BBC Arts and Ideas Podcast: "A Feminist Take on Medieval History"

Podcasts are my jam. I listen to about 15 to 20 podcast shows regularly, and then dip in and out of countless more. A quick check of my aged Classic iPod - you’ll take it out of my cold, dead hands - tells me that I have, at present, 1726 podcast episodes loaded up. And yes, getting down to that paltry figure entails an ongoing, agonizing sifting process. So you can imagine my immense delight when a podcast producer for BBC Radio 3, Luke Mulhall, got in touch with me last month to see if I might like to go on the air.

The BBC, the British national broadcaster, has a partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in order to disseminate high-quality, cutting-edge research to the public at large. One of the means of getting the news out is the BBC Radio 3 podcast, Arts and Ideas. Luke was putting together a show on feminism in medieval studies, a chance to discuss all things, well, feminist and medievalist with general public listening in. Of course, I “nonchalantly” (read: not at all nonchalantly, not in any way nonchalantly) j̶u̶m̶p̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶c̶h̶a̶n̶c̶e̶ accepted the kind invitation, and that was that. (Behind the scenes trivia: we recorded in the Women’s Hour studio. This did not help with my nonchalance, not a bit.)

I spent a deeply enjoyable hour or so animatedly talking medieval feminism with show host Dr Shahidha Bari, guest host (and tip-top medievalist) Dr Hetta Howes, and the co-founder of the Society of Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS), Prof Elizabeth Robertson. Our conversation ranged over a lot of ground. Off the top of my head: rape and consent in the Middle Ages, and in Chaucer in particular; the foundation of the SMFS; the importance of Margery Kempe for feminist scholars; the danger of being an (academic) feminist, online and offline; women’s visibility and the “problem” of women taking up space; Margery Kempe and/as Kim Kardashian West, and vice versa; precarity in the academy; our excited hopes for the future of medieval feminist work. Below, I’ve embedded the episode so you can listen from this page, appended the episode’s vital statistics and provided a list of links to things I bring up on the show. Finally, I’ve worked up a transcript for the whole episode, for people whose preference or need is to read the show. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed recording it, and look forward to many, many more feminist medievalist conversations in future. Big thanks to Luke, Shahidha, Hetta, and Beth for making this happen, and being such gracious, engaged interlocutors.

To listen to the episode, click on the play button in the embedded Stitcher app above.

Podcast title: Arts and Ideas

Producers: Luke Mulhall for BBC Radio 3, the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Episode title: “A Feminist Take on Medieval History”

Listen online: https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/p06n28wv

Download the episode: Search for “Arts and Ideas” and the episode title on iTunes, and all similar podcast services

Episode blurb: “How does Chaucer write about rape and consent? What links Kim Kardashian West & Margery Kempe - an English Christian mystic and mother of 14 children who wrote about her religious visions in the 1420s in what has been called the first autobiography in English. Alicia Spencer-Hall, Elizabeth Robertson and New Generation Thinker Hetta Howes join Shahidha Bari for a conversation about new research and what a feminist take brings to our understanding of the medieval period. Made with the assistance of the AHRC - the Arts and Humanities Research Council which funds research into the humanities and works with BBC Radio 3 on the New Generation Thinkers scheme to make academic research available to a wider audience.”

Hosts: Shahidha Bari (SB), Hetta Howes (HH)

Guests: Elizabeth Robertson (ER), Alicia Spencer-Hall (ASH)

Things I mention on the podcast

 Episode transcript

NB. Our conversations on the podcast were informal and fluent: we spoke without scripts or prepared material, and engaged in a fair amount of convivial interrupting of one another. I’ve attempted to capture this tone of the episode in the transcript below. However, for readability, I’ve at times elided typical features of fluent speech, e.g. repetitions of the same word as one follows a train of thought, short “ums” and “ahs”, etc. I am by no means an expert transcriber, so if you spot any transcription errors, please do contact me so I can correct them!

Announcer: This is the BBC.

Shahida Bari (SB): Hello I’m Shahida Bari and this is the BBC Arts and Ideas podcast. In this episode, we’re focusing on new academic research and the producer today told me that we were looking at medieval studies for this programme, and I have to admit that my heart… slightly sunk [Speaker(s) laugh] because I vividly remember slogging through the Riverside Chaucer when I was an undergraduate and I did English. But – I – then he said that we’re doing feminist approaches to medieval studies, and I really remember that the bright spots for me were Margery Kempe wailing [ASH: Yes!] [Speaker(s) laugh] and … the dignified Julian of Norwich, and … [ER: Oh yes] so I am actually really looking forward to this. And helping me with the discussion is Hetta Howes. Hetta, hi.

Hetta Howes (HH): Hi!

SB: Hi! You’re from City University, you’re a medieval scholar, and you’re going to be the Doctor’s, Doctor Who’s assistant to my Doctor Who. [Speaker(s) laugh] What’s the medieval equivalent of that?

HH: Perhaps the Friar Tuck to your Robin Hood, I don’t know… [Speaker(s) laugh]

SB: And the rest of the Doctor Who team or the…Robin Hood’s Merry Women…

Alicia Spencer-Hall (ASH): Posse!

HH: Merry Women!

ASH: Poss-ay!

SB: Are Elizabeth Robertson, Beth, you’re down the line from Glasgow, and you’re a Professor of Medieval Studies, is that right?

