace, I can't help wondering) and got a predictably gloomy answer.
But it came in handy for ladies too. Mrs Thrale apparently resorted to Virgil when she was trying to decide whether to marry Mr Piozzi and decamp to Italy. Her finger came down on "O decus Italiae" (Aeneid 11, 508) ... "O jewel of Italy" -- and off she went! Mary Shelley was another keen consulter, but her copy seemed to have a nasty tendency to fall open at the Dido episode, which was hardly ever good news for poor Mary.
Anyway last night was my first go.
It was at a wonderful party to mark my publisher friend Peter Carson's move to a more "portfolio" type of career. And in the course of this he wanted to ask the oracle about "the future of the book". The actual consultation was to be my job and it was to be alcohol assisted (yes,I had been given a dispensation of the Lenten regime for the day).
And, just to make it a bit more 21st century, Peter wanted us to do this electronically. So no lifting the Oxford text off the shelf and sticking the finger in. This was (I think) the world's first consultation of the sortes Virgilianae using the SPQR app on the iPhone... and so complicated it proved to be that the don needed a distinguished assistant to pull it off (and just in case his train was late, she'd lined up a distinguished understudy for the assistant too). So the first victory for the book came with the obvious fact that the consultation would have been much simpler with old fashioned print and paper.
Anyway, after some deft manouevres to prevent the screen revealing the Cambridge weather forecast, we got our first answer. "Conticuere omnes"... "Everyone fell silent" ....or (to make that an appropriate answer to the question) "The presses have shut down".
Not exactly the oracular response I had been wanting. So using the old Roman custom of consulting the oracle again if you don't hear what you had hoped for the first time, we had another go. This time the answer was a bit longer:
Interea medium Aeneas iam classe tenebat
certus iter fluctusque atros Aquilone secabat
Aeneas is at this point dumping Dido, and he is holding steadfast to his mid-sea course, cutting through the black waves. This we quickly agreed meant that "the trusty book would continue to hold its place in the middle of the market, scattering the black Kindles to left and right" -- and, celebrating life in the old book yet, we got back to the party...with a vengeance.
(The vigilant among you will have spotted that the iPhone consultation had a decided propensity for picking out the very first lines of books of the Aeneid. Wonder why....)