Writing in Water, Writing in Wax
I. Writing in Water
In mari via tua et semitae tuae in aquis multis et vestigia tua non cognoscentur
Thy way is in the sea, and thy paths in the many waters: and thy footsteps shall not be known
(Psalm 76: 20)
 Speech is ephemeral but writing endures. This was a standard story in the early middle ages and had been since antiquity. But despite their frequent repetition of this story, Anglo-Saxon literati didn’t quite seem to believe it. They knew that books were subject to the vicissitudes of fortune: damage by fire and water, capture and destruction by Vikings, the hunger of the book moth and the errors of scribes. Writing, like all the material artifices of man, inevitably passes. The ultimately ephemeral nature of writing is a result of the transience of its material support in a substrate, a medium on which or in which writing emerges. Imagining a writing that is immune to the inevitable corruption of time has historically taken the form of imagining a substrate of special endurance. In some cases this is simply a matter of writing on the most durable substance currently imaginable. For example, the “rock” that Hrabanus Maurus imagined when he wrote that dei digitus sulcabat in apta rupe, suo legem cum dederat populo (the finger of god made furrows in the rock with letters when he gave the people law). In other cases, eternal writing is imagined by figurative means that evoke a mystical substrate that participates simultaneously within and beyond time.
 If vestigia are understood as St. Augustine understood them, as a kind of sign, a way of tracing material signals towards the transcendent realm of knowledge, then the path through the waters described by Vulgate Psalm 76 suggests a problem of great significance. Water is a substrate in which signs are necessarily momentary, and thus the vestigia Dei remain ungraspable. Writing raises questions of materiality and embodiment with far ranging implications: a fact recognized by Jacques Derrida, who writes both that the problem of writing is the origin of the problem of soul and body (Of Grammatology 35) and also that the “history of the road and the history of writing” should be written together (Derrida “Freud” 214; Of Grammatology 107-8).
 Despite the powerful impetus to think of the materialist dilemmas of writing as derived from the metaphysical problem of soul and body, the problem of writing – the presence of signs in the absence of their author, the transmission of apparently transcendent information in specific matter – nevertheless archetypally expresses the dualistic paradigm through which the soul and body appear irreconcilable. While the road, the “tracing of a path against resistances” (“Freud” 214) is similarly the foundational moment of inscription: the establishment of difference by cutting into a surface, and the emergence of social meaning in nature. These Derridean observations guide the investigation that follows. In combination, the concern for material manifestation of signs and the possibility of tracing a path in water suggest a potent symbolic history for the “writ in water” metaphor. More than either a figure of ephemerality or of futility, this metaphor is an ancient expression of our most enduring philosophical desire about media.
 That “information is disembodied” is one of the dominant metaphors of the posthuman world (Lenoir 203). This notion facilitates a faith in digital imagery to present its subject with a kind of mathematical perfection that, as Johanna Drucker notes, participates in a “long-standing Western philosophical quest for mathesis [mathematical representation] … in which there ceases to be any ambiguity between knowledge and its representation” (“Digital Ontologies” 141). Like the assumptions about disembodied information that govern the discourse about digital media, representations of writing in water (along with other medieval contemplations of writing in wax, earth, the ocean, and the firmament) wrestle with this crucial metaphysical problem of “whether an idea can exist outside of material form, and yet appear to human perception” (141).
 This essay examines the figures of transience that haunt the more familiar medieval idea of writing as the durable guardian of history or safe extension of memory. I trace the history of the metaphor of “writing in water” and juxtapose it with imaginative configurations of writing through metaphors that derive from the ancient practice of composing in wax tablets. The metaphor of writing in water is an archetypal metaphor, one that attempts to represent the theological paradox of mediation; sacred writing produces the absence of the truth whose presence it is designed to guarantee. Recent, more literal, attempts at writing in the medium of water tap into the ancient figure of ephemerality, symbolizing a reinvigorated fascination with mediation, scientific surety of mastery over the material world, if not over time itself.