Elizabeth Robertson (ER): Yes

SB: And in the studio, Alicia Spencer-Hall from Queen Mary University of London

ASH: Hello!

SB: Hello! … Do you all know each other already?

Speakers together: Yes! [Speaker(s) laugh]

HH: Yes, I think medieval feminist studies is a small and brilliant world –

ASH: It’s a tight-knit, yeah –

HH: And we actually were all on a roundtable recently together for medieval feminist studies

ASH: We were, it was awesome!

SB: Well it sounds it! [Speaker(s) laugh] Hang on, a roundtable of medieval feminist women, did you all dress up? Were you all in wimples and habits? [Speaker(s) laugh] Is that what you’re supposed to do?

ASH: No, but I did have a necklace that said “Feminist” that was, like, as big as my chest. [Speaker(s) laugh] So I felt like, you know, represent!

SB: Yeah! And Hetta, you know Beth’s work quite well

HH: I do, so when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge doing English Literature, I was not hugely enamoured by the medieval course at the time… And then, I happened to come across Beth’s book in the corner of Newnham library, which was my college –

SB: At Cambridge?

HH: At Cambridge, and I picked it up, and it was about…sort of, female audiences of English devotional writing, so religious writing for women and I just thought it was wonderful, and I was like, OK, this is what I want to do. [SB: Awww] So it’s quite special for me to be on this show with Beth today

SB: Oh, wow

ER: That was such a happy coincidence [HH: Oh yes] because I gave that book to the library [guests exclaim in happy surprise] because [SB: Oh wow!] I wrote my book in that library, and I was grateful to it, and then it was just so wonderful that someone years later would pick it up and find it, [Speaker(s) exclaim, wow] and that it would help them in some way

SB: The hairs on the back of my arms are prickling up slightly, how lovely. And Newnham of course is a women’s only college, [HH: Yes] [ER: Yes] one of the last remaining one’s at Cambridge. … So we all know each other, we all love each other [Speaker(s) laugh] [unintelligible]. Beth, I want to start with you because I want to find out about your research and what I am understanding is that you work on ideas of consent in, and consensual relations in, the medieval period. So tell me about that, tell me what you do.

ER: Well, that’s right. I’m finishing a book right now called Chaucerian Consent: Women, Religion and Subjection in Late Medieval England. And the book looks at the role of consent in both marriage and rape law and the ways in which that that role affects Chaucer’s writing in particular. … I can tell you more… [Speaker(s) laugh]

SB: Yeah, do! Is “consent” a term in the medieval period? What are the terms –

ER: Oh yes, it most certainly is and consent as a legal concept develops in the Middle Ages through the doctrine of consent to marriage, which was articulated in theology and formulated in ecclesiastical law in the 12th century. And it’s a very important doctrine, especially for the development of women’s rights as Mary Wollstonecraft recognised, because underlying the doctrine of consent to marriage is an idea that … both men and women have autonomous and legitimate souls, and therefore the right to choose their own marriage partner.

SB: Is it a radical idea, that… [ER: It is a radical idea] … that women have – I mean, I think it must be. I think what’s so strange hearing you, a medieval scholar, talking about consent is that consent in our modern context is such a powerful word, but the idea that consent is invented, it sounds like, it comes about through a set of legal and clerical decisions.

ER: Well, really it comes about through a sort of…I’m not sure that they intended to give women quite so much power, but [Speaker(s) laugh] it came about because –

Speakers: Yeah…

SB: That’s always the way, isn’t it – by accident we get the right to vote! Go on, Beth, you were saying

ER: It came about because of theological considerations [05:00] of the marriage of Mary and Joseph. [Speaker(s) intake breath sharply, wow] Up until the point of the formulation of the doctrine of consent, marriages were made by an agreement to marry, followed by sexual intercourse. But when they came across the marriage of Mary and Joseph, they had to make that marriage legitimate, even though there was no sexual intercourse.

SB: Because of the Immaculate Conception?

Speaker(s): Um-hmm

ER: Yes, so after debating it back and forth, they agreed that the marriage could be made by words of consent alone.

SB: Gosh!

ER: And –

SB: That’s amazing, isn’t it? That the clerics or … the ecclesiastical community – I’m assuming of men – are mulling over how to legitimize the marriage of Mary and Joseph

Speaker(s): Yeah

ER: Yes, and this leads to this tremendous affirmation of women’s rights. Now, I have to say that consent was discussed earlier by Augustine, in a very very important study of the rape of Lucrece. I don’t know how much you know about the rape of Lucrece –

SB: A little bit – I know the Shakespearean version of course, but it’s an old story, right?

ER: Yes it’s a Classical story, and … Augustine … considers the, the events in which Lucrece is raped and then decides that she has to commit suicide and her dead body is used as motivation for the overthrow of the barbarian Tarquins. And … as Stephanie Jed has talked about, this is ultimately a motivation for imperialist humanism.

SB: Wow

ER: But what Augustine gives us, in his analysis is first of all an argument that women should not commit suicide. And the fact that women today still think that they need to commit suicide after rape, or as we saw in Bosnia, women were isolated from the community and full of self-hatred because they had been raped shows that this attitude that women are somehow polluted by an act of rape still persists. But Augustine responded to this by saying that women have precious souls, and they need to protect them.

