‘Before’ national literary histories?

Looking back on the Marie Curie has had me reflecting again about this whole business of thinking medieval Europe away from national literary histories. It sounds so appealing, and I don’t mean that just in a critical way. On a very basic level, for me it meant the assurance that it was odd that there were some things my courses had hardly covered as a student, or some aspects of my field – German Studies – that didn’t seem to figure much on institutional scenes later.

But I never quite found myself at ease with the approach – though I never really could put my finger on why. For sure, it’s a very easy rhetoric, but that is the kind of criticism that could be levelled at any effort to make scholarship ‘relevant’ – and besides, I used it to sell mine as much as anyone else. Part of the problem was that I came to feel that it didn’t, in reality, so much overcome those old professional contradictions as replace them with new ones. I’ve written about that before.

But there was – and is – also the more fundamental issue of how one actually does such research. That the literature of medieval Europe preceded modern national borders, is important to recognize. It can yield all manner of important work on appropriation, nineteenth-century empire building, national philologies, and so on, and it is necessary to stop looking at the medieval texts in terms of a teleology leading from obsessively pursued origins to a later national literature.

But that is still, ultimately, defining the period in terms of what it was not. I want something constructive, and also something that avoids a further anachronism. By that I mean: just as it is misplaced to read ‘my’ medieval authors on the national terms of later centuries, so too it is misplaced to read them as a counterweight or reaction to those perspectives, to think them still, ultimately, in terms of the borders or philologies that did not yet exist. I don’t mean that just in the sense of avoiding back-transposing contemporary political concerns onto the period (along the lines of the Hanseatic League being a European Union before its time, etc. etc.), but also more fundamentally.

It is informative and necessary to know that language/dialect/author/region/genre X is not canonical/has not been studied fully because of the legacy of privileged nineteenth-century imperialist scholars. Setting that out can clear the way to giving it the attention it deserves. But it does not answer the question of how to understand it in its own time as part of whatever configuration of literary-historiographical space preceded the nation states.

That ‘whatever’ often seeems, in the end, not to be quite so important after all once studying the actual object of interest has been legitimized. A glance at some of the chapters on ‘German’ locations in the Europe: A Literary History 1348–1418 anthology, with its opening proclamation of ‘eschew[ing] nation-based frameworks inherited from the nineteenth century’, would be just one example. And yet the ‘whatever’ is so interesting and important in its own right! Maybe I will get round sometime to following up some of my thoughts on how to go about getting to grips with it …

Closing the circle

P1190655I’ve just had an article published that is something of a landmark because it is the last to come directly out of the Marie Curie. It’s about an Old Swedish tale in the red hardback I purchased very early on, bemused at having funds to cover my research again, and that I began reading on a packed train to Kastrup, over the Little Belt. That, too, must have been very early, in the autumn of 2015, because I had not learned to book seats, and because I was still revelling in discoveries as plain as the placenames over the loudspeaker.

Almost two years later, a week before the end of the fellowship, I was still reading it and worrying away at fragments of a draft – back by the Little Belt, outside a café in the harbour of Nyborg that felt a world apart from the get-together that morning. It was in places like this that I worked out an identity outside fixed-term contracts, regaining that original curiosity. Here was a little bit of the Danish everyday, and me in it with my interests, and the shimmer and pages trying to break away from the mug holding them down.

The draft was done by the end of the week to satisfy the letter of the law in the grant agreement. But the reading and writing and thinking with the red book continued, in  three branches of Nelles before we left Denmark, and then over here, in Costa and Nero and the National Library in Edinburgh. And now it is out there, finished. Very nearly five years.

In a way, this is merely a rehash of the tired but necessary point that research needs time, and the stupidity of funding systems that support work only to stop it in its tracks. How many other ideas and findings will never be shared because people haven’t the resources to see them through or write them up independently? But it is also another plea for a human understanding of mobility; for what I really remember now is not the familiar impersonality of just another contract being wound up on schedule, but wandering through the woods at Middelfart overlooking the other Belt, or exploring waterlogged Skagen in November, or roaming the backroads of Nyborg in an unmistakeably Scandinavian light, munching blackberries from the hedge, on the way back to the station.

Just another afternoon on the hill


A quick raid on the Aviemore area, largely because Isabel wanted a visit, turned into a very special few hours on Saturday. One emerged above a sea of clouds lining the main Cairngorm range, fading into the ragged outlines of the west, unending to north and east.

