Sunday, 14 February 2021

Medieval Ructions at Leicester

The Morris Society online talks in March and April to celebrate the achievements of the Kelmscott Press look good, and since the ultimate artefact produced by that Press was the Kelmscott Chaucer, the Society might also pay some heed to developments in English Studies currently going on at the University of Leicester.  For the English Department there is planning to close down provision of courses in medieval literature and English language in the quest for a curriculum devoted to ‘diversity’ and ‘decolonisation’.  Hackles have been mightily raised by this plan: the MA external examiner Catherine Clark has resigned, and lit-crit luminary Professor Isobel Armstrong has handed back her honorary degree from Leicester in protest.



Current medievalists have pointed out that much good work is being done in that field under the very labels of ‘diversity’ and ‘decolonisation’, a fact which thoroughly undercuts the Leicester rationale for these cuts.  Recalling my own undergraduate enthusiasms for the medieval side of my Bristol English curriculum, I would point to the remarkable sense of linguistic expansion and gusto early-period literature can offer – Basil Cottle, John Burrow and Myra Stokes, a belated but deep thank-you for all that!  But then, perhaps I was an unusual student, with A-levels in French and German testifying to a pre-existing passion for language work.  That is something I didn’t see so much of in my own recent undergraduates, but that’s all the more reason why they need it as a curriculum possibility.



But for Morrisians, the crucial defence of medieval studies must surely involve ‘diversity’ too, but not quite in its current sense, of gender, racial, class and other identities.  Medieval study has the capacity has to lift us bodily out of the capitalist-individualist categories that have dominated Western thinking since, say, the sixteenth century, to turn our minds inside out and open us to the possibility of other modes of social organisation, other ways of collective being.  And from ‘diversity’ of that kind – reculer pour mieux sauter – a utopianism of the future might arise too.  Did not Morris try to show exactly how this could be so in News from Nowhere, after all, where so much of his twenty-second-century socialist future has a faint fourteenth-century resonance to it too?  So, Leicester University English Department, back down!


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