Suburban Academic

Musings of a domesticated scholar

Teaching Epics and Speaking Greatness

I began the first unit of “How Literature Happens” with Gilgamesh— perhaps the oldest complete poem known to humanity. And despite this honorific, we know that the words carved out in cuneiform on those ancient tablets had been cobbled together from  fragmentary poem cycles written centuries before. And the subject of those poems was a historical king of Uruk, who had lived centuries before they had been written down. So the oldest story humans have is one that already possessed almost 1000 years of transmission history– a divine, beguiling wink at the editors of today from the earliest poets of our species.

My students loved Mitchell’s “version” of the ancient epic, in part because his poetry is so relatable and fluid. But some were frustrated by the fact that he made no indication to the reader where he had rearranged the order of the original tablets and manuscripts, or when he made something up to fill in longer passages lost to the torments of time. An unannotated text made for smooth reading, of course, but it was cumbersome to handle the endnotes without so much as a corresponding asterisk in the main text.

For a short assignment I asked each of them to type out their favorite and least favorite passages, and explain what they liked or objected to. Then I checked out George’s scholarly edition and translation of the tablets– a two volume set that runs around $400 and weighs more than all of the Beowulfs put together. With considerable effort, I managed to find each of their least favorite passages in this massive work, and I brought in copies of the “official” transcription, translation, and notes so they could compare the philological project with the creative one. Then they did something really, really cool: they each rewrote their least favorite bits in a shared Google document. By the end of the hour, they had re-written a majority of the text, and in doing so had participated in the grand and noble process of making literature their own [NB: the site crashed a million times and it was wildly frustrating for everyone, but I do think they had a good time, and the end product is really, really lovely].

From there we went to Fulk’s prose edition and translation of the Beowulf Manuscript– one of two codices in Cotton Vitellius A xv. Including the entirety of the codex’s contents– an incomplete Life of St Christopher, The Wonders of the East, Letter from Alexander to Aristotle, Beowulf, and Judith– Fulk’s facing-page prose translation seemed dry and distant. Some students eventually warmed up to his Beowulf translation, but the many felt stymied by what they called plotlessness in its predecessors.

Heaney’s illustrated version was met with more enthusiasm, not least because his introductory and prefatory materials showed him to be a *human*– a distinctly different impression from the mechanical and jargon-ridden pages of Fulk (I should say here that I really like and appreciate Fulk’s work, and would love to teach with my favorite translation, by Liuzza). As an early medievalist, I don’t often spend time thinking about authors; the writers and scribes behind of most of what I research are anonymous. As a result, I was particularly struck by how moved my students were by Heaney’s description of how moved he had been in the course of his extraordinary undertaking. By writing about why the project mattered to him, Heaney made his efforts matter to them.

And it is this very notion– the empathetic connection forged by disclosure– that is changing how I feel about these epics, their transmission histories, and my own role as “authority” in the classroom.

That Gilgamesh and Beowulf have been preserved for us is nothing short of miraculous. To be honest, the history of the material survival of these works is far more remarkable and commendable than the Otherworldly adventures and beast-slayings of their protagonists. And I suspect that sharing similar subjects– men who are larger-than-life, these epic heroes– is not quite coincidental. There must be something about the tales of power and pride, fantastical feats of strength and almost unbounded wealth, that appeals to humanity. Yet my students were quick to see that both these stories end ambivalently at best: Gilgamesh fails to procure immortality and returns to his beautiful city with the Greatest Secret for which he has no use; Beowulf’s death leaves his people dispossessed of a ruler, poised precariously on a cliff overlooking their future as a doomed race.

So how have these stories resisted the forgetfulness and folly of humanity, the broker between the productions of the past and posterity of the future?

Epics hold some of our oldest stories; they keep the tales of the “greatest” alive in our minds, and in certain passages (for me: Enkidu’s death; the dragon scene) in our hearts. But we should not neglect the issue of orality: speaking the  names of these figures, the descriptions of their monsters, and the lessons of their deeds– as we do in our classrooms, as we do in our offices, as we do in our homes– allows us to access the past, reuse it for the present, and prepare for our future. Spoken language is more adaptable, fluid, and in many cases more powerful than the written word.

