You Know You Are a Medievalist When…

Before beginning my real topic for the day, I should provide a follow-up to the previous post. The Bruins got the Stanley Cup! I personally am still riding the high and plan to continue doing so right through next season.

Tim Thomas - Boston Bruins Stanley Cup Rolling Rally

Duck Boat - Boston Bruins Stanley Cup Rolling Rally


I am not sure why – perhaps because I was scanning through my photos in order to pick out one for the blog header – but I recently found myself reminiscing about a trip to Denmark I took a few years ago. I was an instructor of a study abroad course on Vikings, and I accompanied twelve students for a little over a week during Spring Break. We toured the country from Copenhagen to Roskilde, up the Eastern coast to Århus and Lindholm Høje. Along the way, we were run out of Heorot/Gammel Lejre by a very Grendel-esque character, we traipsed over the remains of fortresses, we stared at the Grauballe Man (check out Seamus Heaney’s poem about the bog man here), and we were caught in the middle of a Military Police exercise while exploring a Viking burial ground. It was, needless to say, a series of (mis)adventures.

The most memorable occasion on this trip, however, was a “free” half day during which the other instructor and I went in different directions, letting the kids decide where they wanted to go. My group decided on a road trip – we had a destination in mind, the town of Viborg, and the only rule was that we would stop whenever someone wanted. This meant we stopped by a fishing museum in the middle of nowhere and found the best smørrebrød in the world (if you haven’t had it, get on a plane to Denmark immediately).

It was the lonely curator at the fishing museum who, upon finding out why we were in his country, mentioned the ruins. He didn’t know much about them – some monastery or another. But they were medieval, he was sure. That’s about all it took to capture our imagination, so, armed with a vague set of directions (it was the equivalent of “turn right at the gas station that went out of business thirty years ago,” only complicated by the whole being in a foreign country thing), we took off. Just as we were about to decide, with disappointment,  that we had missed it and that we should simply continue on to Viborg, my navigator exclaimed and pointed at the building we were passing. Turning around in a cow pasture, we went back.

There wasn’t a soul in sight when we parked – just a huge, white building next to a pile of ruins. An isolated sign told the story: the site of Vitskøl Abbey, given to the Cistercians in 1158 by King Valdemar I and dissolved during the Reformation.

Vitskøl Abbey - Denmark (click on photo to enlarge)

Vitskøl Abbey - Denmark

My students quickly moved on to explore, but I stood there and stared at the sign. 1158. And it was just on the side of the road. We had practically stumbled across it, an almost forgotten landmark. I looked around at the broken columns, which I later learned had been destroyed in a fire in 1287. Reaching out, I touched the stone. While we had been to many pre-historic and Viking sites already on our trip, this was from my era of specialty. It was the first time I had been to such a site (no time and low finances – bad combination for getting overseas). I’d always known I had gone into the right field, but, as I stood there, it was confirmed. I could stand in the middle of nowhere in an obscure ruin and be utterly content. I could imagine what it had looked like, the people, the day-to-day life. It was a perfect moment, one in which all my training and all my love for this time period in history intersected. As simple as it was, it’s one of my favorite memories and one I’ll never forget. I need to revisit my old photos more often.

(PS: I feel like the title of this post deserves comment. Anyone care to offer an ending to the joke?)



Filed under Travels

7 responses to “You Know You Are a Medievalist When…

  1. jpsexton

    This is a great idea. Let’s see…

    You know you are a Medievalist when…

    …you think Geoffrey Chaucer’s too mainstream.
    …your worst ‘dating problems’ have nothing to do with your personal life.
    …you believe that “getting medieval” on someone ought properly to involve exposing them to three-field agriculture and the manor courts.
    …J. R. R. Tolkien is one of your heroes…and he also wrote some fantasy books.
    …the words “Cotton Fire,” “tincture of gall,” or “Henry VIII” are enough to depress you for hours.
    …You complete the phrase “Siegfried and…” with “…the Dragon,” “…Kriemhild,” or anything else other than “…Roy.”
    …you have ever referred to the work of someone who died fifty years ago as “recent scholarship.”
    …you can read six languages, only two of which are still spoken.
    …you would buy a dartboard with Jacob Burckhardt’s face on it.
    …you respond to a reference to St. Augustine with “which one?”
    …combined, you own more editions of Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, and Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romances than works of fiction from the 21st century.
    …you’ve ever given an impromptu lecture on why a medieval-themed Faire serving turkey legs, baked potatoes, roasted corn on the cob, or chocolate-covered bananas is offensively ahistorical.

  2. Kisha Tracy

    Loving the “dating problems” and Augustine ones!

    …you cringe in physical pain at the announcement of a new Beowulf movie.
    …you see nothing strange about starting research on a text in a language you have never before studied.
    …you get very upset when someone mixes up the “Sword in the Stone” with “Excalibur.” (“Because some watery tart threw a sword at you!”)
    …you can actually distinguish the different types of Latin ablatives.
    …you deliberately schedule your class on courtly love for Valentine’s Day just to destroy your students’ illusions.
    …you refer to the phrase “Dark Ages” as “fightin’ words.”
    …you only use the word “teams” as an acronym (we aren’t sure how it is one, but we know it is).

  3. …you refuse to go into any establishment called “Ye Olde Candy Shoppe” on principle.
    …you know when Bede’s saint’s day is, and you are not even Catholic
    …you know what a thorn is. No, not that kind of thorn
    …you can’t remember if ‘cloud’ is spelled ‘cloud’ or ‘clowde’

  4. Kaushik SB

    Is it really from the 12th century ? The brick work really really looks modern. More modern than ‘Modern Physics’ or ‘recent scholarship’.

  5. Kisha Tracy

    I’ve questioned that myself, Kaushik, but the little I’ve been able to find describing the site implies that it is original. Perhaps, however, I’m being fooled, but I’m okay with living under the delusion.

    Couple more…
    …your job description includes teaching EVERYTHING before Shakespeare.
    …you get frustrated at Scrabble because you can’t find anything to spell in modern English.

  6. Pingback: 5 Reasons to Be Thankful for Being a Medievalist | MASSachusetts State Universities MEDIEVAL Blog

  7. Hi thannks for posting this

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