Still Dreaming of the Middle Ages

I spent much of last week in the Middle Ages, as you know. I emerged about lunch time yesterday. The thing about an academic conference is that it doesn’t present a picture of the whole subject. It’s a bit here and a bit there from what the scholars are currently researching. The subject specialisation is wonderful (such interesting research!), but fitting it all together can be problematic.

This week I’m back into my own contemporary research. The first thought I had when I picked up a book about contemporary Irish folklore was that I have contexts for it. In fact, I went to Ireland before the world went awry and I worked very hard to develop those contexts. Do I have contexts for the Middle Ages?

The answer is, of course I do. I spent many years of my life developing them. I started when I was eighteen and learned Old French in second year university and have never quite stopped. I learned new things then found out that I didn’t understand where those new things came from nor what their companions were, culturally and historically speaking. One of my big dreams has always been to understand. This includes understanding what I know and how I know it, and continuing to learn and to frame my knowledge so that I can learn more about subjects that I think I might be beginning to understand. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do this full-on for the Middle Ages. By ‘a while’ I mean since The Middle Ages Unlocked was released. Since then, I keep it all together by going to conferences and reading books and teaching and talking and by using it in my fiction. To maintain the complex reality of a subject this rich is wonderful place to be, intellectually. I’ll never know everything or understand everything, but it’s so fulfilling to continue learning.

In my library I have a selection of books that I recommend to people as doorways into the Middle Ages I know. The period is so much more interesting than the popular Middle Ages, so it would be very churlish of me to keep it to myself. Also, there are a lot of trashy books out there. I like to introduce people to good books.

I walked past my shelf. The question I asked as I let my brain wander was what subject didn’t I encounter last week that I want to introduce people to? Medicine. Medicine is so important. The way the wider public talks about medicine in the Middle Ages mostly bears little relationship to actual medicine in the Middle Ages. This popular view creeps into some of the best fantasy novels.

I thought about medicine last week. Monica Green was in the audience at a panel I was also in the audience for. I didn’t talk to her. I was shy. Her work is utterly amazing. It’s also seldom a 101 guide for the topic.

There are two books I send people to, first, and, when they say “I need more” I nod sagely and tell them to look for the work of Monica Green. Here’s the book by Green that I need to add to my library sometime, just so that you have a Green title to look for . There are also two lovely volumes by Tony Hunt on Anglo-Norman medicine check here and here , but they’re for after you’ve read a lot of Green and feel up to looking at an edition of medical texts (it also really helps to read Old French). And that’s just the beginning. Medieval European medicine is a big subject, and the European Middle Ages is just a small part of what was happening in the wider world at that time. That’s why I try to find one or two books to suggest to get people started. If you begin with the whole world, then the subject is too big. Since I am, by training and knowledge a European Medievalist, the countries I know best (France and England) tend to dominate my recommendations.

The two books that I suggest starting with (especially to historical fiction and fantasy writers) are Nancy Siraisi’s Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine  and Carole Rawcliffe’s Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England.  Because I haven’t looked at new introductions to medieval medicine for a few years, there might be something else that has emerged that I know not yet of. Medieval Studies is a vast field and there is often something new and exciting and intellectually vibrant to look for.

Now my mind has wandered to Montpellier. A year or two after I had sorted out the underlying patterns and structures and just how things happened in the various worlds of Medieval medicine, I was in Montpeller. Montpellier was my research base for my novel Langue[dot]doc 1305. I had to go to hospital, just for two hours, my first day there. It amused me no end that the hospital I went to was one I knew about from my forays into the Middle Ages. It was a university hospital and the only one that didn’t limit its teaching of medicine to Christians in the very Christian part of the Middle Ages. One day I’d like to go to Salerno, and visit the campus there, the one that was famous for teaching women how to be doctors in the Middle Ages.

And now it’s so close to my Tuesday morning that I think I might sleep. If any of you are interested in me turning this into a series “Books you can read about the Middle Ages” (to appear on this blog on Mondays, when I feel like it) then please let me know, because it would be fun to write.

