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Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Teaching the Middle Ages outside of Europe

How challenging is it to teach subjects focusing on the Middle Ages outside of Europe, in parts of the world which didn’t live through these times?

In our latest Medieval Herald interview (Issue 7 / June 2011) with the editors of our new series Boydell Studies in Medieval Art & Architecture, we asked if it is challenging to teach Medieval Art & Architecture in America.

Professor Asa Mittman of California State University answered:

‘You raise a good question about teaching the Middle Ages in the US. Students here have little to no familiarity with the period and its art. Those fortunate enough to grow up near major collections have some experience of medieval objects. I was raised in New York, and frequented the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library, and other institutions, and interned at the Cloisters Museum. However, my Californian students have not even had this opportunity. Similarly, few of them have travelled to Europe.

There are a few things I to do try to compensate. First and foremost, I am fanatic about the quality of the digital images I use to show them medieval work. I also do my best to invest my lectures with the tactile sense of my experience of medieval structures and objects. Finally, I teach summer study abroad courses (last year at Saint Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and this year at the University of Brighton). It is hard to bring the buildings to Chico, so I bring my students to the buildings.’

Do you see yourself confronted with a similar problem? Do you teach or study the Middle Ages outside of Europe and face similar difficulties? Tell us about your experiences and how you manage to solve this problem.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

In the Steps of the Black Prince

Early next year Boydell will publish Peter Hoskins’ In the Steps of the Black Prince: The Road to Poitiers, 1355-1356. For his project, the author followed on foot the route of the Black Prince’s campaigns from over 650 years ago. In our recent Medieval Herald (Issue V – December 2010) we interviewed Peter about his exciting and unusual research and he told us about the process of his project and gave some interesting and surprising insights (see an extract of the interview below).

Have you ever followed a trail, visited a battlefield or even re-enacted a major historic event to support your research? Leave a comment and tell us about your findings & share experiences.

To give you an idea of Peter’s project, here is a small abridged extract from his interview:

B&B: Your work emphasises the crucial importance of geography and the need for visiting the scenes of historic events (something our own The Battle of Crécy, 1346 did a few years ago), so do you think accurate history is possible without visiting locations? Or does first-hand knowledge of the ground simply add an extra dimension?

: I was recently fortunate to be given a guided tour of the battlefield of Crécy by Philip Preston, one of the co-authors of the book you cite, and this was an excellent example of how visiting the scene can aid our understanding of historical events. However, history is of course a matter of interpretation and I am hesitant to use the word “accurate” in this context. For example, a visit to the site of the Battle of Poitiers is invaluable to anyone trying to analyse the battle, but whether that gives one an accurate picture is another matter. The location of the armies at Poitiers is by no means certain, and although I have spent many hours there I cannot be sure that my interpretation is accurate. Indeed, the only point of which I can be certain is that many will disagree strongly with my interpretation.
However, even if knowledge of the ground cannot ultimately give us an accurate picture, it does add a great deal to our understanding and there can be no doubt that visiting the sites of military operations is invaluable to an analysis and understanding of events. The nature of the ground is a major determinant in what can, and cannot, be achieved in a military operation, and it is no accident that the British Army makes a considerable effort to inculcate in its officers the need for a thorough tactical appreciation of the ground. Walking the ground shows what is and is not practicable, and also reveals some of the factors that weigh in a commander’s decision making. Of course land use, vegetation, and the built environment will have changed over the years in some areas, but surprisingly little in some cases. However, the underlying topography remains the same, and we can still see to a great extent what the Black Prince saw. Of course we cannot be sure how he weighed the various factors, but we can certainly get a feel for the probability of certain courses of action.
There is nothing new in visiting the site of historic events to aid understanding, but a further dimension comes from following an itinerary on foot. As an example, when crossing the Vienne river in 1356 the Black Prince’s route followed a sharp dog-leg. This doesn’t necessarily catch your attention as being significant when you either look at a small scale map or travel the route in a car. But when you are planning a walk an extra day on foot to follow this apparently illogical route gives cause for thought. I explore this in some detail in the book, but in essence the route chosen seems to indicate a desire to avoid losses in forcing a river crossing. In addition, by no means all of the Black Prince’s army were mounted, and marching day after day across the countryside does promote a certain empathy with those who went before. I vividly remember one cold, clear morning cresting a ridge and seeing the Pyrenees stretched out like a majestic rampart eighty miles ahead of me. I could not help but wonder how such a sight must have impressed an English archer or Welsh spearman, used to the much more modest mountains of the British Isles. ...

