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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