Late night medieval sex jokes: is there anything better?

Hi internets! Once again, I have blogospherical anxieties, which is why you’re not hearing much from me. Sorry about that.

In lieu of serious blogular thoughts, let me tell you about one of the more fabulous activities undertaken recently by our new Centre director, Juanita Ruys. She, along with three other Sydney Uni academics from disparate disciplines (Classical Archaeology; Entomology; Sexology/Sexual Health), recently made her stand-up comedy debut – not in a tiny bar or comedy competition, as most comedians do, but to a packed house at the Sydney Festival.

The evening was loosely themed around sex, and I’d already heard Juanita speak at an Alumni function about demonic sex, so really, how could I not go? A grand total of four medievalists were present, against vast hordes of biologists and a small clutch of Health Sciences folk (no classicists in evidence, either).

I may be biased, but I’m pretty sure medieval demons are funnier than classical archaeology, insects, or modern sex therapy (although that last one runs pretty close, if only because Patricia Weerakoon is completely adorable and was taking such joy in public speaking you had to giggle and grin back at her). Juanita – who I normally know as a fairly shy person – was absolutely brilliant on stage, and is pleased to announce that she’s the first person ever to cite William of Auverne in stand-up comedy.

Many jokes of varying degrees of smuttiness and erudition were made. For instance, Juanita noted that the word incubus means ‘the one who lies above’, and asked the audience why a woman needs to go to the demonic realm to find a man who’ll fall asleep on top of her. Ba-dum-dum tish. We were all advised not to model our sex lives on those of insects, because it’s rarely a good idea to impale your prospective partners. Patricia Weerakoon told us all that she’s up for review during the current staff cull, and wonders whether sex is irrelevant to the University of Sydney, or if the university community is too good at it to need her advice anymore.

And from Dr. Craig Barker, who heads up the Australian excavations at Nea Paphos, Cyprus, we learned that there’s a particular spot at the back of an ancient Greek theatre which, if you fling your voice right, will make a massive vibrating echo all around the ampitheatre. Dr Barker was pleased to inform us that during his team’s excavation of the theatre at Nea Paphos, the first word in about 2000 words to be projected in that space in this manner was a loud and resounding “FUCK”, from the site cook, who’d dropped something heavy on his foot while crossing the stage on an errand.

The University of Sydney has been doing assorted things over the last few years to improve its profile in and integration with the community – I’m not sure who came up with this particular idea, but they deserve a pat on the back. Funny, nerdy, and in the heart of the Sydney Festival. My idea of fun, basically. :D

Ugh. Writing

Yesterday I, rather smugly, put a conclusion on the chapter I’d been writing. Today I read it over, looking for gaps, and discovered that the main problem with it… was that section 3 of 4 needed to be the introduction. OF COURSE.

This is a thinking-out-loud post!

Not the post I meant to make, but hey, I’m thinking! Let’s show my thoughts to the internet!

Medieval - a woman readingI’ve been (re)reading the first chapter of Susan Crane’s Gender in Romance in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This chapter is entitled ‘Masculinity in Romance’, and I was chasing it on the basis of some footnotes in Gaunt’s Gender and Genre. It lived up to the recommendations of said footnotes by having a nice, simple, clear explanation of the difference between the postmodern/Foucault-ian subject and the Lockean individual, with useful citations for explaining how each of these have and have not been taken to apply to the ‘individual’ in medieval romance. \o/ Definitely going on my mental bibliography for spitting out at sufficiently engaged students!

So that’s all good: the Individual has been conquered!

What’s clunking around in my braaain at the moment is her section on ‘Masculinity as a function of difference’. Let’s enumerate:

Obvious Point: Women are constructed as the opposites of men; masculinity is concieved as ‘not-feminine’, so femininity is used to set the boundaries of acceptable masculine identity and performance. YUP, GOT THAT. APPLICABLE TO MANY SITUATIONS, NOT JUST MEDIEVAL LIT.

Not-so-obvious Point: you can get a ‘counterprocess’ which ‘rehabilitates’ feminine traits and incorporates them back into idealised masculinity.


