Monday, August 21, 2017

Summer Reading: 8 Books

by J J Cohen

Can summer really be coming to its end so soon? And with an eclipse no less: what a great way to instill a sense of cosmic foreboding. Thank you, universe. Luckily my family and I depart for Maine tomorrow morning on our annual pilgrimage to reunite with New England kin for a few days. Because I have my syllabus ready to go and the GW MEMSI events scheduled and nearing readiness I can put off some of the end-of-summer worries that always seem to plague at this time of year.

I spent much of June and July away from home, mostly in the UK. I researched and wrote like crazy for the two big lectures I gave, and that meant I did not get to read as widely as I would have liked. In the fields I follow closest (medieval studies, early modern studies, environmental humanities) the number of excellent books to have appeared in the past year or so is at once exciting and daunting: I have come to realize that I will be playing an eternal game of catch-up, with my goal of getting to everything I want to read eternally receding to the horizon. Here though are a few of the books I did manage to spend some time with this summer, offered with a few thoughts on them. Warning: the reason I had many of these volumes in my possession is that they were sent to me by friends, or by university presses. The following is a selection likely based on amity and affinity rather than, say, scanning all the possibilities and with dispassion choosing a few. Still, these are books I would recommend to anyone for the good work they achieve. All the writers I am listing here also offer vibrant and compelling prose. Accomplished stylists, each writer offers the pleasures of both excellent scholarly analysis and sentences that make you nod your head in appreciation or awe.

So, in no order but that which the alphabet provides, here are eight books from the summer of 2017.

Stacy Alaimo, Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times
A collection of essays composed over several years that demonstrates well something that I have long believed: Stacy Alaimo is among our most eloquent, perceptive and humane interpreters of what the Anthropocene signifies for all creatures, not just humans. I love this book's emphasis on protest as well as pleasure -- and its grounding in environmental justice as well as raced and gendered specificities. Exposed is a work that transcends its theorizations of contemporary materials. Humanists working in every period will want to read the book. The essays gathered here also give hope for change in dark times.

Joseph Campana and Scott Maisano, eds. Renaissance Posthumanism
This collection of nine essays (many of them by favorite writers of mine, including Holly Dugan, Erica Fudge, and Vin Nardizzi) sat on my shelf for far too long before I had the opportunity to read it -- and I am happy that a rainy day with no one else at home recently gave me the excuse to lose myself in its contents. The volume proves something many of us who work in non-modern pasts have long been asserting: today's critical posthumanisms are queer companions of earlier conceptions of entangled identities. Minerals, mandrakes, and monkeys are not the limners of the human so much as its vexers, guarantors that any desire for anthropocentricity will remain a mere dream. Reading through the essays was like listening in on a lively seminar. Essential issues are raised repeatedly and amplified, while the shared conversation is both coherent and bracing.

Lowell Duckert, For All Waters: Finding Ourselves in Early Modern Wetscapes
I have collaborated fairly extensively with Lowell Duckert in the past (this this this this) and have always enjoyed his paradoxically aqueous yet lambent writing style as well as his critical generosity. For All Waters displays both, finding in early modern as well as contemporary archives saturated modes of reading and living that better speak our entanglements with an active, elemental world. What also comes through on every page is conviction, optimism and the author's good heart. A book to immerse yourself within and savor.

Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species
I'd been fortunate enough to see Ursula Heise present work in progress from this book at several conferences, and so had been looking forward to this book eagerly. Nothing here disappoints. Against the elegiac and anthropocentric modes we reflexively adopt when framing (even within a scientific realm) species extinction, Ursula Heise urges us to rethink how we assign value to varied forms of life. Environmental justice thereby becomes multispecies justice. By emphasizing the centrality of story-telling to perception, care and conservation, she is able to shift attention to the intimacy of genre and narrative to the generation of ethical attachment and the futures of environmental thought.

Peggy McCracken, In the Skin of a Beast: Sovereignty and Animality in Medieval France
One of our foremost scholars of human-animal interrelation in the Middle Ages, Peggy McCracken offers a new way of thinking about bestial intimacy, through the skin as surface, catalyst, symbol and invitation. Desires for domination and demands for care entwine; sovereignty becomes a fraught assertion of power; subjectivity and identity become legible through surfacing more than inscription. The latter matters because unlike many critical analyses of biopolitics and sovereignty, McCracken's method emphasizes becoming over being-made, demonstrating how the animal-human nexus in medieval narratives and manuscript illustrations offers possibility for what might unfold rather than evidence for what has already been. An invigorating book that will change how I teach many medieval texts in my class this fall.

