Note on Copyright, Sharing, Etc.

I’m just writing this so I can link back to it.

I think most people reading know that blogs are intellectual property, and under copyright, but some people don’t, and so I mention it here. If you would like to reblog my posts, please get in touch. I’ll probably say yes, and don’t worry if you disagree with me on some things – I’ll assume that giving you permission to reblog doesn’t indicate anything about whether or not we agree.

The flip side of this is: this isn’t a blog written with academic reading lists. I try to credit people who’ve had a big impact on my thinking, but it’d take hours to list everything you might want to read on medieval literature/history. If you want to know more, ask me, and I’ll try to reply.

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This is not my generation, Laurie Penny

Earlier today, a memorial to the women of World War II was daubed with graffiti reading “Fuck Tory Scum”.

Laurie Penny, who’s about my age, decided to express the opinion that:

“I don’t have a problem with this. The bravery of past generations does not oblige us to be cowed today.”

I mention Penny’s age because I get the impression she thinks she’s part of a brave new generation, a generation not obliged to be ‘cowed’, a generation who are too pigshit thick to find anywhere to write graffiti other than one of the (very, very, very few) existing memorials to women. I am two years older than Penny, and (like her, I imagine), I grew up knowing women who lived through WWII. I met women who survived the Holocaust; I met women who drove ambulances during the Blitz; I met women who cracked the Enigma code, and I knew my lovely granny, who did tell me about the war (when I asked), but whose expression if I’d mentioned her ‘bravery’ would have suggested a cat sucking a lemon in the rain.

Penny, clearly, fondly imagines she’s captured the rhetoric of Churchill with her anachronistic ‘cowed’. But she hasn’t. She’s defended people defacing a memorial that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Tories, and an awful lot to do with what people who stand against the Tories want to support.

It’s sad she’s been attacked by Katie Hopkins, who never fails to put the boot in. But I am more than a bit sad for my generation, if this is our representative.

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Casualties of the Popular History of Sexuality

Awesome (possible) lesbians again, because really, why the heck not?                                                                           Image via and

I really should be writing a lecture on medieval lyric at the moment, finishing off a book review and marking essays. But I procrastinate, and the world keeps turning, so I’m going to write this post instead.

The Guardian has a puff piece for a new play by Glenn Chandler, based on the lives of two Victorians who, so Chandler argues, ought to be known as early activists in the struggle for gay rights. The article’s language makes it very easy to picture these two – living in London decades before the landmark trial of Oscar Wilde – as if they’d been transplanted from a rainbow-coloured twenty-first century, because the key word throughout is ‘fun’. Wilde becomes ‘poor old Oscar’, guilty of little more than ‘play[ing] the wrong cards’, while his slightly lesser-known peers were just having ‘[so] much fun’. Now, I understand the impulse. Trying to recognise ourselves in the past is something we all do, and it’s incredibly tempting to smooth away the negatives and imagine that, from the bare outlines of historical fact, we can build a wonderfully familiar, positive, happy image. In the same way, I’ve written before about how brilliantly compelling the images of Victorian women cross-dressing are, and I’ve tried to explain, too, why I get slightly worried about people who assume we can interpret images from the past using our own modern categories of gender and sexuality.

So I started reading the article wondering how – or if – it would negotiate this. I read that the two men in the play, Frederick Park and Thomas Boulton, regularly dressed as women and used female alter egos, and – whether prudently or just because they fancied it anyway – took to the theatre, which has a time-honoured tradition of male cross-dressing. In 1870, police rounded them up, along with another male friend, and arrested them. They were tried for indecency, but got off because the jury found no evidence of anyone committing sodomy and (rather interestingly to me, as a medievalist who knows medieval laws) no evidence that men cross-dressing was any sort of crime in English law. As a result, the court treated the cross-dressing as a bit of a joke, rather than a serious threat to social decency. The article concludes with a quotation from Chandler, claiming that Park and Boulton:

“really thought their case would change things, they thought a change in the law was coming, but then in two decades we have the Oscar Wilde trial and it takes another two centuries for change to come.”

This sounds wonderfully inspiring.

