The Long Middle Ages

Depending on who you ask, the Middle Ages began in the 5th century (many people date the beginning at the sack of Rome in 400 CE) and ended in the 15th century (many people date the end at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation; the German reformation began in 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 theses on the Wittenburg door).  That's about 1000 years of Medievality.

Now it should be obvious, no matter what you know or don't know about the Middle Ages, or about history in general, that life in 400 was not the same as life in 1517.

In the field of English literature, in the very beginning of the medieval period it did not exist.  One of the earliest example of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) is Caedmon's Hymn, from the mid 7th century.
nu scylun hergan   hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti   end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur   swe he uundra gihwaes
eci dryctin   or astelidæ
he aerist scop   aelda barnum
heben til hrofe   haleg scepen.
tha middungeard   moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin   æfter tiadæ
firum foldu   frea allmectig
 This is, as I'm sure you can tell, virtually unrecognizable to a contemporary English speaker.

Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, from the end of the 15th century, is also medieval literature, and though it is very late-medieval, I don't know of anyone who would categorize Malory as anything but a medieval writer.  But his writing is much closer to what we read now.  Here is a passage wherein Malory complains about the fickleness of the English, as they rebel against King Arthur:

Lo, ye, all Englysshemen, se ye nat what a myschyff here was? For he that was the moste kynge and nobelyst knyght of the worlde, and moste loved the felyshyp of noble knyghtes--and by hym they all were upholdyn--and yet myght nat thes Englyshemen holde them contente with hym. Lo, tus was the olde custom and usayges of thys londe; and men say that we of thys londe have nat yet loste that custom.  Alas, thys ys a greate defaughte of us Englyshemen, for there may no thynge us please no terme. And so fared the peple at that tyme.
Now Malory would not have had an easier time of reading Caedmon than we do.  He did read older English than his own, but it would have been practically a foreign language to him, as it is to us.

For comparison's sake, Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis was written and published only a little more than 100 years after Malory.
Even as the sun with purple-colour'd face
Had ta'en his last leave of the weeping morn,
Rose-cheek'd Adonis tried him to the chase;
Hunting he lov'd, but love he laugh'd to scorn;
Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him,
And like a bold-fac'd suitor 'gins to woo him.
Nobody characterizes Shakespeare as a medieval writer (nor should they), yet  he lived so near in time to Malory that an unusually long-lived-person may have met both.

Because of the way most academic departments think about history, I, who am studying Malory and Spenser, am catagorized as a medievalist, and so is my advisor, who studies Beowulf.  I'm not complaining about him or about my department--my advisor is a great scholar and editor who is certainly helping me craft a better thesis.  In fact I'm not complaining at all.  But to say that because someone has specialized in Beowulf is in the same era as someone who is specializing in Malory is like saying that someone who specialized in Shakespeare is in the same era as someone specializing in Toni Morrison.

And I don't have any idea why Toni Morrison is always my go-to example of contemporary literature.  But she is very popular this century.

My only point, really, is that the Middle Ages were very very long.

I Like Racist Things

Sexist, too.

All right, calm down everybody.

I don't mean that I like these things because they're racist/sexist/whatever. It's not that I go out looking for racist stuff to enjoy.  A better, less provocative way of putting it would be "Things I like are Racist".

But look, I read comic books and medieval literature. I can't pretend that stuff is unproblematic. More, I don't think it is right to pretend it's unproblematic.  I think it's bad scholarship, and I think it's bad human-ship.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  What is the problem here, and what can we do about it?

I've posted a (slightly) different version of this An Introduction to Comics, because the issues I'm going to write about here really concern both medieval literature and comics--especially the kind of comics I usually focus on.

The Problem with Medieval Literature

Although my title references racism specifically, I'm concerned here with the whole rainbow of discrimination: racism, sexism, ablism, heteronormativism, classism, beautyism, sizeism you name it.  While arguably all literature and definitely all categories of literature contain some problematic stuff, medieval lit seems to me particularly likely to be problematic.

When I asked on my twitter feed for thoughts on this subject, as I was preparing to write this blog post, two medievalists responded with two apparently diametrically opposed assertions about medieval lit.  Scholar A denied that there was any shift of values between medieval culture and contemporary culture.  Contemporary literature, this person argued, is just as problematic as medieval literature.  Culture hasn't changed.

