Nature Hammering a Baby: The Role of Female ‘Perversion’ in Medieval Representations of Pregnancy Loss

Nature Forging a Baby in London, British Library MS Harley 4425, f. 140r (Roman de la Rose, fifteenth century)

Content Warning: discussion of pregnancy loss and infant remains

Over on twitter, Erik Wade (@erik_kaars) just shared a sequence of absolutely wonderful medieval images of Nature doing what Nature does – which, for a medieval Christian, is, erm … hammering out babies in her forge. I first came across this fabulous visual metaphor for creation during my Masters, and remember thinking they were great fun. A female image of creation, a woman gleefully girding up her fancy dress to get down and dirty with a thoroughly macho form of making: what’s not to like? The fact that the act of hammering a baby into shape has none of the gentle, nurturing qualities typically understood to circulate between women and infants, just seemed an excellent bonus. Here was a woman not taking the passive, receptive, gentle role I expected, but boldly taking on creative power – with a massive hammer to help her.

But what’s disturbing about the image, as Erik points out in his thread, is that this isn’t just about creation. Look down to Nature’s side: what is this pile of stuff? Those are discarded babies. Presumably, Nature’s early work, which didn’t make the cut. This gives us a neat explanation of ‘faults’ in creation, which is a problem issue for medieval Christians (for all theistic religions, really). After all, if something can go ‘wrong’ in the universe – if some created begins are less perfect than others; if babies can be born with missing limbs – how can we believe in a merciful God, who could prevent such things and did not? This deeply disablist view recurs across Christian theology, and has become part of the stock-in-trade of popular atheism on the internet, so most people have probably heard it before. What’s neat about this particular genre of Natre images, theologically, is that they reinforce the idea that it is Nature (not incidentally, female) who makes the errors and discards some of the products, not God. This begins to look rather less cheerfully proto-feminist, and raises rather more chilling questions about the implicit association between discarded incomplete infants, and macho women hammering away at human bodies.

But there’s a third piece of this puzzle to add to this increasingly unsettling picture of Nature, as imagined by a host of medieval artists. The text that accompanies this particular image (and it is found elsewhere) is a copy of the great French poem Le Roman de la Rose: the Romance of the Rose, which was written by Guillaume de Lorris and his successor Jean de Meun, concluding some time in the later part of the thirteenth century. The Roman is a dream vision, a huge influence on subsequent poetry and debate. It is part of a larger, rambling medieval conversation about the relationships between men and women, and the God-given order of the world. Amongst the many characters in the poem is Genius (who features in a very early post on this blog), and who is a frequently-cited figure in books about medieval views of gender and sexuality, because of his notorious rant against men who engage in unnatural sex, avoiding proper procreative intercourse with women. His rhetoric is pretty standard medieval stuff, looking back to an earlier rant by Alan of Lille, who laments the awful failures of Nature he sees around him daily:

‘Man is made woman … The hammer deforms its own anvil … The ploughshare ploughs the sterile beach’.

These wonderfully overblown images are commonly understood to refer to some form of perverse sex or sodomy, a medieval category that’s much more excitingly inclusive than the modern world would give us to understand. In much medieval understanding, sodomy is not so much to do with penetrative intercourse between men, though it can mean that, but rather, it’s to do with the disruption of the ‘natural’ relation between men and women. Men, medieval writers tell us, should be active and penetrative: their job is to inseminate. In the act of conception, men give the foetus its form and shape. By contrast, women should be passive and receptive: their job is to conceive, and to nourish the already-shaped foetus until the time comes for its birth.

It is this binary relationship that underpins medieval Christian views of human fertility, and the creative functioning of the world as a whole.

Many scholars have pointed out that this presents medieval authors with a slightly embarrassing problem when they come to envisage Nature, the female creator who hammers out babies on her anvil. Isn’t Nature taking an active role there? Isn’t her hammer a rather worryingly, well, phallic attribute, especially when she uses it to form the unborn foetus? In short, goddess Nature at her forge is disconcertingly close the the medieval stereotype of the virago-like women who appropriated masculine sexual roles and attributes in order to satisfy themselves and their female companions. A lesbian, no less.

With this in mind, we can return to look at that pile of discarded babies that lie beside Nature’s forge. On the one hand, we can read these, as I have done above, as a visual explanation of why imperfection can exist in the world: the incomplete babies are the result of Nature, not God. On the other hand, though, these incomplete and discarded infants stand as a nightmarish warning of the dangers of sexual perversity, including the deformation of good heterosex into lesbian creativity. In men, sodomy might be exemplified by the ‘sterile’ activities Alan describes, such as ploughing into barren land. In women, though sodomy might look more like what an English Lollard author of the early fifteenth century described: a situation where women who engage in perverse sexual activities are exactly the same women who would ‘slay children ere they be christened’ through ‘abortion’.

As so often, this medieval illumination holds several possibilities in tension. At a glance, it is delightfully energetic image of female creativity, or, read more carefully, a wise Christian warning against blaming the defects of Nature on God. Yet it also sneaks in a more nastily misogynistic hint about women who take on masculine roles and their complicity in (even, their responsibility for) reproductive dysfunction.

Given that medieval women were obviously quite familiar with the sight of stillborn and miscarried foetuses, this seems especially cruel. Medieval medical manuals frequently discuss what must be done when a baby dies in utero, and do not scruple to recommend that it be dismembered in order to save the mother; miracle stories equally often tell us about babies born in conditions quite similar what we see here. The image thus carries a deeply misogynistic connotation buried beneath its seeming celebration of raw female creative power: an insistent reminder that it is nature (or Nature) that made women the perverse sex, the sex at whose door all the blame for human pain and suffering may be laid. Lost a baby? It’s probably your fault for your innate perversion.

Note

There are many, many scholars whose thinking has influenced this post. For work on medieval views of gender and sexuality, see this bibliography. For work on medieval birth and miracle stories about babies born with what we would now understand as congenital abnormalities, I have in mind particularly the work of Anne E. Bailey.

Maternal Vigils in the Birthing Chamber: Medieval Baptism and its Implications

A couple of days ago, I saw an article in the Independent that talked about the amazing work a Trinity Dublin colleague of mine, Ciara Henderson, is carrying out in the School of Nursing and Midwifery. Ciara’s project is called ‘The Spaces Between Us,’ and it seeks to explore the ways parents bereaved during pregnancy or around the time of birth have of remembering their babies. She is trying to find out about how parents were treated at the time of their loss, a topic often shrouded in silence.

It’s a subject that has a particular resonance in Ireland. For many people, the mention infant loss conjures up headline news: the bodies found in the grounds of the Tuam mother and baby home; the stories of unbaptised infants buried secretly. Yet, Ireland also has a history of profoundly poignant and thoughtful remembrance of stillborn infants, as research into cilliní – the burial places for stillborn and unbaptised infants – has shown.

In my work, although I am based in Ireland, I study medieval English histories and narratives of stillbirth and pregnancy loss, and I found myself pondering how a medieval parent might have answered Ciara’s question. How were medieval mothers treated if their babies died at, or just after, birth?