I admit, I’m not mad keen on the implication that the sort of ‘change’ these two hoped for can be neatly linked up to the changes of, er, 2070 (or even 1967), as if they were displaced members of Stonewall deposited in Victorian London via metaphorical Tardis. We don’t really know what these men hoped or expected, how they would have defined their own attitudes to their clothes or their actions. I’m even less keen on the way that this ignores pre-Victorian history. There’s a certain fashion for acting as if sexuality really began with the Victorians, whom I’ve seen credited variously with inventing the vibrator, lesbians, transvestites, manual orgasm and the empowerfulising (fictional) side of prostitution.  Talking about deviant sex in pre-Victorian England is held to be slightly embarrassing amongst all this fun Victorian stuff: it’s the historical equivalent of teenagers on the bus holding forth loudly about how, like, totally sex positive they are, while forty-something women roll their eyes at each other and someone’s mum mutters you didn’t invent it, you know.

For what it’s worth, people had been crossdressing, and getting arrested for it, for many, many, many centuries before Park and Boulton. For example, in the late fourteenth century, a man called John Rykener was arrested for posing as a woman – Eleanor – and prostituting himself to various men. He attended court in his woman’s clothing, and he admitted he had been married to a man, though he also slept with woman (without eliciting payment) while dressed as a man. Rykener’s story is startlingly similar to that of Park and Boulton, despite a gap of nearly five hundred years. It’s a warning that the neat fiction of those Victorian crossdressers as early gay activists should be taken with a big pinch of salt: an awful lot of history is not a connected narrative of progress and liberation.

But it also tells us something else about attitudes towards gender and sexuality further back in history. As Carolyn Dinshaw points out, Rykener’s evidence at his trial shows that he didn’t simply dress as a woman: he interpreted his behaviour as feminine and passive when he was dressed as a woman, and masculine and active when he was dressed as a man. For the former, he charged substantial sums of money – more, apparently, than women prostitutes could hope to command – whereas the latter he seems to have done for free. To modern readers, this may seem confusing: what did it mean to have sex ‘as a woman’? How did Rykener’s display of gender intersect with his expectation of getting paid? I read Rykner’s trial and wonder about the women he slept with – and the women who were paid less than him – and the women who understood from him that to have sex as a woman was to be passive. That’s not because I’m not interested in Rykener himself. It’s because you can’t take a figure out of history and relate to him alone, without considering the context. If you do that, then you dehumanise everyone else in that historical narrative, relegating them to the background.

And this is what I think is happening here. Fiction isn’t history, and a play can have an emotional power without needing to be weighed down with factual detail. But I find emotional power disturbing when it involves, not a selective reading of the past, but an appropriation and distortion of it.

The Guardian piece quotes quite a long comment from Chandler, which may be edited but reads as if it’s all one thought process, and which I found, frankly, pretty appalling. Explaining how writing the scripts for Taggart got him interested in court records, we’re told cheerfully:

“My favourite is a guy in Ohio who held his wife’s head first in a bucket of rattlesnakes and when that didn’t kill her he lifted her out and put her in a bath and threw in an electric cable and still failed. All around the world there were stories that I injected into Glasgow, not so much the gory ones, more the intriguing ones that tell you a lot about human nature.

Ultimately that’s the same interest that drew me to these two in 1870s London. In a tense atmosphere of homophobia they are young men having fun.”

I’m honestly not sure what to make of that. Yes, Chandler covers himself with a non-committal observation that this anecdote ‘tell[s] you a lot about human nature’, and yes, possibly, if you are a violent misogynist with limited capacity to see women as human beings, you might conclude it’s ‘human nature’ that’s being described here. If you are a violent misogynist, or just amazingly crass, you might juxtapose that anecdote with a reference to ‘young men having fun’. But … why? And how could you forget, even for as long as it took to put together this comment, that the lovely positive language of ‘favourites’ and ‘fun’ is describing several attempts to kill someone?

