Author Archives: jpsexton

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 ( or to Andrew Pfrenger (

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.


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,

Meg Roland, (Marylhurst University)

Jennifer Adams (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Elizabeth Anderson, (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

So when does the medievalist get medieval?

I’m currently in recovery from a series of colds–what a friend refers to as the “creeping crud” that hits teachers in the winter, as one after another of the year’s crop of flus, rhinoviruses,* and other bugs is introduced to one’s besieged immune system by students and colleagues and, in my case, my wife’s students and colleagues and, for good measure, the new treasure trove of colds brought home from day care by our son. Once the cycle begins, it can be hard to break…and so for weeks, my students have had to tolerate my rasping not-quite-laryngitis as I attempt to recreate the fine shadings of sound that make up the Great Vowel Shift, and colleagues have learned to expect that I will be sucking a throat lozenge during meetings. Yesterday, I finally broke down and visited a doctor.

This is not actually about my cold, although it’s therapeutic to grouch about it a bit.

At the doctor’s office, I turned in my forms, and the receptionist’s response to my occupation was, “Oh. That explains it–I was wondering why you were available for an appointment so early in the afternoon.”

I’ve had a few interactions with non-academics lately that have been along these lines–probably innocent comments that nevertheless betray certain assumptions about the work, or lack thereof, of a college professor. I don’t want to go into a long diatribe about one of those ivory-tower problems that never really go away–there have been many articulate defenses of the flexibility of the academic’s schedule. I particularly like the point made by Greg Semenza in his brilliant Graduate Study for the 21st Century that “schedular flexibility is perhaps the greatest practical benefit afforded by the academic lifestyle”–but that with that flexibility comes the responsibility of each academic to create for him or herself a regular (if unconventional) schedule that enforces and accommodates the individual’s work ethic.

So…having rambled around to the subject (the doctor gave me an antibiotic, and I’m a little less than fully coherent at the moment), what I actually want to talk about–and to invite conversation about–is that commitment to a schedule, specifically to a schedule that accommodates the quirks of the medievalist’s work.

As I mentioned in a post a while back, my academic workload was in something of a shambles last fall as I tried to adjust to my son’s needs and my own desire to spend as much time with him (and with my wife, whose job is much less flexible than mine) as possible. This spring, despite the endless sniffles and aches, I’ve been trying to carve out specific chunks of the week when I can focus on my work–Saturday mornings, Monday and Wednesdays from 8-10:30 AM (when meetings allow), late Tuesday afternoons (likewise), and the narrow slice of time at night between when Carl has been washed up and read to and (with my wife) gone off to bed, and when I become too bleary-eyed to work productively. This is still a work in progress, but it’s  an improvement–at least my students’ papers are being graded on a schedule and I have time for prepping my materials and covering my campus responsibilities.

Finding time for the specifically “medievalist” part of my life, though, is still a struggle–keeping my language skills strong, reading up on professional publications, writing conference papers for the looming Congress at Kalamazoo, finishing up two articles that have been three-quarters finished for months, producing promised work for a collaborative project for SSDMA, and so on. Finding slots of time for my medieval self is proving hard enough–deciding how to prioritize the many plates wobbling on their stems is turning out to be more complicated than I’d expected.

So I turn to those of you in this or similar fields for suggestions on avoiding the metaphorical smash of neglected crockery. How does a medieval scholar with flexible-but-very-limited free time maintain his medievalist self?


*The plural of “virus” apparently presents an interesting problem. According to what I can find, it’s unlikely that “viri,” “virii'” or “vira” (all of which are attested in modern use, but not in actual Latin sources) would be appropriate; for an interesting discussion of the nature of the problem and why “viruses,” though unsatisfying, seems to be the best answer in an English-language context, see the following archived explanation from Tom Christiansen, Unix and Perl developer:

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Filed under Personal stuff, Professional stuff

Higgins Armory Museum of Worcester, MA, announces closure

Massachusetts medievalists (and history scholars and enthusiasts) are losing a tremendous resource at the end of this year with the announced closing of the Higgins Armory in Worcester. The announcement, made officially on Friday, ends a long period of financial uncertainty for the museum, but begins a new uncertainty about the future of the Armory’s holdings. The plan unveiled by the Armory’s acting executive director will see the majority of the Higgins collection moved to the Worcester Art Museum (though about 500 pieces, most of them deemed not to be of display quality, are being auctioned off later this month by Thomas Del Mar Ltd., a subsidiary of Sotheby’s of London). Less certain, at least from what I’ve been able to learn so far, is whether the WAM is committed to the same sort of gleeful interactivity that has made the Armory such a joy to visit over and over again.

