Digitisation, archive.org, and ways of reading

Digitisation, archive.org, and ways of reading

It probably won’t come as much of a surprise to any readers of this blog that I spend quite a large amount of my time thinking about books. These ‘books’ can take many forms, from manuscripts produced in the twelfth century to the latest works of criticism, but one of the most significant recent development in the books that I study has been the gradual decoupling of the ‘book’ from any notion of physicality. It’s hardly noteworthy to say this, but books, as we interact with them every day, often have ‘pages’ only insofar as the word ‘web’ is attached to the front of them.

Many university libraries, recognising the eminent advantages of digital resources, have adopted a ‘digital-first’ acquisitions policy. In practice, this usually means locating the resource in the university library’s (online) catalogue, entering your Single Sign-On (or equivalent) password, then hastily being redirected to the website of the publisher in question, where you’ll be able to view the book. A brief exploration of the various publishers’ websites at this point demonstrates that the publishers have chosen from a wide variety of display options: some opt to display the online ‘book’ in a form closely resembling that of the printed original, complete with a two-page view and page layout that is identical to the hard copy, whereas others integrate the text of the work onto a single web-page, with the only hint that the work was physically published being occasional (p. 56) bracketed numbers appearing between words. This decision on the part of publishers obviously has a significant impact on how we cite sources: while it’s common practice to give a reference to the hard-copy original, even if you only consulted an online edition, this becomes much more difficult when there is almost no indication of page references. Happily, many publishers offer the ‘halfway option’ of allowing you to download (at least part of) the text in question as a PDF file. The prevalence of file attachment ‘paperclips’ in my EndNote library should go some way towards demonstrating how liberal I am when it comes to this particular approach.

Guilty as charged.

But for medievalists, ‘digital texts’ doesn’t just refer to freshly-minted works put online alongside, or to replace, their dusty paper counterparts. One of the biggest paradigm shifts in manuscript studies has been the shift towards the digitisation of ancient and medieval manuscripts: on the British Library’s site alone, around 2,000 individual works have been put online and are available to view, for free, to anyone with an internet connection. Incidentally, the BL’s image viewer, like those of Oxford and Cambridge‘s University Libraries, defaults to a single-page view, itself raising interesting questions about whether this represents a different experience to that of having a physical work open to two facing pages.

Enormous amounts of (digital) ink have been used in discussing the relative ‘usefulness’ of digitising manuscripts, and many of the comments and concerns raised mirror those found in the debate around digitised textbooks and course materials. Digitising a work certainly does make it more accessible, but does it discourage surface reading and push us towards an appreciation of spectacle over substance? Are there aspects of a book, particularly of a manuscript, that simply cannot be appreciated in an IIIF manifest or a downloaded PDF? What about digitisation projects that go beyond merely making copies of the original, such as one of my PhD supervisors’ Exeter Manuscripts Project[1]

These are questions that I really don’t have the qualifications to attempt to answer, although I would invite thoughts in comments below. ‘Old-school’ digitisation, to use what might be a rather oxymoronic term, has been useful to me, though, with respect to one particular resource. The resource in question is the Internet Archive, a monumental initiative – ‘website’ would surely be too narrow a word – that aims to create a publicly accessible record of a vast swathe of internet and printed material. The initiative is probably best known today for the Wayback Machine, which has been quietly ‘crawling’ web pages since the late 1990s in an attempt to allow us today to view a web page as it appeared on a given date in history; one can, for instance, view the BBC News website from 1998 or the Magic: the Gathering homepage, circa 2005. Particularly useful to me has been a different project coming under the same umbrella: their text digitisation initiative. Much like Google Books, this project aims to produce digital copies of out-of-copyright works, although the default viewer is a stitched-together, two-pages-at-a-time  simulation of individual scans. Whenever I need to consult a nineteenth-century work of scholarship on twelfth-century computistical texts, I know with some certainty that the Internet Archive will have my back. There is one caveat here, though: whereas the seventeenth-century pamphlets being digitised by Google may well serve as a historian’s primary resources, this sort of material is (for my purposes) resolutely secondary.


