Fans in the Academy?


I wrote the short, informal paper below as a contribution to the 'Fanfiction and the Pre-Modern World Colloquium', 13 July 2018, University of Oxford, UK. I had intended to deliver this piece with bells and whistles (or, OK, many gifs) in Oxford myself, but unfortunately I couldn't attend in person. I am sincerely grateful to Julie Dresvina, one of the event organisers, for proposing a solution: allowing my 'remote presence' in the day's discussions by circulating my written paper to attendees on the day itself. If you want a flavour of the programme - and believe me, you definitely want a flavour - check out the live-tweeting corralled under #premodfanfic18 and the Colloquium Twitter account @premodfanfic. This one-day event is just the start of a bigger project of establishing an interdisciplinary network in the field, and I look forward to our continuing discussions!

In honour of the Colloquium, Amsterdam University Press has released a 20% discount code for my book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, valid till 27 July 2018. My third Chapter works with star and fan studies in-depth, hence the tie-in! To take advantage of the discount, use code "MedievalSaintsModernScreens" (without the "s) and order directly from the Press here.

At the end of last month, the community web forum Metafilter hosted one of their regular Sunday-night ‘cocktail-talk’ threads.[1] As usual, informal chat was invited, cohering more-or-less successfully around an orienting question. The question – or series of questions - that week? ‘What things do people consider themselves to be a huge fan of? Have they watched/read/collected/participated in every episode/book/version/event? Where do they chat about their fandom online? Do they have an OTP (one true pairing)? Do they read or write fanfic? Or cosplay a character?’ Scrolling through the answers idly on my smartphone, relaxing after a day filled with close textual analysis with a perma-playlist of comforting TV shows on in the background, one response in particular jumped out at me. User ‘huimangm’ proffered the following sketch of their fannish life:

In the last five or six years I have written a relatively small amount of fanfiction (mostly for obscure book canons) and read a ridiculous quantity of it. I really like the way the very best of it takes the structure you’re familiar with (setting, character, plot, or all three) and brings out extraordinary depth that the original canon didn’t or couldn’t make visible (sometimes because the original creator wasn’t that good, more often because the focus just happened to be elsewhere). […] Otherwise, not sure if it’s a fandom or a special-topic or what, but I am somewhat obsessed with diaries from Britain in/around World War II. I have, what, sixteen or seventeen different people’s diaries? (in book form, not the originals), many though not all from Mass-Observation [Archive of historical documents], and for some reason I find them intensely interesting and fulfilling to read.

Well, doesn’t that sound familiar, somewhat unsettlingly so? Let’s plug in an explicitly scholarly context to the Metafilter comment, replacing fan-specific terms with more ‘appropriate’ academic phraseology (signalled by the bolding):

In the last five or six years I have written a relatively small amount of secondary criticism (mostly for obscure medieval books and canons) and read a ridiculous quantity of it. I really like the way the very best literary analyses take the structure you’re familiar with (setting, character, plot, or all three) and brings out extraordinary depth that the primary text didn’t or couldn’t make visible (sometimes because the original creator wasn’t that good, more often because the focus just happened to be elsewhere). […] Otherwise, not sure if it fits with my ‘research agenda’ or if it’s my new specialist topic or whatever, but I am somewhat obsessed with diaries from Britain in/around World War II. I have, what, sixteen or seventeen different people’s diaries? (in book form, not the originals), many though not all from Mass-Observation [Archive of historical documents], and for some reason I find them intensely interesting and fulfilling to read.

What do fans and academics have in common? Rather a lot, it turns out. Fans feel a pull to the object of their devotion, re-situating their identity in relation to a favourite media text. They analyse the minutiae of the fan object, engaging often in its creative re-contextualization, probing its meaning to tease out new readings, to splay open possibilities implicit in the original work. This is especially the case with ‘formal’ fan fiction, stories and/or media utilising an already established universe or cast of characters. But the conversations, the imaginings, the online arguments fans have about and within their fandom are all also interrogatory, revelatory forms of critique. Formal publications, and collaborative informal discussions developing knowledge – check, check. Critical commentary on an original canon as a body of work in its own right - the ‘fanon’ or ‘secondary literature’, pick your poison. Fans as scholars, OK maybe. Yet scholars as fans? That contention tends to be all too provocative. Why? What is at stake when we, as scholars, embrace the label of ‘fan’, albeit in the mode of the specialist ‘aca-fan’?

I began to use fan studies in my research in 2011 or thereabouts. [2] I’ve presented my work in this area in fora big and small, formal and informal, home and abroad since then. Broadly speaking, my research (or one strand of it a least) entails analysing medieval hagiography as a kind of celebrity-manufacturing machine, allowing us to consider afresh the complex power dynamics which govern the construction of sanctity – hagiographer/saint, saint/God, fan/celebrity. Crucially, for this paper, I draw on the work of Henry Jenkins, a pioneer of fan-studies, to argue that academic scholarship can be understood as a kind of fan practice, with scholars as ‘aca-fans’. Frankly, I didn’t expect the kind of responses I received, and continue to receive to this day. Allow me to hedge, just a little: I don’t intend to flatten the categories of ‘scholar’ and ‘fan’ (not to mention ‘saint’ and ‘celebrity’), superimposing one ‘neatly’ on the other. Of course, there are differences between these categories and these differences are intensified ever more if we consider context, on micro- and macro-levels. But what keeps gnawing at me is the kind of pushback I get when talking about scholars as fans on a meta-level, and in deploying theories from fan studies to analyse (medieval) texts. I think this pushback – and the specific pitch of its articulation – reveals two particularly corrosive threads in the academy, whether explicitly acknowledged or internally absorbed: intellectual gatekeeping and classism. The only way out is through, as it were – or one way out is through. We can (begin to? further?) combat such discriminatory modes by consciously leaning into this pushback, by continuing to claim spaces for fan studies in the academy, and allowing for the academic identity to also encompass the fan experience.

Generally speaking, the pushback to my work as a medievalist in/on fan studies can be grouped into two camps. As a mental shorthand, I call the first ‘the academy doth protest too much’. This is outright rejection of the validity of fan studies as a theoretical paradigm and especially of the relationship between academics and/as fans. Responses of this type emphasises the integral exceptionality of academics, with our intellectual work held up as a shining light of cultural production. The public, those outside the academy, cannot be trusted to do this work perhaps, or are just not suited to it, not trained and credentialed enough. Academics have the keys to the castle – or rather, the ivory tower – and this segregation from ‘real life’ is an essential component of academic life, and academics’ own identities. Fan output – media posted on Tumblrs and online forums, role-playing at Cons, epic fanfic spawning epic fanfic on A03 and similar – is just ‘low’ culture, not worthy of particular intellectual investment or serious analysis. What’s more, it is downright insulting to medievalists (or early-modernists, or Classicists, etc etc) to connect the weighty objects of their attention – ‘real’, ‘really’ culturally important stuff – with such throwaway ‘pop’ culture.[3]

This leads me to the second kind of pushback I tend to encounter: the ‘yes but’ school of thought. If the first kind of pushback I get makes me frustrated (and angry), then ‘yes but’ responses make me sad. For example: ‘Hmmm, that’s a persuasive reading of [medieval text] and throws up some new insights, but…’. And: ‘You know, that makes me think of [speaker’s ‘illicit’ pop-cultural text of choice] and how incorporating [nuanced, insightful analyses of said pop-cultural text] would really change our understanding of the [medieval text], but…’. ‘Yes but’ is about internalised gatekeeping, in essence. It stems, at least in part, about concerns over the intellectual validity of the topics at hand, and by extension the intellectual validity of the scholar themselves, if they ‘out’ themselves as enjoying low-brow fare on the regular. Time and time again, scholars have told me about the joy they feel in consuming pop-culture, and the geeky joy they derive from seeing the connections between their scholarly texts and the media they consume for pleasure.

Ah, pleasure, what a loaded term here. There remains a notion that taking pleasure in our work – in our analyses, in our source texts themselves, in making ‘illicit’ connections – is verboten. There are worries about being ‘too close’ to the media we consume outside of the walled academic garden, losing our analytical objectivity. After all, fans are those obsessive weirdos who sleep, eat, breathe their favourite texts. They seek out ever closer encounters with the text, they can’t be trusted to be objective, not like us academics. But here’s the rub: academic ‘objectivity’ is a fallacy. Scholars re-shape their objects of study in the very act of studying, our analyses are always partial, we select the version which makes most sense to us, given the available evidence and heuristic frameworks. Casting the academic as a fan lifts the veil of illusion, and that can be far too postmodern for some to stomach. With that veil removed, we see that the scholar, consciously or unconsciously, has designs upon their sources. We can justify our research agenda, explaining our lines of argument with appropriately dry verbiage – but that internal pull, that thing that makes us work long hours, obsessively pore over texts, animatedly debate texts, approaches, analyses with colleagues? That remains unspeakable, for some at least.

Intellectual gatekeeping and deep-rooted classism, that’s the rather depressing sum of it. In this light, embracing the label of ‘fan’ as a scholar becomes a political act, a conscious decision to reject ‘ivory-tower’ thinking. It is a means to build bridges with our wider communities, alongside a means to legitimize our own lived realities in and as our work. It is a means to show why what we do matters – critical thinking which enacts a bond between our sources and ourselves, and by extension others engaged in similar praxes, the legion ‘non-academics’ in fan communities. It values the work of those whom the academy most often marginalizes. What I’m arguing for, at heart, is a practice of ‘yes and’: recognise the connections between media texts, allow the thrill of pleasure to shoot through us, engage ‘seriously’ with media from and praxes in ‘non-academic’ communities. And use these moments of delicious familiarity and respectful dialogue to add context, to nuance points, to push ever further in our analyses and knowledge production. ‘Yes and’ we say, in a fannish chorus.



[1] 'Metatalktail Hour: Fandom!'. Thread started 30 June 2018. MetaTalk [MetaFilter subsite]. <>.

[2] I discuss the notion of academics as fans in detail in: Spencer-Hall, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018, pp. 190-92. The rest of the Chapter (pp. 147-89) analyses hagiography as a means of celebrification, offering a case study of the ‘successful’ production of Marie of Oignies (d. 1213) as a spiritual star along the lines of the Classic Hollywood celebrity factory. I contrast Marie with Margery Kempe (d. after 1438), made in the model of a reality-TV star as one of Marie’s biggest stars, a wannabe-saint in perpetuity who authors fan fiction (her Book) to rework consciously narratives to better suit her aims. In parallel, I consider the production of female stardom in the twenty-first century in terms of medieval hagiography, with specific reference to Jessica Simpson and Kim Kardashian West. See also discussions of the ‘perfectly obedient’ celebrity, i.e. a hologram which performs on demand and/or a saint who responds to intercessory petitions immediately in: Spencer-Hall, ‘Post-Mortem Projections: Medieval Mystical Resurrection and the Return of Tupac Shakur.’ MDCCCXXVI Opticon1826 13 (2012): 56-71 <>.

[3] Sidenote: it feels significant to point out here that a considerable amount of fan works is produced by marginalized and/or underserved media consumers. If representations are not present in the source text itself (which reflects dominant culture), it is reworked until the fan’s own identity and/or cultural priorities come into view. In this context, refusal to engage with fans as critical textual producers means refusing to engage with those who are typically under-represented in ‘mainstream’ media-textual production, and perpetuating the erasure of marginalized voices from cultural work.

Hagiography, Media, and the Politics of Visibility

Last month, I gave a keynote at the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in Oxford. Below, you'll find the full text of my paper, edited lightly to ensure sense in terms of references to images. My thanks to Amsterdam University Press, who have given permission for me to post the paper in full here. Such copyright permission is necessary, given the fact that the majority of the text is taken from my book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens (Introduction and Chapter 3). If you would like to cite or reference this published material, please use the book version!  You can download the Introduction as a .pdf gratis here. For all other material, feel free to cite this post for now. Plans are in the works to publish the keynote-only stuff, and I will post an update here with all relevant info whenever I have it. Having covered all the logistics, now it's on with the show, and onto the paper proper.

  B/w print ad for Bell &amp; Howell Canonet 19 camera, featuring nun using camera. Holiday magazine (?) (October, 1963), p. 22.&nbsp;Source: Etsy.

B/w print ad for Bell & Howell Canonet 19 camera, featuring nun using camera. Holiday magazine (?) (October, 1963), p. 22. Source: Etsy.

In 2002, Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker made an urgent call for the revalorization of hagiography as a rich source of medievalist material: ‘The message seems to be that “true medievalists” do not concern themselves with hagiographic sources, or if they do, it is only because they wish to study the earliest texts in the vernacular or are interested in folk beliefs and popular mentality.’[1] Hello, my name is Alicia and I am, apparently, not a ‘true’ medievalist, whatever that actually means. For I maintain that hagiography is important precisely because it reflects the ‘popular mentality’ of medieval Catholics. Moreover, I contend that this ‘popular mentality’ is not reducible to an inherent medieval-ness. Medieval hagiography is certainly a product of its historical context. Nevertheless, it expresses and discusses many of the issues with which our contemporary popular culture grapples. Medieval hagiography’s ‘popular mentality’ is constituted by altogether human, trans-chronological pre-occupations. In particular, today I focus on one issue: the ways in which ‘acceptable’ female identities are produced, consumed, and lived both in medieval hagiography/biography and in our modern media ecology. Who gets to be visible? Who gets to be invisible? And who makes those decisions? In a moment in which I find myself with the privilege of standing in the spotlight – as a woman, as an early-career researcher, and as a medievalist, ‘true’ or not – I look to a pair of radically visible women for my source material, fifteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe and twenty-first century selfie queen Kim Kardashian West. These two ‘always make a spectacle of themselves’ it seems, working tirelessly to produce their own identities with the tools at their disposal.[2] They traffic in the political economies of visibility as ‘extraordinary’ individuals – women outside of the norm, and thus deviant; women who are extra-special and thus lauded, celebrified saint and sanctified celebrity. Before I embark upon my analyses proper, let me sketch out all too briefly the terms of my engagement, the analytical framework within which my hypotheses are oriented.


Fig. 1. Untitled gif featuring Virgin Mary eating a TV dinner, watching Christ’s Passion on TV, by Scorpion Dagger (James Kerr).

Hagiographical scholarship has long struggled with the issue of mediation inherent to the genre. We can never view the hagiographical subject ‘face to face’. We set eyes only on the figuration of the holy person provided by the biographer, compelled to author the work by a variety of ideological aims.[3] In short: the existence of a medieval vita typically ‘only proves’, as Nancy Caciola puts it, ‘that a single, literate man […] was impressed by the woman he described’.[4] Instead of grappling with the ‘problem’ of mediation, I suggest that we embrace the full weight of the proposition’s heuristic possibility, considering hagiography as media, and pop-cultural media at that, situating medieval hagiographic subjects alongside those presented in our contemporary pop-cultural media. For my work today is not just to prove that ‘true’ medievalists can and do love hagiography, adoring it with an ever-critical eye – but that ‘true’ medievalists can also render their primary sources relevant, engaging – and, dare I say it, visible – to non-medievalists, if only we appreciate the analytical value of contemporary pop culture, considering pop-culture material as worthy of our attention, our time, and our serious critique. The arguments I present today are drawn from my first book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience. This gif (Fig. 1) pretty much lays out my central arguments. But if you’d like a version that’s more than a dizzying video loop, I’ve got you covered: today’s paper is grounded on the analyses I set forth in the book’s Introduction and Chapter 3.[5]

Why media? Or perhaps – how media – how does media ‘work’ in terms of hagiography, and vice versa. Here, I draw especially on Birgit Meyer’s definition of ‘media’: ‘those artifacts and cultural forms that make possible communication, bridging temporal and spatial distance between people as well as between them and the realm of the divine or spiritual’.[6] In this light, it becomes clear that media are, and always have been, ‘intrinsic to religion’ as a means of making divinity visible, tangible, and intelligible to believers.[7] My formulation relies also on W. J. T. Mitchell’s theories of media, with particular emphasis on two key tenets.[8] Firstly: media are ‘environments where images live, or personas and avatars that address us and can be addressed in turn.’[9] Hagiographic media are immersive and communicative. They solicit interactions with readers, and open up spaces of virtuality in which their hagiographic personas live and into which the reader can project themselves.[10] Secondly, I concur with Mitchell’s pronouncement that ‘media purity’ is a fallacy.[11] All media are multimedia in the sense that they are fabricated from an assemblage of mixed media. A film, for example, is an admixture of image, text, sound, and so on. Consequently, engagement with media is always a multi-sensuous and multimodal process. Even in the most superficially two-dimensional interaction between reader and book, for instance, we find the visual (the words on the page), the haptic (turning the page), the imaginative and intellectual (processing the words’ meaning), and even the olfactory (the smell of the book).

