Universiteit Leiden

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Anna Loh

ERC Starting Grant for Thijs Porck: 'Everyone loved Old English in the nineteenth century'

In the nationalist nineteenth century, people developed an interest in medieval language and literature. The study of medieval material in one’s own vernacular was thought to reveal a great national past. But why, then, was Old English studied by Germans, Danes, Italians and many other nationalities?

'Until now, we have mainly looked at what English and American philologists did with Old English in the nineteenth century,' senior university lecturer Thijs Porck explains. 'You would expect them, as speakers of English, to be particularly interested in the language of their early medieval ancestors. However, throughout the early nineteenth century, Old English was studied by scholars with continental European roots. Some claim that these texts were actually written in ancient forms of Danish, German or Dutch and, so, they appropriate Old English literature. These claims ultimately do not hold up: although Old English is a Germanic language, it is not Danish, German or Dutch.'

Nevertheless, European scholars continue to show an interest in Old English. Porck: 'Nationalism still plays a role in this, but in the sense that scholars start claiming that “their” Dutch, German or Danish scholarly methods are the best. Of course, this touches a sore spot with English scholars, who openly complain about “parasitic German philologists”, mowing the Old English grass from under their feet.'

International network

Strong competition among European scholars, then, but at the same time cooperation. 'If they found a new manuscript in an archive or a new linguistic insight, they would write letters to each other about it,' Porck explains. 'In those letters they shared their ideas about Old English, tried out new theories and criticised colleagues. Through the letters, we can almost look over their shoulders: what were they up against, how did they proceed, what motivated them and what did they think of each other and the world around them? This is very exciting material that is lying in archives, waiting for people who are interested in it.'

New part of professional history

Those people will come to Leiden, as Porck has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant to map the networks of these corresponding scholars. 'With a team of PhD students and postdocs, we are going to uncover a new part of the history of Old English Studies,' he says enthusiastically. 'Using a relational database, we will reconstruct the intellectual networks that contributed to the foundation of the study of Old English. We’ll show that in the nineteenth century, Old English was studied not only in England and America – even then it was an international field of study!'

More than nationalism

The project also looks at the motivations of nineteenth-century scholars, and stresses that nationalism was not the only reason why people were interested in Old English. 'Religion also plays an important role,' Porck explains. ’Most Old English texts are Christian texts, such as sermons and religious poems. You can see, for example, that a church leader in Denmark is inspired by the mix of “paganism” and Christianity in these Old English texts, while European interest in Old English-speaking missionaries like Boniface and Willebrord is also growing. In addition, the quantity of texts plays a role: very little has survived of most early medieval vernacular languages, but a great deal of Old English; so if you want to know anything about language in the early Middle Ages, you have to look at Old English. And let's not forget that it is also wonderful literature. Beowulf is one of the world’s literary classics and, in the 19th century, it was labelled 'the first new European literature'!’

The full description of Thijs Porck's project is available on his website.

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