After Europe, After Brexit
This talk was given at the Centre for Medieval Studies, York, as part of the conference 'Theorizing Medieval European Literatures', organized by CML (Centre for Medieval Literature, York-Odense), on Saturday 2 July 2016. It may serve ITM readers as a brief and preliminary guide to likely impacts on UK Higher Education, and on Medieval Studies, following the Brexit vote of 23 June. It may also help set the mood music for those about to attend the New Chaucer Society meeting at QM, London.
My title 'After Europe' has obviously taken on quite different valence since the Brexit vote of 23 June. The original idea was for me to reflect on what next steps might be taken following the completion of a particular editorial project, namely Europe:A Literary History, 1348-1418. A number of contributors to that project are here at this conference, and the project benefitted immensely from previous workshoppings at York, and in a range of CML venues. But we are now 'After Europe' in a much more immediate way if the United Kingdom really is to leave the European Union. Melancholy Narcissism might drive me to ask whether I've been wasting my time, and other people's, over the last eight years in gestating a giant white elephant? But since Narcissism is by definition solitary, I will pick my head up to notice that I have plenty of company in misery. Many other projects ongoing or completed now find themselves in a world at odds with the logic of their own self-conceiving : one could start with Simon Gaunt's Medieval Francophone Culture Outside France, an AHRC-funded project that ran from 2011 to 2015, and that lives on as a web resource. Most of all, however, I think of the Interfaces group, specifically the core members Christian Høgel and Lars Boje Mortensen, of Southern Denmark, and Elizabeth Tyler, of York. These fine scholars have poured a decade of their lives into what might be regarded as a 'greater Europe' project, or 'Eurasia' project. They and many others across Europe have been extremely generous in working with English as the privileged lingua franca of collegial discussion. I hope that the Danes will stick with us, but I cannot resist quoting a recent post by Lars, as he reaches for his fellow Danish author, Saxo Grammaticus:
They saw doom ahead, fear was in their hearts, and you would have imagined that the misdemeanours of a single member were recoiling on all their heads" (This is Saxo grammaticus iii.4.9, on the false gods realizing that their whole scam was falling apart because of Odin's behaviour).
Before essaying any turn to the positive, I think it worth registering just how bad things are-- just how destructive an effect Brexit promises to have on British participation within European scholarly initiatives. Our best correspondent here, as many of you will know, is Graham Caie of the University of Glasgow. Graham represents the UK Academies in the Federation of European Academies. Here's what he had to say in a FB post from earlier this week:
The UK academies which at present take the lead in giving advice on EU funding to the UK government (BIS) will not have a say in future EU funding decisions. The UK will now have limited access to EU research funding and at a greatly reduced amount, as do Switzerland and Norway -- and the US. The UK at the moment receives over €1bn annually. In 2007-2013 UK received €8.8bn and contributed €5.4bn. This will now cease or be greatly diminished and universities will suffer greatly. The UK per capita receives the largest EU research amount -- but this will go. At the moment the UK can only fund large research projects such as the Space Agency with EU collaboration -- that will stop. One commentator stated, when the Leave folk were pointing to Switzerland's success: "Switzerland now pays more and gets less [from EU research funding], co-ordinates almost nothing internationally and has no control over its scientific budget or which topics to fund." Sad days for UK research, and I've not begun on EU student and staff mobility....
We might set this, however, against the more positive approach taken in a newspaper article from earlier this week:
I cannot stress too much that Britain is part of Europe, and always will be. There will still be intense and intensifying European cooperation and partnership in a huge number of fields: the arts, the sciences, and on improving the environment. EU citizens living in this country will have their rights fully protected, and the same goes for British citizens living in the EU.
The good news here is that this is very good news. The bad news is that the bringer of it is Boris Johnson, writing in the Daily Telegraph. Martin Kettle, writing in the Guardian, assesses it as 'a string of confident assertions that are likely to fall foul of the facts. Universities, for example, stand to lose significant income if EU students-- including Irish people-- are less able to come to the UK to study'.
