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Anonymity in Premodernity: A Two-day Workshop

In this blog Julian Weiss, strand lead for Travelling Concepts, writes about his experience attending Anonymity in Premodernity: A Two-day Workshop. This event was hosted by The Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, King's College London in collaboration with the Freie Universität Berlin from 17th - 18th November 2017. 

Convenors: Clare Lees (KCL) and Andrew James Johnston (FUB), with participants from Comparative Literature, English, Romance Philology, Arabic, French, German and Spanish Studies.

Why am I blogging about anonymity in pre-modernity? It did not seem directly relevant to our Travelling Concepts strand, but then I did a mental ‘double take’: I thought I knew what anonymity meant, but then realised that anonymity is saying and doing things that I had not thought enough about.  It demands you look again and think more closely about the social circumstances in which ‘language acts’.

Literary histories construct a map of the literary world around known dates, places, authors and national languages. The problems of this are well known. For the pre-modern period—a term of convenience that covers any time between Late Antiquity and the eighteenth century—anonymity was a common condition of European vernacular culture, with its treasure hoard of nameless epics, popular or traditional lyrics, romances and so forth. The situation is different for the learned register of Latin and, as Beatrice Gründler reminded us, for Arabic (and, I would add, Hebrew). Named authors emerge from this state of apparent namelessness, and do so with increasing frequency as time marches on towards what we are pleased to call ‘modernity’ (or early modernity, formerly known as the ‘Renaissance’). So what happens when we adjust our perspective and apply to anonymity the same theoretical interrogation that has long been applied to its dialectical counterpart, the author?

Well, what happened in this workshop was that the participants used anonymity to pose a host of interrelated questions about the creative work done in and by language that is used by no known or named person.  These questions hinged on a wide range of issues: performance (both individual and collective), poetic manuscript compilations and early modern print culture, fake, feigned and pseudo-authorship, scribal practices, intertextuality, selfhood, collective memory, the emergence of the novel, and the global transmission of the fable collections (the case study, central to our Travelling Concepts strand, being Calila wa Dimna, which from its Sanskrit roots in the Panchatantra passed through Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and the various vernaculars of Europe).

As I listened to the papers, I couldn’t help thinking of Cervantes’ famous comment about the relation between a translation and its original.  Reading a translation, he wrote, is like looking at the warp side of a tapestry.  The issues raised by the term ‘anonymous’ were at once familiar and yet also estranged from the conventional emphasis on the ‘author’ as the emblem of creativity in spoken and written language. In his paper, Andrew James Johnston cited one scholar who declared that anonymity was impossible in medieval literature, because there was no concept of authorship and the (for us) unnamed author would have been known to his or her audience. Whatever you think of this argument is somewhat beside the point: as many papers made clear, there is a dialectical relationship between the idea of the author and anonymity. As Andrew James Johnston suggested, anonymity is an archeological effect, created when the link between author and audience is broken by death. It is surely no coincidence that the word ‘anonymous’ is first attested in European vernaculars during the sixteenth century; it was needed because it buttressed the now familiar concept of vernacular literary authority. Anonymity is Authorship’s word for the unknown collectivity, the impersonal masses, and the social void. (Andrew Bennett’s excellent short introduction, The Author, makes no mention of anonymity as the necessary Other of the early modern author, nor does Alistair Minnis in his pioneering Medieval Concepts of Authorship).

Over the two days, much attention was given to the anonymity of writers or creators, and somewhat less to the category of anonymous audience or, for the early modern period, the nameless reading public. Prefaces dedicated to ‘dear reader’ and patrons are attempts by early modern writers to re-establish an intimate relationship with what has become an unpredictable and unknowable commercial readership, el vulgo, in Spanish. Barthes thought that the birth of the reader signalled the death of the author. Anonymity invites us to reverse the syllogism: the birth of the author in early modernity is predicated on the death of the individual reader.

But we should not think of anonymity as a monolithic category. As Miriam Muth (English, Düsseldorf) reminded us, between the two poles of naming and namelessness there is sliding scale of biographical reference. ‘Anon’ also has a pseudonymous sibling. Are some genres more anonymous or pseudonymous than others? Genre is only superficially a category of form (however much scholars haggle over formal definitions); it is a social category, that defines and shapes the social situation and relationships in which a work is composed and understood. As those relations and situations change, so will the nature and function of anonymity. At times namelessness or masking can be politically expedient; at times, it can have a very creative function. This was the key argument of Claudia Olk (Comparative Literature, FUB), whose case study was prose romance. This ‘go-between’ genre, which put early modernity back in touch with its Middle Ages, was an ‘inherently malleable and adaptive’ form. Its frequent anonymity was part and parcel of its creative intertextuality, since the lack of an author freed a work from the burden of originary meaning and intention, and encouraged readers and listeners to insert anonymous tales into their own narrative frame of reference. Claudia Olk was talking about prose romance, but those who know the Iberian world will be familiar with the practice of ‘anonymous intertextualities’ through the Spanish romancero, the traditional ballad handed down through the interplay of written and oral transmission from the Middle Ages through the twentieth century. As Ramón Menéndez Pidal famously said, the romance ‘vive en sus variantes’—it lives in its variants—and in Judeo-Spanish, for example, the anonymity of the form enabled generations of Sephardic Jews to sustain and recreate a communal identity in diaspora, allowing it to emerge from the shadows of namelessness.

Women were (and are) the frequent transmitters of anonymous and communal oral tales. And I was struck by the way in which the workshop was framed by papers that addressed the dialectic of female authorship and anonymity. Simon Gaunt (French, KCL) began the workshop with a paper entitled ‘What’s in a Name’, critically reviewing how modern scholars have been lured into searching for Marie de France’s authorial identity. In a famous essay, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar revised Harold Bloom’s ‘Anxiety of Influence’ (that Oedipal battle between men keen to displace the authorial ‘father’) and came up with the ‘Anxiety of Authorship’, the anxiety of women who dared enter the masculine literary terrain and aspire to be ‘authors’. Whatever anxiety Marie de France may have experienced, it seems that her modern readers have been motivated by anxiety over her anonymity.

Towards the end of the workshop, Clare Lees and Josh Davies (English, KCL) co-presented a paper that brought Old English anonymity into dialogue with Virginia’s Woolf’s 1940 essay, ‘Anon’. ‘Anon’, wrote Woolf, ‘is sometimes man; sometimes woman’. And she went on to describe anonymity in terms that resonated with much of the earlier workshop discussions:

Anonymity was a great possession. It gave the early writing an impersonality, a generality. It gave us the ballads; it gave us the songs. It allowed us to know nothing of the writer: and so to concentrate on upon his song. Anon had great privileges. He was not responsible. He was not self conscious. He is not self conscious. He can borrow. He can repeat. He can say what everyone feels. No one tries to stamp his own name, to discover his own experience, in his work. He keeps at a distance from the present moment. […] He used the outsider’s privilege to mock the solemn, to comment upon the established.

I would qualify the idea that Anon ‘keeps at a distance from the present moment’: anonymous songs and ballads are inhabited by those who recite them, and anonymity (as Woolf herself declared) allows us to ‘concentrate on his song’. However, this quibble does not detract from her fundamental insight, summarised by Andrew James Johnston: ‘anonymity does not preclude subjectivity’.  After this workshop, finding the agency of words uttered by deliberately or accidentally nameless speakers, writers, listeners and readers—as well as (of course) the agency of nameless mediators, scribes, minstrels, copy-editors, editors, printers—is now firmly on the agenda.