Digital Philology Explores "Medieval Vulnerabilities"

Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures explores alternative modes of contact for medieval scholars, librarians, and archivists specializing in medieval studies and medieval texts, made possible by the emergence of digital resources and by engagement with the digital humanities. The latest issue, themed “Medieval Vulnerabilities”, uncovered a timely relevance to current events around the world. We sat down with journal Editor Deborah McGrady and Guest Editor Andreea Marculescu to find out more about this issue and the concept of vulnerability. 


Q: For those that may not be familiar with Digital Philology, can you tell us about the journal’s focus? 

DLM: Digital Philology is a term coined by one of the co-founders of the journal, Stephen G. Nichols, that recognizes the profound methodological and theoretical impact that the digital humanities have had on Medieval Studies and the journal is dedicated to fostering these new approaches to studying medieval languages, literatures, and cultures. Hence its important subtitle: A Journal of Medieval Cultures. I have been the Executive Editor for only one year, but as I carry on the legacy of the journal, I am struck by the capaciousness of the concept that has resulted in articles and special issues that have explicitly explored the applied as well as theoretical promise of the digital humanities while others have set out to challenge traditional philological approaches by questioning national boundaries, periodizations, or methodologies. 


Q: How did your academic journey lead you to studying medieval literature? 

DLM: In many regards, my academic trajectory resonates with the journal’s interest in the impact of current technologies on the reception of the past. I had never intended to become a medievalist and, in fact, it was not until I was required to take a course on French medieval literature in my second year of my MA studies that I discovered all it had to offer. But, it is telling that what captured my imagination on day one of that seminar was a slide (talk about technology!) of a woodcut of three hung men that opened Villon’s epitaph in an early print copy of his work. Much of my work ever since has focused on how technologies of the word and the material artifact shape our reception of the past, whether speaking of text/image relations in manuscripts and print or of the digitized manuscript that both facilitates and impedes our access to the medieval artifact.

AM: Just like for Deborah, there was a specific moment in my academic trajectory which sparked off my interest in medieval literature. As an undergraduate, I read Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World where he analyzes medieval feasts such as the Carnival and develops the notion of carnivalesque laughter. I wrote my MA thesis on the anthropology of medieval laughter which inspired me to work and publish, among other topics, on the subject of medieval emotions and, more specifically, on happiness. Reading about Carnival was also a first step into studying the theater culture of the Middle Ages which is actually my main area of specialization.  


Q: How did this issue’s topic, “Medieval Vulnerabilities” come about, and how did Andreea Marculescu come to be Guest Editor? 

AM: The idea of exploring the notion of “medieval vulnerability” arose during a few related moments in time. At the beginning of 2017, I was finishing my monograph titled Demonic Possession, Vulnerability, and Performance in French Medieval Drama. In this manuscript, I analyzed how medieval religious drama, a popular literary genre in its time, stages the figure of the demoniac, one that prefigures the 19th century hysteric. In exploring the complexities of this character, I used a theoretical framework inspired by the work of feminist philosophers such as Adriana Cavarero who defined the vulnerable as a subject exposed to the other without having the capacity to defend herself. But the same exposure, argues Cavarero, requires modes of care and responsibility towards the vulnerable. Delinking myself from a scholarly tradition that saw the demoniac essentially as an object of medical and theological curiosity, I interpreted the possessed as a figure of absolute vulnerability in Cavarero’s sense. I analyzed how the plays staged the demonic violence which afflicted the demoniac physically and emotionally and how witnesses (parents, siblings, or authoritative members of her community) reacted to such violence. I was interested in these zones of contact between a vulnerable character and able-bodied individuals who witness vulnerability. 

During the same year, the flagship conference for literary studies, Modern Language Association (MLA), proposed, as its 2018 presidential theme, the topic of “States of Insecurity.” The potential contributors were asked to reflect on different systemic factors (famine, plague, war, or enslavement) which can put subjects in such states together with the reactions in the form of different cultural, artistic, and intellectual attitudes. I successfully proposed a panel and received a good number of abstracts where the contributors analyzed a variety of vulnerable figures, from disabled characters in chivalric literature to some rendered vulnerable due to systemic factors such as economic impoverishment. I realized that despite the heterogeneity of the sources and approaches, the papers asked certain common questions. Moreover, while “vulnerability” in its modern and contemporary manifestation has received a lot of scholarly attention, it seemed to me that medievalists had touched this topic only tangentially. I decided to convert our MLA panel into a journal issue to explore the notion of vulnerability in its medieval manifestations. Digital Philology seemed a good choice because despite its main focus on the material nature of medieval manuscripts, it encouraged special issues on topics of general interest such as emotions. I contacted Albert Lloret, a dear friend and colleague from my graduate years at Johns Hopkins and, at that time, still the general editor of the journal, who showed a lot of enthusiasm for the project. By the time we finished preparing the issue, Deborah McGrady had taken charge of the journal. She has been a careful and attentive reader of the issue and provided a generous amount of feedback at various stages. I was very encouraged by her interest and investment in the journal issue. 


