Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Medievalists worldwide are up in arms ...

... joining the furor over Portsmouth High School's decision to deny Patrick Agin the right to wear chain mail and hoist a broadsword in his yearbook photo.

Click here to read about this developing story in the New York Times.

Seems the picture violates the school's no-weapons policy. The Rhode Island ACLU points out, though, that "the school’s position is particularly untenable ... given that the school mascot is a Revolutionary War soldier carrying a rifle." The school's principal, Robert Littlefield, says that the Minute Man mascot cannot be construed as "a threat to our educational environment" -- implying, of course, that boys in chain mail are far deadlier than men with muskets. [As a medievalist and a Bostonian I am deeply conflicted on that issue.]

To add a note of pathos: the chain mail was forged by Patrick Agin's uncle, his mother sells armor at fairs, Patrick belongs to the local Society for Creative Anachronism ... and the crestfallen teen describes the banned portrait as "one of the first good photos I’ve taken in a long time."


Karl Steel said...

Links nicely into discussions of pleasure and professionalism we've had around these parts. Towards the end of the semester, my students invariably get frisky and ask me whether I belong to the SCA or if I've been to 'Medieval Times' in New Jersey. I never have an adequate response. What comes to mind is a response from Kzoo to the SCA about the SCA's presence: when you learn medieval Latin, come back. Can't remember from whom I heard that, but given that not all that many medievalists and certainly not many of the attendees at Kzoo have an expert grasp on medieval Latin--especially as something distinct from Classical Latin--that challenge to the SCA hardly seems fair. So, as inclined as I am to follow my (perhaps imagined) Kzoo organizer and tell my students, "what they do is fun; what I do is work," I keenly feel the inadequacy of that differentiation to describe what it is I do and why I do it.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Well said, Karl -- especially apt, in fact, because I am sitting here in my chain mail grading seminar papers. Fun mixed with work indeed.

Seriously, though, I find most puzzling the expectation that I will enjoy phenomena like Medieval Times (there is one here in Maryland; I cannot tell you how often I have been invited to go). I have nothing against faux medieval feasts and SCA, but I myself have no desire to travel back in time and live in the Middle Ages, not even via chainmail and broadswords.

Besides, even if Michael Crichton is right and I could fax myself back to, say, Dordogne in the Middle Ages, where could I plug in my laptop to blog about it?

Liza Blake said...

There's a conversation going on on the Chaucer listerv about whether or not people would like to live in the fourteenth century -- the general consensus seems to be that people would miss their heart medication and microwaves. By now the conversation has devolved into a dicussion of sci-fi stories involving time travel, as any good conversation should.

Where is everyone's spirit? I'd love to go back to the Renaissance, if only to collect lots of ballads and ephemeral works and bury them for a future scholar to find, then see as many plays as I could before being burned at the stake as a witch.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Liza, you could get away with it. Me, I'd catch plague during the first ten minutes and die in abject misery three days later.

Karl Steel said...

Another question I didn't ask over at Chaucer listserv is "why the 14th c.?" I know that's Chaucer's time, eventually, and all, but it's a pretty miserable time in so many ways: famine, the plague, massacres and then expulsions of Jews from France, 'crusades' in the Low Countries, and massacre of the inhabitants of the Canary Islands (do I have that right?), and so on (mind the gap). I'd shoot for the middle of the 12th century in Champagne. I could meet Chretien and determine who he was, maybe Marie de France would come visit, I could have arguments about the scriptures with Europe's leading rabbis in a time when Christians sought out their exegetical mastery. I could figure out how satirical Andrew the Chaplain was with his thing about raping peasant women: is he desublimating the violence at the heart of elite eros, or does he really just scorn peasants that much? It'd be good to find out for sure, but he'd probably keep pulling my leg.

Terminator-style--okay, not, because I'm not a killer--I could scoot over to Norwich and load Thomas of Monmouth with so many pointless tasks--forging charters, visiting granges, and the like--that he'd never have time to write the passion of St William of Norwich. While the resulting hagiographical gap would blow some holes in JJC's vita, I think he'd be okay with that.

12th-century Champagne certainly wasn't a golden age--no such thing--but it just strikes me as superior in so many ways to England of, say, the 1380s, except, perhaps, for a few heady days in Bury St Edmunds in 1381.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Honestly I would want to go back far beyond that: to the Britain before written words. I'm curious about the cultures that didn't give us texts to know them by. I'd want to see Avebury as a living architecture rather than as a fragmented heritage site.

After that, maybe Roman Britain. Maybe Vindolanda.

But, if I were compelled to travel to the Middle Ages, I'd likely choose to go to Whitby and see Caedmon and Hilda. 12th C Chamapagne has its charms, Karl, as you point out -- and Chretien would be a hoot to meet I'm sure. As to stopping Thomas of Monmouth from composing his vita of William ... that has always seemed to me a document that didn't really change anything, but recorded a feeling and cultural ambition in the air. If Thomas hadn't written it, the blood libel would still (I am guessing) have lived its ugly life.

EYYÜP HAN said...

"I know that's Chaucer's time, eventually, and all, but it's a pretty miserable time in so many ways"

Hey nowe, ney nowe. Rub it nat yn!

Le Vostre