Monday, May 23, 2016

3,000 Kalamazoos: Play, Change, Community



My annual swag summary of Kalamazoo (click image to embiggen). [May 18, 2016]

It has been just about a week since the 2016 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI (aka #Kzoo2016). About three thousand attendees made the journey to Kalamazoo this year (note also this great writeup before the conference), and there are thousands of stories can be told about the experience as a result.

The medievalist blogosphere has been active this week, and I'll let these varied accounts speak for themselves:

  • Karra Shimabukuro, "#Kzoo2016 Reflections" (May 14 post at Folklore <--> Milton <--> Popular Culture)
  • Kathleen E. Kennedy, "The Future of Medieval Conferences" (May 15 tumblr post)
  • Maggie Williams, recap of Material Collective activities (May 16 blog post, with links to livetweets from the relevant sessions)
  • Travis Neel, general reflections (May 17, public Facebook note)
  • Shamma Boyarin, reflections on inclusion and disability approaches (May 16 and May 22)
  • Josh Eyler's blog is hosting guest postings from the "Teaching the Humanities in the Current Climate of Higher Education" roundtable at Kzoo: Cameron Hunt McNabb: "Teaching to the Choir" (May 17); Leigh Ann Craig: "So Are You Going to Open A History Store?" (May 19); Kisha Tracy: "A Plea for Research, Part 1" (May 23)
  • MW Bychowski, "Genres of Embodiment: A Theory of Medieval Transgender Literature" (May 17 blog post at Transliterature: Things Transform)
  • Shyama Rajendran, "Kalamazoo 2016 and The Work We Still Have To Do" (May 18 blog post)
  • David Hadbawnik, "Kalamazoo 2016 Redux" (May 21 blog post)
  • Danielle Trynoski, "Digital Humanities at K'zoo: A Recap" (May 22 for
  • Susan Signe Morrison, "Female Fun at Kalamazoo: All the Single (and Married) Ladies at the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies" (May 23 blog post)

I'm still processing my own intellectual and affective responses to Kalamazoo 2016. Many of my perceptions are shaped by my own idiosyncratic social circles but do I have a general sense that this Kzoo felt … different, in ways I can’t quite express. Perhaps due to #femfog and the whole Frantzen affair earlier this year, Kzoo felt more overtly affirming and welcoming than previous years (more mentorship networks, sessions and panels foregrounding new voices, a range of inclusive gatherings and initiatives) and it also felt profoundly serious about considering the state of the field and how it can improve in structural ways (such as the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship roundtable on harassment in the academy, online conversations about conference sociality and accessibility, frank discussions about social media use in medievalist circles). 

What sticks with me the most vividly from my own experience of Kzoo this year is a sense that new structures are being built and we don’t yet know what shape they will take. I feel like medievalists are collectively inhabiting an intriguing zone of potential and possibility.

My blog reflections are clustered by three key words: PLAY, CHANGE, and COMMUNITY.


BANANA CAR spotting in downtown Kalamazoo! [May 13, 2016]

One reason I enjoy heading out to Kzoo each year is experiencing its sense of play. As always, Kzoo reminded me of the love that medievalists have for what we do (be it teaching, research, publishing, artistic production) and both the sessions and the social events can generate a shared sense of purpose and belonging.

  • Medieval Donut 2.0. This donut-centered informal social gathering, graciously hosted by Jeffrey Cohen on Wednesday night, marked the second year of what is now becoming a Kzoo tradition. Although I missed the event (sniffle!), it clearly provided a low-key way to socialize and meet new people. For tweets and photos from this event and related festivities throughout the conference, see this curated 2016 #medievaldonut archive.
  • PLAY roundtable. GW MEMSI (Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute) hosted a ludic roundtable/playground that featured (among other things) balloons, a bouncing beach ball, toys on each seat, and some pretty awesome interactive game-presentations; for photos and tweets that nicely capture the spirit and the intellectual content of the event see here.
  • Fandom and role play. I participated in a session (organized by Anna Wilson) on fandom in medieval studies; this conversation touched on topics as wide-ranging as Mandeville marginalia, genderswapping and queer subjectivities in interactive novel roleplaying games, and the contemporary appropriation of medieval storytelling traditions beyond Europe.


Embrace the #femfog! SMFS swag. [May 15, 2016]

Much of this playfulness and spirit of experimentation (with new ideas and new social formations) extended into the conference sessions themselves. Some sessions not only asked how we can push the boundaries of our respective academic domains/disciplines but also explored how we can collectively transform the underlying social dynamics of the field.

