After trying to write up my reactions to this year’s Leeds and having a great discussion on Twitter, I think I should try and write something about ignored or minority disciplines. However I’m not sure that I have a final view on the matter and would love it if you would share any thoughts you may have on the matter. This post is, of necessity, based on my own experiences. Thanks for your patience.
First thing’s first, watch the introduction to Farscape:
Now you have some idea what it is like to be a Celticist, who has been shot through the wormhole of funding and chance into the medieval mainstream. Let’s try and ignore the phrase “medieval mainstream”, but here everyone looks like you, sort of, talks like you, sort of but you mention something you consider well known and foundational and suddenly you get weird looks. What do you mean your saints don’t fast against God? What is this “chancery” you keep talking about?
I am a Celticist by training. I know Celtic languages, with varying degrees of proficiency, but my speciality is medieval Irish language and literature. This has been the case from my first day as an undergraduate, although as an Englishman, I never had to struggle through Leaving Cert Irish. This probably explains why I like the language. However, as the years went on I became aware that, although we have a strong and thriving Celtic Studies community (just look at the success of last year’s International Congress of Celtic Studies), that community sometimes does not play well with others.
That is, partially, why when deciding where to study for my PhD, I chose London. I thought, possibly naively, that this would improve my work, fashioning it to appeal to more than just my fellow Celticists. I could also more easily borrow methods and practice from the study of English and French literature, as well as social studies. I thought that I could be a touchstone for others who wanted to introduce an Irish or broader Celtic element into their work, both medievalists and others.
It is too soon to judge this approach. Maybe looking back from hoary old age, with the benefit of hindsight, I could tell you if it was a good or bad idea. But that doesn’t stop me questioning my decision now.
Reflecting on this year’s Leeds, I realised that all I took away from it were some unusual, possible fruitful parallels between literary cultures. Look out for a Finn mac Cumaill/Robin Hood crossover in the future. This sounds good, wouldn’t you say, opening your research up to new ideas and exciting generative possibilities? Yes, I would reply, but if this is all you are getting out of a huge international conference, is it worth it? Do I want to be that guy always dragging the discussion back to his own research? Without any in-depth criticism of your ideas, or deep discussions that are so rare to have anywhere, can I justify the outlay both of money and of time? Beyond this, it is getting wearing having to explain the plot and characters of key, canonical texts, before getting into the exciting detail and analysis. All of which has to happen in the twenty minute paper. It is a good idea to try and get Irish medieval studies into the mainstream but am I the one to do it? Should I endanger my career trying to play Aesop’s bat, neither bird not beast and hated by both?
Of course, there is a problem with big conferences like Leeds, that can be mitigated by attending smaller conferences with more interdisciplinary aims. Everyone has their own agenda, their own timetable at a big congress. It is difficult to attract those who you would want to reach out to, and with good reason. If you want to hear about affective, bodily miracles in the twelfth century, as an example plucked out of nowhere, you would rather attend a talk where the cases studies are in a language you know, English or Latin. This means you can get to the meat of the discussion without having to worry about strange names, unfamiliar language, and new plots. I do this as well, and short of teaching everyone every language, I don’t know how to get around this.
Speaking of language, there is another difficulty in trying to get people on-board with Irish material. The language can seem intimidating and what that language describes can be curious and just bizarre. It is neither of those things, but I can see where the impression comes from. I am guilty of sexing up papers and talks with more outré episodes, but Irish and mainstream medieval studies are not so different. Medieval studies abounds with the odd and the strange. The unfamiliarity of Irish sources makes this aspect of medieval culture new again. The language does the old Brechtian trick of Verfremdungseffekt. I suppose, we just have to keep shoving Irish sources in your faces until they cease to seem so different.
Celtic studies itself, must bear some of the blame for its isolation. There is a tendency to insularity, a suspicion of other approaches to our texts, a high bar of entry in the expectation of rigorous linguistic work. This emphasis on linguistics and language competency comes from the early history of the field. It means that the field defines itself culturally before any thought of temporal bounds. You can be a scholar of modern Celtic language survival and be a Celticist.
You can study Gallo-Roman inscriptions and be a Celticist. Indeed, the modern conception of what “Celts” are often jumps from La Téne to arguments about languages on road signs, but that’s another discussion for another day. In other words, being a Celticist involves lots of interdisciplinary work in the first place. Dealing with this, it is hard to find to time to look outside the field as well.
I love this interdisciplinary nature of the subject. That it is inscribed in the very bones of everything we do. But in the current academic climate Celtic Studies cannot live on its own. We need ways to get others interested and involved in our work. We need to make the languages accessible and enticing without losing any of their rich complexity (easy, right?). We need to collaborate so Celtic material can be seen everywhere in the Middle Ages, where it should be. We need to make sure this material is used with the care and attention it deserves, but so often lacks. I don’t know how to do this, but I think I will keep showing up where you don’t expect Celticist, at least for now. I still reserve the right to give you other aliens odd looks.