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Hey Chaucer, Where Are All Those Medieval British Literary Friends and Rivals?

Let’s play a game.

  1. Name a postmedieval author. (I pick George Eliot.)
  2. Look up their biography in a quick-reference source. (I use Wikipedia.)
  3. Find the friends, chance meetings, groups, and other contacts who made that author. (For example, “The people whom the young woman met at the Brays’ house included Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.”)

Successful authors usually have some contact with some other writer.

Sometimes the pairings become canonical in literary history, like Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare’s legendary rivalry (punctuated by this poem by Jonson written after Shakespeare’s death) or Sir Phillip Sidney and Edmund Spenser (Spenser called Sidney “a spotlesse friend, a matchlesse man,” and many other things in his pastoral elegy commemorating his death).

Sometimes the relations are familial: Mary Sidney Herbert and her brother Phillip Sidney; Dorothy Wordsworth and her brother William Wordsworth; collectively, the Brontes.

All of my examples are postmedieval because it’s harder to talk about medieval authors in this way. Who are Chaucer’s friends and contacts? I’ll tell you. Along the way, I’ll posit a few reasons why it’s harder to answer that question for Chaucer and other medieval authors.

Reason 1: Chaucer who? A lack of documentary evidence.

Authors over the past couple of centuries often have a wealth of papers, letters, publications, biographies, and other documents that give a pretty decent view of who they were. Living and recently deceased authors often leave their papers at libraries. (Salman Rushdie’s are at Emory, for instance.) They often produce boxes and boxes of material. The archival work to sift through these materials and make sense of authors’ lives and writings is ongoing.

Chaucer is one of the few medieval literary authors to have an archive of life-records painstakingly gathered over several decades (thanks University of Chicago Library!). Note that there isn’t that much – most of the material involves notes and secondary documents interpreting primary evidence. There’s a book with the actual life-records, prepared by Clair C. Olson and Martin M. Crow.

The life-records paint a picture of a government functionary who occasionally took trips to the continent for the crown, whose status was partly owed to his marrying Philippa, lady-in-waiting to the queen and sister-in-law to John of Gaunt (one of the most powerful men in England). Chaucer becomes a comptroller, and later organizes building projects for the crown. There’s very little reference to his literary productions, and very little by way of witty anecdotes. He receives from King Edward III a grant of a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life in 1374, but we don’t know why.

Derek Pearsall parses the records very well in his biography of Chaucer (review snippet here), noting many places where the record says less than other biographers would want. However (and as Pearsall explains more eloquently), when the primary evidence for someone being an author is their writing, and they aren’t writing about themselves, it’s hard to connect that writer to other people, let alone other authors.

So the life-records are a good read for exploring Chaucer’s relationship to the crown, not to other authors.

2. Langland who? Gower who? Usk who? The records of others.

If Chaucer had few documents about his life, contemporary authors  had far fewer. We only have William Langland’s name and scant biographical details from manuscripts of his poem Piers Plowman. Arguments can be made putting Chaucer and Langland in the same circle (like this one by Nicole Lassahn), but arguments have also been made that the biographical elements are neither verifiable nor important (C. David Benson says as much about the “Langland myth” in the book Public Piers Plowman).

For most authors, there’s a thin veneer of primary evidence that authors were familiar with each other, at least in writing. However, this stands unsubstantiated by other documents. Thomas Usk praises Chaucer in The Testament of Love, but his life-records mainly show that he became an under-sheriff in 1387 and was executed in 1388.

We know that John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer knew one another. According to Chaucer’s own life-records, when Chaucer went on one of his long trips to the continent in 1378, he assigned power of attorney over his English affairs to several men including John Gower. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde mentions Gower as an influence near the beginning, and Gower’s long Confessio Amantis praises Chaucer near the end.

We know there’s a friendship. We don’t know the details though – whether they talked together much, what they talked about, or what taverns they frequented.

3. Influences and fan-circles, or keeping the biography at arm’s length

By the late sixteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer has been moved to the head of an English literary history that authors use to defend the status of English language and culture. Chaucer becomes the father of English poetry for Edmund Spenser, Phillip Sidney, and others. This follows over a century of idealizing Chaucer by authors like Robert Henryson.

Chaucer too was working in his own networks of auctoritas, of authorial influence. His authorial persona in  Troilus and Criseyde cites Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Lucan, and Statius as poetic progenitors of his little book (5.1792). He mentions a few contemporary authors like Gower.

Listing influences is easy. It’s harder to demonstrate blood-and-flesh relations. This leads to some speculation about contact. Did Chaucer meet Boccaccio or Petrarch on one of his trips to Italy? Maybe, but the evidence is scant. How much did they influence him? I don’t know. Chaucer’s poetry has an Italian phase, most markedly when he writes Troilus and Criseyde. The form and style of his poetry demonstrates the influence. Biography is merely one way to speculate about how that influence came about. It’s not the only answer; manuscripts and word of mouth would have told Chaucer about Petrarch and Boccaccio.

Influence and auctoritas were more central to Chaucer’s writings than friendship, which pertains to a life we know very little about.

Shifting expectations, or finding friends in other places

The most prolific medieval author is anonymous. Most named authors are named by their own writing, with little or dubious connections to life-records. In most cases, it’s hard to talk about circles of friendship or influence in any fixed terms. The attempt may be historically interesting (how did people live then? how did writers sustain themselves?), but the hurdles are high for relevance or interest.

Literary scholars have a few options for approaching medieval friendships:

  1. Keep it biographical but take lots of licenses with speculation. Christina Hardyment wrote a biography about the fifteenth century author Sir Thomas Malory. It’s dazzling in its level of detail concerning life in the fifteenth century; the problem is she has to make many choices for which there is little or no evidence: she pushes Malory’s birth date back by 20 years to fit her narrative, she invents associations between Malory and various people in his life, and so on. Terry Jones did a similarly provocative book in Who Killed Geoffrey Chaucer? This is good for driving interest in these authors, but it requires lots of assumption to sustain the level of detail that readers of modern biographies expect.
  2. Focus more on the writing than the writer. This could mean paying attention to manuscript circulation, which gives clues to how writing was received. It could involve studying the writing itself, tracing allusions, meaning, and literary craft. It could be a material or cultural approach. “Friendship” then becomes one of many possible topics of study, with the key concern being the understanding of the concept in a given context and mode of writing. This can be dry or fascinating, depending on audience and pitch.
  3. Go medievalist. The first two approaches are primarily about medieval studies. A medievalist focuses on reception history, and on what motivates people to continually adapt and rethink medieval materials and ideas. How have people continually thought about medieval friendships (or literary friendships) over time? What are the stakes in Chaucer-as-father or Chaucer-as-friend or even the image I’ve represented here, of Chaucer-as-court-functionary? I’ll admit, I think it’s really cool that one of the best poets of the English language was a foreman. I delight in the contradiction it poses to people who think of construction as manual, unintellectual work.

Thirteen Echoes of the New Wonder Woman Film: A Retrospective Reflection

Superhero films are 21st century medieval romances. They are exciting amalgamations of various influences, part-period piece and part-adventure. Their subjects are exceptional, standing out from a society that they nevertheless usually rejoin by the end. They speak to their present-day contexts in how they reimagine the origins of established heroes and how they bring formerly marginal heroes to light. The side characters and margins are often as interesting as the heroes.

We are now over a decade into a revival of superhero films. We’ve reached a point where the films cannot help but echo each other, just as they echo their near-exemplars (action films and dramas of the past several decades; superhero storylines in their comic parents) and their more distant cousins (sci-fi and fantasy adventures, epic, noir and procedural narratives, medieval romance).

When I saw Wonder Woman this weekend, I was captivated by the origin story of Diana of Themyscira. The film is a success story of working parts coming together through strands and associations. I prepare this post (with the Wallace Stevens-influenced number “thirteen”) to gather some of the allusions and echoes that make it succeed.

  1. Wonder Woman the Amazon

The Amazons long captivated medieval and early modern audiences. To some, like Geoffrey Chaucer, the Amazons offered a space to explore female agency and subjectivity. Emily, an Amazon and love-interest to multiple suitors in The Knight’s Tale, resists marriage. As lecturer Roberta Magnani points out in a recent article, Emily evades their advances and flees to a temple. She prays to her goddess Diana to intercede, but Diana says that she has to marry. Amazons frequently appear only to be taken in marriage – Hippolyta in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream fares similarly, with Theseus establishing in the first scene that their nuptials were won by his sword:

Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph and with revelling. (1.1)

Oberon and Titania in Act 2 Scene 1 discuss their respective former loves Hippolyta and Thesus. Titania describes Hippolyta as “the bouncing Amazon, / Your buskin’d mistress and your warrior love.” Buskined or booted, the warrior side always stands to be paired with love, so restrained by plots that often depict the Amazon existing after her warrior days and put within a domestic role.

