Showing posts with label medieval. Show all posts
Showing posts with label medieval. Show all posts

Thursday, June 21, 2012

New Gig: History Witch

Out of the ivory tower and into the streets!

Or at least the blogosphere. I'm proud to unveil my latest gig, which sprang directly from the interest generated by Rook Chant: I am now the History Witch for the Witches & Pagans site. I'll be bringing the fascinating but often rather challenging information from my studies to an appreciative audience with varying kinds of knowledge and interests.

Witches & Pagans coalesces a variety of publications and readerships, reaching a wide and diverse audience across the world, so I have a potential audience of tens of thousands. Something to put me on my mettle for sure. I expect to have some lively conversations. I join fellow bloggers like my pal Byron Ballard.

I have spoken for some years now about the need to communicate the importance of scholarship in an increasingly (or perhaps returning) anti-intellectual climate, especially in the United States. Many great minds engaged in fascinating pursuits share their discoveries with a too small audience. Many American universities discourage this kind of work and frown on those who engage in it. Colleagues can be dismissive. But it's key to promoting the message that education is not a business. It's a dedication to improving your mind and thinking critically. Most of all, it's important.

In Britain, it's still possible to be considered quite interesting for having a lively intellectual curiosity. The new president of Ireland is a poet. In Italy it's possible to appear in the Paris Review and the bestseller list at the same time. Though all regions have their anti-intellectual forces, it's become particularly virulent in the States because of corporate-funded propaganda like the Murdoch empire.

So this is me stepping out in my own small way, hoping to encourage other folks to do the same and show that academics are not "snobs" or irrelevant, but deeply engaged in understanding the world in which we live from many different angles.

I begin with a little piece about Anglo-Saxon magic. Drop by and say hello.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Six Sentence Sunday: Rook Chant

All right, it's Sunday again -- and Father's Day! Happy Father's Day all -- so here's my six. A little change of pace: not fiction, but non-fiction. A little taste from my latest publication, Rook Chant, which offers a compendium of essays, translations and reviews on one of my favourite topics: magic. I write about it from many different angles, often bringing fairly obscure things to a general audience. My way of saying, "look at this cool stuff I found!"

Here's my six from a presentation I gave at the Harry Potter Symposium in Salem, MA. What a fun event that was! Charles de Lint and MaryAnn Harris were there (and singing!) and many other luminaries. My presentation tried to give the basics of Anglo-Saxon magic to an audience that included all ages. This  will give you a taste of the charms:

By the time these charms are being written down, England is a mostly Germanic-speaking land with a healthy population of Celtic folks, fighting off Vikings and often one another. The one constant was magic. The charms of Anglo-Saxon England  consisted of words, herbs and actions. The Anglo-Saxons believed that words had a magic of their own especially when spoken aloud, but that the application of the right herbs would help the healing processes along, too. Sometimes other actions were required to create the right atmosphere or to move bad luck along to someone else. Used in conjunction the result was simply magic.

I've already got a lovely review and several requests for review copies. I also will be announcing another exciting piece of news soon that's a direct result of Rook Chant. It just goes to show, the real magic is making your dreams manifest. Audaces fortuna iuvat!

Check out the other Six Sentence Sunday entries and find yourself a few new authors!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Out Now: Rook Chant

Few things make a writer happier than a gorgeous book cover and this one's a beaut, thanks to the ever talented Queen of Everything, S. L. Johnson. You may recognise the image from a photo I took: how rare for a writer to have a hand in the book cover! Rook Chant brings together a wide variety of publications that have appeared in various places.  I've had people asking me to send them pieces that are no longer available or available only in academic journals or otherwise hard to obtain. Everything from Anglo-Saxon witches to Alan Moore, Finnish magic and charms.

Blurb: Collected Writings on Paganism & Witchcraft by award winning author, K. A. Laity. This collection represents a wide range of pieces touching on the breadth of her interests in paganism and witchcraft. It includes everything from short pieces for pagan/spirituality journals like The Seeker Journal, The Beltane Papers, Circle and New Witch, papers delivered at academic conferences or published in academic journals as well as a few reviews and translations of old magical texts.

"Laity is a very remarkable sorceress indeed."
          ~ Elizabeth Hand, author of Waking the Moon

"ROOK CHANT is a delicious in-gathering, a magpie's nest of shiny new things about subjects old, gnarled and powerful. Sit with it, relish it and be bound likewise into a breathing tradition that puts Potter et al to shame. It is a charm well-sung and a talisman."
          ~ H. Byron Ballard, Asheville's Village Witch and author of Staubs and Ditchwater: a Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks' Hoodoo

Buy it on Amazon -- and of course any help you can give on getting the word out, clicking "like" on Amazon or agreeing with the tags, would be most appreciated. The biggest hurdle writers face these days is to be heard in the cacophony. Thanks! Click the picture for Amazon US:

Or get it at Amazon UK, Amazon De, Amazon Fr, or Amazon It (anyone I missed?).

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Reviews: Guerilla Blues & Beowulf

Guerrilla Blues
Alessandra Bava

People tend to think writers give their friends good reviews because they're pals; the truth is you become friends with people who write stories or poems that inspire you to be better, to do more, to aim for dizzying heights. My jester -- the poet of Rome -- Alessandra's new collection offers wonderful evidence of that. Inspired by poets and revolutionaries the poems converse with everyone from Che Guevara and Simone Weil to Artaud, the Beats, Akhmatova and Pasolini. All are people who burned with inspiration and a revolutionary zeal.

