The New, New, New Philology

The New, New, New Philology

Matt Cohen

In this review of Rethinking the New Medievalism, Matt Cohen ponders the significance of philology’s ongoing period of “reflection, […] refraction, and revisitation.” Against the backdrop of contemporary shifts in the humanities, more generally, Cohen sees opportunities for medievalists to intervene, bringing with them both clarity and innovation to fields in a state of fluctuation.

In January 1990, the medieval world changed. The publication of a special issue of the avowedly traditionalist journal Speculum, titled “The New Philology,” brought the poststructuralist revolution to the study, and to the imagination, of the so-called Middle Ages. Authors and texts fragmented, parted ways entirely in some cases; the wickedly complex, seemingly endless textual variations engendered by manuscript copying and circulation in the period suddenly became not a jungle to be tamed but the source of critical fertility; and the problems that obsessed medieval scholars and poets–about divine authority, human will, originality, love, the social order, the nature of text–were themselves revived as sources of critical inspiration. In 1990, the medieval world changed, and it became much less familiar in some ways, much more so in others.

I say less familiar, because the embrace of contingency, instability, and a decentered subject in the study of medieval texts across the board made it harder to recognize old characters (Chaucer, Dante) and well-known scenes (the scriptorium, the court, the street). These now emerged not mainly through the lenses of authorship, originality, authority, and genre, but through analyses of contexts and processes, of transformation, mixture, and modification. I say more familiar, because–speaking as a non-specialist–contemporary scholarship suddenly seemed to share the same concerns about the groundings and goals of literary critical and literary historical analysis that had obsessed medieval writers themselves. Your struggles with the decentering of romantic authorship attendant upon rampant anonymous reprinting in nineteenth-century England and North America? A resurgence, not an advent. Your concern about the ideological effects of scholarly pursuits of “origins” or of “authenticity”–of the subject, of race, of nation? Translation, or religion, as fundamental optics for the study of textual meaning? Breakfast fare, for medievalists and their forebears.

Rethinking the New Medievalism emerges from a festschrift–a 2008 conference at Johns Hopkins in honor of Stephen G. Nichols, under the title “Philology, History, Theory.” Nichols, who edited that pivotal issue of Speculum, appears here, as do some of his co-conspirators of the time, reflecting on the field’s transformation in the nearly three intervening decades. The book’s fifteen essays are collectively broad in geographic, linguistic, and temporal range. They treat major figures like Petrarch, Dante, Chaucer, and Rabelais, and less widely known writers such as Pedro del Corral, author of the early fifteenth-century Crónica sarracina, and the late medieval courtly poet Walther von der Vogelweide. Methodologically, in a testament not just to the specific influence of Nichols’s work but to the state of medieval studies today, the essays are capacious and acrobatic, exhibiting intellectual strains of historicism, new historicism, feminism, the computational humanities, and good old-fashioned close reading.

As many of the contributors point out, the new and old philologies share much in the way of both technique (the intense study of linguistic particularity and change over time) and goal (the attempt to provide a basis for a meaningful interpretation or a responsible scholarly edition of a text). For the humanities in general, I think, what is fascinatingly evidenced and attested to here is a subfield in intense self-analysis, reflecting on what exactly it took to effect the transformation of a strong but comparatively conservative field into one with a dynamic relation to literary and historical studies writ large. Certainly the application of psychoanalysis (in particular interrogations of the unitary subject), material approaches to textuality (in particular, the decentering of the notion of an authoritative, usually imaginary, copy-text), and intense social-historical contextualization were illuminating and, to read some of the testaments in Rethinking the New Medievalism, energizing. But the impression that one gets from reading, for example, Gabrielle M. Spiegel’s account of the creation of that special issue of Speculum is of a field unleashed not by a program or a methodological prescription, but by the very encouragement to speak an alternative stance:

I had no idea what [Stephen Nichols] meant by “the New Philology.” I did try to discover what it might entail by calling up Lee Patterson, whom I knew had also been invited to contribute. “Lee,” I asked, “what’s the New Philology?” “Damned if I know,” he said, “write what you want.” I had already told Steve that there was a problem I had been thinking about for a long time, which I conceived in terms of the social logic of the text, so I suggested I would write on that topic. “I don’t know what you mean by that,” he said, “but do what you want.” (40)

This account of philologists dutifully tracking down a phrase, finding it (in the parlance of the time) an empty signifier, and rolling with it, seems like a cue to us today, from a disciplinary-social standpoint. An unusually vague expectation and an unfamiliar vocabulary rendered new articulations, visions, stories.