SB: I can’t believe that we end up having that conversation, that question is one that’s posed – do women have souls? Because that feels like a kind of abstract, philosophical one but here it’s functioning in order to legitimize a woman, to give her … the capability, if you have a soul, you’re capable of consenting or not consenting to it?

ER: Yes, yes, yes.

SB: Is that right?

ER: Yes, and maybe I could just say a few things about why consent is such a problematic term. I think Germaine Greer called it an “insoluble conundrum”, and I think she’s getting at some aspects of consent that are…that shape the way that it appears in the law today. Because on the one hand, consent is dual in nature: it’s both a social act involving a person, you know a person making an agreement either with one other person or even with a lot of persons. So consent is really important in marriage but it’s also very important in rape, or it’s very important in government as well, but … so it’s a social act. On the other hand, it’s an inner disposition. It’s private, indiscernible, and so it has this double-ness. You can’t know where it came from, [SB: Mmmm] but it emerges in the public sphere, and that makes it very very difficult to adjudicate what in fact has happened. Difficult, if not impossible.

SB: Plus ça change, I guess. But that sounds very familiar to me, that for a woman, consent is an internal decision-making process. That in order for it to be meaningful, it has to be in the world, it has to be uttered or at least recognised in some way.

HH: And I think it -

ER: Yes, and then , in –

HH: Yes, and I think the fact that [SB: Hetta] we’re still talking about it today, you know, that – as you mentioned Beth, Germaine Greer kind of has been in the news so much recently on this debate that we’re still, now, trying to figure out what the word “consent” means, and how you can measure it, and where it comes into play, and I think there’s this sense always that the medieval world was so strange and different and far away, and how on earth can we think about it in present day. And actually, you know, the kind of debates that they’re having – in different terms – are reflected in sort of current news stories of today.

ASH: Absolutely, and I mean that’s a massive thing in my research, is looking at patterns of feminist or proto-feminist being in the Middle Ages, and talking about how it relates to now. So, the thing I was thinking of with consent is really relevant to me because [10:00] it’s also, it’s not just about sex. It’s also about being in the world, and being, say, robbed, are you, you know, are you going to be criminalized as a woman for showing yourself in public?

SB: Well can I ask about that, because rape – I’m an 18th-centurist, so I don’t think of the rape of Lucrece but I think of Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock’, and rape can mean different things in your period, [ER: Yes indeed] in the medieval period. Doesn’t – Do I understand that right?

ER: Yes, that was…there was another double-ness about consent that I wanted to say first [SB: Sure] Which is that, … buried in the word itself is both an active and a passive meaning. Cause on the one hand, it means to actively agree – or actively to agree, not to split an infinitive [Speaker(s) chuckle] [ER laughs] – or to comply passively. So you have an active sense and a passive sense, and I think that really problematizes consent. [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] But historically, and this is a bit tricky to explain, but in rape law, consent figures in rape law in the Middle Ages but rather differently than we might expect [SB: How, how?] because consent might be the very act that would determine your being charged with rape: i.e. a couple who agree to run away with one another, consent to run away with one another, then get charged with rape for having violated the wishes of their parents or their lord or the king.

SB: Oh wow, so if you are capable of consenting … to sexual relations, you’re also capable of exercising will in other ways [ER: Exactly] that might be contrary to… [ER: Exactly] Gosh, that’s such a bind, isn’t it? [Speaker(s) laugh] To have the capacity to consent… Can I push you a bit more on rape, the idea of rape. [ER: Oh yes] Well, partly because – medieval news flash here –

[Speaker(s) laugh] Chaucer, who we haven’t yet mentioned but we should do, Chaucer was accused of rape too. I vaguely remember that it was sort of like a footnote that, “ha ha, the Wife of Bath” and doesn’t he love women, and women have sexuality, but there’s a footnote to Chaucer’s life, that he was accused of rape.

ER: Oh yes, there’s quite a bit to say about that. [Speaker(s) laugh] I’m actually about to give a big talk on that soon, because I’ve been working through a lot of the documents associated with the case. I think, and there’s been a lot of online traffic about it as well, with people saying, “Well we know Chaucer was a rapist”, and we certainly do not know that Chaucer was a rapist and it’s very very important that we be clear about what we do know. What we know is that Chaucer was released from a charge of raptus. [SB: What’s “raptus”?] That is the document. Well, let me just re-state that, because I want to get into this, the fact that it is Cecily Champagne who releases him from a charge of raptus, and it’s very important that her important that her name is there and that she be remembered as part of this event. I think Germaine Greer said that women want to own their narratives about rape, and I think we have in this historical document an actual name and a record of someone who brought a case forward against Chaucer.

SB: What was her name?

ER: Cecily Champagne. Cecily Champagne. Now, the charge itself is ambiguous, because we don’t really know what – you asked, what does the term “raptus” [mean], well “raptus” might mean, just in its base meaning, it means “seizure”. But it might mean “sexual assault” or it could mean simply “abduction”, abduction with the consent of the woman involved as I said before. But if you look carefully at these documents, and the way they’re … the form they take, you will find that this particular release tells us that the original charge clearly was a charge of sexual assault. Because that was the only occasion when, well there are two occasions on which a woman could bring an appeal forward in the Middle Ages. One was at the death of her husband, and the second one is if she were raped. So the fact that it is in Cecily Champagne’s name tells us that this originally was a charge of sexual assault. However, does that mean Chaucer was a rapist? No. [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] All we know is [that] he was released from the charge. [SB: Gosh] So something, something happened and, you know, generations of critics have tried to brush this event under the rug. I mean, some call it a “strange escapade” [Speaker(s) laugh] or they…

SB: Well, that – that in itself sounds very familiar [15:00] [ASH: Yes], that someone, a man might somehow escape the scrutiny, might get away with –

ASH: But also [ER: Yes] that his genius forgives any of these kind of, you know, “youthful indiscretions”, euphemizing things. [SB: Yeah] [ER: Yes] And silencing women from the record, which is why, Beth, I love the fact that you’re so insistent that we should name this woman, and that that in itself is a part of feminist praxis, is to name these women who never really get much purchase in history, right?

