Sara Sullam: uncovering valuable documents in the University’s special collections.

Sara Sullam is Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University of Milan.

Sara Sullam is Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University of Milan. She spent her six-month Visiting Fellowship funded by the British Academy at our Department. In this blog post she tells us what she discovered in the University’s Special Collections.

In her 1925 essay on “How Should One Read a Book” Virginia Woolf reflected on the fact that the very act of reading was always, in a way, taken for granted, while it in fact deserves further scrutiny and attention: “For though reading seems so simple – a matter of knowing the alphabet – it is indeed so difficult that it is doubtful anyone knows anything about it”. Research on reading has undoubtedly progressed since then: however, much remains to be discovered on how reading habits are formed and on how our experience of reading across languages and cultures is shaped.

Funded by a Visiting Fellowship of the British Academy hosted by the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies under the supervision of Dr Daniela La Penna, my project British Novels for European Readers, European novels for British Readers: A Working Hypothesis for the Anglo-Italian Case (1945-1965) has investigated the crucial function of publishing for the development of reading culture in a key moment in the history of European integration. In particular, it has focused on the strategies devised by Italian and British publishers to select, evaluate, translate, promote and market fiction from 1945 to the mid-Sixties. Who were the people involved in these processes? What was their way of reading? And how did it impact on the way the common reader in both countries made sense of fiction coming from abroad?

To address these research questions, I literally plunged in the incredible wealth of materials of the Archives of British Publishing and Printing housed at the University of Reading’s Special Collections. I read the correspondence between English and Italian publishers – Chatto & Windus, The Hogarth Press, Jonathan Cape, The Bodley Head on this side of the Channel, Mondadori, Feltrinelli, Einaudi in Italy. I studied the reports written by professional readers, key actors in the process of literary transfer, whose work has very often remained buried in the archives. I was able to see how much is gained, and not lost, in translation. Working on these papers has made literature come alive.

Illuminating the transnational networks of people who shaped the availability of post-war European novels in the British and American markets has also inspired the research practice underpinning the project, aimed at building research networks across disciplines and languages. Besides funding a number of presentations of the project at other UK universities (Manchester, Nottingham), the BA grant allowed me to co-organize with my host Daniela La Penna an international conference ( that brought together publishing historians, scholars of Italian and English literature, from Italy, Germany, the US and the United Kingdom. The conference gave us all the opportunity to reflect on the networks of the past to build the research networks of the future.


Sara Sullam

The Christopher G. Wagstaff Film Collection

Thursday April 6, 2017 marked the official launch of the Christopher G. Wagstaff Italian Film Collection at the University of Notre Dame. Wagstaff, who retired from the University of Reading in 2015 after four decades as a teacher and scholar of Italian, delivered a short talk at the event, which recognised his distinguished career as well as the generous donation of his personal film archive to Notre Dame.

Chris Wagstaff, who taught Italian at the University of Reading for four decades

As Wagstaff’s former colleague Professor Zygmunt G. Baranski has said, in his long career at the University of Reading Chris “worked tirelessly and, at times, eccentrically, to develop new undergraduate and graduate courses, to build a major film library, to establish national and international contacts and networks, to enlighten and encourage students, and, most importantly, to demand the highest standards of scholarly seriousness from himself and his students.” With that in mind, we want to take this opportunity to recognise Chris’s contribution to the University of Reading and to the wider Italian and Film-Studies communities.

We asked Tracy Bergstrom, Curator of Italian Imprints and Co-Director of Digital Library Initiatives and Scholarship at the University of Notre Dame, to tell us about the archive. She explained that the Christopher G. Wagstaff Film Collection is built around roughly 2,000 Italian films and television programs donated from Wagstaff’s personal collection. These films are currently being catalogued and made available through the Hesburgh Libraries, as well as digitised for preservation purposes. Both digital and commercial copies are supplemented by the University of Notre Dame’s large print collection, housed in the Hesburgh Library, which explores the history, culture, and aesthetics of Italian media.

The Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame, new home of the Christopher Wagstaff Film Collection

Brendan Hennessey, Assistant Professor of Italian at the University of Binghamton and the archive’s first curator, further expanded on the significance of the archive. “The Christopher G. Wagstaff Film Collection aims to become a centre for the study of Italian film and television that will be open to scholars and students, a North American cineteca at Notre Dame, the first of its kind, capable of supporting extant research while promoting future projects in Italian screen studies.

The mission of the Wagstaff Collection is not to preserve individual films, but to permit the study of a corpus of cinematic works facilitated by their digitisation. It will nurture research, screenings, curated film series, and scholarly events. In so doing it perpetuates Christopher Wagstaff’s original vision to expand our understanding of Italian cinema through the study of all types of Italian media production. Over the course of his prolific career as both teacher and scholar in Italian studies at the University of Reading, Christopher Wagstaff’s role as amateur archivist reinforced his position as one of Italian cinema’s most respected interpreters.

During his career at the University of Reading Wagstaff published several path-breaking studies, including this magisterial examination of Italian neorealism

As an archivist-scholar, Wagstaff brought precision to the study of both “classics” and non-canonical films, with a particular interest in exploring how production contexts (and their illuminating empirical data) could be gateways for sharpening Italian film hermeneutics. Evidenced by the titles in the archive, his tastes are indeed eclectic: art-house staples, rare versions of neorealist classics and auteur films from the 1960s neighbour popular genre films (science fiction, action-adventure, peplums) and an extensive assortment of spaghetti westerns. Recent scholarship attests how such an expansive horizon of types was prescient for Italian screen studies in the twenty-first century. Today, as the reverence for traditional canons and their inevitable hierarchies are on the wane, collections that stretch beyond the precincts of the post-war Italian art film are increasingly vital.”

We at Reading are proud of the work that Chris has done and want to congratulate him on the launch of the Christopher G. Wagstaff Italian Film Collection at the University of Notre Dame. Well done Chris!

Reading Researchers: The Men with Broken Faces

In addition to our teaching excellence (100% student satisfaction in the most recent National Student Survey!), the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading  is internationally recognised for its research excellence: we ranked 4th in the latest UK rankings for research impact in Modern Languages, and 5th place for research intensity, coming out overall ahead of Oxford and several Russell Group universities, including Leeds, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol and Exeter. With so much exciting work going on, from time to time we’d like to highlight some of the innovative and compelling research that members of the department are pursuing in our “Reading Researchers” feature.

