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Kalamazoo Once More: ICMS 2014, Days 1-2

This year’s International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University (a.k.a. “the Kalamazoo conference,” or just “Kalamazoo”) is underway, and as usual the array of panels, conversations, and reunions is dazzling.  Wednesday night in particular is given over to friendships (particularly Kisha’s and my grad school cohort) and to an informal UConn gathering in a local bar. This is also my annual opportunity to take the pulse of my alma mater, and this year I reflected on how strong the current crop of grad students seems to be–although it wouldn’t kill them to respect the old grey hairs of their elders and maybe let said elder win a game of pool once in a while…

My tradition is to wait until I’m actually in transit to the conference to begin leafing through the schedule of sessions, a pattern developed back when I made the annual trip from Connecticut to Michigan in a van full of UConn grad students and professors and needed something to fill the hours on the road. These days, it’s a combination of things that keeps me from getting to the schedule in advance (grading, teaching, writing, children, etc.), but I don’t know that I’d change my pattern even if I had the chance. Once I’ve looked through the schedule, I’m in Kalamazoo mode, and it’d be a pain to have to put that on ice for a few weeks.

This year, I also knew that my first panel was already selected for me, since the New England Saga Society panel for which I was scheduled to be moderator was set for 10AM Thursday. The session, which was on the Anglo-Scandinavian World, was organized as a leap of faith–we chose three papers that all seemed engaged with the topic, but we weren’t sure how well they’d speak to one another. We needn’t have worried–Alison Isberg’s paper on the evidence in Yorkshire sculpture (and possibly in Egils saga) for a distinctively Anglo-Scandinavian assertion of elite culture and Matthew Bardowell’s discussion of Egil Skallagrimsson’s emotional performances of grief through his poetry both spoke to the distinctive arts of time and place, while Maria Volkonskaya’s consideration of the Old Norse First Grammatical Treatise alongside the Ormulum placed the panel in a context of, as she put it, “right life.”

I generally try to make it to a few panels that relate to my teaching, and so after lunch I attended a panel on the difficult subject of rape in high and late medieval literature. The papers were sensitively argued and focused on the problem of how students can and should struggle with the “double vision” necessary to understand Lanval, the Roman de Silence, or The Wife of Bath’s Tale in its context, but also in their own: do we need to teach, as Alison Gulley put it, “willing suspension of disapproval” in order to reach these texts meaningfully, or, in this instance, as Natalie Grinnell suggested, do we need to acknowledge that “thinking medieval” is, in this case, wrong?

Plenty to think about, but the packed room and high 80s temperature meant that I was worn out, and so (in order to take a shower and a few minutes’ lie-down) I missed what turned out to be (not unexpectedly) a brilliant paper by Kisha on the historical foundations of modern “teaching and learning” initiatives. Fortunately, I know the speaker, and was able to get her to recap the argument over dinner…

 

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Spring break in England: a photo journal

A student reporter at Fitchburg State interviewed me and posted an article in our online University newspaper, The Point.

IMG_8667By Francesca Lewis

While some FSU students were tanning in Mexico over spring break, others were in England and earning credit for class. Fitchburg State has a wide array of study abroad options, ranging from the new spring break model instigated this semester, to longer options that cover whole semesters.

“A couple of years ago, I designed a shell course for my department – ENGL 3025: English Studies Abroad,” Dr.
Kisha Tracy, who accompanied the students to England, wrote on MASSachusetts State Universities MEDIEVAL Blog. After working with a travel advisor through FSU’s study abroad department, this semester, the class made its debut.

Tracy has previous experience with the spring break study abroad model as she went to Denmark as a teaching assistant while attending graduate school. Ten students from various majors joined Tracy for a ten-day excursion to England over spring break. Because the class is offered to all…

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The Program: Day 2, Kalamazoo

Day 2: Thinking about the Kzoo Program

This morning I am reflecting on the program of sessions. It’s part of the ritual (or my ritual – I don’t know about anyone else!) to plan out the sessions I want to attend and think about the broad spectrum of work offered by my fellow medievalists. It’s often a mind-boggling experience, given the depth and breadth of topics and disciplines. The sheer number of subjects of which I haven’t even previously heard is humbling as well as exciting.

