I will be reading Piers the Plowman by William Langland. Here is what Goodreads has to say about it:
Astonishing in its cultural and theological scope, William Langland’s iconoclastic masterpiece is at once a historical relic and a deeply spiritual vision, probing not only the social and religious aristocracy but also the day-to-day realities of a largely voiceless proletariat class.
This is a phenomenal opportunity to learn more about the predominantly illiterate medieval worker class and their struggles. I look forward to reading it.
I am super excited to participate in Classics Spin #17 because I haven’t participated in years. Like everyone who joined the Classics Club Blog, I made a list of fifty classics. Unfortunately, I have ignored this challenge in the past three years, so I am nowhere near completion. Reading lists remind me of school, and I have enough reading lists to go through in graduate school. Because I predominantly read classics anyway, I don’t feel guilty about fudging the rules a bit to participate in the Classics Spins.
My list this time will include 20 classics that are on my physical and/or electronic TBRs. In January 2018, I implemented a challenge that has effectively slowed my book buying to a halt. And so far, I am quite pleased with the results. Borrowing has encouraged me to take more reading risks. I read more broadly and diversely than I did in the past.
Please note that some of the books on this list are relatively recent classics. Finally, the books are in chronological order by date of publication.
The binge-reading-only part of the semester is about to end in a few weeks. I just feel it in my bones. Soon, I will have to add binge-writing to an already full workload. This semester, I have three 20-page term papers due on the same day, plus a Master’s exam with an oral and a written component!
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love what I am doing. But because I am interested in becoming a scholar, I am also concerned about how what I am learning will help me long-term.
On the one hand, I understand why we are assigned so much reading. Professors expect students to have a basic knowledge of the course texts before class so that lecture-time can be spent analyzing themes or learning related theory. I am glad that my MA exam this April will require me to know the major works of the French canon because professors need to have a generalist knowledge of their field.
But reading is not always the best use of my time.
There are so many 16th century, 18th century, or 20th century texts that I should know, but no graduate student has the time to read everything that is considered “canon” for a given century or sub-field.
The problem, as I see it, is that reading is NOT scholarship. It is only the prerequisite of scholarship. No hiring committee cares how many books a candidate has read but how many major conference talks she has given, how many peer-reviewed articles she has published, and whether or not her dissertation is being turned into a book. I can read all of the books in the world, but if I can’t write or do good research, I am not a scholar.
In the American graduate education system, not enough time is spent writing and revising. We try to do all of the research for our term papers during the last month of the semester, all while trying to keep up with the weekly readings. I am currently binge-reading without a goal because I know that I will not be writing about most of the texts that I am assigned.
Published authors know that writing is rewriting, but graduate students only learn about the revision process in the last years of their program, when they suddenly have to learn how to write a 300-page dissertation.
Writing papers may be every graduate student’s least favorite activity (mine included), but it is also the most important activity. I wish graduate programs would encourage students to make writing a habit.
On March 10, 1762 Jean Calas was tortured and executed for allegedly murdering his son Marc-Antoine. Although Jean was the only member of the family executed, his wife, servant, son Paul, and friend M. Gaubert Lavaysse were also implicated in the murder. The Calas affair came to Voltaire’s attention because it appeared to be a case of religious fanaticism.
Jean’s eldest son Louis had already converted to Catholicism years earlier, and the family employed a Catholic servant. Still, the court sided with the crowd and ruled that Jean murdered his Catholic son for heresy. If Jean was required by his Calvinist faith to murder his son (as the Catholic prosecutors claimed), why did he employ a Catholic servant? And why would the Catholic servant agree to murder a fellow Catholic?
In all appearances, Marc-Antoine committed suicide. The family members were eating dinner when their son suddenly left the room. His body was found hanging in the front room.
Even before the law stepped in, a crowd of Catholics carried the body away and buried in consecrated ground. They began venerating Marc-Antoine as a Catholic martyr. The judges in Toulouse could not agree on the case, but they condemned Jean to death anyway. Through a series of authentic and potentially fictional letters, The Calas Affair traces the events leading up to and following the death of Marc-Antoine.
