Ydw, dwi’n siarad cymraeg (Yes, I do speak Welsh), or why I do what I do

Having been asked to write the final blog post for the 2018-2019 academic year, I thought I might offer a personal reflection on my own journey as an academic and medievalist, which may, at least in some small way, be indicative of many of the journeys of my friends and colleagues. At a time when the study of the arts and humanities continues to suffer—much to the detriment of democracy at large and despite the fact that these fields enrich our lives and culture—we who work in these areas often find ourselves asking ourselves—and defending to others—why we do what we do. This becomes even more keen when you study older as well as minority languages—and if you’re a medievalist, even though everyone loves the Middle Ages.

Instagram: @drgrayfang / Via Facebook: asoiafmemes

Indeed, it’s been an eventful month for medievalists and for medieval-inspired genres in general. Between Game of Thrones and its issues with portraying women and people of color, the rampant racism medievalists in general are trying to combat, and the usual rush of writing papers for the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, there’s a lot to discuss. As a professor, a researcher, a fandom nerd, a mother, and a procrastinator, I find a lot of this problematic. While I don’t have any solutions, I can at least offer my thoughts on the importance of primary research, especially primary research in its original language, and why being multilingual is important for all of us.

The Grey King by Susan Cooper.

When I was a child, I had two goals: travel to all seven continents and learn exactly why “Y maent yr mynyddoedd y canu, ac y mae’r argwyddes yn dod” meant ‘the mountains are singing, and the lady comes’ in Welsh. Fast forward a few decades, and I’ve achieved five out of seven continents, and I know enough Welsh to recognize that the grammar of “Y maent yr mynyddoedd…” is a little wonky. I’m willing to cut Susan Cooper a little slack, though, because she was the one, through her YA novel The Grey King, that set me on my weird Welsh journey anyway. I was that strange child that wanted to read the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek form because I knew that it would be the “truest” version (the benefit of being a scholar, I get how problematic that goal is now.) I wanted to speak all the languages and understand all the stories—and I still do!

 

I grew up in a very white, very middle-class suburb of Los Angeles, where diversity was just a couple of towns over—not that we went there because, you know, traffic and crime rates. Because of this desire to understand beyond my knowledge, as well as the limitations of my own perspective, I show Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” TED talk every semester, without fail, no matter what class I’m teaching. I’ve shown it to high school freshmen for Study Skills and upper division college students in a King Arthur class. I’ve seen the video so many times that I can recite parts of it, and it still grabs me every single time.

College was what broke my belief in a single story. A trip to France in high school cemented my hardcore drive to travel EVERYWHERE and see ALL THE THINGS, but college actually pushed me out of the nest and forced me to look multiple perspectives in the face. It dropped a pile of primary sources into my lap and told me to read and digest all of them. While my undergraduate experience didn’t teach me Welsh, it at least pushed me toward the possibility of the Middle Ages, an all-encompassing knowledge of King Arthur, and the idea that I could learn the highly accurate history of it all.

(Oh, my sweet summer child.)

Twenty years later, I am a medievalist with a specialization in the King Arthur of the medieval British Isles and France. I learned Welsh—in Wales no less—to push my ability to analyze primary texts. I used more dead languages than English in my dissertation but still call myself an English major (funny how literature departments are still organized around nation-states). I now teach writing and medieval literature at every college in Buffalo, NY (fine, only three of them, or maybe four…).

National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, taken by Kara Larson Maloney.

I have a six-year-old who can already recite the names of Arthur’s knights as well as tell you what her favorite castle is. She voraciously devours folklore from around the world and prefers Ancient Egypt and stories of Anansi to what mama studies. Her princesses and princes come from India and China and Japan, rather than just the standard Disney European variety. And she’s conquered four out of seven continents. I’m not sure which language(s) she’ll choose when she gets older, but she takes great delight in telling people that gwely means ‘bed’ in Welsh—the apex of my attempt at raising her bilingual and studying Welsh in Wales while pregnant with her. She’s grown up with parchment and chainmail, and she loves swinging around the cloth-and-wood flail she got from a castle in France two years ago. She knows that there is more than one story, and she sees many of those stories every day in her very public, very urban elementary school.