That's the fire that burns through these verses. This dual language edition shows how Bava shines with incendiary passion in both Italian and English. Setting aside the incredible skill that speaks to (composing poetry in one's childhood tongue proves challenging enough, but to practise the art in another tongue --) the inherent desire to find as wide an audience as possible. In Bava's hand poetry is not a detached art of the drawing room, but a call to the barriers and a shout in the streets.

Burn writing to the stake &
immolate yourself in the form of
Poetry. Then, like Phoenixes,
rise in the form of Action.
Every line forms a potential molotov, from the titular poem's description of "Tattered books / of flesh as bomb / shrapnel / bleeding truth" and the ringing lines of "Sons of Disobedience" with its lines of fury, flesh and teeth. "This is No Chimera" speaks to the forces of acquiescence and conformity that press upon us all, maintaining that "The only requirement / is to believe in / hazardous deeds" lest we turn into Gregor Samsa-like bugs as "Wake Up!" warns, too.

It's all part of her "Rules of Poetry" (which also gives the name to her blog) which include "be fearless" as well as "demand respect" but most of all "kill indifference" because in the end

demand attention:
the poet is You.

adapted by Joshua Gray
illustrated by Sean Yates

As a medievalist, I always despair of people's dismissal of the time especially early works like this epic poem. Most people -- if they're exposed to it at all -- get it in school, taught very badly by someone who likewise knows nothing about the poem and its context. I wish I had a dime for every student who expressed surprise at the poem being nothing like they encountered in high school (hmmm, maybe I do...). So I'm always pleased to see attempts to introduce readers to the poem in new ways. Gray and Yates' volume attempts to bring the old story to new, young readers with bold illustrations and a simplified story.

The illustrations capture a dark mood of adventure; they're sufficiently gruesome though only suggestively so -- safe for parents, inviting for younger readers. Gray's text reduces the story to a speedy series of adventures in the conquering of the three monsters with efficiency and some flair. Hrothgar's "sermon" gets boiled down to its essentials: don't let pride rule, when you're king you're responsible for more than just your fame. The publicity materials refer to this as a "verse adaptation" but it reads like prose, but the language is lively enough to be engaging.

There are some contextual errors that made me give very Biggs-ian head snaps: wet suit?! Surely even a child completely ignorant of the time period would know that a wet suit is a very modern invention. A sword does not go into a "holster" and Heorot is not a "castle" in any way. None of these anomalies are quite as egregious as the mistakes in Cigale's introduction conflating time periods, clearly unfamiliar with the difference between a scop and a bard, and missing the cadence of half-lines. But he highlights one lynchpin of this adaptation: the eternal bond between fathers and sons and "all men", which is apparently the aim of all storytelling.

Because there are, of course, no women in this telling of the story (monsters excepting).

I feel like banging my head against the wall again. Why is it the 11th century monks who wrote this story down in England can have more regard for the importance of women than 21st century (seemingly) secular men? It's not as insulting as the Zemeckis film, where women are reduced to powerless concubines, but I'm mystified by this need to completely remove women from the story in order to glorify men. Is that really the message to give your sons? That they somehow exist outside the world of women and girls? I hope not.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Books: The Life of Christina of Markyate

I don't think there's much chance of overlap with this week's choice. The life of a twelfth century recluse: it doesn't scream popular appeal, I suppose. But it should! A fascinating story and an early biography of a woman in a time when few but kings and saints got their stories told (fortunately at least someone important considered Christina close enough to the latter). I have begun writing a play about Christina's life in hopes of making it known to a broader audience, but as with so many things, it has had to wait in the queue for a bit. I have actually been spending these months in Ireland completing long delayed projects and jettisoning ones that are no longer relevant to my path.

Of course my brain insists on constantly coming up with new ideas, so it's a rather hopeless cause. If I had all the time in the world, it still wouldn't be enough.

Christina is born in Huntingdon to noble Anglo-Saxon parents, Autti and Beatrix. The story is a dove flew over to Christina's mother from the monastery and nestled in her sleeve and stayed there a week while she was pregnant, demonstrating of course that the child was touched by the Holy Spirit. You'd think after such a clear sign, her parents would resign themselves to offering her to the church, but no.

They get her engaged to a rich young man despite her protests that she'd like to devote her life to quiet contemplation. While we tend to think of the church as a repressive organisation in the current age, for women in the Middle Ages it offered one of the few opportunities for independence and a little authority (assuming you weren't born to a royal family or likely to be married into one). So they married her against her will, but she refused to consummate the marriage. So the bishop tried to rape her to make her more compliant; in a hilarious scene, she's divinely assisted to resist him.

She ends up running away to live dressed as a man with a monk: talk about a modern gal! Eventually she's allowed to take up the life of a recluse as she wished, but there are always problems. Christina's peerless conduct evokes envy in others and she has to frequently chastise her superiors because those men would rather wheel and deal wealth than praise god. So it's a busy life, fighting off demons and receiving prognostications from the Holy Spirit -- and only a few recognised her for what she was:

Hence, some of them called her a dreamer, others a seducer of souls, others more moderately, just a worldly-wise business woman...others who could think nothing better to say spread the rumour that she was attracted to the abbot by earthly love.

