Decolonising the Canon: Why Medieval Literature is the Place to Start

Memling Jan Floreins

Hans Memling, Triptych of Jan Floreins (detail). 1479. Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges

In what’s become a disturbingly frequent event, yesterday someone emailed me apparently under the impression that, since I work on medieval English literature, I must also be a screaming racist and/or sympathetic to the cause of screaming racists. It’s not that these postcolonial scholars don’t have their place, the email continued: it’s that their tiny little minds can’t accept the truth you and I know, that all great writing was done and dusted by white people before they let the blacks loose on the English language. I’m paraphrasing, obviously, but this is a disconcertingly commonplace perspective – and one with implications for a debate that’s been unfolding over the past week about decolonising the Cambridge English Literature degree.

On Tuesday of this week, the Telegraph published an article headed by a large picture of a young woman, Lola Olufemi. Olufemi is the Women’s Officer at Cambridge University Student Union, and also the author of an open letter to Cambridge’s Faculty of English, which urged the faculty to include more black and minority ethnic authors on its curriculum. Throwing aside accuracy, the Telgraph chose to claim, instead, that university academics were being forced to remove white authors at the whim of an undergraduate’s demand. Just as the editors of the Telegraph must surely have anticipated, it took mere hours for Olufemi to be inundated by racist abuse, but the formal retraction of the inaccuracies in the article were delayed for a full two days. A lot of people have written (better than me) about what we can do, but here’s my take.

Students, it seems, are easy targets. But what bothers me is the assumption that students disagreeing with what they’re asked to read – let alone, students actively engaging with the people teaching them about it – is somehow newsworthy in a bad way. I want my students to make discoveries. I want them to hear a lecture at 10am, and go to a class at 2, and suddenly see a connection between texts they’d never thought about before. I want them to think about the way the medieval texts they’re reading with me might relate to the modern poetry they’re working on with someone else. If that process of discovery stops at the exact edge of the published reading list, I’m not sure what good it is.

The text I was teaching this week, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Philomela, asks whether readers can be infected by the venom, the poisonous violence, of the stories they read. The question is not a modern one, dreamed up by students with a grudge against poor, victimised dead white men. It’s a question that reverberates through English Literature – and you can’t get more patriarchal or canonical than Chaucer, the great ‘father of English Literature’ himself. So why are we so scared of this question today? Why do we think that students interrogating what they read is such a bad thing?

Many of my students come to me from an education system where they’ve been taught to speak about the authors they study with deep, unquestioning respect. Why do we read Chaucer? Because he speaks to us about humanity. Because he’s ‘relatable’. Because literature is about learning more about ourselves. Because it teaches us how far we’ve come since the barbaric Middle Ages. Chaucer is held up, paradoxically, both as a miraculously modern voice, espousing the very morals and virtues we wish to see reflected, and as a relic of a dimly-known, superstitious and oppressive era, which should really make us feel good when we think how far we’ve come. I’m told, confidently, that the ‘modern reader’ wouldn’t agree with Chaucer when Chaucer seems to suggest rape might be funny, or anti-Semitism might be acceptable.

It’s a mode of thought that places both Chaucer and modern readers beyond the reach of interrogation, a mode of thought that begins from the assumption that the entire modern world professes the same, unspoken and untaught moral rectitude. In short, it’s a view that presumes structural inequalities aren’t really real, and if they once were (in the dim mists of time), then certainly they are safely banished from our enlightened modern world.

I find this very troubling.

I spent this summer reading more and more medievalist scholars explaining how the period we study has been misrepresented and twisted by white supremacists, who want to believe in a medieval past in which Europe was white and Christian and engaged in holy war to uphold its whiteness and Christianity. The motto of the medieval Crusaders, deus vult or ‘god wills it,’ has become a slogan amongst neo-Nazi groups, spray-painted onto vandalized mosques. The crusader cross was seen on banners during the Charlottesville riots in Virginia earlier this year, where peaceful protesters against racism were mown down by a speeding car. The medieval period has been, in Dorothy Kim’s memorable phrase, ‘weaponized‘ by these groups, and their example offers a frightening corrective to the belief that all ‘modern readers’ feel an enlightened and automatic aloofness from racial intolerance.

Medieval history also offers horrific, graphic bigotry, which we can be too keen to forget or excuse. Students with a passing knowledge of Chaucer might be familiar with his Prioress’s Tale, a nastily anti-Semitic fiction of child-murder. Those who read Middle English romances may know of The King of Tars, in which a white Christian princess marries a black Muslim Sultan, whose skin turns from black to white when she succeeds in converting him. But these stories aren’t just stories told by authors who are otherwise genial, laudable fathers of English Literature. They reflect histories of interracial violence and propaganda, of anti-Semitic pogroms and militant Holy War, which weren’t safely confined to ‘fiction’.

