Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thoughts about Why We Still Look to the Medieval

The Tales after Tolkien Society is dedicated to exploring how contemporary popular culture constructs and deploys the idea of the medieval. Doing so does require having some idea of what it means to be medieval, both in terms of how medieval is defined and in terms of how an authentic image of it can be built. I motion towards the former in "More about Short-form Medievalist Scholarship," while the latter is addressed by Helen Young in "Who Cares if Game of Thrones Is Authentically Medieval?" and "Who Cares about Historical Authenticity? I Do," and by me in "About a Popova Piece...and a Bit of Rebuttal" and "Continuing with the Issue of Historical Authenticity." What none of the piece address is why the medieval would be brought up and carried forward in contemporary popular culture.

There is certainly reason to abjure the medieval. As I report in "More about Short-form Medievalist Scholarship," Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul argue in their introduction to Medievalism in the Postcolonial World, figurations of the traditionally-understood medieval have been used to justify the horrors of colonialist practice, and what has been so abusive can be readily shunned. Those nations that have formed as a result of throwing off colonial yokes, in whole or in part, could scarcely be blamed for repudiating the trappings of those nations which held them in thrall as peripheries to a colonial/imperial core. Less formal, but perhaps more pervasive, is the ongoing search for novelty, the drive to have the next, new thing--which suggests excision of the old. Similar and more explicit is the frequent throwing-off of inherited trappings, casting aside older standards and methods in favor of quicker and more convenient ways of doing things and more equitable social structures. Each works against the continued re-presentation of the medieval, and each is a substantial thread in the tapestry of contemporary popular culture in the United States and elsewhere.

Even so, there is abundant representation of the medieval among the contemporary--albeit representation that is not "authentic," as several of the sources noted above assert. Most of the corpus of fantasy literature, following Tolkien, partakes of it. So do many role-playing games of the tabletop and online variety. Television series such as Game of Thrones and Merlin focus on visions of the medieval that are recognizably, demonstrably medievalist, and they attract significant followings among the general public and among scholars who perhaps follow the mold Philip Helms asserts of early Tolkien fandom and look to them as diversions that allow them to feel somewhat daring in their work but perhaps recognize the work being produced now as being as worthy of study as the work being produced then. And while humanistic scholars may be perhaps understood to look at things vanished away and their afterimages, why the general public would do so is somewhat less obvious. This makes it worthy of investigation.

Tolkien motions toward an answer. In "On Fairy-stories," he argues in favor of the escapist nature of fantasy literature. The seeming removal of the largely rural medieval from the increasingly urban environments of the industrialized world following World War II, of the eminently local medieval from the increasingly globalized world economy, of the intensely physical medieval from the increasingly online world of the early twenty-first century all serve to position the medieval as a means of escape from the modern, promoting recourse to it. Admittedly, however, other historical periods could be sought for such reasons; the Classical past suggests itself as an example, as do pre-colonial pasts for the successors of indigenous populations.* Thus, there has to be more at work than simply the disjunction between past and present to account for the continued reliance upon the medieval, although that divergence surely accounts for some of it.

Nostalgia for the perceived past may explain more. While pre-colonization pasts do not often obtain for former colonist populations, the (Northern and Western European) medieval past very much does for them**--although the Classical past would, as well. But the Classical world presents other difficulties for much of the population, particularly in the United States. The non-Christian religious history of much of it grates against the overly-refined "faith-based" sensibilities of many people. So, too, do the perceived-as-more-open sexual practices that typify constructions of Classical Greece and Rome. The medieval, though, is ostensibly Christian and demonstrably concerned with the regulation and normalization of sexuality, aligning it to some of the prevailing attitudes of United States populations, suiting it to marketing to them, and thus spreading through much of the world because of the disproportionate influence the US media markets exert on the media cultures of the planet.

Another factor suggests itself as worth considering; the medieval is refigured now because it was a favorite subject of the Regency and Victorian English, from whom many cultural assumptions are still maintained in the United States and, it seems, elsewhere. The Regency saw an increase in population, displacement of labor, and shortages of food. Each contributed to social unrest that was augmented by fears of the kind of violence seen during the French Revolution, the social upheaval of the Napoleonic Era, and the flagrant misconduct of the children of George III. The Victorian Era saw the immense strains of empire and upheavals of understanding of the world due to emergent science. Society threatened to destabilize, and the medieval (particularly as constructed in Arthurian legend, as I argue in The Establishment of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur as the Standard Text of English-Language Arthurian Legend) offered a palliative to all of those, one that successfully addressed the concerns of the emergent mass media population. It set a precedent that others were able to follow, and that precedent and its following established a habit of mind that remains with the consumers of popular culture today.

That there is more to say about the matter is certain; I know that I have only a limited view. But within those limits, I think a nostalgia for the imagined medieval past that the Regency and Victorian English focused upon does much to inform the continued appearance of the medieval in popular culture. Clearly, I do not view it as a wrong in itself, although I acknowledge that there are problems in the appropriation and in what is appropriated. Knowing this, though, offers some insight that can be used perhaps to anticipate future trends and perhaps to enable greater understanding of broader cultural constructs, benefiting all.

*I use the term because I am not at all certain how applicable the term "indigenous" remains for peoples whose cultures have been bastardized and abused through colonialist practice. Discussion of what term is appropriate would be welcome; I wish to know so that I may seek truth and avoid inadvertent offense.

**I know that Helen Young has more to say about the matter in "'It's the Middle Ages, Yo!': Race, Neo/Medievalisms, and the World of Dragon Age" and in a forthcoming piece.

Works Cited
  • Davis, Kathleen, and Nadia Altschul. Introduction. Medievalism in the Postcolonial World. Eds. Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2009. Print. 1-25.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "About a Popova Piece...and a Bit of Rebuttal." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 17 June 2014. Web. 24 June 2014.
  • ---. "Continuing with the Issue of Historical Authenticity." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 21 June 2014. Web. 24 June 2014.
  • ---. The Establishment of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur as the Standard Text of English-Language Arthurian Legend. Diss. U of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2012. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2012. Print.
  • ---. "More about Short-form Medievalist Scholarship." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 5 June 2014. Web. 24 June 2014.
  • Helms, Philip. "The Evolution of a Tolkien Fandom." The Tolkien Scrapbook. Ed. Alida Becker. Philadelphia: Running P, 1978. Print. 104-09.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy-stories." "The Monsters and the Critics" and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2006. Print. 109-61.
  • Young, Helen. "'It's the Middle Ages, Yo!': Race, Neo/Medievalisms, and the World of Dragon Age." The Year's Work in Medievalism 27 (2012). Georgia Tech, n.d. Web. 24 June 2014.
  • ---"Who Cares about Historical Authenticity? I Do." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 16 June 2014. Web. 24 June 2014.
  • ---. "Who Cares if Game of Thrones Is Authentically Medieval?" Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 12 June 2014. Web. 24 June 2014.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Continuing with the Issue of Historical Authenticity

The accuracy of ideas of the medieval carried forward in popular culture is one that seems to have been on the minds of contributors to this blog of late, as Helen Young's "Who Cares if Game of Thrones Is Authentically Medieval?" and "Who Cares about Historical Authenticity? I Do," and my "About a Popova Piece...and a Bit of Rebuttal" indicate. Given this, when I ran across Robert Krulwich's NPR piece, "Wrong! Deconstructing 5 Famous History Stories," I found myself interested. I continued to be so as I read the piece, in which Krulwich reports on the YouTube efforts of CGP Grey, who makes a habit of putting together internet videos that deconstruct and seek to correct cultural commonplaces. The piece is short and is badly titled ("history stories" seems awkward and unpolished, which I do not expect from an NPR writer), but there is a point of interest in it (aside from the links to Grey's work, which is not bad overall, although its condemnation of poets and artists is unpalatable).

