Michael Hanly: Only a Bus Ride Away from the Fourteenth Century
Congratulations on winning the fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the American Philosophical Society. Can you tell us a little bit about the plans for your upcoming year in France?
You’re most kind.
I’ve been working on this general topic for a long time. I became aware of many of these fourteenth- century characters when I was working on my dissertation long ago, and have continued to look for information about them as I explored various (sometimes distantly-related) elements over the years. But last year I was invited to take part in an international colloquium, in Cyprus, of all places, a venue truly worthy of Small World. My paper essentially combined all the disparate people and phenomena I’ve been working on elsewhere. I got such positive feedback from the other people on the program that I decided to apply for grants to support this project; as opposed to the other things I was torturing at the time. Sometimes you just have to run with whatever inspiration strikes you. This time, I’m glad I did.
What can you tell us about the work on your current book project, “Poets of Peace, Poets of War”?
The goal of my project is a monograph that will construct and analyze an international system of literary exchange in late fourteenth century Europe. As I told the grant agencies, forty years after England began its Hundred Years War (1337-1453), with France, increasingly ambitious Muslim armies on Europe’s eastern borders provoked panic in Western courts, and inspired a diverse group of writers and diplomats to express their opposition to the war policies of both nations. The most important institution advancing this pacifist agenda was the “Order of the Passion,” an international military society whose goal was a multinational crusade to recover Jerusalem for Christianity. Its first order of business, however, was a durable peace between England and France, without which a crusading coalition would be impossible. The Order’s founder was the French knight Philippe de Mézières (1327-1405), diplomat, royal advisor, political allegorist, and friend of influential writers, including the century’s most renowned poet, Francesco Petrarca. Philippe’s sixty-year career in government was shaped from beginning to end by his obsession with crusade, and with establishing the organization he envisioned as its vehicle. His paradoxical career as prophet of peace and apostle of holy war provides one of the most compelling and yet understudied chapters in late-medieval history.
Poets of Peace, Poets of War begins by charting the formation of Mézières’s coalition, and examining its policies and its influence on the diplomatic process of the period. The Order of the Passion, however, was not simply an important political organization; it was a network of literary exchange. This chivalric society—defying the formidable obstacles of war and papal schism (1378-1417)—became the site where English and French poets first encountered the Italian literary texts that would serve as crucial exemplars to poets in both countries. The thesis of my study is that the professional activities of French and English emissaries reveal analogous patterns of cohesion between authors from the two countries, literary alliances that counteract the great political divisions of the period, and that recommend their Order of the Passion as an essential agent for the westward diffusion of the themes and texts of Italian humanism.
You do research into fourteenth-century literature, culture and thought. What is it about your scholarship that is prescient and relevant today?
What I’d like to do is to propose revisions in our appreciation of political and military ideology in the later Middle Ages, the diffusion of Italian letters in France and England, and the effects of that diffusion on the
works of Chaucer and other English poets. In applying for grants, I tried to show that my work is distinct from that of others in my field in that it moves beyond the English sphere, gathering figures previously treated individually into an international network of transmission. The subjects of this investigation have not yet been considered as a “supranational” class of intellectuals, and a potentially important influence on the intellectual scene in late fourteenth-century western Europe. Is any of this relevant today? I’d like to think so. Any of us dealing with early periods is very careful to historicize our analyses, and wary of facile equivalencies that could produce statements like “our Western international policy today is as silly as it was in the fourteenth century.” Such a statement, nevertheless, can be defended on several grounds, and can serve as a useful starting point in a comparative analysis of the two distant temporal moments and of the political and cultural phenomena that complicate relations in both. Just off the top of my head, I think the basic difference is that, with all of the information and communications technology we have at hand today, we should be able to do a better job of relating to foreign cultures than our medieval predecessors. Shouldn’t we? And yet look at the way this country and other developed nations deal with the Muslim world and with domestic religious issues as well. I think we in 2010 have something to learn from the blundering and striving of well-meaning folks who lived six centuries ago.
What originally sparked your interest in the Order of the Passion as well as European political and military ideology during the medieval time period?
