Monday, May 30, 2016

The Ethics of Inventing Modernity: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve

Eirik Furu Baardsen/Akademiet for yngre forskere
a guest post by LAURA SAETVEIT MILES, University of Bergen 

[On 7 June 2016 Stephen Greenblatt will receive the 2016 Holberg Prize, for his “distinctive and defining role in the field of literary studies and his influential voice in the humanities over four decades.” The University of Bergen (UiB), Norway, administers the Holberg Prize, which is “awarded annually to a scholar who has made outstanding contributions to research in the arts and humanities, social science, law or theology, either within one of these fields or through interdisciplinary work,” comes with about $735,000 (4,500,000 Norwegian kroner) in prize money from the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.

On 11 May 2016 UiB organized “Stephen Greenblatt Seminar: Literature, History, the World,” in which I was invited to participate as the UiB faculty member working on pre-modern English literature. Here below is my presentation, slightly revised. Thank you to Ellen Mortensen and Margareth Hagen for inviting me to speak; thanks to Sonja Drimmer for her helpful comments on the first version; and thanks to the participants in the seminar for a good discussion.]

Today I’m not going to discuss Greenblatt’s long, venerable list of books and articles on early modern literature, especially Shakespeare – these have made him broadly known throughout the academic community. Instead I will focus on the one book that, more than all those books before, propelled Greenblatt to an internationally visible position as public intellectual – the book that won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award and an MLA book prize – the book that undoubtedly helped to bring his lifetime of great work to the attention of the Holberg prize committee. This book is The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (US title) or The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began (UK title), published in 2011. Over the last few years I have read several reviews of this book, by scholars I know and by scholars I don’t know. But it is not really in my field of medieval studies so I hadn’t had reason to read it myself until the invitation to present at this seminar – which I am honored to be asked to be a part of.  That is why I’m here to tell you a story, a cautionary tale of style and method, that all begins on a windy Thursday afternoon, early May, in Bergen, Norway.

So: I sat down to read The Swerve – or, I should say more accurately, to skim it. After all it’s 262 pages long (not including notes and selected bibliography) and I have a grant application to write and other “research points” to generate. But despite my best efforts to skim, I found myself reading every word, totally swept up in the exciting story of Poggio Bracciolini, the fifteenth-century Italian humanist and book collector. I relaxed and just went along with it; in other words, I read like a normal person. Great writing style, I thought. There were so many interesting details, the prose was so easy to follow, so self-assured, no pesky footnotes to distract me from the story.

Poggio travels to far away monasteries and finds esoteric classical texts to have them recopied in beautiful humanist script. He finds this one poem by Lucretius, De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things, all outlined by Greenblatt in bullet points in one chapter: about how the universe is made up of atoms that swerve around and collide and create everything, and we can’t really control it, and the gods don’t care about us, souls don’t exist, and so we should enjoy life and avoid pain – like good Epicureans. Other stuff happens in the book, not really plot, more historical stuff.

Well, in the last chapter we learn about how other people copied this poem but it is a bit unclear how much it actually influenced them. What this normal person learned is that Lucretius was definitely really important in the Renaissance and us being modern today. The book feels like a great detective story – it reminds me so much of The Name of the Rose. Or Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code series – really enjoyable beach reading!

And as I read The Swerve, the normal person inside me thought, it is important for academics to write in this accessible style and reach broader audiences with stories about the past! This is the great story of modernity!

And on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in Norway – Mother’s Day in the US, and perhaps the first real spring day in Bergen – I put down The Swerve on the table, and thought about how I had let myself read it as fiction. Yet it was supposed to be… not fiction. It is classified as non-fiction, and when I thought of it as a scholarly book, and thought of all those thousands and thousands of people out there who read it and believe every word because this man is an authority and wins prizes, I realized that this book is dangerous.

Every page of the book strives to present the Renaissance as an intellectual awakening that triumphs over the oppressive abyss of the Dark Ages. The book pushes the Renaissance as a rebirth of the classical brillance nearly lost during centuries mired in dullness and pain. This invention of modernity relies on a narrative of the good guy defeating the bad guy and thus a glorious transformation. This is dangerous not only because it is inaccurate but more importantly because it subscribes to a progressivist model of history that insists on the onward march of society, a model that allows moderns like us to excuse our crimes and injustices because “at least we’re better than those medievals.”

Now unlike most of those thousands of innocent believing readers, I see the deep problems of such an approach, as have the last dozen generations of historians. History does not fit such cookie-cutter narratives. Having studied medieval culture for nearly two decades, I can instantly recognize the oppressive, dark, ignorant Middle Ages that Greenblatt depicts for 262 pages as just… fiction. It’s fiction worse than Dan Brown, because it masquerades as fact.

It is enthusiastic, accessible style at a devastating, unethical cost: the misrepresentation of 1000 years of brilliant literature, vibrant culture, and actual people. It’s rewriting history to fit a detective story, and it’s being rewarded by those who don’t know better and those who should know better.

Criticisms of this book are not new. They are in many book reviews both in print and online. I am not going to rehearse all the things you can read in all the book reviews, as you can read them yourself. I am not a classicist or a philosopher, so I won’t go into how actual philosophers point out that Epicureanism wasn’t anywhere so widespread in the classical world, that Greenblatt vastly overinflates its influence both before and during the so-called Renaissance. I won’t mention that in fact Scepticism and Platonism and Neoplatonism should evidently be a huge part of this story, though completely left out by Greenblatt. It’s not my place to point out that the book conveniently disregards a key part of Epicureanism, ataraxia, that urges us to withdraw from the world and to be indifferent to suffering and death in other people – a disturbing apathy at odds with much of modernity, not to mention the civic ethics of the early modern period.