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Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Seduced by the Monster

To introduce her new book Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature, Dr Dana M. Oswald (University of Wisconsin-Parkside) wrote an intriguing article about the seductive powers monsters used to have in Medieval Literature and which they still exert today, as evidenced by the steady stream of monster-related films and literature. Dr Oswald explains why monsters have always had influence on us.
You are welcome to comment on this article and/or feel free to contribute to this topic if you wish so.

Long before Angelina Jolie sashayed across Grendel’s mother’s mere, flicking her tail seductively, monsters have been creatures that not only frighten, but that also entice and fascinate viewers. What drew me to this project, Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature, is precisely that which draws most audiences to monsters: they seduced me. Indeed, contemporary culture seems to be undergoing a monster renaissance, as books and films about vampires and werewolves proliferate, and people dress up as zombies to go on pub crawls or, on college campuses, to play Humans v. Zombies (HvZ), a game that mimics the viral spread of zombie-ism depicted in film and literature. What draws us culturally to these monstrous creatures is not merely their alterity, but their familiarity. It is the humanity of monsters and their most human features, appetites, and vulnerabilities, that give them such appeal and that invite us, as Nietzsche suggests, to become them. While it would be easy to say that monsters reflect the taboos of the cultures in which they exist, their function is far more complex: they serve as objects of desire, examples of prohibition, and models of change, sometimes simultaneously. Case in point: Jolie’s Grendel’s mother seduces both Hrothgar and Beowulf, both of whom father monstrous and horrifying children who seek to destroy the communities constructed by their fathers. This is a narrative that differs significantly (and perhaps problematically) from the source material, but also one that places the sexual and reproductive body at the center of the conversation about not only monstrosity, but also political and social power. Monstrous seduction, then, is not just about allegory, but about the dilemmas of embodiment and identity, power and desire.
The human attraction to monsters is related to curiosity. Of course we desire to see novelties: a goat with two heads, enormous gold-hoarding ants, men who hop about on one enormous foot that can also be used to shade them as they rest. But seeing invokes a kind of ownership or possession, as Stephen Greenblatt suggests in Marvelous Possessions. To view creatures under the control of the cage or the page allows us a safe and controlled experience of the foreign and delightful with little danger. However, many medieval monsters seem to exceed these boundaries as they actively seduce humans, refusing the limits placed on them by the constraints of the page, just as their bodies exceed the limits of culture. As many scholars have noted, the famous Blemmya of the Tiberius manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Wonders of the East curls his fingers around the frame of his own image, reducing the distance between his headless body, his face located on his chest, and the viewer of the text. This Blemmya, I noticed immediately upon looking at the image, has invited the interaction of the viewer: parts of the image have been erased. So the monster seduces and draws in, suggesting that he will not be contained, and the viewer engages, responding to the text not just intellectually, but physically. And the part that has been erased from this image? His sex organs: he has been castrated, a maneuver that indicates the kind of fascination he invites.
Many medieval monsters do seduce in less aggressive ways, but ways that still indicate the human sexuality incipient in their monstrous forms. Indeed, although most monster studies focus on male monsters, a number of female monsters—aside from Grendel’s mother—exist in medieval narratives. In the romance, The Sowdon of Babylon, we find not only a mother giant, Barrok, but giant babies who die for loss of their mother, inviting our sympathy even as we view her actions as murderous. In Mandeville’s Travels, we read about Hippocrates’ daughter, a lovely young woman cursed into the shape of a dragon. In her human form, she lures knights to her, hoping one will transform her permanently through a kiss, but in her dragon form, she terrifies them, and dashes them against the rocks after they try to flee. Indeed, she is mistaken for a prostitute by one unfortunate, indicating not only the appeal of her inheritance but her sexuality. While the dragon woman punishes the men whom she desires, some monstrous women are punished by men who desire them. The tusked women from the Wonders of the East are so strangely beautiful, with their ox tails, boar tusks, ethereally white bodies, and long flowing hair, that Alexander the Great first desires to capture them, but cannot, so he kills them instead. He, like the knights in Mandeville, is drawn to their beauty, but unlike those knights, he seeks them fiercely precisely because of their monstrous appeal, but then murders them for it. Their seductive bodies invite desire, but require masculine censure and domination.
The seductive monsters are not merely victims: sometimes they seek to seduce in order to consume, as does the Donestre of Wonders of the East. He calls to lost and lonely travelers in their own languages, drawing them to him so he can eat them, then mourn their loss. While this kind of seduction is not particularly sexual, the image in the Tiberius manuscript depicts this monster as extremely well-endowed, and indeed, he is the only male monster whose manhood has not been erased by a later viewer. The text mentions nothing about the masculinity of this monster, but to the artist, his pursuit of the human is inherently sexually charged. This is not to say that all monsters are sexual monsters—but I have found that the monstrous is a particular locus for the concerns and anxieties of medieval writers and artists regarding gender, sex, and the body. Just as university students’ dressing up as zombies, infecting and killing one another in play suggests their fascination with disease transmission, death and the degeneration of the body, and mindless appetite, so too do medieval monsters have something to say about the cultures that draw and interact with them, fascinated by their bodies and the human and superhuman possibilities they suggest.

