Dear Europe: are you sure you’re real?

I am having trouble getting my head around the fact that, well, Europe exists. And it has primary sources just lying about in the guise of civic monuments.

Also, a nice librarian sent me a nice email which, unless I’ve got something terribly wrong in the translation, say “sure, come in on a Tuesday and we’ll show you a manuscript!”

*frowns* I strongly suspect this is all a hoax. Real people don’t get up and go to church in 13th century cathedrals, surely? I can’t just walk in to a library on a Tuesday and have a manuscript handed over to me?

Don’t get me started on the existence of Oxford and Cambridge. *Clearly* those are literary devices. Mind you, I remember a time when I was reasonably certain USyd was a movie set, so.

Improbable story time, or, Highly grumbles about dude-centric assumptions

Let me tell you a story.

Let’s say we have a girl, born in France, oh, around 1150. She’s the daughter of nobility; not royalty or the daughter of a duke, but well-established baronial class. Let’s say she’s not the eldest daughter; perhaps the second or third child. Let us suppose that she also has at least one uncle well-placed in the secular clergy, or perhaps female relatives in a nunnery. Let’s suppose that she spends some time with these religiously-inclined relatives. Perhaps she even considers taking vows herself, but just as they lack money Medieval: a woman readingfor a dowry right now, her family don’t have the money to make the substantial donation required. Or perhaps they have a falling-out with the religiously-inclined relative and their institution. Maybe they need her in order to broker a treaty-and-marriage arrangement with a former enemy, but the former enemy decides he’d rather be a current enemy, and the deal falls through.

One way or another, our young noblewoman – let’s call her Helene, for no particular reason – never enters the church, but she picks up a knack for Latin (she’s always been good with languages) and a passing familiarity with bits and pieces of Christian doctrine. What Helene likes best, though, is poetry. She really, really likes Ovid.

Mind you, Helene has always liked poetry. Picture Helene as a child: she has a knack, she remembers things easily, she learns nursery rhymes and folk songs and charms from her nurses. When she’s old enough to join her mother and older sisters, she learns the stories women tell one another, folk stories from here and there, and the songs the troubadours come to tell them. She’s not always a part of her father’s court, and she doesn’t get to join him at the county court, as her mother sometimes does – so her chances to hear really good singers and storytellers are limited. Helene likes stories and Manuscript image - a pipersongs; Helene’s sisters and friends enjoy stories and songs. So what they do, when they hear particularly good chansons or the newer songs, the romans of with heroes and damsels and magic – what they do when they hear them is memorise them. They don’t get everything right; they don’t have the training in metre and mnemonic skills that the troubadours have. But Helene has a knack. When they try to retell the stories to themselves, Helene is the one who’s best at putting it all together in her memory, and making up new bits to paste over the gaps.

The time Helene gets to spend with her religiously-inclined aunt, or possibly uncle, sharpens her skills. She memorises Ovid and learns the rudiments of Latin poetic metre. When she returns to her family, her mother is taken into the Countess’ retinue, and Helene goes with her. Here, she has access to some of the finest poets and artists in France. She hears several different variations of the Song of Roland and gets all excited when she finds out that there’s a poet in town who knows a new song about William of Orange and his relatives. The other ladies in the Countess’ retinue think she’s a bit weird in her fixation, but they’re happy enough to listen to the exciting bits she’s memorised and can recite for them. Sometimes she tells silly versions, makes up daft stories about Charlemagne and William when they were children. Her mother laughs and says she’s a real poet. Helene knows mama is joking, but the idea sticks anyway.

Gwen, with crown

What Helene *really* likes, though, is the stories of King Arthur, and King Mark and Tristan – and Queens Guinevere and Iseult, and all the adventure and magic of the Matter of Britain. She listens to as many of them as she can, annoys as many troubadours and bards as she can, but there just don’t seem to be many such stories.

So she makes up her own. Helene makes up stories about King Mark and Tristan, and sometimes it seems like no one can tell the difference between her stories and the ones the Countess has read out of her big, beautiful books. And one day, one perfectly normal, perfectly nice day toward the end of summer, when Helene is sitting with the Countess and the rest of her ladies in the gardens, the Countess gets snappy, and sends the court poet away.

‘I think I’ve heard all his stories five times by now,’ the Countess says. She’s almost petulant. Helene’s never been very good at knowing when to keep her mouth shut.

‘I know a new story,’ she says. ‘A roman, one no one’s told at this court, at least not since mama and I came here.’

‘Go on,’ says the Countess. ‘What is it called?’

‘The Shoulder Bite,’ Helene says, and a few of the ladies’ raise their eyebrows.

