In explaining how European civilization started to push away from Christian religiosity of the Middle Ages into a worldview we recognize as our secular own, Greenblatt traces book hunter Poggio Bracciolini, in 1417, on his quest through Medieval monasteries to search for ancient manuscripts. On this quest he unearths Lucretius’s “De rerum natura” (On the Nature of Things.) This book-length Latin poem, written in the 1st century B.C.E., is described as remarkably beautiful and gripping, while being a great example of Epicurean philosophy (available from gutenberg.org.) It is the story of how this particular manuscript was found, copied and passed along that Greenblatt believes led the way out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance and then into modern philosophy.
In essence, this book is an ode to the power and tenacity of manuscripts and the celebration of the scribal skills of men such as Poggio and Niccolo. There is also an amazing insight into medieval religious fervor and the medieval monks who toiled in monastic scriptoria and discreetly inserted grumbles – “Thin ink, bad parchment, difficult text” -onto the pages they produced.