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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All photos are my own. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Editing


When reading a chapter of a monograph, I came across this sentence. Its use of appositive and other parenthetical phrases distracted me.

“Sidney, the aristocrat and artist, I argue, like Aristotle’s and Theophrastus’s eiron, when he dissembles, steps down, not up.”[1]

The author means that Philip Sidney fashions himself not to be seen but to conceal himself. Each phrase is a piece of contextual information inserted within the overall frame – “Sidney … steps down, not up.” From beginning to end, the bits are measured out in a punctuated rhythm. It is a correct sentence, and I understand it.

Even so, I would not write like that.


For a mini-lesson in a pedagogy seminar, I taught paper formatting. My model was a paper I had written last semester, one that was in the early stages of becoming a conference presentation. I brought up the model and started indicating its features.

Twenty seconds in, I noticed a spelling error.

I made the point that the writing process is never done, that it is easy for small errors to elude our grasp, and that looking at a paper in a different way (on a board for a class attentive to formatting) helped us catch new things.

I was both amused and mortified.


I sit with the final draft a student has turned in. The course is not of my design; the essay is low-stakes, graded writing, and there is  no rough draft. The paper makes a comparative approach, pointing out how elements of Salman Rushdie’s work combine and build off of one another.

The student used the word “compliment” over twenty times. Every instance should’ve been spelled “complement.” I note the correction and devote the rest of my time to the content.


It’s common for writers in a tutoring session to ask if we’ll help them edit their paper. “We don’t edit,” we are supposed to say, “but we will work with you to model strategies for revising and editing your writing.” We talk about how the style, sentence structure, and grammar create meaning on a local and global level.


I’m in grade school, anytime between third grade and high school. The teacher, usually of “English” (read: grammar, reading, and writing) but occasionally of “Reading” (read: literature and writing), conveys a model of writing helpfully enshrined on a poster with a giant cartoonish pencil and lined paper. The steps of writing!

Prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, publishing.

These steps were soon emended and modified:

Prewriting involved brainstorming and notetaking.
Drafting was getting the ideas out onto the page in a way that looked like the final draft, but wasn’t. It was “rough.”
Revising meant going over the writing and adjusting big things. Editing meant adjusting small things. Really, it seemed like we did both at once.
Publishing meant turning the piece in to a teacher.

Was the process useful as a model? Undoubtedly. Did I ever perfectly follow it? No.


“There may be no one right answer,” the professor said, “but there sure as hell are wrong ones.”

The statement was about interpreting literature, but it pertains to editing as well.


As an undergraduate, one of my fellow math tutors explained his frustration with papers in the humanities. They required so much extra work, he claimed. Why can’t he just put down all the evidence for what he was saying, proof-style?

I forget what I said at the time. Today, I would ask him if he solves math problems in the same way – from start to finish, once, without adjusting his methods along the way.

With math, it is easy to see the work that comes before an answer. With writing, that part is often left out. We see the Waste Land, not the meticulously marked manuscripts and typed pages, not the reading notes from various sources.


I have notes for an article I submitted to a journal recently. They comment on the methodology primarily – bits of context I need, a citation error. To their immense credit, the peer reviewers also issue a lot of encouragement. The material is good, the readings are good.

It is easier to continue working over a project that has value.


The top of this page currently reads “Edit Post,” by which they mean continuing the draft that I started a couple of weeks ago. For the website, any addition, emendation, or deletion is an edit, even if it means rewriting the entire post anew.


The noun “edit” came after the verb “edit.” In a prior life, “edit” meant to e(x)dire, to give out to the world, to put forth, to publish. The more modern meaning is a back formation from the word editor. An editor prepares a work for use.

Is it a coincidence that some of my best edits come from consultations with other people?


My cousin sent me an informational pamphlet that she was writing about the Korean war, and asked me to edit it. I obliged. I knew from previous conversations what she was expecting – correcting the syntax to make it more comprehensible to the audience.

There were also images associated with the pamphlet. It was clear from our earlier conversations that editing pertained to words, but I could hardly resist. I sized the images to be more proportionate and double-checked that the colors would look good when printed.

I got it back to her in about a week. By then, she had already sent it off.


I write a lot of social media statuses that never get published. Sometimes I think that it is not the right venue or audience. Other times they act much like the footnotes I often write – the audience is me, and I get the message.

