Non-conclusive thoughts on the relationship between medievalism and European cultural hegemony

Hello, internets. I’m at ANZAMEMS. It’s delightful! Constant Mews, in opening the conference, spoke heartily and fondly of the strong sociability which characterises antipodean research communities for early European study. He’s right, and though the conference is much smaller than Leeds it’s diverse and vibrant and very very friendly. There are people here I haven’t laid eyes on since last ANZAMEMS and it’s delightful to see what’s become of them in the meantime.

But that’s not what brings me back to the internets. It’s a puzzling point which Constant raised in his opening comments. We had been given a Welcome to Country, and a thought-provoking few words on the importance of culture, heritage, and listening to the experience of others, by Aunty Diane Kerr, a leader from the local indigenous community. Constant then spoke about something I’ve seen few medievalists* talk about in relation to our discipline: the expansion and veneration of European culture and history as part of the colonial process.

Constant spoke of the ANZAMEMS theme, ‘Cultures in translation’, as embracing ideas of fluidity, transition, and moving away from the dominance of the European historical narrative as brought out to Australia from mostly the UK, with seasoning from Europe and the US. He spoke of this as something ANZAMEMS really wanted to be doing.

… but how? I don’t know what ANZAMEMS may have been doing or attempting to do**, but when I look at the program, it’s European history. There’s only a very little about Europeans interacting with other places and cultures. I think Constant did well to remind us of our troublesome place as people who have chosen – many of us in contexts where other options were available – to specialise in, devote our energies and our teaching to, the history and appreciation of European culture.

I don’t know that ANZAMEMS this year lives up to Constant’s hope of going beyond the dominance of European history. What I do think is that there is something useful to be done not beyond but within that tradition: not expanding, but fragmenting. I notice, especially with these themed conferences where everyone tries to bend the theme their way, that we often end up talking about inter-cultural exchange within Europe. About dominant and excluded perspectives within Europe, and the ways which different cultures rubbed up against each other throughout our period. England, of course, is a wonderful example; as is the Anglo-French cultural zone, or for that matter, even the slightest brush with pre-revolution France.

It seems to me that there are two particularly damaging myths built into a system which preferences European culture and history: a myth of a European monoculture*** and a myth of cultural progress. The latter allows you to view any evidence of cultural variance within Europe as a stage in the past, a building block on the way to monocultural modernity.

This, I think, is something medievalists can and should easily counter; and as medieval studies is often experienced as safely alien, buffered from the present by the safe barrier of the early modern, I think collaboration with early modernists is particularly useful here. It’s very often poor historical work to approach ‘medieval Europe’ as a monolith – although we sometimes have to, for expediency’s sake.

And I do believe we should resist the urge to read the past as the origins of the present or the historical narrative as a consistent progression toward the ‘civilised’. That’s usually poor history, as well as politically Euro-centric. For instance, in a series of papers on emotions associated with crime and execution, one paper looked at early modern English customs of ‘benefit of clergy’ and the emphasis on mercy and redemption in thought surrounding that practice. We might have moved on from death penalties, mostly, but one would be hard put to say that the principle of mercy is less commendable than the patterns of punitive justice which underpin the current system.

That’s not enough, not by a long shot; real change needs far more than that. But it’s not worthless, either. I think a sharp awareness of the changeability of social systems, value systems and intellectual systems is critically important to… well, to any critical thinking about modern society, and that is something that cannot be supplied by modern history and anthropology alone. Then there’s the immense commonality of humans over time: consistent experiences like sex, childbirth, death, grief and suffering, which are embedded in vastly different social systems and shouldn’t be treated as ahistorical and are so easily recognised. That, too, is valuable, for if the past is alien and yet recognisable, then so to ought the cultural variance of the present be accessible if one pays attention long enough to find the point of common interest.

*coughs* Here endeth the lesson for today.


*Here. I understand it’s a problem which most people teaching introductory world lit or world history courses in the US have to wrangle with, on a broader scale.

** Things a conference or organisation could do, if they wanted to broaden their purview in this way, would be to organise and sponsor panels on cross-cultural topics (bonus points if you move beyond the crusades…); dedicate travel bursaries to people working in particular fields; dedicate travel bursaries for delegates from Asia, Africa, the middle east or South America. Advertise calls for papers well outside of the usual medieval places. Seek keynotes, etc etc. For all I know, ANZAMEMS may have tried some of these methods.

*** And with that often comes a laughably narrow definition of ‘white’, which is treated as synonymous with ‘civilised’ and thus with Europe. Ask me about how the White Australia policy didn’t consider Italians to be white. Or most Germans. GO ON, ASK ME.

In which history is fun!

Following on the thread of “why are we doing this, again?”, one of my LJ friends, tarimanveri, has posted a slice of one of the charters she’s working on. Go over here to find out about Haimo and his brother Hervé, and the preservation of their memory.

And from her commentary:

It’s moments like this that make reading all these charters, and picking apart their contents to separate the formulas from the feelings, and the actions from the actae (I know, that’s bad, I should go to bed), worthwhile. There are always certain things you can tell from reading charters, even when you can’t be sure whether the motivations and sentiments they record are sincere or standardized or somewhere in between, but the times when you can be sure, I think there’s a deeply moving immediacy to the encounter with the people of the past, and one that’s rare and hard to come by in medieval sources. When it’s there, well, it brings home the fact that these are people that really lived, nine hundred years ago, and that their charters have, as this one says, “[kept] the memory of us in the world.”


Another “why this field” post

Something that’s been knocking around in my head since I decided to go back to uni is the question of why. Not why go back to uni (that’s easy enough: I’m Very Bored in my current job, and I miss learning and researching and being… creative, I guess. Yes, that thesis was creative). Not even why on earth do I want to be an academic, because that turns out to be quite obvious, after a year away (h/t to Dean Dad, who once posted suggesting that it would be a good idea for aspiring academics to try their hands at something else, in the interests of a more rounded skill-set and the definite knowledge that this is what one wants to do, rather than the only thing one thinks one can do).  The amount of time I spend lecturing long-suffering friends on such things as sexuality in medieval hagiography, or the life of Charlemagne, or dirty jokes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when I really should be taking a chill pill and enjoying Real Life has lead me to the conclusion that I’d enjoy teaching as much as research.

No. What I’m coming back to (again) is: why medieval studies? I mean, really. WHY?

Simple answer is because I happen to LIKE it. There’s also the fact that I can pick up and run with Old French, I could go back to Middle English or Old English, and I know the ins and outs of how to go about the research, and find the key texts and consult the primary sources and cross-reference to other things I’ve studied. But mostly, it’s that I like medieval studies. I like medieval texts and I like medieval social constructs. I like hanging out with the Gawain poet and Chrétien and Ælfric and knowing how they thought and wrote and dreamed. Also I like knowing obscure things like the length of a cubit for the purposes of Venetian ship-builders in the Crusade period (84cm, as it happens) and baffling poor innocent people who didn’t actually care in the first place.

But that only really answers why I want to research in this field (if it even answers that much. I could, theoretically, live a perfectly productive life doing whatever it is that productive people do, and read Chrétien for fun). It doesn’t answer such questions as “why invest a lot of government money in allowing me to do this” or “why subject undergrads to Obscure Things Highly Finds Interesting?” And it really doesn’t answer the question of “isn’t there something more relevant and useful a young female australian with a yen for literary theory could be doing with her time?” Australian lit is not very widely studied. Australian women’s lit, even less so. Early Australian women’s lit: very sparsely indeed. I happen to know of a woman who wrote – not brilliant, but interesting – social novels about late 19th/early 20th century Australian society.  She had some very interesting connections with Federation-era feminist circles and the movement for women’s tertiary education. As far as I know, she’s never been studied.

Am I suffering from a classic case of Cultural Cringe? Isn’t it a bit sad, if some (most?) of the smartest young humanities scholars in the country (not that I’m necessarily the smartest of young scholars. But I’m pretty smart, and very stubborn) are busy running off with their heads in the literature and history and social constructs of countries and time periods removed from our own by half a globe and at least half a millenium?

A friend and mentor justified, in her Aus. govt. research funding application, her intention to study medieval marriage, as being relevant to Australia’s scholarly interests because this country has inherited the institutions and cultural understandings of British society, and therefore her research into the politics of marriage in her particular medieval period would or could contribute to the contemporary debate about the institution of marriage and its place in Australian society. As it happens, I buy this argument (if I had a dollar for every time I’ve brought up the twelfth-century origins of the sacrament of marriage in a debate about the Sanctity of Marriage, I’d be making a substantial contribution to the marriage equality campaign, in the name of good history). But where does “understanding shared cultural constructs” cross over into Culture Cringe?  Can I justify the study of female friendship in the works of Chrétien de Troyes in terms of potential insights into my own culture and context, and should I? How do you reconcile the need to bypass the cultural privilege given to European history with the principle of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”?

I was tidying up my RSS feed today – removing blogs I never read anymore, and adding, as it happens, some Australian feminist bloggers. And I came across this post at Modern Medieval, in which Matthew Gabrielle quotes an email from a former student of his, on how the study of history changed the way that said student understands his own context.

I was led to these necessary conclusions. If I could, at the same time, be critical of and appreciate St. Francis of Assisi, why couldn’t I also question while appreciating the Founding Fathers or Abraham Lincoln? If describing the Crusades as a struggle between the evil Christian invaders and the Muslims was an over-generalization, why must I accept the generalizations we make about terrorism, politicians, or religious leaders? People are people. Mass movements are mass movements. Heroes and great nations make mistakes and bad guys and rogue nations aren’t often as evil as we’d like them to be. To be sure, I studied the Middle Ages at a time when I was already questioning many of my assumptions and, already, becoming the black sheep of my family, but the study of history, and specifically of this period, further freed my thoughts to allow for complexity so that I can disagree with Bush without thinking him ill-intentioned. So that I could condemn terrorists without condemning fundamental Islam. For me, the Middle Ages weren’t as important for how they still affect the present as they were for how they allowed me to examine the present for what it truly is—a world as complex as the Middle Ages.

Medieval Studies taught me that gender is a social construct. I’ve still never read a word of Judith Butler; I’m only just now reading Ann Summer’s Damned Whores and God’s Police, which goes through, in great detail, the history of women’s gendered experience in Australia. I ran a mile from feminist theory, in my early undergrad years. But I kept coming back to studying women, because women and women’s place in society and how people think about women and women’s place in society interests me. Ælfric, bless his cotton socks, and the scholars who work on him, taught me about signifiers of gender, and passive/active dichotomies. It wasn’t until I won a prize from the Society for Medieval Feminist Studies for what I thought was an eminently sensible essay about grammar and narrative structure in Ælfric’s Judith, which just so happened to be looking at gender, that I realised I’d accidentally become a feminist scholar. It took another… six months, at least, before I cottoned on that I’d also accidentally become a feminist, after swearing myself blue in the face for years that I was and would always remain an egalitarian, and wasn’t having a bar of that crazy feminism business.

University taught me to think critically about things I’d always taken for granted. Medieval Studies taught me first to think critically about things far enough removed from my own context that I couldn’t take them for granted. And then, as Matthew’s former student says, it’s a lot easier to turn those same critical lenses on the context I live in now.

I’m still not sure that I’m not suffering from Culture Cringe. But I can say that it’s worth Australian time and money researching the distant past (the distant European past. The distant Asian past. The distant American past and Indian past and South American past and African past, and absolutely the distant Indigenous past), even in the absence of any immediate and clear connection to any present political or cultural debate. And it is always worth Australian time and money teaching people to think about the distant past: because it’s FUN. And because once you start thinking, it becomes very hard to stop.

Why Teenage Girls Become Medieval Nerds: A Very Long Exposition

Let us now turn to Dr Nokes. This post shall cover, in the following order: * what ticked me off; * the sorts of medieval things a teenage girl might be reading, both history and fiction; * the reasons why she (and her male counterparts) are into medievalism anyway; * where the experiece of teenage girls and boys differs in medievalism; and finally * what history can offer to teenage girls that fantasy fiction doesn’t yet.

In his first post, Dr Nokes has a lot of good things to say about ‘applied medievalism’, how to do it and why to do it, and his final point very much agreed with the one I made in my last post.

That’s the difference between fanboy medievalism and applied medievalism. Fanboy medievalism just says, “Oh my gosh, that sword is so awesome!” Applied medievalism acknowledges the kick-butt awesomeness of the sword, but offers a broader context, like thinking about how the ceremonial swords Marines carry suggest the chivalric virtues they are still expected to continue as part of their warrior ethos. In that way, applied medievalism ideally inspires fanboys to explore further. After all, none of us emerged from the womb fully-developed thinkers about medievalism. We all started as fans, but through our explorations became more.

What gets my goat is the use of the term ‘fanboy‘, a term which he has since explained he uses because ‘fangirl’ carries unwanted connotations of ‘OMG ELIJAH WOOD IS LYKE MY HUSBAND 4EVAR‘. Urbandictionary supports this distinction, so ok, fair enough Dr Nokes. He jokingly suggests that he should use ‘fankind’, but what’s wrong with the words we have- ‘fan’, ‘nerd’, ‘fandom’?

For the purposes of the last post, I’ve used the word nerd, to denote an individual enthusiast of unpopular topics, but I shall now add to it the noun ‘fandom’, as the collective noun for the community of such nerds and the activities in which they engage. Fandom is a term normally applied to enthusiasts of a particular piece of ‘popular’ culture- books, movies, games, comics, TV shows, and to the fanfic, role playing, cosplay, and so forth which they construct around their chosen canon. With my newly invented term ‘medieval fandom’, I’m lumping together all the fandoms associated with medieval fantasy and historical fiction, movies, games, etc; and adding to them medieval history nerds and medieval role players, cosplayers, etc like the SCA who take the historical period as their canon. Are we all clear on that? Yes? Good. Let’s get back to the teenage female constituent of that fandom.

The term ‘fanboy’ aside, something about Dr Nokes’ picture of the medieval nerd bugs me. He didn’t flesh out in great detail the sort of person he pictures as the popular medievalist, so maybe I’m being a bit unfair to that post. However, it comes across as a very male picture of the medieval nerd. All swords and fightin’ and stuff. (Not that I don’t appreciate a good shiny sword… or avidly consume the Woman With Sword subgenre of medieval fantasy…) I pointed that out, and gave some suggestions on the kind of female figures- Joan of Arc, Eleanor d’Aquitaine, Jeanne de Montforte, Marie de France- whose strong characters and general awesomeness are what attracted me to medieval nerdery in the first place. It’s by reading up on these individually interesting characters that I started building a picture of the society they lived in.

Dr Nokes followed through with his next post, in which it turns out I was right. His average medieval nerd *is* an exclusively male figure, and what’s more, he apparently the intelligence of teenage girls is insufficient to be attracted by figures of scholarly study like Eleanor, Heloise and Julian of Norwich.

Still, it started me wondering, who are the female medieval figures that draw fangirls to medievalism? Highly Eccentric mentions Marie de France, Joan d’Arc, and Jeanne de Montfort, Eleanor of Aquitane, and Heloise, but I wonder how many of these a girl is likely to encounter before she takes an interest? I would think the first medievalist figures a fangirl encounters would be Guinevere, Elaine, maybe Joan d’Arc or Boudicca (which may depend on the national heroines of her country), or women fantasy authors.

So, how about it? Ladies, what brought you into fankind? No scholarly answers, either — no 14-year-old girl ever picked up the Shewings of Julian of Norwich and said, “hmmm, I’ll bet this’ll be as interesting as the Baby-sitters Club series” — I’m curious as to what drew your interest back before you even knew you had an interest. Or was it the same kind of Tolkien, D&D stuff that draws fanboys?

Gee, thanks Dr Nokes. Given that BabySitters Club is aimed at the 7-11 set, any 14 year old still counting them as the height of interesting reading is probably not destined for a life of arcane nerdery.

If you’re wondering how teenage girls stumble across figures like Eleanor d’Aquitaine: we READ. If she’s anything like me, the fourteen year old girl in question will have picked up an illustrated children’s guide to the middle ages sometime in primary school, having learnt at about age seven that history books are always more interesting than BabySitter’s Club. She wasn’t looking for anything medieval; she wasn’t looking for strong female characters; she was looking for something interesting to do with her lunch break. She had probably already read The Roman Times for a class project, and picked upThe Medieval Messenger which was lying next to it, because she knew that series is funny. After that, she might have specifically sought out something like The Measly Middle Ages, or perhaps she stumbled across it by accident. There aren’t many medieval fiction books out there aimed at the under-ten set that she might happen across, but I think I read a King Arthur comic book and a three-chapter novella about a young kid transported to King Arthur’s Court.

If she’s like me she’ll start reading Redwall and Tamora Pierce before she finishes primary school. If she’s like K, the Heretical Purple Blur I mentioned in my last post, who’s a little younger than me and was around for some books I missed by virtue of Getting Old, she’s also reading Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur series, and the Royal Diaries (where, Dr Nokes, she might meet Eleanor D’Aquitaine and Isabella of Castille…) By fourteen, she’s probably reading Tolkien and is already a regular posting member on a handful of fantasy fiction fan sites. She will be reading Arthurian fantasy, and the Arthurian canon is leading her outwards into faux-history and pop history. Depending on the state of her local library, she might be reading Sara Douglass’ The Betrayal of Arthur, or T.W. Holleston’s Celtic Mythology. When she gets older, she might beg her parents to buy her the Allan Lee illustrated Mabinogion and the Oxford Classics translation of Malory. Primary source reading will find its way onto her bookshelf as a matter of course, because she’s insatiably curious and irreparably escapist.1

She sounds much the same as any intelligent, library-lurking fourteen-year old boy, doesn’t she? She’s reading fiction and history together; she’s attracted by exciting characters, different settings and adventurous plots. At fourteen, she’s probably also paying close and curious attention to the kissing scenes- but then, I suspect her male counterpart is too, even if he won’t admit it. Even if she’s only one tenth of the nerd I was, even if (as it seems from the comments) American libraries aren’t near so well stocked in children’s Medieval history books as British and Australian libraries might be… It still shouldn’t be surprising that an intelligent teenager should find medieval history interesting when she stumbles across it!

