The Massachusetts Medievalist prepares for Kalamazoo

The program for the 2018 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo (10-13 May 2018) is now available, and the Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies sessions are slotted into the dreaded 8:30 and 10:30 Sunday morning time slots. Becky Straple and I are the organizers of those sessions; we decided last fall that we would publicize / solicit feedback via social media on possible discussion questions for the “Feminist Projects in Process” round table session.

That session will begin with five short presentations:

Anglo-Saxon Philology and Digital Humanities: A Cautionary Tale for Twenty- First-Century Medievalists (Mary Dockray-Miller)

Does Beowulf-Scholarship Have a Gender Problem? (Spoiler: Yes) (Christopher Abram)

Hierarchies of Knowledge (Erin E. Sweany)

Finding Saint Ælfgifu: Digital Tools and Anglo-Saxon Women (Rachel S. Anderson)

Reading Female Characters from Chronicles to Pop Culture (Kelly Williams)

Among other issues, the participants will address these questions:

How does your current feminist project address the ongoing “crisis in the humanities”?

How do you engage your non-medievalist colleagues in your feminist project?

How has your feminist project changed, if at all, to engage with, reflect upon, or react to recent political developments and the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements?”

Becky and I decided to add the last question (which was not in the original call for papers) in light of events and revelations in the past few months around sexual harassment and sexual assault throughout our culture.  These three questions will help Becky guide the discussion after the presentations.

To suggest other topics that would enrich the discussion after the more formal presentations, use the comment function below; tweet @MdockrayMiller or @restraple; contact Becky via Facebook.

And — if you’re attending Kalamazoo, please come to hear and contribute to the conversation,  despite the suboptimal time slot!

The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about contemporary (and ancient) poetry

The Massachusetts Medievalist spent part of January immersed in two very different poets, creating an interesting dialogue to start the spring semester. A chance sighting of a Twitter notice led me to Ocean Vuong’s prize-winning Night Sky with Exit Wounds and I read it almost simultaneously with Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey.

Wilson has been all over the news as the first published female translator of the Odyssey in English, with reviews and interviews on NPR, the New York Times, and the Endless Knot as well as myriads of others.  From her first line, “Tell me about a complicated man,” Wilson makes Odysseus and his journey home from war into a nuanced narrative that presents Odysseus not as unceasingly heroic but as a multi-faceted, dynamic protagonist who is, well, complicated.  Wilson does not elide the slavery of the Odyssey (she is relentless in her presentation of “slave girls” rather than the more usual “servants” or “housemaids”); she does not attempt to explain or excuse Odysseus’s sexual infidelities or narcissistic behavior. All this complexity makes Wilson’s Odysseus seem almost postmodern, and I mean that in a very positive way.

Cover image of Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey

I had never even heard of Ocean Vuong — any of my students will agree that contemporary poetry is not one of my strengths — but decided to investigate when I heard that the UMass Amherst professor had won the world’s most distinguished prize for poetry in English.  Vuong’s work is starkly beautiful and deeply unsettling (the most common modifier for both “blue” and “black” is “bruise”) and sometimes-oblique, sometimes-candid references to violence, both domestic and institutional, pervade his lyrical, astounding lines.

It is fitting that he won the T.S. Eliot prize, since there are numerous covert allusions to The Waste Land throughout the collection (aesthetic association with Eliot’s work is not a criteria for the prize). Explicit allusions to the Trojan War deepen that connection. Vuong’s Troy poems extend Eliot’s connections of classical and modern warfare both chronologically and geographically: Vuong’s Troy is Saigon of the 1960s and 1970s as well as the entire contemporary United States. The second poem in the collection is “Telemachus,” thus placing his speaker in the position of the son seeking the father lost in war. Rather than Homer’s cathartic reunion scene, however, Vuong shows us irrevocable loss: “But the answer never comes. The answer / is the bullet hole in his back, brimming / with seawater” (10-12). Both “Trojan” and “Aubade with Bruning City” similarly make us see the intimate and personal effects of war; Vuong strips away any remnants of Homeric, victorious adrenaline, forcing us to look at the way that “They will see him / clearest / when the city burns” (25-27).

Cover image of Vuoung's Night Sky

These three poems with Homeric allusion in the titles occur at the beginning of the collection, but then Vuong returns to Troy towards his close. “Odysseus Redux” explicitly refers to the Odyssey only in its title, but the themes of necesarily incomplete homecoming and reunion continue to resonate as the speaker tells us that “Back from the wind, he called to me / with a mouthful of crickets –” (7-8). Vuong’s poetics, so different from Homer’s and Wilson’s in form, wrestle with the same issues of identity, family, nation, sexuality, and loss.

