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In the December 16, 2021 issue of the magazine, Irina Dumitrescu reviews Matrix, Lauren Groff’s new historical novel about a medieval abbess, loosely based on the life of the poet Marie of France. The topic suited Dumitrescu, professor of medieval English literature at the University of Bonn, also an essayist and critic of contemporary literature, as comfortable discussing the work of Marie de France as that of Lauren Groff. “I’m a general practitioner at heart,” she wrote to me in an email this week.
Dumitrescu came to medieval literature by chance. When she enrolled in undergraduate courses at the University of Toronto, she realized that she couldn’t bear to choose the physics course she needed for her major in Human Biology – “My duty as a good immigrant was before medicine,” she said – and enrolled in an English seminar on a whim. She was addicted: “I actually hated all of my classes and did poorly. Without English, I probably would have dropped out of college altogether.
After changing her specialization, she decided to learn Old English, drawn to the fact that it was only a one-year study program. “I liked the idea of such a low commitment,” she wrote, “only a year to learn a language and then be done! It didn’t turn out quite as I expected. Soon she studied Latin, Old Icelandic, “then more, stranger varieties of Latin”. She was fascinated by medieval literature, in which she found “a distant world with occasional flashes of familiarity. It’s this tension between ways of being, thinking, and believing that are fundamentally inconceivable to me, and experiences that seem incredibly intimate and fresh to me, that I find so fascinating.
She gave the example of 15th-century woman Margery Kempe, who recorded her frequent divine visions and experience of participating in a mystical marriage with God, but also her struggles with her mortal husband, who suffered from dementia. “In particular, she complains about the amount of laundry she had to wash because of her incontinence and how this prevented her from spiritual contemplation,” Dumitrescu said. “How often do we find in the literature representations of women exhausted from caring for the elderly, or of their frustration at how it prevents them from pursuing their vocation? “
This proximity and distance also appeared in Dumitrescu’s scientific book in 2018 on the relationship between teacher and student described in ancient medieval writing, The educational experience in Anglo-Saxon literature. “Pre-modern teachers did not hesitate to incorporate difficult elements into their teaching,” she said. For example, boys were taught Latin dialogues in which an older monk would ask a student for a kiss, or drink alcohol, and the boy would refuse. “The real-life students who practiced these conversations learned to protect themselves in various situations that could arise in the monastery,” she explained:
The texts I studied for my book showed that teachers and students could be dangerous to each other, either out of hatred or out of desire. But just because a teaching relationship was antagonistic didn’t mean it had to be a failure. This is where I think medieval ideas of education split from our own: they saw dialogue, debate, even outright conflict, as essential elements of learning.
This dynamic is not far from Dumitrescu’s own complicated experience with a beloved but sometimes possessive and predatory college mentor, which she detailed in a recent essay for Long readings.
Dumitrescu began publishing essays and memoirs “on the sly” in his early thirties, on dance, food, immigration and language. (As a child, her family emigrated from Romania to Israel, then to Canada, and today she is fluent in English, Romanian and German; is fluent in French and Spanish; has knowledge of practiced Old and Middle English, Latin, Old Icelandic, Middle High German, and Old French, and relearned Hebrew and studied Yiddish as pandemic projects – a number of languages she rounds off to “Ten, give or take.”)
“I was aware that these pieces could be taken as a sign that I was not serious about my college career. At first, I kept them out of my CV and only mentioned them to my trusted colleagues. Later, I stopped hiding them, but I always kept my so-called “public” writings totally separate from my academic work. Ten years later, she began to merge the two forms. “I now use my essays to get the public to think about my research questions. At the same time, I cannot imagine writing a monograph again in a traditional scholarly style. “
Currently Dumitrescu is working on an academic book on the medieval roots of the celebrity she hopes to call Medieval divas– “I wonder if a press will let me out” – as well as a book for the general public on “how the people of the Middle Ages struggled with the strict and impossible ideals of their time”, contrary to the figure saint at the center of Le roman de Groff. “The project allows me to connect with medieval writers in a way that I rarely have as a scholar: as imperfect human beings doing their best to maintain a sense of self in a chaotic world. After the last two years of living with a pandemic, I feel closer to them than ever. “