Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Learning Old English with the Wordhoard: Schedule

For those who plan to follow along (or those students who are planning ahead), I've more-or-less finalized the schedule for the class. There are still a few things I'm considering, and others that I may change as we go: Whether to do the Old English Aerobics Workbook exercises in class or as homework, what translations to do near the end of the semester, etc. Some things I'll change with the pace of the class. For now, though, here's the plan:

Week 1 (Aug. 14)
Th Introduction to course.

Week 2 (Aug. 19-21)
T History of the English Language. Read Baker chapter 1.
Th Pronunciation. Read Baker chapter 2.

Week 3 (Aug. 26-28)
T Modern English grammar. Read Baker chapters 3-4
Th Modern English grammar. Read Baker chapters 3-4. Do Old English Aerobics Workbook “What Case Should It Be?” before class.

Week 4 (Sept. 2-4)
T Pronouns. Read Baker chapter 5. Begin memorizing tables 5.1-5.7
Th Pronouns. Read Baker chapter 5.

Week 5 (Sept. 9-11)
T Nouns. Read Baker chapter 6. Memorize tables 6.2, 6.3, and 6.5. Study other tables in the chapter as well.
Th Nouns. Read Baker chapter 6. Memorize tables 6.2, 6.3, and 6.5. Study other tables in the chapter as well. Work on translation of Minitext A.

Week 6 (Sept. 16-18)
T Nouns. Read Baker chapter 6. Memorize tables 6.2, 6.3, and 6.5. Study other tables in the chapter as well.
Th Nouns. Read Baker chapter 6. Memorize tables 6.2, 6.3, and 6.5. Study other tables in the chapter as well. Work on translation of Minitext B.

Week 7 (Sept. 23-25)
T Verbs. Read Baker chapter 7. Memorize tables 7.1, 7.4, 7.12. Study other tables in the chapter as well.
Th Verbs. Read Baker chapter 7. Memorize tables 7.1, 7.4, 7.12. Study other tables in the chapter as well. Work on translation of Minitext C.

Week 8 (Sept. 30 – Oct. 2)
T Verbs. Read Baker chapter 7. Memorize tables 7.1, 7.4, 7.12. Study other tables in the chapter as well.
Th Verbs. Read Baker chapter 7. Memorize tables 7.1, 7.4, 7.12. Study other tables in the chapter as well.

Week 9 (Oct. 7-9)
T Fall Break
Th Fall Break

Week 10 (Oct. 14-16)
T Adjectives. Read Baker chapter 8. Memorize tables 8.2, 8.3, 8.4
Th Adjectives. Read Baker chapter 8. Memorize tables 8.2, 8.3, 8.4. Work on translation of Minitext D.

Week 11 (Oct. 21-23)
T Oral recitations.
Th Cotton Library Fire Day. Class party! Work on translation of Minitext I.

Week 12 (Oct. 28-30)
T Numerals, Adverbs, Conjunctions, and Prepositions. Read Baker chapters 9 & 10. Memorize vocabulary 10.1, 10.5
Th Numerals, Adverbs, Conjunctions, and Prepositions. Read Baker chapters 9 & 10. Memorize vocabulary 10.1, 10.5 Work on translation of Minitext E.

Week 13 (Nov. 4-6)
T Concord and Word Order. Read Baker chapters 11 & 12.
Th Concord and Word Order. Read Baker chapters 11 & 12. Work on translation of Minitext F.

Week 14 (Nov. 11-13)
T Veteran’s Day – No class
Th Translating poetry: Meter, Style, and Grammar. Read Baker chapters 13-15. Selections for final translation project due. Work on translation of Minitexts J & K.

Week 15 (Nov. 18-20)
T Translations: To Be Announced.
Th Translations: To Be Announced.

Week 16 (Nov. 25-27)
T Translations: To Be Announced.
Th Thanksgiving Break

Week 17 (December 2-4)
T Last day of classes. Closing lecture, review.
W Dead Day

Week 18 (Dec 9)
T Final translation project due at noon

I'm afraid week 4 is going to freak all the students out -- that's seven paradigms they have to memorize. I've whittled the whole thing down to only 18 paradigms, though, and those first seven will help them intuit the ones that follow. Still, it'll look scary, and I suspect I'll be doing a lot of hand-holding in the month of September.

