Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tuesday Sydney medievalism blogging

I don't suppose Bruno really needs to offer any explanation for any of his costumes, but I do kind of like his medieval armour ensemble for his Sydney premiere. Not quite so keen on the metallic hip bones of his skeletal attendants, though.

And look! He even had a horse...

Monday, June 29, 2009

Synecdoche, cricket and colonialism

Joel has just come back from seeing the movie Synecdoche. Highly recommended, apparently.

But in an attempt to resolve a family disagreement on the pronunciation of this word, I reached for my Concise Oxford Dictionary. (I was right, of course, lest you were worried.) But get this: the example for naming the part but understanding the whole is 50 sail for 50 ships, while the example given for naming the whole but understanding the part is England beat Australia at cricket.

Oh they do find it hard to let go of their colonial grandeur, don't they? And oh yes, I'm aware of irony, in that I use the Oxford dictionary, and don't have the Macquarie here. Wonder what their example for synecdoche is?

But it's only a few weeks till the Ashes series begins. Just three words, England: Bring. It. On.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

'58 babies

Of the three famous '58 babies — Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson — it's Prince who's always had my heart. It's Prince whose music I've bought most often; and it's Prince whom I've actually seen in concert.

But I grew up listening to the Jackson Five, and that sweet clear voice out front.

Last night there were three other '58 babies, one a few years older, and two '95 babies in the house. We didn't watch the Italian movie as planned; instead, we alternated between So You Think You Can Dance, and the Essendon-Carlton game (which was meant to be a blockbuster between the two evenly-matched old rivals, except that my Bombers blitzed Paul's Carlton, doubling their score in front of 83,000 at the MCG: good work, lads!), and then a stupid doco on Jackson, so terrible we turned it off.

It says something about Michael Jackson, though, that all six of us then started practising the moonwalk, with the help of socks on floorboards, as our mirror family slowly edged (backwards) towards the front door. And something about the capacity of this death to mirror our own mortality and frighten us into laughter, when Peter made a wicked joke about how Jackson's pallbearers might also moonwalk backwards. Surrounded by our loved ones, all I could do was laugh myself to tears.

Friday, June 26, 2009

send a green balloon

I'm not going to forward on every communication from Amnesty, but against the background of the highly entertaining Australian parliamentary shenanigans about the nature of the relationship between the opposition and the public servant who seems to have faked an email that implicated the Prime Minister in giving special assistance to a car dealer as part of a scheme to give assistance to car dealers, it's worth recalling that the freedom to elect a government is not shared by all.

If you are concerned about the violence being shown in Iran towards those demonstrating against the recent presidential elections, Amnesty is encouraging you to sign a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei. You can write your own letter, but it's easy enough to add your email signature to this one.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Flying like a bat to France

Oh I am happy to be back at work on my Garter book! The real struggle is about to begin, though, as I know in my bones it is time to start taking leave of this material and this project, even though a good chunk of Chapter Four and all of Chapter Seven are completely unwritten; there is still a large amount of revision to be done; I am still a bit hazy about some of the big conceptual ideas at work; and there are pages and pages of archives I'm not reading. That's ok: I long ago reconciled myself to it being ... just not that kind of project. I just have to get my head into the finishing stage. Perhaps I ought to try channeling the advice I so calmly dish out to my graduate students at this stage.

There's a new book out on the Orders of the Garter, Thistle and Bath from 1660-1760 by Antti Matikkala. My copy arrived the other day and I'm relieved to find it's a very serious study of the honours system that will be very useful for me, without really coming close to the kind of work I am doing (or should I say "the work I have done": see above, about taking leave).

I was down in the State Library today, reading John Anstis's 1724 edition of the Garter Register, produced under Henry VIII, including his revised Statutes. It's in Latin, with English, with notes in English, French and Latin. I had looked at this before in the British Library, but deferred a detailed perusal for Melbourne. Which would be fine, except that the State Library could find only one of the two volumes. Oh well. I can read the rest in the Eighteenth-Century Online database, or check it out when I'm in Canberra in November, as the National Library has a copy.

