This has been a long time coming, but I couldn’t make myself sit down and write about the amazing Twitterati session (#s1403) at IMC Leeds a couple weeks ago. Perhaps I thought that if I wrote about it in the past tense, that meant it had to be done. Finished. Literally, and soon-to-be literarily, in the past. Carla María Thomas (ahem, the author of this post) organized and moderated the roundtable of the following fabulous #medievaltweeters (Is this a hashtag? It should be a hashtag):
[NB: This is an abbreviated version of a paper I gave at Kalamazoo in 2014. If you would like to read the longer paper, please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
The first question I ask people when discussing my research is this: have you ever heard of the Ormulum? Most advanced medievalists will groan if they’ve heard of it, which means that they probably also haven’t actually spent much time with it (thank you, those few of you who get excited when I mention it). For you, dear reader, I will provide a brief introduction to the Ormulum, which, unlike most medieval texts, is not an editorial title.
“I asked my new tutor if a Chinese person naturally spoke Chinese better than an American ever could. He said the shapes of the mouth, tongue, and lips of each race were best suited to its particular language, as were the ears that conducted words into the brain. I asked him why he thought I could speak Chinese. He said that I studied well and had exercised my mouth to such a degree that I could move my tongue differently.”
–The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan
I open this post with a quote from Amy Tan’s latest novel, because as I read these words on a beach in Virginia, I sat up in shock. Tan writes from the perspective of a young girl, Violet, in early twentieth century China who at this moment in the narrative is deeply concerned about being mistaken for being Chinese. Immediately after the passage I cited above, Violet continues on to catalogue her features–fair skin, brown hair, and green eyes–in order to disavow being Chinese, despite being able to speak the language. Violet later finds out that she is in fact half Chinese and half American; however, this passage highlights the linguistic politics inherent in national or ethnic identity. Further, this passage highlights the corporeality that is implicated within language practice and acquisition.
The East Coast Medieval Graduate Alliance–a name suggested by the fabulous Elaine Treharne–is an organization spearheaded by Shyama Rajendran (PhD Candidate at George Washington University) and Carla Maria Thomas (PhD Candidate at New York University). Essentially, one day while chatting about next year’s International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan (its 50th anniversary, by the way), Shyama asked, “Why can’t we propose a session on medieval texts that nobody reads but should?”
Carla’s response was, “We can. Shall we?”
And the impulse to create the ECMGA was born.
Our mission: to encourage more conversation about medieval texts that are not read, taught, and studied very often in most university English departments. Why do we have to remain so Anglo-centric when England in the Middle Ages itself wasn’t Anglo-centric? Scholars like Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Elizabeth Tyler, Jonathan Hsy, and Suzanne Conklin Akbari (among others) have helped us, as a field, realize the importance of the multilingual Middle Ages, not just the Anglo Middle Ages. In doing so, we have become open to reading texts that are rarely read, taught, or studied in English departments otherwise, such as Gower’s work and Anglo-Norman romances and hagiographies. However, this has also reminded us that there are even English texts that are often overlooked because of early prejudices that the discipline (wittingly or unwittingly) perpetuates; the Ormulum is one such work that comes to mind. Ultimately, we question the necessity of the “canon” as it stands in the university English classroom today, and we hope to broaden it by contributing our voices to this dialogue.
We hope that you will join us in expanding our conception of the Middle Ages, one that is dynamic rather than focused on the Anglo as the destination for scholarship and teaching in the English college classroom. And where better to begin this transformation of thought than at the graduate level?