history doesn’t bargain

“Do you know what happened after the Black Plague ended?” sci-fi writer Wesley Chu tweeted yesterday (then deleted). “The Renaissance!”

I won’t get into the issues with this tweet as history. I don’t need to, because Eleanor Janega has it covered (1; 2; 3). In a way, historical accuracy is beside the point. Chu’s tweet irritated me more for its rhetoric. It suggests that history bargains. Debit: one plague. Credit: one renaissance. It is comforting to construct a redemptive moral framework to absorb a catastrophe.

The alternative perspective is terrifying but, I think, important to try to conceive: history doesn’t bargain. No one is keeping a ledger. There are no IOUs. The violence of today isn’t redeemed by great expectations for the future. (Corollary: the violence of the past wasn’t redeemed by anything that followed.) History does not unfold according to a moral logic–or any knowable logic. A better metaphor than the interval-and-rebirth metaphor built into the terms medieval and renaissance is the metaphor of drift. History drifts. It enacts “a movement toward a future that is ultimately inapprehensible” (Davis 127). That’s Kathleen Davis summarizing Bede’s conception of history. Her point, in context, is that this is not an attitude we were led to expect from a European monk writing deep in ‘medieval’ time, when faith in God supposedly precluded a sense of expansive possibility for human action. But there it is anyway, latent in Bede’s writings. An enigmatic (or apophatic) conception of history is compatible with faith. And, conversely, believers aren’t the only ones who moralize history today.

Do you know what happened after the COVID-19 pandemic ended? No, you do not.

further reading

Davis, Kathleen. Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

tyrannical curriculum

The more and more I teach at the college level, the more and more I appreciate how intertwined teaching and research are for professional academics. This is not immediately obvious when reading through scholarship on the page. Periodization ensures that fields don’t connect, because courses within those fields don’t connect.

The same dynamic plays out within the fields of literary study. Features of the intellectual landscape in my own field that puzzled me as an undergraduate and PhD candidate are readily explained with reference to the need to teach in a curriculum. The overwhelming centrality of Chaucer in late medieval English studies corresponds to the provision of Chaucer courses at nearly every college and university. We offer “Chaucer” ostensibly because Chaucer is uniquely important, and because undergraduates most want to take these courses. I have grown skeptical of both of these implicit rationales, the first about Chaucer’s intrinsic worth and the second about students’ preferences. I now think it’s the other way around: Chaucer remains canonical and well-known because every English-department medievalist shares an experience of taking and/or teaching a class on his work. It’s just easier to have something to say about texts that you regularly discuss with students. And the Chaucerian texts that get the most attention in scholarship, in turn, are those that are easiest to teach and most commonly taught to undergraduates: the Wife of Bath’s Tale, less so Troilus, still less the Boece or most of the lyrics. It’s understandable.

There are more subtle examples. The first part or visio of Langland’s Piers Plowman (A.Prologue-8 / B.Prologue-7 / C.Prologue-9) receives far more scholarly attention than the rest of the poem, which makes up about two-thirds of Piers Plowman by volume. That is because the visio is a blueprint for the whole poem, but it is also because it’s typically not possible to read beyond the visio in the undergraduate (or often even the graduate) classroom. The visio is all we have time for when we teach Piers Plowman in a course on alliterative poetry, or political poetry, or religious literature, or multilingualism, etc.

This is true for Old English, too. Beowulf dominates this field for many reasons, and a major reason is that it is nearly always the spring semester text, after a fall introduction to the language. It’s the right size to get through in one semester at a fast clip, but there’s no room to read other texts in that semester. For the same reason, a handful of short texts (the ones in Eight Old English Poems, ed. R. D. Fulk) also get a lot of play: they are bite-sized and easy to work through in a non-Beowulf spring Old English seminar.

Texts that, on paper, ought to be central to our assessment of medieval English literary culture are often relegated to the status of specialized topics because they are difficult to squeeze into a semester: the Paris Psalter (the longest poem in Old English), Lawman’s Brut (the longest poem in Early Middle English), the Prick of Conscience (the most-copied poem in Middle English), the so-called Wycliffite Bible. Not to mention the many important medieval English texts not composed in English, which must be taught in translation, if at all, in the US: Richard Rolle’s Latin writings, Gower’s Vox clamantis, Froissart’s dits amoureux. Medievalists whose training is in a different language tradition are always on about the single-minded prioritization of the English language in English departments, and they have a point. It’s a point less about the individual moral rectitude of researchers in this field than it is about the pragmatism of keeping a research career spinning while teaching a full courseload.

