A small and pleasing discovery (possibly?) about Sir Gawain


The mathematics of medieval architecture: Peterborough Cathedral

I’ve somehow never written this post about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – the poem that is many people’s first encounter with the gorgeous poetic language and spellbinding storytelling of medieval England – though I’ve been wondering about a minor detail I’ve noticed in the poem, for a while. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the late fourteenth century, somewhere in the West Midlands to judge by the dialect, and it survives in a single manuscript along with three other works by the same writer: two religious poems and a long, very beautiful and very evocative dream-vision about mourning and loss. All of these poems – but especially Gawain and Pearl – show a fascination with symmetry and number-patterns, and there are any number of complicated interlocking sequences of pairs and triplets and fivefold symmetries, as well as concentric circular structures of narrative and verse form.


I’ve noticed when teaching Gawain that this is an aspect of the poem that invites a remarkable degree of visual concentration – and a kind of visual, mathematical concentration that always seems remarkably medieval (think about the complicated numerical structures of a cathedral, or even of a fan-vault roof). Foremost amongst the visual symbols of that poem is the pentangle – the five-pointed symbol Gawain wears on his shield as he rides out from Camelot, and which symbolises his linked, fivefold virtues bound together forever into a locked, endless knot.


Gawain’s shield device is – patently – not a heraldic display of identity, like the medieval shields we more commonly see on old buildings and in church windows, where quartered symbols might show parentage, ties of marriage, position in the family birth order, and more. Rather, it is his personal device, and a somewhat inscrutable design. Almost as important, as the narrative wears on, is another object: a lady’s girdle, which promises Gawain sure protection against his deadly enemy, but which also (female-wise) entangles him in a complicated web of competing obligations and broken promises. This slender green circle becomes the badge of Gawain’s shame, the symbol he takes on to show his later, compromised identity as a sadder and wiser knight.

Conventional readings of this poem interpret the two objects – the shield device and the girdle – as representative of a conflict between two sides, or two orders of morality. The pentangle speaks of chivalric virtue with a hefty dose of Christian piety, for it aligns the five points of the pentangle with the wounds of Christ and the joys of the Virgin Mary. The girdle, meanwhile, smacks of feminine, perhaps even superstitious, reliance on amulets, and is indelibly associated with Gawain’s creeping fear for his own physical safety. It is easy to read the pentangle as an ideal view of chivalry – a view of chivalry that knots virtue to virtue in an unbroken, regular shape – and the girdle as its insinuating undoing. In reality, my feeling is that the pentangle, and the brand of chivalry it advertises, is nothing remotely so unambiguous or perfect. Nor, indeed, is the girdle so easily interpreted as the polar opposite of virtue: as scholars have more recently noted, its protective qualities have their real-world parallels in the religious prayer-girdles (tightly written with invocations to the Virgin) that pregnant women would use as they prepared for the terrors of childbirth.

This superficial, binary opposition of pentangle and girdle, of five-point star and circle, is, in any case, elegantly and suggestively resolved by the poet. In the final lines of Sir Gawain, he departs from the world of romance and – in the final allusion to encircling narratives arching over and around the tiny matter of Gawain’s own temptation – he evokes the wider frame of Christian history, praying:

‘Now þat bere þe croun of þorne,
He bryng vus to his blysse!’

Now, He who bears the crown of thorns,
Let him bring us to his bliss!

The circle; the girdle. The pentangle; the points. The two images, superimposed, underlie these final lines, bound together in this last image: the crown of thorns.


I really don’t know if this is something other people have noticed. A not-quite-cursory but not-entirely-focussed look at the scholarship doesn’t throw up any other scholars mentioning it, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility. But, every year, I always find students who are as delighted with its neatness as I was, and I do believe that – in a poem full of numerical and structural richness and subtlety – it is significant and meaningful.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Trigger Warnings (Again), and a Weird Sense of Disconnection

New academic year, new spate of newspaper articles on ‘trigger warnings’. This time, it’s the Guardian‘s piece by Frank Furedi, blazing with the news Too Many Academics Are Now Censoring ThemselvesNow, with the revelation that the government is discounting the voices of non-British academics, and with the knowledge that we’re in the middle of a process that will, quite likely, make it impossible for many of us to continue meaningful research reaching outside Britain at all, you might expect that this article would express some sense of genuine concerns.

Instead, it reminded me of the sorts of stream-of-consciousness speeches you sometimes hear at conferences, where someone – cradling a half-empty glass of warmish Echo Falls – demonstrates why he (or possibly she) is in the wrong business for working with students. Furedi describes how – apparently – a colleague’s lecture on the Holocaust was interrupted by a student yelling out a self-righteous rant: “Stop showing this, I did not come here to be traumatised!” Strong stuff, eh? Notice how it’s always a friend or a colleague this sort of thing happens to – not the author himself. Sort of like those anecdotes that begin ‘well, my mate was actually at Woodstock when …’.

It’s perhaps unfair of me to cast doubts on the complete and utter veracity of this section of the article. Of course, some students are ruder than others about the content of lectures, but my brittle sense of self-esteem is not generally crushed beyond repair by the odd negative comment, especially when I can use my special powers of mature reflection to determine that it probably says more about the student than it does about me. On the other hand, when I get comments that suggest, hmm, maybe I didn’t introduce that particular element (the graphic rape, say, or the really anti-semitic bit) as well as I might have done, I am also capable of thinking about why that was, and how I might do it better. Not, how I might self-censor. But how I might, you know, learn something new from my students.

