Just like anyone else I get anxious when faced with the unknown or change, but the stronger feeling I have in these situations is excitement for the possibilities. When I left Chicago for Cork, I had no idea what to expect from this master’s program, I didn’t know a single person here, and I had yet to secure a place to live. I quite literally just showed up and figured out everything else along the way. The same thing happened on a much smaller scale when told to start a blog and post about my research in a very public way, which I would then be assessed on at the end of the year. Just like my move, I was excited by the prospect, I set it up, and I figured it out along the way.
I started out with what seemed like the obvious answer, how my interest in death in medieval literature came to be. My first blog post served as both an introduction and close reading of my favorite line in “The Wanderer” that has been a fixation of mine since I encountered it during my undergraduate education. My fascination with lines 82b-83a comes from the peculiarity of death in the context of the sentence:
In most contexts, the noun “death” invokes a thing or a state of being; however, in this poem I see death acting as either a person or a place. In my translation, I added the word “with” because death is in the dative form, and thus an indirect object of what the “grey wolf” is sharing with “one”. As School House Rock reminds us, a noun — in the most basic sense — is a person, place, or thing. This nuance is relevant because stuff isn’t typically “shared” with things, leaving us with person and place. Which only bring up more questions of the poet’s and Old English attitudes towards death. Texts that imply death is an individual or somewhere to go is a particular love of mine, and one I am continuing to look into. One day I hope to identify the common thread between these and make a hypothesis as to why this happens, but as of now, I’m collecting instances and ruminating.sumne se hāra wulf dēaðe gedælde
Looking back on this paragraph is strange because I’m still focused on figures of death, but not in the same way as before. Word choice and connotations are important to me, but I’ve pulled myself out of the trenches of making post-structuralist semiotics the core of my arguments. Those ideas still have their place but I think I was driving myself mad getting so close to the grammar, and stepping back has made me enjoy looking at the presence of different figures of death more.
The next post showed this a little bit by starting as a close look at the difference of meaning between mourning and grief, but then zoomed out to talk about the cultural difference between the two. This was also the point I realized how hard blogging is, and how anxious I felt about making each post perfect. I threw the post together quickly because I had spet the last month just making drafts, and looking back, it’s super repetitive:
All of these points of public mourning are ways of expressing private grief. In my own understanding of private grief, it’s not necessarily hidden, but it is up to the individual to decide how it is shown. In the way monuments and funerals give an open display of a loss to anyone observing, grief is more about the individual than the collective. Public mourning takes up most of my thoughts in this post because it is something palpable, whereas private grief means something different to everyone.Public Mourning and Private Grief
All these lines could have easily just been said in two. I would like to say that my writing has become more concise, or at least I’ve made my peace that repetition has its place, but it has to be used carefully. This post is also indictive that my first draft is just to get the words down, and revision is for culling until I find what I’m actually trying to say. With repetition I know that I am trying to say different things, but focusing just on how sentences are related. But then again, I am extremely critical of my own work, and will look for any way to call my writing bad.
The next two months (three if I count the majority of November) in both my life and blog was characterized by good ol’ imposter syndrome. I didn’t think I had anything worthwhile to say, and I just had to pretend until the MA was over. My blog post on Netflix’s 2019 adaptation of The Witcher came into existence because of my strange, lengthy debates that red hair isn’t a personality trait, and that when I would vent my frustration to friends in the MA, they told me to post it. So I did, and even highlighted my imposter syndrome: “Unfortunately, a life long experience of being a female consumer and creator of pop culture has taught me that I need to show my credentials before being openly critical” (Fan Culture’s Fixation on Fictional Gingers). When writing this paragraph, I was thinking about anyone who would stumble across my blog and tell me that I didn’t know what I was talking about. Through my need to prove I am knowledgeable on the topic I was actually covering up the fact I didn’t think my words were valuable on their own.