That point is Krulwich's assertion that the repeated assertions of scholars do not change people's attitudes. He remarks additionally that those who teach are aware of the difficulty of getting people to change their preconceptions, and I can attest to the truth of that statement in my own life and teaching. (I am aware that individual anecdotes are not terribly convincing evidence.) Comfort, though, is more important than feeling smart, it seems. Identifications and interpretations of data that are more inclusive and leaner, that work better at producing desired results and determining what results are most to be desired, are set aside in favor of others that require less cognitive work. Even when those less effort intensive understandings lead to error and problems, they are held, not infrequently more tightly because of the problems; persecution complexes are easily developed. To borrow another (somewhat) popular medievalism and its correction, the idea of Chaucer as the representative of Middle English and standard from which to judge all other Middle Englishes, is a faulty one, as Tim William Machan correctly notes. Yet it is the idea that is transmitted forward in many surveys of early British literature, and even in higher-level courses to and by those who really ought to know better. That it is is depressing for those who agree with Young's assertion in "Who Cares about Historical Authenticity? I Do" that those who will study the medieval (and that must include those who will study its appearances in later periods) are obliged to work to correct misconceptions; if even those who ought to know better, working to help those who want to know better come to know better, perpetuate wrong-headed beliefs, then there is little hope for the many who are content to be wrong so long as they do not need to work to change their beliefs. (And they are beliefs. They are choices. So they are not "facts."*)

The notion of teaching's difficulty intersects with Grey's assertion in "5 Historical Misconceptions Rundown" that poets and artists are to blame for historical misconceptions. Artistic endeavor does not purpose to report "facts" as such, and to castigate it for failing to do so is to impose a rubric upon it that it does not claim for itself and does not deserve. Artistic endeavor purposes, among others, to prompt examination and reexamination not only of the "facts" but of the contexts in which those "facts" are gathered and disseminated, as well as those who will gather, disseminate, and interpret them. The problem in misunderstanding history is not the fault of the artist, who does not seek to produce "true history" so much as to offer an alternative understanding of world and self, but of the teacher who misreads art as what it is not and presents the results of that reading as "fact." It is the fault of the student who follows the banking model and sits quiescent, accepting what is given in the hopes of regurgitating it successfully so that it need not be retained. Some of it will always remain, though. Some will have been metabolized, however quickly it is spewed back again, and the little that remains is not likely to be the best bit to retain. That which is eaten earliest is most likely to be digested, to be taken and incorporated into the undiscriminating eater, true of teaching as of dining; it is the ideas inculcated early that take the most to overturn, and it is unfortunately those ideas that are most frequently wrong. Not simplified (for there is sense in scaffolding knowledge, and people do not react as adversely to the complication of things as to the overthrow of them), but wrong. Grey points out the example of Columbus, and in the comments on his video as well as in the Krulwich article that discusses it, there are defenders of the notion that the Italian "discovered" the New World despite the earlier travels of Icelanders to the continent and the older presence of indigenous peoples throughout the landmass. The oft-cited adage that "ain't" is not a word is maintained despite the presence of the word in such dictionaries as Oxford's and Merriam-Webster's.** Other examples abound, and many of them--perhaps even most--go to the issue of early teaching skewing all future understanding, rather than the artists being to blame for how their works are used in years they never see and cannot foresee.

If there is to be the kind of palliative for which Young calls in "Who Cares about Historical Authenticity? I Do," it has to come not only from the scholarly community, whose reach is limited by social factors that themselves need to be addressed (and that this blog seeks to address, albeit in a small way), but from those in the broader community who are positioned such that others will listen to them. Teachers of younger students are among them, as are the artists whom Grey identifies as contributing to the problem. The Society has been fortunate to host one such in a presentation at the 2014 International Congress on Medieval Studies, but there needs to be more such work done. Making works of popular culture more consonant with "how things really were" has to be a shared endeavor if it is to be successful--and it needs to be successful.

*The concept of "fact" is fraught, of course, given that selecting what data count as "facts" and which "facts" are worth reporting are interpretive decisions. This is entirely aside from the physical limitations on perception that necessarily limit access to information.

**Using presence in major dictionaries as an indicator of "being a word" is somewhat suspect, admittedly. It does function as a useful shorthand, however, and is deployed for that purpose only.

Works Cited
  • "Ain't." Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford UP, 2014. Web. 21 June 2014.
  • "Ain't." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2014. Web. 21 June 2014.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "About a Popova Piece...and a Bit of Rebuttal." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 17 June 2014. Web. 21 June 2014.
  • Grey, CGP. "5 Historical Misconceptions Rundown." YouTube. Google, 18 April 2012. Web. 21 June 2014.
  • Krulwich, Robert. "Wrong! Deconstructing 5 Famous History Stories." NPR.org. NPR, 20 June 2014. Web. 21 June 2014.
  • Machan, Tim William. "Chaucer and the History of English." Speculum 87.1 (January 2012): 147-75. Print.
  • Young, Helen. "Who Cares if Game of Thrones Is Authentically Medieval?" Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 12 June 2014. Web. 21 June 2014.
  • ---. "Who Cares about Historical Authenticity? I Do." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 16 June 2014. Web. 21 June 2014.

Friday, June 20, 2014

About a Davis Piece

During my morning reading, I came across an io9 piece by Lauren Davis, "These Medieval-Style Tolkien Illustrations Are Like Nothing We've Ever Seen." In it, Davis reports on and reproduces the Lord of the Rings artwork of Ukrainian artist Sergei Iukhimov, commenting on its resemblance to medieval iconographic traditions. Her comment about jealousy of those who grew up with such editions is likely to be agreed with by a number of her readers, for she is correct in noting that the illustrations do much to capture the feeling of Middle-earth.

How what Davis reports interacts with what Popova discusses (noted in this blog on 17 June 2014) is interesting. Admittedly, Davis can go into more detail with her single artist than Popova can with several, but what is notable is that the medieval scholar Tolkien does not deploy a medieval iconographic style in his illustrations, nor do the others Popova discusses, while Iukhimov does (and more than just the Orthodox style Davis names in discussing him). The effect of Iukhimov, then, is one that does far more to evoke the "medievalness" than do many of the other illustrations under discussion, which is not a condemnation of the illustration quality but is a comment on pseudo-historical context and its interaction with the narrative. There is something of the Crusades in the battles of Gondor and Mordor and much of the broader European medieval, and so the Iukhimov illustrations seem to be more in line with Tolkien's text than even the author's own; they look more like what is found in old manuscript copies, and so they fit more closely with the imagined transmission history of the text that the text itself presents.* Their inclusion makes the text more authentic, both to itself and to the medieval material from which it borrows so much.

*Mary R. Bowman discusses the issue of textual self-transmission in "The Story Was Already Written: Narrative Theory in The Lord of the Rings" (Narrative 14.3 [October 2006]: 272-93), as does Vladimir Brljak in "The Books of Lost Tales: Tolkien as Metafictionist" (Tolkien Studies 7 [2010]: 1-34.)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Paper opportunity at Leeds IMC

The Leeds International Medieval Congress is July 7-10 this year. There is a session themed 'Empire and Medievalist Fantasy' which is seeking one more paper. Details can be found here<http://www.leeds.ac.uk/ims/imc/late_call.html>

There are no Tales After Tolkien sessions organised for Leeds this year, although I will be giving a paper on empire in Tolkien, Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn books, and N. K. Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy.

If you are interested in being part of a Tales After Tolkien panel at next year's Leeds IMC, which is themed "Reform and Renewal," please get in touch (talesaftertolkien@gmail.com). 

Regarding a Cham Strip

Jorge Cham's PHD Comics is a common bit of reading among those in the academic community. In depicting various aspects of life in graduate school, it addresses the common experiences of those who have pursued post-baccalaureate education, allowing them to laugh at themselves. This is true of the 18 June 2014 strip (if that is the correct word for a webcomic) "A Guide to Academic Regalia," in which Cham identifies and skewers many pieces of the academic costume seen only at the most formal academic functions, typically graduation ceremonies. It is the tagline, "Nothing says 'We've learned something' like dressing the same way they did in Medieval Times" [sic], that attracts the attention of those who study the ways in which the medieval continues to manifest, for, as I note in a 7 June 2014 post to this blog, academic regalia is one of the appropriations of the medieval by contemporary popular culture--and the sneering attitude the strip exhibits betrays some misunderstandings of the invocation of the medieval.

Some of the assertions made in the strip--those regarding the standard colors for various degrees, for example--are factually correct (although the examples identified may well be read as sarcastic commentary). At least one, however, is incorrect: regalia is not standardized by "the Intercollegiate Bureau of Academic Costume." Insofar as they are standardized, it is by traditional usage described in Eugene Sullivan's "Academic Costume Code and Ceremony Guide" and presented on the American Council on Education website.* As part of that code, Sullivan attests to the fairly common understanding of the Western academic system as emerging from training for religious orders, situating the foundations of academic dress in items carried over from priestly and monastic robes and climate-driven additions. This does mean that Cham is right in pointing out the medieval origins of the academic costume, but it does not mean he is correct in the aspersion with which his strip regards it.

Several reasons his error is an error suggest themselves. One of them is that learning does not mean a rejection of the past. Those who study history will necessarily engage with the past to perform their studies, as will those concerned in such other fields as archaeology and paleontology. In addition, the practices of the peoples labeled as "medieval" are not necessarily so backwards as they are popularly assumed to be (as I touch on in a comment from 13 June 2014). They were, among others, attuned to the idea of preventative medicine through diet (with which many people in the early twenty-first century struggle) and invested in what might now be called "deep" semiotic readings as a matter of course. To offhandedly deride their practices as indicating a lack of learning does them a disservice--and it does the contemporary reader a disservice through perpetuating both erroneous ideas of the medieval (another continuing discussion on the Society blog) and through promoting a myopic view of the contemporary as the only time that matters. It suggests too much that the problems present in the now are not as problematic as they actually are, which tends to vitiate against their remedy.

The excision of the historical view--and ridicule of the historical conduces to that end--does not help people. Instead, it serves to disconnect them from their societal histories, histories which inform the current circumstances of their societies. Without the historical view, systemic inequities cannot be identified or addressed, which serves to denigrate those who are made abject through generational circumstances beyond their control; it facilitates blaming the victims for their own victimization. Further, to borrow from a cliché, it prevents the recognition of historical parallels, making avoidance of the problems of the past nearly impossible. The retention of the medieval aspects of academic dress serve as a palliative to that (albeit only in a small, small way). The common experience of regalia--again, the many who graduate from high schools and colleges share it--may not be overt in connecting people to societal histories. Rarely do academic ceremonies highlight the history of Western schooling (and I am aware of the problems in focusing on it to the exclusion of others, but see my note, below). But that a thing is not overt does not mean it is not present, and there are always those who are induced to curiosity about their circumstances and use regalia as a (perhaps trivial) way approach the medieval--or how the medieval continues to appear in whatever it is that gets called popular culture.

Cham is not necessarily wrong to lampoon any aspect of the US system of higher education (insofar as such a thing exists). Much of it deserves ridicule, and even that which does not does not suffer from it. Even in "A Guide to Academic Regalia," there is much of value. The strip is funny, overall, with a number of the implicit and explicit jokes working well. Even the sneering comment need not be taken at face value. And it is the case that academic regalia is awkward for the contemporary wearer and uncomfortable in many circumstances; I took my bachelor's in central Texas and my graduate degrees in southwestern Louisiana, neither of which has the kindest climate to long black robes in May or June when most commencements happen. But jokes are often used to express ideas that are deeply held but run counter to prevailing norms and so are not best suited for flat discussion, and sarcasm tends to blunt serious consideration. As a medievalist and as a scholar of how the medieval is presented, I want to have the serious conversations. I almost need to have them. Thus I react to the Cham strip as I do, even though I am and for some years have been a regular reader of PHD Comics; I worry that it forecloses the possibility of doing what I--and the Society--do.

*Cham operates primarily in the United States and speaks mostly to the US system of higher education. As such, this discussion focuses on US practice; discussions of other nations' practices would be welcome in the comments.

Works Cited
  • Cham, Jorge. "A Guide to Academic Regalia." PHD Comics. Jorge Cham, 18 June 2014. Web. 19 June 2014.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "Against Some Perceived Limits on Popular Culture: A Small Case." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 7 June 2014. Web. 19 June 2014.
  • ---. Comment on "Who Cares if Game of Thrones Is Authentically Medieval?" Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 13 June 2014. Web. 19 June 2014.
  • Sullivan, Eugene. "Academic Costume Code and Ceremony Guide." ACE: American Council on Education. American Council on Education, n.d. Web. 19 June 2014.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

About a Popova Piece...and a Bit of Rebuttal

A friend of mine suggested that the Society blog consider Maria Popova's 13 June 2014 Brain Pickings piece "Vintage Illustrations for Tolkien's The Hobbit from around the World," hinting that it might do the kind of thing in which the Society is interested. The piece points out a number of older illustrations for Tolkien's children's work, although it notes Tolkien's own comments regarding children's literature in opening. Sections for several early editions of the text are provided, in which a brief introductory paragraph precedes representative illustrations from each edition. Popova makes a point of providing examples from multiple languages and countries, displaying an admirable attempt to resist the kind of field-narrowing Helen discusses in an earlier post. It is the kind of project that would be good to see expanded and offered more detail, perhaps along the lines of Barry Gaines's Sir Thomas Malory: An Anecdotal Bibliography of Editions, 1485-1985.

