I'm a proud graduate of the Centre for Medieval Studies in the University of Toronto. My medieval interests include Old English, Middle English, Old Norse, and Latin language and literature. You may also want to have a look at my rather dated medieval links page or my academic work page.
There has been a recent flurry of blog posts and news articles on the web repeating the suggestion made by Dr. Marco Mostert in a paper delivered at the Leeds conference that the recycling of linen underwear to make cheap rag paper spurred on literacy during the middle ages because it was possible to print cheap books. Bill Poser mentions the story over at Language Log, and Carl Pyrdum has a post over at Got Medieval which links to a number of iterations of the story and provides some interesting commentary. What strikes me as odd is that this isn’t a particularly new idea. I seem to recall James Burke mentioning the idea in one of his documentary series. I don’t recall whether or not he specifically links the idea with literacy, though I do believe that he suggests that the cheap paper produced from recycled underwear did lead to an information explosion. Curious that this idea should be getting so much attention now.
(This is a continuation of yesterday’s post.)
But back-tracking to the middle ages for a moment, we can see a similar metaphor, only the characterisation is different in the Christian world view. For instance, in the Old English elegies “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” harsh exile is pictured in terms of a lonely journey in a boat, and the homiletic implication of this exile/pilgrimage is that the Christian soul’s ultimate destination is back to God. God is the only course to steer towards. Similarly, in the later middle ages, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Man of Law’s Tale, Custance, who is set adrift at sea by her antagonists to get rid of her, puts her faith in God: “In hym triste I, and in his mooder deere, / That is to me my seyl and eek my steere”. God is her sail and her rudder, her means of propulsion and steering. Again, this is a metaphor of the relationship between the Christian soul and God, and therefore of man’s place in the world. Though as in the ancient world, man does not control his fate, it is not a capricious god to whom he is subject.
Known as great sailors in the earlier part of the middle ages, the Vikings, who really only had the square sail, cheated a bit by lowering one end of the sail to allow for greater manoeuverability. But for the most part they made do with very simple means and no sophisticated navigational equipment. Here’s a picture of a Norse knarr (click to enlarge):
They were often blown off course, and as described in the Vinland Sagas, it was often due to accident that they made discoveries such as Greenland and Vinland. Interestingly, there’s quite the mix of chance, fate, luck both good and bad, pagan, and Christian in the Vinland Sagas.
As for the advance in sailing technology, in the late middle ages or early renaissance, the triangular lateen sail began to be used in Europe. Here’s a picture of a lateen sail:
The triangular sail, of course, works like a wing — high pressure on one side and low pressure on the other — and it allows a ship to sail almost directly into a headwind. And so by tacking in a zigzag pattern ships can sail go in any direction and are no longer at the mercy of the wind, as long as there is wind, as seen here (click to enlarge):
(You can read a good explanation of all this here.) Ships also started using sternpost rudders rather than steering with an oar hanging off the right side (starboard, literally the steering side, as opposed to the left side called port which was the side towards the dock, also known as larboard or loading side). The stern mounted rudder made it possible to steer larger ships, and larger ships could carry more provisions, including most importantly fresh water. These along with the old square sail (to take efficient advantage of favourable winds), as well as improvements to navigational technology allowed for real exploration to begin at the end of the middle ages and throughout the renaissance, kicking off the European age of discovery. Here’s a picture of the complete package:
Note both the square sails and the triangular lateen sail.
These advances too are reflected in the imaginative literature of the period. This is of course the age of humanism, when the cultural focus shifted from the purely religious to the world of man. People began to define their place in the world in terms other than purely spiritual ones. The eighteenth century, for instance, is full of travel literature, perhaps most famously Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver goes out into the world ostensibly to discover things about other people and places, but in fact learns about his own country in the process. Mankind defines itself through its exploration of the outside world, through its own ability to direct its own course in the world. This is a radical shift from the medieval seagoing metaphor as demonstrated most clearly in Chaucer’s Custance, who is really only defined by her relationship to God. The humanist shift in cultural focus goes hand in hand with the seagoing technological shift.
Though Gulliver can sail anywhere in the world, sailing is still a risky business and he is frequently stranded. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the outer frame narrative of Walton’s arctic exploration in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sound a note of danger in unbridled exploration. This is perhaps somewhat comparable to Dante’s perspective of Ulysses. While mankind is more and more able to govern his own destiny, there are some things he shouldn’t meddle with. If the sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s place in the world and man’s relationship with God, then trying to control your own destiny rather than following God’s guidance is a problem.
I’d been wanting to read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization for some time. Although I’m a medievalist, I’m not a Celticist, so this was quite an interesting read for me. As an Anglo-Saxonist, I was of course quite aware of the important influence of Irish monasticism — Bede, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, admits so in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Cahill’s essential argument is that the Irish were instrumental in preserving and transmitting classical culture and learning (including Christianity) from the ancient world of Rome (and to some extent Greece) to the medieval world and thus the modern world. As he argues, ‘Civilization’ just manages to hang on on the very edge of the world which was overrun by barbarians. I did find that his opinion of late Roman culture was unfortunately low. He didn’t seem to think much of late Latin writers like Statius and the Gallo-Roman writers. But this is a common opinion, even if not entirely justified.
Much of the book is concerned with the story and importance of Saint Patrick, the details of which I was only partially aware of. As chance would have it, I was reading the book at a very oportune time as I started it just before Saint Patrick’s Day. As Cahill points out, the Irish don’t always receive the recognition they deserve in the course of Western history. As a medievalist, I was already aware of the importance of the Irish, but I do imagine that outside of such circles, their contribution is not so well known.
I find Cahill’s writing very captivating. His telling of the stories is quite moving, and his analysis, even if one doesn’t always agree, is very thought provoking. Just today I finished reading the second book in his Hinges of History series, The Gifts of the Jews, which I enjoyed maybe even more, perhaps because I knew less about the topic — I’ll write more about that one later. I would certainly recommend the series to anyone with an interest in history and culture. I’m not sure whether I’d recommend starting with How the Irish Saved Civilization or The Gifts of the Jews — I think both would work. All in all, a fascinating series of books about the foundation of Western culture.
