Aug 15, 2020

Medieval Codes Update: reflections on the long view

 Yin Liu

I have not posted to this website in a very long time. My thanks to the student researchers who have held the fort while I was sidetracked by other things. But it is about time I popped back into this website to explain what is going on.

Perceval and recluse
Detail from BnF MS Fr. 343, fol. 21v: a knight visits a recluse.

The Medieval Codes project continues. For four years it was generously funded by an Insight Grant from SSHRC, which enabled me to support a productive and keen team of student researchers. Many of them are still connected to the project as volunteers, and I consult some of them from time to time, even if I no longer have funds to pay them. Not only have they contributed content to this website, they have, much more, added project assets that you can’t see, and amassed a large pile of material that will keep me occupied for years to come. Their interests have also led me to areas I would not have ventured into otherwise, sometimes areas I didn’t know existed. I am immensely grateful to them all.

After the SSHRC grant ended and I was no longer bogged down by grant administration, I continued to be bogged down by other forms of administration. So work on this project has proceeded very slowly. And then, in March 2020,  community transmission of COVID-19 was confirmed in Canada, where I live.

Predictably, a medievalist in a global pandemic looks to history for models, analogies, and examples to help understand what is happening in the present – to reassure, to plan for, to speculate, to explain. We do this not because (or not only because) we are old grumps who want to bore others with stories of how we suffered more in the past. We do this because it is good to have a wider perspective. As Oliver Sacks has observed, ‘Health is infinite and expansive in mode, and reaches out to be filled with the fullness of the world; whereas disease is finite and reductive in mode, and endeavours to reduce the world to itself.’ Pain contracts the universe: to the curtained space around a hospital bed, to the face of a loved one behind the mask of a ventilator, to the window of a room in a care home, to the closed door of a business that will never open again, to the confusion in the eyes of a child too young to understand. Furthermore, when we live without an awareness of either history or geography, we think that all our problems are unique, exceptional, and possibly unbearable. But there is much to be learned by taking a longer view.

Resisting the temptation to declaim at length about other matters – like many people, I have a great assortment of opinions about COVID-19, not all of which are informed or well thought through – I will focus rather on two things that taking the long view teaches us about our present situation.

technology, because it is a product of human activity, has no meaning without its human context
The first is that relying on merely technological solutions for complex human problems of global range will be insufficient. The SARS-CoV-2 pathogen that causes COVID-19 is not indestructible, and we now know quite a lot about how to reduce the incidence of transmission. The problem is not that we don’t know how to stop this disease. The problem is that the most effective ways of preventing transmission involve changing human behaviour at very basic levels: physical distancing and handwashing, for example. It is tempting to pin our hopes on a quick technological fix, such as developing a vaccine or finding a miracle drug, because it seems easier than changing our own habits. But technology, because it is a product of human activity, has no meaning without its human context; this is true not only of books but also of medical interventions. Not only to understand the history of technologies, but also to make good decisions about the technologies we create and use, we must consider the human, social, and ethical implications of our technologies and of our ideas about technology.

The second is that when we realise the fragility of human life and the tenuous nature of our social institutions, we are challenged to clarify our values: when much that we had taken for granted is now uncertain, what is truly important to us and how will we hold on to it? The feeling of vulnerability that strikes some of us now as new and unprecedented was, and continues to be, the norm for most of human history and for the majority of the world’s population even today. In the 15th century Middle English alliterative poem The Wars of Alexander, a character says:

    Me þink my lyfe as to þe length is like to þis werkis
    Þat þis coppis opon kellwyse knytt in þe wo3es;
    With þe lest winde of þe werd þat þe we[b] touches,
    Þe note anentes ilk ane & all to no3t worthis.

‘It seems to me that the length of my life is like the works that this spider knits, like a hairnet, in the walls; with the slightest wind of the world that touches the web, the event destroys each one and brings all to nothing.’ Maybe, in the face of these facts, that one extra line on my CV is not worth as much as twenty minutes for the email message or the phone call to a person who may not be there two months from now, nor worth as much as even an hour in privileged isolation to stop and think about what truly matters.

I won’t suggest that everyone in the Middle Ages dealt with mortality and uncertainty better than anyone today: we see people reacting then, as we do now, with the full range of denial, rage, indifference, desperation, stoicism, resilience, courage, generosity, and transcendence. But from that full range of human reactions, we can learn much. At least, from the richness of history, we can come to an awareness that others like us have faced similar or greater challenges, and some of them have pulled out of those experiences, even from the rubble of ravaged lives, acts and words and creations and reasons based on truth, compassion, and hope.


The image is a detail from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 343, fol. 21v. Some medieval people went into voluntary self-isolation (including our old pal Cuthbert), but they were remarkably social nevertheless.

The quotation from Sacks is from Oliver Sacks, Awakenings (London: Picador, 1982) 209.

The quotation from The Wars of Alexander is lines 3428-3431 of the edition by Hoyt N. Duggan and Thorlac Turville-Petre, EETS SS 10 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

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