Giuliani: Getting Medieval, Getting Modern, Getting Modern

Talking on Fox news about Eric Garner, NYC’s former mayor says:

One of the things the mayor and Sharpton and the others are doing, they are tearing down respect for a criminal justice system that goes back to England in the 11th century.

Speaking in Paris in 2013 about Camp Ashraf, Giuliani says:

People at Ashraf were promised by the American government and ultimately by the Iraqi government, they’d be dealt with humanely and decently. That’s not so hard. We’re in the 21st century; we’re not in the Middle Ages. Not so hard to live up to that.

On gay rights and Republicans in 2012, Giuliani says:

I think beyond all the religious and social part of it, it makes the party look like it isn’t a modern party. It doesn’t understand the modern world.

The Family Cliff: Moderns, Read More Sagas!

I’m going to Iceland next week and staying there until the end of the month. To prepare, I read 38 sagas, histories, and assorted tales, all in translation into modern English.1 Some of these are very long (Njal); some are very, very short (The Story-Wise Icelander). A great many more still need to be read, including, especially, the saints’ sagas, some of which are very odd.

But none until last night’s subway reading, none until King Gautrek, featured a suicide cliff:

There’s a precipice called Gillings Bluff near the farm, and we call its peak Family Cliff. The fall is so steep, no creature on earth could ever survive it. It’s called Family Cliff because we use it to cut down the size of our family whenever something extraordinary happens. In this way our elders are allowed to die without delay, and suffer no illness, and go straight to Odin, while their children are spared all the trouble and expense of having to take care of them. Every member of our family is free to use this facility offered by this cliff, so there’s no need for any of us to live in famine or poverty, or put up with any other misfortunes that might befall us. (King Gautrek 141, from Seven Viking Romances, translated Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards)

I’ve already said what I need to about sagas and scarcity, here, though you might supplement that with Adam Roberts talking about frustration and violence here. But you might also think again about how often ignorant moderns disparagingly call something “medieval.”

Let them continue to do so, but let them have something more concrete in mind: not some vague sense of religious tyranny, not some sense that wealth concentration is particularly “feudal,” but rather let them picture this FAMILY CLIFF, which, why not, may be the perfect image of NEOLIBERALISM.

Or, it would be, if it were privatized and offered to the family as a LOW-COST FREE CHOICE.

But then we wouldn’t be in the Middle Ages, would we?

(for more on bad medieval metaphors, David Perry here and me here and here)


1 They are:

  1. Laxdaela Saga
  2. King Harald’s Saga
  3. Orkneyinga Saga
  4. Hen-Thorir
  5. The Vapnfjord Men
  6. Thridrandi whom the Goddesses Slew
  7. Hrolf Kraki
  8. The Prose Edda (selections: Gylfaginning and selections from Skáldskaparmál)
  9. great chunks of the Elder Edda
  10. Saga of the Sworn Brothers
  11. Olkofri’s Saga
  12. The Saga of the Confederates
  13. Gisli Sursson’s Saga
  14. Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent’s Tongue
  15. The Saga of Havard of Isafjord
  16. The Saga of Ref the Sly
  17. Hreidar’s Tale
  18. The Tale of Thorleif, the Earl’s Poet
  19. The Tale of Thorstein Shiver
  20. Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck
  21. The Tale of Halldor Snorrason II
  22. The Tale of Audun from the West Fjords
  23. The Tale of the Story-Wise Icelander
  24. The Tale of Sarcastic Halli
  25. The Saga of Grettir the Strong
  26. Eyrbyggja Saga
  27. The Saga of the Volsungs
  28. Egil’s Saga
  29. Njal’s Saga
  30. Saga of the Greenlanders
  31. Erik the Red’s Saga
  32. Arrow Odd
  33. Thorstein Mansion-Might
  34. Helgi Thorisson
  35. Saga of the People of Vatnsdal
  36. Saga of the People of Laxardal
  37. Bolli Bollason’s Tale
  38. Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi

Bring Out Your Deadism

bring out your deadYesterday, on the first day of my undergraduate Chaucer class, I distributed a questionnaire that asked students to “list three things you know or think you know about the Middle Ages.” I had considered assigning Andrew Galloway’s Medieval Literature and Culture, finally decided that it was too broad for a Chaucer course, and now wish I had assigned Regine Pernoud’s Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths, because most of what my students know or think they know might be called the “Bring Out Your Dead!” school of medievalism.

