After November 8th, finishing the semester for teachers of any age group of students became an arduous task. The same was true for me. From the day after, when I had to ask myself how I could face my students and what I could say to them, to the days following, when the usual routine was accompanied by the world seemingly making less and less sense, I have found myself asking if what I do truly has any impact. Teaching the pre-modern often brings out the naysayers who don’t see any significance in learning what isn’t “modern,” but, in a time when current events are in such chaos, those suspicions are even more pronounced, even as the ramifications of a lack of knowledge about the past are on display almost daily. In an attempt for some catharsis, I asked a group of medievalists from various institutions around the country to contribute to this blog post on “teaching the pre-modern post-election.” The response, even at what is always a busy part of the year, was overwhelming, clearly indicating the need to reflect on what we as pre-modern teachers and scholars can offer at this time to our students and, hopefully, to wider audiences.
As my colleagues provide so many detailed insights and examples below, I’ll preface with more general ones…
I do not require that my students love literature and history—indeed, that passion cannot be commanded nor would I want it to be—but I do require them to spend time thinking about why a thorough understanding of the past is so critical. For instance—engaging with the idea that civilization has been advanced not by a single ethnicity, but through diversity. That concepts such as gender and disability are social constructs and have been/are malleable. That humanity excels in its complexity, not simplicity.
Even as I struggled to complete the semester, my students emphasized for me connection after connection they found between the work we did in class and the current events we are enduring. They examined and questioned the so-called progression of history, the idea that we are naturally “better” than the past simply because we have scientific and technological advances. They reconsidered their own stereotypes about medieval women and, simultaneously, reconsidered modern realities. They discovered the translation history of the Bible and how to recognize the value of each translation in its own time and the danger of reading passages out of context. They developed alternative ways to analyze religious texts, particularly from literary and historical perspectives—not to replace other, perhaps more personal readings, but to supplement and inform them. They validated the credibility of primary and secondary sources. These are all skills I want my students to attain and retain as they navigate and make decisions in an uncertain future—not to mention a present that is witnessing the (re)empowerment of hate groups, the rise of “post-truth,” the continued assaults on gender rights, and the wielding of religion as a weapon against the marginalized.
Pre-modern people were rebels, facilitators, dissidents, and traitors. They were tolerant, racist, inclusive, and bigoted. They fought tyrants and were tyrants. They are us, and they are begging to gift us the benefit of their experience. It would be foolish to ignore them.
PS There may be a sequel to this post. If you are interested in being a part of it, please contact us.
Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski, The George Washington University
Post-election, we enter into an era that mobilizes strange and dangerous machines. It is radically new and different. Yet a study of history allows us to put everything within a historical perspective. By considering other moments, we can see how time does not stand still. Time is a movement that pulls us forward and backwards, continually seeing the past, present, and future in new ways with each turn. Working as a queer transgender woman in medieval studies, I say my job is to teach students how to read histories and literatures that can be overwhelmingly white patriarchal, homophobic and xenophobic for ways to flip the script. Marginalized people are used to living in a world not built for us. Yet to survive and thrive we must take what is available and use it for purposes and persons for which it was not intended. The method can be deconstructive: what is the patriarchy? How does it work? Who does it hurt? When and where does it change? The method can also be reconstructive: who else in the environment are not given stories? How do they live? Where do they find moments of resistance or power? Or one can forge new constructs from pre-modern culture: how does their past become our present? What concepts do we have that work productively with the ideas they had to bring new insights into both eras? Where and when does the past emerge into the current day in ways that can be responded to or repurposed? These are the questions pre-modern studies can ask. This is not only how we make history, this is how we use history to remake the world.
