Saturday, April 30, 2011


This is a post that you could read many places and have probably thought about many times, but therein lies some of the pleasure. This is a post about live music. Specifically live medieval music. Specifically live music with a live story performance.  Specifically Dolores Hydock and PanHarmonium bringing the 13th-century romance Silence to life last night at DePauw (ok, this is the par tthat you probably haven't thought about many times).  This has been a dream of mine since I first saw even just the poster of the performance at Kalamazoo about seven years ago.  And in the calm of last year's sabbatical (in the now treasured memory space of our third floor study), I contacted Dolores and started gathering the funding to bring them here. I taught "Love and War in Medieval Art and Literature" in the fall and "Women and Medieval Art" in the spring, and thought and thought about those students and what it might mean to the to study the art and literature and see it come to life not just through their own questions and whatever gesticulations I can bring, but through this incredible performer, through these phenomenal musicians. I envy you if you've never experienced one of their performances, for to see medieval literature come alive beneath these notes and voices is sublime; I envy you more if you've seen more than one because, well, you have!

And the students came. They came in great, unexpected numbers - they brought friends and enthusiasts and we had ourselves a nice audience.  There were a couple of annoyances, the boils of modern performance: texting, but a valiant colleague kicked the student out, and the world Dolores and the musicians was left intact.  I have never ever in my life before seen an audience move so completely with a performer: laughter was somehow spontaneous and simultaneous, I could see students leaning forward as she leaned in with the next amazing revelation and twist in the tale, I saw one student's hand steal upon the arm of another in anticipation.  So this makes me think of several things: of ephemeral communities created by the shared experience of sound and anticipation, of the impossibility of communicating this to anyone who wasn't there (thus the sweet futility of this post), and, endlessly, of the intimacies and strange wonders of the presence of troubadours in medieval spaces.  My most excellent medieval musicologist colleague and I were talking and talking afterwards of the movements  (the freedom of movement?) of medieval troubadours: geographic, yes, but also class and fantasy and, in the case of Silence, gender.

For Silence is a girl, you see, raised as a boy because of "wise" King Evan's decree that no woman shall ever inherit in England again.  And this makes Nature furious (for she had lavished much upon the girl's beauty), but Nurture brings Reason when Silence is wavering about returning to her "true" nature, and Silence takes off and becomes a minstrel, a kickass jouster, and a valiant knight.  The ending involves Merlin and honey and revelations and a lascivious queen (gotta have one of those it seems) drawn and quartered (it's medieval, remember), and a return to the normative that questions itself.  Here you see her between the lady and the seneschal who raise her in the woods, but I also see Nature and Nurture on either side of her in one of two speeches where the two allegories have it out with each other. To consider: Silence is a 13th century romance (and exists in translation!); the mother of Silence is named Euphemism.

Medieval music is no picnic, as this manuscript begins to reveal: any score is more a series of notes about the proportions of sound than the trajectory of a melody.  Modern performances have more to do with jazz improv session than a classical sonata - and the sense is that so did medieval performances.  Perhaps this begins to explain the intimacy that modern musicians of medieval instruments have to the music they perform.  It is not a music that is easy to give yourself to (harmony? who needs harmony?) - it envelops strangely, reminding us of the gulf that separates us from the (our?) past.  But every once in a while, a phrase enlivened by the performer finds yet more life and presence in an instrument whose strain seems to be that of its emotion.

As I write this, I am becoming more and more excited about this afternoon's performance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - Oliver was in when I mentioned they'd be playing a shawm, which was described by Dolores as sounding "like a goose getting a wedgie" - Gilbert, one of the musicians, said that they seldom let it out of its cage.  Let's go!

The Green Knight!
 And so we did, and it was marvelous in every way!  Ever since seeing spring surround the Prindle Institute, I had hoped that we could have a performance there: it's simultaneously intimate and grand this place, and Dolores and the musicians drew the hundred or so (!!!) people in attendance all into Arthur's court.  They did it in front of the huge hearth and fireplace, and of course now one's thoughts turn to doing a performance in the actual season of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve.  Wouldn't that be a sight for all to see?  There were many more kids for Gawain (including our bunch, who came dressed each in their own interpretation of medieval garb - for Eleanor this somehow included those plastic Croc shoes and a claim that peasants had to run fast, so, yes, Crocs) and their responses were marvelous to watch.

