An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

October 15, 2016

Cybulskie: The Five-Minute Medievalist

Danièle Cybulskie, The Five-Minute Medievalist. Printed by author, 2016.

Reviewed by KellyAnn Fitzpatrick (

In The Five-Minute Medievalist, Danièle Cybulskie offers us fifteen witty and informative short essays that aim to inspire readers to “keep learning more about the spectacular world of the Middle Ages” (ii). These fifteen essays have been curated from articles Cybulskie wrote from 2008-2016 (initially for her personal blog and later for under the moniker “The Five-Minute Medievalist.”

Having earned her MA in English with a focus on medieval literature from the University of Toronto, Cybulskie has the credentials to back up the “medievalist” part of her pen name. However, as her stated professional mission is to “share [her] love for the Middle Ages with modern people by making history fun and accessible, five minutes at a time” (75), it is clear that Cybulskie’s target readership is a non-specialist audience rather than a field of academic medievalists. Cybulskie therefore does not dedicate space to defining “medieval” or “Middle Ages,” nor does she posit her book as an exercise in medievalism. Yet, the medievalism inherent in a medievalist translating medieval studies for the bar trivia/Twitter generation is captured most succinctly by the book’s cover art wherein a medieval lady dons requisite period attire and headdress while holding a modern coffee mug and reading a mobile phone. Overall this translation itself succeeds and proves a fun and informative read.

The first essay, “Ironing Out the Myth of the Flat Earth,” serves as one of the book’s two “myth-busting” pieces. Addressing the modern misconception that the general European populace thought the earth was flat prior to Christopher Columbus “discovering” North America, Cybulskie does an excellent job citing medieval examples that acknowledge the earth as spherical. Furthermore, she locates the strongest contributor to the flat earth myth in Washington Irving’s 1828 The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. While a later essay on “Medieval Myth-Busting at the Movies” similarly both debunks and provides origins for fallacies about medieval culture in film, the flat earth myth stands out in that it highlights how misconceptions about the Middle Ages can make their way into the elementary school classroom (where most readers likely first encountered said myth) just as easily as they make their way into the movie theater.

The premise of “myth-busting,” however, presumes a certain accessibility of a “real” Middle Ages that medievalists can use to counter such myths. In this respect, the straightforward reporting of the medieval “as it really was” seems too authoritarian for a post-post-structuralist landscape. In practice, though, the impulse to question received notions of the Middle Ages—the “myth-busting” part of the essays—comes across more strongly than does any insistence on a singular alternative truth, and Cybulskie does well in documenting her sources so that an inquisitive reader (academic or otherwise) can follow her chains of evidence and make informed decisions on their validity.

Cybulskie’s stated goal to “share her love of the Middle Ages” comes through most clearly in four essays that reconstruct the components of everyday experience from a medieval perspective. Essays on “Medieval Parenting Advice” and “Medieval Sex Lives: Five Frisky Facts” use examples from medieval texts to locate common human experiences within a medieval context. “How to Tell if Your 12th-Century Lover is Just Not That into You” wittily recasts The Art of Courtly Love as a dating advice column in the mode of a modern-day Cosmopolitan article. The essay on “The Tasty Medieval Pasty,” however, provides the clearest pathway for adapting medieval practices to the modern day, as Cybulskie walks the reader through the process of following a medieval recipe that has been modified both for contemporary culinary tools (measuring cups, temperature-controlled ovens) and for 21st-century dietary restrictions (a pasty crust that is dairy-free).

The formal academic training in Cybulskie’s background is most evident in three essays  concerned with medieval literary sources. “The Medieval Sleeping Beauty” traces the well-known and oft-adapted fairy tale to the 14th-century Perceforest, an Arthurian romance that spins the tale in darker terms more akin to Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone than to anything from Walt Disney or the Brothers Grimm. “Meet the Real Ulrich von Liechtenstien” cleverly pieces together the life of a 13th-century historical figure best known to 21st-century readers through his fictionalized portrayal (alongside that of Geoffrey Chaucer) in the 2001 film A Knight’s Tale. Cybulskie even treats the reader to a taste of philology, as she demonstrates how changes in the English language over the centuries resulted not only in vowel shifts and letter changes, but also in “The Quirky Transformation of Five Everyday Words.” The choice of words examined here, including “minion” and “gossip,” make a strong case for even the most non-academic reader to start perusing the Oxford English Dictionary for interesting English etymologies.