I am rather conditioned at this point to pick out those sessions and papers with any reference to memory in them. This year, the vast majority of those about memory are Anglo-Saxon-specific. Two sessions in particular, “Memory and Community in Anglo-Saxon England” (413) and “Memory at Work In Anglo-Saxon England” (519), are entirely devoted to the subject. The first is primarily comprised of papers on Beowulf; the title “Burning to Remember, Eating to Forget” has immense possibilities. The latter session includes a title that intrigues me – “Memory and Identity Formation: A Cognitive Construction of the Self in The Wanderer.” I often teach this text through the concept of memory, particularly its bittersweet components. Is it better to remember or to forget? Which causes the most pain? This title makes me consider the possibilities of the loss of memory dealing the final “death blow” to The Wanderer’s previous life. Is it in the pain of remembering that he still retains what is left of his kin, of his role in society? If he forgets, will he, in essence, cease to exist? Another session, “Text and Image II: Memory and Visual Space” (232), looks interesting. As is not uncommon, there are several individual papers exploring the connections between death and memory.

Coinciding with being hired at Fitchburg State, I have found my interest in panels shifting. Now, at least half of the time, I choose sessions based upon what might be beneficial to me in the classroom. For instance, a roundtable on Friday (260), “Teaching Marie de France” (sponsored by the International Marie de France Society), is calling to me. As I was just mentioning last night, my students adore Marie de France. It has been one of the biggest surprises as a teacher; for some reason, I did not expect her to be such a draw. However, she does have everything – romance, intrigue, werewolves, knight-saving damsels, resurrecting weasels. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. At any rate, I am curious what others have to say.

Then there is always the almost hagiographic torture of the sessions that are happening while I am already booked!

I need a rest, and this is only the program!

–Kisha

 

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Charlie Angell

Yesterday I received news that Dr. Charles F. Angell, a colleague, friend, and fellow fan of medieval literature, passed away in his home at the age of 70.

When I arrived at Bridgewater State for my job interview six years ago, Charlie met me at 8AM and took me out for breakfast with another member of the search committee. His conversation was in equal parts energetic, informed, and unexpected—in the five minutes it took to get to breakfast, Charlie covered Bridgewater’s history as a shoe-manufacturing town, my dissertation topic, and his ongoing greenhouse repairs before turning to the value of different translations of Beowulf (I would eventually learn that this was fairly typical with Charlie—he believed in a tossing-the-medicine-ball type of information exchange, and expected others to keep up). He asked me which translation I favored, and I told him that I was torn between R. M. Liuzza’s version (for readability), Michael Alexander’s (for its attempted fidelity to the original), and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s (for its cadences and what I may have pretentiously referred to as its ‘sense of the Germanic epic’). Charlie had reviewed Seamus Heaney’s version several years before, liked it a great deal, and proceeded to tell me why (his review is here, incidentally: http://www.bridgew.edu/review/archives/2000/june/bonehouse.htm). His points, it must be said, were rather more well-thought-out than my own, but he didn’t seem to mind, and even noted several points in favor of my wishy-washy answer.

We then moved into a debate of the best translation of the famously untranslatable hwæt, a word Charlie refers to in his review as “what sounds like a throat clearing or an after dinner belch.” As we sifted through Heaney’s diffident “So,” Alexander’s strident “Attend!,” Crossley-Holland’s aural “Listen!,” Charles Kennedy’s “Lo!” and others, it occurred to me that I was in the rare presence of someone who wasn’t interested in “winning” an argument or overmastering a young would-be colleague. He was just enjoying the conversation. This struck me, and still does, as a generous position to take with one in a stream of candidates for a position—all the more so as I’d been on the receiving end of more than one attempt by other search committees to kick the legs out from under me.