Vuong’s and Wilson’s work reminds me that our culture’s foundational narratives are alive, part of our changing landscapes and conversations. It’s exciting to leave the Middle Ages every now and then to see how our conteporary poets are looking, Janus-like, both backwards and forwards in literary history.

Vuong, Ocean. Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

Wilson, Emily, trans. The Odyssey. New York: Norton, 2017.

The Massachusetts Medievalist on A World Without “Whom” and the Undergraduate History of the English Language class

Yes, the Massachusetts Medievalist is at that point of the semester when reading a book about language usage feels like a guilty pleasure — but this is a very funny, very informative book about contemporary language.  While I suspect I am not Emmy Favilla’s ideal reader (since I am a middle-aged medieval studies professor who does not use most forms of digital media), I found her work to be immediately relevant to mine; it will shift the tone of my History of the English Language (HEL) class in spring 2018.

Cover of Favilla's "A World Without 'Whom'"

The creative writing major at my university requires the HEL class; the class can also count as elective in the English major. My teaching is largely socio-historical rather than technical: we don’t learn the International Phonetic Alphabet and we spend only a few weeks on Old and Middle English. Indeed, many of my HEL students have never thought about the concept that our language has a history at all, and a big part of my job is to get them to realize how our language’s history affects their daily lives and communications. Discussion about the linguistic impact of the digital revolution permeates the course, and Favilla has provided a myriad of useful examples to illustrate this lightning-fast language change.

Throughout the book, Favilla emphasizes two guiding principles: respect and clarity.  She provides excellent, specific advice about “How to Not Be a Jerk” (the title of chapter 4); for example, use “marriage equality” instead of “gay marriage” and “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people.” Instead of trying to adhere to archaic rules about punctuation, she advocates punctuation that simply makes meaning clear: do you mean “I love your sister Drew” or “I love your sister, Drew”? She wants whom to become extinct, simply because it’s not needed for clarity in standard English, and explains the evolution and nuances of the new use of because as a preposition (as in because science)(163).

I know that my students use because as a preposition; they are more accustomed to singular they than I ever will be; they use emojis more than they use footnotes. Favilla’s work will help me contextualize these language changes that they know, that they are experiencing in real time, within the broader history of the language as a whole. For instance, English language users have been turning nouns into verbs for over a thousand years – so Favilla’s example of person as a verb  (as in “I immediately forgot how to person”)(211) is just a recent example, so recent as to sound awkwardly amusing, of a linguistic trend that also includes OE beag (n., crown) and beagian/begian (v., to crown).

Favilla has provided the most recent chapter of the History of the English Language along with some interesting sign-posts as we head into a world without “whom.”

Flavilla, Emmy J. A World Without “Whom.” New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.

The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about labor pain and a medieval manuscript

This week, the Massachusetts Medievalist road tripped to Yale’s Beinecke Library to see “Making the Medieval English Manuscript: The Takamiya Collection in the Beinecke Library.” (Nota bene: the exhibit closes on 10 Dec!) While there are many stunningly beautiful and interesting items in the exhibit, I want to focus on Takamiya MS 56, which the catalog officially terms a “prayer roll” but is also described as a “‘birth girdle,’ which, if worn, would protect women in childbirth” (Gathering 29). It’s a long, thin strip of parchment, about five and half feet long and only three and half inches wide. Its use was quite literally as a girdle or belt, wrapped around a woman in labor to protect her and the child, and to help her with the pain. The prayers and invocations are in Middle English and in Latin, so this is a multilingual women’s artifact from the first half of the fifteenth century.

Prayers in Latin and Middle English, nails and other implements from Christ's Passion
New Haven, CT, Beinecke Library Takamiya MS 56; image from exhibition catalog.

As with many of the items in the exhibit, I wanted to have a more thorough look than that provided by the display cases. While I’m sure the curators wouldn’t allow it, I’d really like to unroll the entire item (advertised then and now as “equal to the height of the Virgin Mary” – at 1730mm, the Virgin was slightly taller than me?) to see all of the images and prayers and then perhaps wrap it around my own midriff, checking the artifact for signs of similar usage hundreds of years ago. Are there creases or dents or stains that could indicate use during active labor? Could it have torn or frayed or abraded during an unusually intense contraction? Did a laboring woman feel a sense of relief when it was applied? As I stood in the Beinecke lobby, suddenly thinking about the deliveries of my own two daughters with all the benefits of twentieth-century techology, I felt an odd kinship with an imagined series of medieval English women who labored with the help of this manuscript rather than with epidurals and other modern technologies. They were, I hope, soothed by the prayers and the physical application of this talisman.