Kellie Robertson, Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy
Do not let the rather specific subtitle to this magisterial work of scholarship mislead you. Although Nature Speaks is indeed about Aristotle's influence upon the conception of nature in the late Middle Ages, the book offers a penetrating analysis of the risks and rewards of embodying nature -- especially as a figure that could be represented as possessing a human body (always a woman) and an authoritative voice. Robertson describes at length and with aplomb the intimacy of physics to fiction and nature writing to poetry. Against the disciplinary divisions which eventually robbed Nature of her voice, she details how medieval writers found ethical possibility in the centrality of the human imagination to the natural sciences. Along the way she makes a convincing argument for what a reinvigorated humanities in the present might become.

Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt (eds.), Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet
I've always wanted to be the author or editor a book published as a tête-bêche, since I love the critical possibilities such a conjoining brings. I was therefore well disposed to admire Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. The collection of essays and art offers an energetic and interdisciplinary colloquy on how to dwell on a planet we have ruined: cognizant of the violence that will continue to haunt the landscapes we inhabit, but dedicated as well to doing better (especially through being able to articulated our entanglement with other species and wider worlds). Considering that the book is broken into sections on "Ghosts" and "Monsters" (two topics dear to my heart) I did hope to see more thinking through the specificities of such figures, but they remain mostly metaphoric. Much work remains to be done on bringing monster theory into an ecological realm.

Julian Yates, Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast: A Multispecies Impression
This witty, dexterous and beautifully written volume follows animals, fruit and unseeable microbes as story-rich media. By detailing the genres, possibilities, and plots such varied actants enable, he grants each its ability to insinuate itself into and even co-compose narratives with humans (often scripts in which humans are relegated to playing ancillary roles). These beings write in a way that demands multimodal reading to discern -- allowing Julian to articulate an innovative critical praxis that will have profound implications across the environmental humanities. This book opens worlds, and reaffirmed for me how fortunate I feel to be its author's collaborator on a book in progress.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

White Supremacists love the Middle Ages


White supremacists love the Middle Ages. Sure #notallwhitesupremacists, and, try not to @ me (or anyone else), #notallmedievalists, but white supremacists love medieval history, and they love medievalist popular culture too.

There’s the evidence of individuals, like in these tweets.

And the refereed publications, like in this thread from @drdarkage.

But the protestations about #notallmedievalists and #notallwhitesupremacists and the defensive, fragile posturing and arguments from academics on social media in the past few months show that this still isn’t enough to convince some people.

So here are some statistics from a pilot study analysis of the website Stormfront (click here for more information from the SPLC) that I ran in mid-2016. There were more than 4.5 million posts in about 372,000 threads; about 1.2% of those threads contained the word ‘medieval’. Many of these uses are in the negative adjectival way that’s probably fairly familiar. This is from a thread on the “Stormfront Ladies Only” forum:
Feminism to me is simply making up for the horrible way that women have been treated in the past (and trust me, we would be back to being Medieval property if some people had their way)”
There are also posts like this, from a thread helpfully titled “Praise of Medieval England – A Golden Age Revisited:”
The belief that everyone was a slave during the Middle Ages is a liberal lie. Serfs were serfs, and happy that way. Lords were happy as Lords, and Kings likewise. Society was nearly flawless and prosperous in Europe and Asia under a Feudal economy and government.” 
But this kind of quote isn’t what I mean when I say that white supremacists love the Middle Ages. It’s easy to dismiss that sort of statement as historically ridiculous and in any case, it’s just another individual.

Rather than relying on quotes like this, I used a program called SentiStrength which “estimates the strength of positive and negative sentiment in short texts” to analyse how much affect was generated in Stormfront posts. SentiStrength gives a score out of 5 for positive and -5 for negative, based on the greatest strength of what are termed “emotion bearing words” used in each piece of text (this is the short, blog version, more details available on request, as they say in the classics).

I analysed: a control group of randomly selected threads; threads about the Middle Ages generally or specific medieval events from the ‘History and Revisionism’ forum; and threads on medievalist topics, mainly from the ‘Music and Entertainment’ forum. In each thread SentiStrength gave a figure for each comment/post, which I then averaged.

