Questing for the Past
By Katherine Churchill
"Night Shrine," oil, graphite, pencil, spray paint, wood, metal, and mixed media, by David Shrobe. Courtesy Thierry Goldberg Gallery.
What made me a medievalist? I don’t know—I was fifteen when I stepped into the thirteenth-century Parisian chapel Sainte-Chapelle, feeling my breath catch inside the kaleidoscope of stained glass. Later, something flickered when my teacher read a section of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight out loud during my senior year of high school, and the Middle English made me go still with all its strange yet slightly familiar sounds. Surely, I was already hooked by the time I saw the vaulted ceiling of the Wells Cathedral in England as a junior in college and spontaneously began to weep. That moment sounds a lot like epiphany, but I don’t think my love for medieval stuff ever broke in quite that way—there was no thunderclap, only a series of encounters that undid me, then organized things into place.
Now that I’m a PhD student in English and French medieval literature at the University of Virginia, I don’t cry in medieval churches anymore. And in Virginia, there aren’t any to visit anyway. So when I need to feel inspired, I make a little pilgrimage to special collections instead, which houses the university’s rare books. Our reading room is in a basement, and it’s full of hush and glow. When I’m trying to remember why I’m a scholar, I request early print editions of Chaucer and Boccaccio. When I have a bad teaching day and things get really dire, I ask for the medieval Book of Hours fragments, remnants of ornate devotional texts. I like to look at the illuminations in the margins and rub the parchment between my fingers—contrary to popular belief, you don’t normally wear gloves when handling manuscripts. I’ve been here for three years now, but it still stirs up something in me when I look at those beautiful books.
During one visit to special collections in my first semester of graduate school, I was examining the endpapers of an 1864 print copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for a class project when I noticed a bookplate pasted down on the inside cover. “Gift of Bennett Wood Green” it read. How lovely, I fantasized—that someone long ago had loved this book that I love, and then donated it to the library. Underlines and margin notes spidered the pages, and I imagined, with fondness, that they were Green’s. Who was he, I wondered, this fellow medievalist of times gone by?
As I left the archive that day, dreaming up Green, I opened my laptop and showed it to the librarian as required, to prove I hadn’t stolen anything. Believe it or not, people scalp title pages, excise illustrations, pilfer letters, etc.
It’s possible to do all kinds of horrible things with books.
Green bounced around in the back of my brain for the next few days, in between poetics seminars and office hours, until finally, over late-night cereal, I dug up a 1974 article by Parke Rouse Jr. that detailed Green’s life. Bennett Wood Green was born in 1835 on Virginia’s coast, then cut his intellectual teeth at the University of Virginia’s medical school before graduating in 1855. Six years later, civil war broke out while Green was serving in the U.S. Navy. He jumped ship, so to speak, to perform surgeries for the Confederacy in a naval hospital and later aboard iron-clad warships like the CSS Stonewall during the bloodiest war fought on U.S. soil.
After Robert E. Lee’s loss and the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox, Green fled Virginia for Córdoba, Argentina, where he lived for fourteen years in self-imposed exile. He wasn’t alone, though—between ten and twenty thousand Confederates absconded to Central and South America following the war, as scholars like Cyrus B. Dawsey, James M. Dawsey, and Alan P. Marcus have noted. Argentina had already abolished slavery by the time Green moved there and had set to refashioning itself as a white nation of European descent while systematically rendering Afro-Argentines invisible. In Hiding in Plain Sight, a study of how Black Argentine women recast their racial identities in the country’s late colonial and early republican periods, Erika Denise Edwards described Córdoba’s “institutionalized whitening” as part of a “concerted effort of republican-sponsored black erasure.”
While Green was establishing his new life as an expatriate in the midst of Argentina’s own white mythmaking, formerly enslaved people were building their new lives in Virginia. The first years after the war saw Black Virginian men exercising their newly recognized right to vote, serving as delegates in the state’s 1868 Constitutional Convention (which ratified the Fifteenth Amendment), and holding office as state representatives and senators—men like James T. S. Taylor, who represented Albemarle County in the convention of 1868. Universal, free public education for children was established across the state in 1870, and that same year saw Virginia’s readmission to the Union, officially ending federal military governance of the state. Two years after U.S. troops left the last Southern states, marking the official end to Reconstruction throughout the South, Green returned home in 1879, where disgruntled ex-Confederates were attempting to reassert control of both Virginia politics and the legacy of the war. After a stint in Norfolk, Green settled in Richmond. Meanwhile, Confederate monuments began going up across the state—starting with Lee’s memorial in Richmond in 1890. According to his obituary in the UVA Alumni News, after it was erected, Green bowed to Richmond’s Lee statue every day on his regular walk around the city.
