Monday 16 September 2019

Weaponising Medieval Studies

In his 1893 Preface to Robert Steele’s Medieval Lore, Morris argues that ‘at the present time those who take pleasure in studying the life of the Middle Ages are more commonly to be found in the ranks of those who are pledged to the forward movement of modern life’.  There is thus, in his view, a structural link between medievalist enthusiasms and Socialism.  If this ever were true, it has certainly been reversed in our own period, where white supremacist demonstrators at Charlottesville, USA, march with shields depicting Crusader motifs or banners featuring Anglo-Saxon runes.  The medieval period is being politically weaponised as part of a narrative that pits a unified white European Christendom against the threat of Islam; and the old Crusader war-cry, ‘Deus vult’, apparently features regularly on closed far-right websites.

Medieval scholars are, of course, fighting back with the appropriate professional weapons: argument and evidence.  For they must not only resist contemporary Fascist weaponisation of their field, but also confront the harder, and more internal, question: does medieval studies have an inbuilt white supremacy problem of its own?  Calls are afoot to ‘decolonise medieval studies’, and a group of ‘Medievalists of Color’ has been formed in the USA.  The aim is to show that medieval Europe was more racially diverse than we have conventionally thought, and that it faced significant issues of migration of its own.  This American debate formally arrived in this country with the conference on ‘Medieval Studies and the Far Right’ at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, on 11 May of this year.

It may be too utopian right now to believe that we can restore the link that William Morris saw between medieval enthusiasm and left-wing politics.  We may have to restrict ourselves for the moment – till our US comrades have got rid of Donald Trump, say – to the more modest but still politically urgent task of challenging white-supremacist constructions of the medieval.

Saturday 7 September 2019

John Masefield: Morrisian

Having grown up at the seaside, I’ve always loved those stirring lines from John Masefield’s poem ‘Sea Fever’: “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,/And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”.  And I knew, from later reading, that he had spoken at the Morris centenary celebrations in 1934.  Recently I came across Muriel Spark’s assertion, in her book on Masefield, that “Morris has been the formative influence ... on Masefield’s view of life”, and it’s been interesting to track that influence through in the Poet Laureate’s lively letters to his American friend Florence Lamont.

In July 1918 he is recommending Morris’s Icelandic translations to her: “How are the sagas shaping?  Do you still think of the Volsunge?  There is a quite lovely tale in the 3 N Love tales.  I think it’s called Frithiof the Bold”.  In January 1924 he narrates a visit to the White Horse Hill, to which May Morris herself was in those years making annual pilgrimages.  The place was in flames as the locals burnt off the grass, and Masefield reflects that “the burning of the grass is part of some old religion, which that strange hill created & cannot let die.  There is something holy and uncanny about all that strip of Down”. 

On 6 November 1930 he drives via Morris’s beloved Great Coxwell Barn to Kelmscott itself: ‘I have been over to the grave of Morris … & tonight I shall read some of his poetry again.  It makes one wonder: what would my life have been without him?  Supposing I had never had that influence, nor had those particular thrills, & special luring into special ways?”  Then four years later, he offers Florence Lamont his thoughts on the centenary itself: “We drove over to Exeter College, & ate & drank in his memory, & then I gave the speech in the College Hall … Miss M was there, but not Miss Lobb … I had the feeling that he was conscious of our thought of him & perhaps saw the bright side of our intentions”.