Back to the books!

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One thing has changed, and that is the fact that I am reading again. I’ve got through the history of Denmark that we picked up on the visit to Jelling, and learnt about the geology of the Baltic in a guide to Funen that I chanced upon as a freebie in the SDU library. On the plane to Berlin last week, I finally started the book about the northern crusades.

It’s a curious irony that I am now reading books that one might have expected me to have read two years ago, at the start of what is, after all, a fellowship about the medieval North.

Why did I not? I was booked-out back then due to dealing with the end of my second monograph. I was also already conscious of having set goals (deliverables, as the grant-speak puts it) that had to be, well, delivered. That creates a pressure that is not conducive to the reading and thinking one needs to understand anything properly. Should one not be producing instead?

I suspect, too, that from an early stage I sensed how fragile it all was, that the long-term lines of enquiry that this kind of reading could support – probably would not be followable anyway in an academic context.

It can’t be a coincidence that, once one puts an end to such mind-games, the interest in the books returns. Not there the jabber of innovation and mobility. Just the imagination of a medieval landscape as northeast Germany runs past the window of seat 4A: glance up, out, and then down, back to the Wends.

An afternoon by the Little Belt

One of my projects during these years in Odense has been to get, very roughly speaking, round the four points of the compass on Funen. Svendborg and Kerteminde have been visited, and on Saturday afternoon we added Middelfart to the list. If you don’t know about this place – it does not figure in the Lonely Planet guide at all as far as I can see – it’s on the north-western edge of Funen, where the Little Belt strait narrows opposite the Jutland peninsula.

It is not big (or perhaps it is in the Danish scheme of things?). It has the usual selection of chain stores – Fakta, Kvickly, Tiger, and the like. It has the obligatory streets with small, picturesque, and somewhat twee houses. It did not, on this July afternoon in the Danish holiday season, seem particularly well populated.

However: it has the sea. Go north, and you are heading to the Kattegat and thence to the North Sea. Look south, and it’s the Baltic.

It should not have been a surprise. Yet one tends to forget just how close the sea is pretty much everywhere in Denmark. That includes Odense. Even though it has its very own fjord, it has often felt something of a bubble for me, an indeterminate place anchored in the world by the rail line that goes east to Copenhagen and west to Vejle and the Billund bus. It’s as though I never quite arrived…

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Den gamle Lillebæltsbro, photo by Isabel

By the Little Belt, I realized again why I had come. It was all there for us as we sat at the old harbour and walked along the headland under the old bridge. The aesthetic quality of landscape and seascape. The historical resonance of an old crossing point. The passage between the Festland of Europe and the chain of islands leading east and north.

How far-off those interests have become as motivation fades and prospects disappear. And yet: the enthusiasm and imagination and curiosity have not quite vanished. I know it because they materialize again in places like this at times like this, when one’s sense of the routine and everyday is suspended.

Coming at this particular point in time, this was all rather sad. But it must also mean that the old self is, despite the frustration and disillusionment, still there. And as if to affirm it – there, moored at the old harbour in Middelfart, was a three-master built in Gosport in 1887 that now plies the Baltic with Germans who are young, and young at heart, each summer. It is a good memory with which to start breaking the bubble.

Whose future?

A piece appeared on the THE blog recently setting out proposals to secure the future of Modern Languages at UK universities: ‘Modern languages: four reforms to reclaim the future of our discipline’. It’s a shortened version of something published earlier under a slightly different title on a University of Manchester website: ‘Modern Linguists must craft their own reforms to reclaim the future of their discipline’.

The change in publication forum is not insignificant. It moves the piece out of a particular institutional context and onto a prominent platform for information and debate in the sector as a whole. The THE version has, indeed, been circulating quite widely on Twitter. That is how I came across it, and partly why I was concerned when I read it. I want to explain why in this blogpost.

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If you haven’t done so, I would suggest reading not only the version published by THE but also the original text. It is readily, if obliquely, apparent from the opening sentence of the latter that the piece was written against the background of threatened cuts to Modern Languages at the University of Manchester. This has been anonymised into ‘a number of UK universities’ in the THE blog version, so it is perhaps worth reminding oneself of this context – and pointing it out to, say, international readers who may not be so familiar with recent developments at a particular UK university.

