Archive for February, 2015


Thanks to my encounter with Richard III, I’ve been reading medieval history.  I enjoyed Norman Cantor’s Civilization in the Middle Ages and Susan Wise Bauer’s History of the Renaissance World. Oddly, Bauer dates the Renaissance from the twelfth century’s rediscovery of Aristotle, but her book is actually about the years more typically characterized as the medieval period. Between them, these books include informative chapters on the Holy Roman Empire, Saladin, the Mongols, Asia and India as well as histories of events in Europe. Cantor’s more focused The Last Knight, also worth reading, uses John of Gaunt’s life as a scaffold on which to hang discussions about such things as warriors, women, peasants and other cultural stuff.

I even went so far as to study genealogical tables of the Plantagenets, so I could understand the relation of the Williams (two of them) to all those Henrys (eight) to the three Richards and four Edwards. Wrote it all down, too, so I can refer to it when I get confused.

When I came up for air I got to wondering why I was now so interested in medieval history after all those years I spent studying ancient Greece and Rome. Then I suddenly remembered an essay by Umberto Eco, called “Dreaming the Middle Ages.” Eco begins by asking:

Are there connections between Frank Frazetta, the new satanism, Excalibur, the Avalon sagas, and Jacques Legoff? If they met aboard some unidentified flying object near Montaillou, would Darth Vader, Jacques Fournier and Parsifal speak the same language? If so, would it be a galactic pidgin or the Latin of the Gospel according St. Luke Skywalker?

IOW, these cultural artifacts are all in some way a manifestation of contemporary nostalgia for a very different time.  Eco coined the term “neo-medievalism” to name this phenomenon, the contemporary products of which include RenFests, digital games such as Skyrim or Dragon Age, and books/films such as Game of Thrones and Pillars of the Earth.

Then I went looking for definitions of neo-medievalism and fell down Alice’s rabbit hole.  From my brief survey I learned that one is required to distinguish among “medieval studies,” “medievalism studies” and “postmodern medievalism.”  “Medieval” refers to the actual period of history now called “the middle ages.”  I know some professors of medieval literature, and they are generally quite prickly about the worth of their work, having been more or less shunted aside in favor of the classics during the nineteenth-century and by medievalists in the twenty-first.  Some do take solace in the fact that they own Chaucer, however.

Medievalism, on the other hand, refers to reception of the middle ages;  that is, to the way people who didn’t live through it see or read that period of history.  Medievalism began, then, in the moment when the actual historical period ended.  Those paintings by the Rossettis and their friends, lush pictures of damsels in flowing robes, are influential examples of a nineteenth-century rereading of the period.


Postmodern medievalism, on another hand, is the stuff that amused Eco:  pop cultural appropriations of what its creators suppose the middle ages to have been, or wish it might have been.  One way of thinking about postmodernism is to accept Jean Baudrillard’s notion that every representation is a representation;  that is, there is no reality underlying history writing– it’s representations all the way down.

I suppose popular postmodern medievalism can be dated from the publication of the Lord of the Rings in 1954By the ‘sixties it was hard to doubt that LOTR was part of pop culture–“Frodo lives” was painted on bathroom walls in colleges all over America.  And it had certainly saturated popular culture thoroughly enough by the ‘seventies that it could be satirized by Monty Python in the Holy Grail, a self-aware postmodern pastiche that gets its laughs from the stark distinction between nostalgic medievalism and what we know about the historical middle ages. Today Tolkein’s depictions of Mordor, Gondor, and the Shire are known the world over, thanks in part to their rereading by Peter Jackson.  Nonetheless, Jackson’s films are a representation of Tolkien’s text, and that text in turn is Tolkien’s representation of his enormous knowledge of the English middle ages, which he learned from books that are in turn representations of events that may or may not have occurred.  And so on. 

If I’ve got this right so far, artists like Frazetta can depict people who never actually looked like that.  Probably.


