Myth and Folklore towards a Theory of Superheroes

There’s an old saying that to learn something thoroughly, you have to teach it. For me the past few weeks, that’s been mythology and folklore that’s affected literature (and culture), and the theories that have been applied to them. I’ve been familiar with many of the basic stories since childhood, but I hadn’t gone very in depth in terms of context or interpretive strategies. With a little research, context isn’t hard to find, but interpretation when it comes to this kind of literature has a varied history, not to mention, literary theory is not something I have a lot of practice with using and neither is contemporary literature.

In retrospect, I first learned about literary theory in my senior year of graduate school. At the time, I wasn’t really clear what ‘cultural studies was or why it mattered. I later had two semesters of theory surveys in graduate school. I enjoyed those courses. The ‘problem’ was that my general scholarly specialty, medieval literature, is traditionally most often studied via close reading, source use, or historical context. It probably might also have something to do with the fact that I had an advisor who doesn’t believe modern theory has much applicability to older texts.

Not only then have I not used a variety of theory in my own scholarship, but I also have not taught it. That’s where things got interesting the past few weeks. I taught a 5-week short summer term course on ‘Myth and Folklore for Literary Studies’. I didn’t plan this initially, but as it turns out, theory was unavoidable. I knew the name Joseph Campbell from my senior year of high school, when I think we watched an episode of two of the series of interviews that he did with Bill Moyers, “The Power of Myth”. I don’t remember learning or understanding much from that, especially not in terms of using those kinds of ideas to interpret stories.

What I ended up doing was starting with definitions of ‘mythology’ and ‘folklore’, then adding a new theorist each week. My students and I ended up with Campbell twice (once for archetypes, and once for modern utility and applicability), Karl Jung, Vladimir Propp, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Otto Rank. Not that I’d tell them this directly, but I probably learned as much about theory over the past month as they did. We also ended up going into pop culture more than I had planned, but it was something the students could relate to and they also (hopefully) now know that there can be academic value in using scholarly tactics with things like anime or comic books. For example, we looked at a translation/prose rendering of the first section of Journey to the West, which covers the backstory of Sun Wukong the Monkey King, which has been very influential even in American popular culture. We used that story as the basis to try and formulate a theory of the American superhero story. We ended up with something that looked an awful lot like Rank’s breakdown of the hero story. I admit I was a little disappointed things didn’t get more creative with putting together a new theoretical framework derived from the examples of heroes that the class had been reading and talking about, but it was a start. In any event, it was entertaining to see the class try and reason how well their ideas fit a range of contemporary hero characters, like Batman and Wonder Woman.

I was also a bit inspired by some of the work done for their final projects. The assignment was to take a classic adaptation of myth or folklore like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beowulf, or The Hobbit, and compare/contrast the treatment of the identified source material with a modern adaptation like Krampus by Brom, The Immortals by Jordanna Max Brodsky, The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski, or The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. After seeing what a small group of English majors about halfway through college managed to work out, I now rather want to see what might be done if I applied Otto Rank’s ideas of the family romance and his 10 step hero journey to the likes of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy. Or, once the sequel to Vicious, Vengeful, comes out in September (9/29- not that it’s not on my calendar or anything), using any and all of the theories previously noted to determine once and for all the good guy-bad guy dynamic, since I have long questioned the common blurb that comes with Vicious that it’s a twist on the superhero/supervillain story.

After some brief checking, it looks like most scholarship on modern (ie- 20th century-ish) American superheroes deals with their cultural origins and meanings, and very little on structural or morphological characteristics that theorists of centuries past have constructed. While I readily admit this kind of approach is old-fashioned and not terribly fashionable at the moment, it does have its uses, especially for introducing students to interpretive possibilities. Frameworks that include things like concrete patterns (ex-7 basic archetypes) and lists (ex-31 functions) are far easier to start working with than ideologically-based theories. Not that ideologies are bad as interpretive bases, they just seem a bit harder to start with for most. Techniques that allow for patters to appear seem a good half-way point between theories that start with a pattern to apply and those which advance a more philosophical approach.

For example, if I wanted to use Vicious and Super Powereds (by Drew Hayes) as my primary basis for contemporary treatments of heroes, a basic comparison and contrast such appears in Levi-Strauss’ “The Structural Study of Myth” provides a technique for gathering information and looking for potential patterns resulting in something like:

Super Powereds is far more traditional in some ways (capes, secret identities, lairs, etc) than Vicious, but there are overlaps in things like concerns for ethics and individual moral choices/reasoning, starring college age individuals who must learn how to use their abilities, the perceived gaps between those who have powers and those who don’t, and the question of created vs naturally super-powered individuals.

Now that I’m thinking about it, there’s a lot of ways this could go. I’ll have to work on this further.

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Thoughts from ICMS 2018

Conferences are fun, from locating a coveted JSTOR sticker to old friends and favorite places to Michael Jackson and Disney in Latin to Marjorie Kempe visits Wonderland, to the little annoyances like the teen hoard that took over the Pita Pit about 5 minutes before I got there resulting in nowhere to sit and a 20 minute wait to the campus Bigsby schedule not matching what was printed in the program to never meeting the person you’re sharing a bathroom with and praying you don’t walk in on or get walked in on.

With larger ones like the International Congress on Medieval Studies (ICMS) at Kalamazoo, you have the burden/opportunity to choose from 40+ sessions each round of panels. While this can be aggravating when 3 panels you really want to see are at the same time, it also means that you have the opportunity to hear talks on things you know little to nothing about. This time around, I ended up enjoying those more than the ones I had more familiarity with. There were quite a few popular culture panels and I went to several since they were relevant to my current science fiction/fantasy in the Middle Ages project, and because they might provide some useful information or sources for my Myth-Folklore course.

The concept of ‘medievalism’ has been around for a few years. In fact, the last time I was at ICMS in 2015, the keynote speaker Richard Utz presented on that very topic, and later published the address “Don’t Be Snobs, Medievalists” as both an article and a short monograph. If you can find the version published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the comments section reiterates the points for him. To oversimplify a little, it essentially means uses of the medieval in or by non-academic sources such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, video games, Dungeons and Dragons online fora, etc. The idea is that this kind of adaptation of medieval history and culture is not necessarily any less valid in terms of accuracy or usefulness than an academic book or article by someone with a PhD in the exact area they’re discussing. I’m hoping that borrowing some of this theory might help students really start to look at some of the texts, the less traditionally academic ones in particular, as genuinely worthy of in-depth analysis.

NB: For citation in the following, everything is labeled as (panel #) as noted in the ICMS program, available here: https://wmich.edu/medievalcongress/events/sessions Apologies to individual speakers, but my notes weren’t always clear on which paper some ideas were from. If you notice a detail that you recognize as yours, let me know and I’ll update the reference.

Why does all of this matter? A lot of the pop culture panels I went to that I found useful in adding some ideas and information to what I’m working on dealt with medievalism. For example, a couple of the panels included papers on the videogame Witcher 3 (#119, 469). I plan on using the first Witcher novel The Last Wish in class. I’m not a gamer, but I have read the first few novels so I figured I might get some interesting interpretive possibilities. I was not wrong. Use of gaze make sense for the video game, especially paired with gender and it turns out that in the game there’s a lot of jokes about Geralt potentially being gay or queer. It’s also interesting that there’s a version of the Grail quest in which the Lady of the Lake is actually sick of people going on Grail quests, which also factors in questions of gender since chastity becomes a factor, at least in the original Arthurian version as the chaste knight Galahad is the only one to actually succeed. The point was also raised about how in many games like The Witcher, when you start, you’re given the choice of race of your avatar, except that ‘race’ is more like ‘species’, and the term ‘race’, like gender and sexuality, has very current modern relevance. I’m hopeful that analyses like this will prove useful in class when we get to a lot of the folklore and some of the mythology.

I think these approaches about gaze, gender, race, and identity might work well, at least with the first novel of the series since it’s effectively a collection of short stories which are interrelated. Certainly the traditional ideas about good and evil and destiny and similar are there, but as a modern folk tale set of stories considering fairly contemporary and current issues, in the same way the original folk stories reflected the fears and values of their tellers, I’m hopeful that at least one or two people will take on this option.

It may be my current research interests, but I noticed an interesting emphasis at quite a few panels on some connections between nature, humanity, magic, and Christian faith (#33, 160). A talk on medieval medical folk remedies and/or magic pointed out that the Church borrowed the formulae used for cures concerning relics and other faith-based medical treatments, while simultaneously labeling and condemning the folk beliefs themselves as ‘magic’. The close connections between magic, faith, and medicine have some interesting possibilities in terms of fantasy and science fiction literatures, especially those dating to the middle ages, although I’m hopeful there might be room for application of some of the ideas in more contemporary novels and stories as well. I think that something like Uprooted or The Bear and the Nightingale might work well with some of these ideas. The Bear and the Nightingale gets pointedly direct in its consideration of the medieval Christian church and folk beliefs and practices, so that one might have an edge, but Uprooted presents folk knowledge in contrast to formal academic knowledge and their uses, so I think that either story might work out. Given how popular these two novels have been, I wouldn’t doubt that at least of them gets taken up.

Poetry might be an interesting avenue to consider as well. Something like Goblin Market or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner would be interesting to consider from the perspectives of magic versus faith, or nature and humanity. The problem here is that finding contemporary texts to use alongside would be a challenge, since that type of narrative poetry is far less common than it used to be. The only examples that I can name off the top of my head are Sexton’s “Cinderella” which students seem to struggle with, and Walcott’s Omeros. Neither or these 2 texts would work especially well with the themes of nature and faith and magic either.

Another talk noticed that the natural becomes God, and that nature becomes ‘other’/’bad’ in terms of symbolism of the forest and similar, and that the human eventually becomes substituted for the natural, and nature becomes not natural (#256, 391). Again, I feel this might have applications in terms of some sub-genres of fantasy. Certainly a text like Gawain and the Green Knight might be applicable here in terms of its contrasts with the Christian and chivalric values and how Morgan and Bertilak text Gawain.

So far, much of what I’ve said has been summarizing other people’s arguments and observations, and speculating a bit on potential applications. For now, I’m ok with that. What I need to do now is to figure out how effective some of these approaches might be in class, and how best to deploy them.

