Monday, September 27, 2010

Tolkien and White

Whilst I prepare some thoughts on the UnDark Dark Ages, I return to jot some thoughts on another subject altogether. This past summer I returned to a book I read 25 years ago and foolishly decided to teach it: T. H. White's The Once and Future King. I enjoyed it so much I decided to teach it again this semester.

I noticed some connections and while I haven't been extensive in my search, I hadn't noticed anyone else comparing White and the Inklings, particularly Tolkien.

A few points worth considering I think:

They were contemporaries.

They were both born and spent early years in the Empire rather than Britain

They both trained in English.

They both had absent fathers: Tolkien's father died, White's was an alcoholic from whom White's mother divorced when White was 14.

They both spent some important years of their teens separated from parents and in the hands of "tutors" who would greatly influence them.

They both had to do without a maternal connection: Tolkien because his mother died, White's was emotionally distant, distant enough to warp the man.

They both draw on multiple ancient/medieval traditions in telling their tales

They both published their first attempts at what they would become most known for in 1937.

They both kept their audiences waiting until the '50s for the conclusion to their 1937 works.

They both have something to say to their times and the modern world.

They are both engaging in medievalisms of various kinds.

They both have compelling heroes.

They both have something to say about war, heroism, and love.

Those are a few things. The more I think about it, the more I think that a comparison of White, Tolkien, and Lewis in terms of theme, characterization, influences, medievalism etc might be in order.

There are of course differences as well: for example White was too young to see action in WWI and was a conscientious objector to WWII and lived in Ireland during that whole period. It on the subject of war and battle I think that I would start a comparison.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Why the Dark Ages Weren't Dark II

For a few years now, I've been producing headwords for an encyclopedia for a publisher on the Early Middle Ages in NW Europe, roughly 300-1100. The headword lists are huge. There is just simply too much to include and consider, all the more important since the perception is that nothing interesting or important happened in that period (or at least from 400 on). In the meantime the editor at the publisher has produced some other encyclopedia on other topics and has now soured on the idea of riding heard on 600-1000 articles of varying length between two covers. Instead the project has shifted gears to more of what I would call "state of the field" essays in a 600 page volume. And considering the size of my lists of headwords, this is probably the best thing to do. So I've proposed the following loose and general breakdown to be tightened up as I go along. What even this loose program demonstrates, even in its incomplete state, is how much there is going on in this period. I also plan in the series of blog posts to address each of the topics in some way. And thanks Steve for the nudge! I'll try and post as often and much as I can.

Late Antique and Early Medieval NW Europe: an overview of the region in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries that will include an overview of the current debate about the "fall of Rome", but will also include discussion of non-Roman regions as well as specialized focus on Britain, Brittany, and Gaul. A large part of this will be archaeological as well.

Religion: This article will address and span the late antique and early medieval issue, talk about paganism and Christianity and the achieved synthesis, the conversions, monasticism, the holy man, the peregrinatio, the role of church leaders in their kingdoms, political theology, etc etc. I placed it here since it easily spans the period and the region and holds the whole together so to speak

Ethnography, Ethnogenesis, and the Peoples of Early Medieval NW Europe: as the title indicates, this one discusses the problems of identifying ethnicities and peoples and who is who, cultural anthropology of regions and peoples, etc.

Linguistics and Languages: a discussion of the development of the vernacular languages; Latin to Romance, Latin as literate language, the problems with Old English and the Celtic substrata's lack of influence on the language, how medieval thinkers thought of their language, Pictish, Celtic languages and their survivals, other related issues.

Political History and Institutions: as it sounds, overview of the primary events, focus on the political institutions, though, since in such a short space a discussion of the political history of all the regions would be far too much.

Social History: self-explanatory

Economy: trade, land and land use, cities, coinage, slavery as economic factor, etc.

Intellectual History: the major intellectual developments of the period, science, philosophy and theology, navigation, computistics, cartography/geography, political theology, technology, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, etc.

Literature: primarily an overview of genres: heroic, hagiographic, epistolary, sermons, biblical literature, exegesis, scientific, etc. orality

Writing Systems, Palaeography, Epigraphy, and Codicology: the development of these three over the period, ogam, runes, Latinate alphabets, writing in the vernacular, writing in Latin, principle scripts, manuscript construction

The Arts: the non-literary arts, metal-working, glass, painting (outside of mss), music and performance, wood working, ivory, personal ornamentation, instruments, music in the church, music in other contexts, textiles, architecture, etc.

Concluding Essay: The Myth of the "Dark Ages"

Input? Stuff I've missed?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why the Dark Ages Weren't Dark I

I am always surprised when topics like this rear up again and again and again. In more than one forum in which I participate the issue of "the Dark Ages" and how the late antique and early medieval period were just so bad, and so much worse than the Roman period is taken practically at face value, as, believe it or not, historical fact. *SIGH*!!! And then there was even someone on ANSAX who brought up whether the language should be called "Old English" at all and not rather Anglo-Saxon, since it was simply a German dialect and not really related to modern English. OI!

So I've decided it's time to do something about it. Ok, t'is a little something and not many read this and all that, but nonetheless, this is my little corner and I will gladly use it for this purpose. What purpose? Get to the point! Consider this post an introduction to a discussion on Why the so-called Dark Ages Weren't Dark, not even a bit gloomy.