As teachers, we deal with students in the wake of some sort of trauma. As a visible transgender woman teacher, I get a greater concentration of women and LBTQI persons, who have an even higher likelihood of struggles brought on by an antagonistic world. Whether they linger after class to ask for advice or sit in class with that glazed over look on their face, our courses become a part of how they are trying to get through life. Let’s not take that for granted. Because I am a trans woman, I know from experience that most spaces and people are not “safe.” On some level, from fending off aggressive comments, to guiding them through pronouns, to ignoring awkward stares from those who won’t say anything or ask, I must be actively or passively managing those around me. When I reach a place or community where I don’t have to fight for safety or dignity, I am often exhausted and can even have a glazed over look on my own face. In the defense of all our students who look burnt out, especially now, I say thank you. Even as teachers challenge students to think critically and make arguments, it is a gift to be in a classroom where they can rest from the work of surviving. As teachers, we can do some of that work for them by being active and visible in asserting the right of each person to be in a classroom without having to defend who they are. Consciously making safe classrooms are not only the right thing to do, it is essential to doing our work as teachers. By allowing them to set aside certain tasks of survival, we help them take up the task of learning. We give them a rest and help them get through the day. True, there are students who don’t have to think about the struggles of getting through an antagonistic world but by modeling what it means to offer assistance to these struggles to anyone who enters the door, we teach another lesson on hospitality. We can’t heal all the wounds of our students, that is not our job. Indeed, our minds and bodies have the amazing capacity to heal themselves through immensely difficult trials, if they are given the right environment.
Jeremy DeAngelo, Carleton College
As I never fail to tell the schools I apply to, one of my mottos as an instructor is Usus libri, non lectio, prudentes facit, “The use of books makes us wise, not their reading”—a quote from Geoffrey Whitney’s Book of Emblems. If we learn simply to accumulate knowledge, then we have accomplished nothing. It is contingent upon us to apply what we’ve learned. Our post-November 8 world demands our activity as scholars of the past, since those who wish to “Make America Great Again” are implicitly drawing upon the past to invoke their authority. We need to insist upon the integrity of that past wherever we can.
I’m less concerned about addressing our current dilemmas head on and more about creating a space in which our values predominate. We have discovered that our country will countenance corruption, overt racism, misogyny, sexual assault, a disregard for the principles of religious freedom and freedom of speech, contempt for minorities, and other transgressions, to a degree that we hadn’t thought possible. It is important then, to cultivate spaces where the opposite is presupposed. I was recently invited to participate in an association of professors whose classes deal with social inequality. It was not until it was suggested that I realized the degree to which the subject occurs in my classes. To my mind, that is the ideal to which we should strive, something more difficult than responding reactively to our world. Rather, we need to conduct classes in which our values are assumed, in how we present our materials and respond to it, rather than acting defensively as if we are in a minority. Because ultimately we aren’t, I believe. And if we do not cultivate our values, we can’t expect to pass them on. The classes that had the greatest impact on me are not those who made their points emphatically, but rather those that were confident in their worldviews. We need to retain our confidence.
Moira Fitzgibbons, Marist College
Like most medievalists, I count among my acquaintances a variety of Chaucers—the sharp-witted satirist, the earnest philosopher, the innovative artist, and so on. In the past few months I’ve added a new companion: Chaucer the information specialist. As I’ve struggled to sort through my duties to my students in what some have called a “post-truth” world, Chaucerian scrutiny has emerged as a useful template for my work in a wide range of courses.
We might argue all day about Chaucer’s goals and priorities (indeed, conferences provide us medievalists with cherished chances to do precisely that). Amid this indeterminacy, Chaucer’s commitment to considering the source of stories, contentions, and advice is one of the most consistent things about his work. Whether he is depicting a whirling mass of “tydynges” in The House of Fame or dramatizing the myriad ways individuals might interpret a fart in “The Summoner’s Tale,” Chaucer possesses an acute sense of the distinction between information and genuine knowledge. No matter how compelling the narrative or argument, he insists that we detach ourselves from it, if only temporarily, to attend to crucial questions. How exactly did this teller gain the privilege of telling this story? Who remains silent during the narrative, and who gets to decide what the story means? Why did the teller decide to cite this source of information rather than a different one?
These questions have cropped up with painful frequency during the U.S. election cycle just completed. Exploring medieval material provides an ideal opportunity to think through pressing contemporary issues, precisely because students so often perceive it as radically different from their own times. When my students and I worked with “The Prioress’s Tale” in late November, many in the class experienced a shock of recognition at the anti-Semitic scapegoating operative in the narrative and at the discrepancy between the Prioress’s avowed piety and her vengeful attitude. By inviting such questions, Chaucer reminds us that motifs, plot points, and descriptive terms all function not as neutral building blocks but as significant strategic decisions.
