The Magazine

A Dark Age for Medievalists

At their annual congress in Kalamazoo, it's no longer your grandfather's Middle Ages.

Jun 2, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 36 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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The one thing in which waste-studies scholars seem not to be interested is medieval history. The idea isn't so much how people disposed of waste as what they thought about it--or if you're a cultural-studies type, what "society" thought about it. When an audience member at the session pointed out that fertilizer, whether its source was human or bovine, couldn't have been too despised by the medieval middle classes because it was a valuable commodity that generated lucrative bourgeois fortunes for the merchants who traded in the stuff, Morrison countered, "It was still considered lowly."

When the session was over, Morrison invited the attendees to a second hour and a half of waste studies. "We'll be dealing with sewage," she announced cheerfully. Alas, my own bourgeois habitus (I'm lace-curtain Irish) started to kick in, and I decided I needed a breath of fresh air, so to speak, so I opted for a different session among the 602 featured at this year's congress. Not that the postmodernist modus operandi was likely to be any different elsewhere. Down the hall from waste studies that morning was Session 5: "(Ab)normal Societies: Disability as a Socio-cultural Concept in Medieval Society." The parentheses bracketing the "Ab" are examples of a favorite postmodernist punctuation strategy, signaling to readers in the know that putatively neutral words such as "abnormal" actually convey oppressive, often sexist, hidden agendas. My own take-the-cake award for the po-mo parenthetical among the 1,500 papers presented this year went to this double-parentheses doozy, attached to a paper read in Session 251, a panel about animal symbolism in Old French literature: "Becoming (m)Others, Becoming (hu)Men: Engendering Hybrids and Monsters in Two Medieval Romances."

"Disability studies" is another hot new field in the humanities these days, and as with waste studies, it has little to do with historical or economic facts on the ground, such as, say, the manufacture of medieval crutches or how blind people eked out an existence in 13th-century Perugia. Instead, like waste studies, disability studies is all about presumed attitudes toward the disabled: how medieval folks, perhaps like folks of today, supposedly classified those who were different from them as disabled. One of the Session 5 papers was "Two Sides of the Same Coin: Defining the Mentally Ill in Plantagenet England," read by Gregory Carrier, a graduate student in history at the University of Alberta. Carrier's conclusion, after a great deal of postmodernist rambling: "The mentally ill were inherently indefinable."

The next three days featured more of the same: scholarly papers that alternated between the incomprehensible and the vaguely revolting. On Thursday afternoon I heard a paper delivered on "Menstruating Male Mystics and the Sin of Pride." Then I took myself to "Googling the Grail," at which Elizabeth Sklar, an English professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, announced that she had typed "Holy Grail" into Google and gotten nine million hits. From there it was off to "Saint Margaret: General Practitioner, not only an OB-GYN." Who knew that there were medical specialties in the Middle Ages?

A Friday morning session featured a paper titled "Alisoun's Aging Body: Gazing at the Wife of Bath in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales." Hmm, Chaucer, something solid and recognizable. The paper, however, read by Mikee Delony, an English professor at Abilene Christian University, turned out not to be about Chaucer at all but about a BBC television production a few years ago that turned the Wife of Bath into a modern-day plastic-surgery junkie. There turned out to be more papers at the congress about the forgettable 2001 movie A Knight's Tale (three) than about Chaucer's Knight's Tale (one). In one of those papers, delivered with much help from PowerPoint and titled "Knights, Dykes, Damsels and Fags: Gender Roles and Normative Pressures in Neomedieval Films," Wayne Elliott , a graduate student at Kent State University, argued that the film Knight's Tale had a homoerotic subtext because it starred Heath Ledger. Poor Ledger. He made the double career mistake of (a) playing a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain and (b) dying before he had a chance to live it down.

There were numerous other papers with either "normative" ("heteronormativity" is bad because it implies that heterosexuals are more normal than homosexuals) or "masculinity" (like femininity, a social construct, not an inherent characteristic) in their titles, and sometimes both, as in this bilingual tonguetwister: "Nach der Mannesnamen Site? Amazons and Their Challenge to Normative Masculinity in Medieval German Literature." Other buzzwords among the medievalists at Kalamazoo were "hybridity" (borrowed from "postcolonial" studies), "heterosyncrasies" (I never could figure out what that meant), and that hardy perennial "patriarchy."