Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Things I Learned This Week

Almost all of last week, our internet was out. It amazed how dependent I've become on the 'net, not only so, but how much actual time I WASTE doing things like blogging, reading blogs, newspapers, elists and the like. So that was one thing I learned.

I also finished rereading Peter Brown's biography of Augustine, who I note produced volumes of works while he complained of being distracted by the duties of being a bishop et al. There's a lesson in there (I also remember John Wesley wrote while riding horseback between preaching engagements).

Embarrassingly, I'm finally reading Gregory the Great's Dialgoues, in translation. It never struck me before how very similar in style Bede's Historia is to the Dialogues, the difference being that between anecdotal hagiography Bede tells what we moderns might call real history. Nonetheless, the similarity to me is quite close and astounding, and I've begun to wonder how close Bede's Cuthbert is to Gregory's Benedict.

Writing a review, an overdue one, I was reminded by the editors of the volume I'm reviewing that two figures important for Anglo-Saxon and Biblical studies from the 17 century have no full treatment of their lives and work: Junius and Ussher. Junius at least has been the subject of some articles, but there's precious little on Ussher.

And something actually dissertation related, shocking as that might seem: The Letter to Sigeweard has largely been ignored in modern scholarship, and now after detailed study of it, I can almost see why. On the surface it seems so much like so much else of what Aelfric wrote. But there's gold in them thar hills, or I've wasted 4 years working on this beast.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Why I Teach Medieval Literature I

This post has been some weeks in the making and I'm not sure its done yet. It certainly needs a good deal of polishing. But here it is, at last, after two weeks of thinking about it. I'd like to hear from others on the question too.

The folks over at In the Middle were tagged with the "Why I teach" meme. I wasn't, but the comments there touch on things near and dear to me from defenses within the academy of why I/we do medieval (esp such arcane things as Old English, Old Norse, Anglo-Latin etc) and of what use are they, questions asked generally of the Humanities, but even within the Humanities there are those subfields that are looked at askance and need to defend themselves even more. And with fellow bloggers over there, I have to say that I could mount a rousing defense that in the end would be demolished for all sorts of reasons, and so get us to the suggested nihilism of Fish's recent comments (when taken at face value anyway): Study of the Humanities means nothing.

But I don't know that I agree either with Fish's actual intent and certainly not with his surface level meaning. Ok, I do know, I don't agree. But it made me think and ask why the Humanities, and specifically why medieval humanities? I wanted to think about not just why I teach, but why I teach what I teach.

Well, first, I teach Medieval Literature for me. I love the stuff. I love what it tells us about the period, how it appropriates the past, esp. the classical past, how it molds and melds language and motif from differing cultural traditions and combines all that into a foundation for something new. I love the interplay of literature and history, I love the manuscripts and codicological technologies that are yet with us, and being rediscovered in computers. There are few pieces of literature better than Beowulf, Old English Exodus, or Judith if you ask me. (And this gives me an idea for something else I've been trying to flesh out: how is it that I love this stuff while loving, but not quite as much, Gilgamesh, Genji, Odysseus, and Aeneas et al and how do they compare). Its beautiful, its moving, its complex, it both moves the soul and challenges the mind. So I teach it because of I love it. I hope to inspire others to at least appreciate it, if not love it, too.

I teach it because it tells us something about ourselves. Now I know this is true of any intellectual endeavor: the sciences at least in part study the human body, the genome, the brain, etc and our place in the universe. Other Humanities study, well, humans, the human condition. So why MEDIEVAL LITERATURE and LANGUAGES? Why not Jane Austen, the books to get lost in? Why not Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes? Or Dickens? Or African lit? Or Chinese history? (By the way, these are all subjects that I've delved into from time to time: I am if anything a restless mind). So that said, I'd like to address that one from a few different vantage points.

First, the question of why not something else is to a degree, well, silly. It implies that the Medieval is somehow less or other from some other field of Humanities study. It isn't. If I were a Miltonist or American historian the same question could be asked, "Why that and not this" and it would carry the same hidden implications. So "why medieval" rather than Li Po or Rashi is a question that to me has no value. All these are of value: and they all interconnect in some way. But I am but one person, and as G. K. Chesterton once said, if you try to stick the universe in your head, your head will crack. As much as I enjoy reading good literature and learning a language and reading history, anthropology, quantum physics, archaeology, theology, and so on, I can't be expert in it all, I can't study and teach it all. So I must pick and choose areas of expertise and be but a novice in all else. For me, I've chosen Medieval as that area of expertise and medieval literature and languages because the name fits so well: it is middle. This field enables me to study, read, and say at least a little something about the pre-Medieval past, about post-medieval early modern and later, about literary connections, about science, about other cultures and cultural contacts in the past and what that means for the present. So why medieval? Well, first I object to the implication that it is less worthy a field than others and second, because being "in the middle" (wonderful title of the blog I mentioned above too) is a great place to be because the middle of the wheel enables one to travel down all the spokes.