We know quite a lot about medieval English preparations for childbirth, especially when it comes to the wealthy. Towards the end of her pregnancy, a wealthy woman would withdraw to her chamber for several weeks, preparing for the birth. Rachel Delman has written a fascinating article about the way things were organised in the household of the formidable Alice Chaucer, duchess of Suffolk and the granddaughter of Chaucer the poet. She finds that Alice was keen to organise proceedings when her daughter-in-law Elizabeth became pregnant. Elizabeth was provided with rich, fur-trimmed robes, and Alice brought her copy of Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies, with its eloquence defence of women’s learning, with her to the house. Delman speculates that the women may have read from the book during Elizabeth’s confinement, a time during which women were encouraged to contemplation and reflection. As the time of birth drew nearer, the room would have been made dark and quiet; sweet-smelling herbs or incense might be burned so that their health-giving vapours could enter the mother-to-be’s nostrils, and she and her attendants would have been able to draw on a substantial medieval repertoire of protective prayers and charms against the dangers of childbirth.

London, British Library, MS Royal 20. C. III.

Images of birth itself show surprisingly bustling activity: as recently delivered mothers lie back in richly-hung beds, their attendants hurry about with water to wash the baby, or swaddling clothes to wrap it in. Eventually, cleaned and wrapped, the baby could be taken out to meet its father. Father and godparents would take the baby to the church, to be baptised, while the mother began to recover from the birth. She would not venture out of her chamber for several weeks, until the ceremony of ‘churching’ that marked the end of her period of confinement.

Anthropologists will tell us that rituals mark transitions: baptism is a rite of passage; churching is a rite of passage. It’s clear that these events loomed large in medieval people’s memories: Bronach Kane has shown that both men and women used events like baptism and churching as anchors to remind them of the chronology of other, less important events and timescales. These events were also designed to be public. They have an element of theatre to them, as the child is formally displayed to the world, or the mother processes into the church to kneel for her blessing. We know, too, that the two events were visually linked: at her churching a mother would bring with her the cloth that had been used during her child’s baptism to catch any drops of anointing oil. This ‘chrisom’ cloth was a donation, but it was also a reminder of the tangible link between mother and child.

But what happened when it all went wrong? What struck me most when I learned about these two medieval rituals of baptism and churching was that the mother is, by default, not present at her own child’s baptism. In medieval Christian theology, baptism was absolutely crucial: without it, an infant’s soul was doomed. In extremis, any competent person could perform a baptism, and midwives were often instructed to memorise the correct formula for the ritual. However, we know from constant references and anecdotes that babies quite frequently did die unbaptised – or, perhaps worse – died after a midwife’s ‘baptism’ that a priest subsequently declared to be invalid. Newborn infants were extremely fragile; at any delivery someone – whether the mother or her attendants – must make a difficult decision: was this baby healthy enough to wait for baptism, or not?

There must have been infants who did not survive baptism; there must, too, have been mothers who went to their churching ceremonies days or weeks after their babies had died. We know that the religious dissident Richard Hunne, whose mysterious death in a London prison became a cause célèbre, first came to the attention of the authorities when he refused to donate the chrisom cloth that had belonged to his dead five-week-old son, at his wife’s churching ceremony. There are hundreds, even thousands of medieval images of newly-delivered mothers lying in their beds: their babies are tucked in beside them, or swaddled in the arms of a midwife, or being bathed in a basin of water by the foot of the bed. By contrast, the reality of an infant’s death shortly after birth has no such visibility. The sequence of events is hard to reconstruct: inevitably, mothers and fathers must have each known half of a story, either within or without the birthing chamber.

My own daughter’s birth made me think a lot harder about that sequence of events that routinely separated medieval mothers from their newborn babies. Today (at least in the UK and in Ireland), mothers are not separated from their newborn babies unless there is a pressing medical reason: babies stay with their mothers on the postnatal wards. When Elisabeth was born, she developed sepsis and became quite ill; she had to have a lumbar puncture to test the fluid in her spine. I remember very vividly how disturbing it felt to take Elisabeth away from her mother, my partner, who still really needed to be in bed. The whole procedure took a matter of minutes, of course, and went entirely smoothly, but afterwards I couldn’t help thinking what a vigil of worry medieval mothers must have endured, as they waited to hear if their newborn babies had survived baptism. What memories would the birthing chamber hold for them, as they waited? What reminders were caught in the weave of the chrisom cloths they carried to their churching ceremonies?

Backstage during the ‘Play of the Nativity,’ January 1510

Breviary. Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M. 75, f. 491r (detail).

This year, I have been reading a lot of medieval Nativity plays. I’m searching in the gaps and silences, really, because what I want to know about is not Christ’s birth, but ordinary women’s thoughts and feelings, which are almost impossible to recover. Medieval midwifery texts are often written by men, confidently proclaiming treatments from a careful distance from the birthing chamber; actual women in labour all but disappear from sight. In the narrative of Christ’s birth, ordinary childbirth is mentioned only to provide a negative example. Writers dwell upon anguish and gore, upon fluids and bloods and groans of agony, in order to emphasise the contrasting miracle of Christ’s entry into the world. Silent and painless, calm and serene, the Virgin’s labour is as unlike normal childbirth as anything could be. More and more, I wanted to think about how women exposed to this narrative felt about Mary’s labour. It might seem (and it’s often argued) that when medieval writers represent childbirth as agonising, horrific and bloody, they reveal a misogynistic and pejorative view of women’s bodies, as compared to the impossible perfection of Mary. Where is the space in this narrative of perfect childbirth for women who suffered and bled, and whose children were not always born into joyful life?

The Nativity is a strange moment in medieval drama. The emphasis upon Mary’s still, quiet, calm labour puts medieval dramatists in the peculiar position of having to dramatise something that is inherently lacking in drama, a birth defined by its absence of fuss and flap. On the whole, medieval dramatists love a spectacle – any excuse for dazzling the audience with pyrotechnics or flamboyant costumes or elaborate props. But staging silence is powerful, too. Spectacle invites audiences to marvel, to gaze, to listen and look, but silence demands their trust. Standing in the audience, you hold your breath. Will someone cough, or laugh? Are you still, or do you need to shift, to move? Will someone hear? Silence repositions an audience’s attention from the scene on stage to each person’s own listening, watching body. In this sudden moment of bodily awareness, the audience becomes part of the play.

Thinking about this silence and staging of Christ’s birth, I began to imagine how medieval Nativity plays might provide spaces for ordinary women – midwives, but also their patients – to reflect on their own childbirths as they witnessed what happened on stage. In what follows I have made some leaps in terms of the way I imagined a medieval stage, although even experts in medieval drama (which I am not) still do not know as much as we would like about how these plays were cast or performed. We think boys played women’s parts (as, a couple of generations later, they would for Shakespeare); I have no particular evidence for thinking that a medieval midwife might be recognised by her bag of medicines (like an Edwardian doctor), but I liked the idea. Writing this, I tried to think how the scene of the Nativity might include, and join together, the women who saw it performed onstage. Medieval plays were performed well into the sixteenth century, and so I set my scene in 1510. The Spanish queen I mention is Catherine of Aragon, who on January 31st would give birth to a stillborn daughter, her first child.

 Backstage during the Play of the Nativity, 1510

The day they set up the plays was the coldest day of the winter. Overnight, the thick pine boards of the play wagon had locked into place. Their breath rose white as they yanked and tugged each board into position. The frost deadened the smell of the sawdust that hung in the air.

