Friday, March 17, 2006

Why Medieval Women Writers Belong in the Canon

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes over at Unlocked Wordhoard was kind enough to send his readers over here to read my post on Aethelflaed. I am thankful to him for that, and for linking to me quite early in my blogging experience.

He also voiced an opinion in that post that I've heard quite often, and almost always from male medievalists. That opinion being that he gets angry about some medieval women writers whose works are in the canon merely because they're women(he feels), and not based on quality of the writing itself. He offered the name of one medieval woman writer he despises, and one he admires as examples. To be clear: I'm certain he doesn't wish to expunge women from the medieval canon, but gets frustrated with writing he considers unworthy of canon status. (I've already said that I wish the Austrians could have taken care of our little Papa problem, so I do comprehend annoyance with "bad writers" one must read.)

I was, at first, a little astonished that any mention of medieval women writers (pro or con) would come up in a post about a medieval woman warrior. There were warrior poets in the medieval period, but Aethelflaed doesn't qualify. So, that was weird. I have a feeling my "Medieval Women I Adore" series title triggered a pet peeve of his, which then caused him to comment in a way that triggered a pet peeve of mine. As I always say, "Þæs ofereode, þisses swa maeg." People look at me funny when I say that, but I still say it at least a few times a week. (Got it from Deor. It means "That has gone by, so may this.")

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Professor Nokes and I probably have different definitions of what should qualify for canonical writing. He likely considers "beautiful writing" the qualification that should matter most when making these choices. He's probably expressing the frustration of trying to know about, and teach about, a full millenium's worth of literature from at least the whole of one continent (but maybe two or three). Tough, sometimes painful, choices must be made in creating a syllabus when that much time and space have to be covered. I understand that, and I sympathize, but I don't agree that the way to make more room for medieval writing in the hearts of our students is to further narrow their view of what medieval writing was. As frustrating as it is trying to wrangle the highlights of a millenium into 14 or 15 weeks, we really have very limited corpera to work from.

But I promised an argument in defense of medieval women writers with this post title, and I should get down to it. There are a number of reasons I consider women writers of the medieval period necessary to any study of the literature, regardless of their ability to write "beautifully."
The most important is my desire for as much information as I can get from the age, and differing voices may give me that information. Just as I want to know if somebody digs up an Arabian coin in Liecestershire, I want to know what the nuns/princesses/queens thought about politics, and religion, and their lives. I want to know how they expressed themselves. I lament the loss of lower-class and pagan writing from the period because that lack leaves hated blind spots in my information. I'm happy to know that Hlewagastir Holtingar made that golden drinking horn, and used alliteration in marking it. I would be thrilled to have evidence of a peasant farmer writing a song to sing to his children at night. Even if the song were pure crap, it would contain some evidence of what a peasant farmer thought about -- or wanted his children to think about -- and how he expressed himself. I think we would all benefit from knowing a little something about the context of the medieval citizens' lives, and the more of their words we can come by, the better our understanding will be.

We also need to realize that we come to texts as readers with our own social contexts in place, and our own expectations about what's "good" or "interesting" writing. I don't mind revealing that I read Homer for the first time thinking "If this idiot describes one more fighter as 'like a wolf,' or a 'lion, or a 'bear,' I'm pitching this damned book into the fireplace." As a (then)twentieth-century young woman, I didn't appreciate repetitive imagery. Does Homer not deserve a place in the canon? I'm not a great fan of euphuistic writing either. Must Lyly go? I find the 'midwife' comment at the end of Donne's "To his Mistress Going to Bed" takes a poem that was getting very sexy and makes it just plain gross. Should that work be stricken? Obviously I'm not arguing for the removal of these works, but I am saying that we cannot be so quick to say what we find "good" is the marker for what we should study.

For the past several centuries, we have been trained as readers to accept certain aspects of literature as "good," and "interesting," precisely because of what has been let in the canon before we ever got here. And, before we got here, what was let in the canon was almost always literature of the men, by the men, and for the men. So, when we read the mystical writing of Julian of Norwich or Hildegard von Bingen, we think "This is different, it doesn't follow the rules of good writing as I've been taught them. It must be poorly written." I suppose this experience is heightened when women writers write only about women's experiences. We don't want the view from the wall(Mauerschau), we want the "action." Who cares what happens at home, at the village market, or in one's mind? The important stuff happens on the battlefield, at the place of business, or in the church. We've been taught to believe that, just as we've been taught to believe that iambic pentameter is superior to ballad verses. The Greeks and Romans considered comedy far inferior to tragedy, but Aristophanes holds a dearer place in my heart than Aeschylus, and I enjoy Apuleius much more than Tacitus. That doesn't mean that the men I enjoy should be privileged in the canon. I'm a smart-ass, and I like reading fellow smart-asses. I also like reading fellow women. Find me a woman who wrote smart-assed alliterative verse, and I'll carry her work with me until I die. I don't expect everyone to do the same. Our canon of "great literature" has to include comedy and tragedy, prose and poetry, and men and women, but not everybody has to love everything equally. Unfortunately, as teachers, we all have to teach some stuff we hate sometimes. I have even taught !#$%^&* Hemingway and !#$% Salinger. Do you think I enjoyed that? I say thee, nay!

