Archive for April, 2008


“In the house of the gods, where no mongrels preach…”

Are conditions in Thai shrimp factories “medieval”? Matt Gabriele considers the use of the m-word in a report quoted by CNN:

Maybe it’s just an adjective that means “other,” an uncritical, enlightenment perception of a darker past that we, generally, have moved beyond. And generally, I might like to agree. The problem, then, is that this kind of thinking asserts that such behavior—torture, kidnapping, etc.—are aberrant in our society, when in fact they’re really not. Certainly, all that stuff was there in the Middle Ages too. The thing is though, it never left.

Matt’s conclusion—that misery and human cruelty aren’t consigned to the past—is sensible, and worth reiterating; people do have a tough time getting beyond the pejorative implications of “medieval.” My Chaucer students, for example, know that Chaucer himself was well connected, and they understand that the Powers That Be had neither the resources nor the inclination—nor, for that matter, any real reason—to persecute him for his poetry. And yet my students wonder: Feisty women, farting, harshing on friars—how did Chaucer get away with so much?

The misperception that Chaucer “got away with” something isn’t surprising; his humanity, sensibility, and wit run counter to stereotypes about those oppressive Middle Ages. It takes gentle persuasion to convince students to see Chaucer as a poet who can illuminate his era for modern readers, allowing them to put aside preconceptions and behold his world anew—and then, if they’re lucky, rediscover their own.

But sometime it’s fruitful to try the reverse: to ponder a modern subject that puts the medieval world in context. That’s why I couldn’t help but consider Chaucer recently while reading a new biography of a decidedly un-medieval figure: pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.

Born in 1884 to former slaves, Micheaux worked as a Pullman porter before becoming a homesteader in South Dakota. He self-published and promoted three autobiographical novels; then, between 1919 and 1948, he wrote, directed, and produced more than 40 movies for black audiences. Motivated by his near-worship of Booker T. Washington and inspired by stories of self-made men, Micheaux was an entrepreneur, an auteur, a fascinating American figure.

He was also a wonderfully Chaucerian guy. Attentive to the quirks of human nature, Micheaux made films that featured, but didn’t glamorize, the black underworld, where a motley pageant of lowlifes and gamblers spouted racial epithets; he even offered the occasional hint of nudity. Micheaux dabbled in multiple genres, sometimes recombining beloved story elements in bizarre and amusing ways: a musical comedy about a haunted house, for example, or a morality play about racial segregation that also featured Alaskan frontiersmen, wild dream visions, and an assortment of scoundrels and saints. Micheaux was something of a scoundrel himself, a raconteur who traveled the country and who would happily lie, cheat, and even plagiarize to promote the few prints of his films he was able to afford. Cheerful, beguiling, optimistic, and perceptive, Oscar Micheaux was was a grand character: Chaucer’s plowman, pardoner, squire, and alchemist all rolled into one.

So yes, Micheaux was interesting—but why strain to see a connection between him and Chaucer? Because Micheaux, a modern artist, suffered “medieval” repercussions that Chaucer never experienced. Beyond having to deal with blatant racism, Micheaux faced the wrath of both church and state when his films were literally snipped to shreds. Sometimes, censors banned his films outright, denying black audiences the opportunity to see his take on black people who “passed” as white, or depictions of lynching, or—Heaven forbid—black and white people dancing together. State and local censors were often clergy who objected, naturally, to one of Micheaux’s recurring character types: the corrupt, hypocritical preacher.

Treated as a fourth-class citizen, denied the ability by clergy and government officials to show his films as he envisioned them, Micheaux was often broke, even bankrupt, and was completely ignored by the mainstream white press. Although film historians recently rediscovered him and restored a few of his movies, his persecutors can’t be said to have failed. They succeeded at suppressing him; his obscurity was their victory. Today, we have a greater percentage of Chaucer’s 14th-century corpus than we have surviving films by Oscar Micheaux, who faced the sort of institutional censorship my students expect from the medieval world, even though Micheaux died only in 1951.

“Maybe,” Matt Gabriele writes in his post about “medieval” shrimp factories, “we all should acknowledge that good stuff and bad stuff happens to all people, at all times, in all places.” That’s one of many lessons to take from the life of Micheaux. Unlike Chaucer, who had little to fear, Micheaux “got away with” much, but he suffered much as well.

