The Massachusetts Medievalist on Dating Beowulf and dating Beowulf

For the past three weeks #MedievalTwitter has largely criticized the new Dating Beowulf volume, released 26 December on the open-access portal of Manchester University Press and edited by Erica Weaver and Dan Remein. I’m a contributor to this volume, so obviously cannot be anything like an impartial part of this conversation; that said, I’d like to try to add my own thoughts and suggest some ways for the field to continue to develop.

One point reiterated on Twitter was that the editors did not respond to the social media critiques for almost two weeks; I suggest that ire should be redirected towards the press itself. Erica and Dan were obviously instructed not to make any statement at all until after the press’s legal team had looked at the allegations of plagiarism and lack of citation. Because of the calendar and the odd release date of the volume, the press was not at full staff until Monday 6 January, and the press’s eventual statement on Wednesday 8 January did not take responsibility for the delay. Manchester’s lack of support here should be termed “throwing the junior colleagues under the bus.”

Other parts of the criticism have focused on two related points: the absence of scholars of color in the contributors’ list and lack of citation/reference to Adam Miyashiro’s work in two essays focused on ethnicity and indigeneity.

In a statement issued by the Press, the editors “apologize for not creating a more inclusive contributorship and for not citing Adam Miyashiro’s blog post.” I would like to add to the first part of that apology – I’m sorry for not asking about diversity in the contributors’ list back when the volume was conceived, and as one of the more senior contributors I perhaps could have spurred Erica and Dan to prioritize diversity at that early point in the process. However, in 2015/2016, when they were commissioning the essays, it wasn’t on my radar to ask that question. Should it have been? Absolutely yes. But it wasn’t, and I regret that.

The monumental and necessary changes in medieval studies around racism and exclusion are happening much faster than the glacial pace of traditional academic publishing. In 2015, the conversation about inclusion tended to focus on gender, largely in pushback against “manels” and all-male essay collections, and of course we all know that the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women. In the past year or so, I have asked editors about diversity in contributors’ lists twice, and been assured that scholars of color are included in those forthcoming collections — baby steps, to be sure, but at least moving in the right direction.

The second focus of the social media critique – the lack of citation of Adam Miyashiro’s blog post– refers specifically to two essays by other colleagues; I trust they will respond to that allegation in some venue at some point in the near future.

Much of this critique has elided the important point that the Dating Beowulf volume (Manchester, 2019) is meant to be a riposte to the traditional medieval studies methodologies that produced The Dating of Beowulf (Toronto, 1981) and The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment (Brewer, 2014), the latter frequently reprimanded in reviews and in conversations at conferences for its combative and insulting tone. Dating Beowulf seems (ironically) somewhat dated already, in its clumsy but well-intentioned acknowledgement of the whiteness of the essayists. Yet it also makes many thoughtful and interesting contributions to the critical conversation around this most iconic of Old English poems. As the internet often tells us, two things can be true.

I don’t want to date Beowulf — he’s definitely not my type. I’m not all that interested in dating Beowulf beyond the date of the manuscript. In Dating Beowulf, Erica Weaver and Dan Remein have provided a variety of new ways to think about the poem, ways that integrate discussion of emotional intimacy and personal relationship into understanding of this hyper-canonical text. I hope the twitter conversation about the book in the last few weeks has ensured that academic publishers will secure inclusive lists of contributors going forward.  I urge my colleagues throughout medieval studies to be both generous and productive: to accept Erica and Dan’s public apology as we continue to try to work together towards a more inclusive and more vibrant medieval studies for ourselves, for our students, and for our communities.

The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about the power dynamics of “Anglo-Saxon”

Like all medievalists who work in English studies, the Massachusetts Medievalist has been thinking a lot about the term “Anglo-Saxon” and its current usages in academic medieval studies and in culture more broadly defined. Two Medium columns chronologically bookend the current discussion:  Mary Rambaran-Olm‘s in June 2018 and Catherine Karkov‘s on 10 Dec 2019. Between the two, much has happened politically, culturally, and academically: other scholars have weighed in on various blogs and one group of largely UK medievalists has issued a public statement about the “responsible use of the term Anglo-Saxon.”  White supremacists on both sides of the Atlantic have continued their love affairs with medievalist imagery and a supposedly pure, white, patriarchal European past (a situation well summarized by Michael Wood). Throughout, I’ve been contributing to the online debate via email and twitter when I thought I could make a constructive point, and trying to support my colleagues.