Once the exhibit is taken down, MS 56 will go into storage, retrieved when requested to be viewed in the reading room; I hope it will also be digitized and made available online for those unable to travel to New Haven to see it. I’m sure some enterprising scholar will do an edition (and translation?) of the bilingual prayers it contains.  But I also hope that people who work with it, virtually or actually, will take a moment to think about the real labor pains of the real women who used this item 600 years ago, before epidurals or spinal blocks, and who endured the fear and risk of childbirth, protected only by their own strength and that of a devotional and wearable text.

Works Cited:
Clemens, Raymond, Diane Ducharme, and Emily Ulrich, A Gathering of Medieval English Manuscripts: The Takamiya Collection at the Beinecke Library (New Haven: Beinecke Library, 2017).

The Massachusetts Medievalist DOES NOT LIVE in a “Shining City on a Hill”

Last week, my university hosted former British prime minister David Cameron as part of the Boston Speakers Series, and he closed his remarks with that shop-worn reference to Boston and the United States as a “shining city on the hill.” The Massachusetts Medievalist will now set the record straight on that enormously irritating phrase. World: please stop using it to refer to my city and my country. Its actual context is pretty much the opposite of what you intend.

The original Biblical reference is quite spectacular.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ tells his followers that “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5.14). He encourages his followers to be strong in their faith, even in the face of persecution and oppression.

Our contemporary culture likes to refer to Boston as a “shining city on a hill” due to a much less palatable usage, however, that of an early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, who had been elected before the departure from England.  He wrote his 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” on board the Arbella, the ship that brought him and many of his fellow puritans to the “new world” to establish a religiously pure colony away from the corruption (as they saw it) of the Church of England.

Winthrop’s allusion to Matthew 5.14 occurs towards the end of the sermon, when he exhorts his fellow puritans:

For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

Winthrop invokes the Sermon on the Mount to encourage his fellow colonists to remain true to their religious convictions — not so much because that’s a valuable thing to do in itself, but more importantly  because others will see them if they don’t. Winthrop’s conclusion creates a world of early protestant surveillance, where “all people” are ready to watch and judge the actions of the colonists. Winthrop’s goal in his sermon and throughout his governorship was enforcement of his version of puritan beliefs and regulations, one in which poverty and illness were signs of God’s displeasure for morally corrupt behavior and lack of religious faith.

Winthrop regimented the daily lives of the colonists he governed as much as possible, ignored instructions from the English Parliament regarding open elections and appointments to office, and established intrusive and humiliating procedures for vetting the religious faith of potential new residents in the colony. He also “owned” two enslaved Pequots, who may have been captured during the 1636-38 Pequot War. And historians now consider Winthrop to be something a of a “moderate” among the puritans in his cohort.

While politicians and cultural pundits frequently invoke Winthrop’s “city on a hill” in a positive way, consider the very beginning of the sermon, which must be largely unknown to those pundits:

GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.

In other words, God established social class in his divine wisdom and all true believers had to accept their places in those classes. It is worth pointing out that Winthrop was at the top of each category mentioned (wealth; political, religious, and social power; social status). At the very beginning of the sermon, then, Winthrop establishes divine imprimatur for rigid social and political hierarchies. He also believed, like almost all men of his era, in gender hierarchy — which probably seemed so obvious to him that he did not bother to include it in his list of divinely-created assessed categories.

Note that neither the New Testament nor Winthrop uses the word “shining,” although that adjective is now included in most contemporary political misquotations, including Cameron’s of last week. The idea of “shining” is perhaps implied in Christ’s phrase “the light of the world” but contemporary commentators use it to refer to Boston as a beacon of light, a brilliant example of Boston’s rich cultural heritage that illuminates everyone else, metaphorically and literally. Presidents as disparate as Kennedy, Reagan, and Obama have invoked Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” to celebrate Boston specifically or the United States in general; the full texts of their speeches make it clear that they are referring to Winthrop and his puritan sermon, not the Sermon on the Mount.

