Translating Middle English

So I’ve been doing something new and unusual lately – translating Middle English. For no good reason, really. Middle English Reading Group, who put up with my whims in text selection, normally read without preparation and without translation. However, a few weeks ao Sir Tristrem proved too much for about half the group members. ‘Too much’ is a funny thing – with a few notable exceptions, most MERG members over the years have developed a facility for grabbing the ‘gist’ and rolling with it, but this year we have a handful of members who prefer to prepare in advance of reading, and want to understand every line.

Now Sir Tristrem is an odd text – it screams NORTHERN NORTHERN NORTHERN as you read it, but the intro tells me there are unique southern word forms scattered throughout. I happen to like northern dialects, so I’ve fallen into the habit of paraphrasing action or description after it’s been read, and translating dialogue. It’s counter-intuitive for me: I don’t normally translate Middle English, and I try to get a feel for the language rather than ever having learned it.

However, it’s kind of satisfying to translate on the fly (whereas anything more than glossing on paper would feel redundant).  And I don’t know about the others (who are reading the text aloud, to be followed by my translation/paraphrase), but it’s absolutely accelerated the speed at which I pick up a facility for this particular author’s dialect and word use. Nifty! I may have to do this again…

Sir Tristrem isn’t, I find, a particularly elegant text (iambic quadrameter? Who does that? Blech). But every so often the poet has a way with words. I present to you the first meeting of Tristrem and Morgan, who killed his father:

Tristrem speke bigan:

“Sirking, God loke the

As Ythe love and an

And thou hast served to me.”

The douke answerd than,

“Y pray, mi lord so fre,

Whether thou blis or ban,

Thine owhen mot it be,

Thou bold.

Thi nedes tel thou me,

Thine erand, what thou wold.

(ll. 837-47, ed Lupack – Tristan began to speak: “Sir king, may god look upon you as I love and cherish you and you have served me.” The duke then answered, “I pray, my lord so noble, whether you bless or curse, may it be your own [fate], you bold man. You must tell me your errand, what you would [do/have].”)

I like that. It’s a deft instance of that truth-and-lies doublespeak which Beroul’s Iseut is particularly good at – here, manipulation with words is shown as Tristan’s skill long before we meet Iseut, and as a part of the masculine world of politics and combat, too. Interesting!


The appeal of Arthuriana, or, ‘why would you want to read the same story over and over again’

This is not a story about what makes an ‘enduring legend’.* It’s about a student question which threw me for a loop the other day. I can talk about how Arthurian literature is full of exciting adventures, Important Themes, attractive people, etc, but I had never expected to need an answer to the question

But why would you want to read the same story over and over again?

Granted, our students are being treated to a fast gallop through selections of Arthuriana, Geoffrey of Monmouth through to Monty Python; it’s a rare medieval audience-member who would have had access to more than a handful of different Arthurian texts. But surely that only makes it more likely that they would read (or hear) theexact same story over and over again?

I can only assume that Student hasn’t a fannish bone in zir body. How else do franchises like Dr Who, Star Trek, or, for that matter, CSI survive, if not by people enjoying watching the same people or kinds of people do more or less the same thing, in the same sorts of places, at the same time every week? Assuming you liked the story in the first place, I’m a little bemused by the notion that you might not want to read it again, or read the further adventures of,  or, or or…

But then, you’re talking to someone who read the entire Anne of Green Gables series on loop for most of her childhood, and then, having been coaxed into reading something else – just once! – proceeded to read Alanna: the First Adventure eleven times back-to-back until she figured out how to get her hands on the sequel.

Needless to say, somewhere in my teens I got my hands on an Arthurian novel, and now here I am, driving Middle English Reading group mad by making them read assorted Middle English romances which are, I am informed, inferior to the work of the great Middle English poets.

I repeat: why wouldn’t you want to read about the same characters over and over again?


* Although tomorrow I have to give a lecture which covers why Tristan and Iseult are just such a legend. Ho hum.

Wolfram von Eschenbach: Nice Guy (TM)

If anyone now speaks better of women, then truly I have no objection. I would be glad to hear their joy bruited wide. There is only one to whom I am unwilling to offer my loyal servitude. My anger is always new against her, ever since I detected her in deviance.

I am Wolfram von Eschenbach and I know a little of singing, and I am a pair of tongs holding m anger against one woman in particular: she has inflicted such wrong upon me that I have no choice but to hate her. That is why I bear the brunt of other women’s enmity. Alas, why do they act in this way!

Although their enmity grieves me, it stems from their womanliness, after all, because I have spoken out of turn and done myself wrong – the chances are it will never happen again! Yet they should not be overhasty in storming my bastion – they will find valorous battle. I have not forgotten how to be a good judge of their bearing and their ways. If chastity keeps company with a woman, I will be her reputations’ champion. Her sorrow grieves me from the heart.

He’s a nice guy, really! Except for that one time, but it was totally justified!

… is it wrong of me that this is my favourite bit of Parzival?

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. 😀

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:

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