I’ve also been musing about the linguistic power dynamics embedded in this call to move away from usage of “Anglo-Saxon” as a term for the language and cultures of England before the Norman Conquest of 1066 (no, it’s not a “ban,” as some UK scholars have called it – who would enforce it? how?).

Many of the generally acceptable terms used in professional discourse to describe race and ethnicity have changed dramatically over the last 100 or so years.  “Colored” (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, established 1909) gave way to “Negro” (United Negro College Fund, established 1944), which was superseded by “Black” (the Black Studies department at San Francisco State, founded in 1968), and then by “African-American” (National Museum of African-American History and Culture, established 2003). “Oriental” and “Asian” demonstrate a similar trajectory. There are multiple examples of this sort of linguistic change from other fields as well: disability studies, gender studies, etc.

Unlike these sorts of gradual and widely accepted linguistic changes, the debate about “Anglo-Saxon” centers on a term used to refer to a dominant rather than a marginalized group.  A change from “Anglo-Saxon” to “early English medieval” entails radical, linguistic de-centering of a form of whiteness constructed during British Imperialism and American Manifest Destiny in the second half of the nineteenth century.  A major and unacknowledged part of the resistance to retirement of the term “Anglo-Saxon” is opposition to a change advocated by the marginalized (scholars of color, early career researchers, graduate students) not just TO but also ABOUT the controlling group (who overwhelmingly are “Anglo-Saxon” in the way the term is used outside of medieval studies: i.e. white). Rather than seeking for change in the way a marginalized group is described in normative discourse (that’s “women,” not “girls”), this change challenges the self-identification and position of white scholars in the implicit linguistic hierarchy of the field.

Enactment of this change by white academics would then confirm momentum away from an entrenched, traditional academic power axis towards an expansive diversity of colleagues and of research interests. I’m urging my white colleagues to edit “Anglo-Saxon” out of course descriptions, course titles, lecture slides, research drafts, social media, and general conversation: those seemingly small, individual changes will accrue to move “Anglo-Saxon” firmly onto the list of outdated racial and ethnic terms as we move towards a more inclusive and global medieval studies  – and that, after all, is the ostensible goal of all parties in the debate over “Anglo-Saxon.”

The Massachusetts Medievalist on adjunct faculty and home renovation

The Massachusetts Medievalist has been thinking a lot about the vicious relationship between university reliance on adjunct faculty and the abysmal academic job market in this anxiety-producing season: the always terrible market for academic English jobs is now “cratering,” one of many apocalyptic yet appropriate adjectives I’ve seen on social media.

Like many universities across the country, my own institution uses an uncomfortably high number of adjunct faculty, especially in general education “service courses” like English Composition or Intro Psych. In this fall term 2019, for example, core faculty taught only 12% of our first-year writing courses (2 of 17 sections)(n.b.: since our unionized faculty does not have tenure, Lesley uses the term “core” rather than the more usual “tenured or tenure-track”). All parties involved- administrators, adjunct faculty, core faculty, pundit columnists in various media outlets, and the students themselves – agree that this is not an ideal situation. Financial exigency trumps idealism every time, however, and we continue to take advantage of the high number of under-employed academics in metro Boston to staff an uncomfortable number of our undergraduate class sections.

At the same time, the university is rolling out and investing in new programs: a Masters in Social Work, an all-online MBA, a Masters in Mindfulness, and others.  One announcement used the verb “build” to describe these programs and a home improvement analogy immediately occurred to me.

A new academic program is like the spiffy addition to the house: we’ve always wanted to turn that deck into an all-season “solarium” where we can have parties and scout meetings and quiet reading space.  It’ll be shiny and new and fun and we can invite all the neighbors over to admire it. Look at our new all-online MBA!!

Investing in core faculty to teach crucial undergraduate general education classes is like a window replacement project: it’s extremely expensive and at first glance there’s no noticeable difference. Sure, the old windows are single-pane items with no insulation; the casings would probably start to crack from overuse in the next few years. But the new ones look pretty much the same, even though they’re energy efficient: no parties for the neighbors to admire the windows, no shiny new solarium. Look at our first year writing classes that meet the same program requirements and have the same catalog descriptions as in past years!

