Of Woman Born: The Evolution of Pornography in Medieval Print Culture

A Series

Part I: Defining Pornography–A Community Standard

Mars and Venus United by Love 1570s
Paolo Veronese (Paolo Caliari) Italian
 On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 608; https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437891

I read about Veronese’ Mars and Venus United by Love long before seeing it. I had gone through a rather lengthy phase reading romance novels. To be precise, for a period of time I was obsessed with period bodice-rippers (to which they are sometimes euphemistically/derogatorily referred). This obsession probably began with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (which I mention here). With Gabaldon I could pretend my interest lay with the historical or scientific aspects of her works–not the smuttier bits!

I wouldn’t say that my taste evolved or devolved. My interests simply expanded beyond the borders of Scotland to Regency England. One of the most memorable romance novels I read along the way was Julie Anne Long’s What I Did For A Duke (cover art pictured below).

What I Did For a Duke: Pennyroyal Green Series Kindle Edition
by Julie Anne Long  (Author)  Format: Kindle Edition, Harper Collins e-books, February 22, 2011, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0049B1VMC/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

While the story of Genevieve and her Duke is enthralling, I was captured by the mention of the Veronese. The Duke’s description of the piece is particularly salient. In one scene, the Duke sits reading a book on art when he is confronted by Genevieve’s other love interest, young Harry. The two engage in a battle of wits (of sorts) about which of them best understands Genevieve. After Harry makes a remark about discussing Veronese for a whole afternoon with Genevieve, the Duke recalls that:

Veronese … Veronese … of course! As he’d told Genevieve, he’d seen a Veronese painting when he’d visited Italy. Memorably because he’d found it erotic: Venus and Mars again, this time Venus was wearing not a shred, and Mars was kneeling, getting ready to, as he’d inappropriately shared with Genevieve, give Venus a pleasuring.

What I Did For A Duke, 185

At the time I knew nothing about Paolo Veronese, but I did know that I had to see this painting. Naturally, I googled it. But that search was not sufficient to satisfy my curiosity. Finally, in the fall of 2019, I made my way to Manhattan, the Met, and the Veronese.

First, it’s large. Massive, in fact. I found the scale to be somewhat surprising considering the intimate subject matter. Second, I was struck by how tame the piece is at least by what I have come to think of as smutty, or even obscene. This last thought brought me to think about what modern viewers might mean when discussing obscenity, which lead me to also consider how obscenity might have been defined in the past.

I Know It When I See It

In his book, The Brethren, Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame), describes what came to be known as movie day at the U.S. Supreme Court. This was a time when the Justices would gather to watch allegedly obscene films in an effort to render decisions. Their clerks even created a rather humorous “shorthand” that reflected the Justices’ decision-making process.

I wonder what that experience must have been like for the Justices. I hear popcorn was consumed.

The Lovers film poster,  http://www.movieposterdb.com/poster/56e4ddb9

CinemoiFrenchFilm, The Lovers film trailer,
YouTube, Feb 9, 2010

In 1964, the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio came before the Court. Nico Jacobellis, a theater manager in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, had been charged with obscenity for showing a French film, The Lovers. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Ohio state and appellate courts finding the film did not meet the definition of obscene. In his opinion, Justice Potter Stewart issued what has come to be known as the “I Know It When I See It” standard. While mulling over the case, Stewart reflected on his time as a Naval officer during WW2. Stationed in Casablanca, Stewart had seen the materials his men collected and brought back to the ship. From these material, Stewart developed a rather reasonable idea of what he believed constituted hardcore pornography. The impact of this experience is reflected in his opinion for Jacobellis v. Ohio. As Stewart wrote:

I have reached the conclusion . . . that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

Quoted by Rick Marshall in CBLDF.org http://cbldf.org/about-us/case-files/obscenity-case-files/obscenity-case-files-jacobellis-v-ohio-i-know-it-when-i-see-it/

Stewart’s somewhat evasive opinion highlights the paradoxically subjective nature of obscene or pornographic materials. My personal definition of pornography may not be the same as another’s. I might have especially lascivious tendencies, while my neighbor would object to Snow White (I will save my argument on S&M in SW for another day). The US Supreme Court reached a somewhat nebulous understanding of what constitutes standards of decency in 1973 with Miller v. California. Issuing the opinion for the Court, Justice Burger found that a piece could be labeled obscene based on the following:

(a) whether the ‘average person, applying contemporary community standards‘ would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,

(b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and

(c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Movie Day at the Supreme Court or “I Know It When I See It”: A History of the Definition of Obscenity;
This article was edited and reviewed by FindLaw Attorney Writers
 | Last updated April 26, 2016; https://corporate.findlaw.com/litigation-disputes/movie-day-at-the-supreme-court-or-i-know-it-when-i-see-it-a.html

The concept of community-driven standards provides a benchmark for determining the value of a given work. Thus, in order to decide if a text or illustration is obscene, one must first understand the accepted mores and principles of the community. For this project, the I will be attempting to ascertain the community standards of Western Europe in the Middle Ages.