One side-effect of these overlapping digital initiatives has been the creation of a slightly odd ‘lacuna’ in availability, broadly speaking, for anything published between 1910 (when copyright starts being an issue) and 1990 (when digitisation started becoming a Thing). In other words, ‘old’ materials, including many of my primary sources and some early secondary ones, are available digitally, as are ‘new’ materials, but many items that sit in the awkward space between these two dates are still only available in printed form. It’s easy to distinguish between the digital ‘reading experiences’ for new texts and the experience for ‘old’ texts and ‘originals’: newer ‘digital’ texts have fully-searchable text files and bespoke websites, whereas older ‘digitised’ ones will often be hosted on a much broader platform (such as the Internet Archive) and be high-resolution images rather than PDFs. I do sometimes wonder whether this is having an impact on how I judge and classify the large amount of Victorian scholarship I interact with. So, my question for today pertains to a specific aspect of digitisation: does viewing a work through a website such as archive.org encourage us to read it differently, or else (in the case of criticism produced ‘pre-lacuna’) to see it as belonging to the same ‘world of production’ as the manuscripts they purport to criticise?  How has digitisation affected our work patterns more broadly?

Answers on a postcard, please. The best commenter wins their very own IIIF manifest.

It seems prudent – and not just because I’m meeting with her this week! – to mention at this point a recent contribution on this topic by Emma Cayley, the supervisor in question. Writing in the latest issue of the Modern Languages Open journal, she lays bare her own love of both her own ‘paper-sifting, archive-wading, parchment-venerating’ upbringing and, alongside this, her interest in ‘digital editions’ that do things which mere PDF copies of books cannot. (pp. 12-13).

Header image: an extract from the TEI encoding project I’m currently working on as part of the Values of French project at KCL. This, incidentally, is an example of a ‘digitisation-plus’ project, aiming to open up the text in question, the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, in new ways by using the power of XML.

Real-life meetings and digital humanities

Real-life meetings and digital humanities

It’s been, as usual, a busy few weeks here in Exeter, as things start to settle down in PGR-land. I’m writing this just after my third supervisor’s meeting, which went rather well: having produced a 3,000-word ‘way in’ to my thesis, my focus is now on entering the longer ‘background-reading-and-ruminating’ stage. Of course, I’ll still be writing during this time – mostly little ‘reactions’ to some of the primary source material I’ll read on medieval educational practices – but I’m not expecting to produce another 3,000 words before the middle of November. Since arriving in Exeter, chapter outlines have changed, new secondary material has come into focus, and targets have mutated, but perhaps the biggest shift has been that I’ve begun looking at my work through a whole host of different lenses.

Within the broader world of ‘Anglo-Norman studies’, one of the areas that has made a particular impression in the past few weeks is the subject of ‘Digital Humanities’. For the uninitiated, the discipline centres around the application of digital technologies to the humanities, done in such a way as to open up possibilities for research that would be been impractical were it not for the enormous savings in time and effort that computing brings. To give a very simple example, the main character in Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian romance Le Chevalier de la charrette, ‘The Knight of the Cart’, goes by two different names during the narrative: his name, Lancelot, is only revealed halfway through the narrative, before which he is simply ‘the knight’ (le chevalier). Tracking the many occasions on which the knight is named (at least 172, all coming in the second half of the 6000-line text) would have taken days beforehand; nowadays, it can be done with some online text and the control-F key (try it here!).

This is, of course, a very simple example, and modern-day Digital Humanities is about a lot more than simply making tasks easier. Instead, it’s moved on to undertaking tasks that would have been downright impossible before the advent of the technology we have today. Take, for instance, the Medieval Francophone Literary Cultures Outside France project, which I had the good fortune to be involved in a few years ago. Abbreviated to the much catchier ‘MFLCOF’ (‘muffle-cough’), the rigorous (and, dare I say it, ‘traditional’) research conducted by scholars mapping the textual traditions of literary works has been rendered far more accessible through visualisations that bring the spread of these texts to life. Similarly, Exeter’s very own Virtual Magic Bowls Archive allows for side-by-side comparison of extremely fragile objects that would not have been able to be brought together in real life. I’ve recently had the opportunity to get involved in some more Digital Humanities work myself, as part of the wonderful Values of French team – but more on that in a later post …

Why am I mentioning this? Well, of all of the myriad workshops and training events that I’ve attended since arriving at Exeter, one of the most resonant for me has been the workshop on digital textuality that was held a couple of weeks ago. Exeter is currently putting a lot of money into the subject area, and the event was organised partly to raise awareness of the new Digital Humanities Lab, currently under construction about 200 metres away from where I’m typing this post. The 30 or so of us who had made it to Lecture Theatre 6.2 were treated to a range of presentations that showcased some of the projects currently being undertaken at the University, ranging from innovative uses of the Text Encoding Initiative in the digital editing of Thomas Hardy’s correspondence to the creation of a visitor exhibition at Powderham Castle based around the Courtenay cartulary.

