Accessible Pasts
Medieval History

Accessible Pasts

Late last night, I saw this marvelous link floating around the interwebs: a digitized version of Cotton Nero A.x, or, the Pearl-manuscript.  It's a wonderful thing to behold, and potentially so useful. Not only can we, as scholars of medieval literature, now work from a digitized facsimile of the manuscript as opposed to traveling to the British Library (as delightful as that is, it's not always feasible), we can also introduce our students to it. What I'm most conscious of with the announcement of the newly available digitization, though, is how the past is made present.

Others who are more expert in manuscript studies and digital humanities will doubtless have more to say, or have already said it, but I just want to think for a moment about the temporalities it introduces: A past object is made available, accessible, through modern technology. This is a wonderful thing. It's like having a museum on our laptops. But, while I'm delighted by these digital innovations, I also realize that the digitization here is not at all anything new.*  What I mean is that we've always done this. The Collected Works of Plato, sitting on my desk, brings together texts written via much older technologies into a collection made possible by modern printing.** We do this compulsively, collecting and making the past present. This is one reason why the past can never be seen as an absolute alterity, for we must always be aware of the modern technologies that aid us in accessing the past. (We must also be aware of the present perceptions and biases that inform our decisions about how we approach the past, but that's another blog post.)

Technology aside, viewing the digitization of the Pearl-manuscript also got me thinking about the coming academic year and the courses I'll be teaching. (Ok, yes, I've been having teaching anxiety dreams already. So?)  This Fall, I'm teaching two different courses: a Freshman Writing course (theme: "the Monstrous Imagination") and a course called "Persuasive Writing." In the Freshman course, my students will look at monster narratives ranging from Marie de France, "Bisclavret" to The Walking Dead. Some texts will be readily available to them, then, while others might seem distant or strange. My job as a teacher is, of course, to help contextualize older texts so that my students can better understand them.  But, I also want the past texts not just to be understood with their pastness, but also with their presentness.  That is, how are they relevant to our moment? Asking this can lead to some facile comparisons, but sometimes those comparisons can be truly vibrant.

The other course I'm teaching provides an excellent example of what I am trying to get at here. In the course, my upper-level students will be reading Plato, Aristotle, and Quintillian in order to think about argumentative techniques.  But, this is not strictly a course in classical rhetoric and argument--it's a service-learning course. My students will be serving as coaches for middle school students in a Junior Debate League. (See this article for some more information.) My students will need to synthesize the insights and knowledge they gain from class in order to make that material accessible to and relevant for their own students.  Rather than curating the past, we'll have the opportunity to make it speak, to put it into dialogue with the present, and to do so with real exigence.

What I don't want to do is modernize either Marie de France or Aristotle, id est, removing the troubling bits representative of past alterities.  I don't want to say, "Look, Aristotle or Chaucer were just like us! Neat!" I want, instead, to think about how past and present cohere together, and how they speak to one another.  I want my students, in any class I teach, to think about how we can make room in our own life-worlds for older texts. I want to try to undo binary thinking about past and present, and instead think about the various and often non-linear connections we can draw.

*I want to offer a tip of the hat to Brantley Bryant for making me think more about this.
**I'm indebted to Jonathan Gil Harris's conception of the "polychronic", how objects possess many different times. An automobile, for example, is made possible by ancient and modern technologies.

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Medieval History