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:

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 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.


[1] Order the book here: Download the Introduction and Table of Contents for free here:

[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. 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.)”

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! 

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: 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.]

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)

Crimes Against Medievalism #1 - "White Collar" S01E03

Look, I'm actually quite a chill person, OK? (Shut up, members of my inner circle.) Yes, I can get a bit enervated by pretty much anything, and - OK - it would be fruitless to pretend that I don't have strong opinions. But as any trashy-romance-novel connoisseur knows, that just means I'm "passionate", "feisty", "firey". (And probably running from the law / about to solve a crime / in the midst of untangling a hunky cowboy's tragic history and showing him how to love again.) In case you hadn't realised by now, dear reader, I take my media consumption equal parts seriously and frivolously. I adore watching TV for its innate (mindless) pleasures as much as I adore analysing the fuck out of TV shows, unpacking what they do and how they do it. The vast majority of the time, these two activities occur sequentially: watching --> analysing. That way, I get to have my televisual cake and eat it too, as the near-unparalleled joy of getting totally absorbed in a show gives way organically, a little while after the credits roll, to my geeky analytical pre-occupations. But. This neat little flow-chart breaks down in cases of what I term "Crimes Against Medievalism". And it is in light of such Crimes, I admit, that I - to use the appropriate jargon - pointlessly lose my shit. 

Given how niche the medievalist discipline is within academia, our lofty field does crop up a disproportionate amount of times on TV. Nevertheless, at least the media portrayal of medievalists and our primary material is authentic. My colleagues and I are, practically daily, central to solving various crimes, smuggling antiquities, laundering money willy nilly (for a juicy cut). All whilst we rewrite global histories on the basis of our minute attention to the symbology of just-discovered manuscripts. Simples! Oh wait, that was a fever dream I had when struck down by a killer bout of flu last year. My bad. Finally, I get what hard-done-to forensic scientists must have felt when CSI (and its various insidious spin-offs) "showcased" their working praxes. As long as you put The Who on, and do some weird close-up shots to reveal impossible levels of detail, you can solve ANY crime! Crimes Against Medievalism, in essence, cause medievalists - or at least this medievalist - to vent their spleen at the screen, a cathartic outpouring of utterly futile rage at how we are mis-represented in the media. Or, how people just DO THINGS WRONG with manuscripts, and medieval stuff. So, this post is the first in a new series in which I channel my pointless rage your way, dear reader. Yes, I know, I am kind aren't I? You're welcome! 

With this backdrop, may I present to you the horrors of White Collar, SO1E03 (2009), "Book of Hours". Here is a synopsis of the episode: 

On a routine stakeout of a well-known mob hang out, Agent Cruz and Agent Jones get a surprise visit from Leo Barelli, the local mob boss. Someone stole the bible from Barelli's church, and he wants it back...badly enough to come to the FBI for help.

Peter and Neal soon discover that this is no ordinary bible. Over five centuries old, the book is rumored to have the power to heal the sick. Peter is skeptical, but Neal knows there are true believers out there. Neal's theory leads them right to the culprit: Steve, a homeless veteran who took the bible to save his sick dog, Lucy. As it turns out, Steve was actually hired to take the bible by none other than Paul Ignazio, Barelli's nephew. [...] 

Neal and Mozzie investigate Ignazio's apartment and come up with Maria Fiametta, a local art historian who is familiar with Neal's past exploits. Peter thinks Maria has something to hide, but she's just too smart to keep the bible close. If Neal convinced Maria he was coming out of retirement, would she give up the book? There's only one way to find out, but for Peter it means putting all the cards in Neal's hands.

 I am ignoring the mystical woo element of the manuscript-as-healer narrative arc, which suggests that homeless veterans with PTSD don't necessarily need tailored services and support to get off the streets and re-integrate into society. Nope, just give them a dog (healthy preferred), and access to a miraculous manuscript! Problem solved!! Anyway. Because I have a life, I have summarised my key points of medievalist contention with the episode in the form of three handy images, Figs. 1-3 below.


Fig. 1. Red wine is bad for manuscripts. FACT.

Fig. 1. Red wine is bad for manuscripts. FACT.

Fig. 2. You don't know where those hands have been. I swear I see oil and dermal debris. 

Fig. 2. You don't know where those hands have been. I swear I see oil and dermal debris. 