Dr Marjorie Gerhardt of the University of Reading, a cultural historian specialising in 20th-century France

Dr Marjorie Gehrhardt of the University of Reading, a cultural historian specialising in 20th-century France

This month, we’re celebrating the publication of a major new book by Dr Marjorie GehrhardtThe Men with Broken Faces: Gueules Cassées of the First World War (Peter Lang, 2015). Dr Gehrhardt is a cultural historian whose research focuses on war and its representations in twentieth-century Western Europe, with a particular interest in the reintegration of veterans and the role of charities in wartime. She joined the University of Reading in September 2015 and she teaches on several French and European history modules. We’ve asked her to share some of her findings with us:

On 28 June 1919, as delegates in the Paris Peace Conference made their way to the table where the treaty was displayed, they had to walk past five facially injured French soldiers invited there by the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. Although they remained silent during the ceremony, they did not go unnoticed by the attendees.

Despite the place of the disfigured combatants on centre stage at this symbolic event, the presence of these men and the role they played in the war and the interwar period have rarely been studied. This is not because gueules cassées [broken faces], as the disfigured combatants came to be known in France, were very few, or because they did not mix with civilians, on the contrary. The silence surrounding disfigured soldiers and veterans can be accounted for by the painful memories evoked by their faces, and by the fact that they themselves often wished to blend in, not to stand out.

Dr Marjorie Gehrhardt's new book, The Men with Broken Faces:  Gueules Cassées of the First World War (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015)

Dr Marjorie Gehrhardt’s new book, The Men with Broken Faces: Gueules Cassées of the First World War (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015)

In The Men with Broken Faces, I explore one of the lesser-known aspects of the First World War in France, Germany and Great Britain. Using a variety of primary sources, ranging from medical accounts to contemporary press reports and artistic representa­tions, I analyse society’s responses to facial injury as well as the experiences of disfigurement narrated by gueules cassées themselves. The Men with Broken Faces high­lights the visibility of facially injured men and discusses different responses to their presence, whilst also interrogating their role and representation in wartime and interwar societies. It underlines the often paradoxical situa­tion of men who sought to lead ordinary lives and yet also became symbols of the war.

For more news about all the world-class research we do in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading, as well as updates about our students, staff, and alumni, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed. You may also wish to contact Dr Marjorie Gehrhardt directly, as she welcomes enquiries from postgraduate students wishing to work on twentieth century cultural history, First World War studies, medical history or the history of the voluntary sector.

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Reading Researchers: Celebrating Pasolini’s Life and Work

On the 40th anniversary of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s death, the Italian Cultural Institute in London hosts a symposium to commemorate him and his work: L’interruzione del senso è più totale del senso stesso” – Language, sign and meaning in the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pier Paolo Pasolini (5 March 1922 – 2 November 1975)

Pier Paolo Pasolini (5 March 1922 – 2 November 1975)

The event is organised and chaired by the University of Reading’s own Dr Federico Faloppa as part of the “Italian Language Week in the World.” It will focus on Pasolini’s language and reflections on language, covering in a very accessible way topics which are extremely relevant in the foundation of Pasolini’s artistic work, but which are sometimes neglected when discussing his intellectual legacy.

The literary promotion of a language and the cultural status of its speaking community are a constant concern in Pasolini’s work, since his first collection of poems “Poesie a Casarsa” (1942). Rosa Mucignat (King’s College) will shed a light on Pasolini and Friulian poetry, politics, and the people, by exploring Pasolini’s use of the Friulian language not only as poetic tool, but also in terms of political awareness, identity and belonging.

Dr Federico Faloppa of the University of Reading

Dr Federico Faloppa of the University of Reading

By reflecting upon “L’interruzione del senso è […] più totale del senso stesso”. Strategie di eccesso, indicalità e conoscenza sensoriale nei film di Pasolini, Donatella Maraschin (London South Bank University) will question Pasolini’s idea of cinema as a written language of reality, which by a sensorial approach to signs enables viewers to see things from the point of view of truth.
Language as translation of signs, and the translation of Pasolini’s poetry will be addressed by poet and translator Cristina Viti, who will introduce the audience to some peculiarities in Pasolini’s poetical work, between tradition and innovation.

Federico Faloppa will challenge Pasolini’s “folle fiducia nella lingua” (Walter Siti), by focusing in particular on Pasolini’s reflections around the “Nuova questione della lingua” and the poet’s disillusionment from the late Sixties onwards.

Federico Faloppa is Assistant Professor in Italian Studies at the University of Reading, where he teaches modules on the history of the Italian language, discourse analysis, and Italian intellectuals in the 20th century, with a particular focus on Pier Paolo Pasolini. His main research interest is the representation of otherness in language.

Donatella Maraschin is Senior Lecturer at London South Bank University, where she is the director of the BA in Multimedia Journalism. She has extensively published on the intersections between mainstream cinema, including Pasolini’s, and the practice and concerns of Visual Anthropology.

Rosa Mucignat is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Literature at King’s College London. She teaches and researches on 18th and 19th century European novel, travel writing, forms of shorter narrative, and she has published on Pasolini’s works in Friulian.

Cristina Viti is a translator and poet whose published work includes translations of Guillaume Apollinaire, Dino Campana, Elsa Morante, Erri De Luca and Amelia Rosselli.

For more news about all the world-class research we do in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading, as well as updates about our students, staff, and alumni, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.

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Student Life: The ability to pursue our own research

Sarah Thurmer (French and Italian, 2014)

Sarah Thurmer (French and Italian, 2014)

Yesterday afternoon, students in Dr Charles Leavitt’s final-year Italian module IT3AF: After the Flood – Italy 1945-1956, gave their research poster presentations. Students investigated a wide variety of topics, then presented and discussed their research findings with colleagues in the Italian section. We’ve asked Sarah Thurmer, who presented an innovative poster on advertisements in the Italian journal Rinascita last year, to share her thoughts on conducting and sharing research as an advanced undergraduate. Here’s what she had to say:

Two years ago now, I was set to choose my final year Italian modules while still away on my Erasmus placement in Padua, Italy. The module IT3AF appeared on a list and I was presented with the term ‘After the Flood’ for the first time. As a French and Italian student, I had the chance to choose only two Italian modules and with six available I had more than enough to choose from, but IT3AF caught my eye immediately. At the time, I was writing my dissertation on the spread of western communism in France and Italy after the Second World War, and I was therefore drawn to this module, which would allow me to study the cultural and political debates in the post-war period – fantastic!