The practice of writing words that will never be seen again doesn’t bother me nearly as much as writing nothing. It is harder to edit silences.



My footnote evolved.

[1] The passage is from the late Alan Hager, from Dazzling Images : The Masks of Sir Philip Sidney. Newark: University of Delaware Press, London, 1991. 14. Print.

I am aware of how judgmental pointing out sentences like this can seem. At best, the glee is impersonal and somewhat instructive, like the New York Times blog After Deadline. At worst, it is used to ridicule writers for doing things that the editor is peeved by. I dislike forms of editing that shame their subjects and materials. That is not my purpose. This sentence takes his habit of writing to a limit that I find fascinating, and my initial impulse to edit it has turned into respect for what his writing accomplishes.

I could have kept him anonymous, but that did not seem right once I cited him. So instead, I write this excursus in order to explain that I intend no disrespect; he wrote excellent scholarship on Philip Sidney, John Milton, and reading apparatuses, and I wish I could have talked with him about romances.

Following Phrases in Our Work: Rode His Way

When I read, I flit to phrases.

The phrases often change with each reading. In religious didactic texts, the phrases often offer a break from the expected range of diction, like Julian of Norwich referring to the universe as the quantity of a hazelnut, or the author of the Ancrene Wisse saying that everything is but ball-play. As a reader I often take a phrase in many directions. As a teacher and scholar I must then ground these meanings in some historical or material context: play as stage (“all the world’s a stage”),  sport, martial exercise, game, joy.

Romances are rife with formulaic language, which makes these phrases take on a life of their own. Often they act as transitions, like “hit befell.” I recently came across one phrase that caught my fancy, “rode his way.” In this post, I speculate on possible associations.

Rode his way: initial impressions

There with syre kay putte his spere in the reyste / and ranne streyghte vpon hym / and beaumayns cam as fast vpon hym with his swerd in his hand / and soo he putte awey his spere with his swerd and with a foyne thrested hym thorou the syde / that syr kay felle doune as he had ben dede / & he alyght doune and took sir kayes shelde and his spere / and starte vpon his owne hors and rode his waye.

Therewith Sir Kay put his spear in the rest and ran straight upon Beaumains, an Beaumains came as fast upon him with his sword in his hand, and so Beaumains put away Kay’s spear with his sword and with a spear thrusted into him through the side so that Sir Kay fell down as if he had been dead. And Beaumains alight down and took Sir Kay’s shield and his spear, and started upon his own horse and rode his way.

Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, Ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd. “Sir Gareth,” Ch. 4. 181.36.

The transition from violence to travel is abrupt. Kay falls in one sentence, and in the next Beaumains takes Kay’s gear and rides off. At first, I imagine the air of determination evident in many action films and westerns, where the hero is too involved in what he’s doing to sit back and reflect upon it. Beaumains is too cool to look at explosions.  He rides his way.

Many of Malory’s battles end with one knight on the ground and another knight riding off without comment or care.  “Rode his way” may evoke a sense of freedom, of moving unhindered once an obstacle is removed.

It may also be a convenient narrative stitch between important scenes. The conflict is the spectacle, and riding his way allows Beaumains to go to his next encounter with a minimum of narrative fretting. After all, this is a text where the narrator explicitly says we are turning to another scene:

Now turne we unto Sir Bewmaynes, that desyred of Dame Lynet that he myght se hir lady.

Malory, “Sir Gareth,” Ch. 19, 202.5.

In Repetition

So this prompted me to look for where the phrase occurs elsewhere in the work. Even a brief search indicated a few things.

Consider this list of who rides his way, in order of appearance in the work.

Sir Pelleas
Beaumains/Sir Gareth
Sir Gringamour
Sir Gareth
Sir Palomides and Queen Isolde
White Knight/Sir Lancelot
Sir Lancelot
Sir Tristram
Sir Tristram
Sir Tristram
Sir Lancelot
Sir Lancelot
Sir Lancelot
Sir Palomides
Sir Tristram
Sir Lucan
Sir Gaheris
Sir Dinadan
Sir Hemison
Sir Tristram
Sir Tristram
Sir Palomides
Sir Lamorak
Sir Dinadan
Sir Tristram
Sir Meliadas
Other Knight

The repetition of names shows a few things.