Crane’s examples for this include some from the Canterbury Tales and some historical examples. In particular, she talks about the role of women in inspiring pity and mercy in men who have been figured as aggressive, assertive manlydudes. She argues, along with someone named Jill Mann, that Chaucer is working around or perhaps against strict gender role divisions: that he wants ways for men to take on ‘good’ feminine characteristics in order to have, basically, the best of both worlds.

Crane argues that the universal ideal remains ultimately masculine – a Sensitive Late Middle Ages Guy, perhaps, a chap who has all the best manly traits and can show pity, or be passive in appropriate circumstances,  or not pursue revenge, etc, under the influence of women.* Feminine traits become part of the masculine ideal, but the reverse does not apply: masculine pursuits/traits do not become feminine when women do them. (Eg: ruling, fighting.)


Right. First problem with Crane’s argument is a result of talking about Chaucer. In talking about ‘how Chaucher plays with the genre of romance’ she’s got to reduce ‘romance’ to a discrete entity. For instance: romance polarises genders, Chaucer plays about with gender roles. Romance does X, Chaucer builds on it in this way. The Roman d’Eneas also seems to be her most-frequently cited example, which… doesn’t seem like the greatest choice to me if you want to talk about ‘what Romance does’: the romances of antiquity do quite different things, structurally, thematically and gender-wise, to the Matter of Britain and assorted other romances.

A medieval painting - woman throwing snowballsIt seems to me that one of the things that ‘romances do’ is exactly what Crane pulls out here: set up binaries and then play with them. Play with ways in which men might become objects of desire – as Yvain is to Lunette-on-behalf-of-Laudine, for example. Play with the intersections of binary systems: does the love/honour binary map neatly onto the homosocial/heterosexual binary? To me, and I’ll grant I’m biased, this is something at which Chrétien seems to be particularly skilled, but one finds it in other romances as well. There’s a whole chapter on this in Constance Brittain Bouchard’s Every Valley Shall Be Exalted, a book which makes me jump up and down and flail incoherently at undergrads. That means it’s good.

Secondly, I’m not sure about the ‘masculine traits don’t become feminine when practiced by women’ thing. Or rather, I think it’s being framed badly, and that there’s a bit of a confusion between ‘feminine’ and ‘acceptable/appropriate for women’. It might not be feminine for women to be politically active, but it was certainly held to be appropriate.  There’s an excellent Kimberly LoPrete article called ‘Gendering Viragos’ on this, and I’ve just rehearsed it all at length in my draft, so I won’t go into it here, but suffice to say: it would be an unusual politically active man in the high middle ages who hadn’t met at least one politically active and powerful woman.

LoPrete’s work does dovetail with Crane’s arguments, to some extent: LoPrete argues that masculine-women, or women doing manly things, did not become non-women in doing so. They merely became exceptional (usually in a good way). So I can see how this works: if only exceptional women possess said capacities, clearly they’re not ‘feminine’. Rightyo.

One thing Crane missed is that at times, historically (and she does use historical examples in her arguments), women-doing-manly-things would do them, or be praised for doing them, while displaying traditional feminine virtues. In a different LoPrete work, on Adela of Blois, you’ll find that that most excellent lady was praised (or arranged to be praised?) as a suitable leader for her husband’s extended family on the basis of her qualities as a loyal wife, a devoted mother, and a chaste widow. Those qualities were framed as signs of strength of character and mind, making her suitable for the extra-ordinary role of woman-doing-manly-things.

The Lion in Winter - We've *all* got knives. It's 1183 and we're barbarians.That strength of character and mind – enabling a woman to stand her ground and take initiative against men – is in fact what we see Enide develop over the course of Erec et Enide: the courage to stand up for herself and her husband; skills of verbal manipulation; and self-confidence. These skills (which Maureen Fries frames as ‘heroic’ ones, distinct from heroinely feminine traits like beauty, passivity, shyness, etc) are the ones which will make her a suitable wife for a king, and a suitable mother for a king’s heirs.** Those may not be feminine traits but nor are they exclusively masculine: they’re queenly, in this context.