Gemma Martinez presents her research on Naples after the liberation.

Gemma Martinez presents her research on Naples after the liberation.

Just weeks into the programme and my final year back in Reading, I began to realise that After the Flood was turning out to be the most challenging, rewarding and enjoyable module I had ever taken.

The module was at its core was an introduction to the critical analysis of a selection of texts, novels, films and journals and Dr Leavitt presented us with a schedule of seminars for the year with lists of everything we would be analysing and when, as well as detailing the assessment and deadlines. He also arranged weekly film viewings outside of seminar hours so that we could together watch a collection of unforgettable films from the dopoguerra (post-war period) in Italy.

Lorenzo Corradi leads a discussion on the USA's policy of communist containment and its effects in post-war Italy.

Lorenzo Corradi leads a discussion on the USA’s policy of communist containment and its effects in post-war Italy.

As students, we had all the information we needed and what came next was up to us. I soon realised if I was to really engage with the content and participate in what became very heated and inspiring in-class discussions, I needed to read everything and I mean everything.

For the first time, I was reading the short stories, the novels, the poems and the articles not because I had to, but because I wanted to. For a student who always avoided literature and stuck to the safety of solid facts in history textbooks, IT3AF was allowing me to take the ideas and values expressed by authors and directors and apply them to the history and politics of the period.

Not only did the novels, a favourite of mine being Uomini e No by Elio Vittorini, compliment what I already knew about the dopoguerra, they allowed me to view the period through different eyes and see past the tables of election results or industrial production figures.

Helena Moore presents her research on the return to Italy of Jewish survivors of the Shoah.

Helena Moore presents her research on Italian survivors of the Shoah and their re-integration in Italy.

I was already enjoying the module and then in the Spring Term, the study of journals was introduced and this is where I really engaged.

After an exciting guest lecture from Dr Mila Milani, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Reading, three post-war Italian journals were presented to us and all students picked one to work on. I chose Rinascita, simply because I found Palmiro Togliatti, the journal’s editor and the head of Italy’s Communist Party, an interesting figure.

I can remember nervously withdrawing the journals from the library’s closed-access collection. I immediately loved reading them. I loved analysing the images, the poems, the advertisements and of course the long articles, all in Italian, and I was excited to use to them to produce coursework.

Sophie Baldwin discusses her research on changing attitudes to divorce in Italy after the war.

Sophie Baldwin discusses her research on changing attitudes to divorce in Italy after the war.

At this point in the year, we were all being given the freedom to take the study of these journals, (or even the films, novels and poems) in whatever way we wanted within the bounds of the assessment deadlines. I know that I, along with my classmates, found this the most exciting part of the module.

Dr Leavitt enjoyed listening to our interpretations and ideas and was happy to help us further study the area we engaged with most. Many of us had never created conference posters, let alone presented them to our peers and lecturers. Yet through the study of the journal Rinascita and the flexibility to pursue the area I engaged best with, I confidently presented a poster which gained me the highest mark of my degree and fantastic feedback from everyone involved.

Students and lecturers alike enjoyed the poster presentation session and it was a great way to end the module and the year on a high. I even felt confident going into the exam because I had really connected with the content rather than reading texts simply because they were on the reading list and I wasn’t left cramming information and lecture slides the night before the exam.

Josie Harrison discusses her project on the legacy of internal exile (confino) under Fascism.

Josie Harrison discusses her project on the legacy of internal exile (confino) under Fascism.

IT3AF filled me with confidence in my studies and I look back on it now as a module I really enjoyed, something I know I am not alone in. The ability to pursue our own research, voice our own opinions and informally debate with one another made it different to anything I had studied before.

Looking back on my university experience six months after graduation, I realise it is no longer as important what mark I gained for each essay or presentation, but the skills I gained from the research, production and assessment of my work will stay with me as I continue my studies and embark of my professional future.

In IT3AF with Dr Leavitt, learning went from being a series of lectures and seminars with predicted outcomes to being an in-depth analysis of all relevant resources at my disposal and a collaboration of ideas and concepts. Lecture slides were no longer my bible and I learnt to value my own interpretations.

Gabriella Burns has to hold back from dancing as she presents her work on popular music in post-war Italy.

Gabriella Burns tries to keep from dancing as she presents her work on popular music in post-war Italy.

I would recommend this module to anyone. I had a previous interest in the period 1945 -1956 but it wasn’t the study of what I already knew that was the most rewarding, it was the discovery of new material and skills. Moreover, I now look back on IT3AF as enjoyable, so much so that I am now considering continuing studies to MA level within the Italian department.

To learn more about IT3AF: After the Flood, the dozens of other modules we offer in European Studies, French, German, Italian, and the multi-language comparative modules we offer in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Reading, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.


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Gabriella Craft leads a discussion on Italian masculinity after Fascism.

Gabriella Craft leads a discussion on Italian masculinity after Fascism.

Chloé Saleh discusses Italian Arte Povera

Chloé Saleh discusses Italian Arte Povera




Stefano Santosuosso considers Francesca Passaseo's research findings on Italian translations of Ernest Hemingway

Stefano Santosuosso considers Francesca Passaseo’s research findings on Italian translations of Ernest Hemingway

Reading Researchers: Theatre in the Academies of Early Modern Italy

Lisa_Monika_SampsonDr Lisa Sampson, Associate Professor of Italian Studies, has been awarded a prestigious British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship for the next academic year 2015-16 to complete a monograph on Theatre in the Academies of Early Modern Italy: festivity, learning, and cultural transformations, which builds on her research for the recently completed AHRC-funded project on Italian Academies, 1525-1700: The first intellectual networks of Early Modern Europe

Reading Researchers: Celebrating Success with REF 2014

4th place for research impact, 5th place in UK rankings for research intensity in Modern Languages

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. The 2014 REF was conducted jointly by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) and the Department for Employment and Learning, Northern Ireland (DEL). The primary purpose of REF 2014 was to assess the quality of research and produce outcomes for each submission made by institutions.

Celebrating successful research with REF 2014

Cheers! Celebrating successful research with REF 2014.

Now that the results are in, we hope you’ll join us in celebrating! We’ve asked Dr Lisa Sampson, Director of Research, to fill us in on the tremendous research achievements of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading.

Reading’s thriving research culture in Modern Languages and Linguistics has earned it 4th place in the latest UK rankings for research impact in Modern Languages, and 5th place for research intensity in the same subject area, with the institution overall being ranked 19th in the UK by the same measure (where the quality of published research (Grade Point Average [GPA]) is scaled in line with the proportion of researchers submitted).

