My new hobby: grossing out students!

A couple of weeks ago, I had cause to talk to first-years about manuscript production. Courtesy of the nice man in Rare Book, I had scans taken from the facsimile of the Old English Hexateuch,* and we took a ten-minute break from the sensible classwork on Old English to look at pictures of Satan falling out of Heaven, and God looking at his own finger with an expression of bemusement, like “holy shit, I can CREATE STUFF? No waaaaaiiiii!

Turns out Wikipedia has more striking pictures than I was able to get hold of!

Perhaps I should’ve printed this out and taken it to class.

Overall, this was a pretty rewarding exercise. I mean, I got to talk for ten minutes about Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, obviously I enjoyed it. I was impressed at the number of my students who seemed genuinely interested in the letter-forms and punctuation: remembering that I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into palaeographic work during Honours, I hadn’t expected first-years to be all that engaged in the written part of the scans. Clearly not everyone is as grumpy about palaeography as I was.

It seems pretty important, to me, to show students manuscripts, facsimiles, scans, whatever, as early as possible. I can remember one week in second year in which I sat through three lectures on manuscript production – one in each of my subjects save for French grammar. And then we did it all around again in second semester! At any rate, I summarised all those introductions to manuscript production and spat it out in the form of “here, look at these scans, aren’t they nifty, and a nice break from the close reading we’ve been doing for the first half of the class?”. And I think my students found it interesting? At the very least I suspect that I’m entertaining, when waxing enthusiastic on topics medieval.

What surprised me was the small number of students who were apparently grossed out by my quick account of “why it takes ages to make a medieval book”. First you have to raise your cow/sheep/miscellaneous beast; then you have to treat your skin and stretch it out; then you have to trim it and fold it into quires; and so on and so forth. To me, this information is either boring (lots of detail about people long dead) or fascinating (lots of detail about people long dead!). Gross wasn’t an option that I’d considered. I quickly discovered that my assurance that all the parts of the deceased animal would have been used for something didn’t help.

I’m told this isn’t actually an uncommon reaction, but I’m still not sure what to make of it. Me, I like gross things. Gross things are interesting. The cremation scene in Beowulf, with the exploding bones? INTERESTING. Plague? INTERESTING. Descriptions of how to carve game: actually, these bore me to tears. The battle scenes in Lawman’s Brut, with the blodgutes and violence and people’s innards falling out? INTERESTING.**

Weird and gross stuff as a method of teaching about the past has a… well, a substantial if not always an honourable history. See also, Horrible Histories.*** In my mind, it goes right along with my other favourite, Funny Things About Sex In The Past.**** It’s no co-incidence that I remember as much from my first-year Renaissance and Reformation course as from first-year medieval history, despite having reinforced and added to my learnings from first-year MDST, while I’ve taken no further early modern history at all. RenRef showed me weird medical pictures and taught me mysterious things about midwifery! It had a whole week on sex: what you can know about sex from court records! from medical texts! from diaries and letters and things!

What’d you think, internets? Are gross things a handy educational tool? Is grossness just an unavoidable side-effect of imparting certain kinds of historical information? Should I, in future, try to seem less enthusiastic about the whole stretching-out-skins and then treating them with urine process, in the interests of seeming more like a sensible teacher and less like a twelve-year-old kid?*****


* Which is to say, low-grade copies of a useful but not exactly pretty black-and-white facsimile of a manuscript which, I’m told, is UTTERLY GORGEOUS and brightly coloured and fun in person. Inspiring, huh?

** I am, however, not up for televised blodgutes. Growing up without a TV = no reality boundary. IT MOVES. IT’S REAL. IT’S BEING DISEMBOWELLED. You see the problem here?

*** Most of what I can remember from the compulsory WWI unit in high school history is to do with the layout of a trench, with specific reference to a) mud and b) trench foot. Thanks, Horrible Histories!

**** This used to be a party-trick of mine. People would drag other people over to meet me at parties so that I could tell them funny things about historical sex. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to happen so often anymore.

***** I was going to say twelve-year old boy, but hey, I liked gross historical things as a kid!


15 Responses to “My new hobby: grossing out students!”

  1. magistra Says:

    Having just got into fanfic in a big way, I think maybe you need to adopt the tendency to have advance warning tags on class lists, etc about things that might squick people out. It is only now that I look at the bit of Hincmar’s De Divortio I’m currently translating and think “Non-con or dub-con incest, is this possibly a problem for anybody?” Though I’m not sure the exact label you’d need for flaying sheep.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      Hmm, yes. I know of one first-year ancient history course in which, of several essay questions *only one* did not rely on the prospective essay-writer analysing rape scenes.

      This class, as well as manuscript production, had a poem about cockroaches – I did tell people up front that that was liable to be squicky.

      BUT, while I’m a fan of extensive content notes on the internet (yay, internet!), I’m… well, I think I would like to be much more restrictive in its application in academia: limit to graphic violence and rape, perhaps (the other two on the A03’s Big Four are major character death and underage sex, which I don’t think are so relevant to class content). And epilepsy/migrane triggers for video content, I suppose.