The subtext of appealing against them would certainly explain the management-speak in references to ‘reform’, ‘a globalised world’, and ‘economies on staff resource’, as well as the aspiration to ‘an alignment of modern languages curricula’ with those of fields concerned with ‘diversity management and global outreach’.

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Whether our response to the current threats should be to slip into the discourse of the administrative apparatus behind them, to accept that we need to legitimize ourselves with reference to matters such as ‘planning’ and ‘population health’ – is a question on which it is worth reflecting.

Here, however, I want to focus on a different problem that results from the loss of context in the THE version: the one-sided image of Modern Languages as a discipline without a historical dimension, and the way this contrasts with the richness, diversity, and value of the field in its current form.

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Specifically, a lay reader would be unaware that medieval and early modern literature have any place in Modern Languages now or in the future. As a medievalist and comparative philologist, this impression worries me, and I want to address it in what follows.

I focus on the two ‘reforms’ where specific ideas for the future are mentioned. I discuss their selective nature, and in the process point out some of the ways in which medievalists could contribute to the future of Modern Languages under such a model.

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‘Any reform should begin with a rejection of the prevailing compartmentalised, nation-state based approach to the organisation of modern languages units and curricula. This could be addressed by strengthening offerings in Chinese, Arabic and Japanese, and introducing the likes of Urdu/Hindi, Punjabi or Polish’.

Moving away from a system anchored in national philologies and national languages sounds great. Certainly, one way of doing this is to focus on languages outside Europe, as the examples suggest – with a rather obvious nod toward current trends relating to comparative and world literature.

But there are other ways of thinking outside the nation-state paradigm too. One of them is to ‘strengthen’ (which, let’s face it, means create jobs and hire in) scholarship on periods when nation states did not yet exist. The more ‘traditional’ European languages, moreover, could then get a mention as well, together with the questions scholars in them have been asking. What does it mean to think of a European literary space without national borders? How do nations turn to the Middle Ages in constructing roots for their identity and their literary traditions? And such like.

What’s more, adopting this long view makes it possible to build new connections that embrace world literature as well. I am thinking here of the work that has been done recently comparing Latin and the European vernaculars with Sanskrit and other Asian languages, for example. In other words: including premodern periods would allow us to achieve this ‘reform’ without treating languages from certain areas as more worthy of mention and support than others.

‘Thirdly, much can be gained from working across the boundaries of individual language disciplines to create modules with a strong comparative or transnational dimension.’

Again, this is great!  However: although it is acknowledged that the possibilities are ‘almost infinite’ in principle, the examples given are clustered very close to one end – the contemporary end – of the time span covered by our discipline. As examples of such modules, the THE text mentions ‘New Media and Political Protest in Authoritarian Societies’ and ‘Remembering Communism in Eastern Europe’; alongside them, the Manchester website version also cites ‘The Films and Cinematic Legacy of Luis Buñuel’ and ‘The 19th Century Romantic Novel’, plus a token early example that would appear to have more to do with a different discipline: ‘Renaissance Art’.

There isn’t scope here to go into transnationalism, but I hope we can agree that comparativity at least is possible where premodern literature is concerned. And the potential there is enormous. Think of comparing language boundaries and zones of cultural and literary transition in the ‘British Isles’, Jutland, and eastern Europe. Or comparing the forms in which the past was represented and identity created around the shores of the Baltic. Those are just two examples. They’re not random ones but drawn from my day-to-day work and conversations with colleagues – and it is no accident that they have an obvious relevance when it comes to thinking about more immediately contemporary issues as well.

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Now: I do not doubt that the authors of these proposals are aware of the value of teaching and research across all historical periods. The aspects of the field singled out for attention are in all likelihood nothing more than a reflection of the immediate context in which the original piece was written.

But that context is no longer there on the THE blog. It is implicit for those in the know – if they read to the end and see the statement of the authors’ affiliation, maybe even clicking through to the original blogpost – but not everyone will read that far, and not all of those that do will follow the link, or have the background knowledge of recent events needed to put two and two together, or both.