  • BABEL roundtables. The BABEL Working Group hosted two roundtables: "Where Else?" and "Far Out!" (see this archive of tweets from these sessions). I've been involved with BABEL for a few years now, and what I find so compelling about this community is its capacity to bring together (seemingly) unlikely people and things. In this spirit, the "Where Else?" roundtable incorporated varied disciplines and methods (art history, literature and ecotheory, Judaic studies and world literature, medical humanities and plague epidemiology) and disparate spaces (Cuba, medieval Britain, West Africa, the Bahamas, the Underworld). All of the presentations got me thinking specifically about how medievalists who for a variety of reasons occupy the "margins" of (a habitually Western/Eurocentric) medieval studies can find "homes" within their respective disciplines or institutions while also thriving as deliberate exiles/outsiders to such structures.
  • SMFS roundtable on harassment. This session was originally planned around the anonymous online survey on harassment in the academy conducted by SFMS in 2015, and the conversation (as one might expect) addressed not only the climate of medieval studies in the wake of #femfog but also become an opportunity to brainstorm ways to make the profession more supportive for everyone (students and faculty). What was clear to me from this conversation (from survey data, speaker presentations, and some personal stories that emerged in the discussion) was that harassment can affect anyone regardless of gender, status, or sexuality. Harassment is about power, and anyone can be a potential victim or abuser. Consulting my handwritten notes during the session, I notice that just about 70% of survey respondents said they had experienced some form of harassment but around 70% never reported it. What I hope the SMFS survey and conversations can encourage is the creation of clear, accessible resources for those among us who have experienced harassment or seek to help others. For what it's worth, I'll just say that the Shakespeare Association of America has crafted an excellent sexual harassment policy (see page 9 in the January 2016 SAA Bulletin) and other professional societies could think carefully about building and sustaining similar structures. [Side note: SAA deserves kudos for its policies (including sexual harassment and social media usage) for three reasons: the guidelines are clear, the organizational structures are transparent (i.e., each was crafted by an ad hoc committee of scholars of varied stages/backgrounds), and the labor is acknowledged (SAA Bulletin, January 2016, pages 9-10).]
  • Twitter roundtable and social media ethics. I took part in a roundtable (organized by Ben Ambler) on the ethics of live-tweeting academic conferences, and it morphed into a broader conversation about the ethics of social media use in academia more broadly. (You can consult this twitter archive for a fuller sense of the whole session and related conversations). The session addressed positive aspects of live-tweeting (such as timely access for people who can't attend, playful banter and community, signal boosting and disseminating work) as well as its negative aspects (graduate students and vulnerable scholars being "scooped," unease about the ethics of twitter as a corporation, potential for users to experience online abuse). Eileen Joy stressed the transformative capacity of social media (it can instigate tough conversations that wouldn't take place otherwise), but Angie Bennett pointed to some of its limits (not everyone has access to technology/mobile devices and conversations can unwittingly exclude as well). I've enthusiastically supported conference live-tweeting in the past, but I've since become ambivalently optimistic (or optimistically ambivalent) about it all. I'd say my "take home" message was that we as a medievalist community need to be better about establishing shared expectations and "best practices" for live-tweeting and clear guidelines would help; see some of the excellent examples and points by various folks near the end of this #Kzoo2016 twitter archive.


Donut diversity (photo: Cameron Hunt McNabb). [May 11, 2016]

It's probably no surprise that I'm ending this blog post with a section about community. I felt that community building was one of my personal priorities this year, and I'm so encouraged by the ways medievalists are coming together during and since Kzoo to creating a better field (and world).
  • Inclusivity was a major theme in my experience of Kzoo. I was proud to see people wearing T-shirts with affirmative, inclusive sentiments (the proceeds of BABEL's #inclusivity fundraiser campaign go to SMFS) or displaying other signs of support for SMFS and a more capacious medieval studies. I'm also energized by ongoing efforts at Kzoo such as the annual Anglo-Saxonist "New Voices" sessions; mentoring initiatives; various informal gatherings attentive to LGBTQ communities and scholars of color; a BABEL gathering at Bell's Brewery open to anyone; and medievalists asking important questions about uneven access and exclusion in our field (along the lines of class, financial conditions, disability, age).
  • Rethinking access. I've been following with great interest some emergent conversations about accessibility at medieval conferences. Jeffrey's pre-Kzoo 2016 posting gives us much to think about in terms of social venues and practices, and Karra Shimabukuro has shared some good suggestions that she included in her responses to the annual Kzoo survey (here and here). (These links are not specifically Kzoo-related, but check out recent reflections by Rachel Moss on attending academic events as a new parent, and consult the Modern Language Association of America's helpful access guidelines before you prepare for your next conference.)
  • Swangate. Last week, a story went viral about medievalist (known only as @chevalier_cygne) who brilliantly responded to a UKIP politician's racism and xenophobia (he had objected to a nonwhite actress portraying [Shakespeare's] medieval queen Margaret of Anjou). The story has since been picked up by the Independent and the Toast (with ancillary "cygnal boost" by Jeffrey and yours truly). If you're on twitter, you can follow the #swangate and #swantruther hashtags for more.
  • Medievalist tattoos. Picking up on a recent conversation on social media about medievalists with tattoos, @izzybeth (on twitter) has created a tumblr blog called Badass Tattoos on Medievalists. If you're a medievalist who has a story to share about your tattoo (or otherwise have something relevant to contribute), feel free to check out the site!
This blog post ended up being much longer than I had intended, but I've tried my best to convey my sense of this year's vibe and ethos. I hope that some of the productive energy of Kzoo 2016 will continue to spark new thinking about our understanding of the Middle Ages and the future we'd like to see in our present-day communities.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Conviviality and Conferencing, Alcohol and Academia

by J J Cohen

[Read Karl! Peruse the Kzoo BABEL events!]

Yesterday I took part in a conversation on Twitter about alcohol and academia, with a special emphasis on ensuring access to community at conferences without making the price of entry spaces where all socializing is structured around alcohol consumption. You can read the Storify of the conversation here.

I want to emphasize from the start that I am not against alcohol at conferences or anywhere else -- those of you who are my friends know that I enjoy good beer, wine, cocktails. I sometimes even feature my favorites on social media. As a medievalist I know what gebeorscipe is. But just as Caedmon could not stay at the poetry party when the harp approached, it's worth thinking about who is excluded when we found our conviviality on drink. One of the reasons some of us started the Medieval Donut event at an annual conference in Kalamazoo last year was to ensure that not every moment of community was structured around drinking. If you are attending #Kzoo2016, I hope that you will join us around 8 PM in the Radisson Lobby for this year's version. I will bring many dozens from Sweetwater's Donut Mill (their donuts are superb, take my word for it). We encourage you to contribute your own favorites for comparison and community purposes -- and if you are vegan, abide by a gluten free diet, are kosher, diabetic or have any other dietary preferences or requirements, know that there are likely others in attendance who share the same restrictions and please feel free to bring along something to share.