In the dusty space behind the play wagon, sound is muted. The lines of the actors float past like lines of the liturgy suddenly rising above rood screen in church. One of the Kings leans indolently against the prop box, picking his teeth. In his other hand he holds a beautiful large pomegranate with its stiff rose-pink crown, a substitute for gold in honour of the little Spanish queen who, even now, is preparing to withdraw from the festivities at Greenwich Palace to enter into her first confinement at Richmond. The prop box is made up of packing crates repurposed, by your leave, from the Worshipful Company of Grocers, so it smells of mace, pepper, cinnamon, figs, cloves, lemons,

ginger

juniper

mastic

fennel

cardamom

cumin

liquorice

and setewale, which is sometimes called turmeric.

These are, too, the contents of the little leather pouches that lie beside her on the prop table. Fennel for breastmilk. Juniper and ginger to bring on contractions. Mastic, pounded with cumin and cinnamon, to stop the haemorrhages of blood.

Empty of its medicines, her midwife’s bag sits across the knees of two fourteen-year-old boys in wimples and aprons, knocking their heels against the makeshift box seats as they await their cue.

Here are entrances and exits. The actor playing Joseph bustles off stage, calling back his intention to search for midwives to attend his labouring wife. The prop Infant is handed forward, clumsily hand to hand, and pushed onto stage.

The boy midwives trot forward, swinging her bag between them. Now let me touch and feel by hand, if ye have need of medicine!

Onstage, the boy playing Mary declares the miraculous birth. In this fair birth I feel no pain! Touch with your hand and see!

There is a hush. Through a crack in the curtain she sees one boy actor lay three light fingers across the pad of white linen, bound in place with swaddling cloths, that is strapped beneath the slim ribcage of the actor playing Mary. Such a light touch. Unseen, involuntary, her fingers flex. Looking past the stage to the audience crowded in the street, she sees one, two, ten or a dozen women unconsciously adopt the same posture, hand over womb. She remembers one, two, ten and a dozen childbirths. She feels the unspoken, unspeaking community of women join together for a moment, one body. And the miracle on the stage is eclipsed by the miracle of ordinary women watching.

A child is born.

Writing a First Book that isn’t based on your PhD Thesis?



For an embarrassingly long time, I’ve been meaning to write a post about publishing a first book that isn’t based on your thesis, and I’ve been giving myself the excuse that my book wasn’t really done yet, not quite …. but now it’s not only done but also out, I’ve run out of excuses.

The book is Female Desire in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women and Middle English Romance; it’s currently on offer at Boydell (until 31st December 2020), with the code BB135. This isn’t a post to publicise the book (I’ll probably do one later), but please feel free to recommend to your library etc. The reason for this post is that publishing a first book is quite daunting, and there are a lot of things I wish I’d known earlier on. I love to recommend Laura Varnam’s tips on publishing, which have been absolutely invaluable to me. However, there’s one aspect of the first book experience that rarely gets talked about, simply because it’s not the norm: and that’s publishing a first book that isn’t based on your PhD.

Most people in Arts subjects publish a first book that’s based on at least some aspect of their PhD. Often, it’s the same broad argument with bits tidied up, with maybe a wayward chapter quietly discarded or a new case study brought in. Almost always, it is at least recognisably related to the PhD thesis. This makes obvious sense: a PhD is roughly book-length and roughly book-shaped (though William Germano’s excellent From Dissertation to Book is very helpful in showing why an unvarnished thesis is usually really really not yet a book). Given the pressure to develop a publication record asap, publishing from your dissertation could seem like a no-brainer. I’m very glad I didn’t, though, and so I wanted to write about what I did instead and what I got out of it.

So should you try to write a first book that isn’t your thesis? For me it was a gradual decision, and here are five of the questions that nagged away at me. I think if I’d weighed them up more consciously, I might have come to a decision faster. After that, I’ve listed four things I think worked really well for me, taking this route.

1) ‘It’ll take much, much longer than you think’.
It did! So many people said this to me. It’s absolutely true advice: I graduated from my PhD in 2014, and my book came out in September 2020. That’s a six year gap. I was only employed full-time for three of those years (and the third year I was contracted to be working on something else, so book-related time had to come out of my own pocket), so it’s not a super-slow publication time. But undeniably, people do get first books out much faster than this, and it is (obviously!) very good for your CV if you can.

What I needed to take into consideration was the way I was paying my bills. My first job was teaching-heavy. I had to write 40 hours of new lectures in the first year, and I re-wrote a lot for the second and third years. That’s a lot of words on the page, and since I could pretty much choose my topics (you may not always be able to do this, but if you can, it’s a gift), it meant by the end of my first year in my job I had roughly a book-length set of lectures. A lecture isn’t a book chapter, but it is a good building block. All of my chapters have been parts of lectures at one time or another, and listening to students interacting with what I was saying was hugely helpful in working out what I wanted to write about and how I thought this book might fit together with wider conversations in medieval studies and English literature. All things that are, in my view, a lot harder to do with a PhD.

Writing from lectures into a book is great, because when you give a lecture, you are there to keep people’s attention, and the presumption is you know (or should know) what you are talking about. You therefore get in the habit of speaking with at least some authority, and being at least reasonably entertaining or lucid … or you see the audience falling asleep. If you get into the habit of drafting lectures that hit the mark, you can translate this into the style of the book. The first thing everyone tells you when you try to rewrite your PhD thesis into a book is that you need to ditch the lit review, the sentences that start ‘It could be argued that …’ and the equivocatory paragraphs of careful acknowledgment of every single other academic point of view on the subject since 1848. It’s not fair to say that all PhD theses are stylistically dull, or nervously written, but those are known risks of the genre. You can more easily avoid them if you’re not writing a book based on a thesis.

Takeaway: yes, it’ll take longer than you think, but if you have a teaching-heavy job where you need to create a lot of content, it might be a good use of time; if you worry you’ll never be able to write excitingly about the subject again (PhD fatigue is common!), it might also be a welcome change.

2) ‘Won’t people think there’s something wrong with your PhD?’

This bothered me for a long time (both because I thought other people might assume my PhD was a crashing failure, and because I was secretly worried it really was). I don’t love my thesis; I’m not keen to publish from it (though I think it would be a very sensible strategy to bang out a couple of PhD based articles early in the process of writing a non-PhD first book). But I hugely valued what I learned about myself as a researcher while I did it, and I still have the skills it taught me. But actually, no one has ever asked me if something catastrophic happened with my PhD, and nothing really did. Like your GCSE results, it turns out that PhD theses are one of those things people care about much less than you think once you’ve finished them.

3) ‘You’ll have to write the whole thing before you find a publisher.’

This one is worth including because I’ve found a lot of new PhDs don’t realise you don’t have to do this. Some large and fancy publishers (CUP, for example) do expect you to finish the whole manuscript before they’ll even consider you. But others don’t. My publisher is Boydell and Brewer, who were quite happy to give me a contract based on two sample chapters and a detailed proposal describing what the other chapters were going to be about. I cannot stress enough that this isn’t a binding promise: as is probably pretty clear, I didn’t finalise parts of my argument until very late on. I think (publishers/editors might disagree, I don’t know!) that the idea of this proposal is at least in part to demonstrate that you’ve got something that sounds feasible and sensible, rather than to give a cast-iron promise of content.