It's a wonderful capsule of twelfth century life; it's a familiar tale of the difficulties of being an exceptional woman. The Talbot edition has a terrific introduction, but can be a bit pricey unless you find a used copy. There's a more inexpensive edition of her life available now:

Drop by Patti Abbott's blog for the round up of other FFBs.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Six Sentence Sunday: Pelzmantel

As always, drop by Six Sentence Sunday to browse through the offerings and discover new writers.

Once upon a time, there was a queen. She had hair of brilliant gold. It would shine like burnished metal in the sunlight, dance in moonlight spears. Her face had the radiant glow of genuine happiness, for she loved the land in which she dwelled, and she had found her own true love... 

This is the end of one story that I know: a happy ending. But it is the beginning of this story, so of course something terrible is going to happen.
Get the ebook!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked A/V: Penda's Fen

Big birthday wishes to my li'l brother, Bertie. He wouldn't want me posting a picture that was not pre-approved or artfully touched up, so I will refrain from posting that pouty school photo from when he was about seven...

Much as I might be tempted.

Today's overlooked A/V owes a big thanks to Mr B, who pointed me to where Iain Rowan blogged about this film (and more owls -- awesome! [wait, not supposed to say that anymore; what did we come up with? Prodigious! I don't think it's going to work out though...]). Ahem.

Let's go back to a magical time: 1974. Okay, no so much magical as really really weird, especially when you consider British television. And not just scary PSAs, just really weird programs -- often aimed at kids! I give you Penda's Fen, which you can watch in its entirety online [so sorry the video freeze frames on an instance of animal cruelty! not intentional but I guess that will warn some of you away -- apologies!].

This is a film that would have trouble airing now in the States. Never mind that it deals with Elgar's Dream of Gerontius and Manichaeism (o_O) and homoeroticism, it also deals with the relationship between paganism and Christianity; not simply as atavistic past threatening its 'evolutionary' successor, but with a faith in the power of that pagan past and with a view of Christianity as a corrupt reflection of mechanised modernity.


Among the things that would doubtless give many fundies apoplexy, there's the suggestion that Joan of Arc might have been a follower of the Old Religion. The titular pagan Anglo-Saxon king offers a positive model, too. One of the real knock-outs of the film are the dream sequences which are truly unsettling in a very simple way. Two words: uncanny angel! Really creepy! I suspect this film alone may have warped a generation. Wonderful!

As always, catch up on all the recommendations over at Sweet Freedom.

And yes, it's the last day to vote in the Preditors & Editors Poll...

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: Riddley Walker

Russell Hoban was a singular writer; when asked what kind of a writing I do, I have generally offered up Hoban as the "genre" in which I write. Sadly, his name didn't always resonate with people -- and that includes NY Times obit writers; though most memorials mentioned Riddley Walker, too many seemed to be speaking of his masterpiece second hand. While many of Hoban's works deserve the accolade of 'masterpiece' this is the one that resonated most deeply for me. I read Riddley first in high school around the time I also read A Clockwork Orange: these books cemented my love of languages in a fictional context, though when I re-read Riddley as an adult, it was as if I had never read it before. Becoming a medievalist brought a further level of amazement, and visiting Canterbury Cathedral to see the St. Eustace painting was the ultimate pilgrimage for me.

Along with the art of "being friends with your head" Hoban's books taught me to trust in my muse and just write the stories I had to tell and trust that somewhere out there might be readers who would find resonance with them (and that they wouldn't do so if I didn't write them). Fans of Hoban might not be as numerous as those of more popular writers, but my experiences with the Kraken show me they are extraordinary and devoted.

My obsessions with storytelling and ritual feature here. The essay originally appeared in Puppetry International back in 2006, one of the first academic essays of mine to appear in a  non-academic publication that I nonetheless listed on my CV. At the time it seemed a bit radical (is it peer reviewed?!) however since then  I have continued my slide into publishing with abandon wherever my words might be of interest. No regrets there. I suppose I could blame tenure, but I only got that last year, so I suppose it's just my lax attitude. (>_<) I recommend picking up the issue of PI  if you have any interest in puppetry: fascinating publication. I think there's more I have to write about puppets, even more about Punch, but things leak out of my brain at their own pace.

Here's the opening: I've put the rest up on Scribd (restoring my original title which I prefer). Be sure to see Todd's round-up of this week's Forgotten Books (Pattii's taking a break for the holidays).

Future Medieval Space: Performing “Punch” in Riddley Walker

Although he sets his novel Riddley Walker (published in 1980) in a post-apocalyptic future, Russell Hoban makes use of the medieval world to mark this future as a site of the “primitive.” For this stunted society, the most apparent aspect of the Middle Ages is the explicitly medieval legend and wall painting of St. Eustace, which still exists faintly on the wall of Canterbury Cathedral. Perhaps more important is his appropriation of the medieval mystery plays, which illuminate bibilical narratives and are traditionally performed on mobile wagons. As performed in Riddley Walker, the “Eusa Show” (a garbled version of the St. Eustace story) takes on many of the mystery plays’ aspects, transmitting the truths of the culture and entertaining people with education. This modified Punch and Judy show conveys the only narrative that remains after the apocalyptic devastation of English society. The ritual of the puppet show picks up the religious meaning of the mystery plays, but it also takes on a social and governmental function that medieval dramas typically lacked. Just as various dissenters from Lollards to Pelagians threatened the orthodoxy of Christianity in the middle ages, the young protagonist’s discovery of a real Punch puppet sets off a chain of events that destroys the carefully scripted Eusa show. Hoban’s use of Punch history gives this superb novel its authority, while the familiar art of puppetry provides a vivid connection to this bizarre future world for the modern reader...

