Matija Murko and the French Slavic philology

Dr. Varja Balžalorsky Antić

My study of Matija Murko’s work concerns his relationship with the French academia. I am mostly interested in Murko’s intense contacts, cooperation and mutual enrichment with Western Slavic philology, especially French Slavic philologists and comparative linguists such as A. Meillet, E. Denis, L. Leger, P. Boyer, and A. Mazon. It was precisely the support of the French Slavists in Prague that enabled Murko to establish a leading centre of Slavistic studies in Central Europe. As its president, he did not rely on Austrian examples for his vision of the centre’s future, but on the newly-formed institutions in France, such as Institut d’etudes slaves, established in 1919 by Ernest Denis. In my study of archives and correspondence, I am especially interested in his contacts with A. Mazon and A. Meillet. The first one concerns methodological and organizational approaches, while the second involves content and touches on the connection and potential mutual influence of Matija Murko and Antoine Meillet during the research of oral poetry.

Antoine Meillet (1866–1936)
André Mazon (1881–1967)

André Mazon was the vice president and later president (1937-1959) of the Institute of Slavic Studies. When Murko sought to popularize the approaches of French Slavistics, he often turned to his western colleague for help, and the latter informed the Czech public about the activities of the French institution. The sizable correspondence between the two scientists testifies to the intense contacts and exchange of opinions; the Prague archive of the Slavic Institute keeps no less than 59 letters of A. Mazon to M. Murko. To describe their vision of the character of international and national Slavistics, their championship of the apolitical nature or political neutrality of the organization must be stated. This principle was also adopted by Murko when he took the helm of the Prague Slavic Institute in 1932. Methodologically Murko and Mazon also agreed on the wider conception of Slavic philology, a position which Murko also took in the Proposal of Statute of Slavic Philologists in 1919 (Pospišil and Zelenka 2020: 69). In this document, he did not conceive of Slavic philology in the narrow sense, limited by the principles of the Prague linguistic circle with its structuralist direction, but rather as an intersection of literary history, folklore studies, linguistics, and cultural history. Based on a thorough examination and study of archives, especially in Prague and the Institute of Slavic Studies in Paris, my research will provide a more accurate insight into the prolific correspondence between the two Slavists and attempt to outline the methodological premises which they sketched out for the development of Slavistics. 

The second branch of my research will deal with the study of Matija Murko’s contacts with Antoine Meillet, one of the most influential comparative linguists of his time, as well as the teacher of key figures of the French contemporary linguistics, E. Benveniste, G. Dumezil, and A. Martinet. It is less known that Meillet also had an important role in the development of oral poetry research. It is interesting that he was linked to many researchers of oral poetry just when the theory of orality was coming into being; in addition to Matija Murko, also Jean Poulhan, Marcel Granet, Marcel Jousse, Pëtr Bogatyrev, and, of course, Milman Parry. Three of those – Paulhan, Jousse and Parry – were also his students in various periods. In 1923, Meillet published his book Les origines indo-européennes des mètres grecs, in which he put forward the oral-formulaic hypothesis. M. Parry certainly relied on it when he was writing his dissertation under Meillet’s mentorship. Based on the examination of the correspondence, Blaž Zabel (Zabel 2020) portrays Parry’s relationship with Murko in detail in his article. In my research, I intend to illuminate the link between Parry and Murko, that is, A. Meillet, his work, and the events in the field of orality research, connected in various ways with A. Meillet as an author, mentor and reviewer of milestone contributions in the field of the theory of orality. I will be especially focused on the nature of the contacts between Murko and Meillet. Five years after the publication of his study on Greek metrics in 1928, Meillet, as the president of the Institute of Slavic Studies, invited Murko to Sorbonne in Paris to give lectures on the South Slavic heroic epic poetry. As is known, Murko in his lectures, which were then published as the prominent monography La poésie populaire épique en Yougoslavie au début du XXe siècle, often compared Greek rhapsodes to South Slavic guslars. With his findings, he also made a name for himself in the field of Homeric scholarship (Gantar 107). What is the relationship and connection between the works Les origines indo-européennes des mètres grecs and La poésie populaire épique en Yougoslavie au début du XXe siècle and their authors? Was there a mutual influence? Was Meillet – like Parry a few years later – already familiar with Murko’s first studies on the South Slavic oral tradition, presented in the 1919 article »Neues über südslavische Volksepik«? And how did Meillet influence Murko’s work?