But I did find a lovely, lovely thing, a record in the Register in the sixteenth year of Edward IV's reign, of the King degrading Galhard de Durefort, or Lord Duras, "for that he having deserted him, flying like a Bat over to the Side of the King of France [tanquam vespertilio transfugiens in partes Regis Francorum], had sworn Obedience to him." So there you go: that's your Latin vocabulary for the day (vespertilio, vespertilionis, m. bat). And there's your metaphor for treason (well, presumably, deciding, when the chips were down, to renounce your foreign honour to swear allegiance to your own king) for the day as well.

A few more things like this turned up, too, and just in time, as Chapter Four — my next big writing project — is about Shame and Degradation, or how to get kicked out of the Garter. And what the heralds do with the names of those so degraded. More on this soon.

Update: thanks to Karl for his comment about emblem books. First thing I've found is a cute picture
from an online bestiary with the memorable comment:
A bat is not a noble bird. It is unlike other birds in that it gives birth to live young instead of laying eggs, and it has teeth. Bats gather together and hang from high places like a bunch of grapes; if one falls, all the rest also fall.
If I've followed the links properly, I think this text and illustration might come from the bestiary of Anne Walsh, produced circa 1400-25. But the emphasis on the bat's ignobility would certainly be relevant here. Thanks, Karl!

Second update: I found a fable in which the bat fights first with the birds, then goes over to the mammals, though the birds eventually win. So that's another obvious context:

A great conflict was about to come off between the Birds and the Beasts. When the two armies were collected together the Bat hesitated which to join. The Birds that passed his perch said: "Come with us"; but he said: "I am a Beast." Later on, some Beasts who were passing underneath him looked up and said: "Come with us"; but he said: "I am a Bird." Luckily at the last moment peace was made, and no battle took place, so the Bat came to the Birds and wished to join in the rejoicings, but they all turned against him and he had to fly away. He then went to the Beasts, but soon had to beat a retreat, or else they would have torn him to pieces. "Ah," said the Bat, "I see now. He that is neither one thing nor the other has no friends."

But this text, Mastering Aesop, by Edward Wheatley, offers a slightly different telling. After the birds win the battle, the bat is then denuded and forced to fly only at night. Follow the link to an exegesis which has the birds representing Christians and the quadrupeds gentiles or Jews; and the bat as, indeed, Judas. "Stripped of his pelt"? = "deserted by the clothing of innocence". Poor old Galhard!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Clearing the decks

Well, I said a few days ago that I had finished my essay, which I am now calling "Transparent Walls: Stained Glass and Cinematic Medievalism." But there was one more stage, to send it to a few people to read. One came back with some extraordinarily helpful technical advice; the other drew attention to the embarrassingly large number of apologies, signposts and diffuse explanations that were really clogging up the essay. I'm lucky to have such good friends and relations (any one else channelling A.A. Milne with that phrase?); and have spent a cold winter's day correcting mistakes, unclogging the essay, converting footnotes to endnotes and writing an abstract. I have just pressed "send" to move it off my desk onto someone else's.

We are heading out tonight to a winter solstice feast. I'm taking the two small left-over Christmas puddings I've had in the fridge for (1) six and (2) eighteen months. I poured extra brandy over them last night and they look as fresh as when they were first cooked. We are all invited to bring a seasonal poem to read, and I have been practising the first six stanzas of Henryson's Testament of Cresseid. Go here for text, with glosses and recording. But here's the text:

Ane doolie sessoun to ane cairfull dyte
Suld correspond and be equivalent:
Richt sa it wes quhen I began to wryte
This tragedie; the wedder richt fervent,
Quhen Aries, in middis of the Lent,
Schouris of haill gart fra the north discend,
That scantlie fra the cauld I micht defend.

Yit nevertheles within myne oratur
I stude, quhen Titan had his bemis bricht
Withdrawin doun and sylit under cure,
And fair Venus, the bewtie of the nicht,
Uprais and set unto the west full richt
Hir goldin face, in oppositioun
Of God Phebus, direct discending doun.

Throwout the glas hir bemis brast sa fair
That I micht se on everie syde me by;
The northin wind had purifyit the air
And sched the mistie cloudis fra the sky;
The froist freisit, the blastis bitterly
Fra Pole Artick come quhisling loud and schill,
And causit me remufe aganis my will.

For I traistit that Venus, luifis quene,
To quhome sum tyme I hecht obedience,
My faidit hart of lufe scho wald mak grene,
And therupon with humbill reverence
I thocht to pray hir hie magnificence;
Bot for greit cald as than I lattit was
And in my chalmer to the fyre can pas.