Nokes asks if girls are attracted to Tolkien and D&D, as the boys are. In fact, as long as I’ve been in it, Tolkien fandom is predominately a female domain. I can count the regular male posters over at on my fingers. OK, a lot of the female Tolkien fans back when I joined up were the ‘fangirls’ that we (the SRS TOLKIEN READERS) called ‘swooners’ back in the day, but most of the hardcore Tolkienuts were (are) also female. I’ve never tried playing D&D, and I understand it does draw a more male-oriented group.

The problem is, Nokes takes it as given that boys are attracted Tolkien and D&D, without saying why, while wondering what might interest girls in medieval fandom. Well, what are the boys in fandom for? Why should we expect the basic attraction to be any different, although gender may result in some statistical variation as to exact field of interest?

I shall hereby posit three things which attract young people to medieval fandom, and I see no reason why these basic attractive elements are any different for the history side of it as opposed to the fiction and gaming side.

1. Above all, again and again, escapism. There’s something really enthralling about societies and cultures so different to our own that we have to piece them together bit by bit- and then the similarities you find are so much more engaging. If you pick up Bridget Jones, for example, you don’t lose yourself in her world, because her world is yours (or it’s supposed to be… someone shoot me if I’m ever that much of a twit). Tolkien, Raymond E Feist, Gary Gygax’s games, the LOTR films- they take you out of your setting and away.
The thing is, historical non-fiction does the same thing. You can piece together a picture of another world, another society, where cool and exciting things happen, and cool and exciting people live, only with the added bonus of it was all real once and you can never learn ‘all there is to know’ about it.
Reason 1A for being attracted to medieval fandom is ‘characters to identify with’. Really cool people, fictional or historical, are what draws you in to their world, and I think it’s here that there comes up a difference between girls and guys, so Reason 1A will be treated separately.

2. Intellectual stimulation. As per my post yesterday morning, knowing stuff is fun. Knowing stuff few other people know is a double-edged sword: you get your own little universe, but you don’t get any sense of solidarity out of it. A sufficiently intelligent teenager, having discovered that medieval history is pretty cool by just picking up a book off the shelf, will probably continue to pick up books from the shelf because she enjoys learning things; because doing research of her own offers more scope and depth and fun (see escapism, Reason 1) than the simplistic approach of the high school syllabus. For the same reason, she’ll probably thrive on Tolkien- even if it takes her nine months the first time around, as it did me- because Tolkien is so much more demanding on the reader than anything they set you in high school. (Unless you have trouble with Shakespearean language, I guess…)

3. The fandom community. Like Dr Nokes’ typical fanboy, many girls must come to an interest in medieval studies only via their first interest in Tolkien, or Arthurian lit, or the works of Tamora Pierce, having somehow never picked up a copy of ‘The Measly Middle Ages’. Or maybe they did, thought it was kind of cool, and were never afflicted by the obsessive desire to research which afflicts K and I. Regardless of how much you’re reading on your own, a sense of community and people to nerd out with will go a long way to keeping your interest active. I quite liked Tolkien, but my Rabidly Obsessive Phase didn’t come about until I’d been on long enough to absorb the enthusiasm. RB also gave me a bunch of recs for other good fantasy lit… My guess is that the fanfic side of fandom works the same way, and I wonder: if more people were out there writing historically-informed fic for fantasy lit, if that might arouse interest in the primary texts? (Example: an alliterative Gawain fic by a Proper Medievalist whose name shall not be publicised for the sake of her reputation…) A quick search of the internet reveals that there’s at least one medieval history forum out there, as well as multiplicious fantasy boards.

Having established these three reasons to be into medieval fandom, and that history and fiction are both attractive for these three reasons, let us return to Reason 1A, ‘characters to identify with’.

1A. Having interesting fictional or historical characters makes for a great interest-grabbing hook which sparks your interest in a genre or period. For me, medieval pop history provided something that fantasy fiction didn’t: strong female characters I could really identify with.

Let me clarify that. It’s not that fantasy lit doesn’t have strong female characters. There’s a whole subgenre that I like to call the ‘Women with Swords’ genre- most notably Tamora Pierce, who often says of her work that one of her main aims in writing young people’s fantasy is to provide teenage girls with heroic female role models. I devoured Women-With-Swords books as a teenager, and several concluding books (including ROTK) were violently thrown across the room when I discovered that the Shieldmaiden wasn’t going to get the Main Hero Guy. The problem is that most of the ‘Sheroes’ in fantasy are cast in the same mould: they’re tough, physically strong, assertive characters whose strength is in acting man-like, which almost always means wielding a sword. Every one of Pierce’s Tortall protagonists has a weapon of some kind (discounting magic, which most of them have as well), even Thayet, who is otherwise depicted as powerful by virtue of her royal birth and skill at court politics. The hallmark of a strong female fantasy character is her ability to pass as a man. While that makes for a rollicking story, and I passionately idolised and envied the Shieldmaiden, fact is I know and have always known, I’d never pass for a knight. Zip, zero knightliness here. Nor am I going to dress as a sailor and stow away to sea, or dress as a pirate and take over the ship (Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders), and I’d rather not get involved in any telepathic dragon orgies, really (yes, I once read Ann McCaffrey. We all have our shameful secrets). But at the same time, I find Arwen boring, I find Imrhien’s lovesick wanderings around Erith tedious, and although I now recognise that Faraday is the true tragic hero of the Axis trilogy, as a teenager I found her wilting and dull and wished she’d get around to doing something interesting for once.

Now, there are manifold types of male heroes in medieval literature and medieval fantasy. Big, buff, tough type, ‘most eager for praise’? Beowulf is for you. Fancy yourself as a cunning trouble maker? Loki. You’re the little guy who’d rather not have to play the hero? Frodo. Can you see yourself as a guerrilla, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor? Robin Hood. Are you the poet, the dreamer and the visionary? Stephen R. Lawhead’s Taliesin. You want to alternate your time between studying ancient scrolls and leading your trained scouts into enemy territory? Then you’re a Faramir. The list goes on and on. Point is, no matter what your teenage boys temperament is, now matter how unlikely he is to ever duel someone for his lady’s honour, there’s a role model in medieval fandom that say he could be the hero, given the right circumstances. Medieval literature just doesn’t offer that sort of scope in female characters. Efforts have been made in fantasy to redress the imbalance, witness the popularity of Shieldmaiden protagonists. But more often, I’d like to see a nun as a fantasy hero, or a minor lord’s wife, or a princess who never even asks to pick up a sword, or a queen mother, or a farmer’s daughter.

This is where historians can fill the breach. Because history is about real people, and real people, however narrow their prescribed social roles, come in all shapes and sizes and with all kinds of temperaments. For some reason, although I can’t imagine me ever developing the motor skills to wield a sword, I look at Eleanor of Aquitane and part of me thinks ‘I could do that’. I read about Adela of Blois and I think ‘huh- running the estate while my husband’s on Crusade, nagging him until he returns a second time, and then taking over the headship of the family when he dies? I’m pretty good at nagging.’ Nevermind that I’m tactless and a bad liar, and so would be terrible at politics. Part of me thinks I could learn that, whereas I couldn’t learn to use a crossbow. As a budding author of bad teenage poetry, it didn’t require any effort at all to identify with Marie de France, and she’s remained one of my favourite characters, despite the little I’ve had the time and access to read of her writing.

Medieval history has some awesome characters in it, and among them are some pretty fantastic female characters in every sub-period. Michelle, in her reply to Dr Nokes, said she didn’t think there were any women in Anglo-Saxon England who’d be attractive to noob girls… but what about Æthelflæd, who kicked Danish butt in the early 800s? I can see St Æthelthryth No-Sex-For-YOU of Ely warranting a whole page in ‘The Abominable Anglo-Saxons’, if Terry Deary ever writes such a thing.

So there you go. There’s so much to interest a teenage girl in medieval fandom, I wrote an essay-length post on it in a matter of hours. If only essays were this easy! To summarise:

• Teenage girls come to medieval fandom the same way boys do: they read stuff. The read fiction, they read history books, they read the Intarwebs, and they probably started reading these things before they were out of primary school.
• The reasons teenage girls are attracted to medieval fandom are, at the root of it, the same as those of teenage boys, and fiction and history can be attractive in the same was: as escapism, as intellectual stimulation, and as part of a wider community of fandom.
• There isn’t the same variety of female characters to identify with in medieval fantasy as there is of male characters. This is important, because identifying with a character really creates your escapist alternate world, and it provides a stimulus for further research.
• Historians can fill that gap and make medieval history more interesting to young girls by telling stories of real medieval women, and telling them in an engaging and accessible fashion.