One matter of note in the piece is the blending among some of the artists represented (but neither Tolkien nor Jansson) of medieval and later clothing among the characters, particularly Bilbo. (The images from the Tolkien text do not show Bilbo, while those from the Jansson edition seem to tie to the idea of The Hobbit as bedtime story, with the night-capped Mr. Baggins depicted.) In them, the eponymous hobbit lounges about in waistcoat and breeches, looking very much like he is in a shoeless form of Regency court uniform. Yet the disparity of historical reference does not strike the eye as odd--partly because Bilbo is described as wearing a buttoned waistcoat, among others, and partly because the issue of historical accuracy in fantasy referentiality is fraught. While some fantasy series attract some censure because of their inconsistency of invocation, the cornerstone of the genre does so only rarely, if at all. (References to examples and counter-examples would be welcome in the comments below.) How many bat an eye at the hobbits of Lord of the Rings dressing as they dress among the robed and mailed mighty ones of Gondor and Rohan? How many balk at brocaded vests with chain mail beneath? And what of pipe-weed, that typifying halfling past-time ripped from its historical colonialist context and shoved into an otherwise medievalist milieu?

Certainly, scholars have a duty to the truth. Those who are medievalists are obliged to point out to those who are not that the medieval was not as it is often depicted. But if they will do so, then they need to do so for all--and there are many who are introduced to the study of the medieval through Tolkien. His works are foundational to the fantasy genre and to current genre medievalism (as the Society officially recognizes). If those works which derive from his are to be chastised for their inaccuracies, then his must be the more so, both because they serve as the example from which others work and because Tolkien was in a position to know better. He was a scholar of the medieval, after all, and even if understandings of some particulars have changed based upon information developed since his career ended, many broader views have not. And if his works are not challenged on such grounds, perhaps those who look into the uses and misuses of the medieval ought to be a bit less condemnatory of his successors when they do the same as their forebear. This does not mean that the deviations should be ignored or that they should be allowed to promote incorrect understandings of the medieval unchecked and unremarked, but they may perhaps be considered as something other than mere mistakes.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Who Cares About Historical Authenticity? I Do

A few days ago I (Helen here), posted about "Games of Thrones," and why people care if it's really 'medieval' or not. I'd always planned to do a follow-up post, but have been kicked into writing it sooner than I intended originally by something I read on Tumblr over the weekend.
I've written before, here on my own blog, and here in the Year's Work in Medievalism, about what I call the 'monochrome Middle Ages,' the assumption that everyone in Europe (including travellers) during the medieval period was white. Usually tacked onto this is the idea that there was no concept of 'race' then either. Of course, none of this is true, but it's used right across the spectrum of media fandom and production to exclude characters of colour from medievalist texts, even when they are fantasy and include, say, ice zombies and dragons. Similar concepts of 'historical authenticity' are variously used to justify representation of  violence against women, offering only limited roles for women, lack of representation of queer characters, and exclusion of disabled characters. There are, of course, medievalist texts that don't do any of these things, and that specifically try to work against them. The Dragon Age franchise from Bioware has included queer characters and attempted to work against sexism, and to be more racially inclusive, albeit in limited ways.

Academics aren't the only ones who challenge assumptions about what 'medieval' means when it comes to race, gender, sexuality and the rest. There's an incredible resource on Tumblr: "People of Color in European Art History,"which is here. It links a social justice agenda with reams of historical evidence about the represenation and presence of people of colour in Europe in the Middle Ages.

I joked in my previous post about 'which anachronism in Game of Thrones irritates you most' being a good conversation starter at conferences, but when it comes to questions like racism and sexism, these kinds of issues are serious, and can go beyond even issues of representation on screen (or in the pages).

Back in January this year, Warhorse Studios ran a crowd-funding campaign to support their game Kingdom Come: Deliverance (which is not out yet as far as I can tell from Australian outlets, which are often behind). They made a lot of its historical accuracy; the creative director, Daniel Varda, has been quoted as saying:
you can think of it as a Braveheart-game – majestic castles, armoured knights, large-scale battles, political intrigues – all set in a large medieval open world. We want to make the experience as authentic as possible: real locations, real castles, period-decorated costumes and armour, combat and fencing designed by the best swordsmen around, and a story based on real historical evidence.
I read about this because a post on the "People of Color in European Art History," responded to a reader question about it which asked if characters of "other-than-white" descent might be realistically included, and for academic resources. The person who runs the blog (who is often referred to as 'medievalpoc' as s/he chooses to be anonymous) responded with an array of academic texts, and some artwork, suggesting that they could indeed be included without breaking the 'accuracy' conceit, and also remarked that representation of women and racial minorities was not a priority for the developers. The post was re-blogged around Tumblr (more than 1 200 times as I write this), but was also linked to on the social media site Reddit under a provocative headline. As a result, medievalpoc received an absolute wave of terrible abuse, which was covered on The Daily Dot here (this makes for disturbing reading).What I didn't realise at the time but has recently been posted about on the Tumblr, is that the abuse went as far as death threats, and threats against medievalpoc's family. This is an extreme instance of where the 'monochrome Middle Ages' ideas, and its variants on other issues. can lead.

This kind of extreme, potentially violent reaction is ultimately another reason that historical authenticity, and whether a media text is really 'medieval' or not is important. We can joke about, or be genuinely annoyed by inaccuracies, but there's far more to them than that. Academic versions of the Middle Ages have, historically, contributed to incorrect assumptions about them, and we've now got a responsibility to do something about that. I'm not so naive as to think that someone who writes death threats over the mere suggestion that a game might be more inclusive, or that there were people of colour living in Europe in the Middle Ages, will stop or have their views shaken by any amount of op-ed pieces. But we still have a responsibility to point out when things are wrong, because ultimately if we don't, we allow those same ideas to be perpetuated. The notion that "that's just how it was" is one that I've heard time and time again. Which is one of the reasons that writing op-eds, or blog posts, or articles with variants on "that's NOT how it was," matters.

Friday, June 13, 2014

CFP: Midsouth Undergraduate Research Conference

Undergraduates and those who teach undergraduates, please note the CFP from the Midsouth Undergraduate Research Conference, which calls for 250-word proposals for papers or creative projects. All disciplines are welcome, and it would be of benefit to the Society if papers representing its focus and interests were sent along and represented. Those intending to go to graduate school will be well served by pursuing the opportunity.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Who cares if "Game of Thrones" is authentically medieval?

I've just come across yet another article arguing that "Games of Thrones" isn't really medieval here (I've also posted it on Facebook). This one argues that its world has more in common with the early modern period, but also, quite rightly points out that its not even consistent about that. It's pretty clear to anyone who's worked on the Middle Ages that neither the books nor the TV show are accurately medieval in all kinds of ways, that's really a moot point. And for all that George Martin makes plenty of claims about Westeros being properly medieval and not some Disney or Tolkien-imitation, he also says that the story, not history, comes first. What really interests me is why people seem to care so much.

It's probably not surprising that there's a ready supply of academics not just willing but eager to write about this. 'Which inaccuracy or anachronism irritates you most in "Game of Thrones?' is a pretty good conversation starter at any Medieval Studies conference, and even those who get past the irritation enough to enjoy the show still notice the details. I'm not suggesting for a minute that we should stop writing these pieces (not that I have but I would if I had the chance); I think it's actually very important that we (the royal/academic we) do try to engage in these kinds of discussions. Not just because it means our students might not have quite so many false assumptions when they get into the classroom, but because, as the article I linked to says, "Game of Thrones" is much more about the present day than it is about the past; if we don't point this out, all the violence, racism, sexism etc can be just dismissed as 'authentic' and a chance to reflect on what our society is like gets lost.

Why there are editors willing to publish these stories in the mainstream media is relatively easy: the show is incredibly popular, so the pieces will be read. But is it just that so many people watch the show, and that they're all so keen on it that they'll read anything with "Game of Thrones" in the title? I don't think it is. One one level, the historical (in)accuracy of the show gives people an excuse to enjoy it by making it seem more serious and adult than fantasy is usually given credit for. Fantasy is still often looked down as being juvenile, if not outright childish, so putting in some history gives the show, and its audience, credibility and a kind of cultural capital. Articles that argue "Game of Thrones" isn't as medieval as it might appear speak to some of that. And if, like the one I've linked to here, they suggest that there's a lot of early modern history in there as well, that is still history.

Regarding a Feature of Common Fantasy Milieus: Formal Social Hierarchy

I have asserted on several occasions (such as in papers given at Society sessions at the International Congress on Medieval Studies) that the "standard" setting of fantasy fiction is one that is amorphously European feudal (typically High Middle Ages or Early Modern English in overall shape). That is, governmental authority is vested in a single monarch whose rule is supported and vested in a number of subordinate nobles who receive land and authority form the monarch, but there is not much in the way of formal distinctions. Perhaps one or two gradations of nobility are identified subordinate to the monarch, but only those. How this manifests in Tolkien, I mean to discuss in my contribution to the upcoming Society volumes, as does how it manifests in Robin Hobb's Six Duchies novels. It can also be seen in the structure of Gernia, the milieu of Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy that I discussed in a paper given at the 2010 South Central Modern Language Association conference and Helen Young discusses in a recent article; a number of ennobled lords serve a king, with only seniority distinguishing them in formal rank. Katharine Kerr's Deverry novels offer a bit more detail in the nobility of Deverry; there is a king and some princes, supported by those styled gwerbret, tieryn, and lord, in descending order of precedence. George R.R. Martin's Westeros is a bit more detailed, with bannermen sworn to various lords and expressly described as such, and some lords further ennobled as Wardens of large regions of the kingdom. Even so, none offers as much distinction among its noble ranks as does the exemplary English/British structure of nobility, with its overlapping ranks of duke/duchess, marquess/marchioness, earl/countess, viscount/viscountess, and baron/baroness, and gradations of seniority within each. The typical fantasy kingdom's relatively flat social hierarchy stands in contrast to a system forming a complex and complicated order of precedence in which issues of entitlement and privilege become means to exercise authority and their denial a means to offer insult. Why it should do so, why it should gloss over hierarchical distinctions with which the medieval mind (insofar as such a thing can be said to be) was quite concerned amid so many invocations of the medieval bears some explication.

One possibility for the leveling of the formal social hierarchy is the recognition that such structures do not obtain in the daily lives of the readers. The United States is a major market for fantasy literature, and while nobility and gradations of it are seen as prototypically "medieval," so that they have to be included, a strict social hierarchy in which people are born into places from which they may not ascend except in exceedingly rare cases runs counter to the prevailing cultural narrative (as it is reported; as it is evidenced may be a different matter entirely). Too, as I note in an earlier post, formal gradations of nobility in government are expressly prohibited by the core of United States law (US Const., art. I, sec. 10), so giving too much attention to them comes off as "un-American," something generally perceived as to be avoided in the US. But that does not account for readers in the UK, which remains a monarchy, or the various Realms of the Commonwealth, which ostensibly acknowledge the sovereignty of a monarch; in both cases, however, the peerage and royalty are largely nominal and ceremonial. They little affect the daily lives of the people, except perhaps in disruptions to traffic patterns and in providing convenient foci for ideations of celebrity. Thus, while it may be that the flattening corresponds to an anti-hierarchical sentiment among US fantasy readership (and, perhaps, that of other countries that rebelled against such structures or who peacefully but no less decisively removed themselves from royal and noble dominion), it may be a lack of importance or a lack of familiarity that prompts it for those readers who live in the various English-speaking countries in which monarchy is still in force. In each, the medieval is seen as "needing" nobility, but that nobility is minimized so as to correspond more closely to contemporary ideologies.

The idea does, however, leave open the question of Tolkien's flattening of his own noble hierarchy, since, as a medieval scholar and a man born in a British colony late in the Victorian era, he would not have been quite so much subject to the lessening of noble relevance as are those who follow him and those who write as citizens of nations that have repudiated structures of hereditary nobility. Yet his scholarship might provide an answer. Tolkien is noted for having been an Anglo-Saxonist, and the Anglo-Saxon noble structure is much flatter than that imposed on England by the Normans and that which developed in the succeeding centuries. A king (or seven, but who's counting?) is served by those styled ealdormann (alderman), eorl (earl), and thegns--and ealdormann and eorl seems to have been more or less interchangeable. Tolkien's amply attested source material, then, exhibits a relatively flat noble hierarchy, so that it is not to be wondered at that his recapitulation of it does so, particularly in his mimetic-of-the-Anglo-Saxons Rohirrim and his earlier overarching project to develop a distinctly English mythical history or pseudo-history. Since Tolkien does serve as a foundational figure to fantasy literature (as the Society happily acknowledges), it follows that later fantasy authors, looking back to him, would emulate his less-detailed scheme of noble gradation. Perhaps the coincidence of mimicking Tolkien and addressing the expectations of readers who demand "medieval" setting features without violating their current social contexts (much and overtly) accounts for the continued reduction of noble and royal title from their proliferation in England and elsewhere to their appearances on the fantasy literature page. And perhaps there are other factors contributing to the non-distinction than those for which I can account; further discussion of them would be welcome, as would further discussion of the possibilities this piece suggests.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Yt Ys Nat Chaucer on lane That Hath a Blog

I made mention yesterday of the Chaucer blog, one of the more entertaining inside jokes for medievalists. The idea in it is that the text of the blog mimics what the greatest of Geoffreys would write were he to have a blog, as well as what some few others would contribute, given the chance. It is not itself scholarly work, although it is informed by scholarship, but it does serve as an excellent example of how the medieval can be brought forward.

