Scene of chivalry, miniature from Lancelot of the Lake, manuscript, France 15th Century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Is Leicester’s decision to scrap medieval literature the end for serious literary study?

What is being proposed by the university represents the closing down of intellectual horizons and the deliberate vandalism of a highly respected English department

In the library of St John’s College, Oxford, there used to be an edition of Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, in which a discontented undergraduate had written his opinion on the books that he was obliged to study. “First I thought Troilus And Criseyde was the most boring poem in English. Then I thought Beowulf was. Then I thought Paradise Lost was. Now I know that The Faerie Queen is the dullest thing out. Blast it.” The undergraduate was none other than Philip Larkin, who would go on to become arguably Britain’s greatest post-war poet and a librarian of note. The edition that so displeased him has, regrettably, disappeared, even if Larkin’s great friend Kingsley Amis quipped that “the uncharacteristically non-alcoholic language” that he used meant that he was pulling his punches when it came to his disdain.

A spokeswoman described Leicester’s new curriculum as ‘decolonised’ and ‘inclusive’

Larkin spent part of his career as a librarian at Leicester University, where Amis visited him and drew inspiration for his first (and probably greatest) novel Lucky Jim. The institution remains proud of its associations with the poet-librarian, but it has recently been in the news for less elevated literary reasons. The university has announced plans to rethink its English literature course, and would stop teaching medieval literature altogether, due to “a drop in demand from undergraduate and postgraduate students in recent years”. 60 posts would be cut in a “restructuring”, and the gutted course would instead offer an “excitingly innovative” range of modules on subjects such as sexuality, race and diversity. A spokeswoman described the new curriculum as “decolonised” and “inclusive”, and said, “many reading lists are dominated by white authors. This ignores many great BAME scholars and also means that BAME students do not see themselves reflected in what they are being taught.”

In a pig’s arse, friend, to quote Leicester’s former librarian. For all of his youthful disdain for Beowulf and Troilus and Criseyde, Larkin came to appreciate their pre-eminent place in the canon of English language, but his successors clearly cannot. What is being proposed by the university can be dressed up as progressive and radical, but it in fact represents the closing down of intellectual horizons and the deliberate vandalism of a highly respected English department.

The literary critic and academic Rory Waterman, “a kid who had been expelled from school and just about scraped the necessary A levels”, studied medieval literature as part of his degree at Leicester. Today, he says:

Most universities ‘like’ Leicester don’t provide this opportunity, and I have come to view it as an essential part of my education. Moreover, I remember one thing very clearly, and apparently it is still true: students who take modules in this subject come to be very glad they have done so, almost without exception. It was through studying medieval literature that I got really excited about the connections between the past and the present, and between cultures. That is testament to the talents of those staff, as well as to the experience of engaging with the subject, and those staff are now about to face redundancy during a pandemic unless the university comes to its senses.

This ruinous decision will deprive countless literature students of a vital part of their education

As ever, there are issues at play that are not being discussed publicly. At a time when non-Russell Group universities are asking increasingly tough questions about budgets and student admissions, and whether undergraduates are going to incur vast amounts of debt to study a non-vocational subject with no guarantees of a well-paid job upon graduation, the pressure is now incumbent on institutions such as Leicester to be “forward-looking” and “exciting”. The study of medieval literature clearly is not viewed by the bean-counters and vice-chancellors as “relevant”, but Waterman vehemently disagrees with them: “Managers have made a decision academic staff across their home department – unanimously, from what I can tell – would not….” He argues that, far from being an irrelevant wallow in the incomprehensible, medieval study has its own contemporary associations:

You learn – anyone can learn – to look into a mirror and see a shadowy reflection of a world that isn’t quite our own, and that helps us to understand the context of our own. I frequently draw on what I learned then – for instance, when I recently wrote an introduction to an anthology of poems about Covid-19 and discussed the legacy of the Black Death in medieval poetry. English literature academics who lack this learning have a huge hole in their knowledge. But learning medieval literature isn’t only for academics. My studies taught me all about the legacy of colonisation, for example, in some of its earliest manifestations in this country.

