What kind of heritage do ancient and medieval texts constitute?

by Lars Boje Mortensen

The NetMAR project is seeking to better understand and promote local heritage by bridging the disciplines of art history, literature, musicology, history and more – all under the lense of ritual. NetMAR takes place just as we are seeing a significant surge, and new trends, in the global discourse of heritage. One might perhaps surmise that the wider interest in heritage is to some degree occasioned by the twin crises of climate change and COVID-19 pandemic: the first forces us to worry about human heritage in a wider space- and timeframe, and the second has reminded us of how crucial cultural resources are both on an individual and on a social and institutional level. And alongside this, of course, web exhibitions, online text collections, youtube videos and many more events have radically improved our access to the global heritage – creating a new “we” of cultural production and consumption.

This is obviously impacting medieval studies as well – see for instance the upcoming conference ‘Medieval Cultural Heritage Around the Globe: Monuments, Literature, and the Arts, Then and Now’ (Binghamton, Oct. 22-23, 2021). Such a focus begins to generate some critical questions about the way UNESCO divides up heritage into tangible, intangible, and documentary. Where do ancient and medieval texts belong? Both the tangible and the documentary heritage are centred on the physical carriers of texts (inscriptions, manuscripts, specific archives), while the intangible focuses (mainly) on non-written cultural practices. But texts can be said to live a life at a somewhat indeterminate point between the material and the abstract. While they are dependent on physical carriers, they are so much more beyond that. This deficiency in the UNESCO setup has led some scholars to suggest a new category, “textual heritage” – a category recently explored in a symposium arranged by Edoardo Gerlini (Ca Foscari) and Andrea Giolai (Leiden) on “Textual Heritage for the 21st Century” (https://www.unive.it/pag/41283). Similarly, I have, in a related blog (https://cml.sdu.dk/blog/why-ancient-and-medieval-texts-are-intangible-cultural-heritage), considered whether the abstract side of texts should perhaps be included under intangible heritage. I now think there is much to be said for a new category similar to the one suggested by Gerlini and Giolai, although the politics of establishing it may prove impossible. In any case, labels are much more than empty semantics, as they carry enormous practical consequences (just see what “intangible heritage” has done in the last two decades). A reconceptualization of textual heritage would also play into debates on digitisation – and add to the valuable work being done by libraries, archives and non-profit organisations – and into the wider question of how to curate the growing digitised archive in dialogue with research and teaching practices. Can “we” do so with culturally inclusive and long-term thinking and across a plurality of premodern and modern languages?

The more specific question I want to ask within this conceptual debate is this: what renders the ancient and medieval textual record special? (with Europe as a point of departure but the global relevance as well). Moreover, why does it deserve a special status in terms of global curating? I think three main reasons can be adduced: (1); the specific textual fluidity before printing (2); our distance to the relevant main languages (3); the disproportionate weight of the textual record in understanding the distant past.

(1) In ancient and medieval book and written culture, every copy of a text was unique. This meant that the conditions of authorship and textual identification were radically different than in the culture of printing. The boundaries between copy, paraphrase, abbreviation, excerpt, and reference were fluid; equally fluid were the differences between author, editor, commentator, translator, and copyist; and the publication of a text was not a unique, identifiable moment (as with print), but a series of painstaking and expensive dissemination moments, often over a very long time. Furthermore, the continuous reworking of verbal art and narrative and intellectual content in the copying process increasingly tended to anonymise writing. All this means that the global archive of ancient and (most) medieval texts was not accumulative in the same simple way as that of printed texts, and that their modern rendition into new media requires a whole set of extra explanations and manoeuvres of textual disentanglement; it also implies continuous negotiation between the inherent restrictions of manuscript (and epigraphic) technology and the constantly emerging modern storage and retrieval systems. The nuts and bolts of manuscript technology makes the job of curating old texts an incessant back and forth between the tangible manuscripts, specific philological traditions, and the intangible text – which is therefore a more delicate, but in a sense also more abstract, object than those of the printing age. There is never a secure, identifiable watershed mark like the folio edition of Shakespeare.

(2) Our distance from the main ancient and medieval written languages is of a sort that alienates us from the originals in a qualitatively different way than from, say, the 16th– and 17th-century texts which can often be mastered with just a little training in the relevant modern educated version of the same language. It can be claimed that some high or late medieval written languages are fairly close to the modern standard, but this is often more of a modern national wishful dream, and it certainly does not hold true of the dominant linguistic vehicles of ancient and medieval texts: the imperial languages of Sumerian, Akkadian, Greek, classical Chinese, Latin, Arabic, and the cosmopolitan languages of Aramaic, Sanskrit, Church Slavonic, Persian, and Hebrew account for the lion’s share of the relevant textual record. Training in some of these ancient languages is still thriving in religious and national educational systems, but for others the situation is more precarious; in any case a global view of securing the competences necessary for curating in the longer term still seems to be missing, as does the recognition that all these languages enshrine a wealth of global heritage texts.

(3) The last point regards the role that the ensemble of ancient and medieval texts play in our historical understanding, broadly conceived (including history of religions, literature etc.). My contention here is that our access to the older historical period of Eurasian and north African history, at least before the 13th century, disproportionally hinges on texts. Needless to say, our understanding of modern history can draw on a multimedial mass of resources as well as on our own life experiences, all modern scientific discourses as well as on societal attitudes and structures still in place. Such access is less privileged for the early modern period, but still impressive, including not only a wealth of easily identifiable and datable printed texts but also of images, recognisable towns and landscapes, languages, intellectual discourses, music and more. A few of these elements may even seem familiar for what we call the late Middle Ages (or early Renaissance) in Europe, but when we pass beyond the threshold of c. 1200 – before the significant 13th-century expansion of the written record throughout Eurasia and northern Africa – our sources of knowledge and of historical imagination are dramatically reduced: except for some ancient statues in Mediterranean Europe, we have no iconic contact to the likenesses of historical actors, the languages are almost all quite distant, the music is virtually unknown, authentic towns and landscapes can rarely be glimpsed, and most buildings only survive as ruins. We have, in fact, only two points of access: the archaeological/art historical remnants and textual records. So much relies on those two sets of evidence, and both are worryingly fragmentary. There is very little institutional continuity of the kind that would have secured any systematic survival or revival. This in itself makes our curating, evaluating and recontextualising of surviving texts from before printing, and especially before c.1200, absolutely key to our continued engagement with this distant history. In fact, one could make the argument that a special type of hermeneutics is at play here, because each text, even the non-canonical, carries too heavy a load, and is forced to fill in all the gaps of the unknown. This is, coincidentally, also a period during which we may find much that alienates us in terms of humanitarian rights and political ideals, but nonetheless an age which left us a marvellous, if severely fragmented, record of human experience. It is a period, moreover, whose texts can still transmit to us either religious allegiance or fascination, philosophical reflection, narrative excitement, and rhetorical and poetic beauty.

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