Of the remaining six essays, both “Five Fun Facts About Medieval Archery” and “Five Surprising Rules for Medieval Monks” provide uncommonly known (even to a medievalist) details about concepts popularly associated with the Middle Ages. For the former this includes the observation that “An increase in archery meant an increase in archery-related crime;” for the latter, Cybulskie crystalizes selections from The Rule of Saint Benedict into pithy assertions such as “Monastic crafts were great for bargain hunters.” Also included are essay-lists of well-known historical figures (“Five Great Ladies Who Refused to Be Quiet,” “Five (In)Famous Break-Ups,” and “Why We’re Still Fascinated by the Templars”), as well as a meditation on the qualities that are likely to turn one into a future well-known historical figure (“Five Ways to Get Noticed by Historians”). The last of these briefly touches on how and why the information that we use to access the medieval has managed to find its way to us across the centuries, perceptively summarizing that present-day readers have a far better chance of being remembered in part due to the “large digital footprints” we leave.

In keeping with the idea of digital footprints, it is worth noting that as of October 2016 Cybulskie has authored over 120 articles as “The Five-Minute Medievelist” at In book form, then, The Five-Minute Medievalist contains less than ten percent of Cybulskie’s short essays. Fortunately, the fifteen essays curated here are a solid and varied representation of Cybulskie’s larger body work, although the order in which they are presented—which is not the order in which I review them above—does not follow any discernable thematic, historical, or publication-based order. Otherwise the transition to book form is well done, with footnotes in the print version of the book replacing hyperlinks in the original articles. (The hyperlinks are maintained in the electronic edition of the book.) Pointedly, the choice to publish in book form has undoubtedly widened Cybulskie’s readership and publication profile, as books tend to be reviewed more often than online articles. In book form Cybulskie’s writing also makes a more portable gift for a history buff or trivia fanatic, and a more easily distributed tool for recruiting the medievalists of the future.

KellyAnn Fitzpatrick
The Georgia Institute of Technology

September 26, 2016

Beowulf, A Thousand Years of Baggage

Beowulf, A Thousand Years of Baggage. Book & lyrics by Jason Craig; music by Dave Malloy; directed by Curt Columbus. Trinity Repertory Company, Providence, RI. September 8 - October 9, 2016.

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty (

Medievalism and a fascinating example of Brecht’s epic theatre are on full display at Providence’s Trinity Rep. Originally presented in 2008 by Berkeley’s Shogun Players, Beowulf, A Thousand Years of Baggage stages the Anglo-Saxon poem as a rock opera that opens with three academics, armed with transparencies and an overhead projector no less, seated at a table about to deliver their conference papers on Beowulf—think of the worst possible sessions at the annual medieval congresses in Leeds or in Kalamazoo. At stake in the academic babble are weighty matters such as the proper pronunciation of Geat and Heorot, and whether the underwater lair of Grendel’s Mother is a feminist response to the oppressive patriarchy of the male/hero-centered world of the poem. But, before we can doze off—again think of Leeds or of Kalamazoo—one of the panelists is transformed into Grendel in all his fury as he rips the head off of one of Hrothgar’s thanes—substituted for by what appears to be a Ken or GI Joe doll.  Eventually the other two panelists will be transformed into the poem’s other two monsters—Grendel’s Mother and the dragon from Beowulf’s fatal final battle.

For the production, the folks at Trinity have basically cleared out their main theatre space and filled it with scaffolding, risers and planks, leaving behind odd bits of stage props perhaps from other production, perhaps not—a ship’s wheel, a cannon, a clown’s head, a table from an Italian restaurant—later used by Grendel when he dines on bread stick bones and pasta with thane-meat sauce Bolognese. 

