It must have been a particularly mystical experience to open the large tome of a medieval miscellany for scribes in the middle ages. If they had never opened it yet, they might have little idea of exactly what they would find inside, but they would almost certainly be hoping for the fantastic as well as the uniquely instructive. Medieval miscellanies were collections of writing varying from poetry to prose, from genre to subject matter, hand-picked for their unusual flavor in combination. To some extent, we’ve lost that tradition in the modern age, though anthologies mirror our desire to compare and contrast works, using context as a new lens through which to view them. Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days, for instance, with its Dali-esque cover by Dave McKean, contains “curiosities, oddments, and other stories” and yet Gaiman feels they have a common denominator worth considering: that they were written “after midnight”.
K.A. Laity, a medievalist, scholar, professor, and prolific genre fiction writer, has produced a remarkable miscellany in her non-fiction collection Rook Chant, available from Amazon as a Kindle book. Like Gaiman, she wrote these pieces over the course of several years for various purposes and they found homes in widely ranging periodicals. Something, however, continued to bind them together and suggest their interrelationship, whether a text translating a largely unknown Anglo-Saxon charm poem, or a review of the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore. These works may well have been written “after midnight”, but they were also written with a common double-purpose, that of bringing attention to worthy subject matter while rendering those materials available to new readership.
In this collection, Laity often presents the original medieval material from a poem, charm, or saga, and then offers a modern translation as well as discussion of its significance; this format appeals to a wide range of readerships and specifically denies exclusivity. Readers are encouraged to ponder the texts themselves, find their own meaning and significance, and consider Laity’s argument for their value.
The general structure of Rook Chant is very helpful. Not only is the Kindle format carefully tagged with a title-based table of contents, but the large collection is divided into essays dealing with specific medieval texts, those dealing with myth and folklore, and those which originated as reviews of specific topics or cultural artifacts. The wide-ranging oddities of the “medieval” section are enough to make any medieval scholar or enthusiast flip through the pages as eagerly as a scribe with a miscellany in hand. Many of these texts are not commonly featured in the medieval literature anthologies one can pick up in a chain bookstore, and plenty of them would not be accessible outside of a university library, much less in a welcoming translation. A common theme brings these medieval texts together: the subculture of magic, often well under-represented in medieval scholarship. From largely unknown witchcraft trials to the boundaries between St. Brigid and Brigid as a mother-goddess, Rook Chant opens many windows onto the less often illuminated aspects of medieval beliefs.
The “myth and folklore” section may, in turn, engage a slightly different group of scholars and general interest readers, as Laity traces the impact of folk beliefs into the modern age. Again, many of these topics are intriguingly off the beaten path of cultural discussion, from the ancient mythology of Finland, to personal essays on teaching mythological concepts in the college environment. In this section, Laity branches out more fully into first-person narrative, using her own life as an example of a reader’s experience of myth and a writer’s experience of exploring a subject. Laity perhaps most strongly conveys her perspective on modern paganism and magical pursuits and the intersections they form with her scholarly life. This serves two purposes: firstly, it explains her viewpoint to readers who might have little knowledge of modern pagan, wiccan, or magical practice, and it also builds up a conversation within the communities seeking more cultural representation. Indeed, many of these essays originally appeared in journals directed toward magical practitioners, and so bringing these essays together not only forms a clearer omnibus for previous readers, but also brings Laity’s work forward to a wider and more diverse readership.
Laity’s reviews are particularly fascinating, if you can get to them without being entirely distracted by the true “oddities” along the way. While one of her essays on folklore discusses the performance aspects of the remarkable Alan Moore’s own openly magical lifestyle, Laity also reviews the significant documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore in detailed and sensitive terms. Music, literature, and films all feature, suggesting by context a kind of association that might make a reader reconsider the ways in which we classify art objects by genre. Surely the elements that bind artistic works together are, in fact, greater, than formal differences? The review list reads like a catalogue of Kate Laity’s interests, which, thankfully, cast a wide net over the interesting and unusual cultural products of the last few years.
For a collection that brings together the elements of a multifaceted mind and an industrious keyboard over a period of years, Rook Chant also conveys a remarkable sense of harmony between its elements. Perhaps this is due to Laity’s well-considered enthusiasm for her subject matter as well as her consistent awareness of the needs of her readership in terms of explanation, clarification, and the use of common cultural ground to convey what may be entirely novel concepts. The exuberance that drives these essays brings something back from the medieval past to modern readers: that excitement contained in a varied collection, that certainty that they are journeying into the unknown on a hand picked tour of the unusual. This miscellany reminds us, like all good catalogues of the fantastic, of the richness and strangeness of literary tradition and of human experience.
Link to Rook Chant:
-by Hannah Means-Shannon, Hannah Menzies on Facebook and Twitter