Fig. 3. Somewhat bizarrely, manuscripts are not regularly used by the military as shield devices. 

Fig. 3. Somewhat bizarrely, manuscripts are not regularly used by the military as shield devices. 

A while back, in the immediate aftermath of my White Collar rage, I posted these Figs to Twitter. Somebody - forgive me, I can't find the tweet now - pointed out that, actually, donning white gloves is no longer standard operating procedure for handling manuscripts. The British Library, for example, is quite clear

Clean dry hands, free from creams and lotions, are preferable in the majority of circumstances. Wearing cotton gloves when handling books, manuscripts or fragile paper items reduces manual dexterity and the sense of touch, increasing the tendency to 'grab' at items. The cotton fibres may lift or dislodge pigments and inks from the surface of pages and the textile can snag on page edges making them difficult to turn. All these factors increase the risk of damage to collection items. 

Members of the public, nevertheless, routinely criticise the Library (and its staff-members) when they see or read about artefacts being handled sans gloves. White gloves signal a cautious, professional touch honed by years of training. They operate as a kind of visible reverence for the manuscript being handled. This object is so important, so rare, that you have to wear gloves to touch it. More than that, the gloves speak a kind of privilege: you have to adopt the metaphorical - and artificial - "skin" of intellectualism just to come into contact with it. It turns out my rage at the absence of white gloves in the White Collar episode is, perhaps, even more pathetic than the usual impotent Crime Against Medievalism reaction. Digging a little deeper, I am astounded - and let's face it, a little jealous - to see manuscripts treated as fairly routine objects that you have at home. This is not my experience, visiting my lovely manuscript friends in various well-policed libraries over the years. I am not a private collector; a priceless manuscript will never adorn my desk, ready and waiting for disastrous wine spillages. 

As Neal and Maria by turns flirtatiously stroke and chuck around the manuscript (Figs. 2-3), I'm struck that they seem to adopt the role of (moneyed) medieval expert without a second thought. Not so for the usual medievalist, whose skills have been honed over years of study and work, a period marked more and more by long hours and low pay. The white gloves would sort of suggest that we're "special" in some sense - again, that sense of a touch not normally accessible to those without our career devotion and sacrifices. And then! Neal puts on some damn gloves - but he's not supposedly the expert in this narrative, Maria is. Maria, who is about to shoot a man THROUGH A PRICELESS MANUSCRIPT. Jesus wept. I'm not quite sure what I think, where my rage is going, after working through this a bit more. Given the dire state of the medievalist job market (just a sub-section of the appallingly difficult academic job market), perhaps I wanted to see some kind of validation of the skill-set of medievalists, a sign of our "special-ness" that would suggest we, and our work, are needed. Don't panic, though, it's not all maudlin self-reflection, I've still got the medievalist rage. As such, I leave you with the following take-aways:

  1. A generous red wine soak will not make your manuscript better, tastier, nicer to look at. 
  2. As a rule of thumb, I suggest that you don't use your priceless manuscript as a bullet-proof vest. Sure, the British Library don't expressly forbid it, but I am 78% sure it is implicit in their code of conduct.
  3. If you want to go glove-free - as well you should when touching priceless manuscripts - please ensure your hands are clean, dry, and free of the cloying schmutz of painful exposition. 
  4. In conclusion, white gloves are a land of contrasts.

Modern and Medieval Catholicism, Our Lady of Ta'Pinu and Santa Muerte

A focus point of devotion in the Lady of Ta'Pinu Shrine: the altar, and the Shrine's famous Marian image. Visiting shrines like this are the one and only kind of tourism I enjoy on holiday...

A focus point of devotion in the Lady of Ta'Pinu Shrine: the altar, and the Shrine's famous Marian image. Visiting shrines like this are the one and only kind of tourism I enjoy on holiday...