I finally managed to see the recent Beowulf & Grendel movie. My first reaction was that it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. Be warned: there may be spoilers here…
First of all, it looked beautiful. Filming in Iceland was a brilliant idea—it substituted well for a pristine medieval Denmark. And the sets and costumes (though one can certainly pick out anachronisms) were effective—not bad compared to most Hollywood-medieval. Certainly they shouldn’t have had stirrups, but they were riding little Icelandic ponies instead of huge stallions. And I enjoyed touches like the Thor’s hammers the Danes were wearing and the Anglo-Saxon glassware (known as claw beakers), though I may be one of the few who notice such things.
The performances were generally good, and they really brought out the sympathy for Grendel that I always thought was there—indeed I always bring up the point when teaching the poem.
As for the plot and the script, naturally some changes had to be made in order for the story to work on the screen. It didn’t really bother me that Grendel’s attacks were drawn out, rather than having Beowulf defeat Grendel on the first night he tries. That’s just the way movies often work in order to build the tension.
As for some of the other changes, although they weren’t necessarily problematic, I have to ask why. I didn’t quite see why it was necessary to give Grendel the motivation of revenge for the killing of his father, rather than the simpler sour grapes for being excluded and the fact that trolls or draugar or whatever he is just act that way. It had the effect of turning the plot into that of an Icelandic saga with a blood feud. I suppose to some extent that’s already implied in the plot with Grendel’s mother seeking revenge. But does Grendel really need to have a father? Still at least this detail is not inconsistent with Germanic legend.
The element that bothered me most was the addition of the character Selma. Besides the fact that I thought she was unnecessary, she kind of stood out like a sore thumb, and was a bit irritating with her moral self-righteousness. She provided insight into Grendel’s character for Beowulf, but he really isn’t supposed to have that insight—Grendel is supposed to be too far removed from the world of man to be understood.
Well, I could go on, but it would soon descend into a lengthy discourse on my reading of Beowulf, so I leave it at that. Any Anglo-Saxonist ought to see it if given the chance, whatever one thinks about it. It might even be interesting to see what students thought about it, comparing it with the original text.
And oh yes—Andy Orchard was given special thanks in the credits…
Somehow I managed to only blog once in March. On top of that, it’s been ages since I’ve written a real medieval post. Partly this is due to the fact that I haven’t been teaching medieval courses, so I’m often thinking about other things, but as I work on my Kalamazoo paper and other research of my own over the next little while I will no doubt have more to say.
In the meantime, may I suggest you get your medieval fix by reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s blog. It’s really quite well done. But the fun doesn’t stop there, as John Gower and Katherine Swynford also have blogs. (For my non-medieval readers, have a look at the Wikipedia entries on Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and Katherine Swynford to see why this is all so funny.)
What I want to know is why it’s all these Middle English figures who have blogs. Why not the Anglo-Saxons like King Alfred or Ælfric or Wulfstan or Cynewulf…
Following up on my previous post on Stephen Colbert, here are more postings on Language Log on the word ‘truthiness’:
Interestingly, it appears that Colbert hasn’t been truthful (or is that truthy?) about the pronunciation of his name. I’m so disillusioned.
Equally interesting, and a testament to how fast things move these days, there’s not only an entry on Stephen Colbert in Wikipedia, there’s an entry on the word truthiness. He may not have received the recognition he thought he deserved from the American Dialect Society, but the Wiktionary entry for truthiness does mention Colbert.
More recently, Stephen Colbert appeared on the cover of Newsweek (in the top right-hand corner). Of course the article mentions the whole truthiness bruhaha.
All this talk of the word truthiness makes me reflect on my favourite medieval English word: truth. Yes, I know it’s a modern English word to, but the particularly interesting thing about the word in medieval English is the range of meanings the word had. Not only did it have the obvious meaning of veracity (that is, not being false), and the less obvious though perhaps still present moral sense of fidelity or faith, the word was also at that point undifferentiated from the word troth, meaning a promise, as in betrothal or to plight one’s troth. This range of meanings is particularly important in Middle English literature, where truth is often represented as one of the chivalric virtues (a bit like Superman’s truth, justice, and the American way, I suppose). As a chivalric virtue it implied both a moral rectitude and the keeping of one’s word. Chaucer, in addition to mentioning the quality numerous time in the Canterbury Tales, also wrote a short poem called Truth.
In a more religious context, in William Langland’s Piers Ploughman, when the question is asked what is the way to heaven, the answer is that truth is the best.
And in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the quality of truth is Sir Gawain’s most fundamental virtue. Indeed the trials Sir Gawain undergoes are a test of his truth. In the end, Sir Gawain passes with almost a perfect grade, demonstrating his truth. King Arthur, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to fully take the lesson to heart, perhaps only displaying truthiness.
Unsurprisingly, I was given several books for Christmas. I love receiving books, as I’m often given books that I probably wouldn’t buy myself, but which I quite enjoy. And now I know what I’ll be reading over the next little while.
Among the books I got are Murder’s Out of Tune by Jeffrey Miller, a mystery involving a crime-solving cat. As is clear from the sidebar list of readings, I’ve read a number of books like this featuring cat protagonists, so this looks like just the book for me. Thanks go to my parents-in-law for this one. I’ll post some comments on it once I’ve read it.
My wife gave me a number of books, including Cassell’s Dictionary of Norse Myth & Legend, by one of my doctoral committee members, Andy Orchard. This is an excellent reference book, and it will be useful to have a copy of this close at hand. She also gave me a copy of Chickering’s edition of Beowulf, which contains a useful commentary, and Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, a book often recommended to me. And finally, she gave me two books by James Burke, The Knowledge Web and Twin Tracks, about which/whom I will post more later.