I.1 The “Writ in Water” Metaphor
 Recently, writing in water has become a literal endeavor. In 2006, Shigeru Naito, a professor of marine engineering at Osaka University collaborated with researchers at Mitsui Engineering to complete a prototype machine called an AMOEBA, or, Advanced Multiple Organized Experimental Basin (“A New Wave”). In this prototype, fifty wave generators produce cylindrical waves that act like pixels to form letters on the surface of a small circular pool. To professor Naito, an expert in the sea keeping performance of ships and in the utilization of wave energy, the AMOEBA is no doubt a fascinating exercise in the materialization of Bessel functions. To Akishima Laboratories and their clients the main purpose of the machine seems to be to develop amusing installations for hotel lobbies (“A New Wave”). At first glance this machine appears to have solved an ancient riddle and, with a suggestion of technological triumphalism, negated the potency of a long-standing metaphor for ephemeral, if not impossible, writing.
 In the information technology community, writing in water is currently a widely used metaphor for the ephemerality of information. The metaphor crops up across the internet in papers on backing up data, creating transient cell-phone networks, and producing an information infrastructure that might avoid the many shortcomings of either the World Wide Web or various physical storage media like Digital Video Disks. Ecologically-minded humanistic projects deploy this metaphor too: a recent collection of essays creative non-fiction about the preservation of wetlands (by definition “ephemeral” natural phenomena) entitled Writing on Water puns by means of the multivalent preposition. This is a book about water as a natural resource and at the same time, its title suggests, about the scarcity of such resources.
 Perhaps the most certain evidence of this metaphor’s widespread presence in our culture is that the capital building of the state of Colorado is graced with a plaque bearing verses by Thomas Hornsby Ferril (1896-1988). The monumental epigram begins “[h]ere is a land where life is writ in water.” A romantic poem about the water-dependence of a beautiful, but also forbidding, western landscape, these lines to a degree eliminate the metaphorical force of the phrase. Life in this environment is literally dependent upon water, yet the civilization that rises around water resources is fragile, as the poem’s protagonists know as they follow a river through the land “[n]aming tonight a City by some river, / A different name from last night’s camping fire.” Though Ferril’s poem evokes the transience of human existence, it co-opts the metaphor of transience as it had previously been used and shifts it to a different philosophical realm. Rather than the impossible attempt to write lasting characters in water that fascinated premodern thinkers, it is in Ferril’s version the water that “writes” its way across the landscape, opening that landscape to human interpretation.
 In other words, the phrase “written in water” remains a popular one, a useful pun circulating in ecological and information technology discourses, characterizing contemporary civic vexation over water-management and the practical problems of data storage. Despite the perception of its aptness, however, contemporary uses of the phrase seems largely oblivious to the complexity of the metaphor. Ecological uses, attuned to the water, mean writing in only the least problematic sense. In the sphere of information storage, the phrases signals the transience or ephemerality of information, but without recognizing that writing in water represents the still deeper epistemological aporia described by Drucker: the attempt to conceive of information not manifest in matter, yet still perceivable by humans.
 The immediate source of this metaphor for the modern world is undoubtedly the self-penned epitaph of the Romantic poet John Keats: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” For Keats, the tenor of the metaphor was ephemerality. His fame, and his life, are as fleeting as the letters you might try to inscribe in malleable water to have them immediately erased again by the formless, unresisting surface returning to fill the trace of your finger. But Keats’ famous epitaph stands at the end of a long line of “writ in water” metaphors. Its most immediate precursor is Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster (1620), a successful Jacobean tragicomedy in which the titular disinherited king of Sicily accuses his usurper of tyranny: “As you are living, all your better deeds / Shall be in water writ, but this in Marble: / No Chronicle shall speak you, though your own, / But for the shame of men” (l. 81-4). Philaster places the ephemerality, or indeed the impossibility, of writing in water in direct opposition to the material of monumental writing. In this instance water is the medium of a legacy of an illegitimate regime, one that will be wiped away.
 This political use of the metaphor is not as common as its deployment to accuse women of inconstancy in love. In an elegy that seems to have been attributed to both John Donne (XVI “The Expostulation”) and Ben Johnson (“Elegy: To Make the Doubt Clear that no Woman’s True”), a contemplation of the fickleness of a woman’s love bears a close similarity to an epigram by Catullus (84-54 BCE) which claims that “what a woman says to her lover is fitting to write on the wind and on fast-flowing water” (sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti, in vento et rapida scribee oportet aqua, Green 180). Just as the metaphor appears to have been part of a common stock, quick to the minds and pens of poets in the early modern period, it was also a staple of the poetic repertoire in classical antiquity (See Lahr, Woodman, Doyle).