The violence here, the truly horrible event, clearly doesn’t make a mark on Chandler as he concentrates on what I imagine he fancies as the wider philosophical point, the point about ‘human nature’. And it was that selective viewing of someone else’s life – the packaging of that life into the quick prelude to a heart-warming story of ‘young men having fun’ – that really bothered me. The women in this narrative don’t fit the narrative or progress and liberation – and Chandler (or whoever edited his words in this article) doesn’t even seem to realize that there are parallel narratives of oppression here, intersecting ones even, only one of which is being told. What did Parks and Boulton really feel about their trial? Why were they dressing as women – would they have chosen it, in a different world? Would they even have identified as gay? What about other men (and women) who didn’t skip out of court laughing, supported by their families – and who still don’t? How does it help them to pretend to a continuity of gay rights activism, for which we don’t have the evidence?

There is a drama of sexuality and gender to be written here, but it needs to be one that doesn’t ignore the intersecting oppressions of the past (and present). It needs to be one that doesn’t sacrifice the uncertainties of the past to a story that makes a better soundbite.


Ruth Karras and David Boyd, ‘”Ut cum muliere”: A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London’, Premodern Sexualities (1996): 101-116.

Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Duke University Press, 1999)

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Women, the Vote, and Walter William Skeat


I’m currently looking out onto a street full of election posters (mostly Labour, a couple of Lib Dem and a few Greens, if you’re interested – we wanted to put up a poster for the Suffragettes in our window, because we’re more or less opposite what used to be the Cambridge Women’s Liberation Group headquarters. A couple of hours ago, I was teaching in King’s (where they seem to be voting Labour) and discussing, among other things, the form and structure of Piers Plowman, a poem written in the second half of the fourteenth century.

The election posters and the medieval text (not to mention the Women’s Lib) have more in common than you might think. Piers locates itself slap bang in the middle of medieval debates about social order and unrest, about who should have what rights. It’s a political poem (as well as lots of other things), and a poem about disenfranchisement of all types. And the key symbol, in my view, both of these rights and of this problematic social order, is the poem’s image of a document, a pardon, granted by the Pope and delivered by Truth herself to Piers the Plowman.

This scene is a difficult one to interpret, and people disagree about what it means. Piers – who is supposedly a humble ploughman, an uneducated person – reads over the document, finding how each person is granted their rights under (divine) law. Just as he’s finished, a priest leans over his elbow and, patronizingly, declares that he will translate the text into English. Piers – for reasons unclear – is furious at his translation, and (breaking into perfect Latin to show he can read just fine, thank you very much), he tears the pardon to pieces, invalidating it.

The words used to describe what Piers does here – ‘pure tene’ in the Middle English – suggest utter fury, anger that’s absurd because it is coupled with such a petty at of destruction. The same words sprang to my mind when I came across this extract from a letter, written by the grandfather of Piers Plowman studies, Walter William Skeat, a Cambridge academic who edited the text in 1886. Writing to his colleague (and co-founder of Newnham College), he argues angrily against the suggestion that the women of that newly-founded college should be allowed to graduate with the degrees for which they were studying:

“If given the BA, they must next have the MA and that would carry with it voting and perhaps a place on the Electoral Roll … Even the BA would enable them to take five books out of the University Library, countersigned by ‘their tutor’. I am entirely opposed to the admission of women to ‘privileges of this character. And I honestly believe they are better off as they are.”
(Letter, June 1887, from W. W. Skeat to Henry Sidgwick, Newnham College Archives)

I adore the bonkers logic in this, which reveals a mixture of institutional self-importance (no, a MA – even a Cambridge MA – would not have ‘carried with it’ voting) and utter pettiness. Skeat is concerned about women voting, yes … after all, votes affect the running of the country … but what’s really nagging at him is the possibility of disorder, nay even the temporary alienation of actual books, in the hallowed corridors of the University Library. To a late-Victorian scholar, clearly, the one thing more annoying that finding an empty space on a library shelf, would be knowing that the book you wanted was bouncing around Cambridge in a bag on the back of a woman’s bike.