In Wonder Woman, that’s the threat that the American spy Steve Trevor poses. He – and the German soldiers chasing him – are conquerors who threaten to take these women away by swordpoint, by gunpoint, and by the potential for romantic love. The filmmakers had to write Steve into and out of the narrative without taming Wonder Woman in the process.

2. Wonder Woman the female knight

In Wonder Woman, there are hints and glimpses of Bradamant and Britomart, female heroes from the 16th century epic romances Orlando Furioso (Lodovico Ariosto) and The Faerie Queene (Edmund Spenser). All three characters leave a home intended to keep them safe, proceed on epic journeys that intercede in already-existing conflicts, and fall in love with a dashing knight-type along the way.

Arms set Wonder Woman apart from the women around her. After Steve and his secretary Etta realize that Diana cannot walk in public wearing body armor and a leather skirt, they take her to a department store and she tries on dresses that restrain her ability to fight. She finally settles on a trenchcoat and hat combination that closely resembles Steve’s own dress (functional, nondescript, not conventionally feminine). Then, as they walk out, she carries her sword and shield in hand. Even in the armor of fashion, her fight-ready habits are hard to break.

Her temporary containment is relieved by her ability to fight in battle. From the front-line trenches, she emerges and reveals the armor that had been hidden, using her bracers and then her shield to block oncoming shots. She proves herself through the arms and armor she prefers to wear, not the various fashions others would prefer for her.

3. Training areas

An influence of contrasts, perhaps. I didn’t recognize Robin Wright at first as the Amazon general Antiope. Her stern, no-nonsense approach to martial training and to preparing the young Diana to fight. Amazons leap, shoot arrows, block, ride horses, and otherwise perform feats of peak athleticism. They take blows with stoic determination.

This fit a mini-genre of training and exercise that has appeared in films since at least Spartacus (1960), with its whirling appartus for training reflexes and its focus on individual combat.

The brave hero often witnesses this as an outsider or beginner. The methods are shown in order to show what the hero will eventually become and exceed. Conan’s wheel of pain, Mulan’s tall pole, Captain America’s boot camp scenes all show development and the potential for growth. Even the recent film King Arthur (2017) featured an arena training area next to young Arthur’s abode in the brothel.

4. Captain America

One of the reasons Wonder Woman may have been moved to World War I rather than World War II may have been to avoid direct comparisons with Marvel’s patriotic counterpart’s film, Captain America (2010). Despite the setting change, the similarities are many: a rogue scientist who defies the wishes of the German military, an ensemble crack team put together to fight that scientist, and a hero who sacrifices himself to destroy a plane loaded with a deadly weapon.

Some of these parallels are between Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Steve Trevor, not between the Cap and Wonder Woman. I’ll have to think about why that’s the case. One answer is that the two Steves are consummate soldiers. They want to fight. They recognize the gruesome brutality of war, but come out with an ethos that exceeds either blindly following a bad leader or not doing anything at all. Neither of them are born heroes or having particular powers.

Wonder Woman is born a demigod who sees nothing wrong with leaping off ledges. She is noble and compelling, but not down-to-earth.

5. Otherworldly Heroes

Wonder Woman is in a long line of heroes who know little or nothing about the world they’re entering. They’re outsiders, aliens whose incredulity speaks volumes to the depravity and absurdity of present circumstances.

Her naivete mollifies the rebuke she offers present social structures. On the one hand, Wonder Woman seems naive about human relationships, including why Steve might be reluctant to sleep next too her. On the other hand, she’s read a twelve-book study which concludes that men are necessary for reproduction but unnecessary for sexual pleasure, a point with which sexologists today may agree but which many men would find uncomfortable to acknowledge.

There are glimpses of the 1980s rom-com Splash or its 1990s cousin Kate and Leopold. Perhaps closer to Wonder Woman’s type are stories about powerful outsider beings who prove to hold their own, like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, who frequently saves the day while also providing opportunities to expound on common human relationships. (See also Eleven from Stranger Things.) Thor also fits this pattern somewhat.

6. Scenes featuring soldiers et. al. at train stations

People are milling about at a train station in wartime. Who’s there? Traveling soldiers? Nuns? Bureaucrats? Children? These scenes are standard in war films: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) begins with one version of this, featuring kids gathered during the evacuation of places likely to be bombed in World War II:

The Great Escape (1963) features a similar station on the German side in World War II, this time with the escapees of a German prison trying hard to fit in. It is possible to go darker, focusing on Jews and other prisoners of the Nazis being sent to concentration camps. It is also possible to go lighter or more comedic, like trying to find a platform 9 3/4s.

Wonder Woman made at least one notable choice in their depiction of the train platform. The film showed Sikh soldiers, conspicuous in their turbans and facial hair. They are extensions of the British Empire, at once insider and outsider, at once serving their country and put in a second-class station within it.

7. The sniper in the tower

A sniper in a tower is a common war motif. They are often a dangerous element because they hold the high ground and are difficult to take out. Often they get the drop on heroes. Saving Private Ryan (1998) shows this in action:

Oftentimes getting the sniper requires one to have a countersniper or to spend a long sequence trying to get behind the sniper (Full Metal Jacket does this latter option). Wonder Woman tweaks the motif to her benefit. Like Indiana Jones pulling a gun on a swordsman, she jumps directly into the bell-tower, collapsing it and the sniper inside. Crisis averted.

8. Falling in love in a forbidden place

In Wonder Woman, Diana chooses to leave Themyscira once German soldiers kill her aunt Antiope and several of her countrypeople.  Steve promises that, if she helps him escape the island, he will bring her to Ares so that she can stop humans from warring. Good deal, right? She chooses this against the wishes of her mother Hippolyta.

The film does not rely explicitly on love. Instead, it sets up some witty repartee before and after leaving the island that show early promises of chemistry. Diana is not seduced away, but rather convinced by an appeal to her convictions.

All of this is in the shadow of narratives where men enter forbidden spaces and fall in love with women, who they either convince to come with them or eventually run into again. In Marie de France’s lai Guigemar, the titular knight travels in an uncontrollable boat to a garden where a lady is kept by her jealous husband. They fall in love but eventually Guigemar is discovered by her lord’s chamberlain. They exchange tokens of love and depart, to be reunited later on when those tokens are revealed publicly at a tournament put on by Guigemar’s lord Meriaduc, who has seized this lady.

Convoluted, right? Yet the basic pattern persists in many a familiar story and fairy tale. Jealous fathers, husbands, and witches frequently control access to women, and are freed by the efforts of an outsider hero against a guardian’s wishes. I’ve just described a fair number of Disney films, as well as a few fairy tale types, like Rapunzel.

However, Diana frees Steve, and not the other way around. By subverting that motif, Diana becomes the hero. Nor is she reduced to a damsel in distress after that moment; as partners, she more than holds her own.

9. Defeating the enemy through the power they exert

In the climactic fight of the film, Ares attacks Wonder Woman, using the implements of war and their fragments against her. Several times Wonder Woman goes flying, only to get up again and try to attack back. The tables turn when Ares begins blasting her with lightning. Wonder Woman grimaces as she is blasted by wave after wave. Perhaps Ares’s words about human futility begin to sink in.

Then she sees the plane loaded with bombs flying in the sky. She remembers Steve’s words to her, and his need to sacrifice himself. The plane explodes. She rises. Then Diana uses the lightning against Ares.

The scene works at several levels at once. Ares is Zeus’s son; Diana is Zeus’s daughter. The lightning could only work if Diana remained out of her own element, if she failed to realize her status as Zeus’s heir and as a believer in human potential. Once she gets it, all the pieces click into place, and she can deflect the lightning back at them.

I feel like more can be made of this. Superficial comparisons include the conclusion to the Harry Potter series (with Harry withstanding Voldemort) or the second trilogy of Stephen Donaldson’s series about Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, where the villain takes the hero’s weapon, tries to use it against him, and dwindles to nothing in his attempted exertions.

10. Rambunctious children of gods

Diana trying to leap off into nothing and causing her caretakers no end of trouble reminds me of the Disney film Hercules and the story of baby Hercules killing snakes sent to kill him.

Baby Hercules strangling a snake. Second century CE. Public domain. Wikipedia.

