Thursday, August 19, 2010

In which "I" get thanked in a book acknowledgments

Apparently, Gregory Colón Semenza thinks I had something to do with the success of Graduate Study for the 21st Century (I think I have mentioned it more than once on the blog). And by "I," I mean Dr. Virago. Go look at the Amazon page for the newly revised second edition and click on "Look Inside This Book." Then look at the acknowledgments to the second edition. Yup, there it is: Dr. Virago.

Too funny! Even funnier to me is the fact that my colleague Victoria will be taking over our 'intro to graduate studies' class this semester with my syllabus -- which includes Semenza's book -- and so the new crop of our MA students might read that acknowledgments section with no idea that "Dr. Virago" is me. Hilarious!

You know, it's things like this that sometimes make me want to 'claim' Dr. Virago here on the blog -- I'm already out elsewhere (including in print) -- but I still think I'd prefer for my own web identity and Dr. Virago's to be distinct.

Anyway, I still highly recommend Semenza's book for anyone in a humanities graduate program or thinking about applying to one, and I'm psyched there's an updated second edition. And most of my students have found it very, very helpful, and they're M.A. students, not the Ph.D. students it's really aimed at. (By which I mean to say, it's useful for M.A .students *as well as* Ph.D. students.)

And thanks for reading, Prof. Semenza!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why you should go to Knaresborough and see the Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag

While I was in England this summer, I took a weekend to see my good friend E. in the Leeds area. She asked me what I wanted to do and I said, "Let's go to that adorable town, Knaresborough, that I keep seeing from the train on the way to York." (Note: that's on the line to and from Ilkley, which is the line my friend is on, so I've ridden that route a couple of times before or after visiting her and also going to York for various reasons.) And she said she hadn't been there since she was a kid and would love to go back, so go we did. And it turned out to be the *perfect* place to have a picnic lunch and spend an intermittently sunny and pleasant English Sunday with a friend and her three-year-old little girl, as well as a place of interest to medievalists in the area temporarily or permanently (I'm looking at you, TO'D!), as well as anyone else who's looking to do something in Yorkshire and has visited all the usual suspects.

First of all, you might be wondering what it was I could see from the train that so delighted me. Well, first of all, let me give you a view of where the train passes through. The following picture is one I stitched together from three or four other photos and is taken from the edge of the castle and its gardens high on the cliff side (click to "embiggen," and it won't look so fuzzy, though you will still see where I stitched it together):
So, you're traveling through the rolling hills and flatter fields of West Yorkshire when all of sudden you're on this lovely 19th century bridge (which is better appreciated here than on the bridge, of course) with a town opening up not only in front of you, but above and below you, too. (Btw, in the big version, if you look closely on the horizon on the left, you'll see the house that I will someday make mine. If I win the lottery, that is.) Here are some more pictures of the part of the town on the terraced cliff side and below, including one when the sun was brighter, and one of "The Old Mill House" (now a private residence):

Now, the center of town and its high street is actually on the plain above the river. I should've taken more pictures, because it's pretty exceptionally cute, even by cute English town standards. But here's a picture of the statue honoring the Historical Town Character, Blind Jack, who was a surveyor, bridgebuilder, and roadmaker despite being blind -- hence his surveyor's wheel in the statue:

His *actual* surveyor's wheel is in the town museum, the Courthouse Museum (on the castle grounds), which is actually quite a good local history museum if you can ignore the god-awful misinformation about the Middle Ages in the kid's hands-on exhibit (though there are fun costumes to try on!). The stuff about the Middle Ages in the *actual* museum, where the old stuff is -- at least what I saw in the limited time before the three-year-old got impatient -- was quite good. I wonder if part of what made it interesting both to me and to the town that keeps it up was that this seemingly little, out of the way town often played a part in national history, especially in the Medieval and Early Modern periods. (Here's the Wikipedia overview, but you can read more about the castle and its history here at Knaresborough Online.)

