A Slightly Belated Consideration of the Image of the Skull in Late Fall Memorial Celebrations

I recently finished the novel Cemetery Boys, and one of several things that struck me about the story was a strong similarity between the Latinx Día de Los Muertos and the medieval-Renaissance Danse Macabre traditions: the idea that in spite of death being interpreted as the end of a life, it’s considerably less permanent than generally perceived, and as are the divides between the two statuses (life and death). While there are certainly the Christian elements attached to the idea of death not being eternal, at least potentially, in both sets of traditions, what interested me was some of the visual and more practical parallels.

In general, the Danse Macabre is a trend in visual art, dating as early as the fifteenth century. The key component of the images are the skeletons that dance with or around someone who is dying or has just died. The interpretation is usually seen as a metaphor or allegory on the inevitability of death. There are a handful of different variations on this theme, including skeletons interacting with or observing the living as a reminder of how close death always is, no matter who or what the living individual happens to be. For examples as well as explorations, see: https://www.medievalists.net/tag/danse-macabre/

While the Danse Macabre is more of a visual trend, there are similar representations in literary texts as well, often poetic. Unclear boundaries between life and death, the inevitability of death, and the power of life are all common themes. The poetry I’m thinking of seems to date from around the same general time period of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including “Liffe and Death”, Audelay’s “De Tribus Regibus Mortuis”, “Disputation of the Body and the Worms”, and various debates between the body and soul. All of these poems are in Middle English, although there are also earlier Latin ancestors, especially in the Body vs Soul tradition which trace back to at least the thirteenth century.

The Día de Los Muertos traditions of gathering and honoring the dead in the family with the belief that those family would be closer or even with the living during certain times goes back to the ancient indigenous peoples of Mexico, Central America, and South America including civilizations like the Aztecs. Similarly in western Europe, the ancient Celtic Druids had similar rituals and festivals, specifically Samhain. The parallels are mostly superficial, but they do include a very similar time frame, linked to the passing of fall into winter, and shared concept of the separations between the living and dead getting thinner or weaker at this particular time. Once Christianity was eventually introduced to the two regions, there’s the overlap with the All Hallows, All Saints, and All Souls days, both in general content and timing.

The particular fascination of the Danse Macabre and the imagery of the modern Día de Los Muertos with the figure of the skull and skeleton is striking though, all the more so when the literary side of things does not include them as a major focus. I can’t speak for historical or literary examples from the Día de Los Muertos traditions, but at least in terms of popular images, the colorful and decorated white skull is probably the most recognizable feature of that festival; a simple Google image search is proof enough.    

This particular sort of image also features in the manuscript of a poem in Middle English titled “A Disputation between the Body and the Worms”. Again, the parallels are superficial but they are still intriguing. The only extant copy of the text survives in British Library MS Additional 37049, ff.33r-35r. The first page presents the figure of Christ on the cross, but on the following 33v:

In addition to the vague similarities in the figure of the skull, the interesting feature of this particular skeleton and its image is that on the following page the same image is re-used and then again on 34v but this third time, the figures have been repositioned to reflect progress in the debate:

The narrative presents the body of a young courtly lady who is disgusted with the worms and their practical function, namely to eat away at her body, and she requests them to be gentlemen and leave her alone. The worms respond that they are just doing their jobs as God and nature intended, and that she should be more concerned about the state of her soul than her now dead body. She eventually concedes to their point, as the good Christian she is supposed to be.

The physicality aspect is the interesting part since this poem, as well as the many examples of the Danse Macabre tradition, hint at the unstable physicality of the transition and spaces between life and death. In some of the Celtic pagan traditions for example, physical symbols like carving skulls or faces into turnips, now pumpkins, represent another facet of this idea during the time of Samhain. The more separate treatments of the physical and spiritual is more of the Christian influence in most cases, since the older traditions often reflect less of a binary opposition and more of a transitionary, permeable boundary between the physical and the spirit worlds.

At least in the poetic traditions, even the Christian understanding of the boundaries between life and death are somewhat flexible; in many of the debates between the Body and the Soul, often more serious and theological in nature, the body and the soul coexist but have been separated at least for a time after death. These poems typically end with either predictions or the enacting of the final and often violent or painful separation between the soul and body.

That these festivals coincide with each other is likely due to some extent with their shared connections to the passing season of fall into winter. Again, a superficial yet interesting parallel comes up in the Christian tradition of following the celebration and memory of those who have died with Christmas which is typically represented as a revival of life given that the Biblical narrative begins with the birth of a child. Timing-wise in the pagan Celtic calendar this roughly compares with the solstice in December and Imbolc (a welcoming of impending spring) in February. I don’t know of a Latinx celebration that would be similar in its timing, but that doesn’t change the significant overlaps (superficial but still there) in the late October-early November time frame. Death is certainly a common theme in memorial celebrations or traditions in many cultures, and late fall is certainly a symbolic time that matches well.

To wrap up these rambling thoughts and go back to the original observations about the skeleton imagery and the notions about the boundaries between the living and the dead for just a few moments, the shared symbolic timing of the memorial celebrations in honor of those who have died in a time of natural transition would make sense in connection with the concept of the transitions back and forth between life and death suggested directly by non-Christian (at least not originally) origins of some of the rituals and images, and indirectly by some of the Christian ones. The Middle Ages seem to have been a little more open to the idea of the boundaries between life and death being flexible than later Christianity, if the art and imagery of the skull or skeleton connected with the Danse Macabre are taken as serious commentary about the nature of the possible flexibility of the borders involved. As I’ve said before, these connections are superficial, but they’re still interesting, especially since the European Middle Ages is often understood (unfairly a lot of the time) as being more uptight about this kind of thing.  

Arguing Questions Modern and Not

For some reason, I remember back in graduate school, in a theory class, a classmate being mortally offended by the professor’s feedback on a paper that her thesis was “vanilla” and that she needed to take a stronger response or position. I don’t remember which paper or even which theory class it was (the same professor taught both).

I now somewhat understand the professor’s side of this; I recently assigned a class a writing assignment in which the prompt asked them to present or define some possible options or labels for describing their heritage and to state their position for why they might prefer one or some over others. I have a noticeable percentage of students use a thesis that was a variation of “I don’t like labels; we shouldn’t use them” and avoided that part of the prompt entirely. I should be clear that while racial heritage was certainly an option, it was not the only one they had; students could have also addressed cultural heritage, political, economic, social, or any other way to define one’s general background.