But medieval literature also offers a breathtaking diversity of writers, readers, and perspectives. Few people who email me realise that St Augustine – perhaps the most-cited authority in medieval England – was a North African theologian. They do not know that Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe locates itself within a cosmopolitan tradition of writing including Arabic and Hebrew as well as English, French and Latin. They might be shocked to see that people of colour were not just occasional, exoticised additions to medieval visual images of the world, but commonplace presences.

To read a properly decolonised curriculum, we’d need to read and study all of these things – and we don’t.

The past is not a neutral space. Its literature is not neutral. And we do not read literature in neutral ways. Should students feel entitled to question the composition of the canon they read? No: they should feel it’s part of their basic education in English Literature to do so.

 

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Decolonising the Presses: Cambridge English Literature and More Lazy Journalism

I seem to be late to the most recent row in the media over Cambridge University’s English literature degree course, which centres on an open letter written by students to the head of the faculty, on the subject of decolonising the reading list and including more literature by BME authors. I knew about the letter, but didn’t see that the Telegraph had decided to run a predictably stupid story in response to it. I must’ve missed it while I was cowering under my desk cravenly begging my students to stop turning the thumbscrews, or possibly during the 30 hours I spent last week preparing, marking, and delivering supervisions on Chaucer’s Legend of Philomela and the romance The King of Tars.

My choice of texts here isn’t incidental. I teach Philomela because, although it’s a gory and graphic rape narrative, I’ve found it offers important and rigorous ways for students to think about misogyny, literature, and the aestheticisation of sexual violence. I teach Tars because the text depicts a romance between a black Muslim man and a white European woman, and forces us to confront the possibility that medieval authors were interested both in crass, sensationalist, anti-miscegenationist narratives, and in the possibility of sexual desire and intimacy between profoundly different religious and racial groups. And my students write and say things about these texts that challenge me, and (I hope and trust) challenge them. They come up with searching, probing close readings and they interrogate what’s been said already. They demonstrate the best of what an English literature degree should be about.

In the Guardian, Jason Okundaye dissects the ways in which the Telegraph misrepresented the Open Letter debate, and particularly represented its author, Lola Olufemi, whose picture they blazoned across the top of their article. Okundaye makes the point that this debate has been depicted as a zero-sum game, as if white authors must be booted out if black authors are to be included. Obviously, this is nonsensical, but let’s imagine what might happen if we included more diversity.

One of the proposals suggested in the Open Letter is that each paper taught should contain two or more postcolonial or BME authors. A (non-Cambridge) medievalist I vaguely know commented, sneeringly, that black medieval English authors were thin on the ground – and my heart sank. A major trend in recent scholarship on medieval literature reminds us that medieval readers in England were immensely more linguistically diverse than most English academics are now: they often read in French and Latin, as well as English, and the English writings they read might be informed by Italian, Dutch, Welsh, Scots, and even Arabic or Hebrew literatures. I would like to teach English literature in the context of other languages. I think it is peculiar and rather old-fashioned to teach medieval English literature in isolation from French or Latin – and there’s a case to be made that English history has treated French medieval literature as a colonised subject, a position from which it is still only slowly recovering.

But my issues aren’t limited to the (let’s admit) fairly low-stakes question of Englishness versus Frenchness, and the Brexit-tastic status of medieval England in the context of medieval Europe. If I could teach French literature, I could teach far more about Arabic literature that reached France. If I could teach Spanish literature, I could look at the transition of Moorish texts. If I could teach anything outside England (which expelled its Jewish population in a gruesome and terrifying manner in the twelfth century), I could teach medieval Jewish writings. I would like to teach these things, not because I have some box-ticking desire to ‘diversify’ my reading lists, but because they are worth teaching. They enrich the picture of medieval literature. They are important, in their own right.

A friend of mine, reading the Open Letter, made the fair comment that it’s sad to think that students feel they need to be given permission to read widely and diversely. I agree with this. I want to make my students feel they can interrogate and challenge what they’re being told to read. I want to make them feel they can push back against the parade of dead white men – and I want to make them feel they can demand more, and better, ways to change the way we read and study English literature. I keep trying to achieve this, and I keep feeling furious at the silencing, shaming pressure that comes from articles like the one in the Telegraph. As hard as we work to open up English Literature for students, these articles work hard to knock them back into place, to teach them that to question or challenge authority is wrong, to disagree with the status quo is lazy and entitled.

