Author Archives: jpsexton

Com hyder, thou, sir John…

So…here I am again.

Two years ago, before and after the birth of my son, I disappeared from this blog for about six months while I adjusted to the joys and challenges of fatherhood.1 I’d been preparing for both, but hadn’t fully realized how little time it would leave me for non-essentials like typing or sleeping.

And since I’m nothing if not a slow learner, I went ahead and did it again.

John_in_his_stocking_Jan112014

This is John Leopold Sexton,2 who on December 20th became the early Christmas present that officially pushed life from busy to utterly mad. He’s a serious little guy, much quieter than his brother…most of the time. They get along quite well.

John_and_Carl_'sup_internet_Feb132014

Carl’s been teaching John about the importance of a well-framed selfie…

So, in short, life is good and joyful and very, very full. This blog, however, has been calling to me lately, and there’s plenty I still want to say about life in the academic trenches. So I hope to be back to semi-regular activity…and I promise to keep the kiddie pictures to a minimum.

1 And just as happened last time, Kisha has been so busy, eloquent, and dedicated to keeping things going that it’s probably obvious to everyone by now that I’m essentially here by her sufferance.

2 John is named for two great-grandfathers, two great-uncles, his father, and a number of other family members (Johns tend to multiply like quantum cats in an unobserved box).  His middle name is for a third great-grandfather. John isn’t the world’s most exciting name, but as a John myself, I can testify that it has the advantage of being entirely value-neutral. Also, “John Leopold” sounds like a pretty reasonable name for an ecclesiast with Papal ambitions, which makes sense for a second son and matches up with his older brother Carl Joseph sounding vaguely like an also-ran for Holy Roman Emperor.

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Filed under Huzzah!, Personal stuff

Offending the Unmedieval

What does “medieval” mean?

As a teacher of medieval literature, this is obviously a question I confront every semester. The name, as a name, has long since ceased to register any value-related meaning for me, and when I think about the texts I teach or the scholarly pursuits in which I engage, I don’t think about the word “medieval” any more than I think about the name “John.”

The name matters, though, if only because it serves to cordon off a span of time and space from that which came before, came after, or happened elsewhere. It shambles together a supposed unity of thought and substance that is almost wholly contingent on perception.

But of course it’s more than that—it’s a vestige of censure, a reminder of the judgment of later writers against the backwardness of the period. It dismisses a millennium in the span of mankind’s relatively short recorded history as unproductive. Stagnant. Wrong. The swamp from which a bridge protects one’s grateful feet.

Periodization matters, of course, because it creates itself by accustomed usage. It is because of “medieval” that students think Chanson de Roland and Piers Plowman are connected, but Piers Plowman and Pilgrim’s Progress are alien to one another (it is also why a university might have only one scholar of “the Middle Ages,” but two or three for each century after the sixteenth—and why, in many courses, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Beowulf or, heaven help us, Morte D’artur provides “medieval coverage” in a survey course which might dedicate eight weeks to the seventeenth century). It’s also why a writer like Stephen Greenblatt can still write a book like The Swerve, with its apparently unironic resurrection of a Burckhardtian historical narrative (visit Jim Hinch’s piece in the L.A. Review of Books for a thorough examination of the book’s problems, or  In the Middle for reaction to the continuing slew of awards the book has inexplicably garnered).

I don’t need and don’t intend to write a defense of the medieval period—certainly it would be (one hopes) superfluous on a blog dedicated to things medieval, and in any case that sort of thing is inevitably read as defensive justification rather than the cool-headed contempt I like to think I exude when confronted with uninformed anti-medieval prejudice. I’m really more interested in pursuing a discussion of the usefulness (or cost) of the idea of the medieval.

