Sady Doyle sums up “Mists of Avalon”

Morgana says "Oh, PLEASE"

The book says that the problem with Christianity is that it won’t tolerate other religions. It implies, however, that the problem with Christianity is that it’s a stupid jerk religion for assholes. The ladies in Avalon get psychic powers and meaningful jobs and top-notch liberal arts educations, whereas we manage to make it about three whole chapters into the book before a Christian dude beats his wife and things get all “be silent, you accursed scold” this and “have you put some spell upon my manhood, you accursed bitch” that and “you see what comes of your willfulness, my lady” the other. To argue that the book ultimately teaches religious tolerance is like arguing that old movie serials ultimately taught the importance of cooperation between virtuous maidens and dudes with capes and handlebar moustaches who enjoyed tying maidens to train tracks. Of course, medieval Christianity was deeply misogynist and intolerant, and so was medieval Britain. The crucial addition is a magic island full of twentieth-century Women’s Studies majors who can tell everyone else what they’re doing wrong and allow readers to feel superior in between the many sex scenes. 

YES THIS. This sums up all many of my problems with Mists, in a humourous yet eloquent fashion. Ten points to Sady Doyle. (Link goes to an article entitled ‘The Fantasy of Girl World: Lady Nerds and Utopias, which does have one major flaw, and that is the assumption that all spec-fic is escapist nerd wish-fulfilment. Which, er, leaves me wondering what to do with The Handmaid’s Tale.)

Gwen and Morgana, looking right at youThe thing is, I loved Mists as a teenager! LOVED IT! For some reason I never really questioned the “pagans good / Christians evil” logic of Mists (and much other historical-fantasy lit). Despite being a very devout little Christian, it wasn’t until my last year of high school that it crossed my mind that there was anything odd about this paradigm at all. Mind you, nor did I question the weird mythologies surrounding “Celtic” Christianity in some religious circles (whack some knotwork on it! Mention St Bridit! Lo and behold you’re cool and feminist now!), so I think we can just call all this critical-thinking-fail on my part.

Then I went to university! And learned the error of my ways. The Celts are not magical, my friends. Also, not all Christians are evil. And being a Celt does not exempt you from the putative evils of Christianity and/or the patriarchy.

Other fun things about my experience with Mists as a teenager:

Arthur and Lancelot, laughing and toasting one another-I was really, um, surprised by the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot scene. And I thought it was really cool and edgy and boundary-crossing and a fascinating concept, this idea that each of them was really as much into the other as they were into the woman they supposedly wanted! And yet for some reason it took me until last year to read Between Men. This was clearly an opportunity lost.

-I got really annoyed with her handling of Guinevere! And everyone’s else’s (that I could get hold of; so, Malory and onwards). She’s always such a wet blanket!* And I was really peeved that MZB, who spent so much time and effort rehabilitating Morgan, basically wrote off Guinevere and used her as a cipher for Teh Evils of Teh Patriarchy.

Gwen, with crown

So I set out to fix this! I was going to write an Arthurian novella about Guinevere, and she was not going to be a wet blanket! This turned out to be way too hard to do when I had little to no access to medieval sources and was getting tangled on the idea that there was a “real” Arthurian legend. So I gave up and wrote terrible teenage poetry instead.

And now I am at university, and I am trying to wrangle a chapter into shape, and it is about how Guinevere is actually more interesting than Arthur. In short, the main thing that’s changed since I was sixteen is that I now hate Mists much more than I did before.**


*Another reason to love the BBC’s Merlin. Gwen is not a damp rag!

** Also, my poetry is worse now than when I was sixteen. Disappointing.


Turns out, teaching has more in common with retail than you’d think

Both of them are jobs in which you have to be on your feet, paying attention to the world around you, thinking clearly, talking coherently, and being nice to people, regardless of how shitty you happen to feel that day. At least in an office I could sit down. And sometimes no one would talk to me for hours on end.

Barring unexpected turns for the worse this afternoon, we can say that I have survived the semester without having to pass out, throw up, or call in sick on days when I’m supposed to be teaching. Barely. And if the universe has any justice in it, by next semester I have put a stop to this shit.