This is not the only such a thing has happened, that someone has attempted to avoid the question asked, but it was one of the more noticeable because of the number of people who did it on a single assignment. I can think of a variety of reasons why some individuals might have taken that position, but the point remains that they did not take a clear and distinct position on the question put before them.

This takes me to argumentation and rhetoric, both of which are very common things to include in the introductory composition classroom, be it physical or virtual. Both of these practices have ancient and medieval roots, but so too do their use and modification for purposes other than classwork or serious purposes. The most obvious example of someone taking a formal academic argumentative assignment for their own purposes is the traditional goof “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” The original question actually seems to have involved a needle (not a pin), but it traces back to around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in texts making fun of Thomas Aquinas’ treatise on theology which employed a common at the time method of argumentation the Summa Theologica. There is some suggestion that this sort of mockery goes back earlier, but the direct evidence is less certain.  Aquinas himself did indeed address such a question since he does discuss whether or not multiple angels could be in the same place at once (he concluded they could not) and his method which is labeled ‘scholasticism’ was both well known and widely used as both an academic technique and a teaching tool.

So now, this brings me to why it might be useful to use this kind of mock(ing) type or debate or argumentation in a modern classroom. I have found myself wondering that if I had included greater emphasis on the history of presenting an argument and if I had also provided some less serious practice, then perhaps students might have been more likely to actually address the specifics of the question.

Medieval versions of this idea exist besides the somewhat later mockery of Aquinas. Specifically, there is a style of poetry that becomes popular between about 1200-1500 now often called ‘debate poetry’ in which two speakers argue a point using formal techniques but addressing a less than formal subject. Options include the question of who is better or more useful to humanity, an argument had between among others, an owl and nightingale, a goose and horse and sheep, and a rose and lily. Other possibilities include the body of noble lady arguing with the worms that want to eat her about the propriety of such a thing, two students addressing nature versus nurture using a cat, candle, and mouse, and a group of tools arguing over whether or not to encourage their carpenter to work or relax. While the genre of debate poetry is not an especially popular one to study, a common idea is that most of the authors were likely scholars who wanted to both practice and blow off some intellectual steam. So, if this seems to have been highly popular as a way to practice argument and rhetoric in a less class-room way, maybe a more modern version of using the techniques on a less serious subject might also be good practice.

A modern option would be for example, Stephen Colbert inviting the great and recently late Ruth Bader Ginsberg on his late-night show and, before trying and failing to match her during a fitness workout, asked the Supreme Court Justice to weigh in as a legal expert on the following question: is the hot dog truly a sandwich or not? They concluded that, based on Colbert’s definition of sandwich as “two pieces of bread with almost any type of filling in between — as long as it’s not more bread” and a few qualifications or clarifications, a hot dog was one. If we go slightly further back in time, there is the famous Monty Python skit often used in classes trying to teach this stuff titled “Argument” in which the definition of ‘argument’ is both discussed and demonstrated to humorous effect. Similarly, there is also the scene in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in which the two titular characters “play questions”; the main gag involves the distinction between different types of statements. All of these 20th-21st century examples are people using formal argumentation or rhetorical terms and techniques for less serious or non-academic purposes. My thought is whether or not next time I might not have better results including an exercise of this sort; having the class take sides on a similar “issue” such as pineapple on pizza, socks with sandals, athletic wear as acceptable in public outside of the gym, cheesecake as pie or cake, or is an audio-book reading.

Using this kind of exercise would also provide more of a reason to include the medieval concepts of the trivium and quadrivium that together comprise the sever liberal arts, as well as classical and later rhetoric, logic, and figures of speech (essentially the trivium). The requisite components are essentially the same as the heritage assignment: present some defining attributes, provide reasons for why each might apply or not, and then explain (ie argue) for whichever position you feel is more correct or otherwise stronger.  This seems like it might be fun and instructive, but I also wonder if students would try to take it at least a little bit seriously (which would be good since the part about argumentation would be real) or try to avoid the assignment again but trying to claim avoid the question or ignoring it completely (“I don’t eat hot dogs, so I don’t care” sort of thing).We’ll see.

New Beginnings and Marginalia

Something interesting happened as a result of having to work from home until early August: a different type of course revision. Revising a course calendar and syllabus happens most terms, and what ended up happening isn’t even that new or interesting. The thing that was interesting is more that something most teachers known happened unintentionally since I didn’t have full access to all my textbooks, and how much of a difference it might make. Most every pedagogy bit of advice when it comes to general writing of assignments and choosing of readings has something to do with “choose the thing that adds progress towards the goals”, be it skill-based (like writing or reasoning) or content-based (like information).

Here’s what happened: I had to write the majority of my course calendars for a first-year composition course largely without access to the reader which I had left in my office, probably figuring I’d be back in there before I needed to worry about figuring out readings. This turned out to be about half true. On one hand, I was able to get most of the work done without the book, and I was back in my office almost 2 weeks before classes started, which is more than enough time to just add in reading assignments. On the other, while I was working out the actual calendar and assignment descriptions and break-ups into lessons, I had to do much of that work without ideas for readings to use for models and practice.

In the past, there have been times where I really wanted to use a reading but it turned out to not work out well in practice, and sometimes when a reading succeeded beyond what I had expected. The latter is the reason why Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is again part of the argumentative reasoning section of the rhetorical analysis assignment. The former result though seems to have happened a few times per semester pretty consistently. However, this time around, it feels more like I was choosing readings based more on the skills students were expected to be working on because I’d already written out the composition specific elements of the assignments and lessons. Doing things this way, though not intended this past summer, seems to have removed the temptation to work in a reading that was more interesting than necessarily suitable to the skill to be considered. Like I said, this is a standard thing (matching reading and skills to course objectives) in theory, but it’s a lot harder to do than it sounds. We’ll have to wait and see how this semester goes to know for sure.

Prepping for the Fall 2020 semester has been extra ‘interesting’ because two of classes turned out to need what is apparently called “hy-flex” structuring and cohorting. Basically, the classes had to be split into two groups so they could alternate in-person and online. I have half of the class one day while the rest are online, then they switch the second day. “Hy-flex” is a set-up where both in-person and online options for a given class session are available, making it much easier if a student for some reason has to go online exclusively for a while. This situation has meant a lot more consideration of online pedagogy, which is something I’d been working on over the spring and summer, mostly through a webinar series hosted by my university system’s CETL and a few workshops for tools specific to my institution.

