Moving Beyond Borders: National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies

There are times when my thesis feels rather too large and unwieldy. Not only do I have a sizable topic (the circulation of information about fashion), I also have a big time period (c. 200 years) and a large geography (the whole of Europe). These decisions about parameters have been made for a reason though, not just to make life as difficult as possible for myself. I need the space of an expanded chronology and geography in order to be able to explore and discuss flows of news, differences between places and changes over time, as well as giving me as many options as possible when it comes to finding and using sources in a field in which they are not always easy to come by.

     But there is also the fact that I like working with a big geography and considering cultural connections and comparisons rather than being restricted to a narrow geographical specialism. My training as a (design) historian, at both BA and MA level, was in departments with a heavy emphasis on global history, where the sometimes unexpected influence of other places could be read in the visual, material, and contextual fabric of an object associated with a particular location, and once I’d begun to see the early modern world as a highly connected, mobile, fluid space, it was impossible to return to considering it as full of nice little self-contained proto-nation states. Much of my work has involved looking at topics and themes from a relatively broad geographical perspective, so that I’ve never really developed a specialism in terms of location that is narrower than “European”, although there are some places which I’ve studied more than others.

     A recent symposium, ‘National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies‘, held on 18 September at Queen Mary University of London and organised by Peter Auger, discussed the notion of researching beyond borders, of focusing on multiple countries or on a space larger than that defined by national boundaries in relation to Europe. National Boundaries was particularly aimed at providing an opportunity for early career researchers to talk about the challenges and benefits of working transnationally and multilingually.

     The talks throughout the day showed the richness of working in such a manner; as it was pointed out in one of the post-panel question sessions, whilst it can feel like we lose some clarity from the conclusions that we draw by taking on more expansive perspectives, those who ignore non-English sources and history often have a clarity that is false. The symposium revealed that there was an intriguing mixture of people, ideas and languages which spread around the continent, as well as clear notions of regional differences and identities. Early modern Europe was not a static entity, but witnessing changes and tensions in the make-up of languages, “nations”, and the very idea of a being one continent.

    The varied presentations revealed how inextricably linked languages, ideas and a sense of identity were in early modern Europe, with adoption of elements of the “foreign” often seen as a cause for concern amongst contemporaries. Niall Oddy examined how French writers conceived of the notion of Europe in their literature, showing that the absence of specific words (like ‘Europe’) could be just as important as their presence, because of the associations that were bound up in them. John Gallagher demonstrated that there was a polyglot oral culture in early modern England, with people learning and being exposed to multiple languages, while Alisa van de Haar showed that Philip of Marnix’s desire to purify the Dutch and French languages in the context of the Low Countries was due to pragmatism rather than xenophobia; he wanted to create a sense of community, which was reliant on communication and shared texts, which in turn needed clear, standardised and translatable languages.

     Translation was the main theme of both Bryan Bazeau and Suzanne Jones’ papers. Bazeau analysed John Harington’s translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, showing how Harington used paratext to domesticate the text for an English audience and added in personal references (including his dog), in doing so almost turning the work into a new poem in its own right. In relation to printed versions of Molière’s plays in England, Jones showed that sometimes a process of domesticating, re-contextualising and supplementing the original play occurred, whereas other editions sought to freeze Molière’s text and its context of seventeenth-century France, with both represented visually in the nature of the printed text, not just found within the text itself. Raphaële Garrod looked at how national stereotypes could make it into the dictionary in relation to French translations and definitions of the Latin ingenium, which shifted over time from being about universal wit to relate more to particular national temperaments, whilst Martina Pranić revealed that both the Croatian playwright Marin Držić and William Shakespeare had a shared conception of the idea of folly, despite having had no personal contact, showing that some ideas and understandings weren’t specific or unique to certain contexts or places but rather were part of a wider European sensibility.

     One overwhelming thought and question for me in relation to these wonderful papers and their responses, as someone who works on material culture rather than literature, was the importance of non-verbal languages, such as the visual or material. Could objects, for example, defy linguistic boundaries, or were they just as culturally specific as words? My current research on costume books would imply that people had to be taught how to “read” and interpret the dress of other nations, but my research on gloves travelling across Europe would suggest a relative universality to their desirability and conception as a gift related to friendship. Similarly, how important was the ability to communicate linguistically in situations where concepts are in play that have often struggled to be verbalised, such as in the production of objects? In a situation like a glass factory containing both English and Italian speakers, might the ability to communicate orally have been secondary to a shared language of implicit and experiential knowledge and skill, physicality and bodily movements?

    However, ‘National Boundaries’ was not only concerned with the results of research, but also the practicalities of conducting such research. It was refreshing to be at a conference that talked openly and honestly about methodologies and the role of university bureaucracy, and acknowledged that we might have to be taught certain things, rather than just assuming that we naturally know how to get on with the business of reshaping history. Ingrid de Smet’s keynote address examined how working multi-nationally and -lingually can sit within university structures and departmental groupings, noting that many ECRs are forced to adopt a more narrow specialism or definition of their research in order to get teaching jobs, with jobs with broader geographical or disciplinary remits generally reserved for professors.

    Una McIlvenna’s paper was a more methodological discussion of the reality and feasibility of working in multiple languages, demonstrating that differing language capabilities and the availability of sources in different places, as well as differing historiographical traditions which can affect what has been collected or the work already done in that field, means that you can’t be completely balanced in your research or the conclusions that you draw, but that that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t work in such a manner. Her practical talk about the different digital resources available in different countries showed that it would be useful to have more information accessible about foreign archives and digital repositories, about working in another language and place, so that each new PhD researcher doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

    A central theme of the final roundtable and discussions was languages, with the woeful lack of language capabilities and learning in the English education system seriously bemoaned as a major hindrance to working in such a manner. My own experience is of being at a university that recognised the importance of languages and made every history student take a language as an integral part of their degree, with a second year translation and comprehension test on an important historiographical work (Italian and Carlo Ginzburg for the early modernists, fuelled in part by the autumn term of our final year being spent living in Venice). My problem was more in maintaining and developing languages outside of that more formal structure of school and university; not every university offers language classes, and often the focus is heavily on oral skills rather than the reading and comprehension of academic texts that is more immediately relevant for historical research, let alone the relative lack of provision in early modern variants of a language, palaeography and archival skills.

    ‘National Boundaries’ was a really interesting and fruitful day, showing that we need to talk more about the practicalities of research and do more to provide training and information around skills, languages, and the realities of research in alternate countries and environments. For when we do conduct research that is multilingual and transnational, we uncover a much richer picture of the early modern world, with Europe being bound together by common threads, but simultaneously resisting becoming a cohesive, unified whole.

Read a blog post by Peter Auger on the symposium here

Read the storify of tweets about the symposium (#EMBoundaries) here

Read a multilingual report on the symposium on Polaris here

[This post was originally published on my website, 25 September 2015]

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