I cannot shape my students’ political beliefs. To me, this statement represents both an ethical imperative and the pragmatic reality of teaching and learning. I might, however, be able to provide my students with the tools they need to identify, question, and deploy rhetorical strategies in the many different venues. The distinctive combination of urgency, agility, and playfulness inherent in Chaucer’s approach to information literacy is something I seek to approximate in my courses in the months to come.
Rick Godden, Loyola University New Orleans
When I chose medieval studies as a focus in graduate school, I worried that the literature of the distant past would have little relevance to students today. I carried this worry around with me for quite a while; I even framed my teaching philosophy around the idea that the literature and culture of the Middle Ages could be made to be interesting and relevant for students. Of course, I came to realize that making the “medieval” relate to the “modern” required little work at all. What medievalists truly know, and what we’ve felt keenly since the election and the 2016 Presidential campaign, is that the past can irrupt into the present, jarringly and unexpectedly, and that the traces of the modern can be located in what we call the “medieval.” Whether it’s the never-ending invocation of the Crusades, the othering of another culture through the pejorative use of “medieval,” or even deeper cuts, such as the sudden relevance of Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale, the Middle Ages is not only relevant, it can’t be ignored. So, this is what we need to do as medievalists: We need to recognize, in our scholarship and in the classroom, that the Middle Ages not only reveals many truths about the present, but that it is also a vast canvas upon which many people project their fears and their very worst impulses. Sometimes, I fear that the word “medieval” has almost become emptied of meaning, evacuated of any historical or intellectual content to make way for fear and anxiety. “Medieval” can become a shorthand for declaring a group or people abject, different, and less civilized at the same time that it serves as the vehicle for some imaginary, utopian past of hegemony and sameness. In the wake of the election, it has never become more important to really understand the Middle Ages, not for what we imagine it to be, but for what it is, and how it relates to our current moment. The many wonderful medievalists I know already do this, and so, in that sense, nothing has changed since the election. But of course, so many things have changed. To teach the literature and culture of the Middle Ages without challenging the claims that White Supremacy places upon it, without rejecting the mistaken belief that medieval Europe was exclusively white, without puncturing the fantasies of chivalry and courtly love, without deconstructing the often purposeful misinterpretation of the Crusades, is to not teach it at all. After the election, we must teach the Middle Ages for the future. As usual, Chaucer says it best:
M. Wendy Hennequin, Tennessee State University
On election day, it so happened that my World Literature I class was studying Machiavelli’s The Prince.* Even our limited selections resonated eerily with current events. Machiavelli asserts, for instance, that instituting a new system is difficult because those who profit currently will oppose it and those who will benefit will only support it half-heartedly, if at all. We saw this play out in the opposition to the Affordable Care Act, whose laws about pre-existing conditions, if nothing else, help many Americans. But the same principle also applies to Net Neutrality and the elimination of student loan debt, whose potential beneficiaries, young people, stayed away from the election in large numbers. The wide-spread revulsion of Hillary Clinton, even by those who opposed Trump, demonstrated Machiavelli’s statement that it is better to be feared than loved, but fatal to be hated. Finally, Machiavelli most famously says, “The end justifies the means.” The prince’s proper end, according to Machiavelli, should be to consolidate his position and to secure the state. In this election, government officials, hackers, and even some candidates adopted Machiavelli’s maxim and tried to obtain more dubious ends with even more dubious means—and, unlike Shakespeare’s Iago, whom we studied next, they didn’t maintain the appearance of virtue as Machiavelli dictates. I pointed out the fulfillment—and misuse—of Machiavelli’s ideas in our current election to my students. They were surprised by the relevance of a pre-modern text to current events, and I fear the relevance of the election to their lives will surprise them even more. I hope that The Prince—and our other texts concerning kingship and good governance that we studied—may help my students expect and demand more of their elected princes and to choose worthy ones, lest we get the sort of tyrant who tortured and exiled Machiavelli for supporting a republic.
*I didn’t plan it that way, honest.