I certainly could, but I’m not going to get into the other Renaissances ignored in this book – the Carolingian Renaissance in the ninth century, and the twelfth-century renaissance in the… twelfth century. Also I won’t talk about the old historian’s Whig fallacy and the long debunked Burkhardtianism Greenblatt admits to following. Sadly I won’t have a chance to explain that no, medieval people were not all obsessed with pain, and yes, there was widespread, state-sanctioned embrace of enjoyment of the senses applying every level of society, as our colleague Henning Laugerud’s recent edited collections attest. And finally I don’t have time to balance out the book’s unbalanced exaggeration of medieval flagellation, like out of a bad Dan Brown novel.

(Wait: Did you see what I just did there? That rhetorical move – occupatio: mentioning by saying I won’t mention? Yes, that’s a classical Latin rhetorical move used throughout the Middle Ages – a move I learned from Chaucer, in fact, writing when Poggio Bracciolini was a baby.)

What I am going to do today is address two issues: first, the representation of monks, medieval manuscripts production, and medieval literary and intellectual culture (my field), and second, the role of Stephen himself in this narrative.

On Monks and Manuscripts

The main representation the medieval period extends over about two chapters of the book, starting when Poggio heads off to visit a monastic library. As part of the historical, factual voice of the narrative – more Greenblatt’s lecturing voice, less his novel voice – we learn about the dismal life of the medieval monk, forced to write, an “educated slave” in Greenblatt’s words. We are assured that in this dark, dark world, “Curiousity was to be avoided at all costs” (41). And what happened was, quote “The complete subordination of the monastic scribe to the text—the erasure, in the interest of crushing the monk’s spirit, of his intellect and sensibility…” (41). Greenblatt writes without qualification that “No medieval monk would have been encouraged to read, as it were, between the lines” (41). Monks are lazy, dumb, and apathetic, while somehow also hard working: “Without wishing to emulate the pagan elites by placing books or writing at the center of society, without affirming the importance of rhetoric or grammar, without prizing either learning or debate, monks nevertheless became the principal readers, librarians, book preservers, and book producers of the Western world” (29). And also a Schrodinger cat in a monastic box, evidently.

In this story of how the world became modern, this represents what came before the modern. No such gross misrepresentation of monastic scribal production – as in, factually wrong – has been published for decades. These are not just old generalizations about monks, they are outdated by a hundred years. But don’t be distracted by this caricature that Greenblatt presents as representing all medieval intellectual culture. Think about what Greenblatt completely fails to mention: all the rest of the vast learning and debate going on inside and outside monasteries – i.e. universities (a medieval invention)! Scholastic debates! The commentary tradition! Medieval hermeneutics! Frequent engagements with classical auctors! Lots of classical rhetoric – ask the many scholars expert in it! Huge commerical industries of urban book production! Secular literature – Romance! All poetry! Courtly literature! Royal patrons and royal literary commissions! Goliardic songs! Lyrics! Drama! Mystery plays! I could go on.

Books were at the center of medieval society, and any amateur history buff could tell you that. I certainly don’t deny that big changes happened in the early modern period, like the printing press and the Reformation, and another wave of interest in classical texts, among other shifts. A more accurate presentation of the Middle Ages as different but not deeply degenerate would make the story of all these changes even more interesting than Greenblatt’s histrionic fable – and have the added advantage of actually being accurate. So why does Greenblatt present such a skewed version of the facts? Clearly Greenblatt knows how to use a library – and he’s a brilliant guy. He also happens to have an office right down the hall from some very clear-headed medievalist scholars. No, I think something else is going on here, if I might read between the lines myself. Something ideological, and something psychological.  

On Poggio and Stephen

This all makes more sense when in the next chapter we hear about Poggio’s true feelings for monks: he despises them. And he despises that he must deal with them because they are the ones that lock away his precious classical texts. More in the novel voice, Greenblatt writes of Poggio’s views on monks: “on the whole he found them superstitious, ignorant, and hopelessly lazy. Monasteries, he thought, were the dumping grounds for those deemed unfit for life in the world.” Yet Poggio is forced to reckon with these imbeciles in order to access their manuscripts: “Though he ridiculed what he regarded as monastic sloth, he knew that whatever he hoped to find existed only because of centuries of institutional commitment and long, painstaking human labor” (37). Again that awkward problem where the caricature doesn’t square with historical evidence. At another point we here that Poggio “…was not at all interested in what was written four or five hundred years ago. He despised that time and regarded it as a sink of superstition and ignorance” (18). And conveniently, when Poggio visits dreadful, rainy England he doesn’t quite get to Oxford, that great university town, so medieval universities don’t have to come up in this book either. Greenblatt is working off of Poggio’s extensive surviving correspondence, so I don’t doubt these statements (even though they are not cited).

What I do see throughout The Swerve is a conflation of views – of Poggio’s view with Stephen’s view. Greenblatt the historian seems to let his inner Poggio take over and thus this non-fiction history takes on the prejudiced slant of a fifteenth-century anti-religious egotistical humanist, and becomes historical fiction. Poggio controls the ideology of this text. Poggio inflects all the voices of this book with a fiercely anti-Catholic polemic. This is a fatal mistake. It is pretty transparent that Stephen as desiring subject idolizes Poggio despite (or maybe because of) his shortcomings. They would be best friends, and they both want this moment to be modern so badly. Unfortunately Greenblatt, against his best training as a historian and critic, allows that personal desire to swerve history into fiction. Instead of pointing out the bias of such views and painting us a more realistic picture informed by decades of scholarship, Stephen adopts Poggio’s view that the Middle Ages was “a sink of superstition and ignorance.” And that is exactly what people could learn from this book.