For this first foray, I'll mention a recent book that while it focuses mostly on the second half of the Middle Ages, still makes the argument that the "Dark Ages" did not exist. Sorbonne philosopher Remi Brague has written The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Well ok, that's the English title, not the original French. The book in some 16 essays argues that the period was philosophically rich and moving. There's also Douglas Rushkoff who has been arguing that we adapt some medieval ideas about banking and the self and other practices to our modern world to make it a better place. I outline these briefly since it is late and this post has already taken a week to get this far. So I'll launch the series and hope for more posting in the near future.

Monday, September 06, 2010


So the beginning of the school year's craziness is settling down slowly but surely as the receptions, meetings, student concerns and all those initial matters that eat up so much time finally dissipate, and we get down to the nitty gritty of what we do: teach, research, write, and have regular meetings with stuff to do. I've already been placed on a departmental committee though we have yet to meet, and I'm "embroiled" in a "fight" to put a graduate level Anglo-Saxon lit course on the docket for next semester. Fight is too strong a word; but our current head is an Americanist and the previous incarnations of this spot (used to be 3 people, and now there's me) were heavy on the Shakespeare and late medieval stuff....but there seems to be some interest, curiosity mostly since most of them have never really encountered Old English, Latin, or Anglo-Saxon literature. So hopefully it will pass the request phase and be on the schedule for Spring, and then one hopes that a sufficient number of grad students sign up to make it a go. As part of my evangelism for the course, I've volunteered to give a lecture for the Honors program (the whole university and town are the target audience) on an Anglo-Saxon topic involving the Vikings, always a hot topic. It will occur during the registration period for next semester. More on the topic and the paper anon.

But this post is really about something else. Way back when last fall, Eve Salisbury asked some questions regarding the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo based in part on a letter the current director had received. There was conversation on Facebook where the original post occurred, and I blogged about it here, with comments that followed. I am not certain that the actual questions that Dr. Salisbury actually asked were ever answered. I thought perhaps as we move into another Congress season of preparing for the event, it might be a good time to address those queries.

The first question was "What are the concerns out there?" The chiefest concern I think is really nothing that the organizers of Kalamazoo can do anything about. This came up in the discussions on Facebook and comments on my blog post. That is, that there is an attitude out there that "it's just Kalamazoo." Of course, this can be said for just about any conference. I once had a colleague who felt that way about just everything he did: conference paper, publication, whatever. To him, quality didn't matter. If it got accepted, it was a line on the CV that made him look good: anyone looking at the CV wouldn't know whether it was a good paper or not.

That attitude is pervasive; it is made all the more so because of the pressures that young scholars face in the market place to a significant degree and older scholars feel in terms of seeking tenure should they be lucky enough to have a TT slot. Adjuncts dream of feeling these pressures but generally are too busy making ends meet by teaching at multiple institutions to do so in an effective way. Or at least that was my experience. The point is that the CV building is more important than the production of quality work. It is my belief, however, that sooner or later, such an attitude catches up with you. Sooner or later, shoddy work for the CV line will be noticed. What's more, such dead weight, kills the field. One hopes that those who think they can get by with shoddy papers at conferences will realize their own contribution to the death of an otherwise vibrant field of study.

How can we change the response? That I don't know. I am open to suggestions of how to convince the people who say "It's just Kalamazoo" to "It's Kalamazoo." I'll share a story again that I've shared before. I encountered a fascinating text that so far as I could discover there had only been a not well done dissertation on the text from the early 20th century. SO I began translating it and researching and proposed a paper. Sadly for me, the rest of the school year was overwhelming and I didn't get back to the project and had a very shoddy paper to show for it. My attitude has never been "it's just Kalamazoo", so I was already very ashamed and embarrassed at this turn of events. I hoped that since it was in a session with a wide range of papers, occurring right after lunch, and more or less out of the way, that I might get away with a small audience. But alas, no. A large audience was in attendance, among them the five biggest names in the field related to my paper. I embarrassed myself. Those big names wrote me off that day, and some of them I am still trying to show that I have something to say in the matter how good my papers are, they remember that first encounter. The lesson: it can never be "just Kalamazoo". One never ever knows who will show up at a session; shoddy work can get noticed and can have a career effect. Don't deliberately do bad work and say "its just Kalamazoo" because sooner or later, it'll be found out that you do bad work.

How would I like to see the Congress in the future?

Well, that's a good question. I actually have no problems with the Congress. The structure is good and allows time for networking and other types of meetings to occur. My biggest problems have less to do with the actual event and more to do with the planning.

1) I have submitted sessions that have been refused for no good reason I can see. Going through the CFP and the program later, I have found *NO* sessions related to what I proposed, or at most one. I do keep track of such things.

2) I have also noticed a tendency to group topic sessions: so that in one session block there will be 5 Anglo-Saxon sessions and then the next two session blocks none at all. That's just bad planning and having worked on the other side of the table, I know the tools that we left behind designed to prevent such nonsense actually work!

Certainly, field session overlap cannot be avoided entirely. But it certainly can be better. And yes, I am more than well aware of the restrictive resource allocation that the MI experiences. But there is really one person who puts it together, always has been, and it isn't the invaluable, fantastic Coordinator whom I love and adore. Unless things have changed since I've been there.

So I'd like to see more even handed, consistent treatment of session offerings and session organization.

Is the ZOO still worth visiting?

Without question. Not only do I often (not always admittedly) hear good papers, but projects I'm involved in get carried a step further, I meet new people every year, I hear papers outside my area, I make new connections the enrich my own scholarship and teaching. There is no question that the Congress at Kalamazoo is worth visiting, and that in fact it is a given that I will try to make it each year as 1 of my 2 or 3 conferences a year.