The View from the Tower

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

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

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

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

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

The Angels of the Roof


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


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

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

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

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

The angels’ silent voices rose in agreement.

We fall.


Another contribution to the Decameron project

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

But what if there were another story?

While the library burned, what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

But then …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting, until today.

Learning from ‘Bad’ Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consuming Brown Bodies: Paul Feig’s ‘Last Christmas’ and Medieval Mummy Medicine

Screenshot 2019-11-13 at 09.18.46

In the above tweet, Rachel Moss is talking about the much-hyped film, Last Christmas, starring Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding (and at this point, if you want to avoid spoilers, click away).

As quite a few people already figured out from the not-too-subtle trailers, the film’s love story has a twist. It turns out that the mysterious (Asian) love interest who swoops in and out of Clarke’s life with the perfect blend of romance and feel-good emotional intensity, is in fact, well … dead. To be precise, he’s her organ donor. ‘My heart … was always going to be yours, one way or another.’ I feel faintly nauseous, and it’s not just Brexit repeating on me.

I expect the film is, as we are assured in the article to which Moss links, still enjoyable, light-hearted fun. Except for those pesky racist undertones, which she quite rightly identifies. Even before the trailer starts, we sort of know that this isn’t going to be a conventional pairing. We’re allowed Asian love interests on mainstream film (Always Be My Maybe), but we’re not really allowed to see (sexless! un-macho! no stereotype withheld!) Asian men as love interests for white women. It seemed to me, though, that there’s something even more creepy about this narrative, which was thrown into sharp focus by the research I’ve recently been doing. At the moment, I’m looking at medieval English treatments for gynaecological problems, in particular treatments that have to do with fertility and childbirth.

You might imagine this subject would be all herbs and charms and chubby-cheeked baby Jesus and people praying to the Mother of God to help them in their travail. And you would be right. But what it also is, is a lot of quite deeply racist rhetoric about how Christendom holds the key to the future and is destined to be blessed with generation upon generation, while all of those infidel races are doomed to wither on the vine, decayed and impotent as their false scriptures, sterile as the barren fig tree of the gospels … you can imagine the genre. And you can probably imagine how eagerly it’s recycled contemporary white supremacists, too. And amid all of this rhetoric, there’s a medical remedy that stopped me in my tracks.

If you want to stimulate a woman’s fertility, help her deliver a placenta or treat a missed miscarriage, you feed her a medication containing several dozen different exotic herbs, resins, spices, roots … oh, and the ground up human flesh of dead brown people.


London, British Library, MS Egerton 747, fol. 60v.

No, really, not kidding. Mumia or mummie is a vital ingredient in one of the best-known medieval cure-alls. Its history as an ingredient is long and complicated (and I’m working on publishing something about this), but by the later Middle Ages medics had agreed that mumia – as in, the substance recovered from the wrappings of Egyptian mummies – was the best thing to dose patients with. As a result, generations of white Western women obediently swallowed down fragments of human remains, in the hope of perpetuating the future of Christendom and Europe.

Like the later ‘archaeologists’ and ‘explorers’ who ransacked Egyptian tombs, or the Victorian mummy-unwrappers who turned the destruction of an entire country’s ancient history into a spectator sport, medieval English people apparently saw nothing particularly wrong with treating human remains in this way. After all, as one manuscript clarifies in its list of ingredients, the human remains are ‘Saracen’s flesh’: not white people.

Obviously, there are substantial differences between organ donation (voluntary; life-saving; requiring informed consent) and grave-robbing. And equally obviously, organ donation is something more of us should be considering doing, and if a feel-good film can help encourage people to make the decision to go on the donor list, that can only be a good thing. But the thing is, Last Christmas is a fiction. And in fictions, writers make choices. There was no need to make the character of the organ donor an Asian man (unless you want to clock up shallow diversity points without, as we have observed, following through and giving us a genuine interracial romance). There is no need to construct what is, essentially, new clothing for the old familiar stereotype of the ‘sacrificial person of colour’ – that wise, noble, secondary character whose role is to die so that Our White Protagonist can live.

