Category Archives: Medievalism

Teaching the Pre-Modern Post-Inauguration

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:

Kisha


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.”[1] 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.”[2]

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.[3]

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.”[4] 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.

[1] Dennis Looney, Freedom Writers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), 5.

[2] Looney, 207.

[3] Gloria Naylor, Linden Hills (Penguin: New York 1986), 275.

[4] 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.

 

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Teaching the Pre-Modern Post-Election

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.

–Kisha

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.

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Filed under Guest Post, Medievalism, Non-Medieval, Scholar, Teaching, University

English Studies Abroad: A Gest of Robyn Hode

Sherwood Forest

For anyone who has known me for any length of time, one fact quickly becomes apparent: I’m an avid Robin Hood fan. I have been for as long as I can remember. My first clear memory is watching Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of  Robin Hood, and my college dorm room was decorated with a poster of Flynn in his best heroic pose from the film – that poster now graces my dining room wall. I have an extensive collection of Robin Hood memorabilia that I’ve been amassing for over 20 years. All of this to say, I simply could not leave the outlaw off the syllabus in this course, even though we are not going to make it to Nottingham. This post only serves as a small snippet of an introduction to the character.

One of the first mentions of Robin Hood recorded is in William Langland’s fourteenth-century Piers Plowman. The site “Robin Hood: The Facts and the Fiction” contains a good online resource, as it pulls out from the Skeat version of the three parallel texts (A, B, and C) the passages related to the outlaw legend. The most significant is in Passus B.V in which the sin Sloth lists his shortcomings:

I can nouȝte perfitly my pater-noster as the prest it syngeth,
But I can rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf erle of Chestre,
Ac neither of owre lorde ne of owre lady the leste that euere was made. (B.V.401-3)

In a similar fashion as Saint Augustine who castigates his younger self at the beginning of the Confessions for loving to read the stories of Aeneas and Dido rather than to focus on God, Sloth here admits to knowing the stories of Robin Hood rather than any prayers or Christian stories. The implication is that the stories of Robin Hood are well-known popular tales at this time. In the guide to an exhibit at the Robbins Library in 2006-07, John Chandler writes, “Sloth’s familiarity with drinking songs about Robin Hood, but utter lack of knowledge of things spiritual, also reflects the concern of the Church for the souls of people who likely attended mass grudgingly, but could readily recite popular songs.” This echoes Augustine’s disgust with himself over the same issue. And, yet, we all know the popular stories continue to be “more fun.” As a side note, this particular line also plays a role in my interest in memory in Passus V of Piers Plowman. Directly afterwards Sloth talks about forgetting his responsibilities and what he owes to others, making forgetfulness a part of the sin he personifies. The Robin Hood line too speaks to memory in that he can remember what he wants to, just not what he “should.” Selective memory, we call it today.

It is this popularity that makes Robin Hood  a frequent presence in early printed books. For the first part of the week (which was, again, interrupted by snow – I’m beginning to feel that Mother Nature has a grudge), we read selections from the TEAMS Robin Hood and Other OutlawsIn particular, we read the “Early Ballads and Tales,” which mostly originated in the fifteenth century. For whom were these tales written? In their introduction to the text, editors Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren state:

The audience has been a matter of speculation. Some have thought it was close to the discontented peasantry who were central to the 1381 revolt (Hilton, 1976); another view saw the ballads as a set of general complaints from the lower gentry (Holt, 1989). Neither party has accounted for the lack of agrarian and tenurial issues, apart from the unusual episode of the knight in the Gest. Another commentator has seen the dynamic of the ballads in the struggle for power in towns themselves and the forest as a fantasy land of freedom (Tardif, 1983). As a result of these debates there now seems general agreement that the audience was not single, that it represented the social mobility of the late Middle Ages, and the myth was diffused across a wide variety of social groupings who were alive to the dangers of increasingly central authority, whether over town, village, or forest (Coss, 1985).

The “general agreement” that these tales indicate the “social mobility of the late Middle Ages” and that they appeal to a “wide variety of social groupings” seems like an accurate and useful way to think about them.

The early ballads are quite different from the Robin Hood that has evolved down to us today. Yet, at the same time, we see familiar characters and characteristics. Robin’s home in the greenwood (wherever that greenwood may be – Sherwood Forest or ones nearby) is fairly constant. One of my favorite memories is visiting the Major Oak in Sherwood (photo below). It is an incredibly peaceful location, and it is easy enough to imagine Robin and his merry men living a life of unabashed freedom under its branches.

