By Lavezzo, Kathy; Phillips, Susan E. | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview


Lavezzo, Kathy, Phillips, Susan E., Philological Quarterly

In the last decade, medieval literary studies has been undergoing something of a renaissance as scholars have troubled stereotypes about the "myopia" of the discipline by bringing the premodern past in dialogue with new theories, methodologies and approaches. Longstanding claims regarding periodization have been placed under pressure by scholars seeking to get beyond the seemingly insurmountable shift marked by the Reformation in order to imagine and practice alternative historicities, such as the new Trans-Reformation Studies promulgated by James Simpson, David Aers, and Sarah Beckwith. (1) Scholars have also scrutinized the history of medieval studies itself, with critics undermining the presentism of work on contemporary theory (Bruce Holsinger) and reminding us of the place of medievalism in any discussion of the premodern past (Kathleen Biddick). (2) In a related move, critics have provided accounts of emerging medieval engagements with concepts long thought to exist solely in modern milieu, notions such as same-sex desire and identification (Aranye Fradenburg and Carla Freccero), and intersections of race, nationhood, and postcoloniality (Geraldine Heng, Patricia Ingham, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen). (3)

In addition to rethinking received historical divisions, scholars have traversed other kinds of borders and oppositions, such as that between the sacred and the secular, or between Christianity and its religious others. Scholars such as Claire Waters, Edwin Craun, and Barbara Newman have reconsidered our understanding of religious communities by showing how they depend upon and intersect with secular aspects of medieval culture; (4) just as Elizabeth Allen, Cathy Sanok, Katherine Little, and Susan Phillips have rigorously reexamined pastoral practices, most notably confession and exemplarity. (5) Similarly, studies by Anthony Bale, Lisa Lampert, Steven Kruger, and others have exposed how the supposedly "marginal" question of Jewish identity is in fact central to constructions of Christian selfhood and community. (6)

Intersecting with the new interest in reconceptualizing Christian ideals, ideologies, and practices is a freshly inflected sense of material cultures. Scholars, such as Kellie Robertson, Sarah Beckwith, and Seeta Chaganti, have delineated the materialism at work in Christian literatures and in so doing have also troubled received notions of the relationship between objects and subjectivities. (7) The material object at the heart of medieval literary studies--the manuscript--has been made new by scholars taking seriously the call for a new philology. For instance, Alexandra Gillespie, Elizabeth Scala, Raymond Clemens, and Timothy Graham have rejuvenated the disciplines of paleography and book studies by demonstrating how rigorous attention to the material conditions of the text, its production, transmission, and circulation, are relevant, indeed crucial, to literary and cultural analysis of the medieval past. (8) Part and parcel of that work is a focus on readership, both in terms of imagined audiences as well as the responses of actual readers. New theories of reading, and what Rebecca Krug terms "literate practice," espoused by Krug, Mary Erler, and Jessica Brantley have deeply enriched our sense of medieval vernacularity. (9) Medievalists as well have heeded the late twentieth-century plea in literary criticism generally for a new formalism and aestheticism and have taken up Steven Justice's recent call for a return to the "literary."

To be sure, the above trends constitute only a portion of the varied, rich, and provocative work that has emerged in recent years within medieval studies. Thus, rather than focusing on one particular new direction in the field, in this special issue of PQ, we bring together scholarship that reflects the generative multiplicity of medieval studies in the new millennium. Tracing and cutting across several of the new directions assumed in the field, the essays that follow all offer fresh readings of texts and practices, readings that often query some of the usual categories and binaries that have structured the field. …

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