About this Project

This is the first literary history of medieval Europe to be attempted in English. Eschewing conventional, anachronistic organization by “national blocks”-- English literature, French literature, etc.-- it considers literary activity in transnational sequences of interconnected places. Its vision of Europe, and of movement within Europe is, we believe, of acute contemporary relevance.

Our starting date of 1348 evokes the most keenly-felt moment of shared experience in European history: the pandemic that wiped out between one quarter to one half of the population, from the Crimea to Greenland. The regenerative function of imaginative writing after 1348 is most famously exemplified by Boccaccio’s Decameron; but, from east to west, such writing flourishes with extraordinary vigor even while dogged by recurrences of plague, religious schism, economic stagnation and—especially in the west—near-endless war. 1418 measures a Biblical three-score-years-and-ten from 1348; it sees the conclusion of the Council of Constance, and a boyar rebellion in Novgorod. 1418 is thus far from being a date of universal cultural import. But Constance does offer useful points of ending and retrospect, as scholars and writers, clerics and musicians gather from afar. The Council begins with intensive discussion of nationhood: which territorial units might now be recognized as nations? The French, all agreed, clearly represented a nation; but the English (so it seemed) did not. Such sense of a multi-centered Europe negotiating its own parameters has, of course, acutely contemporary resonance. One of the signature developments of this 1348-1418 period, for example, is the rise to prosperity and civic confidence of a new eastern Europe: cities keen to affiliate with western institutions, and thus define themselves contra the rising power of Muscovy and Islamic powers east (and then, alarmingly, west) of Constantinople. The volume thus opens with Paris, but ends with Prague. 

Emphasis upon a multi-centered Europe draws us away from certain grand visions of a singular, pan-European culture developed in the twentieth century: in the musings of T.S. Eliot on neo-Dantean tradition; in the over-arching Latinities of E.R. Curtius. It must be acknowledged that Latin Christendom formed but one possible center of European culture in this period. Medieval Serbia, for example, boasted a long and brilliant tradition of literary achievement-- “medieval Serbian literature” yields over 1400 entries in the British Library Catalogue, whereas “medieval Polish literature” yields just nine. This tradition foundered soon after the battle of Kosovo in 1389 and the fall of Skopje to Ottoman invaders in 1392. But the defeat at Kosovo, especially, inspired brilliant and poignant elegiac compositions (many of them by women); they are happily preserved at Hilandar, a Serbian monastery on Mount Athos.

We cannot help but notice now, from the daily witness of television news, that Europe has not come together under the single overarching cultural frame dreamed of by Curtius and his fellow philologists after 1945; we are thus well situated to examine again what transpires after 1348. Christendom, the greatest unifying concept of medieval Europe and the literary epics of its various peoples, remains disastrously divided between east and west. Eastern orthodox Christians are pressured to bend to western Catholic paradigms and not much helped as Mongols, Mamluks, and Ottomans bring other strains of religion deeper into Europe. Islamic cultures cannot, of course, be accounted extrinsic to Europe in this period as they are being developed and refined on European soil, at places like Granada. Lines of cultural transmission— linking Granada to Tunis and Cairo, or Budapest to Mount Athos and Moscow—reveal the folly of invoking any such place for purposes of counter-definition. It is too feeble to say that Cairo and Moscow are in dialogue with Europe, and its literary cultures. Texts and scholars perennially move between Cairo and Moscow and western Europe; they are integral to its cultural life. Imagining cultures beyond the pale, of course, has proved essential to the imaginative self-constitution of Europe, as of other spaces. But even as mere objects of imagining, such alien spaces prove necessary and integral to self-understanding; Europe cannot divorce itself from whatever it imagines to lie beyond its bounds, to form its outside.

The literary history in development here emphasizes both local, vernacular peculiarities and the extraordinarily rich interchange of languages within and between farflung locales. Places such as Athens, Cyprus, Jerusalem, and Constantinople are important sites or inspirations for French writing in these years as well as for local Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew traditions; and places within “Italy” show remarkable profusions of literary influence. In fact, a literary history dedicated to “Italy” in this period must begin beyond the Alps, at Avignon, and end at Naples. A sequence of “Italian” places organized between Avignon and Naples makes excellent sense of later fourteenth-century conditions, whereas an Italian block extending from Milan to Palermo—again following the logic of nineteenth-century, nation-bound historiography-- does not. England, similarly, begins at Calais and not at Dover or Canterbury; the English Channel or La Manche is a much-traveled highway rather than (as by Shakespeare’s time) a defensive moat.

Much time and collective attention has been given to formulating the ten parts of this history and to choosing the most generative and illuminating locales. The logic informing each sequence, and the choice of places, should be evident from the descriptions currently being written for the maps on this site (and their pushpins). For contributors, the challenge is to apply specialist and localized philological masteries to greater understandings of European connectedness. In short, the aim is to transcend the parochialisms of traditional, nation-based literary histories while yet giving vivid accounts of the distinctiveness of particular places.  

Each of our locations has been chosen not simply with regard to the intrinsic interest of its own literary culture but for its interconnectedness. Lines of transmission follow routes of trade, pilgrimage, crusade, intellectual exchange, and political alliance. Palermo in Sicily, for example, aligns not with an Italian cultural axis (as Rome-based scholars argued in the 1930s) but with Aragon. Mallorca is a multi-racial, multi-confessional island; more than half of all books documented there before 1400 are Jewish-owned, some of them in Arabic. Anselm Turmeda, born there in 1352, became a Franciscan but then converted to Islam and moved to and wrote in Tunis. Ibn Khaldun, who in 1377 comments laconically on Christian “discovery” of the Canary islands, was employed as Grenadan ambassador to Pedro I of Castile; he received a classical Arabic education at Tunis and returned in 1378 before spending his last years in Cairo. Since Egypt had taken in the fleeing “Holy Family” it proved a big draw as a second “Holy Land” for Christian pilgrims traveling to and from Jerusalem. Many travel narratives testify to Cairo’s splendor and sheer size: in 1348 it was twice as big as any European city. The Cairo Genizah has yielded 200,000 texts; the world’s (second) oldest text in Yiddish was found there and dates from 1382. Arabic prose at Cairo under the Mamluks grows more distinguished as learned immigrants arrive from the Levant, fleeing Mongol pressure. And so on. Each sequence is evolving its own logic as its contributors refine their own distinctive visions of these interconnected locales.  

Above all, it is to be hoped that this project will be recognized as an original exercise in intellectual friendship; an opportunity to consider how Europeans and their near neighbors defined and regenerated themselves following the greatest single catastrophe in their history. 

For comments and suggestions on this evolving project, please contact the editor: dwallace@english.upenn.edu