I am not good at tourism. Correction: I actively abhor tourism. I’m just not a fan of sweatily traipsing around over-crowded places, craning my neck to see “erudite stuff” obscured from view by crowds of eye-rollingly bored schoolchildren, getting lost in labyrinthine public institutions most likely haunted by a neo-Minotaur docent, and shoving over-priced stale sandwiches down my throat like a starved gannet for “lunch” on the go. Maybe I just do tourism wrong: this is probably true. Also, the bulk of my working life is spent reading, learning, thinking as precisely as possible about complex theories and problematics. Going to exhibitions and art showings and interesting film screenings is part of my research life, part of excavating cultural artefacts all around me to find their resonances with my specific research frameworks. So, on holiday, all I want to do is to channel my energies into actively not thinking: I want to kick back and go to the beach - I am very good at beaching - with a stack of really very silly books. My top recommendation for the latter is what are known in my house as the “sexy horsey books”, a series of well-written romance books by Bev Pettersen. No, “sexy horsey” does not point to any elegantly phrased tales of, shall we say, somewhat euphemistically, “paraphilic desire”. Pettersen immerses the reader into the world of serious horse training and jockey life, with well-drawn and thoughtful protagonists who have superb chemistry, propelling the romance plot along in fine style. Very much recommend, even if you aren’t very keen on horses. Horses as a species seem to have had a council meeting and decided unilaterally that they do not want me to be a rider…

      Anyway. Today’s post is not actually about tourism/holidays/horses, or not entirely. The only type of tourism that I enjoy is visiting religious institutions and saints’ shrines in lands afar, witnessing modern devotional practice and culture that so clearly relates to the medieval saints I have spent years working on and have come to love. In September 2011, I went on holiday to the Maltese island of Gozo, a sun-drenched rock which does a fine line in fish dinners, sandy beaches and Catholic basilicas. St. George’s Basilica in Victoria is a beautiful parish church, originally dating to at least the fifteenth century. It’s the kind of place that is so resplendent you sort of worry if you should be let in or not, yet it is still a hub of regular popular worship, as testified by their YouTube channel filled with videos of services. The juxtaposition of features I superficially ascribe in my imagination to medieval worship spaces evoked in hagiographic narratives – including intensely rich decorations and a tangible aura of sacrality– with modern worshippers going about their business, as they do on any given day of the week, really astounded me. This is the medieval/modern religiosity connection writ large. It also serves as an effective reminder that medieval churches were communal, public spaces – there to be filled with the flock, spaces of dynamic interchanges – just as in St. George’s today. This is something I tend to forget, or let fall by the wayside, as I consider the descriptions of churches and religious services in narratives I study, as it is so different to my own reality. 

"Dome of St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via  Flickr . No, I can't believe I didn't take my own pictures of the Basilica either.

"Dome of St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via Flickr. No, I can't believe I didn't take my own pictures of the Basilica either.

"St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via  Flickr

"St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via Flickr

      Though St. George’s was utterly lovely, I was most excited about visiting another basilica on the island, the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’Pinu in Għarb, given my immense interest in pre-modern female devotion. My holiday-mates were very gracious, and let me do my “medieval-religious-detective” thing for a few glorious hours. The gallery below features some of the many, many, (perhaps too many) photographs I took during my visit. The exact origins of the Shrine are unknown, but it is first described in writing in the sixteenth century. (For a potted history of the site, see the relevant page on the Shrine’s website. See also Mrg. Nicholas J Cauchi's slim volume, Ta'Pinu Shrine: The Pilgrims' Haven, published by the Shrine in 2008.) Though the Shrine had a long history as a site of Marian devotion, events in the summer of 1883 ultimately increased its fame as a particularly holy site. Two villagers, Karmni Grima and Franġisk Portelli, frequently heard the voice of the Virgin Mary calling them into the chapel to pray in separate mystical incidents. Further, Portelli's mother was afflicted by a deleterious illness at the time, but achieved a miraculous cure after her sons (Franġisk and Nikol) paid special reverence to Our Lady of Ta'Pinu, and kept a lamp lit in front of her altar at all times. These events established the Ta'Pinu Mary as a potent miracle-worker and very effective intercessor with the divine. Throughout this post, I'll use "Ta'Pinu" to refer to the specific construction of the Virgin Mary worshipped at the Shrine.