That Lee statue was one of the monuments Virginia removed just last year, along with a very similar one in Charlottesville, originally erected in 1924, that served as the focal point of the violent Unite the Right rally on August 11 and 12, 2017. According to numerous observers and scholars, the Charlottesville rioters wore plenty of medieval iconography while terrorizing the city in an insurgence that killed Heather Heyer and injured over thirty counter-protestors. Medieval symbolism is common in recent extreme right movements more broadly—think, for example, of the runic symbols worn by the so-called QAnon Shaman and other participants in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. This phenomenon plays out too on college campuses: I’ve heard numerous colleagues express concerns about uncovering fascist views in their students. In the same classrooms where Green probably read Chaucer, we’re still encountering young adults with views like his—eager to project their own ideologies onto the registrar’s seemingly bland description of a medieval European survey course.
Whatever resonances those students see between medieval literature and violent nationalism must have called to Green, too. The fingerprints of white supremacist medievalism are all over his major scholarly contribution, Word-Book of Virginia Folk-Speech, which I found in our main library’s non-circulating reference section. Word-Book is the earliest dictionary of Virginia regional vocabulary, published in the twilight of Green’s life in 1899 and followed by a revised edition the year before his death in 1912. It’s an expansive work, including a lexicon with local words and their definitions, a list of common Virginia surnames, and an inventory of Virginia idioms. To this day, the dictionary is a source for scholarship, including the Dictionary of Regional American English, because of its catalogue of many early Virginia regionalisms that might otherwise have been lost.
But it’s also deeply flawed, largely because of how Green’s racial biases—and his medieval fantasies—infect the project. The dictionary’s hyper-localism reads as a love letter to antebellum Virginia, prior to Reconstruction’s federal influence—a 530-page Confederate monument in its own right. As Green made clear in his introduction, he was only interested in the vocabulary of white Virginians, for whom he fabricated a glamorous connection to the nobility of medieval England. Quoting Chaucer in the epigraph, he claimed that white Virginian speech patterns closely resembled the English of the first colonial settlers, who themselves were supposedly inheritors of the regal Old English of tenth-century King Alfred. Virginian English was, for Green, supposedly “pure,” fossilized English, a language that had no “foreign mixture.” Though his book was reviewed favorably at the time by medievalist J. Lesslie Hall (best known for his 1892 translation of Beowulf), today Green’s assertions read as specious claims of Virginian linguistic and racial purity, delusions that language could provide a direct link to an English ethnic past. “The sounds” of Virginian English, Green imagined in the second edition, “tell of a race."
None of this, of course, is true. King Alfred’s English was significantly different from Chaucer’s, let alone Green’s; in fact, the Old English to which Green wished to forge a direct connection is hardly recognizable as English to the untrained eye. Guy Bailey, an expert on Southern linguistics, affirmed that Virginian English would have changed even in the few centuries between the first immigrants’ arrival from England and Green’s lifetime. Besides, Bailey told me over the phone, many Southern English words in circulation at the time, like “okra” and “yam” (both of which Green included in the dictionary) derive from West African languages, not from Old English.
Despite these glaring oversights in his analysis, Green worried instead about his dictionary’s inevitable incompleteness. He quotes from John Florio’s 1598 Italian-English dictionary A Worlde of Wordes in Florio’s modern but antiquated English: “If no other bookes can be so vvell perfected, but still something maybe added, hovv much lesse a Word-booke?” What words, Green wondered, might be lost to time, in spite of his hard work?
