Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Session Details Medieval Undead/Undead Medievalisms for 7 November

Here is the full information on our sponsored round table this week at MAPACA's annual conference. I include the paper abstracts as well as MAPACA's system did not allow us to post them.

2019 Annual Conference of the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association
Pittsburgh Marriott City Center Hotel, Pittsburgh, PA
7-9 November 2019

Thursday, November 7, 3:15 pm to 4:30 pm (Marquis Ballroom B)

Medieval Undead/Undead Medievalisms (A Roundtable)
Sponsored by the Association for the Advancement of Scholarship and Teaching of the Medieval in Popular Culture for the Medieval & Renaissance Area of the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association
Organizer: Michael A. Torregrossa, Independent Scholar

Presider: Rachael Kathleen Warmington, Seton Hall University

Undoubtedly, the modern concept of the zombie is a recent phenomenon, with origins in Haitian folklore and American film and fiction (notably George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Richard Matheson’s “I am Legend”). Nevertheless, the zombie is also indebted to horrors of earlier ages, including the revenants of medieval folklore and literature; although, enthusiasts of present-day zombies often overlook this heritage. Meanwhile, some modern creators of representations of zombie menaces seem to tap into to this tradition in bringing to life new undead creatures that mash the medieval with the modern by allowing more familiar zombies and zombie-like entities to shamble across medieval landscapes. Despite the variety and vitality of these traditions, both the medieval undead and undead medievalisms remain largely neglected by scholarship.

Through this roundtable session, the Association for the Advancement of Scholarship and Teaching of the Medieval in Popular Culture seeks to bridge the apparent divides between modern and medieval and medieval and modern. We endeavor to foster discussion that allows the undead of the medieval past and the zombies found in medieval-inspired narratives of today to come into contact through our teaching and research. The topic is especially relevant to this conference, given that its “unofficial” theme of is “Pittsburgh: Zombie Capital of the World” in honor of Romero and his work.

Embodying Absence: The Medieval and Modern Undead
Peter Dendle, Pennsylvania State University, Mont Alto

Despite its origins in West African and Haitian folklore, the “zombie” reached widespread fame through the Gothic Medieval-inspired trappings of Hollywood fantasy. Cinematic and literary portrayals of the creature have taken it far from its roots as signifier for exploited labor and dehumanization, but the genre has returned regularly to medieval settings and iconography. In the Middle Ages, the dead who come back served as liminal figures of omen, danger, and hope. I will establish some continuities between medieval undead conceptualizations such as those in Gregory of Tours and contemporary portrayals such as those in Amando de Ossorio. In both periods, the “zombie” has served as a blank mold of the human, a template on which writers and filmmakers project their own period’s anxieties concerning meaning and values in embodied form.

Peter Dendle is a Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, Mont Alto, where he teaches literature, writing, and folklore. He has published two monographs on demonology of the Middle Ages (Satan Unbound: The Devil in Old English Literature; Demon Possession in Anglo-Saxon England) and two on zombie movies (The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, Vols. 1 and 2), aside from numerous publications on monsters and the monstrous.

The Divine Undead/The Undead Divine
Elliott Mason, Concordia University

As the research of scholars such as Robert Mills, Timothy Beal, and David Penchansky has demonstrated, the divide between the monstrous and the divine has never been structurally sound, nor indeed impermeable. Not only within theological examinations of Job and Psalms, but also within the realm of popular religion and saints' lives, the grotesque, the monstrous, and the ultimately Other, have been integral components to Jewish and Christian interpretations of divinity. Analyses such as Mills's, which examine and underscore the monstrosity of medieval pictorial representations of God as tricephalic, illuminate the fundamental foreignness of medieval religion to a modern audience, while troubling easy readings of medieval culture based on fantasy medievalism and modern religious belief.

Along these lines, as my contribution to the roundtable panel, “Medieval Undead/Undead Medievalisms,” and in keeping with the conference's theme, I propose to analyze contemporary zombie pop culture texts (e.g. Fist of Jesus, and the “Zombie Jesus” meme phenomenon), alongside late antique and medieval representations of divine flesh in decay. In particular, I am interested in contrasting modern parodies of Jesus's resurrection (and ability to resurrect) that purport to undermine religious belief, with medieval and late antique depictions of Jesus's body, and the bodies of saints (e.g. Mary of Egypt, Syncletica, Simeon Stylites, Catherine of Sienna) as decaying, diseased, undead, and grotesquely divine. The narratives that circulate surrounding the non-normate bodies of Jesus and these saints serve to position both in an intermediary space between life and death, similar to the modern notion of the status of the zombie. While parodic texts such as Fist of Jesus and the “Zombie Jesus” meme are often read as undermining religious symbolism and interpretation, they are in fact participating in a longstanding religious tradition that imagines the divine body as heterogeneous, non-normative, and grotesque.

