Monday, July 10, 2006

New World Medievalists, Fantasy and History

In the comments to the previous post, a frequent and perceptive commentator going by the moniker N50 wonders:
My other question is whether the UK is different - let's say from the US since that is where you all are. I teach a lot of Americans with a great fascination for the middle ages and great scholarly abilities. My slight impression is that there is a greater tendency for them to be drawn into the subject through an interest in the fantastical. Lots of them are also into fantasy writing, dressing up and so on. This is also true of some Brits and Europeans - but much, much less so. My speculative, and provocative, suggestion is that Old Worlders are more likely to feel a continuity between their own world and the medieval past.

What do you New Worlders think about the past - does the fact of your translation to the New make you think about the past differently?

Another Damn Medievalist responds:
Don't know about anyone else, but History in general was always where I felt most at home. I've always read sf/fantasy, and probably read more fantasy now than I did when I turned my focus to the MA. For me, it was combination of deeper connection to the ideas and values of the Classical and Medieval worlds and a deeper sense of community among the grad students and faculty at Beachy U, who took me under their collective wing.

That said, Big Name UG Advisor #1 was reputed to have belonged to the SCA, and he wrote history filks, which he sang in class. I think a lot of students here do come to medieval history in the way you've noticed, but most of mine don't stay unless they are willing to separate the myth from the reality.

I've already made public my embarrassing revelation about how a certain famous medievalist who also wrote works of fantasy convinced a young me that studying the Middle Ages might be more fun than devoting myself to astrophysics (my other obsession at that time; thank you, Carl Sagan). Then again, I've never even contemplated joining the Society for Creative Anachronism and -- much to the shock of the many students who ask me this question -- would never under any circumstances have wanted to live in any prior time period.

It probably didn't help that Cambridge, Boston, Bedford, Lexington and Concord were the geographical ambit of my childhood. I remember declaring as a kid that if forced to walk the Freedom Trail once more I would vomit (this was in the days of US Bicentennial hoopla). A surfeit of colonial history made the ancient past of a distant island all the more attractive. I've observed elsewhen in this blog that the Middle Ages most dominant in the American academy is anglophile and Christiancentric; I wonder if it was my early impatience with places like Plimouth Plantation that now spur such a remark.

So, has anyone --British, Irish, American, or any other nationality -- other stories to offer about the role fantasy did or did not play in their coming to the Middle Ages? Does, as N50 hypothesizes, an attraction to the medieval fantastic lead more New Worlders to their medievalism than continuity-minded Old Worlders? Is there a disciplinary difference (historians vs. lit critics) that might be equally suggestive?


Another Damned Medievalist said...

I guess I should also say that to me, it's the questions asked in sf/fantasy that are very similar (to my mind, at least) to the questions asked by Classical authors. But I know what you mean about not wanting to live there. The medieval worlds of genre lit are far more attractive (who wouldn't want to live in Rivendell? be a dragonrider? whatever?) than the reality that is what we study!

Anonymous said...

We hail from the same milieu - I always tell my students that going to the Alcott house every year in elementary school cured me of ever wanting to study American history. (I do come by my anglophilia honestly, however, since I was born in England and we went back a lot to visit family.) My (unscientific) impression is that British interest in the Middle Ages is much more like New Englanders' interest in the colonial period - it does have a much more direct, personal connection for them than it does for me.

I do get many, many students whose interest in the Middle Ages comes from the fantastic, especially role-playing games like D&D (is there quite the same phenomenon in Europe?). Though as ADM points out, if they can't get past the fantastic bits, then they're not going to keep studying the Middle Ages for very long. Personally, I never got D&D, and while I did (and do) enjoy quite a lot of fantasy writing, I tend to trace my own interest in the Middle Ages back to an encounter with historical romances at an impressionable age. While I've never wanted to live in the Middle Ages, I'd definitely love to visit; but I've never been interested in the SCA either. What I'm not sure of is whether I enjoy the Middle Ages because it's like fantasy lit, or if I enjoy fantasy lit because it's like the Middle Ages...

