The cute cat theory of manuscripts?

At IAS I went to a postgrad masterclass on ‘publishing and getting published’, which, strangely, seemed to be mostly about why you should leave academia for publishing careers.1 And at this session, the speaker from Boydell and Brewer endeavoured to impress upon us the fit-for-purpose nature of hardcopy books. They’re portable, and often have their own inbuilt search engine, called the ‘index’! If we had no books, she said, and someone came up with the idea of printing things out, binding them, and putting indices and contents pages in them, everyone would be standing around going “oooh, what a clever idea! Clearly it is the way of the future!”

In other news, I have been particularly enjoying Got Medieval’s series on Cute cats in Harley 6563.

I would like to propose that the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism applies to books.

Specifically: Book 1.0 was created to allow people to share research papers intellectual content of some sort. Book 2.0 was created to allow people to share cute pictures of cats (or monkeys2).

OK, that’s clearly not the *sole* purpose of Book 2.0, wherever you want to draw the boundary, but there is a clear increase in cute pictures in manuscripts over time, yes?

Consider also the porn part of the Cute Cats Theory:

Hypothesis: Sufficiently usable read/write platforms will attract porn and activists.

If there’s no porn, the tool doesn’t work.

If there are no activists, the tool doesn’t work well

Now, by this logic, the book doesn’t work at all until 1748, which is clearly not true. But consider that Charlotte of Savoy liked naked people alongside her daily devotions. I’m sure we can stretch the definition of ‘porn’ to include titilating marginalia, yes?

And from there, can we draw a long bow and say that the use of books in popular activism increases at the same time as the amount of titilating marginalia increases?

Also, cats.3

I rest my case.

1. Apparently I am a prime candidate for this, because I was able to identify Stephanie Meyer as the only author other than JKR who could probably get away with a Pottermore-style self-publishing venture. I’m actually not sure that SMeyer *is* the only such person – there are smaller-scale YA authors with particularly net-savvy audiences, like Tamora Pierce.
2. Speaking of monkeys, how cute is the monkey in The Lady and the Unicorn? VERY CUTE, is how cute. I resisted the urge to buy a throw cushion with the monkey on it, and was rather disappointed that you could buy cuddly toy unicorns but not cuddly toy monkeys.
3. Got Medieval reckons the BL are anti-kitteh! Clearly not. They published a whole book about kittehs in books. How recursive.


To help remember all your kings, I’ve come up with this song…

Another instalment in the annals of funny things I promised to show Jon:

All due thanks to my housemate K, who must have a good reason for watching this over and over again.

Also, unrelated: at the IAS I was given a copy of this book. Acroyd’s ‘The Death of King Arthur’, a modernisation and slimming down of Malory. It’s readable, and, well, I would’ve liked it a lot at fifteen, but these  days, if I must read Malory I have the Oxford World’s Classics translation and I ought to read the original. This one strikes me as good for non-specialists and especially teenagers, but my Dad’s already got a translation and no one in my family has suitably-inclined teenagers.

If anyone in England would like this book, for themselves or teenagers (even pre-teens, if they have high reading levels) they know, lemme know. It’d save me carting it back to Australia, after all.

Another note – to whomever it was who entered this post in the Down Under Feminists Carnival, ta muchly. Sorry I didn’t say anything about it before – I was in transit when the carnival went up. 🙂

Just in case you were thinking of taking the discipline seriously…

remember: history is made by stupid people.

[Visuals are pretty crappy, but there doesn’t seem to be a music video for it. Lyrics here.]

Speaking of history, my housemate concludes that history is, essentially, gossiping about dead people. This, she reasons, explains the fantastic propensity of medievalists to gossip about anyone and anything, living or dead. [Number of conversations I’ve had this month speculating about CS Lewis’ sex life: three.] In my observation, it seems like we Australians are *particularly* good at disciplinary gossip – which I think has less to do with our training than it has to do with having fewer chances to meet and talk to those scattered across the globe.

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.

In honour of the abysmal mess I made of my Latin test today…

Kennedy discovers the gerund and leads it home to captivity.

Strangely, this didn’t help me very much under exam conditions.

An entire day of medieval jokes!

So, I shall be attending – and presenting at – a symposium at ANU next month. Said symposium is promisingly titled The Lighter Side of the Middle Ages (link goes to the CFP, now closed).

As can be expected, the draft program includes many entertaining and some groan-worthy puns. I myself can take claim for the (completely terrible) title “Tournaments and Tweens”, which is my idea of a snappy way of talking about Sir Gawain and the adorable small girl. My colleagues from USyd are set to talk about humorous vegetables, seriously merry men, and jokes against the English, while an enterprising researcher from ANU proposes to answer the question “What Have the Middle Ages Ever Done For Us?” Also on the program are fools, pilgrimages, satires, monastic humour, and – of course – Beowulf.

An entire day of medieval humour! And an entire day of medievalist humour. Oh dear. Also, a lovely chance to spend some time in Canberra – they have an academic remainders bookstore there, you know. I shall report back after the event, hopefully with an answer to the question of “What Have the Middle Ages Ever Done For Us?”, and, failing that, with humorous vegetables.

Death! Misery! Despair! Belly-laughs!

I’ve been coordinating Middle English Reading Group this semester (so much fun!), and, after adventures with Sir Ywain and King Horn (lessons learned: when you marry a lady, stay with the lady. Wandering off and leaving your wife behind can only lead to disaster), we were reading some lyric poems the other week, and I found this charming example:

Evermore, wher-so-evere I be,
The drede of deeth doth trouble me.

As I went for-to solace
I herde a man sike and seye, ‘Allas,
Of me now thus stondeth the cas:
The drede of deeth doth trouble me.

‘I have ben lord of tour and toun;
I sette noght by my grete renoun,
For deeth wol plukke it al adoun:
The drede of deeth doth trouble me.

‘Whan I shal deye I am not seur,
In what contree or in what houre;
Wher-fore I sobbyng seye to my power,
“The drede of deeth doth trouble me.”

‘Whan my soule and my body departed shullen bem
Of my juggement no man can telle me,
Nor of place wher that I shal be:
Ther-fore drede of deeth doth trouble me.

‘Jhesu Crist, whan that he sholde suffre his passioun,
To his Fader he seyde wyth greet devocioun,
“This is the cause of my intercessioun:
The drede of deeth doth trouble me.”

‘Alle cristen peple, beth ye wyse and ware,-
This world is but a chery-feire,
Repleet wyth sorwe and fulfilled wyth care:
Ther-fore the drede of deeth doth trouble me.

‘Whether that I be myrie or good wyne drynke,
Whan that I do on my laste day thenke,
It maketh my soule and body to shrynke,
For the drede of deeth sore troubleth me.’

Jhesu us graunte him so to honoure
That at oure ende He may be oure socour
And kepe us from the fendes power,
For than drede of deeth shal not trouble me.

Now, not only is this little lyric kind of hilarious, it’s also *useful* to me, since lately – in mostly unrelated contexts – it’s come to my attention that some people think death was particularly scary in the Middle Ages (as opposed, perhaps, to death in Ancient Rome, which was a solemn and noble undertaking?).

I can sort of see why one might think that. I mean, if you were picked up and dumped in the year 1066, your primary concern would be NOT DYING of ALL THE DEATH, wouldn’t it? The Horrible Histories school of popular history might have something to do with it, as well.

Nope. Death: not really any scarier in the middle ages than it is now! There was, of course, a lot of death in the middle ages, including all the nasty Horrible Histories stuff: wars and plagues and famines and people impaling you up arse*. But there is an awful lot of scary death today: wars and plagues and famines and assassinations still happen. We just handle death through different social and cultural frameworks from our forebears (different from our forebears a mere century ago, let alone the better part of a millennium).

Which is where this poem comes in handy. I like it because it neatly illustrates the ever-present consciousness of death which it seems people expect of the middle ages. There’s this whole complex here, about how death is something to be feared; that whatever worldly pleasures one might accrue, they’re all overshadowed by the fear of death. The unknown seems to be an important factor in the speaker’s drede of deeth: he doesn’t know when he’ll die, or what his fate will be, and thus he lives in perpetual fear of death.

But wait. This poem is funny. It’s stuffed full of hyperbole: the speaker’s fears grow more and more overblown, to the point where he justifies them by explaining that Jesus himself feared death! At that point, you know something’s up: this fear-of-death literature isn’t exactly original,** and the audience, hearing the line Jhesu Crist, whan that he sholde suffre his  passioun, must surely be expecting the neat resolution; must surely expect to hear that they are saved from the drede of deeth by said passion, and so on and so forth. But the poet withholds the expected conclusion for another couple of stanzas, building up more and more frenzied exclamations on the topic of the drede of deeth.

At this point it’s worth noting how the poem began: As I went me for to solace, I herde a man… This isn’t the poet directly uncovering his soul to the audience; nor is he directly exhorting them to the fear of death. He, or conceivably she, presents the entire excursus on the topic as the words of a man whom the poet heard when seeking to amuse*** him(her)self. The way Stevick’s punctuated the text, our speaker finishes up on the second-last stanza, and the poet (and presumably we, the audience, who may well know the tune and be singing along), breathe a sigh of relief and remind ourselves that thanks to Jesus, we do not in fact need to be in drede of deeth! Everyone have another beer!

Even if Stevick’s punctuation misrepresents who’s speaking in the final stanza, the death-fearing man is still a comic object: perhaps even more so, since the final stanza, with its neat formula about honouring Jesus for than the drede of deeth shal not trouble me, is completely at odds with his previous characterisation of his fears.

The composer of this lyric; the (presumed) audience who heard and sang it; the scribe who wrote it down; the owner of the manuscript which preserved it: all these participants probably shared some common ideas about death, at least as for as long as it takes to read this poem out. That death, and the unknown, could be scary. That one need not live in drede of deeth, if one honour’s Jesus in one’s life.

… And taking death too seriously makes you look like a bit of a twithead.


*Not in the fun way. In the King Richard sort of way.

**In fact, the textbook I got this from – Robert D. Stevick’s One Hundred Middle English Lyrics, prints a very similar poem before this one, with the refrain Timor mortis conturbat me.

*** Stevick glosses “solace” (reflexive verb) as “delight, amuse”, and I can’t see any reason to argue with him.