New Chaucer Society 2016, Mile End Jewish Cemetery, and a ‘European’ England

 

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Novo Cemetery at QMU, Mile End

I’m writing this quickly, having just made it to the New Chaucer Society Conference at Queen Mary, University of London. NCS is a big conference by medievalists’ standards, and there is a huge number of talks I just won’t get to see, despite wanting to, because of the tight timetable. And there are a lot of people I want to see, many of whom are coming in from the US or parts of Europe or even Australia. We see each other rarely – only really at conferences like this. Of course, you can chat on facebook, and leave friendly comments, and even read each other’s work, comment on it and co-author to an extent, but there isn’t yet any technology that recreates what it’s like having everyone who works on the same topic in a room, talking together.

NCS is the first conference I’ve been to since the UK voted to leave the EU and – for many reasons – I was wondering how and whether this would feel different. And before I made it to the conference venue, I spent the day wandering around Hampton Court – which is probably one of the least diverse areas, racially, economically and in every other possible way, that you could hope to land up in. You can absolutely imagine that, were you to transport the current inhabitants back to 1515, they would be making sucked-lemon faces about the appalling things successful politicians do with new money and wincing at the look of red brick. We went round the flower show, which was lovely and gentle and also absolutely full of the sort of people who’ve taught their children not to double-take more than once, and who consequently give you anxious smiles before asking mummy why those ladies are holding hands.

The campus of Queen Mary is a contrast. Located in Mile End, it’s a collection of modern, concrete-and-glass buildings, on either side of a busy road, with an unexpectedly beautiful view of Regent’s Canal.

Even more unexpectedly, tucked into the middle of the campus between several concrete blocks, in an unpromising piece of concrete that had the look of unfinished building works, I came across the old Jewish cemetery that was here before the university. I knew that Mile End was a historically Jewish area of London, and that its roots go back centuries, but I did not know of the existence of this graveyard. The stones are intact, and though many are covered in lichen, some are readable – and more would be readable if I read Hebrew. I saw memorials for Esther, wife of Solomon Haim da Costa Andrade; to Isaac Cohen Belifante; to Moss Comes da Costa. Could you find more Jewish – and Portuguese – names?

The Sephardi Jewish community in Mile End – Spanish and Portuguese Jewish immigrants, who had come to England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – found the need for a new cemetery in 1733, and secured the land for the so-called ‘Novo’ Cemetery in what is now the middle of the Queen Mary campus, a listed site for English Heritage. To find a site like this in the middle of a university is unusual: it disrupts your sense of past and present, of current purpose and former dedication. The stones, with their arresting names and dates, demand attention and reflection. Time is required, so that the fact of their continuing presence can be taken in. Looking at this cemetery, you are forced to remember a multi-cultural, multilingual past, which was so far from being on the fringes of society that it left its mark in stone and marble: a monument to centuries of community that puts modern ideas of ‘Englishness’ to shame.

Coming across this cemetery so unexpectedly, in the middle of a very modern university campus, made me think how Queen Mary proves the need for pan-European, cosmopolitan, wide-reaching interactions between people. I’m hugely looking forward to this conference – and to meeting all the colleagues who come from outside the UK – but, just as much, I plan to enjoy the idea of this conference taking place in sight of the shadows of a thriving community of England’s immigrants whose history dates back so many centuries.

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A quick rant about Tories who tell me what ‘Christians’ think of Marriage

I’m absolutely certain someone other than me has already deconstructed what Andrea Leadsom – potential Tory PM – has said about her views on gay marriage, with much greater eloquence, restraint, and theological authority than I can bring to bear on the subject. But what the heck. Following Leadsom in the fine tradition of speaking when you really should shut up, I’m going to talk about this anyway.

So, the background for people who’ve been hiding in bunkers since Brexit and/or American readers. Hi there! Here’s a quick and dubiously accurate summary of the situation. A few days ago, pig-botherer David Cameron resigned, catapulting a motley group of bigots, idiots, and the sort of people who think admitting to a lack of charisma is beguiling and delightful, into a race to avoid getting the job. One amongst them is Andrea Leadsom, who has decided to share her views about her voting record on gay marriage. You can watch here.