The threads from the control group came out with scores between 0 and -1.4,  with 7% at a neutral 0 and 93% below. This means that the background noise on Stormfront has negative affect. Perhaps not surprising given that it’s a hate forum, but since the tag-line is “White Pride, World Wide,’ you’d think they’d be happier and prouder. And they are, when they are talking about medieval history and medievalist pop culture.

The threads that at least began with a post about medieval history range from 1 to -1, with 13% positive, 20% neutral and 67% negative. Talking about medieval history made these white supremacists happier than talking about most things (from feminism to plumbing tips and recommendations for local businesses).

The threads about medievalist topics (video games, movies etc) averaged between 1 and -0.5, with 13% neutral, 47% positive, while the 40% below were less strongly negative than the equivalents in the other groups. Seeing an all-white medieval ‘past’ on a screen makes white supremacists even happier than medieval history.

Sara Ahmed writes that “love becomes a way of bonding with others in relation to an ideal;” on hate forums like Stormfront the ‘whites only’ Middle Ages are an imagined object of love that helps create bonds within a community of hate.

White supremacists love the Middle Ages because for centuries (literally) medieval history and language and literature was taught as though Europe was a ‘whites only’ space. Which it wasn’t. And, for centuries, European nations and settler colonies have been built on the idea that medieval Europe was a wellspring of ethno-national identity. The Middle Ages are the period of history that global whiteness has laid claim to and loved since the eighteenth century. They’re not going to stop unless we make them. 

Helen Young is an honorary research associate of La Trobe University and the University of Sydney. Her research interests include medievalism, critical race studies, and popular culture. Her most recent monograph is Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness (Routledge, 2016).

heritage is the stories we tell

by J J Cohen

I have written about how we use materials like stone to send to the future stories of our having been here. These stories are inevitably misheard, reconfigured, re-invented, and otherwise lived-with. That's why I described stone as our most enduring companion: not because the substance remains inert, but because it travels with us through time.

So maybe it's worth contemplating that "heritage" does not mean preserving memorials as if we could freeze story into place. Remembering the past does not mean we cannot speak its complex unfolding differently: more humanely, more justly. Germany possess no statues of Hitler or his Nazis, but numerous memorials to their victims. Sometimes it's OK to realize that a community has made a mistake and commemorated an odious way of life, or a figure whose legacy was harm. Sometimes it's OK to take down a statue because of the pain its presence causes, or because the legacy it celebrates is on second thought appalling. Sometimes it's OK to leave an empty plinth, to contemplate the violence and even hate that used to be celebrated there. Sometimes it's OK to place a different memorial atop, perhaps a testimonial to a more capacious and complicated perspective on the past, one that conveys into the present the possibility of better futures.

Above, John C. McRae's engraving of the toppling of the statue of George III in NYC July 9, 1776. The Declaration of Independence had just been read to George Washington and his troops. Soldiers as well as a group of white and black citizens decided that some histories are not worth commemorating, not at present. They rushed to Bowling Green park, and took down the toga-clad figure of the king. The statue was melted to make musket balls, but McRae used the moment to make art. He added women, children and American Indians to his version and dressed everyone in contemporary clothing. Democracy is supposed to be inclusive, not time-bound.

No statue or memorial is timeless. We too can decide what to honor, what to affirm. Heritage is not "blood and soil" (as the Nazis in Charlottesville chanted), not some unchanging inheritance that inheres in blood and in native land, but the stories we tell.

Monday, August 14, 2017

MAP-Sponsored session for ICMS 2018

by Leila K. Norako

The Medieval Association of the Pacific will be sponsoring a session focused on the significance of waterways in the cultural and literary imaginaries of the Middle Ages — a topic that may well be of interest to many of our readers, especially those working towards a global medieval studies. I've shared the full CFP below, and hope interested readers will consider sending an abstract our way!

The Medieval Association of the Pacific welcomes papers that explore the significance of medieval waterways from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Waterways were the mainstay of travel, communication, and commerce in the Middle Ages. Roots of medieval economies, landscape management, agricultural production, and settlement patterns can be traced to waterway use. Routes of migration, trade, pilgrimage, and conquest align with networks of navigable rivers, canals, and sea crossings. These culturally and geographically fluid landscapes also served as borders and conduits in religious and literary imaginaries. Papers that offer a global perspective or that explore the medieval Pacific are especially encouraged. Please submit a 300-word abstract to Miranda Wilcox ( by 15 September, 2017. 