Recounting my search for Cat Sidhe was another way to avoid having to compose and post an opinion on anything. I essentially created a summary of all the different stories that could be related to the mythological cat. Since there was no point to this post beyond having something written on my blog, my conclusion was to give up (written in an academic way):
I do not have any confirmation if Cat Sidhe was ever a real belief, but it’s interesting that these stories connect the figure to the dead. I don’t think it is a personified Death, but Cat Sidhe certainly follows the dead whether it be funerals or sacrifices. It is also important to note that it’s literally a fairy cat because fairies have a connection to the dead in medieval literature. Unfortunately, I think I’ve exhausted the resources of the potential existence of Cat Sidhe, and can only hope someone else is willing to dive deeper into this concept.Curiosity Killed the Cat… and Satisfaction Hasn’t Brought it Back
The upside is that the night I spent scouring the internet was not a waste of time. I could have easily thrown out the research because at that point I had decided that blogging is not for me. Now I’m unsure how I feel about it. I think the knowledge that I was going to be graded on this writing kept me from exploring the platform more. I felt like I needed to stay that would culminate in my future thesis, rather than just writing on whatever was on my mind. If I continue to use Morbid Medievalist after this course, there will be a wider variety of things because everyone needs a life and interests outside of their research.
I was not able to get out of my funk until the in-class assignment on editing Wikipedia. I had a lot of fun writing about pop culture and the general vibe in the room that day was joyous. When I wrote my reflection, I “[hoped] the Death (personification) page will get more contributions because I would like to see how someone else would revise it” (#EditWikiLit: One Week Later). I am happy to report that it has gotten quite a few additions, and has given me more media to consume. It’s a nice reminder that the work I’m doing in the MA does not exist in a void. This assignment was also beneficial in recovering from a bout of imposter syndrome because it reminded me how lucky I am to even have the opportunity to pursue academia:
My primary take-away from this experience is the integral role that Wikipedia plays in accessibility of information. I’ve always been aware of my privilege to not only to pursue higher education, but also to study what I love. For many people museums, documentaries, and hours on Wikipedia is the only contact that they’ll have with Medieval literature. While I didn’t edit anything about the Middle Ages specifically, this assignment reminded me of the privilege I have just to go to university and learn from primary texts. I’m definitely going to continue revising and fact checking Wikipedia pages because it’s a very small way that I can use my privilege of education to benefit others.#EditWikiLit: One Week Later
I adore medieval literature and because of that, I am aware that it is not accessible. What I mean is in order to just read the texts, one has to learn the language or use a translation, which are often dense. Essentially, medieval literature is not light reading and there is a toxic history of hoarding the information to make academia an elite group. The Wikipedia assignment reminded me that I’m in this area of study not only for my love of the texts, but also a desire to share it with anyone willing to learn. As education becomes increasingly expensive, the number of people who cannot afford to follow their passion grows, and I hope to be involved in public humanities to foster continued learning. I know this is an idyllic outlook from someone still at the start of my academic career, but reminding myself of this goal helps me keep the imposter syndrome at bay. The more people in academia who see the need for accessibility, the more public humanities will grow.
Before coming to University College Cork, my experience in medieval literature was primarily Old English with a smattering of Old Norse. I had just read Sir Orfeo for the first time a few days before Dr. Amelia Worsley gave her lecture for the Research Seminar Series on echoes and Charlotte Smith’s solitaries. I was blown away how well the ideas she presented could be applied to Sir Orfeo, and with the notion that echoes have their own presence, Sir Orfeo was able to make a trade for Heurodis:
Using Smith’s idea that echoes remain as a part of the landscape, Sir Orfeo trades the voice he creates with his harp in exchange for his wife. He is able to enter the otherworld, without being summoned by the Fairy King, under the guise of a harpist looking for work. The music stands in place of negotiations for his wife’s life, and the Fairy King must honor his promise and give him Heurodis. There is no indication that the Fairy King knows the harpist is Sir Orfeo, so his music truly stands on its own as the price for Heurodis. Dr. Amelia Worsley notes that an echo reverberates throughout time, which would make this an even trade for the Fairy King. Sir Orfeo is able to bring his wife back from the Otherworld, or death, by replacing her presence with the echo he creates with his harp.In Response to “Charlotte Smith’s Solitaries and Her ‘Strange Shells’ of Poetry.”
