Andrew Rabin asked me to share this widely; please share with anyone you know who might be interested!

Thanks to the generous support of Wallace Johnson and the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University, I am delighted to announce a new program designed to provide support and mentorship to early career scholars working towards the publication of their first book on the law and legal culture of the early middle ages. In conversation with peers and with the advice of senior scholars, participants will develop and revise book proposals and sample chapters, and they will meet with guest editors to learn about approaching and working with publishers.

The program has been developed specifically to aid untenured scholars or those in non-tenurable positions (including adjuncts and full-time term faculty) and is not limited to a specific discipline or methodology. For the purposes of this program, “law” is broadly defined and need not be limited to legislation, legal documentation, or specific forms of legal process. Although applicants’ research must concern law, they need not self-identify as legal scholars.

As the Johnson Program is intended to cast a wide net, please do forward this announcement to other ListServs and pass it along to anyone who might be interested. More information, especially concerning application procedures and the 2019 selection committee, can be found at https://wmich.edu/medieval/johnson-program. If you have any questions, please do feel free to contact me (andrew.rabin@louisville.edu) or Jana Schulman (jana.schulman@wmich.edu).

At a time when the field of medieval studies is seeking new ways to support younger scholars, the program offers a wonderful opportunity to aid those at the beginning of their careers, advance research on early medieval law and legal culture, and to develop connections across disciplines. I’m very excited about the Johnson Program and I look forward to seeing what it will look like in its first year.

—Andrew Rabin

Buxom: A Flexible and Obliging Word

            When you heard the word “buxom,” what do you think? Take a moment, and be honest with yourself. You might think of Buxom Cosmetics, which inundates the results when I do a Google search, though I never heard of th company until I searched. (They promise plump lips.) Or you might think of Hooters (a search for “buxom Hooters” with quotation marks gives thousands of hits).

            Here’s what you probably didn’t expect unless you’re a medievalist or a word aficionado: Around 1380, the famous religious reformer John Wyclif described Mary, the mother of Jesus, as “buxumer to [God’s] bidding þan ony hond-mayde” (“buxom, adj.,” OED); and Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse).  Not one, not two, but at least three early modern poets described air as “buxom” (OED). How did both the denotations and connotations of this word shift so dramatically? We can rarely work out all the details of how meanings change, but dictionaries can help us construct a partial explanation. The word developed from meanings related to “bow” or “bowing,” as in bowing before God, to meaning “flexible” in both moral and social ways and then “happy” before “well-endowed” or “curvy” for women.

            The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to early Middle English buhsum and variants, which in turn it derives from Old English bugan/gebugan, to bow or bend. The Dictionary of Old English has no adjective like “buxom,” but it defines “būgan”: “1. to bow or bend,” “2. to turn, change direction,” etc., and “6. to submit, yield, (freq. ref. to conversion to a faith).” Subdivisions of this definition have the subject submitting to God, to a king, or even to other gods or the anti-Christ. The Middle English Dictionary traces the etymology to the verb “bǒu(w)en bow, obey, etc.” (emphasis in original), the Middle English descendant of “būgan.” All three dictionaries find a root in the verb “bow.”

            Buxom started life as an adjective for bowing to someone as a god or a king, giving these senses in Middle English:  I. Easily bowed or bent.

1. Morally.
a. Obedient; pliant; compliant, tractable (to). 

†b. Submissive, humble, meek. 

†c. Gracious, indulgent, favourable; obliging, amiable, courteous, affable, kindly.

†d. with infinitive: Easily moved, prone, ready. (OED)

All of these senses are now marked obsolete (hence the dagger). The MED’s definitions vary a little in wording and order, but they cover the same senses. Quotations in both dictionaries generally have positive connotations: virtuous obedience to God dominates, with some people being buxom to judges, the pope, or even an audience. Yet negative connotations are possible, from the Old English choice to bow to the anti-Christ to the mid-fifteenth century Gesta Romanorum, “Þe flesh is euer lewid, and buxom to do Evil” (OED; my translation: “the flesh is always foolish and predisposed to do evil”). Whatever can bend towards good can bend towards evil.

            A second sense related to the first (and also obsolete now) is the OED’s “†2. Physically: Flexible, pliant. Yielding to pressure, unresisting (poetic).” Here we find Spenser, Milton, and Dryden referring to “buxom air” (with some variations in spelling and capitalization), air that does not resist. The figures who willl “Wing silently the buxom air” (Milton II.842) are Sin and Death, suggesting that being buxom can still be a bad thing.