MKH said...

In some ways, I definitely came to the Middle Ages via fantasy. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, read at 16, prepared the way for loving Old English when I stumbled across it 3 years later, although I didn't know it at the time. Disney's The Sword in the Stone was my favorite movie growing up, and when required to read The Once and Future King in tenth grade I was more than ready to launch into a full scale "study" of the book, re-reading it numerous times through the rest of my high school and college careers. I've posted on my blog about how Lloyd Alexander led me to the Mabinogion. Morgan Llewellyn got me interested in Irish mythology -- or perhaps it was the idea of Druids that got me interested in Llewellyn (it's a bit of a muddle for me now). But I definitely read science fiction and fantasy avidly throughout high school and college, and my interest in it has only recently waned, mostly for lack of time and energy.

But I don't think that the relation is simply a one-to-one --"fantasy brought me to the middle ages." I think what I craved was mythology -- my mother had me reading things like the Odyssey fairly young (actually, absurdly young), and though I certainly didn't get as much out of them at the time as I did later, it did instill in me a sort of wish for a past -- a past that stretched back further than the 300 years of United States history. The fact of that history is itself marked by destruction and what I perceive (in my very uninformed way) as a relatively sharp breakage -- with Europe, perhaps, but also with the Old World that WAS in the New World, by which I mean Native American culture, myth and tradition (something else that fascinated a younger me, and in the mythical time of having time will do so again). The colonial US tried to annihilate the culture that had actual ties to the mythological past of North America. And it was this mythological past, if you will, that I wanted -- something just beyond the edge of perfect memory. I guess it's that lack I felt in the culture I grew up in that inspired a love of literature, particularly of British literature (and Arthurian legend) and why I eventually chose it over history (though it was definitely a close call at times). What interested me about the cultures of the past were their stories, the stories told to understand the world, and to understand (and create) a place in it for themselves. Of course I've developed a much more nuanced perception of the mechanisms of those stories since the end of college and beginning of graduate school, and I hope that critically at least I've managed to tame my more romantic inclinations as regards the past. But that initial fascination is still there, albeit in altered form -- a sort of deep interest in the ways cultures imagine themselves through time.

Hopefully the above makes sense -- I'm still waiting on the delivery of my air conditioner and the heat tends to make my brain a bit muddled. But on that note, I guess can say, without hesitation, I haven't ever wanted to actually live in the past. Even when I was younger -- I may have wanted dragons to exist in the modern world, but I certainly didn't want to go anywhere there wasn't air conditioning!

Anonymous said...

Ok. My origin myth:

My own initiation came through landscapes and buildings. My parents were artists and were always pointing out colours and textures (mostly along the Sussex coast where we went on holiday). I would look at the same landscape and want to know why it looked like that - and who were the people who made it that way. (This can be taken to extremes - as one US student of mine said - she would never look at a damn field the same way again!)

The city I grew up in was also a very bombed landscape - and with the rebuilding came archaeological excavation - very much at its peak in some ways in the 60s and 70s. So I suppose I literally fell into medieval history through a hole in the ground!

I also enjoyed reading Rosemary Sutcliffe (but never thought of her books as fantasy - more like books about my dead neighbours). I enjoyed CS Lewis, but could not get into Tolkein (except the Hobbit) and I never connected either of those with History.

Later on I discovered politics - especially socialism - and the connections Unwin, Bloch and Hilton made between the medieval past and the modern labour movement.

Where-ever I am it is still landscapes and buildings that draw me into past people. So I guess if I had been born in the US I would be studying Native Americans... exploring some of their archaeological sites are certainly some of the most memorable things I have done in the US.

I don't know whether any of this correlates with anything about me -
but the emerging answers here are fun and interesting.

Anonymous said...

As one who is both a scholar of literature AND a practicing poet, I have to say that I came to the medieval because it felt like a place where I could really think and write about language, about how poems work, and about how poetry gets defined/coopted/colonized. Plus, there just aren't many other places in English, as a discipline, where one can sink one's critical teeth into prosody and not get booed off the stage.

