No Clear Door or Window or Gateway

About 7 months ago, V.E. Schwab gave the annual Tolkien lecture at Oxford. Her theme was gateway stories, books that really draw someone into the world of literature, especially fantasy. Her overall thesis was two-fold: 1) She argued that stories and book considered “literary” should not be required reading for fans of a genre because forcing yourself or being forced to read something just to say you’ve read it risks killing any potential enjoyment. 2) There is no such thing as pure fantasy. To be good, proper fantasy, what a story should do is allow “the writer, and by extension the reader, to use fictional and fantastical analogs to examine the dilemmas of the real world. But it also allows the reader to escape from it. To discover a space where things are stranger, different, more.” I also had the chance to hear her speak in person around the same time, at the Decatur Book Festival 2018. In her talk she suggested that there are two general kinds of fantasy- those which provide doors (a more immersive and complete experience of the world and narrative) and windows (those which provide only a partial view of the world of the story ad require more inference on the part of the reader).

About a month and a half ago, I participated in a series of interviews with high schoolers, many of whom mentioned (often prompted) the book or story that really got them interested in literature and reading. There were connections, both in titles as well as general ideas. Several shared V.E. Schwab’s experience of Harry Potter being their gateway into fantasy and reading. Some others named Rick Riordan, particularly the Percy Jackson series. What caught my attention was not only the trends of these two series for this generation, but also how uncanonical they are in terms of the traditional “literary canon”; both series are best-selling popular fantasy fiction.

About the same time as the interviews, there was a thread bouncing around Twitter which had been started by someone asking academics and scholars about reading they considered guilty pleasures or fun junk; the majority of the responses were likely not what the author of the original Tweet had been looking for. Most of the responses that I saw were something along the lines of, “why should any reading be shameful?” and “just because something like a romance novel isn’t considered literary doesn’t mean I should feel guilty about enjoying it”. Putting these three events together in terms of both proximity and general argument, there would seem to be a bit of a trend developing where tradition and popularity converge, particularly in the realm of speculative fiction and fantasy.

All this got me thinking about what titles were my gateways since many of those mentioned above were not the ones that really got me into reading; I’m slightly older than V.E. Schwab, and now nearly old enough to be the biological parent of a high-schooler. I’m also a professional academic and scholar who tries to make time for ‘fun reading’, which in my case often leans towards the speculative, both fantasy and sci-fi. I avoided Harry Potter at first because it was on the best-seller lists, and I didn’t have much luck with enjoying titles that usually ended up there. But by the time the third novel was published, I’d gotten curious and borrowed a family member’s book club copy of the first one. This was my senior year in high school. Throughout college and a few years following, I became one of those fans who waited in line for the midnight release, and who downloaded and had to wait for the filters to buffer the movie trailers for the first film. Around the release of novel #6, I’d started to lose interest. I didn’t find out about the Percy Jackson series until I was in my early 30s, but I read all of them and enjoyed them. I tried a few of the other series as well, the Roman one and the Egyptian one; I just couldn’t get into the Egyptian mythology series, which is too bad since the actual mythology is fascinating. My point is that neither of these series could be my gateway since I’d gotten interested in reading beforehand, and neither really made me a lifelong fan of fantasy.

I agree with V.E. Schwab about the nature of fantasy and the nature of fandom. I also half agree with the Twitter thread. While I agree that there should be no shame in enjoying a book of any sort, whether we like it or not, there are some pretty clear expectations and cultural assumptions about what is canonical, popular, and literary. These things sometimes intersect, but frequently they do not.

I was always encouraged to read as a child. I don’t remember any favorites, but I do remember some series’, which I take to mean I must have liked them. I remember Dorrie the Little Witch (fantasy), Amelia Bedelia (comic but real world), and Babar (fantasy). I also remember reading C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia in the originally intended publication order which is not fully chronological in terms of narrative. I remember more about the BBC tv movie versions (late 1980s, early 1990s) than I do the books. The one novel I do remember was The Horse and His Boy which is set in the same world, but features characters that have little to do with the Pevensies. I also remember liking the Little House on the Prairie novels. With the exception of Dorrie, all of these series are well-known canonical children’s series’; I honestly don’t know if Dorrie is still especially remembered and read.

