The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 14 (November 2010)  |   Issue Editors: Eileen A. Joy & Andrew Rabin

Still Theoretical After All These Years, Or, Whose Theory Do You Want, Or, Whose Theory Can We Have?

Clare A. Lees and Gillian R. Overing

King's College London and Wake Forest University

© 2010 by Clare A. Lees and Gillian R. Overing. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2010 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Abstract:  We focus on some other questions that are forestalled by the repeated posing of the question of the 'in-ness' or otherwise of theory in our field, and consider also what can we do for 'theory' rather than what it can do for us. We raise further questions about the ethics of theory in past, present, and future contexts in Old English studies.

§1.  When Eileen Joy first invited us to contribute a paper to the "Is there A Theory in the House of Old English Studies?" session at the 2008 International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo), which was the starting point for this special cluster of essays for postmedieval and Heroic Age, we were ambivalent. On the one hand, we were delighted to see Anglo-Saxonists take up once again the question of the relation of our field to such metadisciplines as English Studies and the Humanities. And delighted too to have those contemporary emphases, conversations, and debates (still sometimes identified erroneously by the label of "theory") taken up in relation to Anglo-Saxon studies. Thinking, after all, is what we do and taking the temperature of the field, as it were, is always positive for our disciplinary and inter-disciplinary research. On the other hand, surveys in the form of disciplinary reflections and meditations crop up with some considerable frequency. We've written a few of them ourselves.1 And there is something tiresomely familiar about the question of whether or not "theory" is in the house of Old English. Haven't we been asked this before? Haven't we been asked this far too often over the last twenty or so years, we asked ourselves? When did Anglo-Saxonists not think theoretically? What other questions are forestalled by the repeated posing of this particular question of the "in-ness" or otherwise of theory in our field?

§2.  We wondered then, as we still do now, whether we might focus attention instead on a couple of other questions. Isn't it rather a matter of whose theory we want? Or, even more to the point, of whose theory we can have?

§3.  Good for us, then, that the terms of the discussion were revised somewhat after that 2008 meeting at Kalamazoo. Now we were to consider "theory" and Old English "NOT in relation to the utility or non-usefulness of theory IN Old English studies," as Joy put it, "but rather to consider what the position of current Old English studies might be in relation to the histories as well as to the ongoing development and formulation of contemporary theory & literary-historical studies more generally."2 The terms of the assignment are looser and more accommodating. And the "state" of Old English studies is framed more welcomingly in terms of position and orientation. The second time around, the questions about our discipline seemed more inviting and well worth posing. Indeed, the question of "what further might be important new directions in theory for which the study of Old English literature and Anglo-Saxon history & culture in particular might be critical?" suggests a refreshing reversal of relationship between the theoretical and the early medieval. This time around, the issue seems to be what can we do for "theory" rather than what it can do for us. Furthermore, rethinking the relation of Old English to English invites a more general meditation on the relation of sub-field to field in English studies and in the Humanities. Indeed, as well as assessing the urgent concerns that many of us have about the beleaguered status of the Humanities and the very real challenges to making a living as a humanist, let alone as a medievalist, we might also consider what opportunities there are now to re-imagine the purview of the Humanities and the tremendous contribution of early medieval studies to that process of imagination and re-invention.3

§4.  Part of the current process of rethinking the Humanities, we suggest here, is addressed by another of Joy's questions in her revised agenda of topics for debate: namely, the question of "what subjects remain underdeveloped or neglected in Old English studies." And yet we still find ourselves thinking in relation to this new formulation that it is still a matter of what we desire and what we can have. Of whose theory we want and of whose theory we can have in and for Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) studies.

