Saturday, January 31, 2009

Byrhtno├░’s Lament

This is interesting: Someone wrote a pantoum Thanksgiving poem in Old English. I had to watch it in high quality to make out the words on the screen.


He also has something called "Bēowulf Prologue: Awesome Edition" which is basically him (or someone) reading the prologue in the dark with sound effects.

Monday, January 26, 2009

PEAA Awards Now Up for 2008!

The PEAA Awards are now up for 2008. Thanks to everyone who nominated me for various things. I supposed I can now refer to this as "the award-winning Unlocked Wordhoard."

I'm told the award comes with a check for $1.4 million US. Or was that the Nobel Prize? I always get them mixed up.

It's a weird honor to be told that your blog best serves the medieval community. I feel like I am served by the medieval community through the blog. Yeah, I know that sounds cliche, but it's really true, especially when I think of how many times (like the post previous to this one) that I bleg for input.

A special thanks to Larry Swain for putting the PEAA Awards together. His work shouldn't go unrecognized.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

What's Cool about the Saga of the Volsungs?

I've never taught The Saga of the Volsungs, nor did I study it as a student. I'll be teaching it beginning tomorrow, on the undergraduate level, for about two weeks.

As I've been putting my lectures together, there's one thing I've been missing: I don't have a sense of what's cool about the Saga of the Volsungs.

That isn't entirely true, of course. I know what's cool to me -- but then again, I'm a medieval literature professor. What I think is cool and what students think is cool are often two entirely different things.

So, a question for you. If you are someone who has taught the Volsungs, what did you find the students responded to? Was there something that surprised you about their reaction?

And if you're a normal, well-adjusted person (not the kind of person who'd spend his days teaching sagas), what did you find interesting about the Saga? Was there a moment when you were reading it that you thought, "Huh. I wish I knew more about that?" Or perhaps you studied it in a class -- what things did you learn in lectures that fascinated you?

I love teaching something new. I always learn ten times more than the students.


Image of Odin vandalizing the Branstock tree by sticking a sword in it. Note to self: Don't invite Odin over in December when my Christmas tree is up.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Medieval Garment Blog

If Blogrolling were working, I'd add this to my roll: A Stitch in Time (under the URL togs-from-bogs!) If you're interested in medieval garments and their reconstruction, go check it out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Another Reason Plague is Cool

Apparently, it kills terrorists.

Here's my new slogan: "Guns don't kill terrorists ... imperfect knowledge of medieval medical practices kills terrorists."

h/t to the skeptical Poliblog

Fairies Are Fabulous, but Not Necessarily in a Paul Lynde Sort-of Way

Fairies must be metaphorically in the air, because over the past week or so I've been asked by no fewer than three people whether or not I believe in fairies.

I doubt anyone has ever asked me that question before (unless perhaps as a child), and now suddenly three different people have asked me? What gives? Is there some kind of Fairy Faire coming to town or something? Has the History Channel been running a series on fairies?

By the way, I discovered the existence of Fae Magazine while trying to figure out why everyone was asking me this. I don't know if I'm delighted or disturbed. Perhaps disturbed at how delighted I am?

Beowulf: Prince of the Geats Release Party

If you live in the Cincinnati area, there will be a release party for Beowulf: Prince of the Geats at Bootsy's (631 Walnut St.) on January 28th, beginning at 6PM.

I assume that means I'll get my pre-ordered DVD pretty soon. I'll review it once I get it and have a chance to watch it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bow Down before Me, Mortals!

I received my letter today granting me tenure and promoting me to associate professor as of August 1st.

Starting tomorrow, I plan to come to work every day drunk, wear nothing but a speedo, and enforce classroom discipline with an aluminum baseball bat. Muhahahaha!

Renaissance Faires -- Stinky and Crowded?

Perhaps you've seen this Free Credit Report commercial set in a Renaissance Faire:



Aside from the meter of the song (which is one of the poorer ones in the series), I found this commercial confusing. The idea of most of the commercials is that the singer has to take on extra work or is unable to make big purchases because his credit is poor.