Playing with the materials, such as the Chaucer blog does, is important. Too often, members of the general public get bogged down in the age of the medieval, thinking that the works are dreadfully dull in all cases. Perhaps this comes from poor teaching, in which people who do not really understand the material are obliged to transmit it as important cultural heritage; they do not know it and so cannot love it, and when they present it without love as they are then obliged to do, they foster in their students the impression that the material cannot be loved. But making the material a means of fun is a way to draw people into it, a way to show them that the medieval can be every bit as engaging as the modern--more, in some ways, since its greater removal allows for consideration of the work without necessarily entangling with contemporary concerns that distract from the work considered. Taking the material as the basis for a series of jokes as the Chaucer blog does makes the material a still-living thing, even if only in a small niche, and anything that helps to keep the better parts of the medieval alive helps medievalist studies such as those the Society promotes, and that is good for us all.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Comments about a PBS Report

While looking around the internet, I came across Victoria Fleischer's 3 April 2014 PBS Newshour Art Beat piece "What Does a Medieval Literature Scholar Read into Game of Thrones?" In it, Fleischer reports and comments on a monologue from Prof. Brantley Bryant of Sonoma State University (noted as one of the Chaucer bloggers) in which Bryant discusses in brief possible medieval literary antecedents for the characters in Martin's increasingly famous fantasy series. It is a useful example of popular scholarship, taking something very much in the contemporary popular mind and using it as a bridge to begin consideration of appropriations of the medieval.

Of note to my mind is Bryant's attempt to connect Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre to Arthuriana, specifically Arthur and Nimue. There is some connection present between Martin's work and the primary piece of Arthurian legend in English, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. For one, Douglas A. Anderson asserts in his introduction to Tales before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy that Arthurian legend underlies all fantasy literature--which would include the tales of Westeros. Too, the civil unrest depicted in the Song of Ice and Fire series echoes the Wars of the Roses, in which Malory fought and which culminated in one of the understood ends of the English Middle Ages. And there is the tentative character connection Bryant suggests--although I am not convinced of its strength, thinking the relationship of Stannis and Melisandre more like that of Accolon and Morgan than of Arthur and Nimue. There is also a stronger structural parallel, that of the interwoven narrative. One of the key features of Malory's text is that it switches among plots, moving from one character to another in ways that are occasionally ragged except for their simultaneity, antecedent to cross-cutting in films. Martin's books do the same thing, with each volume of the Song of Ice and Fire moving among several characters' individual stories. They meet and part, and sometimes their deeds run as one for a while before they become separate threads again. To my mind, it is one of the more notable mimicries of medieval literature in Martin's series, although I can understand why it is not among the comments Fleischer reports.

As a means to begin discussion, then, the piece is worth attention. As is perhaps unavoidable given the constraints on the piece, it does not go as far as it could or as it ought; there is far more to discuss than Fleischer, or those of Bryant's comments Fleischer offers, present.

(Yes, this piece makes use of informal citation. I tend to follow MLA, but tend to does not mean always.)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Something That Came up at Kalamazoo

I was digging through my notes from the 2014 International Congress on Medieval Studies and came across a call for submissions to the online Journal of Tolkien Research. It appears to be amenable to the kind of work that the Society seeks to handle (and involves people who have helped the Society and whom the Society could stand to help in return), and so members are encouraged to draft and submit articles. Look for it also to be taken up for the kind of reviews and commentary discussed in the first post to this blog.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Against Some Perceived Limits on Popular Culture: A Small Case

What is often meant by the term "popular culture" is what is pushed forth in mass media, whether print, analog, or digital. It is treated as being a thing of widespread information transmission, limited to bookshelves and screens small and large, and certainly it appears in those places. The work of the Society and the work many of its members have done and still do outside the purview of the Society attest to it amply. But it is not only in them that popular culture appears, not only in them that it exists, and so it is not only in those places that the medieval, broadly understood, is figured and appropriated.

One such bit of the medieval that appears with surprising frequency and in locations that make sense once considered but are rarely considered is heraldry. The notion of identifying sigils is hardly new, of course, and hardly unrecognized as belonging to the knights in shining armor so frequently associated with the "Middle Ages." And it appears in plenty in the pop culture genre that is perhaps most prominent in refiguring the medieval: fantasy literature. Tolkien, whose work undergirds the Society (see the name) makes use of shield-borne insignia in The Lord of the Rings, notably in Gondor and Rohan. Following him, though, are such current luminaries as George R.R. Martin, whose Song of Ice and Fire novels include appendices noting the shield devices and mottoes--both heraldic features--of the various houses in play in Westeros and beyond. My own research in medievalism has focused on the works of Robin Hobb (primarily, but not exclusively), and much is made in her Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies of the badge to which narrating protagonist FitzChivalry Farseer is entitled. Other examples can be found without trouble, certainly, and how heraldic conventions are deployed--usually in much simpler form than is observed among the medievals, broadly defined--is well worth investigating.

No less deserving of attention, however, is how the heraldic appears in other facets of popular culture than those commonly regarded as being popular culture. Perhaps the most prominent example of it is in the continued use of heraldic insignia not only by the remaining successors of the medieval royalty in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth,* but among many of the militaries of the modern world. That hereditary nobility, such as is still found in the British Isles, would retain features of the cultures that generated their nobility makes sense, of course; retaining contexts that provide privileges suggests itself as a way to retain privilege. It serves a legitimating function by providing a connection back to a somewhat romanticized past in which the emblem can be used to cover the frequently less-than-pleasant deeds through which it was ostensibly earned. In that regard, it suggests that medievalism, as the deployment of the medieval, can be used as a way to embed a context of power and authority--something that other scholars have discussed at some length. Medievalism in the Postcolonial World offers examples well worth reading. The deployment contrasts sharply with that usually seen in figurations of the medieval seen in what is commonly regarded as popular culture, which usually appear as either surface-level milieu-dressing or as externalizations of inner character. And given the media attention that accrues to royal families in their own countries and those which ostensibly explicitly repudiate royal authority and titular nobility proceeding from it, the deployment and the people who enact it are very much in the purview of popular culture even understood as mass media production.

Similarly clearly within the purview of popular culture, at least in the United States,** is the military (particularly in the wake of the recent seventieth anniversary of the D-Day amphibious assault on Normandy), and the military very much continues to make use of heraldry. Despite the rejection by the United States of the social structures of titular nobility with which heraldry is linked (US Const., art. I, sec. 10), the nation maintains an Institute of Heraldry as part of its army that reports itself as authorized by law to provide heraldic emblems for all military and federal governmental bodies of the United States. It does so with the idea of fostering quick recognition of various units and the awards offered to units and to individuals, so that the deployment of the medieval in the employment of the heraldic serves both as a reassertion of the original purposes of heraldry and as an implication that the medieval is of value. It cannot be a source and symbol of pride if it is not regarded as having value, and it is used in such capacities, denoting advancement through ranks, progression of citations for excellence and valor, and unit identities including the crews of ships in the US Navy and US Coast Guard. In the latter capacities, especially, the heraldic emblems are described in traditional terms, and the symbolism of the emblems is explicitly discussed, invoking the medieval even more explicitly than the presence of heraldic emblems alone. The medieval is thus reinforced as relevant, praiseworthy, and emblematic of praiseworthiness in what is often regarded as the most "real" and "necessary" part of the existence of the United States (with, admittedly, no small degree of irony) and a part that is glamorized and valorized throughout much of the country.

