Read The Handbook

There is a Latin term which explains to me why the Roman Empire was such a rip-roaring success for so long.

It is their term for an instruction book: a manual. A how-to, a step-by step explanation.

They call it a vade mecum: a “walk with me,”

Surely, that is what an ideal instruction manual should do. It should take your hand and walk you through a path to success.

The Egyptians had them. The ones we take notice of are those for how to tackle the afterlife: they are called books of the dead, or more accurately, books of coming forth into the light.

The manual contained important spells to be said at all those key post-death moments: when the body regains its powers of movement and speech; travelling across the sky as part of the sun arc; that tricky interview with Osiris; what you eat once you have become a God.

To the Egyptians this was as real as a Mrs Beeton cookery book.

The Greeks calles these walk-with-me’s the enchiridion. One of the most famous is written by the stoic, Epictetus, full of dour but incredibly down-to earth instructions on how to live life. While I cannot imagine Epictetus was much fun at parties he had some rather beautiful words for his walk-with-me:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions. ”

Ethereal instructions those: quite unlike the gritty, grounded walk-with-me which was written in 1787 for a governor who must surely have had to be a man of steel.

Because Naval commander Arthur Philip founded the first British colony of convicts in Australia.

The instructions are issued, although not written, by George III and his Privy Council.

The original instructions give Governor Philips  a commission, instructions about where he can site his new colony, how he should manage the convicts, how he should grant land to his compatriots and how he should ensure it was cultivated.

It includes strict instructions that the Aborigines’ lives and livelihoods should be respected; but absolutely no mention of any arrangements to protect their lands.

And while none of the Privy Council or his royal highness the King had ever set foot in Australia they instructed Governor Philip that this place was terra nullius: land belonging to no one. I’m not quite sure who they thought those people were, running around all over the place in New South Wales. A strange walk-with-me, written by people who never had, from the other side of the world.

It was a little earlier in our timeline that an unlikely instruction book is thought to have had a considerable effect on the moulding of one of our greatest English buildings.

It is surmised that it fell into the hands of Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York, Chief Minister and erstwhile favourite of Henry VIII, although there is no direct evidence that he was ever seen walking around, reading it and muttering under his breath.

The book was written by an arch administrator from the Vatican, Paolo Cortesi. Steeped in Italian court life- a hanger-on of the Medici in Florence at one point – he rose to become Apostolic Secretary to Pope Julius II.

At which point he wrote a walk-with-me for Cardinals. Cardinalism by numbers.

De Cardinalatu is a three-tome Mrs Beeton for the aspiring Cardinal. Ethicist et contemplativus deals with matters of the Cardinals powers and right to act. Politician, the third, deals with a Cardinal’s duties in society.

The second, Oeconomicus, is a down to earth manual concerning the domestic detail of being a Cardinal. It includes the Domo: instructions for how to run an efficient Cardinal’s household.

Domo covers everything a new Cardinal needs to know: how to live, how to orient one’s palace in respect to the sun  and the wind, and then the  really important stuff: a plan of a Cardinal’s house, advice on style, how to decorate the interior.

It was published in 1510, round about the time Cardinal Wolsey was casting his eye over the monastery compulsorily acquired from the brothers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

It was to become Hampton Court Palace.

Seven years it took Wolsey, and 200,000 gold coins, to transform this farmstead into the most lavish palace in England, a demonstration of the new classical style. A true demonstration of a Cardinal’s splendour.

But this Cardinal was not as well versed in securing annulments as he was in building Italian classical masterpieces. Sensing the King’s favour shifting he gifted the palace to Henry: he died two years later.

So much for following the instruction manual.

Picture source here


43 thoughts on “Read The Handbook

  1. if only there were manuals that really helped.

    Coming from so many years in the IT business I can only shake my head at some of the manuals produced by the industry. written by illiterates. written by those in the know to confuse those not in the know. those written in one language and literally translated into another that lacks the technical terms.

    i think i’llgo and read a recipe blog

  2. I have read the Book of the Dead. It seems that it is the only original source available to try to get an understanding of Egyptian religion. My purpose was to get some data to see if the Egyptian experience of Jesus(he lived there first 12 years of life) would have had any effect on His Judaism (as did Greek thinking on some elements of Judaic thinking) and His later teachings. It turned up as a dead end except for 3 possible influences. In Egyptian thinking 1. there is an afterlife. 2. we will be judged and are accountable for our actions 3. the travel to ascending levels of salvation was a matter of proving worthiness in the trek through the afterlife’s doorways and perhaps this is related to the Christian and Judaic idea that our travels in this life must be characterized by worthiness through charitable and moral living.

