Out of the Zoo: Joan of Arc

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie reports on her class on the trial of Joan of Arc—JF

I loved The Lord of the Rings movies growing up. I watched them for the first time with my mom in elementary school–she skipped all the parts that were too scary or gross. I didn’t really know what was going on, but when I watched them again a few years later I understood more. After that, the Lord of the Rings saga became a staple in our family–for sick days, movie nights and especially long car trips in our Dodge minivan with built-in television screens. My cousin Abby, who is now a children’s librarian in the Grand Rapids area, even took my siblings and I to see a midnight showing of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug when we were in eighth grade.

One of my favorite parts in The Lord of the Rings movies is a scene from The Return of the King. As Frodo and Sam draw ever nearer to Mount Doom, Legolas, Gimli, and several other familiar faces are left to defend Minas Tirith from a giant army of orcs. In the middle of the heated battle, the evil Witch-King shows up and picks a fight with Eowyn, a noblewoman from Rohan who disguises herself as a man to defend Middle Earth. “You fool, no man can kill me,” the Witch-King rasps, with Eowyn in a choke-hold. “Die now.” A few seconds later, Eowyn escapes from the his grasp and rips off her helmet to reveal long golden hair. “I am no man!” she exclaims, thrusting her sword forward and striking the Ringwraith with a fatal blow.

As a self-proclaimed tomboy in elementary and middle school, I wanted to be like Eowyn when I grew up. I probably could have quoted her battle scene in my sleep. She was bold and strong and brave–the ultimate example of girl power. I think I liked watching Eowyn because I saw some of myself in her–but I also saw the kind of person I wanted to be.

At Messiah University this semester, I’m taking a class about a young woman who reminds me a lot of Eowyn–Joan of Arc. She wasn’t a noblewoman from Rohan, but a peasant girl from Domrémy, France. To be frankly honest, I didn’t know much about Joan before my class started, and I still  have a lot to learn. But in the month that I’ve studied her thus far, I’ve encountered a devout, loyal, fearless young woman who cast aside gender norms, listened to God’s voice, and tirelessly sought the greater good of France. Like Eowyn, Joan was brave, and she wore men’s clothes into battle too! There’s no magic ring or Witch-King in Joan’s story, but she did live in a world that looks a lot different from our own. To someone who loves history–and even to someone who doesn’t–Joan’s life is just as intriguing as a fantasy novel. Like Eowyn, I see some of myself in Joan of Arc–in her stubbornness and her passion for justice. Yet in Joan I also see the kind of person I want to become–someone who is bold, courageous and full of faith.

I am grateful to my professor, Dr. Joseph Huffman, for introducing me to Joan of Arc this semester. As we progress through the transcript of her trial in the coming weeks, I hope I will better comprehend with greater fullness the woman she was–a task which may never be completely achieved. Because unlike movie characters, historical figures are complex and ever-changing. They can’t be easily captured in a few words on a page or a few minutes on a movie screen. Nonetheless, we still have lots to learn from them.

Joan of Arc and Women’s Suffrage

Inez_Milholland_-_Suffrage_parade_LOC_2616372790_cropped

Inez Millholland

Why did suffragists wear medieval costumes? Mary Dockray-Miller answers this question with the help of scholarship from Holly McCammon, Annelise Madsen, Maria DiCenzo, and Kate White.

Here is a taste:

In the 1910s, U.S. suffragists emulated and expanded on the British women’s movement’s interest in medieval costume as part of their parades (or “pageants,” their preferred term). Medieval costume became a standard feature of the American suffrage parade throughout the decade, with one participant often designated specifically as Joan of Arc. These medievalist pageant performances allowed suffrage advocates to embody a quasi-military activism that was chronologically distant enough to be perceived as unthreatening to contemporary gender roles.

The most famous example of the medievalist impulse in the suffrage movement is Inez Milholland, who dressed as a medieval herald as she led the Women’s Suffrage pageant through Washington D.C. on March 3, 1913. With her crown, sweeping white cape, flowing hair, white horse, and riding gloves shaped like armored gauntlets, Milholland provided a medievalist representation of the glamour of the suffrage movement. Her reputation as the most beautiful of the American suffragists only enhanced that glamour. She rode confidently astride her herald’s horse, not in the more demure side-saddle posture.