What we have got instead is a text headlined as ‘reforms to reclaim the future of our discipline’. That is about as universal as it comes. The rhetoric, likewise, is that of a collective: ‘we’, the ‘modern languages community’, ‘our future’. This means that the dynamic between what is included and what is left out presents – whether it is intended or not – a certain image of the field as a whole. In this case, that image is one in which Modern Languages does not exist before the ‘contemporary’ or ‘modern’ age.

Why is this a problem? Because the more a text like this circulates via a platform such as the THE blog, the more likely it is to be read by people who may not be familiar with the true diversity of Modern Languages as a discipline: managers looking to cut supposedly irrelevant fields, journalists seeking ‘value’ for public money, and potential students thinking about which course to choose, for instance. I hope that the examples I have given above go some way to presenting such readers with a more balanced picture of what an inclusive future could look like.

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At base, this is no more than a piece of writing that has been adapted without fully taking account of its new context and readership. Would I have reacted to it so strongly half a dozen years ago? Probably not.

The trouble is that, in the current climate, any discussion of this kind is a loaded one. Singling out particular languages, particular periods, and particular themes as examples of ‘the future’ has implications – not least when it is couched in the managerial rhetoric I identified earlier. This kind of thinking is what leads new posts to be created in some languages while professorial chairs in others are left vacant. It is what leads to very narrow and specific specialisms being sought when a post is advertised. It might also, although this is merely a supposition, have something to do with the shortage of institutional support for medieval and, especially, early modern studies in my own particular language.

The fact that certain periods are passed over in a piece such as this, in other words, matters. It is still, for the next two months at least, my discipline too, and I cannot just stand by and watch its future change in the way it is being changed anymore.

Decision time

Some months ago I did a post about why I don’t want another short-term contract in academia. The logical consequence of that was to apply only for jobs with a future. With June coming to an end, there are unlikely to be more of them advertised this year than the two for which I’ve just sent applications off, and the logical consequence of that is … well, you get the idea.

It feels a bit strange to be writing about this already. One doesn’t want quite to give up hope that it might work out. One is also worried about being misunderstood. The vagaries of ECR life and the job market definitely need more time than I’ve got now to strike the right balance between the inequities that quite obviously do exist and the positive experiences, between the times I’ve not done myself justice and the cases of plain bad luck, and all the various combinations thereof.

For now, I’m just surprised by how simple this is. I am happy to be without the disillusionment and frustration. For too long, the intellectual part of me has been morphing into a construct on which to fall back in order to keep trying, a kind of compensation for all manner of external circumstances; now it becomes something more genuine, more true to its own nature.

It’s the right time. And yet, true to the academic ways, I find myself close to 11 pm worrying away at a draft article that, as far as the grant agreement is concerned, does not need to be anything more than a draft article. I get the feeling that drawing a line is going to be harder than – in a sense, at least – I’d want it to be …

Gazing up to heaven in Braunschweig

That medieval cathedrals were places of colour, is one of those facts that one learns relatively quickly but does not necessarily understand. Or perhaps one thinks one understands it, until one has been confronted with it perceptually and realizes how little one did.

Such was the minor revelation when we dropped into the cathedral in Braunschweig on Sunday morning. We’d been to a wedding the day before, an occasion that provided a much-needed sense of perspective at this particular juncture. What happened next seemed to complement that by reminding me why I became interested in the Middle Ages all those years ago.

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The whole cathedral is a treasure because it survived World War 2 practically unscathed. The paintings, including those in the photograph, are admittedly the result of several stages of restoration and reconstruction that began in the mid-nineteenth century – but the scale and atmosphere they create are nonetheless astonishing.