Hagiographic media are dynamic, active, in some sense animate, or at the very least vital. Things live in media, or at least they seem to. The most potent example of such living media is the celebrity (or ‘star image’).[12] However ‘realistic’ the celebrity subject appears, they are an inauthentic representation, fabricated from an amalgam of ‘media texts’ and grafted on to the real personhood of the star-as-subject. In fact, the ‘true’ identity of a celebrity is fragmented, pieced together by various attributes which together form a whole. When analysing celebrity, Richard Dyer observes that ‘we are dealing with the stars in terms of their signification, not with them as real people. The fact that they are also real people is an important aspect of how they signify, but we never know them directly as real people, only as they are to be found in media texts.’[13] The same is true for analyses of hagiography. Medieval holy women (and men) exist to us solely in, and as, hagiographical ‘star images’. What is at stake if we call our celebrities saints, and our saints celebrities? In an effort to answer – or begin to answer – this question, it’s time for Margery Kempe and Kim Kardashian West to take the stage once more.

  Screen grab from  KUWtK  (S02E08, first aired 4 May 2008). Kourtney Kardashian (left), &nbsp;inadvertently launches the ‘ugly crying’ Kim Kardashian West (right)&nbsp;meme:&nbsp;‘I start laughing at Kim when she’s crying ‘cause I just can’t help it. She has this ugly crying face that she makes.’

Screen grab from KUWtK (S02E08, first aired 4 May 2008). Kourtney Kardashian (left),  inadvertently launches the ‘ugly crying’ Kim Kardashian West (right) meme: ‘I start laughing at Kim when she’s crying ‘cause I just can’t help it. She has this ugly crying face that she makes.’

Kim Kardashian West’s ‘ugly crying face’ is a viral online sensation.[14] In 2008, Kourtney Kardashian, Kim’s sister, drew attention to Kim’s unfortunate mien when upset. In a ‘confessional’ from Keeping Up With The Kardashians (KUWtK), the family’s massively popular reality-TV show, Kourtney declared: ‘I start laughing at Kim when she’s crying because I just can’t help it, she has this ugly crying face that she makes’.[15] This footage, coupled with Kim’s regular emotional outbursts, has become a well-known and much-circulated meme online. Margery Kempe is the Ur-example of ‘ugly crying’, and her Book is the fifteenth-century equivalent of must-see car-crash reality TV.[16] Given the audience for this paper, I’m going to cut to the chase in terms of Margery’s vital statistics. Tl;dr: born c. 1373 to a burgess family in Norfolk (England), married to a burgess, mother of fourteen, widow, pilgrim across England and Europe, one-time brewer, #blessed with a lot of visions, and – most importantly for my point here – cries her eyes out as a sign of her devotion. Almost everyone finds Margery’s crying obnoxious.[17] Even the woman’s closest relations cannot stand her incessant wails. During one of Margery’s whine-athons in Canterbury, her husband pretends not to know her, and runs off.[18] He abandons Margery to the clutches of an angry mob that has formed around the urgent social issue of putting a stop to Margery’s interminable wailing – or as the Book tells it, her suspected Lollardy. A note on terminology is necessary before I go any further. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Book is a work of ambiguous authorship: it is predominantly narrated in the third person; two scribe-amanuenses are identified in the work; and the division of labour between Margery and her scribal helpers is simply not clear. To handle this instability, I follow Lynn Staley in referring to the author-subject as ‘Kempe’ and the text’s protagonist as ‘Margery’.[19]

Fig. 2. Kim Kardashian’s Best Ugly Crying Moments, (YouTube video, 1:17: posted by Fun Trolly, uploaded 23 October 2013)

In Sharon L. Jansen’s summation, Margery is ‘garrulous, attention-seeking, and funny, both repellent and endearing.’[20] The same can be said of Kardashian West. And for both women, ‘ugly crying’ operates as an iconographical metonym for the variety of ways in which they are ‘always making a spectacle’ of themselves.[21] Indeed, in direct response to Margery’s crying jag in Canterbury, an elderly monk informs her bluntly: ‘“I wish that you were enclosed in a house of stone, so that no-one should speak with you.”’[22] Margery’s tears are a means of affectively ‘taking up space’, a sinful colonisation of the public realm by a woman. Similar condemnation is evident in many of the comments appended to a YouTube video, Kim Kardashian’s Best Ugly Crying Moments (Fig. 2), which has netted over 1.2 million views as of last week (3 January 2018):

she is such a disgrace for women.. shame on her.. so pathetic
I can't believe I live in a world where this woman exists... God damnit[.][23]

Other commenters seize upon Kardashian West’s illegitimacy as a ‘worthy’ celebrity. She is categorised as an ‘attention whore’, a fame-hungry ‘train wreck’ that should simply not be famous.[24] Margery Kempe is trolled similarly in online comments from modern readers outside the academy, and those with only superficial; awareness of her beloved status in contemporary medieval studies:[25] Here are two of the choicest call-outs served to Margery:

This woman was crazy. Hands down, batshit, insane. […] Margery Kempe is not a religious figure to look up to and instead is a self centered, self serving, medieval woman who used religion to gain fame.[26]
[Margery is] a nutcase, a freak, an annoying pain […].[27]

Kardashian West and Margery’s stardom is in question because it emanates from a process of auto-celebrification. They are ‘reality-TV famous’ rather than the products of the traditional celebrity manufacturing process.

Reality-stars are famous because they have been on reality TV, not for any special talent. Initially, reality-TV producers operate as ‘star-makers’, choosing which lucky hopeful is cast in their shows and making tactical editorial decisions to present desired storylines. Their source material, however, is the brute force of persona, an individual who has consciously chosen to put themselves up as a ‘star image’ for audience consumption. Reality-stars typically engage in conscious attempts at auto-celebritisation beyond the show which first brought them to public attention. They package and manage themselves as star-objects by appearances in other texts over which they have more control. Presence on social media, in celebrity magazines, and in the tabloid press are mainstays in the reality-star’s toolkit. The reality-TV star harnesses the praxes of celebrification established in the traditional system, but under their own steam. ‘Fake it till you make it’ goes the saying, and that is surely the mantra of the reality-TV celeb. By performing the gestures of ‘legitimate’ fame often enough, to enough onlookers, and with enough skill, the wannabe becomes famous too. In a similar manner, Margery requires models of other acclaimed holy women to legitimise her own forms of piety, both within the diegesis (Margery and her community) and extra-textually (as the author seeks acclaim for the text’s protagonist).


Untitled gif, supercut of Kim Kardashian West's 'ugly crying'.

The Book details Margery’s determined attempts to garner spiritual fame by modelling herself on other holy women. She is a fame-hungry fan, a wannabe desperate to transform herself into a celebrity saint in her own right. Though Margery grinds out her days on the D-list, she looks fannishly to a roster of A-list female saintly stars, in whose image she fabricates herself, or tries to. The Book calls out luminaries such as Birgitta of Sweden, Elizabeth of Hungary, Catherine of Alexandria, Margaret of Antioch, Mary Magdalene, and St. Barbara.[28] Kempe relies on a patchwork of citation, borrowing from various spiritual texts to construct a viable – read: ecclesiastically and socially acceptable – holy life for Margery. In terms of Margery’s ugly crying, for instance, Marie of Oignies is invoked as a lachrymose predecessor who demonstrates that crying, and crying an awful lot, is a sign of holiness. Marie lived in present-day Belgium, and is considered by many as the first beguine – woman who is not a nun, but also not entirely secularized either.[29] She died in 1213, and her hagiography was written two short years later by Jacques of Vitry. Marie’s text was a blockbuster success. Susan Folkerts catalogues 39 extant manuscripts containing her vita, either in full, or in extracts and fragments.[30] The full Latin vita was also translated into an impressive number of languages: Dutch, English, French, Italian, Norse and Swedish. All this to say that Marie of Oignies, however unknown in modern scholarship, was a very well-known holy woman in the medieval period. She, rather than Margery, was the star way back when. Marie is an apposite example for Margery to turn to: she was renowned for her tears. Marie of Oignies is quite literally the dictionary definition of pious crying. Indeed, the entire entry for ‘tears’ (‘lacrima’) in Arnold of Liège’s fourteenth-century exempla anthology the Alphabetum narrationum (composed c1308-1310; translated in the fifteenth-century into English as the Alphabet of Tales) is devoted to the holy woman.[31]

Margery’s scribe, we learn, reads Marie’s biography and comes to greater understanding of Margery’s piety:

And yet our Lord drew [the scribe] back in a short time – blessed may he be – so that he loved [Margery] more, and trusted more in her weeping and her crying than he ever did before. For afterwards he read of a woman called Mary of Oignies, […] and of the plenteous tears that she wept, which made her feel so feeble and so weak that she might not endure to behold the cross, nor hear our Lord’s Passion rehearsed, so she was resolved into tears of pity and compassion. [32]

Ditto the Dominican doctor Maistyr Custawns, presumably Thomas Constance:

The worthy doctor said to her, ‘Margery, I have read of a holy woman [Marie of Oignies] to whom God had given great grace of weeping and crying as he has done to you. […] In the church where she lived was a priest who had no favourable opinion of her weeping, and caused her through his prompting to go out of the church. […] She prayed God that the priest might have some feeling of the grace that she felt […]. And, so suddenly, our Lord sent him such devotion during his mass that he could not control himself, and then, after that, he no longer wishes to despise her but rather to comfort her.’[33]

Crucially, however, the usage of Marie as an archetype here is not a case of passive citation. Rather, the Book adapts the source material from Marie’s life to make it better fit Margery’s own circumstances. In both the Middle English and Latin versions of Marie’s vita, Marie petitions Christ directly to grant the derisive priest tears (‘gate graunt of oure Lord with terys’; ‘impetravitque à Domino cum lacrymis’).[34] This request has been suppressed in Kempe’s retelling. The Book’s adaptation also states that Marie leaves the church due to the priest’s demand (‘at the request of a preyste’), caterwauling about her inability to hold back her tears.[35] In the source materials, the priest only asks Marie to cease crying and pray quietly (‘bade that she shulde praye softely and latte be hir weyping’; ‘ut oraret cum silentio, & lacrymas cohiberet’).[36] It is Marie’s inability to hold back her tears and intense humility that drives her from the church of her own accord. Kempe takes a pre-existing narrative and re-shapes it to better suit Margery’s needs, a move both interventionist and derivative which bears all the hallmarks of fan fiction.


Gif of scene from The Simple Life in which Paris Hilton directs her then-unfamous childhood friend Kim Kardashian West to clean her closet. Hilton: 'Kim I need you to clean and organize my entire closet.' Kardashian West: 'Yes Paris'.


Gif from Paris Hilton’s interview with Entertainment Tonight in which she states ‘I created Kim Kardashian, her whole family owes me life.’

Like Margery, Kardashian West needed a guide in the celebrification process. She credits socialite-cum-minor-celebrity Paris Hilton as a mentor: ‘“I do think I learned a lot from Paris. I think that she has always been so gracious to the paparazzi, to her fans, and has taught me, you know, that there’s no real need or reason to never not be.”’[37] For a number of years, Hilton employed Kardashian West, a then non-famous childhood friend, as a personal assistant and stylist in her own C-list celebrity life.[38] Kardashian West’s earliest onscreen appearances are in episodes of The Simple Life, the reality-TV show that launched Hilton as a star.[39] Whilst the pair were friends, footage shows Hilton exploiting the power differential between them, effectively putting Kardashian West in her place. This entry-level position in The Simple Life was productive, however. It functioned as an internship in the twinned businesses of reality-TV and auto-celebrification. In a now famous – or infamous – interview with Entertainment Tonight (ET), Hilton credited herself as the ‘star maker’ not just of Kim, but the entire Kardashian clan, proclaiming ‘I created Kim Kardashian, her whole family owes me life.’[40] Since the ET interview, Hilton has become more circumspect in her classification of her role in Kardashian West’s rise to stardom. Speaking about the pair’s relationship in a 2015 interview with Yahoo! Style, she emphasised their closeness: ‘We’ve known each other since we were little girls. We’ve always been friends.’ [41] The rosy picture is masterfully subverted with Hilton’s next remarks: ‘It’s nice to inspire people. I’m really proud of her and what she’s done.’ It remains clear that, in Hilton’s eyes at least, she has ownership over her childhood friend’s celebrity, and should be acknowledged accordingly.

Kardashian West’s own reality-TV show, KUWtK, launched in 2007. It instantly elevated her celebrity, and transformed the whole family into a celebrity brand. KUWtK is still going strong in its fourteenth season (debuting October 2017), with various spin-off Kardashian-focussed shows and cross-marketed merchandise.[42] Audiences worldwide can’t seem to get enough of Kardashian West and her family. Hilton is irrelevant; Kardashian West is omni-present in the media landscape. In the Book, Christ implies that Margery will achieve a similar usurpation of her role-model, St. Birgitta. He speaks to the English woman “‘just as [he] spoke’” (‘“ rygth as [he] spak’”) to her mentor, suggesting an equivalence between the pair.[43] However, he blesses Margery alone with certain visions, assuring her that the Swedish saint ‘“never saw [him] in this way”’ (‘“say [him] nevyr in this wyse’”)).[44] Nevertheless, Birgitta has nothing to fear from Margery: she does not attain anything like Birgitta’s fame in her time.

Chris Rojek attests that ‘[c]elebrities offer powerful affirmations of belonging, recognition, and meaning in the midst of the lives of their audiences, lives that may otherwise be poignantly experienced as under-performing anti-climactic or sub-clinically depressing.’[45] Margery’s pre-mystic life was certainly no bed of roses. Indeed, the Book opens with an account of Margery’s first pregnancy, a devastating experience which leads to an eight-month mental breakdown:[46] During this period, Margery is beset by demons and diabolical temptations. When all consider her a lost cause, a visitation from Christ – the most potent religious celebrity of all – finally jump-starts her recovery. God has not forsaken her; if Margery devotes herself to Him fully, then all will be well. But how can Margery accomplish this mission, practically speaking? The numerous acclaimed holy women found in the Book function as role-models. These saintly celebs – or the models of faith they embody – offer the much maligned Margery a roadmap to full integration in her society, and ultimately to the recognition of her own sanctity. Margery is an attention-seeking acolyte, a superfan, whose greatest desire is not to be like a saint, but become one herself.

Margery’s breakdown is provoked by her inability to confess a significant long-concealed sin.[47] Thinking she is on the brink of death post-partum, the woman calls for a confessor. The cleric, though, rushes to rebuke Margery, cutting her off mid-flow and thus silencing her. Her transgression remains unshriven, and she fears for her eternal damnation. Diana Jefferies and Debbie Horsfall contend that Margery’s sin is not based in any specific act.[48] Rather, after her traumatic pregnancy she comes to renewed awareness of the original sin that afflicts all humanity, and her status as a ‘daughter of Eve’. In Genesis 3. 16, God instructs Eve on the gendered burden of sin she bears: ‘in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband’s power, and he shall have dominion over thee.’[49] Margery’s labour pains are visceral reminders of her transition from virgin to wife, and all that entails: the loss of both her bodily autonomy and subjective agency.[50] Recognition of these losses propels the holy woman into insanity. In order to move beyond this annihilating relegation to bodiliness and reclaim her sanity, Margery must produce an alternate self-image. She turns to saintly mentors who seem to have redeemed, at least partially, the sinful female body via their religious praxes.

 Keeping Up With the Kardashians  season 1 (2007) title card. The Kardashian clan stands assembled on their front lawn, in front of a large house. They look fairly normal and relatable,&nbsp;though they are clearly rich. Source:  The Sun . The image exudes a sense of family togetherness, as the whole blended family have gathered together and using their best camera poses. They seem nice, if a bit awkward and even dweeby. This is in stark contrast with later seasons' marketing imagery, which oozes unattainable yet deeply seductive power glam. See, e.g. season 14's (2017-18) branding  here .

Keeping Up With the Kardashians season 1 (2007) title card. The Kardashian clan stands assembled on their front lawn, in front of a large house. They look fairly normal and relatable, though they are clearly rich. Source: The Sun. The image exudes a sense of family togetherness, as the whole blended family have gathered together and using their best camera poses. They seem nice, if a bit awkward and even dweeby. This is in stark contrast with later seasons' marketing imagery, which oozes unattainable yet deeply seductive power glam. See, e.g. season 14's (2017-18) branding here.

