Women in the Days of the Cathedrals

Régine Pernoud is my favorite medieval historian. She is best known for her writings about Joan of Arc and has received an award from the Académie française for her scholarship. She has worked as a curator for the Museum of Rheims, worked at the Museum of History in France, at the National Archives, and at the Centre of Joan of Arc.

Women in the Days of the Cathedrals, written by Pernoud and translated by Anne Côté-Harriss, should be a required starting point for anybody studying medieval history or literature. Women is a survey, a broad summary that lights on particular individuals in an attempt to give the reader a clear picture of typical life for women during the Middle Ages. It’s not a primary source for high-level research, but it’s a perfect source for general knowledge. The footnotes give examples of places for further research since many of the figures mentioned can be easily researched in more depth. Pernoud’s motivation for writing Women came partially from the fact that while much of its information is well-known to the scholarly community, much has not yet penetrated general society. Pernoud’s research deals mostly with France, but she provides information to extrapolate where circumstances were similar or different outside of France.

Pernoud begins with a brief picture of women’s positions and rights in the 5th century to have a point of comparison with the Middle Ages. Next, she moves on to the circumstances that allowed for a change and greater freedom of women’s rights during the Middle Ages. The biggest factor was Christianity, so many of her early examples concern nuns or women with professed religious lifestyles.

Pernoud does not limit her arguments to the religious, however. She deals with women of high and low birth alike, town women and country women. The cultural climate of the Middle Ages means that religion was an enormous factor in most of these women’s lives, but it is not the only factor. She cites examples of women who owned wielded power in political, military, and economic matters. She discusses property ownership, dominion of estates, education, laws regarding marriage, courts of love, femininity, and how the idea of womanhood influenced the way women conducted their affairs.

My favorite aspect of this book is how it places the relevant male figures in the real, complex relationships that they expressed with the women around them. Pernoud does not spend time lamenting the unfairness of misogyny or list examples of men who behaved inappropriately towards women. Such ideas inevitably pepper every classroom discussion of feminism, but Pernoud omits them. She has all the information she needs to present a complete picture of women who led free, fulfilling lives without blaming the other sex for the shortcomings that became the norm in the sixteenth century. Overall, Pernoud’s primary interest is to show that women had a great deal of power and freedom in the Middle Ages.

If you speak French, you can easily buy a cheap copy of this book.  For Côté-Harriss’s translation, the cost is expensive: $50 for a used copy, $450 for a new one. I easily found a copy in my community library, so if your library does not have one, finding one through an inter-library loan program should be no difficult feat. If this book still exceeds your grasp, try Those Terrible Middle Ages, which I will be reviewing next week. I haven’t read any of Pernoud’s other books, numerous as they are, but I assure readers that with her credentials, they must be as wonderful as these two.

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Knights: In History and Legend

Today, I’m taking a break from reviews on scholarly editions to do a review of a book that I bought solely for the pretty pictures. Knights: In History and Legend by Constance Brittain Bouchard has 283 pages of marvelous photographs (okay, there’s also a lot of text too). Most of the pictures are of medieval artwork—usually manuscript work, but also some stained-glass windows, paintings, and tapestries. A great deal of it is architecture. Some of it is Pre-Raphaelite paintings from the Victorian revival of Arthurian literature. Then, there’s the armor.

I love looking at pictures of armor. I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s because I fenced for three years and always felt sad that my plastic chest protector was far less awesome than plate armor. Perhaps it’s because getting a sense of what armor was worn in a certain decade does a great deal to set a piece in its historical circumstances. Perhaps it’s because the swords are pretty. Either way, Knights has wonderful photographs of arms and armor.