Costumes are a pastiche from a grab bag of styles. Hrothgar wears a silver lamé evening jacket. Beowulf—who is more brawn than brains (or, as we academic might have it, he is a bit heavier on fortitudo than on sapientia)—sports a pleather kilt and black football shoulder pads, to which at first an American flag is attached.  In his battle with the dragon at the end of the play, he will don a winged helmet and a maroon cloak. The academics are appropriately dowdy in their attire when they play academics, but easily transformed into marvelous giant puppets thanks to the addition of all kinds of props.  Grendel’s Mother—at first a frumpy feminist academic of a certain age and type—is further transformed into her monstrous shape with the aid of turquoise swimming flippers and a matching snorkeling mask. The musicians too sport a variety of outfits including deer heads and antlers, and their music reflects a mix of styles from Klezmer to heavy rock to country to the balladic. As I indicated early, the production is nothing if not Brechtian.

The production also takes aim at contemporary issues. Hrothgar is cast against type—the actor playing him is young and African American—and four of his five thanes are gender-bending shield maidens.  Grendel and his Mother are clearly foreigners—terrorists even—of which to be wary.  The heroic idea that it is better to get vengeance than to mourn has some uncomfortable echoes today. Hrothgar and his court make the mistake of letting their guard down after Grendel is dispatched. Nonetheless, act one ends on a high note, though a banner drops from the ceiling to proclaim “Mission Accomplished”—pace George W. Bush’s 2003 speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.  Both Grendel and Beowulf, we are told, are mentally challenged—Beowulf admits to being dyslexic.  Grendel’s Mother even lectures Beowulf about his attack on Grendel as if the eponymous hero were a playground bully. 

The acting and singing are uniformly excellent.  The humor is genuine—the battle between Grendel’s Mother and Beowulf is staged using an overhead projector and transparencies in a style that echoes Javanese shadow puppetry (another nod to epic theatre)—and includes an excursus on the magic of some swords including Excalibur (another nod to—against?—the academy, in this case with a dig at the scholarly obsession to compare and contrast almost anything—when we were in graduate school, my classmates and I thought about founding a journal called Non-influence Studies).

The lobby bar had Grendel’s Grog and Battle Axe Malbec on offer, and the house staff distributed free cups of Grendel’s blood—cranberry juice—during the interval. One could have wished for some mead, and definitely for some tee shirts.  At the end of the interval, audience members got to play volley ball with the cast using a balloon that was supposedly Grendel’s head. The highlight of the production was the singing in Old English of the passage in the poem describing the battle between the agéd Beowulf and the dragon—the song was truly moving. 

Part of the premise of the production is that Beowulf is a boring fossil that generations of high school and college students have been forced to study. But the production itself belies that premise as it demonstrates that the poem is far from boring or fossilized.  It continues to speak to us—I had just finished discussing Beowulf with a class of first-years and the members of my senior seminar before attending the Trinity production.  Certainly both groups of students found much to admire and to discuss in the poem. 

Beowulf, which continues to have an amazing afterlife, more properly has a continuing legacy, not a thousand years of baggage—despite the efforts of some academics at conferences.  That legacy includes any number of novels, multiple graphic novels (a least one, Kid Beowulf, an eight-part series), other musical works, several operas, a spate of recent films, an on-going television series on the Esquire Channel (that is admittedly a hybrid of a Western and Game of Thrones), individual episodes and story arcs in several unrelated television series (Xena: Warrior Princess and Star Trek: Voyager), board and video games, and comics.

In 2010, Trinity staged a wonderful production of Camelot set in a London Underground station during the Blitz. Trinity’s production of Beowulf is, likewise, an example of stage medievalism at its best—but I really do wish that there had been tee shirts for sale with the wonderful poster—see above—for the production on them—life may in part be a series of missed marketing opportunities!