The problem with this article is that, for all it claims ‘too many’ academics are ‘censoring themselves’ (what would be the correct number of self-censoring academics, Prof Furedi?), it seems to be describing a remarkable lack of … censorship. Furedi describes courses that continued in their tracks, and lectures that were given, and classes that continued despite student complaints, and exam questions that made it onto the paper. So, I was left wondering, is this really a bit of a storm in a teacup?

I’ve written, and thought, about the trigger warnings controversy before. I do worry about it. I do dislike the implication that, if a student finds something upsetting, shocking, or offensive, he or she should feel entitled to have it stricken from the course. I have read the stories of universities where academics feel they can’t teach texts like Titus Andronicus, because it’s got rape in it. I have seen student petitions to ban certain speakers, and I’ve worried about the way these petitions often do seem to demonise second-wave feminism. I do think there is a worrying link between the research and teaching interests of women – and especially lesbian women – and the topics that regularly seem to require ‘trigger warnings’. There is, surely, something deeply, unfortunately ironic in the fact that we, as a society, need to be having conversations about rape, and yet, conversations about rape frequently fall into the category of ‘things too painful to talk about here’.

And yet, despite all of those concerns, I really do find Furedi’s view on trigger warnings and censorship almost impossible to take seriously. I do not find that my students regularly request more warnings. I certainly don’t find them queuing up to tell me they can’t read this text or that text because it’s violent or offensive. I regularly teach texts that depict graphic rapes. I regularly teach texts that are outrageously, phenomenally racist in their portrayals of the Middle East, of Jewish people, of people of colour. There is an entire lecture series (not by me!) in our medieval literature paper, titled simply ‘Violence’. And the thing is, these topics are extremely popular with students. Students see content warnings on my lectures – so they know that lectures on ‘romance’ (which they might expect to be about love and kittens) are actually going to be quite nasty. And they don’t seem to object to that. They come, they debate, they want to have a space to talk about these things. Last week, the first question after the first lecture was ‘can I write a feminist essay on to these texts, please?’

Students need spaces to discuss difficult subjects. Obviously, my students are a specific group, in a specific place – but I just do not recognise them in the popular portrayals of students that crop up in article’s like Furedi’s. And I don’t see myself in his portrayal of ‘us’ academics – as someone carefully picking my words and ruefully deciding to limit my searing intelligence to the narrow confines of a more boring lecture. This may be because my intelligence is just, well, rather run-of-the-mill compared to the academics he quotes in his article. But, it’s much easier to claim you would have written a brilliant lecture – if only you’d felt you were allowed to do it – than to actually write that brilliant lecture, isn’t it? So, I feel a weird sense of disconnection when I read Furedi’s piece (and other pieces like it). Yes, these students who yell out polemics in lectures, who force their lecturers to self-censor, sound like a worry. But … where are they, and why have I not met them yet?

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Medieval Embroidery, ‘Proper Art,’ and the V&A’s ‘Opus Anglicanum’ exhibition

The Guardian ran a piece today, reviewing the upcoming exhibition at the V&A, Opus Anglicanum, which focuses on the dazzling medieval embroidery produced in England in the fourteenth century. I was especially interested, because the book chapter I’ve been working on recently has to do with medieval textiles as objects that fire up the imagination – specifically, Chaucer’s imagination.

This is a really fascinating period for the textile trade in general: English weaving, for example, is just beginning to shift from being a craft carried out by women on a small scale, producing fabric from their own looms, to a more lucrative business on a larger scale, using a bigger, fancier loom, and dominated by … yes, of course, men. Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, though set in France, is a beautifully imagined story of a household of weavers in such a situation, a story told partly through the eyes of Christine, a skilled weaver banned by her town’s guild from contribution to the official (and taxed) labour of her husband’s workshop.

Royal 20 C.V, f.61v

Penelope, cheerfully weaving away as Odysseus murders her suitors, in Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus. From London, BL MS Royal 20 C V, f. 61v (detail).

But many aspects of the trade were, and remained, associated with women. In this period, embroidery – the specific subject of the exhibition – was taking on a distinctly seedy reputation, for this very reason: its women practitioners were suspected of involvement in the sex trade. Women were strictly banned from moonlighting in the opposite trade – sex workers as well as textile workers – and a delightfully scandalous legal record of the late fourteenth century concerns the famous cross-dressing prostitute known as John (or, alternatively, Eleanor) Rykener, who electrified his witnesses by coolly declaring his habit of having sex with men while posing as a woman, and preferring to seek out priests for the better money they paid. Who was Rykener’s formative influence in this piece of (presumably, successfully constumed) deception? A embroideress known as Elizabeth the Broderer, already known to the courts for her role in trafficking young women into the sex trade, using her embroidery shop as a front. Such sensationalism about women and the textile trade persisted long after the Middle Ages, for what it’s worth: there’s a fantastic piece of writing by an anxious Parisian doctor in 1886, who claimed that the, ahem, stimulating friction caused by peddling a treadle-operated sewing machine was leading to a sexual frenzy amongst the city’s female garment-workers, leading to a generation of young women exhausted and weak from the debilitating effects of near-perpetual orgasm.

Well, if you say so.

