Monday, July 21, 2008

Merry Medieval Monday: Unexpectedly Confronting the Past

by Mary Kate Hurley
(image: unexpected Medieval Italian Greyhound, from the Cloisters museum, that looks surprisingly like my own dog, Allegra)

Today was a beautiful day for working on my dissertation. This was especially true because I got to have tea with my undergraduate adviser, Gillian Overing, and there are very few meetings that I look forward to more. So of course, on this particular Monday, there was no doubt that there would be much conversation about the Anglo-Saxon past, and of course about the work being done that will orient the future of our studies. This certitude of medieval-ly oriented conversations is not what I wish to speak about today.

In an alliterative analogue to Festive Fridays, I thought Merry Medieval Mondays might be a adequate appelation for this post, and my topic is the unexpected encounters we have in which our medieval knowledge is useful. My story comes to you from this weekend, during which my immediate family congregated to move my younger sister to Raleigh. At a post-move run to the grocery store, I was picking up a few things and found myself behind a woman who was talking about "old words" and how nice they are, and the question of why they aren't used more frequently. Imagine my surprise when the next "old word" she chose to talk about was "troubadour." Imagine my even further surprise when this same woman decided to ask the entire line of customers if anyone knew what a troubadour was.

"Well, uh -- actually -- I do!" was my startled response. I was so shocked to be using my admittedly rusty knowledge of Old Provencal lyric that I didn't even do a very good job explaining what troubadours were.

So as the Merry Medieval Monday Question: When did you find yourself employing your knowledge of the medieval in an unexpected time or place?


Liza Blake said...

I have a story not quite as glamorous. My brother is in a role-playing group, and they're getting people together to do one set in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. So he called me to ask me very specific questions about witch hunts (he was hoping for an equivalent to the underground railroad for sneaking witches out of one country into another). I was able to tell him a few things, but for the most part, had very little concrete knowledge he found helpful. Finally he exclaimed, exasperated, "What do you know about? I would think that, doing what you do, someone asking you these kinds of questions would make your day, and you don't seem to be appreciating the opportunity!"

Another chance to help my family understand what I do, down the drain. Though, given that one of the other characters was (I was given to understand) a time-traveling alien, I do appreciate his yearning for some historical accuracy.

Karl Steel said...

Great stories, both of you(s). Can't think of one nearly as good off the top of my head, BUT I do remember a conversation with a friend's husband, a stoner. When he learned I was a medievalist, he thought for a bit, and then finally asked, "so, did they get high then?" All I had, I'm sorry to say, is hoary ergotism lore gleaned from high school readings of Hermann Hesse. Had I been sharper, I would have told him something about the low country mystics.

Brandon H. said...

This past semester, my fiance was taking a course in microbiology, and in conversation her professor learned that I'm a grad student aspiring toward a PhD in medieval studies. His first questions were to the effect of "What does one do with a degree in medieval studies," but his questions soon evolved into his personal interest in my work (and his humorous concern for my getting a future job).

Over the next few months, I met him a few times, and kept an ongoing conversation about medieval science--which he seems to be fascinated with. I didn't know nearly as much about the Black Death--scientifically speaking--as he did (he seems to have read up on it quite a bit!), but we discussed it a few times. Also, I once mentioned Bede to him, much to his glee. In the few conversations we had, we shared some fascinating intersections between the medicine of the Middle Ages and today's science.

Irina said...

Ah! Today! With boyfriend and his family, while visiting the exhibit on Babylon at the Pergammon Museum, as we discussed writing systems (esp. wax tablets) and metaphors for the mind. Thank you, Mary Carruthers!

By the way, it's a kick ass exhibit, in case anyone is in a position to go and see it. It's divided into two separate exhibitions: Truth and Myth. We could interrogate those terms quite a bit, of course, but let's just say that it was a fascinating idea to have the "Truth" exhibit be the one with Babylonian artefacts and information about the civilization(s) according to current historical research, and to have the "Myth" exhibit be about the ways Babylon and various figures attached to it -- The Whore of --, the Tower of Babel, Semiramis, Holofernes, etc. -- have been used from the middle ages to the modern period. It was very playful and imaginative and colourful, and made a great bookend to the more straitlaced (and beige) exhibit. Plus, they had tons of lovely medieval German MSS from the Berlin Staatsbibliothek on display.

theswain said...

Well, I'm sure I have others, but the ones that come immediately to mind are from job interviews where one of the interviewers asks something about medieval something or other that he/she heard about or read about and I have NO CLUE what to I say something off the cuff with what grain of knowledge I have...inadequate at best.

sylvia said...

I recently went to my doctors, and after the briefest of consultations, she spent the rest of the appointment quizzing me for details on medieval life-expectancies, age of marriage, witches and, yes, like Brandon, the plague. I tried to explain that my PhD-in-progress was on medievalism, not medieval history, but... Hopefully I didn't provide to much misinformation!

Jeff said...

This isn't exclusively "medieval," but several years ago, I was sitting outside a D.C. deli chowing down on fried chicken when a couple of high-school kids approached my table and asked me to settle a dispute about Latin grammar.

I don't remember what they asked me, but I was able to answer their question. They thanked me politely and walked away.

JJ Cohen said...

I know your post wasn't directly related to the statue, but I think it must be St. Roch, the 13th century guy who, before the Black Death, developed bubonic plague, was left to die in the woods, and was rescued by a dog which brought him food every day until he recovered. Thus the dog, who has food in his mouth, and the scandalously hoiked-up skirts; he is showing us a bubo. He spent the rest of his life caring for and healing those with plague, it is said.