Call for Papers: Kalamazoo 2019

I’m organizing a panel at the 2019 International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo! I’m super-excited about this. I’ve shared the CFP in multiple medieval places, and I’ll continue doing so. I know sharing it on this blog isn’t exactly going to generate submissions… But I’m proud of the call, and I want to share it here 😉

I will post updates once I have a lineup for the session (likely at the end of September), and after the conference in May!


Girls to Women, Boys to Men: Gender in Medieval Education and Socialization
54th International Congress on Medieval Studies
Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo – May 9-12, 2019
Sponsored by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship
Organized by Dainy Bernstein

The past decade has seen a significant amount of scholarship on the means and methods of medieval socialization, in texts such as Merridee L. Bailey’s Socialising the Child in Late Medieval England, c. 1400-1600 (2012). By tracing ideologies surrounding the socialization of medieval boys, Ruth Mazo Karras’s From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe (2002) contributes to critical masculinity studies, examining the formation in addition to the manifestation of masculinity. But in studies about socialization more broadly, gender is usually relegated to a small portion of the study, with the majority of each scholarly text discussing the socialization of male children by default and of female as simply a subcategory. The manifestation of medieval concepts of femininity has been extensively studied, but more attention needs to be paid to the ways in which girls were socialized to become women. In addition, the scholarship on the socialization of children rarely — if ever — addresses queer gender identities, nor does it often directly address the formations of gender identities, gender expressions, or gender roles. This panel therefore aims to expand the discussion through papers about children and childhood, gender, socialization, and education.

We encourage submissions that address non-European and / or non-Christian contexts.

Questions that might be raised include:

  • How were girls trained to become women?
  • How were girls taught to view themselves?
  • How were girls taught to view boys/men?
  • How were boys taught to view girls/women?
  • What ideologies and structures played a role in the ways girls were trained or taught?
  • What were the circumstances under which those ideologies differed (region, class, etc)?
  • Was there space for queer gender identities and/or expressions in lived reality or in texts?
  • How do texts reinforce or defy the dominant models of feminine training and socialization?

Please send abstracts of approximately 250 words, along with a completed Participant Information form, to session organizer Dainy Bernstein by September 15. Please include your name, title and affiliation on the abstract itself. All abstracts not accepted for the session will be forwarded to Congress administrators for consideration in general sessions, per Congress rules.

Fighting the Past: Medieval Dragons in Children’s and YA Literature

I presented this paper at the Pearl Kibre Medieval Society’s conference on “Pre-Modernisms” at the CUNY Graduate Center in October 2016. This is essentially the same paper, cleaned up slightly for written publication as opposed to oral presentation.

In the fields of children’s and Young Adult literature, there’s a lot of discussion about the appearance of dragons. Some focus on their playfulness, some on their uncanniness, some on the facets of Eastern versus Western dragons. In this paper, I’m focusing on a narrower set of dragons – defined first by their appearance in children’s or Young Adult texts, and next by their relevance or resemblance to medieval dragons.

From the very broad survey I did of children’s and YA texts, I found that in almost every case where the Middle Ages are evoked explicitly or via “medieval-feel” details, the dragons serve a similar symbolic function as their medieval counterparts. In the medieval texts, the dragons were themselves symbolic of something that needed to be eradicated. In contemporary texts, the dragon often functions as a character within a narrative about an unwanted social reality or ideology that must be eradicated.

I. The Anglo-Saxon Dragon as Pagan

In Anglo-Saxon literature, the dragon existed outside of society. It tended to live in prehistoric burial mounds, hoard treasure, and lead a solitary existence. In a discussion of the dragon in Beowulf, Sarah Semple argues that the fear of dragons and their imagined home in old burial mounds are due to the fear of a pagan past, and a desire to create distance between that pagan past and the Anglo-Saxon Christian present.

While early Anglo-Saxon culture included the creation of burial mounds, these were mostly reserved for victims of execution – goodness was not associated with burial mounds.

There’s other textual evidence that burial mounds were feared – like Aelfric’s warning against witches raising the dead near burial mounds, based on the pagan idea that the spirits of those buried there were always nearby.

The Anglo-Saxon dragon became associated with the fear of Britain’s own pagan past.

Of the contemporary texts I looked at, the dragon in Robin McKinley’s book The Hero and the Crown most closely fits this symbolism. One of the underlying themes of the novel is about separating oneself from one’s past, and recognizing one’s own goodness despite a terrible lineage.

Picture5To briefly outline the plot: Aerin is a princess of Damar, but there are rumors about her mother being a witch from “the North.” Northerners are known to Damarians all along as evil, and later in the book they’re revealed to be not quite human. Aerin grapples with this suspicion of having evil origins for a significant portion of the book. The form of the novel very much follows a typical adventure story, and as she embarks on her quest, she learns that the evil threatening Damar is actually her own uncle, a Northerner. But she also learns that Damarians came from the North too – they migrated south before the Northerners used their magic to become demonic and less than human.

Although Aerin is more closely related to the North than the rest of  her Damarian compatriots, they all have a connection to this evil – their own past contains the potential for the same evil, and they must continually prove that they have chosen a different path.

When the novel opens, dragons are a threat, but there are only smaller dragons who are mostly annoyances and not any real threat. The big, monstrous dragons of the past have been eliminated – though there is a legend that one or two of the old dragons are still alive, just sleeping, biding their time.

When the North begins to be a problem for Damar, the old dragon Maur wakes up. Later, it becomes clear that the Northerners actually used their magic to awaken the dragon. Thus Aerin’s fight with this great dragon, and her subsequent fights against humans and demonic Northerners, are representative of her fighting the past – her own more immediate demonic past, as well as Damar’s distant past potential for evil.

She has to go so far as get rid of the dragon’s skull, which had been kept as a trophy in the palace. Even the merest presence of a reminder of all this, weakens her people, puts them into a mood of despair. Only when she shoves the huge skull out of the city gates do the people regain hope and optimism.

II. The Anglo-Saxon Dragon as Anti-Social

The second reason to fear an Anglo-Saxon dragon, beyond its association with a pagan past, was its anti-social hoarding behavior. Anglo-Saxon society depended on the exchange of treasure and goods in order to create and maintain social bonds. We see this in Beowulf when Hrothgar distributes treasure to his men, and in the symbolism of Beowulf’s treasure being buried with him and not distributed to his men, who had been too cowardly to support him in his final battle against the dragon.

As a hoarder of treasure, the dragon was not just selfish or greedy – it was negating the methods of interaction essential to maintaining a well-functioning society. If one individual were to amass wealth and sit on it – literally, as the dragon does – the fabric of social bonds would be torn, and society would fall apart.

Picture7.jpgC.S. Lewis’s series The Chronicles of Narnia features a dragon like this. Eustace Scrubb accidentally winds up in Narnia with his cousins, the Pevensies, in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace is a pretty terrible little boy, and everybody hates him. He undergoes a character transformation by the end of the novel, but there’s one point where he physically transforms into a dragon. Lewis explicitly draws a connection between Eustace’s character and this physical transformation.

Eustace is reluctant to join the others in an expedition, but he goes along because he’s in a strange land and has no hope of surviving on his own. But at one point he wanders away from the traveling group – a selfish act, because they can’t leave him there, so they can’t move on until they find him and bring him back. He comes across a dragon’s hoard, plays with the gold and puts on an armlet, and then falls asleep atop the pile of treasure.

As a result of sleeping on a dragon’s hoard and being filled with “greedy, dragonish thoughts,” Eustace changes into an actual dragon. This wouldn’t happen when any individual sleeps on the dragon’s hoard, of course. It only happens because Eustace has already proven himself to be greedy, selfish, whiny, and generally intolerable. He does not know how to behave as a member of society, so he’s the perfect candidate for turning into a dragon.

His time as a dragon, ironically, helps him learn to become a better-behaved member of society, and everyone likes him by the end, after he’s been turned back into a human. Interestingly, Eustace winds up attempting to bravely attack a sea serpent on their way back – and of course, serpents and dragons are closely related: Anglo-Saxon “wyrm,” used in Beowulf, translates to both serpent and dragon. It seems that once Eustace has shed his dragon-like anti-social tendencies, he can join the others in eradicating that threat.

III. The Middle English Dragon as Synchronic Other

Lewis was a medievalist, though he was not an Anglo-Saxonist – and this dragon is decidedly Anglo-Saxon. The Middle English dragon doesn’t lose the characteristic of being a hoarder or the symbolism of being somehow apart from society, though the stark connection to the pagan past and to anti-social greediness is muted.

The threat the Middle English dragon tends to symbolize is a synchronic Other rather than a diachronic Other or an anti-social member of one’s own society – not our own past or our own misfits, but our contemporaries who are “not like us.”

This is a very broad generalization, of course, and the dragon as symbolic of a pagan past doesn’t immediately fade away – versions of Guy de Warwick use the dragon to various degrees as explicitly symbolic of a pagan past. But this could be, as Rosalind Fields suggests, simply because the story is already set in the past (the Anglo-Saxon Athelston is king in Guy de Warwick). The versions which evoke the Anglo-Saxon symbolism of the dragon, she says, are capitalizing on the setting of the tale, not the period when the text itself was written.

But Middle English dragons tend to follow the pattern of St. George’s dragon – a knight rescues a princess from a marauding dragon.

The threat of the dragon was often symbolic of the Saracens. While medieval Europe was fighting the Crusades, the contemporary Saracen Other became more of a threat than the past pagan Other. The trend of dragons as religiously the opposite of Christianity continued into the Renaissance with Spenser and Milton. This is the dragon we know most familiarly from children’s and YA literature, which associate dragons with locked-up princesses, being rescued by brave knights.

But before I get to that, I want to trace the history of dragons a bit further.

After Spenser and Milton, use of dragons in literature peters out. By the nineteenth century, there’s a severe paucity of dragons in literature. According to some critics, dragons were too closely tied to themes of Christianity to allow for their use in secular literature. Another way of looking at this same analysis: their association with pure evil had rendered them useless for literary purposes. They were stock characters, and too flat, too tied up with pure unadulterated evil, to be of any interest to writers of secular fiction.

