The Ups and Downs of Being a Dyslexic Academic

Chaucer's Alphabet Poem. From Glasgow, University Library, MS Hunter 239, f. 81r.

Chaucer’s Alphabet Poem. From Glasgow, University Library, MS Hunter 239, f. 81r.

“And ‘a’, and ‘b’, and ‘c’ … xyz, xy with esed, and per se, Tyttle Tyttle Tyttle than Est and Amen.” 

This string of alphabetic letters and puzzling interjections comes from a medieval manuscript, London, BL MS Harley 1304. It probably looks like gibberish, or reminds you of the incomprehensibility of the written page you felt when you were learning to read. But for a medieval child, these marks had meaning: aside from the alphabetic letters, the ‘esed’ tells a child how to say the letter ‘z’, while the ‘and, per se’ (‘and, just as it is’) provided a key to the & symbol included at the end of the traditional alphabet. Every word and name, however odd, had a meaning, but they also remind us how easily written culture can become strange and incomprehensible.

I’ve been meaning to write a post about dyslexia and being an academic for, ooh, about a year now, but I’ve been putting it off. And then, today I read this excellent post by a fellow dyslexic academic, in which she pointed out that it’s Dyslexia Awareness Week. So, here’s a post. It’s not everything I want to say, but it’s something.

For me, for a long time, being dyslexic was something I was pretty comfortable with, something I’d acknowledge easily, but which honestly didn’t affect my academic life much.

I was much more likely to need help with the boring day-to-day side of things. I’ll give you an example of why. Imagine you’re in the Post Office, posting a parcel using a self-service machine to print the label. You need to type in the Post Code. Now, a normal digit span is between five and nine. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll err on the low side and say six. That’s the number of digits most people can comfortably manage to keep in mind for a moment or two, while they write it down. If you think about it, you’ll see how most things are nicely adapted to this – bank cards come with the numbers separated neatly into groups of four, post codes are six or seven digits, your PIN is four digits.

Oddly, this seems to be something that’s stayed consistent for a while. Medieval educated people knew about chunking things into sixes and sevens. But, they didn’t immediately adapt their numeric system, because few people really needed to use it for big numbers. They mostly used Roman numerals, and you can see that these aren’t the best adapted for large numbers. 1998, for example, is four digits, while its equivalent MCMXCVIII is more than double that.

My digit span is three at a push and two to be comfortable. So, it’s 1/3 of normal.

Imagine you’re standing at a self-service machine, trying to type in the postcode for the letter you’re trying to post. Only now, imagine that postcode is OQFXJD298 894PLZGFH. And imagine that the buttons you have to press are arranged in a random order, too, so you need to look for each letter and number. You don’t track well, so imagine they shift around slightly every time you look away. The machine is set up to assume you can type this string of letters and numbers pretty much instantly, without pausing to check it where the buttons are. So it’ll time out if you take too long.

You can probably see where I’m going. I time out. I hate using self-service machines. I’d rather queue, and if I’m not allowed to do that, someone has to come and help me. Mostly, if that person isn’t impatient (actually, they’re often not), they will assume they’re dealing with someone with low literacy. They’ll be kind, and I have on occasion had someone ask me if I’ll get home ok. It’s thoughtful, but it’s the kind of help doesn’t easily sit alongside careers in academia in most people’s minds.

But in academia, it was a different story. Writing a PhD, or even doing an undergraduate degree in English, is actually reasonably dyslexia-friendly. It’s also very isolated.

When I was writing my PhD thesis, I initially wanted to focus on non-standard medieval reading, so obviously, I did disclose my dyslexia, because I using it as a research tool. My supervisors were quick to make accommodations, so that was fine. It perhaps should have been a warning sign that one of my supervisors occasionally commented that I seemed to have a slightly unusual process of drafting chapters – but I didn’t worry too much. Last summer, I finally handed in my thesis – some inch-and-a-half thick block of A4 pages full of footnotes and picture captions and transcriptions of Middle English. At some stage in this process, my supervisor suggested I should let my examiners know I was ‘severely dyslexic’. I winced back from that term. It’s one that’s used (in my experience) in formal reports, and I knew I wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination severely dyslexic. But she pointed out she’d rarely taught students who struggled as much as I did.

This wasn’t something I’d been aware of. I’d been coasting along quite happily, and it was a bit of a shock to wiggle myself back into that old identity as the struggling dyslexic student – the one I hadn’t really felt was ‘me’ for a long time. To cut a long story short, I did pass my PhD, but I did fail my corrections the first time around. My internal examiner was, to put it mildly, Not Happy. She’d put a lot of time into making a very clear list of corrections – why on earth hadn’t I bothered?! If I’d known I wasn’t managing the corrections, why hadn’t I asked for help?

The answer (obviously, but I didn’t immediately understand) was that I’d had no idea I was having problems on the level she saw. I’d skip thirty lines and not even notice. I’d make a correction, then put it straight back. I couldn’t keep track of which page I was on.

Eventually, I took a breath, and asked for help. I got a lot of proof-reading from friends (and my very generous supervisor) that year – and that’s a lot in the context of PhD students, who ask each other to proof-read all the time. I resubmitted my corrections and held my breath, and this time, I did get through.

At the moment, I’m lecturing medieval English, which is something I’m sure my infant school teacher didn’t quite expect. I’ve made a lot of progress. Five years ago, I struggled to read a twenty-minute conference paper. I had to learn to memorize it, instead of reading aloud. Now, I can memorise an hour’s lecture and I know how to sort out my lecture notes (14 point type, double spaced, short paragraphs, lots of italic and bold and pointy arrows) so that I can glance at them if I need to.