The novels that stand out to me most as my likely gateway into fantasy and reading for fun are both something I found in a used bookstore in downtown Dublin (Ireland), Chapters, which is apparently still there (Long may it prosper!).  I had two experiences here that I’m pretty sure shaped my reading habits towards what they still are 20 years later. Both times, I saw a book, picked it up, thought it looked interesting, but put it back. After repeating this a few times, I finally bought and read the book. The first one was Watership Down by Richard Adams. The second was Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett. Both of these titles are fantasy, but one is recognized as more literary than the other. Part of this may be due to Watership Down being older (1972) than the Discworld series (The Color of Magic, 1983), but the best-selling nature of many installments of the Discworld series likely also factors in. Both have also been turned into tv programs, cartoons and live-ish action.

Terry Pratchett led to Neil Gaiman which led to Gail Carriger and a years-long steampunk kick. After college, when I started getting interested in Gaiman (I think Anansi Boys was my first novel of his- I really enjoyed it), I also got interested in manga and graphic novels. This I distinctly remember and can place. In 2006, I’d moved to an area rural enough to not have a bookstore, and to have a library but one which was not terribly well stocked for my tastes. I started picking up the Shonen Jump monthly, which was still in print at the time, at the grocery store, and flipping through it. I started buying that, then subscribed, and eventually started getting into the graphic novel forms, manga first, then comic books. The interesting thing about the graphic novel world is that no matter what the form or style (manga or comic book) a significant percentage of the titles belong in some way to a genre or sub-genre of fantasy.

I’m reasonably sure that it was manga and anime that brought me away from fantasy to science fiction; not that I don’t still read fantasy; I most certainly do, but I seem to have been expanding my fun reading a bit more the past year or two.  I just can’t quite pin down a gateway. If I had to, I supposed it might be either Chaucer’s “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” (c. 1390s) or Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi (2018). I’ve also read some of the more canonical and popular science fiction but it’s never really grabbed me. I read Neoromancer because I figured I should; I didn’t enjoy it. I read Planetfall by Emma Newman because I loved her fantasy Split Worlds series. I didn’t like Planetfall.

My point? Inspired by the conversation going on about the nature of literature, popular, canonical and otherwise, examining my own reading habits and what got me started both supports the current discussion and disagrees. I definitely agree with V.E Schwab that there should be no such thing as required fan reading. Case in point: the things I’ve read because I figured I ought to, I frequently did not enjoy. V.E. Schwab is herself an exception to my general experience with best-sellers, since I don’t often agree with the general public opinion on the amazing-ness of the novel. The things that I don’t agree with quite as much is the existence of the single or few gateway books or stories. For those who have them, I say ‘good for you’. My experience suggests that it is also possible for the introduction and fandom of anything, including fantasy, also has the potential to be lot be more gradual. As far as I’ve seen, this option hasn’t been really addressed.

Advertisements

End of Summer Randomness

The Fall semester starts in just under two weeks for me, which means that it is now time for the annual rush to get lots of stuff done in time and/or before things actually get started. I have especially noticed the past week or so the pre-semester struggle to balance working on syllabi and calendars and a new class with scholarship. If I don’t feel like one, I can do the other right? In general, it is not a bad thing to switch off between two tasks as long as both get done. The problem comes in when you want to do one more than the other, or avoid one more than the other. I’ve been struggling with getting motivated to write the scholarship. The goal is to have a complete draft of an article developed from a conference paper done before August 13 (Monday, first day of class), but it’s been rough actually making myself start some days.

