Monday, February 11, 2008

Why I Teach Medieval Literature I

This post has been some weeks in the making and I'm not sure its done yet. It certainly needs a good deal of polishing. But here it is, at last, after two weeks of thinking about it. I'd like to hear from others on the question too.

The folks over at In the Middle were tagged with the "Why I teach" meme. I wasn't, but the comments there touch on things near and dear to me from defenses within the academy of why I/we do medieval (esp such arcane things as Old English, Old Norse, Anglo-Latin etc) and of what use are they, questions asked generally of the Humanities, but even within the Humanities there are those subfields that are looked at askance and need to defend themselves even more. And with fellow bloggers over there, I have to say that I could mount a rousing defense that in the end would be demolished for all sorts of reasons, and so get us to the suggested nihilism of Fish's recent comments (when taken at face value anyway): Study of the Humanities means nothing.

But I don't know that I agree either with Fish's actual intent and certainly not with his surface level meaning. Ok, I do know, I don't agree. But it made me think and ask why the Humanities, and specifically why medieval humanities? I wanted to think about not just why I teach, but why I teach what I teach.

Well, first, I teach Medieval Literature for me. I love the stuff. I love what it tells us about the period, how it appropriates the past, esp. the classical past, how it molds and melds language and motif from differing cultural traditions and combines all that into a foundation for something new. I love the interplay of literature and history, I love the manuscripts and codicological technologies that are yet with us, and being rediscovered in computers. There are few pieces of literature better than Beowulf, Old English Exodus, or Judith if you ask me. (And this gives me an idea for something else I've been trying to flesh out: how is it that I love this stuff while loving, but not quite as much, Gilgamesh, Genji, Odysseus, and Aeneas et al and how do they compare). Its beautiful, its moving, its complex, it both moves the soul and challenges the mind. So I teach it because of I love it. I hope to inspire others to at least appreciate it, if not love it, too.

I teach it because it tells us something about ourselves. Now I know this is true of any intellectual endeavor: the sciences at least in part study the human body, the genome, the brain, etc and our place in the universe. Other Humanities study, well, humans, the human condition. So why MEDIEVAL LITERATURE and LANGUAGES? Why not Jane Austen, the books to get lost in? Why not Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes? Or Dickens? Or African lit? Or Chinese history? (By the way, these are all subjects that I've delved into from time to time: I am if anything a restless mind). So that said, I'd like to address that one from a few different vantage points.

First, the question of why not something else is to a degree, well, silly. It implies that the Medieval is somehow less or other from some other field of Humanities study. It isn't. If I were a Miltonist or American historian the same question could be asked, "Why that and not this" and it would carry the same hidden implications. So "why medieval" rather than Li Po or Rashi is a question that to me has no value. All these are of value: and they all interconnect in some way. But I am but one person, and as G. K. Chesterton once said, if you try to stick the universe in your head, your head will crack. As much as I enjoy reading good literature and learning a language and reading history, anthropology, quantum physics, archaeology, theology, and so on, I can't be expert in it all, I can't study and teach it all. So I must pick and choose areas of expertise and be but a novice in all else. For me, I've chosen Medieval as that area of expertise and medieval literature and languages because the name fits so well: it is middle. This field enables me to study, read, and say at least a little something about the pre-Medieval past, about post-medieval early modern and later, about literary connections, about science, about other cultures and cultural contacts in the past and what that means for the present. So why medieval? Well, first I object to the implication that it is less worthy a field than others and second, because being "in the middle" (wonderful title of the blog I mentioned above too) is a great place to be because the middle of the wheel enables one to travel down all the spokes.

Second, there is the more utilitarian and practical reason. In spite of the rhetoric of the Englightenment and all that that our new, modern culture is "Roman" and based on Roman ideals etc. And though it is rhetoric, it isn't entirely wrong. At the same time, though, our culture is just as medieval as it is Roman. In fact, one could argue that the same Romanitas that the Medievals aspired to is the same Romanitas of the so-called Renaissance and Enlightenment. Not only so, but much that we use and think everyday is medieval in origin. Our ideas of leadership have far more to do with "god cyning" than with a Roman senator or emperor's image. The calendar we use, though often with Latin based names, owes a great deal yet to Bede. Multiple inventions including windmills are medieval in origin. Rightly or wrongly our ideas of class, and the obligation of the "upper" class to provide for the lower classes is a medieval concept. The abolition of slavery was a medieval concept. In fact, I may be wrong, but so far as I know no Christian writer before Aelfric and Wulfstan called for the practice of slavery to cease, not even St. Patrick who in his letter to Coroticus called for slavery of Christians by Christians to cease, somewhat more limited in scope. But even at that, it is a medieval writer who gives us this first taste of freedom. The notion that there are rights that inhere to others besides those in power that must be protected is in origin a medieval idea. And so on....And let us not forget that a great deal of the relationship between various Arabic and Muslim states and the West is still influenced, at least on their part, by medieval perspectives and events. The medieval is all around us and effects our life every day. Ignore it at our peril. I teach medieval literature because I believe that those dang medievals shaped our world, and what's more, they shaped the way we read and look back to the Greco-Roman past. Teaching the medieval is to teach something about the modern world and how the modern world became what it is. On a larger view, it teaches something about us as individuals and as a world.

Third, there's more practical stuff. Teaching languages, or at least teaching about words, is a way to approach any and all literature, esp. in English. The more about LANGUAGE students know, the better off they'll be both as people but also as future employees out there. It is language that ties us together, and it is language that tells us stories. So I teach because I love language, and also because learning about language, medieval languages, helps students known their own language and to better approach the literature I teach.

Fourth, yep, yet more practical, always the practical, is that Story is for me where its at. It is our stories that tell us about us, tell us about who someone is deep down, and tells us about that human experience and gives us lessons of how to live, or can critique our world and where we're going. Stories entertain, inform, and challenge all at the same time. I teach medieval literature because these stories say a great deal about all that and they were stories, unlike say a John Grisham novel, that entertained for CENTURIES rather than for a few years only to become remediated (and made into a different story in the process) into a film. So I want to know why these stories lasted so long and were told so much and are still being told and still fascinate. And I want to pass that question on to others to think about.

So those are reasons I teach medieval languages and literatures. I think they're good ones. It isn't going to save anyone, but Medieval Languages and Literature will certainly make someone's life better. Once a story is read, it is yours forever, whether the story of a word or the story of a hero, and may inform how you live and think.


Eileen Joy said...

Sorry, Larry, that it took me so long to catch up with your "Why I Teach medieval Literature" post here, but I really loved it and thanks for writing it. Cheers, Eileen

theswain said...

Eileen! Thanks for reading it, and thanks for the comment! You inspired me to write it, so....