I’m mentioning this partly because I enjoy quoting Victorian misogynists getting their unmentionables in a twist over the liberation of women, and partly because I can entirely picture Skeat, in a fit of ‘pure tene’, scrunching up papers rather than letting the women of Newnham or Girton read them. But I also think that Skeat’s segue from serious political issues to petty objections about institutional library policies is depressingly representative of the kinds of obstructions people still do put in the way of changing things for the better.

If time travel is a possibility, there’s one person I really, really want to introduce to Professor Skeat:


River Song, from Dr Who ‘Silence in the Library’ (NS 4:8). Sorry folks, it’s a geek joke.


A(nother) geek fact I found out while writing this, is that Hermione Granger’s much-mocked SPEW, which readers of popular culture more astute than I have speculated might be some kind of metaphor for feminist activism, shares its name with an actual example of feminist activism. In 1859, Jessie Boucherett founded the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW), later the Society for Promoting the Training of Women. It still exists, and is now Futures for Women. I would love it if JKR knew this.

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University Women – Let’s Take Up Space

Male students protest the proposal to admit women. Image from Cambridge Daily News, 21 May 1897, via The History Girls

Male students protest the proposal to admit women. Image from Cambridge Daily News, 21 May 1897, via The History Girls

The image features the effigy of a woman cyclist suspended in mid-air, as men carrying banners reading ‘Varsity for Men’ thronged the road beneath, and as, in the Senate House, the university authorities debated admitting women to take the Cambridge degree. You might hope that such images belong only in the sepia-toned past. Over the past week or so, I’ve been tweeting the hashtag , which is the brainchild of a friend of mine who runs the Fifty Percent Project. Here, she sums things up:

“The Fifty Percent Project aims to draw attention to all the ways in which women are denied access to our rightful share of physical, verbal, social, political and cultural space, and to encourage women to start to demand the space to which we are entitled.”

If you’re interested (and you should be), you can look at her selection of facts on women’s under-representation, and you can get involved by sharing stories.

This project is timely for me. As a junior academic in a subject like English Literature, you might think I’d be surrounded by women, that the battle to get women’s voices heard is long over, and that – if anything – I should be worrying about the feminization of education. I’ve heard these arguments before. To listen to some people speculate, you’d imagine university English departments are full of women handing out flyers for the Feminist Burlesque evening*, writing papers about Lady Macbeth’s lesbian subtexts** and campaigning for free mooncups***.

I admit, there is graffiti in the Cambridge English faculty women’s toilet written in support of mooncups. And there’s a lovely radfem argument about shaving your legs scribbled all over the wall in the Lecture Block loo. And I do enjoy that women do their radicalism in this particular space, though it would be lovely if we could do it elsewhere, too. Which brings me back to the point: despite what you might imagine, English Literature at university still struggles to accommodate women.

The Fifty Percent Project site lists amongst their statistics this fact:

“Women make up 45% of academic staff at Higher Education institutions, but comprise 22% of Professors and 33% of other senior academic staff.”

These statistics are disturbing, but they represent a substantial improvement on recent years: the Higher Education Statistics Agency found that in 2003-4 (the academic year I went to university), only 15% of professors were women. That’s an increase of nearly 50%. People very often talk about these numbers as if they must be reflecting a recent phenomenon. Surely, we have so few women in positions of authority just because … well, haven’t women been historically marginalised?

This is demonstrably not the case.

Professor Pat Thane’s work on women students in the past century provides some statistics. In 1900, women made up 16% of the UK student body. By 1930, it was 27%, but this fell to 23% in 1938, and remained steady until the 1970s.

We might take a moment to be slightly shocked by that. Women have been 23% of all students since 1938. No one can claim, then, that the reason there are so few women professors is simply that the number reflects the numbers of women entering HE – we should have had 23% of professorships for the best part of a century. Instead, it’s only in the last few years we’ve even come close to the numbers that should have been the baseline since the 1930s generation of students came of age.

This isn’t just an issue for senior academics, obviously. Women undergraduates still struggle to take up the space they need – physical, verbal, social, political and cultural, as the Project puts it – in order to get what they deserve from three years at university. For male students, the academic role models are right there. In order for women to take up our proper space, we need the same sense that we belong, that we deserve to be here, that we’re good enough. The Fifty Percent Project is designed to bring women together, to celebrate women’s achievements.

