Friday, 30 January 2009


Okay folks -- there's a new movie you should all know about. Well there's always the chance you already know about it, of course. Actually I'm usually the last to know about these things, really, so in all likelihood you're already aware of it. Hm.

BUT -- just in case you aren't: Outlander.

Outlander is a new movie from producer Chris Roberts, of Wing Commander, The Punisher, and (more importantly) Lucky Number Slevin fame. It looks as though the writer, Howard McCain, started by writing a sci-fi version of Beowulf, if you will, a kind of Beowulf in Space (not to be confused with Beowulf on Ice). Over time, he got some help (professional, I hope), and its connection to Beowulf was lessened.

The basic plot seems (based on the FAQ) to be that a conveniently human-looking space viking (who does, in fact, speak Old Norse in the movie -- more on this later) played by Jim Caviezel crash lands on Earth in the year 709 AD. He's brought with him a big, people-eating monster called a Moorwen (not to be confused with the somewhat less frightening Moor-hen), and he needs to enlist the help of the locals to keel zee beest, as it were.

A few reasons why this movie will be awesome:

  • Even though it should be the other way around (with the locals speaking Old Norse and Caviezel speaking alien-speak) someone still went to the trouble to put Old Norse into this film.
  • No viking is seen to wear a horned hat in this film.
  • There are no sexed-up versions of Ms./Mrs./Miss Grendel (a la babe-o-wulf) in this film.
  • There is a sexy sexy space viking in this film.

Also, a few words of consideration: this movie is original, and bears no similarities to the 1981 film Outland starring Sean Connery. Nor is it in any way related to the Diana Gabaldon book series of the same name.

As both a medievalist and a compete sci-fi geek, I must see this movie -- but since as of right now it's only out in something less than a dozen theatres on this continent (or something like that) I may have to wait until it comes out on DVD. Even so, here's my call: cult classic in the making.

Trailers can be found here.



Thursday, 15 January 2009

A rant on disciplinary boundaries

I have an unusual fondness for the term 'medievalist.' There are few such terms in other areas of historical study. One is not a Renaissancist; one is a Renaissance Historian, or Renaissance Art Historian, or a Renaissance Literature... erm... person. Scholars of the 20th century? 20th century historians, or art historians, etc. Classicists are really the only ones with a similar term. And while it is perfectly acceptable to call oneself a Medieval Historian, most people consider themselves Medievalists, rather than defining their precise area.

It's a term I absolutely embrace and adore, both for its unusualness and for its universality. I would like to think it's the result of something intrinsic in the Middle Ages that those who study the medieval period are not confined by a specific discipline (though that's probably just wishful thinking). A medievalist could be a historian, certainly, but it may also be a literary scholar, or an art historian, or a linguist... or perhaps someone who works within more than one discipline. As a non-traditional art historian who strays into history more than into art history, I truly appreciate having a term which identifies my work without limiting its scope.

This post is actually about interdisciplinary scholarship, not about terminology within academia. Interdisciplinary study is a subject close to my heart. I did my undergrad at a SLAC without majors or disciplinary requirements of any sort, and did my MA in Medieval Studies in a programme which required that I write essays in history, archaeology and art history- the epitome of interdisciplinary. Yet I have applied to PhD programmes in a single discipline, art history. There are programmes available in Medieval Studies (Yale, Cornell, University of Toronto, Notre Dame and many schools in the UK come to mind), yet I abandoned the idea of pursuing one such programme ages ago.

Why? It is well-documented that scholars have a much more difficult time getting jobs in academia with an interdisciplinary doctorate than a single-discipline degree. It makes sense, when you think about it; an Art History department is going to prefer to hire, for example, a medieval art historian who is also trained to teach classical and Baroque art, than a medieval art historian who can also teach medieval history and medieval literature. Though such a professor may be useful for the teaching of medieval culture in general, the Art History department loses out- and since it's their budget, they're allowed to be selfish. Thus, it is in my best interest, as a budding young scholar with hopes of employment in said department, to mold myself into what they want.

This raises some questions about the organization of study within universities, however. The current arrangement of disciplines rests on the premise that medieval literature is more like 20th century literature than it is like medieval art. Fair enough; there is a tradition of literary study, and an understanding of what came before and what comes after is certainly important- progression and all that. But I really have to wonder at what this approach tells students. Medieval literature, to continue with this example, is not really all that much like modern literature. Nor does an understanding of modern literary processes prepare a student to understand medieval literature. I, personally, would find it much more beneficial to study medieval literature in context of the medieval period- that is to say, alongside medieval history, archaeology, art history, music, etc.