The difference, however, is that eventually the heating bills go down. The house is less drafty. The faculty can invest in multi-year curriculum development projects, since they know they have a long-term stake in the enterprise.  First year students see their general education faculty in other courses in their majors and elsewhere. A favorite freshman English professor is around campus and easily found for academic and career advice in later years.  At Lesley, we would need to hire 2.5 core faculty to teach just this semester’s adjunct load in first year writing. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it should.

In an ideal world, we’d replace the windows AND get the new solarium. We don’t live in ideal world, and my university just bought the solarium. But for those playing a long game, the windows are the smarter choice.

The Massachusetts Medievalist calls out the Clark Art Institute: #TimesUp for Stieglitz

This past weekend, the Massachusetts Medievalist journeyed to the northwest corner of the state for the Clark Art Institute’s exhibit, “Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow.” The small, chronologically arranged exhibit includes numerous interesting and engaging works, most especially six of the seven paintings in O’Keeffe’s “Lighthouse” series that she painted in Provincetown MA 1931-1932.

Oil painting of lighthouse
Ida O’Keeffe, Variation on a Lighthouse Theme VII, 1931/1932

I was also struck by the still lifes, especially the 1927 “Peach-blown vase,” with its intriguing mixture of techniques and composition. The paintings on display left me somewhat unsatisfied, wanting to see more of the work of this artist who seemed to experiment with a variety of styles and palettes without settling into one.

Oil painting of vase with pink flowers
Ida O’Keeffe, Peach-Blown Vase, 1927

The feminist historian in me, however, disagrees with the narrative presented by the exhibition. Signage and labels show Ida’s attempts to move away from “Georgia’s shadow,” note the varieties of paid employment she performed, and ultimately define her as a minor artist who never found her own style (conclusions drawn, somewhat more harshly, by Roxana Robinson in the New Yorker).

Most egregiously, the exhibit refers to the relationship of Ida and Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia’s husband and Ida’s brother-in-law, as “flirtatious” and full of “sexual innuendo.” Stieglitz’s photo of Crow’s Feather and Apple is included as a visual example of this “flirtation”:

Black and white photograph of a crow's feather inserted into an apple

With Stieglitz himself as the feather and Ida as the “Ida Red” apple. The photograph was made in 1924 when Ida was “visiting” Georgia and Alfred in the summer between teaching jobs.

So here’s my version of the narrative:
Like many unmarried, middle-class professional women of her era, Ida O’Keeffe participated in a sexist, impoverishing version of the gig economy, cobbling together teaching jobs, nursing positions, and editorial work to try to pay her basic expenses. In the summer of 1924, when she was between jobs and had no other place to live, a “visit” to her sister and brother-in-law entailed her endurance of Stieglitz’s deeply inappropriate and aggressive, predatory behavior. The split between the sisters – often discussed in terms of Georgia’s desire to be the only serous artist in the family — was exacerbated by Georgia’s willful ignorance about her husband’s harassment of her sister. Without hardly any financial and professional support, Ida was unable to focus on development of her artistic technique and style; she spent much of her adult life moving around the country to various teaching and nursing positions, fitting her painting and exhibiting around the non-artistic work that paid the bills.

Ida O’Keeffe is then indicative of probably thousands of women whose talent was stifled by masculinist culture in general and that of the art world in particular — #TimesUp for Stieglitz the entitled creepy predator, and time to celebrate Ida O’Keeffe, whose few remaining works, provocative and somewhat haunting, painfully remind us of her unrealized ambitions.

The Massachusetts Medievalist aspires to decolonize the curriculum

The Massachusetts Medievalist has had a tumultuous couple of weeks. Not only did the primary organization in my field, the society formerly known as the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, completely implode in what I hope is a productive and ultimately healthy way, but I ended up in the OR having major emergency surgery right as fall term classes were starting. (Personal side note: no cancer; multi-week, but manageable recovery; my dept.head amazing lining up substitute faculty for all classes).