Thocht lufe be hait, yit in ane man of age
It kendillis nocht sa sone as in youtheid,
Of quhome the blude is flowing in ane rage;
And in the auld the curage doif and deid
Of quhilk the fyre outward is best remeid:
To help be phisike quhair that nature faillit
I am expert, for baith I have assaillit.

I mend the fyre and beikit me about,
Than tuik ane drink, my spreitis to comfort,
And armit me weill fra the cauld thairout.
To cut the winter nicht and mak it schort
I tuik ane quair - and left all uther sport -
Writtin be worthie Chaucer glorious
Of fair Creisseid and worthie Troylus.

A day off tomorrow for cooking and having some other folk for dinner; then it's back to the Garter. I'm giving myself a day in the State Library on Monday, reading Anstis's 1724 edition of the Black Book, the Register of the Order, and will treat myself at lunchtime at Mr Tulk's cafe with the radicchio and talaggio* focaccia, which is almost as much fun to say as it is to eat.

It's very satisfying to finish and send off a discrete piece of work. I'm looking forward to returning the books and DVDs to the library, and cleaning my desk and piles of books and papers belonging to this project. I've also finished my ARC assessments, so I'm clearing the decks (desk) in all kinds of ways. Really, soon, there'll be nothing to do but finish writing this book.

taleggio. (thanks, Anthony. Yeah, Middle Scots is easy: it's the Italian that's tricky!)

Monday, June 15, 2009

In which I sing the Magic Flute

A Saturday afternoon in the BMW Edge theatre at Federation Square. Wintry light, the river, and blue-grey clouds visible through the glass walls that surround the stage. And inside, I'm singing The Magic Flute with Victorian Opera's Richard Gill. And it was just like this.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

How I Write (and an opening paragraph)

Over at In the Middle a few days ago, Jeffrey linked to a couple of posts by Graham Harman on writing more productively. I skimmed them quickly, as you do, but two things stuck out. One, that there was a time for being disorganised, for procrastinating, for suffering writer’s block, and being morbidly self-defeating; and that was in your youth: by the time you became a practising academic, it was time to put all that behind you. And two: that the secret to being a good writer was to have an outline and write to it.

Well. I guess. The alternative view is more likely to be held by people like me, who don’t have a systematic approach to writing. I am one of those classic literary critics, even when I’m not writing about literature — as I find I’m not doing very much at the moment — who finds they don’t really know what they think until they have written about it. So the idea of an outline, for an essay, at least, doesn’t make much sense for me.

On the other hand, if I don’t have a method, what I do have is a tried and true practice, which I have learned to embrace and relax into, a bit, over the years.

Typically, these days, it starts with a commission (Harman makes this point: that as you get more senior, you are much more likely to be writing in response to such than generating all your work yourself), and a happy acceptance, because I think I might have a workable idea from something that came up in class one time; or a spin-off from something that doesn't fit into my current book project(s), projects which I am much more likely to have originated myself.

I usually start writing this bit of the essay quite soon, the bit I think will be the core of it, as I love having some drafted text to work from. At this stage, I’ll probably try and generate about 500 words a day: more sometimes comes, and that’s a bonus. I’ll also start writing what I think might be an opening page. This will often sound quite grandiose, as I try to make a framework for the idea that I think will be the heart of the essay. I’ll polish the opening couple of pages quite carefully, trying to set things up, not as an outline that will lead me to the conclusion (at this stage I really won’t know what the conclusion is); but more as a kind of map, or a framework.

Then as I get going, things start to slow down. I start to find counter-examples; I realise I haven’t read enough; I realise I can’t do it all from home and will have to go to the library; I realise this idea could actually make a whole book (see “grandiose”, above); and then as I write more and more sections, I start moving them around in the document, trying to get the right balance between theory and example.

At this point I will have to print it out, so I can see more clearly where I am going. First, I make sure there is a reasonable sequence of argument through the paragraphs. Typically, though, I’ll just let the pages sit on top of the printer, unable to bring myself to read them) while I dither around some more. This is the stage of despair, made bearable only by my recognition that this is almost always the way I write. (It’s similar for books, too, but on a larger scale.) And then I often find that the germ of the idea with which I began is actually not the heart of the essay. It was my starting-point, and my point of entry, but is not going to end up as the main argument. This is a seismic shift in my thinking, and makes me wonder if I’ll meet my deadline, but does give the writing and reading a new impetus, and makes me feel I am learning something, or thinking something new, which is a very good feeling to have when writing an essay.