I got my contract in 2017; in retrospect, I should have submitted a proposal earlier, because it’s not that difficult to do, and in terms of labour expenditure, it’s not very different from a large job application. Getting a contract early on is useful in CV terms; it’s also useful in itself. For me, the whole process of publishing like this was helpful: I got detailed feedback on my initial submission of two chapters; I got more feedback on the full manuscript, and altogether I wrote a better book because potential problems and weaknesses were headed off at the early stages. You could easily hedge your bets if you were still deciding between publishing from the PhD or from new work by, say, writing one journal article (lightly tweaked into a chapter) and one chapter, and submitting a speculative proposal. At worst, you’ll still get helpful feedback that’ll give some sense of the validity of the new project.

4) ‘How do you know that idea can be turned into a book?’

This one is scary. During your PhD, you get incremental reassurance that you are broadly on the right track. Someone admitted you to the programme; someone reassessed you midway through; you met your supervisors regularly or irregularly; you passed your viva. During that period, people keep insisting you justify what the central idea of this thesis is. It is easy to feel that you need confirmation of the validity of what you’re doing, and that if you choose a wrong topic, it would be catastrophic.

This one is easy to solve, though. You can build your own incremental reassurance about your new book – you present at conferences, you write articles, you lecture on it, you get a friend to read a chapter. The feedback on a proposal to a publisher is incremental reassurance, too. I wrote my first book-related article in 2016-17, and I wish I’d been brave enough to do it earlier (it’s a cracking article IMHO; I enjoyed writing it). You could also blog about your work; I did this a lot early on and I really recommend it. You own the copyright to what you blog (as should be obvious); in my experience it is far less likely to be ‘stolen’ than a conference paper (or, worse, those conversations in conference breaks, which people can lift without even noticing they’ve done it, and it’s absolutely gutting when they do).

Testing your ideas like this is quite liberating. A deadline like a lecture or a conference paper is great for forcing you to shape your ideas into something that is coherent for now. The important thing is that it’s persuasive: the argument hangs together, and if there’s something uncertain, you acknowledge it front and centre (‘do we think The Legend of Good Women is celebrating women, or not? I don’t know yet!’). It needn’t be the finished version; you might change your mind (that drove my supervisors nuts, because I change my mind a lot). And that leads on to …

5) ‘But why would you want to waste what you learned during the PhD?’

Obviously (I hope!) I don’t think I did waste what I learned. But I also think that the PhD and me didn’t quite get along.

Personally (and this may be a bit of a dyslexic thing), I would say that writing a book on my own was actually more suited to my thinking style than a PhD. I loved my PhD supervisions; they kept me feeling energised during what was in retrospect quite a difficult personal time, and they were fun. My supervisors were great, and they taught me a huge amount. But it always felt a little bit as if the cogs weren’t all quite meshing. I remember my supervisor, one time quite close to my viva, saying slightly bemusedly ‘you know, I still don’t really think I know what this thesis is about‘. It’s true I swapped supervisors mid-PhD (which isn’t great for this sort of continuity), but the basic problem here was that I’m not actually great at knowing what I’m leading up towards until I’ve written my way there. It’s not a good trait in a student: it must be a bloody nightmare supervising someone who is doggedly fairly convinced they’re onto something, but who is unable to tell you exactly what it is or why.

PhD programmes require you to plan; they are based on the premise that you propose a topic or a question, and you spend three or four years answering it. It’s often a thinly-disguised fiction, of course: people change their ideas and their questions shift, but we still cling to the idea that there’s a sequence to be followed.

I found it helpful to break away from this structure. It was very low-stakes at first: I just thought I had an idea about Chaucer’s Legend, so I tried it out in a lecture and then worked it up into that first article. Then I chipped away at other ideas. I found that the first thing I knew was that I was going to write about Chaucer’s Legend, and that this also needed to be about Middle English romance. So, for symmetry, I knew I’d want three chapters on the Legend paired up with three on romances. Choosing how to cover most of the Legend in three chapters, and how to pick the romances, wasn’t something I finalised for a while. Now, if that were a PhD proposal, it’d be a non-starter. You cannot simply say ‘I like these texts and I’m fairly sure I can make a coherent argument them’. But that’s how it worked for me, and that’s fine. I realised later on that I tend to think from small to large; I gravitate towards texts or examples without quite articulating why, and the more close analysis I do, the more I find a big picture is emerging. The nice thing about writing a first book on my own was that I could do this without being accountable to anyone. As long as my lecture (or conference paper, or article) made sense as a unit, it didn’t matter that the big picture didn’t come together until pretty late on. I had the freedom to explore ideas without having to make my thought process as linear as PhD programmes often seem to want to be.

So much for the nagging questions: what about the good things?

1) I do not have ‘difficult second album’ syndrome. This was the difficult second album – and now, I feel fairly confident about writing a book that didn’t start out as a PhD, because, well, I’ve already done it. I am really enjoying writing my new book.

2) I got to work on something I really loved and enjoyed through some of the scariest bits of being ECR. I know some people love their theses even when they are polishing them up into first books, but honestly … most people feel at least a tiny bit exhausted, even (dare we say?) depressed by the prospect of looking at all of this material yet again.

3) I got to get to know a whole new network of academics while I was writing. I think this is such a great thing about starting a new project: you can jump in, chat to everyone, go to new conferences, branch out – and I think for me it made the transition from PhD to first job much, much easier. I discovered conferences I’d never been to (like GMS and NCS); I found the lovely friendly network of queerdievalists and found some of the people whose work I value the most.

4) It gave me confidence to write on something canonical, and something polemical. For all sorts of reasons (hello, gender-related imposter syndrome …), it never occurred to me during my pre-PhD days that I could be entitled to work on something as central as Chaucer. I subconsciously categorised it as something that belonged to much more erudite, well-respected (male) PhD students: people who felt they belonged in academia. So it never occurred to me to try to get into that world. But at the same time, I didn’t want to risk working on gender and sexuality: I’d heard a few too many sneery comments about that, and I felt I had to do something ‘serious’ to prove myself. The space between those two positions was quite narrow! But, because I started writing my book while I was lecturing, I was spending most of my time thinking about canonical texts, and I could see a clear ethical reason for teaching students from feminist and gender studies perspectives. That gave me a lot of confidence to write a book that’s much more centrally positioned and much more theoretically informed than the book of my thesis would have been.

So there we are. I hope this post is helpful. I had a great time writing my book, and I hope that comes through!

Are we invisible mothers? Same-sex parenting and the straight gaze

Last weekend, the Guardian published a lovely piece written by an adoptive father, Ben Fergusson, describing his experience of raising his baby with his husband. It’s currently one of the Guardian‘s most-read pieces, and it’s both thoughtful and interesting, as the author teases out the ways in which his experience illuminates what we as a society think about gender and parenthood. Like Fergusson, I’m raising my child in a same-sex relationship; like him, I am not the biological parent. Unlike him, though, my partner is the biological mother – we don’t have experience of adoption. But what I think is perhaps most different is how heterosexual gender roles and expectations shape my experience of being a lesbian mum. I never read much about this topic until I had a baby; even now, searching hard, it’s not easy to find accounts that resonate with me, and so I thought it might be useful to share my own experience here.

I found myself nodding along to the experience Fergusson describes when he first became a parent. Expecting comments about his sexuality, he encountered something rather different:

When we ventured gingerly on to the streets of Berlin, what seemed to strike people was not that we were both men, but that we were both there. Why? Because all the other dads had gone back to work.

