mardi 28 avril 2009

The Middle Ages



Marie de France, at her writing desk


The main difference between being a graduate student when you're in your twenties (as I was) and being one when you're in your fifties (which I am) is that when you decide to skip class, it isn't because you stayed up too late partying. It's because you stayed up too late meeting a work-related deadline and must meet another one by tomorrow.
Another difference is that when you're in your twenties and you skip a class, you might feel guilty but you don't feel disappointed. In your fifties, you feel disappointed but not guilty. I would rather be discussing Marie de France and her fabulous lais (ballads, stories) with a bunch of twenty-year olds than putting the finishing touches on an annual report.
When I decided to begin my graduate work in French studies with a course in Ancient French instead of taking the Nouvelle Vague cinema class that sounded way better, I felt virtuous. I was opting for the good and utile over the easy and fun. Indeed, Ancient French is an entirely different language from modern French (quoique..) and it is very difficult. The fact that it often appears in verse form doesn't help. However, I had no idea that it would be so fascinating. I think part of the fascination lies in the difficulty. I am beginning to understand that most of the things worth doing, and most of the things that procure satisfaction, are difficult to do.
Not that I think everything should be hard. Far from it. For example, some people (people who watch Oprah too much?) seem to think that a relationship is something hard to maintain and that it requires work. Nonsense! If it requires too much work then it is not fun and probably not worth pursuing. I think that it should be easy, natural and enjoyable at least 75% of the time or it won't work over the long run.
What does this have to do with Marie de France? Nothing, really, except maybe that relationships have not changed all that much since the early Middle Ages. In the Laostic (laostic is a slang term among the ancient Bretons for rossignol, which is French for nightingale), the female protagonist is mal mariée and in love with her neighbor -- one of two barons in the town of St Malo and a bachelor. Her husband is the other baron. She and her lover work out a system for communicating with one another, but they eventually get busted by her suspicious husband. All that work for naught.