Pornography in the Middle Ages

The genesis for this project began with a passage from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. Although already somewhat dated (it was originally published in 2010), Carr’s work is still a thoughtful commentary of the impact of technology on human thought. Carr juxtaposes the digital age boom with the explosion of literacy that followed Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press (between 1440 and 1454). The fervor and excitement of the age is almost palpable as Carr shares:

The growing availability of books fired the public’s desire for literacy, and the expansion of literacy further stimulated the demand for books. The printing industry boomed. By the end of the fifteenth century, nearly 250 towns in Europe had print shops, and some 12 million volumes had already come off their presses. The sixteenth century saw Gutenberg’s technology leap from Europe to Asia, the Middle East, and, when the Spanish set up a press in Mexico City in 1539, the Americas. By the start of the seventeenth century, letterpresses were everywhere, producing not only books but newspapers, scientific journals, and a variety of other periodicals. The first great flowering of printed literature arrived, with works by such masters as Shakespeare, Cervantes, Molière, and Milton, not to mention Bacon and Descartes, entering the inventories of booksellers and the libraries of readers.

p. 69-70

A seemingly insatiable demand for the products of the new technology, in this case books, spread rapidly. Is this not similar to the demand for the latest iPhone iteration? As with most market-based economies, demand for new reading materials quickly surpassed supply. While Gutenberg’s Bible became an almost ubiquitous possession, the emerging printing industry met the need for new and different texts, in part, by turning to the past. According to Carr,

It wasn’t just contemporary works that were coming off the presses. Printers, striving to fill the public’s demand for inexpensive reading material, produced large editions of the classics, both in the original Greek and Latin and in translation. Although most of the printers were motivated by the desire to turn an easy profit, the distribution of the older texts helped give intellectual depth and historical continuity to the emerging book-centered culture.

p. 70
One example of a myth from antiquity that might have made the transition from manuscript to print: Jupiter and Io, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Douce 117:
Metaorphoses. Translation by Clemont Marot, with dedicatory epistle to Franis I. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, after 1531

But, readers continued to ask for more. In response, printers also provided what Carr asks us to accept was the opposite of “intellectual depth”:

Along with the high-minded came the low-minded. Tawdry novels, quack theories, gutter journalism, propaganda, and, of course, reams of pornography poured into the marketplace and found eager buyers at every station in society.

p. 70

When I read the passage above, my eyes were drawn to the phrase, “reams of pornography.” According to Wikipedia, a ream is:

ream of paper is a quantity of sheets of the same size and quality. International standards organizations define the ream as 500 identical sheets…

The number of sheets in a ream has varied locally over the centuries, often according to the size and type of paper being sold. Reams of 500 sheets (20 quires of 25 sheets) were known in England in c1594;[

Units of paper quantity, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Units_of_paper_quantity#:~:text=A%20ream%20of%20paper%20is,as%20a%20’short’%20ream

I must admit to being incredulous. How was it possible for reams–thousands of pages–of pornography to have come into existence during the Middle Ages? What were the sources for these materials? What did the medieval reader find to be prurient? Is it even possible to arrive at an understanding of pornography and obscenity according to Medieval Community standards?

The answers for these questions can only be found through exploring the materials we have been left with. In effect, we must perform our own version of Justice Potter Stewart’s Casablanca Test.

In the pages that follow, I will analyze three examples of erotic Medieval materials: narratives about Saint Agatha, the Malleus Maleficarum (a handbook on witchcraft), and the works of Pietro Aretino, the so-called “father of pornography.” While the materials are drawn from different times in the Middle Ages, they present a rather coherent snapshot of the Medieval perspective on erotic materials.

Most notably, the common element in these seemingly diverse artifacts appears to be the appropriation of female sexuality. Not only are their bodies objectified, but the very thoughts and desires of women are presented through the male voice. Moreover, I argue that masculine presence is itself a product of the most dominant power structure to exist during this time: the Church. Thus, it would not be a great leap in logic to view the Church as the greatest source for, if not the greatest purveyor of pornography during the Middle Ages.

Who’s pleasuring whom? Mars and Venus lying on a bed and embracing each other at left, Cupid seated on Mars’s cuirass in lower left corner, Vulcan and Neptune at right behind an anvel, other gods (e.g. Mercury, Jupiter) watching the couple from clouds at top left, a chariot pulled by four horses at top right; a square cartouche with lettering held by an angel in top centre; after Primaticcio or Carpi (?). 1553
Engraving; Published by Hieronymous Cock

Spin the Wheel

Detail from BL Royal 18 D ii, fol. 30v, by permission of the British Library.

One of my favorite episodes in Le Morte d’Arthur relates a dream Arthur has as the battle with Mordred looms nigh.

So upon Trinity Sunday at night, King Arthur dreamed a
wonderful dream, and that was this: that him seemed he sat upon a
chaflet in a chair, and the chair was fast to a wheel, and thereupon sat
King Arthur in the richest cloth of gold that might be made; and the
king thought there was under him, far from him, an hideous deep
black water, and therein were all manner of serpents, and worms, and
wild beasts, foul and horrible; and suddenly the king thought the
wheel turned up-so-down, and he fell among the serpents, and every
beast took him by a limb; and then the king cried as he lay in his bed and slept: Help.

Book XXI, Chapter III

While the creepy-crawlies are fascinating, it is the appearance of the topsy-turvy throne that I find most intriguing.