This post is brought to you by the female reproductive system*, solid evidence for malevolent design if ever there was one. Let us take a moment to thank the Oh-Gods who preside over painkillers and anti-nausea drugs.


*Ed: no, I’m not pregnant. Very very not pregnant. Thus the regular monthly rounds of pain and nausea.

Ok, I have a terminology problem!

I'm in ur history - emphasizin ur wimmenzWhen talking about audiences of my thesis texts, I would like to divide them along gender lines.* I want to talk about women-in-the-audience without using hyphens.

I see two commonly used terms:

Women Readers


Female audience.

Medieval: a woman readingEach of them has a significant methodological problem. Women Readers implies that the act of reading is central to being in the audience. Although I think Kreuger, in her book of the same title, did tackle this problem in her introduction, as a general term, it’s misleading.

Female audience relies on the adjective female, meaning “possessing breasts and vagina and other appropriate ladyparts”.** When actually what I care about is audience-members who are women, that is, identified by themselves and/or those around them as women; individuals performing and expected to perform femininity; and individuals who are not performing femininity and are marked as transgressing the bounds of their gender because of it. Even if most or even ALL of that audience possess female junk, I don’t actually care about their ladyparts! Their ladyparts are not relevant to this conversation.

But woman audience just sounds wrong, and rather like I think there was only one woman who received this text (which it shouldn’t; nouns in compound must be the same in number – see also bookshelf) and women audiences still sounds like I want to treat them in discrete sets. Given that it’s also foolish to assume that an audience is homogenous, women audiences might be an acceptable option. But then you’d have to also say lay audiences (pl) and men audiences (pl) – doesn’t the latter one sound RIDICULOUS?

A rainbow-coloured small fluffy creature thingSo far, I’m sticking with female audience, on the grounds that the 12th century isn’t known for its sophisticated concepts of gender fluidity; an individual born with ladyparts had even less opportunity to self-identify as anything else than do genderqueer and transgendered people today. But it’s not an entirely satisfactory solution. What if I want to have a cross-disciplinary conversation about ladies-who-consume-literature with modern scholars? How does the gender-savvy modern literary theorist refer to an audience composed of women, without excluding transwomen? Perhaps the modern literary theorist can get away with women readers – but a film theorist, or pop culture theorist, surely can’t.


Also, speaking of genitalia and gender, here is a post about Christ’s penis. Go on, you know you want to.


*But why, I wonder? I mean, I am talking about gendery stuff, so it seems natural. And I think I agree with whoever-it-was (probably Kreuger) who argued that the gender gap between Man Dude Writing Things and women in his audience is bigger than the vocational gap between Clerk Dude Writing Things and his lay audience. Although as I recall that wasn’t so much argued as stated as if it were obvious to all right-thinking feminist readers. Hmmm. Given that this is romance, the fact that we have a Celibate Dude writing about love and sex and stuff is pretty damn important. Tracy Adams goes interesting places with this, as I recall. All that stuff about sex and rape and love and more rape? Probably written by celibate dudes who, at least in theory, were not supposed to do any of these things.

**In modern terms we might also mean “possessing XX chromosomes”, and then we can get into a fun conversation about how sex isn’t really binary at the chromosomal level, or the hormonal, or the neurological, and certainly not in the what-bits-go-where level. Unless someone has citations to the contrary, I’m operating on the assumption that the “male/female” decision was usually made in the Middle Ages on the basis of whether a baby was in possession of a penis or a vagina. If anyone has read fun and exciting articles about people with ambiguous genitalia in the middle ages, I would like to hear about it!

Not google penance, but google-warning

Dear everyone who’s googling for information on the supernatural in the Song of Roland:

I recognise that essay question. Anything you find in this blog has already been submitted, two years ago, in the same class you’re taking. Your lecturer is my current supervisor.* Do not even think of plagiarising, it will only end badly. Feel free to mine my footnotes though!

*Ed: apparently she’s not taking the course this year. Point still stands.

Adventures in French

Have I mentioned that my French is kinda shit? I mean, functional, for my purposes, but much shittier than my BA transcript would tell you. Speaking is right out. Listening is extremely dubious. Composition extends to three-sentence Joie du livrethank-you letters to second-hand booksellers whom I found via abebooks and who were so kind as to send me emails notifying me that they’d shipped the volumes of dense 1970s historical stuff which I will then proceed to spend several months, possibly the rest of my degree, avoiding as much as I can.

