Our Vision


At RELICS we believe research is about dialogue. So, we decided we would rather let you in the discussions we have with each other. How so? Some of the keywords below are accompanied with footnotes that variably either defend our position on certain choices, or expose our more vulnerable flanks. If you feel like joining in on that discussion, drop us a message at relicsresearch@ugent.be!

The international research network[1] RELICS (Researchers of European Literary Identities,[2]Cosmopolitanism and the Schools) constitutes an open and multidisciplinary[3] network of scholars who share an interest for the dynamic[4] role of Latin as a cosmopolitan[5] literary and cultural language in Europe and its interaction with other literary languages that share this status in Europe or others parts of the world—for instance, Arabic, Hebrew-Yiddish-Ladino and Byzantine Greek—as well as the European vernaculars. The key term in RELICS’s acronym is ‘cosmopolitanism,’ a term here designating the ability of Latin to create a common literary identity shared by people from different times, places, and linguistic backgrounds in Europe, sustained by a tradition of Latin schooling. RELICS’s scope of research is consciously holistic and aims to cover the breadth and diversity of the literary history of the entire Latinitas across traditional periodic demarcations (from antiquity until modern times) and across the boundaries of cultures, geographical territories, religions, and institutional or political constellations.

European Literary Identities

With a deliberately open scope, the research network RELICS seeks to reveal the literary nerve system of Europe.[6] Our hypothesis is that Latin was crucial to the formulation of literary identities and cultural communities by people from various places and times in European history. We aim to assess the processes whereby people in Europe used aspects of Latin literature, education, and language to construct parts of their identity, and how these constructions differed from others and changed over time.[7] We also want to investigate when and why Latin writers appropriated or abandoned an identity that builds on the idea of Europe as a geographical or cultural unity.[8] This approach, which must cross borders, languages, and cultures, allows us to explore the fragmented literary history of Europe in a more dynamic way than the nationalistic paradigms which often dominated traditional philology, and which still exert considerable influence in literary scholarship today.[9]


Early on in its history, Latin literary culture reached a ‘cosmopolitan’ status. It was first of all an acquired language, taught and learned by means of a normative literary tradition institutionalized in the Church, schools and courts. It also provided a common, authoritative written lingua franca in Europe.[10] RELICS explores what ‘Latin cosmopolitanism’ is, both by 1) addressing what it means to characterize a historical literary culture as ‘cosmopolitan,’ but also by 2) addressing which characteristics are unique to ‘Latin cosmopolitanism’ and unique for Europe’s literary history.

1) The first objective implies the conceptual embedding of cosmopolitanism, a contested scholarly term with a long history, incorporating an inherent tension between inclusion and exclusion. Precisely that tension is why cosmopolitanism offers such an applicable angle to approach Latin literary history with. Alongside Latin’s qualifications to include people from different linguistic, cultural, geographical, and religious backgrounds through the tradition of schooling, Latin has also nourished mechanisms of exclusion, showcasing certain elitist, hegemonic and imperialistic tendencies throughout Europe’s history.[11] RELICS examines at what expense and under which conditions the privilege of ‘citizenship’ to this Latin literary ‘cosmos’ was regulated, and which were the prescriptive forces that allowed or disallowed access.

2) The second point digs deeper into what kinds of dynamics Latin generated in its unique role within the literary landscape of Europe and its border zones and contact zones. Attention is given to the interaction with competing ‘cosmopolitan’ literary languages, most importantly Arabic, Hebrew and Greek. Moreover, attention is paid to the dialogue between Latin literary culture and the vernaculars from the early Middle Ages onward.[12] How did the cosmopolitan literary culture of Latin affect, accelerate and decelerate the rise of literatures within the vernaculars? How did the negation and exchange between the all-embracing Latin culture and the initially smaller but quickly developing vernacular cultures evolve, both on an aesthetic and socio-cultural level?


Latin, in its literary usage, has for most of its history been an artificial language on life support in the schools. RELICS aims to explore the impact of education on the use of Latin within European literary culture. From its moment of institutionalization in the first century, schooling in Latin forms a leitmotiv throughout European history, only losing its omnipresent status in the past two centuries. Schooling in Latin provided authors—also the ones who only published in the vernacular languages—with a standard equipment of knowledge, and a background, through and against which they made their own literary creations. At the same time, schooling was a means to initiate people from a diversity of linguistic, cultural, geographical, and religious[13] backgrounds in a common culture of learning and tradition (and to exclude others). RELICS wants to examine, amongst other things, how the physical and metaphorical Latin classroom informed methods of writing and reading literature—not just Latin, but also other (vernacular) languages—, in what ways authors confirmed and emancipated from the norms implied by their education, if and to what extent schooling shaped a sort of ‘cultural memory’ shared by a European intellectual public, and the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion inherent to the process of shaping a ‘common’ European literary identity.


No historical research is impartial and apolitical. Especially a subject like Latin has a long and specific history of conservatism, Eurocentrism, nationalism, and imperialism attached to its use.[14] As researchers we are aware of the pitfalls this may cause. We aim to avoid these by striving for diversity in the network and its organisational structure, bringing together scholars from different countries and specializing in different periods, geographical areas and languages. Moreover, the research network aims to go beyond the boundaries of research domains and academic disciplines, which have often been bound to chronological periods, languages or geographical areas. Central in this respect is the search for concepts that can capture the broader shifts and impulses within the literary and cultural landscape of Europe. These concepts offer not just the possibility to open a scientific debate beyond traditional academic boundaries, they are also valuable starting points to think with and reflect upon why we, as 21st-century scholars, precisely choose to work with these concepts. What is the relationship between our object of investigation and our method of investigation? What can we self-reflectively learn about ourselves as modern scholars by conceptually studying the European literary past?


