Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Decameron and Trauma

Books can be hard in two ways: they can be hard because they seem too difficult, and they can be hard because they seem to easy. When a student is confronted with a book that seems difficult, he'll often not read it, or read it with a sense of despair that "I'll never get this," and so the student won't grapple with the text as he should.

Boccaccio's Decameron, though, is one of the books that is so hard because it seems so easy. Sometimes a book seems so easy on its surface that the student won't take it seriously. He doesn't grapple with a text because it doesn't appear to reward hard work. Students see the frame story of The Decameron, about ten young people telling stories to while away their time hiding from the plague in Florence, as just a wafer-thin plot device to offer an excuse for cramming 100 short stories into a book. The stories themselves are often whimsical, leaving students with the impression that "this is literature because it's old" rather than "this is literature because it's good."

And so, the professor of The Decameron is left with a paradox. On the one hand, The Decameron will generally be one of the most read texts of the semester. When a student sees that the first story is only five pages or so long, she'll generally read it ... and then the next one, and then the next one, until finally all the excerpted stories are read. On the other hand, because the stories seem so easy, she'll put little thought into those readings. What's a professor to do?

In my case, I emphasize the idea of trauma in The Decameron. I generally start with this exercise:

"Pop quiz!" I announce. Groans all around. "Everyone number a sheet of paper one through ten." More groans. "OK, now, I want each of you to list the names of the ten people in your friends and family closest to you." Puzzled looks, a couple of people wanting clarification, then a creation of lists. "Now, I want each of you to pick three people from random from that list, and put checkmark next to that person's name." Again, the students look puzzled, but since they were expecting a nasty pop quiz, they are relieved that this is all they have to do. Once they are all finished, I announce, "Alright, now, put those away. You won't need them until later."

At this point, I start my usual lecture about the frame story of The Decameron. We talk about it as a device for assembling these hundred tales, but then I ask about the cause behind the retreat of these ten young people. I argue before the class that The Decameron is about how we use storytelling to construct our world ... an argument that is generally met with an attitude of skepticism. I discuss the Plague as a trauma that is both personal and cultural -- an idea that is met by a big yawn. Yeah, yeah, whatever. These were just a bunch of people who lived a long time ago far away. They don't mean anything to me.

Now I discuss the figures. I tell them that about a third of Europeans died in that plague, and I get no real response. These millions dead are just numbers, meaningless statistics. Since the students couldn't possibly care less about these people, they don't care about the numbers. Eight local high school students dead by tornado is a catastrophe, but hundreds of thousands dead in Darfur is just an abstraction. Now it's time to bring it home for them.

"Remember that list of names I made you create? I want you to consider what this kind of death toll would mean. Imagine that the three people you put check marks next to die this year." Stunned silence. I pause a few seconds, letting this sink in. "How would your life change? How would your perception of the world change? Now, also imagine that all the other people sitting next to you in class had lost their three people as well. Could you rely on others to support you emotionally?" Even the most jaded students become very, very sober.

I'm not done, yet. I go on to explain that the Plague didn't fall evenly throughout Europe, and that some places were barely touched while others were destroyed. Then we look at Florence, the setting for Boccaccio's story, and I tell them that some estimates put the death toll of that city at about 70%.

"Now, look at your list again. Imagine that the three people you put check marks next to don't die -- they live." Believe it or not, even though this is just a thought experiment, the students always get the same relieved look on their faces. I pause for a few seconds to let that sink in, then take the relief away from them. "Now imagine instead that we have a situation like Florence. The three with the check marks live ... but the other seven die, a 70% mortality rate." Occasionally I have students weep in class (though this year, no weepers).

By the time this exercise is finished, students have a tiny, thought-experiment taste of the trauma of the plague. Suddenly, the idea that you might need to tell stories to reconstruct your life doesn't seem all that absurd. The opening story of The Decameron, about Ser Cepperello, transforms from a story about esoteric questions about grace and faith into a more pointed story about the questions that must have confronted Europeans after these plagues -- Did my loved ones who were not especially faithful go to Heaven? Has God abandoned us? If we had just prayed for intercession to a different saint, would God have spared us?