Bertilak's Lady and Gawain
Of course Gawain is hardly children's literature, what with the beheading and the triple seduction and the general confusion of who is doing what to whom and why.  But is it marvelous, it is mysterious, and it awakens (maybe for kids, maybe for us) an awareness of the strange that we must have if we're going to think beyond the usual.  These two images are pulled from the unique manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (that it and Beowulf are both unique manuscript continues to blow my mind - the fortunes and vicissitudes of manuscript survival in history and all that) - above is the Green Knight about in King Arthur's court holding his head after Gawain had severed it with one blow (and why, oh my goodness, why this scene teeters between abject horror and slapstick hilarity will always fascinate); and here is Bertilak's lady seducing Gawain (which of the three times?) in the morning.  There are only four images to the manuscript (one of the Green Chapel and the other of Gawain's return to court) and they've received very little scholarly attention because they are of "poor quality" (love of God - but a claim that my dear friend Amanda Luyster takes on in an unpublished and terrific paper on these images), and because, I think, they are in competition with a phenomenally imagistic piece of literature. You are asked to see so much when you hear Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - and the beauty of Dolores and PanHarmonium is that they invite you to see yet more.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Rods and Relics

The world really is all interpretation.  I nearly swerved off the road when I saw "Rods and Relics" advertised at a local McDonald's (and just in time for Easter!!!) - but then purposefully drove into the parking lot to take a picture, much to the kids' mortification.  I know that, in the end, it's about people with similarly old cars getting together at just about the only place in town to do so, but it still made our little town fill with the strange possibilities of Things Medieval for a fleeting second. I am still relishing thinking of the word "Relics" broadcast from a McDonald's sign.  Relics. McDonald's.  That's really funny - I suppose because it can't possibly be taken literally.  But I understand the pleasure and resistance of being "stubbornly literal" (a wonderful phrase/ethos  articulated by Vin Nardizzi in a paper at the D.C. conference that was so awesome).

Being stubbornly literal embraces words themselves and engages in every impossibility they might present. It's a willful act of interpretation that prizes language over culture, in the case of relics at McDonald's, of language over reality.  Being stubbornly literal joyfully seizes immediate meaning and doesn't let go. I'm doing it with the Chaucer stained glass paper and thinking through his idea of a stained glass window containing the entire epic of Troy. Doing so provokes me to think about the boundaries of epic (when, really, does the epic of Troy begin? When, actually, does it end?).  The key is that the result of being stubbornly literal is not itself necessarily literal. Other things ensue.  There are occasions to think about the limit of the greatest foundational myths (the French argued for a shared ancestry with the Turks through the Trojans until well into the 16th century), for instance.

Danny Shanahan, available at The New Yorker
There is also humor. When I was learning to drive stick shift, I read (yes, a book was involved) the phrase "Depress the pedal."  To this day, I can hear Mac saying "You're just a small pedal, no one can really see you down there; Anne's going to step on you over and over until it becomes automatic and she doesn't even have to think about it.  Your very existence is predicated upon her foot's unthinking memory." I depress that poor pedal every day. Don't even ask me about the civic league's invitation to "Patronize the town square."

There are also struggles for power and right.  One of the most insidious and insistent claims of medieval anti-Semitism was the conviction that Jews read the Bible literally (to the letter), while Christians read it anagogically (through interpretation). This is why, Kathleen Biddick explains in her excellent book The Typological Imaginary, it is the "Talmudic Jew" (the one who interprets) who is suppressed in the Middle Ages; this is why it is the Talmud that is burned in the Middle Ages.  Christian interpretation is, in a very real sense here, a kind of colonialization: taking a resource and making it produce, reframing it so that it contributes to your economy, moral or otherwise. Lectio christiana (the Christian interpretation of non-Christian texts) can turn the coronation hymn of Hezekiah into a prophecy of the birth of Christ.  As my dear friend whose "Hebrew Bible" class I'm attending was reading "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of  Peace" (yep - Isaiah 9:6) all I could hear were the interwoven voices of the choir repeating the words in (it is, isn't it?) Handel's Messiah.  The revelation of this course has been to read the text closer to its letter, through the lens of its history.  What it might possibly mean to be stubbornly literal about the Bible, I'll want to think on (because no, fundamentalists don't read the Bible literally, they wrench it into horrible, harmful interpretation).  Some texts, one might think, resist being taken literally.  And of course, an art historian should be asking these questions of images.

