Thursday, January 28, 2010

If you are in DC or want to be: Gateway Lectures 2010

by J J Cohen

The Gateway Lectures introduce their audience to an important field or topic within medieval and early modern studies. The lectures are designed to be a substantial contribution to research and intellectual community -- while remaining engaging to a general audience. They are delivered by renowned scholars who attempt to make their work accessible and inspirational.  

  • January 29: Alf Siewers (Bucknell University), "Ecocriticism." Marvin Center Amphitheatre, 800 21st Street, NW, 4 PM.
  • February 12: Michelle Warren (Dartmouth College), "The Postcolonial Past." Marvin Center Elliott Room 310, 800 21st Street, NW, 4 PM.
  • March 26: Marissa Greenberg (University of New Mexico), "Writing and Space." Rome Hall (Academic Center) 771, 4 PM.
All Gateway lectures are free and welcome all who wish to attend.
Also of interest: GW MEMSI will sponsor a symposium entitled "Race?" on Friday, March 5 at 2 PM. The event will feature Ayanna Thompson (Arizona State University), whose work on Shakespeare, early modern culture, and race is widely acclaimed. She will be joined by a panel of GW faculty: Jennifer James, Antonio Lopez, Thomas Guglielmo, Andrew Zimmerman. Marvin Center Amphitheatre, 800 21st Street, NW.

A complete calendar of events can always be found at the GW MEMSI website.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

David Bell's Wholly Animals: A Book of Beastly Tales


Despite Bell's claims not to be writing an academic book, this anthology is a work of astonishing erudition, at least to this scholar, whose language skills fall well short of where he wants them: for Bell ecumenically collects and translates stories from the Latin, Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Yiddish, and perhaps from the Old Irish. Freed from the obligatory (and illusions of) objectivity imposed by the reasonable, scholarly pose, Bell lambastes the human species for its cruelty and stupidity, Bernard of Clairvaux for his overrated intellect and religious bigotry, crusaders for being "brutal, barbarian, crude, uncivilized, evil-living, savage, and blood-stained," but somehow--wonderfully--finds a place in his heart for the great Egyptian father Shenoute, who once beat an acolyte to death for violating a small monastic rule.

Shenoute's animal moment? He rebukes a camel for rejecting her foal and nurtures it himself. In this, at least, Shenoute models a non-anthropocentric stance towards the right, the law, and life, in which what matters is not species but proper behavior. Most of the other animals in Bell's anthology, however, are treated as animals, which is to say, as fundamentally of less value than humans. They are thus often servants, recalling--as David Salter stresses--the animal obedience in Eden or the peaceful kingdom promised in Isaiah's eschatology; or apt targets of charity, whose natural degradation before humans all the better sets off the saint's great love (we have, then, yet another reminder that charity impedes a structural critique of resource allocation and what Zizek terms "objective violence"); or thieves, having to suppress their appetites before human agriculture, criminal for eating fruit, grain, sheep, piglets, or animal skins (that is, parchment) territorially marked by humans; or, finally, pets, singularly loved in an act of what Cary Wolfe calls "exquisite bad faith." Animals hunted and sheltered, dragons rescued from Arthur's heroism, cows resurrected when stolen for a lord's table: these are resources in political boundary disputes, which is, as Dominic Alexander argues, how most stories of animals and saints should be understood.

But neither the human production of itself as human by degrading animal being, nor the animal as a chit in political struggles, nor the animal as a symbol in some political struggle are all that these animal stories offer us. Shenoute's story is sufficient evidence of that. As Bell remarks, a wicked animal or an animal that could be excommunicated is an animal with responsibility and choice, or indeed an animal belonging in some way to the community of believers.

And what of the animal characteristics, their merely bodily existence and their irrationality? A great many stories describe animals as behaving "as if" (presumably sicut in the Latin originals) they had human reason, which recalls the "aussi com" of the Wild Herdsman's suppliant, battered oxen. Barring animals from language by confining them to bodies capable only of inauthentically imitating reason is the paradigmatic act of carnophallogocentrism. Yet Bartholomew of Farne rescues a duckling whose mother begged help in her specifically anatine manner; Benedict of Nursia and a cawing, circling raven struggle to communicate with each other; and a thieving raven hopes for Cuthbert's forgiveness:
one of a pair returned and found the servant of Christ digging. Then, with its feathers lamentably ruffled and its head bowed down to its feet, with humble claws and using whatever signs it could, it begged forgiveness. The venerable father understood this and gave it permission to come back.
By speaking with and through their bodies, these animals rebuke the carnophallogocentric (or indeed the outmoded AI) conceit that authentic language and community require disembodiment. This, far more than the charitable resurrection of animals--that, at any rate, will eventually die again, abandoned as immortal humans ascend to paradise or descend to hell--and far more than the frequent condemnation of carnivores for eating what they must, challenges the disembodiment sought after by Western metaphysics and the regime of the human this quest sustains. In an anthology assembled by a scholar himself so emotionally and bodily present to us (he complains, for example, of being unable to excommunicate pests from his garden), this may be the proper, best lesson.