But women working in the textile trades could, of course, be thoroughly respectable: we have plenty of records of solidly reputable medieval citizenry making their money from their cloth merchandise, and plenty of evidence of women in the trade organising morally improving situations for their young female apprentices. Indeed, as I wrote on this blog in 2014, by the fifteenth century, we can see parallels between highbrow courtly literature and the most prosperous London families working in the cloth trade, including women and their young female apprentices.

My interest in medieval textiles is piqued by these kinds of contextual detail – the scandals, the insights into ordinary working conditions, the changes in production that changed real women’s lives. But, I am aware that these textiles were also, often, incredibly beautiful and skilled products in their own right. The exhibition photos show sumptuous clerical vestments, spread to show the magnificent embroidery that would have draped over a priestly body, as well as rarer survivals of the humble equipment used to make them, and the fragments of material treated less kindly by time and the ravages of unscrupulous collectors. Reviewing the exhibition, Jonathan Jones admits to the significance (as well as the impact) of this work:

In the 14th century, if you wanted the very best cope or orphrey (a kind of long bishop’s scarf) you ordered it from embroidery workshops in London – the finest gothic embroideries in Europe were being done a stone’s throw from Old St Paul’s. Opus Anglicanum is Latin for “English work”, and it was in huge demand. In the middle ages, the embroidery makers of London had the kind of status that Flemish tapestry weavers were to achieve in Renaissance Europe.


The Jesse Cope (detail) ca. 1310-25, (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London


So far, so positive, right? Admittedly, if you’re not particularly clued up, you might find the clarifying comparison of the last two lines about as clear as mud: I didn’t know what kind of status Flemish tapestry weavers had in Renaissance Europe, to be honest, and now I’m not much clearer. But ok.

Jones’s review provides the kinds of intriguing details I enjoy finding out in an exhibition – such as the fact that much of the clothing shown is, in fact, taken from the opened graves of medieval churchmen by archaeologists of later periods who did not scruple to remove even shoes and stockings. But it also seems ambivalent about its own displays of knowledge. Ultimately, Jones condemns

… the dry manner in which this exhibition relentlessly demands that we admire its orphreys. It misses the point about medieval religious art. … For no one in the 14th century ever looked at copes in glass cases. They saw a bishop wear one as part of the vast, stupendous aesthetic experience that is a gothic cathedral. Illuminated by filtered light from stained-glass windows, glowing beneath a shadowy vault, to the sound of harmonious singing, these robes were a component of a much larger and more powerful artistic event.

I do find this a bit rich coming from someone who presumes we’re all up to speed about the state of Flemish tapestry making circa 1550. And I could certainly quibble about the rather bizarre idea that everyone in the fourteenth century enjoyed the kinds of unimpeded sight-lines to the altar that Jones seems to imagine here (medieval churches and cathedrals tended to have rood screens, blocking much of the view to the altar, and allowing the priest to get on with his business, as it were, in a semi-private space with God. It’s also, arguably, slightly dubious to talk about ‘harmonious’ singing in this context, at least as I understand medieval music, which is to say, not very much. But the major point that bothers me here about Jones’s rather style-over-substance image of medieval art as a vast multimedia experience is that it suggests that embroidery, on its own, just isn’t very much worth bothering with. It’s not like proper art, is it? The kind we are, of course, accustomed to seeing without the supervention of tinkly recorded plainsong or gently strobe-like light patterns mimicking the effects of stained glass.

And – cynic that I am – I can’t help wondering why medieval embroidery attracts this particular kind of criticism. Why is it so unworthy of an exhibition to itself, so direly in need of some kind of leavening of spectacle and show? Why does Jones cling so desperately to the nice chivalric image of the Black Price’s embroidered grave clothes and to his own vision of the bishop animating the robes with his busy masculine body?

Hmm. I wonder.


Women spinning and weaving together in Boccaccio, Le Livre des cléres et nobles femmes. From Paris, Bibliotèque Nationale de France, MS Fr. 12420, fol. 71. c. 1403.

Note: There is a more positive (and, frankly, for my money more interesting) review here, also from the Guardian and written by Maev Kennedy.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Technologies of Touch and Queer Errors


London, BL MS Royal 17 E VII 1, f. 247r (detail)

‘Reading medieval manuscripts … begins with the noise of the cover opening, depending on how tight and in what (boards, leather, velvet) the volume is bound, and with the dry sound of leather leaves touching each other. Light diffuses in opaque, milky, soft vellum but glances off stiffer, buttery parhment. The pigments capture and imprison the light, but even a hairline of gold sharply ricochets it back. … There is also a soft irregularity, as with a dollop of cream – although the ground is usually tinted red with minium, giving the gold its characteristic warmth. In comparison, gold applied directly to the page as dust or leaf looks somehow modern, like a house with a flat roof. Plants, seeds, slugs, trellises are painted directly over the gold ground, wasting swaths of it, except for a brief period after the gilder applied it and before the painter got his hands on it, a period confined by the workshop. … Then, there are the cuts and holes. Small slits allow the sinews of the binding to slide through. Regularly spaced pockmarks set the grid for the ruling or,far less frequently, mark a pattern copied from the master. Ink, if incompetently prepared, eats into the page. …’

Manuscripts are, apparently (and like so many things), ‘queer’. Queer in the Queer Theory sense, that is: queer as in ‘other’ or ‘strange’, ‘disruptive’ or ‘transgressive’, opposed to – and perhaps even capable of annihilating – the norm.

