Saturday, October 31, 2009

Carnivaleque 55: Ancient/medieval All Hallows Eve edition

Gather round the fire and turn out the lights, for it’s time to share tales of the spooky, strange and unexpected in this Halloween edition of ancient/medieval Carnivalesque

A gold hoard fit for a goblin king
The historical blogosphere has been abuzz recently with news and speculation about the discovery of the Staffordshire hoard. This pile of gold and silver goodness must have goblins everywhere cackling with glee. Meanwhile, medievalists are alternately waxing lyrical about the romance of treasure, and debating the origins and possible interpretations of the find. (As for me, I reckon it’s a deposit scheme set up by the chaps at Gringotts.)

Vampires and werewolves and Chaucer, oh my!

In parts of rural France, twilight is known as ‘the hour between the dog and the wolf’. For Geoffrey Chaucer, though, twilight is all about the ‘sparklie vampyres’.

And speaking of vampires, if you’re after a nice sharp wooden stake…

You could do worse than check out the Anglo-Saxon wooden architecture discussed here. Using the example of a surviving 12thC stave-church in Norway, Carla Nayland makes the important point that we might need to use a bit more imagination envisioning the upperworks of Anglo-Saxon wooden buildings. (Bonus - Carla includes a stunning photo of said Norwegian church.)

Haunted by the ghost of Conference Past

The Ruminate has a thoughtful piece up that forms part of recent debate over the present and future of the International Congress on Medieval Studies, more fondly known as Kalamazoo. Included is a chilling cautionary tale about the consequences of giving a bad paper. Read on, if you dare…

Stalking and slaughter
Of deer, that is, as described in S.A. Mileson's Parks in Medieval England, a newly published historical study in a still relatively undeveloped field. It's reviewed here by Philobiblon.

Grave expectations

If you work for Caligula, chances are that sooner or later, things are going to go belly-up (or should that be belly-open?) for you. Executed Today tells the story of the execution of former Roman Consul Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus as the result of a dark plot. The extract from Roman historian Cassius Dio puts another nail in the coffin of Caligula’s reputation.

Revelations of Divine Love and Zombies
Speaking of coffins, In the Middle contemplates a rewrite of Julian of Norwich with zombies, while the commenters contemplate buried-alive anchoresses as the ultimate undead.

It’s not Halloween without some good old-fashioned witch persecution (or in this case, heretics)
Muhlberger’s Early History reviews A Most Holy War: the Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom by Mark Gregory Pegg. Pegg’s work opens up a whole new perspective on the thirteenth century Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics of southern France.

For less scary bedtime stories

Wormtalk and Slugspeak announce that "For the first time in 1000 years, the Homilies of Wulfstan are recorded and available on the internet. Take a listen and enjoy all the ranty goodness of Wulfstan."

Eat the rich

And finally, while you’re here you might enjoy this gruesome little tale of clerical cannibalism. If Zombie Cannibal Priests From Hell isn’t already a movie, it should be!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Women, know your limits!

From The New York Times comes one of the few half-decent analyses of a recent study showing that women are less happy than men and that our unhappiness has been steadily increasing since the 1970s. It may be no surprise to you to hear that conservative pundits are gleefully using said study to ‘prove’ women are unhappier because of feminism. No indeed, it’s not that we’re unhappy because we still have to put up with crap like this. It’s because getting the vote has cruelly raised our expectations beyond our capabilities, and now we aspire to ridiculous things like having fair access to education and equal pay for equal work. If we’d just heed biology’s dictates and go back to having babies and keeping house like we’re designed to, we’d all be blissful.

This subject would usually trigger a great long rant from me, but luckily for you I have a final exam to get to (Advanced Historiography - one question, three hours – should be fun). So instead, I’ll leave you to enjoy this documentary, er, I mean, comedy gem.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The slipperiness of premodern sex

(For Ginger, to whom I promised anatomical drawings.)
Over the last couple of months, I’ve been following the various discourses swirling around the case of South African athlete Caster Semenya with some interest. The tragedy of her situation makes me wonder whether medieval concepts of sex and gender could offer us an opening to ways of conceptualising biological sex that are more holistic (and realistic) than the strictly male/female binary into which we keep trying to rigidly divide the entire human species in all its marvellous variety and diversity.

