Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

15th European Conference on Reading

Greeting on 5th August 2007

Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues, dear Renate Valtin,

in preparation for my words of greeting, I browsed with great enthusiasm the program of this conference, a conference to which you have all travelled from far and wide to Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and to which I have the honour of welcoming you. Upon my inspection of your program, I, a theologian and historian who occupies himself with the history of ancient Christianity, became aware yet again that the matter of “reading” is central even for my own work and for the entire university. At a university, it is important that we recognise the importance of “reading” in our deliberations and in our research. The foundation of all academic teaching is that students are able to read texts properly in the right way and that the lecturers, who teach them how to read, are themselves well versed in this particular art. One of my tutors in Tübingen began the commentaries to his lectures by saying: you are here to learn how to read properly. But if all events at a university – or rather, to put it more cautiously: many events at a university – are first and foremost designed to teach students to read properly, then it is essential and necessary to know what “reading properly” means. I regret that I only can welcome you to this conference, but cannot be present at the many events that you will be attending, even though I would be highly intrigued to hear your answers to this question. Your interesting program has already stimulated me to reflect on the importance of reading in my own field of research much more intently, however. A few years ago, I considered the following question in an essay: what significance does it have that at every church service and in every prayer in the Christian church – and in the Jewish Synagogue – one or more biblical texts are read out? In contrast to today’s approach, texts were not intended to be understood by all attendees of a church service or a Synagogue in the Antiquity. There are reports from the great Synagogue in Alexandria, that while the congregation said “amen” at the end of every reading, they only did so after being signalled to do so by the waving of a tissue, which indicated that the reading had finished. This suggests that many people did not know when the reading was over and that they were unable understand the reading – which was probably also due to the difficult acoustics in the vast halls of the Synagogue in Alexandria. In the public reading at Jewish and Christian sermons, it does not, therefore, seem paramount that all listeners comprehend what is being read out to them. The all important aspect is that they were understood by one single listener, namely God himself, who, as is generally known, does not suffer from hearing problems. Taking these observations as a starting point, then it would be necessary, in light of the wonderful the program of your conference, to examine much more thoroughly the meaning of the diverse languages, the differently developed ability to read and the various expectations for the Christian church service, and also for other forms of life in the Christian church and the Jewish congregations, and also – towards the late Antiquity – in the newly emerging Islamic movements.

At your conference, you highlight the fact that the same intensity, with which you are dealing with the subject matter of reading in the present, can also be applied to the subject matter of reading in the past. In this light, it seems to me that the history of the Church, theology and religion will develop a much deeper connection with the historical research into reading. I would like to draw on a second example to demonstrate this. In the avowals of the North African Bishop and church father Augustine, we find a description of Augustine’s surprise when he visited Bishop Ambrose of Milan in an upper Italian Bishop city for the first time at the end of the fourth century, and found the bishop reading a text in total silence. Augustine was only used to people reading texts loudly, even when reading in private. From this, many historians have deduced that in the antiquity everyone read out lout, publicly as well as privately. A few years ago, however, I read an article, which contradicted this theory and showed on a number of examples that people read silently when reading privately long before the fourth century. You may already suspect which question it is that intrigues me at this point: what difference does it make whether you read a text out loud or silently? Probably, this question belongs to the basics of research into reading, a branch of research that you represent in many different forms. I myself don’t know the answer, though. I should, therefore, listen to your discussion extensively and interrupt them occasionally by asking similar questions. As I am unable to do so, unfortunately, I can only hope that you will continue to link the research into reading at your home universities extensively and broadly with other sciences – and not just with the great disciplines, but also with the apparent ivory-tower sciences – a development that is already evident in your program.

You can tell how much your program has encouraged me to consider my own research in relation to research into reading. I hope, therefore, that your conference will have a rich bearing on the whole university, the whole field of education and as many single disciplines as possible, and I wish you all the best for your conference. Before I close however, I would like to fulfil a promise that I made to Renate Valtin, namely to thank the Humboldt-Quartett, which played Mendelssohn’s Capriccio. I do not just want to thank the musicians, but would also like to introduce them: Volker Haigis and Miriam Götze on the Violin, Anicia Timerlake on the Viola and Katja Kerstiens on the cello. I speak in all our names when I express our deepest thanks and now wish you a merry and cheerful start to your conference.

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Christoph Markschies
President of Humboldt-Universität


Abteilung Kommunikation, Marketing und Veranstaltungsmanagement (VIII)