Blog Posts in the Graduate Classroom: Part 1, The Rationale

A few weeks ago I wrote a post introducing the Medieval Institute’s new Medieval Undergraduate Research website and encouraging instructors to use it for course assignments that will boost their students’ Digital Humanities (DH) experience. Because DH experience has been crucial to the success of recent medievalist PhDs on the job market, this two-part follow-up post will focus on the value of DH work for them so that they can collaborate with faculty mentors to expand their online presence using this site, the Medieval Institute’s Medieval Studies Research Blog (MSRB). Whereas part 1 makes the case that more faculty should take advantage of this site’s pedagogical potential, part 2 offers specific ideas for incorporating this already active scholarly platform into graduate-level pedagogy.

For many reasons, involvement in DH is no longer optional for rising scholars specializing in the Middle Ages. Tenure-track job ads these days regularly mention DH as a desired subspecialty if not a major component of candidates’ professional profiles. As students increasingly pursue other career options, DH skills become even more important. Publishers, libraries, museums, non-profits, and university administrations rely heavily on technology, necessitating, to extend Geoffrey Rockwell and Stéfan Sinclair’s point about DH degree programs, a newer, broader approach to professional acculturation.[1] There is, in fact, a legitimate sense of urgency behind many graduate students’ desires to pursue DH work matched by an equal level of responsibility demanded of humanities programs to support their efforts. While not all graduate students seeking DH experience intend to (or even need to) specialize in the field, they nevertheless could benefit profoundly from at least some exposure to and hands-on experience with projects that merge technology and humanities research.[2] This site offers one step in that direction, providing a digital platform backed by a major research institution that graduate students can integrate into their training from early on in their program, even at the coursework stage.

The pressures coming from the academic and non-academic job markets stem, in large part, from a growing demand for humanistic work to become more public and more accessible. Nicole Eddy, this site’s original administrator and the new Managing Editor of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series, points out that “academics are called on more and more to be not just scholars but Public Humanists, making a case for the significance of their work outside the academy and in new and creative ways. It is no longer sufficient to confine scholarly activity to the classroom or the academic journal, but to instead show the ability to engage with a diverse audience in creative ways.”[3] She also notes that because dissertations tend to be written for specialist audiences, contributing to projects such as this site can expand the reach and impact of our work.

In a broader sense, then, the digital humanities matter because they can deliver our work to a public audience in order to serve a wider community beyond the walls of the academy. Indeed, multiple DH practitioners have commented on the field’s ability to return us to the original spirit of humanism: “the digital humanities might yet again be set to embrace the methods and outlooks that the very first Renaissance humanists took up: to use modern communication skills–digital iterations of rhetoric and grammar–supplemented by the creative arts of the imagination and the reflective wisdom of the historical outlook to reach contemporary audiences with interpretations of what it is to be human and what it is to be a responsible citizen.”[4] With its ability to reach readers both within and without the academy, this site treats public writing as a core function of humanities work, making the relevance and value of our research more transparent.

But, what, exactly, is the Medieval Studies Research Blog (MSRB)? As our “About Us” page suggests, it is an active scholarly platform for scholars at any stage of their careers. What this means is that graduate students who write posts for a course assignment contribute to a DH project that will attract immediate readers. Rather than performing a practice, or exploratory exercise, this particular professional development experience leaves students with an online publication they can list on their CV and a greater confidence in their capacity to bring research to life.

Students posting to this site share company with advanced scholars, such as Maidie Hilmo, whose groundbreaking work on the Pearl-Gawain manuscript is documented here. To our benefit, many of our visiting scholars have contributed their voices, including Richard Cole and Katherine Oswald, with even more scheduled for the coming months. Most of our posts relate to the authors’ current or recent research, written to stake a claim on a certain topic, gain a wider audience for recent publications, or develop an idea they could not fit into their last article. Others write on original topics better suited to the blog format than the academic journal, such as Andrea Castonguay’s contribution on interdisciplinarity, or to take advantage of the genre’s multimedia possibilities as in Richard Fahey’s post on South Bend. Still others write with the goal of creating supplementary background readings that undergraduates could read in their courses. Thus far, we have also created two special series– one on “Working in the Archives” and another on the “North Seas”–as well as a growing and evolving translation and recitation project. Graduate students contributing posts (or translations) to the MSRB, therefore, participate in the project as and alongside other scholars.

