The Scribblings of a Codex-Curious PhD Student

Tag: Experience

Making Connections…

Congress Convert

Part 2: #NCS16

After a brief rainy repose in the Lancashire Pennines, staying with family and recuperating from the IMC, I travelled back to London for Congress #2, The 20th Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society, (hereafter NCS) held at Queen Mary University of London 11th-15th July.

This was four days of papers presented by some of the most established scholars in the field of late-medieval literary studies. I came away with a full notebook and many significant things to think about.

One of the words that best defines the NCS for me is nexus. The congress was the coming together of late-medieval English literature scholars, a series of papers connected together through ‘threads’, and a perfect opportunity for professional networking, but aside from all of this, there was a definite focus on the networks of Chaucer and his contemporaries and on the relationship of readers to their texts.

The theorising on these networks began in the plenary session: Did Shakespeare Live in Chaucer’s London?  with Paul Strohm, Helen Barr, Farah Karim-Cooper, Bruce Holsinger, and Gordon McMullan each considering the two “Fathers of English Literature”, their relationship with one another, as well as their relation to the City of London. Some of the most meaningful questions to arise from this session revolved around how far a writer can define place, as well as what influence the city can have on an authors’ writing: what shared experiences can it offer to two authors separated by time, but inhabiting the same environment? Is there a collapsing of time within the writings of these two London authors? And can a city really belong to a single author, when so many writers were simultaneously inhabiting and creating within London, both Chaucer and Shakespeare being part of their own social group who were responsible for inspiring and sharing their writing?  Should the question instead then, be about London’s Chaucer, rather than Chaucer’s London?

Bruce Holsinger provided an eloquent response to this problem, stating that we should view London not as a palimpsest, as so many have done, as a place written over anew by each author, but we should instead view is as a miscellany, as these texts and their authors being in conversation with one another by the accident of their physical proximity, occupying the same space, but removed from their original context. This codicological analogy interrupts the narrative which is written by the canon, of one great author inheriting the London of the other great author who preceded him. It instead presents the idea that this is a narrative we have invented through our want to see a miscellany as anything other than miscellaneous. The obsession with the author is our own.  Quite a bold statement for the opening session of a conference named for an author and his legacy. But as the following sessions of the week proved, Chaucer, though pervasive, did not dominate, there were as many – if not more – papers presented on not-Chaucer, representing the diverse literary culture of the period. This was exciting for me, an advocate for the anonymous text, for the authorless, and for a non-hierarchical understanding of culture.

The nexus theme was continued in the first panel I attended; Networks in Late-Medieval Manuscripts, organised by Michael Madrinkian. This included Tony Edwards presenting on non-networks, suggesting that ‘reading communities’ could be less about common readership and more to do with like circumstances and regional patterns of transmission dictated by factors other than taste. This worked well in dialogue with Michael Johnston’s paper on provincial scribal networks, which focussed on trying to provide a narrative of literary culture for the areas outside of London, principally through looking at the scribes copying documents and also literary texts within provincial locales. Johnston’s paper was then contrasted by the final paper of the session presented by Simon Horobin. Horobin presented a convincing case for the potential circulation of Troilus and Criseyde during Chaucer’s own lifetime outside of the courtly context, in copies which have either not survived or are fragmentary, concluding that a lack of surviving evidence does not constitute evidence that there were a lack of copies, thereby challenging the accepted narrative that Chaucer’s audience was restricted to the court during his own life and opening up the audience to a wider urban context. This panel was of incredible use and interest to my own research, the networks of a fragmentary textual transmission being central to my thesis. It also raised an important methodological question: when pursuing literary networks, how does the missing corpus disrupt the network ‘narrative’, and how do we overcome it? A problem I am still trying to work out as I continue researching the transmission of the fragmentary Awntyrs and its literary networks.

It is in this session that I asked my first question of the congress, to three scholars whose work greatly underpin my research (particularly Johnston, whose Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England (2014) presents an argument for several of the manuscripts containing The Awntyrs off Arthure as belonging to a gentry literary culture, of forming part of a ‘gentry ideology’ in the later Middle Ages, and whose work on this matter I hope to contribute to in my thesis). The confidence gained from presenting at Leeds, and from engaging in discussion there, carried over to the NCS. Asking a question to a room filled with half my bibliography would have been much too daunting a prospect a year ago, but on this occasion I had the confidence to assert my opinion, showing just how much I’ve gained from the past few months and, in particular, from the conference experience.