But I think there’s something even more psychological going on here. In the preface Greenblatt describes his mother’s deep anxiety about death and how that affected him, and how Lucretius’ poem offered him hope: “… she had blighted much of her life—and cast a shadow on my own—in the service of her obsessive fear. Lucretius’ words therefore rang out with a terrible clarity: ‘Death is nothing to us.’ To spend your existence in the grip of anxiety about death, he wrote, is mere folly. It is a sure way to let your life slip from you incomplete and unenjoyed” (5).

Let me first say that I have nothing against such personal anecdotes or emotional connections to history – I love reading about the more individual side of scholars in their criticism and think such moves can be quite illuminating critical tools. This one definitely is, though not in the way it was intended. Coming back to this passage after reading the whole book puts it in quite a different light. We realize that after the preface it becomes the Middle Ages that Greenblatt presents as gripped with anxiety about death, living in obsessive fear, an ignorant, superstitious fear. The Middle Ages is the return of the repressed, of the mother that must be rejected in order to choose life – to chose modernity. Within these dark pasts can be no joy for medieval people because there was no joy for his mother and the narratives have collapsed together. Greenblatt becomes Stephen, the boy afraid of his mother and feeling very small; this Stephen pushes all of the medieval period into the abject to join his mother and make himself feel big and brave again. The modern equals the grown-up Greenblatt and it must triumph; it must find a past to reject and a narrative to inspire its adoring future generations – his readers.

At what cost?

Of course, this is only one book in a lifetime of books, in a lifetime of undeniably great achievement. But The Swerve relies on that lifetime of books to perpetuate factual inaccuracies to a far bigger audience than any of his previous books. Weeks as a best-seller – perhaps selling more copies than all his other books combined? Regardless of the numbers, it’s definitely more minds unprepared to challenge his authority on the past, and willing to swallow his truthiness. In that way the book represents an abuse of power. It is an injustice to the past, and the mythical invention of modernity is an ethical issue because it sets a precedent for history that ignores complexity in favor of oversimplification. What if that history deals with more than cultural production, but genocides or incarceration or forced migration? What if that history is about whitewashing whole religions as all extremists, or naively superstitious, or terrorists? At what cost comes more viewers or higher ratings or more prizes?

No amount of “humanities advocacy” is worth desecrating the past it purports to promote, or undoing generations of valuable scholarly work. The public and the academy deserve better: they deserve the interesting stories that are also true, and they deserve to see awards given to those scholars who labor to find them instead of invent them.

So, I’d gladly assign Greenblatt’s earlier work to my students, if we were reading some early modern poets or Shakespeare. But if I assigned any parts of The Swerve, my students would immediately see the fallacies in this argument because they learn a different story in my classes, from the medieval works I assign them. In the opening lines of Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales they see so much of what Greenblatt sees in the opening lines of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura: unlimited wonder, a celebration of the interconnectedness of the earth, sky, wind, cosmos, with little birds, the smallest roots, our bodies, our desire to be whole, to be connected to each other, to love and to be loved.

If my students read about the Swerve’s dour, self-depriving medieval mindset, they would recall Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale,” by far the most hilarious, sensual, naughty text on the pensum. Nothing else we read delights so explicitly in adulterous sex, explosive farts, and practical jokes involving the anus – all the while critiqueing church and society, and written by the Father of English Poetry.

In my classes we talk about how medieval literature is all about reading between the lines, just like all literature; we look at how monks take joy in their writing even though it’s hard work, just like us modern scholars; we luxuriate in the beauty of medieval aesthetic traditions, just like we do with modern aesthetic traditions. There is no agon; there is history without transition.

What I teach, what I hope they learn, is that there is always nuance to history. History is paradoxical. It’s the cruxes that make history spark and come alive. And what I hope they take away is that we have an ethical responsibility to respect belief and not to belittle it (especially if we don’t share it), and that we have an ethical obligation to listen to what the evidence tells us, and not write what we want to believe, or what other people will buy.

Selected reviews of/commentaries on The Swerve, in approximate chronological order
(all accessed before or on 9 May 2016) *particularly in-depth

2.     Anthony Grafton, “The Most Charming Pagan,” review of The Swerve. The New York Review of Books. 8 December 2011.

3.     *Baerista, “The Swerve is Really a Full Frontal Crash.” The Renaissance Mathematicus (scholarly blog). 1 May 2012.

4.     *John Monfasani, review of The Swerve (review no. 1283). Reviews in History. July 2012.

5.     *Morgan Meis, “Swerving.” n+1 (online magazine). 20 July 2012.

6.     *Jim Hinch, “Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong – And Why It Matters.” LA Review of Books. 1 Dec 2012.

7.     J. J. Cohen, “Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve and the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize.” In the Middle (scholarly blog). 5 Dec 2012.

8.     Elaine Treharne, “Swerving from the Straight and Narrow: Greenblatt's Fictional Medieval Period.” Text Technologies (scholarly blog). 5 Dec 2012.

9.     Steve Mentz, “Swervin’: Modernity is Not History.” The Bookfish (blog). 7 Dec 2012. 

10.  *Tim O’Neill, review of The Swerve. Amarium Magnum (academic book review blog).  27 Jan 2013.

11.  *Gjert Vestrheim (UiB), “Problematisk fra Greenblatt om Lukrets” (om Stephen Greenblatt: The Swerve), Norsk litteraturvitenskapelig tidsskrift 16 (2013), 149-160

Also related: Kellie Robertson, “Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto.” Exemplaria 22 (2010): 99–118.

Monday, May 23, 2016

3,000 Kalamazoos: Play, Change, Community



My annual swag summary of Kalamazoo (click image to embiggen). [May 18, 2016]

It has been just about a week since the 2016 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI (aka #Kzoo2016). About three thousand attendees made the journey to Kalamazoo this year (note also this great writeup before the conference), and there are thousands of stories can be told about the experience as a result.