So ... what's he doing at a Ren Faire? Are they supposed to be working the Faire? It sure doesn't seem like it. If he's a customer at the Faire, why not just leave? Instead, we get two messages: Ren Faires stink (because they have goats and chickens running around), and they are crowded (they get bumped by swordsmen, and a pregnant woman pushes his guitar out of the way). Actually, I've never been to a Ren Faire that was either stinky or crowded.

It started me thinking, though, about the common perception that the Middle Ages stank. I'm not so sure that was the case.

Of course, there were lots of things that smelled bad. When I lived in Eastern Europe and had hot water only one day out of the week, I was the only person I knew who showered daily. I'm sure in colder climes, daily bathing was uncommon (though the whole "only bathed once a year" reference I've heard so many times is bunk). Also, people lived in closer proximity to livestock, and without modern sanitation, the midden probably didn't smell too good either.

But those people were used to it. When I lived in Korea, we all reeked of garlic, so much so that no one noticed it. I didn't eat Korean food for a week before returning to America, and still the first words my sister said to me were, "Phew, you smell like garlic!" Koreans kept their clothes, though, absolutely immaculate. In Lithuania, the locals didn't seem to notice the body funk on the other passengers on the bunk, but tended to keep public areas clean and uncluttered.

I suspect that if we could bring someone forward to today from the Middle Ages that person would think we stink of smells to which we are accustomed, but which they might consider foul. Think of the odor left by automobile exhaust, or the constant chemical smells around us -- cleaning supplies, paint, clothing detergent, etc. We consider those smells minor because we are surrounded by them every day, but to some not so used to them ...? Our industrialized life working in buildings with processed air, processed water, and a thin chemical glaze over nearly everything we encounter might be nauseating.

Me, I like having modern sanitation, clean water, and access to pine-scented cleaning supplies -- but if I had been born and raised in the Middle Ages, I might prefer medieval odors to today's.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Week in HEL

Today I do the second part of my week-long History of the English Language lecture that I traditional giving at the beginning of Brit Lit I.

For some reason, the last time Brit Lit I was taught, it was at an incovenient time, so a lot of more advanced English majors did not take it then and are now in what is essentially a sophomore-level class. Even more bizarre is the situation of several student who took Old English, and now have to hear the entire OE period boiled down to about an hour, and will soon read in translation the very same texts they translated for themselves last semester.

These student are now providing me with a running commentary on my week-long HEL lecture, alternately being exasperated when I digress onto side HEL topics that I find interesting (like the contempt St. Augustine had for the Anglo-Saxons), and frustrated when I don't digress into the topics they like.

So, a question for the community -- what's the coolest little HEL factoid out there?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Review: Virgin Territory

I've always thought that there's room out there for some filmmaker to have an entire career doing nothing but adaptations of individual stories from Boccaccio's Decameron. Virgin Territory may be a lot of things, but the beginning of such a career it ain't.

For those who don't know, Boccaccio's Decameron is one of the most entertaining of the great medieval literary works. It is set near Florence during the plague of 1348. Seven young women and three young men decide to leave the city to escape the plague, and go to a country home for ten days. There, with little else to do, they decide to entertain one another by each telling a story every day. 10 stories + 10 days = 100 stories in total, hence the name of The Decameron.

Of course, there weren't really ten young people telling these stories; that's just the frame for Boccaccio to present his hundred tales. Not surprisingly, some of the tales aren't very memorable*, but many are masterpieces, and taken as a whole, very few medieval texts are as much fun as The Decameron. If the fake-group-telling-tales frame sounds like the Canterbury Tales to you, that's because Chaucer stole the idea from Boccaccio, then further developed the characters in the frame story.

The Decameron is one of the most popular texts I teach in world and medieval lit classes. Many a student has purchased a used, unabridged copy** for her own reading pleasure after having read a handful of tales from our world lit anthology.

Virgin Territory, on the other hand, is a total mess. The various working titles of the film are unsurprising, since it seems like the filmmakers came to work every day with a different idea about the kind of movie they were making. Just the various English language titles:
  • Angels and Virgins
  • Chasing Temptation
  • Decameron: Angels & Virgins
  • Guilty Pleasures
  • Decameron Pie
  • Medieval Pie
The last two titles will give you an idea of the unfortunate direction they were working in for a while -- a kind of American Pie set in the Middle Ages. Now, I'm not against sex and comedy in a Decameron adaptation, since the the book has lots of hilarious fablieaux ... but they ought to be good, not stupid. Fortunately, the film is in no way faithful to Boccaccio, so the soiling of his name will be limited.

