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  • Le parchemin des cieux: Essai sur le Moyen Âge du langage by Benoît Grévin
  • Claire Gilbert
Benoît Grévin, Le parchemin des cieux: Essai sur le Moyen Âge du langage (Paris: Seuil 2012) 407 pp.

This ambitious and comprehensive book by a chargé de recherche at France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique takes on the systematic comparison of linguistic cultures in the Medieval Latin West and Classical Islam during the long span between the sixth and fifteenth centuries CE. Grévin’s intention is not to conduct a formal linguistic analysis, but rather, from the perspective of a historian, to analyze the dynamic sociolinguistic contexts in which each culture formed. The book, as indicated in the second title, is conceived as an essai, which in French academic writing has become a space for advancing new ideas, and Grévin’s book certainly opens a field for new ideas and analysis. The “parchment of the heavens” of the main title refers to the support on which angels composed their most mysterious messages, first invoked by Gilles de Rome in thirteenth-century Paris. Grévin later deploys the same image of heavenly writing when discussing the mystical ideologies around the developing concept of the state, which was supported by a large corps of scribes. By referring in the title to the heavenly text imagined by theologians and scribes, he sets up his arguments about the way in which language was idealized as a perfectible medium in both Islamic and Christian societies, and how such ideologies relied upon and fostered social hierarchies. Through numerous examples from various traditions, Grévin effectively demonstrates that, taken together, the cultural space occupied by Christendom and Islam in the medieval period spawned comparable traditions of linguistic thinking and practices that had a very real effect on the way that social and intellectual hierarchies were normalized, and vice versa.

This complex and ambitious book will be appreciated not only by medievalists but by historians of all periods who are interested in the role of language and linguistic thinking in history, as well as by linguists, anthropologists, scholars of the different literary traditions analyzed here (Arabic, Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Turkish, Ottoman, Persian), and some scholars who work on the history of media and communication. Grévin’s arguments are clear, and he has worked hard to organize his text so that the complex subject matter is as accessible as possible. To do this, he uses many specialized terms, which are identified throughout the text with an asterisk, and for which he has provided a glossary. He has developed a set of his own conceptual terms in order to replace the concept of diglossia, which he finds too binary to handle the way that language was actually used in medieval societies. Instead, he invokes a more plastic three-tiered system, of langue référentielle, langue courtoise, and a third tier that he refers to as locale. He does not wholly eschew the diglossic binary, however, using frequently the term vulgaire to oppose référentielle. To this three-part division is added the langue véhiculaire, to denote a language of interaction between communities, of which English on the global scale is the paramount contemporary example, though in the medieval period these languages were more likely to be those used in commerce and military organizations. He also invokes metaphors of circulation and economics, and develops a cyclical model where his referential, courtly, and local registers are imperfectly nested circles that mutually influence one another where they intersect. [End Page 276]

The book is structured in five parts, which together offer a sequential analysis of medieval linguistic cultures. In order, Grévin unfolds his analysis of 1) the sociolinguistic structures of each linguistic culture and, in particular, how these structures engender hierarchies, 2) traditions of linguistic thinking, and the mutual influence between this thinking and the rhythms of daily life, 3) education and the inculcation of linguistic habitus that in turn shape, 4) practices and professions of textual creation. Lastly, while juggling a desire both to maintain the comparative structure of his book and engage with the history of transferts culturels, he takes...


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pp. 276-278
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