The changing face of medieval Dutch narrative literature in the early period of print (1477-c. 1540)

Project Description


This FWO-NWO project aims to study, for the first time, the corpus of early printed Dutch narratives as a whole. Our corpus of Dutch early printed narratives consists of c. 40 texts, excluding collections of maxims and anecdotes (e.g. Ulenspieghel), dialogues (e.g. Salomon ende Marcolphus) and dramatic texts (e.g. Elckerlijc). While the oldest of the texts involved, the Historie van Alexander (Berlin, SBB-PK, 8° Inc 4894), was published as early as 1477, the dates of the latest ones coincide with the end of what Dutch scholars call the period of the post-incunabula (1501- c. 1540). As the printing of narratives in the early period of print is a cross-European phenomenon, we relate our observations to the results of scholarship on printed narratives in other European languages in order to find explanations for the diversity and the success of the early printed narratives, such as the popularity of specific literary themes and the appeal of features like lyric passages and woodcuts to the contemporary audience.

Our research focuses on three domains in particular:

1. The characteristics of the corpus The texts in the corpus are either adapted from a Dutch or a non-Dutch vernacular (English, French, German or Spanish) manuscript or printed edition. The reasons for this process of adjustment have never been studied exhaustively. We intend to detect the characteristics of the corpus, starting from questions as ‘Was the selection for printing of texts extant in manuscripts determined by their popularity?’, ‘Can we explain the Dutch translations of non-Dutch printed narratives by considering the international successes of these texts?’,  ‘Can it be argued that the Dutch printers selected narratives by the lists of individual international printing houses or on the basis of specific themes, like love and adventure?’ By comparing the corpus of Dutch narratives with the English, French, German and Spanish corpora we will identify cross-European favourites, and we aim at linking parallels and contrasts between the corpora to specific audiences or to religious, cultural or literary purposes and traditions.

2. Textual transformations Medieval narratives were often subjected to thorough adaptations when they went to press. Textual transformations include omissions, abbreviations, additions, transpositions, the change from verse to prose and the insertion of lyrical passages. The texts were, furthermore, given a more moralizing and/or more devotional meaning. As we intend to include the whole corpus in our research, we expect to discover both shared textual transformations and specific ones, depending on individual titles and/or printers. These transformations are, moreover, compared with the adaptation techniques in pre-print Middle Dutch narratives and in non-Dutch narratives.

3. Presentation strategies Printers across Europe applied various strategies to make their editions as attractive and accessible as possible. To this end they used paratextual elements such as title pages, prologues, chapter headings, tables of contents and illustrations. An innovative feature of our research is the analysis of the relationship between the use of paratextual elements and the narrative contents. Our findings, compared with international studies on the presentation strategies of non-Dutch printers, equip us to detect the opinions of printers on the characteristics of their audiences, such as their level of education, their expertise in relation to the interpretation of narrative literature, and their preferred reception practice (reading or listening or both).