Medieval Round Table 2010

Image courtesy State Library Victoria
Image courtesy State Library Victoria

Papers for 2010

1 February

Professor John Ganim, University of California - Riverside

Cosmopolitanism and Medievalism

Venue: Large Seminar Room, 2nd floor, John Medley West

For our first meeting of the year we are priveleged to have a paper from Professor John Ganim who will be revisiting Australia.

For the past twenty years, one of the abiding debates surrounding human rights, international relations and political responsibility has been between cosmopolitanism and communitarianism. These debates usually focus on the heritage of enlightenment thought, as the eighteenth century reconceived what it meant to be a citizen of the world. While certain medieval notions, such as natural law and the possibility of a Holy Roman Empire, have been invoked as precursors of cosmopolitanism, medieval Christian concepts of the global and the other have been more often dismissed as one dimensional and xenophobic. Recently, however, in some contemporary imaginative literature written at the end of the Cold War, the Middle Ages is often imagined as a site of conflict between a utopian cosmopolitanism and a repressive theocracy. Such a reversal of the usual representation of the period in medievalist fictions can help us become aware of how the imaginative literature of the Middle Ages itself at certain crucial points explores the contradictions between medieval universalism and the closed system from which that universalism emerges. Medieval cosmopolitanism was as complex as medieval indigenous identities. Nation, language, and race, in many ways the defining signifiers of modern identity, were as difficult to locate in medieval self-definitions as they are in the postmodern moment. Overlapping feudal associations, multilingualism and dialect patterns, jurisdictional conflicts between competing religious institutions and regional and local customs, none of which ever disappear entirely, nevertheless outweighed monolithic allegiances. Crises, social and individual, could result in binary, apocalyptic scenarios, but these alternated with an ongoing pattern of multiple and layered structures of identity. Not surprisingly, then, except in such crises, Western European writers and thinkers tended to define non-Europeans and non-Christians in many different and sometimes inconsistent ways, at least those separated by distance. The closer they came, the more others resembled each other and became part of an internal system of definition by difference. If modern political thought distinguishes between cosmopolitanism and communitarianism, medieval writers made no such distinction, and often synthesized or hybridized these two apparently antithetical perspectives.

John M. Ganim (B.A. Rutgers; M.A., Ph.D. Indiana University) is the author of three books, Style and Consciousness in Middle English Narrative (1983), Chaucerian Theatricality (1990), both published by Princeton University Press and Medievalism and Orientalism: Three Essays on Literature, Architecture and Cultural Identity (2005; paperbound edition 2008), published by Palgrave MacMillan. He served as President (2006-2008) of the New Chaucer Society. Previously, he has served as a Trustee of the New Chaucer Society and as chair of the Executive Committee of the Middle English Division of the Modern Language Association. He held a Guggenheim fellowship in 2001. At UCR, he has been department chair and graduate advisor. He is an International Associate, Network for Early European Research, sponsored by the University of Western Australia and the Australian Research Council and a PI on an Australian Research Council multi-year grant to study Australian Medievalisms. His recent seminars have covered a range of topics, including Cosmopolitanism in the Middle Ages; Temporalities and Literature; Landscape, Urbanism and Space in Literature; as well as courses on Malory, Beowulf and Chaucer. His recent research covers how the Middle Ages is reimagined from century to century in aesthetic and political realms; how medieval literature and contemporary theory engage; and how the form of late medieval literature is shaped by its institutional contexts.

At the first session for the year we spend some time planning the meetings, both possible papers and a refreshment roster. We also set a theme for the year For 2010 we are interested in suggestions for broadening the format of some of the sessions, so please come along with your suggestions. Also please consider whether you may have some research you would like to present or other suggestions for Round Table discussions.

1 March

Professor Stephen Knight, Cardiff University

Celtic and Christian in Arthurian Romance

Venue: Baillieu Library Ground Floor Tutorial and Committee Rooms

A little magic and some weird names is how most commentators handle the Celtic in Arthurian romance, and the Christian is seen as the opposite, a sometimes tokenish seriousness. However, these two themes are more important to the formation of romance, and can be more integrated than commentators innocent of the actualities of Celtic culture have realised. This paper will comment on Celtic and Christian forces as they appear and, in the finest of the romances, interweave.