Second, there is the more utilitarian and practical reason. In spite of the rhetoric of the Englightenment and all that that our new, modern culture is "Roman" and based on Roman ideals etc. And though it is rhetoric, it isn't entirely wrong. At the same time, though, our culture is just as medieval as it is Roman. In fact, one could argue that the same Romanitas that the Medievals aspired to is the same Romanitas of the so-called Renaissance and Enlightenment. Not only so, but much that we use and think everyday is medieval in origin. Our ideas of leadership have far more to do with "god cyning" than with a Roman senator or emperor's image. The calendar we use, though often with Latin based names, owes a great deal yet to Bede. Multiple inventions including windmills are medieval in origin. Rightly or wrongly our ideas of class, and the obligation of the "upper" class to provide for the lower classes is a medieval concept. The abolition of slavery was a medieval concept. In fact, I may be wrong, but so far as I know no Christian writer before Aelfric and Wulfstan called for the practice of slavery to cease, not even St. Patrick who in his letter to Coroticus called for slavery of Christians by Christians to cease, somewhat more limited in scope. But even at that, it is a medieval writer who gives us this first taste of freedom. The notion that there are rights that inhere to others besides those in power that must be protected is in origin a medieval idea. And so on....And let us not forget that a great deal of the relationship between various Arabic and Muslim states and the West is still influenced, at least on their part, by medieval perspectives and events. The medieval is all around us and effects our life every day. Ignore it at our peril. I teach medieval literature because I believe that those dang medievals shaped our world, and what's more, they shaped the way we read and look back to the Greco-Roman past. Teaching the medieval is to teach something about the modern world and how the modern world became what it is. On a larger view, it teaches something about us as individuals and as a world.

Third, there's more practical stuff. Teaching languages, or at least teaching about words, is a way to approach any and all literature, esp. in English. The more about LANGUAGE students know, the better off they'll be both as people but also as future employees out there. It is language that ties us together, and it is language that tells us stories. So I teach because I love language, and also because learning about language, medieval languages, helps students known their own language and to better approach the literature I teach.

Fourth, yep, yet more practical, always the practical, is that Story is for me where its at. It is our stories that tell us about us, tell us about who someone is deep down, and tells us about that human experience and gives us lessons of how to live, or can critique our world and where we're going. Stories entertain, inform, and challenge all at the same time. I teach medieval literature because these stories say a great deal about all that and they were stories, unlike say a John Grisham novel, that entertained for CENTURIES rather than for a few years only to become remediated (and made into a different story in the process) into a film. So I want to know why these stories lasted so long and were told so much and are still being told and still fascinate. And I want to pass that question on to others to think about.

So those are reasons I teach medieval languages and literatures. I think they're good ones. It isn't going to save anyone, but Medieval Languages and Literature will certainly make someone's life better. Once a story is read, it is yours forever, whether the story of a word or the story of a hero, and may inform how you live and think.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Patristics Carnival Up

Patristics Carnival Up

The Week's News

Black Death not indiscriminate killer


Black Death targeted the weak

Doctor writes about medieval murder

Gold ring treasure found in field

A Byzantine Encyclopaedia of Horse Medicine: The Sources, Compilation
and Transmission of the Hippiatrica.


Bones found as site is cleared

Visitors flock to castle after TV exposure



Medieval treasure at centre of ownership row


Dig at homes site uncovers skeletons of eight monks

Minister rules out 'nonsense' chessmen bid

Experts unearth medieval Berlin under car park

More on the Lewis Chessman bruhaha:

Burning issue: Should the Lewis chessmen be brought back to Scotland?

Squabble after ancient seal find

Feb 4
846 St. Joannicius
869 - Saint Cyril, Greek missionary to the Slavs
1189 St. Gilbert of Sempringham

211 Septimus Severus of Rome
708 Pope Sisinnius
855 Rabanus Maurus, archbishop of Mainz, dies
1498 Antonio Pollaivolo, sculptor

362 Roman Emperor Julian promulgates an edict that recognizes equal
rights to all the religions in the Roman Empire.
900 Coronation of Louis, "the Child," King of Germany
960 The coronation of Zhao Kuangyin as Emperor Taizu of Song
1194 Richard I, King of England, freed from captivity in Germany
1454 Secret Council of the Prussian Confederation sends a formal act
of disobedience to the Grand Master.

