An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

May 5, 2013

"I see medievalism as a pretty promiscuous thing": an Interview with Louise D'Arcens

Associate Professor Louise DArcens works in the English Literatures Program at the University of Wollongong, Australia. She has published widely on medievalism and medieval womens writing. Louise has recently begun a four-year Australian Research Council Future Fellowship for her project Comic Medievalism and the Modern World (2013-2017).  Louise spoke with Medievally Speaking Assistant Editor Helen Young at the Australia and New Zealand Medieval and Early Modern Society Conference in Melbourne, Australia, earlier this year.

Helen: To begin at the beginning, what first got you interested in the Middle Ages?

Louise: I got interested as soon as I started studying the Middle Ages.  I was interested in doing it because when I was a high school student, I couldn't do it, it wasn't something that was available. I did medieval history and medieval literature [at university], and, particularly with the literature, it was just that whole experience, that so many of us who work in medievalism write about, of being simultaneously drawn by its strangeness and its difference from all the other literature that I'd been reading.  Also that sense of its familiarity as well.  I had a really nice tutor, a really good tutor when I was doing the prologue to The Canterbury Tales which is what we studied in the first year English at Sydney Uni as our medieval text. 
I think there was just something about the kind of pleasure attached to conquering the language and drawing it into a zone of familiarity just grabbed me.  I love literature across the board but I think there was something about that sense that behind this divide, there was something really familiar and really funny as well.         

Helen: What about the going from being a student and enjoying it to taking it up as a profession?

Louise: Right, well I think again it was about pleasure.  I did honours in medieval literature and I really, really loved it and I had continued with it. Then I got to the end of my degree and thought oh well I have to go and do something, you know, proper.  I went and studied law and then I decided that you really need to pursue what matters to you.

Helen: Your work has moved from fairly traditional medieval studies to being mostly in medievalism. Could you talk about how medievalism became important to you?

Louise: I think it started with my PhD. It was on authority in medieval women's writing, that is, the use of authority, but also on the actual conception of authority.  When I was framing chapters for it, what I was trying to track down was this question: when did this topic of authority become so interesting to medievalists? Why do we keep returning to this question of authority, because there had been all of these fantastic scholarly books written on it.  When I started doing a little mini-genealogy, as it were, I noticed was that the topic of authority became interesting to medievalists right at the point that their authority - the authority for the discipline - came under quite serious questioning. That was particularly due to the emergence of postructuralism. So I became really interested in the way that what people work on reflects or connects with what they're actually experiencing at the moment. 
Even though anybody who knows anything about it knows Medieval Studies is actually quite a recent discipline, it would often be seen as synecdoche of traditional disciplines.  Medievalists and medieval studies were having to respond to being the target of this narrative about academia, and the way it responded was this meditation on authority.  So I think it was really from that time that I started thinking about the whole question of the relationship between the scholar, and the context of the interpreter and what it is they're working on.  That led to the book that I edited with Juanita [Ruys] in which we were getting people to meditate on their relationship to working on medieval women writers and how it altered their methodologies [Maistresse of My Wit: Medieval Women, Modern Scholars, eds. Louise DArcens and Juanita Rhys, Turnhout: Brepols, 2004]. 
That question of the relationship between the position of the interpreter and the thing that they're interpreting became the basis of early work that I was doing in medievalism studies which was looking at early scholars in Australia.  I was thinking about the way in which their particular contexts led them to make decisions about what they work on and how they present it in particular to the Australian public.  So I suppose that was the little story that took me into it.

Helen: Is there anything distinct about Australian medievalism?

