The Modern Humanities Research Association: A Brief History

By David A. Wells (Honorary Secretary 1969-2001; Honorary Treasurer, 2001-09)

The Modern Humanities Research Association is today the leading British-based learned society representing the language-based arts disciplines apart from the British Academy itself. It is entirely independent of state funding. Since its academic editors and charity trustees devote their energies to the well-being of the Association and the production of its publications on a purely voluntary basis in addition to their regular employment as university teachers and researchers, the Association enjoys its reputation for scholarship of the highest quality free of state finance and governmental interference, in a condition of intellectual and moral integrity no longer shared by the British university sector as a whole.

Brian Westerdale Downs (1893-1984), as Fellow and Master of Christ's College: portraits © Christ's College, Cambridge

The MHRA was founded as the Modern Language Research Students Association in 1918 in Christ’s College, Cambridge, in the rooms of Dr Brian W. Downs, a College Fellow who in 1956 as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge again showed his support for modern languages through his involvement as a founder of the International Conference on Scandinavian Studies, soon to develop into the International Association for Scandinavian Studies. On the occasion of the 1918 foundation Downs, together with a small group of colleagues, felt that, at a time when the modern and medieval languages and literatures were still seeking to establish themselves beside the established discipline of Classical studies, with even English occupying a relatively subordinate role, an association of scholars dedicated to the modern languages on an interdisciplinary basis with its own publication could play a part in furthering their interests and giving them respectability among the much longer established humanities subjects. As explained by John H. Fisher in his address to the American Branch of the Association in 1971, these younger faculty members and graduate students argued that the way forward for the subject lay not in ‘philological study of the modern languages pursued in imitation of the classics, nor in inspirational teaching in the Arnoldian tradition, but rather [...] in research to learn more about literature and language and in the publication of this research for the benefit of other scholars’; and in the conviction that research improves teaching. The term ‘modern humanities’ was adopted soon afterwards in 1918. It was intended to embrace the European-tradition languages and literatures including English, and to stand in contrast to the term ‘modern languages’, which in Britain and British-tradition universities is restricted to modern foreign languages, excluding English, the latter being almost always established in its own school or department; this historical differentiation has merely been reinforced in recent years by the alarming relative decline in student numbers where the non-English languages and literatures are concerned. Unfortunately the term ‘modern humanities’ is nowadays obsolete if it was ever used to any substantial extent. It causes an understandable confusion among enquirers as to whether the Association includes the disciplines of history, art history, education, philosophy, and music among its objectives (which it does not), and even as to whether its members are humanists in the philosophical sense (which they may or may not be), or pursue a humanely ethical investment policy. This leads the executive in a sense to deplore the name of the Association which nowadays would never have been chosen for a modern languages society, while at the same time proudly assuming that most English specialists and modern linguists at least in the traditional British universities have some idea of the nature and function of the MHRA. But the early change of name appears to have been due to no particular ideology — indeed the founders of the MHRA do not appear to have conceived of themselves as a militant pressure group for their subject in general, in the same way as the early members of the Modern Language Association of America — but merely to avoid confusion with the (British) Modern Language Association, a society founded in 1893 and representing the interests of teachers of foreign languages in the British secondary school system, now refounded as the Association for Language Learning with a no less pedagogical emphasis.

The founders of the MHRA appreciated from the outset what large numbers of modern foreign linguists have subsequently learned only with difficulty and to their own cost, that the subject of modern languages and literatures as a whole is most likely to prosper as a scholarly discipline when individual language areas within the university institution co-operate rather than set themselves up in chauvinistic competition with each other. A statement about the Association’s aims, which was reprinted for many years in its Annual Bulletin, asserts that ‘our purpose is to encourage and promote advanced study and research in the field of the modern humanities, especially modern European languages and literatures (including English). We are concerned to break down the barriers between scholars working in different disciplines and to maintain the broader unity of humanistic scholarship in the face of increasing specialization.’ At the same time this idealism was tempered with a very practical view of the means of achieving these aims. As early as the second general meeting of the Association it was affirmed that publication of research was, together with recruitment of members, the best way forward, and the fledgling Association began to give financial support to, and in 1922 took over editorial control of, the Modern Language Review, already published by Cambridge University Press since 1905 on behalf of the (British) Modern Language Association. The appointment of successive editors of the highest calibre in the different language areas effectively ensured the survival of the journal and its development as the best-known British-based quarterly periodical dedicated to the modern languages, including English. This position has been unchanged in the history of the MHRA, which has always regarded the Modern Language Review as its flagship journal, and the first priority in the competition for the Association's resources. A typical annual volume today includes some 1,300 pages, each issue divided more or less equally between English, the Romance, the Germanic, and the Slavonic languages and literatures. A substantial proportion of pages, typically about half, are dedicated to book reviews.