Leadsom opens with that thoughtful and sensitive approach Tories always use to show their deep commitment to morality: that is, by reducing the whole issue to a question of economics. “I believe that the love of same-sex couples is every bit as valuable as the love of opposite-sex couples,” she explains earnestly, in a way that suggests she thinks ‘love’ is something roughly equivalent to the output of the British Steel Industry, only slightly less important for the GDP. Lest you fear that Leadsom is being misinterpreted, and by the word ‘value’ actually means something warm, fuzzy and dangerously socialist like ’emotionally, spiritually or morally important’, check out her stance on maternity pay and the minimum wage.

The meat of the speech comes when Leadsom explains that many Christians subscribe to the belief marriage is only between a man and a woman, and that to allow gay marriage is to ‘hurt’ these many Christians, even though she herself, of course, doesn’t hold in any such reactionary belief. Or rather, as she puts it, “I don’t actually agree with them, to be specific, I don’t agree“. So, despite disagreeing with many Christians that gay marriage is wrong, it’s pure concern for their hurt feelings (oh, and the authority of the Anglican Church, that shaky and tottering edifice, propped up by no rights or privileges whatsoever) that caused Leadsom to momentarily act like a homophobic bigot.

Whew, thank goodness we cleared that up.

Leadsom’s speech is a master class in making sure you’re shifting the blame in multiple directions at once, as she hedges “Marriage – in the Biblical sense – is very clearly, from the many many Christians who wrote to me …”. I am not, as yet, familiar with the theological school of thought that advocates you read the Bible, attend to its message, and then think ‘nah, no idea what that means, I’ll rely on any idiot who’ll write me a letter about it and trust to them instead’. Just for Jem Bloomfield, I could make a St Paul joke here, but I won’t. The issue is that Leadsom is trying so, so very hard to make it clear she both is and isn’t in favour of bigotry, that she manages to make it sound as if she’s a Christian who doesn’t actually subscribe to what she sees as Christian doctrine, and a defender of the authority of the Church of England who nevertheless prefers to listen to the unofficial views of anyone with a pen and a ready line in homophobia.

Not all of the confusion is cynically created, I will admit: Leadsom also seems fairly confused at points in her speech, notably when she explains “Civil partnerships are called marriages as well, as you know, as in registry offices, marriages are still marriages …”. Interestingly, this is the same mix-up – whether it comes from dishonesty or actual lack of understanding – that sees Leadsom try to give letters written to her by constituents the status of authoritative statements on Anglican doctrine. It’s a confusion of ordinary language – wherein, yes, I have heard people refer to their civil partner as ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ – and language that has the status of law. In law, civil partnership is not “called marriage as well”.

At this point, I admit, I’m so irritated by the debate that I don’t really want to get into the absurdity of Biblical justifications against gay marriage. Just look at the pretty picture.

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What bugs me more than the theological tangles, is the way Leadsom seems genuinely certain that what will convince people of her genuine piety and her genuine compassion for the unfortunate deviants, is to claim she has absolutely no argument of her own. She’s a self-proclaimed Christian, who relies on chance letters from constituents to help her interpret the Bible, and a defender of the legal and religious rights of the Anglican Church who purports not to understand the distinction between casual conversation and legal proclamation.

I suspect Leadsom knew it would play rather less well to say “I subscribe to the official line of the Anglican Church, who have not yet come round to gay marriage, even though quite a lot of them do seem quite keen, quite often, and they did have that thing with women priests that did make quite a lot of people look like shocking old bigots a few years later.” So, instead, she claims her approach is the populist approach, the approach that defends the anonymous ‘many many Christians’ who want marriage to be marriage ‘in the eyes of God’.