It was not that cold, but cold enough to wield the edge that cuts through any prolonged stops, so I followed the string of successively lower tops to savour the display for a little longer. Eventually, by nightfall, the proceedings had degenerated with the loss of height into an unfortunate mix of soft drifts, heather, and semi-frozen bog; and then merely bog. Lots of it. Yet the jog back through the dark, misted trees restored the balance.

And then was the long train ride through the dark, now separate, back to one of those unsettling outbreaks of the old life that seem to figure a lot on this blog.

THE flogging its invitation-only reputation survey for next year’s rankings on Twitter. A kind review of book #2 that is a source of pride but also of frustration at how little it seems to count for in practice. Being discouraged by the reaction to a job add – ‘Does this appear to match the profile of anyone I know?’ – that had sadly but not without reason become almost instinctive. Cold, of a different sort, then.

Intellectual retrospect


Relics on the floor of the editorial office

As I said, it is time for an intellectual reckoning with the Danish postdoctoral fellowship. Doubtless, I would write something a bit different if I were still trying to keep the H2020 apparatus happy, or still wondering whether a selection committee member might happen to read it sometime. But that is not my life these days.

So, what changed as a result of packing my bags with my twelve-page proposal on literary relations between medieval Germany and Scandinavia, and joining a research group concerned to adopt a pluralistic approach to the literature of medieval Europe with a strong interest in Byzantine studies and anchored in a history department?

Well, it did, truly, open up my horizons. I notice this often when I, in one sense or another, return to my disciplinary ‘home’ in Medieval German Studies. The perspective can seem limited, defined by the same old questions and themes; there is an awareness of a wider historical, cultural, geographical context, but at the same time there seem to be limits in quite how far one can go in engaging with it.

Yet I am, perhaps surprisingly, insecure in the new space in which I now also move, be that as a medievalist, Germanic philologist, Balticist, northern Europeanist, or whatever one wants to call it. I cannot, at any event, characterize my thinking as looking at the Middle Ages outside any one modern national perspective without cringing. It is a rhetoric that lends itself just a little too easily to gaining funding or making research seem politically relevant and contemporary.  I worry, too, about how its grounding in openness and inclusivity sits with the selective specialization and gatekeeping in an academy that cannot possibly support all its young scholars equally. And I know that the undertaking, which is, when one strips all that away, so exciting to me can be dismissed in an instant by scholars with whose theoretical preoccupations it does not overlap.

Perhaps for those very reasons, the endless new interests that the project spawned remain important to me, even if at some remove now that I am not working on them daily. Exploring comparative philology, trying to find ways to link the close reading of texts to wider discourses of European or world literary history, themes like geography and literature, seas, islands, lost texts … all that enriched how I think, and it is of some comfort, albeit in a bittersweet sense, that, as platforms such as Twitter tell me, I am not alone in believing that they matter.

Back in the Cairngorms (again)

P1160351.pngThe  slope by the waterfall in an evening rainshower was not the place to get one’s hopes up. It was dry when I unfolded the bag, and sun roused me the next morning, but I was off-colour: fitful sleep not helped by the end of the bedtime book, and an obvious energy deficit. And the pack was rolling around all over the place.

So I backed off, engaged the boulders and probably the highest-altitude ferns I have ever seen in this country, to gain the upper corrie, and found a way up and out from there. Unplanned explorations of this kind can bring unexpected surprises – on this occasion, one of the mysterious mossy, rocky pools of great clarity that are scattered around these parts.

By this point, it it was turning into a scorcher and I decided that to get my fix after all, I would try using the new shoes in the function for which they were  acquired: running – as much of the long loop along to the Devil’s Point and out to Glenmore as possible. With that heavy pack, this was a curiously brutal form of training; but when I left it for the out-and-back, there was a glimpse of freedom.

Is it not all a glimpse, though: a night in shadow at peace with the elements, or a clarity of air that is rare in summer heat?

I think the next time will be a fast and light out-and-back in a day; or the lochan could be reached from the plateau and the gear ditched and picked up again after scrambling back up. As if one needed an excuse to return!


Intellectual haunts

In the gap between editing jobs, I went last Friday to a small café in the retail park near us. I went for a change of scene, with a book and a notepad, to put in an afternoon on the paper I’m giving in Berlin at the end of June. Reading placenames, names of scholars cited, titles of their work, I slipped back.

To the little bakery with a few stools that did coffee round the corner from us on Gilesgate, where I brought the Old Norse readers sometimes – for a change of scene – before starting off for Denmark. To places like Nelles or Baresso or Brød in Odense, filled with intonation that came alive again through the Scandinavian wordforms.

