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.

Medieval Historian: Walls Did Not Work Then and They Won’t Work Now

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Matthew Gabrielle, a professor of medieval studies at Virginia Tech, brings some historical context to Donald Trump’s claim that border walls worked well in the Middle Ages.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Washington Post:

President Trump’s demand for a wall across most of the U.S.-Mexico border has been mocked (and embraced) as a “medieval” idea. Responding to the president’s prime-time speech from the Oval Office on Tuesday, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) tweeted, “We are not paying a $5 billion ransom note for your medieval 🏰 border wall.” A day later, on Wednesday, Trump responded by embracing that characterization: “[Democrats] say it’s a medieval solution, a wall. It’s true, because it worked then, and it works even better now.”

Since then, others have seized on the idea, and the association seems to have stuck. Walls generally, but this wall in particular, are straight from the Middle Ages. Dana Milbank ran with the idea, speaking with several scholars of the Middle Ages, experts on siege warfare, about what the country would “really” need if it were planning to use a wall to repel invaders.

But as a scholar of medieval history, I have noticed something has been missing in all this discussion. In short, calling the proposed 700 to 1,200 mile border wall “medieval” is deeply misleading because walls in the actual European Middle Ages simply did not work the way Trump apparently thinks they did. If anything, their true function may speak to Trump’s intentions: Poor tools of defense, medieval walls had more to do with reassuring those who lived inside them than with dividing self from other.

Read the rest here.

An 11th-Century Catholic Reformer on a Cleric at the King’s Court

St_Peter_Damian

He is Saint Peter Damian.  He was no court evangelical.

Here is a passage from C. Stephen Jaeger’s The Origins of Courtliness: Civilizing Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideals, 939-1210:

To illustrate that no sin goes unpunished, the church reformer Petrus Damiani tells the following story.  A cleric of the church of Cologne is fording a river, when suddenly a man appears next to him, takes hold of the reins of his horse, and stops him.  It is Saint Severin, once archbishop of Cologne, now a spirit wandering the earth.  The cleric, struck dumb by the apparition, recovers sufficiently, to ask what so famous a man is doing in this sorry place. “Take my hand,” the saint replies, “and you will learn my story by feeling rather than by hearing.  They clasp hands and proceed.  But the cleric at once notices that the saint’s hand is hot. The heat increases and becomes so intense that the flesh begins to melt away. Soon the cleric holds in his hand only bare bones with small pieces of flesh clinging to them. “Why is so terrible an affliction visited on a man so revered by the church?” he asks.  The saint replies that only one thing was found punishable in him: that as a cleric at the king’s court, he took so keen an interest in the affairs of state that he neglected chanting the liturgy at the prescribed hours.  For this sin he now suffers, and he begs the cleric and his fellows to pray for him so that he can be redeemed and enter heaven.

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.

11th Century Farming in the 21st Century

Keith Ferrell, the former editor of Omni magazine, lives on a farm in Virginia.  He works his farm with the tools available to 11th century farmers. 

He tells his story in this essay at Aeon.  Here is a taste:

I arrived in the 11th century through circumstances in my life and career. Purchased in the mid-1990s as a weekend and summer home, a getaway, part of the farm’s attraction was the old barn, already half-converted into living quarters. The downstairs had electricity, running water from a good well, a water heater (an old one, non of these tankless water heater systems had been invented yet), a tub and a toilet, a septic system. There was a range in the kitchen. The place had a phone line, which meant that we had dial-up internet (virtually the only option at the time). The nearest town, Rocky Mount, with just over 4,000 people, was 15 miles away. On clear nights with the lights turned low, the stars came out nearly as brilliantly as they would have a thousand years before.
The first couple of years of ownership had a peaceful pace – peaceful, that is, once I arrived here at the end of a work week or the beginning of a vacation. At the time, I was still editor-in-chief of OMNI magazine, often travelling throughout the country and around the world. My wife was teaching high school. The farm was our weekend refuge, a place for rejuvenation, for gardening and exploring. I left most of the fields in meadow, hiring a neighbour for a few hundred dollars to bring in a tractor and mow them a couple of times a year. I enjoyed watching an experienced farmer drive a tractor dragging a brush hog – a cutter for taking down thickets of briars and small trees. Most people with a weekend farm would have had the sense to buy a small tractor or at least a riding mower. Not me. It would have made sense to buy a four-wheel drive vehicle, too, not to mention a generator for times of power outages, but I never did.