I have to admit, now, that I am particularly pissed off by this argument, and that it is reasonably topical for me. I’m Anglican. I suspect (forgive me the hubris) I have as good a grasp of Anglican theology as Andrea Leadsom. I have a lot of friends who are Anglican – and who belong to other Christian denominations – who are also hurt about gay marriage. But they’re hurt because of people like Leadsom. Why, exactly, are we the kinds of Christians who don’t seem to matter here?

There is a long-repeated theme to the way Leadsom hides behind the fiction of ‘many Christians’. It’s the same excuse that’s trotted out to hide all kinds of bigotry in all kinds of contexts. We just don’t want to hurt people – you know, the people who believe these things. The devout, Christian magnates of the eighteenth century, who argued that the Bible really wanted the slave trade to flourish. The sincere, pious Christian men who campaigned against women priests and the emancipation of women. These nice, churchgoing, Bible-reading letter writers, who feel a little bit queasy at the idea of consenting adults who want to participate in the sacrament of marriage. It is always, you see, the people like this who are seen to be ‘hurt’. And that’s because chipping away your bigotry does hurt. It’s not actually about having your well-cushioned social status confirmed, so you can go about your business moneylending in the temple and claiming a monopoly on the idea of spiritual ‘value’. It’s about accepting that there are also Christians ‘hurt’ by the idea that marriage is something not to be extended to them.

“She Should Not Gaze On a Man”: Distrusting the Female Gaze, 1300-2016

Earlier today, a friend of mine posted a picture, which had been put up in the gym her daughter uses at school. The poster was made as part of the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign. It aims to improve numbers of girls and young women doing sports, which is a health issue. All sounds great, right? Only problem – and what made my friend’s daughter angry – is, here’s the picture:

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Now, the reasoning behind the text isn’t completely absent. Surveys of teenage girls – apparently – claim that they rate worries about their appearance as a significant reason not to want to do sport. But the poster manages to shoot itself in the foot. Taken in isolation, it only reinforces the idea that appearance (and specifically, a very particular performance of femininity) is crucial. Yes, the nails may be temporarily hidden, but let’s never forget they’re perfectly buffed and painted. Until I see the wording of the survey in question, I’ll take its results with a pinch of salt anyway – ask any group if they’re worried about their appearance, and you’re liable to prime them to believe they should be. But what bothers me most about this poster is the way it doesn’t trust you – the viewer – to decode its messages without verbal text.

That may seem rather trivial. It isn’t.

The image purports to draw its drama from the tension between what we see (the boxing gloves) and what’s hidden (the manicure). But the messages the manicure would send are right there in plain sight. The girl in the picture looks to be wearing heavy mascara and earrings already. She is already visibly performing the kind of femininity that is commercialised and dependent on modifying your appearance. The poster doesn’t just send the message that you need to be pretty while doing sport. It also conveys its own anxiety about the need to control the way women will view this image and its text. Oh, damn, they might not understand the girl is pretty without her pretty nails on show! Better make sure she’s blinking off the mascara too. The makers of the image don’t really have the confidence in their (young, female) audience to understand the caption and the juxtaposition of the visible and the hidden that it requires in order to function. The undermining effect is doubled: we get the message that we’re supposed to think being pretty matters, and we get the message, too, that the people who made this image don’t really think women are capable of decoding anything terribly visually complex.

It’s deeply depressing that a campaign that sets out to be feminist – or at least, woman-friendly – ends up reiterating the same old messages. But it’s also telling that even this message is tangled up with assumptions about the way women relate – or fail to relate – to the messages in visual culture.

For some years now, I’ve been hearing MRAs claim that objectification has now (against all evidence) become an entirely male-gendered problem.  Women, so the story goes, have begun to act as sexual aggressors. The conspicuously dull Cosmo centre-fold has single-handedly done more harm to men than centuries of misogyny did to women. Poor, timid Daves and Steves must now contend with in the oestrogen-heavy atmospheres of the woman-dominated nail salon, mothers’ meeting or rape crisis centre, wincing each time a loud, drunk woman called Sonia hoiks up her skinnies over her bum crack and pinches his nipples suggestively. You get the picture.

