Wednesday, March 24, 2010


There are certain jobs that have always seemed to me from a distance to be rather dreadful, especially ones involving cars. For instance I have shuddered at the thought of being a toll collector on the New Jersey Turnpike or an inspector for the Division of Motor Vehicles. Then one day at an open-air flea market I fell into conversation with a seller of antique tools whose regular job was sticking his wand up peoples’ exhaust pipes in some DMV shed in Hunterdon County. This highly intelligent fellow described his job as “fascinating” and “educational”. “Every day,” he said, “there’s something new.”

Some academic medievalia

The truth is that unless you have done a job, it’s not all that easy to imagine what it’s actually like to do it. For nearly half a century I was a professional scholar, and I soon discovered that few people outside the guild of professional scholarship had an accurate view of the nature or rhythm of my work. I use the word “guild” advisedly. The university is one of the modern social institutions most visibly connected with its medieval origins. We see this in terminology—doctors, masters, degrees, deans, sabbaticals—in the funny academic regalia in which we strut around on ceremonial occasions, and in the very expensive architectural penchant for cut stone and ogive arches. No feature is more “medieval” than the system by which professional scholars perpetuate their craft by what is still essentially apprenticeship, and safeguard its supposed mysteries and standards through complex procedures of accreditation. The rigor of medieval pedagogy is perhaps suggested in the common iconographic image of the school master as a man with a whip. Things are less violent now, but every professional scholar must be profoundly aware of his place as the student of great masters who have gone before him and of her obligation to a generation of intellectual progeny who will succeed her.

A medieval professor

I have just returned from an academic meeting at Yale University that gave me cause to meditate both upon ancestry and posterity. If all college professors are a little medieval, there are some among them who are very much so: the medievalists, natch. And in my retirement I have a job that must surely compete for the title medievalissimus. I am the Orator of the Fellows of the Medieval Academy of America. The Medieval Academy is just what it sounds like. The Fellows are its most distinguished senior members, strictly limited in number and elected by arcane guild protocols designed for elite self-perpetuation. One of my colleagues (who is one) calls them simply The Old Guys. The Orator has two jobs. The Orator delivers brief obituary memorials of recently defunct Fellows and slightly more expansive encomia or laudationes of new Fellows to be inducted.

To prepare even brief obituaries worthy of famous old scholars is no easy thing. Some of these people were actual friends or acquaintances. Others have been known only through books or library catalogues. Still others have built up stately edifices of learning wholly outside my competence. The experience is genuinely humbling, and even for people who have been to me but names, genuinely personal. Two years ago I attended a reunion of the Sewanee class of 1958, fifty years out. I had a great time, and I wrote about it somewhere. One private experience was particularly moving. Sewanee is a hamlet set upon a beautiful mountaintop. Its old graveyard is hardly a stone’s throw from its new library. In it are buried many of the great people of its institutional history, from its impoverished post-Confederate refounders to some of its most generous contemporary benefactors. On one of the reunion days, as the rising sun blazed through autumn foliage, I took a solitary stroll through the cemetery. I walked quite literally among the dead professors whose awesome civility, whose love of literature, whose seemingly miraculous erudition and wisdom ignited my own ambitions to master the craft. I have something of that feeling in my role as necrologist.

The old cemetery: Sewanee, Tennessee

My other role, to welcome newly elected Fellows, is more exhilarating and less plangent—less plangent, but perhaps no less poignant. The genre of the “citation” or the laudatio (praise) will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen the formal presentation of an award. The traditional laudatio at the Fellows’ session of a Medieval Academy meeting is reasonably elaborate. It takes about five minutes to read and even then, so accomplished are the scholars being inducted, it often can barely touch upon all aspects of their distinction.

This year there were six new Fellows, and I will tell you about two. If you have not already deduced the principle of selection, I’ll make it explicit presently; but do bear in mind that I am talking about the newest of “The Old Guys”. The first is Anne D. Hedeman, Professor of the History of Art at the University of Illinois. She has done groundbreaking work in the study of medieval book painting. A particular focus of her scholarship has been the aristocratic book culture of early humanism. It may be hard for us to imagine a world in which its most powerful men and women thought that commissioning and owning splendid books was an excellent exercise of their magnificence. Anne Hedeman knows their world intimately, and she has introduced thousands to it through her lectures, her books, and her crafted museum exhibitions. If you’re going to be out on the West Coast next winter, do take in the Getty Museum show called Imagining the Past in France: 1250-1500, of which she will be the co-curator.

Professor Anne D. Hedeman

The other is James J. O’Donnell, Professor of Classics at Georgetown University, and Provost of that institution. Professor O’Donnell is one of the world’s greatest authorities on Saint Augustine, who just happens to be the most important intellectual figure of the entire Middle Ages. O’Donnell has among much else published the definitive edition of the Confessions of Saint Augustine, which is among the three or four most important books in medieval literary history. This just scrapes the surface, of course; but then there’s the Provost bit. This is a nice medieval title for a job that—depending upon the institution involved—demands the energy and capacities of either the CEO or the Chairman of the Board of a major industrial enterprise.

I have chosen them for purely exemplary purposes. Both of them were “my” undergraduate students at Princeton in the early 1970s. And if you don’t think that makes me feel proud, think again. You see in my line of work there are The Old Guys and the really Old Guys. And the important ones are those yet to come.

Professor James J. O'Donnell with Old Guy