Written and Cultures in Modern Europe


[Roger Chartier]

The Chair’s purpose is to research the history of written culture in Europe between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. The same issue underlies all investigations in this field – the mobility of the works. These migrations involved the intervention, skills and decisions of many players, such as the copyists that make clean copies of authors' manuscripts, censors who indicated their approval or introduce any corrections they deem necessary, and translators who interpret the texts by mobilizing the lexical and esthetic material available to them. Other contributors include publishers, printers and booksellers, who decide what to publish, correctors who establish the final text to be printed, and typographers whose habits, preferences, constraints and errors also contribute to the materiality of the text.

In some cases, the chain of actions that gives shape and meaning to the work is not limited to the publication of printed pages. Thanks to the decisions of theater company directors or organizers of performances, audiences may hear texts in theaters before their possible publication. Such are the multiple paths pursued by the Chair’s research program, with reconstruction from unique cases that are, in their own way, exemplars of operations that led from writing to the publication of historical chronicles, novels, dramatic representations, and translations from one language to another.

One of the goals of the research is to re-situate texts composed and published between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries in their own historical context. To do this, researchers focus on identifying the most fundamental discontinuities that have transformed the way written texts were circulated, literary or otherwise. The most obvious of these changes is related to a technical invention from the mid-fifteenth century, the Gutenberg printing press. Understanding its decisive importance should not, however, obscure the fact that other "revolutions" had as much, if not more, of a major impact in the long history of Western written culture. During the first centuries of the Christian era, a new form of book emerged: the codex, made of sheets that were folded and assembled. Many times over the centuries, changes of reading methods occurred that could also be seen as "revolutions".

Moreover, the vigorous survival of manuscript publication during the age of the printing press implies a reassessment of the power of print. One can see print as inherently useful, but leading to anxiety. Less spectacular, but perhaps more important for our purposes, is the emergence during the eighteenth century, at various dates depending on the location, of an order of discourse based on the individualization of writing, the originality of works and the consecration of the writer. The combination of these three concepts, which was decisive in defining literary property, came to a head in the late eighteenth century with the fetishization of the autograph manuscript and an obsession with the author’s writing as a guarantor of the authenticity and unity of a work dispersed in many different editions. This new writing economy breaks with an older order based on completely different practices, such as frequent collaborative writing, reuse of stories already told, shared commonplaces, repeated formulas, or the continual revisions and continuations of works that remain open.

It is within the paradigm of writing fiction that Shakespeare wrote his plays and Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. In noting this, one must not forget that for both authors, the canonization process that made their works monuments began very early in the process. But this process continually went hand in hand with a strong awareness of the collective dimension of all textual productions (not just theater), and the lack of recognition for the writer as such. His manuscripts do not deserve conservation, his works are not his property, his experiences are not consigned to any literary biography, but only to collections of anecdotes. The situation is different when the affirmation of creative originality intertwines life and writing, situating works in a biographical framework that makes the writer’s suffering or happiness the very crucible of his production.

This research also seeks to contribute to questions inspired by contemporary changes in written culture. Digital textuality has indeed shaken up the categories and practices that provided the base of order of discourse, as well as of books, in which the works of the first modern period were imagined, published, and received. There are so many questions. What is a "book" when it is not, simultaneously and inseparably, both text and object? How is the work perceived and its meaning understood when modified by the reading of unique textual units radically detached from the narrative or argument of which they are a part? How to design electronic publishing for older works, such as Shakespeare or Cervantes, for example, when this form of publishing helps make visible the plurality and instability of historical texts, necessarily ignored by the choices entailed in printed editions. The electronic editions are a form of inscription and reception of written texts that is entirely foreign to the form and materiality of the books that proposed them to readers of the past - or, for a while yet, the present?

These issues are not tackled directly in the Chair’s work. Others are doing a better job along that front. But they remain present, explicitly or implicitly, perhaps because the digital world has already modified the discipline of history by proposing new forms of publishing that transforms procedures of demonstration and technical evidence and ultimately provides an opportunity for a new relationship, better because more informed and critical, between reader and text. Possibly because by highlighting the categories and practices of the written culture we inherited we perhaps have a better understanding of the mutations of the present.

Between apocalyptic judgments that identify these mutations as the death of the written text, and more optimistic opinions that perceive a reassuring continuity, there is another possible and even necessary perspective. It is based on history, and the goal is not to provide yet more uncertain prophecies, but rather to better understand the current coexistence (which may be sustainable) between different forms of writing – manuscript, printed and electronic – and especially to identify more rigorously how and why concepts that founded the definition of a work as a work, the relationship between writing and individuality, and intellectual property, are brought into question in the digital world