Typical answers mention the black plague and disease (“it was very disease spread”), social stratification (including the student who wrote “women have no rights”), illiteracy (“ignorance was abundant”; “learning only happened in monasteries”), and the power of the church (“everything was run by the Catholic church or it played a major role in every aspect of daily life as well as running/ruling countries”; “the church was corrupt and greedy”). One or two broke with the pack by drawing on the other parts of The Holy Grail (“knights, armor, castles”). Several students said “feudalism.” One mentioned the Cathars and the origins of the novel. Another wrote only that “the world was a terrible place.” Some must have taken other medieval courses: they mention Chretien, Boethius, Marie de France, Wolfram von Eschenbach; one remembers, seemingly despite herself, the Wife of Bath (“by continuously marrying a woman could increase her own fortune. (?)”). And some students, bless them, referenced the previous fifteen minutes of class: “English was different from today’s English”; “Chaucer was alive”; “Pilgrims were common.”

Note that we had just gone over the first 18 lines of the General Prologue, and I had distinguished its opening from typical openings of Middle English poetry: as I told them, it doesn’t invoke the Trinity or the BVM, nor does it situate the poem historically, and it delays mentioning England until late in the sentence; it looks to nature, and animal and vegetal reproduction in particular, and couples natural desire and instinct to the ‘rational’ human desires to go sightseeing and to reward Thomas for his blessings. (I should note that I made no reference to compulsory reproduction, penetration, or gender: I’m saving that for the Knight.) Religious desire is a version or even superstructure of the instinct to “get it on” (exact quote). It’s clear, then, that the church hasn’t penetrated these lines (at least not in any simply “oppressive” way), that there’s writing going on outside the monasteries (since I told them that Chaucer was a career bureaucrat), and as for disease, iirc, it doesn’t show its gooey white face until the cook’s mormal plops in.

Given its persistence in the face of counterevidence, Bring Out Your Deadism will prove difficult to dislodge. At least, I’ll have to point out that women didn’t get the right to vote in the US until the twentieth century, that antiseptic surgery dates only to the nineteenth century, and so forth: I’ll have to get them to know what is particular to the Middle Ages. The advantage here goes to Chaucer himself, since just about anything he does will astonish their sense of superiority. Then of course I’ll have to keep them from claiming Chaucer as “before his time”!

We’ll cross that pestilential theocratic bridge when we get to it.


I should also say that my students to their credit didn’t get things so much wrong as mis-emphasized. The church was powerful; disease was bad; many women do have more professional freedom than they did then; knights, armor, castle: all there!; Cathars too (except see Mark Pegg); and so forth. It’s just that there’s more there (let’s join JJC in calling it heterogeneity) than my students listed, and what they did list is a lot more complex. But I can’t expect them to know about the Pope of Avignon or neo-Pelagians or neo-Donatists or the Waldensians or whatever. But, even without that knowledge, they still had the tools right before them for thinking the MA more complexly: after all, they had just read the first 18 lines of the GP! That’s what struck me. – See more at:

Department of Slow-Moving Targets: Gay Wizards

scary bowieThanks Bill Benzon for pointing out this article by Edward Rothstein grouching about gay wizards. I should begin by admitting that I’m not qualified, or at least that I shouldn’t be allowed, to comment on the Harry Potter novels. I read the first two, saw none of the movies, and stopped reading when I remembered George Orwell’s essay “Boys’ Weeklies,” where he writes about public school stories. A quote:

[The stories] run in cycles of rather different types, but in general they are the clean-fun, knock-about type of story, with interest centring round horseplay, practical jokes, ragging masters, fights, canings, football, cricket, and food. A constantly recurring story is one in which a boy is accused of some misdeed committed by another and is too much of a sportsman to reveal the truth. The ‘good’ boys are ‘good’ in the clean-living Englishman tradition—they keep in hard training, wash behind their ears, never hit below the belt, etc. etc.—and by way of contrast there is a series of ‘bad’ boys, Racke, Crooke, Loder and others, whose badness consists in betting, smoking cigarettes and frequenting public-houses. All these boys are constantly on the verge of expulsion, but as it would mean a change of personnel if any boy were actually expelled, no one is ever caught out in any really serious offense. Stealing, for instance, barely enters as a motif. Sex is completely taboo, especially in the form in which it actually arises at public schools. (Critical Essays, Secker and Warburg, 1951; p. 66)