The early members of the Association also knew that a major aid to scholarship in the relatively young discipline would take the form of bibliographies, and these have always maintained a high profile in the publishing portfolio. The Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature was launched in 1921 with the almost impossible object ‘to list annually all scholarly books and articles concerning English and American language and literature published anywhere in the world’. In spite of repeated difficulties in finding scholars willing to give up voluntary time to serve as contributors to the work, it has survived both the information explosion since the 1960s and the bureaucratization of the profession in many English-speaking countries which has led to an artificial devaluation of the value of important research-supporting activities such as bibliography, review, and editorial activity. After the usual familiar setbacks encountered in adapting to electronic technology, the work is now available to subscribers in online format, for the whole back archive, as well as in the traditional printed text.

The need for bibliography was recognized for the modern foreign languages also. In order not to compete with individual national bibliographies, The Year’s Work in Modern Language Studies, founded in 1930, set out to be an annual critical bibliography of work done in a range of languages and literatures, currently seeking to include (to the extent that specialist contributors are available in any given year) Medieval Latin, Neo-Latin, French, Occitan, Spanish, Spanish-American, Catalan, Portuguese, Galician, Italian, Romanian, Welsh, Breton, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian. Here the narrow definition of ‘modern languages’ as meaning foreign languages to the exclusion of English is reaffirmed, but this has a rationale in the separate existence of the Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature and in the fact that a similar critical bibliography for English, The Year's Work in English Studies, is edited by a different society, the English Association.

A jovial Stanley Aston points the camera to his colleague in English, John Andrew, who later became Master.
(By kind permission of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, PHOT/7/Aston)

In the years immediately after the Second World War and into the late 1960s the MHRA was energetically renewed and expanded, in particular by the dynamism of one man, Dr Stanley C. Aston, Fellow of St Catharine's College, Cambridge. The building up of contacts resulted in a flourishing American Branch which, however, has not survived more recent changes in professional attitudes among the younger generation, nor the increasing emphasis on the publishing, as distinct from the social, role of the Association. Thanks to Stanley Aston the MHRA was one of the founder member-associations of the International Federation for Modern Languages and Literatures (FILLM) reconstituted after World War II under the aegis of the International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies (CIPSH), the non-governmental organization responsible for representing the humanities at UNESCO. Stanley Aston was for many years concurrently active as Secretary-General, and later President, of the FILLM, and this connection appears to have made its mark on the constitutions of both the FILLM and the CIPSH, for it appears that the electoral system of vice-presidents of both these bodies, in which an appropriate proportion of the office-bearers retire at each general meeting and the remainder are permitted to serve another term or two terms respectively, was modelled on that of the MHRA and adopted by the more international bodies on Aston’s recommendation. It is of course the case that Stanley Aston himself was too strong-willed to appreciate that illness and death among the vice-presidents can play havoc with such carefully designed systems of rotation! For many years the historical connection, together with a genuine appreciation of the international spirit represented by the UNESCO-linked bodies, made the MHRA as loyal a member association of the FILLM as any; but changes in the political structure and attitudes of UNESCO from at least the 1990s on, and its recent effective abandonment, following years of financial constraint, of any serious claim to represent the humanities disciplines to the international academic community, resulted in the secession of major learned societies from the FILLM and the almost inevitable discontinuance of MHRA membership in 2012. Although the link between the FILLM and CIPSH has not been dissolved, the FILLM itself is at the time of writing seeking a total regeneration based on admission to membership of a far great range of language and literature societies than previously, and such a change might make membership once again attractive to the MHRA. But the whole history of the international politics of UNESCO and the organizations it has claimed to sponsor, when contrasted with the activities of the MHRA, surely exemplifies the point that the real business of scholarship cannot be directed by semi-official bodies (whether international or national in character) but is carried out at the lower points in the UNESCO pyramid and ultimately by individuals and groups of scholars.

