Tag Archives: folklore

Post-Tenure Teaching Project

I’ve had this idea for a couple years now and thought that I would put it down on paper as it were. When I first got to Stanford (in fact, when I was being recruited for the job), I was asked if I would teach a class on Human Nature. I remember thinking to myself, “Sweet, this’ll be easy!” You see, I taught for Irv DeVore’s famous class, Science B-29: Human Behavioral Biology more times than I care to recollect. This is a topic for another blog post altogether, but Irv co-taught this class with various luminaries throughout the years including Bob Trivers, Mel Konner, Terry Deacon, and Marc Hauser. When Irv retired, Richard Wrangham took his place, co-teaching with Marc Hauser. Anyway, the key point for the current thread is that if there was one class I was qualified to teach when I came to Stanford, it was a class on Human Nature.

Shortly after I arrived in the summer of 2003, I had a lunch meeting at the faculty club with Bill Durham and Rob Robinson, the director of the program for which I would teach my Human Nature class. I remember being curious about why there would be a program director there. Wasn’t I just teaching the class for Anthropological Sciences? Well, no. It seems that the Human Nature class that everyone wanted would be part of the compulsory freshman program, Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM). “Humanities?!” I exclaimed. “You do realize who you’re talking to here, no?” To say that I was not well prepared to teach a course introducing freshmen at Stanford to the Humanities would be a rather large under-statement. Everyone assured me that everything would be fine. I just needed to find the right co-instructor. I had a very nice meeting with Don Kennedy who was the Stanford President when IHUM was introduced and who was the only scientist to co-teach a class before me (an enviable class on the environment with Richard White). That helped me to conceive of how I might teach such a class and formulate at least a semi-coherent plan for putting the class together.

The details of the class that I ended up teaching for two years should be saved for another post. I found a terrific humanist with whom to share lectures and had a terrific group of IHUM fellows do the hard work of sections, grading papers, etc. When my co-instructor, who was a lecturer at Stanford at the time, moved to a tenure-track position in the History department at San José State University, the class just sort of ended.

Since I stopped teaching that class, I’ve thought from time to time that it would be fun to try the idea again, this time really sticking to the core ideas in the study of Human Nature. One day, I was listening to the Fairport Convention (1969) recording of the seventeenth century English folk song, Matty Groves. While I am no expert folklorist, I am nonetheless struck by the observation that so many of these old folk songs (English and otherwise) are simply riddled with sex, honor, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, lust, murder, … In short, they are studies in Human Nature. What a great conceit for an IHUM class on Human Nature!

We could go through various folk songs and analyze what they tell us of people’s ideas of Human Nature. What are the commonalities across cultures and through time? How do these ideas relate to current scientific and philosophical work on Human Nature? The thing that would really make this class come together would be performative. These are folk songs, after all, that were meant to be sung. Maybe I could overcome my own performance anxiety and put my under-used guitar to good use and sing a song myself? As I said, a post-tenure project.

I won’t go into too many details here, but I will do a little analysis of Matty Groves, providing some interpretations of the lyrics and pointing to directions that I might take in such a class. The idea is generally to give a flavor of the content of this class. There is a lot of contextual information that is implicit in the song about the social organization of mediaeval/early modern English society. This is definitely something we would want to talk about extensively in class, but I will gloss that for now.

A holiday, a holiday, and the first one of the year.
Lord Donald’s wife came into church, the gospel for to hear.

And when the meeting it was done, she cast her eyes about,
And there she saw little Matty Groves, walking in the crowd.

Remember that holidays used to be holy days. The reason you got out of work, if you were so lucky, was so you could go to church. And what better venue for looking for a little action could there be than church?

Why is Lord Donald’s wife on the make? Chances are that she is much, much younger than her husband. As Mildred Dickemann, and many others, have observed, strongly hierarchical societies are highly hypergynous. Women marry up in social status and marry older men. Chances are, Lord Donald’s wife had no say in her own marriage as it was arranged by her father and emissaries for Lord Donald. For a sense of the degree that status structured this society, it is interesting to note who remains unnamed in the song. Really the main character in the narrative, “Lord Donald’s Wife” as well as “the servant.” My interpretation is that Lord Donald’s wife is bored and not attracted to her brutal, high-status husband who is probably old enough to be her father. The holiday, during which her husband is away, provides her with an opportunity to explore the field. My understanding of human reproductive psychology tells me that young women, despite the mid-century folklore, want to have sex too. Yep, it’s not just boys. There is an interesting Gail Collins’s essay on Twilight in which she writes “This sure sounds like trouble to me: A generation of guys who will settle for nothing less than a porn star meets a generation of women who expect their boyfriend to crawl through their bedroom window at night and just nuzzle gently until they fall asleep.” I agree there is trouble, but I have serious doubts that a whole generation of girls only want to nuzzle and fall asleep.

“Come home with me, little Matty Groves, come home with me tonight.
Come home with me, little Matty Groves, and sleep with me till light.”

“Oh, I can’t come home, I won’t come home and sleep with you tonight,
By the rings on your fingers I can tell you are Lord Donald’s wife.”

Again, note that Lord Donald’s wife has no identity other than that of the Lord’s wife. Her status as such is communicated by conspicuous display of jewelry. Matty is no fool. He knows that there is real danger here…

“What if I am Lord Donald’s wife? Lord Donald’s not at home.
For he is out in the far cornfields, bringing the yearlings home.”

…but the lord’s wife was very persuasive. A rich and powerful lord can afford a beautiful wife (even in a dowry society — the details of this apparent paradox are fodder for lecture, of course). It’s also possible that Matty and Lord Donald’s wife knew each other from childhood.

Note also that wealth came from the land in this agrarian society. Even a rich and powerful lord brings the yearlings home from the far cornfields.