            The OED then adds a second category for its next two definitions, and it says in the etymology for the word, “Branch II seems to have arisen from sense 1c; the development of sense 3 being precisely the same as in blithe adj.n., and adv., that of 4 as in French joli from ‘blithe’ to ‘comely’.” Blithe had senses both of kindness and joy from the Old English period on, but by the twentieth century, the positive senses seem to be less in play in favor of “Heedless, careless” (OED). The senses of buxom in this branch sound positive except for that caution: “3. Blithe, gladsome, bright, lively, gay” and “4. Full of health, vigour, and good temper; well-favoured, plump and comely, ‘jolly’, comfortable-looking (in person). (Chiefly of women.)” The word shifts from inward to outward qualities much as the French joli did, but at the same time, blithe is taking on more negative resonances.

            The OED omits the sense of “buxom” that comes first to most twenty-first century minds. Fortunately, Merriam-Webster is less delicate than the OED, and it includes “1: vigorously or healthily plump” and under that “specifically: full-bosomed.” Yet neither dictionary makes clear how we got from “obedient” and “yielding” to “full-bosomed.”

            Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language helps to fill in the missing pieces. He writes:

In an old form of marriage used before the reformation, the bride promised to be obedient and buxom in bed and at board; from which expression, not well understood, its present meaning seems to be derived. (emphasis in original)

He then gives “Obedient; obsequious” as his first definition and “Gay; lively; blithe” as his second, so far retracing what the other dictionaries give. His third definition, however, is “Wanton; jolly,” and this last sense is followed by two words he derives from this adjective: buxomly, “Wantonly; amorously”; and buxomness, “Wantonness; amorousness.” A term for obedience becomes associated with sexuality, and particularly with women’s sexuality; brides, not grooms, were to be “buxom in bed and at board” and Johnson’s quotation for sense 3, “Wanton; jolly” is from Dryden, referring to a “buxom bride.”

            The negative connotations always possible for buxom came to the fore after people began to use it specifically for women’s appearance and their sexuality. Perhaps a preference for voluptuous figures helped narrow it to “curvy,” but how exactly that happened, or why the sense seems to have narrowed further to women’s breasts, is still not entirely clear.

            The word buxom has been attested for around 800 years. It changed connotations from primarily positive to more negative (licentious) and arguably back again (curvy and voluptuous generally have positive resonances). It also changed denotation, from an internal quality of obedience or flexibility to an external, physical quality. Most recently, it seems to have narrowed to focus on specific physical attributes of women’s bodies. The word derives from English roots but may have been affected by French semantic shifts. It remains in relatively common use today and provides an excellent example of how the meaning of a single word can transform over time.

Works Cited

“blithe, adj.n., and adv.OED Online, Oxford UP, 2019.

“bugan.” Dictionary of Old English: A to I Online, edited by Angus Cameron, Ashley Crandell Amos, Antonette diPaolo Healey, et al., Dictionary of Old English Project, 2018.

“buxom, adj.” OED Online, Oxford UP, 2019.

“buxǒm adj.” Middle English Dictionary, ed. Robert E. Lewis, et al., University of Michigan Press, 1952-2001. Online edition in Middle English Compendium, edited by Frances McSparran, et al., University of Michigan Library, 2000-2018.

“buxom adjective.” Merriam-Webster, 2019.

“buxom Hooters.” Google.com.

Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse. Online edition in Middle English Compendium, edited by Frances McSparran, et al., University of Michigan Library, 2000-2018.

Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers . . . vol. 1, 2nd ed,  1755-56, in Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale, 2019.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost, in  John Milton, ed. Stephen Orgel and Johnathan Goldberg, Oxford UP, 1991.

Author’s note: this is a first in a series of blog assignments that I am doing together with my graduate History of the English Language class as we work together to write for larger audiences than just ourselves.

Open letter on ISAS from the MLA Old English Forum Executive Committee

From the MLA Old English Forum Executive Committee:

We write to express our support for the changes currently being pursued by the membership of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists.

First: We wish to recognize the work of Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm, who served as second vice-president of ISAS from 2017 to the present, whose resignation from the organization has spurred the field and its members to take stock of their own history of complicity in marginalizing people of color, women, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized groups.  We thank her for the work she has done for our field.

Second: We support unequivocally the current vote to change the name of the organization.  We cannot cling to a term that *our own scholarship* has demonstrated to be racist in its origin and its deployment: to do so is to signal to BIPoC that they are not welcome in our field, and that is unacceptable.

