An illustration from the sole surviving MS of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
(from the British Library)
(from the British Library)
My latest History Today column is out now in this month's magazine. Here's a taster:
London has dominated cultural life in Britain for centuries, for so long that it is almost assumed to be a natural state of affairs. But at a time when the relationship between regional and national identity seems especially fraught, it is interesting to think about how different things have sometimes been – and here the medieval period offers some useful contrasts.
One of the things students coming new to medieval history and literature often find surprising and rewarding is the distinctively regional character of much of the source material. It was only towards the end of the Middle Ages that London emerged as a dominant cultural centre; before that, the earlier medieval period offers a rich and complex picture of regions with their own particular interests and strengths. At various points in the Anglo-Saxon period, we can catch glimpses of different regions at the height of their wealth, power, and artistic and literary creativity: Bede’s Northumbria, the Mercia of the dazzling Staffordshire Hoard, or Alfred the Great’s Wessex, which fostered new kinds of historical and philosophical writing in English.
These Anglo-Saxon regions were, of course, kingdoms in their own right. But there are plenty of examples, too, from the centuries which followed, even once these regions became part of one nation. Think of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the 14th century in the north-west Midlands, which imagines its Arthurian hero journeying through a stark but beautiful wintery landscape that is recognisably medieval Cheshire. This poem’s finely wrought literary language, studded with dialect words, would have been unpalatable (perhaps even incomprehensible) to many contemporary audiences in the south, but for the poet and his readers it must have been a powerful evocation of a landscape and language they knew intimately.
Read the rest here. (I go on to talk about Havelok, because, well, any excuse to talk about Havelok...)
This is a bigger topic than one can really tackle in a 750-word piece, and I know I've conflated a few different issues here. I should probably apologise for focusing only on English literature; obviously talking about regional identity in modern Britain includes Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too, which had brilliantly flourishing cultures of their own in the Middle Ages, but of course it isn't quite right to call these countries 'regions' of Britain in the medieval period, and I was too clumsy to find a way of reconciling that without offending someone or other. Apologies.
All I really wanted to say is how refreshing the regional character of medieval literature can be, compared to the modern media's London-focused perspective. It's especially lovely in teaching Middle English literature to see a group of students from across the country learning about the literary heritage of places (sometimes their own homes) which they have often grown up thinking were pretty much 'culture-free'. Whether it's the West Midlands of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the romances of heroes from Warwick, Grimsby, or Southampton, or the cultural hub of late-medieval Norfolk, with its dynamic culture of religious art and drama - it's a pleasure to visit these places through their literature, to taste and savour their particular character. The culture of medieval London was important too, of course, but all these places (and many more) have their stories to tell: they matter. A writer like Julian of Norwich is simultaneously a world-class thinker and a product of her specific time and place; another city than Norwich, even in the same century, would have formed her very differently.
This is a continuation of something I've written about before on this blog, especially in two posts from the summer of 2015: this one, about how pre-modern history and literature help us to think about shifting geographies of power (to remember there was a world before Westminster, and will be a world after), and this one, in which I talked about how my feelings towards the place I grew up - Thanet, in East Kent - influenced and are influenced by my academic research. I don't claim either discussion is especially original, but I suppose both stem from that same sense that the places we inhabit aren't interchangeable. They shape us as we shape them, and their differences, their distinctiveness, and their unique qualities deserve to be noticed and celebrated and loved. A centralised media tends to impose uniformity and conformity, believing without question that everyone thinks and should think in one particular way - but the world's just so much more interesting than that.
The medieval seal of Grimsby, showing its founder Grim, Havelok, and his wife Goldburh
You can stop reading now if you like, because the rest of this post is going to go a bit off-topic. I'm a bit uncertain about posting it at all, because I'm not sure it's really possible to talk about such things safely at the moment, but let's have a go...
I'm being cautious because the kind of attitude I expressed above (and strongly in my post on Thanet) has taken on political overtones in the past few years - it's become associated with the concept of Somewheres/Anywheres, the revolt against the elites, etc., though in fact it goes much deeper than politics. The politicisation of what is actually, I think, a fundamental difference in personality and instinct (often correlating with, but not limited to, particular social backgrounds) is part of what makes political discourse at the moment so toxic. When the personal becomes political, how can people help taking it personally? As a result we find ourselves in a situation where public debate of every kind has become poisonous, and there's no point trying to express a view that can't be yelled over a loudspeaker. So I want to emphasise that this is not a political post, though I'm sure some of the permanently-outraged on both 'sides' will read it that way. I'm thinking more about the question of whose stories are told, whose perceptions and experiences are listened to and respected - a cultural disconnect that goes beyond politics.
