contours of existence

Topographical yearning can’t be one of more common causes of sleepless nights, I would have thought.

It’s not that, in itself, the flatness in this part of northern Europe is any less resonant than it was. More, perhaps, that I made the mistake of projecting too much onto the sense of distance and open horizons when I first came—if such is really a mistake, rather an elemental part of how one goes about giving sense to the world. Maybe it is both.

At any event, this kind of complex relationship with landscape would explain the longing that struck me, out of nowhere, for a different kind of ground a few nights back. It was Durham that came first to mind. Curiously so, in many ways. The attachment had long been a tenuous one (how do you set down roots somewhere where it has, however indirectly, been made perfectly clear that there is not a long-term future?). The notion of returning, too, is painful in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, more particularly the way immigration figured in it.

And yet: I miss still the wooded spur that runs down to the river from Gilesgate, the simplicity of the flats along the Wear, and the shallow valleys where the river makes a turn further upstream. I miss the slopes falling and rising that gave perspective to the start and the end of the day. And from there, the mind wanders still, to a landscape, further north, where the shape of the earth and the form of the rock are those of another age…


One of these days, the academic in me will bring together the other, scholarly side of this particular coin—literary geographies, literary spaces, the north as a hollow space around the Baltic—but that is for a different time.

My first index…



indexWhen you think of writing a book and getting published, making an index probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. So, having done just that for the Lohengrin monograph—what was it like for me?

Most of all, it made me think about how the book is structured and what points it aims to get across. I think the Chicago Manual of Style suggested approaching the index as a counterpart to the table of contents—as part of a package that helps readers to find their way through the book in different ways. There’s a lot of wisdom in that: deciding what and what not to index means identifying the key points and terms, and anticipating what readers will find useful—not just blindly indexing everything and anything, or worse, assuming that what I think readers will need is what they actually will want!

One example of that is what is visual and aural perception, or sight and sound … those terms appear in one of the chapter headings, and what is seen and heard is discussed pretty often in the book. Self-evidently indexable, then? Ultimately not, I decided. Perception is not the focus of the book, and it is not targeted at an audience whose main interest lies there. Instead, the discussions of sight and sound feed into the more important points that I make about identity and narrative coherence, so those, I felt, were the headwords that needed to take precedence.

Another case of ‘less is more’ were the names of the assorted medieval German poets that crop up. It was tempting to include all of them in the index (perfectionism? or a desire to cover all the bases? I’m not sure) … but in the end, I didn’t. Authors such as Hartmann von Aue made it in, because their works represent the ‘classical’ medieval German texts with whose legacy Lohengrin engages. But figures such as Heinrich von Veldeke or Gottfried von Straßburg were omitted. Citing a scholar who’s looked at Veldeke’s presentation of colour, or footnoting Gottfried’s handling of linguistic difference, doesn’t make them relevant to the real thrust of the argument. Their usefulness as contextualizations for Lohengrin is limited and hence, in a book about Lohengrin, I left them out of the index.

Harder than such decisions was working out how to structure some of the lengthier entries. As usual, it’s very easy to tell out what you don’t want to do. One of the books I looked at as a potential model had entries for some of the more important keywords that went on and on and on and on as enumerations of numbers … which is just not helpful. But how, then, do you break down large entries into subheadings? Wolfram von Eschenbach was a big problem for me in this regard. He’s mentioned frequently, so it makes sense to help readers navigate all those references in the index by distinguishing between Wolfram as an author (of, say, Parzival) on the one hand and as the narrator figure of Lohengrin on the other. All well and good, were it not for the fact that one of the points is precisely that identity of the two tends to merge in this medieval text … Or suppose readers want to find out how the well-known heroes of Arthurian romance figure in Lohengrin: an index entry for ‘Arthurian knights’ can be included to cover that … but do you then have subheadings for named heroes? Do you also include there more generic references in the text to ‘Arthur’s knights’? ‘Arthur’s followers’? And so on …

I don’t claim to have solved all such questions (and believe me, there were more) perfectly.  Many of them I could probably have handled better. For many of them, there won’t be an ideal solution at all. Part of me wishes I had just asked a freelance expert to compile the index for me, as happened with my first book—but my concern is that putting my funding toward that would have meant having to make the whole monograph open access. (Just another example of how short-sighted funding arrangements can be in career terms, but that’s another story.)

