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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:


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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CFP: The Lone Medievalist Roundtable for the 2017 ICMS (Kalamazoo): “Greater Than The Sum Of Our Arts: The Multitasking Life Of The Lone Medievalist”

For the third year running, the Lone Medievalist will be organizing a roundtable for the International Congress in Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, and the organizers, on behalf of the Lone Medievalist membership, solicit proposals offering perspectives on the theme “Greater than the Sum of our Arts: The Multitasking Life of the Lone Medievalist.”

The 2017 session is envisioned as a continuation of the conversations held at the 2015 and 2016 Congresses. A theme of the discussion during those sessions has been the sometimes overwhelming variety of teaching, administrative, scholarly, and other responsibilities shouldered by working medievalists. The scope of expertise expected of Lone Medievalists on top of these responsibilities only amplifies the problem. These pressures can make the focus necessary to advance our research agendas (or even simply to maintain intellectual currency in our field) difficult to achieve. We invite speakers who can address strategies for maintaining a meaningful focus on medieval studies alongside, or in combination with, the myriad expectations placed on us in our campus, department, and classroom lives.

For the first time, our session topic has come about as a result of suggestions made during our “business” meeting at the Conference. We’re hoping that many of those who attended will have proposals for the session. If you’d like to offer your voice on this important topic, please be in touch! You can e-mail notice of your interest and a brief explanation of your perspective to John Sexton at by September 15. Thank you, and we look forward to hearing from our fellow LMs.

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Disability Studies goes to the Medieval Academy…

Disability Studies in the Middle Ages: Where Are We Now? (Part I)

[Earlier today, I took part in a roundtable-style session (which was tweeted with the hashtags #maa2016 #s13) at the Medieval Academy of America’s annual conference, being held this year in Boston. My own contribution was a brief consideration of the state of medieval disability studies at the present and the likely “look” of the field going forward. Kisha and I are hoping that several of those involved are willing to put their words up on this blog as a way of continuing the conversation that started this morning.]

In the interest of making this an introduction to the comments that were offered during the panel, I’ll keep my own comments brief. I want to talk a bit about what I see as the nature of medieval disability studies as a field both in its current phase and in its broader—or, one might say, existential—identity.

Since its inception, medieval disability studies has grappled with something of an identity crisis. It is, on the one hand, searching for the rules and habits of mind by which disability was conceived, imagined, understood, and enacted in the medieval world. On the other, it seeks conversation with the larger field of disability studies, with its established politics, methodologies, and language (or, perhaps, debates about language). As we move forward with our lines of inquiry, we find ourselves caught between scientia and opinio—between the appeal to principles and the appeal to authority. I generally find myself on the scientia side of the debate. The language, perspectives, and assumptions of modern disability studies are bent toward unpacking disability as it exists in a modern context. Only by thinking through “medieval things” can we come to a greater understanding of the meaning of our subject. As Sally Crawford has recently written, “health and disease are not static and unchanging […] Medieval ideas of healthy and unhealthy […] were not necessarily, or even usually, comparable to modern approaches.”[1] While looking to modern disability studies for parallels can yield significant insights, it is a welcome development that medieval studies is developing a greater cultural specificity in our critical apparatus.

But beyond that, a remarkable sea change has begun, and I think it’s now fair to say that modern disability studies is shifting toward a welcome skepticism about the binary of “able” and “impaired” bodies that might well prove more congenial to the work already being done in medieval disability studies. Recent work by Lennard Davis, Susan Burch, Michael Rembis, and others has begun to take steps toward articulating a sense of the instability of the “able” body as a normative center for identity; those in this room might well recognize the instability, permeability, and corruptibility of the physical self as inherent in medieval thought, if not always accommodated in social practice. To repurpose Catherine Kudlick’s metaphor on the subject, medieval studies has a starring role to play in disability studies, and in the last decade or so scholars seem to have become aware that the work we do is needed onstage.[2]

One part of the move toward asserting the importance of medieval disability studies to medieval studies as a whole is the production of resource materials and other scholarly aids. Since I’m in humblingly august company [on the panel] in that regard, I’ll move along to a brief discussion of a collection that Kisha and I are editing and then make way for the others on this panel to talk about their work.

