Friday, September 12, 2014

9/11, the Qur'an, and Sympathy to Diversity

Toward the end of last week, I sat down to look ahead at my teaching topics for this week, looked at the syllabus for my World Literature I course (antiquity to early modern), and realized that I had scheduled the Qur'an on 9/11. When I had made the schedule weeks before, I had taken my pre-made template and populated the empty slots with the reading trajectory that I imagined for the course, without regard for dates--more concerned with overall and weekly organization. At first, I was daunted by the prospect of teaching the Qur'an on the historic date that had practically introduced American culture to Islam through an international tragedy; eventually, I came around to hoping that it would be a good opportunity.

The Qur'an,
Walters Art Museum, MS 567, fol. 1b
(1230 AH / 1814-15 CE, Iran),
Courtesy of The Digital Walters.
As it turns out, the class went wonderfully--thanks to great students. They were engaged, interested, and some of them knowledgeable about the Qur'an and Islam from previous reading (on their own or in other classes). They identified the nuance of the Qur'an as a religious text, acknowledging the complicated nature both in comparison with and distinct from some of the other world religious texts we've read over the past few weeks (the Hebrew Bible, Christian gospels, Confucius' Analects). Discussion was lively. About halfway through the class, the elephant in the room finally reared up when students began to confront multiple interpretations of certain passages in the text itself, the historical spread of Islam, and themes of militant conversion in both the text and the history of Islam--and in the history of world religions more generally.

I took the opportunity to underscore one of my key goals in the class: to instill a sense of diversity and sympathy for world cultures and various representations of what it means to be human. I was honest: I told them that I had no idea about the date when I had put the Qur'an on the scheduled, but that I thought it was a good opportunity for rethinking and revising some of our assumptions and expectations on a day when those thoughts may be very present in our minds. I told them that we had to understand culture and literature through interpretation; that we had to understand cultures not as monolithic (there is no single "Islamic culture" just like there is no single "Christian culture"); that all of our readings and discussions lead us to consider diversity and sympathy. As I said all of this, I watched as they took in what I was saying--nodding, smiling, taking notes, agreeing. They chimed in, echoing some of my words, extending my ideas, and our discussion turned to reflections on how we live in a moment ripe with possibilities for cross-cultural, multi-faith, ecumenical conversations. It gave me hope, and one more reason to remember why I love teaching.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

On Teaching Bisclavret

I originally wrote this for my personal blog, ParaSynchronies, but I've decided to cross-post it here as well.

