I haven't posted in a while, despite my best intentions; I will now take the time to say I won't (probably) post for a good while longer. The PhD has just gotten a bit too hairy, among other things, and I don't have the time (or eyepower) to deal with a blog for now. But once I get over this bit, I'll be back!

"Le Gay Paree", we are not

So, the Tour de France came through York this past weekend, the second of three English stages this time around (of which two in Yorkshire). And because I'm sorry that I've been delayed in posting (travelling, among other things, to Aberdeen for a French conference--what?), that's what we're going to talk about for lack of more substantive material!

You see, York got really into this, especially once England wasn't in the World Cup any more. Bunting everywhere. Yellow bikes everywhere. And more strangely, French flags everywhere. OK, I get it--but what I found really funny was the following attempt to "Frenchify" one of our local streets, St. Leonard's Place, thusly:

Yep, that's a copy of a Parisian street sign (which I will readily admit are a lot classier than the British black-and-white, let alone the American). Not that the entirety of the Tour takes place in Paris, either, but ok, whatever. What's hilarious here is the precise execution.

Firstly, "boulevard"? What? Actually this street might be as close as we get in York (it's actually as close as we get to London, really, never mind that the building so decorated is abandoned), but this street just ain't it. It curves, for a start, and that's exactly what the boulevards were not meant to do when Paris was being reinvented in the nineteenth century. Also, it's like maybe 200 yards long, tops. One hundred? Not to mention that "place" would be entirely legit French--heck, that's where we borrowed it from. But hey, whatever.

Weirder: Second arrondissement? This makes sense in Paris, and I suppose you have to find something to fill in the little circle-y bit, but we don't have those here. Why second? If anything, since the street is in the formerly-Roman-fortress bit of York, it should be the first arrondissement (the civilian town across the river was clearly second-rate at the time). My best guess is that it's because we're the second stage on the Tour? Otherwise, someone must have got out the random number generator, or maybe just really liked that bit of Paris a lot. I don't know.

Finally, my favorite things about Parisian street signs are that they teach you a bit about history. Take, for example, the following (entirely coincidentally from the actual deuxième arrondissement):

Source: http://blog.groupon.fr/2013/05/31/mon-quartier-prefere-etienne-marcel/

Whenever a street is named after a person (as well as events, perhaps places, etc.), the sign itself tells you more. Marcel, we can see, was prévôt des marchands in the fourteenth century--although this only hints at his role in the uprising of the capital in 1358-9 (seriously, look it up, it's crazy stuff). You get to know a starting-point, get to place them in time, ground yourself in history. So cool.

Which brings us back to the "Boulevard St Leonard". 1944-2014? This is not what those numbers do.

A quick search reveals what I had immediately suspected--St. Leonard did not, in fact, die just this year! (For the record, the fact that the medieval hospice of St. Leonard is just around the corner is a good clue). In fact, he was a 6th-century saint from France. "m. v 559" would be appropriate text for the sign in York. But instead, we get the end of WWII, and today. Did they even know what the numbers usually mean?

Now, I think they were trying to do some sort of commemoration (strangely competing with the WWI centenary there), because there was a giant old airplane parked on top of the theatre across the street--which was admittedly kinda neat. And I believe that Yorkshire soldiers were, like soldiers from many other places in Britain, involved in the liberation of France. But that's got nothing whatsoever to do with this street, and sticking these dates on the sign like that is just... confusing, actually. It makes it seem like this street somehow mattered in WWII, and has stuck around since then? I just don't get it.

And actually, as a French saint, St. Leonard's got some cool cross-Channel connections to be pointed out too.

At any rate, the cyclists have gone now, and I'm sure the signs will be going soon too (the plane has left, for instance). Then I can stop being slightly weirded out by the whole thing.

Who's Who in Medieval Brittany

I know this is perhaps is not as pressing to some people as it is to me, but if you have ever wanted to get a good look at the dukes of Brittany of the Middle Ages, you might have discovered that no good tree exists--at least not in a single, easy-to-find format. So, since I spent an inordinate amount of time the other day finally making one, I thought I would put it up here in the vague hopes that it might be useful to some desperate searcher on the internet some day. Not guaranteed 100% complete, but a good start. (Click on the picture for a fuller version, and if you want to use this image please give credit).