12 April (2nd Monday due to Easter)

Helen Dell

The Hegemony of Historicism

This presentation will, I hope, be more of a way of opening  up questions for discussion than a formal paper. The context is that I am preparing a raison d’être for a book, a chapter outline and two sample chapters  for a publisher, all of which need to be in by the end of June. The book has  the tentative title: Music and the  medievalism of nostalgia: fantasies of medieval music in the English-speaking  world, 1945 to 2010, and is based on research which I have been engaged in  since 2006.

This title, as it stands now, appears likely to raise  expectations that I will provide reasons for a particular mode of medievalist nostalgia arising in this particular period. The problem is that not only do I  not have an answer but also that I doubt the legitimacy of the assumptions that  lie beneath such expectations. The sort of account which seems to be called for  assumes a reliance, as Lee Patterson put it, ‘upon the notion of explanation itself, of a  cause-and-effect model of cultural production: first history, then literature’  (Critical Terms for Literary Study 258). In the case of my project it is musical discourse and the textual discourses  surrounding its performance, recording, promotion and reception, but  nonetheless literature of a kind.

It is difficult to follow all the twists and turns  historicism has taken since Patterson wrote Negotiating  the Past (1987), but it appears that, in spite of the many efforts to pull  away from history as an explanation for discourse, historicism, whether ‘new’  or ‘critical’, defaults back to the same position: ‘business as usual’ (Federico and Scala, Introduction to The  Post-historical Middle Ages 3).

The deconstruction of history as an explanation for  discourse, already much-discussed in the fields of medieval and medievalism studies, appears to be difficult to bring into practice despite numerous calls  for change. It would be useful to have a look at Federico and Scala’s  Introduction which outlines some of the twists and turns, in preparation for  the meeting.

3 May

Dolly Mackinnon

‘I weep for the dead, I summon the living, I break the lightening bolts’: The   Uses and Abuses of Church Bells in Medieval England

The peel of church bells is an evocative auditory symbol of rural and urban England and redolent of earlier centuries when bell ringing was a ubiquitous national practice. Today our ears struggle to grasp the complexity, subtlety and meaning of these nuanced sounds. Yet bells were an auditory form of medieval parish communication. Bells offered sounds of hope and warning, life and death, religious conformity and diversity, and a sonic protection to ward off evil. They were a performative representation of the politics of everyday life making audible gender and status divisions, as well as religious and political continuity and change within and across parish landscapes. Taking Jaques Attali’s theorization of communities purposefully identifying the boundaries of their musical worlds by isolating, categorising and classifying sounds while rejecting noises, this paper analyses the complex place of bell ringing in a changing medieval English soundscape. Using evidence from surviving medieval bells and their inscriptions, churchwarden’s accounts and wills this paper briefly demonstrates how the medieval soundscape was a contested space where the purposeful ringing, muffling or silencing of bells spoke volumes about the changing nature of the politics of everyday life.

7 June

Professor James Simpson, Harvard University

Change of venue for this meeting: Large Seminar Room, second floor, John Medley West

Late Medieval, Early Modern Place

This paper broaches what might seem like an   odd question: where is the Church? The unsettling question of the Church’s place   provoked radically divided answers across the period 1380 to the 1640s and well beyond. It is part of the wider jurisdictional drama of European modernity, a   drama of simplified, unified jurisdictions shouldering aside divided   jurisdictions. Settling the profoundly disruptive ecclesiological question of   where the Church was had unavoidable implications for the following: spiritual   geographies, and in particular for the practice of pilgrimage; the material   disposition of Churches, both exterior and interior; and the management of what   is regarded as spiritually disgusting.

In this paper I consider two   occasions (Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale and Erasmus' Pilgrimage of Pure   Devotion) of visceral spiritual disgust in the face of perceived   ecclesiastical disease. Both take place on the road to, or from, Canterbury. The representation of that disgust depends wholly on an understanding of the Church’s location. If the true Church is the one we can see, then the disgusting   object or person before our eyes is an instance of a single ecclesiastical   officer, a sickly person potentially curable within the sacramental systems of   the Church. If, on the other hand, we acknowledge only the True Church of the   Elect, we are empowered by a new institutional hermeneutics; the object of our   spiritual disgust is not so much a person but a sick and disgusting system, everywhere and nowhere. We interpret disgust by our confidence in   our institutional identity, as a member of the True Church, capable of diagnosing irredeemable institutional failing. The Last Judgement is brought   forward into the saeculum. But who is more disconcerted by the Church's   sickeningly mobile place, Chaucer or Erasmus?