Feb 5
251 St. Agatha - the model wife, patroness of Malta
348 St. Abraamius, bishop of Arbela, martyr
525 Avitus of Vienne, son of Isychius

976 - Sanjō, Emperor of Japan

995 - William IV, Duke of Aquitaine

1205 Alexius V declared Eastern Roman Emperor
1265 Election of Pope Clement IV

Feb 6
679 St. Amand of Maastricht

891 Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople
1215 Hojo Tokimasa
1378 Jeanne de Bourbon, wife of Charles V of France
1497 Jean d' Ockeghem

337 Election of Pope Julius I
743 Hisham ibn 'Abd al-Malik, 10th Moslem caliph, dies at about 52
1190 Jews of Norwich, England are massacred
1481 First Auto-da-Fe of the Spanish Inquisition

Feb 7
St. Theodore the General (Stratelates)

1478 Sir Thomas More

421 Constantius III becomes co-Emperor of the Western Roman Empire.
457 Leo proclaimed Eastern Roman Emperor
1301 Edward I revives the title Prince of Wales, confers it on his
1313 Robert, "the Bruce," captures Dumfries, Scotland

Feb 8
412 St. Proclus, patriarch of Constantinople

1191 Yaroslav II of Russia
1291 King Afonso IV of Portugal
1405 Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last reigning Emperor of the
Byzantine Empire
1487 Ulrich, Duke of Württemberg

1204 Alexius IV Angelus, deposed Eastern Roman Emperor
1250 Robert I of Artois, French crusader
1250 AL MANSURA; death of Fakhr ad-Din
1250 William II Longespee
1265 Hulagu Khan, Mongol ruler
1296 King Przemysł II of Poland

1250 7th Crusade defeated by Baibars
1254 William of Rubrick records the use of oracles among the Mongols
1492 Charles VIII of France enters Paris

Feb 9
St. Apollonia
St. Teilo of Llandaff

1119 Constantine Palaeologus

720 Umar II
1011 Bernard I, Duke of Saxony
1088 Muiredach MacRory (Marianus Scotus), Abbot of Ratisbon
1199 Minamoto no Yoritomo, Japanese shogun
1450 Agnès Sorel, mistress of King Charles VII of France

474 Zeno crowned as co-emperor of the Byzantine Empire
1098 Ridwan fails to relieve the Crusader's Siege of Antioch)
1119 Coronation of Pope Calixtus II in France
1292 First Scottish Parliament assembles at Scone
1401 Burning of a Mr. Sawtre as a Lollard heretic
1458 Marriage of Mathias I, King of Hungary, to Catherine of Bohemia

Feb 10
Clare of Rimini

1499 Thomas Platter, Swiss humanist

543 St. Scholastica
1126 William IX, Duke of Aquitaine
1162 Baldwin III, King of Jerusalem
1221 Muhammad Ala-ed-Din, Shah of Khwarizm
1242 Emperor Shijō of Japan
1278 Margaret II of Flanders
1471 Fredrick II

1258 Mongols sack Baghdad
1306 Murder of the Red Comyn
1354 1355 - The St. Scholastica's Day riot breaks out in Oxford, England, leaving 63 scholars and perhaps 30 locals dead in two days.
1480 The Emperor Go-Tsuchimikado occupies his Palace in Kyoto
1494 Founding of Aberdeen University
1495 Sir William Stanley, English lord chamberlain, executed

Blog of the Week: Got Medieval Muses on Medieval Warm Period in the News

Quote of the Week:
A Translation of O Mea Cella by Alcuin from

MY cell, my dearly lovely dwelling, farewell for ever, my cell. The trees stand all round you with their murmuring branches, a copse forever laden with flower-bearing leaves. All your fields will bloom with health-bringing herbs, which the hand of the physician plucks to cure the sick. Streams with blossoming banks gird you round, and there the cheerful angler stretches his nets. Thy cioisters smell of apple-trees in the gardens, and white lilies mingle with little red roses. Every kind of bird strikes up his matin song and by his singing praises God who made him. Once the kind voice of the master was heard in you, reading the holy books with devout lips. In you from time to time the holy praise of the Almighty rose from peaceful voices and hearts. My cell, I weep for you now in tearful songs, and I groan as I bewail my misfortune; for you have suddenly fled from the poets' songs and an unknown hand now possesses you. No longer now will Flaccus or the poet Homer or the youths come and sing under your roof. Thus suddenly does all the beauty of the earth come to an end, and all things are swept away one after another; nothing lasts for ever, nothing indeed is immutable. Dark night overwhelms even a holy day. Cold winter swiftly cuts off the beautiful flowers and a most bittcr wind ruffles the calm sea. The devoted youth who once chased Stags across the fields now leans on a stick, a tired old man. Wretched that we are, why do we love you, O world, as you flee from us? You flee from us, falling all the time and on every side. Keep on fleeing if you wish. Let us love Christ always and let the love of God possess our hearts for ever. May he defend His faithful servants from the dread enemy and snatch our souls away to heaven. Let us praise and love him equally with our whole heart; in his mercy he is our glory, our life, and our salvatlon.