Wednesday, April 30, 2008

It's all about the frocks...


I'm developing a sub-theme in my lectures on medievalism this semester: viz. "it's all about the frocks". And it's true: medievalism is often associated with dressing up. It's one of the first questions I'm often asked, when I reveal my profession as medieval scholar: do my students and I dress up in medieval garb? I guess it would be the most obvious way of invoking a pre-modern subjecthood; and the distinction between studying medieval culture, studying medievalism and performing medievalism is easy to blur. But I'm not, myself, a re-enacting kind of medievalist; and while I've had my share of velvet dresses, they've not been of the floor-sweeping variety. Such as these:





But it did occur to me the other day, mid-lecture, that the distinction between those who re-create the medieval and those who study those acts of re-creation might not be watertight. Do I fall prey to a false distinction when I carefully distinguish myself from the medievalism that is about re-creating the medieval? Most academics will naturally deny they are driven by wish-fulfilment fantasies in their work, but can we ever accurately diagnose our own interests?

Last week I was lecturing on The Mists of Avalon and talking about the interesting exchanges between Bradley's research into Wiccan practice, and the way Bradley's work is sometimes itself used as a source for such practice. A nice example of cultural work, I think.

One of my students is organise a demonstration and talk on re-enactment societies for my class in a week or two, and I'm really looking forward to this, but it's a very complex phenomenon, with different groups working with quite different agendas and practices.

And the medievalist itself can look so different, too. It can be dreamy and girly...



... but it can also be seriously pedagogical:





Anyhoo, medievalist film, in particular, is often lusciously about the gowns. I'm teaching Braveheart in a couple of weeks, which features some particularly lovely numbers in crushed velvet. And the costumes of Lucy Griffiths in Robin Hood have been fun, too: stretch knit cotton or printed tops worn under post-modern pseudo-C18 corsets.



And combat/happy pants for the forest episodes.

Annie Liebowitz certainly understands what this frock business is all about though. Here's her Scarlet Johannson as Cinderella:



I think there's a lot more to be written about medievalist frocks: as escapism, as technical mastery of medieval design, as romantic fantasy for a pre-feminist mode, as sheer sensual and textile pleasure, as well as the mythology of the perfect frock. Did anyone else see Susanne Spunner's brilliant play, Running Up a Dress: A Dialectic of Sewing in the late 80s? Hilarious mother-daughter sewing scenes, often clustered around the idea of the perfect dress that will transform us.



I went to see it with my sister and my mother, who for years made all the clothes worn by me and my two sisters. Dozens and dozens of frocks, all designed and put together with love — even amid the inevitable arguments over contested hemlines — and handed down to the next sister after a year or two.

I haven't checked with her, but I bet she made all four of these frocks...


















I also found a picture of my own first best frock. I was flowergirl at a wedding, at the age of 4 or 5, and got to wear this little number...

















It must have been invested with magic and mystery, as it is the only dress from my childhood that I kept. Here it is, along with its dear little shoes (and no, it pre-dates The Sound of Music).




It has a little pocket in the inside of the lining, for a handkerchief...



Apparently at the wedding feast, I was unimpressed by the chicken salad, and distinguished myself by asking for a vegemite sandwich.

I think I kept the tulle headdress for a while, too.

I may be condensing several memories, but I do recall going shopping, either for this, or some other dress material, in a shop in the Cat and Fiddle Arcade in Hobart:



And I have fond memories of the fabric sections of Myers and Buckley's, now David Jones, in the city, pouring over the sequinned brocades and shimmering silks that belonged to the unimaginably glamorous world beyond the manse, before ending up at the ginghams and cotton prints sections.

I was also thinking about the mythology of frocks last weekend, when I had such a clear image in my head of the frock I was going to wear to the party on Saturday night, and how I was going to "put myself together", so much so that even though it was actually quite cold, I persisted with my summer frock because that was how I had envisaged myself. Perfectly, knowingly delusional... But it makes me think there is in fact a kind of continuity between medievalist frocks and "normal" dressing-up, since clothes are so obviously performative.

