Perhaps Linkin Park’s “Somewhere I Belong” is not the best song about “belonging” that could have popped into my mind when thinking about the place of early Middle English instruction in the Old English curriculum, but it captures the abandonment, resentment, and identity confusion that I think the period should feel. After years of scholarly neglect and dismissal, the last 20 years or so have shown a gradual rediscovery of the period, as well as the first proper scholarship on many of the texts. What we still haven’t accomplished is to locate early Middle English texts well enough in our medieval English curriculum. Unless you’re discussing female devotional texts or instructions for the female religious (The Wooing Group and the Katherine Group are great examples), or maybe looking at French influence in the “rise” of early Middle English in The Owl and the Nightingale, you probably don’t include much early Middle English in your courses. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of these texts are homiletic in nature; they should still be studied. Do we not read the works of Ælfric, Wulfstan, and Alfred the Great in Old English courses? Do we not read hagiographies in both Old and Middle English courses? Do we not read religious poetry in Old and Middle English courses? If you have answered in the affirmative to all of these questions, then you have no right in dismissing the early Middle English literature at your disposal, especially when it can bring Old and Middle English literature into a more productive discourse with each other. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve told people in Middle English classes, “Yeah, that happens in Old English literature, too,” or, in Old English classes, “Yeah, that survives into the later periods, too.” What it boils down to, I think, is that we ignore early Middle English when creating courses because we cannot force it into the neat boxes of categorization that university registrars and departments especially like.
One reason why I may have such a passionate and empathetic relationship with early Middle English is because I understand its plight. It’s both Old English and Middle English, and neither simultaneously. I am half Puerto Rican and half Texan–my grandpa says it’s the best mix, a “Texa-Rican.” Though sweet and endearing in a weird way, it has never helped me locate myself in the north Florida town in which I was raised (some of you may be familiar with Tallahassee – one of my friends calls it “Talla-nasty”). I was too much of a gringa for the Cubans and Mexicans, though the Cubans were harsher, and I was too puertoriqueña for many of my deeply Southern peers. My best friend told me in eighth grade that my mother had a strong Spanish accent, but I had never heard it before she pointed it out. I worked hard to establish some kind of cultural identity for myself by clinging to my Puerto Rican side, even minoring in Spanish (almost double majored in English and Spanish, but I didn’t want to take an extra year to graduate) and hanging a Puerto Rican flag in my car. Once a belligerent stranger accused me of being a poser by asking me, in Spanish, if I could speak Spanish and if I’d ever been to Puerto Rico. In defiance, I answered in English, which probably only made him feel he was right to criticize me, but what that moment taught me was that I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone. I can embrace my hybridity, my Puerto Rican and British Isles (Welsh and Irish seem to be my father’s heritage) ethnic background, without having to favor one over the other. I can cook my killer coconut flan and enjoy a good bonfire to the sound of bluegrass at the same time. My favorite animal is the coquí, and one of my favorite memories at my grandparents’ house was listening to their country music blaring from the living room as Grandma sang and cleaned. I have relatives who say “warsh” for “wash” and “crown” for “crayon,” but I also have relatives who cannot read English at all or, like my deceased Grandpapá, would rearrange English word order. He famously called Burger King, “King Burger.” Granted, it has taken me the better part of 20 years to come to this happy comfort with my hybridity. Interesting that that’s about the same amount of time that early Middle English has enjoyed a renewed scholarly interest. Isn’t it about time that we find a place for it to belong in the classroom?
I’m writing a very short piece for Hal Momma and Heide Estes’ collection of short essays on teaching Old English, which grew out of the workshop we had at NYU last April (go to the Events page for information). My job is to discuss the place of early Middle English in the Old English classroom, and the point of this blog post was to begin the process of thinking through the idea of belonging. I dove headfirst into medieval English literature via early Middle English, and then I spread earlier and later. My perspective of Old and Middle English, I think, is unique, just like my own ethnic background. When you look at me, you would probably immediately think, “Typical blue-eyed, blond-haired white girl from the South.” Just like when you look at the Ormulum, you may think, “Intentionally archaic, strange orthographic standardization, and reuse of Old English and patristic material.” Or maybe you look at early Middle English from the eleventh century and think, “That’s just late Old English,” while you look at early Middle English from the twelfth century and think, “That’s just Middle English.” Nothing special, right? Well, on all accounts, think again.
I’m taking a stand for early Middle English in the Old English classroom in my essay, just like I decided to take a stand for my own ambiguous place in the world. Sure, we should still read it in the Middle English classroom, but aside from History of the English Language classes, how often do we study Middle English as a language alone? Rarely, and I certainly never took a Middle English language course. The only thing that remains, then, is the Old English classroom. You’ll have to read my 500-1000-word essay to find out what else I have to say about that, and how I might conceive of such a hybrid beast. For now, what I’ll leave you with is this: Everyone has a right to belong somewhere, and that isn’t any different for neglected areas of study, like early Middle English.