All of this controversy going on in Indiana with Mike Pence and the Religious Freedom bill has reminded me yet again that social justice is not something that we can (or should) separate from anything else we do as academics or human beings. Even when it seems like we are in the “bubble” of academia, not paying much attention to anything that has happened since 1500, we are reminded that some of us are not safe or welcome inside the bubble, and could be told to leave without fear of legal repercussions at any time. While the likelihood of me losing my brilliant colleagues in a mass discriminatory firing is probably pretty low, the fact that it is legal in the state that has otherwise been a great home to me makes me angry, as I know it does many others. It reminds me that the work we do is situated in a cultural environment that is exerting pressure and affecting our perceptions and those of our students all the time. As literary scholars, people who devote our lives to studying the expression of thought and feeling in the midst of cultural and historical forces, it is our duty to take an interest in our own historical moment, and show our students that there is nothing ‘natural’ or inevitable about the kind of attitudes that cause social injustices today.
In the midst of this anger, I have been asked to talk about why it is important to study Old English literature in my oral exams. Within the academy, it is easy enough to forget that the value of studying medieval literature is not self-evident. Students might find it esoteric and irrelevant to contemporary concerns, or feel that learning a dead language in order to read a bit of poetry is not worth the effort. Even worse are the people out there who do want to learn and study Old English, but for a terrifying reason. They celebrate Anglo-Saxon England as a time and a place where white heterosexual men were completely in charge, and any difference either did not exist or was not given any value within the heroic society. These people are out there on the internet, making comments on YouTube videos under Anglo-Saxon usernames.
Though we had mentioned this unpleasant element in passing during some of my Old English literature classes, I had not thought much about them other than feeling saddened by the fact that the literature that I spend my life studying was being made ugly by a group of people who wanted something that could use as rallying point for ignorance. Later, when I was reading the Early Middle English Owl and the Nightingale for the first time, I encountered it personally. The delightful Owl and the Nightingale contains elements of ‘flyting,’ a literary insult contest especially popular in medieval Scottish poetry in which the combatants use particularly creative and humorous language and imagery to hurl abuse at each other. The result is remarkably similar to a modern-day rap battle, and I decided to browse the internet for comparisons between the Owl and the Nightingale and rap battles, thinking that someone out there must have written a blog post about it, or made a funny video as part of a class project. What I found were the comments on this video, which implies that the predominantly African American genre is a poorer derivative of the work of earlier white artists. The comments section goes the extra mile by making this attitude explicit with a great deal of hate and racial slurs. I was crushed – I had been hoping to find some creative responses to the ways in which these two genres celebrate a similar impulse to engage in verbal combat in culturally specific ways, and what I found was sickening.
If the internet white supremacists simply kept to themselves and did not inflict their hate on the rest of us, it would be one thing. The nature of internet hate, however, means that it exists to spread itself around. Whether it is people like me who are just trying to study the Owl and the Nightingale or someone who wants to catch up on clips of the episode of Vikings that they missed, anyone who engages with Anglo-Saxon or other medieval literature on the internet is going to encounter it sooner or later. This is the environment our students are probably exposed to before they ever learn about medieval literature in an academic setting. They may already have an association between people who are interested in Anglo-Saxon England and hate, which saddening and disappointing if this turns them off, and so much worse if it encourages them.
It is up to us, then, to do something about it. As the people who study and teach Old English literature with an eye to the humanity of both the Anglo-Saxons and people of 2015, it is our job to show our students and everyone else that to study literature is to build bridges of understanding between ourselves and others, not to promote hate of any kind. This is not to say that everything was sunshine and roses in Anglo-Saxon England – the experiences of women, people who loved others of the same sex, religious minorities, people with disabilities and many others show that there was plenty of hate in medieval Europe. There are also, however, ways in which we can uncover the voices of these people and share the humanity of their experiences. In addition, we can historicize the negative responses of medieval people and show how they were different than those of contemporary people. This may seem like little consolation, but it helps us understand that people do not hate each other for ‘obvious’ reasons that remain constant across different periods.
Instead of focusing on hate, we can also highlight the things that we love about medieval literature, and celebrate the excellent medievalists out there on the internet who are combatting hate. We can look at things like People of Color in European Art History, a Tumblr shows that there were plenty of people of colour in medieval Europe, and examines the ways they were represented in Art. We can read the many volumes of good work published by scholars who aim to explore the concept of same-sex desire in the medieval period, starting with John Boswell and continued by people like Carolyn Dinshaw, Allen J. Frantzen, Michael Camille, and many others today. We can also just read the literature itself with an eye to the experiences of those who are underrepresented, and show our students that we can find these people if we look for them. In Old English literature, we can hear the voices of women as an oppressed class in The Wife’s Lament and Wulf and Eadwacer, and listen to a man who cares about and identifies with a victim of rape in Deor. We can read accounts of people who were not content to conform to their prescribed gender identity in the Lives of Saint Eugenia and Saint Euphrosyne, and see scribes who reinforce their gender non-conformity by using pronouns that match their performed gender instead of their biological one. We can show our students that when we celebrate and respect the culture of medieval Europe through its literature, we do so with an understanding of the more problematic elements and the people that were hurt by them, and that we can transfer our skills in understanding others to our engagement with other people today.
So, when it seems like our work on medieval England has very little to do with the hate and discrimination that we encounter in our twenty-first century lives, it’s important to remember that they are still intimately connected. Hateful attitudes infringe on the study of medieval literature, but we also have an opportunity to combat that hate through our research and teaching. Civic and political engagement are important ways to have a tangible effect on the legal aspect of our society, but we can still have an impact on people’s attitudes by doing what we do best: studying Old English literature.