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OPVS Report Summary

Project ID: 263274
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: France

Final Report Summary - OPVS (Old Pious Vernacular Successes: best-selling vernacular religious literature in medieval Europe (1230-1450))

The main novelty of the OPVS project has been to give priority to documents which bear witness to the religious culture of later Middle Ages, but which had been neglected before our research – namely the religious books in the vernacular which had been the medieval readers’ favorites, and hence had been the most widely disseminated during the manuscripts era.
In consequence, our first goal and achievement have consisted in making a reliable census of such texts. In order to shun any anachronism or methodological bias, we have retained purely quantitative criteria enabling us both to measure the popularity of each vernacular religious texts in a specific linguistic area and to establish its having crossed several linguistic frontiers. Hence our exclusive and exhaustive selection of texts:
- extant in 80 manuscripts in at least one given linguistic area,
- and present in the vernacular in at least 3 different linguistic areas.
Six medieval religious texts in the vernacular meet both these criteria:
1. Henry Suso’s Büchlein der ewigen Weisheit (‘Little Book of Eternal Wisdom’) as well as the vernacular translations of his Horologium Sapientiae, a Latin rewriting of the Büchlein by its author himself,
2. the translations of Jacobus de Varagine’s Legenda aurea [‘Golden Legend’],
3. the translations of the Pseudo-Bonaventura’s Meditationes Vitae Christi (‘Meditations on the Life of Christ’),
4. the translations of the Vitas Patrum (‘Life of the Fathers’),
5. Friar Laurent, La Somme le roi or Livre des vices et des vertus (‘The King’s Summa’ or ‘Book of Vices and Virtues’), as well as its English and Dutch translations,
6. Guillaume Deguileville’s Pelerinage de vie humaine (‘The Pilgrimage of Human Life’) and its prose rendering, together with its German, English and Dutch translations.
These texts are significant in many ways, both individually and as a series. First of all, as a group, they prove a particular interconnectedness between the only 5 linguistic areas where vernacular religious texts reach such high scores in terms of extant manuscripts. In each of those five regions – namely the Dutch speaking, English speaking, French speaking, German speaking and Italian speaking areas –, at least 4 of the texts under consideration are present, and often the 6 of them are (in some cases, extant in a spade of manuscript copies). This extensive intersection between the religious literatures composed in or translated into 5 different vernacular languages provides a new understanding on the pan-European increase of the vernacular languages, both in quantitative and in symbolic terms. It also uncovers the roots of a widely shared culture, shedding new light on the common expectations of a very large range of readers, whatever their mother tongue, their social status, their knowledge or their position towards religious institutions.
Thanks to our census and systematic study of the manuscript traditions of the 6 text under consideration as attested in the 5 languages we gave priority to (a research published and made searchable by the Jonas database:, we are now able to provide a nuanced study of the audience reached by the most popular religious texts in the vernacular. The high demand for hagiography is striking both in terms of texts and manuscripts production in all of the areas under consideration. In all of them, the higher scores are hit by the total of Golden Legend plus Vitas patrum’s manuscripts, whatever their distribution. Though, at a later period (after 1400), the success of texts fostering meditation and individual spirituality starts to catch up with hagiography: translations from Henry Suso or vernacular versions of the Pseudo-Bonaventurian Meditationes spread in the area under our consideration. The didactic treatises belonging to our corpus (the allegorical poem written by Guillaume de Digulleville as well as the French Somme le roi) do not seem to have spread as massively as the previous two genres: very popular in the French and English speaking areas, they are either rare, or even absent, in Italy (where the Pilgrimage of Human Life was not to be found) and in the German speaking area (where the Somme le roi does not seem to have been translated at all). It suggests that readers living in the Dutch and German speaking areas, where the Modern Devotion and the Observant mouvement prevailed, may have been keener than others on meditation and hence they have shunned didactic treatises. The Italian situation is more specific, especially considering the Guillaume de Digulleville corpus: it seems that his Pilgrimage could not compeet with Dante’s poems.
The OPVS project has not only provided us with an insight into the deepest roots of a Western-European culture in the vernacular, transcending linguistic frontiers. It has also allowed us to assess the importance of these European texts as compared to the vernacular literature they are part of in each of the 5 linguistic areas we have been dealing with. In the German speaking area, the religious texts specific to this only region, some of them with a massive number of extant manuscript copies (some of them having crossed the porous Dutch-German linguistic border), come first, far ahead of our pan-European corpus; a specificity which places this area in obvious contrast with the interconnected French and English speaking areas.

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