Women’s Strategies of Memory: Representations in Literature and Art (CFP)

I’ll be blogging and talking more about this over the coming months, but I’m really excited to be able to share a project I’ve been working on with the brilliant Dr Emma Bérat. We’re both interested in gender and memory, and so we (and by we, I mean, mostly her, while I was an enthusiastic and eager sidekick/cheerleader for our project) have drafted a proposal for a couple of sessions of papers for Leeds IMC in 2018. If you’re interested, have a look below – and please share the CFP far and wide, as we’re really hoping to bring together a diverse group of scholars, and especially to interest people working beyond our own specific disciplines.

Here you go!

Call for Papers for panel(s) proposal at Leeds IMC 2018, 2-5 July

Memory, in the middle ages as now, was widely accessible to women as means of personal and political influence. Scholarship on the strategic and technical employment of memory in the middle ages has principally explored men’s practices. This panel focuses on representations of medieval women’s deliberate and strategic uses of memory in literature, art, and historical narrative.

We invite papers from any discipline, region and medieval period, which consider any aspect of the representation of women’s memory. We are particularly interested in women who perform remembering, forgetting, or recounting past events as a means of public or political power; and who manipulate histories or identities to construct or reconstruct the past, or to influence the memories of other characters. We also hope to explore women’s less conscious strategies of memory, such as forgetting as a way of compartmentalising traumatic emotions. Reexaminations of women who are accused (by other characters or the narrator) of errors of memory, such as forgetting, deliberate ignorance or manipulation of record, are also welcome.

Please contact Lucy Allen (lucyallen505@gmail.com) and Emma Bérat (eoloughl@uni-bonn.de) with an abstract of approximately 100 words and a brief biography by 30 July 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Strange Motherhood, King’s College Cradle, and the Women of Bethlehem

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Virgin and Child with St Catherine and Mary Magdalene

It’s hard to write a warm, cheerful, joyous Christmas post this year. I have, personally, a lot to be joyful about, but undeniably the world looks pretty bleak. Families in Aleppo and across Syria have been torn apart; refugees are struggling to find countries to shelter them, and children are amongst those unable to leave war zones. Both here and in the US, we’re looking at leaders whose views of what kinds of people – and what kinds of families and communities – deserve protection and respect, are disturbingly narrow and exclusionary. And we struggle to welcome refugees, outsiders, those who do not ‘fit’.

In this context, it seems particularly self-centred to celebrate the religious narrative of Christmas in the way we’re so often encouraged to celebrate it. Well-meaning speakers and writers try to make Mary, Joseph and the baby sound like a cosy middle-class British family. Christmas is, after all, all about ‘family’ – and family, in this case, is defined with unthinking narrowness as the stereotypical configuration of father, mother, and children as approved by the most ‘family values’ Conservative. And we smooth away the parts of the Biblical account that are sadder, more uncertain, more unorthodox, than this comfortingly secure image.

I thought of this when I opened the paper this morning, to read a vicar explaining – without the most cursory indication of guilt – how, when he and his wife were struggling to have a baby, he’d insisted his wife be subjected to a battery of intrusive fertility tests before he agreed to provide a (painless) sperm sample, on the excuse that he was suffering ‘proud man syndrome’.The piece particularly jarred with me, because I saw it just after reading a very different account of the poet Lemn Sissay’s work to provide children in the foster system with a celebratory sense of Christmas. For context, my partner described one of these tests as ‘the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced’. Startlingly, it is still legal for fertility clinics to allow these painful and potentially dangerous procedures to be carried out before a painless test that could make them unnecessary. Apparently, though, it’s nothing compared to the existential agony of ‘living in a spermless marriage’. How this is excusable or remotely Christmassy, I’m not sure. I don’t doubt the author’s genuine sense of hurt. But the emphasis of the piece reminded me, uncomfortably, of a ham-fisted rewriting of the Christmas story I recently heard, and made me think of the dangers these seemingly anodyne narratives might be doing to our capacity to empathise.

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a young and earnest preacher hastening to put Joseph’s perspective front and centre. Think, the preacher urged us, how embarrassed Joseph must have felt at the prospect of any chink in his social image. Imagine how impressive it was that he resolved his issues. This is, so far as it goes, not untrue, and yet it felt to me rather an odd attempt to normalise, to bowdlerise, what is essentially, a narrative that displaces earthly paternity. With Joseph’s worries centre stage, Mary is relegated to an anodyne feminine figure bewildered by the angel’s message, and the main fears are not Herod, nor the more distant Pilate, nor even human damnation, but the fragile masculinity of an otherwise saintly elderly man. And with that resolved, there’s nothing to trouble us, to challenge us or to make us uncomfortable.

This bland accessibility contrasts sharply with the discomforting view of the Christmas story we find in medieval writings. There, Mary is not innocently bewildered by the angel’s message. She has a deep foreknowledge of events to come, and her joy at the birth is tinged with sorrow about the pain to come; the Christ-Child knows His fate. The relationships are not those of the nuclear family; many of these relationships, too, are fractured by violence threatened or remembered, by loss and suffering. Carols voice the empty lullabies of the women of Bethlehem in the shadow of Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents; they are, like Peter Warlock’s lovely, startlingly irreligiously composed carol ‘Bethlehem Down,’ permeated by the lingering scent of myrrh brought to the cradle to symbolise the death; they evoke the mixed joy and sorrow of a mother who knows she will mourn. Like the Christmas readings, Christmas music is anchored in the much older words of the Old Testament. At King’s college Advent Service this year, we listened to the beautiful, odd prose set to music of ‘This is the Record of John,’ with its ancient image of the voice crying in the wilderness and Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of John the Baptist … and our baby, who can hear the vibrations from the organ we were sitting almost underneath, kicked up a storm. The other voice crying through the Old Testament – ‘a voice is heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children’ – also echoes into the New Testament, but bitterly, as a foreshadowing of the Slaughter of the Innocents. It, in turn, is memorialised in the plangent medieval Coventry Carol. Medieval lyrics do not tell us which emotions to privilege, which families – the broken or the complete, the orthodox or the atypical – to celebrate.

These texts draw their emotional depth from allusions to relationships that lie outside of – or on the edge of – that image of the nuclear family headed by a man. I have written before about the hauntingly beautiful carol ‘Arise and Wake,’ with its roots in a medieval monastery  and its resonant picture of heaven itself as an echo of the same community of ‘brothers’ united not in blood, but in religious vows. So too, the voices of the ‘sisters’ in the Coventry Carol gathered around their doomed children, or the dialogues between angels and humans, prophets and listeners across the ages. Disruptions of the neat flow of time underline disruptions to the neat and restrictive pictures of what constitutes a family, what constitutes a community.

