(February 2016 – August 2017)
Medievalists struggle with popular misconceptions. This, for example:
And these, which are not Medieval but Early Modern:
Medievalism—for example in and as exemplified by its online collaborative work—is a collegial compassionate collaborative constructive community:
You would expect any collaboration—in its deeper sense, of working together—of creative people to lead to good things.
Now add a shared background and active interest in Medieval Studies, which includes ways of thinking and being imaginatively (ex. analogy, metaphor, allegory) that are rare, repudiated, or repugnant today. The same is true, as we’ve seen with the images higher up, of Early Modernity; and a trait shared with cultures outside Modern Europe and colonised North America, still perceived as the normative centre for which all else is marginal.
Now add online interactivity. Medieval Studies is one of the most active areas in digitial humanities, and has been there since the historical start of the use of computers in humanities scholarship. This has continued and grown with moves from individual and restricted-group research to larger internet communities: from individual and group to network, from active to interactive. As the last example above shows, our field is characterised by unselfishness and thinking of and working with others: the humility of acknowledging the limits of one’s knowledge and asking questions, publicly to boot; helping others; and a greater interest in knowledge itself and one’s contributing service to it, than in individual success and self-promotion. These also happen to be feminist and environmentalist approaches, translated to scholarly life: caring and sharing, thinking of the longer term and the bigger picture, of intersections with other fields and communities, in horizontal peer networks that are either equitable or attempt to redress differences in priviledge, in alliance and solidarity. This often means listening, and promoting the voices of others rather than one’s own, in the interests of all and of the greater good, including that of a community and a field as a whole. Something similar happens in traditional textual published scholarship, in the part of it that is never seen, the end result of a publication being but a tiny part of the work as a whole and erasing all the rest of it; thinking and drafting, but also that largest part of humanities work that is reading others’ writing, talking with others, writing, further reading… and more reading… most of which is at best relegated to footnotes. One of the finest things about online interactive scholarly work is that we see all that work, rather than faint traces and ghosts that have miraculously survived erasure; a second fine thing is to watch that work in live action, whether one is an active participant or not. Just seeing and following along with that making is exciting and stimulating.
Now add Twitter. This is where humanities intellectual interactive work becomes fabulous. To sets of participants in conversations and incomers, add everything else online; arrange that into a general timeline or into semi-ordered lists (ex. I have several within medievalism alone, and others called things like “(T)wit and whimsy”); and watch the juxtaposition of posts and threads add unpredictable elements and unimaginable connections. Sometimes this is “merely” fabulous in an amusing way, or Surreally whimsical; sometimes, more predictably, it’s allegorical or satirical fables of contemporary commentary.
And sometimes that glorious serendipity finds deeper truths, the narratio fabulosa as classically and medievally exemplified (and explained) by the story of Atlantis in Plato’s Timaeus; and via Macrobius, Commentarii in somnium Scipionis; and as (by the time of “my” period, the long 12th-13th c., ex. William of Conches) re-conflated with other fables, all of them regaining higher truth value. Fables are valuable and valued as ways to teach, learn, and come as close as one is able to understanding transcendently higher truths: so, for example, Siger of Brabant teaches such truths sub fabulis et metaphoris. *
Add all these things together, and the result is #medievaltwitter: futuristic imaginative fables of innovation.
Medievalism is one of the most innovative forces at work in education today.
So, back in August, I was thinking about the new term; about teaching, and about working with our current team and with new graduate student TAs. Call it meta-critical reflection on teaching theory and practice. There may be whimsy, soppy mawkishness, and silliness. One of the greatest merits—and demerits—of the medieval is what to modern perceptions is an alien mixing of the high and the low, a disrespect for boundaries, a wild heterodoxy; in NewSpeak terms, this is thinking outside the box in blue skies and not seeing any boxes there.
Medievalism is but a pale shadow of that. Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes.
A pressing reminder about teaching and learning conditions, and models to which a university ought to aspire. Way out of our reach; but why not think big, be way out there in imagination, be lofty in idealism, balanced by an awareness of our limits in healthy self-awareness? Ambition doesn’t have to be arrogance, and the potential for hubris can at least as readily and naturally produce honour and humility. Learning is nothing if it is not life-long; including learning, through their own continuing education, by Educational Leaders.
* Fables are of course also dangerous, like any other way of increasing intelligibility, sharing and spreading knowledge, and making it accessible to a wider audience; fabulae et falsa are paired in admonishments, such as in Stephen Tempier’s condemnation of “errors” taught at the University of Paris. Let 1277 be a warning to university authorities not competent to make such decisions as lacking the requisite expertise or foresight, or making them in haste out of pressure from external higher authorities and prejudiced interest-groups. A handy quick synopsis:
Armand Maurer, “Siger of Brabant on Fables and Falsehoods in Religion,” ch. 10 in Being and Knowing: Studies in Thomas Aquinas and Later Medieval Philosophers. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1990).