I'm not sure how to do vocabulary building. I'd like to start with short vocab lists from very early on, and keep reinforcing the memorization as we go. It would probably help to compile vocab from the upcoming Minitext readings in addition to stealing Baker's lists of "frequently looked-up" nouns and verbs, as well as his adverbs on 10.1 and 10.5. Has anyone out there previously developed their own vocabulary building exercises to work specifically with Baker's book?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Morning Medieval Miscellany

I hate doing one Miscellany after another, but I'm putting the finishing touches on about a half-dozen projects, so I don't really have the brain time to put together a substantive post. If I had any sense at all, I'd simply focus on one or two of these projects and finish them, but I've never been accused of having sense.
  • Jonathan Jarrett gnaws on one of his favorite old bones, feudal transformations. Make sure to look at the graphic he has lower in the post.
  • Mmm ... Marginalia is about boozing monkeys. This image shows that the things men find funny have not changed in at least a thousand years. Carl also has a picture of himself on the blog now -- sorry, ladies, he's already married.
  • Here's another report from the New Chaucer Society meeting, this time from someone who isn't a professional scholar. h/t JJ Cohen.
  • Jennifer Lynn Jordan links us to BBC7's audio Book of the City of Ladies Omnibus. It's about an hour-and-a-half long, and I haven't listened to the whole thing yet. It's a kind of dramatization, rather than an audiobook version of BotCoL.
  • Miglior Acque has a few thoughts on the books she's reading of late.
  • KA Laity has an image from the story of Judith portrayed in mantis art. Yes, mantis art. If the image on her page is too small, go here for the biggie. If you know the story of Judith and a little about mantis mating practices, you'll understand why this is appropriate.
  • The Swain returns to the discussion of the Worchester Fragment A from his proto-series, Medieval Literature I Didn't Know. Be sure to read all the posts and the comment threads.
  • It's Medieval Shark Week over at Quid Plura. The most amazing thing about the post is that I had no clue there was so much out there on medieval sharks.
  • News for Medievalists has several new items, including one on the Tale of Genji.
  • New Kid on the Hallway continues her book give-away. Grad students, get over there!
  • About a million other folks have linked to this: Stanley Fish whines about travel, and invokes medieval stuff like the Book of Kells in his complaining. I've got nothing to add, except to ask why people bother reading the New York Times anymore? Here is a page with links to beautiful images from the Book of Kells to act as a tonic to the NYT.
Also, there's a new site, Old Norse News! Adjust your blogrolls accordingly.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Morning Medieval Miscellany

Now that I've wrestled control of the computer away from my children, here's a Miscellany for your weekend:
  • The Bitter Scroll has reposted five entries in their Gallery of Germanic Languages series: Old Saxon, Old High German, Old English, Old Norse, and Old Franconian. More old Germanic languages than you can shake a stick at -- if you're the sort of person who goes about shaking sticks at dead languages.
  • Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog now hath an extreme makeover.
  • Carl Pyrdum has an image of Gimli that's, well ... er, just go look at it.
  • The Heroic Age has an update with several new CfPs and such. This seems to be the season for CfPs, so if you're a scholar, you probably should keep an eye on the Heroic Age.
  • Stephanie Trigg has another post on the New Chaucer Society meeting, as does JJ Cohen.
  • Mary Kate Hurley has a beautiful post on "Believing The Wanderer."
  • The Medieval Garden Enclosed discusses milk thistle.
  • Along similar lines, Julie K. Rose discusses sapphire in the Middle Ages.
  • Steve Muhlberger offers his class two resources for the Crusades, including Crusades-Encyclopedia online.
  • Lingwe discusses the relationship betwixt the words "world" and "man."
  • The Medieval History Term of the Week is rectory. Every time someone says that word, I heard Beavis & Butthead snickering in my mind.
Finally, Steven Till also points us to an interview in which Christoper Lee discusses the possibility of playing Saruman again in the two up-coming Hobbit movies. I've embedded the video below.

Batman: Not So Dark, Not Really a Knight

So, I went to see Batman: The Dark Knight tonight, and it was a bit of a disappointment. I was hoping, given the title, that there might be some sort of medievalist theme to it, but there really isn't unless you squint really, really hard -- it's basically a meditation on Nietzsche, though not quite as focused as Batman Begins was on Jung (in which Jung actually gets a mention, lest we miss it).

Besides that, for a film that wants so hard to be "dark," it has far too many cop outs. As I left the theater, I found myself thinking of the old GI Joe cartoon, which was ostensibly about war, but was always careful to make sure we never thought anyone was killed. If a plane was shot down, they always showed parachutes so we knew the pilots got away safely. If a Humvee blew up, the occupants were blown to safety, and we always had a shot of them getting up from the ground, dazed.

For a movie that tries to be Nietzschean, Batman: The Dark Knight sure had a lot of parachute moments. It needed a scene like in Die Hard 2, in which John McClane fails to save a planeload full of people. If Batman had been in that movie, he would have somehow managed to save everyone on the plane, though a large hunk of it would have fallen and killed a cop or two on the ground. The cop/gangster mortality rate in Gotham City is very high, but average citizens just have to worry about structural damage to their buildings.