Medieval mentalities were coloured by incredibly complex and nuanced perceptions of sexuality, gender and the body*. According to medieval medical theory**, physical sex was not an immutable oppositional binary grounded in biological difference; in fact, one’s biological sex was a very slippery and unstable state indeed. Humoral medicine held that all humans started with a common set of male reproductive organs (the male being the generative first principle). A favourable combination of hotter and drier humors resulted in the penis and testicles becoming fully formed (and reaching a state of perfection) external to the body – et voila, you have a male baby. By contrast, females were the result of a kind of under-cooking in utero, with a combination of less favourable cool and humid humors creating an imperfect internal construction of the penis and testicles as womb and ovaries.

Medical texts and anatomy illustrations from the period*** reflect this conception of the female as inverted (and therefore imperfect) male. At top left is an illustration from a 1523 anatomy by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi. It shows the female reproductive system, but the schematic and labelling clearly indicates it is based on a male model. And below is a beautifully detailed illustration of the female generative organs from the famous 1543 De humani corporis fabrica of Andreas Vesalius. The resemblance to a male penis is marked (right down to a certain suggestion of hairiness).

The fortuitous combination of hot and dry humors that created male physical sex was also believed to produce such superior masculine characteristics as strength, reason, continence and a bent for action. By contrast, cool, damp humors rendered women passive, weak and ruled by emotion or passion rather than reason. Women were also characterised as more lustful and sexually disordered than men, and medieval commentators speculated this was the result of a constant yearning by women to heat themselves up.

Sex as continuum instead of opposition

Within this worldview, physical sex was conceived of as a continuum that may have had ‘clearly male’ and ‘clearly female’ marked at each end, but where there could be slippage between a whole range of men-women and women-men in between. For example, the lactating Christ-as-mother figure, a popular motif of late medieval piety, blurred the boundaries between male and female just as it did between human and god.

With no clearly determined biological binary of male or female sex, sexual difference was grounded in a masculine/feminine gender dichotomy, and it was the individual’s social role, behaviour and character that defined, and could potentially even alter, their physical sex. A trope that appears in the fabliaux of late medieval France is that of the female who presents as male – adopting male clothing and exhibiting such masculine attributes as boisterousness and physical prowess – and in the denouement, has a penis spontaneously spring from her body.

Virago as a strategic performance of gender

In a subtler act of gender-bending, ‘lordly women’ could adopt the self-representation of virago (derived from ‘virgin’, which was also a much more ambiguous state in medieval thinking than it is today). As virago, they overcame to varying degrees their innate female weaknesses in order to lay claim to the masculine virtues of reason, strength and continence that made them fit to wield power. Magistra et Mater recently posted about Kimberly LoPrete’s work on perceptions of ‘lordly women’ in the high Middle Ages. It’s interesting to consider whether they were seen simply as unusually competent women filling a masculine role, or whether they actually became gendered as masculine. A third possibility may be that they occupied an indeterminate position, taking on some aspects of maleness but in other ways remaining female (and this position may have shifted towards more or less masculinity/femininity depending on the context and circumstances).

Gender as the starting point for sex

In medieval thought, then, it was gender – the social and cultural role and behaviour of the individual – that was the starting point for determining physical sex and not the other way around. For those of us living now, there are some obvious problems with this model, with the privileging of the male as first principle being the most glaring. But on the other hand, the fluidity and mutability of medieval conceptualisations of sex seem to me to offer some potential avenues to thinking about sex and gender that could relax our grip on a reductionist and repressive biological opposition. It occurs to me that by questioning the definitions and the limits of this ‘self-evident’ and ‘natural’ binary, what I’m really seeking is to foster some dialogue between the premodern and the postmodern that will eventually enable us to comprehend and accept the rich heterogeneity of the human species.

* For more on this, see for starters the work of Caroline Walker Bynum, Karma Lochrie, Joan Cadden,
Thomas Laqueur, Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset.