Our collection is designed for the Ashgate Research Companion series and is meant as a standalone volume that situates the questions and critical perspectives of disability studies as they pertain to medieval studies specifically. Our goal is to provide a state-of-the-field volume that will attest to the remarkable variety of work being done in the name of medieval disability studies. As others have observed, medieval objects and literature attest to the ubiquity of markers of difference in the medieval world. Whether present in the distressed, distrained, corrupted, altered, senescent, or injured body or mind, or simply omnipresent in the destabilized and fallen mortal coil, impairment was never far from the medieval experience. The contributors to the collection are producing work that will individually take up the challenge of interpreting the inscribed markers of difference in an array of texts, cultures, and periods. The aggregate work will, we hope, also serve as a sort of non-manifesto for medieval disability studies, privileging a kaleidoscope of perspectives over a deliberate uniformity of position or language.

Any articulation of the different or “othered” body or mind as a medieval subject must necessarily be informed by contemporary constructions of otherness and, for that matter, constructions of the able or the unremarkable. Those constructions are informed by a complex cultural matrix. The responses to injury and resulting impairment in contemporary law, literature, and art; the impaired body as a site for miraculous figuration or transformation; the presence of physical and mental difference in different cultural modes than exist in the modern world; the role of theosophical thought in characterizing difference; all of these and more demand a cultural specificity not offered by the current discourse in the wider field. The necessity of thinking through “medieval things” requires that elements of disparate fields of inquiry be brought into conversation—so that material culture, diachronic historical study, literary study, the depiction of difference in art or law, gender studies, race and age and religious studies all be considered in the light of disability studies and examined intersectionally. The implications of DS scholarship are far-reaching, and the goal of this work must not be simply to revisit well-trodden fields and to demonstrate to surprised colleagues that they have been “speaking disability their whole lives”; it is also to open up new and understudied perspectives and unheard voices from the past. And as I’ve already suggested, an indirect goal of the project is the value to disability studies as a whole that might come from the fruits of this work on medieval constructions of difference.



[1] Crawford, “Introduction.” Social Dimensions of Medieval Disease and Disability. Studies in Early Medicine 3. Ed. Sally Crawford and Christina Lee. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2014. 5.

[2] Kudlick, “Smallpox, Disability, and Survival in Nineteenth-Century France.” Disability Histories. Ed. Susan Burch and Michael Rembis. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014: 185.

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The Story of the “Chaucer Pilgrimage Site”