The frame story is gone. There is a cheesy voice-over narration by a fake priest, but unless you're making a film that's an homage to the 40s***, that's always a bad choice. The main plot is that a young woman, promised in marriage to a Russian nobleman, has her parents taken by the plague while he is en route to meet her for the marriage. A local proto-mafiosi, who was apparently put in the story because Hollywood-types hear "Italy" and think "Mafia," tries to force her to marry him instead. She and her friends flee to her country estate where the marriage to the Russian count is supposed to take place, and in the course of the journey, she falls in love with some other guy, a young gambler who the aforementioned proto-mafiosi wants dead.

Now it starts to get really stupid. For some reason, the young woman is able to get there faster than everyone else, and decides that she should hang out in a nearby convent. The rest of the cast apparently takes days (riding at full gallop the whole way for the proto-mafia crew) to take the same trip. The gardener at the convent has just died, and because he was deaf and mute, he had been used by the nuns as their sex toy. The young gambler then takes his place, also pretending to be a deaf-mute, and spends most of the rest of the film servicing the nuns (by the way, this is an adaptation of the first story on the third day). The young noblewoman who is hiding out there, though disgusted by his actions, falls madly in love with him, and will end up marrying him at the end of the film.

The rest of the movie makes no dang sense whatsoever. Some of the folks are captured by slavers, there is a comic-erotic cow-milking seduction scene, one young woman somehow ends up separated from the group and seduces the Russian count, and in the end the bad guy falls into a well and all the good guys all end up getting married.**** Even some good guys who had never met (like the feebleminded uncle and the milkmaid) somehow manage to have fallen in love at the end.

Apparently, this film was supposed to be a comedy. I suppose it is a comedy in dramatic structure, but in no other way. Do not expect to laugh.

I would encourage any descendants of Boccaccio to sue the filmmakers for defamation of character. If I ever meet Hayden Christensen or Mischa Barton face-to-face, I fully intend to bludgeon them to unconsciousness with a nice, thick hard-bound volume of The Decameron. Tim Roth gets a pass for his past work, but I will certainly give him a stern talking to.


*Hey, YOU try writing a hundred stories and having all of them turn out great!
** The first 89 copies showing on ABE Books are just a dollar. You'll pay more for shipping!
***Er, the 1940s, not the 1340s.
****This can hardly be called a spoiler, since everything is so thoroughly-telegraphed that there is no chance ever of being surprised by anything that occurs.

Morning Medieval Miscellany

Karma here, getting back to the computer after a semester break that proved to be a vacation from the Internet as well. There are only so many mocha latte caramel espresso whatever things you can drink while you try to find free wifi back in your hometown...


Hope 2009 is shaping up nicely for you all. If it's cold and dim where you are, you can spend the infant days of 2009 imagining warmer climes (courtesy The Lost Fort).

ETA: I meant to schedule this to post about 12 hours from now. I pushed the wrong button. Apparently I need another mocha latte caramel espresso thingie. Well, I'm sure it's morning for some reader somewhere.

Friday, January 09, 2009

So ... close ... just ... need ... one ... or ... two ... more...

My summer study abroad trip is just BARELY short of what it needs to go -- only one or two more needed, or else the trip gets cancelled.

If anyone out there (you don't have to be a Troy student) is interested in going, the full details are available on the Facebook group "Literature and Culture on Location: England, Ireland, and Wales."

The trip will be from July 6th to July 12th, and will run in the neighborhood of $3,134. The trip is a little expensive, because it is mostly intended for young people without a lot of experience travelling abroad, and who need a bit more support than veterans.

If you'd like to join us for your first time abroad, or even if you're an experienced traveller but would rather go abroad with a group than by yourself, let me know ASAP! I was going to cancel the trip last Monday, but we had one more person indicate she would probably put down the $95 initial deposit if we got the last person we needed.