I began thinking seriously about conferences, alcohol consumption and unintentional exclusion a few years ago, when I organized a GW MEMSI sponsored "Rogue Session" at a brewery (information on the session here; a reflection on what this para-conference happening might have achieved here). The session was wonderful -- so moving that I thought about never organizing anything again, because how could that be topped? Yet I also found myself haunted by an email I received after I announced the Rogue Session's location. The note pointed out that by setting the session in a brewery some people who would like to attend would not have access to its community (in this case, someone trying to maintain sobriety and unwilling to put themselves in jeopardy by entering a space structured around drinking). If you read through the Storify above, you will see how many potential members a community of drinkers quietly excludes: people who might abstain for religious reasons (Muslims and Mormons, to name just two groups); those with allergies and medical conditions; people who are pregnant; those who have successfully overcome a struggle with substance abuse and do not want to be placed where things have in the past gone wrong; those who know that spaces formed around drinking can be dangerous, especially to women (increasing the chances of assault and unwanted attention); those in a precarious academic position who know that unprofessional activities, questions, and remarks can sometimes be spurred by alcohol; those who simply do not want to drink. I am not saying that receptions and events should not include alcohol (though they should always include good alternatives to alcohol). But I do want to urge those who arrange such events to ensure that they are not the sole access provided to conference conviviality. And during such events, we all need to watch out for each other.

A second issue discussed in the Twitter conversation was the relative ease with which academics can become alcoholics: because of the immense pressures faced in degree attainment, getting a job if possible, keeping a job if possible (who does not work long hours? when was the last time you took a whole weekend off, including email?); because of the way alcohol consumption has been not only normalized but glamorized within the profession; and because of the relative isolation and lack of consistent oversight or accountability. It's easy to vanish and tempting to self-medicate. We all have experience with the friend, colleague, mentor, or professor who might be charismatic after a few drinks but toxic at five; the young academic or would-be academic who self-destructs as a result of substance dependency; or the academic who at some point turns to drinking and stops being an affirmative force within the field (from what I have seen, alcohol abuse leads to resentment and rage, not a desire to foster and sustain community, a disregard of shared futures). We also all have friends, colleagues, mentors who are now sober after struggling with the seemingly omnipresent lure of alcohol in academic life. Respect them by making access to community manifold. The problem of academic alcohol dependency is similar in many ways to an intimately related issue, the problem of sexual harassment in the field. If we convince ourselves that it is an issue mainly for an older generation within the profession, we fail to see how close to home it is actually unfolding, its present and ongoing destructiveness to career and community.

So I am headed to a conference in Kalamazoo next week. If you attend the conference and drop by Bell's Brewery, you may well see me there, because I love that place. But I will also arrive at the Radisson with at least four dozen donuts in the trunk of my rental car, because we all need to proliferate options for access. Some conviviality centered around devouring rings of cake seems to me at least a small start.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Animals, Gesture, and Communication Despite it All


It's the week before Kalamazoo, so of course I've just drafted my New Chaucer Society Paper.

Yeah. So, as I'm in Berlin, I'll simply wave fondly at Kalamazoo from a distance, and as I have more stuff to write during what remains of this chunk of my sabbatical -- one thing being a chapter on medieval animals and disability -- I need to get my stuff coherent, and fast! Last week was muteness (and thank you, hugely, everyone who helped me out on twitter and so on with ideas!); this week, it's gesture, which is as new to me as muteness was last week. And next week, well, I'll simply watch what trouble you all get into at the Big Show. And wish all the mentors and mentees a charming, helpful encounter!

And OH MY GOODNESS: as I was writing this, Jonathan Hsy was posting a BABEL events at Kzoo 2016 post. READ THAT. Use it. Mark your calendars. Do that. First.

For those of you who are grading, godspeed; for those of you who are writing your Kalamazoo papers, likewise; for those of you making long-distance moves for a new academic job, congratulations and good luck; and for those of you whom the market ignored, or disdained, for those of you not yet sure what you can do this Fall, all my best for you, and for a better future for the public good of education, one freed from the ugly strictures of Spreadsheet Rationality (read Eileen Joy here, and vote YES for a CUNY Strike Authorization, if you can, and if you haven't done so yet).

British Library Yates Thompson MS 26 44r (detail)
Read on if you like! Or just finish your grading.

