The Massachusetts Medievalist on Dating Beowulf and dating Beowulf

For the past three weeks #MedievalTwitter has largely criticized the new Dating Beowulf volume, released 26 December on the open-access portal of Manchester University Press and edited by Erica Weaver and Dan Remein. I’m a contributor to this volume, so obviously cannot be anything like an impartial part of this conversation; that said, I’d like to try to add my own thoughts and suggest some ways for the field to continue to develop.

One point reiterated on Twitter was that the editors did not respond to the social media critiques for almost two weeks; I suggest that ire should be redirected towards the press itself. Erica and Dan were obviously instructed not to make any statement at all until after the press’s legal team had looked at the allegations of plagiarism and lack of citation. Because of the calendar and the odd release date of the volume, the press was not at full staff until Monday 6 January, and the press’s eventual statement on Wednesday 8 January did not take responsibility for the delay. Manchester’s lack of support here should be termed “throwing the junior colleagues under the bus.”

Other parts of the criticism have focused on two related points: the absence of scholars of color in the contributors’ list and lack of citation/reference to Adam Miyashiro’s work in two essays focused on ethnicity and indigeneity.

In a statement issued by the Press, the editors “apologize for not creating a more inclusive contributorship and for not citing Adam Miyashiro’s blog post.” I would like to add to the first part of that apology – I’m sorry for not asking about diversity in the contributors’ list back when the volume was conceived, and as one of the more senior contributors I perhaps could have spurred Erica and Dan to prioritize diversity at that early point in the process. However, in 2015/2016, when they were commissioning the essays, it wasn’t on my radar to ask that question. Should it have been? Absolutely yes. But it wasn’t, and I regret that.

The monumental and necessary changes in medieval studies around racism and exclusion are happening much faster than the glacial pace of traditional academic publishing. In 2015, the conversation about inclusion tended to focus on gender, largely in pushback against “manels” and all-male essay collections, and of course we all know that the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women. In the past year or so, I have asked editors about diversity in contributors’ lists twice, and been assured that scholars of color are included in those forthcoming collections — baby steps, to be sure, but at least moving in the right direction.

The second focus of the social media critique – the lack of citation of Adam Miyashiro’s blog post– refers specifically to two essays by other colleagues; I trust they will respond to that allegation in some venue at some point in the near future.

Much of this critique has elided the important point that the Dating Beowulf volume (Manchester, 2019) is meant to be a riposte to the traditional medieval studies methodologies that produced The Dating of Beowulf (Toronto, 1981) and The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment (Brewer, 2014), the latter frequently reprimanded in reviews and in conversations at conferences for its combative and insulting tone. Dating Beowulf seems (ironically) somewhat dated already, in its clumsy but well-intentioned acknowledgement of the whiteness of the essayists. Yet it also makes many thoughtful and interesting contributions to the critical conversation around this most iconic of Old English poems. As the internet often tells us, two things can be true.

I don’t want to date Beowulf — he’s definitely not my type. I’m not all that interested in dating Beowulf beyond the date of the manuscript. In Dating Beowulf, Erica Weaver and Dan Remein have provided a variety of new ways to think about the poem, ways that integrate discussion of emotional intimacy and personal relationship into understanding of this hyper-canonical text. I hope the twitter conversation about the book in the last few weeks has ensured that academic publishers will secure inclusive lists of contributors going forward. ¬†I urge my colleagues throughout medieval studies to be both generous and productive: to accept Erica and Dan’s public apology as we continue to try to work together towards a more inclusive and more vibrant medieval studies for ourselves, for our students, and for our communities.

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