There’s already some great material out there on this subject—Alexander Murray’s 2005 essay “Should the Middle Ages be Abolished?” (Essays in Medieval  Studies 21 (2005)) is an accessible introduction to the question, and I’m thinking about making it a part of my next iteration of the medieval literature survey. My goal, however, is not to spend time defending the medieval (or, at least, not until it needs it); I’m hoping instead to help my students to reconfigure the place of the medieval in their mental landscapes. In other words, as the title of this post suggests, I want to turn the tables a bit. I don’t want to defend the medieval from the slings and arrows of Burckhardt, Greenblatt, and outrageous Fortune; I want to offend against the terms and mentalities that conveniently section off “the Middle Ages” and, in doing so, help my students to understand that the medieval remained (and remains) a shaping force in the lives of those who lived (and live) after it.

Since this blog is about the role of medieval studies in Massachusetts State Universities, and more generally in higher education, I’d like very much to hear from others about the problems—and opportunities—created for you as an instructor by the concept of “the medieval,” and how you deal with the “Middle Ages” construct in your courses. The floor is open…

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Filed under Early Modern, Medievalism, Teaching

A survey survey

I’m preparing (once again) to teach the omnipresent British Literature I survey. No matter how many times I set up the reading schedule, there’s always a moment when I’m stuck, looking at the remaining blocks of time and thinking, “Why don’t I have room for Marie de France (or Spenser, or the Battle of Maldon, or medieval drama, or whatever that semester’s victim might be)? How’d that happen?”

There are reasons for this, of course, mostly having to do with my insistence on spending more time in the Anglo-Saxon period than most of my colleagues. My current iteration of the course breaks the material into three units: Anglo-Saxon (four weeks), Medieval (five weeks), and Early Modern (five weeks), the last of which ends up with a couple of late texts awkwardly tacked on post-Milton. I realize that not everyone makes time for Dream of the Rood, The Battle of Maldon, or Judith in the early going of a survey, but for the life of me I can’t understand why…

So, okay, I’m a medievalist and I want to know that people are reading the stuff I love. But the problem isn’t (exclusively) due to my prejudices–there’s a real problem with the survey’s mandate. As is the case at many institutions, Brit Lit I at Bridgewater was established with an arbitrary end-date–in our case, the course ends at 1800.
I know this is a fairly common point at which to break the survey, but it’s a terrible stopping point–not only does it mean that the course is designed to cover over a millennium’s worth of literature (not to mention going from Anglo-Latin through the various historical periods of English), it forces a terribly awkward coda to the course with one of three results:

1. The final texts of the course are chosen to avoid the novel-length elephant in the 18th-century room (and therefore do not accurately inform the students of the literary developments of the period)

2. The course must grapple with early novels at the very end of a whirlwind semester that has already introduced virtually everything else (because someone, somewhere, decided that Pamela or Tom Jones is a logical text to end a course that began with Bede).

3. The course, by design, ignores the final century or so of its mandated coverage, with the result that 18th century literature undeservedly falls through the cracks of student perception and understanding.

A logical alternative would be to end the course before the rise of the novel, with the second half of the survey picking up the thread and introducing the novel as it debuts in English letters. I’d grudgingly accept 1700 as an arbitrary endpoint, or 1688 (for Oroonoko) or 1678 ( for Pilgrim’s Progress) as a slightly less arbitrary one. Given my druthers, I’d probably end the course at either 1649 or 1674, depending on whether I’ve got my historian or literary hat on. Given tyrannical overlordship of the course catalog, I’d probably end it at 1485 for both historical and literary reasons and let the second half of the survey deal with all that postmedieval stuff…

So I propose a topic of conversation for those who teach (or have taken) the Brit Lit I survey at their respective institutions. What’s the logical endpoint for the survey, and why?

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Shameless Plug: CFP for Special Journal Issue on Teaching Old Norse Literature

So, one of my other professional personae is organizer and co-founder of the New England Saga Society (NESS), a group started ten years ago to promote the study of Old Norse literature and, more broadly, the medieval Anglo-Scandinavian world. In keeping with that goal, I am excited to announce plans for a special issue of Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching (SMART). This issue will address the subject of Teaching Old Norse Literature. The full announcement and CFP can be found here, but the upshot is that we’re going to be putting this together over the next year or so, and we welcome proposals from anyone interested and/or experienced in the topic. Proposals of c.250 words are due by August 31, 2013, and can be submitted to me (john.sexton@bridgew.edu) or to Andrew Pfrenger (apfrenge@kent.edu).