If the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer reminds us not to judge all medieval people by the worst aspects of the Middle Ages, then the career of Oscar Micheaux warns us not to judge our own era only by its best. The life story of an ambitious black filmmaker reminds us that the modern world is hardly bereft of “medieval” indignities. We live in more comfortable, prosperous times, but we ought to think twice before assuming we’ve nothing in common, really, with medieval people.

“What was the question? I was looking at the big sky.”

The past is a foreign country—and, as David Brooks has discovered, they don’t hold presidential elections there. The New York Times columnist recently read an essay about C.S. Lewis and the medieval view of the cosmos and became rather fond of it. Imagining the world through medieval eyes is, Brooks claims, a “refreshing dip in a cool and cleansing pool” after covering politics for more than a year:

There’s something about obsessing about a campaign—or probably a legal case or a business deal—that doesn’t exactly arouse the imaginative faculties. Campaigns are all about message management, polls and tactics. The communication is swift, Blackberry-sized and prosaic. As you cover it, you feel yourself enclosed in its tunnel. Entire mental faculties go unused. Ward’s essay has been a constant reminder of that other mental universe.

It’s a pleasure to see a political columnist, someone who’s immersed in the dreary ephemera of campaign journalism, pause to contemplate a subject as profound as conflicting views of the heavens across the centuries. It’s also gratifying to see an op-ed writer acknowledge that medieval people were not mental primitives, but that they may in fact have made better use than we do of certain mental faculties.

Unfortunately, Brooks stops short of neo-medievalist epiphany:

The medievals had a tremendous capacity for imagination and enchantment, and while nobody but the deepest romantic would want to go back to their way of thinking (let alone their way of life), it’s a tonic to visit from time to time.

Notice his last-minute change of heart: what has been a “constant” reminder of the medieval world will, in the end, only be useful to him “from time to time”—and then only as a form of escapism.

Brooks’ cheerful hesitance reminds me of some of the students I’ve met. Happy students tend to fall into two camps: the friendly, chatty souls who chirp “fun class!” as they hand in their finals and forget what they’ve read; and their more serious classmates, the ones who know that having been amused or distracted for fourteen evenings is hardly enough, the folks who hearten me by emphasizing, when they say goodbye, how much they learned during the semester. Most of them will never be medievalists, but a tiny piece of the Middle Ages—a character, a stand-out scene, a piece of historical context, a few lines of life-changing poetry—will always be a part of them.

In his column, Brooks demonstrates that he’s willing to ponder a new notion, turn it over a few times, and marvel at the alien beauty of a mindset other than the modern. But he’s reluctant to make that more audacious leap, the one that requires him to return to the present with what he’s learned in the hope of seeing the modern world anew. The Michael Ward essay clearly dazzled him, but the resulting aesthetic and intellectual experience remains a novelty he can’t or won’t internalize. Medieval history, he implies, will not enhance his analysis of polling data, inform his ruminations on current trends, or alter his understanding of social dynamics; it’s simply a distraction. Like students who are so happy to be entertained that they can’t be bothered to think a little harder, Brooks is denying himself, after 15 months on the campaign trail, what more political writers surely need: a fresh, overwhelming perspective.

“Keeping versed and on my feet…”

As Today in Literature reminds us, yesterday, April 18, was the day Chaucer’s pilgrims set out for Canterbury. Appropriately, my block was packed with pilgrims passing to and fro, some of them heading to the zoo, the hooly blisful pandas for to seke, others hiking up the hill to our friendly neighborhood Gothic cathedral.

The cathedral grounds were in full bloom today: camera-toting tourists, elderly couples asleep in the grass, wedding parties, flirting lovers, romping puppies, children fleeing bees, even bagpipers, as if to lead us grandly out of town. Beauty intermingled with chaos; Chaucer no doubt would approve.

But not every medieval poet took the path of the pilgrim for granted. Writing six centuries before Chaucer, that old wit Theodulf, bishop of Orleans during the reign of Charlemagne, rolled his eyes at peregrinatory pretensions:

Qui Romam Roma, Turonum Turonove catervas
Ire, redire cupis cernere scande, vide.
Hinc sata spectabis, vites et claustra ferarum;
Flumina, prata, vias, pomiferumque nemus.
Haec dum conspicies, dum plurima grata videbis,
Auctoris horum sis memor ipse dei.

