- What is the significance of studying the Middle Ages?
- How are Lone Medievalists uniquely situated to think about and/or promote the significance of the Middle Ages?
- Communicating significance to students
- Communicating significance to colleagues/departments
- Communicating significance to promotion and tenure committees
- Communicating significance to the public
- Engaging with popular ideas of the Middle Ages
- Engaging with the appropriation of the Middle Ages by certain groups (i.e. politicians, white supremacists, etc.)
I’m going to say something truly controversy and unique: teaching literature at the general education level comes with challenges. One of those is teaching students how to read closely, to read beyond and through the surface level. Add in here then the complications of beginning study in medieval literature: unfamiliar language and culture, lack of background in historical allusions, etc. After struggling with these issues and trying different methods to overcome them, I have found one that seems to be working quite well and one that students seem to understand and gravitate towards. This method I call: reading lenses.
At the beginning of the semester, I lead an activity in class called “How to Read and Take Notes” (which can be found here). In this activity, we have discussions about how to read effectively, thinking about what to do before, during, and after engaging with the text. As a part of this discussion, I include a list of approaches to take when reading a text. I refer to them as reading lenses that we can use to read into texts.
Consider different approaches to reading literature. These approaches are not mutually exclusive (in other words, we should look at a text from multiple angles, not just one). A partial list:
- Plot – what happened, when, and who did it
- Character motivation – why a character did what he/she did
- Character relationships – how the characters relate to and interact with each other
- Societal influence – the values or mores (religious, political, etc.) that influenced the text and/or what the text can tell us about the society in which it was written
- Societal connections – comparing and contrasting the society of the text with other societies (contemporary or otherwise)
- Historical significance – the environment (religious, political, artistic, quotidian, etc.) in which the text was written and its effects and/or what the text can tell us about this environment
- Author intent – what the writer intended
- Reader response – what the reader can take from the text (whether or not this is the same as author intent)
- Allegorical possibilities – the symbolic or metaphoric meanings
- Etymology – the language (words, phrases, translation, etc.)
- Style – how the text is written
- Moral – the message of the text
- Textual connections – how the text connects to other readings
The other part of this activity is an introduction to a note-taking style, Cornell system. As a side note, I include two main examples of note-taking styles: Cornell, a very normal system, and Sketchnoting, a less formal, visual style. During the introduction to the Cornell system, we start to use the reading lenses with the readings for the day and practicing them. I then return to the reading lenses periodically throughout the semester, engaging with them in different ways.
Ways of applying the reading lenses…
1) Select one reading lens to apply: in the first activity, students select one reading lens (besides the plot lens) to apply to our first reading. This first reading in my British Literature I is Alfred’s preface to the Pastoral Care. Students select one of the reading lenses, write in their practice Cornell notes their observations related to that lens, share with a partner who selected a different lens, and then participate in group discussion.
2) Select two lenses to apply: in a later class, students again select a lens to apply in a similar exercise. Additionally, however, we go through the process a second time with students selecting a second lens. This exercise starts to build on the idea that there are different ways to look at texts, and by specifically examining a text through two lenses back-to-back students begin to see the nuances of these various analytical angles. It also begins the process of demonstrating how these reading lenses
3) Think about reading lenses frequently: in various activities, I include the idea of readings lenses, so that they are always in the background. For instance, they appear in the TED-Ed lessons I have students complete before certain classes. I mention them in class when a student’s comment demonstrates a particular lens or when a particular lens would be useful for reading our text at hand.
4) Apply a lens not on the list: in order to prevent students from thinking the list they are provided are the only methods for looking at literature, we add lenses every so often. As an example, when we read Sir Orfeo, I introduce them to disability studies. They practice reading through one of the previous lenses, and then we all focus on the new lens, demonstrating that there are multiple ways to examine a text.
5) Assess the application of reading lenses: the final project for the semester in my British Literature I course (and similar ones in other 2000-level, general education courses) is what I call Course Research. For that assignment, students are expected to select a reading lens for a specific text, define a thesis based upon their analysis with that reading lens, and provide research to defend their thesis.
From Course Research assignment:
- Select one reading lens from the list in the How to Read activity(may not be Plot lens – you have already summarized!)
- Identify and define one significant point concerning chosen text based upon your reading through this lens
Since I have integrated reading lenses in this more systematic way, I have seen 1) improvement in students’ textual analysis, specifically in identifying a thesis; 2) improvement in students’ abilities to articulate what it is they are actually doing during textual analysis; 3) increased use of different approaches to literary study; 4) decrease in confusion about how to approach Course Research; and 5) increased articulation by students concerning how they will be able to apply literary analysis to various types of future reading.
Ever have that moment when you are teaching and all of a sudden you start to look at whatever it is you are teaching in a different way? I had that experience recently with my British Literature I survey course and Marie de France’s Bisclavret. I haven’t had a chance to do the research on it (either to work through it or to see if I’m the last one to mull this concept!), but I will talk the idea out here in hopes of getting back to it in the future.
When teaching Bisclavret, the moment the wife decides to turn against her husband, after learning he is a werewolf, is often a point of confusion and discussion. This is unsurprising. Scholars find it difficult as well. Are we meant to blame the wife? Given she later finds herself disfigured and tortured for her actions, it seems like a simple question. Nonetheless, as with everything medieval and everything Marie de France, the question is far more complex than it seems.
To set up the Anglo-Norman period, we first look at France and the development of the romance – in particular, focusing on the role of fantasy fulfillment for noble readers of these texts. Second, third, etc., sons who dream of a rich widow who will provide them with land and fortune. And for women? Perhaps a lover who will rescue them from a less-than-desired arranged marriage? A husband who will love them and treat them well? Escape from abuse or the fear of abuse? There are many things a lady of the time would fantasize about depending upon her situation or the situations of other women around her.
Given this context, we might look at the wife’s actions in Bisclavret from another angle, not one of blame or of defense, but of the psychology of abuse. Imagine, for a moment, a woman who grew up in the nobility, a woman who was aware from an early age that she would be married to someone her family selected and approved. Fortunately for her, she married “a handsome knight,” “an able man,” and “a noble man” (translations are from Judith Shoaf). Their relationship builds to what they both believe is love, and all is well – with, of course, one exception – that he disappears periodically.
When the wife confronts him, her phrasing is that of fear:
“mes ieo criem tant vostre curut
que nule rien tant ne redut” (ll. 35-6)
(original text taken from Die Lais der Marie de France)
“But I’m afraid that you’ll get angry,
And, more than anything, that scares me”
She fears here his anger. We have no indication of why. This phrasing could be dismissed as courteous language between husband and wife, that she does not desire to anger him with her questioning. But what if we look at it from the perspective of a wife who knows very little about her husband although she has to this point been comforted that he does not seem to possess the qualities she feared in a husband? Could her statement indicate the lingering fear of how her husband will treat her? Has she heard stories of men who were kind to their wives until a moment when they seemed to turn against them?
When Bisclavret assures her with physcial caresses that he will answer her questions, she replies:
“‘Par fei’, fet ele, ‘or sui guarie!
Sire, ieo sui en tel esfrei
les jurs quant vus partez de mei.
Al lever ai mult grant dolur
e de vus perdre tel potir,
si ieo nen ai hastif cunfort,
bien tost en puis aveir la mort.” (ll. 42-48)
“By my faith, you work my cure.
My lord, I’m in terror every day,
Those days when you’ve gone away,
My heart is so full of fear,
I’m so afraid I’ll lose you, dear–
If I don’t get some help, some healing,
I will die soon of what I’m feeling!”
This response is phrased in the language of illness. His treatment of her, his seeming tender care, “works her cure.” She talks about living in terror, about fearing to lose him. She asks for healing and indicates she will die from what she is experiencing. On one hand, this certainly could be hyperbole and another instance of the dialogue between them and her attempt to push him into telling about his disappearances, even using the language of illness to elicit guilt on his part. On the other hand, if we read it in the same context as the previous statement, other implications arise. Perhaps her fears have indeed reasserted themselves and to the point that she feels desperately insecure. She has read his disappearances into her fears and cannot “recover” until she knows the truth.
What follows is back and forth between the couple, the wife pressing and Bisclavret denying to answer her questions. Often, this scene is perceived as nagging on the wife’s part, an insatiable need to know, even though Bisclavret is blameless, but what if this fear of abuse is driving her? Finally, he relents and tells her about his shape-shifting. This revelation is certainly not what the wife expected, but it comes on top of a period of renewed psychological – if imagined – trauma. And then comes her reaction:
“La dame oï cele merveille,
de potir fu tute vermeille.
De l’aventure s’esfrea,
e maint endreit se purpensa
cum ele s’en petist partir;
ne voleit mes lez lui gisir.” (ll. 97-102)
“The lady heard this marvel, this wonder.
In terror she blushed all bright red,
Filled with fear by this adventure.
Often and often passed through her head
Plans to get right out, escape, for
She didn’t want ever to share his bed.”
Her fear starts to multiply. She dwells upon it. In addition, she more than likely has the same information that the reader is given by the narrator at the beginning of the text:
“Garwalf, ceo est beste salvage;
tant cum il est en cele rage,
humes devure, grant mal fait
es granz forez converse e vait.” (ll. 9-12)
“A garwolf is a savage beast,
While the fury’s on it, at least:
Eats men, wreaks evil, does no good,
Living and roaming in the deep wood.”
We have in this description the antithesis of Bisclavret, which is generally what is the focus of analysis. The narrator – or Marie de France – is setting us up, only to play with us. But what if she is also playing with the character of the wife? She indicates that werewolves are subject to rage, acting like savage beasts. If this is a metaphor for evil men, it’s certainly an even better one for abusers who present well until “the fury is on them.” Edward J. Gallagher translates this passage as, “A werewolf is a ferocious beast which, when possessed by this madness, devours men, causes great damage, and dwells in vast forests.” Gallagher’s translation of “cele rage” as “by this madness” trades on the idea of rage and anger as a mental illness, especially a type of temporary insanity. If we follow this metaphor, the wife may not fear her husband simply as a werewolf, but her husband in a rage, which she has already stated scares her more than anything.