IV. The Children’s Dragon

When these dragons start showing up in children’s literature in the twentieth century, they’re more often than not parodies rather than serious stories about a knight rescuing a princess from a dragon. There’s E. Nesbit’s The Last Dragon and Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon, both often credited with igniting the rebirth of literary dragons. Both of these take the basic framework of a dragon-princess-savior story and turn it on its head.


In Grahame’s story, a boy finds a dragon and befriends it, but is told by the adults that he must call on St. George to come take care of the dragon. The boy is reluctant to do so, but he does – because that’s what the adults said he should do. St. George comes, but is reluctant to fight the dragon. Still, he prepared to do so because that’s what he’s supposed to do. But when he goes to fight the dragon, the dragon is reluctant to fight back.

Everyone is reluctant in this story – none of the main characters wants to fulfill their literary roles. St. George and the dragon agree to stage a fight, which satisfies the townspeople, and then St. George announces that the dragon is no longer a “bad dragon” or a danger to anyone.

The story is obviously a critique of the expectations embedded in this traditional tale of slaying dragons.

Picture4.jpgNesbit’s story features a prince and princess, and parodies the concept even more than Grahame. Not only is the dragon reluctant to fight, the whole setup of the dragon threatening a princess is arranged by the princess’s parents in order to allow the prince to rescue her and thus have a respectable betrothal. The princess at first tries to convince her parents to tie up the prince and let her rescue him. Her parents don’t agree, because that’s not what’s done. But her prince isn’t exactly interested in fighting dragons either, so they team up and go to fight the dragon together, only to discover that the dragon doesn’t either want to fight – he hates that they tie up princesses near him as if he’s a threat, he doesn’t even like eating princesses!

Nesbit critiques the narrative expectations just as Grahame does. She also explicitly critiques gender expectations – why can’t the princess rescue the prince? – and she critiques the image of the dragon as threatening. Everyone assumes it’s a dangerous threat, it will eat princesses if the prince doesn’t rescue her in time (after her parents left her in that position, of course…) But in fact, the figure taken for granted as a threat is just as tired of the whole charade as the hero and heroine.

These are the trends that take hold after this point: using the dragon as a critique of ingrained assumptions and expectations. And in a way, this is simply a continuation of the Anglo-Saxon dragon’s symbolic importance – it allows us to have tales about fighting our past.

By now, the past we are fighting is not pagan but is built upon expectations about gender and about “monsters” that the present has moved away from.

One of the most defining features of folklore is its ability not to simply reflect the past but to express changes in social attitudes and ideas. The figure of the dragon is a part of this – it can be used to reflect values which are in fact medieval, as McKinley’s dragon reflects the theme of breaking from an evil past and Lewis’s dragon reflects the theme of greed as anti-social.

But then the dragon is perfectly situated to also express changes in social attitudes and ideas, as Nesbit and Grahame’s dragons scoff at numerous expectations.

Ruth Berman claims that the comic dragons of Nesbit and Grahame helped dragons lose their Satanic identification, and this released a flood of dragons in literature, especially children’s literature. But she argues that the comedy of the dragons is dependent on the softening of their evil to a more amusing naughtiness, which allows for their comedic taming.

And that’s partly true – but although humor does dominate in children’s texts about dragons, the dragon is not always merely naughty – sometimes it is evil, even if its evilness is funny. And the dragon is not always tamed – sometimes it’s killed, sometimes it doesn’t need to be tamed because it wasn’t naughty or evil in the first place!

As an example, I’ll take a look now at The Dragon Book, a collection of dragon stories from E. Nesbit, and The Dragon Slayers’ Academy, a currently ongoing Middle Grade series by Kate McMullan. (Middle Grade is sort of “older children’s literature” – not teen literature, but not picture books. It’s aimed at children about 8-13 years old.)

Both texts feature children who use ingenious methods to conquer dragons – Wiglaf kills his first dragon in Dragon Slayers Academy by telling terrible jokes. Nesbit’s characters use similar humorous methods in a few stories. The comedy is not dependent on dragons being less evil and more naughty – the humor is dependent on the methods the children use to slay the dragons.

Picture3.jpgIn Nesbit’s book, the dragons are threats that need to be eradicated. But in McMullan’s series, the dragons aren’t even really a threat – the boys slay dragons for the simple goal of gaining gold for their headmaster and parents. The whole series is about a group of children who are being taken advantage of by the adults.

Everything is funny in this series, and there’s clearly an attempt to make the atmosphere medieval – but the pejorative “medieval” here is about how the adults take advantage of the children, and how the kids use their wits to navigate this world and to survive and thrive.

These parodies are not explicitly critiquing expectations, although they’re a fascinating subset of how dragons are used in children’s literature – as a kind of marker between children and adults.

Picture8.jpgKate Klimo’s Dragon Keeper series, which begins with The Dragon in the Sock Drawer, makes a clear connection between dragons, imagination, and children or childlike qualities. The adults can’t adjust their already-formed ideas about what constitutes a threat or a monster, but as with Grahame and Nesbit, the children can take the time to interact with the dragon long enough to know it’s not actually a threat. These texts use the medieval symbolism of a threatening Other to critique what we label as threatening and Other.

And then there are parodies which don’t necessarily trivialize the evil of the dragon, but they do critique social expectations.

Picture2.jpgRobert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess features a dragon who kidnaps a prince, burns down everything in sight, and leaves the princess with nothing to wear but a paper bag. In this story, the prince and princess don’t protest their gender roles – they’re forced into this reversal by the dragon snatching the prince rather than the princess. But Princess Elizabeth takes charge of her life when Prince Ronald is disgusted by her lack of fine clothes and cleanliness – after she’s just defeated a dragon to rescue him, he might have been a little forgiving of her stinking… So she calls off the wedding.

It’s again a critique of expectations – Nesbit’s The Last Dragon did so by allowing the prince and princess to express their own distaste with the roles expected of them. Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess executes the critique by putting the prince and princess in reversed roles and only pointing out the sexist assumptions at the end of the story.

All of the texts I’ve mentioned here so far – Grahame, both of Nesbit’s, McMullan’s Dragon Slayers Academy, Klimo’s Dragon Keepers – are children’s or Middle Grade texts. The only Young Adult text I mentioned was Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, which uses medieval dragon tropes authentically, not as a critical parody.

The novel, as I mentioned earlier, is in fact a typical adventure story. Of course, Aerin is a female dragon-slayer/adventurer, but the book doesn’t use medieval tropes in order to demonstrate how a girl can be a hero too. In fact, one of the criticisms of McKinley is that although she claims to write books in which girls can see themselves as heroes “just like boys can be,” her heroines are basically just boys – they’re not feminine heroines.

Kara Keeling and Marsha Sprague write about “Dragon-Slayer vs Dragon-Sayer,” and discuss fantasy texts in which female heroines are nurturers of dragons rather than slayers of dragons. The books they discuss don’t fit my criteria of featuring authentic medieval connections – although books like Eragon and Dragons of Pern have that “medieval feel,” they don’t draw on medieval symbolism.

Picture6.jpgPatricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons both draws on medieval symbolism and features a nurturing heroine. There’s the dragon-princess-savior trope of Middle English: Princess Cimorene becomes the “captive” cook and caretaker for the dragon Kazul. But she does this voluntarily, in order to escape a marriage she has no interest in, and is annoyed that she continuously has to beat off princes and knights who want to rescue her – she doesn’t need to be rescued, because although she’s technically a captive, she’s a volunteer captive.

The rest of the series has Cimorene and Kazul working together, as Kazul becomes king of the dragons and Cimorene becomes queen, and even has a baby. Wrede’s series very skillfully portrays a feminist character who follows the supposedly sexist narrative arc of marriage and babies. Cimorene is an adventurer, absolutely – but she’s also a nurturing woman, someone who enjoys taking care of other people, and who isn’t chafing against her ultimate role as queen and mother.

The series uses humor and a parody of the expectations of the dragon story to critique both gender role expectations and monstrosity or Otherness.

V. Conclusions

The medieval dragon began as a symbol of the past, and the hero’s slaying of the dragon was representative of fighting his own past. When contemporary children’s and Young Adult books evoke the medieval dragon specifically, they tend to follow that symbolism of fighting the past – although that past is now the very root of this symbolism.  Contemporary texts use the dragon for the same underlying purpose as the medieval texts, but in order to critique elements of the dragon’s very origins as a symbol of danger, threats, and Otherness. In other words, contemporary children’s and YA texts fight the past by using the past’s very own tools.

Forced Standpoint as Pedagogical Tool

The dissertation I’m working on now examines medieval literary texts for methods of education, in an attempt to define various ideologies of education, of childhood, and of literary genre. I’m currently in the process of examining a related concept which my WAC work (Writing Across the Curriculum) is helping me think through. I’ve been thinking about the methods of teaching favored by each discipline (though of course there is tremendous variation from teacher to teacher), and I’m attempting to draw conclusions about possibly unstated, underlying goals and ideologies, from each discipline’s stated goals and practiced methods.

For example, is memorization favored in this discipline? is summary favored? free-writing? creative writing? Are the exams all multiple-choice? short answers? in-class essays? prepared essays? Does the teacher usually lecture? ask questions? encourage students to ask questions? assign group work? assign silent in-class reading or writing time? All of these methods indicate what the teacher in particular, and the discipline in general, think about the meaning of “learning” or “education,” and what their goals are.

And now, as I stumble across various remnants of my past, I subject them to similar scrutiny. I recently found an old CD that was put together as a high school graduation celebration, including tracks of many songs from various events from the previous four years. Of course, they’re all varying levels of amusing and horrifying. But one in particular made me stop to analyze it the same way I’ve been thinking about the methods of education in college and in the Middle Ages.

(transcription at the end of this post.)

First, the context: The song was sung at a school Shabbos, a yearly school-wide weekend retreat in the mountains. There was a different theme each year, and the theme of this particular year was tznius, ie modesty. The whole shabbos itself was a disaster for many reasons, mostly because the main message was “every limb you leave uncovered will burn in hell,” and girls got terrified and wound up crying. (You can read about this on Tales Out of Bais Yaakov.) But this song is beautiful, not horrifying. I used to love this song, in fact.

