Thursday, January 28, 2010

Pastist and Presentist

I'm using Kathleen Biddick's The Shock of Medievalism in something I'm writing. Though I generally have little good to say about the book, Biddick offers up terminology useful in establishing a framework for talking about medievalism.

Two of the most useful terms, however, are two of the ugliest: pastist (which “argues for radical historical difference between the Middle Ages and the present”)and presentist (which “looks into the mirror of the Middle ages and asks it to reflect back histories of modernist or postmodernist identities”). They're ugly on the page and ugly rolling of the tongue, and are kind of unsophisticated in their construction.* The terms are, however, very useful.

So, a plea -- has anyone out there run into terms that are roughly synomous with pastist and presentist but have a bit more elegance to them?

*That contemporary sage Ferris Bueller mocked the ugly and promiscuous slapping of suffixes on ideas during his notorious day off. As he teaches, "Not that I condone fascism, or any -ism for that matter. -Ism's in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism." I would argue that the same goes for -ists. Also, let us not call this idea "Buellerism" except in the most ironic way.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Medieval America: Progress Report

Someone asked me recently how my monograph I'm working on, tentatively entitled Medieval America, is coming along. Since I haven't mentioned it in so long, here's a progress report.

Everything came to a crawl in the Fall semester, when a heavy teaching load (5 general education courses) and service responsibilities stopped me from doing much of anything else. I had nearly completed the chapter entitled "Medieval American History" when a technological failure ate most of what I'd done on it.

You would think that I'd be discouraged, but honestly it was a relief. When I write too slowly I lose my sense of voice, and instead turn out that horrible turgid academic prose that relies on footnotes where an explanatory argument would be better. I had all the material down, but I hated the way I had written it.

This semester (God willing) I'll have much more time to devote to Medieval America, and I think that lost chapter will be re-written much better than the first time I did it.

So, as a practical matter, I'm not much further along now than I was at the open of the fall semester, but I'm in a much better place. I'm going to start chopping the chapters up into conference presentations (no venues selected yet), so if you want a preview, by the end of the year you should be able to hear one.

Jewish-Christian Marriage

This is interesting: Archival evidence suggesting that despite prohibitions against it marriage between Jews and Christians in 15th-century Poland may have been more possible than previously thought.

Medieval Queens

Spinning Clio has re-printed an old post on medieval queens, which would be an excellent resource for non-academic medieval history buffs, particularly if you think you might be interested in medieval women's history.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Six Million Dollar Beowulf

Easily in the top 10 cool things on TV in the 1970s was the episode of the Six Million Dollar Man in which Steve Austin fights Bigfoot, who as it turns out is also bionic and has been created by aliens for some reason that I cannot recall all these many decades ever.

One thing I didn't notice as a kid was the possible Beowulf analogue that we see around minute 6 of the clip below:

Steve Austin rips off Bigfoot's arm, then Bigfoot flees into some sort of underground lair. As I remember (and if anyone has seen the full episode more recently, please correct any of my errors), as it turns out, Bigfoot is just misunderstood, and they end up freezing him in cryogenic stasis or some other such thing.

It's possible that the arm-ripping isn't a Beowulf allusion, and is just a coincidence -- but then I wouldn't get the chance to post something so awesome on the Wordhoard, would I? Oh, and by the way, if you don't think the Six Million Dollar Man fighting Bigfoot is cool, then you are a bad person.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Girl Medieval Nerds

Medieval Living has a couple of recent posts revisiting the discussion of girl medieval nerds, one recommending girls read the works of Steven Till.

My own daughter fled from medieval geekdom* a few years ago, primarily because I would have liked it -- and there's nothing less cool than something your dad likes. All things medieval got jettisoned with all things literary.

I'm started to see the veneer cracking, though, as her own natural curiousity is getting the better of her. It started with history (with a brief enthusiasm for the Egyptians), then moved into Latin. Now, after hearing that a non-academic adult male friend was finding Pride and Prejudice "freakin' hilarious,"** she nonchalantly expressed an interest in that. We recently watched the movie Labyrinth, and she really enjoyed that -- the first open interest in anything vaguely medievalist.

So, for the female Wordhoarders out there, what medievalist bait would you suggest for a high school girl who's desperately trying not to show an interest in anything medieval? It has to be subtle, or she'll suspect the trap and I'll lose my quarry.

*I prefer the word "geek" to "nerd." For a brief overview of the difference, see here. Dork, of course, rarely applies to medieval enthusiasts.
** If you don't find Pride and Prejudice funny from the very first line, you're not reading it right.

Sypeck's Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier Available

Jeff Sypeck's The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier is now available in all sorts of different forms, from paper to PDF.

I wonder how much for a copy inscribed on vellum?