The greater Boston area (which includes Cambridge, where I work, and the suburbs, where I live) does indeed serve as an example of a broad community that values education, the arts, scientific inquiry, and multiculturalism. But we also face crucial issues of overt racism, gentrification, income inequality, and entrenched sexism.  We need to move away from the rigid social hierarchies and narrow minded righteousness embedded in the historical context of Winthrop’s sermon in which he envisioned Boston as a “city on a hill.” Let’s agree to stop using that tired, inaccurate phrase in our own discourse, as it is actually a misquotation of an exclusionist, racist, intolerant Puritan referring largely to his own superiority. That’s not my Boston.

Next Blog Post: some suggestions for a replacement

The Massachusetts Medievalist on (approximate) historical parallels

These past two weeks have featured turmoil in the world of medieval studies as University of Chicago history professor Rachel Fulton Brown has cyber-bullied Vassar English professor Dorothy Kim via a variety of media. As with the Allen Frantzen “femfog” maelstrom of early 2016, one of my first, selfish reactions was simply relief that I am not on Facebook and thus am shielded from the worst of the interactions. An overview of the controversy, with many links to other commentary, is available here.

I’ve been mulling over some similarities between our current moment and the rise of second wave feminism in medieval studies and academia in general (c.1975-1995). Daniel Pigg articulated something similar in a 27 Sept 2017 post to the MedFem-listserv when he stated that:

Medieval studies  as a discipline began to ask new questions as the number of women scholars increased in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Those were important questions to ask, and they have been transformative in the way we understand the Middle Ages. I believe Dorothy Kim and others are beginning a new trajectory of studies of the medieval past that will require that we investigate what it means to engage in scholarship on the Middle Ages.

Inclusion of women in the study of any historical period seems so obvious now that it’s hard to remember it was a revolutionary idea forty years ago. Pioneering feminist scholars of the 1970s and 1980s needed to demonstrate that women acted as historical agents in the Middle Ages and that written and material sources about those women and activities were available. They needed to overcome the completely incorrect, patriarchal assumptions that  1. women didn’t do anything important in the Middle Ages (except for a few “exceptional” women like Eleanor of Aquitaine) and 2. even if they did do anything important, women’s activities, philosophies, practices, and beliefs were not recorded in any way accessible to modern scholarship.

This patriarchal resistance to women’s studies and women’s history has largely ebbed, only to be replaced by similar resistance to the scholarship of multiculturalism and diversity. Many white supremacist/neo-Nazi organizations celebrate a “pure,” all-white European Middle Ages (which is also ideally patriarchal and aristocratic), and that supposed purity stems in some measure from the ongoing, modern academic assumption of whiteness in the European Middle Ages. A multicultural Middle Ages challenges that assumption of whiteness, and medievalists who study a multicultural Middle Ages find themselves in a position similar to that of the second wave feminsts: needing to prove that people of color acted as historical agents in medival Europe and that sources about those people and activities exist. The Medieval People of Color website and twitter account are on the front lines of this project; I had planned also to include a link to the Medievalists of Color collaborative website as well, but it has been hacked (and is now unavailable).

Medievalists like these, in the vanguard around issues of race, multiculturalism, and inclusivity, are performing essential work similar to that of the “foremothers” celebrated each year by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship at Kalamazoo (it is worth noting that those foremothers are all white and also upper-middle-class, by virtue of education if not by actual salary).

Drawing historical parallels between cultural moments is always risky, but I think that at this pivotal cultural moment in medieval studies – of the terror in Charlottesville, of the Leeds conference debacle, of the insidious cyberbullying  — medievalists can take heart from the outcome of the roughly analogous situation of second wave feminism in the academy. Feminist inquiry and politics once ridiculed by patriarchal intransigents are now mainstream and respected; pioneering scholars who took enormous risks in fledging women’s studies programs are now tenured senior faculty on endowed chairs.  I hope that forty years from now, I am sipping fine wine in the Ancient Scholars Rest Home and reminiscing to incredulous graduate students about a time when almost all medievalists were white, when our scholarship assumed the whiteness of our subjects, and the idea of a multicultural Middle Ages was little more than an idea rather than an accepted tenet of medieval studies methodologies.

The Massachusetts Medievalist begins fall term

Note, evening 16 Sept: this post went up before the 15 Sept e-incident of Chicago medievalist Rachel Fulton Brown engaging in ad hominem insults of Vassar medievalist Dorothy Kim; the post’s spirit is most definitely with Kim’s arguments about the intersections among medieval studies, white supremacy, and pedagogy. For a solid recounting of the events, see Richard Utz’s blog here

Post, early morning 15 Sept: Like most medievalists, The Massachusetts Medievalist has been thinking about how to address the overt medievalism of the current white supremacist movement in the USA while simultaneously beginning the academic year and trying to finish the summer to-do list.