But this is not the way medieval literature is taught. The course I took on medieval literature gave but the briefest of introductions to the medieval period. Given that it was a very small seminar course open to any undergraduate, the professor relied upon the more advanced students who had studied medieval history to provide context for the texts. But I can only imagine what a first year emerged from that class thinking about the Middle Ages, having only my sarcastic anecdotes within which to locate the literature s/he studied.

Certainly, survey courses (much as we may despise them) are important in providing an understanding of a single discipline. An art history survey provides the student with the understanding of what came when, and how art progressed and regressed throughout history. But I wonder if such courses should be the end of such discipline-specific study. People complain that students get only the whirlwind tour in a survey course, without understanding the context of any period or artwork.

How much context do PhD students receive in the required single semester course on non-western art?

The problem with the survey course isn't that the course is useless; it's that such courses have become the standard for teaching any discipline, during any period. A semester on Renaissance art isn't going to provide any more context than the survey course- it isn't going to inform the student about the differences between Italian and French politics, and how that affected Renaissance architecture in each. Politics fall under history- which, as we've seen, has nothing to do with art history.

I'm being a bit extreme here, and it's at least partly intentional. However, there are some rather serious boundaries between the disciplines. My most influential undergraduate professor technically belonged to the art history department, but because he taught art as a means to understanding history, his courses were consistently billed as history courses. Even at such an open-minded institution as my SLAC, professors still found themselves restricted by the traditional boundaries of academic disciplines.

This isn't the case with all disciplines, only with the 'major' ones: art history, history, literature, archaeology. One doesn't belong to the Christianity department: rather, schools have Religion departments. When I took a course on Islam, we examined art, music, poetry, and philosophy as much as we examined the history and tenets of the religion. See also Women's Studies, Gender Studies.

I could rant all day about this, but I think I've at least made a point. Having stated the problem, look for my proposed solutions in a future post.


Thursday, 8 January 2009

A Cool Million

Welcome back, or, if you've not been here before, just welcome! Welcome to the blog, welcome to 2009. If you're anything like me, you've spent the past holiday season compulsively checking your favourite blogs for updates, finding the medieval pickings very much slimmer than at other times of the year (my heartfelt thanks go out to the Tenured Radical, Historiann, and the bloggers at In The Middle for keeping me going throughout the season). I myself am among the bloggers who did not update between Christmas and, well, now. Yeah, I know. Black pots and equally black kettles.

So I've decided to start the new year with a post about an article in the economist from December: apparently, the English language is poised to hit a million words. Of course, as they so rightly point out, this is according to one source, and there are many, many others that disagree.

That source is the Global Language Monitor, whose credibility as an authority on the English language is immediately cast into doubt because of its location in Austin, Texas -- a place where the plural of "you" is not "y'all" (short for "you all") but rather "all y'all." Because as we all should know, "y'all" is singular.

Before we all balk at the above statement, let's confront the problems inherent to counting the number of words in the English language, the chief of which is really a question of authority: who gets to decide which words are counted? If you were to ask the people over at the Oxford English Dictionary (now celebrating it's 80th birthday), they'd let you know that, as of December 2008, they had 263,917 entries (just a few shy of 1,000,000). Even if you counted multiple meanings of words -- for example using the word "table" to mean both something upon which one eats one's dinner, and a chart for use by accountants and other mathematically-minded folk -- you would still only arrive at 741,153 entries, according to the folks at the OED.

But the OED is a very conservative measure, surely. If I'm right, a word is only included if it's been in use for 40 years, barring such wonderful words as "blog" and "winningest" (the latter of which, I must say, I hope dies a horrible death at the hands of the sports commentators who invented it) from their records. But let's not be fooled into thinking that reversing this would necessarily increase the count -- what the OED lacks in modernisms, it makes up for in archaisms: for example the use of the word "egg" to mean "bomb" (to which the Monty Python fellows would doubtless respond: "sorry old man, we don't understand your banter").

And then there's the question of who gets to decide which loanwords are in fact English and which are not. Is the phrase "habeas corpus" to be considered English, if legalese? What about "quid pro quo"? Or "versus"? And for that matter, how many English words are there in "coup d'├ętat"? Are there any?

The beauty and the terror of the English language is that it is the most bastardized and unruly language ever to escape definition. It is spoken in so many ways by so many peoples that any real attempt to count the number of words with any degree of currency and accuracy is fairly pointless. So when the people over at the Global Language Monitor say that the English language has reached a million words, as no doubt they will do some time in April, let us take a moment to celebrate -- not because the count was in any way accurate, but because any excuse to celebrate this wonderfully messed-up language should be considered a good one. Time to break out the bubbly. :)