Interview with Louise Garner

Our next seminar is on Monday 16 January, 18:00 (tea and biscuits from 17:40). Louise Garner will be giving a talk entitled “Bringing up the Flowerers’: Recipes for Conception, Miscarriage and Abortion in Seventeenth-Century England.” 

Below we chatted to Louise about East Asia, early modern women and family medicine. 

Tell us a bit about yourself, where are you from?

I’m from Leicestershire, but haven’t lived there for a long time.  Before I left Britain I lived in Pendle, near the Witches. After Lancashire I moved to The Falkland Islands, and then lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for four years and then lived most recently in Kathmandu, Nepal for a few years.

What brought you to Durham?

Moving back to the UK from living abroad was like a blank canvas, I could go anywhere and do anything! I decided to indulge a passion and study for Masters in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Durham.  I’d been to Durham as a visitor and liked it, and the university setting and expertise seemed perfect.

I intended to stay just for a year, but ended up buying a house here and starting a PhD.

What is your favourite thing about the medieval/early modern period?birthing-woodcut-final

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t drawn to the high drama – Kings, Queens, executions, battles, plague etc.

However, I’m really interested in medicine and actually think that Medieval and Early Modern people probably knew a lot more than we give them credit for, in fact they could probably teach us a thing or two. The knowledge they had was just “known” I think and has been lost because no one thought it even needed to be recorded.

I’ve recently had a baby and I’m sure an Early Modern midwife had a few tricks and tips up her sleeve, particularly with regards to breastfeeding, that has been lost. As a society we’re expected to mistrust our bodies – I think the EM woman was certainly more in tune with hers.

What does your research focus on?

My current research is on non-destructive identification of pigments used in illuminated manuscripts.  However, the knowledge of which pigments were used means nothing without context so although I’m based in the Chemistry department I am also in History – I have a supervisor in each camp!  I’m delighted to be able to utilise my physical sciences degree and my history based masters together.

What do you plan to focus on in your seminar?

My MEMSA talk is on my masters’ research which was regarding reproduction and childbirth in the Early Modern.  Specifically, I narrowed the reproductive field down to conception, miscarriage and abortion in my dissertation and then used household medicine and family recipe books as a lens through which to explore these concepts.

If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?AP78907278_Seychelles_Trave-large.jpg

I’m a qualified teacher, and before I left to come to Durham I was a head teacher.  So I’d probably be teaching somewhere, probably in South East Asia, perhaps in Myanmar or South Korea. Although I hear the Seychelles has a lovely little school…

Do you have a favourite medieval/early modern text?

No not really, I love medieval manuscripts, but more as beautiful objects.  I particularly like the little notes and marginalia scribbled in them, particularly curses to people who don’t return books! I’d like to learn Old English, so maybe ask me next year and I’ll have a favourite OE text.


Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Goodwin

MEMSA’s final seminar of term will be given by Dr. Elizabeth Goodwin (Sheffield University) on the topic of ‘Emotion, Resistance and Reformation in the Diary of Caritas Pirkheimer’ ( 13 December, as usual tea and biscuits from 17:40, with the seminar at 18:00. 


We chatted to Elizabeth about mentalities, early modern nuns and the reformation below. 

Tell us about yourself; where are you from?

I’m from Sheffield, where I finished by PhD last year. It’s not got a lot in the way of medieval history, but I’ve volunteered as a tour guide at our remaining Tudor house of Manor Lodge, and could tell you a lot about how much of a connection it has with Cardinal Wolsey, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots!

What do you love most about the medieval/early modern period?

I love being able to recreate a world that you can’t easily access, understand different mentalities, see change and upheaval and rupture and continuity over a broad period. Trying to understand the drama and experiences of everyday life in contexts so vibrant and different.

What brought you to Durham?

I gave my very first research paper at Durham, in the summer of my first PhD year, in 2013 – it was a really interesting conference of Resistance and Authority, and I remember being thrilled that my paper was taken really seriously and that I didn’t mess it up.

What does your research focus on?

My thesis focused on communities of English nuns before and after the Dissolution of the monasteries, how these communities formed and reformed themselves through textual and material culture, and how these communities continued after the official structures of their convent were no longer there. I looked at a comparison with German nuns going through the Reformation, and my latest work is a continuation on this – I’m looking at emotion and emotional responses in Medieval/Early Modern nun’s visual culture, and reading emotional defences into the incredible work of Caritas Pirckheimer.

What are you focusing on for your seminar?