I can even lecture for an hour on Piers Plowman, and that is hard, reading aloud in Middle English and unpicking syntax on a powerpoint I can’t read for myself. I’m thankful alliterative long lines only have four or five stresses. It’s draining doing those lectures, but fun to know I can do it, too.

When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t know of any dyslexic academics. If I was taught by any, they didn’t make a point of talking about it. I’m trying to talk about it, not just to make excuses, but because, actually, you can adapt to most things. Slowly, I’m bringing together the two sides of how I deal with dyslexia – the side I use in the Post Office queue, where I ask for help and I know it’s obvious I’m struggling, and the side I use in academia, where for a long time, I didn’t feel as if there should be any struggle at all. I really enjoy being dyslexic. I’m interested in the pedagogy of it, and the psychology, and the histories of orthography that inform how our own reading systems developed. I’d like to think there will be more and more of us working in academia, who can bring these slightly skewed perspectives to the table.

Every now and again, in a medieval manuscript, I come across some scribbles by children learning the alphabet. And every now and again, I notice some of the letters are backwards, in the wrong order. I can’t show you a picture, because I don’t have the copyright – but you can imagine that when I see that, it really makes me feel at home.

Notes

For more on the medieval alphabet, see Daniel T. Kline’s book Medieval Literature for Children (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), especially the article by Martha Dana Rust, from which the alphabet above is quoted.

For more on Dyslexia Awareness, see the pages by the British Dyslexia Association and Dyslexia Action.

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If you think feminism is winning, read this. (Trigger warning)

I’ve just been absolutely blown away by the question one of my brilliant students asked. So much so, in fact, that it’s only just sunk in.

Now, I’m enjoying lecturing and it’s the beginning of term, so it’s maybe not surprising that the five minutes of questions at the end of the lecture has been my favourite bit. Yesterday, I was lecturing on one of the theories about how to define Middle English romance as a genre. There’s an idea that it grew out of national epic, as a way to offer the class of men who needed to marry and to fight (that is, knights) a paradigm of virtuous life that wasn’t the peaceable, celibate life of the medieval saint. So far, you may think, so dry. But this lecture meant I talked a lot about racism and a fair bit about sexual violence, because both of those things are used by medieval authors to imply that men – and English men at that – are not thugs but heroes, while painting women and non-whites as inferior.

One popular episode in the Arthurian tradition is a really glaring example. Arthur – our wonderful English hero – travels to France, where he is told that a murderous giant has abducted an aristocratic woman, Arthur’s own subject. Arthur goes charging to the rescue, but he is too late. An old woman tells him she has just buried the mutilated body of the woman he seeks to protect: she was raped so violently she died.

This horrific episode is, in narrative terms, designed to serve an important and specific purpose. Arthur, the hero, is no saintly warrior. In his youth, he committed incest with his sister and produced a son, Mordred, whom he then tried to kill by sentencing all the babies born within that time to death by drowning. Arthur’s sin of sexual deviance followed by murder of an innocent can only be blotted out by the dramatic description of a worse sin of the same kind, which throws our sympathy behind the ‘least worst’ option.

In my lecture, I discussed this example, the rhetorically sophisticated language of the author, the parallels to post-medieval tropes of English masculinity, and a host of other things. In my mind, this episode was typical of Middle English romance, because of the way it uses the graphic violence of rape to further the reputation of a defender of women, rather than to change or explore the situation of the raped woman.

My student asked whether we ever read romances in which men rape their wives.

I began to explain that, in medieval England, the law did not recognise marital rape as a crime, and as I explained that, it dawned on me that the majority of my students – people who are young adults in 2014 – have never lived in a time in which, in England, marital rape was not a crime. They saw it as a medieval barbarity.

My title responds to Laura Bates’ article in the Guardian, which claims that the backlash against feminism proves that we are winning. I like her argument. I think she’s right. The sea change that means that my students can image marital rape might have been a medieval crime shows she is right. When I was born, marital rape was legal in England. It should be shameful that this brings me closer to a medieval legal system than to modern one. But, at the same time, I’m shocked by the slowness of real change – it took six hundred years to move on with the definition of rape! And that makes me second-guess the ‘progress’ we’re trying to celebrate.

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Academics: They’re not Women, you Know.

I’ve just read (via twitter link from two female academics, Alice Bell and Lisa Jardine), this delightful Guardian article, titled ‘Why do academics dress so badly? Answer: they are too happy’.

Well, that’s lovely, I thought. It is nice to see an article acknowledging that, amid the chaos of REF 2020 and funding cuts and short-term contracts, there is someone sticking up for the fun side of academic life. I’ve just started a new job. It comes with perks like an actual living wage and the chance to move to a city with decent shopping. One of the things I have very much enjoyed doing with said living wage was buying a couple of new dresses and a very swish dressing gown from Nomads on King’s Parade, which is one of my favourite shops in the world. (Don’t worry, I also splashed out on some lovely new books and spent time walking past King’s chapel sighing contentedly and pretending I was in Granchester with James Norton. I have a Life of the Mind, you know).

The article tries for an arch, tongue-in-cheek tone. But as I read it, I was confused.

Paisley body warmers? Cornish pasty shoes? ‘Amusing’ cufflinks? Fortunately, Marx can explain our crimes of fashion,” it began. 