Another observation I have made is that it seems like I find a new writing technique to try out about every year. Admittedly, the beginning of a new semester is a good place to start a new habit like this but it seems like I’m needing a new one about once a year. In any case, the new process is an adaptation from something I saw addressed to novelists on social media (Twitter maybe): 500 words OR 5 pages editing OR (my addition) 2 hours of research 5 days a week. So far it seems like 500 words is not a lot at one sitting, but it’s supposed to add up, which in theory it does. The problem with this technique is that it does not account for the amount of time that researching or running down a source can take in academic writing. Most scholars know the feeling of trying to figure out a something as small as a footnote, which can take hours or days. Or finding a really promising citation, but then spending an hour trying to figure out if you have access to the source. Then you have to read the source, and if it does suit your need, work it into what you’re doing, not forgetting to record the citation. This takes time. I figure 2 hours is about what it would take me on average to meet the writing or editing part of the rule, so that’s what I’m going with.

I think that part of the reason for the annual reset is that I’m usually just back from a conference mid-late July, full of all kinds of new ideas and possible interests to pursue.  This time I was in Toronto for the Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society. Something I’d noticed previously at Kalamazoo (ICMS 2018) was that in addition to the usual which panel sounds better out of two interesting ones I was having to decide between something that sounded more like fun (as in popular culture) and ‘I have no idea what this is but it sounds interesting’ (‘scale jumping’ anyone?) and something more traditional that sounds like I should go to that one (manuscript-y things). More often than not, when I went to one of the first two, I enjoyed the panels far more and got more ideas for myself than the last one. It’s an interesting trend, although I’m not entirely sure what it means.

As often seems to happen, I was again reminded of some things that students face, like getting an assignment just right before it’s due. In my case, this was discovering a much more concrete thesis idea somewhat under pressure (I figured it out about a week before the paper was scheduled to be given) and a good conclusion (in this case, a Mythbusters reference closing a paper on Chaucer). As with many conferences, there’s the inevitable informal competition to see who can or who did put off writing or finishing their presentation each time. May I never be a winner for that one.

There were however a couple of firsts for me at or immediately following my panel. Someone whose work I’d used in my research was there (and asked me a question, which is kind of an academic high five), and I’m just glad I’d seen his name badge earlier and knew who he was. Right after the panel, someone else whose work I’ve used came up and pointed out a small, but possibly highly useful point that would allow me to bring in some manuscript evidence in to the argument if I ever manage to get it developed enough for submission to a journal, and all together I think this may have been the first time that I walked out of the panel and had to immediately take down a few notes on my own paper (on my presentation copy).

I once heard someone say that academics don’t go on vacations; we go to conferences. There is some truth to this. Especially when the conference is held somewhere I have never been to or haven’t been in years, it’s interesting to get to explore a little bit, both on my own and for conference events. This year I had to skip the excursions day the day after the conference formally ended to head back home, but I still got to see a bit of Toronto, especially around the University which is within walking distance of downtown and Chinatown. There are also quite a few fun coffee shops, which is something I personally like to try out. Seeking out and exploring the local coffee culture has becomes a little bit of a habit for me in recent years, and Toronto has a good mix of places as far as I can tell. I also had more ramen (3 out of 5 nights) than I have had in a long time.

During the conference itself, there were two events held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. One was more of a cocktail hour, but the other was a special small display of medieval Ethiopian artifacts pulled from the collections just for the medievalists. This included some painted polyptych wooden pieces, and a few books. The spell and anti-spell books were pretty impressive, and I wish I could have read them to see how they compared to the European ones (mostly in Latin) that I can read. After viewing this little exhibit, we were free to visit the rest of the museum. As it turns out, there was a major special exhibit dedicated to Canadian Inuit artists. I wandered in by accident, and by the end I was pretty fascinated by the art and the ideas behind it: http://ago.ca/exhibitions/tunirrusiangit-kenojuak-ashevak-and-tim-pitsiulak

