Renewable Sources of Memory: Speech, Silence and Structure at the Gender and Medieval Studies Conference in Canterbury

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I’m writing this in the shadow – or, actually, underneath the floodlights on the towers – of Canterbury Cathedral. My hotel room looks out past overlapping rooftops dripping melted snow, to a peering gargoyle and the fabulously-named Butter Market on one side, and the cathedral precincts on the other. I’m here (with a slightly premature post, before the last half-day) attending the conference on ‘Gender, Places, Spaces, Thresholds’ hosted by Canterbury Christ Church University and the wonderful Dr Diane Heath.

I came to this conference to give a paper on – amongst other things – the ways spaces and structures informed medieval people’s assumptions about the sexualities of their inhabitants. In particular, I’m interested in the way spaces occupied only by women generated a volatile blend of fascination and anxiety amongst male writers, who could only speculate (and censure, worry, or fantasise about) what women got up to inside, together. This is a large area of study, but the example I’m working on has been causing me problems, because the terminology I use carries complicated, and sometimes competing, connotations in various academic, political, pedagogical and personal spheres. In places, the debate maps onto the widespread conflicts you may have seen playing out on social media, over territory that is both ideological and physical. ‘Queer’ spaces and ‘lesbian’ spaces are often set in opposition, made to stand for whole systems of antagonistic thought. In this big debate, my small part is that I’m finding, increasingly, that the term ‘queer’ is blotting out a particular way of understanding ‘lesbian’ identities and histories.

All of this makes me keen to speak up in this debate, but also worried that, in doing so, I’ll be understood to have placed myself immutably on one side of a polarised disagreement, with no freedom to reinterpret the parameters or to develop my own position. And I think this is an issue we’re increasingly quick to produce in our modes of response to current political crises. We’re often urged to speak out, as if speaking out were a form of necessary social action, a morally mandated act. “Speak out!” “Bear witness!” “Add your name to this petition!” “Don’t stay silent!” Such requests demand that we accept our interlocutors’ picture of the ongoing debate and (often) that we respond in their terms, to the binaries they have drawn. More and more, I worry that we’re making silence – or provisional, measured, experimental forms of speech – tacitly unacceptable.

I found, though, that this conference offered me a new set of ways to think about speaking, and this, in turn, led me away from the rigid, polarised structures of debate I’ve been anxious about finding myself caught up in.

Speech, Hannah Shepherd told us in her paper, was considered a sense by medieval thinkers. It did not come after the thinking, considering, connecting work of the mind, and it did not simply give audible form to thoughts already finalised, polished, ordered and arranged. If speaking and writing are necessary parts of the process of thinking, then we write (or speak) in order to learn what it is we really think. This is all feels very close to twenty-first century pedagogies and theories of cognitive processing, but I think it’s also very medieval. Thought is structured by the objects and materials of the physical world: they offer models that are ‘good to think’ with, good to help us understand more abstract connections and ideas.

For medieval people, buildings are one of the central metaphorical structures for thought, and the medieval building par excellence, the building saturated with the most significance, must be the chapel, church, or (above all) cathedral. And what’s key about these buildings is that they are never finished. They are in a constant state of construction and reconstruction, like the edifices of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, that ‘rise and fall, crumble, are extended,’ endings and new beginnings overlapping and reforming around each other. Of course, some of this is still true today. From where I sit, I can see scaffolding on the tower of Canterbury Cathedral; an arresting and poignant image in the news yesterday showed the great rose window of Soissons Cathedral broken by the storm.

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But we tend to think of the work that goes on in these buildings as reconstructive work, work aimed at repairing what is broken, replacing what is worn out, or simply fighting against the constant slow decays of time. In contrast, medieval churchgoers expected their churches to be renewed and refashioned, often startlingly quickly, and in ways that can seem oddly intimate to us. Wills, for example, provide evidence of medieval women leaving their best cloak to dress statues of the Virgin or of favourite saints; new paint is regularly ordered to brighten up the cacophony of colours that once decorated church interiors, and over-hasty, over-ambitious building works on Lincoln Cathedral in the early fourteenth century reputedly resulted in a tower so high it overtopped the Pyramids of Gaze … for a slim 200 years, until it crashed down into the nave and was abandoned as a bad job.

