Thursday, September 25, 2003

"The Ruin" and Edgar's Coronation at Bath

In between the six million other projects I'm involved in (and the giant pile of letters of recommendation requests that students have dropped on my desk in the past week -- all with a deadline of October 1), I try to snag time to work on a wacky idea I've been working up. Thought I would run it past you.

The Anglo-Saxon poem "The Ruin" seems to describe a ruined city with hot baths. The poem (which I blogged about below) is found in the Exeter Book, which dates from between 950 and 975 (and Pat Conner says between 950 and 970). My argument is one of those incredibly complex mish-moshes that either is wonderfully convincing or too hard to follow (like Mechthild Gretsch's The Intellectual History of the English Benedictine Reform, which I find brilliant but which others violently disagree with. But I digress).

On May 11, 973 a second coronation was held for King Edgar in the city of Bath. This is a highly unusual event, unprecedented in Anglo-Saxon England. There is a lot of speculation as to why Edgar was re-crowned. The leading theory is that the Anglo-Saxons were trying to make an emperor of him. And this is in some ways the highwatermark of the Benedictine Reform, so it might make sense to say that they had imperial aspirations, thus explaining a second coronation: for the first, he's a king. Now he's an emperor.

The location of this second coronation in Bath is fairly anomalous. Bath wasn't a particularly major city, unlike Winchester, the seat of the West Saxon kingdom and home of the dynasty, or Canterbury or London or Worcester. Even Crediton and Exeter may have been as important. I could be ignorant, because I'm just starting my research, but thus far I've found no convincing explanation as to why Bath.

Now Bath is famous for the natural hot springs there, the only ones in England. These were made into Roman baths, which, by 973, were apparently ruined.

The next bit of evidence was pointed out to me by the brilliant young Spanish Anglo-Saxonist (and my friend) Mercedes Salvador: there are a number of continental, Latin sources from this time period that wax poetical about ruined monasteries, etc. There's also a passage in the poem Christ (also Exeter Book) that can be interepreted as being related to ruins.

So it could be a coincidence that there's an Exeter Book poem that mentions Bath, and ruins, that there was an anomalous second coronation at Bath (where there were ruins), and that the theme of ruins was popular at the time period. And of course any two of the three could be related but not the third.

There are a number of ways to try to solve this puzzle (if puzzle it is), and I'm running long and late, but let me leave you with a sketch. If Pat Conner is right about the date, then the Ruin is written down before the coronation. Therefore we can argue that the coronation ends up at Bath because of a general interest in ruins (and in particular in Roman ruins) that can perhaps comes from the continent. Ruins become popular in the Benedictine Reform and no ruin is more interesting than that of Bath. There's also a section in the Life of Charlemagne that depicts him in a large bath giving out laws, etc., so that's another possible connection (the Benedictine Reformers liked the Carolingians)--i.e., to baths. And what could be better, then, than a ruined bath (I'm being facetious here).

The other option is that the Ruin is written right after 973, but the tone of the poem doesn't seem right to me (though we're missing parts of it. In an irony that a postmodernist would love, the manuscript of the Ruin is badly damaged) for it to be a celebration of the coronation.

Oh, and there's a will from the Reform group that is associated with Bath; I need to deal with that, too.

So I probably haven't enlightened you a great deal, but you do get to see the kinds of interesting literary/historical puzzles that Anglo-Saxonists get to deal with.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003 - Music of Elegant Gravity Commemorates 9/11

Composer Stephen Hartke has written a new symphony (No. 3) as a response to September 11. In it he uses a translation--his own! Of the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Ruin."

Googling Mr. Hartke turns up this bio in which we learn that he and I have another weird connection besides Anglo-Saxon: we both lived in Orange, NJ at one time (although he was born there and I only lived there for a few years when I was ages 3-5). Another bio says that he has degrees from Yale (where he could have studied with Fred Robinson) and Penn (where he could have studied with Ted Irving) and UCSB. Maybe I'll email him and find out how he knows OE.

You can read Hartke's translation here in Google's cached html version or the original pdf (which is easier to read, but a pdf) here.

My quick take on the translation is that it's quite good. Hartke doesn't try for the meter (which might be suprising in a composer, but he is a modernist), but he does preserve the caesura and makes a stab at alliteration when he can.