Like Modern English, Middle English abounds in metaphors that troped impairment as animality: "blind as a beetle," "deaf as an adder," "mad as a goose." Mainstream medieval philosophy and Christian doctrine regularly glossed the paradigmatic quadrupedal animal body as a material form of irrationality, and likewise held that animals were "mute" not because animals were silent, but because the sound they made was understood as unwritable, as senseless, as mere noise.
Within a disability rights perspective, it certainly not unjustifiable to decry these comparisons, because they reduce impaired humans to a condition of animal degradation. Without - and I hope this understood - denying the importance of human rights, my scholarly habits of critical animal studies encourage me to linger with the animal comparison, to explore what might be done with it. My training means that I can't simply say that humans are better than animals, but neither do I want just to say that animals, of whatever sort, are all subjects of a life, and deserve to have their unique perspectives respected. What I'm doing in this paper is a bit more delicate, and, as befits someone who is new to disability studies, more tentative: I'm proposing that the metaphor of "natural" animal impairment offers up as model of multiple sensory and bodily norms, helping to dislodge the idealized, able-bodied human at least implicitly at the center of so many medieval narratives of human impairment.
In medieval narrative, at least if there's a saint involved, a person who is "blind as a beetle" will leave sighted. I offer the sample of the Patrologia Latina, where the nouns surdus and mutus often travel together, and likewise often travel with stories of miraculous healing. Augustine's Enchiridion promises that the bodies of the holy will be resurrected "sine ullo vitio, sine ulla deformitate," without any fault, without any deformity. However advantageous this may be for the impaired person, in this life or the next, the at least implicit message of these healing stories is that the impairment is an inconvenience, both for the impaired person and the saint. Healing someone's muteness allows the saint and the formally mute person to talk in the language the saint knows best; it allows the saint to replace an inconveniently impaired person with one whose body works the way the saint presumes it should. With this autonomy granted, the healed person goes one way, and the saint goes another. Normalcy has been restored.
This strong medieval narrative tendency towards the miraculous normalization of impairment is simply not as common in stories of saintly encounters with animals, no matter how miraculous. To be sure, these stories of mastery, taming, protection, elimination, and especially communication often require that a saint make himself understood to animals, and sometimes involve the reverse. Nonetheless, a saint who encounters an animal that is as "blind as a bat," because it is a bat, is probably not going to make that blind bat see.
One implication of this observation becomes more obvious if we concentrate on stories where that supposed impairment could have been overcome. These are stories about saints and birds, and, especially for my talk, in the story of Cuthbert's encounter with the penitential ravens.
I am interested in birds because they're an outlier in medieval negative glossings of animality. They're bipedal, for one, and so cannot be so easily classed as beasts confined to merely terrestrial appetites. The high-flying eagle, was commonly honored with tropological admiration for its supposed ability to look directly into the sun. And birds were the animals most typically imagined to have voiced language too. No hero that I know of gains the ability to understand the language of pigs or even dogs; but in the Volsung saga, Siegfried eavesdrops on birds, while the Middle English “Bird of Four Feathers,” or, still closer to home, the Parliament of Fowles, the House of Fame, and the Squire’s and Manciple’s Tales also all furnish ready examples. As birds have a peculiar capacity to erase the supposed impairment of being animal, a saintly encounter with a bird is one where it is very easy to imagine the bird ceasing, at least for a while, to be a "mute beast." 
Knowing that helps us recognize what makes the story of Cuthbert and the penitential ravens so special. The story goes like this: when the saint sees these birds tearing thatch from the roof of his guest house on the island of Farne, he waves them away, and verbally rebukes them. They flee, and then one or more ravens returns, and by way of apology, gives the saint a lump of pig’s lard. Written versions of the story first appear in a late seventh-century anonymous life, written not long after Cuthbert's death; Bede retells it several times in verse and prose; Aelfric gives it a compressed form, and then it appears in two late medieval, Middle English versions, one a couplet attached to choir stall paintings at Carlisle Cathedral, and the other at length in the Cuthbert compilation now known as Egerton 3309.
Of course, penitential fowl are a hagiographical motif of especial popularity with British saints. Saints Columbanus, Illtud, Wereburga, Guthlac, and, on the continent, Amelburga all have their problems with birds, often voracious geese, and often extract an apology from them. But barring the Cuthbert story, all these penitential birds are always only imitating something or someone else. Jonas of Bobbio’s life of Saint Columban has its bird "oblitus ferocitatis,” “forgetful of its wild nature,” splitting the bird’s miraculous behavior from its basic wildness. Illtud’s geese "withdraw…of their own free tame animals," quasi domestica quadrupedia, a strange comparison. The posture of the geese of Amalburga - "submissive wings" with "heads laid on the ground" - is only a "simulacro" of reasonable human behavior. Wereburga’s geese act "acsi captiva pecora," as if they were captive livestock, or contrastingly, in the monk Henry Bradshaw’s 1513 Middle English Life of Werenburga, "as yf they had reason naturall." Words like quasi abound in other Latin accounts of Wereburga's miracle, while Felix describes Guthlac's birds with veluti and velut, for example, "as if conscious of its ill-doing," words that render the animal’s behavior only apparently more than instinctual.
No account of the story of Cuthbert and the penitential ravens that I know of loads its story with qualifications like this. In all of these, the birds are directly penitent, unscreened by metaphor. This is how the first, anonymous life describes them: "and settling above the furrow with outspread wings and drooping head, [they] began to croak loudly, with humble cries asking his pardon and indulgence. And the servant of Christ recognizing their penitence gave them pardon and permission to return." And here's how it looks 700 years later, in the long Middle English version:
Þe crawe spred hir wengys o brade,
And louted to him lawly þat tide
Reufully sho crobbed and cryed,
And schewed takyn expresse
Of praying of forgyfnes.
Cuthbert vndirstode hir dede
And leued hir to fle away gude spede.
Now, not every iota of Cuthbert hagiography tells the story: it's not in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, nor in Alcuin's Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, the metrical Cuthbert calendar, or the twelfth-century Cuthbert writings of Symeon and Reginald of Durham. The story's illustrated several times, most famously in Yates Thompson 26, and while these illustrations really do look like birds, they're even slimmer peg to hang an interpretation on than the texts I've offered you. I'll simply say that the story's not quite told everywhere, but it's still common, and where it exists, it is remarkably consistent.

I acknowledge as well that exegetical ravens are thickly symbolic, and I acknowledge that medieval commentators often agree with Dominic Alexander in taking stories like this as a sign of a saintly return to prelapsarian mastery over the animal world. I likewise acknowledge that this unique feature of the Cuthbert lives may be due to the inertia of storytelling or a respect for the integrity of the text: Bede makes some small changes, but mostly he just bookends it with explanations, “look to the ant o sluggard,” and so on. But I'm still struck that the stories that precede it - in Columbanus and in Athanasius's story of Saint Anthony and the hungry donkeys, which Bede himself cites - do not do what the Cuthbert story does, nor do the many avian miracles that follow Cuthbert's. Surely this unusual feature merits some kind of commentary.
Most striking is how much like ravens these ravens are. Paul Cavill emphasized this in his early article on animals and Cuthbert, and so does Susan Crane's superb commentary on the story, which stresses both the encounter's pastoral quality, with its notable combination of hospitality and submission, and what she calls the birds' "own ravenly, ravenous obedience," which is not just "a divine puppet show." 
For that "ravenly, ravenous obedience" to happen, and to happen meaningfully, the story needs translation, between the saint and the birds. Again, there are a number of ways this could happen: Goscelin of St Bertin's Wereburga life has its geese plead their case "as if with a human voice." This page from Tom Peete Cross's Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature neatly demonstrates that if an animal's going to talk, it's probably going to be a bird. The Cuthbert raven encounter could easily enough have been resolved simply by having the birds apologize vocally. Instead, with "humiliata uoce," a humble or abased voice, they begin, in the Middle English, to "ruefully" "crob and cry," or, in the anonymous life, to "crocitare," to croak, a word whose very rarity in medieval Latin marks a real effort to rightly represent this avian communication.
And when the ravens bow and stretch their wings, Cuthbert recognizes what they mean. This communication is in the style of monks, which discouraged or even forbade speaking, and which required a set of bodily movements to communicate the essentials of being a monk, chiefly, obedience and submission to the community. By bowing, the birds are "speaking" in a language that is understandable both to Cuthbert and the monks who produced these stories and among whom they chiefly circulated. Bede says that the raven uses "such signs as it could," or, to put this another, way, such signs as could be understood by a human. They are accommodating the communicative needs of this human monk. And when they furnish him with a chunk of pig lard, which he uses to waterproof his shoes, they are doing what they can to help him thrive in an environment much better accommodated to their capacities than to his.
That formulation is perhaps bizarre and over-clever, yet I am framing it this way to stress that this story strikes me as being about meeting in the middle. By preserving difference, by not likening the ravens' behavior to anything else, by requiring that Cuthbert recognize what the birds are doing - he "vndirstode hir dede" in the Middle English - the story preserves enough difference for translation to be both necessary and possible. The story refuses to simply wave away the difference in capacities and lived bodily experiences of human saint and penitential birds. Without requiring assimilation, it imagines the possibility of the satisfaction of mutual dependencies.
Medieval narrative was willing to imagine communication between humans and nonhumans; and on occasion it imagines these nonhumans making themselves understood not by speaking, but by making gestures suitable to the profession of their audience: kneeling ravens with a monk, or, another example, the outstretched paws, a gesture of homage, from the lion to Yvain, a knight. When we recognize that medieval texts also often trope nonhumans as impaired, and that communication still happens, without that impairment being miraculously "cured," we can take these medieval narratives of interspecies communication as a model for thinking impairment as something other than a condition that must be overcome for the sake of monolithic normativity. For these encounters are stories of multiple nodes of normalization, multiple ways of life: what is good for a raven is not good for a saint, necessarily, and still they can meet, and make themselves understood as they are.

