Blogging the Middle Ages
Jeffrey J. Cohen and Company
Conversation, conferences, mail, journals, edited collections and monographs are the long established technologies for sharing work in progress and disseminating a “final” form for research, with each medium marking a significant stage in a project’s gestation. A typical developmental arc for humanities scholarship consists of bringing a thesis or discovery into the world via embodied interaction (from chatting to a colleague over coffee to presenting on a panel at Kalamazoo), with tentative conclusions refined and solidified through the affirmation and skepticism of interlocutors; sharing research in a slightly more formal way by requesting comments from friends or from experts not necessarily well known; submitting portions of the project to peer-reviewed forums and refining the argument in reaction to criticism; and, if all goes well, ultimate publication of the work as an essay, and then perhaps in its fullest form as a monograph. A blog (short for “web log,” that is, an ongoing record disseminated over the World Wide Web) offers a kind of ceaseless electronic conversation that may work in tandem with or might even take the place of the early stages of a project’s progress.
Blogs are internet-enabled spaces that accelerate some longstanding academic practices while enabling new scholarly modes. They do not offer the blind peer review that sanctions publication in a prestigious journal or authorizes the imprimatur of a revered press, instead providing a forum in which research and argument can be honed through swift, trenchant feedback. Unlike conference panels or hallway conversation, the reach of a blog can be vast, its audience not stratified in the ways that the academy (with its persisting love of hierarchy) tends to be. A famous New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner depicts a dog typing on a computer and announcing to a fellow canine, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” (July 5, 1993, vol.69 no. 20, p. 61). On a blog, no one necessarily knows or cares about your rank, your institution, your publication history. The conversation is open to strangers who happen upon the material. The risk is occasional trolling (gratuitously negative comments given for little reason other than to stir passions). The potential reward is hastening of processes that can otherwise take months to unfold, the gift of unexpected and early insight into where a project might be taken, and the possibility of combining the personal and the professional in fruitful new ways.
Like all genres, blogs have implicit rules and innate structures. Comments will always be secondary to posts; bloggers will always have a louder voice than conversants; most readers will not be contributors, so impact can be difficult to measure; brevity and wit are valued; some self-revelation and dropping of guard is expected. Like many internet-inspired phenomena, blogs lack formality and rigidity, especially when compared to conventional print. Much of what is disseminated through the medium is serious, sober, professional, and worth preserving. Much is also light-hearted, whimsical, personal and ephemeral. Blogs are inherently gregarious. Though some are nothing more than public diaries, with minimal or invisible readerships, most embrace their status as public spaces fostering communal, collegial endeavor. For that reason, I blogged this essay at the medieval studies blog In the Middle (www.inthemedievalmiddle.com) as I composed. The finished product represents a group effort. Though the person whose name appears on the byline takes responsibility for all errors, and assembled the essay from its constituent pieces, “Blogging the Middle Ages” could not have come into being without the convivial gathering a blog facilitates.
I. Early Days on the Electronic Frontier
Scholars who study texts inked onto animal skins eagerly employ electronic databases, 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 paradoxical 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 love is nothing new. Quills and vellum are technology, after all, not markers of its absence. The millennium of Latin crammed into Migne's Patrologia Latina could not have been bequeathed to us without machinery that in the nineteenth century was at the cutting edge. 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 instruments, 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 technology themselves?
