A Dark Age for Medievalists
At their annual congress in Kalamazoo, it's no longer your grandfather's Middle Ages.
Jun 2, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 36 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Persels's paper didn't discuss the play simply as an example of Rabelaisian-style scatology, however. The perspective he used was the postmodernist discipline of "cultural studies," which means pushing works of literature (or movies or television shows or ad campaigns or whatever) through a Marxist cheesegrater as examples of the way society conditions its members to accept the views of a dominant class. In Persels's view, the wine-bottle farce marked a stage in the development of what he called the "bourgeois fecal habitus." Translated out of postmodern-ese into plain English, that means the tendency of uptight middle-class people not to want to talk in public about matters pertaining to the bathroom and to assume that those who do are kind of crude. "The excretory experience became associated with the proletariat," Persels explained. Although he seemed eager to demonstrate that he personally didn't share those uptight middle-class views, at least one of the academics in his audience remained unconvinced that a secret bourgeois habitus didn't lurk underneath his antinomian veneer. "Excretory?" she whispered to a fellow medievalist sitting next to her. "Why doesn't he just say shit?"
And you thought that the Middle Ages was all about jousting knights and damsels in distress. That's because you have never attended the medievalists' congress, the annual first-weekend-in-May ritual at Western Michigan where Persels read his wine-bottle theorizing and where it is definitely not your grandfather's Middle Ages. Persels's paper was part of a Thursday morning panel titled "Waste Studies: Excrement in the Middle Ages" and devoting a full hour and a half to human effluvia. The other two scholars that morning read papers dealing with excrement in Icelandic sagas and the theology of latrines.
Waste studies is a brand new academic discipline invented by Susan Signe Morrison, a dark-haired, extroverted 49-year-old professor of English at Texas State University's San Marcos campus and mother of two (her husband is also an English professor) who organized the session and admitted with good-humored candor in an email that her new field's disgust-provoking subject matter might be a "challenge" to scholars thinking about specializing in it. Morrison's own specialty as a medievalist used to be women on pilgrimages, but then she got the idea for her latest book, Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer's Fecopoetics, forthcoming this September. In her email she explained that the idea for the fecal book came to her partly because she noticed that dung and privies played a role in the works of Chaucer, Dante, and other medieval authors, and partly because her "son was potty-training." And so a new scholarly industry was born.
The guru of waste studies seems to be David Inglis, a sociologist at the University of Aberdeen who coined the phrase "fecal habitus" and whose 2001 book, A Sociological History of Excretory Experience, argued that avoiding scatological topics in polite conversation is a repressive Western bourgeois hang-up. Inglis's theories fit right in with other concepts dear to the postmodernist heart of academia--"discourse," the "Other," matters "transgressive," "bodies" (in the world of postmodernism there are hardly any people, just "bodies"), etc.--so professors of literature, religious studies, and other branches of the humanities eagerly expropriated Inglis's ideas and applied them in their own endeavors. As one of the panelists, University of Oregon English professor Martha Bayless, put it with the opacity that is de rigueur in postmodernist theory, "The body is not a neutral site."