If there were any doubt that Diana was a child of some god (or Zeus specifically), the similarities between her rambunctiousness and stories of children of gods (Hercules and Achilles both leap to mind) shows who she could be.

11. Slow-motion fighting

One complaint often uttered against action films or superhero films is that the actual action is nearly incomprehensible to the human eye. Blurs of fighting, while seeming grand or visually impressive, may leave people wondering who has the upper hand or what’s going on.

Various action film-makers have approaches for stylizing fighting. Jackie Chan’s action films used relatively simple techniques to put more focus on strikes, blows, and paired movements, giving them more visual oomph without a big effects budget. On the higher-tech end, slow-motion allows one to break down the movements of fighters who are otherwise superhuman in reaction time. The Matrix (1999) is a classic of this method, featuring heroes who fly and pirouette through hails of bullets.

In the best action moments of Wonder Woman, both low-tech sensibility and high-tech slow motion take hold to give clarity and emotional significance to the action. The no-man’s land scene would provide a great study of this. The environment puts her at a disadvantage, and it’s clear that crossing that expanse of land is painful, especially as the machine guns start to fire at Wonder Woman, who is brought to  a grimacing standstill under her shield. She’s undertaking and enduring a trial in order to help a town on the other side of the German line.

The grim situational setup is then complemented by slow motion. The first time she deflects a bullet with her bracer has the force of a dawning revelation. The bullet comes. The camera shows the bracer knock the bullet away. Diana’s face in that moment observes and processes. “Oh,” I have the luxury of time to imagine her thinking. She’s ready. She’s becoming the hero that the first half of the film set up.

12. Sergeant York

I refer to the Gary Cooper-led biographical film of the American hero from Tennessee, released in 1941. It is a favorite of mine; York is a hillbilly who is drawn into a war he objects to fighting in due to his religious beliefs. Despite his reluctance to fight, he steps up under extreme duress on the front lines, turning a botched mission into a triumph when he captures a machine gun nest that had pinned his unit down.

There is an arithmetic similarity between Wonder Woman and Sergeant York – they both lead the charge to neutralize a machine gun nest. The actions take place within a month or so of the armistice signing. Both ultimately fight out of a desire for peace.

One is a superhero from a Greek island. The other is an enlisted soldier from Tennessee. Nonetheless, both depictions rely on setting up long odds and a determined stance against war to define a kind of patriotic heroism, where American or otherwise allied heroes defend people against the menaces of war.

Also, one other note – both Gary-Cooper-as-Sergeant-York and Wonder Woman were first released in 1941, in June and October respectively. They were born from the moments before the US joined the Second World War but after the US had decided to lend economic aid to France and the UK. The stars, the red/white/blue color scheme, the off-color uniform or circle setting off the hero – this was consistent patriotic messaging.

Warner Bros. poster for Sergeant York, 1941. Fair use, Wikipedia.
Harry G. Peter (artwork), DC Comics, Sensation Comics no. 1. Fair use, Wikipedia.

13. The band of loyal misfits

What war or adventure film would be complete without a band of loyal misfits who are willing to accompany the heroes out of friendship and allegiance to common views?

In medieval romances, this affiliation might emerge out of familial connections or shared histories. In Le Morte Darthur,  Arthur, Lancelot, Tristram, and others attract knights who follow them. Tristram’s group qualifies as a semi-consistent band, consisting of Sirs Gareth, Dinadan, and Palomides, and sometimes guest-starring other knights. Charlemagne’s twelve peers end up being a band of this sort in various gestes and romances. The Song of Roland is the tip of that iceberg.

Modern examples abound, so much so that the veteran soldier who goes on one more mission, the “face” with several languages under his belt, the sharpshooter with some trepidation of his own, and the smuggler are virtually types. For example, the A-Team combines the smuggler/face, has a strongman and pilot instead of a sharpshooter, but otherwise follows this. The Dirty Dozen, the Expendables, and even The Avengers have some version of this team.

Wonder Woman features a multicultural version of this team. None of them fit into conventional English society. There’s the American, the Amerindian, the Scotsman, and the fez-wearer possibly from North Africa. They all work for money. Nonetheless, when the time they were paid for runs out, they continue to serve. Wonder Woman, or the cause she pursues with Steve, earns their respect and affiliance. They are there so that she can bring them together, and perhaps to show that while heroes exist, heroes can’t do everything alone.

There’s more. Far more. Rather than trying to represent the most important echoes, I want to spark reflection on these many echoes and rhizomes. Wonder Woman is great not in isolation, but in the way it resonates with various depictions of heroes, women, and action more generally. Maybe not for the first time but at an opportune time, it brings such a hero into clarion focus.

Challenging Steve King’s supremacist gesture to history, or finding the inclusive “we” in history

When the medieval period (or “history” more broadly) is applied in vague sweeping terms to support white supremacist policies, is it being misapplied? Applied contrafactually? (Implying the facts go against it.) Applied afactually? (Implying the facts are not there to support it.) Whatever the most accurate method for describing statements, it seems wrong to give in to a paralysis of method. The medieval period is being used to support white supremacist statements and policies, and it’s wrong.

Today, I consider the tweet by Steve King, a representative from Iowa, who lended his support to the anti-EU faction in the then-upcoming elections in Netherlands. In response to a blond-haired political candidate (the Trump-like Geert Wilders) tweeting an image where he has his finger in a dike labeled Western Civilization, King said, “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” The popular coverage covers the immediate racism. I want to represent the imagined medieval period conjured up by statements like this, in order to point out the collaborative, networked, pluralistic vision earlier contexts can show us, ones we stand to learn from today.

First, note King’s assumptions. For candidates supporting white supremacism, it’s important to depict civilization as a singular quasi-proper noun that is in freefall. There are not multiple civilizations, as melting-pot historians might claim, or multiple working parts that are sometimes called “a civilization” out of convenience. Neither King nor Wilders have time for abstract platitudes: civilization is ours. Whose? The people who agree in “culture and demographics,” qualities called “our destiny.” The context supplies what they allude to: white culture, white people, white destiny. Europa universalis.

Does this civilization just include white people, or also allow for the many groups caught up in the history of European civilization: Mediterranean traders, African slaves, Amerindians, colonial India, migrating tribes from the steppes? It should. However, King doesn’t split hairs. This civilization is under attack, and it cannot be restored with “somebody else’s babies” – whose? Somebody else’s. The odd “somebody” may be an artifact of a strict character limit. It may be avoiding the more pointed identification of a specific group. It reminds me of myths that connect racial differences to the sons of Noah: is “somebody” Ham or Shem, the less favored sons who populated Asia and Africa? Do we need to go that far to conjure the body of the racial Other: the babies of another culture or race? They’re claiming that procreation by other races is a threat to their culture.

So for King, civilization is under attack. How do they restore it? It requires a form of racial cleansing that ensures that only “we” produce babies, or that primarily “we” produce babies. (I don’t identify with this “we.”) I personally think that’s distasteful even at a glance. Race here is the scapegoat for present problems with terrorism, with rust-belt economic woes, and with many other unnamed problems. It’s a scapegoat partly because our problems with terrorism often come from white people: domestic terrorist incidents are often perpetrated by desperate white men, as even the cursory list of incidents on Wikipedia shows. Referring only to “radical Islamic terrorism,” as Trump insisted on doing in his State of the Union address, misses a proportional threat that may be radical but isn’t Islamic or Islamist at all.  ( ) (Most recently, there’s the anti-Muslim white man who recently killed two men who interceded in his rant against a Muslim woman.) “We” pose some of our own problems.

There’s also a broader historical basis for resisting King’s claims. Statements like King’s often assume that civilization was built exclusively by white men, that European and American history are histories of white people. Medieval history is time and again marshalled in support of this statement. King may imagine a dark time where white innovators like Michelangelo and Dante clawed us out from the precipice, through the birth canal of the Renaissance, and into the light of the Enlightenment to build “our civilization.” Some holes are easy to point out, including the idea that our racial discourse would have been foreign to the medieval people we identify as our progenitors. English dramatists at the turn of the 17th century didn’t regard Italians (like Michelangelo and Dante) as white-like-us, but as a foreign, attractive but potentially decadent other. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago can use Desdemona’s status as a Venetian woman to sow suspicion in Othello’s mind. As the stereotype goes, she may be duplicitous:

I know our country disposition well;
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience
Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown. (3.3.201–04) (see also:

Desdemona may confess her infidelity, Iago implies, but only to her priest and not to her husband. Similarly, the title of John Webster’s play The White Devil signals that its pale Italian heroine (Vittoria Corombona, “the famous Venetian Curtezan”) is suspect partly because of her ethnic status. In other words, a so-called seat of civilization would have been regarded with ambivalence during the period people call the English Renaissance.

