- Reaching for the Past, Working in the Present
In one of the earlier narratives of Carolyn Dinshaw’s story-filled How Soon Is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time, a monk in the fourteenth-century Middle English Northern Homily Cycle wins for himself a single moment of heavenly joy. When he emerges from this moment, three hundred years have passed, and the monk is permanently displaced from his home century (44–45). Dinshaw uses this story and other tales of temporal instability to stand for the experience of being an amateur or professional medievalist, attracted to the past, bound to the past, never quite able to touch it, and yet always within reach of it.
While How Soon Is Now? focuses on the inaccessibility of (and desire to access) the past, Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches, a new guide to Middle English codicology, uses manuscript images and manuscript studies as a way to reclaim narratives about the past and its literatures that are not otherwise accessible. The co-authors Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Maidie Hilmo, and Linda Olson teach the skills necessary to engage with manuscripts as books and to follow the cues the [End Page 227] books provide about the original goals and values of the books’ producers and owners. In the process, they introduce their readers to the patrons, scribes, illuminators, and glossators who participated in the process of producing and reading Middle English manuscripts. Thus both How Soon Is Now? and Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts tie the past that we study as scholars to the present in which we study it.
Both excellent books raise the following questions, foundational to the process of becoming medievalists: Who are we as readers, and what do we need to do or know to develop our reading skills? What do we read when we read medieval literatures, and what reading practices permit us to engage with the texts we study? How can we reach the past, and why should we try to do so?
Who are we, then? As medievalists, we are people fascinated by the past. Carolyn Dinshaw’s book embraces amateurs, from antiquarians and historical fiction writers to reenactors, alongside professional medievalists as part of the tribe of people who desire the past. These amateurs, in Dinshaw’s argument, take up a particularly medieval stance toward the past, imagined as a space that is both separate from and adjacent to the present. Amateur medievalists resemble the fictional fourteenth-century traveler John Mandeville, whose journey eastward leads him back in time to a biblical Jerusalem, heavy with relics from Christ’s era and Moses’s, in what Dinshaw calls “a glorious jumble of Christian times” (79). For instance, Henry Yule, a nineteenth-century British public servant who takes on the nom de guerre of Marco Polo while exploring and mapping the world, ties himself to medieval histories of exploration as he extends the boundaries of his own era’s British Empire.
But even those of us who are professional medievalists are often, in some sense, amateurs. In Dinshaw’s richest chapter, “In the Now: Margery Kempe, Hope Emily Allen, and Me,” Dinshaw places herself as the third of three women caught out of time. Margery Kempe, always focused on the Christological time of her visions, as well as the fifteenth-century world in which she lives, prefigures Hope Emily Allen, the first scholar to identify and study Margery Kempe’s Book. Once Allen, an independent scholar working with Middle English mysticism, recognizes and begins to edit the Book of Margery Kempe in 1934, she devotes her life to Margery’s story. Like Margery herself, Allen is overwhelmed by the enormity of her discoveries. And, like Margery, deeply engaged with Christ as lover, Allen is, Dinshaw implies, too in love with her subject...