Methodological Background

One of the goals of the Early Text Cultures project is to contribute towards the development of a common terminology and a framework of scholarly investigation of early text cultures that will consider features shared across several cultures, as well as traits specific to individual cultures. The project is founded on certain observations and methodological assumptions, which we hope to develop and refine as the discussion unfolds.

Across ancient cultures, the production of written text was mediated by socio-cultural factors stimulating and constraining the possibilities of expression. While not downplaying cultural differences, it becomes apparent that many ancient societies share certain socio-cultural developments influencing the production of texts. Likewise, some of their textual types are strikingly similar. These parallels can be extremely helpful to modern researchers who understand that a ‘straight’ reading of ancient texts often produces limited interpretations. Therefore, it is fruitful to produce synthetic cross-cultural frameworks to understand text types. So far, the potential for such comparative studies has been surprisingly underexploited. In particular, systematic comparison of shared text types in ancient cultures that did not have apparent influence on each other (such as Egypt and China) seems to be virtually absent, despite the fact that these texts confront us with very similar problems.

For example: Why did these texts emerge? Can we speak of universal text types? If so, to what extent are similarities in typological characteristics the result of similar socio-cultural factors? How did comparable functional niches favour certain types of textual formation, transmission and application over others? To what extent are similarities in text types the result of comparable material conditions? In what manner do similar developments in the role and training of scribes affect textual production?

ETC addresses these issues by looking into the patterns of emergence of commensurate text types across different parts of the pre-modern world. In particular, we aim to understand the intended audience, the social contexts of textual production and transmission, and the structural patterns and performative features related to each of the text types. Comparable factors such as materiality, generic convention, and the role of scribes in different civilizations are likewise taken into account.