The Fencing Bear at Prayer posted the other day on how she became a medievalist, and I’m always happy to steal an idea join in the conversation.
In some respects, I’m sure my dad was to blame. I’m a third-generation sf-and-fantasy reader (The Spawn of Mondo is #4), so there was plenty of quality sword-and-sorcery stuff around when I was a kid. And yes, I took Latin and played D&D in high school as well, but by the time I moved from a math/science orientation to literary study, I figured my focus would be on contemporary American stuff, maybe poetry or genre fiction. I took a special topics course in medieval lit (in what would become my dissertation topic) at my Masters institution, and I discovered I had a knack for reading Middle English, but it wasn’t until the Ph.D. level that I really connected with the period.
And what I think I connected with then was the strength of belief in the Middle Ages. I sensed an authenticity and an urgency in the works I was reading — an acknowledgment that Good and Evil were real and palpable, to be sought or resisted. I read Gawain and the Green Knight and learned about honor and the importance of living up to your own standards, even when the world tells you it’s no big deal. I read Chaucer’s Parson and saw the different forms that wrongness can take. And especially I read the moralities, where I came to see that even though the Vices got all the fun lines, what ultimately mattered was resisting them and thinking beyond the immediate laughter and the charm of temptation to the longest view. I read the Pearl and found a consolation for grief that has served me in the past year. And I read Gower and Hildegard and Julian of Norwich and was constantly reminded of the difference between knowledge, technology, and wisdom.
Of course, I also read of the great evils of the period, of the horrors both physical and spiritual that we can find in the histories of the time, and in the anti-Semitism of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale or the viciousness of the Pardoner. But over and over, I saw the craft, the beauty, and yes, the wisdom of the artists and writers from so long ago. And they meant it — their work has always felt to me like what Frost called “play for mortal stakes.” They knew the work they were doing had meaning, with the stakes possibly including their very souls. How could I not respond to that sort of spiritual energy, contrasted with the ennui and flaccidity, the self-absorption and shallowness of so much that I saw around me?
Some people think of what I study as the dead past, as somehow lacking relevance in a wired world, as something we’ve evolved past. I tell you that we face the same choices as Gawain, as Chaucer’s pilgrims, as Humanum Genus in The Castle of Perseverance. The works are the past reaching to us, and the present in metaphor. They live, and it is what Harlan Ellison might call a holy chore for me to see that they continue to live in the next generation. As Dryden said of Chaucer, “Here is God’s plenty,” and I love getting to share in it and pass it along.