I have it on good authority that the single, most important thing a medievalist realizes is that, yes–the human beings who lived across what seem like vast oceans of time (you know–like that one anonymous dude who wrote Beowulf), actually were as smart as any of us are.  Except the dude who wrote Beowulf was smarter than most of us–orders of magnitude smarter.

prince valiantSo, like, take all those kitschy images of castles and horses and halberds and pikes and chainmail and trebuchets and the princesses in the cone hats with the goofy pastel tinsel hanging down–take THAT world, and instead of populating it with Hannah Barbara illustrated, cardboard cutout images of human beings (which actually say more about the people that created them than of some ancient historical event that is purported to have happened somewhere deeply recessed in our ancestral memory), instead of casting buffoons in bright leggings in this drama of the past, you populate it with people as smart and charismatic as John F. Kennedy.  So, like, the Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament restaurant staffed by people as conniving, evil, and brilliant as Dick Cheney.  This, I’m told, is what medievalists love–the expression of fully flowered human genius within an insanely alien-sounding cultural and political context.

This is also why medievalists are so great to have at parties.  They look around at all the fascinating, brilliant people like themselves who are also funded by various institutions to perform scholarly research, and they think, Holy Crap!  Imagine every one of us right now caught up in The War of the Roses.  Imagine how we’d be composing political documents, and as we’re penning these, maybe one of us would get stabbed in the back by a sword.  A freaking sword in the back!  Can you imagine?  Imagining things like that makes medievalists happy, and that in turn makes them want to party.

iphone-lineI fully admit to having been one of those people who, without being conscious of it, equated “old” with “stupid.”  This is a kind of illness we suffer from in the West, no doubt exacerbated by our consumerist tendencies to consider the iPhone 6 (released in 2014) to be so much greater than the iPhone 5 (released in 2012), that we’d be willing to stand in a line 4 city blocks in length in NYC’s Meatpacking District so that we can shell out over a month’s worth of our disposable income and be one of the first to own it.  We tend to think of culture as a kind of firmware or operating system, and we imagine those dudes who had to ride horses everywhere were running the cultural equivalent of DOS on their hardware-brains.  I appreciate the medievalists in my life who have shown me otherwise.

So, aside from being a poignant source of epistemic humility for those of us (like me) who’d erroneously believe St. Augustine ain’t got nothin’ on Derrida, what are medievalists good for?  Why should their work continue to be funded?  I mean, is there really anything new to be said about an epic poem written 1,300 years ago?  Allow me to humbly suggest, as a total outsider of the field, that medievalists rock our collective faces off for various reasons, one of which I will try to elaborate upon via the following hypothetical situation:

Imagine you’re sitting there in a classroom where the Professor is talking about how how magnificent the cultures of the past were, and you look down at the assigned text, say, a series of haiku poems written by 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, and what you read at a glance are overly abstracted metaphorical “life lessons” taught by some guy who must’ve been some kind of oriental wizard from space.  You think to yourself, man, this stuff is boring.

haikuBut then you give it a closer reading, and you think, yeah–you’d never ever want the dude who wrote this to be your opponent in Mahjong, or to in any way fight this man on the field of war.  You have zero illusions of winning against someone with the capacity to store that much wisdom in a compact, 17 syllable haiku that he launches like a cosmic lawn dart through space-time which lands squarely on the page in front of you centuries in the future.

But after reading his poem, you realize that the context for which this little riddle made the most sense is entirely lost to you, lying across disciplinary and linguistic gulfs far too gaping for you to cross without basically starting an entirely new career, and devoting the time to learn Japanese and to develop the Post-Colonial, Far Eastern Studies, Art History, and Performance Arts skills necessary for you to start making some educated guesses.

You can’t do that.  You don’t have the time or money, and frankly you’re getting tired in a “world weary” kind of way that makes you cling like a life raft to the discipline you do know, the one in which you’ve made a few peeps here and there as an officially recognized (if perhaps in an acolyte kind of way), member of the academic community.

So in other words, this gorgeous lawn dart tossed down through history is entirely inaccessible to you, and what you’re left to stare at is the ingenuity it took to find an English word for “flower bud” that’s 3 syllables long and appropriate to the tone.  Translators are awesome.  But they’re not Transdimensional Space Wizards from the Edo Period of Japan.

And so, when you look at this inert word-sketch on the page of your Norton’s Companion to Really Old and Super Foreign Poetry which is trying but miserably failing to represent how cosmically amazing it is, and you know right then in that moment that there are gaping chasms of knowledge entirely untapped by you that you’ll never be able to touch except via ridiculous, touristy attempts to “visit 17th century Japan through the eyes of Grand Poet Matsuo Basho,” who penned the calligraphic equivalent of a USB Drive filled with 128 Gigabytes worth of Japanese culture, despite the fact that the cultural operating system required to read that damn USB stick has been dead for centuries, and unless you and your family have lived in rural Japan for generations, or you have all those degrees mentioned earlier, you’ll never get to explore it.  But, hey!  The good news is that Norton found someone with those very degrees, and this same someone has a degree in creative writing as well, and so she’s the perfect person to draw this sketch of a USB stick that you’ll never access.

But despite those thoughts about how dumb this experience is, you keep reading the poem.  You read it closer.  You find other poems like it.  You read just enough critical work to establish who the other haiku masters were.  You buy beautiful anthologies of their work.  You read them leisurely.  You go ahead and learn how to enjoy, in other words, the tourism.  You learn how to be a tourist.  But not the old kind of tourist.  Not the tourist who walks through a crowd of villagers, who smiles while holding a camera and wearing North Face pants that zip off at the knees in order to become silly looking shorts.  Rather, the kind of tourist who reads entire anthologies of work before they feel like they have a right to ask, in a hesitant voice, little questions here and there of the members of that Post-Colonial/Far Eastern Studies/Art History/Performance Arts discourse community.  Questions about the culture.  Enough questions to either support or oppose the fascinating suspicions about that culture growing in your mind–the equivalence in the old way of tourism of taking a snapshot.

And you should be doing this.  Why?  Because Matsuo Basho is way smarter than you are, and to believe that he’s got nothing to say to you is super arrogant.

So what, exactly, does this have to do with medievalists?  Well, take the Edo Period of Japan, and wind that historical clock even further back–like a thousand years further back, and you’re in the vicinity time-wise of the guy who wrote Beowulf.  Medievalists, in other words, are our only hope of ever being able to decipher the broad outlines of the cultural operating system required to read, in context, the trace deposits left behind by the genius warrior poet wizards of the distant past.  And if that’s not worth something, then we’ve succumbed to the great Western illusion that New is equivalent to Better, and that is very sad, and very stupid.

Plus our parties, without medievalists, would be way less fun.