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.


A ‘Queer Medieval’ Reading List

Update: I’ve had some great suggestions about more texts to include, so am adding those. Obviously I’ve not taught all of these, but will have to do so now. Thanks all! I’m also putting in my own publications, in best ‘confidence of a mediocre white man, appropriation thereof’ fashion. Original post below:

Recently, several people have asked if I have a reading list for teaching a ‘queer ‘medieval course or a course on medieval gender and sexuality, so I thought I would put some material up here, where it’s easy to access. I’ve included brief notes about why I like to teach these particular primary texts; the secondary material is mostly chosen to complement the primary material and isn’t intended to be exhaustive. There are a few quirky choices in there, simply because I’ve found they made sense to me. With one exception (Blake Gutt’s recent article), I have taught students using all of these secondary materials (not all at the same time!).

If you’re still reading, I hope this is useful to you – and if you feel like commenting to share your own favourite texts/combinations of texts, that’d be great!

Primary Texts

The following represent a completely personal selection, which I happen to think work well with the secondary scholarship here; they also work quite nicely with each other. Two further primary sources (putatively historical rather than literary) are incorporated into articles by Puff and by Boyd and Karras, listed under secondary material.

1). Le Roman de Silence. A thirteenth-century Arthurian verse-romance by Heldris de Cornuälle, ed. Lewis Thorpe (Cambridge, W. Heffer, 1972) or Silence: A Thirteenth-century French Romance. A facing page translation by Sarah Roche-Mahdi (East Lansing, MI: Michegan State University Press, 1992).

This is brilliant for packing in a lot of talking points: a debate between Nature and Nurture on the subject of gender; multiple transformations and disguises that cross gender categories; various forms of same-sex or atypical desire.

2) The Squire of Low Degree, in Sentimental and Humorous Romances, ed. Erik Cooper (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2005). Online at

My favourite teaching text ever. Enormous amounts of sexual and romantic weirdness, necrophiliac activity, tongue-in-cheek homoeroticism, etc. etc. etc. Plus it looks as if everyone from Shakespeare to Spenser was reading it in the sixteenth century. Great to read in combination with Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval or (she writes, modestly) with my forthcoming book, publication date TBA.

3) Alan of Lille, De planctu Naturae, ed. Nikolaus M. Häring, Studi Medievali 19 (Spoleto: Fondazione CISAM, 1978) or The Plaint of Nature, trans. James J. Sheridan, Mediaeval Sources in Translation 26 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980).

I tend to set this in extracts, because it’s so often discussed in the secondary scholarship. Lots of quite vituperative depictions of same-sex desires and/or gender nonconformity. This works well with the Roman de la Rose and the work of Dinshaw and Lochrie.

4) Gower, John, Confessio Amantis, ed. Russell A. Peck with Latin translations by Andrew Galloway, 3 vols (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2004).

Masses of same-sex desire, gender nonconformity, bodily diversity going on here. Obviously, it works well with Diane Watt’s Amoral Gower, but is also good with Alan of Lille and anything touching on Classical literature (since that’s where Gower’s getting most of his material).

5) Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Le Roman de la Rose, ed. Felix Lécoy, 3 vols, Societé des Anciens Textes Français (Paris: Fermin-Didot, Champion, 1914-24) or The Romance of the Rose, trans. Charles Dahlberg, 3rd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

I can’t begin to sum up the Roman, but it was one of the most enormously popular books of its day, with a huge influence. It stirred up enormous controversy, is arguably thoroughly misogynistic, and has heterosex at its core, despite a healthy ongoing interest in all sorts of broadly queer desires. Good to read with the Roman de Silence‘s debate between Nature and Nurture.

6) Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

The Pardoner is the obvious go-to place, but the Parliament of Fowls teaches nicely with Susan Schibanoff’s (brilliant) book and with the French tradition and is a bit more lesbian-ish. Lawrence Warner puts in a vote for the Nun’s Priest’s Tale (and see his article below).

7) Yde et Olive, ed. Mounawar Abbouchi, Medieval Feminist Forum. Subsidia Series no. 8. Medieval Texts in Translation 5. (2018).