Is the wife’s subsequent behavior – planning with another man to trap her husband in his werewolf form and then marrying this other man – understandable? That does not seem the point. What it may indicate is her limited choices or what she perceives as limited choice. Marie de France is the master of the “what if?” She plies the structures of romance with questions and scenarios. For instance, in Yonec, we have a clear situation in which the main female character is an abused and captive wife. Perhaps Marie de France is asking here in Bisclavret, “What might happen when a woman fears abuse to the point of paranoia?”
In December, I curated a post entitled “Teaching the Pre-Modern Post-Election.” After reading that post, more scholars (including from other countries) wanted to share their thoughts as well. This is, thus, the sequel.
Before continuing, however, I would like to list the statements of medieval (and related) organizations about the Immigration Executive Order:
- Medieval Academy of America Response to Immigration Executive Order
- MEARCSTAPA (Monsters: the Experimental Association for the Research of Cryptozoology through Scholarly Theory And Practical Application) Statement on US Rejection of Refugees and Border Restrictions
- A Statement Concerning Recent Events from the BABEL Working Group
- Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship
- International Center of Medieval Art
- International Society of Anglo-Saxonists
- Society for Classical Studies
Anonymous (due to possible repercussions)
Teaching the Pre-Modern under a Repressive Regime
I teach the pre-modern in a country where I cannot publish the following under my own name without fear of repercussions, a country which in a little over a decade has descended from an authoritarian democracy to a kleptocratic autocracy, and is rapidly descending further.
Academics and students are among the primary targets of repression here. Scholars criticizing government policy have been treated as criminals; thousands have lost their jobs for teaching at the “wrong” universities; some have been prosecuted for signing an open letter asking for peace; one landed in court on terrorism charges for an exam question; another was fired for comments about the country’s leader during a lecture. Professorwatchlist.org, here, is not a private initiative, but a national, institutionalized reality.
Likewise, students have been jailed for demanding tuition-free education; for retweeting satirical tweets from mainstream outlets; for protesting the higher education authorities on any number of issues. In addition to the repression from the regime, the country has always had ethnic and religious tensions, which are currently exacerbated by an internal war being fought out in part of the country and the most atrocious of conflicts being fought in a neighbouring country
Controls on media, on the one hand by closing down independent news outlets, on the other by regularly shutting down access to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, have worsened the country’s pre-existing proclivity for conspiracy theory, which was partly nurtured by a history of actual conspiracy throughout the Cold War, but now mainstreamed by the pro-government press pushing outlandish narratives of international cabals involving the CIA, MI5, parallel structures, shady bankers, and a supposed deep state.
These factors have many impacts on my practice as scholar and lecturer. Some of these are straightforward. For example, there is the repression of freedom of expression – and its resulting self-censorship. From the moment I started to consider applying for jobs here, I toned down my commentary on social media; from the time I started my job, I practically ceased commenting about the country’s current events online altogether. All my online political commentary is now by proxy: I comment on Theresa May’s autocratic tendencies, on the move toward kleptocracy under Donald Trump, on the lies of the British tabloid press and Breitbart – thus making it possible to discuss the principles of the issues central to the political situation of the country I work in. I choose for the by-proxy approach partly for my own safety, but partly also because I am aware that students may follow me, for example, on Twitter, and I do not want to set an example of behaviour that may endanger them. I do not know how many of my students follow me, as much of their online activity has already become anonymous over the last half decade. Social media has an important function to play in resistance against repressive regimes, but open, direct commentary on public (and especially non-anonymous) social media accounts from within the country is not its most effective use and exposes the poster to huge risks of retaliation.
More complicated are the impacts on teaching practice: the repressive environment has implications for my role as a teacher and for the learning environment in general. In practical terms, for the reasons above, I am careful in my choice of electronic media to use for assignments – preferring closed, secure environments such as the university management system over open platforms such as WordPress or Twitter. Alternatively, I opt for on-paper alternatives. There are also unexpected limits on scholarly practice: not only social media are regularly inaccessible, but even some crucially important sites, such as the Internet Archive, are blocked here, and therefore only accessible with VPN. I am fortunate enough to be able to borrow access to a UK university’s VPN, but think there is a good case to be made for universities in “free” countries to consider supplying VPN to colleagues in countries with repressive regimes.
More fundamentally, the repressive environment results in a whole new set of, often undeclared, desired learning outcomes. When a central course aim is to instill a critical approach to reading primary sources, the implications of that aim are different in a country where critical readings of certain sources is criminalized than it would be normally, regardless of whether that criminalization is codified in law, or an effect of the extralegal, unpredictable, repressive actions of the regime, or even those of its supporters in the media or on the street.
Thus, in the classroom, too, I avoid explicit discussion of current affairs in the country – this is partly a result of self-censorship, but partly also the result of my awareness of the political polarisation among my students; I know there are certain topics which cause huge divides among my students, and I would not be able to manage a discussion of current affairs in such a way as to make each of my students feel safe and valued, where some students’ “values” include the deprivation of the physical safety of others; certain mainstream political positions in this country, while formulated in terms of anti-terrorism, are genocidal; and following a bombing which cost the lives of friends of students in my classroom, I am unwilling to countenance the possibility of other students in my class repeating the government’s lies about such atrocities.
I am, however, as a teacher of the pre-modern, at a huge advantage over my colleagues in contemporary subjects, as I am able to discuss such issues by proxy: we can fruitfully discuss issues surrounding dictatorship through, for example, classical Greek texts; we can learn to dissect propagandist approaches to the past through the study of nineteenth-century appropriations of medieval history. The country I teach in has a long tradition of authoritarian approaches to history, particularly in primary and secondary education – within this tradition, and particularly in the current context of autocratic kleptocracy, there is a special responsibility for teachers of the pre-modern, and particularly of the pre-modern text, to encourage critical attitudes to the past and critical attitudes to text. The advantage I have to lecturers in subjects that are “closer to home” rests on the fact that most of my students have only the most rudimentary conceptions of the materials and concepts I teach – Western Civilization, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Humanism, the Enlightenment, etc. – it is a relatively small effort to destabilize and complicate those core concepts; more ingrained ideas, particularly when based on an authoritarian approach to history, such as they have about the history of the country and its religions and peoples, are much harder to challenge. Thus, I teach how texts work in a context where the stakes, for my students, are relatively low, and prejudices not ossified or linked to political identities; I am hopeful that the critical approaches which I instil in my students to the pasts that I teach, will in the long run encourage them to apply critical readings to contemporary and local discourses, too. The by-proxy approach makes it possible to teach the unteachable, to create an environment in which students will learn what the authoritarian regime would prefer them not to learn, without putting me, and more importantly, them, at risk.
Iain A. MacInnes, University of the Highlands and Islands
The post-Brexit UK, for myself as a medieval historian, is a somewhat strange landscape indeed. I read with interest the views of academic colleagues from the USA who voiced their commitment to, and belief in, the continued importance of pre-modern history in a post-Trump world. Historians in the UK too have been engaging in a great deal of post-Brexit discussion, and stressing the importance of our discipline in a Britain that appears increasingly xenophobic. What is interesting is that historians did attempt to have their say in the EU Referendum debate. The views of historians were sought from both sides in the referendum – both the campaign to remain, and that to leave – and two group of academics formed to reflect the two options on the ballot paper (Historians for Britain, for ‘leave’, and Historians for Britain in Europe, for ‘remain’). Medievalists were prominent in both groups, and medievalists were and remain vocal in various online fora as discussions regarding Brexit and its consequences continue. Still, this prominence has come at something of a cost. On the one hand, there have been suggestions that the thoughts of historians did not go far enough, and that they failed to have a wider impact on the voting people of the UK. On the other hand, the thoughts of historians have been somewhat caught up in a more populist backlash against those deemed to be part of the metropolitan elite, ivory tower intellectuals daring to comment on issues of far greater immediacy to, and impact upon, ‘the people.’ As a prominent member of the Vote Leave campaign commented, “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Considering that the referendum resulted in a victory for the leave campaign (by 52% to 48%), where does this leave such academic ‘experts’? And where is the place for those who study the pre-modern in a post-Brexit Britain that, even before the referendum, had suggested that “society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian” [from the Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast, no less].
I suppose that my own views on this are influenced in part by where I live and work. Teaching in the Highlands of Scotland, in a part of the UK that voted to remain in the EU (by 62% to 38%), we cannot ignore the fact that Scottish voters chose a very different path than those in much of the rest of the country. How does this affect what I teach my students? Probably very little, inasmuch as myself and my colleagues have always (as many others do) placed Scottish History within a wider British AND European (as well as global, of course) context. Still, it does reinforce the need to re-emphasise the long-term nature of Scotland’s European connections, and the fact that migration from Scotland was a constant element of its history. On one of our modules, Scotland, the North Sea and the Baltic, this is made clear through a variety of examples of religious, intellectual, commercial, economic, military, diplomatic and cultural exchange. Scottish intellectuals and students taught and studied at Europe’s great universities, a medieval and early modern parallel to the ERASMUS programme of educational exchange (now potentially under threat) between European institutions that allows students from across the continent to experience another culture and learn in a European setting. Scottish troops fought in the armies of Europe across the medieval and early modern periods, a situation replicated in the twentieth century when European forces in exile were based in and fought from Scotland. And Scottish and European traders sold their wares from ports across Britain and Europe, and settled in the countries to which they gravitated with their wares, notably those Scots who sought to make money in early modern Poland, in so doing providing an interesting comparison to twentieth-century Polish (return?) migration to Scotland.
It is these obvious parallels between the pre-modern and the present day that help students to understand the place and prominence of Scottish relations with Europe, that such connections are of long-standing, and that they were and are perfectly ‘normal.’ Whether students really read or engage with mainstream newspapers is debatable, but the sheer scale of right-wing media and its constant anti-European message is undoubtedly invasive, and its main ideas enter wider discourse far too easily. It is our job, as academics, to provide proof against the unsubstantiated reports, exaggerated figures and outright lies of both mainstream media, and less established sources of information dissemination. We are there to provide an alternative, to provide evidence, and to give our students food for thought that there is an alternative view. After that, they have to come to their own conclusions. But at least they will do so based on evidence, discussion and analysis.
Karen M. Cook, University of Hartford
In the first round of posts on Teaching the Pre-Modern Post-Election, the authors offered a wealth of personal reflections on and suggestions for understanding the significance of the medieval (however broadly writ) in today’s society. In my field of musicology, as well as in all other areas of the humanities, such significance is complex, having as much to do with current stereotypes of the medieval as with traditional narratives, historical documentation, and so forth.
