Friday, 21 February 2014

Speaking from the Grave: Universities Past, Present and Question-mark Future

Stephen Knight
This essay was written for the Melbourne-based leftist magazine Arena: this has been running since the 1970s and has consistently offered a radical take on social, economic and governmental issues with a recurrent interest in cultural matters. I used to write for it when at the University of Melbourne around 1990 and having  returned post-retirement to Melbourne have met up with the editors and am producing an intermittent series of essays, including in 2012-13 a sequence on The Politics of Myth, which is also a course in the Melbourne Free University programme.

This piece comes out of my retrospective consideration of  the university as it is now, immersed in the economy, and so unsurprisingly experiencing commercialisation of outcomes, labour specialisation, fetishisation of work, alienation of the producer. The underlying method is to suggest that a decent knowledge of history, read in social terms, can explain our situation and also indicate that while the university as we know it  appears finished as a medium of intellectual inquiry, that process will emerge elsewhere, probably surprisingly.

In Australia the universities are now in market competition for internal as well as external students. In Britain all students will pay full-cost costs. The tertiary sector has been immersed in the economy. My recent British colleagues are having to dream up advertising slogans. Cardiff, from which I have just retired, is considering `Friendly but Challenging’. Have we hit bottom ? .

Back here in Melbourne, self-funded research ($1.70 a week for the Wednesday Australian) reveals almost all the university job adverts are in business, engineering or health, managing not thinking (though one Koori lectureship raised the tone last week). Most brain-employing academics hold the situation is dire, and darkening.

Yes indeed. But not for the first time. High-quality knowledge has always been fugitive, both needed by and distrusted by the authorities. They must control those on whom they rely. As a result, as I see it, in nine hundred years of universities there have only been four high periods, all quite short. Studying the first three was part of my work as a cultural historian; for the fourth, I saw it come and go.

The first surprise may be that `university’ actually means `union’, as in `trade union’. In the twelfth century, as Europe settled to comparative peace (the Normans had seized enough, even for them) and remarkably good weather, harvests, trade, surpluses and cathedrals all grew upwards. For religious purposes and to generate administrators for expanding systems, the cathedral schools expanded in major centres, to be called  studium generale where outsiders flooded in, like Bologna, a centre for Roman-style civil law, and Paris, another major crossroads where the church's hold was stronger and theology was top dog. Language was no problem –Latin was the original lingua franca (hence the Latin quarter) -- but management was. The Bologna students formed their own universitates to demand better provision; in Paris organisation was led by the working masters: to be an MA meant you were out of your apprenticeship and could teach, and they organised.

The university/union personnel responded to authority pressure with industrial seriousness. From 1217-20 the students simply left Bologna until they had acceptable terms; in 1229 the Paris masters dispersed the university to unheard-of places like Cambridge, until their demands were met. How we dreamed in the late 1960s of dispersing Sydney University, but were tied down by families, mortgages, and other modern enfeeblements.

Medieval socio-economic innovations meshed with new content – that’s what makes a high phase in universities. The long-forgotten Aristotelian method, founded on rational analysis, was available again, especially through Islamic commentators like Averroes and Avicenna (hence Arabic numerals) and cut deep into Christian traditionality. This material permitted the major development of medieval dialectic pioneered a century before by Abelard (not merely Heloise’s lover heading for castration) as Paris started university operations. This tradition of truth-seeking debate (now only surviving among high-paid barristers) drew on Abelard’s Sic et Non, `Yes and No’ (c.1121). You argued logically to validate your position, and also that of the church. Neither Abelard nor his great successor St Thomas Aquinas ever doubted faith as the prime force: Thomas’s hugely influential Summa Theologica (1265-74)  is a set of questions trying to rationalise apparent biblical contradiction, and clear our believing heads. These were heady times: students filled the lecture rooms and would shout from the windows to the their friends just what the masters were saying: some scholars have called it the twelfth-century renaissance.

Though the embattled Paris Chancellor tried to ban the teaching of Aristotle, faced with the Zeitgeist embodied in the massed and unionised masters, by the mid thirteenth century he was a central curriculum figure. Logic-driven learning in the Greek tradition expanded, with Europe-wide figures like the widely-travelled  Duns Scotus (Scot still meant Irishman) and at Oxford science and optics were outstanding under the famous Roger Bacon (remembered as a dark wizard) and the well-named Robert Grosseteste (French for big-head).

Crucially, the intellectual dynamism of the period embodied both teaching that was vocational training – for brain-work in church and state – and research writing at the highest level. There was no separation of  what Weber would later call charismatic leadership from collegial activity. It is when those two modes of higher education are separated that universities weaken as social and intellectual drivers

Genius is succeeded by repetiteurs: the exciting scholarship turned into Scholasticism and before long Duns was remembered as a Dunce. Yet change brings change. If Greek-Arab input fired the twelfth century, it was in the second high phase Latin, though not church Latin, that was the dynamo. The rich secular literature of Rome was a natural source of old values for the new world  of humanism – the phrase for it was translatio studii, translatio imperii  `transfer of culture, transfer of power’. Italian universities were largely locked down into local functional control looking for old-style lawyers and administrators, and Catholic tradition had a grip on France, so creative writers forced the charismatic pace, Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio in Italy, Machaut, de Pisan in France – and Anglo-European Geoffrey Chaucer. The new humanist force had university bases where the forces of Protestantism, supported by secular power, resisted Catholic dominance. Martin Luther was professor of theology at Wittenberg, not some wild-eyed radical; protestantism avows a personal contract with God highly compatible with both humanism and emergent bourgeois individualism.

In England King Henry’s wife-swapping entailed a change of religion, but more dynamically growing prosperity (some stolen from the monasteries, some in booming trade) located young men at Oxbridge simply eager for polish to match and validate daddy’s money. Erasmus, from Holland, reached Cambridge just as the exquisitely medieval King’s College Chapel was being finished: his influence led the last charge by which the `Greeks’, armed with the new humanist classics, defeated the old-style Scholastics whom, having read their Homer, they wittily called `The Trojans’.

Civic activity was involved –  as in those social handbooks Elyot’s The Governour (1531) and Ascham’s The Scholemaster (1570) --  but English humanism went further. Those Cambridge `university wits’ like Greene, Nash, Peele and especially Marlowe who took their college learning onto the London stage established through Shakespeare’s inspirational borrowing a mode of art that, combining grand events with personal feeling, would shape western culture through many media to the present – War and Peace and Citizen Kane for two examples. Out of that new secular context came the insistence on scientific learning typified by Bacon (another one), and also the intellectual formation of  Milton, staggeringly learned in books and languages, who became both the most important poet of  protestantism and also a major ideologue for Cromwell’s revolutionary government.

That second high period also had limits, notably in England. Protestantism became either Puritan or slackly Anglican, the royal Restoration of 1660 and the bourgeois revolution of 1688 between them did for intellectual vigour: for nearly two centuries: science grew in specialist Societies while Oxford and Cambridge mostly went to dinner: Thomas Warton, the late eighteenth-century resurrector of Spenser and medievalism, also edited a food-oriented poetry anthology, The Oxford Sausage (1775). The Oxford Movement of the 1830s, which jerked affective religious worship into a nearly dormant Anglican church, was a one-off. The dons dozed on.

New energy came from Germany, which already had a remarkably high proportion of universities, notably from the sixteenth century. Most were central to a city or small state, and in the early nineteenth century under the guidance of the long-lived Alexander von Humboldt, they generated scientific and social research to guide their regions forward. Research professors led, and their  trainees were doctoral students. The medieval university only had doctorates in really serious stuff, Theology, but now the PhD covered many areas of study,  including practical fields like agriculture, education, linguistics, at places like Göttingen, the newly linked Halle-Wittenberg and Marx’s own Berlin. In the post-1815 long peace and a newly thrusting economy (dynamic universities need both those conditions) energetic students flourished: they played a noticeable role in the 1848 Euro-risings, and were constrained afterwards, but the Germans did not give up the essentially charismatic system that was delivering real Wissenschaft, which implies `knowledge- business’.

This was too narrow a stream to be a truly high university phase, but the Americans had noticed. There the Oxbridge collegiate system had been followed in small teaching-oriented institutions, providing first training for the upper professional stratum of the citizenry. But after the Civil War (peace again a factor) and in the giant growth of American trade and industry (the economy chipping in), conscious moves attached the German research-focused model to the older collegiate pattern. Johns Hopkins was founded in Baltimore in 1876 as a professor-heavy institution; older Harvard and Yale added that level, and big cities across the county followed with public funding – Chicago and Wisconsin were notable instances. Those local links and local service inspired the massive donations American universities still enjoy. Across the country high-level charismatic research operating beside collegial institutions, often on the same campus, and a big PhD programme trained both future researchers and college staff. In 1876 the US awarded 44 doctorate,  by 1918 as many as 500. Oxbridge continued to think they were vulgar, right into the 1950s.

There were other positive features. Where the Germans had narrow research-subject focussed structures, the Americans had a town-meeting style of broad-range departments in a coherent faculty, and, most impressive of all, in response the academics saw themselves as high-level generalists.  Charles Eliot Norton was professor of art history at Harvard, translated Dante, and was friend and supporter, including financially, to Ruskin, Carlyle and Longfellow. My own hero Francis James Child, star mathematician and linguist as a student, studied in Göttingen, assembled his great collection of the British ballads with correspondence in many languages, and (starting at 26) worked right across the literary field from Chaucer on as professor of Rhetoric and then English at Harvard.

Britain never matched American breadth or professionalism (and probably as a result never got the donations). Secular education at least was guaranteed at University College London in 1826, but its catchment was still the haute bourgeoisie. There were a few moves towards external studies – 1867 saw James Stuart, a Cambridge scientist, start public lectures in the north; the Cooperative movement soon weighed in, sponsoring massive lecture audiences, but it was not till after 1900 that Oxbridge admitted some elite workers and established, parallel to the new WEA, the external tutorial classes system – to be in 1946 Raymond Williams’ first employer. These outreach activities thrived across Britain—especially in Wales, Scotland and the English north: you could see it as an early OU, or  a web of its day – but very little certification followed study and this was not in effect a collegiate system. Though actual enrolment numbers increased in Britain from 1850 to 1950 not a lot had changed: Perry Anderson argued in  his essay `Components of the National Culture’ that the professional middle classes were in fact acculturated via cultural capital to the aristocratic/religious power structure of the past.