That’s funny, I thought. I can’t remember when I thought of wearing any of those.

Ostensibly, the article engaged with the question of gender in academic dress. That is to say, it dragged out the tired old chestnut that women can wear whatever they like and men have to wear suits. And it’s so hard for them! To be all fashionable! Because they have thinky-thoughts and everything!

Women (who are, btw, on average doing the lion’s share of housework and child-tending), don’t have such difficulties. Their butterfly minds rise above the serious work of hard thinking (or the dollops of baby-sick) and straight in to LK Bennett. Well, my mind does. I have no child-sick to contend with.

If you are wondering why I’m irritated by this article, read it, and look at its use of language. ‘Academic’ is, virtually throughout, synonymous with ‘male academic’. Early on, a woman is referred to as a ‘colleague’ (in implicit contrast to the ‘academic’ to whom she speaks). Now, sure, she might well be non-academic staff, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that an article on how ‘academics’ dress is really all about men.

There was one ray of light – and I thought we were getting to some kind of sensible acknowledgement that women academics existed, for eventually we reached a straight comparison of what men and women academics should wear to look good.

Apparently, for a man to look good as an academic, what he needs are good cufflinks. No brand, you know. Just cufflinks. The last time I bought cufflinks (and they were nice), they cost about £40.

For a woman to look good as an academic?

“a Hermès scarf should be enough to swing the vote.”

Oh, ok then. Mind if I pick the cheapie option? I’m so sorry, I know … but £250 is more than my weekly rent, so …

I could go on about this article, which has really irritated me with its casual assumptions about who the default ‘academic’ is, and I could moan more about its utterly patronizing and misguided attempts to throw a bone to those few women readers who might care. I will point out that the financial side of things matters, in part, because the average age and seniority of female academics is lower than that of men, so we are less (not more) likely to be in a good position to shell out on that designer scarf to impress. And, sadly, we’re also more likely to be judged for it if we claim we’re just too ‘happy’ to care about how we look. But, I’m not going to go on. I’m an academic, and caring about my clothes not only makes me happy – it’s also perfectly compatible with being fulfilled by my academic work.

A few weeks ago, the very stylish Rachel Moss set up this tumblr account, ‘This is How Academics Dress’. You can add pictures, to broaden everyone’s stereotype of what academics look like. This is a hugely positive thing: a simple, effective way of showing people that there’s a wide range of academic images, far more diverse than the ‘(white) man in a suit’ we’re used to seeing.

More recently, I was discussing clothing with my brilliant third-year student, who is starting to write a fascinating dissertation on the subject (why yes, Prof Wolff, people can expend real academic energy and time on clothing! I know, right?!). I won’t spoiler her research, which is her own, but there was one snippet I thought relevant. We noticed how much, when you read and look at medieval texts, men dress in flamboyant clothes, in silks, in embroideries. For us, it’s easy to read those clothes as ‘feminine,’ because that’s our stereotype. But we’d be wrong. The tiny details of masculine dress – the green and gold of, say, the disguised baddie in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which tells a sharp-eyed observer how to spot him later in the text – are designed to separate the clever readers from the dupes. In short: clothing matters.

NYC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection. The Belle Heures of Jean, Duc du Berry. c. 1400. St Jerome in a Woman's Dress

And never more than for poor St Jerome, a martry to a pretty dress. Perhaps this explains the deep-seated male anguish over academic clothing? Image from http://johanoosterman.tumblr.com/.

Update

It’s been suggested I need to clarify that, in this post, I am referring to academics who teach and/or research at universities, not to teachers in schools. I’m not sure what the dress codes are in most schools, but they may be quite different. Apologies to anyone offended.

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Witches and Wicked Bodies: Imagining the ‘Other’

Agostino Veneziano (fl. 1509–1536), The Witches’ Rout (The Carcass). Engraving, c. 1520. Exhibition Poster for 'Witches and Wicked Bodies' at the British Museum

Agostino Veneziano (fl. 1509–1536), The Witches’ Rout (The Carcass). Engraving, c. 1520. Exhibition Poster for ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ at the British Museum

This weekend I went to the ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies‘ exhibition at the British Museum. It’s free, and open until January 11th, and I really enjoyed it.

It’s not a big exhibition, and it’s all moody and wintery with very little colour (mostly black-and-white prints and drawings and so on). There are a few ‘flashbacks’ to the earlier sources that influenced later artists, including a really gorgeous Boeotian Greek vase with an image of the witch Odysseus meets, Circe, pictured as an African woman.

This made me think about race, and I noticed was that a lot of the post-medieval imagery attached to witches is similar to the anti-semitic imagery of medieval England and Europe. Medieval attitudes to Jews and witches were at the front of my mind anyway, because on Friday I taught the passage in Langland’s late fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman where Christ is condemned to death in front of a baying crowd of spiteful Jewish accusers, and one of the accusations they throw at him (twice) is that of witchcraft:

‘”Crucifige!” quod a cachepol, “I warante hym a wicche!”‘
(‘”Crucify him!” said a tax officer, “I bet that he is a witch!”‘)
Piers Plowman B, XVIII 46

Now, this comment is actually pretty odd, in its context. A lot of people assume that medieval accusations of witchcraft were all over the place, because there’s a very popular misconception that, well, medieval people were all barbaric and woman-hating, so obviously they must have been burning witches left, right and centre? Right? Well, wrong. That’s the early Moderns, and they preferred to hang them, anyway.