** When I say ‘medieval’ here, I’m talking about the eleventh century re-discovery of Galen and the translation of Arabic texts such as Avicenna’s Canon into Latin

*** The two examples here are from early 16thC printed anatomies, but the illustrations are consistent with those in much older manuscripts. Berengario, for example, was heavily influenced by the texts of Mondino dei Luzzi (d. 1326).

Image credits:
Jacopo Berengario da Carpi
Isagogae breues, perlucidae ac uberrimae, in anatomiam humani corporis a communi medicorum academia usitatam. (Bologna: Beneditcus Hector, 1523).
NIH National Library of Medicine

Andreas Vesalius
De humani corporis fabrica. (Basel: Oporinus, 1543).
Wellcome Library

Incidentally, the Wellcome Library has a fantastic store of historical and contemporary images online in categories including illness and wellness, nature, culture and war. They're freely available for download for personal, academic teaching or study use. (Why didn’t they have cool stuff like this when I was at school??)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Reminder: Carnivalesque ancient/medieval All Hallows Eve edition

The All Hallows Eve ancient/medieval edition of Carnivalesque will be hosted here at Bavardess on October 31.

There’s still time to nominate your favourite ancient/medieval posts from September and October by completing the form here, or by emailing me directly on bavardess AT gmail DOT com.

And thanks to everyone who’s already sent in nominations - they’ve led me to discover some interesting new blogs this month!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Could 'Wolf Hall' be historical fiction that works?

I’m chuffed Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker prize for her latest novel Wolf Hall. The book is described as a “Tudor corridors-of-power saga” that “turns the historical figure of Thomas Cromwell — Henry VIII's shadowy political fixer — into a compelling, complex literary hero.” It comes hard on the heels of the saucy television series The Tudors, high on of my list of must-watch television indulgences. In this show, everyone is gorgeous (and clean!), and even pious saint-to-be Sir Thomas More is a brooding hottie in a hair shirt and velvet breeches.

I haven’t read Wolf Hall yet, but it’s on my pile of books for the summer holidays. I know many historians find it painful to read historical novels, probably because the mantras we’ve learned about reliability of evidence and avoiding anachronism at all costs are so deeply ingrained. I’ve been interested in history since I was a child, and I’ve always enjoyed reading historical whodunits by the likes of Paul Doherty and Ellis Peters, but even I find I’m much more critical of historical fiction than I used to be.

That said, if anyone can make this work, Mantel can. She has long been one of my favourite authors, with an incredible ability to really get inside your head and make you experience being her characters. In my opinion, Beyond Black is her best book It’s about a psychic who is stalked by abusive ghosts from her childhood as she works the seedy pubs and halls of a bleakly suburban post-Thatcher England, and it manages to be poignant, funny and terrifying all at the same time. Beyond Black is one of those rare stories that linger and haunt you long after you’ve turned the last page.

But much as I love Mantel’s writing, I was more than a bit peeved by this weird opinion piece, in which she sets up a false comparison between historians and historical novelists. She obviously has little respect for and less understanding of what historians actually do and how they work, saying:
“The past is not dead ground, and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise. History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it. The most scrupulous historian is an unreliable narrator; he brings to the enterprise the biases of his training and the vagaries of his personal temperament, and he is often obliged, in order to make his name, to murder his forefathers by coming up with a different take on events from the one that held sway when he himself learned the discipline; he must make the old new, because his department's academic standing depends on it.”
This makes the historical profession sound like it’s nothing more than the idiosyncratic pursuit of personal follies and academic rivalries. The way Mantel puts it, writing history is basically the same as writing fiction, though perhaps with a bit more focus on the collection of dull old ‘facts’ and less conjecture about people’s personal feelings.

I can understand that Mantel is probably fed up to the back teeth with pedantic critics pointing out errors or distortions of fact in her novels. But seriously folks, there's a whole lot more to writing history than this!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Henry VIII was a greenie??!

Yep, between busting up the monasteries and dispatching a few wives, Henry VIII was apparently driven by his green eco-sensibilities to create the 10,000-acre forest at Hampton Court . At least, that’s the story according to a recent lecture by the Prince of Wales. This and other such spurious uses of history get a lashing in The Telegraph, and are discussed with a good deal more depth and complexity in the Times Higher Education supplement.

Says Professor Pat Thane of the University of London:
"There is widespread abuse and misuse of history in public life, ranging from the silly to the downright dangerous. Bad history can create real problems by distorting understanding of contemporary issues when politicians and others use history as a rhetorical tool to conjure up past golden ages, appeal to founding fathers or simply to rewrite it for political ends.”
Further (as many of us know to our cost), “bad history can lead to bad policy analysis and bad policy”.

The strong connection between history and contemporary politics brings me back to the recent discussion we had here on the moral role of the historian in society (and, incidentally, should also answer all those people who ask ‘what’s the point of studying history?’). In the THE article, several highly respected historians weigh in on how to manage the delicate balance between past and present by using our knowledge of the past to help us understand the complexities of the modern world but without distorting history to serve specific political or cultural ends.

Crusades specialist Jonathan Phillips, for example,
"Is wary about drawing facile parallels with - or citing the past's lessons for - today's Middle East. Indeed, he believes that studying the period may help us understand "the sheer complexity of the region, then as now".

"It is far too simplistic to see the Crusades as a battle between Christians or the West and Muslims, since there were Christians fighting Christians, Muslims fighting Muslims, alliances across the religious divide - and the Greek Orthodox Church was always opposed to Crusading," he says.

But although they have to embrace complexity, Phillips adds, historians must also accept and be sensitive to the fact that "for much of the Muslim world, the Crusades have acquired a toxic meaning as part of a historical continuum - of Westerners invading, killing and conquering, as they were to do again in colonial times".

"Policymakers have come to realise that something serious underlay the Islamic response to George W. Bush's unthinking use of the word 'crusade'," he says.
The medievalist Miri Rubin thinks it is inevitable that past and present always interact, and therefore medievalists have an important role to play in shedding light on current issues.
"I find people have real misconceptions about issues of religious prejudice and the sometimes-related violence," Rubin explains. "People think of pre-modern Europe as a place where crowds - the mob, the unlettered - took to the streets in religious violence, especially against Jews.

"Such behaviour is invoked in our own times as 'medieval' and people who do such things - in the Balkans in the 1990s, for example - are deemed to be 'throwbacks' to another time. In this manner, they are classed as 'aberrant', and so can be bracketed and put aside.

"The truth is that, then as now, violence in the streets is inspired by key actors, who act knowingly, and who are informed and often linked up with privileged access to media. There are agents provocateurs - preachers, journalists, politicians - who endorse behaviour by those who respect their authority. So, rather than the product of 'ignorance' or 'age-old hatred', responsibility for violence ought to be identified along lines of communication and excitation."
The THE article goes on to deal with issues such as the troubled connections between a Whiggish history of ‘liberty, democracy and material progress’, colonialism, national identity, and contemporary ideas of citizenship.

As some tonic to the abuse of history, the THE notes that the History and Policy group, a partnership between the universities of Cambridge and London that "works for better public policy through an understanding of history” has started its own 'Bad History' series. Here, mercilessly exposed with relish and wit, are the grievous historical errors, oversights and deliberate distortions that are being used to justify current policy.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Research inspiration: A migraine and a moment of clarity

It’s official. Hard work is totally overrated. At least that seems to be the case when it comes to getting those exhilarating original insights that are the heart of great research projects and breakthroughs. According to recent scientific research, when we’re daydreaming or otherwise not making a conscious effort at thinking (sadly, I’m not sure being drunk counts), our little neurons are valiantly working away, finding connections between concepts and ideas that would never occur to our conscious minds.

I had this experience myself this week. For the last few months, I’ve been working on a handful of disparate strands of research and trying to pull them together into a single coherent research project to start on next month. My last research project examined connections between regulation of women’s sexual behaviour (specifically, prostitution) and anxieties about political and social disorder in late 14th – early 15th century England. This period was marked by endemic war, the emergence of the Lollard heresy, a major rebellion, and the deposition of King Richard II, and I was pretty sure there were opportunities to use my earlier research as a departure point for a meaty analysis involving gender, sexuality, dissent, concepts of misrule, and the production of ethnicity and nationhood. (I’m deliberately being a bit vague here, as I don’t want to give too much away at this point.)

