This is exciting! I’ve secured some seed funding from the Arts Faculty (another big thanks to them for allowing me an extra 24 hours to finalise my application under extreme circumstances) for a new project that builds on the skills I’ve acquired through the hard slog of doctoral study and broadens them out into new and tantalising directions. Dear readers, you heard it first here that Medieval Meanings of Anonymity will be on my radar over the next few years. Before I embark on this project, I thought it would be worth cataloguing how it came into existence. As an early career scholar, I’ve been bugging a few people with the question ‘how did you come up with your next big project?’. Having discovered one method for myself, it seems only fair to share it.
My new project goes back to an idea that has been kicking around in my mind and in the depths of my portable hard drive for a number of years. It began as one of those ‘notes to self’ that people like me (i.e. slightly obsessive, and fairly ‘catholic’ in my interests) tend to keep in a ‘must-follow-this-fleeting-notion-up-in-more-detail-some-day’ sort of spirit. I had been reading among the writs of English royal government, as is my wont, and noticed how many of them in the course of explaining why a command or order was to be made, referred to a process of reporting, witnessing, or telling, but did not make any reference to the person or persons who reported, witnessed or told. In other words, despite evidence of extreme attention to accuracy and comprehensive narration (in rhetorical terms), like a modern journalist they rarely -if ever- revealed their sources. This could not be accidental, given the ad nauseam thoroughness of royal clerks in composing such documents. Anonymity must be significant for their rhetorical, and perhaps other purposes. My interest piqued, but my time limited, I stored this tid-bit in a word document, labelled it ‘Anonymity’ and stuck it in my file labelled ‘Other Project Ideas’.
The opportunity to think about developing a new project that follows the doctoral experience sent me back to those files, and this was the one that took my fancy for further development. Why? Probably because of the happy (probably-not-entirely-a) coincidence that in the past few years my attention has been increasingly drawn by issues around the philosophy of language, both in its medieval iterations and modern theoretical implications. For example, in our ‘Med-Ren’ reading group at Monash we’ve recently considered Umberto Eco’s work on translation in Mouse or Rat? which I found to be most thought-provoking on the issue of the stability of linguistic meaning and the implications both for translation among modern languages, and for ‘translation’ of text out of past, unfamiliar cultures into our own. Similarly, I’ve another post in a stub on my reactions to (finally getting around to) reading Gabrielle Spiegel’s seminal Speculum article on the linguistic turn, which I won’t pre-empt here, but suffice to say that I’m excited by the convergence (noted by many others, no doubt) between medieval and modern thinkers’ obsessions with the question of whether reality is really “language all the way down”. Even Genesis implies as much – as our Latin Reading Group recently discussed in a whirlwind tour of the Vulgate. All of these things have been percolating in the plunger of my mind for a while, and the moment of revisiting my old notes was the thing that brought the brew to maturity. As a colleague recently told me in response to my postdoc project question, the next project is normally something that you’ve actually been thinking about for ages without realising it. As long as you keep a record of those little fleeting ideas, they remain accessible to explicit recall when the need to develop a new research direction emerges, and able to articulate to your intelligence what it is that has been occupying your (subconscious?) mind.
So being prompted to think about my first major postdoctoral project gave me the chance to view my initial scrap of observation about one genre of text in a much broader light. It occurred to me that anonymity is absolutely everywhere in medieval texts, even though there were so many pressing and pertinent reasons to worry about precise identification, both in daily life and in high levels of theological and academic discourse. ‘That’s funny’, I said to myself, which, as readers of A Corner of Tenth Century Europe (after Asimov) will know, is one of most exciting things any researcher can say. Hence, my new research design, in which I will extend my initial question about anonymous witnesses to a wide range of other written materials.
So, what on earth did anonymity mean to the medieval mind!? What might it signify? Watch this space.