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Converting Galway

Thanks to Michael, there's a photo of me giving my talk at the Moore Institute yesterday. There was quite a good turnout! I suspect it was the sandwiches. The audience seemed to be receptive and laughed in the right places, always a good sign.I will put the talk on line when I get a moment. I went out to the pub with Leslie and Michael after the talk and then ended up tagging along to dinner with some of Michael's colleagues later. They're sad as their time in Galway is nearly over. I'll miss them.

They're asking me to teach a creative writing course in the spring, so now I will begin brainstorming about what tack to take for that. I suspect I will use it as an excuse to get some of my colleagues to Skype with my class :-)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Know-vember: Frances McCormack

Okay, what're the odds? Oh sure, it is entirely likely that I would get on with the first medievalist I met at NUI Galway. After all, we medievalists have to stick together like all endangered species. But we keep finding amazing things in common like our birthdays (!) and P. G. Wodehouse and the Marx Bros and Tony Hancock. Destiny took a hand in things, I think, when it sent me to Galway. She even invited me to talk to her Old English course so I wouldn't forget entirely what the inside of a classroom looked like. Here's the lovely Frances, award winning lecturer.

1. What's the first thing you do upon waking in the morning?

Let the cats in for a cuddle and go back to sleep, even if only for two minutes. I'm not a fan of sleeping late, but I do like to wake up slowly.

2. What's a song you might be persuaded to dance to?

I'm a trained dancer, but the best songs are those that make me dance like I don't know how! "Come on Eileen," by Dexy's Midnight Runners, has made me jump up and down on ever since I was a bairn in 1982. I remember the first time I heard it: I jumped around the breakfast table with such enthusiasm and abandon that my mum cried with laughter. "Late in the Evening" by Paul Simon makes me do what my husband calls "Muppet Dancing", and it works best when I'm in the passenger seat of the car (although God knows what the people looking in their rear-view mirrors at me are thinking)!

3. Where in the world do you live?

In books. I much prefer stories to real life!

4. What's a great night out for you?

I don't tend to go out. I much prefer 'in'.

5. What's a great night in?

Learning languages, or doing something craftsy. I like to be busy!

6. If you were offered an all expenses paid trip anywhere in the world,where would you go?

Japan, Japan, Japan...or New York! But unfortunately, as I don't really like 'out', traveling is not the easiest thing for me to do!

7. What book do you wish everyone would read so you could talk about it?

The one with the boy with the orange pyjamas...but I can't remember what book it was. I vaguely remember reading it in bed--there was a boy who may have been an orphan; someone (it may have been a man) took him in, and a woman (whose name may have begun with a J) brought him pyjamas in which to sleep. The pyjamas either had oranges on them or orange buttons, and the boy had an aversion to the colour orange, so he slept in his clothes and then crinkled the pyjamas the next morning to make it look like they'd been slept in. I can't remember whether I actually read this book or DREAMT that I had read this book so if it sounds familiar to you, let me know what on earth it is!

8. What movie makes you cry?

I don't cry at movies...but Graham Greene's books always have me in tears!

9. What makes you laugh?

At the moment, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. But everything in general...I'm a giggler! [Ed: I can attest to this.] Ooh yes, and games where you substitute the word 'goose' for either a noun or a verb in a film title. That one makes me chuckle too!

10. Are there fairies at the bottom of your garden?

Yes! There's actually a special fairy garden in my garden, where the dead trees are and the primrose grows. I don't like to visit it very often, because it's also where the septic tank lives, but the fairies don't seem to mind.

Thank you, Frances, a delight!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Know-vember: Miss Wendy

You knew she would be here: the Patsy to my Edina, she of the big hair, former Elf-Queen (and survivor of many a medieval play), southern gal supreme, Mechademia Submissions editor, connoisseur of Jack Daniels and hostess of the Rosh Hashanah Ragin' Kegger and Toga Parties -- Miss Wendy! I am so happy to know that Miss Wendy will be in Ireland after Xmas and this island nation will never be the same again if we have anything to say about it. Wendy reminded me that we were together last New Year's Eve, too, when I visited her in the home of Faulkner. Ringing in another year -- where will we be in another year's time?! Who can say? :-)

1. What's the first thing you do upon waking in the morning?

Well, this morning I cursed out Pumpkin, my cat, who decided to howl, run laps around the house, and play with what I thought was not a noisy toy at 5:00 this morning (two hours before my alarm). Most mornings, I open a coffee can, savor the smell of the grinds, and make a very strong cup of coffee.

2. What's a song you might be persuaded to dance to?

I am not averse to dancing and have danced to many songs in my life -- some of which I am not proud. I can always be persuaded to dance to a Ramones song.

3. Where in the world do you live?

In my mind, in my house, in the city of Oxford, Mississippi, in the Southern United States, in North America, in the West, on Earth, third planet out.

