Valentine’s Day Vernacular Poetry Reading

This past 14 February, the Medieval Studies Department hosted their first Valentine’s Day poetry reading. In the spirit of the day, all selections discussed, in some capacity, the nature of love and its effect on the human beings fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to find themselves in its throes. From the pure love of God to the often controversial love felt between human beings, the poems and songs performed provided a wide range of perspectives of a state of being infamous for its eluding a clear definition in any known language.
It is perhaps this very elusiveness that makes the performance of Mohammad Alsidi so apt as the first given of the evening. A masterful player of the Oud, a stringed instrument originating from Ur, Alsidi performed old Aleppan music often played during the day in Sufi circles while conversations and discussion of the scripture and current events were echoing through the courtyards. While the melodies Alsidi played could be accompanied by lyric or chant, he played the pieces as they were taught to him: without vocal accompaniment. Each pluck of a string composed a wordless prayer in praise to God, proclaiming love for Him. Having roots in the region around Aleppo that stretch back nearly two millennia, these melodies, in a myriad of different forms, can be heard wherever Aleppans have strode, from India to Venezuela. Alsidi, himself a native of the region around Aleppo, played these beautiful pieces with a bittersweet tone. These melodies, like so much of Aleppo and, indeed, much of Syria, are being lost in the civil war. These songs, and the hands that can play them and the voices that can sing them, are dying. Alsidi said that he plays in order to have these pieces still heard in the world, so that we might not deafen ourselves to what is being lost while it is still here to be recorded, preserved, and enjoyed.
The next poem was Guido Cavalcanti’s “Voi che per gli occhi mi passaste il core,” delivered by Dr. Susana Barsella. A friend of Dante, Guido presented love as beautiful and uplifting, but ultimately ending in a “language of sighs.” Dr. Emanuel Fiano recited St. Ephrem’s “Hymn III: On Paradise.” Dating to the fourth century, this Syriac piece discussed the choice given to Adam and Eve over whether or not to eat of the forbidden fruit. Needless to say, their story does not end on a happy note: a reasonably consistent theme of this Valentine’s Day celebration. Next was Father Martin Chase’s recitation of lausavisur from the Old Norse Kormáks Saga. Kormák’s Saga, a prose tale with occasional segments of Skaldic song, also presents us with a narrative filled with less Cupid floating through a tranquil grove and more facing the difficulties that come with loving another over a prolonged period of time, albeit under less then mundane circumstances. However, the segment Father Chase read was one toward the beginning of the tale, when the lovers meet for the first time: a happy affair in which Kormákr fell in love at the first sight of Steingerðr’s ankles and feet.
The final three poetic readings were given by Drs. Jocelyn Wogan-Brown, Susanne Hafner, and Andrew Albin. Saying that God might deserve a Valentine’s Day gift too, Dr. Wogan-Brown presented the Old French “Rossignos” of John of Howden. Dating to the 1270s, Dr. Wogan-Brown related that this piece was written in such a way that the audience was meant to participate in its recitation, and the poetic sophistication of the piece itself shows just how intricate and elegant the Old French of England is. Dr. Hafner read “Unter der linden,” by Walther von der Vogelveide. This poem was originally set to music, though the music has been lost. Of the “dawn song” genre, “Unter der linden” presents a woman, rather than a man, reflecting upon a night of shameless sensual indulgence with her lover after he had to flee the next morning. Utilizing a number of overt euphemisms, the poem intentionally walks the line between descent and indecent evocation of a night spent in ecstasy. On that note, Dr. Albin finished the evening with a spirited reading of Chaucer’s “The Parliament of Fowls,” carrying on the theme of love being suspended between fulfillment and denial. This parliament, consisting of numerous and diverse types of birds, eagerly awaiting their dismissal from the assembly so they could fly off with their lovers, undoubtedly reminded all present of the agony of having to fulfill an obligation while one’s true desire lay just within reach. Love may be fulfilling, but no one ever said it would be easy to endure.
The Centre would like to graciously thank all who participated in this inaugural Valentine’s Day poetry reading and those who attended and experienced examples of nearly every kind of human reaction to this eternally problematic notion of love. Here’s hoping we, as humans, never actually manage to figure it out.