Like many medievalists within driving distance, I’ve taken students to the Armory many times over the years, and an independent visit to the museum has stood as my (only) offer of extra credit in my medieval survey course. I don’t know exactly how many times I’ve stood in the great hall and tried to decide what to look at first. I’ve had various favorite pieces over the years–a beautiful suit of chain mail with words from the Qu’ran etched on the individual links; a collection of jamadhar (Indian punch-daggers, popular in the 16th-17th centuries); a reproduction suit of boarhound armor kitted out onto a model that looks suspiciously like an oversized Jack Russell Terrier (a.k.a. “Wishbone”). But the overall effect of the museum is greater than any one of its exhibits or pieces, and I’ve cheerfully wandered for hours through its holdings and been transported.

On the other hand, part of the Armory’s charm is the way it interprets its mandate to house and exhibit arms and armor creatively and playfully (see, for example, their 2011 display of reproduction armor from the Star Wars universe, thus giving the universe the glory of, well, pictures like this).

My favorite experiences at the Armory, however, have come from bringing students there and enjoying their explorations of the museum’s offerings–from the jousting exhibits to the try-on-some-real-armor presentations (I still have a picture somewhere of a shocked but rapturously happy student wearing a heavy breastplate during one of these classes) to the student-friendly curators and guides to the building itself, a 1920s art-deco fantasy castle/monastery curiosity purpose-built by the (perhaps slightly eccentric) John Woodman Higgins to house his remarkable collection.  Currently, it’s not clear what will happen to the building–it’s on the National Register in its own right, so it will probably continue to exist, but whether it will still be open to the public is anyone’s guess.

I’ll update the blog with more information as it becomes available. In the meantime, if you’re within a day’s drive of Worcester, do yourself a favor and make the time to go see the Higgins Armory in its current setting before the end of 2013.

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Filed under History, New England, News

The Benedicts Society…

The announcement of Benedict XVI’s decision to step down from the papal seat has, unsurprisingly, led to a flurry of media attention. A fair amount of the initial reaction has focused on the medieval precedents for a papal resignation (or abdication, depending on whose view is taken of the nature of the papacy). Those precedents which are being cited are mainly those of Gregory XII (1406-1415), the most recent pope to resign the office, or Celestine V (1294), the last to do so for apparently self-determined reasons (Gregory XII’s resignation, triggered by the Council of Constance’s efforts to end the Western Schism, was technically involuntary).

Both are of interest–particularly Celestine, whose relics Benedict XVI has visited multiple times and whose resignation Benedict has publicly called a humble act demonstrating great courage. But, as it is a long-recognized papal tradition to use one’s choice of name to signal a bit of historical precedent, it’s worth noting that, though fewer than a dozen popes are known to have resigned, Benedict isn’t the first of his name to be among them. In fact, with two medieval antecessors, Benedict XVI will be (by most reckoning) the third Benedict to resign the position, making Benedict the most-resigned name in papal history and breaking a tie with the Gregorys (VI and XII) that has stood for nearly 600 years. As we’ll see, the names have been linked in this category before…

Benedict V (964)

Benedict V

Benedict V Grammaticus was elevated to the papacy in May of 964 against the wishes of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. In retaliation, Otto besieged Rome and set about starving the city into submission. After a month (during which Benedict repeatedly threatened to excommunicate Otto and his entire army) the gates were opened and Benedict was handed over. Otto tried Benedict on the grounds that his elevation constituted an usurpation, since Otto’s preferred candidate (the then-antipope Leo VIII) was alive and well. Faced with the possibility of execution and promised mercy if he capitulated,  Benedict admitted his “guilt” and abdicated. He died the following year in Hamburg. He was buried in the cathedral there,  but was moved to Rome sometime around 988…whereupon the record of his reburial location was lost and, if you will, remains unknown.

