Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Goring the Pardoner

On the political front, Grizzly Groundswell (an anti-socialist political blog) has a little poem comparing Al Gore's sales of carbon offsets to the Pardoner's sale of indulgences in the Canterbury Tales. As Kant would say in his Critique of Pure Reason, "At this we laugh heartily."*

*Sorry, the Kant reference is an inside joke that I couldn't resist.

RIP Lancelot

Robert Goulet, who famously played Lancelot in the musical Camelot, died yesterday at the age of 73.

Norton sends me a treat, no trick

I'm planning the Big Beowulf Bash on November 17th at my school (more details as they develop), and I wanted to make a Beowulf trivia contest part of the event. I e-mailed our Norton rep, and he sent me five, count 'em, FIVE free books, of various editions of Beowulf.

Two of the books, though are the new illustrated edition of Heaney's translation, and they are absolutely beautiful. Even if they already have a Heaney translation, you might consider this as a gift for your friends. It's probably the perfect medium for the Heaney translation.

In order to properly thank Norton and Scott Cook, their representative, here's a link to the book on Amazon -- on sale right now for only $16.47, a real bargain! Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Medieval Werewolves for Halloween

A pack of wolves and werewolves has been running wild through the medieval blogosphere of late, so watch out! Wordhoarders have reported wolf sightings at Per Omnia Saecula, as well as werewolf sightings at Quid Plura.

Not that I wish to alarm you, but I have recently seen evidence of a garwolf named Bisclavret (only about 9 pages long in PDF).

Chertoff's Anglo-Saxon Prose

There's been a bit of consternation around the blogosphere regarding comments Michael Chertoff made about a fake FEMA press conference:
I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I've seen since I've been in government [...] I have made unambiguously clear, in Anglo-Saxon prose, that it is not to ever happen again and there will be appropriate disciplinary action taken against those people who exhibited what I regard as extraordinarily poor judgment. [emphasis mine]

What's with the Anglo-Saxon there? Chertoff is probably alluding to George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" (incidentally, my favorite essay on writing ever, bar none). Orwell's section on pretentious diction reads:
Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up a simple statement and give an aire of scientific impartiality to biased judgements. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable , are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien r&eacutgime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung , are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g. , and etc. , there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one's meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness. [emphasis mine]

Years of having freshman composition inflicted upon me has left me with a deep, deep love for Orwell. I'm just a little surprised to find that I have something in common with Chertoff (except baldness, of course). By the way, failure to follow Orwell here is why so much academic writing stinks.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Blogging Hiccup Today

I don't like apologizing for not blogging, for two reasons:
  1. People shouldn't blog out of duty. It's not like a journal that has to have an edition every quarter.
  2. I hate blogging about blogging.
So consider this an irritate rant disguised as an excuse for not blogging. Today, every time I got onto my Google reader, it re-added all the previously read blogposts, so that the number kept climbing and climbing, and each time I had to wade through a greater and greater number of old posts.

It's probably for the best; I needed the time to grade papers, anyway. Still, it's irritating. I'll try to catch up over the weekend on my linking. At this rate, I'll never get to that Kid Beowulf post.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Limited Secondary Ed Medieval Lit Offerings

One other thing that deserves mention is that I bought a copy of Prentice Hall's Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes Platinum Edition, an anthology commonly taught in Texas schools. It has no medieval content whatsoever, though it does have a few medievalist texts: a 6-page excerpt from Don Quixote, a "Morte d'Arthur" excerpt from Tennyson's Idylls of the King, and an 11-page excerpt from T.H. White's The Once and Future King. No Canterbury Tales, no Beowulf, no nothing. In order to get actual medieval literature, you have to their "British Tradion" or "World Masterpieces" editions.

So, Texans, if you're wondering why your fellow Texans know so little medieval literature, it might be because their teachers weren't given the opportunity to cover the material.

Over-committed? Me?

And once again I've got a couple of deadlines bearing down on me at the same time, so I don't have time to give some items in the medieval universe the attention they deserve. Here's a round-up:

Man Killed Jousting

Though it apparently happened more than a month ago, the Guardian just got around to reporting "Man killed in TV jousting match" on Tuesday.

h/t Cranky Professor

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Yesterday's edition of Weird Medieval Animal Monday: The Sea-Pig.

Though I always enjoy WMAM, this week JLJ has outdone herself, with a sea-cow comedy routine, a reference to the sea-pig (or "Wonderful Pig of the Ocean") from the October 29, 1894 New York Times, and a delightful "New Biology" entry on the sea-pig.

Given all this new information, I'm hoping for a sequel to a popular family film. Perhaps Babe: Pig in the Sea.

Dating Beowulf

Michael Drout has just finished his excellent series on dating Beowulf*. I recommend it.
My own opinion? Unlike Drout, I'm an early dating guy, but even then I agree entirely with Drout that it's both early and late: "an originally early poem, written down when the tradition was still alive, that is re-worked by another artist later on."

