In conversation with Associate Professor Michael Van Dussen

Professor Van Dussen is an Associate Professor in the Department of English

Michael Van Dussen began teaching in the Department of English in 2010. His area of expertise is in Middle Ages, with teaching areas in Middle English and Anglo-Latin literature, global contexts of medieval English literature and culture, medieval religious controversy and heresy, manuscript studies, among others. This past spring, Van Dussen was the recipient of the 2019, Faculty of Arts Award for Distinction in Research. He is known in North America and Europe for his work on medieval manuscripts, literacy, religious controversies, and networks. His monograph, From England to Bohemia: Heresy and Communication in the Later Middle Ages, is the first book-length study of the influential cultural and religious exchanges that took place between England and Bohemia in the late fourteenth century. His current project, Media Shift: Manuscripts and Encyclopedism in Late-Medieval Europe, will analyze the interplay between late-medieval religious politics and manuscript culture at a time when book production, circulation, readership, and collecting outpaced these activities in any previous period of European history.

The Faculty of Arts interviewed Professor Van Dussen to discuss his research and the growing interest in all things medieval.

How did you become interested in Middle English and Anglo-Latin literature?

I first began working with medieval manuscripts (hand-written texts) out of necessity, as it were. I was studying texts that had moved from England to Bohemia (part of the modern-day Czech Republic) in the 14th and 15th centuries as part of a wave of cultural interchange, and it was just a fact that most of the relevant texts were unedited (that is, they only exist in manuscript, and have never been brought to print).

I realized that it is one thing to study texts for content, but quite another to look at the individual copies themselves, each of them quite obviously numerically unique. There’s so much more evidence to glean when it comes to how they were made, how they were used and read, and how they were transmitted. So I first was drawn to manuscripts out of need—I had to access the original sources to do my work—but then I quickly realized that each one of these manuscripts was a record of its physical movement through Europe, of the way it was used, etc.

Can you share a unique discovery from your research that explains the way people communicated through these manuscripts during the Middle Ages?

One of my favorite discoveries came from a very unassuming manuscript that is now kept in the Prague Castle Archive. The manuscript catalogue suggested that it contained some texts that seemed more or less randomly compiled, and I was looking at it because some of them seemed to have come from England. However, when I went to look at the manuscript itself, I saw that there was a fascinating story to tell about its final section. It had clearly been bound together with the rest of the book at some later point. Its outer folios were filthy, and the whole gathering was damaged by water. Inside it contained an itinerary (mislabeled in the catalogue), and this turned out to record the travels of a Bohemian knight in the early fifteenth century.

He had travelled from Prague to London, passing through towns in Germany, France (including Paris, where he described Notre Dame), and several places in England. He recorded distances and notable sights along the way. In England, he described Windsor Castle and told about Arthurian legends associated with the place. Tucked into the itinerary were also a series of poems that the traveler transcribed on this trip. These were, in fact, three previously unknown poetic eulogies of Anne of Bohemia, the Queen of England during one of the most important parts of Chaucer’s career (he dedicated poems to her), and they appear to have been posted in some way on or near her tomb, which still survives in Westminster Abbey. In fact, some lines from the poems resemble the poem that is engraved in brass around the tomb’s rim. The itinerary also contained prayers to St. Christopher, the patron of travelers, and a rough sketch of the saint as a devotional image.

The entire gathering of the manuscript—including the soiling on its outer folios, the water damage, and the ordering of the texts—was a record of its owner’s travels, and each one of these details could be used to tell the story of the manuscript’s history. The gathering was written in a very difficult scribal hand, in Latin, but eventually, I was able to decipher it, and I have since produced critical editions of the poems and itinerary.

Why is it important to study the ways in which textual media affected communication processes during that time? Does studying the past allow us to understand the present? Future?

I think that studying the past is important in its own right, but I also think that the history of communication—and of the ways in which textual media condition how communication happens—has much to teach us about how media forms affect our thought processes and the ways in which our societies function. In some important ways, the closest analogue to communication through digital media is manuscript culture, not print culture. In print culture, it is certainly possible to change a text, to adapt it to one’s own needs. However, you will always be aware that there’s a distinction between what you’re doing and what the printer did. Even if there was a great deal of variation between copies or print runs of a given printed text, the technology encouraged a phenomenology of reading that suggested sameness across multiple copies.