A number of more energetic bloggers have written in a much more timely manner about about the medievalism on display at the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville in August 2017; Paul Sturtevant’s Public Medievalist site provides excellent commentary and links to other resources, and this wonderful Medieval People of Color tweet educating white supremacists about the African origin of one of their favorite symbols is still garnering attention in social media:

Screenshot of tweet showing the heraldic symbol of St Maurice
Screenshot of tweet showing the heraldic symbol of St Maurice

My own small contribution was to assign Josephine Livingstone’s “Racism, Medievalism, and the White Supermacists” of Charlottesville for the first day of English Lit I. As at many universities, our English majors take core survey classes in the histories of American and Engish literature; as at many universities, our first term “covers” the medieval through the neoclassical periods. But I felt uncomfortable starting a unit on medieval English literature without addressing the political elephant in the room.  Yes, the United States is at a cultural moment when I felt it necessary to explicitly dissassociate myself and my discipline from white nationalist movements.

Teachers refer repeatedly to the need to have “uncomfortable conversations” in the classroom, and boy, was I uncomfortable in a brief discussion of Livingstone’s work and its relevance to our academic coursework. Students had a few contributions, making that section of the class a bit of a “conversation,” but most were reticent. I’m glad that moment happened, however, and hope that it will begin to pave the way for more moments that could be less awkward.  Beowulf promises to bring issues of immigration, border crossing, power dynamics, and political alliance into class discussion, illustrating a series of productive connections between an early medieval cultural artifact and our contemporary political discourse.

The Massachusetts Medievalist Reads Melissa Range’s Scriptorium

The Massachusetts Medievalist has been on something of a hiatus, eating blueberries and corn and lobster, visiting Crane’s beach and Walden pond, following on Twitter the revelations at #ISAS2017 (more on that in a future post).  But I’ve also been reading a lot of poetry, taking some summer time to read Tracy K. Smith (our new U.S. poet laureate), David Elliott (a Lesley colleague), and Melissa Range.  These poems have provided me a mental and emotional break from medieval-studies-as-usual.

Range’s work is actually not a complete break from medieval-studies-as-usual, however. Her title – Scriptorium – invokes the medieval space in which manuscripts were made, and her work draws on medieval poetry, especially in Old English. She combines medieval theology with contemporary Appalachian culture; she engages with medieval and modern theologians as she questions the world around us, its beauty and its horror, hearkening to Beowulf, Eliot, and Hopkins in a variety of tightly presented forms. In many ways, I am Range’s ideal reader – I know the references to The Dream of the Rood and the Ashburnham House fire without having to check the notes in the back of the book. I am also in awe of the way she uses language and imagery in ways both medieval and completely new: she lets us see “the sailor’s compass / made of ice-trussed stars” (“Ultramarine”). Does “ice-trussed” qualify as an Old English kenning? Maybe, but does it matter?

I was most struck by Range’s series of sonnets interspersed throughout the collection, all named after materials used in manuscript illumination:

Verdigris
Orpiment
Kermes red
Tyrian Purple
Lampblack
Minium
Woad
Ultramarine
Gold leaf
Shell white

All of these sonnets challenge our understanding of the form, even as they adhere to it.  “Woad,” for example, contains rap echoes in its internal rhymes, even as it uses half-rhymes to complete its rhyme scheme.  It begins:

Once thought lapis on the carpet page, mined
from an Afghani cave, this new-bruise clot
in the monk’s ink pot grew from Boudicca’s plot –
a naturalized weed from a box of black seeds found
with a blue dress in a burial mound.

This collection take us through the medieval world of book- and poetry-making, invoking the calves whose skins will make the manuscript folios (“Scriptorium,” the penultimate poem in the collection) as well as the pigments and precious materials that will decorate the pages of the Gospels. And yet she connects those seemingly obscure references to deep and contemporary issues of faith and its place in our culture, making us see that the “grime / of letters traced upon the riven / calf-skin gleams dark as fresh ash on a shriven / penitent” (“Lampblack”).

Range’s poetic voice pulls medieval imagery and seemingly obscure literary references into an important poetic present, where “this good news is for everyone, / like language, like color, like air” (“Scriptorium”).  It’s only the second of August – plenty of time left in the glorious summer to revel in her poems.