The three original publications described above survived the interruption of the Second World War and by the early 1960s were well established and well respected, and the Modern Language Review in particular, which published normally in English but also the occasional article in French, enjoyed a growing international reputation as the leading British journal to embrace all the major modern European-tradition languages. The Association, however, faced a fundamental problem as regards its future, one to which many smaller societies in the humanities have subsequently succumbed. In tandem with the publications, which for their management required a competent editorial team rather than a learned society as such, the MHRA was carried forward by an ethos of collaboration verging on conviviality among colleagues in the field, and indeed other similar bodies might have survived thus long as types of Oxbridge gentlemen’s drinking clubs without any serious academic purpose whatever. Such a picture of the MHRA would at any time have been a caricature, but it remains true that a nowadays old-fashioned form of networking by like-minded scholars of largely similar social background was a major factor in the role of societies of this type well into the twentieth century. With the enormous expansion of the profession from the 1960s and its subsequent bureaucratization and indeed professionalization in a negative sense, this kind of network lost its purpose. Coupled with this was the fact that individual members of MHRA received the Modern Language Review in return for their subscriptions, together with the possibility of obtaining the other publications at no less favourable discounts. In other words, the publications were effectively provided to members at the charge of the Association, which thus had very little prospect of building up its own funds even if such mercenary considerations had ever crossed the minds of its gentleman-scholar founders, which seems unlikely.

But in the new climate a drive for individual members, with the implication that membership of the MHRA conferred on them some peculiar advantages that modern linguists who were not members did not possess, became ever more unrealistic. Faced with the same situation, in North America the Modern Language Association opted for a new role, ensuring the benefits of size and relative wealth but arguably jettisoning an emphasis on the highest scholarly standards at any cost by transforming itself into a labour union for the profession and rewarding its members with a range of professional services including possibilities of employment and a guarantee of a viable income. The MHRA was centred in the United Kingdom, but embraced internationalism as fundamental to the discipline, and included a modest but significant percentage of overseas members. The comparable transformation of the MHRA, which unlike most of the other overarching international associations did not see the organization of conferences as part of its inherent role, was directed not towards a political and professional forum for modern linguists, but rather towards an enhanced emphasis on the potential publishing role of the Association. The decision was taken in 1963 to take the actual publishing function of the then three periodicals away from Cambridge University Press and into the hands of the Committee of the Association which would publish in its own right; the subscription for individual members was now linked to receipt of the Modern Language Review; and, provided that no financial advantage accrued to the Committee members, they were able, through registration of the Association as an unincorporated charity, to exploit the charitable (not-for-profit) status of the Association for purposes of tax exemption.

This decision for fundamental change, which accompanied and initiated the dynamic Honorary Treasurership of Professor Roy Wisbey (Honorary Secretary 1960-63; Honorary Treasurer 1963-2001), loyally supported throughout this whole period by the Assistant Treasurer, Mrs E. J. Wisbey, proved correct because it coincided with the beginning of the huge expansion in university institutions in Western countries from the late 1960s on. The MHRA adopted a realistic pricing policy — something until that date done astonishingly rarely by academics managing learned societies — which involved charging the market value, including a small surplus, for trade sales, mainly to libraries and subscription agencies; allowing a small discount to institutional members, effectively major university libraries which took all three publications and paid in a single lump sum in advance of publication; and charging substantial sums for back runs of the periodicals, which when purchased by new libraries in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in a major source of income. Together, these measures made it possible for the heavily discounted price charged to individual scholars to continue, but this has not been sufficient to enhance membership among the younger generation: too often one hears the comment that Modern Language Review is so readily accessible that there is no purpose in its purchase in hard copy by an individual for the occasional article, or even that nowadays the rooms of academics no longer contain sufficient shelving to house a long periodical run. Any additional benefit of membership of an Association such as the MHRA is perceived, in terms of career advancement, as negligible.

Although the membership list still includes subscribing individuals, the MHRA today in some respects resembles a small university press rather than a learned society as traditionally understood. A further disincentive to learned society membership has emerged in recent years in the context of state-driven competition for resources in subjects with declining student numbers and the closure of many university language departments, accompanied by the almost universal popular perception of language study as a crudely utilitarian pursuit divorced from the intellectual and cultural context which alone provides its ultimate raison d'être. Greater governmental control with formal research assessment exercises, and the pressure to direct humanities funding through the medium of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, have led to a greater emphasis on collective projects and the further shift of allegiance of the individual scholar away from the broad-based learned society towards ad hoc conferences on topical subjects for which the organizers hope to claim credit within their own university institutions. Nevertheless, the MHRA Committee maintains the spirit of a charity providing support to its subject disciplines, and although by managing the Association as a business this object can be pursued more effectively, academic criteria remain paramount in all decision-making and the increased wealth of the Association since the 1960s has been applied to that end.