Like many people I know, I've been reading article after article on the Isla Vista shootings last Friday. When I haven't been reading articles, I've been delving into the heartbreak and poignance of #YesAllWomen. I get like this (I'm certainly not alone). When an event like Isla Vista or Newtown happens, I always seem to have difficulty escaping the event horizon of such senseless tragedy. Well, I wish I could say it was always senseless. There is too much sense (I do not, in any way, mean reason). Rather, there is too much to be read, too many free-floating signifiers of hate and violence that demand to be interrogated, if not interpreted. It's in this state that I finally poked my head out to get back to work prepping Marie de France's "Bisclavret" to teach in a summer British Lit I Survey course.
This text has always struck me as a deeply troubling one. The first time I taught it, I selected this lai because of its werewolf.  I was teaching my first upper-level medieval lit class (in fact, the last such course of its kind I have taught), and I chose as my theme "The Monstrous Middle Ages." A short text about a werewolf seemed like an obvious and perfect choice. For those of you who aren't familiar with the tale, here is a brief summary:
A Lord seems to have a wonderful life --  status, nobility, and a lovely wife; however, he has a secret. For three days a week he disappears into the forest to become a werewolf. His wife, anxious about these frequent disappearances, confronts him and asksHim and him what is going on. She fears that he has a lover on the side (I would add that this is a fairly justifiable fear given the evidence she had) and so she needs to know. At first, he refuses to tell her but after much coaxing he relents. He also reveals, after initial resistance, where he hides his clothes. He runs about naked in the forest, subsisting on whatever prey he can find, but he needs his clothes to once again resume human form. The lady, aghast at this state of affairs, convinces a knight (one who has attempted to woo her) to steal her husband's clothes. In return, she marries the knight. The husband is then trapped in his wolfish form, and is eventually taken in by the King who recognizes the seeming nobility of the animal. The story comes to a climax when the lord sees his connubial usurper and attacks him. Next, the wolf sees his wife and, in a fit of rage, launches himself at her and swipes off her nose. At this point, it seems like the wolf is going to be punished for this, but one of the wise counselors of the King suggests that the animal has never acted so viciously before and so there must be a reason. Agreeing, the King has the lady tortured until she reveals everything. Ultimately, the lord is returned to his human form and his one-time wife, now disfigured, is exiled. As a sign of her crimes, future generations of the women in her line are born without noses.
Whenever I teach this text, there is always an excellent conversation about the tensions between the spaces of the forest and the court, between civilization and wildness. The early going consensus in class often seems to be that the werewolf is not the true monster of the text, but rather the lady exhibits more monstrosity in her actions. Now, part of the reason we reached such conclusions might be because of how I lead class discussion, choosing to focus on some questions, and not others, but I also think that Marie de France provokes her readers to both overlook certain key details and to be rattled by that act of overlooking. After we've talked for a while about the working of monstrosity in the text, I often pose the following question: "Is there any way we can discover a sympathetic reading of the Lady?" When I first posed this question, there was silence for a considerable duration. Finally, someone raised the point that there was very little evidence to merit the lady's being tortured. This conversation soon turned to the idea that torture was extreme regardless.
Then, the ball got rolling. We returned to the prologue, which tells of the savage nature of werewolves, and the seeming contrast to Bisclavret (except for that whole disfiguring thing). If this is what people knew about werewolves, why wouldn't the lady be a bit freaked out? Why wouldn't she take extreme measures to extricate herself from such a situation? And, why include a prologue that seems to be contradicted by the tale, allowing for it to be easily forgotten?  We discussed how, in her vulnerable position, she had few options. It no longer seemed that easy to pinpoint where monstrosity could be found in the text.
Last night, I posted to twitter that I was unsettled prepping this text in the wake of UCSB. Someone then asked me if I'm not always unsettled by "Bisclavret." I certainly am always bothered by it, but somehow I had missed a few details before that I couldn't ignore now. After being told how praised and how good and handsome the lord is, the lady confronts him about his curious, alarming behavior. What I hadn't thought too much about before was the lady's first words:
"My lord," she said, "my friend, my dear,
There's just one thing I might care
To ask, if only I might dare--
But I'm afraid that you'll get angry,
And, more than anything, that scares me" (From Judith Shoaf's translation)
Sure, his later anger may seem justified, but does that justify such savage bodily violence? And, what do we do with the statement that the lady fears, "more than anything," that her husband will get angry. On one hand he is great and noble and praiseworthy, but we must not forget the threat of his anger. She was right to fear not only the anger of men, but also how others would normalize and justify the action taken from such masculine anger.  Surely the wolf would only show anger if there was just cause, even though the court had no data for this, and so the lady must automatically be at fault. The torture is retroactively justified because of her guilt, but it is clear that this justification was already accepted before her confession.
After writing out this blog post, I realized that I really have nothing new to add at this moment to the critical discussion of either a.) teaching Marie de France's "Bisclavret or b.) the toxic sludge of misogyny that the UCSB shooter seems to have waded in.  I am just struck by how the nice guy so suddenly turns violent, and how his virtue is taken at face value.  Yes, this is an imperfect analogy between this text and the state of affairs today, but I find it necessary to note that it seems all too easy to find contemporary resonance in a text which can be read to interrogate 12th-century notions of masculinity, violence, and patriarchal culture. And, I'm not saying that last Friday's act of violence should be described as medieval. I'm saying that "Bisclavret" is all too modern.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Modern Medieval at Kalamazoo 2014

And so it comes around again, Spring, when medievalists long to go ... to Kalamazoo. The blog has been a bit quiet of late, but as you can see from the run-down below, we've all been very busy! We're organizing, presiding, and presenting like crazy over here!

