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.