All of this is a long-winded way of observing that when Last Christmas sacrifices an Asian character’s human remains to a white woman and dresses it up as a great love story, it is playing into much older ideas about which bodies are disposable, consumable, expendable, and which lives deserve to continue on to the future.


Lest you imagine the trade in mumia as a medication must have stopped far back in the murky mists of time, consider the fact that a German apothecary in the early twentieth century still carried ‘mummy’ on its ordering list. For more on mummy and historical medication, see:

Dannenfeldt, Karl H., ‘Egyptian Mumia: The Sixteenth-Century Experience and Debate,’ The Sixteenth Century Journal 16: 2 (1985): 163-80.

Evans, Jennifer, Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2014).

Green, Monica H, ed. and trans., The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).

Not Only Now: Recovering the History of Pregnancy Loss in the Sixteenth Century


A silence often surrounds the topic of pregnancy loss.

The reasons for it are many. People do not know what to say. People do not know how common pregnancy losses are; do not want to think about pregnancy loss; do not realise that a pregnancy has been lost. In the many accounts and articles I have been reading this week – which is Pregnancy Loss Awareness Week – one theme predominates. The emotions surrounding the loss of a wanted baby are not better for being kept under wraps. It is, as Katy Lindemann writes in the Guardian, arguably cruel that women are still expected not to talk about losses that occur within the first trimester, the twelve weeks during which it is most common to lose a pregnancy.

Not everyone, of course, wants to talk, but one of the persistent fears I hear in accounts of pregnancy loss is the fear that, without talking, there is so little to keep a baby lost during pregnancy present in memories. It is especially hard to bridge the unimaginable gap between an expectant mother’s intimate knowledge of her baby’s movements and growth, and the relative unknowability of that unborn baby – even in our age of sonograph technology – to everyone else. There are painfully few ways to mark the existence of these babies. There may be no birth certificate; there may be no legal record of life at all, even in the cases where a baby is born below the point of survivable prematurity and yet lives for several hours. Such rituals as there are, are few and tentative, often not quite adapted for purpose. One of the things that is taken away from parents suffering pregnancy loss is a sense of their baby’s place and presence in the world.

The project I am currently working on is an attempt to recover an unspoken history of pregnancy loss in the long past. For many years, the dominant historical view of medieval parenting was that, at a time when small children died often and all too easily, parents could not spare the emotional pain to grieve for them. The view comes from a book published by Philippe Ariès in 1960. Ariès argued that childhood is a modern construct, and that parents of the past did not become emotionally attached to their small children and infants. For decades now, scholars have been aware that Ariès misunderstood or misinterpreted many of the sources he was using to draw his conclusions. However, his idea caught popular imagination, and it’s still something you hear quoted as fact.

We might imagine that in an age when such a high value was placed upon women as mothers, grief for a lost baby would be a gendered emotion; that fathers would not or did not grieve for babies they barely knew. We might imagine pregnancy loss, in particular, to be a secret, even shameful or covert feminine experience. Before I began this study, I expected to find accounts of men blaming, or even mistreating, their wives for ‘failing’ to bear living children; I suspected that emotions of grief or sorrow would be largely confined to the same hushed domestic sphere as the birthing chamber itself. And, even while I did not subscribe to Ariès’ rather callous assumption that a family experiencing multiple losses would somehow ‘get used to it,’ I presumed – as many people still do today, of contemporary losses – that the birth of other children might lessen the pain of a pregnancy loss.

Yet, the evidence shows it was not so. A will from 1534, written by one Robert Duckett of Sibton in Suffolk, describes the testator’s intentions for the money he wished to donate to his parish church of St Peter. The will is piercingly immediate in its emotional intimacy and affection for family. It describes plans for a new side-chapel in the parish church, where saintly figures evoking the Holy Family of Christ would be juxtaposed with a memorial to Duckett’s own family. The will lists the images to be included, beginning with the Virgin Mary and her mother St Anne. This is quite a conventional pairing, testifying to the increasing popularity of St Anne in later medieval England. Yet, though Anne is often portrayed as an affectionate grandmother to Christ and a loving, careful mother to her daughter Mary, she is also associated with the pain of infertility. In medieval accounts, Anne was understood to be an older mother when she miraculously became pregnant with Mary; she had believed herself to be unable to bear children.