In terms of the ranking by GPA, Modern Languages research at Reading was ranked 23rd nationally, which places it above Oxford and several Russell Group universities, including Leeds, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol and Exeter.

Reading submitted work into the Modern Languages and Linguistics panel (UoA 28) from all eligible staff within the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies (MLES) and from selected staff in English Language and Applied Linguistics (DELAL). 100% of eligible staff in the Department and Modern Languages and European Studies were submitted, as well as staff from DELAL. Our submission therefore reflects our dynamic work in French, German, and Italian literary and cultural studies, as well as history and linguistics.

Dr Federico Faloppa with students from the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading

Dr Federico Faloppa (Italian Studies) with students from the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies.

Research in the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ exercise is graded from 4* to 1*. 64% of our work was ranked ‘internationally excellent’ (3*) or above, with 15% of our research graded (world-leading) 4*. In terms of research Impact, the assessment placed MLES at Reading in 4th position in the sector, with 80% graded 4* and 20% 3*. This reflects the significance of ongoing research in areas of modern language policy and in European history, including Andrew Knapp’s work on Allied Bombing in France. Other current research projects attracting media and public attention are Federico Faloppa’s work on linguistic racism, which has led to his participation in a number of media appearances in Italy (You can hear one of his interviews on Italian public radio (Rai 3)), and Lisa Sampson’s project with the British Library on early modern Italian Academies (recently showcased by the AHRC).

Modern Languages’ exceptional performance builds on our strong record in grant capture, with funded projects by the Leverhulme Trust, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the British Academy. In the coming years we plan to build on our research and impact strengths, especially thanks to Reading’s recent introduction of Spanish studies (one post is currently advertised).

Professor Françoise Le Saux  (French Studies) and Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami (Spanish Studies).

Professor Françoise Le Saux (French Studies) and Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami (Spanish Studies) with students of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies.

To learn more about the innovative work being done at Reading, visit the homepage of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies. There you’ll find information about our research, as well as helpful updates for prospective students. If you’re interested in pursuing a Masters Degree or a PhD in Modern Languages at the University of Reading, we offer both Post-Graduate Taught and Post-Graduate Research degree courses.

To keep up with all of the Department’s research, as well as to receive updates from our students, staff, and alumni, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.

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Reading Researchers: A new look at Merlin and King Arthur

In a regular feature, we’ll bring you updates from “Reading Researchers,” highlighting the innovative and compelling research that members of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies are pursuing. In recent months we’ve heard from Professor Catherine Leglu about the International  Medieval Congress, from Dr Melani Schröter about “Language and Silence”, from Dr. Ute Wölfel about “Figures of Transgression”, and from Professor Andrew Knapp about the destruction and liberation of Le Havre.

mles-Irene_FTToday’s update comes from Dr Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, a lecturer in French, who teaches French language, literature and culture in Reading’s Department of Modern Languagess and European Studies, as well as in the Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies. Her research focuses on French Medieval Literature and she specialises on romances and chronicles related to the story of King Arthur, especially the Lancelot-Grail romance cycle, written in the 13th century, and the French translations and adaptations of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th c. Historia Regum Britanniae, up to the 15th century. She is particularly interested in the manuscript circulation of medieval texts and in the relation between text and image in illuminated copies of medieval works. In the Middle Ages, Old French (langue oïl) in its many dialects was the most influential vernacular language, it was an international language of power and culture which from the 11th c. onwards was spoken from England to Italy and to the Holy Land.

Dr Fabry-Tehranchi has just published an important monograph, Texte et images des manuscrits du Merlin et de la Suite Vulgate (XIIIe-XVe siècle), and in light of this noteworthy achievement we’ve invited her to update us  on her work.

My monograph examines text and image relations in the manuscripts of Merlin and its Vulgate Sequel. Dating from the first half of the 13th century, they tell the infancy and life of Merlin as well as the origins of King Arthur and his heroic youth. The writing of a Sequel to Merlin shows the great success enjoyed by Arthurian prose narratives at the time, and the literary dynamics created by the construction of romance cycles. Merlin and its Sequel are part of the Lancelot-Grail cycle which tells the story of the Holy Grail (the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, in which Joseph of Arimathea collected Jesus’s blood at the Crucifixion), and its transfer from the Holy Land to Britain until the time of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.

Conception of Merlin, Paris, BNF fr. 96 f. 62v (15th c., Maître d'Adélaïde de Savoie)

Conception of Merlin, Paris, BNF fr. 96 f. 62v (15th c., Maître d’Adélaïde de Savoie)

My book is the first comprehensive study of Merlin manuscripts and their iconography (there are more than 50 surviving copies of this text, produced between the 13th and the 15th century, and more than 30 are illuminated). I examine their compilation with other literary works, their mise en page and their illustration. Illuminated manuscripts were costly works only available to the aristocracy and the elites, who had a particular taste for chivalric literature. My work sheds light on the production and reception of a literary work which endured a lasting success until the end of the Middle Ages.

Merlin and its Sequel tell us about the origins of Merlin and Arthur and about their youth. Merlin was an ambiguous character, the son of a woman and of a devil, and although he early on decided to do God’s work, he remained black and hairy like his father, and inherited from him supernatural powers including prophecy and shape shifting. Arthur himself had doubtful origins, because he was conceived in adultery. Helped by Merlin, King Utherpendragon took the appearance of the duke of Tintagel in order to seduce his wife Ygerne, and Arthur is the fruit of this union. Arthur, accused of illegitimacy, had to fight for the crown of England after his father’s death, and he demonstrates his prowess in a series of military campaigns, expelling the invading Saxons who threaten the land. Merlin becomes the counsellor of King Arthur until he is imprisoned by his lover and pupil, the fairy Viviane, in an air castle.

Merlin and its Sequel are mostly included in manuscript collections focused on the story of the Holy Grail (Joseph d’Arimathie and l’Estoire del saint Graal), in the wider frame of the Lancelot-Grail cycle, which includes the adventures of the knights of the Round Table and ends with the death of King Arthur and the destruction of his kingdom. The Lancelot-Grail mixes spiritual and religious concerns surrounding the Grail mythology with an interest in the earthly adventures of Arthurian knights (especially Lancelot, the lover of Queen Guinevere, but also his son Galaad, the knight who achieves the quest for the Grail).

