Something that’s been knocking around in my head since I decided to go back to uni is the question of why. Not why go back to uni (that’s easy enough: I’m Very Bored in my current job, and I miss learning and researching and being… creative, I guess. Yes, that thesis was creative). Not even why on earth do I want to be an academic, because that turns out to be quite obvious, after a year away (h/t to Dean Dad, who once posted suggesting that it would be a good idea for aspiring academics to try their hands at something else, in the interests of a more rounded skill-set and the definite knowledge that this is what one wants to do, rather than the only thing one thinks one can do). The amount of time I spend lecturing long-suffering friends on such things as sexuality in medieval hagiography, or the life of Charlemagne, or dirty jokes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when I really should be taking a chill pill and enjoying Real Life has lead me to the conclusion that I’d enjoy teaching as much as research.
No. What I’m coming back to (again) is: why medieval studies? I mean, really. WHY?
Simple answer is because I happen to LIKE it. There’s also the fact that I can pick up and run with Old French, I could go back to Middle English or Old English, and I know the ins and outs of how to go about the research, and find the key texts and consult the primary sources and cross-reference to other things I’ve studied. But mostly, it’s that I like medieval studies. I like medieval texts and I like medieval social constructs. I like hanging out with the Gawain poet and Chrétien and Ælfric and knowing how they thought and wrote and dreamed. Also I like knowing obscure things like the length of a cubit for the purposes of Venetian ship-builders in the Crusade period (84cm, as it happens) and baffling poor innocent people who didn’t actually care in the first place.
But that only really answers why I want to research in this field (if it even answers that much. I could, theoretically, live a perfectly productive life doing whatever it is that productive people do, and read Chrétien for fun). It doesn’t answer such questions as “why invest a lot of government money in allowing me to do this” or “why subject undergrads to Obscure Things Highly Finds Interesting?” And it really doesn’t answer the question of “isn’t there something more relevant and useful a young female australian with a yen for literary theory could be doing with her time?” Australian lit is not very widely studied. Australian women’s lit, even less so. Early Australian women’s lit: very sparsely indeed. I happen to know of a woman who wrote – not brilliant, but interesting – social novels about late 19th/early 20th century Australian society. She had some very interesting connections with Federation-era feminist circles and the movement for women’s tertiary education. As far as I know, she’s never been studied.
Am I suffering from a classic case of Cultural Cringe? Isn’t it a bit sad, if some (most?) of the smartest young humanities scholars in the country (not that I’m necessarily the smartest of young scholars. But I’m pretty smart, and very stubborn) are busy running off with their heads in the literature and history and social constructs of countries and time periods removed from our own by half a globe and at least half a millenium?
A friend and mentor justified, in her Aus. govt. research funding application, her intention to study medieval marriage, as being relevant to Australia’s scholarly interests because this country has inherited the institutions and cultural understandings of British society, and therefore her research into the politics of marriage in her particular medieval period would or could contribute to the contemporary debate about the institution of marriage and its place in Australian society. As it happens, I buy this argument (if I had a dollar for every time I’ve brought up the twelfth-century origins of the sacrament of marriage in a debate about the Sanctity of Marriage, I’d be making a substantial contribution to the marriage equality campaign, in the name of good history). But where does “understanding shared cultural constructs” cross over into Culture Cringe? Can I justify the study of female friendship in the works of Chrétien de Troyes in terms of potential insights into my own culture and context, and should I? How do you reconcile the need to bypass the cultural privilege given to European history with the principle of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”?
I was tidying up my RSS feed today – removing blogs I never read anymore, and adding, as it happens, some Australian feminist bloggers. And I came across this post at Modern Medieval, in which Matthew Gabrielle quotes an email from a former student of his, on how the study of history changed the way that said student understands his own context.
I was led to these necessary conclusions. If I could, at the same time, be critical of and appreciate St. Francis of Assisi, why couldn’t I also question while appreciating the Founding Fathers or Abraham Lincoln? If describing the Crusades as a struggle between the evil Christian invaders and the Muslims was an over-generalization, why must I accept the generalizations we make about terrorism, politicians, or religious leaders? People are people. Mass movements are mass movements. Heroes and great nations make mistakes and bad guys and rogue nations aren’t often as evil as we’d like them to be. To be sure, I studied the Middle Ages at a time when I was already questioning many of my assumptions and, already, becoming the black sheep of my family, but the study of history, and specifically of this period, further freed my thoughts to allow for complexity so that I can disagree with Bush without thinking him ill-intentioned. So that I could condemn terrorists without condemning fundamental Islam. For me, the Middle Ages weren’t as important for how they still affect the present as they were for how they allowed me to examine the present for what it truly is—a world as complex as the Middle Ages.
Medieval Studies taught me that gender is a social construct. I’ve still never read a word of Judith Butler; I’m only just now reading Ann Summer’s Damned Whores and God’s Police, which goes through, in great detail, the history of women’s gendered experience in Australia. I ran a mile from feminist theory, in my early undergrad years. But I kept coming back to studying women, because women and women’s place in society and how people think about women and women’s place in society interests me. Ælfric, bless his cotton socks, and the scholars who work on him, taught me about signifiers of gender, and passive/active dichotomies. It wasn’t until I won a prize from the Society for Medieval Feminist Studies for what I thought was an eminently sensible essay about grammar and narrative structure in Ælfric’s Judith, which just so happened to be looking at gender, that I realised I’d accidentally become a feminist scholar. It took another… six months, at least, before I cottoned on that I’d also accidentally become a feminist, after swearing myself blue in the face for years that I was and would always remain an egalitarian, and wasn’t having a bar of that crazy feminism business.
University taught me to think critically about things I’d always taken for granted. Medieval Studies taught me first to think critically about things far enough removed from my own context that I couldn’t take them for granted. And then, as Matthew’s former student says, it’s a lot easier to turn those same critical lenses on the context I live in now.
I’m still not sure that I’m not suffering from Culture Cringe. But I can say that it’s worth Australian time and money researching the distant past (the distant European past. The distant Asian past. The distant American past and Indian past and South American past and African past, and absolutely the distant Indigenous past), even in the absence of any immediate and clear connection to any present political or cultural debate. And it is always worth Australian time and money teaching people to think about the distant past: because it’s FUN. And because once you start thinking, it becomes very hard to stop.