I don't have a whole lot of pictures of the castle because there's not a lot of it left. It's been reduced to little more than Romantic-lite garden ornament, having been ordered destroyed by Parliament in 1646 (*shakes fist*)--though the tower was kept intact as a prison, and another part used as a courthouse (hence the Courthouse Museum). Here's what's left of the East gate:

And here's a bit of the castle proper:

There's enough left that you can climb up part of it (where I took the above picture) and climb down into the "dungeon" (uh, it's just the undercroft), but it's not so challenging that our three-year-old companion couldn't do it. There was some more silly signage in the castle, including one about what was obviously a medieval-era coffin (which looked like the one on this site) that said something like, "This could be a coffin -- it's shaped like a body -- but if it is, where has the body gone?!" Um, to the charnel house so they could reuse the stone? That's one possibility, anyway. But hey, the views are lovely, and the garden/park that the castle grounds have been turned into included a mini-golf/pitch-and-putt area, and who doesn't love mini-golf?! And when we were leaving at the end of the day, a brass band was giving a concert in front of the tower -- lovely!

But the highlight of *my* day, anyway, was the visit to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag, including the walk there. It's a *fantastic* surviving example of late medieval lay devotion and its survival, especially given it's a Marian shrine, is all the more surprising given the destruction of the Trinitarian Friars' abbey down the road during and subsequent to the dissolution.

The way to the chapel, along Abbey Road (no, not that one) is a lovely walk and there were plenty of other people making it -- mostly locals from Knaresborough and the next village over, out enjoying a beautiful summer Sunday -- but it gave me some serious real estate envy. It's clear Knareborough is pretty prosperous and that it takes a lot of money to live along the river. The first clue? The Porsche parked outside of this cottage:

I don't need the Porsche (not pictured) -- just let me have the cottage, please. Or, even though it's not really my style, I'll take this home with the river-front dock:

I didn't get a picture of the following, but a number of the houses with fronts facing the road and backing up to the river had planters out front that were clearly made from reclaimed stone from the abbey. Some might have been troughs of some sort, but judging from the carvings, I'm pretty sure these were more coffins! But if so, where had the bodies gone?! Te-hee!

There's also a posh-looking little gentleman's farm, with these adorable heritage hogs and a marvelous wood pile outside of its wattle and daub walls:

And this to-die-for antiques and book shop:

Or this inn along the river, perfect for the English version of Lorelai Gilmore:

And, of course, there's the Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag itself -- which, by the way, is still used as a shrine to the Virgin Mary (even *more* remarkable in modern England, I'd say). I could never get a picture of the outside of it without someone in it -- not to mention the ugly plastic chairs -- so this will have to do:

As the historical records indicate, it was built by John the Mason in 1408, and as you can see, he gave it elements of a proper, full-sized church, including a glass window in the style of a stained-glass one (though not actually stained). Yes, I'll get to that weird knight figure in a minute, but first here's a picture of more of John's details, including the "vaulted ceiling" complete with "roof bosses":

And there's this marvelous little face. What is it?

There's an altar, too, in this 10-foot-square space. The statue on top of it is a later addition, the original presumably destroyed by the iconoclastic Parliamentarians iconoclasts of some sort:

Now back to that knight outside. Here's a closer look:

The brochure I bought says that there's no record of it being carved at the time John the Mason got the permit to carve the chapel, but then says there's no reason not to believe it's as old as the chapel. Really? My friend thought the face looked too "modern." I think the mustache looks more 19th century that medieval, but dating by style is a tricky thing. More important, the carving doesn't look worn away enough to be as old as the rest. Look at that weird little face again that I showed you above and how worn *it* is. Would the knight be as worn or even *more* worn, considering it's outside? And why would John the Mason carve a knight? What do you think?

Anyway, I really recommend a trip to Knaresborough -- especially in fine weather -- if you have the time, opportunity, and inclination. My only regret is that we didn't have time for the Hermitage of Robert of Knaresborough -- the three-year-old could only take so much -- but then again, I think the Lady of the Crag is more interesting, given that it's surviving evidence of the intensity of lay devotion.

