Reading Roberta Frank really is a joy isn’t it?

I must come up with more excuses to do so. First there was that excellent article in last year’s Speculum about the dating of Beowulf (girls! warning! dating Beowulf may not be a good long-term strategy for romantic happiness! CGI could not convey the grief of others who tried! For further advice try here), and then I find she has a paper called “On the Field” in that van Engen volume I’m still reading. In it, she uses the word `medievalist’, and endnotes it, and we find that the endnote reads:

‘Medievalist’ referring to people like ourselves is first documented in 1874, the same year that ‘cocaine’ and ‘lawn-tennis’ first entered the language.

Now I should dislike this, because of course it is the same sort of making the reader do the criticism on the criticism that I was annoyed by Kathleen Biddick for, but this is firstly harmless because the point is clearly made, viz. that this is an older word than people might expect, and her examples give it an air of English country-house mystery that most people who have any sense of them at all will detect, and secondly, this is throwaway, gratuitous, it’s only an endnote; it’s not the thrust of the whole paper. But most of all it’s fun, and that makes an awful lot of difference. I understand now why her Festschrift appeared to be so full of irreverence: I bet she loved it.

This is the shortest post I’ve written for ages. I need to make more effort to be concise here really, as I apparently need to be advertised with caution… (Good luck, Zoe, I would guess that you’ll do all right.)

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13 responses to “Reading Roberta Frank really is a joy isn’t it?

  1. There’s a journal called ‘Speculum’? I mean, do they realise that this is not a word with happy associations for most women? It’s like calling your journal, ‘Invasive, Uncomfortable Internal Exam Monthly’.

    Otherwise, hurray for irreverent ephemera.

  2. It’s at least partly a philological journal, so I’m pretty sure they know, yes. Why they chose it for what I now have to call the principal organ of the Medieval Academy of America, however, I do not know and have never understood.

  3. I would imagine it is a play off of the whole speculum mundi thing- sort of like speculum medievalsim perhaps?

  4. On the title /Speculum/: Judith M. Bennett begins her article in the /Speculum/ special issue devoted to feminism with a discussion of the journal’s title (“Medievalism and Feminism,” /Speculum/ 60, no. 2 [Apr., 1993]: 309-31). Bennett verifies that the gynecological meaning of the term would probably have been known to the journal’s founders, lists a few other titles that were considered, and speculates that

    “rather than being ignorant of the term’s gynecological usage, they were very aware of this modern meaning and happy (either consciously or unconsciously) to counter speculum-as-a-gynecological instrument with a /Speculum/ that asserted Latinity, antimodernity, and masculinity” (310).

    As for the party line, in his Editor’s Preface to the first issue, Edward Kennard Rand tells us,

    “SPECULUM, this mirror to which we find it appropriate to give a Latin name, suggests the multitudinous mirrors in which the people of the Middle Ages liked to gaze at themselves and other folks — mirrors of history and doctrine and morals, mirrors of princes and lovers and fools” (/Speculum/ 1 [1926]: 3-4 [4]; partly quoted by Bennett).

  5. Ah Speculum. Even on the journal itself we have to do lit. crit…. But thankyou for the definitive chapter-and-verse!

  6. Callum J Hackett

    I know this is a terribly old blog-post, but I just discovered the joy of reading Roberta Frank this week and, in Googling her name for more publications, I came across this and thought I’d share the joy!

    I was reading about the Anglo-Saxon oral tradition, so came across her article: “The search for the Anglo-Saxon oral poet”. In it, she eloquently dispelled many myths that have amassed through centuries of scholarship about this fantastical figure of an oral poet, equating the notion that a poem like ‘Beowulf’ preserves contemporary ‘scop’ customs with the idea that Walt Disney made his films for an audience of mice and ducks.

    I haven’t laughed at an article like that for a while!

    • Roberta Frank is the only scholar I can think of whose work has caused people (and you’re not the first!) to contact me to say, “You have to read this, it’s really funny”. She’s really very good. And lo her fanclub increaseth daily, it seems!

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  9. It’s interesting though, isn’t it, the use of humour as a scholarly strategy. I’m usually pretty convinced by Frank’s stuff — it’s hard not to be –, but just occasionally I find the high rhetorical approach a little too crafty and strategic. That Beowulf article in, um, /that/ medieval journal is arguably a lot less secure in its criticisms than many readers would suppose. I don’t have an axe to grind concerning Beowulf (unlike some I wouldn’t weep tears of blood if it was shown irrefutably to have been composed in the late tenth century — or the eighth). For many readers, the fact that Frank’s article is funny and knowing — and indeed the way in which it is funny and knowing — increases its intellectual leverage beyond the measurable weight of its contribution. The article itself does not do some of the most important philological heavy lifting to which it refers, so, as so often, it is only as good as some of its references, which we can be pretty sure many of its readers will never explore in detail. And some of these references arguably do not quite do the job that is so entertainingly advertised. I’m sure Roberta Frank would be the very first to argue that we should read with care.

    • Well, indeed, or at least you may well be right because I haven’t followed up those references. Which makes you right, at least partly… But it also plays into something I I wonder about occasionally, which is scholarship as showmanship. This is on my mind especially because of currently reading Patrick Wormald’s memorial volume. I never saw him present but anyone who can write about Bede and conclude with a paragraph that starts on Milton and ends on Napoleon is, among everything else, grandstanding. I don’t think anyone would suggest this diminished the quality of his work but it is certainly aimed to make the reader notice the scholar as much as the scholarship. One could argue that this is not the game we’re supposed to be playing, or one could accept that (a) objectivity is beyond us and we may as well be obvious with our play and (b) that we do need to make sure people from outside the area are also interested by our stuff every now and then, in which case it being a good read or listen is probably relevant… On the other hand, doing that kind of thing is also fun, and about the last thing we need is to make this work less fun than it can be, when the fun of it is often the only reward! And in that respect Roberta Frank seems like quite a good advertisement for the profession.

  10. She’s as good an advert for the profession as one might dream of. I love reading her stuff: but sometimes, sometimes I wish she had said more, and been marginally less scintillating, because when she makes her case from first principles, you really need to sit up and pay attention. I wish there had been another slim book to sit on my shelf beside her astonishing handbook on skaldic poetry: I’ve always held out for something bold and beautiful and characteristically belles-lettristic putting together all her thoughts on the North Sea horizons of the Anglo-Saxon poets, and I’m still waiting…

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