Scientific background

The following summaries present the topic from the viewpoint of the four fields:


For historians, ‘first person writings’ (or egodocuments) describes a complex family of manuscripts produced in Europe since the end of the Middle Ages. The simplest genre is the plain livre de raison (ricordanze, libri di famiglia, Hauschroniken…) where the paterfamilias entered the dates of birth or death of members of the family and described the main events the family went through. Diaries are a second form which entails the recording of the ordinary aspects of life on a regular basis, and they are close to the various types of journal, whether personal, military, diplomatic, medical or travel journals. Memoirs and autobiographies are the most complex and literary forms of first person writings; these became common during the 18th century. Most of these texts are hybrid and do not fall neatly into a particular sub-category. The emergence of these texts is profoundly connected with the development in Europe of the culture of reading and writing. The works of Roger Chartier (1987) and Armando Petrucci (1993), among others, have amply demonstrated how the development of this culture permeated society well beyond the ranks of the skilled literate. This means that the register of language used (educated, vernacular, dialectal), the characteristics of the writing style and the various uses of these texts have to be carefully investigated by historians.

These texts are mainly non-literary, non-fictional and not intended for publication, but research reveals that they were influenced by fictional material, which circulated more and more widely in Europe by the Renaissance. The impact of celebrated models like the Confessions of St Augustine in the 4th century and Rousseau in the 18th century is well-known, but they are not alone. A good example is how, in 18th century diaries, novels or ballads can be seen to permeate the sentimental relationships of female or male writers. A less obvious example are the analogies between the narrations of crimes or capital executions, which are numerous in urban annals or diaries, and the tales of crime that flourished in cheap and popular literature during the 16th century and 17th century. In addition, for some writers, first-person writings were just part of a wider production like an extended and sometimes public correspondence or even fictional writings.

Historians no longer consider these texts as mere pools of factual information (political, economical or social) and are increasingly aware that their contents were culturally constructed. So they are more and more inclined to use literary tools – like intertextuality – in order to explore the frontiers between literary and non-literary texts. This approach is especially central in helping to understand the production of the texts and to differentiate, as far as possible, factual information, personal perceptions, linked to particular selves, from wider cultural contexts. This trend makes it essential to clear a common ground between literary scholars and historians, so that we can create common reading practices of these texts.


First-person literary texts go back to antiquity, but the key period of their importance in Europe is the modern period. In the 18th century and early 19th century, they mainly take the form of fictitious memoirs and Romantic writing. In both these kinds of text, the relation between the ‘truth-value’ of what purports to be historical and what is presented as invention, unreliable reminiscence etc is a key issue. There are cases where two fictions by the protagonists in a real-life relationship (e.g. Musset and George Sand) vie in presenting the ‘truth’ of their past. At the same time, autobiographical texts, from Augustine to Rousseau and beyond, present themselves as exemplary rather than ‘objectively’ factual in precisely the way that prose fiction is. Inseparable from this blurring of different levels and kinds of truthfulness is the question of the rhetoricity of writing that claims such truthfulness, and this question implicates the motives of both writers and readers.

Generically, first-person fiction has proved remarkably versatile, with such variants as multiply-framed confessional narratives (René/Atala, Wuthering Heights), fictitious diaries (La Symphonie Pastorale, Adrian Mole) or epistolary fiction (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Werther), or combinations of these three, and we even find the autobiography of a dog or a sofa. In the first half of the 20th century, the mode is especially common in an experimental guise: Proust’s scattered je, Rose Macaulay’s unsexed protagonist, Camus’s use of the ‘documentary’ first-person-plural, the ironies of Nabokov. Among the dominant paradigms of late 20th-century first-person literature are the sub-genres of coming-out texts, holocaust narratives (including fake ones, such as Wilkomirski’s) or domestic trauma narratives. Finally, any discussion of first-person writing in the 21st century must incorporate new electronic modes: texting, blogging, twitter, novels in SMS, second life and interactive writing.

Literary theorists have been preoccupied in recent years with the question of the fictionality/non-fictionality of first-person writing: since Philippe Lejeune’s publications in the 1970s and 1980s and a wave of research on life-writing and autofiction, debates on first-person writing have never been off the agenda. What has not yet been explored to any extent is the mutual interest between the literary debates and those of allied fields in the humanities and beyond.

Medical Humanities

In recent years ‘Medical Humanities’ has developed as a new interdisciplinary field which includes the humanities and their application to medical education and practice. There are still tensions between so called ‘evidence-based medicine’ and ‘narrative-based medicine’, but it is becoming commonly acknowledged that medical research should focus on disease not only as a clinical/biological phenomenon, but also as it is perceived from a first-person perspective, through actual accounts, narratives and experiences.

Basically, illness appears in two different guises: the general knowledge about illness and the specific experience of illness. On the one hand, this conference will focus on questions related to patients’ and doctors’ written texts. In what way is the specific experience of the patient made audible and visible in medical narratives? When are patients allowed to speak in the first person in medical records? And to what extent are doctors and other writers allowed to personalise their own narrative voice in objective institutional records?

In addition, the conference will focus on first-person literary texts on specific illnesses, discussing them both with a literary and a medical approach.


The term ‘ethnography’ simultaneously denotes a process and a product: as a process it usually means comparative (participant) observation of a particular practice, event or experience pertinent to an individual or group in place and time; as a product it denotes a (mostly) written account that describes this analysis to others. The product depends on the process, but not necessarily in a linear correlation. Doing ethnography is inherently related to comparison and contextualization, which likewise implies reflexivity about the process, and self-reflexivity on the part of the ethnographer.

Ethnography is applicable to the empirical study of first-person narratives in a multifaceted way. Ethnographic methodology is germane to the study of texts and the process of writing in a socio-political context, drawing mostly on contextual documentary materials. An ethnography as a process starts with situated listening in a fieldwork setting, in order to link what people say to what they actually do, to observations based on comparison, on previous or personal experience, but the analogy may be transported to fieldwork carried out in the archives. On the other hand, an ethnography as a product provides an analogue to life-writing; it is a practice of written reflection, a mode of cognition which makes experience meaningful. For an ethnographer, writing provides means of preserving moments of significance, recontextualising them, and making them re-consultable.

Ethnography is a research strategy, a systematically descriptive field study or a case report of inter-subjective nature. In this particular initiative the most pertinent are ethnographies of writing and ethnographies of written texts, ethnographies of first-person narratives, and ethnographies of reading.