And let me leave you with one last picture just for the heck of it (it didn't really fit into the narrative). Be sure to click on the picture to read the name of these "holiday cabins" and then marvel at how *wrong* that sounds!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Guest Post: On the Medieval Academy's meeting in Tempe, Arizona

Now that I'm back from my brief Midwestern vacation, it's time to get serious again. And for starters, I have a guest post from my friend The General on why she won't be going to the Medieval Academy of America's annual meeting in Tempe, Arizona, in April, and why she's not renewing her membership.

But first, let me give a little background for my non-medievalist/non-academic readers who might want or need it. In May, Jeffrey Cohen at In the Middle started the discussion of whether or not the MAA should move the meeting out of Arizona. That post garnered 74 comments and ultimately led to an open letter to the MAA urging them to cancel or move the meeting, signed by 170 people. That letter, plus discussions elsewhere, spurred the MAA to poll its members by e-mail and a web-based poll. On August 3, the MAA executive committee came to its final decision to keep the meeting in Tempe, and sent to the membership an e-mail letter announcing that decision. Karl Steel at In the Middle posted the letter here. And Inside Higher Ed followed up with a story.

That's the background. In response, The General wrote a letter to the Medieval Academy which she also posted as a note on Facebook and asked me to post here. It's still in the form of an address to the Medieval Academy, but it's been slightly edited since she sent it off to them. And although she's happy to have her name attached to it, I decided to keep in the spirit of this blog and use her pseudonym.

So, without further ado, below is what The General had to say to the Medieval Academy.


Dear Medieval Academy,

I just read your recent announcement about your decision to proceed with the 2011 meeting in Arizona. I am deeply disappointed and rather stunned at your decision. As one of the few medievalists of color in the profession and on your membership roster, your decision means that anyone of color (or any shade other than white) will be under surveillance, put in the category of second-class citizen, and generally thought of as a person of suspicion if they even attend the Arizona meeting. As someone who has served for several years on a board of directors that managed a revenue stream of 70 million dollars, I understand the directive of fiduciary responsibility quite well. But I also would like to point out that your choice means that you have chosen monetary gain over human value for your organization. You have decided that diversity and encouraging students and faculty of color to go into Medieval Studies is not a core value of the Academy. Rather, the fiduciary bottom line of the endowment is more important.

Your letter states that you feel that you were not in a position to make a “collective political statement” for the entire group, but yet you have. Your decision means that a minority of your membership will be excluded, treated as alien others, and asked to constantly carry “papers” during their trip. You are asking me and every other member with a skin shade not deemed “American” or an accent not considered “standard” to accept this treatment and see it as just another political issue. When were basic civil rights a partisan political issue rather than an ethical and moral one? It would be one thing if you wanted not to hold a meeting in a state or location because it had voted Democrat or Republican; that would be a partisan “collective political statement." But you are asking me and any person of color to walk into a state and pretend that being a second-class citizen is fine. When did basic civil rights become a partisan political statement? I was under the impression that all the members of the Medieval Academy believed in civil rights. Or had I and other members been wrong? Is the Medieval Academy still an ivory tower institution that excludes, women, people of color, and the disabled? Is the Academy not interested in supporting their members and equity? For me, these were the issues at stake in your decision. And your answer to these questions were shattering.

Your decision and letter tells me that I should find it acceptable to come to a professional academic meeting and wear a figurative star on my lapel and have my papers potentially checked at every turn. What you are saying to me and every scholar (domestic and international) of color is that discrimination is fine, that equitable treatment in our field is not a priority or an inalienable right. This is the very opposite of community building. You say in your letter that it is about the work that people have done, yet the meeting’s presence in Arizona is going to overshadow the work. I would be queasy discussing Lateran IV’s restrictions and injunctions against Jews and Saracens in a state that is enacting their own version of these laws. The conference will not be an exercise in political free speech; rather it will condone the behaviors that put members of the academy under scrutiny.

Several blog comments discussing this decision have said it would be OK to have the meeting and just organize for political action. I completely disagree because this is not "just" a political issue; you are asking people to be comfortable with other members of the Academy being stopped, asked for papers, possibly arrested, and held for questioning. You are asking that our personal rights be assaulted, abused, and trampled on all to attend a professional meeting.

You are asking too much and therefore I plan to boycott the Medieval Academy and encourage anyone else to do likewise. I do not want to be part of an organization that feels it is acceptable for me to be discriminated against.

The General

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Jane Eyre returns to Thornfield and finds it *not* a burning wreck

So in the last post I mentioned that I was returning to the place where I once spent "The Summer I Was a Governess." I have *many* stories to tell from that summer -- though my only friend from those days (how sad and melancholy -- *one* friend -- it's true!) thinks I should save them for a Nanny Diaries type novel. Suffice it to say for now that I was tricked into being a much-abused and exploited live-in babysitter, with responsibilities almost every day, all day, for a mere $15 a week, and that many of the other kids didn't seem interested in being friends with "the help." (Except for that one kind soul, who was the reason I returned to the place this week.)

*Anyway*, for the first time in 26 years, I went back to the sight of my indentured servitude, and I have to say that it was *great fun* being there as an adult with no children to look after! First of all, it's a *beautiful* place. It was originally a retreat for a particular denomination of Protestant ministers and their families -- not quite a Chautauqua, but related, I suppose -- founded in 1901. And like many other places inspired by American Romanticism and the urge to get back to nature, it's a bucolic and relaxing place, on a spit of land between one of the Great Lakes and a very large interior lake with the most crystalline water you've ever seen. Look! --

That water is up to the hem on my shorts (which are fairly short shorts), and I have long legs. And as you can see, it's a sand-bottom lake, too, so there's an actual sandy beach to lie on when you're not in the water. Here's a picture of part of the sandy beach with everyone's beach chairs and water toys just sitting around waiting for them to come back for them (because you can do that there and your stuff will actually be there waiting for you!):

People who live at this summer resort live in "cottages" of various styles. Some are very traditional, like this one --

-- and some are traditional ones expanded upon and made more awesome, like this one (*love* the tree through the roof line of the porch!):

And then there's the fancy excess-of-the-80s might-as-well-be-a-full-time-house I lived in with the family I worked for:

Yeah, I know, poor me. But I'm telling you, I really did get a raw deal. (Though I did like "laying out" -- as we used to say -- on the deck on the back when I was home alone with the infant.)

By the way, I wouldn't have been back at this place again if I weren't still friends with the one kid I really befriended up there 26 years ago. In the intervening years we kept in touch almost entirely by writing -- first hand-written letters, later e-mails, and now Facebook. We didn't see each other again until 2004, here in Rust Belt. And then Bullock and I went to a wedding in my friend's current vicinity and we saw him then. And then I saw him this week. Amazing, isn't it?

Anyway, this time around I made a quick, 24-hour visit (plus the 5 hours of driving on each end) and did some of my favorite things to do in a place like this (short of swimming, since I currently don't own a bathing suit that fits). Here's a quick photo essay of my visit.

I relaxed on the cottage deck with a regional and seasonal beer:

I walked along the shore of the Great Lake with my friend, looking for interesting rocks:

I took pictures of interesting rocks:

I enjoyed the sunset over the Great Lake:

I relaxed in front of a bonfire on the shore of the Great Lake:

And I marveled some more at the clarity and calmness of the non-Great lake:

Oh yeah, and I slept *great* in the quiet and pitch-black dark of the woods.

All it took was 24 hours of awesome laziness to wipe out the summer of '84. I'm now in love with the place and talking to Bullock about renting a place up there for two weeks next summer!

ETA: I should also add that all the people whom I met (or met again) who have been going to this summer spot since 1984 or before were *thrilled* to see me there again, and were warm and welcoming to me as an adult. I'm sure being 15 years old had something to do with my feeling like such an outsider back then.