Anita Savo, Portraying Authorship

Prof. Anita Savo on Her Book Project, Portraying Authorship

Photo of Anita SavoMy book manuscript in progress, Portraying Authorship: Juan Manuel and the Rhetoric of Authority, emerged from my dissertation research on Don Juan Manuel, a fourteenth-century Castilian nobleman, politician, soldier, and writer. Portraying Authorship tells the story of how Juan Manuel convincingly positioned himself as an author, despite lacking what his contemporaries would consider the proper credentials. For medieval readers, an author was someone who lived and wrote in the distant past, such as the venerated writers of ancient Greece and Rome, or the Church fathers from the early days of Christianity. But in the fourteenth century, vernacular writers like Dante, Petrarch, Guillaume de Machaut and Juan Manuel self-consciously established themselves as authors using a variety of strategies, ranging from how they portrayed themselves to how they wanted their works to be copied.

The most challenging aspect of this project has been developing a theoretical framework. I don’t often use contemporary theory in my research, but the work of Michel Foucault has informed my book in some important ways. First and foremost is his concept of the “author function” from his 1969 essay, “What Is an Author?” (“Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?”), which establishes special linguistic, literary, and juridical relationships between a text and its author. But more broadly, I have come to understand the persuasive aspect of Juan Manuel’s authorship by drawing a parallel between Foucault’s notion of discourse and the medieval discipline of rhetoric. In the Middle Ages, rhetoric was the science of using language to persuade other people that what you were saying was the truth. For Foucault, a discourse is a set of utterances with a cohesive force that can give it the appearance of a universal truth, even though it is ultimately made up of language, created in a particular time and place to serve a particular purpose. Juan Manuel worked in a manuscript culture, but the strategies he used to convince us of his authorship—such as requesting that his works be reproduced exactly as he wrote them—are similar to the strategies writers would use after the arrival of the printing press to Europe. Because his approach to authorship coincides with the one that would later become successful, it begins to seem inevitable and universal: it takes on the force of a discourse.

One of the most rewarding parts of the project has been the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues and students to share ideas and get feedback. I met one of my closest friends and collaborators through our shared interest in Juan Manuel, and we’ve spent a lot of time poring over medieval manuscripts at the Biblioteca Nacional and talking about how features like page layout and decoration can give clues about medieval ideas of authorship. Thanks to a UROP grant, I also had the pleasure of working with Spanish minor Riley Magane on a chapter about how Juan Manuel adapted the strategies of biblical commentary to serve his own goals as an author. The idea that writing a book is a solitary endeavor, the product of a single mind, is part of our own modern discourse of authorship, a product of the Romantic movement in the nineteenth century. But it’s also a fiction: my book, like most books, would not exist without the collaboration and support of many people.

Story originally posted January 2022.