Bader, Françoise. 1988. »Meillet et la poésie indo-européenne« Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure 42: 97125.

Gantar, Kajetan, 2020. »Odmevi Murkovih raziskav v homeroslovju« M. Jesenšek (ur.) Matija Murko – slovanski filolog v najširšem pomenu besede. Ljubljana: SAZU. 101– 112.

Jousse, Marcel, 1925. Études de psychologie linguistique. Le style oral rythmique et mnémotechnique chez les Verbo-moteurs. Pariz: Beauchesne.

Lamberterie, Charles de, 1997. »Milman Parry et Antoine Meillet« Françoise Létoublon (ur.) Hommage à Milman Parry. Le style formulaire de l’épopée homérique et la théorie de l’oralité, Amsterdam : Gieben. 122.

Meillet, Antoine. 1923. Les origines indo-européennes des mètres grecs. Pariz: Presses universitaires de France.

Meillet, Antoine. 1925. »Marcel Jousse. Études de psychologie linguistique«  Bulletin de la société de linguistique 26: 5.

Meillet, Antoine. 1928. »Milman Parry. L’épithète traditionnelle dans Homère et Les formules et la métrique d’Homère« Bulletin de la société de linguistique 29(2): 100102.

Murko, Matija, 1919. »Neues über südslavische Volksepik« Neue Jahrbüchner für das klasiches Altertum Geschichte und Deutsche Literatur 22, 273-296. 

Murko, Matija, 1929. La poésie populaire épique en Yougoslavie au début du xxe siècle. Pariz: Champion.

Pospišil, Ivo, Zelenka, Miloš, 2020. »Češko-slovenski projekti s področja zgodovine slavistike in teorije literature (Matija Murko kot povezovalna osebnost češko-slovenske in evropske literarne vede v medvojnem obdobju)« M. Jesenšek (ur.) Matija Murko – slovanski filolog v najširšem pomenu besede. Ljubljana: SAZU. 6480.

Testenoire,  Pierre-Yves , 2023. »Les recherches sur la poésie orale autour d’Antoine Meillet: Jean Paulhan, Marcel Jousse, Milman Parry« Histoire Épistémologie Langage, 44 (2) 79100.

Zabel, Blaž, 2020. »Matija Murko, predhodnik Milmana Parryja?«  M. Jesenšek (ur.) Matija Murko – slovanski filolog v najširšem pomenu besede. Ljubljana: SAZU. 113– 130. 

Matija Murko visits Ivan Meštrović, the sculptor

Ivan Meštrović (1883–1962) is today praised as one of the greatest Croatian artists and an internationally recognised sculptor. He was born in Slavonia, grew up in Dalmatian, and then lived and worked around the world. From 1947 he was a Sculptor in Residence and Professor of Sculpture at Syracuse University and from 1955 a Sculptor in Residence at the University of Notre Dame. Some of you might know him from his two sculptures The Bowman and The Spearman from the Congress Plaza at the entrance to Grant Park in Chicago (pictures below). 

As you can see easily from the two statues, Meštrović’s style is unique, mixing Secession and Expressionism. For those who are interested in his art, I suggest you look at the special issue of Sculpture Journal (see link) devoted to the artist.

Immediately relevant for comparative literature and Matija Murko is Meštrović’s profound interest in folklore which informed his artistic production. Moreover, as a boy he learned to sing traditional Dalmatian folksongs, which became his regular habit. It comes as no surprise then, that he depicted the poet and priest Andrija Kačić Miošić playing on gusle:

One of the songs Meštrović knew by hearth was Hasanaginica. This poem is perhaps the best-known poem of the Dalmatian oral tradition, because it was published in 1774 by Alberto Fortis, later translated by Goethe as “Klaggesang von der edlen Frauen des Asan Aga” (1775), published in Herder’s collection Volkslieder (1778), and translated into English via Goethe by Walter Scott (1798). This poem and Matija Murko’s recording of a female singer who still knew the song will be the topic of one of our future posts. It should be mentioned, however, that Meštrović still remembered a version of the song unknown from other sources (see Milan Ćurčin and R. W. S.-W., “Goethe and Serbo-Croat Ballad Poetry”, The Slavonic and East European Review 11, no. 31 (1932): 126–134).

Due to Meštrović’s profound interest in Dalmatian oral tradition of which he knew “fifty or sixty” songs, Matija Murko visited him in Zagreb to conduct an interview in 1931 and in 1932. Here is a photo of them: Murko is sitting down, dressed in white, and Ivan Meštrović is beside him on his right.


