Saturday, August 30, 2008

Pinoy Medievalists?

Browsing through Powerbooks' sale, I found a copy of "Quarens, Searching, Paghahanap" edited by Jovino G Miroy and Ma Liza Ruth A Ocampo. Reading through the first pages, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there exist Pinoy medievalists! They have an organization called Philippinarum Studii Medioevalis Societas. I once thought that medieval studies are pursued mostly in European universities and a dwindling number of American ones that have classics departments. In the Philippines, I know not of any classics department in any college or university.

Anyway, I had my first brush with the classics when I was reading for the doctorate in marine biology in Australia. You may ask "Why read classics when doing a quintessentially modern science like marine biology" I have to answer that my dissertation was on systematics and biogeography and many of the original marine species descriptions of molluscs were in Latin. I had to learn Latin!

Fortunately, there was a Jesuit priest at the Catholic college in my university who tutored students in Latin. Since I attended Mass at that college, I found it convenient. Also the Anglican college regularly held seminars and lectures in theology and history and I found this enriching. Lectures were held after Evening Prayer.

(BTW, in a university that has its roots in Oxford and Cambridge, a college is where a student resides. A faculty is where he/she gets to attend lectures. Undergraduate degrees are granted by the college but doctorates are granted by the university Since colleges grant degrees,it follows that a student must belong to one. In the American set up, a college is what a faculty is in the European set up. A trace of the Medieval sense remains since all students should be part of a college)

Anyway the good priest (who once served as a digger in the Korean War) simply told me to borrow the Latin for Dummies book from the library, and read it. Later he suggested to read the Latin Vulgate,which was easily had in the university library.

So my doctoral dissertation has for its frontispiece Psalm 104 in Latin and my poor English translation of it.

I learned enough Latin that when I saw the Mel Gibson film "The Passion" I need not read the subtitles!

The Jesuit also was responsible for my flirtation with 1) Philosophy of Science, 2) History of Science. The Anglican chaplain was responsible for my tryst with the works of 1) CS Lewis and Tolkien, 2) John Henry Newman and the Tractarians, 3) Thomas More

Nonetheless, I have had an interest in the classics since then. When I taught at the Ateneo de Manila for a year, I realized that the Rizal Library had a sizeable collection of classics and literature about medieval history. Also Ateneo has the largest collection of books on Charles Darwin! This I attribute to the Jesuit fascination with evolution. After all one of the Jesuit "saints" is no other than Teilhard de Chardin.

But definitely I can't read much Latin but Thomas Cahill's books have been a good substitute for works in classical and medieval history.

Anyway, most of us would think medieval studies is irrelevant in the post-modern 21st century world and a Philippines buffeted by globalization. I believe this is a mistaken idea. The medieval has influenced the present to a large extent. And as the introduction to the "Quarens" says, Manila has material evidence of the medieval and Filipinos to a large extent are medieval. Ask any Marxist and you will get an affirmative answer.

This is much reflected in the debate on the reproductive health bill. The Roman Catholic Church has issued its objections based on faith and morals. The supporters of the bill have issued their support, based on the empirical sciences of medicine, biology and economics.

The fact that the issue has generated impassioned debate shows how medieval we are.

As a scientist, I believe that Medieval Studies can give us an insight why Filipinos seem not to be able to develop a science based culture. Rizal in my earlier blog post "First Pinoy Darwinist" was the first one to tackle this question in Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo (themselves full of allusions to the medieval!). In fact without Medieval Studies, I don't think we will be able to understand Rizal and by extension, ourselves! Austin Coates in his biography of Rizal titles his chapter on Rizal's formative years as "Youth in Medieval Twilight". More than a hundred years after Rizal's stay at the Ateneo, we are still in a Medieval Twilight. We are really in a perpetual Medieval daylight, like Spitsbergen during summer, a sort of land of the Medieval midnight sun.

We once thought that by dumping the Spanish language, we further cut ourselves off from our history.But Spanish is just tip of the iceberg as they say. By dumping Spanish, we cut ourselves from Western History in a misguided attempt at "nationalism".

The Philippinarum Studii Medioevalis Societas is welcome development in the Philippine scholarly scence. I hope the society will tackle subjects beyond philosophy and theology and look into subjects like the history of science in the Philippines. We hope the society will help us recover our history and identity.


DJB Rizalist said...

I can't imagine a meeting of the Medieval Society of the Philippines. Compared to the present state of affairs, it might feel like a Futurists Convention.

blackshama said...

That's a nice one DJB!