But it’s the following Treatise on Tolerance that is arguably more important than the précis of the affair. Here, Voltaire makes a case for religious tolerance.
I was surprised by Voltaire’ knowledge of the Bible. He clearly followed contemporary Biblical scholarship. Although some people accuse Voltaire of antisemitism, I had the opposite impression. Voltaire condemns the violence of the Old Testament, but he also argues that early Judaism was more tolerant than 18th century Christianity. Voltaire is only intolerant toward Atheists because he assumes that they are necessarily amoral. Voltaire may have be a Deist and highly critical of organized religion, but he was influenced by and admired many aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In TheTreatise on Tolerance, Voltaire targets particularly the Christian dogmatic tradition for promoting heresy hunting .
Voltaire rightly argues that the ancient Romans were by and large tolerant toward different religions. The periods of persecution were the exception to the rule. You would think that a persecuted religion such as Christianity would know what persecution feels like and avoid persecuting others. But Christians of all stripes have committed numerous atrocities over the centuries.
Voltaire makes it clear that the Gospels do not promote violence and intolerance. In an eye-opening commentary on the Old Testament, Voltaire demonstrates that the Old Testament God is only concerned about the behavior of the Jewish people. God is not concerned about the behavior of Gentile religions. Finally, God’s punishments and rewards are immediate and temporal. Voltaire references Hebrew, questions the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, considers whether Judaism began as semi-polytheistic, and has a detailed knowledge of the early ecclesiastical councils – evidence that he kept up with contemporary religious scholarship.
Voltaire argues throughout his treatise that fanaticism is not only irrational but also a violation of true faith. It is hypocrisy at its finest. The Treatise on Tolerance is all the more convincing for its simplicity. Today, most people in the West take it for granted that executing perceived heretics is wrong, but religious bigotry is unfortunately alive and well. 18th century justifications for the persecution of French Protestants (Huguenots) sound eerily familiar.
If much of Voltaire’s argument seems obvious to most readers, that’s because we have progressed a lot in the past three hundred years. It certainly wasn’t obvious to many of his contemporaries. In 1572, anywhere between 10,000 and 70,000 Huguenots were massacred on St. Bartholomew’s Day. In the 1700s, when Voltaire wrote The Treatise on Tolerance, Catholics still celebrated the anniversary of the massacre!
The Treatise on Tolerance is a reminder of what prejudice is capable of. While some sections are humorous, it is not a satire. Voltaire cuts to the heart of the matter. This is definitely a work worth revisiting in our increasingly intolerant age.
A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first book in Ellis Peters’ Chronicles of Brother Cadfael series. The eponymous Benedictine monk has had quite a life. Before entering the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury, Cadfael was Godfrey de Bouillon’s companion during the First Crusade. At the start of the novel, Cadfael is working in the abbey garden alongside two other brothers: Brother Columbanus (a raging mystic) and Brother John (who is tempted by the pleasures of the outside world).
But the peace of the monastery is suddenly broken when Prior Robert Pennant asks the brothers to find relics to bolster the abbey’s reputation. Each of the surrounding Benedictine monasteries house the relics of a miracle-working saint, but Saint Peter and Saint Paul has nothing to boast of. Ever ambitious, Prior Robert seeks far and wide for a saint to unearth and carry back to the English abbey. Finally, Brother Jerome receives visions confirming the intercession of a Saint Winifred. These alleged visions inspire the prior to lead a procession of monks to the saint’s burial site. Unfortunately, Brother Robert has underestimated the amount of effort it will take to convince the Welshmen of Gwytherin to relinquish the bones of their village saint to a group of English monks.
Upon his arrival, Brother Cadfael runs into a young woman named Sioned. For a Welsh woman, she is surprisingly competent in English. Soon, Cadfael learns about her secret love for an English ex-outlaw and the advances of a suitor to whom she is indifferent. Sioned’s father Rhisiart respects and even houses the ex-outlaw Engelard, but he objects to Engelard’s interest in his daughter. Further, he opposes Prior Robert’s quest.
