The Massachusetts Medievalist on citation, scholarly erasure, and Signe Marie Carlson

Much recent discussion on #MedievalTwitter and in academia at large has focused on formal citation practice and more general acknowledgement of the ideas of others, especially less privileged groups. I’ve participated in numerous conversations at conferences that reinforce the fact that those in positions of academic power (senior scholars, usually white men, at elite institutions) tend not to cite the less privileged, even when their points are largely indebted to the work of graduate students, junior scholars, colleagues of color, or faculty at less prestigious institutions. Geography is in play here as well: I’ve heard US scholars accuse UK colleagues of citational neglect and vice versa.

Part of the recent discussion has focused on the Dating Beowulf collection (Manchester, 2019), about which I blogged last month, and the lack of citation in two of its essays to Adam Miyashiro’s 2017 blog post about decolonizing early English medieval studies; Adam also gave a paper on “Beowulf and Its Others: Sovereignty, Race, and Medieval Settler-Colonialism” at Kalamazoo in May of 2018 (full disclosure: I co-organized and chaired that session) and he plans to publish a version of that essay in postmedieval in the near future. Miyashiro’s work specifically analyzes Grendel “as an Indigenous person with a specific set of biopolitics” (phrase from his twitter thread of 30 Jan 2020, @adam_miya).

Probably the earliest iteration of an argument connecting Grendel to a form of indigeneity appeared in 1967 in the Journal of American Folklore. In “The Monsters of Beowulf: Creations of Literary Scholars,” Signe Marie Carlson argued for a “basis in fact” for the beings usually termed “monsters” in literary scholarship on the poem. Carlson’s work is very much a product of its time: she assumes an idealized, pagan ur-text for the poem with an added, later Christian veneer (that needs to be stripped away); she also equates “indigenous” with “primitive” in an iteration of the racist “noble savage” trope.  More usefully, Carlson also provides solid lexical analysis of the ways that scholars and translators have used certain OE words, including gaest and feond, to confirm the “monstrousness” of those characters. Finally, she suggests that Grendel and his mother are akin to “indigenous inhabitants” encountered by Germanic invaders in early medieval history, rather than supernatural or fictional beings invented by the poet.

Carlson earned her PhD in comparative literature from USC in 1966; her 1967 Beowulf article is a version of the last chapter of her dissertation. She edited a vanity press publication of a purported legend of the Sami people in 1985 (she is not listed as the author). She seems never to have worked in academia or education, although there is a small scholarship fund in her name at Rogue Community College in southern Oregon; her obituary does not mention her PhD or any academic work, focusing instead of her political activism.

Carlson is thus something of an early edition of those enduring today’s academic precariat. Early English medievalists need to acknowledge that with no academic position and no institutional support, more than fifty years ago Carlson introduced an important idea –indigeneity– into scholarly discourse about a canonical poem.

 

Thanks to Misty Schieberle, Kriszta Kotsis, and the MedFem e-list for crowdsourcing most of the information about Carlson’s life outside early medieval studies.

Carlson, Signe M. “The Monster of Beowulf: Creations of Literary Scholars.” Journal of American Folklore 80.318 (1967): 357-364.

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 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!

The Massachusetts Medievalist returns to the Old English Exodus (and the startling African woman at its end)

The Massachusetts Medievalist took advantage this week of some bonus time to return to the semi-stalled project on the African woman of the Old English Exodus (all my students are reading and writing but as of this moment I have no student work to read). I blogged about her last spring during my initial burst of activity on this project, and I now face a deadline, since I’m giving a paper about her at Kalamazoo in May.

I’m still wrestling with the end of the poem, where the afrisc meowle (“African woman”) appears during the Israelites’s celebration after their crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army in the same waters. She is “easily-found, on the ocean’s shore, gold-adorned” (þa wæs eðfynde Afrisc meowle, / on geofones staðe golde geweorðod , ll.580-581). In April, I stated that I thought she was the “only woman of color in the Old English poetic corpus.” Today, I’m sure that she’s the only African woman in the entire Old English corpus, both poetry and prose. I’m still not quite sure exactly why that’s important, but I know it is.

Sometime in the last few months, I stumbled upon the following wisdom from one of our Nobel laureates:

“Imaginary Africa was a cornucopia of imponderables that, like the monstrous Grendel in Beowulf, resisted explanation” Toni Morrison, Origin of Others (104).