Alcuin of York on Cuthbert, Latin.
Amelberga and the Geese, Acta Sanctorum, Julii III. Latin.
Athanasius of Alexandria, Life of Saint Anthony. Translation.
Bradshaw, Henry. The Life of Saint Werburge of Chester, ed. C. A. Horstmann. EETS. N. Trübner, 1887. Also includes Goscelin of Saint Bertin’s Life of Wereburga. Note that her name can be spelled many different ways.
Felix's Life of Saint Guthlac, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge UP, 1985.
Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, ed. and trans. Ted Johnson South. D. S. Brewer, 2002. Summary.
Illtud and the Geese, English. Manuscript image for the Latin. John of Tynemouth Latin, here.
Jonas of Bobbio, Life of Saint Columban. Translation. Latin.
The Life of Saint Cuthbert in English Verse, ed J. T. Fowler. Surtees Society, 1891 (for the Carlisle Couplets and Egerton 3309 (olim Castle Howard Ms)
Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge UP, 1940.
Wereburga in John of Tynemouth, Latin.
Wereburga in William of Malmesbury, Latin.

Alexander, Dominic. Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages. Boydell & Brewer, 2008.
Baker, Malcolm. "Medieval Illustrations of Bede's Life of St. Cuthbert." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 41 (1978): 16-49.
Barrett, Robert W. Against All England: Regional Identity and Cheshire Writing, 1195-1656 University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. [for the politics of Bradshaw and Wereburga!]
Cavill, Paul. "Some Dynamics of Story-Telling: Animals in the Early Lives of St Cuthbert." Nottingham Medieval Studies 43 (1999): 1-20.
Colgrave, Bertram. "The St. Cuthbert Paintings on the Carlisle Cathedral Stalls." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 73.424 (1938): 17-21.
Crane, Susan. Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
Cross, Tom Peete. Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature. Indiana University Press, 1952.
Crumplin, Sally. Rewriting History in the Cult of St Cuthbert from the Ninth to the Twelfth Centuries. (PhD Thesis, U of St Andrews, 2004).
Duncan, Sandra. "Signa De Caelo in the Lives of St Cuthbert: The Impact of Biblical Images and Exegesis on Early Medieval Hagiography." The Heythrop Journal 41.4 (2000): 399-412.
Gretsch, Mechthild. Aelfric and the Cult of Saints in Late Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge University Press, 2006 (Chapter 3, “Cuthbert: from Northumbrian saint to saint of all England)
Letty, Nijhuis Jantje.'Deor and nytenu mid us': Animals in the Works of Ǽelfric (PhD Thesis, U College Cork, 2008).
Newlands, Carole E. "Bede and Images of Saint Cuthbert." Traditio 52 (1997): 73-109.
Taylor, Sunaura. "Beasts of Burden: Disability Studies and Animal Rights." Qui Parle 19.2 (2011): 191-222.
Wakeford, Mark Reginald. The British Church and Anglo-Saxon Expansion: The Evidence of Saints' Cults. (PhD Thesis, U of Durham, 1998) [enormously useful for collecting goose miracles]

BABEL events at Kzoo 2016

by JONATHAN HSY (on behalf of the BABEL Working Group's Steering Committee)

Pieter Brughel's "Little" Tower of Babel; explore more here.

MAY THE FOURTH be with you, one and all!
[for more medieval Star Wars fun, go herehere and here]

The International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo (or #Kzoo2016) is rapidly approaching. Here's a grand compilatio of BABEL and BABEL-adjacent events to add to your calendar.  Everyone is welcome to everything!

  • Wed 8-11pm - MEDIEVAL DONUT 2.0 (Radisson Lobby), social gathering co-sponsored by GW MEMSI (Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute); note the event site
  • Thu 3:30pm - BABEL ROUNDTABLE: Where Else? (Sangren 1740)
  • Fri 1:30pm - GW MEMSI ROUNDTABLE: Play (Bernhard 209)
  • Fri 3:30pm - POSTMEDIEVAL ROUNDTABLE: Hermaphrodites: Genitalia, Gender, and Being Human in the Middle Ages (Fetzer 1005)
  • Fri 5:15pm - BABEL + MATERIAL COLLECTIVE RECEPTION (Bernhard President's Dining Room)
  • Sat 10am - BABEL ROUNDTABLE: Far Out! (Fetzer 1005)
  • Sat 3:30pm - PUNCTUM SESSION: In Fashions Reminiscent: The Overlapping Objects, Discourses, and Ideas of the Sixties and the Middle Ages (Schneider 1225)
  • Sat 3:30pm - SMFS (SOCIETY FOR MEDIEVAL FEMINIST SCHOLARSHIP) ROUNDTABLE: Harassment in the Academy (Schneider 1360)