My planned blog about decolonizing the curriculum seems ever more crucial now, in the wake of last week’s discussions about racism in pre-Conquest English studies (the members of no-longer-ISAS did indeed vote to change the name of the organization, but it’s not entirely clear what will happen next). As American universities as a whole grapple with the structural racism behind our bronzed gates and within our ivory towers, I want to think a bit about how Lesley’s new English major may help to make some changes to make the field of English overall more welcoming to students of color, at least at my own regional university.

Two years ago, Lesley’s Cultural Literacy and Curriculum institute got me thinking about the ways that our English major – a very standard set of requirements for surveys, seminars, and “electives in the major” — was set up to reinforce coverage and periodization, inadvertently making many students feel excluded and unwelcome. The sequence of coursework basically made students work chronologically through literary history, with a substantial majority of texts by white men, despite well-intentioned attempts throughout to diversify represented authors in classes like English Lit I or American Lit survey. Depending on the order she selected the core courses, a student could theoretically be a second semester junior before taking a class with even 50% of authors who were not white and male. It didn’t take rocket science to figure out why English is one of the least diverse undergraduate majors at Lesley, despite our quite good numbers of students of color overall (ranging around 40%).

The new major attempts to address these and other issues to provide a robust curriculum that will include and welcome all students from the first core course to senior seminar. Two guiding principles:

1. “Coverage” is impossible: while we use the phrase “expanded literary canon” in some descriptive materials, that canon is now so large that any attempt to “cover” it is doomed to failure. It’s more important – and more feasible – to study a variety of voices, cultures, genres, and time periods than to try to make sure that students have read a laundry list of “core texts” (mostly from the traditional western canon of white, male authors) previously defined as essential. Such “coverage” has often “included” authors of color as seeming add-ons at the end of a semester of chronologically presented texts (the Massachusetts Medievalist herself is a guilty party here).

2. Skills are more important than content: even more importantly, we are trying to teach students how to be strong critical readers and writers, to help them build a toolbox that they can use when engaging with ANY texts in any situation, formal or informal. Students will be ready to think and talk and write about literary structure, about character development, about symbol and theme and literary figures. They can hone those skills without Beowulf and Chaucer – but if they decide that they want to read Beowulf and Chaucer, in a class or on their own, they will have the skills to do so. We hope.

We are devising some assessment processes that will help us to gauge the success of the new requirements in the major. For me, one of the crucial metrics will be growth in the number of English majors overall, but especially in the numbers of students of color choosing to major in English. Stay tuned.

The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about patriarchy, feminism, and definite articles

The Massachusetts Medievalist spent some of the last few days with the Google NGRAM tool and I feel like it could become a dangerously time-consuming relationship. Why finish fall term syllabi and lesson plans when I could generate hundreds of graphs about word usage trends in published books?

I had been wondering for a while about a potential change in usage I’ve seen in both spoken and written communication in the past twenty-odd years. In common discourse, is “patriarchy” or “the patriarchy” now more common? I feel like we have been adding the definite article more frequently, and I thought google NGRAM could tell me if that feeling is accurate.

Unfortunately, the core answer is that it can’t–  or at least, not in the ways I was using the tool. From 1970-2008, the most common word to appear before “patriarchy” was “of.” “The” was second or third, depending on capitalization and other parameters. Adding up the frequency of other words that appeared before “patriarchy” (these included and, to, under, by, and in) indicated that the usage of the definite article occurs only about one-sixth of the time (exact numbers vary by year).

The sample uses data only until 2008, with more to come as the google scanning project continues, but the time lag means that information from the last eleven years, when I think I’ve been hearing and reading “the patriarchy” much more than “patriarchy,” is not yet available. We don’t have real-time access to that sort of linguistic information, at least not yet.

That said, I did find some data that made sense with what we know about overall trends in American culture, especially feminism, up to 2008. Usage of “patriarchy” in American English, with and without the definite article, crested in the mid-1990s and was basically non-existent before the 1950s. First Wave feminists didn’t use the term, and as the Second Wave gained momentum, “patriarchy” became a part of discourse in an ever-growing way.

Usage of “patriarchy” and “the patriarchy” spiked in the mid- to late-1990s, with fewer iterations from 1998-2008 than in 1992-1998. Those mid-1990s years correspond to the increased attention in mainstream discourse to feminist issues in the wake of the Anita Hill testimony, the “year of the woman” in congressional elections, and the first national engagement with sexual harassment that eventually became the #MeToo movement.

