The Massachusetts Medievalist contextualizes Odyssey 5-8

This week, #LesleyHomer will investigate books V-VIII of theOdyssey, which introduce the hero and set the stage for the most famous flashback in literary history.  We finally meet Odysseus, four books in, and he’s NOT super heroic when we first see him — in fact, he’s crying for home. Wilson tells us that “By day he sat / out on the rocky beach, in tears and grief, / staring in heartbreak at the fruitless sea” (V.157-159).  He does perform some more standard masculine achievement later in book five — he single-handedly builds an amazingly seaworthy raft, and then sails it expertly, unsleeping. Fagles provides this stunning image:

The wind lifting his spirits high, royal Odysseus
spread sail — gripping the tiller, seated astern —
and now the master mariner steered his craft,
sleep never closing his eyes, forever scanning
the stars…..  (V.295-299)

The contrast between the man crying on the beach and the man sailing the raft emblematizes Odysseus’s character. In the epic’s famous first line, Wilson calls Odysseus a “complicated man” (Fagles says “the man of twists and turns”), and he is indeed complicated.  He is mourning the loss of his home and family, but this heartbreak doesn’t keep him from sleeping with Calypso on a regular basis.  He initially ignores the advice of the sea-nymph Ino, but eventually realizes he’ll need to do as she instructed, leave his wrecked raft, and swim for shore with only her scarf to protect him. He cries some more at the various festivities at Alcinous’s palace, but rises to the challenge of masculine performance in athletics, easily beating all of the young whippersnappers at the discus throw (Wilson VIII.187).

I’d venture that it’s precisely this complicated-ness that makes Odysseus so appealing to us, thousands of years later.  He’s full of contradictions in his thoughts and actions, and those contradictions make him seem human. I certainly wouldn’t say that Odysseus is realistic but he does seem real to me. There are a number of moments in the epic when I’d like to strangle him for his arrogance and sexism, and an equal number where I’m cheering him on and would fight next to him if I could.

I mentioned in the intro post that Homer uses epithets throughout the epic both as mnemonic devices and as literary descriptors. While Athena is always “gray-eyed” and the sea is always “wine-dark,” Odysseus’s epithets change according to the the rhythm needed in the poetic line and according to the translator’s choices.  For instance, Fagles uses “long-enduring Odysseus” (V.190) and “worldly Odysseus” (V.237). Wilson seems to avoid epithets in their classic adjective-noun pairing as much as possible; for instance, she refers instead to “Odysseus, / informed by many years of pain and loss” (V.169-170). Other translators have settled on “crafty,” “clever,” “wily,” or “wise.”   Overall, Odysseus is characterized not by his martial skills or physical strength but by his experience, his wisdom, and his creative thinking (in book eight, we hear the Bard sing of Odysseus’s plan to construct the Trojan Horse – the tactic that won the Trojan War when more traditional military strategies had failed). His is heroism of brain, not brawn.

Finally, Books V-VIII set up Odysseus’s narration recounting his last ten years.  Book VIII ends with Alcinous asking Odysseus who he is, where he’s been, and where he’s going. The last time anyone saw Odysseus was at the end of the Trojan War, and the next set of books will provide Odysseus’s answers to those questions in flashback – thus providing one of the first framed narratives in western literature.

 

I’m hoping for some more comments and questions on this post than last time (thanks, Colin!), so here are some starter ideas- please use the comments function to ask questions and share ideas!

What are you thinking about Athena’s character and her role in the narrative? How does she inform your ideas about the gods in this text/culture? Can we discuss her as a “female character” (like Penelope or Nausicaa) or does divinity trump gender?

The nymph/minor goddess Calypso: does she qualify as an antagonist? Is she a positive or negative character? Or maybe both simultaneously?

Any ideas about the character Demodocus, a blind poet (just like Homer????), and his role in Odysseus’s diplomatic maneuverings?