The sense of being immersed in images, stories, and ideas brings the architecture alive. It changes the way one perceives the space, prompting engagement and drawing one in. Think, for instance, of how the placement of the twelfth-century memorial to Henry the Lion and Mathilde of England means that the couple are ‘looking’ up to the heavenly Jerusalem painted above them …

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The ins and outs of medieval Christian art history are, like those of religious writing, not always the most accessible to the non-expert. Experiences such as this are a good reminder of why they should be. There’s an element of imagination in it all, of course: in how the paintings came to be the way they are today and in the way I, at least, responded to them. This does not have to be a bad thing. Our visiting colleague Jeff Rider is, indeed, currently working on ways of thinking about such encounters with the past, and I’ll need to ponder further how his reflection on ‘use’ and ‘happiness’ relates to my own interest in the role of imagination in them. At any event: it was with a sensation of enriched being that I went out into the sweltering heat and set off through a deserted city to collect our bags from the hotel and pick up a cab to the station.

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Credits and sources: Photo by Isabel! — Background information on Cathedral website — Friedrich Weber and Joachim Hempel, ‘Der ikonographische Blickwinkel – oder Heinrichs des Löwen Memorialkirche’, pp. 9–11 of Harald Wolter-von dem Knesebeck and Joachim Hempel (eds), Die Wandmalereien im Braunschweiger Dom St. Blasii (free offprint from Cathedral shop).

A happy coincidence in the SDU reading room

On my first proper visit to the library at SDU, I went to hunt down ‘the reading room’ (as it was called in a recent email) to consult an interlibrary loan that could be read only under supervision. I was back there again on Wednesday doing much the same thing – ‘there’ in a manner of speaking, because the latest development in the reading room’s shifting shape involves, it transpired, moving into the home of what used to be FabLab next to the main library entrance.

This led to a certain uncertainty about where the books actually were. That was not the end of the puzzles, because when we did get to the magic cabinet, I identified my book at once by the title on its spine, yet found that it looked very different from what I was expecting.

It was one of those moments of delayed realization when the brain needs a split second to catch up with itself, to recompute ‘that’s the right name and it’s in red on a grey cover’ into ‘that’s the right name but it’s in red on a grey cover’.

Things, at this point, began to make sense. I had already been wondering why a recent and not particularly exotic publication had been confined to the library at all. Add to this the fact that the binding was starting to loosen and the text was set in Fraktur, and it was pretty obvious that this was the wrong book. Somewhere in the system, the date and place of publication that disambiguated the volume I needed from this imposter with the same title, must have been overlooked.

Just one of those things – except that there was something about the tangible fragility of this one that kept it in my hands (it definitely wanted to be handled, cradled, rather than laid on a desk). It was the product of a different age, typographically, in its language, in the kind of visual modernity with which its medieval illustrations were recast; no doubt also in its scholarship as well.

The hoops I’d gone through to get at this book were only part of the story that had brought it to me, I realized, when I found a folded printout of the interlibrary correspondence between two pages. The home library had been reluctant to release the book at all because of its condition, but someone had pressed the case on the basis that a really serious researcher wanted to see it (!). There was a little burst of joy in understanding the Danish, and an awareness of the gratitude owed to whoever was doing that for me behind the scenes, that made me continue looking and reading.

The book seemed to be an attempt to follow medieval culture through a whole calendar year, taking a different topic for each day and beginning with a monk walking into the new year on 1 January. Reading it reminded me, leaping over a conceptual gap (or was it?), of how much I had been thinking, during my time here, about different ways of writing literary history, influenced at least in part by research that questions straightforward linear teleologies in historiography.

The possibilities began to reappear again, the half-thought-out concepts – not just with time as their guiding principle – the different structures and paths from the ones we’re used to. Such approaches are arguably even more important when multiple languages are considered together. It was good to be thinking about these big questions again, during what is otherwise a period of quite detailed research on specific texts. It was also a tiny bit poignant, for this trip to consult an interlibrary loan that one could read only under supervision after hunting down the reading room was, to close as it were a frame, probably one of the last proper visits I make to the library at SDU.

Winding up

Has the gentle reader noticed a tailing away of posts here in the recent past? I have, and it has a very simple explanation. The end of a contract, the end – at least on paper – of a project, is not the best driver of motivation.

It is a curious state in which to find oneself in the context of a fellowship programme in which so much is made of developing career perspectives. That is exactly why the project blog is, I believe, the right place to talk about it.

