Reorienting the narrative of digital media studies to incorporate the medieval, Participatory reading in late-medieval England traces affinities between digital and medieval media to explore how participation defined reading practices and shaped relations between writers and readers in England’s literary culture from the late-fourteenth to early sixteenth centuries. Traditionally, print operates as the comparative touchstone of both medieval and digital media, but Participatory reading argues that the latter share more in common with each other than either does with print. Working on the borders of digital humanities, medieval cultural studies, and the history of the book, Participatory reading draws on well-known and little-studied works ranging from Chaucer to banqueting poems and wall-texts to demonstrate how medieval writers and readers engaged with practices familiar in digital media today, from crowd-sourced editing to nonlinear apprehension to mobility, temporality, and forensic materiality illuminate. Writers turned to these practices in order to both elicit and control readers’ engagement with their works in ways that would benefit the writers’ reputations along with the transmission and interpretation of their texts, while readers pursued their own agendas—which could conflict with or set aside writers’ attempts to frame readers’ work. The interactions that gather around participatory reading practices reflect concerns about authority, literacy, and media formats, before and after the introduction of print. Participatory reading is of interest to students and scholars of medieval literature, book, and reading history, in addition to those interested in the long history of media studies.
As specialists in Old English who have enjoyed the peculiar intimacy of co-editing, we may relish the idea that the editorial first-person plural pronoun of this book could have been rendered in Old English as the first-person dual pronoun ‘wit’ (we two). But it is just as well that the Present-Day English ‘we’ admits the ambiguity of collectives indeterminate in number, as this volume is the result of the labour, thought, friendship, and intellectual and political commitments of a much wider and, at times, difficult to define cadre of people. After all, the study of literature involves a wide variety of intimacies in addition to those we claim with particular texts – sometimes with persons one knows well; sometimes with persons one only corresponds with briefly, but crucially, at a propitious moment; and sometimes with larger collectives as such.
The contributors to this volume, all scholars already intimate with Beowulf, form one such collective. They have taken the risk of investing their time, energy, and ideas in the project of a serious book whose title announces a joke, writing with intensity, care, and a sense of adventure. We have developed a particular kind of writerly intimacy even as many of us have never met off-page. Around this immediate group, we are also especially grateful to all who have led or provoked urgent conversations and initiatives to make spaces where Beowulf is studied more inclusively, both within longstanding scholarly organizations and in some new groups that have formed during the gestation of this volume. We include among our contributors one of the co-founders of the organization currently known as the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), Roberta Frank, as well as the recent Executive Director, Robin Norris. We are grateful to both of them for their work in building community. As we go to press, we are delighted that the ISAS membership has voted to change its name to acknowledge the racist legacy embedded in the terms ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxonist’, and we hope that this will prove a turning point in building a more just and open field. We recognize and thank the Medievalists of Color as an organization that has been leading the way and especially Adam Miyashiro and Mary Rambaran-Olm for their forceful critiques not only of our professional and historical monikers but also of rampant racism, misogyny, and abuse. Indeed, this volume is a direct response to related efforts to police who – and what kind of work – is welcome in the field, and we hope that it will likewise knock down doors. That said, we also openly acknowledge our own complicity in structural racism in early medieval studies. No scholars of colour appear among our contributors, and for that we are sorry.
As we think about ways to pitch in and expand the field, we also want to recognize Donna Beth Ellard's brainchild, the Islands of the North Atlantic (IONA) conferences – the first of which was held in Denver in 2017 and which Dan considers himself lucky to have been able to help plan, which are now likewise building new spaces for the kind of alternative discourses in Old English studies that this book calls for and tries to provoke. We are also both grateful to the Colloquium for Early Medieval Studies (formerly the ASSC) for providing an early intellectual home and an ongoing model of a feminist, theoretical Old English studies. The New Chaucer Society has similarly provided this early medieval work with two memorable moments: a chance for us to visit the Beowulf manuscript together, as it is exhibited to the public in the Treasures Room of the British Library, during the 2016 biennial congress in London and, at the 2018 congress in Toronto, an opportunity to make a pilgrimage – together with some other intrepid scholars of Old English also in attendance – to the offices of the Dictionary of Old English. These last efforts may have been more convivially than editorially focused, but they were no less important to the intimacy of the editorial process.
The conceptualization and mobilization of the volume also benefitted immensely from early support and enthusiasm from Erin Anderson, Jeffrey Cohen, Tricia Dailey, Matt Davis, Daniel Donoghue, Lara Farina, Eileen A. Fradenburg Joy, Clare Lees, Roy Liuzza, Joey McMullen, Haruko Momma, Susan Oldrieve, Gillian Overing, Robert Stanton, and Elaine Treharne. Although by the time of the first full manuscript draft Erica had moved to California, we shared Boston as an intellectual home for the early stages of the project, and we are grateful for the support of our regional medieval colleagues, as well as the Harvard English Medieval Colloquium, for making New England a great place to work on Beowulf.
Other friends, colleagues, teachers, students, and spouses, were all necessary and immeasurably helpful at various points in the project. Robert Kesler and Meagan Manas head the list for tolerating the strains that intimacy with an old poem can put on intimacy in the present. Others provided helpful references, critical conversation, crucial companionship in theoretical thinking, editing advice, and other sundry forms of support: Chris Baswell, Neal Bruss, Chris Chism, Jill Hamilton Clements, Taylor Cowdery, Helen Cushman, Adam Darisse, Daniel Davies, Josh Davies, Matthew Fisher, Hilary Fox, Isabel Gómez, Sarah Hamblin, Renee Hudson, Eric Jager, Ármann Jakobsson, Eleanor Johnson, Sarah Kareem, Anna Kelner, Stacy Klein, Sierra Lomuto, Deidre Lynch, Alex Mueller, Dan Najork, Anahid Nersessian, Hugh O’Connell, Arthur J. Russell, Emilio Sauri, Myra Seaman, Karl Steel, Arvind Thomas, Susan Tomlinson, Leonard Von Morzé, Audrey Walton, Nicholas Watson, Eric Weiskott, Samantha Zacher, and Jordan Zweck. We are also grateful to Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi of the Jack Spicer Literary Estate. We were deeply saddened by Kevin's death during the final phases of the volume's production, and we hope that the Spicer material included in our introduction will mark one among the many memorials to his generosity to poets and scholars. Our especial thanks are owed to Jonathan Bellairs for his stellar assistance with copyediting at just the right time, to Jake Wilder-Smith for his terrific work on the index, and to UCLA's Division of Humanities for making their involvement possible. Last but certainly not least, we wish to thank our superb editor at Manchester University Press, Meredith Carroll, the broader Editorial Board and production team, and the anonymous readers for incisive suggestions at all stages.
This title is freely available in an open access edition thanks to the TOME initiative and the generous support of Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, and of the UCLA Library. As scholars committed to teaching and writing in public institutions, we are incredibly grateful to Virginia Steel and Sharon Farb for working with us to include Dating Beowulf in this program, and we hope that this support will enable the volume to form a dating profile for readers of Beowulf and critics of intimacy within and beyond the immediate sphere of Old English studies.