At SEMA last week, Justin Brent gave a talk at a BABEL-sponsored panel entitled "The Place of the Medieval in the Present." A continuation of a conversation instigated at Kalamazoo, the panel was rich indeed, featuring excellent presentations by Myra Seaman and Erica Carson; Betsy McCormick; and closing remarks by Anne Clark Bartlett.
Justin's paper was, I thought, one of the most moving presentations I've attended, starting with an acknowledgment of his personal investment in the project and his own embodied response to that ownership ("If I have a tremble in my voice..."). We asked Justin if he'd be willing to post his paper here at ITM, and he was gracious enough to assent.
“Becoming the Medieval Jongleur”
The other day a colleague of mine was recalling what she was doing on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Still a graduate student, buried amidst moldy books in her studio apartment, Molly sat preparing for her orals, happily oblivious to the smoke and helicopters circling the Twin Towers in New York City. It was a phone call from her mom later that afternoon that broke her studious reverie and awakened her to the horror. Molly’s a first-year professor at Presbyterian College; for her, the anecdote was a testament to the otherworldliness of graduate school, allowing one to shut out the external world and inhabit a textual reality. Her story resonated with me because of how different my own 9/11 experience was. I had just begun teaching at Presbyterian College when the Towers fell; I was, in short, where she is now, learning as no doubt all of you know that teaching requires us to be creatures of this world, of the here and now, even if our subject is remote. Within an hour of the first plane’s impact, I knew about it. At our campus-wide convocation that morning, we learned of the second crash; we began with a prayer for those involved, hastily went through the motions of the convocation, and then rushed to our television and computer screens. Had I wanted to remain oblivious to the events of 9/11, I couldn’t have. Even at my provincial liberal arts college, an hour’s drive from a major city, it was impossible to remain aloof, insulated from the threat.
Mulling over my conversation with Molly, I couldn’t help thinking about the grad student both Molly and I were, not so long ago. So focused, so blinkered. I wonder: have I ever been as medieval as I was in graduate school? My Old English, Old Norse, Old French – hold your ears everyone – my LATIN all proclaim emphatically NO! My teaching load laughs uproariously at the ridiculous question—“ha ha ha, a medievalist? With this kind of course load?” And my family life, now far more complicated than it was then, replies with genuine curiosity, “Daddy… what’s medieval?”
With the explosion of non-medieval demands on my time, I often feel as though my ability to do medieval research has stagnated. There are no blocks of time for striking out into terra incognita. Even conference papers, until recently, were rehearsals of dissertation chapters. On the other hand, the courses I teach are now terra firma, thanks to the virtues of trial and error. I’m better at playing my medievalist part, at least for the limited duration of eighty minutes, and better as well at filing the medieval away in order to take up linguistics, composition, faculty status committee, school newspaper, and various other demands. The juggling routine no longer compromises my performance. I’ve become, in short, the medieval jongleur, quite adept at playing limited roles, intensely aware of and responsive to the audience in front of me, and dismissive of the content beyond the horizon of my class notes or conference presentation. Like a good jongleur, my performance introduces anachronisms from my audience’s present—Chaucer’s Pardoner becomes Jerry Falwell; Gutenberg’s press, the World Wide Web; Welsh literature, a discourse circumscribed by Western hegemony; Charlemagne’s siege at Saragossa, the Liberation of the Iraqi People. The connections, moreover, make sense, they feel relevant, build community, and my audience typically likes them.
And yet, I don’t entirely disagree with Nancy Partner, a trailblazer of medieval feminism who more recently has grown skeptical of “theory’s” relevance to the Middle Ages. At Kalamazoo last spring, she derided a Babel panel entitled “What is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?” One of her more critical comments went something like this:
…[M]edievalists suffer from a collective resentment at being ignored and slighted, a fear of being considered boring by definition, and are thus pathetically susceptible to acting out in exaggerated bids for attention.Admittedly, Partner showed little tact. Are we all, for instance, pathetically susceptible? Be that as it may, the jongleur in me acknowledges, if not resentment at being ignored and slighted, at least anxiety about being overlooked; it acknowledges as well a fear of being considered boring; and yes, most emphatically does my jongleur acknowledge exaggerated bids for attention.
