Online “Tour” of the Premodern World for 2019 Cohort of “Games of Thrones” Students

For class on Thursday, January 31, I have put together an online “tour” of the premodern world for those of you in my ‘Games of Thrones’ class.  This “tour” will proceed via a series of links which I have e-mailed to all of you separately.  In all likelihood, few of you in class have been to Europe or had substantial, visceral encounters with the arts and artifacts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Consequently, the basic intent of this activity is that I want you to “experience” the premodern world, at least insofar as that is possible through fragments offered on and through the internet.  Unfortunately, there is a significant difference between experiencing such objects and places firsthand as opposed to a mediated forum, but all the same, this activity will (I hope) help attune you to our period of discussion and get you immersed in the period in a different and insightful way.  In simple terms, in this Blog post I want to hear your (carefully focused) thoughts about the experience.  I’m hoping that your posting offers us some sense of both your intellectual and emotional response to the places, spaces, and artifacts under consideration.  By exploring the sites and material objects of this era and then writing about it, this activity will, hopefully, help you to recognize the relationships between time and place that are part and parcel of the very idea of the “premodern”, and in turn my wish is that you form some meaningful realizations about how specific places or works suggest certain ideals and fit in a larger cultural context.

Now, being even more specific in terms of the contents of your posting, I want you to respond to two particular “objects” of your choosing.  Your response should broadly be broken down into two sections, with each section at least a robust paragraph in length – but the more the better.  The first section should address a place or space, and then the second section should discuss a particular object or artifact.  You should select a place and artwork that really piqued your interest, or that you found especially powerful in some way, shape, or form.  Then, your response should offer some thoughts about just what these places/things seem to “mean” in your estimation.  On the subject of your place/space, which location have you chosen, and why?  What really stands out to you about it, and why is it so important and interesting?  More to the point, what does your chosen place/space suggest to us about the premodern world and the people who lived there?  Regarding your piece of art or other material object, you might track similar ideas and questions, as well as think about the minutiae of your chosen artifact.  For instance, who created it, and when?  What are central characteristics of that individual artists’ style, or how does this object suggest the stylistics of the day?  How do you think it would have been used and understood by individuals in premodern society, and how might we reflect upon it from a twenty-first century perspective?

Overall, then, what have you LEARNED by exploring your selected places/objects, and what do they seemingly TEACH us about the premodern culture(s) of Western Europe??

Perspective(s) and Premodern Monstrosity

We have seen this semester that, in simple terms, monstrosity lies in the eye of the beholder, and one group’s monster is another group’s beloved master (or family member, etc.).  A number of scholars over the years have considered this issue of perspective, including the influential critic Umberto Eco, whose late work ‘On Ugliness’ explores the monstrous things that repel us. Eco examines what the attraction (and repulsion) is to the gruesome and the horrific, and asks:  is ugliness also found in the eye of the beholder?  With such ideas in mind, for the first part of your Blogpost I’d like you to address in broad terms the ways in which monstrosity is, in essence, “in the eye of the beholder” as it pertains to one of our recent creatures.  I would prefer that you address one of Shakespeare’s characters in ‘The Tempest’ for this part, but if you want to consider the impact/influence of perspective on an ancient or medieval monster studied before spring break that would also be OK.