Benedict IX (1032-1045; 1045; 1047-1048)

Benedict IX

The last Benedict to resign was Benedict IX, one of history’s worst popes and the only one to hold the office three separate times. Benedict IX was somewhere between 12 and 20 when he first became pope through the political favor of his father, Count Alberic of Tusculum. Benedict was actually the third consecutive member of the family to hold the office–Alberic’s brothers Theophlyactus and Romanus were elevated as Benedict VIII (1012-1024) and John XIX (1024-1032) respectively. Four other relatives had held the office in recent history as well–Sergius III (904-911), John XI (931-935), John XII (955-964), and Benedict VII (974-983)–but the level of nepotism shown here was notable even for its time.

Benedict IX was a deeply unpopular pope, known and reviled primarily for his dissolute lifestyle. Commentators of his time accused him of adultery, rape, murder, orgies held within the Vatican, and “other unspeakable acts,” and the Catholic Encyclopedia calls him a “disgrace to the chair of St. Peter” who treated the papacy as a sort of family heirloom. He lost the papacy for the first time in 1045 when one of many dissatisfied factions forced him out of Rome and placed Sylvester III in his stead. Months later, Benedict returned and forced Sylvester out (though some sources still considered Sylvester the legitimate pope). His second papacy lasted only a few months, however, before he was convinced (with a hefty bribe) to resign the seat in favor of his godfather, the soon-to-be Gregory VI. Benedict would regret this decision and attempt to reclaim the seat the following year when Gregory VI was forced to abdicate after his bribery of Benedict led to a charge of simony. The German-born Clement II (who had helped to force Benedict and Gregory out of office) was elected in his place, but when Clement died only a year later (of what we now know was a poisonous dose of sugar of lead–possibly those whisperings about Benedict’s murderous tendencies weren’t exaggerating), Benedict returned to the papacy–by taking the Lateran Palace and investing it with armed troops. In 1048, a German militia was needed to oust Benedict for the third and final time, replacing him with Damascus II. A year later, Benedict refused to appear for his own trial for simony and was excommunicated, after which the historical record becomes a little fuzzy as to his ultimate fate. Two stories often told are that he either became a monk and truly repented of his youthful arrogance or that he lived in exile for decades and never stopped plotting to take back the papacy.

So as we prepare to witness the historic transfer of authority from one living pope to another, let’s be grateful (or perhaps wistful, depending on your personal bent) that the process is almost certainly to be the dullest abdication by a Benedict in Church history…although, if you’re the sort of person to credit the alleged prophecy of the 12th century St. Malachy, things could get a lot more interesting fairly quickly.

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Filed under History, News, Religion

E-Books and the Culture of Reading

A few days ago, I ended up in an interesting conversation with several colleagues about the likely impact of e-books on our work as teachers of writing and literature. As often happens in groups like this, the discussion turned to the future of print books in the age of technology, and a typically funereal note was struck. But I tried to argue for a bit of optimism on multiple fronts. Are e-readers here to stay? Maybe. Are print books dead? Maybe not.

There are some pretty clear parallels between the “death of the print book” and its birth. The advent of the printing press did not change the writing culture of Europe overnight. Decades passed while presses were built and publishing concerns established, but it took even longer to convince the entire reading population that manuscripts (with their artistry, craft, marginalia, durability, and colorful illuminations) were not the superior choice. New technology does not exist in a vacuum. Its utility and possibility is not fully realized until other technologies, educational models, and mindsets are created or adjusted to make fuller use of it. Books became popular over the course of multiple lifetimes, as more people became accustomed to and desirous of the qualities of print books (relatively low cost of production, accessibility, ease of ownership, faster production time, etc.), and more ink-and-parchment users either came to prefer these qualities as well or died off.  Manuscripts became collectors’ curiosities and eventually historians’ prizes, but only after enjoying a long and slow slide into obsolescence. Sentimentality, of course, played a role in that slowness–just as sentimentality is part of what fuels the hue and cry over the death of the book. Will print books, like their manuscript forebears, be reduced to a novelty item?

A new invention and an old one can coexist for a long time. The telephone was patented in 1876, yet the last telegraph to a sitting president (from a naval vessel) was sent in 1999. From the presidencies of Rutherford B. Hayes (whose phone number, incidentally, was “1”) to Bill Clinton, these two technologies existed side by side, one gradually taking the place of the other. New technology replaces an older form when, and only when, a sufficient majority of people decide that the advantages and limitations of the new technology are preferable to those of the older type. It takes a while, therefore, to replace a technology that works, and it would be hard to argue that any technological innovation of the second millennium AD was more culturally pervasive and universally successful than the printing press. (Gunpowder was invented in the first millennium, so I can sidestep the cynical comparison to guns on a technicality). Print books will be around until a new technology, which may or may not look anything like the current crop of e-readers, can convince enough people of its superior utility in comparison to bound paper and ink.