The Medieval Association of the Pacific is an organization of university faculty, students, and independent scholars from around the Pacific Rim, including North America, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. The Association was founded in 1966 and has a distinguished history of supporting interdisciplinary, global medieval studies. 

Friday, August 11, 2017


by J J Cohen

This morning my expense report was rejected for not having checked a button that does not exist. This afternoon the resubmitted version was rejected for not having the documentation and notes that were in fact attached. The report was initially composed with great urgency, since the university sent several emails in ALL CAPS announcing that some of my expenses were more than thirty days old and would therefore be ESCALATED TO MY MANAGER if I did not submit them. I have no idea who that manager would be since my department chair has nothing to do with these things -- but I am also not keen to be escalated all the same. I have again submitted the report with a screen shot of the relevant page in Concur (why give a software program a name that is an ominous imperative?) and documentation that I consulted the Help Desk and was told that if such an unchecked button did exist it would be an error to check the thing for the type of expense I was recording. I pointed out that the missing documentation is the documentation that was always attached.

In other words this is a normal day of me working on the GW MEMSI budget. I fully expect the report to come back again tomorrow because I did not provide a business purpose for the iced tea imbibed at a planning lunch (you think I am kidding but the business purpose of iced teas and salads are topics I have discussed with those who have rejected my reports in the past). Anyway, then this came up as a Facebook memory:

So it seems that some issues are perennial. But maybe not infinite. Here is what I wrote as I shared this memory on that other social media platform:
Every year at this time such thoughts recur -- and these institutional impediments are among the reasons GW MEMSI as a university-funded entity (but not as a community) is coming to an end this spring. But that's not the only reason. Ten years amounts to a very good run for the Institute. Its innovative work is in large part done (meaning, I don't want merely to replicate what we've long been doing, the default mode of an institution when it focuses upon its own existence rather than creation of new structures and possibilities). It is perhaps time to make space for other communalizing entities, here at GW or elsewhere, whatever they might be. 
And, in all honesty, I need a change: I cannot keep doing what I have been doing for the next ten years. I don't know what the future holds, but I acknowledge that I am restless, and I am not sure what will come next.
It's been quite a summer, one that included two trips to the emergency room, once in DC and once in London. Both were the result of having been bitten by a Lyme disease bearing tick, possibly while hiking in search of the three Green Chapels in Staffordshire (who says that the life of the mind won't kill you?). The good news is that the onset of symptoms was so swift that I was on the prescribed regimen of antibodies almost immediately, so I caught the infection just about as early as possible -- and that makes my prognosis for a full recovery excellent. Yet the infection took its toll, and it's only this week that early morning runs feel invigorating rather than a danse macabre in action. I have been coming to my office every day, partly because I am dropping my daughter off nearby for Camp Shakespeare and partly because I am trying desperately to catch up on email, dissertation chapter comments, syllabus writing, GW MEMSI planning for 2017-18 ... and expense reports. The routine has given me time to think about routines, and futures, and what I want to do with my life next. I don't really have an answer, but I acknowledge that I need a change.

Once I am no longer directing MEMSI (our ten year celebration is in March: join us!) I do not know what will come next. But not more of the same.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Held in his lap Deliciously: Medieval Hermits, Distracted by Cats


Obviously, if you like what we do, join our community. And please, if you haven't done so yet, read this guest post by Shamma Boyarin, which will give you a good sense of what we've been up to recently. This post here is comparatively, and perhaps even absolutely, frivolous.

Apparently it’s International Cat Day, and, for several days, unwitting I have been researching medieval cats and the envious hermits who love them. What good fortune!

You probably know that the Ancrene Wisse (early 13th century) allows anchoresses one cat: “Ye, mine leove sustren, bute yef neod ow drive ant ower meistre hit reade, ne schulen habbe na beast bute cat ane” [VIII 76-77; My dear sisters, unless need drives you and your director advises it, you must not have any animal except a single cat, 201, trans. slightly modified]. Fewer of you might know how the passage continues: anticipating the damage that cows [“kues”] might cause, it warns the anchoress of the trouble that comes when her neighbors have anything to complain of [“Ladlich thing is hit, wat Crist, hwen me maketh i tune man of ancre ahte” (It is a hateful thing, Christ knows, when men can make in town anything of about an anchor; 201, trans. slightly modified)]. And especially if any anchoresses must have animals, it advises “loki thet…hire thoht ne beo na-wiht th'ron i-festnet” (see that…their thought is in no way fastened on it).