On Celts and Celticness

by J J Cohen

I've taught and used the work of Simon James in the past. His challenge to rethinking prehistory is vigorous. James argues that the Celts are a modern invention, and that by projecting their supposed unity back upon the Iron Age we flatten prehistory so that it supports current identities. He writes of his own approach:
The roots of the new approach are to be found, I believe, in the post-colonial emphasis on multiculturalism, and the celebration of difference between cultures. This makes it possible to consider the Iron Age peoples of Britain, for instance, not as generic Celts, but as a mosaic of distinct societies, each with their own traditions and histories.
(You can see what James's approach has in common with the "Acts of Separation" chapter of Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity as well as the "Infinite Realms" section of Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages). The quotation reproduced above is from his fascinating website, which gives an overview of the conventional history of the Celts as well as his own archaeologist's take on that history. I found it via

Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers, or, The Monk's Second Tale

by J J Cohen

Chaucer travels. Not just into Farsi, not just into the present, not just into the apocalypse, but now into zombie fiction. From my morning email:
Dear Jeffrey Cohen
I’m Paul A. Freeman, a British writer, and I’m working on a ‘new’ Canterbury Tales project. My aim is to promote interest in Chaucer amongst both students and scholars of ‘The Father of English Poetry’.
My work chronicles the pilgrims’ return journey from Canterbury, and so far I’ve completed seven Tales, all in different genres, and varying in topic from fable to chick lit to crime / mystery.
‘The Monk’s Second Tale’, a horror ‘Canterbury Tale’, was published by Coscom Entertainment (a publisher of zombie horror) in November last year. It is currently being marketed to horror fans under the title ‘Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers – A Canterbury Tale by Paul A. Freeman’:

The three ‘Canterbury Tales’ pages of my website, beginning with give details of my Chaucer project, as well as including excerpts from the ‘return leg’ tales of the Squire, the Shipman, the Wife of Bath, the Doctor of Physic, the Knight, the Miller and the Monk. By glancing through these excerpts, you’ll discover that my ‘Canterbury Tales’ project is a serious undertaking.
Please feel free to share my website with your students (especially the ones more reluctant to tackle Chaucer), other Chaucerians, and anyone else you feel may enjoy or benefit from it. If you feel that your university / college library might wish to stock a copy or two of ‘Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers – A Canterbury Tale by Paul A. Freeman’, please feel free share this email with your librarians.
The goal of my project is to make Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales universally accessible, and to again popularize the tradition of storytelling through narrative poetry.
‘The Monk’s Second Tale’ is already available from Coscom Entertainment through Amazon, and at the end of the year my ‘Miller’s Second Tale’ will be published in an anthology of neo-medieval creative writing by Brepols Publishers, an academic publishing house based in Belgium.  
I look forward to hearing from you, and hope you or some of your students will be encouraged to consider ordering ‘The Monk’s Second Tale’, aka ‘Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers – A Canterbury Tale by Paul A. Freeman’.
All the Chaucerian best
Paul A. Freeman (

Thursday, January 21, 2010

3 items involving David Wallace

by J J Cohen
  1. David Wallace was kind enough to send me an offprint of his recent article "Problematics of European Literary History, 1348-1400," just out in The Construction of Textual Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, ed. Indira Ghose and Denis Renevey. Those of you who read the GW MEMSI blog may remember that he gave a version of the piece as a talk here in DC last year. The essay is a challenging meditation on thinking literary history outside the constraints of nation, proposing an itinerary-based approach. Well worth checking out. There is a marvelous website in progress for the project here on which the journeys may be plotted and the stopping points mapped. The Guggenheim Foundation has supported this ongoing, massive project through a grant.
  2. I'd left the offprint of David's essay on the dining room table and found my twelve year old son reading it as he ate his morning bowl of cereal. "I have nothing to read!" he stated, giving me an accusing look for not having purchased more novels from the Dragonlance series for him. "Look what I'm reduced to!" Before I could formulate a smart reply, he did add, "It's pretty good, actually."
  3. David also sent me the news that Prof. Alireza Mahdipour of Urmia University in Iran has translated some of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales into Farsi. They have been published by Cheshmeh Publishers of Tehran. Professor Mahdipour writes that they are "in two volumes of bilingual edition, and in verse form, Mathnavi, which is nearer to heroic couplet." Fascinating how Chaucer travels. I have PDFs of some of these translations; please email me if you would like to see them.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

You should go to Berlin

by J J Cohen

I'll be there. So will Roderick Ferguson, Judith Halberstam, José Esteban Muñoz and Susan Stryker. You should come too.
It's not a medievalist conference, but it is a conference in need of medievalists. Aren't we all about affect, space and temporality?

