Ordered Universe at the North American Conference on British Studies

Over the last three days, some member of the Ordered Universe have been attending the North American Conference on British Studies at its annual meeting, this year in Providence, Rhode Island. The conference covers all aspects of British culture, from the medieval period to the present-day. So, Ordered Universe research was presented alongside work on, for example, medical recipes from the 17th century, news culture in the Early Modern period, political sub-cultures of the 1980s, and scientific learning in the 19th century. Two sessions featured Ordered Universe speakers and topics. The first focused on  the Durham Priory Library Re-created project, and involved Giles Gasper (Durham), speaking on Durham Cathedral MS A.III.12. This most intriguing, composite, and complex manuscript contains very early copies of Grosseteste’s Commentary on Psalms and Dicta. The paper explored some of the evidence for dating the manuscript, including its ownership by a person connected, in some way, to the diocese of Llandaff in south Wales.   This person recorded details of a journey from Wales to London, purchase of parchment, some other financial information about Llandaff, and, dated to 27th February 1232, details of an enormous penance the author had been issued. Who this person was, what they had done to merit such a treatment, and their connection to Grosseteste’s classroom are all questions to be explored.

The second session took as as its organising principle the Ordering Knowledge from the eleventh to the mid-thirteenth centuries, with three papers. The first from Sigbjørn Sønnesyn (Durham) presented the reception of Aristotle’s natural philosophy, especially the Physics, from the mid-12th century onwards, using Grosseteste as a key witness and case study. Second, Laura Cleaver (Trinity College Dublin) examined the story of King Lear from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, how the story was visualised and ordered in manuscript copies, and how differences emerge between different media, copyists and authors. Third, Lauren Mancia (Brooklyn College, CUNY) compared the writings of two Norman abbots from the 11th century, John, Abbot of Fécamp and Anselm of Bec (later Archbishop of Canterbury), focusing especially on their similar but different heightening of emotional language and the role and place accorded to human reason in devotional contexts.

A lovely series of linking themes emerged in the session, for example that of translation and understanding- where ideas come from and how they spread. The Aristotelian translations from Greek and Arabic are a clear case in point, but the same issues apply in the different circumstances of Geoffrey of Monmouth, as too in the translation of emotion and reason in a devotional context. The theme of overshadowing came up across the three papers as well, whether, for instance, the Arabic translation of Aristotle in some senses overshadows that made from Greek, Gerard of Cremona is better known than James of Venice. Overshadowing is present too in the relationship between the copiers and adapters of Geoffrey of Monmouth with the source, and equally in the case of Anselm and John of Fécamp. The latter hardly known at all, the former one of the more familiar of medieval thinkers.

The role of the community in the production and understanding of knowledge in various media was also underline. Who copied James of Venice and how they used the new Aristotelian texts is vital for appreciating how the Greek translations circulated. The decision by Henry of Huntingdon to précis Geoffrey of Monmouth is an important part of the way in which the History of the Kings of Britain became popular. Anselm and John both begin their works by placing the self in the community, rousing their brethren to contemplation. All three papers also dealt with the issue of how to reconcile authorities, and how medieval thinkers integrate their work in larger conceptual schemes. For Geoffrey’s text this involved genealogy, for Grosseteste the challenge of the larger world of Aristotle and his commentators, and for Anselm and John the scales of sinfulness and the human condition (from a monastic point of view). How these conceptual frameworks change in science, history and theology and devotion are essential to how the 12th and 13th centuries are to be interpreted. The session emphasised how creative medieval thinkers were in their ordering of knowledge, and in their perception of the adequacy, or not, of human learning.

All in all a very stimulating session, which provoked a lot of thought – and a wider context to think about Ordered Universe research. Thank you very much to all of the speakers!

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