In whose interest is it that quite substantial amounts of money are being poured into fixed-term peripatetic posts by funding bodies – rather than into positions that offer long-term perspectives and a true opportunity to produce sustainable creative thinking and generation of knowledge? The question is in part a rhetorical one … but not completely.

 

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Does anyone want to hazard a guess as to the likelihood of postdoctoral positions leading to a tenure-track job?


 

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It goes without saying (should it?) that I’ll do my very best to make the remaining few months a success: the Berlin conference, and the final article on the uneasy relationship between narrative coherence and literary historiographies of the Baltic. As for how much time and energy on top of that goes into the blog rather than what happens in September – well, we’ll see.

Ecology, criticised …

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beecr.jpegI spent the week before Easter tackling Alexander Beecroft’s An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day – our reading group text this spring – properly from cover to cover. Here are some of my thoughts on it – not in the manner of a review, but more informally. First come general points, then comments on the individual chapters.

1. I liked the idea of ‘borrowing’ ecology as a framework for describing and explaining literary history in terms of complex interrelationships rather than narrow causal explanations. I also thought the concept of biomes worked well for thinking about literary cultures across wide divisions in time and space. However, I became more sceptical when, later in the book, biological concepts such as genetic diversity were applied in a narrower way in order to understand and predict certain developments. I’m all in favour of turning to the sciences for inspiration about new ways of thinking about literature and literary history – but I do not believe this should cross over into analysing them as if they were biological phenomena.

I also felt that the word ‘ecology’ tended toward emptiness on occasion, particularly in its adjectival form: preposing ‘ecological’ to X should not become a rhetorical device for acknowleding that X is complex without having to tease out the forms and workings of that complexity.  That one encounters cybernetic metaphors (information reduction) as well, and reads very little about the role of the natural world in literary history, further made me wonder just what conceptual framework we are actually dealing with.

2. I am not convinced that a study of literature in terms of circulation (one of the primary aspects foregrounded in the book) does justice to it as a creative art form – but I accept that others may feel differently. Either way, there remains a problem of definition, because literature is in practice not understood just as the circulation of texts: the book also treats it as, for example, the practices employed by readers (something rather different) and, on occasion, begins analysing features such as style or plot structure after all. It’s almost as if Beecroft realizes in writing that the reductive ‘circulation’ approach isn’t enough, but doesn’t go so far as explicitly (re)formulating his understanding of literature to take this into account.

3. The status of the descriptors for the various ecologies (‘epichoric’, ‘panchroic’, and so on) is problematic. One encounters them preposed to a variety of different terms: to ‘language’ or ‘register’ as well as ‘literature’, for example. Perhaps, in the context of this study, there is a certain fluidity between all three of those terms – but equally, the global ecology chapter in particular did make me wonder whether the issues it discussed are really equivalent where language and literature alike are concerned.

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4. Overall, I enjoyed the first four chapters, on epichoric, panchoric, cosmopolitan, and vernacular literatures. But there were times when I found the tendency toward selective focus reductive. There was, for instance, no space for examples from and developments in the German tradition with which I am most familiar. Take the treatment of vernacular manifestos, which concentrates on Dante and Ramon Vidal. What about Otfrid von Weißenburg’s reflections on the vernacular in the dedicatory letter of his Evangelienbuch? Is it omitted because it is too early? Because it doesn’t fit the concept as it’s being used by Beecroft? Or simply because it was one example too many to include?

It is very important to stress that this is not the criticism of somebody picking holes by pointing out omissions from the field in which he happens himself to specialize. That’s just not fair in the case of an undertaking of this kind. The point is more abstract than that. It concerns the way in which the balance between selectivity and generalization is handled, the fact that such questions arise – but fall, if you will, in empty air. There seems not to be any framework for addressing the fact that readers will have them.

The importance of creating such a framework when it comes to the valdity and transferability of a theory, is obvious; perhaps less immediately so are the consequences that the failure to do so has on a different (meta?) level. Not least in the current climate, in which strategic decisions are being made to support particular languages more than others, there is something very unsettling about research that passes, as obviously as it does silently, over certain fields as if this were a self-evident thing to do. It is worth repeating that this is not a value judgement about the act per se of focusing on particular fields in a project of this scope, and nor is it suggesting that there is necessarily anything sinister involved in so doing. Research can never cover everything, and is shaped by coincidences as much as by neat plans. There will always be a post-factum element to any rationalization about the finished product – but this does not obviate the need for engagement with, and articulation of, the dynamic of inclusion and exclusion that characterizes it.