 Merlin transformed as a stag at the court of Julius Cesar, Paris, BNF fr. 749, f. 260 (c. 1300)

Merlin transformed as a stag at the court of Julius Cesar, Paris, BNF fr. 749, f. 260 (c. 1300)

Merlin was very popular in the Middle Ages as a prophet: he was believed to be a historical figure (like Arthur), capable of foreseeing the future, and his mysterious words and figurative discourses were both held in great authority and used as political tools. Merlin and its Sequel also circulated in didactic compilations, along with biblical and pastoral works. They could be considered as historical, telling the mythical story of Britain, along with that of Troy for example. These texts and their illustration show a military and historical focus which questions their generic identity and contrasts with the religious or courtly dimension of the other parts of the Arthurian Vulgate cycle.

Dr Fabry-Tehranchi has published a number of commentaries on the Arthurian manuscripts for the Bibliothèque nationale de France. These are available to read or listen to online (in French), and focus on illuminated pages of different parts of the Lancelot-Grail cyclel’Estoire del saint GraalMerlin, Lancelot and the Death of King Arthur.

To learn more about Dr Fabry-Tehranchi’s research, as well as for information about undergraduate and post-graduate study at Reading, please visit the website of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading. To keep up with all of the Department’s research, as well as to receive updates from our students, staff, and alumni, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.

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Reading Researchers: Remembering the Destruction and Liberation of Le Havre


Professor Andrew Knapp

In August and September 2014, Professor Andrew Knapp delivered a series of public lectures in France on the subject of bombing. What is more, between 3 and 5 September Professor Knapp attended and spoke at a conference entitled ‘Bombardement 44: Le Havre, Normandie, France, Europe: Stratégies et Vécus’ held in Le Havre. More than a purely academic event, the conference was integrated into the City of Le Havre’s commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the city’s destruction by RAF bombing prior to its liberation on 12 September 1944. The City had a particular purpose in commemorating the bombing: it is seeking to confront and understand what is still a traumatic memory, before moving on to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the founding of Le Havre by Francis I in 1517. The commemorations attracted considerable media attention, in the course of which Professor Knapp took part in midday and early evening regional television news programmes live from the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville in Le Havre on 6 September.

We asked Professor Knapp to share with us some reflections on these lectures, the events they commemorate, and his ongoing research endeavours.

All the talk these days is of planning and managing research. Well, when I started thinking about the bombing of Le Havre some eleven years ago, I had no idea that it would lead to two books (so far), a film, a full-page article in Le Monde, three conferences, and a lot of excellent new colleagues, as well as some remarkable, and humbling, witnesses and survivors, not just from Le Havre, but across France.

Havre January 1945

Le Havre, January 1945 (Archives Municipales du Havre, collection Fernez).

I first went to Le Havre in 1979 to work on my doctoral thesis in politics. Anyone interested in French politics at the time was fascinated by the Parti Communiste Français, and curious as to what it would do if it ever returned to national office. My plan was to find out what they did at local level, so I went to Le Havre, then France’s biggest Communist municipality, to look. I had known before I went that the town had been heavily bombed by the RAF; but only when I saw the giant photo of what it had looked like in the winter of 1944-5, hung in the 1950s Town Hall in the middle of the 1950s city centre, did I get the measure of how bad it had been.

But my research wasn’t about that; it was about how the Communists ran the town. So I spent five years (longer than they allow you these days) doing a thesis, and got a D.Phil., and went through the usual series of fixed-term posts, plus three years as an editor with Oxford University Press, before I fetched up at Reading in 1990, now all set to do another project called Gaullism since de Gaulle. For all this time, and up until about 2005, I thought of myself as a politics specialist (a political scientist, as the Americans would say), not (although my first degree was in history) as a historian. What’s the difference? Most political scientists like to generalise, to use cases and comparisons to build or contribute to or modify or demolish general theories about how politics works, in a way analogous to the natural sciences. Most historians are more interested in particular people and processes and events. The two disciplines overlap, but they have tended to diverge in my working lifetime, with the study of politics becoming more theoretical and less like contemporary history. One of the beauties of working in a language department, though, is that you can switch between the two without anyone caring (or even necessarily knowing).

That is what I did about a decade ago. It started with Jim Knowlson, our Emeritus Professor and author of the standard biography of Samuel Beckett. Jim introduced me to Doug Attwood, a retired dentist who was thinking of doing a thesis on the bombing of Le Havre. I lent Doug my thesis and we got talking. He soon took the wise decision to enjoy his retirement, but for a while we had a plan to do an article together. Eventually Doug pulled out of that project too, but by then I was hooked. I wanted an explanation for that photo in the Town Hall; I wanted to find out why the town that I had first visited a quarter-century earlier, and had returned to regularly ever since, had been flattened by France’s friends and allies.

If my knowledge of Le Havre was pretty good – I had lived there for four years – my acquaintance with the air war was limited to what a boy growing up in the 1960s had gleaned from making kit aeroplanes. And I was frankly pig-ignorant of the military history of France in World War 2. Above all, I really thought that Le Havre was a one-off, that the Allies had bombed this French city but no others to speak of. Only when, during a visit to the archives in Le Havre, I came across Eddy Florentin’s book Quand les alliés bombardaient la France (Paris: Perrin, 1997) did I realise that the attacks on Le Havre, aimed at dislodging the German garrison there, were the culmination of an Allied bombing campaign against targets throughout occupied France waged since the defeat of June 1940. What had started as a short summer project now seemed to hold the potential for something much bigger.

Ignorance, though, was a wise counsel. Having finally finished off various politics projects, and taken the summer of 2006 to write an article on ‘The Destruction and Liberation of Le Havre in Modern Memory’, I decided to ask a proper historian to read the manuscript before I submitted it for publication. I chose Richard Overy, on the strength of his excellent book The Air War 1939-1945 (London: Europa, 1980). At this point luck intervened. Richard happened to be putting together a team to bid for an AHRC grant on bombing in Western Europe – not from the perspective of the bombers, but from that of the states and peoples on the receiving end. He asked me to come in and cover the French side, alongside himself and Claudia Baldoli (who took care of Italy). The AHRC accepted our bid and suddenly, in September 2007, I had not only the ambition to move from the article about Le Havre to a bigger work on France, but the means to do so. In particular, travel funds allowed me archive time not only in Paris but also in a range of provincial cities – Rouen, Nantes, Rennes, Saint-Lô, Marseille, Lyon, Toulon – where the impact of air raids had been greatest. Such visits would have taken many months only a few years before, but the digital camera has changed that: the speed with which it can capture images of documents meant that I rarely spent a week in a single place. More than any other piece of kit, my little Canon helped get the AHRC value for money.