You've got to be careful about these sorts of exercises. It would be easy for sadistic personalities to use them as an excuse to psychologically torment students. If every class is an emotional spectacle, the effect can be dulled by over-use. Still, I've found it is one way to help students connect with the book on a deeper level. It never seems frivolous to them again.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Help Me Break 500!

For whatever reason, the blog-o-sphere is smiling on me today. According to Tracksy, I'm projected to hit 499 page views today.

499! Just one more, and I'll hit 500 ... which would be the highest ever.

So, my friends, here's a bleg: send links to your friends! Help me break 500! It'll just take the slightest bump to get me there. And once we've reached 500 hits, medievalists will be one step closer to total cosmic domination!

As a little incentive to send people here, here's a link to our first MediEvolution webcast. Also, here are some links to some random medieval weirdness. And, yes, I was the model for this picture.

What's Up with MediEvolution?

Some of you are probably wondering, "What's up with MediEvolution?" It launched weeks ago, and so far the only content on the page is:

A FAQ page
A link to another page, which is hosting our webcast.

Even the guidelines for submission are missing. So what gives?

The problem is both simple and complicated. For boring bureaucratic reasons, MediEvolution started as just a placeholder page that was supposed to get moved to its permanent home. Unfortunately, that move has been plagued by technological problems that always seem to be on the cusp of being solved, but never quite get solved.

Fear not, though. Despite the appearance on the surface, the project continues to go ahead full-bore. We've got two more podcasts shot (one entitled "Larry Monarch Live," and the other "Cooking with Grendel"), have the next one scheduled to shoot, and we are starting to accumulate other materials -- pages of links, commitments to do regular features, and other stuff.

So, in the interest of letting people have the opportunity to get involved, let me post below our guidelines for submission of text (the video, audio, and still image guidelines are not ready, since they depend on the outcome of other technical issues). If you've got something you'd like to submit, or you've just got an idea for now, e-mail me and I'll take a look at it.

MediEvolution invites unsolicited articles and reviews of between 500-1000 words in length. Articles and reviews should be of topics pertaining to the medieval world, modern portrayals of the medieval, or medieval themes in popular culture. We do not accept pornography or erotica.

Articles and reviews should be submitted via e-mail attachment to, with the heading “Submission:” followed by the title or topic of the article; e.g. an article on medieval elements in Star Wars should have the heading “Submission: Star Wars.” Submissions should be as *.doc or *.rtf files. Articles should be in accordance with the Chicago Manual of Style. Footnotes and endnotes are discouraged because of the online layout. Whenever possible endnotes should be replaced with parenthetical comments or avoided altogether.

The ideal audience for articles is the “smart fan,” i.e. intelligent people without specialized training. Dead and foreign languages such as Latin and Old English should always be translated in the main body of the text. References generally understood only by specialists should be made clear for a popular audience; e.g. a reference to "Ker’s Catalogue” would not be understandable to a general audience, and should
instead be explained more fully, such as in “Neil Ker’s Catalogue of Manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon, considered the standard source for manuscript information on Old English texts…” In the same way, references to “Foucault” or “Žižek” should be disambiguated for audiences unfamiliar with the work of such theorists. Authors should note, however, that the audience is considered “smart fans,” and should therefore be considered capable of understanding difficult concepts when explained. Authors need not patronize the audience or “dumb down” their articles.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

I Am a Genius

Warning: Non-medieval content ahead.

I am a genius. Really and truly. You don't believe me? You say you've met me, found me to be an idiot in search of a village, and that no evidence can persuade you to the contrary?

OK, I'll prove it to you. When I was in school, we used this textbook. Yes, really. And still I learned how to read. If I was confronted with the horrors of One to Grow On and still learned to read, I must be a genius. Case closed. Mensa, I'll expect my award in the mail soon.

By the way, if you really want to own one, here's one on eBay. May God have mercy on your soul, you sick, sick person.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Dead Language T-Shirts

My brother-in-law sent me a link to a site that sells t-shirts praising dead languages. Unfortunately, the only dead language included is Latin, but I've already got a small collection of Old English t-shirts.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Medieval Honesty

I've been thinking a lot about honesty lately. I've had to apply for security clearance for the White House Fellow position, and the advice everyone has given me has been the same: be thorough, and be honest. I've had to look honestly in my closet for skeletons to disclose.