The medievalist blogosphere has been active this week, and I'll let these varied accounts speak for themselves:

  • Karra Shimabukuro, "#Kzoo2016 Reflections" (May 14 post at Folklore <--> Milton <--> Popular Culture)
  • Kathleen E. Kennedy, "The Future of Medieval Conferences" (May 15 tumblr post)
  • Maggie Williams, recap of Material Collective activities (May 16 blog post, with links to livetweets from the relevant sessions)
  • Travis Neel, general reflections (May 17, public Facebook note)
  • Shamma Boyarin, reflections on inclusion and disability approaches (May 16 and May 22)
  • Josh Eyler's blog is hosting guest postings from the "Teaching the Humanities in the Current Climate of Higher Education" roundtable at Kzoo: Cameron Hunt McNabb: "Teaching to the Choir" (May 17); Leigh Ann Craig: "So Are You Going to Open A History Store?" (May 19); Kisha Tracy: "A Plea for Research, Part 1" (May 23)
  • MW Bychowski, "Genres of Embodiment: A Theory of Medieval Transgender Literature" (May 17 blog post at Transliterature: Things Transform)
  • Shyama Rajendran, "Kalamazoo 2016 and The Work We Still Have To Do" (May 18 blog post)
  • David Hadbawnik, "Kalamazoo 2016 Redux" (May 21 blog post)
  • Danielle Trynoski, "Digital Humanities at K'zoo: A Recap" (May 22 for
  • Susan Signe Morrison, "Female Fun at Kalamazoo: All the Single (and Married) Ladies at the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies" (May 23 blog post)

I'm still processing my own intellectual and affective responses to Kalamazoo 2016. Many of my perceptions are shaped by my own idiosyncratic social circles but do I have a general sense that this Kzoo felt … different, in ways I can’t quite express. Perhaps due to #femfog and the whole Frantzen affair earlier this year, Kzoo felt more overtly affirming and welcoming than previous years (more mentorship networks, sessions and panels foregrounding new voices, a range of inclusive gatherings and initiatives) and it also felt profoundly serious about considering the state of the field and how it can improve in structural ways (such as the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship roundtable on harassment in the academy, online conversations about conference sociality and accessibility, frank discussions about social media use in medievalist circles). 

What sticks with me the most vividly from my own experience of Kzoo this year is a sense that new structures are being built and we don’t yet know what shape they will take. I feel like medievalists are collectively inhabiting an intriguing zone of potential and possibility.

My blog reflections are clustered by three key words: PLAY, CHANGE, and COMMUNITY.


BANANA CAR spotting in downtown Kalamazoo! [May 13, 2016]

One reason I enjoy heading out to Kzoo each year is experiencing its sense of play. As always, Kzoo reminded me of the love that medievalists have for what we do (be it teaching, research, publishing, artistic production) and both the sessions and the social events can generate a shared sense of purpose and belonging.

  • Medieval Donut 2.0. This donut-centered informal social gathering, graciously hosted by Jeffrey Cohen on Wednesday night, marked the second year of what is now becoming a Kzoo tradition. Although I missed the event (sniffle!), it clearly provided a low-key way to socialize and meet new people. For tweets and photos from this event and related festivities throughout the conference, see this curated 2016 #medievaldonut archive.
  • PLAY roundtable. GW MEMSI (Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute) hosted a ludic roundtable/playground that featured (among other things) balloons, a bouncing beach ball, toys on each seat, and some pretty awesome interactive game-presentations; for photos and tweets that nicely capture the spirit and the intellectual content of the event see here.
  • Fandom and role play. I participated in a session (organized by Anna Wilson) on fandom in medieval studies; this conversation touched on topics as wide-ranging as Mandeville marginalia, genderswapping and queer subjectivities in interactive novel roleplaying games, and the contemporary appropriation of medieval storytelling traditions beyond Europe.


Embrace the #femfog! SMFS swag. [May 15, 2016]

Much of this playfulness and spirit of experimentation (with new ideas and new social formations) extended into the conference sessions themselves. Some sessions not only asked how we can push the boundaries of our respective academic domains/disciplines but also explored how we can collectively transform the underlying social dynamics of the field.

