Books of Knowledge and Their Reception
Through the looking Glass of the Texts
Home Programme Abstracts Speakers Travel Contact

Books of Knowledge and Their Reception

Circulation of Widespread Texts in Late Medieval Europe

Our conference aims to rethink the history of late medieval literacy. We will focus on texts that can labelled as compendia of knowledge, i.e. collections of knowledge from around the world in the form of historical, philosophical, medical, ethical, or catechetical summaries. Some of these texts were read by large audiences across different strata of medieval society and were copied, adapted, and even translated into the vernacular throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. Their popularity is documented by the large number of surviving manuscripts.

Codicological study of this body of manuscripts has the potential, in some cases, to reconstruct the channels of transmission and dissemination of the compendia. As they spread gradually, initially to elite centres of learning, but later to a larger range of recipient groups (parishes, citizens, nobility), we consider them to be suitable material for researching the readers.

Participants are invited to rethink a variety of questions, including:

  • Can we categorise Books of Knowledge as a genre?

  • How does the cultural milieu influence the nature of the text's reception and its final form?

  • Through what channels were medieval compendia disseminated?

  • What evidence explains the extensive number of preserved manuscripts of a particular text?

  • What does this prove about their codicological context?

  • What are the limits to research about the communities of readers in the Late Middle Ages?

  • What did the reception of a specific text look like in different social, political, and confessional milieus?

We invite all interested scholars to submit an abstract relevant to the conference theme. It should not exceed 300 words and must be received via email by February 1, 2018. Authors will be notified on the status of their submission by February 28, 2018. Presentationsshould not exceed 20 minutes (followed by a 10-minute discussion). Thanks to the support of the organizing institution, the conference covers two nights of accommodations for each speaker and travel costs for a limited number of participants.

Books of knowledge
We understand the term “books of knowledge” in a very broad sense. The works belonging to this category were used as handbooks (or sources of information), as tools for orientation in different discourses, and to understand specific realms of the cosmos: theology, historiography, natural science, state-science, geography ... or all together. This category might be defined by the following criteria, based on the content of the texts and their function:

  • Intention: These works are not fictional narratives. Their intention is to mediate information about the visible or invisible world and explain its functioning.

  • Form: Generally, the “books of knowledge” are well-structured texts whose form can vary from hierarchically-arranged encyclopaedic entries, through the forms of dialogue or stylised letter, to the form of a chronologically or thematically-arranged narrative. The clear formalized textual or, as the case may be, graphical structure (e. g. chapters, rubrics or diagrams, columns...) is one of the formal aspects which is intended to simplify the complex issues and, thus, contribute to their better understanding by readers.

  • Genre: The “books of knowledge” may not be understood as a genre sui generis. On the contrary, they transgress textual categories (the mirrors of princes, chronicles, allegorical treatises, theological compendia, nature science compendia...). Their utility and intent to instruct remain their fundamental criteria. Both auctorial intentions and structural forms of such a writings construct framework organizing phenomena and affairs of the Creation and of the world into an intelligible order.

  • Reception: The knowledge presented in these works had already been simplified to the extent that their reader did not need any other interpretative tool to grasp it. Thanks to these works, their content (general as well as specific) penetrated the various levels of medieval society and was integrated into discourses distinct from those of the intellectual elite.

Pavlína Cermanová, Vojtěch Bažant, Jaroslav Svátek and Václav Žůrek

Supported from:
Project Transmission of Knowledge. The Fortune of Four Bestsellers in Late Medieval Czech Lands at the Centre for Medieval Studies, Prague

me Ioannes fecit AD 2010priserka