The geography of medieval Europe did not draw its borders as strictly as anti-EU politicians like Wilders or King might want to assume. There was not a Christian, Catholic medieval Europe innovating in spite of the barbarous East. Rather, even England and France depended on an exchange of goods and information that connected in the Mediterranean. These Mediterranean networks were vital drivers of innovation and prosperity, as much integrated into North Africa and the Middle East as they were into the Greek, Italian, or Hispanic peninsulas. Medieval romances written after the twelfth century tapped into these networks as settings for their fantastic adventures. Sir Bevis of Hamtoun (Hampton) travels in Egypt and Armenia after being sold by pirates to a king of those parts ( Custance in Chaucer’s “Man of Law’s Tale” travels from Rome to Syria, travels adrift from Syria to Northumberland (!), and travels from there to Spain and back again to Italy. Arthur conquers Rome and fights kings from North Africa in Le Morte Darthur, while meanwhile fighting alongside “Saracen” knights like Sir Palamedes and Sir Safir. One can hardly read a romance without encountering a Sultan in Spain, a king from North Africa or Egypt, a Byzantine emperor, or a ruler from near Jerusalem. They were part of the same world and the same networks of influence.

These narrative threads reflect a world that views North Africa with ambivalence similar to that afforded to early modern Italians. Christianity and Islam were rival religions, and kingdoms within and beyond these religions were often rivals themselves. That said, trade goods like spices and fine clothes kept moving throughout the medieval timespan, and in places like Spain one could find Christian, Jewish, and Islamic courtiers and thinkers coexisting. That’s one reason why Ibn Rushd (ʾAbū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rushd, Latinized as “Averroes”) would wind up cited by Thomas Aquinas as a great commentator on Aristotle’s writings, “The Commentator” to Aristotle’s nickname “The Philosopher.” He directly grew the scientific knowledge and methods of Catholic theologians.

The Mediterranean trade also imported a more robust form of algebra. Algebra is the medieval product of many cultural contacts. Persian contributions are particularly significant: Al-Khwarizmi and “reduction” to solve equations; Omar Khayyam and geometric applications to algebra; Sharaf al-Dīn al-Tūsī and the idea of a function. Indian, Chinese, and other people also contributed to algebra (for example, the number “zero” as an additive identity) before Fibonacci revived Italian interest in the art. Even after these frequent points of contact in the medieval period, it’s easy to find rich mathematical exchanges and developments between people from various cultures. For instant, Seki Kowa from Japan would come up with the concept of the determinant, applied independently a decade later by one of the parents of calculus, Gottfried Leibniz.

It’s impossible to know what our fields of knowledge would look like without these inventors’ contributions. For King, these people aren’t a part of the “we.” They’re “somebody else’s babies,” people who deserve to be isolated by Trump’s immigration ban. Yet, if we’re going to make such comparisons, it’s worth repeating that the scientific revolution may have never happened if it weren’t for these exchanges of people, ideas, and goods. England wouldn’t be England without the many influxes of new people – the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Normans, Moors, Dutch, Indians, and on and on. Even today, the impact of Steve Jobs (child to Syrian parents) may be quantified; the local impact of immigrant doctors working in Appalachia is considerable but tougher to define. Racial thinking can’t bear these particulars, so they have to rely on a version of medieval history that is necessarily partial: romances and knights without the obvious Mediterranean context, kings and Church without the trade of spice, Aristotelian physics without the Islamic and Jewish philosophers who further developed and applied it. The modern stories they support also end up partial, focusing on the needs of an imagined, restricted “us.”

“Our civilization” doesn’t thrive by counting up the contributions of one demographic group and considering them superior. If history can bear a generalization, it’s that we (collectively now, no quotes or “somebody else” in opposition) need each other – as individuals, as groups, as overlapping “civilizations” – to define who we are and to address our current problems.

Games and Imagining History: Europa Universalis IV

The chair of the School for Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech, Richard Utz, is an avowed medievalist. I don’t get to talk to him as much as I would like, but in our conversations and his writing I’ve found a deep combination of intellectual curiosity and pragmatism. A recent interview with ARC Humanities Press on the occasion of his latest book (Medievalism: A Manifesto)[1] offered no surprise. Indeed, it clarified what I’ve long felt about medieval studies: we need to be having bold, explicit discussions about our own relationships with the material we study. Even if we attain to the study of medieval literature as situated within its own time (and I do), we need to acknowledge how our studies are also self-studies or autobiographies of interest:

I think it’s an epistemological fallacy to believe that a scholar, the investigating subject, needs to be kept strictly separate from the scholar’s research, the subject under investigation. I believe with Norman Cantor (Inventing the Middle Ages, 1993) that all scholarship is, in the end, a form of autobiography and that the multitude of scholarly endeavors to recuperate the Middle Ages has only resulted in ever so many (subjective) reinventions of that time period. In the end, an amateur (from Latin amare, to love) or a dilettante (from Italian dilettare, to delight) is not so different from a scholar of the Middle Ages, who has simply sublimated his or her love for the medieval past into a formal academic practices like editing, translation, or criticism.

That’s not to say the study of earlier times has no value or credibility. Far from it. It is an admission that we give life to what we study, that sooner or later we build a version of earlier times based on what we know of that time and based on where we are now.

Why rehearse all of this? Well, I’ve been playing a game, Europa Universalis IV. Games commonly appropriate visions of the medieval and early modern past. As a game, I find it fun, but something rankles me about the way it depicts that past. I could say it is inaccurate, but medievalist games and texts are frequently inaccurate. My stakes here are partly political: I think Europa Universalis IV represents a version of the past that is explicitly nationalist and that hard-codes a supremacist vision of early modern Europe.

Representing and Simulating the Nation: Europa Universalis IV

Europa Universalis IV is a grand strategy game that simulates geopolitical developments over about 350 years: from 1444 to 1821. The original game primarily allowed control of only European countries; this one allows control of any area the game deems a “country.” Malacca, the Timurids, Ethiopia, and the Iroquois are all countries; aboriginal Australia is not, though the land remains colonizable to any country that sends a settler and a couple of thousand troops for fighting native uprising.

Controlling England roughly 40 years after the start date.
Controlling England roughly 40 years after the start date.

So EU4 is a country simulator, in the sense that it simulates a broad form of countryhood. For groups deemed worthy of countryhood, they have a generally consistent set of actions to perform. They can control their economic budget, influence trade through ship movements and sending merchants to trade ports, establish advisors, research technologies, appoint generals, reduce the autonomy of various provinces, build key buildings, build alliances with other countries, negotiate for trade benefits or military access, declare war, negotiate peace, mediate between factions of government, spread religion, and on and on.

The range of strategic possibilities is impressive. Through it all, the player’s own country is mostly transparent. Players can know month-to-month what their income will be, what the current risks for uprising are, how many soldiers they could levy in case of war, how long until they can research the next technology.

The game creates the illusion that, with sufficient statistics, total control and efficiency over one’s affairs is possible. Countries may not call these actions the same thing, but the implication is that all countries are capable of actions like these. What should players aim for, then? One implicit goal – as highlighted by the advice on the loading screen below – is to raise money to build armies and navies. Security, control, and expansion form the basis of these early modern states, much like our current postmodern ones.

Many loading screens like this pair advice about creating a successful nation with images of prospective leaders in historical dress.

Some superficial differences come in pre-coded events and administrative systems that players can shift between, sometimes at will and sometimes in response to events like revolutions. A monarchy can engage in royal marriage; a republic cannot. England experiences a set of events that lead early on to the War of the Roses and later on to the English Civil War, at each point allowing dynastic and administrative changes. Japan may also have unique events related to its own situation under a shogunate. The Aztec have an event called “doomsday” that occurs some time after the first colonial power arrives at its shores. Any colonial power will soon receive various events which urge a conflict between mercantilism and free trade, as seen below.

Tariffs on tobacco? Once someone starts colonizing, they go down a whole series of pre-determined events that give limited options. Arguably, colonizing itself is an option players are constrained to; as Spain, the alternative is to lose influence and thus lose player agency.
Tariffs on tobacco? Once someone starts colonizing, they go down a whole series of pre-determined events that give limited options. Arguably, colonizing itself is an option players are constrained to; as Spain, the alternative is to lose influence and thus lose player agency.

