Transcending Medieval Temporalities

Workshop organized by project B01 ‘Artefacts, Treasures and Ruins - Materiality and Historicity in the literature of the English Middle Ages’ (Andrew Johnston) in collaboration with Wolfram Keller (HU Berlin) and Margitta Rouse (FUB), May 29–31, 2014




Workshop report by Andrew James Johnston, Regina Scheibe, Jan-Peer Hartmann

In the recent decade, scholars of medieval and early modern English literature have increasingly raised questions of temporality, particularly with regard to the period divide between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Since James Simpson’s Reform and Cultural Reformation (2002), which asked a number of pressing questions concerning the nature of periodization, several scholars have furthered the debate, presenting increasingly nuanced perspectives on literary investigations into the construction of temporality/-ties, e.g., Carolyn Dinshaw’s “Temporalities” (2007), Jennifer Summit and David Wallace’s Medieval/Renaissance, Gordon McMullan and David Matthews’s Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England (2007), Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty (2008), and, more recently, Brian Cummings and James Simpson’s Cultural Reformations (2010). Taking its cue from these recent discussions about periodization, this international workshop aimed to further explore how medieval and early modern texts stage, reach beyond and possibly transcend their own temporalities. Such processes may take place in the self-conscious reflection of a text’s own moment, in the ways in which texts embed their own futurity or figure dialogues with their own future(s). Embedded cross-temporal dialogues with earlier (classical and/or medieval) texts are frequently re-staged in the work of later, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century authors, who themselves seek to transcend their own cultural moment through a self-conscious engagement with textual futures already envisioned in the past.

For this three-day workshop, proposals were invited that addressed from either a synchronic or a diachronic perspective the specific ways in which medieval and early-modern English writers conceptualize and construct their temporalities. A collaborative project hosted by scholars from the Free University of Berlin and the Humboldt University, the event took place in venues provided by both universities.


In her paper “Paradise Lost, Regained, Refracted: The Many Temporalities of St Brendan’s Isle”, Carolyn Dinshaw (University of New York) reflected on the complex nature of temporal experience in the anonymous Navigatio Sancti Brendani whose earliest version is dated between the seventh and tenth centuries. The Irish saint and his companions journeyed to the Isle of the Blessed, an island hidden in a thick, white cloud in the North Atlantic. This latter feature and the fact that time passes very quickly on St Brendan’s Isle led eighteenth-century critics to argue that the appearance and disappearance of the island might refer to the optical phenomenon of a mirage, resulting in an irrational experience of time and space and the creation of a virtual paradise. The physical laws of refractions were discussed by medieval and renaissance scholars, such as William of Conches and Roger Bacon, and refraction is drawn upon in the highly influential Roman de la Rose. Attempts at identifying St Brendan’s Isle have led to a space-time impossibility and thus to a suspension of physical laws in the Hereford Mappa Mundi: Its medieval cartographer placed St Brendan’s Isle in the north as well as off the western coast of Africa. When stressing the link between the otherness of the island and the colonial desire to locate the Land of New Promise, Dinshaw noted that the Navigatio had a profound effect on Christopher Columbus and that it was employed in justifications of Elizabeth I’s imperial claim to northern territories.

Andrew James Johnston (Freie Universität Berlin) discussed issues of Beowulfian temporality in "Beginning at the Beginning: Intertextuality as History in Beowulf". Taking as his cue the apparent and persistent reluctance of the epicʼs modern editors to accept certain intertextual links between Bedeʼs Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum and Beowulf, Johnston focussed on the poemʼs complex intertextual layering not only of different temporalities but also of different origins and narratives of origin, tracing the degree to which the poem explores, in specifically literary terms, the potential constructedness or even fictionality of historical narratives.

Karma Lochrie (University of Indiana) presented the paper “Queer Temporalities and Normative History”. She reminded us that utopian epistemology is linked to a rationalization of space and time, a prerequisite for the utopian hope of an idealized society. Drawing on Dipesh Chakrabarty’s concept of the “capitalist transition narrative”, developed in his study Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000), she pointed out that the utopian images in The Land of Cokaygne constitute a theological “transition narrative” in which religious practices are interpreted as evidence of a failed Christian faith and a yet-to-be converted society. The Land of Cokaygne is an early medieval anti-monastic Irish satire characterized by queer temporalities which criticize monastic prosperity. The first part of the medieval work describes an earthly paradise located in the nowhere west of Spain where its clerical inhabitants experience perpetual spring, ample food, no night and death; and self-advertising roasted geese flying about in the dining-hall are just one example of the decadent lifestyle of the ecclesiastics of two abbeys described in the second part of the work.

Apart from the religious ideal, historians used to negate the concept of utopia for the Middle Ages, claiming that medieval authors differed in their concept of temporality and history from that of modern counterparts. Hence, medieval antecedents of early modern utopianism are largely ignored in normative history since they were composed before the development of secularism and modern concepts of history. Additionally, medieval utopianism is not to be studied by reading medieval texts backward from Thomas More Utopia, a work traditionally regarded as marking the beginning of utopian writing, but rather by “reading forward”, a method resulting in rewarding insights into our understanding of utopianism.