(Now, it’s always possible to do research on texts that you never teach, but it is much harder to maintain that split-brain for long.)

*

Here is an opposite framing of all this. I have the incredible privilege of learning with my students about texts that I then analyze in scholarship. The feedback loop between teaching and research is both professionally convenient and intellectually fulfilling. Just this semester, rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with my students generated two small new ideas about the poem, which are now under consideration as two scholarly notes. One must, after all, teach something, and, unbelievably, I get paid to read and think about the literature that I already want to read and think about. If that has to include Chaucer, well, fine, I’ll think of something to say about him, too.

The problem arises, I think, as it also does for periodization and linguistic nationalism, when the boundary-line between foreground and background sinks below the level of consciousness: when we forget the tyranny of the curriculum and mistake a field of study for a self-sufficient and essentially disinterested response to the past. Medievalists, like other humanists, have long since discarded the idea that historical work could ever really be disinterested, yet certain basic assumptions about what is a ‘major’ text, which poets had an ‘Age,’ seem to replicate the thinking that we claim to have transcended as a field. (This mirrors the situation with periodization, whereby the political-historical boundaries that, we all agreed long ago, should not deterministically govern English literary history still do so in the curriculum, and therefore in the distribution of fields, hiring, scholarly organizations. . .)

*

What to do? I don’t know. In a small way, I’ve been trying to be a bit more experimental in what I assign to undergraduates, partly in order to be a bit more experimental in what I can speak about in my research. I teach anonymous political prophecies in English and Latin, Welsh poetry in translation, Gower alongside Chaucer, Piers Plowman beyond the visio. This has meant foreshortening some other, expected components of my course offerings.

Experimentalism is a decision that I have the luxury of making as a tenured professor rather than a graduate candidate, a job-seeker, or a junior colleague. Ideally, though, experimental teaching can in turn change expectations, reflecting a different vision of the field back into research, hiring, etc. The prospects for this shift in perspective seem to me good: postmedievalists don’t know all that much about our texts, anyway, so I think they are just as happy to hear about an anti- or non-Chaucerian book as a Chaucerian one–as long as you promise to teach “Chaucer” one way or another.

consider the note

(an academic hot take)

If it weren’t for the professional pressure to produce them as CV items, most scholarly articles and book chapters would be better as notes. Notes are 1-6 page essays. Stereotypically they announce a small discovery or solve a crux in a text, but they can also communicate article-sized ideas. I encourage early career researchers to consider publishing in this form. And I encourage my senior colleagues to give notes due weight in hiring and promotion decisions.

I am a fan of the note form. It is for writing an article without having to write an article. So many articles I read feel like a note-sized discovery or insight dutifully inflated to 8,000-15,000 words. Writing up your idea as a note can be liberating: instead of welding the text/idea you really care about to a few others that are related, simply present your best idea, once. Instead of lumbering introductions and conclusions that restate your idea in general terms, simply dive right in. Instead of speculating at length on the implications of your argument, mention these in a concluding sentence and leave their elaboration to those who will respond to the note, or to yourself later on. Ditch the discursive footnotes. Ditch the lit-review footnotes.

I might as well complete the thought and burn the bridge: if it weren’t for the fact that the book is the gold standard professionally in many humanities disciplines, most academic monographs would be better as long-ish articles. . .*

Notes and conference presentations have the virtue of being digestible in one sitting. Books and even some longer essays must be refrigerated and reheated; or they must be skimmed. Notes align better with the kind of reading that is required in order to keep up with a scholarly subfield year in and year out. Notes get right to the point. In that way, notes are kinder to their readers.

*

When I said as much on Twitter, responses were mostly positive, but some were offended at the suggestion, as if a particular intellectual virtue inheres in a particular page count. That got me thinking about what distinguishes a monograph from an article and an article from a note, really. At least for my own field of literary studies, I do not accept that the difference between these three lengths of argument is, typically, the complexity of the argument, or the full documentation of claims. It often seems to me to be, instead, performance: the performance of expertise. Books afford more room than articles for this performance, and articles afford more room than notes.