But damn me, try as I might – and my research journal is full of scrawled arrows, borderline illegible mind maps, and ‘see pg. x’ notations to prove it – I could not connect the threads into any sensible pattern. I certainly couldn’t capture the essence of the project in a single sentence, which I usually tend to think means it’s either unmanageably broad or not very well conceptualised.

Then, on Tuesday afternoon, I was whacked with a truly nasty migraine. I get these on a fairly regular basis and for the first few hours, the pain is so intense I can’t think at all. I lose sensation in my left side, see showers of little gold stars and spend a good deal of time vomiting. But once the pain passes (usually about 3 or 4am), I experience an odd kind of euphoria – a sort of fugue state that is more than simply absence-of-pain and in which I float between full wakefulness and sleep for an hour or more. It’s in this state that I often have startlingly clear insights and make totally unexpected connections that I never seem to reach through any normal waking thought process. And it was in that state early on Wednesday morning that I suddenly understood, in a singular moment of pure perception, how all the different threads I’m trying to follow with this new research project connect up into one perfectly coherent unity.

What’s interesting is that in my normal, wide-awake state, I tend to think almost exclusively in words, stacking up my ideas in predictable linear flows of sentences and paragraphs. But my big insights, those intuitive associations and leaps of logic that are the stuff of true intellectual creativity, tend to come to me in my ‘fugue state’ as impressions or patterns that I sense rather than read. They aren’t wholly visual but they aren’t a sensible flow or collection of words, either.

I have a feeling of being somehow disassociated from myself when I’m in this state, and when I was younger the sensation kind of freaked me out. Now, I’ve learned to use it, although I’m bummed that it seems to depend on having the migraine first. I’ve heard of other people experiencing similar connections between migraine and creativity – it must reset the wiring in your brain or something. If you get migraines, does this sound familiar to you? If not, when do you get your best ideas and insights? When you’re working directly on the problem or with your research materials? Daydreaming? Doing something else entirely? And do you get your insights as pictures, words or through some other sense (like those medieval mystics whose visions of the divine were experienced as taste and smell)?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Relic rage

Come on, people, I thought we’d sorted this one already? The latest debunkers of the Shroud of Turin have now demonstrated that given only medieval methods and materials, the relic could have been created inside about a week, backing up the long-standing claim that it was probably a 14th century forgery. Those who still say such an act of fakery would have been unthinkable in this 'age of faith' seriously underestimate the resourcefulness of medieval people when it came to acquiring relics.

Relics, after all, w
ere big business for popular pilgrimage spots, bringing in the punters to make their donations to the shrine itself and then spend up large on tourist trinkets like pilgrimage badges. Competition amongst the various shrines was fierce, and late medieval texts by both religious writers and laymen refer to avaricious monks making forgeries and condemn or mock the proliferation of sham shrines and relics (though most didn’t disavow that miracles that could be produced by the genuine article).

The lengths to which some people were prepared to go to secure a relic could be pretty extreme. One of my favourite stories is that of Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln (later St. Hugh). On a pilgrimage to the abbey of Fécamp in Normandy, he asked for a piece of the arm bone of St. Mary Magdalene – the abbey’s most precious relic – to take back to England with him. His request denied by the monks (you can imagine the haggling: ‘The index finger? No? How about the pinkie? Come on, chaps, I’d settle for the tip’), our quick-witted bishop seizes on the relic and takes a bite – a chunk! – out of the poor lady’s arm. I can just picture the undignified scuffle that must then have ensued, with the monks trying to wrestle the bit of bone out of Hugh’s mouth and the bishop, jaws tightly clamped, fiercely resisting them. (Hugh later tasted a bit of his own medicine when his head was stolen from its shrine in 1364.)

I had my own close encounter with a saintly skeleton at the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers, which is nestled in a hilltop village overlooking some of the best vineyards of Champagne. Here, boxed up in this somewhat neglected-looking reliquary on one side of the abbey church, are the bones of St. Nivard, Archbishop of Reims (655 – 669) and brother-in-law of the Frankish king Childeric II. He was the founder of the abbey, but we bubbly-quaffing pilgrims now know it much better as the final resting place of friar Dom Pérignon.

