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Medieval sci-fi at the IMC

Where can you learn about Anglo-Saxon time travel, supernatural siege engines and medieval monster theory in a mere ninety minutes? At the IMC, of course!

Alexander in his glass submersible... with a cat and a rooster? 'Le Livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre', from the 15th century.

Alexander in his glass submersible… with a cat and a rooster? ‘Le Livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre’, from the 15th century.

Having just returned from the International Medieval Congress in Leeds (1-4 July 2013), many new medieval-y thoughts are buzzing about in my brain. One of the panels I attended which really got me to think outside the academic box was one organised by Carl Kears and James Paz from King’s College London. Admittedly, I am slightly biased being a KCL medievalist myself, but I think the fact that their 9 AM panel was filled to bursting with excited medievalists from all over the world (people were sitting on the floor) says something for the level of interest in their topic of ‘Science and Fiction in the Middle Ages’. This was one of two panels that reflect the work they’ve done for an essay compilation coming out next month: Medieval Science Fiction.

Imaginative medieval artillery: Besançon - BM - ms. 1360, f. 010. Konrad Kyeser, Bellifortis. German, 1st half of the 15th century.

Imaginative medieval artillery: Besançon – BM – ms. 1360, f. 010. Konrad Kyeser, Bellifortis. German, 1st half of the 15th century.

The first speaker on the panel was Daniel Anlezark (University of Sydney), whose paper’s title was a question: ‘Is Beowulf Science Fiction?’ Anlezark argues that while there might be fantastical elements in Beowulf (a dragon, a couple swamp trolls, etc.), the poet doesn’t actively contradict early scientific theories. He says that in Beowulf ‘scientific fact trumps epic fantasy’. In the Anglo-Saxon period, Bede, among others, was asking the question, did God create monsters? And why are there still monsters to be found after God’s Flood which was supposed to eliminate them all? There was also the question of whether the world was created all in one go (as the ‘Creation Hymn’, lines 90-98 in Beowulf, seems to depict), or whether the world was created over six days (as the Bible describes). Anlezark argues that the Beowulf-poet had these ‘scientific’ ideas in mind. If these ideas constitute the science of the time, then Beowulf as a piece of fiction must be ‘sci-fi’. Remember that sci-fi is not about things that exist now – it’s taking the ideas of modern science and creating an alternative (possibly future) world in which they do. One could argue that the Beowulf-poet was doing just that.

The second paper was ‘Dreams of War, Dreams of Dragons’ Fire: Conrad Kyeser’s Bellifortis, by Alison Harthill (University of Cardiff). As an Anglo-Saxonist, I was completely unfamiliar with Kyeser (a military engineer) and his Bellifortis (a manual on warfare from around 1405). Harthill’s powerpoint presentation definitely took the prize for the most fascinating images at the IMC, and I only wish I could find a few more online to include here – you’ll just have to look for her in Medieval Science Fiction when it comes out next month. But I’ve included a few of Kyeser’s monster-weapon hybrids here to give you an idea, such as a dragon windsock and a catmobile. Kyeser’s text is a siege manual but includes magical elements, spells and fantastic recipes. Harthill explains that Bellifortis invites you to indulge your imagination in a fictional martial landscape. Its monster-weapon hybrids invite speculation and imagination and are meant to entertain as well as influence. Kyeser melds science (siege engines and war tactics) with fantasy, magic and monsters – is this sci-fi of sorts?

'Rider with kite' in Konrad Kyeser's Bellifortis (Clm 30150), 15th century. Personally I like to think of it as a demon windsock.

‘Rider with kite’ in Konrad Kyeser’s Bellifortis (Clm 30150), 15th century. Personally I like to think of it as a demon windsock.

The panel’s third speaker was Roy M. Liuzza (University of Tennessee, Knoxville), and his paper was entitled ‘The Future is a Foreign Country: The Legend of the Seven Sleepers and the Anglo-Saxon Sense of the Past’. Liuzza pointed out that while the first time-travel machine was in The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, time travel appears in literature for centuries before that. ‘Temporal dislocation’, as Liuzza describes it, is often achieved in earlier literature through sleeping.

The Seven Sleepers Walled in by Decius. Français 185 , Fol. 234v. Vies de saints, France, Paris. 14th century.

The Seven Sleepers Walled in by Decius. Français 185 , Fol. 234v. Vies de saints, France, Paris. 14th century.