Another thing which bugs me, and which didn’t come up specifically in Crane’s chapter, but to which Crane’s argument lends itself, is the classifying of all iniative-taking and active roles as masculine.  Verbal manipulation, for example, often turns up as a powerful weapon in the hands of women: sometimes, heroes like Erec need women to do their verbal manipulatin’ for them. If you read those traits as masculine, is it a critique of romance heroes that they often lack rhetorical skill? If skill with words is a woman’s power, are some kinds of power therefore feminine? For that matter: is female lust feminine? Ruth Marzo Karrass uses the word ‘hyper-Medieval MSS llustration - couple embracingfeminine’ to refer to seductive women, like, say, the Lovesome Damsel of the Knight of the Cart. If that’s hyper-femininity, then is it hyper-feminine simply because the woman takes initiative (surely not – consider Blanchefleur, in assorted Perceval romances, who doesn’t seem to be at all evil for sneaking into Perce’s bed to convince him to protect her)?

And what happens when a woman possesses both masculine and feminine traits? If her masculine traits aren’t integrated into her feminine personality, as with manly men who do feminine things, what then?

Ahah. Answer: Constance Brittain Bouchard! I love Every Valley Shall Be Exalted. Can we argue that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits of an ‘extraordinary woman’ co-exist in productive tension, much as Love and Honour in the hero? I think I’d like to argue that. Watch me try to argue that!


* I’m intrigued that no connection seems to be made in Crane’s argument – I’m not sure about Jill Mann’s, not having read it – to more modern feminist theories about women being expected to ‘socialise’ men. If the King pardons criminals in the Queens name, that doesn’t actually mean that this Queen herself is merciful and this particular King is a nasty bugger, but it does seem to me that Queens generally are supposed to soften the edges of Kings generally. I wonder if the reason the connection’s not made is that it doesn’t hold up, or that it just… hasn’t been made.

** Citations: Maureen Fries, ‘Female Heroes, Heroines and Counter-Heroes’, and Margarett Jewett Burland, ‘Chrétien’s Enide’.

In lieu of content… PHOTOS!

Sorry folks, I sort of fell into a disorganised sludge again. But I had a nice Christmas and an excellent New Year – I hope you can say the same for whatever celebrations you celebrated, if you celebrated any celebrations.

In lieu of content, proof that I have been exercising my rusty photographic skills:

Read the rest of this entry »

Oh hey, a resource

I may be the last person on the internet to read Notorius How To Write Your (Undergrad) Paper In Seven Days. But in case I’m not, have a link!

I’m intrigued. I’m not sure anyone had ever told me to write topic sentences first – but I’m pretty sure that I do, for the most part. Or days on which I do that are days when I write well. Intriguing.  I may print out this list (with credit) and add it to the arsenal of writing-tips with which I berate my students. Thoughts, O former-students-who-read-this?

*drops ball*

Sooo, I have several posts in draft and approximately three others in my head! But clearly they are not happening before Christmas. Perhaps not even before New Year.

Happy assorted festivities, O Internets. :)

ED: and stay safe, New Zealand! As someone on my FB put it: “It must be Christmas time, the natural disasters are starting.”

*drops ball*

Sooo, I have several posts in draft and approximately three others in my head! But clearly they are not happening before Christmas. Perhaps not even before New Year.

Happy assorted festivities, O Internets. :)

In honour of the season… a picspam of Hebrew manuscripts!

Call this epic procrastination, or a sign of my great appreciation for Gillian Polack’s Very Special Hannukah Story… At any rate. It is, I am reliably informed by people who have more to do with this than I, Hannukah. And Hebrew manuscripts are pretty. Observe!

I don’t seem to be able to find an illumination of a nine-branched menorah, but here, have a seven-branched one:

A gold menorah on a blue background, with trees

The Menorah of Zechariah's Vision - Metropolitan Museum of Art

This piece of gorgeousness is part of an exhibition of medieval Sephardic manuscripts at the Met (Image from TabletMag). It’s 13th century, illuminated in Spain, but as far as I can gather from the article, the illuminator was of French origin. In my untutored opinion, it shows. The background reminds me a bit of the background on this famous illustration to the Conte du Graal (which is from a bit later, I’ll grant you).

Now, since it is Hannukah:

Yotser for the Sabbath - New York Public Library

David bar Pesah Mahzor - 14th c. Germany, New York Public Library

What we have here is: the Yotser (blessing) for the Sabbath of Hannunkah, from a 14th c. German MSS held in the New York Public Library. The scribe’s name we know:  David bar Pesah. Probably we know other things about him, but I can’t find them on the internet.