Another part of me realizes that I learnt a lot by doing it myself. Not just about how books are made: I also found myself thinking differently about what sort of readership I anticipate and what the bigger picture is in research like this that brings so many different topics together in one place.

There is, finally, another point I’m trying to get across by giving this insight into the birth of a book. We need to acknowledge that not everything can be slotted into the sensationalism that a lot of Humanities advocacy adopts as a surrogate for arguing the case for what we do and why it is interesting.

Much of the work in compiling an index is repetitive, tedious, and solitary. It doesn’t lend itself particularly well to shouting on twitter about being excited, privileged, or feeling fantastic. But from it there arises nonetheless something that should make a real difference to how people navigate and find coherence in learning about this enigmatic medieval text. With a bit of thought, the word ‘satisfaction’ comes to mind.

Mobility: seeing through the jargon

© Björn Wylezich. It seemed fitting that I began the journey to Odense and the current fellowship on this particular plane: it was a regular on the Cologne/Bonn run during my previous one.

The panelled walls, the way left, straight, and sharp left out the sliding doors: it was all unremarkably familiar. But in fact, I realized, it had been quite a while since I last passed through that particular airport. A stream of recollections followed: years, emotions from one extreme to the other, where I had been coming from, where I had been going…

This sensation of collapsing time, an acute awareness of a past attached to a certain place that has been left, but not, is a familiar one after so long being in transit in some sense of the word. Something similar happens when I’m back in cities such as Bonn, Freiburg, or Oxford. It has also been known to happen on particular aircraft: scary stuff. Scarier still is that it is happening already in the centre of Odense, which I haven’t even left – yet. I guess the mind has simply had enough of pretending to itself that it has found a home.  

Perhaps this personal resonance is one reason why I’ve become so interested in the relationship between space and selfhood in my research – I want to understand and articular better how spaces shape and are shaped by the ways people think, feel, move in them (there’s a taster here). But I can’t help wondering whether that is not also just another attempt to rationalize something that is beginning to seem increasingly untenable, for more than anything else I felt, walking the short walk through the airport in Dresden, how weary I have become over the years.

Academic sex appeal, and its limits…

Not quite what you might think, this post, but a response to one of the ideas circulating in the German-language academic webspace at the moment.

It has been suggested (e.g. here, and here) that the historical ‘Grundwissenschaften’ (meaning fields such as palaeography, numismatics, heraldry, and the like) should defend themselves by articulating their ‘sex appeal’. Although I’m not, at least not primarily, a historian, it seems to me that the underlying questions are the same as those faced by the Humanities in general these days when it comes to advocating what we do. But is describing ourselves as ‘sexy’ really the best way to achieve that?

One might, before anything else, ask how we have got this far in the first place. One explanation is that it is simply the logical next step in the inflationary hyperbole of social media. Judging by the amount of ‘fab’, ‘fantastic’, ‘brilliant’—and yes I’ve used such words myself on occasion—material that appears in my twitter feed, we must be living in a world so close to perfection that there is no special place, no words left for truly exceptional research. And so, as descriptions like those become jumbles of senseless characters, new, still more extravagant ones need to be found to take their place—and in that sense, why not ‘sexy’?

Why not? indeed. As so often, the discourse appears to be framed by a question that seems already, silently, to have been answered. All the more important to ask it, therefore, as at least one response on twitter has done. Do we really need to adopt this kind of language?

I do not believe that we do, not least because it is something of a red herring. There is a clue to that in one of the German blogs I mentioned earlier, which contains a string of references to ‘den Wert, die Attraktivität, den “Sexappeal’” of the field. Is it not really the first two with which we should be concerned, rather than with embracing the discourse of sexiness that slips in innocently at the end of the enumeration? Sexy academia. Eye-catching, perhaps … at least until everyone else starts doing it too. But it is too easy. Simply ataching ‘sexy’ to whatever it is we want to ‘sell’ merely sidesteps the problem at stake, and the exorbitance runs the risk of becoming a surrogate for thinking hard about how to reach out and explain what we do.

