Historical Diversity and “Reality”

In the British Literature survey, we move through texts from the Anglo-Saxon, medieval, and Renaissance eras. Sometimes, when comparing and contrasting medieval and Renaissance texts, students will claim that the medieval texts, particularly the romances, are “surface-y” and “fake,” while the Renaissance literature presents more “realistic” and “truer” versions of, say, love.

The idea that the concepts, aesthetics, and forms of the Renaissance are more “realistic” is problematic for a few reasons.

First, it ignores how our own ideas about and experiences of the phenomenal world are themselves constructed and lensed. Why do we think that our version of love is the “real” or “true” one and not merely our own experience and perception of it at this particular moment in time and space? People lived within certain paradigms in the past and will (presumably) live within others in the future. I don’t believe their experiences or articulations to be more or less “true” or “real” than our own.

Second, calling Renaissance perspectives “real” or “true” hides the extent to which our own contemporary cultural norms are influenced by that era, which is, significantly, also called the Early Modern era. Religious toleration, separation of church and state, and freedom from press censorship have been central tenets of liberal bourgeois thought for centuries. It’s perhaps be more accurate to say that the aesthetics and articulations of seventeenth century texts are more familiar to us and our perceptions and values, not objectively “truer”.

Third, when we dismiss medieval aesthetics as something untrue that “we” transcended, we can be blind to the less savory or shameful aspects of our own aesthetic field.

Sometimes students denigrate the romances of the Anglo Norman period because they feature elaborate descriptions of the material world and its beauty: clothing, castles, and women. They’ll say things like: “Back then, people were all about surfaces and the external. That’s so unlike today where what’s inside matters.”

What a delightful delusion! Look at how much appearance matters in our contemporary media. From magazines, commercials, and products to television shows about makeovers and remodeling, we are all about externals.

We also must remember that we are dealing with literary representations, not historical truths. But I won’t go into that here.

I’ve written earlier about how studying literature from the past can make the familiar unfamililar. Here I suggest that it also encourages us to see our lived experiences and tastes as constructed, historically informed, and sometimes “backwards.”

These ideas have implications for encounters with diversity. Sometimes my students deride the European historical “other” as unreal, false and infantile in a way I hope they wouldn’t deride a cultural other.

Reading historical stuff can get us more sensitive to not only our own environment but also to all kinds of diverse environments. As I’ve written about here and here, I invite students to see what is familiar about the past but also to play with and within that which is distinctly different, to take it seriously as a worldview with merits as well as demerits.

Medieval texts are more than curious artifacts from before we rightly “discovered” the self, and my teaching, I hope, provides the opportunity for us to read in ways that help us imagine, respect, and even adopt alternative worldviews.

Our pedagogy can do this no matter what the content of the field. What does it look like in your realm?


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