I suppose I like the regional character of medieval literature because I like diversity more than homogenity - my instinct is to love the local and the specific, and to want things and places and people to be their own unique selves, rather than copies of each other. My instinct as an academic, too, is to focus on specifics rather than on grand narratives, to localise rather than to generalise. This is partly a matter of taste; I don't think my approach is intrinsically better than the alternative, and ideally they complement each other. This thoughtful passage by Seamus Heaney, which I encountered recently, resonated with me:
It is said that once upon a time St. Kevin was kneeling with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross in Glendalough, a monastic site not too far from where we lived in Co. Wicklow, a place which to this day is one of the most wooded and watery retreats in the whole of the country. Anyhow, as Kevin knelt and prayed, a blackbird mistook his outstretched hand for some kind of roost and swooped down upon it, laid a clutch of eggs in it and proceeded to nest in it as if it were the branch of a tree. Then, overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small, Kevin stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledglings grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder. Manifesting that order of poetry where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.
St. Kevin's story is, as I say, a story out of Ireland. But it strikes me that it could equally well come out of India or Africa or the Arctic or the Americas. By which I do not mean merely to consign it to a typology of folktales, or to dispute its value by questioning its culture bound status within a multi-cultural context. On the contrary, its trustworthiness and its travel-worthiness have to do with its local setting... I hope I am not being sentimental or simply fetishizing - as we have learnt to say - the local. I wish instead to suggest that images and stories of the kind I am invoking here do function as bearers of value. The century has witnessed the defeat of Nazism by force of arms; but the erosion of the Soviet regimes was caused, among other things, by the sheer persistence, beneath the imposed ideological conformity, of cultural values and psychic resistances of a kind that these stories and images enshrine. Even if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof that pride in an ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se. On the contrary, a trust in the staying power and travel-worthiness of such good should encourage us to credit the possibility of a world where respect for the validity of every tradition will issue in the creation and maintenance of a salubrious political space.
Do read the whole thing (it's from 1995). This is very much what I'm trying to say when I talk about loving the local and the specific (if I'd read this before I wrote my column I might have expressed it better!) - a kind of love which involves 'respect for the validity of every tradition', including whatever one considers to be one's own.
It would be nice to think that there was space for this kind of diversity in our public discourse - a diversity which is not just cosmetic, but which allows room for a range of experiences, priorities, and beliefs. It must be possible, you would think, to have a society where people can differ without demonising each other, where we can acknowledge the simple truth that our different life experiences form us each in different ways, and accept that there are many subjects over which well-meaning people can civilly disagree. That is not, however, what we have at the moment.
When I read that phrase 'a salubrious political space', I'm afraid I thought immediately of the polar opposite, which right now is Twitter. In theory, social media could have done a great deal to ameliorate the centralising, homogenising effect of the traditional mass media, by giving space to a range of different voices. In effect, of course, it does almost exactly the opposite. I've always kind of hated Twitter, even when I was an evangelist for it as a form of academic outreach; it's basically impossible to spend time on Twitter and not believe in original sin, because nothing else could explain how a medium which is just people talking to each other could become so vile. I think what I dislike most about it, though, is the waste of potential - something which could allow space for a limitless diversity of viewpoints actually becomes a place where people willingly enforce conformity on each other. They do so in the most blunt-force kind of way, by the simple method of shouting down anyone who doesn't agree.
On Twitter, everyone must think the same, tell the same jokes, read the same things, have the same opinions - or else. It's tiring. The way it's set up means anyone runs the risk of being randomly attacked at any time, but it's not even the disgusting trolls who wear you down, or the people who don't bother to read to the end of a tweet before deciding to 'correct' you, or the ones who think they have the right to dictate what complete strangers tweet about (even the senior male academics who take it upon themselves to police what other academics are allowed to write about in public) - it's the constant barrage of negativity. There's always someone waiting to pounce. Since starting to use Twitter a few years ago, I've tried to be very disciplined about what I post, and all I've ever done is share things I liked and found interesting. History, poetry, words, pictures, folklore, whatever - I shared it only and entirely because I found it interesting. As with my blog, I didn't particularly expect anyone else to like it; I know my tastes are a bit odd, and I'm very used to being in the minority. (You should see the stuff I don't blog about!) I didn't insist anyone else had to like it or care about what I was interested in - I didn't force it on anyone, and if people weren't drawn to it, they could simply ignore me. I just like sharing things I like; I don't think it really does any harm, and sometimes it can do a bit of good.