This was not there, I worked out, counting off all that was different – no candles, the grime on the floor, the absence of interior black – but that hardly mattered because the sense of being enveloped by the ideas was just the same as it was. Book, and notepad, and coffee.

I spent a lot of time in those spots before the contract, and after it ended, especially; and, curiously, I missed that genuinely. I could imagine them all; and I thought of an office, the real place of work, that was stacked with books and notepads but never my own, just a space with a name by the door to be replaced with the same efficiency as that with which the keys were demanded back. Imagination stopped, then.

Late snow in the Cairngorms


I woke to a light of thin violet . A heaviness on the bag indicated snow, and an inquiring look disovered that a loop was all that remained visible of the pack. Hands felt a miserably clammy interior, and I resolved once again to replace this product. It was nasty, and very familiar. Might as well get moving … progress would be slowed by the snow, by the restless night, by the cold I was carrying around … might as well get moving. But wasn’t it actually quite warm in here? Very familiar.

At least it was not the real bitterness of winter outside. There was the same sudden, slightly nauseating drop in body temperature and scrabble to get everything packed up before fingers became impossibly clumsy; but the body regenerated its warmth quickly, and it was even possible to sit for a moment before setting off. Even the showers seemed half-hearted. Might as well get moving …


I had begun walking at Glenmore at 1.30 pm on Sunday and was to be back there at 5 pm on Monday. It is always hard to grasp how time changes on such excursions. It was not even thirty-six hours in this case, yet so full of light and colour and being. There was the revelation of the region around the Fords of Avon, properly remote and elemental, and, I felt best appreciated from the hills around it, not just on the paths in and out. There was the understanding of landform that came from using the extra daylight to march on, away from the bank-holiday tent village, and suddenly being aware that it was a relatively short tramp to the Linn of Dee … a pick-up and a warm bed, the wandering mind imagined … . And there was the night, grey through an ineffective opening in the bag overspun with moving grey as the squalls came through, when simple peace slid uneasily in and out of dark reflections about finally having chosen to be closer to places such as this. They ought not be an alternative to anything.

The conundrum of forward motion …



That goes for the efforts of Scotrail down below as much as it did for the wind at height on this trip. There was a certain perverse enjoyment in being there at all, in the latter case at least … the sensation of involuntary movement, yelling as hard as one can and hearing nothing, discovering life on all fours. A satisfaction, too, in following contours through the maelstrom – and working out when enough is enough.

Dropping from the cloud into a sudden spaciousness, it occurred to me that I had a sporting chance of making the last train south … a half-hearted realization, but what would be gained by spending another night to wait for the deluge when I could pack up and walk out in the dry? The state of the tent, which the air was in the process of parting from the earth when I reached it, settled the matter.

Yet it was still true regret that I left the vast roughness of the west and jogged the last downhill stretch to make that train in the softest of evenings. And a little bit of regret, too, much later when the plot of a pleasant night in my own bed was thwarted by ScotRail’s miserable rail-replacement bus tour of the backroads of Fife … the house, when it finally came, was so silent. No wind. No water. No stars.


One morning this coming week, I intend to pack a bag with some books and a printout, walk down to the station in Rosyth, and spend a day in the National Library in Edinburgh. By its end, I hope, the last article from my time in Denmark will be ready for publication.

This has been a long time coming. I started reading Hertig Fredrik on the way to Kastrup in those first months, in the autumn of 2015. I was still working on the article in the final weeks of my contract, in a café by the shimmer of the Great Belt. That in its own way was an assertion of the value of my work … I had, like some of my colleagues, presented my project at the annual get-together that morning, and when the head of department wrapped up the session by announcing that more Marie Curie and similar fellows mean more money, I decided there were better ways to spend the afternoon.

At least to me, my research mattered, and something of that spirit must have kept me worrying away at this piece ever since. At first, I rotated between the branches of Nelles in Odense; later, about a year ago, came the coffee-shop chains here in Dunfermline, and my own desk looking to the Forth and, when the air is clear, the rim of the Highlands around Loch Lomond … how much my life has changed.

The research matters. To me, and to the journal editors and reader(s?) and to friends and colleagues who have encouraged me to see this one through. It means that I will, finally, have some kind of closure on the project (actually, there is another draft lying around, but it’s less important for all manner of reasons). There are so many things I still want to think about, so many ideas I want to take further – but I can develop them, if I do so at all, looking to the future, rather than being held back by a past and its open ends, its unfinished business, the need for my own sanity to have something to show for it.