The first thing that struck me as I listened this time around was the first-person narrative. And this is the method that reveals quite a bit about the ideologies and goals of education in Bais Yaakov: A first-person narrative in a didactic song forces the singer to adopt the entirety of the persona described in the song.

It’s far more powerful to sing “the palace is my place” than “the palace is a Jewish girl’s place.” Even though the singer is in fact a “Jewish girl,” an identity she cannot disavow with ease, the slight remove of third-person might allow the singer to dis-identify, or at least to not fully identify, with the character. But with the use of first-person pronouns, even if the singer is not consciously thinking, “yes, this describes me,” there is still an effect on her psyche that ties these statements to her identity.

Of course, many songs use first-person narratives. But two factors differentiate this kind of song from the first-person songs we may listen to on a regular basis: First, the context in which it is sung is a school event meant to inculcate ideas about modesty and how a Jewish girl should behave. Though of course, we were all free to choose whether or not to sing it, we were not (entirely) free to choose whether or not to attend the performance. Its context is completely didactic. Second, its first-person character is defined by one main feature: she is a Jewish girl. Everyone who sang the song and everyone who listened to the song shared that identity, one that cannot be disavowed with ease.

Other songs using first-person narratives lack these factors. There is always the potential for a non-identification since we are free to choose whether to listen to a particular song, and we often choose to listen to songs we identify with, songs we see ourselves in (or wish we could see ourselves in, but that’s another story entirely). Besides, there is almost always a slight remove since the lyrics imagine a specific context and character. Personally, I identify with many songs but often leave out some lines that don’t match my story exactly (or I twist the interpretation to make it match my story, but again – that’s another story entirely).

But in this song, everyone who sang it, all of the girls at the shabbos and all the girls in the Bais Yaakov school, were in fact Jewish girls and could not easily decide not to listen to or sing the song. When the choir sang during the weekend retreat, when any girl sang the beautiful song afterwards (as many of us did), they were in effect making statements about themselves: statements like “I follow the truth and need no more than that,” and “the palace is my place.”

Of course, the girls who wrote and sang this song already had years of socialization where they absorbed the ideas of a modest, dignified princess. But they are still teenagers, high school students, who are talking to their peers – and narrating themselves. It’s a reinforcement that they are what the song describes, and a denial that the girls singing and listening to the song could be anything else, or could want to be anything else.

I’ve written before about the way Bais Yaakov and ultra-Orthodox Judaism don’t allow a child to be a child, don’t really allow for stages and development even when they claim that everyone is on their own path and goes at their own pace. The first-person method supports that ideology – in order to become a fully completed Jewish girl, in order to graduate from Bais Yaakov with all the proper chinuch (education), one must assume the identity of the completed Jewish girl, of the girl who is already perfect and has fully attained the goals of a Bais Yaakov education.

[Snarky side-notes:
– contradiction of needing to stay behind walls but then also since her beauty is inside, it doesn’t matter where she is;
– “confident leader” apparently means staying silent and hidden;
– mixed metaphors, and the whole seeds flourishing underground makes no sense because flowers and trees, and even bulbs do have above-ground elements, so the metaphor taken to its logical conclusion would actually be that an egg or a fetus needs to be “underground” (which it is, in the mother’s womb) and afterwards the child should sprout and live on the outside. or something like that]

Lyrics of the song:

I’ll tell you a story of true royalty
I’ll share with you a life of real majesty
I’m the daughter of the king – You ask, what does that mean?
Listen closely as I tell you of finest dignity

From the moment of birth till this day I have known
The privilege and pleasure one feels near the throne
I hold my head high for within the palace halls
A glorious lifestyle of inner beauty calls

My values are rich and deep as the vast sea
I live with the pride of the nobility
There’s no need to prove to the world I am me
I carry the title royal family.
A princess secure for I live with the fact
I follow the truth and need no more than that
My vision’s not clouded, that’s how I’ll be
A confident leader, bas melech ani.

My speech has an eloquence, words are genteel
With tones that are measured, each message is real
My clothing are worn with nobility and grace
My movements refined for the palace is my place.

My presence is rarely seen outside the gates
I bask in the glory of my own estates
Like the seeds of a plant only flourish underground
A princess can thrive when behind a wall she’s found.

My values are rich and deep as the vast sea
I live with the pride of the nobility
There’s no need to prove to the world I am me
I carry the title royal family.
A princess secure for I live with the fact
I follow the truth and need no more than that
My vision’s not clouded, that’s how I’ll be
A confident leader, bas melech ani.

Wherever you find me, whatever I’ll do
My dignified mien is apparent to you
It isn’t in the wealth nor the place where I reside
The beauty of a princess is coming from inside.

My values are rich and deep as the vast sea
I live with the pride of the nobility
There’s no need to prove to the world I am me
I carry the title royal family.
A princess secure for I live with the fact
I follow the truth and need no more than that
A princess I am and a princess I’ll be
Yes, I wear a crown for bas melech ani.



My mother used to sing us to sleep with a wordless lullaby. We called it “ay-lee-loo-lee,” because those were the sounds she used to sing the melody. When my younger sisters were babies, I would stand near their crib, one arm reaching through the bars to rhythmically pat their backs, and sing them this same wordless lullaby.

My mother did tell us once that there are actually words to this song. She told us two lines: “a yingele vus vaxed a talmid chacham / zul liggen azoi nas vi in a teich” – a little boy who will grow up to be a great scholar / should lie so wet like in a puddle. Her explanation was that the speaker is a mother, looking at her child and wondering aloud – how could it be, that this son of mine, who will become steeped in Torah later  in his life, is lying in a puddle of his own urine now (ie in his diaper)?

[Side note: was she criticizing herself for not changing her baby’s diaper soon enough? Okay, and back to serious…]

A while ago, I found this video on YouTube. The full song includes a version of those lines, but it also includes many other observations about the child as he is now and the man he will grow up to be. (Continued after the video.)

Sleep, sleep, Yankele, my handsome son.
Close your little black eyes. 
My little one, now that you have all your teeth – 
must you make your mother sing you to sleep?
The little boy who has all his teeth
and who, God permitting, will soon go to kheyder
And learn Torah and Talmud –
must he cry when his mama rocks him to sleep?
The little boy who will learn Talmud –
and how glad and proud in his heart your father is
The little boy who will grow into a scholar –
must he make his mother stay awake all night?
[two lines untranslated in the comments and I don’t know these words]
The little boy, a clever bridegroom,
must he lie so wet as in a puddle?
Sleep then, my little one,
my clever one who will be a bridegroom yet.

Sleep while you are still in your cradle by my side.
It will cost your mother many tears
to make a man of you.

And now, approaching this song with the perspective of the dissertation I’m in the midst of writing, my discomfort with it became clearer. The song does not allow the mother to see the child as a child. The song does not allow the child to be a child.

True, it ends with a reassurance (to the child? to the mother?) that the child can sleep now in the cradle as long as he’s a child – but the mother is still thinking of the man this child will be, and she is already crying because she will have to work so hard to change these childish behaviors into adult goals.

This is something I had begun to notice and be able to articulate about Bais Yaakov schooling as well. Teachers would tell us that each girl is at a different spiritual level and we each need to strive higher, but whatever level we’re at right now, it’s okay – but the rest of their behavior toward us told us that we ought to have gotten to the end point by now. The stages, the “child,” was not given room to simply be.

She always had to have an eye on the future, on what she will become – and she was expected to behave like the result, not like the stages. It’s what I used to call the “Jewish fake it till you make it” idea – although our teachers expressed it more as “the outside actions will influence the inner feelings and motivation” (the chitzoniyus will lead to the pnimiyus…).

In a way, then, Orthodox Jewish education has no concept of adolescence. Education means becoming the person you should be as soon as you enter the beginning of that process.

Interestingly enough, most people think the Middle Ages had no concept of childhood or adolescence. And yet my reading and research shows me that in fact they had more of a concept of the “in-between” stages, of the “becoming an adult” stage, than contemporary Orthodox Judaism does.

Convergence of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic in a Medieval Hebrew-Italian Arthurian Romance

This is a revised version of the paper I presented at MLA 2016. It was part of a panel titled “Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Jewish Children’s Literature.” The text I discuss here is not children’s literature and, unlike the texts in the other papers of the panel, was written well before the genre of Jewish children’s literature emerged. But the presentation of race and ethnicity in Jewish children’s literature, and in contemporary Jewish culture more broadly, may have its roots in some of the issues I discuss in relation to this Italian medieval Hebrew Arthurian romance. This romance represents an uneasy merging of the split between Ashkenazic and Sephardic sensibilities because of the geographic and temporal circumstances of its composition.

Below: 1. an illumination from a medieval French Arthurian romance, showing Lancelot and Guinevere; 2. an illumination accompanying a Hebrew marriage blessing, showing couples dancing at an Italian Jewish wedding.

Arthurian legend was widely translated and adapted almost from its very beginnings in the early Middle Ages. Originally a hero representing the Celtic defense against the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain, King Arthur was used by cultures vastly different from the Celts – including the English themselves – to represent nationalism, national heroes, and cultural values. Arthurian scholarship has focused on that cultural adaptability for quite a while now.

It still surprises scholars, though, (including me when I first heard about it) that Jewish versions of Arthurian legend exist. While it is understandable that the legend could be adapted to fit cultures of the Celtic, English, Germanic, French, Spanish, etc., a Jewish adaptation is startling. As different as the other cultures may be, they all share some Christian framework, and Arthurian legend features Christian feasts and Christian values quite prominently. How – and why – would a Jewish author choose this as his writing material?

Curt Leviant, the most recent editor and translator of Hamelech Artus (King Arthur), draws parallels between Arthurian motifs and Jewish biblical and Talmudic stories, arguing, as do numerous other scholars, that Arthurian legend is in fact particularly suited for Jewish adaptation. His analysis is fairly convincing, though for reasons I won’t get into here, I don’t fully accept it. Even if we did accept it, though, the historical background of the medieval Jewish adaptations which Leviant and others provide continues to raise questions about the Jewish author’s motivation.

