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The Tower of Babel and the Renaissance sense of self

Marjorie Rubright recently received a coveted fellowship that will allow her to study original copies of Renaissance rare books at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

In the story of the Tower of Babel, humankind tries to build a tower to the heavens. God intervenes, causing people to speak in a confusion of tongues and scattering them across the face of the earth.

Marjorie Rubright thinks that the Biblical story served as more than just a warning against human arrogance. During the Renaissance it also affected how people understood the nature of language, and even how they perceived themselves as part of their larger world.

“Prime among Europe’s narratives of the cultural history of language was the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. It was, for Judeo-Christians, their first globalization narrative, and one that powerfully shaped ideas of self and other in the Renaissance,” says Rubright, an associate professor in the Department of English.

Rubright recently received a coveted fellowship to research her second book, A World of Words: Language, Globalization, and the English Renaissance at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The Huntington has one of the largest collections of Renaissance rare books in English in North America, and funds researchers to study there. Rubright will go to the Huntington to conduct her research next year.

“The questions motivating my research are about how ideas about the cultural history of language provided the English with a framework by which they came to understand themselves in relation to others,” she says. During the European “age of exploration,” European travelers spread their languages across the globe, and also returned home to publish grammars and dictionaries of languages from Malay to Algonquin.

Religious tradition holds that after Babel people spoke 72 different languages. As Europeans explored the world they began to wonder which were the original languages, which were descended from them, and how they were related to one another.

For the English, all of this came at a time when they were trying figure out their own identity in a globalizing world. In previous work, Rubright has looked at the English fascination with the Dutch, who were seen as both closely related but also intensely foreign.

In a similar way, she says, dictionaries, phrase books and other language books at the time shift between looking for differences between languages and looking for similarities.

“In the Renaissance, ideas about language provided a basis for how people were constructing themselves in relation and in opposition to others,” she says.

At the Huntington, Rubright will be able to study original copies of the rare books she’s interested in.

“What’s wonderful about rare book libraries like the Huntington is that I can open volume after volume, and consider works across a large historical span, side-by-side. In my experience, I often discover patterns—and anomalies—this way. When I’m searching a book online, or when I’m reading an edited version, important aspects of the book’s history, like differences between early modern editions, are sometimes simply lost from view.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough