A tale of two conferences, I: the International Medieval Congress (Leeds)

A tale of two conferences, I: the International Medieval Congress (Leeds)

I’m writing this on the train back from York after a week of what I’ve been calling (rather awkwardly) ‘medieval fun-times’. It’s been a very busy few days for many people in the world of medieval studies: the early summer period, after undergraduates have gone home, is peak conference season, and this year was no exception. In fact, French medievalists got something of a rough deal this year, as the International Medieval Congress overlapped significantly with the Society for French Studies’ annual conference. I can only imagine that quite a few French medievalists were on the early train from Durham to Leeds on at least one occasion during the week.

For my part, my involvement this year was solely with the IMC, having responded to the late call for papers and sneaked myself into Session 1541, ‘Science at Court: Poesis‘. Unfortunately, the actual audience for my paper turned out to be fairly small: we’d been given the infamous ‘graveyard shift’ of 9am on Thursday morning, which sounds like a pleasant slot until you realise that the IMC disco had taken place the night before. I do feel for the organiser of the panel, the wonderful Tekla Bude: panellists and moderators outnumbered audience members, even accounting for the fact that one panellist simply didn’t show up. In any case, though, I hope that my presentation was of use to the panel; as ever, producing a conference presentation to an interested, but potentially non-specialist audience was a wonderful way of ensuring that I myself was confident in my conclusions and capable of communicating them concisely. I was speaking about a single work, namely the Kalender, a short treatise on calendar and the computus produced in 1256 by one Rauf de Lenham. If you’re interested, I actually recorded my presentation, so please do feel free to take a look at the video below. (The handout that I reference on several occasions is available here.)

All in all, I feel as if the presentation went well; the discussion afterwards (not included in the video, I’m afraid) was particularly productive. It’s worth underlining, though, that the IMC itself was very much a learning experience for me: as the IMC was my first ‘non-PG’ conference, it was very strange to find myself presenting alongside established academics as well as fellow postgrads. The IMC is a very different beast to anything I’d experienced before, not least because of its sheer scale: with over 2,000 delegates, it’s far larger than, say, the Oxford Medieval Graduate Conference or Approaching the Medieval. This of course translates into an immense variety of sessions, and therefore difficult decisions had to be made about which sessions to attend and which (regrettably) to sacrifice. There was always a choice to be made; at no point could I confidently say that session no. x was the only session that would be relevant to my research interests. I like to think, of course, that this is the reason why my talk was comparatively poorly-attended, and that the audience size of three was nothing at all to do with the fact that I was talking about the form and function of thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman calendrical treatises.

The scale of the conference did also pose some additional problems for me: as a self-confessed introvert and ‘Aspie‘, I felt somewhat overwhelmed at first, and frequently had to make time for myself, a decision that led to me missing a couple of very promising-sounding evening panels. The disco was an immediate no-no, although I will admit that I would have liked to have had the opportunity to ‘watch your bibliography boogie’.  In writing this, I’m reminded of my good friend Debbie White’s wonderful blog post on surviving academic conferences as an introvert; I’d certainly echo her advice, as well as adding that free access to the University Library (thanks, IMC!) can be exceptionally helpful in having somewhere quiet to go when you need it.

Also of use in de-stressing: opportunities to play circular chess, with period rules! (I lost.)

This isn’t another ‘Asperger’s blog post’, though, and at its heart a conference is defined not by the libraries it’s near, but by the panels that you attend. The approximate format of most panels at the IMC will be familiar to many of us who work in the humanities: 90-minute panels, with each speaker given 20 minutes and a 30-minute Q&A slot afterwards. I was lucky enough to attend some exceptional papers during my time at the IMC, many of which were given by fellow postgrads whose enthusiasm shone through. If you’d like to have a peek, I was busily (semi-)live-tweeting most of the panels I sat in on (more on that in a couple of weeks!); I’d particularly recommend The IMC did also, though, look beyond the traditional three-paper-panel setup, and embraced a broader range of formats, particularly during the evening sessions. Two roundtable discussions stood out for me: the first was on the topic of ‘chronology, temporality and otherness’ and proved to be an excellent way to bring together specialists in a whole range of different disciplines within ‘medieval studies’. It was very refreshing, as a ‘literature person’ who works in a Medieval Studies cluster largely dominated by historians, to be reminded of how we can talk to each other in a productive and mutually enriching way.