Matthew Gabriele

The Exegetical Turn: Exegesis as a Paradigm for New Understandings of the Middle Ages
Thursday 3:30 p.m. Schneider 1320
Sponsor: Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Virginia Tech

Organizer: Matthew Gabriele, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State Univ.
Presider: David M. Perry, Dominican Univ.
Kissing Christ: Judas’s Mouth as Biblical Exegesis
Rabia Gregory, Univ. of Missouri–Columbia
The Exegetical Diplomas of King Philip I of Francia (1060–1108)
Matthew Gabriele
Read! Think! Engage! How Luther’s Exegesis of Genesis Exhorted People out of the Cloister and into Family and Society
Jennifer Hockenbery, Mount Mary Univ.

Writing the Middle Ages for Multiple Audiences (A Panel Discussion)
Friday 3:30 p.m. Fetzer 1045
Sponsor: CARA (Committee on Centers and Regional Associations, Medieval Academy of America)
Organizer: Michael A. Ryan, Univ. of New Mexico
Presider: James M. Murray, Western Michigan Univ.
A panel discussion with David M. Perry, Dominican Univ.; Ellen F. Arnold, Ohio Wesleyan Univ.; Matthew Gabriele, Virginia Tech; and Laura Saetveit Miles, Univ. i Bergen.

 Rick Godden
Disability Studies and the Digital Humanities (A Roundtable)
Friday 3:30 p.m. Schneider 1155
Sponsor: Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages
Organizer: Joshua R. Eyler, Rice Univ.

Presider: Tory Vandeventer Pearman, Miami Univ. Hamilton
A roundtable discussion with John P. Sexton, Bridgewater State Univ.; Cameron Hunt McNabb, Southeastern Univ.; Jonathan Hsy, George Washington Univ.; and Richard H. Godden, Tulane Univ.

#;()@?”:—*! (A Roundtable)
Saturday 1:30 p.m. Fetzer 1005
Sponsor: BABEL Working Group

Organizer: Eileen A. Joy, BABEL Working Group
Presider: Richard H. Godden, Tulane Univ.
Seeing Spaces
Chris Piuma, Univ. of Toronto
The Divorce of Punctuation and Diacritics
Meg Worley, Colgate Univ.
, (A Breath)
Joshua R. Eyler, Rice Univ.
D’oh: A Brief History of Misusing the Apostrophe and Why Its So Annoying
David Hadbawnik, Univ. at Buffalo
: Interrobanging Chaucer
Corey Sparks, Indiana Univ.–Bloomington

Robert Rouse, Univ. of British Columbia
Jonathan Hsy, George Washington Univ.

Medieval Literary Ethics
Sunday 8:30 a.m. Schneider 1350
Organizer: Emily Houlik-Ritchey, Univ. of California–Santa Barbara
Presider: Emily Houlik-Ritchey
“Doctrine by ensample”: Literature’s Ethical Problem and Spenser’s Aesthetic Solution
Maria Devlin, Harvard Univ.
By Writing Amended: The Ethics of Interpretation in Hoccleve’s Series
A. Arwen Taylor, Indiana Univ.–Bloomington
The Virtues and the Will in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls
Sarah Powrie, St. Thomas More College
Prosthetic Neighbors: Enabling Community in The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle
Richard H. Godden, Tulane Univ.

Brandon Hawk
New Methods in Anglo-Saxon Homiletics
Thursday 10:00 a.m. Schneider 1325
Sponsor: Society for the Study of Anglo-Saxon Homiletics (SSASH)
Organizer: Brandon W. Hawk, Univ. of Connecticut

Presider: Stephen Harris, Univ. of Massachusetts–Amherst
“It maie be Alfricus for al my conninge”: Authorizing Ælfric in the Long Seventeenth Century
R. Scott Bevill, Univ. of Tennessee–Knoxville
Ut quidam perverse opinantur: Bede’s Criticism of Unnamed Sources
Damian Fleming, Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ.–Fort Wayne
People of the Bread and the Book: Ecclesiology and the Eucharist in Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies
Rae Grabowski, Cornell Univ.

