Deadline: September 20, 2015
Dates: May 12-15, 2016
Location: Kalamazoo, MI
Though Victorian interest in the Middle Ages has been well-documented, the particular motivations for that interest deserve fuller attention. This session seeks paper-proposals that will explore how what has often been called the Victorian “cult of the child” informed and complicated nineteenth-century fascination with the medieval period.
Victorian thinkers applied perfect goodness, a natural state of innocence, and pure happiness to children and suggested methods for cultivating these qualities. These thinkers employ the same language when theorizing about the language and literature of medieval England (and Scandinavia). Matthew Arnold – and William Wordsworth before him – valued Chaucer’s poetry as the youthful utterance of the language spoken by the English nation. Reverend Charles Kingsley and others thought of medieval Englishmen (and Scandinavians) as the boyhood manifestation of current English men. According to Kingsley, the Teutons – as he called his English ancestors – defeated the Romans in Europe because the Teutons were akin to manly boys living in the forest and were full of simplicity, morality, but also action. Those qualities, Kingsley argued, were present among the English and led to the success of the English nation. It was these qualities that were to be fostered in English boys and medieval literature became an integral component to youth education because it was seen as espousing and engendering these characteristics. Thus versions of The Canterbury Tales and Old Norse-Icelandic sagas (among many other texts) were created for schoolboys.
Medieval England was also cast as idyllic because it represented the nation in its youthfulness as opposed to the Victorians’ own burdensome adulthood. They saw in Chaucer, for example, a poet of nature, of the English countryside, of joy, and of simplicity and contrasted this to their own experience of the responsibilities of adulthood, the city, and the Industrial Revolution.
Proposed papers, then, should explore some of the issues suggested here – and others not – in the interest of expanding our understanding of how and why Victorians valued and used medieval texts.