Course in Context

31st January 2014

Nostalgia in Modernity

Something Professor Olsen said in lecture recently, about nostalgia being present in every time period, reminded me of the Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris, starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard. The film is about an aspiring writer who, while writing about a nostalgia shop, is transported back to Paris in the 1920’s and has the experience of a lifetime reliving what he calls the Golden Age of literature and creativity. The story captures the theme of nostalgia not only by definition, but also by studying the term’s interesting level of subjectivity; that nostalgia, although being a part of human nature, the longing or affection for better times past means different things for different people. With this in mind–and with an understanding from recent lectures of what nostalgia means to ancient Romans–I have a question; what does nostalgia mean for us in today’s society?

To the ancient Romans, nostalgia was a fond remembrance of the Golden Age. Most ancient Roman writers identify 146 BCE as the year when most everything about the Roman people began to decline. This decline was considered to be the effect of two main events; the end of the Punic wars, and the influx of goods and slaves from conquered regions, i.e. Greece. The end of the Punic wars brought about what some referred to as the Punic curse, where, once Romans no longer had a strong enemy to fear, they gave themselves over to avarice, luxury, and vice. The huge influx of money, slaves, and art pouring in from Greece (whom some Romans considered to be soft and effeminate) was also considered a culprit of the decline. The decline to which Roman writers reference is mainly a decline in the private morality and religious feelings of ancient Romans. Two major ancient Roman works that present theories of nostalgia towards a Golden Age are Juvenal’s Satire and Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. Both of these works refer to a Golden Age of morals and religion that existed before the age of Caesar and lament the failings and atrocities, including moral licentiousness, of their present ages. Feelings of nostalgia were present and founded in ancient Rome; however, feelings of nostalgia differ from age to age, and as we study ancient Rome in a modern context, I want to look for examples of nostalgia in our own modern world.

Nostalgia is not the same for everyone, but it can be the same for groups of people. I am nostalgic towards classical music with the likes of Beethoven and Mozart, and I have friends who feel the same way; however, I also have acquaintances who think Justin Bieber (who probably doesn’t write his own music anyway) is more original than Johnny Cash. Just as an aside, there are many examples in our society of revival that mustn’t be confused with nostalgia. For example I don’t think our society’s taste for past fashion trends counts as an example of nostalgia because, in this case, the feeling has become a reality of revival. If I remember correctly, a fundamental part to Midnight in Paris is the idea that nostalgia can only exist as a feeling, and that fully reviving the past or reliving the past is dangerous to the mind. Nostalgia is a fundamentally a feeling.

With nostalgia, the good things of the past are exact opposite to the ills of the present. One major ill that I consider to be unique to our society, possibly even our generation, is environmental degradation. Just this past summer I was camping with my family and as we sat stargazing around the camp-fire, my father remarked at how different the sky looked from the times when he went camping as a young’n. Perhaps decades ago the experience of looking at the night sky was extremely breathtaking, and now because of light pollution and climate change it’s just another ceiling; not worth acknowledging. While longing for past natural environments of beauty is one example of nostalgia in our society, it is sadly not a feeling shared by many; in a world driven by the global economics of production this nostalgia refers to a good and bad story that has little to no importance in the fast-paced forward race our world seems to be in. Thus nostalgic ideas in our society seem to be minor and of little importance.

It may be that the idea of nostalgia is foreign to our society. The ancients seemed unashamed to admit their failings as a society once great and golden; but modernity is based on the forward motion of development and progress and seems to consider the past, although maybe worthy of legacy, as no longer valuable. Nostalgia does exist in our society–we see it in things like music and beauty. Overall as an idea in a modern society, nostalgia is an uninterpreted dream; interesting but the lessons remain undiscovered.


7th December, 2013

Cultural Context and the Voice of Sir Lancelot’s Attire

Sir Lancelot has the identity and attire of a Knight, known famously throughout the kingdom for his strength, and lover, involved intimately with Queen Guinevere. After seeing the unsurpassed strength of the unknown knight at Camelot, King Arthur “realized straight away that it was Lancelot” (Death of King Arthur, 35). Similarly, all the other knights present at the tournament readily compared the strength and chivalry of the unknown knight to Lancelot (Death of King Arthur, 36). Even despite his attempts to stay hidden, people know the strength of Lancelot so much that changing the colors of his arms is not enough. Another component of Lancelot’s identity is his love for Guinevere. Of all the knights at Camelot, Lancelot is the only one willing to sacrifice his honor for the Queen’s sake. Because they witnessed the murder of Gaheris of Karahue’s at the Queens hands, the knights would be “dishonest…knowingly offer[ing] to defend an unjust cause” (Death of King Arthur, 99). Lancelot defends Guinevere not only because he did not witness the murder, but also because “of all the ladies in the world she is the one who has paid [him] the greatest honor” (Death of King Arthur, 100).  After the trial, reunited in each other’s company, Lancelot “loved [Guinevere] more than he had ever done in the past, and so did she him” (Death of King Arthur, 108). The trial of Queen Guinevere bonds the lovers closer together and the chivalric loyalty of Lancelot affirms his identity as lover as well as knight. This identify is affirmed by the cultural and literal voice of Lancelot’s attire.