A brief overview of Arthurian legend: King Arthur holds court in Camelot, where the finest knights serve him and join him in many adventures and quests to prove their chivalry in arms and in love. The many medieval texts do not usually tell the entire story of King Arthur. Each one relates just one episode or a series of episodes. The underlying foundation of the legend is the same, but each translator, adapter, compiler – each person to touch the legend – adds or changes details based on historical, cultural, and sometimes personal factors.

There aren’t very many Jewish versions of medieval Arthurian legend. We only know of two, in fact. In 1279, an anonymous scribe in Northern Italy began – but never finished – a Hebrew translation of Arthurian legend, called by scholars today Hamelech Artus. This exists in only one manuscript, today housed in the Vatican.

The other medieval Jewish Arthurian text is an Old Yiddish translation of a Middle High German text, dating from the fifteenth century – two centuries after Hamelech Artus was composed. The Old Yiddish text is extant in three manuscripts from the sixteenth century, all presumably created in Northern Italy. It was adapted a few more times in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in Amsterdam, Prague, and Frankfurt an der Oder.

The dates and locations of each adaptation are significant in the inquiry about a Jewish author’s choice to translate Arthurian legends, because medieval Ashkenazic and Sephardic attitudes toward secular literature (not only Arthurian literature) were vastly different and also varied over time.

Sephardic culture incorporates secular themes into its literature, (though Arthurian themes don’t appear until later in Iberia) sometimes writing in Arabic, sometimes in Romance languages, and sometimes in Hebrew.

Some of the great medieval Sephardic rabbis were known for their love poetry or their fighting songs, and most, such as Maimonides, had extensive knowledge not only of Torah and Talmud, but of medicine, Greek philosophy, mathematics, sciences, etc. Secular study was an integral part of education and no apology was made for tackling topics like love or erotic stories.

Ashkenazic culture, on the other hand, not only frowned upon such study but considered Greek philosophy and sciences based on secular understanding antithetical to Torah study. Reading or writing about love and war was almost sacrilegious, definitely if the holy Hebrew language was used.

The history of Italy’s Jewish community meant that thirteenth-century Italian Jewry embraced aspects of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic attitudes. In the eleventh century, Ashkenazic Jews escaping the First Crusade settled in Italy. In the early thirteenth century, Sephardic Jews from Provence immigrated to Italy. So when Hamelech Artus was written, the community comprised both Ashkenazic Jews and Sephardic Jews.

The text opens with an apology, a kind of preface by the author, a feature typical of medieval texts. The author explicitly addresses the problem of a Jewish author writing in Hebrew and using secular romance as his material, citing two reasons.

First, he excuses this as an exercise to ease the melancholy of his mind, which leads him to a lengthy defense of using secular literature in this way:

“No intelligent person can rebuke me for this, for we have seen that some of our sages of blessed memory, such as Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, did not disdain the knowledge of fox-fables, washers’ parables or the speech of palm trees. And this is done so that a man who is steeped in Torah-study or in worldly pursuits may derive from the knowledge of these tales a measure of relaxation and relief…Moreover, it is possible to learn wisdom and ethics from these fables concerning a man’s conduct toward himself and towards his fellow man…The proof for this is that had they been profane talk Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai would not have studied them…Moreover, we find that on the eve of the Day of Atonement the tales of ancient kings would be read to an unscholarly High Priest throughout the night so that he would not fall asleep” (11-13).

The second reason, he says, is the “most important”: “that sinners will learn the paths of repentance and bear in mind their end and will return to the Name (ie God), as you will see at the conclusion” (13).

The manuscript ends mid-sentence and mid-page, so we never do get to the conclusion. But in the very first sentence of the apology, the author tells us that the story is of “the destruction of King Artus’ Round Table” – so we know the story ends in destruction. (The end of the Arthurian legend, as suggested by the many texts called some version of Le Morte D’Arthur, is always the death of Arthur with the Round Table brotherhood dissolved.)

The romance of Hamelech Artus itself begins with the story of Arthur’s conception and birth. This opening sequence is not a given for every romance – the fragmentary nature of Arthurian legend means starting at the start is actually a significant choice.

The story of Arthur’s birth in this Hebrew romance is essentially the same as in other medieval versions which narrate his birth. King Uther Pendragon desires the wife of a duke and, when she and her husband both refuse to allow it, Uther wages war against the duke, eventually enlisting the help of Merlin. Merlin uses his magic to give the king the appearance of the duke. When Uther goes into the duchess’ chambers, she thinks he is her husband. He sleeps with her during the night and leaves in the morning. As he leaves, word reaches the duchess that the duke was killed during the night. She has no idea now who she was sleeping with, but she knows it wasn’t her husband as she thought. Once the war is over, Uther marries the duchess and, in an act of kindness, forgives her for carrying a child whose father she cannot identify.

One of the first things people point out about this story is its resemblance to the David and Batsheva story (in Samuel I) – King David is on a rooftop and sees a naked woman, desires her, and sleeps with her. Her husband is away at war. When she tells David that she has become pregnant, David calls her husband, Uriah, back from war and tries to get him to go sleep with his wife so it will appear that the child is his. Uriah is zealous, however, and swears he will not have marital relations until the war is won. When David realizes that Uriah will not cooperate, he sends him with a letter to the general directing them into battle where Uriah will definitely be killed. All goes according to plan, Batsheva is a widow, David marries her, and though the child dies, their next son, Solomon, will become the next king of Israel.

The Rishonim, the early medieval Biblical commentators including Rashi, explain this by citing the Talmud which states that during the time of King David, soldiers all gave their wives a “get al t’nai” – a conditional divorce. If a woman’s husband does not return from battle but his death cannot be proven, rather than remaining an agunah and being unable to marry, she is able to use the get and marry someone else. Therefore, the Rishonim say, Uriah had given Batsheva a conditional divorce. Since he died, technically Batsheva was divorced when she became pregnant with David’s child.

The point of this explanation is, of course, to vindicate David from having sinned. But it’s also to ensure that no one dares to say that Solomon, who carries on the royal line, was a mamzer – illegitimate, the product of a strictly prohibited union, and according to Jewish law unable to rule and unable to even marry a Jewish woman and have Jewish children. (There are special provisions for who a mamzer can marry so that his children are ultimately not non-Jewish.)

Even according to Christian law, where a child conceived out of wedlock could be legitimized if the parents are subsequently married, Arthur is unquestionably illegitimate. His mother was married to someone other than his father when he was conceived, so he is a product not just of premarital sex but of adultery. His parents’ subsequent marriage doesn’t help much.

The Hebrew author doesn’t address this (nor does any medieval Arthurian legend, really). Florence Sandler suggests that the naming of Arthur (“He will be called Artusin, that is, born through the power of art” [23]), which is unique to this text and echoes Biblical naming of children for events, is meant to give an aura of legitimacy to an infant conceived out of wedlock, but this seems out of step with the rest of the narrative. I don’t think the author wanted to legitimize Arthur at all.

The bulk of the text focuses on the adulterous affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, though the text trails off before this episode concludes. The story itself is almost exactly the same as other medieval versions, and the love appears to be wonderful, beautiful, tragic.

Still, it is clear that the author intended to condemn Lancelot by the end of the narrative. Lancelot’s passion is introduced as: “this evil desire was the cause of the destruction of the Table, the death of King Artus, and the ruin of the entire Kingdom, as you will see further on” (29). In all Arthurian texts which narrate the end of the kingdom, Lancelot plays a large role, if not the only role, in bringing about the fall.

The Hebrew author may have intended to include the other big player as well, Mordred. Between the story of Arthur’s birth and the story of Lancelot’s affair, a brief family history is given, and the author tells us that “the evil traitor Mordred passed himself off as a nephew [of Arthur] for many years. Even the King conceded this. However, finally it became known that he was a bastard son, as you will see in the book of destruction” (23).

In Arthurian tradition, Arthur unknowingly conceives a child, Mordred, with his half-sister Morgana. In some adaptations, Mordred later tries to take over Arthur’s kingdom and has an affair with Arthur’s wife Guinevere, which leads to outright war, Arthur’s death, and the complete crumbling of the idealistic Arthurian world.

Although the Hebrew text is not complete, the parts which were written and the glimpses into what the author intended to include paint a very clear picture of the text’s purpose. All the episodes the author has chosen deal with adultery or promiscuity or sexual taboos in some way or another. This, then, is the “sin” that the author means when he says that his reason for undertaking such an inexplicable translation of Arthurian legend is “that sinners will learn the paths of repentance and bear in mind their end and will return to the Name (ie God).” It seems pretty clear and logical, no real question to be asked.

However, no other Arthurian text attempts to use these stories in this manner. This can perhaps be explained by the distinctly Jewish tone of Hamelech Artus as opposed to Christian texts. But Sephardic texts, though at this point none had yet used Arthurian material, did include stories of passionate love, and sometimes illicit love, with no apology and no such attempt for didactic purposes. Ashkenazic texts of the thirteenth century never told stories like this, but the later Yiddish Arthurian romances also made no such attempt at didacticism. So why the heavy emphasis here?

The answer lies with Italy’s unique position at this particular point, in the thirteenth century. Sandler suggests that the convergence of Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews in Northern Italy led the author to try to appeal to both audiences – the Sephardic who would appreciate a story of love and passion and chivalry, and the Ashkenazic who would “not countenance values which did not square with the moral teachings of the Talmud” (72).

I would modify that analysis a bit, because this assumes two communities in Northern Italy, one Ashkenazic retaining Ashkenazic values, and one Sephardic retaining Sephardic values. But the language and structure of the author’s introduction to Hamelech Artus suggests a tension between the two approaches within one person.

This text – its free use of Arthurian material but always with an apologetic tone and hastening to justify this free use – captures the moment when the two communities and their respective approaches to Torah learning and secular literature had only just begun to converge and to merge in this area. The later Yiddish romances in Northern Italy, with no attempt at didacticism and with a far more comic tone, are a reflection of the progression of this convergence, a result of Jewish migration in the “borderland” between Sephardic and Ashkenazic areas.