Like many academics, I incline to the ‘lone scholar’ habit of work. But the AHRC grant brought me into a research team. ‘Bombing, States, and Peoples in Western Europe’, as our joint project was called, included, as well as Richard Overy, Claudia Baldoli and myself, two postdocs (Stephan Glienke and Vanessa Chambers) plus two excellent Ph.D students, Marc Wiggam at Exeter with Richard, and Lindsey Dodd, who worked at Reading with me. And the team model was a real success. The chance to meet regularly with valued colleagues and compare progress on our shared interest was hugely rewarding, all the more so as we were now well financed, and had in Richard a mentor whose erudition was matched only by his intellectual generosity.

1stWave Havre  050944

The first minutes of the attack on Le Havre, 5 September 1944 (The National Archives, WO 223/29)

I began work on France in tandem with Lindsey Dodd, who had previously studied French history at Sussex with the remarkable Professor Rod Kedward. Our relationship at the start was an odd one because, unlike most Ph.D. supervisors, I was almost as much of a newcomer to the subject as she was. Neither of us knew much about which French targets the RAF and the Americans had gone for, or why, or how the French had reacted. The obvious way forward was to head off to the National Archives together and write a joint article. The result, ‘“How Many Frenchmen did you kill?” British Bombing Policy Towards France (1940-1945)’ appeared in French History late in 2008 (a year after my Le Havre piece had made it into War in History). Then Lindsey started on her own search for survivors from Brest, Lille and Boulogne-Billancourt. They would supply the material for her unique contribution to our collective bombing project, which was to develop and deploy the skills and interest in oral history which she had begun to acquire at Sussex. Her thesis on ‘Children under the Allied Bombs: France 1940-1945’ got her a Reading Ph.D in 2011.

As for my plans, when Richard had asked early on ‘What do you think we should offer in the way of outputs?’, my immediate choice was a joint book on France and Italy, to be done with Claudia. Comparing these two countries – largely left out of accounts of Europe’s bombing war hitherto – would be both innovative and in the spirit of the team’s collaborative ethos. Fortunately Claudia agreed: even more fortunately, she was brilliant to work with. That is reflected in the end product: whatever its faults may be, our book Forgotten Blitzes (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) is a genuinely joint work, with the material on each country juxtaposed and dovetailed and compared in every section of every chapter.

The AHRC project ended – or at least, the money ran out – in September 2010. The AHRC seemed to like what we had all done; at least, they rated us ‘outstanding’. By then the project had acquired enough momentum to carry on under its own steam. Claudia got most of us invited to Florence to a symposium about the bombing of Italy late in 2010. The main project book (also called Bombing, States, and Peoples in Western Europe) appeared with Continuum in 2011, and Forgotten Blitzes a year later. My work fed into the Leverhulme-funded ‘Liberal Way of War’ project here at Reading, and to an edited book with Hilary Footitt (Liberal Democracies at War) that came out with Bloomsbury in 2013. Richard’s monumental The Bombing War appeared with Allen Lane a few months later. Lindsey’s thesis should appear as a book in 2015.

Meanwhile I had been contacted from France. This started quite early on, rather to my surprise. First Patrick Facon, one of the rare French specialists on bombing, asked me to a conference in Paris in June 2007. I don’t know how he got hold of my name, as I had published nothing in the field then. But a short book came out of it, including a French version of my Le Havre article. On the strength of that, in 2008, Dominique Monteiro of Aber Images, a TV production company based in Brest, asked me to help with a documentary. Nothing much came of that until 2011, when I was interviewed, on the fourteenth floor of Le Havre’s Town Hall, for ‘Nantes sous les bombes alliées’, an hour-long programme which went out on French regional television in November 2012. The director, François Gauducheau, did a remarkable job, cutting and editing archive footage, plus interviews with three historians and half a dozen survivors, into a compelling narrative without a word of voice-over.

An altogether more ambitious proposition came to me in 2011 in an e-mail from an independent documentary-maker, Catherine Monfajon. She proposed a documentary on the bombing, not of a single city, but of the whole of France, and for national prime-time television. Catherine and I met in Paris that December and I passed her everything I had written and my whole computer archive. Perhaps it was on the strength of that that she asked me to be her historical consultant. This proved hard work. Whereas François Gauducheau had taken a back-seat approach, letting the footage and the interviewees speak for themselves, Catherine wanted to understand everything, to write the script (there would be voice-over, and interviews with survivors but not historians), to frame the narrative her way. Her questions, as we worked together through autumn 2012, she in her house near the Gironde estuary, myself in Reading, were incessant. I must have sent her 50,000 words of e-mails. But she drew me into the project, and of course I learnt much more as I tried to find answers.

Knapp in Havre Town Hall 030914

Le Havre Town Hall, 3 September 2014

One reason I wanted to work for Catherine was that it has always been at least as important to me to be read and heard and recognised in France as in the UK. I had always hoped to find a French publisher for Forgotten Blitzes. My first choice was Éditions du Seuil: they had done a French version of Gaullism since de Gaulle (which ran to a very self-indulgent 900 pages), and my wonderful editor from those days, Anne Sastourné, was still there. But nothing doing: too specialised, too technical, they said. Ah, but Anne had a friend at Tallandier, Dominique Missika, and it might be more her cup of tea. It was – largely, I think, because of Catherine’s film. If there was a tie-in with a prime-time documentary, said Dominique, and if it all happened in spring 2014, in time for the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of France, then perhaps a book about bombing could work. Of course, there could be no question of paying a translator to do the job. If there was going to be a French book, I was going to have to do it, as I had done Le gaullisme après de Gaulle for Seuil.