Five years’ residence in the office next to Charlie’s has only reinforced that first impression. And his generosity could be practical as well. When my wife and I bought our home in 2009, several people with good intentions but sadistic streaks came out of the woodwork to tell us horror stories about the costs of home ownership. “Get ready,” they’d say, with what I suspect they thought were looks of sympathy. “Houses are money pits. You’ll see.” One friend told me about a backyard deck rotted by termites; another spoke darkly of water damage. When Charlie heard that I was buying a house, he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and offered only congratulations. The next day, I found a note and a gift card to a local hardware store. The note said, in essence, “Buy some tools. You’re going to need them.”

Charlie was a totally unpretentious person, equally eager to talk about Shakespeare, the Patriots, classical music, teaching, local events, or baking (and oh, how I’m going to miss the random Monday mornings when Charlie would arrive with loaves of bread or scones to be left in departmental mailboxes). His enthusiasms were infectious, and he loved to share.

I’ll miss his remarkable institutional memory—Charlie began teaching at Bridgewater in 1969, and in a career that spanned five decades he’d seen more than many of his colleagues put together. I’ll miss his early-morning conversations, which might be on any topic and reflect his prodigious reading and experience. I’ll miss his love for our students and for the job we were doing, even on days when his health or little frustrations made it more difficult.

I’ll miss him.

Thanks for everything, Charlie.

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Kalamazoo Sessions You Won’t Want to Miss!

The Kalamazoo schedule has been posted!

Kisha’s Sessions:

Session 8 (Valley II 205) – Thursday, 10AM – What We Have Here Is a Failure to Confess: Impediments to Confession in Medieval Literature (Organizer and Presenter)

Session 356 (Fetzer 1005) – Saturday, 10AM – After Chaucer (Presider)

John’s Sessions:

Session 49 (Bernhard 212) – Thursday, 10AM – Queering the Cougar – “‘. . . That Love Werc’: Dame Siriþ, Cougar for Hire” (Presenter)

Session 55 (Valley II 202) – Thursday, 1:30PM – The Future of Medieval Disability Studies: Where Do We Go from Here? (A Roundtable)

 

Other FOMM (Friends of MassMedieval) Sessions (in no particular order)
***If I have missed anyone, please don’t be offended. I simply did a quick search. Post your session in the comments below. Same goes if there are any errors to be corrected.

  • Andrew Pfrenger

Session 218 (Schneider 136) – Friday, 10AM – Insular Perspectives I: Anglo-Saxon Elements in Medieval Literature – “Anglo-Saxon Saints in the South English Legendary” (Presenter)

  • Wendy Marie Hoofnagle

Session 46 (Bernhard 20) – Thursday, 10AM – Computer-Assisted Analysis of Medieval Texts (A Workshop)

Session 287 (Valley III Stinson Lounge) – Friday, 3:30PM – Honoring Foremothers in Medieval Feminist Publishing: University of Pennsylvania’s Jerry Singerman and Ruth M. Karras II: Today’s Issues in Feminist Publishing (A Roundtable)

  • Christine Cooper-Rompato

Session 318 (Schneider 124) – Friday, 3:30PM – Medieval Religious Cultures: Key Questions and Directions for Future Research – Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures (JMRC) (Organizer and Presider)

Session 452 (Bernhard 15) – Saturday, 3:30PM – Creating a Medieval Studies Program (A Roundtable)

Session 494 (Schneider 1265) – Saturday, 3:30PM – Medieval Sermon Studies III: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic: Composition and Sources in Late Medieval Preaching – “The Two-Fold Circle of Life and Death: Numeracy in Sermons in Late Medieval England” (Presenter)