§5.  Whose theory do we want? As Anglo-Saxon scholars committed to feminism, gender studies, and the study of sexuality, we have always aimed to challenge and to rethink the existing paradigm/s of our discipline. Thinking theoretically, like gendered thinking and/or thinking about women and/or thinking about sex and sexuality, are not intellectual luxury options that can be added on to the thinking we do as Anglo-Saxonists, we have long argued. And, every time the question of theory is begged, the question of gender, of sex, of sexuality, is begged too. In our first co-authored book together, Double-Agents: Clerical Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (2001), our aim was simply to bring the question of gender directly into language and into the study of Anglo-Saxon culture. We did not address issues of sex, sexuality or of the relation of sexuality studies to gender studies: we just didn't get there.4 In our work since then, both collaboratively and individually, these issues have become increasingly more imbricated and complex. At the risk of repeating ourselves (as well as sounding a bit pompous!): the way we keep framing our interpretive questions about research is part of the process of interpretation. And that process of scrutinizing interpretive and disciplinary protocols is ongoing. Rethinking the paradigm of Anglo-Saxon studies theoretically means, in practice, posing questions about the ways in which we make meanings. The study of gender, like that of sexuality, in this regard, is always part of the question. Further, as both St Augustine and sign theory remind us, semiosis—the making of meanings—is endless. There is, in other words, no sell-by date on interpretation. There is room for optimism here.

§6.  Not all would agree with us, whether about the importance of framing inquiry in terms of repeated challenges to our scholarly paradigms or about a commitment to an Anglo-Saxon studies that makes issues of gender and sexuality integral to its processes of making meanings. The extent to which our desires remain frustrated in relation to our second question of whose theory can we have is our central concern in this essay. And this concern usefully links to one of Joy's own questions, mentioned before, namely that of "what subjects remain underdeveloped or neglected in Old English studies?" For, after all these years, theoretical inquiries into the histories of women, sex, sexuality, gender, men and, above all perhaps, into queer bodies, histories, pleasures and desires are still subjects that require some rethinking and re-positioning of a discipline often indifferent or hostile to them. There is room for some pessimism here too.

§7.  Optimism or pessimism? Is the glass half full or is it half empty? Is it the case that "Anglo-Saxon studies is now comfortably post-modern, if not post-theoretical"; that "feminist explorations of Anglo-Saxon culture no longer need to assume a reader's indifference or even hostility"; and that the "landscape of Anglo-Saxon literary culture" is "no longer an exclusively masculine preserve" as Mary Dockray-Miller recently argued in an article that began its life as a paper in the Kalamazoo sessions on the place of theory in Old English (Dockray-Miller 2008, 1051, 1057)? Or do we find that there is room to express "dismay" at the ways in which major book-length efforts to work across and through disciplinary and period boundaries using the subjects of gender, women, and sexuality make so little difference within Anglo-Saxon studies; that "damning with faint praise" is still a stylistic option when books and articles about theory, sex, or gender are reviewed; or that "Anglo-Saxon studies does often police the boundaries of its discipline, and for the most part, remains conservatively traditional in its orientations," as Eileen Joy puts in her own essay for The Heroic Age (Joy 2008)? Both of these review articles were published electronically only in 2008 as we write now in 2010. Both return to debates and reviews that we participated in, whether those of early 1990s or more recently, and whether as individuals or as co-authors. Now as then there have been real and continuing gains for the field, but there have also been disturbing and continuing indications of indifference and hostility. The glass is both half full and half empty, after all.

§8.  Furthermore, while we line up to argue among ourselves about the successes and failures of Anglo-Saxon studies to take up work in queer studies, women's studies, gender studies, or sexuality studies, there are others whose indifference, academic protocols, or even hostility ensure that business goes on as usual in an Anglo-Saxon studies that would prefer not to address these subjects. We raise here only three of our most persistent concerns. First, Anglo-Saxon England has yet to publish a single feminist or gender-identified article (a record worse than even Speculum or PMLA). Second, the program committees for the bi-annual conferences of ISAS (International Society for Anglo-Saxonists) do not yet routinely offer a home for any theoretically oriented studies, although the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo offers a warm home to such organizations as the Medieval Feminist Forum (MFF) and the Society for the Study of Homosexuality in the Middle Ages (SSHMA), and the International Medieval Congress at Leeds devotes a strand of sessions annually to women's and gender studies. Third, that the wandering category of women's studies, gender studies, queer theory, and so forth still has no fixed abode in the Year's Work in Old English Studies (YWOES), published annually by the Old English Newsletter.5 Reviews of this kind of work, interdisciplinary by its very nature, crop up variously under categories such as "literature" or "history" or "general" rather than having a specific "home" of their own. Most recently, the category of "gender and identity" appears under that of "History and Culture" and merits less than two pages in YWOES.6 Being silenced through non-acknowledgement or through a failure to have a place from which to speak are issues that go well beyond the successes and failures of those of us who actually do the work and find some place in which to do it. In this regard, whether or not the glass is half-full or half-empty are quite simply beside the point. We need, rather, a new glass.