A Side Trip into Fantasy

While working on a project concerning the presence of science fiction in the Middle Ages, I noticed a question that seems to get left out of a lot of the history of fantasy and science fiction mixed origins: if, as a common argument goes, a lot of medieval stories based on what we might call science fiction now was fantasy, where does our notion of fantasy as based on medieval perceptions come from? Similarly and relatedly, if as I will eventually be suggesting many medieval stories were in fact science fiction before the label was invented, than what did medieval writers consider as what we now call fantasy?

A few working definitions to start: science fiction, no matter whose definition you’re looking at, seems to require a degree of connection to reality, either in terms of knowledge or believability in terms of technological basis, theoretical or philosophical understanding, or at least imagined possibility. Fantasy on the other hand, is based on a degree of acknowledged impossible and unrealistic characters, settings, and/or scenarios.

An obvious place to start looking for the medieval version of what at the time might have been called fantasy if that existed as a genre is the chivalric and Arthurian romance. These are the stories of the knights and kings and damsels that now make the basis of a lot of what’s now called high or epic fantasy (not fully interchangeable terms, but very closely related), the usual stereotype along the lines of the Shannara Chronicles or something by Robert Jordan. But there’s reasons why the chivalric romance cannot be the only basis. Firstly, to the medieval writer, these stories of Arthur etc. may have been a form of historical fiction, not necessarily fantasy as the requisite lack of realism may have been absent. Second, many of the modern versions contain a significant amount of magic, witches, wizards, demons, and other fantastical creatures like dragons. Again the realism problem is present if you take into consideration that on the creature front at least there exists the possibility that at least in theory these creatures were believed to be possible. This possibility rests in the medieval bestiaries which contain descriptions and pictures of creatures that would now be placed in the fantasy realm like griffins and basilisks. Third, looking at many of the original chivalric tales, there is a distinct lack of wizards, witches, and magic. Yes these things are present, but not nearly to the degree with which modern fantasy relies. Merlin is definitely presented as a wizard in many of the medieval stories including him, but he is less magician and more prophet. Witches or magical women of some sort occasionally show up as well, but again neither to the degree nor the range of powers that their modern equivalents are given; Morgan LeFay or the Lady of the Lake are virtually never a main character. Likewise, random acts of magic are few and far between, and even when they are a big part of the story, episodes like that of Le chevaler qui fist les cons parler focus less on the magic and more on the moral/humor of the resulting actions.

So, where does all the magic come from? What did the general medieval story consider actual fantasy? A big part of the answer is folklore. Folk tales in the Middle Ages I would argue were at the time and remain today a major source of the fantasy genre. Take for example the fairly well-known story/poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The frame might be Arthurian but that is not the source of the fantasy, and neither is it really the focus of the story itself. The main focus is on Gawain as a knight and how his perfection in chivalry and Christianity are tested via supernatural, folkloric means. There is quite a bit of research on the poem that argues that the Green Knight/Bertilak has his origins in the folkloric Celtic figure of the Green Man, and I might also add a touch of the dullahan (also present in Celtic folklore). Both the Green Man and the dullahan are fantastic figures out of pagan Celtic folklore, and their presence in the main antagonist, friendly though he may end up being, gives an otherwise chivalric Christian poem the rightful label of ‘fantasy’. Particularly given the Christian flavoring elsewhere in the poem, for example the symbolism in the description of Gawain’s poem or his occasional prayers to the Virgin Mary just before he is miraculously rescued from a bad or unpleasant situation, the use of the Green Man figure would likely be in the context of folklore and not someone who may have genuinely believed in the character. Even epic poems like Beowulf owe the fantasy components of their stories to folklore. Adversaries like the swamp-dwelling Grendel-kin and the dragon that make the poem more fantasy than Christian (and in the case of Beowulf to the point of some scholarly questioning of how late an addition the Christian elements might be) come from the pagan folk traditions.

Folktales and lore also account for the presence in much modern fantasy of witches, wizards, supernatural creatures of many sorts, magic, alone and in combination with heroes, damsels, and kings. Consider any story in the Grimm, Perault, or Christian Anderson collections (the originals, not the sanitized versions presented in the Disney Princess canon). Stories like “The Little Mermaid”, “Cinderella”, or “Beauty and the Beast” have the same kind of knightly hero, the damsel, the royalty, the magic, and the supernatural denizens that you see in epic or high fantasy tales such as Markus Heitz’s Dwarves series or The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

I have to admit that since I haven’t started seriously researching this thread yet I find it likely that many of the ideas I’ve expressed are not unique to me. Even though I suspect these initial thoughts are not exactly new to the world, they most certainly are commonly overlooked in popular understanding.

Tracing Science Fiction Trends from the 1300s on

Here is the list that I am working on to base my eventual argument that Science Fiction has genuine medieval roots. I’ve included a few basic notes with each to briefly summarize what the text is and how it fits into the genre.

This list is not comprehensive or complete at the moment, as I’m still working on finding sources. I’ve also include links to the text, but some of the earlier texts are not translated into modern English, and some that are I’ve not had time to track down the original language to verify the accuracy of translation. I also can’t make any promises as to the stability or availability of the links.