When I heard this statement made (and contested) at NCS this year, I immediately thought of the passage above. This gorgeously sensory description comes from a much longer set of passages in Anna Kłosowska’s book, Queer Love in the Middle Ages, in which she introduces a fascinating, speculative discussion of the complicated, layered, mutable ways in which we perceive and understand sexuality, with this passage on the precise tactile and visual experience of reading a medieval manuscript book. Kłosowska’s prose is both a virtuoso display of how to evoke sensory experience and also a practical demonstration of the value of seemingly tiny, decorative or curious details, to tell us about the lived experience of medieval scribes, illuminators, booksellers, book readers, and even the dismembered medieval cows and sheep whose skins form that disturbingly human-feeling surface on which all of this is written. It’s a sharp piece of writing, capturing the defiant but defining desire to touch the skin that marks out all confirmed medieval bibliophiles who’ve ever risked the wrath of a hovering librarian, and suggestively segueing from this into a discussion of a different kind of defiant-but-defining desire to touch skin that is socially verboten.

At the NCS conference this year, papers by Zach Stone and James Sargan got me thinking more about the way different surfaces and materials – not just vellum or parchment, gold leaf or brown ink, but also print as opposed to manuscript, modern print as opposed to medieval print, and digital media as opposed to hard copy – invite different kinds of touching, and militate against others. Manuscript ink, for example, is typically oak gall ink (as James observed). Printers’ ink, by contrast, is a much thicker, stickier substance. A nice illustration of the odd, back-handed ways we learn things is that I learned this detail, in the first place, from Cynthia Harnett, who wrote children’s fiction in the 1950s. With her novelist’s sensitivity to the way touch and materiality inform our experiences of the past, she picked up on details literary scholars were – I think it’s fair to say – rather less interested in at the time.


Glasgow, Hunterian Library, Sp. Coll. BV. 2. 30, f. 17v (detail)

Rather like Kłosowska, Harnett delves into the finished product (in her case, Caxton’s printed edition of Malory’s Morte Darthur) to think about the technologies behind that product and the lives and experiences of the people making it. She describes how a medieval printing press required at least two pairs of hands in the process: one, to cover the forms (letters) with sticky ink and the other – with clean hands – to lay the pristine sheet carefully over the top without smudging its surface. Print ink, therefore, militates against casual touching. It segments the production process in a way that manuscripts don’t absolutely have to, requiring a division of labour.

It’s tempting to interpret that resistance to touch, and that division of labour, as a form of ‘control,’ or even ‘policing’. We could say that the technology of print constrains makers, alienating them from the intimate, skin-to-skin contact experienced by the medieval scribes Kłosowska describes in such sensory detail. We could understand this process of the necessary division of the labour of in printing as a form of early mass production (which printing is, though the difference between print and manuscript really isn’t as big as you’d think, given manuscript makers were perfectly capable of farming out the illumination, rubrication and so on to someone else). We could – thinking back to Kłosowska’s seductive, suggestive parallel between the touching of pages and the touching of human skin – read this mode of production as an finger-wagging response to the lovely, messy, too-keen desires to touch, stroke, lift, pierce and limn manuscript pages.

It should not shock you to discover that (pre-empting the inevitable), no, I don’t think this makes manuscripts ‘queer’ and print culture a horrible, controlling, hegemonic impulse dedicated to straightening out their tactile quirks. But I know why that reading’s tempting – and it’s because it lets us map onto medieval technologies some of the drama of histories of sexuality, and (if we are manuscript scholars or people who love looking at, and hoping to touch, medieval manuscripts) it lets us place ourselves on the side of the angels, aligned with the tactile, queer, erotic technology and bravely opposed to the restricting regime of print. It lets us construct a sort of reverse-teleology of technologies, where the medieval represents sophisticated postmodern brilliance and every subsequent technological form becomes that bit more restrictive, one-dimensional, colourless and – we medievalists imply smugly – dull.

I have a bit of a problem with this, which I can best illustrate by thinking about how an academic, five hundred years from now, might look at today’s digital technologies.

We’re inclined to think of the digital as impermeable, untouched and untouchable, all surface. But information about it is laid down in the body. If a forensic archaeologist working five hundred years from now found my body, he or she would be able to identify the muscle attachments – the grooves in the bone – that show that I regularly type on a keyboard; moreover, that this keyboard has a bias towards certain letters. Even if no such keyboard survived, with those bones and a working knowledge of the letter distributions in the English language, you could have a fair crack at figuring out what it might have looked like. You could work backwards, as Kłosowska does, as Harnett does, to reconstitute the ways twenty-first century people touched and typed and sat and moved as they read, just as you can with a medieval manuscript.

In celebrating – maybe (and I think Kłosowska is getting at this, too) even fetishising the tactile and the sensory in medieval culture, we forget that we’re not untouchable in our own technologies. We’re not invisible readers and writers, leaving no traces. And we can’t easily conceal the sleights of hand that satisfy liberal desires to identify with the ‘queer’ – the other, the disadvantaged, the disruptive – while still allowing us to study the remarkably expensive products of a predictably narrow and privileged medieval elite.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Syllabus Sharing – Freebie Reading Lists for Langland, Chaucer and Romance

This post is precisely what it says on the tin. When I prepare my reading lists, I spend a lot of time looking at other people’s syllabuses and other people’s discussions of pedagogy (especially those by Liz Gloyn, who blogs here, Rachel Moss, who blogs here, Jane-Heloise Nancarrow, here, and Carissa Harris, whose blog I’m eagerly awaiting). I’ve always – lazily? – crowd-sourced support and tips.

