Francisco is a post-doctoral researcher from the University of Ireland who recently presented for MEMSA’s seminar series on ‘Pushing Boundaries: Interrogating Generic Classifications of Early Medieval Literature’. We caught up with Francisco about his research and future plans below:
Tell us a bit about yourself, where are you from?
I’m originally from Cádiz, on the southwestern Atlantic coast of Spain. It’s one of the oldest cities in Western Europe, with a rich history dating back to Phoenician settlement and extending into the Napoleonic wars. It also has beautiful natural views, though I might be a bit biased!
What brought you to your current university, and where do you plan on going next?
I moved to Ireland in 2011 to do my Erasmus stay at the National University of Ireland, Galway. I was in the final year of my degree, so I decided to make a few enquiries about postgraduate programmes, not fully sure about whether I wanted to do contemporary North American poetry or Old English literature. I had an interest in both, but a real passion for Old English poetry, so I decided to apply for the two-year MA in Medieval Studies. After that, I stayed for my PhD. I came for a few months and ended up staying for ten years!
I’m currently keeping an eye on the academic job market and staying open to all possibilities but finishing my first monograph remains a top priority.
What is your favourite thing about the early medieval period?
My favourite thing about the early medieval period is how it challenges every stereotypical view that has been traditionally held about it. There is this generalised misconception of the early medieval past as “the dark ages,” which is seen as a dull, repressive, and obscure period in history and culture. I love to think that part of my job consists in showing people how wonderfully sophisticated and kaleidoscopic it was instead.
What does your research focus on?
I’m a philologist by training, so my area of expertise is the study of language and literature. My research focuses on Old English poetry and poetics, particularly the poems of the Exeter Book, its modern reception and generic classification, and the multicultural and multilingual interaction between Old English and other literary traditions, as well as on the origins of Old English studies in relation to Romantic medievalism and nationalism. I’m also interested in popular medievalism, particularly in film, music, and videogames.
What do you plan to focus on in your seminar?
This seminar will question how we read and interpret early medieval literature as part of a system of meanings governed by classifications into genres.
The concept of “genre” is vague and elusive but, somehow, we all have a sense of what a genre is: a framework for the creation and interpretation of meaning. What I hope to show in this seminar is that genres condition the reception of early medieval texts in two ways: one, they are often artificial projections that seek to read the past through the eyes of the present rather than in its original context; and two, they erase the value of multilingual and multicultural interaction by creating a rigid system based on narratives of national origins and artistic continuity.
With this seminar, I seek to ask a series of questions, such as:
· Are genres universally valid categories?
· How important is the terminology we use to classify texts, and how does it impact our understanding of the past?
· Are there any alternative ways to study early medieval literature other than relying on inherited generic systems?
This is a work-in-progress approach, and I do not intend to provide a definitive answer to these questions. I don’t believe in “finished” research, and I think the best talk is the one that generates more discussion. Hopefully this will be the case!
Do you have a favourite early medieval text or artwork?
My favourite text is probably the Old English Christ and Satan, particularly the opening section, “Satan’s Lament.” It’s a relatively neglected text, but it’s hauntingly beautiful and intriguing. In it, Satan bewails is fate after he is banished from Heaven and cast out to the depths of Hell. He produces a series of dramatic monologues expressing his frustration and disappointment, and he is shown as a tragic figure despised by God and his own company of fallen angels. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys Paradise Lost or the Divine Comedy.
As far as (manuscript) art goes, the Book of Kells is at the top of my list, but I also love Gothic architecture.
Who is your favourite historical figure from the early medieval period, and why?
I would not call them “favourites” as such, but there are two figures that I find intriguing, perhaps because I have spent too much time thinking about them.
One is Leofric (d. 1072), bishop of Exeter and the sole known owner of the Exeter Book, the largest anthology of Old English poetry. He was trained in the continent and entered the service of Edward the Confessor, whom he followed back to England, and remained in office after the siege of Exeter during the Conquest. He was a known bibliophile, but why he was in possession of the Exeter Book and what was the purpose of its donation to the Exeter see is still a mystery. I wouldn’t mind asking him myself if I could travel back in time!
The other figure is King Athelstan (ca. 894-939), King Alfred’s grandson and the first ruler of a unified England. He elevated England to a position of enormous influence in Europe, established multiple important political alliances in the continent, promoted learning and reform, and attracted a great number of scholars from abroad to his court. However, we have remarkably scant evidence of the kind of poetry that was produced at the time. With a large cohort of multilingual scholars and poets at court, it must have been nothing short of extraordinary.