So, why Welsh? Why did a minority language in an English-colonized country become my passion? As a medievalist and Arthurian scholar, it makes sense. Arthur was Welsh. Full stop. Even if I’m not sure I believe he ever existed—since we have little-to-no extant irrefutable historical evidence—I still believe his origins come from Wales, be those the literary origins of the Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Welsh Triads), the “Mabinogion,” or Y Gododdin. If I study Arthurian literature and how the concept of chivalry changed across the English Channel between the ninth and sixteenth centuries, I should know Middle Welsh, as well as Latin, Old French, Anglo-Norman, and Middle English for good measure. Plus, it’s as good an excuse as any to realize that childhood dream of being able to translate a Welsh spell from a kids’ fantasy novel.

Roman Amphitheatre, Caerleon, possible seat of one of King Arthur’s courts. Photo by Kara Larson Maloney.

Why Welsh? Because there’s a dedicated movement within Wales right now working on reclaiming the heritage that the English took from them, linguistically and culturally. Because there’s a rising demand for Welsh-language schools in Wales, and the number of speakers is actually growing. But also because the ability to read the Triads and other sources of archaic knowledge in their original form ensures that this information will be remembered and kept alive. And because, as the ever-eager scholar, I am always in search of that irrefutable truth for which I longed in my childhood, the Ur-text that explains why the idea of King Arthur still persists in popularity, even when sometimes partnered with giant robots from outer space in modern sci-fi fantasy.

As a medievalist, I know how fragile our material history is. Look at how many erupted into tears as Notre Dame burned last month. Think of how often we wonder about what we lost when the library at Alexandria was demolished or when the Cotton Library burned in the fire of 1731. Think of the destruction of the monasteries under Henry VIII or even of what codices were lost when the Vikings raided again and again in the eighth and ninth centuries. And this still happens—think of the attack on the shrines of Timbuktu in 2012.

The physicality of history is not immortal. While we find new primary sources and discover magical new insights into the past every year with our leaps forward in technology, we still lose so much. Remember when ISIS destroyed the statues at the gates of Nimrud, or when they demolished the Temple of Baalshamin and the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, or, even earlier, when the Taliban blew up the statues of Buddha. Think of every mosque and synagogue that Christians have irrevocably altered in the past thousand years, not the least of which being the Mezquita in Córdoba or the synagogues of Toledo. Our physical artifacts are all we have to help us understand who we were and why things—socially, politically, economically, etc.—are the way they are. Our primary sources, in their original languages, can help us ensure we understand as much as possible about the past, which is the only way we can understand our present moment. Serious study and serious inquiry into the past can help prevent the co-opting of cultural narratives for nefarious purposes, the way white supremacists and the alt-right have pushed for an all-white medieval Europe and erasure of people of color. Why Welsh? Because every language and every culture have something to teach us. Because diversity—in people, in languages, in nature—makes the world richer. Also because I’m obviously a nerd. Why the desire to visit all seven continents? So that I can experience, firsthand, the different stories that each culture, each region, each country presents. So that I can prevent my daughter and my students from recognizing only one story.

Bayeux Cathedral, photo by Kara Larson Maloney.

Every year for the past three years, I’ve gone into my daughter’s classroom and talked to her classmates about heroes, knights, the evolution of writing, and mummies (because mummies). I’ve given them pieces of parchment to create their own illuminations. I’ve handed them chainmail, leather helms and bracers, and answered how King Arthur died (“It’s complicated…”). It’s not just public scholarship (of which we need more!); it’s also ensuring that these stories, and that consciousness of the materiality of history, are passed on.

Lady Stormborn, Smallest Viking, photo by Kara Larson Maloney.