Have a cat, but beware of being too attached to it. To put this another way, even then, cats were liable to draw our love. For these reason, the eleventh-century Liber confortatorius by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, written in England to Eve, a woman recluse, insists that “No cat, no chicken, no little animal, no irrational creature, should live with you: fleeting time should not be wasted” (Book III, Otter trans., 80). For this reason, in the fifteenth century we encounter the unfortunate Margaret, a nun tormented in purgatory, who “had a lytel hound and a lytel catte folwynge hyr, al of fyr brennynge” [61; had a little dog and a little cat following her, both of them aflame], and who would not relieved from them until the “drosse of syn” (78) is fully burned away.

In the twelfth century, in his manual for rulers, Gerald of Wales includes a feline temptor of this sort in an aside about Gregory the Great. It’s written that a certain hermit had heard of the sanctity of Pope Gregory and went to see him in Rome, where he witnessed a grand procession of cardinals, clerics, and especially Gregory himself, bedecked with his imperial regalia. He returned to his place [locum suum], and wondered at night whether this glory suited humility, and then, as he slept, he heard a voice reciting this verse [hunc versum modulantem audivit]: 'Pluris habes catum quam praesul pontificatum’ [You esteem the cat more highly than the pope does the papacy]. For, as Gerald explains, this good man had a cat, which he was accustomed to play with [ludendo] after he finished his work and prayers. (Thanks Trevor Russell Smith for help here).

The earliest surviving version of this story may be in Gerald; Robert Bartlett, who alerted me to it, does not list anything earlier (Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?, 199), nor have I been able to find anything earlier on my own. Despite what some claim, the cat story is not in John the Deacon’s early life (PL 75:103-6, pdf), nor in this early life from Whitby. But it does appear in Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum historiale, sadly denuded of Gerald’s catum/pontificatum pun: "Angelus Domini ad quendam eremitam, qui unum cattum pro relevando taedio secum habebat, de eodem Gregorio testeretur dicens: Majorem delectationem habes in hoc catto, quam Gregorius in omni imperio Romano" (XX.19, p. 867; an angel of the lord came to a certain hermit, who had a cat to relieve the tedium of living alone, and said to him about Gregory, you have more delight in this cat that Gregory does in all the power of Rome).

And from there, it strolls into the Golden Legend of Jacobus da Varagine (more commonly, Voragine), whose more than 1000 surviving Latin manuscripts attest to a universal readership in medieval Latin Christendom. I can cite, for example, the translations by Jean de Vignay, themselves quite popular: “tu aimes miex cele chate que tu aplanies tous les jours que il ne fait les richesces (BnF fr. 241, 76v; you love this cat that you caress every day better than he loves his riches). Judging from the examples in Godefroy’s Old French dictionary, which have to do mainly with horses, the verb for caressing, aplaner, may have been used particularly for animals, and therefore might be translated as “pet”; it certainly, and charmingly, was related, then and now to flattening, leveling, or smoothing out (the modern French aplanir).

Jean de Vignay wasn’t the only French translator; Jean Belet, for example, writes “En ces tans fu uns hermitains hons de grant vertu qui avoit laissie toutes choses por dieu et n'avoit nule chose fors que une chatte, laquelle il aplaignoit souvent et aussi com sa copaigne en ses genouz la norissoit” [Bnf fr. 20330 47v; In those times there was a hermit of great virtue has had left all things for god and had no possession except for a cat, which he caressed often, and like his companion, he fed her [while she sat] on his knees; thanks Jeanette Patterson for paleographical assistance!]. We also find the story in a thirteenth-century French verse translation of Life of Gregory, where the smugly pious hermit is more proud (“orguillous e fier”) than Gregory, because of his delight in his cat:

Tu ton chat eimes e nourris,
Bailles e beises e polis
(You love [presuming that eimes is from aimer] and feed your cat / and play with him and kiss him and “polish” him).

