Kisha Tracy’s last post (one of several with which she has ably kept this blog up and running while I’ve been snowed under with various matters personal and professional) offered a list of reasons to be thankful for being a medievalist. I heartily agree with her list, and would especially second her appreciation for the flexibility and interdisciplinarity of Medieval Studies. It is, in fact, a large part of what led me to the field in the first place.
When I was a child, one of my favorite authors was James “Alf” Wight, who wrote semi-autobiographical books about a country veterinarian under the pen name James Herriot (no, this isn’t going to turn into my own autobiographical reminiscing—that’s a different post). In an anecdote apparently taken from Wight’s own experiences in secondary school, Herriot often reflected on the words of a Veterinary College president, who spoke before Herriot’s class. The outlook for graduates in veterinary medicine in 1930s England was bleak due to the economy and the decline of working animals on farms, but the president’s message was reassuring. “If you enter into veterinary medicine,” he told Herriot’s class, “you will never be rich, but you will have lives of infinite variety. That line, which I thought about a lot as a boy, pretty well sums up why I love what I do for a living.
In a given week, I might (as I am doing this week) read articles on the decline of sanctuary practice in early modern England and the problem of free will in Chaucer’s Tales along with reviews of books on Old Norse women’s poetry, Benedictine monastic life, and medieval peaceweaving; work on an article on modern interpretations of Beowulf and early drafts of conference papers on gender-bending sexual aggression in thirteenth-century poetry and representations of physical disability in medieval literature; and, best of all, spend time with students talking about the meaning of Lady Mede’s mouton of gold and the reddit Caesari tale in Piers Plowman (as well as the convoluted problem of PP’s manuscript tradition), Edward III’s Statute of Laborers laws, Shakespeare’s views of madness and monarchy, dactylic hexameter as “heroic meter” in the Aeneid, the memento mori of 15th-18th century grave art, and the trebuchets and catapults in Maryland’s annual “Punkin Chunkin” competition—which led to an entertaining hour yesterday morning spent watching video from the 2011 competition (it counts as research, right?). Next week will bring a whole new set of topics and more of the never-ending surprises that come from learning about hundreds of years of material from any number of scholarly fields.
Then there are the side benefits—the high-quality people with whom I share the profession, the incidental knowledge that comes my way, the constant striving to find new ways to use “Burckhardtian” as an insult. No, we don’t get wealthy doing this for a living, but the richness of a life of infinite variety is worth a great deal.