“Minstrels get about and so do students”: The Role of Emotional Attachment and Historical Accuracy in the Impact of Young Adult Fiction

This is a revised version of a paper I delivered at the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo.


I was sitting in an undergraduate survey class of early British literature. The reading for that day had been a mystery play – I forget which one exactly it was. I had enjoyed the play – I knew then already that I’d be focusing on medieval literature – but I hadn’t thought much more about this play than any other texts we had read.

As the class session went on and we discussed how these plays were performed, I started reading the whole play with a slightly different view, more attentive, as it became more real to me. It wasn’t that I was gaining tools to imagine real actors performing these lines – I was, of course. But I actually did see a complete image in my mind of the performance – not of the play as it was meant to be experienced by an audience, but as if I had a birds-eye view of the staging, the behind-the-scenes. I felt the excitement of watching a play and the thrill of seeing the inner workings which I wasn’t supposed to see.

And it wasn’t only that I was hearing these details in class. I realized that the image I had in my mind was of Adam Quartermayne, sitting on a wall and watching a mystery play.

He had attempted to watch the play as a regular audience member but was too far back and too short to see anything, so he had raced around the churchyard wall and perched himself on top of the wall. From there, he could see not only the play as it was meant to be seen but also things like Adam and Eve changing from their elegant pre-Fall clothing to rough green clothes. These details were hidden from the audience on the proper level by a curtain but visible to Adam from his perch on the wall.

The details of that vivid scene from the historical novel all matched up with what was being described in an academic context.

The same thing happened again in a Spring 2014 graduate class as we discussed medieval hunting laws and I saw very clearly Adam running from the authorities during a hue and cry after he’d inadvertently gotten himself mixed up with poachers. I felt like I knew the facts being talked about, and I felt excited about the new details as they took up their places within the personal story of the adolescent Adam.

The excitement I felt when these memories were stirred during academic discussions didn’t cause me to study these things. I was already studying medieval literature and I don’t specialize in mystery plays or medieval law. But the recognition I felt did bring the Middle Ages to life for me in specific ways.

I felt like I knew a person who experienced these things. They weren’t random facts but were attached to a character whose personality and individual reactions to these situations I already knew. The new facts I learned clarified some points that my adolescent reading mind hadn’t necessarily thought to question, and the details I’d read about in the book gave me a framework within which to place the new facts.

Since I’m going to return to Adam of the Road a few times now, I’ll provide a brief summary here:

Adam Quartermayne is a young boy in 1294 whose father is a minstrel. The book opens with Adam at an Abbey school waiting for his father to return from a year in France learning new songs and music. When he does return, Adam leaves his friend Perkins,  who comforts Adam about their parting by saying they’re sure to see each other again because “minstrels get about and so do students.” Adam accompanies his father to his lord’s household and on the lord’s travels, and then on personal travels from town to town without the lord. Eventually, Adam’s dog Nick is stolen, and when he tries to find Nick, he is separated from his father. The rest of the book is Adam chasing clues about Nick as the dog’s abductor rides across England. By the end, Adam finds his dog and returns to the Abbey to wait for his father again. Adam has grown tremendously in maturity by that point, and his father recognizes and honors that by giving him a new set of minstrel clothes and inviting him along as a minstrel in his own right, not just as his son.

It’s not exactly a new idea to say that historical fiction is more useful than history textbooks in engaging young readers in a specific historical period or moment. I want to address how educators talk about the mechanics of this utility and about harnessing that utility in the classroom.

One idea I came across was that textbooks provide knowledge of the history while fiction provides understanding. Textbooks can give the facts and details of what exactly happened, but fiction uses a more easily understood and subjective narrative to demonstrate the consequences and implications of human behavior on an individual decision-making level.

But the assumption that the child reader may forget the details but will retain general knowledge of life in that historical period is the opposite of what actually happens. The reader, especially the child or adolescent reader, is identifying with the characters in the text and will therefore remember the details specific to that character. A casual reader will not be analyzing the details she reads about in order to see the broader picture of “life in that period.”

When I read Adam of the Road, all I knew was a story about a boy in 1294 who suffered many catastrophes and had to have many adventures, both good and bad, in order to make everything right again. Of course those catastrophes and adventures were contingent upon the time period in which Adam lived, and of course as a child reader I knew that, but I wasn’t consciously making connections and piecing together a picture to say “oh, that’s what the Middle Ages looks like.”

A child reading for pleasure will not actually retain knowledge of life in that period and forget the details, and therefore have a schema that can be applied to factual information. Rather, he will remember the details, and the schema that will be applied is from the narrow and specific experience to the broader experience, not vice versa.

Part of the explanation for this is a concept in psychology of reading called “experience-taking.” The authors of the initial study of experience-taking found that this mode of reading has more effect on the reader than a similar mode. In vicarious self-perception, the reader identifies with characters because she recognizes bits of herself in the fictional characters.

In experience-taking, the reader leaves the self behind and does not identify with the character so much as become the character. The effect of this is that the reader’s behaviors after reading the book change for a short time. Those books were about contemporary life, so it’s easier to see how experience-taking transfers specific details from the books to real life.

Even with historical fiction, though, those details which affect the reader so intensely stay with the reader long after the general setup of the scenes is forgotten. When the reader loses himself and becomes the character, the details which are important to the character become important to the reader.

I remembered the details of Adam and Eve changing clothes behind the curtain because it was a detail important to Adam Quartermayne. That was the schema I had, and I could fit that vivid almost-memory into what I was learning about mystery plays performances in the Middle Ages in a more general way.

So imagine what would have happened if in that undergraduate class I had gotten excited over remembering this scene in relation to the texts we read and then learned that this was an invention of the author in order to make the book more exciting – that this could never have happened because plays were performed inside and not where a boy could sit on a wall, or that actors exited the stage and had changing rooms where no one could possibly see them.

No real damage would have been done. I’d say – oh, ok, the author made up those details. I would adjust my understanding of the reality of history. But then I’d have lost the vivid image of an individual person I had been able to apply to a broader and possibly harder to grasp idea of how this functioned in society.

The thing is, this thought experiment counts on the rest of the book being fairly accurate. Most historical fiction of this kind is usually accurate, and the detail I used here is mostly inconsequential (and actually accurate in the book).

But there is damage that can be done when an author portrays parts of the historical picture inaccurately, either due to lack of knowledge or due to a desire to make the story more exciting and engaging. Sometimes the purpose of the book isn’t even to write about history at all. And that is perhaps the most dangerous in this regard.

James Harold discusses the moral philosophy of trying to write a narrative from the perspective of someone entirely different from yourself. He is concerned mostly with writers in the position of oppressors claiming an intention of understanding the oppressed and therefore writing in their voice, an oppression of its own kind. Harold is not talking about the kind of historical otherness I am addressing here. His discussion is more high-stakes with regard to contemporary and real oppression, but his ideas can be applied here as well.

He writes that “the idea is that failure to show the right kind of respect for historical or fictional figures violates an indirect duty – it undermines the agent’s own moral development, and her propensities to treat people respectfully” (252). Books that play fast and loose with medieval-ish material show disrespect. That might be a strong word to use here, but as almost everyone who studies the Middle Ages knows, the effects of this kind of misrepresentation are not insignificant. I don’t think it’s exaggeration to call it disrespect for the people of the Middle Ages and for others today, both scholars of the Middle Ages who know what it actually looked like, and the less-informed readers of these novels who don’t know that they’re gaining misinformation as factual.

In attempting to find specific examples to use for this paper, I became very discouraged by the books being categorized as medieval, whether in the “best” lists or “worst” lists on Goodreads. The reviews and comments are highly amusing and really useful, but they’re also very frustrating.

Every so often, a reviewer (most of whom are teens) will scoff at the inaccuracies of a warrior princess in thirteenth-century England or something like that, but more often teens rave about the heroine’s courage and say things like “I really got a sense of what life was like for a girl in the Middle Ages” (though they’re more likely to use the term Dark Ages here…) The term medieval is used in a pejorative sense by these readers and reviewers.

The effect when a reader of these books is sitting in an undergraduate survey class is more likely a disinterested, possibly disgusted, “this ‘real’ Middle Ages isn’t as exciting as the Middle Ages my favorite characters experienced.”

When the book in question is obviously using popular concepts of the Middle Ages in order to write a story that has nothing to do with the Middle Ages, it’s frustrating enough. But when authors whose intention is actually to portray the Middle Ages feel the need to invent more exciting details, they do more harm than good. And when those invented details are written well and seem real, it’s really bad.

Katherine Paterson has been asked many times about the real-world inspiration for the woods in Bridge to Terabithia. Or rather, as she says, the question is phrased “where is Terabithia?” She gives various answers, but in a 1984 lecture, she explained that although it is a mixture of a few different places she remembered from childhood, she panicked when she realized that she wanted to include a grove of trees which may not be able to grow in the area where the rest of the story was set. She could not possibly excuse using those trees there, even though it was a minute detail which likely no one would pick up on.

In order to create strong affective connections, the imagined place needs to be real. Making up details or tweaking things to fit the plot or character might seem innocent but will actually influence the emotional connection the reader can form with the characters, and therefore the affective and subjective understanding the reader has of that historical time period.

One of the brilliant things Elizabeth Janet Gray does in Adam of the Road is provide a richly detailed and real imagined place for the story. Since Adam’s father is a minstrel, Adam gets to travel, and when he gets separated from his father and has to try to meet up with him, he gets to travel into more and wildly different parts of England. As Adam’s father says, “A road’s a kind of holy thing…It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together” (52). That echoes Chaucer in some ways. Whether the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales would have been traveling together in reality or not, the idea of a road as connecting people from various backgrounds works.

In this historical novel, this characteristic provides an opportunity for Adam, and thus the reader, to experience many different aspects of medieval England. Adam visits a fair, a forest, a churchyard play, an Abbey, a lord’s household, and many other places – all richly and accurately described and used in the story. This level of detail and accuracy is what allows the reader to connect with the character, and then later to retain those connections and memories when discovering factual details, and to supplement fact with fiction – or fiction with fact, perhaps a better way to put it.

