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Ekphrasis: Literariness and Tradition in Late Medieval and Early Modern English Literature


The project examines the way knowledge changes and the way tradition is (trans)formed in English literature using the example of ekphrasis,  understood in its narrow sense as a literary description of (mostly imaginary) works of art.

Ekphrasis is here understood as a topos which not only organises knowledge and makes it accessible, but also keeps it flexible and makes it possible for it to be presented in new and changing literary contexts.

In the particular context of late Medieval and Early Modern literature, the appropriation, transformation  and fragmentation of the knowledge generated by the topos of ekphrasis is also a political process. This calls into question the implicit promise of topoi to relieve us of the burdens of history.

Since fundamental questions of cultural tradition and identity can be posed through the use of ekphrasis, it becomes a site on which history is debated on many levels –which also includes the question of the historicity of knowledge.

Based on this proposition, the importance of ekphrasis in English and middle-Scots literature of the 15th and early 16th centuries is twofold: firstly for its role in staging literariness, and secondly for its continued tradition in English literature since Chaucer.

The versatility of ekphrasis enables it to stimulate reflection on representation itself, to explore the similarities and differences between the arts, while also serving as a narratological structuring device.

There is a huge gap between the complex metapoetic and tradition-building use  of ekphrasis and its theoretical conceptualisation in antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where it was exclusively regarded as descriptio in the service of enargeia. It is the aim of this project to explore the potential of this gap.

The objective is to investigate ekphrasis as both the stage and the source of implicit theoretical knowledge of representation in literature, that can only be found in the transformation and fragmentation of tradition itself.

One of the leading theses of this project is that in the epochs named above ekphrasis is an immensely significant site where the content and principles of memory organisation and even the concept of traditionality are discussed. In this specific context, the system of topoi is unable to keep its ambivalent promise of freezing history, instead it becomes a stage upon which conflicts are enacted in which the aesthetic is the prime political motivator.

Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft