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. 😀


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!

The University of Cambridge are SRS BIZNIS

I have now been a graduate student for ONE WHOLE WEEK. It’s very exciting. So obviously now is the time to start planning my next degree. (There is method in my madness – if I plan to finish this one a bit *early* then I should be able to roll right into an overseas PHD program, on the arrogant assumption that I’m spiffy enough to get into such things.)

Having recently been through one round of applications, and having spent a couple of hours poking at the websites of various universities, I have some observations:

1. I thought the university of Sydney were crummy with their paperwork (don’t talk to me about paperwork. I somehow still don’t have a timetable!). But apparently Australian universities are models of efficiency! I applied in October and started in March. Investigation suggests that I will have to apply *this* October if I want to start *next* September/October overseas. Seriously, people, is your paperwork all done in stone tablets?

Note: this is no longer the logo of USyd.

The new one is “modern”. And ugly.

2. Does the University of Cambridge not WANT students? Their prospective grad students pages are the most depressing thing I’ve read for quite some time. Observe:

From “What we expect from you“:

The most important qualification for becoming a graduate student is a sense of vocation. Finishing a dissertation is hard work; it is also a test of determination. In deciding if graduate work is for you it is valuable to consider which elements in your undergraduate course you most enjoyed. It is not enough to have relished the excitement of reading new material each week and cleverly concealing what you did not know in your essays or coursework – although an enthusiasm for reading is one vital qualification for graduate work. If you felt frustrated about the limits of your knowledge when you were an undergraduate, and enjoyed the more extended forms of study which were required for a dissertation or extended essay, then it is likely that you will get satisfaction from graduate work.

From “What you cannot expect from us“:

Do not expect to be spoon-fed while you are here. You will spend long hours in the library working on a topic which on a black day might seem to be of interest to noone else in the world. You should bear in mind that you will probably be poor, and that you will almost certainly have to spend a great deal of time reading material which you find unappetising in order to master your chosen field.

Translation: We are CAMBRIDGE and we are HARDCORE. You must be HARDCORE to be at CAMBRIDGE. You’re SMART? Think again! ORDINARY SMARTS ARE NOT HARDCORE ENOUGH AT CAMBRIDGE. Students at Cambridge are so HARDCORE that they are MISERABLE ALL THE TIME! But that’s the way they LIKE IT because WE ARE CAMBRIDGE AND WE ARE HARDCORE! Come to Cambridge, earn a degree in MISERABLE, it’s HARDCORE.

Ok, Ok, I understand, they’re *Cambridge*, they don’t need to be nice to their students. But compare to the nice, businesslike pages for Medieval Studies at Toronto! Those pages tell us that the program is quite hard to get into, and Serious Business once you’re in, but for the rest of it, they don’t seem to feel the need to either scare people off or to target a select audience of intellectual masochists.

Is it just me, or is Cambridge’s pitch all wrong here? I can imagine receiving such advice in a friendly peer-to-peer orientation pack, perhaps, but for the university’s public face… surely there are ways to get say “you must be serious to come here” without talking down to your applicants or advertising the many miserable qualities of the degree in question.

There are POSTERS. With my NAME on them.

I find this very very intimidating. In order to get to the Bocera’s office, I have to go through the middle of the English department- I skip the CMS corridor but have to go past Awesome’s office, the doors and outside walls of which are papered with CMS adverts. And the common spaces are papered with said adverts. They have my name on them.

Centre  for  Medieval Studies
University  of  Sydney

Student  Seminar  Series

Amy  Brown

Legislating for the Stranger :
Archbishop Wulfstan and King Cnut

Harry  Peters

Testing the Boundaries of Romance and Marriage :
John Gower and ‘The Steward’s Tale’

5.00 for 5.30 p.m. start
Monday  8 September
Fourth  Floor  Common  Room
John  Woolley  Building  A20

Fortunately, I do think I know what I’m going to say in said paper. That’s a start. 🙂 And I know what my thesis is about! WHEEE!


Ok, I’m a slack blogger, but some news:

*My Gawain paper went off very well and many helpful questions were asked. I now have to write the blasted thing up, which should be fun, but I’m lazy.

*The whole English Honours conference was fascinating, and I learnt about things like the death of the human subject and was privileged to witness the resurrection of Edgar Allan Poe. I am now convinced I should read some theory (starting with Baarth’s ‘Death of the Author’ and Foucault’s ‘History of Sexuality’), and also read something written after 1350 occaisionally.


*I will have an Old English classmate next semester! We will presumably have a proper class time and everything.


*This no longer means I can do whatever the hell I want for ‘class’.