In the meantime, e-readers and “traditional” texts may turn out to interact in ways we’re not fully expecting. Last semester, I was bloviating at a class about the advantage of a physically small book which I’d assigned for class, a copy of which I keep in a coat pocket. “I can get a bit of reading done even while waiting on a line or between classes,” I pointed out, suggesting that they might do the same. A student in the front row held up his iPhone, on which, he explained, he had a copy of the same book–as well as fifty others (and yes, I’d already known that this was possible). After class, he told me that he reads on both an e-reader and his phone. When he’s done with a book, he decides whether he likes it enough to buy a paper copy, which he then can reread and write in if he chooses. My own shelves groan under the weight of books I read once, was indifferent to, and stuck back in place. My student’s private library, on the other hand, is made up entirely of books he’s already vetted and approved through their cheaper, electronically accessible forms.

Are the days of print books numbered? Maybe–but that number is probably a lot higher than many people think.

That said, the more disposable forms of writing, including nearly all periodicals, should look to e-readers as their best hope for the future. I don’t have an e-reader at present, but I’m thinking about getting one–mainly so that I can start accessing my subscriptions to newspapers, journals, and magazines when I’m traveling, stuck in a car with a sleeping baby, or just eating lunch somewhere without my laptop handy.

I probably won’t start reading books on a machine anytime soon, though–I like paper, the ability to move around in the text, my occasional marginal writing, my ownership of a physical text. Besides, I’m comfortable with one foot in the past and one in the present…after all, it’s what I do for a living.


Filed under History, Teaching, Technology

Learning the New Rules

Welcome to MassMedieval 2013!

After the first half of 2012 served up a lot more than I was ready for in both joys and sorrows, I spent the fall semester trying to adjust to some new realities–the most immediate of which was the sudden and transforming presence of my son Carl (a.k.a. C.J., Wee Laddie, Chuckles, and–much to the confusion of my brother’s dog of the same name–Buddy). Getting to know him has been tremendously rewarding, but it’s come with a certain amount of collateral damage to…well, everything else.

As we enter the new year and Carl’s 11th month, I won’t say that equilibrium has been reached (years of reading pre-modern literature has made me wary of thumbing my nose at the Norns), but I’ve got a bit of hard-won perspective about how Carl’s arrival has affected my work as a practicing (i.e., teaching and researching) medievalist.


Five ways having a baby has made me a worse medievalist:

1. The pace of my scholarly reading is down. Way down. I used to read (or at least peruse with intent) a book or two a month and several articles a week, between research in my fields of inquiry, materials for classes I was teaching, work by friends and colleagues whose production I try to keep up with, submissions for a journal I peer review for, and journals that showed up in my mailbox. Last semester? A sadly low percentage of that number. Definitely a new low, and one that I don’t plan to repeat this semester (see below for more on this).

2. Language skills? What language skills? Every minute I spend singing the Alphabet song or making what Carl thinks are hilarious clucking-and-trilling noises is a minute when I can feel my hard-won vocabulary in Old Norse or the future active tense of Latin crumbling away. Is there a children’s song that reinforces Old English word stems?

3. Grading happens on a schedule more appropriate to geological time. I once prided myself on the speed of my grade turnaround–entire exams returned in a weekend, papers and draft comments dealt with in hours, and complex projects turned back in a week or so. No longer–students still get their papers back, but the pace is charitably describable as sedate, a direct result of the baby’s spirited effort to dominate my attention at all times through the triple threat of being essentially helpless, unfazed by my pleas for reason and quiet, and, of course, deeply entertaining. Both the distraction and the resulting slowness seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future,  so I’m probably going to have to rethink my grading strategies somewhat (or stagger my assignments to keep the in-tray light at any given time).