A French book, yes; but not the same book as Forgotten Blitzes. To begin with, Dominique wanted a book about France only. Out went the Italian half, rather to my regret. Claudia, as ever, was understanding and let me go ahead. Then again, Dominique wanted more statements from survivors. That was fine: I could use material for which there had not been room in the English book. And I soon realised that while there were things that I did not need to explain to a French audience (who would know more than a British one, about France’s wartime Vichy regime, for example), there were other things that had to be gone into more deeply – in particular the British and American reliance on air power and on bombers, on which the French literature is sparse. So this was not so much a translation as a complete rewrite, from the different perspective – almost a different persona – that I find I take on when I start writing in French. That said, Dominique was not so foolish as to leave me without a linguistic safety net; she made sure the excellent Jean-François Mathieu was there to check my grammar…

Les Français sous les bombes alliées came out with Tallandier in April 2014. A month later Catherine’s film, La France sous les bombes alliées, was shown on France 3 to an audience of 3.4 million. Then I sat down with Sylvie Barot (virtually – we were about 200 miles apart) and wrote a press article about French civilian casualties in the battle for Normandy. As the former municipal archivist in Le Havre, Sylvie had been there when I began researching local Communism thirty-five years ago, and was an ideal partner for this project. Our piece made it onto a full page (or nearly) of Le Monde on 2 June, four days before the D-Day anniversary commemorations. And on the strength of it the two of us were invited (along with several hundred other people – we seemed to be surrounded by US Navy officers) to the presidential grandstand for the celebrations on the beach at Ouistreham. President Hollande’s speech at Caen on the morning of that 6 June had made specific mention of the French civilians who had died in air raids – the first time a French president had made such a public acknowledgement on such a day.

Hollande 6 June

Ouistreham, 6 June 2014: President Hollande emerges from the sand on a giant screen

The summer of 2014 brought me as close as I am ever likely to get to Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame: several public lectures, radio and press interviews, two (short) television appearances, and a big conference in Le Havre in September. My respect for politicians rose slightly when a journalist shoved a microphone at me and asked for a sound-bite; like most people after a hard afternoon’s work, I said the first thing that came into my head, and it wasn’t very bright. Back in Reading, I am preparing to turn the Le Havre conference into a book, and planning two visits to Paris, one to speak to the French branch of Amnesty and one to talk about the contrasting memories of bombing in West European countries.

Although my work has been based more on archives than on oral witness statements, it has been my privilege to meet and correspond with survivors of the bombing. Here are a few. Charlotte Barbotin, who recalled how her Rouen suburb ‘seemed to have been ploughed up by a drunken titan’. Max Potter, son of the Daily Mail’s correspondent in Paris in 1940, who had become a Frenchman because that June, his family had missed the last boat out of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Michèle Agniel, who with her family sheltered downed RAF aircrews (both her parents were deported to camps). Jean Costes, a former Red Cross worker from the Paris suburb of Juvisy, who wondered why the RAF used delayed-action bombs, when they so obviously put the emergency services at risk. My old friend Alain Épois – who had never spoken to me about these matters before I sent him the book – who at age 4, in April 1944, survived the 1,000 tons the RAF dropped on La Chapelle, apparently untroubled by the experience, but who found himself sobbing uncontrollably at the sound of a siren during the VE-day celebrations a year later (sirens still provoke unease among many survivors). Or the unknown woman, born in 1941, who told me that while of course she remembered the bombing, ‘our generation wasn’t supposed to have any memory: everything was supposed to have started afresh in 1945’. In direct contrast to the British case, where the Blitz has been woven into the national identity, Allied bombing has not formed part of the general narrative of France in World War 2. Catherine’s documentary was the first to deal with the subject at national level; my book was only the second to do so, after Florentin’s. One of our tasks had been to bring an experience remembered by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people, but barely acknowledged by historians, out into the open.

Jean Costes

Jean Costes with niece Marie-Claire and daughter Marie-Odile

Seventy years on, none of these witnesses bore resentment at what they, or their towns or neighbourhoods, had suffered. But others, whom I met at public lectures in Le Havre or the little southern town of Sisteron, remained angry because they had never been given a satisfactory reason for the destruction of their towns and the killing of their relatives. For some, only the most sinister explanations would suffice. The Americans, apparently, had attacked Sisteron to show they were the new masters in Europe. The British had deliberately bombed civilians in Le Havre to pressure the supposedly ‘humanist’ German commanding the city’s garrison to surrender; or they had been trying to eliminate France as a post-war economics competitor.

I don’t believe these interpretations, for which there is no serious archival or other evidence. But the truth is quite horrible enough. However much I have enjoyed the project – and I have – the story I have to tell is a very dark one. The Allies dropped over half a million tons of bombs on France – nearly seven times what the British received at the hands of the Luftwaffe. Over 57,000 French civilians were killed – a figure barely short of the 60,595 British. That each was an individual tragedy was made clear to me at the archives in Rennes, where faces of the unknown dead stared out from the makeshift coffins in which they had been photographed for possible identification.

Certainly, some of the Allied raids, for example RAF 617 squadron’s attack on the Gnôme-Rhône engineering works at Limoges in February 1944, were well conceived and impeccably executed. Many others, like the big attacks on the French rail system in Spring 1944, had their military justification – slowing German communications before D-Day – but caused massive ‘collateral damage’ to French civilians and their homes because they were so imprecise: RAF Bomber Command’s report rated the raid on Juvisy as ‘outstanding’, although only 13.7 per cent of the bombs hit the target. A third category of raids, like those on Lorient in January 1943, on a series of quiet Norman towns on D-Day, or on Le Havre on 5 September 1944, had no military justification that would bear scrutiny. Under the treaties that Britain (though not the United States) has signed since the war, these attacks would be regarded as war crimes. Though neither the British nor the Americans tried to kill French civilians (as the British certainly tried to kill German ones), they displayed no great sensitivity to them either. Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, commander of the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces, could talk of ‘flattening out’ Norman towns at a planning meeting in January 1944; the Daily Express, on 6 September that year, thought fit to crow that ‘1,000 tons smash down on Havre’.

To look at it from the French side is to see a world turned upside down. It was the Allied liberators who rained down destruction on the French in 1944 (indeed, from 1940); the propagandists of the Vichy regime, which collaborated with the German occupiers, did not have to stretch the truth very far to underline the horror of the raids. And it was Vichy that tried, in extremely difficult conditions (the German occupiers caused shortages of both raw materials and labour), to organise rescue and relief. Of course, the regime had little choice. Not to be seen to try and look after civilians exposed to air raids would have lost Vichy what threadbare legitimacy it still had after 1942. For me, though, it was still odd and unsettling to find, in the archives, a succession of perfectly sensible circulars about civil defence or allowances for bombed-out families that were signed by men like Pierre Laval, René Bousquet, or even Joseph Darnand: some of the vilest figures of twentieth-century French history, all active in the repression of the Resistance and the deportation of Jews to extermination camps.

