14.10.01, Rankovic, ed., Modes of Authorship in the Middle Ages

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Jay Diehl

The Medieval Review 14.10.01

Ranković, Slavica, Ingvil Brügger Budal, Aidan Conti, Leidulf Melve, and Else Mundal. Modes of Authorship in the Middle Ages. Papers in Mediaeval Studies, 22. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2012. Pp. viii, 427. ISBN: 9780888448224 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jay Diehl
Long Island University - Post

"What is an author?" Foucault famously asked. His question was one of a number of signals that the author had been displaced from a virtually transcendental position to that of a culturally contingent construction. It runs throughout this volume in both citation and spirit. In the years since Foucault first posed the question, the vast varieties of authorial modes, tactics of authorial fashioning, and forms of authorial awareness have become fruitful areas for study. Medievalists, already the heirs to the notion that the Middle Ages had no conception of individual genius or creativity, took up the study of authorship with particular verve. Previous studies have demonstrated the medieval roots of modern, "Romantic" notions of authorship. But they have also insisted on the fundamentally creative nature of other modes of composition. Such insistence was often inspired by studies of orality and the New Philologists' insistence that each material instantiation of discourse be treated as its own text, which had the effect of separating works from the control of their primal author. Scholars adopting these perspectives examined such activities as compilation, memorization, and even what modern sensibilities would define as outright plagiarism as modes of authorship in their own right.

This strong and engaging volume of essays situates its essays as responses to these questions, seeking to explore the links between individual authorship and "distributed" or communal authorship, which the editors note has become an issue of growing concern in an increasingly digital age. These questions also intersect with an emerging interest in the "posthuman" brought about by the trenchant questions posed by actor-network theory and recent turns toward the hard sciences for both epistemological models and evidence that might be applicable to the study of human culture. All of these developments can be witnessed in the more theoretical contributions to this volume. They converge on the problem of agency in textual production, which provides the central theme of the volume. As the editors state, the volume is intended to reopen the debate "concerning who should be credited with creativity--the talented individual, tradition/society, or the creative process itself" (1-2).

Following a brief Introduction by Slavica Ranković, there are a daunting twenty-one essays in this volume. They vary in the degree with which they cohere to the stated theme of the volume (although some of the best contributions are those which diverge most from that theme). The volume consists of five parts. The opening section, "Models of Authorship, Authoring of Models," consists of three essays that survey previous theoretical stances and lay out new potential ways of theorizing authorship. Atle Kittang's opening essay provides a useful overview of concepts of authorship, moving (in only a few pages!) from antiquity to Barthes' famous declaration of the author's death, focusing on the somewhat paradoxical fact that the author is apparently "dead," yet remains forcefully present as an organizing principle for texts, criticism, and scholarship.

Michael D.C. Drout's paper lays out a theory of authorship intended to reconcile three apparently disparate models of authorship: those developed for studying oral traditions, those emanating from postmodern literary theory, and the "common-sense" and Romantic notion of an actual person composing a text. His theory relies upon the idea of memetics, a model first developed by Richard Dawkins for the study of genetics that has since been extended to cultural studies. In brief terms, Drout suggests that texts be treated as assemblages of self-replicating memes that nonetheless require a "host" to assemble them, which permits a model of authorship that accommodates both the idea of the author as a unitary agent and the idea of the author as a "bricoleur." As a model, it is attractive, but according to my understanding of Drout's theory, it explains any act of discursive production. Indeed, one of his examples is a child who mutates a nursery rhyme by exclaiming "Pop! goes the diesel" instead of "Pop! goes the weasel!" In this case, it does not seem to account for one of Foucault's central issues when he asked, "What is an Author?" which is that cultures prioritize certain forms of discursive production by labelling their creators "authors," while other forms gain no such recognition (a personal diary, for instance). In other words, a theory of textual production is not quite the same as a theory of authorship, and it seems to me that Drout has produced the former.

Slavica and Miloš Ranković conclude this opening section with a piece that extends Drout's interest in genetics and networks to problematize the notion of creativity. Based on a thought experiment involving a pair of identical twins who were separated at birth and raised in two different milieus--one a rural, oral family and the other an urban, literate family--the Rankovićs argue that modalities of tradition create different forms of agency and creativity. Although perhaps relying too much on outdated ideas about the differences between oral and literate cultures, an issue they acknowledge toward the conclusion of the piece, they nonetheless propose a nuanced way to think through the problem of creativity in a world of distributed agency.

From here, the volume dives into a multitude of case studies of medieval authorship. The second section is titled "Medieval Authorship: Theories and Practices" and serves as a bit of a catch-all for essays that did not fit in other sections. P.M. Mehtonen examines the multiple "I"s operating in the sermons of Meister Eckhart, finding that their power lies in their abstraction, rather than their narrow delineation of identity. Farkas Gábor Kiss, in an essay that echoes the work of A.J. Minnis, examines the construction of authorship in late medieval Psalm commentaries from Central Europe, focusing on the implications of the multiple authorial figures that characterize such texts. Sigbjørn Sønnesyn, in a paper that nicely complements his recent monograph on William of Malmesbury, examines the seemingly paradoxical position of William of Malmesbury, who was apparently just as proud of his ability to compile the works of others as he was of his ability to compose new texts. Sønnesyn resolves this paradox by situating William in an ethical tradition that prioritized the search for wisdom, accomplished by contributing to a shared set of disciplines. In this context any form of contribution to that tradition, whether novel or derivative, would represent an authoritative act of literary agency. Liedulf Melve focuses on the polemical literature associated with the Investiture Conflict, demonstrating the ways in which it produced a need for public, authoritative opinions from private individuals, thus leading to the construction of individual authorities to complement the authoritative force of tradition. Mia Münster-Swendsen conducts an elegant reading of the role of irony in the idiosyncratic Dialogue of Lawrence of Durham--a figure whom she rightly points out deserves more attention than he has thus far attracted--and finds remarkable layers of complexity and ambiguity in his self-presentation of literary authority. Greti Dinkova-Bruun examines the authorial awareness of Aegidius of Paris in his additions and revisions to Peter Riga's Aurora, a late medieval versified Bible and discovers a potential shift in the meaning of "author," away from an authoritative figure and toward a writer who self-consciously displays his own creative powers. Margareth Hagen's examination of Orlando Furioso sits on the cusp between medieval and early modern Europe. It argues that Ariosto used his text as a staging ground for deconstructing medieval notions of authorship. It is perhaps overly reliant on A.J. Minnis' work and deploys a somewhat monolithic understanding of "medieval authorship," particularly given the variety illuminated by the rest of the volume, but skillfully evokes the layers of authority and authorial voice at play in the poem.