These ideas were developed more into what was to be my mini-conference presentation. Thinking of Sir Orfeo’s music with a staying presence, allowed for me to think about the exchange taking place and notice a trend of playing games with Death.
Reflecting on Death’s games is the natural progression here, so please excuse that I’m breaking from the form of discussing each post in the order they are on my blog. Plus, as I paraphrased in my bio and I am going to actually implement, “this is the blog where I write about whatever I want, because it’s my blog, and not yours” (“About”). For the mini-conference I intended to talk about the ways that “The Death of Baldr and Hermod’s Ride to Hel” in The Prose Edda, “The Pardoner’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales, and Sir Orfeo follow the conventions of a game. A fun fact about me is I have additional writing credits from the time I spent as an intern at the video game company Volition. So not only am I consulting research on game studies, I also have experience in the field. It was an exciting moment to see the different parts of my life meeting when I realized that these texts fit the model:
The texts mentioned above all have characters who challenge Death, and play a game with them according to game studies’ idea of “game”. While the details of each exchange differ, Death is ultimately the winner in these encounters. This sampling shows the continued desire to defy Death, even though dying is still an unavoidable concept. My further research into death personified can go in multiple directions: finding more example of Death’s games, looking at other common threads of how death is personified, or considering Death’s role as the adversary.The House Always Wins: Death Personified and Game Studies in Medieval Literature
It turns out, my long-term research will combine all three. Death plays more games when I take into account the theme of hunting, and consider Death as a hunter. The current groupings I’m looking at are the one just mentioned; fertility and fate, which I have already written about on this blog; and movement, which includes dance. These motifs still give space for Death to be the ultimate adversary because of the sense of definite finitude. This even accounts for the villainy of the undead, but I would not consider them Death (the proper noun).
While exploring Middle English I noticed that figure of death tended to be masculine, whereas in early medieval literature they were feminine or genderless. It was then that I read The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature by Karl S. Guthke that tracks the changes in Death’s gender over time and what prompted it. For the later Middle Ages, Guthke looks at Adam and Eve for their role in bringing Death into the world (40-41). Specifically, Eve’s role in being the mother of humanity connected Death to fertility for me. Then the in-class discussion of Lady Fortune bringing people from crib to grave added fate into this group. This is a reminder to me that the study of death is also the study of life, and there is a unique feminine role in the duality:
It is interesting to note that all the figures mentioned [in the blog post] are feminine, or, at the least, described with female pronouns. James J. Paxton observes that personifications are innately female, and anything else is the deviant (“Personification’s Gender”). In my research it is only figures of death with connections to fertility or fate that are exclusively female. Further research will involve looking at why medieval literature reserves that dual identity for figures of femininityLife: The Harbinger of Death
Figures of death with a connection to fertility and fate could be an MA thesis topic on its own. Especially when I consider how these women are still adversaries in various ways. This is because of the innate fear associated with death, and the monstrous role of a female as a giver of life and death.
March 9th through the 11th of 2020 the Medieval/Renaissance MA was fortunate enough to get to know Dr. Imke Lichterfeld. She was a guest instructor for a class on The Revenger’s Tragedy, which culminated in her lecture for the Research Seminar Series along the line of the same themes:
She examined the “other” in Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, the choice in casting marginalized people in these roles, and the criticism in response to these casting choices. Dr. Lichterfeld’s research focused on the “other-ing” of bastards, specifically Edmund in King Lear, and looking at the receptions of productions casting choices of these characters.In Response to “Diversity on Stage? Shakespearean Productions and Racism, Sexism, and Ableism”
Bastards have an inherent villainy because they are born into the role as the “other.” Her lectures continued my train of thought on what qualities define a character as a villain, and consider if Death could be seen as an “other”. What confirmed Death’s adversarial function was Rosemary Woolf stating in The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages,“people have to be taught to fear hell, they naturally fear Death” (73). Which is true even in art, exemplified by the folklore surrounding the statue Eternal Silence by Lorado Taft.