The Massachusetts Medievalist introduces the Odyssey

Welcome to #LesleyHomer! The opening four books of the Odyssey comprise the initial installment for our online reading group, but first some very basic items about the epic as a whole (note that citations are to book # in upper-case Roman numeral and line # in Arabic numerals; exact line references may vary depending on the translation you are using):

The actual Trojan War (the Greek attack on Troy – see maps here if your edition doesn’t provide some) probably happened around 1200 BCE. In the years following the war, an enormous literary tradition grew up telling, embellishing, and inventing the stories of the various characters in the war; the most famous of these narratives are Homer’s Iliad (which tells the story of only a few days towards the end of the war and not even the actual end) and Odyssey (the story of Odysseus’s 10-year journey home to Ithaca from Troy).

The epic was created orally in a nonliterate tradition: yes, that means that highly specialized bard-poets could recite all of Odyssey (twelve thousand lines) and probably Iliad too (fifteen thousand lines). While there is a lot of academic speculation about the power and process of memory in preliterate cultures, all we can really say for sure is that poets used formulas as mnemonic devices as they performed the poem. These formulas fit smoothly into the meter of the poem; that’s why we hear repeatedly about “gray-eyed Athena,” the “wine-dark sea,” and the rosy fingers of the dawn.  Note repetition between sections as well, as when Athena gives Telemachus instructions I.325 and then he basically repeats but adapts them II.238. Because of this oral composition, it’s usual to speak of when the Odyssey was composed rather than when it was written.

As you read, remind yourself that this poem was originally performed aloud for a group, probably semi-enacted and with musical accompaniment. Each performance would have been slightly different, as performers adapted, expanded, or curtailed the “text” as their abilities and audiences required. (We have a cool kind of meta-performance example I.375, when the bard sings a song in Odysseus’s hall).

The poem as we have it – preserved in various written forms that date from about 700 BCE– may have been compiled and refined by a blind poet named Homer. Alternately, “Homer” may simply be a legendary figure.

The Odyssey uses the same literary form as the Iliad: dactylic hexameter (the form’s wikipedia page is actually pretty solid if you want more detail).

Onward! The first four books of the Odyssey are often referred to as the “Telemachy,” kind of a quasi-stand-alone section that provides exposition for whole epic but also sets up a segment of the narrative as a coming-of-age story for Telemachus, who’s almost 21 (Odysseus himself does not appear in these first four books). Athena even tells Telemachus, “It’s time you were a man” (I.342) and he begins that process in I-IV.

Undergraduates are often confused by logistical questions that address Telemachus’s issues with the suitors: why are they in his house, consuming his wealth? Why can’t he make them leave? Answers to those questions are connected to his transition into adulthood.

Telemachus and his mother Penelope are in socially, politically, and financially precarious positions because of his age.  He is not strong enough to assume his father’s place as King of Ithaca (which would put Penelope in the somewhat comfortable role of dowager/widowed Queen). However, he is old and strong enough to be a problem for anyone else looking to assume Odysseus’s place.

If Odysseus is dead, then Penelope is a very rich, young-enough, and beautiful widow with no powerful adult male looking out for her interests. While Telemachus and others suggest that he could return her to her father, who would then assume the financial burden of her remarriage, it’s evident that many of the suitors are much more interested in moving directly into Odysseus’s social and political position through marriage to Penelope. Neither Penelope nor Telemachus is interested in such a marriage for her, but as the epic opens they can’t make the suitors leave for a number of reasons:

First off, they can’t violate the divine laws of hospitality. A guest must be fed and clothed and sheltered (note how Telemachus immediately offers food, clothing, cleanliness, and a bed to Athena disguised as Mentes). Since the suitors at one point were welcomed as guests, it could anger the gods to force them to leave (although Telemachus frequently expresses how much he would like to do that).

Second, he doesn’t have the military or political strength to make them leave on his own.  There are a lot of suitors, and they are all older (probably 25-35) than he is. He can’t act the Alpha-Male with veiled threats against them; they know he couldn’t back up any of those threats and he doesn’t have any powerful political/military allies in Ithaca. As we see in the council, some of the older men sympathize with his position but also don’t have the status or force it would take to get the suitors to leave.

