by Prof. Gabriele Knappe & Prof. Patrizia Noel Aziz Hanna, University of Bamberg
Why would university instructors consider teaching medievalism in linguistics?
In this post, we will try to offer an answer to this question through reflecting on our experience with co-teaching a lecture on ‘Linguistic Medievalism’ to students of both German and English Studies during the summer of 2020. As it happened, this was the first semester when all teaching moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This new world, this novel feeling of shared life circumstances turned out to be conducive to our didactic concept that focused on students’ prior experience and shared knowledge.
More precisely, we started from the premise that students would have all experienced the medieval world in the multi-faceted forms in which it is depicted today. This kind of popular medievalism encountered in TV series, movies, computer games, or medieval markets and festivals is deeply rooted in today’s life, and therefore some acquaintance with and possibly also reflections on, for instance, runic tattoos, Tolkien, monsters or medievalised music could be expected. We started our teaching sessions by genuinely finding out about individual or shared experience and knowledge, in order to evaluate its – variously framed – value and complement it with our expertise in medieval language and culture.
In what follows, we present three topic areas that emerge out of our teaching. These are: the employment of neo-Old English in TV series and movies; how to assess quality in popular medievalism; and how to approach medievalism from the viewpoint of medieval philosophy of the (linguistic) sign.
Telecinematic neo-Old English
This part of teaching takes advantage of two current trends in (popular) culture. The first is the continuing interest in medievalism as ‘the ongoing and broad cultural phenomenon of reinventing, remembering, recreating, and reenacting the Middle Ages’ (Utz 2017: 81). The second is the increasing cultural, including linguistic, legitimacy of telecinematic language in the current century (Mittell 2015: 37). The medieval vernaculars employed in such telecinematic productions are not original texts but are created by linguistic experts. TV series employing neo-Old English (on this term, cf. Traxel 2018) include the series Merlin (2008-2012), where neo-Old English spells emphasise the archaic, alien ritual nature of these speech acts, and Vikings (2013-2020), where conversations in medieval vernaculars (and Latin) convey authenticity and mark otherness. Regarding movies, Beowulf (2007) comes to mind where neo-Old English characterises the speech of the monster Grendel and his mother, and of course The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (extended edition; 2002), which features a neo-Old English dirge (cf. Porck 2015 for a fuller list).
Questions that we addressed under this thematic included the following: What are the reasons for the language choice in the particular instances within the dramatic settings? How do the neo-Old English passages compare to Old English and Old English poetry in terms of correctness and idiomaticity? Can and does neo-Old English fulfil some or all of the language functions of actually spoken languages? By discussing these questions, students were invited to relate to the fact that old languages were once living languages (cf. the full discussion in Knappe forthcoming).
Learning how to assess quality in popular medievalism
Consuming the stylised artificiality of pop culture medievalism leads, almost automatically, to reflecting on the authenticity of individual medieval(ised) practices. In addition, the concept of authenticity as such must be discussed, in particular in contrast to historical accuracy, which is, for instance, not aimed at in the telecinematic medium. Students are highly motivated to learn how to tell fact from fiction, even if they love this fiction. In this context, we discussed the rituals of charms and also tattoos as part of a medieval(ised) body cult, introducing the students to runic writing and the many unresolved questions connected to its origin. After all, the evaluation of original runic inscriptions as fake or as questionable cultural heritage lies at the heart of runic research. Concerning linguistic accuracy, students were, for instance, eager to consult both print and online textbooks to check Old English and Old High German linguistic forms and meanings and thus to find out about the accuracy of film conversations, neo-runic artefacts or language-specific characteristics of medieval and medievalised music. Thus, for instance, we analysed the text-setting of Old Norse Ragnarök by Corvus Corax (see header image) with respect to theories of the relation between rhythm, metrics, and song (cf., e.g., Jammers 1969, Noel Aziz Hanna & Vetterle 2009).
