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The Way of the Hero

Long before well-muscled movie stars began exchanging gunfire in Hollywood action flicks and Xbox assassins started blowing up buildings in computer games, similar displays of high-testosterone aggression were common in the epics of the ancient world. Audiences, it seems, have always liked their heroes quick-fisted and armed to the teeth.

But, as Tina-Marie Ranalli will tell you, there are exceptions. Ranalli, an assistant professor of French and German, has spent years poring over a little-known 700-year-old manuscript housed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. What she has found there, she says, turns traditional depictions of the heroic warrior upside-down. For some classical heroes, as the title of one of Ranalli’s recent papers puts it, it paid “to be a lover, not a fighter.”

“I’m interested in how gender roles for men developed and evolved into the present day,” Ranalli said in her office last week. “We’re still fascinated by these ancient, epic stories. They are models of manhood that are still revered.”

Ranalli’s paper, which she presented at a conference on medieval studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland earlier this month, is based on her reading of a 14th-century codex known to scholars as manuscript BN fr 60. The manuscript presents medieval retellings of several classical epics. Ranalli argues that the texts in manuscript 60 veer away from the conventional glorification of the warrior as the ultimate model of manhood. The manuscript celebrates the Greek hero Aeneas, for example, not for courage in combat, but for having the good sense to avoid potentially fatal fights. Because he survives the Trojan Wars, the manuscript makes clear, Aeneas is able to father a line of future kings.

“This is a different model of manhood, the procreator model,” Ranalli said. “Instead of finding honor in putting your life on the line, now it’s honorable to preserve yourself and your progeny and fight only as a last resort. Previously, Aeneas had been seen as a coward who avoided the war. Now he is glorified.”

Ranalli said the texts in manuscript 60 likely were commissioned by a member of the French royal court of the 14th century, as an attempt to cement the court’s position of power. The stories were meant to lend legitimacy to the royal line by suggesting a link to the mythic past.

Ranalli began making annual pilgrimages to Paris to examine manuscript 60 in 2004, when she was still a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. At first allowed to view the texts only on microfilm, she had to teach herself to decode the irregular medieval French script of the monks who set the stories on paper. Only after persistent pleas from Ranalli did librarians relent and allow her access to the manuscript itself.

“It was breathtaking,” she said of her first encounter with the illustrated manuscript. “The microfilm didn’t do it justice. There’s nothing like holding the actual manuscript in your hand.”

Ranalli’s research also inspired her to create a world literatures course at Elmhurst called The Hero’s Journey, which focuses on medieval national epics, including the Song of Roland, Beowulf and the Lay of the Nibelungs. A general education course for non–language majors, the course tracks the evolution of the male hero across millennia. Students read the stories in translation and analyze present-day film renditions of epics like Troy and Kingdom of Heaven.

“Professors always struggle with how to bring their research into the classroom. How can you make your students care about this stuff?” Ranalli said. “I’ve asked my students to think critically about these stories, and I’ve been so impressed with the way they have responded. It’s thrilling to me to be able to teach my scholarship to this extent.”

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