Because when I was eleven years old, a friend gave me the Dark is Rising sequence for my birthday, and those books inspired a lifelong love of the Middle Ages and some Welsh warlord named Arthur. Because knowing the political complexities of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s era and being able to read what was said about him in Latin and in Welsh better informs me of why he may have spun Arthur in the imperial/anti-imperial way that he did. Because all we have are fragments to help us understand past cultures, and when we preserve what we have for future generations, we preserve the very diverse voices that white supremacy is trying to kill. This is why I do what I do.

Kara Larson Maloney, Ph.D.
Canisius College

The Role of Researchers in Public Protest

The fiscal year ends in a few weeks, and researchers of all stripes are worried about how Trump’s threats to cut funding will pan out. The presidential administration has proposed to slash support for a spectrum of federal agencies including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Institutes of Health. As the March for Science that took place in major cities around the world last April showed, there is a way for academics to work with the public to peacefully and effectively promote intellectual pursuits.

March for Science on April 22, 2017 in Washington, D.C.
“March for Science” by Molly Adams is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The violence that erupted last month outside the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, on the other hand, showed the new danger that humanities scholars face as their work and causes are coopted by white nationalists and white supremacists. From the defense of bigotry in terms of “respect for American history” to the misappropriation of medieval imagery to construct an imagined past of racial purity, false pretenses of scholarship pose a serious threat to contemporary arts and letters. As we seek out new ways to promote the humanities in an increasingly volatile public arena, we should consider what lessons can be learned from the gruesome history of town-gown clashes.

“Unite the Right” Rally on August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, VA
“Charlottesville_UniteTheRightRally-0293.jpg” by Rodney Dunning is licensed under CC BY-ND-ND 2.0.

In 1355, a bar brawl between two scholars and a wine merchant in an Oxford tavern led to a free-for-all between members of the university and citizens of the town that spanned several days. It began when the two beneficed clerks, Walter de Springheuse and Roger de Chesterfield, insulted the vintner John de Croydon’s wares and, apparently, launched the wine jug at his head. Townsmen rallied to Croydon’s defense, ringing the bell at the church of St. Martin and opening fire bows and arrows on the clerks. The chancellor attempted to intervene, at which point he was attacked and forced to retreat. He returned with an army of his own and ordered the bell at St. Mary’s to be rung.

The next day, forty townspeople invaded a convent of Austin friars and ambushed a group of clerks at Beaumont Fields. As the students attempted to close the town gates, 2,000 countrymen came to the aid of the townspeople waving a black flag. The slaughter that followed was grisly: halls were sacked and clerks were imprisoned and murdered, their tonsured heads scalped in disdain. One scholar was taken down at the feet of a band of friars who were processing in protest. Severely outnumbered, the clerks were forced to flee and the university shut down.

These days of conflict, known as the St. Scholastica Day Riots, were the culmination of a century of angst between town and gown. Throughout the thirteenth century and well into the fourteenth, as Gordon Leff explains, “royal favor had given the university authorities a stranglehold on the life of the city, juridically, economically, and psychologically.” Oxford was neither the first nor the last place to see this kind of dispute. The struggle between town and gown had generated the “Great Dispersion” of 1229 in Paris, for instance, which had displaced many great minds from France to Oxford and Cambridge in the first place. During the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, a less bloody but similarly angst-charged riot broke out at Cambridge, where the mayor, bailiffs and burgesses attacked the scholars, pillaged the halls, and confiscated the university’s and colleges’ charters of privileges and other documents, to which they then set fire in the marketplace.

Until recently, what is often called the “crisis in the humanities” felt, to me, like a hyperbole when considered alongside the all-out bloodshed of the St. Scholastica Day Riots, and the deep-seated tensions between scholars and the public that they laid bare. In light of recent events, however, it is becoming ever clearer that researchers are entering the public arena whether we choose to or not, and the stakes of that discourse are escalating.