I suspect the decrease in overall usage of “patriarchy” in published work in the first decade of the new millennium stems from the mistaken idea that the feminist project was complete, as well as from the also mistaken idea that the word “patriarchy” was somehow offensive or aggressive or impolitic — its usage could cause a woman to be described as “shrill.”  I hope that when data from 2008-2019 becomes available, it includes a rise in the number of usages of “patriarchy,” as the last three years especially have taught us that misogyny, sexism, and racism are by no means finished projects that we no longer need to discuss.

I also suspect that data will show a preponderance of the definite article before “patriarchy.” My students — mostly young women, a group widely acknowledged to be at the cutting edge of language change — use “the patriarchy,” the definite article indicating a monolithic and definitive system that we need to dismantle. Perhaps in a hundred years all references to “the patriarchy” will use past tense verbs. Google NGRAM might be able to tell us.

The Massachusetts Medievalist does a little pleaching to end the summer

This past weekend the Massachusetts Medievalist headed west to the Berkshires, where I learned an entirely new word (and did a number of other things, btw). Pleach: interlace, plait (Merriam-Webster). Etymology is from medieval French / Anglo-Norman.

“Pleach” came up during the garden tour at Edith Wharton’s stunning home The Mount, which was built in the first decade and restored in the last decade of the twentieth century (although the restoration is still somewhat ongoing). Here’s a shot of Wharton’s study, which she called her “boudoir,” a term I feel it would be best not to adopt in general discourse (as in, “come to my boudoir after class so we can talk about that some more”):

Edith Wharton's study

Our tour guide in the garden was spectacularly knowledgeable about everything: Wharton’s house, her life, her garden, her literary works, and her Pulitzer prize (1921 for Age of Innocence, in case you were wondering). He told us that some of the rows of trees in the main part of the garden (which looked like basic box hedges to my untrained eye, albeit hedges with trunks) were “pleached” to create the look of a box hedge on stilts. This image from The Mount’s website shows these pleached trees as a background to the French garden:

Image of Wharton's garden with pleached trees

The marvelous Oxford English Dictionary tells me that “pleach” can be both a noun and verb, although it’s been a verb for about 300 years longer—first recorded use in English c.1398 (by my man John Trevisa, whom most medievalists know as the Middle English translator of Higden’s Polychronicon). As a noun, its use is almost exclusively horticultural (“interlacing, intertwining…of tree boughs to form a lattice or hedge”), but as a verb it can provide a more metaphorical usage, with examples of pleached hair or even a pleached roof.

I’m more interested in the metaphorical use of this word, as I don’t plan on entwining any tree branches to form a hedge any time soon, but the idea of weaving together previously or seemingly separate items is enormously appealing right now. Perhaps we should start discussing pleached families or pleached communities, pleached musical genres and pleached child care solutions.

Please use the word “pleach” in casual conversation in the next week or so –

The Massachusetts Medievalist rhapsodizes about eagles and Joy Harjo, our new poet laureate

The Massachusetts Medievalist has been engaged in some restorative relaxation this past month or so, reading a lot of non-medieval-studies books and visiting a local eagle nest most days to check on the growing, demanding, almost-flying chicks (yes, we have two this year!).

So I was especially pleased to hear the important news that Joy Harjo will take over this fall as the newly-appointed Poet Laureate. Harjo is notable as the first Native American to hold the post; she is also intimidatingly, wonderfully multi-talented as a poet, memoirist, musician, and children’s book author.  I started with her 2012 memoir, Crazy Brave, and then spent the bulk of my Fourth of July with How We Became Human, her 2004 collection of new and selected poems.  Throughout both, I was struck by the ways she blends genre smoothly and elegantly, forcing her readers to question our very categories of poetry, prose, fiction, or memoir.  Crazy Brave includes dream visions and poetry and mythologically-infused narratives as well as more straightforward prose – in this blending of genres, I was reminded of numerous medieval texts that similarly defy attempts to place them on an “appropriate” shelf in the library. The Library of Congress catalog numbering system is no match for human creativity (irony, considering that it’s the Librarian of Congress who names the Poet Laureate).

