Past Event

Mary Franklin Brown on Wax in the Lyrics of Baudri of Bourgueil

April 12, 2018
5:30 PM - 9:00 PM
Columbia University Faculty House

Mary Franklin Brown (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities) will discuss "Etched in Wax: Technics, Memory, and Wax Tablets in the Lyrics of Baudri of Bourgueil."


This talk is part of the Columbia University Seminar on Material Texts. If you would like to attend the seminar, please email the seminar rapporteur, Sierra Eckert ( to RSVP and to receive a copy of the paper.  Please note that University Seminars should not be broadcast beyond relevant local academic lists, but we welcome all researchers in the field to attend this talk, including graduate students and non-CU affiliates.

We will be having dinner afterward at Faculty House at 7:00pm. The University Seminars Office requires the rapporteur to collect the payment for dinner ($30 per a person; checks only).  If you would like to attend, please make sure to RSVP at least one week in advance to the seminar rapporteur ( Later RSVPs are possible, but we cannot always guarantee space. It is necessary to RSVP even if you are attending the talk only, since rooms are assigned based on the expected number of attendees.

“His heart was one of those which most enamour us,” wrote Lord Byron of the lady’s lover in his satirical poem Beppo, “Wax to receive and marble to retain.” The malleability of wax, its smoothness and subtle translucence, made it a favored poetic figure for human and artistic beauty but condemned it to impermanence. Stone was better for retention. And yet wax has also served to inscribe memory: the wax tablet, the wax seal, the wax phonograph cylinder. If, as Bernard Stiegler as argued, technics alone allow the human to take shape and inscribe our becoming in time, if the traces that technics create are our only real memory, how can we theorize wax as their material support, and particularly as the material support for writing? Does wax fit within Stiegler’s paradigm of the brothers Epimetheus (forgetfulness) and Prometheus (foresight), or does it offer a step beyond them to sketch a future oblivion? My paper will address these questions through a reading of medieval lyrics celebrating wax tablets and a broken stylus, poems penned by Baudri, abbot of Bourgueil in Anjou during the flowering of letters in the cathedral schools of the Loire Valley. Baudri was a prolific poet of funeral inscriptions for his friends and the great personages of his day. These epitaphs were probably never etched in stone; they constitute what his recent editor has called a “parchment tomb.” It was a singularly fragile one, since most of Baudri’s poems have survived in a single manuscript. I will therefore suggests that his lyrics on the wax tablets and stylus offer a foresightful reflection on the impermanence writing and a caution about human memory.