  • BABEL roundtables. The BABEL Working Group hosted two roundtables: "Where Else?" and "Far Out!" (see this archive of tweets from these sessions). I've been involved with BABEL for a few years now, and what I find so compelling about this community is its capacity to bring together (seemingly) unlikely people and things. In this spirit, the "Where Else?" roundtable incorporated varied disciplines and methods (art history, literature and ecotheory, Judaic studies and world literature, medical humanities and plague epidemiology) and disparate spaces (Cuba, medieval Britain, West Africa, the Bahamas, the Underworld). All of the presentations got me thinking specifically about how medievalists who for a variety of reasons occupy the "margins" of (a habitually Western/Eurocentric) medieval studies can find "homes" within their respective disciplines or institutions while also thriving as deliberate exiles/outsiders to such structures.
  • SMFS roundtable on harassment. This session was originally planned around the anonymous online survey on harassment in the academy conducted by SFMS in 2015, and the conversation (as one might expect) addressed not only the climate of medieval studies in the wake of #femfog but also become an opportunity to brainstorm ways to make the profession more supportive for everyone (students and faculty). What was clear to me from this conversation (from survey data, speaker presentations, and some personal stories that emerged in the discussion) was that harassment can affect anyone regardless of gender, status, or sexuality. Harassment is about power, and anyone can be a potential victim or abuser. Consulting my handwritten notes during the session, I notice that just about 70% of survey respondents said they had experienced some form of harassment but around 70% never reported it. What I hope the SMFS survey and conversations can encourage is the creation of clear, accessible resources for those among us who have experienced harassment or seek to help others. For what it's worth, I'll just say that the Shakespeare Association of America has crafted an excellent sexual harassment policy (see page 9 in the January 2016 SAA Bulletin) and other professional societies could think carefully about building and sustaining similar structures. [Side note: SAA deserves kudos for its policies (including sexual harassment and social media usage) for three reasons: the guidelines are clear, the organizational structures are transparent (i.e., each was crafted by an ad hoc committee of scholars of varied stages/backgrounds), and the labor is acknowledged (SAA Bulletin, January 2016, pages 9-10).]
  • Twitter roundtable and social media ethics. I took part in a roundtable (organized by Ben Ambler) on the ethics of live-tweeting academic conferences, and it morphed into a broader conversation about the ethics of social media use in academia more broadly. (You can consult this twitter archive for a fuller sense of the whole session and related conversations). The session addressed positive aspects of live-tweeting (such as timely access for people who can't attend, playful banter and community, signal boosting and disseminating work) as well as its negative aspects (graduate students and vulnerable scholars being "scooped," unease about the ethics of twitter as a corporation, potential for users to experience online abuse). Eileen Joy stressed the transformative capacity of social media (it can instigate tough conversations that wouldn't take place otherwise), but Angie Bennett pointed to some of its limits (not everyone has access to technology/mobile devices and conversations can unwittingly exclude as well). I've enthusiastically supported conference live-tweeting in the past, but I've since become ambivalently optimistic (or optimistically ambivalent) about it all. I'd say my "take home" message was that we as a medievalist community need to be better about establishing shared expectations and "best practices" for live-tweeting and clear guidelines would help; see some of the excellent examples and points by various folks near the end of this #Kzoo2016 twitter archive.


Donut diversity (photo: Cameron Hunt McNabb). [May 11, 2016]

It's probably no surprise that I'm ending this blog post with a section about community. I felt that community building was one of my personal priorities this year, and I'm so encouraged by the ways medievalists are coming together during and since Kzoo to creating a better field (and world).
  • Inclusivity was a major theme in my experience of Kzoo. I was proud to see people wearing T-shirts with affirmative, inclusive sentiments (the proceeds of BABEL's #inclusivity fundraiser campaign go to SMFS) or displaying other signs of support for SMFS and a more capacious medieval studies. I'm also energized by ongoing efforts at Kzoo such as the annual Anglo-Saxonist "New Voices" sessions; mentoring initiatives; various informal gatherings attentive to LGBTQ communities and scholars of color; a BABEL gathering at Bell's Brewery open to anyone; and medievalists asking important questions about uneven access and exclusion in our field (along the lines of class, financial conditions, disability, age).
  • Rethinking access. I've been following with great interest some emergent conversations about accessibility at medieval conferences. Jeffrey's pre-Kzoo 2016 posting gives us much to think about in terms of social venues and practices, and Karra Shimabukuro has shared some good suggestions that she included in her responses to the annual Kzoo survey (here and here). (These links are not specifically Kzoo-related, but check out recent reflections by Rachel Moss on attending academic events as a new parent, and consult the Modern Language Association of America's helpful access guidelines before you prepare for your next conference.)
  • Swangate. Last week, a story went viral about medievalist (known only as @chevalier_cygne) who brilliantly responded to a UKIP politician's racism and xenophobia (he had objected to a nonwhite actress portraying [Shakespeare's] medieval queen Margaret of Anjou). The story has since been picked up by the Independent and the Toast (with ancillary "cygnal boost" by Jeffrey and yours truly). If you're on twitter, you can follow the #swangate and #swantruther hashtags for more.
  • Medievalist tattoos. Picking up on a recent conversation on social media about medievalists with tattoos, @izzybeth (on twitter) has created a tumblr blog called Badass Tattoos on Medievalists. If you're a medievalist who has a story to share about your tattoo (or otherwise have something relevant to contribute), feel free to check out the site!
This blog post ended up being much longer than I had intended, but I've tried my best to convey my sense of this year's vibe and ethos. I hope that some of the productive energy of Kzoo 2016 will continue to spark new thinking about our understanding of the Middle Ages and the future we'd like to see in our present-day communities.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Conviviality and Conferencing, Alcohol and Academia

by J J Cohen

[Read Karl! Peruse the Kzoo BABEL events!]

Yesterday I took part in a conversation on Twitter about alcohol and academia, with a special emphasis on ensuring access to community at conferences without making the price of entry spaces where all socializing is structured around alcohol consumption. You can read the Storify of the conversation here.

I want to emphasize from the start that I am not against alcohol at conferences or anywhere else -- those of you who are my friends know that I enjoy good beer, wine, cocktails. I sometimes even feature my favorites on social media. As a medievalist I know what gebeorscipe is. But just as Caedmon could not stay at the poetry party when the harp approached, it's worth thinking about who is excluded when we found our conviviality on drink. One of the reasons some of us started the Medieval Donut event at an annual conference in Kalamazoo last year was to ensure that not every moment of community was structured around drinking. If you are attending #Kzoo2016, I hope that you will join us around 8 PM in the Radisson Lobby for this year's version. I will bring many dozens from Sweetwater's Donut Mill (their donuts are superb, take my word for it). We encourage you to contribute your own favorites for comparison and community purposes -- and if you are vegan, abide by a gluten free diet, are kosher, diabetic or have any other dietary preferences or requirements, know that there are likely others in attendance who share the same restrictions and please feel free to bring along something to share.