Again, discussions of the benefits of children’s historical fiction focus on this aspect – the elements of good historical fiction are an exciting story, memorable characters, and a historical backdrop. Having a character to relate to, seeing those minute daily-life details and emotions of a child “just like me” makes history come alive.

But these discussions center around books that portray huge historical moments from a child’s perspective, not a child living a normal life with no great social and historical upheavals.

The reason Adam of the Road was a perfect central text for this paper is that it does not focus on any big event. The big event is Adam losing his dog and his father, and having to travel all over England – an England in which nothing out of the ordinary is happening – in order to be reunited.

In terms of experience-taking, books focusing on huge historical moments can have significant effects on children’s moral development as they watch other children solve problems on such large scales. But for the purposes of gaining a schema for understanding an entire historical period, approaches like the one in Adam of the Road are more effective, showing an ordinary boy and his ordinary troubles – very different from the ordinary troubles of today’s child, but dealing with similar issues of arrogance, abandonment, passion, etc.

Another issue I take with the pedagogical discussion of historical fiction is in regard to the suggestions for study guide questions. These are again mostly focused on books dealing with important historical moments, but they tend to ask questions about the child protagonist’s motivations or emotions at any given point.

However, if the benefit of fiction over textbook is the affective versus objective reading, this analysis detracts from the affective response. Had I stopped to think about the role of minstrelsy and music or the effect of the vibrant descriptions, as some study guides do in fact suggest, my enthusiastic “oh I recognize that!” as an undergraduate would likely not have happened, and I would not have felt that emotional connection to the facts I was learning then.

A few pedagogical discussions mentioned that reading fiction about interesting historical figures could cause children to research that historical time period further. Children don’t always wait until they’re in college to find out more about the lives of characters that interest them.

But the main benefits of this phenomenon come from its completely organic nature. When a child is captivated by a book and independently seeks more information, that’s affective engagement at its best. When it’s initiated, prompted, and guided by a teacher, it’s of course still better than a textbook because the children are definitely more engaged with the characters of the book. But it’s missing the spontaneous excitement which generates genuine interest and long-lasting understanding of and connection to that history.

What’s the alternative, though? To provide the books and hope kids get interested enough to follow up on at least some of them? That’s completely unrealistic for so many reasons. Teachers can make sure students have access to books which are rich in accurate historical detail and feature strong engaging characters, and students might love those books, but they won’t necessarily follow up on any of them. Guided questions seem to be the only answer, but that defeats the purpose of immersion in history in order to understand it properly. By stepping back to analyze it, they lose that immersion.

As I was puzzling over this, I didn’t come up with any realistic options, but I did remember a moment when I was teaching eighth grade English. The students had each chosen a book from a selection I’d provided, and they were then split into groups to read, discuss, and write about the books. Four students had chosen The Phantom Tollbooth. I was excited, because these were the four brightest students, and this is one of my favorite books.

They hated it.

They read it, though, all the way to the end, and with such great attention to detail – because they wanted to have ammunition to argue against me with.

This is not historical fiction, of course – it’s about a boy who enters another world where reality is shaped by grammatical and mathematical concepts. But all the guided study questions I had prepared for them had been completely forgotten as they picked apart the book on their own terms.

Their arguments about why the book is not as great as I think it is were thoughtful, text-based, and broad. They didn’t convince me – I still love the book. But their arguments were good. Their engagement with the book was not what I had hoped it would be, but they did engage with it.

Again, this won’t happen for every student. But in some way, allowing students to engage with the books on their own terms can accomplish more than prodding them along to see what teachers want them to see.

Students may or may not “get about” as Perkins says (though of course he means physically and I mean intellectually), but at least the possibility for that is there when teachers provide the historical accuracy and the potential for emotional attachment.

Of Ghosts and Inferi: "Second Generation Memory" and Orthodox Children's Holocaust Literature

[This was written as an assignment for the class “Children’s and Young Adult Literature: Reflections on Theory and Method” with Carrie Hintz, Fall 2015.]

I eagerly signed up for this week as my primary blog post because I wanted to write about The Giver. As soon as I started reading Second Generation Memory, though, I realized my primary blog post would be totally different. And somewhat long, so tip: the actual analysis is at the end, but I have quite a bit of setup first.

Anastasia Ulanowicz writes that “the child of concentration camp survivors is profoundly aware of the fact that she might not exist if the material circumstances and series of events that her elders encountered had varied even to the slightest degree” (15). I am not actually the child of survivors, but my parents both are. I’m a grandchild of three survivors. And I was always profoundly aware of the fact. If my grandmother had not been smuggling sugar across the Polish-Russian border to feed her family, if the Russians hadn’t caught her and sent her to Siberia where she met up with her father and brothers who had been captured earlier, she would have been sent to Auschwitz with her mother, sisters, and younger brothers a week later. They were all killed immediately upon arrival. She would have been killed, I would not exist.

I never heard that story from my grandmother, though. I heard it numerous times from my mother, her daughter.

My other grandmother was sent from Vienna to England on the Kindertransport, an initiative sending children out of troubled zones to England at the start of the war. She never spoke about it either. But when she and my grandfather were visiting once, she saw a book on my nightstand – Far From the Place They Called Home. It’s a popular Jewish Young Adult novel about five boys sent on the Kindertransport. She read it in one night, and the next morning she sat next to me on the sofa, held my hand, and told me about how she and her brother escaped, how her mother was brought over later as a cleaning woman, how they went to the countryside in Scotland when London was being bombed. That was the most I’ve ever heard her talk about the war.

I wanted to ask her which town in Scotland she stayed in, but she passed away seven years ago, before I ever asked her.

Growing up, we heard story upon story of life “before the war,” and about the strength and faith of individuals and groups during the war and just after liberation. The stories of atrocities we got from books.

For my primary response, I’m going to provide a perspective that Ulanowicz doesn’t cover, one that isn’t covered in most surveys or discussions of children’s literature: the literature of the Orthodox Jewish community. It’s a literature exclusive to Orthodox Judaism, published by Orthodox publishers and sold in Judaica stores. These are not very accessible outside of the cloistered Orthodox communities. Though some Orthodox Jewish children do, to varying degrees, read non-Jewish books, we never did read secular books about the Holocaust. My purpose here is to explore how second generation memory as Ulanowicz describes it works in this specific demographic and with this specific set of literature.

Ulanowicz clarifies that she focuses on the texts’ representation of and contribution to the conceptualization of second generation memory, but that she refrains from studying human response to the texts, leaving that to psychologists and reader response critics (20). I’m going to be that reader response critic here, drawing on my own experiences, on those of my friends and sisters, and on what I observe in the shift of Holocaust books from my own generation to the current generation of children’s Holocaust books. Following is a kind of annotated bibliography, with an analysis at the end. I’ve divided them roughly into four categories: 1) “early” memoirs, 2) “early” fiction, 3) later memoirs, 4) later fiction.

1) “early” memoirs:
Sisters in the Storm, by Anna Eilenberg (1992)
Part of the series The Holocaust Diaries. The first Holocaust book I read, as a ten year old. My sister says she read this when she was seven. (This is the typical age. Important details for thinking about how and when second generation memory is formed.) Chana (Anna) lives in Lodz, Poland and is forced to move with her family into the Lodz ghetto. Conditions are terrible, and she is eventually sent to two different concentration camps. The abridged version I read as a child ends with liberation and displaced persons camp, but the full version follows her to Israel and details the rebuilding of her family, her marriage, children, and grandchildren.

Some of the episodes that I remember vividly to this day:
– She and her sister sneaking out to join learning groups for girls, risking their lives because the Nazis were patrolling the streets.
– Her brother being told by the doctor that he’s very sick and needs to eat meat, but refusing to do so because the only meat available was non-kosher horse meat. He dies a week later, revered and respected for his conviction.
– Her father stealing wooden fences to heat their apartment and their Polish neighbor informing the Nazis and then revealing his hiding place when the Nazis were looking for him.
– The Jewish kapo beating the inmates until they were bloody because she had been praised so much by the Nazi guards that she stopped identifying with her Jewish sisters.

Those Who Never Yielded, by Moshe Prager (1997)
Originally written in Hebrew and translated to English. Short stories detailing teenaged boys in ghettoes and concentration camps who defied the Nazis. Defiance is exhibited by observing holidays and organizing prayer groups even at the risk of death.

2) “early” fiction
A Light for Greytowers, by Eva Vogiel and Ruth Steinberg (1992)
Miriam and her mother escape Russia during the Czar’s rule and flee to England. Miriam’s father has fled earlier, but they have no way of contacting each other, and husband and wife are desperately trying to find each other. Miriam winds up in an orphanage, which is run by a draconian woman. Miriam finds out that all the girls there are actually Jewish, and she leads them in a revolution against the witch-like Miss Grimshaw. They begin to observe Shabbos and keep kosher. Miriam’s mother and father find her and each other at the orphanage, Miss Grimshaw flees in disgrace, and all the girls get a loving warm Jewish house mother – Miriam’s mother.

A Thorn Among the Roses, by Eva Vogiel (1990s)
First of a series. After the war, young girls are left homeless and distraught. A few women set up a school in England’s countryside where they can begin life anew. Intrigue ensues in the form of an anti-Semitic neighbor and his accomplice (who is inside the school as an employee disguised as a Jew), danger and kidnapping of two girls, and eventual reuniting and safety at the school.

3) later memoirs
A Boy Named 68818, by Israel Starck, as told to Miriam (Starck) Miller (2015)
I haven’t read this one, but my sister gave it to me when I went to pick up the others… The title is a reference to the numbers tattooed on the arms of concentration camp inmates. In lieu of a summary, here are some blurbs from the back of the book:
“A spellbinding book. Starck is an ember saved from the inferno of World War II.”
“Starck’s unpretentious account and his extraordinary courage tested in the hellfire of World War II reveals his faith and humanity and will surely inspire young people to treasure the richness of faith.”
“Srulek’s [common Hasidic nickname for Israel] strength of spirit enabled him to survive and thrive. This is a story that should be shared!”