Cover of Crazy Brave

I hadn’t consciously planned to read our first Native American poet laureate on the Fourth of July, but when I sat down in the shade on the almost-too-hot summer Massachusetts afternoon, I realized it was the perfect way to deal with all the anger and frustration I’ve been feeling about the state of our nation. Like Crazy Brave, How We Became Human is a genre-bender, with prose poems, short lyrics, prayers, and episodic narratives.  Harjo’s voice consistently places her and her readers in her Creek worldview – spirits are real; time collapses in ancestral connections; stars and trees and animals are personified beings, living characters in her lyrics.  Numerous allusions to other poets and traditions pepper her songs; one of my favorites was her whispered homage to Adrienne Rich in “The Book of Myths”:

I did not imagine the fiery goddess in the middle of the island.
She is a sweet trick of flame,
had everyone dancing, laughing, and telling the stories
that unglue the talking spirit from the pages. (HWBH, 83)

The poem that spoke to me the most, in this my summer of two eagle chicks, was obviously “Eagle Poem,” part poem, part prayer, in which she celebrates an eagle that “Circled in blue sky / In Wind, swept our hearts clean / With Sacred Wings” (85).

I eagerly await Joy Harjo’s tenure as Poet Laureate.

Cover, How We Became Human

The Massachusetts Medievalist on medieval authorship (with reference to Anne Spear and the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium)

Last month, the Massachusetts Medievalist traveled to the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium, which featured blooming spring flowers and engaging conversations about the Middle Ages.  My role was to act as respondent to two fine papers in a session on Medieval Gender and Medieval Form; I want to focus here on my response to the second paper, Anne Spear’s “Anchoritic Affect: Gender and Form in þe wohunge of ure lauerd,” which won the conference’s award for best graduate student paper. (The wohunge appears only in British Library MS Cotton Titus D.18; open-access Middle English text here; unfortunately, it seems like there are no open-access Modern English translations, although I recommend Catherine Innes-Parker’s excellent 2015 edition and translation from Broadview.)

Spear’s paper made me think about our modern ideas about medieval authors, and about how we need to reconfigure those ideas, especially regarding anonymous texts that were made explicitly for women users. Herewith a version of part of my response to her work:

At Sewanee, Anne’s conclusions focused on how the Wohunge is ultimately “reflective of female experience” and she nuanced the distinction between what she termed the male author and the female voice of the text. In this distinction, she followed current scholarly consensus about the prayer’s authorship, although the Wohunge‘s first editor (Thompson, 1958) suggested that the author was probably female. Innes-Parker has discussed various manuscript evidences that show that the texts in the Wooing Group circulated independently from one another; Innes-Parker suggests copies on single sheets or in small booklets that would have been easy to handle and quick to copy among and for other potential users.

It could be my lack of familiarity with the critical traditions around the Wohunge group, but I have not been able to find any incontrovertible evidence that the “author” of this text is one person who is a man, or even one person who is a woman. From Innes-Parker’s presentation of the textual traditions, and from Spear’s excellent analysis of the female voice articulating its passions and desires, I suggest that we need to complicate our idea of authorship, especially for a text that obviously has a much more complicated history of transmission than its sole surviving manuscript witness.  To take just the Wohunge as a single example —  allow me to propose a narrative like the following:

In the English West Midlands in the first half of the thirteenth century, an aristocratic, professed religious woman asks her priest/confessor/scribe to create a prayer booklet for her that will allow her to read and recite as prayer texts some of the ideas he and she have been discussing in their conversations about her religious devotions and practices.  He does so. When he first brings it to her, she reads it enthusiastically and then, the next week, asks him to make a fresh copy incorporating some changes and additions she would like to see. She especially wants the addition of “huniter,” “honey-drop,” since it reminds her of the beehives behind the house where she spent her childhood.

A month or so later, she asks him to copy those now-revised texts and send the small booklet to one of her female relatives, whose religious devotion is also well-known among their community and social networks. That woman is very pleased to receive this important gift, and before she asks her scribe/confessor/priest to copy the booklet as a gift for the local abbess, she asks him to expand the reference to the crown of thorns, since the local abbess is known to be especially devoted to the crown among the instruments of Christ’s passion. Perhaps she even specifically dictates the expanded lines to him –or, dare I suggest, to her?

