Philological musings


grabenJust a quick note to record how academic Twitter did something good for me this afternoon: I discovered that the third international conference of the Sällskap för östnordisk filologi is taking place in Copenhagen at the moment.

On the one hand, I’m kicking myself for not having discovered and joined this association before … it seems so obviously relevant to the research interest in Scandinavia that I have developed that I wonder how I missed it. It was of some consolation that I could not have made a quick visit to Copenhagen even if I had known about the event because I have to be in Germany to give a talk on medieval rhyming chronicles – including, fittingly, the Erikskrönika and the Danish Rimkrønike.

I was, however, able to browse through the abstracts (here’s a direct link to the PDF). Reading them, I felt suddenly at home intellectually. This wasn’t just because of the details – the approaches taken or the literary and linguistic questions asked – but also because of the overall philological discourse in which they participated. It’s what studying early texts has always meant for me, and I realized how important it is to make room for that way of thinking. Being attentive to detail, being sensitive to the language of the texts, acknowledging their value as a cultural heritage – all that is central to how I see myself as a scholar of literature and it was wonderful to be reminded of that indirectly while reading the abstracts.

This standpoint might sound rather too traditional for some tastes, so it is worth reflecting on the levelling effect it has. If one’s primary goal is to understand – motivated by a ‘love of words’, even – it becomes very problematic to treat particular kinds of text, or literature from particular parts of Europe, as more valuable, more worthy of study than others. And with that, I’m back full circle to the belief that underpinned the Marie Curie project.


The alternative final report. Part A.


Isabel and I had an occasion to mark the other day and went to Copenhagen for the evening. Among other places, we ended up back in the National Museum. I say ‘back’, because I was last there one December afternoon in 2015 when my parents were visiting and we had some time to kill before they set off for the airport. I remember very well saying to myself then that I would have to return – and at last, I did.


I revisited some old favourites – the rune stones and the sun chariot – and made some new discoveries, such as this beautiful Christ figure from Åby. We found him in the medieval and renaissance section, an endearing and chaotic step back in time compared to the slick exhibition spaces on the ground floor.

Being there again made me so very sad. It was impossible not to feel again the excitement I’d had the first time – it wasn’t just about learning about a new country but the feeling of something opening up in a wider sense. A sense of hope, perhaps; or if not that, at least of the potential that was becoming apparent in the Marie Curie project as I settled in.

In reliving such emotions, one knows also all that has changed. Almost two years have gone by. To a system motivated by grant income, that time is simply a number in a box in the paperwork.

For me, it is part of my life. It is a small fortune spent relocating and commuting. It is boxes packed and unpacked, possessions consigned to containers in a warehouse. It is the mental energy spent trying to make a home somewhere that is not going to be a home. It is memories. It was trying to be part of something. It is the effort put into a project and career that I am currently in the process of mothballing.

It is very hard not to ask myself whether it was worth it — and I do not mean that in the abstract sense that this was always, to some extent, going to be a way of literally buying more time on the academic job market. I knew that might not work out.

So, was it?

When I think of the good things, I think of the friends I have made and, as this is about memories, the joyful ones — the Estonian holiday, the seas around Funen, self-harm by chocolate cake as the rain poured down in Aarhus in the dark (obviously), Proto-Indo-European on an (obviously, again) overheated nighttime express, Jelling in the spring when the wind was still cold, the happy places in Copenhagen … it is all there, a part of me and I could go on and on — but none of it has much to do with the grant agreement or my job. Perhaps that is as close as I will get to an answer.

Stay tuned for part B, a post in which I hope to write up the kind of advice that, looking back, I would give to anybody thinking of trying for a Marie Curie Fellowship.

Wie zu hemmen ein rollendes Rad?

Somewhat melodramatic, I admit – but there is a certain sense of inexorability now. The draft articles are tidied up in case the master-pursekeepers require sight of them. The final report is, contrary to expectation, proving remarkably straightforward as long as it is tackled in small doses; I even recognize in it the same mix of candour, ambition, and aversion to mumbo-jumbo that marked the original proposal way back when. Preparing for the paper I’ve been invited to give in Germany later this month, on the Kaiserchronik and the verse chronicles of medieval Scandinavia, is a joy. So it really does seem that, by the end of October, all will be done and dusted. A line drawn.

It ought to be sad that it is now, of all times, that I feel excitement and pleasure in my academic ‘work’ again. Noticing the parts of the Old Norse puzzle falling into place, or having the mental space in which properly to read and think about the medieval Baltic … there is here the beginning of something. It is the product of time and energy spent over at least the past two years – a foundation for future research, if you will. The fact that it has materialized the month after I left SDU and will in all likelihood not be returned to, says a great deal about what is wrong with the structures of ECR academia.

But dwelling on such things seems like wasted emotional energy. Instead, I simply enjoy the freedom of reading, thinking, writing unencumbered, and let my mind wander also to plotting a trip across the North Sea in November to clear out the cobwebs before whatever happens next. Perhaps the snows will have come …


Back to old haunts already …

I had reason to go back into SDU yesterday – to pick up a journal article on the early Germanic sound laws, and to have a chat with my new Marie Curie contact about the final report (which is, in one of the many gratuitous hurdles of grant management that necessitated the meeting in the first place, not the final report as we know it).

Going back to places that have, in one way or another, become part of one, always results in a state of heightened sensitivity. Distance and closeness at once draw change away from the abstract. Memories are everywhere. It’s like standing in front of a door that is open and shut at the same time.

