Fascination for literature and the Middle Ages – Interview with Prof. Markus Stock
By Anton Rizor
Professor Markus Stock is the Chair and an Associate Professor of the German Department and Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. He teaches classes in German language, literature and culture of the Middle Ages, with particular interest in German poetry throughout history. He researches medieval German literature and culture, giving special attention to the legacy of Alexander the Great. I was able to ask him questions about his work in Canada, interest in German language and culture in Canada and his personal fascinations and career.
DKG: Prof. Stock, you are the Chair and Associate Professor for German and Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. How large is the interest in the German language and medieval literature?
Stock: I think you need to subdivide the answer to this question. We offer programs in German language, literature and culture. In this department, including specialists, majors and minors, we have about 200 students. That, however, is not the number of students that take classes with us. That number is in fact much higher. We have about 300 students each year that start learning German. In my own research field of medieval German there are about 10 – 12 students per year. However, my area does play a larger role in the Master and PHD program – both in the German Department and the Centre for Medieval Studies.
DKG: Has interest in the German language increased or decreased over the years that you have worked in Canada?
Stock: The interest in German has definitely increased in the past few years. What we find is that the background of the people interested in the German language is very diverse. We have heritage speakers, people with special interest in the literature and cultural thought of Germany, students from other areas such as the Faculty of Music and increasingly many international students. There is a general fascination with Germany as an economic power, but also with the culture. I think we have seen an increase of about 30 – 40% over the last five years or so.
DKG: There is clearly an interest in the Canadian student body in the German language and literature, where did your fascination for German language, literature and Medieval Studies come from?
Stock: One does not start studying literature without fascination for literature. I grew up in a household, where books played a huge role. People, who enjoyed books surrounded me and I quite liked reading. It was not until I started studying at university that I found the study of the language itself highly interesting. In addition, I did not have any exposure to medieval German literature before university, so that was a big surprise that I found it so fascinating and endearing.
DKG: What can we learn from the language and culture of the middle Ages? What are the most important take-away from the period?
Stock: The most significant take-away from studying this era is that you realize that certain concepts, like love and loyalty, are continuously present. Also, that there are cultural problems that have a very long history in Europe. The field has become increasingly more important because I feel like we have become a more “presentist” society in Europe and North Amerika. It is very important to keep alive the thought that we come from somewhere and we go somewhere. An important historical dimension shapes our culture and concepts today. That is what I try to get across to students in my teachings. A more narrow take-away is that I find it fascinating to see how the sound and meaning of words and concepts changes – what and why some words change and others remain the same. A final take-away is the appreciation for literature as a specific form of humans to talk about the world, to think about the world. For me literature is so important because it is one of the few forms of how humans can look, at least through fiction, look into the soul of a human. Fiction can thereby deliver many perspectives on a situation.
DKG: How would you say has the position of literature in society evolved over time? Is modern technology a threat to literature?
Stock: When I refer to literature it does not necessarily just mean written down book literature. Instead, I mean a sort of fictional expression that can be formulated in all sorts of genres and media. I know that there are people, who are worried about fiction in printed book form. I am not too worried about that. People do not read and write less, they just use different media to do so. People do not relate less to story worlds; they just do it in different, quite creative, ways. For example, I find the whole phenomenon of fan fiction extremely interesting and I can find certain features of that in medieval literature as well. Media obviously changes and such changes cause upheavals, but this is not a threat to literature.
DKG: In your research the legends of Alexander the Great reoccur – why Alexander? What is his role in history in your history? Where does your fascination for him come from?
Stock: I was struck when I first learned what a widespread attention the life of Alexander the Great received over the centuries. Particularly, that his legends were not only shared in areas that we may have expected, but that the fascination with this figure were stretched to the remotest parts of Asia. Some of these stories were transculturally valid, but there are also huge variations. It is easy to imagine that Christian writer from France or Germany would have different views on Alexander compared to a Muslim writer from Asia. This transcultural aspect is not only one of transmission of stories about him, but also one of his own life. He is the great divider and unifier of cultures. There is a certain tendency to focus on the conquest and war of Alexander. I am more interested in cultural contact and the way these stories show Alexander exploring new things at the rims of the known world at the time.
DKG: How unique is Alexander? Is there someone who had a similar impact or legacy compared to him?
Stock: In this unique setup of transmission of stories, of the geographical span of his travels and stories, I do not think there is anyone similar to him. However, there are always people, who are fascinated with one person and claim that person is incomparable in history.
DKG: Personally, you received your Dr. phil. from the University of Göttingen. Now, you are in Toronto. Take me through your journey that got you here.
Stock: I have always been interested in the English-speaking world. In Germany, I studied both German and English language and literature. I did an Erasmus year in Edinburgh, Scotland during my time as an undergrad. Later I spent a year as a post-doc in the United States, which is when the plan formed to stay a little longer in North America. My family obviously played a big role and everyone was supportive of staying in North America. Then this position in Toronto came up and luckily, I got it. I really like the University of Toronto, my colleagues, the academic atmosphere, both the serious and the fun parts. Plus I like Toronto as a city and most importantly my family likes it here as well.
DKG: How would you compare the resources available for teaching and research in your particular field with Germany?
Stock: Toronto is unique, because it has one of the best libraries in the world. Whenever we have visitors from Germany, they are amazed at what we have here in the library. Obviously, we do not have any original medieval documents, so I rely on the growing digitization of documents in Germany. While that helps, my research often entails travelling to Germany, Austria or Switzerland.
DKG: Finally, what advice would you give a young student interested in the field of German language and literature of the middle Ages?
Stock: I would say you have to let your fascination guide you. I know many people who are not fascinated by medieval literature and artifacts. Obviously, that is fine, but when the subject does not fascinate you, you will not follow through with it. Other than that, it is important to have fun at little detective work when analyzing sometimes difficult-to-read medieval writing. You have to like puzzling out complex syntactic structures in a language that seems relatively easy at first, but at closer look is more difficult.