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Modes of Authorship in the Middle Ages ed. by Slavica Rankovic et al. (review)

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 251-256 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0026

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

For the past decade a brilliant northern light has illuminated medieval studies but is now in the process of disappearing. In 2003 Norway inaugurated the “Centre for Medieval Studies” in Bergen under the leadership of Professor Sverre Bagge. With funds provided by the Norwegian Research Council for its ten-year life, the new institution offered research grants for both younger and mature scholars interested in the leading theme, “Periphery and Centre in Medieval Europe.” Located on the Scandinavian periphery—an area perhaps not yet fully integrated into the general discourse of medieval studies—the leaders in Bergen felt they were specially qualified to bring about this integration of central and eastern Europe. A closing conference was held in Bergen in October 2012 entitled “Culture and Society in the Middle Ages” that highlighted the strands the Centre has pursued in its focus on the impact of the south and west on the peripheries of the north and east. As in the past, four areas were developed: state formation, writing, Christianity and law, and textual codification, thus emphasizing the international and interdisciplinary character of the Centre’s program.

The new institution has already inspired or sponsored numerous doctoral dissertations, monographs, and collections of essays, but while waiting for the publication of the final conference, it will be useful to consider here the results of the Centre’s conference in Bergen in November 2008 comprising twenty-one essays that deal with Modes of Authorship in the Middle Ages. Thirteen of the participants are connected with Bergen or elsewhere in Norway. The question of authorship is both important and difficult in peripheral areas where texts were written not only by named authors, but also within anonymous narratives that blend into previous oral tradition. The chief inspiration for these articles comes from the Internet, where in recent years writers have been involved in collective efforts that have elicited new theoretical insights into shared authorship, or as the participants prefer to name it, “distributed authorship.” As far as I know, Slavica Rankovic, the chief editor of this volume, was the first to use this term in a seminal article from 2007 in which she compared the Icelandic sagas with the Serbian epic poetry. It is worth noting that as a native speaker of Serbian, she is totally conversant with the Serbian epics. From these perspectives the authors seek to reopen the debate over creativity in medieval literature: what is the role of talented individuals, of tradition, of orality, of society, or even where is the creative process itself?

Despite the short life span of the current discussions on the Internet, the authors are nonetheless aware of the lengthy evolutionary changes that are discernible in narratives that enlisted multiple authors. These results provide a starting point for a preoccupation with medieval texts, but they also reveal parallels between literary and scientific endeavors. In fact, scientists initiated such efforts. Richard Dawkins not only published his widely cited book The Selfish Gene in 1976, but in the same work also coined the term “meme,” the cultural analogue to the gene by which he understood small units of culture that replicate from mind to mind following the same dynamics of replication and evolution that operate in biological evolution. The success of the term is now established. Michael Drout subtitles his essay “The Medieval Author in Memetic Terms” (30). Slavica and Milos Rankovic take another step by arguing for Universal Darwinism as they explain creativity as a cumulative effect of trial and error (52).

The work is divided into five parts of which the first contains three essays that deal with methodology. Atli Kittang provides a historiographic analysis of the vocabulary used in literary criticism in arguing that the concept of the author is not yet dead. Michael Droit applies memetic theory to analyze the Anglo-Saxon text Homiletic Fragment II in its various versions, and Slavica and Milos Rankovic, as mentioned, apply Universal Darwinism to literary texts from all times.

The second part includes seven essays that with varied success employ these theories to reopen well-known texts from European medieval literature: “Meister Eckhart’s use of the first-person in his sermons” (by P.M. Mehtonen), “Late medieval commentaries...



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