Andrew O’Sullivan at the Folger Institute

Andrew O’Sullivan spent this past 23-27 of May at the Folger Institute in Washington, D.C. He attended there the Institute’s Orientation to Research Methods and Agendas with the intention of gaining a better understanding of the textual environment in which early modern readers began to re-learn and engage with Old English and Anglo-Saxon studies and the kinds of books those readers would have read to do so. While there, Andrew met Dr. Owen Williams, the Assistant Director of Scholarly Programs, who served as the groups’ primary guide through the busy week’s program. Extremely knowledgeable of current scholarship concerning the Institute’s library and materials, Dr. Williams engaged the attendee’s interests and provided them with the names of scholars with connections to the library whose work overlapped with those interests.
With this guidance, Andrew and the attendees each chose one or two books or manuscripts from the Institute’s Rare Books collection as the focus of their studies. Andrew picked Richard Verstegan’s 1605 history of Anglo-Saxon England and first printed Old English wordlist, Restitution of Decayed Intelligence; and William Somner’s Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum, a trilingual Old English-Latin-English dictionary printed in 1659. Andrew’s time with the books provoked new questions about their genesis and how their readers used them prompted in large part by the daily workshops and discussions during which the Folger Institute’s staff and other visiting scholars presented aspects of book production and trade.  As an example, Dr. Thomas Fulton, a Milton researcher on leave from Rutgers University’s English Department, observed in one presentation that the paratextual elements of the King James Bible, such as the frontispiece and its caption, may have shaped the structure of Paradise Lost. Inspired by this, Andrew spent that day paying extra attention to the paratext of Verstegan’s Restitution, noting a number of dedicatory poems written by, among others, Richard Stanihurst, an Irish historian, and Cornelis Kiliaan, a Dutch lexicographer. This wide array of scholars with an interest in English language history crossed national and confessional lines in ways that Andrew believes “defy easy explanation.” At the end of the week, Andrew and the other attendees presented the highlights of their individual investigations to the group so that they might inspire new methods of analysis or insights.
Andrew came away from the program with a richer understanding of the complex social context from which the books he chose emerged. Additionally, the experience of researching the Anglo-Saxon past at the Folger Library provided an opportunity to reflect on how each age places itself in relation to its past. Books like Verstegan’s were written to commemorate the English past, but they were also meant to demonstrate that England’s origins lay outside itself, much as the Folger Library seeks to remind us of our own nation’s extraterritorial origin. But the monumental aspect of the library and even the city around it work to consolidate history and create a unified image, meant to stand against time and dissolution. As a result, attempts to memorialize the past can have the effect of sealing it off rather than opening it up for engagement. Making the past visible and vital to the present requires constant work from its students; Andrew, and the other participants had the privilege of learning from the Folger Institute’s staff, who were able to show how the books in the library’s collection pointed to complex historical realities. To avoid presenting a rigid and brittle image of the past, institutions need people like those at the Folger Institute who can respond to the questions and interests of the public and present the objects they preserve in a way that invites further investigation.

Esther Liberman Cuenca Awarded Prestigious Schallek Fellowship

This post is cross-blogged from History at Fordham University

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Esther Liberman Cuenca, recipient of the Schallek Fellowship

Fordham History Department’s own Esther Liberman Cuenca was recently awarded the Schallek Fellowship, a one-year grant of $30,000 to support Ph.D. dissertation research in any relevant discipline (art history, literature, history, etc.) dealing with late medieval Britain (ca. 1350-1500). Not only is this a prestigious honor but it will allow Esther to conduct research critical to the completion of her dissertation.

Esther’s research focuses on the development and evolution of borough customary law in medieval Britain. Borough customs were practices or traditions that over time acquired the force of law within the town. Her analytical goals are twofold: to contribute to a deeper understanding of the place of urban customary law within the British legal system, and to reveal custom’s role in the emergence of a distinct bourgeois identity in medieval Britain. Borough customary law has received little scholarly attention because of its scattered distribution in many local and county archives; the need for multi-lingual expertise in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and Middle English; and the difficulty of dating customary clauses and ordinances from multiple iterative copies.

SROI C/4/1/1, f. 9a: The table of contents for the French Ipswich custumal, contained in the codex they call the 'Black Domesday.'

SROI C/4/1/1, f. 9a: The table of contents for the French Ipswich custumal, contained in the codex they call the ‘Black Domesday.’

Since she reached ABD status at Fordham in 2012, Esther has been teaching multiple courses at Marymount California University and this fellowship will give her the opportunity to focus fully on completing her dissertation. She plans to spend the 2016-2017 year living in England where she can complete her research at the Bristol Record Office and London Metropolitan Archives. In 2013, Esther was also the recipient of the Schallek Award, which is a small grant of $2,000 to help students cover research expenses. “The Medieval Academy/Richard III Society have been very kind to me! And I’m very grateful that they’re supporting my research,” says Esther.

 

By Grace Healy