The cool thing about this is that artists can appropriate whatever they want from the middle ages and put it to use in some way that serves contemporary purposes.  That is, within certain limits of coherence, historical information can be put to a myriad of contemporary uses–it can serve any agenda.  The uncool thing about it, at least from the point of view of those prickly medieval historians, is that popular postmodern medievalism is able to represent the period so as to overlook its gender inequality and the truly horrible conditions under which everybody except the nobility lived (and their lives were no piece of cake, either).  Does Frazetta’s work preserve gender inequality even though it is not a sort of gender inequality that would be recognized by someone who lived in the middle ages?  And does that necessarily render his work culturally bad or inept or useless?  You be the judge.  IMO, depiction of near-nudity is not sexist, but depictions of near-nude females grovelling at the feet of fully clothed males certainly is.

Given all of this, I suppose an argument can be made that reading history is an escape from one’s own situation in the world.  Just like fiction.  In his book about John of Gaunt, Cantor grumbles that the only trustworthy evidence about Gaunt’s life is to be found in the voluminous records kept by his many clerks and secretaries.  These deal with monies spent and goods purchased, and hence don’t tell us much about how Gaunt related to each of this three wives, for example.  For that, one has to turn to Anya Seton’s novel Katherine, which is about wife number 3.  And, if the postmodernists have it right, those tax records are also representations that may or may not bear a relation to historical reality that is any more or less accurate than Seton’s portrayal which, she claims, is based on the available historical evidence.  She made up the rest, she writes, by relying on probability.

The upshot of all this is that we are free to fantasize however we like about Richard III.  Was he a good guy?  a good king?  Did he off the princes in the tower or was that an invention of his rivals?   Now we have his remains, which suggest that he was not deformed as his Tudor detractors maintained (that is, if we accept the representations put forward by the geneticists who examined them).  Does this mean that other representations made by Richard’s enemies should be dismissed?

Who the hell knows?  In the face of such (relative) uncertainty, I like to put Richard’s “history” to the uses I prefer, since my druthers in this affair don’t affect anything important.  As far as I am concerned, then, Edward IV killed Henry VI and Henry of Bolingbroke offed those little princes.  So there.


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RIP, Mr. Spock

leonard-nimoy-obit-videoSixteenByNine1050-v2Leonard Nimoy has died at the age of 83.

Like everyone else who is over a certain age, I watched the original Star Trek on a black-and-white teevee, fascinated.  There had never been anything like this show, and the character of Spock–cool, logical, unflappable–was one of the reasons it was so distinctive.  The show also gave central roles to women, which was unheard of in those benighted days of 1966.

The New York Times has a lengthy biography that shows Nimoy had a varied and interesting career both before and after Star Trek.  He did indeed live long and prosper.

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On Speaking In Tongues

Funny-Dating-06The Chronicle of Higher Education recently noticed a twitter thread devoted to “things not to say when dating an academic.”  The article listed a few examples: “Apparently, a sure way to kill the mood is to speak admiringly of astrology, Fox News, homeopathic medicine, The History Channel, or Malcolm Gladwell. Disavowals of coffee, evolution, and Oxford commas might not play well, either. And God help you if you suggest that academics get to ‘take summers off.'”  (http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/how-to-ruin-a-date-with-an-academic-in-5-words/55547/.

Indeed–especially that bit about summers off.

I read the entire piece, looking for the Chronicle to give some reverse advice to academics about how to talk to non-academics.  There are far more of the latter in the world than the former, after all, and academics are the primary audience of the Chronny.  I’m not looking for a date, but I could certainly use some advice about how to talk with the folks who live in my small resort town.

I suppose I could invert Twitter’s advice and speak well of Fox News, the History Channel, homeopathic medicine or Malcolm Gladwell.  Except I know nothing about any of these things.  My usual strategy when someone praises something they saw on Faux News is to say nothing, lest I taint whatever mutual atmosphere we may have developed.  This is, of course, a typical woman’s response to discord, and I hate myself when I do it.

Sometimes I try instead to change the topic to something we might agree on–the weather, say.  Although this sometimes backfires:

Me:  “Isn’t this winter something!  Sure am glad I’m not in Chicago right now.”

Other Person:  “Yeah, the damn n——-s have taken over that town.”

Another option is to talk about the things that interest me:

Me:  “Wow–I just read Stephen King’s latest novel and really enjoyed it!”

Other Person:  “How can you read that perv?”

I readily admit that academics are weird.  However, I think that my inability to make small talk here in the Arizona desert has larger ramifications.  It’s not only that academics’ interests (and, most likely, our politics) differ from those of most people;  this has always been true to some extent–academics spend their lives locked up in small stuffy rooms reading and writing about things that most folks have long forgotten or ignored.