Life in the Galleries: Getting Around

So, many weird things happen in museums. Visitors are most of them. I do intend to come up with a "please never do this" list at some point, but meanwhile I just want to address some of the strange conversations I (or, by report, other guides) have had over the years with regards to different difficulties apparently faced for no particular reason, and other general weirdnesses.

Let's start with the basics: navigating the museum. I should specify that all the museums I have ever worked in have been one-way routes.

Visitor, having come into gallery: Which way do we start?
Guide, confused: ...Um
Visitor: Or don't you know?
Guide: No, it just doesn't matter. 

Visitor, coming up to guide on gallery: Excuse me, how do we get in?
Guide, confused: ...to where?
Visitor: To the exhibit.
Guide: Um... where did you come in?
Visitor: Over there. ~points to entrance~ How do we get to the exhibit?
Guide: This is the exhibit.
Visitor: Yes, but how do we get in?


Visitor, walking into gallery: Where do we start?
Guide: Well, I'd suggest looking at the objects.


Visitor, in room with single exit: How do we carry on from here?
Guide: would like to say By walking, but instead contents self with pointing to the door


Visitor, to friend: How do we get out of here? ~heads straight for large fire door covered with signs saying "alarmed door" in several languages~

There are clearly all kinds of problem going on here, not to mention the number of people who manage to go around backwards through an entire museum without apparently ever noticing that nothing's in order. Fine. Not really my problem; we've done what we can. But these are really tricky questions to answer sometimes, as a guide, so if it takes us a moment to answer, it's not because we don't know the layout of our own museum* but because we're trying to figure out what information we can possibly provide that you don't already have.

*Thanks, by the way, for making that assumption, visitor.

Im in ur stories, arranging ur marriages

Sorry for the title, I just couldn't resist.

So what I want to talk about, in the broadest possible terms is the idea of rebellion and cultural realism. But what I'm looking at, in specific, is a common trope of fantasy stories (in a variety of media): the arranged marriage.

This is often used as a starting-point for stories in which a girl features as a main character. There are exceptions, but mostly the "arranged marriage" is a female story, as if the boy isn't being equally arranged in many cases (though not all--see below). This can happen as background: the male protagonist meets the female, and she's already engaged (disaster! drama! heartbreak!), and either she already hates her husband-to-be (because he's ugly/horrible/already unfaithful, or what have you), or she has no particular feelings but will now fall in love with the male protagonist*, thereby forcing her to make a choice between Duty and Love. What fun!

I find arranged marriages historically interesting, since they were much more common in Western Europe in previous centuries (not to say that parental approval can't still cause problems), especially higher up the social scale.** I am spending at least 3 years of my life studying a woman who had one of these, and I'm fascinated by how a decidedly odd couple (no, seriously, you can read about the hairshirts) formed a really solid working partnership. That's far more interesting a process than just falling in love--at least for study.

But because of dominant cultural mores in Western society today, this practical and entirely workable side has, narratively, given way to a much more negative, and hence unsubtle, view of arranged marriages. And it's SO BORING. If the arranged marriage isn't background, as I defined it above, it's a plot point, a means for the girl to push against her society and show how feisty she is. The example that's lately bothered me most is the animated movie Brave. It's a story entirely about rebelling, though also coming to terms with family who might think differently than you. Watch it if you want more detail. The bit that concerns us is the archery contest of marriage: Merida's got to marry one of the sons of local leaders, whichever wins the local sporting event. She announces her eligibility to compete, however, and kicks their butts, thereby claiming her own hand and causing lots of disgruntlement.***

There are some cool elements here. There's a long trope of women being unwilling to marry anyone who can't beat them at athletics (Brunhilde, Atalanta...), which is given a new form here. OK, that's mostly the cool element. Unfortunately, this then gets caked on with a bunch of obnoxious, jarringly-anachronistic, and unnecessary elements which are common to the Arranged Marriage narrative today.