CFP is below.

Queer Again? Power, Politics and Ethics

23.-25. September 2010

International Conference of the Department of English and American Studies and the
Research Training Group “Gender as a Category of Knowledge”

The concept of queer is volatile and, at times, difficult to grasp. As a result, we need a continuous review of the fields and debates within Queer Theory. In his 2004 study No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman manoeuvred queer theory into a kind of aporia and thus deep crisis that persists to this day. Subscription to an “ethics of futility”, as Edelman suggests, signals that the borders of ethical thinking have been reached. However, in debates following the publication of Edelman’s book (as for instance, in the Social Text issue of 2005 with the programmatic title What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?) the ethical impetus of queer criticism confronted and challenged the dominance of the so-called antisocial thesis. This ongoing debate and the regular recurrence of the antisocial thesis in its different manifestations reveals a pressing need to reflect anew the relationship between queer and theory, art, ethics, and politics.

Taking this as a starting point for the conference, we want to take up the iterative moment that seems inherent in the concept of queer: queer is regularly in a state of crisis that needs to be made productive, and in this way it can be continuously reworked and reshaped. We want to provide a space to further the debate about sexuality and gender and their multiple interconnections in fields of power.

The panels will be organised along two thematic strands. The first, Affect, Space and Temporality, is concerned with the ethical and political potential of queer and the different political conceptions of queer that arise as a result.
Possible topics to be addressed include:
  • queer strategies and practices in art/visual culture and literature
  • conditions and possibilities of political activism
  • normativity, citizenship and recognition
  • queer utopias/imagination
  • political and ethical implications of sexual dissidence
  • rethinking concepts of temporality and space, generation or community
  • varying meanings of queer in different geographical and temporal contexts

The second strand, Limits and Boundary Crossings, takes up current theoretical debates with regard to disciplinary and other boundaries and crossings of these boundaries.
Possible questions to be discussed include:
  • Which limits and/or transgressions of these limits occur when different theoretical fields interact (e.g. queer theory and        transgender theory or postcolonial theory or crip theory/disability studies)?
  • What are the limitations of queer? What are the inclusions and queer produces in specific contexts that demand new critical/queer interventions?
  • How can queer theory be situated in current academic and activist spheres?
  • What does the focus on interdependent relationships (of sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, (dis)ability etc.) mean for the formation of a queer ethics?

Keynote speakers include
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen,
Roderick Ferguson,
Judith Halberstam,
José Esteban Muñoz
and Susan Stryker.

We invite abstracts for 20-minute papers. Abstracts should be in English and not exceed 500 words. They should be accompanied by a short biographical sketch of about 250 words and sent to queer.conference[at] by March 31st 2010.

The conference language will be English. The conference location is wheelchair accessible. We will try to provide sign language interpreters as well as child care in case of need. We kindly ask participants to let us know about applicable requirements or other special needs by April 30th 2010.

Please note that travel funds can only be granted in exceptional cases and we ask participants to apply in time for travel funding at their home institutions.



Eveline Kilian     Maja Figge Vojin Saša Vukadinovic
Jens Borcherding     Elahe Haschemi Yekani  
Adrian De Silva     Beatrice Michaelis  

What Not to Wear ... on Crusade

by J J Cohen

I am slowly working my way, again, through William of Newburgh's Historia rerum Anglicarum [History of English Affairs]. I kind of have a big lecture on Billy Newby (as I call him) looming, and I haven't quite written it yet. William is part of the great 12th century efflorescence of history writing in England. He's quite thorough, occassionally wacky, sometimes dyspeptic. His Latin is usually straightforward, too: most of his poetry tends to be accidental.

My main focus is on William's narration of the massacre in York in 1190, but I want to read that narrative within the larger frame of how he treats his assorted cultural others: Turks, Scots, the Welsh, the Irish, Eastern Christians, rustics/pagans, alien intruders from Other Worlds.