Grievously, it’s possible that some of those bygone Virginian words were lost because of how Green’s own dubious white supremacist myth making warped the project. When Green stated that he considered only one “negro word,” “juba,” to be Virginian English, was he implying that he omitted words that circulated predominantly within Black Virginian communities from the dictionary, or that he left out words he believed derived from African languages? Even the definitions that Green did include are compromised by his outlook. Later, when Green listed the names of Virginian locales that come from Native languages in a section called “Indian Place-Names,” he dismissed their value, saying that the words’ original references to “kings, tribes, and places” are “not of great importance”—an unscholarly insult to the historically Algonquian, Iroquois, and Siouan–speaking tribes of Virginia, of which today eleven (the Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Rappahannock, Upper Mattaponi, Nansemond, Monacan, Cheroenhaka, Nottoway, and Patawomeck) are recognized by the state. Because Green did not value language that did not support his white supremacist ideology, he left behind a dictionary with abundantly clear biases and significant gaps. How much less a word-book, indeed?
Bailey told me, “When people talk about the history of languages, there’s often an ideological bent.” We spoke about his own research, and how studying the history of African American English has been difficult due, in part, to the loss of reliable nineteenth-century records of AAE. Since the 1960s and ’70s, though, linguists have made significant progress with what is available, even bringing new material to light. Bailey told me how, in the 1980s, he read in a footnote that mechanical recordings of formerly enslaved people’s speech had been produced by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s and ’40s and archived in the Library of Congress. “The [library] told me no one had ever asked for them before,” Bailey said. The recordings, published as transcripts in a 1991 book edited by Bailey, Natalie Maynor, and Patricia Cukor-Avila and now available for listening online, are a treasure trove for scholars. Today they enable us to hear the voices of formerly enslaved people like Fountain Hughes, born in Charlottesville, likely around the start of the Civil War—whose own Virginian English, preserved on audio tape reel, still endures.
The traces Green left behind figured a scholar, a fanatical racist, and a Confederate ideologue who, as W. Gordon McCabe puts it, “was never ‘reconstructed.’” Two years after the first publication of Word-Book, Green finally ended up back in Charlottesville in 1901, living on campus until his death in 1913. In his will, he endowed two scholarships to UVA’s medical school, with the caveat that they had to be used for “white native born residents of Virginia.” Given the university’s entirely white student population at the time, the conditions of Green’s bequest are striking: It’s as if he anticipated the university’s future as a more inclusive place and sought to foreclose that vision.
Alongside his scholarship fund, Green also left his personal book collection, including the copy of Sir Gawain with his bookplate, to his beloved University of Virginia and to future scholars—like me. (Not, of course, that I was quite who Green would have expected. Even white women like me were not allowed to enroll in the university until the 1920s, after Green’s death. The university’s exclusion of people of color would endure much longer: Walter Ridley, the first Black man to earn a degree from UVA, graduated with a doctorate in 1953.) Here I was, a new academic, casting around for a scholarly lineage in UVA’s library, and the legacy I’d found was one of entrenched bigotry. I’d walked into a very ugly inheritance.
And the more I looked for Green, the more I found him. After learning about Green’s will, I checked in with the library, and although the scholarship fund wasn’t used past 1929 to cover anyone’s tuition, it is still—to this day—being used by the library to buy medical books. Green’s long shadow is just one of the many dubious provenances within our library system, one example of how histories of extreme prejudice continue to shape sites of institutional memory, including academic disciplines like medieval studies.
For its part, the UVA library works hard to redress the violence that shapes its archives through reparative curatorial practices and the facilitation of research and education about UVA’s institutional ties to slavery, racism, and eugenics. Molly Schwartzburg, a curator at special collections, spoke with me recently about the library’s evolving policies, which include reparative description (the re-cataloguing of material with up-to-date language) and the prioritized processing and acquisition of material relevant to marginalized communities, especially those presently underrepresented in the library’s holdings. As a medievalist and UVA researcher, I often think about my responsibility as someone creating scholarship and teaching with these archives, within this institution, in this place. I think about the work of Saidiya Hartman, a powerful theorist of archival violence, whose article “Venus in Two Acts” explores archival gaps around Black girlhood and the Atlantic slave trade. As Hartman asks: “Is it possible to exceed or negotiate the constitutive limits of the archive?” Is it possible, I ask myself in that vein, to remake medieval studies using archives endowed to us with investments in violence?