Elliot Mason is a third-year PhD student in Concordia University's Department of Religions and Cultures. He is particularly interested in the ways in which the history of monstrosity intersects with queer marginalities, and especially the re-purposing of historical monsters as queer icons. At MAPACA 2018 he presented a paper entitled: “The Queer and the Dead: Medieval Revenants and Their Afterlives in In the Flesh.”

Draugar and White Walkers: Winter Zombies of the Old North
Richard Fahey, University of Notre Dame

When one thinks of zombies today, herds of walkers from AMC’s film series The Walking Dead overrun the imagination. One might recall the worn, dead-eyed image of Felicia Felix-Mentor, the self-proclaimed first photographed zombi featured in Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse. My paper will focus on a medieval zombie subspecies from the pagan north—the monstrous Old Norse draugr—popular in Icelandic sagas, such as Njáls saga and Eyrbyggja saga. These medieval zombies often come with winter and are explicitly associated with indigenous Scandinavian religion and old pagan practices preferred by draugar such as the heiðinn “heathen” Glámr and Kár hinn gamli “the old” in Grettis saga, and the hæðen “heathen” Grendel from the famous Old English poem, Beowulf. I will focus on the spiritual circumstances that create these monsters and the postmortem treatment of their bodies, especially decapitation, in order to prevent the corpse from reanimating if cremation or Christian burial rites were not observed.

My paper will then consider how George R. R. Martin’s adapts and appropriates the Icelandic draugr in his book series The Song of Ice and Fire and in HBO’s film series Game of Thrones. In Martin’s fantasy world a massive army of white walkers march with the cold from “the True North”—an ancient and petrified world; Martin looks north to the draugr when characterizing his white walkers and consults Icelandic sagas in his depiction of “the True North.” I will argue that his white walkers are as apocalyptic and contagious as any undead horde in contemporary zombie literature, but their wintry characterization sets them apart from contemporary zombie stereotypes. Finally, my paper will analyze the interwoven physical and spiritual climates, which generate white walkers, and the measures necessary to destroy them, especially cremation and decapitation of dead and undead bodies.

Richard Fahey is a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame, who is scheduled to graduate this January. In addition to his studies, Richard serves as Assistant Project Manager for Notre Dame’s Medieval Studies Research Blog and Assistant Book Review Editor for the Journal of Religion & Literature. His research areas include allegory, monstrosity, wonders and riddles, especially in Old English, Latin, Old Norse-Icelandic and Middle English literature. Richard is also interested medievalism, including the works of J. R. R Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, and modern adaptations of medieval literature. Richard’s dissertation argues for riddling rhetoric and psychomachic allegory in Beowulf, and he frames his study in the context of elementary education and curriculum poems that were popular in early medieval England, with Prudentius’ Psychomachia and Old English and Anglo-Latin riddle collections at the center of his analysis.

Tomes of the Dead: Medievalism, Zombies, and Historical Fantasy-Horror in Viking Dead and Stronghold
Carl B. Sell, Oklahoma Panhandle State University

Zombies have long been ingrained into popular culture: The Walking Dead has spawned successful comics, video games, novels, and television shows; George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has given birth to countless sequels, imitations, reimaginings, and remakes; and in games, both video and roleplaying, the undead are one of the most popular opponents for a character to face. The zombie novel is something that is often considered an aberration, as zombies are an inherently visual kind of monster, but these are still very popular fictions. What is less popular, but no less interesting, are historical zombie novels, works that use historical time periods to tell a story about battles against the undead. Now-defunct publisher Abaddon Books—a subsidiary of Rebellion, the company that owns the 2000 AD comics—cashed in on the zombification of popular fiction with its Tomes of the Dead series of stand-alone historical zombie novels. The best of these, in both quality of writing as well as in historical research, are Toby Venables's Viking Dead and Paul Finch’s Stronghold, novels set in the medieval period but contain more than their fair share of contemporary zombie lore. Viking Dead plays with the Norse concept of the draugr, the reanimated corpses of Grettis Saga, Njal’s Saga, and Eyrbyggja Saga, which define the role of the draugr both in the world of mythology but also in the conceptions of the Norse protagonists in the novel. Stronghold takes a different approach, grounding its historicity in an actual event, Edward I’s conquest of Wales. In the novel, the Welsh use zombies to attack the English army, but soon break free from any hold and “swarm” the stronghold of Grogen Castle.

Carl Sell is an Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Panhandle State University and is an ABD PhD Candidate at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he will be defending his dissertation on Arthurian appropriations in medieval and popular culture in early 2020. Carl specializes in Arthurian literature and is the British literature professor at OPSU. His scholarly interests, aside from King Arthur, lie in the legends of Robin Hood, Celtic folklore, comics studies, mythology, and adaptation theory. Carl also serves as a member of the Advisory Board for The Association for the Advancement of Scholarship and Teaching of the Medieval in Popular Culture.

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