Shrimp, Babies, and Medieval Literature

Dispatches from the strangest corners of academia

Expulsion of Jews from France in 1182, from Grandes Chroniques de France.

You know how people in the year ahead of you at school paradoxically retain a sheen of glamour long after you start to wish you were younger? Mo Pareles was ahead of me in the same PhD program, so she has that sheen. Pareles is a medievalist, like me, currently working as a postdoctoral fellow at NYU’s English Department (she previously held another postdoc, at Northwestern). Next year, she’s moving to Vancouver to take up a job as assistant professor of English at the University of British Columbia. She’s really made it, in other words. In a few months, Pareles will start the beginning of the rest of her career, and she’ll dedicate a lifetime of work to our beloved field. But for now it’s still late spring in Brooklyn, where Pareles lives with her wife Nicole and their 19 month-old kid, Oscar.

Pareles’s dissertation was called Translating Purity: Jewish Law and the Making of Difference in Late Old English Literature. It’s about the cultural translation of the Old Testament into Old English, and how supposedly repudiated Jewish laws came to structure Anglo-Saxon ideas of difference, for example racial difference. In her work, Pareles wants to investigate the way that Christian secularity, including the academy, has inherited the tendency of the medieval Church to write Judaism and Islam out of modernity.

Here, Pareles is thinking of the awful journalist’s habit of calling ISIS ‘medieval’ when, if anything, “ISIS actually appropriates the idea of the medieval for particularly modern political purposes.” She’s also thinking of a certain “horrible meme that everyone loved in 2014.” The meme said, “if you were homophobic you might as well not eat shrimp either, because you were following all the backwards stuff in the Old Testament.” People thought this was a smart quip, since it’s “supposed to be so obvious to Christians today that all that stuff is so misguided and barbaric and in the past.” Pareles said, “I don’t eat shrimp and I am queer. And also I exist now, in 2016. So chew on that.”

Shrimp and queerness and religion are all seriously important themes in Pareles’s work. She is investigating how cultural boundaries between Christians, Jews, and Muslims get all tied up with practices around meat-eating and sacrifice, intimacy with and revulsion towards certain animals, the need to maintain the human-animal boundary. All of these things end up implicated in a kind of animalization of the non-Christian other, she suspects.

Medievalists who work on European literature have to study Christianity — there’s no way around it. Pareles never read the New Testament as a child, because she’s Jewish. But she’s fascinated by Christianity, now, “especially the bits that intersect with Judaism. Especially the anti-Semitic bits.”

Her first-ever article, in fact, was about a Yiddish translation of the New Testament that was meant to convert Jews to Christianity. She argued that it did a great job, not because it actually converted anybody, but because the translation was really very good. She read it and thought, “Yes, this is a totally convincing Jewish book.” Pareles doesn’t think her grandparents would be very happy with her work, but, she says, she “could be wrong.”

Pareles is currently turning her dissertation into a book, while also starting on a second book project based on an in-progress article called “Jewish Pasts, Porcine Futures: Infant Temporalities in the Medieval English Children of the Oven Miracle.” This second book is about Jewish, animal, and children’s time across medieval British literature.

In order to pursue this work, Pareles has to move her family to Canada. Dramatic international moves are not uncommon in families where one or more parent is an academic, but it’s still a very big deal. Pareles is pretty excited for Vancouver, though. She’s “happy to raise Oscar away from things like guns.” Pareles is also keen to be going someplace she thinks her family will be welcome. “I was not happy about the idea of my kid being the Jewish kid with two mommies in a town where other parents would not be comfortable with us.” Oscar is a rambunctious and beautiful toddler. My father (who knows Pareles from her research trips to England) thinks he will grow up to be a great rugby player, which seems right. He is strong and bold, with a clear tactical sense.

Before Oscar was born, Pareles worried that she might turn out to be “one of those people for whom work matters less after having a kid.” The opposite happened. Things were really tough when Oscar was a new baby (Nicole gave birth to him), so work became enjoyably predictable in comparison. Pareles used the words “absolute terror.” The MLA conference, where Pareles interviewed for her job, felt like a delicious break: “Everyone was stressing out about interviews and I was thinking, it’s just talking, in a comfortable chair, with smart people, about my work. The worst possibility is that the interviewers will hate me. It’s not like they are going to, you know, make me comfort a tiny baby while they put a feeding tube in him at 4am.”

Oscar changed the intellectual stakes of Pareles’s research. She started to think about children, as well as animals, and what they might mean for one another as groups. Babies, Pareles realized, sit at an interesting spot in the human-animal divide. They can’t do any of the things that most non-human animals can do, or that other humans can do, but they are, nonetheless, human. They’re also a “weird site of anthropomorphism” in our culture. Adults are “constantly reading them books about, you know, bears who sleep in beds,” Pareles said, “and cuddly elephants in suits.” Oscar has a towel with walrus tusks on it, which he doesn’t think is odd, because to him “that’s how a towel looks.” Pareles got drawn so deep into these ideas that they led to that second book project.

Pareles read Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf to Oscar when he was a baby, and “he seemed to like the rhythm of it.” That makes sense: Old English has a sort of gruff, mellifluous sound, and the poetry rocks back and forth in your ears. And of course, “when you’re a medievalist, anytime anyone is excited about anything, you just point out that it was actually invented in the Middle Ages.”

Oscar will grow up knowing about the medieval roots of everything he likes. With Pareles as a parent, he will in some ways grow up against the vast backdrop of the last millennium of theological thought. But the most important thing to Pareles is just that Oscar is interested in learning. He can read whatever he wants. Well, “not Jonathan Franzen, obviously,” and “definitely not Jean M. Auel.” But everything else is fine. He may not become a medievalist, but I have no doubt that Oscar’s mind will grow broad and rich as he toddles around UBC with Mo and Nicole. The world is his shrimp.

Josephine Livingstone is a writer and academic in New York.