It all started with this:
I and a couple of students were presenting at the New England Association of the Teachers of English Fall 2014 Conference. As I checked in, the woman at the table told me about the mini-grants. Apparently, to apply all you had to do was write out a proposal on the back of the form and turn it in by the end of the conference. Never one to turn down an opportunity, I mulled ideas as I listened to the keynote speaker. As I considered my courses, I naturally focused on my upcoming Chaucer class in Spring 2015. I had not taught a course just on Chaucer yet, and I was still considering ways to make his texts and Middle English accessible to my students.
My thoughts wandered, considered a variety of options and dismissed them. Then, I came up with the “Pilgrimage Site.” I would create a physical location in our English Studies Department that students would have to visit. Pilgrimage can be complex for students to apply to their modern experiences, especially the difficulty with traveling in the Middle Ages.
What would they do when they got to the Site? Pilgrimage badges! I decided that I would have students “journey” to the Site, pick up a badge specific to our readings of the week, and then leave their own offerings at the Site to represent their understanding of some aspect of the texts.  Students would take photos, provide analysis of their badges and objects, and discuss other students’ objects in a public Facebook group.
I wrote it up, turned it in, and received quite a surprise when I got the email that I had been awarded the mini-grant – its first ever university awardee.
Now came the planning. I have never had more fun planning a course than I did in selecting badges that matched our readings. Students would be visiting the Site every other week, which ended up being seven weeks. I wanted students to have choices, so I provided at least two badges per week.
Before the semester started, I created our Site with the generous support of the department giving me a corner of one of our study rooms. I also decided that the Site would not be complete without Chaucer himself.
It soon became the “thing” to do to take a selfie with Chaucer. Several of my colleagues in the department (and around the university) took their photo with our author. I received the generous permission from some to post them on the project’s Facebook page, which generated more interest among my own students who were delighted at this development. And, of course, I couldn’t resist the opportunity myself.
Having set up the Facebook page (click here to see!), with the beginning of the semester, we began our pilgrimage project.
The Badges
Week 1 – The Book of the Duchess – Black Knights and Tiny Books
Week 2 – Troilus and Criseyde – Wheel of Fortune Magnets and an Arrow
Week 3 – General Prologue – Pilgrim Pins and Becket Prayer Cards
Week 4 – The Friar’s and Summoner’s Tales – Bags of Flour and Frying Pans
Week 5 – The Pardoner’s Tale – Treasure Chests and Bells
Week 6 – The Clerk’s Tale – Brooms and Wedding Rings

Week 7 – The Franklin’s Tale – Star Chart

Student Objects
As the semester progressed, our Site became more and more populated with objects students left to represent their readings.

So What Did I Learn?
For me, this”Pilgrimage Site” became a deliberate study of pedagogical physical and digital spaces. In thinking about ways to negotiate the technology-filled learning environments, we may already have discovered one method that we are not utilizing to its fullest extent – the concept of hybridity. Integrating both physical and digital spaces in more dynamic ways than simply using face-to-face class time as the “physical” aspect allows each to enhance the other. The “paper” and “digital” worlds and teaching practices do not need to be in conflict with each other or be mutually exclusive; they can work together in highly productive ways. The students participated and were immersed in the cultural practice of medieval pilgrimage as well as had a different, creative, active experience with the works of Chaucer. It encouraged interaction with the texts outside of class through cooperative physical and digital interaction. I highly recommend this type of activity!
What About You?
  • Do you have a similar idea? Post it in the comments!
  • How would you analyze each of the badges above? What badges would you have chosen? Comment!

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CFP, International Medieval Congress 2016 – “The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Job”

MassMedieval is at it again, organizing for the International Congress. Building off the success of last year’s roundtable, for the 2016 Congress, our topic is a sequel “The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Job.”

The professional reality is that many of us are at institutions at which we are the “lone medievalist,” without colleagues who share our areas of expertise and interest. In most cases, a department will hire only a single medieval specialist – and may be hard-pressed to convince administrations or hiring committees to approve even that one. While the advent of digital technologies has brought us the possibility of closer contact and greater collaboration with our fellow medievalists, our resource access, teaching opportunities, tenure cases, and other facets of our professional lives can be affected by our lack of numbers and by questions about the nature and value of what we do. In order to navigate these realities, we should be drawing on our collective experience.

At the 2015 International Medieval Congress, we hosted a roundtable entitled “The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist.” It was exceptionally well-attended and various members of the audience raised issues and suggestions that indicated the conversation had only just begun. For this next roundtable, we would like to extend this conversation. This roundtable, as the title suggests, will collect panelists who can provide suggestions and ideas for professional engagement, curriculum planning, and reappointment and tenure cases as the “lone medievalist” in a department or institution. Our intention is that this roundtable will not be a forum simply for bewailing the state of medieval studies in small institutions. Indeed, we anticipate that it will be an opportunity for camaraderie, suggestions, and advice. We intend it to be very forward-thinking and revitalizing as well as helpful to those of us in these positions. It is also a forum for gathering the contact information in order to build a “lone medievalist” support group.

If you’d like to take part in this important conversation, please e-mail Kisha at by September 15. Thanks!