When I really get down to reading the secondary and critical work more carefully, my own document is already pretty messy, but I have done this first stage myself, and so I feel more confident that I’m not just recycling other people’s work. If they agree with me, that’s great, and they go into the footnotes. But my hard-won frame, or map, is my own, and that makes it easier not to get overwhelmed by others.

At this point, if I’m lucky, I’ll find a new opening for the essay, which allows me to ditch the grandiose style, and enter more elegantly, but with the advantage of knowing more clearly where I’m heading. Then I can write through the essay, again and again, polishing the prose, not just for style (though I do love this part of it), but also making sure the vocabulary and structure of the discussion work.

Probably by now I’m still only about two-thirds of the way through, but the last third is easy, since I now know where I’m going. This is Harman’s point, of course. I’m just not in a position to write that outline at the very beginning.

Because I have re-written a lot as I’ve gone, the last stage of writing and revision is pretty quick, because I have found my voice and refined the conceptual vocabulary. And one thing has changed over the years: I am now much more likely to have written proper footnotes as I go.

With this essay I’m writing at the moment, I now have my opening. It doesn't always have to be a quotation, but this one was irresistible:

Someone had indeed had the happy idea of giving me, to distract me on evenings when I seemed abnormally wretched, a magic lantern, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come; and, after the fashion of the master-builders and glass-painters of gothic days, it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted as on a shifting and transitory window.
In the “Overture” to Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel likens the effect of his magic lantern to that of medieval stained glass. The capacity of this pre-cinematic device to transmit coloured light, to tell stories, and to transfigure the materiality of his surroundings introduces one of the central problems of medievalism: how can we best make sense of the differences and the similarities between the medieval past and any given present? Marcel draws on the gothic past to describe the new invention, while at the same time lifting the “impalpable iridescence” and “supernatural phenomena” out of any medieval religious context, emphasising the play and movement of light and the lantern’s capacity to depict “legends”. Memories, here, are personal, cultural, and technological.

There's a bit more polishing of this opening to go; and I still have to write the last sections, on Vincent Ward and Stan Brukhage, but I feel close to making the deadline, which is Thursday. There are heaps of ideas and films I haven't talked about, and am seriously thinking I might write more on this topic at some point. Thanks to everyone for suggestions; they've been exceedingly useful, and I will try and make due acknowledgement in the essay. It's for an online journal, scheduled for publication later this year. If it's accepted, and all, I'll post a link when it's out.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

No stained glass, not really.

Help! I'm getting distracted in this essay I'm supposed to be writing on medievalist stained glass, and have got lost in the world of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1944 A Canterbury Tale. Some readers will remember Carolyn Dinshaw's wonderful paper on this film at NCS in Swansea last year. I've been watching it less for the oddly repellant/attractive queer Colpeper, and more for what it says about the relation between the movies and cathedrals. Witness the English soldier who dreams of playing the organ in a cathedral but plays only for the movies. There is a grand scene of a stained glass window in the film's magnificent closing sequence, but apparently this was filmed in a studio, as the windows of the cathedral were boarded up during the war; and many buildings in Canterbury destroyed. Indeed, the film makes much of a poignant scene in which Alison walks along a street with great cavities where the shops used to be, and a passer-by comments that at least you get a better view of the cathedral now. The need for light coming into the nave must have been greater than the need for historical accuracy, so the windows aren't shown boarded up.

In September 2007, this was the first film to be shown in Canterbury Cathedral, as part of a fund-raising effort to restore roof, walls and .... the stained-glass windows.

If A Canterbury Tale shows a beautiful, ahistorical fake, it also made me think of the final scene in Mrs Miniver, held in the small parish church, whose roof and main stained glass window have been bombed, in an attack that has also killed several characters. The priest preaches of the war of spirit they are all fighting now, against a view through the gothic arches of the English countryside they are defending. Warning: tissue alert.

Hmm. I wonder if the Vicar of Dibley was quoting this in the episode where Geraldine raises money for a new stained-glass window, but donates it to the Columbian earthquake victims and instead puts in a plain glass window that similarly looks out onto a beautiful setting sun?