      And while I would like a way for students with serious triggers to avoid having said triggers tripped, I’m… unsure as to how the provision of warnings would work, in a class situation. Advance warning is always good: but there comes a point where you cannot have a well-structured conversation about, say, love and marriage in Old French romance without talking about rape. If I warn people at the beginning of the class, there’s already an accessibility problem: someone who experiences flashbacks will have to make the decision between leaving (in front of everyone) and staying (putting theirself at risk). Do I ask the course-coordinator to warn them the week beforehand? Those who skip on the grounds of triggers would miss the rest of the content: am I (or the relevant teacher) unfairly disadvantaging them by putting them in that situation?

      This is beginning to sound like the VVC debate, actually: can I assume that you saw that go past and are aware of the general trends in the discussion? I’m all for vid warnings, but unlike vidshows, classes *aren’t optional*: I’m not sure how that affects the… ethical impulse to protect those who are vulnerable, versus the educational obligation to kick people out of their comfort zone. As far as manuscripts go, I think the fact that it’s gross is no reason not to teach it: knowing that in 800, people had to do gross things all the time is an important historical fact! But when it comes to some of my more upsetting topics (and let me tell you, reading about rape all the damn time gets upsetting), I’m in a bit of quandrary.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      Note: I am aware that my “what-if”-ing is the sort of convoluted thinking which goes on in warnings debates, the argument that we shouldn’t do *anything* because if we do really simple obvious things it might lead to Unspecified Disasters. (And some specified ones: I don’t doubt that if there were an expectation that students be warned for unsettling content in class as on the internet, the burden of expectation would fall unevenly upon scholars of queer history and theory, as has happened in fandom before.)

      I would like to amend my thoughts and say that warning for graphic sexual violence at the outset of a course (next to the relevant text in the course reading list, say) would be a very simple step and one that, one day, when I rule the world or at least an undergrad course, I will take. Intro courses to medieval and classical lit should also probably carry the general warning on behalf of the entire period: BEWARE, PATRIARCHY. ERGO, SEXUAL VIOLENCE.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      And on the third time around:

      it occurs to me that a simple and effective method of dealing with this would be a high-level, non-specific statement at the beginning of the course – an equivalent to “chooses not to warn but happy to answer questions” in fandom, i guess – to the effect that some content may be triggering and the course co-ordinator is happy to provide students with more information, in confidence and without judgement, so that affected students can decide whether they want to remain enrolled.

      • pajh Says:

        Sounds reasonable.

        Fundamentally, you can’t teach people about the medieval period without addressing facts like: their raw materials often came from entrails, and a lot of them were rapists. This stuff needs to be made clear from the start.

        I think it works the other way around in most cases. The word `gross’ is a very modern invention (1958). It always disappoints me when people think that chicken grows in cellophane packets. What we now think of as gross is simply the way life works: you can’t understand medievalism until you realise that mud, shit and death were big parts of everyone’s lives until very recently.

  2. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    So much I could say here… Anything that gets students’ attention, that they’ll remember, that you get them thinking was cool, is goiod. Often the grotesque or bloody does this, because mostly these people are not long out of childhood and it may niot even be especially adult, as opposed to repressed, not to find bodies and their composition fascinating; some of our most powerful drives are rooted un those impulses. The problem is of course that when those drives have bitten someone this is not funny any more, and you have already thought much more about this than I could.

    Also, yes, it is historical that things in the past were messier than now for many people; but this is not specifically medieval. I blame the Romans for being so keen on baths and the Victorians for being likewise and thus finding an ideal there. Anyway…

    I also think most people ought to be able to find a little palaeography interesting, because it is visual in a way that most of what they study isn’t, even though the object is script. Lots is probably only justifiable where there’s some detective work hooked up with a scribal identity or similar.

    Oh, lastly, other than I wish I’d been at some of your friends’ parties, this:

    I quickly discovered that my assurance that all the parts of the deceased animal would have been used for something didn’t help

    is not necessarily true, that all parts of the animals were used I mean. I guess that a lot of the meat was salted etc. but we’re still looking, for a big book, at more lamb than anyone could eat before it went off. This question got raised at Siena over Bruce Holsinger’s membrane æsthetics paper and he had an example of a dig where a lot of bone had been found without the cut-marks that would indicate it had ever been defleshed. I don’t know the site in question and can’t remember it but it seems to me that context must have made parchment manufacture more likely than, for example, disease cull (if that was ever done in the Middle Ages–I guess Karl Steel would know…)

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      The problem is of course that when those drives have bitten someone this is not funny any more, and you have already thought much more about this than I could.

      I’m not *entirely* sure that I know what you’re referring to here, but if you mean the conversation about rape and the teaching thereof… Please be aware that talking about rape as primarily a consequence of physical processes and drives is… well, to be expected in a medieval source (and kind of fascinating in terms of how they do it; see also, Tracy Adams), but kind of shit in modern discourse. Also, wrong, by reason of: most people have a sex drive, and yet not all of those people commit rape.

      other than I wish I’d been at some of your friends’ parties

      No, you really don’t. These were mostly college functions. Nuff said.