Right now I'm on the Henry II portion of the History, the section with the widest geographical ambit. When Jerusalem becomes the possession of Saladin, Pope Gregory VIII calls for crusade via an epistle making some familiar promises. All those who die will zoom right to heaven; personal property of crusaders will be protected until return or death; crusaders are released from all usurious obligations; and so on. The usual stuff. Gregory ends his epistle, though, by noting that crusaders may not bring dogs or birds with them, nor "wear precious raiment." This is a penitence parade, he stresses, not a demonstration of "vain glory." The kings of France and England are more explicit in the letter they circulate to drum up support, noting for those who sign up:
It is ordained that no man shall swear great oaths, and that no man shall play at hazard or dice, and that no man shall wear minever [stoat fur], or vair [dyed squirrel fur], or sable [marten fur], or scarlet ... and that no man shall take any woman with him on this pilgrimage, excepting a laundress, who goes on foot, and of whom no suspicion can be entertained; and that no man have clothes that are slashed or laced. (3.23)
As I read the passage several thoughts occurred to me:
  1. Interesting that regulation of crusader bodies focuses so much on the sartorial.
  2. These directives reveal their class bias (only nobility would have the possibility of bringing sumptuous furs like these; what about the ordinary people who would have been the majority of the army? Do they bring everyday dress? Are they simply below notice?).
  3. It seems to be unthinkable that men might clean their own clothing.
  4. The poor laundresses, trudging on foot and resting only to wash sweaty haberdashery.
  5. At least these stinky garments don't require the special care of, say, fluffing up the squirrel fur, combing the martin skins, or pressing all the slashes so they won't look so crumply.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Medieval Sex: A Syllabus


"How is it that in a society like ours, sexuality is not simply a means of reproducing the species, the family, the individual? Not simply a means to obtain pleasure and enjoyment? How has sexuality come to be considered the privileged place where our deepest 'truth' is read and expressed? For that is the essential fact: since Christianity, the Western world has never ceased saying, To know who you are, know what your sexuality is. Sex has always been the forum where both the future of our species and our 'truth' as human subjects are decided." (Michel Foucault, 1977 interview)

This semester I am wading into new territory, teaching-wise, with an M.A.-level seminar on sex and sexuality in the Middle Ages. Although I have, for a while now, been doing an awful lot of reading and research in contemporary queer and critical sexuality studies and some reading in critical medieval sexuality studies [primarily, Carolyn Dinshaw, Glenn Burger, Anna Klosowska, Karma Lochrie, James Schultz, Cary Howie, Michael Camille, Jeffrey, Clare Lees, Lara Farina, Tison Pugh], when doing further research for this syllabus, I realized how much scholarship I am not familiar with, and so, this seminar will partly be a crash course in the subject for myself as well as for my students. The syllabus was both fun but also frustrating to put together--for example, why do we not have more scholarship on sex and sexuality in the lais of Marie de France? But then again, what might be missing on my syllabus that I simply don't know about? I've tried to cover different cultural traditions [Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, French, and German] and I've left things out, like Heloise and Abelard, which I am sure many will find strange [but as the Ur-couple of the Middle Ages, they also seem, in my mind, to be "done to death" on syllabi such as these], and also Roman de la rose [partly because I am just not prepared this semester to teach too many texts that would be too new for me]. It was difficult to decide which Chaucer tales to include--the "Wife of Bath's Prologue" and "Tale" is the obvious pick, and I did include her, but I have also included the "Man of Law's Tale" as that makes a nice parallel story with the Old English translation of "Apollonius of Tyre," which is where I begin the course. Overall, the the syllabus felt unwieldy to me [and I did a lot of cutting, in the end, that pained me, but I have to be realistic about how much students can read in a week, of course], partly because I am trying to offer "samplings" of four inter-related things, as it were, in this seminar: 1) how sex and sexuality are treated in medieval texts (literary and otherwise), in both "official" and more subversive registers; 2) how sex and sexuality in the Middle Ages are analyzed in contemporary medieval scholarship; 3) how sex and sexuality are historicized in contemporary critical sexuality studies; and 4) how sexuality and sexual identity have been taken up by some contemporary artists [in ways that highlight the complex inter-relations of past and present], such as in the films of Lars von Trier and Pedro Almodovar and also in Jeffrey Eugenides's novel Middlesex. I'm likely trying to do too much, but I thought I would share the syllabus here with everyone, and any critical comments you might have for me would be greatly appreciated. Have I overlooked something important or interesting, either primary or secondary text-wise? [Since I'll teach this course again, I'll be more than happy to make major adjustments to the syllabus next time I offer it.] I'm including here, also, a link to the working bibliography for the course, and if there's something I've not included there that you think is important, please let me know and I'll add it.