I'm particularly interested in this adaptation because I'm in the very early stages of doing an article on "The Ruin" and King Edgar's 'coronation' at Bath. The first stages in the article are always doing your own translation of the poem, using a diplomatic text or a facsimile and trying not to be guided by scholarship (not at this stage). Tomorrow I'll try to talk about that, and to go over the Hartke translation in more detail.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Teaching Ethics

My first set of Medieval Lit papers has come in today, and they look pretty decent thus far. But they gave rise to a few interesting ethical questions.
When teaching this particular medieval class, I use the SEAFARER program (no link, since it's password-protected due to copyright issues), an early hypertext program developed at Loyola by my dissertation director. Seafarer is organized around "modules" such as Rank, Labor, Monastic Life, Penance, The Book, etc. Each of these includes a narrative, lexicon, images, bibliography and "link" questions that students can answer for their papers.
Now here's the ethical issue: Seafarer's ideological approach is much more marxist than anything I'd regularly teach and is far away from anything that I actually believe in. That's exactly why I teach it, so that students get exposed to some of the variety of medieval studies instead of getting The World According to Drout.

But this post isn't just an exercise in self- back-patting. I'm having major second thoughts about the approach I've taken.
On the one hand, great to give students a taste of opinions and interpretations I don't have, avoid indoctrination, etc. On the other hand, I am pretty certain that marxism, and marxist interpretations of history, are wrong. Therefore it would seem that I'd have an obligation not to expose students to these incorrect interpretations.
Ah, but down that path lies indoctrination. Most of my colleagues at Wheaton are, it seems to me, dead, absolute certain that (just to give an example), the war in Iraq was wrong. And many of them teach this in their classes. I am simply not comfortable with that kind of use of the classroom. First of all, I want my students to think for themselves. Secondly, I think attempted indoctrination nearly always backfires.
But where do you draw the line? I do say things in class like "A recent critic claimed that Asser's Life of King Alfred is a forgery by Byrhtferth. That critic is wrong." Should I hem and haw about that? At a certain point, students get absolutely (and reasonably) sick about academic waffling. I have a friend in medieval studies who, in a seminar at the Newberry Library, used to say that every question was "fraught." 'The relationship of Beowulf to the Blickling homilies is 'fraught,'' 'The connection between the Dream of the Rood and the Ruthwell Cross is 'fraught'' etc. At a certain level it's an annoying graduate-student tic: saying things are 'fraught' and refusing to give an opinion on them suggests that you've read all the criticism and have an open mind.

But in the end it's your job to have an opinion about the big questions in your field. You have a responsiblity to give the "on the one hand/ on the other," but you have to figure out where you stand. And you need to express these ideas to students without getting them hopelessly confused by the critical opinions. Academics hate sound bites (sometimes fairly), but you can't communicate everything as a lengthy treatise.

Which brings me around to the original question, but from a different angle now. Somehow there's a distinction to be made between ideological approaches that I believe are wrong (but that could, potentially, produce valid insights simply by directing attention in different directions) and facts that I think are wrong, but that's not the easiest line to draw (whimp out, cliched, safe comment).

So I just make it up as I go along (the truth).

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Be Careful What You Wish For

How can I possibly be this swamped only three weeks into the semester? Sixteen SciFi/Eng 101 papers, 10 Sr. Sem. responses, a review of a book about Gregory the Great's reception in Northern Europe that was due a while back, I think (email lost in hard-drive crash in June, so If anyone out there has an issue of Mediaevistik, please tell me how long the reviews generally run). Then another 52 (dear God!) Medieval Lit papers come in on Monday. The fellowship applications are mostly done, but now there's an article due on "How the Monsters Became Important: From 'The Monsters and the Critics' to Today" by Dec 15 for an essay collection being published in Italy. And then there's an essay on Tolkien's Beowulf translations due Jan 8 for Western Michigan...

And that nice little whine sets me up for today's brief topic: the rapid switch from famine to feast that stops you from really producing another big piece of work.

When I was first starting out in academia -- or even just a couple years ago -- I would write articles and then spend gobs of time (actual years in the case of the wills article) sending them out, having them rejected, sending them out again... lather, rinse, repeat.

Now, all of a sudden (and when it matters much less thanks to tenure). Everyone is asking me to write articles. I can barely keep up with my publication committments. It's crazy. Ten years ago, no, five years ago, I would have killed to be included in essay collections. Now it's becoming a chore.