The itinerary:

Day 1 Fly overnight to England
Day 2 London
Day 3 London
Day 4 Oxford • Stratford • North Wales
Day 5 North Wales • Dublin
Day 6 Dublin
Day 7 County Kerry
Day 8 County Kerry
Day 9 Depart for home

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Have You Heard the One about the Episcopus Vagans and the Peasant's Daughter?

While cleaning my office yesterday, I found an old copy of The Humor of the Fabliaux, and was struck by how many of the stories had wandering clerks (sometimes known as episcopi vagantes) bedding down the wives and daughters of peasants.

This got me to thinking -- could the stories of episcopi vagantes and peasants' daughters be the ancestors of the modern "travelling salesman & farmer's daughter" jokes? They are certainly of the same type, but the types might just seem similar because they are types. After all, the naive rural girl (or the faux ingenue) is a stock character in a lot of stories, as is the travelling male predator, but something about the way the fabliaux so often poke fun at the relative social distance between the clerk and the peasant girl (or her father) seems very similar to the social distance between the worldly salesman and the farm girl (and her farmer father).

I'm not sure how one would even go about proving the link -- I'm reminded of Mike Barnacle asking how one sources a joke -- but it's certainly intriguing, and a reminder that medieval people found a lot of the same things funny that we do.

Friday, January 02, 2009

King Siggeir = Dr. Evil

New textual evidence suggests that Dr. Evil of Austin Powers fame may not have been, as was reported in the movie Goldmember, born in 1939 and raised by Belgians. Textual evidence may demonstrate that Dr. Evil was alive in the early Middle Ages, probably by the 5th or 6th century, and lived under the name of "Siggeir," king of either the Geats or the Goths (depending upon the translation of "Gautland"). How he survived into the modern era is unclear -- possibly he developed an early form of cryogenic freezing. It is also possible that Dr. Evil does indeed have the background attributed to him in the apocryphal Austin Powers movies and traveled back in time, assuming the identity of King Siggeir of Gautland.

Consider this scene in the extant Austin Powers texts:
DR. EVIL: Scott, I want you to meet Daddy’s nemesis, Austin Powers.
SCOTT EVIL: Why are you feeding him? Why don’t you just kill him?
DR. EVIL: In due time.
SCOTT EVIL: But what if he escapes? Why don’t you just shoot him? What are you waiting for?
DR. EVIL: I have a better idea. I’m going to put him in an easily-escapable situation involving an overly-elaborate and exotic death.
SCOTT EVIL: Why don’t you just shoot him now? Here, I’ll get a gun. We’ll just shoot him. Bang! Dead. Done.
DR. EVIL: One more peep out of you and you’re grounded. Let’s begin.*


Now, consider the analogue in The Saga of the Volsungs:

[B]ut in the end [Sigmund and Sinfjolti] were borne down by many men and taken, and bonds were set upon them, and they were cast into fetters wherein they sit night long.
Then the king [King Siggeir of Gautland] ponders what longest and worst of deaths he shall mete out to them; and when morning came he let make a great barrow of stones and turf; and when it was done, let set a great flat stone midmost inside thereof, so that one edge was aloft, the other alow; and so great it was that it went from wall to wall, so that none might pass it. Now he bids folk take Sigmund and Sinfjotli and set them in the barrow, on either side of the stone, for the worse for them he deemed it, that they might hear each the other's speech, and yet that neither might pass one to the other [....] and therewithal was the barrow closed in.*



Naturally, Siggeir's own beautiful queen (who also happened to be the secret lover of Sigmund**) smuggled a weapon into them before the mound was closed, and while everyone was waiting elsewhere for Sigmund and Sinfjolti to die their overly-elaborate and exotic death, they escaped, and defeated Siggeir. The Saga of the Volsungs claims that Siggeir was killed, but it may be simply a skaldic invention exaggerating Siggeir's defeat and flight.

Though these analogues do not prove conclusively that King Siggeir is one-and-the-same as Dr. Evil, the parallels are close enough to demand further research into this intriguing possibility.


* Emphasis mine.
**As well as his sister, in weird incest-through-body-swapping magic.