A Medievalist’s Review of Brave

Disney’s newest movie, Brave, features a theme common to (almost required for) a story about a girl in the Middle Ages—Princess Merida is forced to marry against her will, pawned because she is female by a well-meaning family who fail to acknowledge her dreams. The courageous princess “confronts tradition and challenges destiny to change her fate.” Merida’s hand will be promised to whomever wins an archery contest. We cheer for her as she tears the bonds of her restrictive clothing, declaring that she will be shooting for her own hand.

Brave teaches some valuable lessons to little girls: courage, bravery, pursuit of their dreams, and the importance of understanding and communication between mothers and daughters. However, movies like this consistently suggest that girls had little value during the Middle Ages.

Wikipedia says that Brave is set in 10th-century Scotland, but I see no indication of a date in the movie or on the movie website (EDIT: it no longer says that). The movie itself appears in a misty Scottish past, which makes pinning it to a time period or location difficult. Since the geography is unknown, it’s also hard to decide whether a girl in Merida’s position would have felt a stronger influence from French or Gaelic cultures. Since Queen Elinor appears as a queen fit for continental courts of the time (and because I’m not experienced in medieval Gaelic studies), I’ll examine the movie from the position of Anglo-Norman medieval cultural standards. For a detailed analysis of women’s roles during the Middle Ages, see “Misuse of the Word ‘Medieval’ Part 4: Women.” Here, I’m going to address some of the individual problems of Brave.

Continue reading

Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain: Reproduced from MS. Cotton Nero A.X.

This may be the greatest book I have ever owned. If you know me, that’s saying a lot. Medievalists, scholars, linguists, I present to you the Early English Text Society facsimile of the Cotton Nero A.x containing Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The most interesting feature of the book itself is that it is not bound. What appears to be the cover is actually a small box that ties with a ribbon on the right side. Inside, all of the pages are loose, though the brief introductory material is stitched together. Inside, each page of the Cotton Nero A.x is reproduced in black and white. Each page is smaller than I’d like it (the paper size is about 7.5”x11”; the photos are smaller), but still clearly reproduced, so any difficulties in deciphering will be due to the scribal hand, not poor printing. There is no transcription of the text, but the introductory material contains a survey of scribal errors and noteworthy points.

Unfortunately, this scholarly book is rare and probably out of print. Within the last month, used copies have jumped to $1000. If you want this book, you’ll have to hunt for a deal. I spent years trying to get a copy and received one when my mother spent several months searching the internet for one as a birthday present (and no, she didn’t spend $1000 on it—she managed to find one significantly less from a seller of used books who hadn’t heard about the price spike). Library copies are also unfortunately rare, but you may be able to find one at a large university.

The Made of Ƿ store is now open!

The Made of Ƿ store is now open at http://www.cafepress.com/madeofwynn! Right now I have designs in Old English, and I’ll be posting designs in Latin and other medieval/English major designs in the future.

You can preview all designs by clicking on the “designs” tab in the upper right-hand corner of the blog. I have 4 designs so far, but my designer and I are working on several more, so look for new designs in the near future. Though the store is starting with shirts and an inexpensive bag (well, inexpensive compared to many other bag styles available), I have plans for other types of products to fulfill all of your overeducated needs.

Antique Books, Part 2: Making Meaning from Text


If you find this page in a book, it means that the publisher made a mistake in the printing, but reprinting the book to fix the mistakes would be too expensive, so instead, a catalog of mistakes is added. Look at how the “errata” page is included in the book. Is it glued in? Is it a full sheet or a partial sheet? These questions can give you insight into just how valuable paper and the printing process were at the time of publication. In my copy of Dombey and Son, the errata were originally printed on a full page added after the introduction. When additional mistakes were found, a partial sheet was added with the later corrections.

Further Reading

This is usually the last section of a book. It serves to direct the reader to books similar to the one he just finished. For example, a copy of Treasure Island may list other books considered appropriate reading for boys at the time of publication. Since “further reading” sections are considered advertisements, first editions usually do not include this section, while later editions of popular works are certain to have them.

Continue reading

Ic Habbe Sƿeord (Habeō Ferrum)

Ic mīnne byrd-dæȝ nolde reccan, ac ic sceal. On mīn byrd-dæȝe, mīnum sƿeostor mē ȝeaf ƿundorlīc sƿeord.


Þæt sƿeord is ȝelīcnes of sƿeorde Þēodnes in Þām II Torrum. Sƿeord hatte Herugrim. Ic nāt hƿæt tō secganne, ac þæt hit scīr and mihtiȝ and cynelic is. (Gēa, þonne ic ābregde mīn sƿeord, þonne ic onȝiete þæt mīn miht ȝeƿent.)