These temporal disruptions – images of the ending cradled in the beginning – are very old, and often literalised. We see this in the rhetoric of Lancelot Andrews, who, while he was Bishop of Ely, preached a sermon for Christmas Day 1618, broadens the emotional vocabulary of the Christmas story to its widest compass. Andrews was one of the main architects of the King James Bible, and his sermon has a similar, simple eloquence. It is filled with layered puns on the cratch, the cradle or crib in which Christ was laid, and the way people cratch (scratch) the sign of the cross to make the most primitive of signatures. Andrews writes:

We may well begin with Christ in the cratch [manger]; we must end with Christ on the cross. The cratch is a sign of the cross… To be swaddled thus as a child, doth that offend? What then when ye shall see Him pinioned and bound as a malefactor? To lie in a manger, is that so much? How then, when ye see shall Him hang on the cross?

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King’s College Chapel

Andrews was –  as I am indebted to King’s chaplain Andrew Hammond for observing –  a bishop tellingly immune to the calculatingly feminine flirtations of Elizabeth I; a man who never married. His moving description of a baby in a cradle is, then, not merely the voice of paternal experience, but something based more in empathy and thought. Cambridge, where he studied and where he was master of a college, was then dominated by the brooding rectangular mass of King’s College Chapel. Now, that structure is crowded on the skyline by other buildings: the spire of John’s, and the blocky twentieth-century tower of the University Library, the high concrete roofs of the Lion Yard and the Grand Arcade. Then, though, it was recognisable for its lone, distinctive shape. As Nicky Zeeman’s history of the building explains, the chapel was once known as ‘the Cradle’ on account of this shape, which resembles a high-sided, barred medieval or early Modern cradle, of the kind that was used in nativity scenes to house the infant Christ.

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Cradle of the Infant Christ (Met Museum).

This cradle – a strange, giant, stone-built crib rearing against the sky – served a congregation predominantly made up not of families and children, but a community very like that of the medieval monastery. Its name bears witness to the fact that feelings we too often imagine to be narrowly restricted to certain roles – motherhood, fatherhood – might resonate much further beyond.

Community is built, not of blood relationships, but of the shared emotions, the shared spaces, the shared volitions of people who come together. A narrative is built, not of neat and tidy steps from beginning to ending, but of juxtaposed images, juxtaposed past and present and future, juxtaposed emotions of joy and sorrow, which coexist and make room for one another.

The fourteenth-century lyric ‘Als I lay at Yoolis Night‘ captures the poignancy implicit in this doubled sense of present and future. Over on her blog, Eleanor Parker has also written about this lyric, in the version that’s found in a preacher’s handbook of 1372. But I was most interested in the copy I saw in Cambridge University Library the other day, which is the only version to survive with musical notation, and which records the name of one of its owners – John, a joculator or professional performer – and a note describing how he obtained the book. John was given his book by one Thomas Turke, sometime a Dorset vicar, but by 10th December 1418 (the date on which he gave his book away) a Carthusian monk in the Charterhouse of Hinton. This history is touching and revealing in itself, for Carthusians were, in theory, strictly enclosed in their monasteries, and even restricted from community life within the monastery, spending most of their time in solitary cells. Paradoxically, though, the English Carthusians had a keen interest in the simplest, most emotional and accessible forms of religious devotion, and frequently flouted the rules of their order in able to maintain bonds of shared faith with the most unlikely of laypeople.

The text pivots, as so many medieval carols do, around the wordless refrain of of the lullaby (‘lullay, lullay’). But it begins as a dream-vision, with the medieval singer falling asleep on Christmas Eve night – just hours away as I write this – and dreaming of a conversation between a pair of speakers, never identified by name, a maiden and her newborn child. The maiden seeks to rock her child to sleep without singing; the child – authentically and delightfully demanding – insists upon a song:

The childe him thought sche ded him wrong
And bad his moder synge

“Synge now, moder,” seyde the childe
“Wat schal to me befal
Heerafter wan I cum til eld
For so doon modres all.”

The child’s request – for a song telling what will be his future when he comes to maturity, such as all mothers sing – is met with consternation from the unnamed maiden.

“Swete sune,” seyde sche,
Weroffe schulde I synge?

Ne wist I nere yet more of thee
But Gabrielis gretynge.”

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Gabriel’s Greeting

The words are deceptively simple. Of what should I sing? .. I have not known more of you yet/ Than Gabriel’s greeting. So the maiden claims, but that ‘yet’ works against the grammar of the tense (‘I never knew’). The response sounds like – and is – an evasion, a response which, by the logic of the carol, marks Mary out from the common run of mothers who sing to their children with stories of what those children will be when they grow to maturity, and yet a response which in which Mary denies any knowledge of her position outside the common run of mothers. Gabriel’s greeting, in the lyric, is the moment in which we listeners can positively identify the speakers of the text as the Christ-child and his mother; the moment at which we know what that fate ‘what I cum til elde’ will be. Yet the moment of knowledge is inseparable from the depiction of the mother pretending not to know who her baby is and what pain is his to come. Mother and child mime the actions of a typical human family, but do so with a foreknowledge and a foreboding that echoes unspoken through the text, deepening its Christmas message to something that disrupts the tidy present moment with the timelessness of the narrative. Mary’s motherhood is both an experience shared by all mothers – a role as traditional and stereotyped as any unimaginative sermon I might hear – and also something more uncertain, unmoored, and filled with uncomfortable potential. The dreaming listener, whose vision frames the whole carol, looks back into the Biblical past to find a narrative weaving in and out of its own present and future, never stably moored.

Medieval lyrics, with their tangling of present, past and future, remind me of the poem a friend of mine, Daisy Black, wrote just a few days ago, reflecting on the aftermath of brutal violence. The poem is sad, as it must be, in the context of the current crises in Aleppo, and across Syria. Yet this new poem also offers us ways to speak about the present world without evasions, without perpetuating the unthinkingly exclusionary, narrow, and hurtful hierarchies we seek to escape.

From their plangent carols, generations of medieval and early Modern listeners and singers pieced together the stuff from which their religious communities were cemented and built up. Like stone cradles rearing dark against the skyline, or scribbled carol notations passed from man to man, or otherwise-inclined bishop-translators birthing a new Bible for a new Anglican age, these texts may seem unlikely Christmas narratives. They would make uncomfortable images for listeners who would like something ‘relatable’ to confirm cherished stereotypes. But, in all their oddity, they – and this new poem – are more inclusive than the attempts of many preachers and vicars to make a neat twenty-first century version of a Nativity story, for they contain the room to bear witness to the possibilities for sorrow and joy, for fear and hope, for the unorthodox and the strange, as well as the secure default.