4. What's a great night out for you?

Dinner at a restaurant in the Latin Quarter, Paris; off-Broadway play in New York; moonlight trip in a rowboat on the Vltava in Prague; and finally late night karaoke with my friends in Tokyo. (I've done three of four. Any one of them would be a wonderful night out).

5. What's a great night in?

Martinis and kung fu movie marathon.

6. If you were offered an all expenses paid trip anywhere in the world, where would you go?

A year in Tokyo; or birdwatching in Costa Rica.

7. What book do you wish everyone would read so you could talk about it?

Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; or his short stories The Elephant Vanishes.

8. What movie makes you cry?

These are movies that I like to cry to. They are the ones that I believe have earned my tears. I cry at other movies but either the quality of the cry is not transcendent or the stupid movie has manipulated my tears. Here's a list of the good cries: Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru; Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies; Mike Newell's Enchanted April (a happy, melancholy cry); James L. Brooks' Terms of Endearment (I know, a classic tear-jerker, but darnit, both Debra Winger and Shirley Maclaine are just too good); I'm sure there are classic Hollywood films I am missing here. Kate will send me a list, I'm sure -- yes, I know Dark Victory [Ed: "Did the sun go behind the clouds?".

9. What makes you laugh?

This sums up my sense of humor. It's a cartoon from the New Yorker. I can't find the link but I'll describe it. A clown is sitting at a table in an outdoor cafe. He's holding a balloon and a tear trickles down his cheek. A woman stands at the table, looking like she's about to walk away. She says "If you must know, he makes me laugh." It's the balloon that gets me. I never get tired of it.

10. Are there fairies at the bottom of your garden?

Nope. Cats ate them. 

 Be seeing you, Miss Wendy -- can't wait!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: Saint Patrick's Confessio

People ask me what this "digital humanities" business is that I'm supposed to be engaged in for the coming academic year; the answer is long and complicated (but if you bring me a cuppa, I'll tell it to you). Among the kinds of activities that very big umbrella covers is one of the projects developed here at the Moore Institute: the Confessio of Saint Patrick.

You can look at digital renderings of the eight surviving manuscripts; you can read the text in English, Latin, Gaeilege, Italian, German or Portuguese; you can read a lot of essays that tell you about the context of Patrick's time, the manuscripts, the world he lived in and get a full bibliography of the sources. All from the comfort of your computer!

This is the sort of thing that shows you why medievalists, despite our reputation as people only to be found in musty libraries among handwritten tomes, tend to be geeks of the first order and interested in the latest technologies (okay, this does not apply to Fred Biggs ;-). The most plenteous text from the Middle Ages, The Prick of Conscience (not as racy as it sounds), boasts just over a hundred copies. Many exist in a single copy (e.g. Beowulf). Digital copies are so helpful!

For more FFB, drop by Patti Abbott's blog.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mary of Nijmeghen

Mary -- or Mariken van Nieumeghen as it is in the original -- is a play that shows up in the early sixteenth century. My students read it this week and (among other things) we talked about how one might adapt it to a modern movie and came up with a really good plan. They're convinced I just use the class to brainstorm writing projects.

Who? Me?!

But they did enjoy learning a lot of new curses (eg. "profligate strumpet"). It's a Faustian tale -- although it predates the "original" Faust -- in which a young woman sells her soul to the devil in a moment of weakness and confusion. He doesn't tempt her with life everlasting, love or riches, but with learning.
The Devil: If you would give your love to me, I would teach you the arts as no one else could: the seven liberal arts, rhetoric, music, logic, grammar, geometry, arithmetic and alchemy [<--substitutes a false one here, it should be astronomy], all of which are most important arts. There is no woman upon earth so proficient in them as I shall make you.
The seven disciplines were the backbone of the original university as founded in the Middle Ages. I like to remind my female students that they would not have been welcome there. Fascinating that this is the temptation for her, though wealth and riches come eventually. She finally repents when she sees a play (how po-mo) but it's a delight to see the joy and frustration of the writer (believed to be Anna Bijns) come through in the scene in which drunken revelers demand a demonstration of Mary's rhetorical skill:
O rhetoric, o true and lovely art, I who have always esteemed thee above all, I lament with grief that there are those who hate you and despise you. This is a grief to those who love you. Fie upon those who count you merely folly. Fie upon them who do so, for I wholly despise them. But for those who support you, life is full of hurt and sorrow. Ignorant men are the destruction of art.

They say in the proverb that through art grows the heart, but I say that it is a lying fable, for should some great artist appear, those who are unskilled and know not the first thing about art will make their opinion prevail everywhere, and artists will be reduced to beggary. Always it is the flatterer who is preferred, and always artists suffer such harm, and ignorant men are the destruction of art.

Fie upon all crude, coarse common minds, trying to measure art by your standards: everyone should pay honour to pure art, art which is the ruler of many a pleasant land. Honour be to all who are the promoters of art, fie upon the ignorant who reject art, for this is why I proclaim the rule that ignorant men are the destruction of art.

Prince, I will devote myself to art, and do everything in my power to acquire it. But it is to all lovers of art a sorrow that ignorant men pay so little honour to art.