However, this book is not an art book. It is a historical book with a great number of visual aids. The information in each chapter is not extensively detailed, but it is accurate and enlightening on a number of topics. The breakdown of types of weapons and their uses is particularly useful for Arthurian literature since it helps outline how battles were fought, how they are usually described in literature, and what the medieval reader would assume from what isn’t described. The pages outlining the technique of using and differences between spears, javelins, halberds, poleaxes, pikes, and lances are particularly useful. Of equal value is the chapter on the upbringing and daily life of a knight, topics only discussed in footnotes since the original audiences of Arthurian legends needed no introduction to the topic. Knights is not a resource for high-level academic research, but for the casual historian or as a book to supplement other materials, it’s fantastic.

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Why We’ll Never Have a Decent Beowulf Movie

Beowulf: You're doing it wrong. Click for translation notes.

The answer to this question came while I was reading Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy. In comparing the original descriptions of Holmes with modern interpretations, Rachel Michaels comes to the conclusion that Holmes is portrayed as a high-functioning sociopath with increasing frequency because modern viewers accept, and often expect, flawed heroes. I’ve considered similar ideas for a long time.

Over the last few years, superhero movies have ramped up the amount of character angst. Heroes lacking in epic flaws are developing tormented pasts that darken their images, allowing them great periods of brooding. By the second or third sequel, the Bad Guys have managed to convince Society at Large that the masked victor is a masked menace, transforming the hero into a misunderstood pseudo-villain striving to protect his people from the villains and from themselves. He is appreciated by few, mistrusted by many. Of course, we the viewers know that he is the force of justice, but we like this tension and the dark image.

Now consider Beowulf. Does Beowulf have any flaws? Is Beowulf himself dark?

No, and this is why nobody is willing to make a good Beowulf movie. I can see all of you reaching to type in the comment box, “Wait! Our heroes have to have flaws, or they’re not interesting! A perfect hero is no challenge for the villain!” I agree—a too-perfect hero is boring, but this has nothing to do with Beowulf. Beowulf has been an honored hero for more than 1000 years, and his flaws have nothing to do with it.

First, consider what Beowulf is trying to teach the reader (listener, really). The poet announces it when he writes of Scyld Scyfing “Þæt wæs gōd cyning!” Beowulf is about what a good king ought to do. A good king should be a strong warrior, but that’s not all. He must be courageous, but he must also be well-spoken, polite, pious, generous in gift-giving, just in judgment. He should choose a wife who has these same qualities and has the wisdom to give him good counsel [1]. In this context, Beowulf’s personal flaws are irrelevant to the story. Beowulf is not about exploring a specific character’s worldview. It’s not about how a flawed person overcomes his setbacks to become a great king. It’s about how good kings face problems external to themselves.

Next, consider the monsters. Many modern viewers usually have flawed ways of viewing villains because playing convincing villains requires great acting talent. Many viewers mix up “interesting” with “sexy,” especially if attractive people play the villains. Beowulf doesn’t have sexy villains. Beowulf is careful to define the monsters as, according to Tolkien, the enemies of God. Grendel and his mother are clearly evil by theological definition: that which has rejected God is evil (see Augustine and Thomas Aquinas for more). Not only is Beowulf justified in destroying evil; it is required of him to prevent more deaths. Grendel is evil by definition, and modern audiences don’t jive with that. Our modern “everyone can believe whatever he wants” attitude rejects the idea that a monster can be categorically evil. (If that’s the case, then why have monsters?) We want lengthy backstory. We want falls from goodness. We want to sympathize with villains as victims of their own shortcomings. We love noble villains who do the wrong things for the right reasons. This type of villain might not have been appealing for the Anglo-Saxons because it’s not in the language.

Look at the words I’ve used above. “Enemy,” “rejection,” “justified,” “required,” and “villain” are all French words. “Evil” is an Anglo-Saxon word; the Germanic people understood the concept of an enemy, but the language cannot express the complexities shown in the French words.

The most recent version of Beowulf is the 2007 CG version. Beowulf will refer to the original poem, while 2007 will refer to the movie. I’ll be analyzing some problems with this one because it’s the most recent, and because though I’ve seen all of the Beowulf movies, I just couldn’t bring myself to watch them again. Writers Neil Gaiman and John Avary have some major problems with their interpretations of Beowulf. In this interview, they mispronounce “scop” as “skop,” which tells me that they have done even basic research.