Since Drout would call himself a late dater moving early, and I would call myself the reverse of that, I'm not sure how valuable a distinction "late date" and "early date" is when talking generally. Obviously, the surviving manuscript is late, and obviously the historical source material is early; I don't know anyone who claims that the manuscript was written in, say, the 6th Century, or that the historical Hrothgar lived in the 11th. When we are talking about the "date" of Beowulf, then, we are have a moving target, and what we mean by "date" might mean something entirely different depending on the context. A few times I've heard two scholars arguing about the date, only to realize that they were arguing past one another. I suppose that is the reason there is so much disagreement; half the time, we can't even agree on what we are disagreeing about.

Every year, about 3000 medievalists attend the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, and every year they bring about 6000 different opinions on the dating of Beowulf with them.

*Er, by "dating Beowulf" we mean figuring about a date of composition of the poem, not about courting the Geat romantically. Not that you should be discouraged; I'm sure he's a very handsome man.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Kid Beowulf

A great find from Jeff Sypeck: Kid Beowulf, a new comic in which Beowulf and Grendel are brothers.

I wanted to get Alexis E. Fajardo on the phone before posting about it, but there's no contact info on his webpage (at least none I can find). Instead, I offer for you this video preview of Kid Beowulf: A Bard's Tale, which has since been re-titled Kid Beowulf and the Blood-Bound Oath.

Here is Hama the Pig listening to a re-written opening of Beowulf:

Here is a longer preview, mostly focusing on Beowulf and Grendel as they hop across Europe:

Hooray, Pillaging! Hooray, Plundering!

I wish I could attend this conference.

Question: War! Huh, yeah! What is it good for?
Answer: The formation of institutions and their manifestation in material culture.

Medieval Lit Reading List for the Non-Specialist

In the comments thread of a very old post I received the following inquiry today:
I'm not sure that this is the place for a request, but I'm wondering if you or a reader might provide a concise (20+/-) reading list of must-read MDVL literature(Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic) in good English translation editions...? It would be much appreciated.

If I understand the question right, the person is a non-specialist (because he wants English translations) interested in Germanic medieval lit (since, although he asks for general medieval lit, the three examples he gives are all Germanic).

Since I've got a few other things I must do this morning, I invite the Wordhoarders to give their top 5 Modern English translations of Germanic medieval works -- off such a list, we ought to be able to derive a broad list of twenty.

By the way, budding specialists may want to look at WEMSK, What Every Medievalist Should Know.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A Few Non-Medieval Items

  • Yesterday I went out to my truck and saw that someone had thrown an old beer box in the bed. As I angrily grabbed it to throw it away, irritated that some drunk saw fit to use my truck as his trash bin, I realized that it still had several unopened cans of beer in it. Someone left beer in my truck. I would like to encourage this trend (though I would prefer a higher quality of beer, please).
  • Why is it that students who wouldn't scratch their bottoms to get a final exam grade will do anything for extra credit? Last week, I had midterm exams, and many students put, at the most, an hour's worth of effort into the take-home project (worth 25% of their grade). This week I gave an opportunity for extra credit, worth only a tiny fraction of the midterm, and the students are meeting after class and going to the Writing Center to work on it. Maybe I should start calling my regular assignments "extra credit."
  • Few things in life are as much fun as going to a Halloween party for foreigners, most of whom have never been to a Halloween party before. I can't wait for this year's International Student Halloween Party.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Often Read, Rarely Blogged

I really like the blog Heavenfield. I rarely blog on it because I don't really have anything to add most of the time, but I thought for once I ought to direct your attention there.

Her most recent profile is Beornwine the Cleric.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I Wield an Interpretive Chainsaw on Arthuriana

Be warned: shameless self-promotion follows.

My article "A Chainsaw-Wielding Yankee in King Arthur's Demonic Court" appears in the latest Coyote Wild (edited by none other than MacAllister Stone). It's a light piece written for popular audiences, so you don't have to be a professional medievalist to understand it.

It's basically about Army of Darkness as Arthuriana. Cool, huh? If you've never seen Army of Darkness, consider this quote from Ash, the protagonist:
Ok you Primitive Screwheads, listen up! You see this? This... is my boomstick! The 12-gauge double-barreled Remington. S-Mart's top of the line. You can find this in the sporting goods department. That's right, this sweet baby was made in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Retails for about $109.95. It's got a walnut stock, cobalt blue steel, and a hair trigger. That's right. Shop smart. Shop S-Mart. You got that?

I live my life according the teachings of Ash.

At the end of the piece, Mac Stone refers to me as an "Indiana-Jones(tm)-esque Academic," leading me to think I need to get a bullwhip ... or at least a new hat.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Medieval Money

Zsuzsa Papp, a postgrad at Leeds, has created the Medieval Fundfinder, a board that offers a central location for funding opportunities for students of medieval studies.

Interestingly, my university filter blocks this website because it is "pornography." I had to view it at home, and, alas, was untitillated. I'll be adding a permanent link to this board.

Making the Most of Beowulf Mania

Long categorized in popular culture as one of those boring books you're forced to read in college, Beowulf is having a revival at the moment, and may even blossom into full BeoMania by the end of the year. Consider the following:
Though the quality of the above varies, that is a lot of pop culture interest in a book that's supposedly boring.

The Zemeckis film might be what tips us into BeoMania. Not only does it have (in animated form) such big celebrities as Angelina Jolie (naked?), Anthony Hopkins, and John Malkovich, but it will also come with a Hollywood-style marketing campaign, including posable figurines and its own theme park attraction.