First, riding his way was not preserved for the best knights alone. Minor knights like Hemison or anonymous ones like the Other Knight can ride away. So can servants like the dwarf or Arthur. (Arthur rode his way to deliver the sword to Kay. He was king and didn’t yet know it.) This indicates that the uses need not occur after combat, though they often did. They need not even be associated with attitude or swagger.

Second, the majority of these uses (from the first mention of Palomides to Sir Meliades) are in the “Tale of Sir Tristram,” a tale particularly fraught with chivalric combat and formulaic language. Many knights confront one another, sometimes many times. Tristram and Lancelot both have several victories after which they are allowed to continue their narrative. The scene changes. In this way, when the knights ride their way, we as readers follow.


From Here

To have more specific insights, I would have to catalog and analyze the contexts of each of these utterances. That would be fine work for a project, but a bit involved for a blog post.

The general shape of a project like this would be useful to model in a course though, because it models the kind of research that does not rest on its own assumptions from start to finish. It proceeds in at least three steps: preconceptions, surface-level research, and in-depth analysis. To conclude, I’ll lay these out briefly.

In the initial impressions, readers respond to an ambiguous or otherwise evocative utterance and apply a variety of contexts they personally know to set out what the piece may be doing. As an expert, I know that it’s too much of a move to project post-Bugs Bunny attitude on a fifteenth century work, but even the act of acknowledging and then setting aside that association makes an important connection. It’s possible that the phrase does indicate some sort of relation to victory that’s like ‘tude.

Then in the surface-level research, they gather these snapshots that take a bit of time to collect but can guide where it would be best to focus. This can involve reading the book again and marking every passage where the phrase appears, doing a Wordle of the passages involved, looking at how critics talk about the passage. What do they say? More importantly, what aren’t they showing that we want to show?

Finally, with the analysis, we go to passages. We do close readings. We gain a better understanding of what the passages are doing. Perhaps we begin to generate the insights for more detailed connections between examples.

This isn’t a process in the sense that we go from A to B to C. Personally I often end up doing quite a bit of analysis before I do the literature survey. Then I articulate some more impressions and pursue them again in analyses of other sources. This isn’t the scientific method as it’s taught in high school. However, it helps a lot when I get stuck at the analysis or at the literature review to say, “I can think of this in a different way.” It focuses reflection, which ends up in more engaging projects for students and researchers.

Marie de France, manuscript images, and sourcing

Have you ever seen an image circulating the internet that made you wonder, “Where did that come from?” Perhaps it was an architectural feat, an astronomical spectacle, or a piece of art.

This happened to me today with a manuscript image.

My advisor and one of his TAs for a survey of British literature had found an image of Marie de France writing at a desk.  mariedefrancescribe

Their first source identified Marie’s name but not much else. The TA then tried running a reverse image search, but the results weren’t terribly illuminating. Wikipedia had the image, as did a site of flashcards for studying medieval literature, but Wikipedia’s information looked incomplete. Blogs also reposted the image, often without context.   Those who did repost the context did so minimally – Micheline Walker referred to Wikipedia in a post on “The Cock and the Pearl.”

They brought up the elusive image during our weekly medieval reading group, and the information they had found along the way. They knew it was from a manuscript, perhaps the Fables, but didn’t know which. I decided to look at it myself on Wikipedia. This is what I saw initially, which is also what they say:

There is the image information near the bottom. “Master of Jean de Papeleu,” and a link. The linked site raised more questions than it answered, since it had two images of Marie de France and gives no source. (One image cited as Marie is of Christine de Pisan!)

Then I noticed the arrow at the bottom. It would be easy not to notice, as it wasn’t there before Wikipedia updated its media viewer in early 2014.[1] I opened up the tab and found this:

Marie de France, from an illuminated manuscript now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France: BnF, Arsenal Library, Ms. 3142 fol. 256.

It was beautiful. It gave the manuscript holder, number, and folio. It even linked to a digital version of that page. Go look at it. Seriously. It’s a beautiful page.

The information turned out to be there, but I often experience problems with finding good attributions for images. What factors contribute to the difficulty?

First, attribution standards vary widely. When it comes to content not original to the internet, we often should preserve the understanding of that original source. It is easy to only attribute the immediate source (a habit I’ve followed often enough), but somewhere in our captions, alt-text or metadata, its material resting place would be helpful.