These events add a certain predestined cast over the game. From a game perspective, this is one of the most exciting parts of the game, providing an ability to follow a broadly conventional arc of history and deviate at key moments by choosing otherwise. This allows players to perhaps subvert a narrative of European colonialism. In one of my first games, I made Spain a non-colonial land power and intentionally attacked any country that began to pursue colonial policies. Something I realized as I played on: I had substituted European imperialism for European colonialism. I broke one pattern and reinforced another.

There are also limits to this kind of flexibility when I look at some of the game’s simulations. One system in the game involves every country having one or more favored “cultures,” and each province having a particular “culture.” On the one hand, this system encourages taking provinces that would share a common culture or language, producing the possibility of forming nations like Italy or Prussia. On the other hand, it makes much more difficult the possibility of a multicultural country, as provinces with cultures differing from the ruling ones tend to rebel more often. At best, they pose an occasional annoyance to a player. At worst, they repeat the rhetoric often seen in certain white supremacist groups: that multicultural countries are prone to disintegration. That implication leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, since my professional and personal beliefs hold diversity and respect as necessary values in civic life.

What can we do as players when player agency is focused only towards a narrow set of goals that support nationalism as a key ideology? Armies are required to secure borders from military intrusion; closed trade policies are required to preserve trade influence; expansion is required to resist incorporation into other expanding countries; culture is primarily employed as a potential source of division. While playing, I often wonder what implicit values Europa Universalis IV encourages in its players. I think the appeal to the early modern state provides possibilities for thinking about and tweaking established historical formulas (that’s why I play). At the same time, we need to be aware of the potential for games like EU4 to support nostalgia  for an inaccurate alt-history where countries are inevitably and relentlessly monocultural and conflict is a prerogative to being great.

[1] Of course I recommend you buy this book if you find Utz’s thoughts or how we think of the past at all interesting. A $15 book from an academic author is a manifesto in itself, a call to accessible (read: affordable) scholarship.

Thinking about teaching bite-sized board games

I am in the process of designing an introductory composition course for the fall semester. A bit of background: at the university I’ll be attending (Georgia Tech) their communications program is necessarily multimodal, using WOVEN (Written, Oral, Visual, Electronic, and Nonverbal) as a model for thinking about how we communicate. The spring version of the course is more focused on  research methods, so I’ll teach something related to medieval texts and culture. For the fall, the focus is on communication and critical thinking. I set myself a challenge: to address those concerns through material and assignments that are multimodal.

Why not board games? I’m already working on a summer presentation on the subject that may turn into an article. It is a hobby that I’ve read some criticism in. I can assign games and articles on games having already reflected on some of them, and can also sprinkle in some new material to keep us on our toes. In turn, students can communicate about games and design games to communicate.

I’ve planned a sequence of readings from a number of critics of games, from some popular writers on games, and from at least one guidebook to designing games. I’ve also planned a few playtests, class exercises designed to play, reflect on, and discuss the qualities of several games. Personally, I draw parallels to close reading a poem in-class – we engage with the material in a variety of forms and map out together what could be going on with the poem, over and under the hood.

I am also thinking of asking them to design a board game in several steps. Peer feedback in the form of playtesting or reviewing their games will be a part of the assignment sequence.

For both of these, shorter games are ideal. The remainder of my post will think about what picking shorter games will mean.

In a class period of 50 or maybe 70 minutes, a game of more than a half hour would be impractical to attempt to do. In turn, while I am not sure of the precise time involved in designing a game,* longer games tend to have more elements and tend to take longer. Length and complexity are not 1:1 or else Monopoly would be a much shorter game, but they do often correlate based on the number of pages in rulebooks.

manual illustration
Manuals for Alhambra (top) and Shadows over Camelot (bottom). The first, a 30-60 minute game, has 6 pages. The second, a 90 minute game, has 19 pages in one of its two manuals.

To follow up the idea I just stated, a shorter game may look lighter with regards to rules and material. I certainly envision small-box games like Saboteur, Love Letter, and Timeline. All of them are primarily card games. Shorter games that involve boards as well as cards, like the strategy game Condottiere, still are primarily a game that primarily use one mechanic. The map adds few complications and is used to determine the stakes of the each match.

Condottiere setup
A staged setup of Condottiere. The cards play out in rounds of play. Map tokens mainly map how many rounds someone needs to win. The cards could be played by themselves. Playing with the board alone would be like Tic-Tac-Toe.

Even so, there are shorter games that have a rather large apparatus. One of my favorites, Scotland Yard, features a map of the city of London, player tokens, fare tokens, a separate itinerary board, and a hat for the fugitive Mr. X. Its rule book in three languages is the thickest I pulled out for this post. It was a full box when I brought it from the UK to the US, and yet it takes only 30-45 minutes for an experienced group to play.

Scotland Yard box and setup.
Scotland Yard right out of my box. The tokens on the bottom left tend to mingle in-box. The board is folded to quarter-size.

So besides lightness other qualities are at play. One question: is the duration fixed? Scotland Yard ends after about 30 turns. Other short games are short because they have a definite end: a round of Love Letter ends when the deck runs out if not sooner, and the game ends when someone has won enough rounds. Some games are billed as short but are less definite about ending: Fluxx and Chrononauts are both billed as half-hour games when their flexible win conditions allow players to win in as little as 5 minutes or as much as 60.

peg game
A solitaire peg game. The possibilities restrict themselves over time, as each move eliminates a peg.

Whereas in chess or Stratego a game’s strategic possibilities degrade over time as pieces are lost, and in Candyland players move inexorably towards their goal, in Fluxx or Chrononauts the resources are never depleted. A draw deck can always be shuffled. A player is never fully out until one player wins. A playtest environment would be different for the latter games – in the alotted time some groups could play three games while one plays a more protracted game without finishing.

Fluxx hand and setup
A game of Fluxx. The goals and even rules can change, and players can run through the variety of cards without winning indefinitely.

Most games take more time to play in the first couple of encounters as players learn rules. In-game text seems to prolong the time it takes for newer players to play a game, since players will have to read the text and think about its unique effects on gameplay. In a game like Fluxx with over 50 distinct cards that each do an individual action, it can take a while for players to internalize their effects and understand them at a glance. Bang, with its shorthand symbols instead of in-game text, still takes some time to decipher. Scotland Yard and Tsuro require little in-game reading. One interacts with a set of choices prompted by the rules and the board. Not every tile is a rule-onto-itself.

Most often, chance is introduced to a game through rolling dice or shuffling cards. Sometimes a spinner is involved. Chance also introduces uncertainty to the length of play. Favorable cards or dice rolls help players win sooner, for instance.

poker hand; one player with full house
A fortuitous poker hand.

Finally, I can’t pretend that games are a closed medium. Players play games, and their own understanding, their habits of decisionmaking, their tendencies to deliberate or act all affect a game’s length. Some players will dally for minutes over the right move. Do they do so more often if the game establishes the stakes as being higher? Sure, and there’s also a component of personality. Some players are slower to decide. Furthermore, some team games give a lot of space for player debate. In The Resistance: Avalon, the choice of mission partners can take a few seconds or several minutes depending on the personalities and on which mission it is. If one side might lose with a lost vote, you bet they’re going to debate.

So these are some elements I’m playing with as I think through the course. Shorter games tend to function in particular manners – physically smaller with fewer mechanics, less writing, and contracted player choices. At the same time, for each of those observations there’s an exception: Scotland Yard is huge with lots of text, The Resistance: Avalon is built on nothing but choices, and (mostly) short games like Fluxx consist of nothing but writing. What I’m observing are not hard generic rules. They’re tendencies that will come out in whatever we decide to work with and what they decide to design.

I look forward to seeing the results already.

* In a way, this is a trial run of an assignment model. For that reason I’ll set a general rubric for the assignment that I’ll adjust based on feedback, and I’ll be careful about how much writing or designing is involved in each stage.

Kalamazoo 2015

Last month I attended one of the big medieval studies conferences. This is the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, colloquially named by the community that welcomes us, Kalamazoo (or #kzoo2015 on Twitter).

I wonder sometimes what my family members and friends imagine when I say I’m going to a medieval conference. Do they imagine me in Ren Faire garb speaking in Middle English? That is inaccurate. Others in academia guess far closer to the truth – they know we give papers and presentations, that we network and socialize. However, even conferences have flavors – how welcoming are they to outsiders? How cooperative or hostile are question and answer sessions? Are the customs more academic-professional or business-professional? And what tends to collect in an accretion disk around the conference, both marginal and indicative of its heart?

Black hole accretion disc
Artist’s impression of accretion disc around a black hole. Thankfully the centers of my profession are not nearly so all-consuming! From NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Flickr.