Here’s a general outline of the texts upon which my argument so far is based:

1300s- Chaucer “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale”: a skeptical description of both ‘fictional’ and ‘real’ alchemists at work

The Book of John Mandeville: a travelogue to other lands, based on possibilities but not on known facts about real places

1400s- ??? still looking

1500s- Thomas More Utopia: a travelogue as above except that the place itself is also a possibility, not fact

1600s- Edmund Spencer The Faerie Queene Book 5: features Talus the metal man-servant of a star given to a knight as his helper. This text raises a question of fantasy vs sci-fi; I would suggest that while it’s largely fantasy, in an otherwise standard fantasy, this part stands out as different.

Johannes Kepler “Somnium”: describes what life on the Moon is like. This might pass as fantasy save that Kepler was a scientist {astronomer}/ mathematician, and may have believed in the possibility of what he was considering. NB: there is no formal open access translation into English that I’ve found so far.

Francis Godwin “The Man in the Moone”: similar to the above, although with a Utopian emphasis

Francis Bacon “New Atlantis”: full on scientifically based fictional world that also takes a Utopian approach to a world based on experimentation and the scientific method.

1700s- Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels Book 3: the section exploring the flying island of Laputa, inhabited by a bunch of science-obsessed philosophers, is most relevant, although as with other of Swift’s writings, the satirical nature must be kept in mind.

Voltaire Micromegas: visitors from Saturn and Sirius are bemused about Earth customs. This may be the first alien visitation story.

Louis-Sebastian Mercier The Year 2440: the story of a science-worshipping society where science is the religion, and plays a role in all aspects of life.

1800s- Mary Shelley Frankenstein: the classic tale in which a scientist brings to life an artificially created man. Also The Last Man in which the lone survivor on a dead planet wanders around looking at the remains of a civilization.

Edward Ellis The Huge Hunter, or The Steam Man of the Prairie: Eliot, a curious young man, finds a steam-powered robot man and hijinks/adventures ensue.

Jules Verne 20000 Leagues Under The Sea: a submarine adventure that shares qualities with the travelogue. See also Journey to the Center of the Earth in which a crew of explorers discover dinosaurs etc. under the Earth’s crust.

HG Wells: The Time Machine: time travel both to the distant future and speculation as to what society becomes with some commentary on current Victorian England. See also War of the Worlds: an alien invasion and subsequent attempts by humanity to defend Earth.

William Henry Rhodes “The Case of Summerfield”: a mad scientist creates a death ray and must be stopped.

1900s- Arthur Conan Doyle The Lost World: dinosaurs still survive on a remote island, although more time is spent with the local tribe of ape-people.

Arthur C. Clarke 2001: Space Odyssey: space travel and artificial intelligence that goes awry.

Isaac Asimov I, Robot: a series of short stories about the interactions between robots and humans.

William Gibson Neuromancer: cyber world versus reality in which a suspense/action story plays out.

One argument that gets brought up sometimes about the earlier parts of this list is that at the time they were written they were considered fantasy or another genre entirely, and only in retrospect might the stories by the likes of Kepler and Spencer be considered science-fiction. Another objection to some of these titles being true science fiction is that while they might demonstrate very early sparks of what would become science fiction, they don’t really show a building or continuing trend that constitutes genre.

To the first I say while that may be true to some extent like with Spencer (although even then, I would dispute is slightly), the sciences upon which the ideas were based was developing at the time the stories were written, and some of the key research was in fact being done by the authors. This would suggest that said authors, like Kepler, may well have considered what he was doing science fiction although he may not have known the genre term. Similarly when texts might have been intended as travel narrative or utopian fiction, that doesn’t mean that they cannot also have been based upon extensions of current knowledge, which is the basic definition of science fiction. Even in the Middle Ages, the concept of genre was fluid and flexible, far more so than many people realize, or even consider today.

To the second problem, I answer that the list I have compiled does in fact illustrate a trend. In fact, the earliest stories are travel narratives, a popular historical practice and genre at the time, and while satire might apply in some cases, it does not change the fact that such stories remain plausible within the realm of current knowledge. Next comes stories based on the rise of various scientific disciplines including astronomy (space travel and civilizations), then biology (Frankenstein or Hawthorne “Rappaccini’s Daughter”), then physics (time travel), then computers (AI, VR, etc).

A third and final potential problem that I can foresee being held against this list and its argument is that it is pretty thoroughly uninclusive. This is true; however, the purpose of this list is to present the basic historical outline, not the current developments which include increasing attention to gender, race, and a variety of other identities, in terms of both author and story.

Thoughts on the Medieval Origins of Science Fiction

There is plenty of discussion on the medieval influence on some of the major sub-genres of modern fantasy, but much less on fantasy in medieval period literature, and even less than that on science-fiction connections to medieval literature. Part of this comes from a reference I found while shelf-browsing in a research library. The rest comes from some ideas I’ve been starting to pick up from older projects concerning Chaucer and science, and a thought to consider possible connections between steampunk and the Middle Ages.

Traditional high fantasy like Tolkien’s has been the subject of some scholarly attention in the past few decades, as has fantasy by writers who invoke folkloric of mythological elements in their story worlds, like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, or Rick Riordan. The idea of science fiction having connections to medieval writers and ideas might seem like an oxymoron since science is based more on projections into the future, not the past, but when you think about it, the Middle Ages actually marks the beginnings of science fiction writing as we now know it.