Kim Kardashian West’s auto-celebritisation is also rooted in a reclamation of subjectivity in the aftermath of trauma. In February 2007, she faced public humiliation after the leak of a sex-tape, made with the singer Ray J a few years earlier, when the pair were a couple. At this point, Kardashian West was mostly unknown, of interest primarily for her party-going with Paris Hilton and brief romance with boyband star Nick Lachey (of band 98 Degrees; he later married Jessica Simpson) in 2006. Nick La-who? – exactly! The sex-tape, then, was the primary ‘star image’ with which the public interpreted Kardashian West. It materialised her celebrity, or rather notoriety, as a sexual object: a body without a voice, and without a story. Paris Hilton faced the same issue, with her own sex-tape leaking less than a month before the debut of The Simple Life. The tape was certainly a media sensation. However, Hilton used her reality-TV series to offer a counter-narrative, crafting herself as the archetype of the rich dumb blonde. Once more, Kardashian West followed, and refined, Hilton’s example. Five months after the release of her sex-tape, KUWtK hit the air. In the show, Kardashian West comes across as likeable and family-oriented, in diametric opposition to the spoiled and entitled brattiness embodied by Hilton. Crucially, KUWtK allowed Kardashian West to exercise control over the narrative circulating in the sex-tape. The woman having sex in the video is not just a body. She is a woman with a real life, with a real family, and with real emotions. Kempe’s portrayal of Margery hits the same notes: she is not just body, but soul too.

   Fig. 3.  Scan of Kardashian West,  Selfish , p. 253: a selfie of Kardashian West in an opulent bathroom in jogging bottoms and a casual bra top. Caption reads: 'I just got home from an Oscar party and put my sweats on.'

Fig. 3. Scan of Kardashian West, Selfish, p. 253: a selfie of Kardashian West in an opulent bathroom in jogging bottoms and a casual bra top. Caption reads: 'I just got home from an Oscar party and put my sweats on.'

In 2015, Kardashian West published the best-selling Selfish, a 448-page monograph composed of selfies taken in the period from 2006 to 2014 (though later editions have included more selfies from 2015-16 too). As with Margery’s Book, Selfish makes visible the celebrity manufacturing process. Megan Garber notes that in reading the book, ‘you see the work that goes into making Kim Kardashian, the person, into Kim Kardashian, the icon.’ [51] Countless selfies capture Kardashian West mid-beautification: in the make-up artist’s chair, or with her hair in rollers. She reveals the dissonance between celebrity ‘reality’ and her normal existence. Kardashian West might walk the Oscars red-carpet as a paragon of glamour, but when she returns home, the gown comes off and comfy sweats rule (Fig. 3).[52] The painstaking effort of maintaining a feminine persona, celebrity or otherwise, is revealed as Kim shows us the before and the after (see e.g. Fig 4.). All that labour pays off though. In 2014, Kardashian West was the second most Googled person worldwide.[53] In 2015, she was the most Googled person in twenty-six countries.[54] The transformation is complete: Kardashian West is a wannabe no more. Why does she succeed, whilst Margery fails?

   Fig. 4.  Scan of Kardashian West,  Selfish , pp. 228-29 (top) and pp. 230-31 (bottom): close-up selfies of Kardashian West's face. Pp. 228-29 shows her face covered in strange-looking&nbsp; contouring make-up, captioned "Before". Pp. 231-31 shows her luminous face once the make-up has been fully blended, captioned "After".

Fig. 4. Scan of Kardashian West, Selfish, pp. 228-29 (top) and pp. 230-31 (bottom): close-up selfies of Kardashian West's face. Pp. 228-29 shows her face covered in strange-looking  contouring make-up, captioned "Before". Pp. 231-31 shows her luminous face once the make-up has been fully blended, captioned "After".

Christ intimates to Margery four times that she will be the object of a posthumous cult in the Book. These promises are ultimately empty. There is no evidence of a cult in Margery’s memory. Regardless of Marie of Oignies’ example, Margery’s tears could not be assimilated into a successful saintly identity, in the Catholic context at least. The Church of England commemorates Margery in its Calendar of saints on the 9 November, in a relatively recent addition to their liturgy.[55] Margery’s inclusion here, though, is almost a back-handed compliment. A ‘commemoration’ is the lowest form of veneration available for inclusion in the Calendar: a kind of ‘participation trophy’ for the holy woman who – bless her heart – tried so hard, but didn’t actually produce the goods. In 2009, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the USA also provisionally approved the liturgical commemoration of Richard Rolle (d. 1349), Walter Hilton (d. 1396), and Margery Kempe on 28 September.[56] Even here, Margery finishes last. She is quite literally the hanger-on after the two illustrious male mystics in all official written material about the commemorative day circulated by the Church.

Instead of any significant medieval renown, evidence of any sizeable fan-base for Margery is instead found in modern academic scholarship, particularly in feminist critique from the 1980s onwards.[57] In 1998, Margery earnt an entry into the connotatively titled Who’s Who in Christianity anthology, a veritable star-chart of religious celebs. The last line of Margery’s entry concisely captures the shift in the holy woman’s fortunes: ‘In recent years she has become something of a feminist heroine.’[58] Margery’s Book is so compelling because our wailing heroine fails at – or more charitably ‘struggles with’ –– her objective of securing sanctity. In a personal blogpost, Clarissa W. Atkinson reflects on Margery’s impact in her professional life as a medievalist.[59] Atkinson was on the vanguard of academic feminism, undertaking postgraduate study at a time when women were practically absent from the medievalist canon. With Margery, she finally found ‘a recognizable (and annoying) human being’. Academic interest in Margery is founded on Margery’s relatability: she is a woman scrambling to find her place in a male-dominated world, balancing the competing demands of family, community, and personal passions. Visibility in terms of the discovery of Margery’s Book, and its eventual inclusion in the medievalist canon, equates to representation at a meta-level, as Margery functions as a proxy for women more generally in the field of medievalism.

  Still from horror movie  House of Wax  (2005; dir. Jaume Collet-Serra), showing Paris Hilton (playing the role of Paige Edwards) crying.&nbsp;

Still from horror movie House of Wax (2005; dir. Jaume Collet-Serra), showing Paris Hilton (playing the role of Paige Edwards) crying. 

Margery is not (academically) famous because she is (or was) recognised as a saint, a perfected image of (holy) womanhood. Rather, she is a celebrity, at least in medievalist circles, for the messiness of her persistent bids for (holy) fame. Margery has become famous for wanting to be famous. Jeffrey Sconce affirms that Paris Hilton’s ‘reality TV-level’ fame depends on her consistent (and perhaps even knowing) failure at doing something truly celebrity-worthy: ‘her entire persona depends on her signature inability to do or contribute anything productive, making her fame the most pure and tasteful of all.’[60] Similarly, Margery’s incapacity to perform holiness ‘productively’ underpins her enduring presence in the academic media-scape. The mystic’s failure, however, exposes the reality of the hagiographic star-system, the constructed-ness of accepted saintly identities. Katherine J. Lewis suggests that the Book was ‘intended to plug a perceived gap in female English sanctity by providing a saint who was Katherine, Bridget, Mary Magdalene and others all rolled into one – thus providing something for everyone.’[61] Margery (or Kempe’s) suturing together of numerous female saintly identities is a conscious hagiographical move to create a female English ‘multi-saint’. In other words, she is a try-hard, and trying too hard too obviously is the antithesis of celebrity cool. Margery’s behaviours may not be ‘tasteful’, to quote Sconce, but they demonstrate in perhaps the ‘purest’ form the ways in which saints are artificial objects, cobbled together from various narratives and for various ideological motives.[62] As a ‘wannabe’, then, Margery shows us how the ‘real’ stars are made.

   Fig. 5 . Moschino Spring/Summer 2015 Barbie iPhone 5 case, shown (l-r) backwards on, sidewards on, front facing. Source:  (3 single images, here conjoined)

Fig. 5. Moschino Spring/Summer 2015 Barbie iPhone 5 case, shown (l-r) backwards on, sidewards on, front facing. Source: (3 single images, here conjoined)

   Fig. 6.&nbsp; Moschino catwalk collection, Spring/Summer 2015. Blonde model, styled in Barbie-pink demonstrates the baroque-vanity mirror iPhone 5 case. Source:  Tiny Beauty Blog &nbsp;(cropped).

Fig. 6. Moschino catwalk collection, Spring/Summer 2015. Blonde model, styled in Barbie-pink demonstrates the baroque-vanity mirror iPhone 5 case. Source: Tiny Beauty Blog (cropped).

The genius of Kardashian West is that she reveals the inequity and artificiality of the celebrification process, and leverages this revelation to support her celebrity trajectory. She is the hyperreal of womanhood, existing as mediatised images which reveal the logical end-point of the patriarchally enforced pressure that society places on all women to look and act in certain ways. Kardashian West turns to social media and selfies to chronicle her own navigation of the socio-cultural demands placed on female appearance and comportment. That she may enjoy dressing up or being photographed is not important here, no matter how the tabloids might frame it. What matters is that she consciously shows you the ‘before’ and ‘after’, how celebrity is manufactured. More crucially, this revelation emphasizes the constructed-ness of the image of socially ‘legitimate’ cis-heterosexual Western womanhood itself. Even before she snapped her first selfie, or appeared on any TV, Kardashian West was always already imprisoned in this panoptical woman-ification system, as are all women who must conform – or pay the price – to what society, at a given moment, designates as the appearance and behaviour of ‘real’ and ‘legitimate’ (read: acceptable) womanhood. She has managed to extract value from this system, to play it at its own game: she mediatises herself, and so doing holds up a mirror – or smartphone – to the cameras of patriarchy which adorn the walls of the panopticon in which all women find themselves. This dynamic is materialized in a smartphone case by Moschino, produced for their Barbie-inspired Spring/Summer 2015 collection (Fig. 5).[63] The iPhone 5 case is styled as a baroque hand mirror, replicated in fuchsia-pink plastic, with the traditional mirrored glass replaced by the screen of the user’s smartphone. But the mirrored glass has not been entirely removed: instead, it has been displaced, to the back of the holder. Whenever the user lifts their phone to snap a selfie, a ‘vanity mirror’ on the back of the case reflects those who look at the selfie-taker (Fig. 6). Snapping a selfie means quite literally lifting a mirror to the world around you, making those who would capture you with their gaze confront the trajectory of their own look(s). 

With her appearance on the medievalist scene, Margery gave feminist academics someone to root for, and someone whose life – struggles and all – rang true for them. This is not to say that Margery simplistically reveals enduring truths of womanhood, or not only that. She functions as a focal point for feminist medieval scholars to find ourselves in our field, in our primary sources, and perhaps even in our own lives. Margery’s Book – and its feminist reception – can be read, then, as a productive mirror of our own scholarly and socio-political contexts. Margery – as a mirror – allows us to sculpt our own auto-hagiographies, and ultimately move beyond her Book to bring to light other neglected, difficult, or messy stories from medieval feminist pre-histories.

Wendy Harding affirms that the Book stages ‘an unequal struggle for control of channels of communication’.[64] The illiterate Margery is dependent on oral expression to render her life into narrative.[65] In order to preserve her life story, Margery must give her spoken words, and thus her narrative agency, to an individual who can process her oral account in to text: the cleric Kempe. The mystic ‘cannot write her own script’.[66] Writing permits the elision of Margery’s body (subjectivity), as text conveys meaning ‘without the necessity of bodily contact’.[67] Moreover, in the epistemological hierarchy of the late Middle Ages, textuality is the most authoritative communicative format. Margery’s vocalisations are simply less significant than Kempe’s interpretation of them, and can never be fully represented in text in any case. The holy woman depends entirely on her textual producer to purvey her ‘star image’. In comparison, Kim Kardashian West is in almost complete control of her own celebrity narrative. Reality-TV producers might have first brought her into the public eye, but they no longer run the show. Paris Hilton’s ever-waning fame may, to return to Sconce’s critique, rest upon her ‘signature inability to do or contribute anything productive’.[68] Kardashian West, by contrast, is a digital entrepreneur, whose celebrity springs directly from her industrious and innovative media interventions.

Kardashian West has harnessed the power of social media to disrupt the traditional model of ‘top-down’ celebrity production, in which the star-object is controlled by her producer-creator.[69] She assiduously manages her multiple social media profiles. Kardashian West started the new year (i.e. January 2018) with over 193 million followers across her Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts.[70] These social media channels equate to multimedia networks which are completely under Kardashian West’s control. In posts shared directly with her followers, Kardashian West carefully sculpts the particular image of celebrity she wishes to portray. She frequently anticipates content in her reality-TV show, releasing news on her social media channels to control the story, and uses her multiple platforms to refute celebrity gossip. Here, for example, she tweets in anticipation of the broadcast of the KUWtK episode dealing with violent robbery which took place at Paris Fashion Week (October 2016), in which she was held at gunpoint:

Tonight’s episode is going to be very tough for me.[71]
However, I thought it was important to share this story through my eyes & not in an interview where my own words could be twisted.[72]
I have always shared so much & I’m not going to hold back when this was probably one of the most life changing experiences for me.[73]

These tweets emphasise the fact that other narratives circulating around the Parisian incident are not (fully) authentic. The show, then sets the record straight – and contains compellingly raw and authentic footage of Kardashian West. What’s more ,the tweets underscore that fans should not necessarily trust any Kardashian-West content not produced by the woman herself.

In her analyses of Margery’s orality, Harding explains that oral communication ‘is not linear but interactive and global’, a means of mediation that nevertheless depends on ‘the body in its entirety.’[74] These characteristics similarly govern social media. Indeed, social media is useful to Kardashian West for precisely these reasons. It allows her to interact with fans across the globe in an informal manner. Moreover, the star’s social media accounts allow her to foreground her subjectivity as an unavoidable part of the Kim-Kardashian-West package. She resists the reduction of her existence to body alone as a female celebrity and sex symbol. Instead, she shows followers her ‘body in its entirety’, complete with her personality, mind, and affect. This representation also serves to heighten for fans that she is authentic above all, and thus supports her broader celebrity identity as a ‘real’ star. Kardashian West is a consummate businesswoman, extraordinarily savvy in the art of auto-celebrification, or put otherwise autohagiography.[75]

   Screengrab  from NPR website, with transcript of Kardashian West's episode of 'Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!'. Taken 22/01/17.&nbsp; The introductory blurb spotlights Kardashian West's many achievements, with her media enterprise front and centre.&nbsp;She is 'a producer, entrepreneur, designer, model, mom, tabloid magazine life support system - and now a star of public radio.'

Screengrab from NPR website, with transcript of Kardashian West's episode of 'Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!'. Taken 22/01/17.  The introductory blurb spotlights Kardashian West's many achievements, with her media enterprise front and centre. She is 'a producer, entrepreneur, designer, model, mom, tabloid magazine life support system - and now a star of public radio.'

Nevertheless, Kardashian West’s stardom is not viewed as fully ‘legitimate’ by many. In June 2015, her appearance on the National Public Radio (NPR) show, ‘Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!’ provoked ire in listeners.[76] Hundreds wrote in to complain, with many threatening to cease their NPR sponsorship in response.[77] A complaint from listener Brianna Frazier is indicative of the tenor of the backlash: ‘vapid, talentless, and shallow individuals who have not earned fame or fortune through an ounce of hard work have no place on a show of such caliber’. In religious terms, Kardashian West is a celebrity not via any official canonization, but instead via grass-roots lay devotion. Margery Kempe and Kim Kardashian West’s auto-celebritisation does not have ‘official’ backing – be that a gifted hagiographer or circle of clerical, or indeed cultural, supporters –  and is enacted via non-traditional routes which fundamentally threatens the establishment, be that the Church or broadcast media. As Margery is dismissed as heretical and annoying, Kim is classified as talentless and low-class. Despite her success, Kardashian West’s auto-celebrification is only partially successful. A significant portion of the public resist her disruption of the celebrity machine. But, love her or hate her, they know who Kim Kardashian West is. ‘Famous’ or ‘infamous’, she remains in the spotlight. In much the same way, Margery Kempe is ‘everywhere treated as a miracle, a scandal, a cause celèbre’.[78] She endures as an object of fascination and irritation, both in her own contemporary context and in academic scholarship alike.

If this study of radically visible women has shown anything, it is that being visible is neither a simple nor an easy prospect. Navigating the politics of visibility is fundamentally necessary though, an inescapable part of Kim and Margery’s lived experience(s), the very formation of their subjectivity. You can’t ignore it, you have to confront it: visible or invisible, there’s no escape from the spotlight – it defines even that to which it brings shadow. Visibility is always political, emblematic of agency and oppression by turn. For being visible – being in the spotlight – gets one noticed. I am keenly aware, as I speak these words, of the context in which I speak. I have the profound privilege of giving a plenary paper as an early-career researcher, a heretofore almost unheard of undertaking. But this isn’t the whole story, my whole story (professional or otherwise). My presence here today, having my moment in the spotlight, depends on the work of countless scholars - colleagues, collocutors, collaborators – who are invisible to you all yet should, rightfully, share the stage with me. What’s more, innumerable early career scholars are producing paradigm-exploding work which would make ideal material for a keynote. I am fortunate to have a research fellowship, but one that doesn’t pay – I haven’t been paid for my academic work since last September. This state of affairs is not particularly unusual, at least amongst my group of early-career friends and peers. Making space for early-career researchers on the scholarly stage is a momentous, incredibly laudable, move. Exposure, however, is not enough for the precariat. Increased visibility must lead to increased recognition institutionally, with ECRs being valued for their work and their time, in terms of professional stability and financial remuneration. In a Twitter thread from last December, Lucia Lorenzi cuts to the heart of it:

I see many emerging scholars who are told they are brilliant - that they should apply for PhD programs, postdocs, jobs - but their ‘promise’ becomes a way in which the academy neglects or abuses them.[79]

And all too often, there is no pay-off for all this ‘promise’. However brilliant a marginalized scholar may be, jobs seem to go to the usual suspects: white able-bodied men.[80]

Medieval studies today must reckon with visibility. Like it or not, many people – academics and non-academics alike – simply do not see the value of our research, and do not understand why it should be funded. We must speak from where we are, and who we are. And like it or not, the Middle Ages are being weaponized as fodder for neo-Nazis and white supremacists. This isn’t new, but it is more visible than ever, particularly in the United States of President Donald Trump and in a post- (or mid?) Brexit Britain, ‘little England’ writ large. In her blogpost ‘Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy’ (published 28 August 2017), Dorothy Kim laid out what is at stake for medievalists in our current political environment:

Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists. […] Neutrality may have worked in a distant past when white supremacists/KKK/white nationalists/Nazis were some imagined fringe group, but that is not going to work now. […] So, what are you doing to overtly signal that your medieval studies class is not going to implicitly or explicitly uphold the tenets of white supremacist ideology?[81]

As medievalists, we must work to adopt a politics of engaged public visibility, a strategy of showing ourselves – and our work – to push back firmly and frequently against the rising tide of hate. Becoming visible is not an easy undertaking, nor can every individual adopt this role. Visibility, especially for women and for people of colour, can be dangerous – as shown all too readily in a quick Wikipedia search for ‘Gamergate’, in any cursory perusal of social media and online comments sections, and indeed in the recent harassment faced by Dorothy Kim in response to her blogpost.[82] Those of us with various privilege(s) must stand up and become visible. A comforting – protective – cloak of invisibility is simply not an option for many. Not everyone can pass as the patriarchy’s default, and thus ‘unmarked’, state – cishet, white, able-bodied manhood. We must stand up and be meaningfully present for those, and with those, for whom the fact of visibility is inescapable. We must also protect the right to be invisible, affirming the right to privacy for those who cannot step into the spotlight, for whatever reason. We must also pursue, vigorously and productively, alternate modes of visibility, ways of imagining how visibility is achieved for academics as a component of building professional reputations and scholarly networks. Here, I think particularly of those of us with more or less visible disabilities, with care responsibilities, and with bodies – and lives – which do not, cannot conform to the pressures of academic life: always working, always productive, always visibly so.

I leave you with questions, to which there are no easy answers: How do we make visibility safe, affirmative and genuinely inclusive? How do we support those who are invisible and need to remain so? How do we create a feminist-medievalist politics of visibility? Here are a few final thoughts, Jerry Springer style.[83] We must work to share the spotlight’s glare, at times seductively scintillating and at others harshly penetrating. We must work to diffuse the spotlight’s exceptional beam across the individual and institutional surfaces of our discipline. In short, we must make spectacles of us all, for us all.

  'Silence is Invisibility', by Melina Vanni-González. Source:  Flickr.  White wall, flecked with paint, with graffiti in orange and red stating ‘silence is invisibility’. (CC BY-SA 2.0.)

'Silence is Invisibility', by Melina Vanni-González. Source: Flickr. White wall, flecked with paint, with graffiti in orange and red stating ‘silence is invisibility’. (CC BY-SA 2.0.)

 ' invisibility', by garann. Source:  Flickr.  Bench in garden, with chalkboard back support, with text saying ‘Invisibility 5¢ for 5 minutes’.&nbsp;CC BY-SA 2.0.)

' invisibility', by garann. Source: Flickr. Bench in garden, with chalkboard back support, with text saying ‘Invisibility 5¢ for 5 minutes’. CC BY-SA 2.0.)


[1] ‘Invention’, p. 5.

[2] Here I draw on Jansen’s (n.p.) remarks on Margery Kempe, which I quote later in this piece.

[3] Mulder-Bakker, ‘Laywomen’, p. 5. See also Flory.

[4] Caciola, p. 271.

[5] See in particular: pp. 11-14, 47-52, 167-87.

[6] Meyer, ‘Media’, p. 126.

[7] Ibid., p. 127. On this, see also: ‘Medium’, in which the citation appears verbatim on p. 60.

[8] Lives and Loves, pp. 201-21.

[9] Ibid., p. 203.

[10] This associates hagiography with other medieval media which aim at engendering authentic yet virtual experiences. This includes, for example, guided meditational manuals in the tradition of affective piety which place the reader-cum-seer in the thick of biblical history, such as Aelred of Rievaulx’s De institutione inclusarum and the Meditaciones vite Christi (dubiously ascribed to John of Caulibus). I refer to the latter briefly in Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, Chapter 4 (pp.193-94). Virtuality was equally central in medieval pilgrimage guides to, and images of, Jerusalem for the imaginative use of those for whom travel to the holy site in person was impossible. For details and analyses of such works, see: Rudy, ‘Cityscape’; ‘Guide’; ‘Fragments’; Virtual Pilgrimages.

[11] Lives and Loves, p. 215. Mitchell writes extensively on this topic, see in particular: Iconology, pp.7-46; Image Science, pp. 13-21; 125-35.

[12] The phrase ‘star image’ is coined by Dyer, used repeatedly in Stars.

[13] Stars, p. 2.

[14] Although still known a ‘Kim Kardashian’ by many, the star rebranded herself across all media outlets in 2014 as ‘Kardashian West’ following her marriage to rapper Kanye West. As such, I refer to her as ‘Kardashian West’ throughout. On celebrity and ‘ugly crying’, see: Cote.

[15] ‘Kardashian Family Vacation’ (S02E08, first aired 4 May 2008). On the links between reality-TV tears and medieval crying as confessional expressions of contrition, see: Weisl.

[16] I refer to the Staley edition of the Book for all original citations (as MKB), and the Windeatt’s translation for modern English text (as MKBEng).

[17] See, for example: MKB, 1.13.620-23.40.

[18] Ibid., 1.13.623-73.41-42.

[19] Fictions, p. 3. On this, see also: pp. 1-38.

[20] N.p.

[21] Ibid.

[22] MKBEng, 1.13.63. ‘“I wold thow wer closyd in an hows of ston that ther schuld no man speke wyth the.’” MKB, 1.13.629-30.41.

[23] Comments by YouTube users ‘stiLLa himself’, ‘MUSIC IS MA L!FE!’, and ‘Frank Conrad’ respectively. As of 3 January 2018 (4pm), the video had been viewed 1,260,831 times.

[24] Quotes from comments by ‘Frank Beltra’ and ‘John Roberts’.

[25] Bale, p. 16.

[26] ‘Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe: This woman was Crazy’, n.p.

[27] Dr Virago, n.p. These are comments made by students when encountering Margery in their reading list, reported in a blogpost by a medievalist professor using the pseudonym ‘Dr Virago’. Though technically made by individuals ‘in the academy’, these cutting remarks nevertheless summarize the general critique levelled against Margery in trolling online.

[28] On this, see in particular: Atkinson, ‘Sanctity’, pp. 226-33; Lewis; Staley, Fictions, pp. 171-200; Yoshikawa, pp. 94-104.

[29] The ‘beguine’ classification is problematic generally. I discus this at length in Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, pp. 25-37.

[30] Pp. 226-7, 230, 235-41.

[31] Arnold of Liège, ex. 435-36, pp. 246-47. For references to Marie in the fifteenth-century translation, see: Banks (ed.), II, ex. 427, p. 293; ex. 429, p. 294.

[32] MKBEng, 1.62.191-92. ‘And yet owr Lord drow [the scribe] agen in short time, blissed mote he ben, that he lovyd [Margery] mor and trustyd mor to hir wepyng and hir crying than evyr he dede beforn, for aftyrward he red of a woman clepyd Maria de Oegines, […] and of the plentyuows teerys that sche wept, the whech made hir so febyl and so weke that sche myth not endur to beheldyn the crosse, ne heryn owr Lordys Passyon rehersyd, so sche was resolvyd into terys of pyté and compassyon.’ MKB, 1.62.3610-15.149.

[33] MKBEng, 1.68.205. ‘The worschepful doctowr seyd to hir, “Margery, I have red of an holy woman whom God had govyn gret grace of wepyng and crying as he hath don onto yow. In the cherc ther sche dwellyd was a preyste which had no conseyt in hir wepyng and cawsyd hir thorw hys steryng to gon owte of the cherche. […] [S]che mreyd God that the preyst myth have felyng of the grace that sche felt […]. And so sodeynly owr Lord sent hym devocyn at hys messe that he myth not mesuryn himself, and then wolde he no more despisyn hir aftyr that but rathyr comfortyn hir.”’ MKB, 1.68.3925-33.160.

[34] VMOME, 1.5.152-53.93; VMO,

[35] MKB, 1.62.3618-21.149.

[36] VMOME, 1.5.148-49.93; VMO,

[37] Pomarico, n.p. See also: Kardashian, Kardashian, and Kardashian, p. 100.

[38] Kardashian West insists that she was not, in fact, Hilton’s stylist, but the socialite was a client of her eBay-selling and closet-organising business: Kardashian West and Swisher, ‘Interview’.

[39]‘Ro-Day-O vs. Ro-Dee-O’ (S01E01, first aired 2 December 2003), ‘The Nolan Family’ (S04E01, first aired 4 June 2006), ‘The Ghauri Family (S04E02, first aired 11 June 2006), ‘Murrie Family’ (S04E06, first aired 16 July 2009).

[40] For all intents and purposes, this interview has been scrubbed from the internet. It is impossible to pin down exactly when this interview took place, though it coincides with Hilton’s promotional tour for The World According to Paris, which debuted in June 2011. This is clear when examining a short excerpt of the interview posted to Hilton’s YouTube channel, in which she discusses her new series: Paris Hilton - Entertainment Tonight. Hilton’s appearance and the set décor matches the clip of the interview in which Hilton disses Kardashian West. This clip is a much-shared gif online, and the interview remarks are cited in myriad online gossip stories, though without any source identification. See, for example: Flynn; George; Woodward.

[41] Hilton and Zee, n.p..

[42] See, for example: Kourtney & Kim Take Miami, Kourtney & Kim Take New York.

[43] MKBEng, 1.20.83; MKB, 1.20.1089.58.

[44] MKBEng, 1.20.83; MKB, 1.20.1085-86.58.

[45] P. 52.

[46] MKB, 1.1.130-87.21-23.

[47] Ibid., 1.1.142-50.22. This episode is often interpreted as post-partum psychosis or mental illness within a modern framework. See in particular: Craun; Freeman, Bogarad, and Sholomskas; Jefferies and Horsfall, pp. 350-52; Torn.

[48] P. 353.

[49] Douay-Rheims Bible.

[50] McAvoy, pp. 36-37.

[51] N.p.

[52] Kardashian West, Selfish, p. 253. See also the ‘before’ and ‘afters’ selfies: ibid., pp. 228-31.

[53] Google Trends.

[54] McCluskey.

[55] Brother Tristram and Kershaw (eds.), p. 502.

[56] Church Pension Fund, p. 611.

[57] On this, see in particular: Tolhurst.

[58] Cohn-Sherbok (ed.), p. 167.

[59] ‘40 Years’, n.p.

[60] P. 336.

[61] P. 215.

[62] Sconce, p. 336.

[63] ‘Runway Capsule Collection’, n.p.

[64] P. 170.

[65] Ibid., p. 174.

[66] Bynum, p. 41.

[67] Harding, p. 172.

[68] P. 336.

[69] Ingram; Kardashian West and Swisher, ‘Interview’, ‘Naked Selfies’; Kirst.

[70] As of 3 January 2018, Kardashian West had: 58 million followers on Twitter; 105 million followers on Instagram; and 30.1 million followers on Facebook.

[71] Kardashian West, ‘Tonight’s episode’.

[72] Kardashian West, ‘However’.

[73] Kardashian West, ‘I have always shared’.

[74] P. 172.

[75] On celebrity as a business, see Kardashian, Kardashian, and Kardashian, pp. 131-39, 213-19.

[76] Pesca et al. This is a typical reaction to Kardashian West’s appearance in ‘series’ media. See, for example: Gannes.

[77] Jensen, n.p.

[78] Watson, p. 396.

[79] Lorenzi, ‘I see many’. The whole thread is worth reading on this topic: ‘Sitting here’.

[80] Lorenzi, ‘Because I’ve seen’.

[81] N.p.

[82] For a summary of the vitriolic – and abhorrent – backlash Kim has received after posting the piece, see: Roll; Xu.

[83] Jerry Springer devotes the closing minutes of his massively successful talk show, The Jerry Springer Show, to his ‘final thoughts’ on a given topic. Or at least he did, when I was a regular watcher in my misspent youth, i.e. the early 2000s. Contrasted with the typical trashy, tabloid banality of an episode, these final remarks allowed Jerry to deliver some home-spun wisdom, roughly centred on lessons learnt from his guests.

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Hagiography, Media, and the Politics of Visibility - Keynote at the Gender and Medieval Studies Conference 2018

I have the distinct honour of giving a plenary paper at the 2018 Gender and Medieval Studies conference (GMS) (8-10 January 2018). This will be the first year that this long-running conference has included a plenary from an early-career researcher, and I am delighted/thrilled/terrified to have been invited for the inaugural slot. My paper, entitled 'Hagiography, Media, and the Politics of Visibility', presents key arguments from my first book, in particular the Introduction and Chapter 3. Handy reminder: see my earlier blogpost to find out how you can download a .pdf of the full Introduction for free, and to snag a voucher code for 20% off the listed price of my book (valid till 1 February 2018).

In my GMS talk, I first sketch the theoretical foundations for my consideration of hagiography as media, setting out my terms of engagement. Then, I discuss in depth the ways in which the politics of visibility are central in the creation, consumption, and lived experience of female identities. In particular, I bring the fifteenth-century English mystic Margery Kempe and twenty-first century celebrity icon Kim Kardashian West into dialogue, analysing the ways in which the pair attempt to self-produce 'acceptable' exceptional identities in their respective contexts. Finally, I discuss the role of visibility in the academy today - for early career researchers, and for medievalists more generally. Flicking through the slide deck below should give you a feel for the material. I look forward to seeing all those who can make it in Oxford!   

My Book: Medieval Saints and Modern Screens - Out Now

When I was little, books were everything to me. Let's face it, even now books are everything to me. When I couldn't sleep, I'd read through the night. And when my eyes got too tired, and I started to drop the book on my face in fits of asleep-ness, I'd absorb myself in planning how I'd write my own book. I had some serious plans about including a playlist of songs to listen to with each chapter, let me tell you. But the book itself, the content and the words, never really materialized in those dreamy planning sessions. It's like I couldn't imagine what book I'd actually write, you know? It was too big a desire - to write a book! my very own! I couldn't pin down the specifics inside the book flaps.

Today - and I mean literally today, my official publication date is 1st December - you can buy my book. A book I wrote, with words and thoughts and arguments and everything. It's not the book I would have imagined I'd write. For a start, there are no feisty heroines taming rugged cowboys, and having sex in Chapter 6. Maybe that'll be book two or three. And no, there's no playlist taped in the back of every copy. But this book, it is not just mine, in a very direct way it is me. It's the result of seven years of work and thinking. It originates substantially in my PhD, which I started in autumn 2010. And in all the years since, I've refined my thinking and developed my work, my style, and my scholarship. I'm proud of this book, and terrified by this book. It says what I want to say, in the way I want to say things. That is a scary prospect indeed, given, like, the fact that people may actually read it? 

Alright, so what is the book actually about? Here's the blurb:

 Book cover for  Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience , by Alicia Spencer-Hall. Published 01/12/17 by Amsterdam University Press. It's mah booke.&nbsp;

Book cover for Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience, by Alicia Spencer-Hall. Published 01/12/17 by Amsterdam University Press. It's mah booke. 

This ground-breaking book brings theoretical perspectives from twenty-first century media, film, and cultural studies to medieval hagiography. Medieval Saints and Modern Screens stakes the claim for a provocative new methodological intervention: consideration of hagiography as media. More precisely, hagiography is most productively understood as cinematic media. Medieval mystical episodes are made intelligible to modern audiences through reference to the filmic - the language, form, and lived experience of cinema. Similarly, reference to the realm of the mystical affords a means to express the disconcerting physical and emotional effects of watching cinema. Moreover, cinematic spectatorship affords, at times, a (more or less) secular experience of visionary transcendence: an 'agape-ic encounter'. The medieval saint's visions of God are but one pole of a spectrum of visual experience which extends into our present multi-media moment. We too conjure godly visions: on our smartphones, on the silver screen, and on our TVs and laptops. This book places contemporary pop-culture media - such as blockbuster movie The Dark Knight, Kim Kardashian West's social media feeds, and the outputs of online role-players in Second Life - in dialogue with a corpus of thirteenth-century Latin biographies, 'Holy Women of Liège'. In these texts, holy women see God, and see God often. Their experiences fundamentally orient their life, and offer the women new routes to knowledge, agency, and belonging. For the holy visionaries of Liège, as with us modern 'seers', visions are physically intimate, ideologically overloaded spaces. Through theoretically informed close readings, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens reveals the interconnection of decidedly 'old' media - medieval textualities - and artefacts of our 'new media' ecology, which all serve as spaces in which altogether human concerns are brought before the contemporary culture's eyes.

In Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, I'm trying to force us to reckon with the ways in which media, even and especially pop-cultural media, means things to us. It does things to us. And I'm trying to establish a community of sorts, a collective including people who read things, who see things, and then feel things. Context is important, so there's a fair amount of detail on the contours of thirteenth-century sainthood and writing about saints back then. Not to mention a fair amount of detail about things we normally dismiss as fluff unworthy of attention: the ways we interact online, the things that social media does, the way film gets under our skin. Of course I hope you like it. More than that though, I hope it makes you reflect on the ways in which you navigate our twenty-first century media ecology, the ways media makes meaning for you and you make meaning out of media. Let me know what you think, what you agree with, what made you angry - all of it, I'm interested. Hit me up on Twitter or through the contact form here, or in the comments section below, and we can chat.

To the nitty gritty: 

If you'd like to buy the book, it's on Amazon here. It's also on the Amsterdam University Press website here. I highly recommend you use the latter link, if only because I have promo codes to share! If you use the code "Pub_MedievalSaintsandModernScreens" (no quotations) before 1 February 2018, then you'll get 20% off. 

Academic books are ridiculously expensive. You need to know it's worth the expense. So we're making available the full Table of Contents and Introduction, which lays out my methodology alongside the key ideas of the book and offering chapter summaries. On the Amsterdam University Press site, click on the "look inside" tab and it'll take you to the file. You can also download it directly from my page

If you'd like access to the book, but just can't afford it get in touch with me. We can figure out a workaround, like getting the Press to ask nearby libraries to order a copy or I can mobilize my author discount. 

 Official book flyer for  Medieval Saints and Modern Screens . Feel free to share with wild abandon.

Official book flyer for Medieval Saints and Modern Screens. Feel free to share with wild abandon.

New Academic Book Series: Hagiography Beyond Tradition with Amsterdam University Press

If you follow me on Twitter, you might be vaguely aware of some mysterious messages from me over the past few months, suggesting some sort of clandestine publishing hook-up scenario. Time for the big reveal. I now have the distinct pleasure of announcing details of a new book series at Amsterdam University Press: Hagiography Beyond Tradition (HBT). Full disclosure: I'm the Series Editor, and a rabid fangirl of the kind of scholarship we're going to showcase in the series. 

 Hagiography Beyond Tradition series image, digital collage by James Kerr. Mary Magdalene photobombs the Virgin Mary taking a selfie on a smartphone.

Hagiography Beyond Tradition series image, digital collage by James Kerr. Mary Magdalene photobombs the Virgin Mary taking a selfie on a smartphone.

HBT provides a home for cutting-edge scholarship on medieval saints and sanctity, combining rigorous attention to historical context with heuristics drawn from modern critical theories. The series seeks to publish incisive, impactful, and broadly interdisciplinary work. What’s more, HBT aims explicitly to foreground the work of innovative early-career researchers and put them on equal terms with more established senior academics. This is a publication space carved out to show what the best of what our field can achieve. Bring us your most audacious, most stimulating, most challenging hagiographical scholarship - work which brings your brain joy, done to the highest quality, grasping fully context and nuance - and we will do the rest. 

The series’ vital statistics are collected below, and full details can be found online here.


If you have any questions or queries about the series generally, the proposal process, or working with the Press, email our deeply excellent Acquisitions Editor, Shannon Cunningham at S.Cunningham [at]

I'm also very happy to talk through ideas for publications, chat about academic fit, and so forth - so if you want to learn more, don't hesitate to drop me a line at a.spencer-hall [at] Lets take hagiographical scholarship to the next level together. 

Series Details

  • Proposals for monographs and cohesive edited collections are welcome.
  • Expected word count of final publication: 70,000-110,000.
  • All publications will be in English.
  • Geographical scope: all of medieval Christendom, including Byzantium.
  • Chronological scope: ca. 500-1500.
  • Series Editor: Alicia Spencer- Hall (Queen Mary, University of London).
  • Editorial Board: Bill Burgwinkle (University of Cambridge); Martha Newman (University of Texas); Sarah Salih (King’s College London); Anna Taylor (University of Massachusetts).
  • Acquisitions Editor (at Amsterdam University Press): Shannon Cunningham.
  • Complementary to the Hagiography Society’s existing series, Sanctity in Global Perspective, which concentrates on comparative rather than more theoretical studies. We very much hope for cross-fertilisation whenever possible between the two series.

Series Abstract

The study of sanctity in medieval Europe is starting to elicit cutting-edge, innovative and genuinely interdisciplinary scholarship that destabilizes what people have conventionally considered to be hagiography. This is demonstrated in the topic range of panels sponsored by the Hagiography Society at recent landmark medievalist conferences. While hagiography has traditionally been understood only in religious terms, recent scholarship moves beyond such frameworks to consider alternate ways of identifying and representing exemplary people. So doing, such research emphasises modern cultural analogies and resonances with medieval figures.

It is not enough, however, to approach saints’ lives with a “sexy” modern framework. The best scholarship is rooted in analytical rigour, close attention to context(s), and a keen awareness of the potential pitfalls of anachronism, all the while accepting that anachronism can often be productive. This series provides a home for the kind of work that negotiates that border between the traditional and the contemporary and encourages scholarship enhanced by interventions drawn from celebrity studies, trans studies, crip theory, animal and monster studies, the history of senses and the emotions, media studies, and beyond. Rather than considering hagiography as a single genre, the series is open to expanding the ways in which we imagine how people come to be offered for veneration, as well as the media and genres in which they are fashioned, represented, and celebrated.

 Hagiography Beyond Tradition series flyer. To download as .pdf go to: Please feel free to share widely!&nbsp;

Hagiography Beyond Tradition series flyer. To download as .pdf go to: Please feel free to share widely! 

My Avatar, My Soul: When Mystics Log On

Last month I headed to Las Vegas for a conference, this month it's Los Angeles, California (USA). Ah, the cosmopolitan life of a medievalist, eh? This dizzying international pinball is obviously what life is mostly like as a medieval scholar, just popping over the pond every few weeks to another academic shindig. Yeah, no. This is highly irregular - but utterly lovely, darling - scheduling for me. I'm looking forward to the sun (if not the wildfires) in LA, and the chance to share some material from my book. I'm presenting excerpts from Chapter 4 of Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, which considers medieval visions in terms of twenty-first-century experiences online. The blurb below covers the Chapter's main contours, which I'm abbreviating for the LA conference. In this paper, I'm focusing more squarely on the way in which the figure of the avatar - understood simultaneously as the online embodiment of the user's offline personhood and a manifestation of the divine  - works as a means to think through key issues in the material from both eras. Scroll to the bottom of this post to leaf through the slide deck I'll be using for the paper.  

Chapter overview:

The medieval saint interacts with God in her mind, in mystical vision space – yet these mental experiences are figured as having meaningful corporeal consequences and tangible outcomes in the earthly realm. The online environment of Second Life (SL) offers parallels of modern Christian worship to meditative medieval piety. SL is a three-dimensional online virtual environment designed to allow users to live out a simulated version of life via their avatar. The avatar is a visible version of the self that is wholly controlled by the offline user. SL Christians participate in recognisable religious rites in the intangible (‘meditative’) space of the internet, and these rites significantly affect the user’s offline body. I argue that SL Christians’ modern worship experiences shed light on the experiences of medieval mystics, and vice versa. 


CfP: #disIMC Round Table on Accessibility in HE at International Medieval Congress, Leeds (UK), 2018

Round Table: "#disimc: Current Challenges to Accessibility and Ways Forward"

ConferenceInternational Medieval Congress, Leeds (UK), 2-5 July 2018


At the IMC 2017, Medievalists with Disabilities hosted its first event. #disimc was a bring your own lunch affair, slotted into the timetable at the last minute. It was a great success, and marked the beginning of the Medievalists with Disabilities (#dismed) network. We are now moving into more official outlets for discussion, and are putting together a round table for IMC 2018. 

We invite abstracts for 5 minute talks as part of a round table discussion about accessibility in Higher Education and ways that we can address issues. We take the term disabilities in the broadest possible sense, incorporating invisible and visible conditions, chronic illness and mental health to name but a few. Papers might address issues individuals have overcome in Higher Education, discuss what it is like to be in HE with a disability/chronic condition, or pinpoint an issue that needs addressing. 

Please send an abstract of no more than 150 words outlining your talk to alexralee12 [at] by August 20th.

Crying out for Celebrity: Kim Kardashian West, Margery Kempe, and the Performance of Tears

In short order, I'll be flying out to Las Vegas (USA) to speak at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education's annual conference. I'm presenting as part of panel 1401, 'Celebrity Worship I: Sensual Practices', with a paper entitled 'Crying out for Celebrity: Kim Kardashian West, Margery Kempe, and the Performance of Tears'. In this paper, I'll be talking through some key analyses that I present in Medieval Saints and Modern Screens (mostly ch. 3). For the ATHE, I'm centering my comments on the co-incidence of "ugly" crying in the lives of the reality-TV star Kim Kardashian West and the fifteenth-century English mystic Margery Kempe. To give a flavour of the paper, I've posted a content synopsis and my slides below. 

Paper synopsis:

Kim Kardashian West’s “ugly crying face” is a viral online sensation. In a 2008 “confessional” from Keeping Up With The Kardashians, the family’s massively popular reality-TV show, Kim’s sister Kourtney declared: “I start laughing at Kim when she's crying because I just can't help it, she has this ugly crying face that she makes”. This footage, coupled with Kim’s regular emotional outbursts, has become a well-known and much-circulated meme online. Margery Kempe (d. after 1438) is the Ur-example of “ugly crying”, and her Book is the fifteenth-century equivalent of must-see car-crash reality TV. The Book of Margery Kempe¸ composed in the 1430s, catalogues the various spiritual endeavours of its protagonist, including intense mystical visions and pilgrimages. The hallmark of Margery’s piety is ceaseless weeping. Her tears are the lynchpin of her religiosity, the primary means with which she visibly enacts her elevated spiritual status. But those around Margery reject and mock her lachrymose displays, finding them irritating at best, and heretical at worst. The woman is widely rebuked for her self-proclaimed religiosity, and driven out of various towns. At one point, even her husband has had enough: faced with her endless wails, he abandons her. The Book’s primary – and unsuccessful – aim is to make a saintly star of its heroine. Why does Margery’s “ugly crying” fail at making her a saint, whilst Kim’s “ugly crying” functions to underline, and re-inforce, her celebrity status?

This paper analyses the performative aspect of tears in the lives of the two women. Though separated by centuries, the pair are united in their explicit hunger for fame, and their dynamic bodily performances. Tears (bodily “evidence”) are not enough to cement Margery’s spiritual fame. The significance of her crying is at odds with the whims of the clerics around her. What’s more, she is known to us only through text, as text – a work which was co-created with various scribes and male collaborators. By contrast, Kim presents and re-presents her body on her own terms, at least some of the time. She has a secret weapon: the ability to produce her celebrity identity directly and through social media and carefully organized reality TV appearances. In other words, Kim acts as her own talent manager. With the hermeneutic of “ugly crying”, then, we tease out the various dynamics at play in the production of (celebrity/saintly) identity in the digital and medieval age.

Guest Post by Blake Gutt - Medieval Trans Lives in Anamorphosis: A Pregnant Male Saint and Backward Birth

In a Medieval, She Wrote first, it's my great pleasure to introduce a guest post by Blake Gutt, a final-year PhD student at King’s College, Cambridge. His doctoral thesis, entitled ‘Rhizomes, Parasites, Folds and Trees, is an investigation of conceptual networks and the ways in which they underlie both text and its mise en page across a range of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century literary works in French and Catalan. The project explores the resonances of twentieth- and twenty-first-century theorisation of systems with medieval texts which include saints’ lives, encyclopedic works, and texts featuring characters who can be read as transgender. Blake's work, an article entitled ‘Transgender Genealogy in Tristan de Nanteuil’, will be published in Exemplaria in summer 2018. Without further ado, it's over to Blake!

On July 6th 2017 I will be presenting a paper at the International Medieval Congress, in Leeds (UK). The paper is entitled 'Medieval Trans Lives in Anamorphosis: A Pregnant Male Saint and Backward Birth', and it will be part of a panel called 'Hagiography Beyond Gender Essentialism I: Trans and Genderqueer Sanctity - Rethinking the Status Quo', organised and chaired by Alicia Spencer-Hall, with sponsorship by the Hagiography Society. Alicia has kindly allowed me to publish the slides I will be using for this paper here, for consultation by attendees during the paper, or for anyone who can't make it to the session.

In this paper, I argue for the validity and the importance of transgender readings of medieval texts in general, and medieval hagiography in particular. I employ two theoretical perspectives which demonstrate the power of retrospection, and how looking back allows us to see differently; these are anamorphosis, as presented by Jacques Lacan, and Kathryn Bond Stockton’s concept of the queer child’s ‘backward birth’. I explore these perspectives with reference to an early-thirteenth-century French hagiographic romance, Le Roman de Saint Fanuel, whose eponymous protagonist is a male saint who becomes pregnant and gives birth. Furthermore, Fanuel’s daughter is Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary; the text thus grafts a transgender branch onto the holy family tree. Through my analysis of the narrative, I demonstrate both the personal and the political uses of medieval hagiography for modern trans people. If you would like to read more - and in more detail - about these topics, keep an eye out for my forthcoming article in Medieval Feminist Forum, entitled 'Medieval Trans Lives in Anamorphosis: Looking Back and Seeing Differently (Pregnant Men and Backward Birth)'.

Medievalists with Disabilities Meet-up, Leeds IMC 2017 #disIMC

 Please feel free to share this #disIMC poster!

Please feel free to share this #disIMC poster!

Medievalists with Disabilities is an informal gathering for disabled students, ECRs, academics, researchers and allies at Leeds International Medieval Congress 2017.

Bring your lunch and come and meet other medievalists with disabilities, or support your disabled colleagues. This gathering is completely informal, and we hope it will be the start of a supportive community.

Follow the Twitter hashtag #disIMC for news of the event, and join us digitally for the meet-up by tagging your tweets with #disIMC.

All are very welcome to attend, 12:45-14:15 on Wednesday 5th July, St George Room, University House. The St George Room is accessible via lift from either Refectory Foyer or via University House.

If you have any queries, especially about accessibility requirements, please contact Alicia Spencer-Hall (Twitter /  aspencerhall [at] or Alex Lee (Twitter / alexralee12 [at] 

We look forward to meeting people, online or in person!

Storify: 'Different Bodies: (Self)-Representation, Disability, and the Media' Conference (#differentbodies)

Last Friday, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the 'Different Bodies: (Self)-Representation, Disability, and the Media' conference, organised by Jacob Johanssen and Diana Garrisi at the University of Westminster.  (For the full line-up of the day, see here.) The quality of the papers was astoundingly high, offering a glimpse of the array of engaged, important work happening right now in disability-media studies. I channeled my ever escalating excitement into live-tweeting as much of the day as possible, so that all interested parties could get a flavour of the discussions taking place. In the Storify below, I've collected the live-tweets from all in attendance using the #differentbodies hashtag. Enjoy! 

wakeletPowered by Wakelet

wakelet Powered by Wakelet

Edited 19/12/17: Due to the impending demise of Storify, I've switched out the Storified content to a Wakelet collection.

