At the risk of seeming unworthy to bear the descriptor of medievalist, I’m going to make a confession.
I’ve never read a medieval text for fun.
There, I said it. I’ve read plenty of medieval texts, and even quite enjoyed some of them, but I have never picked up a medieval text to read for pleasure or even for general interest, rather than because there I’m working from a list telling me what I should read and therefore because I need something from that text.
The tyranny of the reading list has been a long-standing feature of my life, having spent most of the last ten years (barring one) in full-time university study. As an undergraduate, the term reading list was a bit of a misnomer; it was more of a ‘quickly-get-the-gist list’. In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to read much more deeply and widely (returning to things I’d first approached as an undergraduate and which re-surfaced as I was writing my thesis was an enlightening process – I’d missed so much first time around!) but what I have read has still been pretty much been directed by what I needed, rather than what I wanted, to read.
Reading because you have to is a specific experience. Rather than taking the text as a whole and letting it wash over you, you tend to zoom in on the ‘relevant’ bits and skim the rest. Yes, that digression on a poor harvest or the appearance of a comet might be very interesting, but if it’s not what you are looking for, time pressures often dictate that you quickly move on. We all know that doesn’t really do justice to the text (medieval authors didn’t stick in those digressions by accident, it’s all part of the author’s deliberate composition), but, you know, deadlines! Taking notes while reading and other forms of active reading also changes the experience of just reading. It encourages you to look for the essential points, the easy-to-summarise bitesize chunks which can flatten out complexity. And, more personally, the result having been directed by what’s on my reading list means that the scope of my medieval reading is a little narrow. Crusader chronicles are rather well-represented, anything else… less so.
Right now, I’m in-between research projects (well, I’m scoping something out, but it’s still pretty early) which leaves me enough mental energy to think about expanding my medieval reading. I’m off to Durham next month with a couple of very good friends; we’ll be visiting the cathedral, which is the resting place of St Bede, and I thought this was good impetus to pick a text. Something far from my research, which I can read passively, and just absorb. I’ve encountered St. Bede before, in my favourite first-year undergraduate module (Anglo-Saxon Culture), but only fleetingly – and that was in 2007, so it’s been a while! In addition, something I’ve only rarely experienced in my research is the direct tangibility of the medieval past, since I’ve never been to most of the places my crusader chronicles describe. But on a trip to Northumberland with the Leeds University Union Medieval Society in 2015, the incomparable Alaric Hall brought the site of Yeavering (an empty field, to the untrained eye) alive by reading Bede’s account of Paulinus’s mission to the Bernicians to the assembled group as we stood in the blustery enclosure – Bede says that Paulinus spent 36 days baptising people in the river adjacent to the site (read more about this trip here). So visiting Bede’s homeland so soon after reading his work will be a great opportunity to experience text and landscape at the same time. I’m sure my (non-medievalist) travelling companions will be thrilled to listen to me reading bits of the Ecclesiastical History out on the journey up. What else are long car journeys for?
So, is this going to be the start of a new sub-library in my Zotero folders? Will I feel the need to go back to the Latin? Will I be able to resist taking notes? Or will I manage to just… read it? And why does it feel like (if I don’t do the aforementioned things) I’m somehow not reading it properly?
I intend to keep expanding my medieval reading, so do let me have suggestions for what you think I might enjoy next! I might not put them on a reading list though.