It’s not a new idea. Back in the thirteenth century, Robert of Blois writes sternly that women should police their excessively visual desires:

She should not gaze at a man, as the sparrowhawk gazes at the lark.”

This is exactly how I picture a predatory woman: taloned, feathered, and slightly inclined to shit on her perch if the going gets tough.

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Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 42r.

Medieval literature, theology and scientific writing is full of claims about women’s intensely visual orientation, their affinity – both as a result of nature and as a result of (lack of) education – for pictures and images. Some writers claimed that medieval women were innately more fixated on sex than men, and more easily sexually stimulated – perhaps especially by physical and visual material – than men; others stressed the predatory nature of women’s visual activities.

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I imagine it as something similar to Evil Willow’s eyes in Buffy, but with extra wimple action.

Women’s responses to visual culture were, as a result, heavily policed. Their sight itself was held to have profoundly powerful, sexual, and dangerous power. The Franciscan Peter of Limoges offers a delightfully piece of pseudo-science:

“It seems probable that some kind of poisonous rays are given off when a woman looks at a man lustfully, for then a libidinous vapour arises from the heart of a woman up to her eyes. From then on, the vapour infects her visual rays … whence the infection enters the heart of the man.”

These writers’ monitory attention to women’s visual energies are, plainly, an excuse for policing women’s actions, thoughts and identities more generally. Relating sight to a whole network of stereotypes of women as more earthy, physical and embodied, these writers represent women’s visual attention as a source of danger, a source of excessive sexual desire.

It’s a delightful irony that, in modern-day culture, women’s relationship to visual imagery is policed in precisely the opposite direction – rather discrediting the pseudo-scientific language of both medieval and modern commentators. Contemporary pop culture pieces on sexuality insistently claim that women are “just not very visual,” “less visually stimulated,” “less image-focussed”. Even when one slightly suspects what may be meant is “not interested in the kinds of images you, scientific reviewer, imagine might be sexy,” the claim gains tenure through endless repetition.

An example from pop culture – or rather, the responses to this example that I saw – illustrates the way this claim functions to push women into accepting themselves as the non-default viewer, the viewer who cannot be expected to respond properly to visual material.

A friend linked to one of those repeatable quizzes that claim to identify something improbably complex about your psyche, your cognitive processing or your life history: in this case, your sexuality. This particular quiz was based on those images that trick your eyes, the ones we’ve all played with at school. Instead of the standard eye-trick images of an elderly woman and a young girl, or a vase that’s also two faces, what you saw was more along these lines:

The title of the article from which this came was “Can this quiz really tell your sexual orientation based just on images,” and the answer, I think we can safely say, is no. But you don’t really need to know the accuracy of the quiz in order to recognise – as you begin to click through it – how it is supposed to work. You, the viewer, should respond by seeing naked women everywhere, even in the most mundane images of voluptuous mountain ranges, suggestively curvaceous architecture and vaguely pubic trees. Should you achieve this mighty feat, you’ll discover you are, in fact, attracted to women. Or as the quiz result puts it, ‘straight’.

Of course, the quiz doesn’t need to work to hold our attention (and we probably know, not very deep down, that there’s no reason it should work). We are supposed to recognise, as we click through this quiz, the message that sexual attraction to women’s bodies is a powerful visual force that literally determines the way in which viewers see and interpret the world. We’re not supposed to notice – or respond to, or find our reactions are shaped by – the objectifying dynamic here through which women’s bodies are quite literally represented as part of the landscape, the architecture, the vegetation. But that’s part of the message too. It’s a message that reinforces the idea that women cannot be trusted to act as the default viewer, the viewer who needs no guidance to arrive at his interpretation, the viewer who is not hampered by nagging doubts about objectification.

The images I’m looking at – the poster campaign, the pop quiz – are a problem not just because they objectify. They’re a problem because they come with an ingrained narrative about women’s visual processing that teaches us to distrust what we see, that teaches us that we are not reading images the way the viewer should read them, that teaches us we cannot be trusted to make the ‘correct’ interpretation.