Saturday, 16 January 2010

What is Medieval Studies, anyway?
or, Where have all the hyphens gone?

When setting up the template for this, until recently, empty ‘blog I made a bit of a faux-pas. Without really thinking about it, I used two terms to describe our new reading group and its accompanying website. It was a faux-pas mainly because ‘Post-Medieval’ and Postmedieval might, after all, be two very different things, especially for a group whose aims might include the interrogation of our critical relation to the medieval past.

Because that hyphen- the oh-so-small yet oh-so-significant little punctuation mark, has remarkable implications for the future of medieval studies if, indeed, the future of the field rests in one of those terms. Ben and I are, I guess, at a strange moment in our careers – neither ‘proper’ medievalists nor ‘lowly’ undergraduates, we’re like hyphens ourselves – separating real academia from the hobbyist endeavours of our undergrad years (are we post-graduates or postgraduates?)
I suppose that the difference between the post-medieval and postmedieval is that the former is engaged in the totally linear passage of time – we can, for example, study post-medieval architecture, art or literature as synonymous or contemporaneous with that spurious periodisation of the early-modern. The postmedieval, meanwhile, might mean a moving past the medieval, without necessarily being conceptually confined by the passage of time. The publication of the journal, ‘Postmedieval’ in April of this year, has at its core an approach that aims to bring the modern and medieval into productive critical relation. This has all been explained better than I ever could on the journal’s webpage, whose critical overview reads like a who’s who of my favourite medievalists (is it sad that I have such a list, even if I’ve not yet written it down?)

Since it’s not really my place to write (nor could I write) about the new journal, perhaps instead I should write something about why we decided to set up the ‘Postmedieval Reading Group’ here at York, and a little about myself (with the expectation being that Ben will do something similar in response). The York CMS has an amazing culture of extra-curricular (another hyphen – they get everywhere, see!) reading and research groups, more so even than the University’s English department. One of the great things about all these groups is that they are entirely open and free-forming – there is no set membership, no requirement for entry other than an appetite for reading interesting texts and discussing them openly. They encourage an interdisciplinary and varied approach – historicists mix (often uncomfortably) with theorists and linguists, archaeologists and art historians. We have reading groups specialising in reading everything from Orderic Vitalis (the imaginatively-named ‘Orderic Vitalis Reading Group’) to Middle English Romances, with groups being either thematically or periodically linked.
Sessions are run both by postgraduates and by members of the academic staff within the department, and the reading is provided in advance often in both the original and in translation. So where did we see the Postmedieval Reading Group fitting into this vibrant academic culture?

We had been speculating about setting up some sort of theory-based reading group within the CMS. Ben and I both did our undergraduate degrees in English at York, and the department is particularly strong in its appreciation of postmodern critical theory. While studying here, we both fell in love with, in particular, psychoanalysis (Ben fell first, and I shortly after) and we’re particularly lucky to have Adam Phillips, a practicing psychoanalyst and prolific writer, as visiting Professor in Literature and Psychoanalysis in the department. Having attended both the postgraduate seminars and the open lecture series he delivered at York, we became more and more embroiled in the theory, which led us reading outwards and sideways into the deepest, darkest realms of critical theory. (Here I should note that Ben’s impressions may be entirely different, and I perfectly expect him to correct me, or re-evaluate me in his own post later!)

Given the encouraging reception of our approach at undergraduate level, we were sort of expecting something similar from our MA. Never, however, have I experienced such alarm at my first mention of Deleuze & Guattari in a seminar on Gaimar, and rarely have I felt so ostracised as at my analysis of Grendel’s arm as Lacanian lamella in Beowulf. Ben, as I’m sure he’ll corroborate, was having the same experience in different modules. It was almost as though we were working with a group of people who felt that contemporary critical theory had no place in the Middle Ages. I mean, this isn’t entirely true, of course: there are certainly people on our course who are similarly enamoured with Žižek, Freud and the like– but they seem few and far between. Our worst suspicions were confirmed when, in a seminar at the end of our first term on ‘The postmodern Middle Ages’ two of our classmates gave as their reason for being on this particular MA that they wanted ‘to avoid postmodern theory’.

It was almost that very moment, as Ben and I looked agawp at each other, that the ‘Postmedieval Reading Group’ crystallised and came into being. Perhaps, we decided, there was space for such a group purely because, certainly among our classmates (although we’re a small sample size, admittedly), there was no such space. So there we have it: full circle. It seems as though the Postmedieval reading group at York is a kind of hyphen itself – creating the very space between two seemingly incompatible, or at least resistant, concepts. Its aim, therefore, should surely be to eliminate its own necessity – to get people challenging the sorts of tacit assumptions we make as ‘medievalists’ up to the point where the group itself is entirely unnecessary. Then again, let’s hope this doesn’t happen all too quickly…

And remember, in the immortal words of the Chaucer blogger:

Swynke, Drynke, Swyve...and aftir, meke retracioun.