Dating the end of the north American boom (Canada was involved as well) is elusive: I feel the third high phase had become routinised by the early twentieth century, when subject specialism and the fetishisation of research into patents began to dominate as they have to the present in that part of the world. But we have seen a fourth high phase.  It was not, as if by magic, until after another war and in a new period of boom that universities across the Anglophone world, very noticeably in Australia,  began to change structurally and intellectually. The present had arrived. Or what s now the past.

After the second world war north American universities had the facilities and structures to increase student numbers without serious restructuring. In Australia the one uni per state model was soon bulging under pressure of returned service personnel and increasing demand from the young for educational mobility, notably women. By the mid sixties most capitals had more than one campus, with Sydney and Melbourne up to three. Britain was slower  both to expand and change: its first wave of innovation was in the art colleges, but  new universities like Warwick, Sussex and York were operating well by 1970.

Expansion didn’t mean anything in itself for this last (so far, and perhaps for ever) high phase of university activities. Key elements were the type of students and staff that expansion attracted, their new facilities, and aspirations. I saw this from the inside. I went to Oxford as a working-class grammar-school boy in 1959.  It was like Time Team. My college tutor was an expert in fifteenth-century English pronunciation. He discouraged us from lecture attendance as distracting (what from?). In second year he was made a professor and instantly stopped teaching (charismatic doesn’t seem the right word).His replacement gave us a sheet of paper, with names and titles on it. We had never seen a reading list. By sheer luck, I had for two terms a brilliant and later famous American PhD student, Del Kolve, as tutor: no doubt why most of my work is medieval still. We all need help.

I saw the new world when I became a lecturer in Sydney, in 1963. They were hiring anyone. There was real teaching --  lectures and tutorials -- and truly collegial colleagues, libertarians like fondly-remembered Bill Maidment (never published an article, influenced us all) and already multi-talented Michael Wilding;  and seriously generous scholars like Bernie Martin, folklorist, rhetorician, Celtic scholar, and George Russell, mighty medievalist: he shared his teaching with me, including a course in medieval universities, useful to the present.

It was a rowdy, dynamic department, with fifty lecturers at its peak (with a cricket team and a snooker team: the latter did better). Most of the young staff  were uncomfortable disseminating platitudes about what we had just learned to call cultural capital. With the Sydney radical philosophers on hand, the place hummed with left theorisation, Althusser and Macherey everywhere: we thought Derrida and Foucault were pretty middle-of-the-road. We found avatars on other campuses in what we called the New Humanities and increasingly across Britain – Methuen handbooks by the likes of Terry Eagleton, Kate Belsey, Terry Hawkes and (soon working in Australia, as now again) Tony Bennett made cutting-edge teaching much easier. The historians and the political scientists were as energetic and active – they led the democratisation of the campus and for some it didn’t go far enough. A free university was one active ideal: Terry Irving and his friends set one up in Redfern. It was widely thought the People’s University of Balmain would have a winning acronym.

History remembers the 1960s and 70s on the streets. Vietnam and the authoritarian structures of Berkeley and the Sorbonne were certainly detonators for resistance, but  deeper educational change was in the teaching and learning. There were some material bases (there have to be). I recall when the first photocopier arrived. It smelled terrible, but now  you could expect students to read serious articles and chapters; when academic paperbacks started flooding into the increasingly well-funded libraries lectures no longer needed to dictate facts, as when there was only one book on each topic for a class of six hundred, but could launch critical discourses. Among the students the confidence and new world cheek of a full-employment economy, they were ready to have a go at anything out of interest, without fear of losing a place in the job queue. There was a sense in those Whitlamesque days that it was just worth going to uni to find things out you didn’t yet know. In recent years I have often told my nervous British colleagues about the mid 1960s year when New South Wales added a year to study – and there were no undergraduates. What should the university do ? Close first year ? Very grandly, it did nothing, stayed open, and took anyone who fancied it. As I recall it, the entire Sydney Anarchist club, led by Bulgarian taxi-driver Jack Grancharoff, attended in an unprecedented expression of single purpose, as did many members of the semi-employed thinking classes -- some of the Sydney Push showed up, even in the morning.

Not only critical energy, social variety and political energy hit the newly expanded campuses. There was a sense of ownership among students and staff. Women, leftists, non-whites, and gays, pretty much in that order as I recall it, claimed a say in what they were going to study. That was international, and the Americans led in many areas, with the Australians close behind. Many British campuses lagged, but in some, notably Sussex, Cardiff, Warwick, York, influential new work was done. The story of those innovative years is not yet written (why not ?),  and my account is inevitably restricted,  but innovation was right across the campus. Australian historians made major strides in re-shaping national consciousness after Britain lurched towards Europe; British scholars developed Cultural Studies to account for the interests held, and the pressures felt, by those outside the elites. Sociology, largely driven by American models, but gaining a critical edge in Britain and Australia, delivered stinging critiques of the status quo, as in more muted tones did  Educational studies.

Dialectics always works. From the start of this fourth high phase there was opposition, notably in Australia. B. A. Santamaria’s National Review, report E. R. Trevaud and John McLaren in Equal but Cheaper, on the 1970s colleges, attacked `the creation of  a class of idle youth fed with slogans they are incapable of evaluating and lacking skills that might be turned to useful purposes’.  The right had young cadres too; I  recall the blustering at Sydney of their chosen vessel the pugilistic Tony Abbott. In America the right spoke through people like Alan Bloom,  who denounced the new educational thrust as The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Bloom and his kind fingered any affirmative action as a breach of personal freedom for those who already had plenty of affirmation.

The bottom line in repression was, of course, economic. After the oil price hike of 1974 increasingly right-wing Western governments (quite a few of them Labour or Labor) steadily sought to control public expenditure and impose financial values. The crunch in Australia was the mid 1980s Dawkins initiative to dictate policy through the purse, and impose  the shades of the mercantile prison-house on free thought. Research funding was not to be collegially distributed through departments, but in government-approved grants; overseas students became the golden calf. Research productivity was numerically assessed, and so goodbye to collegiate teaching as an ideal. The survivors moan about management, but in fact it is all meta-management, only concerned with processes, having no interest in, indeed hostility towards, the content that drives top-class teaching and learning.

It needn’t be so. America has kept the collegial system going underneath a charismatic superstructure: the German campuses I have visited seem to have held onto many of their best traditions. Australia has very noticeably thrown out the infant learners with the collegial bath-water (and the Barthes-water as well). In Britain this anti-pedagogical downturn has been largely restricted to the high-end research departments like Chemistry and Engineering, because you couldn’t get big research funding in the humanities anyway. But Cameron has fixed that version of culture-lag with all-round cuts and a radical instrumentalisation of learning.

The fourth-phase university boom lasted  about a generation. They all seem to. The Americans still have real quality on some campuses, though they say they feel very pinched. Elsewhere I think it’s clear that knowledge has packed its tents and moved on -- into electronic modes, into informal encounters, into the intellectual hills. But while I am sad to see what people I knew created so well fading away, and I recognise that the young lecturers who saw it for a while are more angry than sad (a proper response), the sort of narrative I have recounted here tells us that knowledge, of the  non-fetishised, socially and intellectually vigorous sort, doesn’t die, and will re-emerge.

There is a myth about undying knowledge. My recent book Merlin: Knowledge and Power (2009) explores how he is always a figure of pure knowledge, and he is eventually harassed by the powers he generates and supports. Inattentive scholars say he disguises himself. But there is no single Merlin identity. He is knowledge, that’s it. He never appears in the form of a figure of power, a king or a lord or even a lady. His usual trick is a boy or a peasant or an old crone, sometimes an animal. But none of them is ever really Merlin; he, being knowledge, is only a polymorphous force that takes many forms, all of them as much a challenge to power as knowledge is absolutely necessary for the survival of power. And Merlin always speaks from the grave.

So having reflected on the various formations of university knowledge, sometimes at its best and most critically functional,  we can only predict, hopefully, and confidently, for its new formations, its re-formations …electronic, neomorphous, unexpected --but elusive, challenging, and crucial as ever.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Was the Otherworld Journey Single or Return? Emotional Sociality in Medieval English Romance

Stephen Knight

This paper was written for a conference in mid 2013 held by the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Melbourne University where I am an Associate Investigator. It links to and develops from other work on  the representation and significance of emotionality in early medieval material, Irish, Welsh and French, and extends this into medieval English romance. Further papers will look at Malory and the late medieval sub-aristocratic material namely the Robin Hood ballads and the `king and subject’ poems.

1. Words for Social Pleasure

In medieval romances, here restricted for close analysis to Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal, but with a glance at Sir Gawain, the default socially positive state is one of mirthe or joie or solas. The general adjectives for the situation ranging from French courtois to English (or rather Scandinavian) menskful, and the personal ones noting women as lufsum – stressing emotionality -- and men as noble – stressing sociality. The instrumentally evaluative core of the mirthe/joie situation, ratified by reported deeds, is honour or worship (Anglo-Saxon-derived and French-derived words have almost equally currency here).

This lexicon is at once insistently social/general/collective in reference, and also essentially non-physical—there might be some material attributes implied in lufsum, a physical teleology of lovableness that may well be attributable to the dominantly masculine viewpoint, but even with lufsum the semantic ambience seems general rather than personalised.  

This verbally-delineated positive world of social emotion opens each text, is abandoned for other states, recurs in various ways, and is finally treated differently in the texts. Orfeo returns at the end to his world of feudal collective suprapersonal and socially emotional positives. But Launfal goes in a quite different direction to an alternative context with his otherworld lady: this state is both privatised (he cannot share it or he will destroy it) and yet it is also suprapersonal, indeed supersocial, royal, a fantasy of a high-emotion collectivity. Offstage here, yet shadowing this analysis,  and even critiquing it, Sir Gawain  returns to the world where collective generic value is expected, and indeed offered, but it is dissented to by the focal character, to some extent in terms of a religious or at least moralised perspective, a third way both personal and differently social. With this yes, this no (and Gawain’s maybe), about collectivised social emotion in the aristocratic world of romance, we have a thorough analysis of attitudes to emotion, social relations, and essentially to the outcomes of the dialectic of personal and public that appear to underlie both the realities and the cultural ideologies of medieval feudal culture. (By the way, or perhaps not, this paper sees no reason to continue the suppositious not to say spurious title of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Why not Sir Gawain and Sir Bercilak ? Or Sir Gawain and Morgan La Fay ? Medieval hero-focused romances routinely go by the name of the central character.)