Medievalists are, among many other things, philologists: philos, "loving" + logos "word." As word-lovers we happily dedicate ourselves to apprehending Latin, Old English, Old Norse, Middle High German, Provençal, 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. In 1982, Martin Irvine, trained at Harvard as an Anglo-Saxonist, completed one of the first humanities dissertations composed entirely on a computer – this in the days before Microsoft Word and Google Documents. Irvine and Deb Everhart are the founders of an innovative web portal, the Labyrinth, the first website hosted at Georgetown University (http://labyrinth.georgetown.edu; no longer maintained). With minimal institutional support, the site became a clearing house for the vast amounts of medieval-related material proliferating on the internet. Among the early major pages offering materials for students and scholars of the Middle Ages were the Internet Medieval Sourcebook (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html), the Online Resource Book for Medieval Studies (http://www.the-orb.net), Netserf (http://www.netserf.org), and the Monastic Matrix (http://monasticmatrix.usc.edu). Most of these sites were the product of astounding, unrecompensed labor by tech-savvy individuals like Paul Halsall and Lisa Spangenberg. Several have proven transitory, ceasing to exist once the person behind them became unwilling or unable to maintain their links and content.
Though email now seems a conventional mode of scholarly communication, in the early 1990s few humanists used the medium. Medievalists were among the early adopters. Some, like Marty Shichtman and Laurie Finke, employed electronic interchange to facilitate collaborations that, had they been conducted via telephone or traditional post, would never so swiftly have yielded finished projects (e.g. Medieval Texts & Contemporary Readers dates to emails beginning in 1985). Such internet-assisted collaboration likely leads to better integrated multi-authored works, since any participant can work on any part of the text at any time. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the establishment of a number of electronic mailing lists on increasingly specialized medieval subjects: ANSAX-L, ARTHURNET, CHAUCER, MEDIEV-L, MEDTEXTL, MEDFEM-L, to name a few. The discussions that unfolded through these dedicated 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. Email became another space in which the culture wars endemic to the time raged. The heatedness of discussion could become a deterrent to productive conversation. Out of frustration at this lack of sustained focus was born Interscripta, a series of moderated electronic discussions of limited duration focused upon a single topic (http://www8.georgetown.edu/departments/medieval/labyrinth/e-center/e-center.html). The inaugural foray was Jim Earl's conversation on medieval subjectivity, a discussion that deftly interwove medieval materials with philosophical reflection upon the kinds of identity flux the Internet either enabled or made evident. Later topics included "Augustine and His Influence on the Middle Ages" and "The Everyday." I moderated the concluding colloquium myself, on medieval masculinities. The email interchanges were eventually collated into a hypertext article -- and, because electronic publication was still very much a novelty at the time – I arranged for the essay to find its way into conventional print. Meanwhile what it means to be “in print” was being challenged by new journals like Chronicon (http://www.ucc.ie/chronicon) and The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe (http://www.heroicage.net), both founded in the late 1990s and existing wholly online (Jonathan Jarrett, Michelle Ziegler). Add to this burgeoning number of professional sites the vast number of personal web pages, LiveJournal, Usenet groups, BBS boards, and the creation of e-texts and hypertext editions and the phrase “information overload” seems apt. Yet, as Eileen Joy reminds us:
There has always been information overload. One of my first published articles was about the efforts of 17th-century bibliographers (Humfrey Wanley, Thomas Smith, George Hickes) to catalogue all of the Saxon MSS extant in English and European libraries and even just to record the contents of Sir Robert Cotton's library … and this required a certain methodology of notation and abbreviated description that required skimming, reading things only partially but never fully. It was also quite the heroic set of labors, in which early modern bibliographers were always swimming against the tides of too little time and too many manuscripts in too many places, some just plain impossible to get to.
The internet accelerated pre-existing processes and made them more visible, even as it rendered access to the results of such labor more widely available, democratizing the field to at least some extent.
In 1995 several medievalists working in Washington DC conspired to mount an ambitious conference on the future of medieval studies, “Cultural Frictions: Medieval Cultural Studies in Post-Modern Contexts” (http://www8.georgetown.edu/departments/medieval/labyrinth/conf/cs95). One of the first humanities conferences with web participation integrated into its staging, the event seemed to arrive before its time, before an eager electronic audience had come into being. Though papers were posted in advance, few questions were submitted for discussion, and the conference mainly proceeded as an ordinary gathering of scholars. The live portion was intense and productive, yielding a collection of essays for the journal New Literary History. Yet the web enabled the conference organizers to advertise the event widely, and then to archive its work electronically for easy access. The conference has therefore had an enduring afterlife. 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, when electronic publication and integration of nothing so very new.