I was never deliberately inflammatory and only very rarely political. Yet however innocuous the topic, there would always be people ready to attack. Someone would jump in to criticise or sneer, to tell me I was wrong or stupid for finding it interesting, that I liked it for the wrong reasons, or whatever. That's just childish - the dynamics of the playground, where bullies wait to knock books out of the hands of the nerdy kids. The loudest voices on Twitter want to demonstrate that they're cooler and cleverer and more sophisticated than the rest of us, and that they control what other people are allowed to be interested in, so they pile on people who are interested in the 'wrong' things. And it's not even just liking the wrong things - it's as if liking, praising or celebrating anything is itself not allowed. The negative is always to be preferred to the positive, the critical to the complimentary; I suspect they think it's a mark of intelligence and sophistication to be constantly, relentlessly, blindly critical. Believe me when I tell you that I'm not the most positive person in the world, and yet I find something utterly horrible about this determination to emphasise the worst in everything, to actively seek out things and people to hate, and to abuse anyone who tries to share something they find meaningful or valuable. There's something I really dislike about telling people what they ought to be interested in; I like the fact that different people are interested in different things, and I wouldn't want a world where everyone had the same tastes and priorities as me. (Is that really such a shocking, controversial thing to say?) There are lots of topics in the world I don't find particularly interesting, but it charms me that other people can be passionate and knowledgeable and enthusiastic about them. I can't imagine sneering at someone for what they take a harmless interest in, especially when they're not forcing it on me. That kind of conformity is frustrating, deadening - just boring.
Imagine how much worse it would have been if I had ever posted anything really political or controversial. There's no such thing as 'agree to disagree' on Twitter; everyone assumes the worst of each other, and all must conform. And so Twitter becomes less like the tweeting of happy birds (or St Kevin's nesting blackbird) and more like being mobbed by a horde of screeching 'small fowls'.
An owl being 'mobbed', in a medieval bestiary
This shouldn't really matter - despite what people on Twitter think, there is in fact an entire world out there to whom Twitter means nothing, and it's a much nicer place to spend my time. But it does matter, because Twitter (more so than Facebook or other social networks) is where cultural opinion-formers cluster and formulate their rules on what one is allowed to care about or be interested in, as well as the main place where they seem to gain their impression of 'the public'. So the result is that social media does as much as mass media ever did to crush the expression of a healthy range of opinion, even as it exposes deep rifts in what people think and believe. There is no such thing as cordial disagreement. The loudest voices, from across the political spectrum, are the ones who don't make a distinction between telling people what they think and telling others what they should think, and their dominance of public discourse means that a greater diversity of experiences and voices becomes impossible - those who disagree are simply bullied into silence.
But we need to hear other voices. Those who dominate Twitter are loud, but they're not well-informed; there are huge gaps in their knowledge, put out on public display for all the world to see. Not that ignorance seems to dent their self-belief - nothing, it seems, can do that! It's reached almost comical proportions in the past few weeks. Twelve hours after calling an election totally and completely wrong, they were confidently telling us that no, it's OK, they know exactly why the outcome happened, and everyone else should have known too. Next, after five minutes with a wikipedia page on Northern Irish politics, they were suddenly experts on what everyone should think about it, with not one moment of self-doubt that they might be oversimplifying a complex cultural and religious situation they obviously find utterly alien. It would be funny if it wasn't distasteful, if it wasn't all so obviously scrambled together and ill-thought-through, and didn't involve so much sneering condescension towards other people's lives. There's never any visible attempt to listen to others or to try to empathise with anyone whose experiences might have been different from their own - barely ever a flicker of 'oh, maybe I was wrong...' before the next round of hot-takery sets in. Their job is to talk, not to listen, and they loudly insist that no one else does any listening or reflecting either. Twitter allows us to watch after every news event as within the space of a few hours they follow the predictable cycle from complete ignorance to immediate, immoderate outrage. There simply isn't time for considered, thoughtful analysis; there's only the present moment and its rage.