Jonathan Hsy, The George Washington University
When teaching pre-modern literature and culture in a post-Brexit, post-Trump era, it’s vital to help students confront retroactive fantasies of a pure monocultural Europe. In my Global Middle Ages course, for instance, we address dreams of the “North” through an array of cultural viewpoints. We read the Old Norse accounts of journeys to what is now North America in the Vinland Sagas in conjunction with contemporary Native American stories of medieval intercultural contact such as Joseph Bruchac’s novella “Ice-Hearts.” The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is paired with Arab Muslim traveler Ibn Fadlan’s account of Northern Germanic funeral practices. By giving students an access to “the North” through a wide range of perspectives, it becomes harder to say any one group can ever “own” the past.
Literature, art, historical data, and non-academic blogs all have something to contribute to our understanding of a multifaceted—and multiethnic—pre-modern world. The Refugee Tales (Comma Press, 2016) is a multi-authored work inspired by The Canterbury Tales that tells varied stories of real-life refugees and detainees in the present-day UK. England’s Immigrants 1330-1550, a collaborative and interactive map and database, lets visitors access a wide range of historical data attesting to non-English people living, working, and thriving in medieval England. A collaborative website Black Central Europe gathers together varied historical images, texts, and resources that tell the stories of people of African ancestry across the pre-modern West. Finally, the tumblr blog MedievalPOC, maintained by a non-academic, vividly reminds us of the vibrant presence of non-European people throughout pre-modern Western art. Disrupting received notions of a homogenous European past is an ongoing process that can sustain our efforts to instill respect for cultural difference and variety in our present.
Alex Mueller, University of Massachusetts-Boston
During the days following the election, my students were distraught, openly crying, or desperately attempting to keep their emotions at bay. My own anxieties pale in comparison to those of many students, particularly those who are undocumented and vulnerable to the injustices they are sure to endure under a Trump administration. In a recent ad hoc meeting of faculty seeking a resolution to declare UMass Boston a sanctuary campus, one faculty member expressed anxiety about the fate of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), particularly for those DACA students who received reduced tuition (thanks to our public education-supporting former governor Deval Patrick). Undocumented students who registered for this reduced tuition program are now subject to deportation since they are now “documented” as undocumented by virtue of their registration.
Like many of us, I am a lover of documents, so much so that I occasionally fetishize them and forget that they are not inherently “good.” I am just finishing the teaching of a Chaucerian dream vision course that is filled with poems that grapple with (like so much of Chaucer’s work) the distinction between “experience” and “auctoritee.” While “auctoritee” is not always associated with documents within these dream visions, the fallout from the election has made this common association a central discussion topic for my students, particularly within the context of the Trump campaign’s challenge to the authority of writing, represented by conflicting “news” reports, a President-elect who does not read, and the widespread acceptance of claims without documentation. Chaucer is charged by Alceste in the Legend of Good Women to document the lives of virtuous women, which seems like a laudable goal on the surface, but my students have been emphasizing how this form of documentation is often used against them, depicting Dido, Medea, and others as “sely” and gullible women, whose attempts to write are often short-circuited or redirected to male “auctores” (“rede Ovid…”). Chaucer complains that Phyllis’ letter is too long (blaming her, not his source Ovid), so he decides to rewrite it, emphasizing what he thinks are the best parts (“But here and there in ryme I have it laid / Ther as me thoughte that she wel hath said”). Assuming her textual authority, Chaucer offers a lesson for her, urging women to “trusteth…no man but me” (a Chaucerian Trumpism, if I’ve ever read one). Within a post-election world that resembles the House of Fame’s whirling wicker cage, filled with fabrications mixed with facts, it is little solace to my students that a “man of greet auctoritee” will arrive to make things great again. If “auctoritee” means written claims without evidence (which is the implication in the first line of the Legend of Phyllis), then we must scrupulously reconsider the relationship between authority and documentation. As my students have been suggesting, documents can (and likely will) be used against those with the least authority.
Frank Napolitano, Radford University
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, conservative pundits waxed rhapsodic, comparing President George W. Bush to Henry V, the medieval English king who overcame youthful intemperance to become a hero of the Hundred Years War. Today, our penchant for comparing today’s leaders to those of the past remains strong. You’ll find no shortage of writers—on the left or the right—proclaiming that President-elect Donald Trump is a tyrant, if not from the Middle Ages, then definitely from ancient Greece.