As I reconsider how tales of greatness echo in my own life, I can’t help but wonder what works will be read and discussed by students thousands of years from now. There’s no way to know, of course, but I’d like to think that someone in the far more recent future will hear these names and be moved.

Pregnancy, Motherhood, and the Dissertation Chapter

In October of 2013 I submitted my dissertation prospectus to a table of enthusiastic and supportive professors. One of them called attention to a particular sentence buried in the middle of the document. “I see here that you’ve written…Could you please tell us about…Well this sentence, right here: ‘It seems difficult, but nevertheless realistic, to complete these hours and the dissertation by the spring of 2016 in light of upcoming and unanticipated parenthood.’ Are congratulations in order?”

Yes, they most certainly were. My committee members could not have been more kind in that moment of revelation, and I would have gladly reveled in their sweet remarks had morning sickness not rushed me out of the meeting. This was not at all the scene in which I now belong– the site of the Lone Medievalist.

My plan was ambitious. I was going to write my first chapter by the end of that summer. I was going to take only one semester off from teaching. I was going to nurse for three months, get right back on my ADD meds, and be back to work in no time. All said, I would be unmedicated for exactly one year and then be back to normal, just with more to do.

Well, two years later, I am still tweaking my stimulant medication. I was put on anti-depressants from the middle of my pregnancy through the first few months of my son’s life to prevent postpartum depression (a successful experiment). I am on my fourth “new” birth control.  I took a year off from teaching. I gained (and lost) fifty pounds, but forfeited a lot of muscle and am plagued by loose skin. And as inspired as I was by the momentary spotlight on sexism directed towards the appearance of women in academia, I am nevertheless really embarrassed by my new body.


One of us has lunch. One of us has pants. It is almost NEVER both for each.

In the context of this not-so-brave new world, I submitted my first chapter A WHOLE YEAR after I thought I would. My mapping project is threatening to evaporate into the quickly increasing pile of “things that didn’t work out.” So what has happened? Is it mere laziness that binds me to my TV? Or feelings of being overwhelmed? Or a variety of chemical combustions occurring as I struggle to find equilibrium? Or the loneliness I feel when I think, “am I really all alone in this struggle?”

How did I think this would be so simple? Why did I assume that there was a “New Normal”? All of my social media “friends” with children seem to have graduated and gotten jobs in the time that I spent staring blankly from my couch.

Cognitive Therapy has taught me a lot about ways to push back against these thoughts: I did have a healthy pregnancy; I do have a sweet little boy. I have been able to spend time with him during his first year. I am back in the classroom. I have medical issues that others do not.

But this is so unsatisfying! Who cares what good I’ve got? What I really want is my degree and a job. Can I square that with also wanting to be with my toddler? If so, how? Or is it already too late, anyway? Is the damage to my CV irreparable (not published, no teaching awards, no honors or certificates)? And even if I do just crank this thing out, will it be at the cost of something else, like my marriage or parenting? How can I make a choice when there is so much at stake?

The dissertation process is daunting for everyone. I hate my first chapter. It is scattered; it lacks unity because it lacks depth. I also resent my first chapter. It took too long. It took too much. It isn’t enough.

But you know what? I’m going to share some of it in September after I meet with my director. And I’ll post about teaching Gilgamesh tablets and the Beowulf codex and the Bayeux Tapestry. Why? Because if I can get through the past two years, I can surely get through the next two.

Until next time, wishing you all unabated productivity.





Happy April, good readers!

Today is many things (April Fool’s among them, so be on your guard), but best of all, today is the day that begins Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. You can read –AND LISTEN TO– the beginning here:

a 'wel-faringe' knight and his 'lady bright'

a ‘wel-faringe’ knight and his ‘lady bright’

There’s plenty to say about why Chaucer matters– he was enormously prolific; the Canterbury Tales are the backbone of the English canon; he was the father of English (or is that Shakespeare? Or Milton? Or Mark Twain?); etc, etc, etc.

