Monday, April 30, 2007

The Simpsons Medieval Festival

The Middle Ages were exactly like this. A little known fact that I just made up: St. Bartholomew of Farne (feast day June 24th) was also expelled from elementary school for baking a giant rat pie.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Renaissance Faires and Popular Medievalism

Medieval academics, admit it. Like me, you have a bit of a snobby attitude about Renaissance Faires. I went to my first faire some years ago, and spent a good deal of time scoffing that:
  • It's far more medieval than Renaissance.
  • The Middle Ages weren't really like that! It's a myth!
  • It's packed with a lot of overpriced garbage.
  • Who ARE these geeks?
And now, having some years later attended my second, I can add one more:
  • Pirates? I mean, really, what crass exploitation of Disney films.
Today I went to the Georgia Renaissance Festival, where I spent too much money, got too much sun, and had just the right amount of fun. On the trip back, I spent a good deal of time thinking about these attitudes, and submit to you the following responses:

Yes, it's more medieval than Renaissance ... but the Renaissance was itself home of all sorts of interesting medievalism. Since the Middle Ages, people have enjoyed harkening back to those days, whether through Early Modern love of heraldry or contemporary American theme festivals. In large part, this impulse toward an a-historical medievalism is nothing new (heck, look at how a-historical medieval histories are about the earlier Middle Ages!), but simply an attempt to write for ourselves a mythic past in an effort to define ourselves today. We define ourselves both with and against this medievalism -- patting ourselves on the back that we somehow share in the honor and courage of the jousting knight, and patting ourselves just as hard because we no longer have stocks and public floggings (Oprah guests excepted). It's more about who we are than who they were.

Yes, much of it is myth, and, as I mentioned above, those myths serve a powerful purpose. Still, in a couple of weeks I'll be at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, hearing from other experts in the field, and I bet I'll have at least one myth punctured. I always learn something at K'zoo, because there is simply no way for a single man to know everything about the Middle Ages, or medieval literature, or Anglo-Saxon literature, or even a single Anglo-Saxon poem. It is hard for me to condemn others for their ignorance when medieval studies is just their weekend hobby, and it is my bread-and-butter. When people are ignorant of medieval truths, medieval scholars are culpable too.

Let's examine the "over-priced garbage" complaint. Yup, the stuff is waaaay to expensive. Yup, much of it is garbage. Still, people buy it. People buy a lot of it. People buy so much of it that the Renaissance Faires are run as for-profit commercial enterprises. Hear that? Medievalism is profitable! People pay too much money for over-priced garbage because they are starving for medievalism. All the time I hear this nonsense that "no one cares about medieval studies, it just isn't relevant, and if we offer courses in it, no one will come" -- BULL! Hundreds of thousands of people (perhaps millions, if someone has the statistics) pour into these Faires every year. When I gave a presentation on real medieval magical and medical practices at InConjunction last year, it was to standing room only -- even more than my Tolkien presentation! Let's see the over-priced garbage as instead an indicator of the market value of what we are offering.

Who are these geeks? They are folks just like you and me, without the degrees. They love the same stuff we love, but because their lives took a different path, they celebrate that love at Renaissance Faires rather than International Medieval Congresses. We scholars have a deeper understanding of this subject that we love, but that doesn't make our love more worthwhile -- it makes our knowledge more worthwhile, but not our love. When I was 17 years old and trying to decide what to do with my life, I almost decided on biomedical engineering, but in the end chose (for whatever muddled 17-year-old reason) to study English instead. A different choice in my life, and I wouldn't find myself in the Medieval Congress either. So, let's not mock these geeks -- they are our brothers and sisters, our fellow travellers. Hey, Ren Faire geeks, I might not attend these faires but once per decade, but I'm one of you too, as is nearly every other person at the Congress.

As for the pirates ... well, these pirates seemed to do a lot more sword-wielding than pistol brandishing. They auctioned off a lot of weapons, but not one was a replica gun, or cannon, or pegleg. They were all daggers and swords and axes and shields and katanas -- as if we were supposed to imagine the Caribbean dotted with extremely disoriented samurais. The pirates are simply the current liaisons between us and the Middle Ages. I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that at one time you could buy a light saber at a Faire. Some day the pirates too will be replaced by a new liaison, so let's let them have their time in the sun.

So, to summarize -- Renaissance Faires, cool. Faire-geeks, cool. Medieval Congress, cool. Medieval scholars, cool. Let's all bask together in the inherent coolness of medievalism.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Charlemagne in Tawdry Sex Scandal with Hollywood Star!

Jeff Sypeck's presentation here on Troy University's campus on Becoming Charlemagne was really well received. Once he arrived, it was a whirlwind of interviews, presentations, signings, and very rich cake. Jeff is a personable guy, and I had such a delightful time chatting with him that neither of us got to bed at a decent hour. So, if Sypeck is coming to your area, I would encourage you to do more than just go to the book signing -- get to know him better!

