Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Tuesday at Kalamazoo

This was the most interest-filled day of the online medieval studies congress, and despite bouts of itchiness and tiredness I managed to sit through the better part of five sessions.

The first and most Tolkien-related session, sponsored by the new fantasy studies center (sorry, centre) at the University of Glasgow (where it was 2 p.m. instead of 6 a.m. as here), was on the late Christopher Tolkien as a medievalist. Multiple manuscripts of the same medieval text all differ, and medievalists learn not to consider any given one authoritative but to consider all for their points of interest, so Miriam Mayburd showed how CT brought that principle to the editing of his father's multifarious manuscripts. Perry Neil Harrison considered JRRT's creative works based on medieval sources (The Fall of Arthur, The Legend of Sigurd, his translations of Beowulf and Sir Gawain), and how CT used editing these as an opportunity to write accounts of how they fit into the medieval tradition. (This being a celebratory session, there was no consideration of how these accounts are often clotted and hard to understand.) Eileen M. Moore treated CT as a calligrapher, following JRRT's practice of including, on the title pages of books, descriptions in tengwar of their contents. Though Eileen's sole interest in the presentation was on analyzing the mode CT developed for this (English was not made for the tengwar, nor the tengwar for English), when asked, "For those of us who don't read tengwar, what do the inscriptions say?", she shot us a link to a file in the chat. And Erik D. Mueller-Harder discussed CT as cartographer of the maps in JRRT's books, not claiming skill nor aiming at originality but simply trying to reproduce the style as well as the content of his father's messy working maps as cleanly as possible. A very productive session.

After that, I thought it might be related to go on to a session on the accuracy of medieval manuscript copying. Unfortunately I didn't get all the way through this one, though I did hear an account of how a later copy of a medical treatise had revisions reflecting changes in society in the interim (if the presenter said either when or where either copy was produced, I missed it) and a description of a chain of transmission of a popular compendium of saints' lives.

More sizzling was a session on the ethics of a field that actually has a name, fragmentology: the collecting and study of manuscript fragments. I'd thought this would be about crumbling parchment like the Dead Sea Scrolls, but no: "fragments" are leaves torn out of intact manuscripts by dealers and sold separately to make more $$$. (These people have a name too: they're called book-breakers.) The question was, is it ethical for libraries to collect the broken leaves? Some say absolutely not, but they weren't at this session. The panelists all stoutly defended the practice: leaves are less expensive than full codices, so more affordable to institutions with limited budgets; they're more portable and less fragile than the codices, so they give more students a chance to handle real manuscripts in person; they really are still useful for research.
Yet I still began to feel uneasy. The way most of the panelists try to discourage the practice of book-breaking is by buying only fragments that were broken a long time ago. One person actually compared this to ivory: you shouldn't buy new ivory, but ivory hundreds of years old should be OK. But it isn't. The US has a prohibition against the importation of ivory, period, no matter how old it can be verified to be. The Stanford Music Department discovered this when they tried importing some old player pianos from Australia (piano rolls are model-specific, so if they had the rolls they needed the specific pianos) and had to leave the keyboards behind in Australia. I heard about this years ago, and never learned if they ever got a waiver. I didn't dare mention an even clearer case, child pornography. Possessors of that, even second- or third-hand, are considered every bit as guilty as those who actually produce the stuff, and the reason is, acquiring it encourages the production of more of it. Of course, no children are abused nor elephants killed to break a manuscript, but that only means the penalty is less: it shouldn't change the principle. Either the one of these cases should be more like the others, or the others more like the one.

I skipped a session on Tolkien and Chaucer, even though I liked what Chaucer I've read, because I don't know that much about his work, in favor of one with the truly tempting topic of whether the Society for Creative Anachronism is "a problematic medievalism." Especially as the program listing typoed it as "Anarchronism." This was more like a science-fiction convention panel, in that nobody had written out their presentation, and in winging it made a lot of detours and asides, and references to things they didn't explain, which is how life is at SF con panels.
Yes, there was a lot said about the white supremacists, and the coronation coat with swastikas on it, but the panel also addressed the problematic way that medievalist scholars often look down on re-creators. Groups like the SCA are a way of bringing medieval studies to people who'd never get into an academic classroom. In some fields, like fabric arts, original material and even written accounts of making it are rare (the presenter discussing this didn't say anything about pictures), so re-creation is the only way to study it. On the other hand, amateurs should stop marching into museums and telling the curators that we know how it's done and you don't.
Some of the speakers were members of the SCA and some weren't, but they all pronounced it as an initialism, which is how I learned it, and not as a word like "ska" which has apparently become widespread. One speaker described his disappointment with a series of groups, but then he was attracted by a Viking society which clearly abjured white supremacy. Yeah, he quoted the society's literature as saying, the original Vikings looted and took slaves, but they weren't all racist about it.

Last I got to a session on inclusion in musical pedagogy. This was about what I expected. Two scholars designing basic music-history survey courses with more non-Western music in them. One trying to figure out how to get his students to appreciate the non-Western music he teaches, in this case medieval Chinese music. And one Asian-born grad student of an intensely Western genre, medieval Church music, trying to find her place in the scholarly community. Naturally, the last speaker's PowerPoint included a slide with a dictionary definition of "microaggression."

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