  • Carolyn Coulson-Grigsby

Session 49 (Bernhard 212) – Thursday, 10AM – Queering the Cougar “‘That Serpent Is HOT!’: Performing the Same-Sex Seduction of Eve” (Presenter)

Session 153 (Valley I 10) – Thursday, 7:30PM – A Readers’ Theater Performance of Mankind (A Performance and Roundtable  Discussion)

  • Anne Berthelot

Session 493 (Schneider 125) – Saturday, 3:30PM – Merlin, God, and the Devil  – “‘Merlin l’anemis’ in La suite du Merlin” (Organizer and Presenter)

  • Joshua R. Eyler

Session 55 (Valley II 202) – Thursday, 1:30PM – The Future of Medieval Disability Studies: Where Do We Go from Here? (A Roundtable) (Organizer and Presider)

Session 133 (Schneider 127) – Thursday, 3:30PM – Gender, Sexuality, and Disability (Organizer and Presider)

Session 154 (Fetzer 1005) – Thursday, 7:30PM – Burn after Reading: Miniature Manifestos for a Post/medieval Studies (A Roundtable)

  • Joanna A. Huckins MacGugan

Session 384 (Schneider 134) – Saturday, 10AM – Landscape and Culture in Medieval Britain I: Spaces and Buildings – “‘Eald is þes eorðsele’: The Ancestral Landscape of The Wife’s Lament” (Presenter)

Session 507 (Schneider 234) – Saturday, 3:30PM – Medieval Cultures of Death: Historical, Literary, and Material Perspectives II (Co-organizer and Presider)

  • Laura Saetveit Miles

Session 225 (Bernhard 15) – Friday, 10AM – Monastic Vernacularities (Organizer and Presider)

  • Jeanette S. Zissell

Session 295 (Valley I 10) – Friday, 3:30PM – Static and Shifting Landscapes in Medieval Literature, Art, and Thought – “‘Swat yðum weoll’: Blood and Water Imagery in Beowulf” (Presenter)

Session 448 (Schneider 2345) – Saturday, 1:30PM – Medieval Cultures of Death: Historical, Literary, and Material Perspectives I (Organizer and Presider)

Session 507 (Schneider 234) – Saturday, 3:30PM – Medieval Cultures of Death: Historical, Literary, and Material Perspectives II (Co-organizer)

  • Cameron Hunt McNabb

Session 49 (Bernhard 212) – Thursday, 10AM – Queering the Cougar (Organizer and Presider)

Session 304 (Fetzer 201) – Friday, 3:30PM – Parody, Farce, and Authority in Early Drama – “Hocus Pocus and the Croxton Play of the Sacrament” (Organizer and Presenter)

  • Frank Napolitano

Session 8 (Valley II 205) – Thursday, 10AM – What We Have Here Is a Failure to Confess: Impediments to Confession in Medieval Literature (Presider)

Session 62 (Valley I 101) – Thursday, 1:30PM – Medieval Drama – “Hybridized Grief in the N-Town ‘Betrayal’” (Presenter)

Session 304 (Fetzer 201) – Friday, 3:30PM – Parody, Farce, and Authority in Early Drama (Presider)

  • M. Wendy Hennequin

Session 442 (Schneider 133) – Saturday, 1:30PM – Technical Communication in the Middle Ages (Organizer and Presider)

  • Patricia Taylor

Session 15 (Valley I 10) – Thursday, 10AM – Topics in Early Modern English Literature – “Typology and the Imitation of Christ in Sidney’s Defense of Poesy” (Presenter)

  • Kathleen Tonry

Session 19 (Valley I 11) – Thursday, 10AM – Aura – “The Personality of Production” (Presenter)

  • Leah Schwebel

Session 267 (Schneider 132) – Friday, 1:30PM – Dante V: Interpretive Problems in Dante’s Inferno – “‘Simile Lordura,’ Altra Bolgia: Usurpation through Conflation in Inferno 26” (Presenter)

