Sunday, October 25, 2015

About SEMA 2015

Some time ago, the CFP for the Southeastern Medieval Association (SEMA) conference went up in this webspace (here). Society member Brian Brooks attended the event and has provided a short report of it, which can be found as a PDF here.

His exhortation to send to the next iteration of the SEMA conference is worth following.

About the Battle of Agincourt

As several news outlets have remarked (here, here, and here, among others), today, 25 October 2015, marks the sexcentenary of the Battle of Agincourt. Notably depicted with a stirring bit of battlefield rhetoric in Shakespeare's Henry V, it is remarked upon as a high point for England in the Hundred Years War, another in which the common folk of England emerged triumphant over a numerically superior and better-provisioned French force. And because it does make such a presentation of common folk fighting and winning against substantial odds, it is a piece of the medieval that lends itself to refiguration, not only by Shakespeare and those who have continued to produce his plays, but also in more "accessible" writing--as Linda Davies's comments, linked above, indicate.

The medieval English reliance on the longbow in the conduct of war, particularly the Hundred Years War that factors heavily into understandings of "the medieval," emerges in the most prominent twentieth-century refiguration of the medieval, and one that exerts substantial influence on works still emergent: Tolkien's Middle-earth. Their effectiveness plays out in Peter Jackson's movie adaptations of the relevant works, certainly, as this scene demonstrates--but the Elves are not the analogs of the English in Tolkien's works. It is instead the Númenóreans and their descendants who are the analogs of the English,* and their association with the longbow expected of the later medieval English emerges in some of the peripheral materials of the corpus. Unfinished Tales makes the note in "A Description of Númenor" that "it was the bows of the Númenóreans that were most greatly feared" by the enemies of that people, describing as a standard military practice something not unlike the withering repeated volleys of arrow-fire the English armies released at Agincourt, Crécy, and Poitiers.

How Agincourt and things like it continue to emerge in figurations and presentations of the medieval--not only the fantasy literature that frequently admits of overt medievalism and the historical fiction and fictionalized histories that strive to be "authentically" medieval, but also other presentations of the medieval in other guises and genres--bears examination, to be sure. That Agincourt still attracts the attention it does suggests--along with relatively recent attention to a Caxtonian incunabulum, medieval optics, Richard III, medieval antibiotics, and the Holigost--that the work the Society does, tracing the manifestation of the medieval in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (and beyond, perhaps?) is of some value to the world at large. People outside the academy remain interested in what happened centuries in the past, and they remain captivated by the ways in which what happened in such times is presented anew; the Society remains interested in examining the accuracy of such depictions, and so it must remain interested in developing and refining standards against which to assess that accuracy.

Continued study of what is left of what has been is therefore necessary, and contributions to Society materials of such studies--no less than those which explicitly examine medievalism--are welcome. Please send submissions along.

*See "Moving beyond Tolkien's Medievalism: Robin Hobb's Farseer and Tawny Man Trilogies," my chapter in Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms: From Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones, 185 and 196n3. (Why would I not plug a Society volume or my contribution to it?)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

About Henry V's Holigost

A 12 October 2015 note from Historic England comments on the likely discovery of Henry V's great ship Holigost, and while it would be expected that an organization with that name would concern itself with such discoveries, the attention it has received from news agencies indicates the continuing regard in which the medieval is held. Among others, the BBC, the Independent, the Daily Mail, and the Telegraph discuss the find; the various outlets, each addressing different (if overlapping) audiences, bespeak a wide interest in the England of the Hundred Years War, which event serves as one of the defining events of what "medieval England" means.

That there is some room to question what "medieval England" means is noted, at least in part, here. While the comments I make in "More about Short-form Medievalist Scholarship"--which identify likely ends of the medieval in England as 1476, 1485, and 1534--would clearly put the ship, which fought for England between 1415 and 1420 (as Historic England notes) among the medieval, the thought occurs that the medieval in England could be said to register with the differentiation of the English royalty from the French nobility. That differentiation is a consequence of the Hundred Years War, so that later parts of it could be said to have removed England from the medieval (if perhaps only by the virulently anti-Gallic).

If it is, though, the French motto Historic England reports emblazoned on Holigost would serve to medievalize her. More to the point, however, the technologies employed on the ship mark the vessel as medieval. Clinker-built ships in northern and western Europe find their most prominent examples in the Viking longships of history and legend--and, at least in popular conception, the raiding Viking is one of the key figures of the medieval. (Indeed, it is a figure that caused me no small amount of trouble in the initial papers from which the Society sprang, which I detail in my contribution to Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms: From Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones.) The single-mast construction is similarly evocative, despite an evident lack of oars to maneuver the ship or propel her in calm weather. Too, the limited reliance on gunpowder weapons and the heavier employment of the thrown gad suggest a more proximal, personal killing of the sort typically associated--again, in popular conception--with medieval warfare, even if prevailing (and incorrect) ideas of medieval warfare are of armies facing one another in shining armor, blades bared in the sunlight and dimmed by spilled blood soon after.

In any event, the seeming rediscovery of Holigost promises to offer more insight into what is "true" about some facets of medieval life--for the popular conception of medieval life is not incorrect in noting the prevalence and influence of violence in and upon it, and Holigost is a vessel of war. And that it has received the attention it has argues that there is yet value perceived in learning more about the medieval, that there is relevance still about the events of some six centuries past--a relevance we can hope for our own lives six centuries in the future.

-With thanks to Society member Brian Brooks for bringing this to attention