Classics Prof Michael Allen Talks Virgil, Fashion, and the ‘Magic of Crackling Manuscripts’

A paleographer by trade, Allen’s work involves deciphering handwritten historical manuscripts.

By Alison Gill

UChicago classics professor Michael Allen seems to have a story about everything: the solar eclipse, Virgilian manuscripts, elm-wood ashes, clothing store TJ Maxx, Dutch libraries, and more.

“I usually talk too much,” Allen confessed early in the interview, but his fascinating, tangential thoughts have become part of his repute and appeal to many students in the College.

The self-described “bookworm” has his own long history with the College. His father graduated from UChicago, and Allen himself matriculated as a member of the Class of 1985 before transferring to Tufts University in Boston. He is “one of those infamous Xs,” he said in reference to the group that attended but never graduated from UChicago, including Saul Bellow, Roger Ebert, Mike Nichols, and Larry Ellison.

After spending time at Yale University and then receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, Allen returned to the place and people that he described multiple times as “magical” as a faculty member in 1996.

Allen is, by trade, a paleographer; his work involves deciphering mostly handwritten historical manuscripts. Educated by Benedictine monks in his youth, Allen always felt drawn to the study of the ancient and medieval periods, but it wasn’t until he felt “the magic of crackling manuscripts” in his hands at Yale that Allen turned his attention to paleography.

“There’s nothing like being in front of a manuscript [where] you know who wrote it, you recognize the hand, and you see the personality,” Allen remarked on the “sense of discovery.” It is for this reason that Allen eschews the use of a traditional academic textbook. Instead, he prefers to go straight to the source. He recalls a recent class he taught in which the students used a manuscript of Virgil from 860 B.C.E.

“It was remarkable to see how much [clarity], how much more knowledge the students were able to glean from this source, even though the only notes—the small ones written to the side—were in Latin. The students were challenged to wrestle with the text a little more on their own and, in the process, learned a lot more. They had to ask questions and to find answers for themselves,” Allen recalled.

In the “importance of figuring things out,” Allen insisted that there is no replacement for time: “I sometimes spend hours, days, even weeks over small patches of text. I have the good fortune to often be able to see things that other people say aren’t there and to understand things that other people say are incomprehensible…. It takes a lot of time to take a tiny bit or piece of that letter and then imagine how it can fit into a constellation of letters that create a word.”

Despite his preference for ancient and medieval texts, Allen embraces technology. “I love my phone,” he admitted before adding, “I usually use it for the dictionary though. The dictionary is great because it’s friendly and docile and never interrupts me.”

But he does see the larger benefits of increasing technological development. “The mark of an educated person is knowing where to look for the information you don’t know. The internet is great for that,” he said, but he also noted that easy access to answers should not act as a substitute for critical thinking.

Allen predicts that digitization will play a larger role in the study of paleography in the far future: “Many of the same fundamental questions will still exist, but instead of studying handwriting, it will probably be focused more on the abbreviations and language of the internet…. What is meant will matter as much as what is being said.”

Allen, whose current project focuses on a set of 40 letters from Lupus and his students, comes across in conversation as a passionate and ever-curious scholar. Despite decades of experience, he still derives inspiration from his work. Allen repeatedly mentioned the respect he has for “the privilege of working with the materials.”

His desire to learn and to work extends to all aspects of his life, including vacations. The well-traveled Allen said, “I go to a lot of places, but I go to the libraries there…. When I was in London, I went to the library, and I went one afternoon to the British Museum but that was when the library was closed…. My museum, my place of the muses, is the library.” He cited the Leiden University library in the Netherlands as one of the most memorable and efficient, before delving into his favorite library: the Joseph Regenstein library on campus.

“My favorite library in the world is the Regenstein…. It’s probably the reason I came to this university. I could have gone other places, but there is no library like this in North America, just the rows of books, the devoted personnel, the impressive building and impressive ranges of books,” explained Allen.

As an instructor, he aims to imbue his students with the same appetite for “always asking questions.” He wants his students to not only savor the results, but to enjoy the process of achieving them. “I try to teach discussion because we all need questions and we all need to listen more in everything we do,” he summarized.

In many ways, Allen is quintessentially UChicago. He is rather well known by his students for a unique sense of fashion, wearing on that particular day a bright floral shirt and maroon ascot. In his words, “the bright colors are cheerful. I’d rather be in a camouflage suit to hide in a botanical garden than in a camouflage kit to hide in a battle zone.”

The origin of his style stemmed from practical concerns, however, not aesthetic ones: “I once went with my children to TJ Maxx. There was a stack of bright red socks on sale, and I said, ‘Gee, maybe I should get those because we can keep them separate from the children’s.’”

But Allen has found that his fashion is often an invitation to start conversations with others. “The covering that one puts on—people react to the covering and they don’t necessarily react to the person. I learn a lot about them from that…. Countless people come up to me to make comments about my fashion, particularly these tiny red glasses I normally wear,” he said.

Allen, a self-proclaimed “melomaniac,” enjoys listening to classical music in his free time. “I carry music around in my head…but I only play an instrument in desire,” he said. He admitted, “What I work on right now gets really all-consuming. When I was in London, I forgot my coat. Can you imagine being in wintertime and forgetting your coat?”

Ultimately, for all the questions Allen asks and manuscripts he deciphers, his quest seemingly centers around attaining a greater understanding and experience with “this intense distillate of humanity.” He urged that the entire student body do the same: “It’s important that we remember this human thing that we are and how it can be understood better with works of literature and philosophy.”