Sheer obstinacy. It started with Geoffrey Chaucer, which is normal enough. Any of us working in the Middle Ages in English Departments are involved at least in teaching Chaucer, and better yet, in doing research on him too. My strong suit, because of my foreign-language background, was the milieu of Chaucer’s Continental contemporaries. I always wondered how Chaucer managed to get his hands on Italian-language manuscripts of poetry by Petrarch, Dante, and especially Boccaccio, in a time when no one else in England was able to do so. This in itself is not a question of fundamental importance, but trying to answer it can provide some essential information. To be brief: most scholars believe Chaucer just picked the manuscripts up while he was serving the crown as a diplomat in Italy in the 1370s. I was always skeptical of this explanation, because of the simple material fact that manuscripts were terribly expensive, and civil servants like Chaucer terribly paid. So I always looked around for more believable explanations, and when some “usual suspects” kept popping up everywhere I looked, I thought I should consider the prospect that social networks, and not Chaucer’s initiative alone, might account for the transmission of Italian manuscripts and intellectual ideas. For example, the French knight Oton de Grandson, a “charter member” of the Order of the Passion, was welcome at the court of England as well as that of France, was often in service as a diplomat (sometimes to Italy), knew the French poet Eustache Deschamps (who corresponded with Chaucer), and was an intimate of John of Gaunt, uncle of King Richard II of England and also a supporter of Chaucer. There are many other such connections, most prominently those represented by the career of Philippe de Mézières himself. So what started with blind resistance turned into a fascinating study. All I have to do now is finish it. Hoc opus, hic labor est.
What impact does taking a sabbatical have on your research, teaching and personal life?
Any time one of us gets a sabbatical, it makes an enormous difference in the amount of work we’re able to get done in a given time, because of the increased focus we’re able to devote to our work. You know how it is. If I can spend several hours without (much) interruption sorting through a complex mass of material, I can process it much more efficiently than when I’m trying to do it in the fourth-floor penthouse of Avery Hall. Even folks who take sabbaticals in Pullman would say this. But for medieval wonks like me, since the overwhelming majority of the original documents we need to see are held by libraries and archives in Europe, it’s really marvelous to spend an extended period over here where the manuscripts are just a bus ride away. The upside of being a medievalist is that all the research material is in Europe, so you “have” to come here to work; this, obviously, is also the downside. Sometimes the thing you’re writing hinges entirely on the testimony of a parchment document that only exists in a drawer at the Bibliothèque Nationale, and if you can’t get over here to see it, you’re out of luck. So I’m really fortunate and really happy this year.
Teaching? I really do love my classes, and I miss being in the classroom when I’m away. I think about various classes all the time while on leave, and am always squirreling away something from my archival work that I can use to illuminate a text or social phenomenon in the classroom. A sabbatical always makes me a better, more knowledgeable scholar in my field, and more capable (I’d like to think) of providing useful guidance to students.
As for my personal life: my wife Ines is Swiss, so she’s very glad to be so close to home. Our daughter Olivia (16) was both excited and anxious about starting school here; our daughter Fiona (20) studies international politics and culture at Georgetown, and is enrolled in a study-abroad program in Geneva this fall, so we are seeing more of her than we normally do. They both grew up bilingual and have already attended school in Europe, so I think they’re up to the challenge. Ines and I lived in Paris the year Olivia was born—we’re even in the same apartment!—and have been back many times since then. We’re all quite at ease with being in Paris. It’s a beautiful, lively, exciting city. What’s not to like?
Graduate students rave about your seminars.
I’m glad to hear my paid adherents are still earning their keep!
What advice would you give to those students who don't have a chance to take your classes next year and who are in the process of developing their research topics and their scholarly voices/personas?
I suppose the most concise thing to say is this: I hope the graduate students who start this fall will have room, or make room, for my medieval seminar in their second year. As regards research topics, I am ready to work with any student interested in developing a project dealing with medieval authors or themes. I’ve seen some interesting work in the past that treated, for instance, women’s writing in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and even one that dealt with 19th-century British “medievalism” and its medieval roots. Even if your work is only tangentially concerned with my field, I’m happy to advise you, and have quite often served
as the “third reader” for students writing theses in the Renaissance or other areas.
Anyone who has found something of interest in what I’ve said here is welcome to contact me at email@example.com . I check e-mail every morning, but I’m nine hours ahead, so it might be the next day before I reply. Voilà.