Scholar B argued that it is arrogant and misguided to hold the culture of another era up to the standards of our own.

Twitter is not the best place to have a drawn out discussion on issues that matter because it is all to easy to sound curt or brusque.  I think both of these scholars assumed I was attacking medieval literature, when what I really wanted was to ask for thoughts about the problematics of representation in general.  I'll send each of these people a link to this blog post and if they think I'm misrepresenting them or if they wish to expand or explain their respective positions I'd love to hear more from them, but I won't name them unless they decide to engage further.  It doesn't trouble me to say that both are smarter than I am.

But I think both of these scholars were (and are) wrong, and that both of these assertions are in fact false and probably disingenuous.  It seems to me that both amount to a denial that there is a problem.

I need to make a disclaimer here, that my focus is on medieval English literature, so that's also where I perceive a problem.  I can't speak with anything like the same confidence about continental literature, and I am still less knowledgeable about any kind of medieval literature or culture that isn't European.

But in fact, that itself is the beginning of the problem.  Even the categorization of the period as "medieval" (which I've complained about before) is completely Euro-centric.  So the assertion of Scholar A may be in some sense true, that globally, values haven't shifted since the Middle Ages, but to deny that writers in English in the 15th century were overwhelmingly male and white and that the writers in English from the 15th century who we have continually read in the past 500-or-so years have been even more overwhelmingly male and white and that the writers in English from the 21st century are not overwhelmingly male and white seems to me disingenuous.  And despite the complexity of cultures and the academic insistence upon that complexity, it seems to bespeak willful misunderstanding to not to acknowledge that this is what is meant by people who point to a shift of values.

More to the point, whether there has been any kind of value-shift or not, the problem remains.  Just because contemporary culture is just as bad doesn't mean that there's no reason to grapple with the problematic elements of representation in the Middle Ages.

In Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, for example, the only character who can really be identified as racially other is Sir Palomedes the Saracen.  For Saracen, read "Arab", with the still-extant assumed synonymity of "Arab" and "Muslim".  Sir Palomydes is a friend/rival/foil for Sir Trystram,  and his presence in the text is doubly problematic.  Firstly, as a foil for Sir Trystram he exists in the narrative fundamentally to make Trystram look better.  And secondly, as the sole character who is arguably non-white he serves to emphasize the racial uniformity of the rest of the text.

Gender politics in the Morte are arguably even more problematic than are politics of race, since Guinevere is frequently (usually) interpreted as either an Eve-analogue--the temptress who is the real cause of the fall of the court--or as the means by which Lancelot is redeemed.  Even if I don't think that Guinevere is either of those things--even if I think she's a fully realized character--her position for most of the text is marginal at best.  In simple terms, the bulk of the Morte is about men and men's stories.

Why This is a Problem

Now I'm going to give you all the benefit of the doubt and assume that you don't actually want to marginalize, objectify, or dehumanize people.  But that's what the problem here is about.  Politics of representation is not just a matter of over-sensitive political-correctness.  I believe that books matter, and if I didn't believe that then I wouldn't spend all my time reading them.  The stories we tell and the stories we hear both shape and are shaped by our worldview.  Bigotry in fiction is a problem firstly because it reveals the bigoted assumptions behind the creation of that fiction.

My point is not that Thomas Malory (or Geoffrey Chaucer, or William Langland, or any other medieval writer) was sexist or racist.  I'm sure that, like any person in any time, each of these writers had moments of bigotry and moments of inclusivity, and I'm sure that it doesn't matter much what kind of person Malory was, it's his book that matters.  My point is simply that by far the bulk of medieval literature was written by white men about white men and the concerns of white men with a white male audience in mind.  And that should bother us as readers.  It should (and often does) bother women who read medieval literature (especially the kind of knightly adventuring I mostly read) because they are so often the object rather than the subject of the narrative, so the narrative is alienating.  It should (and often does) bother minorities who read medieval literature because they are so often absent from the world being depicted and are do not have the same scope for identification that their white counterparts have.  And it should bother white male readers of medieval literature, like me, firstly because we are being presented with an impoverished and limited world and that's boring, and secondly because (at the risk of repeating myself), we don't actually want to marginalize, objectify, or dehumanize people.

