GUEST POST!-The Curse of Babel and the Study of Medieval History, by Kevin Lewis

Today, we have a special guest post for you written by Kevin Lewis!!!! The post you will be able to find it right below this announcement. As in previous occasions, we are only transmitting Kevin’s work to you, we have not altered his work, or anything. This is his own paper and contribution, all the merit and grace of this update is owed to him. So if you love it, CONGRATULATE HIM FOR SUCH A BRILLIANT TEXT! (I personally found it very interesting!)***************************************************************************************************************

In the famous Hereford Mappa Mundi, the Tower of Babel of Genesis stands not far from Jerusalem, the very centre of the world. Contemplating this beautiful work, one observes that the Tower is still standing, still stretching upwards for an invasion of Heaven that never came, for God has yet to cast it down in anger, to shatter it and the one language of humankind forever into so many tiny shards. This story of the confusion of tongues has particular relevance for the study of History, especially of the Middle Ages.

Contemporaries were very much aware of the sheer multiplicity of languages in use at the time. The number of divergent languages in Europe came as a particular surprise to Rashid al-Din, writing in Persia in the fourteenth century. Certainly, many more people would have been multilingual than they are today, at least in the Anglophone world. A reasonably educated English priest in 1100 would have known the English of the Anglo-Saxons, the French of the recent conquerors, and the Latin of the Church. Even a peasant is likely to have known a few regional dialects of English – picked up in an age long before such powerful influences as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson inadvertently united and standardised the language – as well as a smattering of French and very likely the Latin Pater Noster, if nothing else of prayer and liturgy. As for highly cosmopolitan regions such as Byzantine Constantinople, Fatimid Alexandria or Crusader Acre, where the merchants of the known world congregated, still more languages were in play.

David Morgan’s standard work, The Mongols (1986), includes a lengthy discussion of the uniquely acute linguistic difficulties encountered when attempting to study the Mongol Empire as a whole: a vast domain stretching from Korea to Poland, recorded primarily in the multiple languages of the conquered peoples of Eurasia, rather than in the language of the conquerors themselves. Not even the most gifted of polyglots can be expected to master Chinese, Arabic, Latin and all the languages in between. This forces any historian seeking to view the Empire as a totality to rely to a great extent upon translations and the secondary literature of others. The key problem is that such modern intermediaries essentially represent yet another degree of separation between the historian and the people and events he or she is striving to understand.

One does not need to study the Mongols to recognise that the study of even the smallest, most geographically specific corner of the Medieval World is dependent upon the acquisition of specialist linguistic skills. Research into early Islamic Egypt is likely to require Coptic, Arabic and Greek. A study of thirteenth century Yorkshire necessitates Latin and Norman French. And of course this is not to mention the various languages required for the ever expanding body of secondary literature. English, French and German are usually indispensable, with others dependent upon the research area itself, be it Italian for Norman Sicily or Spanish for the Reconquista. Unfortunately, linguistic training has never figured anywhere near as prominently in the teaching of Medieval History as in related disciplines such as Classics or Oriental Studies.

As researchers, there is little we can do but to gather as many bricks of Babel as possible in our constant striving for understanding of the texts upon which we base our work. Even then, much research will still be found wanting, lacking the depth of engagement with each and every relevant language: the ability not only to recognise the subjunctive and the ablative absolute when we encounter them in the wild, but also to appreciate more fully the subtleties of each and every language in their diverse ironies, idioms and obscurely humorous turns of phrase.

One practical route worth exploring may be the greater encouragement of collaborative work. In the natural sciences, it is very common for doctoral students to work towards their degrees as part of larger teams working on joint projects, often alongside more senior researchers. This is not entirely alien to Medieval History and the Humanities generally, but it is comparatively rarer. I personally know only one fellow doctoral student engaged in such a project. Certainly, such group work would not be relevant or useful for every researcher or topic, and there is always the risk that the encouragement of such collaborations could discourage individuals from the crucial task of studying languages for themselves, but I cannot help but feel that an increased level of institutional support for such projects could do much to alleviate the curse of Babel.

Kevin Lewis

Hertford College, University of Oxford

November 2012


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