Offerings for Ta'Pinu cover every inch of space in a side-room off the chapel

Offerings for Ta'Pinu cover every inch of space in a side-room off the chapel

      The basilica (including a chapel, newer sanctuary, and museum) is, as you might imagine, fantastically opulent, crammed with beautiful stained glass, images, niches, candles and on and on. What grabbed me the most, though, were the countless modern artefacts and letters given up to Ta’Pinu as votive tokens (ex-votos), either in the hopes of receiving healing miracles or as a form of payment for the reception of Ta’Pinu’s grace. These objects cover the walls in a kind of hopeful collage of piety in rooms adjacent to the chapel itself. Walking through these spaces feels a bit like going to a bric-a-brac table sale, but with each offering – however innocuous or banal – imbued with profound personal and spiritual meaning. Plaster casts, browned Polaroids, orthopaedic screws, baby blankets, scrawled notes, chopped-off hair braids, bent bicycle wheels, typed letters, dented crash helmets, rosaries, crisp white Christening gowns. Perhaps the meaning or such mementos is not just personal and spiritual, but rather personal-spiritual. These are tangible objects which relate directly to a given believer’s highly specific experiences: subject-specific vessels of faith. The orthopaedic screws, for example, are spiritual for one believer as they come from their own body, a difficult surgery with a successful outcome thanks to prayers delivered to Ta’Pinu. Such screws would mean nothing to the believer petitioning Ta’Pinu for the successful delivery of a baby. Instead, she offers up a Christening gown, a tangible manifestation that the holy virgin came through for her and allowed her baby to thrive.  A sample of photographs capturing the mementos are below - for more, and for the gallery showing my trip to Ta'Pinu, scroll down to the bottom of the page.

      Browsing through the halls of such personal-spiritual tokens, you’re struck by the evidence of Ta’Pinu’s efficacy in responding with grace to her devotees’ calls. This is substantiated further as visitors to the basilica are invited to offer up a specific prayer to Ta’Pinu, which is printed in various languages in framed prints near the altar. Visitors are also invited to petition Ta’Pinu by writing their prayers in a sort of “prayer pro-forma”, to be sealed in the supplied envelope, and deposited in baskets by the altar. You can also submit petitions to the holy woman online, via a web form. The Shrine also offers webcams for attendance at Mass and visiting the chapel from the comfort of your own home, though I couldn’t make either stream play when I last tried. Nevertheless, I’m delighted by the Shrine’s conscious interfacing with the digital world. It represents, to me, a means of expanding the intercessory capacity of Ta’Pinu ever onwards, and suggests an (anticipated) popularity for her cult. Moreover, leaning into the digital world suggests a response to the evolving lifestyles and associated needs of believers. Rather than excluding those who might wish to visit or call upon Ta’Pinu, the Shrine has developed its offering of rites and rituals to speak to the needs of a geographically dislocated – or simply busy – flock.

      In 1998 a church dedicated to Ta’Pinu was opened in Bacchus Marsh, a site about 50km outside Melbourne, Australia, with the chapel being a replica of the original chapel in Gozo. For a brief history of devotion to Ta’Pinu in Australia, see here. See also Paul Harris’ short documentary film about the Australian site, below. As with the Gozitan Ta’Pinu Shrine, the Australian Shrine allows individuals to engage with the holy virgin online: by submitting prayers, requesting masses, and requesting candles be lit. It’s hard to avoid noticing, though, that the Australian site suggests monetary donations when you submit your prayer or mass requests and a flat-fee of $7 for lighting a candle. The prominence of such financial requests reflects, perhaps, the Australian church’s status as a relatively newly founded institution, in need of all the support it can get to equip its building and develop its ministry. In any case, the institution of the Australian Shrine, and its digital offerings, speak once more to an attempt to respond actively to the emerging needs of believers. It is an “All Nations Marian Centre”, and used by a variety of community groups from different ethnic backgrounds as a hub for Marian devotion, of which reverence of Ta’Pinu is just one form. In her Australian incarnation, then, Ta’Pinu represents the multiplicity of ways a believer can access the Virgin Mary, and relate to Her in ways that a believer feels fits their personal outlook and cultural heritage.

      Why do I love visiting places of worship like Ta’Pinu? Why have I shared the pictures here? I think the photographed artefacts are, above all, interesting, and resonate with a kind of beauty inspired by the fervent hopes and faith that believers have poured into these tangible vessels of the banal horrors of everyday life. Additionally, I offer the pictures as a window into modern Catholic worship culture. By gazing through this window, I believe medievalists can better do the work of investigating medieval religion. I’m a scholar of medieval religious culture, but I work in a predominantly – almost entirely – secular environment. Exposing myself to modern Catholic praxes can be eye-opening. Rites and rituals that sometimes feel overwhelmingly distanced, that could somehow only take place in medieval hagiographies or religious narratives, can and do exist in various forms in modern Catholic worship, re-modulated to greater and lesser degrees to fit contemporary worship preferences, doctrines, and styles. And so, as I wend my way around modern spaces of devotion, my eyes grow ever wider and my mind becomes ever more blown.

      The medieval saints and worship praxes I study are relics of the most potent kind: productive and animated artefacts which continue to exert power in the world, though they may be – technically, superficially – dead and gone. I’m not saying that there is a singular form of worship which exists, unchanged, from the medieval to the modern period. Rather, that there are demonstrable similarities between medieval and modern worship forms. Instead of bracketing of the modern from the medieval, I think looking at the modern iterations of worship can allow us to better understand and contextualise pre-modern religion, and the pre-modern era more generally. How did medieval believers react in this or that way to a given social/political/geographical/ideological event horizon? Moreover, I believe that we can better unpack the ways in which medieval believers responded to the Church – by reshaping their practices, exerting their own choices for where to put their faith in holy individuals – if we look at the ways in which modern believers do the same.

"Dia de los Muertes" - Jesse Means. Via  Flickr . A large Santa Muerte atop the public altar on the Day of the Dead in Seattle, 2010

"Dia de los Muertes" - Jesse Means. Via Flickr. A large Santa Muerte atop the public altar on the Day of the Dead in Seattle, 2010

     Undoubtedly, specific circumstances mould religious praxes, be they social, political, geographical or so on. Catholicism, medieval and modern, is not monolithic. Frankly, I wish I could speak Maltese so I could dig into sources on Ta'Pinu which reveal the significance of this representation of the Virgin Mary to the people of Gozo, and Malta more generally. Another example will have to suffice for now: the rise of devotion to Santa Muerte (“Saint Death” in Spanish) in Mexico, parts of the USA, Central America and further afield. Over the past few years, a stream of articles have been published shedding light on this “new” saint: see Antonia Blumberg for The Huffington Post online; Steven Gray for TIME online; Evgeny Lebedev for GQ online; Carmin Sessin for NBC News online. In 2012, Oxford University Press released R. Andrew Chesnut’s Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, the first academic depth study of the saint. (My summary of Santa Muerte, below, is taken from these sources.)

"Santa Muerte 20100601 002" by Jim Hobbs. Via  Flickr . A "backyard shrine" to Santa Muerte in the photographer's neighbourhood

"Santa Muerte 20100601 002" by Jim Hobbs. Via Flickr. A "backyard shrine" to Santa Muerte in the photographer's neighbourhood

      Santa Muerte is a female personification of death, a Mexican folk saint with her roots in ancient beliefs about and reverence for death. Though denounced by the Catholic Church, Santa Muerte clearly encapsulates identifiable elements of Catholic practice– e.g. as a saintly intercessory figure with shrines as epicentres of worship, identifiable by specific iconography. Santa Muerte has been taken up, in particular, by people to whom the Church has not, or cannot, adequately cater: the poor, criminals, and the LGBT community. The Church has not fought to tackle poverty with enough vigour; cannot answer criminals’ prayers which relate to illegal and immoral behaviours; and has excluded LGBT believers from fellowship and sacraments. What’s more, for people living in communities torn apart by drug and gang violence, Santa Muerte seems to be the ideal choice. As Lebedev remarks: “Because people might die at any moment, they have begun to worship Death, since they believe this might at least give them some protection.”

      Whilst there is only one pontiff and a series of authorised ecclesiastical precepts, believers still customise their own religious experiences in various ways. Doctrine, after all, has always been questioned, debated, reformulated. The laity has always managed to express their religiosity in views not necessarily fully palatable to the Church. Santa Muerte is a modern iteration of this phenomenon, but the medieval era is full of religious narratives in which believers try to figure out their religion on their own terms. I’m thinking, here, particularly of the ways in which many medieval holy men and women we study now a “saints” were never actually canonised – but rather, they were taken up as sacred figures by devotees in their locale and beyond. This was the case for the corpus of extraordinarily pious thirteenth-century women I analysed for my PhD: none of the “Holy Women of Liège” ever received the official approbation from the Church in the form of canonisation, but were certainly held up as saints in various ways by their communities. No religion is made up solely of official doctrine: lay believers also play a highly significant role in constructing specific iterations of their own religion, which may just skirt the transgressive bounds of outright heterodoxy. What I’m interested in then, is recognising – and ultimately disentangling – the power dynamics at play in religious worship between the constellation of the Church (officialdom), God (that in which we have faith), and the believer herself. We can best do this work, I think, by casting our eye at both ends of the temporal divide: by recognising that worship forms are in the process of continual renegotiation in a given moment and across time. 