The book that got me thinking was Medieval Science Fiction, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Carl Kears, published in 2016 by the Center for Late Antique and Medieval Studies at King’s College London. One of the essays made the connection between Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman in the Canterbury Tales and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, arguably one of the first works of modern sci-fi. The basic idea is that both Victor Frankenstein and the alchemists in the Canon’s Yeoman’s prologue and tale are attempting to change Nature through experimentation and the scientific method, which has disastrous or at least disheartening consequences for all involved.

This point about the Canon’s Yeoman and alchemy in Chaucer’s time, and the question of how much might Chaucer have actually know about alchemy brings me back to a project that I’m reviving and refocusing for a conference paper this summer, and possibly developing into something longer. One of the key conflicts in interpreting the story concerns Chaucer’s presentation of the perceptions of alchemy. Alchemy was fairly new in the public knowledge in the 14th century in England, and it was not wholly trusted. Chaucer clearly had some interest in science; he wrote Treatise on the Astrolabe after all, and this is basically a scientific instruction manual on how to use a device designed to help figure out calendar dates based on astronomical information. The problem with alchemy in Chaucer’s story is that the source, the Canon’s Yeoman, gets a lot of his interpretation wrong or is clearly quoting from a standard text, and makes frequent claims about the trouble with alchemy and his own lack of success. His tale about a dishonest alchemist who dupes a local priest out of a substantial amount of money to some extent reflects the distrust that the public may have had in what has sometimes been labeled as the predecessor of modern chemistry.

This use of a modern science and the problems it causes individuals and society in general is a theme in many science fiction novels, from William Gibson and Isaac Asimov to Emma Newman and Sue Burke. Not that all science fiction focuses on social problems resulting at least in part from technological human creations, since Star Trek’s Data probably has some loose connection to Talus,  metal-man sidekick of Arthegall, knight of justice in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Granted, Spenser was not a medieval writer, rather an Elizabethan, but the point stands that science fiction has much deeper/older roots than it’s usually given credit for.

The connection between steam-punk and medieval literary tropes comes from this reasoning. Steampunk reflects some of the fictional interest in the past similar to fantasy as it’s often set in pseudo-Victorian London, but it also considers the impacts of technology and man-made impacts on the natural world, including social implications both individual and general. Mark Hoddor or Pip Ballentine and Tee Morris would be prime examples. Especially when held up next to a text like The Canterbury Tales which has lot of potential for social commentary and critique, a lot of science fiction and steampunk reflects similar characters, attitudes, situations, and commentary via fiction. Granted, I need to do further tracing, but given Chaucer’s influence on literary history, I’m willing to bet that there’s more in the science fiction tradition between his 14th century, Spenser’s 17th, and the current 21st.

Different Ways to Read and Learn Medieval Stuff

Over the winter holidays, I did a lot of personal fun reading, some of which doubled as professional interest. This included Christopher deHamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer, and Ironfoot (Enchanter General Book 1) by Dave Duncan. All 3 books have interesting suggestions about history and the importance of books. The thing is that one is of course a set of detailed manuscript studies written by a scholar, one is true story adventure/ political history written by a journalist, and the third is historical fiction written by a novelist. My point here is and will be that each of these different types of books and authors can be useful in terms of examining and understanding history and the role books and languages play, especially old books and languages.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is set up with the adventure of the librarians trying to save their books as a frame, and in the middle is a political and social history of the region, concentrating on the changing perspectives and roles of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and Iyad Ag Ghali, who all become associated with major terrorist groups in high level positions. The frame, 50 or so pages on either side of the central 100 tells the titular story of the manuscript libraries being created, maintained, guarded, and then smuggled out of the Timbuktu area. This area (and I didn’t know this beforehand) was home to a lot of medieval manuscripts of most any subject you can think of, many kept by families. They were eventually collected into libraries. These libraries were largely the work of Ahmed Baba Institute and Abdel Kader Haidara mostly in the 1980s and 1990s; this is librarian-ing part 1 The secular content and some of the religion in the manuscripts was not in accordance with the Islam that men like Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and Iyad Ag Ghali promoted, so when their groups started taking over areas closer and closer to the libraries, Haidara along with friends and family had to try and smuggle the books to a safe location, so they (both books and people) wouldn’t get destroyed; that’s the bad-ass librarian-ing (part 2). {NB: this paragraph was largely borrowed from a book review I previously wrote and published on the Cannonball Reads blog.}

As a general audience read, the structure bothered me a little, since while clearly connected in terms of theme, the two different parts didn’t have much direct narrative connection until the very end when the jihadis decide they might need to find and get rid of the manuscripts. It’s all important information to know, and I admit I hadn’t known much detail about how groups like Al Qaeda gained and lost influence in places like Mali over the past few decades. My problem was that if you’re going to title a book “Bad Ass Librarians” then the majority of said book should explicitly related to that, and the relation gets lost. Looking back though, this kind of focus is more something that scholars tend to worry about; journalists on the other hand focus more on the process of finding the information and presenting that alongside the results. I’m not suggesting literary and historical scholar don’t work with process or documenting it, the most certainly do, but rather that in terms of the final product presented as a result of the research, the standard practice in scholarship is thesis and topic sentences, all directly related to each other. Journalism on the hand typically seem to open with the result, then go back and present as much of the discovery was they have time for, and end with how the story currently stands. I say this without having had any formal journalist training, but it does seem to be a basic principle of reporting that you focus more on presenting information as you get it, and less on interpreting what it means throughout your research.

