The rise of vernacular literacy in a comparative perspective
Origin Stories – The rise of vernacular literacy in a comparative perspective
From the fifth to the sixteenth centuries what we now know today as the ‘vernacular languages’ developed across Europe. The process of the integration of the linguae vernaculae vel barbaricae in the sphere of literacy and learning, which was in the Judeo-Christian area the preserve of the three liturgical (“sacred”) languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin), and also to some extent of Old Church Slavonic, may be shown to have varied in many different ways, depending on social contexts, cultural frames and influences.
The conference will consider the issue of vernacular literacy in the Middle Ages from a comparative perspective. It will take into account the whole corpus of vernacular languages, which in the Middle Ages from the northwest to the southeast of Europe made the transition to literacy, until then the preserve of the scholarly and liturgical idioms. The goal is to create a consistent link between textual traditions (transmissions) and their (historical and literary) analysis. In this form, that has previously not been attempted, and could also help to sharpen our view of the scholarly preconceptions of national philologies.
The aim of the conference is to stimulate a broad discussion about the history of the beginnings of vernacular literacy in a European context, departing from the perspective of the history of transmission. The role of transmission is currently highly valued in the philological and historical disciplines – even if differently stressed in different contexts. How were texts put in to writing and successively re-written? Can we discern any patterns and rules of this practice of “Verschriftlichung”? Here we see the opportunity to work together on central cultural and scholarly issues at the intersection of history, media history, philology and literary sciences.
In this context the national scholarly premises of individual research traditions will also be questioned. How far does the specific evidence of the earliest transmitted texts already justify a differentiation between related philologies, as for example Germanic and English, or of Romance and Latin Studies? To which extent did separate institutionalized scholarly disciplines invent themselves in dealing with their earliest transmitted documents?
This approach requires a common methodological framework. The received narrative of the respective origin stories of vernacular languages should also be subject to disciplinary and methodological reflection. The individual analyses will be based on primary data, understood here as a representative inventory of textual beginnings of the respective national language. The goal will be a comprehensive list of the earliest manuscripts that transmit texts in each language, not taking into account the transmission of single words).
What exactly is regarded as ‘representative’ for the beginnings of every single language may differ considerably, and will not be limited in any way here. The Paderborn repertory of German textual tradition from the 8th to 12th century ‘[www.paderborner-repertorium.de] may serve as a – very ambitious – example.
The individual inventories of the earliest transmitted texts provide the necessary base for media and literary analysis of the material, which should make evident the hermeneutic potential of our approach. Due to the perspective of the history of transmission we hope to get the opportunity to define new chronological, geographical and factual contexts, continuities and discontinuities – inter- and also intra-lingual, which the traditional literary sciences, philologies and historiographies do not take into account. We will discuss the common features in the traditional philological narratives, and also stress an overarching comparative view of the relation of vernacular languages to the liturgical (“sacred”) languages.
Our choice of languages and literatures that we want discuss is caused inter alia by the descriptive practices in the modern university context. In question are the following languages or language groups: The West Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Frisian, English), Gothic, Scandinavian (with Icelandic, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish), French, Italian, Ibero-romance (Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan), Irish (Gaelic), Celtic, Finno-Ugric, Georgian, Armenian, Basque, and the languages of the Slavic group of Indo-European. The European case studies will be supplemented by exemplary comparison with different languages and cultural groups, such as Sanskrit, Chinese, Persian or Turkish.
The main topic of the conference will be discussed on the background of three problem areas which are very important for each of the traditional philological narratives. They will be addressed in the form of systematic methodological and theoretical cross sections as introductory contributions (keynote lectures) in addition to the planned delivery of historical case studies. The goal is a degree of harmonization of research positions that meet in the current academic landscape at different levels. A look at the beginnings of a vernacular transmission in the European context will therefore lead to a first answer to the question of whether and how far specific, and common rules and mechanisms in the formation of different cultures, traditions are played out.
a) The terminological frame of reference
- How is the field of vernacular language and of language of reference organized terminologically and semantically in each language?
- -How is the scientific language of description related to the general language use?
- What is the relationship between the definitions and designations of the language and the definitions and designations of political, religious or ethnic groups who speak and write the language?
b) Relation between ‘writing’ – ‘language’ – ‘people’ – ‘religion’
- What is the relationship between ethnic groups (‘peoples’, ‘tribes’, ‘gentes‘), and languages in the Middle Ages from the perspective of modern historical research?
- What is the relation between religion, power and written culture?
- To what extent and at what levels is the legitimacy of literacy in the vernacular reflected explicitly or implicitly?
- To what extent is it possible to describe and compare the conditions under which languages become literate?
c) Relation between origin stories – national philologies
- How do the individual (modern) national philologies develop the concepts of ‘vernacular’ and ‘tradition’ and how can this be contextualized in cultural history?
- What is the history of (ideologically more or less heavily loaded) scholarly conceptualizations behind the ‘master narratives’ of the origin of languages, and how are they related to the historical evidence?