Postscript. That was all a bit polemic, so a few words about the positives that I’ve taken away from this discussion are also in order. Context, yet again, is everything in this respect. The germ of the idea I’ve been critiquing seems to lie in a comment in which the terms ‘sexy’ and ‘sex appeal’ are used to stimulate reflection, as alternatives to what is felt to be a ‘dusty’ image of the ‘Grundwissenschaften’. To my mind, at least, this is a more interesting context—a thought-experiment that makes one pause and see things a bit differently, which is precisely what doesn’t happen when the terms lose their edge by being repeated across twitter posts. I guess everyone will see things a little bit differently, and that is no bad thing.


When narrative meets performance: Odense’s storytelling festival



fyrtojetWhat, you might well ask, was a thirty-something academic doing inside the Fyrtøjet Cultural Centre for Children on Friday and Saturday night last week?

The answer is listening and watching. Almost by chance – which could be the beginning of a fairytale, if you think about it – we came upon the international Storytelling Festival for ‘grown-ups’ there. What a revelation it was.

Hearing the medieval Irish tale of Cú Chulainn, and old tales that imbue the Turkish landscape with meaning, was like being taken back to an age when the oral performance of stories was the most normal thing in the world – ‘my’ world, I might add, as a medievalist …

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that vernacular literature in the Middle Ages was defined by orality. Yet it is one thing to know that as a fact – quite another to experience in the flesh what it might have meant in reality.

The sensation of hearing and recognizing formulaic phrases as they recur , I realized, is utterly different from noticing a bundle of letters and words reappear in a printed text and identifying it as a marker of genre. The same goes for a real, live storyteller narrating without a book to be seen – that elemental physicality is rarely palpable in the scholarly debates about concepts such as voice and performance.

So perhaps this is one way – and a better one, I suggest, than facile ideas of economic and social impact – in which we might build bridges with academic research, by coming closer to what it is all about in the first place. We’ll never know what it was really like, of course – but then, there is something fittingly medieval about recreating and reinventing earlier tales anyway. I see it time and again in the Swan Knight story and the various iterations it went through. But that, as they say, is another … 

Retrospect in autumn


Lack of fitness, a lost thermarest, and a barrage of vile showers – they let off for an hour or two to open up that horizon – made for one of the more trying excursions I’ve had north of the border; but such is the stuff that memories are made of.

Memorable enough, it would seem, to have become the marker by which I’m reckoning time: it must be almost bang on a year since I headed off to the west coast with the bivy bag to collect myself before the Marie Curie fellowship. 

Looking back brings a jumble of emotions. The novelty of being able to buy books once more. Learning Danish and Old Norse, and the sensation of a living, learning brain that brings when things fall into place: I understand! Getting the Lohengrin monograph contracted so easily, so positively, and the teaching week back in Bonn, where it began all those years ago. Having the time to think and read and write again. Rediscovering the joy of getting to know forgotten medieval poetsDismantling one short-term home in order to create another. The relief of having a full-time salary in the summer months. Getting a fittingly international conference project up and running. Being together again, and the questions that begs about what is worth it in this or any other profession…

It is, to return to the present, not without self-irony that this academic has woven a bit of self-promotion into his blog just there. Perhaps that is why this year’s trip took us to the wide, high spaces on the other side of the country, where the distance and the shape of the land seem to swallow one up, far off from help, and small.


Portability: three questions, three suggestions


I am as much aware as anyone of the problems with the current REF system. The intent behind Stern’s proposals on portability may be good, but their implications are less clear.

This blogpost is about some of the question marks with which I am presented, and some possible ways around them that occur to me. As has been pointed out here, we all have our own backstories that shape how we respond to Stern. I’m no exception, and regular readers of this blog will no doubt recognize that in the thoughts below. They’re influenced by my record, my career stage, my back-and-forth lifestyle of I don’t know how many years.

