I’ve written a bit in the past about the challenges of constructively finding a way of thinking about medieval literature as a truly European concept. By ‘constructively’ I mean doing more than just asserting the need to dismantle national philologies, and finding instead an alternative to fill the gap that is left.
I’ve been working on an article in the past few weeks that experiments with one way of doing that where literature from what we’d now call ‘Northern Germany’ is concerned. It made me realize just how curious it is that a whole sector of current research trends that might be of assistance are seldom opened to look at the Middle Ages. I’m thinking here of fields such as transcultural studies, transnationalism, comparative literature, global literature, and translation studies. Not only do they have the potential to help fill the gap I mentioned earlier: it would also, at first sight, seem the most natural thing in the world to apply them to a period that was defined by exchange, contact, and transfer between different languages, cultures, and places.
But this seems rarely to happen, at least in practice. One of the pieces I was reading for that article – an introduction to global literature and transnationalism – gave a clue to what might be one of the stumbling blocks: the way that historical processes are understood. The author was keen to stress the importance of taking a long view, but in practice discussed little (if any) early material; the thought process seemed to be that globalization and transnationalism are intertwined with colonialism and postcolonialism, and that the latter in turn do not exist prior to European encounters with Africa and the Americas in the 1400s. Yet that is simply not the case – we need to remember that Europe itself was being shaped by forms of colonization long before that: with the Roman Empire, the Age of Migrations, the conversion of Scandinavia, and the Crusades, for example, not to mention developments on a smaller scale such as the colonization of Iceland or the eastward expansion of the German-speaking peoples.
None of the above are particularly obscure ‘facts’, so it is all the more surprising that they are omitted entirely from what is otherwise a really accessible introduction to this line of research. I’m not suggesting there was – in this instance – a deliberate agenda to write off the Middle Ages. What I am interested in is the fact that it shows how, on a very fundamental level, the importance of the period for this cluster of research interests can be dismissed without being considered at all – yet also how, on reflection, an objective case can be made for drawing the Middle Ages into teaching and research in these fields. Global literature is, after all, really the literature of the known world, and it would be arrogant in the extreme to suppose that that, and our ways of thinking about it, have always been what they are now.