Monday, July 02, 2007

The Chronicle of Higher Ed at the Zoo

To quote:

"There's so much about the medieval that's associated with the juvenile, the popular, the low," says Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, a professor of medieval English literature at George Washington University. As specialists in Arthuriana and other literature heavy on adventure and light on introspection, he says, medievalists already dread being regarded as scholars of so much juvenilia.

And so sometimes their responses to the truly puerile strains of pop medievalism are downright grouchy and exasperated — as when medievalists point out for the umpteenth time that turkey legs, consumed with such gluttonous abandon at Medieval Times restaurants, did not exist in medieval Europe.

Don't let my quote scare you; others (like Dr Nokes) say smarter things. John Gravois's full text here. An audio tour of the K'zoo dance can be accessed from this page as well. Includes a short stand up routine from Eileen Joy! With laugh track!


Karl Steel said...

Well, this is a bit bizarre, but the discussion about joy in the Middle Ages reminds me of the angle I took in answering the written portion of my orals exam way back in, uh, 2002, where I answered this question:

"Imagine that you are teaching an advanced undergraduate course on Middle English texts, 1350-1450, a course that covers some of the range of texts that you have included on your orals' list. You have decided to organize it around theological and exemplary works from the period. On the first day of class you must provide an overview of the texts and issues to be covered over the course of the semester. And you will want to give the class some organizing principles for thinking about this subject matter. You might want to explain to them why the rubric of "theological and exemplary" works is an important way to approach Middle English texts and culture and what you mean by these terms. Write the lecture that you would give to your class."

Oddly enough I still have my answer on hand. Here are the opening paragraphs in their unedited glory:

“Understongynge is the begynnynge and will of al vertues, and rote of all goodnys.”
Secretum Secretorum

The works we will be reading in this course have tended to be neglected by literary critics. While few undergraduate medievalists can say they have never been taught The Canturbury Tales, or Beowulf, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, just as few, I imagine, could say they have read even a portion of the 9,600-line Prick of Conscience, a work whose vast scope encompasses Christian history in its entirety, from Creation to the coming of Antichrist to the Last Judgment and which, along the way, teaches contempt for the body and the doctrine of Purgatory. Yet we have more than 100 surviving manuscripts of the Prick of Conscience-—a number, by the way, second only to the Wycliffite Bible in terms of its popularity in late medieval England—-and only one each of Beowulf or of any of the works of the Gawain-poet. While it is notoriously difficult to base any definite conclusions on the numbers of surviving manuscripts—-the reasons for the survival or destruction of a manuscript are just too variable—-I think we can safely conclude that more medieval people read The Prick of Conscience than the works you are accustomed to reading in your medieval surveys. As for Chaucer, I don’t doubt that you have been taught the Pardoner’s and the Miller’s Tales. And I don’t think that’s a mistake. All evidence, however, suggests that these works were not the favorites of Chaucer’s fifteenth-century readers, who instead preferred Melibee and the Parson’s Tale, that is, Chaucer’s expressly and seemingly uncomplicated didactic works, works that I may safely assume you have not read, at least not in their entirety. My first point, then, is this. Late medieval England and our contemporary world have in common at least the fact that the most popular texts are not self-professedly literary works but what we can call “self help” books. We may enjoy reading Beloved more than we enjoy Men Are From Mars, Women are from Venus, but Beloved, I would think, provides far less insight into how predominant discourses of our culture want to be heard than anything on the non-fiction best-seller list. I do not want you to believe that by reading the works we will be reading in this class that you will arrive, somehow, at the “true” medieval culture deceptively concealed from you by Norton editors. But I believe that by reading these works, and this should be obvious, you can get a broader idea of the various ways medieval culture worked and worked against itself, and, more importantly, you can begin to learn how to read without considering the aesthetic quality of the works.

Because you may find these texts boring. But it should occur to you that it is bad scholarship to determine what works from the past we should read based on whether or not these works are able to conform to our own aesthetic criteria, which are of course conditioned by our own contemporary cultures. If we read Sir Gawain and ignore the Prick of Conscience except, perhaps, as it helps illuminate our favorite poems, we are not scholars; we are dilettantes. It is up to you to find ways to make these texts interesting, but you won’t succeed in this by attending to startling rhymes, unusual vocabulary, or any of these other purely aesthetic criteria. And if you were looking for these things in these texts, I doubt you would be successful. You may think I am arguing that scholarship requires you to suffer, but I would say that if you are bored by these works, the fault is probably yours because you don’t yet know how to read them. Scholarship—-and this is an ethical imperative—-requires that you try to apprehend cultures on their own particular historically, culturally, and materially specific terms and that as you read, as you think, you bring your own assumptions and categories under examination continuously.


You know, I might actually use this for a real lecture, although I don't think I could compel undergrads to read Prick of Conscience....

I suppose my reason for quoting this old thing at such length is that it gets us past, I hope, the binary of fun v. seriousness. Or does it? How does this kind of approach treat the last few months' watchword, wonder?

Anonymous said...

You have written oral exams?? How wonderful!

Karl Steel said...

You have written oral exams??

Pre-orals they're called. They determine whether we can take the oral portion. I suppose it's harder to fake it for 35 pages than it is to fake it for 2 hours.

bwhawk said...

Nice lecture, KS.

How does this kind of approach treat the last few months' watchword, wonder?

[Disclaimer: random musings ahead.]
I had been thinking about this question, since (as a future professor) one of my personal drives is how to make medieval studies appealing and more pronounced to the wider culture. My thoughts had so far run along thinking that these instances of wonder--whatever they are, and however we meet them--speak to our wonder at the "alterity" of the medieval, and that such intersections give us a gateway for welcoming others into the domain. For it is not only the presentation of wonder by the author but also our revelry in that wonder. In facing the wonder described by the authors and the wonder we encounter through the alterity of the Middle Ages, we, as KS says, "bring [our] own assumptions and categories under examination continuously"--thus shaping and reshaping our views. And it is through wonder that such assumptions are met face to face, as it is the nature of wonder to form in relation to our preconceived perceptions of "normal" and "other," and, therefore, wonder shatters our preconceived notions to recreate and re-form our ideals of what is familiar and what is part of the other.

This wonder, then, this intersection with something so essentially unfamiliar and new, creates a way to find fascination, and creates a gateway. Paradoxically, however, this wonder may also be a lock on the door that must be somehow overcome. But, at its root, isn't the alterity of the medieval what draws people to new portrayals of medievalism, such as movies, computer games, etc?

dtkline said...

Gravois' article gave me 15 seconds of fame but I wasn't sure if I should be flattered or frightened.

You sure sounded smart, jjc, while I sounded, uh, obvious?

My point was that it's less the alterity of the MAges than its overwhelming 'overpresence' in the contemporary period that gives the MAges its contemporary (whatever 'it' is).

dtkline said...