Second, the tools for archiving images vary widely. It would be easy to believe that Wikipedia’s initial description is all there is – it cites someone who is likely the scribe and gives a link. Flickr, Google, Tumblr, and all of the other alphabet soup sites present information on their images differently, such that one needs familiarity with a particular platform to use it well. This variance isn’t a bad thing in itself – each website has its affordances and its audiences. It just means that making those connections is harder.

Third, specialist information is still a rare and valuable resource. Sometimes this is where the bloggers can help by describing the image and where it comes from. It helped us only to a limit, since we study medieval literature but not Marie de France.  Because our advisor had experience with manuscripts, he knew where it would likely be located. Because I have done research on Marie de France relatively recently, I was pretty sure it was from the Fables too. When I saw the manuscript image, I knew almost immediately what it was. We understood that the image isn’t necessarily an accurate rendering of Marie de France, but a recreation by an illuminator who (it turns out) drew her a hundred years later, preserved until today in her neck-cracking task.

Online resources for this kind of expertise have been growing over the past decade. We need to share them! Some are tools for deeper delving, like the Late Medieval English Scribes catalogue. Others, like the TEAMS editions of various Middle English texts, make introductions, texts, and notes available to anyone who wishes to access them for free. If you pick a major author, it’s likely manuscript images of their work are online. If not, it’s a great opportunity for a grant.

Finally, as I tell my students, sometimes information that is obscure online can be found at the library. Logan E. Whaler describes the manuscript illumination in his book Marie de France and the Poetics of Memory (Washington D.C. : Catholic University of America Press, 2008).

The miniature at the top of folio 256ra shows Marie seated at a desk with a parchment scraper in her left hand and a writing instrument in her right. She appears to be writing. In contrast to fr. 2173, she is presented at the beginning of the text as the author of the fables to follow. (132)

He describes the manuscript pretty well in a section describing illuminations in the Fables. It corroborates the other information I know, and raises the question I hope others would raise: what does it mean for a woman to be depicted as a writer of her own work?

If we can better attribute the images we use, learn how to find information where we don’t have it, and share our techniques for searching with others, we can better understand and analyze the images we see.

[1] For instance, when I participated in the Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In in May, I recall the format being the older Wiki-embedded version.

A Mini-Project: A History of Disguise, Primarily in Romance

On a whim, I whipped up a timeline this afternoon for the history of disguise. I haven’t been able to find comprehensive resources documenting where it appears. So I went off the top of my head and a few notes to sketch out what that history might look like using Timeline JS. It’s a work in progress – I should reformat the dates, double-check the dates where only approximations are available, clarify the explanations, and expand. Still, as an illustration I think it shows the considerable range and popularity of the motif.

I even put Beowulf and John Milton’s Paradise Lost as bookends, not because they’re romances, but because they each demonstrate something a little outside the period. Beowulf is before the Crusades, the twelfth century, and the advent of romance. The incognito there focuses entirely on the ability or inability to recognize the threat posed by a group as they come onto shore. As for Milton, he read the great Italian romances but doesn’t imitate their disguises per se. His interest seems to be in the ethical implications of failed sight. Satan disguising himself as a cherub is a little different from a knight dressing as another knight.

Suggestions or offers for contribution are welcome! I plan to periodically return to this as I read other materials.

On emblems

Earlier this summer, I helped the Emory Writing Program design a curriculum for digital composition and pedagogy. One of the early brainstorming assignments we modeled was an assignment designed to give familiarity with image composition while also giving an opportunity for close reading and reflection. Writers create a badge for either themselves or an object of study and then reflect on what it illustrates. It is a great way to emphasize focus in interpretation and writing – because only so much can go into an image, we make choices about how we present it, what’s important to note, and what should go together.

As the scholar of early English literature in the group, I pointed out and crafted a lesson around this point: despite seemingly modern moves towards interpretation, the way we describe and think of these images depends on a medieval mode.

To introduce what we were doing, I’ll give my own examples. I ended up pursuing broadly medieval themes for my own badges:


With this one, I combined game pieces themed around medieval knights. The chess piece knight, evocative of a game that rose to great importance to medieval cultures across Europe, North Africa, and Asia, confronts its medievalized cousin, a game piece from the 21st century board game Shadows Over Camelot. Two times, two modes of representation, and two time periods meet on the same board of play.