It may be surprising that the first time I felt homesick during my time in Cork was during isolation due to COVID19. I’ve missed my loved ones the entire time, but there was a different feeling of longing since returning home would be unsafe for those same people who fall into the “at risk” category. My final post was and excuse to write about Eternal Silence because all I wanted to do during that time was to go for a walk in Graceland Cemetery:
Standing at ten feet tall (three meters), the bronze statue Eternal Silence by Lorado Taft is Graceland Cemetery’s personal depiction of Death personified. Since it was placed in the cemetery in 1909, the bronze statue now exists in a severely oxidized state, but that only adds to its somber look at the passage of time. According to the National Register of Historic Places, the sculpture is based on Taft’s “ideas on death and silence” and the figures on the Tomb of Philip the Bold in Dijon, France. It is also said if you look into the eyes of Eternal Silence you will see a vision on your own death, but as someone who has looked upon his face many times, I can assure you that is just folklore“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs” – Richard II (III.ii.141)
This also made me realize how long I’ve been interested in death personified because as a child I always asked to visit Graceland Cemetery so I could see this statue. Things always come full circle because while blogging was difficult for me it forced me out of my comfort zone, which was also one of the reasons I decided on University College Cork. Embracing the unknown makes us grow as people and my time here has certainly done that. Blogging has made me more comfortable with sharing my writing and introduced me to other people’s interpretation of texts to challenge my own. My classmates’ posts have blown me away with all the amazing things they discover and given me plenty to think about. This master’s program is far from over, but Morbid Medievalist and taking this time to reflect has shown me how much I have grown. Chances are that in late summer, when we do reach the official end, I’ll look back at this post and realize I’ve once again become a different person.
Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman: Brief Lives. Vol. 7, DC Comics, 1994.
Guthke, Karl S. The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge;New York;, 1999.
Woolf, Rosemary. The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages. Clarendon Press, 1998.
Zelechowski, Mylissa. “About.” Morbid Medievalist, 2 Oct. 2019, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/about/
Zelechowski, Mylissa. “sumne se hāra wulf dēaðe gedælde.” Morbid Medievalist, 2 Oct. 2019, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2019/10/02/sumne-se-hara-wulf-deade-gedaelde/
Zelechowski, Mylissa. “Public Mourning and Private Grief.” Morbid Medievalist, 2 Nov. 2019, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2019/11/02/public-mourning-and-private-grief/
Zelechowski, Mylissa. “Fan Culture’s Fixation on Fictional Gingers.” Morbid Medievalist, 22 Dec. 2019, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2019/12/22/fan-cultures-fixation-on-fictional-gingers/
Zelechowski, Mylissa. “Curiosity Killed the Cat… and Satisfaction Hasn’t Brought it Back.” Morbid Medievalist, 24 Jan. 2020, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2020/01/24/curiosity-killed-the-cat-and-satisfaction-hasnt-brought-it-back/
Zelechowski, Mylissa. “EditWikiLit: One Week Later.” Morbid Medievalist, 12 Feb. 2020, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2020/02/12/editwikilit-one-week-later/
Zelechowski, Mylissa. “In Response to ‘Charlotte Smith’s Solitaries and Her “Strange Shells” of Poetry’.” Morbid Medievalist, 13 Feb. 2020, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2020/02/13/in-response-to-charlotte-smiths-solitaries-and-her-strange-shells-of-poetry/
Zelechowski, Mylissa. “Life: The Harbinger of Death.” Morbid Medievalist, 21 Feb. 2020, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2020/02/21/life-the-harbinger-of-death/
Zelechowski, Mylissa. “In Response to ‘Diversity on Stage? Shakespearean Productions and Racism, Sexism, and Ableism.’” Morbid Medievalist, 13 Mar. 2020, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2020/03/13/in-response-to-diversity-on-stage-shakespearean-productions-and-racism-sexism-and-ableism/
Zelechowski, Mylissa. “The House Always Wins: Death Personified and Game Studies in Medieval Literature.” Morbid Medievalist, 20 Mar. 2020, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2020/03/20/the-house-always-wins-death-personified-and-game-studies-in-medieval-literature/
Zelechowski, Mylissa. “’Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs’ – Richard II (III.ii.141).” Morbid Medievalist, 23 Mar. 2020, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2020/03/23/lets-talk-of-graves-of-worms-and-epitaphs-richard-ii-iii-ii-141/