Dīcere dē die natalis nōn cupīvī, sed dicam. Die natalis, soror mihi ferrum mirabilis dederat. Ferrum est simile quam ferrum Theodenī in II Turrēs. Nōmen ferrī Herugrim est. Nōn sciō quid dīcere, sed id clarum et potens et regium est. (Cum ferrum dēstringō, sentiō vīs meī redit.)

Antique Books, Part 1: Handling

If you intend to be a serious scholar, you will at some point find yourself faced with antique books. Original sources are a valuable part of research. Using original sources is less likely if you are researching the Middle Ages, but when researching 18th century or Victorian literature, you will likely have a chance to handle antiques extensively and even to own some. A library or archive will probably have training for handling their antiques, but this post is for those of you borrowing from a non-library source or looking to start your own collection.

Wash your hands.

I’ve read several articles on whether one should handle antiques with gloves on or off. The general consensus that I see is not to bother with gloves. The residue from cotton gloves seems just as likely to damage the book as the oils on one’s skin. In addition, gloves add a clumsiness that increases the likelihood of damaging a page. The best option is to wash your hands frequently when handling an antique book. Not only does this protect the book from oils, but it also protects the reader from whatever microbes may have been nesting in the pages for over a century. Antique books are many things, but clean is rarely one of them.

Never open an antique book all the way.

Opening a book all the way will damage the spine. When briefly examining a book, cradle the spine in your hand, using your thumb and fingers to support both sides of the book. (Pressing the pages down for readability is fine and will not damage them if the spine is at a proper angle, but I didn’t bother for the picture.)

Note the angle.

Note the straight line and the spine damage.

For lengthier use, lay the book on the table and prop up both sides of the cover to support them. Libraries will usually have padded book stands for this purpose. You could easily make one of these yourself by cutting a Styrofoam log in half and covering each side with soft fabric, but another option is to simply use other books. Small paperbacks are perfect for this purpose. For my amusement, I have supported the book in the picture with 4 different editions of Beowulf.

This book has the support of many friends.

This book needs a chiropractor.

Continue reading

Medievalists: Watch the Tour de France

Medievalists, particularly medievalists who can’t afford to travel, should watch the Tour de France. If possible, watch the morning broadcast with Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. The Tour is a long race with miles of beautiful landscape, so when the commentators aren’t remarking on strategies or crash coverage, they delve into the scenery. The Tour goes past cities, towns, castles, churches, trade routes, and battlefields of medieval importance. The commentators have done some research, so when the riders pass something important, they usually mention it. The information given is usually not so detailed that it could be used for research, but seeing the aerial footage is magnificent.

My recommendation for Tour de France viewing is this: multitask. Read a book, knit a sweater, get out the treadmill, or pick another activity to occupy your time until something important comes on. This way, one can easily see the Tour’s highlights while accomplishing work as well. Liggett and Sherwen are entertaining commentators, so while I really don’t care about cycling, I have enjoyed listening to them for 8 years now.

This year’s Tour de France starts on Saturday, June 30. Americans can view coverage on the NBC Sports Network, formerly OLN.

Le Tour de France (English)
Le Tour de France (French)

Three Magnifying Devices

Every medievalist should own a magnifying glass, even if he has perfect vision. Many medieval manuscripts were sometimes produced with the aid of magnifying glasses, so magnifying glasses are often required to study them. Then, there’s OED microprinting.

Lightwedge Bar Magnifier

The Lightwedge Bar Magnifier is most useful for reading microprinting. It sits on the page and has less magnifying power than handheld devices, but since it does not have to be held, it leaves one’s hands free for taking notes. This magnifier is only 3 cm wide, so you can imagine how small the text is in the picture (note: I intended to focus on the prefix “cyng-.” That “cynical” is magnified in the picture is a coincidence, not a statement). The purple line is for lining the magnifier up with the text, but I only find it useful on right-hand pages. Lightwedge and other companies make dome magnifiers (link to Amazon) that sit on the page like the bar magnifier. The dome design offers more magnifying power and is preferred by my friends who have vision problems, but they are not as effective for microprinted books since they often do not magnify an entire line at once. My Lightwedge was purchased for me at Barnes and Noble (thanks, Mom!) and should be easily available at office stores.