I’ve not taught this specifically, though it’s come up in passing, and Diane Watt recommends it. Definitely lesbian-friendly. There’s an English version (see Watt’s article, below), in sixteenth-century print:

Lee, S. L., ed. The Boke of Duke Huon de Bordeux. Done into English by Sir John Bourchier, Lord Berners, and printed by Wynkyn de Worde about 1534 A.D. 3 Parts. Edited from the unique copy of the first edition. Early English Text Society. Original Series 40, 41, 43. London: N. Trübner, 1884; New York: Kraus Reprint, 1975, 1981.

Secondary Texts

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

Postmedieval Volumes 9.2 and 9.3 (2018) are special issues devoted, respectively, to the medieval intersex and to queer manuscripts.

Akbari, Suzanne Conklin, Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009).

Allen-Goss, Lucy, ‘Transgressive Desire in Chaucer’s Legend of Thisbe,’ The Chaucer Review 53:2 (2018): 194-212.

– ‘Queerly Productive: Women and Collaboration in Cambridge, MS Ff.1.6,’ Postmedieval 9:3 (2018): 334-348.

Blud, Victoria The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature 1000-1400, Gender in the Middle Ages 12 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017).

Boyd, David Lorenzo, and Ruth Mazo Karras, ‘The Interrogation of a Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London,’ GLQ 1:4 (1995): 459-465.

Burger, Glenn, Chaucer’s Queer Nation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

Burger, Glenn, and Steven F. Kruger, Queering the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).

Burgwinkle, William, Sodomy, Masculinity and Law in Medieval Literature: France and England, 1050-1230 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

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

Bychowski, M. W., Howard Chiang, Jack Halberstam, Jacob Lau, Kathleen P. Long, Marcia Ochoa, and C. Riley Snorton, ‘“Trans* Historicities”: A Roundtable Discussion,’ Transgender Studies Quarterly 5: 4 (2018): 658-85.

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

– Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex,’ 2nd edn (New York: Routledge, 2011).

Cadden, Joan, Nothing Natural is Shameful: Sodomy and Science in Late Medieval Europe (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

Clark, Robert L. A., ‘Jousting Without A Lance: The Condemnation of Female Homoeroticism in the Livre Des Manières,’ in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women, eds Sautman and Sheingorn, pp. 143-77.

Dinshaw, Carolyn, ‘Eunuch Hermeneutics,’ English Literary History 55.1 (1988): 27-51.

– Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1989).

– Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1999).

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

Fradenburg, Louise, and Carla Freccero, eds, with the assistance of Kathy Lavezzo, Premodern Sexualities (New York and London: Routledge, 1996).

Giffney, Noreen, and Myra J. Hird, eds., Queering the Non/Human (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).

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

Gutt, Blake, ‘Transgender Genealogy in Tristan de Nanteuil,’ Exemplaria 30:2 (2018), 129-46.

Halberstam, Jack (Judith)*, Female Masculinity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

–  In A Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press, 2005).

Haraway, Donna, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149-81.

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

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

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.

Mills, Robert, Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Murray, Jacqueline, ‘Twice Marginal and Twice Invisible’: Lesbians in the Middle Ages,’ in The Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, eds Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 191-222.

Neimanis, Astrida, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

Puff, Helmut, ‘Female Sodomy: The Trial of Katherina Hetzeldofer (1477),’ Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30. 1 (2000): 41-61.

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

Roberts, Anna Kłosowska, Queer Love in the Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Rollo, David, Kiss My Relics: Hermaphroditic Fictions of the Middle Ages (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Sauer, Michelle M., ‘“Where are the Lesbians in Chaucer?”: Lack, Opportunity, & Female Homoeroticism in Medieval Studies Today,’The Journal of Lesbian Studies3/4 (2007): 331-45.

– Gender in Medieval Culture (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

Sautman, Francesca Canadé, and Pamela Sheingorn, Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

Schibanoff, Susan, Chaucer’s Queer Poetics: Rereading the Dream Trio (Toronto, Buffalo, NY and London: University of Toronto Press, 2006).

Schultz, James A., ‘Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies,’ Journal of the History of Sexuality 15: 1 (2006): 14-29.