  • Robert Hasenfratz

Session 318 (Schneider 124) – Friday, 3:30PM – Medieval Religious Cultures: Key Questions and Directions for Future Research – “Key Questions about Spatial Theory in Medieval Studies” (Presenter)

  • Lindy Brady

Session 384 (Schneider 134) – Saturday, 10AM – Landscape and Culture in Medieval Britain I: Spaces and Buildings – “Spatial Paradox and the Ambiguity of Guthlac A” (Presenter)

  • Pamela Longo

Session 507 (Schneider 234) – Saturday, 3:30PM – Medieval Cultures of Death: Historical, Literary, and Material Perspectives II – “Whan we ben dede and elleswhere: Writing for Posterity in Late Medieval London” (Presenter)

  • Brandon Hawk

Session 539 (Schneider 124) – Sunday, 8:30AM – Sources of Anglo-Saxon Culture I – “The Fifteen Signs before Judgment in Anglo-Saxon England: A Reassessment” (Presenter)

  • Jeremy DeAngelo

Session 546 (Bernhard Brown & Gold Room) – Sunday, 8:30AM – The Basics of Medieval Ireland (A Roundtable) – “Directions for the Journey: Proper Conduct in the Immrama” (Presenter)

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Felicem annum ineuntem!

The semester’s ended, the Yuletide is ebbing quickly, and the hours are ticking down to the new year. This is just a quick thank you to those of you who’ve come here to share in our professional and personal enjoyment of medieval studies, and a wish for an annus mirabilis in 2012 for anyone reading this.

While you’re waiting to pop your champagne (or nursing your hangovers, depending on when you read this), I offer the following links for anyone looking for some light reading on the medieval in the modern world…

Medieval “Zombie Borders”: An NYT article some of you may have seen on the “zombie borders” of Europe–specifically, on the correlation between the post-WWII “innerdeutsche Grenze” which divided East and West Germany and the tenth-century borders established in the early years of the Ottonian Dynasty. Why “zombie borders”? Presumably because 2011 has been the year when we reached zombie saturation point as a culture, which means even the Grey Lady has caught on that sticking zombies in anything officially makes it hip…

Medieval warriors and PTSD: An interesting if surface-skimming article of the “medieval people were just like us” variety–but exactly the sort of thing that might spark an undergraduate’s interest in our field.

A hidden ship-image in Broadstairs?: A self-proclaimed “history enthusiast” by the name of Simon Gerrard believes he’s found an image of a medieval sailing vessel traced by the roads of a town on the Isle of Thanet. My favorite part of this article is the lone quote from a source other than Mr Gerrard–a museum curator whose full (and polite) analysis is: “To be honest I have never heard anything like it before but it is an interesting theory.”

A Brief History of Eggnog: One of those end-of-year fluff pieces that get trotted out for the holidays so the editors and writers (in this case, of Time) can spend a few days with their families. And who are we to begrudge them that chance? Especially when they provide us with lines like “While culinary historians debate its exact lineage, most agree eggnog originated from the early medieval Britain ‘posset,’ a hot, milky, ale-like drink. ” I’m delighted by the notion of a small, bitter minority opinion among the culinary historian community regarding the provenance of eggnog. I invite you to imagine the gall they must feel every year around this time…

Medieval cookies: An NPR report on the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of making Christmas “springerle,” those cookies made from the intricately-carved rollers or molds. I had a “real” one for the first time a few years ago (in London, as it happens), and they’re nothing like mold-pressed butter cookies I’d always associated them with. Tasty, though.

 

That’s all for now. See you in 2012!

~jpsexton

 

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A Life of Infinite Variety

Kisha Tracy’s last post (one of several with which she has ably kept this blog up and running while I’ve been snowed under with various matters personal and professional) offered a list of reasons to be thankful for being a medievalist. I heartily agree with her list, and would especially second her appreciation for the flexibility and interdisciplinarity of Medieval Studies. It is, in fact, a large part of what led me to the field in the first place.