All this has had me thinking about honesty as a virtue. The truth is, I think I'm a fairly honest guy because I'm too lazy to remember lies -- so unless sloth or poor memory are virtues, I can't really claim honesty as a virtue in my case. At the same time I've been reading one of my favorite Tristan and Isolde accounts, Gottfried of Strasburg's. In it, Gottfried's narrator very clearly sides with the adulterous lovers, often explicitly condemning those who are trying to reveal the truth. On the other hand, both Tristan and Isolde both swear before God things that are either deceptions or shaving the truth very, very close in a legalistic way.

I've started thinking about other medieval texts, and I'm having trouble thinking of ones in which honesty is portrayed as an important virtue. Sagas are basically out as an entire genre, given the praise of trickiness of the heroes. Patient Griselda's husband may be the Christ figure, but he's also a terrible liar, as are many other of Boccaccio's characters. Unless I'm forgetting something, I can't think of a single Canterbury Tale in which honesty is a virtue. I assume that somewhere in saints lives are those praised for their honesty, but all I can think of is Judith.

I'm not trying to suggest that honesty was not a medieval virtue, but I suspect that it was not a particularly important virtue. Loyalty, fidelity, piety, chastity ... these seem to be the prime virtues of the literature. Liars are punished in the Inferno, but nothing like traitors are.

Has anyone out there done a study of honesty in medieval lit? I'd love to read it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Carolingian's Medievalisms

Welcome to the newest medievalist blog, Medievalisms, written by Carolingian. Carol's been far more on top of things than I, and has some nice reviews of the History Channel's Dark Ages series.

Looks like it's time to update the blogroll.

Guedelon Castle

Coolest. Thing. Ever.

A colleague put me on to this: The French are building Guedelon Castle according to 13th century techniques -- and yes, this means the process will take decades.

There are just too many neat images online for me to pick one, so here is the Google Image search on Guedelon Castle.

Monday, March 12, 2007

History Channel Dark Ages -- Open Thread

I haven't had a chance to watch much of the History Channel's Dark Ages series -- though all week people have been talking to me about it. I saw only about a half hour of one episode. From the reactions I've been hearing, people seem to find them entertaining, but I've heard two people complain that the shows have a military focus, without much cultural information.

So, here's an open thread for those of you who have actually seen it to sound off. How was it?

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Curses! Foiled Again!

According to, the Unlocked Wordhoard is censored in China. Apparently, medievalism in popular culture is counter-revolutionary and subversive.

I can see that.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Enterprise Tornado Relief

It seems like just yesterday we were all posting like this for Hurricane Katrina...

Red State Diaries has a nice round-up of the various ways you can help with Enterprise Tornado Relief. For those readers who are too distant to know, yesterday a huge tornado swept through the town of Enterprise, Alabama and struck the high school while the students were still there. Though so far as I know injury and fatalities lists are still being compiled, some were killed at the school.

If you are coming to the International Festival here at Troy University Saturday night (6PM, Trojan Center Ballroom), you can also help by getting one of our cookbooks. This year we have compiled authentic recipes from our students in the form of a cookbook available for a suggested donation. Proceeds from the cookbook will go to assist in relief efforts, probably (though this isn't finalized) through the Governor's Emergency Relief Fund.

Also, our international students wanted to encourage everyone to give blood on Tuesday, March 6th from 9AM-7PM in the Trojan Center Ballrooms. As we were setting up for the International Festival, they were discussing how frustrating it is for them to be unable to give blood (if you've been abroad recently you can't give blood), but we can certain encourage others to give blood. No matter how strapped for cash you are you can still afford to give blood.

After Katrina our international students renovated a home for refugees. They are already looking for opportunities to serve their host community again after this disaster. If anyne has need for our international students, please contact me.


Troy University and I are proud to announce the launch of MediEvolution, a new website for fans and scholars alike. MediEvolution is devoted to the appreciation of medievalism, from the Middle Ages to the post-modern, from high culture to pop culture.