Depending on how instructors frame their assignments, thoughtful implementation of the MSRB in the classroom could meet multiple learning outcomes at once. The MSRB could be used to naturally integrate digital genres into our graduate students’ training in a way that helps them to craft a public as well as academic voice. By giving them the opportunity to maintain their digital presence and write for new audiences, this project can enhance their work as researchers, as instructors, as collaborators, and as public servants.[5]

For questions, posting schedules, or class visit sign-ups, feel free to contact me at kfuller2@alumni.nd.edu. Also, follow us on Twitter: @MedievalNDblog.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post next week…

Karrie Fuller, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame/St. Mary’s College

[1] Geoffrey Rockwell and Stéfan Sinclair, “Acculturation and the Digital Humanities Community,” Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles, Politics, ed. by Brett Hirsch (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2012): 177-211.

[2] Claire Battershill and Shawna Ross, Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom: A Practical Introduction for Teachers, Lecturers, and Students (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017): see esp. 147-48.

[3] Private correspondence. Quoted with permission.

[4] Eileen Gardner and Ronald G. Musto, The Digital Humanities: A Primer for Students and Scholars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015): 13. For a similar statement, see Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, et al., Digital_Humanities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012): 25-26.

[5] Many thanks to Erica Machulak for her detailed feedback on this post.

What the Wife of Bath Still Has to Teach Us

As a medievalist who is both interested and personally invested in the representation of women’s bodies, I am acutely aware of how our gendered ideology hearkens back to the Middle Ages. The ways in which the Canterbury Tales mirror contemporary discourse and practices around sexual violence are abundant, and though I know them well through my work with Chaucer, they remain alarming.

A sign outside a strip club near Denver, Colorado, an image that accompanied an article in The Guardian, dated December 3, 2017

Needless to say, I was hardly surprised when, in October of 2016, Sonja Drimmer and Damian Fleming described in a blog post to In the Middle the remarkable relevance of the Miller’s Tale, in which Nicholas corners an unsuspecting Alisoun and grabs her by her genitals[i]:

“And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,
And syde, ‘Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille.’”[ii]

Used to describe Alisoun’s genitalia as “a clever or curious device or ornament,” the word “queynte” employs both of its Middle English definitions, as it is simultaneously a “punning” on a more modern derogatory term for the vaginal organs.[iii] That Alisoun “sproong as a colt dooth in the trave”[iv] to escape Nicholas’s hands on her vulva demonstrates that his fondling of her body is not only unexpected but also unwanted.[v] What Chaucer’s narrative describes is sexual assault.

A friar grabs a woman by her genitals in an image from a fourteenth-century manuscript, The Taymouth Hours, London, British Library MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 177. Specifically citing the man’s actions as lechery (“lecherie”), the French caption condemns his behavior and serves as a warning for young women, who would have been the text’s primary audience. The Wife of Bath begins her tale with an allusion to the prevalence of friars in woods like those where the maiden is raped by the knight.[vi] 
The Miller’s Tale is, of course, a fabliau, characterized by bawdy humor intended to make the audience laugh. The genre, however, should not negate the inappropriateness of Nicholas’s actions, and if it renders them humorous, it does so at women’s expense. If further evidence is needed for the genre’s proclivity for misogyny, one needs only to consider the Reeve’s Tale, which follows the Miller’s and appropriates rape as its punchline. While critics have traditionally navigated the fabliau genre with the argument that the “enthusiastically unchaste wives”[vii] escape ridicule at the narrative’s end, the portion of this approach that requires the casual dismissal of sexual assault merits reconsideration, especially because consent cannot be given retroactively. That being said, Alisoun does consent to a sexual relationship with Nicholas, but only after he has violated her. Sexual contact without consent is assault – period.

