Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Students Learn Irony and Sophistication Through Medieval Literature

by Jonathan Eubanks

This spring semester, like many spring semesters before, Dr. Creighton Lindsay is teaching his Medieval Literature course for the College II class.  The course is known for both its knowledgeable and engaging professor and its rich and extensive material.  This pivotal academic adventure, pivotal for the role it plays in the formation of the students academically, spiritually, and personally, accompanies and guides the students on a journey through the age after the fall of the Roman Empire up until the Renaissance, covering such texts as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, and even the great Shakespearean tragedy Othello.

Dr. Lindsay is very knowledgeable about these works of literature and about the history of the people and their cultures. As one student from the class, Emilio Gonzalez, put it, "The professor is awesome.  The way Dr. Lindsay teaches is with a lot of passion, so it's very easy to go to class.  And it is a very good environment [in which] to learn."

Being accompanied by Dr. Lindsay's extensive knowledge of the cultures and histories, the literature, such as Boccaccio's The Decameron, enlightens the reader about a time when the world was in turmoil.  However, it was also a time when the Church was growing and spreading.  Educated monks and priests worked diligently to preserve the faith, as well as their own culture, in a world that could have easily been destroyed by the many other hardships affecting their livelihood.  In his class Dr. Lindsay mentioned the consensus amongst scholars that Beowulf was written by a monk, most likely of Saxon birth, and preserved by a monastic community for centuries in England.

When asked how his class fits our formation as future priests, Dr. Lindsay responded, "Almost all of the texts we read are in the context of Christianity, and it shows, I think, the development of a very sophisticated authorial understanding of Christianity."  He points out that there is a metamorphosis that occurs in what the students read.  In Beowulf and in the poems that they read at the beginning of the semester, there is a "piety that is sophisticated" in the literature, but "the sense of narrative potential hasn't been quite explored at the same level that you get, for example, with Chaucer.  I see it fitting into formation because you can watch in one semester the development of that sophistication.  That sophistication, really, is attached to irony."

According to Dr. Lindsay, irony plays an important role in the lives of the medieval authors.  He focuses a large portion of his energy on educating his students about the importance of irony in their own lives.  He said, "Irony gives us the appreciation, irony gives us a more attuned ear to, not just the language of those people around us, but also to the possibilities of joy in life."

One of the assignments that Dr. Lindsay has his students do in his class is a practice of memorization.  The student is tasked with either reciting the first eighteen lines of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in contemporary English (or for extra credit in Middle English), or reciting a Shakespearean sonnet.  Dr. Lindsay said, "You get the music of the language in your ear in a more profound way than you do simply reading it off the page."

He also used a sports analogy to convey the point that memorizing something makes the student feel like they have conquered an obstacle, and that this accomplishment is important for building character in the student.

How does Dr. Lindsay see the benefit of his course for future priests?  He said, "I think that we could go on forever about that, but I would have to defer to my good friend Fr. Paschal. That if you can enjoy that irony that we find in Chaucer, that sort of deep understanding of the world that means, I think, that translates into you as a priest."

As priests the students will have to minister to all kinds of people and in many different situations.  Dr. Lindsay, quoting Fr. Paschal, said that it is important for a priest to have "a wide understanding of the world," and as the students read the texts of the class they in turn "become more sophisticated."  This point of contact for not only the course but all of literature seems to be a crucial axiom for the students and further leads them, like Emilio, to get excited about going to class.

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