I’m going to explore some of the newest work I’m looking at, at emotional methodology in the Reformation Journal of Caritas Pirckheimer, a sixteenth-century German Abbess who resisted the Reformer city council’s attempts to close down her convent between 1524 and 1528. Her work is incredibly dramatic and features these superbly emotional scenes, utilised to, I think, defend the convent from broader Reformer discourse and the immediate threat to her convent that was being posed. Her work is fascinating because she engages so heavily with medieval Humanism and with the Reformation, so crosses all of these boundaries. I’m really excited to talk about her.

If you weren’t an academic what would you be doing?

I worked in hospitality all the way through college and my undergrad and MA degrees, and I’m a fairly bossy, organised person, so probably events management

Interview with Curtis Runstedler

Curtis Runstedler will be leading our next seminar, on ‘Alchemy and Exemplary Narratives in Middle English Poetry’ ( 5 December (A MONDAY), World Heritage Visitor’s Centre. As usual, tea and biscuits from 17:40, seminar at 18:00. 

We chatted to Curtis about Canada, teaching and the inevitable proceeds of his philosopher’s stone. 

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

I’m from the snowy landscapes of Ottawa, Canada. Actually, it’s not snowy all the time – in the summertime, it can get up to 40 degree Celsius (talk about extremes!). Good surfing weather in the summertime (just needs more tasty waves).
I completed my undergraduate degree at Carleton University and then swam across the pond to complete my MA degree at Durham University (I wrote on werewolves in the medieval romance and it was lots of fun). I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to stay on board for my Ph.D. degree, which hopefully I’ll finish sometime next year.

What brought you to Durham?

0778014304.jpgWell, I had a couple inspirational moments. I used to work at this great little publishing press called Oberon Press (I was the warehouse manager) that had been around since the ’60s and published the Where to Eat in Canada annual guide as well as lots of wonderful Canadian novels and poems. I was really keen on doing an MA in the U.K., and the wife of my manager at the time told me about this amazing place called Durham University.
I also had a friend I’ve known since kindergarten who was studying there at the time, so he told me what to expect. Then one of my Studies in Arthurian Literature lecturer Siobhain Calkin encouraged me to attend an event with Professor Neil Cartlidge at the university about studying an MA at Durham University. I went to it and I was the only one who showed up, so we chatted for a  couple hours and I ended up applying to Durham and getting accepted. I’ve loved every minute of it.

What do you love most about the medieval/early modern period?

Well, I love both periods, but I’m a medievalist at heart. I love the fantastic (i.e. the castles, dragons, knights, and those incredible medieval women!), but I’m also really intrigued by magic and the supernatural as well as the growth of medieval science (scientia) and society. Naturally, I’m really interested in astronomy and alchemy as well. We owe so much to the medieval period, and it’s great that scholarship in recent years is shining new light on all these long forgotten episodes and characters. It’s a beautiful time to be alive.
The early modern period is really interesting too (from the Tudors to Milton to Shakespeare to Marlowe to all the alchemy/chemistry going on). I find the sixteenth century particularly interesting, especially after reading the excellent book Dark Fire that my supervisor recommended to me. I’m really interested in the alchemical afterlives of many of the medieval authors in the early modern period, and this is something that I’d like to continue researching for a couple future publications.

What does your research focus on?

My research focusses on how alchemy is used to make moral points about human fallibility, metaphorical blindness, and more in Middle English poetry (Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate as some key exaphilosopherstonemples). I’m also interested in how these alchemical poems form exemplary narratives and how they can be identified as exempla for good moral behaviour and alchemical practice.
Most of my research is analytical and not practical, so thankfully I haven’t blown anything up yet! But I would be happy to share the gold if I discover the Philosopher’s Stone.

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

For my seminar, I’m planning to discuss one of the fifteenth-century alchemical dialogues (‘The Argument between Merlin and Morienus’) that I write about in my fourth chapter. This is a really interesting poem because it features a child Merlin talking to his father Morienus (a legendary alchemical adept) about alchemy in a religious context, and it’s also intriguing to consider how it can be read as an exemplary narrative. As well, there’s some incest in it, which will be fun to talk about.

If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?

I love teaching and I love learning, so I’d probably teach at sixth form level or teach abroad. I love travelling too. I also like to write short stories in my spare time, so I’d love to keep doing that on the side and hopefully publish something eventually.

Do you have a favourite medieval/early modern text?