I end with Daisy’s poem:

The Girls Left

Afterwards, the women of Bethlehem said never again.
They turned their faces away from the palace
And emptied all their love into their surviving children.
A group of girls grew up without brothers.
Learned to pull the plough, to herd the sheep,
To barter at the market, to cut a fair deal with traders,
To play in the streets without shame.
They wove cloth with sand worked into bright threads.
Without brothers they learned to track the stars’ remote courses.
They learned to read.
A thousand young women grew
The gritty weight of Rachel’s cries at the core of their frames.
As they sowed, cut and milled their own grain,
Herod withered softly behind his gold doors.
When the exiles returned from Egypt
The town thrummed with new stars.

*

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Happy (and hopeful) Christmas!

 

Silence, Suffering, and a Shakespearean ‘Cutted Up Pear’

 

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Hitomi Manaka as Lavinia, in Titus Andronicus (Ninagawa, 2006, RSC).

This post is closely based on part of a lecture – the second of a series – given at the University of Cambridge on 28/04/16. It includes, amongst other things, responses to the current British Library exhibition ‘Shakespeare in Ten Acts’. The lecture series was titled ‘Shakespeare: Performing the Unspeakable,’ and its two sub-parts were ‘Silence’ and ‘Suffering’. 

Recently, I gave a couple of lectures on the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays – both in themselves, and as cultural artefacts – prompt us to think about the relationships between silence, suffering, and complicity. Shakespearean silence has a compelling performance history. In Shakespeare’s plays, the scripted silences – moments when, for example, the ghost of Hamlet’s father stalks away unspeaking from Horatio, or Cordelia refuses to elaborate on her brief response to her father – are many, and well known.

But there are, too, silences of a less certain kind. Silences that teeter on the brink between scripted and unscripted, that stretch out between the stage and the audience and last just long enough to cause a stir, an uneasy rustle of doubt.

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Barbara Jefford and John Gielgud in Measure for Measure

One such example comes from Barbara Jefford’s performance of Isabella in Measure for Measure. In the script as we have it, Isabella – the virtuous novice who leaves her convent to petition for her brother’s life and attracts the romantic attention of the Duke – speaks for the last time several dozen lines before the end of the play.

In that time, the Duke twice proposes marriage to her, and twice receives no scripted answer. Some productions solve the problem – an eager nod, a horrified shake of the head – but Jefford, instead, froze in silence. She waited until the uneasy rustles and stirs of her audience communicated that their watching discomfort was too much – and only then did she speak. At the first performance, the silence reputedly lasted for around thirty seconds. As the production run continued, audiences collaborated: in their increasingly prolonged silences, they tacitly reinforced her decision to freeze out the spoken script and drown the duke’s proposal in a prolonged and shared speechless response.

Jefford’s silence allows the audience – supposedly passive – to collude with the character’s refusal to assent to a proposal of marriage that is phrased as a command. It sets into sharp prominence the assumptions about power and oppression that are latent in the text. The actress’s silence capitalizes on the permeable boundary between actor and audience, and it offers a succinct demonstration of the way in which plays – and characters, and characters’ responses – become rooted in time, snagged into the contemporary debates by hooks and links and tensions we can barely recognise, but whole constraining and constructing effect we still must feel.

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Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello. James Northcote, c. 1826.

This was the tension negotiated by Ira Aldridge, often described as the ‘first’ black actor to play Shakespeare’s Othello. Born in 1807 in New York, Aldridge worked for much of his career in Britain. Audiences of the time romanticised Aldridge – indeed, he and the companies with whom he acted encouraged this romanticisation – picturing him not as the son of freed slaves and born in New York, but as a mysterious and noble African, estranged from his natal land and bearing evocative hints of a hidden story to tell. Perhaps shrewdly, Aldridge claimed descent from the Fulani people – even then, a group (or groups) dispersed over a wide area and representing people born in several different African countries – and this deliberate exoticism was balanced by posters representing him as an ‘African Roscius,’ a name that alluded to the Roman actor and freed slave, whose name was a byword amongst Shakespeare’s own contemporaries for Classical excellence in acting.

Aldridge’s presence tacitly argued that a black actor could – and did – embody and communicate the emotions Shakespeare had written for is characters, the identity that this white dramatist had constructed for a white performer. He made visible the argument – polemical at that time and in that place  – that a black man could embody all the emotions of white humanity.  Amidst this was a tacit – and occasionally, explicit – division within Aldridge’s audiences, between those who saw his acting as propaganda to stoke contemporary arguments against the slave trade, and those who had vested interests – based on that same trade – in castigating a black man who dared to see himself as a talented actor interpreting the most canonical works of a white dramatist. For Aldridge did not only play Othello. He also – in whiteface – took on the roles Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III and Lear, and even Iago: famous roles that have been closed to black actors until very recently, and which still draw racist comments when played by actors who are other than white.

Aldridge died after a phenomenally successful career, and shamefully, his record of acting Shakespearean heroes has remained closed to actors of colour. Often, the objection made is that audiences would not accept a black Hamlet, Lear, or Richard III. The absurdity of the criticisms Ira faced is nicely captured by David Oyelowo, who comments acerbically:

Theatre by its very nature is make-believe. If I’m on stage and I say I’m in tears, you believe me. If I say I’ve got an army of 30,000 offstage, you believe me. I don’t know why if I suddenly say I’m King of England that is so much more controversial.

This outburst was in my mind as I prepared to think about the violence – not only racial, but also gendered – in one of Shakespeare’s earliest and most vilified plays, Titus AndronicusTitus is a gruesome, intensely bloody, violent and spectacular play, a play whose eponymous hero – the battle-hardened and well-respected Roman general Titus, the people’s choice for the newly-vacated post of Emperor of Rome following the death of the old Emperor and the unresolved squabbles of his two sons – experiences a devastating reversal of fortunes. Bent on revenge for his sons’ deaths in war, Titus orders the sacrifice of a young captive prince of the Goths, son of the captive queen Tamora. In counter-revenge, Tamora and her lover – delightfully known, with Shakespearean casual racism, as ‘Aaron the Moor’ – plot against Titus, arranging the rape of his daughter Lavinia by Tamora’s other sons. Not content with rape, the two men cut out Lavinia’s tongue and chop off her hands, to prevent her from speaking, or in any way gesturing or signaling, what has happened to her.