Further spurs against Narcissism were supplied by Sarah Rees Jones and Nick Havely, both of this [York] parish, and by Lee Spinks of the Edinburgh English Department, by way of Essex. Sarah says that 'we have all been way too complacent about the 'Londonisation' of the economy and of politics for way too long. Too much of England and Wales has been written off as redundant and irrelevant as London has gone from strength to strength... I have colleagues who have travelled all over Europe and the world but never been to Bridlington, Pontefract or Hartlepool'. Lee Spinks notches this up several degrees: 'to be confronted', he says, 'with the blistering, paint-drying-at-20-metres metropolitan contempt for the Leave voter, fetishistically addicted to its fixed and already established subject-positions (the "racist", the "old", "the uninformed", the "delusional" and so on) without any real sense of the internal drama or deep history of the way these identities or plural subjects were formed ...'
Nick Havely modulates from rage and despondency to thoughts of reparation:
Amongst other things, too, the decision is a gross betrayal of a whole generation: nearly three quarters of 18-24 year olds... voted to remain. . . we have to work through the rage and despondency and try to get not mad but even. Having canvassed for the Labour Remain campaign in Oxford over the past week, I’m even more convinced that one of the few things those of our age can do is to try in some small way to mitigate the damage being done to the prospects of the younger generation. . . Perhaps modern linguists, beleaguered as they already are, can help to contain a further outbreak of insularity'.
Peter Scott, of UCL's Institute of Education, concludes his piece in Tuesday's Guardian by reminding us that 18-24 year olds have been paying the price for bad educational policy for quite some time:
'In 2000', he says, 'going to "uni"' was still, as it had been for generations, about optimism, an opening-up for individuals, communities, our whole society. Today it is more associated with high fees, crippling debts, bogus 'value for money' and spurious 'satisfaction'. None of this is really higher education's fault. But we are paying the price.
This certainly resonates with me, since my years at York in the 70s, on a government grant, were absolutely a time of optimism, experiment, and 'opening up'. What I see in my own American university, given concerns with high fees and crippling debts, is an ever-increasing obsession with grade point average, and associated mental health issues. In Texas, where I taught for six years, it will become legal to carry a concealed weapon on campus from 1 August.
Peter Scott begins his article with a statement that flatly contradicts Boris Johnson, he who so blithely stated, as you just heard, that 'Britain is part of Europe, and always will be'. 'The unthinkable', Scott says, 'now has to be thought. The UK is abandoning Europe, which-- let's be honest about it-- is what leaving the EU amounts to'. So this brings us to alternative points of inertia: to relax with Boris, because Britain is always already part of Europe, so no effort is required; or to relax with Peter Scott, because Europe has now already definitively disappeared beyond the horizon. Inertia, or at least a form of depressed paralysis, has gripped many of us this week, and it might seem besides the point to ponder, as medievalists, how (or even if) we might bestir ourselves. But it's worth noticing that this very Centre for Medieval Studies at York predates the UK's joining the EU in 1973, and has hence developed habits of thinking and working within and as part of Europe that are not going to vanish overnight. So some thoughts about what we might do.
Support for Modern Languages, as Nick Havely suggests, should be high on the agenda of any English-based medievalist. CML's online journal Interfaces publishes work inFrench, German, Italian, Spanish, and English, and it is salutary for we Anglophones to read work in 'other' languages. Indeed, immersion in languages other than English would be a good and worthwhile act of penance, beginning this summer, for those of us who have benefitted most from English being the privileged language of international scholarly exchange.
Commitment to younger scholars can be made in many ways, including through international summer schools of the kind organized by CML this summer in Istanbul (see pic). The commitment of these students, many of them from tricky locales such as Jordan and Syria, Moscow and Venezuela, is truly inspiring. Their pursuit of knowledge is often at odds with their chances of getting a job, or even (in some places) inversely related to it. Subjects such as Vladimir Putin's devotion to St Vladimir, in the Crimea, or the relocation of the Crown of St Stephen to the Hungarian parliament are sensitive, to put it mildly.