Third, the suitors are taking advantage of Penelope’s maneuverings against them. In book II, Antinous blames her for leading them on, saying that she would choose one of them once she had woven her father-in-law’s funeral shroud (a dutiful, pious act that they would never interfere with).  Since she was un-weaving at night what she had woven during the day, she would never finish the shroud; they discovered her ploy and forced her to finish it, bringing her to deadline. But since she still hasn’t chosen, they are feasting at Odysseus’s/her house every day, consuming her wine and other high-status goods, forcing themselves sexually on the female slaves, giving orders as if they are trying out the role of master of the house. Telemachus is old enough to deeply resent this behavior (rightfully) but not yet mature or powerful enough to do anything about it.

Part of Telemachus’s journey to Pylos and Sparta, then, is to begin that process. He is seeking for information about his father–the official purpose of the journey — but he is also making friends, meeting allies, and getting experience of the world outside Ithaca.

So much more to think about as you reflect on books I-IV! But I hope that’s a good start — Looking forward to comments and questions from group members!

The Massachusetts Medievalist announces the Odyssey reading group (summer 2018)

Over the course of the 2018-2019 academic year, I realized that many of my undergraduate students at Lesley do not know Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  While both epics used to be assumed in the canon and thus in the high school curriculum, many undergraduate students now have read only excerpts, if anything, from them.  Both epics are touchstones for all of literature — not just for obvious descendants like Joyce’s Ulysses or Walcott’s Omeros, but for any narratives that include children growing up, long-lasting marriages, war, issues around masculinity and heroism, issues around femininity and agency, or humanity’s relationship to the spiritual and the supernatural (which is to say: pretty much everything).

Originally, I had thought that a summer reading group could attempt both of these behemoths, but soon realized that would be a chore rather than a pleasure. The Iliad will have to wait. So — THE INVITATION:

SUMMER READING GROUP ON HOMER’S ODYSSEY

Spend part of the summer (re?)reading Homer’s Odyssey with a low-key online book group loosely affiliated with Lesley University and managed through The Massachusetts Medievalist. From the end of May to the beginning of August, group members will read Homer’s epic in 4-book sections. There are no writing assignments, expectations, grades, or credit – just a virtual group of interested people reading and thinking about the epic.

To join the group, follow @MDockrayMiller on Twitter and also check #LesleyHomer on Twitter for reminders/updates about group activities. I’m working with the tech people from Humanities Commons to figure out how to add an email alert/subscription option to this Massachusetts Medievalist blog (updates and details to follow soon, I hope!).

Group members can work with any translation of The Odyssey they prefer, although it should be a poetic rather than a prose translation.  I’ll be using both the Fagles (1996) and Wilson (2017) translations. If you’re an audio book fan, note that the fabulous Derek Jacobi voiced the audio book for the Fagles translation. And remember that all these materials are available through Lesley’s Sherrill Library as well your local library! You don’t need to buy anything–

My introductory comments for each set of four books will be posted on dates noted; group members can choose to read that post before or after reading the text, whichever makes more sense for them.  The comments section will be open for asynchronous discussion, comments, and questions as soon as the intro is posted.  I’ll monitor comments regularly throughout the summer, answering questions, suggesting potential secondary readings, and trying to shepherd all of us as we make our way through this incredibly important and deeply problematic cornerstone of literary tradition.

Please join me on this literary odyssey (did you see what I did there??):

1-4:  intro post loaded Monday 28 May
5-8: intro post loaded Monday 11 June
9-12: intro post uploaded Sunday 24 June
13-16: intro post uploaded Monday 9 July
17-20: intro post uploaded Monday 23 July
21-24: intro post uploaded Monday 6 August

The Massachusetts Medievalist begins to think about nation, race, and ethnicity in the Old English Exodus

In preparation for my new research project on the Old English Exodus, I’ve been reading the poem in its original language and in a variety of translations; I’ve also been reading its source text, the book of Exodus from the Hebrew Bible.  I’ve known for a while that I would turn next to this poem, as I think it can inform and be informed by this particular cultural moment, when many Americans are having difficult but essential conversations about race, ethnicity, immigration, and nationhood.  For me, the text’s original appeal was the brief mention of the Afrisc meowle at its very end (l.580) – the gold-adorned African woman who celebrates the triumph of the Israelites as they cross the Red Sea out of slavery towards the promised land.  I think she is the only woman of color in the Old English poetic corpus.