It’s not that medieval people never mention witches. As I’ve said in a previous post, Robert Mannying (writing in the early fourteenth century) has a brilliant story dripping with innuendo, about a witch who gets the better of the local bishop. But, by and large, medieval England doesn’t have the witch-mania that came later, accompanied by hangings and inquisitions and the generation of all the stereotypes we associate with witches today.

What’s they do have – and the scene in Piers Plowman that mentions witchcraft is full of it – is anti-semitism. And as I went around the exhibition, I realized that, actually, the imagery of these two kinds of ‘evil Other’ were echoing each other.

Crusaders slaughter Jewish men. French Bible Illumination, taken from this site.

Crusaders slaughter Jewish men. French Bible Illumination, taken from this site.

Medieval anti-semitic images and texts typically represent Jews, one of the arch-enemies of Christianity, as male. Saracens (ie., Muslims) are often women who fall into the enduringly racist ‘dusky-skinned princess destined to be saved by handsome white man’ trope. But most Jewish figures are men. As you can see in the image above, like witches, medieval Jews as represented by non-Jewish people have distinctive attributes. Here, in addition to their pointed Jewish hats, the Jewish men kneeling in the bottom right-hand corner are leaning, twisting their bodies anti-clockwise, while their attackers lean and gesture in a clockwise motion.

This is a pretty common trope in iconography (I went to a cracking lecture on it by, if I remember rightly, Anthony Bale. Depressingly, the lecture was so good I was concentrating more on that than on who gave it!). Jewish figures are often pictured moving anticlockwise (‘widdershins’), or reaching out with their (sinister) left hands. And here, in the exhibition, the same visual point was being made in images culmination with Dürer’s Witch Riding backwards on a Goat: just as Jews lean anti-clockwise (‘widdershins’), so too the post-medieval witches dancing in that direction or ride facing backwards to indicate their unnatural position in the world.

Witches were imagined eating babies and poisoning wells; in medieval anti-semitic stories we find stories of Jewish communities murdering children (like the revoltingly pious little song-school scholar in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, who continues to sing hymns to the Virgin Mary even after evil Jews have cut up his body and hidden it in a privy). The medieval story that Jews used the blood of murdered Christians to bake their matzos translates nicely into the giant’s ‘I’ll grind your bones to make my bread,’ but it’s also picked up in images of cannibalistic witches.

The parallels extended to accessories. There was one amazing seventeenth-century German picture of a witches’ sabbath, which included a ring of women dancing to the accompaniment of a giant black hare. The longer you looked, the more pairs of Cheshire-cat eyes and hunched catty backs you noticed hiding in the corners of the image. And I knew that Black cats seem to have had a dubious reputation in a lot of contexts, before becoming our preferred image of the witch’s familiar. Alan of Lille claimed that Cathers – twelfth-century heretics – were in the habit of kissing black cats on the arse, which was obviously a sign of devil-worship.

Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, U 964, fol. 376r

Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, U 964, fol. 376r. Image from Discarding Images.

A few medievalists I know have been wondering why on earth this intrepid archer is shooting such a vulnerably-positioned cat – now do we know why? Cat arses: dangerous business.

Sure enough, in her book on the emergence of anti-semitic medieval imagery, Sara Lipton finds thirteenth-century images of Jews kissing black cats, too. She also finds that toads – as images of greed – became part of the same iconography, as did ravens. You can see where this is going.

Now, naturally, as my friend observed while we were going round the exhibition, the rumours and images and anecdotes are easily adapted to fit new bogeymen (women?) in every generation. But for me, it’s particularly interesting when a set of images that were centred around one gender shift across to the other gender. What was it that changed? 

The paraphernalia we’ve become accustomed to associating with witches – with cackling, evil caricatures of the real people who were executed for their Otherness, like the early-Modern witches hanged in England and abroad, and like the Jewish communities murdered or expelled from twelfth-century England – is a meme used to instil fear. Once, this imagery stirred up, and simultaneously justified, medieval anti-semitism to people whose country had got rid of its Jewish population. Then, it became the imagery of the women society wanted to stare at, shudder at, and use to frighten children. And it has endured.

Notes

Aside from the book linked to above, there’s an article by Lipton that’s worth reading (and the title alone is great): ‘Jews, Heretics and the Sign of the Cat in the Bible Moralisée,’ Word and Image 8 (1992): 362-77.

In the medieval illumination, I’ve just noticed God is looking leftwards too. What’s that about?

Irritatingly, when I came across Daily Fail article about this exhibition, they claimed that the exhibition poster (The Witches’ Rout, an engraving by Veneziano dated to c. 1520) was ‘typical of the terrifying witches of the fifteenth century’. Now, either someone writing doesn’t understand how century-naming works (it’s actually quite common, that), or they figured meh, what does it matter, it’s more or less medieval and who really cares that this exhibition seemed to be making some kind of point by starting with the Renaissance, eh?

Grr.

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‘Bodies without Histories’: Poems and Memories

Botticelli, 'Madonna of the Book,' 1480

Botticelli, ‘Madonna of the Book,’ 1480

I should have written a post for National Poetry Day yesterday, but life got in the way, so it’s here today instead.

It’s long, but a lot of the length comes from two pieces of poetry I wanted to post.  Apparently, today, it would be de rigueur for me to write an enthusiastic blog post, not about poetry, but about my first visit to Oxford’s new manuscript library. I have been, and it is lovely, and yes, you can look out over the Oxford skyline, and yes, the stairs are excitingly futuristic and look very Battlestar Galactica, and yes, I am (just!) old enough to have looked up my first manuscripts in the old five hundred year old library built by Duke Humfrey and I am sad that no one else will get to do that now. But, Sjoerd Levelt and David Rundle have both written lovely, eloquent pieces on the subject.

Their research places them in a chain of known and named readers in this library: Professor Rundle works partly on Duke Humfrey, the fifteenth-century aristocrat who had it built, and Dr Levelt works on John Selden, book collector and historian, for whom the ‘Selden end’ of the old manuscripts reading room is named. Both of them made interesting points about what it was like to handle manuscripts belonging to these men in the very same space where those manuscripts were kept and read hundreds of years ago. You could stand in the room and imagine the exact same physical experiences – the same manuscripts in your hands, the same light slanting through the same windows – that those men had in the past. 

Memory has a corporeal aspect in some of my favourite poems, and functions a bit the way that long-lived libraries do, to let dead voices come to life again through shared books.

Start with The Wasteland. Before I had the foggiest idea what Eliot was talking about, let alone where half of these archaic-sounding lines were stolen from, bits of the poem stuck out in a non-English rhythm.  “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.” Those lines are actually from Dante’s Inferno: “si lunga tratta/ di gente, ch’ i’ non averei creduto/ che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta” (‘such a long train of people, that I would not have believed that death had undone so many’). Before that, they look towards Virgil’s Aeneid, which Dante draws on to imagine his crowd of thronging dead, and from which he borrows his imagined guide through Hell, the poet Virgil. His crowd echoes that of Virgil, who describes how “omnis turba ad ripas effusa ruebat,/ matres atque viri, defunctaque corpora vita/ magnanimum heroum, pueri innuptaeque puellae …” (‘all of this crowd were rushing to the banks [of the river Styx]: mothers and men, bodies devoid of life, great-hearted heroes, boys and unmarried girls …”). In turn, Virgil’s Latin is taken from Homer’s Greek in the Odyssey, where, after Odysseus summons the dead up from Hades with a libation of blood, αἱ δ’ ἀγέροντο/ ψυχαὶ ὑπὲξ Ἐρέβευς νεκύων κατατεθνηώτων/ νύμφαι τ’ ἠίθεοί τε πολύτλητοί τε γέροντες” (‘then the spirits of the dead came, thronging, from Erebus: young wives and youths, old men who had suffered much …’)

The Greek takes us in a loop back to the modernist poets, for Pound – Eliot’s contemporary and friend – begins his Cantos with a loose translation of the same Greek lines with which this book of the Odyssey begins, which then echo forward into Latin, Italian and then Eliot’s English. Each subsequent re-use of an older text reanimates that text, just as Homer’s dead are brought back to speak to Odysseus in the first place.

I absoutely love the way these poems form a conversation. And I feel hugely lucky to have got to study all of them. It’s on my mind because I’m going back to teach some of the courses where I first met some of these writers (and places are evocative, even for feministy women). But, then, a little bit of me feels as if it’s not my conversation,  just as it’s not my library – I’m a visitor on the edge of a conversation carried out between men and in the male voice. Much as I love those male voices, I wondered how we could think about women immortalised in poems and memories.

The first medieval poem that sprang to mind when I thought about women, poetry, memory and loss was this one (anonymous, for what it’s worth, ok, I admit I think here anon was a man, despite writing about a woman). Here are the opening lines, with a facing translation:

I
Perle, plesaunte to prynces paye,
Pearl, pleasing to a prince’s taste,
To clanly clos in golde so clere
To enclose cleanly in bright gold
Oute of Oryent, I hardyly saye,
From the Orient, I dare swear
Ne proved I never her precios pere.
I never found her precious peer.
So rounde, so reken in uche araye,
So round, so beautiful in every setting
So smal, so smothe her sydes were,
So small, so smooth, her sides were
Queresoever I jugged gemmes gaye
Wheresoever I judged beautiful gems
I sette hyr sengeley in synglure.
I set her apart, unparalleled.
Allas, I leste hyr in on erbere;
Alas, I lost her in a garden
Thurgh gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.
Through the grass to the ground, it slipped from me.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
I linger, wounded by love-frustration
Of that pryvy perle withouten spot.
For that special pearl, without a spot.II

Sythen in that spote hit fro me sprange,
Since it sprang from me in that spot,
Ofte haf I wayted, wyschande that wele
I have often waited, wishing for the joy
That wont was whyle devoyde my wrange
That once was wont to dispel my woe
And heven my happe and al my hele.
And raise my heart and happiness.
That dos bot thrych my herte thrange,
This only pierces my heart sorely,
My breste in bale bot bolne and bele.
My breast burns and swells in anguish.
Yet thoght me never so swete a sange
Yet, I never thought of so sweet a song
As stylle stounde let to me stele;
As that still moment let steal over me,
Forsothe, ther fleten to me fele
Indeed, many things flooded over me,
To thenke hir color so clad in clot.
To think of her colour, covered in earth.
O moul, thou marres a myry juele,
Oh mould, you mar a merry jewel,
My privy perle wythouten spotte.
My own pearl, without a spot.

The whole poem is much longer, and it has a gorgeously complicated, repetitive, architectural structure to it. As it unfolds, we realize that the reason the man speaking refers to this pearl as ‘she’ is because the precious stone represents a woman whom he loved and who is now dead and buried – ‘lost’ in a garden that is a graveyard, her ‘colour so clad in clot’, clothed in clods of earth.