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5. I found that the last two chapters, on national and global ecologies, stepped down a gear. I can’t help thinking that this is related to the fact that these ecologies, unlike their more general predecessors, are linked to specific historical circumstances … but I need to think that through further. At any event: non-sequiturs began to appear, readability decreased, and the argumentation became less adventurous and less convincing. The examples with which the national literature chapter begins are just one illustration of this. Beecroft juxtaposes extracts from the first novels written in English and French from what is now Canada. The aim is to illustrate the ‘mutual invisibility of English-Canadian and Québécois cultures’. Some details are puzzling.

In the English passage, Frances Brookes writes of the (apparent) lack of human presence ‘up the river St. Lawrence, during a course of more than two hundred miles’. In the French passage, Philippe Aubert de Gaspé fils writes of a ‘cottage … hidden from view for travelers by a pine grove which protects it from the north wind’. As Beecroft himself notes, this latter location (St.-Jean-Port-Joli) lies further up the river, beyond the 200 miles in the first quotation. So far, so good — until one encounters the following synopsis of the two scenes: ‘the English ship gliding past the French village; the former seemingly unaware of the existence of the latter, which in turn has screened itself from the view of outside visitors’. This is problematic in three respects. First, it is a misrepresentation: the English quotation, as we’ve seen, actually describes the English voyage on a different stretch of river from that on which the French ‘village’ is situated. Second, the reader is left in some confusion as to what kind of settlement is involved: Beecroft refers to St.-Jean-Port-Joli first as a ‘town’, then quotes the French novel with its reference to a ‘cottage’, and then paraphases that in turn as a ‘village’. Third, writing that this place has ‘screened itself from the view of outside visitors’ arguably distorts the primary source, in which concealment is merely the side-effect of an effort to gain protection from the wind.

Now, it may well be that the wider textual context of both quotations would defuse the first two criticisms – that all would become clear if one read the surrounding material in both novels. It certainly is the case that the quotation about concealment and protection from the wind has an ambiguity that permits the paraphrase criticized. But that rather misses the point: in a book about literature, one expects features like ambiguity to be noted, and one expects accuracy in the uses to which quotations from primary texts are put. I don’t think that the wider point Beecroft is making suffers particularly from the iffy presentation in this case. But the ‘trust’ that one needs when reading a comparative book such as this, the confidence that one can rely on what is being said about sources with which one is not familiar, does.

6. So to the final chapter. This was – ironically perhaps, given that of all of them it concentrates most closely on the circulation that is foregrounded in the Introduction – purgatorial. It is in large part an enumeration of the relative strengths (in the subjective and objective senses) and future prospects of various languages and literatures. The combination of relatively banal remarks such as ‘For a language to survive and thrive, it must be spoken by young people, and ideally in many domains of their lives’ on the one hand, with grandiose references to ‘my “plot of globalization”’ on the other, did not endear itself to me. It’s not that the underlying question of ‘what happens next?’ isn’t interesting. It’s more that when one tries to envisage future developments, the qualitative unpredictability of literature as a creative art form is more obvious than ever … not least in a chapter whose argument – and this is precisely the point – is grounded so firmly in quantitative statistics about speakers, translations, and such like.

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Where does that leave me? There is a great deal that I liked about the book, and a lot that I learned from it. The discussions of Greek and Chinese material, in particular, are very interesting in the best sense of the word. The trouble, I think, can be traced back to the expectations that the title and subtitle create. They both lay claim – the former geographically, the latter chronologically – if not to a totality, then at least a comprehensiveness that stands at odds with the selectivity of material and approaches that the book actually presents. What I take away from it is something akin to a partial toolkit – a bundle of very useful concepts and questions to think about, extend, apply and interrogate without being certain that all of them are necessarily the best ones for the job. Is this closing switch in metaphor away from an ‘ecology’ just a stylistic awkwardness on my part? I don’t think so.