Here’s an image of that text from the manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Junius 11, f.171):

image of the Exodus manuscript (detail)

A transcription of the text in question (starting from the second word):

              afrisc meowle on geofones staðe gol
de geweorðod

Which translates into Modern English as  “the African woman, on the water’s shore, with gold adorned.”

Most commentators on this part of the poem identify this woman as Moses’s Ethiopian wife, who is understood exegetically to represent the “Church gathered out of the nations.”1 Whatever her patristic meaning, she is also the only individual woman mentioned explicitly in this poem focused on battle, armies, tribes, and miracles.

Her participation in the celebration constrasts her with the most famous meowle in Old English poetry, the geatisc meowle (Geatish woman) who mourns at the funeral pyre at the end of Beowulf (l.3150). Both of them, however, are distinguished as a single woman in a group, separated from the group lexically if not logistically.  The meowle in Beowulf is surrounded by her people, the Geats for whom she predicts sorrow and defeat in the near future.

In Exodus, the afrisc meowle is eð-fynde (easy to find) within the group of celebrating Israelites – perhaps because of her gold ornaments, but more likely because of her physical difference from the Israelites, the phenotype of her skin color. The meowle of Exodus is in the group but not entirely part of it – she is differentiated as Afrisc rather than included as one of the Israhelum (Israelites) even as she sings and collects treasure with them. Her marriage with the leader of the group, the celebrated hero and law-giver, is not enough for her to completely assimilate into the folc or the Isrehela cynn (terms the poet uses to refer to the Hebrews following Moses).  Even alliance with the most powerful of patriarchs cannot fully integrate her into the group.

Marked as Other by her gender, her skin color, and her geographical origin, this easy-to-find woman has begun to represent for me the deep history of tensions in cultural assimilations and exclusions. Twentieth-century critics focused almost entirely on her exegetical meaning, allegorizing the actual meowle out of their interpretation of the poem. It’s time to refocus critical attention on her and her place in the text.

More updates to follow throughout the summer as I deepen my lexical and literary investigations into the Old English Exodus…..

  1. Fred Robinson, “Notes on the Old English ExodusAnglia 80 (1962): 363-378, at 376.

 

The Massachusetts Medievalist on the Medieval Echoes of Jesus Christ Superstar

If my twitter feed is any indication, much of the United States watched Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC last night and loved every minute of it.  I loved it as well, and I spent a lot time thinking about the medieval aspects of the production, a topic that would probably surprise many of the cast members.

Image of John Legend as Christ on the set of JCS

The set was brilliant – open scaffolding, a “deteriorating basilica” ceiling and back wall, an open fire pit (how’d they get a permit for THAT?), and an asymmetrical, multi-segmented stage that allowed the dancers and main cast members to get close to different parts of the audience. The costumes nodded to biblical-theatrical convention (John Legend’s deliberately timeless pants and shirt) as well as to the musical’s roots in the 1970s (Brandon Victor Dixon’s outfit for the last number) and to our contemporary moment.

Promo poster of Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas

But the medieval vibe came not from the set or the costumes but from the event.  All evening, I felt like I was having an experience something like that of the audience of one of the medieval miracle plays. In late medieval England, communities gathered on Corpus Christi day (21 June) to perform what we now call Cycle Plays — a series of dramatic re-enactments of the narratives of biblical history. The City of York actually still produces its Cycle, although quadriennally rather than annually.

