CanOT (Canonicity Over Time)
Canonicity is an ongoing focus of reflection in literary history. What gives cultural ‘masterpieces’ their prestige? Is it based on their inner merits? If so, are those merits of an ethical, moral nature (the ability to teach us wisdom or virtues, and to edify us), or are the achievements aesthetic: beauty, elegance or emotive power? How do these moral and aesthetic qualities relate to each other? Can you have one without the other? Or is canonicity just a question of luck – a Darwinistic survival in the literary marketplace because of social endorsement related to taste, power relations, fashion, and celebrity?
The challenge of this project was to try and approach the question of canonicity without relying on value judgements, moral or aesthetic, or sociological hypotheses. Canonicity can be tracked over time by the capacity of a ‘masterpiece’ to stimulate continuing engagement: generating reprints, translations, adaptations, commemorative events, author’s biographies etc. etc. etc. The KB’s extensive holdings of such spin-off publications can be inventorized and provide a measurement basis. Importantly, they can be dated and thus establish a ‘canonicity curve’, with its ups and downs, over time.
It would be impossible to do so manually. We used digital tools to mine the KB’s catalogue for relevant publications and to analyse their quantity and frequency. The resulting digitally-aided analysis showed interesting ‘tipping points’ in many canonicity curves, significantly around 1800 and 1920. This throws suggestive light on the canonical status and reception history of the Dutch Golden Age.
The interactive web page in the tab Live demo shows the canonicity curves of all relevant publications in the KB related directly or indirectly to 21 selected authors or texts/figures. These are mainly writers, but some canonical figures from the fields of painting or political history have been added to complement the sample. The emphasis was on figures with a long historical trajectory, and within that trajectory on the Dutch Golden Age; the most recent names date from c. 1900. For the older period, when many important works were anonymous, two fictional characters have been added: Reynard the Fox and Thyl Ulenspiegel.
Women in the data
Women – such is the nature of the history of cultural prestige – are badly underrepresented. Only Hadewych is included by name – a medieval poet, but not discovered until the mid-19th century. Her canonicity curve shows that both in absolute and in relative figures she is heavily overshadowed by the male canonicals. That also goes, in an even more extreme form, for other woman authors like Anna Bijns, the Roemer-daughters, Wolff and Deken; Anne Frank is too recent an appearance on the historical timeline to offer a meaningful visualization curve.