Morrison’s latest essay collection, The Source of Self-Regard, also includes a version of this sentence (as well as, separately, a full essay about Grendel and his mother). I’m interested here in her point that “Imaginary Africa….resisted explanation” — voicing for me the way the afrisc meowle has resisted the patristic explanations imposed upon her by critics in the last 50 years, as I discussed in April. I’ve also discovered that a number of early editors wanted to eliminate her entirely, emending the very clear text in the manuscript to remove her disturbing presence that “resists explanation” by changing afrisc to [h]ebrisc or meowle to neowle (or both).

Thanks to limited but free access for individuals to the Dictionary of Old English at the University of Toronto, I was able to find myriad references to journeys in Africa londe, a reference to a probably fictional author named Africanus, and a mention of a general’s victory ofer þa Africanas in Carthage, but no other women, no other individuals, described as African. So the afrisc meowle is multiply-unusual: she appears in a poem, she is female, she is individually distinct. She is also gold-adorned, a not-unusual descriptor for high-status women in Old English poetry (think of Wealhtheow in Beowulf, passing the cup in the hall).

The two lines describing her do little more than break up the otherwise seamless narrative of the Israelites’ celebration on the shore of the Red Sea. Before the description of her, they sing victory songs; after it, they divide the treasure that has washed up after the destruction of the Egyptians.  There’s no narrative reason in the poem for her appearance, and there’s no Biblical reason either — the narrative from the Hebrew Bible moves from the songs of celebration to the departure from the shore, with no distribution of treasure and no haunting, disruptive reference to a gold-adorned African woman.

So more research has led simply to more questions: I stand by my earlier rejection of patristic “explanations” for her presence and need to think more — and more quickly!– about her increasingly unsettling, Othered presence at the end of the OE Exodus. I’m sure she will resist any explanation of her that I propose as well.

The Massachusetts Medievalist roadtrips to Worcester Art Museum for Indian and Iranian manuscript art

The middle of Massachusetts can tend to get lost: Boston is an obvious destination for long-distance tourists and day-trippers, and western Massachusetts boasts various museums and performing arts venues, complemented by lots of lovely outdoor spaces. In the center of the state, Worcester Art Museum (WAM) is a relatively hidden gem in the revitalizing city of Worcester (soon to get its own minor league Red Sox team).  The museum beckons for a medievalist road trip to its “Preserved Pages” exhibit before it closes 6 January 2019.

WAM’s manageability is just one of the many reasons to love it, and like most of the galleries and exhibits, “Preserved Pages” occupies a relatively small space that is intellectually and emotionally accessible (as opposed to the somewhat overwhelming experiences of more gargantuan museums like the Met).  The items on display are all single-leaf illustrations that came from more substantial books or albums; they are divided into a number of sections (women at court, illustrations from the “Book of Kings”).

The medievalist in me gravitated to the earlier works, of course, although the exhibit as whole forces westerners to question the very periodization that divides “medieval” from “early modern.”

This watercolor from the early fourteenth century, Bahram Gur Hunting Onagers (wild ass), shows Chinese stylistic influence on Persian visual arts; it also depicts a universally recognized heroic king. I love the fur tails (lynx? gray leopard?) attached to the king’s hunting gear – and the museum has thoughtfully provided hand held magnifiers to allow visitors to study detail like the intricate patterns of the king’s robe and boots.

Watercolor of a king riding a horse, hunting herd animals

My favorite item in the exhibit, however, dates somewhat later: the c.1580 “Conversation between a man and a woman,” a watercolor from the Mughal period. The gold-flecked paper frame is exquisite, and the image itself finely detailed (thanks again to those magnifiers!).

A man and a woman gesturing and talking to each other in a gold-flecked frame

The figures sit in a beatifully enclosed architectural space. They look at and gesture to each other — the viewer becomes voyeur to this intimate and thoughtful moment. This conversation is peaceful and positive; the expressions on both faces are welcoming and empathetic.  The artist has shown us here the moment before the couple’s hands touch, as they are about to make physical the connection already established by their eyes and their faces.

WAM obtained many of these items through purchase in the first half of the twentieth century.  They are rarely on display, because of their fragile nature and also because of the highly specialized expertise needed to create an exhibit like this one (which is co-guest-curated by a Harvard graduate student in art history and a Harvard professor of Islamic art). WAM has provided a rare and important opportunity to see these intrinsically beautiful works that also productively disrupt Euro-centric notions of history and art. As I said: the exhibit closes 6 January.

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 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!