I’ll explore in a few parts.

1. Profession and network

We academics give papers, and medieval papers are no exception. This is a performative genre where the performance is sometimes acknowledged and sometimes disavowed. Some people read papers for 20 minutes. Others give a more extemporaneous presentation accompanied by images and text. Some are vocal and animated. Others lend primarily their voice and body language, eyes moving to and from the audience in individual cadence. I like both, but certainly they require a form of attention acquired with familiarity.

The discussions are much more accessible. At this conference, I’ve found the questioners tend to be much more appreciative of the work at hand, and try to build on and add to what people are doing. Rarely have I seen someone try to tear down someone else’s work here.

At the Q&A for my own paper on medieval game strategies as they play out in an episode of Le Morte Darthur, the questions moved from the panelists’ own work to thinking through the nascent field of medieval game studies as a whole. One recurring question at this panel, at postmedieval’s Quantum Medievalisms panel, at Richard Utz‘s excellent plenary talk on the future of medieval study, and on the following panel presentation on the next generation of medieval studies: how are the terms shifting to think through both traditional medieval studies – understanding the medieval as the medieval – and medievalism – understanding the appeal of the medieval even now? How do we form our studies going forward? Kalamazoo works as a space to build these answers together, hopefully without subsuming the multiple ideas currently at display. It’s harder to subsume people’s ideas when they’re in the same room as you.*

Hence networking. The groups I’ve met – the International Arthurian Society, the people in Spenser at Kalamazoo, Distaff, BABEL, Medieval Game Cultures – without an exception they are open to meeting with new people. Getting an invitation to a meal is a matter of asking, and their receptions are welcoming.

At any rate, the negatives listed in the recent Conference Manifesto that appeared in the New York Times only sometimes pertain. Both presenters and questioners do pretty well.

2. People and enthusiasm

First, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who choose to attend the conference exclusively because they like the subject. I met someone who was retired from pre-K education who loves learning about Anglo-Saxon England. A couple I had lunch with last year traveled to every one to hear about textiles, medieval history – everything they can hear!

Bayeux Tapestry - center and margins
Guy of Ponthieu meets with his captive Harold; from the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered work where the margins are as interesting as the central images. Picture from Dennis Jarvis, Flickr.

We also tap into our inner enthusiast. I filled my schedule with two performances. One, Malory Aloud!, is a yearly staged reading of the Arthurian work by Sir Thomas Malory. It was started by the medieval scholar D. Thomas Hanks, and this year was organized by Leila K. Norako and Kristi Castleberry. The pronunciation is faithful-ish (we sometimes slip a couple of centuries back or forward), the acting hammed up, the audience full of glee. This year we staged the war between King Arthur and the Emperor Lucius. There were giants, battle, oaths sworn, and very naughty references.

The other was a play by Daisy Black written around the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidery with a long history of survival.  A scholar in medieval drama by day, Daisy puts together a variety of performances for churches and schools. This was an early version of a play and workshop she wants to put on for schools in the UK. Our cast were all experts or enthusiasts, and the core five were talented historical fiction author Patricia Bracewell (William of Normandy), the Anglo-Saxon scholar and consultant Christopher Monk (King Edward, Guy of Ponthieu, and several others), eminent Anglo-Saxonist and textiles expert Gale Owen-Crocker (Embroiderer 1), the aforementioned Daisy Black (Embroiderer 2), and myself (King Harold).

Better reviews have been written than I will attempt. I’ll add just a few details. Reading and practicing the script were an exercise in close reading the images and material of the embroidery. The writing found many details in the margins that might be lost on a first viewing, and through quick story skits brought them into relation with the central story – Harold can be read as a fox, a wolf, a lion, or something else. An unambiguous usurper he is not. Even the effort of replicating a few of the poses, like the one above with Guy grasping a sword by mid-hilt, sparked discussions of how ridiculous or ordinary such a gesture might be. Is the mid-hilt blunt enough to hold in that way, or does Guy just not know how to hold a sword?

The broader point: people are very welcoming in these creative endeavors. At both, the people involved welcomed any and all to dinner afterward.  At both I interesting people, like the scholar who is finding through her PhD work that she really wants to go to seminary and become a minister, the retired manager of a lab for studying young children who comes to these conferences to learn more about a medieval culture she loves, and the graduate student who really loves medieval table-top RPGs.

3. Mingling

So the professionalization is both quantifiable and edifying – good for the CV and for our work. The performances are harder to quantify in traditional academic work, but their benefits are still both professional and personal – building friendships and new understandings of material that traditional readings might not easily access.

I think conferences need space for both. I’ve been to otherwise good conferences where it is difficult to meet new people, as the professional organizations and panel structure made it difficult to meet people I didn’t already know. Those organizations provide legitimacy for people within them, but make it hard for someone on the outside to find the door. On the other hand, I appreciate some structure that makes sure that some good work is going on amid the fun and socializing. Like a good game-master or task-master, scheduled events keep me focused on key ideas, insights, and questions. The ability to talk in-depth about expert topics is as important as the freedom to sometimes talk about our other lives with experts.

That’s the art of mingling, and Kalamazoo offers a good mix of both.

* This is a problem with the academic conference as a whole. The travel costs leave many potential attendees on the outside, either because they cannot afford to attend or because family obligations prevent them from doing so. Kalamazoo has a few scholarships that help, and their stable location makes travel more feasible than destination conferences whose exotic locales are part of the allure, but in this respect it fits the conventional exclusive mold of conferencing.

Illustrating why Old English is a different language

Cotton Vitellius A.xv, folio 132r. Better known as the beginning of Beowulf.

Our writing center had a party on Monday to celebrate  a successful semester and to say goodbye to departing tutors. As sometimes happens to medievalists, I got into a conversation about the history of English. One tutor mentioned how they learned that Shakespeare is not Old English, despite what some of her friends think. Another tutor chimed in: she’d heard that Old English was a different language. What does it look like? And what’s Middle English?

After a bit of back and forth, she asked this: “What would a simple sentence like ‘the sun is high in the sky’ look like in Old English and Middle English?”

Pin depicting the sun. From Salisbury, England, 14th c. Found via Kunera, database for late medieval badges and ampullae.

That is an excellent question. I worked out some of it with them. I’d like to give a fuller treatment here using both word choice and syntax to show how an Old English translation of that statement might vary.

Word choice

“The sun is high in the sky.”

So, when we’re translating into another language, we should recognize that several words may be potential translations of the one. These differences can change the tone of the piece. For instance, we could translate to modern English through direct paraphrase: “The daystar is far up in the heavens.” The shift of vocabulary creates a shift in register: this version sounds more poetic. Maybe it’s the metaphorical “daystar” or the multivalent “heavens.” It also breaks the sing-song rhyme of “high in the sky.”

“Heaven” by Theophilos Papadopoulos, Flickr. It’s hard to think of heaven without thinking, at least a bit, of the sky.

Some translators try to maintain a comparable register or tone in their translation. That can be difficult, since there’s no guarantee that the words’ connotations will precisely line up. In particular, Old English doesn’t use different words to distinguish sky as “that big expanse above us” from sky as “the place where God lives.”

Nor would an Old English speaker likely go for sky – unless they were Norse. Norse words like sky (then meaning “cloud”) enter English in the 12th and 13th century, a period that we call early Middle English thanks to the large Norse and French influence on language.

So what’s available for the sky, the sun, and height? Here’s a sample, each with a brief gloss of associations. All links are to an online version of the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary:

  • Sky
    • heofon – sky, firmament, heaven

    • hrof – roof, ceiling, sky
    • lyft – air, sky, elements, clouds
    • rodor – firmament, technical term for night sky
    • swegel heaven, sky, sun
  • Sun
    • sunne – sun
    • sweglcandel – sun (lit. “sky-candle”)
    • dægcandel – sun (lit. “day-candle”)

    • dægscield – sun (lit. “day-shield”)

    • friþcandel – sun (lit. “peace-candle”)
    • swegel heaven, sky, sun
  • High
    • héah – high, lofty, sublime, haughty

    • brant – high, steep, difficult
    • steáp – high, steep, towering (buildings and hills)
A firmament implies a structure – of the movement of the skies which originates from a Prime Mover. “Firmament,” Tom Parnell – a photo of the same-named sculpture by Antony Gormley.

Sunne and héah are both familiar enough in form. So is heofon. Depending on a speaker’s purposes, they might use any of these terms, but for the sake of consistency let’s stick to these three.

As for the other words, Old English conjugates the verb meaning “to be” (béon) differently. The present conjugations are based directly on “be,” so rather than “is” we would have biþ.

