Exchange of Winnings or Mutual Beheading?: The Place of the Modern in Teaching the Medieval

Exchange of Winnings or Mutual Beheading?: The Place of the Modern in Teaching the Medieval [1]


Jamie C. Fumo

Florida State University


Readers will recognize in the title of this essay a set of paradigms borrowed from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the hero Gawain participates in two yuletide games: in the first game, a sinister one, the Green Knight challenges him to a blow for a blow; and in the second, a seemingly lighthearted one, Bertilak (the Green Knight in disguise) proposes an amiable one-for-one exchange of everything he and Gawain acquire for each of three days. With these contrasting paradigms in the background, I propose to consider the deals we strike, the exchange-games we play—for better or worse—with today’s undergraduates as we ask them to engage a historically distant culture. For example, in a course on medieval romance up to the fifteenth century, is it a help or a hindrance to encourage discussion of Harry Potter, Star Wars, and the Merlin TV series, and how should such topics be weighed against the serious demands of the medieval texts on the syllabus? I will discuss my own pedagogical stance on this issue, having been attracted to the study of the Middle Ages because of the period’s imaginative distance from today’s popular culture. I was trained to value the alterity of the medieval and to deprogram my modern sensibilities in analytical response to it. Despite his polarizing interpretive procedures, D. W. Robertson, Jr.’s roundly canonical position on historical criticism effectively articulates this reverence for medieval alterity: unless we put aside our modern “presuppositions,” Robertson insisted, “history . . . becomes merely an instrument for the cultivation of our own prejudices. We learn nothing from it that we could not learn from the world around us.” [2] While wishing to convey to my students this responsible approach to the study of medieval literary texts, I find increasingly that whatever excitement they bring to my course on the first day stems from the opposite instinct: the urge to look for the modern in the medieval, or to collapse these temporal differences altogether without historical understanding.

One strategy I have arrived at involves what I call “exchange of winnings” group presentations. In exchange for the historical knowledge and methodologies I try to impart to them throughout the semester, students give me the fruits of their research into the afterlife of a medieval cultural artifact in today’s world (cinematic, literary, visual, etc.). Of course, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the exchange game has an ulterior motive—it functions as a test, and the stakes are high all around. In this essay I reflect on the benefits, and pitfalls, of the exchange-of-winnings concept in the twenty-first century classroom, asking whether such projects have pedagogical value for engaging primary medieval texts (in which both students and instructors gain something), or whether, on the other hand, they dilute those texts and reinforce students’ uncritical instinct for the familiar (decapitation all around).

This is how the “exchange of winnings” assignment works. I have incorporated the assignment most regularly in courses on Arthurian romance or Middle English romance generally, at different curricular levels and diverse institutional settings (a small liberal arts college and a large public university), although it could easily be adapted to other kinds of courses. I arrange for the project to be implemented halfway through the semester, after students have worked closely with a number of primary medieval texts and learned the basics of historical context. In an intensive one-month winter session course, starting at mid-semester, one project was presented at the beginning of each class day until all were completed, whereas in a regular semester-long course I set aside two full class meetings at mid-semester devoted entirely to group presentations. I present the terms of the assignment as follows: I am a professional medieval scholar with research expertise in this material; you, I tell them, are twenty-first century students out there in the world, taking this course either because you are enthusiasts of Arthurian romance or because you would like to learn more about the medieval romance genre in general. This exercise formalizes a compact we have entered into by working together this term (here I remind them of the rather suspicious precedent of this in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight): I will give you, I say, the fruits of my academic expertise on the historical and interpretive dimensions of medieval Arthurian romance, and in exchange you will give me and your peers—in a critically focused and directed way—your scrutiny of one post-medieval instantiation of the Arthurian legend. We each have something that the other wants.