The movie version of Beowulf loses all of the merits of the original poem by making it a flawed exploration of flawed characters. Grendel’s mother declares that underneath the glamour, Beowulf is just as much a monster as Grendel. This could have been an insightful interpretation of the poem, but it is poorly executed. Beowulf defines Beowulf as honest and courageous, as having qualities opposite of monstrous. In contrast, 2007 rejects the idea of true evil and insists that anything we may see as evil is only apparently evil, placing the problem in the viewer. It bids the viewer to consider who the “real” monster is, but the plot of Beowulf isn’t set up for that kind of interpretation. Grendel was not rejected by the Danes for being “different,” he was rejected for eating dozens of people. Making the jump from “murderer” to “different” is a long stretch.

2007 introduces new flaws by making the characters sexually deviant, a weak attempt at complexity. Hrothgar and Beowulf’s attempts to hide their adultery make them weak-minded cowards. No wonder all of their heroic qualities disappear. 2007 seeks to criticize everything in Beowulf rather than considering its original merits. 2007 does not seek to inspire viewers—it makes them want to thank (thank who? probably not God) that they are better people than those idiots on the screen. I realized that something was very wrong when Unferth became the most noble character.

Frankly, Gaiman and Avary’s opinions of seeing Angelina Jolie in 3D sum up their primary interests in this movie. I would not be so upset about this version if there already existed a decent version closer to the original. I would even be satisfied if we had a good movie that in no way resembled Beowulf.

I’m doomed to disappointment. Nobody wants a hero.

[1] What? Men asking women for advice 1000 years ago? Yup, it actually happened, people!

Beowulf: Gē dōþ hit yfele. (Translation Notes)

Beowulf: Gē dōþ hit yfele

Beowulf: You’re doing it wrong.

“Gē”  is the second person plural.

“Dōþ” is the second person plural conjugation of the verb “dōn,” “to do.” OE does not have a separate  conjugation for progressive tense, nor does it use an auxiliary like the MnE “are doing,” so the progressive is expressed with the present tense conjugation in the appropriate context.

“Hit” is the neuter singular pronoun. Technically, the masculine may have been more appropriate since I’m speaking generally (I’m not certain on that point), but I chose the neuter since it’s closest to MnE and easiest to recognize.

“Yfele” may cause the most problems for readers. As an adverb, it is translated both as “badly” and “evilly.” I have come across the word “wrang” before, which would have sounded closer to the original meme, but it’s a noun form, not an adverb. Technically, the original meme uses an adjective (wrong) when it should use an adverb (wrongly), but I thought that grammatical correctness would aid in translation.

Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales

Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, edited by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren, is one of my favorite medieval literature volumes. Technically speaking, this isn’t a volume of medieval literature, as most of the stories in it were written after 1500, but my favorites in it are still medieval. I picked this one up between my BA and beginning graduate school. I wanted to write my first graduate paper on A Gest of Robyn Hode, but my professor told me that I couldn’t use it because it was “sub-literary.” (He made no comment when I later used it in my thesis.)

One mission of the TEAMS Middle English Text Series is to make available texts that are difficult to find. The focus is on students, so many of their texts, including this one, are available to read on their website for free. I hate reading books online, so I find the $30 price tag quite reasonable for a thick scholarly book like this. The original Robin Hood tales are easily available in translations, particularly the famous ones by Howard Pyle, but if you read this blog regularly, you should know how I feel about translations.

Stephen Knight is a leading authority on Robin Hood, so the introduction to this book is wonderful. It gives a general history of the major Robin Hood texts, the political and social climates of their writing, and the major manuscripts that have survived. It gives a nice overview of the social classes who created and demanded stories of Robin Hood, answering the question of how King Richard, who was a great historical a—, became so renowned in Robin Hood tales. It also touches on who the “historical Robin Hood” may have been.