The Rota Fortuna, or Wheel of Fortune, is a trope with which medieval audiences would have been very familiar. The medieval reader most likely developed an awareness and understanding of the Wheel through Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy). Written during his (unjust) imprisonment, Consolatione finds Boethius attempting to derive solace through a series of conversations with the metaphorical figure, Philosophy. A large part of their discussion revolves around the role of fate, or Fortune. Philosophy first rebukes Boethius for committing himself to Fortune and then bemoaning her absence:

Again I ask, Is Fortune’s presence dear to thee if she cannot be trusted to stay, and though she will bring sorrow when she is gone? Why, if she cannot be kept at pleasure, and if her flight overwhelms with calamity, what is this fleeting visitant but a token of coming trouble? Truly it is not enough to look only at what lies before the eyes; wisdom gauges the issues of things, and this same mutability, with its two aspects, makes the threats of Fortune void of terror, and her caresses little to be desired.

Book II, I

Finally, she sternly reminds Boethius that:

Thou hast resigned thyself to the sway of Fortune; thou must submit to thy mistress’s caprices. What! art thou verily striving to stay the swing of the revolving wheel? Oh, stupidest of mortals, if it takes to standing still, it ceases to be the wheel of Fortune.

Book II, I

The embodiment of fate or luck in the feminine form can be found across belief systems. In the Western tradition, from the Greek Moirai and the Roman Parcae (aka, The Three Fates), to the Norse Norns, Hesiod’s Tyche, to the Roman Fortuna, destiny is frequently depicted as female. And, these depictions do not generally induce warm, fuzzy feelings for the entity. In perhaps the most unkindest cut of all, Fortune’s own conceit forms the foundation for our contemporary understanding of fate as a fickle bitch.

Now I would fain also reason with thee a little in Fortune’s own words. Do thou observe whether her contentions be just. “Man,” she might say, “why dost thou pursue me with thy daily complainings? What wrong have I done thee? What goods of thine have I taken from thee? Choose an thou wilt a judge, and let us dispute before him concerning the rightful ownership of wealth and rank. If thou succeedest in showing that any one of these things is the true property of mortal man, I freely grant those things to be thine which thou claimest. When nature brought thee forth out of thy mother’s womb, I took thee, naked and destitute as thou wast, I cherished thee with my substance, and, in the partiality of my favour for thee, I brought thee up somewhat too indulgently, and this it is which now makes thee rebellious against me. I surrounded thee with a royal abundance of all those things that are in my power. Now it is my pleasure to draw back my hand. Thou hast reason to thank me for the use of what was not thine own; thou hast no right to complain, as if thou hadst lost what was wholly thine. Why, then, dost bemoan thyself? I have done thee no violence. Wealth, honour, and all such things are placed under my control. My handmaidens know their mistress; with me they come, and at my going they depart. I might boldly affirm that if those things the loss of which thou lamentest had been thine, thou couldst never have lost them. Am I alone to be forbidden to do what I will with my own? Unrebuked, the skies now reveal the brightness of day, now shroud the daylight in the darkness of night; the year may now engarland the face of the earth with flowers and fruits, now disfigure it with storms and cold. The sea is permitted to invite with smooth and tranquil surface to-day, to-morrow to roughen with wave and storm. Shall man’s insatiate greed bind me to a constancy foreign to my character? This is my art, this the game I never cease to play. I turn the wheel that spins. I delight to see the high come down and the low ascend.

Book II, II

Although this is Philosophy speaking for her, clearly Fortuna comes and go as she pleases, man must never forget that. But, more important to remember is that she controls the ever-spinning wheel. Fortuna is a powerful woman. However, her power is contained by capriciousness. Forutuna’s art is game play–not the serious control of destiny. She comes on a whim, and leaves on a whim. And, the luck associated with her is just as transient.

But, does Fortune actually control, or determine man’s fate? Is she an active agent in command of her own will? I would argue against Fortune having any sort of autonomy. If predestination lies in anyone’s hands, that responsibility will most fall to a masculine deity. In the Middle Ages, that deity would, of course, be the Christian God. The argument could be made that Fortuna, like Shakespeare’s Wyrd/Weird sisters, exists outside the Great Chain of Being. She would seem to be a creature and agent of Chaos. However, in order to bring this pagan figure in line with sanction Church doctrine, she takes on the role of God’s enforcer. Again, while this embracing might appear to recognize her power, Fortuna is still contained within the predominant Patriarchal structure.

This post is leading somewhere. In the coming days, I will be putting together a series of posts that examine the appropriation and containment of the female body in early manuscript culture. Fotuna might appear in those posts. Or not. That depends on how she spins her wheel.

And, because this is my blog, I present the incomparable Journey with their homage to Rota Fortuna.

Journey – Wheel in the Sky (Official Video – 1978)
Jan 17, 2013

Dream a little dream

This week we returned to the medieval poem, Piers Plowman. In this work, which has been attributed to one William Langland, readers follow Will Langland as he walks along the Malvern Hills stopping for a nap along the way.

Malvern Hills, Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/place/Malvern-Hills-mountains-England#/media/1/360699/111998 , accessed April 10, 2022

It’s not difficult to imagine a peaceful walk here. Furthermore, the opening, soporific lines of the poem encourage readers to take a respite from their cares and join Will in his wee break:

In a summer season, when soft was the sun, I shaped me into shrouds as I a sheep were, In habit as an hermit, unholy of works,
Went wide in this world wonders to hear. As on a May morning on Malvern Hills
Me befell a ferly, of Fairy me thought.
I was weary of wandering and went me to rest Under a broad bank by a bourne side.
And as I lay and leaned and looked on the waters, I slumbered into a sleeping, it sweyed so merry.
Piers Plowman, Prologue, lines 1-10

The allegorical Vision of Piers Plowman is made possible through the act of dreaming. And, while dream narratives can be found in ancient sources (the Bible, the Dream of Scipio, and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses), the medieval period saw the genre reach peak popularity.