The substantial expansion of the publications began in 1971 with the launch of the Yearbook of English Studies, originally conceived as an outlet for the many additional articles and reviews in the field of English which could not be accommodated in the Modern Language Review without distorting the subject-balance within each issue. While the text and format followed exactly those of the Review so that material could be switched from one organ to the other as necessary at the production stage, the Yearbook has gradually become a journal with its own character, and now normally takes the form of a themed annual volume. The immediate success of the Yearbook from the year of its inception was doubtless due not least to the fact that English language and literature as an academic discipline in the universities has enjoyed considerable success in upholding its position at a time when other humanities subjects and the modern foreign languages in particular appear under serious threat. From 1978 the Association agreed to take over the publication of the quarterly Slavonic and East European Review on behalf of the University of London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, and from 1984 made a positive commitment to a so-called minority language with the launch of the annual Portuguese Studies, the sixth journal in the publishing portfolio which after the twenty-year editorship of Professor Helder Macedo retained its link with King’s College London, though now with wide representation from other universities, and has expanded to biannual production. A general service to scholarship is provided by the MHRA Style Guide with its third edition published in 2013, a successor to the five editions of the MHRA Style Book which predated the full impact of electronic technology. This manual of English style for authors and editors is based on British usage. It is deliberately intended to be shorter and more manageable than its American counterpart, the MLA Style Manual, but changes in usage and above all in authorial practice resulting from the impact of the new printing technology have resulted in a substantial revision. The name change reflects the fact that the MHRA Style Guide is now available both in printed form and online.

The year 1970 had seen the launch of the series MHRA Texts and Dissertations which sought to be a prestige series for the publication of carefully selected dissertations of especial merit by younger scholars. Some 100 volumes were substantially subsidized by the Association, an exemplary illustration of its achievement of its charitable objects. Increasing production costs which have repeatedly seemed to make these books unviable – as is the case with single-author monographs on specialized topics in the modern languages field in general – were some years ago offset by the benefits of the new technology and the requirement that the authors, whose dissertations are of course nowadays always available in electronic format, submit their text in camera-ready copy according to specified guidelines. This in turn was succeeded by in-house production which assumed submission of near-perfect copy in electronic form. However, the possibilities raised by rapid electronic production and online publication, besides the immense success of the series Legenda mentioned below, of which many titles necessarily consist of revised dissertations, has led to the recent decision by the Committee that MHRA Texts and Dissertations has fufilled its purpose and should cease in its present form. While relatively few text editions in fact appeared within the series, the deficit has been abundantly compensated by the establishment in the relatively recent past of the prolific MHRA Critical Texts with its newer sub-series 'Phoenix' (on eigtheenth-century French drama) and 'Jewelled Tortoise' (on Aesthetic and Decadent literature). The past few years have also seen the establishment of three series dedicated to translations: New Translations, European Translations, and Tudor and Stuart Translations. Further innovative ventures include the MHRA Medieval Library of Welsh Literature and an online postgraduate journal, MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities.

Joint publication with other publishers of works which have no realistic hope of major commercial success has for long been a feature of the Association's activities, building on a Publications Fund of long standing in the postwar years. At least since the 1970s those closely involved with the Association’s business had been aware that, while the maintenance of the regular periodical production of the journals and bibliographies must remain the Association’s core activity, an obvious lacuna in the publishing programme was represented by the need for an outlet for single-author monographs and comparable collective volumes, a type of book which has become almost commercially unviable in the specialized world of the modern languages in particular. In 2004 the Association grasped the opportunity to acquire the prestigious series title Legenda, hitherto heavily subsidized by Oxford University. Over the next decade, some twenty to thirty volumes appeared annually in a flourishing venture undertaken in partnership with Maney Publishing of Leeds and London, structured according to a main series of titles covering a wide range of cultural topics besides several sub-series with a more subject-specific focus, a classification which closely reflects the growing trend towards interdisciplinarity in language and literature studies as in other humanities disciplines. The Association’s intimate relationship with Maneys dated back to the crucial decision to publish in its own right in the 1960s, and for fifty years this relationship was to reflect, and adapt to, most of the cataclysmic changes which impacted both on the learned societies and on the printing and publishing industry in the past generation. The Association initially relied on Maneys for the typesetting of its journals and books but tended to manage its whole subscription basis, for individual and institutional members, and trade customers, through the energetic dedication of its own Assistant Treasurer. As W. S. Maney & Son Ltd, a family business devoted to hot-metal typesetting and lithographic printing, evolved into Maney Publishing, an independent scholarly press producing journals and books by largely digital means, so the pattern changed. Maney became MHRA’s distributor and production arm, but the Association increasingly typeset its own material, insisting on authors and academic editors producing high-quality text in the first instance and drawing on the services of a number of freelance copy-editors under the overall supervision of its own Publishing Manager. With the advent of print-on-demand services, MHRA took its journal management entirely in-house, but the Legenda collaboration continued right up to August 2015, when Maney was bought by a US-based conglomerate and merged into Taylor & Francis. With the staff disbanded and the London and Leeds offices closed, Maney now existed only on paper. After cordial negotiations with Taylor & Francis, the Association at last became the full owner and operator of the Legenda imprint on 1 October 2016.