To be a bit bloggier (does “blog” have an adjectival form? And does it take a comparative? So many things I don’t know) about this for a moment, I’d like to add that this issue represents, in a very direct way, the goals that Andy Pfrenger and I set out to accomplish ten years ago when we put NESS together. I’m really looking forward to reading the submissions and getting this into print…but I promise to try to keep the updates about it on MassMedieval to a minimum.

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Filed under Call for Papers, Professional stuff, Sagas

…and back again.

The annual conference at Kalamazoo, ably documented by Kisha for this blog, always involves a bit of a shock to the system. Part of it, undeniably, is physical: several days’ worth of sleeping in a dorm bed, eating somewhat less than healthy food (and perhaps just the slightest hint of drink), staying up late, and flying/driving from Boston to Detroit to Kalamazoo and back again takes a certain toll on a body.

There’s the exhilarating shock of hearing all the wonderful work that’s been done in the past year. This year that included hearing about Stephen C. Law’s extended experiment testing the differing theories regarding the “twice-brewed ale” of Anglo-Saxon medicinal fame, a discussion of the innovative ways in which people are teaching the Icelandic sagas at the undergraduate level in North America (about which a bit more information can be found here), Richard Dance’s fascinating recalibration of the evidence for the Danelaw’s influence on Old and Middle English, Jaimin Weets’ work in anthropology with dental evidence that will force a serious reconsideration of early Celtic migrations to Ireland (and whose paper’s concluding lines have already given rise to the term “Kalamazoo mic drop”), and of course an exciting conversation (which I had the privilege of moderating) on blogging as a medievalist. I come back from Kalamazoo every year fired up, with new projects, new ideas, and a much-needed intellectual energy boost. It’s a shame that all that scholarly foment is trapped in a body that is probably in the early stages of scurvy (see above paragraph), but such is the price paid for inspiration.

But probably the largest part is the culture shock–the aftermath of having spent days with some of my favorite people–brilliant friends from grad school who have gone on to successful careers of their own as well as friends old and new from the conference itself–talking about our projects, reading, students, institutions, and travels, all through the lens of unabashed passion for medieval studies. Since I began my job at Bridgewater State, the conference has been my best way to reconnect with my medieval friends, and to re-immerse myself in the work I love. This always comes with a bit of melancholia, as the conference’s end means a year before I can see all those same people in one place again. It also means a return to a world in which few people are terribly interested in a bad St. Swithun joke, an impromptu discussion of mead hall architecture, a comparison of Crispin-Glover-as-Grendel impressions, or an ex tempore lesson on the meaning of Onund Tree-Leg’s missing limb.

There’s no denying that coming home has its rewards–my colleagues and students at BSU (an institution I appreciate more with each passing year, especially after hearing others’ stories of life elsewhere), the comforts of home, the time for a bit of reflection, and (of course) my much-missed family. But somewhere in the back of my mind is that countdown to the next visit to Kalamazoo and to seeing my fellow medievalists en masse once more.

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Filed under Conferences, Kalamazoo, Professional stuff

ICMS at Kalamazoo 2013: MassMedieval panel reminder!

As I sit in Logan airport and wait to board my flight to the 2013 Congress, I thought I’d take the opportunity to invite all readers of this journal to our MassMedieval-sponsored panel:

Saturday, May 11, 10AM (Session 382): Blogging the Medieval(ist) World

A roundtable discussion featuring:

Peter Konieczny and Sandra Alvarez, http://www.medievalists.net

Meg Roland, http://www.passionategeography.com (Marylhurst University)

Jennifer Adams (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Elizabeth Anderson, http://www.voicheascoltate.com/blog (University of Chicago)

Kisha Tracy, MassMedieval Blog (Fitchburg State University)

Moderator: John Sexton, MassMedieval blog (Bridgewater State University)

A happy and productive conference to all those attending. See you there!