Dr. Dana M. Oswald
University of Wisconsin-Parkside

Monday, 14 June 2010

The Christianity and Culture Project | The Debate About Teaching Religion/Religious Background

For our third Medieval Herald issue, Dr Rosalind Field (Chair), Dr Dee Dyas (Director) and Professor Helen Phillips (Board member) from the Culture and Christianity project asked us to post the article below. It raises an issue, important for teaching and studying humanities nowadays: that a solid grounding in religion is vital for a deeper appreciation of our literature, history and culture. If you would like to express your opinion and discuss this matter further, please comment on this article.

Christianity and Culture began in 1999 at the University of Glamorgan with the aim of opening up discussion on the need for providing help for humanities students and teachers with the religious content and context required to study literature, history and art. It has run a series of international conferences and publishes together with Boydell & Brewer the D.S. Brewer series of volumes, Christianity and Culture: Issues in Teaching and Research. Christianity and Culture works in collaboration with a number of institutions including museums, libraries, churches and cathedrals. The UK and international boards include academics from a range of disciplines, concerned with research and also contemporary approaches to teaching in universities and schools, as well as public understanding of heritage and culture. Christianity and Culture has been based at the University of York since 2002 and one of its most academically adventurous and successful activities has been the design and production of educational CD-ROMs, with input from historians, literary critics and art historians. Titles so far are Images of Salvation: The Story of the Bible through Medieval Art, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage and The English Parish Church through the Centuries: Daily Life and Spirituality, Art and Architecture, Literature and Music (2010). For fuller information on Christianity and Culture see the website

That is one example of an ongoing debate about the place of religion and religious background in modern education, and about ways in which teaching, books and teaching materials can assist not in evangelising but in educating students in the humanities. Ofsted, the government body responsible for standards in schools in the UK, published this week criticisms of the level of religious education in many British schools, especially with regard to Christianity. The discussion in newspapers and online which has followed has engendered debate which includes understandably the argument of the Secular Society that it would be better if schools desisted from teaching religion in any forms. There is, however, another, parallel, issue and that is the need for students – whatever their own personal interest or beliefs in religious matters – to have an adequate grasp of religious ideas and assumptions in order to appreciate and study many areas of the humanities. This is different from the teaching of religion as faith. Indeed, to understand the religious discourses and imperatives present in medieval literature, Shakespeare or the English Civil War, to take but a few examples, it is necessary to encompass attitudes that are alien from the faith of modern Christian believers in some respects, as well as principles that are still current. In an increasingly secular, multi-cultural modern society it seems important to widen the debate out from that about religion as religion (including the question of whether that should be taught in schools, and how) to the additional issue of what we might call religious literacy, in relation to literature, history and art.

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