Olden Times came face-to-face with Modern Times when President Clinton came to Oxford
With forty-five's recent visit to London, we thought this column about an encounter with another controversial politician was appropriate.
I used to say, when people would accuse me of being a hopeless romantic just because I studied the Middle Ages: "If you want to understand what is going on today you have to understand the Middle Ages." It never worked of course. Everyone "knows" that the Middle Ages was full of all the things we have risen above: ignorance, superstition, cruelty, and--the list of horrors always concludes--dirt. "People never bathed, did they?" is the usual rhetorical question. To which the unrhetorical answer is, “Of course they did,” but the deodorant industry has convinced us otherwise.
An age which coined the word 'genocide' - the term first appears in print in 1944 - and made it a common term on the evening news, and in which 'holocaust' acquired both a definite article and a capital 'h' seems to be on rather shaky ground when it comes to pointing fingers and calling names, but then we always see our own times in terms of what is best and all other times and places in terms of what is worst.
Middle Ages and modern times came cheek by jowl during my time in Oxford, England, some years ago, and the Middle Ages came off rather well, I thought. It all happened this way....
"You came to town to see your president?" the Pakistani driver of the bus asked, hearing my accent as I asked for a ticket on returning from a four-day trip to Cornwall.
"What president?" I hadn't heard of any president of mine being in Oxford.
"President Clinton!" he crowed. "He's getting an honorary degree from the University tomorrow."
"He's not my president," I replied and dragged my suitcase to a seat and sat down, wondering as I did so at the firmness of my reply and its promptness. After 32 years in Canada since coming from the States I was delighted to discover where my loyalties lay.
The next morning when I got to the old Bodleian Library, begun in 1450, to continue working with a tenth-century manuscript, I discovered all the entrances to the Old Schools Quadrangle, begun in 1439, through which one passes to the Library itself, closed, except for the small door let into the great oak doors which face on Catte Street. This was being guarded by some of the Library's staff who let me and my briefcase through without question but warned me to be back from lunch by 2:30 if I wanted to get in. Because of the ceremony, the Library doors would be closed between 2:30 and 4 pm.
Already Catte Street was filling up with spectators, crowd-control barricades were everywhere, and the flub-flub-flub of cruising security helicopters washed down on us from on high. The seventeenth-century Sheldonian Theatre just to the north of the Bodley and the area between it and the Bodley were off limits as the Ceremony of the day would begin in the Sheldonian and then process through the North Doors of the Old Schools and into the fifteenth century Divinity School, a "noble room" on the ground floor of the Library with a wonderful vaulted ceiling.
By the time I returned from lunch, a bit before two, Catte Street was jammed with students carrying placards and chanting a protest against a hike in university fees, the noise of helicopters had doubled and redoubled, and a solid phalanx of Bodley staff blocked my way at the door: "We're sorry but because of the demonstration some of your countrymen told us we had to close the doors."
I'm not usually quick with a come-back, but for the second time in 24 hours I surprised myself. "They're not my countrymen!" I heard myself say, firmly.
By this time several other returning scholars were expressing shock and dismay at the change of schedule and eventually a senior member of staff came down and let us in.
There we all were, we medievalists, surrounded and surmounted by a 20th-century security circus whose cost I would not even want to attempt to estimate. We had all arrived carrying briefcases and lap-top computer cases, any one of which could have carried goodness knows what amount of deadly weaponry, and the only thing we had been required to show was our Reader's Tickets, which among other things, testify to one’s sworn promise not to light fires in the library - an oath which every Reader since the fifteenth century has had to swear.
Most of us found reason, around three o'clock, to be near a window. I was maybe twenty feet above the President when the procession approached the Library and I had plenty of company, all of it completely unsupervised. As a friend said later, "I could have brained him with a copy of Burton’s 'Anatomy of Melancholy.'"
But nobody did.
Words & Images
We moved to our farm in Sussex, New Brunswick from Toronto in 1977, only moving away in 2014.