And a servant who was standing by and hearing what was said,
He swore Lord Donald he would know before the sun would set.

And in his hurry to carry the news, he bent his breast and ran,
And when he came to the broad mill stream, he took off his shoes and swam.

A loyal (unnamed) servant may just move up in the hierarchy of servants.

Little Matty Groves, he lay down and took a little sleep.
When he awoke, Lord Donald he was standing at his feet.

Saying “How do you like my feather bed? And how do you like my sheets?
How do you like my lady who lies in your arms asleep?”

Things like beds, sheets, and pillows were luxury goods Matty had probably never experienced as a peasant boy.

Imagine walking into your own bedroom and finding your spouse in bed with a lover. Crimes of passion account for an amazingly large fraction of homicides in a variety of societies. Lord Donald’s anger is probably compounded by the fact that his wife is not only his reproductive partner, but is his property in a very real sense.

“Oh, well I like your feather bed, and well I like your sheets.
But better I like your lady gay who lies in my arms asleep.”

Cheeky boys get spanked.

“Well, get up, get up,” Lord Donald cried, “get up as quick as you can!
It’ll never be said in fair England that I slew a naked man.”

Lord Donald is rightly concerned about his reputation because this is the key to his continued social status. Gossip among peers can destroy the social standing of even the very rich. And, of course, what else do elites have to occupy their time than gossip? Certainly not work or anything else productive.

Rules concerning combat are frequently a central component of honor cultures. Why is that? Concepts like honor, duty, and loyalty and the degree to which they generalize would be major topics for the class.

“Oh, I can’t get up, I won’t get up, I can’t get up for my life.
For you have two long beaten swords and I not a pocket-knife.”

“Well it’s true I have two beaten swords, and they cost me deep in the purse.
But you will have the better of them and I will have the worse.”

“And you will strike the very first blow, and strike it like a man.
I will strike the very next blow, and I’ll kill you if I can.”

Again, a steel sword would have been a serious luxury good. No peasant would have owned such goods nor have had any training in their use. Lord Donald is honorable in the sense that he refuses to slay the naked Matty Groves, but the magnanimity of his offer must be weighed against the serious asymmetry in human capital that is embodied in this duel. Would you know how to use a longsword in a duel? I assume that the weapon in question is some form of longsword since it is “beaten.” Consider also the fact that stature (along with strength) is very much determined by status. One of the most amazing demonstrations of this fact is provided in a plot of the secular trend in men’s stature in the United States published in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Growth and Development (Ulijaszek et al., eds., 1998). Overlain on this plot of the secular trend are the heights of the first 36 presidents (through Nixon) as well as various other period-specific averages. All US presidents but three (Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Harry Truman) were substantially above the median period stature (though James Madison was just above the median). Compare this to a sample of working class in 1830 or British class IV in 1885.

Not a happy situation for Matty. Of course, what are Lord Donald’s options? His social standing would take an express ride to the basement if word got out that his wife was sleeping around — and with a peasant boy no less!

So Matty struck the very first blow, and he hurt Lord Donald sore.
Lord Donald struck the very next blow, and Matty struck no more.

Sucks to be a peasant in a highly stratified agrarian society. Here’s this guy who is seduced into the bed of a noble woman, against his better first judgement, who finds himself slain because of some bad luck and his social position.

And then Lord Donald he took his wife and he sat her on his knee,
Saying, “Who do you like the best of us, Matty Groves or me?”

And then up spoke his own dear wife, never heard to speak so free.
“I’d rather a kiss from dead Matty’s lips than you and your finery.”

Herein lie the clues to Lord Donald’s age and brutality, I think. Of course, we have the prima facie evidence of his brutality in the Lord having just slain his wife’s lover before her eyes. But is this really any more than could be expected from the age and society? I don’t think so. But one thing is utterly clear: she doesn’t want him anymore. Surely she has to know what she has coming when she speaks in such an impudent manner. “Never heard to speak so free”: Remember, she’s nameless. Nameless people don’t speak freely in the presence of nobility. Lord Donald appears to be giving her an out, which is actually quite remarkable. I don’t think that this would necessarily be expected in this society. She could easily have blamed the whole affair on (the now dead) Matty Groves. But, instead, she chose to take a principled stand and, oh, does it cost her.

Lord Donald he jumped up and loudly he did bawl,
He struck his wife right through the heart and pinned her against the wall.

This is pretty horrible. But the question remains: what were his options? This was a violent society — as all pre-modern societies (and most modern ones) are. Lord Donald’s social standing was greatly jeopardized by this incident. It’s unclear to me how it could have ended otherwise given his wife’s newfound freedom. Men’s control of women’s sexuality is a major theme in hierarchical societies — a theme that could fill several quarters worth of classes and would occupy a central place in my proposed class.

“A grave, a grave!” Lord Donald cried, “to put these lovers in.
But bury my lady at the top for she was of noble kin.”

Just in case you had forgotten for a second that this was an intensely stratified society. Even in the context of a double homicide, we need to maintain appearances…

I find all three main characters in this narrative sympathetic to some degree or another. All of them are victims of their social position. Of course, there are better and worse forms of victimhood. Most obviously, Lord Donald lives. He led the most privileged life but he was not immune from intense and potentially overwhelming social expectations. Lord Donald’s wife found herself trapped in a loveless marriage (what is love? what is it for? how universal is it?) to a man to whom she is not attracted with no possibility (because of her social position) for even same-sex friendship for lack of peers. And poor Matty. He is the most hapless really; a total victim of his circumstances.

So this is the general idea for my future IHUM class: An analysis of Human Nature through folk songs. There is lots of potential for higher-order analysis here too. Things having to do with the nature of cultural transmission and how ideas are transformed across time and space. This class would be a blast, particularly if we could have a performance aspect to it.