This one was more abstract or even playful. I split the white knight into colors corresponding to the three pixel colors in displays. There’s a lot of other interpretive play to be done with that, like the notion of three colors of knights in a two-color, binary game, or the emphasis on how we look at knights.

Why is it medieval more generally? For one, the language we use to describe these has medieval analogues apt for comparison. Icons, yes. (Icon – a word referring to shorthand images on computers as well as sacred representations used in worship, hence iconoclast.) Logos, okay. (Logo, a 20th century variant of the previous century’s logogram, logo- [word] and -gram [~written]. All a particular distillation of earlier concerns with Logos [the Word; Christ]and representation.) Badge, uh-huh. (Often worn for official duty or in recognition of achievements today; also a term for aristocratic signifiers of rank, such as those worn by knights.) And, as our title indicates, emblem. Yes. (They are visual representations, in the 16th century often paired with exegetical poetry explaining the emblem. They also refer to coats of arms, which also represent one’s allegiances, past events, and associations.)

In other words, the language for representation today comes from specific religious or aristocratic contexts in medieval and early modern Europe, especially England. Each of these terms implies a specific discussion and debate about representation, sometimes as basic as whether it is right to use icons to represent anything divine, or whether someone can claim the status that a badge grants. Debates about representation are still accessible and recognizable today, as evident in discussions and controversies about racial depictions of Jesus, in our praise of particularly ingenious corporate logos, and in debates about the sensitivity of the emblem for the Washington Redskins. The ethics and aesthetics of composition are very much a part of our culture now.

When we make badges, we are also determining and meeting the expectations of what is acceptable to show to others. We are also tapping into long-held traditions of representation, using what a knight has meant and connecting it to what a knight means to us, or what a knight means here in this position and placement. We enter into and think about systems of representation.

My original intention with this post was to examine images commonly associated with sports and offer off-the-cuff interpretations of them based on tongue-in-cheek medieval interpretations. For example, bowling commonly features a ball crashing into a peacock-like arrangement of pins suspended at the moment of victory. Maybe I’ll do that eventually. In this case, I think it’s a good thing I didn’t focus primarily on a specific arrangement, since the medieval associations are really right below the surface.

The reflections prompted by this assignment mean that I will likely include it in any course that introduces either emblem books or heraldry – a course on Arthurian romance for instance, or a course on representations of race in early modern poetry, a course made possible by Loomba and Burton’s 2007 book Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion.

If you have any questions about how I’ve designed and incorporated this assignment into my curricula, please ask.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier and disguise

A few weekends ago my partner and I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  As someone who has long followed Marvel in every medium that isn’t comic books (games, TV, film, collectible cards), Captain America has long been one of my favorites. I loved the film.
It also made me realize how much it relies on disguise and incognito to move the plot along.

These uses are not restricted to a single hero or villain’s hidden identity, which is the case for most superhero films. Nor is it just about a fugitive forging an identity, a motif especially common in film. (I’m thinking of Catch Me If You Can or, towards the end, in The Shawshank Redemption). No, several characters undergo unmaskings and revelations of various forms throughout the story.

First, I will make a brief, spoiler-laden list of these disguisings from memory. Then I will approach why these instances are important. Needless to say, spoilers abound.