Of particular interest for me, though, was the presentation by Dino Felluga, Professor in English at Purdue University (USA). The crux of his talk was the assertion that while traditional academic presses have certain advantages over more transitory web resources, this situation need not last forever. He addressed one particular criticism of Digital Humanities – that their focus on technical knowledge devalues critical expertise – and made a compelling argument in favour of bridging the gap between traditional and digital humanities scholarship. Even for someone like me, whose experience in the area is rather limited, and who works primarily in a completely different time period from Felluga, the talk, and the discussion that followed, left me inspired to look further into how digital tools can help advance – and certainly not replace! – the work that I’m doing.

So, just a brief update this time: I’m still here, and Anglo-Normantics certainly isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Next week, I’ll be bringing you an update that’s slightly more ‘day-to-day’ in nature, as I take you inside the mysterious world of the Queen’s Building PGR offices …

Responsible adult supervision

Responsible adult supervision

It’s been three weeks since the start of the PhD, and things are starting to come together. The disparate mental maps I have of different parts of town are starting to coalesce together into a coherent whole; I’ve found a pleasant spot in which to work (surely the subject of a future post!); and, perhaps most importantly of all, I’ve figured out how the inter-library loans system works. That said, after the first week of inductions and meetings, my second week as a postgraduate research student was something of a shock to the system: suddenly finding myself alone without any meetings in the next few days to give me concrete writing goals, I spent a couple of days in the library in something of a minor panic, unable to write more than a few words at a time without flicking over to Facebook or Twitter and frequently deleting more words than I actually put down on the page.

Three things shook me out of my slumber, beginning with the discovery of the wonders of PGR study desks. While I had already booked one of these, a combination of all the necessary books being in the library and uncertainty surrounding where ‘Research Commons’ actually was had seen me confined to the central (and to my sensitive brain, very loud) Forum Library. One fortuitous morning, though, I took the plunge and was rewarded with a desk that, while not strictly mine, did come with a locker and the right to boot anyone else off it if I needed to use it. The silence in the Reading Room was precisely what I needed, and over the next few days the first piece of writing started to take shape.

Closely linked to the discovery of Quiet Desks™ was the realisation that I needed to do something other than work and rowing. While I haven’t really spoken about rowing very much on this blog – I’m a cox, which for the uninitiated means that I’m the short one who tells rowers what to do – I will admit that, while fun, it can be a draining task, and hence not always suitable for relaxing. With that in mind, I signed up at the Fresher’s Fair to two of the most unashamedly geeky societies that Exeter had to offer: the chess society and the Doctor Who society (with their incredible slogan of ‘Exeterminate!’). Having gone to both of these during my third week, they’ve proved to be excellent ways to properly wind down, and at some point during the screening of The Tenth Planet (a First Doctor classic, and one that marked the first appearance of some very ropey-looking Cybermen) I started to realise that I was relaxing, and allowing myself to benefit from the opportunities that Exeter has to offer. The chess society has been slightly more of a challenge, as I’m currently being destroyed in every game I play, but I’m confident that I’ll get there in time.

Yesterday, meanwhile, was the day of my first joint supervision, which served as the final clattering bell in my research-awakening alarm clock. After producing 1,800 words that served as a general introduction to some of the key issues that I’ve spoken about elsewhere on this blog – what is ‘Anglo-Norman didactic literature’, and why should we care? – I went into the 2pm Friday meeting eager for feedback, and looking forward to discussing some further thoughts on the topic with my supervisors. Indeed, it did all seem to go rather well: I left the meeting with some really useful advice, and there was general agreement that my work seemed to be on the ‘right track’. The challenge now, we agreed, is to ‘beef it up’, engaging more with some of the questions that I only referenced briefly ahead of our next meeting in four weeks’ time. It felt bizarre to be the one who was setting the agenda for the meeting, especially when the two people in the room with me were far more knowledgeable than I was, but I left feeling reassured that the short- and medium-term targets that we had agreed on were achievable and measurable.

It’s been a busy week, but as I come towards the end of it I’m feeling, for the first time, like I might just be able to set some proper, concrete ‘goals’ for the next week come Sunday night. The next seven days will be, in many ways, more of the same, with MA courses I’m sitting in on jostling for space with revisions of the first piece of writing (and, potentially, putting together a proposal for an undergraduate reading group – watch this space!). In any case, I suspect I’ll spend quite a lot of time like this.

Photo le 26-09-2016 à 12.24 #2.jpg

Cover image: Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS G.g.1.1, fol. 390v (detail), one of the texts I’ve been looking at over the past week …

I made a thing!