And of course we find it in English too, and once on a window in Canterbury Cathedral. While Gregory is missing from the saints collected in John Mirk’s Festial, and while the South English Legendary (in both EETS editions) focuses, narcissistically, on Gregory’s famously inspired evangelization of Britain (“not Angels, but Anglicans!”), it does appear in the 1430s in the Gilte Legende (taken mostly from Jean de Vignay): “How durst thou make comparison betwene the richesse of Gregori and thi pouertee, sethe thou louest more thi catte that thou handelest and strokest eueri day thanne he dothe all the richesse that he hathe, for he dispisethe hem and yeuith hem frely to eueri man” (Vol. 1, 203). And from thence, but also via Jean de Vignay, we have Caxton’s translation, which may be the most delightful of all: "And in that time there was a hermit, an holy man, which had left and forsaken all the goods of the world for God's sake, and had retained nothing but a cat, with which he played oft, and held in his lap deliciously" (Vol III, 66-67).

And that would be that for the cat, were it not for one more story of this sort, still more brief, in a Life of Saint Basil. Again, this story does not appear in the early life, attributed to Amphilochius (PL 73); nor have I yet found it anywhere earlier than the Golden Legend: it’s not in Aelfric, for example. Again, a seemingly proud prelate; again, a smugly humble hermit and his cat; and then one more detail, its tail: “Tu amplius delicaris in palpando caudam gatte tue que delectetur Basilius in apparatu suo valent” [Einsiedeln Stiftsbibliothek Codex 629(258), 41v; You delight in stroking your cat’s tail more than Basil does in his vestments: dating to 1288, this is the second-oldest copy of the Golden Legend, made during Jacobus’s lifetime, and delightful to me, because of what strikes me as an Italianate gatte for catte, hinting at a casual, vernacular affection for this animal].

Again, we have this in French (BnF 241 48r, tu te delictes plus en aplamant la queue de ton chat que Basille ne fait en son appareil), and in English, losing the tail, here from the Gilte Legende:
Another hermyte seigh another tyme Seint Basile go well besain [“be seen,” that is, “on display”] in abyte of a bisshop and despised hym in his thought, seyeng: ‘Lo what delyte he hathe to go in suche bobaunce.’ And a vois ansuered hym and saide: ‘Thou delitest the more in strokyng of thi catte thanne Basile in al hys araye (Vol 1, 117) (Caxton here).
The thirteenth-century Franciscan Chronicler Salimbene di Adam would not have approved. In Coulton’s translation:
I have seen in mine own Order certain Lectors of excellent learning and great sanctity who had yet some foul blemish, which caused others to judge lightly of them. For they love to play with a cat or a whelp or with some small fowl, but not as the Blessed Francis was wont to play with a pheasant and a cicada, rejoicing the while in the Lord (90)
Sic in ordine meo, qui est ordo beati Francisci et fratrum Minorum, vidi aliquos lectores optime litteratos et magne sanctitatis, et tamen aliquam merditatem habent, per quam leves persone iudicantur ab aliis: libenter enim ludunt cum murilego vel cum catulo vel cum avicula aliqua, sed non sicut beatus Franciscus cum fasiano et cicada ludebat et delectabatur in Domino. (146)
As much as I like pheasants and cicadas, I’m charmed by how cats insist on getting into our business, on demanding our attention, on substituting for God, on puffing us up with pride for them, how they draw ascetics astray from their celestial thoughts down to this warm and fuzzy and tailed earth. Delicious.

Corrections are welcome!

Medieval Cat Bibliography

Aerts, Erik. "La relation entre l’homme et le chat dans les anciens Pays-Bas au moyen âge et à l’époque moderne I. Le chat utile, diabolique et imaginaire."  Vlaams Diergeneeskundig Tijdschrift 84 (2015): 212-222.

Aerts, Erik. "La relation entre l’homme et le chat dans les anciens Pays-Bas au moyen âge et à l’époque moderne II. Le chat domestique et le chat tourmenté," Vlaams Diergeneeskundig Tijdschrift 84 (2015): 271-80.

Gray, Douglas. “Notes on Some Medieval, Mystical, Magical, and Moral Cats.” In Langland, the Mystics, and the Medieval English Religious Tradition: Essays in Honour of S. S. Hussey, edited by Helen Phillips, 185–202. Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1990.

Jones, Malcoln H. “Cats and Cat-Skinning in Late Medieval Art and Life.” In Fauna and Flora in the Middle Ages, edited by Sieglinde Hartmann, 97-112. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.

Lipton, Sara, “Jews, Heretics, and the Sign of the Cat in the Bible moralisée,” Word and Image 8 (1992): 362–77.

Poole, Kristopher. "The Contextual Cat: Human–Animal Relations and Social Meaning in Anglo-Saxon England." Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 22.3 (2015): 857-882. [thanks Matt E. Spears!]

