Linking Lives: Autobiographical Criticism and Medieval Studies

Linking Lives: Autobiographical Criticism and Medieval Studies

Bartlett, Anne Clark

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 15 (1998)


I first encountered autobiographical criticism and medieval studies at a conference session when, as a coda to his paper, a scholar discussed the blisteringly negative reception that his latest book had received. The book had explored the functions of an authority figure in a Middle English narrative. At one point, it had situated this analysis within the Freudian notion of a “primal scene,” in which the child is exposed to his parents’ sexuality and confronts his own sublimated desires.

The epilogue in question related how this scholar had come to view his books unexpected reception as sort of a “family romance” in itself, rather than a tragedy. It led him to recognize and reflect on his own roles in the various “primal scenes” of academic politics, critical practice, and personal response. This coda was deftly delivered, tactful, and eloquent, and it added an additionally rich layer to the already-complex texture of the original presentation. I was profoundly moved, and turned immediately to a colleague behind me to suggest that we organize a session on medieval studies and autobiographical criticism.

Two years later, at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, I organized and responded to a session on “Autobiographical Criticism and Medieval Studies.” Our panelists approached the “discourse of the personal” in a variety of ways. One described how her recent battle against breast cancer had deepened her understanding of Julian of Norwich’s Showings. Another reflected on the relationship between her Judaism and her scholarship on medieval anti-semitism. A respondent questioned the authority of personal experience in Autobiographical Criticism. She pointed out astutely that the speaking subject itself must submit to interpretation, if the self is held to be as significant as the text. The response to this session was literally overwhelming. After our speakers had finished, audience members clamored to be heard. They wanted to share their own experiences (both academic and personal), to relate how their lives had shaped their interpretive lenses, and to debate the viability of autobiographical criticism as a critical tool.

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