One of the more interesting elements of this book to me was the existence of personal manuscript libraries and how they were gathered together so recently. One of the biggest discoveries revealed towards the end of the book was that the collections had not been catalogued until having to relocate everything. I really would have liked to know more about what exactly they realized they had. But again this was a general interest book, and the books were more important as a group than as individual objects, at least in the context of the piece.

Irontfoot is a novel, of the historical fiction/murder mystery/fantasy variety. Imagine fantasy and historical fiction are fused into a mystery, like what you’d get with a mash-up of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, anything by Terry Brooks, and Harry Potter. The result, if it’s decently done, would be Ironfoot (Book 1 of the Enchanter General). There’s a touch of historical reality in the social divisions between the native Saxons and the ruling Normans, which is probably accurate given the setting in 1164 England. The brief cameos by Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II, and a young Richard eventually Lionheart help keep the historical setting from getting lost in a world where magic and the Church exist in uneasy balance. These parts actually do seem pretty accurate or at least plausible, except for the magic thing of course. Overall, it’s an enjoyable easy read, in spite of a lot of little irritations. {Again, NB, most of this summary is again from a review I’ve previously written and published.}

The first part of the book where the world and general situation are introduced take place at a school for enchanters, and the hero Durwin, who being Saxon is technically a servant allowed to sit in on classes, who has untapped potential, that is revealed when he fixes a prophesying spell by correcting the grammar of the Saxon language in which it’s written. Apparently this is something no one has thought of doing before (getting spells to work by correcting the grammar and language), and it helps Durwin save the day more than once. The idea though that language was part of the magic, and that by doing something as simple as editing and fixing the grammar (a known practice among historical scribes, although not always to the benefit of the text) a spell could be made to work is an interesting concept, and not one I’ve seen before, and I’ve read a good bit of fantasy fiction. There’s also the value of the spellbooks, which apparently is substantial in this world; Durwin at one point makes a comment about feeling guilty about taking a spell book or few as payment when the new owners likely has no idea how much she could get by selling the collection. Comparably in actual history, actual book manuscripts in the 12th century would have mostly indeed have been highly valued.

So then, overall there’s a traditional scholarly study of medieval manuscripts, a journalistic exploration of modern ideas about the history of faith and knowledge, and historical fantasy fiction. The common thread for me is that they each in their own ways had something genuinely interesting to say about the history and importance of medieval books.

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, Part II

I hadn’t quite finished reading the book when I started the first half of my review, but as it turns out, Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts really does divide pretty distinctly into two halves.  The first half covers the older manuscripts, but also those with more direct connections with England and Ireland. The manuscripts considered in the second half are distinctly more European in character. In general, this is actually a nice strategy because it gives a broader perspective in terms of both production and survival of the various texts.

Chapter 7 looks at Copenhagen, Kongelige Bibliotek, MS Thott 143 2°, which is a Psalter. This chapter also opens with a different narrative style, which again marks the difference between the two halves.  The chapter opens not with the specific book but with the author’s observations. This is not terribly unusual, but the narrative style makes it more obvious. After noting the general nature of the Danish people and the atmosphere of the reading room, de Hamel introduces the book itself:  “Opened on the desk in front of us, supported by two foam wedges, is the finest and most famous illuminated manuscript in Demark. We won’t touch it; just look.” (280) As one might expect with a manuscript particularly known for the artwork and decoration, the first section of the chapter considers the full page images. After describing them in some detail, de Hamel moves on to discuss the royal owners of the book, and introduces its connection to several (5) other royal psalter manuscripts that may have  been owned by family members who commissioned their versions from some of the same crafts-people and artisans. Before going into some of the details and connections between the various manuscripts, de Hamel describes the library and the reading room. Just before he begins to review the physical attributes of the book and consider who exactly may have commissioned it, he repeats what the librarian specialist assisting him had to say about the mystery involved: “’I am not an art historian’” he said, in that low and evenly paced monotone of Danes speaking English, as if delivering the punchline of a deadpan joke: “and art historians jump too quickly to conclusions.” (296).

The next part reviews what is known about Thott 143 2°, including its physical description and review of contents, and how that information might be used to determine origins and ownership. Based in part on the inclusion of an alphabet between canticles and a litany, de Hamel suggests that the manuscript may have originally been intended for use as teaching a royal child how to read, which narrows the potential first owners down to a handful of young royalty, likely in Scandinavia. He reviews some previously proposed options based on some added notes and inscriptions. The calendar, another common component for a psalter, suggests English influence, which de Hamel attributes to the scribe based especially on the script.

The last section of the chapter goes back to previously mentioned 5 royal psalters, and provides brief descriptions of each, and what is known about each book. This is used to argue that at the time the manuscript was produced, book-making was becoming professionalized and specialized professionals were starting to collaborate with regularity.

Chapter 8 reviews a manuscript better known for its musical adaptation than its physical existence as a book, the Carmina Burana, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4660. This chapter begins with de Hamels memory of a high school Latin class during which his teacher played a gramaphone recording of Karl Orff’s setting of some of the poems. He continues with further adventures as a graduate student backpacking some of the same routes he suggests “some of the wandering scholars of the Carmina Burana had done 800 years earlier” (333). This leads to the description of his first visit to Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, concentrating largely on the appearance of the library itself.