Other examples can be found, certainly. Various awards ceremonies, such as one at East Carolina University that some of my other work brought to my attention, partake of the heraldic, conferring honor through explained symbolism. Graduation and commencement ceremonies, in which many members of the Society have partaken and likely hope to partake again, do so as well. Each is a part of popular culture relevant to shared experience but not frequently examined for its figuration of the medieval, and it might well behoove the Society to take a closer look at such things in carrying out its mission to explore the continued appropriation of the nebulous thing that is called "medieval."

*I hope I am using the terms correctly. If I am not, please (gently) let me know, and I will be happy to adjust. It is the kind of thing that blogged scholarship is supposed to support, as I note in "About Short-Form Medievalist Scholarship."

**I write in the US, and the US exports a fair chunk of its popular culture. I hope I may be forgiven for centering on it somewhat. And how the ideas in the paragraph play out in other countries would make for good discussion.

Works Cited
  • Davis, Kathleen, and Nadia Altschul, eds. Medievalism in the Postcolonial World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2009. Print.
  • East Carolina University College of Nursing. "College of Nursing Honors 2014 Hall of Fame Inductees." ECU Health Beat. East Carolina University, 26 March 2014. Web. 7 June 2014.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "About Short-Form Medievalist Scholarship." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 4 June 2014. Web. 6 June 2014.
  • The Institute of Heraldry. US Army, n.d. Web. 7 June 2014.
  • US Constitution. Art. I, Sec. 10.

Friday, June 6, 2014

A Small Milestone

We had our first 100-view day today! We look forward to seeing both numbers--how many days, and how many views--increase.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Publication News

Advanced contracts for the first publications affiliated with the Tales After Tolkien Society have now been signed. Two volumes, edited by Helen Young, will appear with Cambria University Press, with planned publication next year.

Tales After Tolkien: Medievalism in Science Fiction and Fantasy

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was a defining work for Fantasy, substantially contributing to the creation of an audience, a publishing category, and what became conventions of the genre. It was also a major entry point for medievalism into twentieth-century popular culture, with impact reaching far beyond the genre which it helped make. The Middle Ages, particularly as filtered through Tolkien’s works, have haunted the Science Fiction genre since its inception; even the most politically progressive tales of the future reacted against the conservative, nostalgic medievalism they perceived in Lord of the Rings and its imitations. Fantasy has been imagined as imitation of Tolkien’s work, and Science Fiction as its antithesis, but such constructs vastly under-estimate the complexities of both genres and their interactions. In the twenty-first century, the boundaries between Fantasy and Science Fiction have become increasingly blurred, and both genres have arguably moved into a post-Tolkienian mode; Tolkien did not have the last word on medievalisms. ‘Medieval’ has multiple meanings in Fantasy and Science Fiction, which shift with genre convention, and which bring about their own changes as authors and audiences engage with what has gone before in the recent and deeper pasts. This volume explores the ways in which twenty-first century Science Fiction and Fantasy creatively re-imagine the Middle Ages, it shows how genre shapes contemporary engagements with the past, how those same engagements drive changes in the genres themselves. Tales After Tolkien will be the first edited collection dedicated to the intersections of medievalism and Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Beyond Tolkien: Medievalism, Genre, and Identity

Beyond Tolkien: Medievalism, Genre, and Identity explores the varied medievalisms of twenty-first century popular genres, shedding new light on the ways in which social constructions of identity are shaped through re-creations of the past. Medievalism in the twenty-first century is layered, folding into itself the practices, processes, and representations of earlier eras, as well as those of contemporary culture. A high proportion of popular re-workings of the Middle Ages are structured by the genre of any given creative work. Profit and pleasure define popular culture, and genres are a major framework organizing the production of both: creative industries use them to make the former, and consumers to help find the latter. The triple crown of income, entertainment, and convention far outweighs any commitment to history in genre medievalisms, leading Umberto Eco to, now infamously, rail against “avalanche of pseudo-medieval pulp in paperbacks.” Yet if some scholars still incline to Eco’s attitude, this collection explores rather than bemoans his avalanche, taking its depth and breadth to be an indication of how important the idea – if not the historical realities – of ‘the medieval’ is in contemporary articulations of identity. This collection brings together explorations of multiple different popular genres – Romance, Children and Young Adult, Historical, Folk Music, Cyberpunk, and Crime. 

More about Short-form Medievalist Scholarship

What follows is likely more along the lines of "commentary" than of "scholarship" proper, but as it discusses scholarship, I offer it with the label.

In a post yesterday, "About Short-Form Medievalist Scholarship," I discuss some basic scholarly justification for short-form medievalist scholarship as an activity of the Society presented on this blog. The discussion is incomplete, of course; there is much more scholarship that engages with and makes room for blogging as scholarly endeavor available than what I report. (To be fair, there is also scholarly argument against the activity. I happen to think such arguments erroneous. Obviously.) And there is the question of what "short-form medievalist scholarship" means in the context of this blog, which is not necessarily easy to ascertain.

One means to approach what the term means here is to discuss the component parts of the term and how they interact. Doing so results in three sub-terms that need clarification: "short-form," "medievalist," and "scholarship." The first, short-form, is necessarily relative. For those scholars who routinely produce book-length treatments of topics, a twenty- to thirty-page journal article is "short," while for those who are not necessarily professional academics, such a piece is interminably long, and a stock five-paragraph, five-hundred-word essay is "short." Because this blog is supposed to reflect the Society, and the Society is meant to be one of general membership, a middle way is desirable; twenty or thirty pages will likely be too much for the blog to handle at a time and five paragraphs will likely not go into enough detail to be useful (unless they are excellent paragraphs, which the typical five-paragraph form usually does not generate). A perhaps-useful guideline comes from the journal The Explicator, which notes in its "Instructions for Authors" that "Essays should be about 1,200 words." For those used to the US college system, this comes out to something like three to five pages of text, which is enough to get an idea going and to get into it in some detail, sparking discussion as the blog hopes to do. And since writing well is as much art as science, exact numbers are not useful as absolute standards; a range is better, and 1,000 to 1,500 words centers on the 1,200 already noted, offers a fairly decent range, and gives easy-to-work-with round numbers.

The second term, medievalist, appears to be less uncertain. The International Society for the Study of Medievalism (a good group of folks) defines the term on its homepage as "the study of responses to the Middle Ages at all periods since a sense of the mediaeval began to develop," which is sensible enough. It presupposes, however, a stable definition of what the Middle Ages are, and there may well not be one. Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul comment throughout their introduction to Medievalism in the Postcolonial World that the terms "medieval" and "Middle Ages" may or may not actually apply to areas outside Europe, in which they have not seldom been used as descriptors of indigenous peoples applied to justify colonialist oppression. The geographic exclusivity and the problematic applications of the terms, then, destabilize them somewhat. Even within Europe, however, the period covered by the blanket term "medieval" is uncertain; it changes depending on where in Europe is being discussed. My own more traditional research tends to focus on late medieval England, and the end of the medieval period in England is variously reported as 1476 (the introduction by Caxton of the printing press to England) and 1485 (the ascent of the Tudor dynasty to the English throne). The case could be made, as well, that the Middle Ages in England only end with the 1534 Act of Supremacy, if "medieval" is taken as "time in which the Catholic Church serves as the primary legitimizing body" or the early modern whose advent ends the medieval is taken to begin with the serious questioning of papal hegemony. And that date and others depend on physical location, so that in studying the medieval, the medievalist is looking at uncertainty; it is itself uncertain therefore. A useful rubric may be to go by what is considered medieval or its reasonable cultural equivalent in each region; a useful series of discussions might treat what counts as "medieval" and where.