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Filed under Conferences, Huzzah!, Professional stuff, Travels

The Parlement of Conspiracy Theorists

A few years ago, I started building in a final-day debate in my Chaucer class about the argument mounted by Terry Jones et al. in Who Murdered Chaucer? Our discussion involves looking over the evidence (or, at least, the compelling quirks and lacunae in the historical and literary record which Jones’ crew marshals as evidence) concerning the end of Chaucer’s life. This year, for the first time, I suspect we may decide he was murdered.

I originally began doing this because a student stumbled onto Jones’ book while researching his paper on Richard II’s patronage of Chaucer, and suddenly he (and, quickly, the rest of the class) became obsessed with the thrilling possibility that there might be secret murder waiting for them at the tail end of the course. To save our remaining weeks from devolving into a morass of speculation (mostly from students who hadn’t read Jones’ book and were merely using the “well, sure, that makes sense” form of reasoning that makes logicians cry into their pillows at night), I promised that we’d take the time on the last day of class to lay out everything we knew about Chaucer’s fate.

Three things happened in that first investigation. First, the class, with two holdouts, rejected Jones’ argument as lacking in evidence, though most also said that Who Murdered Chaucer? did effectively undermine their confidence in the traditional non-story of Chaucer’s final months (if you haven’t read the book, by the way, I encourage you to do so at your earliest opportunity–it’s a glaring example of partisan scholarship, but it makes for a fine read–and if its answers aren’t entirely satisfying, its questions are well-put and at least suggest that something’s not quite right with the official explanations). Second, the class was more excited and rigorous than I’d seen them all semester–digging through our textbook, comparing manuscript and historical evidence (I’d put together a handful of “evidence” slides, including the BL MS addl. 5141 portrait of Chaucer, close-ups of Chaucer’s tomb, and a couple of genealogies), proposing hypotheticals, and (bestill my heart) using the indices and textual notes in no fewer than three editions of Chaucer’s works. Third, and perhaps obviously, I decided on the spot that I’d be adding this investigative piece to the end of the course from then on.

I now seed in a few teasers about the final “investigation” meeting over the course of the semester. Every year, students are intrigued, but at the final meeting their conclusions have ranged from “maybe he escaped from England, but we can’t prove it” to “he probably died in the sanctuary at Westminster, but the ‘Complaint to his Purse’ is kind of disturbing.” This year my students are really looking for evidence that Chaucer’s poems and involvement at court was putting him in a potentially dangerous position if ever he lost Richard’s protection, and a couple of students considered papers about whether the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ was specifically written to irritate religious conservatives–and especially Thomas Arundel. Jones’ book, of course, eventually accuses Arundel of Chaucer’s murder…but my students, unless they’ve tracked down the book, don’t yet know that. There’s something of a Da Vinci Code-style close reading going on, which results in some questionable conclusions–but which is also evidence of real thinking and brain-stretching going on, which I’m a fan of.

Over the last couple of meetings, however, things have taken a definite the-truth-is-out-there turn, culminating in a student suggesting that the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ might be a specula principum in which the fox represents the Lords Appellant, Chanticleer stands in for Richard, Pertelote takes the part of those who counsel reconciliation with the Lords, and the barnyard mob which outshouts Jack Straw’s murderous rebels are somehow representative of Richard’s loyal friends and subjects. Sharp-eyed readers of Chaucer, of course, may note that a lot of this reading ends up treating the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ as a kind of echo of the advice-to-Princes reading of the ‘Tale of Melibee’). It’s a new reading of the text, I admit (I tend to think of the chase scene as a moment of Chaucerian exuberance, myself, and have a hard time not humming “Yakety Sax” while reading it), but it’s indicative of an undercurrent in the room. I think this group, for whatever reason, might be the one that buys Jones’ conclusions fully–and if they do, I’m looking forward to hearing what sort of an argument they stitch together to make it work.

It’ll make for an interesting final discussion, in any case…

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Filed under 14th Century, Chaucer, Teaching