Clearly it will always be so, but it's comforting to know that despite the efforts of ignorant men, art continues to thrive even in the midst of our suffering. Translation by Eric Colledge in this excellent collection.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: The Passion of Joan of Arc

I kicked off the Visualising Medieval Women course with Carl Theodore Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc; yes, a daring choice as I could more or less assume that none of my students had ever seen a silent film. But after showing them Terry Jones' "The Damsel" episode from Medieval Lives, I wanted to hammer home the point that Joan was not "burnt as a witch" but for usurping male clothes and by implication, a male role, which gave suitable grounds in what was really a political battle. Witch burning, by the by, is from the so-called age of Enlightenment the so-called Renaissance gave us -- just another myth about the Middle Ages.

Dreyer's film -- like all his work -- is richly imagined and visually stunning. The Criterion DVD features the evocative "Voices of Light," a choral and orchestral work composed by Richard Einhorn and performed by the wonderful Anonymous 4 and the Radio Netherlands Philharmonic and Choir. This edition of the long-thought-to-be-lost film came when a complete version was located in a Norwegian mental institute in 1981.

Dreyer's vision is always arresting. For a film awash in white, it often seems so dark. Renée Falconetti's Joan offers a compelling vision of a suffering young woman who nonetheless stubbornly fights for her beliefs against harsh treatment. We examined how the internal space of the trial (ecclesiastic, confined and male) suddenly explodes into the public space (cacophonous, open and mostly female). Good to see a young Antonin Artaud as a sympathetic priest; practising for that theatre of cruelty, eh?

See all the recommendations for overlooked media at Sweet Freedom.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Town & Country

I will get to the Fall concert, but anon. Earlier in the day I had a fabulous lunch with Hannah Priest who ran the Werewolf Women Conference last fall and will be part of the Gender and Punishment Medieval Conference in January (which I'll probably go to since I'll be near by). We had a great chat about academia—and how to survive it successfully—publishing and her new murder-mystery company. Always glad to get to know other dynamic women :-)

Saturday morning I caught the train to London, but once I got there, I hopped on the tube and headed out to Epping with the final destination Great Dunmow, land of bacon (at least since the Middle Ages). Jo and James took me for a ramble around the village. Last time I'd stayed with them it had been pouring so I only saw the view from a car. It's really a lovely place, although the drought has been so bad that there were huge cracks in ground at the cricket pitch and the river was just about down to a trickle.

It's an odd mix of quiet life and recent arrivals; the new local car dealership sells Rolls-Royces. It's Dick Turpin territory, too. Saturday night we went to a great old pub, The Three Horseshoes. The landlord was rumoured to have been an actor and you could certainly believe it. Small crowd, terrific atmosphere—the maypole was still up out in the back garden, too.

Some much-needed rain arrived overnight, so a relaxing morning reading the papers seemed in order. I had a nice chat with Jo's mum who had been evacuated to Ascot for six years during the war. She had been at a special school for kids at risk from tuberculosis because her father had died from it. We had a nice Sunday roast dinner and watched a couple of Ken Loach films, Looking for Eric and Route Irish: both great, both totally different.

Rain again as I headed back to the Big Smoke. Village life is lovely, but I miss the dirty old town.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Snapshots of Pop Culture

Here's a little taste of the trip to the Popular Culture Association Conference: we stayed at the Marriott Rivercenter which is a combination mall and canal, chock full of tourists and cheap Texas trash, er, souvenirs. I lived in that state for three years, eleven months, six days, five hours and fifteen minutes and I never understood the arrogant Texas chauvinism. I lost count of the number of Tejas tattoos I saw. I don't think I've ever seen anyone with Connecticut tattooed on their skin.

I had to take a picture of this because I couldn't decide if it was genius or the most horrible thing ever; I wish I'd taken a picture of the guy who was in it with his two tiny daughters. Scarred for life or prepared for the worst? In case you're wondering, it costs $2 for a "ride" in the machine.

We spent most of our time in panels seeing papers on all kinds of topics. Of course what everyone really looks forward to is chatting in the bar which is far more relaxed (though often just as thoughtful). Miss Wendy and Paul and I started things off on the right foot the first night.

It was my last year as chair of the Medieval Popular Culture area: we're combining with the Arthurian area (strength in numbers), so next year I have no responsibilities but writing my own paper. Naturally I've already come up with an idea for a special panel: anyone interested in a Romance & Comics, let me know. I attended the open forum on  Romance scholarship which was quite interesting: not surprisingly, there were only two men there. You gotta admire the chutzpah of a guy who'd bring this cup to that room full of women (or maybe it was just obliviousness):

PCA is a rather laid back conference, but there are still moments that people find stressful. Someone must have been trying to encourage a friend with this note that first appeared in one of the elevators, then on a painting in the hallway where I snapped it:

Saturday Miss Wendy wanted to wander around a little and see the sights after she gave her awesome presentation on Moto Hagio. Last time we were in San Antonio, the only touristy thing we did was the Ripley's Believe it or Not! "museum" which was amusing at least. So we headed over to the Alamo which is now classified as (no, I'm not kidding) "The Shrine to Texas Liberty."

I liked this shirt and the lotteria paintings in this store, but everything they had was unbelievably expensive, so I didn't feel too tempted to add to my belongings as I'm continuing to divest myself of things.

I'm always intrigued by weird stuff that other people don't seem to find interesting. I have odd tastes, I guess. But I loved the way electricity was anthropomorphised in this sign. It looks deliberately malevolent.

