The Hermeneutic Challenge

It’s the second week of class and my senior students are wrestling with a particularly tough reading: Edmund Dudley’s Tree of Commonwealth. I throw them this project for the first “real” class of the term for two reasons: one, because it fits there in a chronological survey that runs from 1485-1603 but, more importantly, it immediately immerses them in the language, culture and context of the time.

Although mercifully brief, The Tree of Commonwealth is a difficult text, not only because the language is slightly obscure (although I’ve attempted to be merciful and have provided a gloss in my transcription as well as a brief introduction) and the extended metaphor (of a tree whose roots, branches, fruits, parings and core variously nurture and threaten society) creaky. It’s also difficult because the context is so far removed from the modern world in whose history they’re usually immersed. They don’t easily understand the text because they don’t know the language Dudley uses, where cunning is a positive word. They don’t have the cultural literacy of the early Tudor period so that the text is a minefield of missed allusions.

For example: Dudley discusses the chief virtues of a sovereign (to be piteous and merciful, liberal and plenteous as well as chaste), then asks “What then shall his reward and conclusion be for these at the Last?” Most of my students reading this assume that final capitalization was a typographic error and fly right over the phrase. Only a careful reading, informed with the religious terminology of the period, would see that as a reference to the Last Supper. With that, all of a sudden, the entire passage rings with a profound religious flavour that a modern reader, accustomed to viewing government and leadership in more secular terms, would miss. Offhand comparisons to infamous or saintly monarchs fly past them and they miss the positive or negative tone that Dudley hoped to evoke. I suspect that, without my gloss, they would only get a tenth of the information from the text. Even with the gloss, reading on their own, they’re missing a lot. And that’s okay because I believe that an awareness of ignorance is the first step towards knowledge.

Along those lines, a longer extract from The Tree of Commonwealth that amuses my academic self:

These parings be they that cannot be called the increase of your cunning, nor of virtue, but the destruction and decrease of them both.
When do you throw these unhappy parings into the universities? When you cause these manner of clerks there to be graduated and not by their learning, and that they may wear furs and be called masters in less than a year’s learning. Thus have they their cunning and learning both. Otherwhiles you send to the universities young scholars of ten or twelve years of age, right near of your blood, and they must be highly promoted with an archdeaconry or prebend[ary] before he can say his matins. He must go in his grained clothes, lined with silk or furred with the best, as though he of that university were the best. Yet his cunning is but small.

I can think of few things better suited to convincing students that the past is a foreign country than immersing them in a primary source of the period under study. They learn to respect the value of hermeneutics in a way they probably never did for their contemporary history classes. They learn humility.

Some students despise this and count the days until they can flee back to the modern history courses where their greatest interpretative challenges are either difficulties of translation or in the secondary sources. A few others stick it out and come to me for help in order to learn more. I help them to begin accumulating the wealth of reference works and the eclectic knowledge base necessary to understand this or another period of the past. These latter ones are those who win my respect, whether they’re “A” students or not because they’re willing to take on the hermeutic challenge and try to learn, as much as is humanly possible, the alien context of the historical culture.

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