Bring Out Your Deadism

bring out your deadYesterday, on the first day of my undergraduate Chaucer class, I distributed a questionnaire that asked students to “list three things you know or think you know about the Middle Ages.” I had considered assigning Andrew Galloway’s Medieval Literature and Culture, finally decided that it was too broad for a Chaucer course, and now wish I had assigned Regine Pernoud’s Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths, because most of what my students know or think they know might be called the “Bring Out Your Dead!” school of medievalism.

Typical answers mention the black plague and disease (“it was very disease spread”), social stratification (including the student who wrote “women have no rights”), illiteracy (“ignorance was abundant”; “learning only happened in monasteries”), and the power of the church (“everything was run by the Catholic church or it played a major role in every aspect of daily life as well as running/ruling countries”; “the church was corrupt and greedy”). One or two broke with the pack by drawing on the other parts of The Holy Grail (“knights, armor, castles”). Several students said “feudalism.” One mentioned the Cathars and the origins of the novel. Another wrote only that “the world was a terrible place.” Some must have taken other medieval courses: they mention Chretien, Boethius, Marie de France, Wolfram von Eschenbach; one remembers, seemingly despite herself, the Wife of Bath (“by continuously marrying a woman could increase her own fortune. (?)”). And some students, bless them, referenced the previous fifteen minutes of class: “English was different from today’s English”; “Chaucer was alive”; “Pilgrims were common.”

Note that we had just gone over the first 18 lines of the General Prologue, and I had distinguished its opening from typical openings of Middle English poetry: as I told them, it doesn’t invoke the Trinity or the BVM, nor does it situate the poem historically, and it delays mentioning England until late in the sentence; it looks to nature, and animal and vegetal reproduction in particular, and couples natural desire and instinct to the ‘rational’ human desires to go sightseeing and to reward Thomas for his blessings. (I should note that I made no reference to compulsory reproduction, penetration, or gender: I’m saving that for the Knight.) Religious desire is a version or even superstructure of the instinct to “get it on” (exact quote). It’s clear, then, that the church hasn’t penetrated these lines (at least not in any simply “oppressive” way), that there’s writing going on outside the monasteries (since I told them that Chaucer was a career bureaucrat), and as for disease, iirc, it doesn’t show its gooey white face until the cook’s mormal plops in.

Given its persistence in the face of counterevidence, Bring Out Your Deadism will prove difficult to dislodge. At least, I’ll have to point out that women didn’t get the right to vote in the US until the twentieth century, that antiseptic surgery dates only to the nineteenth century, and so forth: I’ll have to get them to know what is particular to the Middle Ages. The advantage here goes to Chaucer himself, since just about anything he does will astonish their sense of superiority. Then of course I’ll have to keep them from claiming Chaucer as “before his time”!

We’ll cross that pestilential theocratic bridge when we get to it.


I should also say that my students to their credit didn’t get things so much wrong as mis-emphasized. The church was powerful; disease was bad; many women do have more professional freedom than they did then; knights, armor, castle: all there!; Cathars too (except see Mark Pegg); and so forth. It’s just that there’s more there (let’s join JJC in calling it heterogeneity) than my students listed, and what they did list is a lot more complex. But I can’t expect them to know about the Pope of Avignon or neo-Pelagians or neo-Donatists or the Waldensians or whatever. But, even without that knowledge, they still had the tools right before them for thinking the MA more complexly: after all, they had just read the first 18 lines of the GP! That’s what struck me. – See more at: