- World Literature, Circulation, and the Middle Ages
Al maestro Theo D’haen
One might have anticipated that world literature would occupy a prominent place in the next ACLA report on the state of the discipline, which is due in 2016. In the previous report-the Saussy report-two papers, by David Damrosch and Katie Trumpener, respectively, were devoted to world literature. In Damrosch’s words, “World literature has exploded in scope during the past decade. No shift in modern comparative study has been greater than the accelerating attention to literatures beyond master-works by the great men of the European great powers” (“World Literature” 43). And during the period from 1996 (Damrosch’s terminus post quem) to 2015, world literature has qualified either as a new paradigm for comparative literature (Thomsen 2) or even as an emerging discipline with a new administrative and disciplinary organization, including professional associations, chairs, undergraduate and graduate training, and textbooks, of which Theo D’haen’s is the most recent and systematic. Haun Saussy’s essay in the aforementioned report shows a cautious approach to this disciplinary shift by advocating that “comparative literature does not own world literature” but “supplies the instructions, the labor, and the glue” (11). This compromise might translate into the merged field of “comparative world literature” in the same line of a previous rapprochement, the one between comparative literature and cultural studies (Tötösy de Zepetnek), and most probably with identically poor results.
Do premodern and-most specifically-medieval literatures enjoy a better position in the 2016 ACLA report as a result of the broadening of scope attributed to world literature? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Notice that Damrosch refers to a “shift in modern comparative study,” but not in premodern comparative study. Furthermore, in her survey of the place of medieval studies in comparative literature between 2001 [End Page 342] and 2005 for the Saussy report, Caroline D. Eckhardt concluded, “ACLA presentations by medievalists may be mostly adventitious, or dependent on the energies and professional networks of particular session-organizers” (143). This situation has not improved at all, as the following figures relative to the presence of medieval seminars in the conferences from 2005 onwards show: 1.5% in 2006, 3.1% in 2007, 1.3% in 2008, 0% in 2009, 0.5% in 2010, 0.6% in 2011, 0.4% in 2012, 0.01% in 2013, 0.004% in 2014, and 0.01% in 2015. This situation is neither exclusive to the ACLA, nor to US academia. Though the MLA has a specific division and a discussion group devoted to “Comparative Studies in Medieval Literature” and has published several books on single medieval works, none of them either includes the terms “comparison” or “comparative” in the title or presents itself as a comparative study in medieval literature. A case in point is the volume Teaching World Literature, with just a single contribution devoted to premodern literatures (Newman). The Société Française de Littérature Générale et Comparée has organized thirty-five conferences since its foundation in 1956, of which only three conferences (in 1964, 1977, and 2002) dealt with medieval topics. Of the eighteen conferences organized by the Sociedad Española de Literatura General y Comparada, which was founded in 1977, only two (in 2004 and 2009) included medieval topics. The situation is not more favorable in the International Comparative Literature Association, which has included medieval topics in only one of its conferences so far (in 1988).
Neither comparative literature nor medievalism should assume the full responsibility for this situation on their own. Both disciplines are products of the nineteenth century, and for both disciplines, “national literature” was-and in some cases still is-a key concept of their agendas. Whereas comparative literature found an institutional place per contra premodern literatures and national philologies, medievalism kept national philologies well supplied with ancient texts that supported distinctive national identities. And for reading these texts, comparison was not considered a method per se-medievalists are supposed to be able to read original texts in several languages and therefore compare them-in contrast to the scientific methodology of auxiliary disciplines such as paleography...