My spring seminar, which I began to plan months ago during the contentious election process, is on medievalism in contemporary Western culture. While on its face I originally intended for the class to investigate a variety of modern cultural receptions of medieval ideas, ranging from Harry Potter and medievalist video games to Gothic novels and the Early Music Movement, I also felt then, and feel even more strongly now, that the topic was timely and necessary, given the frequency with which the terms “medieval” and “Dark Ages” (and musical terms such as “troubadour”) are used in current political and social discourse. As others have also stated, I have no intention of shaping my students’ political beliefs, insofar as that means forging them in the image of my own. But the “medieval” is part of our current vernacular, and it acts as a bit of a catch-all, a blank page onto which we can, and do, inscribe all of our hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, ideals and prejudices and notions of identity. By probing how these terms are used in today’s society, we can better understand our conceptions of both past and present.
The purpose of this class is not to point out where medievalism goes wrong; it’s not (solely) a class on fact-checking. Rather, it’s on understanding how stereotypes and preconceived notions of the past come to be, what they mean to whom in past and present societies, and how we can critically identify and engage with the multiple levels of meaning that are engendered in them, especially when those meanings are (in my personal opinion, at least) incorrect, disturbing, or offensive. Musically speaking, this can be difficult; music and sound are auditory and thus ephemeral, and in many cases musical medievalisms aren’t so much about the music itself as they are about musical heritage or associations with non-musical medievalisms. By tracing both the sound and the story, so to speak, my students are learning far more than how musical tropes developed—they are learning that at all times and in all places, people have relied on reconfigured versions of the past as a way to shape, and reshape, themselves. By taking a critical eye to why and how this has occurred before, they are already starting to think more carefully about how this phenomenon continues now, which will hopefully lead to a continued critical engagement with all forms of modern media.
Christopher Roman, Kent State University
I teach Dante’s Inferno often. I import medieval literature into my sophomore-level research writing course, a course all university students need to take. It is a course that revolves around concepts of polis—we often spend a good portion of the course weighing what makes good and bad government. If there is an author who is good at suggesting what makes a government go bad, it’s Dante. Dante the exile critiques power gone wrong, power that abuses, power that squanders, power that squashes the very people it should help. Dante casts aspersions on those powers that allow the worst to thrive. Dante is not a hater; all of this critique comes out of a place of love as he recognizes the potential of good governance.
In the face of Trump-era “alternate facts” and an administration that immediately purges references to Native Americans, the disabled, the LGBTQ community, and global climate change from its official website, Dante, in turn, encourages students to critique, to speak out, to root out injustice in order to reveal its rickety platforms. As Dante smugly accuses his fellow Florentines, “Count yourself happy, then, for you have reason to,/since you’re rich, at peace, and wise” (Purg. VI, 136-37). And that’s the sad fact—we are rich in wealth, so poor in social justice. The thieves of Florence now pillage its wonders.
Many of us now find ourselves in a (mental) state of exile. Despite Dante’s central place in the white, Western canon his poem and political positioning has inspired a long tradition of critiquing power from those in the oppressed corners of America. As Dennis Looney writes, Dante “becomes a model for a host of African American authors who see themselves in exile too and who use him to shed light on their own experience of this fate.” Looney traces how each generation of black authors adapts Dante to speak to a political moment: frontier, abolition, Civil Rights, and racism. Looney concludes that “the Dante they value is at times unruly, in various ways radical, and to varying degrees political, and he helps them make a case against injustice as he accompanies them on their journey toward freedom and civil rights over the course of the history of the United States.”
As a companion to Dante’s Inferno, I often teach Gloria Naylor’s masterwork Linden Hills (1985), a re-telling of Inferno that critiques the social mobility and middle-class hollowness of a suburban black community eponymously named. Two poets, Willie and Lester, travel to the bottom of Linden Hills becoming entangled in the lives of various people as they work odd jobs for the residents. The structure of the narrative parallels the rings of Dante’s Hell. It is when Willie and Lester hit the bottom circle of Linden Hills that Willie takes a moment to size-up the neighborhood:
If anything was the problem with Linden Hills, it was that nothing seemed to be what it really was. Everything was turned upside down in that place. And he was tired of thinking about it, tired of trying to put those pieces together as if it were some big great puzzle whose solution was just beyond his fingers.
But this all sounds familiar, right? Everything suddenly seems upside down in our government. An inauguration cake plagiarizes from the previous administration, but is mostly made of Styrofoam. The White House Press Secretary declares that this was the largest inauguration crowd ever: “Period.” Pictures show the contrary. And, (well, not finally, I’m sure this is only the beginning) the administration appeals to “alternate facts” when questioned on the veracity of inauguration crowd numbers.
Despite the frustrations of Hell, Willie doesn’t give up. See, Willie has 665 poems in his head. Through his journey down, no new poems have come. He had never written any of these poems down. But, he realizes “his poems only made sense in his ears and mouth. His fingers, eyes, and nose. Something about Linden Hills was blocking that and to unstop it, he would have to put Linden Hills into a poem.” Is it telling that there was no poem at the inauguration? This absence of poets and poetry underscores how these forms speak to power in ways that power cannot control.
In one of the early cantos of the Purgatorio, Dante takes a moment to lament the current state of Italy. He writes:
Ah, Italy enslaved, abode of misery,
pilotless ship in a fierce tempest tossed,
no mistress over provinces but a harlot!
How eager was that noble soul,
only at the sweet name of his city,
to welcome there his fellow citizen!
Now your inhabitants are never free from war,
and those enclosed within a single wall and moat
are gnawing on each other.
Search, miserable one, around your shores,
then look into your heart,
if any part of you rejoice in peace. (VI, 76-87).
Our political moment feels tempestuous. How to find peace? We still can rejoice in that peace. We just have to recover it. Again. I suggest we must continue to defend poetry and all of the arts, humanities, and intellectual culture finding itself continually under attack because it speaks to fascism and authoritarianism in ways that befuddle oppression.
And here’s the thing, Dante gets out of Hell; he figures out which side is up. Dante has to learn how to hope again in the face of treachery. Dante has to learn how to identify his worse prejudices, his own sins even. Sin itself for Dante is rooted in the abuse of power, the treacherous, those who will bring their country down with hate. But hate is so much trump. Wind does not know which direction to blow in the face of truth.
 Dennis Looney, Freedom Writers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), 5.
 Looney, 207.
 Gloria Naylor, Linden Hills (Penguin: New York 1986), 275.
 Naylor, 275.
Ken Mondschein, American International College
(Ken adjuncts in Springfield and was an adjunct at Westfield State until his classes were cut this semester due to under-enrollment. He is desperately seeking a full-time position. The following is adapted from the Introduction to his Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War, forthcoming from McFarland. He will be speaking on the subject at Kalamazoo this year.)
From “Deus vult” spray-painted on mosques to the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP), carrying shields with Norse runes on them when they held their riot-sparking rally at the California State Capital in Sacramento on June 16, 2016, to white-supremacists flocking to medieval martial arts as part of their “cultural identity,” the Middle Ages are being used for political ends in a way that has seldom been seen in the postwar world. All of this points to the need for professional medievalists to address popular audiences. The question is if we, as a group, are up to the task.
The audience for whom we professional historians really write is one another, and popular interest does not result in the creation of any more tenure-track professorships (which are already as rare as hen’s teeth). Unlike our colleagues in vocational programs, the hard sciences, and business and law schools, we liberal-arts professors neither wield power nor generate wealth. Fiscally speaking, we have brought nothing to the potluck, so we had better at least be entertaining dinner guests and help clean up afterwards. Our job is to produce socially useful truths, not debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (The answer, by the way: as many as want to.)
The socially useful truths that we serious-minded historians are concerned with are, as ever, dependent on the political needs of our society. Michelet searched for the beginnings of the Eternal France and Ranke looked for the underpinnings of the reich, but ever since the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, our concern has been the ongoing struggle for civil rights and social justice. These emphases are based not just on idealism, but on realpolitik: Global business knows no borders, and we live in an increasingly diverse, multicultural, and interconnected world. Middle-class populations in developed nations are not reproducing at replacement rate and continued economic sustainability requires emigration. The clannishness, nationalism, and isolationism of the past are not good for the bottom line, and the first job that we historians—the keepers of the sacred story—must accomplish is explaining, justifying, and upholding the power regime. In our case, that’s globalism as espoused by Hillary Clinton—not isolationist retreat into some “authentic” national culture as buoyed Donald Trump’s candidacy.
This affects academia all the way from curriculum committee meetings all the way down to what we do on a day-to-day basis. While my grandmother, who taught high school American history from the 1950s to early ’80s, declared the divine inspiration of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution to her dying day and decried “revisionist” history, I talk to my undergraduates about Jefferson and Washington as slave-owners and point out the contradictions between their rhetoric of liberty and their owning other human beings as chattel. Similarly, courses in Western Civilization, first instituted to praise the white male patrician as the inevitable heir of the genius of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, have been by and large replaced by insipid World History surveys that make students into cultural tourists doomed to regurgitate trivia about millennia-old civilizations onto Scantron test forms. In teaching these courses, I am doing no more than what my forebear in ancient Mesopotamia did when he came down from the ziggurat to tell the peasants that the reason they had to pay taxes to the king was because it had been decreed so in the sacred order of the world set down by the gods at the beginning of time. My job is to take the sacred (text)book and use it to explain Why Things Are The Way They Are.
Medieval history is therefore problematic: It is, after all, the history of dead white males and of the origins of the modern imperialistic European nations, devoid of even the redeeming quality of showing how the West reduced the rest of the world to the sad state it’s in today. No matter how popular medieval history might be outside the Ivory Tower, it will remain deeply unfashionable in academic circles.
If medieval history is problematic, then neomedievalism—medieval history reflected back at itself through the funhouse mirror of the pop-culture profit motive—is more so. My own anecdote: When I confessed to Carlene Hatcher Polite, my college creative writing professor (who had been prominent in the Black Arts Movement) that I was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, she asked me why I was interested in “that white stuff.” According to her, I should be more concerned with my authentic Jewish identity (though adherence to fundamentalist Judaism, ironically, would have precluded a Western liberal education), just as her African-American students should be interested in their African-American identities, Chinese students with their Chinese identities, etc.