Third: We support unequivocally the amendment of the ISAS constitution to support demographic diversity in the society’s leadership.  We want the leadership of our field to reflect its membership as broadly as possible across all categories of identity, career stage, and employment status.   

Fourth: We support unequivocally the development of a sexual harassment policy for both the ISAS conference and our field.  Sexual harassment and abuse cannot be tolerated.

Finally: We wish to apologize for our own complicity and silences. We recognize our shared culpability in failing to make our field welcoming and safe for vulnerable colleagues. We have a responsibility to do better.

Samantha Zacher
Renée Trilling
Nicole Guenther Discenza
David Johnson
Mary Kate Hurley

Adventures of a Bibliographer: Getting Names Right

This post is drawn mostly from a set of tweets that I then expanded into a Facebook post. I am very interested in suggestions for improvement, so please comment if you have ideas!

I am the bibliographer for Old English Newsletter. In that role even more than in citations in my other publications, I run into questions about names. That author with three names: is it Last Last, First? Or Last, First Middle? Names that appear to be Spanish sometimes have even more names: which are part of the surname? Names from some parts of Asia: which is the surname? I’m not the only one to face some questions, so I’m sharing what I’ve learned to do so readers may not have to reinvent the wheel.

My first resort: If I have a book or an article by that person, I look for how they cite themselves: the first footnote won’t work in Chicago style because it has the full name in First Last order, but a second note will be only the last name, and an alphabetized bibliography or references section is gold. MLA cites by last name only, so a parenthetical citation is also excellent. For this and other reasons, please cite your own previous or forthcoming related work! Don’t think of it as shameless self-promotion: it’s appropriate self-promotion and very helpful to bibliographers and other readers.

If I don’t have an item in hand by the author, I try to get one; the web is wonderful these days. It won’t work, however, if I’m reading someone’s first publication, for publications in obscure places, or just publications that never list just the last name or Last, First.

I Google people. I love it when people have faculty profiles and list their publications with their names, because most people (including me) just list titles, so you can’t necessarily tell how they prefer their names.

I Google books and use Google Books and Amazon Look Inside! to see if I can see bibliography in their publications.

I sometimes use headers, but with caution, because the authors haven’t always seen and approved those. “Lastname p#” is a big help—if the publisher got it right.

And I email people, including people I don’t know, if I’m still in any doubt. No one has yet been angry that I asked them how to do their name correctly! Some are quite appreciative. I would be happy to get such an email.

My preference for Discenza, Nicole Guenther, is not obvious—especially if you know that my dissertation director and treasured mentor is O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. (I settled on my practice before I knew her.)

One last caution: I cited my own name wrong in my original Twitter thread and Facebook post! I have a colleague who still remembers a teacher taking points off when he misspelled his last name. People misspell or omit words in their own titles on their CVs and websites. So I must exercise caution even when I have the author’s own citation; as a bibliographer, I want to hold that item in my hand, or see the full item on my screen.

Another issue with names: people change them. Some transition and change names, and they may not want their deadname used; others, however, may want readers to know that publications under both names are by the same person. Some people change their names upon getting married or divorced. Some people change their names for other reasons. When I know that people have substantively changed their names from what I see in the item I have in hand, I do ask them: can I use the name I see on the item and include “now publishing as”? As a bibliographer, I’m thrilled when people say yes. I want the bibliography to bring people looking for material on a topic together with that material and those scholars, and if I can make sure someone knows to find more recent publications under a different name, that’s great. But if someone says no, I will use their current name, because their choice is more important than my obsession with details.

I dread getting it wrong. I know that I will: I have seen publishers print their authors’ names with misspellings, added or dropped hyphenation, mistakes on which is the surname. . . . I’m going to repeat some of these errors and maybe make some of my own (especially typos).

A related note: I sometimes Google to get people’s pronouns right—but I’m still going to make mistakes there. I have written long paragraphs for Year’s Work in Old English in which I managed never to use a pronoun because I couldn’t find someone’s.

I’ll keep trying, and when I make mistakes, I’ll do what I can to fix them.

So if I make a mistake with your name or pronoun, please tell me! Don’t be embarrassed, and don’t worry about embarrassing or upsetting me; I will feel better once I get it right.

Do you have additional tips for getting names and pronouns right?

Call for Papers: “Alfredian Texts and Contexts” at the International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, May 7 through 10, 2020)

            Alfred the Great’s reign had significant and lasting impacts on politics, government, warfare, literature, visual arts, and law. His name and works attributed to him, rightly or wrongly, would be cited for centuries to authorize other laws, texts, policies, and more. “Alfredian Texts and Contexts” encourages interdisciplinary approaches and a broad definition of “Alfredian,” embracing the king, his circle, successors, and imitators. Papers in past versions of this session have treated Old English and Latin literary, legal, and historical texts; treaties and constructions of place; manuscript studies; and even Middle English texts. Proposals from a similarly wide range of approaches are welcome this year.