Reading, though, reading is OK. I can read the French-language parallel translations of my OF texts, for starters. Mostly this results in me realising that the translator is wrong and has made shit up, although, on one notable occasion I ran in circles for weeks trying to translate something which looked nothing like either the French-language translation or the English-language translation, only to have my supervisor point out that the French translation had been spot on, which I would’ve known if I’d not forgotten large numbers of French idioms.

That aside, though, I have discovered a pretty simple pattern when it comes to me and academic French. Well, two, actually. The first thing is that I can comfortably read articles and/or books which are younger than me; anything older than I am gets progressively more difficult, until you get far enough back to hit Old French.

The other is: if it’s about sex, I can understand it.

Seriously. I can be picking my way through a discussion of narrative structure and more-or-less know what’s going on, but as soon as there’s sex, voilà, the paragraph will proceed to be entirely comprehensible. This applies to history, too: of the first chapter of Le Chevalier, la femme et le prêtre, the only part I’m really certain I understood was the part where Duby wonders about Phillip’s reasons for marrying Bertrada, and waxes lyrical about her hypothetical charms and the possibility that she seduced him.*

Given that my comprehension of French is largely dependant on care factor, this probably tells you a lot about me.** Rated R for Abstract SexBut given that I’m not actually in the habit of reading French books about sex, it’s also a pretty clear sign of the way linguistic registers in English work. The vocabulary for talking, in a SRS BIZNIZ way, about sex is almost exactly the same in English as in French. Observe:

Le texte ne révèle pas que la demoiselle abuse la situation pour assouvir son propre désir sexuel, mais il est difficile de ne pas remarquer l’image figuré d’une ejaculation ayant lieu sous l’effet des vigoureuses carresses.***

Firefox spellchecker is only underlining about half of the words in that sentence – and most of the ones it is underlining have English counterparts distanced by only a few letters. It’s true that on any topic, the higher-register English vocabulary is going to come a lot closer to the French; but it’s particularly true of anything to do with sex.

Moral of the story is: if you want an easy way to recover your French reading skills, start by reading about sex.

Next I have to test this “If it’s about sex, I can read it” theory by attacking Simone de Beauvoir… the principle may not hold where the sex hand at is of the sex-and-gender variety rather than fucking. We’ll see.


King Edmund is not impressed*The only part of the chapter I’m really certain I don’t understand is why the hell Duby thought this little hypothetical tangent was relevant at all. Also, woman kidnapped from her home, where she is the wife of another man, by King of France. SHE SEDUCED HIM is obviously the explanation we’re looking for. I very much agree with Magister that we need to think about men’s motivations in ways which move beyond political expediency and acknowledge that men, even politically powerful men, are humans; and if we could do so without making it a point-and-snigger situation, or all about the hotness and/or predatory sexual advances of ladies involved, I would be very much delighted.

**Other things which make sense to me include ecclesiastical terminology and, apparently, la taxonomie specifique. Discovered that one while listening to a Radio-Canada postcast which consisted of an announcer with an adorable Quebecois accent interviewing an arachnologist. Most of the arachnologist’s conversation about la biodiversite and whatnot went entirely over my head, but his impassioned spiel on the importance of la taxonomie specifique made sense! For that we can blame a good friend of mine who’s a palaeontologist and cares very deeply about the taxonomic classification of long-dead molluscs.

*** Thieved from J. R. Mc Guire, ‘L’onguent et l’initiative féminine dans <i>Yvain</i>’, Romania 112 pp. 62-82 (p. 73).


I am in slough at the moment. Not any particular slough, just… slough in general. Except with respect to getting sorted the nine hundred and umpty something relatively minor medical and allied health things which I’ve been putting off for… up to four years, in some cases.  By the end of this semester, I will have had blood tests, ultrasounds,  retinal scans, dental check-ups, and, if I get around to the last item on the list, new orthodics! And also whatever unknown tests the new specialist may or may not want to put me through.

