Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Conversation Between Daniel Hobbins and David Cressy

The History department hosted a round table conversation with Dr. David Cressy interviewing Dr. Daniel Hobbins about his new book, Authorship and Publicity Before Print: Jean Gerson and the Transformation of Late Medieval Learning. I have yet to read the book, Dr. Hobbins, though, was on my committee and I have taken several classes with him so Gerson and late medieval culture became part of my schooling. During the course of the event other people also got the chance to put forth questions. This is my summery of the event based on my notes. As always, any mistakes made are mine.

Cressy: Authorship and Publicity Before Print is a book about conversations. There are four conversations in the book. The nature of this period, which you do not view as an extension of the Middle Ages, publication before print, the career of Jean Gerson and, finally, this a book about media and communication.

Hobbins: This project began with Gerson. I did not want this book, though, to be about just Gerson. This book changed from the original dissertation and I expanded it. Anyone who wants to use the term late for a period is heading toward trouble. Traditionally the late Middle Ages has been viewed as a time of trouble. I am responding to Johan Huizinga’s Autumn of the Middle Ages. Huizinga saw a decline from the twelfth century. He made heavy use of Gerson. In the words of one scholar: last contribution of the Middle Ages was spoken before 1378 (Start of the Great Schism). One can also view this period as a harvest of medieval thought or as a precursor to humanism. There is a need to move outside of this box and see the late Middle as a period in its own right.

Cressy: Gerson seems to be everywhere in the book and he was a very important person in his own time, though his work did not manage to cross the channel or the Alps. Why is he outside of our narrative?

Hobbins: Gerson does not fit into the narrative. I would have a difficult time if I wanted to put him into a textbook. He is not the High Middle Ages and he is not the Renaissance. The Western Civilization textbook is not designed to teach that civilization does not develop linearly.

Geoffrey Parker: What role does the Schism play in the distribution of Gerson manuscripts? Why does Gerson not make it into England and Italy?

Hobbins: By the Council of Constance there is this panic over Wycliffism. So you can see how easily texts can spread during this period. That being said, in this period, books are not distributing fluidly. For example Thomas a Kempis was a bestseller but did not make it into Spain.

Barbara Hanawalt: What about Gerson’s dabbling in popular politics such as in the case of Joan of Arc?

Hobbins: Gerson preached at court so he was part of a political network. There is a move away from mendicants to having the secular clergy occupy these positions. His big cause early in his career was the assassination of the Duke of Orleans in 1407. This leads to his work on tyrannicide. This work is quoted by James I in the seventeenth century. Gerson ended his life in exile after Paris ended up as part of the Anglo-Burgundian regime in 1418. His work on Joan of Arc was used at her retrial in the 1450s.

Cressy: What did it mean to be a public intellectual in the fifteenth century?

Hobbins: There is not the coffee house public of the eighteenth century but there is a public discourse. You have theologians reaching a wide public. How does this fit into a narrative of decline? That being said this could not have been more than ten percent of the public. This is still, though, far more than the audience reached by medieval scholastics such as Aquinas.

Gregory Pellam: Gerson was responding to Petrarch. Was this a key feature in the development of a French nationalism that the French are always correct?

Hobbins: In the fourteenth century English theologians are being condemned by the papacy for mixing logic and theology. Gerson is part of this anti English tradition. Nationalism is a very controversial issue. Is Joan of Arc an example of nationalism? She was hearing voices telling her to go support the king of France against the English so God, in her view, supports France as opposed to the English.

Cressy: We have a public that is being fed news. It would seem that this is a public sphere.

Hobbins: Jurgen Habermas, when dealing with the Middle Ages, talks about nightly courtly publicity. He simply co-opted the traditionally image of the Middle Ages, without dealing with the wider culture.

(The political philosopher, Jurgen Habermas is the author of the controversial thesis that the eighteenth century saw the birth of the "public sphere." Medievalists have been quite keen on showing that there was a public sphere during the Middle Ages. The question becomes what counts as a public sphere. It is clear that there existed a more of a public than Habermas thought. Habermas was writing during the 1960s at a time when medieval studies was still a study of church and aristocracy. Since then scholarship has "discovered" the common man and have made him a historical force to be reckoned with. There is a similar debate with nationalism. Nationalism is usually associated with the nineteenth century. Did it exist during the Middle Ages? Depends on how you define nationalism.)

To what extent was Gerson concerned about his work getting outside of his control?

Hobbins: Scribes mangling texts was a common concern going back to antiquity. Gerson, though, writes in praise of scribes. He recognized the important role that scribes play in putting forth his ideas. He lived to see his work being distributed. He gathered material that he wrote to be distributed. Imitation of Christ is often wrongly attributed to Gerson. Why did Gerson not write it? He never took the time to write a masterpiece.

Cressy: Gerson’s brother served as a sort of manager. He helped distribute his work.

Hobbins: We would still have Gerson without his brother. A Dominican like Aquinas would have had a stationer copying his work and passing them along. Gerson also had a privileged circle of copyists.

Cressy: Any comparison to modern times? Modern issues seem to play a large role in your book.
Hobbins: We are in a transitional time. Printed texts are imitations of manuscripts that is the only way they could have caught on. Gerson is almost begging for a printing press. He had his work put on tables so people in mass could read them.


Miss S. said...

As always, any mistakes made are mind."mine"?

Izgad said...

Thank you. Took care of it.