Another excellent panel on manuscript studies which succeeded in challenging the way I now think was the session How They Thought Then, organised by Katherine Zieman and Sarah Noonan. In particular Daniel Wakelin’s paper ‘Reading Boring Manuscripts’ forced me to reassess some of the assumptions I have made about the books I study. After teasing us with images of luxurious manuscripts, of books with fun marginalia, tears, and intriguing details, he then proceeded to show us the sheer quantity of plain pages, the pages which never get digitised or tweeted because we value the rare, the strange, and the beautiful over the blank. Wakelin then questioned the interpretations of these blank books as being unused, as having not engaged their readers, and argues instead for a consideration of these books as aesthetically pleasing in their own right, or as perhaps as having signified a different type of reader engagement, an intense, absorbing type of reading, or continuous reading, which may not incite the same types of marginal engagement as other types of text. This has forced me to problematize my own readings of some of the copies of Awntyrs and its related texts, which appear frequently in very boring manuscripts. I have taken these to represent books not intended for consumption, but as Wakelin observed, the very blankness of the page could signify a type of conscious consumption; the blank indicating excess space and thus excess wealth. Likewise, it was questioned whether this layout could be to aid performative reading, where marginal annotations would distract the performer, who similarly may not be reading with pen in hand. Wakelin successfully reminded us of the dangers of imposing our own conceptions of aesthetics and taste onto a medieval reader, and likewise the danger of assuming that they did not read like us; we can sit and lose ourselves in a novel, why could it not be possible for the medieval reader to engage in a similar practice of reading?

Proving Daniel Wakelin’s point. The only slide tweeted from his paper is that featuring fun marginalia.

Manuscript studies were a prominent feature of NCS this year, with numerous papers discussing the material form and function of the book. Many of these were contemplating the miscellany, on how to interpret this, the most uncategorisable of books, something scholars have been trying to do for years. In the panel Queer Manuscripts: The Textuality of Error, Kathleen Kennedy applied Queer Theory to the miscellany, calling for us to stop over-categorising, to stop trying to define the book on our terms, and to simply accept and delight in the miscellany; “allowing it to just be miscellaneous”, bringing us back full circle to the codicological analogy proffered by Bruce Holsinger in the opening session.

This recognition of the literary past and the books that have transmitted it as a diverse, jumbled, collection of multiplicitous histories is significant; it allows us to discard the singular narrative of culture that the canon has built. Culture is not linear, nor ordered, it is amorphous, as complex as the people that engage in it. Furthermore, medieval literary culture remains fragmentary. By viewing books as a nexus, a literal binding together of texts, but also as the connection between the people that read them, we may be able to reveal some of the  text’s meaning to its readers. By considering the social and historical networks of these texts, we can begin to interpret that which is missing. Although I suspect this will never deliver us a fully satisfying narrative, thinking about literary culture in this way may allow us to represent it without having to impose our own rules, we would be able to  delight in the miscellany of the past.


Congress Convert…

Part 1: #IMC2016

On the first Sunday of July I made the pilgrimage that all medievalists must at some time make, journeying North to Leeds and to the International Medieval Congress (otherwise known as the IMC). The congress, this year a gathering of an astonishing 2,205 medievalists from 49 countries, was the first big conference I have attended since beginning the PhD. It was both exciting and exhausting.

I presented a paper as part of a strand of three panels titled ‘Guiding the Mind of the Beholder’, with all nine speakers focussing on the materiality of texts as determinant of their meaning and use. My session, #S309, was the last of the strand, taking place on the Monday afternoon slot in a very warm room, which I was very happy/nervous to see full of people. It is by far the most fun I have had giving a paper. I received lots of insightful and helpful questions, and was able to situate my paper against the other 8 speakers of the strand, resulting in interesting conversations and intersecting ideas. Not only this, but I got to meet people working in my specific field from all over Europe, with members of the panels coming from Germany, Austria, Italy, and France, as well as the UK. To be immersed in a room with people speaking different languages across one another, united by their interest in codicology, was something rather special and was the perfect antidote to my post-Brexit blues.