I say this not to dismiss the performance of expertise, in which I am, of course, invested. To perform expertise is both professionally and intellectually mandatory in academia. That’s the real reason the book remains the gold standard. I would never recommend that ECRs publish only notes. (In this economy?) To the extent that length is a valid proxy for demonstrated expertise, hiring and promotion committees in ‘book fields’ like mine are justified in valuing books above articles, and articles above notes. But performance of expertise isn’t a virtue in itself; it is a thing that one is called upon to do. The best notes (like the best conference presentations) emerge from subject expertise without having to advertise it.


*I freely include my own book English Alliterative Verse in this judgment. If you want to pretend you have read it, read this article instead. I enjoy the experience of composing articles and books, and in that limited sense I prefer them to shorter forms that take less time to make; plus, my work must answer to my field’s professional expectations. Still, I can’t help fantasizing about an alternate reality in which most scholarly discourse was transacted in much shorter forms. It’s like that in medicine and many STEM fields, for example.

enigmatic literary history

Most Old English poetry survives in four manuscript books copied in the tenth or eleventh centuries. A handful of poems, beginning with Cædmon’s Hymn, are certainly earlier than that. But the great mass of Old English poetry can’t be placed before c. 900 without hedging and qualifications. It’s a sore point in the field. Imagine not knowing whether Shakespeare wrote before or after Austen. That’s the situation.

There was for a long time a standard model of Old English literary history; the standard model was comprehensively challenged in the 1980s; and the same model is now being reasserted, with updated evidence, by a vocal cadre of philologists. According to the standard model, Beowulf, Widsith, and other secular poems, plus Genesis A, predate other poems and testify to the lost splendor of eighth-century Northumbrian culture.

The most prominent category of evidence supporting the standard model is metrical form, which is how I came to enter the fray. I find metrical methods of dating Old English poetry to be self-defeatingly circular, because meter is a more historically responsive medium than these dating methods must assume. I said more or less all I want to say on the topic in chapter 1 of my first book. There’s a backstory to my position in the debate that involves various overlapping academic feuds dating back to the 1960s, but, like the Beowulf poet, I won’t say much about that.

Beyond the academic culture-war angle (“a struggle between historicists and humanists, Wissenschaft and Bildung, scholarship and life”*), there is a philosophical significance to the disagreement about poetic chronology. It’s a disagreement about whether it is legitimate to say, “We don’t know.” One side of the debate is much more comfortable saying that than the other side. I sense a discomfort with not knowing in certain scholars’ frustrated responses to the agnosticism that is now the default position in the field. It’s understandable. The protocols of positivism make it difficult to allow for inconclusions, phenomena scientists would describe as “not well understood.” But that understandable discomfort sometimes spills over into misrepresentation of opposing views. It’s easier to make out interlocutors to be misinformed “late daters” than to face the implications of the agnostic position. For a certain temperament, agnosticism just does not compute.

The reward for accepting the standard model is attractive: a literary and cultural history for pre-Conquest poetry in English, bringing Old English up to date with later periods of study, in which historical context is fundamental to interpretation. The historicists/philologists, again understandably, would like to reap this reward by bringing the newly defended historical contexts back to the interpretation of the poems that generated them. But many Old English scholars now do not believe there is sufficient evidence to accept a speculative reconstruction of the past. There are too many variables, and there is too much destructive history behind the desire to see poems about pagan warriors as predating poems about Christ. On the other hand, no alternative model of Old English literary history has emerged, either. The subject remains, for most of us, enigmatic.

I think there is value in exploring the discomfort of not knowing. Agnosticism is a legitimate response to the state of study, and it can’t be undermined by forcing a decision within preset parameters (“either it’s early or it’s late”). Our reading of Old English poetry can’t help but be guided by, either, the hard-won knowledge of when and where it was composed, or an overarching determination that this cannot be known at the present time. The dialectical play between speculation and deconstruction, assertion and negation, has led to some truly nasty moments in the recent history of the field, but that play is in principle a good way to refine and retest what we thought we knew. For now, agnostics must accept that new evidence, or newly compelling arguments, should impel them into the old consensus, or help forge a new one; “early daters” must accept that they have not convinced their colleagues.


*Sheldon Pollock, “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World,” Critical Inquiry 35 (2009): 931-61, at p. 932.

St. Erkenwald (again)

Chapter 5 of my first book is a close reading and contextualization of an alliterative romance from the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. St. Erkenwald narrates the discovery beneath St. Paul’s cathedral of the miraculously preserved corpse of a pagan British judge, who discourses with Erkenwald, seventh-century bishop of London, about his life and times. Erkenwald sheds a tear that accidentally baptizes the judge, whose body disintegrates as his soul rockets heavenward.