HH: And to talk about the fact that however, however much we might not know the exact terms –

and I think it’s so important to make that distinction – we, we you know – as you say Beth, critics have debated [it], and all we know is that he was released from rape, but that should still come up in discussions. You know, so many people have read Chaucer at school, at university, know of him, you know, programmes about him. And quite rarely does this charge come up, because it’s an uncomfortable one, isn’t it? The father of English literature, it doesn’t sit well with our idea of that.

SB: And with all the usual caveats, that we don’t know what happened, and that we’re sort of piecing together a story retrospectively. But, why is it that that part of Chaucer’s life is such a footnote to his work? Why is it that, I, Cecily Champagne is … she’s marginalized in history. Why don’t we know about this [ER: Well], more than we should?

ER: Well, I think we do now know about it. I think it was Hetta saying that it’s very difficult for people to think about a canonical author as somehow rather suspect in that way. But I wanted to say something about the Wife of Bath’s Tale, and Chaucer’s writing, because once you start thinking about rape in Chaucer, you will find that it’s there everywhere in his writing. And he has, perhaps because of his own experience, but also there are other experiences that could well have shaped his understanding of rape. For instance, his father was raped, i.e. abducted as a child, he himself was involved in another abduction case, and in the court of Richard II, there were many high-profile cases of raptus that he would have known, such as the rape of Joan of Kent and also of Agnes [L…?] and these were much talked about, and also Chaucer was present in parliament when some of the documents concerning these cases were formed. But to go back to his writing, I think it’s important, people tend to remember – and I think it came up – that the Wife of Bath’s prologue, this lively lusty woman [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] who talks about her many marriages and very few people actually look at the tale. And Chaucer’s tale about rape is a very important – I think it speaks directly to the kinds of issues that are coming up today around consent, because there are two aspects to it. One, raised I think by Germaine Greer, is that question of the punishment of the rapist, and in Chaucer’s vision, the rapist is not punished or rather, he’s given the opportunity to save his own life by finding out what it is that women want, and this requires him spending an entire year travelling around asking women what they want. [SB: Right] Which of course goes directly against the very act he performed, when he raped a woman without asking her what she wanted.

SB: I think that’s how I was taught Chaucer, that he’s sort of fond of women, that he’s…interested in all of life, and that…that the most interesting thing about the Wife of Bath – apart from the gap between her teeth – is that she has a free sexual appetite, that’s what I was taught, so…

ER: Well, that’s … [SB laughs] I’m not sure about that, because there’s controversy in the prologue about the degree, about her real interest. You may remember that she says in “bacon” [i.e. older men, lacking in sexual virility] she has no delight, [SB: Riiiight] but … I wanted to say something else about why I think Chaucer is interested in this. Gavin… Chaucer’s interest in women has been observed for centuries, Gavin Douglas called Chaucer “woman’s friend”. From my perspective, I think what Chaucer is interested in is not the condition of women particularly, although his own experiences with rape may have made him aware of these conundrums around rape. But I think he’s interested in the nature of free will. [SB: Right] And the condition of women who are clearly under constraint gives him an opportunity to consider the potential for free will.

SB: Do you think he’s more interested in women precisely because free will is a question for them, much more perhaps than the – [20:00]

ER: Yes, yeah yeah, I would think that, yeah

SB: Yes, that’s really interesting

HH: I wanted to say something about that actually, more generally because, I mean, this is a programme about sort of new approaches in research and I think as feminist scholars reading medieval literature – and Beth, you’ve written about this yourself – there’s a lot of challenges that we face, and one of them is that a lot of the writers, a lot of the edited writers are male, and there’s lots of great work being done to make more editions, make women’s writing more available, but traditionally [ASH: Absolutely] it’s been largely men. And second of all, and so you’ve got two directions as a feminist scholar – either you can… try and do some editions, bring sort of unknown women writers to light. Or you can try and do some new feminist readings of canonical texts and I think one of the amazing things about your work Beth, that you’ve been doing – I got a sneak peek at your book [Speaker(s) laugh] – is that you’ve drawn attention to something that scholars have missed, which is that actually so much of his writing is about consent and rape, which is something that hasn’t been, you know, you’re shedding light on the writing in that way which is a way that we can kind of say, OK Chaucer is a really important writer, we need to think about him, but in this new way.

ASH: But I think that what’s interesting, in my work, when I kind of bring out the feminism in texts I work with, is that there’s often a backlash to do with [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] – “But you can’t do that to Chaucer! You can’t prove he raped anyone. Oh no!” [Speaker(s) soft laughter, affirmative murmurs] Centuries, literally centuries – like Beth said – of work on Chaucer is basically, I mean [he was] presented to me as an undergrad, as sort of your warmly paternalistic uncle.

