Eden Oration given by Staff Fellow, Dr Louise Haywood
4 December 2015
Master, Honorary and Emeritus Fellows, Fellows and Scholars:
It is a great pleasure and honour to address such a signal congregation in Commemoration of Dr Thomas Eden and his generous benefaction to us all. Dr Eden's last will and testament show careful and proper attention, in correct order, to his soul, the disposal of his body and the dispersal of his worldly goods to the benefit of his soul through his charitable provision for his college, past, present and future, body and soul through the candles, annual feast and an oration.
Dr Eden requests the oration be a commemoration of the Civil and Ecclesiastic Laws, our Founder and our Benefactors. Trinity Hall was established, as we all know, in 1350, in the wake of the first wave of the Black Death across Europe, by William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich to promote worship, the two laws, secular and church, and to be instrumental in the direction of common well-being. Bishop Bateman's lifetime, from the late thirteenth-century through to his death in 1355 corresponds to one of main periods on which I have worked, examining a manuscript book, the Libro de buen amor or Book of Good Love whose author, Juan Ruiz, was also a churchman. His book offers a response quite different from Bishop Bateman's to the challenges faced by the contemporary church and scholars of the two laws: it is a parodic erotic (pseudo-)autobiography, depicting the lust and corruption of an Archpriest and his contemporary churchmen, concerns about the church that echoed down the centuries through the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. My work then examined the humour and the scholastic, theological and legal context of the Libro de buen amor and thus I count the first request of our Benefactor more fully satisfied elsewhere than here.
By the standards of his own day, mid-seventeenth century, Dr Eden lived well and died a good death, safe in his bed, needs of body and soul taken care of and provision made for the future; a death that could only serve to offer consolation to his peers in its exemplarity and in his will's satisfaction of all the tenets required in the college's foundation. It is our custom to deliver a learned oration on our field of research and, although I shall to do this to some degree, I prefer to use Bishop Bateman and Dr Eden as my models, taking as a starting point the notion of community. As a scholar working on the past, I turn my eyes to the present and to the future and, Scholars, I address you.
The notion of community is central to the terms we use to describe our collective identity: the Hall, aula, place where we come together, to learn, to eat, to live; the college, contractual binding together of equals in a common endeavour; the Fellowship, a group of companions; our junior, middle and senior combination rooms, places of social and intellectual exchange; and, events in the college calendar, like this one, where we join with common purpose. For scholars and fellows of Modern and Medieval Languages community and exchange underpin the work that we do every day.
So, what do linguists really do? The obvious answer is, of course, that we study key language skills, comprising writing, reading, speaking and listening in the target language. All of we Fellows in Modern and Medieval Languages at some time or another make direct contributions to the development of these skills in our students and all of our students here study at least two languages with the aim of achieving native or near native competency by the end of their degrees. The study of two modern European languages is not a requirement outside of Cambridge and, like me, many of our Scholars' peers will be enjoying Joint Honours degree programmes in which a language is just one element.
A deep understanding of the structures and textures of meaning and allusion in other languages is an essential human practice since it allows us a direct personal experience of the fact that our native languages do not have a natural relationship with meaning or with the world of lived experience but rather serve to structure it. Although this fact can be grasped intellectually, its implications can only be fully understood experientially. Knowledge of another language invites constructive scrutiny of the self and the ideological structures underpinning the construction of the self: who am I? what am I? Enquiries whose long association with philosophical and faith practices do not need to be developed here. By ideological structures, incidentally, I mean the institutions and social and political structures that embody the interests of specific groups: an arm of government, for example, granting licenses to publish books, plays, films, musical scores or fine art works provided they are deemed free of a particular variety of content would be an example.
When my colleagues in Modern and Medieval Languages and I think about what our discipline is and how we engage with it and with our students, our concerns go beyond target language acquisition even as this remains a distinctive aspect of our discipline. We seek to foster independent learning and thinking in a manner that is satisfying and even fun. Our interests revolve around equipping students with the tools that they need to think analytically and creatively about whatever material confronts them, not just the material they study with us in supervision and the lecture hall, but what they encounter out there in everyday life in the forms of human expression. Scientific practices of citation fascinate us as much as sonnets. Sonnets interest us every bit as much as political and economic history. Language is the medium for all of these forms of human expression and all reveal meaning about the groups that produce and use them. Our disciplinary practice is always and by necessity inter- and multidisciplinary.
