Monday, March 08, 2010

Reading Old English Texts

Back 11 years ago now, when I first entered graduate school and settled on Anglo-Saxon England as the focus of my studies, the HOT book of the moment was Reading Old English Texts edited by Katherine O'Brien O'Keefe. Published in 1997 and written then in mid-decade, the volume's purpose was to explore and introduce critical approaches to Old English literature rather than to introduce Old English literature. In part the collection is a response to Allen Frantzen's complaint that medieval literary critics, particularly Anglo-Saxonists, fail to engage with modern critical approaches to the field's detriment and perhaps even destruction--a complain in part published Frantzen's Desire for Origins in 1991.

Over the Christmas break (Ack! 3 months ago now!) I revisited this volume and reread the essays. It is interesting to me now how in many ways the volume is dated and practically useless now and how even then it wasn't as effective as it could have been.

The Introduction remains useful as a quick overview of "engagement with the past", i. e. the Anglo-Saxon past and the approaches of previous generations before O'Brien O'Keefe O'Szarmach (henceforth OBOK, currently married to Paul E. Szarmach currently director of the Medieval Academy of America) turns to discussing the details of the volume. It is a quick, though useful overview even yet.

The first two essays in the book are still the most applicable. Michael Lapidge writes on the Comparative Method and Donald Scragg on Source Criticism. Both offer a quick overview of the method and its uses and both essays would be useful for advanced undergrad or beginning grad level introductions to the methodological approaches.

The third essay too remains a useful one, though I have to say that it wasn't quite as pertinent yet as I thought it might be. Daniel Donahue discusses "Language Matters" and he makes some very good points about philology versus linguistics, the similarities, the history, and the key differences. Still, the essay I think fails to really describe either approach in any detail (and perhaps cannot all things considered) or to describe what can be and is done in such an approach and why it matters.

The late Nick Howe's contribution deals with New Historicism and Historicism as approaches and is a good overview and Andy Orchard follows it up with an essay on Oral Tradition.

Paul E. Szarmach follows with a discussion of "recovery" of texts and textual editing. Clare Lees is next with a description of feminist approaches and Carol Pasternack takes on "post-structuralist" approaches. The volume ends with Peter Baker on computing and OE.

The essays by Szarmach and Baker, both of which mention projects and computing and the like are the most obviously outdated pieces in that aspect. Paul's remarks on the "recovery of Old English" are still on the money overall and ought to be read by any and every beginning medievalist. After all, where would any of us be without text editors and editing? But the computer material has been long bypassed and one can even posit that using computers in scholarship is no longer really a hot topic or worthy of discussion anymore than using original languages in research is.

The two "theory" essays on feminist theory and post-structuralist approaches are likewise long in the tooth these nearly 15 years later. Much has remained the same it is true, but much has changed and I for one would love to see an update of such approaches that folks like Eileen Joy and Mary Ramsey among others are engaging in.

Most of the contributors were just beginning the twilight of their careers at the point of the volume's inception. Since Lapidge, Scragg, and Szarmach have retired; Orchard is doing more administration than publishing these days it would seem, Howe has sadly died too soon. Lees and Pasternack are now "elders" in the field as is OBOK. This all of course says nothing about the usefulness of the volume. It does mean though that a redo is probably in order soonish, or at least an update. I doubt OBOK would want to do an update, given that she has moved to other pastures and other projects and Peter Baker might not be the best person to address the use of electronic applications to the study of Old English texts, in spite of his electronic primer of Old English-assuming that computer applications or web applications can be called an approach any longer.

In many ways we've moved beyond the question of the applications of oral tradition, though still an important topic, and beyond mere feminism and post-structuralism and neo-historicism. Those are still with us, I still use those tools and tend to the historicist and neo-historicist myself. But the field is more varied now, such as applications of theory about "the other", exploration of Jews, homosexuality, sin, monsters. The volume itself avoided any discussion of theology or religion and attendant approaches that should be included. At the same time, the call Frantzen issued hasn't as a whole I think been heeded: as a whole this volume was a bandaid that covered a big wound, but the hole is there yet. Some, such as Babel Project and The Post-Modern Beowulf and like efforts seek to fill that hole.

So it's a mixed bag, I suppose. It is still a useful volume; there is still much good in this slim book. But it is also a dated collection that needs at least a facelift if not replacement by a new volume with a more wide-ranging collection of texts about methodologies.

I might say the same about Johns, Medieval Studies, a book done in 70s originally and updated in the early 90s. A good idea, a good primer of approaches largely in history, but a book that too is now dated and in need of a fresh approach. Had I but world enough and time I'd take a poll and see if anyone is interested in contributing to such a beast or two. Not that I'm bored and need a new project....

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