The volume then turns to a quartet of essays that mutually inform each other on "Modes of Authorship in Old Norse Literature" (although many of the other essays in the volume also deal with Scandinavia). Else Mundal provides a welcome overview of textual genres and their related forms of authorship in Old Norse culture that usefully orients readers who are not already familiar with this source material. Many of the issues she addresses recur in the subsequent essays, including the relationship between skaldic poetry with named authors and anonymous Eddic poetry, the question of orality and literacy in Norse poetry, and the links between poetic and prose texts. Gísli Sigurðsson continues this line of inquiry, demonstrating the layered varieties of textual production in medieval Norse literature, from poet to performer to scribe, and arguing against the imposition of modern notions of authorship on its genre. Sverrir Tómasson examines how Old Norse writers themselves categorized and conceptualized various forms of composition and provides a useful comparison with the rest of Europe. Bernt Thorvaldsen concludes this part of the volume with a study of The Lay of Ƿrymyr and Skírnir's Journey, echoing the conclusion of both Ranković and Sigurðsson that such works cannot be considered to be the work of a single author, but are the products of creativity distributed across tradition and history.

The fourth section turns to a topic that is now well-known among medievalists and much studied among those who took up the call of New Philology, namely "Scribes, Redactors, Translators, and Compilers as Authors." Aidan Conti's intriguing essay takes the familiar stance of proposing to look at the active role of scribes in shaping texts via their role as copyists. But he proposes to advance our understanding of this phenomenon through an empirical and scientific study of the sorts of changes that scribes made and the rationales behind these changes, essentially doing for copying and scribal labor what scientific studies of the cognitive aspects of reading did for Paul Saenger's Space Between the Words. Jonas Wellendorf examines a single manuscript, the late medieval collection of saints' lives from Iceland known as Reykjahólabók, analyzing the changes to the text introduced by Björn Ƿorleifsson introduced into his translation of John the Deacon's vita of Gregory the Great. Ingvil Brügger Budal's contribution examines the Norse translation of Old French stories known as Strengleikar, a text preserved in a single manuscript. By pointing out evidence of multiple redactions still present in the text's single exemplar, Budal argues for the limitations of the New Philology, which she sees as unconcerned with the prehistory of a work. Although it is a salutary reminder of the importance of textual transmission, this seems an overly stringent reading of the New Philology, whose most vocal proponents would probably still acknowledge the value of knowing a work's prehistory, but argue that each material instance of a work also has a textual history of its own. Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir takes the opposite stance by piecing together the multiple contributors and underlying rationale of a complex composite manuscript of historical texts she terms Reynistaðarbók, thereby pointing out the limitations of traditional philology's concern with an "original" text. Emily Lethbridge concludes this section by meditating on authorial anonymity in Icelandic sagas, suggesting that it may not have been a quirk of transmission, but a requisite feature intended to inscribe sagas within "tradition." By studying alternate processes of authorship witnessed in the titles and rubrics of a manuscript of the Eggertsbók, she finds evidence of anonymous individuals contributing actively to the text, apparently without any notion of an original text or author, and yet maintaining their anonymity so as never to displace the text from its secure position within an established tradition.

The volume concludes with two essays on "Medieval Authorship: Arts and Material Culture." Henrik von Achen provides a remarkable investigation into the ways in which medieval artists might be considered authors or creative agents, suggesting that style in medieval art was the sign of human agency in the creation of art, indicating its earthly nature. But by drawing attention to the terrestrial status of the artistic object, style also served to evoke the divine reality of which the art was itself a sign. As a result, convention and creativity intersected to determine the function of art, the former maintaining its connection with changeless reality, the latter highlighting the image's status as a temporal sign of the eternal. Kristel Zimmer draws the volume to a close with a fascinating look into the levels of agency and potential for creativity in Scandinavian rune stones, commemorative monuments that might seem to be the epitome of convention and tradition, but in fact suggest considerable potential for creative input, collaboration, and variety.

As this summary demonstrates, this volume is a dense and rich collection of scholarship. The focus is clearly on the north of Europe, often the far north, with Scandinavian topics making up a disproportionate, but not unwelcome percentage of the volume. With a few important exceptions the essays exemplify familiar methodologies that have been used to study medieval authorship, rather than propose new question. Layered authorship or single texts with multiple authors, scribes or compilers as authors, the role of tradition in textual production--these are all issues that have previously been well-established as important for understanding medieval literary culture. But the application of these questions to the variety of new sources and figures represented in this volume has greatly expanded their scope and, in many cases, led to remarkable new insights that point the way forward.

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Jay Diehl

Long Island University - Post