On romanticising struggles past and present: Print Collection intern Adelaide Greig speaks about history, the pandemic and the importance of university communities

Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia, 1514, engraving.
Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia, 1514, engraving.

Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholia is arguably one of the most famous prints in the Baillieu Library Print Collection. There have been many interpretations of the engraving—from its complex iconography, potential for allegory and to theories of the four temperaments. One of these interpretations, forwarded by art historians Karl Giehlow and Erwin Panofsky explores the titular theme of melancholy and how it plays into the enduring myth of the artist, where the creative genius exists at the crossroads of inspiration, dedication, and essential mental anguish. Even today, the aggrandising myth of the creative mind persists, and inspiration and a lonesome, isolated existence are often conflated as one. For better or for worse, we tend to romanticise the difficulties our existence.

For Adelaide Greig, currently interning at the Print Collection and completing her Masters in Arts, an isolated pursuit of her studies is all too familiar “At times, I feel like a monk who has taken a vow of silence working away on illuminating a manuscript within a monastery” she says on studying remotely under quarantine. But after months of lockdowns, and as everyone is now familiar, a chosen life of solitude lies in stark contrast from one in which it is enforced. “Spending months on end researching in isolation has made me appreciate when people talk about the “experience” of doing a degree […] Since ancient times, academics have gathered in groups to discuss and debate their ideas, and the things you read, write down, discover, seem a little more hollow when not bouncing off the springboards of other people’s minds.”

Adelaide is completing her thesis in medieval literature with a focus on writers Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes, who both contributed to medieval re-interpretations of the Arthurian legends. While she’s fostered an interest in these myths since a young age, pursuing them on an academic level was solidified in the third year of her bachelor’s degree: “I became fascinated with the idea that medieval people could have had the same experience with reading fantasy that I have. […] when people in the twelfth century were reading romances set in Arthur’s time, they were envisioning those stories to be set centuries before their own, thus bathed in the same fantastical nostalgia us modern readers have for “medieval” times of strong, horse-riding, flowing haired warriors.”

Implicated in her love for the discipline—and all its idyllic mythos—is the need to disrupt some of its more negative associations: “Medievalist studies, including literature, art, history etc., have been forced recently to confront the exclusionary nature of the field” she says. This includes the highly idealised gender roles and racial blindsiding, or the adoption of “medieval” symbols and phrases by white nationalist rhetoric.

Commenting on our tendency to romanticise (or indeed create false associations of) this history she says, “Nostalgia for the medieval period is an interesting one, as it presents this image of honour, acts of bravery and courtesy, and grand fortresses full of beautiful ladies in bright coloured dresses, but there is also an enduring idea of the Middle Ages of nothing but mud, war, and plague ridden rats. I’m not sure what the word for the opposite of nostalgia is but people definitely also have that for medieval times! I think that demonstrates how humans are very good at picking at whichever bits they like and constructing a seemingly full picture with them which suits what the individual wants to believe, and that’s something that happened with the contemporary readers of medieval romance, and people still today.”

Adelaide’s thesis examines representations of infertile women and how the successes and struggles of child-bearing was included in medieval romances as an early form of speculative fiction.

Researching under lockdown has its obvious practical challenges. Adelaide says that although she’s grateful that the pandemic hit at a time when researching online is very possible—and indeed virtual resources are nothing new considering what she studies—studying off campus is a lesson in the limitations of technology. “When the library is open, I can see one book referenced in another, quickly find it on the shelf, pull out the one or two notes I need on a particular point, put it back, and move on. Without that access, one has to decide whether it is worth going to the effort of requesting a book, making someone package it up for you, wait a week or more for it to arrive, and then have it sitting in your room, thus not allowing anyone else to use it.”

But the loss of campus is more than the loss of convenience. It is the fundamental secondary function of the university as a communal and social space—the camaraderie of being around other students in the library, at the cafes, and which loses its organic spontaneity online—which Adelaide most sorely misses. “I’ve seen a few memes regarding how Shakespeare wrote a few plays during quarantine for the plague and how we can all still be productive, but somewhat reductive (and questionably accurate) comments like that do not consider the difference between choosing to work alone, and being forced into [it], seemingly without reprieve. I think the latter takes a very quiet mental toll which one becomes accustomed to overtime, but still lingers. Researching in isolation has given me the time to singularly focus on my project that I otherwise wouldn’t have had, but I cannot wait to be back sitting in the library, amidst the hubbub of other students.”

She adds: “[When we look back on this time, we] will be remembering only a small part of the experience we’re having right now. It seems looking back with selective vision has long been a habit of the human psyche, and will continue to be part of how we construct our present in relation to our past.”

How we romanticise and give into nostalgia of past experiences should undoubtedly be with a healthy dose of scepticism, because by nature of remembering the past with a rosy glow, we gloss over that which was unsavoury. But in much the same way as we imagine the medieval period to be a time of mythical creatures and fair maidens, or the creative mind a luxuriously tormented genius, there is undoubtedly a kind of poetry or beauty in struggle which persists.

At least in Adelaide’s case, she says: “I hope for our sake, along of course with everyone’s else, that this will be over soon and will be back with our books, our takeaway coffees, and each other.”

Bianca Arthur-Hull

Special Collections Blogger

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