What first caught my attention was an aesthetic that I appreciated, and then there was the artist’s explanation of the owl image that seems to be her most famous work. I’d never thought of owls that way, and I really liked how she put it. This year the conference seemed especially interested in taking notice of the local native culture, as evidenced by a notice early in the program concerning how the University of Toronto is built on lands originally belonging to local native tribes, as well as opening the conference with a smudging ceremony. I had no idea what this was when I saw it on the program, but it turns out it’s a native purification ceremony, which in this case was followed by presentations not entirely in English. There was also a play performance of a Nigerian adaptation of a piece of the Canterbury Tales, and it too was multi-lingual. This new focus on multiculturalism is most certainly intentional as medieval studies has recently been facing some public (at least if you’re an academic interested in these areas) issues with inclusivity and racism. These issues are more complex and difficult than I can address here and now, but they’re out there and not hard to find. Just ask Google

Tracing Science Fiction Trends from the 1300s on

Here is the list that I am working on to base my eventual argument that Science Fiction has genuine medieval roots. I’ve included a few basic notes with each to briefly summarize what the text is and how it fits into the genre.

This list is not comprehensive or complete at the moment, as I’m still working on finding sources. I’ve also include links to the text, but some of the earlier texts are not translated into modern English, and some that are I’ve not had time to track down the original language to verify the accuracy of translation. I also can’t make any promises as to the stability or availability of the links.

Here’s a general outline of the texts upon which my argument so far is based:

1300s- Chaucer “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale”: a skeptical description of both ‘fictional’ and ‘real’ alchemists at work

The Book of John Mandeville: a travelogue to other lands, based on possibilities but not on known facts about real places

1400s- ??? still looking

1500s- Thomas More Utopia: a travelogue as above except that the place itself is also a possibility, not fact

1600s- Edmund Spencer The Faerie Queene Book 5: features Talus the metal man-servant of a star given to a knight as his helper. This text raises a question of fantasy vs sci-fi; I would suggest that while it’s largely fantasy, in an otherwise standard fantasy, this part stands out as different.

Johannes Kepler “Somnium”: describes what life on the Moon is like. This might pass as fantasy save that Kepler was a scientist {astronomer}/ mathematician, and may have believed in the possibility of what he was considering. NB: there is no formal open access translation into English that I’ve found so far.

Francis Godwin “The Man in the Moone”: similar to the above, although with a Utopian emphasis

Francis Bacon “New Atlantis”: full on scientifically based fictional world that also takes a Utopian approach to a world based on experimentation and the scientific method.

1700s- Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels Book 3: the section exploring the flying island of Laputa, inhabited by a bunch of science-obsessed philosophers, is most relevant, although as with other of Swift’s writings, the satirical nature must be kept in mind.

Voltaire Micromegas: visitors from Saturn and Sirius are bemused about Earth customs. This may be the first alien visitation story.

Louis-Sebastian Mercier The Year 2440: the story of a science-worshipping society where science is the religion, and plays a role in all aspects of life.

1800s- Mary Shelley Frankenstein: the classic tale in which a scientist brings to life an artificially created man. Also The Last Man in which the lone survivor on a dead planet wanders around looking at the remains of a civilization.

Edward Ellis The Huge Hunter, or The Steam Man of the Prairie: Eliot, a curious young man, finds a steam-powered robot man and hijinks/adventures ensue.

Jules Verne 20000 Leagues Under The Sea: a submarine adventure that shares qualities with the travelogue. See also Journey to the Center of the Earth in which a crew of explorers discover dinosaurs etc. under the Earth’s crust.

HG Wells: The Time Machine: time travel both to the distant future and speculation as to what society becomes with some commentary on current Victorian England. See also War of the Worlds: an alien invasion and subsequent attempts by humanity to defend Earth.

William Henry Rhodes “The Case of Summerfield”: a mad scientist creates a death ray and must be stopped.

1900s- Arthur Conan Doyle The Lost World: dinosaurs still survive on a remote island, although more time is spent with the local tribe of ape-people.

Arthur C. Clarke 2001: Space Odyssey: space travel and artificial intelligence that goes awry.

Isaac Asimov I, Robot: a series of short stories about the interactions between robots and humans.

William Gibson Neuromancer: cyber world versus reality in which a suspense/action story plays out.