Medieval MSS llustration - couple embracingThe Countess looks sceptical. ‘And who composed this… Shoulder Bite?’

Helene is suddenly stuck. She hadn’t thought this far, not at all. ‘A man from Troyes,’ she says, and Mama, at least, will know at once that she’s lying. ‘A Christian man, from Troyes.’

When, some time later, the Countess says to her that she would not mind hearing more romances by this ‘Christian from Troyes’, Helene is certain the Countess knows she’s lying, too. The name sticks, though.

Why, yes, that was an exercise in sophistry and extremely unlikely chains of events. I don’t actually think – not even in a wishful-thinking maybe-possibly-at-least-we-should-consider-it kind of way – that Chr├ętien de Troyes was actually Christina de Troyes. It’s just too unlikely: the co-incidences which would have to line up to produce a young woman with the right linguistic training and literary background (to say nothing of the author’s apparent familiarity with the squishy grey bits of canon law – but note, they are the bits to do with marriage) to produce the extant romances are phenomenal. And, perhaps more telling, the length of career under the one name, and the association with two different patrons, raises the chances of pseudonymous writing from ‘quite unlikely’ to ‘extremely improbable’.

I'm in ur history - emphasizin ur wimmenzBut consider for a moment the co-incidences which lined up to produce Heloise. Unlikely co-incidences but possible ones. Consider Marie de France. Consider that what’s more unlikely than Heloise, or Marie de France, is that Heloise and Marie de France are one-offs.*

It is, when you come down to it, pretty unlikely that a woman wrote any given piece of surviving medieval literature. But it’s very unlikely that every single one of the extant anonymous romances, and every single one of the extant male-attributed romances, was written by a man. Not when we know that women are more likely to write anonymously/pseudonymously, and more likely to have their authorship denied when they do write. Marie de France knew that – somewhere in one of her prologues or epilogues** there’s that fabulous rant daring any man to appropriate her words.

Y’know, we could talk about conventionally ‘girly’ literature. Gawain and Dame Ragnelle (except apparently that’s Malory now?). Ywain and Gawain, in which the ladies are a bit more prominent than in Chr├ętien’s original. Silence, if you want to pick a named-man-author who could be a pseudonym (I dunno about you, but the idea that Maistre Heldris was a cranky old woman amuses me no end). And you could pull out counter-arguments – the Gawain-poet is misogynist, clearly he’s a man! There’s too much hunting in this poem, ladies don’t hunt!*** And you’d probably be right, but also, you’d have made the bizarre assumption that ladies only write about lady-things, and all ladies – even in the twelfth-century – are forward-thinking in their assumptions about gender.

I’ve heard people suggest that the Wife’s Lament was written by a wife (logically enough), but no one ever suggests that the Wanderer-poet might have been a woman. You’d laugh me out of the internet if I said the Song of Roland was written by a woman, but we know nothing at all about the author. Would you consider it, though, for something like Floire et Blanchefleur? After all, F&B is less impressive, literary-wise; and it’s about ladythings, where by ladythings we mean… heroes. And heroines, but mostly heroes.

Last I checked, women live with men, care about men, read books about men, write books about men – it seems to me that this is only more likely to have been true in the Middle Ages, not less. If you need evidence that women are interested in men, and masculinity, and stories about men look at the genre of medieval romance. If you can hold down the simultaneous beliefs that romance, as a genre, catered to women *and* that ladies aren’t interested in stories about dudes, I… think you need to read some 70s feminist criticism of romance. Viz, it is, to a great degree, about dudes.****

Well behaved women rarely make history

I have nothing resembling an argument that any given text was written by anyone other than Standard Author Dude. It’s probable I never will have any such evidence. On a case-by-case basis, dude authors are usually more likely. Universal dudely authorship, or universal dudely authorship except where clearly stated otherwise and even then we’ll argue that she had a man helping her, though – that’s unlikely. And it bugs me that we have no way of talking about that. Some of these anonymous poems are probably by women! We don’t know which! There’s no secret formula for detecting ladywriting! But ladywriting certainly did happen, and probably some of it got preserved!