Here, inspired by an afternoon on the green alongside the Bishop’s Garden, is a shamefully loose translation:

You clamor for the crowd, for something more;
So take your tour of Rome, and roam to Tours.
The tender crops are all we gather here,
By berries, brooks, and barns, and byways clear.
So go—for if you stay, you’ll just recall
In simple sights the one who made it all.

I know! Spring fever is my only defense. The tulips made me do it.

In denying the pilgrimage instinct, Theodulf fought, with snide futility, the tide of human nature. Geoffrey Chaucer better understood his fellow man—in fact, I think Geoffrey better understood a great many other truths as well—but Theodulf was right about one thing: Some days, whatever it is you’re looking for, that unnamed source of fulfillment and beauty which seems like it ought to be elsewhere, may turn up outside your own door.

“Everybody’s coming, leave your body at the door…”

What are you doing? It’s a beautiful weekend! Get outside! Soak in some sun! Gather ye rosebuds, people!

Still here? Okay. Here are some quasi-medieval doodads to occupy your curious minds.

Washington Post writer Philip Kennicott has a maudlin take on the re-opened Byzantine collection at Dumbarton Oaks. “Getting visitors from there to the next level of understanding is the great desiderata of good museums,” says he, “and it rarely happens.”

Sure, Orson Welles was terrific as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, but few remember his triumphant turn as the pitchman for the electronic fantasy board game “Dark Tower.” You can play “Dark Tower” online and enjoy game artwork by Bob Pepper, who’s known for his trippy sci-fi book covers.

Journey back to the Dark Ages—the mid-1970s—and behold, if you dare, the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo battling a dragon on “The Gong Show.”

Where have all the unicorns gone? Per Omnia Saecula will tell you. (Be warned: They’ve got their own planet now.)

“So let the wind blow, carry me home…”

Congrats to Jen A. Miller, whose guide to the Jersey Shore was published ahead of schedule. Jen is asking readers to share their Jersey Shore memories. Here’s one from a few years back.

* * *

At a counter down the shore, three adults debate the necessity of fluff.

On fries? Stuff dries like Elmer’s Glue, for cryin’ out loud. We don’t need it, not if they put it on top

“Comes onna side,” mutters Lex Luthor, who gives us no choice. So we partake of the fluff, though it’s more than we need, and we continue to eat our way along the boardwalk. The rides are rolling, the rigged wheels are whirling, and strangely shaped people waddle past with pizza. Somewhere behind them is the ocean.

“Funny how little it changes,” says dad, getting philosophical. “Kids come here to goof around, and then they bring their own kids. It’s been that way for a hundred years.”

We browse: bandannas, frilly shirts, switchblade combs, and bowls of seashells shrink-wrapped for the shameless and the lazy. Everything reeks of sea salt and grease. Later, so will we, even when we’re hours away.

“If we bring your nephew up to visit,” mom says from behind her ice cream cone, “we’ll come here. They don’t have this in Louisiana.”

They sure don’t. I’ll show the boy his heritage: the tiki bar where his mom hung out and the skee-ball arcades where her boyfriends won a menagerie of stuffed animals, if not her heart. We’ll feed him real pizza and other native delicacies to teach the kid just why his uncle can stay here, scavenging like a seagull, watching metalheads-turned-family-men wander by, listening as old, familiar vowels rise and fall. Then maybe he’ll see what our home state can give him: his own rightful portion of fluff.

“…comme il pleut sur la ville.”

This weekend, if it must rain, then let it rain interesting links.

Scott Nokes offers a typically excellent round-up of medieval blogging.

Did you know that they were singing a prayer in Anglo-Saxon in the season premiere of Battlestar Galactica? (Major spoiler warning; thanks to Dave for sending the link.)

In Maastricht, a 13th-century church is now the world’s most beautiful bookstore. There’s a better photo here. (Link via Books, Inq.)

And I thought my neighbor with the booming TV was bad: In Moscow, students manufacturing medieval arms have blown up their apartment. (Link via The Cranky Professor.)

Pining for Rome? Eternally Cool finds relief in the Via della Reginella and discovers sheep performing public duty in Turin.

