I’m currently taking my last official university course ever (!), which happens to be Old English. I’m kind of psyched about it—I always wanted to learn Old English and I finally have an excuse. I learned years ago that Middle English has the power to mesmerize fifteen year olds, so imagine how much more powerful Old English must be!
The same week I started this course I happened to read an article on the internet (font of all that is accurate and truthful) which made an off-handed remark about suspecting that interest in the Middle Ages was rooted in a yearning for the days when the world was dominated by white men. With an emphasis on the WHITE part and the MEN part. All I could think reading it was… this person doesn’t know many medievalists, do they?
Going on the basis of my academic experience, medievalists are a surprisingly diverse group (as related graduate programs go.) Okay, so there might be slightly higher representation of men in medieval literature classes than in other graduate literature classes. My Old English class is still predominately female, but the men aren’t as overwhelmed as they would be in say a Victorian Literature class. (I have yet to meet a male Victorianist; legend has it they exist, but I remain unconvinced.) But even at my super white university there’s a respectable degree of ethnic diversity in the class. And that’s been the case for most of my medieval studies type classes.
Yes, some of the stereotypes you might have about medievalists are probably true. I am more convinced than ever that most people who study Old English secretly want to be Rohirrim. (I include myself in that group). This actual conversation took place in my class: Me: I thought Tolkein didn’t leave a complete Rohan language. Didn’t they use Old English as the language of Rohan in the movie? Dude behind me: Yes. Forth Eorlingas!
Which brings me to my most important point about medievalists: If you’re planning a party, and you have to invite mostly literature scholars, you want to invite as many medievalists as possible. Trust me: they’re the fun ones. Creative writers can drink and get high better than anyone else, but sooner or later they’ll wind up sprawled on the couches intermittently making out and talking about negative capability. People who study contemporary literature don’t enjoy anything. And Victorianists… well, it might depend on what kind of party. If you’re going to be watching costume dramas and eating cake, by all means invite them, but still include the medievalists. (Please note: Yes, I realize I just made unfair generalizations, just like the person I’m complaining about. But they are based on first hand research.)
Because medievalists know how to have fun. As a rule they don’t take their subject too seriously. They’ll be the first to make jokes about what they study. And they tend to study delightfully insane stuff—my friend S for example studies pacts with the devil and cross dressing saints. How fun is that? This is probably what the blogger I’m venting about failed to realize: just because they study and are fascinated by an era dominated by white men, and I’ll take that further and say rich, white, Christian men, doesn’t mean they think it was any better than it was. Probably more than anyone else they know how screwed up the era was. Half their work is pointing that out. They just have a lot of fun doing it.
And if some mead gets drunk and some Tolkein gets quoted, it’s just an occupational hazard.
On the other hand… Forth Eorlingas!