The historical context of Lancelot’s attire voices his identity as knight and lover. Beginning in the thirteenth century, specific heraldic symbols on shields and other arms signified the power and leadership of Knights (Ailes, 85). If Lancelot wore his regular arms at the tournament, he would be “recognized sooner than [he] would like” (Death of King Arthur, 29). Instead, Lancelot does what “was customary at that time for a newly-dubbed knight” (28) and wears “a shield of only one colour” (Death of King Arthur, 28). If the knights saw Lancelot in his regular attire, they would instantly recognize him. Lancelot conceals his identity as a powerful knight by changing his arms to those of a recently knighted squire. In addition, Lancelot’s attire speaks of his love for Guinevere. When he returns to Camelot to defend Guinevere “Lancelot arrive[s] fully armed, lacking nothing that a knight ought to have” (Death of King Arthur, 105). The rare occasion when Lancelot arrives in full and complete attire is at the service of his lady and lover.  He wears “white arms and ha[s] a diagonal band of red on his shield” (Death of King Arthur, 105). This attire echoes the Prose Lancelot when Guinevere requests Lancelot to display a band of red cloth on his helmet and a diagonal white stripe on his shield (Burns, 9). The story of the courtly woman’s token of love attached to a knight’s arms so that he may fight valiantly in her name is common among medieval romances and, within the common frame, the token usually serves as an inspirational presence of the woman to lead the knight to extraordinary feats (Burns, 4). It is an understanding of early medieval cultural context that gives voice to Sir Lancelot’s attire. By concealing his arms, Lancelot is concealing his strength and status as a knight; by appearing to defend his lover in full armour, he is proclaiming his loyalty. The cultural importance of arms in the context of medieval knights is the reason Lancelot’s attire is able to reinforce his identity as lover and knight.

 Works Cited

Ailes, Adrian. “Heraldy in Medieval England: Symbols of Politics and Propaganda.” Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England. Ed. Peter Coss and Maurice Keen. Woodbridge: the Boydell Press, 2002. 83-104. Print.

Burns, Jane E.. Courtly Love Undressed: Reading Through Clothes in Medieval French Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Print.

The Death of King Arthur. Trans. James Cable. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1971. Print.


8th November, 2013


The factual fashion that the anonymous author of Njal’s Saga employs while writing about events that unfolded in eleventh-century Iceland reflects the actual historical inspirations of the story. Events, although debatable as fact or fiction, are presented and structured as being facts that make up a period of Icelandic history. Because of this style of writing, it may be concluded that the saga was written to inform the reader, maybe even in a nostalgic tone, of what life was like in eleventh-century Iceland. My inference arises from the assumption that all writing has a purpose, and that a specific writing style, tone, structure, or language implies a specific purpose.

Njal dies when his homestead, Bergthorsknoll is burned to the ground. The burning of Bergthorsknoll was in fact a historical event described in accounts by Iceland’s early settlers. At the moment of his death, Njal says to those near him, “Put your faith in the mercy of God, for He will not let us burn both in this world and the next” (Njal’s Saga 266). Today those words may appear far-fetched, however in eleventh century Iceland, following the kristnitaka or conversion to Christianity, there is no worthier speech (Jochens 622). With Iceland’s conversion to Christianity, Njal’s death becomes simple; he has lived a good life, commended his soul to God, and is therefore sure to be happy in Heaven. The writer uses actual legal procedures of the Althing as a plot device in the story; drawing on factual structures to create the story. For example, Njal’s plan for Gunnar to make a dowry-claim for his cousin Unn against her divorced husband Hrut uses the legal code of the Althing.

In Njal’s Saga, history and literature join fact and fiction to create an impressive tale of eleventh-century Iceland. The matter-of-fact way in which the saga is written reflects the story’s nature as one that stems from historical events and needs little symbolism or poetry to fulfill its purpose of informing and captivating the reader.

Works Cited

Jochens, Jenny. “Late and Peaceful: Iceland’s Conversion through Arbitration in 1000.” Speculum 74. 3 (1999): 621-655. Print.

Njal’s Saga. Trans. Magnus Magnusson and Herman Palsson. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.,1960. Print.


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