On Real Conversations

One of the wonderful things about East Bay Booksellers is that the books they put on display by the cash register tend to be small press gems rather than those books you buy as a gift because they’re “cute” that no one ever reads.

Case in point: a book called Anarchy—In a Manner of Speaking, which is a set of conversations by the late (and great) David Graeber with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Nika Dubrovsky, and Assia Turquier-Zauberman.

I was in the store picking up something else, saw it for the third time, and decided I needed to have it. I came home and started reading and bam! There on the second page was something that I needed to know, even though I hadn’t realized it: the importance of dialogue — real dialogue — among people in both understanding the world and creating better systems.

Graeber ties anarchist practice to dialogue, in particular “a certain principle of dialogue.” He explains:

[T]here’s a lot of attention paid to learning how to make pragmatic, cooperative decisions with people who have fundamentally different understandings of the world, without actually trying to convert them to your particular point of view.

That alone connected two discrete parts of my life: developing co-ops and training in Aikido. In both of those activities, it is vital to have that kind of dialogue to accomplish anything.

In Aikido, of course, we have that dialogue physically, but it is the same thing. Your partner attacks and you have an exchange that will resolve the situation. If you handle it well, the situation shifts without harm to either party.

I’ve found over the years that bullying people until they agree to your point of view never works. Even if you get agreement in the short term, there’s a good chance of losing it. In Aikido, if you try to force a solution, you’re not going to get anywhere.

Continue reading “On Real Conversations”

Mothering, Creativity, Chaos

Inspired by Nancy Jane Moore’s piece last Friday, I downloaded The Baby on the Fire Escape.* I’m working my way through it–it is wonderfully written, dense and thoughtful, with much to digest. As Nancy says, it’s about mothers as creators, about the ways that women have found to do creative work, sometimes in the interstices of motherhood, sometimes by turning their backs on motherhood, sometimes working with support, sometimes going it alone.

When my older daughter was about two, my husband held the fort and I went to see the Kenneth Brannagh Frankenstein. Which was meticulously true to the source material, and which infuriated me, because I find the source material infuriating.  For all its pondering on the nature of creation, Frankenstein is about a parent who creates life, then freaks out, drops the “baby” and heads for the hills. Which he can do because, well, he’s a man. Continue reading “Mothering, Creativity, Chaos”

My favourite Medieval werewolf, or, Marie ai num si sui de France

I’m a few hours late today and I’m writing this with the sound of the Roman de Fauvel (a Medieval musical satire) in the background. I’m at the 2022 International Congress on Medieval Studies. If I’m going to be one of the ways writers learn about the Middle Ages, I need to maintain my knowledge and the congress is online this year. The last time I was able to go was in 1984.

Because I’m firmly fixed in the Middle Ages at this moment and because I delivered my paper at 5.15 am my time, I thought… maybe this week you’d like the text I used as a case study in my paper? It’s short and it’s cool and there are translations readily available on the internet. In fact, let me give you several of the links I referred to in my paper. I’m sorry about the formatting, but I’m sneaking this post into time I don’t really have. I’ll introduce the work itself in a moment:

Judith Shoaf, Introduction to the lais https://people.clas.ufl.edu/jshoaf/marie_lais/

Judith Shoaf, translation Bisclavret https://people.clas.ufl.edu/jshoaf/files/bisclavret.pdf

Eugene Mason translation Bisclavret 1911 translation at Project Gutenberg https://www.gutenberg.org/files/11417/11417-h/11417-h.htm#VIII

ARLIMA on Marie de France (including Bisclavret) https://www.arlima.net/mp/marie_de_france.html

Marie de France wrote in Old French, and is famous for her lais. She is, in fact, one of the most important writers in Old French, and if you love fantasy fiction and stories about the knights of Arthur, she’s more than worth visiting. The lais are long poems that tell stories. It’s that simple. Except that when I say ‘long’ I’m comparing the lais to modern short poetry. They’re not long compared to some other forms of Medieval poetry. It’s like the difference between a novella (the novella representing Marie’s work) and a big fantasy blockbuster series where each novel is long and readers seldom stop after just one novel (the chansons de geste – the French term for them is generally translated as ‘epic legend’ but… they’re not quite that.)

