"Transformations of Language" (Spring 1991, University of Pennsylvania)

This syllabus outlines a course I taught once that anticipates some of my later teaching. There is also a bibliography associated with this structured set of readings.

I. Introduction

II. Matter and Form: the principal media of ancient writing, the history of their introduction and use; how written artifacts came into circulation; who consumed them and how; what kind of evidence survives to illuminate these and related questions.

III. Greeks Bearing Gifts: literacy itself came earlier to the Greeks and the scholarly study of the interplay of oral and literate cultures has been far livelier in the case of the Greeks; but the Greeks were also aware that the value of writing is ambiguous.

IV. The persuasive word: rhetoric. The rise and function of the effective orator at Rome; the differences in status and function between early and later republic, early and later empire; the particular prestige of Cicero; the prestige of rhetoric itself.

V. The persuasive word at a distance: letter-writing. Who wrote; to whom; why; difference between `private' and `public' (if any); publication of letter collections.

VI. The persuasive word at a distance, from on high: imperial edicts. Who wrote; to whom; why; the power of the written word; the impotence of the written word.

VII. The persuasive word spread over space and time: Jesus and Apollonius. A particular genre (`biography') employed to give the acts and words of a charismatic figure power beyond the range of his voice; reliability of such documents; their role in shaping and motivating communities of readers.

VIII. The authoritative text. The book itself as the center of veneration; the organization and management of the community joined by sharing a common sacred text; what makes one text sacred, another not; written texts in `pagan', Jewish, and Christian religious communities.

IX. Mediators of the authoritative text. The day-to-day mechanics of creating and maintaining the textual community of early Christianity. The spoken word, the significant gesture, the written text, and the oral exposition of the written text.

X. Living with the authoritative text. Monasticism as cultural movement; the place of the written `rule' and the oral authority of the teacher; the place of scriptural texts in the life of the community; the authority of venerated leaders of former generations.

XI. Word and text at the margins of culture. Penetration of the culture of the written word into geographical and social milieux removed, and even alienated, from the dominant oligarchies and central regions of the Mediterranean world. Readings here can range the most widely.

What about Diogenes of Oenoanda, who carved the teachings of Epicurus magnificently in stone for the edification and instruction of his townsmen? What about the treatise in Greek on hieroglyphics and their meaning by Horapollon? What about the stenographic transcript of the debate at Carthage in 411 between the schismatic Donatists and the imperially-supported Catholics? What about the elaborately illustrated manuscript of treatises on surveying preserved at the great German library of Wolfenbüttel? What about the story in Bede's Ecclesiastical History about the illiterate bard Caedmon?

XII. The view from the scriptorium. After antiquity; the culture of the `successor kingdoms'; the `island of saints and scholars'?; the `Carolingian Renaissance'.

  • P. Riché, Education and Culture in the Barbarian West
  • E. Auerbach, Literary Language and Its Public in Late Antiquity and the Latin Middle Ages
  • L. Bieler, Ireland: Harbinger of the Middle Ages
  • M. and L. DePaor, Early Christian Ireland
  • B. Bischoff, Latin Palaeography
  • C. De Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts
  • J.J. O'Donnell, Cassiodorus (reserved in Cl. St. seminar)
  • R. Wright, Late Latin and Early Romance

    XIV. Theoretical reflections. So what? Is it possible to abstract from a study of this sort general principles that can help in the interpretation of other cultural phenomena? Is technology determinism? Is the human mind an unchanging constant merely taking various different guises from time to time?