It's hard not to be troubled by the kneejerk anger, the constant cycle of snap judgement and consequent misunderstanding which consumes all the loudest voices on Twitter, day after day after day. (Where do they get the energy?) But worrying too is that conformist determination that no one must like what they don't like, or find anything interesting outside of a very narrow cultural sphere. It's striking how limited their knowledge of culture and history is, and how lacking in any sense of perspective or context. The frame of cultural reference is based mostly on what happens to be on television - last year everything was a Game of Thrones analogy, this year it's all The Handmaid's Tale. 'Everyone' (the media's idea of 'everyone') reads the same books, watches the same TV shows, listens to the same music, and pronounces on how hugely important and influential it is. That's just fashion, of course, but it's how they decide who counts in their 'everyone' - if you enjoy anything different, you're wrong, you're 'them' and not 'us'. At a time when we have access to a much greater diversity of media than ever before, it seems less likely than ever that 'everyone' is actually reading or watching the same things; yet these people don't seem to be able to entertain the very simple idea that it's OK for different people to have different tastes.
And as for history - I think that's what worries me the most. They expect instant answers - that's the social media curse, too - and their understanding of history goes back to about 2005, with little perception that some trends and changes may be decades, not days, in the making. To call any view 'old-fashioned' is considered to put a conclusive end to any discussion, and to say that the view in question is not to be expressed in public. How is it possible in that climate to study or talk about history, or the literature of the past? If we lose the ability to publicly discuss or empathise with different perspectives, even if we find them uncongenial, we might as well give up on studying any period or culture but our own. For yes, indeed, people in the past thought differently from people in the twenty-first century. And those of us who try to explore those differences, to provide little glimpses into other ways of thinking, get shouted down.
You want to plead with such people to read a book - any book! - written before the turn of this millennium, so that they might begin to understand that their beliefs and prejudices are not timeless and immutable, but as culturally dependent as anyone else's. They believe that they and their friends have achieved absolute and unquestionable truth on a whole range of subjects which just twenty years ago were viewed very differently, and they simply cannot imagine that anyone could have another opinion. Very often these are people who pride themselves on being educated and tolerant, but they're proof that formal education really does nothing to help a determinedly narrow mind. The ignorance isn't as bad as the complete lack of empathy or imagination.
Anyway. I know there's not much to be achieved by talking about this - hypocritically adding to the anger, maybe. Perhaps I sound as virulently negative as the people I'm talking about; and when many of us are self-appointed internet journalists now (me included, of course), perhaps it's our fault that the professionals feel they have to shout louder to be heard. Sometimes I think there's nothing to do but try and ignore it all - to go outside, get lost in work, read more books. But if every alternative view of the world is to be driven out of public discourse (even if by 'public discourse' I only mean dumb-and-nasty Twitter), how can things ever improve? I would love to believe that social media and the opportunity it brings to hear voices outside the mainstream could recapture some kind of diversity of belief and experience, rather than just making everyone hate each other more. There are billions of fascinating people out there in the world, and their stories are worth listening to. Yes, they have a wide range of political and religious beliefs, and some of them don't think the way their 'betters' think they should. Often all that means is that they have different experiences and different priorities, and they interpret the world differently. They're still human beings of immense and limitless value - absolutely every single one of them - and nothing can change that.
I've made this post much too long in the hope that the kneejerk angry people won't bother to read all the way to the end. For those of you who have, here's a reward: a bit of Gawain and the Green Knight.
Þay boȝen bi bonkkez þer boȝez ar bare,
Þay clomben bi clyffez þer clengez þe colde.
Þe heven watz uphalt, bot ugly þer-under;
Mist muged on þe mor, malt on þe mountez,
Uch hille hade a hatte, a myst-hakel huge.
Brokez byled and breke bi bonkkez aboute,
Schyre schaterande on schorez, þer þay doun schowued.
Wela wylle watz þe way þer þay bi wod schulden.
They went along slopes where boughs are bare,
They climbed cliffs where the cold clings.
The clouds were drawn up, but it was threatening below them;
Mist drizzled on the moor and melted on the hills,
Each hill had a hat, a great cloak of mist.
Streams bubbled and foamed within their banks,
Breaking white on the shores where they showered down.
Very wandering was the way they had to take through the woods.
This is one of the poem's most distinctive bits of landscape-writing, and it contains some characteristic northern dialect words, such as muged, 'drizzled', which appears nowhere else in Middle English. Chaucer, the fourteenth-century equivalent of the 'metropolitan elite' (he would have been so popular on Twitter!) at different times mocks both this style of poetry and its subject-matter; this kind of thing wasn't to his taste, and perhaps he thought it old-fashioned. Well, everything that's fashionable becomes old-fashioned in time, but that doesn't mean it becomes worthless, or not worth learning about. Whatever time and place you happen to find yourself in, it doesn't have to be the boundary of your imagination and empathy - and shouldn't be, surely, if those faculties are good for anything at all.