James Simpson is Donald P.   and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English at Harvard University (2004-). He   was formerly based at the University of Cambridge, where he was Chair of   Medieval and Renaissance English. Recent books include last book is Reform   and Cultural Revolution (2002 Oxford University Press), a literary history   of England between 1350 and 1547; and Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism   and its Reformation Opponents.

5 July

Helen Hickey

Stony Rises and Drystone Walls: Nostalgia’s Shifting   Stories

The basalt rocks of the western plains of Victoria between Camperdown and Colac,   the Stony Rises, are now recognised as significant heritage sites. From these   stones, early European settlers and imported artisans built drystone walls that   carved out the landscape. The walls have evoked critical comparison to romantic   ‘ruins’ of a destroyed past, but they are also the impetus for a deep reflection   on place in a forthcoming monograph and art exhibition: The Stony Rises   Project (July 2010).[1]

Western plains basalt rock was also used to   construct many of Melbourne’s early Gothic buildings, such as St. Patrick’s   Cathedral and Princes Bridge in Swanston Street. The migration of this ancient volcanic rock to urban ‘medievalist’ structures and to rural ‘medieval’ enclosures prompts a re-examination of the cultural work the stones perform.

This paper explores varieties of nostalgia provoked by the   Stony Rises and drystone walls in both the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, but emphasises those nostalgias in relation to the ‘medieval’.

[1] ‘The   Stony Rises Project explores the complex and interconnected elements that   comprise the creation of place. Between 2008 and 2010 a team of artists,   designers, historians, curators, theorists and scientists have investigated   through their individual perspectives and practices, a particular region within   the Western District of Victoria, Australia. Their aim being to make comment on, to reflect, to come to know and to remember from the land mass to the people and   their cultures both past and present, what it is that makes a place, a place,’   from The Stony Rises Project: The Exhibition on 24 June 2010. The exhibition is at the Royal Melbourne Institute of   Technology University.

2 August

Celia Scott

Grotesque, Macabre and Just Plain Odd:  Gender and Humour in Early Irish Hagiography

Male and female Irish saints of the early  medieval period were on the whole portrayed in a remarkably similar manner,  with both (theoretically at least) aspiring to be part of the gender-neutral third gender associated with sanctity and a religious life. This ideal broke  down, however, when faced with specific situations that challenged traditional  gender roles particularly with regard to social hierarchies and the depiction  of physical bodies. Humour, in the form of bizarre tales, odd events and  grotesque imagery, has long been noted as one of the most idiosyncratic  features of Early Irish hagiography. These tales of epic exaggeration have  often been rationalised as remnants of folkloric imagery, or alternatively  dismissed out of hand without explanation or justification. The pervasiveness  of these bizarre, grotesque and macabre tales throughout early Irish  literature, however, implies that there may be a deeper purpose reflecting  aspects of early Irish culture as well as the manner in which the society developed and assimilated ideas. Focusing on two of the aspects of early Irish  hagiographical humour that were most influenced by the gender of their main  protagonist, this paper utilises modern humour theories to argue that these  stories did indeed serve a range of distinctive functions: literary, social,  religious and political.

6 September

Change of venue for this meeting: Baillieu Library Ground Floor Tutorial and Committee Rooms

Will Anderson

Blessing the Fields: Investigating the Material Culture of Ritual in Late Medieval England

The material culture of ritual and religion is an active research field in medieval studies for which a wealth of archaeological remains, from landscapes and architecture to monuments and artefacts, can be drawn on. In this talk I will take an archaeological approach to ‘small finds’ as a way of exploring aspects of practice and identity among rural communities in late medieval England. My case study investigates a type of metal flask – a ‘pilgrim souvenir’ - dating from the 15th to mid-16th centuries, many examples of which have been found and recorded in recent years. These can be studied in terms of their form, decoration and materiality, but also the locations and contexts in which they are found. Using a contextual approach offers avenues to examine the practices and affiliations of individuals and groups in the decades preceding the Reformation, including sectors of society whose voice might not be so prominent in historical texts.

4 October

Stephanie Trigg

Faces That Talk: Chaucer, Nature and Female Beauty

Chaucer’s celebrated description of the expression on Criseyde’s face - as she   lets her glance fall a little to the side, as if to say, “What, may I nat   stonden here?” - raises some intriguing hermeneutic questions. How can words   represent facial expression and emotion? Is the idea of a face that appears to   speak best read as a form of natural expression or as a more or less conscious,   or performative act?  This paper examines a number of Chaucerian texts that   describe the speaking faces of men and women, and the rhetorical tropes that sustain this idea. It pays particular attention to the trope of describing   female beauty as expressing the best work of Nature, the artisan goddess, who is   often similarly said to “speak” through her creations. Chaucer uses this trope   to different effect in The Book of the Duchess, The Physician’s Tale, and   in Troilus and Criseyde. In these descriptions, Chaucer treads a delicate   line between affirming these women’s facial expressions are natural (that is,   not countrefete) and commending the artisanal aspect of Nature’s work in   producing those expressions. These examples allow us to chart Chaucer’s changing representations of emotion, and female interiority and subjectivity.