Sherwood Forest

Also, his companion Little John is generally always nearby. The other familiar figures get added over time. Maid Marian, for instance, seems to be an addition when the tale is transformed into plays performed on May Day. Robin’s association with the spring is seen in the early ballads. In “Robin Hood and the Monk,” the tale begins, “Erly in a May mornyng” (l. 10). In “Robin Hood and the Potter,” the season is summer, yet no less descriptive of nature and its bounty:

In schomer, when the leves spryng,
The bloschoms on every bowe,
So merey doyt the berdys syng
Yn wodys merey now. (ll. 1-4)

It is no stretch to see how these stories, which laud the greenwood, the newness of leaves, and the singing of birds, became associated with the May Day celebrations. And it is no surprise that Robin needed a lady; thus, Marian was born.

Sherwood Forest

The outlaw himself is not the noble gentleman who only thinks of the poor and the plight of the common man. He is the common man in the ballads, described as a yeoman, and we see him frequently not showing what we have come to know as his trademark chivalrous mercy to his opponents. Indeed, many of the texts end with the death of the opponent. For instance, in “Robin Hood and the Monk,” Little John unceremoniously hauls the monk who betrayed his friend to the ground and kills him as another man Much kills the page with him simply to keep him quiet:

John smote of the munkis hed,
No longer wolde he dwell;
So did Moch the litull page,
For ferd lest he wolde tell. (ll. 203-6)

It is a bloody scene with little in the way of any kind of mercy for those who oppose the outlaw or his men. Robin Hood’s famous nobility and chivalrous nature are later inventions, added and manipulated for the needs of his various audiences throughout the centuries.

For the second part of the week, we turned away from the late medieval origins of Robin Hood and looked instead at the evolution of the legend and its continued popularity. To that end, we read Stephen Knight’s article “Remembering Robin Hood.” Also, while it feels a bit odd to do so, I assigned my students to listen to/watch a lecture I gave a couple of years ago on this very subject, entitled “Robin Hood, the Once and Future Hero.” The lecture is here for those interested in it:

My point in this lecture is that there are many qualities the Robin Hood legends possess that have kept them alive and vibrant for centuries. One of the major qualities is that greenwood I mentioned earlier. While there are challenges in being exiled from society, “outside” of the “law,” there is also freedom in not having to answer to authority, in seeing those who are corrupt receive the justice they deserve (but might not receive if protected by society). Robin is often depicted, in whatever incarnation, as freely roaming the woods, doing what he wants when he wants to do it, making his own law and living his own code. This is appealing to a variety of people, not the least of which would be children who sometimes chafe against adult authority, which explains why the legend became such a popular children’s story:

[H]is popularity with children and the relatively powerless continued long after the popular vogue of the other medieval romance survivals faded…[H]is identification with unsophisticated readers, especially children, during his extraordinary extended vogue may well explain, even though there is no categorical evidence, his peculiar place in the company of children. (Brockman 68)

Or, as Joseph Falaky Nagy, writes:

The narrative tradition about Robin Hood, which throve in folklore and the popular literature of England from the medieval period to the nineteenth century, reflects the worldwide fascination with the figure of the outlaw, the man who exists beyond human society and has adventures which would be impossible for normal members of society in their normal social environments. (198)

Robin Hood is in a position, that space between civilized and uncivilized, doing what we only think about doing, that speaks to those who, for one reason or another, seek an escape from limitations.

In the Weekly Activity for Robin Hood, the students were asked to pick a film featuring the character (alas, with the exception of the animated Disney version, as it is an “easy” choice) in order to think about its representation of the outlaw, particularly considering how it stacks up against the original tales. There are many lists available of Robin Hood films; one, for example, is on IMDb, if you feel like a marathon (or you could just raid my DVD collection!). What, might you ask, is my favorite? The Adventures of Robin Hood will always have a special place in my heart and, thus, is in a class of its own. Also, it tends to be the iconic image of the hero. The live-action Disney The Story of Robin Hood with Richard Todd is also one I return to often; I think the music makes it particularly special. Interestingly enough, in that one, Robin does not start off as a nobleman. The silent version with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., is incredible; the full version is available on YouTube, which I have included below. The athleticism of Fairbanks combined with its charming simplicity is, in a word, wonderful. (I also have a soft spot for it because I received as a gift several original props from the film. They are a centerpiece of my collection.) The most recent Robin Hood with Russell Crowe is disappointing on many levels. Although it attempts to return to the grittiness of the original tales, it fails to capture the lightness and freedom so inherent in the legend. It does, nonetheless, speak to the idea that the story is malleable and can be applied to different situations in various time periods (here, Magna Carta).