I have had some brilliant female teachers and mentors, I have some amazing, inspiring female colleagues, and I’m constantly awed by the women students whom I’ve been supervising this year. But, I think we don’t often enough hear each other saying, ‘you know what? I’m really good. I deserve to be heard. My ideas are really exciting and I’m going to get them out there. And people are going to listen’.

Women in academia deserve to .


* No, I don’t think there is such a thing as feminist burlesque.
** Yes, this paper would make me cringe.
*** Sounds great.

Pat Thane, ‘The Careers of Female Graduates of Cambridge University, 1920s-1970s’, in Origins of the Modern Career, eds. David Mitch, John Brown and Marco H. D. van Leeuwen (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 207-224.

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Delicious Rottenness: Women, Sex, and Apples


I promised Jenni Nuttall I’d write this post some time ago, when I first mentioned I was going to be teaching Chaucer’s apocrypha, including the rather nice poem titled ‘O Mosy Quince‘, which begins like this:

O mosy quince, hangyng by your stalke,
The whyche no man dar pluk away ner take,
Of all the folk that passe forby or walke,
Your flowres fresshe be fallyn away and shake.
I am ryght sory, masteras, for your sake,
Ye seme a thyng that all men have forgotyn;
Ye be so rype ye wex almost rotyn.

Most people read this kind of poem as a parody of the traditional love lyric, in which the charms of a beautiful woman are praised. The editor of this particular poem compares it to Shakespeare’s famous sonnet 130, beginning ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’. And I can see that here. The poet is joking around: he’s claiming the woman remains on the tree, unplucked (yes, we got the pun), because she is too forbidding for men to dare to pick. Yet, at the same time, they have almost forgotten her, and while she seems to scare men away, she is also an object of pity. As the poet goes on, he revels in his insults, calling this woman ‘bawsyn-buttockyd’ (badger-arsed) and ‘belyed lyke a tonne’ (bellied like a cask of beer). Yet, by the end of the poem, he grudgingly acknowledges his limited affections, in the space of a single stanza declaring and retracting and re-declaring his love. ‘My lovely lewde masterasse, take consideracion,/ I am so sorowfull there as ye be absent’ he admits, then qualifies ‘To love yow but a lytyll is myne entent’ before ending in seeming exasperation: ‘Of all wemen I love yow best. A thowsand tymes fy!’

I hadn’t been thinking about this recently, until I saw Jem Bloomfield’s post, on a more modern version of the same idea, which I think you’ll agree is rather lacking in the charm of the medieval poem.


The modern meme simply ‘comforts’ single women by comparing them to apples high on the tree, which are more appealing than the ‘easy’ pickings of rotten fruit lower down. As he points out, in the modern meme, it’s assumed that men will happily consume ‘rotten’ fruit despite its seemingly unpalatable condition. This is, actually, quite an odd image. But it wasn’t until someone queried this in the comments that I started to think about it again, and it helped me clarify what I think about the medieval poem, too.

As an image, the apple tree is groaning under the weight of accumulated connotations: aside from Eve’s sinful apple picking and its suggestive associations with (sexual) shame, there’s an tree in Piers Plowman, supported by staves to hold up its branches, whose fruits cry out almost in human voices when Piers tries to pick them, and which the devil tries to steal. It’s this scene that C.S. Lewis would plagiarise (delightfully) for The Magician’s Nephew. There are innumerable malus/malum (Latin for evil; Latin for apple) puns in medieval literature. Where does the rottenness come in?

The pseudo-Chaucerian poem pictures a woman as a quince – a fruit which doesn’t actually need to be rotten before it’s ripe, but which is certainly hard and inedible in its normal raw state. It is often thought to be the actual apple of the garden of Eden. It’s closely related to another fruit, the medlar, which genuinely does get eaten when it’s been ‘bletted’ or rotted. It looks like this:

In medieval England, the fruit has another, ruder name, which Chaucer (real Chaucer this time) does use: it’s known, for its distinctive shape, as an ‘open arse’. In the prologue to the Reeve’s Tale, Chaucer writes:

“This white top writeth myne olde yeris;
Myn herte is mowled also as myne heris —
But if I fare as dooth an open-ers.