Thomas, Richard, “Perceptions Versus Reality: Changing Attitudes towards Pets in Medieval and Post-Medieval England.” In Just Skin and Bones? New Perspectives on Human-Animal Relations in the Historical Past, edited by Aleksander Pluskowski, 95-104. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2005.

Walker-Meikle, Kathleen. Medieval Cats. London: British Library, 2011.

And another short blog post on medieval cats, from 2013, here.

Join the ITM Community on FB

by J J Cohen

The ITM co-bloggers are happy to announce the formation of a new Facebook group, ITM Community. A moderated space for discussing posts and comments from the blog In the Middle as well as all related humanities concerns, the group has 260+ members already and many vigorous conversations unfolding. If you are on Facebook, join us!

This forum is yours to fashion and sustain the kinds of affirmative, challenging community we need right now -- so please feel free to do with the group forum as you will. Be kind, be generous, and let's see what we can make together.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Decentering Medieval Studies: A guest post by Shamma Boyarin

a guest post by Shamma Boyarin

[ITM welcomes ongoing informed conversation about the recent challenges to medieval studies as usual that have unfolded at conferences and across social media: see for example On Race and Medieval Studies, Decolonizing Anglo-Saxon Studies, Pushback Promise Progress, Whiteness in Medieval Studies Workshop, #MoreVoices, Anti-feminism Whiteness and Medieval Studies, White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval StudiesRe-making The Real Middle Ages -- and the multiple discussions and resources linked by those posts.  -- JJC]

A Quick Preface
The following was originally composed in a series of comments on Facebook, posted on three separate dates (11 July, 18 July, and 24 July) in response to issues raised by IMC Leeds. My thoughts are not aimed at Leeds specifically but speak to related issues arising from this year’s IMC and conversations that took place among scholars on social media afterwards. I am at home caring for our children full time this summer, and, while I have revised my comments slightly, I cannot now add references or notes for further reading; I am aware of many relevant studies. Since my comments appeared on Facebook, too, a number of colleagues have responded with smart useful feedback that I would have liked to quote here—but they were posted to another venue, and I don’t want to include them without authors’ permission. Those authors may want to add to, or repeat, their interactions in this venue as well. Finally, my thanks to Jeffrey Cohen for offering In the Middle as a forum for these meditations.

11 July
First, an anecdote. Among the first conferences I presented at as a student was a graduate conference at Columbia. One of the keynotes was given by an important senior professor (though I can't now remember who), and it was about why Spain should be more fully included in Western medieval studies. As someone working on medieval Hebrew and Arabic literature in Spain, I was sad and surprised that the argument needed to be made, but I was happy that it was being made. To my dismay, though, the gist of the argument turned out to be that Spain should be included in medieval studies because, even during the Muslim conquest, there was an active Christian presence there; the bulk of the talk documented the evidence for this. In other words, the take away was that for something to be relevant to medieval studies it had to be Christian.

This was twenty years ago. One imagines that such a keynote would not be given today—but I'm not sure. The roots of medieval studies—and I speak from the literary corners of the field, though I suspect there are corollaries in history as well—are deeply connected to nationalism. As we know (others have written about this), the creation of a Western literary canon, one that has its beginnings with Beowulf and Roland and the like, was tied to the creation of nation. The same is true, with some differences, for the study of medieval Hebrew literature, where the “secular” literature of Golden Age Spain was mobilized to help bolster the literary canon of Hebrew in service of the state (others have written about this too). The tools of medieval literary studies—philology, codicology, the tracing of stemmata, discussion of textual transmissions and corruptions, etc.—are all colored by these origins. Current university structures, such as the division of departments along linguistic and geographical lines, grow out of and continue to reinforce these tendencies, which are now clearly problematic. Most course sequences that cover English literature for majors, for instance, still reproduce this sense of there being a “national” literary canon. Broadening medieval studies to include other literary traditions—say Persian, Arabic, Chinese, or African—is certainly a good thing. But what we really need is a radical departure from the field’s origins. We need to find a way to explode medieval studies and rebuild it anew.