But for me, Chaucer is important in the same way that most authors are: he shows me that people are generally the same throughout time and across place. He teaches me that humor is the best instructor (and the most restorative salve); his words make me fidget, and struggle, and laugh, and google, and wonder, and write “WTF” in my margins.

And as a medievalist, I am drawn to Chaucer not just because he’s “part of the field,” but because his works transcend our field so well. We’ve all heard about Richard III’s reburial and the Anglo-Saxon cure for a modern-day superbug, but as I’ve written about already, Chaucer’s works recast our present-day scenarios in ways that allow us to reflect critically and meaningfully on our own lives.

With that in mind, I’d like to toast all the participants in #whanthataprilleday15 and encourage all of my friends to find out a little bit more about these important cultural legacies that dumb luck and genius librarians have bequeathed to us:

Chaucer’s Manuscripts and Books on the Web 

Medieval Manuscripts Blog

Best Blog: A Clerk of Oxford

And speaking of bequeathing, I thought I’d practice my own preaching and share – with you and my son – part of my favorite of Chaucer’s poems, The Book of the Duchess. I wrote about it in my master’s thesis a zillion years ago, and, even after doctoral exams, I still love it. The story is GOOOOOOOORGEOUS and sad, funny, complicated, dream-like, life-like, and – most important to my purposes here – it involves a puppy.

Our narrator (the dreamer) has fallen asleep reading a book, and wakes up to a new but eerily familiar world. He witnesses a great hunt, the escape of the hart, and the recall of the hunting party. He now finds that he is alone in the woods, but not for long:

Until next time, sweet dreams!

Ælfric and the Rabbit Hole

Welcome back, readers!

I’m working on my  first dissertation chapter–about seafaring saints in Old English hagiography–and I wanted to share my initial experiences. This post is a rant about my frustrations, a suggestion about how others might avoid my pitfalls, and a declaration of my intention to renew the study of Old English by making it–and its contexts– more accessible.

My research strategy was clear: 1) find the Old English saints’ lives that feature boats; 2) close read said texts; 3) find their original Latin sources and compare them; 4) make claims about the seafaring saints’ stories and their analogs.

This is all pretty standard, yes? I’d just go to my editions of hagiography and look at the footnotes. For the Old English Martyrology, this is precisely what I did. Using Christine Rauer‘s “Edition, Translation, and Commentary” I was able to find relevant saints’ tales and their sources. TA-DA!

And then I went back to Ælfric. I have Skeat’s Lives of Saints, whose hagiographic works are  most relevant to my project, and took cursory notes on the Catholic Homilies. Now, Skeat doesn’t give much background on the LS, and the edition is from the late nineteenth century. What followed were days and days and days of fruitless research and of course, all that persistent self-doubt that hitches a ride on these frustrating pursuits.


Eventually, though,  I discovered Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints’ Lives and Their Contexts, and it changed everything.  If you want to write on Ælfric, you need this book. 


Why, you ask?

For the introduction, at the very least. E. Gordon Whatley guides his readers through the Ælfrician canon and the issues attending its many sources in “An Introduction to the Study of Old English Prose Hagiography: Sources and Resources.” His chapter follows “from published Old English  texts to largely unpublished Latin manuscripts” but maintains “its underlying theoretical bias: that English saints’ legends are best read in relation to their individual Latin source texts and in the larger context of Latin hagiography in England and Europe in the early medieval period” (4). Next, he includes a list of “all the texts of individual saints’ lives in OE prose”– a great resource for someone like me who has trouble keeping things straight. The list includes the short title and the text’s id number according to Cameron and Franks’s Plan.

Wait, what plan? “A Plan for the Dictionary of Old English,” which is reviewed here. You might notice that the second paragraph begins by discussing the 280-page “List of Old English Texts” which makes up the third chapter. Is there no better name for this massive document than “Plan”? And why doesn’t every student who’s taken a course in Old English  know about it? Or, even more worrisome, does everyone else know about it? Just how isolated am I?

