Gaston Paris, or, the joys of 1880s Grand Philological Journals

I am very fond of the journal Romania, particularly in its late-19th-century heyday.

My fondness is personal as much as professional, and at least as subjective as it is the objective result of scholarly solidity and sound serious research. For I am a European and a mongrel, and I spent my formative years in a multilingual mongrel European country at the crossroads of Europe.

the Rhine

For most of my youth I lived actually physically on the language line; a line that dates back to the frontier between Roman colonisation and Roman conquest; nowadays, the infamous French-Flemish language-line. We lived a walk away from one of the great old north-south roads: old seasonal cattle-droving track and ley-line; Roman military and trade route; Medieval trade, pilgrimage, communications superhighway. We were not far from the other main ancient axes radiating outwards from the centre of Belgium, heading to every point of the compass. Belgium is a country whose rich identity is bound up with trade, traffic, accessibility, open dealings, talking to people, and doing so in their own language. A land of fine linguists and of multilingualism; with, yes, its other side in a long history of dodginess, espionage, and other diplomacy. It is unfortunate that the past couple of centuries’ recent history have moved matters and people towards divisions, and separation and separatism; it is, as ever, tempting to be flippant and blame Napoleon.

Belgium’s location and the natural assets of her physical geography have helped her be a (the?) centre and crossroads of Europe. They have also aided invasion and conquest by, well, pretty much everyone who’s ever moved from north to south, south to north, east to west, and occasionally also west to east. Over millenia. This is a much-trampled and battle-scarred land. One positive result is that it’s a place rich in genetic hybridity; albeit, like in all places of conquest and violent capture, not always in pleasant happy ways. Conquering-hero-culture is also rape anti-culture. This is a land of trampled and scarred people. A second result is a different and more sophisticated attitude to others’ national identities, and to the very idea of national identity: given that it’s only a matter of time before someone else comes along from elsewhere, and you have to change your superficial official formal nationality (and all its administrative associations) once again. One may become more cynical and jaundiced, or perhaps just sceptical and in a better position for relativism, or for a comparative/~ist frame of mind. Nationalism and national identity are for the big more-or-less stable entities; a definition of a superpower, as one that extends not only in space but also across a long time. Not for us small and mobile fish. That too is a kind of identity, a different approach to it: an identity that is apart from the mutability of the outside world and its political forces; something at one’s core that is secret, private and protected, whether or not one also engages in more overt acts of subversion, resistance, or any sort of obvious reaction against Big Fish nationalism and the traditional power of sovereignty and hegemony.

Small fish being more subversive: The crossroads approach is a  very different mentality from those associated with peoples / nations long-suffering under one single oppressor’s boot; one example of which would be that part of my genetic (and somewhat cultural) heritage that is Scottish and Irish. The Nothern Irish bit is a whole other kettle of fish. We are mixed there too. Like others from that geographical area, our history is one of frequent to constant migration, over millenia, around and about Dalriada and elsewhere in what is now Scotland and Ireland. This is pretty common for folks from that general neck of the woods; and one reason for amusement at (many, of course not all) expatriate North Americans who call themselves “Scottish” or “Irish” and claim to come from one specific place, and to have been Scots or Irish for ever.

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Hybridity and historical discontinuity may (like in certain areas of southern Europe) have some bearing on many Belgians’ sensitivity about identity: linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and racial. If one’s identity is less than clear, but it looks superficially like it might be, it’s understandable that you might feel touchy about it. (It is unforgivable to support far-right parties, though. Whatever your identity, however complicated or delicate it might be, you are still a human being and there are very definite limits to tolerance.)