Book cover

CFP: A Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies

CFP: A Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies
Special Sessions at the 2018 International Congress on Medieval Studies
10-13 May 2018
Western Michigan University
Kalamazoo, MI

A Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies I: Interdisciplinary/Extramural

This session seeks papers focused on ways that a Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon studies can resonate inside and outside the university. Ideally, papers will combine traditional academic analysis of Anglo-Saxon artifact(s) (text, object, etc.) with reflection on ways that feminist analysis can or should function outside of traditional academia. We anticipate that some presenters will also grapple with the definition of the term “feminist” in 2017/2018, both in and out of the field.

 

A Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies II:
Projects in Process (a roundtable)

Rather than the more usual roundtable of 6-8 short presentations, this roundtable seeks 5-6 scholars to describe feminist works-in-progress in the context of 2-3 specific questions about the state of the field and its future. Each panelist will take no more than 7 minutes, leaving time for substantial conversation after the initial, brief remarks. We plan to share these questions (over social media, listservs, etc.) before the Congress in order to give potential audience members and the presenters time to reflect on these issues and lay the groundwork for fruitful, substantive discussion that includes audience members as well as panelists. These questions could include: How does your current feminist project fit into your teaching? How does your current feminist project address the ongoing “crisis in the humanities”? How do you engage your non-medievalist colleagues in your feminist project? How do you convince your department head/dean/provost that your feminist project is worthwhile and thus worthy of institutional support? With input from digital communities, the organizers will finalize these centering questions in January of 2018.

 

Submit abstracts as PDF attachments to:
Mary Dockray-Miller
Humanities Dept.
Lesley University
mdockray@lesley.edu

Review of abstracts will be ongoing until the Congress deadline of 15 September 2017.

The Massachusetts Medievalist Visits City Life: The Quest for Progressive Medievalist Imagery

This past Tuesday I had the good fortune to attend the weekly meeting of City Life/Vida Urbana , a Boston community organization that advocates for residents on a variety of issues, primarily around housing. Check out this video by Twice Thou that raps City Life’s mission and history.

There are a lot of good reasons to be interested in CL/VU’s activities, but as the Massachusetts Medievalist I wanted to see how they use a sword and shield in the part of their meeting where they welcome new people into their organization. The media has been full recently of medievalist imagery appropriated by neo-Nazis and white nationalists; for a contextual overview, see this part of The Public Medievalist’s great series on “Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages.”

I’ve been searching for a contradictory kind of imagery, an appropriation of the medieval for contemporary progressive causes, perhaps in ways analogous to the early-twentieth-century U.S. suffrage movement’s use of Joan of Arc imagery in their parades (see my 22 May 2017 entry for details on that quest). A Lesley colleague’s involvement with CL/VU tipped me off to their sword and shield.

CL/VU uses a theater-prop plastic sword and a large homemade shield at all of their meetings and many of their protests and rallies around the city. Rather than ancestral heraldry, the shield proclaims that “NO ONE LEAVES” around a simple image of a house.

Antonio Ennis, community organizer at City Life / Vida Urbana, with sword and shield
Antonio Ennis, community organizer at City Life / Vida Urbana, with sword and shield

The sword represents the fight that CL/VU brings to banks and courts and corporations while the shield represents the legal aid they provide to protect their communities from foreclosure and eviction (for more detail, see this news item written at the height of the mortgage crises).

At each weekly meeting, people new to CL/VU come to the front of the room for a ritual that echoes a medieval knighthood ceremony. Tenants and owners in danger of eviction or foreclosure stand close together and all grasp the hilt of the sword.  The meeting leader holds the shield; last Tuesday, Twice Thou, whose non-rap name is Antonio Ennis, took this role. He asked them, “Are you willing to fight for your home?” After an initial, somewhat hesitant response, he turned slowly in a circle, showing the shield to all sides of the room. Then he yelled, “Are you willing to fight for your home?” Those gathered in the front of room shouted, “Yes!” and he and all the seated attendants yelled back, “Then we’ll fight with you!” It was exhilarating.

meeting of City Life / Vida Urbana, 13 June 2017
meeting of City Life / Vida Urbana, 13 June 2017

The meeting continued with updates on CL/VU rallies and activities in its networks. A nascent tenants’ association held a separate meeting in the hallway. A staff member handed out slices of pizza to late arrivals. Members met individually in a side room with pro bono attorneys.  I hope they get the help they need.  My much less necessary quest has been fulfilled – I found a multicultural, multiracial group of working-class Americans consistently using medievalist imagery for their own politically progressive practice, creating solidarity and purpose with the symbolic meanings of sword and shield.