Erica Machulak, PhD
University of Notre Dame

FURTHER READING

Bennett, J. A. W. Chaucer at Oxford and at Cambridge. Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

Cobban, Alan B. The Medieval English Universities: Oxford and Cambridge to C. 1500. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Courtenay, William J. Schools & Scholars in Fourteenth-Century England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Leff, Gordon. Paris and Oxford Universities in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries: an Institutional and Intellectual History. New York and Wiley, 1968.

Mallet, Charles Edward. A History of the University of Oxford. London: Methuen & Co, Ltd, 1924.

Rashdall, Hastings. The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages. Edited by F. M. Powicke and A. B. Emden. 2nd ed. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1942.

“Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg:” Finishing a Medievalist Dissertation under the New Graduate School Paradigm

As I was re-reading earlier Chequered Board posts by my colleagues and friends both here at ND and abroad, looking for inspiration and guidance on how exactly one does this “blog” thing, I found myself distracted by the dates attached to each post. Each one reminded me of an important upcoming date: 31 May, 2017.

It’s not a date of excitement or performance anxiety. It’s a date of uncertainty and dread.

11 weeks left. That’s approximately how long until my final student stipend paycheck from the University of Notre Dame. My health insurance – to the best of my knowledge – continues until mid-August. Although I have three more years of tuition waiver, my institution will provide no further stipendiary assistance because I am reaching the end of my sixth year here.

It’s been an amazing six years. My first year in the Medieval Institute passed in a blur of fascinating courses taught by brilliant professors and the mandatory “Orientation to Medieval Studies,” which threw us into bibliographies of nearly every medieval topic under the sun with diverse faculty personalities. The Latin Exam haunted me, but also led to some of my closest grad student friendships here at ND with people who actually know Latin instead of hiding from it. The myriad lectures (attendance obligatory but never begrudged) exposed me to Gothic Architecture, French Romances, Paleography, Carolingian history, and more. The following year, dominated by the now-defunct 2nd Year Project, provided me with a new advisor and the glory of not being a first-year student. In my third year, I served as MI student representative and learned exactly how *not* to study for your comprehensive exams, while navigating the loss of our director, Remie Constable, whose sudden, premature death rocked our community. Afterwards in my fourth year, I began mucking around in the swamps of my medieval wetlands dissertation, and last year I was on a Fulbright student research scholarship in Uppsala, Sweden, learning the landscape of environmental humanities from a network of European scholars.

During these years, I’ve had the pleasure of being part of a robust medievalist community. Each time someone presented at a conference, published an article, received a grant, defended a dissertation or found a job, we all celebrated. New faces – faculty, staff, students, and visitors – have taken the place of those who once seemed bastions of the MI, but the medievalist community survives. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Only some things have significantly changed. The academic job market, though not nearly as bad as it was, has never and will never recover to its previous levels. The shift to adjunct faculty has radically altered the landscape; short-term postdoctoral fellowships and Visiting Assistant Professorships have replaced the tenure-track Assistant Professor positions on the job boards in ways that seem exploitative of a large pool of qualified candidates.

The expectations for grad students have also increased. ABD students and newly-minted PhDs need at least two articles to be considered seriously as job or fellowship candidates (I’ve even heard as high as four!). We must maintain a social media presence, have solid teaching records in our fields, and demonstrate involvement in non-academic outreach and planning. Even winning a widely recognized grant like the Fulbright or DAAD is not enough to merit a second look at your CV. Regardless of job market uncertainty, universities are pressuring students to finish faster (The University of Notre Dame, for example, began a new 5+1 program in 2016 with the help of the Arthur W. Mellon Foundation).

This poor state of affairs is exacerbated by the political state of affairs. Whatever your political leanings, it must be acknowledged that the current administration is anti-intellectual, and the new Secretary of Education isn’t invested in spending more on higher education systems she considers over-regulated and her approach to the massive student-loan debt problem is vague at best.