The third term, scholarship, can be easily taken to mean the generation of new knowledge and understanding observation of the world and from analysis of already-existing knowledge and understanding--primary and secondary, as often described. The emphasis in either event is on making new knowledge, something that escapes many people. It is not enough to say "This thing is there," as that knowledge is not new. It is not enough to say that "So-and-so says this thing," as that thing is knowledge already out in the world. Scholarship begins with such things, but does not end there, even in so informal a setting as this blog is likely to be. Something new, some new perspective or understanding, something that has not been said even if it has perhaps been noticed and passed over as "obvious" (and not all things that seem obvious actually are; the differences among people's perspectives and perceptive abilities will highlight different things to them) needs to be given voice, even here. That does not mean it must be an earth-shattering revelation to be of worth; most of the best research works diligently on a small point, offering a position from which to look at other small things, until the small things can be examined as parts of bigger things, and on to the totality. The small focus allows for deeper investigation on larger projects, and it allows for meaningful investigation in smaller projects such as might be found in blog posts. Even something like the clarification of a term can count as a reasonable bit of scholarship, particularly scholarship that seeks to be of limited, easily accessed scope.

For this blog, then, tentatively and certainly open to discussion, short-form medievalist scholarship ought to be essays of 1,000 to 1,500 words that seek to propagate new knowledge and understandings of the ways in which post-medieval works, particularly those of popular culture of the late twentieth century and after (given the focus of the Society), define and appropriate cross-cultural ideas of the medieval. The definition should allow for plenty of room in which to work; I look forward to seeing the results.

Works Cited*
  • Davis, Kathleen, and Nadia Altschul. Introduction. Medievalism in the Postcolonial World. Eds. Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2009. Print. 1-25.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "About Short-Form Medievalist Scholarship." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 4 June 2014. Web. 5 June 2014.
  • "The Explicator: Instructions for Authors." Taylor & Francis Online. Informa UK Limited, n.d. Web. 5 June 2014.
  • "The International Society for the Study of Medievalism." The International Society for the Study of Medievalism. International Society for the Study of Medievalism, 17 March 2014. Web. 5 June 2014.
*While I do tend to follow MLA guidelines, as noted, I am aware of the demands of the online environment, and so I offer links where practicable.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

CFP: MAPACA 2014 SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY AREA

 The following may be of interest.

Call for Papers MAPACA 2014
SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY AREA

The Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association (MAPACA) invites academics, graduate and undergraduate students, independent scholars, and artists to submit papers for the annual conference, to be held in Baltimore, November 6-8, 2014. Those interested in presenting at the conference are invited to submit a proposal or panel by June 15, 2014. Abstracts should be no more than 300 words long. Include a brief bio with your proposal. Single papers, as well as 3- or 4-person panels and roundtables, are encouraged. All proposals should be submitted via the online system at www.mapaca.net, where you can also find more information on our organization and our conference.

 Science Fiction and Fantasy welcomes papers/presentations in any critical, theoretical, or (inter)disciplinary approach to any topic related to SF/F: art; literature; radio; film; television; video, role-playing, and multi-player online games. Though not an exhaustive list, potential presenters may wish to consider the following:

Ø  Gender and Sexuality
Ø  Race and Otherness
Ø  Class and Hierarchies
Ø  Utopia/Dystopia
Ø  Mythology and Quest Narratives
Ø  Creatures and Aliens
Ø  Science and Magic
Ø  Reading Other Worlds
Ø  Language and Rhetoric
Ø  Genre: Space Opera, Cyberpunk, Dark Fantasy, Steampunk, etc.
Ø  Fans and Fandom/Community Building
Ø  Textual Analysis
Ø  Sociological or Psychological Readings
Ø  Archival Research/History
Ø  Technology: Textual and Literal
Ø  Online Identity Construction
Ø  Fairy Tales
Ø  Paranormal Romance
Ø  Young Adult Literature
Ø  Tolkien (literature and film)

 Area Chairs: Marilyn Stern sternm@wit.edu                                  
                       Leigha McReynolds lhm@gwmail.gwu.edu
            
Visit www.mapaca.net for a full list of areas.

About Short-Form Medievalist Scholarship

In the initial post to this blog, I noted that one of the things that the blog will do is offer a venue for occasional bits of short-form medievalist scholarship. The justification for it deserves a bit of explanation.

That justification is presented, at least in part, in the 2011 issue of the Modern Language Association of America's* publication Profession. In it is a cluster of articles discussing the evaluation of digital scholarship, and in the introduction to that cluster is the suggestion that digital scholarship needs to be encouraged among junior scholars (126)--those who have not yet been awarded tenure and those who find themselves off of the tenure track but not secure in identities as independent scholars. This means that there needs to be more digital scholarship, and so more venues for it. Hence this blog offering space for such things. The same introductory essay notes also that "the digital is conducive to the kinds of projects...including pedagogy, public humanities, and the creation of scholarly editions" (125), and the Society has among its aims the promotion of wide public discourse about medievalism in genre. Indeed, the Society welcomes not only scholars but the artists who generate popular culture and the audiences who take it in. Since the blog form helps to open discourse, it suggests itself as a useful platform for short-form work.

In the articles in the cluster, Geoffrey Rockwell directly praises blogs for their ability to track emergent trends in research and scholarship and for their ability to present verification of scholarly and general impact through tracking reading figures (159-61). This aids the same encouragement of junior scholars noted above; the short works can be demonstrated as scholarly and as having been examined by others, suggesting scholarly influence. More relevantly, however, and the greater hope for the short-form pieces in this blog is the potential for commentary and sustained discussion that blogs provide. Kathleen Fitzpatrick remarks on the immensely valuable scholarly potential of post-publication comments on online materials (199-200). Since the stated mission of the Society is to discuss things, forums that promote discussion are to be sought--and so this blog will offer them.

*In the interest of full disclosure: I am a member of the organization. I also habitually write in it, so my comments will tend to follow MLA guidelines for citation and usage.

Works Cited
  • Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. "Peer Review, Judgment, and Reading." Profession (2011): 196-201. Print.
  • Rockwell, Geoffrey. "On the Evaluation of Digital Media as Scholarship." Profession (2011): 152-68. Print.
  • Schreibman, Susan, Laura Mandell, and Stephen Olsen. Introduction to Evaluating Digital Scholarship. Profession (2011): 123-35. Print.