Oh, this is adorable

Via medievalists.net

A pair of skeletons still holding hands was found recently in Italy. The man and woman were buried at the same time between the 5th and 6th century.
The skeletal remains of a Roman-era couple reveal the pair has been holding hands for 1,500 years.
Italian archaeologists say the man and woman were buried at the same time between the 5th and 6th century A.D. in central-northern Italy. Wearing a bronze ring, the woman is positioned so she appears to be gazing at her male partner.

Pictures of the said adorable skeletons, and more info, at the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici dell’Emilia-Romagna.


Fun with Middle English!

This semester, at the recommendation of one of my former students, Middle English Reading Group have been working our way through the middle section of the Prose Merlin. We started off with ‘Merlin and Nimiane’, the section recommended to me by my student C., who is secretly very sappy; and we’re finishing up with ‘The Banishment of Bertelak; and King Arthur and King Lot’.

The Prose Merlin, folks! It has everything you need!

Medieval MSS llustration - couple embracing– Romance! C. is right: Merlin and Nimiane are adorable, and come with the twisted angst of the fact that not only do *you* know she’s going to destroy him, so does he. Guinevere and Arthur are pretty cute, too: after their betrothal she helps arm him for his departure, and he arms her with a kiss. D’AWWW.
– Gawain! Lots of Gawain! Gawain is the leader of the children (by which, apparently, we mean young men, which is a pity, I was enjoying the vision of Gawain toddling around at the head of a pack of boys); he’s the bestest fighter ever; he’s all the allegorical symbols; he nearly kills his own father; he’s the flower of all chivalry… and so on and so forth. This author is happy to feed my Gawain obsession.

– Crossdressing FOR ALL! We had two weeks of great fun with Merlin and Grisandolus, which seems to be a variant on the story found in the Anglo-Norman poem Silence: a daughter, an only child, is raised as a son and goes to court as a knight; eventually she is sent to hunt for Merlin, and he reveals her secret. Meanwhile, the queen is committing adultery – in this case, she has twelve young boys shaven and dressed as girls, to be her personal entertainment – and Merlin reveals that, too. It’s very exciting.

Monty Python's King Arthur, shouting– Slapstick! In the battle between King Arthur and King Lot there’s a fabulous scene where King Arthur is stuck under his own horse, and King Lot is trying to pull Arthur’s helmet off so he can decapitate him, but the helmet won’t go, and he’s stuck there pulling and pushing and trying to get this helmet off, until someone comes to rescue Arthur.

– Kidnaps, escapes, hijinks, and Guinevere being awesome – there’s a pretty spiffy kidnap story involving Guinevere on her wedding night, and her suspiciously similarly-named half-sister Guinevere. Our Guinevere puts up a spirited fight, is aided by plucky and fortuitously placed good guys, and ends up saving herself by clinging to a tree (her assailants, pull as they might, cannot dislodge her). It’s fun, funny, and there’s a rather sweet scene of her father comforting her afterwards.

MERG have been having great fun with this text – we had a few newbies but by this stage in semester everyone seems to be following easily. Last week there were plenty of “oohs” and “ahs” and laughter in all the right places. I don’t suppose the author of the Prose Merlin expected that the text would still be good performative reading in half a millenium’s time, but I don’t think it’s lost much for the passage of time.

Cryptic post is cryptic

So that’s what networking is good for, huh?

More later if we can pull this off.

Writing, writing, bane of my life

I know, me and everyone else, ever. As I was saying earlier, though, I ran into more writer’s block than I was prepared for. Like that post, this one is also a post about teaching.

Useful thing I have discovered: I write better when I’m teaching.

There are a few factors to this:

  • Perversely, I’m more productive when I have more demands on my time. Particularly if the demand, on top of my regular courseload, is a people-oriented job; if it gives me structure to my week and short-term deadlines which might otherwise be lacking.
  • Said people-oriented jobs often keep me feeling good about myself.  They give me plenty of small ways to feel effective and efficient. Retail worked well for this; front office work wasn’t too bad either; and teaching is brilliant.
  • Marking is the best writing training anyone ever invented.

