At the moment I’m working out how many double chocolate cookies to order for a symposium I’m organizing this month called National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies. The event will gather early career researchers from across the UK, France, Italy, Holland, Germany and Croatia to make new friends and talk about how we all might work better together. Planning and participating in the symposium is helping me to think more about what it means to do ‘English’.
The Renaissance was a multilingual place, but we often study the period one language at a time. As a graduate student I ran into a problem that people studying pre-modern English literature often face: that in general the writers we’re reading had language skills that are much better than ours.
In sixteenth- and seventeeth-century England any boy who went to grammar school, or girl who was privately tutored, would study Latin intensively and might also have picked up some Greek, or learned other vernacular languages through phrase books and foreign travel. Latin and French were international languages. English, which pretty much no-one on the Continent spoke, was not.
When I chose to study French and German to A-Level, and then picked English for an undergraduate degree, I sort of knew that studying languages alongside English made a useful combination (e.g. for learning grammar). But I hadn’t realized how foreign languages could expand my sense of what studying English is.
I ended up writing a doctoral thesis on British responses to a sixteenth-century French poet called Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartas. Now my research has developed to the point where I routinely work on Scottish, French and Latin sources, and need to seek out advice and discussion from people with different expertise. So there’s a real practical value in being able to chat with colleagues from a range of different disciplines and backgrounds over cookies.
The British Academy, who have provided generous funding for September’s symposium, have been running a languages programme to promote the value of language skills for the humanities and social sciences. Queen Mary’s English department is a natural home for multilingual English studies since there are several research groups that are demonstrating how knowing a language, any language, besides English is a valuable asset for studying English.
There’s the team at Global Shakespeare who are examining the Bard as a global cultural phenomenon whose plays and poems have been translated into every major language and performed and adapted in many theatrical traditions. The Centre for Early Modern Mapping, News and Networks investigates international communication networks in early modern Europe. And the department has numerous members working on postcolonial studies and world literatures who are examining how English culture became a global culture as it came into contact with other languages.
Thinking about England’s cultural relationship with the Continent is especially timely as the debate intensifies ahead of the coming referendum about whether we should draw a thicker national boundary between Britain and the European Union. One job for English studies is to improve our understanding of how far and in what ways this island’s cultures have, for better and worse reasons, intermixed with other cultures. Reading across languages helps us hear the voices that went into making our language and literature in the present.