I began thinking seriously about conferences, alcohol consumption and unintentional exclusion a few years ago, when I organized a GW MEMSI sponsored "Rogue Session" at a brewery (information on the session here; a reflection on what this para-conference happening might have achieved here). The session was wonderful -- so moving that I thought about never organizing anything again, because how could that be topped? Yet I also found myself haunted by an email I received after I announced the Rogue Session's location. The note pointed out that by setting the session in a brewery some people who would like to attend would not have access to its community (in this case, someone trying to maintain sobriety and unwilling to put themselves in jeopardy by entering a space structured around drinking). If you read through the Storify above, you will see how many potential members a community of drinkers quietly excludes: people who might abstain for religious reasons (Muslims and Mormons, to name just two groups); those with allergies and medical conditions; people who are pregnant; those who have successfully overcome a struggle with substance abuse and do not want to be placed where things have in the past gone wrong; those who know that spaces formed around drinking can be dangerous, especially to women (increasing the chances of assault and unwanted attention); those in a precarious academic position who know that unprofessional activities, questions, and remarks can sometimes be spurred by alcohol; those who simply do not want to drink. I am not saying that receptions and events should not include alcohol (though they should always include good alternatives to alcohol). But I do want to urge those who arrange such events to ensure that they are not the sole access provided to conference conviviality. And during such events, we all need to watch out for each other.

A second issue discussed in the Twitter conversation was the relative ease with which academics can become alcoholics: because of the immense pressures faced in degree attainment, getting a job if possible, keeping a job if possible (who does not work long hours? when was the last time you took a whole weekend off, including email?); because of the way alcohol consumption has been not only normalized but glamorized within the profession; and because of the relative isolation and lack of consistent oversight or accountability. It's easy to vanish and tempting to self-medicate. We all have experience with the friend, colleague, mentor, or professor who might be charismatic after a few drinks but toxic at five; the young academic or would-be academic who self-destructs as a result of substance dependency; or the academic who at some point turns to drinking and stops being an affirmative force within the field (from what I have seen, alcohol abuse leads to resentment and rage, not a desire to foster and sustain community, a disregard of shared futures). We also all have friends, colleagues, mentors who are now sober after struggling with the seemingly omnipresent lure of alcohol in academic life. Respect them by making access to community manifold. The problem of academic alcohol dependency is similar in many ways to an intimately related issue, the problem of sexual harassment in the field. If we convince ourselves that it is an issue mainly for an older generation within the profession, we fail to see how close to home it is actually unfolding, its present and ongoing destructiveness to career and community.

So I am headed to a conference in Kalamazoo next week. If you attend the conference and drop by Bell's Brewery, you may well see me there, because I love that place. But I will also arrive at the Radisson with at least four dozen donuts in the trunk of my rental car, because we all need to proliferate options for access. Some conviviality centered around devouring rings of cake seems to me at least a small start.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Animals, Gesture, and Communication Despite it All


It's the week before Kalamazoo, so of course I've just drafted my New Chaucer Society Paper.

Yeah. So, as I'm in Berlin, I'll simply wave fondly at Kalamazoo from a distance, and as I have more stuff to write during what remains of this chunk of my sabbatical -- one thing being a chapter on medieval animals and disability -- I need to get my stuff coherent, and fast! Last week was muteness (and thank you, hugely, everyone who helped me out on twitter and so on with ideas!); this week, it's gesture, which is as new to me as muteness was last week. And next week, well, I'll simply watch what trouble you all get into at the Big Show. And wish all the mentors and mentees a charming, helpful encounter!

And OH MY GOODNESS: as I was writing this, Jonathan Hsy was posting a BABEL events at Kzoo 2016 post. READ THAT. Use it. Mark your calendars. Do that. First.

For those of you who are grading, godspeed; for those of you who are writing your Kalamazoo papers, likewise; for those of you making long-distance moves for a new academic job, congratulations and good luck; and for those of you whom the market ignored, or disdained, for those of you not yet sure what you can do this Fall, all my best for you, and for a better future for the public good of education, one freed from the ugly strictures of Spreadsheet Rationality (read Eileen Joy here, and vote YES for a CUNY Strike Authorization, if you can, and if you haven't done so yet).

British Library Yates Thompson MS 26 44r (detail)
Read on if you like! Or just finish your grading.