As it turned out, I took the car to work the other day, and took the chance to wear a frock (I can sometimes manage a skirt or a dress on the bike, but pants are much easier, of course). So there I was, thinking and talking a little about medievalist frocks, wearing a soft grey peachskin silk dress I've had for over fifteen years, but a frock all the same, and a rather floaty one at that. Oh well. Sometimes you just have to wear your frock with irony.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Happy St George's Day

Several weeks ago, I was speculating on the rumours that our former PM, John Howard, might be made a Knight of the Order of the Garter, but I heard this morning from David, of Heraldry Australia, whom I met last week, that the gong has been give to two Englishmen, Lord Luce, and Sir Thomas Dunne. But all the media attention will go to Prince William. As a member of the Royal family, he doesn't count as one of the 24 Companions, but he will be counted as the 1000th member of the Order. That's quite a clever and neat piece of royal appointing, no?

Here's the text from the Press Association Website:

From The Press Association Website
Prince William given Knight honour
2 hours ago

Prince William is to join other members of his family as a Royal Knight of the Garter

He becomes a Royal Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter - the most senior British order of chivalry - and the 1,000th Knight in the Register.

His father the Prince of Wales received the honour in 1958, the Princess Royal in 1994, and the Duke of York and the Earl of Wessex two years ago.

Members of the Royal family are additional to the established number of 24 Knights Companion.

These were depleted by the deaths of former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath and the conqueror of Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary.

It was announced that the vacancies would be filled by Lord Luce, who was Lord Chamberlain from 2000 to 2006, and Sir Thomas Dunne, Lord-Lieutenant of Hereford since 1977 and chairman of the Lord Lieutenants Association.

That means the honour has not been given to former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, despite speculation in Australia that it would be. Appointments to the Order are in the Queen's gift, without advice from Government ministers.

The oldest Order of British chivalry was established in 1348 by Edward III, and is said to have been inspired by events at the ball in France attended by the King and Joan, Countess of Salisbury.

The Countess is believed to have dropped her garter, causing laughter. The King picked it up and wore it on his own leg, uttering the phrase "Honi soit qui mal y pense" or "Shame on him who thinks this evil" - now the Order's motto.

Its emblem is a blue ribbon or garter worn by men below the left knee and women on the left arm. Each year in June a procession and service take place at Windsor Castle for the Order.


And here they all are:


They used to look like this:



but they've "modernised" a tad, especially in the trousers department:



This makes me realise I haven't blogged much about my book: not sure why. Perhaps it's time to start doing so. This is a world away from the GetUp mob's riff on Sorry Day, isn't it?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The GetUp Mob! - From Little Things Big Things Grow

Here is the GetUp Mob's mix of the Australian apology to the Stolen Generations. Our PM is the star, and Paul Kelly's song about Vincent Lingiari never sounded so good...



I also bought the song from iTunes (proceeds go to Link Up, helping Indigenous folk re-unite with their families). Read more here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Medievalist Commodities

At the State Library of Victoria, there is currently a wonderful exhibition of medieval manuscripts, mostly from Cambridge, but with a goodly selection of local treasures, from the State Library, the National Gallery and the Baillieu Library in Melbourne, from Ballarat and Canberra, and also from New Zealand. It's not brilliantly laid out, unfortunately: some of the cases cast a shadow on the information cards, and half the time you have to look from an angle so as not to cast your own shadow on the cases. It's tricky with illuminated mss., though, as you can't have much direct light on them.

It's lovely to see the Library's own ms. of Deguileville's Pèlerinage de la Vie Humaine against Cambridge's Roman de la Rose, though, and the giant antiphonals with their heavily embossed and gold plated illuminations. Or clever comparisons of different pictures of elephants from bestiaries.

The Library's website has some great features: an online image collection, and a soundless video presentation about the re-binding of the Pèlerinage for the exhibition (there is an article about this process forthcoming in the Library's LaTrobe Journal, too), which chimes beautifully with Ampersand Duck's recent post about bookbinding.

The exhibition seems to be attracting substantial crowds, and has been heavily advertised: here's the promo that's been playing in some cinemas, for example.