There is also “the soft bigotry of low expectations” at play, in the implication that BAME students would reject the opportunity to study Chaucer or the Gawain poet because it would not speak to them about their lives or futures. As Waterman says:

The university claims it needs to remove the teaching of medieval literature to enable room for modules about race and gender, to decolonise the curriculum, and to increase diversity. This is facile – not least the notion that axing 1000 years of literary study will increase diversity. It sets up a false dichotomy between progress and tweedy stasis, when nothing could be further from the truth. It also implies that a diverse student body cannot possibly want to study writers such as Chaucer and won’t find it relevant. Surely this is racist, among other things – does medieval literature not belong to all of us, equally, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender?

The Oxford academic Mark Atherton, author of Complete Old English and The Battle of Maldon: War and Peace in Tenth Century English, is similarly appalled at Leicester’s cavalier decisions. As he says:

The decision made or endorsed by engineering specialist Professor Nishan Canagarajah, Chancellor of Leicester University, to cut medieval literature and English language from their syllabus and to curtail the study of early modern English literature is singularly wrong-headed. At best, it is based on unfamiliarity with the breadth and depth of English studies; at worst it is a rather disturbing nod to the populism that regards the adjective ‘medieval’ as simply a synonym for ‘backward and ignorant’ and ‘English language studies’ as unnecessary in a world where ‘everyone speaks English anyway’.

Atherton and Waterman both agree that, far from medieval literature existing within a distant, unreachable bubble, it has endless contemporary resonance that makes its study both exciting and relevant. As Atherton says:

If you take Beowulf, the impact on the twentieth century of this relatively recently discovered poem has been immense: we think of its modern reflex, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, or perhaps consider the theme of the ‘Other’ that is so well articulated in that series of late-twentieth-century monster films, Alien. A recent writer is easier to understand because their culture is closer to our own, their language seems familiar. Of course, the study of an older writing is more demanding, more effort, and so it may seem less ‘popular’. But this is not what university is for: it should not be to allow students to shine only in areas of study that are already familiar. If that is all it provides then something has gone sadly wrong with that particular institution.

There have, of course, been the predictable cries of “woke gone mad” from the Daily Mail, but Waterman, who has written about the saga for the Morning Star, does not believe that Leicester’s decision is one that can only be criticised from the right. “This is not the culture war many in the press have taken it to be, not this time.” Instead, he believes that Leicester’s motivation perspective is rather less high-minded than they claim.

It is well documented that the university is a victim of financial mismanagement and has fallen on hard times. Other departments are facing similar culls. My suspicion is that university management just wants to make cuts, though of course it is claiming that it is simply improving provision along the lines of diversity and inclusivity. This seems like a cynical ploy to dampen dissent both within and beyond the university: who would disagree with a diversity agenda? Who would dare to criticise a university for implementing one?

Except, of course, when their true agenda can be seen for what it is: disguising a practical decision as an ideological one.

We can only hope that the governing body at Leicester come to their senses and reverse this potentially ruinous decision, as otherwise it will deprive countless literature students of a vital part of their education. As the medieval historian Dan Jones says:

There’s a reason that people have studied Medieval English literature in this country for so many generations, particularly in this country, because it’s the foundation of one of the world’s greatest and most widely used languages. If that seems unimportant to the university authorities at Leicester, when set against fleeting intellectual faddism and the opportunity to flog themselves before the altar of cultural apology, then so be it.

Yet even if this piece of cultural and literary vandalism does take place, some of the world’s greatest writing will continue to endure. Even as the likes of the undergraduate Larkin find medieval literature “difficult”, many more will come to have a lifelong affection for some of the richest and most complex storytelling and poetry that has ever been written down. Vice-chancellors pass; great writing endures. And its practitioners themselves were clear-sighted about the folly of authoritarians. As Jones puts it: “I don’t think Chaucer will be spinning in his grave. He had a good sense of humour and a long view of history – and he knew an idiot when he saw one.” Take note, Professor Canagarajah.

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