Much of the rest of the Orwell essay also strikes me as germane to Rowling, particularly the portions on snob appeal, the “incitement to wealth-fantasy,” and on the types of boys: “the athletic, high-spirited boy…a slightly rowdier version…a more aristocratic version…quieter, more studious version…a stolid, ‘bulldog’ version…[a] reckless, dare-devil type of boy…the definitely ‘clever’, studious boy…[the] eccentric boy who is not good at games but possesses some special talent…[and the] scholarship-boy” (72). Whether or not this actually does describe Rowling’s books–if it does, I accept your compliments, if it (likely) doesn’t, well, “My wit is short, ye may wel understonde”–Orwell’s essay snapped my already fraying interest.

But here I go, joining Rothstein in commenting on Harry Potter, especially in regards to that last bit of Orwell, “Sex is completely taboo, especially in the form in which it actually arises at public schools.”
This is just Rothstein’s problem: Rowling let sex in by outing Dumbledore. He finds “the question…distracting,” since, after all, there’s no evidence, he says, in the books themselves for Dumbledore’s sexual interest or in fact for any sexual interest at all, unless it is renunciation. And for Rothstein this is just how it should be:

As for his later celibacy, it has the echo of a larger renunciation and a greater devotion. That is, after all, what the fantasy genre is all about. The master wizard is not a sexual being; he has shelved personal cares and embraced a higher mission. And if he indulges in sex, it marks his downfall, as it did, so legend tells us, with Merlin, the tradition’s first wizard, who is seduced by one of the Lady of the Lake’s minions. Tolkien’s wizards — both good and evil — are so focused on their cosmic tasks that sexuality seems a petty matter. Gandalf eventually transcends the physical realm altogether.Ms. Rowling quite consciously makes Dumbledore a flawed, more human wizard than these models, but now goes too far. There is something alien about the idea of a mature Dumbledore being called gay or, for that matter, being in love at all. He may have his earthly difficulties and desires, but in most ways he remains the genre wizard, superior to the world around him.

Now, as I pointed out earlier (while clinging to the shoulders of giants), sexual renunciation is a form of sexual activity, so I can grant Mr. Rothstein a compliment for recognizing that even Dumbledore’s sexual refusal is a sex life. At the same time, I have to balance the compliment by observing that Rothstein doesn’t care one wit whit about the het-sex attractions in the series (are there any between any of the teachers?), which alone suggests that despite the stoic noises he makes, it isn’t sexuality per se that bothers him.

The easy trick for a medievalist is of course to open the sexual wizard trapdoor. There’s Eliavrés, in Caradoc, who “pursued [Ysave] everywhere, and enchanted and bewitched her and tricked her so well by his magic, ruses, and incantations that she dishonoured her lord” (Three Arthurian Romance, trans. Ross G. Arthur, Everyman, 1996, p. 6), and who tricks Ysave’s husband into sleeping with a greyhound, sow, and mare on successive nights. There’s the tricksy, raping magic dwarf in Ortnit, who sounds in some ways like the demonic lover in Gowther. There’s sexual wizards aplenty in Perceforest, including the master wizard Darnant and his lineage, who rape to woo; there’s Zephir, who like so many wizards, is a go-between; there’s Lydoire, whose obsession with bears even while having sex leads her to bear a furry child. If we expand the range of activities we think of as sexual, there’s also the divinely Celtic trickster Merlin, who is described, among other places, in Philippe Walter’s “Merlin, le loup et saint Blaise,” Mediaevistik 11 (1998): 97-111, and who is, after all, so queer. We might also recall his strange alliance with our hero in the Roman de Silence.

As much as I’d like to hear about other sexual wizards–and feel free to list them in comments! (is Grendel’s mother a sexual wizard?)–surely there’s something more interesting we can do with Rothstein’s desire for sexless wizardry? It’s symptomatic, of course, of a lot of obvious things, and we could take our discussion in that direction. Or we could take our discussion in no direction at all, but, for now, if you please, I’d like to hear what you have to say.

And if you want a laugh, check out Michael Chertoff’s Anglo-Saxon prose here.