Who’s afraid of Wulf and Eadwacer?

I’ve neglected this blog for a while now, and have a growing backlog of poetry books that I’m keen to write about — any of which would be a more rewarding subject than the landfill-fire of cultural vandalism unfolding at the University of Leicester.

For those who missed it, last week the university announced a consultation to discontinue medieval literature and scale back early modern, officially to make room for modules on race, ethnicity and sexuality, and to meet student expectations.

The Telegraph and the Daily Mail predictably picked this up in service of the government’s drive to distract voters with a manufactured culture war. Chaucer was being toppled, statue-like, by the forces of wokeness.

All of which wilfully misses the point that the urgent work of decolonising university curriculums doesn’t require the sacrificing of medieval literature. The pretence that one needs to be traded off against the other is — at best — toxic cynicism.

I don’t doubt that there’s a version of what “students expect of an English degree” that excludes medieval literature. Depending on how you ask the question, there’s no shortage of students who, given the choice, wouldn’t stray beyond the contemporary novel. Medieval literature is hard, and most of us struggle to engage with it without expert guidance. But it’s also some of the most rewarding, challenging, exciting work ever written.

When I arrived at Oxford as a student in the 1990s with a head full of Yeats and Dylan Thomas, I wasn’t remotely looking forward to studying medieval literature. A quarter of a century later, I still love much of Yeats, but Troilus and Criseyde and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are both higher up my desert-island list.

The further back in time you go, the more pronounced the double-vision of familiarity and otherness. The bleakness, isolation and loss of The Wanderer or The Seafarer are immediately recognisable to a modern reader, even as the minds they reveal are uncanny and alien. The fourteenth century, at the boundary of modernity while still concretely medieval, is one of the most remarkable periods in all of literature, beginning with one Florentine exile’s wrong turn in a dark wood, taking a detour via another’s wandering thoughts in an Avignon church, and ending with the collision of Chaucer, Langland and Pearl, all bookending one of the greatest catastrophes in human history.

I admit that I’m biassed. There are some wonderful things between the Renaissance and Modernism, but it’s hard to deny that literature becomes a bit flabby, a bit literary, too far removed from “direct treatment of the thing itself”. It’s no accident that so many of the modernists looked to medieval models.

But even if you aren’t as partisan as me, the period between Cædmon’s hymn and Malory is almost twice as long as that between Shakespeare and now. How can anyone seriously claim that an English degree wouldn’t be materially impoverished by excluding so much literature?

The more that market forces are allowed to dictate what students read, the more that works like Gawain or Troilus will become the preserve of the privileged. It both is and isn’t a coincidence that the Leicester announcement came in the same week as the government’s latest push to divert funding away from the humanities to the benefit of STEM subjects. After all, what purpose does education have other than in service of the economy? What’s the use of a literature degree?

I’ve written before about the dangers of engaging with this argument on its own terms. Countless societies have understood the importance of the arts to both culture and the common good, and it’s a relatively recent aberration to restrict the definition of value so narrowly. The arguments are slick and seductive: why should I pay my taxes for someone else to read books? And provided you keep it in those terms, provided you don’t look behind or to the side of the question, it sounds credible. But it can’t withstand even the slightest reframing: why does society benefit from multiple kinds of knowledge, from a diversity of viewpoints, from having citizens who can think critically?

On the surface, right-wing arguments against the humanities are about utility and value. But in reality they’re about fear. To divert society’s wealth towards the already-wealthy, to withhold support from the most vulnerable, to sacrifice lives and livelihoods in the name of the market while lining your own pockets, you need to be able to treat other people as things. And every act of recognition, every encounter with another person as person, every granting of agency, every connection with another mind, makes that harder.

A medieval poem is a magic spell for encountering another mind. The living person who wrote it may be centuries dead and nailèd in their box, but we can still reach them via the secular magic of writing. And that, for those in power, for whom the Iliad is a party trick and lies are the only way to resolve their own dissonance, is terrifying.

It would be a serious loss to the common good if only the most privileged were able to experience that magic.