Do kids read more literally?  Is this why so many objects speak and act in children's books? Are they the ones to truly understand the freedom of the possibility of language?  Are there more impossible texts to consider than those of Passover and Easter?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


The Sarajevo Haggadah, c. 1350
This image holds the imagination, suspends and upends narrative. And yet, all I really want to consider are the wine stains all over its pages, and the stories of seders past that these might tell.  As expansive as the story of this manuscript is (you might start with the December 2007 New York article, and then there's the historical fictionalization), it's those oenophilic traces that appeal.  One coupled with a smile, another with a gesture, a third with a quote, jostled between ritual and remembrance.  Fugitive drops that now join the copper and the gold of the manuscript. Patterns made with caring hands, warmed by good company.  I think of last year and of walking home after, and now of the tales the children still tell.

Monday, April 18, 2011


The poster from The Talk
Wow, and well, it really happened.  The lecture of a lifetime happened on Friday, and now there is breathing, much breathing, to be done. I can summarize the talk now: at stake is the visual representation of race in late medieval France. And this critical term, speculative morality, I've come up with to understand the use of the images. The audience liked working with the term during the question and answer period: the idea that the challenge of these images is to provoke the viewers into a moral dilemma: is the Sultan to be trusted after he's revealed his knowledge of Christian iniquities gained through his merchants-spies? Does commerce with his merchants continue after such a revelation? Is it a matter of inference or speculation?  These images work with their manuscript texts, they're involved in their geopolitical contexts  (the conquests, approaches, and diplomatic alliances of the Muslim Ottoman Turk empire, and, to a lesser extent, the Mongols): there's a rich world to explore here. But I can't say that I still understand the images. Race is not coded by skin color; in some ways ethnicity is a better term that is used a great deal in textual analysis, but what would it mean visually?  Some of the distinction is what we would today call cultural, or religious - but neither of those terms can get at the complexity of the simultaneous need to create difference (to justify conquest), and sameness (to justify conversion) - that's too simply put, but these are some of the rubs. 

Other rubs: I keenly felt the limitations of being a small liberal arts college person giving a talk to a graduate department at a research university. I am a teacher first and foremost, who sees my work primarily as that of presenting problematic material which will open up questions for discussion.  I realize that I don't do much closure and synthesis, big (really big) picture thinking, or critical terminology with any kind of certitude. 20-minute conference papers (which I love to give) are exploratory, lay out new ground, and ask questions. This kind of 45-minute plenary talk felt different (bigger, more conclusive) in its expectations. I.e. - I felt very much in over my head, and struggled for the pertinence of what I was presenting beyond itself.  I know what the big picture is (now it's so clear that I can put it at the beginning of a blog post: it's "all about" the visual representation of race in late medieval France), but I felt like my words couldn't make my images speak to it. Part of it is that I don't have full mastery of the images - I'm still in the stage where I'm asking questions instead of coming up with answers. How long will I be in this stage? It feels like it's been years already - but Mac keeps reminding me that this is a big project - and that was the response from the talk, too. There's been great work done on monsters and monstered humans in medieval art, but very little on human-figured counterparts.  Actually, it's interesting: the human-figured counterparts _are_ discussed, but in ethnographic terms: in terms of information (what was known? was it correct or incorrect?) instead of ideology (how is this knowledge represented? with what associations?).  Does race exist in the Middle Ages? Yes, with all sorts of caveats about ethnicity and the construction of race as a category productive of racism in the 18th century. How is it visible?  This is harder to answer - yes, sometimes Saracens are represented as blue monsters, but just as often they are not: they sit and talk and eat and are "just like" Western Christians.