Louise:   I think there are some elements of it that are distinctive.  I think there are lots that aren't, but it depends on what you're looking at.  If you are going to pick out a set of tropes, let's say, then the fact is a lot of the major tropes that are used in Australian medievalism were used elsewhere.  They were tropes that were used in imperial centres, Britain, and also used in former colonial societies: New Zealand, Canada, America et cetera. When I wrote the book on the 19th Century Australian material [Old Songs in the Timeless Land: Medievalism in Nineteenth-Century Australia, Brepols/ University of Western Australia Press, 2011], really what I was writing about was colonial medievalism but in its Australian  iteration. 
 I suppose I see medievalism as a pretty promiscuous thing, something that attaches itself to all sorts of other different discourses. It's something really difficult to find in a very pure form. I would want to say Australian medievalism is a quintessential medievalism, which is what I argue in my book. In some respects its very promiscuity sums up everything about medievalism.
Having said that, there are a couple of things that I was thinking about.  For a start, one of the things that's interesting, that distinguishes Australian medievalism from New Zealand medievalism or even North American medievalisms if we're thinking about colonial contexts, is that medievalist discourses in Australia were only directed at the settler population. If you look at somewhere like New Zealand, there were all sorts of Viking mythologies that were used to describe the Maori. When you look at North American, at its cultural imaginary, the settler populations were prepared to grant some sort of heroic or warrior status through those medieval discourses to indigenous populations. But Australians made them utterly unavailable to indigenous people.  There was no discursive sharing.  Discursive sharing I know is deeply problematic and not the same as equality, actual sharing.  But it's interesting the way in which there is a really very clear cordoning off of that discourse from any kind of intercultural acknowledgement. So I would say that's one thing, to our shame, that distinguishes us.
The other thing is to do with Australian settlement history and the fact that we've never had, say, something like a War of Independence. To this day we're still a constitutional monarchy.  I think that because of that, nostalgia works quite differently in Australia.  I'm never quite sure that I think Australian medievalism is quite nostalgic. If you go with the idea that nostalgia works on an acknowledgement of loss, then I think a lot of at least colonial medievalism in Australia was never actually fully prepared to acknowledge loss. It was so invested in continuity that there are times when it's actually more aggressive than melancholy.  The Australian gothic idiom definitely has a melancholic tone to it, but I'm never quite sure whether I think it fits the way one usually thinks about nostalgia. It doesnt work like the way I can see it operating in places where there has been a clearer cultural severance. 
I've been trying to think about whether it's nostalgic or whether it's something else but I don't actually have a name for what that other thing might be. I'm all for extending terms and looking for nuances that allow you to talk about things in intelligible ways, but I don't think you have to make up a new word so I'm quite happy with nostalgia as a place holder term, but there's some part of me that feels as though there needs to be a full acknowledgement of loss at least in the colonial setting.  A lot of the time there was quite strident assertion of continuity that is of course an unconscious acknowledgement of loss, but it doesn't sit at the surface of the discourse in the same way. 
I don't know whether I would stake my life on that being entirely distinctive of Australian medievalism though.  I think in the end, what makes things distinctive is their context, and that context was utterly distinctive.  At one level it was standard colonial but it was the way in which those micro-stories have attached themselves to medievalism is what makes it infinitely distinct.

Helen: Could you tell us about the comic medievalism project youre working on now?

Louise: It's a project I've been chipping away at for a while and I'm just coming toward the end of a book now on it.  Then I've got the big fellowship so that I'll be able to work on it for the next few years (an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship).  Look, it's a really simple premise. When I was working on the Australian book [Old Songs in the Timeless Land], one of the things that really struck me was how often, at least in the colonial Australian material, people were laughing, how often people were satirising.  Not just the Middle Ages but also satirising medievalism.  I thought, there actually is a really strong comic vein in a lot of this stuff, and in other contexts, a strong satiric vein in it as well. 
I thought, we talk quite a lot about melancholy and we talk about those kinds of emotions around nostalgia and loss etc, and it seemed to me that part of assessing the whole emotional complement of medievalism was to spend a bit of time on some of the funny stuff. 
There are so many brilliant comic medieval texts, and a lot of really awful ones as well, I'm coming to learn, and not funny ones; but there are lots of brilliant texts and people are really aware of them and people love them. I was trying to think about the \ different ways in which comedy is being used or comic technique is being used.  What does the medieval period also allow us, via medievalism, to laugh at in our own time? I was thinking about that satiric dimension of it. 
So I just felt like it was work to be done.  It was something that was sitting there to be done and hadn't really been done in a concentrated way until now.  It seemed like a great opportunity to work on some texts that I was keen on and address an area in the field for which  I can just see so many possibilities.  Beyond my own work, I think there's a lot to be said about why we find this period so funny.  I think we do find lots of periods in the past funny, in different ways, but I would want to actually make a special case for the Middle Ages as being the most laughed at period [laughs] of the past, in a really joyful way as well as in a ridiculing way. 
I don't think the classical period attracts the same kind of comic reaction.  I'm saying that at the start of the project so I guess that remains to be investigated, but my intuition at this point is that the medieval period attracts a really significant amount of comic response in a way that other periods don't.
I found that when I started talking about it, people are going yeah, wow, because there's this text and that text. There are all of these great texts, and lots of them I didn't know, and people have very kindly told me about them.
I think it's something we all carry around as part of the pleasure - again coming back to that question of pleasure, the pleasure that we take in the Middle Ages.  It's about having a real genuine warmth for the period, and one of the ways in which that warmth has been expressed has been through comedy.  A lot of the time, even in the humour that's challenging the Middle Ages or attacking the Middle Ages, there's still residual warmth that comes through. 
So it's trying to put together a taxonomy. I have no intention of that taxonomy being something I arrive at alone because the whole point is if you think something's worth doing, you want it to catch fire.  You want other people to join and put their ten cents worth in and develop it together. .  You know you can come and talk and try to develop that together because you get to a point where when you're working alone, you need a brains trust to help you fathom your way through such a massive undertaking.  So that's where it's at.

Louise's newest book, Laughing at the Middle Ages: Comic Medievalism, is forthcoming with Boydell and Brewer in 2013. A collection she has edited with Associate Professor Andrew Lynch (University of Western Australia), titled International Medievalism in Popular Culture, is also forthcoming this year.

Helen Young
University of Sydney