Robert R. Edwards (Pennsylvania State University) read the paper “Recovering Time, Simulating Authors: The Temporalities of Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate”. Since time can be perceived as personal property,Edwards regards jurisdiction as an essential element in discussions on medieval concepts of temporality. With their references to supplied, but unpaid services and to periods of poverty, the petitionary poems of John Lydgate and Thomas Hoccleve in particular focus on issues of temporality. By also drawing on Lydgate’s Troy Book and Serpent of Division,and Hoccleve’s La Male Regle, Edwards showed thatthe former poet’s perception of temporality is more complex than that of Hoccleve: Time runs backwards into history for Lydgate whereas Hoccleve rather regards himself as a reporter than a literary author.

Anke Bernau’s paper “Living in Curious Times” bridged the gap between medieval and present temporalities by reflecting on the history of curiosity/curiositas. Drawing on a great variety of thinkers from St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to Martin Seel, Bernau started with a learned discussion of the etymological origins and changing values attached to the concept of curiositas. According to Bernau, whether the ‘cognitive passion’ of curiositas was regarded as positive, neutral or detrimental depended upon utility and how utility was defined – ‘a waste of time’ or ‘time well-spent’. The question of curiosity, she maintains, is thus always also a question of time. This ambiguous status of curiosity can be traced to present-day Western higher education policy which marginalizes intellectually driven curiosity by favouring economically oriented approaches to sciences: That which is supposed to bring the greatest profit will be funded. In support of her argument, Bernau cites a 2009 document signed by the UK government that obliges universities to favour utility over curiosity. Rather than accept the outcome-driven aims of audit culture, Bernau urges academics to rediscover curiosity and wonder as the basis of new knowledge.

In her paper “Medievalism and Its Discontents”, Stefanie Trigg looked at the medieval/modern-binary from a new angle by examining contemporary medievalist fictions in popular novels. The ‘medieval’, Trigg argues, is established by abstracting it from the present, resulting in a cultural alterity that is conceived of as contrast rather than likeness. While this is also true of much academic discourse, Trigg was able to show how in modern time-travel stories time is spatialized, resulting in a leaking between present and past that allows for imaginative reconceptualizations of the medieval. Thus, on the one hand, the device of the portal that the characters have to traverse in order to reach the Middle Ages re-establishes the separation between past and present, but on the other, it suggests that, as a parallel universe, the Middle Ages are always available, never far away.

Cathy Shrank engaged with the Renaissance fascination with the fragment in her paper “‘Monumentes in processe of tyme’: Temporality and the Historiographer”. The fact that the dissolution of the monasteries during the Reformation and the subsequent deterioration of their buildings led to a heightened interest in ruins among antiquarians, historiographers, and poets has often been remarked upon. Less well-known is the fascination of Renaissance writers with written fragments and textual lacunae. Shrank examined the writings of historian John Bale (1495–1563) and antiquarian John Leland (1506–1552), arguing that the two deliberately produced fragments that suggest further, missing content, with the fragmentary state and rough style of their work authenticating the temporal experience. In a similar fashion, Shrank argued, the 1609 Quarto edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets plays with monumentality and memorialization – Sonnet 55 being an instance of poetry not claiming to transcend time but only to last until the end of time. In these writings, Shrank argues, the impulse is not to restore lost temporality but in fact to create it.

Jocelyn and Wolfram Keller performed the greatest cross-cultural leap of the conference by linking Shakespeare’s King Lear with Akira Kurosawaʼs 1985 movie Ran. The title of their paper, “Living before One’s Time: William Shakespeare’s King Lear and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran”, draws attention to the way both play and film play with temporality and inverse temporal sequence. In his prophecy in King Lear, the Fool claims to be quoting from a prophecy made by Merlin which in turn quotes him. The impossibility of the structure, Jocelyn and Wolfram Keller argue, problematizes a linear and teleological understanding of time. By mourning the loss of a chivalric order that is yet to come, the Fool simultaneously constructs and deconstructs temporal regimes. The circularity of the argument shows that change does not equal progression. This can also be seen in the character Edmund, through whom the play writes a fantastic revisionist historical narrative from capitalism to feudalism. Set in the sixteenth century, which in Japan marked the transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity through a move from decentralised to more centralised feudalism, Ran retells the story of King Lear but makes repeated reference to the nuclear holocaust of Hiroshima through the ‘silent hell’ within the characters themselves, and, once, through the image of a mushroom-shaped cloud. Temporality is also deconstructed through the use of ‘frozen time’, a feature from Japanese theatre, and the movie’s soundtrack, which unsettles expectations by not only blending Western and Japanese classical music but by also resuming after long gaps of silence.