Here’s where things get a little more medieval, as opposed to the very modern current state of things and technology. Last spring I’d already decided to use Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as the literary test text for my theory-methods course. It’s old enough to have many applications done as both examples of theory and methods, and it’s complex enough to have a lot of possibilities for a range of interests. When we did general “Bibliography” day, I was genuinely impressed with the variety of what students found, when all they’d been asked to do was find one example of each of 4 standard types of bibliographical work. Although admittedly, that did mean I had less to demonstrate and explain than planned, but that’s one of the better reasons for some last minute lesson re-working.

I realized recently that for my other courses, first year composition and World Literature 1, that I was using an online annotation site a lot more than I have in the past. Part of this was by design as a way to get away from the standard discussion board, which degrades very quickly from actual discussion to posting stuff that address the assignment requirement (maybe), but not really interacting with either the other students or the content of the text under consideration. I got the idea from colleagues who have used such platforms before, and since I had to plan a lot more online work than past semesters, I figured it might be a good time to try. So far results are promising; there does seem to be some more interaction between students than on the standard discussion boards, and a little more detail in their references to the text. That last part makes sense in a practical way since they are literally commentating on a copy of the text, but it’s still nice to see them actually refer to specific textual details. I was a little worried about the difference in a few of the translations posted and those in the textbook, but that doesn’t seem to have been a problem thus far. It might make for interesting study to see which students used more: the book text with the accompanying notes etc., or the digital one.

The other side, which is where the medieval comes in, is that I realized I’m essentially asking students to add their own marginalia to a shared text, almost in the way of a commonplace book or shared manuscript. The particular site I’m using does allow for some modern conveniences like up-voting, but it does preserve the record of who said what, where, and how responded, and how. Even though it’s only been about a week, and only one class has gone through this particular approach, it’s pretty clear that there is a little more interaction all around. There’s also an interesting range of voices evident, and I can’t help occasionally starting to drift into a fantasy analysis of how to interpret this person via their notes or what it might look like to someone unfamiliar with the actual person, even though I can easily look up who actually said that thing in that way, and I’ve seen actual faces/heard the voices/etc. to go along with the names. I also have to wonder if the marginalia idea is really more for me than the students. Framing this type of discussion as such might be novel for some, especially if they are the sort of student who like to take notes in their books, but not everyone does that. I’ll have to try it out and see how students respond.

Deciphering Books: Margins and Collections

Some of the more entertaining and interesting manuscript mysteries surround the marginalia. For example, in Ashmole 61, a compilation of romances, exempla, saints’ lives, comic stories, and some prayers (mostly in verse), many texts are followed by the image of a fish, such as:

RateFish

There is much debate over why a fish, what sort of fish is it, why the variations (and there are several), why do this more than once, what kind of person was the scribe (signed in a few places as “Rate” or similar) and so on. Animals figure pretty prominently in the margins of medieval books as part of the design and not, but that’s another discussion or several.

A quick search of the internet and you can find all kinds of marginal images and doodles from medieval books, from standard manicula (pointer fingers) like:

Manicula

to abbreviations like “NB” for ‘nota bene’ (note well, or pay attention),

to my personal favorite:

CatPee

on which a scribe has pointed to the smudge and told the reader it was not an error on his part, but rather a cat which had decided to pee on the book in progress, and a curse against said cat.

There are also plenty of medieval books that have explanatory notes and commentary with them, in fact with some books, their whole purpose was commentary, but the ones that don’t have that obvious context are in some ways more interesting, and often more entertaining to consider. We also have medieval books which seem to have been created by someone copying their favorite bits out of a range of texts. These commonplace books seem to have been pretty popular given how many of them survive from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and into the Early Modern era.

This brings me to contemporary books and how they might get used. I personally usually don’t write in the books I tend to read for fun, but I do write in textbooks and cookbooks.

As an undergrad I seem to have found it easier to take a few brief notes in my books, but mostly underline or arrow things of importance, such as passages pointed out by the professor (I also kept reasonably detailed notebooks with notes from lecture, but that’s another story). I now have found myself using those notes to write my own lectures and lesson plans, which in a few cases has meant transposing those notes and signal from one book (usually my original college textbook) to a new one (most often a later edition or similar but not identical title). Some of this might be the result of having to adjust to new versions of the same book, a situation unlikely for most of the Middle Ages given the general expense and labor involved in making a book copy. I also remember, only once or twice, with a used textbook, being able to make use of the previous owner’s notes. There are some documented marginal conversations and arguments in the margins of a few surviving manuscripts, but a significant amount looks more like what I’ve done to my own textbooks, although quite a few of the medieval scribes, scholars, and readers were a little more creative with doodles, not something I’ve done in textbooks. In some cases, these notes or doodles in the older books become a part of studying them for meaning, and you have to wonder what someone a few centuries from now might think of your student notes or textbooks (assuming you’ve altered them somehow as I have). In my own case, I have to thank past me for writing a little in those books, since it’s quite practically useful to me now, and I suspect it might have been a useful study aid at the time as well.

Again, on the practical side, in most of my cookbooks, there tends to be 2 types of notes: final verdict of recipe overall (ranging from J to “meh” to “nope”) and adjustments to the recipe I might have made, either in the ingredients or process. The final impression notes tend to be in the upper left of the recto page or upper right of the verso. There’s no real reason for it; that’s just how it seems to end up. On a more interpretive level, those phrases or images end up in that location because there’s open space in that part of the page in nearly all books of this kind. It’s also interesting to consider that nearly all of the notes are abbreviations or images of some kind, and how they might be taken when out of context. Would a smiley face be a positive or mockery? What does “ok” stand for or mean? Same for “meh” or “blech”, etc.? There might also be a question of ranking: is ‘nope’ better or worse than ‘bleh’?

In the ingredients, if there’s something I’ve left out, often a seasoning I either don’t have or know I don’t like (frequently basil, one of my least favorite herbs, or cumin, the spice I find most overused) it often gets labeled “opt.” (“optional”) or crossed out. If someone had my entire collection as it currently is, would they figure out that I don’t like basil much, or might they conclude that it was rare or otherwise inaccessible? Besides a reasonably sizeable collection of my own, I also have a few cookbooks owned by my great aunt and grandmother. These are considerably different in content, style, and look. These have virtually no marginal notes, but they do include a lot of inserts, things like magazine clippings or some notecards with recipes either written or glued on. Assuming future person noticed the difference in publication dates and had some understanding of the dating of the handwriting much in the way we now can do with a lot of medieval and Early Modern hands, how might they reconcile or not the two distinct types of books on those shelves?  I usually don’t modify the general process except to sometimes note adjustments to times required, adjusting for my current equipment, or using the oven instead of the stove-top.