ER: Stephanie Trigg has done [ASH: Ah yes, yep, yeah] a wonderful book called Congenial Souls, which explains some of the reasons why generations… There are two things that I think have happened in criticism, one is to make Chaucer “one of us”, [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] i.e. with men in a men’s club –

ASH: That really rings a bell, because a lot of my research quite recently is to do with talking about fandom. And I really like the opening of the show [with the reference to] Doctor Who, so it’s like who is a fan of Doctor Who –

SB: Well let’s talk about your work because we mentioned your new book, Beth, but Hetta said to me earlier [HH laughs] Alicia that your new book might be called Medieval Twitter? [ASH: That’s my second book actually!] [Speaker(s) laugh] which blew my mind, so tell us about your work

ASH: My first book is Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience and it just came out last December, with Amsterdam University Press.[1] And in that basically, I’m trying to blow up some pre-existing ideas about, on the one hand, holy women from the medieval time who basically, you know they see God a lot and it’s really intense, and sometimes they have sex with God [Speaker(s) laugh] and it’s kind of awesome –

SB: [Laughing] You say that so casually!

ASH: To me because, to me in my work, it’s like, “Well a bit banal, isn’t it, you know. Whatever.” [SB: Yeah] And then on the other hand, my point is to try and draw attention in the academy generally to pop culture [SB: OK] and so I’m very much moving against intellectual gate-keeping. My point is: we make better scholars, both like whatever stripe, medieval modern or in between, if we take, kind of, our personal life seriously. [Speaker: Yeah] So many people have come up to me after I’ve given a talk, you know I talk about Margery Kempe as Kim Kardashian West in my book –

SB: Well the producer said to me I didn’t need my Riverside Chaucer, but I needed this, to have this [latest] edition [ASH: Absolutely] of Closer magazine [ASH: You really do]. What’s Kim got to do with Margery Kempe? [ASH: Aaaaah] Sell this to me!

ASH: Come into my parlour –

SB: I mean, she – Margery Kempe has a “K” name… [ASH: True, so it’s you know] So she can almost –

ASH: So it’s a nice, smooth title for a conference paper, but mainly it’s the idea that I like the internet a lot, I like gifs a lot. There’s this famous gifset called “ugly crying”, of Kim Kardashian West just crying, in, apparently, in an ugly way

SB: Because she does it a lot on [ASH: She does] Keeping Up With The Kardashians, which is the reality show –

ASH: Yeah, and there’s, in one episode, one of her sisters says, “Oh I can’t help it when Kim cries, she’s just got this ugly face and it’s funny”. [Speaker(s) laugh] And that launches this meme that is much shared, you know, at least on my WhatsApp list. And then when you approach Margery Kempe, the one thing people know about her is that she cries [SB: She wails, yeah!] and it’s annoying and she cries some more [Speaker(s) laugh]

HH: I really love in your book that you suggest a show, “Keeping Up With Kempe” [ASH: Yes, exactly] [Speaker(s) laugh] rather than Keeping Up With The Kardashians, that –

ASH: And my point really is to say that, well look at these women [Margery and Kim] who actually are bound by such a very, you know, a throwaway thread, “oh, ugly crying” – but you look at the way that… people, not even critics, react to Kim Kardashian West taking up public space. She’s supposed to be “talentless”, … you know, she’s not a “real” star –

HH: Yes, you talk about, kind of celebrity-making, don’t you [ASH: Yeah] in your book, quite a lot. And I love that phrase, and I have to say similarly, you know, when I, so I read, so I first came across your work when I was reading your keynote for the Gender and Medieval Studies conference, which is a very important conference for any feminist scholar [working] in the medieval period. But I was thinking, “Really?? Kim Kardashian and Margery Kempe??” And yet, then I read your work, and it’s so convincing [ASH: Thank you] that actually these are two women who are self-making [ASH: Absolutely] themselves, and, you know, your take on Margery as a sort of a “try hard”, you know she’s trying so hard [ASH: Yeah] to fit herself in the ranks of these other celebs

SB: She’s like a reality TV wannabe, I guess

ASH: Absolutely, and that’s my point. But why do people react to that?

ER: Could I, could I just say something about crying? [ASH: Oooh, yes Beth! Bring it on] [ER laughs] I love the idea of [25:00] all these pilgrims travelling with Margery Kempe, and sitting down for a nice dinner at the end of a long day of walking and suddenly having Margery Kempe burst out into tears, and lament Christ’s suffering [ASH: She’d be so irritating!] Yes! [Speaker(s) laugh] And I do think that’s the point, is that – and to me, I always read that in terms of Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman in terms of mimicry –

SB: Luce Irigaray, the French philosopher we should say – although, so the Belgian French philosopher

ER: In her view, mimicry means taking on attitudes towards women, and I think this applies to the Kim Kardashian example, that women are expected to behave in a certain way, but when they do so excessively, all the assumptions about who women are get destabilized.

ASH: Absolutely. [SB: Yeah] I mean, in my book I talk about the genius of Kim, in that she manufactures herself. My point being is that if you actually look at these media texts or people with a rigorous scholarly eye, a whole vista unfolds of how knowing this is, how talented she is. She packages herself, and in a way I think, whether or not Kim Kardashian claims herself as a feminist, she is showing how, kind of, the woman system is made. You know, her life, as the kind of media icon – always with her smartphone – isn’t that what all of us are subject to? Either penalized for doing, or, you know, empowered for doing?