The Old English Legend of the Seven Sleepers appears in Ælfric’s Lives of Saints but is thought to be written by someone else. Originally Syriac or Greek, the story’s first appearance in the Latin language is by Gregory of Tours (late sixth century). In the legend seven young Christians hide in a cave outside the city of Ephesus during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius to escape religious persecution. Decius orders the cave to be sealed, and the men are thought to have died, but in fact they remain asleep for 180 years, until the cave is re-opened under the reign of Theodosius II. In the Old English version of the story, Malchus enters Ephesus, anchored to his own time by the coins in his pocket. He is seen as alien, a kind of monster even, to the modern population. He experiences the common time-travel side effects of wonder and terror.

Medieval catmobile, c. 1405, from Konrad Kyeser's Bellifortis. The Latin inscription describes this as a 'Giant Cat'. It is a siege engine intended to strike terror into the hearts of defending soldiers with its catlike appearance (and how could it not?). The German translator calls it a 'catwagon'. (Staatsbibliothek Gottigen: Cod. Ms. philos. 63.)

Medieval catmobile, c. 1405, from Konrad Kyeser’s Bellifortis. The Latin inscription describes this as a ‘Giant Cat’. It is a siege engine intended to strike terror into the hearts of defending soldiers with its catlike appearance (and how could it not?). The German translator calls it a ‘catwagon’. (Staatsbibliothek Gottigen: Cod. Ms. philos. 63.)

I never thought about the Middle Ages as being particularly ‘sci-fi’. ‘Fantasy’, yes. ‘Historical’, yes. But ‘sci-fi’? Now I have to say yes to that as well. I’ve never been a huge sci-fi fan, mainly because I’ve always felt my imagination was rooted in the past rather than the future. Now I realise that my interest in the past can extend to the past’s interest in the future (if that makes any sense). Whether it’s imagining the future or trying to understand new scientific concepts in the present, it seems that science and fiction have always been melded together in literature, and medieval literature is no exception.

If you have thoughts on science fiction in the Middle Ages (or medieval science fiction), please post in the comments. You can follow Carl and James on Twitter @MedievalSciFi, and, of course, read their book Medieval Science Fiction, which is coming out soon.

This seems to be a kite-weapon assembled using silk, leather and canvas, possibly for dispensing foul smoke over an enemy camp. Or perhaps warriors liked bringing their dragon windsocks to the field. From Konrad Kyeser's Bellifortis (c. 1405). Staatsbibliothek Gottigen: Cod. Ms. philos. 63.

This seems to be a kite-weapon assembled using silk, leather and canvas, possibly for dispensing foul smoke over an enemy camp. Or perhaps warriors liked bringing their dragon windsocks to the field. From Konrad Kyeser’s Bellifortis (c. 1405). Staatsbibliothek Gottigen: Cod. Ms. philos. 63.

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9 comments on “Medieval sci-fi at the IMC

  1. James Paz
    July 13, 2013

    Thanks for the write up, Hana!

    In case anyone’s wondering about the cat and the rooster inside Alexander’s submarine, the theory was that the cock would crow to inform him whether it was day or night. The cat was there in case Alexander got into trouble, in which case he’d kill the animal, forcing the sea to give up its dead and cast the submarine ashore. Not exactly ‘science’ but a logical, as well as imaginative, design nonetheless!

  2. beoshewulf
    July 13, 2013

    Thanks for the explanation, James. I am disappointed to learn that about the cat, though. Did Alexander hate cats? Why wouldn’t he just kill the cock? I was feeling certain that he must have brought the cat along for companionship – and because the cat would scare away any particularly threatening fish!

  3. James Paz
    July 13, 2013

    It’s an interesting way in to thinking about man’s uses and abuses of the nonhuman in exploration. But there are different versions of this ‘science fictional’ story. In some, the cat is a companion and a dog gets killed. See this blog on medieval ‘lolcats’ from the British Library: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/01/lolcats-of-the-middle-ages.html

  4. beoshewulf
    July 13, 2013

    This is one of many reasons why the British Library rocks.

  5. Pingback: A couple of interesting links | Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space

  6. Anna
    February 14, 2014

    The windsock was another race

  7. Pingback: sund-helm | Old English Wordhord

  8. Boydell & Brewer
    July 7, 2016

    Medieval Science Fiction, edited by James Paz and Carl Kears is now out! https://boydellandbrewer.com/medieval-science-fiction-hb.html

    • beoshewulf
      July 8, 2016

      Yes, I know – saw it at this year’s IMC.

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