1. None of the suitors look like guys you'd actually want to end up with. Gormless, gross, unhandsome... I'm not actually saying that it's fair to say that such men aren't worthy of wives--appearances aren't everything--but that's definitely how they're being "sold" here. This is lazy writing. If you want to make a more meaningful story, have the guys have their own qualities. Don't just make them bumbling idiots or whatever. The point is that a guy can be lovely and wonderful and you are STILL allowed not to want to have your marriage arranged to him. Plus, I just can't stand Disney bumblers.

2. However, it is not actually clear why Merida is so bowled over by the whole incident. And here's where we come to the anachronism (still, see caveats below). She is pretty much astounded that she would have to get married, and to some random guy. If that's how it's DONE around there, thought, she really should have heard about it. This should not come as a shock. More specifically, the whole 'it's not fair', 'it's not me', 'it's not whatever' whining actually makes no sense. Cultural norms--remember, we're talking about a time when that would have been absolutely normal, and moreover without other customs against which to compare (which is what's causing a lot of the shakeups in traditional societies about this today, though one shouldn't underestimate those roots)--shape worldviews. It's not about fairness, that's just how things are. "You" as the all-important individual, is likewise a fairly modern theme; Merida's mom tries to convince her of Duty etc., representing the "older" viewpoint, but to be frank she shouldn't have to. Merida shouldn't be thinking in those terms.

3. So, if you're going to rebel, do it in keeping with your setting, not with modern norms. This is not to say that you can't have a rebellious character, but you should avoid the modern teenage strop.

I was going to try and explain alternatives for Merida to flesh out that point, but upon reflection I think it would instead be best to hasten along to examples of Arranged Marriage stories that illustrate it for me. There are 3 works that, in different ways, use Arranged Marriages interestingly, accurately, and solve a lot of the problems with the usual narrative above. Beware spoilers, I guess, if you ever intend to read/watch these. I'll do my best.

1. A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin: Khal Drogo and Daenerys.
Firstly I have to say that I'm using the books here, since I haven't watched the show, and that's critical for this scene: in case you didn't know, Martin did NOT write this as a rape. There is no raping. There is instead a powerful and important scene which we'll come to in a moment.

So, Daeny's wedding was arranged by her brother for money. It freaks her out a bit, but she remembers her cultural norms (that sounded less obnoxious in my head--carry on) and doesn't ruin the arrangements. At this point, she is both scared of her brother and generally fairly passive in personality; fine.

Then, on her wedding night, her husband is solicitous for her fears, and asks her permission before they have sex.**** Given the opportunity to refuse... she says "yes". She takes on the role which was arranged for her, determined to make of it what she can and to do her part well.

And she turns into a baddass, dragon-wielding, hardcore queen of awesome (and the only thing I still like in these books*****).

Her assigned role is an opportunity for transformation. Through it, she can take the system and use it, making the rules her rules. That's all the feistiness you need, right there. And it's really, really believable. I don't feel like she comes from another (modern) society and was just plonked in place to have conniptions about something that just wouldn't have been seen as bad, if properly done. Nor is she effacing her own personality, her "me"-ness (if that's what you're looking for) by doing something which she initially doesn't want to. Instead, she takes control. Heck yes.

2. Elantris, Sanderson: Sarene and Raoden.
Firstly, I did enjoy this book. Secondly, it is absolutely rife with horrifyingly modern outlooks used without particular subtlety, and with historical anachronism romping gaily through. (Though it may seem strange to talk about historical anachronism in a made-up world, it's all about context: having a few characters running around bandying scientific terminology, modern social ideas, and current slang while there's no apparent reason for them to do so in a world that has no grounding for it, is a problem. I could flip it around and ask "why are fantasy characters thinking the way we do now?"--it's really not believable, without giving a good reason. But that's for another post. Back to marriages!)

But he's done something interesting with the Arranged Marriage. The foreign princess Sarene is engaged to Prince Raoden, a political match apparently arranged. But over the course of the story, it is revealed that it was actually Sarene's idea, and that they had also corresponded and found themselves at least somewhat attracted to each other, intellectually/emotionally. So this manages to get all the excitement of a political marriage--the trepidation, the dislocation into a new family, the unknown spouse--while slowly inverting it, giving agency to the participants and making compatibility and teamwork the main foci.

