Middle English Word of the Moment

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Teaching the Glossa Ordinaria

No, I’m not.  Though I may be teaching the second half of a class on sci-fi literature tomorrow (or possibly next week), with two days’ notice (or nine), and no, I have no idea why.  Or on what.  Hoorah for improvisation skills! 

But we’re looking at the Glossa Ordinaria on the Song of Songs in one of my classes (ed. Mary Dove, Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004), and have been asked to think about how we might use it in a general cultural history course – what we might pick out from it for students, how would we read other texts through it, what we would pair with it.

Well, first I choose to disregard that ‘general cultural history’ stipulation, or at least set it aside briefly to assume a very long course in which I could spend a lot of time delving into the mediaeval and playing Disprove The Myths.  The myth in question would be the general perception of the Middle Ages being a time in which everyone was miserable and hated themselves for being lowly dirty worms and thought about boring religious stuff all the time.  I would then throw this and some saints’ lives – from the Gilte Legende, possibly, but I’d make a goodly effort to get Christina the Astonishing in there, because who doesn’t love stories about women flinging themselves in ovens and perching on church rooftops while their families hang around below looking increasingly hassled and waving the shackles enticingly?  And that’s rather the point – whether or not everyone thought about religion all the time, the cultural spectrum included under ‘religion’ was just a tad broader than nowadays, and needn’t entail either boredom or self-flagellation (unless you’re into that, of course).  Meanwhile, offering two such different text – academic/popular, analytic/narrative, Latin/vernacular, Biblical/apocryphal, high-flown/good rolicking fun – is a great way to smash that idea of a homogenous huddling “everyone”, which is part and parcel with the idea of Dark Ages. 

And what they do have in common is revealing too.  Others may come up with some other overreaching unifying feature, but for me it would be passion.  Legend or gloss, this matter is far from boring to its authors.  The glossators on the Song of Songs don’t try to quash the sensual delight in their text – they use it, glory in it, redirect it towards Christ and heaven.  It doesn’t require excuses, just translation: the passion itself is entirely appropriate.  The theological aspects of the Gilte Legende aren’t nearly so sublime.  They tend to feel more generic, more obligatory; but the same enthusiasm resides elsewhere in the stories.  People’s more everyday hopes, terrors, delights, schadenfreude, secret kinks, all there in much more accessible format, what entertains and what instructs.

Of course, one could easily turn that into a chapter in a general cultural history course anyway.  Continue on to the Reformation and throw some Thomas More at them, or better, the hotly debated religious arguments used in Henry VIII’s attempts to get under Anne Boleyn’s skirts; consider the implications of Hamlet senior’s ghost apparently confirming the existence of Purgatory; look at some of the inflammatory pamphlets printed about the Catholic/Irish plots during the English Civil Wars.  Just because religion permeated (almost) every aspect of people’s lives doesn’t make it boring: generally the opposite, I’d say, because people aren’t good at being bored.  They make things interesting.

No comments: