Colloque – The Medieval Literary Canon in the Digital Age

Programme : here

An often repeated promise of the digital humanities, in the wake of the “computational turn”, is that the wide availability and accessibility of historical texts enables scholars to breach the restrictions of a literary canon. Such a potential for literary computing, which was in 1992 first set forward as a “new” philology by its godfather Roberto Busa SJ, prominently returns in the works of computing literary theorists such as John Burrows, Jerome McGann and Franco Moretti. Their assertions that quantification entails a “widening of the canon” and eventually the advance of a “new philology”, easily invoke medievalists’ inquisitiveness. How, exactly, can the digital humanities provide such insights for the Middle Ages?

Firstly, one can question if the Middle Ages have not irrevocably lost a privileged position in the modern-day literary canon altogether. The Middle Ages seemingly take up a background position in Moretti’s methodology as an anomalous precedent to the type of literary (re)production that is typical to a literary market in the age of the printing press. This type of text is printed on a scale determined by supply and demand, a condition which appropriates it for digitization today. Even within medieval scholarship, much of the digital scholarship still seems to hinge on well-conserved and therefore well-known theological and literary authorities, whose texts have been reproduced continuously in subsequent editions and translations.


Secondly, over the last decades, medieval studies have become very sensitive to the materiality of textual transmission in the Middle Ages. This is reflected in the New Philology, coined as such by Stephen G. Nichols, which gained momentum in the 1990s. This New Philology, noticeably influenced by post-structuralist theory from the 1960s, drew explicit attention to the conviction that one cannot separate medieval texts from their manuscript context and to reader response. It postulated that analyzing and understanding the various physical appearances of medieval written texts is an essential hermeneutic criterion, and argued that gaining an overview of all stages allowed them to be chained together into a reception history. At first glance, such a “praise of the variant” appears antithetical with the virtual, normative and reductive character of a digital environment, where only little attention has gone out to readers. Yet, both Franco Moretti as Stephen G. Nichols explicitly present their “new” philology – the digital and material respectively – as a cure to a similar ailment: both their “manifestos” symbolically overthrow Ernst Robert Curtius’ iconic Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittelalter. The means by which they aspire to change Curtius’ “old” philology, however, are very different.

As voices increasingly proclaim the emancipation of the digital humanities from their merely supportive role, and as the tools for digital medieval studies proliferate (e.g. digital scholarly editing, computational stylistics, digital palaeography, digital stemmatology, …), this conference seeks out a confrontation between the two “new” philologies and their respective approaches towards a canon that has been formed under an “old” philology. It welcomes research that both problematizes the specialized character of medieval literary production, and yet demonstrates the potential for computational criticism to “breach” or “widen” the medieval canon through digital tools. At the same time, the conference aims to tackle the following questions:

– How has the digital era changed our reading of medieval literature?
– How, exactly, can we understand computational approaches to the Middle Ages as radically transforming our disciplines?
– Are digital approaches bound to remain auxiliary in nature?
– Does it make sense to speak in terms of “new” and “old”, “digital” and “traditional”, “distant” and “close” readings? If so, where should one locate the differences? If not, where should one locate the overlaps?
– To what extent is the New Philology’s advocacy for an object-oriented approach respected or disregarded in computational criticism?
– How can theoretical concepts such as Franco Moretti’s “distant reading” question the medieval canon and the underlying principles or instances that have calibrated it towards an evaluative instrument (Gr. κανών, a “measuring rod”)?
– Which are the governing powers that underpin medieval canon formation, and are these in any way institutionalized (schools, markets, authorities, …)? How are they best described and/or best captured?

Informations pratiques :

17-18 September 2018

The conference will be held in the Jozef Plateau Conference Room of the Plateau-Rozier building (Campus Book Tower, Ghent University). The venue is located in the city centre, within walking distance of public transportation (Jozef Plateaustraat 22, 9000 Ghent).

Enter the building through the main entrance, go left in front of the central staircase on the ground floor, the room is at the end of the hallway. The building is accessible for people with disabilities (treshold ramps).

You can register by sending an email to Registration closes on Monday, September 3rd.

There is a € 40,00 registration fee for both days, including coffee breaks and lunches. Conference speakers and members of the Henri Pirenne Institute for Medieval Studies are exempt from this fee.

This conference is organized by the Henri Pirenne Institute for Medieval Studies (HPIMS) of Ghent University in collaboration with the research group RELICS (Ghent University) and the University of Antwerp (Department of Literature). It is supported by the Scientific Research Network Digital Humanities Flanders (DHu.f), funded by Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO).

Source : The Henri Pirenne Medieval Institute

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