Class links:

Next week: we visit Oxford and Tolkien.

–Kisha

PS In my spare time (what little there is!), I am reading the King Raven trilogy by Stephen R. Lawhead. It reimagines the Robin Hood legend in Wales and sets it during the time of William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror. It is a new take on the story, but, so far, it is working well, and I am far enough in that I can recommend it.

References:

Brockman, B.A. “Children and the Audiences of Robin Hood.” South Atlantic Review 48.2 (1983): 67-83. Print.

Chandler, John H. Robin Hood: Development of a Popular Hero. Exhibition Guide. Robbins Library. University of Rochester, 2006-07. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

Dixon-Kennedy, Mike. The Robin Hood Handbook: The Outlaw in History, Myth and LegendUnited Kingdom: Sutton, 2006. Print.

Fortunaso, Robert. “Robin Hood: The Facts and the Fiction.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

Holt, J.C. Robin Hood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993. Print.

Knight, Stephen. “Remembering Robin Hood.” European Journal of English Studies 10.2 (2006): 149-61. Print.

Nagy, Joseph Falaky. “The Paradoxes of Robin Hood.” Folklore 91.2 (1980): 198-210. Print.

Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. Eds. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren. TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

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Filed under Medieval Movies, Medievalism, Pop Culture, Robin Hood, Teaching, Travels

English Studies Abroad: Arthurian Texts, Once and Future

This week in English Studies Abroad has been Arthurian readings and discussions. You might ask, how do you cover Arthur in one week? The obvious truth is you can’t. The subject is vast, wide, and never-ending. So settle in for a long winter’s post! My approach was to tackle some of the medieval texts on the first day of class and then move into the post-medieval Arthurian tradition on the second in order to get a sense of how authors have manipulated, deployed, and co-opted the legends.

Some thoughts of the week…

Continuing in the spirit of considering our readings in light of locations we plan to visit, we took a look at the sections related to Stonehenge in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum BritanniaeThe story goes that Aurelius wanted to erect a monument to honor those loyal men who had been slain by the treacherous Saxon Hengist. Merlin advises that he relocate the Giant’s Dance from Ireland:

“If you are desirous,” said Merlin, “to honour the burying-place of these men with an ever-lasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand for ever.”  (Book VIII, Chapter X)

Pulling Stonehenge even more fully into the Arthurian tradition, Merlin is accompanied by Uther Pendragon on this expedition, fittingly so given that their mission leads to a battle with the Irish, who must be thoroughly routed. I am always amused at how Merlin, his mischievous, devlish side coming out, sends the men to try their luck at moving the large stones while he simply watches and chuckles at their fruitless efforts. It is reminiscent of the later iconic story of Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, when everyone else tries and tries to remove it to no avail. Here Merlin waits until they pretty much give up and then he comes to their rescue:

Merlin laughed at their vain efforts, and then began his own contrivances. When he had placed in order the engines that were necessary, he took down the stones with an incredible facility, and gave directions for carrying them to the ships, and placing them therein. This done, they with joy set sail again, to return to Britain; where they arrived with a fair gale, and repaired to the burying-place with the stones. (Book VIII, Chapter XII)

Of course, the exact nature of these “contrivances” and “engines” is left to the imagination. After all, we can’t give away all the secrets, can we? I try to imagine the ships it would require to sail away with Stonehenge, but it boggles the mind.

Drawing of Stonehenge, 1440 MS (click for news story)

Reading further in Geoffrey’s Historia, we focused in particular on the sections detailing Uther’s reign and then Arthur’s origin story. Our discussion led us to the collective origin stories of Merlin (parentage, early history, etc.) and what he is both capable of as well as the choices he makes and their effects on the Arthurian world. In this case, the choice to use his skills to transform Uther into the form of Gorlois in order to sleep with Igerna is a trade-off – an anti-Christian act which brings about the creation of the great king Arthur:

The same night therefore she conceived of the most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to posterity. (Book VIII, Chapter XIX)

The ramifications of this choice – his “ends justify the means” attitude – is not fully explored by Geoffrey, but later authors, of course, run with it. In the discussion of Merlin’s parentage, I was even able to work in my previous research into the role of his mother in various incarnations of the story. She’s quite a character, particularly with her ability to manipulate speech in order to protect herself and her son.