Saint Nicholas panel from Chartres
 I know what started all of this.  It was working on the anti-Semitic (cultic anti-Judaism) images within saint Nicholas windows at Chartres cathedral for my dissertation and first articles.  The Iconia play of a treasure owner who beats a statue of saint Nicholas for failing to protect his treasure, only to convert after saint Nicholas, having appeared to and chastised the thieves, restores the treasure to him.  The treasure owner is alternately Jewish or Muslim or, in some versions, a Barbarian.  At Chartres he's Jewish (it's the hat, the Judenhut, required by medieval sumptuary law as of the 13th century), and it was years ago now that these questions started coming of what is visible, and what is not in perceived difference that is desperately sought to dissolve into sameness and possession.

Saint Nicholas panel from Chartres
 I've always found this image of the Jewish treasure owner's body enduring a conversion baptism very moving (not the terms used in my dissertation): the way that he draws his left hand up onto his chest, holds on to the rim of the baptismal font with his right. Those gestures have always struck me as elegant yet self-protective, defenses against the heavy power of public ritual.   This window is directly above an altar, and associates the ritual of conversion through baptism with the eucharistic ritual performed at the altar below.  It nourished the Christian fantasy of Jewish conversion: the relentless desire to possess Jewish knowledge, the Jewish past, Jewish place - think of the desire for Jerusalem and all that it contained (Crusades, post-Crusades, constructions, so much - my goodness, still today). 

Khan bowing before the cross
And so now to try to understand the gesture of the Khan bowing before the cross - tipping his crown to it.  It's hard sometimes to not dismiss the entire medieval Christian project as hopelessly naïve (really? show enough images of Muslims and Jews and Mongols converting to Christianity and they will come?).  And I would, except that, of course, the repercussions are anything but: the brutalization of Muslims and Jews in the Middle ages still clamors for history and explanation.  (more work to be done concerning military campaigns against the Mongols - I only know about the zealous missionaries who went).  I can't yet pithily say what is happening in this image besides the Christian fantasy of conversion - but I know that in late medieval France, the image is intersecting with new commercial interests (let's not forget why the Marco Polo brothers went East), a geopolitical scene complicated by a French-Ottoman alliance, and a newly justified practice we now call colonialism.  I also know that I want to intersect it with the philosophy of speculative materialism, the longing that surrounds the genre of letter-writing (lots of envoys and missives here), and the marvelous objects that are images themselves (to be touched, possessed, felt possessed by).

Wow again! I've been thinking all day of writing about what's happened since the Burke lecture - and yet, no, there's still mulling to be done.  I only realize now how utterly all-consuming it had become. And it was a full day: lunch with graduate students, tour of the Lilly Rare Books Library, two wonderful hours with a brilliant graduate student poring over manuscripts that had been brought out for our perusal (yes, marvelous, marvelous objects), the talk itself (I'm usually not nervous but, geez, this time I was), and then a lovely dinner afterwards with talk of Istanbul in 1983, Ravenna and its bishops and churches, and the pleasures and torments of writing.  Every minute was quite vivid and intense - but if I were to recount every minute, the horizon scanning and the navel gazing would become one and the same.  So I will spare us the details and just let my tremulous gratitude for it all remain.

It's now been two days of re-emergence into my little family - running all around with the kids (while Mac was in Cincinnati with students) during a wonderful, exuberant day that culminated into something as outrageously spectacular as a Japanese steak house.  Eleanor was unexpectedly and utterly terrified at the dramatic blazes of fire. I tried to distract her by pointing out a young woman in a floor-length dress bedecked with glistening jewels as a princess, only to be told (solemnly) by Iris that "princesses are extinct."  It was beautiful today, and Mac planted raspberry bushes and Oliver and I played a game together and worked on his book report, and the girls watched our favorite French movie, Panique au Village.  I was swept up in tremendous nostalgia for Brittany today - wanting to be there just so badly, to really breathe.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Graphic Morality