  • Steve Rogers’s next door neighbor is a friendly and flirtatious nurse. When she charges into Steve’s room after Nick Fury has been shot, she reveals herself to be Agent 13 of SHIELD, tasked by Nick with protecting Steve.
  • In an all-too-common Marvel twist, the benevolent if somewhat distant associate of Nick Fury, Alexander Pierce, turns out to be a key member of Hydra, a secret evil organization that has embedded itself into SHIELD since its beginning after World War II.
  • Early in the film, as Captain America fights Georges Batroc on a ship in the Atlantic, Batroc taunts the Cap for fighting defensively and for serving SHIELD: (paraphrased) “I thought you were more than just a shield.” Cap responds, “Let’s see.” This provokes the Captain to take his helmet off for the first time, revealing his eyes and hair and leading to a distinct shift in his fighting style.
  • Nick Fury drives what appears to be an SUV, but turns out to be a sophisticated armored vehicle.
  • Natasha Romanoff schools Steve Rogers in the art of staying concealed when they evade enemy agents looking for them in a mall. Where Steve is keenly able to analyze the threat, Natasha knows how to go unseen using techniques that divert attention, at one point acting like a doting couple.
  • A big and outdated-looking computer is actually Arnim Zola, a member of Hydra.
  • When Captain America and the Winter Soldier are fighting, the Soldier loses his mask and is revealed to be Bucky Barnes, the best friend to Captain America before and during World War II.
  • The counselor and former “pilot” Sam Wilson is actually one of the operators of the prototype Falcon wingpack, a secret military project.
  • Nick Fury fakes own death in order to evade detection by Hydra. The main characters and the audience learn of his survival only after most of the field.
  • Natasha Romanoff disguises herself as one of the members of the SHIELD council in order to confront Alexander Pierce and leak all of SHIELD’s information. She remains concealed behind a holographic mask until she attacks Pierce’s agents and successfully turns the tables.
  • Nick Fury’s eye patch covers an eye that can successfully pass a retinal identifier after his other access codes have been erased.
  • Various actor cameos, like Stan Lee as a museum guard , reward viewers who are in the know about recurring visual gags.
  • The credits-scenes work similarly, rewarding regular readers of the comic books with scenes involving characters who will play a role in the next films. Unnamed in the scenes, verbal and visual clues give some viewers an idea about what plot will come next.[1]

Not all of these are strictly instances of incognito or hidden identity. Someone revealing a concealed motive is not the same as someone whose identity is unknown becoming known. Alexander Pierce’s reveal as a head of Hydra is the latest in a long line of executive partners who has betrayed his cause in comic book films, like Spiderman’s idol-turned-nemesis Doctor Octopus or Iron Man’s business partner-turned-nemesis the Iron Monger. Pierce’s betrayal is a little like learning that Mordred has betrayed the Round Table yet again, or like Garlond has doomed Charlemagne’s knights to yet another heroic defeat. We know it wll happen, and look for how the heroes will respond.

Other instances, more properly called incognito, reveal central conflicts between social systems. Agent 13 is a great example of how a vestige of Steve’s civilian life is only the illusion of it. A seemingly innocuous neighborly contact is another level of SHIELD interfering in his life. Steve is initially suspicious – as the larger plot insists, how can we tell the difference between surveillance offering protection and surveillance offering a threat? Her initial answer – that Nick Fury assigned her – puts personal trust above trusting in an organization. That’s a better answer, but imperfect. Nick demonstrates at many occasions that he keeps secrets of his own, such that it is difficult to trust his motives. That moment with Agent 13 is a big clue that there is no escaping the intelligence system. Instead, there are choices between cloaks that are interwoven into civilian life. (At the end, we see Agent 13 shooting on a CIA fire range. She’s chosen a different cloak.)

Then there is the central conflicts of the film exposed through battle. The initial battle between Captain America and Batroc features Captain America taking off his helmet, a moment that acts a lot like an unmasking. We see the hero’s entire head for the first time, and his broadly defensive shield-based style of combat is replaced by a mixed martial arts style. The shift to the more contemporary MMA style of his competitor (the actor Georges St-Pierre was an accomplished MMA fighter) reflects Captain’s arrival in the 21st century. The unmasking accents his character, rather like saying, “I can do that too.”
That unmasking is repeated later in the film when the Winter Soldier suffers substantial damage to his mask and must strip it off. Yet here it does more than add another aspect to the Winter Soldier’s character. Captain America is stunned to see Bucky Barnes, his best friend who was thought dead during World War II,  now programmed to follow orders without question. Steve is compelled to defend himself against someone he would never want to kill.

The two characters are near-doubles, a form of critique that highlights both what is good and what is problematic about Captain America and the Winter Soldier. Bucky’s metal arm is a devastating offensive prosthesis, whereas Steve uses his shield to both defend and attack. Yet the arm can also act like a main gauche, a left-hand guard, even catching and briefly using Captain America’s shield. Both arm and shield bear a solitary star, though one is red and one is white. Both follow orders, even if Bucky does so out of compulsion and Steve out of a sense of duty. Both have wound up outside their own time embedded in organizations they have begun to question. What is different for Steve – his free will, his freedom – make all the difference, even though Bucky represents Steve’s potential. He feels for his friend and perhaps fears becoming more a tool than a hero himself.

