Medieval Literature Should be Safeguarded | Dinah Kolka

One of the most important themes in Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ is the sentiment that without compassion and imagination, one’s life will be empty. This is why we need literature – so we can learn to see the world through others’ eyes and be able to understand and emphasise with them.

Recently, the University of Leicester started drafting plans of dropping medieval literature – this would include Beowulf, Chaucer, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Marlowe (the author of Doctor Faustus). They’re planning to replace these with diversity, race and sexuality teaching as part of the new “decolonised” curriculum (Oh how I started dreading these words!). This will naturally lead to mass redundancies of many talented people. Who’s going to replace them? Race and diversity teachers. The modern cultural Marxism theory teaches people to be oppressed, victimised, and in constant need of help. If these elements will be included in the curriculum, we will not see happy, confident graduates – we will see race activists completely incapable of original thought.

One may ask, why do I care so much for medieval and early Anglo-Saxon literature? Why can’t we just accept that there is no need for Chaucer and just put Beowulf in the bin? Simply because we would miss out on the ability to understand honour, duty, adventure, passion, dangers of arrogance and pride, the importance of loyalty and so on. Should I go on?

Thus, I wanted to bring back these important texts and clarify why they’re so essential to our understanding of the world. Similarly to Boccaccio’s Decameron, Beowulf started as a word of mouth, as the texts in the past were often passed orally from generation to generation and some, eventually written down. Beowulf tells the story of a great warrior who’s slaying monsters and helping others to eventually become a king. The story has classic themes covering a hero’s journey, the clear distinction between good and evil as well as the aforementioned theme of loyalty and dangers of pride. The poem puts a strong emphasis on kinship bonds and value of heritage, it teaches us the importance of family. But it seems that this isn’t a valuable element to the postmodernists. Similarly, the aspect of death, which many find so harrowing, is beautifully highlighted in the poem, for Christians and atheists alike – Christians can see a reflection of the importance of sticking to their values to ensure their hope in the afterlife remains strong, whilst atheists can find inspiration in the courage and bravery in the life on earth. This flexibility of interpretation brings this poem to truly epic heights. 

Beowulf’s translation into modern English paved the way to many fantasy novels being written; one of the biggest champions of this text was J.R.R Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings. One has to also understand the historic value of such writings. Beowulf was (finally) written down circa 1000 AD and is one of the longest and greatest surviving poems from those times. When investigating the text itself, we can see it running parallel to historical events which can tell us a lot about the people living in that time and the way they thought. Social structures and rituals that were included in the poem correspond with archaeological finds from the time period in which the Beowulf would have been set.

What can we say about Chaucer? The Canterbury Tales were written circa 1387-1400 and used the frame narrative format, which can also be found in earlier works of Dante’s biggest fan – Giovanni Boccaccio. Just like in Decameron, Chaucer skillfully uses a story of pilgrims telling stories to each other, which makes for a well-rounded piece. Funnily enough, Chaucer was heavily inspired by Boccaccio and one of the tales, ‘The Knight’s Tale’ is based on ‘Teseida’, Boccaccio’s epic poem. The Canterbury Tales present to us the realities of late medieval England and fill the gaps on the behaviour and personalities of people who lived in those times. But even if we dive deeper, we can understand the value of the tales. Just like in Germany during the Romantic period, men were so influenced by ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ and started dressing similarly to the main protagonist and copy his behaviour; similarly, even now, many could find invaluable lessons in the Canterbury Tales. The elements of courtly love teach respect to the other sex and courteous behaviour which is often lacking these days. Chaucer teaches us the importance of community, too. This is now more important than ever, where we live individualistic lives in the pandemic, encouraged to snitch on our neighbours. Chaucer reminds us how much happiness we can achieve from being surrounded by other people. Companionship meant that people felt protected and secure, they shared meals and were joyful. Considering that Chaucer was living throughout the Black Death and he also witnessed the Peasant’s Revolt during his lifetime – he knew how important the companionship was to the wellbeing of his fellow man. Maybe this is something we could still learn from?

And how can we ignore the works of Marlowe? Doctor Faustus tells us the story of greed, passion, and how the earthly desires can corrupt our soul. This work has very strong Christian themes, which are essential to developing a well-rounded understanding of Christian values. However, one does not need to be religious to acknowledge the importance of these. The themes of the corrupting influence of power can keep us grounded and avoid sacrificing important things in life for something fleeting. We will always pay the price for our choices.

Similarly, Milton’s Paradise Lost was an absolute masterpiece with strong Christian themes. I feel like it’s apt to reveal that I am not religious. But I believe that everyone should read the Bible at least once. I also believe that Milton’s writing brings people closer to understanding Christian concepts and considering that we’re living in the times where religion is declining, it’s something we should still keep in mind.  

Removing these texts from the curriculum will make for an extremely hollow understanding of Britain as we know it today. By replacing it with modules on race and sexuality, we rob young people from the ability to see the whole picture and a proper perspective of British history and literature. I don’t condemn courses that offer race and sexuality modules. If someone is interested in the subject, they should be free to pursue it. But when essential texts are being replaced and the course is supposed to be “decolonised” we should be asking questions regarding the validity and reasoning behind such pursuit. The Telegraph reports that “New modules described as “excitingly innovative” would cover:  “A chronological literary history, a selection of modules on race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity, a decolonised curriculum, and new employability modules.” If we’re going to chop literature into identity politics, we will have nothing left. And the question we should ask is: what will this teach the future generations of students if we’re going to remove texts that teach respect, heroism, loyalty and family? I dread to even ponder on it.

Photo Credit.

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