Most of the people I follow on Twitter are medievalists, even though I’m not a medievalist myself. Far from it: my research focuses on the 20th and 21st centuries. But I’m on Twitter for fun, not profit, and from what I can see, medievalists are the academics having the most fun on the platform. Scholars who focus on new media don’t come close to the bar that medievalists set on Twitter, either by qualitative measures like inventiveness or by quantitative ones like output, likes, retweets, and the ability to set the day’s or the week’s terms of play.1 Twitter is a medievalist’s world nowadays; the rest of us are just living in it.
As it happens, medievalists have been steadily—albeit unintentionally—preparing for this triumph for decades. Technologically, they have been the humanities’ early adopters, ever since Father Roberto Busa supervised the creation, starting in 1946, of the Index Thomisticus, a punch card concordance to the works of Thomas Aquinas.2 Since then, they have led the pilgrimage into digital scholarship with the building of digital glossaries and libraries and the digitization of medieval manuscripts.
Medievalists have also benefited from a culture of conversation that long predates Twitter. In 2008, Diane Zorich noted that knowledge production suffers because digital humanities projects are too often siloed: that is, undertaken at different sites without communication between, or awareness of, each other.3 In contrast, regular interdisciplinary mingling has enabled medievalists to share information about new tools, technologies, and projects. This, in turn, helped them to avoid reinventing the wheel, which still plagues the broader practice of the digital humanities. But you aren’t here to read about siloing. You’re here to read about the penis nun.
The penis nun, for anyone who missed this breakout star of marginalia, is a figure in a marginal manuscript illustration from the 13th-century erotic allegory The Romance of the Rose: a nun who is carefully plucking phalluses from a tree and gathering them in a basket.4 Her image, famous on social media, graces a growing cornucopia of souvenirs and trinkets, from enamel pins to embroidery work to sew-on patches. And she is only the most famous of a seemingly infinite cast of characters from the medieval page whose situations strike modern viewers as surreal. Knights valiantly battle snails. Rabbits march about with swords and shields. A man wears a resigned expression (“Not again”) as he tries to crawl out of a giant fish.5
A ubiquitous trope in contemporary internet culture is what the media scholars Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner call “the presumption of the weirdness of digital content.”6 Comedy on the web is often existential comedy, in the term of the philosopher Agnes Heller, in which absurd events are taken as part of the natural order.7 The next link, the next tweet, the next viral phenomenon is always apt to show something completely different from what came before; and we tend to cope with the abruptness and contrariety of this information overload with humor that leans hard on the absurd.
Medieval content works remarkably well with this style of expression. A doctor calmly applying a sword to a patient’s head, Saint Anthony resignedly enduring an attack from fishlike devils, Saint Lucy presenting her eyes on a plate: without context, these images are surreal, and even with context, they’re often richly silly.8
Jokes are only the most widely shared currency of medieval Twitter. We can find more precious tokens of value in the “rich mundanity” of its conversations.
So medieval materials tend to suit the aesthetic that the “weird internet” privileges, despite their creation in an age of paint and parchment. But, just as important, medievalists bring great finesse to the joining of their research with the latest memes. They ask, in mockery of the news media’s alarmist coverage of digital culture, whether your child is “tweeting about medieval Latin scribal abbreviations.” They combine the web’s favorite sassy quote with images of the T and O map. They juxtapose images of an argument on reality television with discussions of the date of Beowulf’s composition or a scene of verbal contest from an Anglo-Saxon poem. They join the web’s sustained riff on the poem “This Is Just to Say,” by William Carlos Williams, by translating it into Old English.9 And accounts belonging to specific research projects have fun with role-playing, as when the Twitter account Medieval Rats, which belongs to a zooarchaeological project that uses rat bones as evidence, noted warily that it was being followed by Medieval Cats.
“Whatever the current meme is, I tend to Beowulf it and then be amused at my own humor,” says Damian Fleming, a medievalist at Purdue University Fort Wayne and one of the stars of medieval Twitter.10 Fleming joined the platform in 2010, when his institution gave its faculty free iPads on the condition that they cultivate presences on social media. Fleming obliged by posting regularly first on Facebook and then, some years later, on Twitter.
“I was quite active on Facebook with friends, quasi-friends, colleagues, the weird relationships that kind of develop on that platform,” he said. “On Twitter I’ve been active, really, since 2015. It may have been conference-related. At conferences, people are always live-tweeting sessions. When other people are at conferences that I’m not, I watch conferences on Twitter.”
Jokes are only the most widely shared currency of medieval Twitter. We can find more precious tokens of value in the political subtleties of participatory culture and what Jean Burgess and Joshua Green call the “rich mundanity” of its conversations.11 Political and social ideas often circulate online under the cover of idle chatter, such as memes, selfies, mundane videos, comment chains, and reposts with new captions—a phenomenon that Melissa Harris-Perry, in a book on black public spaces that deserves to be updated for the age of Black Twitter, calls “the politics of everyday talk.”12
Recently, Twitter has been an important forum for scholars to discuss the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, the biggest annual event in the field, and its troubled relationship to medievalist scholarship on race.13 Joshua Eyler, a scholar at Rice University, started a hashtag, #thingsheardatKzoo, where Kalamazoo attendees could exchange thoughts and testimonies that “might help improve the conference, especially for MoC [medievalists of color], people with disabilities, etc.”