According to de Hamel, the particular manuscript that he’s about to describe has been in its current location since 1806, and derives its name ‘Burana’ from the 8th century monastery Benediktbeuern in Upper Bavaria. The manuscript in questions was discovered in the library uncatalogued after the monastery was suppressed during the Napoleonic reforms in 1803. Orff took about 20 of the 350 poems and songs in the “finest and most extensive surviving anthology of medieval lyrical song and verse” (335) to set to music, and de Hamel also notes the uniqueness of many of the texts, most of which are in Latin, but include some entries in other European languages, including Middle High German.

de Hamel emphasizes the luck in getting to see the original by noting that he got to see it largely because of a chance encounter with the head of rare-books at a conference who had himself never actually seen the original book in person (so to speak). In the description of the process of getting to meet the book, he notes that because it’s classified as a national treasure he was not only required to wear gloves, but also assigned to sit at a special roped-off table. He then gets down to describing the physical appearance of the manuscript and its contents. He takes care to point out more than once that Orff’s arrangement is not at all accurate to the positioning of texts in the manuscript; “O Fortuna” is not the first text, and the manuscript has much greater variety than the selections chosen by Orff might suggest. As he continues he notes that although the book is in some ways disorganized, the texts do tend to fall into several categories including satires, love songs, drinking songs, and religious dramas. De Hamel provides an example of each and provides translation and general interpretation.

There’s a break in the interview as de Hamel tells the anecdote of the gloves he was required to wear getting dirty, and his intention of keeping them as a “previous souvenir” only to have his wife wash them. There are 3 remaining subjects in the chapter: the images, possible sources and compilation, and German history during the time Orff would have been adapting his excerpts to music. After reviewing the images, de Hamel decides that they were probably “afterthoughts” (359). Concerning potential authors or composers, many of the texts are likely 12th century (about 100 years before the book was compiled), and only one names a composer. He also considers the likely circumstances of the book’s creation. He also points out that Orff was not the first to publish contents of the manuscript; Jacob Grimm (one of those Grimms) persuaded the librarian at the time to publish and edition in 1847 which is also the source of the common title of the manuscript. Finally, Orff’s treatment of the book and its texts is the last part of the chapter, considered in the context of the current political and historical events in Germany.

Chapter 9 picks up the historical, geographical narrative from Chapter 8 since the modern discovery of what is now Paris Biblioteque nationale de France, ms n.a. lat. 3145 happened as a result of the Allies entering the town of Berchtesgaden after Hitler’s defeat in 1945. Two French officers found and pocketed 2 medieval books. The first book turned out to be the original Tres Belles Heures of the Duc de Berry, and the second is the focus of this chapter. It was given to a monastery by the soldier who found it. When a monk took the book to an antiquarian to be valued, it was discovered to be “the long-lost Hours of Queen Jeanne de Navarre” (380). After reviewing the known provenance of the book, de Hamel then moves on to consider the library and reading room in which he viewed it.

If you didn’t known that de Hamel was of British descent {born in England, grew up in New Zeland, college at Oxford}, his description of the library and its workers would be a very strong give-away. He emphasizes that he showed an email from the library’s head of manuscripts to be sure he got the actual book because “in Paris they are a bit inclined to fob you off with a microfilm, especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing.” (384). He also declares that the general procedure for requesting and retrieving a manuscript “all seems unnecessarily complex, but it is their way of doing things” (ibid.). From here, he moves on to describe the physical attributes and contents of the manuscript. He also includes a general review of the genre of the Book of Hours which is useful even if you already had a general idea as he goes into some detail.

He points out that many books of this sort were owned by women and many were associated with particular religious orders, in this case the Franciscans. He also observes that the original owner of the book is pretty clear based on the miniatures, and the naming of the figure of the book’s owner in one of them as “Johanna, Queen of Navarre”. de Hamel also includes the known details of Jeanne’s biography. The rest of the chapter describes and discusses the illuminations of the Hours of Saint Louis and other decorations, and then the provenance of the manuscript as it is currently known. The art is of interest as some of the artists are identifiable, one of whom has a name and address, which helps place the creation of the manuscript probably in Paris.

de Hamel fills in some of the early history of the manuscript by noting its likely presence in a 15th century inventory of the Duc of Berry’s library, who then could have given it to queen of England, his niece and a granddaughter of the original owner, possibly as a wedding present (Henry IV married Joan of Navarre in 1402). Eventually the book was donated to Franciscan convent in Paris. The history of the manuscript from the 18th century forward is mostly one of sale and resale. de Hamel also gets his hands on some library records which detail their acquisition of the manuscript between 1967-1973, which covers the time the book was rediscovered and brought for valuation to the present.

Chapter 10 covers the book most recognizable to those who study English literature, Aberswyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth MS 392 D, the Hengwert Chaucer. This chapter is overall a retracing of the possible existence and identity of ‘Adam scriveyn’ whom Chaucer addresses in one of his lyrics. After describing the initial identification of him with Adam Pinkhurst by Linne R. Moony in 2004 and the ensuing controversy, there is a brief biography of Chaucer, and then the introduction of the two oldest known Chaucer manuscripts, Ellesmere and Hengwert. Much of the chapter is framed as a trail of Adam Pinkhurst as candidate for being Chaucer’s scribe.