What was it about the dream vision that appealed so much to both medieval writers and audiences? And, why is the dream vision something that still speaks to contemporary readers?

Modern Psychoanalysis and the Dream


I have long been fascinated by the work of Carl Jung (who I came to through Joseph Campbell, but that’s another post). I know that many of his theories, like those of Freud, have been cast aside—often derided for not being scientific. Yet, for me, there is something about the lack of scientific foregrounding that I find appealing. Jung’s pseudo-gnostic beliefs regarding the origins of dreams mirror my own agnostic questioning. He wrote,

We know that something unknown, alien, does come our way, just as we know that we do not ourselves make a dream or an inspiration, but that it somehow arises of its own accord. What does happen to us in this manner can be said to emanate from mana, from a daimon, a god, or the unconscious.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 336

How are we to understand the origins for the poetic dream vision? Piers Plowman is presented as Will’s dream, yet it is a dream that comes to us through the literary efforts of its (presumed) author, William Langland. Are either Will or William able to control the workings of the unconscious psyche?

The Author-God

If the answer to the last question is yes, at least in regards to William Langland, we can see how the role of the author began to evolve during the medieval period. French philosopher Michel Foucault addressed the concept of the author in his theory of the author-function:

The author is also the principle of a certain unity of writing–all differences having to be resolved, at least in part, by the principles of evolution, maturation, or influence. The author also serves to neutralize the contradictions that may emerge in a series of texts: there must be–at a certain level of his thought or desire, of his consciousness or unconscious–a point where contradictions are resolved, where incompatible elements are at last tied together or organized around a fundamental or originating contradiction. 

Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’ reprinted in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, New York: Vintage Books, 2010, p.119

Thus, it is William Langland and his unconscious vision that provides the unity for the dreams of Will Langland. Or, is it? Will’s dreams come from William’s ymaginatif — but what is the source for the author’s dreams?

The medieval scholar would most likely say, ”Well, God, of course.” It is God to whom we turn to resolve the mysteries of existence and its inherent contradictions. We can see then that the author, by extension, operates in the guise of a god in respect to his own creations.

For contemporary readers, I doubt there would be much concern about the creative, God-like presence of an omniscient author. But, what of the medieval author? Did Langland risk ecclesiastical heresy by giving his creation dreams? Langland actually seems to function as an intermediary for God. Readers are dependent on the author for not only the dream, but for the dreamer’s interpretation of the dreams.

This last point is ironic. Much of what Will the dreamer encounters on his journey is a condemnation of church practices, which, in large part, depended on the intercession and mediating role of the church and its clergy.

I think Jung (and Freud) could have a great deal of fun unpacking Will(iam)’s multiple dreams.

The Naughty Bits

medieval censorship
‘Mettener Regel’, Germany 1414.
München, BSB Clm 8201d, fol. 24r https://discardingimages.tumblr.com/post/34101339737/medieval-censorship-mettener-regel-germany

I have found reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain (2010, W.W. Norton) particularly salient. Carr writes about no longer having the attention span to read long texts, or finding his mind drifting off. I have noticed this with myself, as well. And, it’s been a very depressing experience. I am not exaggerating when I tell people that I had read The Odyssey, The Iliad, and War and Peace by the age of 11. I loved reading. It was an escape to another world.

I had just accepted the mental drift was a facet of aging. However, as Car contends, it has much more to do with brain science and the (and I am most assuredly taking the cheap, lazy summary route at this point) manner in which “tracks” are imprinted in the brain. He likens the brain to the flow of water: water will carve out a path, then continue to take that same, easy, and comfortable route at every opportunity. I like to think of the brain as another muscle. If some parts aren’t exercised, they will atrophy. Scary stuff, no?

But, coming back to all things medieval and material. In his discussion of the advent of the printing press, Carr makes note that it wasn’t just the good old Gutenberg Bible or other holy texts that were being snapped up. Carr tells us:

Along with the high-minded came the low-minded. Tawdry novels, quack theories, gutter journalism, propaganda, and of course, reams of pornography poured into the marketplace and found eager buyers at every station of society. Priests and politicians began to wonder whether, as England’s first official book censor put it in 1660, ‘more mischief than advantage were not occasion’d to the Christian world by the Invention of Typography.’

The Shallows, p. 70

Now, my mind is not mired in smut. But, I will be honest. I was struck by that “reams of pornography” claim. So, what does one do when confronted with such a statement? Hop down the internet rabbit hole, of course.

Illuminated Manuscripts and Censorship and Sex


The first image for this post is taken from the Mettener Regel, which is summarized in the Library of Congress as follows:

Together with the Biblia pauperum (Paupers’ Bible), Abbot Petrus I of the Benedictine Abbey of Metten in Bavaria commissioned another outstanding manuscript, known as the Mettener Regel (literally, The Metten Rule, referring to the rule of Saint Benedict as practiced at the Abbey of Metten) in both Latin and German versions. The abbot had the illuminators, whose style, as in the Biblia pauperum, shows signs of Bohemian influence, paint in color scenes from the life of Saint Benedict at the openings of the chapters.