ENG505 Seminar in Medieval Literature: Medieval Sex

ENG505 Seminar in Medieval Literature: Working Bibliography

Friday, January 15, 2010

3 Medievalist Blogs You Might Enjoy

by J J Cohen

So blasphemy does have its price, even when unintentional: my daughter was awake almost all last night, the victim of a stomach that didn't want to keep its contents within. She's watching a DVD of Mulan right now while recuperating. I'm doing stacks of bile-scented laundry. She claims it was a rotten cherry tomato that did her in. All I can say is: from the evidence of last night I would say it is more likely the four or five hundred tomatoes she appears to have crammed down her maw that caused the upsurge.

For your entertainment, three blogs I've recently discovered that might appeal to you:
  1. Art in the Hearth. Art historians take a sabbatical in Brittany. I want their life.
  2. Wordisms. Tom Elrod's blog. Nice recent review of Post-Historical Middle Ages
  3. Hwaet the swyve? Though no medieval blog can live up to the awesomeness of that name -- can it? -- this is one to watch. But not. There isn't anything there. Its authors have promised us a guest post here at ITM, though, about the postmedieval reading group they are founding at the University of York.

Very Briefly Noted: Dante's Inferno: you loved the game, now read the book!


Talking about the video game version of Dante's Inferno is more the bailiwick of Got Medieval than In the Middle: see here, here, here, and here for more details. But if you've been cloistered so long that you're suffering from stubbly tonsure syndrome, listen up: via Penny Arcade, I learn that Random House will be publishing a video-game "novelization" tie-in of the Inferno (see here).

S'wonderful? No. S'weaksauce. Buyers will enjoy 16 (full! color!) pages of images providing background to the video game designer's process. No doubt the commentary will be as sharply written as this:
Their stunning and inventive take on Dante’s Inferno will be sure to wow players around the world and we are extremely proud to be able to provide those individuals with insight into the creative processes involved in adapting Dante to a new medium.
Worldwide wow. Extremely.

My greatest disappointment? It's not that the damsel in distress is named Beatrice instead of Florence. A depoliticized Dante is bad enough, but, still worse? The translation? Longfellow.

Pathetic. I realize Longfellow is public domain, but, still: thou shouldst try harder! Or, more generously, we can enjoy the odd temporal crossings of the fourteenth, nineteenth, and twenty-first century, and remember that this kind of reinvented plot is hardly unique to our era. Before anyone insults the game, take time to reread the Roman d'Enéas.

(and a tip-o'-the-hat to commenter Lan Nguyen at Got Medieval for turning up the trailer to the animated version of the game based on a poem. Me? I'll buy an Xbox when there's a video game version of Howl: you see, you'd play Allen the Junkie, dragging yourself through angry streets looking for a fix...)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wondering about Christianity

by J J Cohen

My family spent part of last summer living in Paris. We rented an apartment near the Rue Mouffetard from a professor of 19th C literature at the Sorbonne. My kids loved the city for its food, its art, its mode of life, its parks. I've written a bit about our visit to the Mémorial de la Shoah, and we did eat at a deli in the Marais ... but like most old European cities Paris is place whose Christianity is inescapable. I wouldn't be much of a medievalist if I were surprised that cathedrals had shrines to saints and Virgin Mother altars and stations of the cross within. These religious artworks always startle my kids, though -- especially Katherine, who at five remembers the gelato we ate in London a few years ago but not the many churches we explored.

We'd been sailing boats in a fountain of the Jardin de Luxembourg and decided to make a visit to nearby Saint-Sulpice. At the Louvre earlier in the week Alex had declared himself an admirer Eugène Delacroix, partly because he recognized Liberty Leading the People from the cover of his favorite Coldplay album. Saint-Sulpice has some murals by Delacroix, including a spectacular envisioning of Jacob wrestling the angel. We were gazing at that image in the dark of the church when Katherine called us away. "What's this?" she asked, pointing to a depiction of a man leaving a tomb. My wife shrugged her shoulders and said to me "You can explain it better."
   "Well, " I said to Katherine, "Christians believe that Jesus--"
   "Who's Jesus?"
   "Their messiah."
   "Their what?"
   I tried a different tack. "The person they pray to ..." She nodded. "Christians believe that after Jesus was killed on a cross and placed in a grave, he came back from the dead. It's called the resurrection."
   Katherine jumped from my arms and ran from the mural. "He's a zombie!" she yelled as she retreated. She had no desire to see the picture any more.
   Well, that really backfired, I thought. It didn't help that her older brother had been scaring her with nightly tales of the undead. But Christian narratives like the Resurrection are not yet part of her cultural literacy, and I am not always the best interpreter for her, as my stumbling shows (in retrospect I'm fairly certain the mural depicted Lazarus rather than Jesus). But the episode did make me think about how much we take for granted -- or perhaps, how much I take for granted -- when it comes to the Christianity of the Middle Ages. We tend to assume that the stories behind the images were always well known, and that such narratives caused universal nods of assent rather than the shaking of a head in disbelief. We comb through the Patrologia Latina to discover what people really thought, to trace the coherence of orthodoxy, but we often don't leave enough room for what John Arnold calls unbelief, for what might also be called wonder. Sometimes I think that Jews became such figures of danger to Christians because they brought to presence the ability Christians surely had to be astonished by themselves.