[1] RELICS prefers to identify itself as a ‘network’ rather than a closed ‘group,’ because it strives to unite its members by a common interest for its core research subjects without necessarily requiring them to be specialized in those subjects (which are often too large in scope).

[2] We consciously decline identity in the plural, to account for the varied character that literary identities could assume within the interaction of Latin with other languages in Europe.

[3] Not necessarily interdisciplinary, but multidisciplinary, involving disciplines such as literature, (historical) linguistics, history, art history, philosophy, religious studies, theology and other disciplines relevant to the questions studied within RELICS.

[4] ‘Dynamic,’ because the Latin literary tradition is not static. Often, it strikes us as evasive, and even contradictory or difficult to categorize. It exhibits a long-lived and varied literary production, demonstrating a rich palette of experimentation, alongside a seemingly contradictory return to and entrenchment in a classical tradition. Latin is also dynamic in that its inclusiveness as a lingua franca —its ability to connect and find common ground— existed alongside its tendency to paternalize and dominate, or in other words, to nourish inequality.

[5] What is cosmopolitanism, exactly, and how does it relate to similar methodological concepts such as ‘global’, ‘world literature,’ ‘transnationalism,’ or even ‘comparative literature’? Although cosmopolitanism is a contested term, we found it more applicable to Latin that the aforementioned alternatives. What strongly surfaces in this discussion of suitability of terms and concepts, is that different terms work better for different historical periods. ‘Transnationalism,’ for instance, with its explicit referral to the ‘nation state’, has an anachronistic ring to it when applied to premodern literatures. ‘World literature,’ coined by Goethe in the 19th century, grants an exceptionally strong (yet not restrictive) impact to industrial, technical and globalizing trends as perceived within literary circulation only from the advance of print onward. More than other concepts, cosmopolitanism has the advantage of cross-cultural applicability and timelessness, which makes it particularly apt for Latin. Nevertheless, we realize ‘cosmopolitanism’ comes with its proper problems as well. While Latin exhibits a sense of inclusion —potentially anyone can become a ‘citizen of the world’ or ‘cosmos’— Latin simultaneously has a history of exclusion with imperial and prescriptive connotations. In that sense, Latin is not strictly a ‘world language,’ being very much a Christian, ‘sacred’ language centred in Western Europe, spoken and written by a religious and intellectual elite.

[6] Precisely how to define this ‘Europe’ is part of the debate. Is Europe just a geographically demarcated continent, even when considering its boundaries are rather fluid? Or does it carry a metaphorical meaning, where ‘Europe’ embodies an entity defined by a common literary and intellectual culture? This not only raises the question what is meant by such notions as the “larger Western world,” but it also draws attention to what just falls outside of this world, in other words, regions of contact in which Latin’s hegemony is contested and where it encounters competing literatures. zones, located in the geographical margin or subjected to colonization such as the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Americas continue to challenge the notion of what is Europe.

[7] Latin surely played a pivotal role in the history of European identity formation(s). On the one hand, it provides constancy and unity, through recurring patterns and topoi that allow us to speak of a Latin literary culture, even though Latin is not connected to a particular nation. At the same time, Latin literary culture is highly fragmented. Latin, a culture without a nation, offers in our view a grip to interpret a fragmented European history, where constancy with its fixed forms of tradition is challenged by continuous cultural negotiation.

[8] Appropriation of Latin does not unilaterally showcase the idea of an eternal European unity. It can be put to use for nationalistic agendas as well. One may consider what Latin becomes in the hands of Benito Mussolini in fascist Italy (1922–1943), but European history testifies to subtler and many more ways in which the power of Latin was used to legitimize various instances of rulership. Precisely because it can create the illusion of ahistorical sacrality and continuation, it can also act as a weapon. Abandonment of Latin, on the other hand, the option not to write in Latin but in the vernacular, for instance, can also send a powerful message concerning identity.

[9] Not in the least due to practical, modern-day disciplinary divisions in academic scholarship.

[10] Is Latin just a lingua franca? One may question that, especially as the term has been used to describe the function of English in our contemporary globalized world. Are those two really of the same status?

[11] Who excluded and who was excluded, or which societal orders / institutional mechanisms were responsible for this exclusion? This raises intricate questions on the usefulness of pointing fingers and finding culprits for past events. Approaching Latin literary history from an all too moralistic and ideologically charged, anachronistic perspective, runs the risk of simplification. But the worse option seems not to pursue the question of what can be said of Latin’s true potential to exclude.

[12] The vernacularisation of literature in Europe is overwhelmingly clear from the second half of the twelfth century onward, but Latin already came into contact with literary vernaculars much earlier, for instance in the cases of Greek, Old English, Welsh, Irish, Old Slavonic and Old Norse.

[13] Although Latin can rightfully be called a Christian language, it has also been a medium to facilitate the exchange of religious ideas. A very early and striking example is that the 12th-century abbot Peter the Venerable, of the powerful abbey of Cluny, commissioned a team to translate the first Qu’ran known in Latin.

[14] Although Europe and Latin are intrinsically linked, and RELICS focuses both on Latin and European literary identities, we cannot and do not want to be unthinkingly Eurocentric in our approaches and methodology. We do not comply with a worldview that is centred on Western civilization or a biased view that favours it over non-western civilizations.

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