And then there’s the question of what about those recipes I either didn’t alter, forgot to annotate, or never tried for whatever reason? If there was not notation or spatter on the page, would the conclusion be it was never attempted or was followed exactly or made no particular impression? There are some studies of such things from the Middle Ages and later, but there’s no guarantee that similar impressions on the future/present would be reached even if the same kinds of study and interpretive techniques were applied.

It is an interesting thought experiment though; if someone who didn’t know me or my time and place found my book collections, what would they conclude about me if anything? You might also consider that fact that there are bookcases with books in them in three rooms in my home. What would that future person conclude about that? Would they notice that all the books in one case were all cookbooks (probably if they also had access to the room, which is the kitchen)? Would they figure out that one shelf of books in another room were those that had been read and set aside for clearing out later on (selling or loaning/giving away)? What would they make or figure out from the collection of mostly fantasy and science fiction with some random graphic novels tossed in? And what about that third shelf in a third room? Would they figure those were the books that weren’t in active or imminent use, and what would be made of all the other odds and ends on that set of shelves (a few mugs, some craft bits and bobs, a few odds and ends for the planter in the room, etc)?

It’s an interesting thought experiment, especially if you add in the more “academic” library of personal books I keep in my campus office. If the two collections were found 10 miles apart, would their mutual ownership be determined? And what would the variety, and there is plenty, on those shelves mean or add to the whole personal library picture? And that’s not even considering the handful of actual library books between the two locations…

On the Value and Interpretation of Personal Texts

My local library is known in the region as focusing on local history and genealogy. When the pandemic started to really affect public life when the stay at home order was issued, the regional library system asked for people to consider keep journal and diaries and give them to the library to document daily life during “these unprecedented times”. Not long ago, I had a conversation with a friend (socially distanced of course) about travel and keeping a journal to keep track of places or experiences to potentially return to. This has got me thinking about how we know some of what we do about daily life in the Middle Ages and Renaissance through diaries, shared books (with marginal notes and conversations), letters, and the types of written communication that aren’t often considered in a literary sense.

Most of what survives is not from everyday people, since the middle and lower classes would likely have not had the time, education, and/or materials to use for leisure or social written communications. Adding to this the probability that history was unlikely to have had much interest in preserving such records over time if they existed, and you end up with plagues that have a much stronger record in literary sources (mostly featuring the upper classes) such as Boccaccio’s Decameron or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet than in non-fictional sources. That’s not to say such sources have not survived, they have, but these records have received far less attention as literary and historical documents. In today’s social media saturated world, it’s pretty easy to find all kinds of stories and experiences directly related to the pandemic, but it’s a very different situation for historical plagues and other society changing events pre-mass media.

So this brings up the question to me about the travel journal I’ve kept the past several summers, mostly for conferences, and the quarantine journal I started back in March. Had COVID-19 not happened, I would be on my way to the UK for about 2 ½ weeks of travel and conferences, and I would have brought with my travel journal since both locations (Durham and Leeds) are places I’ve been before. Besides trying to schedule and map out days, most of my notes have to do with travel routes and methods, and favored food/drink or shopping stops. I remember a few years ago in London, taking note of a favorite bubble tea place (including the street address) and then going back there the following year, only to find a fried chicken joint in its place. The note from the following year reads “UpT (keep notes! J) now fried chicken place L”. Thinking back on that, I have to wonder what or how someone else looking at that note might have understood it. I’ve worked with enough manuscripts to know the challenges that come first with deciphering the words and handwriting, and then interpreting them and figuring out the context and meaning. I also think back to a book I vaguely remember titled Motel of the Mysteries that is about archeologists in the 41st century future discovering and trying to interpret a motel from the 20th century; the only bit I remember is the detail that a toilet seat was considered to be a ceremonial headdress.

So, on to the quarantine journal. What stood out to me most was that at first I was using sentences and fuller phrases, but the last 6 weeks or so have been mostly lists. For example, entry #1 dates 3/20 includes the following:

-Not full isolation start b/c HVAC and bug guys & trip to WalMart (measure tape for knit) & car wash

-3m run went pretty well; did some sweeping & a little yard stuff

-Stinky pretty cooperative

{…}

Three months later, the entry for 6/20 looks like this:

-walk

-kitty

-Target/BksMill/Joanne’s/Grocery

-Class prep and revs

– pie start

-nap

-fin pie

-dinner prep.

I can think of all kinds of probable questions from someone who wasn’t familiar with my daily life and general abbreviations. For example, who or what is Stinky, what’s 3m, what does ‘kitty’ mean, why is there ‘pie start’ and ‘pie fin’ (what’s fin?) with something in between, what’s ‘revs’, etc. All this of course assumes you can read my casual cursive.

What also stands out is that there’s virtually nothing here about the pandemic; it’s all basically daily life. There’s no real reason to keep this kind of record except that it’s something to do, and it might be interesting to me later on for some reason. I have a hard time thinking that someone else at a later might get something useful or meaningful out of this. This suggests to me that it’s possible that this sort of reasoning may be part of the reason why texts like Boccaccio’s don’t feature as much about the actual plague, beyond the preface.

I’m also starting to think about potentially using something like this as a class exercise. It’s pretty common for students in literature classes, even the required intro surveys, to focus on finding “the meaning” of whatever they’ve been asked to read. Here’s my thinking: have students keep some kind of journal for about a week, and then in class on the last day, have them switch possibly not know whose they’ve got, and then ask for interpretations. This might be a valuable exercise in considering how intentional meaning might be, as well as hopefully providing the point that sometimes the meaning is on the reader not the writer, and not everything needs a deeper point, sometimes the surface is right. I think that perception, that there’s always a deeper meaning in something literary, can prevent students in some cases from enjoying a reading assignment.

Obviously this would all need more careful thought, organization, and focus before actually implementing such an assignment. I do think though that some kind of literature to history to everyday documentation exercise would have value and interest for students, especially in a time when the world seems unpredictable and new and not very welcoming. Doing something like this fairly early in the term might be helpful to get students thinking about how they approach textual interpretation, and hopefully humanize the texts they read later on a bit more.