Related to, even productive of, the dialectic of public and private at the core of the realities and the cultural ideology of medieval feudal culture, is the system by which the social bonds were the personal swearing of allegiance to a particular land-holding lord; and the processes of social evaluation rested on the status attained – at least in the cultural domain of the romances --  by personalised military or quasi-military success over other private combatants in tournaments or even in actual war. The high formality of the code of honour – as set out in immense detail in the Vulgate romances or in the Tristram book in Malory’s Morte d`Arthur -- depended on personal violence between men, just as the bonds of social constraint depended on swearing a specific personal but also public oath. Also the personal bond of marriage was itself the basis for social status, for men as well as women, as in Yvain. The dialectic of the personal and the public was both structural to the society and explored in the literature, notably in the  texts under consideration (and in Sir Gawain and in Malory), where public emotion is positive, private emotion is either subsumed within that generic coherence or an expression of severe dysfunction – and as all the heroes, especially Gawain, found, it is hard to find a way between the social emotion of courtly mirthe and the social dysfunction that caused the lonely misery of exile from society.

2. Sir Orfeo: Return Journey to the Otherworld

The rather grim story of Orpheus and Eurydice was more imperiously translated into the early medieval than most of the Matter of Rome the Great. Orfeo became a great harper who also happened to be both  king and knight, so asserting the reach and rationale of feudalism; the world where he found his beloved was not the dark classical underworld, but the bright alternative world of Celtic myth; and that last shift permitted the major appropriation – the beloved wife is regained.

Major values attach to both harp and wife. Orfeo `most of ony thing Lovede the gle of harping’[1] (10-11) and not only as a spectator:  `himself lovede for to harpe’ (13) and he did it so well anyone who herd him `shulde thinke that he were In one of the joys of Paradis’ (20-1). The delight Orfeo felt is transmitted out as a generalised quasi-heavenly experience of communal delight. The harping will have parallel instrumental value in re-assembling the fragments of Orfeo’s public life. The harping is always social, even when he is alone. The harping codes the default nature of social emotion in this context .

The harp is one of his two loves. The other is Heurodis. She too is a generalised quality. She too is dialectic: she is not just looking lovely, `The fairest levedy for the nones That that might go on body and bones’ (29-30) she is `Ful of love and godenisse’ (31): the love of which she was a source had no malign propensities. The poem, often close to lyric in performing its effects, catches this when Orfeo expresses his `luf’ in assonance `O lef lif, what is te’ (78), and the climax of his lament is that social emotion is reversed from general love to personalised hate: her `lovesum’ (87) eyes, that that created love from and to her, i.e. were a source of collective love, have become agents of hate and look `so man doth on his fo’ (88)

Both of the royal lovers – and their royalty make them more than personal lovers -- express grief: they who as she says have `ever …y-loved’ (99) must now separate and she explains the royal visit from the otherworld, rich in the overt power of splendour – and without any expression of emotion on the part of the King of Fairy. He has social splendour in plenty, but no social emotion words like mirthe, or joy or solas. Orfeo’s grief is personally expressed in `”O we,” quath he, “allas, allas”’ (152) but is also public in its effect: he is `forlorn’ (103), lost, and will physically become lost. The Queen’s abduction is greeted with public grief  and by Orfeo with the swooning that is the climax of negative emotion and the sign that the distressed individual is therefore dysfunctional.

So he leaves, appointing his steward in his place and this too receives public grief, and they beg him no to go, but he went `so poverlich out of toun’ (212) – we may recall that `toun’ implies `civilisation’ not collection of buildings.. This too is new: classical Orpheus was not a king and just went off after his wife. Orfeo, however, is in total dysfunction. It might seem tempting to liken this to the running wild of Yvain, Launcelot and Tristan when love has gone totally wrong. But they did not allot their responsibilities or recommend arrangements after their death. And they had not totally lost their rightful ladies – they had just bungled an already awkward, even improper, situation or in Yvain’s case behaved idiotically, privileging male social emotion by going tournamenting with Gauvain over the richer, in every sense, amatory and royal  social emotion with Laudine.  

Why does Orfeo leave ? Is his love of Heurodis so strong he just can’t live without her ? That is a Romantic back projection. He can live without her, just not as a king. It is tempting to see beneath the innovative shape of Sir Orfeo at this point the Celtic tradition of sovereignty, that the king rules only by right of being married to the queen who bears genetic power, sofraniaeth.  In early Irish and Welsh, only a woman can do that – matrilinearity survives. This is not that story, but it has some of that feeling about it. And of course women of comparable power were not hard to imagine like Eleanor of Aquitaine, inheritor of the greatest duchy in Europe and successively queen of France and England. The point is there may be a more public, even political, element than we appreciate in Orfeo’s exile. Both Marie de France and Walter Map worked on the frontiers of Celtic and Anglo-Norman culture. People seem unaware Map is a Welsh cognomen, from Mab, son, with the characteristic Welsh fortis pronunciation heard as devoicing. Like Fluellen and the poys and the paggage.

Orfeo suffers for ten years and more. What does he feel ? We do not know. Feeling in these texts is interactive, people weep together or share those group words like joy and mirth and solace, or lament their absence. The last operates here. He sees `nothing that him liketh’(227) – the impersonal does the collectivising here. The animals have collective emotive power though  and `For joye’ (250) they gather round to hear him harping, because of its own collectivised quality -- `So miche melody was therin’ (254). The epistemological generality is worth stressing, it is so easy for moderns to miss. It is when Orfeo has the capacity to interact, that he can feel again: he sees the hunt and laughs: `ther is fair game’ (291)  – he feels something like `that hunting looks fun’. Heurodis weeps to see him – how does she know him in his changed state ? She sees some sign of the loss of their collective love, not the ragged and rugged ten-year outdoors exile. Note the resemblance to Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid where Orfeo too is stricken with grief, but this is because they have not spoken, not engaged in the collective action of recognising/realising  their love. In the absence of the shared life, he moves towards it: he is filled with social energy to rejoin human action to follow her. There is some parallel as a resocialisation story in Malory’s Tale of Sir Tristram: Launcelot in wild exile is attracted to a sword hanging on a tree, engages in fighting, and is eventually recuperated into human and chivalric order.

Orfeo arrives at the Otherworld court just like a knight or indeed a Welsh hero at a dangerous location – the porter is always crucial, liminal to social order and external exile. Shakespeare didn’t miss the tradition in Macbeth, though he played with it, his porter is socially both outside and ironically far inside. The people Orfeo sees, including Heurodis, are all alone, they are the dead and taken, isolated, out of their own social environment and not operating together in a new one. The Otherworld is always alienating in some way. But Orfeo has brought his remembered world with him and sees her as `his lef lif’ (382), verbally just as she was before she was abducted. The King has his own Otherworldly socialisation to receive resocialised Orfeo, taking pleasure from music in the company of the palace residents (not the still isolated dead and taken); and the King’s objection to an Orfeo-Heurodis reunion is based on a social, hierarchical reading of this notional couple, recognising Heurodis as `lovesum’ (436) and therefore it would be `lothlich’ (437) – hateful, just like her reaction  to the king’s original threat. But we find in this feudal appropriation of the Otherworld that he has to keep his word, as did the king of the classical Underworld, but not in such specifically feudal terms that insist it were `a wele fouler thing’ (440) to hear the king lie: `fouler’ here implies social degradation.

So Orfeo wins Heurodis and joins court collectivity again: `His wif he took by the hond’ (449). They do not speak; there is no expressed joint emotion; and there will not be any in the rest of the poem. No-one seems to have noticed this, or perhaps cared if they did. The secret title of this paper is `Were Heurodis and Orfeo pleased to be together again ?’ Towards the end we will hear of the steward’s `love’ of his lord (494), see `he fell aswoon to grounde’ (525) in thinking about his loss of his lord , and have that love specifically reciprocated by Orfeo (531), and the popular collective excitement and joy: `Glad they were of his live’ (559). The people weep to see king and queen again, presumably their joy deriving from noting they are together again: we hear that Orfeo and Heurodis `lived long afterward’ (571), and surely that time was happy and loving. But the words aren’t said to verify the renewed positive joint feelings of King and Queen.

How do we handle this unemotional – apparently autistic – treatment of  the totally loved wife and the totally loving husband in the final sequence? I fancy we could talk about trauma-theory if we wanted to perform that translatio studii that makes all medieval characters like nervy modern people, or at least nervy modern academics. I fancy we could talk formalistically about the constraints of the short text and the frequency of enigmatic, discussion-inviting, endings, we could pretend the author is teasing us as we like to when we can’t work something out. Or we could learn from our own study and see that the return from the otherworld here is a complete return to function – the harp is recognised, the royalty is still operative. The personal physical change of Orfeo is merely used as the basis for a plot-trick on the steward – we know Heurodis still looks the same. The story is not in fact about the feelings of the characters: their feelings have only in fact been the keys to the nature of the social dysfunction that is occurring and the emotions are expressed in socially functional mode; the joy of the loyal steward is a reverse example: he is so joyful he breaches his household stewardly duties and knocks the table over. That presages another social fact, that he will become king, not table-arranger. The delight of the court lies in the fact that:

They brought the Queen into the toun
With all maner menstracy.
Lord, there was grete melodye !
For joye they wepe with her eighe
That hem so sounde y-comen seighe. (564-8)

The emotion is publicly operative: it validates the operating function of an operating structure. King and Queen do not have personal feelings, except when they recognise the absence of social function, which is distressing. Emotion is social –  when the King of Fairy visited Heurodis he was in royal appropriative function, not in love, nor in lust, not a cause of petty private feelings. Now again for Orfeo and Heurodis royalty operates. Just as we will never know really why Orfeo go into the forest except that he was not-King, so we will never know what it feels like to be King and Queen. What it feels like is like being the cause of general joye and mirthe and solas.