Mike Pryke.


  1. I should probably comment first by saying - the response we've had from within the CMS, all departments has been really rather healthy and encouraging - it looks as though the first session will be numbering around 15 people...

    If anything, this post shows how it's transpired that people ARE interested in things like the group, but are reticent maybe to openly show it in seminars and discussions!


  2. Hyphen trouble: I went through something similar as the title of my edited collection "The Post-Colonial Middle Ages" transformed into the hyphenless name under which it was published. That's why my preface is all about temporality. And hyphens, upon which so much depends.

    Good luck with the reading group, and thank you for making its life visible here.

    One last observation: reading groups and journals are essential, but so is a transformation of our critical practice through the invention of new spaces for enabling the next generation of post(-)graduates not to feel as though they've said something wrong because Deleuze was mentioned in a medieval studies class. That's one reason that some colleagues and I (and I include our GW grad students under 'colleagues') founded GW MEMSI:

  3. at the end of our first term on ‘The postmodern Middle Ages’ two of our classmates gave as their reason for being on this particular MA that they wanted ‘to avoid postmodern theory’.

    duh?? so why did they take that module then???

  4. I should probably clarify...

    The 'Postmodern Middle Ages' seminar was the last in the compulsory, core, course for our MA. The module is a kind of survey course - with seminars on various topics/texts!

    They weren't just total masochists!


  5. I, on the other hand, am a complete masochist, but of a slightly different ilk.

    Ben x

  6. I did a course at the York CMS and people were not as adverse to theory as you say they are now. If this year's students are so different, why are any of your classmates going to want to attend the reading group, especially after the way you've characterized them? It sounds like your classmates either love theory as much as you do or hate it, but surely on a MA course there are many who are somewhere in between.

  7. There's certainly a big interest in theory at the CMS, particularly amongst archaeologists, or so I'm told, and there are quite a number of PhDs who seem quite interested in the group. I think we've probably been unfair if we've suggested that the CMS is somehow very puritanical and backward, and that the students are complacent of whatever. The examples we've given have been deliberately provocative, and I think michael feels more strongly about moments of 'anti-theory' than I do, as he is a very rigorous kind of guy.

    And absolutely, there are a lot of people who are in the middle, as it were, having not made up their minds whether they would be 'for' or 'against' theory, that of course being the principal problem, that one has to apparently adopt some kind of ridiculously partisan position. For instance, I wouldn't really describe myself as 'loving' theory really, because there are an enormous number of writers I think are tremendously boring and not at all enjoyable to read (Madness and Civilisation era Foucault I find absolutely unbearable). And I certainly don't consider myself any kind of 'expert' on theory (I've never, for instance, read Heidegger, or Paul de Man, or countless others), and all I feel I can speak with any kind of authority on is the fact of my passionate attention to certain writers, and my wishes to return to them over and over.

    The more constructive thing, I would suggest, is rather to return to theory in a very anti-theory kind of way, by concentrating on individual moments within a writer's work (perhaps Derrida, perhaps Donna Haraway) and putting it in a dialogue with another text (a literary one, an historical one) that forces us to rearticulate and redescribe what exactly Derrida et al might be writing about exactly. This specificity, where we start to read people like Freud as writers of a kind of literature, puts us in a position in which we can enjoy the kinds of rhetorical turns and stylistic twists that give the writing its very singular flavour and, I think, complicate our understanding of the 'abstract' 'theoretical' content.

  8. Continued.....

    For me, one of the purposes of the group is not at all to gather together all the 'pro-theory' crowd into one space (such a gathering would doubtless be very boring) in which we can all sing the praises of Lacan or Deleuze, but rather to look at where theory fails in our reading practices (where it becomes reductive, or repetitive, or dull) so that we can see the extraordinary singularity of the texts we wish read, to see a wonderfully individual moment of articulation.

    I would hope that people come to the reading group simply because we ask very simple questions about things pertaining to both the middle ages and to our historical moment: what is time? what is a body? Who do they belong to, if anyone?

    There will be free wine as well.

    Much Love,

    Benjamin x

  9. This post and discussion is a great kick-off for your reading group. Although we've now had close to 20 years of productive debate *within* medieval studies over whether or not contemporary critical, cultural, and other theories can be critically relevant when applied to medieval texts and artifacts, the question still remains, for many, both troubling and still worth arguing over. IN some respects, nothing less is at stake than history itself: how we understand history [and the ethical and political considerations possibly involved in that], why and how historical events, texts, persons, etc. might have something to say to those of us located in the Now and also inhere with us in the Now in a variety of ways, and ultimately, how the humanities [literary-historical-philosophical scholarship] do, or don't [depending on your viewpoint], have a role to play in contemporary thought and life and how we should sketch out/describe the temporal boundaries of our work and concerns as intellectuals.