Like Modern English, Middle English abounds in metaphors that troped impairment as animality: "blind as a beetle," "deaf as an adder," "mad as a goose." Mainstream medieval philosophy and Christian doctrine regularly glossed the paradigmatic quadrupedal animal body as a material form of irrationality, and likewise held that animals were "mute" not because animals were silent, but because the sound they made was understood as unwritable, as senseless, as mere noise.
Within a disability rights perspective, it certainly not unjustifiable to decry these comparisons, because they reduce impaired humans to a condition of animal degradation. Without - and I hope this understood - denying the importance of human rights, my scholarly habits of critical animal studies encourage me to linger with the animal comparison, to explore what might be done with it. My training means that I can't simply say that humans are better than animals, but neither do I want just to say that animals, of whatever sort, are all subjects of a life, and deserve to have their unique perspectives respected. What I'm doing in this paper is a bit more delicate, and, as befits someone who is new to disability studies, more tentative: I'm proposing that the metaphor of "natural" animal impairment offers up as model of multiple sensory and bodily norms, helping to dislodge the idealized, able-bodied human at least implicitly at the center of so many medieval narratives of human impairment.
In medieval narrative, at least if there's a saint involved, a person who is "blind as a beetle" will leave sighted. I offer the sample of the Patrologia Latina, where the nouns surdus and mutus often travel together, and likewise often travel with stories of miraculous healing. Augustine's Enchiridion promises that the bodies of the holy will be resurrected "sine ullo vitio, sine ulla deformitate," without any fault, without any deformity. However advantageous this may be for the impaired person, in this life or the next, the at least implicit message of these healing stories is that the impairment is an inconvenience, both for the impaired person and the saint. Healing someone's muteness allows the saint and the formally mute person to talk in the language the saint knows best; it allows the saint to replace an inconveniently impaired person with one whose body works the way the saint presumes it should. With this autonomy granted, the healed person goes one way, and the saint goes another. Normalcy has been restored.
This strong medieval narrative tendency towards the miraculous normalization of impairment is simply not as common in stories of saintly encounters with animals, no matter how miraculous. To be sure, these stories of mastery, taming, protection, elimination, and especially communication often require that a saint make himself understood to animals, and sometimes involve the reverse. Nonetheless, a saint who encounters an animal that is as "blind as a bat," because it is a bat, is probably not going to make that blind bat see.
One implication of this observation becomes more obvious if we concentrate on stories where that supposed impairment could have been overcome. These are stories about saints and birds, and, especially for my talk, in the story of Cuthbert's encounter with the penitential ravens.
I am interested in birds because they're an outlier in medieval negative glossings of animality. They're bipedal, for one, and so cannot be so easily classed as beasts confined to merely terrestrial appetites. The high-flying eagle, was commonly honored with tropological admiration for its supposed ability to look directly into the sun. And birds were the animals most typically imagined to have voiced language too. No hero that I know of gains the ability to understand the language of pigs or even dogs; but in the Volsung saga, Siegfried eavesdrops on birds, while the Middle English “Bird of Four Feathers,” or, still closer to home, the Parliament of Fowles, the House of Fame, and the Squire’s and Manciple’s Tales also all furnish ready examples. As birds have a peculiar capacity to erase the supposed impairment of being animal, a saintly encounter with a bird is one where it is very easy to imagine the bird ceasing, at least for a while, to be a "mute beast." 
Knowing that helps us recognize what makes the story of Cuthbert and the penitential ravens so special. The story goes like this: when the saint sees these birds tearing thatch from the roof of his guest house on the island of Farne, he waves them away, and verbally rebukes them. They flee, and then one or more ravens returns, and by way of apology, gives the saint a lump of pig’s lard. Written versions of the story first appear in a late seventh-century anonymous life, written not long after Cuthbert's death; Bede retells it several times in verse and prose; Aelfric gives it a compressed form, and then it appears in two late medieval, Middle English versions, one a couplet attached to choir stall paintings at Carlisle Cathedral, and the other at length in the Cuthbert compilation now known as Egerton 3309.
Of course, penitential fowl are a hagiographical motif of especial popularity with British saints. Saints Columbanus, Illtud, Wereburga, Guthlac, and, on the continent, Amelburga all have their problems with birds, often voracious geese, and often extract an apology from them. But barring the Cuthbert story, all these penitential birds are always only imitating something or someone else. Jonas of Bobbio’s life of Saint Columban has its bird "oblitus ferocitatis,” “forgetful of its wild nature,” splitting the bird’s miraculous behavior from its basic wildness. Illtud’s geese "withdraw…of their own free tame animals," quasi domestica quadrupedia, a strange comparison. The posture of the geese of Amalburga - "submissive wings" with "heads laid on the ground" - is only a "simulacro" of reasonable human behavior. Wereburga’s geese act "acsi captiva pecora," as if they were captive livestock, or contrastingly, in the monk Henry Bradshaw’s 1513 Middle English Life of Werenburga, "as yf they had reason naturall." Words like quasi abound in other Latin accounts of Wereburga's miracle, while Felix describes Guthlac's birds with veluti and velut, for example, "as if conscious of its ill-doing," words that render the animal’s behavior only apparently more than instinctual.
No account of the story of Cuthbert and the penitential ravens that I know of loads its story with qualifications like this. In all of these, the birds are directly penitent, unscreened by metaphor. This is how the first, anonymous life describes them: "and settling above the furrow with outspread wings and drooping head, [they] began to croak loudly, with humble cries asking his pardon and indulgence. And the servant of Christ recognizing their penitence gave them pardon and permission to return." And here's how it looks 700 years later, in the long Middle English version:
Þe crawe spred hir wengys o brade,
And louted to him lawly þat tide
Reufully sho crobbed and cryed,
And schewed takyn expresse
Of praying of forgyfnes.
Cuthbert vndirstode hir dede
And leued hir to fle away gude spede.
Now, not every iota of Cuthbert hagiography tells the story: it's not in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, nor in Alcuin's Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, the metrical Cuthbert calendar, or the twelfth-century Cuthbert writings of Symeon and Reginald of Durham. The story's illustrated several times, most famously in Yates Thompson 26, and while these illustrations really do look like birds, they're even slimmer peg to hang an interpretation on than the texts I've offered you. I'll simply say that the story's not quite told everywhere, but it's still common, and where it exists, it is remarkably consistent.