I realize that, and realize equally that not everyone will see things quite the same way. My thoughts are those of an early-career researcher in his seventh fixed-term job. As such, I am affected differently from someone who has got a permament post (or moved to a new one) since the start of the current REF cycle. They will in turn be in affected differently from a scholar who has been established in a permanent post for many years. The principle of ‘owning’ one’s research concerns all of them, but the practical implications in terms of job security and career prospects are different in each case.

I hope to do at least some justice to these different perspectives by updating this post to take account of responses that come up on twitter or in the comments (you are currently reading revision two). With that in mind, here we go: first the questions, then the proposals.


1. What happens to someone who has got external funding to carry out research abroad?  Will their project cease to be REF-able as a result, and take their employability down with it? Or perhaps the person will return to the UK and be employed in a part-time position—does the UK university then get to claim the project monograph that they write up in their unpaid spare time? It’s not such an unlikely scenario if you bear in mind the mobility and grant-getting boxes we ECRs are expected to tick. It also points up the unclarified problems that follow from depriving scholars (not just ECRs here) of ownership of their research: if it is not theirs, who exactly does get to claim the publications from a project that spanned several years, employers, funding bodies, and locations?

2. Will ending portability really stop universities ‘gaming’ the system, or just change how they do it? Stopping the ‘poaching’ of established scholars in the run-up to the REF sounds eminently sensible. The same goes for hiring people for less than a year to submit their research and then sending them on their merry way. But if the ‘solution’ chosen is to  end portability—what is to stop universities hiring people en masse on fixed-term contracts in order to ‘farm’ contributions for each REF? If universities are guaranteed credit for ECRs’ work, what incentive have they to invest in them any more than they can get away with?

3. How does this affect the job market? The pragmatic reality is that REF rounds have provided one of the few channels for making the transition to a permanent position on the basis of one’s record—but if ECRs can no longer bring that record to the table as a contribution to make, that changes. Perversely, the rewards for their efforts will be reaped instead by the various institutions that are not employing them. This is also, of course, where the glimmer of hope appears: that people might be appointed for their potential to produce publications for their new employer well into the future, sustainably and for the long term. Yet even that raises further questions, about career-stage advantages and disadvantages for example: would someone writing up a thesis with no or few publications be easier to employ on the grounds of potential (gain only) than someone further down the line with a longer publication list (a demonstration of potential, but also a reminder of all the outputs a new employer would not be getting)?


So it’s all very uncertain. One has to hope that the ‘potential’ and ‘long-term’  aspects that I touched on in that last point take the upper hand as positive consequences if these proposals are implemented. But one becomes increasingly worn down and sceptical over the years, to the extent that just hoping is not enough. Instead, the following suggestions (I deliberately call them that rather than ‘answers’):

1. Address the uncertainty. What we have got are proposals that may or may not be implemented in their current form. How are people supposed to plan around that part of the way into the REF cycle? At the very least, work published before the new rules are finalized should remain portable, instead of penalizing ECRs (and people who have already moved or gained permanent posts within the current REF cycle) by retrospectively shifting the goalposts.

2. Prevent exploitation. If portability is to be abolished across the board, universities should not be given carte blanche to submit the research of ECRs who are no longer working for them. They should have to demonstrate that the pay and working conditions were fair. But ways will always be found around such things on paper, so how about giving ECRs a say as well? For example, allow them to nominate an institution in the case of a project that has been carried out with more than one employer, or indeed to decline to be submitted (e.g. if an institution tries to claim research that they did in their unpaid free time, or somewhere else entirely rather than where they happened to be when it was published).

3. Find a balanced compromise. If portability is to be ended for research done in a permanent job, it should at least be retained for research done by ECRs prior to a permanent post. Their research would continue to benefit them on the way toward a permanent position, rather than becoming a commodity that serves the needs only of short-term employers. At the same time, people could still be hired on the basis of their potential to produce research in future, and the current pre-REF shenanigans would still be ended.

Mixing languages now and then


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cabinnWhen I was effectively living in the Cabinn Odense, I experienced the mixing of languages first-hand on a nightly basis: as well as Danish guests there were a good number of German workers in the lobby who were staying there too. You can read more about the contemporary issues of language and identity this raises here and here.

