About the Anniversary

How did the study of literature begin?

Student reading

In one form or another, literary criticism is probably as old as literature itself. Judges at Athenian drama festivals, in the 5th century BC, probably engaged in lively literary discussion - no doubt in deciding to award Sophocles second prize for Oedipus Rex around 430 BC . . .

Another answer, though, is that literary criticism - in the form we know it today - emerged around the middle of the 18th century, in the Athens of the North: in Edinburgh. John Stevenson, Professor of Logic and Rhetoric, delivered lectures on literary style around this time, often based on Greek texts. By the late 1740s, Adam Smith was lecturing on ‘Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres’, though mostly to an early form of extra-mural class.

The decisive move came in 1762, when the Reverend Hugh Blair was appointed by King George III as the first Regius Professor of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres. Blair had been giving popular lectures on literary history, style, and critical analysis, under this title, to an audience of students and townspeople for several years. The foundation of his Regius professorship fully formalised literature as a subject of study, for the first time, within a British university, and making Edinburgh the longest-established centre of literary education in Britain, and one of the oldest in the world.

Sixteen Regius Professors have followed down to the present day. Professor Greg Walker currently occupies a Chair nowadays named the Regius Professorship of Rhetoric and English Literature. The department is still at the forefront of understanding literature and what makes ‘lettres’ ‘belles’ - one generally acclaimed as among the best in the United Kingdom.

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