So quite the bonanza of books. I wish I could spend all my time reading…
With the election of Benedict XVI, papal history has been much in the news of late, so this is my small contribution of the flood of information. My interests in the topic are purely academic, so please don’t take offence if you are either devoutly Catholic or rabidly anticlerical.
Specifically my interests were piqued by the variety of conflicting claims about how the tradition of papal renaming — for instance Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger becoming Pope Benedict XVI — was started. The first to do this, as far as I can tell, seems to have been Pope John II (533-535 AD), who was originally named Mercurius. One can see how such a dramatically pagan name might be a problem — though it didn’t seem to be a problem for Pope Dionysius (260-268 AD). I suppose St. Peter doesn’t count, even though he was originally named Simon. The first pope to be “the second” of any name was Pope Sixtus II (257-258 AD), though this was presumably his actual name (ironic though, eh?).
Other bits of papal trivia that I find interesting: there has never been anyone else named Pope Peter — that would be presumptuous; the last pope not to have a number appended to his name, and therefore not named after a previous pope nor to have another pope named after him, was Pope Lando (913-14 AD) — I wonder why…; Pope Benedict IX, a disasterous pope by all accounts and presumably not the reason the current pope chose the name, was pope three times (1032-45, 1045, 1047-8); sadly, the legend of there being a female pope, Pope Joan, is just that, a legend; there hasn’t been an antipope since the 15th century — ah, to live in more interesting times…
If there are any experts on church history out there, feel free to correct any of the above or enlighten me further.
As I posted earlier, I’m also currently teaching Chaucer this year for the first time. This has been a very rewarding, if very busy, experience. It’s been a lot of work, but I’ve now built a Chaucer course, so the dividends should continue to pay off.
As it turns out, those dividends will be paying off this summer, as I’ll be teaching Chaucer again here at U of T as a summer evening course (Tuesdays and Thursdays 6 to 9). I’m quite looking forward to this, since I’ll already have most of the hard work done and can enjoy myself and the texts more. Chaucer students seem to be really good at in-class discussion.
Of Chaucer’s literary works, The Canterbury Tales was what I had the most experience with prior to this course — actually I’ve probably worked most with Chaucer’s translation of Boethius, but one doesn’t usually teach such a text in an undergraduate course. We covered the Tales in the first term and this term we started off with Troilus and Criseyde, a poem which fascinates me greatly, both in terms of its Boethian content and its generic manipulation, as well as for many other reasons. More recently we’ve been working through the dream vision poems. We recently finished The Book of the Duchess and are now in the middle of The House of Fame.
I have to say that The House of Fame is the Chaucer poem that I feel least able to make a final pronouncement upon. Sure I have plenty to say about it, but I don’t know if I have a final statement about it. This may in part be because the poem is in fact unfinished, but it’s also a complex and slippery poem. I guess my take on it is that it is Chaucer’s anxiety attack. Welcome to the wonderful world of Chaucer’s neuroses! In addition to the more minor sources of anxiety such as the classification of dreams — which it must be admitted is likely a merely rhetorical stance on Chaucer’s part — Chaucer seems to be deeply concerned with dealing with inconsistant or potentially ureliable sources. The dreamer/narrator in the poem is taken to the House of Fame to learn “tidings” to use in his poetry, but true and false tidings are mixed up together, and how can one distinguish them? The poem exudes uncertainty and anxiety, and I think this adds to my own uncertainty about it. It’s funny but I find this poem more troubling than some of Chaucer’s longer and ostensibly more complex works such as the Tales or Troilus and Criseyde. I think I’m going to have to live with this one for a bit longer before I fully come to terms with it.
Soon we’ll be on to The Parliament of Fowls, which can be seen as almost a sequel to The House of Fame, as Chaucer continues his quest for some sort of knowledge or information about love for his poetising.
I haven’t yet posted on my teaching since my blog rose from the ashes a few weeks ago, so now seems like a good time. As I posted a long time ago, I’m teaching two full year courses this year, Old English again and Chaucer, and both have gone quite well. Today I’ll post about the Old English class and soon I’ll do another about the Chaucer class.
I tried out a new Old English grammar textbook this year, Peter Baker’s Introduction to Old English. While I like the idea behind the arrangement of the book, I’m not entirely satisfied by the execution. The main problems with the old standard textbook for Old English, Mitchell and Robinson’s Guide to Old English, are that it isn’t user friendly, it presumes that the students already have some grounding in at least modern English grammar if not another inflected language like Latin, and it isn’t arranged in a pedagogically useful manner. Thus, it is up to the instructor to provide the necessary structure and explanation, as I did last year when I used the book. Baker’s book, on the other hand, is an attempt to make up for this lack. The material is arranged in such a manner so as to allow the students to progress through the grammer in a somewhat graduated fashion, while slowly introducing them to simple short texts. Unfortunately, there are a number of errors in the book and some of the explanations are rather vague or incomplete. Perhaps these issues will be addressed in future editions, but I don’t think I’ll use this textbook again. Instead, I would go back to Mitchell and Robinson, which is far more reliable, and supplement this with a photocopied package of materials which I would put together myself. This proposed package would include what is essentially an interface to Mitchell and Robinson, arranging the material in a pedagogically sound manner with accompanying readings and exercises. This way I would have the reliability of Mitchell and Robinson’s treatment of the grammar with an arrangement more like the old warhorse Latin texbook by Wheelock in graduated sections. Well, it’s a bit of a pipe dream now, as it would be much work to put such a thing together, but I do think it would be worth it.
Otherwise the class is going well. The enrollment dropoff is a little higher than in recent years, but those who are sticking with it are talented and keen. We just finished with The Wanderer, which seemed to really catch the students’ interests and produced some good class discussion. Before that we looked at The Dream of the Rood. I become more and more fascinated by the poem every time I read it. One of these days I’m going to have to sit down and put together an article on it. Now we’re on the Deor, which is always fun because it gives me the opportunity to tell all the stories behind the allusive (and often elusive) references to Germanic legend in it. By the way, it’s interesting to note that my entry from exactly one year ago today has much the same comments.
