The integration of Latin and Vernacular in a New History of European Medieval Literature 

Colloque organisé par Lars Boje Mortensen (University of Southern Denmark, Copenhague), Elizabeth Tyler (University of York) et Monique Goullet (Laboratoire de médiévistique occidentale, Paris) du 28 mars au 2 avril 2011


Henry Bainton, Paolo Borsa, Jeroen Deploige, Lucie Dolezalova, Daniel Föller, Monique Goullet, Christian Hoegel, Marek Thue Kretschmer, Sara Moens, Francine Mora, Lars Boje Mortensen, Thomas O’Donnell, Stijn Praet, Jeff Rider, Jan Rüdiger, Francesco Stella, Ryan Szpiech, Elizabeth Tyler, Wim Verbaal, Jonas Wellendorf



The workshop held in Les Treilles was the third, and largest, run by the Interfaces project, which was initially focused on issues of Latin and the vernaculars in the Medieval west from 900-1200. This project, led by Mortensen and Tyler, has been developing an international network and defining its intellectual scope and research questions since 2009. The week in Les Treilles, especially the time for extended formal and informal discussions, was critical in facilitating a major transition in which Interfaces has transformed itself into a much more ambitious project, ‘Literary Interfaces of Medieval European Societies’. Our chronological range now covers the period from Antiquity to the Renaissance and our geographical range now extends from Iceland to Jersusalem. This expansion of the project has involved bringing in new members of the team; the concentrated period of discussion and study at Les Treilles has enabled their full integration into the project and the concomitant redefining and extension of the project’s research questions.

Issues Discussed at Workshop

The study of medieval literature has reached a crossroads. Established accounts, framed within 19th and 20th century nationalizing paradigms, are discredited. Political developments in Europe and debate about the role of European culture within the world demand we return to the past with new questions. Scholarly internationalization and the shift towards collaborative work in the humanities mean there is a community eager to rethink medieval European literature. Member of the Interfaces group are engaged in plans for new literary histories, translations, digital resources: all aimed at pan-European study of medieval literature. However, in trying to develop medieval literary history for 21st-century Europe, we are conscious that it is not enough to stitch together the old national narratives to create a new European story. Fundamental methodological groundwork is required. Otherwise, these new endeavors risk building on the unstable ruins of the national paradigms or projecting modern multicultural ideologies onto the past. During the sessions at Les Treilles, we used our individual papers and the discussion to identify key questions and workable research strands. The wide range (generic, chronological and geographical) of papers enabled us to explore three fundamental questions of definition:

• What is ‘Europe’ when seen through the lens of the medieval literary record? Was it born in the Middle Ages? What were its geographical, linguistic and ideological boundaries?

• What is ‘literature’ (a Romantic Western European concept)? Why is the Western tradition preoccupied with fictionality, known author and aesthetic sophistication and unity as defining features, to the neglect of textual diversity (e.g. historiography, hagiography, homilies, documents)? How can we work across modern disciplinary divisions (esp. history and literature) to provide a capacious concept of ‘literature’ appropriate to the Middle Ages?

• What are the ‘Middle Ages’ (a Renaissance concept)? Does the period from c.500-1500 make sense as a separate written culture? How is understanding of the period framed by Antiquity and the Renaissance/Reformation? How does it map onto questions of East/West?

In discussion, we considered how openness about all three categories is essential in reorienting scholarly practice to supplant traditional habits of literary history. We agreed that in moving forward with the Interfaces project, we will deal with these fundamental issues through the development of fully comparative approaches and a set of concrete research strands, thus uniting disparate fields (separated by disciplines and nationalisms) into a single workable field of medieval European literature. These strands agreed on and elaborated at the les Treilles workshop were:

1) Interface between sacred and vernacular must be thematized on a European level, with focus on the Romance/non-Romance divide between North and South and on the comparison with the different situation of diglossia in the Greek and Arab world. The rise of written vernaculars is a phenomenon which has not been problematized by the individual philologies due to their nationalist paradigms.

2) The rise of fiction in the 12th century as a new kind of contract between authors and aristocratic audiences has been keenly debated in the last 20 years. Through our framework the positions in this discussion will be tested in terms of pan-European genres, especially saints’ lives, with their intricate mechanisms of authentication and fabrication, and considered in political and social contexts.

3) A critical approach to European medieval literary heritage demands reflections on canonizing processes. The choice of ‘masterpieces’ began in the Middle Ages, but our modern images of the canonical line of medieval works still depend on Romanticism and the rise of nationalism. Comparative studies of how editorial projects, curricula etc. made the national canons underpin our present consideration of the desirability of a European literary canon. New canons are easy to dismiss, but canonical choices are always at work in research/teaching, even when any hierarchy of texts is denied.

We also agreed that attentiveness to the dynamic relationship between medieval and modern is essential to our ability both to pursue basic research about medieval literature and to contribute to debates about Europe’s relationship with her past, thus we will include modern scholars in each of these strands as we move forward with the project.


In terms of specific outcomes of the Les Treilles workshop, we prepared an application in the final round for a Danish Center for Excellence (submitted 24/4/2011) and planned out a volume, Rethinking Medieval Literature (to be submitted to publisher mid-2012). The participants in the workshop will form the core group of the Danish Center, if the application is successful, and they are all contributing to the planned volume. In addition, foundations for further collaborative grant applications have been made.