We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype…”

These lines constitute the Reeve’s angry retort to the Miller’s raunchy tale of Alisoun and Nicholas, the young lovers who trick both Alisoun’s elderly husband and her would-be lover Absolon. The Reeve, as a carpenter by profession like the cuckolded husband in the story, takes personal offence.As you may recall, in the Miller’s tale, the suitor Absolon is tricked, in the dark, into kissing Alison’s arse instead of her face as she presents it at her chamber window, and, returning in rage with a hot poker, he mistakenly jabs it in Nicholas’s rear end as that young man sticks his bum out of the window to fart. The central image the Reeve uses here belies his attempts to pretend to be aloof from the Miller’s crude sexual interests.

It’s presumably this line that the later pseudo-Chaucerian poet was thinking of, when he compared his mistress to a fruit ‘so rype’ it is ‘almost roten’. But, in her appearance, the woman of the Quince poem seems more similar to another of Chaucer’s pilgrims. As the poem goes on, we find the mistress is ‘belyed lyke a tonne'; Chaucer’s notorious Wife of Bath similarly has ‘hipes large’. Both have complexions that deviate from the typical ivory paleness of the beautiful medieval woman: the Wife of Bath’s face is ‘reed of hue’; the mistress cheeks are ‘lyke a melow costard’. Crucially, though, the Wife is quick to institute her own standards of female beauty. Instead of conforming to the medieval preference for pale-skinned, slender, blonde women, she asserts confidently: ‘I was gat-toothed, and that bicame me wel’ (‘that suited me well’).

I don’t want to suggest that there’s too much of a feminist nature going on here, but despite that, I find this statement – and the lady of the Quince poem – much more appealing as descriptions of women than the modern meme. Yes, all of these poems are male-voiced, describing women as objects, and even the outspoken Wife of Bath is only able to say what her creator, Chaucer, puts into her mouth. Yes, these writers are working in a tradition (both poetic, and social) in which women’s beauty is a commodity, in which female sexuality is a consumer good. But they’re nothing like as misogynistic as the modern meme, because – unlike the modern meme – they give the impression that the speakers do, in fact, like both women, and words.

The modern meme’s main nastiness, in my view, lies in the fact that – as Jem’s blog shows – we can’t imagine why men would want to eat the ‘rotten apples’, the ‘easy’ women. The image of sexy women as rotten fruit doesn’t quite fit in this puritanical, sin-of-Eve ideology. It’s been grafted in from the older tradition, but pruned of all its enjoyably deviant, sensual connotations. Instead, we’re left with the underlying message that men don’t really like the women very much at all.

I nicked my title from D. H. Lawrence, who revisits the pseudo-Chaucerian image, and makes it much more explicitly sexual (though less gendered) in ‘Medlars and Sorb Apples‘. I’ll leave you with some lines from that:

I love you, rotten,
Delicious rottenness.

I love to suck you out from your skins,
So brown and soft and coming suave,
So morbid, as the Italians say.

What is it, in the grape turning raisin,
In the medlar, in the sorb-apple,
Wineskins of brown morbidity,
Autumnal excrementa;
What is it that reminds us of white gods?

Gods nude as blanched nut-kernels,
Strangely, half-sinisterly flesh-fragrant
As if with sweat,
And drenched with mystery.

A kiss, and a vivid spasm of farewell, a moment’s orgasm of rupture,
Then along the damp road alone, till the next turning.
And there, a new partner, a new parting, a new unfusing into twain,
A new gasp of further isolation,
A new intoxication of loneliness, among decaying, frost-cold leaves.

