Who administers the rich heritage of literary works from the European Middle Ages? Until recently the answer was simple: the national philologies and their institutions. University departments, national libraries and editorial societies each promoted their national ‘literature’ defined by language and modern territory. Most European nations claimed their own literary origins in the Middle
Ages, which were comfortably placed as the first chapter in a long narrative from the beginning to the present.
The study of medieval literature has reached a crossroads. Established accounts, framed within 19/20th-century nationalizing paradigms, are discredited. Political developments in Europe and debate about the role of European culture within the world demand we return to the past with new questions. Scholarly internationalization and the shift towards collaborative work in the humanities mean there is a community eager to rethink medieval European literature. Plans are afoot for new literary histories, translations, digital resources: all aimed at pan-European study of medieval literature. However, in trying to develop medieval literary history for 21st-century Europe, it is not enough to stitch together the old national narratives to create a new European story. Fundamental methodological groundwork is required. Otherwise, these new endeavors risk building on the unstable ruins of the national paradigms or projecting modern multicultural ideologies onto the past. Key questions, which will determine whether the study of medieval literature continues as a vital dimension of an integrated understanding of Europe’s past, include three of definition:
• What is ‘Europe’ when seen through the lens of the medieval literary record? Was it born in the Middle Ages? What were its geographical, linguistic and ideological boundaries?
• What is ‘literature’ (a Romantic Western European concept)? Why is the Western tradition preoccupied with fictionality, known author and aesthetic sophistication and unity as defining features, to the neglect of textual diversity (e.g. historiography, hagiography, homilies, documents)? How can we work across modern disciplinary divisions (esp. history and literature) to provide a capacious concept of ‘literature’ appropriate to the Middle Ages?
• What are the ‘Middle Ages’ (a Renaissance concept)? Does the period from c.500-1500 make sense as a separate written culture? How is understanding of the period framed by Antiquity and the Renaissance/Reformation? How does it map onto questions of East/West?
Openness about all three categories is essential for reorienting scholarly practice to supplant traditional habits of literary history. Our proposed center, CML, will deal with these fundamental issues through the development of fully comparative approaches and a set of concrete research strands, thus uniting disparate fields (separated by disciplines and nationalisms) into a single workable field of medieval European literature.