The second part of your Blog is related, but will be a bit more narrow and specific in its focus.  In his novel ‘The Counterlife’, renowned American author Philip Roth (speaking through the perspective of the writer who is the central character in the book) writes that “The treacherous imagination is everybody’s maker – we are all the invention of each other, everybody a conjuration conjuring up everyone else. We are all each other’s authors.”  What Roth is subtly getting at in this passage is the fact that we all construct our own reality, and we all perceive the world as we will, serving as the “author” of the truths around us.  For class this Thursday, you will be reading excerpts from John Gardner’s masterful novel ‘Grendel,’ which tells the well-known ‘Beowulf’ story from the perspective of the monster. Next week, you will be writing a longer account where you explore and consider the point-of-view of a specific monster, so as a kind of practice for this kind of thinking – and also to fuel some preliminary thoughts about monstrosity and perspective that we can consider in class Thursday – I’d like you to consider how the view of a particular monster changes if he/she is seen from a different perspective – from the point-of-view of another character or person from his/her world, or through the vision of him/her themselves.  Lately, we have considered this in the form of the ancient Greek Idylls that offer us the view of Polyphemus the cyclops, and you will obviously be exploring Grendel for class today.  So, I’d like you to pick another monster that we have studied of late, and offer some insights about what they might say if they (or someone else from their world) got to tell their story, about how their understanding of certain actions and “realities” would differ from those around them.  Feel free to be creative here, if you wish.

Ancient/Medieval Monstrosity and the “Act of Fear”

In Michael Chemers’ brief account of the “act of fear” (found on pp. 10-13 of the Introduction to ‘The Monster in Theatre History’), he mentions the scientific view that fear is “a neurobiological response to certain stimuli” and then goes on to note that “not only what we fear but also how we conceive and define what we fear” varies from time to time, place to place, and person to person.  For the first section of your blogpost, I’d like you to quote something interesting that Chemers says about “the act of fear” as it pertains to literature, and apply this quotation to one of the monstrous characters and stories from ancient Greece and medieval Europe assigned for class this week. Elaborating on your thoughts, you might consider:  How does Chemers’ idea about fear connect up to the story in question?  And in this story, which character is afraid, what are they afraid of, and how does it impact their behavior? Furthermore, what does this representation of fear suggest about the writer or society that spawned this particular story?

In recent class discussions we have mentioned several times that Unit Two will simultaneously move us forward into the realm of imaginary monsters, but also backward in that we will make frequent connections between our make-believe creatures and the various historical ideas and “real life” monsters we examined in Unit One.  So, for some early practice using this kind of thinking, in the second section of your blogpost I want you to connect an imaginary monster assigned for this week with a specific “real life” figure or idea from our studies of these periods during Unit One.  In other words, what are some of the links you can identify between the creative and historical monsters of the ancient and medieval worlds, and what larger ideas or issues can we discover through these connections?

Connecting the Monsters of the Middle Ages

Our work this week is all about exploring the wonderful monsters of the Middle Ages. We started with a thoughtful overview of medieval monstrosity and its understanding, and then took a close look at the monsters found on a variety of premodern maps. For Thursday (2/1), we will take a look at a variety of monsters from a variety of contexts – travel writing, literary manuscripts, bestiaries, and different kinds of statuaries (gargoyles and Sheela-Na-gigs). Thus, I thought it would be useful and interesting to do some comparing/contrasting of some of these monsters, and see what comes out of it.  For, it is a truism of comparative analysis that by comparing different things, it enables the viewer to see these things in a different and more nuanced light. It is in that spirit that I want you to complete your comparisons for this blog post.

In general, I want you to complete two separate comparisons for this assignment.  For the first, you should compare the monsters of medieval maps to some form of monstrosity assigned for class on Thursday. Try and be as specific as you can here, perhaps even identifying a specific monster from a specific map (as opposed to some other, specific creature assigned for class) so that you can really hone in on the details and their implications. For your second comparison, I’d like you to compare a monster from Gerald of Wales’ ‘History and Topography of Ireland’ with a monstrous beast (from the medieval bestiary), gargoyle, or Sheela-Na-Gig. Again, try and be as specific as you can in your comparisons. Whatever monstrous entities you choose to compare, your analysis should amount to at least two in-depth paragraphs in which you explain your comparison, offer some observations about the monstrous entities you have selected, and then attempt to draw some conclusions about them.