I feel I'm in danger of losing my focus, but this is all very interesting material. Now I just have to make an argument about it.

Friday, June 05, 2009

That Lonesome Road

A school concert is always a mixed bag. It started with an ambitious rendering of two segments of Vivaldi’s Gloria: a work in progress, as they will be working on this over the next few months. Played slow enough for the strings to keep it up, it became, I have to admit, somewhat turgid in the voices of the singers who themselves are mostly instrumental players doing some compulsory ensemble work.

Once they got going, however (and this was just the chamber music concert: jazz and band performers get a chance later in the year), we heard a number of phenomenal VCE students performing solos and duos, with some pretty wonderful accompanying, too. The concert was held in St Michael’s church, so the acoustics, resounding off the wooden roof, were lovely. So was the warm atmosphere of proud parents, grandparents and friends.

We are in the privileged position of living close enough to an excellent government school that is academically strong, while also taking its music and arts programme very seriously. A number of its students go on to the Victorian College of the Arts, and come back to help out, as did the brilliant guitarist accompanying a somewhat introverted solo performance of Leonard Cohen’s Allelujah. The school is pretty well resourced, so there was a harpsichord for the Vivaldi, and the announcement of some excellent results in the recent Flute competitions. A highlight was a wonderful performance of Ros Bandt’s Meditation for recorder, with Ros sitting in the audience.

The highlight for me, though, were the choral performances: two groups of Year 7 and 8 girls; and the mixed vocal group. All were great, but the vocal group (it needs a name!) was the most heart-wrenching for me, as my boy was singing. Six girls and three boys sang James Taylor’s That Lonesome Road a capella. It’s a most beautiful song, perfect for adolescents. As it happened, Joel is the only tenor in the group, and so he sang the first phrase and two lines later on as a solo (as sung by Taylor in this recording below). He sang with composure and strength, as the line of his parents and grandparents held their breath, as the tears pricked his mother’s eyes, and as shivers of mortality and pride criss-crossed her heart.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Eek. A bit of a draft.

Well, there's one good thing about leaving oneself only about two weeks in which to write an essay: it focuses the mind something shocking. In contrast to the Garter book, which I have had to lay aside for a short time (heh: after eight or so years, what difference will a fortnight make?), I am agonising about this essay in a different way, as I keep changing my mind about what direction to pursue next.

At the moment, I am thinking about the analogies between cinema and stained glass, both as media for the transmission, filtering and refraction of light; and as vehicles for narrative and design. I'm sure there are thousands of things one could say about this, but I'm just starting with a few.

I'm going to post a little of my draft here. Several reasons. First, feedback in comments has been so helpful, I'm addictively seeking more. Second, I'm also expanding my comfort zone by posting unpolished prose that still looks a bit confessional (I might streamline those bits that talk about my own voyage of discovery in this essay: one doesn't want to offend one's readers by seeming to be too cavalier about it). Third, I'm testing the limits of blogging, in preparation for my panel on blogging and medievalist communities for the NCS conference in Siena (will post about this soon).

Finally, how weird is it that my reading around Panofsky is leading me back to Holsinger's Premodern Condition and his discussion of Bourdieu's critique of Panofsky, on which I was working two months ago. Is all our work connected to all our other work?

As a side note, I have, in fact, produced perfect footnotes for all these references already: I'm just not pasting them in here.

My first interest, then, was thematic, using the cinematic representation of medieval stained glass as a point of focus for the representation of medieval religion, as part of the ideological analysis of medievalism, and its relation to modernity. I also wanted to use these patterns of representation as a way of testing Richard Burt’s thesis: that medievalist cinema can tell us something about cinema, as well as about medievalism. It was only later in my research for this essay that I realised what is probably blindingly obvious to readers of this journal; that stained glass shares a number of formal and technical properties with film. Both media can combine abstract forms as well as narrative progressions; and both depend on filtering and refracting light.

