Guest post by Professor Ann Marie Rasmussen and students in her Spring 2014 Writing 101 course, “Images that Shock: Obscenity from the Middle Ages to the Present,” which was co-taught with Heidi Madden, Librarian for Western European and Medieval/Renaissance Studies. Writing 101 courses are offered during a student’s first year at Duke and are designed to offer students a foundation for and introduction to university-level writing. See more at the Thompson Writing Program’s Writing 101 website, or see a list of all Spring 2014 Writing 101 courses and course descriptions.
When I teach Writing 101, I focus not on content, but on process. The goal is to give first-year students what my co-teacher, Heidi Madden, and I like to call a tool chest of skills in academic communication, broadly understood, that will help them make the most of studying at Duke. The skills we emphasize include writing skills such as revision; giving and accepting rigorous yet fair feedback; and communicating clearly and effectively for different audiences, media, and formats. We also emphasize turning students into effective, knowledgeable, and critical researchers by teaching them how to master the complex modern research engine that goes by the name of a research library.
Still, to learn process you have to apply it. For their final paper, students write a research paper in an area of my scholarly expertise, late medieval badges. These are small objects found in Great Britain and northwestern Europe, usually about the size of a quarter and featuring a vivid image. They were made to be worn, usually sewn or pinned to clothing, but sometimes suspended as a pendant. Made of lead-tin alloy, badges were cheap to make and to buy. Some 15,000 survive; millions were probably made in the three hundred years they were in circulation. Although they are little known today, badges were once ubiquitous, ordinary artifacts. What makes badges rewarding for student research are their images, which draw on and disseminate iconographies that, however shocking, mysterious, or inscrutable they now seem to us, were once widely and immediately understood. A badge image presents itself to a modern viewer as a puzzle that repays diligent, focused, expert research by delivering new findings and a deeper understanding of the past.
What a great topic for Writing 101! For their final paper, each student selects and researches a single badge and its image. As a way of getting to know their badge better, we asked students to carefully draw it. Then, we used the library’s button-maker to affix each drawing to an aluminum, pinned back. Viola! The medieval badges live again in a modern form, as buttons. Students were also asked to write a blog post about their badge, which they have identified using categories and data from an important, web-based reference and research tool for badges, the Kunera database housed at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. This assignment allowed them to practice making academic research accessible and compelling to non-specialists. We, teachers and students, hope that the buttons and blogs pique your interest in medieval badges and in Writing 101 at Duke.
A Selection of Student Research on Medieval Badges
Tiffany Chen: What a week this has been! To be honest, when first faced with the task of researching the badge—well, actually, mine is an ampulla—I was sure it would not be so difficult. But when I realized that the ampulla for my paper is… undocumented in a conspicuous way… I found out how challenging researching the unknown can really be.
I have felt like a detective lately, sleuthing for clues and trying to piece them together in a way that not only makes sense, but also is likely to be correct. Luckily, I have found clues pointing me in promising directions. For instance, the location of my ampulla was listed as Jerusalem, but I had to look at the ampulla itself and its depiction to discover that it represented Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is held by tradition to be the location where Christ was resurrected.
I am on a good path towards uncovering more clues. So far, I have delved into the ampulla’s rich history, circa 1149-1199 (around the time of the Third Crusade to the Muslim world). I have researched its image and as well ampullae in general to better understand how they were used. But I have yet to uncover information on the ampulla’s inscription of capital letters, HMPO, and on other key features. More to come in the future! Until then, this detective needs to pick up her magnifying glass and see what else she can find.
Kay Hasegawa: Yes, that badge is showing exactly what you think it is, a woman standing next to a penis with little arms and legs, wearing a crown, and carrying a pilgrim staff and a shoulder bag. Very, very eccentric, and not exactly the first thing we would imagine when we think about medieval accessories in Western Europe! But the image embodies a very common desire for the agriculture-intensive peasants of the day, the wish for fertility of the land and of the mother. All hail the medieval phallic figure!
Alyse Whitaker: Do me a favor. Imagine a world in which it is acceptable for you and your peers to wear clothing or badges adorned with explicit images of female and male genitalia… In our world, it would be unusual to walk down the street and see a man wearing a shirt with a phallus on it because exposing genitals is not tolerated or legal in American culture. Thinking back to the Middle Ages, which supposedly is a time when people were more modest, it was shocking to discover that this assumption was not accurate. Here is a badge that caught my eye. It shows a phallus on a spit, something used to roast chicken over a fire, with a vulva functioning like a “grease trap” to catch the drippings. There are so many impressions that could be taken from this image. My first impression was that the artist was trying to express the efficiency of the men when it came to fertility,. Or perhaps the image was supposed to shock and ward off evil spirits? Badges such as this one may have been worn for many different purposes.
Special thanks to Elena Feinstein and Aaron Welborn for bringing the button-maker to the library, and to Mark Zupan for photographing the buttons.