So, in fact, in some ways this is not technically Arranged, but it also is: and it could have actually been arranged, without really altering the story. Agency can be acquired through accepting, so even if Sarene's father had scrounged up her partner, taking this on--like Daeny--gives her a strong personal role. The focus on teamwork is, to me, critical and extremely important historically. Elite couples have jobs, things to get done: and both partners need to contribute to get that job done. It's about working together; love may happen on the way. That's fascinating. Then both of them can rebel against society together! (And it is very much a social rebellion story. That's where the anachronism is most blatant--why would you even use the phrase "feudal system'???****** But it's not because of the marriage).

Also, Sanderson does a good job of showing the male perspective on the marriage, too; he shares similar emotions to his bride-to-be, curiosity and anxiety and so on. And that's only fair, otherwise you're assuming that men are pretty much happy to bang anything; or alternatively, making too much of the fact that men were more socially free to sleep around if the wife doesn't do it for them, as opposed to recognizing the impact of the wife on the husband's household and affairs. Give the man a voice, here!

3. Mulan, Disney film.
This is far and away my favorite Disney film (better, it's based on a historical character!). Mulan is fantastic as a character, in pretty much every way. Here, what we care about though is the opening, where she has to go to the matchmaker's to show how suitable she is, and goofs it up massively. Then she's quite upset about it, and has a "who I am" song.

The "I'm trying to be someone I'm not" is typical Disney fare, but it works out much better here than in Brave. Firstly, Mulan genuinely tries: she thinks like the people around her, wants to do well within the social rules, and is disappointed when, to the judgement of people around her, she is a failure. That's such a real sentiment, and deserves time along with the desire to rebel.

Of course, then she dons armor and goes and makes her own path. But what I love here is that that path is still in the idea of duty: she's saving her family, saving her land, lives the ordered life of a soldier... It's actually only when she's told to go home before Saving The Day that she actually directly pushes back, saying "no" and sticking around to do her thing.

And that's a gorgeous comparison with the matchmaker. Mulan values society, and she'll do what she can to improve it and play her role in it--whether that's trying to get married or, ultimately, being a warrior. In fact, much of the grousing in her Me song is how she's disappointed others:

Look at me
I will never pass for a perfect bride
Or a perfect daughter

Can it be
I'm not meant to play this part?

Now I see
That if I were truly to be myself
I would break my fam'ly's heart...

There's actually a lot going on here, and I don't want to downplay it. The "be myself" thing, as discussed, is modern intrusion, which is my main problem with this song: but Mulan is also recognizing that she will always BE part of her society--we can't escape this--and she's dissatisfied with her inability to contribute. I think it's so important to recognize that this is in no way incompatible with a rebellious personality. Mulan is willing to make her own rules (or rather, swap the "female" rules for the "male" ones, then redefine both at the end. SO PROGRESSIVE for Disney, especially back then), but she also a) understands society's rules, of which Merida seems woefully ignorant, and b) wants to make her own needs and those rules mutually compatible. Damn, that's an intense story. And so I have sympathy for Mulan, who's facing a very complex dilemma, while Merida's just a little too spoiled. Her movie forces her to temper herself eventually, but the plot is basically driven by her obnoxiousness, and that's unfortunate.

From the length of this post, you might be able to guess that I care a lot about this topic. I don't want to run on more, but I feel that some caveats are in order.

Firstly, I am talking strictly about NARRATIVES here, not real life. I don't want to all-and-out condemn the practice of arranging marriages, because to say they're only bad is rude to those couples for whom they've worked out; but it's important to acknowledge the harmful relationships that can also result. That having been said, can we please stop telling the same story? There's so much nuance to explore!

Secondly, I'm not saying that you should do what society tells you just because that's how most people might play it. Remember, stories, not real life! But if you're telling a story, you have a responsibility to make your characters ring true. Don't have them behave a certain way because that's what we do now. I know, I know, audience relatability yadda yadda, but honestly, I don't care. Challenge people. And more specifically, give them some credit and teach them how to consider viewpoints aside from their own.