But lately, it seems to me, ordinary folks have become actively hostile toward learning itself.  They don’t want to hear opinions not their own;  they don’t want to hear facts that upset whatever ideological bandwagon they are riding on.  I wrote a whole book about this phenomenon once, so I won’t say any more here.

However, the responses I illustrate above seem to me to encapsulate another new development:  a lack of care for one’s partner in conversation, a preference for put-down over response.  Is this habit reinforced by Bill O’Reilly and his ilk?  If so, they are unraveling comity, to the glue that holds communities together.  That’s a lot more perverted than reading Stephen King.

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Richard III Revised

image_update_920d717d7447ca19_1361876243_9j-4aaqsk          Richard III Departs Leicester Before the Battle of Bosworth

I just finished reading Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendor--all 900-plus pages of it–and I want set down some details that are pertinent to the historical controversy before I forget them.

According to Penman, the reigns of Edward IV and his brother Richard III were marked by the treachery of other aspirants to the throne of England.  Edward realized early on during his kingship that he could trust very few people.  Richard, on the other hand, was far too trusting of those who claimed to be his allies–indeed, his misplaced trust in the Stanleys and the lord of Northumberland cost him his life at the Battle of Bosworth.

Penman’s account has it that some of the crimes later attributed to Richard were actually committed by his brother Edward IV.  For example, she writes that the addled Henry VI was killed at Edward’s command because the Yorkist succession was not secure as long as a viable Lancastrian claimant to the throne was alive.  Later on in her account Edward has his brother George put to death because George learned that Edward’s children by Elizabeth Woodville (that is, the two princes) were illegitimate.  This was so because Edward had plighted troth with another woman before marrying Elizabeth.

When Edward IV died, parliament named Richard Protector of the Realm, which effectively made him the guardian of the princes and regent of England.  And when the Council learned of the princes’ illegitimacy they named Richard King, and he sequestered the boys in the tower to protect them from harm and/or abduction by those who might use them to claim the throne.  (The tower was not a prison in those days, but rather a secure and quite comfortable lodging).

While Richard was away from London putting down yet another traitorous rebellion, Henry of Buckingham had the princes killed in order to secure his own plans to assume the throne–apparently their illegitimacy was not widely known, and Henry counted on Richard’s being blamed for the disappearance of the children–which he was.

Penman’s narration makes this convoluted tale quite plausible.  If the princes were illegitimate, after all, Richard had nothing to fear from them.  Buckingham, on the other hand, may have seen them as potential rivals who had a stronger claim to the throne than he.  Penman argues in an author’s note that historical evidence bears out her claim that Buckingham did the murders (and see n.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Stafford,_2nd_Duke_of_Buckingham).

Sunne is hence thoroughly revisionist.  Penman is a skilled novelist who paints Richard as a dutiful brother to Edward IV.  She depicts Richard as a family man who was much in love with his wife, Anne Neville.  He was also a fierce fighter and battle commander.  Indeed, he won every battle he fought, except for the final one at Bosworth, where he was betrayed by so-called allies.

In a recent blog post on GoodReads Penman meditates about what might have happened had Edward IV been able to keep the royal dick safely inside the royal tights:  “How different history would have been if only Edward had not developed an itch that only Elizabeth could scratch. . . . Imagine if there’d been no Woodvilles intruding upon the English stage. Would Edward still have drunk and whored his way to such an early grave? Would Richard have lived out his days as the king’s right hand, the Lord of the North? Would Edward have lived long enough to see a son by that French princess established on the throne? Would the Plantagenet dynasty continued on for another three hundred years or longer? No Tudors, no Elizabeth, no break with the Catholic Church, no Stuarts, no Hanovers, maybe even no American Revolution?”

Of course we will never know the truth about any of this.  Even today, when records are far more easily kept and circulated, the facts are still colored by those whose interests are not served by the truth (see, for a quite recent example, Rudy Guliani’s attempts to tarnish the President’s patriotism).  The Tudors succeeded in tarnishing the last Plantagenets by circulating the work of hired hacks.  And after they attracted the talented William Shakespeare into their circle–what struggling artist would be so foolish as to portray Elizabeth I’s grandfather as a traitor, after all?–they very nearly succeeded in burying the family’s reputation altogether.