False Solutions

As a reader, whether a fan or a scholar, the solution to these problems can't be to ignore them.  It can't be to deny them, or to pretend that problematic representations don't matter.  The option to ignore harmful representations is the option of privilege, and exercising that option is being complicit in the racism and sexism behind those representations.

And it can't be to excuse these problematic representations on the grounds of special-circumstances: that these works were the product of a different time.  There are many problems with this excuse, but the simplest is that no matter when things were produced they are being read now.  Even if we accept the (frankly lame) excuse that writers of the past didn't know any better, readers of today do.  I don't think anybody--at least not anybody thoughtful--is trying to hold medieval writers up to the standards of the 21st century, but we do hold 21st century readers up to those standards.  Reading Malory's condemnation of Guinevere and valorization of Lancelot without noting the sexism of that double-standard is approving of that sexism, even if that "noting" only takes place within your own head.

Possible Solutions

One possible solution, of course, is to choose something else to read.  Plenty of medievalists that I know skip the Prioress's Tale because of its anti-semitism.  In an Early-Modern context some people choose not to read the Merchant of Venice for the same reason.

When you're reading for fun, this is easy.  Don't read things that you don't enjoy.  If the problematic elements are such that they overwhelm the pleasure of the reading then there really is no problem. 

When you're reading as a scholar, whether a student reading an assigned text or a higher-level academic reading for the edification of yourself or others, the option of just not reading problematic stuff is less viable.  In the first place, pretending that problematic texts don't exist is itself deeply problematic because it is an idealized and false representation of the world.  In the second place, sometimes texts are just plain worth reading from an academic standpoint--whether because of their historical significance or because of artistic value or as a counterpoint to another text.  The politics of representation are never the only aspect of a text.

A possible solution here is to read with (faux) objectivity.  A scholarly study of art or literature as an object need not imply any kind of tacit approval.  There are plenty of historians who study Nazi Germany and that emphatically does not make those historians Nazis.  It is possible to study the racism and/or sexism of literature directly.

But eagle-eyed readers will notice the bracketed (faux) I placed before the word "objectivity" in that last paragraph.  I like Malory's Morte Darthur.  I like The Merchant of Venice.  I even like the Prioress's Tale, especially as an exercise in complexity and as a representation of medieval antisemitism, and even more as a companion to the other representations of the clergy that Chaucer presents.  That doesn't mean I like the Prioress, and it doesn't mean I have to (as an undergrad professor of mine once did) argue that the Tale isn't anti-semetic.  But it does mean that if I read them from a position of objectivity, that is a false position and I am being disingenuous.  I suspect that most academic readers of medieval literature share this position with me.  I suspect that most scholars like what they read, at least on some level.  And if they don't, I think that is ... well ... sad.  And they should think about changing specializations.  Even historians who study atrocities often look for good in the responses to those atrocities, and it is usually not so much so that they redeem the historical period as so that they redeem the process of studying the historical period.

But academic readings do need a certain degree of, or a certain kind of objectivity.  A critical analysis is not a review, and within an academic context nobody cares very much whether I like Sir Gawain better than Sir Lancelot.  But they might care what I think about whether Malory's text is a condemnation of its own genre, or about how I think Malory positions the political as ultimately incompatible with holiness.  There are multitudes of angles from which to approach literature that have little to do with race or gender, and they're valid.  So without arguing that the problems of representation don't matter, I can legitimately argue that they're not my point.

Which brings me back to readings for pleasure.  If the problematic elements aren't enough to keep you from enjoying a text--if you do enjoy reading problematic stuff--then I think what you need to do is acknowledge the problems, and articulate the positive.  This post over on the Social Justice League blog has a few good suggestions for how to approach fandom of problematic material.  The author suggests that fans must acknowledge the problematic elements without attempting to defend, excuse, or gloss-over those problems.  What I think is missing in her article, though, perhaps because she thought it went without saying, is that narratives are complex and the best ones are the most complex.  Which, if we rephrase it in subjective terms, means that the texts you think are the best are the ones you find complexity in.  Like a racist family member, you confront the text about its flaws but continue to love it despite them, maybe because of its virtues, and maybe just because of its familiarity.  When I say "articulate the positive" I don't mean argue that the positive outweighs the negative, so that you can argue someone else into liking what you like.  But I do mean learn to articulate what it is you like and why, even if the only one you're articulating that to is yourself.


