Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Oral literature : Philhellenic

  • Popular culture (Oral literature)Philhellenic
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    Maufroy, Sandrine
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    Enthusiasm for folk literature in European intellectual circles, a Byron-inspired interest in Greek life under Ottoman rule, and collaboration with diaspora Greek scholars triggered the rise of the Philhellenic study of Greek oral literature. The first published systematic compilation of Greek folk songs, Fauriel’s Chants populaires de la Grèce moderne (Paris 1824-25), continued earlier projects of Simonde de Sismondi, Jean Alexandre Buchon, and Werner von Haxthausen: texts and ideas circulated within a network of intellectual relationships including Andrea Mustoxidi, August Wilhelm Schlegel, Goethe, Jacob Grimm, Jernej Kopitar, and Victor Cousin. Two groups of Greek scholars living in Paris and Vienna played a decisive role in the transmission, redaction, and commentary of the texts; sponsored by Andrea Mustoxidi, the project came successively into the hands of Sismondi, Fauriel, and Niccolò Tommaseo. Fauriel was, thus, to some extent a mere outlet for Greek scholars canvassing the goodwill and support of western European philologists. However, he also painstakingly gathered material himself from his own Greek contacts. Fauriel’s collections, and in particular his lengthy Discours préliminaire, became a benchmark, inspiring new translations and adaptations in French and in other languages, new compilations of Greek folk songs as well as philological and historical studies, and indeed a vogue for similar Chants populaires from other languages.

    In the compilations and translations made in the first half of the 19th century, Greek folk songs are examined from three main viewpoints: as historical information about Greek society, as important specimens (“monuments”) of the language in which they were composed, and as literary “monuments”. Within Greece, the song material soon became part of the campaign, provoked by the sceptical revisionism of Jacob Fallmerayer, to demonstrate the continuity between ancient and modern Greece.

    Western post-Fauriel commentators paid particular attention to the songs termed “klephtic” (songs related to bandits living in the mountains and refusing to submit to Ottoman rule), because they seemed to prove the thirst for liberty and the courage of the Greek population – a Byronic-Romantic view of rebellious libertarianism also attached to the hajduk figures of neighbouring societies.

    Fauriel himself, and later commentators such as Wilhelm Müller and Karl Theodor Kind, drew upon their editions to develop philological arguments about the development of the Greek language. They saw Modern Greek in its several dialectal variants as a decadent form of the perfect language they thought Classical Greek to have been, and studied the folk song material for clues for how to “regenerate” the language. Kind endorsed the “middle way” proposed by Adamantios Koraīs between directly reproducing contemporary speech and writing Classical Greek – a compromise on which the official “purified language” (katharevousa) of the Greek state was to be based.

    Editors and translators noted the unusual, “bizarre” literary effect that these folk songs had for modern, middle-class European readers. They vindicated this literary quality by claiming that Greek folk songs were the pure expression of “the voice of nature”, and mitigated it by adapting their translations to the taste and habits of their reading public. Greek songs were supposed to have their origins in the depths of the national character and to be the expression of a young, naive, strong, and healthy people. As a consequence, several authors thought that they could inspire and strengthen Greek literature, or even, as Louise Swanton-Belloc wrote (in Bonaparte et les Grecs, 1826), regenerate European civilization.

    Word Count: 558

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  • Ibrovac, Miodrag; Claude Fauriel et la fortune européenne des poésies populaires grecque et serbe: Etude d’histoire romantique suivie du cours de Fauriel professé en Sorbonne (1831-1832) (Paris: Didier, 1966).

    Maufroy, Sandrine; Le philhellénisme franco-allemand, 1815-1848 (Paris: Belin, 2011).

    Politīs, Alexīs; Ī anakalypsī tōn ellīnikōn dīmotikōn tragoudiōn: Proypotheseis, prospatheies kai ī dīmiourgia tīs prōtis syllogīs (Athens: Themelio, 1999).

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Maufroy, Sandrine, 2022. "Oral literature : Philhellenic", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 03-04-2022, consulted 12-08-2022.