 Writing in water is a profound counter-example to a standard medieval characterization of writing as the safeguard that “saves memory from oblivion”. It points to the caveat that “writing” is only as durable as the medium that bears it. It’s political inflection aside, modern uses of the “writ in water” metaphor like Keats’ epitaph and Philaster evoke particularly the transience of fame. More ancient manifestations of the figure suggest deeper paradoxes.
 In the scholarship of writing, literacy, and media, the Phaedrus has long been recognized as an anchor for the western world’s ambivalent relationship to media as both substitute for authentic experience (including speech and presence) and as the externalization of memory. Although Derrida famously critiques Plato’s vocabulary, which designates writing a degraded and supplementary role, he says little about the guiding metaphor of water in this important scene. Socrates compares the knowledge of a philosopher with that of a husbandman, implicating his critique of writing in an extended metaphor of generation and growth that will also permeate medieval texts about writing. Like a good husbandman, who plants his seeds only in appropriate ground, he who knows what is “just, honorable, and good” will adhere to the discourse “of unquestioned legitimacy … written in the soul of the learner … the living speech of which the written discourse may fairly be called a kind of image.” Opposed to this kind of “writing” in the soul, Socrates suggests, it would never be that “with serious intent that he writes them [the just, honorable, and good] in water or that black fluid we call ink using his pen to sow words that can’t either speak in their own defense or present the truth adequately” (Phaedrus 275d – 276d, Hamilton and Cairns 522-4).
 For Plato to write with pen and ink is to write in water. All writing is ephemeral, this metaphor implies, though Plato goes on specifically to criticize the ambiguity of written language rather than its transience. Because they do not speak for themselves, or respond to inquiry as a teacher might, written words must be interpreted, inviting uncertainty. Writing, regardless of its material substrate, is a medium for thought in which the message deteriorates.
 The metaphor of writing in water as a figure for ephemerality has enjoyed a long after-life. Its nuances in the postmedieval world can teach us about one of the pre-occupations most intimately shared by medieval and postmodern thought: our reflection on “the functions and the limitations of the verbal sign as a mediator of human understanding” (Vance x). Its presence in Plato points to the great antiquity of this metaphor. Cratyllus’ use in verse in the first Century BC to describe the inconstancy of a woman’s love suggests that the metaphor had a certain colloquial currency. It shows up with a similar purpose in the philosophy of Porphyry, the Greek Philosopher and interpreter of Aristotle to the Middle Ages, who passed it to St. Augustine.
1.3 “Writ in Water” in the Middle Ages
 If there were a seminal expression of the “writ in water” metaphor for the Middle Ages, you’d expect to find it in St. Augustine. Augustine records in The City of God, that Porphyry deploys this metaphor in connection with a woman. This time not to represent her inconstancy in love, but rather to represent the impossibility of recalling to respectable paganism a wife fallen into Christianity. In Philosophy from Oracles, Porphyry puts this advice in the mouth of Apollo, who says that
 You will, perhaps be more able to write enduring letters on water, or open light wings and fly through the air like a bird, than bring your defiled and impious wife back to her senses. Let her continue as she likes, persevering in her vain delusions, singing lamentations for a god who died and deluded himself …
This example notably conflates strands of the metaphor: not simply a metaphor of transience in general, nor of a woman’s infidelity in human love, Porphyry’s use of the metaphor connects the figure of an impossible writing to the moral weakness ascribed to women by later medieval misogynists. Regrettably, Augustine fails to make the obvious defense of Christian women implied by Apollo’s pagan disgust: the impossibility of recalling them to paganism is simultaneously evidence of their exemplary Christian faith. Despite Augustine’s unparalleled influence, however, this late antique example marks the beginning of a dry spell for the “writ in water” metaphor.
 Medieval manifestations of the “writ in water” metaphor are rare, yet they do occur. Wycliff’s sermons (Oxford, Bodley 788) use the Cratyllian comparison, for example, claiming that “wymmen ben as freel as water” (MED “Water” 3.f) while his translation of Joshua 7:5 transmits a similar Biblical-scientific image of the people who, in their fear, “at the lickenesse of water is molten” (cor populi et instar aquae liquefactum est).
 Despite the scarcity of the direct image of writing in water, other uses of water imagery constitute a symbolic staging of the problem of writing, albeit in oblique or displaced forms. Water was a richly symbolic element for the Middle Ages; in its many forms and functions it signified an especially diverse group of spiritual and literary ideas (See Ribémont 95). As Wycliff’s sermon indicates, water remains proverbially representative of all that is mutable, yielding, or liable to become formless and slip away.
