Friday, 10 August 2012


Motivational assistance from elsewhere...:

1st Century Skills / Will Richardson
Get Your Goals and Projects out of Your Head and onto Paper / Tanya Golash-Boza
Almost anything from Stupid Motivational Tricks.

This is probably going to be one of those posts I add things to as I find them, and is mostly for my own reference, but ideas are gratefully received...

Thursday, 9 August 2012

"... in a world without magic spells or dragons, would we understand ..."


I love the intersection between folklore, fairy tales and history. Where does one fade into another? I was reading an older article from the National Geographic about the Staffordshire Hoard1 (which I still have yet to go and see), and was very struck by the last sentence in the article: "Odds are we will never know the story behind the Staffordshire Hoard, but in a world without magic spells or dragons, would we understand it if we did?". This is a rather wonderful sentence in itself, but conveys some particular thoughts to me.

Perhaps because I have just finished that essay on Grimm, but my first thought was how that sentence links with the opening line from the Brothers Grimm's The Frog Prince: "In den alten Zeiten, wo das W√ľnschen noch geholfen hat" ("In olden times when wishing still helped"). This phrase serves to distance us from the time when the tale is supposed to have happened, and according to Prof Rabkin, our tutor, allows us to set aside reality and to accept that the fantastical will follow, and is an element demonstrated in fairy and folk tales across many nations3, and continues in modern fantasy and science fiction (hence why it came into our course videos).

Thus the article seems to suggest that the past is not only L.P. Harley's foreign country2, but a place which should be perceived to be intrinsically different from the world which we inhabit now. By using such phrases in a news article is the author trying, consciously or subconsciously, to persuade us that this hoard was buried in a fantastic, alien time which we cannot understand? By placing the medieval as something that is fantastical, we create an atmosphere that says we can't understand the medieval period, so why try as it's a futile exercise. To suggest that the medieval was a fantastical period, seems to me to be creating the same declining to engage with the past that phrases such as the Dark Ages can create.

I find this rather disturbing as that is the antithesis of who I am: if I don't understand something, I feel a need to try to comprehend it, whether we are speaking about a foreign country, the opposite gender, or of another time period. While we will never be able to be 100% certain what someone was thinking in the 7th Century4, do we truly know what someone is thinking now?

However, what effect has the placing of the sentence at the end, as opposed to the beginning? Does it help, but consciously separating the 'distancing effect' from the factual information and analysis of the article, challenging existing preconceptions with an ironic ending. Or, does it serve the purpose of continuing thesse pre-existing medievalisms by leaving this as the last thought with the reader. Honestly, I suspect neither - it's a pretty phrase that sounded good on the end of the article. The writer was not interested in challenging the reader to think differently. The focus was on presenting information in an interesting style that was deemed suitable for the general public.

The challenge then is for us not the reader - to show to other inhabitants of our "world without magic spells or dragons",  how and why we can understand the past, and why we should want to continue to try to do so.

Aside: while checking some sources I found that I am missing a lecture I'd have loved to go to in Birmingham by Prof Brooks on "The Hoard as a Window onto England in the Age of the Conversion to Christianity". It's going to be at 2pm on Sunday 19th August in the Waterhall at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and tickets are £6 it says, so if anyone else is going, a write-up would be greatly appreciated!!

  2. "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" (see Wikipedia for a quick summary about the book if you haven't read it...)
  3. I found a great summary here, but unfortunately it doesn't give the source nationalities for many, not which tales or collectors they were recorded by.
  4. For the sake of argument I am using the dating of the Biblical inscription given by scholars such as Nicholas Brooks and Michelle Brown:; Also an expired link:

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Something I want to write

Over the past few days I've been gradually reading this post and it's comments at*. One folk medievalism that keeps coming up is 'but there were no Black people in medieval Europe'. This is wrong, I know it is wrong, even if we ignore such probable fallacies as the Mullato Queen. So, I'd love to write a simple article outlining why this is wrong, and providing evidence with some indisputable primary sources, so that when I see this ARGH being stated next I can say "Here, read this, you are wrong mistaken and here is the evidence". It's not my area of expertise, so it'd be more like an article giving primary sources that are online and citing the real experts for those who care enough to want to read further.

In reality this will only happen if I get ahead of myself this summer. I am already in the middle of writing up a lot of my old research and cross-checking old quotes and evidence to see if it still says what I read it as saying last time... In between all that I have my Coursera coursework to do each week (Note, I need to finish Through the Looking Glass tomorrow). Still not sure what on earth to write as I HATE writing essays without a theme or title... Oh and I have 3 jobs I want to apply for as Awesome Job 1. I didn't get shortlisted for, and Awesome Job 2 still hasn't replied, so I shall assume a negative there too**. Lastly there is Project Get Fit to work on. Being overweight makes some physical disabilities I have a LOT more painful so I am using the time I am away this summer to kick start me getting fitter so that I don't make myself get worse. So yeah, lots of stuff to get on with... Good job I don't like being bored! :)