A four-part series on the history of Hebrew manuscripts can be found at the New York Public Library website. In section three, they note:

Decorations appear to have been commonplace in medieval Hebrew manuscripts, and are discussed in rabbinic literature. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg (1215?-1293), for example, was asked why he did not protest the widespread inclusion of paintings in prayerbooks. He replied that the drawing of images is not forbidden, although he condemned the presence of illustrations because they distract the worshipper. In fact, few images were strictly prohibited. The Talmud and rabbinic responsa forbid the depiction of the four creatures of the merkavah from Ezekiel’s vision. These figures, which are frequently represented in Christian works as attributes of the four Evangelists, do however appear in Hebrew manuscripts. A depiction of the Heavenly Chariot is found, for example, in the Ashkenazic Ambrosian Bible (Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Ms. B. 32, Inf.), 1236-38, and in Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide to the Perplexed) from Barcelona, 1348 (The Royal Library, Copenhagen, Cod. Hebr. XXXVII).

Not all Hebrew manuscripts contain images, though. I’ve had the great pleasure of being shown MS Nicholson 33 in the USyd Rare Book Library during manuscript tutorials: it’s an Italian Pentateuch, which we can date pretty confidently to c. 1272, because of a note in the back about a member of the family having gone down to the docks and caught the plague at that time. It’s absolutely gorgeous: quite a large manuscript, plenty of blank space (like the folio pictured above). And the text is tightly-packed into carefully shaped… textboxes, I guess, shaped like cups and candelabra and other pretty things. I can’t find an image of anything like that online, but I did find this (at the Met article again; not linked, so you can enlarge the picture):

Micography - geometric patterns made of tiny text

Micography - geometric patterns made of tiny text

As the Met. article notes, Micography was used in both Hebrew and Islamic art of this period.

Another good example of the cross-cultural valence of manuscript art styles I found on Mandragore (I voluntarily did battle with Mandragore for this blog post. Feel special, internets):

Gold illuminated border; red background; ink on vellum

BNF Hébreu 15, 15th c. (via Mandragore)

The gold border here, for starters, is very similar in style to MS University of Sydney RB Add.Ms. 358 , which contains a picture of a Turkey. Incidentally, I incorrectly stated that 358 was from the Spanish Netherlands, which didn’t exist at the time to which it is dated. Neil Boness did tell us that, pointing out the Spanish influence on the border – which is why I bring it up here.* The borders are very alike! Only Hébreu 15 is obviously fancier.

Regarding the red background to the text – I’m not having any luck pulling up images of heavily-decorated medieval Qur’ans, but does anyone else think they’ve seen pictures** of Islamic texts with a similar layout/pattern? Given that the arts of Spain and Portugal were heavily influenced by the Umayyad Caliphate there, I would expect that to show up in Hebrew manuscripts – but maybe 15th century is too late for that kind of thing? Opinions, anyone?


* I can’t remember now whether he wanted to date the MS later, because of his feelings about Spain + the Netherlands; or if he was just wrong about the Spanish Netherlands. Interestingly, he didn’t give us this dubious factoid this year. ANYWAY.

** Maybe not pictures – I saw Qur’ans on exhibit in both the BNF and the BL this year… One of them was Sultan Baybar’s Qur’an, which isn’t what I’m thinking of but is very pretty.

Hey look, relevant content on the internets

Over at Jezebel, Anna North is talking about How Should Colleges Help Mentally Ill Students. She’s got links to an article in the Wall Street Journal, which I will freely admit I have not read, because of the high probability that mainstream media articles about mental illness will make me want to hit things.

This is a topic which concerns me, as you may have noticed.