I ask them to form groups of three or four, depending on class size, and to convene outside of class time to select a post-medieval Arthurian cultural artifact, which may be a piece of artwork, a film or TV show, a comic book, a poem or novel, a video game, a popular advertisement, or another kind of “text,” whether high- or pop-cultural. This process of selection usually comes easily to them, and I give them the responsibility to work on their own, with no assistance from me.[3] They are asked to research their chosen cultural artifact and to relate it in some way to a medieval Arthurian romance or supporting tradition we have studied in the course (highlighting continuities, disjunctions, or other kinds of creative displacement). The cultural artifact they choose must have a pointed, not merely general, relationship to Arthurian legends, and each team’s oral, multimedia presentation to the class must be analytical, concise, and draw connections or contrasts with something historically specific to the medieval Arthurian romances we’ve studied in the course. Depending on class size and time constraints, I’ve capped team presentations at either fifteen or twenty minutes, plus five to ten minutes for Q&A, with the expectation that team members share the floor equally; thus, concision is imperative. Presenters are evaluated both individually and as a group according to criteria I distribute in advance, and there is also a required written component:[4] a team-authored summary of the analysis, with bibliography, and a short “debrief” by each participant outlining his or her contribution to the overall project and any challenges that arose in the collaborative process.

My rationale for this “exchange of winnings” assignment is partly practical, partly idealistic. For instance, I require group rather than individual projects in large part because the latter would consume too much class time. However, I’ve also found that this sort of project benefits from the collaborative energies of students with varying interests and levels of ability, productively shaking up the usual format of class lecture and discussion. Team projects at the mid-point of the semester encourage friendships and shared experiences that benefit the class dynamic for the rest of the term; students, I find, usually have fun with this assignment and work hard to make their multimedia presentations snazzy and polished (making my rudimentary PowerPoints and grainy handouts seem positively “medieval”). Another element of my rationale involves the assignment’s use of the phrase “cultural artifact,” which gives some students pause. A TV show is an artifact, they wonder skeptically? Addressing this question, we talk about what it means, in an English course, to practice a kind of cultural anthropology, to achieve a critical distance from pop cultural forms otherwise taken as absolutes or “givens.” Learning to recognize such things as texts, and culturally constructed ones at that, is a first step to apprehending their intertextual resonances with medieval forms of expression. A final part of my rationale is the advantage of focalizing work with modern adaptations in a single mid-semester assignment, rather than dispersing it throughout the course. I can certainly imagine that in courses centrally concerned with practices of adaptation or medievalism, it would be appropriate to sustain a dialogue between medieval and modern from the beginning to the end of the semester. In a literary-historical course like mine, however, which focuses on primary medieval texts and traditions, I believe that a discrete group assignment is a fruitful compromise: it asks students to immerse themselves in the challenges of historical study for the first half of the semester, then to give something back that draws from their own cultural interests, as now expanded, enriched, and analytically deepened. Because of the goodwill involved in this two-way exchange, I feel that I can push them harder, especially in the second half of the semester, in my expectations for reading the primary medieval materials, and they can feel proud of having taught me something too (which they truly have done—and here I think my relative naiveté about today’s pop culture actually motivates students to take this project more seriously). I make sure that they know that the insights into motifs and appropriations that I gain from their group presentations may distinctly impact how I teach this same course in the future.