Let’s talk about the last one a bit more.

Lesser Known Editing and Proofreading Marks - a list of silly/snarky proofreading marksFirstly, marking is similar to editing. And editing is excellent writing training. I edited my friends’ essays and had my friends edit mine all the way through undergrad; and I had the boon – or bane – of a merciless copy-editor in my teacher/mentor M. Eventually, I learned to look at things and think what would M. say about this?* I in turn subject my (un)fortunate undergrads to this treatment. And one upside of turning my editor-brain back on is that am critically reviewing my own work as I go. Bonus!

The second thing is that I’ve been sick. And when sick, I seem to end up in a state of semi-functionality where I can take information in, but find it hard to put it back out again in a hierarchical or analytical fashion. Everything I wrote between, oh, January and April and to be completely rewritten because it had no structure at all.

You know who else has trouble putting out information in a hierarchical and analytical fashion? Undergrads. If I benefited from the copy-editing side of marking most from the outstanding students, the decent-but-not-brilliant students gave me something useful, too. In the course of figuring out Simple Steps To Improving Your Structure/Paragraphs/Introductions* * For Second Years, I accidentally taught myself how to fix problems even when my brain is coated in cotton wool.

Practice non-random punctuation and sensible acts of grammarThere was that one spectacular week when I ran a tutorial on “common structural errors and how to fix them”. I used a hypothetical essay question, so as not to pick on anyone in particular; and that  hypothetical question just happened to relate to the chapter I was writing. Not a single mistake covered in that tutorial was absent from my draft at the time! That was depressing.

Looking at my own work in relation to the work that comes across my desk from students has another benefit, too: it’s helps snap me out of perfectionism. I could run myself in circles trying to make something perfect; or I could look at it and think how would I tell the second-years to fix this? If it’s fixed sufficiently that I could show it to a bright student as an example of “writing problem: fixed”, that will do for a first draft! And then we can rinse and repeat this process on subsequent drafts.


* I had the great satisfaction of sharing workspace with two MDST undergrads one afternoon, while one of them edited the other’s essay. I’m not sure there’s any more gratifying words to hear than “would you rather hear this from me, or Amy?”
** I promised someone a workshop on conclusions. However, I’m still not sure I know how to write a conclusion! Problematic.

IAS update #2 – Gawain and Guinevere, my two favourite Arthurian peeps

[Note: both these papers, and my recaps of them, deal with encroachment on personal and physical autonomy; the second in particular covered some distressing gendered violence in the narrative structure.]

The first paper I went to at Bristol was on what might just qualify as my favourite subject – the objectification (or, in this case, commodification) of Sir Gawain, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Warning against the wyles of women – David Sweeten

This paper moved very fast, especially in the middle, so I missed chunks of it, but I really look forward to reading a hard-copy version at some point

David began with this quote:

Medieval MSS llustration - couple embracingFor were I worth al the wone of wymmen alyue,
And al þe wele of þe worlde were in my honde,
And I schulde chepen and chose to cheue me a lorde

Þer schulde no freke upon folde bifore yow be chosen.

[ll. 1269-71,75; Tolkien & Gordon 2nd ed. (ed. by Norman Davies); my quotation, not David Sweeten’s.]

Gawain, or Gawain-as-husband, is something which can be purchased with appropriate wealth. David went on to argue that Gawain’s honour is also a commodity to be bargained for: he read the bedroom scenes not as Lady B’s attempt to sleep with Gawain (or purchase sex from him), but an endeavour to get him to accept the girdle. She takes her time setting up the appropriate stakes: first offering a too-high price (sexual favours for his honour) in order to make the lower price, the girdle, more acceptable. The values of the items in question – Gawain’s honour, and the girdle, seem slippery: Lady B. can reduce Gawain’s standing by questioning his identity; and her revelation of the properties of the girdle forces him to re-value the item within the context of the exchange.