The default assumption is that the parent who is exists in the daytime, the parent who doesn’t go back to work, is a woman, and she’s on her own. As Fergusson points out, actually sharing the parenting of a small baby is both quite unusual (as he says, ‘Mothers we knew often told us that they were splitting things 50:50 with the father. When they described their weeks, it turned out that they meant 50:50 in the evenings and at weekends; and usually mothers did all the feeding’) and also quite useful: neither of you becomes ‘default parent,’ the only one who can settle the baby and the one who’s carrying the mental ‘load’ of favourite bibs or toys or signs of illness or current tantrum triggers. My partner Emma and I both (for reasons not entirely to do with choice and quite a bit to do with job markets) ended up doing a lot of overlapping parenting; we were often ‘both there’. We still are, and even though our daughter is three, I do notice other parents struggling slightly to negotiate the social interaction: do they invite us both for coffee? If not, which of us? We don’t quite fit, and it’s not so much about sexuality as about the expectation that there’s only room for one mother.

Yet, though this experience resonated with me, the rest of Fergusson’s article surprised me. Throughout, the author refers to himself and his husband in an uncomplicated plural sense: we, us. The responses he records are responses to ‘dads’. The fraught interactions he and his husband experience arise exclusively from social and bureaucratic failures to ‘read’ a relationship without a female primary care giver. There’s no mention of distinction between the two men.

This seems to me to be where Fergusson’s experience really, profoundly differs from mine. It could perhaps be that this is an effect of the difference between adoptive parenting and our combination of biological and chosen parenting. But, unlike Fergusson and his husband, we rarely find everyone treats us as ‘the mums’ – two people with indistinguishable roles and experiences. Instead, there’s a scramble to figure out how we map onto a heterosexual male/female couple – or even, how we map onto a more stereotypical butch/femme lesbian set-up, which lots of people (including lesbians) still seem subconsciously to expect. We have both, in different ways, felt suddenly invisible, slipping out of the expected role of the ‘mother’.

Everyone, but everyone, but everyone, wants to know why I didn’t carry the baby; if I’m lucky, there will be an explicit rider ‘now I would have thought, with your [awkward gestures at my actual human female body] … you know … I would have thought you’d be the one to get pregnant?‘ It’s tempting to make up responses. ‘You know, you’re right, I don’t know how we didn’t think of that!’ ‘Oh this? Yes, they make me wear a full-body condom to the fertility clinic so I don’t slip and get pregnant’.

My partner, who isn’t especially butch at all, is fed up with it. You can tell that our experience is a little like Fergusson’s, in that people automatically and always look for ‘the mother’. At a glance, they notice a woman in a dress in proximity to offspring and conclude that any other warm human body in the vicinity must be ‘the dad’. This perception isn’t based so much on looking at my partner and noticing what she looks like (or, memorably, whether or not she is in fact, at this very moment, breastfeeding). It’s a more dismissive and automatic interaction, which simply rests on the premise that, once you’ve identified an obvious ‘mum,’ you needn’t look further.

The results can be funny. Last autumn, I went to the first meeting of a local playgroup and chatted to a woman who said her sister was about to undergo fertility treatment with her wife. ‘Oh, that’s our situation,’ I said, nodding. She was bemused and spluttered ‘but … I’m sure I’ve seen a man going in and out of your house?!’

They can also be quite sad, or a bit startling. At a conference this January, I brought my daughter along for the break and a colleague I don’t know well reminisced happily ‘oh, she’s getting so big, I remember when you were pregnant!’ I jumped: very, very few people know when I have or haven’t been pregnant, and she wasn’t one of them. It took a minute for me to recover, join the dots, and explain gently ‘I expect you actually remember my partner’s pregnancy?’

And they can be quite hostile. Like Hannah Gadsby, who describes the experience of being perceived as male and then revealed as a ‘trickster woman,’ I grew to dread a certain kind of interaction, as casual conversations rapidly somersaulted into awkward territory. Sleepless nights? Us too. Breastfeeding with formula top-ups? Yes, we had to, she was tube-fed early on and kept losing weight. Oh, so how did you deal with your cracked nipples? By the time you’ve explained that the lactating body in question wasn’t yours, you feel as if you should have somehow flagged this up before the conversation started, or at least had the decency to indicate your status as a fraudulent, non-biological mother at some point before your interlocutor arrived at the difficult intimacy of describing her nipples.

It was difficult for us to anticipate how much this would impact on our own relationship, and our own identities as mothers. When society expects one mother in a relationship, it’s hard not to feel redundant if there are two of you. Whether you are constantly presumed to be ‘the dad’ or treated as a fraud for not being the biological mum, it’s easy to feel knocked off balance; out of place. I remember a quite impressive number of kindly friends sending me Finn MacKay’s interesting article about her experiences of being a gender nonconforming lesbian non-bio mum, and feeling quite unexpectedly resentful of the ease with which she wrote ‘I am what is called an “other mother,” a same-sex parent to my son who I did not carry’. For her, the term – the cutesy rhyme, the neat and pleasing snappiness of it – seemed to fit, to work. For me (and especially when bewildered friends wondered why I wouldn’t necessarily identify with MacKay’s gendered experience of parenting), it was a bit a slap in the face.

A lot of people will rush to tell you that same-sex parenting is accepted these days; that everyone is ‘past’ being discriminatory. In some ways I think this is on the way to being true (right-wing backlashes notwithstanding). But what being a parent has taught me is that, if we’re becoming more accepting of same-sex sexuality, we’re still struggling with gender. Like Fergusson, I expected to get comments about our sexuality in relation to our parenting; that barely happens. It may be that, if we were two women who performed distinct ‘gender roles’ akin to ‘daddy’ and ‘mummy,’ we’d notice less of a response; it might even be that if we were two women who both wore dresses or both wore jeans, that we’d avert some of the assumptions and knee-jerk reactions. I don’t know.

It’s funny how things stay with you. Reading Fergusson’s article, I was aware of how often it’s the smallest comments – the ones speakers probably imagine to be mere slips of the tongue – that sink into the memory and come back to niggle at you.

When my daughter was a few weeks old, I ran into a former neighbour as I walked down the street on which I’d lived before I moved in with my partner. We went through the usual two-step of congratulations, goodness, I had no idea, how old is she, wow, you look amazing, when did you give birth? At this point, I hadn’t had to answer that question often, and my reply was matter-of-fact. ‘Oh, she’s not biologically mine – my partner gave birth.’ The poor woman froze for a moment, then said brightly ‘well I’m sure it doesn’t matter at alldoes it?’

She meant it nicely. She meant, I am sure, to communicate her tolerant views; to stress that my lack of biological maternity was irrelevant; unimportant. But I wanted to say, yes, actually, it does matter. We need to start recognising and making visible, and accepting, that parental roles outside that of biological motherhood do matter.

‘A Pretended Family Relationship’: Chaucer, Lesbians, and the Long Shadow of Section 28

 

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London, British Library MS Stowe 955, f. 13r. Just two women, lots of hearts, nothing lesbian at all (genuinely).

I found this post hard to write.

It used to be that I struggled with academic writing. I think most academics do, when we first start writing. We familiarise ourselves with the terms. We warily excavate a few phrases from The Scholarship and try to adapt them. It feels dry, uneven, monotonous. We feel clumsy, as if we’re pretending.