Perceval, receiving the sword from the Fisher King, c. 1330, Bibliothèque nationale de France

As an example of Arthurian romances, I chose Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Conte du Graal. There were a couple of reasons for this choice. One, a couple of students in the class took my Middle Ages class last semester and read Cligès and Le Chevalier de la Charrette; thus, I wanted to assign a different text. Two, Le Conte du Graal provides opportunities for different discussions: the representation of Arthur, the development and definition of a knight (and an Arthurian knight at that), the tradition behind the popular concept of the Grail, certain customs (real or fictional) Chrétien embeds in the narrative, the interaction between the religious and secular, the romance form (with a digression into the English/French similarities and differences), the French interest in and contributions to the Matters of Britain, among other topics. It’s a rich text and serves as a useful window for our brief foray into the medieval Arthurian world.

Also, speaking of mothers, we have here a fascinating one. She prevents Perceval from knowing about his true heritage in an attempt to protect him – and herself, as it happens, from more grief. Her advice shapes Perceval’s early development in the text, even as he misinterprets her. Her death occurs early, yet she continues to influence his choices, requiring him to leave the side of his lady out of concern for her.

On a personal note, I have always been particularly fascinated by the Fisher King (coincidentally, another figure I have spent a great deal of time researching in the past – our teaching reflects our own interests, no?) and was again upon this re-reading. This time around, I was struck by his soothing qualities. He is in great pain, unable to stand, though he lifts himself up to the best of his ability in order to honor his guest. His demeanor is no doubt courtly and courteous, as any number of characters are in this and other romances. Yet, his persona appears more than that as I read, as if his courtliness is less performance (as so often it comes across) and more an intricate part of him. His disability seems to soften (but certainly not weaken) him. Perhaps part of this impression lies in his willingness to express his suffering as indicated by one of his few lines of dialogue (in translation, as we read it in class):

“Friend, now it is time for bed. Don’t be offended if I leave you and go into my own chambers to sleep; and whenever you are ready you may lie down out here. I have no strength in my body and will have to be carried.” (422)

Though we are given little insight into his history or his societal role, I would hesitate to say – at least as I mull my reaction this time – that the Fisher King is rendered “real” by his hardship.

As a segue between the medieval Arthurian world and the post-medieval one, I had assigned Tolkien’s recently-released The Fall of Arthur; however, I was a bit overly ambitious in the amount of reading assigned and thus made this one more optional. It does, however, fulfill its intended role well, as a work written in Old English alliterative verse at the same time that it pays homage to the literary tradition concerning the collapse of Arthur’s kingdom. Even from the beginning of the poem, Tolkien captures the Old English sense of elegy while marrying it to the collapse of the Arthurian world:

As when the earth dwindles in autumn days
and soon to its setting the sun is waning
under mournful mist, then a man will lust
for work and wandering, while yet warm floweth
blood sun-kindled, so burned his soul
after long glory for a last assay
of pride and prowess, to the proof setting
will unyielding in war with fate. (17)

I look forward to spending more time with this work in a future class.

Cross discovered at Glastonbury Abbey in c. 1190, claims to be the burial site of Arthur; Engraved: HIC IACIT SEPVLTVS INCLITVS REX ARTHVRIVS, IN INSVLA AVALONIA. [“Here lies entombed the renowned King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon”]

Due to the fact it is a rather well-known modern rendition of Arthurian literature as well as the fact it conveniently paired well with our other readings, I chose  to assign the first sixty pages of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. This section parallels Arthur’s origin story that we read in Geoffrey of Monmouth, providing fodder for discussion, particularly as Bradley’s work is so focused on telling the story from the women’s perspective, which is not a concern of the Historia. There is an echo in Mists of the tension between the Christian and pagan found in early medieval texts influenced by or written in the time of conversion. At the beginning of the novel, Merlin and Viviane identify a need and a desire to allow the two to live in harmony n parallel worlds; as Viviane states:

“We must have our own leader, one who can command all of Britain. Otherwise, when they mass against us, all Britain will fall, and for hundreds and hundreds of  years, we will lie in ruins beneath the Saxon barbarians. The worlds will drift irrevocably apart and the memory of Avalon will not remain even in legend, to give hope to mankind. No, we must have a leader who can command loyalty from all the people of both the Britains – the Britain of the priests, and the world of the mists, rules from Avalon. Healed by this Great King . . . the worlds shall once again come together, a world with room for the Goddess and for the Christ, the cauldron and the cross. And this leader shall make us one.” (14-5)