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I Remember When . . .

NFL linemen were fat guys!

Take, for example, the Patriots’ awesome Vince Wilfork:

Cincinnati Bengals v New England PatriotsOr the Packers’ equally formidable B J Raji:

bj-raji-green-bay-packersBut no longer.  Here’s T. J. Clemmons from yesterday’s combine:


Taylor LewanAnd here’s Taylor Lewan from last year’s combine.

The NFL’s recent preference for fitness over plain old bulk is surely a boon to the players’ long-term health.

At the same time a secondary, aesthetic, benefit accrues to the rest of us.

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Don’t Forget, Ladies

abdullah-thumb--nfl_large_580_1000This here be Ameer Abdullah talking to reporters at the NFL combine.

Tomorrow offensive linemen and tight ends work out.  QBs and RBs over the weekend, defensive players on Monday.

Set your ogle meters!  And [insert here] the usual acknowledgement of the sexism inherent in this annual gaze-fest.  A secondary pleasure:  hate-watching whatever horror-show uniforms Nike dishes out this year.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013Yesterday I spent a dismaying amount of time reading about Richard III.  It all started when I ran across a new book entitled Digging for Richard III:  The Search for the Lost King, by Mike Pitts.

Like everyone else in the Western world, I was aware that Richard’s remains had been found under a parking lot in Leicester, England.  Pitts shows that how chancy that was.  For example, the archeologists who finally agreed to do the dig undertook it so they could recover the remains of a monastery.  Finding Richard was very low on their list of priorities, because they figured the odds were high that he (a) wasn’t there and (b) if he were, they’d never hit the right spot.  Pitts amply demonstrates the knowledge, skill (and luck) required to find and unearth the remains.

The problems were manifold.  Historical sources agreed that after his death during the battle of Bosworth in 1485, Richard’s body was carried to Greyfriars’ monastery in Leicester for burial.  But history/legend also had it that Richard’s body was dug up in the early seventeenth century and thrown into a nearby river.

This nasty rumor was no doubt exacerbated by Tudor sympathizers, who, after defeating Richard’s House of York lost no time in defaming the dead king.  They were so successful in this that by the time Shakespeare wrote his famous play about Richard (ca. 1592), he could convincingly portray the Lancastrian king as thoroughly evil.

Modern productions of the play seem to have pretty universally adopted this convention:  here, for example, is Ian MacKellan’s Richard played as a Hitler clone:

ban-04Other actors choose to telegraph Richard’s evil by depicting him as severely deformed.  Here is Kevin Spacey’s Richard:

PAGE 9 SPACEYIt turns out that all of this is just wrong.  Richard’s body remained where it was first buried, for one thing.  For another, Richard’s skeleton shows that he had scoliosis, which probably developed during his adolescence, and which, though painful, would perhaps only have raised one shoulder higher than the other.  The disease would not have given him a limp or kept him from kingly activities like riding a horse and waving a sword.

Which leads me (and a lot of other people, known as “Ricardians”) to wonder if all that other stuff is true.  You know, like the story of the two little princes drowned in that tower.  Did Richard order that done?  Or was it done by his enemies to gin up resistance against him?  We’ll probably never know.

Once I finished Pitts’ book I wanted to read more about Richard III. I found websites all over the place, dedicated to English royalty, the Wars of the Roses, the battle of Bosworth, and so on.  There are many good book-length histories as well–of the wars, of the Plantagenets, of the Tudors (Pitts recommends Paul Kendall’s recently reissued Richard the Third).  And of course historical fiction about this era abounds:  Game of Thrones was inspired in part by the Wars of the Roses–Martin even kills off two little princes.  Richard himself is the subject of Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendor, while the indefatigable Philippa Gregory has devoted an entire series of novels (The Cousins’ Wars) to events of that era.

When I looked for more serious works about Richard, my search was hampered at every turn by that damned play.  Enter “Richard III” into the search engine at an academic library, and you get a hundred references to Shakespeare’s tragedy.  I took this as a metaphor for Richard’s own life and death:  the truth about him is damned hard to determine because it’s covered over by tarmac and underbrush.

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