Monday, 1 October 2012

Making of Middle English


David Matthews, Making of Middle English, 1765-1910 Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Medievalism is the name given to the study of the ways in which the culture and concepts of the middle ages returned to western culture from the late eighteenth century on in  architecture, art and literature. Prime among medievalismists is David Mathews, born and educated in Australia, and now at the University of Manchester. In this major book he charts how scholars like Thomas Percy and Joseph Ritson gathered and transmitted medieval texts and then how, with the  major impetus given by Wlarer Scott, this material became an object of  study first for learned enthusiasts like Frederic Madden and the ever-engaging F. J. Furnivall, and then found its way into the developing curriculum of English studies in universities.

Mathews tells this complex story with wit, attention to curious detail, an awareness of the multiple forces that were at work – some of them eccentric, some of them radical – and a light but recurrent contact with the theory-aware world of modern humanities studies.

As humanities in universities are increasingly under pressure, neither attracting funding from billionaires nor leading directly to well-paid jobs unlike pharmacy and hairdressing – merely educating the public to a high and discriminating level -- this account of the slow, serious and social origins of cultural medievalism in education has much to contribute to a measured understanding of what we have gained, and what in late capitalist fetishisation of desire, we may well lose.

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