History is of course an inescapable part of studying the medieval. If I didn't love history, didn't see history as vividly all around me, I doubt I'd enjoy being a medievalist.

That said, I always thought that SCA and D&D were sort of derivative. I have never cottoned to "fantasy" as a genre. It was not a part of my youthful reading, although poetry always was (I read Yeats at 11 and Whitman at 13.) The representational fantasy concocted by poetry was always intensely compelling, in its own right. The garden as imagined and represented by Dickinson was so much more mindblowing than the overtly "fantastic" stuff dreamed up by Tolkien. And it rhymed.

Plus, and here I'm just sayin', the social aspects of D&D and SCA tend toward the hypernerdy, the socially awkward, and the weird. I'm already marginalized, as a poet-- I don't need to be more of weirdo!

D&D, SCA, the ren. faire, medieval times, all feel like they are part of a commercial packaging of the Middle Ages as a consumable, already-figured-out historical good. (BTW, Michael Camille has a great spot on an old episode of the radio program "This American Life." he goes with Sarah Vowell and Ira Glass to a "Medieval Times" restaurant outside of Chicago and provides his medievalist perspective.)

At any rate, I'd rather read the real thing, anyday. Maybe because I'd rather use the real poem as a source for my own, eventual, poetic cannibalism. There's a lot more to steal from Piers Plowman than there is from the Hobbit, in terms of poetic craft, for me.

Glauk├┤pis said...

American here. I think, actually, that if Americans in general are more interested in the fantasy aspects of the medieval period, it is because that is what we know best. That's what surrounds us every time we're approached with something medieval here. We aren't confrontedwith the real places in which people lived, unless we consciously make the effort to take a trip to Europe. That leaves us generally with TV and movies, in which almost everything is given a fantastical twist.

My own interest in the medieval is certainly coloured by my interest in scifi/fantasy also, but if you take my interest in the American Revolutionary era, for example, I'm much more interested in the very historical people. Granted, what first sparked my interest was the musical 1776, but even that approaches the period differently. Most of what we're taught about early American history in grade school is a bit mythological. The men (and some women) involved are seen to be great heroes and demigods. What 1776 showed me (which is what sparked my interest) is that these people involved are very real human beings who still succeeded in accomplishing something great.

That said, I had a Classics prof who actually teaches mythology in depth and absolutely does not like scifi/fantasy. I also had a Classics prof who's much more of an historian than a lit person but loves scifi/fantasy.

I don't know that there are any correlations, but I suspect we're all just led to our various historical and literary interests by as various means as there are subsections of study.

Anonymous said...

I'm ashamed to admit that I pursued a Ph.d. in medieval studies on a dare from a Chaucer scholar [Charlotte Morse] while I was working on an MFA in creative writing [fiction]. I had never really had an interest in anything that predated modern literature, and my favorite authors were writers like Hemingway and Raymond Carver and Paul Auster. My favorite courses, other than writing workshops, were in critical and cultural theory and postmodern lit. I took a course on Chaucer and love that began with Ovid's poetry, included Marie de France, and ended with Chaucer's "Troilus." I wrote a paper on Ovid in which, if I remember correctly, I tried to do some kind of "deep structualist" reading, a la Propp or Iser or something, and Charlotte gave me an "F" [horror!] and told me most literary theory was crap and prove to her that I could do a "straight" explication of Ovid and then she's let me apply theory. My initial plan was to finish my MFA and then pursue a Ph.d. in sociolinguistics [don't ask because I can't even remember why I chose that], but toward the end of the Chaucer class, Charlotte told me that if I wanted to pursue a Ph.d. in medieval studies she would write letters for me, etc. I wasn't sure I would ever be able to write that "great American novel" and I honestly had no prospects or ambition to do much of anything else other than be a writer, which seemed to point to a penniless future and a lifetime of waiting tables. I honestly cannot say why I like medieval studies over studies of any other kind. I actually don't. Out of necessity and due to a particular person's urging, I just simply did it. But I am just as interested in Paul Auster as I am in "Beowulf," in modernity as in the Middle Ages, in anything, really, that has to do with the realm of the aesthetic, then and now.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, everyone -- and especially to those of you have posted for the first time -- for contributing to this thread.