DEMETRIUS:
So now go tell, and if thy tongue can speak,
Who ’twas that cut thy tongue and ravished thee.

CHIRON
Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
And if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.     (Titus, Act 2, Sc. Iv, 1-4)

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Elizabeth Applyby as Tamora, Titus Andronicus, New Wimbledon Theatre, 2016.

Titus was extremely popular in its day, but it has been widely seen as unperformable, and the language in which it is criticised carries its own telling tacit messages about what it is that so signally failed to impress generations of readers. In 1687, Edward Ravenscroft declared:

‘tis the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his Works; it seems rather a heap of Rubbish than a Structure.

Ravenscroft makes an obvious pun in his language of distaste: he cannot ‘digest’ a play centred on human flesh made grotesquely palatable. He is, of course, punning on Titus’ own grim revenge. Having trapped Tamora, queen of the Goths, mother of the men who raped and murdered his daughter, in his house, Titus makes his grim declaration of intent:

TITUS: … with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear,
And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam,
Like to the earth swallow her own increase.
This is the feast that I have bid her to,
And this the banquet she shall surfeit on (Titus, Act. V, Sc. Ii, 86-92)

This violence was complicated, in a production put on by RSC-based actor and director Antony Sher and his partner Greg Doran, which played in Johannesburg in 1995, and which is the subject of Sher’s book Woza Shakespeare. As Sher observes – and as others have subsequently recognized – the 1995 production offered a challenge to prevailing ideas about which accents were ‘speakable’ on stage, or at least ‘speakable’ for Shakespeare. The accents of the cast included a variety of South African accents – by no means British (or rather, English) ‘Received Pronunciation’. This was a double-layered resistance to silencing: not only were these accents seldom those heard on stage – and therefore, never those associated with Shakespearan tragedy or High Culture – but also, they make ‘speakable’ the racial and class conflicts represented by (for example) Sher’s version of his father’s Afrikaans accent.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Woodburne, who played Lavinia in Doran’s production, engaged in research for her role that included meetings with individuals who had undergone amputation of the tongue, for example as as a surgery for cancer. Woodburne discovered that the loss of a tongue did not merely cause sufferers to lack speech. The amputation also resulted in an inability to swallow saliva – forcing sufferers to drool, or wipe saliva constantly from their mouths. It was a lack of dignity, as well as a form of silencing.

But responses to the play reiterate some of the repressive attitudes directed, much earlier, against the playing of Othello by black actors. Sher’s book records a letter, sent privately to Doran by a would-be theatregoer (and the audience we’re talking here would be predominantly white and often Anglophile), saying:

“she could not abide the excruciating experience of the ugly accents of South Africa abusing some of the most beautiful language ever written” (Sher and Doran, Woza Shakespeare, p. 226)

The terminology of this woman’s complaint – terms of ‘ugly’ foreign accents silencing ‘beautiful’ language – is shocking, in that it casts Doran as director, and his actors, in the roles of the rapists Chiron and Demetrius, abusing Shakespeare’s beautiful language. Doran is a skilled director, and no doubt the quotation he chooses to reproduces is carefully selected, but nevertheless, its terminology is extremely telling in is tacit assumptions. The idea of ‘ugly accents’ of one country “abusing” the beautiful language of another is too disturbingly suggestive in the context of Lavinia, a woman whose ‘beautiful’ tongue is ‘abused’ and silenced by the ‘ugly’ activity of invaders to her native land, invaders who – in this production – were played by mixed-race men speaking in accents inseparable, for listening audiences, from the fact of their ethnic heritage.

Doran’s decision to remind us that whiteness is not default, that Received Pronunciation accents are not the only way to play Shakespeare, come together here, to result in a production some would-be viewers found impossible to countenance hearing. The suffering outside the play, in extremely recent South African history, made itself felt in audience’s – or potential audiences’ – attempts to impose silence on anything that suggested its expression.

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Michael Fentiman’s Titus Andronicus. RSC, 2013

For Michael Boyd’s productions of the history plays, a piece of tinned pear was used as a cut-out tongue for Henry VI, which is almost contemporary with Titus. Both the Telegraph and the Guardian offered articles that leant heavily on the insights of Sandra Smith, the RSC’s head of wigs and makeup; both articles – and remember, these are newspapers coming from quite opposed political stances – were fascinated by Smith’s accounts of how the blood of the play – and especially, the details of Lavinia’s gory tonguelessness – were created behind the scenes. The Telegraph piece explains:

“Smith’s Tupperware boxes contain three different consistencies for application to the skin: the gloopiest is thickened with cellulose from a high street chemist; the darkest is tinted with treacle. Another box contains blood balls the size of large grapes held together with cling film. Reynolds stores one in her mouth to pop when her tongue is cut out. “Don’t worry, it tastes like toffee apples,” says Smith.”

The language is pointedly gustatory, relating the blood to ‘treacle’ and to ‘grapes’ long before Smith is quoted to tell us that the actual liquid tastes ‘like toffee apples’. There’s a cosy domesticity to the description too – the blood is in ‘tupperware’; the products used to doctor it up are from ‘a high street chemist’; the wrap is ordinary ‘cling film’. It is as if we are at a cosy picnic. Later in the article we’re told, with seeming precision, Smith’s views on props for the gruesome scenes:

Only foodstuffs will cut it for body parts: chicken fillets for tongues, tinned pears for penises, lychees for eyeballs. “Anything else will roll or bounce… the sound effects are important, too.

Yet, much as we pretend, the issue is not mimesis, but the reassuring effect of being told mimesis is attempted. For there’s something more to this – the Guardian article makes the tongue, the organ of speech, ‘palatable’ in its absence. It diverts our attention from the violation that is – in left-wing terms – an epistemic violation enacted on an oppressed subject, a woman. The Telegraph, whose view is traditionally more right-wing, extends its attempt to sweeten the pill of this violence with focus on eyeballs and penises as well as tongues. The violation it concentrates upon is more generally bodily; less purely to do with speech and silence.

Rose Reynolds, playing Lavinia, used blackjacks – the sweets – to rapidly blacken the interior of the her mouth between scenes, so that she could appear convincingly orally mutilated. It’s a decision that’s ingenious in its quickness and cheapness – and disturbing if it’s funny, as this backstage edible evidence of mutilation echoes worryingly towards the cannibalistic pie – another edible evidence of mutilation – that Titus will serve to Tamora, forcing her to eat the minced bodies of her own murdered sons. This visual recreation of Lavinia’s silence substitutes blackness for absence, for lack of speech, in a way that is disturbing given the racial politics of the play.

But equally disturbing is the popularity of this detail with audiences.

