Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Interview with Michael Hirst, creator of Vikings

This month's issue of DUJOUR has a feature interview with Michael Hirst, the creator and writer of the hit TV series Vikings, by Nancy Bilyeau:

If you walk outside your office for three blocks, you’ll pass at least 70 Vikings.” That was the pitch that award-winning writer Michael Hirst made to the History Channel—and it worked. Executives took the chance that a dramatic series on the lives of people who fought and loved more than 1,000 years ago would hook us today. 
Vikings, back for Season Two on February 27, became the No. 1 new cable series of the year in its first season, averaging 4.3 million viewers. The fan base proved rabid about the series’ stars Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, Jessalyn Gilsig and George Blagden. 
What makes Vikings stand out in the throng of historical films and television series is the simple yet compelling storytelling of Hirst, its creator and sole writer. This is far from his first foray into the past. Hirst wrote the screenplays for Elizabeth and its sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age, both starring Cate Blanchett, and then went on to create the very popular Showtime series The Tudors, which ran for four seasons. 
We caught up with Hirst to find out what fuels his passion for authenticity, whether it’s a chaotic battlefield or quiet moments between husband and wife.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

It's Ragnarok this Saturday! Try not to worry too much

The Jorvik Viking Festival in York, England is billing this Saturday as Ragnarok, the Norse-version of the apocalypse. They calculate that February 22nd will be the date when the Norse gods - Odin, Thor, Loki et al.- fight an epic battle that will leave the world destroyed.

The festival organizers are apparently not too serious about the events. The York Press reports that during the day they will be hosting combat training sessions for the younger kids, and the "finale will see about 300 warriors gather in Dean’s Park for a march through the city from 1.30pm, before massing at the Eye of York at 6.45pm for the climactic battle."

NPR has sent this radio report back on what to expect:

If you are still worried, check out Judith Jesch's article on the University of Nottingham's website, where she talks about the meaning of Ragnarok, which may be more peaceful than is seen in popular imagination.  By looking at the meaning of the term ragnarok, the events foretold can be seen more as a  ‘renewal of the divine powers’.

Jesch adds:

If this meaning goes back to the pre-Christian period, as seems likely, then it sheds a whole new light on those gloomy old Vikings. Their mythology envisaged Ragnarok as a cleansing process, through which the gods could be reborn. This more positive view of Ragnarok would also have suited their Christian descendants (Iceland was converted around the year 1000 AD), who could interpret the renewal as being a rebirth into a whole new dispensation with a whole new kind of divine power. This attractive solution not only revises our understanding of the Viking world-view, but also explains how the story could successfully be reinterpreted by Christians, such as the newly-converted Vikings who in the tenth century erected a cross (depicted here) with scenes from both Ragnarok and Christian myth at Gosforth, in Cumbria.

Enjoy the day!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Is this a Viking Magic Wand?

For decades the experts at the British Museum believed that this item, discovered at a woman's grave from Norway was just a hook used in fishing. However, new research suggests that it was her 'magic wand' and that it was deliberately bent to destroy its power.

The Times newspaper reported that this item, a 90 cm long iron rod, was first brought to the British Museum in 1894. British Museum curator Sue Branning believes that it was probably a magical staff used to perform 'seithr', a form of Viking sorcery predominantly practiced by women.

She told The Times: "These are magical practices, which we don't fully understand. It involves divination, prophecy, communication with the dead and making people do things. Our rod fits, in terms of its form, with a number of these rods that turn up in the 9th and 10th century in female burials. They normally take the form of these long iron rods with knobs attached to them."

The rod would have been 'ritually' destroyed in order to prevent the sorceress from rising from the dead, or to stop anyone else from using it. Branning adds, "When we hear about the Vikings we hear all about the powerful warriors, but now we know there were also powerful women. These women were very well respected, but they were quite feared as well. They may have been on the margins of society. You might not want to get close to them because they have this power. The sources we have describe them as wearing blue and black cloaks with gems attached."

Visitors to the British Museum will be able to see the artifact when the new Early Medieval Gallery reopens on March 27th. Click here to visit the British Museum website.

Monday, February 10, 2014

New Minor in Medieval Studies programs offered at U.S. universities

Don't worry - medieval studies is a little more gender balanced!
The University of Arizona and the University of Connecticut have both added a Minor in Medieval Studies to their program offerings for undergraduate students. The Daily Wildcat that the University of Arizona approved of the minor last December, after it was proposed by professors Fabian Alfie and Albrecht Classen. They were inspired by the creation of a minor in Hip-Hop Studies at the university to go ahead with their own.

