Ye Olde Enthusiasm

One of the many items of contention in my parents’ long custody battle was my overdue library books. It’s true: I had a lot of them. I regularly maxed out the 50-book limit and agonized over which volumes to leave behind, and, although I loved their weight, their promise of another world, the books, well—they tended to go missing. Assuming responsibility for my library fines was a commitment worthy of court mediation.

The teetering piles I braced between my arms and chin were mostly history books. I was obsessed with ancient civilizations: ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, Babylonia, the Incan Empire, the Ghana Empire, and Tang Dynasty China. I don’t remember where this obsession began, only that I had checked out every book in the adult section and the children’s section of the library between the call number 909, World History, and 939, History of the Ancient World. The children’s librarians saved the boxes of new books for me; I leafed through them at leisure, reveling in being the first patron—a term itself pleasingly antique—to touch their staticky plastic jackets and swipe them through the checkout.

I kept checking out one book in particular. It was a slim hardcover children’s book on medieval England. The spine would fall open to my favorite page, where there was a cutaway illustration of a castle’s kitchen. A small boy turned a spitted pig over the hearth, a cook hung medicinal herbs up to dry, a steward marked stores of dry goods in a ledger. Elsewhere on the page were velveted lords and ladies, but in this kitchen corner of the castle, people lived recognizable lives. My sense of recognition made me all the more fascinated. These people cooked, got sick, worried about money. They didn’t know what the future would hold, that their world would gradually change until their way of living was explained in books to faraway girls. What would they make of me, with my light-up sneakers? Would they be fascinated, too, or (and this was somewhat thrilling) terrified? Would I, a chubby preteen in a training bra with basic knowledge of world history, germ theory, and the scientific method, be a witch or an angel or a prophetess to them?

I decided to bring that 600-year-old world to 10-year-old me. First, I needed to become British. No problem, I’d seen enough Monty Python VCRs to ape an accent. As we walked to the bus stop, my neighbor Amanda pointed to her wrist: “See my new bracelet?” she said. “Uh … aye,” I floundered, the words coming out in Piratese. “Right, um, right pretty.” Although the accent didn’t hold up to 5th-grade social pressures and my brothers’ jeering, I moved my Renaissance Faire cosplay to other, more secret, areas. I wrote my homework with a fake quill pen. I practiced illuminating the first letters of book chapters with little heraldic animals. I tried eating my dinner with a pocket knife, the closest approximation to an eating knife that I could think of, before too many cuts to the tongue deterred even me. My enthusiasm for the long-ago people I read about consumed me; I wanted not only to read about them, but to be them.

This continued, truthfully, for longer than I’d like to admit. By college I was, ostensibly, earning a Bachelor of Science in Speech and Hearing Science, but my electives were full of literature courses where I read Robin Hood ballads, The Faerie Queene, Chaucer, and more. I learned terms like “hegemony” and “early modern.” Eventually, I abandoned the pretense of my science degree and, with much relief and familial horror, devoted myself entirely to English literature.

Despite the overwhelming rightness I felt, I wasn’t sure how to study something like medieval English literature. The first and last injunction of a Speech and Hearing Science major was objectivity. Writing your opinion in an essay or report was usually considered demonstrating bias, and my superiors in the research lab where I worked had detailed protocols to prevent any shade of personal, cultural, or educational influence from entering our work. Attempting complete neutrality came easily with a subject I had always been dispassionate about, but most of my knowledge of English came from a flashlight under my duvet cover and, later, heady trips through Wikipedia rabbit holes. My knowledge was not methodical or grounded. Its power was the power of pure enthusiasm, and I knew it.

So, when my first English literature professors told me never to use the first person, and to keep myself and the author out of my analyses, I was very pleased. I wrote “one thinks” instead of “I think” and congratulated myself. Much later, I learned that this stricture against using first-person was quickly (and rightly) going out of pedagogical style, but at the time it reinforced a deep fear that I had about English—one that had, in fact, informed my ambivalence about studying it at all. How could I speak academically about something I loved so deeply? Wasn’t the “purest” knowledge essentially free of enthusiasm?

That’s why, when I saw Ruth Goodman on the 2013 BBC show Tudor Monastery Farm, I was enthralled. Available in full on YouTube, the show is a quintessential BBC docuseries.

In the series, three experts live on a simulated sixteenth-century tenant farm, teaching viewers about the daily and seasonal rhythms of Tudor-era farming life. Ruth shares title credits with archaeologists Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold, but her sheer exuberance frequently steals the show. In the second episode, Peter and Tom wrestle an unwilling sheep into a pond, hoping to wash its wool before shearing. Ruth, in heavy woolen skirts and knee-deep in pond water, gets down to business and rinses the angry sheep’s coat, sensibly pointing out: “If it’s all glued together with dung, you can’t use it. It becomes unsaleable.” The sheep emerges from the pond with a soaked, muddy brown fleece, looking dirtier than ever, and the trio follows it to the sheep pen to contemplate their work. “It sort of worked, didn’t it?” Ruth beams, yellow sun on her face. “I’ll be honest, I thought it was great fun,” she confides to the camera with a laugh.

Throughout all six episodes, in which she takes part in activities as varied as harvesting wild yeast for ale, carding wool, observing religious festivals, and making rushlights (“About the same as a candle flame, isn’t it? … Smells a lot worse”), Goodman models a combination of scholarship and enthusiasm in a way that minimizes neither. Her historical knowledge and technical skills are on display right alongside her joy at the marvels of excavating a long-ago way of life. It had never occurred to me that enthusiasm could strengthen and grow knowledge, and that there was scholarly value in loving what you studied. I found Goodman’s example empowering. Rather than compartmentalizing myself into a scholarly side and an enthusiastic side, I could bring all of myself to the table.

Now, looking back, I see the slim hardback from the library whose spine fell open to my favorite page as playing a foundational role in my decision to pursue literary study. Many academics feel the irresistible pull of another world across time and space, whether that world is microscopic organisms or the literary salons of Paris. Sometimes the enthusiasm wanes as soon as the paper is finished (or long before), and other times it lasts years, decades, lifetimes. As academics in the humanities face increasing threats from forces inside and outside the university, pressure is mounting to look outside of ourselves to the ways that administrators, legislators, and community members perceive our work—or don’t perceive it at all. Understandably, our instinct is often to emphasize our expertise and training. Yet looking at the ways our work is deeply tied to ourselves doesn’t (and shouldn’t) negate its value, and aligning our work with the stereotypical values of the hard sciences misses a crucial part of any academic field. Loving what you study and being deeply qualified to study it don’t oppose one another; the title “enthusiast” doesn’t have to translate to “amateur.”

Students like me need permission to invest in the books that they max out their renewals on, that they pore over until whole pages are impressed on their brains, that inspire them to imagine far-flung lives. Valuing students’ enthusiasm means valuing their instincts. It means esteeming the raw and personal alongside a college curriculum’s emphasis on specialization. It means encouraging students to look at the fascinations and obsessions and curiosities that grow from their lived experiences and to invest a measure of trust in them as enthusiasts and as experts.

Jessica Wiggins is an MA candidate in English Literature at Wright State University.

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