I find this a poignant evocation of grief – especially the speaker’s contrast between the ornate beauty of the lost pearl and the gruesome glimpse of the woman’s burial, ‘clad in clot’. However, there’s no denying that even though the dead woman, the lost pearl, belongs to a poetic tradition as old as that which Eliot traces back to Homer, her precious, passive, untouchable body belongs to a wider tradition of representing chaste, beautiful women as perfect in their proximity to death. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne writes a brilliant (and disturbing) description of this kind of medieval attitude:

“Chaste female spirituality is … located in bodies without histories, locked away both from outer event and physiological change. … This writing-out of women is part of a thematic preoccupation with their death in the literature of chastity.”

[quoted from Wogan-Browne, ‘Chaste bodies: frames and experiences,’ in Framing Medieval Bodies, eds. Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 24-42 (p. 24)]

On the surface, all of this is true of Pearl, just as it is of the earlier text to which Wogan-Browne refers. The repeated line referring to a pearl ‘without a spot’ echoes the medieval scriptural interpretations of the perfect female beloved as one who, like the Virgin Mary has no ‘spot’ of sin. In death, she is enclosed in the grave, ‘clad in clot,’ yet this enclosure only continues that more beautiful enclosure imagined in the first lines, where she was ‘clos[ed] in gold’. 

Admittedly, this is a complex poem. It won’t let me construct some neat theory about the ways in which dead men are memorialised through poems that let them speak again, while women, in death, are passive and silent. And I’m glad I can’t.  However, I still read those lines and wish I had something later to look towards, the way you can look from Dante to Eliot or Homer to Pound. And so, that’s where the second poem I want to quote comes from. It’s by a modernist, contemporary with Pound and Eliot, and she deserves to be better known. This is a piece from her long epic poem, Trilogy.

Raphael, Madonna del cardellino ('Our Lady of the Goldfinch'). 1505-6

Raphael, Madonna del cardellino (‘Our Lady of the Goldfinch’). 1505-6

We have seen her
The world over,

Our Lady of the Goldfinch,
Our Lady of the Candelabra,

Our Lady of the Pomegranate,
Our Lady of the Chair;

we have seen her, an empress,
magnificent in pomp and grace,

and we have seen her
with a single flower

or a cluster of garden-pinks
in a glass beside her;

we have seen her snood
drawn over her hair

or her face set in profile
 with the blue hood and stars;

we have seen her head bowed down
with the weight of a domed crown,

or we have seen her, a wisp of a girl
trapped in a golden halo;

we have seen her with arrow, with doves
and a heart like a valentine;

we have seen her in fine silks imported
from all over the Levant,

and hung with pearls brought
from the city of Constantine;

we have seen her sleeve
of every imaginable shade

of damask and figured brocade;
it is true,

the painters did very well by her;
it is true, they never missed a line

of the suave turn of the head
or subtle shade of lowered eye-lid

or eye-lids half-raised; you find
her everywhere (or did find),

in cathedral, museum, cloister,
at the turn of the palace stair.

da Vinci, study of the Madonna, c. 1484

da Vinci, study of the Madonna, c. 1484

We see her hand in her lap,
smoothing the apple-green

or the apple-russet silk;
we see her hand at her throat,

fingering a talisman
brought by a crusader from Jerualem;

we see her hand unknot a Syrian veil
or lay down a Venetian shawl

on a polished table that reflects
half a miniature broken column

O yes – you understand, I say,
this is all most satisfactory,

but she wasn’t hieratic, she wasn’t frozen,
she wasn’t very tall;

she is the Vestal
from the days of Numa,

she carries over the cult
of the Bona Dea,

she carries a book but it is not
the tome of the ancient wisdom,

the pages, I imagine, are the blank pages
of the unwritten volume of the new;

all you say, is implicit,
all that and much more;

but she is not shut up in a cave
like a Sibyl; she is not

imprisoned in leaden bars
in a coloured window;

she is Psyche, the butterfly,
out of the cocoon.

H. D. shows how this woman, the Virgin Mary – central to Western Art History – is seen in the eyes of painters and viewers as a conflation of exchangeable images of femininity, now one woman, now another, now pictured like this, now like that. These Madonnas, with their precious stones and beautiful settings, their enclosure in picture frames or even ‘trapped in a golden halo’, patently share in the same iconographic tradition of the medieval pearl-maiden. A poet like Pound or Eliot might have made her literary and artistic predecessors speak, but instead, H. D. offers a corrective to their view. She strips away all of the rich, evocative tradition and insists on her own poetic authority to define her Madonna. This Madonna is not a (female) ‘body without history,’ nor a (male) speaking voice reanimated, but a move towards something new. 

I hope you like the poems. 

Note

The titles H. D. gives to her Madonna are the titles of paintings, mostly by Raphael. I have to admit, I don’t really warm to Raphael. I always visualised this poem with vague images of da Vinci Madonnas. Sorry! I have absolutely no idea whether or not H. D. could have read the medieval poem Pearl. The imagery is drawn from many of the same sources, but Pearl wasn’t especially well known when H. D. was writing. 

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I Should Of Known: Julian of Norwich and the Venerable History of Dodgy Auxiliary Verbs

Teaching Medieval Students. London, BL MS Royal 19 C ii, f. 48v.

Teaching Medieval Students. London, BL MS Royal 19 C ii, f. 48v.