Comparing the Knights of the Round Table to other Medieval Mythical Heroes

In a way, this Blog post is meant to introduce you to, and invite you to practice, skills that you will be using for your upcoming Hero Paper – which will be a comparative account of a premodern mythological hero (or theme, etc.).  For this Blog, then, I want you to compare a specific character from Malory’s Morte D’Arthur with a character from another text we have read lately in Unit Two.  So, you could compare King Arthur or one of his companions (Lancelot, Gawain, Guinevere, etc.) to such figures as Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Sigurd, Roland, Thor, Culhwch, Deirdru, and so on.  Whichever figure(s) you choose to use as the basis of your comparison, the key is not just to note that there are similarities and differences at play but to illustrate them, and investigate them.  In so doing, you must demonstrate how bringing your two characters together reveals something about them (their beliefs, behaviors, society, etc.) that would not have been clear otherwise.  Thus, much like your second major paper, this response is asking you consider how bringing the two characters helps to illuminate their (respective) meaning and significance; it highlights why it is important to read them together and explains what gets learned through this comparative and analytical negotiation.

Online “Tour” of Premodern Europe for S17 Games of Thrones Classes

For class on Thursday, 2 February, I have put together an online “tour” of premodern Europe for those of you in my ‘Games of Thrones’ classes (through a series of links which I have e-mailed to all of you).  In all likelihood, few of you have been to Europe or had substantial personal encounters with arts and artifacts from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Therefore, the basic aim of this activity is that I want you to “experience” the premodern world, at least insofar as that is possible through fragments offered on and through the internet.  Unfortunately, there is a significant difference between experiencing such objects and places first hand as opposed to a mediated forum, but all the same, this activity will (I hope) help attune you to our period of discussion and get you immersed in the period in a different and insightful way.  In simple terms, in this Blog post I want to hear your (carefully focused) thoughts about the experience.  I’m hoping that your posting offers us some sense of both your intellectual and emotional responses to the places, spaces, and artifacts under consideration.  By exploring the places, spaces and artifacts of this era and then writing about it, this activity will, hopefully, help you form some meaningful realizations about how specific places or works suggest certain ideals and fit in a larger cultural context — the kind of perspective that you will be exploring in your first papers of the semester.

In even more specific terms, I want you to respond to two particular “objects” of your choosing in particular ways.  Your response should broadly be broken down into two sections, with each section at least an in-depth and detailed paragraph in length — but the more the better.  These sections are: 1) a section on a place, and 2) a section on an object or artifact.  You should select a place and artwork that really piqued your interest, or that you found especially powerful in some way, shape, or form.  Then, your response should offer some thoughts about just what these places/things seem to “mean” in your estimation.  On the subject of your place/space, which location have you chosen, and why?  What really stands out to you about it, and why is it so important and interesting?  More to the point, what does your chosen place/space suggest to us about the premodern world and the people who lived there?  Regarding your piece of art, you might track similar ideas and questions, as well as think about the minutiae of your chosen artifact.  For instance, who created it, and when?  What are central characteristics of that individual artists’ style, or how does this object suggest the stylistics of the day?  How do you think it would have been used and understood by individuals in premodern society, and how might we reflect upon it from a twenty-first century perspective?

Overall, then, what have you LEARNED by exploring your selected places/objects, and what do they seemingly TEACH us about the premodern culture(s) of Western Europe??

Online “Tour” of Premodern Europe

For class on Thursday, 4 February, I have put together an online “tour” of the premodern world for those of you in my ‘Games of Thrones’ class (through a series of links which I have e-mailed to all of you).  In all likelihood, few of you in class have been to Europe or had substantial, visceral encounters with arts and artifacts from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Hence, the basic gist of this activity is that I want you to “experience” the premodern world, at least insofar as that is possible through fragments offered on and through the internet.  Unfortunately, there is a significant difference between experiencing such objects and places first hand as opposed to a mediated forum, but all the same, this activity will (I hope) help attune you to our period of discussion and get you immersed in the period in a different and insightful way.  In simple terms, in this Blog post I want to hear your (carefully focused) thoughts about the experience.  I’m hoping that your posting offers us some sense of both your intellectual and emotional response to the places, spaces, and artifacts under consideration.  By exploring the sites and “stuff” of this era and then writing about it, this activity will, hopefully, help you to recognize the relationships between time and place that are part and parcel of the very idea of the “premodern”, and in turn my wish is that you form some meaningful realizations about how specific places or works suggest certain ideals and fit in a larger cultural context.