Transcript of David Lammy's Interview with Channel 4 News on the Politics of Grenfell Tower Fire

On 14th June, Grenfell Tower burned to the ground. Grenfell housed the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised - in one of the richest boroughs in the UK, Kensington and Chelsea. Residents warned the Powers That Be about the fire risk, but their voices were suppressed, or flat-out ignored. 30 have been confirmed dead so far; 70 are missing; many survivors remain in hospital. The death toll will certainly rise. It is a tragedy. More than that: the Grenfell Tower blaze is a logical outcome of austerity and conservative politics, which eviscerated and eviscerates support systems for people who need them most, who literally depend on them. It is not hyperbole to say that the stakes are life and death for those who rely on social care, the social safety net in all its forms. Grenfell is emblematic of the complete disdain the rich - and many of the (conservative) political class - have for those who fall below that all-important middle-class line. 

I first heard David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, speak at an anti-Brexit march. He impressed me with his passion and focus, his unflinching commitment to serving his constituents. As a result, I started following him on Twitter. And he's just given one of the most gut-wrenching, stark, insightful interviews I've seen in a long while to Channel 4 News (Twitter; website). He speaks movingly - and is himself visibly moved - about the politics of the Grenfell Tower fire, and austerity politics in general. I've embedded the relevant Channel 4 News tweet below, which has the video. But I wanted to ensure that the interview is accessible to all, so I've typed up the transcript of the interview below. Any mistakes are mine alone - and if you spot typos etc, please get in touch so I can rectify them. 

David Lammy: This is about the welfare state. For your middle-class viewers, this is about whether the welfare state is just schools and hospitals, or whether it’s about having a safety net. I get quite emotional as I say that. [DL visibly upset] We need to live in a society where we care for the poorest and the vulnerable. And that means housing, it means somewhere decent to live. It was a noble idea that we built and it’s falling apart around our eyes. That’s what it about.

And if it’s taken this tragedy to bring that reality home to people, who are lucky enough to live in very different circumstances then thank God. It’s about the welfare state.

Do we believe in a safety net or not? [DL chokes up, wipes eye]

Channel 4 News: Because what do you think this says about the state of some housing? Some state-run, council-owned housing?

DL: You can’t contract out everything to the private sector. The private sector do some wonderful things, but they have for-profit motives, they cut corners. If you haven’t got the officers to check on the enforcement of buildings, don’t expect it to be done. You know, are there fire extinguishers? I knock on doors all the time, all MPs did. We’ve all been up to those tower blocks, they exist right across the country. Where are the fire extinguishers on every corridor? You know, where are the hoses? Are the fire doors really working? Where are the sprinklers? If you want to build these buildings, then let them at least be as good as the luxury penthouse buildings that are also being built. But these buildings aren’t, is the question. So you either demolish them and house people in a different way or you absolutely refurbish them to the best of quality of that we can do.

C4N: Do you think this says anything about the value that is placed on the lives of people who cannot afford to buy their own property? To live in some of the nicer bits of London?

DL: This is a tale of two cities. This is what Dickens was writing about in the century before the last, and it’s still here in 2017. It’s the face of the poorest and the most vulnerable.

My friend [Khadija Saye] who lost her life was a talented artist, but she was a young black woman making her way in this country and she absolutely had no power or locus or agency. She had not yet achieved that in her life, she had done amazing things, gone to university, the best in her life. [DL chokes up with emotion] But she’s died with her mother on the 22nd floor of the building. And it breaks my heart that that’s happening in Britain in 2017. It breaks my heart.

CfP: Sponsored Panel on Disability & Sanctity at International Medieval Congress, Leeds (UK), 2018

With apologies for cross-posting! Please feel free to share this CfP with all relevant parties.


Panel title: "Sanctifying the Crip, Cripping the Sacred: Disability, Holiness, and Non-Normative Bodies"

Sponsored by: Hagiography Society

Conference: International Medieval Congress, Leeds (UK), 2-5 July 2018


In her 2006 monograph Disability in Medieval Europe, Irina Metzler conducted the first in-depth analyses of medieval miracle narratives in the context of disability studies. This ground-breaking work demonstrated the ways in which such an approach productively expands – and complicates – out understanding of medieval impairment and medieval hagiography alike. This panel seeks to harness the methodological vigour of Metzler’s intervention, and move the discussion forward to reap the benefits of the efflorescence in medieval disability studies that has taken place since 2006. What can frameworks from disability studies add to studies of medieval holiness, and vice versa? What happens when we sanctify the crip, and crip the sacred?

 gwen - 'St. Roch's, various plaster feet'. Via  Flickr . License:  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 .  Plaster feet hung on a wall, left as devotional offerings by supplicants in search of miraculous cures, in the St Roch (d. 1327) chapel and shrine in New Orleans (Louisiana, USA).

gwen - 'St. Roch's, various plaster feet'. Via Flickr. License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Plaster feet hung on a wall, left as devotional offerings by supplicants in search of miraculous cures, in the St Roch (d. 1327) chapel and shrine in New Orleans (Louisiana, USA).

A vast amount of our knowledge of the experience of impairment in the Middle Ages comes from religious works. An important manifestation of a presumptive saint’s holiness was their capacity to perform mystically curative healings, to return their devotees to an able-bodied state. But medieval saints did not just tend to those with impairment. Some saints were themselves explicitly physically impaired, either permanently or temporarily. Saints’ ascetic self-mortification could also lead to impairment. In all instances, the saint’s body is divergent to the able-bodied norm of those around them, the non-saintly. It operates as a vector of the divine in miraculous healing of others; a receptacle of the divine in their ability to withstand extreme ascetic degradation.

What is at stake if we consider the medieval saint’s body as impaired, disabled, emphatically non-able-bodied?



If you’re interested in speaking on this panel, please submit an abstract of roughly 250-300 words, and a brief bio to the panel organiser, Alicia Spencer-Hall (a.spencer-hall [at], by 25 August 2017. Please also stipulate your audio-visual requirements in your submission (e.g. projector, speakers, and so forth).


N.B. Conference regulations stipulate that speakers may only present on one panel each year at Leeds. As such, we cannot consider papers from individuals who have already submitted abstract proposals to other sessions at the conference.


[Updated 08/08/17 to reflect extended deadline for submission.]

Medieval Saints and Modern Screens - Out this October

The Amsterdam University Press (AUP) catalogue has just arrived, featuring books that will appear this autumn, Most thrillingly, my book (mah booke) is nestled in the catalogue pages - just check out p. 12, I write nonchalantly. The catalogue is stuffed with so many gems, it's rather dizzying to be in such fine company.  And it's immensely satisfying to see that my first book is not just a figment of my fevered imagination, but is in fact really real and will be a tangible (stroke-able) book object in just a few months' time. This October, then, will be the end of an era. I first started work on stuff that's ended up in the book way back in 2010, at the start of my PhD. Seven years' thinking, give or take, have coalesced into the niftily portable format of an academic monograph. At some point, I will probably post a precis of the book, a summary of my key arguments or such like. But until then, I am basking in the glorious fact of its done-ness, and simply sharing the first proof of the endeavour with the AUP catalogue below. Enjoy!

Resource of the Week: "Visualizing Chaucer"

 It me. Finishing mah booke.&nbsp;

It me. Finishing mah booke. 

I've meant to write about this for a while, but time's short and so forth. Plus I'm in the final stages of getting my book out (or mah booke as it's known in my house), so this will have to be short and sweet.  You, and everyone you know, should head on over to "Visualizing Chaucer", a digital project by the Robbins Library (University of Rochester, New York), created and developed by Kara L McShane. It's a repository of images used to illustrate Chaucer over the years, ranging from the seventeenth- to the twenty-first century. The image collection is accompanied by an extensive (and often hyperlinked) bibliography of illustrated editions of Chaucer. By clicking on a hyperlinked entry, of which there are many, you can jump straight to the given work and browse through its visual content, if available. Nice. 

 Animated gif, feat Paul Bettany as Chaucer, in   A Knight's Tale   (Brian Helgeland, 2001)

Animated gif, feat Paul Bettany as Chaucer, in A Knight's Tale (Brian Helgeland, 2001)

I blogged recently with breathless exultation about Michael John Goodman's "Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive", and the way in which the database enables us to discern the ways in which the Victorians (re)interpreted Shakespeare, his work, and indeed the entire early modern period itself. "Visualizing Chaucer" operates in much the same way, but with a broader historical stroke and literary focus: as a means to identify the different ways in which postmedieval readers were presented with Chaucer's works, thus allowing us to deduce the ways in which the canonical medieval texts have been (re)imagined throughout the centuries. This lets us make out the ways in which the notion of the "medieval" itself has been processed and refashioned in different temporal eras, as the illustrations reflect a popularly circulating image of medieval characters, objects, and motifs. Somewhat predictably, I'm glad that filmic depictions of Chaucer are also included in the database, notably stills from Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1972 film I racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales). More cinematic entries would certainly be welcome, but there is an annotated Chaucer filmography on offer if you dig around. 

The database is not the most user-friendly to navigate, sadly. I can't find a chronological filter, for example, which would help sort images based on when they were produced. And some areas need more work, which I assume is in progress. For instance, the filter for "images and motifs" currently only returns one: pilgrimage. But the character-level search is much more filled out, and searching via "artists and images" produces tons of results. These are the two query frameworks I suggest you consult first. ( "Authors and texts" confuses me, I admit: it seems to link to pages in which a given work has been transcribed online (great!) but doesn't return image-specific stuff?) I'd also like some explicit guidance regarding the copyright status of the images in the repository. Can they be re-used, re-blogged, or inserted in papers without issue? Are they governed by a Creative Commons license? Enquiring minds want to know! Nevertheless, "Visualizing Chaucer" is most definitely worth your perusal, and a useful addition to the teaching and learning arsenal.  

Video Resuscitates the Manuscript Star: Medieval Literary Texts in Performance

There are some things that bond people together, that create a feeling of intense camaraderie. Surviving a trauma together knits invisible strands between individuals, a web of kinship that promises to endure. I am not talking about war, no siree. I am talking about the trauma of shared and acute awkwardness. This is the kind of social discomfort in which you have to brainwash yourself that this is all an elaborate dream from which you will awake. Or the floor will definitely be caving in, any minute now, so you can disappear without a trace. This, my friend, is the horror of being a shy lit student and having to perform - in front of other people! - the text which you thought, naively, you'd just be sitting around and discussing with other reticent book nerds. The only upside is that snaking bond fabricated by shared horror that now, suddenly, binds you to your fellow reticent actors. You are, if only for a moment, Team Awkward.

OK, so perhaps this is not actually a universal experience. But it is one I have gone through a few times, from A-level English lit to undergrad medieval French. Flashback: declaiming Chaucer's 'Wife of Bath' whilst everyone in the class avoids eye contact. Flashback: desperately trying to make it through a seminar read-along of the filthy fabliaux without melting into a puddle of shame giggles. As you might have gathered, I'm a fan of reading by nature, and not of performing per se. It's like all my cultural Britishness - that stereotype of being shy, retiring, polite - is channelled into this one area. But these kinds of performances are actually really important, and very useful teaching moments - and not as some kind of medievalist hazing ritual. Rather, they shake up the way we, as citizens of the modern era, approach medieval narratives, and open the texts themselves up for greater contextual understanding. The overwhelming awkwardness I (used to) feel in performing medieval works lies in the disjuncture between how I expected to be interacting with the texts (safe, silent, solo reading) and how I was compelled to interact with them in a more authentic medieval context. 

The thing is, our convention of identifying "literary texts" as predominantly "things to be read (silently alone)" - as opposed to say, "plays" which are principally "to be performed as a group, to an audience of some kind" - is just that, a convention. J. A. Burrow sketches the very different medieval convention(s): 

People in the Middle Ages commonly treated books rather as musical scores are treated today. The normal thing to do with a written literary text, that is, was to perform it, by reading or chanting it aloud. Reading was a kind of performance. Even solitary readers, especially when confronted with unfamiliar or difficult forms of script, will often have needed to spell words out in an undertone – performing texts to themselves, as it were – and reading was not solitary. The performance of a text was most often a social occasion. (Medieval Writers, p. 49)

Of course, there's lots of granularity possible here - different kinds of medieval reading possible according to different factors, including who is doing the reading - but Burrow captures the gist of the situation.* Burrow is also on point when they note that

Undoubtedly the best way to realize almost any medieval text, prose or especially verse, is to read it aloud or hear it read. […] [Medieval] writers composed most often for the performing voice – speaking, intoning, chanting, or singing - and the expressive effects which they contrived tended in consequence to be boldly and emphatically shaped for the voice to convey to the ear. (ibid., pp. 49-50)

So what I'm saying is, being on Team Awkward is actually a sign of being on Team More Authentically Medieval, and thus - obviously - Team Awesome. 

But, wait! You don't necessarily have to endure the embarrassment-fuelled self-immolation of public performance to join Team Awesome! Evelyn Birge Vitz (New York University) is the leading force behind a whole suite of resources to enable students, scholars, and all interested parties to get to grips with the performative nature of medieval texts. Thanks to Vitz and various collaborators, we now have:

Each site hosts nicely produced videos of dramatic performances of medieval literary works, whether in English translation or original medieval language. Below, I've worked up an overview of each resource - and embedded or linked to my current top pick from their video offerings - to give a (useful) feel of how each might be used in teaching and research. 

The videos on the Medieval Tales in Performance YouTube channel have a very 1990s Calvin Klein-ad vibe, albeit with more modestly clothed actors. They're all shot in dramatic black and white, and run mostly to around 2 minutes. The short run times means they can be easily inserted at relevant points in lectures and so forth without taking up too much space, but also mean the ground the videos cover is understandably limited. All performances seem to be from modern translations, which means they are very accessible and showcase the dramatic potency of the texts, or a specific plot point you might want students to really take on board. On the other hand, they don't convey the linguistic and sonic richness of the original works. My favourite clip, so far, is James Swanson's rendition of an excerpt from Margery Kempe's Book which really highlights the tension between Margery's roles of dutiful, obedient wife and pious holy woman.  

James Swanson performing an excerpt from chapter 11 of The Book of Margery Kempe, from the Medieval Tales in Performance YouTube channel.

The Arthurian Legend in Performance Vimeo channel does exactly what is says on the tin. Here, you'll find 20 videos of performances of material relating to King Arthur, his kingdom, and his knights. The production is a bit rougher for these clips, but that doesn't cause any significant issues. Overall, the videos are a bit longer than for the Medieval Tales in Performance series, running from about a minute to fifteen minutes in length. What I adore about this channel, though, is that there are a fair few in original languages, including Middle English (e.g.), Hebrew (e.g.). Byzantine Greek (e.g.), and Medieval Latin (e.g.). Shout-outs also go to videos which feature performances in modern English with medieval language subtitles, and vice versa:

These subtitled videos are incredibly helpful tools to allow students to engage with the "scary" and "difficult" linguistic forms of the Middle Ages, whilst also developing knowledge of plot, and the nature of medieval textual performance itself. Have a look, for instance, at the Lanval video, which I particularly like because a harpist chimes in on the performance, amplifying the fairy-supernatural ambiance of the selected excerpt. For videos which really demonstrate the social, joyful, performative character of medieval works, though, I have to recommend the performances by Linda Marie Zaerr, in which she - for want of a better phrase - works it, and works it hard, with her full-body multi-modal representation of the story, accompanied by music she plays on a vielle:

Due to the privacy settings of the videos, hosted on Vimeo, I can't embed any directly here, which is not an obstacle to their usage but something worth noting. 

I have saved the best for last. Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase is truly wondrous. The Showcase's mission statement cuts to the heart of the significance of performance in the medieval textual context:

This site focuses exclusively on the performance of narrative, as broadly defined. While many recordings and websites are devoted to medieval music and drama, the performance of medieval narrative is now beginning to be appreciated as an important fact. Modern performers and scholars have long recognized that medieval plays were intended to be played and lyric poems were meant to be sung. Yet medieval epics were likewise typically sung with instrumental accompaniment, verse romances were often recited and even acted out from memory, and fabliaux and other tales were performed by minstrels and other entertainers. Public reading of stories to assembled audiences also became an important performance mode. But private, silent reading, which is the norm today, was extremely rare in the Middle Ages. In short, medieval narratives were created and intended to be performed. Their “performability” was, and remains, part of their fundamental character, affecting in significant ways audience response. This site aims to make these works live again in performance.

From my point of view, the site succeeds. Video resuscitates the manuscript star.** For example, in a clip from the end of Chaucer's Wife of Bath - performed in Middle English - the performer, student Evan Wilson, voices all characters, gleefully switching between roles (and tones) with agility. The scene is enhanced by the audible laughter of the audience, reminding the viewer once more of the social nature of reading, and bringing to the fore the humour of the piece.  Each video also works as a springboard for students to learn more, due to a comprehensive yet concise aparatus.

 Fig 1. Screenshot (cropped) of , 17 February 2017.

Fig 1. Screenshot (cropped) of, 17 February 2017.

