|Image: Martin Kraft (photo.martinkraft.com)|
License: CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
by SEETA CHAGANTI
In a recent email to UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, an anonymous group of senior faculty state that unless the administration agrees to remove a Confederate statue (known as “Silent Sam”) by March 1, the faculty sending the email will do it themselves. One can admire their missive for a number of reasons, including their commitment to direct action and their explicit, and correct, charge that the statue sends students, faculty, and staff of color the message that they are unwelcome and undervalued on the campus. But one aspect of this exchange that struck my medievalist ear with particular force is the invocation of “pastoral care,” in both the email and their subsequent press release, to describe the faculty’s understanding of their mission regarding students. Thinking about the resonances of this phrase in the context of the early Middle Ages revealed to me the strong tie between the antiracist act of removing this statue and a less tangible, but also crucial, imperative. This imperative is to render complicated ideas broadly accessible, so much so as to challenge the hierarchies by which such ideas are disseminated, in any fight for racial and social justice.
Book 1 of Gregory the Great’s sixth-century Cura pastoralis, or Liber regulae pastoralis (Book of Pastoral Rule), speaks not simply about the care of the flock but also about authority itself. The treatise describes the care of souls as governance, the weight of governing (regimen, Chapter 1; pondus regiminis, Chapter 3), and in doing so sounds uncannily pointed and prescient in our current moment. Gregory remarks on the importance of acquiring appropriate learning before assuming authority (Chapter 1) and of practicing what one preaches when in a position of authority (Chapter 2). He warns that many minds will not be equal to the distractions (Chapter 4) that offices of authority place before one. Furthermore, a leader might be puffed up (tumidus, Chapter 4) or experience a misguided sense of deservingness (Chapter 9). And Gregory acknowledges the importance of feeling reluctance to serve as an authority due to one’s own humility but doing so anyway from a sense of duty (Chapter 7), rather than greedily seeking power. In other words, for a critical account of the pitfalls of governance that anticipates, by over a millennium, exactly the kind of leadership to which we are now subjected, see Book 1 of the Liber.
But I’m not that interested here in giving airtime to the specific problem of Trump through Gregory the Great, or in analyzing Gregory’s attitude toward dominion itself. I am interested in the reception of Gregory’s cura pastoralis in the English Middle Ages and how that reception extends the implications of the pastoral care that the UNC faculty enact. In the late ninth century, King Alfred translated Gregory the Great’s Latin words about pastoral care into English, along with other works of religious and philosophical learning. Alfred’s response to Gregory’s work shows us that the critical stance toward an expression of authority, as well as the duty to attend to the flock (both accomplished by taking down the statue), must connect to the work of making difficult, subtle, and complicated ideas accessible to everyone. In a preface to the translation of Gregory’s text, Alfred observes that learning has decayed in England because Latin literacy has declined (afeallen wæs). Alfred declares it his mission to promote learning and wisdom by translating important works into English, for many know how to read English writing (monige cuðon Englisc gewrit arædan). His preface specifies that he will send a copy of the translation to every bishopric in England, and while that copy may not be removed from its minster, the better to ensure its continued accessibility there, it can be re-copied to promote its accessibility elsewhere. The Middle Ages often seem overrun with dragons of ecclesiastical and monarchical power, and thus it is easy to criticize this period as deeply committed to hierarchy and even responsible for hierarchical systems beyond its own time. But within that context, Alfred’s impulse to vernacularize and disseminate this work represents an intriguing experiment (one that he sees as having ancient precedent) in reconfiguring the channels of access to learning.
And even if Alfred’s motives are more complicated and less equitable than this formulation suggests, we as modern readers have something to gain from discerning in Alfred’s program an experiment in access. For in advocating this access, Alfred specifies what it really means to speak in a way that everyone understands. Re-reading the preface clarified to me that making concepts available in a language familiar to us (we ealle gecnawan mægen) is not the same thing as plain speaking, a concept that has become a misguided anti-intellectual ideal. Vernacularity does not mean “telling it like it is,” or expressing opinions that justify ignorance and bigotry by costuming them as directness. It is not the easy comprehensibility of simple vocabulary and syntax. It means doing the work of translating – at every educational stage and in every educational setting – a complicated architecture of concepts concerning governance, systems of privilege and control, and responsibility to care. It also means translating these ideas in ways that will promote further thoughts and actions toward justice rather than stifling them. For these reasons, I think the “Seventeen Tar Heel Faculty”’s identification of pastoral care as a guiding principle is especially fitting. This idea’s long history focuses on ministering to the flock, and even, as the UNC faculty enact it, empowering through that ministration those most vulnerable to injustice and harm. But in considering what pastoral care means and requires, the medieval ruler Alfred also heard a call to promote a more inclusive, and therefore a more productive, rigorous, and challenging, means to learning than had existed before.