Other BABEL-adjacent happenings:
  • Thu 10am - MATERIAL COLLECTIVE SESSION: Speculatio, Medieval and Modern (Schneider 1140)
  • Fri noon - GRAMMAR RABBLE BUSINESS MEETING (Fetzer 1060)
  • Sat 10am - ETH PRESS PERFORMANCE AND ROUNDTABLE: “The Grail Is the Opposite of Poetry”: The Medieval Coterie in Jack Spicer’s The Holy Grail (Schneider 1280)
  • Sun 10:30am - GRAMMAR RABBLE SESSION: Erratic Letters (Bernhard 210)

Other items of note for #Kzoo2016 [Jonathan now writing as an individual]:
  • Mentoring initiatives are happening throughout the conference (see Mary Kate Hurley's post)!
Anything else to add? Feel free to use the comments section below (comments are moderated so it might take some time for items to post).

Friday, April 29, 2016

Mentoring Initiatives in Medieval Studies: Kalamazoo Deadlines Today and Tomorrow!

by Mary Kate Hurley

One of the things I’ve always said about medieval studies as an area of expertise is that the mentoring one gets in this field is brilliant – both in and out of one’s home institution, medievalists are among the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever known. Medievalists also have a variety of mentoring initiatives that take place at conferences and beyond. As I perused my Facebook feed this week, and saw how many initiatives are available this year, I thought it might be helpful to have a short list of all the mentoring options that are open to scholars of medieval studies attending Kalamazoo.

First, the Society for Medieval Feminist Studies’s Mentoring Exchange. it's too late to sign up for this year, but never fear! The mentoring exchange is a yearly event at Kalamazoo, so if you didn't have a chance to sign up this year you can do it next time!
Information: Graduate students, independent scholars, junior and senior faculty members - anyone at any stage in his/her career is welcome to participate as either mentors or mentees (or both). The aim of the mentoring exchange is to bring people together at Kalamazoo. Relationships can continue after the Kalamazoo congress, but we stress that the congress itself is intended to be the main venue of the exchange.
Second, the Medieval Academy of America has formed a mentoring initiative, and are accepting participants through 5 pm today, April 29th. It is broadly intended for graduate students to meet with faculty, but this year they are ALSO piloting a program for undergraduates to meet with current graduate students at the conference, so if you know an undergrad attending Kalamazoo, take a look at this form as well.
Information: The intent of the mentorship exchanges is for experienced scholars to welcome and briefly connect with newer members of the medievalist community and to help facilitate social and professional interaction. The mentorship program thus offers students an additional opportunity to expand their professional network beyond their own academic institution. The initial extent of the commitment would be for mentees and mentors to meet for a brief conversation at an agreed-upon time during the conference in question. The continuation of the mentor relationship after the conference is at the discretion of the parties involved.
Finally, the mentoring initiative I know most about because - along with Megan Cavell, Damian Fleming, and Peter Darby – I’m helping run it: The Old English Mentoring Initiative. Presently, we will run mentoring exchanges (based on the SMFS model) at both Kalamazoo and Leeds, and we’re hoping to add an online component over the summer. We’re accepting applications to mentor or be mentored at Kalamazoo through April 30, and longer for Leeds (which you can also sign up for now!). You can sign up for both sides – mentor a more junior scholar or be mentored by a more senior one. I’m extremely pleased with how this new initiative has come together – we’re getting great support from the community of Anglo-Saxonists, the MLA Old English Forum, and the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists. We’re looking forward to seeing how this initiative develops!
Information: We are very pleased to announce a new mentoring network that aims to encourage a positive sense of community among Old English and Anglo-Saxon studies scholars. We feel that the mentoring of the next generation of scholars is essential to keeping our small field healthy and happy, and we are committed to the importance of community-building that spans all career levels. To launch this network, we will be matching up our first round of mentors and mentees in time for this year’s medieval congresses in Kalamazoo and Leeds. In the future, we plan to include an online mentoring component, so stay tuned if you can’t make it to either conference this year. If you are attending Kalamazoo, please sign up no later than April 30th.Find out more about our code of conduct and the specifics of the program here. Have a question? Email us at oldenglishmentoring[at]gmail[dot]com!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Medieval Muteness


First, congrats Jeffrey on your excellent review, cited below. And second, GOOD LUCK to all prepping for Kalamazoo: may your papers cohere easily, and may you be grabbed and whirled by fun.