I want to take up that thread again in a moment and reflect on our methodological moment. But first an appreciation: I found all of these short essays fascinating, informative, and engagingly written. For a generalist audience, the pieces ruminating the state of medieval studies in the wake of the new New Philology (by Bloch, Nichols, and Spiegel) and on notions of textuality (Jan-Dirk Müller, Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet) may perhaps be of the most interest. Also offering interdisciplinary appeal are such essays as Bloch’s “From Romanesque Architecture to Romance,” Deborah N. Losse’s on Rabelais and Augustinian thought, and “Ekphrasis in the Knight’s Tale,” by Andrew James Johnston. While some readers might not appreciate what will appear to be a lack of a center to the book - and it is true it’s woven together by way of the central event of the New Philology and the figure of Nichols, rather than by an intellectual lacework among the essays or a coherent case for the field’s next transformation–to me the methodological thematics sustain the volume.

The pre-print world is here studied not just as a textual phenomenon–though every essay does that intensely–but as one requiring the hard work of understanding medieval textual media in legal, religious, ethnic, political, and other social contexts, as well as in the context of other media, such as painting, illustration, and architecture. Daniel Heller-Roazen’s provocative essay on the language of piracy is a masterful diachronic philological analysis, threaded along the transformations in international legal discourse and enforcement or non-enforcement of piracy regulation. From the classical period, in which there were only lawful and unlawful sailors, to Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution of the United States, which claims a sovereign right to sanction piracy by granting “letters of marque or reprisal,” shifting conceptions and exercises of international power are traceable along the lines of piracy’s terminological ebb and flow. Bloch reads not just architectural inscriptions but the physical affordances and contingencies of architectural styles (thick walls, small windows) for what they tell us both about the role of walls in the west’s foundational (the metaphorics is hard to dodge) literary works and “how medieval literature both reflects–and, more importantly, enables–wider changes in the way the world is perceived and, therefore, the way not only culture but social institutions are made” (256). And even when you encounter the spectacular close reading of Petrarch in Andreas Kablitz’s “Good Friday Magic: Petrarch’s Canzoniere and the Transformation of Medieval Vernacular Poetry”–which argues that Petrarch’s work signals not a transformation to a world of modern subjects but rather a poetry engaged with “the enigma of a world that still might be a redeemed world but whose salvation is hidden in its innumerable paradoxes”–the comparative contexts of Dante, Aquinas, and the Bible loom large in the reconstruction of the sensibilities of Petrarch’s time that would justify such a reading (133).

Despite the range of the essays that compose Rethinking the New Medievalism, some of the vibrant aspects of medieval work today are absent: queer studies (as exemplified in the work of Carolyn Dinshaw), animal and more broadly ecocritical studies (like that of Karl Steel or Jeffrey Jerome Cohen), race and ethnicity (Geraldine Heng), and periodization. While this last topic does come up in Marina Brownlee’s essay on the Crónica sarracina and lurks, in the form of an interrogation of the term “modernity,” in others as well, from reading them, you would never have seen Andrew Cole’s The Birth of Theory coming. The subject of an energetic discussion in PMLA in 2015, Cole’s book locates the generative dialectics of identity and difference at the heart of Hegel’s formulations in medieval thinkers like Plotinus, who offered “the first example of a specific dialectical process, whereby difference emerges from the repetition of the same” (9). Cole then re-situates that dialecticalism as an emergence from the experience of persistent feudalism in Hegel’s Germany, which grounds the lord-bondsman recognition dialectic (which has gone by the wrong terms as “master-slave”). Against both the tendency among theorists to deprecate the Middle Ages and the broader trend away from theory altogether in literary criticism, The Birth of Theory posits an inescapable relation of past and present landscapes of thought. If scholars want to tap the power of a “revaluation of all values,” as Nietzsche put it in Twilight of the Gods, they might look to the Middle Ages, where was born a kind of thinking about history that offers “a way of acknowledging where the past figuratively exceeds its own time and place, its own concept, to make a future for itself in our own time” (161). The very title of Rethinking the New Medievalism exhibits the thematics, and a grain of the utopianism, of Cole’s version of Hegel.

And indeed, while this volume doesn’t claim its intervention to be of the order of that which inspired it, it partakes of the spirit Cole encourages. It is a rethinking in the mode of reflection, a refraction and revisitation. And in the one essay that engages the methodological Lady Gaga of our day, the digital humanities (without naming it as such), perhaps unsurprisingly written by Stephen Nichols, there is a suggestion of yet another refraction.