I was lucky on my flight out: after the unexpected overnight stay in Chicago a week ago, I was pleased to find that because my flight was overbooked, they bribed me to change flights with $400 in travel coupons -- and I didn't have to go to Chicago (Atlanta instead) and got there only an hour later than I would have anyway. On the way back, not so lucky, but that's okay. I had plenty of time to check out the new trends according to W:

What's more "punk" than an airbrushed model in a corset? Sigh. And I'm hoping the rumours that punk rocker Poly Styrene has died are just that, though she has been battling cancer for a while. I've been following her on Twitter and the new album is getting a lot of good press. I hope it's not true. [Sadly it is true: requiescat in pace, Marianne].

Monday, April 18, 2011

Converting Monks into Friars in Iowa

So, the trip to Iowa included an unscheduled night in Chicago. A bit irritating to spend all those hours in O'Hare, but the truth is the seasoned traveler needs to be prepared for this kind of inconvenience. I had books to read, things to write and social media at my fingertips where I could complain to my friends. I'd have rather been in Iowa having dinner with folks as planned, but there are worse things than the quiet solitude of an anonymous hotel room. I love hotels. I think it would be terrific to live in a hotel in London with room service and the whole city before me.

More later, but here's the Powerpoint slides from my talk.Consider them an attempt to intrigue you. Forthcoming: the paper with these images embedded and a video of the images with the narration recorded there (assuming it sounds okay). Time's tight: I'm off to PCA in San Antonio on Wednesday. Much to do, so I'm writing this while my students are watching a film. Multi-tasking is the word du jour.

Converting Monks into Friars

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Review: Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen

See all of Tuesday's Overlooked Films (and other media) over at Todd Mason's blog.

There's a short BBC film on the life of Hildegard von Bingen that I show to my classes starring the fantastic Patricia Routledge as the visionary healer. Despite its creaky low-budget ambience I prefer it to this one despite its beauties. But I'm all for more films (and plays and books) about one of the many influential women of the Middle Ages. Despite what my students have sometimes told me, there are not only women in medieval times (yes, I have had students say that "there were no women in Anglo-Saxon England" which makes one wonder how there were any men...) but a surprising number were well known at the time not just in retrospect.

Hildegard is one and this film conveys some of the reasons why. Her visions hold center stage here, which is a shame because her music should share that stage. The music is there, but it's as if filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta assumes you already know about the music from the start. Eventually -- and rather gloriously -- the music gets it moment, embodied in a very pagan-looking production of the Ordo Virtutum which releases the nuns from their habits and wimples to look absolutely golden with grace.

But a lot of the film seems unable to see Hildegard's piety except from an anachronistic modernity. There's the gruesome revelation of her spiritual mother's cilice upon her death, where the metal prongs have to be peeled away from her rotting flesh. Hildegard's combativeness against the masculine discipline seems to be the simple misogyny of individuals rather than the more complicated hierarchical world that evolves from a patriarchal structure; after all, Hildegard proves able to negotiate that imposing edifice with skill and insight, circumventing control with targeted appeals to the right ears. The importance of an authoritative endorsement of her work at the Synod of Trier and her correspondence with popes and leaders demonstrates the significant power this "humble vessel" attained.

Of course modern filmmakers can only see the relationships between the women, especially Hildegard's connection to her acolyte Richardis, as a barely concealed sexual attraction, which trivialises the depth and complexity of the lives of women in cloistered world. Hildegard's faith gave her authority and power; it infused her life and her outlook. The visions -- which von Trotta's film suggests are as often put on for show as for genuine insight -- were amazingly complex works that crystalised complex notions into a single multifaceted image. She turned a medical condition that plagued her into a gift that allowed her to interpret and explain in an unprecedented way: true genius.

Nonetheless, there is much to enjoy in the film. Barbara Sukowa makes an arresting Hildegard and the film provides a gorgeous view of medieval life that isn't all leeches and mud. The gardens in particular are lovely: Hildegard as a healer (and the author of Physica and Causae et Curae) also gets short shrift in the film, though we do see her teaching the novices herbs. The film has a leisurely pace, so don't go expecting action/adventure. A good introduction for folks who know nothing about this remarkable woman: with luck, it will inspire you to look further.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Caravaggios, Artichokes and Agnes' Skull

First off I have to say this is Alessandra's photo. I tried to get the pictures off the camera and onto my travel computer only to find that it overloaded the memory and now I can't upload them to the web. Argh. So kind thanks to Alessandra and she's started writing a blog, so you should check it out :-)

On the second day, we wandered down to the Jewish Ghetto area where the Theatre of Marcellus can be found as well as the fabulous restaurants with giant displays of artichokes. The roasted artichoke we had with lunch was so good! I can still taste it, mmm. All the food was good, but I have generally thought of artichokes as far too much work to be worth it, but this inspired me to make one when I got home. Nowhere as good, but still tasty. My favourite fountain, the tortoise one, is near here in Piazza Mattei (and apparently Bernini added the tortoises!).

The amazing thing about the Caravaggios in Rome is that so many of them are where they were intended to be: in churches. Small churches -- dark chapels in the small churches! The Basilica di Sant'Agostino and the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi that day. When you walk in the church you can always tell where the Caravaggios are because there's a knot of people all staring up. To light up the space there's usually a little box for you to throw your euros in and then the light comes back, so it's a amusing to watch the mini-drama each time the light goes out. Who will be the first to put a coin in the box?

