Another in our series of features, Merton Lockdown Stories, bringing you news of how the College community is adapting and responding to these strangest of times.
The college’s Fitzjames Research Fellow in Medieval English Literature, Daniel Sawyer, describes what it’s like to keep the academic wheels turning during a global health crisis:
On 12 May I opened a parcel containing copies of my new book. This felt anticlimactic: before the virus, a new book meant a launch party. It’ll probably be a long time before such events happen again.
It was good luck, though, that I’d finished researching this project before the lockdown began. Physical books remain essential to my field, Middle English literature, and many of the manuscripts we study haven’t been digitized, making them inaccessible right now. My colleagues and I have shifted to a different, more limited model of research: alongside my new book in the picture above is an old printed facsimile of a Bodleian manuscript.
Many of us are wondering what the writers we study would make of the present moment. They were, sadly, all too familiar with deadly diseases. One Middle English poem surviving in a late manuscript worries over an ill loved one:
Ho but ye may me sustayne,
Ar of my gref be the remedy,
But ye sone have amendement of yowre maledy?
‘Who but you’, the anonymous poet writes, roughly speaking, ‘can sustain me, or be remedy for my grief, if you don’t soon recover from your malady?’ It’s some comfort to be reminded that our past counterparts watched and worried over the sick while feeling some of the things we do.
It’s some comfort, too, of course, that we know much more about illness now than fourteenth- and fifteenth-century people did. I think they’d envy our knowledge of the danger and our societal capacity to respond. Many college members and alumni are working at the medical coalface or in research on the virus and potential vaccines.
Meanwhile, the rest of us paradoxically both wait and keep working. My book arrived during what was otherwise a busy teaching week and, at the time of writing, my third-year students are sitting finals. They have been doing a lot of what my book’s title promises: Reading English Verse. I will be hoping for every success for them.
The facsimile pictured reproduces Bodleian Library MS Fairfax 16, and the poem quoted is taken from Cambridge University Library, MS Ff.i.6, folio 28 verso. Dr Sawyer’s book, Reading English Verse in Manuscript c.1350–c.1500, is published by Oxford University Press.