Link for evidence:
TNA: Black Presence exhibition - Elizabeth I
TNA: Black Presence exhibition - John Blanke (Henry VII & VIII)
TNA: Black Presence exhibition - Moors in Scotland
*Long comment thread is LONG, k!
** As as aside, I really wish that when you send in applications electronically, the receiving institution would reply. It would take a simple MailMerge, cost nothing and take very little time once set up, and yet would create goodwill and let those who are applying for 3+ jobs a day know when they have wasted their time. Leaving you to assume is horrid and rather rude, plus it assumes that your contact for the successful candidates has arrived. I always worry that our post has gone walkabout AGAIN if I don't hear from someone or something in a reasonable time.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Quickie on Grimm

Writing my 'essay' (320 word analysis) for week one of the Coursera course was slightly frustrating as the thought I was working on bears far more development. I'm not saying it is a new idea as I haven't done the background research, yet. Unfortunately, the turn around of the course (one book + essay per week) didn't let me do much beyond thinking of an idea and give a smidgen of evidence.

The elements which struck me at the time of reading were the similarities between the German Brother and Sister and the Russian Sister Alionushka, Brother Ivanuska. The two points I would like to think more on are the role of water in life (a fairly obvious connection I think), and the role of men and women in advancing through the life cycle - men as agents of change, women as passive but also the only movers.

Points I would like to look at:
  1. Brother's thirst (for Life) as shown through his attempts to drink in the various places at the start of the tale - perhaps with a symbolism that if you try to advance too fast you will not develop into a Man but will become a beast? Perhaps as punishment for jumping the gun on his own movement through the life cycle?
  2. Water as the place of murder or preservation. The bath is both where Sister (as Queen) is murdered and where she is then preserved (to wait for the Male agent?)
  3. Women accepting their stage in the Life cycle are rewarded and those who try to work outside of it are punished. Evidence (?): At the start in Grimm, Sister is the Maiden and her Step-mother/Witch is Mother. The Witch leaves Sister alone until as Queen, she is pushing the Witch to step forward from Mother to Crone. The Witch's Daughter is introduced as the new Maiden, but wishes to change her role without the male agent. When the Witch resists moving forward and her daughter attempts to jump ahead of her place in the cycle, they are punished.
  4. Men are agents who enable their women to move onto the next stage in their lifecycles. They are not active in their own right, but only as agents for the change of the women in the tale. However they are necessary, as women who try to move without the male agent are punished. 
Other interesting points for me

  • The Maiden who tries to pretend to be Mother is punished by being 'torn apart by beasts' - somewhere I remember this being interpreted as a rape metaphor, although this makes me a little uncomfortable.
  • Numbers - the repetition of three is here again...
  • Names - In Grimm very few characters are given names, and most of those who are are given symbolic names, e.g. Witling in Queen Bee, or Simpleton in Golden Goose; or are named for a specific item, such as the eponymous Rapunzel, who is named after the type of Rampion her pregnant mother had stolen for her from the Witch's garden.

Exposing the Truth about cleanliness in the Middle Ages

This is my original premise regarding Hygiene in the Middle Ages. It has evolved since it was written back in about 2005, but it is useful (for me at least!) to see where I started from.

It was originally inspired by a comment in a book about the history of cookery, Food and Drink in Britain from the Stone Age to Recent Times by C. Anne Wilson. Wilson decided to deal with each food type separately, rather than giving an overview of, say, Roman food then 'Dark Ages' food. I was intrigued by a mention of problems with wood meaning that less was available for non-essential uses to preserve it for more important functions like cooking. 

This sparked the question in my head as I thought back to studying Latin Culture at school and remembered visiting villas like Fishbourne and Bignor, and later studying Brading. Each of these sites had highly developed hypocaust systems and bath houses. This just sat in the back of my head until I was taking part in a re-enactment event with friends, and a member of the public commented that "well, everyone knows medieval people were smelly". I'm not good at just accepting assumptions, and started digging around for evidence to either corroborate or deny this. More on this later.

To investigate the role of personal hygiene and cleanliness in the Middle Ages – from the departure of the Romans to the coming of the Tudors

Britain -> England 410 – 1485 = over 1000 years Bathing; toilets and teeth Gentry and nobility
  1. Hygiene in literature
    1. Chaucer; Pizan; de Troyes etc.
    2. Romances
    3. Salacious tales / Satirical / Aesop-esque
    4. Manuscript illustration?
  2. Hygiene and religion
    1. Ancrene wisse
    2. Hagiography for saintly lives
    3. Papal edicts – any mention / lack of mention?
    4. Monastic rules
    5. Contemporary satire and criticism?
    6. Knighting ceremonies?
  3. Royal hygiene
    1. E.g. Last days of Queen Isabella contains bath details – look for similar records
    2. Architecture of royal palaces => contemporary accounts, maps, plans etc.
  4. Architecture and hygiene (castles and manors)
    1. Toilets and garderobes
    2. Bath houses
    3. Maps and plans (as for Royal palaces)
  5. Archaeological evidence
    1. Toothbrushes and other oral hygiene equipment
    2. Hygiene and personal care objects recovered
  6. Other mentions in contemporary documentation.