Gallery of Images from Visit to Ta'Pinu Shrine, Gozo - September 2011

NB Images are in order of my travel "through" the Shrine: exterior gardens and statuary (including statues of Karmni Grima and Franġisk Portelli); Shrine exterior; ornamentation and religious artefacts inside the Shrine; tokens left for Ta'Pinu by those seeking intercession

Some Thoughts on #s406 at #IMC2015 - Medievalists, Public Engagement & Budgy Smugglers

I didn't really need a warm welcome: they had me at "free coffee"

I didn't really need a warm welcome: they had me at "free coffee"

Last week, I was at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds. It’s one of the foremost conferences on all things medieval, with thousands of scholars in attendance. One of the best things about such big area-specific shindigs is the variety of panels on offer: not just research-focussed stuff, but also organised discussions about the business of academia, how to be a medievalist going forward. On the first day of the conference , I went to a round table (session #406) on the role of public engagement – or “public intellectualism” – for medievalists. It’s a topic I’m obviously interested in – after all, you’re reading this on my medieval-monikered blog, and I tweet fairly regularly these days. The panel gave me a lot of food for thought, and I’ve been pecking out some thoughts over the past few days.

            Firstly, let me say that the speakers - Matthew Gabriele, Andrew James Johnston, and Erik Kwakkel – had a lot of useful, practical counsel to offer. I live-tweeted what I consider to be their key soundbites, so check out my feed from if you’re interested in my perspective, or check out the Storify of tweets about the panel curated by Peter Konieczny, editor of All three speakers are “public intellectuals” in various ways (and in different geographical contexts), and outlined their own approaches to entering into dialogue with non-specialist audiences, whether in print, online, or radio. What I want to blog about today is a brief run-down of the speakers’ insights, alongside some fairly problematic issues brought to light in our discussions about the troublesome us/them nature of public engagement, and by the make-up of the panel itself (three well-established white male academics).

            Gabriele urged us to consider the existing publics that we all have, including colleagues and readers of articles. All research, when published, is “public” – thus we are all, already, “public intellectuals”. Instead of trying to link contemporary news to anything and everything medieval, Gabriele advocated that we stick to talking about what we are really passionate about in the medieval universe, and then connect that to relevant modern events. His research centres on unpacking the relationship between religion and violence in the Middle Ages, and the cultural role of nostalgia and memory – themes clearly resonant with recent debates in the US about the deeply problematic Confederate flag. I also appreciated his explanation of his rationale to become more public-focussed. Gabriele is based at Virginia Tech, and after the heinous massacre there in 2007, he felt compelled to step up and refute any claims of “medieval” culture supporting contemporary violent, racist ideologies. As experts in our field, we have an ethical responsibility to push back against those trying to manipulate a spurious fantasy of the “Middle Ages” to bolster their own destructive urges. Indeed, Dorothy Kim raised this point well in the Q&A session after the talks proper. 

         If memory serves correctly, Kim was responding to some enervating – but ultimately useful, I concede – remarks from Johnston. Johnston raised my hackles a bit when he prodded the audience to question if medievalists really have anything to offer to contemporary public discourse anyhow. For him, the question is not how to become a (better) public medievalist, but whether to be one in the first place. My internal response: “YES OF COURSE WE SODDING WELL SHOULD!” Nevertheless, the hackle-raising was – and is – productive. This is a question of massive significance, and a means to situate oneself personally within the discipline. I became irritated because I so stridently believe that we have a duty to share research with our varied and dynamic publics and to learn from them as much as we purport to relay gems of medieval relevance. And the vehemence of my internal shouty voice needs to be matched by a willingness to do the damn work of engaging cogently, efficiently and non-patronisingly with those outside of our lovely academic echo chambers. There’s certainly more work needed on this, not least from myself. I’m inspired by vocal members of the audience who pointed out the need for academics to engage with audiences not normally tapped by intellectuals as potential readership. The ensuing debate amongst attendees highlighted class issues to do with the ways in which “public academics” define their target audience(s), who we deem “worthy” of “our” knowledge, and the entrenched power dynamics at play. See, for example, the following tweets:


            Kwakkel had a slick series of slides, which showed off his digital chops very well, including lots of hard data about his impact in the wider world – follower numbers, clicks, page impression and the like. Indeed, Kwakkel has over thirteen thousand Twitter followers, and a well-respected popular blog about medieval books. He underscored the need to be strategic about engagement online. Figure out your curated persona – who you want to be in the digital world, what you want to comment on, and to whom you want to speak. Give it time, up to a year of blogging and/or tweeting, and then reassess how your energies are paying off (or not), to evolve your plan of digital attack. Think clearly about making your stuff accessible and enticing: that means flashy pictures, a “sexy” hook, and no-faff explanations of key jargon. Entering into conversations with non-experts does not mean you need to dilute your intellectual content, but present it in more transparent and welcoming terms. In response to attendees’ questioning the ways in which a “public medievalist” might talk to audience(s) not traditionally accessed by, say, an academic-ish blog on medieval stuff, Kwakkel noted that there is a “trickle down” effect, i.e. journal content (hardcore intellectual work) migrates downwards, via blogs, vlogs, radio, and the like, to tabloid fare (the fluffiest version of research findings). I think this top/down hierarchy - stated by Kwakkel as an objective, monolithic system, is actually pretty harmful and utterly subjective to boot:


Helen Young also pointed out, quite rightly, that this model is out-dated:


            Johnston professed a dislike, or at the very least unease, with the term “public intellectual” himself. (And he maintains he will never have a Twitter account, hence lack of a hyperlink for his name.) He writes fairly regularly for a liberal left-wing newspaper in Germany, and features on radio programmes about almost all things British. He “smuggle[s] the medieval” in to a wide swathe of topics that he is asked to comment upon, thereby flagging the period to the public whenever possible. For example, the recent christening of Princess Charlotte can be parlayed into a conversation about medieval dynastic politics, inheritance, kingship and so forth. The word “smuggle” set off all manner of odd lightning bolts of association for me:

Brian Yap - Le Tour de Disneyland. Via  Flickr .

Brian Yap - Le Tour de Disneyland. Via Flickr.

  1. Enid Blyton-esque tales of bearded smugglers lugging booty in from every Cornish cove.
  2. Muggles, the non-magickals of the Harry Potter universe.
  3. Budgy smugglers, Australian slang for ultra-tight men’s swimming briefs, suggesting that the wearer has some form of small bird shoved down the crotch – for some examples (sans hunky wearer), see here.

Somehow, I think all three of these admittedly random associative pings flesh out my thoughts on the panel more generally. Bear with me.

  1. I have extraordinarily limited knowledge of the historical and contextual facts of Cornish smuggling enterprises. Literally all I know is taken from Enid Blyton or dodgy Sunday afternoon black and white films. However, what occurs to me in these kinds of narratives is that the smugglers’ contraband tends to contribute fairly significantly to the local community. For example, smugglers might bring in goods for the black market, or simply introduce more money into circulation so the small local economy keeps going. That is to say that the medieval booty we, as “public intellectuals”, "smuggle" actually has real consequences for our localities, and has valuable impact.
  2. Muggles are the “not-haves” and the “them” to the all-powerful magic “us” of Hogwarts alums. The vibrant and dynamic world of magic has to be hidden from the Muggles at all costs – otherwise, they’d ruin it, destroy it, or just completely freak out. Much of the discourse about “public intellectuals” posits a similar dynamic between “us” medievalist know-it-alls and “them”, the befuddled ignorant masses. We can’t really show them what we do, because they just won’t get it – or they’ll somehow break it.
  3. As an item of apparel, budgy smugglers are technically donned to cover up the genitals. But, of course, a swatch of tight tight Lycra does little to shield our eyes – and sensibilities – from the “horror” of the male anatomy. Instead, it draws our attention to it, like a giant neon sign saying “ahoy matey, here’s a penis!” The round table, for me, basically smuggled the budgy of gendered and racial privilege when operating in public spaces as a professional academic. Basically, the manner in which the panel did not meaningfully – if at all – address the significant and specific challenges to public engagement faced by those not represented on the panel, i.e. non-male non-white individuals, the more glaringly obvious the problem of representation and the effect of various kinds of privilege became.
You know it's a big conference when there's conference merch available...