Well, I’ve registered again for the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo. At this year’s conference, I’ll be giving a paper entitled “Pragmatic Markers in Old English Narrative” in session 230 Old English Language on Friday, May 6th at 10 am (see schedule). Now all I have to do is write the thing…
Well, I can’t help but feel somewhat insulted by this one. Though I don’t mind the drunk part so much…
Another quiz, this one rather grimly about which medieval plague I have… Well, it’s all in good fun…
Congratulations! You have St. Anthony’s Fire! Today known Ergotism, this illness is caught through ingestion of a fungal infection of grain, usually rye. If you are not already, you soom are going to be suffering from dizziness, hallucinations, and a sensation of burning in the limbs, thus giving the disease its name. It could result in gangrene. The good news: there is a 60% chance you will survive it! The bad news? You will wish you had not. You will have lingering symptoms for the rest of your life, including mental impairment and being more susceptible to it in the future rather than having immunity. You probably live in a rural town undergoing a very wet winter to have caught this skin-reddening sickness.
Which Medieval Plague Do You Have?
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Last Friday I saw the new film King Arthur, in spite of the bad reviews it has been receiving. Indeed, two of the blogs I read already have comments on the movie up (here and here). Unlike some others, I thought that as a movie it wasn’t bad — maybe not great, but still not bad. My feeling is that someone who doesn’t know much about Arthurian stories might enjoy the movie. One can certainly find flaws with the script or the acting in certain places, but this is true with almost any movie. As mindless entertainment goes, it’s perfectly enjoyable.
It’s also rather pointless to really pick on the many historical inacuracies, as such things are inevitable with films set in the middle ages or ancient world. I certainly appreciate the attempt to include fairly obsure historical elements such as the Pelagian heresy and Bishop Germanus, though unfortunately these elements just don’t correlate chronologically. The movie, set in 452 AD, revolves around the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain, but in all probability there were no Roman troops in Britain after about 410 AD. Also, the Battle of Badon Hill is supposed to have been, I believe, much later in the 5th century, and Pelagius, whom Arthur is said to have known in the movie, died many years earlier. There is also a bit of a geographical problem. The “wall” — which I suppose is never actually referred to as “Hadrian’s Wall”, but that must be what it’s supposed to be — was in the north of Britain, and nowhere near Badon’s Hill. I could go on, but as I said, there’s not much point.
However, I think there is a more fundamental problem with this movie. The filmmakers have tried to have their proverbial cake and eat it too. As is made clear in the opening voice-over monologue — and the opening words of the voice-over monologue “Historians agree…” should trigger anyone’s warning bells — the point of this movie is to reveal the “true” story behind the legend (or words to that effect) — not necessarily a bad notion. It was an opportunity to make a film about the very interesting 5th century Britain. However, if one is to make a film about a supposed historical King Arthur, one must leave out all the later elements of the story, which clearly have nothing to do with any original story, such as Lancelot, who comes from the French tradition. The two are not compatible. It might have been a more successful movie if the filmmakers had chosen one of the medieval versions of the story and simply followed that. It wouldn’t have been historically contextualized, but it wouldn’t need to be. I also found it odd that they took the great medieval romance and converted it into what is essentially epic (though I guess it goes along with the historical contextualization angle). This movie was basically a good idea, but a misguided effort.
All in all, I don’t think King Arthur was as successful as Troy, which I quite enjoyed (see my previous comments about Troy), but if — as Troy supposedly has done for classics — King Arthur generates more interest in medieval literature, then that can’t help but be a good thing. It will be interesting to see how many students I have next year who have seen King Arthur; at least I know what misconceptions to be prepared for.
Although I’ve been rather busy over the last month or so, I have still been managing to find the time for pleasure reading. The last book I wrote about, Invisible Forms, is making the rounds of a number of my friends, so perhaps I’ll hold off on writing more about it until they’ve read it.
Recently I read (or rather re-read) Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green, a book my sister gave me years ago. I was in the mood for Norse mythology, but I also wanted something fairly lightweight, so I pulled this one off my shelf instead of going to the original texts. As Green states in his introduction, “This book is an attempt to present the surviving myths of the Norsemen as a single narrative.” Thus Green draws on the various mythological poems and sagas, often following them word for word, and combines them into one continuous narrative. It’s a good way to get a general sense of the Norse myths, and I would certainly recommend the book for anyone who was looking for just that. Of course there is nothing that can replace the original texts (either in Old Icelandic or in translation), but this is a much easier read. It’s quite a moving, fun, and interesting set of stories, but I’ll not say too much about particular details in case anyone is convinced to read Green’s book (it’s only about 200 pages after all).
People generally know quite a bit about Greco-Roman mythology; it’s very often portrayed in popular forms of entertainment, and it’s a popular course in university (and more often than not, it seems, is taught by my wife). However, few seem to know much about Norse mythology (and no, the Thor comic books don’t count). How many Norse gods can you, dear reader, name?1 I’d love to teach the subject one day, and I think it’s time someone made one of these big-budget films with these stories. Of course it would probably be botched in such an endeavour, but the classicists have put up with that for years, so I’m sure we medievalists can too.
1 Post your answers as a comment and win a cookie!
Well, what better way is there to rejoin the land of the blogging than another one of these quizzes? I know they’re kind of silly, but they do amuse me. And who doesn’t enjoy a good bit of palaeography?
As Rethabile has rightly surmised, the past few weeks have been very busy — thanks for the kind words, Rethabile, it’s nice to know I’ve been missed. I do still plan to catch up the past few weeks with a series of posts, but for now, this brief post about today will have to do.
Today my wife and I went to see the movie Troy. You can read my wife’s more learned and informed comments, but for my part I found that the film really captured the feel and scope of epic in a way no other film adaptation of epic poetry, at least as far as I’ve seen, has. Whatever ‘inaccuracies’ or changes there may have been, I think that’s the main point. Now if only film makers would treat medieval epic as successfully.