§9.  So which is it to be? Shall we continue to re-iterate the same paradigm of glass half-full or glass half-empty in our reviews of work in this sub-field of Anglo-Saxon Studies? Or shall we work in a different paradigm and have different glasses? We wish to add a temporal dimension to our discussion here, and move away from abstract theories towards praxis, and towards the ethical considerations that both theory and praxis raise.

Re-imagining the Present

§10.  What do we need to be doing now? What differences can we make now to our scholarship and our teaching? Where reviews and self-assessment are concerned, the issue is not that we don't need histories of work in the field to put alongside histories of the objects of knowledge themselves but rather that we need to learn to write differently just as we imagine the stuff of our scholarship differently. And to write (self-)critically as well as ethically (an issue to which we return at the end of this essay). Can we imagine writing about the subjects and objects of our knowledge without repeating the same narrative paradigm of before and after, or of success and failure? Our pedagogies are also key (as Renée Trilling and Jacqueline Stodnick argue in their contribution to this essay cluster) as are our connections with each other as scholars. Thinking hard about collaboration, taking it seriously as a resource for scholarship and teaching, helps us to think outside the box of disciplinary singularity and intellectual isolation. The challenge here is to our imagination as scholars and teachers.

The Past: Doing it Differently

§11.  The many histories of our discipline suggest certain rigidly developmental paradigms with the power to structure the relation between past and present in particular ways. We would like to establish a different kind of connectivity to the past. We would like to re-imagine the way our discipline divides the objects we study (e.g, texts, artefacts, monuments) from the subjects who produced it and from those of us who study it. Models of temporality that acknowledge multiple modes of engagement and agency break down models of the past as reified, discrete subjects untouched by our modes of inquiry.7 An obviously relevant example here is the ways in which feminist and gender-oriented scholarship of the last thirty or so years are divided into "waves." Wave theory tends to imply a mode of scholarship where successive generations replace rather than assimilate a body of knowledge. Does each new wave wipe out the last? This is a particularly problematic narrative mode for addressing and acknowledging scholarly feminist practices, which are process-oriented and collaborative rather than teleological. The idea of acknowledgement is absolutely central here for, as Judith Bennett has pointed out in History Matters, some women scholars routinely acknowledge men rather than other women (Bennett 2006, 23). We don't have to think back just or only in terms of our fathers or mothers or in terms of heterosexual normativities. How do we acknowledge our influences and interlocutors or, more to the point, why is it such a problem that we don't?8 These are also ethical questions to which we shall return. In rethinking our relation to the past, our challenge is to build an intellectual discourse that connects women across the generations in sustainable ways and that does not contribute to generational erasure any more than it is indifferent to gender or sexuality.

The Future: It's Here (Or, It's History)

§12.  Let us imagine the following scenario. A graduate student, an early career scholar, approaches us at a conference. She is interested in working on gender in the early medieval period but she appears tentative and slightly uncomfortable. She doesn't use the word feminist and (we guess) may be distancing herself from the term and all that it might imply. She is concerned about successfully finishing her dissertation, getting out on the conference circuit, publishing an article or two, networking with other scholars and getting a job. And she is justifiably concerned about all of these things. She wants to work on gender but she has made a calculated decision not to. She poses at least three important questions about the future of gender studies in Anglo-Saxon studies: first, this stuff has been done so why should I do more of it, it's over and/or the next wave has arrived; second, I want to do it, but I can't (I'm not a feminist but . . .); third, I don't want anyone telling me what to do, it's my research and it's my process of discovery. And she would be right, on all fronts. What's possible in a career for a young theoretically minded Anglo-Saxonist (or five years down the road—pre-tenure)? Without forgetting about the institutional, national, and regional/local differences that we all have to negotiate, the ethics of our relation to this future is key. What this student faces in her future is part of our ethical responsibility. The challenge to the future, we see, is fundamentally one of ethics.

Whose Ethics Do We Want? Whose Ethics Can We Have?