In order to achieve all this, I’m being very efficient with making appointments! Unfortunately, everything else in my life seems to require high-octane efficiency powers at the moment. Or sustained attention; or  both. I’m aware that this constitutes, well, life. But I’m still trying to figure out how to be moderately functional in the rest of my life, and proficient in my teaching, and functional at thesis-writing. I can do brilliant short-term tunnel vision, but long-term tunnel vision is… not really sustainable, and also not brilliant for maintaining one’s status as a functioning human being.

Edit - edit - panc - edit - research - WRITEAnd writing is like drawing blood out of a stone. Any form of writing can, I’m finding, end up like this: emails! LJ! Fiction! Poetry! Academia! All the things I like, basically. Sometimes all of them at once. Arranging words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs and and and I just don’t wanna.

I’m working on a set of ways around this. Thus far I have:

– absolved myself from writing coherently until teaching is over. I still have to write, it just doesn’t have to be coherent sentences or paragraphs. Unless someone’s assessing it – my annual review paperwork will, I suppose, have to be coherent. SIGH.

– tinkered with my thesis topic to come up with a way around the repeat “why the hell am I doing this and how can I do it without that ONE CRUCIAL PIECE OF SCHOLARSHIP WHICH I ASSUMED SOMEONE ELSE HAD DONE BUT ACTUALLY THEY HAVEN’T”. This really makes my life worse, since I have to make new plans and justify them in my annual review. But it’s making me feel a lot better about what I’m doing.*

– remembered that WriSoMiFu exists! Write Something You Miserable Fuck is for those who do not have the fortitude for NaNoWriMo. WriSoMiFu is open to any kind of writing: fiction, non-fiction, essays, theses, journals, fanworks, blog posts, poetry, random crap you typed up just to pass your daily writing requirement. The community specialise in pessimism and bitching, but, from what I saw last year, participants actually seem to get things done! Frequently at a rate of far more than the minimum 10 minutes per day. Last year I can’t remember what I wrote: probably a hotchpotch of things, including poetry. This year I’ll limit my WriSo-eligible writing to thesis content, and if nothing else, I have a built-in set of people to complain to every day.

As far as motivation goes, I’m sure sensible people come up with bright, cheery motivational matras to do with how much they love their work. Bright and cheery is overrated. I am reminding myself of something I’ve already learnt the hard way. I might be kind of hating this right now, but I’d rather be hating this than be comfortably doing something else. As encouraging thoughts go, it’s working pretty well.


* Lawrence, on the off-chance you’re still reading the blogosphere while you’re on leave, this should go a long way to solving the “why the hell do we care” problem. 😀

A post of stuff!

Stuff, it’s happening! On the internets.

For example, archaeologists in Iran have discovered a thirteenth-century observatory.

And RicaManuscript image - a piperrdo Chao created (and uploaded) a new computer font based on 12-th century Spanish chancery script. It’s shiny. Probably too shiny for anything but headings, and not all headings at that. But shiny. [This link and the preceding came via News for Medievalists]

U. Michigan have an online exhibition on Late Antique magical doodads: amulets, gems, recipes, aggressive magics, and something called a Demon Bowl.I <3 nerds

Here are a stack of pictures of medieval and renaissance dancers. Sadly, some of the links are borked.

Wickedday, in a laudable exercise of linguistic geekery, created an Old English scrabble set – and has instructions on how to build your own.

And [I think this was also via News for Medievalists]: renovations on a church in Berkshire have uncovered Britains’ oldest working window. It’s tiny. And adorable.

A week or so ago, Lesboprof posted a handy-dandy list of practical, professional advice for administrators and teachers (at tertiary level, although possibly applicable at other levels) on how to be actively queer-friendly on campus. I I'm in ur history - emphasizin your queerzassume by now you’ve all seen the flurry of blogging and social networking arising from the recent spate of well-reported suicides by queer youth in the US, and carrying on into (US-based) National Coming Out Day. I read a lot of the resulting material, and Lesboprof’s advice is that which I found ‘best’, by the arbitrary standards of ‘things Highly likes’. I urge you to read the post and consider applying some of her suggestions if you are in a position to do so.

Finally, in case you missed it, historians admit to inventing Ancient Greece.