My chapter title, “The Erkenwald Poet’s Sense of History,” refers to my PhD adviser Roberta Frank’s “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History,” itself modeled on her PhD adviser Morton W. Bloomfield’s “Chaucer’s Sense of History.” The three essays all take a polemical stance against the familiar claim that medieval writers lacked a sense of history. Chaucer’s poetry, Beowulf, and St. Erkenwald, in different ways, belie the still-current narrative of a “birth of the past” (Schiffman: a 2011 book) in early modern Europe.

However, its placement in English Alliterative Verse meant that my chapter could not fully develop this theme with reference to St. Erkenwald. The purpose of the chapter was to illustrate the historical arguments advanced in more schematic form in the rest of the book–arguments about alliterative meter, medieval English literary and cultural history, and Old English/Middle English periodization. Now I have a new book forthcoming on medieval/modern periodization in English literature, and while it doesn’t feature St. Erkenwald, I’d like to revisit the poem’s historicism. St. Erkenwald provides a potent refutation of the ideology of ‘the’ ‘Renaissance,’ insofar as that ideology is expressed as a claim about a swerve in historical perspective. At the same time, the poem is blatantly anachronistic: the judge is dressed like a fourteenth-century judge, for example.

In the book, I described the Erkenwald poet’s sense of history this way:

For a late medieval composition, St. Erkenwald is “full of oddly advanced notions” [Frank 57, of Beowulf]. Its achievement is not to redeem the past, but to traverse a longue durée so broad that it connects Christianity with what Christianity would repudiate. In the course of events every possible response to this conjunction is mooted, but none is endorsed. Like the squabbling clans of Beowulf in the wake of the hero’s death, the Londoners of St. Erkenwald seem doomed to squander the legacy of the past. Construction grinds to a halt; the hoi polloi just gawk. After a week of research and prayer, the tomb is as inscrutable as ever. The tearful baptism is inadvertent and of debatable sacramental efficacy. An attentive late medieval reader would have wondered why God preserved the corpse in the first place, whether He therefore preserved others, what the inscription meant, how old the judge was, what sort of England he lived in, and whether pagan souls could, or should, be saved by baptism. Six hundred years have not made any of these questions easier to answer. The bishop’s confrontation with the unknown is all the more striking for being unexpected. No one in St. Erkenwald goes in search of a tomb, or a judge, or a pagan past. Tomb, judge, and past simply materialize.

I would now emphasize the paradox enclosed in the second sentence. Chakrabarty writes–in a book that welcomes the European Middle Ages into ‘modernity’–“It is because we already have experience of that which makes the present noncontemporaneous with itself that we can actually historicize” (112). This is an idea that the author of St. Erkenwald intuited and expressed at the level of narrative form. The poem, a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century depiction of seventh-century London, literally represents a present “noncontemporaneous with itself.” That distant present has its own past, to which it bears a relation that is, fictionally at least, not reducible to late medieval historicism. The distant past and the proximate past of St. Erkenwald are scenes of which the poem’s readers “already have experience,” through the genres of historiography and hagiography.

In St. Erkenwald, the paradoxical desire for and horror of the past takes on a specifically Christian flavor. A supercessionist religion, Christianity must both absorb and expel (what can thereby be distinguished as) Judaism. Analogously, within Christianity and its history, Protestantism must both absorb and expel (what can thereby be distinguished as) Catholicism.

Chakrabarty’s work in the philosophy of history suggests that anachronism and historicism describe a fully dialectical relationship. If so, no temporal or spatial boundary-line drawn around human experiences of history can be valid. St. Erkenwald reaches the same conclusion. The past in the poem is unlike the present, but it is nevertheless contained within the present: the past is right here, lurking underneath your cathedral. The Erkenwald poet’s sense of history is archaeological (Otter).

St. Erkenwald shows attunement to the possibilities of historical difference; but it balances that attunement against a sense of anachronism. The past did not have to be born, because it has always been present.

further reading

Bloomfield, Morton W. “Chaucer’s Sense of History.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 51 (1952): 301-13.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000; repr. 2007.

Frank, Roberta. “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History.” In The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Morton Bloomfield, ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1982), pp. 53-65.

Otter, Monika. “‘New Werke’: St. Erkenwald, St. Albans, and the Medieval Sense of the Past.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 24 (1994): 387-414.

Schiffman, Zachary Sayre. The Birth of the Past. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.