3. Sir Launfal: The Otherworld Returns for You

Like Sir Orfeo, this poem comes out of twelfth-century French into later English, but here there is an ultimate source by Marie de France. This is at time clearly a source even at the verbal level, but there are some English changes – notable is a much longer and more painful period of distress for the knight before he meets his fairy lady, a sequence which English critics have felt related to anxiety about low social status (a touch of autobiographical projection here perhaps) but the English story amplifies the kind of exile that Launfal finds himself in before his Fairy adventures. There are also some interesting minor changes at the very end, as will be noted later.

Essentially Sir Launfal is Sir Orfeo played upside down, as musical scholars often say when discussing previously unnoticed relationships between items. From the start to the finish it traverses the same terrain as Sir Orfeo, but consistently in a reversed mode which provides the big finish when the otherworld steps in and Launfal disappears to a non-feudal but super-courtly personal collective otherworldly delight with the true love of Tryamour (as `true love’ the name is an Anglo-French creole: she is unnamed in Marie de France).

If Sir Orfeo was royal fantasy this is knightly fantasy. It starts with Arthur at `Kardevyle’, perhaps Carlisle, though I prefer Chester, Caer de Ville, Castletown in Welsh/Norman creole -- perhaps an authorial joke. There all operates in the correct socialised emotive collectivity - `With joye and greet solas’ (9). The knights are themselves listed like a team and we focus on Launfal who equally has public values, of `his largesse and his bounté’ (31). He is the king’s steward for ten years (is that a conscious hint that this reverses Sir Orfeo ?), but when Arthur marries Guinevere negative personal emotion merges – he `likede her nought’ (44) though the reason is itself collective – she was taking lovers already. She replies with a personalised negative indicator in the collective mode – there is no present for Launfal and he has personal feeling as a result: `That grevede him many a sithe.’ (72) So Launfal invents another form of isolation – the death of his father – to justify his isolative leaving of the court, though Arthur, collective king as ever, insists he take two royal nephews with him as a trace of courtly society. These are Sir Huwe and Sir John, who will leave Launfal when he is really poor, though they will conceal his dysfunctional state and in fact report him to King and Queen as having `Moche worchip and greet honour’ (163)  -- but she is privately very pained, this re-asserting her failure to belong correctly to the emotionally positive evaluative ensemble. These nephews are an interesting feature, appearing to be what Macherey calls the `strain’ feature that reveals ideology within the text. Chester has invented these nephews for the sequence – as you hear Arthur speak you think Launfal is to be mightily supported by Gawain and Gyheries or Agrafain (all listed early and Agrafain having no negative connotations, like the common early French positive references to him). Launfal’s lonely misery is not like Orfeo’s  classical and Celtic style intervention by an ineluctable force: it is as in the case of the other dysfunctional knights like Yvain, a  rift caused by the failure to moderate the personal-public dialectic of the social-emotive world.Here it is a failing of the court system to hold together, though Arthur tries to resolve the strains. Chestre has made Guinevere the agent of this crisis, bringing forward her malice from the end: in Marie here it is just general envy of Lanval’s excellence that leads to Arthur slighting him as he has received no praise of him.

This is emphasised by the reason Launfal becomes so poor: when he arrives at Caerleon (and topographically his journey is curiously like a reverse of Sir Gawain’s), especially if he has left Chester, because he is not part of the royal regime he is excluded from the extended Arthurian largesse. The sub-courtly mayor stigmatises him because Launfal reports he is not now part of the honour of Arthur’s world, and so he is banished to a sort of pariah’s outhouse. At this treatment Launfal laughs, but it is in `scorn inough’ (116) – he is shaping an emotionally asserted separate position for himself – and he even behaves accordingly, `So savagelich his good he besette That he ward in greet dette’ (130-1): he did not behave with courtly largesse, but out of control, asocial. The word `savagelich’ means `of the woods’, `wild’, so out of courtly order – even ahuman.

In his asocial state one woman is generous to lonely Launfal: the mayor’s daughter invites him to dine with her, another para-collective moment like Arthur sending the nephews with him. He declines because he cannot dress properly for public identity: but being a knight he can operate in function alone and borrows a horse. But she is only a shadow of his privately helping lady to come. His wretched solitary state frustrates her partial socialisation. His state is not enough even for knightly riding: because he has no `knave other squier’ (212) to help him get ready, he can only ride  with `litill pride’ (213), and the horse slips: are the lack of service and the accident connected ? Is the equipment not fixed right, the shoes not checked properly? The detail is a telling brief instance of the way the knight depended on his own little social world of service, usually kept off stage in romance. Launfal, and his horse, find it is very hard to be really alone.

As Launfal sits alone in the forest `in symplité’ (226) , which Sands glosses as `innocence’ but more relevantly means  being free from pride and socially lowly, he is naturally `in sorow and sore’ (229), alone, miserable,  feeling his dysfunction as we never knew that Orfeo did – but then he was a king in waiting for return. Launfal’s ontological status is truly violated, and his release is epistemologically just as asocial. Just a quarter of the way into the poem, the Otherworld ladies arrive, and very fine they are even for Otherworld ladies. They do public power like nobody else could. The change of gender for the fairy rout is itself interesting: this outfit belongs to the `The King’s daughter of Olyroun’ or in Marie de France, `Avalon’, in Welsh, the Isle of Apples. Perhaps the gender-change is just to permit Launfal to escape as lover: a King or Prince of the Otherworld could hardly strike the same accord as Tryamour does. She sets aside `Al my joye’ (302)  – her Otherworld royal social life it would seem: she too is isolated like him  -- because she loves him more that `King neither emperoure’ (306), her natural partners. She too is alone, it’s just that being Princess of the Otherworld alone is far grander, in the collective splendour category, like being King in the human world. Launfal reciprocates her love, kisses her, calls her `Sweting’ (311) and he sees this imaginary pairing as a social collective -- `I am to thin honour’ (312). She will equip him suitably to his public honour, as well as provide her own private physical delights, starting that night.

 Then comes the trick by which it all operates, a medieval version of the Hitchcockian MacGuffin.  He can, she says, always have total access to her, but always `privily’ (355) – and it follows that her existence and his access to her must be totally private. There is usually a structural trick about the Otherworld – it might not get hot or cold there, or like the first hunt in Sir Orfeo, it maybe silent, for the assembly of Bendigeidfran’s head you can’t open the door towards England, or as for Pwyll there maybe unexplained requirements that the visitor mysteriously fulfils. Only here is the Otherworld given a specific social alterity and made entirely a private world – though also a richly public one in its provisions. It is a private asocial world with all the collective emotive trimmings of the public world. In Marie their world is simply the unnamed lady’s condition, much like her imperious whims in invoking Lanval and then sending him away. For Orfeo the Otherworld was not imaginary at all: it worked by public systems, that is how he won Heurodis back, and even in his exile the animals were a form of society: his isolation was merely a cessation of  social life where only music was capable of any connections. But for Launfal the Otherworld is an alternative and epistemologically competing world, based on a different concept of actuality and value. It is as much an inner world as an Other world, and it both trumps and recuperates the public Arthurian world. Maybe it has, in Bourdieu’s terms, social meaning as a movement towards a bourgeois habitus, but it has no language other than that of aristocracy unlike say the King and Subject ballads or the Robin Hood ballads.

It operates splendidly with its internalised external values: there is a magnificent tournament at Caerleon with splendid performance by the hero, followed by him wining the European chivalric Cup by defeating in Italy the mighty  champion Sir Valentine (literally mighty, he is fifteen feet tall). When Launfal is back home and so great a lord `With solas and with plawe’ (612: `plawe’ is a variant for `joye’), firmly back in the saddle of collective emotion, Arthur hears of it and, never having wanted him to be an exile in the first place, invites him to Camelot to act as steward at a major feast. This should ring a bell. The parallel in narrative terms is another knight with mighty powers deriving from a source parallel to Arthurian chivalry who is invited to Camelot but things go wrong –  Perceval, having developed his status as the Grail knight, sets up an alternative domain that cannot in fact be linked to Arthur’s world. Sir Launfal is also imagining another domain of value, albeit without the rich clerical support of the Grail myth, which will soon consume the north Welsh real Holy Fool and construct the clerically perfect two-dimensional Galahad in his place.

Launfal enjoys the `merthe and moch honour’ (628) at Arthur’s court (not named as Kardevyle now or even Camelot: we later – 965 -- find it is Caerleon),  so much that Guinevere notices his capacity to `daunce large’ (647), an intriguing challenge for a translator -- `dance in an ultra-lordly manner’ perhaps, and she decides  `I love him as my lif’ (654). Her access to disruptive personal emotion is being ratcheted up, but still targeting Launfal. Previously she just had picked up he disapproved of her: now she goes dialectic and asserts she loves him, but, keeping to her disruptive individualism,  instead of the social `lof/lif’ assonance she offers her individual death in default of him: they cannot have a life of love in fact because of her public status.  He rejects her in terms of public courtly values: `I nell be traitoure day ne night, Be God, that al may stere.’ (683-4). Guinevere responds in hyper-personal terms: `Thou lovist no woman ne no woman the – Thou were worthy forelore.’ (689-90) – she wishes on him the forlorn exclusion experience that Orfeo suffered. And Launfal, though `sore ashamed’ (691) which is a collective emotion, answers her in terms of his private, quasi-public world and love – and so exposes it to destruction.

But Launfal also expresses the challenge of his Tryamour world as well, the challenge of this poem to the possibility that the narrative of chivalric honour can be restored. He does not say to the queen she is fairer than you: he says she is fairer `Than thou evir leidest thin ay upon’ (695) and, the clincher, that even her `lothlokste maide’ (the most opposite of `lovesum’) `Might bet be a quene Than thou, in all thy live.’ (697-99).  Guinevere’s personal misdeeds and plotting is what makes her an unsuitable queen (this is a simpler version than Malory, where she remains noble and redeemable), and Launfal’s inner other world is better than this public world riven with error, as was that of Perceval and Galahad, but it had its own fabricated world, Christianity operating even more elaborately and allegedly permanently than the world of Tryamour.