 The water of baptism and the torrents of the deluge represent both the physical and spiritual power of erasure – erasing sins one Christian at a time, or en masse. Ælfric of Eynsham’s homily for the Second Sunday after Epiphany explains that the water of baptism signifies the “inner meaning of holy writ” (getacnað ingehyd haligra gewrita). Yet the Biblical deluge looms in medieval literature as the cleansing flood that erases the accumulated errors of the antediluvian world. The waters of the flood, as “Cleanness” describes, “schall wasch alle þe worlde of werkez of fylþ” (l. 355). These two examples juxtapose the symbolic, spiritual resonances of water as that which contains divine mysteries on the one hand, and that which threatens, destroys, erases on the other.
 Throughout scripture the oceans are invoked as metaphors of vastness and inconceivability (Ecclesiasticus 1:2, 18:8; Job 11:9, 28:14; Psalms 68:3, 103:25); the ocean is a sublime peril (Lamentations 2:13; Isias 57:20) whose mysterious depths might yet hide secret wisdom or terrors like Leviathan (Ecclesiasticus 24:39; Job 28:11-15). These figurative connections between knowledge and terror all weigh on the ocean of Psalm 76, which figures the inscrutability of God as the inability to perceive his traces. A footprint in the ocean is no footprint at all. The physical properties of water ensure that anything temporarily displacing it is again replaced by water when the object is removed, leaving only the fluid, motile, and uninscribed surface. This is, in other words, a metaphor about writing. That God’s way is in the sea makes it at once profound, frightening, and hidden.
 In his essay demonstrating how the “scientific mythology” of water promulgated by the traditional encyclopedias permeated literature, Bernard Ribémont argues that, perhaps more than any other symbolic role, it is the capacity of water to create boundaries that stimulates medieval symbolic thought. The boundary of the ocean, where water meets the land, takes on a defining role as the “vecteur de l’enfermement” (95) is an especially potent symbolic frontier. This is a zone whose intermediary character, as Ribémont writes, authorizes the emergence of the sign (“Ce caractère intermédiaire, mixte, autorise l’émergence du signe, du symbole …” 8). In this capacity, as a progenitor of difference, water continues to participate in the staging of scenes of writing.
 No text demonstrates this more powerfully than St. Ambrose’s Hexameron. “Let there be a firmament made amidst the waters and let it divide the waters from the waters,” proclaims Genesis (1:6), and Ambrose examines in close philosophical detail these divisions of matter that gave birth to the world. An important source of natural philosophy in Anglo-Saxon England, Ambrose’s commentary on the Creation invokes mythico-scientific ideas about the qualities of water as a way to refute pagan interrogations of the Book of Genesis. Ambrose frequently invokes the physical properties of the elements in composing his arguments, even as he accuses sophistical interpretations of scripture as infelicitously applying laws of nature to the work of God (Moses, after all, “did not follow the calculations of the Egyptians and the conjunctions of the stars and the relations of the elements when he stretched out his hand to divide the Red Sea” 47).
 In Hexameron, water that is literally the sustainer of life is the enemy of meaning, precisely because it precludes difference or distinction: Before creation the earth was “unformed” and “inundated by a deep flood” (30). The process of creation in Genesis is itself represented as a series of distinctions – between land and water, light and darkness. The passages in which Ambrose explains Creation abound with descriptions of the obscuring qualities of water. Before creation is before distinction, when water is the key element, and its symbolic mode is the “abyss”. Ambrose, however, explains this by analogy to husbandry. The unformed nature of the world for him constitutes a kind of fruitlessness – a lack of growing plants, grass, or vineyards – through which God shows that the value of the world is in fact produced by cultivation (31). Ambrose concludes his commentary on the separation of land and water by considering the meaning of Genesis 1:2, where “the spirit of God” moved over the face of the waters.” He invokes the Syriac version of this text, which he claims is closer to the Hebrew in using the verb “brood” rather than move: thus the spirit moving on the water is an image of germination (33).
 According to Ambrose, the waters at the moment of creation are a primal and elemental abyss, but also a sodden ground, potentially cultivated, but inaccessible to the plough.
