Tuesday, March 31, 2015

About an Anglo-Saxon Eye Salve

A number of news reports have avowed that an Anglo-Saxon topical ointment has substantial antibacterial properties. As pieces from ITV News, Claire Wilson of New Scientist, and Vanessa Heggie of The Guardian all note, the ointment, or rather its recipe, derives from Bald's Leechbook, held in the British Library, a tenth-century collection of medical knowledge and recorded practice. As the ITV and Wilson pieces both note, the ointment is as effective as the best modern medicines against MRSA, and the prospect of finding more such gems in the works of old offers an answer to some of the questions frequently voiced by students--undergraduate and graduate both--who find themselves obliged to take coursework treating the medieval: Why do we need to study this? Why does this still matter? Haven't we moved past this?

We study the medieval because it has more to teach us about the world, as an earlier entry to this webspace notes no less than the study on which the three news releases report. And when we do, we are reminded that the medievals were not less intelligent than we. They were in some ways less informed, certainly, lacking knowledge gained only by way of technology to which they did not have access. And they had bad ideas, to be sure. But the same is true for us; we cannot know what we lack the capacity to perceive, and not all of our ideas are good, as the still-sad state of the world makes clear.

The things for the Society to attend to as bear in on the current revelation, then, are these:

1) How will current science continue to deploy the medieval? Will it look to medievalists for their expertise on it? Will they continue to test out what the medievals did to see how much sense their ideas still make? How will such trials be taken up into the prevailing popular consciousness of the world? In effect, what will science prompt the non-scientist to appreciate about the medieval?

2) How will medievalist popular media begin to integrate the revelations of current science into its refiguration of the medieval? As knowledge of the medieval progresses and develops, treatments of the medieval in mainstream media can easily be enriched, nuanced, complicated, and thereby made more authentic and compelling. Or they may not be. Either has implications for what the continued deployment of the medieval means.

3) While interdisciplinary work is valued, and valorization of the humanities departments in which much medieval work is done is welcome, the Society and its members should be wary of the subordination of the humanities to STEM fields, as the comment with which Heggie concludes threatens to imply. Those who work in humanities fields are already too-much seen as adjunct or servitor to STEM fields, and while they are worthy endeavors, they are not more worthy than the humanities. While an instrumental reason to maintain humanities studies is helpful, it must not become the only reason offered for that maintenance.

The medieval manifests in many ways in the post-medieval. Many of them need celebrating. All of them need examination.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

About Richard III

Much was made this week just past about the re-internment of Richard III, following excellent work at the University of Leicester. The BBC, understandably, had somewhat to say about the matter, as have the Richard III SocietyNPR's Scott Simon, and many others. Among the many things that the discovery of the old king's remains and their reburial suggests is continued appreciation of the medieval--for the event would not have attracted the media attention it has or the number of attendees at the surrounding ceremonies did the medieval it represents not still command the regard of many in the world.

Or it at least can. As an early post to this blog notes, the end-date of the medieval in England can be argued across several dates. One of them is the ascent of the Tudors after the death in battle of Richard III in 1485, and if that is the date accepted, then Richard III is the last medieval king of England as well as the last (as yet) to die in battle.* If the end of the English medieval is taken as the 1534 Act of Supremacy, then Richard III is still a medieval king, although not epoch-ending as the 1485 date makes him. If the end of the medieval in England is, instead, the 1476 introduction by Caxton or printing to England, though, he is not: Edward IV would be, and Richard III would be the second early modern English king if the usual succession of cultural and historical periods is followed in such a case. But it is more likely that the 1485 date continues to apply (discussion of the issue is still worth having), and it is thus more likely that the death of Richard III marks the end of the medieval in England--at least in an "official" sense. Commemoration of that death, then, would also be a commemoration of the medieval, an acknowledgement of its importance centuries after the fact even if there are potentially problematic metaphors involved in celebrating the internment of the last medieval king of England.**

Another early post to this blog notes that part of why the medieval continues to occupy contemporary thought is its correspondence with current concerns. Divisive power struggles seem to remain concerns, as do the seesawing of power among two groups of dynastic elites effectively indistinguishable from one another by those over whom they rule and concerns over shifts in language. Political corruption does, as well. The life and times of Richard III speak to all such things, and celebrating him (as happens at burials) serves as a reminder of such speaking, arguing again in favor of keeping the medieval in mind.