Geoffrey’s “most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to posterity” is expanded by Bradley into a king who will “command loyalty from the people of both the Britains – the Britain of the priests, and the world of the mists” and who “shall make room for the Goddess and for the Christ.” There is still the sense of manipulation by Merlin as he orchestrates the creation of this king, though the story shifts with Igraine’s fore-knowledge (and her reluctance and initial disgust) that she has been chosen as mother to this savior. Bradley, intentionally or unintentionally, parallels Igraine’s story with that of the Virgin Mary, whose pregnancy as well as the special qualities of her son are also foretold. And, just to belabor a point, we have returned once again to the subject of mothers.

Bradley weaves in the concept of the Waste Land, so integral to the Fisher King narratives, in a rather effective way. Viviane explains to Igraine about the relationship between a king and his land:

“In the old days . . . the High King was bound with his life to the fortunes of the land, and pledged . . . that if the land comes upon disaster or perilous times, he will die that the land may live. And should he refuse this sacrifice, the land would perish.” (22-3)

The barren Waste Land of the Fisher King is so affected, it is often said, because he himself has been rendered impotent. Bradley inserts this idea into her novel by claiming that kings take blood oaths, and, if they refuse to honor these oaths, their people and lands will suffer the consequences. It is a much less metaphoric connection between the king and his land, attributing to the lord an active role in maintaining the health of his kingdom. Any may sacrifice his blood to counter disaster (or refuse to do so), yet, in the metaphoric reading, an impotent king can do little to rectify his situation (on his own at least – a hero is required).

Special side note: Stonehenge makes its appearance again in a story rife with Druids and the “old religions.”  It is referenced as a “ring of stones . . . in a great circle” that is “precisely calculated . . . so that even those who did not know the secrets of the priests could tell when eclipses were to come, and trace the movements of stars and seasons” (55). And, thus, across the centuries, the record of Merlin’s deed in bringing Stonehenge to England echoes in the modern Arthurian tradition.

A section of the film version of The Mists of Avalon:

In class, we split up into smaller groups to take a more in-depth look at some of the writings in Alan Lupack’s Modern Arthurian Literature, particularly the sections on “The Victorians” and “The Modern Period.” We did some small group bonding while discussing different readings, getting a feel for the reasons authors co-opt the Arthurian world. Its flexibility, malleability, the sheer magnitude of the stories and characters, and the possibilities of a “once and future king” were theories we explored.

As before, here is the link to our ongoing Google Map project. And this is the link to a collection of some of our online readings in Readlists. Our Storify journals are also taking shape here.

Next week’s stop: London!

–Kisha

Resources:

Annis, Matthew. “The Fisher King.” The Camelot Project. University of Rochester, 2007. Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Knopf, 1982. Print.

Chrétien de Troyes. “The Story of the Grail (Perceval).” Arthurian Romances. Trans. William W. Kibler. New York: Penguin, 1991. 381-494. Print.

Geoffrey of Monmouth. “Arthurian Passages from The History of the Kings of Britain.” The Camelot Project. University of Rochester, n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Modern Arthurian Literature. Ed. Alan Lupack. New York: Garland, 1992. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fall of Arthur. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Print.

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Filed under Arthurian, Medievalism, Non-Medieval, Pop Culture, Teaching, Travels

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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England Study Abroad…Test Run

As I mentioned on a previous post, I took a trip to England this summer, both as (primarily!) a vacation and as a bit of a test run for a future study abroad course I will be leading in 2014 (that date just looks impossible and yet it is incredibly near). Here, as promised, are a few notes…

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex, built 1385. I actually chose this particular site somewhat at random. Travelling with my six-year-old nephew, I wanted to make sure he saw a little of everything, and this castle has…wait for it…a moat! As it turns out, it was a good decision. In a remote area, Bodiam is rather an idyllic setting , which explains, as I learned later, why it was such a popular destination in the 18th century – a perfect opportunity to discuss medievalism and the varying interest in the period up to present times.

Bodiam Castle, chapel ruins

I was particularly intrigued by the chapel ruins at Bodiam. With no roof and the only remnants the empty window frames, it invokes a sense of the passage of time. It’s easy enough to imagine what it originally looked like, and yet there is the bittersweet melancholy of decay. Bodiam was the first site we visited, and I think it is an effective starting point – low-key, yet interesting, and definitely beautiful.