Observe that even now the earth has become unsightly with marshy mire and is not subject to the plough where water has everywhere covered the land…The very heavens, when seen covered with clouds, often inspire men with dread fear and with sadness of heart. The earth, when saturated with rain, arouses our aversion. Who is not moved to fright by the sight of stormy seas? (31)
Ambrose attempts, through these analogies to relatively mundane experiences of water, to convey the cosmological properties of the primal element. The final line also invites Ambrose’s reader to imagine the fear of the abyss that we will see again, below, in Anglo-Saxon poetry. But, he especially evokes the images of husbandry that were also present at Plato’s rejection of writing. Ploughing in this scene involves writing in the symbolic matter of water since, as we will see, “ploughing” was the writing metaphor par excellence in both in Latin grammar and in Anglo-Saxon literature. Ploughing expresses the “tracing of a path” that links roads and writing, through literal cultivation to abstract culture. The crucial symbolic question of creation at this moment of Hexameron is thus, as in Psalm 76, how to make a path in water. How to see in water both God’s primal medium, the dark “abyss” that can nevertheless form the medium of human culture.
 After dealing with the separation of the land and the water, Ambrose similarly explains the creation of light by an analogy to the physical properties of water as a medium of light (and thereby vision). “Why do we marvel,” he asks, “at the fact that God simply said ‘light’ and flashed forth brilliance on the darkling world, when we know that, if a person immersed in water should emit oil from his mouth, all that which is hidden in the deep is made clearer?” (39). Ambrose gives us a lesson in refraction: the changing angle of light as it passes from one medium to another, in this case from water to oil, becomes a metaphor for the perception of divine realities, of the knowledge that is “hidden in the deep.”
 Ambrose’s Hexameron is a learned text that represents itself as a rational rather than mystical interpretation of creation. Ambrose invokes Plato and Aristotle, discussing the nature of matter, and depicting the physical properties of water in order to explain the Biblical cosmogony. The waters of the primordial ocean in his account provide a complex and potent set of symbolic ideas about water as a medium: it is abyssal darkness and depth represent the unknowable, its calm surface a power of undifferentiated signification, a suppressor of distinction and meaning (it cannot be ploughed). Yet if the boundaries of water authorize the emergence of symbolism, as Ribémont suggests, the primal separation from land, sea, and firmament constitutes an archetypal act of differentiation. As a medium for the “seed” of the Holy spirit, the differentiation of water and land in Genesis is also the birth of tracing a difference. The waters of Genesis, at least in Ambrose’s treatment, provide a dense symbolic backdrop against which to read the vestigia Dei of psalm 76, and also other literary depictions of paths through the water.
I.2 Anglo-Saxon Paths through the Water
 Anglo-Saxon literature ubiquitously deploys compound metaphors that describe the ocean as a road. Such compounds as hron-rad, swan-rad, segl-rad, hwæl-weg, flod-weg, characterize the ocean by giving it direction: as a road it has a beginning and an end, a purpose and a possibility of destination, an extension in time, a narrative. If, as Derrida claims, the history of the road and the history of writing are the same, then these paths through the water represent another opportunity to consider the “emergence of the sign” in a transient substrate. Since the metaphor of life as a spiritual journey was similarly widespread in Anglo-Saxon literature, the ocean is almost always seen with this added spiritual significance that opposes is alternative use as a symbol of profound and awesome depth and chaos. The ocean is an intersecting and perhaps contradicting symbol of the terrifying mystery of knowledge beyond human ken, and the meaningful path that might be cut across it.
 The parting of the Red Sea is surely the most dramatic instance of “cutting a path” in Biblical narrative, and one captured in Old English poetry. The versification of Exodus in Bodleian Library MS. Junius 11 dwells in descriptive detail on the terrible danger of the ocean in contrast to the “seapath” (wægfaru) that God, by means of Moses’ hand, cuts through this hostile medium.
 In this poem the ocean portends terrible doom for the Egyptian. The “deep menaced them with death… the sea spewed gore …” and “the terrible tumbling of waves brought darkness upon them” (l. 447, Trans. Bradley 62). In the present context, as we consider the ephemerality of information, legibility, erasure, and oblivion, the crashing of the waves over a path previously trodden by the fleeing Israelists takes on particular significance. Lines 458b-59a note that the ocean now raged, “where paths had previously lain” (þær ær wegas lagon, mere modgode) before the poem moves on to describe further the violence of the sea. The ocean takes on qualities at once natural and metaphysical in lines 474-476a, where it comes “from deviant ways seeking its wonted state, its eternal foundations … a hostile vagrant thing” (æflastum gewuna, ece staðulas … neosan come, fah feðegast). The first part of this description evokes an understanding of water in natural philosophy – or Ribémont’s “mythologie scientifique” – its movement to seek an “accustomed state” (gewuna), while the latter anthropomorphizes it as a fah feþegast, a bloody foe.
