Tag Archives: Literature

  • A Short History of the Ancient World, Part Two: Igniting Curiosity

    To mark the publication of our new and beautifully illustrated textbook, A Short History of the Ancient World, we are featuring two back-to-back posts by the authors. Today, Heidi E. Kraus discusses the importance of using history, art, and literature together to help inspire students to ask meaningful questions and to pursue answers.

    I recently attended a session at an academic conference dedicated to undergraduate teaching. A question arose related to curiosity: how do liberal arts professors teaching an undergraduate audience inspire curiosity in our students? I have often joked that if I could find the answer to this omnipresent question, I could make a million dollars and retire. How do we reach students in today’s culture—one consumed with the instant gratification that digital technology affords—let alone inspire them? How do we ignite a fire in them to ask questions or to pursue answers to the seemingly unanswerable?

    One could argue that this is not our job as college professors. We deliver the material, we present the facts, and we facilitate the connections that might fan the flames of curiosity. Rather, this argument might go, students need to take the initiative. We cannot be responsible for making our students curious. But, while the student must be in the driver’s seat of their own education, what if we as professors worked to make the material we profess more relatable to our students? What if we were decidedly interdisciplinary and collaborative in our approach to teaching and scholarship, informed by our fields of expertise but not restricted to them? What if we modeled for our students why this material matters?

    A Short History of the Ancient World is a textbook that models this collaborative, interdisciplinary approach. With classicist Nicholas K. Rauh’s uncompromising manuscript as a foundation, I was invited to join the project as an art historian, interjecting over fifty images and art historical analysis wherever appropriate. The text is supplemented by sidebars similar to what you will find in art history textbooks: Art in Focus, Materials and Techniques, and Primary Sources. For example, Chapter 2 provides the reader with a chronological survey of Ancient Egypt from circa 3100 to 1069 BC. Framed within Rauh’s broader discussion of why ancient civilizations rose and fell, this chapter considers the character and conduct of Egyptian art by examining works like the Palette of Narmer and The Book of the Dead of Hunefer. I sought to bring the relevancy of antiquity forward to the Modern period by discussing the impact of Napoleon’s monumental Description de l’Égypte on Western culture and the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone by Champollion in 1822. By highlighting visual culture both in this chapter and throughout the book, we wanted to put forward a more complete version of history, and one that chooses to emphasize the culture and society in the creation of that history.

    While the story of antiquity is often told through the lens of Greece and Rome, A Short History of the Ancient World exposes the student to ancient non-Western civilizations in Africa, China, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent. In addition to the impact of visual culture on these civilizations, literature serves as an important thread throughout the book. Nearly every chapter contains a sidebar dedicated to a primary source. One of my favorite chapters is Chapter 4, which focuses on the Iron Age Ancient Near Eastern civilizations and includes a discussion of Phoenician and Assyrian art, an analysis of the Palace of Darius at Persepolis, as well as an excerpt from an account of the destruction of Persepolis from the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus. The passage is accompanied by Joshua Reynold’s 1781 painting of Thais setting fire to the city, giving a powerful textual and visual connection to an otherwise distant historical event. Using literature, history, and art, the book encourages students to connect to the material via multiple avenues.

    The book begs the question: what can we learn about our own civilization by studying those that came before, how they rose to power, how they functioned, and why they fell? Useful for surveys, upper-level courses, and seminars, the book’s versatility is among its many strengths. A Short History of the Ancient World does not come with a guarantee to spur the curiosity of our undergraduates or to solve the problems of our present, but it does try an exciting new way.

    Heidi E. Kraus is Assistant Professor of Art History and Director of The De Pree Gallery at Hope College.

  • Behind the Book with Stephen M. Yeager

    From Lawmen to PlowmenStephen M. Yeager is the author of From Lawmen to Plowmen: Anglo-Saxon Legal Tradition and the School of Langland. In From Lawmen to Plowmen, Stephen M. Yeager offers a fresh, insightful explanation for the alliterative structure of William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the flourishing of alliterative verse satires in late medieval England by observing the similarities between these satires and the legal-homiletical literature of the Anglo-Saxon era.