I am interested in how such interaction between languages is related to the texts and artefacts that societies produce. Here’s a little example of that from the book on Lohengrin (my book!) whose proofs I’m correcting at the moment.

We’re not in the north of Europe any more, but in Italy, near Rome to be precise, in the aftermath of a Christian victory in which two mysterious knights clad in white played a crucial role. And the European royal elite is eager to learn who those two knights were.

The Emperor Henry, who knows their names, begins announcing them in der diutschen zunge (in the German tongue; 6405). But he stops in his tracks, troubled because mîn sprâche ist vremd dem künege von Lamparten (my language is foreign to the King of Lombardy; 6407). The Eastern Emperor suggests in response that his daughter could help out by interpreting – but a further language gap remains to be bridged after Henry’s speech, when Dem küenec von Francrîch mahte kunt / der von Lutringe die sache gæhes an der stunt (the Duke of Lotharingia explained the matter to the King of France at once; 6421–22).

languagepageThis is more than just a noteworthy depiction of interpreting and the negotiation of linguistic differences in the Middle Ages. It’s also puzzling for several reasons. As you can see from the quotations, the whole scene is depicted in one language, Middle High German, so there is no effort to actually reproduce the various tongues being spoken. More than that, these same figures have been interacting without difficulty throughout the preceding events before, during, and after the battle. So how come they are suddenly unable to understand one another now?

Such apparent contradictions (‘apparent’, because medieval readers might not have read them in the way that we do) are what my book is about. I don’t want to give too much away here…but in brief, I suggest that the obsession with identity, with working out who people are, that runs through Lohengrin (just like the Wagner opera of the same name) has something to do with it: in order to make Henry’s revelation of who the two knights were that bit more protracted and difficult, our medieval poet introduced linguistic difficulties even though it meant ‘contradicting’ himself.

That’s just one example of why the interplay between multilingualism and poetics in medieval literature is so fascinating. Returning to the here and now—because there’s a gap in my usual evening routine due to NetDansk being on holiday—the question marks raised by the Stern review have made me wonder more than ever what sort of future this research will lead to for me. The past eleven months have seen a lot: the grim nights between languages in the Cabinn, the 24-hour round-trip commute to see my wife at weekends, a month’s salary spent relocating us both to Denmark. Such are the realities of early-career mobility; would that they be worth it.


Quotations are from Lohengrin, ed. by Thomas Cramer (Munich, 1971). The nineteenth-century edition of Lohengrin by Rückert is online (hosted by the UB Heidelberg), and is ‘good enough’ for informally getting to grips with the text.—The manuscript page is the section of text quoted from manuscript B, Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cpg 345, fol. 152r, reproduced under Creative Commons-Lizenz CC-BY-SA 3.0 DE.


And, as a reward for reading to the end, the answer! The two knights were Saints Peter and Paul.

Thinking beyond the here and now




meditating stove

No, the picture does not introduce a lament about the lives of early-career academics who are barely paid enough to live on (not least because I no longer find reducing that problem to an ironic joke acceptable). Instead, this blogpost picks up a train of thought that began when I was out in the grotty yard in Durham burning off some leftover gas cannisters that couldn’t come with us to Denmark.

That stove, you see, normally comes in my pack on trips across the border to a landscape that seems a long way off from the Danish flatlands (or for that matter from a small university city in the north of England). The hardcore lightweight brigade would do without such comforts, of couse – for a stomach-churning take on the alternative culinary solutions that result, read this book – but I have not yet taken that particular step. Consequently, a remarkable sense of dislocation set in. Perhaps I encouraged it by making a brew so that the heat wouldn’t go to waste. There was something not quite right – the water was too clean, too pale – and yet other perceptions began to fall into place; the light, for a moment, was tempered, rain scattered, and a warmth cast into that yard that turned even the moss a redolent green.

Such moments do not last. They are a reminder of the things that matter. In this, it seems to me that there is a connection with academia after all, for having a similar imaginative response is part of being a medievalist: reading texts in a language we don’t know in a script that we have learnt, passing through buildings or landscapes that bear the traces of distant lives and stories, scanning the reel of manuscript illustrations on twitter … Not that we should mistake the product of such enagement with the past for knowing what it was really like; but then, the mind has a remarkable ability to change reality experienced as well, as will be familiar to anyone who looks back fondly on groping around in a bog to relocate tent pegs that have just been blown out in the middle of the night.