The second roundtable discussion, held on the Wednesday night, was organised by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship on the topic of gender and harassment in the academy. It perhaps goes without saying that my attendance at the roundtable was as an ally, rather than as a victim: women in universities, as the discussion made abundantly clear, are subject to an enormous range of aggressions and challenges that stem in no small part from the very structure of academia itself. (For instance, there’s been a great deal of discussion recently on the topic of ’emotional labour’, the burden of which disproportionately falls on women.) The participants at the roundtable were forthright and open in their discussion of some issues which I, as a middle-class, male participant, had never even crossed my mind: doesn’t having a ‘harassment policy’ imply a normalisation, even an acceptance, of harassment? Why is childcare so under-discussed at academic conferences? What about breastfeeding mothers? How should trigger-warnings, the subject of so much derision by people who (like me) have never really been ‘triggered’, be used?

Leaving Leeds on Thursday night, then, I certainly felt as if I had developed as a medievalist, both in terms of what I know and how I’ve come to know it. My conference experience was very positive indeed – after all, I did literally ‘buy the T-shirt’ – and it was enriched still further by the spirited discussion on the nature of the conference itself, encouraged so ably by the IMC committee. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for the kind of methodological contributions championed by the SMFS and by the informal #disIMC meet up; after all, it’s important to think not not just about the conclusions we reach in medieval studies, but also the methods we employ in order to reach them.

Next week, I’ll be talking about an altogether different conference experience – a one-day, and much smaller, symposium held on Friday 7th July in York. Stay tuned!

What exactly is ‘Anglo-Norman’?

What exactly is ‘Anglo-Norman’?

As obvious as it may seem, every PhD project needs constraints: this mantra extends even to the apparently-arcane field of ‘medieval French literature’. At first glance, the alterity of the field, both in its temporal distance from us and in its language, may appear to suffice in this respect: surely ‘it’s medieval, and it’s in foreign’ will narrow the field down sufficiently? Of course, medieval French literature is still an impossibly broad field to ‘cover’ in one (or even one hundred) PhDs.[1] In reality, as any medievalist knows, the discipline of ‘medieval French literature’ is home to a vast range of texts which are in many ways more different than they are alike.

With this in mind, I needed a second set of constraints when devising my proposal. Last week, I looked at two of these, in the form of the phrase ‘didactic literature’. This week, it’s time to tackle what is perhaps an even thornier topic: ‘Anglo-Norman’. In a way, it’s perhaps surprising that I’ve waited for so long before addressing this subject: it is, after all, the source of the terrible pun that serves as my blog’s title. In my defence, I’d like to point out that it’s not an easy topic to tackle: the word ‘Anglo-Norman’ is deceptively complex.

In the broadest possible sense, Anglo-Norman as a word can be both a noun and an adjective. The adjective ‘Anglo-Norman’ is, to use Susan Crane’s terminology, a ‘political and geographic (term), designating persons united by place and time rather than by dialect.’[2] That particular ‘place and time’, for our purposes, is England in the centuries following the Norman Conquest in 1066 and in reference to members of the ‘dominant culture’;[3] hence its use in article titles such as ‘The Anglo-Norman civil war of 1101 reconsidered’. To be ‘Anglo-Norman’, then, is to have a stake in England after the Conquest.

One of the strongest markers of involvement in this social class, of course, was language. Just as we can refer, somewhat awkwardly, to ‘French French speakers’, it would be grammatically correct to describe the Anglo-Norman gentry as speaking the language of ‘Anglo-Norman’. The term ‘Anglo-Norman’, however, is a linguistic red herring. Its status as a compound noun might lead us to consider it as a sort of linguistic fusion between the ‘Norman’ of William’s conquerors and the ‘English’ of the Saxons, but in fact the language itself is rather different. As Ian Short emphatically puts it in the very first sentence of his monumental Manual of Anglo-Norman, ‘Anglo-Norman is a full and independent member of the extended family of medieval French dialects (…) it is the name traditionally given to the variety of medieval French used in Britain between the Norman Conquest and the end of the 15th century.’[4] Various alternative terms have been proposed in order to circumvent this semantic slipperiness, among them ‘Anglo-French’ and ‘insular French’. One alternative in particular, that of ‘the French of England’, has recently given its name to a research group and to an attendant translation series. Whatever term we use, though, its influence on modern English is palpable even today: to give the canonical example, it is the reason why English has multiple words for many objects, such as the French-inspired ‘beef’ (< boeuf) alongside the Saxon ‘cow’.