In even more specific terms, I want you to respond to two particular “objects” of your choosing in particular ways.  Your response should broadly be broken down into two sections, with each section at least a robust paragraph in length (but the more the better).  These sections are: 1) a section on a place, and 2) a section on an object or artifact.  You should select a place and artwork that really piqued your interest, or that you found especially powerful in some way, shape, or form.  Then, your response should offer some thoughts about just what these places/things seem to “mean” in your estimation.  On the subject of your place/space, which location have you chosen, and why?  What really stands out to you about it, and why is it so important and interesting?  More to the point, what does your chosen place/space suggest to us about the premodern world and the people who lived there?  Regarding your piece of art, you might track similar ideas and questions, as well as think about the minutiae of your chosen artifact.  For instance, who created it, and when?  What are central characteristics of that individual artists’ style, or how does this object suggest the stylistics of the day?  How do you think it would have been used and understood by individuals in premodern society, and how might we reflect upon it from a twenty-first century perspective?

Overall, then, what have you LEARNED by exploring your selected places/objects, and what do they seemingly TEACH us about the premodern culture(s) of Western Europe??

Tragic Shakespearean Characters vs. Medieval Mythical Heroes

By now, you are all aware that your next paper is going to be a compare and contrast paper on a ‘premodern’ mythological hero (or idea, theme, etc.).  Hence, to practice the skills involved in comparison, I thought it would make some sense for your final Blog post of Unit Two to be comparative in nature.  Accordingly, for this response I want you to compare Othello (or another character from Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name) with some other figure we have encountered of late.  Among the possibilities, then, would be some kind of comparison featuring Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Sigurd, Roland, Thor, Odin, King Arthur, Lancelot, or maybe Guinevere.  Whichever figure(s) you choose to use as the basis of your comparison, the key is not just to note that there are similarities and differences at play but to illustrate them, and investigate them.  In so doing, you must demonstrate how bringing your two characters together reveals something about them (their beliefs, their world, etc.) that would not have been clear otherwise.  Thus, much like your second major paper, this response is asking you consider how bringing the two characters helps to illuminate their (respective) meaning and significance; it highlights why it is important to read them together and explains what gets learned through this comparative and analytical negotiation.

Celtic Connections

In a classic study of the Origins of English History, Charles Isaac Elton offered high praise for the wonders of Celtic mythology.  In a notable passage, he proclaimed that the writing and “religion of the British tribes has exercised an important influence upon literature.  The medieval romances and the legends which stood for history are full of the ‘fair humanities’ and figures of its bright mythology.  The elemental powers of earth and fire, and the spirits which haunted the woods and streams appear again and again as kings in the Irish Annals, or as saints and hermits in Wales.”  Having just begun our second unit with the powerful Anglo-Saxon legend of Beowulf we have made a transition in our course, not only moving forward in terms of our chronological timeline but also addressing texts written in Britain – a place, as Elton suggested, with a rich literary legacy and a place from which we trace our own “mother tongue.”  In this Blog post, then, I want you to do the following as a way to forge some meaningful connections between various legends written in Great Britain.  Specifically, I want you to present a single quotation from one of your assigned Celtic myths, and use it to draw thematic connections with Beowulf.  How does your chosen quote offer us a window into understanding not only the Celtic myth itself that you are drawing from, but looking back, how might it provide an interesting way into making sense out of the complex text of Beowulf?  Drawing on your chosen quotation, what connections can you make between the great Anglo-Saxon legend and the much shorter Celtic tale in question?  In what ways are these two works similar, and in what ways are they noticeably different, and what might we learn about the myths and legends of Britain from these similarities and differences?