Here endeth the lesson rant for today.


1. If she has a father like mine, she’ll have company in her Celtic explorations; she will also have acquired a working knowledge of the First World War and aviation history, not to mention the fall of the Roman Empire, the invention of the motor car and the difference between a Neanderthal and a Homo Sapiens. Because curiosity is better in company.

What Medievalism Can Offer… Part One.

Greetings, O Blogosphere. Some time ago, Matt Gabrielle opened a Bloggers Forum on the relevance of Medieval Studies to the general public, asking:

How about a blog forum about what medieval studies and/ or medievalism has to offer a wider public? But not pitched to other academics? How would you talk about a topic of your choosing to a group of community members in a public library, for example? How do you talk about “relevance” (or the lack thereof) to undergraduates? etc.

There have been several responses to this call, but I shall link you to Jeff Sypeck’s contribution for two reasons: One, that page links to all the previous responses; and Two, Sypeck’s post is what started Dr Nokes thinking.

Now, I want to talk about two things: the weakness1 of Dr Nokes’ approach to the medieval ‘fan(boy)’, and my own answer to Matt’s question ‘What can Medievalists offer to the general public’. I’m going to address these things in two separate posts: one, as a general answer to Matt’s question, and another coming up in response to Dr Noke’s second post.

Firstly, why is all this important anyway? Why are we fussing over what we can offer and particularly what we can offer to teenagers? Forgive me, but it (not just Dr Nokes, but the entire discussion, regardless of the age of contributors) looks to me like the elderly constituent of the congregation I grew up in, fussing over how to be more ‘relevant’ and more ‘contemporary’ so as to attract more ‘youth’… not out of any inherent concern for the youth of today, but because young bums on seats give the old folks a sense of validation.

It’s a given that we all want more students of medieval studies. I don’t teach, myself, but that hasn’t stopped me ranting and cajoling any potential medievalists I know into taking courses with my favourite teachers. My motivations are multiplicious: I’m a naturally helpful sort of person, the kind of person who likes sharing the things she knows (even if you don’t care), and in this case the thing I knew is how to structure your study so as to take two majors. I’m also very fond of the CMS and I don’t want to see good students lost to the English or History departments. And thirdly, I happen to live with the major recipient of my medieval cajoling, and the more medieval courses she takes, the greater the chances are that when I walk into the dining hall, a purple-and-blonde blur will rush past, muttering as she goes ‘I realised I couldn’t talk about confraternities, so I’m doing heretics instead!’, or similar nerdy comments. It’s good to have someone around who’s more-or-less on the same plane as you.

That third point, I think, is where we can say that academic medievalists really do have something to offer the general public, if by ‘general’ you mean ‘isolated teenage nerds’. What an academic can offer- via blogs or books or public forums or school visits- is firstly a bit of solidarity. Hey, that guy’s an even bigger nerd than I am, and HE’S made a career out of it. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is that regardless of whether or not the nerd in question goes on to do any medieval subjects at uni- maybe she discovers her true calling and becomes a stockbroker- is that an intelligent teenager, unless she’s very, very lucky in her schooling, is never being pushed to think as far, as deeply, or as independently as she could. Which is a pity, because knowing stuff is fun, and thinking about it is MORE fun. Whether it’s Dr Nokes’ ‘Big Beowulf Bash’ or Jeff Sypeck’s book ‘Becoming Charlemagne’, a bit of academic medievalism, pitched to her level, might give her a bit of intellectual stimulation she’s not getting from the high school syllabus. I’d say the same thing to scholars of Shogun Japan and to Microbiologists: there are kids out there to whom the opportunity to learn something they’re really passionate about, to whom the encouragement and non-patronising interest of a specialist in that field, to whom simply the chance to use their brain at a higher capacity, would be as precious as gold. No matter what your speciality or it’s immediate usefulness, society can always do with more kids encouraged to think beyond the bounds of the high school classroom.

I always knew I didn’t want to teach your average school student, I wanted to teach people who were smart and engaged. My mother suggested ‘university teaching’ when I was about seven, but from the time I was ten until I was… oooh, fourteen or fifteen, I wanted to be a trained Gifted & Talented upper primary school teacher, just like one Mrs Coffee, who had rescued me from mental stagnation and got me started on reading fantasy fiction, amongst other things. That’s been crossed off my To Do List for Life, but I still care about the education of smart kids. A little broadening of their horizons, a sprinkle of encouragement, the promise that other people out there in the Big World will value their quirky interests and passions, yeah… that’s worth doing.