Bisclavret is the story of a knight-werewolf, who is tricked by his wife into remaining in wolf shape. It took the help of a good lord for him to return to his human body. (The Roman de Fauvel is satirical and so I’m full of bad puns.) I don’t want to explain the plot any more than that, because Marie’s story is so worth reading. Just remember that Medieval customs were not the same as ours. One person said happily on Goodreads, for instance “GAY WEREWOLF GAY WEREWOLF GAY WEREWOLF’ but the Medieval church would have caused much trouble for the two men if that were so. I do like this as a modern interpretation, however.

There was a Late Medieval Jewish reinterpretation of Bisclavret and it’s the strangest misogynist story. Since I write about books every Monday, if you’re interested I can introduce you to it and to some of the other stories in the volume in which it appears.

Today is short and sweet, because I have a meeting in a few minutes. I can’t think of a better way of spending the next few minutes than introducing yourself to Bisclavret.

Roe, Russ, and The Baby on the Fire Escape

I have never been pregnant. I have no children. I do not regret either of these things, but both of them are things that could have happened.

They didn’t happen because I came of age not only when birth control pills were available, but also at the time when it became easier for single women to get prescriptions for the pill or other forms of contraception.

Since I’ve never been pregnant, I’ve never had an abortion. However, I know that I would not have hesitated to have an abortion if I had become pregnant at many times in my life.

I can imagine more possible regrets to having a child than I can to having an abortion. Is that shocking? Perhaps it is. But I have watched the struggle of single mothers.

On the basic biological level, the purpose of our existence may well be to reproduce, but despite the many failures of human beings, I do think our current purpose is far beyond the biological. People have dreams and goals, things they want to accomplish in their short period of time on Earth. I object to people sacrificing what matters to them for their children or their partner or their parents or even the good of the world.

I was in law school when Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the United States. It was certainly something to celebrate.

I think the biggest mistake we made back then was to be queasy about supporting abortion. These days we say it is health care, but in the past all too often people said it should be “rare.”

We tiptoed around it. We should have claimed abortion a long time ago.

No one should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term. Period. (No one should be forced to end one, either, but that’s part of the point.)

That brings me to two books. Continue reading Roe, Russ, and The Baby on the Fire Escape

In Times of War: Gifts

This week’s offering is short due to the conjunction of my 75th birthday and the spring holidays. The war and its personal repercussions are never far from our thoughts. My family celebrates Passover, and the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine came up many times in our conversation. We all saw Putin as a would-be latter-day Pharoah, certainly a tyrant. There’s a part in the ritual where we call out the names of the plagues visited upon Egypt when Pharoah refused to let Moses and the Israelites free. Our Haggadah includes calling out the names of contemporary plagues. We all looked at one another and said, “Putin!”

And yet, the holiday reminds us to have compassion, even for our enemies. There’s a part in our version where angels start singing when the Egyptian soldiers are drowned in the Red Sea. HaShem admonishes them by saying, “The work of my hands is dying and you want to sing hymns?”

I’m not suggesting anyone should pray for Putin. I very much suspect that if he were to keel over from a massive heart attack tomorrow, there would be dancing in the streets in more than one nation. As much as we hold him responsible and abhor his actions, what do we want from him? Certainly, to stop waging war on Ukraine. To pay reparations to make ameliorate the grievous wrongs he is solely or primarily responsible for?

If we say we want Putin to be punished and to suffer for what he has done, the question remains, in what way? How is it possible to quantify the amount of human suffering—not to mention financial loss, environmental degradation, the ruin of cities? How can there be amends for such heinous crimes?

As a corollary: If we focus all our righteous outrage and even hatred on one man, what are we then ignoring? Even if Putin were to be tried in an international court of law and found guilty, even if he were to be deposed or assassinated by his own people, that cannot bring back the slaughtered Ukrainians or restore their once-beautiful cities. For all our focus on the unfolding military conflict and economic sanctions, consider what it does to us to turn away from what we can do, if only in small measure, for those in desperate need of help.