      And I am disappointed to hear that my fellow postgrads have lead me astray on the question of whether or not all of the animal would’ve been used in some way!

      [Edited to remove the erroneous assertion that *everyone* has a sex drive.]
      [Ed again because I’d missed a crucial NOT in the ‘not all of those people’ prase]

      • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

        Tricky conversation so I take refuge in pedantry: not everyone with a sex drive commits rape. I’m sure that’s not what you meant, but I can’t find another way to read what you typed. Otherwise I’m happy to accept the correction and to mutter about socialisation, and how it has Not Yet Gone Rite, in the background.

        Parchment, more safely: I’m sure that in most cases most or all of the relevant animals would have been used, but it may be worth being aware that this expense could sometimes be managed.

        • highlyeccentric Says:

          *stares at own post* OH MY GOD I MISSED A CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT WORD THERE. The word not. I think I over-edited that sentence and… yeah. THERE SHOULD HAVE BEEN A WORD NOT THERE, which makes so much more sense what with what I was trying to say and all.

          Yis. Socialisation. Not gone right. Etc. Power structures blah blah blah insert meaningful comments here.

          I’m sure that in most cases most or all of the relevant animals would have been used, but it may be worth being aware that this expense could sometimes be managed.

          Yeah, it is good to remember that. I think the “they used to use ALL THE ANIMAL” idea ties into our funny ideas about the past – I think a lot of people like to think of the past as somehow less wasteful than the present. Hmm.

          • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

            Aha! Yes, that does make more sense.

            As to the animal use, I think there’s a certain amount of ‘noble savage’ stuff going on there, as the obvious analogue for me at least is Native Americans using *all* the buffalo, etc., but there’s also some romantic closer-to-the-earth-in-the-past stuff there too, I’m sure. Living on harmony with nature. To which the correct answer, if necessary sourced from Jared Diamond, is: dude! early man invented slash-and-burn agriculture! Many early civilisations died out because their water needs created dustbowls of their agricultural areas! They did not have a global holistic environmental awareness that we’ve taken centuries to recover! Have you gathered what the Norse *did* to Iceland’s soil by trying to farm Norwegian-style on it? etc.

            This ties up with a much larger debate about how much medieval peasants actually knew about farming, of course, and I have no idea what the answer is there. Less then we often think, more than we might assume, perhaps.

            • highlyeccentric Says:

              I think there’s a certain amount of ‘noble savage’ stuff going on there

              Yes, that!

              Y’know, I discovered – in the course of looking for something else entirely- that the speed of deforestation in parts of 12th-century France was so drastic that when some dude, I can’t remember who, wanted to build a cathedral and he found sufficiently large trees to be the main beams it was considered a miracle. This, hmm, puts a different spin on the portrayal of LOTS AND LOTS OF CRAZY WILD FORESTS in early romance. The way I was taught to regard the wild places in romance was “these places are scary; Teh Medievals like nature, but only controlled in gardens; forests are dangerous and worrisome places”, but I think that’s, as well as limited, a perspective most suitable to late-medieval literature. But I don’t quite know what to do with this new piece of information (answer: probably nothing) – a whole bunch of research into the natural environment in the 12th century and people’s FEEEEELINGS about it might be interesting (oh god like my university doesn’t already have enough landscape scholars), but I can see enormous potential for such research getting fogged up with 21st-century guilt.

              • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

                Guilt, yes, indubitably. Forests, I don’t know about so much: large-scale clearance is supposed to be one of the things that marks the high Middle Ages (Bartlett etc.) but it may well have grown back to an extent after the Black Death and as the weather worsened again towards the Little Ice Age. There is work on this, but as with climate change stuff it’s hard to know whom to believe when only historical evidence is in play.

                As to your story, I realise you’re aware, but there is definitely a category of saints for whom there are no good miracles so they have to use whatever they can find. I wonder if that’s one (or if, contrariwise, its real message is “Holy fucking shit that was a big fucking cathedral” etc.)

                • highlyeccentric Says:

                  Hmm, yes, although I don’t think this bloke was a saint. It came up in Constance Brittain Bouchard’s discussion of agriculture and land use, so I’m inclined to think she knew other things about deforestation – and for that matter she may have given citations which I just haven’t written down. I should investigate that…

                  • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

                    Well, Bouchard is primarily a scholar of the nobility, I imagine she’s leaning on secondary material there. Bartlett’s Making of Europe has something on this, I would guess, and one place I have certainly read such stuff, albeit with a particular focus that will be evident from the title, is Chris Wickham, “European Forests in the Early Middle ages: landscape and land clearance” in L’ambiente vegetale nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studi del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 37 (Spoleto 1990), pp. 479-548, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 155-199. Chris is one of my personal gurus, of course, so I would say this, but Land and Power is a really good book for arming yourself with broad-base social arguments about, well, the means of production and what happens with it. Also, smaller than most of his others…

                    • highlyeccentric Says:

                      Oooh, interesting! I shall put that on the list for things to read on the mythical day when I have time to read tangentially related things! 😀

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