Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Medi(a)evalists




From A. S. Byatt, The Game, p. 18.

Like most mediaevalists she had chosen her subject out of an essentially Romantic preoccupation with the satisfactory remote violence of both the religious and the secular literature of the Middle Ages. She had come to Oxford hungry for the absolutely worked drama of Lancelot and Guenevere, Tristan and Iseult; she had slowly transmuted this into a passion for the symbolic possibilities of the Grail Legend. She combined the mediaevalist's love of the strange with the mediaevalist's passion for precision. The complexities of existence were the interrelations of roots and roses, strange beasts and fruits, in a walled garden, outside which a sea rose in formally dangerous peaks. She had elaborated, and believed, a network of symbols which made the outer world into a dazzling but comprehensible constellation of physical facts whose spiritual interrelations could be grasped and woven by the untiring intellect; suns, moons, stars, roses, cups, lances, lions and serpents, all had their place and also their meaning. This network was overlaid by another network interweaving other roots, footnotes, cross-references, bibliographical data, paleographical quirks. Somewhere, under the network, the truth shone; Cassandra had come, like many others looking for final Authority, logically to see it in the Church. This was a symbol, and also real; it was a guarantee. A passion for symbols is in some cases an automatic precursor of a passion for theology. Cassandra had embraced both.

But now and then, in certain moods, Cassandra remembered the root of this passion in the wash of romantic feeling with which she had first seen Oxford, having read indiscriminately in Walter Scott, Tennyson, Morris and Malory, looking for a life as brightly-coloured as books. She had not then had an interest in the conventions of the courtly love of the Roman de la Rose; she had cared about the feelings of Lancelot and Guenevere, disturbed in their blood-stained sheets. She had come, not from Ritual to Romance, but in the other direction, from romance to ritual. Her feeling for completeness had betrayed her to a way of live she had not quite chosen; the academic life had become almost accidentally a branch of the contemplative life. She had cultivated her walled-garden skills at the expense of any others she might have had. We become what we are, she told herself, by a series of involuntary half-choices; if this was not what she had meant, she did not know what else she could have done.

1 comment:

Will said...

Poignant stuff from ASB..

And, in case you're wondering, it doesn't get any better when you move on careerwise, either. You can try and leave mediavalism, but it never leaves you. It just involves into ever more obscure and inaccessible forms.

I am currently obsessed with Anglo-Saxon charter-boundaries in Gloucestershire and the West Midlands. I feel like I have re-entered the mainstream, relatively speaking. Before then it was the career of the kings of Hwicce - about which little is written and even less is known.

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