The University of Leicester has recently announced a decision to remove Medieval Studies from its English Literature department, replacing these modules with ones that focus on ethnicity, sexuality and diversity.
On the surface, this decision to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ seems progressive; an active movement towards the change that so many campaigned for last summer. I campaigned for it: I signed numerous petitions, wrote letters to my old school and my friends and, after identifying the gaps in our own university curriculum, started a Black Lives Matter shared library, where we exchanged books that amplified black voices and encouraged us to engage actively in the project of decolonisation.
The problem, however, is that Leicester’s decision does not actually decolonise the curriculum. It just changes it, excluding a hugely important part of the decolonisation educational enterprise – understanding the psychology of the colonial process involved. By removing any pre-1600 literature, you remove the possibility of engaging with – from both a literary and a sociological perspective – the antecedents of present-day attitudes.
So much literature that can be called post-colonial is in direct dialogue with colonial work; Derek Walcott’s poetry, for example, is hugely rich in allegory from all periods of literary history. Without an understanding of pre-modern literature, so much of the power of his work is lost. In removing medieval and early modern literature from a syllabus, you don’t expand the conversation. You limit it, forcing it into a symptomatic discussion that can’t engage with the deeper rooted elements of a text. Additionally, you disadvantage your students. You stop them from becoming proficient students of literature and limit their capacity to analyse texts right from the root of the discipline.
The removal of Medieval Studies is concerning not just because it elides a vital part of the decolonisation project, but because pre-modern literature is incredibly rich in and of itself. It is too often dismissed as being far less complex than the more recent texts on my syllabus. I thought this, until I studied it. But unfortunately for my housemates, who can attest to my somewhat ridiculous desire to wax lyrically about Chaucer’s prosody and the conceptions of gender in 13th century devotional literature, I fell entirely in love.
This stereotype is not just wrong – it’s dangerous. It demonstrates an attitude to history and to the past more broadly that is concerning. If we rip the foundations of our disciplines from the institutions that are supposed to protect them, we enter a dangerous narrative of exorcising the material that we no longer agree with.
This decision also reconfigures English Literature – and humanities degrees more widely – as something that must always be put to marketable, purposeful use. They must allow you to participate in the current conversation, and with very immediate benefit, and while this is (for obvious reasons – both employability and, you know, existing in the real world) important, studying literature is wonderful because it is enriching for reasons beyond this. Largely (last week’s essay crisis aside), it’s incredibly enjoyable, and not only because it exposes you, crucially, to a range of voices from the past and present. It forces you to critically analyse and assess your own thinking.
Indeed, Durham’s English Department launched a ‘Postcolonial and World Literatures Module’, with an expansive reading list covering all corners of the globe, and every side of the debate. However, this is not at the loss of its breadth; it is still served with pre-modern modules that expand – rather than reduce – the conversation. The two complement each other, and crucially, prove that the conversations around colonisation and amplification of marginalised voices are not new. Just take a look at the way Hildegaard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe negotiate authority.
Leceister’s decision, while well-meaning, is symptomatic of a wider complex; pretending that the history did not happen does not erode it. It echoes, concerningly, of the worrying distaste for anything that might upset others; of a narrative that it is easier to just not talk about these things than to confront them head-on.
Photograph: Clay Banks via Unsplash