On the other hand, Don’t we all? Isn’t the historicizing or new-critical curmudgeon who feigns insulation from the things of this world nevertheless offering his own bid for attention? In all honesty, I’m less worried about bids for attention, indeed even exaggerated ones, than the opposite—an exclusively hindward gaze that overtly dismisses relevance to the present. To imply an exclusively backward focus risks relegating our discipline to the dustbin of the past.
Fortunately for us, some incredibly bright people in our field are refusing to consign us to the dustbin. Partner’s position, I am convinced, would change if she read their work. At present, I’m thinking of Steve Guthrie (though I could easily add Steven Kruger, Bruce Holsinger or Kathleen Biddick, but let’s stick with Steve G). His connection between the torture policies at Abu Ghraib and 14th Century Inquisition practices is breathtaking. Guthrie makes you realize that the past does have predictive power, that those of us who study it have an obligation to make our voices heard.
Jeffrey Cohen’s sense of temporality suggests we should be doing even more. It’s not enough that the past help us “understand better the present” or “render predictable the future” (Medieval Identity Machines). For Cohen, time itself must become a problem, and the medieval “middle” a hermeneutic for understanding it. He discerns … and let me throw Eileen Joy in there with Jeffrey … They discern in good scholarship an unsettled restlessness, a joie de vivre that embraces, even loves, the past, refuting any possibility of stability or consensus. I suspect that a good deal of the jongleur I’ve uncovered for this presentation owes its formulation to the “nomadic, mobile, vagrant” scholarship that Cohen called for at Kalamazoo this past Spring. His blog, moreover, has left a stamp on the field that will endure for many years to come. Consider for instance his recent post on “Messages to an Uncertain Future,” in which he characterizes Stonehenge, the Cairn at Maeshowe, and York Minster as “time capsules” and “messages to a known-in-advance receiver,” colonizing space and time in excess of our typical historical parameters. He invites us to consider: “How do you communicate with a future to which you will have become remote history?” While he doesn’t really offer an answer, Cohen implies that we look to Stonehenge, Maeshowe and York Minster as models.
Make no mistake, these are compelling cases for the relevant restlessness of the past. They’re big, they’re exciting, they’re important, and they’re changing medieval studies. Like Nancy Partner, I’m not always comfortable with the presentist claims they make, but unlike her, I wouldn’t want a field without them! Medieval studies, like any other scholarly discipline, should be receptive to what Betsy McCormick calls “hermeneutic juxtapositions”: it must allow divisions and indeed thrive on the rifts that these juxtapositions create. Failure to give voice to them isolates us, deprives us of relevance, invites snickers and spitballs from the back row, and leaves us vulnerable to academia’s grim reaper. If we fail to bring the present to medieval studies, provosts may decide medieval studies has no place in the present.
But eternal optimist that I am, I believe those who represent the future of medieval studies are jongleurs like myself, juggling their research endeavors with a variety of institutional demands and non-medieval teaching obligations. Perhaps we remember a time somewhat fondly when we could block the present out of our lives, bury ourselves in o-stem declensions, lose our way in the tangle of medieval romance, maybe even shiver with delight at holding a fourteenth century Book of Hours. Like the Roland jongleur, we may look back with nostalgia and reverence at our past, wanting to revisit it, caress it, even love it. But if love calls us to our medieval past, it also calls us to the things of this world.
Returning to the question at the beginning of this essay – that is, have I ever been as medieval as I was in graduate school? – let me now reply with an emphatic yes! Indeed, a much better one, and better because of the demands of this world. For although they tend to shatter and refract my medieval gaze into an unsettling array of fragmentary pieces, the jongleur eventually grows adept at assembling the pieces and integrating them into the audience’s present. Recalling the aftermath of my 9/11, I remember now that following convocation most of my History of the English Language students showed up for class, eager for someone to make sense of the crisis. But I was equally stunned, so we sat there in a state of uncomfortable silence until finally I dismissed the class. My inner-grad student had little training for such a crisis and therefore stood frozen, like Chaucer, before the gates of horn and ivory. But my inner jongleur, now seasoned with hindsight and a healthy dose of presentism, knows that I missed an opportunity. I should have turned on the classroom TV and grieved with them, like Margery Kempe at Calvary.