When I was a child, one of my favorite authors was James “Alf” Wight, who wrote semi-autobiographical books about a country veterinarian under the pen name James Herriot (no, this isn’t going to turn into my own autobiographical reminiscing—that’s a different post). In an anecdote apparently taken from Wight’s own experiences in secondary school, Herriot often reflected on the words of a Veterinary College president, who spoke before Herriot’s class. The outlook for graduates in veterinary medicine in 1930s England was bleak due to the economy and the decline of working animals on farms, but the president’s message was reassuring. “If you enter into veterinary medicine,” he told Herriot’s class, “you will never be rich, but you will have lives of infinite variety. That line, which I thought about a lot as a boy, pretty well sums up why I love what I do for a living.

In a given week, I might (as I am doing this week) read articles on the decline of sanctuary practice in early modern England and the problem of free will in Chaucer’s Tales along with reviews of books on Old Norse women’s poetry, Benedictine monastic life, and medieval peaceweaving; work on an article on modern interpretations of Beowulf and early drafts of conference papers on gender-bending sexual aggression in thirteenth-century poetry and representations of physical disability in medieval literature; and, best of all, spend time with students talking about the meaning of Lady Mede’s mouton of gold and the reddit Caesari tale in Piers Plowman (as well as the convoluted problem of PP’s manuscript tradition), Edward III’s Statute of Laborers laws, Shakespeare’s views of madness and monarchy, dactylic hexameter as “heroic meter” in the Aeneid, the memento mori of 15th-18th century grave art, and the trebuchets and catapults in Maryland’s annual “Punkin Chunkin” competition—which led to an entertaining hour yesterday morning spent watching video from the 2011 competition (it counts as research, right?). Next week will bring a whole new set of topics and more of the never-ending surprises that come from learning about hundreds of years of material from any number of scholarly fields.

Then there are the side benefits—the high-quality people with whom I share the profession, the incidental knowledge that comes my way, the constant striving to find new ways to use “Burckhardtian” as an insult. No, we don’t get wealthy doing this for a living, but the richness of a life of infinite variety is worth a great deal.

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Primitivism and the Warrior

My major project for the next few weeks is to write and, with luck, complete an article on accommodating the recent spate of Beowulf films in teaching Anglo-Saxon literature. This involves tracking down the little that’s been written on the topic, learning a bit about film theory, limbering up my pedagogy-speak, sifting through some recent Beowulf scholarship for some important bits I’ll be using, and reviewing my own notes on the poem from grad school and several years’ teaching (my undergraduate notes on medieval literature were, mercifully, almost entirely destroyed in a house fire in 1998; this conveniently allows me to complain bitterly about losing all that hard work without the awkwardness of actually having to confront just how bad most of it was). It also involves re-viewing the six films that have been released in the last dozen years–and believe me, that’s going to be the hardest part of the whole project. I’ll undoubtedly be reviewing them here; pain shared, after all, is pain divided. Or sadism made manifest. Perhaps a miniseries is in order–can one write a miniseries on a blog?

Among the articles I’ve collected is Stephen T. Asma’s reflection on the 2007 Zemeckis Beowulf in the context of other releases of the same time (Snyder’s 300; the HBO Rome series) which seemed to be about unfettered (i.e., pre-Christian) masculinity. Asma’s point seems to be that modern interpretations of these stories are, inevitably, colored by contemporary masculinities–so that the Zemeckis Beowulf is defeated not by his own arrogance or the inevitability of senescence, but by a weakness of moral character. As Asma notes, the modern movie Beowulf is “basically a jerk, whose most sympathetic moment is when he finally realizes that he’s a jerk.” The article is rather brilliantly titled “Never Mind Grendel. Can Beowulf Conquer the 21st Century Guilt Trip?”1 and you can read it if you have a Chronicle of Higher Education subscription. There’s a lot of food for thought there, and in general I agree with Asma’s conclusions–particularly his point that this “Nietzschean version” of Beowulf is no more a construction than (and, in some ways, not all that different from) the Tolkien version that preceded it. I’ll have more to say about this when I get to the film.