Q: Were there any particular challenges in putting this issue together? 

AM: All the contributors to the issue are medievalists familiar with the way the notion of “vulnerability” has been understood by major names in the field of critical theory such as Judith Butler and Adriana Cavarero, among others. The papers, however, followed their contributors’ scholarly interests and specific approaches. One major challenge was to find fluid yet rigorous lexicon and theoretical frameworks allowing the papers to mirror each other and, at the same time, to maintain their individuality. 


Q: As you put this issue together, the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was still many months away. You note in your introduction that this issue’s essays “ask us to think how gender, social status, and the socioeconomic profile of people and populations are revealed as factors that influence the ways in which vulnerable subjects are figured in the Middle Ages.” What can we gain - especially now - from learning about vulnerable populations of centuries ago? 

AM: True, as the issue entered production in January the Covid-19 pandemic was not yet a daily reality for the United States. However, the articles, although dealing with medieval sources, have been written with a certain awareness about other contemporary systemic and societal issues which render subjects in positions of vulnerability. Medieval vulnerable subjects are equally the “product” of economic precarious conditions, disease, or natural cataclysms. Moreover, as you pointed out in your question, medieval vulnerability, just like our contemporary one, is also a matter of intersectionality: depending on who you are in terms of gender, socio-economic status, or age, your exposure to a state of insecurity and to the potential  mechanisms of care available to you differ tremendously. For example, as some of the essays show, a courtier in the entourage of the king of England speaks about his own vulnerability provoked by financial troubles in different terms than a beggar, a disabled person in a state of financial precarity, or a noble woman such as Fénice, the protagonist of a well-known 12th century courtly romance. The Middle Ages, probably much less than our so-called secular society, did cultivate symbolic modes in which vulnerability is recuperated. For instance, in the collection, Stephanie Grace-Petinos analyzes a literary text in Old French where the leper, a vulnerable subject not only because of his medical condition but because of his ostracization (leprosy being considered the result of a sin) redeems his community through a form of sacrifice. Another aspect of medieval vulnerability which might seem a bit alien especially now when social distancing has become the norm is the somatic intimacy that medieval vulnerable bodies require. In some cases, as Julie Singer points out, vulnerability has to be almost forensically proven which involves intense gazing, touching, and feeling the vulnerable body. In others, such as the case that Grace-Petinos alludes to, touching the vulnerable has a thaumaturgic value. 


Q: Julie Singer’s essay “Able-Bodied Fragility” explores how those caring for others put themselves at risk, and in a state of “unsettling epistemic fragility”. That can certainly be said for front line workers of today, as well. What does studying the texts of this time period show us about human interdependence?  

AM: Indeed, the notion of vulnerability has to be understood in correlation to the fact that we are not self-contained individuals but display much more porous subjectivities. As Judith Butler puts it, as individuals we do enter a host of political and affective relations with the others. Hence, being in a position of power does not preempt a certain sense of vulnerability. Moreover, this sense becomes exacerbated when one realizes this dependency on the vulnerable other. In our issue, Singer labels this moment of awareness a state of “epistemic fragility”: in Chrétien de Troyes’ Cilgès, when torturing the body of Fénice and thus rendering it vulnerable, the doctors, as figures of authority, inflict an acute sense of vulnerability. A pandemic such as Covid revealed precisely this aspect of interdependence. And you are absolutely correct to mention the situation of front-line workers, one of the most vulnerable socio-economic group of individuals. 

Q: What’s next for Digital Philology? Do you have a focus or call for the upcoming issue? 

DLM: Well, let me take this opportunity to mention a forthcoming special issue by Julie Singer, entitled “Stranger/Medieval Things” that will explore the intersection between medieval conceptions of the power/significance of material objects and our current moment, as digitized/online archives continue to change the kinds of work modern readers can do.

Many will surely also be interested by the next issue due out in the fall as Volume 9.2 that is guest edited by Sonja Drimmer, entitled "Manual Impressions: Visualizing Print in Manuscript, Europe c.1450-c.1850." The essays collectively challenge the conventional narrative that print replaced manuscripts, by focusing specifically on hand-produced copies of printed books, as well as printed books that include handwritten or hand-painted elements. While it is tempting to view technology as a linear progression in which increasingly “advanced” technologies (however that’s defined) succeed and replace earlier ones, we have seen in our own lifetime how much more complicated and interesting the story is: we interact with numerous media of the book every day as producers of handwritten notes, readers of printed books, and consumers of digital publications. Examining what it means to produce a handmade copy of an image or a text that was originally printed sharpens our ability to understand how the interaction between old and new media affects the preconceptions and the expectations that we bring to books: how much authority or cultural value do they have? What traditions are they calling on or breaking to express their ideas? And how do they shape readers’ and viewers’ relationships to the past and to communities in the present?

Most of our issues are guest edited and I’m always excited to hear from scholars who would like to use the journal to bring together an intellectual community around a compelling subject or question. We also publish individual pieces in our open issue and please let your audience know that we are especially eager to encourage young medievalists who have fresh approaches to the field.


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