Rhisiart may be the only obstacle between the Shrewsbury monks and the miracle-working saint on the one hand and Sioned and Engelard on the other, but who would want him dead?
While A Morbid Taste for Bones is a murder mystery, it is also written as a work of historical fiction. Ellis Peters describes the Welsh village of Gwytherin with an eye to historical accuracy. The mystery is only one plot line in the novel. We are also introduced to English monasticism and the English-Welsh conflict. In many mysteries, the setting and characters are secondary to the intrigue. But not in A Morbid Taste for Bones. The mystery element seems almost accidental to Prior Robert’s quest. Benedictine abbeys in the 11th century were concerned about their reputations; holy relics helped them compete with surrounding monasteries. Brother Cadfael may be religious but he is also practical. He draws from a lifetime’s worth of experiences to fulfill his monastic and social duties. He knows how to play the game.
I look forward to learning more about Brother Cadfael and his fellow monks in the rest of the series. Peters has managed to write a book that appeals to mystery buffs and medievalists alike.
“Meet every man as you find him, for we’re all made the same under habit, robe or rags. Some better made than others, and some better cared for, but on the same pattern, all.”
Although this blog is about literature, music is also an important part of my life. I listen to quite a lot of older musicians, and I sing in a church choir. For six years, I played hand bells in four different positions. Music brings me a lot of joy.
So it was with great sadness that I learned today of the death of one of my favorite French singers: France Gall.
I listened to France Gall’s albums throughout high school and undergrad. The lyrics of her songs introduced me to so much French vocabulary. I particularly loved the jazzy pop sound of her later music.
Her introduction to the music scene was as a teenage pop icon in the 1960s. She won a Eurovision competition for the song “Poupée de Cire, poupée de son”. Although the acclaimed singer Serge Gainsbourg wrote much of her earlier music, he also exploited her youth and naivete for his personal gain.
Later, she left Gainsbourg for Michel Berger. Berger was already an established singer and song-writer, having written music for Françoise Hardy and Véronique Sanson. But he soon became not only France’s song-writer but her husband as well. The song “Declaration d’amour” (1976) was composed by Michel Berger in her honor.
France Gall may have begun as a “Lolita” pop icon, but she soon became a mature, critically-acclaimed singer. My favorite performance available online was one of her last. In 1997, France Gall gave an acoustic performance of her greatest hits. “Elle a, Elle l’a”, about American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, is my favorite song on the Concert Privé album. She is accompanied by some famous jazz musicians.
I can’t stop listening to France Gall’s albums on Spotify. Her music had such an influence on my French education. Although she stopped performing in 2000, I always hoped that she would return for a few small concerts. Michel Berger passed away five months after I was born in 1992, and their daughter Pauline died in 1997. Although I will miss France Gall, she is now with the people she loved.
I still remember the lyrics of most of her songs. My dad was forced to listen to her albums on repeat during long car trips. She was a true class act!
If you are a fan of France Gall’s music, what’s your favorite song?
It may be surprising that I started the year with such a depressing book, but I felt ready today to read this poetry pamphlet. Lesléa Newman delivered these poems at the University of Wyoming five days after Matthew Shepard’s murder.
Matthew Shepard is to the LGBTQ movement what Emmett Till was to the Civil Rights Movement. Shepard was kidnapped and tortured by two boys on the night of October 6, 1998. He was found tied to a fence by a cyclist who mistook the body for a scarecrow.
The poems in October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard are told from a variety of perspectives – some inanimate. Each section begins with a poem from the fence’s perspective, and most of the poems begin with a quote from one of the actual people involved in the case. According to the pamphlet, Newman was heavily inspired by the structure of “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams.
I was the most moved by the poems that addressed the national response to Shepard’s murder. “A Chorus of Parents”, “Then and Now”, and “The Drag Queen” were my favorite in the collection.
Not all of the poems were brilliant. A few were frankly pretty trite. But overall, I felt that Newman captured well Shepard’s influence on the Gay Rights Movement. We must not forget the son, student, and lover behind the involuntary martyr.