Wynnere and Wastoure

A comment in class yesterday got me thinking about something that’s been niggling at the back of my brain for a while.

Carolyn Dinshaw’s book How Soon Is Now? was mentioned, along with the idea that there’s a huge gap between medieval scholars and medieval enthusiasts (those words weren’t used, I’m using them to make my point).

But I consider myself both a medieval enthusiast and a medieval scholar.

Dinshaw (whose book I have not yet read but is going right up to the top of the list) ends the introduction with the sentence “I want more life,” following an anecdote about her thoughts as she observed a fair-goer at the Medieval Festival at the Cloisters and was surprised to see this “enthusiast” or amateur, to use her word, was not simply having fun engaging in these activities but was taking notes as well.

Dinshaw goes on to draw her own conclusions from this, but mine differ slightly, prompted by an aside in the discussion about how medieval scholars react with disdainful looks, if not death stares, when people assume that their interest in the Middle Ages means they attend and participate in these fairs.

This comment made me think about the lecture I attended by a modern-day knight who engages in costumes and role play as a major part of his life. I was so excited about his explanation that he chooses to live this way because he believes whole-heartedly in the ideals of chivalry and thinks that living as much as he can according to those ideals is the best way to live.

My immediate thought, though, was, “ooh! I have to add that to my study of the cultural adaptation of the Arthurian legend! If he can transplant these ideals almost wholesale from the Middle Ages to the twenty-first century, there has to be something interesting to say about it!”

And therein lies the difference. He’s a participant in the chain of history that I want to study. I’m an observer of the history that he is making.

Of course, you could point to the way I don’t fully embrace the ideals of chivalry as optimal. I think it’s a fascinating system and I want to understand how it developed, how it worked, and why it developed and worked that way. This knight, on the other hand, is committed to the beliefs of this system.

And he has been “taking notes.” He has an extensive knowledge of how and why it developed and worked the way it did, a breadth and depth of information that I can only aspire to match by the time I graduate. And he has a full time job that has nothing to do with Arthur, chivalry, or academia! But if he’s going to live according to these principles, he wanted to know everything there is to know about it.

He isn’t an idealist in the sense of romanticizing the system beyond what it does. He is fully aware of the limitations and drawbacks of the medieval system of chivalry. But as a participant in history, he applies this awareness to his faithfulness to the system and does not repeat history but joins in making it.

Some of the things I study could make history. But that doesn’t concern me (more than once a day).

My drive is to understand how people lived and thought, how societies were created, maintained, destroyed, imagined, what their literature reveals about them possibly in ways they never intended, and then – the big goal – how the world works. My place in that huge sweep seems infinitesimal, and sometimes that scares me.

But that’s because I’m a medieval scholar and really have no right to call myself a medieval enthusiast. Medieval enthusiasts throw themselves into the things they learn unreservedly. I wait to analyze every angle of every bit of information before deciding how and if to apply it.

I am an observer first and a participant second.

And though Carolyn Dinshaw is not comfortable with her status as such, I’m not sure I share that discomfort.

(My knowledge of what’s in this book I haven’t read yet was gleaned from this review of the book.)


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