Warner, Lawrence, ‘Woman is Man’s Babylon: Chaucer’s “Nembrot” and the Tyranny of Enclosure in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale,’ The Chaucer Review 32:1 (1997): 82-107.

Watt, Diane, ‘Read My Lips: Clipping and Kyssyng in the Early Sixteenth Century” in Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender , and Sexuality, eds. Anna Livia and Kira Hall (New York, Oxford University Press, 1997).

Amoral Gower: Language, Sex, and Politics (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

– ‘Why men still aren’t enough,’ GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 3 (2010): 451-64.

Acknowledgement: I’ve drawn from reading lists compiled while teaching Texts, Contexts and Methods at Cambridge in 2016, from teaching Paper 3 (1300-1550) to undergraduates at Cambridge 2014-2017, and from a workshop session I prepared for doctoral candidates for the CHASE group of universities in 2019. I’ve also included material I’ve used with individual undergrads, and things I think are just interesting and worthwhile.

* I refer to Halberstam under Jack, with Judith in brackets, in accordance with this writer’s stated preferences concerning continued use of names.

The Lesbian Rural Gaze (Before the Men Got Here)

Recently, a friend of mine started a discussion about art and lesbian depictions of women’s bodies. She’d seen work by a lesbian artist, which aimed to ‘reset the concept of the male gaze on the female form,’ but the result seemed uncomfortably close to objectification. Is there such a thing as a ‘lesbian gaze’?

I was all set to write something searching and profound. I was leafing through Halberstam’s Female Masculinity and linking it up to the recent debates about Anne Lister via Gentleman Jack, and it was all going to be very thoughtful. But as I was mulling over the question, I came across this article, which allowed me to convey almost all of the points I’d intended to make through the form of snark.

The title, promisingly, offers a list: Top 10 Queer Rural Books. The premise is that The Queers naturally gravitate towards the freedom of escaping the rural and getting to the sexy sexy big city. Thus, the rural narrative gets left out.

Cynic that I am, I think you know without reading further in this article, ‘queer’ is performing its usual function, as a rainbow-stripe figleaf for carrying on concentrating on The Menz. There’s a nice range of books about men doing men, a couple of honourable mentions for trans fiction (do transmen even exist?), and a distinct feeling of anticlimax. In a short article, author Mike Parker twice concludes a whole passage describing a gay male experience or text ending with a bored afterthought ‘… and his female equivalents too’ or ‘the lesbian equivalent …’. Six out of ten of Parker’s novels are about gay men (although he gets points for including any bisexuality at all also for the men, in the seventh, and points for female writers). Two more are trans narratives. The only lesbian-orientated novel to get a full billing is Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, with Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah shoehorned awkwardly into the bottom two lines of the entry dedicated to something else.

That choice in itself is a bit weird. Waters doesn’t immediately strike me particularly as a ‘rural’ writer (or a writer on ‘rural’ themes). It’s yet more of a stretch to call Fingersmith a ‘rural book’. Yes, some of it takes place in the country house of Briar, but rather more of it doesn’t, and it’s pretty difficult not to notice that Sue and her scheming guardian Mrs Sucksby are products of a quintessentially urban and gritty Victorian London. However, Waters crops up with regularity on LGBT reading lists, so no doubt she must fit here, too.

The same laziness permeates Parker’s treatment of stereotype. Discussing Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter, he concludes ‘We all need our cowboy/girl stories’. I am well aware that, as the man sang, ‘cowboys are frequently, secretly, fond of each other,’ but I’m obviously far too innocent to have noticed a big cowgirl stereotype in lesbian subcultures. In fact, Desert Hearts aside (which isn’t, not really), I’d venture to suggest it’s not a thing. With Parker’s list dominated by texts by and about men, and lesbians persistently situated as an afterthought, it’s hard to avoid the implication that lesbians are the Ginger Rodgers of LGBT literature: following where the gay men lead, doing what they do only ‘backwards and in high heels,’ and receiving rather less than half the credit or attention.