4. Lack of time for writing. This has been a real frustration, partly because there’s always an excuse not to write, even when there isn’t another human being dependent on you for food, hygiene, safety, and comforting. My habit has always been to churn out writing in 4-5 page chunks (not all of it necessarily good or usable) over the course of a 4-6 hour marathon writing session (allowing time for revision both on the fly and during separate sessions after the initial draft is complete). Much of that productivity comes at the end of the long session, once I’ve had time for the ideas to germinate and figured out my best way forward with my argument. Given the freedom to do so, I can usually get into a pattern wherein I maintain that schedule for days or even weeks. I’ve never been much good at writing in short bursts, though, which is all I get now–45 minutes of uninterrupted writing time would be a luxury, frankly. So I’ve got to either change a lifetime’s habit or figure out a way to fit the occasional four-hour chunk of free time into my week.

5. There’s almost no time for reflection. This past semester, I had some deeply interesting conversations with my colleagues and students. A senior seminar on medieval outlaw legends wound up taking a series of especially interesting turns, as the students and I examined the archetype of the outlaw as a partial inversion of the Campbellian Ur-hero and contemplated the ultimately unsettling (and sometimes tragic) “happy endings” of many of the texts. I’d have liked a lot more time to pursue those conversations, and then to go back to my office to type up notes on our ideas to work on later. But the crunch of trying to organize my time efficiently meant losing that time that I used to use for making post-class notes–and, as a result, losing many of the nuances of our discussions. This, at least, I can fix, by making sure not to schedule anything immediately following my classes–but that’s often easier to say than to do.


Five ways having a baby has made me a better medievalist:

1. My reading “voice” is improving. Reading out loud to someone else every day (who lets me know the second he loses interest by trying to tear my beard out or stick cereal up the dog’s nose) is pushing me to read as a full performance–voices, expression, and all the hammy overacting I can manage. Bedtime reading is the best, since it doesn’t yet revolve around baby books per se–my Gollum voice really came along while reading The Hobbit, and my Scots-inflected Ancient Badger was the hit of our household while reading Badger’s Beech. The little guy seems to like it, and it’s definitely carrying over into my moments of reading to my students or while delivering conference papers–I’m quite excited to have a crack at the Canterbury Tales this spring and really give full value to the cartoonier bits of the narratives.

2. I’m developing new interests, especially in certain cultural aspects of medieval life. Predictably, these center around medieval child-rearing and perceptions of childhood. Aside from knowing that Aries’ Centuries of Childhood (with its argument that “childhood” as a distinct time of life is a post-medieval invention) is pretty generally discredited by the evidence, I’m essentially a neophyte. Now I’ve got a small stack of books and articles to read on the subject, and am just beginning to educate myself–and am in the very early stages of cobbling together ideas for a “Premodern Childhood” syllabus for the Literature for Elementary Education Majors course at Bridgewater.

3. A renewed appreciation for gross-out humor. I expect this to come in handy for a variety of reasons, but there’s really nothing quite like the infectious grin of a baby’s unabashed delight with the sounds, smells, and by-products his body can make to make me long for a chance to reread some of the earthier passages from lyric and poetry collections, to say nothing of teaching the divisible fart of the Summoner’s Tale or Egil Skallagrimsson’s emetic solution to poor hospitality. And, of course, to make me all the more appreciative of reading about such things rather than experiencing them during a 3 a.m. diaper change.

4. Thinking about history–and about literature–in new ways. This isn’t as directly professional, but I’ve found that I think differently about some of the things I read–and appreciate details in what I read that otherwise might not catch my eye. For example, I’ve known since I first read it in grad school that Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe begins with a dedication of sorts to his son Lewis. It’s one of those bits of 14th century literature trivia that would come in handy if anyone ever gets around to introducing Medievalists’ pub trivia at Kalamazoo, but otherwise wasn’t terribly important. I believe in the importance of the author, but not in the necessity (or even desirability) of biographical criticism. But now I read these lines somewhat differently:

Lyte Lowys my sone, I aperceyve wel by certeyne evydences thyn abilite to lerne sciences touching nombres and proporciouns; and as wel considre I thy besy praier in special to lerne the tretys of the Astrelabie. Than for as moche as a philosofre saith, “he wrappith him in his frend, that condescendith to the rightfulle praiers of his frend,” therfore have I yeven the a suffisant Astrolabie as for oure orizonte, compowned after the latitude of Oxenforde; upon which, by mediacioun of this litel tretys, I purpose to teche the a certein nombre of conclusions aperteynyng to the same instrument.

