… doing in the humanities like this? It’s a fair question, given the various discussions of a liberal tilt in my discipline that the listing Titanic would envy.
I think in some respects, my motivations are pretty old fashioned (surprising from a medievalist, no?) I know that lots of folks in the humanities see themselves as agents of social change, empowering the oppressed and giving them the tools to tear down the various edifices of repression. Inexpertly applied in my field, this tends to lead to condescension and study that confirms that condescension — “See how these poor benighted fools behaved, and see these brave souls who resisted the apparata of class/race/gender repression. Yay, brave souls! Boo, apparata! (and yay, us, because we see the truth about the apparata.)” Me, not so much.
While I like to think I’m as keen on brave souls as anyone, I see myself as being in the cultural transmission business. The people I study have all been dead for at least 500 years, but they addressed ideas and issues that I think are part of the human condition (of course, the fact that I think there is a human condition implies a universalism that is frowned upon by some postmodern folk.)
Some of the stuff Chaucer believed (insofar as you can establish that sort of thing — Geoff believed that irony was good for the blood) was mistaken, and some of it was reprehensible. But a good deal of it was on the money. And besides, 600 years from now, I suspect folks will think a lot of our ideas are wrong and evil. Heck, I think a lot of our ideas are wrong and evil.
The Pardoner shows up on my TV every day, if I want to watch him. The Parson could recognize that Sloth is often the voice that says you can’t fight City Hall. Working stiffs still complain about their bosses, their spouses, and the weather, just like the guys in The Second Shepherds’ Play. These guys lived lives and asked big questions just like we do — and knowing how they lived those lives and answered those questions may save us from having to reinvent those particular wheels.
The point is that these folks had things to say that still hold true. That’s something we could easily forget in a world that worships at the altar of Progress, where the stuff that’s been said and thought before is just dross on the way to sweet, wonderful us. That approach — what Frye called the “myth of Progress” — tends to throw lots of babies out with the bathwater.
The folks I study and teach about laid out ideas that helped us get to where we are, and showed us ways to keep going that worked for them and that may still work for us, if we know about them. That’s worth passing along; that’s worth conserving.