It's funny, my site meter tells me that that many UK residents read it (along with a scattered readership in Ireland, Sweden, Germany and France), yet it was mostly the New Wolrders who shared their origin myths. Another connection to make?

Anonymous said...

I'm another American who came to the Middle Ages through fantasy literature. I think it was Arthurian literature mostly, but I'm not sure.... and I don't doubt that some of my interest in the Middle Ages came from a desire to emulate my older sister who played D&D and went to Ren Fairs.

But what I have noticed as I have been required to study modern history (I'm getting a PhD in medieval history, but preparing to teach a Western Civ survey next semester, so I have to learn all this modern stuff) is that medieval history requires a lot of the same imaginative creativity that fantasy genres require. Part of what I like about doing medieval history is that there are huge gaps in what we know, huge gaps in what we will ever be able to know, and being a good medieval historian requires a good imagination to fill these gaps. I have certainly read some medieval history that gets a little too imaginative, but in general I find that the historians I like best are capable of some really creative, imaginative thinking. It's less fun for me to do modern history where we have enough sources to tell us everything we want to know. (And hopefully I haven't offended any modern historians by saying that... or medieval historians, for that matter.)

And there is definitely an element of escapism in my love of the Middle Ages. Would I want to live back then? Definitely not, particularly since I'm female. But sometimes I'm not really sure I want to live right now either, so being able to throw myself into a world that is completely and utterly different is a relief. And then there are those moments when I realize that that completely and utterly different world has left its marks on our own. Seeing professors at graduation wearing 13th-century Parisian clothing in the form of academic robes is, to me, as tantalizing as finding an elven brooch on the ground ("Not idly to the leaves of Lorien fall")--it shows me that the 'fantasy' world I have been immersing myself in isn't a fantasy at all, but has left real and tangible marks on today's world.


Anonymous said...

SCA, Ren Fairs and the like are all a mystery to me - only appearing on my radar within last few months. There are similar things (I think) - in the UK - re-enactment societies like the Sealed Knot.

My impression is that they are bigger, better and more commercialised in the US.

On the other this is just maybe how I personally grew up imagining the US - bigger, better and more commercialised than Europe. When I first actaully went to the US (to K'zoo) in 1998, when I was already over 40, it was a shock to discover that it did not match my futuristic utopian childhood imagination at all - but in many ways had aspects which were rather traditional and peasant-like (outside the big cities anyway). Rather medieval in fact.

Sorry - JJC - this has little to do with your blog - just limbering up for a day's writing. I will go away!

Karl Steel said...

N50: anything Kafkaesque about your first trip to America? It's a regret, perhaps one day to be put to rest, that I've never read his America. Strikes me as something that would be a perfect cap to this discussion of fantasy, history, and the old world.

I was also a fantasy/LOTR/general role-playing-games nerd. In a big way. As in tens of afternoons at age 15 spent painting lead miniatures and listening to Chopin. But I'm suspicious of this route to being a medievalist for two reasons: a) the Manichaean homogeneous cultures of LOTR (which needs the work on migration and early medieval Europe of say Geary and Goffart); b) the masculinist military fantasies of so much RPG. On the other hand, apart from the problem-solving skills involved in RPGs and the spur to imagining things through language, apart from how much RPGs helped me become an atheist (when I saw how silly the reactionary xians were about the "devil in the dice"), RPGs did offer a place of queer fantasy for bodies to disaggregate and combine. I mention this because one of the friends in my RPG group came out when we were about 16, and I can only imagine that the bizarre worlds he invented, the 'Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath'-style narratives (if they could be called that), had a lot to do with making spaces to become whatever it was that he became.