Since history and literature both require information and interpretation, and these sorts of documents often become important records for how most people understand the past, I realize that how my personal journals might be taken in the future is not predictable, but that too is a feature of working with this kind of writing. The intent and meaning of when it’s made might differ substantially later on. I still don’t think the library system would be interested in my quarantine journal though, but then again maybe that’s what the letter writers of the Middle Ages thought at the time too.

Medieval Brewing, or More Contemplations of Yeast

Yeast is still a scarce commodity, at least in the forms used for baking. Brewer’s yeast though may be a different story. I checked the website of a home brewing store that I used when I was learning to make soda (aka pop) and cider while living in Milwaukee WI (Northern Brewer), and they appear to have various types of yeast in stock for beer and ale brewing, cider brewing, and wine as well. While it’s likely true that there are fewer people looking to start brewing than baking right now since there is considerable more investment in time, equipment, and ingredients, the fact remains that yeast is apparently available for this purpose, and for not hugely inflated prices. Side-note/ for the record: the difference between ale and beer is that beer requires the use of hops, while ale does not.

This got me thinking about the medieval processes for such products as compared to bread. With bread baking, the basic recipes and procedures have not changed a lot over the centuries. While certain modern inventions like electric ovens, different forms of yeast and flour, as well as a greater variety of loaf types have updated how we bake today, bread baking has not changed fundamentally as a key food product which is made from flour, yeast, salt, and water, and baked.

As with last time, I’m operating with limited scholarly resources but here’s what I’m figuring: in fact there are some significant differences in the recipes and methods used for brewing between medieval Europe and today. Ale was likely the more common beverage, and probably more nutritious as well, so we’ll go with that as a base for comparison. Beers and ales are also considerably older than the medieval period, but since the opening comparison was with medieval bread, again, that’s what I’m sticking with; although, bread itself is likewise much older than Medieval Europe.

So, first the ingredients. Ale requires water, yeast, and malted grain (probably oats or barley in the Middle Ages). Malting refers to a process involving soaking then drying the grain, and partially crushing it. The basic process involves boiling the malt and any additional grain and flavoring (like honey, herbs, roots, etc.), letting it ferment, adding the yeast, and letting it further ferment. Straining the resulting brew a few times would likely be required before drinking. The whole process from start to drink probably took about a week. Recipes and procedure from aristocratic and religious orders survive from about the 13th century onwards, although older recipes do survive from previous time periods.

On the modern side, the process and ingredients differ substantially, as does the terminology. The modern recipe I’m referring to includes two items not present in the medieval recipes: sugar and hops. This would technically make it a beer, so that’s a major change there, that beer and ale are now more interchangeable as terms to the modern brewer. “Beer” now generally means a drink brewed using fermented grain, leaving the distinctions to be made between types of method and ingredients. For example, ale is made with top fermenting yeast and brewed with heat, while lager uses a bottom fermenting yeast brewed at lower temperatures over a longer period of time. The modern recipe starts much like the medieval in that it requires boiling and fermenting of the malt, grain and any additional flavorings, and later adding yeast. However, after the first week, there are additional process and time. The ale is not ready for further processing (bottling) until about the end of week 2, and once sealed in its bottle, the ale needs another few weeks before drinking. This process represents some significant difference, not even considering the substantial differences in the types of equipment likely used, not limited to but including the modern hydrometer.

There are some steps I’m not considering individually such as the lowering and raising of the temperature during the initial cooking/boiling stage in the modern recipe, and the additions of certain amounts of water followed by resting done in stages in the medieval recipe. These elements are similar in both time frames and the exact details would differ from individual recipe and batch, especially in the medieval versions. It’s also worth noting that one possible procedural element in the Middle Ages, that of storage, is not being factored here. Ales (and beers) certainly could be, and would have been, stored in medieval Europe, and apparently thanks to someone paying attention to what happened to the ale or beer during the winter and realizing that the product kept up some fermentation even at the colder temperatures, this led to what we now call “lager”. Also worth noting, the yeast used in these processes would most likely have been used a second time in bread baking.

I remember a few years ago at a medieval academic conference, there was a social hour during which beer brewed according to medieval methods and recipe, and using the medieval ingredients (or as close as is possible), was served. I don’t remember the details but I do remember thinking that one of the samples was fairly weak tasting, and neither of the two I tried had the level of carbonation most modern beverages of similar sort might contain. Granted, modern technology includes the use of CO2 infusers and other ways to measure and control that factor, but I was still a little surprised. I know for a fact that brewing exclusively with yeast can result in some powerfully fizzy drinks, since in the past I have tried brewing my own cola and root beer. Interestingly, the Middle Ages and later eras had similar types of drinks. Brewed beverages made from herbs and spices (and/or maybe fruit) that were lower in alcohol were called “small beers” by the Renaissance, and references and recipes for such things survive from at least the eleventh century, the time St. Arnold.

So overall, it seems that beer is more complex in its history which may be why it’s so much more different now than it was in past centuries. Unlike bread, where the basics have not changed much, fermented brewed beverages not only varied more over time, they also have more varied history and language associated with them. These two features are probably related.

 

Works Consulted (short form):

http://allaboutbeer.com/article/lager-beer-vs-ale-beer%E2%80%94does-it-matter/

https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~pwp/tofi/medieval_english_ale.html

http://kecksrootbeer.com/?page_id=11

https://medievalmeadandbeer.wordpress.com/root-beer/

https://regia.org/research/life/brewing.htm

Medieval Baking, or Baking without Modern Ingredients?

One of the more interesting things, in hindsight, about the 2020 pandemic is how-when-why certain products suddenly become hard to find. Things like toilet paper and paper towels make some sense with people preparing to be staying home for an undetermined period of time, but the sudden scarcity of flour and yeast surprised me a little. Flour is starting to reappear with greater regularity on grocery shelves, but yeast is still hard to find, at least for any kind of reasonable normal(ish) price. I saw a strip on 3 packets of a common brand on Amazon going for over $20 not long ago. I also saw some of the reports about how a big part of the reason for the shortages was people suddenly deciding they wanted to learn how to/bake sourdough bread specifically.

Personally I do some bread baking, but I’ve never really cared to try sourdough; it’s just too much effort and it seems a little wasteful since you’re supposed to get rid of a large amount of starter every time you feed it. My point? I decided to consider if the Middle Ages had any insight into baking without a lot of the modern conveniences like dried yeast, baking powder or soda, etc. Full disclosure, I’m going to be relying more on general internet sources and my own knowledge than I might otherwise do but that’s just the way it’s got to be right now with most physical universities and their libraries closed.

