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2006-07 Humanities Research Groups

"Epic and History,
Ancient and Medieval"

Sponsor: Program in Ancient Studies

Co-sponsors: Cogut Center for the Humanities, The Programs in Medieval Studies and Judaic Studies, The Departments of Classics, Comparative Literature, Egyptology and Ancient West Asian Studies, English, French, German, History, Italian Studies, Hispanic Studies and Slavic Studies

Coordinators: Kurt Raaflaub, Classics and History; Director of Ancient Studies Program

David Konstan, Classics and Comparative Literature; Director of Modern Greek Studies Program

Michel-André Bossy, Comparative Literature

      Heroic epics have existed in many cultures from antiquity to our own days.  Few attempts have been undertaken so far to compare these epics systematically and from various perspectives or to establish a "typology" of heroic epic.  Nor has anyone undertaken a systematic effort to determine to what extent heroic epics reflect history or, more generally, what kind of historical information, if any, we can retrieve from such epics, and what methodologies we can use to achieve this.  Understandably: each epic is imbued with, and thus reflects, the specific conditions of the culture that produced it, and adequate interpretation is impossible without thorough familiarity with that culture.  But if we want to understand the relationship between epic and history we cannot avoid using comparisons.

      The evidence available in antiquity is often incapable of providing sufficient answers to many of the questions historians need to ask of it.  The same is true for ancient West and South Asian heroic epics, which seem fraught with even more uncertainty.  Roman heroic and historical epic, literary and not based on an oral poetic tradition, and consciously competing with earlier Greek models, at first sight seems an entirely different matter.  Yet it shares with all other epic traditions an abiding interest in, and critical distance from, the poets’ and audiences’ own times.  Medieval epics (such as the Nibelungenlied, the Chanson de Roland, or El Cid) provide a better base for the analysis of historical issues.  Independent historical evidence exists both about the events at the core of these epic traditions and about the social conditions at the time of these events and at the time when the epics received their final form.  Comparison between such external and the epics' internal evidence permits us to perceive correspondences and differences.

      In addition, poetic, heroic, and epic traditions still existed in the recent past and continue to be fostered today in various parts of the world.  Serbo-Croation epic traditions were studied in detail in the early twentieth century by American and European scholars and offered a plethora of insights that transformed our understanding of the history and poetic techniques underlying Homeric epic.  At least one epic was composed about a crucial episode of partisan resistance against German occupiers on Crete in the Second World War, elevating the event into heroic dimensions and illuminating the possibility of instant mythologization.  Oral poetic traditions are still alive in modern Egypt and South Africa, offering more insights into the process of the treatment of history in narrative poetry.

     This Humanities Research Group, in tandem with a large conference at Brown University, will make a conscious effort, the first to our knowledge, to take full advantage of the potential of cross-cultural comparison in order to gain new insights into the important topic of "epic and history."  The conference will bring together leading scholars on epic traditions in ancient West and South Asia, the Greco-Roman world, the medieval world, and the modern world.  The Research Group will discuss many of the theoretical questions in advance of the conference, and help prepare for the editing of the proceedings of the conference, to which will be added papers circulated to members of the Research Group.

      The Research Group plans to meet several times during the fall of 2006, beginning in mid-September.  Conference dates: first weekend in December, 2006. For actual days, times and venues, check Events.