Thursday, January 03, 2008

Some thoughts on Chaucer, history and Englishness

I'm currently in the midst of composing an essay about "British Chaucer" for a Festschrift. In preparation I'd been reworking my way through the materials that eventually became the essay "Postcolonialism," in the volume Chaucer: An Oxford Guide, ed. Steven Ellis. For your edification and/or amusement, I offer a section that was cut when that essay grew far too lengthy for the guide. It formed part of a larger rumination on the embedment of the study of Chaucer within an educational system that owes much to colonial encounter.

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It is sobering to keep in mind that university education in the United States and in England has been historically tied to the production of an enfranchised group of men whose knowledge of a shared tradition enabled them to (1) recognize their own and (2) exclude from the circles of power those too poor to have access to the educational system and those whose cultures differed from what had become canonized as the best of the best. It allowed these men to imagine that they were the culmination of a long and singular history stretching from ancient Greece and Rome through medieval Europe, all the way to contemporary Britain and America. Chaucer was usually included in this tradition as a precocious figure for Anglo modernity, a universal man who happened to live in the fourteenth century but who described the soul of the nineteenth and twentieth. Never mind that this tradition's seamless unity, its purified genealogy, were never more than a passionately held fantasy. The elite it formed went out into the world, seized land that was not theirs, and eradicated cultures that (they had been told, and believed) were self-evidently barbaric compared to their own.

Knowledge, in other words, is never disinterested. When an uprising in Jamaica was violently quashed by its British governor in 1865, Goldwin Smith, professor of history at Oxford, condemned his compatriot's actions. Under vehement attack by the governor's supporters, Smith resigned his post and was replaced by William Stubbs. The historian Kathleen Biddick notes the "monastic-like silence" on contemporary issues maintained by the new Regius Professor of History throughout his career:
This silence continues to leave unspoken the conditions of his appointment in the midst of a traumatic debate over British colonial race relations conjoined with the colonial transformation of the British university. The silence still lingers. (The Shock of Medievalism p. 9)

Stubbs retreated into the past, teaching no subject beyond the seventeenth century and refusing to publish in anything but scholarly journals of limited and specialized circulation (Shock of Medievalism p. 8). Biddick wonders if this professional stance of turning away from the world is not a way of being complicit with past violence and injustice. In her estimation, contemporary medieval studies still bears the guilt of this silence, for it has not yet adequately acknowledged how the field has been historically shaped. Biddick implies that the dead – the scholars who bequeathed the very shape of our disciplines to we moderns attending universities -- must be called to account for their war crimes, even when these were sins of omission. She also leads us to wonder if a disinterested study of medieval authors like Chaucer would ultimately be possible, let alone desirable. [It is also important to admit that not every founding father can be found quite so condemnable as Stubbs, nor does a postcolonial mode necessitate moralistic or negative critique. For every Sir Frederic Madden, who produced the first edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and thereby legitimated its specialized study – and who also fulminated against the "deadly poison of Democracy" – there was a Frederick J. Furnivall, a liberal agnostic socialist whose passion was that Middle English be available to all readers, and who did more than any other scholar to construct a canon of texts. (See especially David Matthews, The Making of Middle English, pp. 113-61).]

An examination of the dispiriting history of how the contemporary disciplines formed extends to exploring how the era we call the Middles Ages was itself constructed. No one who lived during this period, least of all Chaucer, would have conceived of themselves as living in some middle time, a mere prelude to Renaissance and modernity. Chaucer knew well that "in forme of speche is chaunge / Withinne a thousand yeer," that words once familiar could become "straunge" (Troilus and Criseyde II.22-24), but to his mind he wrote in English (or englissh, as he spelled it), not Middle English. That distinction was not made until Henry Sweet periodized the language into Old, Middle and Modern English in 1874, an act of separation that underscored the discontinuities between an undeveloped past and a confidently complete present.

John Ganim has demonstrated how the medieval period was imagined at this time as an analogue to England's new possessions overseas. In order to justify the absorption of India into the empire, for example, its people had to be figured as locked in a primitive mode of living. Acculturating the subcontinent to English modernity meant the loss of indigenous languages, customs, religions, but all these could be taken from the colonized under the banner of progress, as a healthful movement from "Old" and "Middle" into "Modern." The Indian village was therefore imagined as similar to life in Anglo-Saxon England: "Where the English were in the Middle Ages, so was India in the nineteenth century" (John Ganim, "Native Studies" p. 127). Implication: interject India with a greater dose of English modernity, and it will soon enough catch up. This otherness of the Middle Ages – and the medievalness of places like India – was emphasized not only in scholarly and popular writings of the time, but through pedagogical public exhibits like the Worlds Fair, where "authentic" medieval villages could be recreated next to "authentic" villages from the colonies as if the two were versions of the same universal human journey.