I was grateful for the scheduling of my paper on the first day of the congress as this gave me very little time to worry over my paper (written in classic me-style; last minute in the early AMs) and meant I could enjoy the rest of the week completely relaxed, able to soak up all the congress had to offer (which is an awful lot).

I have posted a version of my paper here for all those interested in reading it.

IMC Highlights

The sheer scale of it all. Seamless in its organisation, with so many people on hand to help, there are so many fascinating sessions that you can’t possibly attend them all. This is, however, all part of the fun. One of my favourite panels, #S525: ‘Women Who Hunt: Ecocriticism, Gender Theory, Posthumanism’, I attended out of pure interest, rather than relevancy – IMC gives you the time and space to explore peripheral topics, which are often the most enjoyable, and it is one of the best things about having a conference span four days.

The political engagement. Far from being stuck in the medieval past there was a distinct buzz in the air of medievalists discussing the latest political shit-storm that is Brexit. I overheard and engaged in numerous conversations that showed the strength of feeling of the academic community against the recent political disasters of the UK and the determination to overcome the negative consequences it will no doubt cause to the europeanness of things like the IMC. The #femfog discussion that took place further showed the power of the community voice, with #femfog trending by Wednesday lunchtime. This, along with the sessions I attended at both IMC and the New Chaucer Society Congress organised by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS), has encouraged me to more closely align my Feminism with my identity as a researcher, the papers given in these sessions demonstrating that the two can be brilliantly brought together to the benefit of scholarship.

The atmosphere. I suspect I am not alone in disliking ‘networking’ – the term as much as the action. It is often forced, awkward, and the very prospect of having to do it makes me uncomfortable. Yet, at IMC it felt much more natural; the atmosphere was unlike that of any other academic event I have so far attended, with the overwhelming majority being open to talking to complete strangers. The wine receptions certainly help with this, as does, of course, the infamous IMC ‘disco’. But more, I think it is the open spaces, the sunshine, and the people who were all there for the same reason, that is, to enjoy research.

On my first day, before my fellow UKC PhD and partner-in-wine SK arrived, I wandered the campus alone feeling slightly overwhelmed, observing the many people embracing and animatedly chatting with friends and colleagues they had not seen since the previous years’ congress. By the end of the Thursday, as I sat on my train, slightly hungover and struggling to stay awake, I could completely understand why people make the trip year after year. I was a congress convert. And I imagined that next year, when I returned, there would be several people who I would greet with equal enthusiasm, having not seen them since the last IMC…perhaps there will be a slightly overwhelmed PhD student observing us who I can smile at, walk over to and strike up a conversation with.

Festival Season…

In the first of a serious of posts on what have been an exciting and formative few weeks for me as a PhD researcher I will begin, perhaps sensibly, at the beginning, which is with the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Summer Festival.

Not so well known and with much less mud than Glastonbury, the MEMS Summer Festival was great fun to be a part of and, believe it or not, was witness to much of the same community spirit…

MEMS Summer Festival was an entirely student-led event held at the University of Kent 17th-18th June. This was the second year of the event, organised to celebrate all research in medieval and early modern studies. I spent the last six months organising it, along with my four remarkable co-conspirators,  and gained so much experience along the way; experience of applying for funding, holding meetings, handling a budget, and perhaps most importantly, handling people. Although it’s clear I was never meant to go into event management, I learnt a lot about my own flaws – such as having control issues, or difficulties with prioritising, and I learnt to let go just a little bit, to handle my own expectations. I also gained confidence in talking to and taking charge of people when needed, learning that you can do these things without being ‘bossy’ – a term all women hate and something I certainly never want to come across as, but have nevertheless been described as at various stages in my life.

As we got closer to the event the Festival demanded more and more time away from my PhD, but the work was worth it to see an idea materialise. The central idea behind the Festival was inclusivity; to create a space for those of any level of experience to present and discuss research as equals. We are very lucky at my home institution to be surrounded by supportive colleagues, we have a very tangible community of research, which I believe partly explains the high number of students which, having completed the Medieval and Early Modern Studies MA at Kent, continue onto the PhD programme. It is our intellectual home and we wanted to continue to develop this, expand it outwards, welcoming all who share our interests to join, to discuss, and to build a lasting network.