Monday, January 11, 2010

1999 Beowulf Still Bad

The 1999 futuristic film version of Beowulf starring Christopher Lambert was on TV the other day, so I decided to record it to see if maybe it had become fun in an ironic sort of way now that some time has passed. I wanted to write something about how medievalism is adapted to science fiction in the film.

I regret to report that it remains unwatchable. It took me three tries to get 20 minutes into it, and I can go no further. It still holds a 0% rating at Rotten Tomatoes which is, in a perverse way, impressive.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Medieval Style Brick Oven

While searching for something completely unrelated, I ran into these instructions for building a medieval-style brick oven. It's clearly not meant to be super authentic, since it has materials such as a cheap plastic tarp.

What I found fascinating was the claim that "Our oven is based on one from the 12th century found in an excavation at York, England (i.e., Norman period), although it is similar to earlier Viking Age ones. The original was made out of wickerwork and completely covered inside and out with daub."

A wickerwork oven? I never would have thought of that, but protected by daub, properly dried and fired, there's no reason that wouldn't have worked.

Here's someone else who underestimated the power of wicker for baking.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Demands that I Leave the Field

Over at History News Network, Jonathan Jarrett (perhaps better-known for his excellent blog, A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe) expresses annoyance with me for my piece on the Medieval Warm Period. If I take his argument correctly, he suggests that it is irrelevant whether the MWP occurred because MWP denial allows policies to be made today that he and other "thinking people" support.

Obviously I disagree, and have no immediate plans to seek non-medievalist employment, but his piece is worth a read.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Medievalists without Borders Redux recently re-ran an old article of mine, "Medievalists without Borders." Reading it now, it seems quaint that I had to explain what a blog is.

Still, the point I've made there is still valid. Others have argued with some justification that the blog is a dying genre, and that the new locus of community is social networking sites, like Facebook. I'm not sure we're quite using social networking right as a scholarly community, and I'm not even sure as a medium they are suitable for scholarly discourse except in a very narrow band.

We shouldn't be surprised to find the same issues today as three years ago -- after all, these are the same issues King Alfred faced. Only the context changes.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Round Table of Pick-Up Artists

Someone sent me a book to read over Christmas Break: The Game, by Neil Strauss. It's a memoir of how Strauss fell into a group of pathetic losers who decided to re-make themselves into "pick-up artists," and mostly follows his own arch of becoming a leading figure within that community to his epiphany of the emptiness that life.

Near the end, about the time that he's figured out that all the pick-up artist strategies have left him surrounded by insecure, manipulative men (rather than the women he'd hoped for), one of his friends tells him the fable about the scorpion and the frog (the one in which the scorpion stings the frog even though they'll both drown because it's in his nature). Strauss, though, sees his situation as more Arthurian than Aesopian:

I went up to my room, showered, and paged through a copy of the medieval legend Parsifal I had recently bought. People often read books to search for themselves and find someone who agrees with them. And, right now, the nature of Parsifal agreed with me a lot more than the nature of the scorpion.
As I interpreted the legend, it's the story of a sheltered mother's boy who meets some knights and decides he wants to be just like them. So he goes off into the world, has a series of adventures, and progresses from legendary fool to legendary knight.
The country, at the time, has become a wasteland because the grail king (who guards the holy grail) has been wounded. And it just so happens that Parsifal is led to the grail castle, where he sees the king in terrible pain. As a compassionate human being, he wants to ask, "What is wrong?" And, according to legend, if someone pure of heart asks that question of the king, he will be healed and the blight on the land will be lifted.
However, Parsifal does not know this. And as a knight he has been trained to observe a strict code of conduct, which includes the rule of never asking questions or speaking unless he is addressed first. So he goes to bed without talking to the king. In the morning, he wakes to discover that the grail castle has disappeared. He has blown his chance to save king and country by obeying his training instead of his heart. Unlike the scorpion, Parsifal had a choice. He just made the wrong one.
When I walked through the living room to get a drink from the kitchen, I saw Mystery nursing another cocktail in front of the TV. He was watching a video of The Karate Kid and crying. "I never had a Mr. Miyagi," he sobbed, wiping tears off his reddened cheeks. He was drunk. "My dad didn't teach me anything. All I wanted was a Mr. Miyagi."
I suppose we were all searching for someone to teach us the moves we needed to win at life, the knightly code of conduct, the ways of the alpha-male. That's why we found each other. But a sequence of maneuvers and a system of behavior would never fix what was broken inside. Nothing would fix what was broken inside. All we could do was embrace the damage. (p. 415)

The book is a bit tedious (over 400 pages for Strauss to figure out what most men figure out in their early 20s, of what he could have learned just by reading Proverbs), but here in the end we see the bond to the leige depicted as a desirable father-son bond, rather than a socio-economic bond. Mystery here is enacting the sorrow of Anglo-Saxon elegies like The Wanderer, cut off not just from family and friends, but also from the lord and mentor. Perhaps the real Grail quest is for a Mr. Miyagi.