GEMS in portraits: Youri Desplenter

IMGP0085.jpgFor our autumn interview, GEMS had the chance to talk with Youri Desplenter. Although in fact a medievalist, he is closely involved with GEMS because of the intricate connection between the two periods. Youri’s specialty is Middle Dutch religious and moral-didactic literature, and the relation between vernacular and Latin literature in the Middle Ages. After finishing his dissertation on the translations of Latin hymns and sequences, he did a postdoctoral research on the translations of the Psalms, and on the writings of Jan van Leeuwen († 1378). As a professor of Dutch medieval literature, Youri is also a popular teacher.

How did your interest for your research arise?

In fact, my career path is as much the result of choice as it is of chance. I always was fascinated by the Middle Ages, ever since I was a child. Without realising it, I even read novels in the medieval way, i.e. didactically, as directions on how to perform in society. Likewise, religious practice interested me early on, as I had an uncle who was a priest. When I was looking for a subject for my master’s thesis, my promotor acquainted me with a manuscript containing Middle Dutch translations of Latin hymns and sequences. As very little was known about them, I tried to answer all the questions concerning their function, their coherence, why they had been translated, and their rate of appearance. I continued this research into my PhD, and in my first postdoc I expanded it to Middle Dutch translations of the Psalms. In fact, I continue writing on these subjects. For my second postdoc, I turned to the mystic author Jan van Leeuwen, also known as the cook-mystic of Groenendaal.

If you would summarise my academic career so far, it would fall into two branches: The Bible and the Liturgy on the one hand, and mysticism on the other, although they are of course inherently intertwined. Another, smaller branch that I am keen on working on more, is the role of law in medieval literature. What drives me most in my research endeavours is piecing together the puzzle that manuscripts confront us with. That, and the collaboration with other researchers. These inspiring encounters are definitely a part of the aspect of chance that I mentioned earlier.

Do you consider your research in general as interdisciplinary?

I couldn’t imagine doing non-interdisciplinary research. I am what you could call the inquisitive type, there are but a few things that could not inspire my interest. And that’s a good thing, for that matter, since one cannot but combine disciplines in order to grasp anything of the Middle Ages, or of the Early Modern period. Many aspects of society were so connected that they cannot be understood when studied separately. For example, I am currently preparing a master’s course and will in the future apply for funding for a project on the so-called ‘artes literature’. The academic, Latin texts on ‘scientific’ subjects of for instance geography, history, or medicine were mostly translated in Middle Dutch, but in many cases, little is still known about these translations so far.

Have you ever experienced a ‘Eureka moment’ during your research?

Definitely, yes. It happened when I was doing my first postdoc on the psalm translations. I was going through the content of a box of CD-ROMs, sent to me by the University of Pennsylvania and containing scans of the manuscript of a Middle Dutch translation of a Psalter. That is, by the way, how you notice that it happened some ten years ago. These days, instead of sending an entire box of CD-ROMs across the Atlantic they just send you an email. Anyhow, as I looked at the opening verses of the psalms, I noticed that they were identical to the ones in the Vorsterman Bible (1528). This is rather odd, given the histories of the Psalter and the Vorsterman Bible, respectively. The latter provoked some controversy at the time of publication, as it was said to be inspired by the Bible of Liesvelt (1526), who in his turn was believed to continue on Luther’s Bible translation. For a long time, Luther’s Hebrew references were considered an innovation, but in studying this manuscript from the last quarter of the fifteenth century, I found that it was not at all new. This style of translation had already existed before Luther, be it for a select public of specialists with an interest in Bible history. My Eureka experience did not go uncontested, however. A Dutch scholar refuses to accept that the manuscript preceded the Luther Bible, even though both paleographers and codicologists have attested to the date of production. Anyhow, upon realising the gravity of my discovery and its implications, I enjoyed the gratifying high of solving the mystery.

What is the most inspiring (literary) study you have ever read? And the most recent one?

This is not an easy question, I reckon, especially because my research is not propelled by conceptual theses, but by historical artefacts. Also, I read books and articles mostly in relation to what I am writing or researching at the time, not randomly. Still, at the beginning of my PhD, I have benefitted greatly from reading Stooker and Verbeij’s Collecties op orde: Middelnederlandse handschriften uit kloosters en semi-religieuze gemeenschappen in de Nederlanden. Its second part is a register of Middle Dutch manuscripts and the convents that have made or possessed them. The authors continued on the historicising, contextualising direction that literary history had taken since the 1980s. Methodologically, this was a confirmation of what I had anticipated intuitively, namely that I wanted to study literature in its historical context, and understand it in relation to its functionality. In a sense, I am more of a historian than a literary scholar. What attracts me in the study of medieval literature is that it combines these two disciplines. The most recent study that I found quite excellent and inspirational is perhaps Frits van Oostrom’s Wereld in woorden: geschiedenis van de Nederlandse literatuur 1300-1400, the second part of the new series on the history of Dutch literature. This kind of endeavour of bringing together such an amount of information is not performed very often anymore.

Yannice De Bruyn