Each work also begins with a more specific introduction relevant to the individual text, including history, politics, and surviving manuscripts. Since the first Robin Hood ballads arose during the late Middle Ages, the language is relatively easy throughout, but the earlier works have a gloss that should relieve most problems. TEAMS is in the habit of standardizing u/v/i/j spellings, though the texts as a whole do not have heavily modernized spelling. The book also has the extensive footnotes that I love to see in scholarly books.

This book finishes with several non-Robin Hood outlaw tales for comparison. I can’t say I’ve read them, because I adore A Gest of Robyn Hode so much that I come back to it over and over. That, and a couple of the middle ballads have a repetitive refrain of “hey a down a down down” that gets on my nerves after the first stanza.

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You want a good Beowulf movie? Watch The Two Towers.

Dear Patron,

Last Wednesday, a colleague invited me to give his students a lecture on the cultural and religious background of Beowulf. I came into the lecture prepared for the possibility that they had all watched the movie instead of reading the book (thankfully, they had all read the book, proving themselves to be the intelligent, attentive students that their instructor had promised me). While preparing, I asked myself, what would make a student desire to watch the movie version of Beowulf? Why did I watch them myself?

I tell people that I watched the movie versions of Beowulf so that when students put incorrect answers on their tests, I know where they got them. Really, I’m deluding myself. I watched them because the Anglo-Saxons have a rich visual history that I long to see.

Let’s try this another way. Have you ever been to the British Museum to see the display of Anglo-Saxon artifacts? You probably have, patron, but those students certainly haven’t. Texas is also remarkably short on historically-accurate mead halls (if you built one, dear patron, it would be a great advancement for the scholarly community). These students have also not had the benefit of years of study in the field. They don’t know what Anglo-Saxon ring mail looks like. They’ve never seen a historically accurate helmet. They don’t know what Saxon tapestries or carvings look like. They don’t even have the background to research these things. The closest they can get is vague ideas of Vikings from popular culture, which gives them images of men in horned helmets pillaging villages and smashing victims into dust before drinking from the skulls of their enemies.

No wonder Beowulf is confusing. The Beowulf poet was writing for an audience that needed no cultural orientation. When we’re 1000 years removed, it becomes more difficult. No wonder the bright hero retreats into a series of shadows in a vague, misty past.

This is why I began my lecture with clips from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I would love to post links to the scenes I used, but I can find no YouTube clips that are legally posted, so you’ll just have to pull them up on your own DVDs. The first scene is Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf being asked to leave their weapons outside the mead hall Meduseld before they enter to see King Theoden (by the way, “theoden” is usually translated as “king” or “prince” in Old English). This is a nice parallel to the scene in Beowulf where the titular hero and his men are asked to leave their swords, shields, and spears at Heorot’s doors before they enter to speak to the king, Hrothgar. I turned the volume down and bade the students to focus on the architecture as the camera pans around, showing the glorious mead-hall on the hill, the center of the city. This scene allows a great look at the armor, too. The shoulder plates and gorgets are not typical of Anglo-Saxon armor, but the mail is a good representation, the helmets look like they could be reproductions of existing artifacts, and the Anglo-Saxons would have adored the gold embroidery on the cloaks. As the characters all entered Meduseld, I pointed out the intricate gilded carvings on the columns, walls, and floor, the tapestries, and the fire in the center of the mead-hall. Even the size of Meduseld is perfect. In reading Beowulf, it’s easy to imagine Heorot as a much, much larger hall than would have realistically been built. I gave the students permission to picture Beowulf exactly as the scene appears in The Two Towers, because Peter Jackson’s set designers did great research.