In the years in which I have required versions of this assignment in courses on romance, students have achieved an impressive range of results. One especially memorable project, for example, investigated the fusion of the Camelot myth to JFK’s presidency, featuring productive observations on retrospective myth-making and cultural appropriation relevant not only to 1960s America but also to the high medieval recalibration of early British history.[5] The Harry Potter series as a reimagination of elements of Arthurian legend always provokes fierce competition as a topic area, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail supplies an obvious but highly productive space for the kind of critical dialogue demanded by the assignment. Students notice, for example, how elements of satire and caricature are not just enlightened modern constructions but are incubated, in self-critical ways, within some of the earliest and most canonical medieval Arthurian texts. Other recent successful group projects have included an analysis of the BBC Merlin TV show (2008-12) in relation to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s and Malory’s Arthuriads, and an intriguing scrutiny of Arthurian narrative precedents of the Star Wars trilogy. In all of these projects, undergraduate students experienced the excitement of what felt like original research as well as the satisfaction of applying the historical knowledge they had gained thus far to an interpretation of materials about which they were passionate. The Q&A following these group presentations has been especially important, and typically there is enthusiastic participation from the class. It is also, of course, an opportunity for me to press or clarify misleading claims, the most common of which is the tendency to oversimplify the medieval texts in comparison with the modern ones (to assume, for example, that female characters are presented only passively in medieval romance but are given agency in a modern film). Such oversimplifications can be productively offset and countered with specific textual examples during Q&A, and students in the class often beat me to the punch in doing so. Indeed, the strongest group presentations tend to reveal that the simplifications lie in the modern appropriations, not the medieval originals: that modern cinematic representations of gender, for example, are often less nuanced and more prescriptive than medieval literary ones. This upending of cultural assumptions is a major benefit of the assignment, and it’s one that only really works when students find it happening for themselves; I can’t easily establish this through my usual methods of teaching. To turn D. W. Robertson’s pronouncement, cited at the beginning of this essay, up-so-doun, history thus enlightens us not only about the remote past but also the very world around us.

Two limitations of this assignment model should be noted. First, although the assignment specifies that the cultural artifact should be post-medieval, which I define as the year 1500 or later, I cannot recall a group that has chosen an artifact dating from before the 1960s. That is, of course, ancient history to today’s students, but plays by Shakespeare, paintings by Edward Burne-Jones, and other major installments in Arthurian cultural history have gathered dust, even though I direct students to browse possibilities on the Robbins Library’s superb Camelot Project website and in the various richly detailed guidebooks to Arthurian legend.[6] This temporal bias may well owe to the group nature of the project: if one person is dying to work on Tennyson, it’s unlikely that all three or four group members will be. I do not worry too much about this, as my main concern is for students to find a topic about which they are genuinely enthusiastic, and this is likely to be something with which they are already familiar. Secondly, although I believe the exchange-of-winnings model is applicable to other kinds of courses, I have not yet figured out how to incorporate it in my main pedagogical area: the Chaucer course. I do, to be sure, make available to students many of the wonderfully provocative modern appropriations of Chaucer’s poetry such as Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog and Chaucer Doth Tweet, the rap Canterbury Tales, and so on, and I am now occasionally trying to squeeze into class time short clips from Jonathan Myerson’s animated Canterbury Tales trilogy (1998, for the BBC).[7] But a one-semester Chaucer course, in my view, does not allow enough time for students to gain the linguistic and historical skills necessary for reading Middle English, to study and fully understand the primary texts and their avenues of interpretation, and to intelligently bring modern appropriations and re-brandings of Chaucer into dialogue with the medieval evidence—at least not without something important getting lost. As interesting as I think it would be to set students loose on how Chaucer’s canonicity has been sampled and interpolated in modern culture, as Kathleen Forni’s recent book on Chaucer’s Afterlife so amply illustrates, I fear that if I devoted a significant amount of class time to adaptations (thinking back to our Sir Gawain and the Green Knight paradigm), heads would roll, and I would not want one of those heads to be Chaucer’s.

This last concern leads me, then, to some broader reflections on the “exchange of winnings” as a pedagogical strategy for responsibly orienting college students to medieval culture. The occasional notes of caution readers may discern in this essay do not reflect any hesitation over the value or relevance of modern transpositions of medieval material in themselves—medievalism has made great strides in joining the fold of medieval studies, representing some of the most cutting-edge recent work in the field.[8] My concern, rather, is with the extent to which modern creative uses of the medieval, in a classroom setting, obstruct (rather than enhance) the historical encounter we challenge our students to make, especially given the lack of historical literacy and chronological awareness they bring to our courses. Should we not, instead, immerse them in alterity, parachute them into the foreign country of the past, require of them the kind of mental deprogramming that made medievalists of many of us? If we say yes, is this truly possible in today’s hyperconnected, outcome-driven world?

