As part of the eight-week program, faculty are invited to give lectures on Wednesday afternoons. These talks are sort of a combination of "how did I get here?" and "what do I do?", where faculty talk about their research lives and the paths that brought them to their work. I was asked to speak this summer, and the talk went over quite well - well enough that I thought perhaps I'd share it here. The script with select images appears below. (Sadly, I have cut my ad libbed jokes as well as images of Beinecke Osborn A.11, which I shared with the group in the context of talking about the edition I'm working on.)
I want to open up with a question. What comes to mind when I say “medieval”?
|The first page of results for a Google Image search for "medieval."|
In general, you’re probably thinking of Western Europe – a knight on a horse. And probably, the people you’re picturing are white and Christian. This is a pretty common notion of what the Middle Ages is. As it turns out, it’s not that simple: the entire world existed for that whole thousand years. Not everyone was white, and not everyone was Christian, not everyone was a knight, and not everything worth studying was produced in Western Europe. Being a medievalist means lots of things: it’s a term that applies to people in a huge range of fields, studying a huge range of geographical regions over the span of a thousand or so years. However, inside that bubble, I look like a pretty old-school English literature kind of medievalist: most of my work deals with literature written in England during the fourteenth and fifteen centuries. But what I find most interesting is how England represented other cultures: how English literature presents a wide range of religions, races, and languages, and what those presentations can in turn tell us about England’s sense of itself during that two hundred-ish year period.
This is a sort of weird, oddly specific area of study, and in thinking about what I wanted to say today, I tried to think of way to tell you how I got interested in this weirdly specific stuff and what exactly it is that I try to do. In the process, I realized that the key word for my professional identity is access. So I’m going to break my comments today into three parts around that theme: first, I’m going to talk about how other people helped give me access to the world I’m part of now; second, I’m going to talk about how that idea of access carries over into my research life; and lastly, I’ll wrap up by talking a little bit about and why I think we all need to open up our research lives to bigger audiences.
Part 1: How did we get here?
First: I’m going to narrate you through some of the important mentoring experiences that got me here, which means I need to tell you a little bit about my background. I grew up outside of Providence, Rhode Island in the city of Pawtucket – a place known for dirty water, corrupt politicians, and the Triple A farm team for the Boston Red Sox. My dad worked three jobs for most of my childhood while attending college at night. (He got his bachelor’s degree when I was fourteen.) My mom stayed home with me until I started kindergarten, when she started working as a teaching assistant in the local school district. And then there was me, the child who got so focused on whatever she was reading that she genuinely didn’t hear her parents, say, calling her for dinner. (This was the cause of some good-natured disagreements between me and my dad.)
My dad’s parents lived around the corner, and the first person who taught me about access was my grandmother, Joan. Grandma was one of the first three female clergy in the Episcopal Church in the state of Rhode Island. In the late 1970s, the church started to discuss possibly ordaining women, something that began to happen in the early 1980s. My grandmother had spent most of her adult life working various part-time, so called “pink collar” jobs, raising three kids while my grandfather worked unpredictable hours as a lineman for the electric company. But she’d always felt connected to the church, and she was excited about these new potential possibilities for women. There was just one problem – if she was going to become a priest, she needed a college degree to be able to attend seminary.
So she got one, a couple of classes at a time at the University of Rhode Island. And a few years later, she invited her three grown kids over for dinner. This story predates me, but as my father tells it, it went a little bit like this: Grandma called all three of her children over for dinner one Friday night (and when my grandma told you to do something, you did it.) All five of them sat down around the table in the dining room of the house they had grown up in, the first floor of an old two-story tenement home. Once everyone was sitting down and had been served dinner, my grandmother declared: “Well, I’m going to be living in New York City for a few years. You kids will have to look in on your father.” (New York is home to General Theological Seminary, where she studied with two other women from Rhode Island, making flashcards for their Greek language class that she cheerfully threw away as soon as she possibly could.) My grandfather, to his credit, didn’t need that much looking in on, but he drove four hours every weekend to visit my grandmother in New York City. They used to buy bagels and sit on a bench near Times Square to watch the people go by, every weekend while my grandmother earned her master’s degree and then doctorate in divinity.
