Associate Professor of English and Medieval Studies Program, UC Santa Barbara
My scholarly work began with issues of formal convention, material form, and reception and then shifted to studies in gender and sexuality. My current book brings these two concerns back together. Hence, I am providing one excerpt from my first book, published way back in 1995, and another from my work in progress, not yet published.
From The Textuality of Old English Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
Without the apparatus of the printed book and without the author function, the manuscript leaves the text in the reader’s possession. To an extraordinary degree, the readers of Old English manuscripts were obliged to make what connections they would. Although [stylistic] conventions identified the beginning and end of a verse sequence, nothing stopped a reader from connecting it to sequences that came before it in the manuscript or followed it. Titles [of which there were none] did not inhibit readers from understanding more comprehensive structures, and punctuation indicated only a hierarchy of divisions. In fact, the reader’s freedom exceeded that of an audience at an oral performance. Performers may respond to an audience’s interests or restlessness, but a performance begins and it ends, and it takes place in a specific context at a specific time that the audience experiences but does not control. While it is likely that the absence of subjectivity that we find in manuscript verse was a carry-over from the semiotics of oral performance, the reception differed because of the difference in physical circumstances. Although the oral poet stands before the audience, his or her personal identity does not define the performance as somehow alien to the audience. Rather the performance most likely presents a version of an earlier performance by others, and the tradition rather than the poet authorizes the words, the poet’s words bridging the present situation in which the audience hears them and the tradition they give voice to. While performers assume a conventional pose, they also control their delivery in ways not possible in manuscripts. A manuscript, by contrast, utters its words without gestures, without intonation, in any time, at any place. Or we might better say, readers utter the verse with their own gestures and using their own intonations, at whatever time and in whatever place they choose, starting and stopping where they will. . . .
The preceding discussion has many implications. . . . The most immediate for modern students of Old English poetics texts is that we ought not to apply modern concepts of unity and authorial intent in our editions and analyses of those texts. . . .
The largest implication is that textuality is culturally constructed. The roles of the participants–reader, writer, producer (scribe or publisher) of texts–can come in different configurations, so much so that the very concepts of author and producer of one culture or period do not apply in another. While post-modern theories point to the author and the subjectivity of a text as constructed by language (rather than vice versa)–and certainly these theories have played a part in my recognition of the absence of these concepts in Old English textuality–the post-modern understanding of authorship and subjectivity differs from the Anglo-Saxon. I would not incorporate another’s language knowingly into my own writing without crediting its writer or expecting my reader to recognize it as an intertextual allusion. Understanding Old English textuality, then, allows us to define more sharply the concepts we are struggling to express about contemporary texts.
From Sex and Text in Anglo-Saxon England (“under construction,” as we say nowadays). This analysis differs from that above in that I work not just with poetic texts but also with doctrinal, legal, and historical ones, which were quite different in their ideologies of authority and authorship and their sense of historical specificity. In this project, I am attempting to work out how to draw on both types of texts, make use of the specificities of manuscripts, and discuss the ways texts were used to express and influence ideas about sexuality:
Anglo-Saxon England was a place where Christian beliefs were planted and thrashed out in fields mixed with the old growth of traditional Germanic beliefs and practices. These two cultures or social systems had diverse ways of dealing with the basic sexual drive to reproduce, which had direct ramifications for the structure of society. One place that the differences were thrashed out was in texts.
Texts were a site of struggle. Although literacy was low, texts functioned as a locus and as a vehicle for fixing ideas–or attempting to fix ideas (“fix” meaning both “to secure” and to “repair” or “put in proper working order”). While those who used texts in this way were limited to the clerical and governmental orders or those who had access to their skills and materials, the preponderance of texts were meant to influence other parts of society as well. Sermons and penitentials would have had direct impact, as might law codes; treatises such as Aldhelm’s De virginitate and histories such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a less direct influence. In no case, though, do I imagine that the influence would have been totally hegemonic. Rather, I would say that each text was thought to matter. It is also true that no two texts fix ideas entirely consistently with each other. Rather, as I said above, each text was “a site of struggle.”
Texts concerning religious belief, individual behavior, social structure, and the state were all concerned with sex. Each text, however, worked out the problematics of sex in a distinctive way. Some distinctions, no doubt, related to the explicit function of the text: a penitential would have different concerns from a history. Just as important, however, precisely how to deal with the many aspects of sex never became (indeed, has never become) a settled issue.
What does it mean to consider texts as a site of struggle? What can we learn from looking at texts in this way? Texts are not and were not neutral, though their creators may attempt at times to make them appear so. Their investment in a particular ideology was even more pronounced in Anglo-Saxon England than it is today because those who produced them were always invested in some way in ecclesiastical culture; hence, a text simply by being a text was asserting a basic investment in a Christian array of possible statements. Many texts hid the nature of the struggle, others addressed it directly.
In any case, as those who have worked with medieval manuscripts know, the texts worked differently from today’s. In contrast to printed texts, not only is each unique in spelling, lineation, handwriting, and even composition, and not only do many preserve revealing glosses, but they organize knowledge in ways that direct thinking differently from what we would expect based on printed editions of these texts. Analyzing the particular ways that manuscripts organize knowledge shows us interrelationships between ideas that were established on and by those pages, many of which still structure our thinking but have become less obvious. Such an analysis may even teach us to read with suspicion more modern modes of presentation, to be able to see how the material dimensions of our texts direct our thinking in particular ways. . . [to be continued and revised].