Did the French people fall for Vichy’s propaganda? Were they impressed by the regime’s efforts to take care of them? Opinion polls were still in their infancy and had in any case been forbidden since the start of the war. But like any self-respecting police state, Vichy did open everybody’s mail, listen to telephone conversations, and record the results with scrupulous care. The records show that many of the French welcomed the earlier raids, in 1942. They were not yet very widespread, and they proved that the British were still in the war and capable of hitting German targets. In 1943, however, opinion began to sour. That September, three American raids on Nantes claimed nearly 1,500 lives in just a week. Expectations that bombing was the prelude to a speedy Allied landing were disappointed. By the eve of D-Day, after three months of heavy raids on rail targets, French trust in the British and Americans had been stretched to breaking-point. One Resistance agent in France wrote that American ineptitude had done more to damage the Allied cause than four years of Nazi and Vichy propaganda. That did not mean the French were any friendlier to the Germans, whose occupation was becoming more oppressive by the day; or that they became any more convinced by the tawdry appeal of Laval and collaboration. But Marshal Pétain, the regime’s figurehead, could still draw impressive crowds when he attempted, in a series of brief and pathetic speeches during visits to Paris and other Northern cities, to share in the nation’s sorrows. At the other end of the spectrum, the British and Americans managed to make their ally Stalin look like a great humanitarian: ‘he would never have allowed something like this’, people said in Marseille after a raid of 27 May 1944 that left over 1,800 dead.

Whatever their opinion of the Allies, however, the French declined to take it out on the Allied airmen who dropped into their midst from the skies. The dead were treated with respect; the living – who in many cases had been bombing French targets minutes earlier – were hidden, and some 2,000-3,000 were spirited out of the country. In a glowing tribute to France’s civilian ‘helpers’ the head of RAF Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur (‘Bomber’) Harris, wrote that ‘Men, women and indeed sometimes even small children led our airmen from hiding place to hiding place. They tended their wounds, they bought them rail tickets, they carried them hidden in farm carts, they passed them safely through cordons and barriers, they misled and confounded the enemy’s search’ – all the time knowing that the penalty for aiding escapers was death.

Finally, the French helped one another, too. In their tens of thousands they joined the rescue and relief services, risked their lives to dig the trapped and wounded out of ruined buildings and carry them to safety, found space in their homes, and clothes, and money, and food, for the bombed-out. In the midst of my dark story, it was these acts of common human decency on the part of men and women of the stamp of Jean Costes, the Red Cross volunteer who carried stretchers through the wreckage of Juvisy one night in April 1944, that most inspired me. It was to them that I dedicated Les Français sous les bombes alliées. And I am proud to call Jean Costes my friend.

To learn more about Professor Knapp’s research, as well as for information about undergraduate and post-graduate study at Reading, please visit the website of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading. To keep up with all of the Department’s research, as well as to receive updates from our students, staff, and alumni, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.

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Reading Researchers: Dr Melani Schröter on Language and Silence

In a regular feature, we’ll bring you updates from “Reading Researchers,” highlighting the innovative and compelling research that members of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies are pursuing. For the latest installment, we’ve asked Dr Melani Schröter, Assoociate Professor in German Studies, to update us on her work on silence and absence in discourse and communication. We wanted to know why, when a lot of silence passes by unnoticed, some doesn’t. Here’s what Dr Schröter has to say:

M.ShroeterThere are so many things that people never say – beneath what people do talk about, there is a deep ocean of the unsaid, because we cannot spell out everything we ever perceive or think; we do not want to talk about everything we experience; we seem to even be unable to put some feelings or experiences into words; and some topics (e.g. excretion or death) are no-go areas in many situations. However, these things are hardly ever perceived as silence.

I am fascinated by the question of what makes some absences in communication go by unnoticed and what makes others come to be perceived as silence, and what makes some silences more communicative, more notable than others. There are conventional silences, like a minute of silence at remembrance rituals or at funerals. They have some sort of agreed meaning, to signify mourning or respect. Here, we expect people to remain silent, we know roughly what silence means in these situations and it would be unexpected and unacceptable to disrupt these silences with speech.

These are in my view not the most communicative silences. More interesting and more puzzling to me are those silences that people only perceive as silence because they have expected that something would have been said – e.g. a missing answer to a question. It is the disappointed expectation of presence that makes an absence noticeable. If we did not expect anyone to say anything (about a certain matter), then we would not perceive this as an absence. This is the place where secrets are safe – when we do not even have a clue that something might be hidden. Only once we know that there is a secret will we perceive the silence around it.

We also have to have reason to assume that a person is silent about something deliberately. There are ‘symptomatic’ silences, like speechlessness after a shock, but we would not assume that people in such a situation are trying to ‘tell’ us something (like ‘bugger off’) or to conceal something with their silence – we would understand that it is symptomatic rather than symbolic behaviour.

The most notable silences are those where we think that a person is intentionally silent, when we have to interpret this silence as an act of communication; indicating, for example “I don’t want to talk about this”, “I don’t want to/I am not allowed to talk to you (about this)”, “I cannot be bothered by you (at the moment)”, etc. There may be ‘accidents’, though; sometimes people’s headphones are quite concealed; you might ask them a question and get no reply, which might trigger one of the above interpretations.

In many situations, it also matters whether or not a silence is about something relevant. We find it amusing when children hide objects and make a secret out of things that seem completely irrelevant for anyone outside that child’s mental universe. We might have ‘accidents,’ such as this one: “Why did you not tell me about X?” “Oh, I did not think X was important.” When people don’t talk about something that we find irrelevant, we will hardly ever perceive this as a silence.

Therefore, silence becomes most meaningful and communicative, and often also urgent and disturbing when we expected that something would have been said (about a certain matter), when we have reason to assume that something has been deliberately left out and when what we miss is relevant to us.

dapsac_48_hbIn my book Silence and concealment in political discourse (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2013), I investigated these constellations in the contexts of politicians’ silences and political scandals. At present, I continue work in this area by looking at public debates in present day Germany in which some groups or their exponents try to conquer discursive ground by claiming that their views are the views of a silent majority which is silenced by taboos set up by a vocal minority. They claim that they are bravely breaking these taboos and thereby fight for their own and everyone’s right to freedom of speech, but in essence it is a debate that we know since the advent of political correctness, involving the difficult question of whether there should be freedom of hate speech as well…watch this space, part of UKIP’s discourse moves along these lines, too.

For more information about Dr Schröter‘s ongoing research projects, as well as for information about how you can pursue similar interests as an undergraduate or post-graduate student, please visit the website of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading. To keep up with all of the Department’s students, staff, and alumni, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.