There were several things that were crucial to making this happen. Firstly, it had to be free. As much as we recognise and appreciate the importance of large conferences with big-name academics presenting their ground-breaking research, this often comes with large registration fees, unobtainable to many who are then excluded from the conference experience, unable to attend that which is not specific enough, or significant enough, to their field to warrant that £40 train ticket – let alone the registration. We wanted people to be able to come just because it was interesting, to give them an opportunity to meet other interested people. We made the decision therefore to forego both the cost and the implied superiority of the keynote, whose hour-long paper when compared to the twenty minute paper or perhaps poster of a postgrad is, quite literally, worth more. We wanted to treat the research being undertaken by MA students, PhDs, Early Career Researchers, and Senior Academics as all being of equal importance to the field. To enable this we sought outside funding, perhaps the most trying part of the organisation, but so worth it. We are incredibly grateful therefore to the Consortium of the Humanities and the Arts and to the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies for jointly funding the event, and to Eastern ARC for contributing a bursary fund. They made it possible to build this inclusive space and enabled a community to come together.

This community saw a converging of archives, with an exhibit from Special Collections and Rochester Cathedral Library, practical skills, with workshops on methodology and digital practice, discussions in the form of object-orientated roundtables, intellectual knowledge present in the many papers offered, and performances of both music and drama. This was all to a mixed audience of undergraduates, postgraduates, senior academics and members of the public.

The most obvious levelling of age, experience, and knowledge was revealed in the final session of the first day, our ‘Would I Lie to You?’ quiz, where a team of MA students were pitched against the indomitable senior staff in a game of whose facts are the most false. It was as members of the audience booed, cheered, and interrogated the presented absurd facts that I felt our aim of establishing a comfortable environment had truly been met. It also provided me with my one tweet of fame, being retweeted with enthusiasm by the official WILTY twitter account.

The first day was finished off with a wonderful tableau: Invicta Voices, a London chamber choir performing pre-1650 choral pieces to us from Canterbury Cathedral’s 12th century water tower, as all the delegates stood in the Cathedral’s garden, drinking wine at a reception hosted by the always welcoming Canon Librarian of the Cathedral, Chris Irvine.

The Festival was further shaped through an intentional move away from the traditional format of conferences (a trend gaining currency in many of the major conferences) as we believed that workshops, informal discussions, and performances can be as much of a site of intellectual exchange as the traditional twenty-minute paper. Each day began with parallel paper sessions, which ranged from topics as diverse as Gothic Art, Medical History, Late-Antique Literature, Gender, and Law. After just two paper sessions per day, the Festival’s afternoons then continued with methodological and practical workshops, my personal highlights being the Painted Elizabethan Cloth workshop with the captivating and talented artist Melissa White and the ‘Taste of Medieval Life’ workshop, with the “hopless and hopeless” ale brewed by beer-enthusiast Dr Phil Slavin, who described his own brew as “two pigs in a wash”. This was paired with PhD student Stuart Morrison’s medieval breads, which were hard, dense, and certainly in need of the ale to wash them down. (It must be said that Stuart’s baking skills are superb, and I therefore blame the recipe, not the baker). This tasting workshop, as informative as it was fun, demonstrated the kindness that underpinned the success of the festival; friends and colleagues volunteering time and effort to put together sessions based on their personal interests. This kindness could be seen throughout the Festival and is something that will stay with me, the generosity of new and old friends, which began with the staff who supported our endeavour and was epitomised by the MA student who stayed for 2 hours un-stapling and re-stapling misprinted programmes on the Festival’s eve with nothing more than a promise of a thank-you pint.

After two years running this event I am sad not to be able to take part in the organisation for 2017 (though I think both my thesis and supervisor will thank me for it), but I feel confident that this research culture will continue to develop and hopeful that it will remain as defined by the kindness, generosity of spirit, and unflagging fascination with all aspects of the premodern world that I have been lucky enough to experience.

Most of all I wish luck to the postgraduate students who will be taking over the event and know they will have a great time redefining the Festival for themselves – I can’t wait to attend.

Take a look at the MEMS Summer Festival tweets, storified in the slideshow below:

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