Bah! I'm gonna make my own superhero movie, and it'll have Arthurian themes! Yeah, that's it! It'll be about a team of superheroes, with an Arthurian leader, some knight figures (we'll need a Gawain, a Lancelot, maybe a Galahad, Percival, and Kay), some maiden figures (Guinevere for sure, and since I'm making it, we'll have an Elaine too), and of course some good-guys-turned bad in the Mordred and Morgan Le Fay roles (I'm sick of the nice-but-misunderstood Morgans people write about today). And my movie will end with a big battle in which everyone is slaughtered at the end, sacrificing Camelot's present for the future.

Now, if someone would just give me about $50 million, I could get started right away...

Friday, July 25, 2008

Learning Old English with the Wordhoard

I just learned that the room for my Old English class (ENG4400TRAA) this fall will only seat 6 more students, so if you're one of those still sitting on the fence about whether or not to register, you'd better do so NOW! Unless they shuffle the rooms around (which, admittedly, is very possible), you might not get in unless you act soon

In an earlier post, I asked for advice on how it would be possible to offer blogging that would help people follow along my Old English class, so those who can't study in a formal setting might at least get a little something. No one posting on the thread or e-mailing me privately seemed to know how to do it, but so many people wrote to say, "Yes, please, I want to follow along!" that I've decided to move forward. I haven't the faintest idea how to actually make this work, so I'm just going to muddle along, getting everything wrong, and correcting course midstream. While I'm learning how to reach out (or teach out?) to the medieval enthusiasts out there who want to learn OE* in their spare time, hopefully some folks out there will learn a little bit more about OE.

Classes won't begin until the middle of August, but if you're thinking of following along, you'll need to order your books. We'll be using three books for the class, all of which you can easily order from Amazon, ABEbooks (which I recommend) or the publishers:
Baker, Peter S. Introduction to Old English. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.
Hall, J.R. Clark. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Toronto: Toronto UP, 1960
Pope, John C. Eight Old English Poems. New York: WW Norton, 2000.

Baker's Intro to OE is the main book you're going to need, and the first one we'll be reading from. I'm switching to it for the first time this year, so I might be a little clumsy in using it, but it ought to be perfect. Last time I taught the class (2003), I taught the book out of order, in the way I wanted, and many of the students felt it was too disorganized. Then I got my complimentary copy of Baker, and saw he organized his book exactly as I organized my class -- for example, starting with MnE grammar, then doing OE pronouns as the first part of speech**-- so I know I'll like it better. Also, Baker's book has copious online resources, including an electronic version of his book, and a workbook! Woohoo! I'm going to be using his workbook stuff in the class, but I've got to look it over more carefully before deciding how.

JR Clark Hall's A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary is exactly what it sounds like, a dictionary. One of my well-known colleagues has called it "sucktastic," and while it has its problems, it isn't like we can all tote around the Bosworth-Toller humungous volume around, and while B-T is available online, its 1300+ pages of teeny-tiny print is difficult to read on even my nice monitor at home, so Clark Hall it is! I won't be assigning readings from Clark Hall, but you'll need it anyway for obvious reasons.

Pope's Eight Old English Poems is basically 8 poems with a nice glossary and textual notes. I generally don't assign readings from Pope, but students mine it for material for their assignments, such as recitation or translation of the final project. You'll definitely want a copy of it, and it has been in print so long that you'll likely pay more for shipping than a used copy. You'll also find the earlier incarnation of the book around, Seven Old English Poems, and that's just as good. Seven doesn't have "The Wife's Lament," but Baker has it in his own book, so you'll still have everything if you find a cheap copy of the older version. I think all eight poems are available online, but you aren't really buying Pope for the poems -- you're buying him for his textual notes and glossary.

When I get the schedule finalized, I'll post that as well.

*If you're going to be following along at all, you'd better learn this common abbreviation. OE=Old English, ME=Middle English, and MnE=Modern English. Those aren't my own coinages; they're commonly used.
**Right about now, you're thinking "Pronouns first? Not nouns or verbs?" The article in OE (a/an/the in MnE) works sort-of like their pronouns, and is really, really helpful in working with nouns. When students first start out, they feel like they're wasting their time on pronouns, but when they get to the nouns, they smack their collective foreheads and go, "Oh, that's why we did pronouns first!"

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Morning Medieval Miscellany

Again, it's not morning, but as long as I'm on the road (I'll be home soon) I take my internet access where I can get it. Today's Miscellany is apparently the Scholarly Conference Edition, since so many are writing about conferences present and future. Start with Carnivalesque XLI over at Xoom. No point in going elsewhere until you've been there.
Finally, Larry Swain discusses the alleged lack of history in the K'zoo 2009 CfP. My own session in '09 got cancelled*, so I'm going to have to look at the sessions to see if there's anything I want to present anywhere. Honestly, at the moment, I'm tempted to give it a pass -- but my work ethic will probably get the better of me eventually.

*The same thing happened in '08 -- perhaps I'm a session jinx!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Historicism vs. Philology

Every so often, a non-scholar (or beginning scholar) who reads the Wordhoard will ask me, "What's historicism? I can't figure out what it means when people use the term, and the dictionary doesn't help." Whenever I try to explain it, I always feel like they're just nodding politely, and have no idea what I'm talking about.