As much as I disagreed with her—geek culture is my culture—I won’t say she was wrong. There is good reason for “that white stuff” to be suspect. Victoria Cooper, then a PhD student at Leeds, gave a very well-received paper at the 2015 International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan entitled “Playing Politics: Exploring Nationalism and Conservatism in Fantasy Video Games” in which she explored how “medieval” imagery and the idea of “authentic” national culture could easily be turned to serve right-wing, anti-emigrant political ends. The Middle Ages are, in Cooper’s words, imagined as “gritty, white, male, and powerful”; to her, “medievally-themed video games are a space where whiteness can be anchored, in a ‘happy history’ where a world is free of multiculturalism and white guilt.”
Cooper spoke of implicit Eurocentrism, but I will go one step further: The ugliness exhibited by reactionary neomedievalists is often explicit. Look, for instance, at the threats received by Malisha Dewalt, the author of the Tumblr “People of Color in European Art History,” which documents premodern depictions of Africans and Asians. Dewalt has documented and blogged about this harassment at length, and I needn’t repeat it here. Interested parties can simply search on her site.
Yet, those who look to the Middle Ages for a “gritty, white, male, and powerful” past are “doing history” no less than I was as an underpaid assistant editor of World History textbooks when I drew on second- and third-hand accounts of the historian of Chinese science Joseph Needham’s groundbreaking work to draw an overstated picture of the accomplishments of the Han Dynasty. Unlike my panegyric to gunpowder and astronomy, though, they are drawing on conceptions of history that have decidedly gone out of fashion. To nineteenth-century historians, the past was a march towards the “perfection” of what was considered “modern” society. Just as northern Europeans were superior to southerners and peoples in colonized lands were more “primitive” than Europeans, historians such as Jacob Burckhardt saw the European Middle Ages as a “dark age” that would inevitably cede to the Enlightenment. Conversely, romantic historians such as Michelet and romantic writers such as Walter Scott used the past to locate eternal national character in the mists of time. Both of these tendencies give us an “imperialized” Middle Ages: a time period that was a culturally “purer,” but also more “primitive.”
The combination of these two ideas, taken into the realm of pop-history, births that appealing meta-narrative: A past that is potent, freed from the constraints of a modernity that is perceived as decadent, unnatural, feminized, constraining, and emasculating. This troubling lineage is strongly reflected in neomedieval and fantasy fiction: Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian is the archetypical white colonialist hero, effortlessly slaying hordes of dusky-skinned savages by virtue of his superior genetic heritage. Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser story “The Sadness of the Executioner” actually contains the line: “he proceeded by gradual and not unnecessarily brutal steps to ravage her.” The plot of The Lord of the Rings may be summed up in the Gaffer’s line about “chasing Black Men up mountains.” (Who mourns the Haradrim, and what are orcs if not convenient untermechen?) Even many of Walt Disney’s movies, inspired as they were by the Grimm Brothers’ tales and their ideas of volksgeist, can be seen as “a space where whiteness can be anchored.”
So, there are disturbing implications to losing ourselves in a world based on an imaginary Middle Ages. But the alternative is much worse.
Let me relate an anecdote that Dan Smail, one of my grad school professors, once told me. He was visiting a British colleague, and the topic of conversation turned to the continual war on the humanities—universities in the UK being in a weaker strategic position in this regard, since the state has greater control over them and is continually sending around bureaucrats, like Henry VIII’s Visitors, asking academic units to justify their existence. Dan’s friend naturally expounded on the value of a liberal arts education, the importance of critical thinking skills and writing, and all the usual platitudes that we find in New York Times op-eds.
“That’s all well and good,” Dan replied. “But maybe the most important justification is that people just want to learn medieval history.”
The ivory tower is under siege. The business of America is business, as Calvin Coolidge said, and the humanities have been deemed irrelevant to these ends. Conservative politicians have attacked liberal curricula and interfered with governance, academic freedom, and tenure. Preparing students for the workforce is becoming seen as the highest and only goal of pedagogy. If current trends continue, research into the humanities will soon be restricted to a lucky few in elite institutions and an undifferentiated horde of amateur enthusiasts—some of whom will hold advanced degrees, but none of whom, save the fortunate, will have access to the tools of research such as academic libraries, databases, and travel grants.
My first response to our critics, then: In a time of neoliberal management of universities, where everything comes down to the bottom line, the best justification is market demand. Medieval history puts students in seats, which is, after all, the coin of the realm. We have a vast and hungry audience, yet very little high-quality nutritive information flowing to them. If we professional historians do not undertake works of this sort, we cede the field to enthusiastic but misinformed amateurs—or, worse, to the entertainment industry.
But there’s more. If we historians only write books that are only bought by library purchasers at R1 universities, we do nothing to rebut the pop-culture Middle Ages as a Jurassic World of resurrected straight white male barbarians out of a Frazetta painting—since the reality was nothing of the sort. (Not that I have anything against straight white male barbarians or Frank Frazetta.) The narrative of nativism, of ethnocentrism, of the Middle Ages as “a world… free of multiculturalism” has won by forfeit. If we historians are going to push a narrative of diversity and inclusion, popular subjects such as medieval military history need to be written from that perspective.
We can, I think, draw parallels to the controversy between academic historians of the Civil War and Civil War reenactors. Peter Carmichael, a professor of history at Gettysburg College, drew the ire of the reenactment community when he was paraphrased in the Wall Street Journal on June 28, 2013 calling re-enactments an “ ‘unfortunate distraction’ from a deeper understanding of the Civil War.” The article went on to say that Carmichel preferred “living history encampments, where people can hold a musket or eat hardtack, giving them a tangible experience of the past,” but the National Park Service historians are best of all: “All you need to do is stay in the National Park and you’ll come away with a very deep understanding of what happened here.”
Carmichael’s statement was decried as elitist in reenactment circles, and rightly so. Regardless of whether, for instance, African-American units are properly represented (or for that matter, men under 50 years of age and a BMI of 30 are properly represented) on the reenactment battlefield, battle reenactment is a spectacle that engages the public and puts the proverbial asses in seats. Worse, it alienates the very people we professional historians should be trying to reach, since Civil War reenactment is rife with Confederate apologists who insist that the war was about state’s rights and not slavery.
However, to simply say that anyone marching around with the Stars and Bars is a racist ends any possibility of dialogue. The Confederate battle flag (like the Middle Ages) is a polyvalent symbol, read as in some circles as standing for a racial regime, in others as a piece of a proud heritage, and in still others as an artifact of a troublesome history that must be glossed and interpreted, but not suppressed. If we decry everyone who wears a Confederate uniform as a closet racist, we do not change their beliefs, but alienate them and push their discourse further underground.
I’d rather we look to the story of Derek Black as a model for our goals. Derek was the son of Stormfront founder Don Black, an active participant in white nationalist media, and widely seen as an emerging leader in that subculture. However, as Eli Saslow writes in his October 15, 2016 Washington Post article, Derek was also a passionate medieval recreationist who decided to attend New College in Sarasota, Florida to study medieval history—searching, as do many neo-medievalists, for that gritty, white, male-dominated past. Derek managed to keep his background a secret until his second semester, when he was studying abroad in Germany. Upon his return, the outed white supremacist was at first ostracized from his college community—until one student, Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jew, reached out to him and began inviting him to his multicultural Shabbat dinners. Gradually, put in close contact with people of other races and ethnicities and faced with a very different view of the Middle Ages from what he had originally believed, Derek’s views began to change. In time, he completely renounced his white-nationalist sympathies.
My forthcoming book Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War is my own Shabbat dinner—an open invitation to all that will not only make high-quality, nutritious information palatable, but also foster discussion and a sense of community. I think that we, as academic medievalists, have the obligation to do the same—and that tenure and promotion committees should reward such efforts even above publishing in exclusive journals hidden away behind paywalls.
Inspired by all of the end-of-the-year lists for this and that, particularly one in The Independent entitled “Professors at America’s elite colleges pick one book every student should read in 2017,” I decided to ask medievalists from around the world (and not only at “elite” colleges, whatever that means) to compile our own list of must-read medieval studies books for students. As was expected, many were eager to share their selections! These are the ones suggested to date, and there will likely be more in the future. They include a wide range: from a few primary medieval texts to mostly modern non-fiction and fiction. I will keep the list updated. If you have a book to add, please leave a comment (with your name/affiliation if you would like it included).
For my own selection, I have to go with one also suggested by a colleague below: The Book of Memory: The Study of Memory in Medieval Culture by Mary Carruthers. Yes, it was and is central to my dissertation and my current book project. Yes, those of us who work with memory live in its pages. But, other than that, it is an essential study of medieval culture that draws on diverse aspects of society as well as delves into the cognitive processes of the medieval mind.
PS If any information is incorrect, please let me know. This was mostly gathered over social media, and anything could have happened!
Eva Andersson (Gothenburg University, Sweden)
The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe by Patrick J. Geary
“While stretching to modern times, it still has its basis in the Late Antiquity and Middle Ages.”
Laura Ashe (University of Oxford)
Conquest and Transformation. The Oxford English Literary History vol. 1: 1000-1350 (forthcoming)
“Apologies for the self promotion, but no one else yet knows it exists!”
Orel Beilinson (Harari College Worldwide)
At Europe’s Borders: Medieval Towns in the Romanian Principalities by Laurenţiu Rădvan
“For a more ‘Eastern’ view, I’d recommend this book for it gives its readers a fascinating look at the urban world in Central and South-Eastern Europe, a perspective that most mediaevalists lack these days.”
Katrin Boniface (UC Riverside)
Images of Intolerance: The Representation of Jews and Judaism in the Bible Moralisée by Sara Lipton
Susannah Chewning (Union County College)
The Discarded Image: An Introducton to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C.S. Lewis
Bisclavret by Marie de France
Stephanie Evans Mooers Christelow (Idaho State University)
The Identity of France: History and Enviornment, Volume 1 and 2 by Fernand Braudel
Anthony G. Cirilla (Niagara University)
The Discarded Image: An Introducton to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C.S. Lewis
The Book of Memory: The Study of Memory in Medieval Culture by Mary Carruthers
Karen Cook (University of Hartford)
Music in Films on the Middle Ages by John Haines
“I’m using this book heavily in a spring medievalism seminar. Lots of good, lots to critique.”