I say this as someone who is definitely a geek and in many things--media tastes, clothing, pastimes, friends--has never been particularly bothered by what other people have to say about it. However, I do tend to like to get along with people, as I hope most of you do; we'll naturally tend to retain as many social rules as possible while playing with those that matter less and that more suit our tastes. If you don't, you start getting labelled "crazy", which most characters getting Arranged Marriages aren't supposed to be. And more specifically, everyone's rebellion, no matter how extreme, stems from those same social rules. The conscious rejection will have its own set of rules--that's how you get subcultures--to modify the main batch. You can't just import completely alien (or anachronistic) mentalities, chalk it up to personality, and call it a day. And an arranged match should never be a surprise.

So I guess the takeaway here is that the Arranged Marriage is not something I inherently hate. I just hate it as the field for social rebellion. Firstly, once or twice might have been ok, but it's such a hackneyed trope now that it absolutely needs to go. Secondly, "feisty rebellion" apparently tends to mean "unbelievable norms". If you want to show a rebellious teenager like Merida, why not have her dealing with something that more teenagers in the target audience will actually confront? The dominance of the Importance of the Individual in modern culture does not mean that stories set elsewhere/when should be using it to show how Strong and Independent a (female) character is. You don't have to blend a historical problem with a modern mindset. And if you do want an Arranged Marriage--and/or a Strong Female--there are plenty of stories doing it far better, far more interestingly, and far more convincingly. Do you want to argue with Daenerys about that?

*Which I want to abbreviate as MP, but living in Britain as I do, I want to make sure no one thinks I'm talking about politicians... Ugh.
**The less important you were, the less your choice mattered, and it was quite easy to just go ahead and get married without anyone the wiser (at first). Remember, marriage only became "defined" (in a religious sense) at Lateran IV in 1215!
***That is one word we can use.
****Khal Drogo is a surprisingly good role model.
*****Yes, this is a rare opportunity to hear me praise Martin's writings. Basically, the first book was good and it's been a steady downhill. Enjoy it while you can!
******For those unaware, the feudal "system" never existed except for in the minds of post-medieval lawyers, and no one at the time would have EVER used the idea of a "system" to describe their own socio-governmental structure. They discussed political ideas like monarchy, but in entirely different terms, and that matters.

3...2...1... Impact!

Whoops, back to the diatribes...

Don't get me wrong, I very much like public history. I work in a museum and have done for quite some time. I can easily see the results things like Horrible Histories (for my generation the books, for subsequent ones especially the TV show) have had on kids' ability to relate to and be interested in history.* Some works of popular history for adults are great, and in cities like mine tours quickly fill up with visitors hoping to learn about the local past.**

But (while this is probably not something most non-academics are aware of), having public history crammed down our throats is not ok. And this brings us to "impact", the dread buzzword that now haunts anyone in history and related disciplines.

Basically, the people with the money have decided that, if your work isn't accessible/understandable/relevant to the layman off the street, it's largely not worth funding.*** Work is going to be made available--before?! the editing process--online for anyone to get hold of (how will that look when all future citations come from inaccurate versions?); new PhD positions are being created with time to be taken off to do public history work... The "impact" of your work, though we all know how to judge scholarly value, is measured by what it does for non-historians.

That's all been said before, and griped about, in academic circles. But there were a few points I wanted to set down after a very interesting conversation with a friend/colleague (or two) yesterday. Fundamentally, most of them related back to this:

Who on earth would think of asking this of a scientist?

Now, like a good academic, let me qualify this. I am sure that some scientists are receiving money based on how they've been able to show a "public" dimension to their projects.**** There are super-cool public science initiatives; how many of us still hold Bill Nye in awe and reverence? But I think we can all understand that scientists really shouldn't be concerning themselves, when doing research, with being intelligible to non-scientists. I'm not bad at science; I've done some college-level calculus, physics, and astronomy, though I wouldn't want to pretend that this was any more impressive to a real scientist than them passing my history test. But if I can understand, as effortlessly as public history is meant to feel, your project, then it's probably not very useful. Science is about doing crazy things and pushing at the boundaries of human knowledge.