I didn’t even realize there was a Plan until this week. And this is in part because of how Old English is taught. Once we’ve learned the grammar (and if we do, it’s with no thanks to Bright and Cassidy’s confounding book), we read at first from anthologies. The best of these is Elaine Treharne‘s because it introduces each text within its manuscript context. But of course, the leap from introduction to advanced research is a big one to make, and especially difficult to do on one’s own. It seems to me that  Old English courses should begin in the library, and move out from there. Explain first the bibliographic information, then the manuscript record, and then get to the texts.

Whatley’s explanation of his list illustrates just how complex the field is, even when only pertaining to Ælfric: 

“For reasons of space and redundancy, I have not given manuscript information or, in most cases, citations of printed editions; both are supplied at the appropriate place in the PlanI (which does not, however, include references to Godden’s later edition of ÆCH II). Editions printed since the publication of the Plan may be located in the bibliography of Luke Reinsma for Ælfrician texts and that of Karen Quinn and Kenneth Quinn for non-Ælfrician texts (see second edition), but I have included references (in the Notes) to important editions not mentioned in the Plan, Reinsma, or Quinn and Quinn” (4). 

He recommends other bibliographic resources and clearly articulates particular elements of the  Plan. Then, bless him, he takes us through the many steps of researching an Ælfrician life. Below is a summary of the steps, with my reactions/objections in italics:

  1. Pick a saint
  2. Find the source (passio, probably)
  3. Check an encyclopedia such as Bibliotheca Sanctorum
  4. Consult Books Known to the English, Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture-What happened to SASLC? Is it ongoing? Why can’t I find much about it on their website?
  5. Recall 19th century groundwork: Forster for Legends in CH; Ott for Skeat’s first volume of LS
  6. Consult Acta Sanctorum, a compilation by Bollandists, of “vitae  or passiones of nearly all the known saints of the Christian Middle Ages whose feast days occur from January through November” (10).  What about December?   “Although Acta Sanctorum remains the greatest single collection of hagiographic texts, it is also, like J.-P. Migne’s more familiar library of patristic texts, Patrologia Latina, out of date and deficient by modern scholary standards…[Its] editions of late classical and early medieval texts…are not usually representative of the sort of texts that Anglo-Saxons such as Aldhelm or Ælfric used in their own hagiography” (10-11).Great.
  7. Look for your specific saint in Analecta Bollondiana,another 19th c Bolandist publication, which “publishes articles in the whole field of hagiography…” Although “working through copious indices of notices of one’s chosen saint, text, or manuscript can be tedius,” it is nevertheless “necessary and invariably rewarding…for anyone in the early stages of a hagiographic project” (11). EARLY STAGES? I’M AT STEP 7! 
  8. Find the Bollandists’ monograph series, Subsidia Hagiographica, which “includes editions of longer texts, special studies, and catalogues of hagiographic texts in medieval mss in the larger and smaller libraries of Europe”.  For my purposes, “catalogues of the libraries of Paris, Brussels, and Rome, which include manuscripts of insular origin, some of the most significant of which, for hagiorgaphy in ASE, have only recently begun to be recognized as insular” (11).
  9. Read this against a) Delehaye’s “classic popular introduction to hagiographic literature” and b) Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina (BHL), an alphabetical listing of all the Christian saints, Eastern as well as Western, whose lives are preserved in Latin” (11, 12). But once I find the number, how do I find the actual source? Am I using their database all wrong?
  10. Check the Bollandists’ 2 supplements, which relate recensions, new printed editions, studies, and issues in numbering.
  11. Backtrack: Many saints’ lives come from Greek anyway. Look at Siegmund and Berschin. Footnote reveals that Siegmund writes (not surprisingly) in German. Thankfully, Berschin translated by Frakes: Greek Letters and the Latin middle Ages from Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa).
  12. Ooops! Early MSs of England are rare and Bollandists aren’t cataloguing English libraries anyway. Damnit!
  13. Retrieve Zettel’s unpublished dissertation from library (in my case, I asked my cousin at UVA to send me their copy, since no schools in North Carolina had one).  Zettel finds that the Cotton-Corpus Legendary was actually written after Aelfric, but “appears to derive from a collection of saints’ lives, a legendary in effect, in use in late tenth-century England, which in turn derived from a ninth-century continental collection” (14). Why am I doing this? What’s the point? We’ll never figure any of this out. This is stupid. I’m stupid. Arrrgghhh.
  14. Take courage from Whately’s tip to look at Cotton-Corpus Legendary, Harley 3020, Paris BN Lat. 5574, ff.1-39, BN Lat 10861.

