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Yearning for Stability

Reculver Towers, Thanet, Kent (Andrew Fletcher/Shutterstock)

Here is an extraordinary post by A Clerk of Oxford, an Oxonian academic studying medieval English literature. It begins with her enthusiasm for St. Mildred, an eighth-century abbess from the Kentish island of Thanet, where the Clerk of Oxford herself was born and raised.

The Clerk goes on to muse about the mingling of personal passion with academic interests. She speculates that more than a few academics “have private, personal reasons for their scholarly interests which wouldn’t stand up to professional scrutiny, alongside the more publicly acceptable ones. We are human beings, after all, and are attracted to certain things by influences we ourselves don’t necessarily understand.” She thinks that the academy would be better off if scholars were more open about their personal passions, and how they relate to their scholarship. More:

I’m encouraged in this belief by the knowledge that the medieval historians I study generally saw no problem whatsoever in being emotionally attached to their subjects. I like them all the more for it, and when I talk about them to the public, it’s that which catches people’s attention. As someone whose interests are primarily literary (I’m interested in the stories people tell about history, not in whether those stories are true or not), I find it endearing when medieval historians are biased and parochial and a little bit obsessive – all the things ‘monkish writers’ used to be criticised for by modern historians of the traditional stamp. Nothing makes me like William of Malmesbury more than his special fondness for Malmesbury’s history, the fact that he can’t resist being a bit extra interested in Aldhelm and Athelstan and anything connected to his own monastery. I love the thought of Eadmer at the Council of Bari, surrounded by the great and the good of the eleventh-century church but still getting most excited about a minor tidbit of local Canterbury history and the memory of some old monks he knew as a child. And there’s something touching about the way Goscelin talks about St Edith of Wilton as if she were a personal friend, and associates her with a lost happy period in his life. These are emotional responses to the past which have little to do with the facts of history, and much to do with each writer’s personal associations with a saint and the relationships, identities, or communities they represent for the writer. They’re entirely ‘unprofessional’ reactions, from the best English historians of their day, of a kind which few historians now would admit to in public even if they felt them.

Here’s where the post takes an unexpected turn:

I think about this question quite often, especially as social media increasingly allows scholars to have a more open approach to displays of personal enthusiasm than is acceptable in a traditional academic environment. (Even if some will still squeak ‘Oh no, enthusiasm!’) What do we attach ourselves to, and why? These days academics, like many people, are encouraged or forced to live rootless lives, changing jobs often and not developing an attachment to any particular institution. There are few places we have time to know intimately and few communities of which we can become a permanent part. I’m unusual for an early-career academic in that I’ve been in Oxford for years now, although never in a permanent position or anything like a home – it’s been stints of two- or three-year affiliations, while living in different types of rented accommodation (eight places in ten years). Even that precarious form of stability is a black mark against me in the job market (everything’s a black mark against you in the job market!); and if I wanted to get another academic job I’d have to be prepared to leave at the drop of a hat, whatever that meant leaving behind.

That’s a choice everyone has to make for themselves, of course, and one always has the option to opt out. But I wonder if it grows increasingly hard for people like me to understand what it might be like to count on living in one place your whole life – for instance, what it might be like for a monk or nun to spend his or her entire life attached to one monastery, living its communal life day after day in the physical presence of its saints and former inhabitants. Not that monks and nuns didn’t travel, of course – and away from home, home associations pull most strongly. The three writers I mentioned above illustrate this, too: William of Malmesbury travelled around on research trips, Eadmer spent years in exile with St Anselm, and Goscelin, a kind of itinerant hagiographer who worked on commission, could almost be the patron saint of academics on contingent, short-term contracts. And anyway these monks would all have said that no one gets to have a permanent home in this world: Non enim habemus hic manentem civitatem, sed futuram inquirimus, however much we may love the temporary homes we do find in this læne lif. But I think that one reason I am drawn to studying monastic communities is that they offer a rootedness which seems impossible today – at least for people like me. The idea of settling down, finding a home, knowing you can live and work in the same place for decades if you want to – these are things people of my generation are told not to expect or hope for (by people who were able to do just that, of course), and it is difficult, even if we try to believe it’s fun and exciting to be adrift in the world. I crave a sense of rootedness and belonging and if I project that feeling of security here on this blog, as people sometimes tell me I do, it’s because I’m working hard to find it for myself where circumstances don’t provide it for me.

Stability! The Clerk of Oxford goes on to say how much she enjoys talking to the public about medieval saints. You would think that stories about medieval saints were inaccessible to modern people, but it’s not true, she says. In fact, she goes on, it’s a real pleasure talking to the public about her scholarly work, because the public is really diverse, not at all narrow, like academics. More:

It would be best, of course, if such a diversity of experiences could be represented within academia itself, but as routes into the profession drastically constrict the less possible that seems. As I watch my postdoc friends quietly leaving academia, it seems to me it’s not just talent which is lost but that very diversity: those who leave are the people who can’t live rootless lives, because they have (and believe it’s important to have) children, parents, and partners to think about; or the people who appear less ‘professional’ by academic standards (too working-class, too female, that kind of thing); or the people who don’t come from backgrounds where constant rejection and job instability are things you just shrug off. The more academia becomes the preserve of people who are able – financially, practically or emotionally – to move countries every few years and to support themselves through extended periods of part-time work, the more socially and psychologically narrow a world it will become, the more detached from the wide range of human experience it claims to be able to classify and explain.

Read the whole thing. This is pretty much the Platonic ideal of a blog post. If I were in England, I would invite the Clerk of Oxford to join me in an Oxford pub for a long, long dinner, and just listen to her tell stories. She is a kindred spirit. Maybe she should also be a source for my book on the Benedict Option. If we’re going to look back to the wisdom of the Middle Ages to find stability and order in a chaotic world, it seems to me that I have something to learn from the Clerk of Oxford. Fortunate indeed are the students who will have the opportunity to learn at her feet.

UPDATE: “A Clerk of Oxford” is Eleanor Parker, whose blog is massively esteemed among medievalists, I’ve just learned.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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