Beowulf, A Thousand Years of Baggage, book and lyrics by Jason Craig, music by Dave Malloy, direction by Curt Columbus, musical direction by Michael Rice, choreography by Jude Sandy, set by Michael McGarty, costumes by Olivera Gajic, lighting by Dan Scully, sound by Peter Sasha Hurowitz, puppets by Soshanna Utchenik, production stage managed by Kelly Hardy.  With Charlie Thurston (Beowulf), Stephen Berenson (Academic One/Grendel), Anne Scurria (Academic Two/Grendel’s Mother), Janice Duclos (Academic Three/Dragon), Joe Wilson, Jr. (Hrothgar),  Rachel Warren (Warrior One), Rebecca Gibel (Warrior Two), Rachel Clausen (Warrior Three), Laura Lyman Payne (Warrior Four), and Brad Wilson (Warrior Five), also with Michael Rice on keyboard, Karen Orsi on guitar, and Mike Sartini on percussion.  A production of Trinity Repertory Company, the State Theatre of Rhode Island, at the Lederer Theater Center in Providence; Curt Columbus, Artistic Director, and Tom Parrish, Executive Director.

Kevin J. Hary
La Salle University

September 21, 2016

Morton: William Wallace: a National Tale

Graeme Morton, William Wallace: A National Tale. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014. 2nd Edition.
Reviewed by Laura Harrison (

In William Wallace: A National Tale, Graeme Morton revisits the central figure of his 2001 (second edition, 2004) book William Wallace: Man and Myth. As Morton reveals in the preface, the original book was an attempt to sort through the post-Braveheart ‘tumult’ surrounding Wallace. This 2014 re-examination explores how Wallace’s biography became Scotland’s national tale, “a term taken out of its literary moorings to examine how personal biography has been reforged and presented as the nation’s biography…” (13).  Morton posits Wallace has contributed to Scottish nationalism since long before it was identified as such, due to the dearth of reliable sources for his life. Morton is certainly not the first to make this claim, but the depth to which he examines the various uses of Wallace’s biography makes this book a useful and welcome addition to scholars of both medieval and modern Scotland.

Morton is currently Professor of Modern History and Director of the Centre for Scottish Culture at the University of Dundee.  He was previously the inaugural Scottish Studies Foundation Chair at the University of Guelph, and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.  Morton has published widely on the Scottish diaspora, national identity, modern politics, meteorological history, and economic and social history, all with a focus on Scotland, Britain, and the diaspora.  As mentioned above, this book is an update to his previous flirtation with medievalism in William Wallace: Man and Myth. Other notable publications include The Scottish Diaspora (2013) with T. Bueltmann and A. Hinson, and Unionist Nationalism: Governing Urban Scotland, 1830-1860 (1999).

In this book, Morton is arguing the Wallace story has provided a strong foundation upon which Scottish national identity has been built for hundreds of years. To illustrate this, he traces receptions of the Wallace story across time, from text and images to film and digital reproductions. The twelve chapters are largely chronological, beginning from chapters three and four. These outline the major chronicle sources available for Wallace, including the Lanercost Chronicle, Fordun, Bower, Wyntoun, Mair, and Blind Hary, which is the central focus for chapter four.  Like most scholars, Morton questions the authenticity of Hary, but recognizes, “Hary provided enough certitude, alongside even greater fabrication and romantic embellishment, to sustain a verse that spread into the modern period…” (60). Chapter four also shows Hary’s prevalence in the club books produced during the nineteenth-century Wallaciana.  Reflecting the popularity of the Wallace ‘cult’ in the period, the nineteenth century continues to be the focal point for the next several chapters.  Chapter five reflects on stories, songs, and poems produced during this century, while chapter nine highlights the monuments, souvenirs, and material culture associated with the life of Wallace. Chapters six and seven are focused on author Jane Porter and her extraordinarily popular historical romance The Scottish Chiefs.  Chapters ten and eleven move into the twentieth century with a discussion of why the life of Wallace was appropriated much more regularly than that of Robert the Bruce, despite the two men being contemporaries during the Scottish Wars of Independence.  Chapter ten also looks at Wallace and religion, politics, and nationalism in twentieth-century Scotland.  The book ends with a discussion of the film Braveheart, and twenty-first century uses of Wallace, in the age of the internet.