            Please send a one-page abstract and a Participant Information Form (available at https://wmich.edu/medievalcongress/submissions) to Nicole Guenther Discenza, ndiscenza@usf.edu, no later than Sunday, Sept. 15.

MLA Old English Calls for Papers

MLA members, please consider these calls for papers for the 2020 convention in Seattle, 9–12 January, and please share widely with those who may be interested. The deadline is coming up fast!

“Only Human” in Early Medieval Literature

Inspired by the 2020 Presidential Theme, “Being Human,” this session proposes to explore the limits and potentials of the human condition in the early medieval world. We seek papers that interrogate how medieval texts construct notions of the human and investigate the possibilities revealed by a deeper understanding of those constructions. For example, what notions of the human subtend medieval religious discourse, where human experience is cast in relation to the infinity of God and to the broad sweep of salvation history?  How do medieval texts delimit the boundary between nature and the human? Where does the human emerge in legal discourse, which defines the relation between individuals and society, as well as between various communities? Most importantly, what role can medieval formulations of the human condition play in understanding and underscoring the possibilities for the human in the modern world?

Please submit a 250-word proposal for a presentation of no more than 15 minutes to Samantha Zacher (sz66@cornell.edu) by 15 March 2019.

Contemporary Old English

Though we do not speak Old English any more, the literature has not died, nor does it only live in classrooms. It finds new homes in twenty-first century poetry and prose that appropriate, incorporate, and respond to Old English texts. A few recent examples include Carolyn Bergvall’s project Drift, Maria Dahvana Headley’s novel The Mere Wife, Miller W. Oberman’s renderings of a number of short poems, and Meghan Purvis’s transformation of Beowulf

For this panel, we seek papers that illuminate interactions between early medieval English and contemporary texts in language, form, genre, theme, or other aspects. What can Late Modern English works teach us about Old English texts? What can early English texts show us about contemporary art? How do the different periods, for instance, represent particular emotions, landscape, or gender and sexuality?

Please submit a 250-word proposal for a presentation of no more than 15 minutes to Samantha Zacher (sz66@cornell.edu) by 15 March 2019. 

Forms of Experience in Old English Literature

 Perhaps the most complex rendering of “experience” in Anglo-Saxon literature is sið, which (like the German Erfahrung) can also mean “a journey,” “a departure,” and in Old English, “fate” or even “death.” To what extent are human experiences depicted and understood as controlled or inadvertent, individual or collective? In what ways could “experience” be trained, shaped and modified, and thus become habitual (i.e. when and how might one become “experienced”)? How are literary forms and experiences correlated in Old English literature? How is the notion of “experience” inflected by issues of gender, race, and class?

This panel seeks papers on a range of theoretical and textual forms and modes of experience in Old English literature. We are particularly interested in contributions that explore the place of literature in the expression or shaping of individual or collective experience. Panelists might explore a range of empirical, phenomenological, emotional, literary, material, philosophical, and theological perspectives and approaches.

 Please submit a 250-word proposal for a presentation of no more than 15 minutes to Samantha Zacher (sz66@cornell.edu) by 15 March 2019. 

CFP for ICMS Kalamazoo 2019: “Alfredian Texts and Contexts”

This session still has space remaining!

CFP for ICMS, Kalamazoo, MI, May 2019: “Alfredian Texts and Contexts”

Will_of_Alfred_the_Great_(New_Minster_Liber_Vitae)_-_BL_Stowe_MS_944,_f_30vWhether he personally wrote and translated texts, acted as patron for those doing so, or simply inspired others, Alfred the Great had a major impact on England from the late ninth century onwards. Alfredian Texts and Contexts welcomes papers that fit the broadest senses of the terms in the title. Past papers have addressed topics as varied as Old Saxon connections, source study, military history, manuscript studies, literary studies, linguistics, geography and place studies, and the afterlives of texts and myths connected with Alfred. Be part of the evolving conversation on Wessex court culture and its impacts!

Please send a one-page abstract and a Participant Information Form (available at https://wmich.edu/medievalcongress/submissions) to Nicole Guenther Discenza: ndiscenza@usf.edu.


(Image: The Will of Alfred the Great, BL Stowe MS 944, f 30v)