On Studying the Middle Ages

Why would anyone study medieval literature?

If you go into an average University here in North America, and go to the English department, and start asking around about people's focii I think you are likely to find that about 90% of English PhDs are focused on the 20th century or later.  There are good reasons for this, really.

More current stuff feels more relevant.  People, from the grad students to the professors teaching them to the hiring boards who will eventually give them jobs (they hope) to the people who will give them grants (they hope) all tend to feel that more contemporary literature is more relevant.  Toni Morrison writes a novel about the long-term effects of slavery upon America, that just feels like it should matter more to Americans (especially African-Americans) than a 500 year old book about some dudes with armor riding around in England does.

Because contemporary literature comes from the same cultural experience as those studying it do, it is more accessible.  That doesn't mean that people who study contemporary literature are lazy, but it does mean that they often expend almost no mental energy trying to understand the surface level of the text, which means they can focus their energy on reading more deeply--however they want to do that.  By contrast, Middle English is not instantly accessible, even for people who read the language fluently, because the culture is foreign to us.  So we need to first decipher the language, and then interpret the contextual clues that aren't necessarily obvious to us anymore, and only then can we understand the most literal level of the text.  If I want to understand the representation of the interaction between sacred and secular in the Morte Darthur, then I need to understand what was going on in the church of England in the fifteenth century, and probably also in the fourteenth century.  Just like I can't understand Toni Morrison if I've never heard of slavery in America, I can't understand Le Morte Darthur if I've never heard of the War of the Roses.  But I've probably heard of one and not the other before I even start reading.

But I like that medieval literature tends to be very familiar to a post-modern sensibility.  Chaucer was almost always meta-textual, for example.  And then I just plain prefer theologically-tinted books about violence to sexually-tinted books about colonialism (Victorian) or psychologically-tinted books about the the individual (Modern).  I also like correcting my own and other people's misconceptions about a huge swath of (literary) history. The Middle Ages suffer from what is frankly insulting negative stereotyping.  Even the name "Middle Ages" is obviously dismissive.  This isn't a new insight by any means, but it's worth saying again.  The Middle Ages are called "Middle" because they are conceived of as a low-point between the two high-points of antiquity on one side and modernity on the other.  It is a 1000 year lull.  Partly that's because early Modern folks in the Renaissance defined themselves as not-medieval.  Victorians even took to referring to the whole period as the "Dark Ages", originally because there was a lack of documentary evidence about the time, making it "dark" or obscure to historians.  Eventually (pretty quickly) the metaphor became richer, and the "Dark Ages" were understood to be backward, ignorant, barren of thought and art; a cultural desert.

Have you ever seen a documentary where they interview a scientist who specializes in deserts? Or even talked to one in real life?  The poor scientist usually comes off as a bit defensive and often says stuff like "People think of the desert as lifeless.  But it's a rich ecosystem."  That is how medievalists feel about the Middle Ages.  It was a rich ecosystem.  And "Middle Ages" covers so much that it seems absurd to lump it all together.  England circa 500 CE is just not the same as Italy of 1450, though both are "the Middle Ages". 

I'm getting off topic.  Why study the middle ages?

Because it's awesome.

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