Stealing? Appropriating? Paying tribute?

Plagiarism has meant different things to different people at different times. Homer’s epic poems, like most ancient lyrical poetry, was used and reused by authors and performers without much concern for what the modern age defined as plagiarism. The word plagiarism itself was coined in the early 17th century and is based on the Latin word plagiarius used just once by the Roman epigrammatist Martial to shame those who had the audacity to steal his works and pass them as their own.

But the plagiarism line is a fine one indeed. Much of world literature is a snowball or a recycling plant, where readers become writers and texts are always being reused and transformed into new ones. To take the example of medieval historical writing, one sees an interesting form of plagiarism im action, whereby a chronicler integrates the texts of previous chroniclers to augment and enhance their own works. Sources are very rarely acknowledged, which makes textual archeology hard to pursue. And in the 13th century, the idea of “plucking the flowers” of other writers and collect them in new texts gave rise to a new type of writing, the flores, which brought many scattered texts together, increasing knowledge and enhancing readers’ exposure to previously written works.

Texts circulate, and one effect of circulation is plagiarism. This is not to say that plagiarism is a good thing and ought to be encouraged. But it is an acknowledgement that the life of a text is usually more complicated than we often take it to be. And that fusing texts moves letters forward, leading to new works and new ways of seeing and understanding. The opposite is, at its extreme, a museum – or graveyard – of original works seen as untouchable, but also sterile, whose only purpose is to be read and experienced in only one context, in the name of protecting them and their authors. And that may very well be the death of literature.

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