There are several recurring themes and topics in Morton’s book. He begins by discussing Janusian history, referring to the ancient Greek god known as a “signifier of a future forged from the past in communication with the present” (1). He continues to refer to a biography acting as a 'Janusian conduit' throughout the text, for example he refers to Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs as “Janusian nationalism in the making, piecing together past events in order to construct a suitable historical future” (28).  Porter, and her historical romance based on the lives of Wallace and Bruce, are another common topic in the book.  Morton argues the novel has contributed more to the Wallace biography than any other modern source.  He also discusses her relationship with Sir Walter Scott (chapters two and six), whether the novel can be considered a historical novel (chapter two), her personal life and how it contributed to her legacy (chapters six and seven), and the positive reception of the novel throughout the diaspora (chapter seven).  Morton gives a lot of attention to Porter, assumingly because that is how many people from the early nineteenth-century on have first encountered Wallace.  A further issue is the significance of the lack of contemporary sources for Wallace’s life.  This allows his biography to be adaptable to a variety of motivations, which is crucial to its enduring popularity and use. 

Morton’s book is perhaps most notable for his discussion of feminine nationalism, which he explores in chapter eight.  He argues that Scotland had a feminised identity due to its relationship within the United Kingdom, “it was the product of a peripheral nation in partnership with a core nation, a union envisioned, if not in actuality, as one of equality” (130).  Morton also maintains the malleability of Wallace owes a lot to Porter’s feminisation of his masculine biography, “Feminising the most masculine of Scottish heroes ensured the greatest impact…This caught the popular construction of Scottish nationalism like no other in the decades before political nationalism of the twentieth century” (132).  As Morton himself says, the role of gender in discussions on nationalism in Scotland has not been given adequate attention, and its inclusion in this book seems to be a call to arms from the author. 

Morton is also largely focused on the history of national identity in Scotland.  This is not entirely surprising, given Morton’s research interests and also the role of Wallace in discussions of national identity.  National identity is nearly synonymous with Scottish history, but the history of that identity is not always examined.  Wallace provides a useful microcosm from which to study Scottish national identity since the early modern period, and particularly since the nineteenth century.  In chapter four Morton uses the publishing history of Blind Hary’s The Wallace to show early modern trends in popularity.  For the nineteenth century, Morton emphasises how the anti-English aspects of Wallace’s biography were downplayed, in order to present a Wallace who would have been supportive of the Union.  Morton also points out how, in the twentieth century, Wallace was used by most of the political parties, not just the Scottish National Party, though they are often criticised for their appropriation of Scottish history.  He then outlines the decline in the appeal of Wallace in the twentieth century, until the release of Braveheart in 1995.  In the twenty-first century, Morton argues Wallace has become a part of national identity through a self-fulfilling prophecy, “Wallace is Scotland’s national tale because he is our national tale” (208).  Thanks to the internet, Scottish identity has recently been globalised, with many people having a stake in Wallace’s story, as well as Scotland, despite living abroad.

There are many strengths in Morton’s work.  The discussion of feminine nationalism adds an interesting and entirely necessary perspective to the study of Scottish national identity.  The long timeline of the book allows the reader to see larger trends in commemoration and identity formation in Scotland.  It is also a very readable text, and could certainly be read for interest as much as for its contributions to the field.  The greatest strength of Morton’s book is his approach to the topic of national identity, or the 'national tale'.  By using Wallace as a lens he is able to cover hundreds of years and a variety of topics in a relatively short book.  This strength, however, also leads to the greatest weakness of the book.  Due to the focus on one individual, the role of Wallace in the history of Scottish identity can sometimes seem overinflated.  I was left wondering when Bruce would enter the picture, particularly during the discussions of The Scottish Chiefs in which he is a central character – though admittedly not as central as Wallace.  Morton uses Bruce as the antithesis to Wallace, to show how Wallace suited nineteenth-century mentalities better.  While no doubt true, it seemed that part of the story was missing.

Overall, this book is an excellent contribution to the fields of medievalism, Scottish history, diaspora studies, and national identity.  Morton covers a variety of topics and time periods through the use of Wallace as the connecting link, and draws a clear conclusion as to how he has influenced the national tale.  It would be of use to medieval and modern historians of Scotland and the Scottish diaspora alike, as well as anyone with an interest in the appropriation of Wallace. 

Laura Harrison
University of Edinburgh