  3. Yep, instruction books are all well and good if you’re in the same circumstances. I chuckled out loud at the Egyptian’s Mrs Beeton cookery book. You have an excellent way with words. As for terra nullius, that attitude is so sad (and incomprehensible as you say) but explains so much. 🙂

  4. “Cardinal-ing for Dummies” 😛
    I like the ‘walk with me’ description – if only present day manuals were as useful as that. Lately it seems like they all have a very panic-ridden cartoon character with a giant wrench on each page, like even the manual is baffled about how that pile of slats and bolts will transform into a lovely desk.

    1. 😀 I know – it’s as if, if you draw a picture you are translating the whole thing into words of one syllable, Lexy! The human mind is not always the most focused organ, is it?

  5. Fascinating, Kate. Who knew there were instruction manuals so early in history? Further, who knew the extent of the glut of such manuals available today, via just a few simple keystrokes?

    For example, it has always been my assertion that raising babies is a learn-as-you-go process; that they do not come with an instruction manual. Interestingly, I found this morning that I have been incorrect in that belief; that there is indeed an instruction manual for the process! See: 🙂

    1. It’s the knowing the rules bit that’s hard in jazz: the harmonic shifts must be second nature, and the path you tread around them laced with style. Oh, for a manual to tell you how to do it to perfection.

      1. I submit there are no strident rules in Jazz. One mostly learns standard Western music theory, then sets about tearing it apart, as you say, with style and intent. And a certain level of willfully thumbing your nose. Yummy…

  6. I’d settle for a computer or IT manual written in the vade mecum style – or perhaps a vade mecum on how to become a cardinal so I too could live in one of those sumptuously outfitted palaces. 😀

  7. I’ve never been much for following (or reading) instructions. I’m glad Cardinal Wolsey wasn’t, either, at least in this respect. I’ve always wanted to visit Hampton Court. I hope some photos will be forthcoming from you latest excursion.

    1. Yes indeed…..some have found their way onto FB already. I’m sleeping on the post to see what my brain does with it overnight: but what an incredibly picturesque place, Andra. We missed you today but felt your presence, and as promised shouted your name to the grotesques and eaves-droppers 🙂 Hope you feel better soon.

  8. Perhaps Wolsey might have done better with one of those frustrating little illustrated walk-with-mes from IKEA?

    Complete with some kind of mute image for “Don’t trust this King. Just ask his wives.”

    1. What would that look like, I wonder, Cameron? 😀 The very thought of the IKEA manuals strikes fear into my very soul.

      I saw a picture you would love in the haunted gallery of Hampton Court today. Henry VIII’s idealised family: Edward and his mother Seymour standing large as life next to the monarch. Mary and Elizabeth kept at a distance. And no sign anywhere of his wife of the moment, Kathryn Parr. Although he had his fool – and his fool’s monkey – painted in.

      I’ll shove it on FB. There is a story there, I’ll wager.

  9. Seems many “walk with me”s of today, for Put-It-Together-Yourself items, have some translation issues. Their names might be “me walk you with” or “walk you and me” which is a little disconcerting until all is assembled and translation becomes retrospective.

    The office chair with each arm heading in opposite directions may support my case. 😀

  10. I like the phrase ‘walk-with-me’ Kate. I try to write walk-with-mes in work (I work with computer programs). I write them step-by-step, easy to follow, easy to understand – and I still have to verbally explain what I’ve done as no-one can be bothered reading everything I’ve written. Sigh! 🙂

  11. Loved this preamble to your amble:

    There is a Latin term which explains to me why the Roman Empire was such a rip-roaring success for so long. It is their term for an instruction book: a manual. A how-to, a step-by step explanation. They call it a vade mecum: a “walk with me,”

    Thanks, Kate! I’ll walk with you anytime!

  12. You covered so much rich history with this post, Kate. You’ve mentioned so many things that whet my appetite to know more! For years I have intended to do more reading and a little study of the indigenous people in Australia. I know just enough to know that I don’t know enough 🙂 And I have heard of “walkabouts” but never “walk with me.” I really do think this was a remarkable post! There are life lessons woven all the way through it! Debra

  13. Very interesting history here, Kate. The expression ‘RTFM’ (read the ……. manual) is the IT industry’s warcry – coined by geeks who think everyone else is an idiot and gleefully ignored by everyone else 🙂

  14. If only we had a Cortesi to write instruction manuals for IT, and for half the equipment one recieves. Even the instructions I got on a simple interdental brush replacement were utterly incomprehensible. I wonder if the writer understood them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s