Our own cultural conversation around sexual assault hasn’t ebbed since last fall. On the contrary, its media current seems to be only gaining momentum. On Tuesday, December 6, Time magazine revealed their 2017 Person of the Year: “The Silence Breakers,” the many women, as well as some men, who have recently been compelled to share their experiences as victims of sexual harassment and assault. Primarily composed of women’s voices, the massive movement demands that the men perpetuating this violence be held accountable for their actions. Meanwhile, Brock Turner, the former Stanford University student found guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault early last year, served only three months of a grossly lenient, six-month sentence in a county jail and began the process of appealing his conviction the same week as Time’s cover release.[viii] According to the New York Times, approximately 60 pages of the 172-page appeal document emphasize the intoxication of Turner’s victim on the night he raped her.[ix] As far as Turner is concerned, the violence he committed is still not his fault, suggesting that accountability can only take us so far, and, frankly, it’s not nearly far enough.

Time cover announcing the “Silence Breakers” as Person of the Year, released online December 6, 2017

Current events have inspired me to return to the Canterbury Tales, this time to the Wife of Bath. In what is an often cited conundrum of the Wife’s tale, the knight who rapes the maiden at the story’s outset is rewarded at its end, while his female victim vanishes from the narrative entirely. While some critics see the maiden’s disappearance as a problematic act of erasure, I’d like to consider what can be achieved through the Wife’s attention to the rapist, rather than his victim.

The first page of the Wife of Bath’s Tale from the Ellesmere Chaucer, a fifteenth-century manuscript housed at the Huntington Library, San Marino, MSS EL 26 C 9, fol. 72 r

In a tale that focuses more on remedy than reaction, the Wife conveys how the knight should not merely be punished but, rather, reformed. To weight the punishment Arthur initially proposes against the repercussions for contemporary sexual aggressors is a telling measure, as Arthur would have the knight executed for his actions. Guinevere, however, intervenes and – after her husband agrees that she should sentence the knight “at hir wille” – challenges him instead to discover what women desire most.[x] The quest upon which the knight embarks does not lead him to an explicit answer for her question, and his failure in this endeavor is, in my opinion, precisely the point: he must learn that women have wills of their own and understand that women’s wills should not be subsumed by men’s.

At the tale’s conclusion, it is only when the knight recognizes his wife’s will as equal to his own, a reflection of his reformed character, that he is rewarded. Admittedly, when the wife tells him he may choose to have her “foul and old” but “a trewe, humble wyf,” or “yong and fair” but unfaithful, neither option is ideal.[xi] But having just concluded her speech on “gentillesse,”[xii] through which she conveys how nobility originates in one’s character and is defined through one’s actions,[xiii] it would appear that the knight accepts the meaning of her words:

“My lady and my love, and wyf so deere,
I put me in youre wise governance;
Cheseth youreself which may be moost pleasance
And moost honour to yow and me also.”[xiv]

Not only does the knight address his wife with kindness and respect, but he also conveys that he has internalized the lesson she has taught him by deferring to her “wise governance” and imploring her to decide what kind of woman she wishes to be. Through his deliberate suspension of his own will to accommodate his wife’s, the knight demonstrates how his character has been reformed from the narrative’s beginning when he exerts his will over his female victim’s in his sexual assault on her body. In effect, the Wife of Bath’s Tale advocates for social reformation of masculinity as a proactive solution to sexual violence, situating punishment alone as a reactive and, thus, less productive response.

As a medieval scholar, I am dedicated to the idea that there is much we can learn from our past. As a literary scholar, I believe that studying literature can facilitate much of that learning. As a woman and a feminist, I wonder what can be gained by redirecting our collective gaze onto the perpetrators of sexual violence. Perhaps the Wife of Bath, a survivor of gendered violence herself, has a lesson she can teach us – and if there’s anything that can be learned, we must listen.

Emily McLemore
University of Notre Dame

[i] Drimmer, Sonja and Damian Fleming. “Not Subtle; Not Quaint.” In the Middle, 9 Oct. 2016.

