It was 1988. I was entering my late thirties. And I returned to college as an undergraduate. I did not want to – I had to.
After dropping out of college at the end of 1971, I needed recurrent jolts of fresh ideas and new perspectives. The public library history section supplied both. It was history learned from self-directed reading. Sometimes the titles came from lists of recommended readings acquired from my earlier four years as an undergraduate.
Having discovered him in the 1970s in the musty history section of the main library on Peabody Avenue in Memphis, I claimed Frederic Maitland as mine. The subject and style of Maitland’s two-volume History of English Law before the Time of Edward I were magnetic. (I searched for over a decade for copies for myself and found them.) My pursuit of academic learning was occasionally rekindled by his likes, masters hidden in obscure out-of-print books.
I still hold Maitland in the highest regard. He did what I might have dreamed of doing in another life.
The rediscovery of the manuscript linked herein (below), for which these words are an introduction, has convinced me that if one is under forty and has a passion, one should go for it – personal responsibilities permitting. I can recall the mind that wrote this manuscript and I can even understand most of it now. But I am still thoroughly amazed … by the steep decline of my mental faculties over twenty-five years.
I am obliged to – I am overjoyed to – thank my wife (and to a much lesser extent our, at the time, young son) for letting me indulge my passion before it was too late; for letting me immerse myself in a world that had beckoned me for seventeen years; for letting me reconnect with an old professor and the Middle Ages and lose myself in imagination, pondering a world thought long dead. Only as I jogged a country road, early one gray morning in 1988, did I realize that the world of the Middle Ages was not dead at all but rather lived on in life in the present just beyond the deceptive veil of modernity. It was a life I had relentlessly sought out and found through reading with persistence, intensity, and seriousness. But it was not the reading alone that revealed the past to me, it was the thinking about the reading so as to capture it in a few pages of epistolary summary and commentary for my professor. I was blessed with the rarest tutorial-style learning experience, as if a student at Oxford or Cambridge in the sepia-tone years of intellectual ferment and high pretension. It was to be the last time my esteemed professor taught either of his two signature courses on old Europe. I was just in time to light my torch to guide my way down my evolutionary path.
I will not let my acknowledgement of my wife’s contribution to this effort rest condensed in one passing sentence. She worked full time as an elementary-school teacher. She traveled many miles to work every day and worked at night, on weekends, and during the summer for her charges and for her family. We had a young child in a private Catholic school; my work for the company that I owned was shriveling in an economic downturn that badly affected construction in Middle Tennessee. Never once did she express doubt or frown upon my enterprise and effort, even though the level of study in history in which I was engaged was hardly fit for any practical application – except maybe for a life of method and observation and thought and understanding and tolerance in a complex world – and maybe a new job. She believed in the power of education. She had faith that it was the thing to do for us. So once the decision was made, we plowed on despite the low income and the many, many hours of separation that comes when one is allowed to dive deep and swim slowly in the darkest underwater caves of history.
The countless individual monastic scribes of the Middle Ages are not known to us by name. They were not altogether practically necessary – except that they preserved and spread learning for centuries without benefit of the printing press or the Internet. But I have no doubt at all that they relished the work even when barely innovative and hardly noticed.
So my marvel now at this manuscript is not due to its style, its correctness, or its originality. Rather, I marvel that is was ever able to exist at all.
Click here to read it.  [NOTE: The key to this box, and all like it, is JerryMurley. Whether you do or don’t get this clue, welcome to the mystical study of the Middle Ages.]
1. Notes and commentary on Frederic Maitland’s Domesday Book and Beyond by Jerry Murley in spring 1988.