Though romance not epic, there is a film about the Arthurian story coming out this summer, but from what I can tell from the previews I’ve seen so far, I’m not very optimistic. It seems that they’re claiming to be telling a the story behind the myth, a more realistic ‘historical’ story, but instead they seem to be using the stories from the later Arthurian legends and just stripping away all the magic and mysticism. Rather than giving an accurate portrayal of Roman Britain in the time of the Germanic invasion, they’ve included elements of the Arthur stories which are clearly borrowed from later French tradition (such as the whole Lancelot part of the story). But I should hold my judgements until I’ve actually seen the thing.
Anyway, I’m off to a barbeque with friends tonight, but hopefully I’ll blog again tomorrow with further updates and perhaps an account of this evening’s gastronomic delights.
My paper, “Verbal Constructions and the Structure of Old English Narrative”, went well, though there weren’t many people attending that session; this may have been because the room had been changed, and there were only two papers in the session. In any case, those who were there seemed to enjoy the session, and there was some good discussion after the papers were given. I guess I’ve delivered enough of these conference papers now — not to mention the fact that I’m used to performing in front of a class on a daily basis — that the whole process was particularly smooth and enjoyable for me.
I didn’t get to as many other sessions as I would have liked because I had to bring exams to grade with me to Kalamazoo, but I did see at least a few good papers (as well as a few not-so-good papers). I also attended quite a number of receptions with open bars — the real reason people go to Kalamazoo. And I managed to pick up a few books at the exibit hall. I bought mostly editions, and fairly inexpensive ones at that, so I didn’t spend too much money. And of course the crowning glory of the weekend was the Saturday night dance. There is little that is more surreal than seeing a room full of medievalists letting loose on the dance floor.
All in all, it was a good Kalamazoo. I’m always lethargic about going just before leaving, but I always enjoy myself. And I’m sure I’ll feel it worthwhile to submit another paper for next year.
In about a week and a half, I leave for Kalamazoo, Michigan for the 39th International Congress on Medieval Studies where I will be delivering a paper entitled “Verbal Constructions and the Structure of Old English Narrative”.1 I’m still working on the paper.
When I submitted my proposal, way back in August or September, I was shortly about to sit my thesis defence, so at the time the only thing I had on my mind was the material in my dissertation. While the title of the paper is suitably vague enough, I am bound somewhat by the contents of the proposal. I’ve got plenty of new material that I’ve been working on since then (as well as some unused material from when I was writing my dissertation) which could be worked into the paper (more interesting for me and potentially more interesting for the audience), but there is only so far I can stretch it, and only so much material I can fit into a 20 minute talk. Also, I find myself needing to balance the desire to talk about my more recent material against the exigencies of presenting a coherent and unified paper. Hopefully I’ll find the right balance…
1 The session I’m speaking in, Ideas of Style in Old English, is on Thursday May 6th at 3:30 pm, but instead of the location printed in the programme it will take place in Schneider 1355, or so I’m told.
On a similar note, there are some nice manuscript images available from the British Library on their Turning the Pages site, including images from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Also quite stunning.
My dissertation, The Conceptualisation of Futurity in Old English (abstract), is now available for download from UMI ProQuest Digital Disserations (free for those with academic affiliations and with a charge, which doesn’t go to me, for the general public). Strangely enough, it is not yet available in the U of T Library — they seem to be very slow to catalogue new items — but it is available in the PIMS library. It’s about the development and usage of futural verbal constructions in Old English.
Now anyone who wishes can have relatively easy access to it. This is a good thing, I think, since I don’t think I’ll be trying to have it published as is. Instead, I plan to suck all the marrow out of its bones and publish a series of articles based on the best parts of it. Chapter 1 could probably be expanded into a monograph and published on its own, and the rest of it would make sense as shorter articles, also expanded and revised. I think the material will be more approachable that way, and, to be mercenary about it, I’ll get more lines on my résumé that way. But what do others think of the relative merits of publishing a dissertation as a book or as a series of articles?
In the last week of term, I covered riddles with my Old English class. I figured it would be a fun way to end the term. We started with the a couple of basic riddles from the textbook and then moved on to some riddles that I prepared as a handout. Mitchell & Robinson’s A Guide to Old English doesn’t contain any of the double-entendre riddles, riddles which seem to suggest a rather salacious solution but in fact have a perfectly ordinary and polite solution, so I had to make up a mini-edition of some good ones (with glossaries) to use in class. I think the class quite enjoyed them and were only a little traumatised by the experience.
The riddles are also quite interesting for a variety of reasons in addition to the use of humour in Anglo-Saxon literature, as they give an insight into the Anglo-Saxon cultural commonplaces and reflections on the natural world.
Here for the entertainment of my readers are (translations of) some of the riddles we looked at in class. A cookie to the first one to guess the solution to each of the riddles. The first two are polite riddles, the second two are suggestive:
A man sat at wine with his two wives and his two sons and his two daughters, beloved sisters, and their two sons, noble firstborn; the father of each of those two young men was there with them, uncle and nephew. In all there were five of those men and women sitting there.
A creature came going where many men sat in an assembly, wise in mind; it had one eye and two ears, and two feet, twelve hundred heads, a back and a belly and two hands, arms and shoulders, one neck and two sides. Say what I am called.
A wonderous thing hangs by a man’s thigh, under the man’s garment. In the front is a hole. It is firm and hard, it has a good place; then the man lifts his garment over the knee, wishes to touch with the head of his hanging object that familiar hole which he regularly before often filled.
I heard something grows in a corner, swells and is erect, raising its covering; a bride groped that boneless thing with proud hands, the lord’s daughter covered the swelling thing with a garment.
For a very literal, accurate translation, the one in S.A.J. Bradley’s Anglo-Saxon Poetry, which contains translations of the majority of Old English poems, is a quite reliable prose rendering. Bradley is usually the first translation I reach for for Old English poetry.