The visit resulted in the publication of an article in 1933 (Matija Murko, “Kod Meštrovića I njegovih – Ivan Meštrović kao pjevač epsih narodnih pjesama”, Nova Evropa 26, no. 8 (1933): 345–350). As Murko reported, Meštrović learned Hasanaginica from his grandmother who was singing it to his younger brother. He described to him how he learnt the songs and why he believes folklore is for him so important. Murko concluded his report by describing how they visited their family mausoleum in Otavice, speculating about the influence of Meštrović’s cohabitation with “lyric and epic folksong” on his art. 

The story reveals how important it is to overcome disciplinary boundaries if we are to understand past scholarship, literature, and art. This is why our project seriously considers the transdisciplinary approach in studying comparative literature’s history. 

Project announcement and Tam, kjer murke cveto

When I was informed at the end of September 2022 that our project Towards a History of Comparative Literature in a Global Perspective: Matija Murko and his International Collaborators was accepted for funding by the Slovenian Research Agency ARRS (J6-4620), I immediately informed our research team of the results. One of project team members, dr. Jan Ciglenečki replied to my email by sending everyone a well-known song by the Avsenik Brothers Ensemble entitled Tam, kjer murke cveto (in the literal translation: There, where black vanilla orchids bloom). It is just one of those songs that everyone knows: the Avsenik Brothers Ensemble is among the most famous music groups in Slovenia, the beginners of the so-called “Oberkrainer-Stil Musik,” and this song was published in 1959 on their first album with the same name. You can listen to it here:

Jan’s humorous pun was of course in drawing the attention to the similarity between the surname Murko and the name of the flower “murka” mentioned in the song (“murka” is the name for “black vanilla orchid” or Nigritella nigra). According to Marko Snoj, the name Murko literally means “the man with a darker skin” (Marko Snoj, “Od kod priimek Murko?” in: Matija Murko – Slovanski filolog v najširšem pomenu besede, ed. Marko Jesenšek and Marija Stanonik, Ljubljana, SAZU, 2020: 9) and has the same etymological root as the flower “murka” (from *murъ̏ ‛črn’ like the lat. niger in Nigritella nigra, see link

What made Jan’s reference even better is the second verse of the song, which mentions the Slovenian folksong Pegam and Lambergar:

But from a high mountain,
The castle Kamen brings back memories,
Remember Pegam,
He smiles and thinks: it all passes away.

A z visoke planine
Grad Kamen obuja spomine
Spomni Pegama se
Se smehlja in si misli: vse mine.)

The “castle Kamen” and the name “Pegam” both refer to the old theory that the folksong about Pegam and Lambergarrefers to Gašper Lambergar (Kaspar von Lamberg) who in the 16th century owned the castle Kamen, which still stands in Begunje na Gorenjskem. 

What the folksong is about is the topic of one of our future posts—so stay tuned! For now, I just want to explain why the poem is relevant. One of the several scholars who researched it was no other than Matija Murko who wrote extensively about it in several of his writings. Murko had a prominent role in the state-sponsored project Das Volkslied in Österreich, which aimed at gathering and publishing folk songs of different languages within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it was in this context that he wrote about Pegam and Lambergar. More importantly, Murko used a comparative approach in an almost revolutionary way, and if you are interested why it was revolutionary, you can read more about it in Marija Klobčar, “Kako in kdaj so prišle žene do tega, da pojejo pesmi tudi o takih junakih, kakor sta Pegam in Lambergar —?”, Glasnik Slovenskega Etnološkega Društva 54, no. 3 (2014): 21–29 (see link) and in Marjetka Golež Kaučič, “Matija Murko med slovenskim in južnoslovanskim ljudskim pesemskim izročilom«, Matija Murko – Slovanski filolog v najširšem pomenu besede, ed. Marko Jesenšek and Marija Stanonik, Ljubljana, SAZU, 2020: 198–216.

All this neatly underlines some of the topics and questions that we will be dealing with in this project. Over the next few years, we intend to look into the work of Matija Murko, think about his comparative methodology, see how it influenced the development of comparative literature, discuss the importance of folksongs for world literature, and much more. All of you are kindly invited to follow and to contribute, so please, feel free to contact us if you are interested in our research ( Or as the Avsenik’s song says, our team is There where the gentian blue / gently beckons all happily bragging (Tam, kjer encijan plav / Ves prešerno bahav nežno vabi).