The TORCH Network Poetry in the Medieval World after Two Terms of Activity

Ugo Mondini is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages and the Principal Investigator of the TORCH Network. He works on medieval Greek poetry and language education in the eleventh-century Byzantine Empire.

As we approach our first summer break, it is time to reflect on the initial activities of the TORCH Network Poetry in the Medieval World. The OMS Blog has generously offered us space to share our journey so far, which has taken us through the forms, languages, communities, and geographies of medieval poetry and the challenges its comparative study poses.

Rowing Towards a Theory of Medieval Poetry

Our fortnightly reading group has been the cornerstone of our activities, offering a place and time to explore medieval poetry from various regions and languages and hear each other’s views. We convened in the Humanities building every even week during term time, and we discussed medieval poetry with tea, coffee, and biscuits.

In Hilary 2024, with Ugo Mondini, Marina Bazzani, and Theo Van Lint, we addressed the complexities of Greek and Armenian poetry. In Trinity 2024, Jennifer Guest guided us through the different forms of medieval Japanese poetry. Poems, presented through handouts in their original languages and writings alongside a Romanisation/phonetic transcription and a translation, were read aloud in the original language, translated, explained in depth and in context, and discussed. This has allowed participants to appreciate the complexities, nuances, and beauty of each poem, and of each poetry.

We are delighted to see how dynamic our sessions can be and how they evolve based on participants’ interests and interactions, driven by a shared curiosity and passion for medieval literature as well as by the pursuit of a choral, informed theory of medieval poetry. For instance, we discussed if and how to compare the way in which vernacular and learned poetry emerged and functioned in Greek and Japanese. We also observed the evolution of Armenian poetry, focusing on eleventh-century works. In our discussions, we reflected on the different ways pre-modern audiences may have appreciated poetry as well as on the challenges of translating poetry into modern languages.

Each session attracted a diverse audience, including students, early-career researchers, senior scholars, and administrative staff. We also had the pleasure of welcoming non-Oxonian participants, who happened to be in Oxford and are usually based in Edinburgh, Milan, and London/Tokyo. The average attendance was 4–8 people per session.

The International Workshop

We hosted our first international workshop, Binding the World, Withholding Life: Poetry Books in the Medieval Mediterranean, generously sponsored by the British Comparative Literature Association, the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research, and TORCH. The event took place at Exeter College (FitzHugh Auditorium), Oxford. We thank once again the College and its staff for their hospitality and service.

This workshop examined medieval poetry books from various origins, exploring their features, functions, and impact on the transmission and appreciation of medieval poetry across different ages and cultures. We explored how poems were stored, organised, and displayed, addressing the broader question of what ideas of medieval poetry and poetry books can be gleaned from these sources.

We took a comparative approach, with speakers focusing on different literary traditions around the Medieval Mediterranean. After the greetings of Sub-Rector Barnaby Taylor and Marc Lauxtermann, the two organisers, Ugo Mondini and Alberto Ravani, shared some opening remarks. Marisa Galvez (Stanford University) discussed books with poems in Romance languages, Niels Gaul (The University of Edinburgh) focused on Greek, Marlé Hammond (SOAS) covered Arabic, and Adriano Russo (École française de Rome) addressed Latin. The discussions were rich and varied, offering deep insights into the transmission and preservation of medieval poetry.

Exploring Manuscripts
Nicholas Kontovas led an excellent seminar at the Weston Library, where we could admire magnificent manuscripts of the Romance of Alexander. This seminar delved into the transmission eastwards of the legend of Alexander the Great – both in poetry and prose – through illuminated manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries. The tickets sold out so quickly that we did not even have time to advertise the event. This stimulated us to organise similar activities in the near future. We thank again Nicholas and the Bodleian Libraries for this opportunity.

The Future of Research
Where is the research on medieval poetry going? And how is this direction related to other fields of study? The Doctoral Seminar Projecting Poetry has been an exciting initiative designed to provide a platform for doctoral students working on medieval poetry to present their ongoing research to a diverse audience of fellow students and senior scholars. So far, we have hosted five seminars covering poetic traditions from Greek, Arabic, Middle and Late Medieval English, and Italian; another one is scheduled for September 2024. We continue to welcome submissions from Oxonian, national, and international doctoral students, encouraging explorations of potential intersections between academic disciplines.

Ideas on and of Poetry
In HT W9, with Elizabeth Hebbard (Indiana University Bloomington)’s thought-provoking paper on the study of Troubadour melodies, we launched the new series Talks on Medieval Poetry. Through these lectures, we invite international scholars to present theories of poetry and insights from their research, which may have broader implications for the understanding of medieval poetry and literature.

Looking Ahead

After the summer break, there is much more to come. In Michaelmas 2024, our reading group will resume, bringing together Oxonian enthusiasts of medieval poetry to explore new texts and traditions. Our Talks on Medieval Poetry will feature lectures by international scholars – three are already scheduled between December 2024 and April 2025, but no spoilers for now! We anticipate receiving fascinating proposals for the Doctoral Seminars Projecting Poetry. But we are also developing brand new activities in person, online, and in hybrid format, fostering collaborations with other networks and research centres at Oxford and around the globe.

So, stay connected with us through our website, newsletter (blank email to poetrymedievalworld-subscribe@maillist.ox.ac.uk), and social media (X/Twitter: @PoetryMedieval) for updates. If you want to learn more about the network, contact us via email. And if you want to contribute, you are more than welcome: We are open to new ideas and feasible proposals.

For now, enjoy the summer! We look forward to seeing you all in the new academic year.

Picture credit: The blind Homer http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/15480

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