What's the point of studying medieval literature?



hello I'm Thor actor well Peter and I'm professor of medieval English literature at the University of Nottingham I teach Chaucer which is extremely popular but in fact I teach literature from all from the Year 800 to 1500 we have huge numbers of students taking it in fact all our students of English take medieval literature my own interest is particularly from a 1066 the Norman Conquest up to about 1530 but many literature would cover everything from the beginnings of English literature in about seven or eight hundred up to fifteen thirty absolutely crucial difference is that it's all in manuscript the coming of print culture right at the end of the Middle Ages altered everything it altered all the forms of distribution and so on so that instead of a text being lavoris Lee copied out a time after time it could all be printed and distributed in thousands of copies and that altered the everything about the literature or manuscript is something which is written usually on parchment but later on paper by ascribe a trained always a trained scribe because manuscripts are very expensive and then he would bring in what's called an illuminator somebody who would provide the decoration and the pictures and so on here you have a couple of them really wonderful pages from this mid 15th century manuscript and here you have the crucifixion here you have a lovely little picture of Christ ascending into heaven and there his legs sticking out from the clouds and the people gazing up in wonder I've written quite a lot over the over the years now at a long time I've written a book about the idea of nationalism as expressed in English literature in the Middle Ages I also do quite a lot editing there's a very well known poem called Piers Plowman and I'm working with a team in America mainly to produce electronic editions of this this work in recent months I've been working particularly on the manuscripts which have been acquired by the University of Nottingham fairly recently we managed to get a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to study these manuscripts which are particularly interesting because they all come from one place they all come from just across the road from the University of Nottingham from Bulletin Hall and were all owned by the Willoughby family from the Middle Ages onwards so they form a family collection of manuscripts which is now housed at the University of Nottingham what we've got here is the the bulletin antiphonal and an antiphonal is a book that was used by the choir and a church to help them sing the what are called the responses it's a huge book and in it was put on a lectern and then the choir would stand round it and they could all see it because it was so large now these are just photographs because the original is extremely valuable and also extremely fragile it has suffered over the year of the ages and it's now being conserved and is very difficult to handle we're first of all studying the manuscripts meticulously themselves seeing how they're made up seeing when they were written what their features are but I'm particularly interested in their history in how they came to be part of this bulletin hall bulletin library collection and what they tell us about the family about the period about medieval life and literature generally as part of the decoration you have some shields as one there and there's another one there and these shields belonged to a man called Sir Thomas chalice and Nottinghamshire man who had this manuscript made for him in isolation it is a wonderful example of late medieval art the the pictures there are very high quality and the artists came from not from London as you might expect but from these Midlands and from East Anglia a group of wonderful artists but what is particularly interesting to me is that is the history of the manuscript and why it came to wooden church it came to wooden Church when the family the Willoughby family moved from Willoughby on the worlds to Wilton they set up the church as their home base and Richard Willoughby acquired this manuscript as a mark of the prestige that he required of his church it's extraordinary I think that at the terms medieval and the Middle Ages are used as terms of abuse and so in a recent respected newspaper you get a headline women's pace still in the Middle Ages and you think well does that mean they were they were paid in groats what does it mean but now of course it's just a term of abuse and I think we abuse our own past at our peril it's important that we know about our heritage about our past about society as it was five hundred a thousand years ago because it is part of our own society we have grown out of that society we share many many things with it many attitudes are the same but also very many are very different and it's those differences and similarities which are important for us to understand because by doing so we understand about ourselves we understand something about our society that's how we learn by stepping outside our society for a minute and just looking at it from a position of some distance I mean there's always a problem with them what's called impact now isn't there with communicating with people who are right outside the university and who will certainly not get direct benefit but I think the notion that universities pursue knowledge about society about literature about life in the past will eventually feed into our notion of ourselves as human beings we discovered this a few years ago in the collection in the university library it's just a single leaf just one leaf and it turned up in a box of watercolors so we don't know anything about its context or where it came from or who made it it's quite different from the bulletin antiphonal what can it tell us well it turns out the text is the life of somebody I'd never heard of at the time the life of Santa Zita it's an English version of the life of sin theta sin Sita was some saint from Italy from look Anya Pisa in Italy she was a servant and so she was a servant saint and she was saint also housekeepers very good if you lost your keys to the house she would pray to some Sita the curious thing is that there were was clearly a cult of sin Sita in England in eastern England in East Midlands and in in East Anglia and the more one looks into this the more one sees how strong this cult was for example at Nottingham Castle there is an alabaster an alabaster carving of sin Sita and so you can connect this translation which is the only remaining fragment of the English life isn't Sita we have no other copy of it except this one leaf it must have come from a big book you can connect that with a whole cult of a workup of a saint and so I think that just illustrates how something so tiny really and so innocuous can open up a whole world of medieval life to us there are people who think that the only thing of value is something that will make you live forever or earn a lot of money that's what notion of practical value is human beings about much more than living forever and getting rich if that's all we were about then we should certainly get rid of the arts and humanities altogether but in fact what makes us human is what the arts and humanities can provide that understanding of ourselves and appreciation of what it is to be human you

4 thoughts on “What's the point of studying medieval literature?

  1. Newsflash, Thorlac: Some of the most human people I've ever met were bankers and surgeons. Much more human than some medievalists. You know who I'm talking about.

  2. The camera work on this is so awful I had to just listen to the video rather than watch it.

  3. Great piece, but tell me that's not a ping-pong table in Thorlac's office, LOL!

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