|Rev. Joan McShane performing a baptism (mine).|
My grandmother was an important model to me for a lot of reasons. She was the first person in my family to spend any part of her life living anywhere but Rhode Island (besides military service). But she also taught me something about grabbing opportunities, even opportunities that lead you down unconventional paths. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she faced a lot of resistance, even from close friends, at the idea of a woman priest. People refused to go to her ordination, left the church when she preached, or refused to take communion from her. (There wasn’t even a title for her when she was ordained – in the Episcopal tradition, especially in the 1980s, you usually called clergy “Father so-and-so,” but she sort of had to make her own rules.) But she understood that she was opening doors for more women to come after her, as indeed they have. Access sometimes means you have to kick the door down so you can hold it open for the people behind you.
Now we have to fast forward a few years – to me, high school aged Kara, looking at colleges. I was seventeen with absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. (If this doesn’t sound familiar to some of you, you’re lying.) To complicate things, while I’m not the first person in my family to have a college degree – I follow after Grandma Joan and my dad - I was the first person in my family to go to college in the traditional, post-high-school way. This meant that my family had no idea what we were doing. Financial aid letters were terrifying. Leaving the state was terrifying. Everywhere I applied was no more than an hour from home. So I wound up at a liberal arts college called College of the Holy Cross. And eventually, after dabbling with history and political science and even physics for one memorable semester, I settled on an English major.
But as much as I’d loved books since even before I learned to read them myself, I immediately encountered a problem with my English major. You see, in order to complete it, I had to take two course in literature from before 1800. As far as I was concerned, this amounted to cruel and unusual punishment – what did stuff that was hundreds of years old have to do with people now? And why should I be subjected to it?
Furious, I signed up for a course called “Arthurian Romance.” (It turned out this was a great choice for a lot of reasons. One of the things I hadn’t foreseen was that a friend from my work-study job took that class with me, and now she’s my wife.) I figured that if I had to read all this crappy old stuff, I could at least take the King Arthur course, which at least sounded vaguely cool. And the professor was supposed to be pretty scandalous – she was a feminist, which was pretty wild for my Jesuit college.
The second person who taught me about access was Sarah Stanbury. Professor Stanbury led us through a lot of old literature – I mean a lot, her syllabus was pretty brutal – but she never just answered our questions. (In fact, she almost never answered our questions.) We’d ask her something, and she’d ask more questions. It was infuriating. And so was the literature! We read a work called the Knight of the Cart, by Chretien de Troyes. (It’s a Lancelot and Guinevere story.) But it was like nothing I’d ever read before, because the narrator kept on interjecting, interrupting the story for pages at a time. The story would be moving along – Lancelot goes off on a quest to find Guinevere, who’s been captured by an enemy prince. And then here comes Chretien with a four page discourse on knightly honor and the importance of reputation and the shame of Lancelot sitting in a cart instead of riding a horse. Four pages. I was not impressed.
But I was getting pretty good at the college thing, so I went to office hours. “Why?” I asked Professor Stanbury. “Why won’t Chretien just shut up and tell the story? Why does he think I care about his long, boring digressions about love or honor or whatever?”
And she sat back in her chair, looking thoughtful. “That’s a good question,” she told me. “It sounds like a paper.”
I was still not impressed. And I didn’t really want to write the paper, but I had to write a paper for the class anyway. So I started digging, trying to find out what people thought was going on with medieval narrators.
And then I was hooked. It turned out, I wasn’t the first person with that question. A lot of people had asked it, and written about it. Suddenly there was a conversation going on, and a professor cared what I thought about it. I took a Chaucer class. And if I was doing that, probably, I thought, I should take Shakespeare – I was an English major, after all. I decided to do an honors thesis on Chaucer – mostly so I could keep working with Professor Stanbury - and I realized I didn’t know enough about Chaucer’s time period to understand everything I wanted to. So I took history – and art history, and philosophy, and suddenly I accidentally had a medieval studies minor. Professor Stanbury taught me about access in a few ways – first off, she gave me access to a world I hadn’t realized existed. And she helped me realize that yes, a kid from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, whose parents delivered newspapers on Sunday morning to put her through college, had a place in that world, as a thinker and a researcher and a writer.
But more importantly, she showed me that there was a way to get paid to ask questions, to have conversations about literature and the past. So I went to graduate school at the University of Rochester, and that’s where I got my next lesson in access, from a man named Thomas Hahn.
Tom was my graduate school adviser, the person who supervised my dissertation research. And Tom studied literature I hadn’t realized existed. He studied what he once called in a seminar “the pop culture junk of the Middle Ages”: the stuff that fell outside what people had for years understood as medieval literature. (To make medieval literature a serious pursuit, it was essential to make it absolutely no fun, and scholarly attention went to the “good stuff” – the poetry that was part of what we call the canon, the things that smart people had deemed beautiful and worthy of study.) Sure, Tom taught Chaucer, but he also studied Robin Hood ballads, English romance, medieval women’s writing, and crappy poems that only existed in one copy. Mark Twain reportedly once said that a classic was a book that everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read. Tom studied the things that people *did* read. Up until that point, I don’t think I realized that was allowed.
It was a simple but powerful idea for me – if you really want to understand the culture that produced a particular kind of literature, you need to understand a range of their cultural products. Imagine what it would be like if you were trying to understand England in the 1990s by reading nothing but the Harry Potter books. They’re great books – a rich, complex world – but they can only give you insight into a tiny part of the whole picture, and you’d probably come away with some completely ridiculous misunderstandings about the time period. Tom’s lesson on access not only brought me into professional academic study – which he did, and has done with tremendous skill for upwards of twenty-five doctoral students – but it taught me about the importance of making that kind of pop culture junk accessible, about opening up the kinds of things we think are worthy of studying. And that, essentially, is what guides my research now.
Part 2: So what exactly do I do here?
I’m part of a larger scholarly movement to crack open what we mean by “the Middle Ages,” working alongside people in all kinds of fields. Most of your professors have a few research projects going on at once, but one of my big ones this summer is an edition of a Middle English poem from the fifteenth century called The Destruction of Jerusalem. There are eleven copies of it in the world – which suggests that probably it was reasonably well-read in the Middle Ages – but no one’s edited a version of it since 1905. (In the sixties, some scholars noted that the 1905 edition was really bad, but no one did anything about it. This is actually great news, because it’s where my collaborator and I come in.)
I’m going to actually read you the summary of the poem I submitted to the press I’m publishing the edition with:
The Destruction of Jerusalem, alternately titled Titus and Vespasian, consists of approximately 5100 rhymed lines. Its somewhat winding narrative recounts the death of Jesus before describing a messenger named Nathan, sent by Pontius Pilate to Rome. Nathan is blown off course, however, and lands in Gascony, where the king Vespasian is suffering from leprosy and a swarm of wasps living in his nose. Nathan’s description of the death and resurrection of Christ leads Vespasian to send a messenger to Jerusalem, and Vespasian’s messenger returns to Gascony with Veronica and her vernicle, the cloth with which she touched Jesus. After he is miraculously healed through the vernicle’s power, Vespasian vows to destroy Christ’s murderers, and he and his son Titus set out with an army for Jerusalem. The rest of the poem describes the seven year siege of the city, the extreme conditions within Jerusalem, and the ruthless treatment of the city’s Jewish inhabitants after the siege ends. The work exists in two major variants: the Short Version follows the trajectory outlined above, while the Long Version includes two major digressions, one on the posthumous travels of Pilate’s corpse, which the earth will not accept after his death, and one on the life of Judas Iscariot, including his incestuous marriage to his mother and eventual suicide.
I’m not kidding – I sent that paragraph to the press.
This poem is, from any modern perspective, weird. It’s inconsistent, graphically violent, appallingly anti-Semitic, and, to top it all off, it’s pretty mediocre as far as poetry goes. It’s also a complete reimaging of actual historical events, the actual siege of Jerusalem by Roman forces that took place from 66-73 CE, a siege sparked by Jewish protests of Roman rule. (Titus and Vespasian were real people: Vespasian was the emperor of Rome from 69-79 CE, and Titus succeeded him.) So if this poem is bad poetry *and* bad history, then what possessed me – and my collaborator, fellow Holy Cross alum Dr. Mark Wright – to do an edition? And what do I even mean by “doing an edition”?
