Yes, I studied medieval literature. No, I’m not a lecturer. No, it was not a waste of time. And yes, I will argue for the relevance of art and of the past until I become part of the latter.
I first came across medieval literature as a somewhat confused and angsty 17-year-old student who carried copies of Sartre and Beckett around in my second-hand Camden Market leather coat pockets. With the influence of the modern world, I considered most words written before the twenty-first century to be not irrelevant, but distant, harder-to-reach, long-winded – a foreign country of the past.
That was until my English teacher played a recording of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The voice that emerged on a rainy day in a bare 60s-build classroom was rich, evocative, humourous, and…recognisable. This wasn’t high-flown philosophy. This was playing with words, swearing, jokes about bodily functions, sex and human error – and above all, it was funny. Really funny.
Perhaps because of the way it is commonplace nowadays to bracket every interest and topic into boxes, I struggled to explain to my teachers who asked me who my favourite authors were that I could love Chaucer and Samuel Beckett at the same time. But to me, both contained the same raw honesty, the same naked human feeling, frailty and ridiculousness.
What struck me most was a realisation of the past, not as a concept, but as a reality. That a huge line of people had walked the same streets before me, would continue to afterwards, and would each leave their own legacy as to what they cared about, fought for, protested against and found funny. A long chain of humanity, had and would leave echoes not of unreachable difference but similarity, humanity, humour; a fellowship grounded in despairing and laughing at what makes us human.
I was not expecting jokes about plums, bottoms and sleeping with other people’s wives from an author on the literary school ‘canon’. And yet – here they were, unexpectedly enticing me into the world of medieval literature. A world which, although different to our own today, was also similar. A world which wasn’t irrelevant to me, a student who, honestly, expected it to be. And a world which is worth looking back on.
I frequently try to explain this to people, more than ten years on and following my own decision to study medieval literature for a PhD. No, it was not a practical choice but yes it was important. In the end, I chose not to work in academia in order to share my love of the medieval: partly, because there is a real struggle to make a financial existence in this field; but partly because I don’t believe that my PhD and my love for the past and for literature are separate to my everyday existence.
I use compassion, expression, persuasion, explanation and humour, every day at work. And I know that I love my life when I stop to notice its tiny details, where it touches on other’s lives, where laughter and endurance enter. And that’s what came through in those first recordings of Chaucer. People living their lives, people who deserve not to be ignored. And isn’t that what so much of great expression is about? Isn’t that why so much art continues to be relevant long after it came into existence?
I don’t see that the time I’ve spent reading Chaucer, Boccaccio, Beowulf, Marie de France, Dante, and Piers Plowman is irrelevant to my life in the 21st century. I am lucky to have found such treasures, to be given a glimpse of the past, to have known beautiful words threaded together in astounding ways and to have seen their voices come alive and be copied in modern life. To have seen that our existence is one small chain in an invisibly long line, and to know that it is our common fears, hopes and humour, that links that chain.
There’s a reason these works still get the film treatment.
There’s been a lot of talk (and action) recently suggesting that some of these works will (or have already) been moved from school curriculums in attempts to modernise school experience and give students greater foundations for getting jobs. However, in doing this, school boards are ignoring their relevance.
And I believe that we should never give in fighting for art, whether it be words painted on a wall, scribbles in notebooks or Instagram accounts. Art matters; it’s what makes us more than automatons. What a shame that this greatest human drive is being squashed by education systems and a wealth-driven economy that claim money, fame and power are what happiness are made of. Here we are, back in Dante’s circles of hell. Having learnt nothing. Burning our books and straightjacketing our creative children.
There is more to life than the purely practical. There is the soul, shouting into the void that both Dante and Beckett saw. There is that stuff that makes life really worth living. Humanity. Humour. The ghost of a minstrel reading bawdy tales round a fire in our pubs, on our street corners, on our TV screens and in our music. The laugh that echoes long into the unknown future of humanity.
No life without art. No life without the past – the giants off whose shoulders we are in danger of falling.
Suzi is a girl lost in the wrong century but grateful that this one has central heating. Her favourite moments revolve around her two kittens, obsessive book-collecting, strict tea ceremonies and unashamedly reviewing her recent wedding photos in an attempt to take it all in. She is officially a Doctor but is far too British to use the title. Her ambitions to be practical are swayed by obsessions with book characters, the inability to say no to anything if bribed with chocolate, a passion for beautiful art and dreams of running off to Paris.
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