At first, one might think the image is an example of what the authors of “Coming Out: Queer Erasure and Censorship from the Middle Ages to Modernity” (DR. BRYAN C. KEENE and RHEAGAN MARTIN), refer to as dirty pages that show signs of particularly keen interest:

Books have always been intended for touch, as hands have historically manufactured, opened, held, and manipulated these bound objects. Illuminated manuscripts often led especially eventful lives, since each new owner could potentially alter the codex with marks of possession or by leaving signs of haptic usage (dirty pages).


However, it is rather apparent that someone made a decision to blur the nakedness of the maidens. I suppose medieval readers would not be as strong-minded as the monks who are able to avert their gazes. They did not need another authority to help them make the correct choice, which their frail human flesh most assuredly would have lead them to.

The second image comes from the Trinity Apocalypse. We have progressed from the redaction of images to censoring of nudity as part of the creative process. Why the difference?

Some thoughts. Or, perhaps, questions.

Does gender make a difference? It seems as though female sexuality is something that can both be traded on, contained, and constrained. Male nakedness is, well, while naked, but not as threatening. Males get loin clothes and censorship bars. Women are nearly erased.

I don’t know. But, the good news… I think this is where I want to go for my end of class research project. So, yay?

Meming Our Way Through the Medieval Age

Ponesse, Matt. (@medievalistmatt). ”I don’t know about you, but now I feel lazy…,” Instagram, 2 March 2022, https://www.instagram.com/p/Camejm4Oj2G/

I found myself struggling to come up with an idea for this week’s post. We have reached the mid-point of the semester, and after a few very hectic weeks (both personally and with school), I have been feeling rundown and somewhat overwhelmed with existence, period.

I think many people turn to social media as a means for reducing stress. Or, maybe to avoid stress completely. Scrolling (doom scrolling?) allows the mind to wander aimlessly, and aimlessness can be pretty nice sometimes. However, it was through such mindless scrolling that inspiration finally struck.

Well, it struck in a somewhat backdoor way. Allow me to explain.

One of the aspects I love about being back in grad school is the camaraderie. My peers have become real friends, which might be surprising to some given the vast age difference. I don’t think of myself as ancient, but I am older than most of my colleagues. In addition to sharing our angst over classwork, jobs, or relationships, we seem to share a similar sense of humor.

One example of that sense of humor is an affinity for memes. And, since several of us are in the same Medieval Studies class, we have started sharing memes with a decidedly Medieval bent.

Things like this:

Ponesse, Matt. (@medievalistmatt). “To think that we now drink out of plastic bottles. How far we have fallen!” 9 March, 2022. https://www.instagram.com/p/Ca4x0opu3N6/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Or, this one:

Medieval Lit Memes. (@medieval_lit_memes). “Important PSA for this time of year!!” 23 December, 2021. https://www.instagram.com/p/CX1fuU_Ij3r/

It’s not often you find people who enjoy a good Questing Beast joke. But, when you do, that’s your tribe.

My tribe of would-be scholars can generally be found at Eastern Kentucky University’s Noel Studio where we work as consultants. In between appointments, we will play ”Wordle of the Day,” share memes, and generally gripe about life or looming deadlines, and share memes, of course. Because many of us are also in classes together, we will often discuss the readings. Which is what happened this week.

One of my peers asked if any of us had looked up our name saint—one with whom we share a name. I couldn’t resist. Setting aside the wife of Abraham (although she is the patron saint of laughter which in and of itself is simultaneously sad, hilarious, and ironic), behold Saint Sarah, patron saint of misfits:

By Acoma – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5918585

Alright, so technically she’s not a saint. According to her Wikipedia entry, Saint Sarah, aka Sara la Kali (Sarah the Black), is:

… the patron saint of the Romani people. The center of her veneration is Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a place of pilgrimage for Roma in the Camargue, in Southern France. Legend identifies her as the servant of one of the Three Marys, with whom she is supposed to have arrived in the Camargue.[1] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Sarah)

Saint Sarah, like the Romani people themselves, more commonly although offensively referred as Gypsy, is something of an outlier. That might be why I find her so fascinating. Aside from the whole lack of canonization aspect, her appearance (she is depicted and referred to as Black Sarah) sets her apart from the traditional Western European panoply of saints. Sarah herself is marginalized not unlike the very people who venerate her.

I was curious if Saint Sarah had entered the digital age through meme-ification (if it’s not a word, I’m coining it now). I found posts of handcrafted items, of home altars, and images such as this:

Char. (@charlie813). ”Sarah Kali. Queen of the Outsiders…” 18 August, 2019. https://www.instagram.com/p/B1VMKH_hJcg/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

But nary a meme for Saint Sarah. Of course, she’s not in the big leagues like Aquinas. However, I started to think about what it means if a entity fails to attract the attention of meme-makers. As I indicated in my last post (“You Either Get It, Or You Don’t”), humor involves a sort of cultural shorthand. One must quite literally be part of the in-crowd to get the joke, but to also be a part of making the joke. The in-crowd for Western Christianity can see their views mirrored in memes such as the ones found here.

So, Saints like Black Sarah reside decidedly in the margins. Few know of her, few venerate her, and almost no one has brought her to the forefront of the digital conscious through a meme. Is that what is necessary for relevance? And, what about those who believe in such a saint? I think it could be interesting to explore marginalized saints and memes to see how they connect to different sociocultural groups.