Audiences do not simply suspend their disbelief – for Shakespeare, an anachronistic concept – they relate on multiple levels to imaginary character and to the actor behind. The fact that the actress sucked liquorice sweets to achieve the effect of a silenced, blackened mouth, is not mere side detail. It contextualises the disturbing way in which this play – and this performance – produces the effect of silence. Lavinia is mutilated; victimised, by mouth. Tamora, her opposite number, the villain to her innocent heroine, is, however, also a victim, and also victimised by mouth: she is forced, unknowingly, to eat the bodies of her own murdered children. The sweet food that creates the illusion of Lavinia’s enforced silence offers a disturbingly saccharine, palatable parallel to the gruesome minced meat Tamora must ingest.

The penultimate exchange of the play forces us to interrogate these responses. Lucius, son of the dead Titus, brother of murdered brothers and a raped sister, gives absolution to all the white male members of the cast. Tamora, he sentences to a shameful ending, but his most bitter venom is saved for Aaron, the black lover of Tamora:

LUCIUS: Set him breast-deep in earth and famish him;
There let him stand and rave and cry for food.
If any one relieves or pities him,
For the offence he dies. This is our doom.
Some stay to see him fastened in the earth.

AARON
Ah, why should wrath be mute and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done.
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform if I might have my will.
If one good deed in all my life I did
I do repent it from my very soul.                      (Titus, Act V, sc. Iii, 78-89)

Aaron’s rantings are – so the play text suggests – the ends of his speech; the last of his proto-Othelloesque fluency. But Doran and Sher, putting on the play in Johannesburg in 1995, refused this silencing. They allowed the final speech – unlike Aldridge, who rewrote the plot to save Aaron’s child – but they broke down a more disturbing expectation. The character who played Aaron, a black man, was not simply shuffled hurriedly offstage to prepare for the final few lines of climax. Bound, and sunk within a pit, he was positioned within the theatre foyer, ranting at uncomfortable audience members as they left. Hearing the actor make true the threat Shakespeare scripts for him – ‘why should wrath be mute and fury dumb’ – the largely white audiences of the production took refuge in uneasy silence, refusing to acknowledge what they saw.

These details should give us pause for thought. As these descriptions of palatable severed tongues and tasteful fake blood indicate, we are uncomfortable with gendered violence. We prefer to concentrate on stage effects, not the implications of those effects, just as Aldridge, the first black Othello, was required to normalise his biography into a romantic echo of Othello’s own history, to cover the narrative of an American black man with the more palatable story of an exotic African prince. So too, we romanticise. We focus on the novelty of details behind the stage (details of tinned pears and fake blood). In so doing, do we ignore the real violence, the real horror, behind the blood, the masks, and the stage props?

‘Positively Medieval’: My Talk on Imagining Unseen Women for BBC Radio 4

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At Peterborough Cathedral

This Wednesday, at 8.45pm, I’m speaking on the BBC Radio 4 series Four Thought. In addition to that broadcast, the programme will also be available as a podcast little later, in a longer version including questions from the audience.

I’ve been getting nervous all this week, because I was so excited to do this talk. I got to mention some of my favourite medieval women, amongst them Margery Paston, who stood up to her entire family plus the bishop of Norwich, and the brilliant, bizarre artist Jeanne de Montbaston, for whom this blog is named. But I was also a bit terrified – I wanted to do these women justice.

Radio is an unseen medium, and that feels oddly appropriate, because the women I study are – by and large – unseen women, as well as unheard and unheard of. We simply don’t know what Jeanne de Montbaston looked like, nor Margery Paston. When I think about medieval women’s lived experiences, I’m usually working backwards from laws drafted by men, texts copied by men, manuscripts compiled by men.

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But traces of women do survive, in the bodies of work they left behind. And I wanted to spend the rest of this post thinking about how I like to imagine these often unheard, unseen women.

Although no known picture of Jeanne de Montbaston survives, her name instantly calls to mind a host of evocative images: who could forget the strange penis tree, with its industrious company of nuns harvesting the fruit?

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Jeanne’s nun leads a (surprisingly enthusiastic) monk on a chain from his penis.

The penis tree image comes – like the other images on this page – from a series of illustrations Jeanne made for a copy of the bestselling Roman de la Rose, a poem firmly part of the male-dominated and misogynistic tradition, which she skilfully and boldly subverted. Jeanne’s artistic perspective remains resolutely original, refusing to conform to the expectations of a male-dominated literary culture. Her little nun is instantly familiar, with her expressive hands and lively face constantly suggesting personality, whether she’s picking penises, spreading her fingers wide to measure their unexpected size, bossily pointing the way forward for her captive monk, or pointing authoritatively at the text beside her.
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But my favourite of the series of illuminations is this final one, where the nun stands in a high tower, while her monk companion doggedly attempts to scale the walls with a rather precarious-looking ladder. The image evokes the classic trope of fairytale romance: the captive lady; the dashing man to the rescue. Jeanne must have known such stories: she provided images for the classic tale of Tristram, who rescued his lover Isolde. But this was not the story for Jeanne: her nun’s mouth is open mid-diatribe, her hands spread in almost preacherly eloquence, as if she’s turned the feminine tower into a decidedly masculine pulpit, and one fist is outstretched to rap on the top of the walls for emphasis … and she appears not even to have noticed the climbing monk whom she’s almost hit over the head. Does she need rescuing? Does she heck.

Jeanne’s name is known to us only through a quirk of fate: she might easily have been one of the thousands of medieval women whose personalities I can only reconstruct by imagining, by thinking how they might have thought, felt, reacted, spoken, responded, to the male dominated culture all around them. But in her images, she puts forward a vivid sense of self, a sense of personality, that demands our attention. Jeanne is an unseen medieval woman, a woman we can’t picture. But, today, the illuminations she made have been shared all over the internet and reproduced in books and papers and exhibitions. She is far more ‘visible’ for her work than her male peers, far better known than any male illuminator of the same period. By attending to medieval women – by sharing their work, reconstructing their lives, thinking about who they were and how they lived – we can bring them to life again, and let their voices be heard.

Notes

All images are from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 25526.