We seek to foster a curiosity both about what seems alien or alarming as well as what is cosy and comfortable, anchoring such responses in a grasp of the ideological structures that provoke them and those that underpin the contexts of production whatever they may be. As must be clear, despite our many imperfections, for most of us our pedagogical endeavour is an engagement in a common ethical practice; an engagement which equips us, and our students, to understand the entirely contingent nature of lived experience and to grasp the human capacity to imagine, to figure and to construct other ways of being. This is one reason why graduates of modern and medieval languages remain amongst the most employable of their peers.
For academics, postdoctoral researchers and graduate and undergraduate students in Modern & Medieval Languages at Cambridge, with very few exceptions, there is little or no physical space in our faculty buildings in which to base ourselves. For all of us at Trinity Hall this means our primary intellectual community and our physical base is here in college. Current members of the fellowship and our graduate community all report being grateful for the nurturing environment that college provides at different times in our academic careers. During my own recent recovery from a severe clinical depression, college provided a haven of safety and interested support in which to begin the slow re-engagement with work and I am personally particularly grateful to the Senior Tutor for her role in this.
Within Modern & Medieval Languages, we traditionally identify our work according to subdivisions along period lines, such as Medieval, Renaissance, and/or according to form, such as prose, drama or film and screen media rather than thematic or doctrinal lines. Historical period and disciplinary divisions still predominate at Cambridge on account of our institutional history whilst leading peer institutions internationally are adopting transnational and trans-sectional approaches to teaching and learning. Although in Spanish and Portuguese we have found it expedient to embrace both approaches, as a specialist in Iberian studies in the period 711-1516 a significant challenge is how to interest a fresh generation in a historically remote and geographic other; a generation whose own culture is increasingly dominated by screen media...so every day I thank George R.R. Martin for his interest in medieval chronicles and romance as reflected in his modern spin on the epic genre in The Game of Thrones and HBO for the high production values that create the visual feast that its adaptation serves up to avid viewers.
These, and other accommodations of medieval source material, can provide a doorway through which students find access to epic and by extension medieval literature and culture. The adaptation of epic to modern forms, such as a fantasy novel subsequently transferred to the small screen, or computer games like World of Warriors or Clash of Clans raises curiosity about the ideological structures embedded within the medieval epics themselves, about medieval weaponry and siege and battle strategy, about the forms of everyday life throughout the ancient and medieval worlds, such as food and costume; all questions asked and addressed in on-line gaming fora. Needless to say all this is fuel to burgeoning and emerging areas of academic study, often carried out by scholars within the discipline of Medieval Studies.
Within these games, players find a fantasy space in which they can embody and experiment with the core epic virtues of fortitudo et sapientia, strength and wisdom. Their own subjectivity can momentarily occupy the mythic space of the hero or find a safe arena to play with the shadow self. Within the game environment, strength is manifest through the corporeality of the avatar and its in-game capacity to access super and suprahuman capacities. Wisdom is developed in attack and defence strategy and in the skills needed for group formation in multiplayer games; by necessity this last skill set collapses the game arena and lived experience into one another. Notorious amongst non-playing parents and non-digital natives of my own and previous generations for sexism, socially isolating players and indulging violent fantasies, such games can, and sometimes do in fact, require or develop self-knowledge and a personal and ethical investment whose payoff can be directed into lived experience. On-line communities, including gaming and programming communities, have been particularly active in self-policing for bullying and harassment and in creating support networks and social activism.
In other words, like medieval epic poetry, a fictional exploration in gaming of heroic values, fortitudo et sapientia, can allow the space for the personal pursuit of these values in the real world. Medieval epics, with a few extremely interesting exceptions subject for a more scholarly talk, show their audiences how heroes, like us, are flawed individuals. Its audiences are exhorted directly and indirectly to learn from epic heroes to avoid vice and aspire to virtue; to go into the world and meet whatever lies there with courage in the heart. Like multiplayer games, epics function to depict, form and nurture community identity. In the case of medieval European epic this is framed squarely within a Christian ideological structure usually with a focus on a specific geographical locus and ethnic group. But these same core values, strength and wisdom, are found in ancient epic beyond Europe, such as in The Bhagavad Gita, which magnificently dramatizes the hero's need to arise and have the courage to meet the needs of his community, to live the active life no matter what personal and ethical challenges it poses.
In my current research project, the notion of community is also central. It is focused on the production of a textual community within the space of a fifteenth-century Spanish manuscript cancionero, a song book with no music, known as the Cancionero de Palacio. Its poets are mainly minor members of the courts of the various Iberian kingdoms of the fifteenth century. They organise themselves into coteries around the leading political or poetic lights of the day by quoting or referring to one another's work, creating a hierarchy within the manuscript's texts of frequently and less frequently cited poets. Thus Palacio can be read as a manuscript community in which are located two discrete but overlapping spheres: political power and literary prestige.