    How did you become involved in your area of research?
    As a reader I've always loved formal experimentation, from the provocations of avant-garde literature to the more familiar surprises of genre-bending commercial fiction. I was drawn to medieval studies as a researcher because I was fascinated by the ability of medieval literature to consistently confound my expectations about what texts are likely to do. There's something especially exciting about being pushed to examine your notions of "literature" itself by writers like Wulfstan and Langland, who seem to act as if their highly unusual texts are nothing but conventional articulations of common sense. As exciting as formal experiments can be, it's even more exciting to go back to the beginning, and see where the conventions came from.

    What inspired you to write this book?

    I started my research with a fairly basic question: if alliterative verse in the fourteenth century is a sign of conscious archaism, as some scholars have argued about alliterative romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then why is Piers Plowman alliterative? Nothing about this highly political, satirical text seems particularly archaic; so what does the choice of this unusual verse form for Piers Plowman tell us about that text? By the same token, what does the text tell us about alliterative verse?

    When I began to look at the evidence, I quickly found that the most obvious precedents for political, alliterative writing in the earlier English corpus were not poems and romances, but homiletic law codes and legal documents. These legal, historical texts had continued to circulate throughout the later Middle Ages, influencing vernacular works in multiple genres along the way. Hence if I was going to answer my question about the Piers Plowman tradition, I was going to have to rethink the continuity in English writing from the Conquest to the fourteenth century, expanding the field to think about the broader formal overlaps between early English legal documents and poems, found for example in intermediate genres like chronicle and homily.

    Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
    It's been said somewhere that every book is an autobiography, no matter the subject, and I think there's some truth to that statement. For that reason, I can only envision very long and very short answers to this question. I'll stick with a short one: I learned that the image of the poet Laȝamon in the manuscript London BL Caligula A.ix, appearing on the cover for the book, is the earliest known portrait of an English language author.

    What was the hardest part of writing your book?
    There comes a moment in the writing process where you have to stop thinking so hard. Instead of challenging yourself and pushing your conclusions further, you have to go back over the conclusions you already have, to make sure that the arguments that lead to them are organized well enough for a reader besides yourself to understand them.

    Of course, revisions are not particularly difficult in their own right—indeed, they often come with their own quiet pleasures. The difficulty for me was in the transition from researching to revising. Going over my work, I saw all of the roads for further research it had opened up, and it took a lot of effort to hold myself back from pursuing them.

    What are your current/future projects?
    I'm following up on a few points in the conclusion to From Lawmen to Plowmen, to think about Chaucer's memories of Anglo-Saxon England in The Canterbury Tales. Or course Chaucer doesn't say much about the Anglo-Saxons, but the few mentions in the Tales do have a striking tendency to appear at moments of rupture and authorial self-representation. People have written a great deal about Chaucer's self-conception as a vernacular poet in relation to earlier English romances; but what about his relationship to earlier English legal texts and documents, many of which were still being copied and circulated in the fourteenth century?

    What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?
    My main criteria for picking a book is that it be as different as possible from the book I previously read. Besides literary fiction I enjoy science fiction, book-length journalism, and the occasional thriller; but I'm a short sales-pitch away from trying anything.

    Right now I'm reading a novel called The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, primarily for pleasure but also for work. The novel was long-listed for the Booker prize in 2014, and it tells the story of a man who leads a group of guerrilla fighters against the Normans in the immediate aftermath of 1066. The most striking thing about the book is its use of a kind of hybrid Old/Modern English dialect, which the author calls a "shadow tongue." The book uses this dialect to great effect, and it gives us a portrait of a world that is both convincingly medieval and recognizably, troublingly contemporary.

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