The second scene that I showed was the next one on the DVD, Theodred’s funeral. It is unlike Beowulf’s in that Beowulf was burned on a pyre before the remains were interred, but this scene gives a wonderful look at the type of burial mounds that dot England’s landscape. The most valuable part of this scene is Eowyn’s funeral dirge, which is written in correct Old English. The first line is almost exactly the same as one in Beowulf. This scene is perfect not just because it is the only source I have for a woman’s voice speaking Old English, but I suspect that Peter Jackson’s crew read Beowulf’s funeral scene. In Beowulf, a Geat woman sings in sorrow, “bunden-heorde.” This is the only scene where Eowyn wears her hair bound up (save the scene directly after, which is before a costume change). I could have taught the whole lecture on the influence of Beowulf on The Lord of the Rings.

I think the students enjoyed the lecture. They asked some great questions at the end, including whether the flowers on the graves were wildflowers or part of the burial ritual. I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to teach them again, either as a guest or as a professor. For now, I’ll have to remain a freelance medievalist.


hēo hwā is lærestre and leornere

Beowulf: Facsimile of British Museum MS. Cotton Vitellius A xv with a transliteration (Early English Text Society)

This Beowulf facsimile is worth the cost for any serious Anglo-Saxon scholar. I would advise anyone interested to do whatever it takes to save up for a copy—sell your organs for quick cash, charge freshmen exorbitant prices to write their composition papers, join a band of mercenaries, or whatever the spirit of the Vikings moves you to do. I’m always wary of buying facsimiles on the internet without having had a chance to preview the book since many come with warnings that the reproduction may be of poor quality. However, this is never a concern with the Early English Text Society. The EETS has been producing works of great academic value since 1864, so they’re my first source for any of my scholarly needs.

The EETS facsimile of Beowulf is exactly what it sounds like. Each surviving page of the Beowulf manuscript has been carefully scanned and reproduced in a high-quality print. Facing each page is a transliteration that helps overcome the difficulties of reading scribal handwriting (a daunting task for the uninitiated) with footnotes explaining the transliteration where necessary. The Beowulf facsimile is only available in hardcover, but it is published with high-quality binding and paper that gives off a smell to make English majors swoon. It is a marvelous production.

For any new to Beowulf, be warned: this is not the book for leisure reading. The introduction is about reproducing the manuscript, not about reading the poem. The footnotes are only about reconstructing damaged words or letters. It has no scholarly articles, nothing to help the reader understand Beowulf. This EETS facsimile attempts to make up for the fact that only 1 manuscript of Beowulf exists and anyone who is not a lauded scholar will probably not be getting a look at it.

The Earliest English Poems: A Bilingual Edition

Ah, what I haven’t endured for this little book! I first found The Earliest English Poems: A Bilingual Edition by Michael Alexander when wandering through the university library during my first year of graduate school. I fell in love the moment I pulled its dingy yellow cover off the shelf. I checked out and re-checked out that book for an entire year, even though I never had the opportunity to take an Anglo-Saxon literature class. It kept me company through some frustrating times, which I’ll make you read about before I get to the actual review. Scroll down a bit to get to the relevant stuff.

When I was driving home one weekend, an 18-wheeler blew up [1] on the highway an hour or two before I was to pass through the city, so the highway was completely shut down. Since I never listen to the radio, I didn’t realize this, so I was sitting on the highway for 2 hours instead of my usual 30-minute drive. I eventually turned off my car, opened the windows, and read aloud to myself in Old English. I still went nuts siting there in the road, but I went less nuts than I would have without this book.

Right now, this book is listed on Amazon for reasonable prices. When I decided I wanted a copy (which was, frankly, immediately after I first saw it), Amazon had only 1 copy listed at $395. This is usual for scholarly books, so I resigned myself to finding a way to steal it from the library, but I kept an eye on Amazon. Several months later, a copy went up for $9. I sped home from classes that day, and soon enough, that book was MINE MINE MINE! Luckily, sellers are no longer deeming it so expensive, so you, reader, don’t have to watch the market for months to get a copy.