That is not to say that this ‘French of England’ imposed itself completely on the population, dominating the English language and taking no cues from it at all: to state the obvious, French (a term used by Anglo-Norman writers) is today, as the latest A-Level figures show, seen as resolutely ‘other’. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Anglo-Norman language is its status as part of a ‘triglossia’ with English and Latin, and lexical borrowings from English did occur. One of the earliest extant Anglo-Norman texts, the Voyage of St. Brendan, uses the term raps (ropes) in what appears to be a straight borrowing (with morphological assimilation) from English. More subtly, the term lodmanage, referring to the navigation of a ship, has been identified as deriving from the Middle English lodman, with a French suffix (-age) attached.[5]

When you read Anglo-Norman, though, you definitely have to read it with your ‘French hat’ on. Let’s return to the extract from the Voyage for an example:

Dist li abes : « Ne vus tamez, / Mais Damnedeu mult reclamez ! / E pernez tut nostre cunrei, / Enz en la nef venez a mei ! » / Jetet lur fuz e bien luncs raps …
Do not be afraid,’ said the abbot, ‘but pray fervently to God, take all our affairs, and join me on the boat!’ He threw them poles and long ropes.[6]

Anglo-Norman is undeniably French. From lexical elements – pernez for ‘prendre’, jetet for ‘jeté‘, and venez for, well, ‘venez’ – to broader syntactic points, it’s clear that we’re dealing with a distinctive, but easily-identifiable, variety of a language that, during the Middle Ages, extended far beyond the borders of what we today call ‘France’. It’s this multiplicitous nature of Anglo-Norman – the linguistic ambiguity; the questions of social class and status that it brings with it – that makes it so exciting for me. You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that I can’t wait to get stuck into some more Anglo-Norman come September.

On this topic, Simon Gaunt has (amongst others) made the valid point that all three of these terms ‘medieval’, ‘French’ and ‘literature’ ‘raise(s) a number of important preliminary problems’ of definition and meaning. In a sense, then, ‘medieval French literature’ is not merely insufficiently specific as a constraint, but also creates more problems than the convenient appellation solves! For a stimulating discussion of each of these terms in turn, see Simon Gaunt, Retelling the Tale: An Introduction to Medieval French Literature (London: Duckworth, 2001), pp. 9-16.
Susan Crane’s introduction to the various meanings and evolutions of the term ‘Anglo-Norman’ is, of course, far more comprehensive and well-researched than anything I write could ever hope to be. See Susan Crane, ‘Anglo-Norman Cultures in England, 1066-1460’, in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 35–60. (That particular quote is on p. 44.)
Ian Short, Manual of Anglo-Norman (London: Anglo-Norman Text Society, 2007), p. 11.
Short (2007), p. 11. Short also brings together (and compares) many of the alternatives to the term ‘Anglo-Norman’ listed above.
For more on this second example, see the wonderful ‘Medieval Bilingual England’ website.
Ian Short and Brian Merrilees (eds.), Le Voyage de Saint Brendan, Champion classiques du Moyen Âge, 19 (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2006), ll. 457-61 (my translation). If you’re wondering, they’re having a bit of a panic, and with good reason: the ‘island’ on which Brendan et al have just moored has turned out in fact to be a whale. 

Cover image: a detail from one manuscript of the Voyage of St. Brendan (ll. 815-18). Cologne, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 17, fol. 1r.

Medieval Didactic Literature

Medieval Didactic Literature

Okay, I’ll admit it: for a so-called ‘PhD blog’, my contributions so far have been very much focused on the last of those three little letters (‘D’ stands for ‘digressions’, right?). In an attempt to redress the balance slightly, the next few blog posts will constitute my attempt to put things right. Over the next couple of weeks, I’d like to set the stage for discussing what this blog’s (allegedly) ‘all about’: being a PhD student in medieval French.