Rewards for those of us currently on the teaching side are immense. My tutorials in Istanbul saw us move from Erich Auerbach's 'Dante' chapter in Mimesis to Emily Apter's Translation Zone to Kader Konuk's East West Mimesis. Apter critiques Edward Said for modelling himself as a critic-in-exile on Auerbach, rather than on Leo Spitzer, since (Apter says) Spitzer mixed with locals and learned Turkish, whereas Auerbach worked only with masterpieces of western literature. Konuk shows that Auerbach's claims about not having access to secondary literature and scholarly apparatus were bogus, but she argues that in focussing upon western works, Auerbach was upholding the modernization program defined by Attaturk: the same program that abolished Ottoman script, and that turned Hagia Sophia from mosque to museum. All this can be learned from the books of Apter and Kader, as produced and published within American academe. But one of our summer-schoolers from Moscow, formerly a journalist and now studying into an uncertain future, pointed out something that American scholarship had overlooked: that Attaturk's revolution was in part funded by the Soviet Union. The suggestion that Moscow saw Attaturk as a kind of mini-me Lenin is not something I had ever heard before, and would not have heard outside that remarkable CML summer school, held in the Swedish compound in Istanbul 50 metres away from the Russian embassy, itself subjected to a noisy protest by Palestinians on the last night.
Gathering awareness of such complexities had long inspired and sustained my editorial work on Europe: A Literary History. It was evident from surveying the field, such as it was, that the man who moved into Spitzer's job once Spitzer had been chased off to Istanbul still exerts powerful and indeed normative influence. I speak here of Ernst Robert Curtius, author of the magisterial European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, published in German in 1948, in English in 1952, and lauded by T.S. Eliot as 'this magnificent book'. Europe certainly needed some sense of a unifying culture to rally round after World War II, and Curtius, buoyed by the salutary and wholistic effects of his own Jungian psychoanalysis, gave them the tropes and figurae of Latinitas. The cult of T.S. Eliot was very strong when I arrived at York in 1973, the year of EU entry and the year after the Department of English and Related Literature had combined collectively to celebrate the fiftieth publication anniversary of The Wasteland.
The enduring allure of Latinity and Rome is further indicated by Chris Wickham's contribution to The Penguin History of Europe, covering the period 400-1000, from 2009. In opening his 'Introduction' Wickham makes remarks that might seem trenchantly anti-European, or un-European, or pre-European:
Europe was not born in the early Middle Ages. No common identity in 1000 linked Spain to Russia, Ireland to the Byzantine empire (in what is now the Balkans, Greece and Turkey), except the very weak sense of community that linked Christian polities together. There was no common European culture, and certainly not any Europe-wide economy. There was no sign whatsoever that Europe would, in a still rather distant future, develop economically and militarily, so as to be able to dominate the world.
And yet Wickham's volume is called The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. The talismanic name of Rome deploys here to cohere what might otherwise appear fragmentary, dispersed, or ruinous, and Latinity still continues to exert magical powers. In December 2015 I shared a podium with Chris Wickham and other medievalists at the Taylorian, Oxford, as part of the launch event for an integrated, cross-disciplinary, un-siloed program in Medieval Studies. Numbers were huge, spilling over to the upstairs of the auditorium. Conversations ranged broadly, but the only comment that led to wild applause from the audience was the suggestion that we must teach more Latin. I'm always happy to support Latin, but there was no applause at mention of the magnificent exhibition of Armenian manuscripts then on display just down the road in the new Weston gallery of the Bodleian. Armenian literary production was staggeringly precocious, with liturgy and Scripture from the fifth century, and highly individualized: scribes do things in Armenian colophons, throughout the Middle Ages, seen nowhere else.
Armenia is just one of many locales across the territory of medieval Europe that are in literary terms alternative to Rome. In the 'General Introduction' to Europe I adopt Osip Mandelstam as one of my revisionary muses, remembering his Journey to Armenia, and Seamus Heaney as the other. Heaney was an admirer of Dante, like Curtius and Auerbach, but also of Osip Mandelstam, convinced that unlikely places such as Armenia or Ulster may surprise or outflank the European centre. Heaney rediscovers his Dante at Lough Derg, a medieval site of pilgrimage that drew visitors ranging from Hungarians to Neapolitans. Lough Derg lies not far from Lecan and Ballymote-- where great texts of a resurgent Gaelic world were being compiled after 1350 by scribes showing little knowledge of Latin.
