Video Resuscitates the Manuscript Star: Medieval Literary Texts in Performance

There are some things that bond people together, that create a feeling of intense camaraderie. Surviving a trauma together knits invisible strands between individuals, a web of kinship that promises to endure. I am not talking about war, no siree. I am talking about the trauma of shared and acute awkwardness. This is the kind of social discomfort in which you have to brainwash yourself that this is all an elaborate dream from which you will awake. Or the floor will definitely be caving in, any minute now, so you can disappear without a trace. This, my friend, is the horror of being a shy lit student and having to perform - in front of other people! - the text which you thought, naively, you'd just be sitting around and discussing with other reticent book nerds. The only upside is that snaking bond fabricated by shared horror that now, suddenly, binds you to your fellow reticent actors. You are, if only for a moment, Team Awkward.

OK, so perhaps this is not actually a universal experience. But it is one I have gone through a few times, from A-level English lit to undergrad medieval French. Flashback: declaiming Chaucer's 'Wife of Bath' whilst everyone in the class avoids eye contact. Flashback: desperately trying to make it through a seminar read-along of the filthy fabliaux without melting into a puddle of shame giggles. As you might have gathered, I'm a fan of reading by nature, and not of performing per se. It's like all my cultural Britishness - that stereotype of being shy, retiring, polite - is channelled into this one area. But these kinds of performances are actually really important, and very useful teaching moments - and not as some kind of medievalist hazing ritual. Rather, they shake up the way we, as citizens of the modern era, approach medieval narratives, and open the texts themselves up for greater contextual understanding. The overwhelming awkwardness I (used to) feel in performing medieval works lies in the disjuncture between how I expected to be interacting with the texts (safe, silent, solo reading) and how I was compelled to interact with them in a more authentic medieval context. 

The thing is, our convention of identifying "literary texts" as predominantly "things to be read (silently alone)" - as opposed to say, "plays" which are principally "to be performed as a group, to an audience of some kind" - is just that, a convention. J. A. Burrow sketches the very different medieval convention(s): 

People in the Middle Ages commonly treated books rather as musical scores are treated today. The normal thing to do with a written literary text, that is, was to perform it, by reading or chanting it aloud. Reading was a kind of performance. Even solitary readers, especially when confronted with unfamiliar or difficult forms of script, will often have needed to spell words out in an undertone – performing texts to themselves, as it were – and reading was not solitary. The performance of a text was most often a social occasion. (Medieval Writers, p. 49)

Of course, there's lots of granularity possible here - different kinds of medieval reading possible according to different factors, including who is doing the reading - but Burrow captures the gist of the situation.* Burrow is also on point when they note that

Undoubtedly the best way to realize almost any medieval text, prose or especially verse, is to read it aloud or hear it read. […] [Medieval] writers composed most often for the performing voice – speaking, intoning, chanting, or singing - and the expressive effects which they contrived tended in consequence to be boldly and emphatically shaped for the voice to convey to the ear. (ibid., pp. 49-50)

So what I'm saying is, being on Team Awkward is actually a sign of being on Team More Authentically Medieval, and thus - obviously - Team Awesome. 

But, wait! You don't necessarily have to endure the embarrassment-fuelled self-immolation of public performance to join Team Awesome! Evelyn Birge Vitz (New York University) is the leading force behind a whole suite of resources to enable students, scholars, and all interested parties to get to grips with the performative nature of medieval texts. Thanks to Vitz and various collaborators, we now have:

Each site hosts nicely produced videos of dramatic performances of medieval literary works, whether in English translation or original medieval language. Below, I've worked up an overview of each resource - and embedded or linked to my current top pick from their video offerings - to give a (useful) feel of how each might be used in teaching and research. 

The videos on the Medieval Tales in Performance YouTube channel have a very 1990s Calvin Klein-ad vibe, albeit with more modestly clothed actors. They're all shot in dramatic black and white, and run mostly to around 2 minutes. The short run times means they can be easily inserted at relevant points in lectures and so forth without taking up too much space, but also mean the ground the videos cover is understandably limited. All performances seem to be from modern translations, which means they are very accessible and showcase the dramatic potency of the texts, or a specific plot point you might want students to really take on board. On the other hand, they don't convey the linguistic and sonic richness of the original works. My favourite clip, so far, is James Swanson's rendition of an excerpt from Margery Kempe's Book which really highlights the tension between Margery's roles of dutiful, obedient wife and pious holy woman.  

James Swanson performing an excerpt from chapter 11 of The Book of Margery Kempe, from the Medieval Tales in Performance YouTube channel.

The Arthurian Legend in Performance Vimeo channel does exactly what is says on the tin. Here, you'll find 20 videos of performances of material relating to King Arthur, his kingdom, and his knights. The production is a bit rougher for these clips, but that doesn't cause any significant issues. Overall, the videos are a bit longer than for the Medieval Tales in Performance series, running from about a minute to fifteen minutes in length. What I adore about this channel, though, is that there are a fair few in original languages, including Middle English (e.g.), Hebrew (e.g.). Byzantine Greek (e.g.), and Medieval Latin (e.g.). Shout-outs also go to videos which feature performances in modern English with medieval language subtitles, and vice versa:

These subtitled videos are incredibly helpful tools to allow students to engage with the "scary" and "difficult" linguistic forms of the Middle Ages, whilst also developing knowledge of plot, and the nature of medieval textual performance itself. Have a look, for instance, at the Lanval video, which I particularly like because a harpist chimes in on the performance, amplifying the fairy-supernatural ambiance of the selected excerpt. For videos which really demonstrate the social, joyful, performative character of medieval works, though, I have to recommend the performances by Linda Marie Zaerr, in which she - for want of a better phrase - works it, and works it hard, with her full-body multi-modal representation of the story, accompanied by music she plays on a vielle:

Due to the privacy settings of the videos, hosted on Vimeo, I can't embed any directly here, which is not an obstacle to their usage but something worth noting. 