Jeremy DeAngelo (Carleton College)
The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350 by Robert Bartlett
“It’s a work that manages to tie a lot of phenomena together (especially the Crusades) that are usually treated discretely into a continent-wide dynamic. More importantly, it’s a work about, as I like to describe it, ‘people coming together and learning how to deal with one another’ – both in the positive and negative senses. It’s about the imposure of a cultural hegemony upon diverse populations, but also those populations’ leveraging of that hegemony to their own advantages. It deals with a lot of issues that too many people consider solely ‘modern’ – diversity, colonialism, tolerance – but it shows how a different time with different priorities tackled these issues. In 2017 I feel that we will need a reminder that these struggles to follow the better angels of our natures are not new, and that reverting to a supposedly more ‘natural’ intolerance is not a return to the proper order of things.”
A.J. DeLong (Suffolk County Community College)
The Dream and the Tomb by Robert Payne
“It’s a beautifully-written history of the Crusades and helps elucidate part of the current Middle East situation.”
Josh Eyler (Rice University)
Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women by Caroline Walker Bynum
“I always tell students that I think Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast is one of the best and most important books Medieval Studies, as a field, has produced.”
Katherine French (University of Michigan)
Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World by Judith Bennett
“It is about the complex world of misogyny, patriarchy, and patriarchal equilibrium.”
Shirin Fozi (University of Pittsburgh)
Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World by Peter Brown
“Not his greatest, but it’s in a format that all undergraduates can read, and it’s so important to destabilize their understanding of the Christianization of Europe.”
Daniel P. Franke (Richard Bland College of William and Mary)
The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000 by Chris Wickham
“I often assign chapter 10, ‘The Power of the Visual,’ to my students when we reach the early Middle Ages. His comparison of how Byzantines, Umayyads, Franks, and Italians reconfigured sacred urban space is just superb!”
Matt Gabriele (Virginia Tech)
Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse by Jay Rubenstein
Dorothy Gilbert (University of California, Berkeley Extension)
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
The Discarded Image: An Introduction of Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C.S. Lewis
From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval Britain by Jill Mann
“I recommend the Beowulf Norton Critical Edition, for students. No education re medieval literature is complete without the first two of these books. The third is a fascinating intensive work of scholarship, sophisticated and full of insights. (There’s also my book, Marie de France: Poetry, A Norton Critical Edition, but someone else can mention that.)”
Rick Godden (Loyola University New Orleans)
Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child by J. Allan Mitchell
Ken A. Grant (University of Detroit Mercy)
The First European Revolution – c. 970-1215 by R.I. Moore
Paul Halsall (Internet History Sourcebooks Project at Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies)
Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World by Patricia Crone
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World by Gregory Clark
“These all provide some context to what we are studying in medieval history and overcome the tendency, so prominent for four decades now, to wallow in microhistory and to refuse the obligation of historians to attempt narratives and explanations (even if these are wrong).”
Brandon Hawk (Rhode Island College)
Medieval Hackers by Kathleen Kennedy
Carlos Hawley (NDSU)
El libro de buen amor by Juan Ruiz
Joanna Huckins (University of Connecticut)
The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 by Eamon Duffy
“It has been indispensable to me in classwork, in my teaching, and in my research.”
Máire Johnson (Emporia State University)
The Black Death: A Personal History by John Hatcher
“It is fiction, but it is truly historical in that it draws from the one of the largest bodies of evidence from 14th-century England to recreate – and in some cases to create – the lives of those who lived in East Anglia in the 1300s. The story begins with the news of a terrible pestilence far away, follows the trail of that disease as it gets closer and closer to England and finally makes landfall, and then tracks through the lives of the people we get to know in the parish of the story all the way through the years following the initial blast of the disease. It is exceedingly readable, and the students I have assigned to read Hatcher have all enjoyed the book immensely. It doesn’t hurt that it also provides plenty of opportunities to discuss with students the ways these lives were reconstructed using primary source data, and students tend as a result to really get that history done well is VISCERAL rather than dry. It’s a story of people’s lives, of real, lived events, and that makes it relevant and relatable.”
Jonathan Juilfs (Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, Canada)
The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture by Jean Leclerq
Marie Kelleher (California State Long Beach)
The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe by Patrick J. Geary
The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World by Bruce Campbell
“The first is about the myth of pure ethnostates; the second is about the havoc wreaked by climate change.”
Ada Kuskowski (University of Pennsylvania)
From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307 by Michael T. Clanchy
Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art by Elly Truitt
“The first is a classic that shows the deep connection between cultural and institutional history, and the second is exciting new work that shows the breadth of medieval imagination.”
Kate Laity (College of Saint Rose)
Life of Christina of Markyate
“There is an inexpensive edition by Oxford World Classics.”
Kyle C. Lincoln (Kalamazoo College)
The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization by Teofilo Ruiz
The Wise King: A Christian Prince, Muslim Spain, and the Birth of the Renaissance by Simon Doubleday
Erika Lindgren (Wartburg College)
The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
“I use this book in my class on Medieval Britain, which is a prep class for a UK travel course. I also recommend it to non-college students (e.g. parents of students or older adults who want to know what the Middle Ages were like).”
Nicole Lopez-Jantzen (Queensborough Community College)
Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages by David Niremberg
Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe by John Arnold
Kara Maloney (Binghampton University)
Fire Watch by Connie Willis
“It’s not medieval or nonfiction, but, as a friend put it, nothing makes the love or need for history more real. Why study history — any history? Read Fire Watch.”
Taiko Maria (University of Colorado Boulder)
Chariots of Ladies by Núria Silleras-Fernández
“This book looks at the medieval Iberian didactic literature that sought to shape the practice of female piety among queens.”
Charles-Louis Morand-Metivier (University of Vermont)
The Autumn of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga
Heather Nieto (Copper Canyon High School, Glendale, AZ)
Summer of Blood by Dan Jones
“This book is about the Wat Tyler rebellion against Richard II.”
A.J. Odasso (University of New Mexico Honors College)
Traditions and Renewals: Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and Beyond by Marie Borroff
Tom Ohlgren (Purdue University)
Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism by Erwin Panofsky
Kathleen O’Neil (Glasgow Libraries)
Courtly Love Undressed: Reading Through Clothes in Medieval French Culture by E. Jane Burns
“If anybody is even remotely interested in medieval dress (in literature in particular), they have to read. It’s still one of my favourite books.”
Frederik Pedersen (University of Aberdeen)
Papacy, Monarchs and Marriage, 860-1600 AND Dissolving Royal Marriages: A Documentary History, 860-1600 by David d’Avray
“Not an easy read, but so exciting. The two books must be read together.”
Anna Peterson (University of St. Andrews)
Leprosy in Medieval England by Carole Rawcliffe
Janine Larmon Peterson (Marist College)
Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe by Lester Little
Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe by John Arnold
On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State by Joseph Strayer
“Like all of these, Strayer’s is accessible but also short and, I think, would engender some good discussion.”
Mark Philpott (St Stephen’s House and Keble College, Oxford University)
St. Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape by R.W. Southern
Melissa Ridley Elmes (Lindenwood University)
Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature by Larissa (Kat) Tracy
“This book is essential reading for anyone who thinks the Middle Ages consists of Game of Thrones-esque levels of violence, which is just about everyone who doesn’t actually study the medieval period. If I had to choose ONE book in medieval studies that provided the most bang for its buck in terms of a better understanding of the literature and culture, that would be the one I’d pick.”
Levi Roach (University of Exeter)
Formation of a Persecuting Society by R.I. Moore
“This book is a troubling but powerful view of socio-political transformation between the early and central Middle Ages. Honourable mention to Rosamond McKitterick’s Carolingians and the Written Word, a great book which has transformed the way we look at the early Middle Ages.
Abigail G. Robertson (University of New Mexico)
Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400-circa 1204 by Cynthia Hahn
Christopher Roman (Kent State University)
Musica Naturalis by Phillip Jesserich
Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor
“If you’re interested in medieval sound studies and the categorization of so-called natural and artificial music this erudite study is a must-read. Also, the Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor who thinks about education, study, and the division of knowledge and arts that still resonates. (An excellent translation is Jerome Taylor’s).
Charlie Rozier (Swansea University)
Shaping a Monastic Identity: Liturgy and History at the Imperial Abbey of Farfa, 1000–1125 by Susan Boynton
“A model of how to study a single community in a specified period, and someone everyone who is writing their first ‘I’ve finished my thesis but how do I write a book?’ should read for how to write a book!”
Silvia Ruiz-Tresgallo (Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, México)
Isabel Rules: Constructing Queenship, Wielding Power by Barbara F. Weissberger
“This is an excellent study on the representation of Queen Isabela of Castille (Isabel la Católica) in Medieval Literature and Culture.”
Yvonne Seale (SUNY Geneseo)
Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice edited by Celia Chazelle and Simon Doubleday
“Essay collection with lots of discussion fodder.”
Peter Sposato (Indiana University Kokomo)
Medieval Chivalry by Richard Kaeuper
Margrethe C. Stang (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)
Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography by Sara Lipton
Jeff Stoyanoff (Spring Hill College)
The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare by Helen Cooper
“One of the most important works on Middle English romance – Cooper’s work is both engaging and incredibly informative.”
Paul Sturtevant (Smithsonian Institution)
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: A handbook for visitors to the fourteenth century by Ian Mortimer
“This is one for everyone, especially for people not actively studying the Middle Ages. It’s a beautiful and compelling history, written by someone with a verve for communicating history to a broad audience.”
Larry Swain (Bemidjii University)
Aelfric of Eynshams Letter to Sigeweard (forthcoming)
“Must read for every medievalist!”
Robert T. Tally Jr. (Texas State University)
A Medieval Woman’s Companion by Susan Morrison
“I’d like to nominate my colleague Susan Morrison’s book for the list, as a marvelous feminist contribution to the cultural study of daily life in that era. Susan is also the author of a novel, Grendel’s Mother, a retelling of the Beowulf tale from a feminist perspective. Both would be great reads for students in 2017!”