As I was reminded by a recent re-run of the Great British Bake Off (or Baking Show, depending on where you are; in the US, Pillsbury had copyrighted the phrase “Bake Off” so the title had to be adjusted for American broadcast) {Season 2, episode 4 by the US airing), the oldest cookbook in England dates to the late fourteenth century, probably the 1390s during Richard II’s reign, and is titled The Forme of Cury, which essentially translates to Techniques of Cooking. I already had some general familiarity with this text since I had to use it for some research several years ago, but I hadn’t remembered that it was the oldest surviving cookbook in English/England. Here’s a link for reference: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8102 The preface alone is a fascinating introduction to the history of cooking and culinary practice and understanding in the ancient and medieval worlds of Western Europe. I’ve linked to an untranslated version, but it does have some explanatory notes.

Bread and bread flours are referenced as ingredients but there are no recipes for standard bread in the book. Bread was referenced as toasted, as crumbs, and as a whole loaf, but always prepared already. There are recipes for things like fritters but it seems assumed that the user of the book would already know how to make a bread dough or have bread already on hand. It’s entirely possible other cookbooks of the time from other countries might differ, but that’s another project. Unleavened bread was probably more common (oatcakes for example) especially among the peasant classes, but I’m more interested in considering the possibility for raised dough that might not use yeast.

According to Ken Albala, a food historian attached to the Getty (also a well published professor at University of the Pacific), after growing and milling the grain, the general practice would have been to create a basic starter of flour and water, and feed it for a few weeks as it attracted and grew natural yeast and bacteria. Then more flour, water and salt were combined, kneaded, and allowed to rise, and eventually baked. Albala notes that the earliest actual bread recipe in England with any detail dates to the seventeenth century. Medieval recipes also survive elsewhere in Europe that involve using beer, and the yeast therein, as well as those which call for the use of yeast itself. See for example, this article from Medievalists.net: https://www.medievalists.net/2013/07/bread-in-the-middle-ages/

For bread at least, it would seem that even in the Middle Ages, yeast was an important ingredient if you wanted a leavened bread. The natural starter sourdough method would appear then to be the technique to use if you were desperate to bake your own bread without yeast or chemical leavening.

Fritter recipes in The Forme of Cury used ale as the leavening agent when one was called for (and it wasn’t always). For example:

Take skyrwater and pasternakes and apples, & parboile hem, make a batour of flour and ayrenn, cast þerto ale. safroun & salt. wete hem in þe batour and frye hem in oile or in grece. do þerto Almaund Mylk. & serue it forth.

Translation (with some help from http://dictionary.medievalcookery.com/): Take parsnip and carrot and apples, and par-boil them. Make a batter of flour and eggs, add ale to the mixture, along with saffron and salt. Dip them (the root veggies and apple, presumably chopped and mixed) in the batter and fry in oil (probably olive) or grease (likely lard). Add to that almond milk and serve.

Almond milk was probably used here (and it’s pretty common in The Forme of Cury) because actual dairy would have been more likely to spoil very quickly, and thus was less commonly used for such recipes (this idea is from the same GBBO episode cited above). The ale would probably have served more like baking powder for a more or less instant puff of the dough, since there’s no reference to rising in the recipe.

The Forme also contains recipes similar to various forms of tarts and pies, yet these usually do not involve a yeasted dough. Usually the only instruction for the pastry in the main recipe was to call for a “cofyn”, as with the following recipe for apple tart:

Tak gode Applys and gode Spycis and Figys and reysons and Perys and wan they are wel ybrayed colourd wyth Safroun wel and do yt in a cofyn and do yt forth to bake wel.

Take good apples and good spices and figs and raisons and pears, and when they are ground well, color with saffron well, and add it into a crust, and put it forth {in the oven} to bake well.

Basically, it would appear that for most leavened breads, yeast was an essential ingredient, although it could be attempted via natural fermentation as in sourdough. Lesson 2 would be that bread along with pastry were 2 things common or artisan enough that they did not require recording, at least not in the earliest English records.

Keeping Things Somewhat Medieval Online

It seems like a lot of things you see about online teaching right now are about the sudden shift we all went through this spring from in person to online only courses, especially in places like Inside Higher Ed etc. Then there’s all the responses, often on social media which tend to take one of two positions: just surviving is what’s going on OR people are doing great things. The other thing I’ve noticed online a lot are comparisons between the virus situation in the world now and medieval plagues, and in the pieces by actual medieval scholars the main idea tends to be, the similarities are mostly superficial and if you look at the details (and most people won’t, let’s face it) things were actually a lot more complicated in the medieval world than is often credited.

These two near-simultaneous threads got me thinking about some of the parallels between the shift to suddenly entirely online education, and medieval pedagogy at the university level. You might think there’s nothing in common between the two times and methods, but at least in some ways, there are some interesting points of connection. Just for the record, what follows is not at all researched specifically in this context, nor is anything citable beyond my own memory. With libraries closed and being at a non-R1 institution (meaning without a fully stocked online library), this is the best I can do for now.

The basic medieval university program was based on the seven liberal arts for curriculum, and lecture and disputation in the classroom. The seven liberal arts were subdivided into the initial 3 (trivium) subjects of rhetoric, grammar, and logic, and the more advanced later 4 (quadrivium) of math, music, astronomy, and geometry. The specific content in each subject area was basically the classical texts by ancient and earlier medieval authors, and their main commentaries. In class, students would sit and take notes as the instructor read the textbook out loud; “lecture” comes from the Latin for “to read”, and this was in the days before the printing press (meaning personal books were probably beyond a student’s means). In order to progress to the next stage or complete their education, a student would have to participate and do well in a public debate called a disputation, which would involve interpretive argumentation based on the curricular texts. This is pretty over-simplified, but it’s the basic gist of how a medieval college student would be expected to learn.

So, some practices in the modern college or university classroom remain the same. Many instructors still “lecture” and expect students to take notes, students still need to prove their knowledge and skill to progress, and there is often some common educational content required of all students. One of the biggest changes at least philosophically is now one of the main objectives is to show students how to use critical thinking and come up with their own thoughts and reasoning. Not that this was entirely absent in the Middle Ages, it wasn’t, but the focus on individual interpretive creativity is most definitely a more modern focus.