Addendum: We are good friends with a family from Mexico. Last week they gave us rosca de reyes or "three kings bread." Into this cake has been placed a baby Christ figure. Katherine was poking around her piece and declared "I think they forgot to bake a Jesus in the cake." Suddenly a small, white plastic doll toppled out of her slice. At first she was happy, thinking she'd won a prize. Her brother told her, though, that the person who finds the figure has to cook the tamales for the family for the year. Now she keeps it by her bed and calls it ... the zombie baby.

Briefly Noted: The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals


There's excitement a-cloven-foot for the Ann Vendermeer and Jeff Vandermeer's forthcoming Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals.

The Manticore? Not kosher. Kosher? The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, which we all know from Mandeville:
and þare growez a maner of fruyte grete as gourdes; and, when it es rype, þai open it and fyndez þerin a beste with flesch and blude and bane, and it es lyke to a lytill lambe withouten wolle. And men of þat cuntree etez þat beste, and þe fruyt also. And þat es a grete meruaile. 3. Of þat frute I haue eten. Neuerþeles I said þam þat me thoght it na grete meruaile, for in my cuntree I said þam ware treesse berand a fruyte þat becommez briddez flyand, þe whilk men callez Bernakes, and þer es gude mete of þam; and þase þat fallez in þe water liffez and fliez furth, and þase þat fallez on þe land dyez. And, when I had talde þam þis, þai meruailed þam gretely þeroff.

And there grows a kind of fruit great as gourds, and when it is ripe, they open it and find in it a beast with flesh and blood and bone, and it is like a little lamb without wool. And the men of that country eat that beast, and the fruit also. And that is a great marvel. Of that fruit I have eaten. Nevertheless I said to them that I thought it was not a great marvel, for in my country, I said, there were trees bearing a fruit that becomes a flying bird, which men call Barnacles, and the meat is good; and those that fall into the water live and fly forth, and those that fall on the land die. And when I told them this, they marveled greatly about it.

I'm a fan of eschatological Leviathan promises, myself. Leviathan is "a delicacy to be served to the pious at the end of time, to compensate them for the privations which abstaining from the unclean fowls imposed upon them," as the "real purpose" of Leviathan
"is to be served up as a dainty to the pious in the world to come. The female was put into brine as soon as she was killed, to be preserved against the time when her flesh will be needed. The male is destined to offer a delectable sight to all beholders before he is consumed. When his last hour arrives, God will summon the angels to enter into combat with the monster. But no sooner will leviathan cast his glance at them than they will flee in fear and dismay from the field of battle. They will return to the charge with swords, but in vain, for his scales can turn back steel like straw. They will be equally unsuccessful when they attempt to kill him by throwing darts and slinging stones; such missiles will rebound without leaving the least impression on his body. Disheartened, the angels will give up the combat, and God will command leviathan and behemot to enter into a duel with each other. The issue will be that both will drop dead, behemot slaughtered by a blow of leviathan's fins, and leviathan killed by a lash of behemot's tail."
Ultimately, though, I'm a bit sad that the book has to be about eating and slaughter, and I'm reminded of nothing so much as Hildegard of Bingen's Physica, which catalogs animals and then, like a good dietetic manual, concludes each entry by remarking on their edibility.

(thanks Marty Shichtman for the heads up on the Kosher Guide! Manticore image from here: )

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Back to the classroom

by J J Cohen

I didn't teach during the fall semester. I knew I'd be overwhelmed with administrative tasks, since I had pledged to leave as little unfinished business for the next chair of my department as possible. I also did not want a repeat of the fall semester of 2008 when I taught a Chaucer course for which I never had sufficient time to prep and to be present for the students. Though the class went fairly well, I could not help feeling I was shortchanging them somehow. Inevitably a departmental crisis would arise an hour before meeting time and my mind would be focused upon it rather than them as I entered the room.

As I explained to my 90 undergraduates in "Myths of Britain" yesterday, being truly present is a commitment both teacher and students must make in order for a class to thrive. We've become accustomed to the solitude of checking email on an iPhone rather than being aware of the world moving around us, so to have 75 minutes as a community is a gift that ought not to be squandered. I spoke about my syllabus's Code of Courtesy at ITM recently. Its objective, I explained to my students as I introduced it, is to give us the moments of intense togetherness that we can't have if people are walking in and out of the room, texting, chatting with a neighbor. All I ask them to give to me and to each other is the commitment I give to them.

So far so good. I was nervous about my first class because I hadn't been in front of a room of students since last April. Keeping 90 restless adolescents interested is also a considerable challenge. But I walked out of the room happy, if exhausted: they have already proven themselves eager conversationalists. Something about my emphasizing their obligation to disagree with or at least question me skeptically seems to have resonated well.

Here, for those who are interested, is my syllabus. I invented this course three years ago, and it has become my favorite. Some of those in the classroom will go on to become English majors; most are taking it to fulfill a "Writing in the Disciplines" requirement.


Spring Semester 2010

Professor Jeffrey J. Cohen <>
Office: Rome Hall 657
Office hours by appointment. I am happy to meet with you! Arrange a time by email.
Lowell Duckert <>
Jessica Frazier <>
Nedda Mehdizadeh <>

Much great English literature turns out not to be so English after all: the action of the epic Beowulf unfolds in Scandinavia; King Arthur was a Welsh king before he was an English monarch; Shakespeare's Tempest takes place on an island in the Mediterranean, but the play is also about the colonization of the New World. "Myths of Britain" looks at the early island within a transnational frame. We explore literature as a way to imagine collective and individual identities, and -- as art -- a vehicle for escaping their constraints. Among our recurring keywords: heroism, monstrosity, community, travel, enjoyment, beauty, creation, art, authorship, sexuality, death.

The mission of this course is threefold:
(1) to give you the chance to hone your writing through the careful analysis of literature within its historical context
(2)  to introduce you to contemporary scholarly methods of studying early England within a transnational frame
(3) to explore the relation between narrating the past and bringing about a desired future, paying close attention to who is excluded from this emergent community

Code of Courtesy
Arrive on time with your cell phone silenced. Bring the appropriate book. Give the professor and your TA your full attention. Do not chat, text, or surf the internet. Remain in the room until the lecture or section ends. Conduct yourself in a manner respectful to all present. Never hesitate to ask a question, to express a doubt, or to request clarification.

Learning Objectives
If you are diligent in keeping up with readings, lectures, and discussions, by the end of this course you will:
1.      be able to identify key concepts such as identity and transnationalism, and apply them to literary texts
2.      be able to apply techniques of critical analysis (especially close reading) to a variety of genres, including epic, lais, romances, historiography, poetry, and scholarly essays
3.      understand contemporary approaches to literary and cultural studies

English 40W is a WID (Writing in the Disciplines) class with writing-related objectives. By the end of the course you will
1.      understand what constitutes a strong thesis statement, and have practice in formulating such statements in your analyses of texts
2.      understand what constitutes evidence in literary or textual analysis, and be able to apply the rules of evidence to formulating a persuasive argument
3.    understand and identify the qualities that constitute excellent work in literary studies. These include: coherent organization of points, attentive explication of quotations in support of a thesis, strong transitions, and innovative argument.

Course format: The course meets twice a week: on Mondays at 11:10 a.m. in MPA 309 for lecture, and on Wednesdays for discussion sections. Attendance at both lecture and section is required.

Texts (available from the GWU Bookstore)
Suhayl Saadi, The White Cliffs [recommended]
Beowulf (trans. Seamus Heaney, Norton Critical edition)
Song of Roland (trans. Glyn Burgess)
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (trans. Lewis Thorpe)
Marie de France, Lais (trans. Hanning and Ferrante)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (trans. Simon Armitage)
Travels of Sir John Mandeville (trans. C.W.R.D. Mosely)
William Shakespeare, Henry V (ed. Mowat and Werstine)
William Shakespeare, The Tempest (Bedford Case Studies, 2nd edition)

1. Attend lectures and sections; participate in discussion; complete readings and assignments on time.
2. Reading quizzes:  Monday’s lectures begin with a brief reading quiz. Lateness or absence from lecture is not an excuse for missing the quiz. Missed quizzes cannot be made up. These brief tests cumulatively take the place of a midterm examination.
3. Writing assignments: Four short but intense writing assignments culminate in a fifth, a five page problem paper. Detailed information about the assignments will be available well in advance. You will have ample opportunity to discuss the assignments in section.
4. Gateway Lecture and performance of Henry V: see below.

Policy on lateness and extensions: Plan carefully. Except for a documented medical reason, late work is not accepted. You may not take an incomplete for this course.