Kate Tuley (University of Minnesota)
Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades by Paul Cobb
Byzantium and the Turks in the Thirteenth Century by Dimitri Korobeinikov
The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands by Konrad Hirschler
The Silk Road: A New History by Valerie Hansen
The Silk Roads: A Brief History with Documents by Xinru Liu
“Cobb’s is about the only discussion of late 11th-century history in the Levant and Anatolia that actually makes it make sense. Korobeinikov’s uses sources from multiple languages/cultures, including diplomatic letters, to complicate the relationship between the Empire of Nicaea and the Seljuks of Rum in particular, although brings in the other Byzantine successor states, and, towards the end, the Mongols as well. Really interesting methodolog as well as argument. Hirschler’s is a detailed look at reading, education, and books. A bit later than Brian Stock’s The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the 11th and 12th Centuries, but both are well worth reading, especially for those who work primarily on textual evidence and need to be thinking about the context in which that evidence was written and read. Hansen’s is a fairly basic introduction, but with the topic as large and far-ranging in time, geography, and languages, you have to start somewhere. Liu’s is designed for classroom use, but still worth a skim.”
University of Toronto Press History (@utphistory)
Short History of the Middle Ages by Barbara H. Rosenwein
Elizabeth R. Upton (UCLA)
An Introduction to Gregorian Chant by Richard Crocker
“If you’re going to read only one book about medieval music, read this one!”
Mary Valante (Appalachian State University)
Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce AD 300-900 by Michael McCormick
Björn Weiler (Aberystwyth University, UK)
From Memory to Written Record by Michael Clanchy
Family, Friends and Followers: Political and Social Bonds in Early Medieval Europe by Gerd Althoff
Valerie M. Wilhite (University of Virgin Islands)
Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition by Marcia Colish
Andrea Williams (KCL)
The Arthur of… Series
“The Arthurian legend is so central to medieval literature (and there’s so much material on it, some of it very dodgy) – these collaborative reference books are a great place to start.”
Alex Woolf (University of St. Andrews)
Debt, the First 5000 Years by David Graeber
The End of Ancient Christianity by Robert Markús
Kristín Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
Suggestions for Graduate Students
Politics of Dreaming in the Carolingian Empire by Paul Dutton
Medieval Europe by Chris Wickham
Phantoms of Remembrance by Patrick Geary
Holy War by Philippe Buc
Medieval Polities and Modern Mentalities by Tim Reuter
Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society by Roy Mottahedeh
The Medieval Imagination by Jacques Le Goff
After November 8th, finishing the semester for teachers of any age group of students became an arduous task. The same was true for me. From the day after, when I had to ask myself how I could face my students and what I could say to them, to the days following, when the usual routine was accompanied by the world seemingly making less and less sense, I have found myself asking if what I do truly has any impact. Teaching the pre-modern often brings out the naysayers who don’t see any significance in learning what isn’t “modern,” but, in a time when current events are in such chaos, those suspicions are even more pronounced, even as the ramifications of a lack of knowledge about the past are on display almost daily. In an attempt for some catharsis, I asked a group of medievalists from various institutions around the country to contribute to this blog post on “teaching the pre-modern post-election.” The response, even at what is always a busy part of the year, was overwhelming, clearly indicating the need to reflect on what we as pre-modern teachers and scholars can offer at this time to our students and, hopefully, to wider audiences.
As my colleagues provide so many detailed insights and examples below, I’ll preface with more general ones…
I do not require that my students love literature and history—indeed, that passion cannot be commanded nor would I want it to be—but I do require them to spend time thinking about why a thorough understanding of the past is so critical. For instance—engaging with the idea that civilization has been advanced not by a single ethnicity, but through diversity. That concepts such as gender and disability are social constructs and have been/are malleable. That humanity excels in its complexity, not simplicity.
Even as I struggled to complete the semester, my students emphasized for me connection after connection they found between the work we did in class and the current events we are enduring. They examined and questioned the so-called progression of history, the idea that we are naturally “better” than the past simply because we have scientific and technological advances. They reconsidered their own stereotypes about medieval women and, simultaneously, reconsidered modern realities. They discovered the translation history of the Bible and how to recognize the value of each translation in its own time and the danger of reading passages out of context. They developed alternative ways to analyze religious texts, particularly from literary and historical perspectives—not to replace other, perhaps more personal readings, but to supplement and inform them. They validated the credibility of primary and secondary sources. These are all skills I want my students to attain and retain as they navigate and make decisions in an uncertain future—not to mention a present that is witnessing the (re)empowerment of hate groups, the rise of “post-truth,” the continued assaults on gender rights, and the wielding of religion as a weapon against the marginalized.
Pre-modern people were rebels, facilitators, dissidents, and traitors. They were tolerant, racist, inclusive, and bigoted. They fought tyrants and were tyrants. They are us, and they are begging to gift us the benefit of their experience. It would be foolish to ignore them.
PS There may be a sequel to this post. If you are interested in being a part of it, please contact us.
Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski, The George Washington University
Post-election, we enter into an era that mobilizes strange and dangerous machines. It is radically new and different. Yet a study of history allows us to put everything within a historical perspective. By considering other moments, we can see how time does not stand still. Time is a movement that pulls us forward and backwards, continually seeing the past, present, and future in new ways with each turn. Working as a queer transgender woman in medieval studies, I say my job is to teach students how to read histories and literatures that can be overwhelmingly white patriarchal, homophobic and xenophobic for ways to flip the script. Marginalized people are used to living in a world not built for us. Yet to survive and thrive we must take what is available and use it for purposes and persons for which it was not intended. The method can be deconstructive: what is the patriarchy? How does it work? Who does it hurt? When and where does it change? The method can also be reconstructive: who else in the environment are not given stories? How do they live? Where do they find moments of resistance or power? Or one can forge new constructs from pre-modern culture: how does their past become our present? What concepts do we have that work productively with the ideas they had to bring new insights into both eras? Where and when does the past emerge into the current day in ways that can be responded to or repurposed? These are the questions pre-modern studies can ask. This is not only how we make history, this is how we use history to remake the world.
As teachers, we deal with students in the wake of some sort of trauma. As a visible transgender woman teacher, I get a greater concentration of women and LBTQI persons, who have an even higher likelihood of struggles brought on by an antagonistic world. Whether they linger after class to ask for advice or sit in class with that glazed over look on their face, our courses become a part of how they are trying to get through life. Let’s not take that for granted. Because I am a trans woman, I know from experience that most spaces and people are not “safe.” On some level, from fending off aggressive comments, to guiding them through pronouns, to ignoring awkward stares from those who won’t say anything or ask, I must be actively or passively managing those around me. When I reach a place or community where I don’t have to fight for safety or dignity, I am often exhausted and can even have a glazed over look on my own face. In the defense of all our students who look burnt out, especially now, I say thank you. Even as teachers challenge students to think critically and make arguments, it is a gift to be in a classroom where they can rest from the work of surviving. As teachers, we can do some of that work for them by being active and visible in asserting the right of each person to be in a classroom without having to defend who they are. Consciously making safe classrooms are not only the right thing to do, it is essential to doing our work as teachers. By allowing them to set aside certain tasks of survival, we help them take up the task of learning. We give them a rest and help them get through the day. True, there are students who don’t have to think about the struggles of getting through an antagonistic world but by modeling what it means to offer assistance to these struggles to anyone who enters the door, we teach another lesson on hospitality. We can’t heal all the wounds of our students, that is not our job. Indeed, our minds and bodies have the amazing capacity to heal themselves through immensely difficult trials, if they are given the right environment.
Jeremy DeAngelo, Carleton College
As I never fail to tell the schools I apply to, one of my mottos as an instructor is Usus libri, non lectio, prudentes facit, “The use of books makes us wise, not their reading”—a quote from Geoffrey Whitney’s Book of Emblems. If we learn simply to accumulate knowledge, then we have accomplished nothing. It is contingent upon us to apply what we’ve learned. Our post-November 8 world demands our activity as scholars of the past, since those who wish to “Make America Great Again” are implicitly drawing upon the past to invoke their authority. We need to insist upon the integrity of that past wherever we can.
I’m less concerned about addressing our current dilemmas head on and more about creating a space in which our values predominate. We have discovered that our country will countenance corruption, overt racism, misogyny, sexual assault, a disregard for the principles of religious freedom and freedom of speech, contempt for minorities, and other transgressions, to a degree that we hadn’t thought possible. It is important then, to cultivate spaces where the opposite is presupposed. I was recently invited to participate in an association of professors whose classes deal with social inequality. It was not until it was suggested that I realized the degree to which the subject occurs in my classes. To my mind, that is the ideal to which we should strive, something more difficult than responding reactively to our world. Rather, we need to conduct classes in which our values are assumed, in how we present our materials and respond to it, rather than acting defensively as if we are in a minority. Because ultimately we aren’t, I believe. And if we do not cultivate our values, we can’t expect to pass them on. The classes that had the greatest impact on me are not those who made their points emphatically, but rather those that were confident in their worldviews. We need to retain our confidence.
Moira Fitzgibbons, Marist College
Like most medievalists, I count among my acquaintances a variety of Chaucers—the sharp-witted satirist, the earnest philosopher, the innovative artist, and so on. In the past few months I’ve added a new companion: Chaucer the information specialist. As I’ve struggled to sort through my duties to my students in what some have called a “post-truth” world, Chaucerian scrutiny has emerged as a useful template for my work in a wide range of courses.
We might argue all day about Chaucer’s goals and priorities (indeed, conferences provide us medievalists with cherished chances to do precisely that). Amid this indeterminacy, Chaucer’s commitment to considering the source of stories, contentions, and advice is one of the most consistent things about his work. Whether he is depicting a whirling mass of “tydynges” in The House of Fame or dramatizing the myriad ways individuals might interpret a fart in “The Summoner’s Tale,” Chaucer possesses an acute sense of the distinction between information and genuine knowledge. No matter how compelling the narrative or argument, he insists that we detach ourselves from it, if only temporarily, to attend to crucial questions. How exactly did this teller gain the privilege of telling this story? Who remains silent during the narrative, and who gets to decide what the story means? Why did the teller decide to cite this source of information rather than a different one?
These questions have cropped up with painful frequency during the U.S. election cycle just completed. Exploring medieval material provides an ideal opportunity to think through pressing contemporary issues, precisely because students so often perceive it as radically different from their own times. When my students and I worked with “The Prioress’s Tale” in late November, many in the class experienced a shock of recognition at the anti-Semitic scapegoating operative in the narrative and at the discrepancy between the Prioress’s avowed piety and her vengeful attitude. By inviting such questions, Chaucer reminds us that motifs, plot points, and descriptive terms all function not as neutral building blocks but as significant strategic decisions.