Old English doesn’t require articles in the way we do. Se exists as a kind of demonstrative article meaning “the” or “that,” and þes functions as”this.” They are declinable, which means they change forms based on the grammatical function and gender of the word they’re pairing with. So if we wanted the article, we might say seo sunne (nominative feminine) but þá heofone (accusative feminine). However, these were often unnecessary.

Finally, while in does exist in Old English, the preposition most commonly used in this situation would be on. At least, that’s our guess, because the word in  doesn’t appear in several key Old English texts.[1]

So based on this we have a rough bank of words to use, and we begin to approach the form of our sentence. Plugging them in recklessly, we get:

Sunne biþ héah on heofon.


We know this is wrong because I’ve already mentioned declensions. These nouns and adjectives all decline based on their grammatical function. We have the nominative, usually the subject or a subject complement; the genitive, often denoting possession; the accusative, often denoting the object of a verb or preposition; the dative, most often an indirect object; the instrumental, indicating the use of a thing. Dictionaries index nouns and adjectives by their nominative form, and the gender and strength of the word indicates how it should decline, what form it should take.

Sunne will be nominative because it serves as the subject of the sentence. Héah complements the subject, and so it will also be nominative. (The sun is high = the high sun.) Both of these words will look the same as we’re using them. Heofon is dative; on takes the dative case because it’s describing the location of what’s going on. Because of that, we will change the ending to reflect its function: heofonas.

Then we weren’t that far off! We might say:

Sunne biþ héah on heofonas

and an Old English speaker might understand what we meant, even if s/he were baffled about why we were talking about the sun’s height. They might like the little alliteration happening with the /h/ sound.

One other concern is word order. Would they say it in that order? They might. Even so, the word order could vary considerably. Compare:

Héah biþ sunne on heofonas.
On heofonas biþ sunne héah.
Biþ sunne héah on heofonas?[2]
Sunne on heofonas héah biþ .

Some word orders were more common, but thanks to the word declensions the functions of these words would be intelligible in any order. In poetry, one could even put heofonas away from the preposition, since only heofonas could correspond with on anyway:

On héah sunne heofonas biþ.

We can’t say the same for our own order:

On high sun sky is.

So there we go. That’s an expansion of the example that I was given. I hope it highlights some of the features of Old English, as well as some of the difficulties in any project of translation, no matter how simple.

However, let me urge caution. Let’s not label something “Old English” merely because its form looks unfamiliar to us. That bugs me as a medievalist because it repeats the habit of viewing the medieval only as the not-modern without understanding what constitutes it.

[1] This glosses over the regional differences and differences in dialect, which can considerably vary the word forms commonly used.

[2] The inversion of subject and verb was and is a common way to ask questions: “Is the sun high in the sky?”

Old apples

In our Middle English reading group today, we were reading “Henry VI’s Triumphal Entry into London,” a verse description of a pageant welcoming King Henry VI as he returned to London from France in 1432. It was written by the prolific writer and monk John Lydgate, who represents the political performances and allegories alongside a rich scriptural tradition. The king progresses through a series of entrances while being met by a variety of officials and allegorical representations celebrating his kingship over England and France. He is legitimized through verses from the Psalms and Proverbs as well as by important representations of lineage and authority like the Jesse Tree.

Lots of medieval poems feature catalogues or lists of things. Stones, trees, animals, flowers, fruit. Ovid’s got one in  Metamorphoses. Chaucer has several including in the Parlement of Fowles. These lists are a way of showing off a poet’s ability to rattle off lots of items in an artful manner. They also amplify a particular description through a forest of detail.

So, apples: this poem contained a list of fruits. Lydgate is describing a group of carefully arranged trees displaying a plethora of different fruits. This artificial bounty is a spectacle of wealth and trade:

Ther were eke treen, with leves fressh of hewe,
Alle tyme of yeer, fulle of fruytes lade,
Of colour hevynly, and ever-yliche newe,
Orenges, almondis, and the pomegernade,
Lymons, dates, theire colours fressh and glade,
Pypyns, quynces, blaunderell to disport,
And the pomecedre corageous to recomfort;

Eke the fruytes which more comune be —
Quenynges, peches, costardes and wardouns,
And other meny ful fayre and fresh to se;
The pomewater and the gentyll ricardouns;
And ageyns hertes for mutygaciouns
Damysyns, which with here taste delyte,
Full grete plenté both of blak and white.

[There were also trees with leaves fresh of hue
All times of the year, full of fruits laden,
Of color heavenly, and ever like new,
Oranges, almonds, and the pomegranate,
Lemons, dates, their colors fresh and glad,
Pipins, quinces, blaundrell to enjoy,
And the pome-citron courageous to restore.

Also the fruits which more common be –
Quenings, peaches, costards, and wardouns,
And many others very fair and fresh to see;
The pomewater and the noble ricardine;
And against hurts for relief
Damson plums, which with their taste delight,
Very great plenty both of back and white. ]

Some of the fruits are familiar ones, whether under their own name: oranges, almonds, quinces, pomegranates, lemons, dates, and peaches. Others are better known under other names: the pomme-cedre (literally “apple-citron”) or citron, the wardoun or plump pear, and the damysyn, a variety of plum.

The rest are apples: Pypyn, blaundrell, quenyng, costard, pomewater, and ricardoun. Six distinct varieties of apple!

These apples represent an early foray into what we now know as selective breeding. These apples represent the finest fruits of their time. The blaundrell, for instance, corresponds roughly to the calville blanc apple available today, and in that form remains a fruit much-loved by European chefs. It’s a cooking apple, but all of these apples would have been cooked, because raw apples and other fruits were suspected of transmitting diseases. They especially went into meat dishes, adding a sweetness that most of our meat dishes today don’t have.

So in a way the apples represented the dinner table turned out, returned to the tree. They also display London’s wide-ranging influence. As a port it had become by the 15th century an important nexus of trade. Goods from around England came to London, while its port received ships from the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.In the first stanza, non-native plants like dates and oranges represent England’s contact with sources of Mediterranean wealth. These trees grow green all year. Then with the second stanza, the “fruits which more common be,” show off local varieties, perhaps to prove what wealth England already has. Apples show up in both lists, as if the kingdom’s hunger for apple is insatiable.

Finally, the list of fruit trees evokes paradise. Enoch and Elijah soon appear to greet the king. Both are Biblical figures who at the end of their lives were “translated” into what later authors assumed was an Edenic paradise. The actors playing Enoch and Elijah, combined with the trees themselves, suggest that Henry VI’s reign should be paradise on Earth. It’s a paradise by conquest, horticulture, trade, and the projection of power.

I’m going to be thinking about this one for a while though. Apples. I have several questions. Were these real trees, or English trees bedecked with other fruits, or representational trees like the Jesse tree? What happened to these fruits – were they cooked up for a feast later? What’s the story behind all of these varieties of apples? And – a question I’ve had no time for – what does it mean to take a visual representation of plenty and turn it into a textual catalogue? If we trace the appropriations of plant material, what is happening between the grove, the market, the traders, their procural, their display in the pageant, their consumption at that time, and their textual lives?

Word parts: a retrospection

I was visiting a speech therapist at the elementary school I’d be going to next year. We were in a one-room trailer next to the main building.



It was obvious to me that I hadn’t said it right. It was obvious to her too. We’d been working on this word since someone had first brought it up. Had it been my therapist, who knew to look for words that would challenge me? Had it been me, a kid who grew up around thermometers, barometers, and rain gauges? This time, she tried a new tack:

“There’s a ‘mom’ in the middle of the word. Like your mom. ‘Ther-mom-meter.’ Try it with me.”

Mom was an easy word to say. I knew it. It was short. I didn’t say thermometer right the first time after that moment, but it anchored my efforts. It gave me the steps I needed to cross the stream.

When I remembered that moment recently, I was thinking of it in terms of alternate ways of understanding words. Conventionally, thermometer is made up of two constitutive parts – thermo (heat) and meter (measure). Finding the “mom” in “thermometer,” by contrast, feels like a mnemonic, a trick, an extra layer of personal meaning. It is wordplay. Knowing roots and etymologies provides a great tool for understanding language in new contexts. Vocal play is another way to get into the word and understand it as my own.

However, writing the anecdote out this time, I remember that I didn’t know how to read! I could not check myself through any kind of visual reminder of the word’s sounds. I was dependent on her repetition. I was beginning to model her way of breaking words down into their constituent phonemes. The “mom” in thermometer was not a generalizable feature – always say those three letters in the same way. It was a vowel that only held consistency through repetition – a repetition that only gradually transformed /ɛ/ to /ɔ/.