So, the question remains: How do we capitalize on BeoMania? How can we use this big marketing campaign to steer people toward informed work on Beowulf and other medieval literature? The clock is ticking; the release date is in exactly one month -- so what do we do?

I've struck up a friendship recently with a journalist over our mutual interest in popular medievalism. I like to call him "my paparazzi," and he likes to call me his "spirit guide." I put this question recently to my paparazzi and, along with the folks from my University Relations office, and I've collected their advice on how to use this film to promote academic work.

First of all, let's deal with who will want to talk to you about Beowulf. For most of us, our best bet is local media -- which is just as well, since your chair, your dean, your provost, your potential students, your alumni, your trustees, etc. all probably watch the local media. While it might be nice to be a talking head on some cable news outlet, most of us won't have a chance to do that. You probably want to focus on local newspapers and local television. Your university has an office that is probably called "University Relations" or "Public Affairs" -- basically the propaganda arm of the school. Contact them to let them know that you are interested in offering yourself as a resource. In some cases, they will just want to be kept in the loop, in others, they'll take an active role in helping you. At the very least, they should be able to provide contact information to the local media resources.

About 2-3 weeks out before the film is released, you'll want to send an e-mail to your contacts. First of all, know who you should be contacting. At most newspapers, there should be an entertainment editor or a culture editor -- that's your best bet. In terms of television, this is the kind of thing that lends itself to the 5-10 minute interview format (on my own local station, it's 6 minutes). Don't be afraid of cable access shows, though you should be aware that cable access is likely to have a smaller audience while making a greater demand on your time. The good part of that "greater demand on your time) bit is that you might get the chance to further develop ideas in ways that just aren't possible in the 6-minute format.

When you compose the e-mail, you have to walk a fine line between pushing for editor to cover a story and telling them how to do their job. Probably the best way to do this is to write a brief e-mail of about a paragraph or two in which you mention the occasion ("major Hollywood motion picture with big-name stars blah blah blah," "I'm really interested in this film and the phenomenon yadda yadda yadda") and your credentials -- just the basic "professor of medieval literature at local university" rather than your CV; they really aren't that interested that you had an article published in the PMLA. Then, offer yourself as a resource if they want to do a story on the subject. It might be a good idea to have a couple of talking points already prepared, and to work one of these into the e-mail so that they already have a hook for the story.

So, what kind of talking points do you need? First of all, remember that your local newspaper covers local events for a reason -- that's their main mission. They won't be able to compete with, say, the New York Times coverage of some economic summit in Switzerland, but then again the NY Times can't compete with the local paper's coverage of the mayoral race or the charity fish fry. Emphasize the local connection -- It is more important to them that you are the most local professor of medieval lit than if you were the most world-famous professor of medieval lit. In this case, your relative obscurity will actually work to your advantage, especially if you're in a college town.

The other talking point should probably be some kind of bridge between the occasion (in this case, a movie) and your expertise. Come up with some pithy things to say comparing the book and the movie. Be sure that it doesn't sound snotty or condescending. One of the hardest things for academics to do, I think, is to talk to popular audiences. It's not a "text," it's a book or poem. Beowulf is not the "protagonist," he's the main character. The monsters aren't "metaphorical eruptions of social anxieties," they're symbols. In other words, you don't have to dumb down your ideas, you just have to translate those ideas into common parlance.

Your e-mail might sound something like this:
Dear Entertainment Editor,
As you may know, the big-budget film Beowulf, starring Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, and Ray Winstone, will be opening in local XYZ Cinema on November 16th. As a professor of medieval literature at Local University, I'm very interested in this film, as well as all the general excitement around Beowulf in the last couple of years. In fact, I'll be hosting a public discussion group on the movie and the book on Whenever Date in Late November, in Well-Known Venue available at the University, where we'll be comparing the book and the movie. If you are interested, I would like to offer myself as a resource for any stories you might be doing on this movie and the local excitement surrounding it.
Prof. Enthusiastic Medievalist

About three days to a week after your initial e-mail, make a follow-up telephone call asking if they received the e-mail and if you can be of service to them as a resource. Yes, of course they got the e-mail -- this is just a polite way to remind them and see if they are really interested.

You might also consider having some sort of event lined up. For example, in my own school I suspect many professors will offer extra credit to their World Lit I students if they go see the film and write some kind of review. Why not host a discussion section the week after the film opens, and make it open to the public? You might even get the local theater to host a public forum after a matinee on opening weekend. Even if not many people come to your discussion (don't call it a "lecture" even if it is; that sounds boring), you'll at least have an event to talk about in any interviews you do, and you'll give all the local people a chance to connect with academic medievalism.

What am I going to do? Right now, I'm not sure, because our local theater isn't planning on running the movie. I'm going to try to convince them that running Beowulf in a university town in late November (right when the need for extra credit is the highest) is a good commercial decision, but getting them to change their minds might be an uphill battle. Most likely, people are going to have to run up to Montgomery to see the movie, which means I'll probably do a few local television programs, maybe a radio show or two, reach out to the local paper, and then run some sort of PowerPointish discussion on campus. If I can, I'll try to get the SCA to coordinate some kind of weapons demonstration to try to draw even more folks. In any case, I'll make announcements of what I'm doing here on the Wordhoard.

An Open Letter to SciFi Channel

Dear SciFi Channel,

In a recent blog post, Jeff Sypeck suggests that you might make a movie about Charlemagne, in which Charlemagne rides a giant scorpian on the slopes of a giant volcano while battling Nazi super-mutants with the aid of anthropomorphic mosquitoes.

Please make the afore-mentioned film immediately. Your devotion to the craft of filmmaking demands it. If this film goes unmade, the terrorists have already won.

Richard Scott Nokes

Medieval Leopards, and Bad Puns

Jennifer Lynn Jordan brings us another installment of Weird Medieval Animal Monday. This week's featured animal is the leopard.

Do not read the comments! DO NOT!!! They are filled with bad puns! If you read those comments, you can't say I didn't warn you!

Monday, October 15, 2007

More Evidence I'm Getting Old

Yesterday, my son and I were flipping through The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman. We got to John Everett Millais's "Knight-Errant," and my son exclaimed "Gross!"

"What?" I asked, puzzled. "What's so gross about it?"

"She's naked!" he exclaimed, and then I realized that the distressed damsel is, indeed, naked ... and I had never even noticed. Yes, I'm getting old.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Monk See, Monk Do

Here's a 5 minute preview of Terry Jones's "Medieval Lives 2: The Monk."">

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Stuck in the Mead Hall

I promised a second post about things I encountered at the SCA event I attended, and here 'tis. I hate filking. A lot. But this song just charmed me.

I give you, "Stuck in the Mead Hall" by Lord Bjorn Ragnarsson, sung to the tune of Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle."

Well I don't know how I came here tonight
I've had a few and now I'm feelin' alright
It's so hard to keep from falling from my chair
and I wonder if I can get down the stairs

I've got Celts to the left of me
A Saxon on my right, here I am
Stuck in the mead hall with you

Yes I'm stuck in the mead hall with you
and I'm wonderin' what it is I should do
I's so hard to keep this smile from my face
as I stagger round all over the place


Well I started out with one and then I had another one to get me goin'
Now I'm tippin' back my horn but it's empty, it's all gone
I need more mead, mead

Now I'm tryin' to find the way to my tent
It's hard to do when you're this damn bent
Is it cool to sleep here on the grass?
Cause if I don't I might just fall on my ass.

[Chorus x2]

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Drout's Beowulf Basics

Michael Drout has a very timely post entitled "Beowulf Basics" over at Wormtalk and Slugspeak. At the risk of gushing, I think his post demonstrates exactly what academic blog posts can do: Drout gives a once-over-very-lightly view of Beowulf for a curious public, backed by his own erudition.

Posts like his are going to be very important in the next month for directing people to accurate resources about Beowulf, rather than vapid freshman papers on the subject.* To that end, I want to encourage all the Wordhoarders out there to link the phrase "Beowulf Basics" to Drout's post. If you look to the sidebar on the right, you'll see I've already put a permanent link to Beowulf Basics -- a pretty usual move for me, since those links are usually devoted to entire websites.**

My only point to add to Drout's post is about the title of my own blog. Every Anglo-Saxonist will right away understand the reference in "Unlocked Wordhoard," but sometimes I forget that it's specialized knowledge; over the past week, several people have asked me what it means. So, here 'tis:

"Unlocked Wordhoard" is a reference to an Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons) poetic image that we find a few times in the extant literature, and one of those times in Beowulf itself. You can see the lines in the original Old English, followed by the translation in Modern English, from lines 258-259 of the poem. The reference to "noblest of men" and "leader of the warrior band" is not, alas, a reference to me; it is a reference to Beowulf, the first time he speaks in the poem.

Anglo-Saxonists (people who study Old English literature, like me) all know this image; it's a favorite. The idea is that you have a big locked chest filled with your words, and when you speak, you open that hoard and give them to those around you. I suspect the ideal man was silent and stoic most of the time (hence the locked wordhoard), but when he finally did speak, his words were powerful and meaningful, like treasures from a hoard.

Drout's Beowulf Basics won't give any new information to specialists, but for most of the world out there, he has unlocked a hoard of useful and timely information about Beowulf. I would encourage others to link to it.

*These freshman papers usually start something like this: "In today's society, many people have many different points of view about Beowulf. This paper will examine some of those different perspectives..." At this point, my eyes begin to bleed.
**That makes two permalinks to Drout over there. I oughta start charging him a nickel a hit.

Close-ups of the Beowulf Figurines

One of the side benefits of having one of your texts mangled into a major motion picture is all the marketing. Now, with close-ups of the figurines from the Zemeckis Beowulf film, we can see that Grendel is rather a zombie-looking figure, and Beowulf appears to have lassoed the dragon (I'm guess that's not a smart move).

I'm not too big a fan of the Beowulf figurine -- he looks more like he is posing than preparing for battle -- though if Burger King or someone offers that dragon-horn as a promotional, I want one! Grendel's mother looks kind of wimpy, but that vaguely-saurian appearance lends credence to the theory that in this adaptation, Grendel's Mother = Dragon. Grendel must get his good looks from his father.

The dragon looks like it will be a must-have for hip medievalists, since you also get a teeny Beowulf hanging on for dear life with that one. Second tier would be Grendel and Beowulf himself, and down near the bottom is Grendel's Mother. If you've got her, it's just to have the complete set.

Sorry for not posting the images themselves here, but I suspect McFarland toys is a litigious company.

Update on Beowulf: Prince of the Geats

I just got off the phone with Scott Wegener, the Executive Producer for Beowulf: Prince of the Geats, the all-volunteer Beowulf film to benefit the American Cancer Society (not to be confused with the Zemeckis film coming out next month). Regular Wordhoarders might recognize Jadis, sometime contributer of comments, as Helldam (Grendel's Mother), played by Deborah Smith Ford.

According to Wegener, the FX editing is going very well, but the process is taking longer than planned, so it will probably not be until the end of this year/beginning of next before we get a chance to see it. The plan at the moment is to sell it to PBS, which is where the ACS proceeds will come from.

I'll try to keep Wordhoarders up-to-date as we get more information.

On Point with Sir Gawain

Simon Armitage has a new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A poet friend of mine was very happy with the news, and raised my expectations regarding its quality. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Yesterday, Armitage was interviewed on NPR's On Point, and that interview is available here. I have to confess, I only listened to about 15 minutes worth before I could no longer stand Tom Ashbrook and his callers. And using Sword of the Valient unironically? Yeesh!

Via Stán Cynedóm

Venison, with just a hint of snake

Medieval bestiaries must be what's hot at the moment, because Heavenfield has an entry about the symbolism of stags that eat snakes.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Geekerati, Elvira, and Me

Last night Christian Johnson of Cinerati hosted me on the Geekerati radio program, where we did a once-over-lightly skim over popular medievalism, dwelling the most on Lord of the Rings and our favorite films. You can hear the episode here, or by hitting the play button below (assuming, optimistically, I got the html right).
Though the whole experience was delightful (including my father's insider comments in their chat room), perhaps the best part is that I was featured on BlogTalkRadio's main page, nestled between two lovely women, one of whom was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark ... and few women can nestle a man in quite the way Elvira can. I would post my screen capture of that page, but I can't seem to get it in a form that Blogger will take.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Terry Jones on our Maligned Middle Ages

News for Medievalists has an interview with Terry Jones, most famous for his work on Monty Python. What non-medieval scholars might not know is that Terry Jones is a legitimate scholar of medieval history, not just a celebrity popularizer. Nearly every literary scholar I know who has read Jones's Chaucer's Knight says exactly the same thing about it: "Very, very good. Totally wrong, of course, but still quite good." I recommend it as a history book, but I would suggest taking its literary thesis (that the Knight of Chaucer is meant to be read ironically) with a hefty grain of sea salt.

By the way, Amazon lists Chaucer's Knight at $118.34! Um, it's not that good. Get it directly from the publisher for 12.99 pounds (about $26 US).

In either case, the interview is very good also. Give both a read.

TWO Weird Medieval Animals!

Jennifer Lynn Jordan at Per Omnia Saecula has not only discharged her Monday bloggerly duties with the latest installment of Weird Medieval Animal Monday, on the amphisbaena, but she gave us a bonus animal the Friday before, with the hedgehog.

An Outsider's View of the SCA

I had originally intended to write a single post about my trip the Pillage on the Plains IV, but now that I've gone, I think a couple of different posts are in order. This first one is in response to the various questions I've gotten from outsiders about exactly what the SCA is. I should note that my own experience is limited to interviewing a few people, attending a couple of business meeting-style functions, and spending the weekend at Pillage on the Plains, so this is definitely an outsider's view. Real SCAdians will no doubt have a different take, and I hope that none of my comments here will unintentionally give offense.

Lady Heather and Lord Richard, my hosts.

First of all, SCA is the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization of medieval re-enactors that has been around for over 40 years. You can find their office web page here, the Wikipedia entry here, and various bloggers involved in the SCA on my blogroll. It's kind of similar to Civil War reenactors, though it's more of a mash-up of various times and places.

The Honorable Lord Edward of Yarborough, Troy University alumnus.

One other level of similarity with Civil War reenactors is the use of history. I've often heard American historians complain that they're accosted by Civil War buffs who know everything there is to know about the single important unit or battle their great-great-granddaddy was in, but they don't have a broader perspective. Sometimes these folks can become offended when said historian doesn't know much (if anything) about their ancestors' battles. More than once I've heard historians describe this exchange:

Buff: So, you're a Civil War historian, huh?
Historian: Yes.
Buff: My great-great-grandpappy was in the Battle of Insignificant Mudhole. What do you think about Captain Obscure's decision to flank Lieutenant Nobody's forces rather than attack from the front?
Historian: Um, I really don't know much about that.
Buff: What?! You don't have an opinion about the Battle of the Insignificant Mudhole?! Don't you know that it was the real turning point in the war, since one of the men wounded in that battle was transferred and became Robert E. Lee's shoeshine boy? After all, if not for the gleam of his shoes, Lee would have slaughtered them at Gettysburg. And you call yourself a "historian!"
My experience has been that, while SCAdians don't get angry like that when you don't know about their passion -- indeed, they are delighted with the opportunity to tell you all about it. Still, the understanding of history is similar: lack of a broad historical understanding, but a deep, deep well of detail about their areas of passion.

Yeoman archery tournament

Probably the single term that carries the most force for SCAdians is period, which I take to mean something like "authentic for whatever period it is intended to represent." More than once, I heard the phrase "That's so period!" used to compliment someone on their garb or craft. Still, period can be a loaded term, with some people scoffing at others as being the "period police," mostly because they are critical when something isn't exactly right for the period. It took me a while to figure this out: If an SCAdian says "period," they might mean what anyone else would mean, but they might also be referring to authenticity as a virtue.

Harpist practicing

SCAdians all have a persona, or a character that they are portraying, but the level of detail given to that persona varies wildly. One of the rules seems that you cannot portray an actual historical personage, but the person you portray needs to be "period," so you can't, for example, portray Aragorn of Lord of the Rings. For some people, the persona is just a name; for example, Queen Lethrenn only has a name for her persona, and she varies the period based upon what kind of clothes she wants to wear. In other cases, the backstory of the persona is very detailed, with specific life events mapped out historically. I think the degree of leeway in terms of period can vary from kingdom to kingdom.

Boys playing chess

The above, with its references to a queen and kingdoms, leads to the issue of organization. The world is divided up into various kingdoms, which tend encompass several states (though it should also be noted that they do not necessarily run along state political borders). My own kingdom is Meridies. Each kingdom is further broken down into smaller club-sized groups, and the nearest one to Troy is the Shire of Thorngill. Within the SCA, people hold various offices with medieval-sounding titles, most of which are rough equivalents of modern offices such as treasurer or club president, though there are some that are unique to the SCA -- for example, Lord Richard na Teanga Mihn (my host) is the Youth Combat Marshall. Every kingdom has a king and queen, titles that are won by combat -- so in most cases, the queen is the wife of the king in real life, though this is not necessarily so, and I'm told that some queens have won office by defeating their opponents at arms, so that their husbands became king through them. These particular offices appear to be mostly ceremonial, and a monarch only reigns for 6 months before being replaced. The boring bureaucratic business of the SCA is run by a board of Corporate Officers.

Queen Lethrenn and ladies

By the way, someone mentioned to me that he figured all the SCAdians would have exalted personas -- much in the same way that every Westerner who believes in past lives always seems to have been royalty, and no one ever a slave. The structural culture of the SCA, though, doesn't really allow for that. After all, you can call yourself "Charles the Frank" in an effort to emulate Charlemagne, but what good is it if someone else is King, and you don't even have a grant of arms? Instead, I found that people tended to have the personas of travellers so that they could blend two or more styles they really liked. For example, Lord Beirhart of Douglas (seen here platting rope) is a heathen Viking living in Scotland, because he didn't want to choose between Viking and Scottish styles.

I heard lots of persona stories like that: missionary, merchant, crusader, shipwrecked, freed slave, married to a foreigner ... all these allow for the easy mixing of periods, and I found SCAdians really took to that. In most cases, I suspect that SCAdians are very tolerant of any period or region deviation as long as you have a semi-plausible figleaf in your backstory.

The Aylekeep

What do people actually do in the SCA? Though SCAdians tend to break the categories down differently, I would say the two main tracks are arms and crafts. People get together to fight (hard!) with lightly-padded medieval weapons. My shire has weekly weapons practice, and I think that's the norm, so these are folks who take it very seriously -- which is all to the good, because if they were just a bunch of yahoos smacking each other with swords, people would get very hurt. The arms side is what you might think: great swords, rapiers, bows, etc.

Lord Richard and Killian the Black, after sparring

The crafts side varies even more. Anything that you might consider a medieval craft -- blacksmithing, leatherworking, spinning, weaving, period cooking, dance, song, instruments, etc. -- someone is doing it. And they all take this very seriously too. You can't exactly pop down to the WalMart to pick up a suit of armor, tunic, and spinning wheel, can you? The market being so limited, they have to make the items themselves. Even the kinds of things you can find at Renaissance Faires they tend to make themselves, simply to keep costs down (this could be a VERY expensive hobby if you let it). For example, here is a picture of my kids with King Maximillian:

... who made every single item he was wearing, except for his underwear. The bottle he is holding was presented as a gift from the children; it's spiced oil they prepared in the children's pavilian. The king (who must be an excellent fighter as he has won the crown three times through feats of arms) also made every single element of his fighting gear except for his boots -- but unfortunately I didn't get a picture of his very beautiful and very functional armor.

Children at court

King Maximillian is a great example of how important arts & crafts are. Not only is he one of the best fighters in the kingdom, but he's also a superb craftsman. In fact, I don't think I met a single person who only fought -- everyone seemed to be a skilled craftsman in at least one area, if not several. These are really talented people.

That being said, they aren't arrogant about their arts and crafts. Instead, they really want to teach you what they know. SCA would be a great hobby for someone interested in embroidery, or carpentry, etc.

Lord T'Okin (sp?) of Zanzibar and Ian, a crusader

What about warts? In the interest of candor, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the big problem with SCAdians -- a penchant for talking when they should listen.* I had this conversation about a dozen times:

SCAdian: So this is your first event?
Me: Yes.
SCAdian: How did you hear about us?
Me: I'm a professor of medieval literature, so I share a lot of interests with people involved with the SCA.
SCAdian: A professor of medieval lit?! Oh my gosh! When that gets out, you're going to be overwhelmed with questions from people!

But see, here's the thing ... I was never asked a single question. Instead, people found my expertise as an opportunity to tell me things. To be honest, I didn't mind that at all -- it was nice not to have to be a walking lecturer on medieval England -- but sometimes people would launch into extended lectures that reminded me of the old adage about not teaching your grandmother to suck eggs. Several times I had to nod politely while listening to an oft-well-rehearsed and somewhat inaccurate speech about some element of medieval life. Fortunately, though, I'm not a historian so I only noticed the real howlers.

Ginny (?), another first-timer with beautiful garb from Ren Faires.

So, should YOU get involved with SCA? In my case, I first made contact with the SCA in order to build bridges between the scholarly and popular academic communities. I took my kids because I thought it would be fun for them. In my experience, for less than $100 three of us spent a great weekend camping, met fabulous people, ate a darn-near miraculous four-course feast, and wandered around what amounted to a Ren Faire without any tourists and without price-gouging vendors. Since I was a first-time visitor, we called ahead and arranged for our Shire to bring us loaner garb and plates. I can't be deeply involved with the SCA because of distance to the nearest Shire meeting place, but I would encourage anyone who is interested to look into it. I went to this event for professional reasons; I'll go to my next for pleasure.

*I know, in this case I'm the pot calling the kettle black, but I'm trying to give the fairest view I can.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Unlocking my Wordhoard on Geekerati

I'll be a guest on Geekerati radio this Monday, October 8th, talking about all things medievalist with host Christian Johnson of Cinerati. Though the shows are archived so you can listen to them at your convenience, you can call in during the live broadcast.

Please call! I know Wordhoarders have gone to a lot of trouble to meet me in the past, and here's an opportunity to ask questions (or tell me what an idiot I am) from the comfort of your own home.

Yes, I'm back from the SCA event ... expect several posts regarding that over the next couple of days.

Friday, October 05, 2007

... and he was never heard from again.

I'm off this weekend to attend Pillage on the Plains IV, my first real SCA event. I'll take pictures and report back to all the Wordhoarders about what went on when I return. I'm hoping to get lots of useful information for my book, so wish me well!

Walter and Drout on the Beowulf Movie

John Walter has developed the theory that, in the Zemeckis Beowulf, Grendel's Mother is the dragon ... that for some reason, Beowulf doesn't really kill Grendel's Mother, and she comes back nastier. Michael Drout, commenting on that theory, agrees that it would be a reasonable way to tighten up the narrative.

Much of this is speculation gleaned from the bits found in trailers, so let's keep that in mind. That being said, I think Drout has hit upon the most difficult matter for any film adaptation of Beowulf: narrative tightness.

The pacing of the poem isn't like the pacing of a film, or even like the pacing of a novel. Beowulf shows up, stays a few days to kill some monsters, then we jump ahead in time to when he's an old man. This is a problem for a film, because the dragon episode isn't just an extended denouement; it's the climactic ending.

Now, if it were up to me, I'd film it as a trilogy based around each monster, because I think audiences would have a greater tolerance for that leap in time if it were a different trip to the movie theater or a different DVD. That's in the ideal world, though, in which I had both an unlimited amount of money and talent as a film director. In real life, filmmakers have to compromise.

Beowulf: Prince of the Geats tightens things up by presenting the story as told by Unferth years later, after Beowulf's death. Between these two versions, I think we see the two of the three most obvious solutions to the narrative problem of Beowulf: either tighten it by framing the story with an external narrator (probably a scop), or tighten the timeline by having Beowulf fight the dragon while he's still young.

Then, of course, is the third option: leave out the dragon altogether. Some anthologies commonly used in high schools treat Beowulf as a series of excerpts without the dragon episode. I'm not a big fan of this approach, but it's acceptable, I think. Consider, for example, John Gardner's Grendel, which, I think it's safe to say, is probably the only Beowulf adaptation to win nearly universal acceptance among Anglo-Saxon scholars. Gardner's narrative only covers the story through the death of Grendel, with Grendel's Mother and the dragon appearing as secondary characters -- though the dragon does foretell his own death in prophecy.

I think you need to include the dragon just because, darn it, it's a dragon. As far as the spectacle of film goes, which is more visually stunning, a couple of trolls or a dragon?

And, on a side note, have any of the Wordhoarders seen D-War: Dragon Wars? The reviews were bad, but the story is supposed to be based on some Korean legend I've never heard of before.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Fairy "Others"

This is nearly a month old; I'm not sure how I missed it. Lisa Spangenberg, the Digital Medievalist, has a nice meditation on fairies as "other" in medieval literature, specifically focusing on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo.

For those who don't follow lit-crit, "other" is a specific literary term that Spangenberg unpacks in the essay. Postcolonial theory tends to use the term "subaltern" to describe a similar idea. Even if aren't interesting in the lit-crit side of it, who doesn't like fairies?

Peasants: Not Revolting, Even When They're Revolting

As I mentioned in an earlier post, someone over at Everything Medieval found previews to several of Terry Jones's "Medieval Lives" documentaries. I'll be embedding them here, but in order avoid swamping the e-mail of my subscribers with slower internet connections, I'll do them on different days. Today's entry: The Peasant.

Online Videos by

Lives, Comic Books, and Medieval Peasants

Jennifer Lynn Jordan over at Per Omnia Saecula has made some great finds of late. First off, she found some links to five-minute previews of Terry Jones's "Medieval Lives" (Well, OK, she got them from Everything Medieval, but I needed an organizing principle for this post). Then, she discovers Vikipaedia, and picks up the new comic book adaptation of the Zemeckis Beowulf.

So, it goes Beowulf --> Movie --> Comic Book --> Blog Post. Ah, postmodern life!

The Heroic Age

I just realized the other day that I hadn't put Larry Swain's The Heroic Age on my blogroll, nor did I have it in my RSS reader. I'm still not sure how I've been getting to the site; maybe I've just been following links without thinking about it.

At this point I would normally advise everyone to update their blogrolls accordingly, but I kind of suspect I'm the only one who left this out.

Longbow Physics

In "The Physics of Medieval Archery," the author struggles to provide a modern analogue for the dominance of the longbow in medieval battles, writing:
Henry had approximately 5,000 archers at Agincourt, and a stock of about 400,000 arrows. Each archer could shoot about ten arrows a minute, so the army only had enough ammunition for about eight minutes of shooting at maximum fire power. However, this fire power would have been devastating. Fifty thousand arrows a minute - over 800 a second - would have hissed down on the French cavalry, killing hundreds of men a minute and wounding many more. The function of a company of medieval archers seems to have been equivalent to that of a machine-gunner, so in modern terms we can imagine Agincourt as a battle between old-fashioned cavalry, supported by a few snipers (crossbow-men) on the French side, against a much smaller army equipped with machine guns.

I once heard someone refer to the longbow as the "nuke of medieval warfare." Rees's comparison of the longbow to the machine gun is less hyperbolic than the comparison to a nuclear weapon, but both are instructive: To have seen the sky blotted out by English arrows must have been absolutely terrifying.

Via Scribal Terror

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Weird Medieval Animal Monday Kicks Off!

Jennifer Lynn Jordan kicks off a new weekly feature at Per Omnia Saecula: Weird Medieval Animal Monday! She starts off with an old favorite, barnacle geese ... which sort of sounds like something from a Spongebob Squarepants episode.

Of course, my favorite animal is the bonnacon, but I'll resist describing it now, as I'm sure she'll use it for a future installment.


Gail over at Scribal Terror has an image of a whale highway, literalizing the famous "whale-road" kenning.
For those of you who don't know, a kenning is a kind of poetic device popular in Old English and Old Norse poetry, usually made by metaphorically joining two words that don't normally go together. For example, the sea might be called the hronrade, or "whale-road," or a lord might be called a "ring-giver," etc. Hronrade is probably the most well-known kenning, since it comes from line 10 of Beowulf.
Thanks to Scribal Terror for the image.

Material Culture vs. Text vs. Material Text

New Kid on the Hallway comments on a Chronicle of Higher Education article, and the discussion moves into the area of how historians do or do not examine the material text. In trying to reconcile some of the attitudes in the article with her own ideas, New Kid writes:
Then again, some of the difference in attitudes and approaches here may derive from historical fields. Maybe historians in Lord's field are especially resistant to using physical artifacts. To a medievalist, however, physical objects are at once rare and necessary. They're rare, and far fewer survive than from the nineteenth century U.S., so the opportunities to use them are more limited. Thus, they may not offer quite the same revelatory possibilities as physical objects from other eras - not in kind, but in degree. Conversely, however, medievalists have so few sources, relatively speaking, that we tend to use any and all we can find, including physical artifacts.

I would add to her comments that medieval historians tend to have a closer relationship with their colleagues in language and literature departments than other historians do. Medieval historians will have to consult with their counterparts on issues of language, for example, much more often than a scholar of American history will. This is not to say there is no crossbreeding in other periods, but instead to point out how much more common it is for medievalists.

I suspect that's why medieval historians have such a respect for the material text (i.e. manuscripts, etc.). In the comments section of New Kid's post, Bardiac writes, "Material culture is one of those places lit folks like to invade :) Everything's a text!!" For medievalists, the text IS material culture. Outside of medievalists, no one else in an English department is allowed to do paleography -- indeed, non-medieval literary scholars rarely understand more than the most basic ideas of scholarship of the material text, which probably explains why Jerome McGann's work is considered so cutting-edge among Early Modern literary scholars, while medievalists tended to respond "Well, duh. Everyone knows that."

Red, White, and Blue Martyrdom

Heavenfield has an interesting post about red, white, and blue martyrdom. No, it doesn't have anything to do with martyrdom of Americans for patriotic reasons -- the colors are just a coincidence. Hagiography isn't my strong suit, so I had no idea the Irish (or anyone else) divided martyrdom up into these kinds of categories.