In the context of Palacio's manuscript community, one of love lyric's best known commonplaces - the lover's look - is not an empty trope but, through its poets' practices of citation and through manuscript organization and illumination, has implications for lived experience. Its poetry presents seeing and being seen and being recognised (or not) as establishing public identity and access to agency. These minor courtiers, a non-aristocratic élite, use poetry to successfully claim identity and agency within the space of the manuscript. Thus cancionero poetry is here the arena in which a new and rising social group make their presence in court circles visible. The capacity to be seen and heard is a key aspect of prestige within community. This project has increased my wariness of patronage in academic life and increased my scepticism about the metrics which measure the quality of our research. Scepticism, however, is not enough. If I am to learn, as our students do, the lessons taught by the past, I must act and speak for change.
As we stand on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the admission of women, fellows and students both, to Trinity Hall, I feel particularly honoured to be the second consecutive women, following our current Senior Tutor, to deliver this oration and to do so knowing we shall be joined for the feast by Dr Sandra Raban, one of the first two women to join the Fellowship, fellow emerita and once herself Senior Tutor. It is a great pleasure to see here so many women scholars and fellows. I look forward to the day when the gender balance of the student body is reflected in the gender balance of the Fellowship and when the gender balance of the student body reflects that of the general population. If this is to occur before our current Senior Tutor is fellow emerita then the role of women in college at all levels and in all roles must be recognised and our visibility enhanced. The next 18 months is an opportunity for us to focus on women but, afterwards, it behoves us all to turn our attention to other groups less well represented in established academic posts and in the student body, including as priorities turning our attention to the intersections of socio-economic background and ethnicity, but also ensuring our community provides a safe haven for all us who enter, regardless of physical and mental health, background, faith, ethnicity, sex, gender or sexual orientation.
It is our custom to close the Oration by noting changes in the composition of the Fellowship. We lament the deaths in 2015 of our honorary Fellows, Dr Kenneth Miller, the Revd Prof Owen Chadwick and Lord Howe of Aberavon. I extend the good wishes of the fellowship and scholars to departing fellows and fellow commoners: Dr Elena Cooper, Dr Damian Crowther, Dr Farhan Feroz, Dr Alastair Fraser, Dr Ewan Jones and Dr Adrian Nickson. It is my pleasure to welcome new Honorary Fellows: Professor John Broome, Dr David Cleevely, Professor Martin Daunton, and Professor Sir Simon Wessely. We are delighted to welcome some 6 new members to the Fellowship: Dr Adam Branch (Staff Fellow in African Politics), Mr Vladimir Brljak (Research Fellow in English), Dr Tom Dougherty (Staff Fellow in Philosophy), Mr Colm McGrath (Research Fellow in Medical Law and Ethics), Dr William Matthews (Staff Fellow in Psychological & Behavioural Sciences) and Dr Rachelle Stretch (Fellow Commoner and Development Director). Scholars, we welcome you also, and we congratulate you on your achievement. Now please adjourn to receive your tradition allowance and join the fellowship in celebrating it with a well earned feast.
Louise M. Haywood
The Libro de buen amor is available in English translation as Juan Ruiz, The Book of Good Love, ed. & trans., E. Drayson MacDonald (Orion: Everyman, 1999).
Spain's most famous epic poem, The Poem of the Cid, has been translated in a parallel text edition for Penguin Classics, ed. Ian Michael & trans. Rita Hamilton & Janet Perry (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1975 & reprints); it is based on the life of the warrior Rodrigo Díaz, still a national hero in Spain. Richard Fletcher's The Quest for El Cid (New York: Knoff, 1990) disentangles history from myth and Simon Barton & Fletcher's The World of El Cid:
Chronicles of the Spanish Reconquest (Manchester: UP, 2000) gives translations of medieval chronicle accounts of his life.
Eknath Easwaran's translation of The Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord) for the Nilgiri Press (2nd rev. edn, 2007) is outstandingly beautiful.
The manuscript of the Cancionero de Palacio has been magnificently digitalized: http://gredos.usal.es/jspui/handle/10366/81629.
I strongly recommend the following medieval European epic poems:
Chanson de Roland (French)
Nieblungenlied (Middle High German).
There are many wonderful translations and screen adaptations to explore.