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Digital Medieval Disability Glossary: Call for Submissions from Faculty and Students in HEL Courses and Beyond

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CFP: The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist

CFP: “The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist”

Contributions of any style and various lengths welcome!

For many medievalists who have had the good fortune to find jobs in academe, the professional reality is that we are unlikely to be surrounded by colleagues who share our areas of expertise and interest. In most cases, a department will hire only a single medieval specialist – and may be hard-pressed to convince administrations or hiring committees to approve even that one. Those lucky few who find a tenure-track position will then spend years explaining their work to colleagues, chairs, grant committees, and eventually tenure reviewers who know little about the work we do; others, in non-tenure or adjunct positions, must decide whether maintaining an interest in medieval studies is wise or even possible as the entry-level-course teaching load piles up. While the advent of digital technologies has brought us the possibility of closer contact and greater collaboration with our fellow medievalists, our resource access, scholarly profile, teaching opportunities, tenure cases, and other facets of our professional lives can be affected by our lack of numbers and by questions about the nature and value of what we do.

This collection, as the title suggests, will address the realities of professional engagement, curriculum planning, and reappointment and tenure cases as the “lone medievalist” in a department or institution. We are interested in almost any style of submission that is concerned in a meaningful and productive way with the topic of “the lone medievalist.” This will not be a collection bewailing the state of medieval studies in small institutions. Rather, we envision a collection offering camaraderie, suggestions, resolution, and advice, while simultaneously creating a snapshot of the current state of Medieval Studies as it manifests itself through the careers and daily work of medievalist academics. We intend it to be forward-thinking and revitalizing as well as helpful to those of us in these positions.

Send proposals (do not have to be too long or formal – around 100-200 words to give us a good sense of your idea) either through Facebook messaging or to the email addresses: and We are looking for a combination of anecdotes, stories, longer essays, manifestos, and advice – various lengths, any style. We do recommend 1000-5000 words (longer will be considered as well) or the equivalent (e.g. a photographic essay or a collection of documents). We anticipate a quick turnaround on this, so let’s get moving! The initial deadline for proposals will be July 31, 2015. The initial deadline for contributions is scheduled for October 31, 2015.

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CFP: ICMS (Kalamazoo) Roundtable: “The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist”

Once again, MassMedieval is organizing a roundtable for the International Congress. For the 2015 Congress, our topic is “The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist: Succeeding in Academic Life at Smaller Colleges and Universities.”

For many medievalists who are fortunate to find jobs in academe, the professional reality is that we’re unlikely to be surrounded by colleagues who share our areas of expertise and interest. In most cases, a department will hire only a single medieval specialist–and may be hard-pressed to convince administrations or hiring committees to approve even that one. While the advent of digital technologies has brought us the possibility of closer contact and greater collaboration with our fellow medievalists, our resource access, teaching opportunities, tenure cases, and other facets of our professional lives can be affected by our lack of numbers and by questions about the nature and value of what we do. This roundtable, as the title suggests, will address success strategies for professional engagement, curriculum planning, and reappointment & tenure cases as the “lone medievalist” in a department or institution.

We have a couple of seats on the roundtable still available–if you’d like to take part in this important conversation, please e-mail John at by September 15. Thanks!

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Blogging a Blog by a Fellow Blogger: Kalamazoo blogs and videos

Shout outs for MassMedieval on Anna Smol’s blog. Thank you!

Anna Smol: A Single Leaf

Kalamazoo campus swan pondIf you regret not being able to go to the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan (or you just didn’t get to all the sessions you wanted, or you want to review the ones that you did attend), I’ve collected some blog posts and videos that might give you a taste of the kinds of topics that were discussed. This conference is huge, with over 500 sessions in all fields of medieval studies, so my list is not representative, but the following links will lead you to a few summaries of presentations and in some cases, even entire conference papers.