As well as this reading, which was fun in its own right, David offered some historical context. He argued that the poem is both rooted in its NW Midlands homeland, and closely tied to London politics of the day. SGGK’s anxiety about women’s commodification of male honour he linked to contemporary anxiety about the position of influence held by Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III. The nobility of the NW Midlands relied heavily on direct royal patronage: Alice’s strong influence over Edward threatened that relationship.

I really liked this paper. But then, I really like most things which have to do with someone bossing poor Gawain about.*

Next up, I missed the first five minutes or so (but enjoyed the rest of)….

The Queen was in her Parlour: Guinevere and Space – Kristina Hildebrand

This paper was in a session (“Women in Arthurian Literature”), which, perhaps due to its snazzy content and perhaps due to its respected moderator, Bonnie Wheeler, was so jam-packed that people (myself and David Sweeten included) were sprawled on the floor around the edges of the room.

Kristina argued that Guinevere marks out and defines royal space; her presence identifies civilisation in the text. This power is not to be confused with political clout, but it seems to be impossible to rule England without her.

Gwen, with crown

Guinevere is a stable figure at the centre of the court (for the most part), when compared to, say Iseult, who comes and goes from her husband’s court. She has a defined space, her personal chamber: Kristina talked about the stress in the social fabric of Malory’s Arthurian world caused by differing values placed on the queen’s space. To Arthur, he alone should have access to it; Gawain argues that because the queen has a public function as rewarder of knights, her chamber is a public space.

With this framework set up, Kristina talked about Guinevere in Meleagaunt’s castle: her space grows smaller and smaller; she attempts to defend a single room, and in the end she cannot even maintain control over her bed. This is a pretty distressing situation by any measure, but the framework Kristina set up around it, in which Guinevere’s space is not just about her person but her identity as queen, the whole process sent chills up my spine. Not-good chills, except insofar as I admire the careful authorial choices necessary to produce such effects.

Guinevere, then, is under constant threat: she is most safe inside Arthur’s court, but never entirely so. Kristina drew in Igraine, here, who was not safe even within her husband’s court; and then she asked if the convent to which Guinvere retires is a safe personal space at last? There, she has authority, and ought to be able to prevent male encroachments on her territory. However, Lancelot ignores her command and tries to see her. Kristina noted that Guinevere is saved, in the end – by death. Only God can protect her; and even then, only terminally.

I liked this paper! It was Relevant To My Interests, even if it was about Malory. Totally worth scrunching up on the floor for.


* I feel I ought to specify, since apparently many people assume otherwise, that I do not personally wish to shag Gawain! Boss him about, sure. My feeling on Gawain is that he should be my big brother, and his life would be much better if he had me to tell him how to run it.** And many other people’s lives would be improved because I would be bossing Gawain about, and not them. What, you mean you don’t all have fictional characters you want to adopt? *sidles off*

** I have a feeling the Maiden With Small Sleeves shares my feelings on Gawain, too.

In which Highly tells you about her favourite manuscript

A monk, writing; caption 'geekery pokery'Or my favourite local manuscript, anyway. LET ME TELL YOU, O internets, about MS University of Sydney RB Add.Ms. 358!* Today I am almost certainly going to get to see Add. MS 358 again, because I’m taking my tutorial group on an excursion to the Rare Books collection.

Add.MS 358, folks, contains the first European picture of a turkey. Or, at least, a picture of a turkey which the Rare Books librarian tells us is the first but which the catalogue more conservatively calls “certainly one of the earliest illustrations of a turkey”. I don’t suppose anyone’s done a thorough comparative dating of early European pictures of turkeys, which is what we’d need to confirm that.

We do have some pretty nifty manuscripts in the Rare Books room here – there are a couple of gorgeous Hebrew texts, including Ms. Nicholson 37, a 13th c. Yemeni Pentetuech scroll, which the Rare Books Librarian brought out to show my class (no touching!) last semester. And, y’know, we have lots of exciting and important Australian stuff, one of the largest Handel collections outside of the UK, the Chadwick collection (interesting Celtic stuff), and the Deane Erotica Collection (aka. quite lot of Victorian porn)**.