The Naked Philologist's icons recently got me thinking about this problem. One of her icons flashes the slogan, "Understand the words, understand the people who used the words."* That slogan holds the key, I think, to help the layman understand historicism.

Medieval literature is pulled between two poles: philology (which simply means "the study of words") and historicism. Now, right about now, a bunch of scholars are reaching for their keyboards to argue that philology and historicism, properly understood, aren't really at odds with one another -- and they aren't, but for the purpose of the layman's understanding, let's pretend they are for the moment. When you get down to the comment thread, you may be seeing people arguing why it isn't really the case. They're probably right; I'm just offering a baseline here.**

Philology suggests that to understand the people, you first have to understand their language. If you want to understand the Anglo-Saxons, for example, you need to be able to read what they wrote. Beyond just being able to read what they wrote, you have to pay attention to what words they had and how they used them, as well as what words they didn't have. For example, the Anglo-Saxons had a word, frod, which means something like "old and wise." Note that I cannot translate that into modern English with a single word -- it takes a phrase. This suggests that the Anglo-Saxons closely associated the concepts of age and wisdom. On the other hand, there is no Old English word for "knight," -- or, more accurately, the word cniht, from which our modern word "knight" comes from meant something more like "young boy." Why? Because the heavy mounted cavalry units we think of weren't around in Anglo-Saxon England.

Historicism suggests the opposite: That to understand the language, you first have to understand the people. If we understand how they thought about things, we'll have a better sense of what their language meant to them. For example, if you understand Anglo-Saxon gift culture -- that the person giving the gift is asserting authority, and the person receiving the gift is tacitly acknowledging that authority, then we see the scene in Beowulf where Hrothgar is giving gifts to Beowulf not as payment for services rendered, nor as gratitude, nor as a bribe to leave without overthrowing his reign, but as an assertion of authority, and Beowulf's acceptance of those gifts as a way of saying, "I accept that you are king here, and won't oppose you or your sons."

These two sides tug the rope of medieval literature constantly. A century ago, the philologists dominated; now it's the historicists who dominate. Of course, neither side can do without the other, and most scholarship needs the knowledge and skills garnered from both. Still, each thinker (and perhaps each article) favors one or the other as an approach, and each side has a tendency to suspect that the other kind isn't really a rigorous scholar -- the other side is fluffy, pseudo-scholarship, not to be confused with the serious rigor of one's own work.

Most of the time, the debate is simply a simmering quiet contempt for the other. Every so often, it grows hot. But, for the most part, laymen can understand the argument like this: Is it better to use first the language to understand the people, or to use first the people to understand the language?

*I've been assured by several people that she's quoting some famous linguist, but I've gotten conflicting reports as to who that linguist would be, and can't find the quote myself. If anyone has a source, that would be great.
**One of my lectures I give near the beginning of every medieval lit course has a line about midway through it that goes something like this: "That's what we teach people, anyway. Now let me spend the rest of the hour explaining why everything I just said isn't true, even though it's absolutely true." It must be difficult to take notes in my classes.

OK, That Does It. I'm Taking a Sledgehammer to the Internet.

When I finally got computer access today to do a Miscellany, I despaired to see that I had about 4-5 dozen links to do.

Medieval lit should never make me despair. It should console me, a la Philosophy. So, I'm taking a sledgehammer to my reader, and marking everything as read, whether it be read or not.

Missed something? Well, hopefully Xoom will include it in the next Carnivalesque, which should be up in the next day or two.

As for the Wordhoard, regular blogging should return by this weekend. In the meantime, I've been thinking about blogging my Old English class this fall, and wondering if there's any way to do it that would allow all the folks out there who want to learn OE but can't go back to college to follow along.

Any advice?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Morning Medieval Miscellany

OK, so it's not morning, but I'm on the road, and have limited computer access. This Miscellany will include whatever I can get to before I'm forced to hit the road again.
And now, with 44 items still in my reader, I've got to go. I'm just hoping I catch up by Monday!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Trivial Posting