But when I finished writing my forthcoming book, last year, I felt a huge sense of triumph about the writing (I still do). That book is, amongst other things, about language: specifically, the brilliantly risqué and unexpected profusion of innuendos about deviant female desire that I found in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women and in medieval English romances that respond to the Legend. So I knew from the start that I wanted my own language, my own writing style, to be more than just functional. I wanted to capture the way my medieval texts slip in suggestive verbs and smutty puns and unexpected ambiguities that make you second-guess yourself. What was that I just read? Did she mean that to be a pun?

Whether I’ve succeeded or not I don’t know, and probably I won’t ever know, but I’m pretty happy for now. The strange thing, though, is that as it’s become easier and easier for me to write this book, it’s become harder and harder to write the non-academic; the personal. A recent experience made me think again about this, and since it’s relevant to Pride Month, I thought I’d share it here.

Way back when, in December of 2019, before the world went to hell in a handcart, I applied for one of those Holy Grail jobs that don’t come up very often – a permanent job, in a department that felt like a good match. Time rumbled on, and longlisted turned to shortlisted, and eventually I interviewed for it, last week. And didn’t get it. As rejections go it was the ‘good’ kind – I placed second; they liked me; they had nice things to say about me. But, as always, it felt like a body blow. Before the interview, I kept thinking back to a blog post my friend Rachel Moss wrote, about the weird experience that is academic job hunting. You lay out the pieces of yourself as teacher, scholar, writer, administrator, colleague, and present each in a slightly new and polished way for the specific criteria of each post, and then rebuild yourself in the narrative of the cover letter, framing yourself as the person they need. … And then, when the answer is no, you will unpack yourself again, wondering what can still be sifted and refined, so that the next time the answer is different.

Rachel captures, perfectly, how very personal (even bodily) it can feel to reconstruct yourself over and over for interviewing committees. She also made me think about what is at stake in this process of sifting and refining and rebuilding your professional self, when things don’t go to plan.

When I closed the zoom link to the job interview that I’d been preparing for since December, one question hit me over and over – that one question that makes you stumble (though my best understanding is that it wasn’t a stumble the panel saw) – and lose your place. As I talked about my work on female same-sex desire, one of the panel asked how I knew I was not reading into medieval texts from a modern perspective.

How did I know I wasn’t reading into medieval texts from a modern perspective?

During my PhD, I worked on medieval reading culture. I would look at manuscripts, examining the ways in which texts were laid out on the page and how books were put together, and I would try to understand how medieval readers would have responded. I don’t think anyone ever asked me if I were imposing a modern perspective, which is strange when you think about it. We know that reading is a culturally-conditioned practice; that the very verb ‘to read’ did not mean the same thing in the Middle Ages that it does now. But we do not call into question the very fact of reading. We take the reader as read.

Sexuality generates a much more anxious, much more fraught debate. The issue is precisely the same: ‘homosexuality’ doesn’t mean the same thing (indeed, doesn’t really mean anything) to medieval readers and writers that it does to modern ones. The tangle of activities and emotions and desires that might go towards a definition of ‘same-sex desire’ patently does not hold steady across times and cultures. I’m familiar with this. As academics, we are supposed to be distanced and objective. This question gave me an opportunity to perform scholarly distance, scholarly objectivity, to cite all the places where I’d trawled through the medieval archive to support my arguments for same-sex desire in the texts I discuss. It gave me an opportunity to show that I was not just playing a game with the text, dressing it up with a distorting modern reading, turning it into a bad imitation of modern culture.

So why did this question stick in my mind? After the interview was over, I realised as I waited to hear from the panel that my feelings had to do with a much more recent history. I grew up during the tenure of Section 28. For those unfamiliar with it, Section 28 enacted a ban, stipulating that local authorities should not ‘promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’. This meant that state schools were banned from ‘any teaching … of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. Independent schools, like the secondary school I went to, where teachers could discuss the subject, were very much in the minority. Section 28 caused a particular, pervasive kind of harm. The language is particularly, skilfully, cruel. Homosexuality is a ‘pretended family relationship’. Not a moral outrage or a transgressive perversion (would it be too cynical to observe that teenagers often enjoy to be thought outrageous or transgressive?). But a pretence Pretending is what children do; pretending is play; pretending is an imitation done for fun. So homosexuality is displaced from the adult world, relegated to the childish world of make-believe. Yet, simultaneously, homosexuality is precisely what children must not be permitted to discuss. For teachers, the safest thing to do was to avoid the subject; at worst, to ignore homophobic bullying in fear of being seen to ‘promote’ homosexuality. Implicitly, the silence around homosexuality sent a message that it was exclusively an adult topic. Children expressing interest in it would be inappropriate, out of place. You don’t need to know about that yet. It instilled a weird kind of denial. The easiest official response to awkward student questions was evasion. You must be mistaken. It’s probably a phase. Just wait until you’re older … Homosexuality evidently existed; gay sex was legal. Yet gay adults apparently emerged, fully formed, on their eighteenth birthdays, their history up to that point a blank.

Section 28 came into force in 1988, when I was four years old, and it was repealed in 2003, just after I started university. In ghost form, it lingered on –  in 2011, Michael Gove attempted to include a recommendation that schools should promote the ‘benefits of marriage’ (still then, by definition, a heterosexual institution); in 2013, a survey found more than forty schools still voluntarily using the terminology of Section 28.

Meanwhile, in 2001, when I started studying English Literature for A Level, our set texts included both The Color Purple and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, both of which explicitly reference lesbianism and both of which would (I imagine) be nigh-on impossible to teach without making some reference to the fact of lesbian sexuality. Looking back, that seems an almost surreal contrast. Pretending to talk about these texts must have allowed an awful lot of students to talk about what they weren’t able to talk about openly and personally. You could discuss a lesbian relationship, or same-sex marriage, so long as you did it with reference to the characters written by Alice Walker or Jeanette Winterson. There must be a whole generation of children who became students who became academics (or authors, or artists, or …), who had to learn to speak about same-sex desire obliquely, in displaced forms, at a distance, from an angle, in a removed context. Yet the language of ‘pretence,’ the second-guessing, self-doubting language of displacement, follows us.

Rachel’s description of that process of laying out the pieces of yourself, unpacking them, sifting and refining yourself, reminds me that, in the process of sifting and unpacking, something is always sifted away; lost. I could stop, reframe my work, demonstrate my good scholarly objectivity even more carefully, pull further away from any suspicion of ‘reading into’ a text. Or I could make peace with it. Yes, we’ll never know exactly what medieval readers and audiences did or didn’t see of the innuendos of same-sex desire I find in Chaucer and medieval romance. But perhaps a solution would be to pretend less about ourselves, to try to resist that unpacking and sifting and refining to fit what doesn’t fit. The truth is, I know I’m not reading in to Chaucer’s Legend, or any of the medieval English romances I study, because I can see those subtexts, those displaced, disoriented, sideways, oblique snippets of language designed to have a conversation in a culture that silences conversations. I was taught to do it, from 1988 to 2003.

The View from the Tower

When they first put me in this tower, sometime early in the twelfth century,
I was what everyone expected of a Saracen princess. Yielding, obedient, characterless …Soft as a mollusc, in fact.

The sea that lapped around my tower was full of red weeds, wine-dark;
And I should have been dark too. The poets extolled the whiteness of my skin
In language so flowery
It was clear they needed room to equivocate.

When Charlemagne’s knights came, clashing their lances under my father’s ramparts,
I ignored them. There was a garden on the tower roof.
With time on my hands, I became a healer, gathering flowers in the early morning
Before the sun burnt off the dew from the petals. Drops
Ran down my arms and chilled my skin.