On the other hand, for a more entertaining verse translation, there is always the recent version by Seamus Heaney. Heaney’s version is quite interesting as a poem in and of itself, but he does take some liberties with the text. There is a handy dual language edition with facing page text of the original Old English poem. Or there is a critical edition from Norton, which has a number of useful extras such as commentary and a collection of important Beowulf scholarship.
R.M Liuzza’s verse translation is quite a successful compromise between these two ends of the spectrum. I quite like Liuzza’s version, actually. It is an accurate representation of the text, and it is interesting to read. It also contains a slew of useful materials in appendices, such as translations of various analogues to the poem and sample passages for a number of Beowulf translations for comparison.
It’s quite interesting comparing these three versions. Bradley and Liuzza are both Old English scholars, and Heaney, of course, is a famous (Irish) poet. Heaney has certain goals in his translation which he explains in his introduction. One of the essay topics I set for my Old English students was to compare two different translations of an Old English text. In addition to the translations of Beowulf there are some quite interesting versions of Old English poems by otherwise famous English poets, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Battle of Brunanburh and Ezra Pound’s The Seafarer. I’m quite looking forward to what my students come up with.
For those who have read any of these translations, what did you think?
A little while back, Blinger wrote an entry about the importance of being over-prepared for teaching, a sentiment I certainly agree with. However, there are times that improvising in the classroom can be very effective.
Last week I gave a lecture (acually part of a lecture) that I thought was quite good, which was done without full preparation. In my Old English class (as I’ve mentioned before), we were looking at a passage from the poem Judith. I’ve been working on the poem in my own research recently, and I had done some additional work with the aim of making some introductory remarks on the poem in class, but I decided that there wouldn’t be time for a lengthy introduction, so I never actually wrote up my notes for class, opting only for some brief remarks.
As it turned out, we finished the passage from Beowulf more quickly than expected, so there was a good 20 to 30 minutes or so at the end of one class for me to do my introduction for Judith, so I just improvised on the subject off the top of my head. I think it was one of my more successful recent lectures actually. It even inspired one student to change his essay topic. Admittedly, I had done a lot of research beforehand, but I wasn’t working from a set of notes. Perhaps the best method is to make the notes and then throw them away. In any case, I certainly couldn’t do a lecture by just reading from a set of notes. I much prefer actually talking to my class and being able to read the expressions on their faces as I go.
Well, I’ll finish off this entry with the Beowulf joke I told my class last week (not my joke originally, by the way): “Beowulf is the story of how the hero Beowulf comes to Heorot to stop Grendel from eating all the Danishes.”
Over this past week in my Old English class, we’ve been reading parallel passages from Beowulf and Judith (as I’ve mentioned in a previous posting), specifically dismemberment passages: Beowulf’s fight with Grendel and the tearing off of his arm (ll. 809-836), Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother (ll. 1557-1590), and Judith’s decapitation of Holofernes (ll. 94b-121).
In the first passage, in a fight with Grendel, Beowulf mortally wounds Grendel by ripping his arm off; Grendel then flees the hall to die in private. Beowulf then puts the arm on display in the hall Heorot (Hart House, anyone?) as visible evidence — tacen sweotol ‘visible token’ — that he defeated Grendel.
In the second passage, Beowulf cuts Grendel’s mother’s head off with a special ancient sword he finds in her underwater abode. He then proceeds to mutilate the already dead body of Grendel, cutting the head off. Beowulf does this for two reasons, for revenge and so that he can bring the head back with him to Heorot. When Beowulf arrives at the hall, he shows it to the Danes tires to tacne ‘as a token of glory’, again, visible evidence of his victory.
In the final passage we looked at, Judith saves her people, the Hebrews, from Holofernes and his invading army of Assyrians. The Assyrians have beseiged the city of Bethulia, and Judith uses feminine charms to gain access to the enemy camp. The wicked Holofernes holds a banquet and becomes very drunk. Deciding to have his way with Judith, he orders her brought to his bedchamber, but then passes out from all the alcohol. Judith takes this opportunity to cut Holofernes’ head off, though it takes two blows to do it, and then sneaks out of the camp bringing the head with her. When she returns to her city, she orders her handmaiden hyt to behðe blodig ætywan ‘to show it, bloody, as a sign’ to her people. And she says, “Her ge magon sweotole … on ðæs laðestan hæ&eht;enes heaðorinces heafod starian” [‘You may clearly gaze on the head of that most hated heathen warrior’]. Having seen this visible evidence of Holofernes’ death, the people of Bethulia are enheartened and attack and defeat the now leaderless Assyrians, who panic and flee.
I find this all very interesting, the need for visible evidence, the motives for dismemberment, the thematic implications. I should also point out that both these poems are found in the same manuscript, so drawing parallels between the two is very tempting.
I saw another Quizilla quiz which I found curious. Here is my result (if you can manage to overlook the various typos and grammatical errors):
You are from the Anglo-Saxon time period. It was
a very hard time for the people - sickness,
death, barely anyone being able to read. But
the people learned to have a stoic acceptance
to these things. Truly, this is the era where
the stuff of legends are made - the most famous
one being Beowulf. You have a strong sense of
right and wrong. You never give up. Life is
sometimes hard but you learn to look on the
bright side of things. You have a strong
beleif in things that explain; religon, magic
swords, omens, etc. Sometimes, though, you
have a tendecy to make things look bigger,
better, or worse than they are.
Which Era do you belong to?
brought to you by Quizilla
First of all, I find it interesting that the time period is referred to as the “Anglo-Saxon time period”. I suppose this quiz is based on the literary time periods of England. However, another possible result from the quiz is the “medieval time period”. Is Anglo-Saxon England not part of the middle ages? At least they didn’t use the term “dark ages” (a term I find problematic) to refer to ASE.
The content of the quiz result is also intriguing. I guess it’s the usual stereotype people have of the Anglo-Saxon world. I find the use of the term stoic quite interesting. I guess it’s the closest parallel.