Medieval philosophy of language
Students’ attitudes towards and evaluations of these instances of imaginations of the medieval period thus provide a rich cluster of shared experience against which a teacher of medieval culture and language can set off factual accounts in order to raise the students’ awareness of potential discrepancies and their manifold significations. In addition, changing the temporal perspective, that is, assuming a medieval perspective on modern medievalism, offers the chance to approach and, at the same time, discuss basic concepts like the linguistic sign. When the monster Grendel in the movie Beowulf whines like a baby in neo-Old English, when the filmic use of the recreated vernacular is thus limited to the emotional, or else to the ritual of spell casting, when song is presented in neo-Old English – in such cases we cannot help noticing the semiotic status of these ‘sounds’. Or, following up on medieval thought: does the barking dog mean what it ‘says’ (cf. Eco et al. 1989)? What kind of sign do these sounds represent? Does the use of neo-languages merely manifest something, or does it signify it? As in the scholastic discussion, our lecture did not arrive at a consensus.
Investigating the Middle Ages at eye level
In our times we must all reach a particularly high knowledge threshold to be able to appreciate medieval language. Not only must an old language stage be learned, almost like a foreign tongue, but students are required to attain a sound understanding of the medieval culture in which the language is rooted. Through their acquaintance with modern appropriations of medieval concepts, many students come to class with some knowledge of the Middle Ages, such as glimpses of medieval vernaculars or the runes in pop culture. In teaching linguistic medievalism, a good part of the teachers’ discussion incentives is not purely didactic in nature but rather genuinely investigative and leads to hypotheses which merit discussion. Thus, for instance, we have learned from one student that they simply ‘love[s] castles’ and from another that runes still play a role in military culture in connection with the image of the idealized warrior. Several students agreed that a runic tattoo in the modern world may – just as in antiquity and at some times in the Middle Ages – be conceived of as an in-group identity marker with potentially aggressive implications. And another student remarked that charms involving saints may still be invoked in times of need; as they put it: ‘I’m Roman Catholic – my mother used to say a little thing, “St. Anthony, St. Anthony, please come down, something is lost and must be found”’. This attests to the longevity of the typically medieval mix of pre-Christian and Christian ritualistic actions.
Products of linguistic medievalism may certainly be studied in their own right. But what is more, they possess great potential for medievalists. While this is certainly not the only way to approach the medieval world, it is without a doubt a method tailored to students’ experience and interest. It is thus a further instance of ‘cultural bridging’ (a notion discussed in the blog-post by Sarah Böhlau 2021 on this website) and may hence be employed in an interactive, thought-provoking, and also entertaining way – for students and teachers alike.
Böhlau, Sarah. ‘The Past is a Foreign Country: Medievalism and Time Travel Narratives’, NetMAR blog-post, August 31, 2021, available at: https://netmar.cy/2021/08/31/the-past-is-a-foreign-country-medievalism-and-time-travel-narratives/
Eco, Umberto; Roberto Lambertini; Costantino Marmo & Andrea Tabarroni. ‘On Animal Language in the Medieval Classification of Signs’, On the Medieval Theory of Signs, eds. Umberto Eco and Costantino Marmo (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1989), pp. 3–41.
Jammers, Ewald. ‘Das mittelalterliche Epos und die Musik‘, Schrift. Ordnung. Gestalt, ed. Ewald Jammers (Bern: Francke, 1969), pp. 105–171.
Knappe, Gabriele. ‘The Magic of Telecinematic Neo-Old English in University Teaching’, Old English Medievalism: The Reception and Recreation of Old English in the 20th and 21st Centuries, eds. Achel Fletcher, Thijs Porck & Oliver M. Traxel (Martlesham: Boydell & Brewer). Forthcoming.
Mittell, Jason. Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (New York: New York University Press, 2015).
Noel Aziz Hanna; Patrizia and Robert Vetterle. ‘Bavarian Zwiefache: Investigating the Interface between Rhythm, Metrics and Song’, Towards a Typology of Poetic Forms: From Language to Metrics and Beyond, eds. Jean-Louis Aroui and Andy Arleo (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2009), pp. 79–99.
Porck, Thijs. ‘Old English Is Alive! Five TV Series and Movies that Use Old English’, personal blog, November 5, 2015. Available at: https://thijsporck.com/2015/11/05/old-english-is-alive/
Traxel, Oliver M. ‘Reviving a Past Language Stage: Modern Takes on Old English’, Aspects of Medieval English Language and Literature, eds. M. Ogura, H. Sauer, M. Hosaka (Berlin: Lang, 2018), pp. 309-28.
Utz, Richard, Medievalism: A Manifesto (Kalamazoo: ARC Humanities Press, 2017)