July 18
Here is another perhaps not well formulated thought; I say so mainly because I’m sure others have already expressed this better: saying things like “more medievalists should work on Arabic” or “the field would look different if there were someone working on medieval China” reveals a certain shortsightedness about our definition of “medievalist” and who we think counts as a medievalist. There are already many great scholars working on these subjects! Instead, we need actively to expand the list of scholars that we already think of as medievalists. We should automatically, without reserve or prompting, be including in “medieval studies” people who work on, say, twelfth-century Arabic poetry, or the Cairo Genizah, or the Shahnameh or Byzantine history, or Chinese history, in Western universities and beyond—regardless of whether they are ever present at Leeds or Kalamazoo, or publish in Speculum etc. Doing this will dynamically change the field. The field would then look very different than it now seems to present itself internally and publicly, both in content and in terms of the racial and religious affiliations of those involved. More significantly, this would be a much bigger step towards making our discipline truly about a global Middle Ages (which, in this vision, it in fact already is) than an approach that focuses on arguments about how diverse Europe was and regardless of the degrees of diversity different people ascribe to different areas and centuries of medieval Europe. I do not mean to suggest that such arguments and scholarly interventions are not important—especially in the current political climate, they are—but rather that we can augment them by also decentralizing medieval Europe. That is, once medieval studies becomes about the medieval world, it is harder to sustain fantasies (held still by some scholars in our field) that the period was when White Christianity was dominant. There will be other implications and complications—for example, current debates about periodization in different regions—but in truth I believe that a change in medieval studies will only truly be felt if we embrace this decentralization approach wholesale.

July 24
Another thought (and I want to be clear, as I write, that I am in no way offering an excuse or a pass for racists in the field). Many of us were attracted to studying the Middle Ages because of a favorite childhood book, movie, television show, or game, and we perhaps imagine that studying medieval literature is a chance to engage with the materials that inspired us and these objects of childhood fascination—a chance to work with the people and stories we loved as children. Some even imagine that medieval studies is far removed from present-day politics or religion, and they want to retreat—I have heard people express that as part of their motivation for studying medieval texts. Undergraduate introduction to medieval studies tend to play into this now: they focus on the strange and weird of the Middle Ages, or use modern or child-directed medievalisms as a “hook.” I think in advanced undergraduate courses, and certainly in graduate seminars, we offer a much more sophisticated and complex reading of the field and its objects of study—and gender, class and race are among the sophistications and complications to be discussed there—but this still comes at a relatively late stage in one’s training in medieval studies. Further, even in advanced graduate classes, even courses that deal with the history of the discipline, rarely are the problematic roots of medieval studies engaged, especially as regards gender, class, race, and even wartime politics (and again, I am thinking of the discipline in relation to English and Hebrew literary canons especially). We are only truly confronted with the roots of the field, and its profound and long-term consequences, when we have devoted many years of our lives to becoming part of it. Not only that: with this realization, too, comes the knowledge that those childhood favorites, those things that inspired our devotion in the first place, are impacted and changed. There are a number of ways scholars seem to react: denial and outrage—including blaming the messengers, often people of color, women, and LGBTQ scholars—for ruining this fantasy; silence, not engaging at all, either by leaving the field or by continuing on as if nothing has changed; or, finally, some (many?) see that confronting these issues in medieval studies makes the field stronger, more important, and vital, because these are also the problems that face our classrooms, our departments, our conferences, and our world. That love we all had (and have) for things medieval can be productively harnessed, to bring us back to those inspiring materials, to find the interesting and valuable aspects of them but also (this time without blinders on) engage their racist, sexist, classist, ableist discourses with all of our hard-earned authority—and to confront the history of medieval studies and its political role in national and modern history.

Shamma Boyarin is Director of Religious Studies at the University of Victoria, where he also teaches in the English Department and Medieval Studies Program. His research and teaching interests include medieval Jewish literature (particularly of Spain, the Near East, and England), comparative literature (particularly Hebrew and Arabic), translation studies, and connections between religion and pop culture (particularly Heavy Metal). His most recent publications are “The Contexts of the Hebrew Secret of Secrets” in Trajectoires européennes du Secret des secrets du Pseudo-Aristote (Brepols, 2015), “Hebrew Alexander Romances and Astrological Questions: Alexander, Aristotle, and the Medieval Jewish Audience” in Alexander the Great in the Middle Ages (Toronto UP, 2016), and “‘Changing the Order of Creation’: The Toldot Ben Sira Disrupts the Medieval Hebrew Canon” in Talmudic Transgressions (Brill, 2017). He has also written for the British Library Asian and African Studies Blog (on a Hebrew manuscript made for King Henry VIII here and blogs himself here.