The Showcase's linguistic strength is definitely in modern English translations, currently with 223 videos, whilst only a light smattering of stuff performed in the original language (e.g. the next most plentiful linguistic groups are Middle English (8 clips) and Old French (5 clips)). Nevertheless, what the Showcase lacks in original language performance, it makes up for in the huge amount of texts which are represented - over fifty works, including many of the mainstays of generalist European medieval studies courses - and the fact that they are so very easy to find. One of the site's real assets is the fact that it is incredibly well organised, with a very intuitive and user-friendly "find performances" function (see Fig 1). You can drill down either in terms of the performances themselves - e.g. by type of performance, kind of musical instrument, or location - or by the type of original work you want to see performed, including searching by genre, period, and language. Also available on the website is a generous bibliography of scholarship on medieval text and performance. This is a boon for those wanting to put the modern productions into historical context, not to mention a good primer for undergrads and/or those of us writing syllabi for undergrads...  

I also appreciate the "teaching tips" section, which emphasises the ways in which incorporating performance into studies of medieval literature enhances the learning experience and contributes to better learning outcomes. Basically, being forced to perform literary medieval texts makes students much more intimately engaged with the material. They read the texts more attentively, they become more passionate about them, and they appreciate with far greater insight the context in which medieval texts were produced and consumed. The suggestions for using the Showcase itself as a productive teaching tool is great, guiding teachers away from chucking in video clips to add a bit of audiovisual sexiness, but not really profiting fully from what such clips can teach us about medieval literary culture. I'll be taking the advice very much to heart for my own teaching, I must say. 

I started this post whining overly dramatically about my unease at being tasked with performing medieval texts during my studies. It would be nifty, I guess, if I wrapped up by proclaiming some major internal shift on performance and attendant perceived awkwardness on my part. Alas, no: the thought still provokes a shuddering eye roll, if not filling me with dread exactly. But learning more about performance is a really important aspect of getting to grips with medieval literature, and understanding the context in which works were written and consumed.

So, I dedicate this post to my fellow awkward book nerds. We too can be part of Team More Authentically Medieval (AKA Team Awesome), and encourage our students to join the party too, by watching videos of the kind described above, and incorporating them whenever possible into our teaching. Pay homage to the brave and enthusiastic performers who have sacrificed their social comfort on the glorious altar of medieval studies! Respect the fact that for many performing is just fun and exciting. (I know, unfathomable to me in many ways too, but it is true.) And by making performance a part of our teaching programme, we will get to witness our students inhabit with gusto the narratives to which we direct their scant attention. Maybe, just maybe, we'll join in too? Hmmm.


* For a rapid, accessible overview of various modes of reading in the Middle Ages, see these webpages by Dr Dianne Tillotson. The standard guide to historically shifting reading conventions is Alberto Manguel's History of Reading. Manguel's chapter on silent reading in the pre-modern era is transcribed online here ('The Silent Readers', pp.42-53 of the 1996 edition published by Viking in New York).

** If you don't get the dated reference to a 1970s synth-pop band's cult one-hit wonder here and in the post title, please see here and get comprehensively educated. I am sorry for the earworm, so very sorry. 


Hardcopy references

Burrow, J. A., Medieval Writers and Their Work: Middle English Literature 1100-1500 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008) (Google books)

Manguel, Alberto, A History of Reading (New York: Penguin, 1996)

Playing All, Or Not, As The Case May Be: DVD Boxsets, Irrational Rage, and the "Play All" Function

I did not have a good birthday. The lurghy got me, and it got me bad. I started to refer to myself as "The Plague Ship". I wore the same comfort kaftan for a disturbingly long time. And I had a shawl perma-swaddled around me to stave off assorted noxious "draughts". This was not a drill. This was action stations for comfort and cheer. So I did what anyone would do in such a situation: I ordered myself over a metre of audio-visual content on Black Friday. Yep, I measured the fruits of my feverish, and clearly productive, stabs at the Amazon webpage not in terms of total cost -- alarmingly cheap! thanks neo-liberal capitalism! -- but in the total length of DVD Boxsets I had procured, when laying them side by side. It was glorious. So. Much. To. Watch. I could sit down, and just "play all" to my heart's content, or so I thought. 

Bear with me, this context is important. Because it turns out that I have basically seen All Of The Televisual Things, I ended up buying stuff that was a bit older than my usual fare or a bit left of centre to my usual viewing tastes. Some of it I'd watched at least partially in its original run: Frasier (1993-2004); Murder One (1995-1997); Ally McBeal (1997-2002). Others looked gung-ho silly enough (JAG, 1995-2005), whimsical enough (Northern Exposure, 1990-1995), or were eminently consumable procedurals to have on in the background whilst actually attending to the business of life (NCIS, 2003-present).  First, some viewer notes:

 Niles Crane, applauding like a pro: it's all about the mixture of contempt, envy, and judgement. ( Frasier )

Niles Crane, applauding like a pro: it's all about the mixture of contempt, envy, and judgement. (Frasier)

  • Frasier - clearly inaccurately titled. Should obviously be called Niles, who is the best thing ever. Yes, I am glazing over consciously how deeply creepy his "love" for Daphne is for many seasons before they hook up. Also, deep dislike for Daphne's terrible fatty storyline. Props for showing that older people have relationships - and sex! - too. My hat is off to Martin, I would have thrown myself off the balcony instead of living with odious Frasier. 
  • Murder One - I remember watching snatches of this whilst pretending to sleep when my Mum was watching it. It seemed Very Serious and Dramatic. It is deliciously 90s, and pretty solid (at least season 1). Picture boxy suits and hair scrunchies. 
 Ling Woo being, well, Ling Woo. ( Ally McBeal )

Ling Woo being, well, Ling Woo. (Ally McBeal)

  • Ally McBeal - this was iconic in my youth. One girl I knew at school changed the way she parted her hair to look more like Ally. This was a big decision and life choice at the time. Do not return to things that were iconic in your youth if they are called Ally McBeal. Ye gods. Apart from Lucy Liu as Ling, who gets a pass as she is clearly amazing.
  • JAG - created explicitly as a mash-up of Top Gun and A Few Good Men, so obviously rife with homoerotic possibilities. Dripping with Rah Rah Americah! sentiment, and embedded in a framework created by the Cold War and first Gulf War, it is camp as all get out. Like Navy MacGyver.  Completely throw-away, but fine. 
  • NCIS (box-set of seasons 1-5 only) - spin-off of JAG. I hate every character. Every single one. Mostly because I think they are all completely two-dimensional, e.g. Gibbs (stone); DiNozzo (misogynist pig); Ducky (English); Abby (imprisoned in a lab for crimes against goth); McGee (milquetoast). Do not get me started on Todd. Todd is played by Sasha Alexander. Why is Maura Isles lowering herself to consort with these Navy nobodies??? Where is Rizzoli??? What is happening??
  • Northern Exposure - my sister had the soundtrack back in the day. It's set in Alaska. I have watched all of Ice Road Truckers, so I have already bought into the snow-drama concept. However, I have as yet only seen two episodes of Northern Exposure, as the "plot" is thus far so slow moving that I always fall asleep. Needs more trucks and logistical crises?

Clearly I had a lot of #feelings about all these shows, and a lot of varied #feelings at that. But one thing united them all: their DVD format inspired a bone-deep excoriating irritation in me. Why? None possessed a "play all" episodes feature. Whilst I've obviously still got some way to go to work through my rage productively, I'm far enough past my flaming zenith to notice the wider signification of that. In a weird way, these boxsets - and the flaws I perceive in their feature set-ups - offer an implicit, capsule history of both technological development and the evolution in audience preferences and spectatorship styles.

 A VHS cassette, with internal magnetic tape unfurled:&nbsp;"Projet 365 - 054/365.&nbsp;Old tape" - Nicolas Buffler. Via  Flickr . License:  CC BY 2.0

A VHS cassette, with internal magnetic tape unfurled: "Projet 365 - 054/365. Old tape" - Nicolas Buffler. Via Flickr. License: CC BY 2.0

I grew up with the VHS format, a now obsolete format using cassettes of magnetic tape for storing films and taping stuff of the TV. It took forever to interact with the cassette itself - make it fast forward, or rewind, say. And "rewind" was literal - the tape had to be physically re-spooled by your VHS machine to get it back to a desired point. This was a pain. So much so that the now-defunct video rental chain Blockbuster emblazoned their cassettes with the phrase "Be kind rewind". This maxim urged renters to do the annoying work of hitting "rewind" on their machines before returning the tape to the store. Otherwise, store-workers or new renters would have to do it themselves, because the tape did not automatically start at the beginning whenever you put it into the machine. 

 "Blockbuster Video" - Thomas Hawk. Via  Flickr . License:  CC BY-NC 2.0

"Blockbuster Video" - Thomas Hawk. Via Flickr. License: CC BY-NC 2.0

It caused a kind of splinter-like annoyance, an obviously first-world problem that nevertheless highlights some of the frustrations associated with the VHS format. You excitedly rent a new VHS from Blockbuster, sit down to watch it, and press play - only to find that the last viewers left it right at the end, so the credits are scrolling, and it'll take you (what feels like) an inordinate amount of time to rewind the damn thing to the start of the movie. Or the last guys wanted to re-watch a pivotal scene, so when you hit play you're stuck half-way through the film, spoilers a-go-go. The lumbering VHS format meant that the technology itself predisposed you to "play all" - to let the cassette do it's thing, rather than flip between sections of a film or TV show. 

 "DVD" - papanooms. Via  Flickr . License:  CC BY-SA 2.0

"DVD" - papanooms. Via Flickr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0

Then comes DVDs in the late 1990s, wheeeee! These shiny little discs are amazing, not just because they're so much smaller than VHS cassettes. Interacting with the film - fast-forwarding or (now non-literal) rewinding - is so much easier. And you don't even have to "rewind" a DVD when you finish the movie: it just automatically re-starts at the beginning. Film "chapters" are introduced too, which splits up the film into easily-navigable chunks of narrative action. Now, viewers no longer have to "play all" - put up with a clunky viewing mode or deal with the hassles of trying to make VHS do what you want. Instead, the DVD format offers more spectatorial power, as viewers can flit about the DVD content as much as they'd like. This is a positive thing, right? Absolutely for film viewing. And the ability for viewers to easily select different units of content - episodes - meant DVDs seemed extraordinarily suited to distributing TV shows, given DVDs could hold multiple episodes of a given series. And perhaps that was indeed true for a while, and still is for a few people. But the potential of the DVD format provoked a new kind of engagement with TV: binge-watching. (The eagle-eyed amongst you will already have cottoned on to the fact that my preponderous usage of gifs - endlessly looping video clips - to illustrate this post is a conscious decision to reflect the binge-watching format and experience. Also, I <3 gifs.)

  Nehahalol Animated GIF .&nbsp;Dimensions: 640x640.&nbsp;Size: 553KB. Frames: 61

Nehahalol Animated GIF. Dimensions: 640x640. Size: 553KB. Frames: 61

Dafydd Wood summarises the impact of the introduction of the DVD format:

This technological development literally changed the way we watch television, weakening the importance of airing in a particular spot on a particular day. The DVD could contain multiple episodes and could be set to play all episodes in quick succession. This facilitated a radical change in the consumption of television, the most significant development in the history of the medium. Viewers could now sit down and consume a vast amount of a show over an extended period and on their own terms not according to real-time scheduling. The emergence of streaming services which could make multiple seasons of a series available instantaneously only solidified marathon viewing as a common cultural experience: Netflix and Hulu now release entire seasons of their own programming at the same time. ('Flies', p. 13)

Playing episodes sequentially by navigating through DVD menus introduces the viewer to the delights of binge-watching, creating a new kind of independent - and hungry - TV audience. With the introduction of the slick "play all" feature, binge-watching becomes de rigueur, normalised further by the DVD feature-set itself. The "play all" feature delivers on the smooth effortless binge-watching experience with which earlier DVDs tantalised the audience. The latter were stuffed with TV episodes, but provided only a staccato spectatorial experience, punctuated by viewer navigation through DVD menu hierarchies.  

  Vidme Animated GIF .&nbsp;Dimensions: 480x270 Size: 2198KB.&nbsp;Frames: 84.

Vidme Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x270
Size: 2198KB. Frames: 84.

There's a certain nostalgia for the dear, departed VHS format here, and a shadow of the pre-digital TV broadcast landscape too. One of the chief characteristics of the VHS is its rigidity, a compulsion to linearity: you put the tape in the machine, press play, and let it play itself out. With early TV, you had a very limited array of channels, from which you got served whatever they wanted to serve you, at whatever time the TV execs decided. An analogous experience is offered by the DVD "play all" - you make the initial selection of a given TV series or specific DVD, and "playing all" lets you slip back under the comfortable blanket of spectatorial passivity. It's just better than before: now you get to choose from a far wider array of audiovisual content the stuff that gets served at your eyeballs seemingly "outside of your control".  

In a thread on the online DVDTalk forum devoted to a discussion of the "play all" function, and why it's not present on all DVDs, one user, "120inna55", comments: 

I admit that I love the 'play all' function. I like to go to sleep to TV shows on DVD. (i.e. Simpsons, Seinfeld, Family Guy, even episodes of Homicide that I've seen several times before). Be it a good habit or not, I grew up with a televison playing constantly in my bedroom, even while I was sleeping. When VHS came along, I had tapes crammed with 6-8 hrs of favorite movies and television shows to which I could go to sleep. There was (is) something comforting about waking in the middle of the night to a familiar televison show. The 'play all' function is a must for such practice. [...]

The DVD "play all" feature is cast here not as as facilitating a decisive break from past viewing habits, as media chatter about the binge-watching "shift" - or Wood's "radical shift" quoted above - would suggest. Instead, the "play all" innovation acts as a means by which the viewer re-positions herself in the soothing embrace of a consciously passive viewing position, otherwise disrupted by choppy DVD menus.  

The first DVD TV boxsets were released in 2000, with the release of the first series of popular shows The X-Files, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City. 120inna55's comment quoted above was posted in 2005 (14/03/05 to be precise), shortly after the thread itself was started. In other words, DVD producers had not yet cottoned on to the ongoing shift in audience viewing habits. It had not yet become utterly standard for TV boxsets to have a "play all" feature. And what we witness in the DVDTalk forum is viewers negotiating the mismatch of audience expectation with DVD function. This is precisely what I am experiencing when I shake my fist in impotent and irrational anger at the foreclosed option of "playing all" which all these DVD boxsets deny me.

  Ana Pérez López Animated GIF . Dimensions: 480x270.&nbsp;Size: 2398KB.&nbsp;Frames: 219

Ana Pérez López Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x270. Size: 2398KB. Frames: 219

Given that the series themselves are of older pedigree, from the 1990s to early 2000s, then it makes sense that the boxsets were produced according to the expectations that initially governed DVD production. My inchoate grah at the DVD's set up lies in the collision of one spectatorial paradigm with another, how the DVD says I should watch and how I want to watch. Producers and distributors certainly do re-release DVDs, after adding extra special features including the trusty "play all" button (see e.g.) But re-releasing the shows which I purchased would likely be a waste of money. They're notable, but not cult, and so have relatively poor marketability. They're historically popular too, with the emphasis on historical:  popular with people who likely are less rankled by the lack of "play all" as they're more used to pre-streaming and pre-binging consumption forms. Really, they might even prefer the single-serve option. I'm so entrenched in my devotion to "play all" I cannot fathom that, but I write in good faith and with an open mind.  

The initial DVDTalk thread peters out after only two days of light posting (13-14/03/05). Somewhat bizarrely, it is then revived in 2011 by user "Judgeraye" (04/06/11):

  GIPHY Studios Originals Animated GIF .&nbsp;Dimensions: 480x480.&nbsp;Size: 2129KB.&nbsp;Frames: 32

GIPHY Studios Originals Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x480. Size: 2129KB. Frames: 32

Ive wanted to know who the morons are that decide this for years. why in H--L
can't the buffoons who churn out theses things (DVD's) understand that like a poster earlier said, sometimes you want to lull yourself to sleep watching a few eps of TV shows you like. WHO is the person that has that say so and WHY when they are asked would they say "No" to a Play All feature on a disc with 6 or so episodes on it? it makes no sense. Does it cost more? how could it? it seems like a programming thing. I recently bought "Car 54 where are you?" season one on DVD. it was a 4 disc set of a tv show from 1961 about two cops in NY. mellow stuff and very funny and fun to watch. The company that produced the DVD was named Shlenechtidy or Shanastedy or some such odd name and they were very proud to bring us the set complete with special features. when i put the disc in it showed a menu of 7 episodes listed with a button next to each one but NO Play All Feature. I was P-ssed Off. i was gonna write a letter to em when i noticed that after the first episode ended, it went right in to the next show. There was an invisible "Play All" button i guess but thats the way it should be standard

How comforting it can be to find you're probably not the least rational person on the internet, eh? And frankly, though it might seem like it, I don't think I'm tilting at "play all" windmills, at least not entirely. If I hadn't been blazingly annoyed, then I probably wouldn't be thinking as much about DVD features and prompts to spectatorial consumption. It's interesting to me that this issue so bedevils me, beyond all reasonable proportion. Paying close attention to the grah lets me look more closely, more curiously about how and why I watch in the way that I watch. In short, I get to consider the conditions of my media consumption. And I get to commune with earlier incarnations of myself as a spectator - see how I too have evolved as a viewer. God I loved Blockbuster. God, what I wouldn't have given to have access to the variety of TV and film that I do now. Like "120inna55", I too had a few much beloved VHS mixtapes, filled with as many favourite TV shows or reassuringly trashy TV movies the cassette could physically hold. I still do have them actually, in a memory box somewhere. Why would I ever get rid of such dear friends? We live in the "Golden Age" of TV. I can watch it all, back to back, again and again. I can watch it on my phone, tablet, smartphone, TV, home projector screen. I never need to rewind the tape. "Play all" problems aside, ain't televisual life grand?