One interesting fact that I did not know: Shirley MacLaine claims to have been Charlemagne's lover in a past life, and also has had an affair (in this life) with a reincarnation of Charlemagne. If I may add a little speculation -- MacLaine further claims to have been an orphan raised by elephants in a past life, and as we all know, Charlemagne had an elephant named Abul Abaz. I see no where that MacLaine claims to have been the human lover of Charlemagne, simply a "gypsy Moorish girl." Couldn't "gypsy Moorish girl" refer just as easily to a female elephant from Baghdad that travels for years before arriving in Aachen? I humbly submit to you, therefore, that Abul Abaz is the decendant of forbidden elephant/human marriage, and that therefore the name when Shirley MacLaine seduced Charlemagne, she did so in the incarnation of the elephant Abul Abaz. It's the only reasonable explanation.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

On Point -- Inventing English

This came through AnSax Net this morning, though the show originally aired nearly two weeks ago -- NPR's "On Point" interview with Seth Lehrer about the history of the English language. Those of you who are regular Wordhoarders will know that I am nearly daily offended by NPR (which also happens to be one of only two radio stations I can receive consistently on my daily drive to drop of the kids at school), and I certainly can't recommend people listen to "On Point" regularly.

Still, this broadcast is probably worth a listen. Only about the first eleven minutes are medieval, after which time it becomes a discussion of Modern English dominated by Shakespeare. Near the end it becomes difficult to listen to as Ashbrook tries to show how hip he is (in that pathetic NPR way) by playing Tupac and M&M, but most listeners will probably abandon it by then.

One clarification: A school teacher calls in and says that she's been teaching that Latin came into English with the Roman invasion and occupation of England, and asks if that is correct. Lehrer very graciously uses ambiguous language to imply that it is sort-of right, but that you get more Latin influence with the Norman invasion in 1066.

Lehrer is just being polite in his careful mincing of words. The Romans invaded and occupied the Britons (who spoke a Celtic language), and the Anglo-Saxons didn't come to England in force until after the Romans had pulled out completely. Latin, then, comes in English as a language through the later Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons, not really from the Romans. In other words, what she's been teaching is essentially wrong.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Codpiece Silliness

Just a warning: There is nothing edifying in this short film on emergency codpiece substitutions. Also, though it has no nudity or profanity, it may not be workplace-friendly -- unless of course you are a medievalist like me (or an early-modern scholar), in which any discussion of codpieces is entirely within bounds.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Charlemagne in Troy

Jeff Sypeck, author of Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800, will do a presentation and book signing next week at Troy University, on Tuesday, April 24th at 3PM in HAL Hall of Honor.
In addition to getting to hear about why Charlemagne matters, we'll have refreshments and, of course, my own delightful presence. Of course, you don't have to come at all if you don't want to ... but then all your friends will be whispering about you behind your back.

Friday, April 13, 2007

If You Like This Page...

... you'll find other things to like in my blogroll.

As veteran medieval bloggers know, one of my favorite hobbyhorses is that medievalists should be linking to one another in order to raise our Google profile as a whole, so when people are looking for information on medieval topics they are sent to a legitimate site, not a freshman term paper cheat site.

The last few weeks the Wordhoard has caught fire. After flirting with the 500 page views per day benchmark, Unlocked Wordhoard crossed that recently, and is now flirting with 500+ unique visitors. Most of those visitors are first-timers coming here because of articles that are getting e-mailed around and linked to in various newsgroups.

So, new visitors, welcome! If you are interested in medieval stuff, I want to encourage you to visit the many fine medieval sites on the blogroll to the right. Just a few of the more recent postings among our colleagues:
Of course, I could have listed many others, but this is just a sampling of the most recent medieval offerings found in the blogroll. Spend a little time this weekend wandering through those other sites as well; I'm sure you'll find it rewarding.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

In Southern England, Did They Say "þ'all?"

Christopher Hitchens broke into my mind, ransacked it, then published one of my favorite gripes in his article, "The You Decade." Most of it is not really relevant to medieval stuff, except for this:

I can clearly remember the first time I heard the expression y'all, which was at a Greyhound bus stop in Georgia more than 30 years ago. A young black man, hearing my English accent but mistaking my age, told me with exquisite courtesy and solemnity that he greatly admired "the stand y'all"—he actually spun it out all the way to "you all"—"took in 1940." Stirred as I was then, I was stirred and baffled, later, when others in Dixie used "y'all" to mean just myself and not anything plural. But then I heard someone say "all of y'all," which restored the plural to its throne.

The "y'all" construction has always struck me as fascinating. First, it is interesting because it recognizes a deficiency in Modern English -- the lack of a second person plural. Whether it's "y'all" or "you guys" or "youse guys," we keep trying to dance around the problem of no distinction between singular and plural in the second person.

