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.