Editions are literally about access. Much though I’d like to, I can’t bring you all to study the original manuscripts with me, and even if I could, it would take a lot of practice before you really knew what to do with them. But by examining them ourselves, Dr. Wright and I can create a version of the text that you can engage with. Let me walk you through the process: we start with manuscripts. For this project, seven of them: there’s one at Yale, at the Beinecke Library; three at the Bodleian Library at Oxford; and three at the British Library in London. There’s also one in New York City, at the Pierpont Morgan Library, that I am hoping to visit. We transcribe the entire poem, copying every letter, weird mistake, as best as we can read them. In the process, we make note of damage to the manuscript, or marginal notes someone has written in, or where there might be illuminated letters meant to indicate section breaks or make it easier for someone to find a passage. Then we compare our transcribed versions to try to find scribal errors in our base text; and then we very gently do what’s called emending the text, correcting those scribal mistakes and noting variations in the different transcriptions. Then we create what’s called a reader’s text. That’s exactly what it sounds like: it’s a version of the poem that a modern reader can interact with in a relatively straightforward way. (So, for example, the letters I and J are often used interchangeably in Middle English, but this is confusing for a modern reader, so we follow the press’s policy of modernizing them.)
|A shelf full of METS texts.|
The final version looks a little like this. The Middle English Texts Series is a project, fully funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities for the past twenty years, that makes hard-to-find texts that scholars want to teach available in scholarly, inexpensive editions. A team of staff editors at the University of Rochester helps make the work available online, which is especially helpful for scholars in other parts of the world, for whom shipping the books is often cost-prohibitive. (The series has produced over 80 volumes, with many, many more in progress by editors across the world.) In doing this, I’m opening up access to the material of the Middle Ages – simply put, people can’t teach The Destruction of Jerusalem right now, and they will be able to teach it once this version’s published. Transcribing manuscripts is also a way of opening up access: one of the copies of the poem that I’ll be working with in a couple of weeks, at the British Library, hasn’t been transcribed before.
But Dr. Wright and I are also opening up – I hope – our understanding of the Middle Ages. As weird as this poem is – and it’s pretty weird, which is part of why I love it – it has very strong connections to a lot of medieval English literature, especially drama, literature about the Crusades, broader medieval traditions of anti-Semitism, and other works. (It even has a shorter “sister text” called The Siege of Jerusalem, which has gotten a lot of attention from scholars lately, so I think this version of Destruction of Jerusalem will help us better understand the tradition of this poem.) But most importantly, reading The Destruction of Jerusalem helps us understand how medieval people reimagined and reshaped the past through their literature. Why did they create this totally fictionalized account of an actual historical event? What does their version tell us about the values of this poem’s creators? How has this poem influenced our own perceptions of these historical events? I’ve alluded to the fact that the poem is appallingly anti-Semitic and quite violent – it pays a lot of attention to acts of cannibalism, massive piles of smelly corpses, and mass starvation – and I actually think that those details are important, too. We need to read and engage with works of literature that make us uncomfortable – not just for the sake of being uncomfortable, but because they shake up our expectations and help us understand the world we’re living in now.
Part 3: Medievalists and the Twenty-First Century!
This idea of reshaping the past is where I want to end, talking about another interest of mine, medievalism. (Medievalism is basically any reimaging of the Middle Ages created after the Middle Ages. So it covers anything from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry to Renaissance Faires to Skyrim to Tolkien.) Outside the scholarly world, the Middle Ages is everywhere. Medievalists hold the dubious honor of getting more random e-mails than people specializing in any other period: nearly every medievalist I know has a story of that time someone e-mailed them (or in the old days, called) to explain how they were related to King Arthur, knew the truth about the real Robin Hood, or were otherwise connected to semi-mythical shenanigans.