As for my own route to medievalism? Wholly professional. After 4 years of doing a lot of nothing (form band; tour; break up; repeat), I went into a 2-year MA program on a lark. Boredom drove me to it. I got along well with the PoCo'ist, the Americanist, and the Medievalist. The Americanist said jobs in her field were impossible, the PoCo, being a young (but totally brilliant) schollar, had only published one book so far and a handfull of articles, while the medievalist (Rick Emmerson) had a national rep and would be moving East for an important medievalist job. So I hooked my wagon to his star, figuring that he could help me get into a good program. He did. I just wanted to be an academic. Didn't matter what I did, really. If I said anything else, it'd be a teleologic back-projection.

Anonymous said...

I came to medievalism through a combination of fantasy, historical love, and a great prof. I was always a huge sci-fi/fantasy buff, something inculcated in me by my mother, who is more obsessed with the genre than anyone I know.

But the history is what really did it for me. I have always been fascinated with history, and I planned ot study history until I realized (at my undergrad level) that as a historian I would for the most part be reading other people's interpretations of historical events, interpretations which were going to be biased and necessarily only a small part of the story. Realizing this, I decided to get the biased stories first-hand, by reading literary works from the periods themselves. To me, each book is a tiny glimpse into both humanity generally and local cultures, and into the mind of a person who actually lived through that time - a personal micro-history, even when it doesn't aim to be.
Once I discovered I could read medieval books too, that was it - I could combine my love of fantasy (which, whether historical fantasy or some other kind, is basically always set in a medieval setting) with my love of history and stories.
Then I had an Old English prof in undergrad who was amazing, and he did the rest of the convincing (unfortunately, the uni at the time decided that they didn't need an OE specialist, so they denied him tenure, he went on to sell computers, and is now a millionaire)
Originally it was definitely the elements that link it to fantasy that attracted me, but the literature itself did the rest - I was hooked pretty much from the beginning.

My own personal theory is that there is also a bit of snobbery and elitism in us medievalist - we often, I think, revel in being able to read texts that few other people can, and to speak about a period in history that does tend to fascinate people, but which most people know very little about.

Jeff said...

I grew up in an American suburb. You won't hear me mock the place--it offered a terrific childhood in many respects--but to a kid with an overactive imagination, the clunky, quasi-Tolkienesque Europe of "Dungeons and Dragons" made for an incredibly exotic contrast.

Faint memories of that youthful interest in the whole fantasy/RPG subculture probably prompted me to study the Middle Ages as an undergraduate, but a terrific medieval philosophy course, and a curiosity about religious history in general, kept me interested--as they still do.

Despite two journeys through grad school, I opted not to become a scholar. Instead, I'm just a guy who writes about the Middle Ages. I think I get the best of both worlds.

For what it's worth, I also believe that the pseudo-scholarly nature of the old pencil-and-paper RPG rulebooks makes the scholarly study of the Middle Ages a fitting next step. I wrote about the connection in a 2004 blog-post, "Papers and Paychecks."

Anonymous said...

I have wanted to be an historian since forever and I have wanted to be a writer since forever.

When I started university, I was going to specialise in Ancient History, the Renaissance or historiography (the bulk of my undergrad studies were in these fields) but I came across a question that would best be answered by using the Middle Ages, I could read Old French and someone offered me a scholarship to Toronto for an MA: I ended up a Medievalist. I have never regretted it, either.

I didn't come to fiction via the Middle Ages. I came through a very, very broad taste in literature - I read everything gradually learned what I wanted to write. My published fiction sometimes plays with the overlap other people have betwen speculative fiction and the Middle Ages (sometimes using fantasy, sometimes SF) purely because I have an evil sense of humour.

All this means the fiction writer and the historian now have a strong overlap and that overlap is largely Medieval in nature. I teach worldbuilding using a map of Winchester c 1300 and Medieval cosmology. This is where I have ended up, though, not where I began.

Steve Muhlberger said...

PS: Most N American medieval reenactors/recreationists feel free to choose from any medieval culture. European ones often are devoted to the national past, as US Civil War reenactors are.