The Canterbury Tales really takes the cake for me. Chaucer is so wonderfully subversive and it has so many layers and levels to the readings, it just keeps getting better and better each time you read it. My favourite tale? Definitely the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, but I love the ribaldry of The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale, and The Wife of Bath’s Tale is also pretty great. Honourable mention goes to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (my favourite book of all time), which was technically published in the ’90s, but I believe it’s based off a medieval text or something?
I guess I’d have to say Paradise Lost is my favourite early modern text for obvious reasons. I also really enjoyed Comus and Samson Agonistes, most of Shakespeare’s plays, Dr Faustus, and recently The Jew of Malta, which was a wild ride.

Interview with Kim Foy

Kim Foy will be giving a seminar with the title ‘Bonnets and Brothels: The Women of Dublin Castle’  ( on 22 November, 18:00. As usual, tea and biscuits from 17:40. Below we chatted to Kim about Ireland, Early Modern Bling and hilarious courtly behaviour. 

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

I come from Kildare, a small town about an hour or so from Dublin. It’s a place with a lot of history from its beginnings as an early medieval religious settlement with a round tower, to its later role as the home of prominent Irish rebels including the Geraldines and Lord Edward Fitzgerald. We also have the National Stud, and the Curragh is just next door. So yeah. Racehorses and Rebellion.

I remember playing Edward’s brother in a school play celebrating the town, and then running home to watch documentaries about the Wars of the Roses so I’m sure the interest in people and the things they do has something to do with where I grew up, and also our Sky box.

What brought you to Durham?

I focused on diplomatic practice at the early Stuart court which involves lots of ridiculously fun reading on topics like court culture, pageantry and diplomacy generally. I found that many of the writers who were most useful to me were Durham based. When it came to applying for a Ph.D., the expertise of the teaching staff at Durham and the highly interdisciplinary focus of the Leverhulme Doctoral Programme, run by the Centre for Arts and Visual Culture, made the university my first choice.

What do you love most about the early modern period?

Early Modern Bling

I love the BLING. I’m a devotee of both the medieval and early modern period. In the former, power is dependent upon military strength. Kings can do as they please as long as they have the manpower and it seems to me that the legality of political scenarios follow the reality. There is a beautiful simplicity in the general rule of male brutality conferring authority in medieval Europe. However, I have always felt a more intense response to the visual world and, as I completed my masters’ dissertation, it struck me that visual languages are of central importance to politics by the early modern period. Thinking about how everything LOOKS is a direct route to understanding how people to relate to each other. I’m thinking particularly of sumptuous clothing and jewels, the stuff of the elites. This is what is most appealing to me, that by revelling in the beauty of materials, you can begin to understand more about what’s actually going on.

What does your research focus on?

In particular, I’m thinking about how foreign visitors to the early Stuart court reflect their political and religious views, values and assumptions in their clothing. This has particular relevance to a visiting ambassador or queen consort who, to be successful, has to strike a tricky balance between promoting a court/city of origin and adapting to an English environment. International figures are important sites of cultural exchange because of this dual purpose and I’m very keen to know how all of this dressing up affects diplomacy.

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?


This seminar actually arose from my time at Dublin Castle, where I developed a tour about the wives of the Lord Lieutenants or Viceroys. Having expected a to find a relatively bland story of wifely duty, I discovered a surprising history of women self-declaring through material choices, at all levels of society. One of these women is also deliciously scandalous but I’m not saying who until the seminar. She is currently my favourite early modern woman and she is fabulous.

If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?

My obsession with the behaviour leads me to believe that psychology would have been a suitable career. Otherwise, I would be working in an animal rescue centre or wildlife reserve. I’m a vegan who feels terrible about how we treat animals.

Do you have a favourite early modern text?

My favourite text is Finetti Philonexis. It’s an account of diplomatic goings-on at the early Stuart court by Charles I’s master of ceremonies, John Finet. It is unintentionally hilarious, mostly because poor Finet spends much of his time running back and forward from one ambassador to another deciding who should sit where when the king is dining or the order of precedence for ambassadors on solemn occasions. Diva-licious.

Interview with Michael Baker

Michael Baker will be presenting our third seminar of the term, the spookily themed ‘St Erkenwald Hears a Heathen: Narrating a Goste Life’ on 8 November, from 17:30. Below we talked to Michael about his life outside of academia, George Gently and Christian salvation anxiety. 

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

I was born in Northern California, but I have lived the longest in Seattle, in what is known as ‘the “other” Washington’. I did my undergraduate work at Seattle University.

What brought you to Durham?

It was highly recommended to me by one of my undergrad professors when I got back in touch to discuss heading back to grad school. The more I looked into it, the more I liked the medieval-city setting, and of course the English Department here is incredibly well respected. Also, I was a big fan of the George Gently TV series. 