I made a thing!

Apologies for the lack of a post last week – arriving in Exeter has been something of an adventure (and one that will certainly get its own blog post in due course!). I haven’t been inactive in the blogosphere, though: one of my projects over the past week has been producing a short little piece on something that, to be honest, is just really cool.™

If you’re wondering why I put a trademark symbol in there, well … that’s the name of the website. No, seriously: Amy and Jonah over at This Stuff is Really Cool! kindly gave me the opportunity to write a post, which I chose to  about mise-en-page in a manuscript from Trinity College, Cambridge. As it happens, the topic for the article was something that I came across by accident, and so it fits well into the ‘theme’ of the blog – serendipitous discoveries that, while not necessarily ‘publish-able’ in their current form, are certainly worth getting excited about. You can find it here, if you’re so inclined.

The offer from Amy and Jonah extends to scholars the world over, and I’d heartily recommend that any postgraduates reading this, regardless of discipline, think about sending them a short piece (500 words or so). They’re absolutely lovely, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to talk about something that really interests you.

Cover image: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.14.39, fols. 80v-81r.

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).

Spare me the ‘lecteur’ – Part 4

Spare me the ‘lecteur’ – Part 4

We finished last week’s blog, in time-honoured fashion, with a classic French-style problématique. As the start of the academic year drew nearer, I was facing the tricky question of how to engage students who were taking my medievalism course, as well as asking myself whether it was even possible to teach modern English using medieval texts. Neither of these seemed to have a particularly obvious solution, and the process of resolving these questions will be the subject of today’s post (penned, or rather typed, on the X40 bus back to Reading after seven hours of teaching, so apologies for any typos!).
I began the course with high hopes, but soon found myself knocked down a peg as I realised that modelling it on my own undergraduate experiences would not work. While my students were certainly capable and interested in what might have seemed like a niche subject, my overly-optimistic lesson plans (‘class discussion on images of the medieval in Robin Hood and the Monk‘) were soon scrapped in favour of slightly more structured fare. The first term was something of a learning experience, as I realised quickly that I would need either to adapt my teaching to suit the needs of the students or else have no takers at all for the course’s second semester.[1] It was this experience, above all else, that really convinced me of the need to emphasise the course’s modern English language component: a pure literary history course, regardless of period, would be doomed to disappoint.

Of course, certain elements of the course had worked well over the first term: the impromptu rap battle based on Malory’s Morte Darthur was a particular highlight. In reorganising the course over the Christmas holidays, however, I had to say goodbye to quite a few elements that, looking back, had no real place in a language course like mine. The most significant of these was the research topic: while the students’ 1,000-word essays on the forest in Robin Hood ballads and Monty Python and the Holy Grail were truly fascinating, they were creating far too much work for the students and were taking valuable class time away from linguistic progress. In its place I accentuated the contribution of the two essays (400 words each) produced between classes, and in the process I awoke something of a sleeping giant that my course had previously been ignoring.

Robin Hood on Twitter: medieval creative writing

Those of you with better memories than myself will recall Ute Berns’ definition of medievalism from last week, and the onus it places on ‘constructing’ the Middle Ages. For the second term, I formalised and made compulsory an option that had always been open to the students: the production of a piece of creative writing that built on one of the three ‘themes’ (Robin Hood, King Arthur, Hereward the Wake) studied as part of the course. In this respect, I was following the lead of Beate Langenbruch, a medievalist at the ENS de Lyon who had begun integrating creative writing into her medieval French seminars several years previously.[2]

As Beate Langenbruch herself had found, this strategy bore fruit remarkably easily. The benefits of such a technique are fairly apparent: in producing creative writing, students were free to function in the mode of their choice, moulding language as they saw fit to create their own personal voices. The exercise demanded an intimate knowledge both of the tradition within which they were placing themselves and the form in which they were writing. There were some astonishing submissions, including a retelling of Robin Hood and the Monk achieved entirely using (genuinely-created) Twitter accounts, classical sonnets, and a glorious mashup of Robin Hood and Monty Python in which the ‘constitutional peasant’ found himself transposed into thirteenth-century England and taking issue with a certain man in Lincoln green. The exercise was a very liberating one for my students, and allowed them to look on these traditions, and the English language that transmitted these traditions, in a very different way. The English language was, in a way, something to which they themselves could contribute.