* Two-offs? Also note that Heloise is surely not the only pretty, clever girl seduced by an arrogant-but-attractive academic in the 12th century; she’s just the one we have a manuscript record for. Someone tell me why Heloise, respectable Abbess of the Paraclete, happily put down in writing (which was hardly a private mode of communication in that day and age) that she regularly thought about shagging when she should’ve been thinking about Mass? Understandable thoughts, but I’m curious as to why she didn’t think that would damage her standing when it became public knowledge!
** Can anyone give me a citation to the lai for this? All I have to hand is my year nine assignment on Medieval Women, which took the quote from a children’s book. I’ve seen it quoted enough times to know she did in fact write something to this effect, but have never got the text to hand when I want it.
*** Bullshit they don’t. They might not do the cutting-up themselves, but they’d have seen animals butchered. I am also informed by one of my students, who’s both a very bright medievalist and a re-enactor, that its’ easier to use a bow when you’re mounted side-saddle. I think it’s because you’re already in the side-on stance? And you’re basically wedged in and Citation needed [XKCD]can’t fall off. I didn’t know this until I decided to be a horrible shit and ask my class why they thought Sir Gawain was written by a man. That was a fabulous class full of cackling and glee. Mostly on my part.

**** Joan M. Ferrante, Woman as Image. Except not in quite those words. Like a good scholar, I have paraphrased and interpreted!

Hypothetical decision time

You’re writing an edition of a poem from the late 1170s. There are a number of partial and complete manuscripts out there. Some of these include:

A. An early-to-mid 13th century MS in a nice Ile de Paris dialect, vr. famous, containing all the poems by this author plus some others. Provenance: from the same region as the poet.
B. a couple of other early-to mid 13th c. MSS in regional dialects
C. an early 13th c. MS, quite damaged in places
D. some mid-to-late 13th c. MSS
E. a mid-to-late 13th c. MS put together by two alternating scribes; neither scribes nor MS come from the same region as the poet.

Which of these would you want to base your edition on? If you picked E, you are well on your way to becoming a well-known French manuscript scholar! Bonus points if you give no real explanation for your choice, and omit certain lines found in *all* the early-to-mid 13th c. MSS.

My intention is to go bouncing about France (well, ok, Paris and Tours) to look at a handful of these MSS. I expect my conclusion will be “yup, the lines are there in the early ones!” Cutting-edge research, folks.

Also, I take it as a personal affront that the Bodleian MS is missing the entire section. Not because it’s a particularly useful MS (it’s not), but because I wish to chase down a friend who’s being frighteningly clever at something scientific in Oxford, and would’ve liked a good academic excuse to go there.

D’you reckon the BL would let me see a Middle English MS that’s not particularly related to my thesis but is related to my Leeds paper (I think I won’t get to see it until AFTER Leeds, but let’s not mind that)? I reckon I can get a letter from my director saying I’m very clever and have valid research interests.

ED: If you were editing the sole MS of Ywain and Gawain would you

A: Try to find out if it’s possible to pin down the French MS used by the redactor, and comment on whether or not you had succeeded in finding anything useful?
B: Not say anything about how a northern English poet in the 14th century got hold of a 12thc. French poem.

If B, congratulations, you’re Maldwin Mills! Maybe someone else has done the legwork on this. I should find out. Maybe we just don’t have any Chretien MSS known have been in England at the right time?

Quick update

I got my shit together and put in a late paper proposal for Leeds. I’m in! Have legit reason to spend four days at Giant Nerd Conference. Whoo! Will be talking about Lunet in Ywain and Gawain.

I’m even starting to believe myself when I say that I’ve been sick this semester and that contributed significantly to my supreme disorganisation.

Aaargh, writing

I am probably a prime candidate for ADM and Notorious’ Writing Group, but due to absence from the intertubes I didn’t notice it was happening at all. Nevertheless: writing. It sucks.

Does anyone else find that their writing becomes a case study in all the things they’re trying to tell undergraduates NOT to do? At the moment I think my thesis is suffering from structure anxiety – I don’t remember having this much panic about what goes where and how to structure subsections when I wrote my Hons. thesis, but at the moment I keep constantly re-writing.

Talking to undergrads about how to structure things helped, though. Sometimes I’m even able to leave a note for myself, as if I were marking someone else’s work, and move right on.

Mostly, I’m not. Mostly, I think I’m much better at *teaching* writing skills than employing them. That sucks, for someone who’s thought of herself as A Writer her whole life.

Someone please tell me I’m not the only one in this boat?

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The best teaching advice anyone ever gave me…

…was given to me at fifteen, by my parish minister. And the second-most useful advice I took into the classroom with me was given to me at eighteen by a church youth camp leader.

I was lucky enough last year to be assigned to tutor on a course where the course coordinator had a heavy influence on tutorial structure: most of the semester he gave us complete scripts for the lesson, went over the answers with us, and even included jokes in our weekly handouts. Being me, of course, I took these scripts and bashed them about and added 100% more Harry Potter references,1 but it was incredibly useful to have that close level of supervision when teaching for the first time. For one reason or another I wasn’t able to attend the non-compulsory tutor training course that semester (I made it up this semester), so aside from the coordinator’s input, I relied heavily on bits and pieces of advice and skills I’d picked up in non-academic environments along the way. Which turned out to be mostly church.