I grant that this attitude of mine doesn't help narrow stuff down so that it fits neatly into a syllabus, but literature across a millenium won't ever fit neatly. As long as we're dealing with students who will only take one or two courses in medieval literature, we have to make choices. We also have to know why we're making those choices, and what inclusion or exclusion really means. I may hate/revile/loathe certain works, but I'm neither a man nor a prince, nor was meant to be. The work doesn't speak to me, but it does speak to some of my students and it does tell one tiny bit of the greater story. I owe my students that piece of the story, even if I do drink a little more heavily for a week or two as I teach it.

And, finally, an anecdote I can't resist sharing:
One day at my undergraduate institution, a professor argued to me that certain women writers shouldn't be studied because really good literature speaks to the human experience in it's entirety, not just to one gender. He even offered examples of women who had written "well," and should be studied more. I'll never forget the expression on his face when I feigned epic upset at having to eliminate all those volumes of battle poetry produced at a time when only men wrote and fought from my reading list. All the political writing that centered on the upper classes had to go, too. My God, I said, even The Sorrows of Young Werther is no good because it is all about a man in love, women will never be men in love. The argument ended there.

[Update: In response to Professor Nokes' take on this post, I've added a bolded phrase in front of my (already present) assertion that PROFESSOR NOKES DOES NOT FEEL ALL WOMEN WRITERS SHOULD BE HELD OUT OF THE CANON. This post is a defense of those women whose works he WOULD, if he had his druthers, eliminate. It is also a call for us all to think about why we make certain value judgements about literature. ]


New Kid on the Hallway said...

Hear, hear! This is a great post - I took issue with the same comment, but didn't have the patience/energy to write such a great response. Plus, as a historian, I make quite a bit of use of medieval literature in my work, but it tends to be the stuff that literary scholars deem terrible literature - precisely because I'm not looking at it as "literature", but as evidence for how people thought/felt. (David Lawton has a great article about the "dullness" of 15th-c English lit along these lines.)

(And I'm enjoying your medieval women posts!)

Gillian said...

I am guilty of linking to you again: I was going to post about something very similar and then I read your post, so I wrote a very silly post indeed and let your post say all things sensible and wise. Thank you - both for the post and its timing.

Holly said...

Wow! This was fabulous.

I study contemporary American lit, but my feelings about the canon are much like yours: I often don't give a shit about whether or not something is "beautifully" written if it doesn't say something meaningful to me in the first place. Who cares how great the prose is if it's about nothing? I especially get tired of plot-driven, present-tense fiction with first-person narrators who can't understand their situations and so recite events rather than analyzing them. At some point I get sick of hearing what HAPPENED, and I want to know why it MATTERED, what people think about all these things.

My area of specialty is literary nonfiction (memoir, autobiography, essay, life-writing, etc) and certain colleagues in the academy find it remarkable that I can enjoy books by people who don't aspire to be "artists," who simply have very interesting lives and write about their lives in order to make sense of them. The fact is, I find it easy to forgive "mere competency" in terms of basic prose and organization (as if that were such an easy thing to achieve) in writing that provides me with compelling insights into how human beings deal with both the crises of their fates and the quotidian demands of sharing this planet with others.

I would much rather read Julian of Norwich or Hildegard von Bingen than Papa, or, for that matter, the fiction in The New Yorker.

HeoCwaeth said...

New Kid,
Thanks. I thought about letting the comment go, myself. Apparently, I have no talent for letting stuff go. Especially when I consider the millenia during which women were excluded from the canon, regardless of their ability to write "beautifully."

Ha! I linked you right back this time!

When I got the first batch of papers back from my first teaching assignment, I had to go to my mentor and ask "What do you do when the student wrote a beautiful essay about nothing?" To which she responded, "You give her the full amount of credit one gets for doing half the assigned work." I feel the same way about professional writers.

Jodie said...

I am enjoying this series of posts. And I loved your closing anecdote; even better is that if that person is honest, you will have really caused him to look closely at his own worldview.

Bardiac said...

Great post!

I think one of the most difficult things for me is learning to read in new ways, and a lot of time, reading women (medieval or early modern) means I have to learn to read in new ways. The important thing is to recognize that it's ME, and not them, that needs to learn.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

Nicely said, Heo.

HeoCwaeth said...

Hi and thanks. Sadly, I have heard that same professor is just more misogynist and angry about the resistance he gets to his misogyny now.

I resisted women writers for a while, too, for precisely that reason. Though I didn't express the reasons for my resistance so well. I'm now glad I worked past some of my prejudices.

Thanks, and thanks for expressing your points so well in the comments at Unlocked Wordhoard. You made me think about some things I hadn't considered. Even made me want to re-read Julian of Norwich to see what I've missed.

All: This is what I love about having a blog. I get to throw stuff out there, find that I'm not alone, and that other people's opinions make me think about my positions further.

Sceopellen said...

HeoCwaeth - Completely agree! Although, practicality is not everything. Beauty is still important, and serves to make simple concepts unimaginably powerful.

Bardiac - Even as a woman myself, I don't feel that I can read into the minds of medieval women. Contemplating their lives and the different way they saw the world around them is beyond me. I think that reading any medieval works mean that we must not only read differently, but see everything differently.