I haven't posted much the last few days because I've been on the road and running errands a lot recently. Tomorrow I'll be doing so again, so probably no real substantive posting for a while. A few bits and pieces while my Miscellany list grows beyond control:
  • One of the most interesting bits about the SCA weekend was that I met an Odinist, which was interesting because I have been doing a lot of research lately on the connections between certain kinds of Odinists and neo-Nazis. Odinists seem to run the political gamut from extreme environmental left to, well, Nazis. Alas, this fellow was isolated by geography from his "Kindred" (somehow, whenever he said it, I heard the capital K), and seemed kind of apolitical, so I wasn't able to get any fresh insight.
  • On the other hand, at the same gathering I met a man who was a mazer* and a vintner, but in order to avoid bootlegging laws, he was unable to sell his brew ... he had to give it away for free. We helped him out with his little problem, and it was some fine mead and wine!
  • I got together with Carl Pyrdum for lunch. A really low-key, cool guy who knows how to have fun. As I told a friend, "He likes the stuff that I like, and hates the stuff that I hate, so that's all I need to know to make a moral judgment about him." Unfortunately, I forgot to take the camera with me, so I have no pictures of him to share.
  • Also, one partial victory: Someone recently told me that, inspired by my interview on Chivalry Today, he started reading Connecticut Yankee. A complete victory would have been if he had started reading Arthurian lit, but I'll take what I can get.
  • I was recently asked to write a piece for a not-yet-existing periodical. They asked me for one thing, but I'm thinking maybe about seeing if they'll take a piece on Boethius instead. Nothing sells subscriptions like Boethius!
OK, it's 1AM here, I've got a 12-14 hour drive tomorrow, and I'm still sitting at my computer. More evidence that having a PhD doesn't make you smart.

*A mazer is someone who makes mead. No, I didn't know that either, but I looked it up after he called himself that. You'd think a mazer is someone who kills minotaurs.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Middle Ages May Now Resume

OK, I'm back from my SCA weekend. After I develop my pictures, I'll likely have a more substantive post. Suffice it to say that last night ended with wine, mead, and Boccaccio.

Did anything important happen while I was gone? For example did historical linguists finally give up, throw up their hands in disgust, and say, "OK, OK, we're tired of correcting you. From now on, Shakespeare will be Old English too, OK?"

Friday, July 11, 2008

Morning Medieval Miscellany

I hate doing one Miscellany after the other, without original material, but I wasn't able to write what I was going to today, and if I wait until after the July Feast, it will have grown out of control. Until then:
OK, that's it for tonight. I'll try to post pictures of the SCA July Feast, but my digital camera is broken, so I'll have to use a disposable, get them developed electronically, blah blah blah, so it might be a while.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Morning Medieval Miscellany

This article I'm working on is taking nearly five times the number of days I budgeted for it. Dangit. Until I get it done, here are a few things for your consideration:
In case anyone cares, my chair broke in the middle of typing out this post, sending me flying backwards in a comic and undignified way. I will now begin taking up a collection for a new chair, and for my lost dignity as well.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Calumniating, Misrepresenting, and Traducing

A little off-topic.

In revising the article I'm writing for the Old English Newsletter abou Beowulf: Prince of the Geats, I realized that I had talked about Nazis quite a bit, but had given short shrift to the Odinists. I've spent my morning wading through 84 pages of e-mails from Odinists protesting the casting of a black Beowulf. As might be expected, they ranged from the polite and reasoned to vicious and threatening.

One odd thing I noticed, however, was that the writers frequently accused B:PotG of "calumniating, misrepresenting, and traducing" their culture or religion -- that exact phrase, over and over. In many of those letters, the writers threaten to lodge "hate crime" charges against the producers, so I began to wonder if maybe some country or another uses that phrase in their "hate crimes" legislation. After checking a bit more, I found writers from England, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States all using that same formula, so if it is a reference to specific legislation, I can't pin down the country.

Does anyone out there know the significance of the exact phrase "calumniating, misrepresenting and traducing?"

Dragon*Con 2008

I'm going to be at Dragon*Con, this year. At the moment, I'm scheduled for the "Tolkien & Lewis Roundtable Breakfast" at 10AM Saturday morning. My question for the breakfast roundtable organizers, though, is "What about second breakfast?"

The deadline for early registration is coming up (the 15th, I think), so please come and join me. Then, let's drink copious amounts of mead and flirt with the legion of slavegirl Leias ... or perhaps the legion of Boba Fetts, whichever you prefer. Or, better yet, let's form our own fellowship of medieval fantasy types, then enact a cagematch where Christine de Pisan beats down Jean de Meun, with Lady Fortune officiating.

Is it obvious from this brain-passimed post that I was up until 3AM reading Bernard Cornwell's The Lords of the North, and now am punchy and tired?