In reaction to this transformation of the Middle Ages into an underdeveloped country, medievalists eventually claimed a modernity for their era of study, describing a Middle Ages full of enlightened philosophical inquiry and reassuringly contemporary values. In their defensiveness over what therefore counts as medieval, these scholars were careful to minimize the presence of the irrational and the impure. As a direct result, an exploration of the relations between courtly Arthurian romance and the supposedly unrefined Celtic world by R. S. Loomis scandalized traditionalists, while the possibility of a deep connection between courtly love and Arabic literature likewise provoked outrage when it was proposed (Ganim, "Native Studies" 131). This impossibly contemporary and Eurocentric Middle Ages had no place for the non-Christian, the non-scientific, the strange. Chaucer escaped some of this debate over the possible primitiveness of the Middle Ages because he was considered not a great poet of the fourteenth century but "a great English poet who happened to live in the Middle Ages" (David Matthews, The Making of Middle English, p. 30), and the effect of his reputed timelessness was to allow a convenient escape from history. The fact that he monsterized Jews and Muslims, that his vision of Britain (or perhaps more accurately, his complete lack of interest in attempting to envision Britain) means that he has created a world almost empty of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish content, did not disturb scholars for whom timelessness and universality were synonyms for a contemporary kind of exclusive Englishness.


1 comment:

Sarah Rees Jones said...

So – I am sitting here drinking a mug of Twining’s English Breakfast blend brewed in a Staffordshireware tea pot and eating a slice of home-made Christmas cake. (It turned out well this year, thank you, moist but not too sticky and very rich. It needs the tea as companion. I have become particular about the kinds of sugar and spices I use over the years, but never too sure about the proper quantity of brandy.) So very English, so much the product of Empire. It is already pitch black outside, and the cityscape disappears into the sky through a light scattering of snow. Even in the north snow is something of a rarity nowadays. A great fuss was made in the news today of a young girl from Hull, about five years old, who was able to make her first snowman. So the more things stay the same, the more they change (to misquote an old aphorism), but thanks to Bruce Campbell and the Holocene (which I mentioned before) I now know that the present climate changes bringing figs and vines into my northern garden are nothing like as dramatic as those that wracked the world between 1258 and 1380 which was probably the most profound period of climate change in the whole of the last 11,000 years, more dramatic even than the current global warming. So great in fact that they brought about a fundamental shift in the major climatic systems of the northern hemisphere which still determine our weather (in your Washington and my York) today. So Chaucer wasn’t just English but one voice of the most profound period of natural upheaval humans have ever experienced. A true antecessor to both your present and mine.

Stubbs was probably as much a product of Oxford as he was of medievalism surely? The foundational figures in my field (social and economic history) were mostly female, and mostly based outside the universities, and even those that were degreed were based in radical new institutions in cities such as Manchester and London which were founded deliberately against the Oxbridge model of education. Their great achievement was the cataloguing and publication of records from small and local archives as well as the great offices of states, and the writing of histories which were often sloppy about time but very aware of place. So many histories – so many varieties of middle. And that is exactly what England is to me – a kind of indeterminate and abstract middle ground between the vast global histories of the Holocene on the one hand and the real histories of little local places and particular peoples which show so much variety and resistance to grand master narratives of the nationalising kind. For sure as academics (and politicians) we need abstractions – whether the abstraction is ‘phenomenology’ or ‘England’ or Britain or Anglo-American – they serve some need. They bring clarity of purpose and articulation. But we should be careful about reifying them.

I am not quite sure where I am going with all this (in the true spirit of undercooked blogginess) except that to repeat once again that Englishness is (for all the reasons you suggest and more) undefinable – the experience of localities (multiple and overlapping, as well as singular and constrained, aural and emotional as well as visual) is a better utopian way to go.

Footnotes to this would be to David Postles’ social geographies (currently reading for review), to Russell Jacoby’s Picture Imperfect (currently reading for class) and to decades of studying and teaching and living so-called local history.