It’s easy to pick holes in the list, to cite old favourites of the lesbian literary canon such as The Color Purple or Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, which are far more deeply embedded in a rural setting and rural way of life than Fingersmith. It’s easy to query the underlying assumption that ‘gays’ escape the rural for the city by citing real-life women. Nearly two hundred years before the publication of E. M. Forster’s Maurice  – Parker’s ‘gay grand-daddy’ of ‘queer’ rural lit – Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby rejected marriage and eloped together to the Welsh countryside, where they lived together for the following fifty years in a deliberately ‘rural’ idyll. Their marriage-like partnership inspired Anne Lister, who built a cottage retreat in the gardens of her country house for the purpose of romancing her conquests. Lesbians – from Vita Sackville-West to Alys Fowler – build gardens and wax lyrical (yep, Sappho too) about the romance of outdoor spaces. There’s even a charming late medieval English poem called the Assembly of Ladies, where a group of women gather in a beautiful garden to express their disgust at men, and casually reframe heteronormative assumptions at the same time.*

Why such an affiliation between women desiring women, and rural, outdoor spaces? We could trace it back to the medieval imagery of the goddess Nature herself, who (as the medievalist Susan Schibanoff demonstrates) is frequently imagined as a lesbian-like figure; we could trace it forward again to Alice Walker (again), who constructs her broad-reaching imagery of a feminism incorporating women who love women in the image of a garden in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. It’s far too big a subject to cover in a blog post – but that’s sort of the point. The problem with Parker’s article isn’t that he should have represented the entire LGBTQIA, queer spectrum in neatly statistical proportion rather than writing about gay men with a few ‘others’ crammed in. The problem is that he presumes gay male experience as the blueprint for everyone else. If gay men idealise city life as the emblem of freedom, so must lesbians. If gay men’s literary love affair with the rural begins with Maurice, it’s impossible women could have been writing rural same-sex erotics centuries (or millennia) before that.

And here we come back to the question about the ‘lesbian gaze’. One of the reasons we’re not geared up (as a society) to recognise what lesbian desire might look like is that it’s so often presented as the quieter, take-it-as-read, inverse image of male same-sex desire. We all need our cowboy/girl stories.


*Thanks to Liz Herbert McAvoy and Diane Watt for writing on this text!

Do the Gays Indoctrinate Our Children?


Banned in Alabama: a fictional gay wedding attended by a fictional eight-year old.

I read yesterday that a certain Labour MP from Birmingham has waded into the ongoing debate about the nefarious education plans visited upon our innocent youth. MP Roger Godsiff was commenting on the controversial decision to teach reception-aged children (that’s four and five year olds) about LGBT relationships. In his corner, a group of parents at Anderton Park Primary school, who feel that such teaching amounts to indoctrination contrary to strongly-held religious beliefs. In the opposite corner, a catholic selection of The Gays, taking time out from poncing down Canal Street to stick their noses into the entirely unrelated business of child-rearing. Yet even here, there were notes of dissent. I went to find out more, as reported below:

Paul, a burly fifty-something wearing a feather boa, told me: “Naturally, teaching children about LGBT relationships is going to mean some awkward questions about men holding hands with men, and teachers will just have to deal with that. But I do wonder how a non-specialist teacher could be qualified to talk about the finer details of our shagging without making it sound like we’re defined by where we put our cocks.” 

It’s fine if it’s just about bumsex,” agreed Dave from Brighton, “But I don’t hold with them being taught about butt plugs yet. That’s more of a seven, seven-and-a-half-year-old conversation.”

[The UK’s lesbian population was contacted for comment on this post, but neither of them replied.]


Ok, I admit. Authentic as it sounds, this is in fact entirely made up, though I suspect it’s a fair representation of what Godsiff imagines when he thinks about the issue.

My daughter is two. She doesn’t have that many words, and her understanding of gender is shaky at best. Most of her world is female: she attends a nursery staffed (as it happens) solely by women; she has twice as many aunties as uncles; she has godmothers but no godfathers. One of the men she sees most frequently is usually to be seen wearing a skirt (and a dog collar). She could be forgiven for making all sorts of assumptions about normative relationships. However, she has begun to show an interest in alternative lifestyles. She understands, dimly, that some children do not have two mummies. Some have just one mummy; some have something called a ‘daddy’. Daddies also appear in books.