Castration of Saturn, MS Douce 195
Yikes! This one might make the audience wince.  It's actually Saturn's turban I'm interested in more than his demise (he did after all, eat his children, so, you know, comeuppance and all).  I'm doing it! I'm writing my talk and loving every minute of it and I should go to bed (and I will) but I'm excited and wanted to check in here and kind of see where I'm going, too.  I like this paper because it isn't just representations of Orientalism - it's not just the turban, it's what it means. And what it means (ultimately, after I've made all of these connections in the talk) is a whole series of moral concerns: for justice (the castration of Saturn is the end of the Golden Age); for continuity (it takes the planet Saturn 30 years to circle the sun just once); for wisdom (in all that time, Saturn develops wisdom); and prudence (that castration, argues Christine de Pisan, makes him tread softly ever after).  And these ideas are pulled from Arabic manuscripts (such as Kitab al-Bulhan (The Book of Wonders) by the 9th-century Persian astronomer Albumasar.  Late medieval Orientalism, I'll be arguing, was not Said's Orientalism (the book of 1978), in which a Western colonial power produced knowledge about the Middle East that it then used to construct it (to an image befitting Western colonial expansion).  There is colonialism (the Crusades), there is expansion (eight (8!) Crusades in all from 1099 to 1270) - but there are also appropriations and this term I will be working out: a speculative morality - one based on seeing (note graphic image above), and objects (both philosophical and economic), and one that shows a hesitancy (between rendering the Muslim different enough to justify conquering him, but not so much that he cannot convert - tricky business this global Christian empire business...).  So, writing every day a lot until Wednesday, then, rehearsals and edits, then the talk Friday. Let's see how this idea of "speculative morality" goes - I'm keen to find out!

Jupiter and the art of agriculture
Just so you don't think I'm a total sadist, here is another god in a turban from the same wonderful manuscript of the Roman de la Rose, illuminated by Robinet Testard and owned by Louise de Savoie (bedtime reading for François Ier, her son?): Jupiter sowing seeds, practising the art of agriculture - a necessary art now that Saturn's Golden Age is over. It was nice that Golden Age: it had no desire (desire is born when Venus is - and she, let's not forget, is born from the foam that Saturn's genitals cast-off into the sea create). And in having no desire, it had no necessity for laws or kings.  Ethics, a good morality, came as naturally as breathing.  But nothing gold can stay, and so we learn to sow, and reap what we sow, and we have laws and kings.  I truly love this image of this turbaned Jupiter (see turban, think Arabic astrological manuscripts and their moral repercussions) in a farming field.  I love to think of the mundane gesture of sowing and the heavy morality of reaping. The medieval mind took leaps that require a running start for us moderns.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Material / immaterial - interpretation / indeterminacy

Shoemakers in the Relics of St. Stephen Window at Chartres
As I read Chaucer's inserts of stained glass in The Book of the Duchess, I start to realize the truly funky things he's doing with it, and I start to see this volatility between material and immaterial that I know is there is the physical medium (glass is both heavy, molten (material) and transluscent, a series of hues (immaterial)).  In working his ideas of material / immaterial into my own of interpretation / indeterminacy, I'm relishing this connection between the shifts in the experience of reading that silent reading (which began to really take off about the time that Chaucer was writing The Book of the Duchess in the 14th century) provoked.  The very material of literature changed: from the body of the narrator in the public oral performance of the text (reading out loud) to the material of the manuscript held in the hands of its owner (silent reading).  The meaning of a text arrived at by a community of listeners after an oral performance has the experience of discussion, debate - a kind of certitude (maybe even agreement, determination) of interpretation after that process.  The meaning of text arrived at by a single, silent reader (before any discussion with anyone else) seems much more existential - indeterminate, immaterial. But all within the new materiality of a possessed, perhaps loved (fetishized, even) manuscript.

I hope that I can work in the window above from Chartres cathedral, because it's stained glass within stained glass and presents the duality of material and immaterial so beautifully. First of all, it's a phenomenally lush and gorgeous window, taken by Henri Feraudy, an incredibly generous photographer who has kindly let me publish his stunning images on several occasions. Secondly, it depicts the handling of stained glass (held up on an altar) in a way that is utterly impossible in actuality (stained glass is assembled within its architectural frame puzzle piece by puzzle piece, soldered tracery by soldered tracery).  This heaviest, most unwieldly of mediums is here light as a feather, balanced devotionally.