Schöneberger Südgelände Nature Park, Berlin.
The first biography of Thomas Aquinas had the job of turning this Christian Aristotelian and theological systematizer into a saint. As ideas themselves, sadly, cannot be sanctified directly, the scholar must be furnished not with a scholastic, but with a personal halo. Thus Willliam of Tocco has a nurse fail to convince the infant Aquinas to give up a wadded-up cartulary that, as it turns out, "contained nothing else but the Ave Maria, the greeting to the glorious Virgin" [nichil aliud continentem nisi Ave Maria, salutationem Virginis gloriose]. Thus the face of the young Aquinas shines like the sun, illuminating all around him. And most famously, Aquinas so humbly shuts up his genius in silence that his fellow students call him a "bouem mutum," a mute ox, as they are "ignorantes de eo futurum in doctrina mugitum" [ignorant about his future mooing in teaching/doctrine]. Only after witnessing a series of precocious intellectual feats does his teacher, Albert the Great himself, proclaim "we called this one a mute ox, but he will give such a mooing of teaching that it will resound throughout the world!" [Nos uocamus istum bouem mutum, sed ipse adhuc talem dabit in doctrina mugitum quod in toto mundo sonabit]. The story would be repeated in the second life of Aquinas, penned by the famous inquisitor Bernard Gui, and so on into G. K. Chesterton (who, in 1933, declared that his hero's big, square head  - like those of Napoleon or Mussolini or a "head waiter" - elevated him above the common run of otherwise thin and noisy Italians). And medievalists should be grateful for the superbly named Dumb Ox Books, dedicated to publishing English translations of Aquinas's Aristotle commentaries.
Unsuspected excellence is a hagiographical commonplace. Medievalists should know not to take the story of Aquinas's schooldays any more seriously than that of his mother's desperate efforts to keep her son from joining the Dominicans, a story whose chase, capture, and escape recall nothing so much as a romance (which is to say that the story can be taken seriously, as a romance). The quality of heroes is commonly misrecognized by their young playmates: as boys, Cyrus of Persia and Cú Chulainn alike startle and dismay their fellows with their innate sovereignty, while Moses, before he lays down the law, first complains of being tongue-tied. Narrative needs surprises, and it also wants us to feel that we're in on the secret (I knew who Aquinas was before it was cool). Sanctity also demands this quality of concealed genius, not just because the saint has to be persecuted, but also because true genius, like true sanctity, requires the cloak of sprezzatura
Thus Aquinas must be a bouem mutum. I am avoiding translating the adjective as "dumb," both because the Latin "mutus" has a wider range of common associations than the English "dumb," and because the English "dumb" (and the German dummin some historical uses), combines silence and stupidity in a way that the Latin does not. To be mutus in Latin is not necessarily to share the qualities of a stupid person, but rather to have the qualities of speechlessness or, crucially, incomprehensibility. This is how Aquinas could moo and still be mute: it is not that the muteness would give way to mooing, but that the mooing would finally be understood for what it really was, the voice of a genius. Misunderstood noise gives way to astonished understanding. 
Not only animals are "mute," and not only humans (as the word "mutus" unsurprisingly tends to travel with "surdus," deaf). To be mutus is to share the qualities of an animal, or even of a stone (while I'll simply mark, without further development, the word's use as professional terminology in the grammatical manuals of Donatus, Priscian, and others). The condition of muteness slides from irrationality into inanimacy, from a life whose noise cannot be understood to one that has no life and no voice at all. It traverses the conditions of human impairment, animal inability, and material inertness. To be mute is not necessarily to be silent; in many instances, it is rather a condition of being silenced: not listened to, not taken seriously, ignored.
The muteness of things goes almost without saying. Habakkuk 2:18 mocks those who believe that the "simulacra muta" they themselves made possess divine power. (Though Habakkuk splits the silence of idols from the voice of the humans who made them, we postmodern sophisticates know that all distinctions between autonomous subjects and secondary objects are themselves fetish constructions and mere ontotheological baggage). 1 Corinthians 12:2 contrasts devotion to, again, "simulacra muta," to an appropriate devotion to spiritual things. All an idol can do is sit there, inert, and wait for someone to give it a little tap. And then it keeps waiting.
But that muteness is just one of its varieties. Consider Augustine's troubled response to Psalms 144:10. Faced with "Let all thy works, O lord, praise thee: and let thy saints bless thee," he insisted that no one should "think that the mute stone or mute animal has reason wherewith to comprehend God." Certainly not. Everything has its own place in the scale of being, and most things were created on the wrong side of the tracks. Yet, barring God, it turns out that everything is at least a little bit mute:
God has ordered everything, and made everything: to some He has given sense and understanding and immortality, as to the angels; to some He has given sense and understanding with mortality, as to man; to some He has given bodily sense, yet gave them not understanding, or immortality, as to cattle: to some He has given neither sense, nor understanding, nor immortality, as to herbs, trees, stones: yet even these cannot be wanting in their kind, and by certain degrees He has ordered His creation, from earth up to heaven, from visible to invisible, from mortal to immortal. This framework of creation, this most perfectly ordered beauty, ascending from lowest to highest, descending from highest to lowest, never broken, but tempered together of things unlike, all praises God.
Augustine's goal is clear enough: to sort kinds of being hierarchically according to their capacities. But his scheme suffers from an inconsistency caused by the problem of conceptualizing the voice. One of Augustine's scales establishes a set of discrete, hierarchically arranged types: at the top, God, then angels, humans, beasts, and finally, in one group, plants and stones. As I observed long agothis arrangement is not dissimilar, even not dissimilar enough, from Heidegger's division between da-seinweltarm (world poor, like the lizard on the rock), and weltlos (worldless, like the rock itself). This Augustiggerian scheme splits beings between those that have understanding, and therefore a voice of their own, and those that do not. One the one side, God, angels, and humans, and on the other, "mutus lapis aut mutum animal” (PL 37:1877), the mute stone or mute living thing (a word perhaps even translatable as "animal" in the modern, colloquial sense of the word).
With this scale is another one, still hierarchical, but in this case not discrete. Augustine likely did not intend this other "never broken" [nusquam interrupta] hierarchy to function differently than the first; but a scale that neatly splits sense from mere being, understanding from mere sense, and immortality from mere mortality cannot work like the second, uninterrupted scale, which, below the level of the Divine Itself, sorts without splitting. Continuity means contiguity, which means a basic point from poststructuralism: contiguity means that qualities are shared, however faintly, across the whole scale before stopping, as all things do, at the Great Infinite of God. At the bottom is  "a kind of voice of the dumb earth" [vox quaedam est mutae terrae]; but that quality must run across the whole scale, because everything but God can only have a vocem quaedam. When Augustine demands that we admire the fecundity of creation, and its beauty, and that we ask of it how it got these qualities, not just the earth, but everything in "one voice" [una voces] would respond  "I myself did not make myself, but God" [non me ego feci, sed Deus], for nothing has anything in itself, unless it comes from that Creator [non potuit a se esse, nisi ab illo Creatore].
