Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Medieval Dissertation

For several months now, I have been meaning to comment on Mark C. Taylor's New York Times op-ed "End the University as We Know It." Prof. Taylor rightly diagnoses the ailments of academia, particularly graduate student education, but in doing so he suggests a series of reforms that successfully managed to offend both conservative and progressive academics. While I find several aspects of Prof. Taylor's program problematic and unfeasible, it is his rhetorical treatment of medieval studies that most strongly raises my objections. In two passing moments, he uses "medieval" examples that implicitly affirm his argument that the university system is backward and outmoded. In an instance that he self-evidently casts as a symptom of academia gone awry, he writes:
A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.
In his conclusion, Prof. Taylor gestures back to this example of an absurd dissertation topic:
In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text.
Subtly transforming a project on a medieval topic into one that is medieval (read: arcane and without use) in nature, this suggestive thread of his argument betrays the shortsightedness of his model for reform. Prof. Taylor's compelling idea of organizing the university around problems rather than according to departmental disciplines--a system that would group scholars and scientists around issues like Water or Information--apparently has no room for scholarship invested in premodern history.

I understand that he might be seeking to usher academia away from historical scholarship that fails to consider the present implications to society beyond the university. However, his argument relies on a shallow assessment of what, for instance, a project on Duns Scotus' citations could tell us. A savvy graduate student might be able to draw connections of significance to the Information problem of Prof. Taylor's reform scheme, allowing a study of medieval citations to shed light on the metaphysics of hypertext, which in turn could help us to further understand how we can manage information and knowledge.

The upside of this op-ed is that it has spurred further public dialogue, which is indeed necessary for reevaluating the role of universities. Yet, we scholars of things premodern cannot allow the reform of academia to leave us behind, much less to identify our work as that which most ominously signifies the obsolescence of higher ed. Through our work and how we present it, we must continue to assert the particular relevance of history and culture before the Industrial Revolution in ways that do not necessarily rely on genealogy. Others must be persuaded to see that, in premodernity, we can find clues to some of the answers to many a modern problem.

After all, anyone who thinks that medieval footnotes are not relevant to the problems we face today has never visited Got Medieval.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Fricatrices of Fez

Working on a project related to Hasan ibn Muhammed al-Wazzan al-Fasi--John Leo Africanus, as he's known in the Western world--I've seized upon a delightful passage from his Geographical Historie of Africa. The second of nine books focuses on "Maroco" with a plethora of information on the city of Fez, where our hero/historiographer attended university. Among the tourist attractions of the greater Fez metropolitan area are the "women-witches," who, in addition to their relations with devils, engage in an unsavory practice that the concerned residents of Fez find offensive:
[T]he wiser and honester sort of people call these women Sahaoat, which in Latin signifieth Fricatrices, because they haue a damnable custome to commit vnlawfull Venerie among themselues, which I cannot expresse in any modester termes. If faire women come vnto them at any time, these abominable witches will burne in lust towardes them no otherwise then lustie yoonkers doe towards yoong maides, and will in the diuels behalfe demaunde for a rewarde, that they may lie with them: and so by this meanes it often falleth out, that thinking thereby to fulfill the diuels command they lie with the witches. (148-9)
In violation of more than one city ordinance, the fair women are tricked into seeking the devil's favor through intercourse with the witches. The greater victim of these crimes is, of course, the husband: Some wives
will desire the companie of these witches, and faining themselues to be sicke, will either call one of the witches home to them, or will send their husbands for the same purpose: and so the witches perceiuing how the matter stands, will say that the woman is possessed with a diuell, and that she can no way be cured, vnlesse she be admitted into their societie. With these words her silly husband being persuaded, doth not onely permit her so to doe, but makes also a sumptuous banket vnto the damned crew of witches: which being done, they vse to daunce very strangely at the noise of drums: and so the poore man commits his false wife to their filthie disposition. (149)
As if the scenario was not ripe enough for a domestic comedy, our narrator mentions what happens when a husband gets a clue and gets even (i.e. folksy domestic violence):
Howbeit some there are that will soone coniure the diuell with a good cudgell out of their wiues. (149)
I'm not well read in witch narratives, so I wonder if this is a conventional topos that sees any repetition in the period. Either way, it's an elaborate scenario that I'll file away for when I compose my faux-Elizabethan drama titled The Merry Witches of Fez, wherein a Faire Wife is Seduced by the Damned Fricatrices and Cudgelled Forth from Sin by her most Faithfull Husbande, As it hath been Presented by the Children at Paules.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

To the Ingenious Reader.

You have here a blog, wherein scholars will discourse of the truths and delights of the premodern world we have lost, but just can't quit. Our scope, yes, is expansive, but we hope it will be a productive forum for premo kids of every stripe to discuss the profits and pitfalls of periodization or to take pleasure in a good old fashioned “magna farta” joke (see the seventeenth century). With these noble aims, Lady Sapientia and I, the Bitch of Armenia, humbly invoke divine inspiration:

Sing to us, Wikiope, Muse of the blogosphere,
of times and realms before our own;
O memory and incisive commentary
give unto us your blessed fruits!