It would be a sad thing if the ability to experience such things were to be regulated, commercialized, sanitized out of a risk-averse society. Would it not be equally sad if the opportunity to engage with the past, the different, the unfamiliar were to be strategized out of a higher education system?


a better place

Opening medieval literature to Europe: a Germanist’s perspective


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Cela bl Doroty

Dorothea of Montau: a medieval recluse from present-day Poland, written about in German and Latin, canonized in post-WW2 Europe. Photo By Marcin n® ☼ (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

A few days ago, I got back from an interesting Centre for Medieval Literature conference, ‘Theorizing Medieval European Literatures’. The programme traversed a wonderful variety of places and cultural settings: there were presentations on Iceland, Ireland, France, Iberia, Italy, Persia, East Asia, Armenia, Georgia, Byzantium, Hungary, Slavic literature, Russia, Scandinavia … at least!

That same diversity got me thinking about one stopover that hardly featured on this three-day journey: ‘Germany’. It would be tempting to conceptualize this as an ‘absent centre’ circumscribed by the other focal points, but I’m reluctant to adopt that terminology: both because it could be mistaken for a value judgement on my part, and also because, as a dinnertime conversation with a colleague from Mediterranean Studies revealed, it would not necessarily be apposite: seen from that field, the areas on which I as a Germanist work are geographically peripheral.

That very insight, however, makes it all the more important to reflect on the role that German Studies has to play in an outward-looking approach to thinking about medieval literature beyond national delineations. That it has a place in such an undertaking to begin with, became apparent in an ex-negativo fashion on a number of occasions: when a text whose ‘Frenchness’ was highlighted, for example, appeared alongside a picture from a manuscript whose ‘German’ provenance was not mentioned, or when Middle High German was excluded from the links in a chain of narrative adaptations stretching from Asia to Europe. But in cases like those, one has to know what is not being said in order to know that it is not being said.

What, by contrast, would an explicit way of making the case for German Studies look like? Here are some suggestions, with examples from more and less closely related languages and literatures, of the aspects one could consider:

  • fusions of what we might think of as different literary-historical parameters (Dukas Horant: the ‘German’ story of a Danish duke in Hebrew script)
  • shared linguistic spaces that cross modern boundaries (Low German, the Hanseatic League, and London)
  • crossovers with seemingly distant regions (some of the earliest documents of the Irish vernacular survive in manuscripts that found their way to, or even originated in, the German-speaking areas)
  • thematization of language differences to poetological effect (French and German in Lohengrin)
  • ‘other’ localities depicted in texts (England in Willehalm von Orlens; the Eastern Empire in König Rother)
  • multilingualism in the manuscript object (Latin, Polish, and German in the St. Florian Psalter)
  • the development of the vernacular on the interface with what lay beyond (Old High German sources such as the Strasbourg Oaths; eastward settlement and language variation)
  • medieval literary figures appropriated in more recent political debates about European identities (Dorothea of Montau)
  • historial figures and their European literary networks (Eufemia of Norway; Eleanor Stuart in Austria)
  • narrative material that circulated between different languages and regions (the Swan Children; Brandan)
  • regional literary spaces (central/eastern Europe; or the Baltic – what insights might the latter give as a point of comparison and contrast for current work on another enclosed sea, the Mediterranean?)
  • comparative approaches to parallel developments in other medieval European vernaculars (nation-building and the writing of history), or further afield both chronologically and geographically (literary techniques such as ekphrasis)

Those are just some ideas from off the top of my head. Some, if not all, will have been touched on before in different research contexts; but even then, they would benefit from a fresh assessment whose aim is to exploit their relevance in opening up the German Middle Ages to a wider European context – historical, literary, and linguistic. I’ll try to update with some more ideas as and when. Suggestions in the comments are also welcome! In the meantime, I hope they give at least some indication of what my field has to offer for those interested in transnationalism, comparative literature, European Studies, and beyond.