Whatever happened to the Festschrift? And has anyone written about them?

Has anyone written about the history of publishing Festschrift ? There doesn’t seem to be an obvious English equivalent term. They are/were books dedicated to an author at the time of a significant birthday or retirement. Books of celebration, homage or tribute, or commemoration. In French they are sometimes titled as Mélanges, or hommage to someone. They are very often uneven, sometimes including stuff which might never have been published otherwise, and I can understand why publishers were or became reluctant to do them. I can’t imagine they sold very well, and like other edited collections they probably suffered from people only wanting a few pieces, which they might photocopy, but not buy the whole text. The only time I remember being asked to be involved in one it didn’t happen, partly because publishers were reluctant, and the idea shifted to be a thematic collection which was dedicated to the person. But for a period – possibly post-second world war until the 1970s – they were quite common, some people published in them frequently – often making it hard to find copies of their work.

Did anyone ever get invited, contribute something, and then get told that it didn’t fit or wasn’t good enough? How did they handle review, if at all? Was the selection process just about who got invited, and then it was too hard to turn someone down? Some of the pieces seem like “I had an idea, here’s some odd notes on it” – the sort of thing which might, today, be very hard to place. (Possibly with good reason. Though the difficulty of publishing things which are more than a review and not quite an article might be a different discussion.) Did people contribute both to honour the recipient, or because they couldn’t say no, but also to get a contributor copy of something which might have some other interesting pieces in it, and which might be hard to track down otherwise?

They seem like a relic of a different kind of publishing – doubtless filled with problematic gender, race and class discrimination in terms of who was honoured, invited to contribute, etc. or even had the sort of academic position that might be honoured in the first place. We might say then that whatever happened didn’t happen soon enough. But despite all this, which is certainly not minor, they can contain some interesting work…

A bit of looking led to how Alan Soble formulated 13 semi-serious conditions of which 11 are viewable without subscription, and the longest discussion I’ve found is a chapter in Irving Louis Horowitz, Communicating Ideas: The Politics of Scholarly Publishing.

But the semi-curious look for something on them is hindered by searches bringing up things that are themselves Festschriften, not about them. So, a semi-serious question about what happened to them – I think I know, but a more genuine one about whether anyone has tried to write a history of the genre.

[Update: thanks for the various comments online about this post. The best piece I’ve been told about is Graham Whitaker, “Unwrapping the Classical Festschrift” in In Stephen Harrison and Christopher Pelling (eds.), Classical Scholarship and Its History: From the Renaissance to the Present. Essays in Honour of Christopher Stray, De Gruyter, 2021. Thanks to Nathan Uglow for this suggestion.]

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