Multilingual Practices in Early Modern Literary Culture

On 10-11 January 2019 at the University of Birmingham, an international conference, ‘Multilingual Practices in Early Modern Literary Culture’, brought together scholars from around the UK and continental Europe to explore ways in which multilingualism shaped early modern literary practice. The conference consisted of six panels, including scholars from a range of disciplines such as Modern Languages, English, Classics, Neo-Latin, and History. The event was made possible by a MEITs flexible funding award.

Day one began with a talk by the two organisers, Peter Auger and Sheldon Brammall, as well as a presentation by Wendy Ayres-Bennett on how the conference fits into the MEITS project. The papers then kicked off with a panel on ‘Transnational Communities’. In this session, Farkas Kiss (ELTE) explored how linguistic minorities in early modern Hungary fashioned a multilingual literary culture, and Ineke Huysman (Huygens Institute) took the conference into the linguistic dynamics of multilingual correspondences in the early seventeenth-century Netherlands. In the second panel, ‘Multilingualism in Society’, Hilary Brown (Birmingham) questioned why women were taught languages at German courts, and John Gallagher (Leeds) looked at ways in which vibrant multilingual communities functioned in early modern London. The third and final panel of the day, ‘Varieties of Multilingual Practices’, began with a talk by Sarah Knight on the use of multilingualism in the rich linguistic space of Renaissance academic drama. Jan Bloemendal’s paper, ‘How to Research Multilingualism’, then turned the discussion to methodological questions, considering how scholars can approach the study of early modern multilingualism. The first day of papers concluded with a presentation by Marilyn Martin-Jones, the founder of the MOSAIC Group for Research on Multilingualism at the University of Birmingham. This presentation reflected on the talks of day one, and looked in particular at the resonances between the historical research carried out by scholars at the conference and work being done by sociolinguists researching contemporary multilingualism.

The second day started out with a panel on ‘Multilingualism on the Page’. In this session, Aurore Schoenecker (Paris) presented on the cultural role of early seventeenth-century dual-language books in French and Spanish, and Alisa van der Haar (Groningen) spoke about the language-image relationships in multilingual rebus poems. A fifth panel, ‘Multilingual Learning’, shifted the attention to ways in which multilingual practices shaped early modern science and scholarship: Nick Hardy (Birmingham) looked at the role of ancient languages in biblical scholarship, and Martin Korenjak (Innsbruck) explored the challenges of translating ancient Greek scientific texts into Neo-Latin. The final panel, ‘Creative Multilingualism’, featured a paper by Victoria Moul (University College London), which shed light on the largely unknown world of popular Neo-Latin poetry that has remained in manuscript and what it might tell us about early modern multilingualism. Warren Boutcher (Queen Mary University of London) gave the concluding remarks, bringing together different strands from across the two days and pointing towards new directions for research in the field.

The conference highlighted the vitality of the study of multilingualism in early modern Europe, and succeeded in its aim to bring together and enable discussion between scholars from a wide range of disciplines: it had a been a particular aim of the organisers to promote research in modern languages across disciplines at a time when so much of early modern scholarship is conducted within the confines of narrowly-defined national literatures. The conference also opened up potential lines of further research. Many papers shared an interest in how different cultural spaces (courts, cities, intellectual communities) enabled or indeed required multilingual literary practices. The exchange with Marilyn Martin-Jones on crossovers between early modern and modern research into multilingualism also promises fascinating paths for further exploration. The organisers intend to produce a volume based upon the conference papers. 

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