Who benefits from these articles? Clearly not the students who signed the letter, who’re being represented as snowflake censors, unable to accept that black literature just doesn’t belong in an illustrious Cambridge degree. Clearly not the students who read the letter, who now get the message that interrogating literary canonicity and its tacit bigotries is somehow beyond the scope of their degrees (rather than being an integral part of the work they should be doing). And clearly not me, as I spend yet another evening angrily writing a blog about why a decolonised medieval curriculum matters, instead of marking the eight student essays on my desk.

Lazy Journalism Never Dies: Safe Spaces and Censorship Yet Again

Yesterday, I received an email. I received dozens, actually – term started today, and a lot of students were checking in with questions about reading or deadlines or meetings – but this one stood out. It was from a journalist, and that journalist was asking (yet again) the question that makes my heart sink.

Can you talk to us about trigger warnings, censorship, and safe spaces? 

That’s the gist of the question. You might also paraphrase it: Dish the dirt on your students and tell us how precious they are! The articles that result are always pretty much the same: they insinuate that students of today are fragile, entitled little things, pampered by their parents and schools, and unable to cope wit the rigours of the full and meaningful education everyone over the age of 30 enjoyed. Students are demanding ‘trigger warnings’ because they cannot read any text containing violence. They are picketing lectures on Pope because one of his poems has ‘rape’ in the title. They are refusing to read Othello because it’s about violence against women and racism. And so on.

I have learned that journalists don’t want to hear me say that students I’ve taught don’t seem to want ‘safe’ approaches to literature, and certainly don’t want to read less about issues of violence or prejudice. I directed this particular journalist to the Faculty’s official channels of communication, only to receive redoubled questions in response:

Does the English Faculty put trigger warnings on its timetable? Do some lecturers give trigger warnings at the start of lectures? Do you? … Do you ever find yourself self-censoring for students? And what impact do you think this evolution on campus has?

This really put my back up. I particularly love the implication that I am a mere puppet in the hands of my students, helplessly ‘finding myself’ self-censoring without ever having intended to do so. It’s not as if teachers ever prepare lessons or lectures, is it? But then the line of questioning performs the oldest trick in the book, and presumes the responses it invites have already been given. I might reply ‘no,’ to many of these questions, but it doesn’t matter: by the end of the paragraph, it appears that ‘this evolution’ of censorship, trigger warnings and self-censoring has already been established from my as-yet-unformed replies.

This email, and the questions in it, came back into my mind again today, when I saw an article describing a recent event at a Cambridge college earlier this week. Apparently, a college dean – the Reverend Jeremy Caddick – decided to issue a programme welcoming students to a new year of work. With a picture of the gates of Auschwitz, and the famous slogan ‘arbeit macht frei’ (‘work sets you free’ on the front cover.

As any idiot can imagine, the implied parallel between Auschwitz and university did not pass many students by, and many of them were understandably disturbed. I could see why. Discussing this briefly with friends, we agreed this looked awfully like a deliberate attempt to provoke, dressed up as innocence.Given recent events, you’d imagine that most people would be hyper-alert to anti-Semitism. After all, a friend pointed out, if you know an image requires an explanation first thing in your sermon, then surely, you recognise that displaying it without that explanation is likely to raise questions. Others, more bluntly, merely made the point that a person of average intelligence really ought to be able to recognise that the image sets up profoundly crass parallels between university and a concentration camp. Yet the Dean’s response wasn’t apologetic. “Any suggestion we are making sick jokes about the Holocaust is infuriating,” he stated.

Infuriating? Really? Fury, it seems to me, is an odd response to the revelation that you have (inadvertently?) set up an extremely overt and obvious parallel between Auschwitz and the university life into which you are welcoming your students. ‘Infuriating’ is a nastily passive-aggressive term, a term that attempts to slide the blame onto the students who were angry about the use of the image. It’s not that the Dean states this suggestion is categorically wrong, or mortifying to him, or something he feels awful about. It’s just rubbed him up the wrong way, and he feels we should know that he’s definitely the wronged character here.

This episode made me think of other incidents in which I’ve seen people in positions of academic influence and status quite deliberately exploit the reputation of students and younger academics for being ‘overly sensitive’. If you buy into the idea that all young people are ‘snowflakes,’ then you can get away with being as provocative and unpleasant as you like – because the attention won’t be on what you say, but on yet another story of student outrage.

I’d be tempted to identify the Dean’s response to the Auschwitz image (and, indeed, the use of the image in the first place) as a form of trolling. Of course, I can’t be sure we’re right in thinking the image was intended to shock – but, if it wasn’t, then this was a pretty terrible excuse for an apology afterwards. And it does make me think that, amid all the much-publicised debates over universities as ‘safe spaces’ and the much-cited emotional fragility of students of today, we might do well to think how far those students are being deliberately provoked.