* The Bocera has decided on an all-Beowulf semester. Aaargh. I HATE Beowulf. I might be a disappointment to Anglo-Saxonism for it, but I detest the thing. I can see, from the translation, how it’s wonderful and fascinating and all of that, and I expect after being forced to study it I will come around. However, I’m bad at poetry, and Beowulf is all that I am bad at poetry for. My translations thereof never, ever, ever make sense; they drive me mad; they make me cranky. Grumble. Don’t wanna.

More Fourteenth-Century Hijinks

Along with uprisings and social anxiety, guess what else was going on in the fourteenth century?

Phillip the Fair of FranceAn old, rich, well-established although now militarily irrelevant crusader order, the Templars, was being rounded up by the French monarchy (including, amusingly, one Templar rounded up while tax-collecting for the self-same French monarch), being tried, and then re-tried by the papacy, ordered to disband, and disbanding by bits and stages all over Europe (or, in the case of Portugal and Aragon, being staunchly defended by the relevant monarchs and given permission to transmute into national orders) in a process that took half a century.

a templar badgeOn Tuesday, I went down with the Centre for Medieval Studies to view the University’s new facsimile of the Templar trial papers. I’m sorry to say they looked just like pieces of faux-vellum and paper to me, but I can now say I’ve seen the handwriting of Pope Clement the Something, at least. The facsimile includes four or five faux-vellum documents, most of which stretched right across the huge veiwing table, and some of which are barely readable. There is also a paper facsimile which consists of the summaries of the French trials, as put together by or for Pope Clement, and including notes in his own handwriting; and there’s a small square document which is the proceedings of the papal trial at Chinon. These last two, I gather, were only recently found, miscatalouged, in the Secret Archive by Barbara Someone-or-Other (sorry for the lack of details, pens aren’t allowed in the Rare Book library so my notes were all made at the end), who was studying paeleography there. Another two of the vellum documents were edited in the 19th century, but according to JP, none of the documents in the facsimile have been used by modern Templar historians. Michael Barber, the big chePope Clement Vese in Templar studies, doesn’t refer to them in his book on the subject, or in the edition (catalogue?) of Templar documents which he and one of his students published more recently.
The facsimile pack also includes a full transcription (including UV transcriptions of the illegible documents), and replica seals of the papal curia.

There’s nothing terribly inflammatory in the documents; they, as the assembled academics remarked in a satisfied fashion, throw a bucket of cold water on the whole Da Vinci Code hullaballoo. (Not that Templar conspiracists will care…) According to JP, who did say he hasn’t had a chance to really look at the documents, Pope Clement was rather suspicious of the confessions garnered from the French trials, and was trying to do the best he could for the Order in a sticky political situation.

Ours is copy number 300 of 799 copies for public sale (Pope Palpatine Benedict got number 800). Neil Boness, the Rare Books Librarian, thinks all 799 probably won’t sell, or won’t sell quickly, due to the high asking price.

The only other thing of interest I noted was that all the academics were standing around nodding solemnly about the scope for a really kick-arse PHD based on these documents. If you’ve an interest in Templars, or in Phillip the Fair, or Pope Clement, or any such thing, get yourself a grad school application for a school which owns a copy of this facsimile. (And if you can’t get Barber for your supervisor, you could do worse than JP, even if his speciality is more in the Crusade direction… just sayin’… There’s a woman in Melbourne who works on the Italian Templar trials, but I believe we have the only copy of the facs. in Australia.)

What is it about York, that it has such cool Archbishops?

Wilfrid, Wulfstan… and currently, Dr John Sentamu, parachuting prelate extraordinaire.


Since when I started this blog, I promised myself I wouldn’t make one-sentence posts, let me use this empty space here to tell you a fabulous story about a fabulous person of my acquaintance.

Lounging in the courtyard one afternoon, waiting for the rest of a Reading Group to turn up, I was in the company of a gentleman who shall be known as the Venerable Philologist. You never quite know where a conversation with the Venerable Philologist will go, and this time, it went in the direction of church politics. After mutual complaints about the state of various churches these days, he looked solemnly at me and said:

You know, I think the Reformation was quite a mistake. It seemed like a good idea at the time, though.

We pondered the benefits and drawbacks of Protestantism, and I expressed my affection for the Uniting Church and it’s delightful inability to make a decision on anything, ever. The Venerable Philologist regarded me, and folded his hands, and remarked:

I liked the Uniting Church, really. But I had to leave them… over the filioque clause.

You’ve got to respect a properly trained medieval scholar who appreciates the importance of the filioque clause.1


1. Me? No idea if it’s in or out of the UCA-approved Apostle’s Creed. Uniting Church-goers, know their creeds? Good grief.
I can tell you we have some fancypants theologically unproblematic version of the Lords Prayer (in which God no longer leads us into temptation). I can also tell you that my elderly congregation stubbornly recite the old version. I, meanwhile, am the only one muttering all the ‘art’s and ‘thou’s under my breath. I have my reasons.