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Westminster Abbey, Chapter House

Westminster Abbey, London (well, really, Westminster). Westminster needs no justification as a place to visit. The amount of connections that can be made at the Abbey are limitless. Chaucer and Poet’s Corner. Edward the Confessor. Coronations. Architecture. The place is packed full (quite literally) of history and culture. Constructed in the mid-13th century, the Chapter House, however, deserves a great deal of attention. From the oldest door in England (1050!) to its paintings and stone benches, it is by far my favorite spot in Westminster.

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Tower of London

Tower of London. Like Westminster, the Tower really needs no justification. Its historical striations  are complex and compact, building on each other and creating a spider web of English culture. Here is the moment to connect medieval and Early Modern history together, demonstrating how it develops rather than abruptly shifts. For myself, I am always intrigued by the Norman presence within the White Tower, particularly the chapel.

Tower of London, inside St. Thomas’s Tower

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Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral, Kent. For a medievalist, every trip to Canterbury Cathedral is a pilgrimage. It is easily one of the most prominent literary sites, of course. This was my first time at Canterbury, and it didn’t disappoint. Winding through streets, looking for the cathedral, then finding it at the end of an alley. The gateway obscuring it until you get close enough to peer through, and then your breath is taken away. I was fortunate in that it was a beautiful day – all blue skies and cotton clouds. When we first arrived, there was a graduation ceremony taking place inside, and, as luck would have it, the choir was singing. A perfect moment. Like any medieval visitor, I stared straight up in awe. It’s difficult not to. The sheer scope of the cathedral is unbelievable.

The crypt is the place to go first. We were found by a lady working there who told wonderful stories about Becket. I found it easier to conceptualize the inside of the cathedral after having seen the crypt.

Canterbury Cathedral, shrine of Thomas Becket

The shrine to Thomas Becket is also a powerful aspect of the cathedral (and well-represented with the above sculpture and the single candle marking where his tomb rested) – and again the opportunities for teaching are endless.

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Dover Castle

Dover Castle, Kent. I have already posted about Dover, so I won’t say much here. Still, I wanted to include a photo.

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Glastonbury Abbey, site of alleged tombs of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere

Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset. If I absolutely must choose my favorite site from this trip, I will have to go with Glastonbury Abbey (the birds of prey exhibit and being able to hold a falcon definitely added to the experience). Given one of my interests is Arthurian literature, being able to visit the ruins was a special treat. It helps that it lived up to expectations as a peaceful place, worthy of all the stories of its sacredness and import. There are two signs (one of which is above) marking the Arthurian significance of the site. I think it would be quite a revelation to students after reading any version of the death of Arthur. Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia .

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Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne, Holy Island, Northumberland. Lindisfarne is a long drive up north, but well worth it. There’s an inescapable excitement in crossing over the causeway – after consulting the tidal charts just to make sure you don’t get stranded there! The little village, surrounding the Priory ruins, and the castle looming in the distance make for quite the atmosphere. I don’t think students can appreciate the vulnerability of Lindisfarne to the Viking attack in 793 until seeing it. There is an exhibition concerning the Gospel – the manuscript itself is travelling to the island, I believe, next year. I was concerned that the Island was too far out of the way, but I really wouldn’t want the students to miss it.

Lindisfarne Priory, view from the sea side of the island

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Chesters Roman Fort, Hadrian’s Wall

Chesters Roman Fort, Hexham, Northumberland. Chesters was built to guard the part of Hadrian’s Wall that crossed over the bridge on the River North Tyne. The ruins are very well-preserved, particularly the rather intricate bathhouse. It’s an excellent example of life in Roman Britain, with the museum providing all kinds of artifacts from Chesters and other parts of the Wall. There are two sections of the Wall itself still intact, demonstrating how the fort and the Wall connected. I chose Chesters for the sake of ease of travel; however, Corbridge Roman Town is another site I will consider in the future as a companion to it.

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Sherwood Forest, Major Oak

Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire. I said above that Glastonbury was my favorite site. This is only because I put Sherwood in a class of its own. There are many things I could say about the forest, but I will limit myself to its pedagogical assets. First on that list is, of course, its literary connections. Seeing Sherwood makes the stories real. However, beyond that, I think the sheer age of the forest is its value. It is difficult, even for New Englanders, to grasp the weight of time in England as compared to the United States. In Sherwood, it is inescapable.