Monday, July 07, 2008

Morning Medieval Miscellany

There's still time to get in on the July Feast. I'll be driving up to that, so if you're in this area and want to go, you can hitch a ride with me. Until then:
  • Muhlberger's Early History has a very detailed report by Henrik Olsgaard from a Battle of Hastings reenactment, discussing what the reenactment says about the battle itself, with a particular focus on cavalry.
  • The Naked Philologist has a post on what attacts teenage girls to become medieval nerds.
  • In part of his series on Lloyd Alexander, Jeff Sypeck discusses The Arkadians.
  • Scribal Terror has a post on medieval skepticism regarding witchcraft ...
  • ... and another one responding to my query about cats & Plague, that also points us here. I'm now convinced that the "medieval Church killed cats because they thought they were evil and therefore caused the Plague" storyline is wrong, but I'm not sure what the truth is: Did they kill cats thinking (accurately) that they were Plague carriers, was there no cat-killing going on at all, or was there cat-killing that was misguided but ultimately fortunate? If cats can spread the Plague, it seems likely to me that it spread throughout Europe on the backs of rats, but spread into the human population through contact with domestic cats. One is more likely to cuddle one's (Plague-infected) cat than a rat, and cats (good ones, anyway) will come into more direct contact with rats than humans will. Perhaps the evidence is simply not available to come to any conclusion beyond seeing that the "evil cats" storyline has little evidence behind it.
  • Steven Till discusses the making of mail armor. "Labor intensive" doesn't seem to cover it. Imagine knitting with a die, hammer, and shears.
  • Early Medieval Art points us to an exhibition on medieval Byzantium this October in London.
That's it for now -- I've got some bureaucratic stuff to do at school today, so my mind won't likely be on the medieval. Maybe later I'll post a question about baptism in England.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Boethius on History as a Wheel

I'm not sure what to make of this video; I ran across it by chance. It's about Boethius, though, so I present it here. Is this a clip from a British TV series, perhaps?

Morning Medieval Miscellany

Here are a few of the medieval offers of the blog-o-inter-web-net-sphere-thingy on this day:
OK, enough cheering for medievalists. I need my breakfast yogurt.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Ladies Night at the Wordhoard! Ladies drink for half price!

In the discussion thread of this post, and later over at her own blog, Highly Eccentric complains that my
picture of the medieval nerd is male-focused. I know, by personal experience and the Internet, that there are a lot of twitty female medieval fantasy nerds out there, and even sub-genres of fantasy lit aimed specifically at them. Also, witness the good deal of medieval/early modern historical romance books out there.

Alas, 'tis true ... brought on by my reluctance to use the term fangirl, since last time I used it I got complaints.*

Still, it started me wondering, who are the female medieval figures that draw fangirls to medievalism? Highly Eccentric mentions Marie de France, Joan d'Arc, and Jeanne de Montfort, Eleanor of Aquitane, and Heloise, but I wonder how many of these a girl is likely to encounter before she takes an interest? I would think the first medievalist figures a fangirl encounters would be Guinevere, Elaine, maybe Joan d'Arc or Boudicca (which may depend on the national heroines of her country), or women fantasy authors.

So, how about it? Ladies, what brought you into fankind? No scholarly answers, either -- no 14-year-old girl ever picked up the Shewings of Julian of Norwich and said, "hmmm, I'll bet this'll be as interesting as the Baby-sitters Club series" -- I'm curious as to what drew your interest back before you even knew you had an interest. Or was it the same kind of Tolkien, D&D stuff that draws fanboys?

*The debate over the terms fanboy, fangirl, fandom, fankind, non-scholar, buff, amateur, non-professional, and enthusiast in the thread shows that the use of these terms is still perilous. I like peril, so maybe I'll just use whatever term I want in the future. Or maybe I'll use the term fankind, since I kinda like the pun. Bring on the great and terrible peril!

Morning Medieval Miscellany

Here are a few medieval links to get you through the long weekend:
In a post about what kind of tattoo a historian should get, CyberMedievalist directed me to a medieval history blog I had never heard of, Sententiae et Clamores. Also, Per Omnia Saecula directs us to a brand-new blog called The Medieval Garden Enclosed, about the Cloisters museums and gardens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I'm updating my blogroll, etc., accordingly, and hope you'll do the same.

*Question: Why in all these articles are they called the "British?" Wouldn't it properly be the "English" in the case?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Cats and the Plague

I took a break from writing to have lunch, and over that time I watched an episode of Babylon 5 about an outbreak of an alien plague on the space station.

At one point, the doctor compares the plague, "Drafa," to the Black Death. He says that "three-fourths" of Europe was wiped out in the Black Death, and that since many people thought the Black Death was the work of the devil, they killed cats "by the millions" -- considering cats agents of the devil. Naturally, this only sped the spread of the disease, since the cats were the only creatures keeping rats (and their fleas) in check.

Aside from demonstrating that doctors of the future aren't very good at fractions (three-fourths is a far cry from the generally accepted death toll of one-third), this was the first time I had heard this story about people killing cats in response to the Black Death. It sounded to me like an urban legend, or something half-remembered by a writer who thinks 3/4 of Europe died in the Plague.

I did a little bit of cursory checking, and while I found many references to the slaughter of cats just before the Plague or during the Plague, I didn't find any in reliable sources. I did, however, find reliable modern sources stating that the Bubonic Plague (the most likely contender for the Black Death) is fatal in cats.