Winter, wild camp, the Great Moss

“Braeriach boasts a pointless and distant top …”. This passage in the Butterfield book had fascinated me for some time – one of those laconic guidebook remarks that seem to be a provocation to go and do it anyway, be it to prove them wrong or just as a challenge for those of a masochistic bent. Earlier this month, after all those years, I acted on it. The plan, drawn up around free time and the train timetable, was to get onto the plateau from Glen Feshie in the afternoon, sleep out, and visit Tom Dubh the next morning, before tramping on to Monadh Mor to make a day of it.

This trip cannot, beyond truisms about the changed nature of the game when snow is on the ground, really be called mountaineering; but it is a means of finding a genuine sense of remoteness, a space with no unnatural light and a form of suspended existence on a vast plateau bounded by arcs of crag that are more sensed, or remembered, than they are seen.


A body changed

After a quick visit to the Aviemore chipper, I took a cab down to the carpark by Achlean. It was almost a year to the day since we rolled up in Braemar for a few days before Christmas 2017, while we were still living in Denmark and casting the die about where to go next – and since I realized how desperately unfit I was on an overnighter in the vicinity of Glen Quoich. I was, therefore, curious to see how much had changed; and what better way to do that than start walking at 1.09 pm with the intention of getting up the hill and reaching the planned spot for the night?


It’s hard to keep a decent pace with this view at one’s back.

I surprised myself. Progress was, despite the winter and overnight gear in the pack, rapid: almost effortless, and at one point impossibly peaceful. There was just enough visibilty and depth to make out the contours and tell from the land exactly – more or less – where I was, absorbed in the cloud and snow. Despite the white everywhere, the failing light, a wind that could be felt nasty — I felt no hurry, no disquiet. All was plain, all content. You might call it a sense of being at rest, or at home; and I like the latter idea because the effect was broken by the same place that caused it: an evil, overcoming cold when I reached the vague col where I intended to sleep, and fumbled with the tent just before the darkness came down.


Night, and clearance

After a night made restless by the continual wind and whishriff of spindrift, dawn passed unnoticed; outside was a grey that promised brutal cold. It delivered as soon as I emerged, shuffled and at once set about generating warmth by marching off towards the first of several elementally pointless landmark elevations on the way ahead; movement, at such times, is a necessity.


C – O – L – D.

I was already cursing another less-than-accurate forecast, when cloud untangled itself from the earth to the south-east. There was no excitement at first, merely a base thankfulness that some warmth might be gleaned from the sun. The process of release had its slow rhythm, but the clues were there and it cleared sure enough. Tom Dubh – located after a longer-than-usual perceptual readjustment to cloud breaking – came, and went, and on the flow took me to the plateau’s end, as an inversion rose and returned uncertainly across lesser heights behind.

P1130181 (2).png

Not quite of this world!



A case of retracing steps. There was no flamed sunset – a weak front gathering cut out the West – only subtleties: cobalt and emerald in the sky left over the giants, and clouds layered with a shine like mother-of-pearl. Around that instant when the light is turned off, the last sacks were rammed, in the stunting cold once more, into the pack, and the final rise brought darkness, the lights in Speyside beyond the crest and a sparkling torchlit descent to the snowline. Tbe path to the road was walked and jogged; a brief phonecall generated a lift; and then it was just another empty Monday evening in December, and the chipper again, before the train south.


What one leaves behind.


Tom Dubh itself is not pictured here … at least not up close … so you will just have to go and see for yourself. And on that note, here, by way of motivation – or challenge, or provocation – is what the book has to say, in case you are not familiar with it:

Braeriach boasts a pointless and distant top – Stob Lochan nan Cnapan (Tom Dubh). Those who wish to take this in during a Braeriach traverse might consider starting up Ross’s Path from Gleann Einich or from Achlean in Glen Feshie […]. From the edge of the Moine Mhor, Stob Lochan nan Cnapan (Tom Dubh) may be discerned above the streams feeding the Eidart. Its ascent involves a considerable detour from whichever route is chosen on traverses of the neighbouring tops. This is one for the real enthusiast, the most meaningless 3000ft ‘top’ in all Britain, for here lies the ultimate in desolate wilderness, a landscape so featureless that it almost defies man’s ability to use map and compass. Devoid of landmarks, in mist, only the oozy drains of the plateau’s few streams offer guides of any consequence. When frozen by winter blizzards even these fail to assist, and dead reckoning by compass is the only sure guide to the safety of the glens below. (Irvine Butterfield, The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland, London 1993, p. 128)