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I think the key to a study abroad trip of this nature is variety – expressing ideas, history, and culture from the perspective of different types of people, different architecture, different ways to connect what they have read to what they are seeing. With all of these sites, we have cathedrals, abbeys, castles, rural areas, cities, islands, forests, etc. We have Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Middle English, Early Modern. In case you haven’t picked up on it, the word “connection” is very important to me – as an individual, as a researcher, and as a teacher. I have some tweaking to do as well as some adding (I want to include some libraries into the mix), but I’m calling the test run a success.

I, naturally, have all kinds of texts in mind to assign for this course, but I would be interested in hearing ideas about what you would assign as companions to these sites.

–Kisha

PS For more photos, see my Flickr set.

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Filed under 14th Century, Anglo-Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Chaucer, Early Modern, History, Medievalism, Teaching, Travels

A Plague on the History Channel

I’ve just spent a few minutes stocking up my Netflix account with a set of films and documentaries with a vaguely medieval theme, ranging in quality from “looks like a pleasant enough way to kill a couple of hours” to “how bad could it possibly be?” This is one of the ways I like to entertain myself during breaks from teaching, and sometimes it pays off with a new short scene to use or reference in a lecture, or at least with greater (if sometimes painful) knowledge of what my students may have seen or heard recently. One of the documentaries that popped up during my search is a hideous misfire by the History Channel called The Dark Ages (A&E Home Video, Dir. C. Cassel, 2007), which I actually watched during a break this past year. The Dark Ages was merely bad—poor production elements, questionable research, and people who looked as if they wished they were elsewhere. I watched it and forgot it.

The Dark Ages DVD, however, harbored a dark secret—a second documentary, The Plague (A&E Home Video, Dir. R. Gardner, 2005), which was presumably deemed so terrible that it was never given an independent release and instead was hitched onto The Dark Ages‘ bonus features rather like a surprise yersinia pestis-carrying flea on a rat. I watched this second excremental documentary in a state of disbelief—and, caught somewhere between horror and grudging wonder, I offer the following comments. In the interest of getting on with my day, I’ll limit myself here to just five moments in The Plague that made me want to scream out my pain and agony and then track down the writer and director to make them suffer as I have suffered.

FIVE MOMENTS IN THE PLAGUE THAT SAPPED MY FAITH IN HUMANITY

1. The narration
The story this documentary and its guest experts (who acquit themselves reasonably well and, I assume, had no idea what was going to be done to their efforts) are trying to tell is already quite dramatic enough–the Great Mortality (the actual name used in the 14th century for the plague; “Black Death” wasn’t coined until the 19th century) wiped out something close to half the population of Eurasia in the space of a few years, and left a fundamentally different geopolitical and socioeconomic world behind. Apparently this wasn’t thought to be enough to sustain the interest of the target audience of this documentary (children? Intelligent border collies? Steven Seagal fans? Steven Seagal?), so the producers tracked down a voice-over actor who contributed a passable impression of the movie-trailer guy (“In a world where…”) and gave him a script that also sounds like a bad movie trailer, so that the narration provides us with grimly-intoned but oddly silly lines like “they had no idea that within the ships were cargoes of food, textiles…and death.” One assumes that, in fact, the crew of the average 14th century merchant ship did know that at least two of those things were down there, unless sailors were routinely shocked when they’d peer down into the ship’s hold: “Say, Guiseppe, where did all these carefully-stowed containers of cinnamon, pepper, and assorted foodstuffs of the East come from? And is that a waterproof-wrapped selection of costly silks brocaded with silver thread down there, or am I nuts?”

Oh, and while we’re on the voice work…

2. The silly, silly accents
Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine–movies and documentaries that want us to understand that the person speaking is NBOA (Not British Or American), but that don’t trust us to read subtitles. The solution, and it’s apparently so obvious that even the director of The Plague figured it out, is to bring in actors to put on fake and hilarious accents so we know they’re playing foreigners. In this documentary, there are “Mongols,” “French,” and “Italian” speakers in addition to English speakers (and, of course, the Movie Trailer guy). Leaving aside for the moment the problem of sticking modern versions of these accents on the characters, and the fact that they’re all speaking modern English anyway, it’s hard to take the whole thing seriously when half the speakers sound like Peter Sellers. The whole thing reaches the height of inanity when a voice-over, purportedly that of Italian chronicler Gabriel di Mussis, speaks on the horror of the plague: “Alla-mighty a-God, son ava de entire-a human-a race, we are-a wallowing in-a the mire av manifold-a wickedness…” I assume the voice actor was wearing a bushy black mustache, holding a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, and recording his lines on break from helping his brother Luigi to fight Donkey Kong. Later, the same actor reads an account by Agnolo di Tuola of the early mass graves dug in the Italian countryside, presumably not realizing that his I’m-a-da-pizza-guy delivery somewhat undermines the gravity of the lines: “In-a many-a places, great-a peets were dug and-a piled-a deep with-a da multitude of-a da dead…”