Add. Ms 358 is my favouritest, though, because it’s both very pretty, and yet the kind of thing you only find exciting when you can’t wander into a local church and find the oldest codex in your area just lurking around in a basement.

It’s a processional – a songbook for choristers to carry when processing about, in this case, at Christmas time (and the Feast of the Crown of Thorns, apparently). The catalogue tells me it’s from Spain, ca. 1535-1540; in person, though, Neil Boness (the Rare Books Librarian and indeed, compiler of the MS catalogue) said it was from the Spanish Netherlands. *shrugs* SPANIARDS, anyway. Thus, the turkey. Our friend the turkey is tucked into the corner of the first leaf, along with other christmas-y type images. Which tells you not only that turkeys were known, but they were associated pretty quickly with Christmas! Exciting.

Sheer Geekiness - I just think this stuff is really cool (XKCD)And this is why, when explaining to my students about the expedition – find out about manuscript production, maybe handle some manuscripts, no we don’t have originals or even facsimiles of manuscripts of anything you’re studying, but hey, some of the stuff down there’s pretty cool – I also tell them, with great enthusiasm, that we might get to see a picture of a turkey! And they think I’m a bit weird, but, by this stage in semester, they know to expect that from me.


* Is that how one forms the citation for Sydney MSS? Should ‘Fisher’ (the name of the actual library) be in there somewhere?

** Is it just me, or would it be completely awesome to have that digitised? I’ve only ever seen a few pieces, which they put on display as part of a mini-exhibition on Victorian eroticism, which was mostly taken up with novels and other things which wouldn’t shock people walking past. Geez, why aren’t I doing a thesis on Victorian-era smut, that’d be a brilliant resource to have around!

IAS update #1

It seems that I finished off the Leeds posts: but I was not done there, oh no; in fact, the conference which was my primary excuse for being in England in the first place was the International Arthurian Society’s Triennial Congress, at the University of Bristol.

I liked Bristol! I liked the city (I have a worrying fondness for scruffy port towns), I liked the university, and I liked the villages up above the city in which the university is nestled. I enjoyed the company of the IAS’s most excellent members – although, without the benefit of pre-forged internet acquaintances, I found Bristol much harder going than Leeds so far as social anxiety goes.

Reward for information leading to the return of lost marblesTo add to it, I was on the end of my trip, and the end of my energy supply: two very lovely friends of mine each took me under their wing for a day in Oxford prior to the IAS, but from the time I woke up on Sunday morning I was scrabbling to keep track of where and when and why I was. I missed my train to Didcot, but, fortunately, caught the next one and made my original connection. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I hadn’t, of course, but the powers that be had seen fit to reserve my seat Didcot>Temple Meads at a table-seat, and to arrange for me to share it with two excellent individuals whom I had previously met at ANZAMEMS in Dunedin. When we all piled off the train we ran into a scholar from UWA, and sallied forth in the one taxi in search of our respective accommodations.

I then commenced with what turned out to be my policy for the week: not knowing where anything was, or what I was supposed to be doing, and flinging myself upon the tender mercies of Gareth Griffith, and the somewhat more intimidating beneficence of Elizabeth Archibald in search of the answers to these questions. This tactic paid off: I recommend it for the terminally confused!

Monday morning saw me:

– miss breakfast

– select a cafe, which proceeded to be my breakfast-eating, tea-drinking and paper-writing home base for the rest of the week

– getting lost between said cafe and the university

Three cats on a manhole cover– adopted by a tiny, fuzzy, enthusiastically affectionate black kitty in a steep pedestrian alleyway behind a church. Kitty loved me! Kitty was quite determined that I not be allowed to stand back up after bending down to pet hir, and certain that my job in life was to be nuzzled and purred at and climbed upon.

Accordingly, I wandered into the conference venue in a state of lateness, where I ran smack bang into the aforementioned Gareth Griffin. I posited that lateness to conferences is entirely acceptable when one has been adopted by a wee black kitty, and he concurred.

After that, I went to some papers! And I might even tell you about them when I am not running late for something else!