Guinevere’s anger, vengeance, misrepresentation all operate in the public system. She lays emotional-laden public values on the line to Arthur, perhaps formally undercut by running over a stanza break:

                        `Sire, curtais if thou were,

                        Or if thou lovedest thin honoure,
I shuld be awreke of that traitoure’ (918-20)

Arthur is required to exercise the values of the court, and also to internalise his value of honour as love, because this  anti-social individual who is bothering her (she omits it is because she has individually bothered him) is, because she is Queen, being cast as a traitor, so excluded from the social world. The private versus public shuffle works, and Arthur will have him hung and drawn (not quartered here). But the internal world has also pronounced its judgement and everything has gone. Even Launfal’s armour has turned from its Otherworldly white to emotively mournful black. His grief for loss of `joye’ and his `blissful berde’ (748. 750) climaxes properly in a swoon (he no longer has access to individual inner riches, just collective nullity), and he is arrested.

But collective systems leak: the private is always a dialectic weakness to the public. Guinevere has a `los’ (790) – reputation, itself a public feature  -- for serial adultery, and so Launfal is by the knights who are appointed in judgement given the right to produce his evidence in a year and a fortnight. Launfal knows he can do nothing to save his life; only with `So greet sorowe’ (823) can he face the apparently certain prospect that `he wold his heed forego’ (826) – the shadow of Sir Gawain seems to fall across the text in terms of seemingly inevitable outcome.

When he says he can do nothing to save himself – like Orfeo his incapacity will be rewarded by the story  and not himself – the king asks for a judgement.  But the public system is not always direct, it can attempt to divert its brutality. There is another deferral, like the king sending his nephews and the mayor’s daughter lending him a horse. The Earl of Cornwall (a place which has a para-royal, possibly alternative authority, status in the Arthurian world, this is the origin of Cador, Gorlois, Constantine – and Guinevere) says they would themselves receive `Greet shame’ (841) to damn `that gantilman That hath be hende and fre’ (842-3). Launfal’s public honour has been so good it would reverse upon those who destroyed it with execution. This is new: in Marie it is because only the king has accused Lanval that evidence is required (that is an early medieval French issue: the lords want him to be a fainéant). And in any case Lanval’s fate will only be to be banished. Here, as with the steward remaining loyal to Orfeo, the public system strains in its own terms to escape its distress. So the Earl recommends `Out of lond Launfal shall fle.’ (846)

And so he will, but not because the Earl or the King dictate. The Otherworld, and the narrative, take over the tangled dialectic of public and private at Arthur’s court. The slow, climactic, authoritative build-up of the Otherworld arrivals asserts its own case for the power of alternative fantasy. With maidens like that, and an organisation like that, who would not put his faith in his own personal true lover Tryamour and her power to replicate in internal mode a far superior external world, including the will to forgive breaching her McGuffin. She rides alone, but proclaims her alternative power though her gold and jewelled crown and in the splendour of herself – when she unveils, in a climax of quasi-public privacy, `That lofsom lemede light’ (942). She retains power: when Launfal sees her he does not say I am saved. He says `She mighte me of my balis bete, Yef that lady wolde.’ (971-2). And her privately available version of public power does punishment too. Guinevere had  said, perhaps unwisely, to the judges, when Launfal was required to produce his lady `Yif he bringeth a fairere thinge, Put out my eyn gray.’ (809-10) But Tryamour runs the show now, not the judges or the King, and takes her at her word: she `blew on her swich a breth That never eft might she se.’ (1007-08).

Tryamour, ladies and Launfal leave in their alterative Otherworld grandeur, correctly denoted as being a simulacrum of public social emotion: `With solas and with pride’ (1019-20) they go to the `jolif ile’ (1022) of Olyroun where Launfal maintains chivalric life: you can hear his horse neigh, you can see him ride, you can even go and joust with him. He remains `That noble knight’ (1034), just as Orfeo returned to honoured kingship, but this is not an Otherworld journey that supports the continuing status quo in our feudal world. Where Marie de France reasons for telling a no-return Otherworld journey had no doubt to do with her gender, and perhaps also with her investment in the power of the Celtic material, Chestre’s version appears to relate to late medieval scepticism about the whole feudal-courtly structure and its cultural capital.

4. Sir Gawain: The Unforgettable Otherworld Journey

Celtic cultural products go in threes, and there is a completing part of this triskel of adventures, though unfamiliarity with the Celtic otherworld and its effects have tended to let it languish in favour of an Avalon of modern-style identity politics. As has been suggested here and there, Sir Gawain can be read as an otherworld return, and one that intriguingly combines the structure of the Sir Orfeo return with the dissent of the Sir Launfal single journey. In that magical bright castle after the cold journey of isolation,  and combining at Hautdesert both the nasty mayor and the (untrustworthy) over-courteous mayor; but we also find both Tryamour and Guinevere, in a more complex distribution of femininity. But which is which ? Gawain is finally like a Launfal who has been to theological college, and Arthur remains his blandly cheery and misguided self (and Marie’s Lanval was offered no year plus for his rendezvous with death, had the Gawain poet read/heard Chestre ?). At the end of Sir Gawain the collective public applause is challenged by the private dissent, now empowered by the force of Christian confession, that para-inner judgement that previously only worked for Perceval’s own super-evaluative exile from court. There were  even traitors at Troy as the poet drily, slyly, notes.

This Otherworld tour has shown  not only the fetching matching reversing pair of Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal, but also suggests the great complex poem Sir Gawain has more in it than has yet been seen. We could travel further – somewhere in all this is Rhiannon, both old and young, educator of well-born idiots, figure of sovereignty, horse goddess and great queen (Welsh Rigantona is Morrigan in Irish: she is also Morgan).But it may be enough just now to rest after our journey, still in function, but having learned a bit, even if only what, or whom, to avoid.

[1]  References to Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal are taken from Middle English Verse Romances, ed. Donald B. Sands, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966, omitting his recurrent and distracting use of exclamation marks.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Is the Past Really a Foreign Country ?

This essay was first written in the mid 1980s for a conference in Hobart, Tasmania run by Cassandra Pybus, historian and Sydney friend. It sought to stitch together some ideas I had felt emerging at the edges of some of the lectures I had been giving at Sydney University and were focused by Lowenthal’s recent book. Some thirty years later, when I have actually written up the Robin Hood materials I was then thinking about and seen a good deal more develop in medievalism and a good deal more wither on the campuses, the main positions seem equally sound, merely in need of some updating.


`The past is a foreign country’. It’s such a persuasive statement; it’s a convincing metaphor, replete with bogus authority. The idea embodied in the statement immediately suggests the attractive things about a foreign country – a place that is exotic, instructive, capable of being visited for a short period, and place from which we can comfortably return home. Of course, as with all foreign countries there might be some things we might not like, some things which are even be nauseating, food, behaviour, sanitation … And there might be some of those foreign countries of the past, or parts of them, that we might not want to visit again. But if we accept this metaphor of the past as another place in time, then tourism, distance, selection, and above all control, they are all possible. If the past is a foreign country, then its threats and its pleasures are equally containable.

However, the two authors who have most memorably used this statement and put it into the language both present and recently past have had somewhat odd relations with it. First, they have given it great authority. L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between of 1953, which made a memorable film in 1970, opens with these words. And a heavyweight, much-publicised, much-cited, book by David Lowenthal took the statement as its title.

But both those books explored the statement. Hartley went carefully into the notional foreignness of the past of his narrator, a man recalling in old age the exciting and dismaying events of one year in his youth: his past turns out to be distressingly familiar, not foreign at all. And Lowenthal in his non-fictional mode thoroughly investigated ways in which the past, especially the past of art and architecture is both distinct from the present and yet is in some ways continuous with modern consciousness.

Both books essentially interrogate the apparent simplicity of their thematic statements. They ask `Is the past a foreign country ?’ In response to their question, both books stress aspects of continuity between past and present. Hartley sees the love affair in which the narrator was a go-between as a determining experience in his life; Lowenthal sees the past as a constant repertoire for self-expression in the present.

In my work as a lecturer and writer I often refer to the past, including  the quite distant past. Not much before the fifth century CE, but a lot of it in the Middle Ages, between 1100 and 1500. I also tend in my courses to focus on extended  temporal and thematic sequences. I teach and write about the long-functioning myth of King Arthur, or the somewhat less extended tradition of Robin Hood, the varying versions of the stories of Tristan and Isolde or the less well known but strikingly varied treatments of Troilus and Cressida.

So you might well think I would be pleased by a position which tends to merge the past into the present. And that I would be happy with the development in the last ten or so years of what is called `medievalism’, a subject area concerned with identifying just how medieval themes and motifs have been redeployed in modern literature and culture from the nineteenth century onwards. Many ambitious young academics, finding their classes in Old English and Chaucer fading away, especially in North America, have turned to this interestingly renovated version of their technical mystery, plucking new relevance from the apparently withering tree of medieval studies.


However, I have to report I am not so easily pleased by this now apparently automatic position which tends to merge the past into the present, which validates tourist visits to the past in terms of the interesting and career valuable nature of that foreignness reapplied at home in modernity. There seem to me to be some serious problems with the graceful collapsing of past into the present, the collapsing that you find, even with some doubt, in both Hartley and Lowenthal.

Apart from self-confident careerist medievalism, there is another area of recent intellectual activity which casts interesting light on this issue. While tourism studies have in many ways been related to hotels and transport, there is a theory-oriented end of this new discipline, one not in favour with governments and those who make, or claim to make, decisions in modern universities. As you might expect the theoreticians do not fit too well with the hands on skills training people who  fit people for jobs in hotels and travel agencies. But the theorists have things to tell us.

The relevant analyst is  Dean McCannell. He sums up his position:

… every nicely motivated effort to preserve nature, primitives and the past, and to represent them authentically, contributes to an opposite tendency – the present is made more unified against its past, more in control of nature, less a product of history.

In the context of this sort of analysis – and John Frow has a very interesting essay on the field -- the notion that the past is a foreign country, capable of visiting or ignoring as you choose,  seems all too easy, in some serious ways  contemptuous of the structural dignity and separate identity of the past, and also more than a little elusive of ways in which we can learn from the manner in which the past might indeed seem foreign to us. I will give examples of what I mean as I go along, but first must insist on the centrally misleading element of the `foreign country’ metaphor, its topographicality. It suggests directly, purposefully, that we can visit the past and then come home, put away the tickets, dust off the dust of abroad and be as we were except for some optional memories.