HH: Yeah, I just kind of wanted to ask you about that, because one of the things you talk about in your research is how scholars have found Margery Kempe quite relatable [ASH: Absolutely, yeah] and that, you know, the medieval world isn’t the same as the modern world, but we can see a lot of revealing parallels, and in the same way we were talking about consent, what does it do for our current conversations to think about the medieval context? What – why do you think Margery Kempe is so relatable? And why do you think it’s useful to read her through someone like Kim Kardashian?

ASH: I think that’s a really big question that because so many academics have such personal relationships to Margery, I think, kind of, every answer would be slightly different. [HH: Yeah] But for me, I’m basing it on an amazing blog post by a feminist, Clarissa W. Atkinson [HH: Ah, yeah] who talks about discovering Margery, and so you know – in the 80s, it’s sort of hard to imagine now, but in the 80s there weren’t really any women in the canon of medieval studies, and you had, you know, the first really important feminist scholars coming through, saying “What? Hello! We…” It might just be Chaucer [on reading lists, on the canon], [SB: “We’re here!”] so “where are our people?” So then you see Margery Kempe who was not legitimate yet in the academy. Also, Margery Kempe’s text is fairly new, you know, it was discovered in the 1930s, so it’s not what –

HH: And people were disappointed by the discovery, weren’t they, because [ASH: Yes!] [Speakers’ voices overlap; unintelligible remarks]

SB: What? Why were they disappointed?

HH: Because all they had before was a very abbreviated version, [ASH: Yeah] it was quite sanitized … The short version of the text [ASH: Fairly bland] was quite acceptable, quite bland and then all of a sudden, they discover this manuscript [ASH: Yeah] which tells it –

ASH: With this woman just being all like, “Hello God, it’s me Margery!” [Speaker(s) laugh] And she was recognizable, she’s messy, she’s weird, she’s not great with people, but sometimes she’s amazing. She’s a quote unquote “real woman”, at a time when I think a lot of feminist academics really needed that validation in their own work.

ER: I think you’re absolutely right, I mean what makes Margery Kempe different from so many others, other women writers we know of during the period, throughout the Continent, is that she was, as someone said [to her, as reported in the Book of Margery Kempe], “You ought to be in an anchorhold, in a house of stone!” [ASH: Yep] She was out in the public sphere, and she also had had – is it 14 children? [Speaker: Yeah] [ASH: I believe so] And [SB: Wow] [ASH: Yeah, exactly] you know, you can see why she might have been a bit tired of sex [Speaker(s) laugh] at that point in her life

SB: Yeah, and crying quite a bit too, the hormones! [Speaker: Yeah, they’d be raging!] [ASH: Exactly]

ER: I think it’s really important the publication of the discovery was an important part of the beginning of World War II, because her manuscript was advertised in The Times as the first woman’s autobiography, at a time when the government was trying to get women to work for the war effort. [Speaker(s) murmur at learning new information] [Speaker 1: I didn’t know that.] [Speaker 2: I didn’t either] So I don’t know if we would have noticed her if it hadn’t been for this, this governmental effort.

SB: “Noticing” sounds like the big question – how, when do you, why haven’t we noticed this part of Chaucer’s history, why haven’t we noticed these women before? And these are women who are making, both Margery Kempe [ASH: Yep] – “Kargery Kempe” – [Speaker(s) laugh] and Kim Kardashian are women who are making themselves noticed, and I wonder if there’s a parallel between that, that platform of the hagiography, the story of the saint, and the blog post and the Twitter posts, that you –

ASH: Absolutely, I mean, from my point of view, we all – anybody who uses social media is engaging in this kind of personal saint-making, and you know it might not be saintly, you might be down the pub with friends or you know out on the lash with friends, but it’s still, it’s a persona. And particularly women in the public eye often face a massive backlash for just taking up space. If you go to basically any YouTube video featuring [30:00] Kim Kardashian, there will be haters, and I mean, you know, incredibly virulent hate speech.

SB: Well, can I ask you about your own experience, as women scholars in medieval studies? Have you felt as though you were noticed, unnoticed? What’s been – has there been hate, about this, your sensibilities in this world?

ER: That’s so hard to answer that, and I just want to say, I was thinking on the way over here because Hetta had said that you wanted to know about medieval feminism in general [SB: Yeah] and … as you may or may not know, I co-founded a Society [the Society of Medieval Feminist Scholarship] in 1986 for the study of women in the Middle Ages, and it was directly in response to the fact that I had went to this meeting, this famous meeting, the Medieval Institute meetings at Kalamazoo –

HH: Famous, amongst medievalists, not so amongst other people! [Speaker(s) laugh]

ASH: We put Kalamazoo on the map!

