Friday, 6 February 2015

About this blog

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have heard that this blog recently won an award (!) for Digital History from the magazine History Today, and they've just published online a very generous article about it. This feels like far more than my little blog deserves, but I'm immensely grateful nonetheless. As a consequence, I know there are quite a few new readers around here at the moment, and I wanted to write a post firstly to say hello to them (hi!), and secondly to talk a little about what I consider to be the aim of this blog. In case you've wandered over here from History Today and are wondering what on earth is the rationale behind a blog like this, I'll attempt to explain. But I'll try and keep it short, because I'm sure you're all capable of reading an About page (which essentially says all this already). I wrote recently about why blogging as an early career academic has been such an enriching experience for me, so I won't repeat what I said there, either.

I think the first thing I want to say is that although this is a blog about medieval literature it has always been, first by chance but now by choice, personal in nature and scope: by that I mean I write only about things which I like and which I want to write about. This is a deliberate decision, partly because to attempt to be comprehensive or even representative would be impossible (and far beyond my capabilities), but most importantly because I want to help my readers to enjoy the literature I study. I'm not a historian; I study and teach medieval English literature. Although a large part of what I study is made up of historical texts - chronicles, saints' lives, and so on - my primary interest is in them as literature; I'm interested in how medieval people perceived and wrote about the past, whether that perception was accurate or not. In this blog I approach the medieval world through its texts, and the guiding principle here is that medieval literature is just as sophisticated, profound, funny, subtle, imaginative, and diverse as the literature of any other period. You might not think that needs to be said - but it does, and often, in a world where 'medieval' is a popular synonym for 'cruel, uncivilized, or primitive'. I couldn't begin to illustrate the range and diversity of medieval English literature in a blog; no one could. But what I hope to do here is to illustrate, post by post, some of the ways in which I personally find medieval literature to be thought-provoking, or pleasurable, or moving.

There are many misconceptions about the medieval period, and especially about its literature, starting with the fact that many people are completely unaware how much of it there is. This was the first revelation to me when I began to study medieval English literature as an undergraduate. Like many British people of my age, I never studied any pre-modern literature at school, and although I had heard of Chaucer (growing up near Canterbury, it was impossible not to), I knew almost nothing about the medieval period - its history or its literature. This is not unusual, in my experience. The way my history education worked (and I imagine this is still common in the UK) was that we started with the Romans in primary school, and then progressed forward in time as we got older; we learned about the Vikings when we were ten, the Anglo-Saxons at eleven, the Black Death at twelve, and that was it. The last four years of my history schooling were devoted to the twentieth century - with the result that I could tell you an awful lot about the Russian Revolution, but I still struggle with Magna Carta. I'm not judging whether this was a good or bad thing (obviously it's not much help to me in my present career, but I understand why schools make these decisions), but it does mean that my understanding of medieval history, like that of many people I know, consisted for a long time mostly of what was taught to me at primary school - that is, what was thought appropriate for ten-year-olds. It was all very blood and guts and Horrible Histories, intended to 'make history fun' (yet somehow never quite doing so, for me). The medieval period was presented to me as - well, 'cruel, uncivilized, and primitive', because that's what children are generally supposed to find entertaining, and I grew up thinking it was simplistic because it had been explained to me in simple terms. That was stupidity on my part, but I don't think it's an uncommon error.

If I hadn't been forced to study medieval literature as part of my undergraduate degree, I suspect I might have gone the rest of my life thinking - like many otherwise well-educated people I encounter - that the medieval period consisted of nothing more complex than what had been taught to me at ten years old. There certainly would have been little in popular culture to challenge what I had been told about the Middle Ages - that it was an unfortunate blip in history, 1000 years of benighted unreason between the clever Romans and the colourful Tudors. Fortunately, although I didn't particularly want to study medieval literature, I was made to. I came to it totally cold, in my first term at Oxford, and I fell in love with many different aspects of it, all at once; I just couldn't believe how much of it there was and how interesting it all was. The intricacies of Old English poetic language, which you could wrestle with all your life and never master; strange but mesmerising stories about saints and the heroes of romance; translations of familiar texts into unfamiliar language; riddles and wisdom-poetry which made the everyday extraordinary; Anglo-Saxon homilists carefully explaining, in a language I could learn to recognise as English, complex theological ideas; audacious Chaucer and the richness of Piers Plowman; the volumes and volumes of anonymous Middle English lyrics, all the voices of poets whose names we'll never know. So many writers, readers, poets, teachers, students, thinkers - not one of them 'cruel, uncivilized or primitive'. It was astonishing to me, and I've never quite got over that astonishment. That was the reason I started a blog when I was a graduate student, and it's the main reason I keep it going. In a world where the general public know almost nothing about medieval literature (and yet think they know various untrue things, like 'it's all in Latin', 'it's all by men'), I think it's just worth saying, again and again: look how much there is, and look how interesting it is. It's not uncommon to hear people assert that 'the Middle Ages didn't have much literature, because most people were illiterate'. Or 'no one wrote poetry in English before Chaucer'. Or 'no one translated the Bible into English until the Reformation'. Or 'people didn't love literature' until 1750. A lot of quite educated people believe these things, and I don't blame them at all - I would have thought the same, if my education had stopped at eighteen. These assertions are wrong, but that doesn't stop them being repeated, endlessly, and it doesn't mean we should stop trying to illustrate the many ways in which they are incorrect and misleading.