“Turned from a hero into a tool” begins to get at what I can only trace here. The many disguises and revelations in the film are working out the ethics of military and intelligence work in a modern world. The specific problems have changed somewhat since the medieval period, but the general problem of how a knight or captain, a country or organization, and a king or leader should behave has not. Disguise demonstrates that there is no perfect answer, but instead a series of fashionings and presentations to meet various contingencies.[2] Steve cannot afford to continue to follow SHIELD, Nick, or any individual, but he also needs a firmer ground than patriotic duty to shape what the newer SHIELD should do. Protecting people with the shield is a start, and it will be interesting to see where he goes from there.
[1] I knew enough about the X-Men universe to identify the teaser at the end of its credits as Apocalypse. It helps that there were four horsemen in the background.

[2] This suggests a more emergent form of ethics, not just “what must you do generally?” but “what will give you sufficient experience to act correctly when anything happens?” The latter question implies an open-ended pursuit, which fits well with both the genres of romance and comic books. They need not ever end, and may endlessly change and adapt to new kinds of situations.

On style and the little stuff

When it comes to grammar, I am of two different worlds.

On the one hand, I am the scholar of medieval and early modern literature who is an avowed descriptive linguist. I think a lot about how language was used without recourse to the making and breaking of rules that, in many cases, were only formalized after the 17th century.  On the other hand, I love editing. I find comfort in making a clean, error-free copy. Being able to assess style lends a certain command of expression, which leads to me loving websites like After Deadline, where the New York Times picks out points of usage and style with pin-prick accuracy.

These two worlds overlap in my tutoring and in my composition courses. With each student I explain composition not as a set of immutable rules but as a set of conventions that have repercussions in various contexts.

How we use words must meet the forms and expectations of readers – at different times my advisor, my colleagues in my field, my tutoring colleagues, my students, interested readers from other fields and backgrounds, my friends, my partner, and my parents. As I go through lessons and sessions, I emphasize that people aren’t good writers just because they use or do not use the Oxford comma, but because they understand on a conscious and intuitive level the stakes of a particular choice of phrasing, punctuation, diction, organization, and so on.

Whenever people hear I am getting a PhD in English, they first think of grammar or mechanics. This is not in itself a bad thing – the mechanics of writing can and should be a valued skill – but I dislike the anxieties about correct usage that often follow. Strangers on the internet will begin to worry about whether they’re writing correctly enough for me, or a barber will talk about never ending sentences with a preposition, a rule I frequently do not hew to. My role in these conversations, like in sessions with student writers, shifts to that of counselor. “That’s just a little thing. You actually speak quite well.” “Why does that bug you?” “Sometimes we just have to use that rule to fit in.” I try to convey that these small things can matter, but that we also have a choice in how we approach them.

It should be obvious by now that I’m not of two different worlds except as people imagine writing. In response to rules of style that unfold themselves like any number of hierarchies of virtue, I think of Marguerite of Porete. A 13th century French mystic, she wrote The Mirror of Simple Souls, in which she inverts the relationship between virtue and practitioner. While we learn to be good people, we follow virtues. They are our rules and guides. At some point, a few of the most virtuous people become so good, so rich in spirit that the virtues begin to follow them. Chastity, honesty, temperance – all serve them as handmaids.

I like to think this pertains to writing, where the rules and best practices become less infallible guidelines and more followers and friends. Error still happens, and it is to be corrected, but what matters most is the ability to understand the little stuff without taking every transgression too hard. The rest – the many revisions and rounds of proofreading even good writers go through – will follow. All shall be well.

A Restart

I am currently experimenting with moving posts from Weebly to WordPress, as WordPress is currently more friendly for the Domain I’ve decided to own.

As I soon discovered, switching from one interface to another does not preserve every feature of the earlier design. The margins and the like differ from my earlier free blog; the table frames are currently visible; the captions a bit out of sorts.

I’ll be experimenting to figure out how to do things more cleanly in WordPress. However, for now, I think it is useful to show the messiness of remediation first-hand. There is a parallel to a scribe copying a manuscript in here somewhere – even transferring content within the same medium has its costs, its losses, and its new features. We’ll see how it works here.