Until then, one last meme for the road:

Ponesse, Matt. (#medievalistmatt). ”Tell me you’re a martyr without telling me you’re a martyr,” 2 February 2022. https://www.instagram.com/p/CbAi7aEu0xU/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

You Either Get It, or You Don’t


This is the moment I have been waiting for. Back in my days as a high school English teacher, one of my favorite units to cover with seniors was satire. After boring them to tears with my seemingly endless nattering about Anglo Saxons and Beowulf, they were ready for ”something completely different.”

My department best buddy and I had a running tagline about satire: you either get it, or you don’t. Satire seems to go straight over the heads of many people. I suppose because it is so contextually-dependent.

So, my unit began with Swift’s Modest Proposal. An amuse bouche, if you will. (I know, that was a horrible joke.) And, invariably, every semester more than one student would remark in horror, ”He wants to eat babies????”

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Our reading of The Canterbury Tales was at least broken up with bawdy jokes and dirty words. I still had to wait a few beats to get any laughs over that poor shitten shepherd, though.

But, the effort was always worth it. MY reward was waiting: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

ScreenRant: Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s 10 Funniest Scenes.

I should have mentioned that watching Grail was preceded by reading Gawain and the Green Knight and some of Malory’s Le Morte. The state-sanctioned textbook only included Arthur’s death (the dreams, Bedivere’s failure to follow through with disposing of Excalibur, the promised Christ-like return of Arthur). I always thought my students should hear the naughty bits about Uther and Igraine along with a brief lesson on primogeniture. Throw in a quick run-down on chivalry, and a ”create your own crest” activity, and they were ready to be entertained… Wait, that’s another movie.


While I enjoyed revisiting Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur for my graduate class, it was the accompanying article that made me reconsider the Pythons’ treatment of the legend. In “Standing Up for the Stanzaic-poet: Artistry, Characterization, and Narration in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Malory’s Morte Darthur,” (Arthuriana, Vol. 28, Number 3, Fall 2018, pp. 86-113) Fiona Tolhurst and K.S. Whetter make a compelling case for recognizing the literariness of the Stanzaic Morte, one source for Malory’s treatment of the Arthurian legends.

As Tolhurst and Whetter contend, central to both works is character development. Ultimately, these are tales about humans (be they king, queen, or greatest knight to live). It would seem logical that the titular figure is also the one around whom the story unfolds.

The same is true for The Holy Grail. The film follows Arthur, played by Graham Chapman (who also portrays God in an interesting and possibly deliberate case of mirroring/doubling), as he travels the kingdom coalescing an order of knights.

As the saying goes, hilarity ensues. Or, not. That depends on your definition of hilarity and understanding of satire, which, in this case, would need to be foregrounded by a passing knowledge of not only Arthur, but also the chivalric code upon which his court was founded—presumably.

This film is indeed one of my all-time favorites. I could probably make multiple blog posts about MP&THG. Heck, I even contemplated writing my MA thesis on it. So, narrowing my discussion to one scene was almost akin to Sophie’s Choice. But, I think the exchange between Arthur and the Black Knight reveals a great deal about the concepts of kingship and chivalry, and why these constructs are fair game for satirization by the Pythons.

Arthur and The Black Knight — aka, Tis But a Scratch

Arthur battles the Black Knight, ScreenRant: Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s 10 Funniest Scenes

As we watch Arthur traipse about the countryside with no companion save his trusty servant, Patsy (not unlike the episode in which he chases after the Questing Beast), he comes upon the Black Knight. Readers familiar with the body of Arthurian legends may recognize in the Black Knight elements of the Green Knight, or really any knight willing to give his all—quite literally—for his chivalric cause. In this instance, the Black Knight commands, ”none shall pass” a footbridge.

While the Pythons were clearly ridiculing a code that would have men die on their swords for somewhat hazy concepts such as honor, they may also have been questioning the utter ridiculousness of war, in general. MP&THG came out in 1975 when the world was still contending with Vietnam, and Great Britain was mired in economic turmoil that could be said to have its foundations in WW2.

The troupe of comedians knowns as the Monty Pythons were the children of WW2 veterans, the grandchildren of men who had fought in the first ”Great War” and the inheritors of the proverbial stiff-upper British lip. That stalwart ethos is succinctly communicated by Tennyson’s Charge of The Light Brigade: “Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do or die”(lines 14-15). Interestingly, it is Tennyson’s own treatment of the Arthurian myth through works such as his Idylls of The King that is most recognizable to the majority of people.

I write this as the world watches events unfold in the Ukraine. Are we at the brink of another ”great” war? We wait to see if one man, like the Black Knight, is willing to sacrifice all for wholly questionable reasons.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail—Black Knight, Shugo, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRwCPUEND1U

Women’s Work

One of my favorite words is serendipitous, which can be defined as occurring or discovered by chance in a happy or beneficial way. Two events occurred over the last week that, to me at least, seemed serendipitous.

Well, maybe serendipitous isn’t the right word. Irrespective of word choice, this week’s class readings happened to converge meaningfully with my attempt to binge-watch Seasons 1-5 of Outlander. For anyone not familiar, Outlander is the Netflix show based on Diana Gabaldon’s popular series of books. The show follows the life of Claire, a woman who is magically transported through a circle of standing stones from post- WW2 era Scotland two hundred years into the past.

Image provided to Wikia Inc. by STARZ Public Relations for use on Wikia sites. All rights reserved.
This file is copyrighted. The copyright holder has given permission for its use.

I don’t plan on devoting a great deal of space to relating all of Claire’s adventures. Gabaldon just released book #12!! The important talking points for this blog post are as follows: Claire (a nurse) finds herself living with a group of highlanders, the MacKenzie Clan. She is appointed as clan healer due to her medical expertise. Claire finds herself traveling throughout the highland region of Scotland (northern Scotland and its outer islands) while the clansmen collect rents. Ostensibly, at least. It soon becomes apparent to Claire that their mission is two-fold: the collection of rental income for the laird of Clan MacKenzie AND drumming up support for a Jacobite uprising.

Still with me? I know … what is the connection between the medieval dream vision poem Piers Plowman and a historical romance set in pre-Jacobite Scotland? We are almost there.

While the men are collecting money, Claire is left to her own devices. Claire is most assuredly a curious type. Meandering away from the men, she hears the sound of women singing. But, this is not singing as performance or for simple pleasure. The women our time-traveling nurse comes upon are engaged in the process of wool waulking.

Check out the scene below:

Garik Avetisov “Outlander Wool Waulking Song” ; Outlander I, episode 5: Mo Nighean Donn

Gabaldon provides a more detailed explanation in the book version:

“Hot piss sets the dye fast,” one of the women had explained to me as I blinked, eyes watering, on my first entrance to the shed. The other women had watched at first, to see if I would shrink back from the work, but wool-waulking was no great shock, after the things I had seen and done in France, both in the war of 1944 and the hospital of 1744. Time makes very little difference to the basic realities of life. And smell aside, the waulking shed was a warm, cozy place, where the women of Lallybroch visited and joked between bolts of cloth, and sang together in the working, hands moving rhythmically across a table, or bare feet sinking deep into the steaming fabric as we sat on the floor, thrusting against a partner thrusting back.”
(From DRAGONFLY IN AMBER, Chapter 34, “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. Copyright© 1992 by Diana Gabaldon.)

One word: URINE.

Claire is invited to join the women in their work. The communal aspect of the experience is created not only by sharing the work, but also by passing time while singing Gaelic waulking songs, such as Mo Nighean Donn (My Brown Haired Girl). The lyrics and translation for which are provided here.

English transaltion*
Oh how my mind is heavy
as I’m north west of the Storr (1)
My brown haired girl hò gù Hì rì rì hù lò
My brown haired girl hò gù.
My brown haired girl, I remark
At the fair of the young women.
Hì rì rì hù lò  My brown haired girl hò gù.
And we will walk hand in hand
Hì rì rì hù lò  My brown haired girl hò gù.
Regardless of any living elders (2).

Gur e mise tha fo ghruaim
‘S mi ‘n taobh tuath dhan an Stòr.
Mo nigh’n donn hò gù Hì rì rì hù lò
Mo nigh’n donn hò gù 
Mo nigh’n donn shònruich mi fhéin thu
ann an broad nam ban òg
Hì rì rì hù lò Mo nigh’n donn hò gù 
‘S bidh mo làmh na do làimh
Hì rì rì hù lò Mo nigh’n donn hò gù 
Dh’aindeoin èildeir tha beò.
Mo Nighean Donn, TERRE CELTICHE BLOG, https://terreceltiche.altervista.org/outlander-wool-waulking-songs-2/

The video below provides more detail about waulking songs in Scotland. The speaker is a member of a contemporary waulking society that is attempting to preserve both the songs and techniques involved in working wool.

Seasons in Music: Waulking in a Winter WonderlandFaculty of Arts & Social Sciences at The OU
From Wikipedia entry on Fulling; Detail of engraving showing Scotswomen singing a waulking son while waulking or fulling cloth,1772.
By Unknown author – http://www.marariley.net/celtic/scotland.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3653017

Carding and Cloth-Making in Piers Plowman

While Langland’s Piers Plowman provides some insight to the working classes and the somewhat tumultuous death of feudalism, I was taken with the occasional references to the burgeoning textile industry. As Andrew Galloway points out in his essay, ”Langland and the Reinvention of Array in Late-Medieval England,”:

“One of his [Langland] poem’s unusual intersections with transitions in clothing and cloth-making can, however, be explored through a single, brief simile, though it raises as many questions as it answers. Dame Study, the poem’s keenest observer of novelty, says that knowledge nowadays is impossibly corrupted: ‘Wisdom and wit now is no˙t worþ a kerse / But if it be carded wiþ coueitise as cloþeres kemben hir wolle’ (B.10.17–8) (p. 611).

Not only can it be argued that Langland had more than a passing awareness with the various processes involved in cloth-making, he most likely would have known who was involved in the labor at each stage:

“Preliminary carding is indeed menial women’s work, an alternative to and simultaneous step with ‘comb ing’, with which it is often formulaically paired, as elsewhere in Piers Plowman, and often depicted in medieval English manuscript art. 22 Combing and carding to pre pare wool for spinning are proverbially what ‘wives’ do” (Galloway p. 613).


I must admit that I do not understand enough about the various stages of processing wool—especially prior to the Industrial Revolution — to give the subject its due. What is apparent to me is that the dirtiest aspects of the job were frequently the province of women. And, it is both comforting, and somewhat heartbreaking to hear the songs they used to keep on task. I don’t know if their is an equivalent to the Gaelic waulking songs; that might be the next rabbit hole I travel down.

Works Cited

Galloway, Andrew. “Langland and the Reinvention of Array in Late-Medieval England.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 71, no. 301, 2019, pp. 607–629., https://doi.org/10.1093/res/hgz123. 