Witness 1 is the manuscript. After briefly describing the provenance, de Hamel describes getting to the library and his surprise at having an audience and photographer there to document his review of the manuscript. He again makes note of the gloves provided, this time drawing attention to the “packet labelled “Made in China”, which may explain their diminutive size.” (434) Apparently, the audience got bored after a while and gradually dispersed. He describes the physical appearance of the manuscript, and the general appearance and set-up of the pages. He then discusses the collation and the problem of the order of the tales and connecting tales with their intended tellers. He concludes this witness examination with the dating information and some evidence from the painting over of guide letters.

Witness 2 is the author, Geoffrey Chaucer. Evidence from Chaucer comes from his poetry and some early editors of his.

Witness 3 is Adam Pinkhurst, particularly his written oath required for membership in the Company of Scrivners. This document survives in the Guildhall Library as MS 5370. The main problem in comparing the hand here to Chaucerian texts possibly by the same scribe is that the oath is in a documentary hand, while the literary texts were done in standard book script. Further evidence comes from other documents attributed to the same scribe. The final part of the section and the chapter is a more detailed look at how scribal identifications are made. De Hamel’s final conclusion as a member of the jury is that he does not believe beyond reasonable doubt that Adam Pinkhurt was the ‘culprit’ but he leaves open the possibility that “Perhaps the other eleven jurors will outvote me yet.” (464)

Chapter 11 looks at St. Petersburg, National Library, Cod. Lat.Q.v.XVII.2. This chapter represents what is likely the least known text of the twelve, the Semideus, a treatise for princes concerning practical advice on armaments and warfare, like tossing bottles with venomous snakes onto enemy ships so that the snakes will get out when the bottles break and hopefully bite your enemies. The author was Catone Sacco, an Italian humanist and lawyer, who gave the book to Filipo Maria Visconti, which is why the books is labeled as “The Visconti Semideus”. After the introduction, there comes a biography of Visconti and his descendants which parallels the early history of the manuscript.

After a series of wars including the French Revolution the manuscript ended up in the hands of one Piotr Dubrowsky, whom de Hamel compares to Libri as a book collector. When he needed money, he decided to sell off his book collection, and it ended up in the imperial library of Tsar Alexander I, and stayed put. De Hamel describes the complex bureaucratic process of getting a visa to go to Russia, and then describes trying to get into the library, which apparently involved a lot of copying of information from paperwork, and not being allowed to bring his print edition of the text with him into the reading room. There are a few semi-serious jokes about Russian stereotypes.

He describes the manuscript, including the added 16th century list of family birthdays on the front page and some added French poetry. For this manuscript, probably because the text is so obscure, he provides a summary of the preface along with some interpretation and connections to some decoration.  He does the same for the main body text, although he is clear that he is using the pictures to follow the narrative, since the text is “140 pages of complex Latin” (488). After a brief anecdote about how the invigilator gave him some whiskey-flavored Russian chocolate, he finishes the summary of the text, and considers some ideas about the style of the artwork. The final section considers why the author may have written and had bound and decorated the book, and who may have participated.

The final chapter covers another book of hours, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig IX.18, the Spinola Hours. This final chapter follows patterns set earlier in the book. It opens with a memory of his first visit to LA some 30 years prior, before describing the history and then appearance of the Getty Library and Museum. This is followed by how he accessed the reading room; apparently it is a very American thing to ask for “Photo Id”, but everyone was very friendly and welcoming. The book was apparently labeled “the Spinola Hours” to give it prestige in expectation of selling it in the 1970s.

Again as usual, he describes the physical attributes of the manuscript, and its owners prior to its sale to the library. As the book has some full page illustrations, he spends time describing them, along with the decoration of the calendar, and the main text, the Hours of the Virgin Mary. There is very little discussion of the actual text; it’s mostly about the pictures. As deHamel points out, most people know and study these sorts of books for their pictures, and he is in what is largely known as an art museum. He does also include some consideration of the book family the manuscript is a part of, and looks at what might be extrapolated in terms of book production. After a brief anecdote about his lunch of healthy food with skinny Californians, and waiters who call you by your first name, he returns to the history of the art of the book, particularly who the 5 identified artists may have been. After some speculation about who might have originally commissioned or owned the manuscript, he returns to the manuscript’s familial history, connecting it to the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc of Berry (the number of times this guy shows up, you’d think there’d be a little more detail about him or that title of his) and the Rothchild Prayerbook. He ends up suggesting that the same people might have been involved in the creation and commissioning of these 3 books. He also traces their potential provenance. As a side comment he mentions that he was actually present in 1975 when the “Spinola Hours”. A retired German butcher brought a book for assessment to a Sotheby’s office which turned out to be the book he is now discussing. De Hamel also describes the actual sale which involved the auction, which turns out to have been rigged a little. H. P Kraus, the famous NY bookseller, was unusually quiet during the auction but managed to win; it turns out he had made previous arrangements to signal with his glasses when he was no longer willing to keep bidding because he didn’t want his active bidding to influence the sale.

The Epilogue is mostly a statement about how you don’t need to travel to exotic locations to find interesting manuscripts, which is a nice thought. But as noted with the introduction, my question remains why not include more of such manuscripts in the main analyses?