Thursday, August 30, 2007

Roberta Frank and Baseball

For those not in the know yet:

Yes, we medievals do get around!

Friday, August 03, 2007

April cont.

WAAAYYY back in April as I was doing my Congress paper, I gave a post that talked about continuity, reinterpretation of works, etc. The point was to try and compare medieval strategies of appropriation of different works that a) either take the "same" work, and here we have to be careful of terms like "same", but retell it with new spins, essentially taking an old story and making it new and/or b) appropriating a text from the past and recasting it in some way. I used Tolkien and Tolkien movies as one example.

A related realization came at the same time. Now this realization is new to me, and its precious for all that, but the rest of the medieval world has probably realized this and it is so basic as not to be considered. But here it is: it is the same process and the same mindset that approaches the Germanic past in Beowulf and Widsith and borrows from the great cauldron of story that also produces Judith and Exodus etc out of enlarged cauldron of story that now includes Biblical and Roman/Classical sources; AND influences prose writers like Aelfric, Hrabanus, and the like: i. e. the encyclopedia approach for which some of the early middle ages has been dismissed as is the same process that leaves us tantalizing hints of Volsunga Saga in Beowulf or Theodoric in Norse tales and the like. Thus the prose writers are picking and choosing in the same way as the oral poet. As has been long recognized now neither Bede, nor Alfred, nor Aelfric are mere translators or users of the past in an unqualified fashion. Rather they take, they reshape, reuse, and produce new, innovative texts. In my Congress paper I explored this somewhat by suggesting that evidence of audience reception in the manuscripts in which Letter to Sigeweard reside s reveal a degree of appropriation in a way similar to how tales become retold, the text in manuscript is no longer Aelfric's but becomes a sermon in Oxford, Bodley, 343, and in Oxford, Laud 509 we have evidence of readers, Old English and Latin, who are commenting and interacting with the text making it their own. In other manuscripts we seem to have parts of the Letter excised from their context and reused as homilies. In 2 of these cases, the text is anonymized: in Bodley 343 and London, BL, Harley, there is little to suggest that the homilies were Aelfrician in origin, they've become someone else's text.

Now I say all this to make a modern point, one that Scott Nokes will be making in an essay to be published in the next Heroic Age. There's been a spate of medieval movies, always has been really from Errol Flynn in Robin Hood to the great Lion in Winter to the BBC's recent Robin Hood series and even some bad ones like Christopher Lambert's Beowulf complete with Roland in purple tights and porn stars as Grendel's mother and an invented character supposedly Hrothgar's daughter. While Heaney's Beowulf may not be "Beowulf" in one sense, as one scholar of note has written that she threw the book across the room, it is in another as much Beowulf as the Beowulf in Cotton Vitellius A.xv, for we assume that the version in the manuscript is but one poet's version and that another performer, written or oral, would have a somewhat different Beowulf. Similarly, Tolkien steals scenes from Beowulf or even rewrites The Wanderer while Tolkien himself is "retold" in the various movies (and even in the numerous books that literally rip him off). I posit that this is the same strategy of retelling and appropriation that the medieval authors we medievalists study engaged in! And rather than be excoriated and put down and groaned over, we should welcome these retellings.

We should welcome them not because they give us an excuse to write papers for the Studies in Medievalism conference, or give us an opportunity to relax our gaze somewhat as we do some easy work (by which I mean I need not hone my Latin or Old ENglish or other linguistic skills or strain my eyes peering at a manuscript page damaged by fire and hard to distinguish words etc). I mean that we should welcome them because we want there to be interest in the medieval period! We in fact should FAN THE FLAMES! Sure, some, if not many, of these films and stories will not be historically accurate, nor will they be "medieval" in the sense that they'll appeal to medieval audiences. In the latter case, while our story stealing strategies may in fact be similar if not the same, all stories even retold ones speak to our own time. So a medieval story retold is going to be told for a modern audience, which has a different sense of story, humor, and characterization than the medieval. In the former case of "historically" accurate, I don't worry too much about that either in the case of stories. The Old English Exodus for example is certainly not historically accurate, but its a grand piece of poetry.

This isn't to say that I think we as professionals should give up historical accuracy or talking about medieval literature in favor of modern medievalisms or anything of that nature. I am saying that we should, for practical, theoretical, and survival reasons encourage, welcome, praise, and comment on modern medievalisms rather than disparage, reject, put them down. Medieval studies is increasingly in the academy being marginalized. Particularly in the English departments of the world, Old English is no longer a requirement, medievalists who retire are not being replaced, and if the medieval is covered at all, it is in a general survey course. Of all the jobs in the last few years advertised for English departments, 15 and 13 were general medieval positions, and most of those expected some sort of composition or WOrld Literature or Renaissance component--i. e. medieval was only a part of the package. 3 last year were specifically for Old English, 4 the year before if I remember correctly. This doesn't bode well. But if, and here I'm echoing Scott's piece but I am in complete agreement with it, we are seen as engaged in popular culture, and can harness popular culture to increase interest in our fields, all the better for us.

And we already know that such a strategy works. The recent Chronicle of Higher Ed article on the Congress at K'zoo was revelatory in this respect. Of the current crop of young medievalists, and those currently in grad school, the vast majority developed their interest in medieval studies by reading Tolkien or playing D and D, or fantasy literature, or some other popular culture expression of medievalism! If it worked for them, why not for a wider audience? Its the old adage all over again: you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. Encouraging and welcoming these movies is going to attract students who want to learn more, and so we have opportunities to correct the errors without being disparaging. Being negative and decrying the movies will drive away potential students, and we can not afford to drive away students--without students interested in our work at all levels, universities will not hire us in this increasingly market driven view of higher education prevalent in the US now and being exported abroad.

So theoretical and practical points: modern medievalisms are engaging in a medieval practice by appropriating and retelling medieval stories and we should be happy and encourage that and reap the benefits of such interest. Ok, sermonizing mode off.