Friday, March 30, 2012

Sermons & Mass Media Studies

Since this blog, as its name suggests, is founded on pairing the modern with the medieval, and since one of our common connections is a focus on the methodologies of being medievalists, I’d like to offer some musings (ramblings?) about some of the ways I’ve been trying lately to conceptualize my dissertation (“Apocryphal Narratives in Old English Sermon Collections”)--although I think it has larger implications for studying other types of texts (as will be seen). Here’s a sort of brief working abstract to describe my project:
This project focuses on the uses of Christian biblical apocrypha in Old English sermons c.950-1010. More particularly, I examine the ways in which apocryphal gospels, apostolic acts, and apocalypses undergo modes of literary adaptation into texts for preaching. Sermons examined are those included in the anonymous Vercelli and Blickling collections, as well as Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies and Lives of Saints. This research thus offers the first full-length examination of apocryphal narratives in these sources and contributes to understanding medieval literature, history, and religion through the lens of contemporary adaptation studies.
As I say, one of my major methodologies is “adaptation studies” (of course, paired with more traditional approaches, such as source studies). This is a wide-ranging field, and working with film adaptation studies has helped, but I’m also more widely interested in the adaptation of media generally--along the lines of Julie Sanders’s recent Adaptation and Appropriation (New York, 2006), which encompasses all types of media from literature to digital to music and beyond ("texts" and "textually" used broadly works here, and in my own thinking).

Yet lately my approach has shifted somewhat, and I’ve been working toward something akin to the pairings of “old media” and “new media” by Martin Foys in Virtually Anglo-Saxon: Old Media, New Media, and Early Medieval Studies in the Late Age of Print (Gainesville, FLA, 2007). Particularly, I’ve been thinking more about how medieval sermons represent a type of popular/mass media. Part of this reminds me of D. L. D’Avray’s witty but apt notion of “mass communication” for later 12th- and 13th-century Franciscan sermons (Medieval Marriage Sermons: Mass Communication in a Culture Without Print [Oxford, 2001]). These ideas also led to thinking about contemporary cultural theories and approaches to our own popular culture & mass media artifacts. Certainly adaptation studies (of all types of media adaptations) fits into this, but there is a lot more cultural studies work that could come into play with this type of examination.

Especially helpful in sorting out some of these connections, for me, is Mikita Brottman’s High Theory/Low Culture (New York, 2005). One fundamental way that this book works is that it contends for more direct dialogue between critical theoretical scholarship and popular culture artifacts--indeed, she argues that the two are ripe for interaction. These concepts work both as a thesis underlying the whole study and as demonstrated in her case studies. Brottman uses Bakhtin's work on dialogism and poly-/heteroglossia (which is how I found the book in the first place, since I've been working on using Bakhtin's ideas for the chapter I'm presently writing), as well as a host of other cultural criticisms to analyze magazines, football fandom, tabloids, shopping culture, horror fictions, even pornography.

To be honest, there is no medieval in Brottman's book (although the stained-glass image on the front cover is curious), and she is thoroughly focused on late 20th- & 21st-century texts (again, used broadly). What I find most helpful for forming some of my own thoughts is her introductory material. Foremost is her flattening of what is often conceived of as "high" and "low" culture, a dichotomy that she sees as "unstable" (xvii). Fundamentally, Brottman sees cultural products--so-called "high" and "low" alike--as part of "culture's connection to the concrete, the fusion of text and performance, the merging of the textual and the lived" (xxv). Furthermore, "popular and 'high' culture are virtually interchangeable--or at least, the distinction between them is blurred" (xxvi).