I find it hugely useful when people take the trouble to put details – reading lists, in particular – online. It also seems to me that these lists might give students, especially undergrads thinking about postgraduate work, some ideas about fun things to read. In that spirit, here are my reading lists for my MPhil teaching for next term, complete with some (speculative) annotations about what I’m doing and why.

MPhil in Medieval Literature

I’m teaching one component of this course, which is taught in three seminars of 90 minutes each. The idea is that students discuss texts – and theory – that they’ve read before, and over the course of a term (with six seminars in total delivered by two academics) they write an extended essay. They also attend classes in palaeography and codicology, which are assessed by written exercise, and, throughout the course of the whole nine months, they write a dissertation.

When I’ve taught this course previously (in 2015 and 2016), I’ve used a running theme of ‘community’ to draw my texts together, and I’ve encouraged students to look at manuscripts in the University Library that include the texts we’re studying. In each seminar, I’ve brought in short extracts from historical and theoretical texts, to contextualise the literary material – this reflects my training at the University of York, which was quite heavily historical and theoretical, and my training during my PhD, which was broadly based in book history. Although those are my interests, Cambridge has a big tradition of doing close reading, and this is one of my favourite methodologies, so we also do a fair bit of that in class. I’ve been reasonably happy about the way the course has run, but this year I’ve been rewriting the syllabus to include more theory and (I hope) to give students more choice of different approaches.

Week 1: Space, Place, Community: Langland in London

I’m fascinated by the way Langland imagines communities, and maps them onto all sorts of spaces – real, imaginary, allegorical, architectural, somatic, arboreal … the list goes on. But I also think the manuscript history of Piers Plowman is a good way in to thinking about networks of production and transmission. The theory I’d want to look at this week is what I think of as ‘heavy’ theory – it is philosophical as much as it is literary or cultural – but I think it matches up very well with Langland’s own tendency to play games with epistemology.

I include some quite old scholarship – notably, Carruthers’ Search for St Truth – partly because I love it, and partly because I want students to be able to think about changes over time. I’m also including studies that don’t relate directly to Langland, to model the way we use secondary scholarship for its methodology or its insights into the heavy theory, and not just for its direct comments on a primary text. Personally, I’m thinking about these issues in the context of the recent ‘Women at Sea‘ conference, which used the space of the academic discussion to host works of creative writing. But I don’t yet know whether or not students will agree, or whether they’ll see something entirely different.


Langland, William, Piers Plowman : A New Annotated Edition of the C-Text, ed. and D. Pearsall (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2008)


Langland, William, The Vision of Piers Plowman ; a Critical Edition of the B-Text Based on Trinity College Cambridge MS B.15.17, ed. by A. V. C. Schmidt (London: Everyman, 1995)


Langland, William, Piers Plowman: A Parallel-Text Edition of the A, B, C and Z Versions, ed. by A. V. C. Schmidt (London: Longman, 1995)


The journal devoted to Langland studies is the Yearbook of Langland Studies.

McAvoy, Liz Herbert, ed., Rhetoric of the Anchorhold: Space, Place and Body within the Discourses of Enclosure (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008)

Benson, C. David, Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture (University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004)

Carruthers, Mary, The Search for St Truth. A Study of Meaning in Piers Plowman (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973)

Cassidy-Welch, Megan, ‘Medieval Practices of Space and Place’, Parergon: Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies 27:2 (2010), 1-12.

Cole, Andrew, and Andrew Galloway, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Piers Plowman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Foucault, Michel [1967]) ‘Of other spaces’, trans. Lotus, in N. Leach (ed.) Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, London: Routledge, 1997), 330-336


Foucault, Michel, [1967] ‘Different Spaces’, trans. R. Hurley, in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology: Essential Works of Foucault Volume 2, ed. J. D. Faubion (London: Penguin, 1998), 175-185.


Foucault, Michel, [1967] ‘Of other spaces,’ trans. M. Dehaene and L. De Cauter, (eds.), Heterotopia and the City, eds. Dehaene and Cauter (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 13-30.

Goldberg, Jeremy, ‘John Rykener, Richard II, and the Governance of London,’ Leeds Studies in English NS XLV (2014): 49-70 (51).

Hanna, Ralph, London Literature, 1300-1380 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Horobin, Simon, ‘Harley 3954 and the audience of Piers Plowman,’ in Medieval Texts in Context, eds. Graham D. Caie and Denis Renevey (London: Routledge, 2008), 68-84.

Justice, Steven, Writing and Rebellion : England in 1381 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

Justice, Steven, and Katherine Kerby-Fulton, eds., Written Work: Langland, Labor and Authorship (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007)

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn, and Denise L. Despres, Iconography and the Professional Reader. The Politics of Book Production in the Douce Piers Plowman. Medieval Cultures Vol. 15 (London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

Lefevbre, Henri, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991)

Lindenbaum, Sheila, ‘London Texts and Literate Practice,’ in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: University Press, 1999), pp. 284-312.