Medieval Apocalyptica

My wife and I have been watching apocalyptic movies lately.  Last week it was Planet of the Apes (speaking of which, check out this great post over on Medieval Meets World). This week it is The Omega Man.

I don't know what exactly prompted this apocalyptic interest.  Probably it was the proliferation in culture of apocalyptic talk, related to the whole 2012 Mayan prediction thing.  But regardless, of where the interest came from, it got me thinking about medieval apocalyptica.  Now obviously theologically-minded or -oriented medieval writers wrote about the literal Apocalypse.  Here is a book about it.  But just like we do today, medieval folks told stories about all kinds of things.  The Middle Ages encompasses a very very long time (most folks think of it as about 500-1500 CE), and during that time there were certainly moments of intense cultural anxiety about the end of the world--moments of at least as much cultural attention as 2012 has for us.  So is there any medieval apocalyptic fiction? When medieval writers told stories about the end of the world, what did those stories look like?

Something like this?

My central scholarly interest is Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, which is a very late medieval work (from about 1485).  Because I already spend a lot of time thinking about the Morte Darthur, it is the first thing I think of now, too.  The Morte definitely has apocalyptic overtones.  For the characters within the artistic frame, the death of Arthur and the fall of the Round Table are very much like the end of the world.  The fellowship dissolves, and all of the knights end the story either dead or in a hermitage, in retreat from the world.  In its way this is as apocalyptic as any movie like Planet of the Apes.  Malory spends most of his time constructing this world, but his story has always been inexorably1 leading toward this end. The title of the book, after all, is Le Morte Darthur2. It is, from the very beginning, from even before Malory relates Arthur's conception, about Arthur's death. It is about the end of a world.

100 years earlier, Gower's Confessio Amantis, which was written basically at the same time as and which shares much in common with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales3, including several of the stories, is4not a particularly apocalyptic text in and of itself. It's the story of a worshiper of Venus making his confession. The priest (of Venus) to whom he is confessing preaches to Amans, and tells him a series of stories about the 7 deadly sins5. The stories themselves, as I have said, are not particularly apocalyptic. But Gower's prologue, in which he retells and interprets the story of Nebuchadnezzar's dream. The dream is of a statue with a head of gold, arms of silver, a torso of brass, legs of steel, and feet of steel mixed with clay. Daniel6 interprets the dream as a prophesy of ages to come. Each empire is followed by a weaker one, until the last--the feet of clay--which brings the whole statue down. Gower is quite sure that his day is the day of the feet of clay.

200 years7 before that, Beowulf is as apocalyptic as any monster movie of today. The first two parts of Beowulf, in which king Hrothgar and his Danes are being attacked in the night first by a monster named Grendel, who comes out of the darkness and carries away the men one-by-one and then by Grendel's lake-monster mother, are perhaps better described as "near-apocalyptic", since the hero Beowulf successfully prevents the end of the world8. The third part, in which Beowulf is himself killed while fighting and killing a dragon, is apocalyptic in almost exactly the same sense as the Morte Darthur is9.  Beowulf dies and with him dies his world.
This isn't, by the way, just a case of pathetic fallacy like the Fisher-King, wherein the land suffers with the king. Beowulf the king was Beowulf the warrior--strong and famous enough to protect his people not only from monsters but also from warring nations. Without him, they are left vulnerable.

"swylce giómorgyd Géatisc ánméowle
Bíowulfe brægd bundenheorde
sang sorgcearig· saélðe geneahhe
þæt hío hyre hearmdagas hearde ondréde
wælfylla worn werudes egesan
hýðo ond hæftnýd." (Beowulf, lines 3150-3155)

A rough paraphrase of the above:

"A Geatish woman sang a lament for Beowulf because she was afraid of the very bad stuff that was coming."10

So there you have it. A rough and dirty look at some highlights of apocalyptic fiction from the Middle Ages. Concern about the end of the world is, unsurprisingly, a very old thing. It makes sense. We all live at the very end of time.