Friday, October 9, 2009

CFPosts: Carnivalesque ancient/medieval All Hallows Eve edition

The All Hallows Eve ancient/medieval edition of Carnivalesque will be hosted here at Bavardess on October 31.

In this edition, Carnivalesque will traverse the worlds of the living and the dead to explore tales of mystics and monsters, saints and spirits, zombies, gasts, ghouls, myths, beliefs, fears and fancies…

Nominate your favourite ancient/medieval posts from September and October by completing the nomination form here, or by emailing me directly on bavardess AT gmail DOT com.

And please spread the word through your own blog if you wish.

Skelly-tun and friend are from a French Book of Hours, ca. 1470. Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.167.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Riffling through Margaret of York's library

I’m not much of a social butterfly. I tend to quickly run short on patience when I’m stuck talking to people who don’t have much of interest to say. I find one way to predict the potential boredom factor of pending conversations is to stealthily scope out what people like to read. I do this all the time when I visit people’s houses. If they have a shelf full of Mills & Boons – or, even worse horrors, NO BOOKS AT ALL! – chances are our social intercourse is probably going to be pretty brief and unfulfilling. If, on the other hand, the shelves reveal some classic fiction or a sprinkling of lovely, gory whodunits, well then, things are looking up for our relationship. And if there’s some history and philosophy there as well, it’s possible I may be your new best, ear-bending friend.

So I wonder, how would I have got on with Margaret of York (1446 – 1503), whose personal library has been catalogued as part of LibraryThing’s I See Dead People’s Books project? Margaret, whose library represents the oldest collection so far catalogued, was the Duchess of Burgundy by marriage, and sister of Edward the IV and Richard III. Like many noblewomen of her period, she was an intelligent and skilled politician, using marriage alliances to manoeuvre her way through the byzantine politics that marked fifteenth century relations between the ruling houses of Europe. (Not least of her problems, of course, were the Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York.)

It’s no surprise to find titles like Les faits d'Alexandre le Grand by Quintus Curtius Rufus or Les chroniques des comtes de Flandre amongst Margaret’s books of history and philosophy, and the classical authors Seneca and Justinus are also represented. For lighter reading, there is courtly romance in the form of Raoul Le Fevre’s The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy. This was the first book printed in English and Margaret’s copy is the only one that survives. A well-educated and cultivated woman, Margaret’s patronage supported numerous artists and writers including the printer William Caxton. The title page of this book features an engraving of Caxton presenting it to her.

By far the bulk of Margaret’s library comprises religious and meditational works. Her lifetime was a period of great religious turmoil in Europe, marked by fierce debates over the authority of the papacy, the corruption of the Catholic Church, and the emergence of heretical sects like the Lollards. Literacy was increasing as the development of printing was making books cheaper and more accessible, and the trade was partly fuelled by demand for works of devotion and meditation written in English and designed for a lay readership. Such books promoted an interior, personal relationship with the divine, thus helping lay the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation. One of the central tenets of Lollardy, for example, was that the faithful should come to know God by reading scripture for themselves. The Oxford Doctor John Wycliffe, who is usually considered the sect's founder, translated the Latin Vulgate Bible into vernacular English in 1382. Like many proto-Protestant sects, the Lollards rejected the validity of the Catholic hierarchy of priesthood and Pope mediating between the people and God, and also denounced many of the ritualistic elements of Catholicism, such as saints and pilgrimage.

Amongst Margaret’s books are some texts that are characteristic of this new form of literate lay devotion, including The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis and The Mirror of Sinners (both medieval bestsellers, and The Imitation of Christ is still in print today). But from what we know of her, Margaret remained conventionally Catholic, and this is reflected in her collection of saints’ lives and her Guide to the pilgrimage churches of Rome. Like all good English nobles, she had a Life of St. Edmund the Martyr, and she also had several works by Jean de Gerson, theologian, chancellor of the University of Paris, and rabid persecutor of heretics.