Today’s post begins with some words that stuck in my mind from the Introduction to the book we were discussing in the ‘Canon’ reading group yesterday:
Academics, like other people, start with a personality that is afflicted by ignorance and prejudice, and try to escape from that personality, in Eliot’s phrase, through absorption in impersonal scholarship. One emerges on the other side of this realizing once again that all knowledge is personal knowledge, but with some hope that the person may have been, to whatever degree, transformed in the meantime.
This is just one of the many asides that stood out to us as characteristic of Northrop Frye’s The Great Code. Granted, what he describes here is hardly his main concern in the book. On the other hand, we found ourselves agreeing that it is often in these asides – in the detail, mark – that the book becomes most stimulating. That certaintly seems to be the case with this couplet of sentences. They ring true in all manner of ways. I was struck not least by the democratic and humble stance they adopt, and realized that they echo some of the reasoning behind the name of this blog.
timesresonant: the past, time, the Middle Ages cannot be sealed off without connection to the present as – polemicizing somewhat – approaches that focus on ‘alterity’ tend to suggest. The acoustic domain seemed a good way of imagining an alternative way of thinking. Not just because it carries the idea of voices surviving rather than being silenced, but also because of the physicality it implies: sounds resonate in a medium, echoes depend on a space in which to rebound, and so on. The past is, in other words, a tangible and perceptible part of the world we inhabit.
A case in point is the story of St Ursula that we read in this week’s medieval Latin reading group. We looked at the version in the Legenda aurea: a puzzling, brutal tale spanning a north-south European axis that extends from England to Rome and at whose centre lies Cologne, where Ursula and her army of warrior virgins are slaughtered by the Huns. What stands out is the reflection in the Legenda aurea version on reconciling events with the historiographical record, as well as the remarkably extensive interest in this material more generally: it was, for instance, included as an embedded narrative in Lorengel, a late-medieval German version of the Swan Knight story (which really deserves a separate post of its own). More tangible still are the material traces. My colleague Steffen Hope – in whose blog you can read more about what we’ve been up to this term – pointed out that Ursula appears, for instance, in a stained-glass church window in York (see this photograph on flickr).
What matters in all of this are the connections that materialize. The relevance of a cohort of virgins – Christians at that – journeying to a foreign land in search of glorious martydrom does not need labouring. The inclusion of the story in Lorengel, meanwhile, is a reminder that the Swan Knight material, which modernity may think it knows from Wagner’s Lohengrin, is actually far more diverse than one ‘canoncial’ version. And so the visual depiction of Ursula in the architectural space of a church in the north of England becomes not an isolated case but simply one facet of the presence of these medieval stories in ‘our’ world.
It is a long way from Frye to Ursula! Yet the link is there. Recognizing how much the Middle Ages are a part of the world through which we move makes facile understandings of impact suddenly problematic. They by their nature at once depend on and create a disjunction between academia and society as a whole – or however one wishes to put it. But does the gap opened up by this rhetorical trick really exist in the first place? The resonance of Ursula suggests that it may not, that other languages and other times are not so distant after all: it is the most natural thing in the world to explore the intellectual and physical space in which we live. I think Frye had something similar in mind when he spoke of ‘academics, like other people’ and a pursuit that can lead to ‘personal’ insight, even transformation.
Further reading: Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (San Diego: Harcourt, 1983) — Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan (Princeton, 2012), pp. 642–6, for an English translation of the life of Ursula