Monthly Archives: December 2012

getting past passive

Today’s my birthday, and I’ll get to that, but first I want to talk about passive verbs.

You remember passive verbs! They’re the ones your English teachers abhorred and your physics labs demanded. Whereas the active verb has the subject doing something (i.e. “I snarfed the Oreos”*), the passive verb has the subject having something done to it (i.e., “The Oreos were snarfed”).

In every language that I’ve studied–which isn’t a huge number, but it’s non-singular–there is one verb that always takes a passive form. In French, it was one of the ones you learn after you’ve got the basics of the passé composé down, and you have to remember to conjugate it with être: je suis née. In Latin, as always, it’s one conveniently compact word with a wealth of information jammed into a few letters of morphological difference, and the reason you’re always chanting hodie Christus natus est around this time of year. In English, well, try this: tell your life story from the very beginning. Just like that, your English teacher recoils instinctively, because the first thing out of your mouth is going to be a passive verb!

I was born!

It sort of goes without saying that, duh, you don’t bear yourself into life. But grammatical voice doesn’t always align with the absolute truth of an action: cf. “this article reads like a novel” (articles are read, but they can’t do it themselves) or “sex sells” (true, but someone else is doing the selling). And I know, I’m supposed to be over metaphors! And this is boring and technical! And no one cares about grammar but me, anyway!

I could excuse myself for being selfish since I’m the Birthday Girl, but that’s just the point: I didn’t do anything to deserve such dispensation. I was–just–born.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no way to talk about the start your life off except to place yourself, grammatically and literally, at the mercy of some greater active force. It could be your mother, or your father, or their mothers and their fathers, or the doctor yanking you out, or forces conspiring against you or the universe going inside out for the only time in your whole life. Whatever it is: it’s cool.

Whatever the greater significance of the passive verb, there’s one thing that’s for sure: an acted-upon subject requires an acting-upon agent. Whatever the circumstances, the subject is not alone. You were squeezed out into this world with inky little feet, and only after that first irresistable action do you get to tramp out a story everywhere you go.

You were not born by yourself, not in any sense. Be made happy.

*Example borrowed from Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, of course

it was the best of medieval times, it was the worst of medieval times

Author’s note: in honor of the year anniversary of this story, I present you with a revised-and-expanded director’s cut of the tale, now with more ruminating on the meaning of my degree! So please enjoy, and if not, well…honi soit qui mal y pense.


You know your academic position is terrible when you envy philosophy majors. People may rail against the impracticality of studying philosophy, but at least philosophy is something they’ve heard of. You’ve got to know something exists to disdain it, and philosophy’s notoriety for uselessness makes it identifiable, acknowledged, real.

The field of Medieval Studies should be so lucky. Despite the damning nebulousness of the “studies” suffix that tends to raise red flags relative to its rigor and eyebrows relative to its inclusion on a resume, it’s not, generally speaking, something people know about. It’s not surprising, really: it’s an interdisciplinary field that few schools offer as an undergraduate major, since it can reasonably be subsumed into History, Comparative Literature, Religious Studies, or even Philosophy, depending on the bent of the student in question.

But even with the discovery of its existence, its purpose doesn’t really compute. Despite denoting a sizeable chunk of recorded history, the medieval era—the period roughly between the fall of the Roman Empire and Columbus’ first voyage—is defined in our collective consciousness as a time of backwardness and ignorance. The customary labels these years bear (Dark Ages, medieval [Latin media aeva, in the middle age]) indicate either ignorance, or, at best, a stopping ground midway to the “rebirth” and “enlightenment” of the epochs to follow. These people lived on a flat earth, ate mud, and genuinely feared dragon attacks like some kind of Ye Olde Rednecks.

And yet, as willing as we are to dismiss the serious scholarly contributions of the medievals, we’re more than happy to ape, mock, and even meticulously recreate their way of life. Our popular imagination is obsessed with a romanticized pageantry of powerful kings and beautiful princesses, blithely gnawing at a turkey leg while watching a recreated joust. The middle ages are for spectacle, for sport, but not really for study.

Depending on whom you ask, Medieval Studies is the epitome of either everything that’s right about college education or everything that’s wrong with it. Because medieval scholars were themselves polymaths trained and productive in many spheres (what we would now call, rather unfairly, Renaissance men), the prescribed courses for a Medieval Studies degree typically involve work in the all-stars of the liberal arts pantheon: literature, history, art history, foreign languages, etc. But unlike other interdisciplinary fields (International Studies, Political Science) that seem to be able to translate a load of reading-and-writing-heavy classes into at least a few practical careers, Medieval Studies is fairly firmly locked in the realm of the theoretical. You just can’t argue that translating Beowulf is going to serve you in the professional world. Maybe you can parlay it into some kind of vaguely-related job doing something like curating museums, but if not, there’s always grad school to flee to and more debt to accrue before a long, publish-or-perish struggle to ascend in academia.

But what if you don’t want to be—if there is such a thing—a career medievalist? What if you genuinely love and believe in the works and writings of people dead almost a millennium, a people whose era has become synonymous with draconian, ignorant, and hopelessly underevolved? What if, like me, you wanted your four years poured into 12th century French romance and biblical exegesis and Gothic architecture to end up as more than a quarter-million-dollar party trick, to make good on their promise to give you the coveted critical thinking skills that were supposed to be part and party to a holistic discipline like this? And what if, despite all this, you found yourself in the pouring rain, wearing a paper crown, and sobbing into your cell phone in the parking lot of the Schaumburg, Illinois, Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament theme restaurant?

Welcome to my education.


You need two things to enjoy the Medieval Times experience: a liberal attitude towards historical accuracy and a willingness to waste money on ridiculous shit. Being both a Medieval Studies major and a congenital dork, I am a prime sucker for their brand of schlock, and I refused to go anywhere else for my birthday. I recruited four friends, and despite varying levels of enthusiasm, our spirits were high as we piled into my ancient Volvo to head for the castle in nearby Schaumburg, IL.

“I went to the New York Medieval Times when I was six,” my friend Briseida was saying. “You eat with your hands. And it was the best fucking chicken I have ever eaten.”

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