Origin stories

Pavlína Rychterová

November 15, 2018 | Pavlína Rychterová | HI Research Blog |

Oldest extant texts in vernacular and their histories of identity

Historical narratives of medieval peoples very often start with the first texts written in their alleged languages, emerging across Europe from the fifth to the sixteenth centuries. The oldest extant texts stood at the beginning of modern historiographies, philologies and literary studies. As narrators of their past, they told the stories of the people they defined according to the peoples they served. Historiographies, philologies and literary studies did not each tell the same story of the past, but various narratives in which texts, their linguistic assessment, philological contextualization, historiographic and national political ideologies merged in various forms and to various degrees. Modern philologies established by men trained in the search for – and research on – the oldest biblical texts paid attention to the oldest texts from their beginnings, looking in them for the oldest information available on the languages in question and their literatures. The search for the soul of the people in these texts started only slightly later and it gave the narratives, which up until then had been shaped mainly by linguistic interests, new dynamics and twists. In the subsequent two centuries the oldest extant texts were named textual monuments and used as such by all the disciplines involved. Research on them became more and more detailed and difficult to survey on the one side, and stalled and difficult to innovate on the other. Various narratives produced by the individual disciplines involved usually hampered the attempts to launch new approaches concerning these texts.

In this volume, historians, philologists and literary scholars meet to discuss the first extant texts in various European medieval languages, to check the state of the art, to compare the individual narratives, and to design new ways for the comparative examination of the given material.

Individual authors concentrated therefore at first on the production of up to date descriptions of the sources. This may seem obsolete but we have to consider that in many scholarly discourses source texts, especially those with the status of loaded monuments of collective identity, do not usually represent the subject of analysis. Even for historians trained in the analysis of historical identification narratives it is difficult to provide well balanced assessments of the prominent elements of such narratives. Very often the texts of interest have to bear a burden of proof they are not able to, a circumstance which hampers contextualization of the respective sources within the literary production of the time. As an extreme example of this problem we may regard the oldest extant texts in Old Church Slavonic, the so called Prague Fragments and Kiev Leaves. These texts, comprising a very modest couple of pages from liturgical books, represent the only documents from the first decades of the use of Church Slavonic language and written in the Glagolitic script created for the purpose, that means from the last thirty years of the ninth century. The story they tell is necessarily very modest too: At first the respective liturgical books may be at least partially identified, the language may be analyzed – in particular, concerning the presence of regional features which may help to identify the place of origin of the texts. In any case the results of such an analysis remain necessarily fragmentary and no coherent narrative may be provided based solely on them. The story of the origins of the Church Slavonic literacy, in which the Kiev leaves and Prague fragments play the main role, comes from another source, hagiographic narrative on the invention of the Slavonic-Glagolitic script by Constantine the Philosopher. Constantine allegedly did this in response to a request from Moravian Prince Rastislav who wished Christian teaching for his people in their own language, i.e. Slavic, and asked for a suitable missionary at the Byzantine court. The legend is extant in manuscripts of Russian origin from five hundred years later, and their relevance was already hotly discussed at the beginning of the formation of Slavonic philology. Later on, as individual national Slavonic philologies emerged, in the course of the formation of nationally-defined polities, the narrative on Constantine’s mission to Moravia together with the two extant pieces of liturgical books became the first chapter of the narratives telling the story of the individual Slavic languages, their peoples and their polities. In each of these narratives the first chapter on the Moravian mission was adjusted according to the goals which the respective stories of the past had to fulfill in the nationalistic ideologies, which again hampers subsequent research on the sources involved up until the modern day: During the 20th century, individual narratives were petrified and unapproachable for historiographic analysis, a state of affair which meant that research came to a standstill.

Beside the re-evaluation of narratives created on the basis of source texts of interest and the up to date survey of the actual analytical treatment of these source texts, the volume examines the possibilities of an appropriate classification as well as of comparative approaches.

The editors stress in the introduction that “languages and their literatures are not easily comparable due to their very different frames of reference and conditions.” Despite this, comparative research is very tempting especially in the case of literary texts or texts which may be regarded under some conditions as pieces of literature. The structuralist tradition taught us that the texts may be deconstructed into individual elements, the own subjects of comparison. Such analysis needs a certain amount of material, which is not available in the case of the oldest extant texts. The comparison therefore has to rely on scholarly narratives, at least to a certain amount, which makes it an unreliable research method. The texts of interest are characterized by an unequal heuristic premise, which has to be taken into account in the case of each comparative design. The Origin stories volume aims to contribute to a better balanced design for future textual comparisons concerning texts in different medieval languages.

Wolfgang Haubrichs and Norbert Kössinger concern the conditions of vernacular German literacy in Carolingian times. Carolina Cupane examines the digglosic situation in the Byzantine Empire, the complicated relationship between the attizistic form of Greek language, koine-Greek and Greek vernacular which was not used in literary context. Lars Boje Mortensen discusses the various forms of Latin language in post Roman Western Europe, Maria Selig and Heiner Böhmer analyse Romanic languages and the beginnings of literacy in the Iberian Peninsula; Pavlína Rychterová and Mateo Žagar discuss the master narratives on the beginnings of Church Slavonic and individual vernacular Slavic languages. Johanna Laakso and Martin Nedoma write about vernacular literacy in Finland and Estonia whereas Helmut Birkhan, Pádraic Moran and Ursula Schaefer analyse the vernacular languages in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia. Verio Santoro writes about Gothic literacy, and Birgit Kellner present scholarly debates on vernacular literacy in Tibet.

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