I cannot shape my students’ political beliefs. To me, this statement represents both an ethical imperative and the pragmatic reality of teaching and learning. I might, however, be able to provide my students with the tools they need to identify, question, and deploy rhetorical strategies in the many different venues. The distinctive combination of urgency, agility, and playfulness inherent in Chaucer’s approach to information literacy is something I seek to approximate in my courses in the months to come.
Rick Godden, Loyola University New Orleans
When I chose medieval studies as a focus in graduate school, I worried that the literature of the distant past would have little relevance to students today. I carried this worry around with me for quite a while; I even framed my teaching philosophy around the idea that the literature and culture of the Middle Ages could be made to be interesting and relevant for students. Of course, I came to realize that making the “medieval” relate to the “modern” required little work at all. What medievalists truly know, and what we’ve felt keenly since the election and the 2016 Presidential campaign, is that the past can irrupt into the present, jarringly and unexpectedly, and that the traces of the modern can be located in what we call the “medieval.” Whether it’s the never-ending invocation of the Crusades, the othering of another culture through the pejorative use of “medieval,” or even deeper cuts, such as the sudden relevance of Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale, the Middle Ages is not only relevant, it can’t be ignored. So, this is what we need to do as medievalists: We need to recognize, in our scholarship and in the classroom, that the Middle Ages not only reveals many truths about the present, but that it is also a vast canvas upon which many people project their fears and their very worst impulses. Sometimes, I fear that the word “medieval” has almost become emptied of meaning, evacuated of any historical or intellectual content to make way for fear and anxiety. “Medieval” can become a shorthand for declaring a group or people abject, different, and less civilized at the same time that it serves as the vehicle for some imaginary, utopian past of hegemony and sameness. In the wake of the election, it has never become more important to really understand the Middle Ages, not for what we imagine it to be, but for what it is, and how it relates to our current moment. The many wonderful medievalists I know already do this, and so, in that sense, nothing has changed since the election. But of course, so many things have changed. To teach the literature and culture of the Middle Ages without challenging the claims that White Supremacy places upon it, without rejecting the mistaken belief that medieval Europe was exclusively white, without puncturing the fantasies of chivalry and courtly love, without deconstructing the often purposeful misinterpretation of the Crusades, is to not teach it at all. After the election, we must teach the Middle Ages for the future. As usual, Chaucer says it best:
M. Wendy Hennequin, Tennessee State University
On election day, it so happened that my World Literature I class was studying Machiavelli’s The Prince.* Even our limited selections resonated eerily with current events. Machiavelli asserts, for instance, that instituting a new system is difficult because those who profit currently will oppose it and those who will benefit will only support it half-heartedly, if at all. We saw this play out in the opposition to the Affordable Care Act, whose laws about pre-existing conditions, if nothing else, help many Americans. But the same principle also applies to Net Neutrality and the elimination of student loan debt, whose potential beneficiaries, young people, stayed away from the election in large numbers. The wide-spread revulsion of Hillary Clinton, even by those who opposed Trump, demonstrated Machiavelli’s statement that it is better to be feared than loved, but fatal to be hated. Finally, Machiavelli most famously says, “The end justifies the means.” The prince’s proper end, according to Machiavelli, should be to consolidate his position and to secure the state. In this election, government officials, hackers, and even some candidates adopted Machiavelli’s maxim and tried to obtain more dubious ends with even more dubious means—and, unlike Shakespeare’s Iago, whom we studied next, they didn’t maintain the appearance of virtue as Machiavelli dictates. I pointed out the fulfillment—and misuse—of Machiavelli’s ideas in our current election to my students. They were surprised by the relevance of a pre-modern text to current events, and I fear the relevance of the election to their lives will surprise them even more. I hope that The Prince—and our other texts concerning kingship and good governance that we studied—may help my students expect and demand more of their elected princes and to choose worthy ones, lest we get the sort of tyrant who tortured and exiled Machiavelli for supporting a republic.
*I didn’t plan it that way, honest.
Jonathan Hsy, The George Washington University
When teaching pre-modern literature and culture in a post-Brexit, post-Trump era, it’s vital to help students confront retroactive fantasies of a pure monocultural Europe. In my Global Middle Ages course, for instance, we address dreams of the “North” through an array of cultural viewpoints. We read the Old Norse accounts of journeys to what is now North America in the Vinland Sagas in conjunction with contemporary Native American stories of medieval intercultural contact such as Joseph Bruchac’s novella “Ice-Hearts.” The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is paired with Arab Muslim traveler Ibn Fadlan’s account of Northern Germanic funeral practices. By giving students an access to “the North” through a wide range of perspectives, it becomes harder to say any one group can ever “own” the past.
Literature, art, historical data, and non-academic blogs all have something to contribute to our understanding of a multifaceted—and multiethnic—pre-modern world. The Refugee Tales (Comma Press, 2016) is a multi-authored work inspired by The Canterbury Tales that tells varied stories of real-life refugees and detainees in the present-day UK. England’s Immigrants 1330-1550, a collaborative and interactive map and database, lets visitors access a wide range of historical data attesting to non-English people living, working, and thriving in medieval England. A collaborative website Black Central Europe gathers together varied historical images, texts, and resources that tell the stories of people of African ancestry across the pre-modern West. Finally, the tumblr blog MedievalPOC, maintained by a non-academic, vividly reminds us of the vibrant presence of non-European people throughout pre-modern Western art. Disrupting received notions of a homogenous European past is an ongoing process that can sustain our efforts to instill respect for cultural difference and variety in our present.
Alex Mueller, University of Massachusetts-Boston
During the days following the election, my students were distraught, openly crying, or desperately attempting to keep their emotions at bay. My own anxieties pale in comparison to those of many students, particularly those who are undocumented and vulnerable to the injustices they are sure to endure under a Trump administration. In a recent ad hoc meeting of faculty seeking a resolution to declare UMass Boston a sanctuary campus, one faculty member expressed anxiety about the fate of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), particularly for those DACA students who received reduced tuition (thanks to our public education-supporting former governor Deval Patrick). Undocumented students who registered for this reduced tuition program are now subject to deportation since they are now “documented” as undocumented by virtue of their registration.
Like many of us, I am a lover of documents, so much so that I occasionally fetishize them and forget that they are not inherently “good.” I am just finishing the teaching of a Chaucerian dream vision course that is filled with poems that grapple with (like so much of Chaucer’s work) the distinction between “experience” and “auctoritee.” While “auctoritee” is not always associated with documents within these dream visions, the fallout from the election has made this common association a central discussion topic for my students, particularly within the context of the Trump campaign’s challenge to the authority of writing, represented by conflicting “news” reports, a President-elect who does not read, and the widespread acceptance of claims without documentation. Chaucer is charged by Alceste in the Legend of Good Women to document the lives of virtuous women, which seems like a laudable goal on the surface, but my students have been emphasizing how this form of documentation is often used against them, depicting Dido, Medea, and others as “sely” and gullible women, whose attempts to write are often short-circuited or redirected to male “auctores” (“rede Ovid…”). Chaucer complains that Phyllis’ letter is too long (blaming her, not his source Ovid), so he decides to rewrite it, emphasizing what he thinks are the best parts (“But here and there in ryme I have it laid / Ther as me thoughte that she wel hath said”). Assuming her textual authority, Chaucer offers a lesson for her, urging women to “trusteth…no man but me” (a Chaucerian Trumpism, if I’ve ever read one). Within a post-election world that resembles the House of Fame’s whirling wicker cage, filled with fabrications mixed with facts, it is little solace to my students that a “man of greet auctoritee” will arrive to make things great again. If “auctoritee” means written claims without evidence (which is the implication in the first line of the Legend of Phyllis), then we must scrupulously reconsider the relationship between authority and documentation. As my students have been suggesting, documents can (and likely will) be used against those with the least authority.
Frank Napolitano, Radford University
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, conservative pundits waxed rhapsodic, comparing President George W. Bush to Henry V, the medieval English king who overcame youthful intemperance to become a hero of the Hundred Years War. Today, our penchant for comparing today’s leaders to those of the past remains strong. You’ll find no shortage of writers—on the left or the right—proclaiming that President-elect Donald Trump is a tyrant, if not from the Middle Ages, then definitely from ancient Greece.
I won’t jump into that fray here, but my research on disability in the Middle Ages has prompted me to consider the value of comparing the 45th president to a different medieval monarch, William I, also known as William the Conqueror. In William’s treatment of criminals and persons with disabilities, we can find echoes of today’s conversations about justice, entitlements, and caring for sick.
Like many medieval kings, William was not known for his gentle treatment of dissidents. In Stumbling Blocks before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability (University of Michigan Press, 2010), Edward Wheatley describes the blinding, torture, and castration meted out as legal punishment under William’s rule (33). We can argue about the propriety of market-altering Twitter posts, but we can agree that Donald Trump cannot act with such brutality against his political opponents. And unlike William, Trump does not have direct control over the justice system. He’ll face some serious legal challenges, for example, to his promise to bring back waterboarding of suspected terrorists.
So let’s be clear: for this and for many other reasons, Donald Trump is not and cannot be William the Conqueror.
But the sensational nature of William’s brand of justice shouldn’t obscure other areas where we might find useful parallels between his policies and Mr. Trump’s. The President-elect’s promise to repeal and replace The Affordable Care Act will likely be based on the “Restoring Americans’ Healthcare Freedom Reconciliation Act of 2015,” an effort to defund Obamacare that the Congressional Budget Office estimates would eliminate health insurance for roughly 22 million people. Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, declared that “The budget is a profoundly moral document. It says, ‘this is what’s most important to me.’” Budget allocations may seem bland in comparison to the legalized blinding of criminals, but there are 22 million reasons to consider whether the loss of health coverage holds as much significance for the wellbeing of America.
Moreover, Trump’s promise to make sure that “no one slips through the cracks” seems admirable, to be sure, but it faces logistical challenges of its own making. I, along with several loved ones, live with a genetic condition that might have disqualified me from obtaining health insurance before the days of the ACA. Though efforts to defund Obamacare supposedly protect those of us with pre-existing conditions, I take no comfort in being corralled into underfunded “High-risk pools.”