For the purposes of comparison, here is the result for the “medieval time period” (with humorous spelling error):
You are from the Medievil time period. If you read
any history book, it’ll tell you all about
sickness, disease, poor living conditions, and
death. But if you look into a literature book,
it will show you something more; honor and
chivalry, love and romance, conquest long
journey’s for love and family. You’re a
hopeless romantic (I remember reading that in
another quiz … ). You don’t waste time on
Earth because you know that some people don’t
have a lot. This is the time period where
people began to relize they could discover and
create something new. You always look to the
By “medieval” they mean the high middle ages or Middle English period in England. Again, these are the standard stereotypes. What particularly fascinates me is the final sentence: “You always look to the future”. Of course the common assumption is that the Anglo-Saxons were always looking to the past. While this is certainly true (as expertly pointed out by Roberta Frank), in my dissertation I argued that the future was an important concept and going concern for the Anglo-Saxons as well. So I hereby reappropriate that sentence in the name of the Anglo-Saxons.
I’ve added a number of new links on the sidebar to language blogs that I read.
There is an interesting discussion in Language Log (here and here) about case and military prowess in the ancient / early medieval world. As was pointed out, the actual conquerers of Rome were in fact Germanic speakers, specifically Goths, who had nearly as many cases to deal with as there are in Latin. They did, however, have a simpler tense/aspect system. Hmm…
Languagehat has a posting on the Englisc List, an e-mail discussion group about composition in Old English of which I am a lurking subscriber. There is also a review of Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything that is rather more critical than my own. Languagehat makes some valid points. I guess my reaction to the book wasn’t as critical because my expectations were somewhat different; I was expecting a light, entertaining history of the OED, and that’s what it is.
Happy St Patrick’s Day to all! Have a Guinness or a Jameson, (or ignore the day completely if you prefer). Tomorrow I’ll write about tonight’s St Patrick’s Day dinner. For now I’ll mark the day with a bit of trivia.
In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the year 430, St Patrick is (or may be) briefly mentioned: “Her Patricius wæs asend fram Celestine þam papan to bodianne Scottum fulluht” (ChronE 430.1).1 This is in the E text of the ASC; all the other texts read “Palladius” (as does Bede’s HE). In the A text of the ASC, there is an interlinear addition of ‘or Patrick’ in what is apparently a post-Conquest hand. So there seems to be some confusion here, but it seems like it should actually be Palladius and not Patrick.2 Patrick gets all the glory in later tradition, and poor Palladius get Guinness drunk in his honour every year.
It’s also worth noting that the Irish are referred to as the Scots, which was common at the time (I’m sure it will infuriate many to read this). The passage in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum reads: “Palladius ad Scottos in Christum credentes a pontifice Romanae ecclesiae Caelestino primus mittitur episcopus” (HE 13).3 This passage is translated into Old Engish as: “Þæs caseres rices ðy eahteþan geare Palladius biscop wæs ærest sended to Scottum, þa ðe on Crist gelyfdon, fram þam biscope þære Romaniscan cyricean, Celestinus wæs haten”.4
Scots… Irish… to those in the middle ages it’s all the same. What a final sentiment for a St Patrick’s Day posting. Well, I’m off to drink some Jameson and Guinness. I’ll finish off with the only other mention I’ve found in the Old English corpus of St Patrick: “Ðonne resteð sanctus Aidanus and sanctus Patricius on Glæstingabirig and fela oðra sancta”. (KSB 8.2 37.1). A cookie to the first one to correctly translate this passage…
1 ‘In this year, Patrick was sent from Pope Celestine to preach baptism to the Scots.’
2 There is an article on the confusion between the two figures: D.N. Dumville, “‘Acta Palladii’ preserved in Patrician hagiography”, in Saint Patrick, ed. D.N. Dumville (Woodbridge, 1993), pp. 65-84.
3 ‘Palladius was sent from Celestine, bishop of the Roman Church, to the Scots, who believed in Christ, as their first bishop.’
4 ‘In the eighth year of that Emperor’s reign, bishop Palladius was first sent to the Scots, who believed in Christ, from that bishop of the Roman church who was called Celestinus.’
It occurs to me that I haven’t blogged about a linguistic topic in a while, so I thought I’d write about the issue of gender in language as it became an issue in both my English Writing class and my Old English class this week.
The grammar topic I covered with my English Writing class this week was agreement (subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent), and this brought up the problem of the lack of a gender non-specific singular personal pronoun in English. Of course it has become pretty much standard usage in spoken language to use they for this purpose as in: ‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in their waiting room.’ I had to convince my students that it wasn’t correct to use their that way in written language.
My students weren’t terribly happy with the rather clunky solution of using he or she or s/he (‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in his or her waiting room’), but there really isn’t any way around that is there (suggestions welcome).
Historically, most languages (or at least the Indo-European ones I know) use the masculine gender to cover both (‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in his waiting room’), but this no longer as acceptable, not only for the sake of political correctness, but also for logical correctness; with respect to my sample sentence, a hundred years ago one might be more or less safe in assuming that all doctors are male but that’s certainly not true now.
While it isn’t correct to use they as a gender non-specific singular personal pronoun in written English now, I’m sure that in a hundred years or so it will be (unless some other pronoun is developed to fill that void). I’d be interested to hear from anyone who might be able to enlighten me as to how other languages not familiar to me handle this problem.
On a related topic, I find it stunning how often scholars have tried to interfere with the gender expressed in the Old English poem The Wife’s Lament. The poem is a first person monologue, with no name given for the speaker. It is clear from the first sentence of the poem that the speaker must be female because of two adjectives referring to the speaker which have unambiguous feminine endings (geomorre and minre sylfre). A surprising number of Old English scholars have suggested emending those inflectional endings so as to take the speaker as male. It is a testament to the systematic misogyny of 19th century scholars, I suppose. What is perhaps even more surprising is that even as late as the 1960s such arguments were still being floated. And it is remarkable the lengths that these scholars went to explain away the gender expressed in the text and how inventive some of their arguments were. It’s a shame, because it is such a compelling poem and such a powerful female voice.