I have saved the best for last. Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase is truly wondrous. The Showcase's mission statement cuts to the heart of the significance of performance in the medieval textual context:

This site focuses exclusively on the performance of narrative, as broadly defined. While many recordings and websites are devoted to medieval music and drama, the performance of medieval narrative is now beginning to be appreciated as an important fact. Modern performers and scholars have long recognized that medieval plays were intended to be played and lyric poems were meant to be sung. Yet medieval epics were likewise typically sung with instrumental accompaniment, verse romances were often recited and even acted out from memory, and fabliaux and other tales were performed by minstrels and other entertainers. Public reading of stories to assembled audiences also became an important performance mode. But private, silent reading, which is the norm today, was extremely rare in the Middle Ages. In short, medieval narratives were created and intended to be performed. Their “performability” was, and remains, part of their fundamental character, affecting in significant ways audience response. This site aims to make these works live again in performance.

From my point of view, the site succeeds. Video resuscitates the manuscript star.** For example, in a clip from the end of Chaucer's Wife of Bath - performed in Middle English - the performer, student Evan Wilson, voices all characters, gleefully switching between roles (and tones) with agility. The scene is enhanced by the audible laughter of the audience, reminding the viewer once more of the social nature of reading, and bringing to the fore the humour of the piece.  Each video also works as a springboard for students to learn more, due to a comprehensive yet concise aparatus.

 Fig 1. Screenshot (cropped) of  mednar.org , 17 February 2017.

Fig 1. Screenshot (cropped) of mednar.org, 17 February 2017.

The Showcase's linguistic strength is definitely in modern English translations, currently with 223 videos, whilst only a light smattering of stuff performed in the original language (e.g. the next most plentiful linguistic groups are Middle English (8 clips) and Old French (5 clips)). Nevertheless, what the Showcase lacks in original language performance, it makes up for in the huge amount of texts which are represented - over fifty works, including many of the mainstays of generalist European medieval studies courses - and the fact that they are so very easy to find. One of the site's real assets is the fact that it is incredibly well organised, with a very intuitive and user-friendly "find performances" function (see Fig 1). You can drill down either in terms of the performances themselves - e.g. by type of performance, kind of musical instrument, or location - or by the type of original work you want to see performed, including searching by genre, period, and language. Also available on the website is a generous bibliography of scholarship on medieval text and performance. This is a boon for those wanting to put the modern productions into historical context, not to mention a good primer for undergrads and/or those of us writing syllabi for undergrads...  

I also appreciate the "teaching tips" section, which emphasises the ways in which incorporating performance into studies of medieval literature enhances the learning experience and contributes to better learning outcomes. Basically, being forced to perform literary medieval texts makes students much more intimately engaged with the material. They read the texts more attentively, they become more passionate about them, and they appreciate with far greater insight the context in which medieval texts were produced and consumed. The suggestions for using the Showcase itself as a productive teaching tool is great, guiding teachers away from chucking in video clips to add a bit of audiovisual sexiness, but not really profiting fully from what such clips can teach us about medieval literary culture. I'll be taking the advice very much to heart for my own teaching, I must say. 

I started this post whining overly dramatically about my unease at being tasked with performing medieval texts during my studies. It would be nifty, I guess, if I wrapped up by proclaiming some major internal shift on performance and attendant perceived awkwardness on my part. Alas, no: the thought still provokes a shuddering eye roll, if not filling me with dread exactly. But learning more about performance is a really important aspect of getting to grips with medieval literature, and understanding the context in which works were written and consumed.

So, I dedicate this post to my fellow awkward book nerds. We too can be part of Team More Authentically Medieval (AKA Team Awesome), and encourage our students to join the party too, by watching videos of the kind described above, and incorporating them whenever possible into our teaching. Pay homage to the brave and enthusiastic performers who have sacrificed their social comfort on the glorious altar of medieval studies! Respect the fact that for many performing is just fun and exciting. (I know, unfathomable to me in many ways too, but it is true.) And by making performance a part of our teaching programme, we will get to witness our students inhabit with gusto the narratives to which we direct their scant attention. Maybe, just maybe, we'll join in too? Hmmm.

 

* For a rapid, accessible overview of various modes of reading in the Middle Ages, see these webpages by Dr Dianne Tillotson. The standard guide to historically shifting reading conventions is Alberto Manguel's History of Reading. Manguel's chapter on silent reading in the pre-modern era is transcribed online here ('The Silent Readers', pp.42-53 of the 1996 edition published by Viking in New York).

** If you don't get the dated reference to a 1970s synth-pop band's cult one-hit wonder here and in the post title, please see here and get comprehensively educated. I am sorry for the earworm, so very sorry. 

 

Hardcopy references

Burrow, J. A., Medieval Writers and Their Work: Middle English Literature 1100-1500 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008) (Google books)

Manguel, Alberto, A History of Reading (New York: Penguin, 1996)