4) later fiction
I don’t have any particular titles for this category, but here’s a sweeping generalization: Novels of the past decade tend to be either thrillers or emotional tearjerkers, and almost all of them are set against a backdrop of Holocaust memories or Holocaust survivors. Sometimes the heroes need to go to Europe, where they come up against a number of obstacles related to remnants of anti-Semitism. Sometimes the entire story is framed around a young person’s response to their grandparents’ stories. Almost always, in Ashkenazic Orthodox teen literature, the Holocaust exists as a natural component of life even when the entire story has nothing to do with the Holocaust. Rarely does a book go without a single mention of the Holocaust.

5) One more category: songs and movies.
In eighth grade, we watched a film called To Live Forever. Since then, I have tried numerous times to find it, with no success. It’s basically a really mournful musical soundtrack with black and white photos of the Holocaust, including some of the most famous: the boy in the Warsaw ghetto with his arms raised, the man standing silently with his chin up as Nazis laughingly cut off his beard, children with hollow eyes and bones showing through their skin, lying on the ground. These images are in the second video below, though I don’t think they ever showed us the really graphic images of bodies.
Many many English-language songs are about aspects of the Holocaust:

(Both of these songs are frequently sung in summer youth camps and at various high school events.)

I termed the books from the 1990s early because that was when, I think, survivors first began to write down their memories. Of course, as Ulanowicz makes clear with her examples of Judy Blume and Lois Lowry, books about the Holocaust were being published before that. But not in the Orthodox world.

The early memoirs, though, focused equally on the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators and on the faith of the heroes and heroines said the cause of their survival. The stark danger of trusting Gentiles was clear – Anna Eilenberg details how her Polish neighbor, with whom they’d been very close before the war, betrayed her father to the Nazis when he was hiding from them in the attic.

The early fiction focused on rebuilding, but again emphasized the dangers of interacting with Gentiles. Fiction was more likely to focus on teenagers with teenage voices, while the real accounts may have chronicled a teenager’s experience but was always told in the voice of an adult – these were memoirs, meant to sound raw. Until I checked the publication dates now, I had always assumed these were written way earlier than the 1990s, because they focused so much on the years just after the war. Now that I know when they were written, I would guess that even after so much time, rebuilding was so important that it made sense that played such a prominent role. If the 90s hadn’t seen that boom, I’d assume that today’s Orthodox Holocaust fiction would be emphasizing rebuilding. Since the books of the 90s did it, it’s no longer necessary, as I’ll explain further below.

The later memoirs are most often written by children of survivors taking down their parents’ words. They are more about anguish and crying out to God. The danger of associating with Gentiles is less emphasized. My hypothesis is that the children (now adults) writing these stories down have so absorbed the lessons they learned from the earlier accounts that this danger is no longer an essential component to emphasize. Instead, they focus on the memories that tie Jews of faith together – the anguish that elicits cries for help directed at God.

Later fiction may have a storyline based on events of the Holocaust, but more likely is the Holocaust as a “ghost” in the background – exactly as Ulanowicz describes second generation memory, but this is the third, or more accurately fourth, generation after survivors.

The second generation absorbed the horrors of the Holocaust not as ghosts but as Inferii: real, tangible, bursting out of the water in frightening solidity. Ulanowicz’s dismissal of the term “dominate” as a description of the past’s effect on the present of children becomes relevant again in this context. Later generations, the generations who received the memories from the second generation, experience the memories as ghosts – filmy, transparent, fading against the wall and barely noticeable, but still there – finally superimposed on and merging with the present as Ulanowicz describes, but not taking it over completely.

Specifically Orthodox representations of memory always include a reference to faith. It was faith that kept the people going and allowed them to survive, according to these books. It was faith that allowed them to pick themselves up and rebuild their lives afterwards. And their faith was strengthened from having experienced these horrors and the resultant “obvious” miracles and grace of God. (This insistence is the reason secular books, especially about the Holocaust, are banned.) Children and teens reading about and identifying with the characters who experienced the horrors but persevered in their faith would picture themselves in the same situation.

But while the books Ulanowicz discusses accomplish identification with the result of children learning to be more tolerant of others, to spurn racism and anti-Semitism, Orthodox books do this with the result of ever more closed boundaries and ever more fear of outsiders. The methods and the general concept are the same; the outcome is quite different.

To close, I’ll transcribe the lyrics to two songs from my high school musicals, to illustrate the extent to which even fun high school entertainment becomes imbued with all of these memories and values. Both of these plot lines are based on the Holocaust, Peace by Piece(1997) happening to the children and grandchildren of a survivor, and Not Enough Tears (1998) during the war, in the US with the protagonist having escaped from occupied France.

Peace by Piece (1997):
My father by the Nazis was taken away,
In a concentration camp he arrived one day.
In a factory of tea kettles he would work nonstop,
Melting the handles well, attaching them to the teapots.
Father’s fingers swiftly worked under the table.
He would finish his quota early so that he would be able
To put on tefillin [black prayer boxes] just for a moment, to daven mincha [pray] too
A day without a tefila [prayer] wasn’t living for a Jew.

Not Enough Tears (1998):
So many teardrops falling, collecting through the years,
When tragedies unfolding, leaving a trail of tears.
My life was torn and shattered remembering the years,
When nothing else had mattered, leaving a trail of tears.
Hard as they have tried to rejoice when we have cried,
Yet the day will come we know, our tears will be their sorrow.
Tears of anguish will be replaced, and the tears of joy will roll down our face,
As we once again begin to reunite a tattered nation.

Look, Mom, I'm a Mom!

The process of Alyce’s transformation in The Midwife’s Apprentice from the scared Beetle to the strong and independent girl she is at the end of the book fascinates me for what it implies about childhood and growing up.

The moments where she gains skills and, more importantly, emotions that were previously denied to her as a waif roaming from village to village and sleeping in dung heaps have a common theme: Alyce’s maturation is based upon her ability to care for others. In order to grow up and claim maturity for herself, Alyce must develop the maternal instincts she already has.

By the second chapter when Alyce is working for the midwife, we know that Alyce has maternal instincts. She is still underfed and barely noticed, but she adopts a cat and gives away part of her already sparse meals to feed him. This is not quite maternal, but it does show a tendency towards caring and nurture.

When the village boys try to drown the cat, Alyce’s attempts to bring him back to life are a marker against which to measure her growth throughout the book:

If Beetle had known any prayers, she might have prayed for the cat. If she had known about soft sweet songs, she might have sung to him. If she had known of gentle words and cooing, she would have spoken gently to him. But all she knew was cursing: “Damn you, cat, breathe and live, you flea-bitten sod, or I’ll kill you myself.”

She doesn’t know any of these because she’s never experienced them. Her maturation includes learning about some of these. (She never learns about prayer, oddly enough for the Middle Ages.)

The midwife commented earlier on her cleverness in finding a dung heap to sleep on in order to keep warm. No one taught her about that, but she figured that out as she didn’t figure out kind words.

There are a lot of things to say about that, but for now, just one: when it comes to her own survival, she can figure things out instinctively. The proper way to care for others is part of learning and growing up.

The maternal aspect of Alyce’s rescue of the cat is made clear a bit later, when a woman gives birth in the field and so Alyce actually sees the midwife at work. After the midwife screams and curses at the mother, as is her method,

Jane the Midwife eased the child out of his mother and into her hands. It out Beetle in mind of the time she got the cat out of the bag.

Alyce (or Beetle still at this point) is not yet changed from the stupid, scared girl that the midwife saw as a perfect opportunity for free help and no competition. But she has begun feeling like she could bring life into the world.

Interestingly, the moment Alyce chooses her name is not one of caring for others or of acting maternal. After going to the fair,

Beetle stood perfectly still. What a day. She had been winked at, complimented, given a gift, and now mistaken for the mysterious Alyce who could read. Did she then look like someone who could read? She leaned over and watched her face in the water again. “This face,” she said, “could belong to someone who can read. And has curls. And could have a lover before nightfall. And this is me, Beetle.” She stopped. Beetle was no name for a person, no name for someone who looked like she could read.

Frowning, she thought a minute, and then her face shone as though a torch were fired inside her. “Alyce,” she breathed. Alyce sounded clean and friendly and smart. You could love someone named Alyce. She looked back at the face in the water. “This then is me, Alyce.”

Getting a name is all about what others will feel towards the person with that name. Alyce herself has not changed. But she could imagine other people loving her, and that gives her identity. It’s not about caring for others here, but about having others care for her.

And yet no one does love her when she gets her name. As she remarks only a bit later,

This business of having a name was harder than it seemed. A name was of little use if no one would call you by it.

The first person to call her by the name she has chosen, not to laugh and say she is still nitwit, is Will Russet, one of the boys who has always plagued her. Will becomes one of the people who love her, but the reason he begins to is quite telling.

In an echo of her rescue of the cat earlier, Alyce saves Will from drowning after he falls into the river and the other boys run away, knowing none of them can swim. He pleads with her to throw him something, but she’s terrified.

This passage is narrated so as to almost elide the point where Alyce makes the decision to help. She says she’s scared, she creeps out on a branch to see where he’s gone, and suddenly the branch she’s on is being used to bend down to the river and give Will something to grab onto.

The moment when she realizes this is a good at to save him is not mentioned at all. Is it because she’s so terrified that she wouldn’t have stopped to think? Or because this tendency to save others is so instinctive?

Either way, when Will recovers, he says,

“You have pluck, Beetle.”


“You have pluck, Alyce.”

She claimed an identity for herself with her name, a girl who looks like she can read and who can be loved. It takes serving someone else, though, to get this identity recognized.

But once Will has recognized her, he helps in her process of nurturing that identity. Alyce learns to sing when she helps Will with his cow as she is giving birth. She uses gentle words on the cow “as she heard Will do,” and makes sweet noises, “although none would have called them sweet but she and the boy and the cow.”

Her memory of this wonder-filled experience later turns into a song when she catches herself rhyming in her recounting of the event to her cat: “All shiny they were, and sticky to touch. I did not even know them, but I loved them so much… And so it was that Alyce learned about singing and making songs.”

Between the birth itself and this memory, we are told that Alyce “grew in knowledge and skills…Alyce, grown accustomed to herself, did not notice. But the villagers noticed, and…they began to ask her how and why and what can I.”

