Marion Turner, Department of English, Oxford University, Oxford, UK
A couple of years ago, a controversy broke in the British media about the texts that are taught in high schools to sixteen-year-olds. There were many good reasons for opposing the changes, which were profoundly conservative, nationalistic, and ideological. But, predictably, much of the rhetoric of opponents of the changes centred around the old chestnut of ‘relevance’: the sidelined texts were championed as easy to identify with; they offered clear messages about universal values such as tolerance and empathy with which students could connect, and which resonated with the world today.1
Medievalists know, of course, that many of the concerns of long-dead authors chime with the concerns of the present. However, it is a real problem if we give in to a view that we read literature mainly because it is relevant. Difference should not be given up, as recent discussions of wonder have eloquently attested.2 We read, at least in part, to train our brains to make imaginative leaps, not only because this develops empathy but also because it encourages us constantly to question assumptions; in particular, perhaps, to question the idea that any part of how we live and how we are is natural, or self-evidently superior. I am reminded here of Sherri Olson’s comment on pedagogy in the previous postmedieval forum, that “strangeness should be interesting, not repellant” (Olson, 2013).
My question, in thinking about the public image of the Middle Ages, is how do we find a middle way between sameness and off-putting/exotic alterity? What are the strategies by which difference can enter the conversation in a productive way?
My major project at the moment is a biography of Chaucer, a biography that will, I hope, have a primary audience of students and scholars, but that will also have crossover appeal. In thinking about medieval life-writing, part of which involves the speculative reconstruction of subjectivity, there is a real tension between familiarity and difference. On the one hand, we reach empathetically across time when we read (for instance) that medieval parents too were rocking and singing to their babies, desperately trying to get them to sleep, putting them in darkened rooms and co-sleeping with them to comfort them (Bartholomaeus Anglicus, 1975, Book 6, Chapter 4; Orme, 2001, 58–80). But this seductive sameness can lead us to flatten out historical difference and to flirt with an atemporal idea of “human nature.” Especially in the case of Chaucer, many people still like to imagine that we have “souls congenial to his,” that we can commune with him across the centuries (Trigg, 2001). I emphatically do not want to write a cozy life of congenial Chaucer, a man for all time.
One way in which I try to think about difference — different ways of being human, of having an identity — is through spaces and places, by interrogating the structures in which Chaucer lived: what rooms were like, what it was like to live in a great household; how people thought about domestic space, or nationhood, or the body’s relationship to its environment. Identity, I argue, is fundamentally formed by the physical and conceptual structures in which we live. Another linked way of considering difference involves thinking about language, about how the material conditions of our lives determine the metaphors we use. As Lakoff and Johnson have shown, metaphors exist at the level of concept: the figurative language we use is part of how we think about the world. And people don’t always use the same kinds of metaphors. For instance, Lakoff and Johnson write about the ubiquity of container metaphors, connecting the idea of the human being as bounded by a skin surface with the idea of rooms and houses as containers and with territorial boundaries imposed onto the landscape (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, 29–30). But none of these behaviors or modes of thinking are transhistorical or even factual: our skin does not actually separate us from the world; through its openings and through our senses it connects us with the world; people do not always live in rooms and houses, and if they do, those rooms are sometimes not private spaces, or are divided from other spaces by soft porous curtains rather than locks; not all cultures mark territories or think territorially. The metaphors we live by are not the same in all places or times. Chaucer’s images of selfhood are often not the “container” images exemplified by Ancrene Wisse’s lady in the castle or Lacan’s fortress or stadium; rather he tends to focus on profoundly porous and open spaces to signify the engine-room of creativity that is the brain (Turner, 2015). Indeed, intersubjectivity3 (a very contemporary and “relevant” concept!) chimes strongly with late-medieval concepts of identity, collaboration, and audience and this medieval understanding of the self is inseparable from the much less private way that people lived in the fourteenth century, from their deployment of space and their different sense of the boundaries of the body.
I once thought about my approach to biography as trying “to get under the skin” of a subject — and then realized that I was myself using a metaphor that presupposed the kind of outside/inside split that I have just been arguing is learnt and historically specific (Benthien, 2002; Walter, 2013). (Indeed, the first recorded usages of that phrase are from the second half of the nineteenth century). To understand the imagination of Chaucer and his audience more fully, we have to interrogate some of the metaphors that we live by, that we often barely recognize as contingent constructions.
It is through the sensitive affirmation of difference that we can gain a greater purchase on the past and on the present. We have to keep making this case in public discussions as well as more specialist conversations; we need to find accessible ways of articulating difference. “Impact” is a key word in research assessment in the UK, but to have impact on varied publics our work should not focus only on the appealing argument of sameness and relevance; we should never give up on the value of affirming historical (and other kinds of) difference.
- See Fradenburg (2011).
Maunder, S. 2011. Who, what, why: Why do children study Of Mice and Men? BBC News: Magazine. 25 March. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12829392.
Olson, S. 2013. Turning Medieval Strangeness to Account. postmedieval Forum IV, Pedagogy, ed. M. Dockray-Miller. https://postmedieval-forum.com/forums/forum-iv-pedagogy/turning-medieval-strangeness-to-account-sherri-olson/.
Turner, M. 2015. Chaucer. Oxford Handbooks Online, ed. J. Simpson. http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935338.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199935338-e-58.