My latest research has had me scouring through medieval religious tales, searching for narratives concerning ghosts and resurrection. Most of the tales I’ve found tell of dead who return to life, granted a second chance to confess and do penance so they may escape hell. But I’ve stumbled across several stories that bear remarkable similarities to modern tales of zombies and vampires. William of Newburgh, a twelfth-century English historian, documents a number of these narratives. One story ends with two men digging up the grave of a corpse who’s been terrorizing the town:
Thereupon snatching up a spade of but indifferent sharpness of edge, and hastening to the cemetery, they began to dig; and whilst they were thinking that they would have to dig to a greater depth, they suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, laid bare the corpse, swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood; while the napkin in which it had been wrapped appeared nearly torn to pieces. The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart were torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart.
William tells several other stories of corpses rising and attacking the living. Perhaps a future research project?
The Fordham Medieval Sourcebook has a translation of some of these tales.
At StarFest last week, one of my students was interviewed by a reporter for the Denver Examiner. The article has just now come out. Relevant quote:
Mackenzie Kircher-Smither, New Albany, Ind., 19, was dressed up as a Star Trek cadet for a college course. She came here to Denver with her classmates on a mission to interview other trekkies and Starfest attendees about the importance of Star Trek. “It is a folklore class and we are doing our own examining of the Star Trek culture.” They interviewed other trekkie fans and writers of fan fiction to see the influences and affects Star Trek had on their lives.
The full article can be found here: Nerds Unite at StarFest.
This past weekend, I took 13 of my “Folklore and Star Trek” students to Denver, CO, to attend StarFest, a mid-sized science-fiction convention. Throughout the semester, we’ve been examining the relationship between popular culture and folk culture, and fan conventions are the perfect place to see this process in action. Fans take the characters and worlds of television shows and use them as a base for their own creative adaptations. We saw numerous such examples: a booth filled with homemade books of fan and slash; the many costumes worn by attendees, some that were truly artistic masterpieces; performances of Klingon folk songs and steampunk martial arts. My favorite was the art room, where fans could sell their own artwork inspired by science fiction and fantasy. Although most of the works were paintings and sketches, there were some sculptures, homemade books bound with leather, and some stunning pottery. Continue reading
Despite some minor travel scares (a student with no ID!), my “Folklore and Star Trek” class has arrived safely to Denver, CO, to attend StarFest. I have never had to organize such a large-event and I lost much sleep worrying whether we would all somehow miss our flight, or that our transportation to the hotel would not show up, or that the hotel had overbooked and canceled our rooms. But everything ran smoothly and we settled in without any issues. My students were giddy with excitement the entire trip and immediately ran off to join the festivities once we checked in. Continue reading
Today I gave what I considered a great class on science fiction conventions for my “Folklore and Star Trek” course. We have been considering how folklore and popular culture interacts, so today I presented four different kinds of conventions categorized based on where they fell on the folklore-popular culture spectrum. The more a convention is organized by amateur fans without institutional support, the more folkloric the convention is. Continue reading
This week in my “Folklore and Star Trek” course, we’re looking at fan-made productions, including fan and slash fiction, and actual fan episodes. I’ve come across a surprisingly well-produced series called “New Voyages” that picks up where the Original Series ended. Yesterday, we watched two episodes from the show that depicts same-sex relationships–a topic that Roddenberry always wanted to broach but that he never did. It’s interesting to see how in fan production is more progressive and imaginative in some ways than the actual show. Continue reading
This year I’m presenting with the Medieval Section of the American Folklore Society. I’m investigating the relationship between the medieval tale of Saint Andrew and the Three Questions, in which Andrew saves a bishop’s soul from the devil disguised as a maiden by answering his three riddles. Andrew’s answer to the devil’s last question, “What is the distance between heaven and earth,” isn’t even a real answer, but an acknowledgement of his ignorance: “You would know, because you fell that distance!” I have found analogues of this tale present in modern folktales, including one collected by the Grimms. But more interesting are the ways that the riddle contest is used in medieval religious legends in different contexts. In my paper, I sketch out some of the ways in which the riddle contest moves between different genres and accomplishes different narrative goals.
My panel information is below:
Claiming Authority, Resisting the Devil: How Lay Appropriations Shaped Medieval and Early Modern Traditions
Fredericka Schmadel, “An Uppity Street Nun’s Quest for God”
Steve Stanzak, “Sacred and Secular Narratives: How Saints and Soldiers Decipher the Devil’s Riddles”
Charlotte Artese, “’They Will Not Intercept My Tale’: Oral and Classical Traditions in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus”
Dan Terkla, “The Duchy of Cornwall and Hereford Mappaemundi: Heritage, Patronage, and Commemoration”
My review of Bernard Mees’s Celtic Curses is now published with the Journal of Folklore Research. Read my review below, or at the Journal of Folklore Research webpage:
Bernard Mees’s recent work, Celtic Curses, arrays an impressive range of scholarship on ancient and medieval Celtic cursing practices. Most treatments of this topic focus primarily on literary representations of curses in the British Isles; Mees, however, also considers the historical and archaeological evidence for cursing practices among both Insular and Continental Celts. Throughout his work, the author offers careful close readings of actual curse texts and situates them as best as possible into their historical and cultural contexts, attempting to show how curses were used in particular real-life situations. For this work, the volume was nominated in 2009 for The Folklore Society’s Katherine Briggs Award. Continue reading
My review for Jan M. Ziolkowski’s recent book on medieval Latin fairy tales is now published with my usual venue, the Journal of Folklore Research. I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially its pointed criticism of some recent fairy tale scholarship that ignores viable medieval evidence. Medieval studies in folklore certainly has had its heyday, but those days are long past. It’s refreshing to see some medieval folklorists reminding the discipline of its origins.
Read my review at the Journal of Folklore Research website or below.
We do not, and never will, have access to oral folktales from the Middle Ages. Although unfortunate, this does not mean that folktale scholars should give up hope of ever understanding storytelling in the medieval period or that all our written evidence should be discarded as inauthentic and therefore not valuable. Jan M. Ziolkowski’s book, Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies, advocates for a “use what’s available” approach to medieval literature, taking into account the varied and nuanced textual practices in use at the time. Some texts with value to folklorists have survived the centuries, and careful attention to historical and cultural contexts may reveal much about medieval vernacular practices. Folklorists who dismiss written evidence out of hand solely because of its medium downplay the complexity inherent in folklore’s transmission. Continue reading
I am taking a poetry class this semester with colleagues in English and I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities and differences between our disciplines, what we decide to study and how we approach out materials. We overlap in many ways, but sometimes I’m surprised at how differently we think about literature. Although contemporary folklorists, like literary critics, also analyze aesthetic features of texts, we would never do so without knowing information about the text’s context, the author, and his or her intended audience. For folklorists, text doesn’t exist without context; texts are performed, not simply created. For the seminar paper, I chose a topic that would accentuate these ideas. Continue reading