II. A Brief History of Some Medieval Blogs
The untapped possibilities of the Cultural Frictions project have been amply activated by medievalist-run blogs, which offer the interactive sites for communication and critique that the conference had been striving to create. Among the earliest of these were Wormtongue and Slugspeak (http://michaeldrout.com) and Scéla (2002, http://www.digitalmedievalist.com/news). Both remain lively to this day. By 2005 four pseudonymous medieval blogs also were offering thoughtful posts and lively conversation: Blogenspiel, penned by Another Damned Medievalist (http://blogenspiel.blogspot.com); HeoCwaeth (http://heocwaeth.blogspot.com), Ancrene Wiseass (http://ancrenewiseass.blogspot.com; begun 2003 and now defunct); and Quod She, the creation of Dr. Virago (http://quodshe.blogspot.com). Explicitly and inspirationally feminist, these forums were instigated by authors at precarious moments in their careers, suggesting something of what the blog form offers that mainstream medievalist scholarship does not enable. Another Damned Medievalist writes:
[When] my academic career sort of took second place to family things … the connections I made to other academics in several fields [via blogs] helped to re-integrate me into a conversation that I’d really been missing for several years … Blogenspiel serves as sort of a memorial to who I was, and I think shows who I am and am becoming as an academic and as a medievalist … The blog still has one stable purpose, and that is to continue to connect with a community I respect and appreciate.
ADM also observes that blogs trace the liminal area between public and private life: “The limes is broad, and like the one following the Rhine and Danube, there is a lot of negotiation and interaction that occurs along it.” This possibility of bringing the personal so close to the professional is at once an attraction of the genre, and a reason why so many bloggers remain anonymous. Dr. Virago writes of her early engagement with blogs:
Over time I found myself equally interested in the stories [bloggers] told and the issues they wrote about, particularly on the personal or mixed personal/professional blogs of other academics. Negotiating my own life as a new assistant professor in a regional university, I started to see myself, or at least lives like mine, in these blogs. ... Reading and commenting on these blogs became a kind of substitute for the long conversations my friends and I used to have in the TA offices in graduate school, or the long e-mail exchanges I had with a few select friends both during and after graduate school.
This experience of community inspired Dr. Virago to start a blog of her own. Quod She offers “a record of how often academic professional identities become deeply personal to us, and how intertwined the threads of our complicated lives are.” Dr. Virago gets at the pleasure, companionship, and even consolation so many of us bloggers feel through our interactions with our commentators when she describes how, after she posted about her mother’s death, the mysterious Chaucer blogger offered condolences in modern day English, a touching departure from maintaining character.
Stephanie Trigg describes how a diagnosis of breast cancer transformed Humanities Reasearcher (http://stephanietrigg.blogspot.com) from a grants-oriented professional forum to space where she could talk about illness and treatment, providing information to those she knew and who worried about her and reassurance to others facing the disease. The blog became a place where she could reflect upon her experience as a patient as well as a professor, “a safe space of mediation between my study at home and the world of public interaction.” The genre’s invitation to “test the limits of my own privacy,” she writes, has been inspirational. Trigg’s Australian perspective is also a draw, especially because the medieval blogosphere is dominated by American academics. Her profoundly moving accounts, for example, of the official apologies to the indigenous people of Australia in February 2008 had little to do with humanities research or the Middle Ages, but in a way had everything to do with both.