8 November (2nd Monday due to Melbourne Cup Day)

Anne McKendry

"I trowe men wolde deme it necligence / If I foryete to tellen the dispence / Of Theseus . . .": The Narrative of Excess in The Knight's Tale

Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale contains two events that depict extraordinary extravagance.  Theseus’s tournament and Arcite’s funeral are  described by the knight-narrator in sumptuous detail, illustrating the tendency  of medieval romance to present opportunities for readers and listeners to  marvel at extreme feats of noble excess.   But these events serve a deeper political purpose than simply allowing  their audiences to imagine living a royal life for one vicarious moment. Narratives of excess such as those contained  in The Knight’s Tale also reflect the  way in which the nobility articulated power through the ostentatious display of  wealth in the later fourteenth century. Considering Theseus’s tournament and Arcite’s funeral in terms of Georges Bataille’s theory of “the accursed share,” as well as the Aristotelian  notion of magnanimity expressed through magnificence, uncovers the expression  of power that Theseus performs through the expenditure of incomprehensible  amounts of wealth on behalf of his Theban “enemies.”  This paper briefly explains Bataille’s theory  of an economics of waste and then demonstrates how the excessive consumption and, indeed, destruction of vast riches that attend the tournament and funeral  not only conform to this theory, but also enable Theseus to express and  consolidate his sovereign power.

6 December

Leslie Glick

Moses Maimonides

Moses Maimon (c 1138-1204), known popularly as Maimonides, is today regarded as the preeminent Jewish scholar, philosopher and rabbi of all time. He was born in Cordoba in c1138. The family fled Andalusia in 1148 (choosing exile over forced conversion) when the fanatical Almohads, a Berber dynasty committed to a fundamentalist version of Islam, displaced the Almoravids rulers in Cordoba. In 1159 Maimonides and his family emigrated from Spain to Fez in modern-day Morocco. In 1168 Maimonides moved to Fusat (the medieval capital of Egypt and today part of Cairo) where he became court physician to two viziers and where he lived until his death in c1204.

Maimonides lived at a time when Judaism and its adherents were under attack, both physically and spiritually. Judaism was still understood by its adherents as a religion fundamentally tied because of its Biblical origins to the literal text of the Bible. Christian and Islamic scholars ridiculed Judaism in poems and tracts and during the Disputations as an archaic childish and irrelevant religion, which did not reach beyond Biblical stories of miracles and battles and an anthropomorphic view of god. Adherents to the faith were deeply troubled in trying to reconcile their faith with advances in science and the rediscovery of Aristotle.

The traditional academic treatment of Maimonides usually involves an examination of his contribution to philosophy, medicine and ethics. This talk will concentrate instead on the critical role Maimonides played in saving Judaism and its adherents from probable extinguishment, by his introduction of the then (for Judaism at least) revolutionary concept of negative theology, and insisting the text of the bible was to be understood as a "morality play".

The talk will concentrate on three works of Maimonides:

  1. The Commentary on the Laws of Judaism (1161-68) in which for the first time ever adherents to the faith were provided with a set of propositions which today constitute Judaism's Articles of Faith
  2. The Statement of Judaic Laws (1168-77) which overturned centuries of rabbinic scholarship and provided adherents with a defined and certain set of laws and practices
  3. The Guide to the Perplexed (1185-91). It was a revolutionary work, written for a favourite student of Maimonides, which encouraged the young and troubled disciple to read the text of the bible as a parable, so as to accord with science and philosophy. Judaism was thereby freed from the tyranny of language: the inherent ambiguity of language was to be its saviour in the face of the ever-increasing medieval  Disputations and expulsions. Judaism was provided with the intellectual facilities to survive, adapt and change over the centuries

Christmas dinner

After this meeting we will be going out for dinner at Cafe Italia in Carlton, just off Lygon Street. The menu is a la carte. If you would like to come then please email Andrew Stephenson at andrewws@ by Thursday 2 December so that we can confirm numbers.