As the centuries wore on, more stories accreted around me,
(like nacre around grit, or rings on a snail shell)
That I kept poisons, circled my waist with magic, kept Christian relics in my Muslim bed.
I hardened myself to them.

When the Christians came, offering rescue, conversion, the most romantic of marriages,
I barred the door. For my tower
Had become a fortress.

The Angels of the Roof

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In the sixteenth century, reforms first under Henry VIII, then under Edward and Elizabeth, resulted in the removal of Catholic images and objects of veneration from churches. A more thorough programme of iconoclasm was carried out under Cromwell; one of its most energetic proponents was William Dowsing, who visited hundreds of churches across Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, recording what he ordered to have removed, defaced or destroyed. Amongst his favourite targets are the so-called ‘angels of the roof’ popular in East Anglian churches.  

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In the church at Binham Priory, under a new layer of whitewash with fresh-painted Bible verses in gothic blackletter, the saints lay buried lay with their eyes still open and their mouths solid with plaster-dust. Katherine and Apollonia, Michael, Zita and Roche waited patiently under their pall of lime until such time as the world outside should remember the established faith. At times the wait seemed very long and the black letters very heavy. Strange voices from the pulpit roared and boomed in increasingly strange varieties of English; there were no sounds of sacring bells or chanting processions, so it was hard to measure the passing of time. But the saints waited, and eventually the whitewash faded (though the blackletter remained, like prison grills over windows), until the saints could peer through its thin remains.

Their painted eyes frozen in horror, at first the saints saw only whiteness. The world was gone. Blank walls faced them. Sharp light slanted against bare stone. There were no candles burning. No smell of incense. No God.

Meanwhile, in St Nicholas at Lynn, the angels waited grimly for their turn. Staring furiously down from their ranked roof beams, they held their wooden wings outspread, like divers preparing to fall. They had watched, disbelieving, as men carried out rood screens and painted over images; as soldiers smashed windows with their pikes and slashed the statue of the Mother of God. They had seen how the cold grey light of the new windows fell harshly on the white-painted rood screen with its blackletter English prayer, beginning to wear through the flaking layers of the whitewash. Now they saw more men, with saws and chisels and ladders. Mouths open, the roof angels breathed a silent liturgy of St James, their voices roaring above the reach of human hearing, an endless song of mortal flesh, trembling in fear. As they watched the men tramp in and out, they heard each other’s wordless thoughts as those thoughts rose to a chant of vengeance. Messias. Sother. Emanuel. Sabaoth. Adonay. There was the faintest shifting sound, as if of old, brittle, light wood were splintering from the pins that might hold it in place.

Down in the nave, the men huddling around their ladder paused for a moment, as if hearing something. A dislodged spider dropped, suddenly, on its thread and hung, scrambling, in mid-air. The men shook themselves, remounted the ladders.

The angels’ silent voices rose in agreement.

We fall.

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Another contribution to the Decameron project

They say that the library of Alexandria burned to the ground. All the lost books of the Western world have been imagined to be in that lost library.

But what if there were another story?

While the library burned, what happened?

In the harbour, boats dipped and rode low in lurid water as men scurried back and forth with armfuls of books and scrolls pulled from the fire. Smoke rose up to block out the stars; light from the flames glowed copper across the sky. They boarded boats. Writings were clutched under arms, sheltered under cloaks against the spray, tucked into pouches and rolled tight. Frightened men heard the sounds of the riot receding behind them and tried to forget the screams of a woman dragged through the streets with her hair on fire.

An elderly librarian described the route, tracing a crude map with charcoal on the back of some papyrus. Then dark sea lapped around the boats and the smoke gave way to clear night sky. The men who carried the books nodded and dozed with their heads slumped on their chests. It was close to morning by the time their sails dropped and the oarsmen dipped their blades into shallow waters. They moored at the crude makeshift harbour and slept in the boats, rocking on the pale pink waters of the morning tide.

The island was remote. Ships rarely passed, and then only at a distance. It had been chosen by the librarians many decades ago as a place of refuge in times of need. Once, there had been custodians here, too: once, it was rumored, it had been intended for a second library. No one knew why those plans had been abandoned, but now – with the smell of the acrid cinders still in their noses and the sounds of screams in their ears – the librarians agreed to begin again.

They planted gardens. An untended grove of olive trees was hacked back, pruned, and began to give out fresh new silver shoots. The scriptorium, intended to be temporary, was roofed over, then extended. Plans were laid for a tall building to contain all the volumes that other scribes were still bringing in from the debris of Alexandria, from the satellite libraries at Heliopolis and Constantinople. White marble stone was brought in on trading vessels and winched up the steep sloping incline above the harbour. A proportion of the older men began to talk of ‘our library’ as if it were home.

The ship’s captain who had navigated the ragged fleet of boats across from Alexandria went out on trading missions to Tyre and Tarsus and Lebanon. The traders brought news of the death of ‘Amr ibn Al-as. Alexandria was being rebuilt, they said, in the shape of a Muslim city. Christian missionaries had begun to convert the pagans at the barbarous Western edge of the world, at a place called Medicata Insula, a peninsula off the coast of the Celtic lands. Ships came back with their hulls full of cargo and their lockers full of writings, wafting the smells of oregano from Crete and orange blossom from Morocco and pine-wood from the forests of Juteland and Scandinavia. The elderly librarians spoke of building a marble colonnade to walk in during the heat of the day, as they had at the Alexandrian library.

But then …

In the last days of winter the second-eldest librarian died of a lung fever. They buried him in a plot dug out beside the new white marble chapel where the wet dark tree branches tangled in the rain. One of the passing traders murmured darkly about the lack of a priest. Fragments of parchment that had been torn blew in the wind and caught in unexpected crevices in the rocky paths. The sound of pages fluttering in a draft echoed under the noise of the wind blowing through the pines on the headland. The younger scribes began to pester traders to take them on their voyages, to tell them of the new cities to the north and the west, where men had better things to do than scratch dry words or breathe in the dust of books. Another year, and still no priest could be enticed to come. Another year, and the olive trees still did not produce ripe fruit.

Oregano wove through the salt-toughened bluegrass and showed purple stems over the thrift on the cliffs at the headland. As the librarians stood to look out to the horizon for ships, they noticed that the sun-baked herbs smelled bitter as ink. The ships returned each year with thinner, older thinner sails and sparser crews. Imperceptibly, the carefully tended vines were threaded with vetch and hops and rosebay willowherb. The ships in the harbour came and went, went and ceased to return at all.

In the space of a year and a half the island was emptied ship by ship, carrying cargoes of lonely grim men who had had enough of books. The ships rowed out past the breakwater one by one, in the cold half-light before the dawn, when the mist comes off the water. The slap of oars and the keels creaking, between one June and another September. Two generations later, and no one remembered the remnants of the old library. No one came back to see what had been left behind.

After the men left, the books whispered amongst themselves and spread their whispers over the island. The gardens took on the appearance of the texts that were read in them. The marble benches seemed to bear the imprints of the men who had once sat there, turning pages and slowly unscrolling rolls. The slow breezes that stirred the trees, the rustle of birds and the scuffles of dry leaves seemed to contain voices, as if the garden were quoting to itself from memory all that it had heard.