What do you love most about the medieval period?

One of the books that helped me settle on being a medievalist was Barbara Tuchman’s history of the fourteenth century, A Distant Mirror. That idea, that we can see these vague outlines of people who seem familiar, underwrites a lot of medieval literary criticism, and hypotheses about what is meant by this or that text. You have to imagine the medieval, but this is also a bit dangerous, because we can imagine quite a lot of things. So you also need to hunt around to find varieties of evidence, and I suppose I find it like armchair time-travel.

What does your research focus on?

There aren’t that many cognitive medievalists out there, or at least people who call themselves that, though attempting to get into the medieval mindset is obviously a big part of study of the period. But that’s what I am interested in, is how we think now, how people then thought, and how they put that into writing that we are trying to read. For my PhD, I have a focus specifically on dream visions in Old and Middle English, to contrast what narratives that recount dream visions are doing that is different, or similar, over time.

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

The alliterative poem about St Erkenwald is an outlier for me, because it doesn’t feature a dream vision per se; as the poem presents it, the saint and a mostly-dead heathen judge have a conversation in front of witnesses. But often dream visions respond to some unspeakable anxiety, and so I think you can think of Erkenwald’s story as visualising a group anxiety about mortality and salvation.  



If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?

This isn’t so hypothetical for me because I have only recently come back to academia; for a number of years I was working in marketing/PR in the non-profit sector, and running a city blog about Seattle. 

Do you have a favourite medieval text?

I have a favourite kind of text: basically any chronicle related to Durham. It’s a thrill being in the actual place, so I can go take a look at where something happened. Then later I enjoy pretending I’m a 12th century travel writer pointing out spots of medieval interest.

Interview with Ana Moskvina

Join us at 18.00, next Tuesday (25 October) in the World Heritage Visitor Centre for our second seminar, on Anglo-Saxon churches, barrows and other monuments, given by visiting scholar, Ana Moskvina. The seminar will be preceded by tea and coffee, starting at 17.40. 

We chatted with Ana about Russia, medieval churches and a ‘frustration and fascination with life’ generally. 

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

I am from St Petersburg, Russia, although my passport says ‘Leningrad, USSR’, because this is what it was in 1989 when I was born. Ironically, this is what I still have to state on all official forms as my place of birth. It is a weird thing being from a place that doesn’t even exist on the map anymore but I find it quite fascinating!

The famous Anglo-Saxon Church at Escomb

What brought you to Durham?

Oh, this is a long story. I am doing my PhD at UEA in Norwich, but a lot of the sites I am writing about are concentrated up north, and Durham was a perfect place to use as a base to travel to all the wonderful places like Jarrow, Wearmouth, Escomb, Lindisfarne, Hexham, Bywell and many others. I learned to drive and bought a car specifically for this. Then I discovered that the Department of Archaeology did a programme called ‘Visiting Scholars’. I applied, got it, received some generous funding from UEA and spent two months in the department as a researcher. Dr David Petts very kindly agreed to supervise me during this time!

I’d only seen Durham from a train before and it always looked magical, and finally stepping into this magic was wonderful! Sadly, I couldn’t stay, but I am sure I will be going back again one day.

What do you love most about the medieval/early Modern period?

I have moments when I wonder why I am not a scientist. I could be doing research in, say, microbiology or oceanography, working towards a better future for the people and the planet. Having read Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘Man’s Place in Nature’ quite recently, I started to wonder even more, as he suggests that biological research is the only way forward for us as humanity. And then it occurred to me that equally, there is no future without the past. Looking back is just as important to know who we are, where we came from and what we’ve been through. I am sorry this is lengthy and probably irrelevant but I suppose this summarises both my frustration and fascination with life in general: I like to look to the future but I choose to dig through the past. To me, it doesn’t even matter how distant this past is, but Late Antique to Late Medieval period somehow feels right for me. I think Christianity, its development, its understanding by the people throughout history, and the inspiration it has always generated might be a part of it.

What does your research focus on?

My subject is very OCD and very easy to explain: basically, it is groups of Saxon buildings – both secular and ecclesiastical – arranged in a single line for no evident reason. I am trying to explain what it means (if anything!) and how all this came about.

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

I will be putting forward a hypothesis that the Anglo-Saxons appropriated linearity as a symbolic language of presence and power already in existence in the man-made landscape in England. Basically, it is about how pits, barrows and henges arranged in a single line were seen as so influential that it made sense to borrow this idea of linearity to make similar claims of power and dominance at the time when the Anglo-Saxon rulers and elite were establishing themselves.

