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EXC Lecture Series "The Invention of the Modern Religious Bookshelf": Max Müller's Sacred Books and the Prehistory of Comparative Literature

01.11.2023 | 18:15

Prof. Angus Nicholls (Queen Mary University of London)

Organised by Christian Meyer, project The Invention of the Modern Religious Bookshelf: Canons, Concepts and Communities, Research Area 3: "Future Perfect". This event is part of the lecture series The Invention of the Modern Religious Bookshelf.

In Europe, literary studies emerged as an academic discipline during the final decades of the nineteenth century. While national canons dominated this period of discipline formation, the question of a global canon also received increased attention, with the first Western journal devoted to Comparative Literature appearing in 1877. This lecture will propose that another evolving nineteenth-century field – Comparative Religion – exerted a key influence on the formation of both Comparative Literature and so-called World Literature. Its focus is the monumental project overseen by the Oxford Indologist Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), the fifty-volume collection of Asian religious texts translated into English and published by Oxford University Press between 1879 and 1910, known as the Sacred Books of the East. Drawing on the Bodleian Library’s Max Müller papers, as well as the archive of Oxford University Press, this lecture will explore epistemological issues relating to comparison in the formation of the Sacred Books of the East. One hypothesis is that because religious matters arguably held more significance for nineteenth-century readers than merely aesthetic questions related to literature, questions of comparison and canon formation played out with special intensity in the debates surrounding the Sacred Books. To justify why particular traditions should be represented in the volumes of the Sacred Books, Müller was forced to develop a highly controversial – because would-be universal – definition of religion. Müller pursued this comparative project concurrently with his editorship of the Sacred Books, delivering his insights on Comparative Religion to large audiences at the Gifford Lectures on natural theology between 1888 and 1892.

Online participation is possible via Cisco WebEx Meetings:


Zeit & Ort

01.11.2023 | 18:15

Freie Universität Berlin
Room 2.2051
Fabeckstraße 23-25
14195 Berlin