The Medieval Institute Publications newsletter is carrying a short blogpost Irina Dumitrescu and I wrote about our coedited volume, The Shapes of Early English Poetry.
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.
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.
I recently read Ted Underwood’s Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford, 2013) with my PhD seminar. The book never received a review in a medieval studies journal, as far as I know. However, the book seems to me as relevant as ever. So I wrote a review for medievalists, to appear in English Studies. Here’s how it begins:
Any medievalist who has read Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) can attest to a strange experience. The novel depicts a twelfth-century English society riven by the legacy of the Norman Conquest (1066). The old chestnuts of nineteenth-century medievalism–language as identity, history as racial conflict, oral poetry as political protest–are all already here, but expressed by characters named Wamba, Athelstane, Reginald Front-de-Bœuf. It is disorienting to encounter zombie ideas in a novel that predates the hiring of the first professor of English literature, in 1828.
Ted Underwood’s book is not on most medievalists’ radar. It is a literary and institutional history centered on the early nineteenth century. Yet its arguments about the formation of English studies return again and again to the teaching and literary representation of the Middle Ages. More even than its author indicates, this book demonstrates the foundational importance of medievalism to the discipline of English.
Scott is the hero, or villain, of the book. […]
Cambridge University Press has released a paperback version of my book, English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History. It’s naturally much more affordable than the hardcover: $29.99 and a further 20% off with code WEISKOTT2019.