If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?

I was first trained as an architect, and for a while this looked like my chosen career path, until I decided to be an art historian with a bit of an archaeologist thrown in. I am also a part-time verger in a gigantic Medieval church in the centre of Norwich and I like it so much that I could have easily be doing this for the rest of my life. Maybe I will, if academia and I part ways one day!

Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?

 Oh dear. I ought to say ‘De Abbatibus’ or ‘Beowulf’… With great embarrassment, I have to confess I have never thought of appreciating a text for its literary qualities. I read lots of lives of saints and historical accounts but tend to treat them as information, although the narratives are often very gripping!

Just because I can, I have started to read Sir Thomas Brown’s ‘Religio Medici’ and it is good so far. Does this count..?

Interview with Kathleen Reynolds


Join us at 18.00, next Monday (10 October) in the World Heritage Visitor Centre for our first seminar, on the topic of Frightening Stories about Early Modern Vaginas, given by former MEMSA Chair, Kathleen Reynolds. The seminar will be preceded by a wine reception, starting at 17.40.

We chatted with Kathleen about medical normativity, large rollercoasters, pregnancy and much more in our interview below. 


Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

I am a northerner of a different sort—I’m from Edmonton, Alberta in Canada, which is known as either “the city of champions” despite the fact that our hockey team hasn’t made the playoffs in ten years, or more accurately as the “Gateway to the north.”  Our claim to fame is having one of the largest malls in North America, with the largest indoor rollercoaster!  I did degrees at the University of Alberta and McGill University before coming here for my PhD.

I’m also the former chair of MEMSA, which means that I’m wildly invested in this community and super excited to get to open up the year. 

What brought you to Durham?

Honestly, the biggest reason was a series of great supervisors.  My supervisor at McGill, Faith Wallis, is very involved in Durham research at the cathedral library, and she recommended I get in touch with Cathy McClive, whose work on menstruation was super useful in my MA.  I shamelessly adore Cathy, and when I was able to secure funding here Faith’s response was “GO FOR IT.”  So here I am!

What do you love most about the medieval/early Modern period?

Generally, I love that we can experience the same things as they did in the past, but think about them totally differently!  I was captivated by Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre, and then moved into researching syphilis—which had different moral implications for men and female sufferers.  I love that I can read a letter and immediately get it despite the different context—they had a different system of medical knowledge and were prone to taking cold water baths when sick, but they still felt inconvenienced by a persistent sniffle or didn’t want their mums to know they had the clap.

What does your research focus on?

My research focuses on the ways that families dealt with household illness in the eighteenth century.  During this period, the extent to which correspondence was a part of life (particularly for the gentry) massively expanded, which gave them a new medium to talk about sickness with their friends and family.  I use this source to discuss the knowledge and practices of gentry families in Yorkshire and the Northeast.

What led you to your area of interest?

I’ve always been a little bit of a hypochondriac, but actual bodies gross me out so I took a step back to study the history of medicine instead of helping to save any lives.  It has the added bonus of being regularly asked, “Oh, so you’re going to be a doctor” which I find satisfying and hilarious. 

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

The opaque nature of the female body is one of my favourite subjects—even today, doctors are dismissive of female expressions of pain and medicine still focuses on the male body as the norm—women have different symptoms for both heart attacks and autistic spectrums which are much less represented in the media.  So I adore looking at this subject in the past—how difficult it was to know how a woman was pregnant or what a normal pregnancy looked like, and what sort of bodily reactions could be expected during childbirth.  Also, because MEMSA is full of students who largely have never had children, a lot of the realities of the pregnant body come as a horrifying surprise—there is so much bleeding!! 

So this long answer means, my talk is about the weird things that happened to the early modern female body and why people believed them.

If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?

I have the very well-adjusted habit of suggesting a list of things I’d be doing if I weren’t in academia.  My first career goal was Catholic priest (thanks, uterus, for shutting that one down at age five) and my second career choice was firetruck.  Now, I can see myself as some kind of writer—I clearly love telling stories!!

Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?

THIS IS SO DIFFICULT.  For me, my research focuses on letters, so I get to read a lot of hilarious family gossip.  I remember one time I was in an archive in Morley, and William Robinson was getting really detailed about how much he wished he was pressed to his wife’s breast and I was like I AM NOT OLD ENOUGH TO READ THIS. 

I was originally a medievalist, so I have a soft spot for all those classics— probably the earliest favourite text, closest to my current interest, is the Book of Margery Kempe, considered (by some, including me) to be the earliest autobiography in the English language.