Mooney, Linne R., and Estelle Stubbs, Scribes and the City: London Guildhall Clerks and the Dissemination of Middle English Literature (York: Medieval Press, 2013)

Scase, Wendy (ed.), Essays in Manuscript Geography. Vernacular Manuscripts of the English West Midlands from the Conquest to the Sixteenth Century (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007)

Steiner, Emily, Reading Piers Plowman (Cambridge: University Press, 2013)

Warner, Lawrence, The Myth of Piers Plowman. Constructing a Medieval Literary Archive (Cambridge: CUP, 2014)

Whitehead, Christiania, Castles of the Mind: A Study of Medieval Architectural Allegory

Zeeman, Nicolette, Piers Plowman and the Medieval Discourse of Desire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Queer Communities in Medieval Romance

Some of the secondary reading for the previous week has times (thematic or theoretical) with queer theory, but this week’s focus is more explicit. I’m quite ambivalent about Queer Theory, so I’m interested to see what students make of it – and whether they think there’s a distinction to be made between texts that depict same-sex desire and/or gender nonconformity, and texts that are queer? Frankly, I also think these romances are a lot of fun, so they should be nice to read and teach.


Le Roman de Silence. A thirteenth-century Arthurian verse-romance by Heldris de Cornuälle, ed. Lewis Thorpe (Cambridge, W. Heffer, 1972)


Silence: A Thirteenth-century French Romance. A facing page translation by Sarah Roche-Mahdi (East Lansing, MI: Michegan State University Press, 1992).

The Squire of Low Degree, in Sentimental and Humorous Romances, ed. Erik Cooper (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2005). Online at http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/kooper-sentimental-humorous-romances

Sir Degrevant, in Sentimental and Humorous Romances, ed. Erik Cooper (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2005). Online at http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/kooper-sentimental-and-humorous-romances-sir-degrevant


Arthuriana 7.1 (1997) and 12.1 (2002) are special issues devoted to studies of the Roman de Silence.

Ashe, Laura, Ivana Djordjević and Judith Weiss (eds), The Exploitations of Medieval Romance (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010)

Burns, E. Jane, Bodytalk: When Women Speak in Old French Literature (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993)

Butler, Judith, Undoing Gender (New York and London: Routledge, 2004)

Callahan, Christopher, ‘Canon Law, Primogeniture, and the Marriage of Ebain and Silence,’ Romance Quarterly 49:1 (2002): 12-20.

Clark, Robert A., ‘Queering Gender, Naturalising Class in the Roman de Silence,’ Arthuriana 12: 1 (2002): 50-63.

Cooper, Helen, The English Romance in Time. Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the death of Shakespeare (Oxford: University Press, 2004)

Diamond, Arlyn, ‘Sir Degrevant: What Lovers Want,’ in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England. Essays in Popular Romance, edited by Nicola McDonald (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004), 82-101.

Dinshaw, Carolyn, How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012)

Doyle, Kara, ‘Thisbe Out Of Context: Chaucer’s Female Readers and the Findern Manuscript.’ Chaucer Review 40 (2006): 231-261.

Edwards, A. S. G., ‘Gender, Order and Reconciliation in Sir Degrevant,’ in Readings in Medieval English Romance, ed. Carol M. Meale (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1994): 53-64.

Giffney, Noreen, Michelle M. Sauer and Diane Watt (eds), The Lesbian Premodern, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

Hanna, Ralph, and Thorlac Turville-Petre, ‘The History of a Family Collection.’ In The Wollaton Manuscripts: Texts, Owners and Readers, edited by Ralph Hanna and Thorlac Turville-Petre (Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2010), 3-19.

Heng, Geraldine, Empire of Magic. Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York and Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2003)

Karras, Ruth Mazo, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto others, 2nd edn (London and New York: Routledge, 2012)

Lees, Clare E. (ed.), Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994)

Lochrie, Karma, Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2005)

Lochrie, Karma, Peggy McCracken and James A. Schultz (eds), Constructing Medieval Sexuality (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997)

McDonald, N. F., ‘Desire out of Order and Undo Your Door,’ Studies in the Age of Chaucer 34 (2012): 247-275

McNamer, Sarah, ‘Female Authors, Provincial Settings: The Re-versing of Courtly Love in the Findern Manuscript,’ Viator 22 (1991): 279-310

Pugh, Tison, Sexuality and its Queer Discontents in Middle English Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

Putter, Ad, and Jane Gilbert (eds), The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance London: Pearson Education, 2000)

Saunders, Corinne J., ed., A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004)

Terrell, Katherine H., ‘Competing gender ideologies and the limitations of language in Le Roman de Silence,’ Romance Quarterly 55: 1 (2008): 35-48

Silenced Communities: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women and Canterbury Tales

 This week will be the last seminar of term, so I wanted to bring together some canonical primary material with a broad range of secondary material, some of which is quite explicitly polemical. I’m interested to see how this week runs. I’ve taught explicitly violent material (and sexually violent material) quite a lot over the past two years. I’m aware (obviously) of all the controversies over trigger warnings and content notes and the ethics of teaching these texts, but I’m pretty committed to teaching them, and I do see it as a form of feminist work to teach them. My experience is that students feel the same way.

I really wanted to give students some second wave feminist material – despite (or because of?) the fact that it can be difficult. For example, as someone commented when I suggested her work, Brownmiller’s views on race might take some criticism. But I think it’s especially important to read second wave feminism in the current climate, because it’s so easy to dismiss (without reading) female scholars as ‘dated’ or ‘bigoted’ – rather than reading them as people who had huge insights that moved the conversation on.


For this seminar I would like you to read The Legend of Good Women and any of the Canterbury Tales you wish to choose – but the Merchant’s Tale, the Wife of Bath’s Tale, and/or the Reeve’s Tale, are recommended.