On to the review:

Thank you for bearing with me. The Earliest English Poems begins with the usual introduction and notes on translation. Here is the table of contents:

  • The Ruin
  • Heroic Poems
    • Widsith and Deor
    • Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg
    • Waldere
  • Elegies
    • The Wanderer and The Seafarer
    • The Wife’s Complaint, The Husband’s Message, and Wulf & Eadwacer
  • Gnomic Verses
  • Riddles
  • The Dream of the Rood
  • The Battle of Maldon
    • Map of the Site of the Battle of Maldon
  • Notes
  • Appendixes
    • The Runes
    • Suggested Solutions to the Riddles
    • Anglo-Saxon Metric
  • Glossary of Proper Names
  • Note on Books

This book is published with the Anglo-Saxon text on the left page, the English translation on the right. Each chapter begins with a brief introduction of the section’s poem(s) to place it in its historical context and highlight important themes. The margins leave ample room for annotations, which my book’s previous owner did extensively.

Translations were done with an attempt to keep to the original’s stresses and metre. Alexander retains words of Anglo-Saxon origin wherever possible, and a few words are not translated if there is no modern equivalent, words like scop and hwæt, which should be familiar to the avid reader of Old English, but are explained in translation notes in case they are not. Alexander urges the reader to read the poems aloud, as they were meant to be spoken, but pronunciation notes are sparse, so readers should consult a grammar book for more information.

The Earliest English Poems is easily available at any bookstore in English only, but I demand bilingual editions when available. This is the only bilingual edition of these poems that I have been able to find. While all of these texts can be found on the internet, nowhere are they presented in such an accessible format, making this book a valuable addition to any medievalist’s library.

[1] I’m prone to exaggeration, but this time, I’m not exaggerating.

The Wind Waker and the Book of Kells: Part 2

In looking at the pictures from The Wind Waker and the Book of Kells, one of my readers noticed that the script used for the Hylian text looked familiar. Here’s a chart from Nintendo for translating:

The text is phonetic with the Japanese writing system for non-Japanese words (katakana). Note the similarities between this Hylian script, futhark, and ogham:

Futhark were used in Germanic languages before the Latin alphabet. They were primarily used for inscriptions in wood and stone, not for usages on paper such as letter-writing, though some runic writing on paper does exist. Ogham was used for similar purposes in the Old Irish and Brythonic languages. Both futhark and ogham vary throughout the centuries depending on time period and dialect of usage.

The Book of Kells was written in Latin, so I can’t use these examples to draw parallels between The Wind Waker and the Book of Kells, but some parallels still remain between The Wind Waker and Celtic culture. The Hylian script, futhark, and ogham share similarities in that they use many horizontal strokes for a blocky end result. The Hylian script, futhark, and ogham all appear to have been written with a pen (or digital line tools). In comparison, the Hylian script from older Zelda games bears greater resemblance to Japanese and is clearly intended for brush writing. Considering the way that The Wind Waker departs from a brush-style script, the number of horizontal lines that resemble ogham, and the other Celtic influences on the game, it seems even more likely that The Wind Waker was at least in part inspired by Celtic culture.

Hwæt ic dō


click for larger version

Let me note right now that I study Old English casually—I’ve never had the privilege of a class, so there are probably errors in the meme. If I’ve mistranslated, please let me know.

To Learn Old English

Block 1: What I think that I do. Picture: Benjamin Bagby of Sequentia performing Beowulf.
Block 2: What my friends think that I do. Picture: awful CG version of Beowulf.
Block 3: What my father and mother think that I do. Picture: poster from 2011 Conan the Barbarian. I never saw that movie, but I thought the picture looked about right—people getting hacked to bits.
Block 4: What society (lit. the kingdom) thinks that I do. Picture: Shakespeare. Many people think that Shakespeare wrote in Old English.
Block 5: What I want to do. Picture: a medieval scribe.
Block 6: What I do. Picture: Student sleeping on pile of books.

Discere Anglicam Antiquam

I  Quod putō mē facere.
II  Quod amicī putant mē facere.
III  Quod parentēs putant mē facere.
IV  Quod vulgus putat mē facere.
V  Quod cupiō facere.
VI  Quod faciō.