The Multilingual Literary Culture of Medieval Flanders: An Introduction

Bart Besamusca
Utrecht University

In November 2018, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) decided to fund a four-year research project which deals with literature in Flanders in the late Middle Ages. I quote the project’s summary:

This project breaks new ground by systematically correcting the traditional, monolingual view on Flemish literature in the late Middle Ages. Seeking to do justice to the medieval cultural reality in this area, it will be the first large-scale investigation devoted to the literary culture of Flanders, ca 1200 – ca 1500, from a multilingual perspective.

How did the three most important literary languages that co-existed in medieval Flanders, Latin, French and Dutch,function and interact? To tackle this central research question, the researchers will use both Dutch, French and Latin texts that were written in medieval Flanders and that were read in that region, and manuscripts, the hand-written books containing Dutch, French and Latin texts that scribes copied in that region and that circulated there. Their research will draw on a combination of five theoretical perspectives, derived from literary history, sociolinguistics, institutional studies, translation studies, and the history of the book. Using a broad definition of literature, the researchers’ evidence will consist of monolingual and multilingual texts, single-text manuscripts (mainly monolingual) and multi-text manuscripts (mono- or multilingual).

This project crosses disciplinary boundaries, because the topic cannot be studied within the framework of the national philologies. Moving beyond the biases of monolingual approaches to literary history, this research will reveal the as yet uncovered multi-faceted, complex and dynamic character of the multilingual literary culture of medieval Flanders. It will provide the groundwork for a reassessment of the development of Dutch literature in the medieval Low Countries.

In my paper I will present a more detailed introduction to this project and will sketch various research paths that the research team considers to follow.