In Medieval Europe, prior to the introduction of paper*, the preparation of writing surfaces was a difficult business. Parchment and vellum, two of the most common and most expensive writing surfaces in use at the time, were actually the stretched, cured, and cut skins of sheep or goats. The result was that scholars and monks were chronically short of these essential materials.

The solution was to scrape the ink off of existing manuscripts, creating what are now known as "palimpsests." The manuscripts chosen for scraping were usually the ones considered to have the least value, and in the monasteries of Medieval Europe this all too often meant the secular works of ancient or antique Greek and Roman authors.Thus, a monk in need of paper for his florilegium (a kind of journal about the religious materials he was reading) might grab the monastery's copy of, say, Sophocles' plays and scrape away. It is difficult to know how many manuscripts were lost to history in this way, but the answer is probably larger than we'd like.

Often, traces of ink would remain on the scraped parchment, and thus it would be recognizable as a palimpsest. But this was rarely enough for document scholars to make headway with. The advent of x-ray technology, however, was a massive boon to such scholars: until then, they had to rummage through musty libraries in order to hope of finding a new and undiscovered manuscript; now, they could just x-ray palimpsests and see what was there. It's rare that technology can truly bring lost knowledge back from the dead, but in these cases that's often what happened. (Early chemical processes were used to help restore scraped texts but the x-ray method has proved much more profitable).

*This came about as a result of the Christian reconquest (known as the "Reconquista") of Muslim Spain, which is bracketed roughly by the capture of Toledo in 1085 and the explusion of the Moors from Granada in 1492. The Muslims, of course, learned the art of papermaking from the Chinese some time earlier.

My original writeup under palimpset (not hardlinked, because it's not spelt like that) was :
A text that has been written over another, whether on paper, stone or whatever (wax?). Like when you write down messages on a phone pad and it comes through to the next sheet. Essentially the hard disk is such a record of past messages and documents.
However, although the comparison with a hard disk interested wharfinger, I don't know very much about hard-disks. I had heard that 'deleting' a file merely means removing the pointer (or whatever) to the start of the file. The information is still there, it's just inaccessible. As time goes on, other files are written on top (as it were) - overlapping and within the old file. If you were to print out the entire hard-disk, bit by bit, you would find relics of past letters, fragments of code and so on.

The best analogy is the connection of the genome with the hard-disk through the vellum of Rook's write-up, above. In this analogy, files are genes and pointers are promoters. The promoter is the region upstream of the gene that controls its expression, just as the pointer is the control over retrieval of the file. If the promoter is lost through mutation, the gene is 'deleted' and is no longer made into protein. However, it is possible for promoters to be created through mutation (I assume) - and old, forgotten, genes can be brought 'back into service' by the ever resourceful cell.

In the terms of this analogy, hard disk recovery and genome sequencing are equivalent tasks! Both read the palimsest laid down by a historical process of creation and deletion of references to the start of sequences.

Furthermore, Jongleur says:
What you have said about hard drives is quite true as far as it goes. On many systems, that is exactly what happens. On Windows systems it is (or used to be) even sillier. The first character of the filename was changed to something unprintable, and the space was marked as free. DOS and Windows were then programmed not to show the existence of any filenames starting with that character. Silly but true, and perhaps even more of a palimpsest.

Right now I'm looking at a book: "Tremor: Selected Poems" by Adam Zagajewski. It contains short poems with titles like "Victory", "Betrayal", and "It Comes to a Standstill". But the poems are not what interests me. If I look at the cover at just the right angle to the light, I can see that someone had used this book as a surface on which to write a note, leaving the images of the letters impressed into the paper cover. Remember when Lebowski rubs a pencil over a notepad in the pornographer's apartment and comes up with cock? I can almost make out the complete message:


I puzzled over the last word on the fourth line for a while, thinking it would tie the whole message together. As best as I can make out, it looks like it might be "WAMAN" or "WYNAN". It actually looks like that word might have been scratched out.

But after a certain amount of observation and deduction, I've come to the conclusion that that word doesn't say anything and was never intended to. The clue is the spacing of each line: except for the fourth, all the lines are spaced consistently. The fourth line, however, looks like it has been written in between the ones above and below, suggesting it was written after the rest of the message, but was jammed in for some reason. That line is even written differently from the rest: the impression is not as deep. So, this is how I see the note in its original form, the first draft, as it were:


I envision Jen as a young woman, lying in bed, frustrated by insomnia. It's late at night and Jeremy is asleep beside her. Jen loves Jeremy, but mostly out of habit, and she knows that if he stays in her life much longer part of her will die. Perhaps she has met someone else, perhaps he has started drinking; something irreparable has come between them. In the weak light she grabs a piece of paper and a pen, and writes a note on the first book that comes to hand. She is rigid with emotion and fear, and her pen pushes deep into the paper. She wants him to leave, and the note she writes is plain and to the point, but betrays none of the anxiety she feels. In fact, the note is very like the countless other domestic messages she has left him and received from him in turn. This one, however, could end the years of pleasant romance she and Jeremy have spent together.

Moments later she recants. She is not prepared to break up with him this way. She does not rip up the note, worrying that he will wake. She can't throw it out the way it is in case he sees it. So she alters the note. But how? Calmer, she adds a line, turning the destructive into the domestic. It is now a simple request that Jeremy will see before he leaves for work. She scratches out a word and throws the note away, confident that even if Jeremy sees it, its original message would be disguised. She returns the books to the bedside table, shifts further under the covers, and tries again to sleep.

The thinner I am scraped
the more the light shines out
rain-translucent, thin as air
soap-bubble fragile with layers yet.

Hold me to the candle:
read the words left after the blade.
"sinner, survivor, scribe and stirrer,
of pots unstable and certain saviors."

The original is long gone
crossed with maps, time, shooting stars.
Look close: streets, bylines, doggerel verse,
the blessing at dawn and the prodigal curse.



Here you are

writing words on my shoulders,

on the back of my cereal box

in the margins of my books


I pretended not to be curious about

what you would write next, and  

where you would write it 


until one morning, when you asked me to

write a word

for you


with dark ink 

in the palm of your right hand, 

I wrote four letters


you squeezed them tight:

your fingers, your eyes 

Pal"imp*sest (?), n. [L. palimpsestus, Gr. scratched or scraped again, a palimpsest; again + to rub, rub away: cf. F. palimpseste.]

A parchment which has been written upon twice, the first writing having been erased to make place for the second.



© Webster 1913.

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