Multiply similar exchanges numerous times both before and after Scribe B creates the text that we know from Cotton Titus D.18. Such a narrative conforms more closely to that of the “writers’ room” model that guides much of our modern television and film writing than to a default Romantic model of a single, implicitly male author individually creating an entire text.

Another potentially useful modern concept here is our culture’s current wrestling with the implications of open access and creative commons publishing. A number of media scholars have thought about the implications of medieval literary cultures as pre-copyright, of course, especially when the primary goal of most manuscript copying was adherence to rather than expansion of the original primary text. I wonder if the Wohunge group as well was something of an open-access group effort, only one stage of which is represented in Titus D.18.

Ultimately, we need to question more radically the idea of presumed individual male authorship of a fixed, unchanging text of the Wohunge, thus understanding the text we have of the Wohunge prayer as a text composed, revised, re-written, and tweaked by a variety of authors and users along its way to the form we have. This process would then function as a useful model in further analysis of this female-voiced text and indeed in the many anonymous texts that form the bulk of extant medieval literature.

The Massachusetts Medievalist reviews Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc

Between watching the crocuses bloom and the robins feast, the Massachusetts Medievalist this past weekend spent some time with my colleague David Elliott’s brilliant and disturbing new book, Voices: the final hours of Joan of Arc.

Ostensibly a YA verse-novel, Voices is genre-defying.  It is indeed all poetry, but it’s not a novel (although it provides a narrative), it’s not a biography (although it relates the crucial events in the life of the historical woman we call Joan of Arc), and it’s not even really “YA” (whatever that amorphous term means).  Elliott has made a space to experiment with a variety of voices as he explores the life of Joan of Arc, probably the most recognizable medieval woman in our contemporary pop culture.

For those who need a refresher: Joan was a teenage peasant girl who followed the instructions she heard in her head from Saints Catherine, Michael, and Margaret to wear men’s clothes and lead the French king to victories in battle during the conflict known as the Hundred Years War. She was captured by the English in 1430, tried as a heretic, and then burned at the stake in 1431.

Cover image of Elliott's Voices

Elliott has given voice to a number of the inanimate objects that figure in Joan’s narrative: we hear the thoughts of the armor she wore, the church altar she prayed before, the sword she used, even the crossbow that wounded her in battle when she was captured.  As she stands bound to the stake of execution, Joan herself speaks her own narrative –  while the fire grows around her, she tells and reflects on her own story. The fire itself speaks as well, the most frequent narrator after Joan.

Elliott’s accomplishment here – and that of the editor and type-designer who supported him – is remarkable on a number of levels. Other than Joan, the characters and voices speak using late medieval poetic forms like the triolet or the rondeau (helpfully listed in the author’s note at the end of the text), forms that Joan and her communities would have known. Some of these poems are also presented as shape-poems: the sword’s episode is presented on the page in the shape of a sword, for example. Joan herself speaks in what Elliott calls “a kind of toned-down spoken word,” with varied line lengths, internal rhymes, and startling, individualized imagery and diction. Direct quotations (in Modern English, not French!) from the Joan trial transcripts are scattered throughout the text.  I can only imagine the consternation at the Houghton Mifflin marketing department: you want us to sell WHAT?

And yet it works. By the end, we know Joan, her thoughts, her dreams, her beliefs, and we dread the fire and the ending even as we know it is inevitable. While I’d recommend Voices to anyone, I especially want my colleagues in medieval studies to read it, to see the ways that contemporary authors continue to reshape the texts of the Middle Ages in exciting and provocative ways.

To whet that appetite, some lines spoken by Joan’s war horse (part of a rondel):

Many a knight had been cowed and outdone
by my spirit, left broken, unseated, unmade.
But she understood. Unbridled blood runs
molten and wild, unrestrained, unsurveyed.

And she was like me and so we were one.

 

And coda: my colleague Anthony Apesos has made a series of paintings loosely based on the Tarot deck, thematically appropriate in a week where I helped the sophomores struggle through T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land.”  See his unsettling and beautiful “deck” here as well as his kickstarter page, where he explains the “suits” in his deck and some of his thinking behind the images. Enjoy!