Odd days on campus, these. My university is engaged in a most dramatic re-structure of its entire curriculum; my faculty is re-organising itself; and we are all, all the time, being asked to think about how and what we teach, at every level, while also engaging in some delicate rapprochements with other parts of the faculty who will be our colleagues in the new disposition of departments into schools next year. We are all preoccupied with committees, working groups and taskforces; we all spend hours in meetings working out how to teach fewer subjects, better, to a wider range of students (all, in the "new generation" degrees commencing in 2008, will have to take 75 points out of 300 undergraduate points over three years in a different faculty). "Change fatigue" has set in; and we have barely begun to work through the implications of this brave new design. On Friday I had one meeting from 9.00 till 11.00; another from 11.00 till 1.00; a meeting with a student from 1.00 till 1.15, followed by some grateful grazing on three gargantuan food platters someone had left in our department kitchen. Glossy kalamata olives; spiced roasted almonds; and an extraordinary vine-leaf and chicken compressed concoction: truly, comfort food for the gods (where did this divine home-cooked food come from? I suspect the hand of Jenny Lee...). Then another meeting from 1.30 till 3.15, before carefully climbing on the bike (first day back commuting after my tumble; and dangerously lopsided with too many papers in the pannier) to get home to my boy, already hard at work, twenty minutes home from school, in making animations out of Lego on my Mac. Thank goodness for our Friday night ritual of pizza with beloved friends. Perhaps especially in the absence of the globalising partner (currently in Kuala Lumpur), these rituals are even more dearly cherished.
But today, beset by committees and workshops on all sides, I taught my honours class, and had a revelation. My next research project (once I have finished the book on the Order of the Garter, the book on medievalism with Tom Prendergast, and various other smaller commissions) will be on the idea of the 'masses' in pre-print England. I must soon turn to working on the grant proposal for this project. Today, though, we were reading three fourteenth-century chronicles of the "Uprising" of 1381; and the first chapter of Steve Justice's Writing and Rebellion. What an extraordinary piece of writing that is. Medieval Woman has an entry on her 'critic crush' on Joan Ferrante. Of course, for coolth, no one can beat Paul Strohm (check out the comments at In the Middle), but really, this is quite an amazing book. Such a wonderful way of working in, through, and around the material, letting it speak, but also helping it speak.
What struck me, and what has stuck in my mind all day, though, is the passage in the Anonimalle Chronicle, where the chronicler describes Richard meeting the rebels at Mile End. According to this chronicler, Wat Tyler and the others petition the king to arrest the traitors (his advisers), and abolish serfdom. "They asked also that no one should serve any man except at his own will and by means of regular covenant." And then it says, "And at this time the king had the commons arrayed in two lines, and had it proclaimed before them that he would confirm and grant that they should be free, and generally should have their will." Of course Richard later reneged on this agreement, but what an extraordinary thing to write: "the king had the commons arrayed in two lines..." Like Madeleine's school, perhaps! I suppose it is a strategy of containment, of minimising the idea of the unruly (dangerously unruleable) mob. Elsewhere this chronicler, like Walsingham and others, describes the "mob" in dehumanising animal imagery (they are like sheep who need to be herded; they are the limbs of Satan; they bleat like peacocks). Another dominant theme for the Anonimalle chronicler is the incapacity of Richard's knights and counsellors to act, or advise him. So the passive voice — "he had them arrayed" — is perhaps a corrective to this flaw in the ideology of feudalism. Another moment I like to ponder in this chronicle is that of the man "standing up on an old chair above the others so that all could hear". I guess if an old chair can make a difference, the "mob" can't be all that big. Has Pearsall written about this chair? I seem to remember Tom Prendergast talking about this; the mysterious "whatness" of the material object.
Clearly, I have some more thinking to do about this, and haven't even begun to look at the critical literature to see if anyone has written about this surreal moment of the rebels being marshalled into two lines. For me, today, one of the chief thrills was finding myself finding time to run to the library to find the original. It says — and it's not much help — " Et en celle temps le roy fist arrayer les comunes en deux raunges et fist crier devaunt eux qil vodroit confermer et graunter a eux destre free et toutz lour voluntes generalment ... "
If a king *could* organise a mob of rebels into two lines it would be masterful indeed, but it seems so unlikely. I put this story to my son as we were waiting for the bus this afternoon and he was of the view that it was 'metaphorical'. I guess that's right. An extraordinary moment of wish-fulfilment in the text? It's cleary inappropriate here, but I also can't help thinking of the idea that the Order of the Garter was constructed of two teams, led by Edward III and the Black Prince respectively, who could then engage in practice tournaments with each other. Construct the crowd of rebels as two teams to fight each other? Not really; the French says "en deux raunges", and this really does seem like two columns, or two rows.
Either way, and however I come to think about this moment, it was a lovely thing to happen today. It feels — though I'm not sure I'm using the word correctly — like a Roland Barthes "punctus", the little moment that makes us pause and re-assess everything around it in the text (visual or verbal). Perhaps I'll be able to use this in the grant application or the writing I hope, one day, to do on this. Ultimately, in all the meetings and reports and all the other stuff, there is, in the end, the mysterious moment in the text that can haunt us for days and that can, if we are lucky, drive our research for years. Blessed, then, today....