Who’s read Chaucer? Who’s seen Game of Thrones? Lord of the Rings? The Netflix Marco Polo series? The new King Arthur movie? The horrible Robin Hood movie from a few years ago? A lot of our modern cultural productions rely on particular ideas about the Middle Ages, and those ideas often don’t include the cultural diversity of the period. One of the other things I do in my scholarly life is serving on the editorial board of an online, open-access journal called Medievally Speaking. The journal provides reviews of medieval-ish things: from books to TV shows to King Arthur cloth diapers. (Not kidding.) Our goal in doing so is to explore why we’re still so fascinated with the Middle Ages – to examine the range of ways in which we repurpose and reconstruct the period and how those reconstructions, in turn, shape today’s world.
In fact, lately something sinister has been happening with how we recycle the Middle Ages in modern society. Scholars and critics have noticed since 2001 how the Middle Ages is invoked to talk about Islam, for example, especially how framing a major world religion as “medieval” has become a way to present it as simultaneously backward and exotic. But something new has happened lately – new and troubling – as the Middle Ages is reimagined as a glorified time of white Christian supremacy. Thus, an idea of the Middle Ages gets deployed over and over, often accompanied by violence. To give only two recent examples: in late 2016, a mosque in Scotland was defaced with Crusader slogans – “deus vult” and “Saracen go home.” In the US, the killer in Portland, Oregon who verbally attacked two women he perceived as Muslim – and then killed two people who came to their defense, seriously injuring a third – likewise invoked the medieval. He reportedly shouted “hail Vinland,” taking his inspiration from the Vinland Sagas, two thirteenth-century Icelandic texts.
Less violent, but no less fascinating, was former FBI director James Comey’s invocation of twelfth-century Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in his testimony before Congress, when Comey claimed that Donald Trump thought of him as a “meddlesome priest.” The line invokes a quote from the 1964 movie Becket about the Archbishop’s conflicts with King Henry II of England, in which Henry asks if no one will rid him of this meddlesome priest and four knights take him at his word and murder the archbishop. (The line was a later invention – that is, not medieval – as Sara Lipton observes.)
The point here is that all of these are constructions of a Middle Ages that literally doesn’t exist -- it never existed. Except maybe in movies. But as images, they hold a huge amount of power. To be clear, this isn’t a new problem: it’s exactly the same problem that I see in how Destruction of Jerusalem re-imagines the Roman siege of the city, in fact. But it seems to me that it’s an especially urgent problem right now – one that I as a scholar have an obligation and an opportunity to do something about. It’s important to me that I provide access to the medieval world – to students, yes, but also through projects like Medievally Speaking, or in my other hat as a blogger – not so much because facts are important (although they are), but because I believe that we need to think critically about how we reconstruct the past, especially the medieval past. I think examining medievalism tells us more about our own culture – our values, our interests, and our problems – than it does about the Middle Ages. And that’s the point. In understanding what various people imagine the Middle Ages to be, we can better understand their very real, very contemporary agendas.
Okay, but with one or two exceptions, you aren’t medievalists. So where does that leave you? I’m in literature, so I don’t think I can control how you interpret this talk, but here are some things I hope you’ll take away to your own scholarly and creative lives:
- Don’t be afraid to kick the door down. (There are opportunities out there for you. Sometimes things fall into your lap, and that’s fantastic. Sometimes they don’t. Kick the door down even when people don’t understand why you’re doing what you’re doing – and don’t forget to hold it open for the people behind you.)
- Try something you’re certain you’ll hate. (First off, this is literally what college is for. But more importantly, you never know how that class that sounds completely horrible will shape who you become.)
- We can’t always see the ways that our research might matter when we start out. That’s okay. (Obviously I didn’t become a medievalist so I could challenge people’s invocation of crusader slogans in 2017.) But you should still think seriously about why other people need your research and how you can get it out into the world. (I was so inspired by your presentations early in the summer – each of you are doing really important, inspiring, valuable work. Knowing how and why it’s important, and thinking about how to tell other people it’s important, will make you a better researcher – but it will also inspire you in turn to keep going on the long days.)
At the risk of ending with a cliché “get out there and save the world,” I have to admit that I’m an optimist. I believe that research matters – questions matter. So I’m grateful to all of you for your work this summer, pursuing questions that matter to you, and for this opportunity to share some of the ones that matter to me. Get out there and save the world.