"Reckewa Greeting" oil on canvas mounted on wood panel, acrylic, and fabric, by David Shrobe. Courtesy Thierry Goldberg Gallery
When I began studying medieval literature, I didn’t know the full extent of its malignant attachments. I’d enrolled in an intro class, planning to fulfill a requirement during my sophomore year of college in Maine. Going into the class, in spite of the pleasure I took in reading Arthurian adventures and admiring the refractions of stained glass, I thought the material would be boring and stuffy. But I had a life-changing professor who practiced ethical, politically engaged pedagogy, and as the semester progressed, we cracked open text after text. When I was patient and curious, the books startled me with their humor and beauty and strangeness. In the evenings, I would sound out Chaucer in the too-warm library while the leaves fell outside, or flurries of snow covered the ground. Medieval literature felt full of promise and possibility. I was busy falling in love with something, and so my glasses had a rosy fog.
If medieval studies felt more optimistic to me at the time, it was not because of a lack of skeletons in the discipline’s closet. Troubled bequests implicate all of us working in medieval studies, since the field has been profoundly enmeshed in legacies of imperialism, misogyny, and racism for a long time. Scholar Afrodesia McCannon, for example, has pointed to the close relationship between medieval scholarship, colonial aesthetics, and nineteenth-century European nationalism. Meanwhile, in their introduction to a special issue of the medieval studies journal postmedieval, Cord Whitaker and Matthew Gabriele frame those lasting entanglements with extremism and regression as a kind of haunting: “Despite the changing nature of medievalism, the specter of the nineteenth century continues to haunt us in myriad ways.” To this day, the discipline continues to harbor academics who fraternize with alt-right poster boys and perpetuate various kinds of sexist, racist, and homophobic abuse. How, then, to dispel these breathing ghosts?
Here in Charlottesville, the phantoms of past medievalisms feel especially present. It was here that Old English was first taught to American undergraduates when, in 1825, Thomas Jefferson hired language professor George Blaettermann, who lived in university housing along the lawn where I now walk my dog. Jefferson’s own obsession with teaching early English at UVA was closely entwined with attempts at American nation building. Jefferson wrote in an 1812 letter that he “considered the filiation of languages as the best proof...of the filiation of nations” and believed that Old English learners would “imbibe with the language their free principles of government.” Language itself was a medium for politics for Jefferson, inspiring national allegiances alongside its rules for grammar and syntax—just as it was for Green. Whatever “free principles” Professor Blaettermann imbibed from the language, though, must have been toxic. According to research conducted by the Jefferson’s University—Early Life Project 1819–1870 and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Blaettermann enslaved numerous people while working here, including, among others, Dorothea Cottrell and her daughter, Lucy. He taught classes in early English as well as French, Italian, Spanish, and German before he was dismissed from the university in 1840 for beating his wife, Elizabeth, in public—twice.
While Blaettermann was teaching Old English grammar, amateur medievalism was also on the rise in the nineteenth-century American South. Following the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s wildly popular 1819 medievalist romance Ivanhoe, medieval concepts like chivalry became closely intertwined with white identity (and in fact, according to historian James C. Cobb, it’s from Scott’s other novels about the eighteenth-century Jacobite uprising that white Southerners appropriated the term “Lost Cause”). White planter-class men imagined themselves as genteel American aristocrats, while white women styled themselves as delicate damsels in need of protection—even though, as historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers has shown in They Were Her Property, white women actively perpetrated violence through their participation in the institution of slavery, including as slaveholders themselves. By curating their image as characters from medieval romance, white slave owners attempted to cover up their own barbarism with a veneer of civility. Scott’s Lady Rowena walked, in other words, so Scarlett O’Hara could run.
Writer and NAACP organizer Charles Chesnutt, who was working at the same time as Green, mocked the nineteenth-century South’s medieval craze in his novel House Behind the Cedars. In one particularly striking scene, the town’s young white men partake in a Renaissance fair–style jousting tournament. But these South Carolinian “knights” are wimpy; they use wooden lances instead of metal ones and attack wooden blocks instead of “flesh and blood.” As one character happily notes, they are “not weighted down with heavy armor,” but rather wear “costumes that recall the picturesqueness, without the discomfort, of the old knightly harness.” But this attention to civilized comforts only extends to the scene’s white characters—on the following page, the would-be Arthurs and Lancelots make “witty and original remarks” after a Black spectator receives a bloody injury from a misplaced lance. White Southerners’ fascination with medievalism, Chesnutt seems to say, is just a hollow pageant that dresses up cowardice and the casual disregard for marginalized characters in shining armor. In the post-Reconstruction South, Chesnutt reminds us, nostalgia, whether for the antebellum period or the Hundred Years’ War, is never an innocent indulgence.