On one hand, it’s a bit odd that there is not more digital work in the collection. After all, “it should come as no surprise,” as Nichols writes in his essay, “to find that medieval studies adopts technological advance as readily as the period it studies” (12). If early humanist scholars were the conservators (and translators) of past texts for the audiences of their times, today’s transformational editorial moment on digital platforms is offering a comparable flowering of medieval editions, no longer fettered by the limitations of printed editions or the imperatives of archetype-based editing of the school of Karl Lachmann. There are exciting presentations of the Roman de la Rose, Chaucer, Maimonides, and many others (such as the collections in the Digital Scriptorium or those listed in Manuscripta Mediaevalia). It’s not just editions, but methods, theories, and practices that are in transformation, from the recent establishment of Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures to spectral imaging of manuscripts (of the kind performed on the Archimedes palimpsest, for example).

At the same time, these essays exhibiting the methodological revolution of “The New Philology” remind us that technology and tools do not alone a methodological transformation make. Part of the stage for “The New Philology” was set by the turn away, in the field of history, for example, from an intense use of computational techniques, a historiographical scene about which Roger Chartier has written elegantly. That activity, in the 1960s and 1970s, was one part of a larger shift from an approach to history that emphasized the unity of spirit, repeated in a series of historical moments, to history as a series of more fundamental shifts, transformations, or breaks. Here in the States anyway, it’s not usually the computational enactments of that new historiography that we still use to teach our students to conceptualize power and history, but those of historians like Michel de Certeau and Michel Foucault. Yet Certeau’s and Foucault’s capacity to reformulate historiographic visions and vocabularies surely owes something to the methodological ecology of that moment in the history of history writing. Perhaps we might take, then, the new as a concept and indeed a feeling that budding computational humanists should both be inspired by and interrogate, and should do so both out there in the public world of digital humanities work and in here, in the soul and our reactions to things. Magnificent innovations in method often come from trying to answer ancient questions. Magnificent new questions often emerge from the application of ancient methods.

There is a sense among the essayists in Rethinking the New Medievalism that their field is still struggling to make itself integral to the humanities more broadly, despite the presence of exciting projects like all of those I’ve named above, and the inspiring outreach of journals such as Exemplaria (founded a year before “The New Philology” appeared). The lessons of the pre-print era, of textual and authorial instability and the complex mixture of parochial, international, and supernatural dimensions of each of these texts, are surely crucial for a literary historical moment in which distant reading techniques and mass textual data analysis are once again entering conversations about the study of literature. In a recent interview, Jerome McGann calls for a third new philology, to follow those of the twentieth-century German philologists and the new medievalists. (After all, Vico’s philology was a scienza nuova from the start.) “What digital technology has exposed is not that we need a new program of humanities study, a Digital Humanities, but a recovery of philological method for our changed circumstances,” McGann insists. “Philology in a New Key. A new arrangement of a canonical work we have neglected for too long.” The medievalists have all along been tuning that canonical practice of philology, and the history not just of their renovations of philology, but of their concerns about the fate of their field, might occasion some rethinking in other humanistic domains as well.

Works Cited

Bloch, R. Howard, Alison Calhoun, Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet, Joachim Küpper, and Jeanette Patterson, eds. Rethinking the New Medievalism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Chartier, Roger. On the Edge of the Cliff: History, Language, and Practices. Lydia G. Cochrane, trans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Cole, Andrew. The Birth of Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. The Copenhagen Maimonides. <> Accessed 14 Oct. 2014.

Digital Scriptorium. <> Accessed 14 Oct. 2014.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. How Soon Is Now?: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Heng, Geraldine. “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages 1: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages.” Literature Compass 8.5 (2011): 258-274.

—–. “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages 2: Locations of Medieval Race.” Literature Compass 8.5 (2011): 275-293.

Manuscripta Mediaevalia. <|4> Accessed 14 Oct. 2014.

Netz, Reviel, William Noel, Nigel Wilson, and Natalie Tchernetska, eds. The Archimedes Palimpsest. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. See also < >.

Nichols, Stephen G., ed. “The New Philology.” Speculum 65.1 (1990). Pound, Scott and Jerome McGann. “The Amoderns: Towards Philology in a New Key,” Amodern 1 (2014). < > Accessed 14 Oct. 2014.

Roman de la Rose Digital Library. <> Accessed 14 Oct. 2014.

Steel, Karl. How To Make A Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2010.

Stubbs, Estelle, ed. Hengwert Chaucer Digital Facsimile. <>. Accessed 14 Oct. 2014.