I love home generous Americans and our allies can be when we see the need. This is why I asked friends and family to donate to Doctors Without Borders (Médicins Sans Frontières) instead of birthday gifts. While the $1500 is a small drop in the bucket of need, I know it is part of the effort to save lives and alleviate suffering. I chose this charity because it’s one of my long-standing causes and I believe in the work they do.

I have also found that taking action, no matter how small, helps me to feel less powerless in the face of seemingly overwhelming evil in the world. We’re in a position to make small donations of money. I don’t think that’s necessary. Small actions of lovingkindness can be even more powerful.

 

If this post is meaningful to you, please link to it. And check out my previous posts.

Russ and the Russians

I have a week with more deadlines than capacity to fill them. A tried and true way to meet these deadlines is to make them just a little easier. When I came across a short piece I wrote 11 years ago (30 April 2011) I re-read it for memory’s sake and then I thought, “This is perfect for the Treehouse series on books.” I also thought, “Next Monday is impossible. Will it help?” And it does and it’s very appropriate for this year. We all need more tools to help us deal with this dangerously-developing world, after all. Not all books we read at this time need to be comforting.

I originally posted this to Even in a Little Thing, my blog at LiveJournal.

“This morning I can’t stop thinking about Joanna Russ. I am one of the many who was deeply influenced by her without actually really enjoying her fiction.

It’s funny, but I had been reading Russian writers for several years before I discovered Russ. This doesn’t mean I was at all old when I discovered Russ’ writing. What it means is that Dostoievsky and Chekhov were easier reading for a fourteen year old than Russ was for a nineteen year old. Dostoievsky and Chekhov matched my assumptions of person and of narrative and of who benefited by what behaviour far more closely. They still do. Chekhov writes about my family, I think.

I didn’t have any guidance in reading any feminist writer. Some don’t need it, but Russ is really not one of those. Her works stand alone, but, in standing alone, they’re not easy. I discovered her by chance and have never had a proper conversation about her writing with anyone. They made me angry and edgy and I wanted to talk about this and find out why. No-one around me was reading her. No-one was interested in a conversation. In my late teens, my friends’ idea of intellectual freedom was Isaac Asimov and Gene Wolfe and Ursula le Guin. This was the Le Guin of the late seventies and early eighties, before she realised that women could be wizards.

It was hard for Russ to deliver her message in that environment, and it was hard for me to see what she was saying. This is why I didn’t enjoy her writing, even as I read every word. It pushed me far beyond places I knew and showed me that the world didn’t have to look that way. It’s easier for feminist readers these days, I think, but that challenge and the wonder when I realised what she was doing and that it was possible to change paradigms when writing fiction, and the loneliness when there was no-one I could talk to about it – all that was the good fortune of my growing years.

Since then, I’ve always put the challenges Joanna Russ taught me into my fiction, my non-fiction, my teaching, my life. I’m not her, however, and I try to make them unobtrusive. I believe that it’s possible to change paradigms without it hurting so much.

I must be very naive, because I also believe (thanks to Russ) that it’s possible to change paradigms without forever going back to the simple: feminism #101, cross-cultural understanding #101, crowing about being clever for getting something that should be understood rather than saying “Right, I know that – time for the next step”. I don’t expect rewards for it because of that silence in my late teens – that emptiness alerted me to the effects of writing change. The presentation of the simple and the crowing of how clever one is attracts more notice, but it doesn’t do the job.

Joanna Russ didn’t present me with the lure of material rewards. She taught me about living in a world which is different.

Her writing made me uncomfortable because it touched so closely on what hurts.

I’m not at the stage yet where that discomfort can leave me. We still accept the gender bias in novels and in the book industry almost unthinkingly. Some of our assumptions have been eroded or have crumbled or have been torn down, but our Berlin Wall is still standing, for the most part. Russ carefully cut a door in that wall, however, and it’s possible to walk through that door and see the universe differently.

I really have to revisit Russ, as an adult. The world is a lesser place without her.”