This emphasis on a longing for children is magnified in the other images Duckett wanted to have made. The same stained glass window that was to memorialise his family was also to feature an image of the Holy Trinity, with St Elizabeth on one side and St Joachim on the other. The older cousin of the Virgin Mary, St Elizabeth commonly features in medieval images of the Visitation, the scene in which the two cousins joyously greet each other, the one pregnant with the infant Christ and the other with St John the Baptist. Yet this, too, is not only a scene celebrating fertility and new family life. Like the Virgin’s mother St Anne, Elizabeth was long past the age of childbearing when she became pregnant with the future John the Baptist; like Anne, she believed herself to be unable to conceive a child.

The husbands of these two seemingly infertile women, Anne and Elizabeth, were also venerated as saints. Zachariah, like his wife Elizabeth, appears in Luke’s gospel: it is he who first speaks the Benedictus, the canticle of thanksgiving that plays a prominent role in medieval liturgy. Before this sacred song, he features in a dramatic episode of doubt transformed, as an angel appears to tell him his wife will bear a son. An early echo of doubting Thomas, Zachariah refuses to believe in what must come to pass, insisting (with a remarkable lack of sympathy for his elderly wife) that Elizabeth’s childbearing years are long over, and she cannot be pregnant. Struck dumb as punishment for his lack of belief, he spends the later months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy in silence, only regaining his power to speak when he sees, acknowledges, and names his son. By contrast, medieval tradition gives Anne’s husband Joachim a far less significant, dramatic and prominent role. One of three successive husbands of Anne, he dies during the Virgin’s childhood. He makes no powerful, canonical, liturgical speech. His only role is to be a man longing for a child. Yet, whereas Zachariah speaks harshly of his wife’s age, Joachim offers only kindness to Anne, sharing in her pain. It is not Zachariah the priest and prophet whom Robert Duckett wanted to see pictured alongside St Elizabeth in his memorial window, but the sympathetic Joachim. His incongruous pairing of these saints suggests an emotional and religious connection to the nexus of ideas about longing and childlessness, which they represent.

tn_sibton7933                                  tn_sibton7932

Despite what we might expect from this unusual combination of images, Duckett and his wife were not unable to have children. Their family was large, even by medieval standards, but it was also marked by a loss that takes a prominent place in the will’s description of the memorial that is to be included in the stained glass window:

I will some token shall be made whereby the souls of me and my wife may be the better remembered and prayed for, with all our children 6 sons and 8 daughters. Whereof one son to lie along [to be depicted lying horizontally] for he was quick in his mother(s) womb, and all her time, yet dead born’.

These instructions have a practical role: specifying exactly how the window should look. Yet, there is a poignant gap between the detail Duckett offers and the inarticulacy of the medium through which he seeks to have his son commemorated. The medieval stained glass has not survived (indeed, as Judith Middleton-Stewart notes in her discussion of Duckett’s will, the rapid onset of the Reformation in England may mean it was never even made). But we can easily imagine by looking at other medieval examples: a line of children standing by their parents, probably distinguished from one another only by gender, represented not naturalistically but symbolically. The posture Duckett specifies for the image of his stillborn son is, therefore, only the barest indication of that son’s death: it can do nothing to convey the intimate particularity of this experience of loss.  As if straining to bridge the cruelly small distance between foetal liveliness and stillbirth, Duckett emphasises the former, giving details that could not possibly have been represented within the medium of a stained glass memorial. As if pleading for his son (a child who died unbaptised in utero would have been considered ineligible for salvation and for burial in consecrated ground), he stresses the liveliness of the baby throughout his gestation.

As the number of their children demonstrates, Robert and his wife must have been well aware of the normal processes of pregnancy. They were obviously fertile. The insistent detail of Duckett’s account recalls the ways in which modern survivors of pregnancy loss run over and over the facts of their experience, almost obsessively recalling what happened and what went wrong. The wording of this bequest breaks away from the standard, formal language of wills, to express centuries-old bewilderment and grief. How is it that a baby who seemed so lively in the womb, so full of movement all through the pregnancy, could be born dead?

