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.