Non papa, sed cardinal: Latin pops up in the oddest places, such as this cheesy D.C. Metro ad featuring a bobbleheaded pontiff. (The archdiocese’s problem: he’s dressed as a cardinal.)

Steven Hart appreciates Steinbeck.

Leslie Pietrzyk will pay you to title her novel.

“Perfume came naturally from Paris…”

Open Letters, which bills itself as “a monthly arts and literature review,” is a good read, but it’s turning out to be of particular interest to the medieval-minded. Not only are they serializing Adam Golaski’s quirky translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and running a blog review of Runemarks, a novel for teens about what happens after Ragnarok, but the latest issue also includes an appreciation of Gregory, the 6th-century bishop of Tours, and his monumental History of the Franks.

Advising against modern smugness when evaluating the beliefs and behavior of medieval people, Steve Donoghue laments Gregory’s present obscurity:

In the past two hundred years, he’s had some half-dozen competent translators and many talented annotators. But he isn’t read anymore by the general public that was in his own day very much his target audience, and this is a shame. The darkness is still there, howling just out of reach, and faith is still a prickly, dangerous undertaking, and lavatories are still perilous places. We proceed now without one of our readier guides, at a time when every saint is needed.

Donoghue makes an enthusiastic argument for Gregory’s modern relevance, drawing an iffy contrast between Christian piety and medieval storytelling but rightly pointing out that one of the enduring appeals of the History is its author’s penchant for the memorable anecdote:

We should be grateful Gregory isn’t so pious that he can resist a good story — his History teems with them, most presented with a slightly wry bemusement that fits as naturally in our cynical age as it did in his more naïve one, that is, in fact, evergreen.

When we studied Gregory of Tours in grad school, my classmates and I had a great time comparing our favorite lurid incidents from Merovingian history. Donoghue’s article prompted me to mosey over to my bookshelf, grab my own shabby copy of Gregory, and find this episode on one of several earmarked pages:

Rigunth, Chilperic’s daughter, was always attacking her mother (Fredegund), and saying that she herself was the real mistress, whereas her mother ought to revert to her original rank of serving-woman. She would often insult her mother to her face, and they frequently exchanged slaps and punches.

“Why do you hate me so, daughter?” Fredegund asked her one day. “You can take all your father’s things which are still in my possession, and do what you like with them.”

She led the way into a strong-room and opened a chest which was full of jewels and precious ornaments.

For a long time she kept taking out one thing after another, and handing them to her daughter, who stood beside her. Then she suddenly said: “I’m tired of doing this. Put your own hand in and take whatever you find.”

Rigunth was stretching her arm into the chest to take out some more things, when her mother suddenly seized the lid and slammed it down on her neck. She leant on it with all her might and the edge of the chest pressed so hard against the girl’s throat that her eyes were soon standing out of her head. One of the servant-girls who was in the room screamed at the top of her voice: “Quick! Quick! Mistress is being choked to death by her mother!” The attendants who had been waiting outside for them to emerge burst into the strong-room, rescued the princess from almost certain death and dragged her out of doors.

The quarrels between the two were even more frequent after this. There were never-ending outbursts of temper and even fisticuffs. The main cause was Rigunth’s habit of sleeping with all and sundry.

That’s good stuff; outside of the sagas, medieval prose rarely offers a lovelier combination of trenchant observation, casual internecine violence, and deadpan Germanic delivery.

I don’t know if I agree with Donoghue’s claim that modern people are that much more lost for being unfamiliar with Gregory of Tours, but I do know that Gregory is a master of the sensational anecdote, the sort of episode that gets modern students thinking about the difference between behaviors that are typically medieval and traits that are universally human. For that, I’d count Gregory useful even if the old bishop hadn’t already taught me the most valuable life lesson of all: when a Merovingian matriarch offers you jewelry, don’t think twice; run.

“Put our product to the test, you’ll feel just fine…”

Miles O’Keeffe, his helmet of hair, and so many wasted thespians—that, in brief, is Sword of the Valiant. I wrote about this cinematic disaster back in February, when I revisited the movie and found it almost endearing: bad, yes, but usefully inscrutable.