All of this bustling building and rebuilding invites us to think, like medieval churchgoers, of a cathedral itself as a work in progress, a monumental structure, to be sure, but a structure that changes the way we think about memory itself: not as something fixed and immutable, but as something that might accommodate new materials and make space for new emotional responses. If speech is one of the senses, then all processes of thought and memory are processes of exploration as well as consolidation, ongoing rather than fixed.

This should make us think more about what work speech might do, and how we might use speech. And this conference offered possibilities for speech that was not final and finalised, that modified the structures of debate. Laura Varnam read Margery Kempe’s interactions with angels as a means of constructing woman-to-woman bonds of expression, which extended the sanctifying spaces of patriarchal control to reach out to and heal fellow female sufferers. Hannah Piercy argued that the conceptual enclosures of romance could act as models for ‘unsafe safe spaces,’ safe spaces that reach out and speak beyond their own confines. Daisy Black contrasted the York mystery plays’ ranting Herod, dominating the stage with sound and spectacle, with the silent power of Christ, showing how Herod’s noise and gesture exhausts the audience while Christ’s much-remarked silence gains tenure on their curiosity and intellectual engagement. Her paper showed how the Shearmen and Tailors’ Pageant uses song to change the spoken texture of the stage space, undercutting Herod with the ‘scopic authority’ – authority produced in the audience’s shift of attention to them – of the women singing the poignant Coventry Carol. Grace Timperley re-told the story of Octavian to show how ‘exile’ in romance offers women new lives, as ‘loss’ becomes a ‘loosening’ of bonds. All of these papers, and many more, challenged established scholarly narratives and – quietly – demolished established maps of the distribution of power and agency in medieval conversations, real and imagined.

As I came back to my partner after each conference session, I brought esoteric snippets and discoveries from the papers I’d heard. About the tomb of Christ and the cave of the Nativity, the topographies of Canterbury and of Bethlehem, the symbolic properties of rose-water or the smell of the angels, the French maps of routes where women wore burning crowns of straw and the eighth-century Arabic spell-books brought to medieval Britain.

Predictably, she suggested I needed to watch Indiana Jones while I wrote this post.

The film think how much we love the idea of discovering hidden symbols, piecing together arcane signs into new maps that unlock unified and unifying truths. But it’s really the systems of signs themselves that are the new treasures, the Grails, as the omniscient drawl of Sean Connery reminds us.

“Elsa never really believed in the grail. She thought she’d found a prize.”
– “What did you find, dad?”
“Illumination.”

Granted, it’s an irritating piece of misogynistic cliche, this response, aligning the material desire with the female and the cool, detached rationality with the male, but it’s straight out of medieval theories of both thought and gender, so we’ll charitably assume it’s part of the film’s tongue-in-cheek send-up of its subject matter. Like the grail, speech ought to be a structuring process, a process of becoming rather than of expressing certainties in the linguistic equivalent of quick-set cement. As we speak, we learn to re-position what we think we know – about ourselves and about the past – and in the process, we find we’ve constructed new mental edifices and spaces for thinking further. It’s an added bonus if we get Harrison Ford’s leather jacket into the bargain.

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3 thoughts on “Renewable Sources of Memory: Speech, Silence and Structure at the Gender and Medieval Studies Conference in Canterbury

  1. A fascinating and thoughtful post.

    “Thought is structured by the objects and materials of the physical world: they offer models that are ‘good to think’ with, good to help us understand more abstract connections and ideas.”

    This reminded me of Catholic elementary school, and learning to say the Rosary, which was as much about the physical–thumb and forefinger firmly on the crucifix for the Pater Noster, then thoughtfully to the beads for the Aves– as any praying we did. Holding the rosary properly was seen as an aid to the devotion, and was meant to do more than simply count the prayers. If that’s all we were doing, Sister Robert warned us, then ours was wasted time, and no devotion at all.

    I have serious conference envy. Thank you for giving me a glimpse of it.

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