I won’t jump into that fray here, but my research on disability in the Middle Ages has prompted me to consider the value of comparing the 45th president to a different medieval monarch, William I, also known as William the Conqueror. In William’s treatment of criminals and persons with disabilities, we can find echoes of today’s conversations about justice, entitlements, and caring for sick.
Like many medieval kings, William was not known for his gentle treatment of dissidents. In Stumbling Blocks before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability (University of Michigan Press, 2010), Edward Wheatley describes the blinding, torture, and castration meted out as legal punishment under William’s rule (33). We can argue about the propriety of market-altering Twitter posts, but we can agree that Donald Trump cannot act with such brutality against his political opponents. And unlike William, Trump does not have direct control over the justice system. He’ll face some serious legal challenges, for example, to his promise to bring back waterboarding of suspected terrorists.
So let’s be clear: for this and for many other reasons, Donald Trump is not and cannot be William the Conqueror.
But the sensational nature of William’s brand of justice shouldn’t obscure other areas where we might find useful parallels between his policies and Mr. Trump’s. The President-elect’s promise to repeal and replace The Affordable Care Act will likely be based on the “Restoring Americans’ Healthcare Freedom Reconciliation Act of 2015,” an effort to defund Obamacare that the Congressional Budget Office estimates would eliminate health insurance for roughly 22 million people. Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, declared that “The budget is a profoundly moral document. It says, ‘this is what’s most important to me.’” Budget allocations may seem bland in comparison to the legalized blinding of criminals, but there are 22 million reasons to consider whether the loss of health coverage holds as much significance for the wellbeing of America.
Moreover, Trump’s promise to make sure that “no one slips through the cracks” seems admirable, to be sure, but it faces logistical challenges of its own making. I, along with several loved ones, live with a genetic condition that might have disqualified me from obtaining health insurance before the days of the ACA. Though efforts to defund Obamacare supposedly protect those of us with pre-existing conditions, I take no comfort in being corralled into underfunded “High-risk pools.”
I won’t pretend here to be neutral on all things Trump, but if I were to discuss these potential parallels with my students, my first step would be to eliminate myself from the conversation. In matters of politics, I generally follow Kathryn Hume’s suggested response for professors asked about revealing their religious affiliation in class: “If I’m doing my job right, [students] shouldn’t be able to tell” (39). To make the discussion about my own health or political leanings would be to stack the deck against students who voted for Mr. Trump.
A comparison of Trump’s and William’s policies would be worthwhile especially when considering that there is more than one connection between medieval and contemporary treatments of those with disabilities. As Wheatley observes, one of the ironies of William’s connection to juridical blinding is that he also founded institutions to care for the sightless (42). The most prominent example of institutions for the blind in medieval Europe was the Hospice des Quinze-Vingts, founded by Louis (“Saint Louis”) IX in 1256 and still in operation (42). The Hospice became a focus of resentment in thirteenth-century France, with many believing that the blind were being granted unearned privileges not offered to the rest of society (59). We don’t need to look far to find parallels to American voters who claim that people less deserving of help are the ones who benefit the most from Obamacare.
Most importantly, though, I would want students to discuss why we compare leaders of the 21st Century to those of the medieval period. What can we learn about today’s cultures by studying those of the past? We’ve never seen a shortage of works promoting the benefits of understanding medieval history, and there’s already been some fascinating post-election work exploring why people invoke the Middle Ages, either to justify their beliefs, or just to learn more about themselves. As students of all political stripes wonder what this election means for them, it is an exploration I am eager to continue.
John P. Sexton, Bridgewater State University
As I’ve been teaching my Early British Literature survey in the wake of this year’s election, one thing that my students and I kept running up against was the power of poets as commentators on their historical moment—and on ours. We happened to be reading Anglo-Saxon elegies as the Presidential debate series started, Marie de France while the recording of Donald Trump’s misogynistic comments dominated the news cycle, Marlowe at the time of the election, and Dryden as foreign interference and cries for recounts have played against a backdrop of frustration with the electoral college system and continued division in the country. At every turn, it seemed, our readings took on freight that my hastily-scheduled syllabus could never have anticipated. But of course, the texts themselves were more than up to the challenge. After all, they were written by men and women who wrote with their eye on the realities of their day and in full engagement with the unending struggle of people against, with, and alongside people.