So is history. Historians aren't sitting here reinventing the wheel, we're discovering new wheels that make the cart roll in cool new ways.***** So why is there this idea that our research, if it will only interest other historians, shouldn't get the funding? That's demented, frankly. The behind-the-scenes research keeps refining our picture of the past, and that will affect how the public narratives get told, if that's what you're concerned with. Fund public history. But projects without immediate "relevance" or "impact" are just as valid. They are required to make any academic discipline rigorous and... well... alive. History without the obscure work doesn't get anywhere, because the public simply isn't equipped to handle all the nuance (and it's not all their fault, nor is there necessarily a reason they should care), and if we become obsessed with catering to it, actual research will get bogged down.******

Another angle opens up here. It is valid to say that the obscure research done by, say, medical researchers, while not intelligible in itself, has real impact on the community. Fine. It is also valid to say that since history deals with culture, it is part of its duty to hand this down and make this open to the people who, after all, make culture. That's also true. In fact, if I go into academia after my PhD, I can quite see myself preferring a teaching to a research position. But what bothers me about this line of thinking is that it assumes that all scientific research, by virtue of being Science!, is super-urgent and relevant, and that history, unless you try really hard, is irrelevant.

Nonsense. There are huge areas of science that have as much impact on our daily lives as historical studies. Did I mention I really like astronomy? But studying the origins of the universe does nothing, for the layman, beyond (if they keep up with it) increasing the bounds of knowledge. That's just historical research, for all intents and purpose. Studies about animal psychology--for instance, whether pigeons can distinguish between artists... again, not really sure what this does beyond letting us know that they can. Does it influence the public, or give it tangible benefits? Nope. It just means we know more things, and that is unambiguously good.******* History accomplishes this just as much. But it hasn't gotten the validation of the Science card, and so we're asked to do things unthinkable in other disciplines.

University PR departments will take scientific research and distort it (through simplification) to publish popular news articles; this produces grumbling (rightfully) and discussions about "scientific literacy". So we expect the public to get better-conversant with science, which is fine. Historians, however, are asked to do the legwork of making things accessible to the layperson, who isn't supposed to have to do any work. Far better would be to start assuming that the ability to understand culture--because we cannot escape culture any more than we can escape the laws of physics; it shapes us and always will, no matter how scientifically-advanced we become--is a necessary human skill; and understand that while history should always be made open to people, there is a ton of work that simply doesn't need to be because the historical discussion of academics is vital.

I wouldn't claim that history departments need as much of a budget as science ones do: we don't need to pay for, say, telescopes. (There's that astronomy thing again. Anyone want to give me a telescope?). But historians and scientists both do important work, and we shouldn't have to keep an eye on having to justify ourselves through "impact". The past is cool, and it's where we came from. That's enough reason to research it, right there. Anything that makes people love it more, I fully support. And some historians want to throw themselves into that work. While doing research, though, there's enough stress that I don't want to have to spend more time worrying about how to make people care about a 14th-century duchess in a corner of France. I could try, and would probably succeed; but that's not what my research is for. To each their own.

*Terry Deary's own attitude towards "actual" historians are, however, disturbingly erroneous and spiteful. But we won't deal with that here.
**Although the Telescope and the Corset of History do suggest how problematic the "take-away" can be.
***This is not yet a universal. I'm just trying to focus on the large problem, not the exceptions.
****I don't know of any offhand, but I don't want to make assumptions they don't sometimes share this problem.
*****This metaphor was ill-advised, perhaps, but I seem to have committed to it. You win some, you lose some.
******Again, we're not here yet. I'm talking about trends and implications!
*******Though really, it's also not--the development of better weapons is just really not something I can support. That's impact, but it's not a good thing.

Well, where would YOU keep it?

Enough ranting lately, so I'm going to start doing something I've always wanted to do and post pictures of odd street names I've run across. We'll start with one from Dinan, my favorite little medieval Breton town (it's lovely, you should absolutely go):

This means "Street of the ditch, called the Cat's Hole".

It opens through the town walls, hence the ditch or moat. But there are no felines running around here. A "chat" or cat was a kind of siege engine which protected men from missiles thrown above and was thus good for getting close to walls (I've got a 16th-century text here describing a 14th-century battle, which also has the cats serving "as towers for throwing rocks against the walls"; take that as you will). So this street was where you kept your cat when it wasn't in use.