Old Books: Old Friends, False Friends?

I’ve been re-reading Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds (also available in an out-of-copyright edition at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook), preparatory to leading my seminar students in a discussion of the work. This will be the fourth time I’ve read the book (twice in the last four months, alone).

Every time I re-read a book, I discover new elements or rediscover new aspects to deepen my understanding. Some are wonderful tidbits to crow over and collect for my mental memory-book. Others are realizations to ponder. It’s not so far-fetched to say that old books are old friends but sometimes they’re not all that familiar.

Much as I love the humble and human level of story-telling in Jocelin’s account of his Abbey’s high-flying leader, Samson, and the community’s role in the Angevin world, it’s not entirely an easy read. Bringing the book to my senior seminar the other week, I asked them to unravel some of anti-Semitism in the chronicle. My last review before teaching had made that element stand out all the more to me. I elucidated the context of stories such as “Little Sir Hugh” for them so they understood how some of the references you could easily gloss over in Jocelin were part of the virulent and hateful attitude. They agreed with me that it was a disturbing reality check in their otherwise comfortable chronicle reading.

Thinking all of this through makes my smile dim as I put Jocelin back on the bookshelf beside my desk. I still admire the book but I don’t know how much I can enjoy it even if I enjoy teaching it all the more for using the Chronicle as a way to approach such an important subject. It’s a useful book but I’m struck, anew, by how the past is not a place I’d have wanted to inhabit more than my own time.

Have you ever had to negotiate this same unsettling realization in your reading or teaching?

Extra bonus: Steeleye Span performing “Little Sir Hugh”



Filed under history

2 responses to “Old Books: Old Friends, False Friends?

  1. Would that be Hugh of Lincoln? (I saw his supposed one time resting place this fall.)

    Part of me loves certain pieces of literature and is horrified at the same time. The Rape of Lucrece comes to mind, for example. How can I love a poem about rape? And yet…

    • J Liedl

      Yes, the reality is that so much of the literature of our earlier periods is disturbingly misogynist, racist or intolerant. I can’t stomach Sir Thomas More in just about any form after spending too many months reading his tedious and sometimes plain nasty Reformation tracts. That’s too bad since there’s so much good in his other writings!