1 Well ... not exactly. Not necessarily. Some critics have argued that Malory didn't write one story, he wrote a collection of stories that don't necessarily lead to one another. But those critics were wrong.
2 It's not at all clear that Malory himself intended the book to be entitled Le Morte Darthur. More likely it was his publisher, William Caxton, who gave it that title. But still.
3 The Confessio Amantis was actually dedicated to Chaucer, and the two were friends. Or at least they knew each other well. If you believe Chaucer's blog, then "friends" doesn't exactly seem like the right term"
4Sorry about that. I have a bad habit of separating the subject from the verb. I do the same thing in speech. It drives my wife bonkers.
5Except for "lust", which obviously isn't a sin against Venus. Gower substitutes "incest". Because that is a reasonable substitution to make.
6Of the Bible, in case that wasn't clear to anyone.
7Or so. Maybe as much as 800 years, really.
8Or the end of Heorot. Whatever.
9Except, of course, that it was written way before the Morte was. So really the Morte is like Beowulf.
10I said it was rough.

On Studying the Middle Ages

Why would anyone study medieval literature?

If you go into an average University here in North America, and go to the English department, and start asking around about people's focii I think you are likely to find that about 90% of English PhDs are focused on the 20th century or later.  There are good reasons for this, really.

More current stuff feels more relevant.  People, from the grad students to the professors teaching them to the hiring boards who will eventually give them jobs (they hope) to the people who will give them grants (they hope) all tend to feel that more contemporary literature is more relevant.  Toni Morrison writes a novel about the long-term effects of slavery upon America, that just feels like it should matter more to Americans (especially African-Americans) than a 500 year old book about some dudes with armor riding around in England does.

Because contemporary literature comes from the same cultural experience as those studying it do, it is more accessible.  That doesn't mean that people who study contemporary literature are lazy, but it does mean that they often expend almost no mental energy trying to understand the surface level of the text, which means they can focus their energy on reading more deeply--however they want to do that.  By contrast, Middle English is not instantly accessible, even for people who read the language fluently, because the culture is foreign to us.  So we need to first decipher the language, and then interpret the contextual clues that aren't necessarily obvious to us anymore, and only then can we understand the most literal level of the text.  If I want to understand the representation of the interaction between sacred and secular in the Morte Darthur, then I need to understand what was going on in the church of England in the fifteenth century, and probably also in the fourteenth century.  Just like I can't understand Toni Morrison if I've never heard of slavery in America, I can't understand Le Morte Darthur if I've never heard of the War of the Roses.  But I've probably heard of one and not the other before I even start reading.

But I like that medieval literature tends to be very familiar to a post-modern sensibility.  Chaucer was almost always meta-textual, for example.  And then I just plain prefer theologically-tinted books about violence to sexually-tinted books about colonialism (Victorian) or psychologically-tinted books about the the individual (Modern).  I also like correcting my own and other people's misconceptions about a huge swath of (literary) history. The Middle Ages suffer from what is frankly insulting negative stereotyping.  Even the name "Middle Ages" is obviously dismissive.  This isn't a new insight by any means, but it's worth saying again.  The Middle Ages are called "Middle" because they are conceived of as a low-point between the two high-points of antiquity on one side and modernity on the other.  It is a 1000 year lull.  Partly that's because early Modern folks in the Renaissance defined themselves as not-medieval.  Victorians even took to referring to the whole period as the "Dark Ages", originally because there was a lack of documentary evidence about the time, making it "dark" or obscure to historians.  Eventually (pretty quickly) the metaphor became richer, and the "Dark Ages" were understood to be backward, ignorant, barren of thought and art; a cultural desert.

Have you ever seen a documentary where they interview a scientist who specializes in deserts? Or even talked to one in real life?  The poor scientist usually comes off as a bit defensive and often says stuff like "People think of the desert as lifeless.  But it's a rich ecosystem."  That is how medievalists feel about the Middle Ages.  It was a rich ecosystem.  And "Middle Ages" covers so much that it seems absurd to lump it all together.  England circa 500 CE is just not the same as Italy of 1450, though both are "the Middle Ages". 

I'm getting off topic.  Why study the middle ages?

Because it's awesome.

Incipit Liber Primus

Well hi there.

I have decided that having four defunct blogs is not enough defunct blogs.

This is where I will ramble, rant, rave, ruminate, and (I need another R. Think quick.) review on medieval topics.  This might include thoughts on my thesis topic that won't ever make it into my real thesis, accounts of my triumphs or struggles in trying to finally learn Latin (which is kind of a must for a medievalist) or it might include any number of other medievally miscellany.