Again, barring God, everything has just enough voice to speak of its own fundamental secondariness. Even those things that seem to have a voice - us, that is - have a voice that is only the effect of God's divine voice. We are therefore more like rocks that like God. Here is one quality of the voice, then: to have a voice is to have been granted a voice, that is, to be secondary. To have an inbuilt inability. To always carry a silence within the gift of the voice, because the voice you believe to be your own is not, finally, all yours. It is granted, at least in part, by the conditions that make it possible to be heard as a voice: as when, for example, Augustine calls on us to listen to all of Creation.
My second consideration on this point concentrates on the listener rather than the speaker. Augustine does not distinguish between mute stones, mute plants, and mute animals, but between things with understanding and those without. The same adjective applies either to a "mutus lapis aut mutum animal," so that "muteness" distinguishes not between sound and silence, but between sense and senselessness. Things we think of as noisy could be, in medieval writing, "mute," because - to belabor the point - muteness has less to do with silence than with incomprehensibility. Old French uses “mue beste” as a virtual pleonasm. The word "mutum" (to choose the accusative singular as my representative), which appears 469 times in the Patrilogia Latine, appears with the word "animal" 43 times. This is not more often than it appears with "surdus" (deaf) -- 160 times! -- but more than it does with any other word.
Of course, animals bark and hiss and low. They make noise. Sometimes, medieval writing distinguishes between silent and noisy animals, calling only the former mute: this is what Beroul's Tristan does, when Iseult saves Husdent's life by convincing Tristan to train him not to bark: for a dog that cannot keep quiet (1552; ne se tient mu) is of little value in the hunt. But in general, animals were still mute (or "dumb" in Middle English, def. 5), because the noise they made was assumed to be meaningless, or because it was indivisible into letters or even words.
This later characterization of animal muteness comes from the professional cant of grammarians. Isidore puts it like this: "every voice is either articulated or confused. Articulated is the voice of humans, confused is the voice of living things [or, again, simply "animals," in the modern sense]. Articulated is what can be written, and confused what cannot be written" [Omnis vox, aut est articulata, aut confusa. Articulata est hominum, confusa animalium. Articulata est quae scribi potest, confusa quae scribi non potest, PL 82:89B].Notably, Isidore sets out the division in two ways, with two distinct responsibilities for the fault of unwritable sound. Either the vox confusa is inherent to the voice itself, which is itself a sonic materialization of the irrational limits of the spirit: this classification divides human from animal. Or the vox confusa, by dividing writable from unwritable, becomes a problem of technology, and, in a larger sense, inadequate anticipation, training, effort, and care on the part of the listener (for more, on accessibility and accommodation, compare this and this). The former formulation assumes that the speaker is at fault; the second suggests that the listener, or scribe, might be.
Animals are either mute because they are irrational, or because humans make the mistake of assuming they have nothing to say. Anyone who's lingered in a birding guide ("'prreet,' 'prrlhr', 'prrūt-ūt,' and 'preeh-e,'" is what mine says the skylark says), or anyone who's listened to Messiaen's piano works, knows that bird sounds can be written down. Certainly, modern ethnography has demonstrated that some nonhuman animal species really do have, if not languages - with all that implies about trading second-order ideas about, for example, philosophy or sports - then at least dialect, so that specific groups of animals have their own vocalizations distinct from those of their conspecifics. A training in dialect requires distinguishing between sounds; it requires the divisions and differences necessary to any concept of writing, which operates within the supposedly primary function of the voice, too (again, elementary poststructuralism). Writing is possible, necessary even, even among these supposedly mute things.
The same might be said of other mute, presumably inanimate things, like the earth. Within a certain crowd, with my own training and inclinations, this final proposal would probably pass without much comment. I'm going to at least feign reluctance (without forgetting my debt to Cohen, for example, via Oppermann).While it might be tempting for scholars of a certain theoretical instinct to use impaired people as a figure for the "silenced" "voice of the earth," and so on, I cannot easily accept the advantage of reaffirming the mistaken medieval habit of using the same adjective, "mute," to characterize both impaired humans and mortal and submortal nonhumans, like animals, plants, and stones. Now that my work is belatedly straying into matters of disability, I am eager to emphasize the obvious: that humans face particular dangers of being rendered mute, of not having their reason recognized, of being treated like objects. The problem of muted humans is obviously a problem of justice of a different order than what nonhumans routinely face (and yet see Sunaura Taylor and Sue Walsh).
Yet there still may be an advantage in the word "mute." It has typically been applied from outside: someone hearing an animal's  voice as only noise, someone thwapping a stone and hearing only that. But William of Tocco's gives us the perspective of the bouem mutum. Here is a "mute" figure whose thoughts we know. No one would read this life of Aquinas without already knowing Aquinas as a thinker. As a mute ox, Aquinas is moving more slowly than his fellows; as William of Tocco tells us, he is ruminating. Given enough patience, given enough time of his own amid the expected metrics of his training and institution, his thoughts will burst forth, and astonish the world. In that gap between Aquinas's supposed muteness and his thoughts, we have at least a figuration of the split between subjective impairment and objective disability. In the gap between what they think they know and what we know, we have a hint at what might be muted.
In that gap, the word "mute" becomes a call to imagine, to wait, to meet others on their own terms (see a related move here, from Dominic Pettman). Jonathan Hsy has approached this problem brilliantly from the side of the voice. He has observed that medieval wordlists of animal sounds sometimes included nonanimal noises too: crows croak, donkeys whinny, and fire crackles: muteness and the possibilities of translation, or at least classification, encompass noise in a variety of ways; ultimately, Hsy argues that these and other, related texts show how "Earthly creatures, human and nonhuman alike, can creatively adapt to and accommodate all kinds of sonic utterances and diverse vocalizations that register as alien to their ordinary lived experience." Also essential is Robert Stanton's engagement with Anglo-Saxon riddles alongside classical Skeptic philosophy, which discovers in them an exploration of animal vocal performance that recognizes in these animals the deliberation that performance requires. Projection, patience, meeting (more than) halfway, and a transformation of understanding: even medieval texts could do this. 
I have approached a similar problem from the side of muteness, a word that at once means silence, noise, and, as I have pushed it, misunderstanding. We need not think of "mute" anymore as it's normally presented in medieval Latin. It does not have to paired with "surdus"; it does not necessarily need to be cured. In its not being the opposite of sound, in being on the side of what is experienced as noise, muteness can invite us to wait in the possibility it offers, and to rethink the difference between what we think we know and what we might come to know if we let ourselves suspect our own ignorance and its habits of muting.