My review of Michael D. C. Drout, Tradition and Influence in Anglo-Saxon Literature: An Evolutionary, Cognitivist Approach (New York: Palgrave, 2013), appears in Speculum. Here’s the opening of the review:
This book introduces a meme-based theory of literary tradition and influence. Through a combination of data visualization, analogies to evolutionary biology, and case studies in Old English literature, Michael Drout explores the processes behind the composition, transmission, and reception of literary works in cultural history. In its theoretical approach and its literary focus, the book is a direct extension of Drout’s first monograph, How Tradition Works: A Meme-Based Poetics of the Anglo-Saxon Tenth Century (Tempe, 2006).
The book is structured around a sequence of theoretical issues of increasing abstraction. Chapter 1 defines tradition as “a particular kind of influence in which the entities that are influenced persist in a chain of similar forms” and introduces a general theory of tradition and influence based on Richard Dawkins’s concept of the meme, which “is [sic] small unit of culture that reproduces in minds” (11). Chapter 2 integrates this theory of tradition and influence with lexomics, a computational method for measuring affiliations between chunks of text, using various long Old English poems as examples. Chapter 3 applies the meme-based theory of tradition to aesthetics and poetic genre, using the Old English Fortunes of Men, Gifts of Men, and Precepts as examples. Chapter 4 takes up the biological metaphor of the adaptive landscape to conceptualize the developmental trajectories of memes in evolutionary time, and chapter 5 uses this metaphor to interpret generic features in a group of Old English poems from the Exeter Book. Chapter 6 applies the meme-based theory of tradition to the problem of authorship, using the Old English Homiletic Fragment II as an example; the chapter concludes with a memetic exegesis of three literary-critical concepts of authorship and the six “revisionary ratios” of poetic influence posited in Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence.
Despite its title, then, this is not primarily a book about medieval English literature. […]
This month, I composed a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 101 tweets, corresponding to the 101 stanzas of the original Middle English alliterative poem. This project was inspired by Elaine Treharne’s translation of the Old English poem Beowulf in 100 tweetsand Alice-Catherine Jennings’s translation of the Old French poem Song of Roland in 291 tweets. To create my translation, I cross-referenced Neilson’s translation with the original Middle English text.
I was thinking about Gawain because I have been reading it with my undergraduate seminar, Literary Approaches to the Past. One of the themes of the course is the way that attitudes toward the distant past find expression not only in literature but also in the material conditions of its production, transmission, and reception. We began with William Caxton’s printed edition of Thomas Malory’s MorteDarthur,and we will end with Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. In late April, we will visit the Burns Library at Boston College to explore rare books and manuscripts relating to the course content.
Gawain occurs in only one manuscript copy, known today as British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. Unusually for a manuscript of medieval English poetry, Cotton Nero A.x has illustrations depicting scenes from the four poems it contains, including Gawain. I chose to include images of the manuscript text and manuscript illustrations at appropriate points in my translation, because I felt that this was an opportunity for medieval and modern text technologies to speak to one another. Ironically, in this my translation comes closer to reproducing a medieval experience of reading Gawain than modern critical editions, which tend not to include images of the manuscript text or the illustrations.
Translating Gawain in 101 tweets was an exercise in concision; it also taught me two things about the poem as a poem. First, I was reminded that this is a poem of lists: lists of clothing items, lists of food, lists of animal parts, lists of landscape features. Many of the tweets took the form of a list. Second, the third section of the poem is very long. The poet devotes more attention to Gawain’s stay at Hautdesert Castle, its three hunting scenes interlaced with three bedroom scenes, than to any other event in the poem. This imbalance teaches us something about the poet’s conception of the poem as a narrative; it also raises questions about the conventional modern title for the poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which refers only to the action of the first and fourth sections.
In a 2013 essay in the Journal of the Early Book Society (JEBS), Ralph Hanna announced the discovery of two new manuscript fragments of the Middle English poem Speculum Vitae. These fragments supplement the handlist of Speculum Vitae witnesses in Hanna’s 2008 edition of the poem. I have discovered a third unrecorded fragment of the poem in Yale’s Beinecke Library, and my note announcing the discovery (“Another New Fragment of Speculum Vitae“) now appears in the 2014 issue of JEBS. Here’s the opening description:
In the Beinecke Library, the printed book with the shelfmark 2008 2479 is a copy of the De regulis iuris of Dinus de Mugello (b. 1254) printed at Lyons in 1562. Two strips of vellum cut to about 25x165mm were used as endpaper guards in this copy. The front endpaper guard contains fragments of a Vulgate Bible in a fifteenth-century Gothic book hand. The back endpaper guard contains fragments of a hitherto unrecorded copy of the fourteenth-century Middle English poem Speculum vitae. The text is copied in a workmanlike late fifteenth-century anglicana script, in prose format rather than in verse lineation. A somewhat inelegant two-line blue initial Þ with red flourishing appears at the beginning of the fragmentary text. The first line of each couplet is closed with a red virgule, and, after the opening initial, each couplet is headed by a red paraph and a red slashed-line initial.
Here are my photos of the strip of vellum containing the Speculum Vitae fragment (not included in my publication):
The Boston College Chronicle recently published an article about my use of Poetry Genius as a learning tool in an undergraduate Chaucer seminar. Here are the opening sentences:
The works of poet Geoffrey Chaucer, widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, got a 21st-century spin by students recently in a class on the Father of English literature taught by Assistant Professor of English Eric Weiskott.
Using the “Lit” category on the “Genius.com” website — which Weiskott describes as “a large digital collection of lyrics and texts that can be annotated with text, images, and video in real time” — his students were assigned to each contribute 10 annotations to the site’s texts of Chaucer’s masterpiece The Canterbury Tales, the central work in his Chaucer course.
Weiskott brought the students’ work to the attention of Genius.com’s director of education, who was so impressed that he “generously offered to send us T-shirts,” Weiskott said, which were distributed in a recent class.
My students ran with this assignment, combining their newfound expertise in Chaucer with their digital literacy. As the fall term draws to a close, I am finding that each student’s ten Genius annotations make an ideal starting point for final paper brainstorming.