Right now I am teaching a course I developed a few years ago called “Perspectives on Islam in the Age of Dante.” It offers a glimpse into the Middle Ages with a unique twist: the European perspective on Islam, both negative and positive, as well as medieval Muslim perspectives on their own religion and culture. This course is eye-opening in terms of our own stereotypes about the European Middle Ages AND our own modern, “western” perspective on Islam itself.
I am incredibly lucky to have an enthusiastic and engaged class who love digging into the material and discussing ideas and perspectives. They accept the challenge of difficult readings and come ready to confront well established “norms” and expectations. I absolutely love teaching this course, and this year more than ever.
Reviewing and preparing the material also reminds me why I love teaching the Middle Ages. It is a time period which seems quite remote and inscrutable from our contemporary perspective, and yet I have no difficulty getting into the minds of the authors and the characters and emotions they discuss. Dorky, homely Dante who gets so nervous when he sees his beloved Beatrice that he runs out of the room and throws up in the bushes? Yup, I get it. Boccaccio, who loves to make fun of everyone and anything, who loathes political correctness and enjoys shaking up societal norms? Yes, I totally get that as well. The Sufi poets who can find creative ways to express their desire for divine union, who depict their love affair with God as a love affair with a beautiful but aloof woman? Their genius makes me smile every time. I feel at home in the Middle Ages. I feel as if I could stretch my hand back through time and touch these people, befriend them, empathize with their joys and their woes which are really no different from our own. I’m hoping that, with this course, my students will begin to feel this kinship with a time long past as well, and they will begin to see how much we share – good and bad – with those writers who lived centuries ago. That in fact, we might have something to learn from the Middle Ages.
What, you ask, does this have to do with knitting? Good question. At face value, it has nothing to do with knitting. My teaching and research are a different part of my life altogether. Or are they? I love knitting, in part, because it is a way to stretch my hand back into the past. To grasp tangibly the artisanship of working with one’s hands and designing products that are both beautiful and functional. Knitting existed in the Middle Ages, of course – it dates back at least to ancient Egypt – and we have several pictorial examples of knitting to remind us of its role in the domestic household.
More than this historical fact, however, a primary draw of knitting for me is the desire to connect with the past in a meaningful way. Our own garments are quite different than those worn in the Middle Ages, but they still provide the same basic functionality. I love to think of Dante Alighieri harumphing around town in his hand-knitted stocking cap while bemoaning his fate as a rudderless exile. I love to think of Boccaccio putting on his extra thick knitted socks in the cold of winter as he prepares his parchment and quill for another bawdy tale about nuns and monks dallying behind the potting shed.
I’ve completed a collection of garments which I hope will bring the Middle Ages to life in an interesting sort of way, and I am eager to get the collection published. All I need now is to finish my teaching for the semester so I have a bit more time to devote to my handiwork! But in the meantime, I’ll continue to look back to the past as my faithful guide into the future.