Belgium shares these characteristics of mixing, movement, mongrels, and multilingualism with two other areas in western Europe: the south of France, a.k.a. Occitania, the region from the Aquitaine to Provence; and the east, along the Rhine. That is our link to Gaston Paris and philology in the 1880s. Many of his colleagues and correspondent-friends, such as Paul Meyer, are from Alsace-Lorraine: border territory, moving between France and Germany for centuries, and for all that time and longer the Rhine remains what it is: one of the major arteries of Europe for traffic; trade; and the movement of people, goods, services, and ideas. And its denizens? Multilingual, multi- and cross-cultural. From the Swiss Alps to the whole of the Netherlands. The Rhine lands, like Belgium, embody all that “free movement” policies of Europe stand for; what they stood for from the early days of the Treaty of Rome, the dark days of rebuilding Europe after the traumas of World War II, where policies and Grand Visions were worked on by (amongst others) people with a strong intellectual and cultural foundation in European history. Not so much the cliché version of a Roman Imperial model, as rehashed peridocally throughout European history and most recently just a few years before in Italy and Germany; that wound was still raw. But the other sides of the Roman Empire, that of the Pax Romana and as inherited / reborn / refashioned in the Carolingian empire; if you will permit me to put on my rose-tinted spectacles and my blinkers and pay due homage in this, the 1200th anniversary year of the death of Charlemagne. For anyone with my Eurobrat upbringing and indoctrination, Charlemagne is one of the “fathers” of Europe, and occupies a place in the pantheon alongside Saint Jean Monnet, Saint Robert Schumann, etc. (true fact: amongst my school’s official holidays were days off dedicated to the latter two). And his capital, for good sound practical geopolitical reasons, is at Aachen / Aix-la-Chappelle. A key position on the Rhine, in the heart of Moselle-Rhine-Alsace-Lorraine territory, in an area interesecting with that other European heartland, Belgium: see map above. Anyway. We are firmly in the stomping grounds of 19th-century Alsacians.

Romania is a journal of optimistic humanist bent; its issues have articles in many languages; its editorial board and most frequent contributors include a number of polyglot hybrids and borderliners like Meyer; all concerned are highly civilised evolved persons, regular readers in many languages and fields, curious about everything, conversant about most, and willing to converse with others. Like any materials of any bygone age, the writings of the 1870s and 1880s have characteristics of their time and place; many are just givens of habitual life and normality; many of these will be clunky, absurd, offensive. Anachronism is inevitable, even in the most “for all seasons” of writers and thinkers. So, yes, there’s imperalism and sexism, prejudice and ignorance, and even in the best of people you will still find homophobia and racism (or at best a disregard for a non-topic of no interest). Those things having been said: there’s also much of merit. The most meritorious element is in the journal existing at all. While based in France, it is a very European journal, on European philology, and it is characterised by what the 20th and 21st centuries will call comparative literature, critical theory, and cultural studies. It includes French and Germans (and border-both-people).

Here are some of its key issues from my favourite period, including those referred to in last Friday’s piece and some others of French romance / Arthurian import:

It’s outside copyright, and much of the rest of that early vintage is available from the BNF Gallica site. Here’s the index of material covered in the volumes from 1872-1901, just for a generous taster. My other great favourite is the polemical piece from the first issue, on the raison d’être of Romania. This volume is, alas, missing from the Gallica digitised set; to be remedied: a PDF of at least the Grand Polemic will appear here, late on… that is, probably next week…

The journal, please note and note well, is founded in 1872.



Incredibly cool.

Gobsmackingly awesome.


A year after the end of the Franco-Prussian war. Which ended with French defeat, the end of the Second Empire, the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, and the payment of reparations to Germany. Not, even in the Commune, a particularly pro-German or pan-European period.

Also in France in 1872: the institution of compulsory military service, without the possibility of buying a substitute to do one’s duty. Repression of the First International. Unsurprising in a post-war period while wounds heal: a wary conservatism. Not a time and a place where one would expect to find intellectual openness blossoming. Europe after the Second World War took several years to get to the Treaty of Rome; but there was a scholarly parallel to what happened with Romania in 1872. Refugee academics, mainly in North America, would write and publish works of a European, unificatory, and outward-looking persuasion. Some add in that other key enriching element of trans-national wise European-ness: Jewishness. Some are medievalists, like Auerbach and Curtius.

As with Romania‘s authors, some ideas will of course look dated; and some ideas will be seen as some as classic, by other as conservative. But, as with some other key thinkers from that period—Aron, Berlin, Popper, de Certeau—it may be more useful to think about such things as resistance, free-thinking, independent-mindedness, and an old-fashioned high-mindedness. It is often hardest to be high-minded when one is either not of any religious persuasion at all; or when one is trying to be properly tolerant, to extend hospitality to others, to offer inclusive space to all.

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It is easy to laugh at people for looking odd in photos, sporting hilarious facial hair and fashions, adopting silly poses. It’s less easy when you zoom in, as we in the digital age can do now, and look into their eyes. We’re used enough to doing that with other intelligent species, these days: so why not extend the same courtesy to our fellow human beings?

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A wonderful picture-book (there are words too), my favourite Christmas present this year, from The M.


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