Medieval art can be tremendously magnetic, inspiring what historian Caroline Walker Bynum calls a kind of “wonder.” I’m not, strictly speaking, a religious person, but the literature cultivates in me a profound sense of devotion. Yet its dazzling charisma can be, just as often, insidious. Sprawling Burgundian romances take pleasure in Islamophobic rhetoric and crusading; the miracle plays are often funny, except when their smirking punchlines are grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures. Thomas Malory’s portrayal of Arthur’s court in Le Morte D’Arthur is magnificent, but his gratuitous rape scenes make my hands shake. As a professional, I’m used to this stuff—supposedly. When I reach my limit, I take the dog for a walk or go to special collections, where I touch the parchment and try to remember why I do this at all.
I can say this: I return to my work because, amidst the brutality, the writing also shows that people have been striving for something else, something better, for a very long time. I see struggle in this literature, as writers or characters or voices try to conceive of a better world amidst their oppression—a different, more livable one. It’s thanks to other scholarly inheritances—from feminist, anti-racist, and queer studies scholars, including many of my own teachers—that I use medieval literature to look for these alternative histories. When Margery Kempe asserts that women’s care work is holy in her mystical writings, or saints’ lives read like early trans narratives, or Marco Polo offers a complex, glowing portrait of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan, we glimpse alternative perspectives on how things were, and how they could be. Medieval writers’ depictions of heaven—as a paradise beyond pain and suffering—move me, because their desire for utopia is not so different from my own.
I’m hoping, as medievalist scholar Geraldine Heng puts it, to “forge an ethical relation to the past” (emphasis Heng’s)—and perhaps one that reminds us that violent pasts were not inevitable, so violent futures don’t have to be. But then I also doubt, constantly, whether invoking the past at all does not simply, as Saidiya Hartman puts it in her own scholarly context, “[replicate] the very order of violence that it writes against.” I feel acutely her sense that a “conjunction of hope and defeat” underpins this approach to scholarship and pedagogy. This fall, for example, I was leading a fifteen-person discussion section for our big English survey class, which runs from the first English texts to the eighteenth century. As a requirement for the major, it’s a mix of different levels: intrepid first-year students, newly committed second- and third-year majors, fourth years scrambling to finish a long-avoided class. We’d read Beowulf in translation and then The Canterbury Tales, in which many of the students encountered Middle English for the first time. But when we were just beyond the medieval material and into the Renaissance, they became frustrated.
We were talking about Othello—when, after Iago has exploited the interlocking systems of racism, misogyny, and classism through the play, Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia all die in the last scene. Was the society of this text as it existed, I’d asked, one that could have sustained and nurtured these characters? We were sitting outside, where it was just beginning to get chilly. The sun cast long shadows on the red-brick, Jeffersonian architecture, and the trees on the Blue Ridge Mountains behind us had started to turn to rust. “Is this all there is?” one of the students broke in, angered, rightfully, by the disturbing continuity between fiction and reality, between the present and the past.
I paused, then talked and talked—about how we’ve inherited a problematic collection of texts, and lost what ought to have been kept, and become muddled in a dubious history of criticism. About how we also live in an oppressive society, and how we, like subjects of historical violence, are participants, as Hartman puts it, “in the as-yet-incomplete project of freedom.” About archival recovery work and the importance of critique and the possibility of reading toward livability and repair. When I finished, they blinked. Perhaps they were compelled.
“But it still hurts,” someone said.
“Yes,” I said, finally. We held that for a little while, then moved on to a close reading of a monologue, talking about other things. But I was distracted, stuck on that earlier question, and hungry for some better answer. Before the hour was up, I dismissed them, then walked to special collections to spend another evening chasing paradise, trying to hold the past in my bare hands.