Pursuing a New Order: Central European Vernaculars between Theology and Politics (14th – 15th ct.)

(working title)

The volume offers a comparative perspective at the formation of vernacular literatures from the beginning of the 14th century to the 16th century as a window into the fundamental social transformation of literary communication linked to the rise of vernaculars as literary languages. Focusing on these processes in the enormously productive and creative regions corresponding to the contemporary Czech and Slovak Republic, Poland, Hungary, Austria and Germany in the later Middle Ages, the volume fills a gap of contemporary scholarship on the role of the vernaculars and vernacular literatures in European medieval societies and will break new ground for questions that have so far only been explored in Europe’s “West”.

The inquiry departs from the thesis that the social elites in medieval Europe developed exclusive codes of communication that were defined by their Latin philosophical and theological education. This eventually determined the modes of social negotiation, perceptions of the individual and collective identities as well as overall concepts of the social order. The central question of the study is thus whether, and if so, why and how distinctive new communicative, literary and political cultures developed after the vernacular languages had acquired ever higher levels of literacy and education. The intensification of ambitions to transcend the social boundaries of the language from what might be called everyday communication to a medium of “high” culture and discourses that had previously been exclusively defined by the use of Latin were strongly connected with the ambitions of non-elite or lower elite groups for social ascent.

The process of vernacularisation of social communication is by no means linear or simple: ambitious social groupings could only define their demands and negotiate old and new definitions of their social position when they were able to control the media and communicative tools of these negotiations on a high intellectual level. But this also means that control of the vernacular as a new medium to negotiate social prestige and power did not only become increasingly important for ambitious groups or individuals to establish new social positions; it also became increasingly important for maintaining the old. We see members of established elites just like members of the groups who wanted to rise to higher social prestige alike actively participating in the process of vernacularisation, or even competing in their efforts to define it, to give the first impulses to translate texts, a set of texts or themes in order to define the new modes and codes of communication about power and social status.

These processes of translation thus did not only involve linguistic expertise but the ability to work in the Middle Grounds between different social languages, their networks, and concepts of social order and power of different languages and times. In taking stock of models developed by modern anthropology we might explore many of the agents who stand out in this process through their linguistic and social skills as “cultural brokers”; that is social and cultural intermediaries, who ‘stand guard over the crucial junctures of synapses of relationships’, which connect different social groups or systems to a larger whole. As simultaneous members of two or more interacting networks (kin groups, political factions, communities, or other formal or informal coalitions), brokers provide nodes of communication.

The volume will concentrate on (cultural) brokerage and translation in the early stages of the process of vernacularisation which creates a new sociolinguistic field for the negotiation of social order through the choice of texts and topics and translations and reconfigurations of older concepts into a new language.

Since the dominant languages for these negotiations are the languages of Christian philosophy and theology the individual case studies mainly address theological and pastoral texts which a) translate and interpret the higher levels of philosophical and theological knowledge into vernaculars and therefore open these levels of education to the non-elite social strata, b) introduce new topics into the religious and/or political debate on the threshold between Latin and the vernaculars, c) re-formulate existing ideas concerning the social order in general in the vernaculars, d) interpret controversial philosophical and theological topics in vernacular languages and therefore have an impact on the new understandings of the role of power in society. Texts with complex reception histories are of eminent interest - for example a Latin tract translated into a particular vernacular language with distinct social (political) impact, than translated back into Latin and re-interpreted in a new social and/or political situation. The contributions also focus on persons and social groups linked with such texts, with their social and educational backgrounds, their social positions, networks and personal histories. The volume thus provides a fresh reconsideration of the complex process of vernacularisation both in its textual and in its social aspects. The methodological tools of historiography, philology, literary and cultural studies operate on equal level to secure a creative diversity of individual approaches to the respective material.