Handheld Magnifying Glass

This magnifying glass, which I found is extremely difficult to photograph, came with my OED. It’s not unique in any way and dozens of rectangular magnifiers are cheaply availible (link to Amazon)at office stores. I like this magnifier because its rectangular shape fits well with the OED’s columns, but it has a big enough area that it’s still useful for examining carpet pages. (The book in the photograph is The Book of Kells by Charles Gidley.)

Pretty Magnifying Glass

This review will probably be relevant only to female medievalists. I love this glass because it’s pretty. This magnifier is tiny—a little less than 4 cm—but it looks nice and the chain means that I won’t lose it under a book when I put it down. It’s good for quickly looking at things that don’t need to be quoted, and it’s pretty. That’s all I need, really.

Choose a magnifier that’s right for you. It can be a cheap plastic thing, an antique brass reproduction, or a Sherlock Holmes-approved movie prop replica—whatever you like best as long as it makes text bigger. It doesn’t hurt if your magnifier of choice looks impressive on your desk, too.

Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Societal Ignorance

Moneyball: “Baseball thinking is medieval. They are asking all the wrong questions. And if I say it to anybody, I’m-I’m ostracized. I’m-I’m-I’m a leper.”
My Cousin Vinny: “The laws are medieval down here. Do you know what the minimum age for execution is in Alabama?”
Red Dawn: “ They live on rats and sawdust bread and sometimes… on each other. At night, the pyres for the dead light up the sky. It’s medieval.”
All About Eve: “Belong to you – why, that sounds medieval, something out of an old melodrama!”
Murder on the Orient Express: “No, it is medieval! The rule of law, it must be held high and if it falls you pick it up and hold it even higher!”
Highlander (TV series): A couple of medieval songwriters come up with the idea of chivalry one rainy day and you embrace it as a lifestyle. You live and die by a code of honor that was *trendy* when you were a kid.
Cracker: Sorry, James, a bit of Medieval justice. If you drown, you’re innocent. If you swim, you’re guilty.

Since I don’t know the context for all of these quotes, I have a hard time trying to figure out what stereotypes operate in these references. Most of them seem to be the assumption that people living in the Middle Ages were uneducated idiots with an underdeveloped sense of justice.

Witch Hunts

The last quote seems to be a reference to a scenario made famous by the witch trial scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. One operating stereotype is that anyone who was misunderstood during the Middle Ages was cast out of the community as a witch. Witch hunts were mostly a phenomenon of the 17th century, not the Middle Ages. The earliest record we have of a medieval witch trial comes from Tolouse in the 14th century. After that, records are sparse, but increase after the middle of the 15th century, the very end of the Middle Ages. [1] A friend of mine who has done research on the topic has informed me that witch hunts largely resulted not from religious fervor, but because the targeted “witch” was a societally vulnerable person with great wealth that the accusing party desired.


Movies and books often portray medieval rulers as tyrants. Régine Pernoud stresses that one must not confuse feudalism with absolute monarchy. [2] If you read my post on serfs and peasants, you are aware that the lower classes had rights and could appeal to a higher authority to defend them. The concept of chivalry has little to do with the concept of justice, save, perhaps, that adhering to rules of chivalry meant that upper-class men were expected to conduct themselves in certain ways that upheld good behavior.

I could briefly summarize medieval justice by saying that the Germanic tradition of trial by jury shaped continental courts. Germanic theories of rulership held ideas not found in Classical cultures—namely, “consultation between a ruler and his people.” [3] How this system worked varied by country and by century, but medieval rulers were subject to their countries’ laws, emphasized by a promise to uphold the law common in coronation oaths. [4] At all levels, lords and vassals had contracts concerning their duties to each other, so authority came from that contract, not the “prestige of the monarchy.” [5]

Continue reading

The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey, A.D. 200-1500

The back of the cover calls The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey by Frederick B. Artz a “standard text for thousands of students and teachers.” I can’t argue with that. This book packs a massive amount of information into a (relatively speaking) small space, which has the unfortunate side effect of making it a boring read. I suspect that this sort of book is meant to be used as a reference book, not to be read cover-to-cover as I did. I’m glad I own a copy of The Mind of the Middle Ages, because it will be one of my primary research books for a long time.

Astute readers will notice that the cover lists a start date of about 300 years before most historians date the beginning of the Middle Ages (or 900 years, if one is studying English literature and dating the division linguistically). This is because The Mind of the Middle Ages is about what people were reading, writing, studying, and thinking about during the Middle Ages. The thought and writing that came before the Middle Ages must be understood of the thought and writing of the Middle Ages is to be understood.

Continue reading