In envisaging his chapel and its family memorial, Duckett could draw on little recognisable convention for mourning a stillbirth. As today, the subject is often shrouded in silence; the usual rituals are conspicuous in their absence. Instead, his will draws together a combination of saints associated with the emotions surrounding a rather different kind of longing for a child, and in their midst, he remembers his stillborn son.


We still don’t have a good medical understanding of why some babies are stillborn. The medical advances that have made huge differences to other areas of pregnancy loss (such as prematurity) simply haven’t happened here. The charity Tommy’s notes that around 60% of stillbirths are unexplained. In the UK, the rate of stillbirth is around 1 in 200 or 225 pregnancies; it is, disturbingly, much worse for women of colour than for white women, a pattern replicated elsewhere in the world.

The images in this post are all from the church of Sibton St Peter, where Robert Duckett hoped to memorialise his family. The first image comes from a memorial to Edmund Chapman and Mary Barker, who lost a son and a daughter, both in early infancy. The second shows the children of Edmund and Maryon Chapman. I am grateful to Simon Knott (to whom the copyright belongs), for these images and for his excellent descriptions of St Sibton on the Suffolk Churches site.

Duckett’s will is discussed and quoted in Judith Middleton-Stewart, Inward Purity and Outward Splendour: Death and Remembrance in the Deanery of Dunwich, Suffolk, 1370-1547 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2001).

Mattel’s ‘Gender Neutral’ Doll: On the Cynicism of Cheap Gestures towards Change



No, the definition of ‘gender neutral’ is not ‘a short haired woman’.

The American toy company Mattel has just launched a new product, a so-called ‘gender neutral’ doll. I am sufficiently irritated by this news that, instead of making worthy and sensible corrections to my book, I’m writing this post.

Why so? You might imagine this is a praiseworthy initiative, and certainly there are reasons why it could, potentially, be so. Dolls are, overwhelmingly, coded as ‘girls’ toys,’ and we know that restricting certain kinds of toys to one or other gender can be damaging and limiting. Yet, there’s still a stereotype that boys who play with dolls will become ‘girly’ or – worse! – gay. A recent meme, pointing out that little boys playing with dolls might be preparing to be caring fathers, dedicated teachers and nursery workers, and expert paediatricians, sums up the problem. Perhaps if more toddler boys got to play with dolls, we’d have less toxic masculinity in the world?

The idea of the ‘non binary’ doll also – and this is its explicit purpose – promises good things in terms of communicating to children that the visible proof that, if they feel as if binary gender roles exclude them, they are not alone. Yet, here the problem lies.

The press release in Time describes, in starstruck tones, the benefits of this revolutionary doll for a crowd of young would-be buyers aged 7 and 8. Approvingly, it describes how these young children use the doll to reflect either themselves or their younger siblings (as children often do). This role play works so well, gushes the author of this piece, because:

The doll can be a boy, a girl, neither or both … Carefully manicured features betray no obvious gender: the lips are not too full, the eyelashes not too long and fluttery, the jaw not too wide. There are no Barbie-like breasts or broad, Ken-like shoulders. 

Let’s pause and read that last bit again, shall we? Here is a doll that is marketed as being gender neutral, and suited to all children, because it betrays ‘no obvious gender’. This doll, which children are encouraged to use to represent themselves and their prepubescent siblings, has ‘lips … not too full … eyelashes … not too long and fluttery … jaw … not too wide’. It has no breasts or broad shoulders.

I had two, intimately related, issues with this. Firstly, the more prominent placing of stereotypically feminine attributes (enlarged lips and eyelashes) and the greater emphasis on feminine bodily parts implies that femininity is the primary site of artificial constructions of gender. That is: the doll is claimed as ‘gender neutral’ because its feminine vanities of lipgloss and mascara have been stripped away, and the nastily censorious phase ‘too much’ is mobilized to imply there’s something inherently wrong about a doll (or a woman) whose body is ‘too much’. More, too, the phrase conflates gendered attributes that are simply a matter of anatomy – broad shoulders, or breasts – with attributes that are not biological at all, but conditioned. ‘Fluttery’ eyelashes are no more natural to women than men; yet here they stand alongside square jaws as if they were immutable evidence.