The fact is that, at least in a great many English departments in American universities public and private, the curricular setting in which we teach courses like Middle English Romance is not the same one in which we ourselves, as undergraduates, encountered medieval texts. Rather than proceeding through a sequence of required foundational courses that shape an understanding of literary history, students typically enroll in courses like mine to fill general period requirements (which means my courses, even though they are upper-level, will often serve as their first introduction to anything written before the twentieth century). In this situation, I feel that one needs something to build on, and if that is not a sense of chronology or literary history then it might as well be an engagement, one that can be pushed in critical directions, with whatever cultural associations with the Middle Ages they may have in their present moment. On this note we might reflect on the challenges of harnessing such associations toward an enhanced historical literacy by looking to insights offered by the critical discourse of intertextuality and adaptation studies.

Worrying over the adulteration of a pure medieval literary text by modern variations is a wrongheaded concern in one fundamental way: medieval literary texts, it must be underscored, are far from “pure”; rather, they are virtually always adaptations in their own right from prior texts and traditions, and Arthurian romance happens to offer ideal testimony of this dynamic. Attending selectively, then, to modern adaptations can train students in critical thinking about how medieval creative practices operated, how writers used and abused their sources in the spirit of inventio. As Julie Sanders observes in Adaptation and Appropriation, the word “‘After’ need not . . . mean belated in a purely negative sense. Coming ‘after’ can mean finding new angles and new routes into something, new perspectives on the familiar.”[9] Linda Hutcheon, in A Theory of Adaptation, discusses the problematic circumstance of readers who encounter the modern adaptation of a text without awareness of the original text in its own right. Such is the situation of all of our students who have watched the Merlin TV show before reading Malory, or Monty Python before reading Chrétien de Troyes—it is, to (again) invoke a medieval commonplace, the world upside-down. Although Hutcheon notes that this lack of familiarity thwarts the operational process of the adaptation, which assumes the source text as part of the reader’s horizon of expectations, she also views it as productively disorienting: it challenges, she says, the idea of “priority,” causing “multiple versions [to] exist laterally, not vertically.” This unorthodox arrangement, she continues, “upend[s] sacrosanct elements like priority and originality” insofar as the original texts, to such readers, “become the derivative and belated works, the ones . . . experience[d] second and secondarily.”[10] Such a scenario is, in fact, strikingly similar to how medieval readers processed writings about the Trojan War: they viewed the belated late-classical Dares and Dictys, who claimed to be eyewitnesses of the war, as more ancient and authoritative than Homer, and Homer as the upstart (and, like many of our students, they too enjoyed the re-creation but did not actually read Homer).[11] The distorting potential of the modern adaptation preceding an encounter with the earlier, classic text is quite real. Every time I screen part of John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur in a course on Arthurian legends, we discuss at length the film’s telescoping of characters and compression of plot, especially as it pertains to Morgan le Fay’s greatly enhanced agency in comparison to her treatment in Malory’s Morte Darthur. And every time students submit essays on Malory’s romance afterward, they nonetheless end up conflating its representation of Morgan with that of the film adaptation—the visual immediacy of film is hard to counteract. Yet this very problem also suggests the potential of modern appropriations to expose interpretive areas in the earlier text that reward deep scrutiny, demand remediation. If, in the classic paradigm of adaptation studies, the adaptation enables us to read the adapted text in a new way, then the opposite holds true for students coming at it from the reverse angle. A virgin encounter with the original text can destabilize, even dislocate, the modern form that is otherwise, to them, flatly “canonical.” The medieval, we might say, can update, perhaps even outwit, the modern.