The hierarchy is obvious. In a manuscript culture, where every copy of every text is written by hand and is thus a unique object, the technology that a reader uses to manipulate the text is precisely the same one that the scribe employed—the human hand, along with a pen, ink, and often a knife for scraping-out mistakes. This gives rise to a more diffused or shared concept of responsibility for the text—even of authorship. The shape of the book or its texts can also continue to adapt through the addition or removal of additional sections or texts—something that can also happen with early printed texts, though there the distinctions between sections are usually more obvious.

Today, with digital media, we again have the ability to manipulate texts using the same technologies their initial authors used to produce their earlier forms. Platforms for collaborative editing—like the one Wikipedia uses—in fact, depend on this capability, and the idea of the “text” (or the “author”) becomes a more obviously and self-consciously malleable thing. This raises ethical concerns, too—with plagiarism, misinformation, etc. These same problems were encountered and discussed in the medieval period, and often because the manuscript form facilitated unique forms of textual interaction. These situations have much to teach us about the ethics of communication in our own time.

How does your research enter into your teaching? How does it enter into the way we understand communication today?

I teach in a number of areas, including Middle English literature, but the study of early textual forms (particularly manuscript and early print) features in many of my classes. I frequently teach a course on early book history (ENGL 346: Sociology and Materiality of Text), and as part of this I bring students to Rare Books and Special Collections, and to the Osler Library of the History of Medicine for interactive workshops on manuscript culture, documents and seals, early printing technology, and the idea of the archive.

I have taught units on paleography (the study of ancient handwriting) and codicology (the study of the book’s physical structure) as part of several courses on the undergraduate and graduate levels, introducing students to crucial skills and methodologies for working with original materials in their own research. Of course, most students will not go on to conduct research in these areas. But they still come away with a greater understanding—a greater self-awareness—of the interplay between media forms and modes of communication, and of the ethics of their own textual practices.

You once directed the McGill Medievalists research group. Can you explain the group, and what the research entails?

The McGill Medievalists research group has been active for over 25 years. It has provided an important forum for medievalists from all of the Montreal-area universities, and in a wide variety of disciplines, to come together for work-in-progress talks, invited speakers, and Rare Books workshops. Students and members of the wider Montreal community have always formed an important part of the audience, and we have enjoyed the support of the many departments and institutes at McGill that house medievalist scholars. There is a very large contingent of medievalist academics in the Montreal area, and McGill Medievalists has been an important way for us to build bridges and share ideas with each other.

Have you seen an increased interest in regards to understanding the ways in which people communicated during the Middle Ages? Or an interest in the Middle Ages as a whole?

We are currently experiencing a new wave of interest in the Middle Ages (similar waves have appeared periodically since the sixteenth century and especially since the end of the nineteenth century). This is certainly influenced by film (mainly Game of Thrones) and gaming (most fantasy video games). Several students receive their first spark of interest in the period through media like these. These shows and other media are not trying to depict medieval history and culture in any transparent way, of course, and I find it interesting to speak with students about how these media condition our understanding of the past, why their producers find this period of the past to be so compelling, and so on.

Students who have absolutely no interest in these shows and games find discussions of manuscript technologies, particularly when coupled with actual artifacts from the medieval period, to be inherently compelling and eye-opening. In fact, as digital technologies, communities, and disembodied modes of interaction have become more mainstream, I find that students are increasingly fascinated by the material forms of earlier communication technologies.

Lastly, you were awarded the Faculty of Arts Award for Distinction in Research. What did this recognition mean to you?

My research is something that I find tremendously fulfilling—bringing texts written many centuries ago to light, bringing academics internationally together for partnerships and publications, helping research assistants develop hone their skills for archival research, etc. It is easy to get buried in this kind of work, churning out books and articles year after year, and to feel that only specialists in one’s own field recognize the importance of one’s work. It was a great honor for me to be recognized in this way by my own institution, the Faculty of Arts at McGill. This show of support was enormously gratifying.

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