Dorothy Kim has argued that Twitter activity, especially during conferences, enables scholars to amplify critical insights that would normally be relegated to the margins, circulating commentary as variously exegetical, irreverent, and dissident as the marginalia in medieval manuscripts: “Twitter can be radically serious in pushing against the ‘authority and control’ of the state, the scholarly-industrial complex, and institutional power. It can also be playful, hysterically funny, irreverent, cute: an utter delight though often also still radically pushing against the ‘authority and control’ of the powers-that-be.”14
Valid criticisms of Twitter as a platform have abounded, especially in recent years. This is a brief word of praise for a community from an outsider who feels she has gained something complex from the simple activity of chattering, arguing, and joking online.
As a result of hanging around the boundaries of this community, I’ve started to think about citation in terms of respecting people’s labor and expertise, and to thank librarians and archivists up front in my talks and papers. I think more often about phrasing and how a passage might read to different communities of interpretation. I’ve developed, without knowing why, an indistinct admiration for Margery Kempe. I’ve felt privileged to watch a new network of forums continue the old work of sustaining a dialogue with the past. The philological record—the work, handed up through generations, of annotation, disputation, interpretation, and making silly pictures—grows and branches like a tree, from which we gather such joys as we can.
“I stop and think, ‘Oh man, the things I have learned from this community,’” says Fleming. “I think about that all the time while wasting time on Twitter.”
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- Matthew Kirschenbaum discusses what he terms, adapting from Jerome McGann, “the .txtual condition,” namely the fact that “a writer working today will not and cannot be studied in the future in the same way as writers of the past, because the basic material evidence of their authorial activity—manuscripts and drafts, working notes, correspondence, journals—is, like all textual production, increasingly migrating to the electronic realm,” in “The .txtual Condition: Digital Humanities, Born-Digital Archives, and the Future Literary,” Digital Humanities Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 1 (2013). Ryan Milner offers an indispensable taxonomy of memetics in The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media (MIT Press, 2016). I discuss the effects of gamification on digital platforms for the production and circulation of texts in Elyse Graham, The Republic of Games: Textual Culture between Old Books and New Media (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018). ↩
- On Father Busa, see, for example, Steven E. Jones, Roberto Busa, S. J., and the Emergence of Humanities Computing: The Priest and the Punched Cards (Routledge, 2016). As Jones notes, Busa employed a team, comprising largely women, on his project as punch card operators. See also Melissa Terras, “For Ada Lovelace Day—Father Busa’s Female Punch Card Operatives,” blog post, October 15, 2013, cited in Jones, Roberto Busa. ↩
- See, for example, Diane Zorich, “A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States” (Council on Library and Information Sciences, November 2008). ↩
- I would like to thank John V. Fleming for his brilliant seminar on medieval literature when I was an undergraduate. His blog is well worth following. ↩
- It must have occurred to readers of this essay that classicists have had the same advantages as medievalists as early adopters of digital tools, pioneers in the digital humanities, and longtime facilitators of interdisciplinary conversations within their universities. The only reason that medievalists have left classicists behind in the frivolous, fabulous art of memetics is that classicists cannot compete, for raw surreal comedy, with the medieval garden of earthly delights. ↩
- Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity, 2017), p. 8. ↩
- Agnes Heller, Immortal Comedy: The Comic Phenomenon in Art, Literature, and Life (Lexington, 2005), pp. 94-103. ↩
- “Two Monks Inventing Paintings,” Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s series on the much-missed website The Toast, highlights the surreal spectacle of such images by imagining the monks who painted them as well-meaning but totally clueless about what the world is like:
MONK #1: what part of the knight do fish go on
MONK #2: the head
MONK #1: thanks
MONK #2: oh absolutely
no problem at all ↩
- This is a subject for another essay, but the textual environment of social media restores a common condition of the textual environments that prevailed in the Middle Ages, namely the condition of game play. The formal protocols of social media platforms include a range of gamification elements; likewise, the circulation of literary texts during the Middle Ages often occurred in contexts of competition and game play. ↩
- Personal communication, January 17, 2019. ↩
- Jean Burgess and Joshua Green, YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture (Polity Press, 2009), p. 2. ↩
- Melissa Harris-Perry (formerly Melissa Harris-Lacewell), Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought (Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 204. Harris-Perry’s study focuses on the methods by which members of minoritized communities use “everyday talk” to negotiate political ideas. The flip side of embedding politics in everyday talk is that people who don’t belong to a given circle of conversation may miss some of the meaning of meaningful chatter. Words laden with history in one forum may render no such history in another. Inside jokes may circulate for so long that insiders forget there could be any outsiders. What some calmly take as the context for a conversation may be baffling or, worse, invisible to those who don’t share a discursive field. ↩
- In July 2018, a large group of scholars published an open letter outlining these concerns. ↩
- Dorothy Kim, “#medievaltwitter,” In the Medieval Middle, January 7, 2014. ↩