I acknowledge as well that exegetical ravens are thickly symbolic, and I acknowledge that medieval commentators often agree with Dominic Alexander in taking stories like this as a sign of a saintly return to prelapsarian mastery over the animal world. I likewise acknowledge that this unique feature of the Cuthbert lives may be due to the inertia of storytelling or a respect for the integrity of the text: Bede makes some small changes, but mostly he just bookends it with explanations, “look to the ant o sluggard,” and so on. But I'm still struck that the stories that precede it - in Columbanus and in Athanasius's story of Saint Anthony and the hungry donkeys, which Bede himself cites - do not do what the Cuthbert story does, nor do the many avian miracles that follow Cuthbert's. Surely this unusual feature merits some kind of commentary.
Most striking is how much like ravens these ravens are. Paul Cavill emphasized this in his early article on animals and Cuthbert, and so does Susan Crane's superb commentary on the story, which stresses both the encounter's pastoral quality, with its notable combination of hospitality and submission, and what she calls the birds' "own ravenly, ravenous obedience," which is not just "a divine puppet show." 
For that "ravenly, ravenous obedience" to happen, and to happen meaningfully, the story needs translation, between the saint and the birds. Again, there are a number of ways this could happen: Goscelin of St Bertin's Wereburga life has its geese plead their case "as if with a human voice." This page from Tom Peete Cross's Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature neatly demonstrates that if an animal's going to talk, it's probably going to be a bird. The Cuthbert raven encounter could easily enough have been resolved simply by having the birds apologize vocally. Instead, with "humiliata uoce," a humble or abased voice, they begin, in the Middle English, to "ruefully" "crob and cry," or, in the anonymous life, to "crocitare," to croak, a word whose very rarity in medieval Latin marks a real effort to rightly represent this avian communication.
And when the ravens bow and stretch their wings, Cuthbert recognizes what they mean. This communication is in the style of monks, which discouraged or even forbade speaking, and which required a set of bodily movements to communicate the essentials of being a monk, chiefly, obedience and submission to the community. By bowing, the birds are "speaking" in a language that is understandable both to Cuthbert and the monks who produced these stories and among whom they chiefly circulated. Bede says that the raven uses "such signs as it could," or, to put this another, way, such signs as could be understood by a human. They are accommodating the communicative needs of this human monk. And when they furnish him with a chunk of pig lard, which he uses to waterproof his shoes, they are doing what they can to help him thrive in an environment much better accommodated to their capacities than to his.
That formulation is perhaps bizarre and over-clever, yet I am framing it this way to stress that this story strikes me as being about meeting in the middle. By preserving difference, by not likening the ravens' behavior to anything else, by requiring that Cuthbert recognize what the birds are doing - he "vndirstode hir dede" in the Middle English - the story preserves enough difference for translation to be both necessary and possible. The story refuses to simply wave away the difference in capacities and lived bodily experiences of human saint and penitential birds. Without requiring assimilation, it imagines the possibility of the satisfaction of mutual dependencies.
Medieval narrative was willing to imagine communication between humans and nonhumans; and on occasion it imagines these nonhumans making themselves understood not by speaking, but by making gestures suitable to the profession of their audience: kneeling ravens with a monk, or, another example, the outstretched paws, a gesture of homage, from the lion to Yvain, a knight. When we recognize that medieval texts also often trope nonhumans as impaired, and that communication still happens, without that impairment being miraculously "cured," we can take these medieval narratives of interspecies communication as a model for thinking impairment as something other than a condition that must be overcome for the sake of monolithic normativity. For these encounters are stories of multiple nodes of normalization, multiple ways of life: what is good for a raven is not good for a saint, necessarily, and still they can meet, and make themselves understood as they are.

Alcuin of York on Cuthbert, Latin.
Amelberga and the Geese, Acta Sanctorum, Julii III. Latin.
Athanasius of Alexandria, Life of Saint Anthony. Translation.
Bradshaw, Henry. The Life of Saint Werburge of Chester, ed. C. A. Horstmann. EETS. N. Trübner, 1887. Also includes Goscelin of Saint Bertin’s Life of Wereburga. Note that her name can be spelled many different ways.
Felix's Life of Saint Guthlac, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge UP, 1985.
Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, ed. and trans. Ted Johnson South. D. S. Brewer, 2002. Summary.
Illtud and the Geese, English. Manuscript image for the Latin. John of Tynemouth Latin, here.
Jonas of Bobbio, Life of Saint Columban. Translation. Latin.
The Life of Saint Cuthbert in English Verse, ed J. T. Fowler. Surtees Society, 1891 (for the Carlisle Couplets and Egerton 3309 (olim Castle Howard Ms)
Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge UP, 1940.
Wereburga in John of Tynemouth, Latin.
Wereburga in William of Malmesbury, Latin.

Alexander, Dominic. Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages. Boydell & Brewer, 2008.
Baker, Malcolm. "Medieval Illustrations of Bede's Life of St. Cuthbert." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 41 (1978): 16-49.
Barrett, Robert W. Against All England: Regional Identity and Cheshire Writing, 1195-1656 University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. [for the politics of Bradshaw and Wereburga!]
Cavill, Paul. "Some Dynamics of Story-Telling: Animals in the Early Lives of St Cuthbert." Nottingham Medieval Studies 43 (1999): 1-20.
Colgrave, Bertram. "The St. Cuthbert Paintings on the Carlisle Cathedral Stalls." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 73.424 (1938): 17-21.
Crane, Susan. Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
Cross, Tom Peete. Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature. Indiana University Press, 1952.
Crumplin, Sally. Rewriting History in the Cult of St Cuthbert from the Ninth to the Twelfth Centuries. (PhD Thesis, U of St Andrews, 2004).
Duncan, Sandra. "Signa De Caelo in the Lives of St Cuthbert: The Impact of Biblical Images and Exegesis on Early Medieval Hagiography." The Heythrop Journal 41.4 (2000): 399-412.
Gretsch, Mechthild. Aelfric and the Cult of Saints in Late Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge University Press, 2006 (Chapter 3, “Cuthbert: from Northumbrian saint to saint of all England)
Letty, Nijhuis Jantje.'Deor and nytenu mid us': Animals in the Works of Ǽelfric (PhD Thesis, U College Cork, 2008).
Newlands, Carole E. "Bede and Images of Saint Cuthbert." Traditio 52 (1997): 73-109.
Taylor, Sunaura. "Beasts of Burden: Disability Studies and Animal Rights." Qui Parle 19.2 (2011): 191-222.
Wakeford, Mark Reginald. The British Church and Anglo-Saxon Expansion: The Evidence of Saints' Cults. (PhD Thesis, U of Durham, 1998) [enormously useful for collecting goose miracles]