It occurred to us, in our conversations, that our current national discourse would be immeasurably improved by the resuscitation of the occasional or polemical poem as a mode of political propaganda.
Hear me out on this.
Our poets are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a bloodless lot, and with the odd exception, speak primarily to a limited and self-consciously educated audience. Our political pundits are, with much greater claim to accuracy, perceived mostly as outrage-fueled demagogues with no deeper grasp of political nuance than that of the average concussed manatee. John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, et al. provide a glimmer of hope and a necessary public conscience, but they are journalistic jesters, speaking truth to power with the reportage equivalent of a bladder on a stick (I say this with great fondness for both journalism and bladders on sticks). I’m talking about the need for erudite, informed, unabashedly prejudiced mouthpieces on all sides of the political spectrum. How much improved would our national discourse be if we packed Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Keith Olbermann, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest of the shouting-as-discourse crowd into a leaky boat, bade them farewell, and demanded that Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Progressives, and all the rest employ satirical poets as part of the national debate? How would Donald Trump’s demagogic populism have been sustained against the badinage of bards and the scorn of skalds? The slings and arrows of outragéd memes are a poor substitute for the professionally-honed barbs of a scop out for blood. How would the debates have been covered differently if punditry had to function alongside pointed satires from Chaucer or Lydgate, Pope or Dryden? What would the poet who wrote for Charles II
Must I at length the sword of justice draw?
O Curst Effects of necessary Law!
How ill my fear they by my mercy scan!
Beware the fury of a patient man.
write of the rising anger and disgust that marks America’s political situation? One imagines longingly the mock epics and convoluted allegories that could have been written in response to every turn of the past election cycle.
In the absence of a professional class of polemical poets, I instead will continue to teach my students the value and history of words in the hope that they will become the skalds this country needs. To speak truth against those whose words would hide it. To clothe our best ideas and highest ideals with the dignity of reason. To expose the word-twisting, logic-defying, gaslighting lies of those who would lead by fear and ignorance. To say the things that powerful people somewhere would rather you weren’t saying. And, of course, to bring the pain and take the piss when it’s well and truly deserved—bladder on a stick optional.
Larry Swain, Bemidjii State University
The question of how do we teach what we teach in the current environment, post-Trump, post-Brexit, heightened anti-Muslim, anti-other, anti-pretty much everything good, kind, empathetic to fellow humans and other living beings….
To me, there is no change in what I try and get students to think about. I’ll list topics I typically address and have students ponder during any given literature course:
- Leadership—of course a lot of Medieval literature involves a “hero”—whether epic, chansons, romance, beast fable….there’s a hero involved somewhere. And while that hero is not always a king, he certainly interacts with kings. Essential questions then are what is a hero, what are a hero’s qualities, what about the qualities of a good leader or king, what makes a good king, a bad king….do good heroes make good kings? And so on….certainly in some classes we can cover subversive literature that criticizes the heroic ethos or attacks kings and the noble structure. That’s easier to do in Middle English courses than in Anglo-Saxon ones. And certainly the question of a good leader comes to the fore in Shakespeare’s history plays. The connection to the present should be obvious: what makes a good leader? Is a war hero or other kind of hero the best to elevate to the national stage? Do we follow evil leaders?
- One of the things I like pointing out is the notion of democracy: one person, one vote (in contrast to Athenian and Roman democracies), even the peasants get to vote. Most of the notions we hold dear as a so-called democratic nation founded on a document as a cornerstone are medieval ideas. Should we still hold them dear?
- What about the role of religion? Theocracy? Religious leaders as part of the leadership? How should religion influence our politics?
- Social issues abound in our literature: roles and empowerment of women, monsters, disabled, gay, heterodox, heretical, the other and alien….all these are regularly presented to us in medieval literature. And it is easy to bring that discussion back to the modern….how do we treat these classes? What place should they having in society?
Those are the most obvious subjects of discussion over the course of a medieval or Shakespearean lit course. The medieval world is not our own; but many of the same discussions are still taking place, and must take place. Tales have power to shape our thinking; I hope the literature I teach shapes my students’ minds and thoughts on these questions that continue to vex us centuries later. Th.e only change in this new environment post-November’s election is that these issues are even more important than they were before.