So, I ask those specialists out there, is there any truth to this little morality tale about killing cats? Are there accounts of cats being killed in record numbers? Are there accounts of cats dying in record numbers from the Plague itself? Or, perhaps, did some people ascertain that since cats too were dying of the Plague, they might have been carrying it? Does anyone know the truth of it?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Applied Medievalism and Me

I've had a great deal of difficulty in writing this post, because every time I think of a proper response to Jeff Sypeck's "Applied Medievalism," it ends up being all about me, me, me. I hate those kinds of posts on other blogs, so I try to avoid them on my own. In this case, Sypeck showed the wisdom to know that "[y]our answer is bound to be deeply personal," so I'm going to try to work my way through the personal to get to the universal. If you'd rather not read the confessional stuff, I've divided this into to parts, so just skip down to the professional part.


When Sypeck writes, "Some of you spoke vaguely but enthusiastically about the prospect of public outreach," he pretty much could have linked to a picture of me gesticulating wildly, which is probably why the very first comment in the thread addresses a question to me. The over-all question that Jeff asks is a very good one: Why public outreach? What exactly am I hoping we achieve?

A little history: When I started the Wordhoard, it was not a medieval-themed blog. Back in those days, a colleague convinced me that all professors have a social obligation, to a greater or lesser degree, to be public intellectuals.* In those early days, the idea was something like, "Hey, write a blog about the topics of the day, and try to say smart things about them." If you go back to the earliest days of the Wordhoard, very few of the posts even mention anything medieval.

As time went on, though, I began to limit what I wrote about, primarily because I often would look back and realize I didn't know what I was talking about. I was afraid I was becoming a kind of bush-league Noam Chomsky, only writing about that which I didn't understand fully. First, I started cutting back to literature & philosophy, and then eventually just to medieval stuff.

Each time I decided to narrow the focus of the Wordhoard, I consciously thought, "well, it'll reduce readership, but I'd rather have fewer readers and good content than a lot of readers and stupid content." It didn't work out that way, though. The more I focused on the medieval, the more people visited the site. I was able to have the best of both worlds -- lots of readers and content more in my specialty.

As the Wordhoard grew in popularity, I started to sense a very real hunger out there for smart-but-accessible writing about the medieval. I've got to confess, it surprised me. I mean, I like the medieval, but I'm weird, right? I wasn't surprised about the other scholars chatting each other up here -- it was the Tolkienistas, the SCAers, the fantasy film fans, the comic book guys, and the amateur historians I wasn't expecting, not to mention the hundred-or-so Google searches I get every day for people looking for medieval topics.

I started really using the Wordhoard as a platform to promote medievalism for several different reasons, but I'll start with the most personal: I can't help myself. I felt that hunger, too, and was so fortunate to find others who fed my appetite that I feel the need to share with everyone else. I could be doing a lot of other things that would be a lot less work and make a lot more money -- so why do I spend about $1000-$2000 of my own money every year going to conferences and conventions and public events to learn more and share what I've learned? Because I can't help myself.

I still remember the first time I was in a university library. Looking back, it was a tiny little thing, and pre-internet, so what I could access there was relatively little. Still, I was so excited to be there, I couldn't stop myself from gushing with joy; the campus tour guide looked at me like I was the dorkiest dork to ever dork his way on campus. My freshman year, I picked a shelf nearly at random and decided to read everything on it -- which is why I know so much about Greek drama without ever having had a single class on it. Bernard Knox was my invisible professor.

So, in truth, I fell into the promotion of medievalism almost by accident, and now I cannot stop myself from promoting it, any more than I can stop myself from talking about medieval literature when a student asks me a question. As one of my colleagues likes to say, "They pay me to grade; I teach for free."


What are my professional reasons for promoting medievalism**? One reason is simply that I can when others cannot. Many people have testified online (and many more in private) that writing for popular audiences (whether in blogs or other fora) would be professionally damaging to them at their schools. My own school seems very happy about my writing, and even has promoted it to the alumni. My research, service, and teaching are already well beyond what this school normally requires for tenure & promotion, so I'm not risking my career here. In his post, Jeff Sypeck recommends examining your own temperment to see if you're suited for working with the general public -- and I would add to that, examine your professional situation. If your career might be jeopardized, don't do it ... or, perhaps, don't do it until after you've got tenure.

Outside of the individual's professional situation, what have we to gain from all this? Sypeck offers a few things:
  • More funding
  • Greater respect from administrators
  • Increased enrollment in your undergraduate courses
  • Social, political, or religious change
I would suggest that all of the above are possible goals. In my own case, the professional reason that has developed is my desire to change the academic field. If I'm the only guy out here doing this, I'm just a crackpot. If, however, we create an academic culture in which at least some of the writing of every scholar is expected to be accessible to non-scholars, and in which at least some of the writing is expected to apply to non-academic topics (such as the latest medieval-themed film), then all of the above will follow.*** I also think that if we create such a culture, much poor scholarship hidden by overwrought prose will find itself pushed out of the professional discourse, which is good news for scholars.****