There's often a bit more than ignorance going on too, of course; in Britain there's a deep-seated cultural prejudice against medieval religion, in particular, which means that many people simply don't want to take it seriously. That was also part of how I was taught about the medieval period ('gullible pilgrims fleeced by greedy monks at Thomas Becket's shrine') and this is a prejudice inculcated in many British people at an early age; I'm still surprised how often people who are otherwise quite broad-minded (of my parents' generation and older) have a visceral, emotional, kneejerk reaction against pre-Reformation religion, which makes them unable to regard it with the critical detachment they might have towards any other religion or culture different from their own. They were taught that the medieval church was corrupt, superstitious, ignorant, and hateful towards the poor; to them it's all somehow very 'un-English', and just to talk about relic-cults, miracle-stories, nuns, and so on - even as a subject of academic study - is like being in thrall to dark forces. Whether this stems from old-fashioned Victorian anti-Catholicism or New Atheist scorn for religion, in effect it all ends up sounding the same (especially when it's coming from trolls on Twitter). I don't entirely know how to deal with it, since it's so alien to me. All I can say is that I take the medieval past seriously, and that to understand any historical period you need to try and accept it to some extent on its own terms, however unpleasant you might find them. The medieval church could be corrupt or cruel, of course - any human institution can be - but I find it bizarre how often people talk about all medieval religion as if it were one big cynical scam. 'Medieval religion' encompasses 1000 years of history, and beliefs which touch the deepest currents in human life - birth and death, marriage and vocation, sickness, fear, grief, joy, love. You don't have to think any of it was true to appreciate why people might have found it meaningful; if you can't credit some degree of sincerity to those 'greedy monks' - who, in the Anglo-Saxon period at least, wrote or preserved almost every single literary text we have - it will limit your ability to understand the literature. So yes, I write about saints and relics and miracles here and I take them seriously, if not always literally. If you approach the strangeness of it all with an open mind, it can help you think in new ways about the things we take for granted - whether that's our attitude to science, or our relationship to the natural world, or our expectations about what we can hope for from life, ourselves, and each other.

On this blog I write about poems, carols, sermons, prayers, saints' lives, historical texts and more, in Old English and Middle English and sometimes in Old Norse and Latin too - for absolutely no reason except that I think it's incredibly interesting, and I want other people to find it interesting too. That may sound like a broad range of genres and languages, but it's actually very limited, a tiny sample, compared to how much falls under the umbrella of 'medieval literature'. Since I write about what I like most, certain things get massively over-represented here, and some things completely under-represented, out of proportion to their actual importance. There's a bias towards England, of course, and especially the south of England (sorry...). There's a lot of Ælfric on this blog, and not much Beowulf; lots of anonymous Middle English lyrics, but very little by Chaucer or the Gawain-poet or any of the major Middle English authors. That's mostly because there's much more available out there on the internet on those topics, by people more qualified than me. But I deliberately choose to focus here on texts which are less well-known, because my goal is just to think and talk, in public, about the richness of the literature I myself study and teach - which is, I should repeat, only a miniscule fraction of what exists. If you're new here, and you're prepared to tolerate that, you're very welcome.


Stephanie A. Mann said...

Congratulations! A well-deserved honor!

Patrick Sheridan said...

As someone with only a routine knowledge of Old English literature I fully appreciate your contributions here, and the many photographs you shew us. Congratulations for the award!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you both!

Matt G said...

Can I just say how COOL this blog is in the month or so since I've stumbled over it! (And don't ask me where; the origin is much less important to me than the fact.)

Mark Hausam said...

I appreciate your approach to exploring medieval literature with an open mind. It is always refreshing to get away from the "chronological snobbery" (as C. S. Lewis put it) that prevents us from learning from the points of view of those who lived, in many ways, in a very different world and worldview.

And in general, since I encountered your blog only a month or so ago, I have found it to be a great delight. Thank you for all that you do!

Unknown said...

Recognition for a brilliant blog.

Anonymous said...

"Her skill lies in making medieval topics – texts that are considered esoteric even by medieval specialists’ standards – engaging, accessible and fascinating to an audience of non-specialist readers." Whether that partly summarizes Paul Lay's awards speech, represents Kate Wiles's own observation, or both at once, it is well said!

I can't improve on repeating Stephanie Mann's comment: "Congratulations! A well-deserved honor!"

Reading 'people didn't love literature' until 1750, leaves me hoping wonted brevity has moved the Archivist to oversimplify the Professor, but I fear for the worst.

You mention "Anglo-Saxon homilists carefully explaining, in a language I could learn to recognise as English, complex theological ideas".
Part of my Oxford experience was encountering learned folk of various ages, who, in differing (even sharply) from each other, in their own ways admired the subtlety and richness of medieval philosophical and theological thought.

An Old Mertonian

lyn said...

Congratulations on the award. I've come from the History Today site & have enjoyed the posts on Hastings & Stamford Bridge. I look forward to exploring the blog further. The medieval world fascinates me too.

Lindsey said...

I am new to this blog - thank you for your welcome. I am participating in an online course on medieval manuscripts so finding you is fortuitous. However I think you will continue to inform and engage me long past the end of the course. Thank you for sharing your knowledge, insight and enthusiasm with us.

David Wilson said...

Your blog is a delight! Many congratulations.

RoseSong said...

It''s been a little while since I've been back, so sorry!! Had a wedding, honeymoon, and sundry other life experiences! :) Congatulations on your award! I feel that you deserve many more!!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you!