She barely notices the gradual changes in her, until the next chapter when the boys are teasing the cat again and she lets out a string of shouted threats, to everyone’s surprise, especially her own.

Her caring instincts were there from the beginning, but before she had a name and before Will started noticing her and before she learned to sing, she was too afraid to rescue the cat until it was almost too late. Now she can make her voice heard without even thinking about it.

When she finally gets to help with a human birth, told by the midwife to “do nothing” while she goes to help another mother, Alyce draws on what she’s learned from birthing the calves – she speaks soothingly and gives Joan “all she had of care and courtesy and hard work.” In total opposition to what she’s seen the midwife do with human birth, she does what Will showed her with animal birth.

(There’s a whole separate and fascinating topic in comparing the incidents of animal birth and mothering, human birth and mothering, and humans helping in the birth or mothering of animals.)

This event teaches Alyce to smile:

Alyce felt so much pride and satisfaction that she had to let them out somehow, and so she smiled, which felt so good that she thought she might do it again.

The response of a smile comes not only from having accomplished, but from hearing the new father say,

“We have no need of you, Jane. Your helper has taken care of us with her two strong hands and her good common sense.”

She is needed and appreciated. And that night, she dreams of her mother, though she can’t remember the dream when she wakes. Coincidence? I think not. I’m not sure yet what exactly I think the significance is.

It could be that she’s needed and appreciated, in a way completely and obviously opposite to her precarious position earlier, when everyone knew that no one cared about her and therefore took advantage of her. And so now she dreams of belonging again.

Or, and I’m leaning more towards this, she has participated in creating a mother and so dreams of her own. She has, in the process of growing up, taken her place as part of the chain.

And I’m leaning towards that because of what happens immediately after: she becomes a mother to a little orphan boy.

Which to me means that the organizing principle of maturation in this book is the ability to shed childish selfishness and turn around to help the next child.

Selfishness being a marker of childhood is not presented as a bad thing in and of itself in this book. It’s simply that growing up and claiming adult selfhood requires cultivating a care for others.

That doesn’t mean total self-erasure either – Alyce smiles because she feels pride and satisfaction, and this prompts her to start actively learning – she has proven to herself that she can.

Before this, she couldn’t have said to Edward, “Everybody is somebody and so are you,” because she didn’t feel like somebody. Claiming a personal identity she is proud of enables her to continue maturing and passing that on to another child.

Again, passing it on does not mean totally giving of oneself with no personal benefit. Even this maternal aspect provides personal gain: “A sudden pleasure inside her warmed her hands as she reached out to smooth the boy’s hair,” as she tells him her secret of keeping warm in the dung heap.

After sending him off to the manor for work and food, Alyce feels so much satisfaction that she “thought not of her tasks but of Edward’s face and the abundance of bread and cheese up at the manor looking for a hungry boy’s belly to fill.” This is not completely selfless, as her daydream later shows – she imagines Edward starving and unhappy so that he would cling to her when she goes to visit him and take him away.

His happiness, safety, and comfort later get her to cry for the first time. Earlier, just after she saved him, Alyce fails to deliver a baby and runs away after the midwife comes to the rescue.

Strange sensations tickled her throat, but she did not cry, for she did not know how, and a heavy weight sat in her chest, but she did not moan or wail, for she had never learned to give voice to what was inside her. She knew only to run away.

This is a setback, and she goes back to thinking of herself as nobody and nothing – not what she told Edward. She hangs on to the thought of the boy at the manor as she spends weeks working as a nobody at an inn “and wondered how he fared and if she had at least done that right.”

Will again helps her grow and says during a visit to the inn when he discovers her there, “Bah, Alyce. I seen you with Tansy. You got guts and common sense. Just because you don’t know everything don’t mean you know nothing.” She needs to get the courage to go back and face her failures so she can continue learning.

But first she goes to check on her one possible success and imagines how Edward will react to her arrival. But “Alyce learned about the sometimes mighty distance between what one imagines and what is” when Edward makes sure Alyce will leave him there, because he is happy.

This confuses her emotions, as would be expected:

She would not be bringing Edward back with her to make her heart content, but she knew she had not failed him, and she breathed a heavy sigh of sadness, disappointment, and relief. It felt so good that she did it again and again until her sighs turned to sobs and she cried her first crying…

Alyce still doesn’t go back to the midwife just yet. First she has what is basically a test when a woman in labor unexpectedly turns up at the inn where Alyce is working. Alyce successfully delivers the baby when no one else has any idea what to do.

That chapter ends with Alyce going outside and thinking it’s the first of June, “the month, as Magister Reese could have told her, named for Juno, the Roman goddess of the moon, of women, and of childbirth.” Alyce herself doesn’t know this, but that makes it no less significant.

Juno represents Alyce becoming a woman, but she also represents Alyce being born. The more obvious reference of childbirth is of course the woman who gave birth, but Alyce’s transition to woman is a birth in its way. It makes me wonder if the use of childbirth in a narrative of growing up means that every transition is a new birth of its own.

Finally, Alyce decides to return to the midwife and learn all she can to continue delivering babies.

That night she dreamt she gave birth to a baby who gave birth to a baby and so on and son on until morning.

This is the resolution, which requires Alyce to have fully overcome her struggles, and in this genre, to have fully grown up. This sentence, following everything that has happened in Alyce’s process of growing up, points to the idea of maturation as assuming one’s place in the chain of motherhood.

Thinking and Feeling

Earlier this semester, I read Patricia Ingham’s article on the “Pleasures of Arthur,” arguing that the attitude of derision to scholars who hang on to their “fangirling” readings of texts is ridiculous (my words here, not hers). Of course scholars need to be able to criticize their favorite texts and stories, of course they need to be able to point out misogynistic, racist, imperialist undertones – but that doesn’t necessitate leaving behind their exhilaration and pleasure in the text, either before or after making that argument.

That’s been coming to mind a lot in two ways.

First of all, I still get excited about books I read, regardless of how terrible their attitudes are. My favorite childhood books – A Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Secret Garden, Little Women (and the BY Times series too!) – are hugely problematic in many ways. When I first realized this, I resisted changing my rosy views of these books, until I realized that just because I now acknowledge issues which I couldn’t have known about when I read these feel-good books as a kid, that doesn’t mean I have to give up those warm memories, nor does it mean I can never read and enjoy those books again. When I need to interrogate the racism in those books, I will, and when I want to live in that imaginary princess world again, I will.

But the other side of this is the emotion opposite to pleasure in fandom being totally allowed too. As a scholar, I can read a book that inspires strong negative emotions. I can be angry at the text, at the author, at the long line of critics for reading in a manner that elides key issues. But just as when doing scholarship on a book I love, I need to separate the “ohmygod I love this book!” from critical analysis, even if just for a few moments (if only writing a paper took just a few moments!), I also need to separate the anger, or whatever negative emotion it is, from the critical analysis when necessary.

A few colleagues have been surprised that I can be working on medieval interactions between Christian and Jewish communities, particularly in the period following the First Crusade of 1096 when the violence perpetrated against the Jews caused shifts in those interactions and attitudes, and not be in a constant state of anger. As a Jew, I should (so some think) be upset at the atrocities committed against my people. I should always speak about Christians acting with religious fervor in terms of anger, and never in terms of understanding.

But I can’t do that.

I’ve been reading Hebrew chronicles of the Crusades, pages where the chronicler lists numbers – astronomical numbers – of Jews killed in each town. I’ve been reading Hebrew poetry from around that era responding to the horrors of forced conversions, suicide to prevent that, mothers and fathers killing their children, lords promising protection and then handing over whole communities to be slaughtered, crusaders storming in and decimating entire cities within a matter of hours.

The poetry is beautiful. And I can’t read more than one or two poems at a time. Of course it’s painful, of course I am picturing my ancestors, and of course I am drawing parallels between those vague accounts and the details I know of my grandparents’ experiences in the Holocaust.

But my notes are thoughts about the language used, comparisons of the accounts of similar episodes in the chronicles versus the poetry, rhetoric and attitudes etc etc. If I wrote a paper without doing that, only focusing on how terrible and painful it is to read these texts, it would be – let’s say less than good.

In the class for which I’m writing this paper, Medieval Conversions, we spoke about the Prioress’s Tale, and it brought to mind my reaction to The King of Tars, where the attitudes of the Christian writers seem to show a bit of understanding towards the Saracen/Jewish religious fervor. There is even a small parallel made in The King of Tars between the Sultan wanting his wife to be of his faith and a Christian man wanting the same thing. But one of the conclusions in that class was that even when one group can, and tries to, understand the other, that does not necessarily mean there is sympathy.

I can’t be angry at the crusaders because I can understand them. I know their historical moment, I know the effects of a group/mob mentality, I know the realities of religious idealism gone wrong. I’ve read about the nuances, the mechanics and the politics of the crusades. That doesn’t mean I sympathize with them. But it does mean that my scholarship will contain more than “look what atrocities were committed, and this is how the Jews reacted.” It will contain analyses of the effects of the violence on the Christian community as well – an angle I would never take if I were condemning the perpetrators without trying to understand all of the dynamics.

For our Malory seminar today, we’re talking about rape. Malory himself was a convicted rapist, and rape appears throughout the text in various ways. When we were preparing for class and first started thinking about rape in Le Morte Darthur, we had some good thoughts, some good discussion.

But at one point we had to stop and say – might our reactions to and analyses of this issue be colored by our contemporary perceptions and definitions of rape? Once we take a step back and say – okay, this is how the author was thinking about this issue, because that was his historical reality – then we can begin to tease out arguments about what else is going on in the text.

If we stop at “how messed up is it that he rapes her and steals her dog and that proves his love for her!” and don’t consider the historical and legal realities that allow for that situation, we’ve missed out on a whole rich array of possibilities. (We didn’t miss out on that, by the way. We let ourselves feel disgust, but then we did take that step back.)

I want to read affectively. I want to allow myself the pleasure of enjoying a text and the pleasure of hating a text or historical background. And I also want to allow those pleasures to inform, but not take over, my critical readings of those texts.