The other reason it is fascinating is that, historically, "you" is the plural. In Old English, here's how the second person worked:*


Since the þ was pronounced like Modern English "th", this can be represented more recognizably in Early Modern English (like in the King James Bible) like this:

Subject .......................

Looking at this, you can see that "you" actually is the plural. It is the anachronistic "thou" that is the singular. Somehow, then, English lost its singular and started using its plural for both singular and plural. People then started to think about that old plural as actually being singular, and now we feel like we have to create constructions around it to indicate plurality.

This can lead to all sorts of weirdness, such as the "y'all" and "youse guys" constructions. We also end up with real howlers when Modern English users try to use Early Modern English. I've heard more than one error from the pulpit when visiting KJV-only churches, where the preacher got confused about who was being addressed because he doesn't see the switch between "you" and "thou" as significant. More than once I've heard the hymn "As the Deer" sung like this...

As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after Thee. You alone are my heart's desire and I long to worship Thee.

... which would be OK if they just used the Modern English "you," but by throwing in the faux King James-style Early Modern "Thee" they switch back and forth between monotheism and polytheism.

One other little non-medieval tangent before closing. Hitchens describes someone as saying "all of y'all" as the southern plural. No true southerner would ever throw that "of" in there. Heck, I'm not a southerner and even I know that! You can, of course, put "all" before "y'all," but only if you are creating the plural possessive. So, I'll close with the true Deep South Second Person Paradigm:

_______________Singular_______________Plural Subject'all
Possessive...................your........................................all y'all's'all

*OK, now, all you Old English scholars, don't write me nasty notes about this paradigm. Yes, yes, I've ignored some other spellings and conflated accusative and dative -- if you don't like it, make your OWN paradigm for popular audiences!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

My Machiavellian Interview

A few days ago I interviewed in Atlanta for a position as a White House Fellow. The people I met there were fascinating. All the finalists and the panelists (who interviewed us) were astoundingly accomplished people. Though I've heard that the atmosphere of these events can be poisonously competitive, in my group all the finalists went out for drinks together on the first night, and shared information about what kinds of questions the different panels were asking (I wasn't very helpful in this regard, I'm afraid, since most of the questions I received were really tailored to me). The whole experience was fun and interesting, and I'll probably comment in a few later posts on the little bits of pieces of medievalism that erupted at those regional finals.

One bit of medievalism stuck out, though: Twice in interviews I was asked about Machiavelli, and once in casual conversation.* I wasn't really sure why. Part of it was, no doubt, that some of the panelists had training in political science and so had studied Machiavelli in that context. Still, I perceived a subtext to the questions. The panelists seemed to be waiting to see if I had a sophisticated view of Machiavelli, or if I would just dismiss him out of hand. I got the sense that saying "Machiavelli is evil because he is all about power" would have been seen as naive and simplistic, while "I love Machiavelli and live my life according to his teachings" would have seemed crass (and potentially dangerous).

Fortunately for me, I had just taught The Prince two days earlier, so it was very fresh in my mind. I was even able to quote a bit to one of the panelists. In the context of the interviews, I tried to distinguish between people who want power because they want to be something, and people who want power because they want to do something. At first glance, Machiavelli seems to be writing for the former: "So, you wanna be a prince, do you? Well, here's how you go about it." By the time we get to the end, though, we see it as a yearning to do something, i.e. resurrect the Roman Empire. That desire to achieve a goal that (from his perspective) would be good for all of Europe makes me a lot more sympathetic to Machiavelli, and a lot more willing to see his book as a serious study in the dynamics of power rather than as a guide for self-serving sociopaths.

The other time Machiavelli came up, I was talking to a high school teacher. He asked, "Is it better to be feared or loved?" Within about a minute, this question transformed into "Is it better to be feared or loved by your students?" The position I came up with on that is that it depends on which motivates those students the best. I knew a matronly woman once who got her students to work diligently by getting them to love her; none of them wanted to disappoint her. On the other hand, I've know some young-looking women instructors who had to operate through fear because the young men in their classes might misunderstand the nature of their affection. Each student is different, too, as is the cocktail of students that make up a class. The efficacy of fear or love depends on any number of factors, and any professor that embraces one to the exclusion of the other risks his students.

I was struck, though, by how easily Machiavelli sauntered into our conversations. Perhaps he is making a comeback in popular culture, or at least in popular political culture.

*Yes, I know Machiavelli is generally considered Early Modern (and I agree that he's more modern than medieval), but he is right on the cusp, and in any case the context of the questions made it clear that people thought of him as medieval.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Animated Bayeux Tapestry

If the only thing you ever thought was missing from the Bayeux Tapestry was motion and subtitles, this video is for you.

h/t Anachronista

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

An Open Letter Regarding "The 300"

No, it isn't medieval. Really, it isn't. Yes, I'm sure. I don't care what your friend says, it's not. Please stop asking me.