Colonial white society assigned itself some crazy Knower’s Chair and handed white people the authority to sit in it. They alone get to teach from this chair and decide what is true knowledge, what is false, etc.
The emphasis in Maracle is on the seat of authority and power, who gets to wield it and why. She continues, “this [is a] kind of powering out by those who own a fictitious Knower’s Chair by reason of their sex and colour over others who are the students again by reason of sex and colour.” Can we engage with this concept in our work as medievalists?
The Knower’s Chair also permeates medieval stories. Medieval literature sets up a clear criticism for the invention, misuse, or hogging of the Knower’s Chair; however, the Knower’s Chair in the medieval texts that tend to grace undergraduate classrooms and medieval anthologies do seem to focus more on gender relations specifically. In William Langland’s Piers Plowman, Will’s search for understanding is marred by his self-placement upon a Knower’s Chair in relation to those who try to teach him and should hold a Chair to do so from, such as Scripture. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” describes in great detail the Knower’s Chair that an abusive young husband uses to control his older, more experienced wife. In The Book of Margery Kempe, we see the spiritual impacts of various priests who are unable to give up the Knower’s Chair in order to understand the lived experiences of their parishioners. Despite this early criticism, the Knower’s Chair is still prevalent in our education, news, and popular culture with certain voices given privilege. The more things change; the more they stay the same.
So, how do we grapple with the Knower’s Chair in our own work? How do we avoid becoming a Will? In evoking Anishinaabe scholar Jill Carter’s red reading, wherein we read the literary canon through Indigenous literary theories, we could give up the Knower’s Chair in our literary criticism. In this way, we could engage with say the Coast Salish literary discourse on story where, as Maracle states in “Toward a National Literature,”
We discuss not how good the story is, whether it really is a story or sociology masquerading as a story; rather, the discourse is about whether we see ourselves in the story, and how we make it right with creation. The discourse is about the lessons, the teachings, and the conduct that we must arrive at personally and collectively to make the story work for us and to work with the story.
In reading these texts through Maracle’s teachings, we are reminded of our collective and personal responsibility to share the Knower’s Chair with a multitude of voices and perspectives. We recognize that there are spaces for many chairs at the table. If we read these stories as ‘teachings,’ we can hear a medieval call to listen, to slow down, to witness the other voices at the table.