But it’s only twelve days since I left … I was not expecting it to be that tangible that soon. Perhaps the efficiency with which one is consigned to the institutional archive had something to do with it – one’s name had disappeared from the library collection slip, from the pigeonhole, from the office door, just as the previous occupant had been written away before I turned up. This is not something I take personally – but that is, if you think about it, the point. Whether it’s the end of teaching cover, an externally funded research grant, a REF submission post – the institutional apparatus, with a few notable exceptions, seems to find studied indifference the easiest attitude to take.

It does not have to be that way. The fun conversation about the ins and outs of the bureaucratic end-game showed me that … the expressions ‘caring’ and ‘taking an interest’ come to mind … it is possible. And out of it came the fact that I left seeing the report not as a pain but as an opportunity.

It is a chance to draw a line under it all – to be unabashed about what I have done in these two years, but also to say some of the things for which there is not usually a space. That thinking and understanding need time and stability, that learning is not a commodity. Perhaps, even, that funding agencies could themselves, for once, embrace the rhetoric of innovation and develop new, sustainable frameworks that stop perpetuating the harm that is being done.

‘Let’s go home’

The other day, leaves fell in Odense. It was not quite cold enough, but the greyness was back. I’d left an office that looked as though it had not been occupied for very long, and the campus bus was filled with students as term began. Outside, here and there, were signs of rain.

My bag was packed. I should have been going to the station to pick up the train to Kastrup and a wicked game of aerial ping-pong across the North Sea and the length of England. There would be the metro, and one last train – not even fifteen minutes, if one was lucky. At some point on that journey, it would be dark, and there would be the sensation of air at the end of it all, the walk down the hill then up the hill, through the wood perhaps; and there would be our damp house on Gilesgate with Isabel waiting.

I missed that time. Part of me wanted to return to those months when Marie Curie felt like a new beginning, an opportunity. When the future was not quite such an immediate concern and the grounding in the north-east of England meant there was not the knowing self-delusion of setting up a new home in Denmark.

But the other part of me, sad in a different way, saw no point in that. There are things I would do differently – there always are – but I doubt that the end result would be anything other than what it is now. Besides, the mise-en-abyme image of Alastair sitting on the bus with the last books from the office, wishing he could go back and relive the beginning of the Fellowship, is too much for me to get my head around.

The hard fact is that, unless ‘other factors’ come into play, one’s use as an employee in a programme such as this ends along with the grant one has got to pay for one’s own job. It is not a particularly pleasant awareness to have on one’s way to work each morning, and being free of it is a large part of why I am so happy now.


Behind that is a complex mix of relief, most of all, and other, often contradictory emotions. There is the sense of something being over, and of finding a way back to what matters. Home, in some meaning of the word. Hence the title of this blog entry as way of closing the circle: as chance would have it, when I dropped by for an event in 2015 before the start of the Fellowship, Danish TV was showing a documentary about John Ford in the hotel … a little puzzle, if you don’t recognize the allusion!

Re-opening the mind


in St Olaf’s Church, Tallinn

Walking through the Baltic where it is so smooth and shallow that progress is quicker in the water than it would be in the reeds and boulders on the shore. Latching onto Russian, German, Estonian, and English one after the other and all at once in the old town of Tallinn. Finishing the book about the Northern Crusades. Carting many more books out from the office to pile up in temporary stacks all over the little house opposite the Andersen museum. Translating a paragraph from the Old Norse reader at dusk in the yard with – at last! – something approaching fluidity.

Such are the things that stick in my mind from the past fortnight. Quite a mix, but they have at least one thing in common, and that is the fact that they have brought an understanding of how little fulfilment academia has come to give.

With the clarity of the landscape, and the historical intensity of Tallinn, the Estonian holiday evoked the old desire to understand things again. I realized just how much it had been worn away, just how much curiosity, discovery, and learning had been displaced by the pragmatic circumstances and consequences of year upon year in insecure positions.

I knew this already on some level, but it took the change of scene to make me grasp it properly. And, when I came back, something was different as a result: there was no longer any mental disjunction between clearing out the office and entering the world of history, language, and literature that the books open up. In fact, it suddenly seemed accessible again.

Why is this so? What has got in the way?


There are the practical things – exploitation, cynicism, cronyism, insecurity, and all the rest of that. There is the intellectual frame, which seems to be becoming increasingly fragmented into narrowing specialisms and particular lines of enquiry that are identified as ‘the future’ in any particular context. There are, finally, the changing principles that define the spaces in which research and teaching happen – such as what I perceive as a tendency to embrace the rhetoric, if not the agenda, of utilitarian approaches to university ‘education’.

All of these things – to an extent, at least, they feed off one another – have become more and more noticeable to me since I started out. How much of this is really new, may be a harder question to answer … I have come across too many cases of scholarly rivalry in earlier centuries to idealize the academic past. I think, though, that one can safely say that the consequences are the more pressing in a climate such as the present one where long-term opportunities are so very rare.

What has saddened me most is none of this as such, but more the apparent inability of the profession to confront the inequities that result from it. Take for instance the job market. Anyone who has been in this game for any length of time knows that things happen that are not fair in any reasonable sense of the word – but how often is this discussed frankly and inclusively in public?


It’s not that I’ve had enough once and for all. One of the nice things about this fellowship is that it has left me knowing very clearly what I would like to do with my research in future, without too many lose ends to carry over, and with a relatively clear intellectual framework for how I would do it.

But that would require – as I wrote a few days ago to a truly generous colleague who offered to keep an eye open for teaching cover needs – a position with a meaningful future. Further tilting at windmills trying to create it by proving the ‘value’ of what one does – is simply not an option.


Back to the books!


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…


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.


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’.


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.


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.


‘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.


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.


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 …