One argument that gets brought up sometimes about the earlier parts of this list is that at the time they were written they were considered fantasy or another genre entirely, and only in retrospect might the stories by the likes of Kepler and Spencer be considered science-fiction. Another objection to some of these titles being true science fiction is that while they might demonstrate very early sparks of what would become science fiction, they don’t really show a building or continuing trend that constitutes genre.

To the first I say while that may be true to some extent like with Spencer (although even then, I would dispute is slightly), the sciences upon which the ideas were based was developing at the time the stories were written, and some of the key research was in fact being done by the authors. This would suggest that said authors, like Kepler, may well have considered what he was doing science fiction although he may not have known the genre term. Similarly when texts might have been intended as travel narrative or utopian fiction, that doesn’t mean that they cannot also have been based upon extensions of current knowledge, which is the basic definition of science fiction. Even in the Middle Ages, the concept of genre was fluid and flexible, far more so than many people realize, or even consider today.

To the second problem, I answer that the list I have compiled does in fact illustrate a trend. In fact, the earliest stories are travel narratives, a popular historical practice and genre at the time, and while satire might apply in some cases, it does not change the fact that such stories remain plausible within the realm of current knowledge. Next comes stories based on the rise of various scientific disciplines including astronomy (space travel and civilizations), then biology (Frankenstein or Hawthorne “Rappaccini’s Daughter”), then physics (time travel), then computers (AI, VR, etc).

A third and final potential problem that I can foresee being held against this list and its argument is that it is pretty thoroughly uninclusive. This is true; however, the purpose of this list is to present the basic historical outline, not the current developments which include increasing attention to gender, race, and a variety of other identities, in terms of both author and story.

Thoughts on the Medieval Origins of Science Fiction

There is plenty of discussion on the medieval influence on some of the major sub-genres of modern fantasy, but much less on fantasy in medieval period literature, and even less than that on science-fiction connections to medieval literature. Part of this comes from a reference I found while shelf-browsing in a research library. The rest comes from some ideas I’ve been starting to pick up from older projects concerning Chaucer and science, and a thought to consider possible connections between steampunk and the Middle Ages.

Traditional high fantasy like Tolkien’s has been the subject of some scholarly attention in the past few decades, as has fantasy by writers who invoke folkloric of mythological elements in their story worlds, like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, or Rick Riordan. The idea of science fiction having connections to medieval writers and ideas might seem like an oxymoron since science is based more on projections into the future, not the past, but when you think about it, the Middle Ages actually marks the beginnings of science fiction writing as we now know it.

The book that got me thinking was Medieval Science Fiction, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Carl Kears, published in 2016 by the Center for Late Antique and Medieval Studies at King’s College London. One of the essays made the connection between Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman in the Canterbury Tales and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, arguably one of the first works of modern sci-fi. The basic idea is that both Victor Frankenstein and the alchemists in the Canon’s Yeoman’s prologue and tale are attempting to change Nature through experimentation and the scientific method, which has disastrous or at least disheartening consequences for all involved.

This point about the Canon’s Yeoman and alchemy in Chaucer’s time, and the question of how much might Chaucer have actually know about alchemy brings me back to a project that I’m reviving and refocusing for a conference paper this summer, and possibly developing into something longer. One of the key conflicts in interpreting the story concerns Chaucer’s presentation of the perceptions of alchemy. Alchemy was fairly new in the public knowledge in the 14th century in England, and it was not wholly trusted. Chaucer clearly had some interest in science; he wrote Treatise on the Astrolabe after all, and this is basically a scientific instruction manual on how to use a device designed to help figure out calendar dates based on astronomical information. The problem with alchemy in Chaucer’s story is that the source, the Canon’s Yeoman, gets a lot of his interpretation wrong or is clearly quoting from a standard text, and makes frequent claims about the trouble with alchemy and his own lack of success. His tale about a dishonest alchemist who dupes a local priest out of a substantial amount of money to some extent reflects the distrust that the public may have had in what has sometimes been labeled as the predecessor of modern chemistry.