[summary of main stages in argument will follow here, when I know what they are]

First, a little historical context. The medieval use of stained glass really took off in the twelfth century, and reached its height in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, though mostly in the towering cathedrals and wealthy abbey churches, rather than smaller, parish churches. Medieval and modernist accounts of Gothic architecture stress that stained-glass windows aren’t simply highly wrought decorations that admit light. Rather, in contrast to Romanesque architecture that contrasted light to the heavy solid substance of walls, Gothic architecture used its windows, along with the upper galleries, side aisles, and arches, to produce an overall impression of light transfiguring the whole building, not just through the windows. Otto von Simson describes this shift:

The stained-glass windows of the Gothic replace the brightly colored walls of the Romanesque architecture; they are structurally and aesthetically not openings in the wall to admit light, but transparent walls. As Gothic verticalism seems to reverse the movement of gravity, so, by a similar aesthetic paradox, the stained-glass window seemingly denies the impenetrable nature of matter, receiving its visual existence from an energy that transcends it. Light, which is ordinarily concealed by matter, appears as the active principle; and matter is aesthetially real only insofar as it partakes of, and is defined by, the luminous quality of light.

This was not simply an architectural innovation. As Simson shows, and as others have argued, twelfth-century cathedral design accorded with developments in aesthetics, philosophy and theology, and deliberately so, serving as a “model” of the medieval universe. “Above all … the cathedral was the intimation of ineffable truth. The medieval cosmos was theologically transparent. The Creation appeared as the first of God’s self-revelations, the Incarnation of the Word as the second.” [I may cite Bourdieu's critique of this kind of thinking here]

Abbot Suger is widely credited with capitalising on the ornamental and decorative aspects of Gothic style, in his rebuilding of the Abbey Church of St Denis in Paris. One of his key innovations in his architectural concept is the use of light, though he also generated text about his designs, both in the account he wrote of the re-building, and in the inscriptions in the church itself that marked various stages of re-building. For example, when they had completed the enlargement of the upper choir, and the addition of vaults, arches and columns, he added a six-line Latin inscription:

“Once the new rear part is joined to the part in front,
The church shines with its middle part brightened.
For bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright,
And bright is the noble edifice which is pervaded by the new light;
Which stands enlarged in our time,
I, who was Suger, being the leader while it was being accomplished.”

The Latin text for the third line here (Claret enim claris quod clare concopulatur) indicates the importance of the ideas of brightness and light, in what Panofsky characterises as “the orgy of neo-Platonic light metaphysics to which Suger abandons himself in some of his poetry.” Suger consistently emphasises the capacity of coloured glass, as well as the proliferation of precious stones in the Church’s accoutrements, to lift the beholder from the material to the immaterial, to transcend the old into the new (the new light, in the inscription above), which is both theological (referring to the New Testament) and a sign of modernity. Suger famously describes the meditative state to which contemplation of the house of God can lead him: “it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.”

In a longer essay, I might now move on to a vaguely sociological reading of analogies between different forms of "transportation" (religious and cinematic), but will probably move on to more thematic issues, now.

My familial connections with the world of film studies (ahem) have put me on to the work of Stan Brakhage. Does anyone else know his work? Check out this link and look at the sample strips from his Chartres. http://www.fredcamper.com/Film/BrakhageS.html

When I first saw these, I completely misread them as if they were tall stained-glass windows, but they are in fact short strips of film. Interesting convergence of media, yes? worth writing about in the essay? or a mistake that's interesting only to me?

More tomorrow: must head out to buy groceries and make cakes or a slice (hedgehog?) for the school music concert.

The Tiananmen mothers

Remembering Tiananmen Square today? Think about signing Amnesty's petition in support of the Tiananmen Mothers.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Dry Island Buffalo Jump

So you thought medieval scholars lived in an ivory tower? Not so. Check out Dry Island Buffalo Jump, a bunch of medieval scholars from St Andrews, who've recorded a song, available for purchase on-line, in aid of students hit by the financial crisis. All praise to Chris Jones and the band for this effort:

Monday, June 01, 2009

Blogging Aloud: Medievalist Stained Glass Again

Thanks again to all who've posted comments here. I'm currently paralysed with doubt and counter-examples about this, so instead of reading and writing, I thought I'd blog about it some more.

Over the last few days I've watched The Anchoress, the Disney animated Robin Hood and Bergman's Seventh Seal. How's that for a cultural spectrum? No stained glass in any of these, but the conjunction made me think my question might be more about the representation of religion in medievalist film.