Thrilling title, I know.

And no, this post isn’t technically about feminism or medieval romance, so you’ll have to forgive me for a moment, because I’m going to bang on about bad grammar and dyslexia. I’m writing this because for about the ninth time this month, I’ve heard someone insist that it’s perfectly fair to judge people who make grammatical slips, because there’s no reason to do that except for ignorance or laziness.

Now, personally, I’m not wild about judging people for ignorance. It seems like educational privilege to me. But I’m even more fed up with people who assume grammar errors can only be made through ignorance of correct standard English. In my experience, the same people tend to have a wildly idealistic attitude towards the history of the English language, so it’s always fun when you notice something in a medieval text that is a dead ringer for one of the ‘modern’ mistakes that horrify the pearl-clutchers.

And I found a nice one of those today.

When I’m reading medieval texts, I sometimes record them as audio files, and doing that really makes you pay attention to each author’s habits of expression, in a way that I don’t remember to do so much if I’m just reading silently. At the moment, I’m recording Julian of Norwich’s Shewings, a text written in the late fourteenth century by a woman who’s often seen as one of the leading religious thinkers of her time, one of the few women whose writing survives.

I’ve been noticing how much easier Julian’s prose is to read than the previous text I recorded (Piers Plowman, which is written in verse, specifically, what’s called an alliterative long line). Langland, the author of Piers, is a book fetishist. The poem is crammed with references to this or that book, this legal document or that charter, these words in the margins or that bit of rubric. Someone or other is always opening up scrolls or reading out papers, and there’s even a character called ‘Book’. Essentially, this poem was written by someone who, in 2014, would be going around the British Library licking the display cases.

Not so Julian. Her style is theologically complex, but you don’t get the impression she writes (or dictates) her prose with an image of a finished written page in her mind’s eye. This isn’t because she writes grammatically simple English, but because she (or whoever wrote the text down for her) has a really good ear for which sounds are easy to pronounce next to one another.

Here’s the piece where she describes her horror, and pity, at her vision of Christ’s crucifixion. Be warned, it’s deliberately gruesome:

“And … I saw that the swete skyn and the tender flesh, with the heere and the blode, was al rasyd and losyd abov from the bone … And that was grete sorow and drede to me. For methowte I wold not for my life a sen it fallen.”

(“And … I saw that the sweet skin and the tender flesh, with the hair and the blood, was all raised, and loose out over the bone … And that was a great sorrow and terror to me. For I thought I would not for my life of seen it fall.”

It’s not actually that hard to understand in modern English, if you read it out loud (and if you know a couple of tricky words). But what you may notice is that Julian doesn’t use the standard modern English grammar ‘I would not for my life have seen it fall’. She uses ‘a’, which is a homophone for an elided ‘have’. Here, it creates a slow sighing sound at the end of the sentence, perfectly appropriate to the image she pictures. 

Elsewhere, she’s perfectly capable of writing ‘I would have’ and ‘I could have,’ so we can’t put this down either to pure incomprehensible medieval dialect: what we have is a situation where this was simply quite acceptable. It’s not because she, or her scribe, doesn’t understand grammar, or confuses an indefinite article with an auxiliary verb. It’s simply because they sound similar enough that, when the rhythm of the sentence demands it, she can blur ‘have’ into ‘a’ with no harm done.

Now, obviously, in formal, standard English, writing “I should of done that” or “I shoulda done that” is incorrect, and we know that.

To get technical, the reason people make this mistake (other than genuine ignorance, which is pretty simple to correct) is that “should’ve” and “should of” are homophones in some accents. You might think this would be a one-time mistake: you heard something incorrectly (aged six or so), and wrote it down phonetically once, before being corrected. But it’s not so, because of the way our brains process language as we write. As we write, we are aware of the sequence of familiar physical movements made to form letters (what we often call ‘muscle memory’). We’re also aware of the visual shapes made by familiar groups of letters on the page. And we’re aware of the sounds those letters should make. All of these three things are, for fluent readers, more or less on auto-pilot while we think about what we intend to type – or write – next.

If your auto-pilot is a bit faulty, you can find your fingers provided you with a word that’s not quite what you intended (as a medievalist who writes a lot about religion I can’t type the name Chris without adding a final ‘t,’ which is very flattering to any Christophers I know). And you can find you end up typing one homophone when you intended to pick up the other one, which was sitting neatly alongside it in the box your brain marks as ‘phonetically identical’. It’s thought that dyslexia results from some kind of fault in the way the brain processes aural and visual information, and so this is a characteristic dyslexic error – an auto-pilot error, rather than an error of grammatical knowledge.

So, why did I burden you all with this incredibly dull post on grammar? Well, it’s because I wanted to try to refute two really common misconceptions. One is that this sort of error is something it’s ok to judge people for making – or at least, it’s an error that ‘proves’ their ignorance, rather than their disability. The other is that this sort of error is one of the host of peculiarly modern mistakes, to be blamed on the (fictitious) decline of the English language in recent years.

When I started writing this blog, I decided that instead of spending hours painstakingly proof-reading each post, I’d give them a quick once-over and refer anyone who was bothered by the inevitably typos and errors to my disclaimer, which points out that I’m dyslexic and don’t proof-read well. This turned out to be a really good decision, because around a week after I wrote that disclaimer, I had my PhD viva and came away with a list of corrections only slightly shorter than the thesis itself.

