The project looks at self-commentaries as resulting from distinctive interactions between material cultural practices and economic/social organization in the Medieval urban world. Big medieval centers of learning, both East and West (e.g. Paris, Constantinople, Baghdad), show patterns of relationship between the cultural and the economic comparable to modern-world global cities. We focus on the tension between the individual’s embodied cultural capital (i.e. education, rhetorical prowess, self-fashioning) and institutionalized cultural capital (i.e. recognized by authorized educational agencies) to explain medieval authors’ need for self-exegetical practices. We also use the construct of life-story as developed in narrative psychology, reading identity as storied and narrated self. Dynamics of self-presentation are seen as both cross-cultural (they meet a need ingrained in our functioning) and culturally situated (the scripts scaffolding such stories change across time and space). By combining these approaches, we consider the “storied identity” presented in self-commentaries as a powerful tool to assert authors’ cultural capital against the overwhelming economic power of official educational institutions.
Building on these insights, this project focuses on 2 case-studies: the Syrian poet Abu al-Ala al Ma’arri (973-1057) and the Byzantine literatus John Tzetzes (ca 1100-1175). In spite of al Ma`arrī’s pre-eminence in Arabic literature, his self-reflective strategies are unexplored. Caught in a struggle for influence between political and cultural centers at Baghdad, Cairo, and Córdoba, al Ma`arrī’ was driven to self-assertion and to husbanding his own literary legacy in his provincial town. Equally, John Tzetzes struggled for recognition in the capital’s competitive environment of intellectuals gravitating around the Patriarchal school. The need for students and patronage induced him to author a monumental commentary on his own letter-collection, the Historiai. al Ma`arrī and Tzetzes are ideal case-studies for comparative work on the socio-cultural and material circumstances behind the emergence of authorial individuality and therefore self-commentaries.