So these are the steps one takes to track down an Ælfrician source. I wish there were a more streamlined way to go about this research, but as of now, I rely on this book, my dissertation director, and my fellow medievalists.

In related news, I will be updating and reformatting the Taxonomic Chart of Medieval Research Tools next week, in hopes of contributing a solution to the problem I have raised here. I welcome all recommendations for websites, databases, and even BOOKS you think should be included.

Until then, wishing you each success in discovering the light at the end of your tunnel.

Baby rabbit

Vessels of Knowledge in Anglo-Saxon Literature

I’m thrilled to be presenting at UNC’s Making Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Culture conference next month.

Here’s my abstract. Questions, comments, and concerns are welcome!

Vessels of Knowledge: Ships as Didactic Spaces in Anglo-Saxon Literature

While seafaring and sea vessels appear in Beowulf, they do so in relatively flat formulae, contributing very little to the narrative. Crossing the sea, like going into battle or singing in halls, is simply something that men (especially brave, heroic men) do. But in other works like Andreas or Lives of Saints, ships are more than tokens of conquering kings. They are spaces for teaching others about the power or will of God, places where non-believers may witness miracles, and transitional settings of transformation.

Of course, many of the Anglo-Saxon nautical tropes have their roots in the Bible. Anglo-Saxons take visual cues, thematic elements, and even narrative points from the parting of the Red Sea, Jonah’s and Noah’s ordeals, and Christ’s calming of the storm.

Yet in poetry and prose, Anglo-Saxon treatments of ships and sailing also reflect contemporary (and sometimes continental) concerns. In Lives of Saints, for instance, ships seem to be particularly threatening to women, who are sometimes bartered for passage, but often opportunities for conversion to men. Instead of seeking solitary existences, most passengers in these works are in the process of fleeing one community or in search of a specific, foreign one.

Ultimately, this paper seeks to answer, “What is learned on ships in Anglo-Saxon literature?” — a question that requires us to think about the transmission of knowledge not only within these texts, but also among them.

A ReIntroduction

Welcome back, patient readers! Thanks very much for returning after such a long hiatus.

I had an exciting but difficult summer, which lead to inner-ear surgery in October. With the help of colleagues, the department, and a great husband/nurse, I was able to finish off the fall semester and get some rest.

Here’s what’s happening this term:

  1. I’m teaching my first literature course: Introduction to Drama. After an inauspicious start the class has turned itself around, and I’m beginning to regain my confidence.
  2. I’m taking my first of three courses for a certificate in the Digital Humanities. Taught by the impressively experienced and endlessly patient Dan Anderson and Joe Viscomi, Digital Editing and Curation has been quite an eye-opener.
  3. Research for my dissertation on ships in Anglo-Saxon literature has begun more slowly than I’d like, but that’s because of a fourth development:
  4. We’re expecting our first baby in late June (surprise!)

So, do check back here for (at least) monthly writings about teaching drama, digital projects, early medieval ships, and an occasional reflection on pregnancy in academia.

Until soon, wishing you all warmth and wellness.