Those corrections were appropriate: when I’m writing formal standard English, it needs to be spot on. But when I’m writing this blog, occasionally I’ll slip up. And that’s ok. And maybe, next time you see someone making an error like this, instead of judging, you’ll take a minute to consider they might be dyslexic, and to remember that, six hundred years ago, a medieval woman was writing shoulda woulda coulda all over the shop.

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John Wycliffe, Bible Translator, Dead for 600 Years, Still a Better Feminist Ally than Ally Fogg.

Marie de St Pol (c. 1303-1377). Foundress of Pembroke, Cambridge. Portrait at Pembroke College Cambridge.

Marie de St Pol (c. 1303-1377). Foundress of Pembroke, Cambridge. Portrait at Pembroke College Cambridge.

This morning, I read a lovely article in the GuardianHertford College, Oxford – which went mixed forty years ago – is celebrating by replacing its dusty old portraits of former male members with photographs of female alumnae.

I really like this. Especially because it doesn’t come across as a pompous policy decision, but something much more funny and, actually, suprisingly revealing of the history of the college. The article quotes Dr Emma Smith explaining that the college’s one-time reputation for being poor and academically undistinguished (back in the days when it formed the backdrop for Brideshead Revisited) made the decision easier to make:

“We have no glorious history, we’re not hidebound by ancient traditions, we have none. Taking down all the portraits was helped by the fact that nobody felt the slightest affection for any of them, with the exception of John Donne.”

I can well belive this. And I find it pretty funny that Smith and her colleagues discovered, on removing a row of portraits of male clergy, that no-one actually had the faintest idea who these men were. It’s usually women who suffer this fate: immortalized on canvas, but with no-one bothering to remember their names. Presumably, the idea of men being anonymised in plain sight was so unthinkable to generations of Hertford people that no-one quite realized everyone else was wondering who the portraits represented.

Anyway, all of this was, as I say, rather nice. Most Oxbridge colleges have an embarrassment of portraits of dusty, long-dead men glaring down from the walls, and, I’ll admit, it doesn’t tend to make you feel at home. You’re constantly reminded that the place was built from the minds and purses of powerful men, that it excluded women for centuries.

However, I did have a quibble, both with the Guardian (oh, Guardian!), and with this version of history. The Guardian notes that one of the portraits consigned to obscurity is that of William Tyndale, ‘first translator of the Bible into English’. Now, Hertford does have a historic grudge against John Wycliffe – the man whose name is usually associated with the first complete English translations of the Bible (Anglo-Saxonists can argue over that one). Hertford’s pleasantly named ‘Black Hall’ is where Wycliffe was imprisoned while the authorities took their first and only known debate over whether or not this new fangled ‘change’ was a good thing.

Dear readers, I struggled with that Guardian article. Oh, who am I kidding? I rolled my eyes and then gleefully took recourse to academic snarking. Tyndale’s translation gets the credit over that carried out by John Wycliffe and his colleagues over a century earlier, because Tyndale belongs to the post-medieval, post-print sixteenth century. People don’t generally like to believe that English Bibles belonged to the medieval period – let alone that they were the English book that survive in (by far) the greatest numbers – because it doesn’t fit well with our nice image of the medieval Catholic Church as a sinister organization carrying out its operations in impenetrable Latin. It’s true the medieval Church wasn’t wild keen on Wycliffe’s Bible falling into uneducated hands, and after a certain point, you’d (technically) need special clearance to own a copy. But this didn’t stop kings, aristocrats and monasteries from buying copies. And in fact, one of the only copies to include a record that official permission for ownership was sought, belonged to a woman.

I’ve written before about the aftermath of John Wycliffe’s English Bible translation, and about how a heretical movement called Lollardy sprung up, demanding (amongst other things) that women be given the freedom to read the Bible, preach, and teach. And I’ve noted that, generally, we’re not taught about this minor attempt to give women more visibility in a historically male-dominated academic and religious culture.

Why does this matter? What does it mean to omit Wycliffe from the historical version of events – and therefore to omit the tantalizing possibility of women priests, and the factual existence of female Bible readers, from the record also?

Well, it matters because those portraits of dead white men at Hertford, and other Oxbridge colleges, are just occasionally varied with portraits of their female counterparts. At Pembroke College, Cambridge, we have Marie de St Pol. The Bodleian holds the portrait of Dervorguilla of Galloway, who part-funded Balliol. Queen’s College, Oxford, owns a rather dodgy post-medieval picture of its medieval patron, Queen Philippa of Hainault. Clare College, Cambridge, has a picture of its second founder, Elizabeth de Clare. Both Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville are credited with the founding of Queens’ Cambridge (hence the position of its apostrophe).

And so it goes on. For wealthy medieval women, donating money to an Oxbridge college was a perfectly normal act of piety, something for which they fully expected to be remembered. After Wycliffie, such activities would not have been incompatible with paying for a beautifully hand-copied manuscript of the English Bible. Some women even translated portions of the Bible for themselves, or read in Latin or French.

There is a continuity to women’s involvement in academia, even in Oxbridge. And sure, founding a college (or having a foundation named after you) isn’t remotely the same thing as being allowed to study there. So, I love Hertford’s new portraits, and I love the idea behind them. But I hope that, when they face the inevitable backlash of male voices shouting about the sanctity of tradition, they’ll keep in mind that there is also a long-forgotten history of women who deserve to be remembered.

Note

On the subject of the title of this post – well, no, not really. I doubt Wycliffe had a feminist idea in his life. But the idea tickles me.

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