Universal Saints Located in Anglo-Saxon England
Thursday 7:30 p.m. Bernhard 204
Organizer: Kevin R. Kritsch, Univ. of North Carolina–Chapel Hill
Presider: Bryan Carella, Assumption College
An Old Testament Saint? Judith in Anglo-Saxon England
Brandon W. Hawk, Univ. of Connecticut
How to Read a Saint: Agatha and Interpretation
Ann D’Orazio, Univ. of New Mexico
Univ. of New Mexico Graduate Student Prize Winner
Using Swedish Fragments to Shed Light on the Anglo-Saxon Marian Conception Feast
Sean Dunnahoe, Royal Holloway, Univ. of London
How Was Bartholomew Killed? Apocryphal Traditions of Saint Bartholomew in Anglo-Saxon England
            Kevin R. Kritsch

Medievalists and the Social Media Pilgrimage: The Digital Life of Twenty-First- Century Medieval Studies (A Roundtable)
Sunday 8:30 a.m. Schneider 1280
Sponsor: Massachusetts State Universities Medieval Blog
Organizer: Kisha G. Tracy, Fitchburg State Univ.

Presider: Kisha G. Tracy
A roundtable discussion with John P. Sexton, Bridgewater State Univ.; Peter Konieczny,; Brandon W. Hawk, Univ. of Connecticut; Andrew M. Pfrenger, Kent State Univ.–Salem; Joshua R. Eyler, Rice Univ.; and M. Wendy Hennequin, Tennessee State Univ.

Jennifer Jordan 
Irrationality as a Fruitful Methodology (A Roundtable)
Sunday 8:30 a.m. Schneider 1220
Sponsor: Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe
Organizer: Deanna Forsman, North Hennepin Community College

Presider: William Schipper, Memorial Univ. of Newfoundland
A roundtable discussion with Deanna Forsman; Jennifer Jordan, Stony Brook Univ.; Richard Scott Nokes, Troy Univ.; Larry Swain, Bemidji State Univ.; and Silas Mallery, North Hennepin Community College.

Larry Swain
Of the Same Bone and Blood: Anglo-Saxon and Other Germanic Literature in Comparative Perspective
Saturday 3:30 p.m. Schneider 1155
Organizer: Larry Swain, Bemidji State Univ.
Presider: Larry Swain
It’s All in Your Mind: The Power of Intellect, Psychology, and Choice in the Vatican Genesis and Genesis B
Mary Breann Leake, Univ. of Connecticut
An Examination of Queens and King Slaying in Germanic Society
Sarah Barott, Bemidji State Univ.
A Moment Left Unwritten: Problematizing “Caedmon’s Hymn” and Moving Towards a Better Understanding of Early English Christianity through the Lens of Continental (and North) Germanic Literature
David Carlton, Univ. of Victoria

Community in Anglo-Saxon England: A Multidisciplinary Approach
Sunday 10:30 a.m. Fetzer 2030
Organizer: Deanna Forsman, North Hennepin Community College
Presider: Deanna Forsman
Community Matters: Burial Practices and Religious Identity in Conversion-Era England
Mark Alan Singer, Luther College
Re-membering Community: Mortuary Ritual as Social Strategy in Early Anglo- Saxon England
Heather Flowers, Minnesota State Univ.–Mankato
Bede’s Multiple Textual Communities in Anglo-Saxon England
Larry Swain, Bemidji State Univ.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Share and Share Alike

A while back, I was at a conference and a fellow conference attendee made a really important observation. Now, the truth contained in this oberservation is one we all know, especially those of us working in Digital Humanities and using the Web for scholarship and pedagogical needs. But his comment really made me realize both how widespread this is and how problematic it has become. The Web is empty.