This use of a modern science and the problems it causes individuals and society in general is a theme in many science fiction novels, from William Gibson and Isaac Asimov to Emma Newman and Sue Burke. Not that all science fiction focuses on social problems resulting at least in part from technological human creations, since Star Trek’s Data probably has some loose connection to Talus,  metal-man sidekick of Arthegall, knight of justice in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Granted, Spenser was not a medieval writer, rather an Elizabethan, but the point stands that science fiction has much deeper/older roots than it’s usually given credit for.

The connection between steam-punk and medieval literary tropes comes from this reasoning. Steampunk reflects some of the fictional interest in the past similar to fantasy as it’s often set in pseudo-Victorian London, but it also considers the impacts of technology and man-made impacts on the natural world, including social implications both individual and general. Mark Hoddor or Pip Ballentine and Tee Morris would be prime examples. Especially when held up next to a text like The Canterbury Tales which has lot of potential for social commentary and critique, a lot of science fiction and steampunk reflects similar characters, attitudes, situations, and commentary via fiction. Granted, I need to do further tracing, but given Chaucer’s influence on literary history, I’m willing to bet that there’s more in the science fiction tradition between his 14th century, Spenser’s 17th, and the current 21st.

Researching medieval books in early summer

I’m a little behind with this for the month of April, but I’m going to blame prepping for exam season.

Because I am in the process or re-starting a project due in conference paper form by early July, I am going to review the general research process, and consider where to proceed from here. The project involves early printed editions of Chaucer’s collected works, tracing the inclusion of or references to a poem now viewed as not by Chaucer.

One of the things that comes with the end of the semester, especially in the spring, is the approach of about 2 weeks without teaching or other university duties; in other words, time for scholarship and preparing for summer conferences. But in my case there are 2 related complications: 1) my institution is shutting down their more efficient ILL system for a software change-over, 2) right when I need to be regathering my materials. There’s this rule that for material borrowed from another institution can only be renewed twice, and I’d reached that limit right at a point when I knew I was going to be too busy with essay grading and exams to do much of my own work (and so did not immediately re-request my key secondary sources). I take no issue with the library rules or the software update, but the timing is terrible. I understand it’s for the convenience of students, who will not be in classes during that interval, but it’s terrible for the instructors because that gap between terms is prime research and writing time.

Nevertheless, I persist. I have learned from past experiences to keep records of the titles and authors I know I will need to get back. But, I have also found that by looking up these titles again in the catalogues, I can also get a sense of what other similar titles might be out there. The digital equivalent of shelf-browsing is useful because I think it might be useful to work it into teaching research, but also because I have limited direct physical access to the kinds of texts I might find useful in my own research. This is in addition of course to the usual scouting of works cited and footnote citations of texts I already need or have on hand.

All of the above is useful for general research in any area, but given my particular specialty of medieval literature and manuscript studies, I also need to consider how to get to primary original sources. Thankfully, increasing digitization of medieval books in print and manuscript helps, but especially with more obscure texts or manuscripts, this is not always an option. Secondary sources have been highly useful in providing editors and edition titles, but tracking the locations of everything necessary does require some work. Thankfully, nearly everything I want to check is available at the research university libraries in Atlanta, which is only about an hour and a half drive away.

The only catch is I haven’t used Emory or Georgia Tech’s special collections before, so I also need to look up the rules and regulation for viewing. This is standard practice for visiting any library special collections, but each institution is a little different. The British Library (big public research library) is different than the Newberry (small public research library in Chicago) is different than a university library in terms of gaining general access and access to specific items in the collection. Rules might cover making an appointment, as well as what is or is not allowed in the reading rooms. Particularly with manuscripts, some places have rules concerning photography, and all have rules concerning the use of ink or handling or personal possessions while using the materials.

Once I get to the original early print editions I need to find the following: do they include the text I’m looking for, is it attributed, and/or is it mentioned. This information will help me construct a stemma for the text, which is already done for the manuscript tradition (all of 3 codices). Looking into the provenance of the particular editions will likely become necessary as well, particularly if a specific book has any marginalia or other details specific to that copy of the book.

