Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ita haec vita hominum ad modicum apparet

Medievalists are a funny bunch. Often solitary and meditative, they can be found deep in the stacks of the world's premier university libraries, and several have been known to cluster in Duke Humphrey's at the back of the Bodleian. Lists and catalogues excite their imaginations, and they are prone to wistful organizational yearnings at the mention of the name "Cotton Vitellius". They can distinguish between "hair side" and "flesh side", read several dead and modern languages, and pronounce the subtle distinction between "þ" and "ð". They know their Bloch from their Derrida and their Foucault from their Butler, but they often prefer Lewis and Tolkien, Klaeber and Wrenn. Many have tried making mead, with very mixed results.

We marvel at the survival of a single manuscript, its pages torn and smudged, and wonder at the manuscripts we will never know, like those lost in the library fires of Cotton and Alexandria. We spend years studying languages we will never speak, and then argue with one another over the philological significance of an obscure declension. We divide ourselves into camps that baffle non-medievalists--"B" text versus "Z" text, Latin versus the vernacular--and avoid seminars and library cubbies that might necessitate physical acknowledgment of our critics. We stare at one another from the ramparts of medieval history and medieval literature, although we claim the same texts as our own.

Many of us joined this funny family--for that's what we are at the end of the day, a family joined by medievalism, a shared attribute that, like blood, is remarkable for the disparate members it links together--through a glimpse, or a word, or a turn of phrase in a literary text we expected to disregard. For some it was through the man who envisioned the tower on the hill and the fortress in the valley, with the people of the earth on the fields in between. For others it was the pilgrims walking through southeastern England, or the young man who defended the Danes, or the dead duchess whose lover lay weeping in the grass. It was the woman who cast her seat-posts towards Iceland, the poet who wrote Breton lais, the Seafarer who wanders on an Anglo-Saxon shore, the Pope who saw the angels in the slave-market, the King who burned the griddle-cakes, the saint who lived in the fens and the woman who walked into the sea.

Our stories are both different and the same, and our scholarly disagreements, though very real, cannot always stand in the way of our friendships. We guest-teach one another's classes, and read each other's papers before going to Kalamazoo. We attend birthday parties, and weddings, and goodbye parties, for it is inevitable that we are never in the same place for long. We hug one another before our defense exams, and we hug after they are over. Our scholarly lives are lived in spite of minimal physical resources, but our minds are rich and we share them with one another.

Perhaps what is most remarkable is what at first seemed unremarkable. Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, but when I first read Bede I thought him a somewhat pedantic monk who would require little attention. A rainy evening in Palo Alto nine years ago bore no hint of the transformative study I would undertake, and the bus ride to Summertown seemed less a ticket to my future than a pleasant way to people-watch on weekday mornings. And when I first sat in an English faculty room at Oxford, on a Fall afternoon nearly six years ago, I had no sense of the significance of the person I was first meeting.

Many years of reading and studying have since passed, but my favorite passage in medieval literature remains the same. It occurs in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, when King Edwin is trying to decide whether or not to convert his people to Christianity. One of his advisors tries to help him by relating the following allegory:

It seems to me, King, that if the present human life on earth compared to that time of which is unknown to us, it is as when in winter you are seated at supper with your commanders and advisors, and a fire brightens the hearth in the center, and makes the Hall warm to the rafters, while outside all is raging through whirling, wintry rain or snow, and one sparrow flies swiftly into the Hall; it enters through one door, and soon leaves through another. In that time, when it is inside, the winter storm cannot touch it, yet nevertheless in the smallest time to a moment it leaves, and soon returns from winter into winter, it slips away from our eyes. Thus to this shortest time does human life appear; but what follows, or what precedes it, in short we know nothing.

I think of Bede writing his Historia at Jarrow, as the fires of Christianity started to die in Northern England and his temporal life's work and focus started to seem less certain, much as Augustine's had when the Vandals banged at the gates three centuries earlier. Ita haec vita hominum ad modicum apparet, Bede wrote--thus to this shortest time does human life appear. And yet, there's enough time for the sparrow to fly through the Hall, and there was enough time for a scholar of Bede to befriend a scholar of Langland, in spite of all their differences. They were family.

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