First, though, let’s set our own, rather more personal, stage. Let’s imagine that we’re both at a social event. Let’s also imagine that, for some reason, you’ve asked me what it is I’m doing from September. After thanking you profusely for actually coming and talking to me, I’d reply with the short version: ‘I’m studying medieval Anglo-Norman didactic literature.’

As you’ve probably noticed, there are at least two notions that need unpacking in that phrase, of which the most immediately apparent is probably the first – what is ‘Anglo-Norman’, anyway? That will be the topic of next week’s blog post, as will the precise nature of the all-important ‘research questions’. For today, let’s content ourselves with the second, more universally-applicable concept:  didactic literature, and particularly that of the medieval period. What is ‘didactic literature’, exactly, and why bother studying it?

When I was an undergraduate student, ‘medieval French’ was to me synonymous with the study of medieval French narrative literature. This might sound like a fairly subtle nuance, but it had important consequences for how I conceived of the subject area as a whole. It wasn’t until my Master’s year that I started to realise how much there was beyond the confines of the canonically-defined ‘literary text’. Not all medieval French texts, I learned, were written to tell a story with characters and a definable ‘plot’. Indeed, some of the most fun that I had on my Master’s was unpicking medieval chess treatises, and discovering that even the most technical of genres incorporated a great deal of moralization in spite of its lack of narrative.

Of course, literary narratives à la modern fiction have their uses. We’re all familiar with fiction, and the importance of narrative in constructing it, so studying medieval narratives is a very productive exercise, and one that allows us to draw intriguing parallels with how audiences’ expectations have changed. In the case of certain medieval French narratives, such as the cycles of Arthurian romance, we can observe how basic elements gave rise to a vast corpus of texts that spanned continents and straddled genres.

A reductive focus on exclusively narrative literature, though, has obvious deleterious consequences on how we understand textuality. Frédéric Duval acknowledges this in a very stylish manner in his introduction to a late-medieval literary anthology:

‘Cet héritage du XIXe siècle conduit à privéligier les textes proches de nos critères normatifs et qualitatifs […] la fiction est valorisée tandis que la didactique est négligée […] en contradiction avec l’écriture et la récéption médiévales.’[1]

Duval goes on to claim that if he had chosen the texts in his anthology according to the number of manuscript witnesses that each one had, he would have been forced to include almost exclusively Books of Hours. While this may be an exaggeration, it certainly communicates a crucial point: texts outside the ‘canon’ are essential to our understanding of medieval textuality. In my research proposal, I used the term ‘para-literature’ to refer to such texts – texts that would not meet the criteria of narration and subject matter that unite texts in the ‘canon’, but play an important role in the body of medieval French literature – and I’m looking forward to developing this idea further throughout the PhD.

This is where I hope to carve out my little niche in the world of academic research. The texts that I’ll be looking at are all explicitly instructional, and many of them don’t (at first glance) make use of a narrative to convey their message. They range from language manuals (on which I have previously written a post for a wonderful Oxford outreach blog) to sermons on human mortality, but they all feel very different from the texts that I’ve spent most of my time studying in the past. They’re wonderfully practical, and offer a unique insight into how their subjects conceived of their world; when reading them in manuscript form, you can almost feel the breath of the scribe on the back of your neck. I’m not quite sure, but perhaps it’s that which makes the prospect of researching them so exciting.

‘This nineteenth-century heritage leads us to focus on texts that correspond to our own normative and qualitative judgements […] fiction is valued whereas dicactic texts are neglected […] contrary to medieval writing and its reception.’ Frédéric Duval, Lectures françaises de la fin du Moyen Age. Petite anthologie commentée de succès littéraires, Textes littéraires français (Geneva: Droz, 2007), pp. 9-10.[↵]

Cover image: a detail from the manuscript of one of the sermons mentioned above. This one’s pretty graphic: the text translates (roughly) as ‘Sperm … is where we all begin / It is made from two things […] Do not be ashamed at these words / For all people are created thus’. From Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 210 (fol. 15r).