LONDON, BRITISH LIBRARY BURNEY MS 275 . 293r
A Semester in the Liminal Space: Bridging the Gaps in Medieval Literature and Journeying Through Spaces of Learning
The Journey from the Online Space to the Immersion Studio: Experiential Learning
I had only taken one medieval course prior to the Winter 2022 semester. We, along with most others, found ourselves online (due to the Covid-19 pandemic), looking at the tiny windows on our blue screens, and trying to have conversation and debates despite the awkwardness of the form and the crackling of microphones. Dr. Olsen began our first lecture by talking about what the semester was going to look like. She stated, that hopefully, and depending on the Covid stats, we would be returning to in-person seminars within weeks, which we did. Dr. O discussed what it would look like when we could return to in-person learning; we would be meeting in the immersion studio and discussing medieval works while being surrounded by images and sounds. This is what she said. I had no idea what an immersion studio was, or what sort of images and sounds would be surrounding me, but I was excited. I’ll admit, a small part of me remembered my favourite Disneyland ride as a child, the one where you fly on a simulated plane and smell the orange fields.
It wasn’t exactly like this, but it certainly was more interactive than any class I had taken. This immersive style of learning was something brand-new to me, especially within the field of literary studies. I was accustomed to reading the texts, and in some unique cases watching plays online, but the images that surrounded me in the studio allowed me to see things within the texts that I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. It felt bizarre to be able to close-read better by taking a step away from the literature and looking at images that on their surfaces seem to be unrelated to the texts.
One class, Dr. O read “The Ruin” while we were surrounded by a cityscape of Calgary. This pairing of a medieval poem with a post-medieval landscape allowed me to see the theme of inevitable destruction that is so prevalent in medieval literature, and undeniably a present-day concern. The immersion studio gave a clearer representation of the ideas invoked by “The Ruin” for the medieval reader – in some ways, immersion closed (or at least provided a bridge over the) gap between now and then. I saw images of Calgary, and read about destruction, and it wasn’t a stretch to pair the ideas together.
As I continued within the world of medieval literature it became clear to me that my standard dichotomous thinking was not going to work when trying to interpret these texts. Jennifer Neville discusses these dichotomous approaches at length in her paper “Defining the Natural.” She examines the post-medieval tendency to separate the natural and unnatural into the category of human and non-human, but any medievalist will tell you that this was not way that the medieval thinkers thought about the world around them, at least not early medieval thinkers. Rather than thinking of things as this or that, or us and other, the early medieval thinkers had a more holistic way of seeing the world. Things did not have to be natural or unnatural, material or technological, one or many, good or bad, rather, things often, especially within the natural world (and the people living in it), were all of the above. It is for this reason that I think a study of medieval literature is more about intersection and hybridity of dichotomous ideas than the dichotomous concepts themselves. Perhaps the study of oecologies within medieval texts is not a study of what separates one from their environment, but rather, what the role one plays in that study (and vise-versa). In Ecocriticism, to view things through a dichotomous lens is problematic both in medieval texts and in present day ecological issues.
The Journey from the Classroom to an Academic Conference: Understanding Hybridity
A major question throughout the semester was, “how do we bridge the gap between modern day readers and medieval thinkers (and writers)?” I would argue that there are many methods of learning that attempt to minimize space between us and the texts we read. This can be done through the immersion studio, as I discussed earlier, or through the study of ancient materials; at the conference of the Medieval Association of the Pacific (Banff, AB), Marina Fischer, Peter Houston, and Annie Murray all discussed medieval materials in their panel “Decoding Medieval Numismatic Sources and Their Use in Academic Pedagogical Spaces.” They noted that interactions with these materials enhance our understandings of them. As Fischer remarked, to be able to hold a coin from the medieval time-period allows for students to feel what it felt like to hold what a medieval person held. While there is something to be said for the elevation of meaning that occurs over time periods (like how an everyday coin in now preserved in a library and worth so much more than it was during its time), the connection between materiality and history is indisputable. These materials carry with them history, and as Murray pointed out in her presentation, they mean, “so much more when you experience them personally.”