What can I say about the paintings? To see Caravaggios where they were meant to be, to contemplate them in baroque churches that were chock full of gold and art and massive pillars and ornamentation? I always loved the line in Brideshead where Charles talks about being "insular and medieval" in his tastes and how Italy converted him to the Baroque. I won't say I've been converted, but I was certainly dazzled time and time again. One of the truly spectacular things about seeing Rome with Alessandra is that we could turn any corner and she would say, "oh, there's something you must see here." We would step inside a small stone church and suddenly a Baroque paradise! How were the Caravaggios? Indescribably awe inspiring. You'll just have to go to Rome and see for yourself.

We saw the Pantheon and marveled at how lovely it looks still -- as Michaelangelo said, "the work of angels not men." Then wandered over to the Piazza Navona, once a stadium for sports, home of an amazing Bernini fountain, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi -- partly inspired by the artist's desire to show his superiority to his rival, Boromini, or so the story goes. The fabulous Palazzo Pamphili overlooks the piazza and it's also home to the Church of Sant'Agnese in Agone. Agnes' chapel was open, so we had the chance to peek at her little skull. Agnes was a popular figure in medieval martyrologies, patron of chastity and gardeners, always pictured with her little lamb. People wanted to touch her and feel some reflected glory -- the way that people want to grasp at celebrities now.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: Beowulf

I was thinking, "oh dear, I haven't had any time at all to read lately and there's nothing I've gotten far enough into [i.e. the Avram Davidson books, thanks Todd :-)] to write up" and then it hit me: Beowulf.

Forgotten, you say with the questioning look in your eye. Don't you teach it every semester? Don't high schools still require it as reading? My argument here -- and what I face every semester -- is that Beowulf is the most misread book I think there is. Okay, the bible probably tops it. Second most misread book, then.

If you Google Beowulf in search of an image of it you'll come up mostly with pictures from the Zemeckis' film, which I have already mentioned is utter pants. What that tells us is that most people when looking for something called "Beowulf" are looking for a crap film full of modern "twists" on the tale, cynicism about heroics and gross misunderstandings of the poem. Apparently the writers read the Heaney-Wulf, not the original. Heaney is a great poet, but his poem is not Beowulf.

Sadly, for many years I was one of those folks who dreaded the book. I took to heart Woody Allen's character's advice to Diane Keaton's Annie Hall on going back to college, "Just don't take any class where they make you read Beowulf!" I was all too willing to believe that it was something for laying down and avoiding.

Then my Swedish teacher at Harvard (where I was assiduously making use of my employee benefits, something a minuscule percentage of employees do) suggested I take the course "The Heroic Tradition in Northern Europe" with Stephen Mitchell. That course was the one-two punch that changed my life and made me a medievalist. We read Beowulf, Njal's Saga and The Völsunga Saga and my head exploded (in the good way). My first reaction was fury -- why did people keep me away from Beowulf  all these years?! It was amazing! And why did no one tell me that books like the Icelandic sagas existed? They belong up there with Shakespeare and Austen. Flabbergasted, genuinely so. I am forever grateful to Mitchell (and have had the chance to tell him so :-).

Yet there's something to be said for being prepared to read Beowulf. Most of my students who "read" the book in high school seem to have had it taught by someone who hated it as much as they end up doing. I like to think I rescue a few of them from the errors of their ways. The key is understanding the culture from which it arises: a Christian culture that nonetheless not only looks back at a heroic past, but embraces much of it while trying to convince themselves it can jibe with orthodoxy.

The Anglo-Saxons, after all, had to imagine that Christ climbed up on the cross, because they had to see that hero acting the way they expected their leaders to act. The poem is written down in a time when the tensions between the English (descendants of the Angle, Saxon and Jute Germanic tribes who invaded the Celtic Britons after the Romans left) and the Viking kings who had ruled parts of the country off and on for some time.

Consider how odd it is to have a poem written in English and copied down by monks at a time when a Danish king might be ruling England -- a poem that valorizes the ancient pagan past of Danes and Geats and Swedes and Frisians.  I could go on and on (and do, regularly) but consider also, its narrative voice, which is consistently Christian and yet admiring of these often brutal kings of the past. The opening lines which set up the poem tell us Scyld Scefing, who intimidates his enemies and steals their wealth, is "a good king." This isn't modern American Christianity, which the medieval world would mostly find appalling and wrong-headed, it's their own brand of heroicism, largely situated in the stories of the old testament, not the new.

It's a story about heroes and monsters, first and foremost. Like all good stories, however, it touches on many themes: the mysteriousness of the vast world, the difficulties of ruling, the pride of the warrior, the use of public performance (we don't hear anyone's thoughts, everyone is conscious of speaking before a crowd), the treacherousness that can grow in those closest to your heart and the brutality of life. While Anglo-Saxon poetry concerns itself seldom with women or romantic love, the two central women, Wealtheow and Grendel's unnamed mother, show the respect that women held in the Anglo-Saxon world. Wealtheow's wise words, when her husband goes overboard thanking the champion, seem to echo in Beowulf's mind years later when the people urge him to take the crown, but he defers to his king's young son as tradition dictates. The Danish queen would be proud.

I urge you to learn Anglo-Saxon and read it in the original: there's no comparison. Translation, however, is going to be the way most people encounter it. So I recommend these two as the best: Liuzza's as the most accurate, Crossley-Holland's as the most engaging with nonetheless good accuracy.