 Although the ocean, at God’s command, is animated with a divine wrath especially directed at the Egyptian host, yet this poem’s description suggests waters invested with the experience and the symbolism of Anglo-Saxon culture: the icy, ever-present danger of the Northern seas that formed the plain of exile for many other heroes. Before god’s intervention the Red Sea had similarly terrorized the Israelites. The sea had “threatened the journey of the seafarers with bloody-terror” (blodegesan hweop, sæmanna sið) before Moses’ hand cleared away its anger (l. 480). Yet, to these travelers this same ocean formed the medium of a “wondrous passage through the waves” (wrætlicu wægfaru, oð wolcna hrof c. l. 298).
 If these two ideas of the ocean, as a wondrous highway and a vast, inscrutable, and endlessly threatening mass are opposed, yet a third idea about water suggests its attraction of writing metaphors. For water (aqua), according to Isidore is so named for its even surface (aequor). He elaborates, pointing out that “although the surging waters may swell up like mountains, when the storms have quieted the sea-surface returns to flatness. The depth of the sea varies, but the appearance of its surface is unvarying” (Barney et al. 277).
 The “accustomed state” of water suggests an enticing medium for the writing mind – a smooth and unvarying surface. Yet the very properties that make water enticing also doom it forever to remain a medium of fantasy, for these properties simultaneously entail that water is incapable of retaining a trace, as history’s many “writ in water” metaphors attest. If these metaphors have appealed throughout the intellectual history of the West, as attempts to conceptualize not merely an ephemeral but an impossible signification – “ideas that exist outside of material form, and yet appear to human perception” – they also demonstrate something equally obvious though less frequently considered: that ancient minds actually thought about writing in water. As a medium, water is an exemplary failure in offering writing the quality of timelessness perceived in the middle ages almost to define it. Yet the smoothness and receptivity of its surface, the ease with which one might only temporarily inscribe it, suggested an unparalleled substrate. Perhaps, as the biblical metaphor of psalm 76 suggests, even mystically so.
II. Writing in Wax
 “Writing on wax tablets,” Roger Chartier observes, “was necessarily ephemeral” (4). In Biblical uses, wax is almost exclusively an image of mutability and instability, just as water is. So much so, in fact, that wax and water frequently occur to this purpose together. For example, where “[t]he mountains shall be moved from the foundations with the waters: the rocks shall melt as wax before thy face” (montes a fundamentis movebuntur cum aquis petrae sicut cera liquescent ante faciem tuam, Judith 16:18; cf. Psalm 21:15, Micah 1:4). If writing in water is a venerable metaphor for ephemerality and impossibility, writing in wax is an equally venerable practice that gave rise to its own cadre of metaphorical observations, lending characteristics to writing, communication, and memory, in the perception of early writers. Conversely, metaphors based in technologies of writing can take over the perception of other processes. Rouse and Rouse provide a pointed example of how the material culture of writing in late antiquity profoundly affected passages of the Vulgate. Where Second Kings 21:13 has God warning he will “wipe Jerusalem as a man wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down”, Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew also converts the metaphor to make writing its vehicle: “I shall erase Jerusalem just as tablets are erased, and I shall turn it as I erase, and shall rub the stylus across its face repeatedly” (“The Vocabulary” 230). While water was a mysterious, or paradoxical, medium – an excellent vehicle for metaphysical metaphors about knowledge and inscription – wax was a far more real substrate that nevertheless lent qualities to the medieval perception of the materiality of writing, and by extension to more abstract processes of inscription and erasure.
 Mary Caruthers describes how the wax tablet as a metaphor for memory, and the impression of a seal in wax as a model sign, fostered a perception of interiority as a kind of writing, or written-ness. Medieval writers on memory, furthermore, did not strictly distinguish between “writing on the memory and writing on some other surface” (30). She concludes that “[w]riting itself … is understood to be critical for knowing, but not its support (whether internal or external) or the implements with which it is performed” (30). The lack of distinction between internal and external writing, that is writing in the metaphorical wax of memory and writing in other literal substrates, obscures or completely voids the figurative relationship between the two. This is a telling conflation, but indifference to the substrate of writing does not necessarily signal its dismissal as non-crucial.