I remember for years afterward being fascinated by how words could be broken down. When we learned about syllables in elementary school, I wondered why the dictionary would split a word up one way instead of another – why ther·mom·e·ter and not ther·mo·me·ter or ther·mo·met·er? Was there a system to syllabification that I didn’t know? Did it pick the easiest combination to pronounce?

My question was not helped by spelling books, which would often pick its word lists based on common features of words. A unit might focus on double-consonants, word with ei in them, or the dreaded silent consonant. (Spaghetti was a particular trip.) Sounds make words relate one way. Syllables can divide words in any of several ways. Characters can be sounded out in several ways. Mastery required memorizing and internalizing a set of rules that weren’t my own.

I sometimes ask other people (colleagues, students, people I tutor) how they’re using the dictionary. In this very informal poll, they most often use it when they don’t know a word’s meaning, spelling, or pronunciation. These are all good, necessary uses.

At the same time, as my work requires me more and more to read carefully, I marvel at the times I’ve obtained important insights from looking up seemingly familiar words. Can, chase, quarrel.

An example: off the top of my head, quarrel means a fight or dispute between two parties. Looking it up, it has a meaning (from a separate root) meaning a bolt or other piece of ammunition. Then its meaning of dispute connects not to any old argument or feud but to legal suits and complaints, trials by combat, as well as literary debates about the place of women. Quarrels are genres of speech heard by judges and audiences of readers. Even combat can be a rhetorical move, as it is construed to speak the guilt or innocence of each combatant’s cause. If someone says the family of King Lot is having a quarrel with Lancelot and his relations, that term emphasizes the stress the conflict puts on the legal system carefully maintained by Arthur.

I’m still not sure I know how best to teach others to recognize when a word may not mean what they expect it to mean. How do we listen for the echoes of other meanings? How do we find the incongruities in our present understanding? Is it a matter of noticing when a word or phrase is important to a sentence grammatically? When a key term keeps coming up? When I’m baffled and ask, “Whoa, I thought we were talking about this and now we’re talking about that?”

I know some things I do to help people towards that. For instance, I love a good “word study” assignment, where I ask someone to look up a word in an excerpted literary text in the Oxford English Dictionary. They summarize what it can mean and then demonstrate what the word could mean in that context. Seeing the options – that there’s more than one option! – helps, I think. I also model reading passages, narrating my process of figuring out what something could be saying.

I think wordplay also plays a part. When we’re aware that our understandings of words can be shifted and manipulated, can we not also extend that understanding to what we read? As a result, can we not also be receptive to the possibility of an author’s wordplay, and the inflections that come from that author’s own disposition to speech?

I hope the answer to both of those questions is “yes.”

I can’t be sure that speech therapy gave me the metacognitive skills that help me read well. I can’t show that. However, I certainly think it did, and when I teach close reading I still think of those moments struggling to learn to say thermometer, of making a word familiar to meet its strange and foreign gestures.

It seems to help.

Shadows Over Camelot reads Le Morte Darthur

Overall setup for Shadows Over Camelot

I have a presentation coming up in July in Leeds. The panel is one I put together with a friend of mine in the UK on board game medievalisms. I am writing on the board game Shadows Over Camelot and how its treatment of women compares to medieval Arthurian texts, especially Le Morte Darthur.

Today, I intend to brainstorm some on my own presentation, stitching together images and text.

Kinds of Characters

The project started once I started reflecting on how different characters from Arthurian legend appeared in the game. They are all found in Sir Thomas Malory’s comprehensive fifteenth century work Le Morte Darthur in some form or another. All of the player characters are knights.

Knights to be played, each with a summary of the rules. Characters: Palomides, Gawain, Tristram, Galahad, Arthur, Kay, Percival.

Merlin exists as both a card and (in the expansion) an independent figure who moves through the board according to certain rules.

Examples of cards that do good things. Characters: lots of Merlins and a Lady of the Lake.

All of the women exist only as cards to complicate or aid quests.

Just like that, the feminine subtext of Arthurian literature is translated into game form. Geraldine Heng‘s work in recovering a sense of feminine agency in Arthurian narrative had been made relevant again. What of these feminine characters, and the way in which they are framing and prompting the superficial actions of the game – the knights succeeding or failing on quests, the traitor dooming his comrades or being revealed by accusation?

Cards from the evil deck. Characters: 3 Morgans, Vivien, Guinevere, and Mordred. Also note: “Mists of Avalon” at top.

One response might be to adapt Arthuriana into a game in a way that Marion Zimmer Bradley did with Mists of Avalon. What if the players were women? What if their goal was to support or thwart the quests going on around them? In other words, what if feminine agency were foregrounded instead of submerged?

I would be up for designing a game like that, but as I think about it, the game does something different from merely foregrounding characters. It foregrounds the quest as an apparatus for approaching problems in Arthurian literature. Both games would take the quest as a kind of center, right next to the actions taken to support or thwart its completion. Something changes when the processes take more of the foreground than the characters. I’m not sure what yet.

Procedural Allegory

This is a term that has been stuck in my head for a few months. A Google search at this date confirms that I am not the originator of the term, but it has been used less than 50 times on the internet.

Partly the term comes from Ian Bogost’s work on “procedural rhetoric,” which involves studying what the systems, algorithms, and other generative procedures of video games say. It is an interpretive approach that starts with rules and moves to consider the fields of possibility that they generate. Monopoly is a common example, where its punishing model of finance drains money from players and quickly tilts in favor of players who possess key properties. No single rule defines the impoverishing logic of the game, which only becomes clear to players through play.

I am also thinking of strains of literary criticism that study allegory. C.S. Lewis’s history of allegory in The Allegory of Love is undoubtedly relevant here. Even so, I find Rosemond Tuve’s late work Allegorical Imagery; Some Mediaeval Books And Their Posterity (1966) compelling 50 years later because she approaches allegory as a kind of procedure. She wanted a model for understanding allegory that could distinguish between common perceptions of didactic allegory and the complex systems of interaction going on in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, where no character was precisely the virtue or vice they were named after. (The Knight of Holinesse is not always faithful, nor the Knight of Temperance always temperate.)  For Tuve, these characters are instead emulating a standard, imperfectly trying to perform it. They certainly play with more straightforward didactic forms of allegory, but with more space for deviation, wandering, and interaction.

Tuve captures what I’ve understood about allegorical works for a long time. They are not straightforward translations from one field of ideas to another. They are not isomorphic functions – A to X, B to Y. Broad, flexible rules encompass the characters of allegories (or allegorical-like romances). Her work is attentive to the interactions and relationships between characters and between works. It would only take a slight shift to reframe the rules and relationships of allegory into procedures.

My goal in understanding The Faerie Queene (or any other work) procedurally is not to encompass the whole work into a neat system, or even to put a bow around the contradictions that result. It is to understand how a work is an open system for interpretation, which is best understood through the interactions between pieces, through dynamic situations rather than ideal, closed forms.

Spaces of the Game

If I think about the game in terms of spaces rather than pieces, a geography of play begins to emerge that looks somewhat like the geography of medieval romance. The game lends itself to a more geographic metaphor; the core board puts the Round Table on one side, though its roundness and the space it takes up suggests its prominence in the game landscape.

Round Table: the characters sit at the edge of the main board.

On the edges are two frontiers, one blue and one green, representing the threats from the outside. Directly opposite the Round Table is the quest closest to the court in theme, the tournament with the Black Knight.

Tournament with the Black Knight, across the board from the Round Table

Most of the action also occurs through this board. Siege engines and cheery Saxons and Picts encroach upon the neat space of the board.

Pict at another corner of game board.

Cards – both white and black – are framed around Camelot. Combined, these endeavors form a center of which the Round Table is only the most important part.

Meanwhile, three other boards act as islands. These quests fit on a shifting periphery, subject to the size of the table and the eyes of the players. Each has a different design: one tranquil as a lake,

Lake Quest

one reminiscent of the tournament but here detached from the court,

Quest at a Bridge

one uniquely golden and not representative of any physical space.

Grail Quest

The Lady of the Lake, the Combat with Lancelot, the Grail Quest – each threads that at points are freely detached from the core Arthurian legend but which nonetheless help compose its decentered-but-central narrative of perpetual peril.

I’ll stop here for now, but these are some of the elements (material and otherwise) that I’m considering. The game has a geography. It has some form of allegory working through its application of rules. And these Arthurian threads are giving women a submerged form of agency, outside of the position of quest-player but still legible in play.

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