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Questing for the Past

What made me a medievalist? I don’t know—I was fifteen when I stepped into the thirteenth-century Parisian chapel Sainte-Chapelle, feeling my breath catch inside the kaleidoscope of stained glass. Later, something flickered when my teacher read a section of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight out loud during my senior year of high school, and the Middle English made me go still with all its strange yet slightly familiar sounds. Surely, I was already hooked by the time I saw the vaulted ceiling of the Wells Cathedral in England as a junior in college and spontaneously began to weep. That moment sounds a lot like epiphany, but I don’t think my love for medieval stuff ever broke in quite that way—there was no thunderclap, only a series of encounters that undid me, then organized things into place. 

Now that I’m a PhD student in English and French medieval literature at the University of Virginia, I don’t cry in medieval churches anymore. And in Virginia, there aren’t any to visit anyway. So when I need to feel inspired, I make a little pilgrimage to special collections instead, which houses the university’s rare books. Our reading room is in a basement, and it’s full of hush and glow. When I’m trying to remember why I’m a scholar, I request early print editions of Chaucer and Boccaccio. When I have a bad teaching day and things get really dire, I ask for the medieval Book of Hours fragments, remnants of ornate devotional texts. I like to look at the illuminations in the margins and rub the parchment between my fingers—contrary to popular belief, you don’t normally wear gloves when handling manuscripts. I’ve been here for three years now, but it still stirs up something in me when I look at those beautiful books.

During one visit to special collections in my first semester of graduate school, I was examining the endpapers of an 1864 print copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for a class project when I noticed a bookplate pasted down on the inside cover. “Bennett Wood Green MD,” it read, alongside a wood-block image of a scholar next to a globe. How lovely, I fantasized—that someone long ago had loved this book that I love, and then donated it to the library. Underlines and margin notes spidered the pages, and I imagined, with fondness, that they were Green’s. Who was he, I wondered, this fellow medievalist of times gone by?

As I left the archive that day, dreaming up Green, I opened my laptop and showed it to the librarian as required, to prove I hadn’t stolen anything. Believe it or not, people scalp title pages, excise illustrations, pilfer letters, etc.

It’s possible to do all kinds of horrible things with books.

Green bounced around in the back of my brain for the next few days, in between poetics seminars and office hours, until finally, over late-night cereal, I dug up a 1974 article by Parke Rouse Jr. that detailed Green’s life. Bennett Wood Green was born in 1835 on Virginia’s coast, then cut his intellectual teeth at the University of Virginia’s medical school before graduating in 1855. Six years later, civil war broke out while Green was serving in the U.S. Navy. He jumped ship, so to speak, to perform surgeries for the Confederacy in a naval hospital and later aboard iron-clad warships like the CSS Stonewall during the bloodiest war fought on U.S. soil.

After Robert E. Lee’s loss and the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox, Green fled Virginia for Córdoba, Argentina, where he lived for fourteen years in self-imposed exile. He wasn’t alone, though—between ten and twenty thousand Confederates absconded to Central and South America following the war, as scholars like Cyrus B. Dawsey, James M. Dawsey, and Alan P. Marcus have noted. Argentina had already abolished slavery by the time Green moved there and had set to refashioning itself as a white nation of European descent while systematically rendering Afro-Argentines invisible. In Hiding in Plain Sight, a study of how Black Argentine women recast their racial identities in the country’s late colonial and early republican periods, Erika Denise Edwards described Córdoba’s “institutionalized whitening” as part of a“concerted effort of republican-sponsored black erasure.

Read entire article at Oxford American