This intersection between material and non-material was discussed multiple times during the conference. In the Panel (Mis)understanding The Medieval, Logan Pollon discussed hybridity, specifically within “Beowulf.” At first, Pollon discussed the character of Grendel, who exhibits both human and nonhuman attributes, and in that way becomes a hybrid themself. Grendel, and Grendel’s mother are both outside of culture, and defined by it. One is able to see this countless times within medieval literature: the Green Knight is a character of hybridity, as well as the Rood in “The Dream of the Rood”. This theme reminded me of a question discussed at length during our semester: how can we ever define the natural world in any other terms than human terms, and in that way, how are we ever supposed to see the natural world for what it is outside of what it is to us? The many objects that are created from the natural – the stone made
into a structure in “The Ruin”, the Reed into a pen in Riddle 60 from the Exeter Book, the tree into rood in “The Dream of the Rood” (and Riddle 73), and the sword in Beowulf – are physical representations of this. They exist in the in-between of being both human and non-human, each having authority as a material (a theme discussed by Matthew Scribner in his paper “Tree and Technology”), and as a tool for humans. The Green Knight then, is granted authority to critique
the human realm and humanities interaction with the natural realm because the Green Knight has lived experience of both. Scribner remarks that the cross in “The Dream of the Rood” functions as this intersection point, and must be read as such (rather than with the “reproduced binary”
between humans and the “other”) 1 . So, in the same way that the coins carry with them history, these objects carry with them moral ponderings, anxieties of destruction, and a clear theme of connection. History, as well as the medieval texts, consist of people, and materials, and environments, and the people, materials and environments are immortalized by them.
This counter-colonial idea of things as a whole, rather than as separate entities, was a large theme within Dr Wallace Cleaves’ presentation; he spoke about Indigenous people and their relationships to the environments they exist within. This idea of stewardship is more than just preserving an environment because of what it offers us – it is about having a responsibility to the environment to care for it well. The colonial perspective splits concepts into categories, and
disallows for the natural to be fluid and changing. If things within the environment are either good or bad, then the environment itself is other, but as humans, I would argue (especially after hearing so many people speak on these themes at the conference,) we desire hybridity, and that we understand that our world is not just this or that. Thomas King discusses this in his series “The Truth About Story”; he discusses that it is a colonial idea that things are either good or bad, and that it stems from our creation stories. The initial sin of Adam and Eve creates this dichotomous idea that things are either good or bad, whereas in many Indigenous origin stories, these dichotomies are not present. This is one of the reasons that I found Dr. Cleaves’ choice to begin by telling a creation story (of the turtles with the mud on their back) so significant. It seems as though where we come from has a large impact on where we see ourselves now.
This idea of destruction and decay being accepted, and not avoided is one that Cleaves spoke about when he brought forth the idea of controlled burns within the environment. To be able to help an environment be destroyed in order for it to grow back more abundantly is a key part of stewardship. Decay is not always bad. This acceptance of decaying is also one that we see time and time again within medieval literature. In Chaucer’s “House of Fame”, he comments on the inevitable decay of the world by examining the ice with people’s names on it melting. This anxiety that he displays (that everything comes to an end) has an undercurrent of acceptance that it will.
The Journey from Then to Now: Stepping into Environments
I think that throughout this semester I was able to appreciate not only the need to retire my dichotomous thinking methods when looking to the past, but also the need to abandon it when looking at the present, and to the future. I think a key-way to do this is to look to other perspectives, and acknowledge the ways that they encourage hybridity and inclusion. The Green Knight himself is both natural and human – he critiques society in a way I argue we all must. It is
futile to try to separate concepts within the natural (within Medieval literature and in present day ecological conversations), and I argue that rather than this method of separation, we must instead study their intersection points, becoming more comfortable as scholars who exist in the liminal space. It is true that perhaps the only constant thing about the Natural is that it is transient, always moving, always changing. Seasons change from spring to summer, from summer to fall. The environment cycles through death, decay and regrowth. We may not be on the linear path to progress, one that is the popular narrative in our culture and that sets us far apart (and as some ignorant people would argue above) the medieval person, but instead, we find ourselves in the same natural cycles.
Cleaves, Wallace. “Human-Nature: Stewardship and Kynde Relationality Between the Medieval Wilderness and the Indigenous Environment”. Medieval Association of the Pacific, April 22nd , 2022, Banff, AB.
Neville, Jennifer. “Defining the Natural World.” Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry, Cambridge UP, 1999, pp. 1-18.
Pollon, Logan. “Has Beowulf Been Modern? Unearthing and Examining Nature and Society in Beowulf”. Medieval Association of the Pacific, April 22nd , 2022, Banff, AB.
Scribner, Matthew. “Tree and Technology: Articulating the Ecological in ‘The Dream of the Rood’”. ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 23.2 (Spring 2016), pp. 240-258, Accessed 2022-04-25.