Professor Classen tells the newspaper, "“[The minor is] trying to give students a sense of a certain cultural period. [This] allows [students] to combine — in a unique way ­— philosophy, religion, art history, literature and economics. There is a lot of flexibility, yet with a concrete focus on a cultural period.”

Click here to read the article from the Daily Wildcat

Meanwhile, the University of Connecticut will offer their students to gain a minor in Medieval Studies by taking courses from over 11 departments. The Daily Campus reports that the program is designed so that students take a wide variety of subjects.

Graduate student Brandon Hawk explains, “It encourages people to take classes in music, art history and other subjects. It provides a greater spectrum of a liberal arts education.”

Professor Fiona Somerset, who is one co-head of the program, finds that it will appeal to many types of students. “For aspiring novelists, it’s a great way to get an edge,” she said. “Much of the basis of our pop culture is in the middle ages. If you read fantasy, that’s medieval based.”

Click here to read the article from the Daily Campus

Click here to see our page on Medieval Studies programs in the United States

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Sea Monsters, Bones, and Textbooks: Medieval News Roundup

The Bones of Charlemagne

Swiss researchers believe they have confirmed that the 94 bones and bone fragments kept at Aachen Cathedral belong to the first Holy Roman Emperor. Professor Frank Rühli of the University of Zurich explains, "Thanks to the results from 1988 up until today, we can say with great likelihood that we are dealing with the skeleton of Charlemagne."

The remains of Charlemagne were taken out of his grave in the 12th century and put into various reliquaries. The researchers took various measurements of the remaining bones, and conclude that he was about six feet tall and thinly built.

You can read more details from Medieval Histories

Medieval Sea Monsters

The Public Domain Review website has a posted an article about the drawings of the sea creatures made by the 16th century writer Olaus Magnus and his influence on sea lore. They note:

The northern seas of the marine and terrestrial map teem with fantastic sea monsters either drawn or approved by Olaus. The most dramatic of those, off the busy coast of Norway, below the dreaded Maelström, is the great serpent, coiling around a ship’s mast and lunging with bared teeth at a sailor on the deck.

You can see more images and the full article from the Public Domain Review

What's wrong with History Textbooks

David Cutler, writing in The Atlantic, is finding that high-school history textbooks in the U.S. are not very useful for teaching history. His reasons for this include:

  1. Textbooks present history as unchanging, but as time passes, our understanding and interpretation of the past constantly evolves. 
  2. Textbooks are one-sided, offering a top-down, often white-male-centric view of history. 
  3.  Without a thesis or any semblance or argument, textbooks don’t accurately reflect how most scholars (at least good ones) write and present history. Teachers should assign readings that model effective historical writing. 
  4. Most importantly—and this merits repeating—textbooks are boring and intimidating. 
  5. Textbooks can serve as a crutch for teachers who don’t know history or the historian’s craft.

While this article is aimed at teaching American history in High School, some of the observations might also be apt for the use of textbooks in college or first year university history courses too.

Click here to read this article from The Atlantic

Monday, February 03, 2014

Answering the questions 'May a Man Marry a Man?' and 'Who am I?' in the Middle Ages

May a Man Marry a Man? A Medieval Debate 

Charles J. Reid, a Professor at the University of St.Thomas and writer on religious issues for the Huffington Post, recently posted May a Man Marry a Man? A Medieval Debate, which takes look at how medieval writers approached the issue of same-sex marriage. The surprising thing, notes Professor Reid, is that they actually talked about this issue. He begins by referencing the work of Henry of Segusio, better known as Hostiensis, a 13th century canon law expert, who penned the question: "May a man marry a man?"

The answer was an emphatic no, and would remain so throughout the Middle Ages. Reid does it find interesting that many of the arguments against same-sex marriage that were first written over 800 years ago remain prominent today.

Click here to read his article.

Thomas Aquinas – Toward a Deeper Sense of Self

Therese Scarpelli Cory has written a very insightful piece on the Cambridge University Press blog on Thomas Aquinas – Toward a Deeper Sense of Self. It explores how St. Thomas Aquinas might approach the question 'Who am I?' and introduces us to Cory's new book Aquinas on Human Self-Knowledge. She writes:

"It’s a common scholarly myth that early modern philosophers (starting with Descartes) invented the idea of the human being as a “self” or “subject.” My book tries to dispel that myth, showing that like philosophers and neuroscientists today, medieval thinkers were just as curious about why the mind is so intimately familiar, and yet so inaccessible, to itself. (In fact, long before Freud, medieval Latin and Islamic thinkers were speculating about a subconscious, inaccessible realm in the mind.) The more we study the medieval period, the clearer it becomes that inquiry into the self does not start with Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” Rather, Descartes was taking sides in a debate about self-knowledge that had already begun in the thirteenth century and earlier."

Click here to read her blog post