The recent resolution to decouple Britain from greater European concerns should not, then, discourage us from pursuing Europeanist (and global) work-- which, in my opinion, is the only kind of work that makes sense for medievalists, English or otherwise. It may be that British medievalists have to try developing direct relations and exchanges with particular European institutions, rather than chasing free-floating pots of EU money. It's encouraging to see that York's Vice Chancellor, Koen Lamberts, is from Belgium; and that he is already putting his mind to preserving European ties, with his ten point plan of action. The trans-territorial, cross-lingual complexities of the Middle Ages, early and late, that our scholarship already articulates already resonate with the complexities of our own time. I'm thus less inclined, in this company, to despair of our future. The optimism with which I signed off the 'General Introduction' to Europe two years ago now seems irrecoverably peppy. But I would, in this company, stand by the optimism and conviction of its final paragraph:
Europe ... apprehending diminished standing in the world, is falling out of love with itself. Our project affirms belief in Europe as a compelling and inspiring subject, and in philology, practiced with urgent care by that post- war generation, as vital to its articulation. The Latinity honoured by the centripetal imagining of Curtius remains vital as one literary force field among many in a Europe divided by papal and East-West schisms, by more radical faith divisions, by Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Slavic, and Armenian literacies, and by burgeoning vernaculars. Geography here supplements philology, as space supplements time: topoi are to be seen not only as literary figures, rooted in classical antiquity, but as places on the ground. The space of this new Europe, expanded and interconnected, has no hard and fast borders but rather sites of cultural negotiation producing literatures of extraordinary variety, ingenuity, and regenerative power.
I'd like to conclude here with a few words about what I've actually been doing 'After Europe', which is to say writing a Very Short Introduction to Chaucer for OUP. Next week, manyof us will gather with the New Chaucer Society in London, and Chaucer is a poetoften invoked to demonstrate foundational and insular 'Englishness'. So here's my attempt at saving Chaucer from recuperation by the Little Englanders:
Born in London, Chaucer died at Westminster some time in October 1400. His burial place in the Abbey eventually became poet’s corner, and admirers from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries never tired of hailing him as ‘the father of English poetry’. As such, it was reasoned, he must surely embody those qualities of Englishness most admired at the time of writing. In 1946, Marchette Chute published a book called Geoffrey Chaucer of England, as if our man is about to lead out the national football team for the first post-war international friendly. All this is understandable, especially in the context of 1946, but quite wrong. Chaucer was hardly English at all: that is, his home base of operations was an area taking in the south-east quadrant of England, the Channel, which he crossed many times, and the English-controlled continental region bordered by Flanders, Artois, and Picardy. Since he seems never to have travelled in Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Ireland, or England north of Yorkshire he might more plausibly be known as ‘Geoffrey Chaucer of Logres’, the region south of the Trent as demarcated by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. And also by Arthurian romance, although this would not have pleased Chaucer since, following contemporary Italian fashion, he regarded Arthuriana with affectionate contempt. He knew of Italian literary fashions because he had travelled in Italy, owned at least two Italian texts, and translated brilliantly from Italian. French he knew as the most prestigious of English vernaculars, vital for life at court, diplomatic exchange, legal debate, pillow-talk with his wife, and badinage with his sister-in-law, Katherine Swynford, née de Roet, mistress and later wife to John of Gaunt. Latin, beaten into him as a boy, was the language of Church and Bible; Englishers of the Bible were criminalized during Chaucer’s lifetime and, shortly after that, faced death by burning.
Chaucer, then, was no ‘little Englander’. He understood many languages, and also how one language or dialect along any given route modulates into another-- much as accents change between Bristol and Cardiff, or Philadelphia and Boston. He also heard tongues combining to form inter-languages, much as Scandinavians today pool their Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and even Icelandic to fashion working idioms. His boyhood and then manhood on Thameside quays formed a perfect linguistic testing ground as goods from Francophone, Flemish, Dutch, ‘Deutsch’, and Italian locales were exchanged. From such poly-vocalities Chaucer fashioned his English. His choice to put all writerly eggs in one English basket remains remarkable: his friend and fellow poet John Gower, across the river at Southwark, chose otherwise, spreading himself between Latin, French, and English. But the English that Chaucer chose to write, one might say invent, opens out to Europe, rather than withdraws from it. His aim is to make English illustrious by European standards as a European language. The notion of an un-European England would, for Chaucer, make no sense at all.