The most useful piece of advice which was given to me was this: no one pays attention for more than ten minutes. Fifteen if you’re lucky.

There were citations involved, which I can’t remember now – it had apparently been a key part of my minister’s preaching training in theological college, and she was then passing it on to myself and a few others as she was training us up to lead services on occasion. I happen to know this is context-dependent: I used to go to camps which had half-hour or even hour-long lessons built into the worship program, and of course, at the time I was doing the HSC and I’ve since acquired a BA, mostly by means of paying attention to someone talking for hour-long blocks of time. So it can be done!

Nevertheless, when I got into tutorials, I could *see* students switching off after about fifteen minutes. Many of the lesson plans I was given were already broken down into small chunks, which was convenient for deflecting that. The ones that weren’t, I broke down myself – figuring that subtracting five minutes from a laborious examination of Old English word-formation and grammar in order to show off shiny pictures of manuscripts, and another five for dirty riddles later on, was entirely worth it if it meant everyone had a good giggle and then actually paid attention to the rest of the lesson. This worked fantastically.2

The second useful piece of advice I took with me into teaching was given to me the year I was an Assistant Community Leader at a church camp. An ACL, incidentally, was one of a team of four or five people who kept tabs on forty to fifty kids, ran games and activities, and had a number of time-keeping responsibilities over things like small group time and devotions. We were a set of public faces, managed the community ‘theme’, and had some pastoral care duties as well. Turns out this is remarkably similar to tutoring in many ways!

One of the chaps running leadership training that year, when I was eighteen, talked about sharing skills around and personal leadership style. The way he put it, there’s no point all trying to be the *same* leader – some people are naturally good timekeepers and organisers, some people are good motivators, and some people (he put himself in this category) are Chief Idiot.

I realised that year that I was good at being Chief Idiot. I realised this at about the time I was standing on a chair in red velvet pants, red shiny shirt, a red cape, and fluffy bunny ears, ordering fifty teenagers off to brush their teeth and most of them did. I’m good at being Chief Idiot and it works for me. I learned other skills during my years with that particular camp – I did several years as a Head Orderly, a job that involved managing the food service area (not the cooking area), and getting people to do their washing up. Charisma didn’t do much for me there – I had to learn organisation and tact and authority. But the Chief Idiot part stuck with me.

Once I started thinking about my academic future, I started thinking critically about my teachers – whose styles I like and whose would best suit my demeanor. And when it comes to classrooms… yeah, I’m still Chief Idiot. You can’t be Chief Idiot all the time in a classroom, of course – you have to be the timekeeper and the cranky teacherface and all kinds of other things as needed. But Chief Idiot what I fall back to. Oddly, I’ve been taught by very few people who utilise that sort of style – most of my teachers have been pretty calm people.3 A lot of the time I feel like the only clown in the circus, but it seems to work. Or at least, so my students say to my face – it remains to be seen what comes back on my evaluation sheets. “Talks about dick jokes too much”?

As I said, I took the tutor training course this semester. I learnt some useful things, some interesting but not useful things, and a number of buzzwords (my favourite complaint at the moment is “this course lacks constructive alignment!”). But nothing as useful as those two pieces of information – no one pays attention for more than about fifteen minutes solid, and someone’s got to be the Chief Idiot.


1. Harry Potter jokes. Fantastic way of winning over the current crop of undergraduates (although I did have one older student who’d never heard of Harry, and possibly that was a bit alienating for her). The very first student to walk into the very first class I ever taught was a fellow fan. She was obviously very stressed and nervous about the course and course content, but there was a moment when I cracked my first Potter joke where you could see her visibly relax. That look of “oh, right, the teacher’s on my side“. This probably went both ways – the little snicker when I awarded points to Griffindor was proof that some of the students were on my side. It’s not possible for me to be scared of people who have in common with me such a significant part of my young adult experience.
2. Except, oddly, for the dirty riddle part. I don’t know what’s wrong with first years these days, they were more interested in looking at letter-forms on manuscript images than in sniggering about dick jokes. One of them even solved the Key riddle CORRECTLY and with an entirely straight face.
3. Lawrence Warner being the exception to that. Hi, Lawrence! I did some lectures this semester and I’ve come to the conclusion that my lecturing style is some kind of unholy hybrid of you and Mel H. I’m not sure that should be allowed to exist.