The ceremony itself can be parsed, of course, with the changes from the rites Richard III would have recognized noted (the shift to Protestantism being among them) no less than the continuities, the unifying formal serving as synecdoche for the broader cultures which enfold it and offering once again a lens through which to understand ourselves the better. And that seems something well worth doing.

*Note that this is not an expression of hope. It is, instead, an acknowledgement that there are likely yet to be kings of England, and one of them might well die in battle.

**Joy at interring the last medieval king can easily be read as joy at interring the medieval, in a sense putting it entirely in the past. Simply enacting the burial cannot effect the change in fact, of course, but it can conduce to a blindness to the continuations of medieval practice that occur, as well as to the many good things that were present among the medieval that would be good to retain or return to in the modern and post-modern.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

CFP- South Central Modern Language Association 2015, English I: Old and Middle English

The South Central Modern Language Association is holding its annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee, USA, 31 October through 3 November 2015. Those who want to attend the conference are encouraged to submit abstracts. Those with ideas relating to Old and/or Middle English are asked to send abstracts of 300 words or less, along with contact information, to the chair of the English I: Old and Middle English sessions, Geoffrey B. Elliott (geoffrey.b.elliott@gmail.com), or the secretary of those sessions, Brian Brooks (brian.brooks@okstate.edu). The panel (and possibly more than one!) is wide open at this point, and abstracts are due by 31 March 2015. More information can be found here: http://southcentralmla.org/conference/.

Please pass along to colleagues and independent scholars who may be interested.

Monday, March 9, 2015

CFP: Heaven, Hell, and Little Rock

Jay Ruud sends the CFP linked below:


For those for whom the URL does not work, the Southeastern Medieval Association is hosting its 41st annual conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, 22-24 October 2015. The text of the CFP is below:

You are cordially invited to participate in the 2015 meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association. This year’s meeting will take place at the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel in North Little Rock, Arkansas on Thursday, October 22, 2015 through Saturday, October 24, 2015, and is sponsored by the University of Central Arkansas.
The theme of this year’s meeting is “Heaven, Hell, and Little Rock,” in celebration of a host of anniversaries celebrated this year (the Fourth Lateran Council, the 750th anniversary of Dante’s birth, the burning of Jan Hus, the signing of the Magna Carta). We welcome submissions and encourage panels related to these anniversaries or on other medieval topics.
Further, in acknowledgment of the pivotal role that Little Rock, this year’s conference location, played in the American civil rights movement. In the spirit of this significant step in; the civil rights movement, we would like to encourage for this conference an emphasis on the “Other” Middle Ages, and encourage panels on East Asia, South Asia, and Islam at the time of the European Middle Ages, as well as panels on the “Other” within medieval Christendom (e.g., Jews and other non-Christians, Norse encounters with “Skraelingas,” or the treatment of the disabled, diseased, sexually “deviant,” or “mad” in Christian society).
In addition, this year’s meeting will include several sessions devoted to undergraduate research. Please encourage students who have done especially good work to submit abstracts.
Please submit proposals for sessions and individual papers using the link at http://goo.gl/forms/KDyCGVPqoN no later than July 1, 2015.
Plenary Speakers:
Dr. Peter S. Hawkins of the Yale Divinity School (author of Dante’s Testaments: Essays on Scriptural Imagination and Dante: A Brief History among others) will give a plenary address called "Dante's 'Other': Thinking outside the Christian Box."
Dr. Thomas A. Fudge of the University of New England (author of Heresy and Hussites in Late Medieval Europe and The Trial of Jan Hus: Medieval Heresy and Criminal Procedure, among others) will give a plenary address on Hus and his martyrdom.
Dr. Stephen Owen of Harvard University (author of The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century (827-860) and The Making of Early Chinese Classical Poetry, among others) will give a plenary address on Tang poetry and culture.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

About Legend of the Five Rings

Not too long ago (although longer than it should have been since the last entry in this webspace), the Society co-sponsored an event at the 2015 Tolkien Days at Ohio State University, acting in concert with the Medieval Electronic Multimedia Organization and the nascent UNICORN Cloud Conference and Virtual Museum of Medieval Studies and Medievalism. The focus of the event was the Lord of the Rings Online MMORPG, and several papers were presented in person and online; they can be found here. My own contribution to the event offered some perspective on the history of the gaming property, tying it back through its direct subject matter and the history of the RPG, generally, to Tolkien and thus to recapitulation of the medieval.