Academic dishonesty: Academic dishonesty of any kind will be treated as a serious offense. In most cases you will fail the course. According to the GW Code of Academic Integrity, “Academic dishonesty is defined as cheating of any kind, including misrepresenting one's own work, taking credit for the work of others without crediting them and without appropriate authorization, and the fabrication of information.” You can find more on the Code of Academic Integrity at The best way to avoid “accidental” plagiarism: do not speak to or look towards others during the reading quiz; do not use the internet for this class, except when specifically told to do so.

Disability statement: If you feel you need accommodations based on the impact of a disability, contact Prof. Cohen and your TA. Disability Support Services (Marvin Center 242, 9948250, is available to assist you.

Grading rubric:
Your grade for the course will be determined by adding together the following and determining a numerical equivalent (e.g. 80-83 points is a B-, 84-86 is a B, 87-89 a B+, and so on):
Attendance at one Gateway Lecture (see below)                            3
Attendance at performance of Henry V                                           3
Participation in section                                                                    15
Reading quizzes                                                                               24 (12x2 points each)
Four short but intense writing exercises                                          4 x 5 = 20 total
Final writing exercise                                                                       10
Final examination                                                                             25
TOTAL POSSIBLE POINTS                                                        100

Gateway Lectures:
This course introduces students to the ways in which contemporary scholars analyze the literature of the medieval and early modern period. You are therefore required to attend at least one of the “Gateway Lectures” that have been arranged through the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute:
·       Jan. 29, 4 PM: Alf Siewers (Bucknell University), "Ecocriticism"
·       February 12, 4 PM: Michelle Warren (Dartmouth), "The Postcolonial Past"
·       March 25, 4 PM: Marissa Greenberg (University of New Mexico), "Writing and Space"
All of these lectures are on Friday afternoons in the Marvin Center. Exact places will be announced in class, via Blackboard, and at www.gwmemsi.com
. Make sure you check in with a TA when you attend so that you will receive credit. Coming to more than one lecture will earn you an extra two points on your final average, and will also make you a better person. You may attend as many as you wish.

Performance of Henry V
Though typically studied in a classroom as a text, Henry V was – like all of Shakespeare’s plays -- intended for performance. The Shakespeare Theatre ( is mounting a production of the play that will run from Feb. 4 – April 10. Tickets are as low as $10 for students (details on theatre website). All students taking this course are required to attend a performance of Henry V and submit the ticket stub to their TA to receive credit.

Schedule of Readings and Assignments
January 11              Lecture: The Britain in England. Texts: “The Green Children” (handout; also on Blackboard) and Suhayl Saadi, The White Cliffs
January 13              Section: Introductions. “The Wanderer” (please print out a copies via Blackboard [under “Electronic Reserves”] and read before section).
January 18              No lecture (MLK day)
January 20              Section: Comparison of opening lines of Beowulf in several translations. Short writing assignment #1 handed out (poetic language exercise).
January 25              Lecture: Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney lines 1-1798. First assignment due in lecture.
January 27              Section
January 29              Gateway Lecture: Alf Siewers, "Ecocriticism"
February 1              Lecture: Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney, lines 1799-end
February 3              Section: Seamus Heaney, “Translator’s Introduction.” Short writing assignment #2 handed out (close reading of passage).
February 8              Lecture: Song of Roland. Second writing exercise due.
February 10              Section
February 12              Gateway Lecture: Michelle Warren, "The Postcolonial Past"
February 15              No lecture (President’s Day)
February 17              Section: Paper writing workshop on “How to Compose a Successful Problem Paper”
February 22              Lecture: Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (pp. 186-261). Writing assignment #3 (Problem Paper I) due.
February 24              Section.
March 1              Lecture: Marie de France’s Lais I (“Guigemar” to “Les Deus Amanz”)
March 3              Section.
March 8              Lecture: Marie de France’s Lais II (“Yonec” to “Eliduc”)
March 10              Section. Writing assignment #4 (Problem Paper II) due.
March 15-17              Spring Break
March 22              Lecture: Mandeville’s Travels [lecture given by Nedda Mehdizadeh]
March 24              Section. Workshop: “How to Write an Effective First Paragraph.”
March 25              Gateway Lecture: Marissa Greenberg, "Writing and Space"
March 29               Lecture: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
March 31              Section.
April 5              Lecture: Henry V, Acts 1-3.
April 7              Section. First paragraph of final Problem Paper due.
April 12              Lecture: Henry V, Acts 4-5.
April 14              Section. Peer Review Workshop.
April 19              Lecture: The Tempest Acts 1-3
April 21              Section: Aimé Césaire, A Tempest (The Tempest pp. 246-54).
April 23              Final Problem Paper (5 pages) due by noon.
April 26              Lecture: The Tempest Acts 4-5
April 28              Review Session (led by TAs, in MPA 309)
TBA              Final examination