The Legend of Good Women and The Canterbury Tales from The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford, 1987)


Alcoff, Linda, and Laura Gray, ‘Survivor Discourse: Transgression or Recuperation?,’ Signs 18: 2 (1993): 260-290.

Bourdieu, Pierre, Language and Symbolic Power, edited and introduced by John B. Thompson, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991)

Brownmiller, Susan, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975) 

Cannon, Christopher, ‘Raptus in the Chaumpaigne Release and a Newly Discovered Document Concerning the Life of Geoffrey Chaucer,’Speculum 68 (1993): 74-94

Carruthers, Mary, ‘The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions,’ PMLA 94:2 (1979): 209-222

Cixous, Hélène, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’ trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1:4 (1976): 875-93

Collette, Carolyn P., Rethinking Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (York: Medieval Press, 2014)

Delany, Sheila, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

Desmond, Marilynn, Ovid’s Art and the Wife of Bath: The Ethics of Erotic Violence (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006)

Dinshaw, Carolyn, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1989)

Edwards, Suzanne M., The Afterlives of Rape in Medieval English Literature (New York: Palgrave, 2016)

Evans, Ruth, and Lesley Johnson (eds), Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature: The Wife of Bath and All Her Sect (London: Routledge, 1994)

Frank, Robert Worth, Chaucer and the Legend of Good Women (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972)

Galloway, Andrew, ‘Chaucer’s Legend of Lucrece and the Critique of Ideology in Fourteenth-Century England,’ ELH 60:4 (1993): 813-832

Gavey, Nicola, Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape (London and New York: Routledge, 2005)

Hansen, Elaine Tuttle, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1992)

Harris, Carissa, ‘Inserting “a grete tente, a thrifty, and a long”: Sexual Obscenity and Scribal Innovation in Fifteenth-Century Manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales,’ Essays in Medieval Studies 28 (2012): 1-16.

Klindienst, Patricia, ‘The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours,’ in Rape and Representation, eds. Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda A. Silver (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 35-64.

Mardorossian, Carine M., ‘Toward a New Feminist Theory of Rape,’ Signs 27:3 (2007): 743-75.

McDonald, N. F., ‘Chaucer’s “Legend of good women,” Ladies at Court and the Female Reader,’ The Chaucer Review35: 1 (2001) 22-42.

Niebrzydowski, Sue, “‘So wel koude he me glose’: The Wife of Bath and the Eroticism of Touch,” in The Erotic in the Literature of Medieval Britain, eds. Amanda Hopkins and Cory James Rushton (Cambridge, Eng., 2007), pp. 18-26.

Robertson, Elizabeth, and Christine M. Rose, eds., Representing Rape in Medieval and Early Modern Literature (New York: Palgrave, 2001)

Saunders, Corinne, Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001)

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak,’ in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988)


Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, ‘History,’ in A History of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, Mass and London: Harvard University Press, 1999), 198-311. Includes a revised version of the previous essay.

Strauss, Barrie Ruth, ‘The Subversive Discourse of the Wife of Bath: Phallocentric Discourse and the Imprisonment of Criticism,’ ELH 55:3 (1988): 527-54.

Please feel free to nick any or all of these reading lists! Or to let me know if you’d do something different/recommend some more reading. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Check out my post for the Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon Project

I am really thrilled to have been invited to write a blog post for the fantastic Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon project, which is a hugely exciting and interesting research network, and which runs a blog that is very well worth following (for other people, you know – I’m not actually just bigging myself up here, honest). Anyway, I would love it if you would check out my post, and indeed the whole blog and project, which you will find through the same link.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Not-So-Mysterious Female Orgasm, Medieval Clitorises, and the Definition of Sex

A couple of weeks ago, I read the following exchange, posted on the facebook page of a social group to which I belong. One of the social group women reported how her daughter replied to a question put to her class during PSHE:

Teacher: “What can a woman do to not get pregnant when having sex?”
Child: “Not do it with a man?”

I enjoyed this. And the comment was still in my mind when I read this article, published in the Guardian yesterday. The headline – which is a fair representation of the way this particular bit of ‘news’ was reported everywhere else – is the awe-inspiringly confidence-inducing claim, “Mystery of the Female Orgasm May Be Solved”. While biting back the uncharitable question to whom this phenomenon is supposed to be a mystery, I was still left with the suspicion that this ‘solution’ might not be quite as groundbreaking as it was represented. I’m not that likely to pay attention to this kind of news story – only in part because I get irritated with the intersection between science and misogynistic guesswork, and mostly because I’m absent-minded – and I’m still pretty sure I’ve seen several versions of the ‘female orgasm mystery solved’ storyline over the years. I’ve seen theories about production of oxytocin and bonding, about muscle movements aiding the movement of semen, and about identification of a physically well-matched partner. Strangely, though – mysteriously, even – no matter how often one of these theories hits the headlines (and hit the headlines they do, because it’s Weird Sex Facts About Women, innit), it always seems to have dribbled wetly out of the popular consciousness and been scooped up by the tissue of collective memory loss by the time the next one comes along.

It’s almost as if there’s some kind of socio-cultural vested interest in preserving the idea of female orgasms as 1) mysterious and 2) almost totally useless, isn’t it?