But did you know that Sword of the Valiant was actually a remake? Yes: the 1984 travesty was a remake of a 1973 film written and directed by the same deluded people; it even starred some of the same unfortunate actors. For 35 years, the original movie roiled in the purifying fires of cinematic limbo—until something, probably the recent bestselling success of Simon Armitage’s translation of the original poem, prompted an ill-advised DVD reissue.

So the DVD came out two weeks ago, and Fortune did as Fortune does. For one thing, the Amazon product description mistakenly draws on the listing for a Gawain-related documentary. Worse, though, is the fact that—well, I’ll let the fresh list of one-star reviews tell you the rest of it:

I received this DVD from Amazon, the packaging and DVD label say Sir Gawain but the DVD itself is called “Pike Fishing in Winter” and features two guys pike fishing somewhere in England. At first I thought it was a joke, but pike fishing is all you get.

Firstly, having ordered this DVD I discover it isn’t the film advertised, but a 70 minute documentary. Secondly, when I put the documentary in to play, I get ‘Winter Pike Fishing with Mick Brown and Des Taylor’ …

I didn’t open it to play it, so I don’t know about the fishing others have mentioned, but the CD packaging itself indicates it is a documentary…

Not the 1973 Robert Hardy film. Mislabeled and mismarketed prior to release. I haven’t played it yet, so I don’t know if I got the pike fishing too.

In the words of Sir Gawain himself: “Oops.”

On the off chance any of those disappointed reviewers are still eager for a Gawain video fix, they should check out YouTube. They’ll find numerous versions of the romance, including: an award-winning Irish cartoon with a remarkable stained-glass sensibility (part one; part two; part three); a 1994 live-action mangling with a Green Knight right out of the original Star Trek (part one; part two; part three; part four); and—mirabile visuan adaptation for paper-bag puppets.

All of the above are better than Sword of the Valiant—although mind you, I can’t promise that they’re any more satisfying than “Pike Fishing in Winter.”

“Plastic tubes and pots and pans, bits and pieces…”

The weekend is here, and hopefully yours will be sunny. If, however, you’re stuck indoors, enjoy these bits and pieces, which will edify and amuse.

Scott Nokes offers a primer on the impact of the printing press.

Steven Hart finds a dollop of wisdom in the memoirs of Martin Amis.

Kevin Holtsberry reviews The Voyage of the Short Serpent and finds it wanting.

Michael Livingston contemplates the ex-squirrel in his attic.

Frank Wilson suggests that T.S. Eliot might have enjoyed Cats.

Also via Frank, Buce spots Edith Wharton—yes, Edith Wharton—in an anthology of erotica.

At Old English in New York, Mary Kate offers a lovely excerpt from her translation of “The Wanderer.”

Brandon Hawk explains the Anglo-Saxon name “Wulfstan.”

“Silver people on the shoreline, let us be…”

O tacky Arthuriana, where would be without thee? Someone needs to tell NBC to return the sword to its stone and back away slowly. Rue this news from Variety:

NBC has acquired a series take on the Camelot legend called “Merlin” that will anchor the net’s winter Sunday sked at 8 p.m. FremantleMedia is distributing the series, which was produced by Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group for the BBC. Shine recently acquired the Silverman-founded Reveille production outfit.

Cast of “Merlin” includes Anthony Head (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). Skein just began production for the BBC, which plans to air it in the fall.

I may not be able to recall all of my Latin paradigms, or the year of the Battle of Lepanto, or what I had for breakfast this morning, but I do remember that American network TV has already limped down this benighted road.

Behold: “Mr. Merlin,” the 1981 series in which the famous wizard runs a garage under a false identity in San Francisco while taking an awkward teenage boy under his wing. (This same concept would be updated and relaunched two decades later under a new title: “To Catch a Predator” with Chris Hansen.)

You can see the pain-inducing promo for “Mr. Merlin” here and the opening credits here; fast-forward to the 8:19 mark.

Every few years, you can count on American television to dabble in this sort of half-hearted, quasi-medieval schlock. While you’re over at YouTube, don’t miss the opening credits for “Wizards and Warriors,” the 1983 series starring Jeff “Celebrity Rehab” Conaway and co-starring his hair, which is feathered like the plume of a mighty falcon. Or, if you can stand it, take another look at “Covington Cross,” the show you adored in 1992 if the Skye in your world was always the color of Ione. Then ponder “Merlin,” and despair…