Tuesday, March 31, 2015

About an Anglo-Saxon Eye Salve

A number of news reports have avowed that an Anglo-Saxon topical ointment has substantial antibacterial properties. As pieces from ITV News, Claire Wilson of New Scientist, and Vanessa Heggie of The Guardian all note, the ointment, or rather its recipe, derives from Bald's Leechbook, held in the British Library, a tenth-century collection of medical knowledge and recorded practice. As the ITV and Wilson pieces both note, the ointment is as effective as the best modern medicines against MRSA, and the prospect of finding more such gems in the works of old offers an answer to some of the questions frequently voiced by students--undergraduate and graduate both--who find themselves obliged to take coursework treating the medieval: Why do we need to study this? Why does this still matter? Haven't we moved past this?

We study the medieval because it has more to teach us about the world, as an earlier entry to this webspace notes no less than the study on which the three news releases report. And when we do, we are reminded that the medievals were not less intelligent than we. They were in some ways less informed, certainly, lacking knowledge gained only by way of technology to which they did not have access. And they had bad ideas, to be sure. But the same is true for us; we cannot know what we lack the capacity to perceive, and not all of our ideas are good, as the still-sad state of the world makes clear.

The things for the Society to attend to as bear in on the current revelation, then, are these:

1) How will current science continue to deploy the medieval? Will it look to medievalists for their expertise on it? Will they continue to test out what the medievals did to see how much sense their ideas still make? How will such trials be taken up into the prevailing popular consciousness of the world? In effect, what will science prompt the non-scientist to appreciate about the medieval?

2) How will medievalist popular media begin to integrate the revelations of current science into its refiguration of the medieval? As knowledge of the medieval progresses and develops, treatments of the medieval in mainstream media can easily be enriched, nuanced, complicated, and thereby made more authentic and compelling. Or they may not be. Either has implications for what the continued deployment of the medieval means.

3) While interdisciplinary work is valued, and valorization of the humanities departments in which much medieval work is done is welcome, the Society and its members should be wary of the subordination of the humanities to STEM fields, as the comment with which Heggie concludes threatens to imply. Those who work in humanities fields are already too-much seen as adjunct or servitor to STEM fields, and while they are worthy endeavors, they are not more worthy than the humanities. While an instrumental reason to maintain humanities studies is helpful, it must not become the only reason offered for that maintenance.

The medieval manifests in many ways in the post-medieval. Many of them need celebrating. All of them need examination.

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