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.