The Romance of Origins: Language and Sexual Difference in Middle English Literature

By Gayle Margherita | Go to book overview

Preface

It is the premise of a recent award-winning science fiction novel that in the future historical research will make use of time travel, thereby eliminating the historian's troublesome reliance on textual records in recovering the "real" of history. The heroine of Connie Willis's Doomsday Book is an Oxford undergraduate who returns -- so she assumes -- to the year 1320 in order to experience the English Middle Ages first-hand.1 A few days prior to her voyage, however, a long-dormant virus emerges from a medieval archaeological site -- coincidentially, from the remains of the town she herself will have visited during her sojourn. The "tech" who is responsible for the "drop" contracts the virus, becoming ill just as she is about to be sent back. Chronological "slippage" occurs, and she ends up in 1348 instead of 1320, at the precise time and place when/where the Black Death reached Oxford. Owing to illness at both ends of the journey, she cannot return home as planned; disease links past and present as historiography cannot. The "moral" of the story is not unexpected: the heroine is forced to give up her romantic fantasies about the past in the face of its nasty and brutish realities, but discovers what is noble and, yes, universally human in the doomed medievals she comes to know. A similar idealizing movement occurs in the present, and the confrontation between life and death, past and present ultimately results in a transcendence of the historical difference on which the journey was predicated.

The triumph of idealist over materialist "readings" of the Middle Ages is as predictable as it is inevitable given the generic presuppositions of mainstream science fiction. More significant for our purposes, however, is the sense in which this contemporary fantasy about the medieval past shares the epistemological and metaphysical assumptions of many of the current historicist readings of the Middle Ages, specifically the assumption that only two readings of the past are possible, and that these readings cannot really speak to one another in any meaningful way. Either the medieval period is irreducibly different and "other," or it is fundamentally the same, linked to our own historical context by philosophical, linguistic, and/or psychic "universals" that resist any historical specification. The

-ix-

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The Romance of Origins: Language and Sexual Difference in Middle English Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xv
  • Introduction: the Psychic Life of the Past 1
  • 1. Margery Kempe and the Pathology of Writing 15
  • 2. Body and Metaphor in the Middle English Juliana 43
  • 3 - Women and Riot in the Harley Lyrics 62
  • 4. Originary Fantasies and Chaucer's Book of the Duchess 82
  • 5. Historicity, Femininity, and Chaucer's Troilus 100
  • 6. Father Aeneas or Morgan the Goddess 129
  • Afterword: the Medieval Thing 153
  • Appendix 163
  • Notes 179
  • Bibliography 203
  • Index 211
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