Observations on Ovid

In the Art of Love, Ovid writes that “He who has enjoyed kisses, if he does not also enjoy other things, deserves to lose even those that were given to him.”  This whimsical line perfectly embodies much of Ovid’s verse:  playful and provocative to the very core.  Ovid was willfully suggestive in his writing, and he found himself in “hot water” in his own lifetime, as he was exiled from Rome in part (it seems) because of the controversial nature of his (often satirical and sexually-oriented) verse.  No one can be sure what happened to him after his death, but the great medieval poet Dante places Ovid in Limbo in his Divine Comedy, found in the first circle of hell in a “splendid school” of writers who lived before Christianity and thus cannot ascend to heaven.  But one might well wonder whether Ovid would have been divinely blessed had he been born at a later date, given the controversy and tumult he seemed to create/invite during his own day and age.  Bearing in mind the mixed reactions that have greeted Ovid for thousands of years, in this post I want you to offer your own two cents’ worth about this important and influential poet, a writer far more controversial than any others we have considered in Unit One.  What is YOUR impression of Ovid as a writer?  More to the point, how does he fit the overall arc of our study thus far in class?  In what ways do his works serve to continue and further cultivate key ideas and approaches to mythological writing that we have seen over the first few weeks?  On the other hand (and perhaps more importantly), what marks him as an author who is doing something different, something that pushes the very bounds of mythical writing and takes this generic type in new and fresh directions?  When answering such questions, it would be useful if you cited lines from his writing in order to illustrate and support your over-arching perspectives on the writer whose full name was Publius Ovidius Naso.

Response to Online “Tour” of the Premodern World

For class on Wednesday, 4 February, I have put together an online “tour” of the premodern world for those of you in my ‘Games of Thrones’ class (which I have e-mailed to all of you).  In all likelihood, few of you in class have been to Europe or had substantial, visceral encounters with arts and artifacts from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Hence, the basic gist of this activity is that I want you to “experience” the premodern world, at least insofar as that is possible through fragments offered on and through the internet.  Unfortunately, there is a significant difference between experiencing such objects and places first hand as opposed to a mediated forum, but all the same, this activity will (I hope) help to attune you to our period of discussion and get you immersed in the period in a different and insightful way.  In simple terms, in this Blog post I want to hear your (carefully focused) thoughts about the experience.  I’m hoping that your posting offers us some sense of both your intellectual and emotional response to the places, spaces, and artifacts under consideration.  By exploring the sites and “stuff” of this era and then writing about it, I hope that this activity helps you to register the relationships between time and place that are part and parcel of the very idea of the “premodern”, and in turn my wish is that you form some meaningful realizations about how specific places or works fit in a larger context and suggest certain ideals.

In more specific terms, I want you to respond to two particular “objects” in particular ways.  Your response should broadly be broken down into two sections: 1) a section on a place, and 2) a section on an object or artifact.  You should select a place and artwork that really piqued your interest, or that you found especially powerful in some way, shape, or form.  Then, your response should offer some thoughts about just what these places/things seem to “mean” in your estimation.  On the subject of your place/space, which location have you chosen, and why?  What really stands out to you about it, and why is it so important and interesting?  More to the point, what does your chosen place/space suggest to us about the premodern world and the people who lived there?  Regarding your piece of art, you might track similar ideas and questions, as well as thinking about the minutiae of your chosen artifact.  For instance, who created it, and when?  What are central characteristics of that individual artists’ style, or how does this object suggest the stylistics of the day?  How do you think it would have been used and understood by individuals in premodern society, and how might we reflect upon it from a twenty-first century perspective?

 

Overall, then, what have you LEARNED by exploring your selected places/objects, and what do they seemingly TEACH us about the premodern culture(s) of Western Europe??

(A Comparison of) Joan of Arc, Othello, etc.

