Dissertation Abstract: Social Memory and Old English Literature
[Edit: I decided to add the chapter summaries and modified the intro to reflect this addition.]
A few weeks ago I promised I'd post my dissertation abstract and I've been negligent in doing that. I still have some applications to send out and I still tinker with it, and the chapter summary section is still rough and hasn't been sent out at all, so comments and suggestions are gladly accepted.
"Social Memory and Old English Literature"
Value of Research Specialization
As a study of the practices and traditions of social memory in Old English literature, my dissertation delves into two areas of memory studies that have been little explored: the traditions and practices of memory of Anglo-Saxon England and the active use of social memory by a pre-modern culture for the purposes of constructing a national identity. My dissertation demonstrates both the ways in which the practices and traditions of personal, rhetorical, and social memory are represented in Old English literature and the ways individual Anglo-Saxon authors actively used social memory to social-political purposes.
Argument of Dissertation
Taking a “dynamics of memory” approach to social memory and beginning with the assumption that literature, as a form of social memory, reflects, preserves, and even establishes not only the traditions of a culture but what that cultures does not want to forget, I argue that Anglo-Saxon social memory is a mixture of its varied traditions—Christian and pagan, Classical and Germanic, written and oral—and represents the ongoing process of negotiation between how the culture remembered its past and how individuals actively sought to construct that remembered past. Ultimately, I argue that approaching literature as social memory can help us better understand the traditions at play within a culture, and that Old English literature, as social memory, demonstrates our need to reevaluate our distinctions between modern and pre-modern practices of social memory.
Contribution of Dissertation
My dissertation changes and expands our understanding of the conceptions and traditions of memory in Old English literature and the use of social memory in pre-modern cultures. In my research, I
- examine the linguistic, rhetorical, and social-cultural conceptions and practices of memory in Anglo-Saxon England as represented in Old English literature.
- demonstrate that Anglo-Saxon social memory draws from its two traditions: the written, rhetorical, Classical, and Christian tradition and the oral, native, Germanic, and pagan tradition.
- explore how medieval rhetorical memory was used in the construction and transmission of social memory and how Anglo-Saxon social memory was used for rhetorical purposes.
- extend our understanding of the uses of memory in European oral-literate transitional cultures.
- bring to bear on Old English literature some of social memory studies’ major concerns such the creation of invented traditions, the connections between personal and social memory, the intersections between memory and history, and trauma theory.
- challenge the dominant view in social memory studies that the active engagement with invented traditions for the purposes of constructing national identity is a modern phenomena.
One reason I chose this particular topic is its potential for future research. Because it is a subject no one has yet undertaken, when published as a book, my dissertation will help fill in gaps in scholarship of Anglo-Saxon culture, medieval rhetorical memory, social memory, and orality-literacy studies. As this approach to pre-modern social memory is also applicable to other medieval traditions, such as the Icelandic Family Sagas and Middle English romances and chronicles, I am interested in applying this approach more broadly. This approach is can also provide a theoretical framework for approaching other traditions, such as medievalism as is represented in the collection Constructing Nations, Reconstructing Myth which I am co-editing. Finally, as my dissertation has given me a better understanding of pre-modern conceptions and uses of rhetorical memory, I have already begun to consider the ways in which the recovery of historical rhetorical memory can inform contemporary practice and I foresee a number of articles and a book emerging from this line of inquiry.
Chapter 1: Memory in Old English Literature: A Semantic-Field Study
Through a study of more than 50 Old English words from four semantic fields (the faculty of memory and remembering, the act of remembering and recollection, remembrance and commemoration, and consideration and rumination), this chapter is first comprehensive semantic-field study of memory in Old English. As the most detailed exploration of Anglo-Saxon conceptions of memory to date, this chapter serves as a foundation for the rest of the project.
Chapter 2: The Practices of Social Memory in Old English Literature
Drawing heavily upon the work of social memory scholars such as Jan and Aleida Assmann, Paul Connerton, James Fentress and Chris Wickham, Pierre Nora, and Eviatar Zerubavel, I discuss Old English literature as social memory, and I survey the ways in which it reflects, preserves, and even creates traditions of Anglo-Saxon social memory. In particular, this chapter focuses on how the practices of Anglo-Saxon social memory draws from both the written, rhetorical, Classical, and Christian tradition and the oral, native, Germanic, and pagan tradition, and it explores how medieval rhetorical memory was used in the construction and transmission of social memory.
Chapter 3: The Rhetoric of Remembrance in Old English Literature
From the commemoration of Beorhtnoth and his loyal thanes in "The Battle of Maldon," to the digressions in Beowulf, from the ubi sunt in "The Wanderer" to the Anglo-Saxonization of the Jews in the Old English "Exodus," and from Alfred’s reminiscence in Preface to Pastoral Care to Bede’s recounting of the trials and tribulations of the early Christians in England, the past is always present in Old English literature. While the previous chapter explores Old English literature as social memory, this chapter examines memory and remembrance as a rhetorical trope often used in for the purpose of preserving and transmitting social memory.
Chapter 4: The Construction of National Identity is Old English Literature
Focusing on texts such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, and Wulfstan’s Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, I argue that throughout the Anglo-Saxon period a number of authors and rhetors actively sought to create an Anglo-Saxon national identity through the use and even creation of social memory.
Chapter 5: "Swa begnornodon Geata leode": Beowulf as Traumatic Memory
In this chapter, I argue that Beowulf functions not only as social memory but as traumatic memory as well. As a tradition of Anglo-Saxon "mythhistory," Beowulf became doubly encoded with two cultural anxieties: the anxiety that came from leaving their ancestral homeland for England and the much more contemporary anxiety over the spiritual state of those left behind in that homeland that led to the active Anglo-Saxon missionary campaign on the continent.
In case you're wondering, the both the abstract and the chapter summary are one page each.