Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Shame on Medievalists

A few weeks ago, I discovered, through some e-mails and blog posts, that had on their website a piece on Beowulf called "Beowulf: Fact or Fiction?" The article seeks to argue that Beowulf is an historically accurate account, and furthermore that Grendel is a dinosaur who somehow survived into the early medieval days -- an apparent attempt to bolster creationism through the poem (I'm still not clear on how it does that, but no matter). The best that can be said about the piece is that it tries really hard, and that the author may have been misled by a book called After the Flood, which I've not read.

As a medievalist and a Christian, I found the article embarrassing. It was being cited in some rather bigoted e-mails and posts as just the kind of stupid thing those idiotic Christians think. I sent a very polite e-mail to Crosswalk, identifying myself as a medieval scholar and a Christian, and pleading with them to remove the article. I explained in as much detail as their "Contact Us" pop-up box would allow why the article was wrong.

I have not received a response, nor has the article come down. After a week went by without Crosswalk removing the article or contacting me, I began warning Christians and homeschoolers that Crosswalk was not a reliable resource. I discussed it with my Sunday School class*, talked with some people I know who homeschool about where they got their materials (I found none who used Crosswalk, incidentally), etc.

I felt I had done my part -- I had warned Crosswalk, and when they showed no interest in heeding my warnings about the flawed article, I warned Christians. I guess I did not do enough, though.

Even now, links and discussions of it are flying across the internet ether. Everytime I check my e-mail I find there are several more comments on the AnSaxNet e-mail list. Some of the comments are of the benign eye-rolling variety, while others are exercises in bigotry carried on in high dudgeon. The few temperate voices are shouted down (which is why I'll not bother posting this to AnSaxNet).

The real shame on medievalists, though is not that we have hateful ideologues among us -- heck, I'm hard-pressed to think of a group that doesn't -- the real shame is that, so far as I can tell, no one else has bothered to correct the article in a public forum. If anyone has e-mailed Crosswalk as I did, they haven't mentioned it. Since my e-mail, Crosswalk has opened up a forum to discuss it. At the moment, only one person who may be a medievalist (and I'm not sure if it is a professional medievalist or just a well-informed person), "Timo888," has bothered to post any kind of correction.

So rather than trying to correct misconceptions, we medievalists would rather sit back in our enclosed professional forums and mock the ignorant. Shame on all of us, and if you are a medievalist without the moral or scholarly clarity to understand why you should be ashamed, I am embarrassed for you.

*Yes, I teach adult Sunday School ... at an evangelical church, no less (a non-denominational Christian church, a.k.a. a "Stone-Campbell" church here in the South). No doubt many of those who have been describing Christians as evil ignoramuses will be horrified that I am gainfully employed even while carrying on these nefarious weekend activities. Those who live in the Montgomery area, horrified or not, are welcome to join our class Sundays at 9:30, at the Cornerstone Christian Church, where you can be corrupted by Christian thought and occasional Krispy Kream doughnuts.


  1. Some people will grab onto anything that even remotely looks like it can be perverted to support their beliefs. They live in a swamp in a lair under the water, Grendal and his dam must be some sort of aquatic creature. And weren't dinosaurs aquatic? It says as much of education as it does of pseudo-theological recalcitrance.

    Beowulf is an example of a hero's tale after a lot of rewrites. It could have started as the story of how a psychopath would come into a house and kill people as they lay there drunk and helpless, until a visitor came who stayed sober and beat the bastard to death. And then the rationalizations started.

    Beowulf survives to this day because it finds willing ears. It appeals as a pagan tale, and it appeals as a Christian story. But it appeals for the most part because we like hearing stories of bullies and louts getting their arm riped off and lumbering home to cry to their mommies.

    It doesn't need to be real to have value.

  2. Anonymous6:51 AM

    Hi Alan: Interested in this: "Beowulf is an example of a hero's tale after a lot of rewrites."

    Beowulf has always seemed to me to have been the result of a single author's 'intelligent design' ;)

  3. I'm not sure you can call it "gainfully employed" when you are an academic, even if they give you money.

    I find the usual dismissal of movies touching on medieval subjects on some scholarly fora to be tedious, if not really shameful. It's a less serious issue, for sure, than apparently refusing to use one's expertise where appropriate, but still seems to show an ungenerous spirit.


  4. Just a question...but wouldn't it make more sense to have the Dragon as a Dinosaur?

    Michael Crichton's "Thirteenth Warrior/Eaters of the Dead" was based on the hypothesis that Grendel was Cromagnan or Neanderthal (I can't remember which) which is an interesting question.

    As for Dinosaurs and "modern" man, I'll take Burroughs and Doyle thank you very much.

  5. You know, Christian, I thought the same thing about the dragon. I mean, why go to all the trouble to explain how a humanoid troll is a dinosaur, when we already recognize dragons to be vaguely saurian.

  6. Because dinosaurs come from the realm of science, naturally.

  7. Dinosaur bones were being found long before the 19th century; it's in the 19th century that people recognized they had something unique.

    Dragons enter the picture in a number of ways. For many people serpents play a role. As do lizards, crocodilians, and other animals. In modern fantasy literature and RPGs the dragon's form owes a lot to crocodiles and otters. Their behavior strongly feline. Consider the dragons of Naomi Novik's Temeraire novels, where our hero exhibits the sort of jealousy and possessiveness typical to cats. In pocket dragon fandom dragons are basically cats with scales, wings, and high temperature halitosis.

    Dragons have always struck me as nile crocodiles after millennia of exaggeration. They're sneaky, they're rapacious, they're extremely protective of their treasures. They're wise beyond Man's understanding, and they are cruel in their humor.

    Grendal? Grendal was an ogre with bad skin.

    You wish to see the "Phone Game" in action, read S. M. Stirling's Dies the Fire, The Protector's War, and A Meeting at Corvallis. Note how the whole Clan Mackenzie thing goes from being an amusement to help people get through truly horrific times, to a very serious cultural identity.

    What we see as a joke, can become The Word of God to our descendents.