It's on my tram ticket, too.





And in addition to the glossy catalogue, and other books on sale, I can buy some more affordable postcards and bookmarks, or a poster; and if I can't afford any books, I can at least pick up the brochure of the books on sale:





This is not just clever marketing and promotional work: I reckon it also taps into the heart of much medievalism and typifies it: the desire to possess the medieval in some way, to take home or domesticate a little of its beauty. Of course it's incredibly selective: the manuscripts that go on tour like this (and it's rare to see them making such a voyage) are not the medieval workaday books of devotion or history; but rather the top-end products for a wealthy readership. We can't read more than a page at a time when they are displayed like this, either, but thousands of Melbournians are peering into the glass cases and glimpsing those worlds. And by taking home a poster or a postcard or a bookmark, and indeed by hosting this free and public exhibition in the heart of the city we can purchase a great deal of very attractive symbolic capital at very little cost.

Truly, if you get a chance to visit, it's worth it.

And more is yet to come: this Sunday, April 20, there is a "medieval fayre" from 10.00 - 4.00. I'll be there, for research and teaching reasons, you understand...

Monday, April 14, 2008

The new G-G

Australia has a bit of a recent history of being embarrassed about its Governors-General. The office itself is a bit embarrassing, of course: the incumbent represents the Queen, as our head of state, and tends to make the news only when things go horribly wrong. Kerr dismissing Whitlam's parliament, disgracing himself at the Melbourne Cup; Peter Hollingworth having to resign after the mess left by his handling of church sex scandals. Even my most abiding memory of William Deane, who is widely regarded as the best and most popular G-G in recent times, is a picture of him standing with an expression of utmost compassion next to the parents of some Australian kids who had died in a canyoning disaster somewhere in Europe, having brought branches and sprigs of wattle to throw into the rushing waters.

But overnight the office seems to have been renewed, with Rudd's announcement that Quentin Bryce will take over from Michael Jeffrey in July. I don't know all that much about her, but her CV is impressive, and the appointment has been widely praised. It's as if no one can imagine how Howard could possibly have overlooked her unless he had been an old patriarchal retrograde....

It's also fun to see someone of such extraordinary elegance in the role:


But I'm even more struck by her remarks:

"I grew up in a little bush town in Queensland with 200 people, and what this day says to Australian women and Australian girls is that you can do anything, you can be anything. ... It makes my heart sing to see women in so many diverse roles across our country in Australia."

"It makes my heart sing." Wonderful! I think this is discourse that belongs to the second-wave feminism that Bryce grew up with, and stands for. It's probably still women's language — do men in public office speak like this? — and what a buzz to hear it spoken from this position.

There's a fair bit of speculation around this morning that Bryce might be our last governor-general. The buzz seems to be that Australia might be happy to serve under Elizabeth, but that Charles' accession might push the republican movement along a bit faster. I'm not so sure: I suspect we would be so enthralled by the public mourning and the public celebration of a coronation that we would forget to be republicans. And then I suspect we would fall in love with William. So if we're going to become a republic, we should disconnnect the movement from the question of the personality of the monarch. What about Quentin Bryce for President? Huh?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Pride

Sometimes in academic life there are moments of great pride.

I had a minor triumph over the last twenty-four hours when I got the scanner to work to make images of different picture-book illustrations of Beauty and the Beast for my lecture on fairy-tales this morning. In 80 minutes I covered Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche, Aarne and Thompson's classifications of fairy tales, the C18 Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne-Marie de Beaumont, brief allusions to Marie de France (Bisclavret, Yonec), and Wife of Bath's Tale, a bunch of C19 and C20 images of the story (Beardsley, Walter Crane etc.), lightly or heavily pornographic images, Disney's movie, some holiday snaps of the Beast from our trip to Disneyland a couple of years ago, and YouTube comments on the opening song from the Disney movie, e.g.
  • "I am like Belle in so many ways";
  • "Belle reminds me so much of myself; Want more out of life, and I love books. Daydreaming of adventure";
  • "I wonder if people sing about me when I'm not looking";
  • "If Belle was real, I would marry her in a heartbeat";
  • "I really agree with all of you. how freakin' kick ass would it be if we lived in singing towns?!"
Also some stuff from Jack Zipes, a clip from Cocteau's extraordinary film from 1946, an extract from Carter's Sadeian Woman on the "moral pornographer"; and a discussion of her "Tiger's Bride". We are using Maria Tatar's terrific Norton Anthology of Fairy Tales for our 3-week segment.