Around 2005 two more widely read blogs had appeared, Richard Scott Nokes’s omnibus Unlocked Wordhoard (unlocked-wordhoard.blogspot.com) and the eclectic Muhlberger’s Early History (http://www.nipissingu.ca/department/history/MUHLBERGER/blog.htm). Both of these sites tend to be straightforwardly professional in their subject matters, both are offered as much to students at their authors’ institutions as to a wider public, but both offer moments of whimsy, humor, and personal revelation. Matthew Gabriele’s Modern Medieval (http://modernmedieval.blogspot.com) likewise began with an in-house emphasis: Gabriele teaches as Virginia Tech, and initiated the blog in response to the massacre on campus in April 2007. He writes:
My first substantial post was an expanded version of an op-ed I'd written for the local paper. I got into academia because I liked the research and the teaching but also because I believe that there's a place for public intellectuals in our society. Too often, however, academics lament that no one takes them seriously. I think part of that is our fault. The onus, to a large degree, falls on us academics to put ourselves out there and have something to say about something.
Modern Medieval has proven adept in transforming itself to adapt to changing modes of electronic communication. Larry Swain, founder of The Ruminate (founded 2003: http://theruminate.blogspot.com) and a longtime Internet presence, now co-blogs there, and Gabriel himself is one of the more prolific medievalists on Twitter. Another site to tap the synergy of blogging, stable webpages, Twitter and Facebook is Medievalists.net, the collaborative project of Peter Konieczny and Sandra Alvarez. Dating back to an internet gathering of information on military history from 2001, the website now compiles a vast amount of information relevant to the study of the Middle Ages, with an emphasis on breaking news.
Numerous blogs trace their origins to moments of career uncertainty: Dr. Virago starting a new job, Another Damned Medievalist transitioning back into teaching, Ancrene Wiseass working on her dissertation in frustrating circumstances. Jonathan Jarrett, one of the few English medievalists with a blog, observes that he initiated A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe (http://tenthmedieval.wordpress.com) in 2006 because the job market was offering few prospects and the glacial pace of academic publication was inhibiting his work from being widely read:
So the choice came down to waiting forever with a bare-bones CV and a web presence basically confined to undergraduate music obsessions, and not getting a job, or to taking over my own presentation on the web and making sure that I looked like, not just a scholar, but one who was in touch with new media and outreach to the public, something which I believed and believe still is a moral obligation of our profession, especially in the UK where it is so substantially state-funded.
Jarrett admits to being ambivalent about blogging. While on the one hand the practice has sharpened his writing, enabled unexpected friendships, made his work well known to strangers, and earned him invitations to speak about his research, on the other new media are generally undervalued or even looked upon with suspicion within the British academy. Blogging, in other words, has offered few professional rewards.
I founded “In the Middle” (http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com) in January, 2006. I was on sabbatical, had just finished a book, and possessed a semester without classes to teach, so I decided to try something new. Early posts included dictionary and encyclopedia entries as well as fragments from books: scholarly publications pushed into the world through a novel mechanism, but without a significant change of voice or mode. But then the comments started. Among the first to respond to my posts was my future co-blogger Karl Steel. He mentioned my infant site at Quod She, prompting the Dr Virago to send many readers my way. In the Middle took off from there. Having people respond quickly to what I e-published prompted me to write more, to take more risks with what I was disseminating, to use electronic communication to bring into being new kinds of scholarly community. I was especially interested in fostering an interdisciplinary space where hierarchies (grad student versus professor versus interested member of the public) and other sortings endemic to the profession (institutional prestige, geographic location, rank, number of publications in peer reviewed journals) were simply beside the point. I was uneasy at first about bringing much that is supposed to be segregated into private life onto In the Middle. To a degree the blog form demands it; scholars do not live in disembodied isolation; my friends and my family are my constant collaborators, whether they know that or not; and for reasons I have a hard time articulating, exploring the relation between scholarly practice and lived experience is simply important to me, and a blog offers the ideal form for such exploration. A month after starting to blog I knew that the form could be a catalyst to productivity, as well as a new mode of doing engaged work.