One of things that I noticed was that the degree of interactivity between class members (including the instructor) dropped drastically when my students came back after an extended spring break to a purely online educational experience. This goes beyond students not discussing with each other as much as they might have in an in-person setting, but also when it comes to things like lectures. The most efficient thing could think of was to take the PowerPoints or lecture notes I already would have used, and added voice-over to them for the students to play and listen to in their own time. This makes the lecture experience considerably less interactive than it would have been otherwise, and at least a bit more like the medieval classroom experience.

A reason why the interactivity in particular stood out to me relates to the results of an informal survey I did of the students. As an extra credit option, they could fill out and return (online) an evaluation that specifically targeted the online section of the course (basically, the last month of class). One of the questions asked directly about the degree of interaction: did they like the lower degree or working with their class mates or would they have preferred more, and why? What surprised me was that of those who chose to do the extra assignment, there were actually more in favor of the less classmate interaction than more. While there are all kinds of reasons why this might have happened, a lot of the reasoning given was similar: students liked being able to think at their own pace. I had asked students about a week after we’d gone online to take a survey embedded in our course management software concerning if they wanted me to implement video interactivity or other more person to person technology to raise the options for discussion beyond the discussion board.

Of the three classes this was put to, a total of zero students filled out the survey. While this may have been partly due to student unfamiliarity with the tool involved, again I was a little surprised that no one was in favor of more personal interaction, because most modern pedagogical reasoning would be that many students prefer being able to discuss and interact with each other before committing to ideas or possibilities. The modern concept of there being benefit to being exposed to a variety of possibilities and reasonings before fully working out one’s own is on the one hand seemingly in opposition of the medieval focus on knowing the “correct” interpretations and reasons, and yet I was faced with students saying they preferred something almost similar to the medieval experience by working more with the texts and my lectures by themselves, as they might have in preparation for a medieval disputation.

While there certainly were students who stated their preference for more interactive personal discussion and education experience, as I was expecting, they were not in the majority. This takes me back to an article I read somewhere that suggested that many modern students actually like getting the facts and starting point interpretive ideas that often form the basis for most lectures. I also have to consider how, in a course that had been online the entire semester, students rarely engaged with the interactive options, including the discussion board, video chat, as well as voice only, any more than they were required to for a grade. Out of a class of over 20, there were about 4 or 5 students who regularly used those options. While technological experience is likely a factor, this phenomenon still seems to me to suggest that for all the focus and value put on modern students personally connecting with their instructor and each other, there might also be something to the medieval models.

I don’t know enough about the historical details of the various plagues that came through Europe in the centuries of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to speak in any detail on how those situations compare to our own world in 2020, but the one thing I will say about comparisons to those situations and now was that when addressing Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales the basic premises of concepts such as the quarantine and social distancing made those texts a lot more interesting to teach. I had already designed an assignment involving re-writing a frame and tale, and as you might expect students really used that to consider their own life situations or those of people around them in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The thing that really got my attention beyond how much thought students were seeming to put into this assignment compared to others was that no one took the comparison too far, that is I didn’t have to correct anyone on trying to get too ahistorical with the plague that formed a part of Boccaccio’s frame.

In any event, if nothing else, I have learned from this last month’s teaching experience that students will 1) surprise you no matter what the situation, and that 2) the Middle Ages are still relevant in a lot of interesting ways.

A Few Ideas Comparing the Past and Present

I was reading a book a while back about the importance of a handful of beverages in social history. Coffee was one and the coffee house was really the main focus of the chapter. Basically, in the Enlightenment (18th century Europe) the coffee house was the one of the social and intellectual centers of life for most people. While I had some problems with how the book in question presented and interpreted its information, it got me thinking about my own habits in coffee shops. Since I was in graduate school, the local Milwaukee coffee shops were where I got a lot of my academic stuff done. They also were good meeting up places for social get-togethers. When I moved half a country away, one of the first things I did was find the local places, and there’s been one or two added since then (about 5 years ago).

Two now come to mind: one, the current pandemic and social distancing practices, and two, what would the medieval equivalent have been?

I can’t think of a general equivalent of such a location for the Middle Ages that matches well; it would have to be somewhere that had both practical/business and social functions, as well as cater to a wide range of different kinds of people. Taverns could be an option, but those weren’t quite as socially diverse as a modern coffee shop, at least not to my knowledge. Certainly there were such places for the nobles and places for the upper class peasants and places for the lower classes, but was there much or any intermixing? It’s either too bad most libraries are closed right now, or this could be a chance for trying to research like most students would want to start (as in, To the Google!). Church or local festivals of public functions might be another option, but those are less about location and business, at least in some ways. It’s an interesting question in terms of history, but also in terms of modern society. How socially open are modern coffeehouses? Starbucks for example is supposedly open to any and all, but when you go into one, there isn’t necessarily a wide mix in terms of social standing.

Medieval Europe also has experience with pandemic and plague outbreaks, although Black Death was bacterial not viral. The bubonic plague of the 14th century does have some significant parallels including the social panic and distancing (think the frame of Boccaccio’s Decameron), as well as the origins of the term “quarantine”. Again, the details are quite different than the now, but the general parallels do make for interesting ideas.

Besides adapting to a lot more life and work online, I’ve also noticed another phenomenon with connections to the medieval past including the roles of books and reading, and personal written works. I kept a diary when I was younger (as in 20 years ago) but I have over recent years started to keep a journal when travelling. That’s unlikely to be much of thing for me this year since most of my summer travel has been canceled or postponed, but I have started to keep track of what goes on in daily life since social distancing went into full effect in my area, not quite two weeks as of this moment of writing. Looking at what I’ve got so far, it’s mostly just listing off things done, but also includes some general observations about for example how exciting it was to see a display of toilet paper and paper towels that wasn’t totally empty in a grocery store a few days ago, or how I took my fairly new car through a drive through for the first time ever (as in first time for the car, not first time ever for me). The travel journal was a major genre in the middle ages, to the point where now it’s hard to tell some of the fact from the fiction. For example, the Book of John Mandeville and the Book of Margery Kempe both contain aspects of actual travel as well as interpretive observations and thoughts and feelings about what’s been going on for the author. Then you’ve got the more household familial texts, like the Paston letters. The interesting thing here is that the forms are not quite what we might now call a journal, since Mandeville and Kempe’s are travel texts (at least as one of their main genres) and the Paston books are epistolary collections. The personal diary as we know it becomes a thing a bit later in history.

