Another “why this field” post

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.


13 Responses to “Another “why this field” post”

  1. pixieface Says:

    they’ve given us new email addresses. So if mine seems foreign, that’s why.

    I think all medievalists have this problem. At least, those who are not arch-conservatives. Dammit, I come from a HIPPY home. I get why it’s a particularly urgent problem for you at the moment, though.

    My aunt (who I lived with for 2 years) works for the ABC. Used to be a Asia-pacific correspondent. Still in the area, but doesn’t actually do as much overseas fieldwork anymore (life, kids and family with health problems, whatnot). Focusing on the Pacific part. Knew I was decently clever, but always felt like a bit of a traitor for being so clueless about stuff on our doorstep.
    Still do. Always will. And it is hard to justify doing something so obscure when you are concerned about current problems.

    But you have to do what you love. If you can find connections with important things, great. Of not, well, it’s a consolation to know that you’d be letting the more…relevant…field down if it wasn’t your absolute passion. You’d always feel like a bit of a fake, I think. Like you were doing it because you Should, rather than because it Made you.

    Even if it grabs you, but not quite as much as Medieval studies, then i think it’s better to live with the guilt of doing what you love than the guilt of not COMPLETELY loving what you do.

    Those are my hypocritical Words Of Wisdom.

    Looking forward to seeing you next year.

  2. pixieface Says:

    Went to the CMS AGM today. There were Talks Before.
    You were mentioned as someone who probably has an APA by now, since you, along with Mr J. Genius-Twin “definitely got the marks”.
    If you are in Sydney on the 5th of Dec, there is a MERG party at Mr A.J (Tolkein-voice OE reader)’s house. Email me if you want details. You are invited. I run MERG and you are invited.
    I decided.

    On another blog, you published info that you might not want people to know (in a letter from a literary friend what speaks Old french).

    Also, at the AGM, an OE PhD student, A (don’t think you know her), asked if you (name read out in the minutes) were the one with the blog. I said yes. Someone else said she thought you and Kayleelou were sisters.

    We said, not so.

    Other AGM shenanigans:
    conversation with H (OE phD student) about how much better Gawain is than everyone, and especially Lancelot.
    Someone hijacked with a slash idea. H & I argued that he would only do it as a rape (power struggle/submission) thing. Otherwise he’d feel unmanly. Lancelot would feel religious and moral guilt, Gawain also but from a different ethical standpoint. Not so religious. Also, Gawain would have a better moustache/beard. And possibly also awesome braids.

    Some strangeness about why we like the potential rapist better.
    Decided it’s because he’d broadcast it. His form of rape would be an upfront power thing. Not hidden behind romance.

    Also, he would taunt the normans.

    Saw the Belgian P. Laughed at him. He laughed at me. That’s our thing. No other words were exchanged. Take that, walloon (all in fun, other readers…)

    Got free leftover food for home-taken. Then others and i took surplus wine when no-one was there. Thought it would be Ok but still felt sneaky. Wonderful volunteer CMS woman Gab. came and asked for them. All sheepishly handed over from our bags. A certain someone (no names this time) had requested all leftover bottles be taken to his room.

    Heard you were going to have lunch with my mother-in-not-law. Hope you enjoyed it. I accidentally said to my gentleman-friend, [Highly], “she’s crazy.” He relayed it by phone. Then me, ” No, not really. Good crazy.” Back-pedaling. Trying to seem uninvolved in your relationship. Backfired.


    Looking forward to coming back to your Oh so incestuous alma mater?

    Don’t have your email address and can’t write anything on facebook on account of my email for that expired. Delete this if shouldn’t be publicised.

    Smiley emoticon. Also unintentionally sloppy kisses and huggsies.
    XXXX, pix

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      We won’t know about APAs until some time between the 27th and the 8th. Haven’t even got my course offer yet. 😉 I know I have the marks, but rumour also has it that MPhils are looked down on a bit.

      Gawain IS better than everyone. Truefact.

      Give the Belgian a hug from me!

      Haven’t had lunch with your outlaw yet. She’s been moving floors. Will try next week.

      Do sort of want to come to the party, but I’ve been running in circles for a month and I think I need to stay at home for a bit. Give everyone my love! Except of course if someone I really don’t love is there, in which case you can exempt them. Or lie.

  3. B. Hawk Says:

    What an amazing post! I think you’ve hit on a lot of anxieties a lot of us in medieval studies have, and you’ve tackled them well & head on. And you’re right. Thanks for these great thoughts, and for starting my day out with a resolution for my mind.

  4. Michelle Says:

    This ia a bit off topic bit obey Marie de France would be to your liking. She wrote in Old French but lived in Norman England, earliest major female author. She wrote a couple Arthurian things, life of st Audrey (ethelthryth), st Patricks purgatory, and fables. The life of Audrey is just begging for someone to study it.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      I ❤ Marie de France! I have yet to read her in depth, but I love what I've been explosed to.

      Life of St Audrey, huh? That's seriously tempting… 😀

  5. Regan Says:

    Wow, this was a great post! It articulates a lot of what I’ve often vaguely thought about, both in terms of my own research and in terms of why I’m teaching history and what I hope my students will get out of it. I’ve talked in the past about the sense of relativism to be gained from studying the middle ages, but I think how you and Matt Gabriele’s student describe it is much more accurate.

    I haven’t so much had the gender conversion from medieval studies that you have (I picked up most of my gender theory from fandom), but I definitely look at the world in terms of rituals of social cohesion and status reproduction and symbolic capital. For me, it’s really broken down my belief in enlightenment rationality and modernity – if not its existence, then certainly its universality.

    Anyway, much to ponder as I go off and keep reading “The Proprietary Church in the Medieval West.”

    – Regan

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      Thanks Regan 🙂

      I’ve talked in the past about the sense of relativism to be gained from studying the middle ages, but I think how you and Matt Gabriele’s student describe it is much more accurate.

      Do you feel kind of… disloyal, having to justify the past’s value in terms of the present? I’m torn between needing to posit a modern value to it all, and “feck off, the past is it’s own country”.

  6. Lawrence Says:

    Hi, just caught up on this. Another way to think of this is, if everyone took your attitude, NO ONE would study anything medieval. Or for that matter early Aussie women’s writing (I mean, 1800? c’mon how close is that to the life of a woman living TODAY?). Etc etc. And eventually EVERYONE would be studying today’s stuff. Today’s stuff is fine, but it don’t need all that attention! I mean, we LIVE today; why confine all our studies to it as well? No apologies necessary for not contributing to that nightmare of a potential world. The ones you provide are perfectly good and accurate! See you next semester!!

  7. Chris Says:

    I saw this footnote and thought of you; perhaps it is something you already know about, etc., but just in case:

    “For a discussion of the mediating role of women [in romance], see Donald Maddox, _Structure and Sacring: The Systematic Kingdom in Chretien’s Erec et Enide_, French FOrum Monographs 8 (Lexington 1978) 94-101.”

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