This is not so, especially not so if it is our own cultural past we visit and, as the tourist theory people note, reconstruct ourself in that location. Tasmanians may well know what I mean better than most. What we find going back is in some ways ourselves and our own systems of construction, and that can be a disturbing, even repellent experience. We may be time-travellers or dream researchers, but we are not casual tourists. The shock of the past, whether it is the ancient jails, or the treatment of pre-existing island life, both aboriginal people and animals, or -- looking further abroad – nineteenth-century English factory conditions, the life of medieval serfs, the processes of enclosure in Britain, chronological travels cannot be elided or eluded. We people of the present are being constructed there in the past as well.

If the metaphor of accepting the past as a country at all is misleading, believing that it might be absolutely foreign also has a malign effect. Those who fervently accept the past as being quite foreign can react in opposite directions. They can resolutely refuse to be interested in this foreign past, they can insist on living in some starkly isolated and therefore judgement-free present (the skills-training university comes to mind). They can be incapable of accepting any of the light and shade of historically informed comprehension.

This anecdote actually all happened. At the staff student seminar at Sydney University a student asked me one day `Why are we doing all this old stuff ?’ `Ah well,’ I said a little nervously, `what stuff did you have in mind ?`  -- thinking `Oh Christ what have I been going on about now. Was it the round forts in Pictish culture, or what happened to King Arthur’s sons, or was William Langland really a Benedictine monk ?’ He thought for a while, his brow creasing in a quite unwonted fashion. Then his thick lips slowly formed the words `Eliot, you know, Eliot.’ `Ah’, I replied with knowing relief, thinking, not me then, `Ah, George Eliot, the nineteenth century provincial novel, there are connections you know with Australian life.’ `No,’ he persevered, really into this thinking stuff now, `No, the other guy,’ and with a great effort, `T. Eliot.’ Ahead of this student shimmered the shining shores of law, no doubt, or perhaps commerce, or perhaps just jail. T. S. Eliot’s anguished attempt to reconstruct a culturally .and morally valid terrain for art after the first world war and the exhaustion of Victorian certainties – that had no commercial value.

Such people have flourished: there are forces hovering around, and even inside, the Australian Research Council at this moment which are at political behest, apparently from both sides of politics, attempting to discontinue research funding from subjects without specific socioeconomic value – like in the humanities; subjects that generate criticism of the present. But that position, and that of my Eliotophobe student, is actual a dialectical reflex of another belief in the foreignness of the country of the past: the person who so much values it that he/she never comes home.

There are academic medievalists (again, especially in North America) who sit on replicas of Cistercian stools, their windows almost blocked with plastic replicas of stained glass panels; they are clothed carefully in hand-woven and naturally-dyed costumes of doubtful fit and puzzling gender orientation. They are your true specialists, they know more about the full stop in late Mercian than you ever could or indeed more than the Mercians themselves would ever want to know or believe possible of cognition. These people do really live in the past; they are happy in the past, though it is true they go off on their study-leave to more past in a plane, not walk great distances or be jostled all day in a cart in the way their emotive contemporaries in the middle ages had to do. Such people’s information can at times be of  value, it is true, though they will not know when or why. Their work is a type of know-everything and know-nothing connoisseurism, just as materialised and inhuman in its ways as the worst anti-humanities acts of modern managerial and political vandalism, not to mention hunism and gothism.


If the past can’t be visited and then left, not being a country, and if it shouldn’t be ignored totally, because it is part of our own making, not being foreign, if it shouldn’t be a hermitage from which never to emerge, what then should it be ? Well, nothing clouded by a simplistic metaphor for a start – it’s the past, our past and everyone else’s, and time is  a domain of its own not to be elided into other metaphorics. And perhaps the best way of moving towards a construction of what the past really is and how it really should be regarded is to bring in some evidence of things that come up from the past, that bear the mark of its own character and dignity, and that if pursued conceptually, even if from some distance, can be vigorously educative about our own construction and position.

Let me be specific. It always helps, especially to clarify if what you are referring to is useful, valid, or a waste of time. When you read medieval texts like Chaucer, or romances, or Malory, the big books of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there are not a great number of adjectives to be found. And of those that appear a lot are normative rather than descriptive, that is they are words like `fit’, `true’, `worthy’ – they imply the existence of a set of recognised, shared values. That is in itself very interesting and suggests an approach to value in collective consensus, different from our post-Romantic straining for evaluative individuality, but not all the adjectives are like that. There will be quit a lot of apparent specifics, especially colour adjectives: poets especially liked to have touches of colour appear in their texts. A robe richly red, particularly for a grand person; a dress of clear blue, especially if the wearer is treacherous; or a robe, or even a knight and his horse, of bright green to state something exceptional about nature acculturated. All the colours, that is, may have their own link to a field of normativity, like those other adjectives `fit’, `true’, `worthy’, not just to some scientistic spectrum-related identity. And the eyes of a beautiful woman will be grey. Always her eyes are grey.

Why are the eyes grey, you might wonder, as a modern person used to a near-rainbow of lovely eyes in our highly-coloured media. Are these medieval authors using the Mills and Boon rules for their heroines (though to be fair, in M and B it is usually the hero who has grey eyes either side of his haughty high-bridged nose). Or is there some genetic and class favouring going on here, like the fact that in medieval Welsh stories the lordly heroes are always auburn-haired – probably meaning they were imagined as Normans. No to those and any other ingenious answers that might be thought up. The trick is that grey does not mean grey, or not our sense of grey.

Medieval people, it appears, had two sets of colour terms. They saw colour in two ways. They had our terms for different hues: red, orange, yellow and so on, and many stops in between. But they also had a set of terms that could calibrate the intensity of light given off by a colour, What grey means in fact is `bright’, `shining’ and so `compelling’. But it can only go with a light hue. So the grey-eyed beauties are no doubt blue-eyed, with varying levels of blue hue, and they may well indeed be fair-haired as well and probably therefore, by implication, Normans not lustrously dark eyed Celtic, Gallic or Gaelic beauties – the Norse element in Norman is shining through just as with the red-headed lords swaggering around in Welsh romance. Genetics and class enter by a secret door.

The word in this light-assessing lexicon for high intensity and dark hue, the partner as it were to `grey’, was `brown’. Blood is often `brown, especially if it is fresh and sparkling. The words for low intensity are, dark hue - `dun’, still heard of a cow who has light-absorbing hair on its skin; and if the hue is light then the word is `fallow’, which we still use of a field that has been mowed and the drying stubble is lifeless and pale.

What does this tell us ? It’s not just a piece of trivial connoisseurship I trust. This is a genuinely foreign element of the past, and we can learn from it, We can visit it and bring it home with us, if the travel metaphor still dominates our minds. We can go a bit further and learn when and why we lost those terms (basically by the seventeenth century) – and as with dun and fallow they do hang around, and no doubt that is why we use the oddly meaningless-seeming phrase `as grey as glass’. We can also construct materialist theories about the colour-starved character of the medieval eye, so colour-starved its owners responded more strongly to stimuli in both  hue and brightness. But that idea can also be socially and culturally dynamised, when we realise how important in the medieval past were coloured clothes as a marker of status and of self-projections – certain colours for certain classes of people especially on days of major public activity, public self-validation. And it helps to explain the power, both physical and mystical, of elaborate coloration in churches, both in their glorious windows, lit powerfully by the sun at times, and in their altars, effigies, wall paintings –and indeed in clerical costumes, bibles and psalm books.

This rather odd fact about colour assessment in the past itself interrogates the present. Why are we so different is a question that will in this case define something about our construction, both ocular and cultural, both how we operate physically and how we make meaning out of physical cues. This might seem a small range, even a small point (though a brightly coloured one), but there are hosts of parallels of intensely and in some cases extremely meaningful contacts and connections between past and present. And that double phrase, contact and connection, indicates a crucial structure for the ways in which we should employ the past and its bearing on the present.


There is a Robert Weimann essay in which he talks about `past significance and present meaning’ in literary history. For him the  present and the past offer no more and no less than a set of negative and positive connections – and that pair overlaps with a differently-working pair, contrasts and continuities. It is in the past or even present of a culture very different from our own that most of the contrasts that will occur, and that in itself can be instructive. A friend of mine who went school-teaching in the Northern Territory found it very thought-provoking that her Aboriginal school-children, all friends and mostly related in some way, let one of their number do the homework as he was unusually gifted, and they all copied it out. He was their spokesman in the homework department, their clan minister for homework. Western, or quasi-western, ideas of self-development and competitive self-construction didn’t mean a lot to them. Nor, my friend decided, did they mean much to her, when she thought about it.

The past of our own culture, being more directly creative of us descendants, tends to have connections which can themselves be as puzzling as dramatic contrasts. For example, some decades ago I used to write for student newspapers and those marginal magazines that were breaking out like ideological measles all over Sydney in the early days of offset printing. One editor had been to a class where I had read out and talked about some lines of Chaucer that might well be today judged obscene, and he asked me to write a piece on obscenity in the middle ages. This was when local society was fighting hard against censorship, the years of Oz and Lady Chatterley, when Frank Moorhouse had to publish in Squire magazine because his stories included sex, those dear dead days of easily outraged innocence on both sides of the question.

I fiddled round with the topic for a while, collected some examples, looked at manuscripts to see how scribes, the medieval equivalent of printers, had treated the notionally obscene passages (printers were quite often key to modern obscenity and censorship processes). After a few weeks I rang the editor and said, `Well, look, I can do the piece, but the story is going to be that six hundred years ago things were just about where they are today. Major writers could get away with the odd four-letter words (though they tended to be five-letter in those more expansive days), but the writers would apologise, and the scribes sometime left the words out. The story is’,  I summed up, `things haven’t really changed at all.’ He politely thanked me and said he didn’t really want to print that. The connection, the sign of unchangingness, was too disruptive to be recorded. Was that perhaps censorship ? Or is the past just sometimes not foreign enough.

To project that story logically, sometimes it is the disturbing sameness of the past that is avoided by selecting a pleasingly foreign part of the past. King Arthur’s myth, for example, is part of this process. There is quite substantial interest in the myth of Arthur, and not only from people who like to dress up in flowing robes or knock each other about with softwood lances on Sunday afternoons. Quite a few people are quite interested in discussions about the medieval king Arthur and even more interested still, to my very sceptical regret, in conversations about the notional historical Arthur: did he really live, was he in fact part Roman as well as Welsh, and, the real issue, did he perhaps lead the British resistance to the invading Germanic tribe.