A small part of me now sees in those lines a man, possibly slightly bemused by his son’s interest in the complexities of an astrolabe but also more than a little pleased by Lewis’ “abilite to lerne sciences” and inquisitive nature (in fact, some of this reads like the 14th century equivalent of a humblebrag) . I don’t know whether that will affect my scholarship, but it’s certainly  enriching my reading.

5. I’m more patient. That phrasing is a bit imprecise–as those who know me might note, the implied comparative is misleading.  I’m learning some patience, both as a necessity in dealing with a baby and as a survival strategy for not becoming too frustrated with myself when I leave home papers I meant to return, or when I know I’m being difficult to live with, or when, at the end of a long day and with lecture notes to prepare or quizzes to grade, I just don’t have the energy to do anything more than fold some laundry, watch some television, or read a magazine. What I’m finding is that this is, slowly but surely, making its way into my interactions with my students, many of whom are also operating on the edge of exhaustion and trying to balance home, work, and school (often with more grace than I’m managing). My friend Josh Eyler has recently written about the need for empathy in our work more effectively than I could (click here for his blog). So far, what I’m learning from my son is that he’s a person in progress, and that much of the time the best thing I can do for him is to help him not to get hurt and recognize that he’s learning as fast as he can. I’m learning, and need to keep remembering, that my students and I are also in progress–and that sometimes I can do them more good by helping them not get hurt than by tearing my hair out over the pace of their learning.

So, ten months in, that’s the essence. Hopefully I’ll enter the spring term a bit more battle-tested and slightly better at the whole baby/world balancing act. Wish me luck…


Filed under Professional stuff, Teaching


The end of summer inevitably means a scramble to get through the reading that I decided I was absolutely, definitely going to do this summer. Nonacademic things have taken an inordinate amount of my time and focus this year, so my list of reading-to-do-right-now is even longer than usual.
I’m producing documents for a tenure portfolio right now, which isn’t really the sort of thing I want to skimp on. And, since there’s also a fair mound of scholarship I’ve collected and have to read, think about, mine for bits and bobs relating to my own projects in process, and (in some cases) prepare for use in classes I’m teaching this fall, the list of primary texts I wanted to revisit has been once again pushed off to an ill-defined future point when there is time enough to sit back, relax, and read.


As I look over the list, I’m a little chagrined at some of the texts I haven’t reread in far too many years. As it happens, in many cases I know exactly how many years it’s been, due to a habit during my grad school years of putting a month/year date on many of my marginal notes and in a series of indifferently-maintained computer files. The original idea was to track my reading and help my recall of the texts. It did both of those things, but it also now works as a guilt-inducing record of how dusty many of my books have become.


I’d made a list of texts which, according to my notes, I haven’t sat down and read in at least nine years (“read” in the conventional, i.e. real, sense, meaning “began at the beginning and read through to the end,” not “read” in the far-too-frequently used “skim for my favorite bits or for the section I’m pretty sure proves a point I’m trying to make in class/in an essay/in a debate with my wife” sense). Here’s a sample of the Anglo-Saxon and British literature alone, in no particular order:


Walter Hilton: The Ladder of Perfection

The Pearl-poet: Patience, Cleanness, and St. Erkenwald (whether or not he actually wrote it)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (I don’t know whether I’ve ever sat down and read just one iteration all the way through)

Julian of Norwich’s Shewings (one of my very favorites for picking up and reading excerpts from, but that’s come at the cost of not engaging with the full work in quite some time)

La3amon’s Brut

Winnere and Wastoure

Ælfric’s Homilies

Anything by Aldhelm

Anything by Bede except the Life of St. Cuthbert (I’ve dipped in and out of the Historia I don’t know how many times, but rarely for more than a few pages at a stretch)

Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde (though I do sometimes reread the end of book Five on its own)

Havelok the Dane

various short poems, homilies, and prose texts


The actual list is much, much longer. Many of these were last read cover-to-cover in 2003 for my doctoral exams, which goes a long way toward proving what I was told by C. David Benson at a departmental gathering the weekend before my first exam: “The day of that first exam, you’re going to be the smartest you’ve ever been.” Which would have been merely an inspiring bit of pep talk, if he hadn’t paused to sip his wine and then add, “and, of course, it’s all downhill from there.”


I often dream of carving out a substantial period of time–ideally, an entire summer, crazy as that sounds–to tackle these and other texts again with a fresh mind. Even better, of course, would be to read some material I haven’t read yet…and no, I’m not including a list of those.

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