Periodically we will release a webcast video on our website, where viewers will be able to come see the episodes for free. A typical episode will be a light-hearted comedic piece, designed to draw viewers to the site. The only scholarly value of the episodes will probably be a few inside jokes for students of medieval literature. Once at the site, however, viewers will find fun material and interesting scholarly material interspersed – in effect, we bait them with fun material, then interest them in the more challenging material when they arrive. Our first webcast, MediEvolution News, is already available for viewing through a link on the main page.

The page is still very much under construction, and we invite submissions of popular articles and reviews dealing with medievalism, as well as announcements, suggestions for links, or just ideas to improve the website. Eventually we plan for the page to have various sections such as our Video Vault of medievalist videos available on the internet, homework help for students looking for genuine ideas for papers (not for those looking for plagiarism sources), teaching resources for high school teachers, and reviews of everything from books to movies to medieval-themed products. In essence, we hope that MediEvolution acts as both a gateway for medieval fans to learn more serious materials, as well as a place for serious scholars to engage in more whimsical pursuits.

Please make submissions to me at . Also, if I may bleg for a moment, I would appreciate it if all the Wordhoarders out there would add links to the MediEvolution page, in order to raise its Google profile.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

White House Fellows Regional Finals

Some time ago, I applied to be a White House Fellow. Until about six month ago, I had never heard of the program, but when I read the description on the White House website I decided to apply. It seemed to me that at least two elements of my work -- internationalization of medieval studies and use of new technologies to reach the unreached -- would be improved by experience working with the government. Tonight I received notice that I was selected as a Regional Finalist.

There's still a long road ahead of me, since only about 10% of regional finalists will make it all the way. Nevertheless, when I saw the list of names of 107 other people selected, I felt honored to be included among them.

Of course, honors and accolates are nice, but it's what you do with them that's important. Too often, I think, we academics build an Ivory Barrier between ourselves and government and the private sector. A lot of academics (perhaps particularly in the humanities) find work in the private sector contemptible, and work in the government sector ridiculous. This strikes me as a little silly. Government is not our ATM machine, and commercial business is not our enemy. If we could just overcome our mutual suspicion, I suspect we'd find we share a lot of common goals.

It seems like a cliched Oscar speech to say, "It's an honor just to be nominated," but if I make it no further than the regional finals, I'll feel honored despite my disappointment. My hope, though, is to make it all the way to becoming a White House Fellow, and after that year is up, benefit medieval studies as a whole with what I've learned. Serving my country, furthering medieval studies ... what an opportunity!

OK, I'm starting to sound like a Capra movie, so I'll just post the press release below.

WASHINGTON, March 1, 2007 – The White House today announced that 107 outstanding men and women from across the country have been selected as Regional Finalists for the White House Fellows Program – the Nation’s most prestigious program for leadership and public service. This year’s Regional Finalists
are come from 29 states, as well as the District of Colombia. They represent a broad cross-section of professions, including technology, education, health care, state government, law enforcement, engineering, business, consulting, law and the non-profit sector. Additionally, four branches of the military are represented among the Regional Finalists. A complete list of the Regional Finalists is attached below.

During March and April 2007, Regional Finalists participate in a rigorous interview process. Based on the results of the interviews, approximately thirty candidates will be named National Finalists. The President’s Commission on White House Fellowships will interview the National Finalists in June 2007 and then recommend candidates to President George W. Bush for a one-year appointment as White House Fellows.

The White House Fellows Program was founded in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. This non-partisan program offers exceptional young men and women first-hand experience working at the highest levels of the Federal government. Fellows also participate in an education program consisting of roundtable discussions with renowned leaders from the private and public sectors. Following the Fellowship year, Fellows are expected to repay the privilege by contributing to the Nation as better leaders and public servants.

Selection as a White House Fellow is highly competitive and based on a record of remarkable professional achievement early in one’s career, evidence of leadership potential, a proven commitment to public service, and the knowledge and skills necessary to contribute successfully at the highest levels of the Federal government. Throughout its history, the program has fostered leaders in many fields including Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, United Nations Foundation President and Former U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, U.S. Senator Samuel Brownback, and Congressman Joe Barton.

Additional information about the Program is located at