 Recognizing the medieval absorption of both mental “writing” and literal writing into the same symbolic activity is an important move in understanding medieval textuality. But at the same time we can observe how profoundly concepts of writing are produced by the materiality of the tools, the substrate, and the physical context. In fact, we ought to question the very idea that there is a “writing itself” independent of its material support. Such an idea might turn out to be simply another expression of the notion that information is disembodied. The shape of a pen, or the resistance of wax, that dictate the ductus of a stroke or the shape of a letter also give rise to the prevailing metaphors and concepts of writing in medieval thought. The classic metaphor of ploughing, for example, reported by Isidore of Seville, though still figuratively sensible in terms of ink on paper, forms a more overt analogy when the writing is scraped in wax by a stylus that furrows the substrate just as an actual plough furrows the earth (Rouse and Rouse “Wax Tablets” 185).
 This metaphor emphasized the corollary nature of inscription and erasure: because of the mutability of wax writing and erasure are not merely possibilities or opposites but part of the same activity. “A writing stylus performs no lesser function when it erases,” writes Quintillian (Rouse and Rouse, “Wax Tablets” 179). Wax was a substance then in which inscription and erasure were mutually implied activities. This is suggested by the fanciful etymological definition of “letters” put forward by Isidore of Seville. Among other potential origins, Isidore reports, the word “letter” may derive from the word litura, “to smear”. This etymology implies that writing does not exist independent of its substrate, but takes its very existence and identity from the matter and the manner of tracing lines in wax.
 As a pliable and receptive substrate that one wrote in rather than on, wax suggested analogies for writing that evoke antique medical theories of the womb as fertile but inert ground, the “matrix” into which the active principle of masculinity is injected. In his Oneirocritica, an influential Greek work of dream interpretation from the second century A.D., Artemidorus Daldianus claims that in dreams “… a writing tablet signifies a woman, since it receives imprints of all kinds of letters. And in colloquial speech we also call children ‘imprints’.” (II.45, Trans. White 125).
 The plowing metaphor was frequently imbricated with extended imagery of fertility, birth, generation, and death. This is the case in Aldhelm’s “Writing Tablet” Enigma (XXXII):
Melligeris apibus mea prima processit origo,
Sed pars exterior crescebat cetera silvis;
Calciamenta mihi tradebant tergora dura.
Nunc ferri stimulus faciem proscindit amoenam
Flexibus et sulcos obliquat adinstar aratri,
Sed semen segiti de caelo ducitur almum,
Quod largos generat millena fruge maniplos.
Heu! tam sancta seges dirts extinguitur armis.
My Origin was from (the wax of) honey-bees, but my other outer part grew in the woods. Stiff leather provided me with my shoes. Now the iron point cuts into my comely face with its wandering movements, and carves furrows in the manner of a plough; but the holy seed for the crop is brought from heaven, and it produces abundant sheaves from its thousand-fold harvest. Alas, this holy harvest is destroyed by fierce weapons!
(Trans. Lapidge 76)
This extended figurative association of writing with ploughing, sowing, inseminating, and growing, has underpinned this scene of writing since the earliest texts: in Plato’s Phaedrus, thoughts are likened to children that must be nurtured, and writing also seen as “sowing seeds”; in St. Ambrose’s Hexameron plants grow as the water divides from the land, and the Spirit of God “moving” on “held the seeds of new birth which were to germinate” (32).
 Next to the ubiquitous metaphor of plowing, notable wax metaphors were those associated with erasure. In a practical sense, the wood bindings of wax tablets seems to have protect them from accidental blurring, but the final line of Aldhelm’s enigma implies an violent fate for such writings. The enigma might be taken to mean that all knowledge is threatened by the chaos of war, like the many books destroyed in Viking raids at monasteries like Lindisfarne. The “holy crop” of Christian knowledge is mowed down like a literal crop of wheat, extending the metaphor of plowing and harvesting. Yet the line also alludes to the inversion of the stylus in erasure, viewed so positively by Quintillian, but which here becomes an act of violence.