Then there’s the reading. Books as objects especially in the earlier part of the what we might call the medieval era would not have a been a common item in most households, since the printing press wasn’t around yet, and even towards the end of the fifteenth century when it was still a newer thing. Storytelling might have been one general option, and the popularity of the story telling collections from this time (Boccaccio, Chaucer, Christine de Pizan – not necessarily in any kind of order here) suggest this might have actually been a possibility. Today, there’s a lot on social media about how some people plan to catch up on their reading, but there’s also responses about how realistic of an expectation this might be. Fiction definitely seems to have some kind of social effect, not just for the entertainment value (although it’s certainly that) but also for the ‘escapist’ factor. I would be willing to bet that there’s a good bit of promise in the idea, since I know that there’s plenty of scholarship on the book as an object. I also have to wonder how far a research project into the use of fiction as a coping mechanism could go without a research library since I for one find great value in shelf browsing. Not that the databases etc. aren’t good places to go, they are, but sometimes finding exactly the right search is a struggle, and you find the best sources by checking out what’s near whatever it was you had found in the catalog.

There have already been some more public comparisons to history of pandemics and outbreaks of disease, and this one here is by no means detailed or comprehensive. I’m mostly considering a series of general ideas and how they might apply both to the past and to the present, and maybe a little intot he future.

Getting Medieval on Theory

I face an interesting challenge this fall: teaching my first theory and methods for English majors course. I’ve had to start thinking on it now since textbook orders are due late February. I was surprised how few theory anthologies there are which are not $100 plus, or mostly summaries of ideas without actual excerpts (preferably longer ones) of the actual original theories. I had the idea that for the first ¾ of the class I would choose a single base text that students could practice on. Ideally, this would be something of manageable length, has been around long enough to have been subjected to a variety of examinations, and not too much of a chore read, meaning something most students are likely to have at least heard of if not had to read bits of before. Not a deal breaker but also preferable would be something I’ve studied in some detail myself, so that gives me medieval works like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Shakespeare was also an option for a while (I was thinking either Macbeth or Midsummer Night’s Dream), but I figured that a) there might be too much on some of the plays, and b) I don’t know the scholarship off hand quite as well, meaning more set up work for me.

The full semester at my institution is 16 weeks, which means I can cover about 12-13 areas of theory; there needs to be an intro week, and a few weeks at the end to focus on the main end-of-course paper/project. It’s going to take me a while to really get things fully designed, but for a starting point, here’s an initial list, in no particular order: feminist studies, gender studies, Marxist, new critical, new historicism, eco-criticism, race studies, queer theory, post-colonialism, structuralism, deconstruction, disability studies, psychoanalysis, reader response, and cultural studies. I did find a theory reader that has a decent balance of description and actual readings from theorists, as well as some sample applications. It’s slightly out of date for some theories but I can deal with that with some supplementary lecture and articles.

The other side of the course is the methods side, and I found that textbook pretty quickly after getting a hold of several library titles that looked promising, and one of them was exactly right, although it too is a few years out of date, but not unmanageably so. This handbook covers general research resources both online and print, bibliography, history of the book and editing literary texts, history of the discipline, interdisciplinarity, translation, media, and planning/executing a larger research project. My literary trial text needs to be something that has options for all of these areas, and with medieval literature, many of them are pretty accessible, even for mid-level undergraduate students.

So besides the obvious need to overlap and work out scheduling time for each thing to be covered, I still need that literary test piece. If Beowulf and SGGK are my main choices, the big question now is which one will work best, again bearing in mind the level of my students.

Beowulf:

Feminist reading: Gendel’s mother and the Hrothgar’s queen

Gender: masculinity and warriors

Marxism: social hierarchies and some of the transactions between families during war/feuds

New Critical: details of the poetic forms

New Historical: cultures of the original time and place of composition

Eco-criticism: landscape descriptions, role of environment, interactions with outdoors

Race: the controversy and contents of the new collection of essays that was all over social media late 2019; also Gredelkin as racially other

Queer: less of the sexuality angle, more on the otherness identities of some characters

Post-colonial: Grendlekin as native against the Danes, maybe Geats and Danes in each other’s lands

Structuralism: language and genre conventions, possible links to other Scandinavian epics or sagas; maybe bring up Tolkien here

Deconstruction: paradox and self-revelation possibly in Beowulf the character

Psychoanalysis: dreams, prophecies (alluded to in the songs), and maybe Beowulf and Grendel’s mother

Disability: this one will be trickier but I’m thinking maybe old Beowulf’s final battle

Cultural studies: possibly bringing in ideologies and nationalities

Reader response: ways to describe how people might react to and make meaning from the text

Beowulf also offers ample possibilities for all the basic methods components including bibliography, editions, translation, media, etc.

 

On the other hand, we have Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Feminist reading: Arthur’s queen, Morgan leFay, and Lady Bertilak

Gender: masculinity and warriors

Marxism: social hierarchies and the transactional nature of the bargains

New Critical: details of the poetic forms

New Historical: cultures of the original time and place of composition

Eco-criticism: landscape descriptions, role of environment, interactions with outdoors; the Green Man

Race: the othering of certain characters in certain situations, the casting of Gawain in the new movie, possibly race in Arthuriana

Queer: discussions of Gawain’s identity

Post-colonial: founding of Britain frame, Gawain and the Green Knight in each other’s territories

Structuralism: language and genre conventions, the Arthurian traditions

Deconstruction: paradox and self-revelation Gawain, but also the identities of the Green Knight, and possibly a few others

Psychoanalysis: symbolism, Gawain’s psychology, and Gawain in Bertilak’s castle

Disability: Gawain as guest in the castle vs the hunting; this one again might take a little work to get right

Cultural studies: possibly bringing in ideologies and nationalities of Arthur’s court vs the Bertilak’s

Reader response: ways to describe how people might react to and make meaning from the text

 

Much like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also has plenty of strong options for the methods areas to be covered.

So far, the two texts are roughly equal. It comes down to text options. Both texts are available in a range of translations and edition types. I decided I didn’t want an edition that comes with a lot of extra supplementary analysis either, because the goal of using the text would be for the students to start working on their own analyses using the various theoretical and methodological applications. Part of the decision came from personal taste in terms of translation options, and I also wanted something that kept some of the original style or language but that was done in a readable way for a 21st century student, and was readily available in a paperback or ebook under $20. I landed on Armitage’s SGGK.

What I’ve got listed here are really only the initial starting possibilities. As I start to focus on designing this course over the summer, I’ll be getting a lot more into the details of each theory as it has been and could be applied to the medieval text. I’m also going to need to consider how to align pairing theoretical work with methodologies. IF anyone has any ideas or advice, I’d love to hear it…