Jeanne also provided images for texts about the Crusades and the voyages of Marco Polo, such as this one in the British Library, which tapped into contemporary interest in tall tales of exotic countries and exciting travel narratives. She worked on a manuscript of the French Voeux du Paon (‘the Vows of the Peacock), now Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 165, a strange and ambiguous moral narrative. A copy of the popular Tristram romance with its salacious and sexy adulterous theme, also contains some images by Jeanne, and is now in the Getty Museum in New York (MS Ludwig XV 5). For more on Jeanne and her books, see:

Richard H. Rouse and Mary A. Rouse, Manuscripts and Their Makers: Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris 1200-1500, 2 vols (Turnhout: Harvey Miller, 2000)

D. J. A. Ross, ‘Methods of Book-Production in a XIVth Century French Miscellany (London, B. L., ms Royal 19. D. I.)’, Scriptorium: Revue internationale des études relatives aux manuscrits, 6 (1952), 63-75

Keith Busby, ‘Text and Image in the Getty Tristan, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV, 5′, in Medieval Manuscripts, Their Makers and Users: A Special Issue of Viator in Honor of Richard and Mary Rouse (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), pp. 1-25

‘Time Present and Time Past’: Winter Reading for St. Lucy’s Day

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In this post, I’m putting together some winter reading recommendations. A lot of these are either children’s books, or about children’s books – which I suspect isn’t coincidental.

The obvious thing to read for St. Lucy’s day is John Donne’s ‘Nocturnal on St Lucy’s Day’, which is here. The poem was written while England still used the Old Calendar (the calendar some Orthodox Christians still use, in which Christmas day is January 7th), and so St Lucy’s Day, the 13th of December, is also the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, which is now relocated to December 21st. This slippage of time captures something else about this season, which is the role that nostalgia for the past and anticipation for the future play.

In Christian theology – and particularly medieval theology – the liturgical calendar is all about observing a moving programme of repetitions that are both cylic, and teleological, focussed on an end and a goal. Advent is like this: both a progression towards Christmas, and a repeating cycle year on year. In medieval liturgy, Advent foreshadows Lent, as a time of fasting and penitence, but it is also a time of excitement, building up to the celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas. So, the stories I’ve picked catch some of this sense of nostalgia and anticipation, of ‘once’ and ‘in the future,’ that characterises medieval Advent. 

The other day I picked up Helen MacDonald’s non-fiction book H is for Hawk, which is partly an account of her struggle to come to terms with her dad’s death, partly a description of what it’s like to train a Goshawk while working as a twenty-first century lecturer living in Cambridge, and partly a reading of T. H. White’s medieval-influenced book The Goshawk. I’m enjoying this book, which is full of lovely, spare descriptions of fen landscapes as seen through the eyes of a hawk, which (as MacDonald observes elsewhere), sees not three colours but four, including ultraviolet light:

“Stuart pulls off the road onto a farm track to the west of the city. The evening is warm, but there’s a torn-paper whiteness behind the sun that speaks of frost to come. I unhood the hawk. Her pale eyes stare out across the hillside of stubble and chalky till, at slopes cut with hedgerows crisped at their edge into shot-silk taffeta. She sees skeletal teasels and fencewires. Larks calling overhead. A discarded twelve-gauge shotgun cartridge by my feet. Red.”

It’s beautiful writing.

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There’s one point where MacDonald comments on White’s re-writing of Malory’s Morte Darthur (The Sword in the Stone), noting that while Malory described Merlin’s fate of imprisonment in a cave under a hill, it was White, not Malory, who gave Merlin the tragic foreknowledge of that fate. It’s not so, or at least not to my reading of the Morte. Malory has Merlin explain to Arthur (who has yet to marry Guinevere but has already set in motion the tragic events that will result in his own battle with his son Mordred):

“‘it is gods wyll youre body to be punysshed for your fowle dedes. But I may wel be sory,’ said Merlyn, ‘for I shalle dye a shameful deth to be put in the erthe quyck and ye shall dye a worshipful deth.”

This is all we really hear of Arthur’s death, since – famously – the narrative leaves uncertain whether the Arthur of the last chapters is fatally wounded or whether he will come again, “rex quondam, rexque futurus”: sometime king, and king to be. Merlin’s fate, on the other hand, comes surprisingly early in Malory’s narrative, given how large the character looms in other stories of Arthur. Tricked by his lover Nimue, Merlin is trapped in a cave in the roots of a hawthorn bush, buried alive.

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The cadences of Malory’s prose are constantly indebted to the Vulgate Bible (which echoes behind the King James version we are more likely to know today) and to the liturgy; when he describes how it is rumoured that Arthur is not dead but “he will come again,” I think we are supposed to catch the echo of the liturgy of Christ (another king who is dead-but-not-dead), who “will come again, to judge the quick and the dead”.

Merlin’s foreknowledge is – like the image of Arthur sleeping in Avalon, his beginning and ending summed up in that uncertain pairing of ‘sometime’ and in time ‘to come’ – tragic because nothing, neither foreknowledge nor the knowledge of the cyclic nature of time, can lessen the human experience of finality.

Susan Cooper, author of the phenomenally brilliant children’s book series The Dark is Rising, plays with this same idea of time folded over and cyclic, of Arthur’s return and Merlin’s entrapment. Her second book focuses on Will, a boy growing up in a large country family in the 1970s, who gradually discovers the presence of shadowy forces of good and evil from centuries past are hovering on the edges of his own reality. In this narrative, Merlin features as a present-day character as well as a legend from the past, whose once-time servant Haukin is driven to betray him through terror, and whom Will meets as a half-mad beggar stumbling through snowy woods. This is an echo of the medieval poet Langland’s character of Haukyn, a labourer in a torn and tattered coat who is excluded from the central character’s light-filled visions of the Christ-knight who will come to save the world. Cooper’s world is filled with anticipation and nostalgia – from Will’s anticipation of the snow he hopes will fall on his birthday (the shortest day, the 21st of December), to the nostalgic image of carol singing in which Will sees the present world fall away and imagines the carols of an earlier Christmas gathering.

Another wintery read is Alan Garner’s eerie and atmospheric description of the journey he took to write his novel ThursbitchHis journey crosses the Pennine landscape and involves a wintery encounter with a half-buried eighteenth-century memorial stone on a lonely hillside. This stone leads him to a local legend of a man found dead on a snowy hillside with the print of a woman’s shoe in the snow beside him, and on from that to what he believes to be the real location for the fictional Green Chapel of the fourteenth-century Christmas poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This mapping of the worlds of long-ago fiction onto real geography is beautifully spooky, as if we could see the ghosts of the past if we were only able to be in the right place.

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A Christmas story that makes use of this sense of time and place is The Children of Green Knowe, in which a lonely motherless boy, Tolly, goes to stay with his great-grandmother in a twelfth-century house for Christmas, where he slips through time to meet a family of children from the reign of Charles II. In the 1980s a TV series was made of it, set in the real house at Hemingford Grey, which is of course of the kind of quality you’d expect for 1986, but which makes you wish they’d remake it.

Lucy M. Boston, like Cooper, makes beautifully evocative use of weather, and where Cooper  brings to life the smell of the air before a snow fall and the restless flurrying of rooks in the treetops, Boston describes a Christmas of heavy flooding in the fens, with water cutting off the house from everything around it, with thunder and lightning that gives way to deep snow and the singing of the carol Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.

The story isn’t purely Christmassy though, or at least not purely celebratory. Listening to a carol sung in the next room and four hundred years ago, Tolly’s grandmother gives a perfect response to why Christmas carols can be sad:

‘It is lovely, only it is such a long time ago. I don’t know why that should be sad, but sometimes it seems so.’ 

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More Recommendations for Advent

Not all of these are time-travel stories, and they are not all set at Christmas (though A Traveller in Time culminates with a brilliantly plangent Christmas scene). But they all seem to me to fit the bill for nostalgia, anticipation, and a sense of time passing.

Alison Uttley, A Traveller in Time
Dorothy Sayers, Nine Tailors
Antonia Forest, End of Term (Kingscote)
Rosemary Sutcliff, Knight’s Fee and The Armourer’s House
Anya Seton, Katharine.

Please add yours in the comments.

The best ever version of the Christmas story itself, by the way, is Jan Pienkowski’s silhouette illustrations to an abridged synthesis from the King James Bible (abridged syntheses of the Bible are very medieval).

Note

The pictures are mine. As with everything else on this blog, please don’t use without permission. Thanks!

Advent at King’s College, Cambridge: A Post about Learning to Belong

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View from Garret Hostel Bridge over Clare, with King’s Chapel in the distance.

Since I started teaching this term, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes something inclusive. How do I include all of these students? How do I attract students who’re already worrying they may not ‘fit in’? At what point do I have to do something that threatens to leave some of them behind, and when can I afford to use terminology and concepts that aren’t easily accessible?

Medieval literature can seem pretty inaccessible. As a medievalist, I have a working familiarity with Latin; I know a fair bit about reading and handling manuscripts (these texts aren’t easy to read and even when printed in modern editions, they use letters we don’t usually see, like þ and з), and I rely on a lot of Christian theology which, like the Latin, can carry very awkward connotations about inclusion and exclusion.

This term, I was lecturing on the long Middle English poem Piers Plowman, which is phenomenally demanding. The impact of the exclusionary aspects of the text break down along gendered, racial and class lines, which is what makes them so difficult to teach around. To give the most obvious examples, students from State schools are less likely to be familiar with Latin; students who have never been targets of anti-Semitism may be less likely to find Langland’s habitual vitriol triggering, and I’m very conscious that my background as a high church Anglican gives me an advantage in coming to terms with the implications of a text that truly believes all non-Christians are in for eternal damnation. The effects of unfamiliarity are what we might call micro-exclusions (extending the useful concept of microaggressions). They’re tacit, but they do affect us along those lines of pre-existing discrimination.

This Sunday, I went to the Procession for Advent service at King’s College Chapel, a service that is not dissimilar in its liturgical texture, nor in its high potential for exclusion, to Piers Plowman. Now, I’ve got to admit, since I got my current job, I have been pinching myself to believe it’s not a giant mistake, and one of the things that got me most geekily excited was getting to hear King’s choir.

Church interior, from the Psalter of Henry VI (London, BL MS Cotton Domitian A. XVII, f. 12v). Henry VI initiated the building of King's College Chapel.

Church interior, from the Psalter of Henry VI (London, BL MS Cotton Domitian A. XVII, f. 12v). Henry VI initiated the building of King’s College Chapel.

You can get a bit of the idea of the structure of the service from this youtube link (sorry for the quality), but basically it’s choir singing interspersed with Bible readings. It began in darkness – and 88 metres of cathedral can get very, very dark at the altar end when the only light is coming in through the far door – and gradually, as the choir processed slowly up towards the altar, they brought candles and light with them.

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I’m no expert on liturgy, medieval or modern. And this service was set up in 1934 by the then Dean of King’s, so it’s not got a long history. Eric Milner-White served as a chaplain in the First World War, and I’ve always associated that kind of post-war atmosphere of piety with the kind of service this is.

But, despite its newness, the service made me think of the ancient pre-Easter service of Tenebrae, in which all the lights in the church are gradually put out, until at last a book is slammed shut and the noise echoes around the pitch black church. That service is threaded through the medieval narrative of Piers Plowman, in which the author imagines Christ descending into Hell in the form of a light, which leaves the world in darkness on Good Friday, but which lightens up Hell, blinds the devil, and frees the souls kept captive there.

This service is, obviously, a reverse of that one, and, in a similar way to Tenebrae or to a medieval poem like Piers Plowman, it was full of symbolic light and sound and gesture. The antiphons between readings or hymns were sung in Latin; there was a bit of post-conversion T. S. Eliot and a couple of medieval carols.

A carol written by Henry VIII: bastard in his personal life, but hey, cute music manuscript.

A carol written by Henry VIII: bastard in his personal life, but hey, cute music manuscript. London, BL MS Add. 31922, f. 36v.

I know a lot of people would find many aspects of this service, and its context in a university college chapel, highly problematic. It’s not an accessible form of worship, as you can tell from the connotations I’m finding in it. It’s not designed to be easily interpreted, and a perfect (literal) example of this was found in the notes at the beginning of the service booklet, which warned us not to expect to be able to read it during the service itself. And you don’t just wander along. You can queue for a place in the street on the day, but you’ll be sitting behind the rood screen, and the majority of people who go, are going because they have tickets. Finally, you have a sense that you’re trespassing into male-only space. King’s choir has traditionally been all male, and it did piss me off to see that the male choir had a group of women processing with them, whose job was to carry the candles … but not to sing.

I was wondering how to respond to this, as I looked back over the carols the choir sung, and particularly one Middle English carol. It’s in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Arch. Selden. B. 26, f. 14v, if you’re interested, and A Clerk of Oxford has a nice blog post about it. There’s a version on youtube here, you can look at the manuscript page (complete with music) here, and here are the lyrics (I’ve modernised thorn to ‘th’ and yogh to ‘y’ or gh, but left the rest of the spelling as is):

Nowel, nowel, nowel,
Nowel, nowel, nowel.

Owt of your slepe aryse & wake
For God mankynd nowe hath ytake
al of a maide without eny make,
of al women she bereth the belle.

And thorwe a maide faire and wys,
Now man is made of ful gret pris,
Now angelys knelen to mannys seruys,
& at this tyme al this byfel.

Now man is brighter than the sonne,
Now man in heuen an hye shal wonne,
Blessyd God this game is begonne,
& his moder emperesse of helle.

That euer was thralle, now ys he fre,
That euer was smalle, now gret is she;
Now shal God deme both the & me,
Unto his blysse, yf we do wel.

Now man may to heuen wende,
Now heuen & erthe to hym they bende,
He that was foo, now is oure frende,
This is no nay that Y yowe telle.

Now, blessyd brother, graunte vs grace
At domes day to se thy face,
And in thy courte to haue a place,
That we mow there synge nowel.

The place where this carol manuscript was copied was an exclusionary space: a monastery in Worcester, a space whose exclusion mirrors wider exclusions of women throughout medieval society. The choir who sung it in King’s Chapel are performing in a context of music and worship which, likewise, has an exclusionary history, a history of male-only space in which the Church and the university often seem to speak in one (Latin) voice. Yet, this carol balances exclusion with strong, and interestingly gendered images of community. 

The carol places Christ’s birth in the context of his coming battle with the devil, which will see Mary reign as ’emperesse of Hell’. The ‘game’ begun with Christ’s birth is this contest, and this word reminds me very much of other medieval narratives. Langland’s Piers Plowman, which was written perhaps sixty or so years before this carol is first recorded and was circulated in the same West Midlands area, imagines the conflict between Christ and the devil over the rights to the souls in Hell as a matter of wit and trickery, not just a contest of brute force. In the same way, Langland’s contemporary the Gawain-poet, also writing in the West Midlands, uses the motif of a ‘Christmas game’ to stage a conflict over the human soul of his hero.

I love the drama of that image, and I love how the carol telescopes time, so that everything from Christ’s birth to the Harrowing of Hell is condensed into this single narrative, with a glance forward even to the end of Time.

The image of the first verse is completely standard, even a bit of a cliché: Mary is ‘a maide without eny make,’ that is, a woman without a ‘make’ (= mate, or husband) and a woman without any ‘make’ (= match or peer; ie., a peerless woman). The next mention of her, however, jolts us out of cliché: 

Blessyd God this game is begonne,
& his moder emperesse of helle.

The chronology of the carol skips straight from Christ’s birth and the beginning of the ‘game’ for man’s soul, to the image of the Virgin reigning over conquered Hell. There’s a similar startling discontinuity in another medieval carol, Adam Lay Y-Bounden, which I’ve written about before, and which jumps straight from the taking of the apple in the garden of Eden, to its unexpectedly fortunate result, the coming of the Virgin Mary to be humanity’s intercessor in heaven.

The exclusion of parts of the well-known narrative lets us look at it in a new light. On the one hand, the writer has entirely excluded the human history of Mary from his carol. This image of Mary as a powerful empress rather than a human mother harks back to the older iconography (which you can still see a lot of in the Orthodox Church). It’s deliberately more awe-inspiring and less sympathetic than the later imagery of Mary as nurturing mother, and it’s slightly out of step with the fifteenth century, slightly exclusionary and distant, bringing us up short. But, at the same time, it makes me wonder whether this exclusionary image doesn’t have its positive points: it’s an image of a female figure who is primarily powerful rather than emotional, awe-inspiring rather than humble.

And the depictions of gender become even more startling. When the author describes ordinary humanity, he writes:

“That euer was thralle, now ys he fre,
That euer was smalle, now gret is she”

(‘Whoever was enslaved, now he is free./ Whoever was small, now great is she.’)

This is the sort of elegantly gender-balanced language you’d expect in a modern piece of writing, by someone rendering feminist theories of language into religious verse. And yet it fits into this fifteenth-century carol.

Finally, what puts a shiver down my spine (in a good way) is the last verse, which I’ll quote again in modern English:

“Now blessed brother grant us grace
At doomes day to see thy face,
And at thy court to have a place,
That we may there sing nowell.”

Partly, this works for me because in medieval literature, there are dozens of writers who use unexpected family relationships to imagine their bond with God. But I like both the parity and the monasticism implied by ‘brother’. Since this manuscript was copied (if not necessarily composed) in a monastery, I like to think that the writer might have been imagining Christ as if he were another ‘brother’ in religion. It suggests a real familial warmth to the relationships between monks, which I don’t think we often think about.

I do think this is interesting in terms of gender. We’re so often encouraged to think about how oppressed or disempowered groups might establish mutually supportive relationships, and we often study the bonds created in the women-only spaces inhabited by medieval nuns, or the support between medieval women from all walks of life.

But we’re less inclined to look at the emotional and familial bonds between men, perhaps because emotional and familial bonding is (in modern culture) so often seen as part of the feminine sphere and, in the extreme, as an aspect of wifework, which I’ve written about before. So, we end up reinforcing the idea that emotion and accessability are gendered, that we should always be able to imagine and relate to women’s emotions, while men’s are a closed book.

The author of this carol didn’t imagine a Christian community in which ‘he’ meant ‘all humanity’ and women weren’t mentioned, which is something some modern writers still fail to do. And I find it difficult to fault him for falling back on the exclusively male space of the medieval monastery as his personal image of the ‘court’ of heaven, because I can see how, for a medieval monk, the language of ‘brotherhood’ might provide the most immediate emotional connection.

I feel lucky to be able to read all of the resonances of liturgy and medieval context into a service like this one, a poem like Piers Plowman, or a carol like ‘Arise and Wake’. I’m conscious that people often perceive the kinds of texts I read, and the kinds of experiences I’m having at the moment, as inaccessible, and feel these kinds of text or performance are ‘not for them’. I’m trying to find ways to make these texts more accessible – not by ignoring the difficulties of interpretation they cause, but by exploring the ways in which they can question even the exclusionary situations within which they were produced. The richness of these medieval carols, of this (perhaps exclusionary) modern liturgy, of a poem like ones I teach, is something incredibly difficult to grasp. But when you do grasp it, and get through all of those micro-exclusions, you may find texts – and people – struggling with the same questions of how to avoid exclusion, how to imagine a properly inclusive community.

Update

I just thought I’d link to an account of the Carols from Kings TV service, filmed a few days ago, on Mary Beard’s blog. I was passing through King’s as the TV crew were preparing to film, and found out they light the chapel from outside, which makes sense, but also makes it look amazing as you look back across the river. Here.

Notes

It’s worth knowing that, as a college, King’s has an established tradition of active efforts to attract students who might not initially feel comfortable applying to Cambridge.

If you want to know more about medieval carols or their manuscripts, check out this blog post over at the British Library site, by Sandra Tuppen. It’s a lovely Christmassy read.