Medieval literary voices: embodiment, materiality, performance

Posted by Bethan Hirst - Tuesday, 28 Jun 2022


Louise D’Arcens and Sif Ríkharðsdóttir, editors of Medieval literary voices: embodiment, materiality, performance discuss the volume, how it came about and their global collaboration.

How did the volume come about?

We were perhaps unlikely collaborators, one working in Australia, the other in Iceland, one focusing on medievalism and the other on cross-cultural studies of medieval literatures! What we did share was a mentor, Professor David Lawton, who had been instrumental in shaping our careers and how we thought about medieval (and modern!) literatures and what it meant to work with the Middle Ages. We wanted to put together a volume that would honour his legacy, especially in the study of late medieval English literature, and his meaning to us personally, as a mentor, a teacher and ultimately as a friend.

Why ‘Voice’?

While the volume was originally conceived as an honorary tribute, we also wanted to put together a volume that would stand on its own as a coherent collection of essays that would revolve around a particular topic but approach it from multiple different angles. Voice seemed the ideal theme as voice underlies in many ways all literary production, but in particular that of the Middle Ages when the vocalisation of literature was a fundamental aspect of its textuality. Voice is the basis of any literary text, the narrative voice(s) its mediation. The voices of characters embody them and give them a sense of selfhood that we as readers and audiences respond to and bond with. Voice is both a very personal aspect that identifies us to those who know us and an imaginary (and therefore fleeting) thing. We remember people’s voices. And their voices can linger even long after they are gone. David’s voice resided with us long after we began our independent scholarly careers – engaging us in imagined (but vocally resounding) internal dialogues. We therefore wanted to commemorate the resonant voices of past authors, their literary personages (think of the Wife of Bath, or Margery Kempe!), the multiple voices that mediated them, and, finally, the written voices of the scribes who copied them and the critics who study them. The volume also registers how these voices continue to reverberate today, in our poetry, our music, and our public culture.

From Iceland to Australia – how did the global collaboration during the pandemic work?

Well, we did not really expect the world to come to a standstill when we began the collaboration! And we have now had multiple very lovely early morning/late evening (time-zone dictated) discussions on zoom in and out of isolation at the various stages of the project and the pandemic. Our contributors were wonderful, and the entire medieval scholarly community bonded together to try to make the best of a very difficult situation. We had colleagues looking up references for those that were unable to access libraries (sometimes for months and even years) and everyone showed immense patience and fortitude in managing their responsibilities and being understanding of the different impacts of the pandemic on individuals and families. We have both certainly become closer as we have shared this experience – and not only the pandemic, but multiple other natural disasters. Iceland experienced months of earthquakes, ending with an eruption in the close vicinity of one of the editors. Australia in turn suffered severe draughts, wildfires (also within close proximity of an editor!), and floods that interspersed the project. Mostly what we take from this process is that medieval studies is truly a global affair and our trans-global collaboration has enriched both of our work and our understanding of the larger context of medieval culture and its contemporary criticism.

Any final words for your readers?

Voice is of ubiquitous interest in literary studies of all eras, and in our field it has come to be accepted as a central textual and performative feature of medieval literature. We hope that the volume’s renewed analysis of voice in terms of formal and semantic depth, and its thorough and focused theorisation of medieval literary voice, will enable our readers to recognise the many dimensions of medieval voice, and consider how it can impact the way in which we understand or situate medieval literature. We also hope that our contributors’ many innovative approaches to thinking about medieval voice will generate further comparative research avenues among scholars of different periods and cultures. Lastly, we invite our readers to consider the debt medieval literary studies owes to David Lawton’s trailblazing work on this important concept.

Copies of Medieval literary voices will be available to purchase on the MUP stand at the IMC conference. Alternatively, visit our virtual booth, and use discount code MED22 at the checkout to claim your 40% IMC discount.

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