[1] I wish to thank Anne-Marie Bouché and M. Brad Busbee, organizers of a session on pedagogy at the 2016 meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association in Knoxville, TN, for their encouragement and feedback on an earlier form of this essay.

[2] D. W. Robertson, Jr., A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), 3.

[3] Should prompting be needed, promising directions for research are assembled in Elizabeth S. Sklar and Donald L. Hoffman, King Arthur in Popular Culture (Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Co., 2002), and chapters 6 and 7 of Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter, eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[4] The criteria on which students are evaluated, on a scale from 1 to 5, are as follows: preparation/organization, style of presentation, appropriateness of content/scope, contribution to group dynamic, audience engagement, creativity/enthusiasm, and quality of written component.

[5] Readers who wish to pursue this line of inquiry are referred to Alan Lupack and Barbara Tepa Lupack, King Arthur in America (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999).

[6] The Camelot Project: A Robbins Library Digital Project. Web. Accessed 29 November 2017.  Scholarly guidebooks to Arthurian legend are legion, but the following are especially useful for class research: Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1991); Norris J. Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, and Debra N. Mancoff, The Arthurian Handbook, 2nd ed. (New York: Garland Pub, 1997); Alan Lupack, The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Archibald and Putter, The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend.

[7] Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog. Web. Accessed 29 November 2017. ; @LeVostreGC. Chaucer Doth Tweet. Web. 29 November 2017. ; Baba Brinkman, The Rap Canterbury Tales. Web. Accessed 29 November 2017. . Many installments of the animated Canterbury Tales, at the time of writing, can be accessed via YouTube. For a helpful roadmap of such adaptations, see Kathleen Forni, Chaucer’s Afterlife: Adaptations in Recent Popular Culture (Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Co., 2013).

[8] A partial list of important recent work in medievalism includes Karl Fugelso, ed., Defining Medievalism(s), Studies in Medievalism 17 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009); Gail Ashton and Daniel T. Kline, eds., Medieval Afterlives in Popular Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Elizabeth Emery and Richard J. Utz, eds., Medievalism: Key Critical Terms (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2014); Louise D’Arcens, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Richard J. Utz, Medievalism: A Manifesto (Kalamazoo: ARC Humanities Press, 2017.

[9] Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation (New York: Routledge, 2005), 158.

[10] Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), xiii, 122.

[11] On this point, see further Gérard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 220-21.







Archibald, Elizabeth and Ad Putter, eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.


Ashton, Gail and Daniel T. Kline, eds. Medieval Afterlives in Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.


Brinkman, Baba. The Rap Canterbury Tales. Web. Accessed 29 November 2017.


The Camelot Project: A Robbins Library Digital Project. Web. Accessed 29 November 2017.


D’Arcens, Louise, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.


Emery, Elizabeth and Richard J. Utz, eds. Medievalism: Key Critical Terms. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2014.


Forni, Kathleen. Chaucer’s Afterlife: Adaptations in Recent Popular Culture. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Co., 2013.


Fugelso, Karl, ed. Defining Medievalism(s). Studies in Medievalism 17. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009.


Genette, Gérard. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.


Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog. Web. Accessed 29 November 2017.


Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.


Lacy, Norris J., ed. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1991.


Lacy, Norris J., Geoffrey Ashe, and Debra N. Mancoff. The Arthurian Handbook. 2nd ed. New York: Garland Pub, 1997.


Lupack, Alan. The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.


Lupack, Alan and Barbara Tepa Lupack.  King Arthur in America. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999.


Robertson, D. W., Jr. A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962.


Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. New York: Routledge, 2005.


Sklar, Elizabeth S. and Donald L. Hoffman. King Arthur in Popular Culture. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Co., 2002.


Utz, Richard J. Medievalism: A Manifesto. Kalamazoo: ARC Humanities Press, 2017.


@LeVostreGC. Chaucer Doth Tweet. Web. 29 November 2017.