ER: The Kalamazoo meeting brings about 3,000 medievalists every year to this small university, and I was there year after year, and then I met some friends in the airport and they said, “How do you like this conference?” And I said, “Well, I’ve spent three days here and I didn’t hear a woman mentioned…” And so, we decided that we would start a Society, and it was extremely exciting at that time because I think one of the things about medieval feminism is that it has a dual purpose: it’s concerned with the recovery of women in the past, but also with activism in the present. [Speakers: Yeah]

HH: Yeah, I think one thing that’s really striking about your anecdote there Beth is, it’s this idea of you and your friends talking, and I think communities amongst, sort of, feminist scholars both medieval and –

ASH: I’m nodding so hard right now

Speaker: That’s some great nodding [Speakers laugh]

HH: Because, I mean, you know, so Alicia you’re someone who uses Twitter and blogs, and … anyone should actually go to Alicia Spencer-Hall’s Twitter feed [Speakers laugh] and you’ll see that her pinned tweet is a wonderful gif … [Speakers laugh] which is of … on one screen is sort of the Virgin Mary eating a TV dinner watching TV [Speakers laugh] and then it flips to a scene of the Passion and “To be continued”, [ASH: Yep] and you use that, don’t you in your work, theoretically? [ASH: Yes] But how much have you found that being a part of Twitter and blogging has helped you as a feminist scholar, and helped you theorize your work?

ASH: I would say, Twitter for me in particular has been incredibly positive, about, in part, just letting myself find a voice, because it’s so – you suddenly think, “Do I have anything interesting to say? Do people care [about] my feminist musings on this cereal box?” And also, I think, as medievalists we can be very isolated. It’s a common problem, there’s not a lot of medievalist departments, and so actually being on Twitter and talking with other medievalists has definitely helped me. However, it’s taken me literally years to figure out my boundaries for Twitter, because, you know, I do not want to be doxxed or SWAT-ed, or face harassment, and I’m very lucky – and I think that’s at least in part because I’m white – that I’ve not been harassed in that way. But there is, I mean, a recent edition of Medieval Feminist Forum journal [53, no. 1; 2017], which is the journal of the Society Beth founded, is on microaggressions and harassment, online and offline. And it is incredibly important in this day and age, if we think about recent difficulties faced by particularly women of colour, Dorothy Kim,[2] you know, [HH: Yeah, of course] this is still – it is still “difficult” quote unquote, to put it mildly, being a woman on the internet, particularly one just literally saying the truth from the sources. I mean, nobody’s going “Well actually, there weren’t any men”, you know, just putting yourself out there to reinstate, with urgency, women in history is actually quite dangerous for some.

HH: Yeah, the good thing about social media, I guess, for us, is getting the word out [ASH: Absolutely] You know, before social media, it would be more what Beth’s describing, kind of friends getting together [ASH: Yes] and making it happen. You know, you’ve got a bigger platform with something like Twitter, but you’re also setting yourself up. There are still lots of people that – I think, things have certainly progressed [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] since what Beth was describing at Kalamazoo, but there’s still lots of resistance to … feminist scholarship [ASH: Absolutely] in general. Particularly [ER: Absolutely] in the medieval period, so –

ASH: And I think we need to talk about precarity there. By that I mean, the kind of neo-liberal academy and the way in which there used to be kind of a pipeline: you do a PhD and you get a [permanent / tenure-track / stable] job. And you might do one post-doc for a few years, but then there is a job, whereas basically – apart from Hetta, I think – nobody I know, sort of, of our peers has a [permanent / tenure-track / stable] job. [ASH: exasperated laughter]

HH: And it was just very, very right place, right time luck

ASH: And yet a lot of us are doing this kind of feminist work because it’s so important, and in a way I think, the conversations I have with people about this is that, well we have nothing left to lose. And we must change the academy to allow people to speak from where they are, be that in terms of colour, in terms of religion, in terms of ableism [i.e. against normativity of able-bodied default, remedying erasure of disability and disabled scholars from the academy generally], and I really, if there’s one thing you read after listening to this, go to the Medievalists of Color website [35:00] and read their statements, both on racism in the academy and on, kind of, youth of [the study of] the Middle Ages, because they point out that actually a lot of the most important work is returning to this kind of feminist theory, but also is done by, really, people in very precarious positions, and often the most marginalized. [SB: Yes] And we need to integrate that, we need senior scholars, we need to make that more “normal”, for want of a better word –

HH: And to not be afraid to bring the personal into our work, right? [ASH: Yeah] You know, I think there’s this history that academia should be very objective [ASH: Yeah], and we should all be taking a step back and … sort of not showing any sort of sympathy or bias or anything in our work, which, as you [Alicia] rightly point out in a blog post is a fallacy. [ASH: Completely!] You cannot be objective as a researcher, and you kind of hinted at this earlier in this conversation [ASH laughs], but you have this great term in your book, “aca-fan” [ASH: Yes – which, no…] which is an “academic fan”. [ASH: Yes] I wondered if you might want to say a little bit about that, because I think it’s more self-conscious now, and perhaps more feminist?

ASH: Yes, so I would agree, I mean I didn’t coin “aca-fan” – I believe it was probably [HH: OK] Henry Jenkins, who is the father of fan studies. [HH: Right] But my point is that, again, this is a fantasy, and often it’s a fantasy of objectivity that has been white, it’s been male, it’s been older, it’s been conservative, with both a little and a large “C”. And actually, the only way to, kind of, bring activism and feminism into the academy is to speak from where we are and who we are, and sort of stake our claim. Now what’s really interesting is, I think to me, it’s a fairly, kind of, banal idea that as scholars we obsess about things. You know, you spend hours on a text, you grow to love them, you grow to hate them and yet you love them. So we’re –

HH: Constantly re-reading…

ASH: Exactly, so we’re fans, and if you look at, kind of, fan forums and so on, the level of critique there is amazing, the people who – to go back to Doctor Who – [Speaker: They’re experts] will deconstruct, will suggest different things. But my one thing that I think is really interesting is that I’ve got a lot of push-back from certain scholars about my use of terms like “train wreck” or “whine-athon” for Margery, and the use of “fans” to talk about scholars.[3] [Speaker: Yeah] Now, for me, I was talking about this with a friend over email, is I think it’s about, kind of, a form of cultural consumption that’s actually quite different. So when I call Margery a “train wreck”, I love her [HH: Yeah] to me, she’s kitsch, you know, I want her on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, she’s a woman I would never want to actually like have to live with, but I totally want to go for drinks with. So I think that’s an example of the way in which kind of modern media and our personal lives [Speaker: Yeah] really help us understand the texts that we look at.