This is all bad enough, but what concerns me more is the second issue. The characteristics singled out here are all unique to adulthood, and several of them are associated with adult sexuality. Forensic archaeology acknowledges that it is virtually impossible to tell the sex of a prepubescent subject, without DNA testing or genital remains. There is absolutely no reason why a child who is looking to play with a gender neutral doll needs to see a doll lacking in (adult, stereotyped, patriarchally-conditioned) sexual characteristics. That child already exists in a world of gender neutral bodies, which the majority of us call childhood. The only visible exception to this gender neutrality, for prepubescent children, are the external genitalia … which, famously and enduringly, have from time immemorial been quietly excluded from children’s dolls. Ken has no male parts. Barbie is smooth as a bean.

So is this new doll somehow more obviously gender-neutral? Does it somehow manage to surpass nature (which has already constructed 7 year olds to be remarkably free of the trappings and restrictions of the gender binary, if only we’d let them be)? The quick answer is no. The dolls against which Mattel’s ‘Gender Neutral’ toy defines itself are those sexualised figures – symbols of a brand of capitalist gender enforcement against which feminism frequently defines itself – of Barbie and Ken. As is often stated, Barbie’s teetering high-heel-deformed feet struggle to balance without a stiletto; her implausible bodily measurements leave her struggling to resit the gravitational pull of her enormous mammaries.

Yet, Barbie – sexualised as she is – is sexualised in a particularly prudish, non-sexual way. She has breasts, sure, but no nipples; her partner Ken is reciprocally ill-equipped, with only a smooth plastic landing-strip between his muscular thighs. As if in a darkly humorous nod to these sexual absences, both figures typically lack belly buttons, those most innocent physical signs of human gestation and linkage to a maternal body. To make up for this lack of primary sexual characteristics, Barbie features an abundance of qualities stereotypically – and misogynistically associated with femininity, from her long white-blonde hair to her spiky eyelashes and wide, child-like eyes, tiny facial features and delicate long limbs.

Mattel’s doll – to enormous publicist fanfare – loses a few of these tropes. It does not have the porn-fantasy Barbie body with its exaggerated waist-hip ratio; it does not possess the sculpted abs of the Ken doll. Much is made of the fact that this doll is available with multiple wigs (like, erm, dolls for literally hundreds of years) and that its skin colour need not be restricted to Aryan Pale. Lego has long made dolls with interchangeable accessories, including physical parts such as long hair or mustachioed faces. There is, then, nothing new to a doll that can be made to play different gender-stereotyped roles. One might hope Mattel’s doll would offer something truly new, truly freeing for children seeking to escape a world of binary gender stereotypes and the limitations those stereotypes convey. But Mattel’s doll remains sexualised and – despite the possibility of brown skin – racialised. The unvaryingly wide, almond-shaped eyes with their long, mascara-ed lashes, suggest all the popular caricatures of femininity, and of a femininity that has no space for epicanthic folds. Such eyes, enlarged in relation to the face in which they belong, pointed at a corner, and framed with long spiky lashes, are one of the most basic and reliable symbols of femininity in books aimed at infants and toddlers. Though the doll appears to wear mascara and (despite the lack of comedy boobs) does not have the bodily proportions common to prepubescent children, there are no signs of adult masculinity, such as stubble. The most ‘masculine’ of the many available hairstyles (dominated, you’ll be shocked to learn, by long, flowing locks) is a blonde quiff, which my partner characterised as ‘lesbian 101′.

I love the idea of toys that support children to keep on thinking imaginatively and creatively, to stay away from adults’ restrictive stereotypes for as long as possible. I don’t love the idea of cynically jumping on a bandwagon for sales purposes, especially when that act leads to absolutely no introspection or change of pre-existing stereotypes whatsoever.