With a probable origin in smaller-scale re-enactments in the church building, by the late Middle Ages the English cycle plays had moved out of the church and into the community with elaborate portrayals of the Creation of the World, the story of Noah, the Last Judgment – and many, many highly focused episodes of the Life of Christ. These included the Last Supper, the trial before Herod, the raising of Lazarus, and of course the betrayal and the Crucifixion. Last night, we watched John Legend as Christ submit to the Crucifixion just as medieval English people watched one of their neighbors enact Christ’s death on the cross in the Cycle Play.

I watched the broadcast with a small group at a neighbor’s house, rather than in a large group of townspeople on the village green. But the live broadcast, an event now reserved almost entirely for sports competitions, provided that sense of larger community. Our band of neighbors knew that we were experiencing the performance in real time with thousands of other Americans and viewers all over the world.  Because of the general decline in religous observance in the United States, many of those viewers were watching the performance as a cultural rather than religious experience. The Christiological narrative was the vehicle for the dancing and singing, rather than the opposite.

In the English Middle Ages, the Corpus Christi play was an annual event of civic pride and community celebration, and perhaps NBC will follow that medieval lead and present us every year with a version of Jesus Christ Superstar. If so, perhaps my future students will know the narrative of the life of Christ, whether or not they believe in it, seeing it as an important part of a shared, American cultural expression.

The Massachusetts Medievalist praises the small, local art show

Small, local art shows have become an inadvertant theme for the Massachusetts Medievalist this month.  I’ve always inclined toward larger, established institutions when seeking out art; I get to the MFA and the Harvard Art Museums pretty regularly. Three small art shows in Cambridge this March have me rethinking that strategy, however, as I’ve found that I enjoy thinking deeply about fewer pieces seen in a shorter period of time.

Anthony Apesos, my erstwhile co-conspirator for an interdisciplinary class on Milton’s Paradise Lost, features in a show at the Cambridge Art Association; all of Tony’s paintings are “illustrations” of Greek myths, but the moments he chooses to depict are not the typical epitomic moments of those narratives.  For example, in “Dedalus and Icarus” (below, with the artist), the illustration is set in a contemporary landscape; Dedalus digs a grave in the sand for the body of his dead son. Perhaps assisted by the presence of a nice white wine, I spent a long time looking at this image, much longer than I would have in a larger exhibition context.  Dedalus’s modern shorts contrast with the timelessness of Icarus’s plain shroud, and Tony forces the viewer to look at the exposed face of the dead boy, to imagine the grief of the isolated father digging the grave.

Anthony Apesos in front of "Dedalus and Icarus"

Right around the corner from my office, Maud Morgan Arts provides exhibit space for local artists. Renaissance man Bill Porter works in the academic technology department at Lesley; he also teaches animation and makes very cool paintings. I popped into his show “Impact” as part of an extended lunch break on a Friday afternoon and was immediately taken by his use of nontraditional items as “canvases” for his paintings. He uses old shingles, boards, and even bits of fences, as in “Clearing Skies,” with the whimsical but unsettling unicorn/narwhal skull as the perch for the pipe-smoking raven. The fence injected a note of reality into the otherwise almost absurdist image.

Bill Porter's "Clearing Skies"

Finally, two Lesley students have installed a specatcular series of portraits of African-American women in the atrium of our university library. “Portraits and Power” by Mosheh Tucker and Rocky Cotard presents larger-than-life images of women in the artists’s communities. Tucker works on traditional canvas, while Cotard’s pieces use loose fabric hung on rails, evoking the femininity implied in cloth and cloth making. Tucker’s “Ms. Marcel” (below) plays with geometry and space in the background of this full-length portrait in an almost Escher-like way; I also really enjoyed the ways that the colors of the figure’s clothes and skin interact with those of the background.

Mosheh Tucker's "Ms Marcel"

I’m realizing as well that all of these shows are associated with Lesley University, so I’m suddenly feeling a warm regard for my university as an art-supporting venue in the community. As spring semester progresses, I’ll be looking for more small art shows to explore.

 

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).