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 …