And as I packed up my tapes and my powerpoint CD, and unplugged myself from the lectopia recording mike, I played this clip of Carrie Underwood's "Ever After" from Enchanted:



Utterly exhausting, these lectures! I sometimes feel as if I have actually sung my way through them. But a ninety minute lecture needs to be broken up somehow, and these tales (and medievalism generally) just cry out for this kind of discussion and range.


But the real excitement this week came from the work of my students. Anne has had an article accepted for Exemplaria, and Lisa's book is out! My copy arrived yesterday and it looks wonderful: it's a terrific study of performativity, heterosexuality and speech-act theory in historical fiction (Heyer, Fowles, Byatt and others). Here's the blurb from Ashgate. And to anticipate, another student, Helen, has her book coming out with Boydell and Brewer in a few months, Desire by Gender and Genre in Trouvère Song. No image, yet, but here's her blurb. How very satisfying and rewarding it is to see these clever women producing this wonderful work.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Signing up to the Tower of Babel

I'm pleased to say I've just joined the BABEL working group - an engagingly engaged and non-hierarchical network of scholars interested in ... all sorts of things. The ideas that intrigue me most are their interest in pre-modern cultural studies, in multiple temporalities, and in the subjectivity of the humanities scholar. Their website is brilliantly energetic. I've never met Eileen Joy, but she is clearly a dynamo. Lots of people talk about re-thinking the hi-falutin' formality of literary studies, but this looks like a place where a different kind of work might be done.

Here's some of what they say:

... how could we have a collective that could act as a lever for a new discourse within the academy aimed at reformulating and redefining what we think we mean by "humanism" and "the humanities," such that we could also advocate for the important role of humanities study in the post-historical, post-human, hell, post-everything university, and also in public life? We also desired to be able to undertake this venture, as well as engage in various collaborative activities, with scholars working in more modern humanities fields, as well as with artists, and also with scientists working in cutting-edge fields such as biotechnologoy, robotics, artificial life, particle physics, etc. ... Finally, how could we create a space where, following Bill Readings, "the question of being-together is raised, raised with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question" (The University in Ruins, p. 20). After much scribbling of all of this on Meantime Lounge cocktail napkins, BABEL was born. Well, kind of.
....
As to another reason why we are attracted to the Tower of Babel as a source of inspiration, we begin with the image of the Tower in ruins. As historians, we are the sifters of the fragments of this site, but we are not its rebuilders. We are collecting these disjointed fragments and we are bearing them to the present, not as artifacts of the past, but as tablets on which new possibilities can be written, read, and even lived.
And here is the official BABEL Sonnet (oh! Friday poetry blogging! a convention I might try to activate on Humanities Researcher):

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child!
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whether better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O, sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

(William Shakespeare)
How neat is that?

But best of all, I followed the link on Pavlov's Cat and did the What Tarot Card Are You? test last night. If I sometimes follow such links, I don't always paste the results, but this is irresistible. I know almost nothing about the Tarot, but the synchronicity of this result is perhaps a good argument for finding out more...


You are The Tower


Ambition, fighting, war, courage. Destruction, danger, fall, ruin.


The Tower represents war, destruction, but also spiritual renewal. Plans are disrupted. Your views and ideas will change as a result.


The Tower is a card about war, a war between the structures of lies and the lightning flash of truth. The Tower stands for "false concepts and institutions that we take for real." You have been shaken up; blinded by a shocking revelation. It sometimes takes that to see a truth that one refuses to see. Or to bring down beliefs that are so well constructed. What's most important to remember is that the tearing down of this structure, however painful, makes room for something new to be built.


What Tarot Card are You?
Take the Test to Find Out.