I see sermons fitting in well with this conception, as they act as mediators on the medieval spectrum of media. This may be, in a way, similar to Aaron Gurevich's ideas in Medieval Popular Culture: Problems of Belief and Perception (English trans. Cambridge, 1990), although his work rests on more of a binary (the kind against which Brottman is working) than is possible to fit comfortably alongside recent work and my own thoughts on multilayered literacies (e.g. Clanchy, Stock, etc.). I think that cultural studies of contemporary mass media provide a way to synthesize, extend, and complicate issues brought up by earlier scholars of medieval popular culture. In my own work, I see that intellectual and popular representations (although even this way of thinking bothers me, as it seems to sit on a binary view) of culture are surely fused in medieval sermons, just as Brottman claims for contemporary mass media. Indeed, the vernacularity of the Old English sermons points to this: they are often translations of Latin, but this does not necessitate that they are somehow "dumbed down" or no longer for the literate. Rather, Old English sermons represent the type of mass media that may be consumed by all, whether orally or visually, on the whole spectrum of literacies.

So there it is. These are just the beginnings of my thoughts, and I'm putting them here for first rounds of feedback. There is plenty more to consider, but I wonder how well it works.  What other intersections come into play? What complications and drawbacks are there? How well can this idea take root? Could this approach bear fruit as a basis for my whole project? I'm looking forward to finding out.


Anonymous said...

That all makes sense to me, for what it's worth, though somewhere lurking out the back is an unpleasant little goblin that wants to know what proportion of the population were actually in a position to (have to) go to church at all often. I imagine rocking up at Evesham on a Sunday got you an earful all right, but if you're a shepherd in the Pennines in 970, has the ministry included you yet? John Blair's chapters in his Church in Anglo-Saxon Society on what parishes actually do for their communities may be a way to prop this side of the question up, but they're only forming up as most of your literature is being written... I guess I just mean, how big are your masses and who's not in them? With that caveat your take seems perfectly reasonable to me.

(Also, it's nice but weird to see that Clanchy and Stock are `recent' for your purposes. I mean, they have not been supplanted! But both volumes are surely older than you are...)

bwhawk said...

Jonathan, you're right to point this issue out. It's a good reminder that select extant sermons do not necessarily represent the realities of mass in every specific parish church. I'll have to revisit Blair as I work out these ideas further (I read him for exams a few months ago and his work is tremendously useful in many respects). Also, you're right about Clanchy and Stock--they're still foundational (my reason for citing them), but there has indeed been more recent scholarship building on theirs.

To address the questions that you raise, I'll point to some parallels as I see them in our own pop culture mass media. To use some examples from Brottman, not everyone interacts with every type of mass media such as magazines, football fandom, tabloids, and horror fictions--only some run out to buy the latest weekly tabloid or magazine, while other groups partake in sports fandom (even then only with particular sports), and horror only appeals to a part of the whole society (and within that, certain media--books, comics, television shows, films, etc.--appeal to different sub-groups). So I would like to approach sermons as one particular product within medieval mass media, one way of thinking about the wider realm of medieval popular culture. There are certainly others that could be discussed in similar ways--for example, penitentials, charms, inscriptions, other material objects, and many more.

Anonymous said...

OK, that's also workable, it seems to me, but there is the difference that some of the medieval media are supposedly compulsory, not quite in a legal way (if that isn't anachronistic anyway for this period) but more in the way that students on certain courses are `supposed' to read contemporary news as part of their general study. And penitentials, rather more than that of course, if they're actually being used. Does that necessitate adaptation to your modern models?

Emma Gorst said...

I think this topic has lots of potential; by focusing on the experience of any one reader you can use mass/media theory, as you've explained, at least in the sense that mass media theory talks about effects on readers... as any other literary theory might. Linda Hutcheon in A Theory of Adaptation talks about the "pleasures" of adaptation which seems like a nice way to begin (esp for marriage sermons). She says the appeal lies in the mixture of "repetition and difference" (2006, 114) and I wonder if that would be a useful way to do a literary reading. As a reader of your work I'd want to see a case study--that is, a close reading of a passage in one of your sermons, using one of your theoretical texts.

theswain said...

Good thoughts Brandon. I like the idea of some kinds of sermon/homily as a sort of mass media adaptation....with all kinds of interesting avenues to explore. One of the things it makes me want to think about and talk to you about next month is Aelfric as one kind of adaptation versus Apollonius of Tyre vs. Blickling and Vercelli homilists as other kinds of adaptation.