By Irene O’Daly
This week, a group of medievalists gathered in Bergen in Norway for the Writing Europe before 1450 conference, co-organised by the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Bergen, and the School of English at the University of Leicester. The purpose of the conference was to gather scholars from a variety of different fields to discuss changes and developments in Europe’s writing environment before the advent of print.
The conference prompted (and answered!) a number of questions. Of particular note was the emphasis placed on the variety of writing experiences throughout the European Middle Ages. Not only did the material on which writing took place vary (from parchment to paper, from runic inscriptions on wooden churches to papyrus rolls), but the purpose of writing, and the interpretation of that purpose, changed considerably. The conference began with a provocative keynote speech from William Johnson, who queried the extent to which our conception of what the goal of writing is has been shaped by the phenomena of modern day publication: in cultures that are predominantly oral the traditional goals of publication (self-validation, the gaining of readership, the earning of revenue) are overridden by complex shifts in societal structures that control access to knowledge and to audience.
The relationship between the writer (who may consider the process of the production of written material to be a performative action in itself) to the reader (who may access the material indirectly through its use in liturgical or other public contexts) is an ever-varying experience in the Middle Ages, and one that is often made more complicated by the presence of intermediaries who affect the form and content of the written word, from its point of composition to its moment of transmission. In many cases seeking the hidden clues in the manuscripts, the hints provided by manuscript size, quire arrangement, type of script, can illuminate the purpose for which the manuscript was made and used – a common theme in many of the papers. In other cases, looking to the context within which a manuscript was made can provide information – Estelle Stubbs‘ paper on the literary and administrative production tradition surrounding the medieval Guildhall in London was a fascinating insight into how knowledge about the personalities of individual medieval scribes can aid the mapping of texts through place and time.
Of particular interest was the variety of research methodology used by speakers. Erik Kwakkel and Jacob Thaisen presented on how painstaking close examination of letter-forms, using a corpus of datable and identifiable texts, can allow for identification of trends, as well as prompting questions about how scripts were transmitted and developed. Philip Shaw exploited linguistic techniques to track how words travelled across Europe, subtly changing in form and meaning, but still retaining the imprint of their history. Several speakers spoke of how digitising medieval manuscripts has being a valuable tool allowing for comparison of scribal hands and manuscript form. Katie Lowe delivered a memorable talk on a Mellon-funded project on manuscripts of Aelfric’s sermons that indicated how the process of digitisation could lead to further innovations, such as the use of T-PEN to facilitate accurate transcription of texts and their interpretation. Orietta Da Rold in her presentation of a new project, Manuscripts Online: Written Culture 1000-1500, pointed out that digital resources both challenge and provide new possibilities for the medieval scholar, suggesting that more coherence in approach between scholars and resource-providers is required to facilitate a “paradigm shift” in research that extends beyond the superficiality of technological advances. The potential of such an approach was highlighted in the final paper of the conference, David Wallace’s discussion of his forthcoming book entitled Europe: A Literary History 1348-1418. Wallace’s paper showed how use of electronic communication in his project has facilitated the creation of a “virtual community” of collaborators debating controversial terms and content, but that such a community was foreshadowed in the Middle Ages by literary networks that stretched throughout the continent of Europe allowing for the exchange of ideas and materials. Using Google maps, Wallace has developed a public resource alongside the main project that allows one to imagine these literary journeys, demonstrating that present-day national boundaries were often culturally porous in the Middle Ages.
Lively interaction among the speakers, as well as a friendly forum for debate, made the conference a most enjoyable experience, and while I’ve only been able to mention a few highlights, all the papers made a memorable impression on me. We were made to feel very welcome by the conference organisers, particularly by our host in Bergen, Aidan Conti – to whom I would like to extend particular thanks.