You know it's a big conference when there's conference merch available...

            For most of #s406, I couldn’t help metaphorically staring at the deeply gendered budgy before me, being uncomfortably covered up by calls for “making your research accessible” and “just getting out there”.  “Getting out there” professionally online and in public spaces is demonstrably harder for women and people of colour. I am acutely conscious as I write this that I operate in the world as a white cisgender heterosexual subject, with all the privileges this position entails. I cannot speak for the experiences of those without my intersecting privileges; I can listen attentively, educate myself, and act as a strident ally. What I can speak to is inhabiting a female body, and the evidence of misogyny as standard in the patriarchal framework. For example, witness the harassment female Guardian writers recount in this video:

Or what about Gamergate - the rampant misogynist attacks on game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, and feminist video-game scholar Anita Sarkeesian? I do not want to be doxxed, stalked, threatened with rape or murder, or subject to torrents of abuse simply for doing my professional business of medievalism online. How do we address that as academics? As people? How do we protect ourselves? But also push back against such vileness too? These topics were apparently pretty much taboo in #s406.

            One of the principal aims of the session, presumably, was to encourage academics to foray outside of traditional institutional spaces, i.e. for members of the audience to be inspired to identify in some way with the speakers and move to emulate their public engagement. Yet, #s406 was a #manel – and an all-white #manel, at that. The vast majority of the audience were not represented by those at the speakers’ table and could not smuggle any budgies, i.e. were non-white and/or non-male. Granted, there was a female moderator, Sanne Frequin, and a female academic, Alice Johnston, had been slated to speak, but had to withdraw at the last minute. So it was not designed to be an all-white-male affair, but voila, that’s what we got. Speaking first, Gabriele started the shebang off well, noting his experiences online/in public were inevitably shaped by his intersecting privileges as a Caucasian cisgender heterosexual man. I was impressed, anticipating more dissection of practical approaches to challenges faced by academics of different identities, perhaps in the Q&A. Alas, this was not to be the case.

            An audience member, Rachel Moss, asked the million dollar question. To paraphrase: how do we do “public medievalism” successfully – and safely – if we don’t look like the speakers? Ross was seemingly ignored; the question went unanswered. A short while later, the question was asked again by Courtney Barajas:

The moderator, Frequin, shut the question down, commenting that the purpose of the session was not to “harass” the presenters. This was unfortunate and deeply frustrating. I don’t think the questions posed were harassing or argumentative at all, though the issue is difficult certainly. I can’t definitively speak for the audience as a whole, but for what it’s worth, I do not believe that we expected any “perfect” answers, nor any kind of apology by the presenters themselves for the iniquities of privilege, representation and public response. I think, mainly, we wanted an acknowledgement of this patently obvious issue, and some discussion as to what to do about it. I certainly did. Some of us expressed our frustration on Twitter:

            Audience members, myself included, had been live-tweeting the session, and our tweeting ramped up in response to the session’s swerve around the representation question. From shortly after 7 pm, #s406 was the number one trending hashtag on Twitter in the UK:

This surge in hashtag usage represents one of the wins of the session overall for me: passionate and informed analysis of the very real challenges of public engagement for some; the sharing of perspectives and personal responses; the coalescing of a supportive community. Through interaction with #medievaltwitter online – both those in the room with me, and those geographically dislocated – I felt seen and heard. In response to a lack of models with which I could identify and the panel’s frustrating silence, I found a whole host of online companions who just, well, got it – and get it on an ongoing basis. To loop back to the session’s topic: it is because of a set of active “public medievalists” that I feel more represented in the academy, that I feel seen, heard and felt as a female academic. This is invaluable work.

Bonus: to sign a pledge promising to actively avoid participating in #manels, click here. My thanks to Dorothy Kim, who tweeted about the pledge.

[Edited on 15/07/15 to fix some typos and nonsensical overuse of "problematic" in one sentence.]