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Too Much Passion: Women, the Crucifixion, and Displays of Emotion

Abegg Triptych, by Rogier van der Weyden. c. 1445

Abegg Triptych, by Rogier van der Weyden. c. 1445

I thought I’d start with this image – a triptych probably painted by Rogier van der Weyden in the mid-fifteenth century – because I find it both compelling, and, frankly, creepy. The central panel is full of van der Weyden’s signature images of heightened emotion: bodies arching and sagging with loss, faces contorted. But at the right-hand side, a little further from the dying Christ, stand onlookers whose stance appears more matter-of-fact: gesturing to one another, they might be engaged in devout contemplation (as the clasped hands indicate), but they also look as if they’re in the middle of considering the practicalities of getting Christ’s body down with that ladder. Even more disorientingly, in the left-hand panel kneels the patron, gazing impassively at the scene before him, as if looking through a window in a sunlit colonnade. With neatly tucked-in legs and politely clasped fingers in his lap, he displays a disturbing lack of emotional response … which is surprisingly effective in prompting a stronger response from us viewers.

I’ve been thinking about the way emotion is displayed or hidden in medieval literature a lot recently, and so this image made me think of how we’re invited to relate to medieval portrayals of emotion, how they manipulate us to feel and think. The central focus of the triptych is not really Christ – who looks almost peaceful in death – but his mother, whose emotional outburst provokes a swirl of motion around her. In contrast, the male viewer – the figure who acts as a bridge between us, onlookers from outside the painting, and the main scene – reveals nothing of his inner response.

This quality of hidden or restrained emotion runs through a lot of medieval lyrics on the same topic. This morning, I balked at the queue winding out around the quad at King’s College (sorry!), and, so I hear, missed a lovely service. But, instead, I saw Dr Kate Ash sharing one of the Middle English Passion lyrics, and it worked its way into the lecture I’m currently writing. So, I thought I would include it here, too.

“Nou goth sonne under wod;
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre;
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.”

(Now the sun goes beneath the woods;
I pity, Mary, your beautiful face.
Now the sun goes beneath the trees;
I pity, Mary, your son and you.)

London, BL MS Royal 2. b. vii, f. 256v (The Queen Mary Psalter)

London, BL MS Royal 2. b. vii, f. 256v (detail). The Queen Mary Psalter.

This lyric always reminds me of John Donne’s ‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward’ in its sense of the motion of the heavens and the emotions of the human heart. I first came across the Donne poem in Sinéad Garrigan-Mattar’s classes ten years ago, and I love it. The medieval lyric, however, is much shorter, and the plangent tension between the beautiful image of the setting sun and the shocking disruption of Christ’s death only gestures towards the internal conflict Donne explores more fully.

The lyric is perfectly balanced, almost tranquil, in its repetitive economy of words. Yet, beneath the surface, its language is pulled in opposite directions by a series of puns. I can’t capture the precise depth of connotations ‘reweth’ carries in Middle English: it denotes not just pity, but also regret and pain, almost an admission of human guilt, which lingers underneath a series of puns set up through the lyric. The ‘tre’ is the tree of the Cross on which Christ sinks into death, as well as the woodland behind which the sun sets. The ‘sonne’ that sinks beneath the horizon is both a natural phenomenon, a beautiful image, and a ‘son’ whose death causes the world to shake and which (so medieval legend had it) temporarily blotted out the sun. Even the word ‘rode’, which refers to Mary’s tearful face, can also mean ‘cross’.

Walters Art Museum, MS W. 174, f. 152v (detail).

Walters Art Museum, MS W. 174, f. 152v (detail).

The tensions of this lyric are focussed, not on Christ – who is all-but-absent from the poem, glancingly evoked in the sun/son play on words – but on his mother, Mary. And it’s her ‘faire rode’ that is the most disturbing image of the poem: are we to imagine her face as ‘beautiful’ in its sorrow? Is the cross itself – an instrument of torture – in any way beautiful? Incorporating these problems, the lyric draws attention to the startling disjunction between its own beautifully crafted form, and the appalling sorrow of its subject-matter.

Like the triptych, the lyric shocks us into feeling the emotion it displays, by making us consider the aestheticization of grief and pain. Yet, at the same time, both forms concentrate the sense of excess – the overwhelming grief of Mary in the triptych, the excessive layering of double meanings in the lyric – in the body and face of a female figure, subtly undermining that gendered performance of emotion.

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