No, no and no seem decent responses to that. But my use of those responses doesn’t make the ideas go away: they are rooted in modern thinking about Arthur especially from journalists and others with passing knowledge and excitable dispositions. Why is this ? Why are people obsessed with the `real’ King Arthur ? There is a good range of answers to that question. Many of them are idealistic, grossly idealistic I would say. These talk about chivalry, nobility, a name ringing down the ages, the surviving spirit of man at his noblest etc etc etc. Some explanations are sharper than that, and talk about the fascination with Arthur as a tragic version of human aspiration, or, to be even less woolly, to see Arthur as a figure of grand authority, but an authority which is always under pressure and finally fails – so his myth exemplifies what different cultures value as systems of power and ways of validating that power, but also, crucially, the myth expresses a strong fear that those valued systems will fail, that the mighty may fall and the not-so-mighty with them. You can go into the details of the varying structures of the Arthurian myth through time and show how its ideological structures realise, rather than merely parallel, what Raymond Williams called `the structure of feeling’ in an age.

This is all valid, and it means you can reverse the process and read the changing versions of the Arthur myth as synopses of social ideologies across time and place, but it still does not help us with the obsessive insistence on a `historical’ Arthur leading the brave Britons against the invading Anglo-Saxons. Why would the English of all people favour such a myth as they did in the mid twentieth century, with many books, both fact and fiction, setting out this concept. The notional historical Arthur is  not English after all: he would be Walsh or in the real fantasies, part or even fully Roman.

What happened to King Alfred, that certainly historical and genuinely heroic king, brave, skilful and determined in war against the Scandinavian invaders, a literary, Christian leader determined to progress mass education, rightly the only English king to have been called `the Great’. Why was modern contact with Alfred broken ? In nineteenth-century England he was a big hero, with statues in towns and schools named after him. But modern students in Britain have hardly heard of him and whereas the French bathe in the glory of Charlemagne, alternating him with Napoleon, the English have no real mythic hero of their own, and they are also massively ignorant of the vey substantial tradition of literature and learning from Anglo-Saxon England, fine heroic poetry, searching Christina poetry, the solid virtues of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - not to mention the sturdy democratic practices that were seriously threatened by the arrival of the Norman – a topic of much discussion in earlier centuries, when the conquest was said to have imposed `The Norman Yoke’ on the necks of the freedom-loving English.  The British interest in the past is still very strong – indeed compared to America and Australia, British literary education seems a heritage park where students actually seem to prefer the medieval writers to more solid, and stolid, successors like Milton and Wordsworth. But there is no interest now in Alfred.

What happened to him and his whole Anglo-Saxon connection ? Simple dates can be very instructive. There is no significant `historical Arthur’ industry in the nineteenth century, including the entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. The topic is first raised in 1935 in a couple of pages in R. G. Collingwood’s part of the influential Oxford volume on Roman Britain and the Anglo-Saxon Settlement. There this major, very respected historian cannot it seem resist fantasising about a `real’ Arthur, part British part Roman,  who even, he suggests, might have led mounted warriors (like the knights). It is historical nonsense, and has been excised from the volume recently, but it started the whole thing off.

What was the point ? Through all the novels and lightweight non-fiction books that followed, one theme is the same: the Anglo-Saxons were Germanic in a beastly way. Where Victorian Britain was happy to have a German prince marry their queen, when major intellectuals like Coleridge, Carlyle, George Eliot were steeped in the culture of Goethe and Hegel, the first world war and especially the second (around 1950 is the apogee of the real Arthur industry). But that Germanicity suddenly become an embarrassing connection, something that needed to be a contrast not a continuity, and so the English were suddenly very happy to feel that they have some admixture of Celtic blood.

You get improbable ideas like because Arthur held up the Saxons for at least a generation, when they did then settle they were not as aggressive, they intermarried with Celtic women or, a variant mollification, they came with their families. Commentators also have an undertow of interest in Arthur somehow transmitting Roman imperialness to Britain – these male scholars, you must remember, had studied at school almost nothing except Latin and Greek and those skills were somehow (or more usually, anyhow) involved with the elite management of an empire.

My own 1983 book on Arthur is, very strangely,  the only source for this explanation of the weird presence of Arthur at the core of Enlgish national ideology. That goes in some detail into the arguments, including possible positives: there are two early reference to Arthur fighting the Anglo-Saxons. They come from the ninth century, but a four hundred year lag does not mean they might not bear some truth. More revealingly they are both in Latin histories, the Annales Cambriae (`Annals of Wales’) and the Historia Brittonum (`History of the Britons’) – that is they are by Benedictine monks, men whose whole world-view is inherently a national/historical/military one. The only contemporary history, by Gildas, also in Latin, writes about the wars against the Saxons, but has no Arthur among several named leaders. And the wealth of early Welsh poetry and, a bit later, prose, while it has many references to Arthur, never has any idea that he had any encounters with the Saxons, just see him as your typical Welsh warlord, leading a band of mighty warriors who interact with semi-gods, wonderful animals, and ferocious villains. Arthur the defender of Britain is a twentieth century character, the present populating the past, a contrast who displaces a disturbing continuity.


If an ideological structure can in that way be created to construct a fictional past that is entirely consoling to the present, such formations can in other cases actively work to obscure aspects of the past that seem in some way disconcerting. An example I would like to give is from the tradition of Robin Hood. In important ways he is the reflex of Arthur: Robin Hood is insistently associated with resistance to authority and is a very well-known figure even though, again the reverse of Arthur, there are no monuments in high-canon literature, theatre, opera or art in honour of the outlaw hero. His tradition lives in the forest undergrowth of culture, in folk-lore, pantomime, song and in the modern period very much in the visual media, film and television, not to mention the ultimate ephemerality of newspaper headlines -- `Robin Hood Tax’ comes up all the time.

What bothers me here is that the actual structures of the Robin Hood myth over time are not only not well-known to the public, including the public with a tertiary education in literature and culture, but that there are forces – I am inclined to say strange forces – that appear to operate against such a full dissemination of the facts in the case of Robin Hood.

My first point is the sheer difficulty of knowing what went on in the outlaw tradition. The Arthur materials are easy enough to trace in Everyman, Penguin and other widely mediated sources. There are also stacks of encyclopaedias and general surveys of the tradition, some of them like Richard Barber’s multi-edition study, with excellent illustrations. Robin Hood is different. If you have access to a very good library and know your way round the subject very well, you can assemble a pretty complete repertoire of the Robin Hood materials, the tradition in all its variety. There will be some fifty ballads (some of them overlapping with each other) from between 1450 to the mid nineteenth century; there will be some prose texts, both short Lives and lengthy Victorian novels; some literary poems giving a male-gendered, though also aestheticised air to the outlaw, from the Romantics to the Georgians; there are also a lot of twentieth-century children’s stories. Then there are many play versions—indeed performance and theatre may well be the default genre in the Robin Hood tradition: plays exist from the fifteenth century on and there were many musical versions from eighteenth century operates to full-blown Victorian pantomimes. And of course there are the films and the television series, which keep on coming. It’s a sizeable archive, though not like the masses of the Arthur material, which is difficult even to describe, let alone read. But there is also a major difference in availability. People do not know, and seem not to want to know, the Robin Hood archive, where Arthurian antiquities seem to have positive value through their antiquity. I have found this to my pain.

In the 1980s when I was working on the Robin Hood material and was also having quite a lot to do with media and publishing – for a start my wife was a journalist/publisher – I planned to assemble what I thought of as a Robin Hood Reader, a basic collection of the most interesting texts, a few of them, like the Victorian novels, to be in excerpted form. It would be like a Norton anthology but I thought of it in the mainstream cultural market like  Penguin Classics or Everyman’s Library. I offered it to those famous firms – and pointed out, I thought persuasively, that there were to be two Robin Hood films in 1991, starring Kevin Costner and Patrick Bergin – and the plan for a Mel Gibson vehicle had been abandoned (it resurfaced as Braveheart).

I couldn’t raise a whisper of interest in this project. Very popular hero, unique project, lots of publicity always and especially soon: nobody cared. I don’t think this was because of my own notional limitations as editor. There is something structural here. This was a part of a past foreign country no-one wanted to visit. The publishers said it wouldn’t fit into their series, neither Penguin or Everyman. In part that view is nonsense – the difference of the material is the point of the project. But also it is revealing: the material was truly different, non-canonical, popular, textually volatile – in a word, alive.

The material was strange generically, and as the linguists tell us, genres are a structure of social discourse, they indicate the social and political levels at which the material operates. The disdainful publishers also said that the reader wouldn’t relate to any university courses: no indeed, it was the intelligent general public I had in mind, though I did also think you might get courses through this material being widely available. But I also knew, from having taught some of it, that this would be tricky for students and staff. Because the material was non-canonical and in popular genres you couldn’t spend ages using the usual lit crit routines, studying them for images, ironies, onomatopoeia or whatever; equally there was not a novel-like steady procedure via the controlling mind of the author into the receptive mind of the reader, to transmit all sorts of wisdom and alleged learning—and that absence was especially conspicuous in the melodramatic and banal Victorian novels.

I wasn’t sure how much of the negative response was because the early Robin Hood, the one who would get star billing in any archive because he remained so popular o the present, was fairly strongly anti-authoritarian, especially in the early materials. Where in the 1938 film starring Errol Flynn Basil Rathbone just fails to get the girl and then looks outraged down his long nose as the outlaws escape, in the early ballads the sheriff gets beheaded. That original Robin was a true social bandit and even when the Tudor period, that time of centralisation and normalisation, turned him into a distressed earl just waiting for the king to come and restore him, even he retained populist sympathies and at least would speak up for the common man. The idea that Lord Robin becomes an outlaw because he saves a peasant poacher from ferocious Norman foresters is a twentieth century conventional film opening (stemming I believe from Henry Gilbert’s 1912 novel). But I don’t think the resistance to my Robin Hood Reader was really based on a distaste for a leftist core to the narrative: it was rather a structural pattern finding the material is too elusive, too unstructured, for the literary and cultural discursive system to handle it.

