September 2015 Archways

On Course: The Stuff of Legends

Archways_On-CourseBy Maureen McGonigle ’98

Mawrters love the Middle Ages—chivalry, pageantry, dungeons, hobbits, wizards, dragons. Wait! Hobbits, wizards, and dragons?

Medievalisms—the ways in which fantasy, adaptation, nostalgia, and history become confused and intertwined into notions of the Middle Ages—are the subject of the 300-level course led by Associate Professor of English Jamie Taylor and Assistant Professor of History Elly Truitt.

“We realized that it’s not uncommon for students to wander into our classes because of a sort of devotion to Harry Potter or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings,” Taylor says. “Then we spend the first month or so disabusing them of the tight relationship in their brains between the fantasy stuff and the Middle Ages.”

The two savvy professors spotted this trend and decided to capitalize on it. “Rather than fighting it,” Truitt says, “we began to think of it as a pedagogical opportunity. We’re in an age of medievalism now. There was a flowering of it in the beginning of the 20th century, and in the past 15 years or so, we’ve started to be in another one. And that’s the real question of the course: Why do we look for or want a history that isn’t our own? The U.S. doesn’t have a Middle Ages. What is the appeal?”

At the start of the semester, students looked at how people in the Middle Ages thought of, and used, the past. “It’s not like the Middle Ages are in a black box,” says Truitt. “In the Latin world, stories of Rome and Troy were hugely important histories that were used to build a narrative of empire or a noble lineage. In the medieval period, people were recombining stories and legends and myths from history with their own ideas. It makes students realize that… we’re always using the past in ways that are not concerned with accuracy or authenticity.” [For more about Truitt’s research, see Medieval Robots below.]

Students consider literary tropes, identity politics, feminism, and more. “We’ve read criticism about nostalgia with roots in a psychoanalytic field of thinking about desire and loss and grief,” Taylor says. “We have concentrated on giving students certain critical vocabularies around desire, nostalgia, and temporality.”

One of the most helpful perspectives came from renowned medievalist and queer theorist Carolyn Dinshaw ’78. “She came back to Bryn Mawr to do some research on Hope Emily Allen, Class of 1905, a Bryn Mawr medievalist,” Taylor explains, “and discussed what it meant to leave Bryn Mawr, become an important scholar, and then return to Bryn Mawr to work with the papers of a student who is also a Bryn Mawr alumna. Her writing focused on the layering of temporalities and interests.”

Taylor also assigned Jacques Lacan, the notoriously difficult and enormously influential French psychoanalyst. “We were all working through the reading,” explains Truitt, “and Jamie was talking about how the psyche forms fantasies—not erotic fantasies but stories.”

To explain what Lacan was getting at, Taylor offered an example that students could identify with: “When you tell yourself that you are unlovable unless you look a certain way or behave a certain way, that is a fantasy.”

“I watched the students,” recalls Truitt, “and it was like a switch got flipped. It was very powerful and moving for them.”

The atmosphere of challenging and shared intellectual exploration has benefited both scholars and students. “It is interesting, intense, and fun,” Taylor says. “We go overtime almost every week, and we forget to give the [students] breaks,” Truitt adds.

Rumor has it there might be a 360° in the works, touching on themes of pilgrimages, the cross-cultural exchange of forms, and the history of science—the stuff of legend.

Medieval Robots

A thousand years before Isaac Asimov set down his Three Laws of Robotics, real and imagined automata appeared in European courts, liturgies, and literary texts. Medieval robots took such forms as talking statues, mechanical animals, and silent metal guardians; some served to entertain or instruct and others performed disciplinary or surveillance functions. Variously ascribed to artisanal genius, inexplicable cosmic forces, or demonic powers, these marvelous fabrications raised fundamental questions about knowledge, nature, and divine purpose in the Middle Ages.

Assistant Professor of History Elly Truitt’s new book Medieval Robots recovers the forgotten history of fantastical, aspirational, and terrifying machines that flourished in the Islamicate world and Byzantine and Mongol empires—and that especially captivated Europe in imagination and reality between the ninth and 14th centuries.

Truitt traces the different forms of self-moving or self-sustaining manufactured objects from their earliest appearances in the Latin West through centuries of mechanical and literary invention. Her wide-ranging study reveals the convergence of science, technology, and imagination in medieval culture and demonstrates the striking similarities between medieval and modern robotic and cybernetic visions.