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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Figuring Futures Seminar - Futures Perfect and Imperfect: Eschatological Bodies

26th October 2010, 17:30, Prior's Hall, Durham Cathedral, Professor Donald Maddox (University of Massachusetts)

This is the third seminar in the Figuring Futures seminar series.

The seminar series 'Through a Glass Darkly' is the flagship event of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in its inaugural year, 2010-11. Two interlinked themes will be addressed: 'Time, Art and Memory'; and 'Cultural Scripts, Augury and Prophecy'.

The Series is focused in particular on cultural scripts: the writing of the future within the literary and historical texts of the past, and their material contexts. A recurrent emphasis is the relation between anxiety and creativity: calling the future into question can inspire enduring, even visionary, thought and writing. Medieval and Renaissance thought resonates in various and interesting ways with later cultural attitudes, and seminars are intended to provide a lively forum for dialogue and debate. The Series includes nine eminent speakers (from the UK, Europe and the US) whose work spans a range of disciplines - English, French and Norse literature, history, theology and religion, cultural studies and the history of ideas.

In my talk I shall address what strikes me as a most auspicious general topic, described in the programme for the Series as "cultural scripts [and the] writing of the future within the literary and historical texts of the past . . . ." [with special emphasis on] "the process of past, present and future . . ."  Indeed, in most literary and historical works futurity is signified progressively within the comprehensive framework of the text.  Of course this process is by no means invariant, and experienced readers know quite well that the ways in which the future is signified can vary considerably from one text to another.  This also holds true of medieval texts, though given the frequent recycling of normative narrative patterns inherited from folklore and the propensity of medieval raconteurs and writers to retell or rewrite the same stories repeatedly over several centuries, futurity in medieval texts is often governed by the constraints of convention. 

We shall see that this is indeed the case in the early thirteenth-century Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian romances, also known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle.  My objective is twofold:  on the one hand I wish to analyze the ways in which the future is progressively constructed and signified within the Cycle, and I also want to show how the temporal architecture of the Cycle relies to a remarkable extent on the depiction of human bodies as signifiers of futurity, hence my subtitle, "Eschatological Bodies."  I am especially interested in exploring the contemporaneous cultural implications of the corporeal signification of temporality in this monumental vernacular work from the early decades of the thirteenth century.

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