Larissa (Kat) Tracy, Longwood University
University professors are often accused of liberal bias, of using their classrooms as a platform for promoting one-sided views of politics and political issues. But education is a liberal premise to start with and so much of the material that we study and teach is based on liberal principles that value knowledge, learning, and educated inquiry. It’s not that we inject a liberal bias into our classes or our teaching, it’s that teaching and learning are liberal ideas.
That said, trying to deal with the outcome of this election has been a challenge. Not all students respond to discussions of John Locke or Jeffersonian ideals of equality well. Nor do all disciplines inherently lend themselves to political discussions. But literature is one that creates measured and considered political discourse—especially medieval and early modern literature because many of our modern arguments are not modern at all. Our ideas of social justice, equality, gender inequality, anxieties about female authority and racial Otherness are not new. The last few weeks of my fall semester, my literature curriculum took on an unexpected resonance for many of my students, both Clinton and Trump supporters alike, as it did for me. We discussed the development of liberal democracy, Locke’s argument on tabula rasa, how those were adapted by Swift, Voltaire and Jefferson. We discussed religious persecution and how those who claim to be persecuted like the Puritans go on to persecute others (kicking out the Quakers and Salem Witch Trials, anyone?). We discussed the Wars of Religion, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the Wars of the Roses, the Hundred Years War—the qualities of kingship (and queenship), what makes a good ruler and what leads to tyranny.
In my Gen Ed World Literature class, we discussed the essays of Michel de Montaigne, especially “Of Cannibals” in which he condemns the hypocrisy of white Europeans who regard the ritual practice of eating the dead in South American communities as barbaric, arguing that any society that resorts to cruelty, torture and mass killing in warfare is far more barbaric in how it treats its people than indigenous people who respect and revere the dead and the living. We analyzed the corruption and anti-Semitism of Spanish picaresque novels—those that are more sympathetic to the Jewish and Muslim populations like Lazarillo de Tormes, and those that reinforce the ethnic stereotypes like The Swindler. We had already read Dante’s Inferno, and discussed the way Dante manipulates ideas of Christian theology for his own political revenge and so, when Lazarillo and then Voltaire’s Candide talk about religious corruption and hypocrisy, as well as economic inequality—my students began to understand the wider implications of these issues that propelled the 2016 election and fueled its outcome.
In the same class, we read Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies and discussed the centuries-old misogyny that pervaded fifteenth-century Europe that Christine ridicules in her satire and demolishes in her allegorical city, as she builds up the reputations of historical and fictional women. Likewise, in my Medieval and Renaissance Literature course for English majors and minors, we read the poetry and speeches of Queen Elizabeth I and analyzed the way that Elizabeth had to manipulate the expectations of male political leaders and convince them that she “may be a weak and feeble woman” but she had the “heart and stomach of a man”, a duality that all women in positions of authority must negotiate. In that class, we discussed and dispelled the modern misconception that medieval women were suppressed and existed merely as property—it is not a universal truth of the Middle Ages, and literary figures like Wealhtheow, Brynhild, the Wife of Bath reinforce that. In fact, Wealhtheow became an important touchstone for my students as we read Beowulf because she is a powerful and assertive woman who must maintain the balance of diplomacy and violence in exercising her role as queen. She is a peace-weaver who is willing to wage war if the health and well-being of her community demands it because the men of the hall, having drunk at her table do as she bids.
Ultimately, the ramifications of this election will be far-reaching and deeply consequential. Some will profit from it, but many, many others will suffer for it. As medievalists, it isn’t necessary to make overt allusions to the election because the literature is, as it always is, relevant to this moment, as it has been for every moment. Because, as a people, we haven’t changed much, which is both terrifying and comforting at some level; terrifying because it means that we cannot seem to evolve pass our injustices; comforting because we are not alone in trying to change things. Our issues are the same—racism, bigotry, misogyny, hatred, partisanship, corruption, intolerance, and economic inequality. And literature is still one of the most powerful mediums for both conveying and combatting those ideas. The more we study the literature of the past, the better our chances for improving the future.