3. The presentation of various popular legends as fact
There are a few really egregious examples here–my favorite is the recounting of a well-known (and, quite possibly, true) story about the Mongol army using “crude catapults” to toss plague victims into the city of Kaffa. The narrative seems a little confused about whether or not this happened:
“While the story might be more legend than fact, the Mongol pestilence spreads to the townspeople of Kaffa. But while these facts seem clear, a mystery remains…”
I should say so. For starters, what facts are we talking about here? Why bother including the disclaimer immediately before asserting that the catapult-a-plague strategy was real? How, exactly, do apocryphal stories spread disease? And while we’re at it, is it worth mentioning that plague could also be spread quite easily between two clashing armies, with or without what the narrator (in another of his Movie Trailer moments) calls “the first example of germ warfare”?

4. A World Gone To Hell
I lost count of the number of variations on this particular theme–it’s almost the theme of the entire film. I counted at least half-a-dozen actual references to “hell on earth” or “a world gone to hell.” It’s not a question of whether things were really very bad in the late 1340s–they absolutely were. The problem is that these lines, almost invariably, are accompanied either by pictures of actual fire (even if that means just showing a torch on a wall) or by totally incongruous images (such as a bored-looking Jewish merchant named “Agamnet” or something similar, whose performer was apparently chosen specifically for his ability to make Jewish merchants look shifty and untrustworthy, but who here seems to be wondering whether he left the oven on). Apparently the idea of people actually dying of a disease they couldn’t explain and couldn’t stop isn’t horrifying enough, but a picture of a large candle is meant to make us widdle ourselves in horror.

5. Joan of England
The documentary builds its narrative around a number of key figures (among them Pope Clement VI, the physician Guy de Chauliac, and Agamnet). One of the major plotlines revolves around Joan of England, the teenage daughter of the English king Edward III. Since essentially the only significant thing anyone knows about Joan is that she died in 1348 on her way to Castile to meet her fiancé, the documentary has to work extra-hard to build some kind of suspense around her story. It fails utterly to do this, opting instead for a series of tooth-achingly-ironic ruminations on the elaborate security precautions and vast personal guard her father expended on getting her safely to Castile: “Along with many distinguished clergymen and diplomats, 100 bowmen will make the journey will make the journey to protect this…precious cargo. But their precautions will come to nothing. Within a year, almost all of them will be dead...” Later, in case we’d forgotten, we are reminded, “Joan is perhaps the most well-guarded woman in Europe right now…but archers and castle walls cannot shield her from an unseen enemy. The phantom, the plague, strikes randomly.”
By the time Joan finally grows ill, we are fully expecting an over-the-top moment, and even here the documentary goes beyond our wildest hopes and fears. As we watch the actress playing Joan laugh and toss her hair fetchingly with her attendants, the narrator intones, “Joan, princess of England, favorite daughter of the king of England, does not survive. Like almost half the population of Europe, she falls victim…” [dramatic pause, while church bells begin to chime] “…to the Black Death. Her father, Edward III, is powerless to do anything but mourn.” And the scene fades out, but not before we are treated to a fade-in of magnified green-tinted yersina pestis bacteria and a brief image of a skull over Joan’s face.

There’s plenty more that was equally ridiculous–the hammy overacting of the Flagellants; the constant re-use of a limited amount of re-enactment footage (so that peasant burials in Italy, France, Germany, and England all involve suspiciously familiar-looking peasants); the shots of Joan of England playing “Ring Around the Rosey” with her friends, seemingly without the connect-the-dots irony which limns the rest of her story; the depiction of prostitutes in plague-era Germany as, apparently, bawdy Italians; and on and on.

If you have the opportunity and are of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 temperament, I recommend hunting down the full documentary and treating yourself to an unparalleled viewing experience. If you take the rather narrow view that something calling itself a “documentary” ought to resist forced melodrama or, indeed, be in any way based on documentary evidence, then you can probably afford to skip it.

In the meantime, does anyone have any recommendations for me to add to my Winter Recess viewing list?

~jpsexton

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Filed under 14th Century, History, Medieval Movies, Medievalism, Pop Culture