I have never felt a strong sense of ownership over In the Middle, wanting it simply to offer the kind of convivial, communal space the profession too often lacks. Thus I've had many guest bloggers – including, most infamously, the Chaucer blogger himself (with whom I admit to having a longtime friendship, and an early knowledge of the secret behind the identity). I had been promising that “Chaucer” would decloak and reveal himself on In the Middle, but what he did instead was to offer a brilliant account of his own blog’s genesis composed in the voice of Holden Caulfield (http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2007/04/chaucer-speaks.html). Three of my guest writers became permanent co-bloggers: Karl Steel, Eileen Joy and Mary Kate Hurley (who has also long maintained the gorgeously written Old English in New York, http://oldenglishnyc.blogspot.com). Working with these three conspirators and friends has been one of the best results of founding ITM. Together we have experimented with what the blog can accomplish: book reviews, a forum for syllabus exchange, conference reviews, book clubs, ephemera, manifestoes, rants, raves, obituaries, and preludes to print. ITM's readership has steadily grown. At the moment we have 240 subscribers through Google Reader alone, 60 fans via Facebook, 434 additional visits to the blog each day. In the Middle reaches many more people than any book or essay I could ever compose. I have often stated that much of my pre-blog scholarship has been a series a letters written to unknown receivers, a lonely position from which to write. What I love about In the Middle is that the blog reminds me every day of the community for whom I compose, a community of which I am proud to be a member.
III. Future Frontiers
Nobody gets the future right, except in retrospect. Then again, no one seems to get “the present and past right, even when its artifacts are all around you” (Eileen Joy).
Some time ago I asked if Facebook had killed Blogger (http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2009/10/did-facebook-kill-blogger.html), by which I meant: have social networking sites diminished the impact of and necessity for blogs? The question's importance is tied not only to what the years ahead hold for academic blogs, but for their audience and outreach as well. Blogs are composed in part for the communities that form around them. The best posts are those that spur lively and sustained conversation. Nothing surpasses having an unexpected interlocutor arrive, someone who can bring the discussion in productive new directions. Blogs also exist as much for their silent readers than their garrulous ones: of the 240 people currently subscribing to In the Middle via Google Reader, probably no more than 35 have ever actually left a comment. The blog surely has some tangible impact upon its silent readers, perhaps in the classes they teach, the articles they write, the projects they pursue. Add in those who peruse the blog just by stopping by, those who subscribe via another service like Bloglines, those who use Facebook or some other site to access the RSS feed, and it seems evident that most people treat a blog like an informal version of a journal: a place for news, a chuckle, a disapproving cluck of the tongue, a quick morning skim ... and sometimes a place with some material to linger over, think about, respond to.
I worry about the relocation of much of what used to unfold on blogs to social media because those discussions are inherently closed: limited to the friends one already possesses; never stumbled upon due to a fortuitous web search; not existing as a semi-permanent, easily accessible archive in the way that a blog's thread of comments persist (and because they persist, blog comment threads can be reawakened after long dormancy; such reactivation cannot happen on Facebook). It could be argued that no technology actually supplants another: print books and e-books are not at war, but are coexistent phenomena. By this reasoning Facebook will not replace Blogger; we will have both, and different modes of communication will unfold on each: sustained, in-depth, archived and open access discussion on blogs; quick, superficial, fly-by conversations on Facebook and Twitter. Maybe. Yet few of us are reading microfiche these days. Another possibility is that a cloud metaphor best describes the interconnected electronic future. Twitter and FB can be used to direct readers to blogs via the quick dissemination of links via multiple outlets (personal profiles, blog fan pages, tweets, and old fashioned homepages). Thus Eileen Joy writes:
I don't see Facebook as draining either content or persons away from weblogs, so much as they serve as yet another portal to particular blogs and blog posts, via "News Feed" links and the like ... I started a Facebook page for the BABEL Working Group because I thought it would be a good way to disseminate sound-bite-style information regarding conference sessions, journal issues, books-in-progress, and so on, but if I wanted to send a message to the widest possible audience with a certain amount of detailed substance involved, I would still consider this weblog the best and most effective medium for doing that. For the most part, Facebook, as powerful and widely used as it is, is still mainly a medium for very fast & quick communications and networking between real friends and acquaintances and would-be-acquaintances and for sharing personal information in the form, again, of nugget-sized "bits."