Ever since its foundation the MHRA has appointed an annual President of distinction from one of the language areas represented on a rotating basis. The function of the President is purely honorific, with the important exception that he or she delivers a Presidential Address,, on the occasion of the Annual General Meeting or otherwise, reigning as ‘king for a day’. The Association later publishes the Address. For many years the Association explicitly avoided organizing conferences. An exception occurred in August 1968 when a Jubilee Congress was held with speakers of distinction, and it was felt appropriate to publish the papers. This book, The Future of the Modern Humanities, appeared in 1969 and became the first in a prestigious, if very occasional, series of book publications, Publications of the MHRA, which has now reached 19 titles. In the more recent past other occasional conferences have been organized, usually in conjunction with other organizations, while the establishment of a Conference Fund with regulations explicitly designed to complement those of similar funds provided by the British Academy addresses this need in a manner more appropriate to modern conditions. A substantial sum is also contributed annually to the British Academy scheme for Small Research Grants in the Humanities, under which awards are identified with the MHRA as the source funder, while the applications are processed by the Academy with its much greater administrative infrastructure.

Conscious of its need, as a registered charity, to answer to a wider public than its own membership, the Association has also for the past 25 years administered a Research Associateships scheme. Since a small voluntary society cannot hope to compete with state and other large-scale funding bodies, nor can it cope with vast numbers of applications, the awards may be applied for, not by potential graduate students, but only by the academic directors of appropriate corporate ventures in areas such as major critical editions, bibliographies, or lexicographical projects. The successful applicants then appoint the graduate or postdoctoral Associate in conjunction with the Committee of the Association. During the period of these awards two, and in recent years three or four, have been appointed each year, and many of the young Associates have subsequently found that the work provided a bridge to their entry into more permanent membership of the academic profession. This well-established scheme is now enhanced by the addition of MHRA Research Scholarships, a one-year stipend for the support of early career researchers with the aim of enabling them to prepare their theses for publication and similarly enhance the opportunity for an academic career at a time of unsurpassed competition for lectureships.

The growing volume and complexity of the Association’s affairs, which for some years past have included the employment of a small number of full-time and part-time staff both in the central publishing and distribution area of the Treasurer’s Department and also on specific academic projects such as the collection of data for the Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature, besides a host of casual secretarial assistants, together with problems relating to investment management, the administration of intellectual property rights, and contractual arrangements for publication in both traditional and electronic format in collaboration with commercial partners, made the academic volunteers who have managed the Association over the years without the legal protection of limited liability vulnerable to unforeseen disasters. Accordingly, in line with other similar voluntary bodies, the MHRA, previously an unincorporated charity, was on 2 October 1997 incorporated in England as a charitable company limited by guarantee. In practice this has resulted in minor administrative and constitutional changes but not, it is hoped, in any long-term change to the essential academic ethos of the Association and least of all to the quality of its publications which continue to flourish and are currently illustrating the latest development in a period of rapid and exciting change as they begin to be disseminated to subscribers in on-line electronic versions as well as in the traditional printed format, the uncertain future of which, as for all academic publications in humanities subjects, is perhaps today the most vexed question in our field as a whole.

October 2004; revised November 2016

[Revised, expanded, and updated version of a paper published in Diogenes 198, vol. 50, no. 2 (2002), pp. 130-135; version française Diogène 198, no. 2 (2002), pp. 157-162. Reproduced by kind permission of the International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies. The opinions and emphasis are personal to the author and the text does not represent any formal statement of MHRA policy.]