As a final note, if you enjoy reading about language, click over to On English (also linked to on the sidebar), a very entertaining and interesting blog written by Rethabile Masilo, who enjoys punning neologisms as much as I do.
The academic job market has, of course, been very much on my mind lately. And this insightful posting by Michael Drout has inspired me to make this my topic today.
Having defended my dissertation in September 2003 and spending the 2003-2004 academic year as a part-time sessional instructor at U of T teaching Old English and English writing, this was the first year that I was really on the job market. Now realistically I know that one must often expect to be on the marked for a few years before landing that much-coveted tenure-track job, but it seems like a steeper climb than I had originally thought.
As Michael Drout pointed out in the aforementioned posting, graduates of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto have often been quite successful in getting jobs, but I’m not so sure that’s as true recently as it has been in the past. There were a number of Centre students on the market this year, myself included, who didn’t get jobs in this round of hiring. I think there are some more general reasons for this as well as some specific ones in my case.
I suspect English departments may have a general bias against medieval studies. Students from medieval studies programmes have a lot of specialist knowledge. The Centre for Medieval Studies places a lot of emphasis on languages and skills such as textual criticism, Latin, and palaeography. Many English department hiring committees, however, may be looking for candidates who will teach medieval literature in a way more in keeping with the ways other areas of English literature is taught.
Am I suggesting that a PhD from an English department is better than one from a medieval department? Not at all. In fact, I believe in many ways a medieval studies graduate is on the whole often better prepared to produce solid scholarship on medieval literature than a graduate from an English department, but the English department graduate still has an advantage when it comes to the job market.
I think it’s particularly difficult for Old English specialists. As a friend of mine pointed out to me today, medievalists often have to position themselves as early early modernists. And there often seems to be a (wrong-headed) belief that it’s better to hire a Middle English specialist who can teach Old English than it is to hire an Old English specialist who can teach Old English.
In my case specifically, I imagine I am somewhat disadvantaged by the fact that the focus of my research is philological. I know that many people would suggest that one’s thesis topic should be chosen with a hiring committee in mind, but I simply refuse to sell out just to get a job. A trendy topic may garner attention in the short term, but fifty years from now it’s the philology that will still be relevant. Besides, one has to enjoy what one is researching, otherwise it probably won’t get done.
I had initially thought that my teaching experience would be a big advantage. I had had a lot of TA positions and was applying as a current sessional instructor. But I now think publications are far more important. As Michael Drout pointed out, an article in the right journal can open a lot of doors. So now my priority is getting published, and hopefully for me that will make the difference in the next round of hiring.
Well, that’s enough ranting for today, I guess. Though I may sound a little bitter, I guess it’s just because I’m venting a little. I haven’t by any means lost hope, but it is a little discouraging.
It occurs to me that I haven’t writting anything about teaching my Old English class yet. This week we finished up the poem The Wanderer and are now in the middle of Deor. Reading these poems again, I was again struck by how fascinating they are (though for very different reasons). I’m enjoying teaching these poems immensely.
For a poem ostensibly about a wanderer or eardstapa (literally ‘earth-stepper’), it’s striking how solipsistic The Wanderer is. Certainly the poem contains much description of the physical realities of the wanderer’s situation, but so much of the poem is about his internal psychological state. Indeed the poem is quite a sophisticated examination of the psychology of despair and consolation, it seems to me.
Deor, also a poem that examines despair and consolation, is fun to teach because it gives me the opportunity to talk about Germanic heroic legends (as well as Classical mythological analogues). And while some scholars back away from the suggestion that there is Boethian influence on the poem, I find the parallels quite striking, particularly when taking into account King Alfred’s translations. Aside from the passage that parallels the refrain in Deor, most of the legends referred to in the poem are also referred to in Alfred’s version or are paralleled by a Classical analogue.
But the main reason why I’m enjoying teaching this stuff so much is how keen my class is about it. They seem to be as fascinated by it as I am. It’s very encouraging to get that kind of response.
Well, I don’t have time for a full posting today, but I thought I’d just take a moment to wish everyone a happy St. David’s Day. I suppose it’s odd that I titled this posting in Old English (‘The Welsh and leeks’), but I’m afraid I don’t know any Old Welsh (would someone care to enlighten me?); it’s especially odd since the word ‘Welsh’ comes from the Old English word Wealh, which originally meant ‘foreigner, slave’. The poor Welsh were made slaves and foreigners in their own country by the Anglo-Saxons!
In celebration of St. David’s day, we put leeks in our chicken noodle soup last night (made from our home made stock). Etymology for the day: the word ‘leek’ comes from the Old English word leac, which is actually a general word for ‘onion’ and is the second element in the compound garleac ‘garlic’, literally ‘spear-leak’ because of its shape.
Last night I attended an interesting lecture given by Roberta Frank, a former professor of mine. The talk was entitled “Not Much is Worse than a Troll”: A Norse Poem from Medieval Orkney and discussed the Old Norse poem Málsháttakvæði (which means ‘proverb poem’). This poem is filled with proverbs such as “Not much is worse than a troll”, “Dragons often rise up on their tail”, “Easily grasped are the crimes of a hog”, “The living man always rejoices in a cow”, and “To love another’s child is to cherish a wolf”. Roberta’s talk stressed the importance of philology and how close attention to language informs our understanding of medieval Northern Germanic literature and culture, and was both interesting and entertaining.
Following the lecture was a reception and then an enjoyable performance of early music from Scandinavia by Ensemble Polaris. Among the many talented musicians in Ensemble Polaris are the multitalented Kirk Elliott, who played violin, harp, bowed psaltery, accordion, and Swedish bagpipes, and Ben Grossmann, who played the hurdy gurdy and jew’s harp. I always enjoy hearing unusual and/or early music instruments being performed. The performance was recorded by CBC Radio 2 for future broadcast on Music Around Us, so give it a listen when it comes up.
All in all, a nice way to spend an evening.