Read the entire piece here.

Out of the Zoo: “Cathedrals”

Notre Dame 2

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. This week she writes about Notre Dame and the meaning of churches. –JF

I can tell you a lot more about old church buildings now than I could have at the beginning of the semester, when I started taking Professor Huffman’s “Knights, Peasants, and Bandits” class here at Messiah College.

Specifically, I’ve been learning about Medieval parish churches, and the important events that often took place inside them. For one, I found out that in Medieval villages, godparents rushed babies to the local parish church immediately after they were born, so that they could be quickly baptized in the baptismal font inside. Years later, if those babies were fortunate enough to reach adulthood, they often got married in the shadow of the same church building, on the front steps. Churches held mass, and remained at the center of holidays and celebrations of all kinds; church buildings were, and still are, places where Christians and non-Christians alike gather, socialize, and carry out their lives.

Despite the significance parish churches had in Medieval village life, I doubt that anyone would pledge millions for their restoration, as in the case of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. There’s no doubt that the destruction of the latter will be remembered for many years to come–I can’t say the same of the slow disintegration of village parish churches. As a historian, I myself am saddened by the loss of such a complex artifact as the Cathedral of Notre Dame, which despite generous donations will never be fully restored to its original condition. My heart aches for French men and women who saw the Cathedral as part of their heritage and cultural identity. When I think about Notre Dame, I’m reminded of all the life that must have unfolded within its walls–not unlike the life that thrived inside the much less grandiose parish churches I’ve been learning about from Professor Huffman. I feel remorse when I consider all the laborious work that was done to construct Notre Dame, the fruit of which was so quickly reduced to ashes.

There’s no denying that church buildings have been at the center of human religious and community life for centuries. They’re often where we laugh, cry, get married, and are sent off to our next life. Churches are important to historians, too, when we seek to understand the ways people have gathered and worshiped over time. I can’t help but think, though, especially in light of Notre Dame’s recent destruction, we’ve lost track of the purpose of churches–because even lavish near-1000 year old church buildings will never be more than just that–buildings. A church shouldn’t be important just because it has a tall steeple or an impressive vaulted ceiling. Its value shouldn’t even be judged by the number of weddings or funerals or Easter Sunday services that took place inside. A church’s worth, instead, should be discerned by its ability to send the Church–meaning, the group of Christ-followers inside the building–into the world outside.

If a church keeps you inside and doesn’t send you out, no matter how stunning its stained glass windows or elaborately carved its interior, it’s not doing its job.

Out of the Zoo: “In Search of Knights, Peasants, and Bandits”

kalamazoo-valley-museum

The mummy exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about Medieval history and a museum she visited as a child.  Enjoy! –JF

A considerable portion of my childhood was spent inside the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, a three story establishment filled to the brim with free entertainment and learning tailored to our community. On the first floor there’s a planetarium and a weather exhibit. One half of the second floor is filled with interactive displays that teach physics principles, and the other half contains a life-size timeline of Kalamazoo’s history. The third floor, though, was my favorite–it housed a real Egyptian mummy and had a massive space that was renovated every few months for visiting displays. It was hard to predict what wonders the third floor would contain when we went on our regular visits.

One morning my mom made the 45-minute trek from my house to the museum with her three children in tow. We spent a while visiting our favorite spots; my brother Nate liked building rubber band cars, while my sister and I enjoyed seeing our silhouettes on the thermal camera. None of these compared, though, to the adventure that awaited us on the third floor.

The third flight of stairs opened up to a massive recreation of a Medieval castle and village, complete with costumes and props. It seemed as if half of the kids in Kalamazoo were at the museum that day, immersed in an elaborate game of pretend. Some kids put on heavy aprons and imagined they were blacksmiths, others hoisted swords and served as knights, while still more set tables in the miniature great hall with plastic plates and play food. I can’t say we learned anything about Medieval England that day (most of us were too young to read the plaques) but we were given the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a culture that was foreign to us, and had a little fun along the way.

It’s easy for me to forget that the Medieval time period existed outside the walls of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum or popular fairy tales. Perhaps it’s because many of the books I read and movies I watched as a child were fantasy stories saturated with images of brave knights and fair maidens, but for the longest time this unique period in history just didn’t seem real to me.