Now the challenge is to make that jumble into something lucid and convincing.  I see Chaucer using stained glass to call attention to a new tension between the material and the immaterial within the new experience of reading alone in silence.  This same tension (material / immaterial) exists within a communal oral performance as well: different terms of material (the performer's body) and immaterial (voice). I don't like the word "immaterial" (though I need it for the contrast) - immaterial sounds dismissive. The colors projected by light through a stained glass window are immaterial, but quite powerful (beautiful, awe-inspiring, drenching). The voice of a narrator projected during an oral performance is also immaterial, but also all-encompassing, fervent, intense.  Material / projected doesn't make sense - but that's where my immaterial stuff is going.

Bottom line: what does it mean to read and what does Chaucer have to say about it? He uses stained glass to get us thinking (I argue).

Now, again, to make this lucid, while grading exams, gobs of papers, oh yea - teaching, advising students, chairing the department, doing committee work (etc etc), and engaging in the kids' wildly active activities (and we don't even do that much).  No matter: I will not be deterred! The deliciousness of this idea keeps me coming back for more; and the living room / dining room where Mac and I do our grading and class prep (our poor studies buried under books and piles of projects) are now filled with the honeyed smell of the Hawaiian flowers, which seem to have had some kind of second awakening: they are all wide open and delicately, sweetly sweetly fragrant and more present than ever. Material / immaterial.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Hawaii amidst Holi

Today gladdened towards the miraculous.  There had been a lightness in the air because it was, after all, International Hug a Medievalist Day, but the usual this that and the other hastened things along the quotidian.  I picked up Oliver and we went to karate; Mac picked up the girls and went with them to Iris's piano lesson; and then we met up at a pizza place for a school fundraiser.  We'd been invited by a student to go to a Holi celebration, the springtime festival of colors with a complex story involving demons and living forever and a bonfire and a huge celebration involving spraying colored powder and colored water all over each other. I remember loving the Holi scene in Sholay - a five and a half minute sequence of joy and color that explodes upon the stunned silence of a tragic scene (welcome to Bollywood).  Here, you can see for yourself! Holi!

 We arrived right as the festivities were ending, which didn't prevent the kids from getting themselves pretty thoroughly covered in colored powder - Iris did an especially good job making sure Oliver was covered. Eleanor has her arms tucked into her t-shirt because it was (again and again and again) cold. I love this picture: us covered in Holi colors against the backdrop of our utterly raccoon-coat-and-pennant college campus. 

And then we came home to a very long and beautifully adorned box - as tall as Eleanor and postmarked Hawaii.  Hawaii!  We bustled in with curiosity and gathered around the box while Mac made the ceremonial cuts here and there with words of caution all around (honestly, it reminded me of the scene in Christmas Story when the dad opens his "major award" box). And then we opened the box.

Nestled within crushed shredded paper was one after another after another of multiple tropical flowers from Hawaii.  Hawaii!!!  Leafy, glossy, vibrant, impossible flowers. The kids actually went silent. It was just incredible, the way the flowers were lying there, dormant, surely weary after having traveled such a long way.  Some of them had been provided with tiny little water capsules at their stems; others had had their petals wrapped for the journey; one was completely ensconced in tissue paper.  We unfurled them, held them, and marveled at their being here. At the embodiment that they are of sun from so far away, of warm breezes, and lush soil. This is wondrous to me: that the air we breathe around them is mingled with all they took in from Hawaii - the colors alone, but the textures, too, and the shapes and details... And then to open the card, and to see the names of two princes among men, and to feel our dear dear friends from Brittany right here - their warm words of well-wishes further banishing illness from our house. Mac (flower-whisperer) arranged the flowers, with much advice from the kids, and then they staged this picture - their Holi colors resonating now with the flowers.

Flowers heal. Colors make you feel like everything is going to be all right (if poppies can grow on Flanders field..).  Like there's liveliness and beauty at your finger's touch: possible and near.  Being visited by flowers, having them as guests in your home, hosting them cultivates a quiet I can't wait to dwell in.  Maybe it's the D.C. conference and its lasting impact, but I do think on the presence of these visitors. Maybe it's also a long-ago love of Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince and his impossible, tremulous rose. I can pause to wonder about the medieval book owner's fingers running over the shades and contours of the flowers on a page such as this one: exuberant nature stilled for contemplation. A wild array concerted, suspended. I feel our house graced by their presence.