“How do we get through this?” I wonder almost daily. Not just for myself but for the peers who have shaped my graduate education perhaps even more than any individual faculty member. The refrain from the Anglo-Saxon poem Deor seems apropos, that “Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg” (“that was overcome, so may this be”).[1] The poet, who gives his name as Deor, wrote six strophes that allude to individual or collective suffering that was eventually overcome, even if the denouement was not all sunshine and roses. Deor relates his own misery in the final stanza, that he has lost the coveted position of scop, a type of court bard that provided joy in the hall.[2] Parallels to the medieval graduate student experience include the traditional role of learning and reconstructing the stories of the past (as the Beowulf-poet says, wordum wrixlan, l.874a) combined with the collegiality of the academic environment; this makes it easy to relate to his sense of loss when Deor is no longer welcome in that hall. Our modern hallowed halls are no longer able to embrace and welcome the PhD graduates, who would be delighted to continue in the academic tradition.

The horizon has changed for the humanities and a consolatio refrain like Deor’s will not help us. We have convinced ourselves that a self-perpetuating cycle of academic mentoring of future academics was our highest goal, yet this approach has left us isolated in an ivory tower and our graduates ill-equipped to transition to non-academic positions. Recent initiatives such as the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program attempt to provide firsthand experience for recent PhDs in alt-academic positions. Despite this we still create hierarchies of success based on the proximity of our post-graduate-school life to the academic world. This does a great disservice to essential humanistic emphasis on understanding ourselves and our place in this world.

A close friend recently suggested that the core of the new humanistic engagement is retheorizing ourselves as academics regardless of where our pathways lead. The whirlwind meanderings under my professors’ rigorous watch during the last six years have provided me the necessary skills to continue in an academic career, should that prove feasible. As that eleven-week deadline marches closer, I continue applying to academic positions, but also university administrative positions, local off-campus positions that allow me to stay near my academic and social community, and cultural-engagement positions that would utilize my “extra-curricular” skills: project management, library sciences, professional development training, event planning, database management, community outreach, and cultural diplomacy. All of these so-called alternatives are not failures; instead they embody the essence of the humanities.

We humanists do ourselves a great disservice when we fail to maintain our own value. The humanities has the most to offer in the face of anti-intellectualism and resistance to human rights. If we are like Deor, lamenting a lost place in the king’s favor, we have missed the point. Our songs and stories, our research and engagement, our inquiry and curiosity are the most valuable things we have. External realities are outside of our control. Engaging in exploitative labor as an adjunct or full-time instructor is not justified by a love of our subject, commitment to students, or access to the scraps under the university table. We must recognize the equal validity of academic and alt-academic positions and reorganize our graduate programs to prepare students for a broader range of career pathways through service obligations, internships, or even dissertation alternatives that integrate the project management skills that employers seek.[3]

Although I initially intended to write about my current research project on medieval Icelandic water laws and contemporary debates on US state, regional, and federal jurisdictions, this post represents instead the opportunity to articulate what more often frames my discussions with my colleagues who are finishing or recently finished their dissertations: the economic and career uncertainty that encapsulates our lives. We can overcome the challenge individually, but our field will continue to suffer until we decentralize the post-baccalaureate training model from the ideal of a tenure-track position.

Mae Kilker
University of Notre Dame

[1] For an overview myriad attempts for translating this line, see Alfred Bammesberger, “The Old English Poem Deor: Its Structural Units and the Grammatical Analysis of Its Refrain,” Anglia 133.2(2015):322-26.

[2] “Sum sceal mid hearpan æt his hlafordes / fotum sittan, feoh þicgan, / ond a snellice snere wræstan, / lætan scralletan sceacol, se þe hleapeð, / nægl neomegende; biþ him neod micel.” (Fortunes of Men, l. 80-84)

[3] On the disconnect between skills employers seek and graduate school training across disciplines, see Denecke et al., Professional Development: Shaping Effective Programs for STEM Graduate Students. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.