Why the ‘Parzival’ prologue?

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How many medievalists does it take to use the video machine?!

The Middle High German I chose for this year’s #WhanThatAprilleDay17 initiative was a rhymed couplet from the very beginning of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.

Ist zwîvel herzen nâchgebûr, / daz muoz der sêle werden sûr.

(If doubt is near neighbour to the heart, that may turn sour on the soul.)

The quotation is from the Lachmann/Nellmann edition, the translated by Cyril Edwards; see here for other contributions to the virtual event by my colleagues at CML.

Being critical of canons and classics is all well and good. Like it or not, however, there are some works of art that have taken on a cultural life of their own, something resembling a second existence on a level removed from just the time and place in which they came into being. The Odyssey and the Winterreise are two examples, and Parzival, for me, is another. There are the reinventions of the material over the centuries, the engagement with themes such as destiny and error, the sense of a distinctive voice that is hard to quantify …

There is also a personal connection – not merely in the relevance of that couplet now but also in the fact that this was one of the texts with which my encounter with medieval Germany began. Very long ago it seems, that sense of discovery of a world enigmatically at once distant and familiar, and the excitement of learning and scholarship as an opening of minds. It’s inseparable from the clarity of the air in late autumn in an English university city, before secrecy and competitiveness and all the rest of it came into view.

Personal engagement with literature is not really the done thing in the field, particularly when there is so much chronological distance to complicate matters, so that’s enough of that for now. But before next dismissing such thinking as unscholarly, perhaps we might take a moment to reflect on how many Festschrifts are published with titles that use a quotation from a primary text as a message or allusion to the honorand?

Reviewing open peer review

I see – thank you, twitter! – that Elsevier is planning to roll-out optional peer review for its journals in the next few years. Moves in this direction have much to commend them. The concept of unbiased evaluation of one’s work by one’s peers, in which impersonal objectivity goes hand-in-hand with anonymity, is one of the ideals that we all know to be problematic but collectively tend not to do anything about.

Let’s start with a basic distinction. I’m sure most of us have encountered – and can tell the difference – between reasoned, sensible criticism and its less substantiated counterparts motivated by factors such as personal preference, lack of interest in a particular approach, delaying tactics, and the like. We might call the former ‘constructively’, the latter ‘destructively’ negative peer review.

Publishing the peer reviews of accepted articles would mean that we could make our own judgement about how they stand in relation to these two poles. On that basis, we would decide how much credence to give to a negative review in forming our own opinion of the article to which it relates. Much the same goes for the positive counterpart of the above distinction – that between well-grounded and vacuous, gushing praise – and how it would shape readings of review and article together. If we were lucky, we might even be given an explanation of the reasoning behind acceptance in cases where reviews differed considerably from one another.

But what about the articles that are rejected? It’s not clear to me how they figure in the approaches Elsevier has been exploring so far. It is all well and good to make available the peer reviews of articles that are accepted, but in a sense it merely reinforces the status quo. We can now arrive at a view of the reviewing process – but only post factum, and then only in those cases where the outcome was a favourable one. I find this unsettling.

Would the possibility of their remarks being published be enough to dissuade reviewers who are contemplating the destructive approach? I am not sure. And besides, it is not that simple. Suppose, for instance, that an article were rejected by a journal after the views of its editors overruled a strong endorsement to publish in the external peer review. Should readers and authors know about this and have the chance to make up their own mind?

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There’s no easy answer. I am not sure that it lies in authors paying to be published immediately with peer review coming afterward (as in one initiative mentioned in the researchinformation.info article I linked earlier). The role of anonymity also needs reflection: will early-career scholars hesitate to be critical if they know they will be identified? (See here for a good account of such issues.) And of course, uncomfortable as it may be for the ‘open everything’ contingent, we need to remember that professional value judgements matter and to acknowledge that there is bad as well as good scholarship.

One to come back to, I suppose. Comparative and cross-language research on the Middle Ages isn’t always the easiest thing to place in the established scene, so thinking these things through is really important when it comes to creating forums – maybe the pipedream of a new online journal – to accommodate it.