I'd mostly agree with this account. Facebook is best for quick, terse, multimedia communication. But I and many of my FB friends have been employing the site -- as well as Twitter -- for interactive and sometimes substantial exchanges about topics that have in the past typically unfolded in the more public forum of In the Middle: pedagogy, bibliographic searches, uses of technology, recommendations for texts, and discussion of books and articles. I think especially about a recent conversation that unfolded around Patty Ingham's important new essay "Critic Provocateur” (Literature Compass 6.6, 2009: 1094 – 1108). The piece was shared and discussed wholly within Facebook, catalyzed by a status update by Eileen Joy mentioning that she was reading the essay. I complained through my own status update that Literature Compass is not open access. The essay was then provided to me via multiple sources, I shared the PDF with others, and multiple status updates about the essay appeared posted by various medievalists. Comments were posted at these updates. The essay triggered a conversation that was abbreviated in the way that the genre requires, but the dialogue had enough weightiness to it that (as I participated in it and watched it unfold) I was aware that yes, Facebook really has taken on many of the functions that had been the provenance and domain of blogs.
So what's next? Despite the "information wants to be free" ethos of the early internet, it seems clear to me that much scholarly work that ought to be available is going to vanish behind the wall of limited social networks (where the unexpected guest cannot be inspired by what she did not expect to find) and corporate sites that reserve their content for research libraries that can afford their extortionate access fees. But not all of it: open access journals are not in decline, and the day will come (I hope) when their cachet equals that of those we pay publishing megacompanies to sanction for us. E-books should make access to writing done under the imprimatur of peer review at "good presses" easier to get hold of. Medievalists are a techno-savvy, generous and adaptive bunch. Their work is not going to vanish from the internet any time soon.
Meanwhile the next generation of humanities scholars may not be quite as enamored of text as we currently are, leading to more work undertaken within and published as multimedia. I don't have the technological proficiency to create a YouTube channel, but other medievalists will no doubt do so. I am also, I realize, already old fashioned: structuring my courses around writing and analysis that take textuality as central. I don't especially enable my students to collaborate as part of the learning process; I don't yet care if they would rather produce a video response to Marie de France than a paper based upon textual evidence and close reading. I talk frequently about new critical modes but insist that students master the old ones before they attempt them. Some day I may be one of those emaciated figures seen lurking in the moldering remains of some abandoned academic program, muttering about how declines in Latin proficiency have triggered the pedagogical apocalypse. I worry that the shifts in resources undertaken by increasingly corporatized universities will diminish the longterm health of the humanities, and make fostering the next generation of researchers and teachers a dead-end endeavor.
The future of scholarly communication will likely mean that the technologies I have been using (traditional print books, blogs, Twitter, FB) will be superseded. The future will arrive, and may well leave me behind, just like those for whom the be-all and end-all of scholarship was e-texts, CDs, or microfiche. Maybe the university will always be a location where face-to-face encounter within the humanities classroom will be prized. Maybe the Chaucer blog will always inspire those who have not taken a course in Chaucer to take one, and those are taking such a course to find a new way to enjoy and learn from the materials. But it is also possible that by moving so much scholarly interaction online we make it easy for those who make decisions about educational policy to hire fewer humanists, to argue that the electronic pedagogical frontier is in fact the most viable one. I'd like to think that blogging and its siblings are ways to make a case for the vitality and importance of contemporary humanities education. They enable and preserve conversations about what is at stake in what we do, and they challenge us to think seriously about how we do it, and for what future.