But, to the article itself. “The purpose of the euphoric sensation has long puzzled scientists,” it begins confidingly, “as it is not necessary for conception” – at this point, just to be a pedant, I will point out that male orgasms are not, strictly necessary for conception, as anyone who has googled the perils of the pull-out method will be aware. But I understand where they’re going, until the sentence continues, “… and is often not experienced during sex itself”.

Now, since my mum occasionally reads this blog, this would be the point at which I deny all knowledge of the meaning of the word “sex” and take recourse to the dictionary. Or, I would if I didn’t already know what a wide range of them, and a wide range of irritated feminist academics who write about language, say. Defining “sex” as “the activity during which a man ejaculates” is remarkably common, and remarkably convenient for the hetero-patriarchy. As this blog over on (Re)Marks on the History of Sexuality fascinatingly explains, for prolonged periods of time extending well into living memory, people have found ways of defining “sex” such that it excludes acts that the participants in those acts – notoriously including Bill Clinton – would much prefer to think of as “not sex”. The child’s comeback to her teacher quoted at the top of this post illustrates how unconsciously we accept this interpretation in everyday life: although few polite, politically-correct people in Western Europe would, if asked, consciously define “sex” as something only heterosexual and/or male people can have, the default assumption is that “sex” involves a male orgasm. And thus, the Guardian can casually make the assumption that, whatever defines “sex itself,” it is not a female orgasm.


Not the Female Orgasms. Image from Besancon, Bibliotheque municipale, MS 0457, f. 273v (Avicenna, Canon medicinae)

The idea that female orgasms – and, indeed, female anatomy, notably the clitoris – are the subjects of ever-more-recent discovery, is a popular one. Certainly, the biographical apocrypha surrounding a remarkably diverse catalogue of rather prudish and/or sexist Historical Men include stories of how John Knox, or John Milton, or Charles Dickens, or Todd Akin, had unfortunate sexual experiences of their female partners shaking, juddering and trembling during intercourse and withdrew in profound concern for said female partner’s wellbeing. In reality, though, the literature discussing female orgasms goes back a long way. I know this, because one of the perks of my job is that I’ve spent the last few days reading up on medieval men’s medical and didactic descriptions of how to bring a woman to orgasm. They’re (un?)surprisingly sound, and matter-of-fact.

Medieval authors also discussed the topic from an anatomical standpoint, and identified several (mostly fairly bizarre) roles for the clitoris and other ladyparts. The author Galen – a huge authority, who clearly deserves to be credited as the original inventor of the concept of vajazzling – claimed that the labia were worn “for the sake of ornament,” but that they also (unlike vajazzling) served a practical purpose: to keep the uterus from becoming too cold. Galen interprets the euphemistically named ‘nymph’ (clitoris – the term was used by other medieval medics, too) as another kind of miniature heating element, also designed to keep women’s bits from getting too cold. For a malfunctioning clitoris, he prescribes some necessary manual stimulation designed to result in the all-important heating effects of orgasm, whilst also warning against the potentially scandalous involvement of a man in this manual stimulation. To avoid any hint of deviancy, one should (of course) engage the services of a responsible and skilled woman, such as a midwife.

These prescriptions concerned what we might think of as ‘normal’ medieval women, but – according to Karma Lochrie, whose book Heterosyncrasies is my source for much of this post – authors rarely turned a hair when they came to discuss what the more prudish amongst us would probably like to think of as unusual medieval women. Early Modern writers, later on, would interpret lesbianism as a disorder with biological origins, an innate deviancy whose identifying symptom was an abnormally large clitoris. But in medieval writings, there are a number of medical texts that describe, in quite pragmatic terms, the problems arising for women with over-sized clitorises, as there are for women who did not menstruate, and for women whose bodily functions and high sex drives fell into the category these writers interpreted as ‘masculine’. Such phenomena were seen as temporary conditions, conditions that could occur in otherwise perfectly unremarkable women, conditions within the realm of the treatable spectrum of usual ailments.

This history places the contemporary ‘discovery’ of an evolutionary reason for the female orgasm back in its proper place. As a piece of scientific research, it is potentially interesting, but represented as a super-modern “solution” to something presumed to be a long-standing source of amazement and disbelief, it is part of the ongoing patriarchal narrative that insistently defamiliarises the female body and excludes female sexuality from consideration. This is not to suggest that medieval medical writers were atypically humane and feminist, but rather the reverse: a suggested ‘cure’ for a woman suffering from the results of an over-large clitoris is, horrifically and predictably, excision, or what we would now know as female genital mutilation, a practice still recommended by some doctors in the West well into the twentieth century.

The Guardian piece reporting on the ‘solution’ to the ‘mystery’ of the female orgasm is presented as a new and hyper-modern development, an insight that elevates a useless quirk of female physicality to the dubious status of a once-useful bit of obsolete muscle tissue. But, it historical terms, it is this article itself that is – deliberately, by design – obsolescent. It is intended to make a splash on the front page, lingering, weakly swimming in our minds, for a few days, before dying out of our memories. Then, we are to expect the next sensational discovery of a rationale for the inexplicable aspects of female biology – and another, and another – while the need to explain the existence of a Y chromosome carrying tiny fragments of genetic data, will never arise. Such a question would not fit with the narrative of the patriarchy.


Karma Lochrie’s book, Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005) is a fantastic read, for many reasons other than its amazing and absorbing discussions of medieval women’s sexuality. It is very academic, and largely focussed on medieval texts, but it is very much worth reading for people outside academia, and outside medieval studies.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments