First known as a kephalaion in Greek, capitulum or caput in Latin, the chapter arose in antiquity as a finding device within long, often heterogenous prose texts, prior even to the advent of the codex. By the 4th century ce, it was no longer unusual for texts to be composed in capitula; but it is with the advent of the fictional prose narratives we call the novel that the chapter, both ubiquitous and innocuous, developed into a compositional practice with a distinct way of thinking about biographical time. A technique of discontinuous reading or “consultative access” which finds a home in a form for continuous, immersive reading, the chapter is a case study in adaptive reuse and slow change. One of the primary ways the chapter became a narrative form rather than just an editorial practice is through the long history of the chaptering of the Bible, particularly the various systems for chaptering the New Testament, which culminated in the early 13th century formation of the biblical chaptering system still in use across the West. Biblical chapters formed a template for how to segment ongoing plots or actions which was taken up by writers, printers, and editors from the late medieval period onward; pivotal examples include William Caxton’s chaptering of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur in his 1485 printing of the text, or the several mises en proses of Chrétien de Troyes’s poems carried out in the Burgundian court circle of the 15th century. By the 18th century, a vibrant set of discussions, controversies, and experiments with chapters were characteristic of the novel form, which increasingly used chapter titles and chapter breaks to meditate upon how different temporal units understand human agency in different ways. With the eventual dominance of the novel in 19th-century literary culture, the chapter had been honed into a way of thinking about the segmented nature of biographical memory, as well as the temporal frames—the day, the year, the episode or epoch—in which that segmenting occurs; chapters in this period were of an increasingly standard size, although still lacking any formal rules or definition. Modernist prose narratives often played with the chapter form, expanding it or drastically shortening it, but these experiments usually tended to reaffirm the unit of the chapter as a significant measure by which we make sense of human experience.
So strong is the cultural desire for an independent and original theory of comedy that Aristotle is imagined to have penned, aside from his glancing treatments of comedy in the Poetics, a critical assessment of the genre, now lost. The symbolic absence of this presumed Aristotelian treatise speaks volumes for the near unattainability of such a critical endeavor. Comedy is at times conceptualized as a generative “umbrella” genre that subsumes other adjoining modes of literary figuration—satire, parody, romance, irony, joke, word play, farce, and stand-up—all while being routinely subject to cultural and theoretical conflation with humor, laughter, amusement, wit, and other physiological as well as intellectual triggers or responses to the comic. The generic contours of comedy are ever-expanding and helplessly slippery. Comedy embodies divergences and dualities. Its anthropological association with fertility rituals at its generic inception suggests privilege and respectability, but Plato’s prejudice against comedy as fit for slaves and outcasts, together with Aristotle’s identification of comedy with lowliness and ugliness, conditions the perception of the genre as relatively vulgar, inferior, and base when examined alongside its nobler counterpart, tragedy. Comedy’s capacity to channel expressions for behavioral deviation in the Feasts of Fools qualifies the genre as a social subversive, but that comedy is conducive to societal stability as a safety valve for discontentedness and insurgence proves that the genre wields the potential of a social fixative. Comedy is said to be grounded on malice and superiority, but playwrights throughout the ages have used it to advance virtue. It is in and between these seemingly irreconcilable contradictions that theoretical abstractions of this elusive genre may be attempted.
Lars Boje Mortensen
Medieval European literature is both broader and deeper in its basis than what is usually offered in literary histories with their focus only on a narrow canon and on vernacular languages. One way to see this bigger canvas is to consider technical and statistical book-historical factors together with the authority of the two Roman Empires (Western and Eastern) and of their religious hierarchies (the papacy and the patriarchate). A coordinated reading of developments in the Latin West and the Greek East—though rarely directly related—brings out some main features of intellectual and literary life in most of Europe. With this focus, a literary chronology emerges—as a supplement to existing narratives based on either national or formal (genre) concerns: the period c. 600 to c. 1450 can be considered a unity in book-historical terms, namely the era dominated the hand-written codex. It is also delimited by the fate of the Roman Empire with the Latin West effectively separated from the Greek Empire by c. 600 and the end of Constantinople in 1453. Within this broad framework, three distinctive phases of book- and intellectual history can be discerned: the exegetical (c. 600–c. 1050), the experimental (c. 1050–c. 1300), and the critical (c. 1300–c. 1450). These three headings should be understood as a shorthand for what was new in each phase, not as a general characteristic, especially because exegesis in various forms continued to lie at the heart of reading and writing books in all relevant languages.
As well as sources for the study of the period, Renaissance archives are a subject of scholarly inquiry in their own right. Early modernists have increasingly appreciated the significance of a knowledge of record-keeping practices in research, and how an understanding of archives as contingent and culturally specific warrants reading their history, organization, and uses as mirrors (perhaps distorting ones) of culture, politics, and society. Renaissance archives make up a heterogeneous and dispersed panorama of sources ranging from administrative documents and official records to personal papers and private collections. Examples are the archive of the d’Este family, initiated in the mid-15th century and preserved in the 19th-century building of the Archivio di Stato di Modena, or the Archivo General de Simancas, founded in the 16th century and still located in the same 15th-century castle where it was originally established. The unprecedented development of public and private record-keeping during the Renaissance made archives ubiquitous and an inescapable part of the lives of many. The proliferation of archives must be connected with cultural and political changes such as the spread of literacy, the growth in size and complexity of states and institutions, and developments in the organization and management of the records. War, fires, and accidental destruction have severely damaged valuable materials, while dismemberment and reorganization have compromised entire collections; however, Renaissance archives have been reintegrated into modern institutions and still shape them in many ways. Focusing on archival practices rather than on archives as products enables us to view the history of archives in Europe as a series of transformations in which to identify elements of continuity and phases of rupture.
Dennis Austin Britton
There is no single understanding of race to which everyone subscribes; it is a protean concept, accommodating various notions of human difference at the historical moments in which they emerge. Literary texts therefore do not represent a singular racial epistemology shared among Renaissance authors, readers, and audiences; rather, they demonstrate conflicting views about race, how it is determined, and what it tells us about individuals and groups of people. Scholars of Renaissance literature have explored what concepts of race do in specific cultural contexts, and the various ways racial differences were represented and understood before the advent of racial science in the late 17th century. Renaissance usages of the words race, raza, razza, and their linguistic equivalents denote, in their most benign sense, genealogy and lineage. Usages of these terms, nevertheless, locate individuals within genealogical and biological networks and insist that such networks are important to social organization. Race works as a tool for social organization that justifies varied types of domination, and in the Renaissance it drew from and informed established discourses of power—primarily religion, gender, and class. The concept bares vestiges of the word’s original definitions, asserting that certain aspects of identity are inheritable and inalterable, and then uses those aspects of identity to naturalize social hierarchies—White over Black, Christian over non-Christian, European over non-European. Race thus is a concept that intersects with cultural, somatic, sexual, and religious difference, and the Renaissance may be understood as a moment when race competes for dominance as a system of classification, justifying the rights of individuals and groups to rule over, disenfranchise, violate, and enslave others.
The eddas and sagas are literary works written in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries but incorporating memories preserved orally from preliterate times of (a) Norse myths, in prose and verse form, (b) heroic lays with common Germanic roots, (c) raiding and trading voyages of the Viking Age (800–1030 CE), and (d) the settlement of Iceland from Norway, Britain, and Ireland starting from the 870s and of life in the new country up to and beyond the conversion to Christianity in the year 1000. In their writing, these works show the influence of the learning and literature introduced to Iceland from the 11th century on through the educational system of the medieval Church. During these centuries, the Icelanders translated the lives of the principal saints, produced saga biographies of their own bishops, and recorded accounts of events and conflicts contemporary with their authors. They also produced conventional chronicles on European models of the kings of Norway and Denmark and large quantities of works, both translated and original, in the spirit of medieval chivalry. The eddas and sagas, however, reflect a unique and original departure that has no direct analogue in mainland Europe—the creation of new works and genres rooted in the secular tradition of oral learning and storytelling. This tradition encompassed the Icelanders’ worldview in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries and their understanding of events, people, and chronology going back to the 9th century, and their experience of an environment that extended over the parts of the world known to the Norsemen of the Viking Age, both on earth and in heaven. The infrastructure that underlay this system of learning was a knowledge of the regnal years of kings who employed court poets to memorialize their lives, and stories that were told in connection with what people observed in the heavens and on earth, near and far, by linking the stories with individual journeys, dwellings, and the genealogies of the leading protagonists. In this world, people here on earth envisaged the gods as having their halls and dwellings in the sky among the stars and the sun, while beyond the ocean and beneath the furthest horizon lay the world of the giants. In Viking times, this furthest horizon shifted little by little westwards, from the seas around Norway and Britain to the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, and eventually still farther south and west to previously unknown lands that people in Iceland retained memories of the ancestors having discovered and explored around the year 1000—Helluland, Markland, and Vínland—where they came into contact with the native inhabitants of the continent known as North America.
In the history of the book, indexes emerged as a result of a number of developments in paratexts and organization. The earliest examples of this device varied significantly in layout, organization, and textual form. While various kinds of tables of contents are attested in the ancient world, the index is a much later innovation. The earliest use of indexes is found in legal and then scholastic and patristic texts in continental Europe; they were particularly useful for university students and preachers. Indexes served as aids to help them navigate the growing corpus of legal and theological compilations and commentaries. However, their format and function were variable: the manuscript evidence shows a great degree of experimentation, combining alphabetic, vocalic, and systematic orders of arrangement. In the early modern period, with increasing anxieties about how to organize and manage information, treatises instructed readers how to compile an index. In turn, from the 16th century and well into the 18th, writers cautioned against an excessive reliance on these book aids in lieu of reading the whole books and lampooned so-called “index learning.” The use of indexes in Greek, Hebrew, and Islamic book culture only began in earnest in the early modern period.