Imma gonna quote some bits of the Jezebel article at you:

Says David Cozzens, dean of students at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, “There’s the danger that we take too much care and when they hit the real world that same kind of support isn’t there.”
How to support young people while still preparing them for adulthood is a perennial question, whether the youth involved have mental health problems or not. And we should certainly be considering how to extend the kinds of resources that exist in college settings to the so-called “real world” so that people with mental illness can continue to lead fulfilling lives after they graduate. Like many articles on the subject, Petersen’s piece points out that better treatment and support services have made it possible for more people with mental illness to attend college — these same people deserve the chance to participate and excel in the working world as well. But therapists sometimes talk about balancing supportive care with challenging a patient to attain new levels of functioning. Universities need to figure out to what extent they can help students by accommodating their differing needs, and to what extent they need to train them to meet the challenges of adulthood.

OK. I will freely admit that I spent too much time in the Brownie Guides and have a compulsive urge to “lend a hand” (within the bounds of what’s appropriate/allowable for my role as tutor). I just plain feel better about myself if, say, when Student Jane Doe emails me asking what she can do about her late work, as well as telling her “apply for Special Consideration”, I slap in a linkspam with links to the extension system and the counselors and the doctors and disability services and the webpage about how to Discontinue Not Fail for medical reasons. Currently I’m wasting time making that list up every time I send it, but one day I’ll remember to save it as a template email, and it won’t cost me anything at all thereafter.

But. Let’s imagine Student Jane Doe.* Student Jane Doe is at university to get an Education. And she has some Problems. Problems aside, it is our job to teach Student Jane Doe various things, including but not limited to:
- how to write coherently and present her thoughts in a logical order
- how to present her thoughts, in a logical order, in a public presentation
- how to research things, critique what she finds, and turn it into coherent information or just plain Knowing Stuff
- how to manage her time and juggle deadlines without going kersplat.

Anyone noticed that item four is not built into many courses? Some, yes. I’ve had classes where you submit a research proposal or draft halfway through semester, have another opportunity to have a draft critiqued later on, and submit a final essay at the end. I’ve been in classes where weekly “journals” on the readings have to be submitted. I’m not sure that either of these are the most effective way of teaching that skill. I know you can take Learning Centre courses on how to not procrastinate all the damn time.** The Learning Centre and the Writing Centre both run short courses on managing essay preparation.

But by and large, the skill of “keeping all the balls in the air without breaking anything or going kersplat” is a skill you really have to learn by practice. Nevertheless, if you get yourself a generalist degree, that’s one of the most useful skills you can walk out saying you have. Yes, I can do this office job which involves writing one long problem paper, helping out with two other people’s jobs, and doing random bits of editing. I have a BA! I can juggle multiple tasks without going kersplat! And avoid using the passive voice while I’m at it!

Teaching students that deadlines are endlessly malleable doesn’t really assist in teaching this particular skill.*** But, on the other hand, asking for help when you need it is also a solid gold skill. Let’s say someone wants to pay Student Jane Doe to write policy documents in the future. That’s awesome for Student Jane Doe. Have we really done her any services if she comes out of university knowing that her superiors are God Kings of Deadlines; that last-minute panic jobs are better than talking realistically to your boss about what you can feasibly achieve; that her superiors are going to care more about immediate deadlines than having a long-term productive employee? This might be true of some employers, but if she’s got ongoing Problems that’s not going to be a good workplace for her, and maybe, just maybe, if she’s used to approaching her Problems like an adult and asking for accommodations when she needs them at uni, she might come out knowing she deserves better in the Real World too.


* Who is a mishmash of students I’ve seen, taught, and been, not anyone in particular, btw.
** Skill #1: stop writing your blog at work! Oh, wait…
*** As I think Kath was saying in an earlier comment.

Academia: not the only thing I can imagine doing

I’m pretty sure you’re all familiar with the well-worn advice “don’t go into academia unless it’s the only thing you can imagine doing”. I think I first read it from Dean Dad, back when I was a wee undergrad. I know Jon Jarrett has been a proponent of this advice, too. The logic goes something like this:

  • Academia is difficult to get into, difficult to stay in, and overworks you as long as you’re here
  • Also the postgrad scholarships are shitty and the job market is horrifying
  • Ergo, the poor sods going into the field had better be damn sure that there’s nothing else they’d rather do.
Now, I see the logic. I would strongly disadvise doing a postgrad research degree if there’s something else you’d rather do. Why aren’t you doing the thing you’d rather do? But the advice often comes in the form of “if there’s nothing else you could be happy doing” or “if there’s nothing else you can imagine doing”, or just if there’s nothing else you could do.