Hardcopy references:

Wood, Dafydd, ‘Flies and One-eyed Bears: The Maturation of a Genre’, in The Methods of Breaking Bad: Essays on Narrative, Character and Ethics, ed. by Jacob Blevins and Dafydd Wood (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), pp. 11-25 (Google books)

Mapping Margery Kempe

 Screenshot of  "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" &nbsp;webpage (cropped), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh. Top tip: to skip directly to the Margery Kempe animations, click on the  third green arrow  &nbsp; on the bottom control bar.

Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage (cropped), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh. Top tip: to skip directly to the Margery Kempe animations, click on the third green arrow on the bottom control bar.

I was clicking through the cornucopia that is Google Image Search the other day and stumbled across a Most Excellent Thing. Behold: an animated map of Margery Kempe's three principal pilgrimages! This nifty online resource clearly shows the Englishwoman's movements in three tranches:

  • First Great Pilgrimage, 1413-1415
  • Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, 1417-1418
  • Pilgrimage to Prussia, 1433-1434

It's a really great way to visualise how very far Margery travels, and just how dynamic she is in her lifetime in the pursuit of her spiritual goals. If you'd prefer a static series of snapshots, you're covered by a basic webpage too. Before I found the eminently useful static maps, I actually extracted the Margery maps myself via screenshot, to use as visual aids in a talk on Margery. The fruits of my labour are below as Figs 1-3 - if you use these, please remember to include the appropriate copyright and credit details

The animations are part of the "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" digital map project, produced by the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. More specifically, the animation credits reads: "Produced by IS Apps Division and the School of Divinity, CHSS for PELF funded grant. Dr K Murray, Dr P Parvis, Dr S Parvis, Dr J Paterson, A Robertson, S Virdi. Copyright The University of Edinburgh." Good work, folks! I really don't know why more people don't know about this excellent teaching resource. Wait, do you know about it? Why didn't I know about it? Sigh. There are so many high-quality innovative digital projects going on right now, but there seems to be a significant problem connecting enthusiastic eye-balls to the actual outputs. There are far too many "hidden gems" that should be front and centre on lists of teaching resources. But anyway, let's get back to the excellent work from Edinburgh. 

On top of providing maps showing Margery's travels, the project site also offers further animated maps of:

  • the primary routes taken in the First, Second, Third and Fourth Crusade [static images here] 
  • the vigorous expansion of Cistercian monasteries across Europe, from the Order's inception and Cîteaux Abbey's founding in 1098 to the twelfth century.  [static images here]

The primary utility of these visualisations is that they allow the viewer to grasp just how much terrain is covered by the various actors, and in how (relatively) fast a time such coverage was achieved. It offers a nifty way to debunk some common misperceptions of the Middle Ages held by students and non-specialists, e.g. nobody did anything interesting or travelled anywhere further than the next village. 

A word of caution, though. To make the most of these, you really need to come at them equipped with supplementary information: mainly specific dates for when stuff happens and context for the little zippy coloured lines between cities and countries. The text version of the cartographic animation supplies useful nuggets to ground appropriate interpretation of the maps, but it's laconic to say the least.  

Sometimes, though, precision is not needed. For instance, this past month I gave a public talk to a women's social group in Kent introducing attendees to the majesty, importance, and downright weirdness of Margery Kempe. The maps of Margery's pilgrimages formed a useful talking point. Attendees, who had never heard of Margery before, felt immediately connected with her - and thus more interested in her - when they saw that she visited Kentish towns of Canterbury and Dover in her 1433-1434 excursion(s) (Fig 3) . And seeing that Margery travelled so far and wide across Europe immediately impressed upon listeners that this woman led an incredibly vibrant life, with a devotion to God so great she was willing to risk it all. Not a bad primer at all for diving into Margery's biography, and understanding some of the fascination it exerts upon researchers and readers alike. Digital cartography for the win. 


 Fig 1. Screenshot of  "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" &nbsp;webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Fig 1. Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

 Fig 2. Screenshot of  "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" &nbsp;webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Fig 2. Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

 Fig 3. Screenshot of  "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" &nbsp;webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Fig 3. Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Plentiful Pretties: The Met Goes (Partially) Open Access

Sound the alarm! Correction: sound the Open Access alarm! The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA), a bastion of art and collecting since its foundation in 1870, has made all photographs of its public-domain works completely open access (i.e. licensed under CC0 1.0). This means that we "now have more than 375,000 images of artworks from [the Met's] collection to use, share, and remix—without restriction." The culturally-and-aesthetically-important-photograph-free-sharing-dance-party commences in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...

The Met's Collections database is easy to navigate, too. What I really like is the ability to search only for images in the public domain - a limiting criterion which still throws up over 200,000 juicy results as of today. You can also get granular, and filter according to various things, including geographical location, era in which the item was produced, and type of object.

 Screenshot of  The Met's Collection database , 15 February 2017.&nbsp;

Screenshot of The Met's Collection database, 15 February 2017. 

Have I said I love it yet? Well, I love it. And not just because it provides endless hours of procrastinating-educational entertainment as I search random terms. (Completely unrelatedly, I can now reliably inform you, dear reader(s), that there are 121 results for "unicorn", 90 results for "shiny", and 77 results for "pretty".) By making a significant amount of their collection fully (and gloriously) Open Access, the Met allows for researchers working on them to use them with somewhat wild abandon - be that in blogposts, conference presentations, publications, or teaching. This means, at least in theory, that artefacts held by the Met will be studied more and more intensively, and ultimately reach a broader audience. That audience is not limited to academics or those working directly on the Met's stuff.

Going Open Access in this manner, with such a high volume of material, sends a clear signal - these items, and the photographs taken of them, are not "owned" exclusively by the museum. Sure, the Met houses these objects and took on the job of photographing, catologing, preserving them. But, the Met's purpose is not (or should not be) to "possess" the collections - greedily hoarde history's most important bits and bobs, shielding them when necessary from the public's overly vulgar view. Rather, the museum must open itself up fully to the public gaze, whenever possible.

The collections are "collectible" precisely because they are of wide socio-cultural significance, and thus they "belong" to everyone. This is emphatically the case when the photographed objects themselves are already in the public domain. (Frankly, I'm pro Open Access for everything, all the time - but that's a topic for another time.) Although I'm not an expert in museum studies or the politics of collecting, I am aware that museums are certainly not apolitical spaces.* Museums are powerful ideological machines, telling us, for example, what is worthy of display and study, what is "OK" to appropriate and from which cultures. So, my high-pitched excitement for the Met's decision is tempered by this context, which makes me somewhat wary to applaud an institution for doing something they should really have already been doing. But it is, nevertheless, nice to see an institution really thinking through the way they live up to their overarching mission effectively in the current digital age. In 2015, the Met's Trustees updated their mission statement to include the following proclamation:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collects, studies, conserves, and presents significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas.

By going Open Access, the Met are certainly making strides to facilitate ever more fertile "connections" between their collections and the public. 

What have I felt the most connected to during my preliminary dive into the database? Jewellery. Big, shiny, old jewellery. This probably comes as no surprise to those of you who've met me and my ever-expanding collection of ginormous costume necklaces. And so, as a palate cleanser after that rapid foray into museum ethics -- and just because I CAN, now that the photographs of the following pretties are available to me -- I present to you, in no particular order, my top five pieces of Open Access jewellery the Met has to offer: 

 Necklace. Details as at  1.  License:  CC0 1.0&nbsp;

Necklace. Details as at 1. License: CC0 1.0 

1. Necklace

  • Date: 1840s
  • Culture: European
  • Medium: gold, emeralds, diamonds
  • Credit Line: Gift of Polaire Weissman, 1986
  • Accession Number: 1986.331.3a, b





 Pendant with a Triton Riding a Unicorn-like Sea Creature. Details as at  2  .  License:  CC0 1.0

Pendant with a Triton Riding a Unicorn-like Sea Creature. Details as at 2. License: CC0 1.0

2. Pendant with a Triton Riding a Unicorn-like Sea Creature

  • Designer: Reinhold Vasters (German, Erkelenz 1827–1909 Aachen)
  • Date: ca. 1870–95
  • Culture: probably German or French
  • Medium: Baroque pearl mounted with enameled gold set with pearls, emeralds and rubies and with pendent pearls
  • Dimensions: Height: 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm)
  • Classification: Metalwork-Gold and Platinum
  • Credit Line: The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982
  • Accession Number: 1982.60.382



 .Jeweled Bracelet (one of pair) Details as at  3  .  License:  CC0 1.0

.Jeweled Bracelet (one of pair) Details as at 3. License: CC0 1.0

3. Jeweled Bracelet (one of pair)

  • Date: 500–700
  • Geography: Made in probably Constantinople
  • Culture: Byzantine
  • Medium: Gold, silver, pearls, amethyst, sapphire, glass, quartz
  • Dimensions: Overall: 1 1/2 x 3 1/4 in. (3.8 x 8.2 cm) strap: 7/8 x 7 11/16 in. (2.3 x 19.5 cm) bezel: 1 5/16 in. (3.4 cm)
  • Classification: Metalwork-Gold
  • Credit Line: Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
  • Accession Number: 17.190.1671


 Pendant in the form of a hand.&nbsp;Details as at  4  .  License:  CC0 1.0

Pendant in the form of a hand. Details as at 4. License: CC0 1.0

4. Pendant in the form of a hand

  • Date: first half 17th century
  • Culture: possibly Spanish
  • Medium: Rock crystal, with enameled gold mount set with emeralds
  • Dimensions: Height: 2 5/8 in. (6.7 cm)
  • Classification: Metalwork-Gold and Platinum
  • Credit Line: The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982
  • Accession Number: 1982.60.394



 Cluster Brooch with Letters Spelling "Amor".&nbsp;Details as at 5 .  License:  CC0 1.0

Cluster Brooch with Letters Spelling "Amor". Details as at 5. License: CC0 1.0

5. Cluster Brooch with Letters Spelling "Amor"

  • Date: mid-15th century
  • Culture: French
  • Medium: Gold, pearl, emerald, silver pin
  • Dimensions: Overall: 1 1/8 x 15/16 x 9/16 in. (2.9 x 2.4 x 1.4 cm)
  • Classification: Metalwork-Gold
  • Credit Line: The Cloisters Collection, 1957
  • Accession Number: 57.26.1




* If you're interested in the politics of museums, collecting, and exhibiting, see for starters:

Karp, Ivan, and Stephen Lavine (eds.), Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (Washington, USA: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991) (Google books; the essay 'Culture and Representation' by Karp available as a pdf here)

Macdonald, Sharon (ed.), The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1998) (Google books; chapter 1 by Macdonald, 'Exhibitions of Power and Powers of Exhibition: An Introduction to the Politics of Display' available as a pdf here )

Hero Researcher of the Week: Michael John Goodman & the "Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive"

Michael John Goodman is my hero researcher of the week. Why? I have just discovered Goodman's Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive (VISA), created during his time as an English Lit PhD at Cardiff University. Launched in 2016, the VISA is an open access digital repository of illustrations accompanying the four most important Victorian editions of Shakespeare's Complete Works

 Bust of William Shakespeare (Parian porcelain,&nbsp;1830–70).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art , accession number 47.90.154. License: CC0 1.0.

Bust of William Shakespeare (Parian porcelain, 1830–70). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 47.90.154. License: CC0 1.0.

  • The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere / Edited by Charles Knight. Published: London: Virtue & Co., [1839–42?]

  • The Works of Shakspere / Revised from the best Authorities / With a Memoir, and Essay on his Genius / By Barry Cornwall / Also Annotations and Introductory Remarks on the Plays by Many Distinguished Writers / Illustrated with Engravings on Wood, From Designs / By Kenny Meadows. Published: London: William S. Orr and Co, 1846.

  • The Works of Shakespeare / Edited by Howard Staunton / The Illustrations by John Gilbert / Engraved by the Dalziel Brothers. Published: London: George Routledge and Sons, 1865-67. 3 Volumes.

  • The Plays of William Shakespeare / Edited and Annotated by Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke / Illustrated by H. C. Selous / With Thirty-five Full Page Wood Engravings after Frank Dicksee, RA., H. M. Paget, A. Hopkins, R. W.S., and others / And Thirty-five Photogravure Plates / Special Edition. Published: London, Paris and Melbourne: Cassell & Company, Limited [1864–68?]. 35 Parts.

I am also awarding the project this month's "Amazing Research That I'm Really Glad I Didn't Have to Physically Do" trophy too. As per Cardiff University's coverage of the project:

Using Photoshop to isolate the illustrations, Michael single-handedly scanned more than 3,000 illustrations from hard copies of the play collections, thoroughly tagging each image, making the archive a long and labour-intensive project.

The hard work paid off, given that one of the brilliant things about the archive is its' supremely thorough be-taggedness. That is: Goodman has meticulously tagged each image, so you can productively search using various categories -- motif tags, specific plays, characters, genre, and illustrator/edition. In other words, it is consciously designed to be a useful resource for other researchers and Shakespeare enthusiasts, rather than a digital output that is more or less useful only for the researcher's own work or as a CV bolt-on. 

 "tangent mill" - Bruce Fingerhood. Via  Flickr . License:  CC BY 2.0 .

"tangent mill" - Bruce Fingerhood. Via Flickr. License: CC BY 2.0.

Tangentially, if you have a small pot of cash and/or the coding skills to get my exhaustive database of narrative motifs and textual inter-connections in the Holy Women of Liège corpus, get in touch! It saddens me deeply that the database, a product of months of work and submitted as an appendix to my PhD thesis, languishes as an Excel file visible only to me and my PhD examiners.



Anyhow, back to Shakespearean Victoriana. Why create an archive of these illustrations? Well, they shed light on the way in which Victorian readers of Shakespeare were encouraged to visualise elements of the plays. In this way, they allow us a glimpse of popularly circulating "visions" of Shakespearean works, i.e. a kind of specifically Victorian re-imagining of plays' fixtures without changing the source text itself. Further, the VISA lets us see how coherent the Shakespearean corpus is in terms of a set of ever-recurring concepts and narrative constructs. As Goodman notes

The database emphasizes that there really is a ‘Shakespeare Universe’ where different motifs, ideas and themes recur. [...] By being able to visualize Shakespeare’s plays in this way, we can appreciate how the plays are like a hall of mirrors — they reflect certain ideas back to each other.

For instance, the "clowns and jesters" tag is associated with 110 illustrations, reflecting the importance of the fool character in Shakespeare's plays. (For a brief overview of Shakespeare's most famous fools, see this sketch from the Oxford University Press blog.)

 "On the bat's back", illustrated by William Harvey. From  The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere  / Edited by Charles Knight / Comedies, Vol. II.&nbsp;Published: London: Virtue &amp; Co., [1839–42?]. Available online at the  Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive , curated by Michael John Goodman.

"On the bat's back", illustrated by William Harvey. From The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere / Edited by Charles Knight / Comedies, Vol. II. Published: London: Virtue & Co., [1839–42?]. Available online at the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, curated by Michael John Goodman.

But I'm not overly keen on clowns, myself, so I haven't drilled down into those illustrations too deeply. Instead, I clicked enthusiastically on the "bats" tag, and so I leave you with my favourite "bat"-ty illustration, which is a depiction of the sprite Ariel "on the bat's back" by William Harvey, affixed above the "Introductory notice" in the Knight edition of The Tempest.

The image is drawn from Ariel's song in Act V, sc. 1 (ll. 98-104), when the sprite sings in anticipation of his liberation from servitude to his master, the sorcerer Prospero: 

Where the bee sucks, there suck I.
In a cowslip’s bell I lie.
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bow.

May we all have such liberating flights towards joy, eh? With or without the bat.