Historical story

If you look closer there is always more

This year, Dutch scholar Frits van Oostrom published 'Wereld in Words', about the flourishing Dutch literature in the fourteenth century ravaged by disaster. Did plague, floods and climate change have a positive effect on the nascent writing culture? And how does such a large-scale study of medieval literature actually work?

After Van Oostrom in 'Voting on Scripture' (2006) tackled the Dutch-language literature of the thirteenth century, he published ‘World in Words’ at the beginning of this year. . This second part of his magnum opus focuses on Middle Dutch fourteenth-century literature.

The fourteenth century, wasn't that the century when the Black Death, along with other natural disasters, swept across Europe, killing millions? The century when flagellants scourged themselves to blood in a desperate attempt to avert the punishments of God?

Indeed, almost all Hollywood clichés about the dark ages can be traced back to the fourteenth century. But in the field of culture and literature, this century seems more likely to be a time of spectacular renewal, as is apparent from the work of Van Oostrom. In fact, he even dares to say that this revival is perhaps a reaction to all the misery. “The idea that a certain amount of 'creative destruction' can also be very healthy – originally from the economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) – is actually interesting,” he says in his living room in Leiden.

In World in Words present a surprising picture of the fourteenth century. Before you started the research, did you have reason to think that there would be something special in that fourteenth-century literature?

“I knew there were some very interesting texts and literary figures from that century. But all that literary innovation that the century seems to know about, I only encountered it in the research itself. I went into the research fairly blank, and I think that's a good attitude for a scientist."

“It may already have been known that something more was written in the fourteenth century than in the thirteenth, but previous studies have referred to the fourteenth century not as a century of literary prosperity, but rather as a century of decline. And that also fitted in with what we know historically of that time, namely a dramatic century with a lot of misery.”

“In the end my research came out elsewhere. The misery was certainly there, but culturally there was certainly not only decline. There was also flourishing, and perhaps there is even a connection between crisis and creativity. I also encountered all sorts of interesting literary figures. When I started this project I had no idea about all of this. When you look closer there is always more than you thought, never less. That is exactly my experience in science.”

As far as the fourteenth century is concerned, it was mainly known that more was written than a century earlier?

“Yes, that was pretty much known, but it hadn't been mapped out well yet. But my field, Dutch Studies, has traditionally been strongly guided by aesthetic considerations. In literary history we therefore find 'most' not so interesting. Rather, we look at what is 'the most beautiful'. And if you compare the thirteenth century, in which a few real masterpieces have appeared, with the fourteenth century, the latter was seen as a cluttered attic, in terms of aesthetics.”

Isn't comparing one century with another very subjective in that way?

“Perhaps. But I do want to maintain that St. Peter's Church really is a beautiful church. And Michelangelo's Pietà is really beautiful. At least that has been seen as beautiful in all ages. But there is indeed a problematic side to it. Almost everyone considers 'Van den Vos Reinaerde' a masterpiece. But why? What exactly is so beautiful about it? Why is it a masterpiece? Because it's a funny story about animals? So many of them have been written.”

“I tried to answer that question at length in Voting on Scripture. The question of the historical determinacy of aesthetics, and how this has changed over the centuries, is a very relevant one. The journey of Sint-Brandaan (twelfth century) is a good example of this. In the past, this was seen as 'senseless frivolity'. Nowadays we find it very nice, funny and varied work.”

Are there examples of works from the fourteenth century that were first seen as pulp and which you now think should be adjusted?

“I'm also not so obsessed with aesthetics that my main goal is to be able to say 'this is more beautiful than expected'. I mainly say 'it is more interesting than expected'. And that applies to a lot, because the ugly can also be very fascinating. They are not all masterpieces, but it is interesting that so many more people started writing.”

“You see a kind of democratization of writing. It is no longer reserved for clergy. That also makes the fourteenth century look much more modern to me than the century before. More and more cities and more and more merchants. The role of the knights got a bit out of hand then.”

These are all positive influences on that creative innovation. But according to you, the plague epidemic and all kinds of natural disasters also play a role…

“Yes, that's an interpretation I suggest in my book. I happened to hear about the economist Schumpeter's idea that a certain amount of destruction can also be healthy. Without saying 'how nice that there has been a plague epidemic', that was of course horrible. But it may also have had a certain cleansing effect.”

“That plague shook and disrupted the entire economy of that time. But perhaps that also provided space. The medieval situation was that the cradle you were born in determined your life. There had to be something really special going on if you wanted to rise above your own environment. When there are so many deaths, there is suddenly more social space. Some people have definitely seen their chance and seized it. That can hardly be otherwise. But it remains an interpretation. I dare not say that I have proven that”

You write somewhere that the discovery of one unknown manuscript may force your entire book to be rewritten. You wouldn't have that so quickly during the Second World War. Is there really so little known about the fourteenth century?

“Yes, in a manner of speaking that would be possible, because quite a lot has been lost. But of course you see in many sciences that one spectacular discovery can change everything. In that respect it is not unique. Incidentally, in the forty years that I have now been working in this profession, I have sometimes experienced that new things were found, but there was nothing in between that turned the whole thing upside down. Not yet.”

Of course you don't know what you don't know, but what has been lost? Where are the well-known blind spots in the research?

“A very good example is the first line of 'De Vos Reinaerd', which begins with 'Willem die Madocke maecte...' The writer introduces himself and refers to 'Madocke', apparently an earlier work of his. Several copies of Reinaerd have been well preserved, but we have nothing at all of that 'Madocke'. And that would surely be the biggest find you can make in my field.”

“But we also have enough to get a reasonable picture of those centuries. If there were a lot more lost, you'd be constantly running into untraceable references, and it's not like that.”

Are there Dutch people who are really looking for certain texts?

“Those detectives are always there, but how do you deal with that? Walking around the street or browsing libraries? The libraries in Flanders and the Netherlands have been combed through. On the other hand, you sometimes see in archives that pieces of medieval parchment were used as covers for official documents. Those aren't complete books, though. That way, sometimes something is discovered.”

“Where you can also expect something of value are libraries in countries where they cannot read Dutch. Spain for example. You could imagine that Alva's soldiers may have taken a few things with them. A medieval Dutch document has also been found in Cape Town. That may have ended up there because of the VOC.”

Why would the VOC take a medieval manuscript?

“It was about a medieval travelogue. If you made such a long journey, it was better to take all texts that only somewhat describe the world, even in the Golden Age.”

World in Words has meanwhile been nominated for the Libris History Prize. Voting on Scripture was nominated in 2006 for the AKO Literature Prize. Do you have any other writing plans for the future?

“The last two words of World in Words are 'no longer', which makes me wink at myself. Because this was the last book of this type. These are very big projects, I worked on them for six full years. Now for the first time I have decided not to start such a project again.”

“What I do plan to do is write a book in English, for fellow medievalists and not so much for the general public. After all, the medieval Low Countries are in the spotlight of international attention. As a crossroads between France, England and the German Empire, a lot happened here. I closely follow what is happening in international media studies, but I have actually been too little involved in it myself.”

“I've often been asked to be a columnist, but when you're working on these big books, it's a completely different genre. It's like asking a marathon runner to sprint.” (laughing) “I can walk a hundred meters, but it's nothing. Maybe if I free myself from marathon running I can become a deserving sprinter.”

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