There are, however, very real potential drawbacks to "applied medievalism." Sypeck mentioned a few, but let me just add:
  • Schools, libraries, and civic organizations have very limited budgets, so (like me) you might find yourself sometimes choosing between paying your own way and not do it at all.
  • Unsympathetic colleagues may try to portray you as a dilettante.
  • You may use popular writing as a mechanism to avoid scholarly writing.
  • You may find yourself on panels with self-described "experts" who have no clue what they're talking about, but the audience does not have the background for discernment.
  • It's easy to confuse enthusiasm audiences have for your subject matter for enthusiasm about you.
  • You'll find yourself expected to be the "expert" on medieval topics that are not really your sub-specialty, no matter how vigorously you point this out.
Of course, there are others, but you get the point. It's not all beer & skittles. As Jeff obliquely points out with his question "Why?", if you want to promote popular medievalism because you think it's your route to fame & fortune, you'd better travel a different route.

Popular medievalism can be divided into two different categories: Popular presentation of scholarly material, and application of scholarly expertise to popular subjects. Sypeck's phrase, "applied medievalism," seems to be more about the latter than the former.

How, then, can we apply medievalism? As Sypeck points out, popular medievalism is all around us, from the obits of Gary Gygax to the big profits in Ren Faires. Applying medievalism means offering a context beyond popular culture -- whether it be about how faithful the latest Beowulf movie is to the poem, or how George RR Martin's fiction captures the complexity of the War of the Roses, or even how the life of Charlemagne tells us something about the relationship between Iraq and the West.

That's the difference between fanboy medievalism and applied medievalism. Fanboy medievalism just says, "Oh my gosh, that sword is so awesome!" Applied medievalism acknowledges the kick-butt awesomeness of the sword, but offers a broader context, like thinking about how the ceremonial swords Marines carry suggest the chivalric virtues they are still expected to continue as part of their warrior ethos. In that way, applied medievalism ideally inspires fanboys to explore further. After all, none of us emerged from the womb fully-developed thinkers about medievalism. We all started as fans, but through our explorations became more.

*I've written about that issue before, but it's not really relevant here except as a point of genesis.
**In the word "medievalism," I'm conflating literature, history, etc. here for the purpose of simplicity.
***All this ties into the reason I leave the comments on the front page of the Wordhoard -- in an effort to build community and give both scholars and the general public a voice.
****Except for incompetant ones, I guess.

In Which I Say Something Nice about Nazis, Sort-of

As I'm writing the article I'm working on, I've had to visit a lot of ... questionable ... websites. They've been from the political fringes, mostly on both the nationalist left and nationalist right.

One in particular has been the National Socialist Movement website, a group that calls itself "the largest Nazi Party operating in the United States of America today." Every time I have to visit the site, I imagine alarms and a red dome light flashing over the University Chancellor's desk. Ah ha! It's Nokes! Who'd have thunk he's a Nazi?

No, not a Nazi. Since I'm an internationalist and a capitalist, nationalism and socialism don't hold much appeal for me. Also, since Nazi fashion during WWII was undeniably cool, why do our contemporary Nazis dress like Sid Vicious waking up hung over at a country music concert? If they still dressed like Doogie Houser in Starship Troopers, I might be tempted to shop in the same stores as them. Maybe I could add a corollary to Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" -- When Orwell wrote, "But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," maybe I could add to that, "and also if thought corrupts fashion, fashion can also corrupt thought."

Still, I'm heartened (in an ironic way) to find that the youth group for the American Nazis is called the "Viking Youth Movement." There's hope for them yet! It sounds a lot like the Boy Scouts or 4H, except with more seafaring and pillaging. OK, sure, it's probably a lot of playing softball, followed by hating Jews and wanting to nationalize the oil industry (hmmm, maybe Maxine Waters is their den mother?), but in my fantasy it's more like this:
Interlocutor: Hey, cool uniform.
Viking Youth: Thanks. It's my Viking Youth Movement uniform.
Int: What's that badge for?
VY: Knot-tying.
Int: And the other one?
VY: Monastery burning.
Int: And the other?
VY: Oh, that was our service project, planting vinyards in Greenland.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Grrrr ... Writing!


Why is it that some articles write themselves, and some have to be dragged kicking and screaming onto the page? I thought, "oh, I'll just write that piece for the Old English Newsletter over the next couple of days, then I can get the book proposal back to the publisher by the end of the week." This stupid article, though, isn't cooperating!

Yes, I know, this is exactly the kind of blog post I hate. Like any of you care that this paper is resisting being written. I just figured if I wrote something, it might knock something loose in my brain. Let's see if it worked.


Morning Medieval Miscellany

Now that my guests are gone, I'm getting a lot of work done -- a lot of writing, and a lot of reading. Here are a few of the things I've enjoyed reading:
Yes, yes, I know I promised a response to Jeff Sypeck's "Applied Medievalism" post -- I'll get to it, I'll get to it!