Eva von Contzen examined the temporal asynchronies involved in early modern translations of vernacular works into Latin. In her paper “Looking Back into the Future: Sir Francis Kynaston (1586–1642) translating Chaucer” she used Foucault’s term heterochrony (‘des découpages du temps’, ‘une sorte de rupture absolue avec leur temps traditionnel’) to describe the complex and potentially anachronistic ways different temporal layers interact within the resulting texts. This becomes obvious, for instance, in the apparent irony of claiming to ‘immortalize’ Chaucer’s poetry, whose language was perceived as becoming unintelligible by Kynaston and his contemporaries, by translating it into the much older (and also highly artificial), yet in these scholars’ perception much more alive, Latin. The page-layout of Kynaston’s edition resembles other humanists’ works in that it prints the Latin translation on the left, in italics, and the original Middle English on the right, in a kind of pseudo-medieval font. Type and layout, von Contzen explains, seem to stress the temporal difference but in fact highlight the convergence, similarity, contemporaneity of the two versions. To heighten the temporal inconsistencies, explanatory notes are not given in Latin, but in contemporary English. In addition, the Latin translation drops a number of stanzas and merges others, thereby reducing the storyline to the cornerstones of events, while arguing that nothing has been omitted that is really pertinent for the subject of the story. While the story-time thus remains (ostensibly) unaffected by the changes, discourse time is, introducing yet another asynchrony.

In “Spenser’s ‘free passport’ in The Shepherd’s Calender: Temporality, Periodization, Inter-nationhood, Intertextuality”, Patrick Cheney analysed what he called Spenser’s ‘career temporality’. According to Cheney, Spenser uses intertextual temporalities in The Shepherd’s Calendar to establish a periodization and to present himself as a national poet. This starts with the use of the term ‘calendar’, itself a temporal marker, which occurs over 380 times in the whole work, not counting further references to months or seasons, and continues with his appropriation of Chaucer as a means of bridging the gap between himself and Virgil: Writing in the pastoral mode (which Chaucer does not), Spenser masks an otherwise epic poem whose characters are inextricably rooted in the past but look into the future. The pastoral with its nostalgia for a bygone golden age thus works as a passport into the past but also as a step on the career ladder toward becoming a national poet. Spenser merges past and future in order to establish himself as a ‘neoteric’ (new and original) poet, a term borrowed from Cicero. In the epilogue of The Shepherd’s Calender, Spenser echoes his models, but his use of the term ‘passport’ – a government license to travel freely – is new and marks a concept of freedom in his poetry that is not given by the monarch, but by the author, a license to travel freely in a country of authors, not in space, but in time. Spenser’s career temporality thus transcends periodization it seeks to establish.

Taking Rita Felski's seminal Doing Time as her point of departure, Margitta Rouse drew attention to the potentially destructive energies of Temporality Studies as a mode of literary criticism. In her paper “Transcending Temporalities in Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls” Rouse argued that by focusing on aspects such as anachronism, asynchronicity and multitemporality, Temporality Studies risk over-stressing non-chronological aspects at the expense of chronology. Yet non-chronological temporalities, Rouse maintained, are neither typical of pre-modernity nor of modernity. Rather, the two express themselves in an ongoing dialogue. This can be seen in Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, where the three main themes discussed by the birds correspond to different temporal narratives (perpetuity, eternity, cyclicity). The poem presents these three contradictory temporal concepts as caught in a never-ending cycle, thereby voicing its own dissatisfaction with multitemporality.

In the last paper of the workshop, “Pardoner, Hypocrisy and Temporality: Reading Late Medieval and Early Modern Pardoners in Time”, James Simpson (Harvard University) explored the Early Modern English reception of one of the best-known characters of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner. His insights alerted us to the fact that Chaucer’s Pardoner reached beyond his own temporality.After relating the broken temporality of the Pardoner’s Tale to the hypocritical ecclesiastic in William of St Amour’s De periculis novissimorum temperorum (1256) and the character of Faux Semblaunt in Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, Simpson discussed early Reformation responses to the Pardoner in A dyaloge of syr Thomas More knyghte (1529) and John Heywood’s A mery play between the pardoner and the frere, the curate and neybour Pratte (1533). Both works refrain from an outright criticism of the character of the Pardoner, with the latter author even copying large passages from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prologue to the Pardoner’s Tale. In the former work, a young Lutheran refers to the Pardoner, claiming that a few black sheep do not destroy the whole church. Later Reformation hypocrisy depicted in Nathaniel Woodes’ Conflict of Conscience (1581) and William Perkins’ A Golden Chaine (1591) reveals a disturbing lack of doubt in the self-proclaimed elect, which ultimately lead to the splintering of the Protestant Church in Britain.

The event was marked not only by an impressive spirit of fruitful academic exchange but also by a remarkable degree of coherence – all the more surprising since the participants came from very different ends of the methodological/theoretical spectrum of English medieval and early modern studies. As the conference progressed, it became increasingly clear that the focus in discussions of medieval/early modern poetic temporalities is now less on criticising specific aspects of periodisation or the principles of periodisation themselves, but rather on the ability of texts from the past to construct their own critical, complex and creative temporalities. These critical temporalities already seem to foresee, preempt and deconstruct the principles of periodisation they would later be subjected to by modern critics.