Modern, medieval English: a case study

The medieval element of the course ‘proper’ got a similar revamp. In redrafting the syllabus for what was to become Manuscripts to Movies: The Modern Middle Ages, I began to look at the medieval texts through a linguistic lens, asking how they might assist a modern learner of English. It was in this vein that, in Week 5 of the ‘new’ course, I was able to give my students a task that none of them had ever experienced before: English-to-English translation. The task was simple: translate a section of the Morte Darthur (15 lines) into modern English for the Penguin Classics series, with a reasonable degree of faithfulness but taking liberties where appropriate. The result, more often than not, was something like this:

So in the myddys of the blast enterde a sonnebeame, more clere by seven tymys than ever they saw a day, and all they were alyghted of by the grace of the Holy Goste. Than began every knyght to beholde other; and eyther saw other, by their semyng, fayrer than ever they were before.[3]
Then in the midst of the blast there entered a beam of light, seven times clearer than they had ever seen before; and they were all visited by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Then the knights all began to behold each other, and each one seemed to the others to be more beautiful than they had ever been before.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but a (semi-)competent translation into modern English required a great deal of grammatical and lexical nuance that an upper-intermediate learner could subsequently apply in all sorts of contexts. Immediately visible is the consistent shift in tenses, from the Middle English (ME) past simple to the modern English (ModE) pluperfect: ever they saw a day and ever they were before become ‘they had ever seen before’ and ‘they had ever been before’. This nuance, while not necessarily new to a French speaker, provided a concrete takeaway from the rather more abstract exercise of translation. Similarly, the lexical manipulation that I suggested, from ME sonnebeame to ‘ray of light’, provided ample scope for expanding students’ vocabulary in less common scenarios (as with the attendant ‘ray of …’ structure).

But … why?

But surely it would have been more effective to teach these ideas as discrete grammar points? Why bother delving deep into Malory to pluck out obscure examples, when otiose options openly offer themselves to you? The answer to this question takes us back to where I started: the original name of the course, (Re)Thinking the Medieval. It’s true that in a sense, the Middle Ages are fundamentally ‘other’, as Paul Zumthor put it in 1972; these cultural differences, quite honestly, can alienate students, and can make the text we’re studying seem even further away. Anticlericalism in Robin Hood stories or, for French students, the Norman Conquest can feel irrelevant. But the Middle Ages has an ace up its sleeve: its cultural persistence. Even if the medieval period itself is ‘other’, memories of it persist. Not all of my students had the reading skills to pick apart the web of characters in a Robin Hood story, but they all had a certain amount of background knowledge. Sherwood Forest was familiar to them, as was, of course, Arthurian romance. This residual knowledge — the ‘background radiation’ of medieval studies — worked very effectively in overcoming the dreaded ‘silent room’ that any language teacher will be more than familiar with, and in getting them to see the benefit of the language exercises that we were undertaking. Zumthor might be right when he says that the Middle Ages are ‘other’, but to steal a phrase from Umberto Eco, ‘it seems people like the Middle Ages’. My students certainly appeared to.

To be clear, I definitely don’t want to claiming that medieval studies is a ‘silver bullet’ to the very tricky problem of how to engage EFL learners, nor do I want to suggest that a dose of Robin Hood will cure the malaise of every student who has sat bored in English class for the last twenty years. What I hope I have shown, though, is that medieval studies and English as a Foreign Language are far from irreconcileable, and that a passion for one does not necessarily preclude a desire to develop the other.

Next week I’ll be moving away from lecteur reflections (ref-lecteur-ions?) with the first part of a three-part series. I certainly intend to come back to this topic – there’s a lot more than remains to be said, especially with respect to which texts we choose to use – but for now, I’m looking forward to beginning with a new venture for this blog: a book review.

1 The ENS de Lyon operates a two-term year in which, at the Centre de Langues, each English module is self-contained within one semester. The class therefore ran twice, giving me a much-appreciated opportunity to fine-tune aspects of it during the Christmas break. [↵]
2 Beate Langenbruch, ‘Le Moyen Âge par la réécriture : apprendre en métamorphosant. Retour critique sur une expérience de l’enseignement de la littérature médiévale’, Perspectives médiévales : Revue d’épistémologie des langues et littératures du Moyen Âge, 36 (2015), <http://peme.revues.org/8358> (accessed 11th July 2016) [↵]
3 Adapted from Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, ed Stephen H. A. Shepherd, Norton Critical Editions (London: Norton, 2004), pp. 502-03. My translation. [↵]

Header image: ‘Young Robin goes to the shooting-match’, from Howard Pyle, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire (New York: Scribner’s, 1883), p. 1.