Danièle Cybulskie, The Five-Minute Medievalist. Printed by author, 2016.
Reviewed by KellyAnn Fitzpatrick (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In The Five-Minute Medievalist, Danièle Cybulskie offers us fifteen witty and informative short essays that aim to inspire readers to “keep learning more about the spectacular world of the Middle Ages” (ii). These fifteen essays have been curated from articles Cybulskie wrote from 2008-2016 (initially for her personal blog and later for Medievalists.net) under the moniker “The Five-Minute Medievalist.”
Having earned her MA in English with a focus on medieval literature from the University of Toronto, Cybulskie has the credentials to back up the “medievalist” part of her pen name. However, as her stated professional mission is to “share [her] love for the Middle Ages with modern people by making history fun and accessible, five minutes at a time” (75), it is clear that Cybulskie’s target readership is a non-specialist audience rather than a field of academic medievalists. Cybulskie therefore does not dedicate space to defining “medieval” or “Middle Ages,” nor does she posit her book as an exercise in medievalism. Yet, the medievalism inherent in a medievalist translating medieval studies for the bar trivia/Twitter generation is captured most succinctly by the book’s cover art wherein a medieval lady dons requisite period attire and headdress while holding a modern coffee mug and reading a mobile phone. Overall this translation itself succeeds and proves a fun and informative read.
The first essay, “Ironing Out the Myth of the Flat Earth,” serves as one of the book’s two “myth-busting” pieces. Addressing the modern misconception that the general European populace thought the earth was flat prior to Christopher Columbus “discovering” North America, Cybulskie does an excellent job citing medieval examples that acknowledge the earth as spherical. Furthermore, she locates the strongest contributor to the flat earth myth in Washington Irving’s 1828 The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. While a later essay on “Medieval Myth-Busting at the Movies” similarly both debunks and provides origins for fallacies about medieval culture in film, the flat earth myth stands out in that it highlights how misconceptions about the Middle Ages can make their way into the elementary school classroom (where most readers likely first encountered said myth) just as easily as they make their way into the movie theater.
The premise of “myth-busting,” however, presumes a certain accessibility of a “real” Middle Ages that medievalists can use to counter such myths. In this respect, the straightforward reporting of the medieval “as it really was” seems too authoritarian for a post-post-structuralist landscape. In practice, though, the impulse to question received notions of the Middle Ages—the “myth-busting” part of the essays—comes across more strongly than does any insistence on a singular alternative truth, and Cybulskie does well in documenting her sources so that an inquisitive reader (academic or otherwise) can follow her chains of evidence and make informed decisions on their validity.
Cybulskie’s stated goal to “share her love of the Middle Ages” comes through most clearly in four essays that reconstruct the components of everyday experience from a medieval perspective. Essays on “Medieval Parenting Advice” and “Medieval Sex Lives: Five Frisky Facts” use examples from medieval texts to locate common human experiences within a medieval context. “How to Tell if Your 12th-Century Lover is Just Not That into You” wittily recasts The Art of Courtly Love as a dating advice column in the mode of a modern-day Cosmopolitan article. The essay on “The Tasty Medieval Pasty,” however, provides the clearest pathway for adapting medieval practices to the modern day, as Cybulskie walks the reader through the process of following a medieval recipe that has been modified both for contemporary culinary tools (measuring cups, temperature-controlled ovens) and for 21st-century dietary restrictions (a pasty crust that is dairy-free).
The formal academic training in Cybulskie’s background is most evident in three essays concerned with medieval literary sources. “The Medieval Sleeping Beauty” traces the well-known and oft-adapted fairy tale to the 14th-century Perceforest, an Arthurian romance that spins the tale in darker terms more akin to Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone than to anything from Walt Disney or the Brothers Grimm. “Meet the Real Ulrich von Liechtenstien” cleverly pieces together the life of a 13th-century historical figure best known to 21st-century readers through his fictionalized portrayal (alongside that of Geoffrey Chaucer) in the 2001 film A Knight’s Tale. Cybulskie even treats the reader to a taste of philology, as she demonstrates how changes in the English language over the centuries resulted not only in vowel shifts and letter changes, but also in “The Quirky Transformation of Five Everyday Words.” The choice of words examined here, including “minion” and “gossip,” make a strong case for even the most non-academic reader to start perusing the Oxford English Dictionary for interesting English etymologies.
Of the remaining six essays, both “Five Fun Facts About Medieval Archery” and “Five Surprising Rules for Medieval Monks” provide uncommonly known (even to a medievalist) details about concepts popularly associated with the Middle Ages. For the former this includes the observation that “An increase in archery meant an increase in archery-related crime;” for the latter, Cybulskie crystalizes selections from The Rule of Saint Benedict into pithy assertions such as “Monastic crafts were great for bargain hunters.” Also included are essay-lists of well-known historical figures (“Five Great Ladies Who Refused to Be Quiet,” “Five (In)Famous Break-Ups,” and “Why We’re Still Fascinated by the Templars”), as well as a meditation on the qualities that are likely to turn one into a future well-known historical figure (“Five Ways to Get Noticed by Historians”). The last of these briefly touches on how and why the information that we use to access the medieval has managed to find its way to us across the centuries, perceptively summarizing that present-day readers have a far better chance of being remembered in part due to the “large digital footprints” we leave.
In keeping with the idea of digital footprints, it is worth noting that as of October 2016 Cybulskie has authored over 120 articles as “The Five-Minute Medievelist” at Medievalists.net. In book form, then, The Five-Minute Medievalist contains less than ten percent of Cybulskie’s short essays. Fortunately, the fifteen essays curated here are a solid and varied representation of Cybulskie’s larger body work, although the order in which they are presented—which is not the order in which I review them above—does not follow any discernable thematic, historical, or publication-based order. Otherwise the transition to book form is well done, with footnotes in the print version of the book replacing hyperlinks in the original articles. (The hyperlinks are maintained in the electronic edition of the book.) Pointedly, the choice to publish in book form has undoubtedly widened Cybulskie’s readership and publication profile, as books tend to be reviewed more often than online articles. In book form Cybulskie’s writing also makes a more portable gift for a history buff or trivia fanatic, and a more easily distributed tool for recruiting the medievalists of the future.
The Georgia Institute of Technology