Once all this is done, it will be back to the secondary literature to locate the rationale behind the editorial decisions, including why the new edition was felt necessary, and what reviewers had to say about the new version.

Putting everything together will, I hope, result in fairly comprehensive textual history for a now rather neglected poem. From there, who knows…….

London: The Conference Part

Some things about academic conferences never change, including:

The age old conference problem: the struggle and irritation that comes with trying to choose which sessions to attend when several that run at the same time look equally interesting/valuable.

The eternal temptation: the discounted books at the publisher displays, many of which are fairly new publications.

The not-totally professorial one-liners: “Showing the contents of your flash-drive {on the big lecture hall screen} is like showing your underwear”, “sexy pictures of text pages”, “The Aeneid is equivalent to flatulence”, and “he’s either a bad poet or the Stephen Hawking of meter”.

Most importantly, the one thing that doesn’t change is coming home with all kinds of new ideas to research-write about-work into current projects, things to look up, and teaching possibilities. I had never thought of using gender and queer theory to analyze manuscript layouts before, had never heard or seen the term ‘mise en page’ before, and never thought of marginal manuscript illustrations as “click-bait” (image of women with mirror = selfie, monkey riding goat = Youtube hits, cats = cats, etc.). I also got some useful information about a manuscript I’m working on and some good ideas about how the written manuscripts might relate to some early printed editions. And as usual, I also have a long list of books that might be useful to try to find which may or may not be useful.

Some things are unique to a given conference and venue, like the lecture hall right on top of a Tube line, so you could hear the periodic rumble-rush of trains throughout the panel. I can only imagine having to teach in that hall. Others have to do with the nature of the conference itself. Only at a focused gathering like the New Chaucer Society might the following be funny: you are out for a walking tour of Chaucer’s London with a group of experts, mostly PhDs, and run into a basic question like “who was St Botolf”? That’s relevant because there was a parish church in London, St Botolf’s Without Aldgate, that Chaucer may have attended. This church still exists, although not exactly in the same form as the original. None of the dozen or so medieval specialists knew the answer (including the walk leaders, eminent historian and literary scholar though they were), so Professor Google was consulted by one of the younger scholars present (me). It turns out St Botolf was a 7th century English abbot and saint (not martyr) who watches over travelers and some elements of farming. His feat day differs depending on whether you’re English or Scottish (it’s in June either way- 17th or 25th).

There will always be technology problems. We were on a campus that used PCs and it seems like most of the scholars were used to Macs. I personally am a PC person, so it didn’t bother me as much, but I was a little surprised at the degree of struggle some people were having. The more standard problem was when one scholar had to give her paper via Skype, and there were issues getting that set up, and once she was up onscreen, someone from the next room came over to see if we could turn the volume down.

Technology also factored into the conference in ways that are becoming the norm. I allowed myself to get a little distracted at one panel watching the graduate student in front of me Tweet the whole panel. The closing keynote also included a few references to contemporary digital culture, including a Youtube video “Chaucerian Pubbe Joke” (I looked it up; it’s funny for about a minute then gets irritating) and the original LOL Cat “I can haz cheeseburger?”. The talk itself was actually a textual analysis of Chaucer’s use of “the speaking face” trope, particularly in Troilus and Criseyde and Book of the Duchess. On a side note, I found it interesting that people who were taking notes during this final lecture were almost exclusively younger, probably students.

Lastly, there is the blessing/curse of GoogleMaps. We were in a part of London not included on a lot of published maps, so I (and a lot of others) needed a way to figure out getting around. It makes sense on the level that QMUL is not in a touristy part of the city’s East End. Even in more tourist parts of the city, I ended up relying on my phone which can be really frustrating when it doesn’t want to work. I spent a good half hour around Tower Bridge panicking over my phone telling me it had no GPS signal while trying to find a specific pub meeting point. Because of a lot of construction on one end of the bridge and some not well posted signs, I had gotten lost, and the area was not mapped in the level of detail I needed on the map I had with me. After 2 restarts and almost running out of battery, I eventually did get the app working and find the place I needed. The route was not very straightforward, but I got where I needed to be just about on time.