§13.  We do not think that issues of ethics, sexuality, and gender are options on a menu or "approaches" or "methods" or "theories" that we can pick and choose as Anglo-Saxonists. These are the non-negotiable tools by which we can rethink and remake our discipline; there are others which require the same ethical connection to the discipline. It is the interconnection of the ethical with the theoretical that is central here. What do we say to that graduate student about her future? We would like to be in the position to create for her a place from which she can speak where her intellectual choices are not compromised by a discipline that polices her career. One where her choices do not have to play out one more time our discipline's vexed relationship with the past, with those who lived it, and those who study it.

§14.  In sum, it is not a matter of whether or not "theory" is in the "house" in Anglo-Saxon Studies. It is not a matter of the theory we want or the theory we can have. Nor of the utility or otherwise of the theoretical. Nor of which theory is about to crest on a wave and which is about to recede on the horizon. What matters about the theoretical in Anglo-Saxon Studies is our ethical relation to it, how the theoretical informs our practice as scholars, teachers, collaborators, and mentors. This is a far-reaching question, and certainly not particular to Anglo-Saxon Studies or to gender and sexuality studies but, in concluding, we want to keep the predicament of the early-career scholar at the forefront of any ethical argument. Our limited purpose here has been to open up such a debate, by outlining some of the perspectives that studying Anglo-Saxon culture can and should bring to the current debates about the imbrication of the ethical and the theoretical in the Humanities.


1.   Our first review of the field was co-authored with Helen T. Bennett (Bennett, Lees and Overing 1990). We looked at the question again collaboratively, this time with Karma Lochrie (Lees, Lochrie and Overing 1996). We have written other reviews singly but the most recent is Clare's "Actually Existing Anglo-Saxon Studies" (2005).  [Back]

2.   We thank Eileen A. Joy for letting us quote from her email correspondence with us about this commission.  [Back]

3.   We heard these issues summarized very well by Ruth Evans in a roundtable panel on "Archaeologies of Medievalism" at "Locating Gender," the 2009 Gender and Medieval Studies conference held at King's College London, 9–10 January 2009.  [Back]

4.   We address this briefly in our revised preface to Double Agents (Lees and Overing 2009, xi–xiv).  [Back]

5.   A point first made by Helen Bennett (1989) some twenty years ago.  [Back]

6.   See, for example, "The Year's Work in Old English Studies: 2007," (2008, 192–94).  [Back]

7.   Again, a point first made nearly twenty years ago by Allen J. Frantzen in his groundbreaking Desire for Origins (1990).  [Back]

8.   For a discussion of the dynamics of "acknowledgement," see the collection of essays in Medieval Feminist Forum 45.1 (Summer 2009), dedicated to the memory of Jo Ann Kay McNamara.  [Back]

Works Cited

Bennett, Helen T. 1989. From peace weaver to text weaver: feminist approaches to Old English literature. In Twenty years of the year's work in Old English studies, ed. Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe. Old English Newsletter, Subsidia 15: 23–42.  [Back]

Bennett, Helen T., Clare A. Lees, and Gillian R. Overing. 1990. Gender and power: feminism and Old English studies. Medieval Feminist Newsletter 10:15–23.  [Back]

Bennett, Judith M. 2006. History matters: patriarchy and the challenge of feminism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.  [Back]

Dockray-Miller, Mary. 2008. Old English literature and feminist theory: a state of the field. Literature Compass 5.6:1049–59.  [Back]

Frantzen, Allen J. 1990. Desire for origins: new language, Old English and teaching the tradition. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.  [Back]

Joy, Eileen. 2008. Goodbye to all that: the state of my own personal field of schizoid Anglo-Saxon studies. The Heroic Age 11.  [Back]

Lees, Clare A. 2005. Actually existing Anglo-Saxon studies. New Medieval Literatures 7:223–52.  [Back]

Lees, Clare A., Karma Lochrie, and Gillian R. Overing. 1996. Feminism within and without the academy. Medieval Feminist Newsletter 22:27–31  [Back]

Lees, Clare A. and Gillian R. Overing. 2009. Double agents: women and clerical culture in Anglo-Saxon England. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. First printed 2001, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.  [Back]

The Year's Work in Old English Studies: 2007. 2008. Old English Newsletter 41.2.  [Back]