A Grave Concern

Conducting research for my Master’s thesis has taken me down many rabbit holes. One of which brought me to the image shared below. I don’t know if my love of literature, especially Anglo Saxon works such as Beowulf, is the reason for my fascination with the lives of those who lived long ago, or if my interest in their stories is a result of that fascination.

From: Early Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries: Kinship, Community and Identity by Duncan Sayer, Manchester University Press, November 2020

Regardless of that chicken/egg dilemma, I find myself enthralled with the world of people who existed so long before me. This particular image is found in a book that examines the role of cemeteries in Anglo-Saxon society. Aside from the ritualistic or cultural significance of certain burial practices, the author, archaeologist Duncan Sayer, describes how cemeteries can be seen as narrative spaces. We can ”read” a burial site as a story—a narrative that reveals not only what mattered to a given group of people at one time, but also the deeply personal stories of the anonymous dead.

Consider the cemetery space itself. In my small hometown, there are several cemeteries. While all are located beyond the borders of our little town, the most prominent one is located just beyond the city limits. Still easily accessible and visible from the two-lane highway that leads into our hamlet, but nowhere near the center of action or life. This separateness has not always been the case for burial sites. In many cultures, and in the world I am drawn to, that of the Anglo-Saxons, remains were not inhumed in some out-of-the way location. Burial grounds (be it mound, cairn, or plot) had an on-going, interactive role in the existence of the living. In some instances, that role might have been symbolic, but in others, burial sites were seen as homes for the dead. For many societies of the past, death might have been seen as simply another facet of existence.

So, the cemetery or burial ground would have been placed close enough for the living to have an ongoing relationship with those housed there. Let us think of the location as the setting in our narrative of the dead. Within the narrative structure of the cemetery grounds, we can find countless short stories–or, even the arc of a greater narrative–one that details the rise and fall of a village, or even a civilization. How were the individual grave sites arranged? What relationships existed between the graves themselves? What can be inferred about this past society from the location, contents, or even proximity between individual graves?

Consider this image from the same work by Sayer.

From: Early Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries: Kinship, Community and Identity by Duncan Sayer, Manchester University Press, November 2020

I want to focus on grave 23. As Sayer’s text indicates, grave 23 presents something of a conundrum for contemporary “readers” of the site. He (the remains are that of a male) appears to be in a somewhat central location. He is positioned N/S (unlike the majority of graves), and is surrounded by other graves. Yet, unlike grave 26, which had weapons typically associated with a warrior of some importance, grave 23 contained no grave goods. Nor is he surrounded by the graves of warrior band. Instead, weapons have been found buried around 23 (referred to as weapon-set graves). Even more intriguing: the individual in site 23 is surrounded by the graves of children.

What story could we craft for the inhabitant of grave 23? I want to believe that this was someone held in great esteem not only by his contemporaries, but also by the descendants of his contemporaries. Perhaps, the weapons graves formed a wall of protection—one that would also protect the children surrounding the man buried in grave 23. Without doubt, child mortality in the Anglo-Saxon era was high. But, because children died early and frequently did not mean they were not precious members of this world.

Consider the first image I shared. Grave 78 contains the remains of a woman and child. The woman has been placed in the prone positions (face down) a rather common practice for this era. Some have hypothesized that such a position is indicative of shame or sin — in guilt, the person faces away from the world. Yet, the woman was found holding beads and a brooch in her right hand. Possessing such valuable grave goods means this woman had merit in someone’s eyes, or enough worth to be sent into the next realm with treasured items.

Of course, the most important aspect of this tableau is the eternal connection between Woman and child. Are they mother and child? That is one story. Let us believe that narrative. Did they die together from some horrid event or as a result of disease or starvation. Either narrative strand is possible. But, we are distracted by the image and possible backstory. This pair did not fall into grave 78. The preparation of the dead, and placement of the bodies into the grave would have been a far more intimate act than any with which modern mourners are familiar. Someone took the woman’s left hand and purposefully placed it on the child’s arm for what he or she believed would be eternity. As the grass grew over grave 78, and time passed, those who knew the inhabitants inhumed there would go to their own graves. Names and life stories would disappear. All that remains are their remains.

One of the last acts I was able to perform for my child before he died was to help wash his body. I had done the same for my father when he died at home. In my life, I have held two people as they died. Death and our treatment of those who die, like the cemetery space itself, seems to always exist on the periphery of our collective subconscious. I have come to believe that we need to return to the old ways. Perhaps that is simply my way of trying to find a means for accepting the deaths of those who I love.

What does any of this have to do with a seminar class in Medieval Literature? While the Anglo-Saxon practices and world may have been subsumed by first the Danish invaders, and then the Normans, I believe that vestiges of the old beliefs and struggles can be seen to influence works such as the Pearl, composed by the Gawain poet.

I hope to elaborate on how I believe these beliefs are connected in my upcoming blog posts. Fingers-crossed, I will also be sharing how all these interests will lead to MY NEXT BIG THING…


It’s been awhile

Seasons have passed since my last entry to this site. I had the best of intentions when starting this project. But, as is the norm with me, life intervenes. I took the summer off, I am also lazy, and sometimes the subject of grief just has to be set aside in order just to survive. Once again, I pick up this work as part of a class project, but also as something that is part of my life’s work. For many, a life that is defined by and revolves around the grief process might appear to be no more than an exercise in morbid self-gratification. Perhaps it is. Maybe that’s all it needs to be for the time being.