It's a nice chore, don't get me wrong. And much better than being ignored. But I can see how writing an essay here, an essay there could really cut into one's ability to produce a big, sustained book. Not only that, but you kind of reduce the impact of your big work if it's all been published in pieces elsewhere.

But will I start saying 'no'? Doubtful. How can you say 'no' to your friends or to people you've admired for years, or to people who gave you a chance when you were getting started?

My two research assistants, though, claim that they're going to start intercepting my mail and email to prevent me from starting any new projects...

Friday, September 19, 2003

The Insanity of Fellowship Applications

First, though, a big thank you to everyone who has emailed me about The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. I was serious about wanting to enlist the help of many people (it's completely essential for the project), and I have been saving emails into a file of "potential contributors." As soon as the contracts are signed, you'll be hearing from me.

But now on to what I've been really doing: Fellowship Applications. I have to start by saying that my whining here shouldn't be taken too seriously. There are far worse ways to earn a living, and at least one fellowship allowed me to finish my dissertation. But the entire process is a little, well, surreal.

One applies for a fellowship to be able to take a longer academic leave and do more research. For example, in the fall of 2004 I'll be on leave from Wheaton and spending all my time writing. Great deal. But I'm actually allowed to take the whole 2004-2005 academic year. An awesome privilege. But there's a catch: if I take the whole year, I only get half of my salary. Unfortunately, I won't have only half the bills (though the half-year off at full pay is mighty generous), so if I can't find some outside source of support, I can't take the proffered full year. (Boo hoo some might say, and they'd be right if I were honestly complaining).

Enter Foundations like the American Council of Learned Societies, the Guggenheim Foundation, etc. These entities offer grants to scholars to complete interesting research. It's amazingly generous. It's fabulous. It's psycho competitive. Every senior person I know seems to be applying for a Guggenheim every year. Thus the awards are rare and hard to get. Likewise the NEH, ACLS, APS, etc.

But that's not the surreal part. It's no surprise that a lot of people would like "free money" to study what they are already going to study. It is passing strange that in order to do this, you have to write a summary of the book you haven't written or researched yet. Yes, dear readers, I've spent the past two weeks writing a summar of my next brilliant project, From Tradition to Culture: The Making of the Anglo-Saxon Eleventh Century. Of course since I'm just applying for the support for the project, which is supposed to be done during my academic leave, it's pretty difficult to figure out what brilliant conclusions I'll arrive at. But did I let that stop me? Hah! My book will be the Unified Field Theory of the humanities. Just you watch!

Actually, while I complain about the process, and it's weird, I now am very excited about the new book project and I came up with some ideas for it that are interesting (at least to me). So maybe the process isn't so bizarre, after all.

I still think it would make a good Borges story, though: "Summaries of Books that Have Never Been Written."

Saturday, September 13, 2003

A Quick, Newsy Blog

The semester has gotten off to a good start. I like my students very much: they seem very motivated and particularly energetic this year. Medieval Literature has a ridiculous number of students (52). I've tried to scare them away, but no luck thus far (and the drop date is past).

The Tolkien Seminar seems to be quite good. There was already good discussion, etc., last week. We'll see how they do with The Hobbit tomorrow. And my independent in Old Norse looks good, as does my English 101 / SciFi class. Too much work, and I'm already snowed under, but that's to be expected.

The news comes in the form of something that is a complete surprise to me, but I guess it shouldn't have been. Since we're still negotiating the contract (note: I am a terrible negotiator; I haven't gotten one things I've asked for; I need an agent), I won't say the name, but a certain press has decided to publish The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia with yours truly as the Editor. (Remember when I said to hit me in the head with a brick if I ever agreed to edit anything else? Where were you guys, huh?). So I will now be editing an 816 page (where they got so specific a number, I don't know), 500,000 word book with 100 illustrations. If you have ideas about what should be in it, or if you want to write short articles for it, let me know. I'll need a legion of writers and a huge pile of suggestions.

This is definitely one of those "be careful what you wish for" situations. On the one hand I really believe in the project and think that it will be a great addition to the scholarship and a good way to move Tolkien studies towards more effective approaches (so, for example, a graduate student could write a dissertation on Tolkien and hope to get a job). On the other, I am terrified at the amount of work. I am actually (this is supposed to be embarrassing for an academic to admit) quite good at administration, but it's still scary.

But quite a compliment to be asked, and, as you know, I'm a sucker for those things.