Ok, so that's not how my colleague put it. And of course it is not literally true. The Internet is full of all sorts of things. But what it now lacks and once had in abundance is the activity of scholars and teachers. Once not long ago, it was common for professors and instructors to upload syllabi, course exercises and materials, articles and thoughts in progress. Truly, the amount of material we all shared regularly with one another and the world was mind boggling. Now, however, our universities encourage and sometimes require us to use Blackboard, D2L, and similar content management software to run classes, upload materials, and so on. Of course, these are all proprietary. They discourage sharing, worry about firewalls, and generally put materials out of reach. Most faculty no longer have a personal web page. Not even me, in my case because the university has it so buttoned down that it is impossible to use. Point is, we no longer share.

This is not the first time we have seen this corporatization, this clamping down on things once freely available. Back in the day, between the “internet” being shared with universities by the DOD, and the explosion of the web, we had BBS, bulletin board services. Folks programmed all kinds of things: games, office software, communication software, and shared it all on the BBSes, delivered of course over dial up (thank heaven for smart modems!). Of course, that has all but become a thing of the past as companies have gobbled up smaller companies and rolled over the individual developer. Rare is a Linus Torvalds or even a Zuckerberg who develop a program and make it free to use. No, the phenomenon is not non-existent; but it is becoming more and more rare.

Someone might point out the various open source projects. Or ResearchGate,, and other such sites where scholars are sharing their materials. And that's true! I don't disagree. But too few are sharing, and most are sharing pre-publication versions of papers, a few will add conference papers, fewer add materials prepped for the classroom or just plain materials not really suitable for publication but very good research tools or data-mined material.

Anyway, the point is, 12-16 years ago when the web was new, we shared things. Now, we don't share as much. Some of this is simply that our home institutions discourage it by making everything go onto Blackboard and like sites. We've seen this before. It hasn't in the long run done us any good other than push up prices, require a constant round of updates, a culture of "let's see if we can X corporation's locks" rather than "let's see who can create the best product."  And so it goes.

 Point is, it is just too easy to give in to the corporatization of our work. We're encouraged to. Just put it all on the university's subscribed site, D2L, Blackboard, something else. And that's fine to a degree; but it does rob a larger audience of your work, of shared community resources, of useful information that we once upon time as medievalists gladly gave one another and our students.

So this is an appeal. I hope to encourage people to once again share more of their work, in particular class materials, freely online. There are multiple ways of doing so for free: a web page,, ResearchGate, Linkedin, etc. Even (but beware the dangers) Dropbox and Google Docs. In the long run, our field would be better off, our students would be better off, and it shows the world just how vibrant and exciting our field is.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Exploring Wellcome Library Manuscripts

Another win for open access to special collections holdings is making the news: the Wellcome Library has made over 100,000 high-resolution images of items in their collections available to the public, all under Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY 2.0) licenses. For good reason, this news is getting due attention. What struck me was the number of medieval treasures now available--especially manuscript images.

In the cases of some of the Wellcome manuscripts, images provided are just the inside pages with modern descriptions (so hopefully more images from these items will appear in the future). In other cases, there are images of full pages. Many of these are fascinating witnesses to medieval scientific practices, such as an unidentified eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript with Old English medical recipes that Stewart J. Brookes discussed on the DigiPal blog.

I highlight a few others to give a sense of the Wellcome holdings.*

Some of the manuscripts contain astronomical lore, such as this Arabic Horoscope of the Mongol Prince Iskandar, grandson of Tamerlane, showing (according to the description) "the positions of the heavens at the moment of Iskandar's birth on 25th April 1384" (Or MS PER 474).

This horoscope, from The Book of the Birth of Iskandar, is a good witness to the holdings of Arabic items in the Wellcome collection. For example, searching for "Iskandar" with date range between 0 and 1500 calls up 392 results; searching for "Arabic" between the same date range calls up another 83 results.

A few particularly nice images, in fact, are from Arabic books (MS Arabic 421, 437, and 458), showing the bindings of different codices that are instructive for looking at the materiality of these objects:

Other manuscripts contain medical knowledge mixed with other traditions, like the following three images, from a manuscript of the Apocalypse of John (MS 49, c.1420-30): the first, from the Apocalypse; the second, a diagram for urinomancy; the third, a diagram of bloodletting techniques within a zodiac.