I won’t pretend here to be neutral on all things Trump, but if I were to discuss these potential parallels with my students, my first step would be to eliminate myself from the conversation. In matters of politics, I generally follow Kathryn Hume’s suggested response for professors asked about revealing their religious affiliation in class: “If I’m doing my job right, [students] shouldn’t be able to tell” (39). To make the discussion about my own health or political leanings would be to stack the deck against students who voted for Mr. Trump.
A comparison of Trump’s and William’s policies would be worthwhile especially when considering that there is more than one connection between medieval and contemporary treatments of those with disabilities. As Wheatley observes, one of the ironies of William’s connection to juridical blinding is that he also founded institutions to care for the sightless (42). The most prominent example of institutions for the blind in medieval Europe was the Hospice des Quinze-Vingts, founded by Louis (“Saint Louis”) IX in 1256 and still in operation (42). The Hospice became a focus of resentment in thirteenth-century France, with many believing that the blind were being granted unearned privileges not offered to the rest of society (59). We don’t need to look far to find parallels to American voters who claim that people less deserving of help are the ones who benefit the most from Obamacare.
Most importantly, though, I would want students to discuss why we compare leaders of the 21st Century to those of the medieval period. What can we learn about today’s cultures by studying those of the past? We’ve never seen a shortage of works promoting the benefits of understanding medieval history, and there’s already been some fascinating post-election work exploring why people invoke the Middle Ages, either to justify their beliefs, or just to learn more about themselves. As students of all political stripes wonder what this election means for them, it is an exploration I am eager to continue.
John P. Sexton, Bridgewater State University
As I’ve been teaching my Early British Literature survey in the wake of this year’s election, one thing that my students and I kept running up against was the power of poets as commentators on their historical moment—and on ours. We happened to be reading Anglo-Saxon elegies as the Presidential debate series started, Marie de France while the recording of Donald Trump’s misogynistic comments dominated the news cycle, Marlowe at the time of the election, and Dryden as foreign interference and cries for recounts have played against a backdrop of frustration with the electoral college system and continued division in the country. At every turn, it seemed, our readings took on freight that my hastily-scheduled syllabus could never have anticipated. But of course, the texts themselves were more than up to the challenge. After all, they were written by men and women who wrote with their eye on the realities of their day and in full engagement with the unending struggle of people against, with, and alongside people.
It occurred to us, in our conversations, that our current national discourse would be immeasurably improved by the resuscitation of the occasional or polemical poem as a mode of political propaganda.
Hear me out on this.
Our poets are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a bloodless lot, and with the odd exception, speak primarily to a limited and self-consciously educated audience. Our political pundits are, with much greater claim to accuracy, perceived mostly as outrage-fueled demagogues with no deeper grasp of political nuance than that of the average concussed manatee. John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, et al. provide a glimmer of hope and a necessary public conscience, but they are journalistic jesters, speaking truth to power with the reportage equivalent of a bladder on a stick (I say this with great fondness for both journalism and bladders on sticks). I’m talking about the need for erudite, informed, unabashedly prejudiced mouthpieces on all sides of the political spectrum. How much improved would our national discourse be if we packed Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Keith Olbermann, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest of the shouting-as-discourse crowd into a leaky boat, bade them farewell, and demanded that Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Progressives, and all the rest employ satirical poets as part of the national debate? How would Donald Trump’s demagogic populism have been sustained against the badinage of bards and the scorn of skalds? The slings and arrows of outragéd memes are a poor substitute for the professionally-honed barbs of a scop out for blood. How would the debates have been covered differently if punditry had to function alongside pointed satires from Chaucer or Lydgate, Pope or Dryden? What would the poet who wrote for Charles II
Must I at length the sword of justice draw?
O Curst Effects of necessary Law!
How ill my fear they by my mercy scan!
Beware the fury of a patient man.
write of the rising anger and disgust that marks America’s political situation? One imagines longingly the mock epics and convoluted allegories that could have been written in response to every turn of the past election cycle.
In the absence of a professional class of polemical poets, I instead will continue to teach my students the value and history of words in the hope that they will become the skalds this country needs. To speak truth against those whose words would hide it. To clothe our best ideas and highest ideals with the dignity of reason. To expose the word-twisting, logic-defying, gaslighting lies of those who would lead by fear and ignorance. To say the things that powerful people somewhere would rather you weren’t saying. And, of course, to bring the pain and take the piss when it’s well and truly deserved—bladder on a stick optional.
Larry Swain, Bemidjii State University
The question of how do we teach what we teach in the current environment, post-Trump, post-Brexit, heightened anti-Muslim, anti-other, anti-pretty much everything good, kind, empathetic to fellow humans and other living beings….
To me, there is no change in what I try and get students to think about. I’ll list topics I typically address and have students ponder during any given literature course:
- Leadership—of course a lot of Medieval literature involves a “hero”—whether epic, chansons, romance, beast fable….there’s a hero involved somewhere. And while that hero is not always a king, he certainly interacts with kings. Essential questions then are what is a hero, what are a hero’s qualities, what about the qualities of a good leader or king, what makes a good king, a bad king….do good heroes make good kings? And so on….certainly in some classes we can cover subversive literature that criticizes the heroic ethos or attacks kings and the noble structure. That’s easier to do in Middle English courses than in Anglo-Saxon ones. And certainly the question of a good leader comes to the fore in Shakespeare’s history plays. The connection to the present should be obvious: what makes a good leader? Is a war hero or other kind of hero the best to elevate to the national stage? Do we follow evil leaders?
- One of the things I like pointing out is the notion of democracy: one person, one vote (in contrast to Athenian and Roman democracies), even the peasants get to vote. Most of the notions we hold dear as a so-called democratic nation founded on a document as a cornerstone are medieval ideas. Should we still hold them dear?
- What about the role of religion? Theocracy? Religious leaders as part of the leadership? How should religion influence our politics?
- Social issues abound in our literature: roles and empowerment of women, monsters, disabled, gay, heterodox, heretical, the other and alien….all these are regularly presented to us in medieval literature. And it is easy to bring that discussion back to the modern….how do we treat these classes? What place should they having in society?
Those are the most obvious subjects of discussion over the course of a medieval or Shakespearean lit course. The medieval world is not our own; but many of the same discussions are still taking place, and must take place. Tales have power to shape our thinking; I hope the literature I teach shapes my students’ minds and thoughts on these questions that continue to vex us centuries later. Th.e only change in this new environment post-November’s election is that these issues are even more important than they were before.
Larissa (Kat) Tracy, Longwood University
University professors are often accused of liberal bias, of using their classrooms as a platform for promoting one-sided views of politics and political issues. But education is a liberal premise to start with and so much of the material that we study and teach is based on liberal principles that value knowledge, learning, and educated inquiry. It’s not that we inject a liberal bias into our classes or our teaching, it’s that teaching and learning are liberal ideas.
That said, trying to deal with the outcome of this election has been a challenge. Not all students respond to discussions of John Locke or Jeffersonian ideals of equality well. Nor do all disciplines inherently lend themselves to political discussions. But literature is one that creates measured and considered political discourse—especially medieval and early modern literature because many of our modern arguments are not modern at all. Our ideas of social justice, equality, gender inequality, anxieties about female authority and racial Otherness are not new. The last few weeks of my fall semester, my literature curriculum took on an unexpected resonance for many of my students, both Clinton and Trump supporters alike, as it did for me. We discussed the development of liberal democracy, Locke’s argument on tabula rasa, how those were adapted by Swift, Voltaire and Jefferson. We discussed religious persecution and how those who claim to be persecuted like the Puritans go on to persecute others (kicking out the Quakers and Salem Witch Trials, anyone?). We discussed the Wars of Religion, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the Wars of the Roses, the Hundred Years War—the qualities of kingship (and queenship), what makes a good ruler and what leads to tyranny.
In my Gen Ed World Literature class, we discussed the essays of Michel de Montaigne, especially “Of Cannibals” in which he condemns the hypocrisy of white Europeans who regard the ritual practice of eating the dead in South American communities as barbaric, arguing that any society that resorts to cruelty, torture and mass killing in warfare is far more barbaric in how it treats its people than indigenous people who respect and revere the dead and the living. We analyzed the corruption and anti-Semitism of Spanish picaresque novels—those that are more sympathetic to the Jewish and Muslim populations like Lazarillo de Tormes, and those that reinforce the ethnic stereotypes like The Swindler. We had already read Dante’s Inferno, and discussed the way Dante manipulates ideas of Christian theology for his own political revenge and so, when Lazarillo and then Voltaire’s Candide talk about religious corruption and hypocrisy, as well as economic inequality—my students began to understand the wider implications of these issues that propelled the 2016 election and fueled its outcome.
In the same class, we read Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies and discussed the centuries-old misogyny that pervaded fifteenth-century Europe that Christine ridicules in her satire and demolishes in her allegorical city, as she builds up the reputations of historical and fictional women. Likewise, in my Medieval and Renaissance Literature course for English majors and minors, we read the poetry and speeches of Queen Elizabeth I and analyzed the way that Elizabeth had to manipulate the expectations of male political leaders and convince them that she “may be a weak and feeble woman” but she had the “heart and stomach of a man”, a duality that all women in positions of authority must negotiate. In that class, we discussed and dispelled the modern misconception that medieval women were suppressed and existed merely as property—it is not a universal truth of the Middle Ages, and literary figures like Wealhtheow, Brynhild, the Wife of Bath reinforce that. In fact, Wealhtheow became an important touchstone for my students as we read Beowulf because she is a powerful and assertive woman who must maintain the balance of diplomacy and violence in exercising her role as queen. She is a peace-weaver who is willing to wage war if the health and well-being of her community demands it because the men of the hall, having drunk at her table do as she bids.
Ultimately, the ramifications of this election will be far-reaching and deeply consequential. Some will profit from it, but many, many others will suffer for it. As medievalists, it isn’t necessary to make overt allusions to the election because the literature is, as it always is, relevant to this moment, as it has been for every moment. Because, as a people, we haven’t changed much, which is both terrifying and comforting at some level; terrifying because it means that we cannot seem to evolve pass our injustices; comforting because we are not alone in trying to change things. Our issues are the same—racism, bigotry, misogyny, hatred, partisanship, corruption, intolerance, and economic inequality. And literature is still one of the most powerful mediums for both conveying and combatting those ideas. The more we study the literature of the past, the better our chances for improving the future.