By Gillian Polack
For a while it was fashionable to write books set in academia, with old universities being the preferred settings. My favourite is and always will be Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night, but it’s not the book I shall write about today. Gaudy Night’s Medievalism is up front and very open, for Sayers’ includes her own high level of love for the Middle Ages in this detective novel, as she does in most of her work. Gaudy Night is also the novel where the more the reader knows about the particular university setting and the more the reader knows about the Middle Ages, the more they will get from the book… but that’s another topic.
Today, I want to talk about Robertson Davies. His academic world is permeated by the Middle Ages, but the setting is in Canada. In Toronto, to be precise. The Rebel Angels is the work that is of most interest to me today (although his Deptford Trilogy was more popular). It was published in 1982 and reached its peak influence in the following decade.
Much of the time, Toronto’s most publicly recognised closeness to the European Middle Ages consists of a nineteenth century mansion (Casa Loma) that looks vaguely medieval. The city itself has some very interesting and sometimes much more subtle connections, however, through the University of Toronto.
The echoes of the past link to the country’s own bond with a period before its modern existence and that leads to fake castles. Fake castles have an atmosphere all of their own and pretension is an important aspect of it. It’s a created past. This fits very nicely with the university, which is one of a number of institutions that interprets that past for us.
That pretension and that creation and that interpretation are all integral to Robertson Davies’ The Rebel Angels. The medieval lurks beneath the surface most of the time. Even Wikipedia admits the possible connections between Toronto’s actual Trinity College and Massey College and the locations and characters in The Rebel Angels. This aspect of the book (real people, real places serving as a base for fiction) has been well-studied.
I didn’t realise quite how close to the surface the medieval part of the real people component was when I first read the novel. It hit me in the face one day when I sat in the Common Room at the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies (PIMS). I had taken a year off from my Australian PhD to do a Masters at the Centre for Medieval Studies (CMS). I was chatting with a couple of friends who were themselves doing degrees at PIMS. The two institutions share facilities and it was quite ordinary to be in conversations with students whose PhD advisors were technically with PIMS.
One of my friends pointed out that the elderly gentleman who had just walked out of an office was one of the people Davies based a character on and, if I were staying longer, would be teaching me. I tried not to look as if I was watching when he walked down the stairs, through the common room and out the door.
Ironically, I remember all of this and have no recollection of what the man looked like nor what he was wearing. I remember he had white hair and that he had one hand on the bannister and that he wore a suit, but not whether he carried a briefcase or papers. Eye-witnesses are often not worth a great deal. Their focus and their trains of thought may not be what the collector-of-evidence expects.
My mind wasn’t collecting evidence for me, today. It bubbled with the realisation that transmission of the Middle Ages to the wider public had a vector I hadn’t considered. This was much easier for me to remember than faces or clothes. I read The Rebel Angels again and another friend pointed me towards Trinity College as a key source of inspiration for characters in the novel, and I finally caught up with Canadian literati on the subject.
I remember the names of the students who brought me up-to-date, but they are both senior in their fields – this is quite a different reason for remaining silent. The first reason was that I was seeing things from my way, and not asking the questions others might want answers to. The other reason is that I haven’t permission to give my friends’ names because the view of the Middle Ages I’m discussing here is heavily affected by gossip within a discipline. The Rebel Angels was a very popular novel about academia and some of his sources almost definitely paid for this (when graduate students gossip, the staff subject to the gossip may well be in interesting positions). I’m silent, then, because I’m making a point.
The potential for gossip and its side-effects is part of the wider view of a subject that the public dreams of, even when the public has no idea about the gossip. The link between The Rebel Angels and both PIMS and CMS was for the same reason I was in what was, technically, the PIMS common room that day: most scholars with some sort of expertise relating to the Middle Ages ended up in that common room. The Toronto Middle Ages in the mid-eighties, then, was communicated through disciplines ranging from Theology to English, and no-one was more than two links from anyone else.
Robertson Davies wasn’t the only person from the university to communicate an aspect of the Middle Ages through fiction (I do that now, after all) but he was a critical part of Canadian fiction at that time, and his use of people in those circles as inspiration for his characters and situations brought the way the Middle Ages is interpreted to the literary public. This wasn’t as clear as Casa Loma, for the focus seemed to be on eccentric academics and their world. The gossip network I temporarily joined was, in its way, a part of how Davies saw academics and how the Middle Ages was interpreted. I don’t know if he sat in the same common room, or if his connections were mainly through Massey College, but interdisciplinary work and teaching made the campus into a tight network back then.
Research is such a core part of the academic world that the paths that lead from it into the wider world need to be factored into the way we read the Middle Ages. That eccentricity and absurdity and sheer strangeness were linked to the way members of the public saw the Middle Ages in the eighties and nineties.
It’s clearer (to be honest) if you look at fiction set in Oxford or Cambridge. Gaudy Night depicted what I expected scholarly interpreters to look like and why it’s so endearing.
Robertson Davies brought a small community in Toronto into the picture and changed the way all his readers saw the Middle Ages. Whether they knew that their view was influenced by Davies’ characters is a question I cannot answer. I was only in Toronto that year. I was junior and passing and, for the most part, didn’t do more than shake the occasional hand of any academic who influenced Davies’ work.
The thing that’s important here, then, is not who was depicted nor even how they were depicted. It’s that writing academic specialists into fiction influences the way we interpret the subjects real scholars study. This changes over time. For a short period, my eccentricities were lauded because they matched the sense of the idiosyncratic Medievalist that some of Davies’ readers expected.
The body of fictional Medievalists adds up to a set of stereotypes of scholars. These stereotypes (often depicting eccentricity, as Davies does) influence how we interpret the non-fiction we read about the Middle Ages. They are the personality behind the voices we hear.
This changes when a scholar themselves has a powerful voice and a forceful public presence. Mary Beard’s voice has forced some of the academic types for Ancient History (especially Roman) aside: when she writes, we hear her and not a pastiche of Edward Gibbon. I’m not convinced we’re at this stage for Medievalists. Many readers still interpret the more esoteric non-fiction as emerging from the dens of peculiar or eccentric scholars, mostly male and mostly white.
It helps to think of The Rebel Angels and its ilk as sourcebooks. They are integral to understanding who helps us interpret the Middle Ages.
Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack