Sunday, March 30, 2008

Morning Medieval Miscellany

OK, it isn't really morning yet, but it probably will be by the time you folks read this, and I've got an interview* bright and early in the morning.

*TV, not job. I have to clarify that lest my department chair panic.
**By the way, in looking for that post, I just discovered I'm the 3rd hit if you google the phrase "viking turd." My mother will be so proud.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Darkon Review

Darkon is a documentary about a live action roleplaying (LARP) group, focused on wargaming with padded weapons. This is commonly known as "boffer LARPing," but the film never uses either the terms "boffer" or "LARP." Basically, people dress up in armor and act out characters. In non-combat oriented LARPing, this generally results in negotiation rather than battle. Negotiations in boffer LARPing tend to lead to combat since, after all, the chance to strap on a sword and whack at your enemies is one of the main reasons people join these groups.

The film follows just a few of the participants, and in one case looks extensively into his home life. The tag line, "Everyone wants to be a hero" also describes the theme. The film tends to focus on the "lovable loser" type -- the stay-at-home dad, frustrated that his brother took control of the family's tabletop gaming business; the former stripper, now a single mother yearning for marriage and a home of her own; the heavy-set virgin young man who is exploring his first romantic relationships through his character, trying to gain the self-confidence for real-life relationships.

Though the film treats them respectfully, you never quite shake the feeling that the critique of Darkon (and by extension, LARPing) that it is for losers. Skip Lipman, for example, seems to live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. He seems involved in his kids' lives, and seems to have developed a variety of skills for Darkon (such as sewing and woodworking). At one point near the end of the film, he gives a very thoughtful, well-articulated monologue on Darkon's appeal. In other words, he could have been depicted as one of life's winners, but instead the film chooses to focus on the times he has lost. Again and again I thought, "This looks expensive ... not EVERYONE can be living in their parents' basement!"

What the film does best is catch the visceral quality of the boffer wars. It wouldn't take much to make them seem ridiculous, but the camera runs out in the midst of the battle as it goes, and you feel the struggle -- all sweat and grunts and curses and shouted orders. I've never thought much of boffer LARPing, but the battle sequences made me want to be out there with them, thwacking away. Even without the justifications given by the participants, you could see why they would want to be out there, why it made men feel like heroes, why the virgin felt he might be able to talk to girls, why the stripper felt her life might just be OK after all.

My biggest frustration with the film is that I wanted a bit more explanation of how Darkon works. I wondered who created it, and how it is funded. The rulebook on their website is daunting (98 pages), but a little more detail would have been nice. How are countries formed? Who determines which side has won a battle? They obviously have some kind of in-game economy -- how does that work? What about this language the dark elves speak? How developed is that? I felt that the film needed more of the nuts & bolts.

I do recommend Darkon, but the film is not without its weaknesses. If you are into boffer LARPing, you might take offense at the way the participants are depicted -- but then again, you might just want to move to Baltimore to join in the fun.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Morning Medieval Miscellany

Here are just a few of the things you don't want to miss:
  • Podictionary talks about the connections between the word affidavit and Alfred the Great. That's news to me, but I affy he's right.
  • Apparently, Charlemagne wasn't the only monarch to keep exotic animals -- the lions at the Tower of London were of a now-extinct species.
  • The Weird Medieval Animal of the Week fights the Weird Medieval Tribe of the Week over at Per Omnia Saecula.
  • Heavenfield tells us about St. Geretrud, and the lost kingdom this month is Lindsey. I have to confess, I find the Lost Kingdom of the Month feature really interesting, moreso than a lit guy has the right to.
  • This has been everywhere already, but just in case you missed it, there's now an English Medieval Legal Documents wiki.
I know there were a lot more things out there I wanted to link to, but Google Reader is acting funny.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Areopagus Lectures Online

The Areopagus Lectures I delivered are now available in audio format online. My own contributions are "Lies I Tell My Daughter: Christian Myth in Modern Culture" and "Warrior Christ: Myth and Masculinity in Depictions of Jesus," though I recommend listening to the others as well.

When I returned from giving the lectures, someone had sent me an e-mail asking me to send him a print copy of my "sermons." I kind of scoffed in my mind that he thought of them as sermons. Listening to them now, though, I realize that after adjusting them for the audience, they do rather sound a bit like sermons. So, sermons or lectures, here they are.

Part of the second lecture relies on visual images that aren't available, so a short bit near the end might not make sense. The sound quality is better than I thought; I had lost my voice, and croaked through both lectures. I guess the microphone had the best seat in the house.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Morning Medieval Miscellany

I suspended the Miscellany while Carnivalesque was underway, but now back to work! I haven't decided what I'm blogging for Easter yet. I wanted to do something special about Bede, the Ecclesiatical History of the English Nation, and the Irish Church's dating of Easter (since Easter and St. Patrick's Day fell so close this year), but I haven't had time to work something up.
OK, that's it. Happy Easter!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Before the Printing Press

In class the other day, a student asked a question that reminded me that most people don't understand the profound impact of the printing press on language and culture. Sometimes, as a medieval scholar interested in the material text, I forget that -- so here's a little bit on why the printing press is important.

The pinnacle of medieval technology is Johannes Gutenberg's development of the movable type printing press in the 1450's. This was the single most important technological development of the Second Millennium, and its impact was so great that many would argue it marks the end of the Middle Ages. I would mark that as the symbolic end of medieval literature.

The printing press changed us in ways that we should bear in mind when we read medieval literature or think about medieval culture. Let me just talk about three areas: education, religion, and literacy.


If you've gone to school you're neither wealthy nor a priest, you can thank Gutenberg. King Alfred the Great is known as a great patron of education because he had a program of universal literacy ... for noble men only, though. Why? Our modern assumption is that Alfred might have been some sort of bigot, The Man trying to keep down women and the poor. Is that fair, though?

Consider the economics of the situation before the printing press, though. Books had to be copied by hand. I've copied (transcribed) medieval manuscripts by hand, and I can tell you it is miserable and time-consuming. If I spend a day copying a manuscript, by evening my hand is siezed up like a claw. Even a short manuscript can take days. The effort it would take to provide primers for every child in the medieval world to read would overwhelm every scriptorum for decades. Books were difficult to come by, and therefore were expensive, which explains why only the wealthy (who could afford them) or clergy (who had the institutional financial support of the Church) tended to have access.

Imagine for a moment that a wormhole opened in space/time, and enough elementary school primers for every medieval child were dropped right in front of Charlemagne, who then made sure they were distributed. Let's say that every child learns to read -- then what? What will those children read? Unless the press that printed those primers also dropped through space/time, other books would still be expensive. Even considering that universal literacy would allow more people to be scribes, not everyone can be a scribe. Once those primers wore out from over-use, you'd probably be back to the former situation in a century or so.

Universal education is an ideal, but it is also a luxury provided to us by the printing press. Medieval people were not uneducated because they were stupid or repressed; they were uneducated because it was impossible to educate everyone.*


I can't tell you how many papers I get from students writing about how everyone in the Middle Ages was Catholic because the Church would burn you at the stake if you weren't, or because people were superstitious. First of all, let's remember that there happened to be plenty of non-Christians around (such as Muslims and Jews) who, by default, weren't Catholic -- and second, what those students mean by "Catholic" isn't even something that was around in the Middle Ages -- because of the printing press.

I'm going to be dealing only with the Western Church here, because I don't think those students mean Catholic in the sense of Eastern Rite vs. Western Rite, but rather Catholic vs. Protestant. What does it mean, ultimately, to be a protestant?

At root is the idea that the Church, or at least the hierarchy of Rome, has a special responsibility in helping people interpret the Bible. Protestantism suggests that the ideal instead is that individuals should interpret the Bible for themselves.

Here's how the myth runs: The evil men of the monolithic Catholic hierarchy, in order to maintain their power, repressed the people by holding a monopoly over the Bible. They could simply say, "God doesn't like what you are doing," and you had no chance to disagree because you had no real direct access to Scripture. Today, however, as red-blooded Americans, we aren't about to listen to some foreigners tell us how to read the Bible (or even to read it at all).

This myth, though, forgets what life was like before the printing press. Sure, it is a nice ideal for everyone to read the Bible -- but what if you can't read? Or what if you can read, but you can't read much, or you can't afford the whole Bible? What then?

In that case, you have to rely on prayer books or psalters (which, if you owned only one book in the Middle Ages, is probably what you owned), and rely on experts with access to more information than you have -- i.e., the Church. In other words, people basically did what we do today regarding issues that the average person simply doesn't have the education or finances to personally investigate. For example, I don't know that the Periodic Table of Elements is accurate, nor do I have the lab equipment to investigate it. Instead, I rely on experts to interpret the chemical universe for me.

When the printing press comes along, it isn't surprising that the first book printed was the Bible. Nor is it surprising that Martin Luther came along in the first generation to be born after the printing press. Suddenly, anyone who could read could have access to the whole Bible; indeed, they could theoretically own any of the commentaries of the Church Fathers. Protestantism as we understand it today simply wasn't possible without the printing press.**


It would seem that we've already covered "literacy" in education, but in this case I mean something beyond just functional literacy. Before the printing press, the general assumption was that most people couldn't read, so anything that was written down would be read aloud to illiterate people. People simply didn't read silently -- Saints Jerome and Ambrose were considered astounding geniuses because they could read silently. Even in monasteries, scribes would presumably subvocalize as they copied.

What does this mean for literature? It mitigates in favor of poetry and against prose, in favor of short, episodic texts and against long ones. Poetry is "better" because it sounds better, whereas prose reads easier to the eye than the ear. Ever notice there's no such thing as the medieval novel? Who's going to read an entire novel aloud? Even the earliest writings we consider proto-novels (such as Don Quixote or The Tale of Genji) aren't merely broken up into chapters -- they are broken up into episodes.

Still not convinced that the printing press changed the way we view literacy? Just try reading this blog post aloud. This post presumes that it will be read silently. I've bolded some topic headings -- how do you read boldness? In other places, I have parenthetical comments that aren't part of the flow of the sentence, or footnotes that cannot be read as part of the sentence. Ever know someone who liked to put "air quotes" up with their fingers when they are talking? That action doesn't make sense if you're talking to an illiterate person; it assumes that the person you are talking to can visual the text as words on a page requiring punctuation. Note also that I've not fully explained what "air quotes" are -- I've assumed that if someone doesn't know what they are, they can click on the link to see them demonstrated.

The upshot of this post is simply to remind folks that medieval people understood reading differently than we do. They came at it with a whole different set of assumptions, and those assumptions colored the way they viewed their world, just as our assumptions color the way we view our own. If you keep that in mind, you should start to perceive rich nuances in medieval writings that you might have missed before.

*I'm leaving out here, of course, vocational training of the sort guilds provided. That is a form of education, but it's not the type of education we're talking about here. You don't need to be literate to be a blacksmith or carpenter.
** Yes, I know I'm glossing over Lollardy, but I can't see any way that Lollards could have become as numerous as Protestants without the printing press.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Someone came to the Wordhoard today by Googling this phrase: "Was there such thing as a dragon in medieval times?"

As a public service, let me answer that question.


Hooray! We're Going to the Carnival!

In the Middle is hosting Carnivalesque XXXVII! Let's read all the ancient and medieval links, and then we can ride the Tilt-a-Whirl!

A special Wordhoard thanks to the Tiny Shriner for MCing the Carnivalesque.

Belated: Patrick the Briton

[I wrote this post yesterday, for St. Patrick's Day -- but then our first day back from Spring Break was one emergency after another, until I found myself sleeping soundly in bed without first finishing it off. Here it is, under the philosophy of "better late than never].

With the possible exception of King Arthur, St. Patrick is probably the world's most famous Briton.

"What?!" exclaim the non-medievalists. "Surely you typed that wrong. He was Irish. There are even Shamrock Shakes and everything."

Nope, sorry. Patrick was a Briton, which explains why he was raised a Christian (though in his Confessio he says he "knew not the true God," because the Britons were Christianized more-or-less along with the rest of the Roman Empire. His family must have been Christian for a while, because his grandfather was a priest and his father was a deacon.

So, how did Patrick get associated with Ireland?

Pirates of the Caribbe ... er, I mean, of the Irish Sea! Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates and enslaved as a youth. After a few years, he left (it isn't clear whether he was escaped or freed) after a dream told him he would return to his own country. He had some sort of religious training, then returned to Ireland -- and the rest (the shamrock, driving out the snakes, etc) is as much legend as history.

Patrick has what everyone wants in a saint's life -- pirates!

Want to know more about the medieval, non-Shamrock Shake version of St. Patrick? Here are some sources for you:

Monday, March 17, 2008

Cornwell's The Pale Horseman

Steven Till has written several times about Bernard Cornwell's historical fiction, so I was aware of Cornwell's Saxon Chronicles series. Over break, I decided I wanted to read something vaguely medievalist just for fun, so I picked up A Pale Horseman -- which is book 2 in the series, but the local bookstore didn't happen to have the others in stock at the moment.

I thought it was a rolicking good story. In his review, Till finds the protagonist a bit too roguish for his taste, but that's what I rather liked about it. Uhtred isn't a Han Solo-style lovable rogue -- he's kind of an arrogant jerk. I didn't feel under any compulsion to like him, so I didn't much care.

For the scholars out there, the book has all sorts of insider references to King Alfred, and particularly his interest in Boethius. Indeed, there was enough about Boethius that I'll probably have a little post soon explaining who Boethius was for the non-scholars out there.

Anyway, I wouldn't assign it to a class, but A Pale Horseman convinced me to read the rest of the Saxon Series.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Lost Page from the D&D Monster Manual

A brother-in-law sent me a link to "Presidential Candidates as Dungeons and Dragons Characters." The jokes are far more geekish than wonkish, so I thought Wordhoarders might like it.

By the way, in a recent phone call he also revealed that the Wordhoard is the first link they look at every day when they are getting their non-Kenyan news (he and my sister are missionaries in Kenya -- you can find out more here). This gives me the opportunity to offer the first draft of the news. Therefore, here are some of the news items you might not have heard in Kenya:

  • In Denmark, Prime Minister Hrothgar is embroiled in controversy over his decision to hire a foreign contractor rather than local labor to take care of a pest control problem in the palace. Opposition leader Unferth claims that the contractor has inflated his level of experience. The debate has grown nasty with counter-claims that M.P. Unferth has a drinking problem.
  • French students protested en masse because the Hundred Years War had still not ended by 1437. Said one student, "Eet ees called ze "Hundred Years War," not ze "Hundred and Sixteen Years War." President Sarkozy has vowed to expel the Plantagenets from France to end the conflict.
  • In religious news, a Briton slave by the name of Patrick has been riling up the Irish countryside with his evangelism. Herpetologists have called Patrick's ministry "an environmental catastrophe." Also in religious news, the ghost of Dante returned to give a report on the afterlife. According to the ghost of Dante, his predictions about the afterlife had proven to be 87.4% accurate, but that the 3rd circle of Hell had grown much more crowded after the invention of Doritos. Interestingly, no one has ever eaten enough ugali to qualify as one of the gluttonous damned.
  • In the markets today, watermill futures are up, and most analysts predict that the Cistercians will have a big quarteras a result. Also, Viking vintners in Greenland have complained that more than a decade of colder-than-average weather has led to weak grape harvests. Viking climatologists worry that we might be in for a few centuries of global cooling. One alarmed Icelandic scientist claimed that if the weather continues in this fashion, in the future Greenland might be little more than an icy wasteland hospitable only to fishermen. Local Eskimo fishermen, on the other hand, cheered the news as a chance to "get rid of all those pesky Norse tourists."
  • In sports: Except for tournaments, nothing interesting happened in Europe, nor will anything interesting happen until trade opens up with the New World, bringing with it rubber for balls and trashy soccer hooligans. New World sports -- The Tecpan Panthers defeated the Uxmal Warriors 10-6, the Uaxactun Gators defeated the Palenque Monarchs 7-5, and, in a stunning upset, the Chichen Itza trounced the Quiche Conquerors 16-1.
  • On the lighter side of news, the Aachen zoo has a new addition! Abul Abbas, a 9000 pound elephant given to Charlemagne by Caliph Harun al-Rashid, has been wowing visitors to the Holy Roman Empire Elephantarium and Gift Shop. Early next year, zookeepers plan to attempt a mating between Abul Abbas and a bear, hoping to breed a fearsome "Beariphant," the natural enemy to the griffin.

There -- all your news for the day. Absolutely true.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Dating Advice from Me

This is interesting: Highly Eccentric has gotten a request from to participate in an upcoming column (part of a series), Dating Advice from Medievalists. Here's an example of the current installment, "Dating Advice from Comedy-Club Employees."

Me? I'm supposed to be fixing a tiny snafu in the submission of the Curing Elfshot book, coming up with an Alfred the Great/Boethius paper that's been requested of me, and reading the script of the upcoming Beowulf: Prince of the Geats movie so that I can write a piece on race & Beowulf movies for a different volume.

Naturally, I feel that this is not enough to do, so I'll be emailing the writer to volunteer my services as a dating consultant. I feel I am qualified to offer a historical perspective because a.) I'm a medievalist, and b.) I haven't had a date in this millennium.*

*Unless you count my wife, or that hooker I paid $5k for at the Emperors' Club.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Morning Medieval Miscellany

me grade lots midterms. me brain hurt. me cant use brain rite. me find lots of cheeters. also, many times me reed: "There are many examples of language and expression in the texts we have read this semester. This paper will examine those texts [....] In conclusion, this paper has examined many examples of language and expression in the texts we have read this semester."

see wut me has to endure? o the humanity!

OK, that be todays missellanee. me still gots 5 midterms to grade, but despair keep me from grading them. me hope soon me will be back to reguler blogging. me gots medieval stuf to rite about -- brain just hurt too much.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Help ... *gasp* ... me ... *gasp*

Today I begin grading the midterms from three of my classes. I don't even have the mental energy to put together the Morning Medieval Miscellany. Within an hour, my mental capacity will be noticably diminished. By the time lunch rolls around, I'll have difficulty putting together sentences. If I don't take a break, I'll be drooling by sunset. If I were to do something stupid, like try to grade them all straight through, the brain damage would likely be permanent.

If my wife really loved me, she'd have smothered me in my sleep last night to spare me the agony of about 110 sophomore-level essays.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Morning Medieval Miscellany

I haven't had a miscellany for a while because I've been swamped with students panicking over midterms. I'll post this one today regardless of whether I get everything in.

OK, there's more ... but I've got to drop off the kiddies at school, and suspect I'll be deluged with students again this morning, so I'll call it quits here for today.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

RIP: Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax, creater of Dungeons & Dragons, died Tuesday morning. Cinerati has some nice commentary. The Tuscaloosa News explains how far-reaching his influence was in gaming, and others tell how Gygax made it cool to be a geek. Certainly Gygax guided many scholars of my generation to medieval studies.

Here's to Gary Gygax, the original Dungeon Master, who has missed his final saving throw.

þa ymbe hlæw riodan hildediore,
æþelinga bearn, ealra twelfe,
woldon care cwiðan ond kyning mænan,
wordgyd wrecan ond ymb wer sprecan;
eahtodan eorlscipe ond his ellenweorc
duguðum demdon, -- swa hit gedefe bið,
þæt mon his winedryhten wordum herge,
ferhðum freoge, þonne he forð scile
of lichaman læded weorðan.
Swa begnornodon Geata leode
hlafordes hryre, heorðgeneatas;
cwædon þæt he wære wyruldcyninga
manna mildust ond monðwærust,
leodum liðost ond lofgeornost. (Beowulf 3169-3182)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Brian Fagan's The Great Warming

Here's an audio interview of Brian Fagan, author of The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. The recording is very soft; I had to turn up the volume on my speakers all the way to make it out. The headline on the front page of the National Review website ran, "Brian Fagan says global warming was a positive force in the development of the West during the Middle Ages." Uh, no ... he says it was both good and bad, depending. A far more accurate description is that found on the "Between the Covers" page, which states that Fagan argues that "the warming period of 800-1200 A.D. had its good and bad sides."

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Most Sincere Form of Flattery besides Imitation

Apparently, someone stole a copy of my most recent book, Global Perspectives on Medieval English Literature, Language and Culture. We mailed a copy off to the Wordhoard's 100,000th visitor, but all the winner got was an empty envelope.

At first we assumed that somehow we'd forgotten to put it in the envelope, but no. Two different people were involved in preparing it for shipping and both confirmed that it was in there -- indeed, it had to be in there to weigh what it weighed. No, the book was shipped, but at one point or another it was stolen. I'll be shipping out another copy tomorrow.

Some people might suggest that the thief assumed there was something valuable in the package and opened it, not realizing it was my book. I prefer to believe that the thief was absolutely desperate to get a copy of my book, but would not be satisfied with a brand new copy. No, he wanted a signed copy by the world's most charming and handsome living medievalist (whom modesty forbids me from naming). No doubt he has been surveilling the outgoing mail from Troy University for weeks, patiently biding his time until an opportunity would arrive for him to snatch up that oh-so-coveted signed copy of Global Perspectives.

Well played, sir. Well played.