Don’t do it if you don’t like kids. Don’t do it if you’re going to patronise or talk down. But if you have the time and the resources, do. If not public appearances, then books. There are never enough books out there on which an intelligent youngster can sharpen his brain-teeth. Websites aren’t a bad idea either, but I don’t know that any website, no matter how engaging, could beat a beautifully illustrated book like Kevin Crossley-Holland’s ‘The King Who Was And Will Be’, a wonderful introduction to high medieval culture in bite-sized snippets. It’s thanks to Kevin C-H that I discovered Marie De France, Dr Nokes. Kevin C-H sticks in my mind as the only pop history book I could find that said right out that there probably was no King Arthur, but that didn’t matter. Camelot, he says ‘is in our minds and our hearts’. If you have a nerdy child in your friend or family network, one who appreciates beautifully decorated books and interesting windows into a past society… find a copy of that book and give it to them. From memory, it should be comprehensible to your average ten year old, but I was still enjoying it at fourteen.

Comin’ up: Teenage girls are smart and they read history books! Special Investigation This Evening!


1. That’s polite academic-speak for ‘inherant sexism’…

How NOT to Attract Future Medievalists

Dr Nokes has an eloquent post on ‘outreach’ Medievalism which you should all trundle off and read. I’ll get around to posting a response to it once I’ve finished my essay. Suffice to say, the only problem with Nokes’ post is that his picture of the medieval nerd is male-focused. I know, by personal experience and the Internet, that there are a lot of twitty female medieval fantasy nerds out there, and even sub-genres of fantasy lit aimed specifically at them. Also, witness the good deal of medieval/early modern historical romance books out there.

I will, building on my comments to his post, talk a bit about ways of appealing specifically to that audience. However, right now in my procrastination, may I advise you on something which does NOT draw interest in Medieval Studies?

As Nokes points out, many people are interested in the medieval origins of modern institutions and traditions. Stephanie Trigg’s work on the Order of the Garter is one good example. People also like to know about medieval things because it seems romantic, or adventurous: I remember JP telling us that he was suddenly fielding calls from radio stations across the country when Kingdom of Heaven came out, asking him ‘if the Crusades were really like that’. (Short answer: No.)

One thing people are NOT interested in, despite its usefulness and medieval origins, is double-entry bookkeeping. Despite the fact that JP, in the context of 12th/13th century Florentine trade, managed to explain to me a concept my mother, a trained bookkeeper, has never managed to get through my head, the appropriate response to ‘so, do you understand about double-entry bookkeeping’, when asked by an employer, is not ‘oh, yes, it’s a respectable 12th century Florentine invention!’. This will earn you only funny looks and a VERY DETAILED demonstration of the charges and payments on the computer.

Having said that, I have not stuffed up charges or payments yet, and no one has had to spend hours explaining why the same transaction has to be entered twice. I guess next time someone asks if I learnt anything useful at university, I shall say yes, I did. My Medieval Studies course has made me a more efficient receptionist.

Defiantly useless

Early Medieval Art has a post today on the uses of teaching such apparently irrelevant topics as hers to undergraduates in this day and age. I quote:

The Early Middle Ages offers the point of origin for many modern-day realities- of modern European national identities, of a collective European identity, and of the Christian Church, to name but the most obvious – and the tracing of these traditions to their early medieval origin certainly constitutes a valid undertaking. To search for reflections of ourselves, however, in this distant past seems to me a bit problematic. Indeed, I question the need for each and every course to prove itself directly relevant to the lives of students…

Instead, I see great value in course material that is not all about the student. First, always seeking the relevance of the past to the present somehow denigrates the past, as if it only has meaning if it relates to us and our experience. Furthermore, approaching the past through such a lens distorts our view of it and thereby does not do right by the past.

In fact, the irrelevance of early medieval art (or the art of any other distant period) makes it especially valuable for the development of upper-level thinking skills. In the study of early medieval art, students can develop their upper-level thinking skills without interference from assumptions and biases…

More here.

I like her staunch defence of the apparently irrelevant, but i’m not sure that you can count any period of study ‘free from assumptions and biases’. Quid Plura, for example, talks today about teasing students away from their inherant assumptions about the repressed society which we call ‘the middle ages’, in order to properly understand Chaucer. I find it hard to believe that art is any different…