In the world outside, fragments of Aristotle’s unfinished works were copied and amended and re-copied. Writers reconstructed the lost plays of Sophocles. Teams of archaeologists pieced together poems by Sappho from tiny scraps of papyrus, and published editions marked with careful scholarly elipses. These texts pulled further and further away from the versions that lay in the library, and the library listened to the voices of its own texts. Over time books warped the space in which they were stored, pulling it inwards. Their physical weight caused shelves to bow and foundations to sag. The books seemed to whisper with vague inaudible voices, as the shelves creaked and floors of the library swayed on their foundations.

Here, Aristotle’s Poetics was never destroyed by fire and poison and madness in a chill northern monastery. Here, Sophocles told of Helen’s demand; here the tablets inscribed with the story of Troy’s ruin were kept, unbroken, since Priam’s order commanded them to be made. Here Sappho was never buried in Egypt, wrapped dryly around a mummy and falling into dust as she mourned for Atthis. Around her, the musky scent of amber and pine and rotting spinal tissue. Here are the unknown books, the tablets of Enkidu’s Song for Gilgamesh and the scrolls of the Book of the Battles of Yahweh; here are the books we have never read or written, waiting to be heard.

The papers whispered and muttered to themselves, as heavy manuscripts sat patiently on their shelves, waiting ready for the day when a new ship should blow off-course and discover the ruins of the library of Alexandria, quietly reading to itself.

Waiting, until today.

Learning from ‘Bad’ Writing

I am easing back into blogging, after a long period where I wasn’t so much writing as editing, and it feels right to start with a post about, well, writing itself. In my experience, in UK academia (and now lately in Ireland), we’re seldom explicitly taught how to write. Writing is treated as the transport system that gets us from A to B. We might feel as if we’re plodding along on a very slow bus or whipping past gorgeous scenery in a fancy car, but we seldom know very much about the mechanics of the car or the bus, and we don’t really expect to learn. We might expect to correct a few spelling errors on a student’s essay, or some grammar; we might, if that student really struggles with these issues, try to pack them off onto a writing course for undergraduates, or a study skills session that might include some tips on the basics. But a lot of academics struggle to recognise a particular kind of ‘bad’ writing for what it is. 

An early career academic (whom I won’t name) shared a quotation from her student’s work on twitter, accusing the student of pretentiously trying to ‘look clever’ by using big words and long, dense sentences. The tweet was subsequently removed, after various people pointed out the pretty egregious ethical issues relating to publicly shaming students/sharing work you’re not authorised to share, but it’s actually the second time in a couple of weeks that I’ve seen an academic quoting student work and making the assumption that big words, convoluted syntax or long sentences must indicate that a student is trying to be ‘impressive’ or ‘clever’ – and failing. Implicitly, these complaints presume that if a student can use big words, they can also use small, simple ones – so they’re simply overreaching, trying to do something more complicated than they can manage.

In my transport metaphor, it’s a bit like catching a glimpse of a car roaring past, all tinted windows and neon underlights and a giant spoiler up its arse, and knowing it’s a clapped-out ford fiesta from 1999. (I promise I will stop flogging this metaphor very, very soon.)

We’re not very nice about writing that is both fancy and bad – like this – but it is wrong to think it’s pretentious rather than a potential part of a learning process. Every time I learn my way around a new set of critical theories (or revisit ones I don’t know as well as I’d like), I keep finding myself falling into the same trap. I’ll come across a new buzzword or phrase – maybe it’s ‘epistemic’ or ‘identity machine’ or our old favourite ‘queer’ (as in queer theory). Do I understand it? Weelllll … maybe not completely. I mean, I’ve got a vague sense, I think to myself. I might look at someone writing about ‘epistemic injury’ and figure out, from the context they give, that this is something different from a physical wound or an emotional assault. So it’s mental as opposed to physical, I conclude. I can probably gain a good-enough understand of what the writer is saying, without being precisely sure why they’re using that specific word. But, I’m really excited about the ideas I’m reading. I can tell they’re stretching at my mind in the right ways. Perhaps that phrase ‘epistemic injury’ comes in the middle of an article about rape, which is telling me that rape is about far more than just a physical kind of harm.

When I start writing for myself, I feel pretty sure I want to talk about this writer’s argument … but I know I don’t understand exactly what their terminology is doing. So, instead of translating it into my own words, I’ll just carefully repeat ‘epistemic’. I hope, guiltily, that this repetition will make sure I don’t lose some of the important meanings I know I haven’t quite grasped.

The problem, of course, is that this is a high risk strategy. The word ‘epistemic’ means ‘relating to knowledge’ (so I was half-right when I guessed it was to do with the mental rather than the physical). But it also has to do with what mental processes are trusted, believed, and validated by a community or group. So, a person who is being gaslit by an abusive partner is suffering epistemic cruelty (they come to believe they can’t trust their own mind). A woman who reports a rape and isn’t believed because the rapist is her husband, is suffering epistemic injury. If she lives in a time and place where marital rape isn’t considered a crime (as, for example, was the case in England prior to 1991), we might say she’s experiencing an institutionalised epistemic injury.

If I don’t understand this, I’m liable to use ‘epistemic’ as a quick-fix solution. I hope, nervously, that it’ll signal to readers that I’ve been working with This Critical Theory, The One Where They Talk About Things Being Epistemic. It’s an anxious placeholder, a reminder of all the background reading I need to do but haven’t yet done. Chances are, once you’ve learned to spot the anxious placeholder words in your own work, you’ll also have become more adept at spotting how to avoid them. It won’t seem so important to keep using that word ‘epistemic’ if you’ve taken on board the wider argument about what it means. You might perfectly well find you write something far simpler. Maybe, Rape survivors are often disbelieved. This disbelief has its own traumatic effect. Or maybe, Rape survivors are often made to feel like liars; this can make them doubt their own memories. You might well follow these statements up with a footnote to the original article; you might, certainly, use the word ‘epistemic’ or the term ‘epistemic injustice’ later in the essay. But, meanwhile, you’ve opened up a whole new set of possible directions for the rest of the essay. Is it ‘disbelief’ that you’re really wanting to think about? Or ‘memories’? These could be two quite different lines of approach. ‘Disbelief’ might have you thinking about social interactions and conventions; about rumour or myths or fabrications; whispers and insinuations. ‘Memory’ might start you on quite a different path, looking into cognitive theories of the mind or studies on the importance of memorials and records of the past. The richness of these terms could feed back into the essay, letting it expand beyond the debt to the original scholar who used the term ‘epistemic’.

None of this is quick. It’s obvious why students might fall back on ‘fancy bad’ writing to cover the gaps and uncertainties. But there are ways to turn this sort of writing’ into an opportunity. Teaching students (and ourselves) to recognise when we’re using a word as a placeholder teaches them (and us) to spot the weak points in the argument. Sometimes, I’ve asked students to annotate their essays with captions or footnotes commenting on what they wish they’d known before handing it in – for example, they might add a comment saying they’re not quite sure they’re using a word correctly, or they’ve actually only read the introduction to this book, so they might not have grasped the whole argument. Other times, I’ve had them highlight which words they think might need defining for a general audience – and provide a footnote to do that. Students need to be shown that good writing isn’t simply the thing that gets an argument from start to finish: it’s an integral aspect of how we think. Writing that is not yet quite at home with certain words or certain phrases, writing where the syntax is slightly twisted because the writer has had to incorporate a verbatim phrase from a critic, is often writing that is trying to learn more. We can all benefit from that.