SB: I want to ask about how optimistic you are about the research that’s being done. What’s exciting you about medieval studies right now?

ASH: Intersectionality. There is no feminism without intersectionality, to my mind. And that is a hard line in the sand I’m willing to draw. [Speaker(s) laugh]

SB: And what about you, Beth?

ER: Well, I have to say I’m very excited by … I think that the issue that is fascinating me at the moment is immigration, and looking back at early medieval literature in terms of migration, the movement of populations and in a period when nations were not formed, and how, and the kind of interactions between people that are created there. So, we medievalists have a lot to say about what’s happening now, and there’s a pet field that I’m very interested in, which is a spin-off from history of emotions. I do think the history of emotions has been [a] very very important direction in medieval studies –

HH: That was going to be my answer as well, Beth [Speaker(s) laugh] – you’re on my wave length! Absolutely, yeah…agreed

ER: But I also think that the history of the senses is very important, and for me, my particular interest at the moment is how … human beings encounter one another through the senses, what are the processes involved both at a physiological level and at a more philosophical level? What is the relationship between the mind and the body? And, you know, what happens when we encounter difference? [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] And if we can come to a greater appreciation of that interaction, I think [ASH: I mean, I…] there would be less fear –

ASH: I mean, I think that’s where medieval disability studies, which is really on the ascendency is going, and is really revealing some kind of ableist embedded notions that we come to, even if you’re kind of a disability activist, that you come to these [medieval] texts with, and that encountering difference in the past is so important.

HH: Yeah, I think so history of emotions is one I was going to pick up on as well, and I think because emotion is something that has been sometimes negatively associated with the feminine, and I think some of the most exciting work is sort of reclaiming things like that. And is saying, “Yes”, you know, “Margery Kempe did cry a lot [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] as a devotional practice, and that’s really interesting and potentially subversive and strategic, and how can we explore that?”

SB: I feel quite exhausted listening to all that, [Speaker(s) laugh] I might weep, from just how excited I am to read all of this stuff. I’m definitely [40:00] going to go back to my Margery Kempe, but I feel like there’s so much more to … to not just to learn about our own condition from the medieval period, but to understand these medieval writers better actually, more fully. … I’m going to be gathering together another band of academics to explore fear, spookiness and what’s going on with the Gothic next in our podcast series, so if you don’t want to miss that, do sign up for the Arts and Podcast wherever you get your podcast. In the meantime, I’m going to thank Alicia Spencer-Hall, Elizabeth Robertson and Hetta Howes. Thanks very much. [ER: Thank you] [Speaker 1: Thanks!] [Speaker 2: Thanks!] You can find links and more information if you look up either bbc.co.uk/freethinking or if you go to the website for the Arts and Humanities Research Council. They’re the helpful people who fund research into, yes, you’ve guessed it, arts and humanities [Speaker(s) laugh] subjects at universities around the UK, and they’ve helped us put this conversation together too.


Notes

[1] Order the book here: http://bit.ly/MSMS-AUP. Download the Introduction and Table of Contents for free here: http://bit.ly/MSMS-intro.

[2] On the harassment of academic feminists online, and on the harassment of Dorothy Kim in particular, see: Edwards, Jennifer C. “#Femfog and Fencing: The Risks for Academic Feminism in Public and Online.” Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality 53, no. 1 (2017): 45-72. https://doi.org/10.17077/1536-8742.2087. Accessed 23 August 2018.

[3] I was thinking of conversations with scholars after conference papers and the like, and more recently remarks in a review of my book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, by Jessica Barr for The Medieval Review. I am profoundly grateful for Barr’s close, thoughtful attention to my book, and appreciate the rigour of her review very much. My reference to the review here does not in any way constitute me throwing shade the reviewer’s way. Barr’s main point of contention with my analyses was my characterization of Margery Kempe: “I do take issue with a rhetorical move that is made in this chapter, however, and that is the derisive language used to characterize Kempe. The comparison between Kardashian West and Kempe is reasonable--even illuminating--and certainly quite funny, but Spencer-Hall’s folksy language here has the effect of seeming to disparage her. For example, Kempe is “a fame-hungry fan, a wannabe” (175), “the Ur-example of ‘ugly crying’ whose “whine-athons” make her Book” the fifteenth-century equivalent of must-see car-crash reality TV” (174). As entertaining as these lines are (and Spencer-Hall is a fine writer), they are needlessly dismissive and perhaps symptomatic of working too hard to connect the medieval text and modern pop culture. (And it should be noted that, in my very defensiveness about Kempe, I reveal myself to be an acafan of the mystic--an academic fan--which is precisely the identity that Spencer-Hall encourages us to claim in the latter part of this chapter.)”