A few weeks ago, however, I started taking a class called “Knights, Peasants, and Bandits: A Social History of Medieval England” here at Messiah College. Since then I’ve begun to learn that knights, lords, and ladies were real people who stayed in real castles and faced real hardships. They existed outside of fairy tales, and had lives of their own. The class is helping me come to terms with the strangeness of the past too–I mean, how else would you describe a time period during which nobles hunted with falcons and people built siege engines? However, I’m finding familiarity in my studies as well; I’m discovering the little ways I’m similar to men and women who lived in Medieval England, despite the fact that they walked the earth hundreds of years ago. It’s the job of the historian to reside in this tension between familiarity and strangeness–seeing past fairy tales, empathizing with real people, and accepting the past for what it really was.

Will Carly Fiorina’s Medieval History Degree Help Her Fight ISIS?

The GOP presidential candidate is taking a lot of heat for saying that her study of medieval history as an undergraduate at Stanford will help her fight terrorism as president of the United States. 

At a town hall meeting in Windham, New Hampshire Fiorina said: “Finally my degree in medieval history and philosophy has come in handy because what ISIS wants to do is drive us back to the Middle Ages, literally.”

First of all, it is impossible for ISIS to literally drive us back to the Middle Ages unless they are able to engage in time travel.  But I digress.

Fiorina continued: “Every single one of the techniques that ISIS is using, the crucifixion, the beheadings, the burning alive, those were commonly used techniques in the Middle Ages, so we can’t avert our eyes and pretend it’s an exaggeration that ISIS wants to take its territory back to the Middle Ages but that is in truth what they want to do and are attempting to do.”

I am not a medieval historian so I do not know just how comparable these medieval “techniques” are to the techniques ISIS is using today, but I am willing to admit that they are similar.  I am also more than willing to say that the study of history can help us make sense of the present.  I think more presidential candidates need to study history.  I am also willing to say that the study of the past could provide understanding about ISIS that could aid in its defeat.  So in a lot of ways, Fiorina should be applauded for invoking her study of history.  But I think that there are some serious problems with the way she invokes it.

I could riff on this myself, but I think I will get a real medieval historian take it from here.  David Perry teaches teaches medieval history at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Guardian titled “No, Carly Fiorina, a degree in medieval history doesn’t qualify you to fight Isis.



I’d like to state unequivocally that my years of training to become a professor of medieval history in no way make me fit to be appointed commander-in-chief of the US military. While the Middle Ages do in fact shape contemporary events all the time, Fiorina unfortunately almost always gets the lessons of history wrong.

When we use the word “medieval” to characterize something we don’t like, be it Isis, the Ferguson Police department or Russia’s driver’s license regulations, we are trying to impose chronological distance between ourselves and things we find unpleasant. Thinking of these distasteful or evil aspects of the modern world as belonging to the past makes it harder, not easier, to understand their root causes and fight them.

That hasn’t stopped Fiorina from bringing up her medieval history training surprisingly often. It used to just be part of her “self-made” mythology: she graduated from Stanford with a degree that taught her how to think, but no specific skills, dropped out of law school, then clawed her way to the top.
The veracity of that story has been called into question, but she does make good points about the value of a humanities education, saying: “My medieval history and philosophy degree … did prepare me for life … I learned how to condense a whole lot of information down to the essence. That thought process has served me my whole life … I’m one of these people who believes we should be teaching people music, philosophy, history, art”. I wish more of her Republican colleagues would take these words to heart.
Lately, though, it’s all about scoring partisan points. She’s incorporated her quip about Isis driving us back to the Middle Ages as a standard part of her stump speech since at least last March. It’s a joke, perhaps, but given that her complete lack of national security credentials is a campaign issue, it’s not a throwaway line. She really does seem to be claiming that her undergraduate degree will enable her to make sound foreign policy decisions, despite her lack of experience.

Perry concludes his piece by suggesting a few things that the study of the Middle Ages should teach us today:

If Carly Fiorina really wants to draw on the Middle Ages for inspiration, I do have some suggestions. Lesson one: support universities, scholars, writers and artists, as their contributions outlive us all. Lesson two: peasants, oppressed for too long, always rebel. Lesson three: don’t go to war in the Middle East without a good exit plan.