The run-down little churches in The Anchoress and Robin Hood are too humble to have stained glass; and yes, as others have remarked, the Seventh Seal features the painting of the dance of death in the church. (Anchoress and Seventh Seal also focus on carvings of the Virgin and Christ, respectively.) Perhaps there is also a visionary moment in The Anchoress where Christine glimpses the Virgin's face? It looks like an outline in stained glass, but it's the tiniest moment: mostly the camera focusses on the carved statue.

Next on my list of things to re-watch are First Knight, Name of the Rose and the Hunchback of Notre Dame (special thanks to Jonathan for this suggestion: that scene where the light comes through the glass and lights up the floor is fantastic for this project!). I also have to try and track down a copy of Andrei Rublev, which I don't know at all. I'm also reading through Nickolas Haydock's Movie Medievalism, which I'm finding immensely helpful. Haydock is making me think I may have been a bit hard on First Knight. I've often used it in teaching as an example of the limit case: how far can you push the Arthur-Lancelot-Guenever plot until it makes no sense?

A Knight's Tale has, as Kerryn and Andrew point out, a scene where Ulrich rides his horse into the cathedral. For me, that film's a classic case of a secular medievalist film that introduces religion only to mock it as hypocritical and irrelevant (Jocelyne tells the priest not to shoosh her then admires his pretty ring when he admonishes her beauty). But what does the glass in those windows show? Had better look at that again, too.

Mostly, medievalist films are not that sympathetic to religion, are they? Seventh Seal persistently exposes the emptiness of the knight's quest for meaning; and the church hardly comes off looking good in any of these movies. The Robin Hood is an exception: it's a sign of Prince John's final descent that he proposes to hang Friar Tuck; while it's the Sheriff's robbing of the poor box that sends the Friar to jail. There's nothing specifically Christian or sacramental about the church, here, but the film's critique is directed entirely at the usurping John and the flattering Sir Hiss.

OK, still thinking, obviously. The scary thing about this project is that I've now remembered I'm much more comfortable talking about written texts, as opposed to visual or cinematic ones. Aaaaaaggghhh.

Here's the relevant portion of Seventh Seal, about half way through this clip:

Update: Just found the CFP for this year's Studies in Medievalism conference. Their theme? Medievalism and Religion.

What a PhD in Medievalism Feels Like

There was a time, not so very long ago (and it's a time that still persists in many institutions) when any graduate student wanting to write on medievalism was firmly discouraged from doing so. And if said student is keen to pursue a career in medieval studies, I would say that was probably still good advice. Let me come clean: I've given that advice myself, even quite recently. And I don't have enough fingers and toes to count the times people have remarked that my own PhD (an edition of Wynnere and Wastoure) has somehow licensed my more theoretical and speculative work. For people wishing professional accreditation as a medieval scholar, medievalism still does look, in many quarters, like a secondary field.

However, this is in process of change. And yes, there are lots of aspects of medievalism that don't require detailed immersion in medieval languages and literature. And when the medievalism in question is linked to another established critical field, the results can indeed be spectacular.

Dr Melanie Duckworth has written two terrific posts here and especially here about the viva process of her PhD on medievalism in Australian poetry at Leeds. Meli has blogged about the writing and revising of such over the past few years at Northern Lights. I've heard her speak at two conferences. I've read stuff she's published in an Australian newspaper. I've talked and emailed with her a little about her work. (She's also been fearless and candid with me on the chapter she's writing on the poetry of my former partner: ok, since it's 18 years since we separated, you'd think I'd be fine about this, wouldn't you?) I can say that her work is really terrific and very important, both to medievalism studies and Australian literature studies.

The second post, which summarises the questions her examiners put to her, poses a fantastic cluster of issues to think about; e.g. the perennial question about what "medievalism" refers to: the actions/effects of the primary texts we study; or the secondary act of studying such primary texts. Where "primary", against normal usage, doesn't refer to medieval, but rather postmedieval texts. Texts which scholars of the medieval, also known as medievalists, regard as secondary. You can see the problem.

Questions about the relation between medievalism studies and cultural studies; and about the nature of national and post-colonial studies and medievalism. About the distinctiveness of medievalism, as opposed to the revivals of other periods, etc. etc. All would be good questions for anyone writing on medievalism to think about. None of them is easy. And so all power and congratulations to Meli, who obviously acquitted herself brilliantly in her answers, and who can now graduate, without having to make a single change to her thesis. I, for one, will be watching that space, to see what she does next.