 The implications of violence in writing are a constant theme in Anglo-Saxon riddles and their Latin counterparts. The Exeter Book Riddle 26 (“Bible” or “Book”), for example, alludes immediately to the origin of parchment in the hide of animal when the book reports that “an enemy robbed me of life” (Mec feonda sum feore besnyþede, Krapp and Dobbie 193). Similarly, Anglo-Saxon portraits of writers (usually the evangelists) invariably depict the writer holding both a pen and a knife with which to scrape the vellum smooth or erase errors. The analogy between pens and swords is manifest in Old English language about writing such as writseax and writiren, compound metaphors for “pen” that employ the word for a sword, and a metonym for sword respectively. Another of Aldhelm’s Anglo-Latin enigmata on a writing theme, namely “Elementum” or the letters of the alphabet, also evokes the origin and end of letters which “are born from iron, and by iron return to death” (Nascimur ex ferro rursus ferro moribundae, Lapidge 76). It may be then, that the “fierce weapons” that destroy writing in the wax tablet are no more than the same “iron point” that, as a plough, gave them birth in the first place.
 Such depictions of writing as the plowing up or tracing a path through wax are especially sensitive to the simultaneous function of the stylus as the tool of both inscription and erasure. The careful rhetorical balance of Aldhelm’s “Elementum” riddle suggests a certain philosophical pleasure in the full-circle of life and death playing out in the same symbolic sphere: the plough and the sword are both metonymically implied by iron, while the mutability and “fertility” of the substrate and its simultaneous susceptibility to erasure are reminiscent of the symbolic expectations about water suggested by “writ in water” metaphors.
 Writing in wax facilitates a conceptualization of oblivion as erasure, wiping out, obliteration. The word “obliterate” was borrowed into English in the Early Modern period, its first uses appearing in the late sixteenth century. Meanings specifically related to the blotting out, or wiping away are contemporary with those earliest uses meaning more generally to destroy, and the extreme sense of complete destruction, eradication, or destruction appear only at the close of the Eighteenth Century. But the Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate’s oblitus is “utterly perish” (Deuteronomy 8:19). Oblitus is a part of the verb obliviscor, to become dark, to forget. Different from oblitterare, to blot out, strike, or erase which took the transferred meaning, “to cause to be forgotten, consign to oblivion” (Lewis-Short). While Jerome’s oblique uses of oblitterare in the Vulgate tend always to be some part of the verb “to forget” as sins, for example, are forgotten. The prepositional ob- in Latin meaning “over” but also “completely” and the rest of the word formed from littera, that is, letter. For something to be wiped from the memory, from recorded history, was for it to be overwritten, or even unwritten: gone without a trace.
 The prevalence of the “writ in water” metaphor in contemporary discourses about information, and especially transient information, raises interesting questions about the nature and perception of media in the history of this metaphor. Katherine Hayles argues that in a media age dominated by new discourses like information theory and informatics, the “compounding of signal with materiality suggests that new technologies will instantiate new models of signification” (29) – a claim that seems to be symbolized by the revolutionary (entertaining but oddly useless) AMOEBA: a machine that by using wave-generating technology permits very literal writing in water, and thereby seems to challenge the ancient paradigm according to which “writing in water” is the metaphor not only of transience, but of the tantalizing (im)possibility of a sign that can “exist outside of material form, and yet appear to human perception.” In this new age, Hayles continues, “[a]s writing yields to flickering signifiers underwritten by binary digits, the narrator becomes not so such [sic] a scribe as a cyborg authorized to access the relevant codes” (43). Antique and Early Medieval texts that attempt to conceive of water as a medium in which paths can be traced, wrestle with the desire to see signs of divine reality manifest in a material world which, by its nature, could not express that reality. The propensity of such texts to represent, or to bridge, the impossible divide between material substrate and transcendent sign often resulted in mystical explanations like St. Augustine’s, whose analogies about the impression of a seal in wax or the vestigia of God that can yet be seen in the world, are now well known. They also resulted in scientific explanations like those of St. Ambrose, for whom the scientific discourses about water, and matter generally, only lend credence to the narrative in Genesis of the splitting of land from water, and even of water from water. The parallels between the mystical and metaphysical substrate of water, and the mundane substrate of wax as it gave birth to metaphors about writing and erasure, underpin the ancient observation that the scriptability of a substrate went hand in hand with its impermanence. Like birth and death, inscription and erasure are part of the same thing. In this symbolic universe, in which the entirety of nature was one great hieroglyph through which knowledge must be perceived in a reality simultaneously “beneath” and coterminous with its substrate, it seems worth considering that the scribe was already “a cyborg authorized to access the relevant codes.”
Georgia State University
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