In the meantime, I’m boiling a bit about the other “hit” I got when looking up Asma’s article on the Chronicle site—a letter responding to the article, titled “An Afterlife for Beowulf.” I could (and do) take exception to the author’s reading of the poem as a whole, but what got my dander up was, predictably, the apparently unintentional condescension toward medieval culture. In a short letter, the author manages to work in two descriptions of medieval culture and writers as “primitive”; given the context, it’s hard to imagine this was meant even in the problematic Victorian “noble savage” mode. The reference comes when the author, having already mentioned that his interest in Beowulf stems in the main from an interest in Tolkien and Seamus Heaney, posits that an “important theme [runs] through the story: The pre-Christian fixations on gold and reputation can be read as a primitive longing for something that does not die.” In the following paragraph, he echoes this statement: “In Beowulf we see, among many other things, a primitive warrior culture groping for something beyond this world.”

Look. I could spend all day going into detail about why this is not a useful comment, and enjoy myself thoroughly in the process. But in fact, shorn of its benighted adjectives, the point is entirely valid. Let’s try that first sentence again without the disdainful attitude: “The fixations on gold and reputation can be read as a longing for something that does not die.” This is, I think, a reading that most of us would be happy to have our students walk away from Beowulf with–not the final word, perhaps, but a reasonable and illuminating approach to understanding the text. One can even imagine turning this analysis around on moments such as Hrothgar’s farewell speech to Beowulf and the search for an “eternal” monument that does not rely on wealth or fame.

So why a primitive culture? Three possible responses leap to mind in response to this kind of thing (four, really, but since our own culture does not highly prize dueling with large axes, let’s stick with three). The first is to add this to the poisonous collected wordhord most medievalists nurture somewhere behind their bile ducts–the same heap where we keep Pulp Fiction’s sodomy, CNN’s descriptions of war zones, and anything by or about Jacob Burckhardt. The second is to make a lengthy and impassioned argument concerning the complexity of Anglo-Saxon (or late Roman, or Byzantine, or Abbasid Caliphate, or Carolingian, or Scandinavian, or Ethiopian) culture; this might perhaps include a few salient remarks about the comparative values implied by, say, Germanic feud culture and the modern American prison system.

The third option, of greater interest and probably more illuminating, is to consider whether contrasting the culture of Beowulf with our own is less useful than considering whether they’re all that different in the ways the author means. Let’s briefly investigate just what is being called “primitive” here:
The desire for fame? A 2009 survey2 showed that the top three dream careers of modern British children are Sports Star, Pop Star, and Actor.
The obsession with mortality and the possibility of immortality? Visit a cemetery sometime. Better yet, visit a cryogenics lab, or the Immortality Institute’s website.3
The question of (or desire for) life after death? Religious institutions still argue for this with some force, and a comfortable majority of Americans believe in some form of an afterlife.
The pursuit of wealth? I’ll forgo the dubious pleasures of laying bare the soul of modern capitalism, a task for which I am not professionally or temperamentally suited; I do, however, enjoy the minor irony that this letter was written early in 2008, just as the worldwide economy was about to crash down due to the unbridled pursuit of unearned riches. The dangers of the dragon’s den, indeed…

So the question is—does treating Beowulf as an artifact of a “primitive” culture demonstrate a lack of understanding of that culture, or a (possibly warranted) cynicism about our own?

All right, I’m off to re-watch the first of six Beowulf movies and take notes. Wish me luck…

~jpsexton

1 http://chronicle.com/article/Never-Mind-Grendel-Can/1974/
2 http://www.taylorherring.com/blog/index.php/tag/traditional-careers/
3 http://www.imminst.org/

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