Subsequent events seem to me to prove this. With my rejection slips in hand, I noted that a US outfit was looking for medieval course readers, and the outcome was an edition that appeared in 1996 from the Teaching of Medieval Studies outfit at Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo – in spite of its location a rather serious place in fact because this is where world and especially US medievalists meet for a huge conference – some five thousand of them will be there. I co-edited this with Tom Ohlgren, who had also proposed something along these lines. But it wasn’t my general Reader. Entitled `Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales’ the edition constrains, and strains, the ballads towards the practice of the American classroom. It’s a massive book, over 700 pages, with wide spacing and margins. It is a  bit like a Norton critical reader but only medieval and renaissance: here the Robin Hood tradition is firmly in the past and the museum effect includes other outlaws for comparison, with excepts from the lives of the likes of Hereward the Wake, Fulk Fitz Warren and Eustace of Boulogne. They fill the space I was going to give to modernity in the myth.

The edition has indeed stimulated courses – there are about fifty in the States; in Britain just the one at, guess where, Cardiff. Some of the livelier minded Americans like Kevin Harty at Lasalle, Philadelphia, and Tom Hahn at Rochester, New York, add on modern material, especially film, and do present the outlaw myth as a discursive challenge to cultural conventionality, but for the most part the Robin Hood Reader concept edition has been sucked back into the long tradition of  learning for its own sake, tourism into the past. You get exceptions – Tom Hahn’s excellent essay on how the post 1945 English historians rediscovered Robin Hood as part of their radicalism, or Rob Gossedge’s piece on Thomas Love Peacock’s folding of the Windsor enclosure resistance into his novel Maid Marian. But these are all the more notable for being rare. Here the past has swamped both the past and the present: a foreign set of operations, scholarly analysis, has circumvented the potential of the Robin Hood country for a lasting critique of authority and indeed modernity. The living difference of the past material has been ironed out into a model of present-ratifying bodies of cultural material. Contrast has been constrained into continuity.

It’s not all bad news. There is now a modest-sized lively body of scholars, not all in universities, who meet every two years for a Robin Hood conference: quite a few of the papers do dig into ways in which the tradition has connected with its contexts, if only rarely going on to interrogate the present as a result. Some of them appear in the essay-collections that come out every now and then – but they are basically filled with narrow-range pieces of scholarship offering very little scope of sociocultural critique. In the same way I find that only my two books have offered any consciously political reading of the tradition. There are two other recent books on Robin Hood: Jeffrey Singman produced a medieval/renaissance survey but it is entirely scholarly and entirely old world. My co-editor Tom Ohlgren has now produced a very detailed book on the manuscripts of the early texts and their contexts: interesting stuff but not getting past 1500. In neither book do we ever come back from that past country and so understand the contrast and continuities that the Robin Hood tradition is steeped in, but which seem to remain largely silent as if he is only  a past entertainment. After all the journalists just want to know if he really exhausted as if was King Arthur, and apart from me and my friends at Cardiff, almost everybody in Britain interested in Robin Hood is a historian longing to find his body stretched out in Sherwood. At Nottingham U they somehow make an MA course out of this distinctly limited antediluvian tourism..


So in the case of Robin Hood the actual activities of the past can seem too foreign to be thought to be of as having any real interest in the present. But if we are energetic this is not necessarily always the case. We can take advantage of those challenges and let our past speak disruptively, and informatively, in the present, when we find, as we will again and again, probing aspects of past structures that will expose our modern patterns.

For example, when in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, the Man in Black laments the loss of his fair White (figuring John of Gaunt’s loss of his dear dead duchess Blanche), the narrator, after hearing a powerful description of her, says `Yow thoghte that she was the beste/And to beholde the alderfayreste/Whoso had loked hir with your eyen.’(1049-51) -- `It seemed to you she was the best and of all the fairest to look at, whoever looked at her with your eyes’. The Man in Black is outraged at this insult. `With myn ? Nay, alle that hir seyen/ Seyde and sworen hyt was soo.’ (1052-3) -- `With mine ! No, everyone who saw her said and swore that it was so.’ A private judgement, in that collectivised culture, is an aberrant one; true honour rests in what is generally accepted. My friend’s Aboriginal schoolkids would have understood. The structure is the precise reverse of our construction of grief in deep personal feeling and memory. The US television journalists say to the massacre survivors, `What did you feel when you heard the shots going off ?’

In the same way our own attitudes are exposed as narrowly individualised when, in Malory, Sir Launcelot discusses with his affinity his plans now that Queen Guinevere has been arrested for adultery with him. In a grand scene at night by torchlight, Sir Launcelot, his kin, his friend, his allies, and the allies of his friends, they all meet and plan their action – a magnate and his party forming policy, shaping crucial action in a very fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses way. And they are all quite clear why he should rescue her. It is a matter of his honour, or his `worship’ as they put it. The word love is never used.

Not because Launcelot and Guinevere do not love each other. Their previous parting has been both noble and tender; they have suffered and yearned for each other for years, and for hundreds of pages. But causes, reasons, the springs of behaviour are public rather than private in this different world, and we who can hardly speak of honour without a sneer, who can barely conceive of civic morality without looking for the cash flow, who understand the public sphere just in terms of celebrity gossip, we expose in those responses our own minimalised privacy of judgement, or existence. The past can interrogate the present, asking when did that change occur, why did it occur, are we better for it, or should we be, unlike Sir Launcelot, ashamed.

We can go on, finding continuities and contrasts. Contacts can be equally disturbing. There is not a lot to choose between the treatment and presentation of women in a medieval text and their presentation in most modern culture. Arthur, Launcelot, even Gawain, have agonies of conscience (the public invading the private) in Malory’s text, but we are merely told at some distance about Guinevere’s move into a nunnery -- but as in modern media times we know what she was wearing and how upset she was. In the same mode of disconcerting continuity, the complexities of narration, of viewpoint of authority within a text, they seem much the same now in modern and especially in postmodern culture as they were in the fourteenth century, though the period of the classic novel intervenes like a high noon of narrative certitude for the single authorial voice -- or perhaps it was just a period of puffed-up  bourgeois self-positioning.

But the contrast between the past and the present remain the sharpest points of probing and enlightening analysis, the part of the holiday in that notionally foreign place that is really disconcerting. Some are matters of content, some are matters of form; some of the most intriguing are both at once. Take for a final example one of the last: and a final retort to the foreign country metaphor. Take the absorbing fact that medieval writing tends to use no metaphor at all. For Chaucer, metaphor only really emerges in his poetry when he is translating from Dante; for the medieval Latin-writing rhetoricians, metaphors were the very height of complex style, ready-cut stones borrowed from the ruined walls of Roman poetry. Simile though is quite normal: Chaucer’s best thrusts are in simile. Alison in `The Miller’s Tale’ was `gent and smal’, graceful and slender’, like  a weasel, the little devil. The Miller’s beard, beast that he was, was red `as any sowe or fox’. The simile structurally states a commonplace, it is a superpersonal piece of judgement, constructing a generalised wisdom – and so Chaucer the naive narrator is not responsible for the subtly waspish effect (and he would have liked the wasp simile) it is some effect of the reader’s intelligence elucidating the author’s buried thrust. By contrast metaphor is a treasured individually imaginative device creating the hero author. Metaphor privileges and even creates the present and conscious artifice of the speaking voice. – Shakespeare takes a bow in almost every one of his lines. Renaissance self-fashioning, to use a key phrase from Stephen Greenblatt, is itself fashioned in the favourite figures of speech that the poets use.


We remain metaphorists. `The past is a foreign country’ has all the self-assertion and the fabricated banality of the metaphor. The statement dramatises the intelligence of the speaker, but it has a distinctly dodgy rationale; it is a good way of making the past your own personal visited property, fenced and acculturated to your own interests.  Hartley and Lowenthal can go no further in positive terms than to say that somehow the past is all there as a possible resource for the private individual. In that account the illusory outcome was the result of a metaphor, a forced comparison between history and terrain. The past has like so much public land in the early modern period undergone enclosure and been made into a possessed landscape. It might, like an estate we visited in Exton, Rutland, still have the little humps that were once the villagers' houses; it might, like a London square be a fictitious recreation of rurality accessible only to the house-owners in the square who have a key to unlock both the gate and their fantasies of landed property.

But in reality the past is neither so passive as to be just a place, nor so distant as to be foreign. It is literal, not metaphorical. It is part of our own construction, part of our own possibilities of self-reflexive analysis. The past, like the present, like the future indeed, is a challenge to us to know more and interpret it better. But as we are now metaphorists, self-privileging to the death, or to the big sleep, to passing, to crossing the rubicon, to many more metaphorical life-transitions, let me offer finally a different metaphor that will not be misleading but actually helpful about how to inhabit and utilise the past. The past is a big wonderful challenging and illuminating library to which we have access. Let us read the past carefully, thoughtfully, inquiringly; let us learn some of its lessons and speak and think its meanings in our continuing discourse of present history.


Geoffrey Chaucer, `The Book of the Duchess’, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. L. D. Benson, Oxford University Press, New York, 1988

John Frow,  `Tourism and the Semiotics of Nostalgia’,  in Time and Commodity Culture: Essays in Cultural Theory and Postmodernity, Clarendon, Oxford, 1997, 64-101

Henry Gilbert, Robin Hood and His Merry Men, Jack, Edinburgh, 1912

Rob Gossedge,  `Thomas Love Peacock, Robin Hood, and the Enclosure of Windsor Forest’, in Stephen Knight, ed., Robin Hood in Greenwood Stood: Alterity and Context in the English Outlaw Tradition, Brepols, Turnhout, 2012, pp. 135-64.

Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, University of Chicago Press, 1980

Thomas Hahn, `Robin Hood and the Rise of Cultural Studies’, in Ruth Evans, Helen Fulton and David Matthews, eds., Medieval Cultural Studies,  University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2006,  pp. 39-54

L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1953

Stephen Knight, Arthurian Literature and Society, Macmillan, London, 1983

Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw, Blackwell, Oxford, 1994

Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2003

David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, Cambridge University Press, 1985

Dean McCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, Macmillan, London, 1976, p.81; new edition with Epilogue, University of California Press, Berkeley 1999

Jeffrey Singman,  Robin Hood, The Shaping of a Legend, Greenwood, Westport, 1998

Robert Weimann, `Past Significance and Present Meaning in Literary History’, in Structure and Society in Literary History, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1977, pp. 18-56