A vocation is a vocation and I’m the last person in the world to suggest it’s a smart idea not to pursue your vocation, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this advice is a very poor example of career decision-making. Pursuing a career because it’s the only thing that makes you happy, or the only thing you think you’re capable of? Surely that’s a one-way ticket to a nervous breakdown. And what happens when, for all your smarts and all your ambition, there just isn’t a job out there for you?

That, ladies and internetfolk, is why I vastly prefer this modest proposal from Hook and Eye. And therefore I am going to quote it at you:
If you want to do a PhD, you should do one. But! Only under this condition: you treat it like the first job of your career. Think of the PhD like a 4-6 year chunk of time, a discrete part of your life, where you earn a salary, live a real life (of the mind, of course, but also without taking loans to pay for food), and enjoy the full range of adult experiences. Don’t put your life on hold for some future utopia: that ain’t how this works anymore. Treat your PhD like a job: maybe it’s a low paying job, but that’s okay, because you really enjoy it. If you’re not going to enjoy this time, if you’re not going to be satisfied with your life while you do it, then don’t do it holding your nose for the glorious reward of the coming professorship. Because that’s a recipe for misery, all round.

People change jobs a lot over their lifetimes. Consider the PhD as one more job: it’s a great job, so far as it goes, really. You get to follow your interests and your passions. You mostly set your own hours. Your colleagues are great fun, and really smart. You often get to travel. You’ll write a book-length study of your own devising. You’ll get opportunities to interact with the public through teaching. While in this job, you prepare for your next one, the next part of your career: sure, you’ll learn how to be a professor, but you should also hone your other professional skills, too, because you know the PhD doesn’t last forever.

I, of course, am the sod who elected to do two post-grad research degrees instead of just one. And that’s for many reasons, but at least partly because I actually want the skills training, not just the letters after my name.  Even if everything goes pear-shaped on me, which is possible, and I don’t manage to get into an overseas PhD program, there are a whole bunch of skills I’m picking up here. They don’t have a clear label on them telling me “apply for X kind of job”, aside from the teaching skills (and I’m still not attracted to the idea of teaching high school). But they exist, and I can even describe them to you!

I can write well. I could write well when I finished Honours: better (more clearly, more efficiently), apparently, than many employees in the workplace I went into. I can write better still now. That is unlikely to ever go astray. Thesis-writing draws on a whole set of skills which are described in the ‘real’ workforce as ‘project management‘. A project with one staffmember, sure, but a project nonetheless. I had some of those skills at the end of honours: I have more of them now, including the “oh fuck, this really isn’t working, let’s revise objectives/timeframe/something else” skill.

I’ve always been fairly confident at public speaking, but I’m a whole damn lot better at it now than I was at the end of honours. My speaking pace has almost halved, going by the evidence of wordcounts on papers I gave in 2008 versus 2011. Teaching has forced me to clarify my thoughts, and to learn the difference between imparting facts and teaching skills. I can revise documents and clarify other people’s writing (if anything was ever good editing training, marking is).

And so on and so forth. Many of those are skills I already possessed at the end of honours, but I’m better at them now. I have no real plans for what I might do outside of academia, but the last couple of years has also been a good opportunity to figure out what I need in an occupation. It needs to be intellectually challenging, tick. But it also needs a lot of face-to-face human interaction. I knew I was in the wrong job in 2009 when  I found myself wishing I’d stuck to waitressing – but I still find myself thinking wistfully, especially over summer breaks, about retail and hospitality and admin jobs where I was interacting with people all the time. I like to have both fixed routines and a certain amount of discretion over my own work.

Academia, thus far, suits all of those needs pretty well. But I’m not foolish enough to think that it’s the only thing I could ever do. In fact, for me, knowing that I could do other things, if I preferred doing other things; knowing I have actual useful skills both in and outside of academia , is pretty important in terms of keeping me moving forward and preventing me from dissolving into a little ball of performance anxiety. It’s a job. It’s a job I want to do really well in, if I can. But if I can’t, or if it becomes unbearably stressful, there are other things out there; and years spent honing one’s research, writing, teaching skills are unlikely to be a waste, in the grand scheme of things.


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