I’ll start with the Tolkien at Kalamazoo sessions. Although I sometimes write up summaries of Tolkien conference sessions for this blog, this year Andrew Higgins has done the work with an excellent “Kalamazoo 2014 Round-Up” for the Tolkien Society.

Kisha Tracy also commented on the

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ICMS 2014: Day 3 (Friday)

Yes, I know…I’m a little behind on these.

Friday was a day of indulgence. For a different sort of conference (or, I suppose, a person more in touch with their hedonistic id), that would mean a day spent exploring the various sins offered by the host city,* or perhaps a day holed up in one’s room with a book or a television. But at Kalamazoo, I indulge myself by heading into panels chosen more or less at random, expecting at the least some intellectual stimulation and at the most something unanticipated, exciting, and new.

I was reasonably sure I was attending a different panel on the Economics of Sanctity (which I later heard was excellent), but changed my mind at the last minute to attend session 219, “Social Contracts and Contacts in Old English and Old Norse Literature.” I was, frankly, trolling for material for a couple of upcoming BSU courses…the papers were on the economy of debt in the O.E. Juliana (Fabienne Michelet), the changing perception of feud in Anglo-Saxon literature (David DiTucci), and the deployment of non-sexual flyting insults in Bjorn Hitardal-people’s Champion’s saga (Rebecca Straple). I’ll be teaching courses on Medieval British and Icelandic saga literature in the fall, and new perspectives and conversations are always valuable. The panel turned out to be a very solid conversation about forms of exchange–whether insults, faith, or violence, it’s important to remember that these texts reflect a valuing or devaluing of ways of living–or, indeed, of lives. Fabienne Michelet’s discussion of the rhetorical maneuver in Juliana that replaced an economy of wealth with “an unpayable, but forgivable, debt” bonding the saint and faithful together has clear implications for the rest of hagiographic literature (as well, I think, for understanding the impulse toward collective action in Anglo-Saxon law). DiTucci and Straple took up feuds fought with unusual weapons (a “bulwark of faith” against the “feud of Satan” in one case, witty insults and insinuations in the other) and in different circumstances, but both brought home the complex ways that feud functions as a motif in the literature–one that we lose the richness of when we simplify it as merely physical violence begetting violence.

Lunch, as usual, was a hasty sandwich in the company of my fellow UConn alumni.

The afternoon sessions began with a panel (240) on Interdisciplinary approaches to Celtic Studies. Though both papers on the panel were well worth hearing, it was the second, in which Jaimin Weets explained the implications of his study of 6,659 human teeth found in various sites in Ireland, that really caught my attention. His research seems to suggest pretty strongly that the accepted historical narrative of the Celtic Migration is, at the least, problematic. Jaimin and I later spoke during dinner about his work’s relevance to the linguistic puzzle of the lack of Celtic language influence on early insular Anglo-Saxon. The issues of cultural identity and allegiance that we discussed are extremely interesting, and I’m going to have to follow up with some other reading. I may have to rethink a few things before the next time I teach my History of the English Language course…

I was a participant in a 3:30 roundtable discussion on Disability Studies and the Digital Humanities. I’d been looking forward to this conversation with Richard Godden, Cameron Hunt McNabb, Jonathan Hsy, Tory V. Pearman, and the attending scholars. Though the conversation occasionally veered into various permutations of what Godden tagged as “cranky” talk, the overall focus was on the remarkable potential that DH offers us as working scholars and teachers. As a profession, we have to feel our way past some rough edges where things like social media and scholarly thought run up against one another (such as the tension between the instant-response value of Twitter and our general impulse toward rumination and reflection), but the many ways DH allows us to participate in public scholarship, and the potential of new kinds of collaboration and engagement, means that we’re working at an exciting time in the academy.

More to say, but I’ve got some traveling  and thinking to do…



*I do not mean this to imply that Kalamazoo and its conference lack appealing sins, or that my evenings here don’t involve a certain degree of indulgence therein. But there, gentle reader, we draw a blushing curtain over our story.

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