"I am an Anglo-Saxonist" or, What a Medievalist Looks Like

I’d like to begin this blog post with a long, very important quote from an even longer, more important article.
Within the world of higher education, we are all working at a time when the value of academic knowledge is under attack. Every few weeks, another round of essays about the decline and fall of the humanities circulates through the media. Congress increasingly demands practical outcomes from government-supported scientific research, an attitude that, while appearing reasonable, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of basic science. The demand for explicitly vocational training threatens disciplines that offer knowledge over skills, creating a false dichotomy that sets academic programs at odds with one another… Meanwhile, the general public perceives faculty members as isolated from reality, holding cushy jobs, and uninterested in open communication. The public has little access to the broad diversity of knowledge, experience, and background inside higher education, because those academics who do achieve broader platforms generally come from only the most elite universities. Although many of those public intellectuals are brilliant writers and speakers, they represent only a tiny percentage of the expertise available in the academic world. That expertise lies not just in our subject fields but also in the habits of mind we bring to bear on countless other kinds of issues.    -From D Perry’s “My Initial Public Offering,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 22, 2013.       

So the scene is set, is it not? Now, to the action.

I’ve been waiting to use this pic since December

This spring I presented the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Map (written about here and here, and presented at CUNY’s New Media in the Middle Ages) at the Medieval Academy of America, where I was one of three on a panel about medieval texts and mapping tools.
I was able to make some great connections, especially with the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and Brandon Hawk, who pretty much makes magic on his Studying Judith blog. Even more wonderful was the fact that my father had moved heaven and earth to fly in just for a few hours in order to see me. So as a whole it was a good time, but I was nagged by a feeling that I didn’t belong– a feeling that had not begun with, but was articulated by, an observation that an eminent,  male scholar had made to me when I first arrived: “You don’t look like a medievalist.” Perhaps he was right; I certainly didn’t feel like one, and I could only hope that he hadn’t been referring to something like this: 

Iris Van Herpen 2012 collection

In late July I presented the Map at SHARP‘s conference on “Geographies of the Book, where I was one of 14 presenters at a Digital Projects Showcase.
During the three hour showcase, not one minute passed without someone asking great questions or offering truly helpful advice. This really surprised me; most at MAA hadn’t seemed curious about any digital work presented at the conference. But here I was, surrounded not by medievalists but by book historians, and their feedback was extraordinary. So what was going on? Was I in the wrong place after all, or for the first time in the perfect place?
Medievalists as a whole are awkwardly interdisciplinary. We deal with a range of 1000 years and literature that is, by design, always derived from earlier works. But in none of the conferences I’d attended had there been such a special interest in and performance of academic activism and outreach as there was at SHARP.
For the last day of the conference Ian Gadd invited twelve new scholars to participate in a new kind of plenary, whose aim was to “assess our own current conceptions of book history by mapping the newer, emerging geographies represented by the conference’s papers and participants” and consider “the potential new vistas and pathways that lie ahead.” 
I was among the twelve who spoke for 5 minutes each; no one knew who was part of the plenary until the session itself, when we stood up from different points in the crowd (and could finally wear our name tag badges, seen below).

As planned, Ian Gadd thoroughly “eschew[ed] the traditional format of a small panel of very senior scholars for something more open, participatory, and dynamic” by speaking from the back of the room, leaving this rather stark scene at the front (though live twitter stream was projected).

I began my five minutes by boldly exclaiming, “I am Rebecca Shores, and I am an Anglo-Saxonist.” What had I done?! Did they know I still use cribs for my translations? Did they care that I’m still really confused by prepositions and complex constructions in the prose I study? Maybe, maybe not. 
But I spoke expertly on my own reservations about attending such a conference and pointed out that, although I thought SHARP was a stretch for me to attend, it ended up giving me a 3-hour platform for my project and role as a plenary speaker. As an Anglo-Saxonist. At a book history conference. AMAZINGNESS.
I encouraged the audience to continue to reach out across disciplines, institutions, and platforms– sharing our own love for our fields is the only thing that will keep us afloat. And then I looked to the live twitter stream projected on the wall. Right in front of me, in the words of my new friends and colleagues, was the image I’d been seeking for so long: this is what a medievalist looks like:
photo from Nicholas Morris’s Twitter feed (@Nickmimic)
And it is this image I took with me when I flew to Dublin for the meeting of The International Society of Anglo-Saxonists– a conference that began with an eminent, male scholar raising his hand to say, “Everyone please, remember to turn off your phones.” But more on this soon.
So keep sharing, readers, lest we forget who (and what) we are.

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