An Inspiring Thing Happened on the Way to the Panel

Conferences are always a good time for a lot of reasons, but one of my favorites is getting inspiration, both academic and personal. Two weekends ago, I attended the Medieval Academy of America’s annual conference held this year at the University of Notre Dame. This is a story of how some inspiration led to more work (in a good way).

On the personal side, I got to see and hear in person a scholar with whose work, my dissertation would never have happened, Professor James J. Murphy. He was presenting a team talk with another scholar (Alex Novikoff) who was born in the year the article Professor Murphy was referencing was published. Professor Murphy’s point was that his 1978 article on The Owl and the Nightingale as modeled on medieval disputation practices was met with silence from contemporary scholars. Professor Novikoff recently published a book (2013) on the subject of how medieval disputation affected social and cultural elements outside of the academy. My second dissertation chapter deals with many of the same ideas these two scholars covered, so it was nice to see that I was not the only one who thought the connection was worth looking into. There was some internal fan-girl geeking out at that panel.

On the academic side, I admit I was guilty of a little thing that lots of scholars seem to do: getting ready to present a paper to which I did not yet have a thesis. The abstract I submitted was taken out of my dissertation work concerning marginalia in the manuscripts preserving Middle English debate poems. Taking it out of that context meant that I had to reframe the research into a self-contained argument. I managed to do it the night before my presentation was scheduled when I had a realization that I could actually connect this older research with my current Gower project.

What I had to explain was why, when most Middle English debate poems have little to no marginalia in their manuscripts (a feature shared with most lyric poetry), did John Lydgate’sDebate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep”  (HGS) has consistent speaker notations in the margins? Two obvious potential reasons, that the poem had a famous author and that the poem is more narrative both in length and content, don’t work out. Chaucer also wrote some debate poetry (“Fortune”, “The Parliament of Fowls”) and was the attributed author for centuries of another debate poem (“The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”). None of the Chaucerian poems have anything near the consistent manuscript marginal notation of Lydgate’s work. In terms of length, Lydgate’s other debate poem, “The Churl and the Bird”, is similar in terms of narrative content, although it is 20 stanzas shorter than HGS. This second debate has nothing of the consistent marginal speaker guides like HGS.

My brilliant (if I do say so myself) hypothesis is the possibility that Lydgate was following in the path of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (which I also think has debate poem connections, but that’s another story). Gower oversaw some of the early manuscript production himself, and himself was the author of a lot of the marginalia that is consistently present. Gower manuscripts certainly were added to in terms of commentary and marginal notations, but Gower’s own use of the convention of marginal commentary seems to have ensured some degree of preservation throughout the following centuries. Lydgate knew of both Chaucer and Gower’s works, so the possibility that he had seen an early copy of the Confessio is not a stretch.

Proving this of course means doing a study of equal depth of Confessio Amantis manuscripts. Thanks to the digitization of manuscripts, this will be an easier task than it would have been even a decade ago. This is one great advantage to digital scholarship. Manuscript catalogues are not consistent in terms of describing marginalia, which is why the manuscripts themselves are going to be critical evidence. Even scholarship on Gower manuscripts (of which there is plenty) is not consistent in terms of contemplation of Gower’s influence over the marginalia as a manuscript feature, preferring often to focus on the interpretive suggestions of the notes.

This issue brings up one problem with the digital humanities. Although there is a lot more access than there used to be to manuscripts, scholars no longer have to practice taking notes of manuscript descriptions as they can easily go back to the images. The problem here is that without practice in describing the particular paleographical or codicological features of a text, the actual descriptions of the unique features of interest becomes a struggle when it comes to presenting an argument based on physical evidence.

So, now what? I am planning to finish working on and drafting the original Gower paper, then switching over to the pastoral project while starting the manuscript work on the Lydgate-Gower connection with aid from facsimiles both digital and print. I am hoping by the time I get to the manuscripts that I will have to see ‘in person’ I’ll have some time and resources to actually make the trip to the UK where many of them are kept.