I am in no hurry to teach her about the heterosexual lifestyle. I can see she’s sometimes curious. I can generally tell her that daddies are a special kind of mummy, or that that man and that woman over there are just a bit tired, and that’s why they look as if they’re hugging each other. But at some point, she will become more curious about the relationships she sees around her. At some point, I will have to tell her that the majority of women are married to men. That this is what those ‘other’ people mostly do. That the alternative lifestyle she has been curiously watching is, in fact, the norm. And where this gets serious is that, at some point – some point I hope is much, much later than the age of 5 – I will also have to tell her that this alternative lifestyle results in around half of the recorded murders of women by men, year by year. I will have to warn her that this alternative lifestyle has its roots in the legal fact of women’s fundamental disenfranchisement, and that rape of a woman by her male partner was only criminalised (in England and Wales) in 1991.

In face of these facts, I cannot help thinking that teaching four- and five-year-olds that some people have two mummies is not quite the horrifying scenario we are invited to imagine. Small children who have never before come across the idea of LGBT relationships are, I would submit, vanishingly unlikely to be corrupted into a later lifestyle of rampant sexual deviancy by the mere acknowledgement of the fact that some of their peers have two dads. However, for children who do have LGBT parents, or for children who will later be LGBT parents, these lessons may be crucial. My schooling took place during the tenure of Section 28, that clause notoriously supported by our dear prime minister Mrs May, which proscribed the teaching in state schools of ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. During this period – the clause was repealed in 2003, the year I started university – it was illegal for teachers in State schools to imply that children of same-sex parents were in any way loved, supported, or nurtured. Many independent schools, taking their lead from this, kept to a similar programme. At the time, I did not realise how radical it was that my school – in other ways an entirely quiet, quite conservative girls’ school – entirely ignored Section 28. When we studied safe sex, we studied lesbian safe sex. When we talked about Nazi Germany during GCSE History, we talked about pink triangles and the murders of homosexuals. I was dimly aware that some of our (female) teachers happened to live together. It was entirely normalised.

This is the best possible thing that can be done in the teaching of children about LGBT relationships. I hope many schools will take inspiration from Anderton Park Primary School.

Notre Dame de Paris


As I write, the spire of Notre Dame de Paris is collapsing into smoke.

Reports say that the towers are burning, that windows have melted. Notre Dame de Paris is on fire. This cathedral has stood for over eight hundred years.

Trauma is not logical or rational; it clings to more than bricks and mortar. If your house burns down, what you mourn is not the structure.

Imagine the people who build Notre Dame. Far more people than you would think. Yes, there were the masons who put stone upon stone. Someone, far back in the twelfth century, sat there without a zero to make the calculations easier and worked out how to make arches soar. A priest must have traced alphabets, in Greek and Roman letters, crosswise on the cathedral floor in chalk. A smoke of incense rose to the rafters, hanging, safe and comforting, in the air. Racks of candles glowed, flickered, and glowed again. Imagine – a priest in Notre Dame in the year 1200, gazing up at new stonework and the resin scent of wood still newly sawed for statues. Imagine a man in 1400, praying against the war that carried on and on, while the rain dripped from the gargoyles and pitted the stone on the north face of the church. Imagine a woman going into Notre Dame in 1780, kneeling to pray for a baby born too soon. Imagine a mother in 1917; a parent in 1943. Imagine now.

This cathedral is a building – just a building, only a building. But for generations on generations and centuries on centuries of people, it would have been emotion soaked into stone and breathed into stained glass. It would have been hopes and prayers rising like smoke into the deepest spaces of the spire and the highest arching spaces of the roofs. It would have been whispers and murmurs and mutters and cries and curses. It would have been stones clutched for support and touched for benediction, knelt upon in relief and beaten in frustration, weathered and worn and crumbled and rebuilt. That is what a church is.

As I write this, the spire of Notre Dame de Paris has collapsed into smoke.



Six ways to undermine a resilient mother

You might have noticed I’ve been fairly quiet on here. There are reasons for that, and one of them was rather strongly in my mind as I read a Guardian article, titled Six Ways to Raise a Resilient Childby one Dr Rangan Chatterjee. It currently comes up at number 5 on the Lifestyle section’s ‘most read’ list, two days after publication, so I think we can say other people are interested in the topic too. It’s one of those pieces that are superficially laudable in their aims and their message, but actually get right up my nose.

Chatterjee begins with a self-recriminating anecdote. ‘I have a full-on job, two school-age children, and an elderly mother to care for, so I understand that we’re all busy,’ he begins. ‘But I’ll never forget what my daughter, then four, said one day. We were working on a jigsaw, but I kept nipping to the kitchen to check my phone. When I rejoined her for the third or fourth time, she rightly observed, “Daddy, you’re not really here, are you?”’

Oh, Daddy. From the mouths of babes. Add cliché here.

I mock, because this struck me as a particularly funny kind of obliviousness. Chatterjee’s daughter is, as he specifies, four. My daughter is 21 months, and my mind is fairly boggled at the idea anyone could possibly have their child get to age four before they realised that child could tell when they weren’t paying attention, and didn’t like it. Now, perhaps he is possessed of a saintly patience and attentiveness I, and other mothers I know, lack. Or perhaps, the vast majority of the time, someone else is doing most of the parenting for Chatterjee. I couldn’t possibly speculate.

In this nastily suspicious frame of mind, I continued reading, and halted again on Chatterjee’s discussion of teaching ‘delayed gratification’. It is suggested one might play a board game, or urge a child to listen to a whole album, rather than skipping to a favourite song. It’s clear that ‘delayed gratification’ is, effectively, something to be combined with a leisure activity. Daddy’s switched his phone off, and he’s playing a nice boardgame with the children with some Bowie in the background. Isn’t Daddy good with the kids? Meanwhile, someone else – and I’m guessing it’s Mummy, isn’t it? – is in the kitchen making dinner or upstairs folding the washing, doing the sort of culpable work that takes one’s full attention away from a child and causes them to come out with poignant four-year-old recriminations.

The person who began his article by saying you needn’t sacrifice your busy schedule to make time for a child when you can use spare moments of ‘bathtime, car journeys, meals [and] queues]’ to chat to them, doesn’t seem to imagine the same economy of effort could apply to domestic tasks and parenting. I don’t say it’s impossible to be the parent doing childcare and also to think there’s value in playing a boardgame. But I’d bet quite a lot of money that you can also teach ‘delayed gratification’ by getting a child to help you cook a meal or bake a cake, and those things also have an end result that ticks off one of the tasks that needs doing for the day.

The pattern continues into the penultimate section of the article. Eat the alphabet, it is titled. ‘I like to challenge the whole family to “eat the alphabet” over 30 days. I think it’s a realistic goal to consume 26 different plant foods in a month: A for asparagus, B for banana, C for chickpeas, and so on.’

There’s an interesting defensiveness in that self-boosting phrase ‘I think it’s a realistic goal’. And it’s merited, because there’s quite a bit to provoke dissent here. It takes a particular sort of person to begin that list of alphabetised food with … asparagus. Asparagus is never a cheap vegetable; in January, it’s being flown in from the other side of the world, and this particular January, there’s the added fun of knowing that our beloved government has no feasible plans whatsoever for importing produce post-Brexit, nor for finding someone willing to pick British crops (such as asparagus in season) when Them Pesky Foreigners who generally do it, can’t get here any more. All of this being so, someone who can offer this sort of suggestion is either so obliviously wealthy they don’t think about it – or they haven’t shopped or prepared a meal for an actual child since the last time British asparagus was in season, back in summer 2018.

I notice the tiny details in what Chatterjee is saying – the things that aren’t his main point, the nitpicky bits about asparagus rather than apples and board games rather than cooking – because such an enormous part of my time and mental energy goes on those very ‘details’. There’s no explicit acknowledgement, in this article, that Chatterjee is not talking to, or about, parents like me. Indeed, primed by his all-inclusive references to ‘our’ children and ‘us,’ I initially read this article obediently considering whether I, too, should stop concentrating on my work and pay more attention to my child. After all, I know perfectly well I spend many hours every day giving her a fraction of my attention. She’s with me every morning and all day on Thursdays, and I’m trying to work something vaguely approaching full-time on a book. Often, she doesn’t understand why I won’t pay her more attention, because the outcome of what I’m doing – which is writing – isn’t visible to her.

It is very easy to fall into the trap of feeling guilty. The more so because the pressure from the other side – the work side – pushes the other way. It is very hard to explain why, if you are capable of doing a couple of hours (total) of work one morning, while looking after a toddler, you are not capable of responding to an email for four hours the next day. Or why you can sit and watch an entire film with a small child angelically snuggled up next to you, but you can’t reach for the book that’s open on the table beside you and quickly find that one reference on page 26 whose wording you need to check. The reason, of course, is that while you can sometimes do a great deal of work while not giving full attention to a child, you can never rely on it, and you can never plan your day around it.

What I’m seeing in Chatterjee’s article is the logic of a person whose priorities are shaped around not actually needing to think about a lot of the work that goes into raising a child. There’s nothing wrong with being a parent who doesn’t do this work. As I type, my baby’s at nursery and I’m paying (or, more accurately, my working partner is paying) for someone else to do that work for me. But if you are a parent who doesn’t have to think about this work, for whatever reason, your other advice on parenting may be rather limited.

A repeated theme of the article is the intrusive role of digital technology, which parents are urged to resist. In the anecdote about ignoring his four-year-old daughter, it’s a phone in the kitchen that distracts Chatterjee, drawing him away from her jigsaw puzzle every few minutes. In a section on the importance of good sleep, ‘tech’ and ‘screens’ are the main culprits, this time in the hands of children and parents. In the passage devoted to ‘delayed gratification,’ Amazon Prime, Spotify and Netflix are amongst the modern influences supposedly destroying our healthy capacity to wait. I can’t help noticing that this underlying message of guilt is frequently expressed in articles about parenting. Dr Chatterjee is, in fact, pretty ubiquitous across social media, on twitter, on instagram, in podcasts on youtube. He is, in short, creating the content he urges parents to cut out of their lives. But nowhere in this article is there any suggestion that digital technology might play a positive role in the lives of parents and children.

Instagram – the forum where Chatterjee seems to have the largest number of followers – is a gendered forum; the majority of its users are women. There is a genre entirely dedicated to the domestic routines of mothers of small children, with predictable, endlessly repetitive content. Child walking in woods. Home-baked cake. Snapshot of mum’s nails. New cushions for the sofa. Child holding flower. Child at seaside. Yet this is, to some, a symbol of all that’s wrong with modern, digital-era mothers, so endlessly and shamelessly romanticising the details of what must be a very easy, entitled, and indolent lifestyle, all the while glued to their iphones instead of their children.

It’s possible, of course, that despite his own extensive professional use of instagram, twitter, and so on, Chatterjee is unaware of this culture of blame that surrounds the making visible of mothering on social media. There is nothing in this article to suggest that the digital technology that draws parents away from paying attention to their children is anything but purely work-related (work, in the sense of paid employment outside the home). But I couldn’t help linking the two things in my own mind, seeing how ready this article (and many others like it) is to ignore and overlook the details of parenting that are done by someone else, how ready it is to blame digital technology for bad parenting, for a lack of resilience.

The activities that lie behind instagram mummy-cliché are, on the whole, ephemeral. No one writes professional appraisals of parenting, recording diligently how many times you took your child out to jump in puddles, or how often you let her slide down the slide. The cake is going to be eaten. The flowers are going to wilt. That tidy room with the new cushions is most certainly not going to stay tidy and tranquil. Like resilience itself, the work that goes into making these parts of parenting happen is not always visible; others only miss it when it doesn’t happen. And so a vast network of women are, essentially, making visible the processes – the details – that struck me as being so profoundly and strangely absent from Chatterjee’s own view of parenting, the details that (if they do not make for resilient children), certainly bolster the resilience of their mothers.