by J J Cohen
Exciting news: fingers crossed, it seems the Chaucer Blog will appear in print, via Bonnie Wheeler's always innovative New Middle Ages series. Fans of the blog know that beneath some excellent humor lurks serious material for scholarly thought. A cross-over success, the blog has well illustrated the powers of medievalism that scholars like Stephanie Trigg, Tom Prendergast, and David Matthews have been detailing -- as well as the inseparability of medieval studies from medievalism, a core tenet of the first two writers' recent work.
I have been asked to compose an essay for the book, a piece focusing on blogging and medieval studies. At first I thought I'd just sit down and write the thing. Then the inappropriateness of a solitary author essay to such a convivial, communal phenomena hit me. So I'd like to compose "Blogging the Middle Ages" through, well, blogging. I'm inspired by the fact that ITM enabled the migration of a discussion of queer green bunnies into print as the afterword to Queering the Non/Human. I'll be working on the essay in parts over the next month or so. I'll post draft fragments here, hoping to instigate discussion. Any contributions made to the comments that are incorporated into the body of the published essay will be properly attributed. This is not an egalitarian wiki, of course, but I am thinking that this blogged form of composition offers a more collective way of creating an essay than typical academic practice.
Such collective endeavor is not unprecedented, though, as the account below should make clear. Read on, comment, see your name in print.
I start with academic blogging's prelude: electronic medieval studies to about 1996. What am I missing, or am I the only one old enough to have been e-active at the time?
Medievalist ardor for technology is paradoxical only at first glance. Those who study texts inked onto animal skins employ electronic data bases, html and other kinds of coding, digital facsimiles, ultraviolet light, and a plethora of sophisticated machines of varying sizes (scanners and pens and notebooks and cameras). This conjoining of the ancient and the electronic is most publicly evident in the e-texts, email discussion lists, blogs, Twitter streams and websites that have become part of the contemporary practice of medieval studies. On the one hand, such tool use is nothing new. The Middle Ages were not devoid of machinery and equipment: quills and vellum are technology, after all, not markers of its absence. The 1000 years of Latin crammed into Migne's Patrologia Latina could not have been bequeathed to us without ample 19th century technology; printed on cheap paper, the endeavor would not be so useful to us now were it not for electronic storage, search, and retrieval. Yet even if the discipline of medieval studies was built through and looks back to such tools, we can still ask: Why do scholars who research a past so distant that its inhabitants could not imagine a virtual space like a blog embrace such apparatuses themselves?
Medievalists are, among many other things, philologists: philos, "loving" + logos "word." As word-lovers we happily learn Latin, Old English, Old Norse, Middle High German, Provencal, alien tongues plundered from history's solitude and revivified for communication. Computers likewise speak in arcane languages that demand translation. Is it any wonder that medievalist logophiles were early participants in conversations about technology? J. R. R. Tolkien studied (albeit briefly) to crack enemy codes during World War II. More recently, Martin Irvine, trained as an Anglo-Saxonist, completed one of the first humanities dissertations composed entirely on a computer in 1982. These were in the days far before Microsoft Word; the Apple computer would not be released until the following year. Irvine and Deb Everhart are the founders of the no longer maintained but, in 1994, absolutely innovative website The Labyrinth, which also holds the honor of being the first website hosted at Georgetown University. With a minimal amount of institutional support the Labyrinth became a clearing house for the vast amounts of medieval-related material proliferating on the world-wide web.
When I signed up for my first email address in 1992, not all that many people possessed one of their own to contact ... with the exception of medievalists, who had already established a number of electronic mailing lists on increasingly specialized subjects. The discussions that unfolded on this email discussion groups were often impassioned, especially when the subject was the place of those new approaches to the interpretation of literature and culture grouped under the rubric "theory." Sometimes the heatedness of the discussion became a deterrent to having any conversation at all. Hence the birth of Interscripta, a series of moderated electronic discussions of limited duration focused upon a single topic. I was an eager but at times obnoxious participant in the inaugural foray, Jim Earl's conversation on medieval subjectivity. Later topics included "Augustine and His Influence on the Middle Ages" and "The Everyday." I moderated the concluding colloquium myself, on medieval masculinities. I later collated the email interchanges into a hypertext article -- and, because electronic publication was still very much a novelty at the time -- arranged for the essay to find its way into conventional print ("The Armour of an Alienating Identity" Arthuriana 6.4  1-24).
Meanwhile, several of us in DC put together a big conference on the future of medieval studies called Cultural Frictions: Medieval Cultural Studies in Post-Modern Contexts. One of the first humanities conferences with a web portion integrated into its staging, the event seemed to arrive before its time, before an eager electronic audience had been formed. Very few questions were submitted for discussion, and the conference mainly proceeded as an ordinary conference would ... except that the web had allowed us to advertise the event well, and then to archive it. The conference has had an excellent afterlife, especially because we published most of the presentations via the Labyrinth immediately upon its conclusion.
It is interesting to consider how different Cultural Frictions would be if it unfolded today, when blogs and twitter are an accepted part of our medievalist praxis.
[So what came next? I am having a hard time moving from these spaces c. 1995 to blogs ten years later. Were there intermediary spaces, or just electronic discussion lists? Have I left anything out of this brief account?]