[ii] Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Miller’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson, Houghton, 1987, pp. 68-78, lines 3276-78.

[iii] Queynte] Middle English Dictionary, def. 1a, 2a.

[iv] Trave] an enclosure or a frame for restraining horses while they are being shod (Middle English Dictionary, def. b)

[v] Chaucer. The Miller’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, line 3282.

[vi] Chaucer. The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, pp. 116-22, lines 865-81.

[vii] Benson, Larry D. “The Canterbury Tales.” The Riverside Chaucer, pp. 8.

[viii] Stack, Liam. “Light Sentence for Brock Turner in Stanford Rape Case Draws Outrage.” New York Times, 6 Jun. 2016.

[ix] Salam, Maya. “Brock Turner is Appealing his Sexual Assault Conviction.” New York Times, 2 Dec. 2017.

[x] Chaucer. The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, lines 894-97.

[xi] Chaucer. The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, lines 1219-26.

[xii] Chaucer. The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, line 1211.

[xiii] Gentillesse] nobility of birth or rank, or nobility of character or manners (Middle English Dictionary, def. 1a, 2a)

[xiv] Chaucer. The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, lines 1230-33.

 

“Yet ther is a streinant with two longe tailes:” English Musical Terminology in the “Chorister’s Lament”

This illustration from Oxford, Bodleian MS 515, ff. 22v-23r, a fifteenth-century manuscript of musical treatises including a copy of the Metrologus, may be an unfinished Guidonian hand, a pedagogical tool for learning chant.

The “Chorister’s Lament,” a late fourteenth-century alliterative poem inserted into empty space in London, British Library, Arundel MS 292 (ff. 70v-71r), offers humorous insight into the practice of learning to sing in a fourteenth-century Northeast Midlands monastery, as novice choristers Walter and William bewail their inability to demonstrate the proficiency expected of them by their French singing master. Highly technical musical vocabulary fills the piece and has perhaps encouraged scholars and anthologizers to give the poem a wide berth. A few of these terms, including one especially rare, point to a decidedly English musical terminology and suggest a connection between the “Chorister’s” poet and a little-studied 14th century musical treatise with English roots.

The most obscure word used by the Chorister-poet is the extremely rare streinant:

‘Yet ther is a streinant with two longe tailes;
Therfore has oure maister ofte horled my kailes    (bowled my skittles)

The Oxford English Dictionary calls the streinant “a musical note written with two stems; a breve” and suggests that the word may be related to the equally obscure Old French word estraignant. The dictionary entry cites only one occurrence of the word in English – this Chorister’s passage – and scholars have not had much luck tracking it from there. The word does exist elsewhere, in  a Latin manuscript from England – in a treatise called the Metrologus, a 14th century commentary on Guido of Arezzo’s Micrologus.[1]

The copy of the Metrologus found in Rome, Bib. Vat. Reg. Lat. 1146, 67r-70v, mentions the streinant three times. Most importantly, the text defines the streinant and its use (Item est alia nota quae vocatur streinant et ponimus super istis videlicet mon. ton. an. in. cum. num. et super consimiles et continet in se duas breves in cantando. “Also there is another note which is called streinant and which we put above these, plainly, mon. ton. an. in. cum. num., and above like things and contains in itself two breves in singing”) and also gives an example of how the streinant looks on the page (et figuratur sic.) According to the definition provided by the treatise, the streinant is used as a mensural quantity – one streinant is worth two breves. The manuscript page containing several examples of the streinant can be accessed here.

The manuscript tradition points squarely at a 14th century English source for the Metrologus,[2] as does the English cursive of this copy. The Metrologus commentator and the “Chorister’s” poet were likely near contemporaries working in the same region of England. The two share the rare streinant as well as other especially English words. Is there a link between the Chorister’s poet and this treatise? Perhaps William and his singing master first met the streinant in the Metrologus.

Rebecca West
University of Notre Dame

[1] The definitive medieval treatise on music theory.

[2] Jos. Smits van Waesberghe, ed., Expositiones in Micrologum Guidonis Aretini. Musicologica Medii Aevi. (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1957), 62.