For those interested in 15th-century English texts, the Wellcome Images hold a selection of scientific writings from the period. A few good examples: first, a collection of English and Latin scientific tracts (MS 411/3), with the image here from a text "On Unlucky Days"--a particularly fascinating genre of astronomical lore; and, second, a manuscript of the Pseudo-Galen Anathomia in English (MS 290).

This is just a small selection of some of the images that jumped out at me. Certainly the collection is worth much more extensive exploration, and can lend much to bringing medieval artifacts into the classroom.

* On a side note, a few frustrating issues make navigating the site difficult. One is a lack of clear browsing abilities--for example, to browse just manuscripts, or to limit by time or geography. Another is the lack of permalinks for items, making it difficult to cite individual images or item entries in the collection. For this reason, I've provided the low-resolution images here, though high-resolution images are available to download from the Wellcome site.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's End

And so we come to the end, again. Always again, or at least always until the end. Endings have been inescapably on my mind these last few days, especially provoked by Karl’s excellent post at ITM. And, as I'm sure everyone is aware, we are at year's end, with all the existential (and financial and personal and…) accounting that that entails. But, endings are opportunity for beginnings, and so there is some hope for optimism. Or is there? What does it mean to make a new beginning? Does the beginning of a new year mean anything outside of our collective agreement to mark this as the time in which we begin a new sequence of months?

It's also about time for all of us to begin making new resolutions as we look forward to the promise of a new year. In addition to Karl’s ruminations on plucking the grain from the little clergeon in Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” (the dead body of the boy is miraculously singing, and he will only be quiet and restful once the grain is pulled from his tongue), I am mindful of another medieval text: Piers Plowman. More specifically, I’m thinking of D. Vance Smith’s reading of the poem in his Book of the Incipit. Smith gives us a way to grapple with the repeated new beginnings of Langland’s poem -- the poem can’t seem to quite fashion an end, but it continuously fashions new beginnings. Smith observes
the crucial importance of beginnings to the formal structure, theology, and political phantasmatics of the poem suggests the powerful presence of what might be called, rather, an inceptive animus, the epiphenomenon of beginning—the anxiety of beginning that is manifest indirectly as indirection itself, as the reluctance to make closure, or as the irrepressible remnant of what comes before the beginning, which is made to end. (19)
During New Year’s, we’re often possessed of such “an inceptive animus.” Already I’m seeing New Year’s Resolutions, both sincere and glib, all over my various social media feeds. The New Year's Resolution (NYR) is a curious speech act: through it we attempt to call forth a better tomorrow by attempting to dissolve the past. Common and recurring resolutions for myself include the desire to “get more work done” or “be better organized” or “write more,” etc. In each case, the hope for better future behaviors is predicated upon a negative evaluation of past behavior. 

Smith again: “beginnings are a privation of the past in a larger sense: as the annulment of history, of what must become the outside, the exterior, of an event to make the event unique—which is to say, intelligible, initiating, and historical” (21). To make sense of this moment as new, to decide to make it different, we often attempt to annul the moments that gave birth to it.

Unlike Langland’s insistent re-beginning of the poem, we don’t necessarily have the same “reluctance to make closure.” Instead, the NYR expresses a deep desire for closure, but only as a way to redress and make right past experience. “Sure, I screwed up last year, but this year, this year, I’ll fix it all and be better.” 

Inevitably, though, we make the NYR only to break it, often sooner rather than later. The past we seek to annul is indeed an “irrepressible remnant,” always ready to haunt us. We can't fully annul the past, and any gesture to do so only confirms it. 

But, I want to be clear here: I’m not saying that the lazy are always lazy, or the overindulgent always so. Rather, I just think it would be good to remember that while 2014 is a new year, with all the promise that suggests, mostly it’s just the next year, another item in a series whose ultimate length we can’t know. 

So, don't treat your New Year's as some new, final beginning. Remember that it's just one of many. Instead of conjuring away our past selves with futile speech acts, let's just go on, incrementally, with lots of small new beginnings. 

Happy New Year's. So it goes. Etc.