Not too long ago, also, this webspace saw comments on The Year's Work in Medievalism 28, which includes an article by E.L. Risden that treats the Japanese medievalism exhibited in Miyazaki's animated films and calls for more consideration of how the Japanese medieval is deployed. In those comments, I invoked an earlier piece in which I note the deployment in anime of the Western medieval despite the easy access of Japanese artists to a rich history that, because it is caste-based and feudal under the (often nominal) oversight of a centralized religious authority, can easily be considered medieval as Risden asserts (with medieval remaining a fraught term). The reverse also occurs, not seldom in the RPG, with Western audiences recapitulating (romanticized and simplified) figures and tropes from the Japanese medieval--as is the case in the Legend of the Five Rings RPG.*

Legend of the Five Rings, or L5R, is both a CCG (following loosely the model of Magic: The Gathering) and an RPG. In both cases, it is based largely in Japanese culture, taking its name from Musashi's treatise, the Book of Five Rings, and deploying an iteration of Japanese myth, legend, and history that is as true to its sources as Lord of the Rings is to Tolkien's or Foundation is to Asimov's. That is, it makes free use of the "truth" while deploying some obvious fictions and occasionally mixing in things that are not in the originals but still make for interesting storytelling. For even in its CCG iteration, the game makes much of telling a story that is driven by the player base; official events such as card tournaments and sanctioned RPG events are taken up as parts of the ongoing storyline that has been in continuous evolution since 1997. Generations have passed in the game's milieu, and that milieu has changed as the result of player decisions, corporate concerns, and shifts in the prevailing cultural standards of the player bases--but it still retains in large part the trappings of the Japanese medieval in which it was initially grounded.

Several reasons for that grounding suggest themselves. The personal interests of the game's initial designers--most notably John Wick--do much to shape it, of course, and the thought that some desire to not overlap overly closely with other CCG and RPG properties (notably the aforementioned Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons) informs the choice is a sensible one. the notion that the Western audience of L5R is less likely to be steeped in Japanese and other Asian medieval cultures than Western, and thus less likely to be attuned to deviations therefrom, an inversion of an idea advanced in "About Student Papers and Anime," may also obtain. And the feudal Japanese system, with easily identifiable social standards (bushido, social stratification, and traditional and contemporary dojo structures), lends itself to the kind of quantification typically seen among RPGs, as well; promotion up the ranks of a martial arts system comes off as more authentic than the level-based advancement in such games as D&D.

Whatever the reasons, though, there are things to consider about the deployment by L5R of its Japanese medieval tropes, particularly in its RPG iteration. The complexity of the in-milieu social structure is welcome. While it is ostensibly strictly ranked and tightly controlled, the practice of the game is such that there are many methods to circumvent the prevailing social controls at almost all levels. Competing chains of command and webs of loyalty pervade the setting, and attempts at negotiating them effectively inform many of the stories the game tells both at the individual game level and in the canonical storyline. Combat and tactics necessarily inform the game, both owing to the historical influences on the RPG and the specific social setting of L5R, which focuses on the deeds and doings of a warrior caste, and such concerns are differentiated from one another substantially among the various martial arts schools present in the game's world. The plethora of religious practices present, although formally united under the aegis of a central authority, also provides an authentic narrative complexity to the world, and it joins the variety of martial and sociocultural practices present in the game to present a recapitulation of feudal Japan that, if far simplified from the "reality," is still far more complex than many depictions of the medieval admit.

This does not mean, of course, that there are not problems in the depiction. The validity of the sources that inform the game can certainly be questioned in terms of their historical authenticity. If Musashi and Sun Tzu inform the game substantially, so does Shogun, and so do the films of Akira Kurosawa. As histories, they are not necessarily the best sources, and the latter's presentations of the samurai are directed towards audiences that follow the feudal period by quite some time. How much of the presentation of figures and tropes in the game have to be considered culturally apporpriative, how much of it serves the colonialist purposes Davis and Altschul's Medievalism in the Postcolonial World identifies as at work in the description of non-Western cultures as "medieval," and how much of it is set up specifically to accord with Western expectations of the medieval all need to be investigated. That is to say, how authentically L5R represents what can be called a medieval Japan bears further study--and where it is inauthentic needs to be critiqued. As Helen Young has noted, how true a presentation of the medieval is to the medieval it claims to represent matters, and those of us who study the medieval, either directly or in re-presentation, have a duty to look at those presentations. What they get right, what they get wrong, and how and why they get it wrong all tell us much of ourselves, and that is surely worth all the attention that it can be paid.

*I have been involved with the L5R RPG for some years now, having participated as a player and a GM in various incarnations of the online Winter Court game and having contributed informally to some of the now-canonical storyline.