As you all know by now, Essay #2 is going to be a compare and contrast paper on a ‘premodern’ mythological hero (or idea, theme, etc.).  Hence, to practice the skills involved in comparison, I thought it would make some sense for your final Blog post of Unit Two to be comparative in nature.  Accordingly, for this response I want you to compare Othello (or another character from Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name) with some other figure we have encountered of late.  Alternately, you may choose to compare Joan of Arc with some other heroine or character explored in our recent readings.  Whichever figure(s) you choose to use as the basis of your comparison, the key is not just to note that there are similarities and differences at play but to illustrate them, and investigate them.  In so doing, you must demonstrate how bringing your two characters together reveals something about them (their beliefs, their world, etc.) that would not have been clear otherwise.  Thus, much like your second major paper, this response is asking you consider how bringing the two characters helps to illuminate their (respective) meaning and significance; it highlights why it is important to read them together and explains what gets learned through this comparative and analytical negotiation.

The Value(s) of Viking Myth

Viking mythology is jarring, weird, dark, and awe-inspiring.  In putting together the syllabus for this class, I was reminded of how lively some of these Scandinavian stories are, texts that make it clear that the oft-cited assessment of 8th Century English Aethelweard chronicler was way off base.  Aethelweard famously concluded that the Vikings were “a most vile people”, a claim that seems questionable at best.  Yes, life could be hard for those inhabiting Northern Europe in the Middle Ages, and yes, there was often violence at hand – but the same was true for virtually all peoples of this era, from all global regions and cultures.  In fact, the Vikings were remarkable craftsmen and intelligent mariners, and they have left us one of the most rich and rewarding literary legacies of the “ancient” world.  Thus, I want you to somehow “enter” that world for this Blog post.  My own favorite Viking myth is probably the story of ‘Sigurd, the Volsung’, a tale so riveting that it inspired one of the most well-known literary series of all time:  J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.  Tolkien recognized the power of Viking myth, and I’m hoping you can do the same in this response.  This time around, I want to leave the subject of your response fairly open.  So, pick a particular element from one of our selections, and discuss it.  Explain how your chosen theme, character, or idea fits within the long trajectory of mythological storytelling, and also how it moves these stories forward and offers us something new and provocative.  You may even share with us what you find moving or fascinating in these stories, and why.  Even “vile people”, it seems, can tell vigorous stories that can stand the test of time – and I’ll be curious to hear your own “stories” in response.

Words on ‘Beowulf’ from Seamus Heaney

For your Blog post on the fantastic Old English epic ‘Beowulf’, I want you to respond to the words of its most famous translator: the Nobel-Prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney. You may pick and choose his words as you will, and I would like for you to use/apply them to particular elements in the text in order to provide some fresh insights into the meaning and significance of this work – a poem that is simultaneously similar to other mythical works we have seen while being very, very different. In Heaney’s words, readers of the poem “are bound to feel a certain “shock of the new.” This is because the poem possesses a mythic potency. Like Shield Sheafson, it arrives from somewhere beyond the known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose (again, like Shield), it passes once more into the beyond. . . . The “Finnsburg Episode” envelops us in a society that is at once honour-bound and blood-stained, presided over by the laws of the blood-feud, where the kin of a person slain are bound to exact a price for the death, either by slaying the killer or by receiving satisfaction in the form of ‘wergild’ (the “man-price”), a legally fixed compensation. The claustrophobic and doom-laden atmosphere of this interlude gives the reader an intense intimation of what ‘wyrd,’ or fate, meant not only to the characters in the Finn story but to those participating in the main action of ‘Beowulf’ itself. All conceive of themselves as hooped within the great wheel of necessity, in thrall to a code of loyalty and bravery bound to seek glory in the eye of the warrior world. . . . It has often been observed that all the scriptural references in ‘Beowulf’ are to the Old Testament. The poet is more in sympathy with the tragic, waiting, unredeemed phase of things than with any transcendental promise.”