Interview with Hannah Piercy

Hannah Piercy (Department of English Studies) will present ‘The Monster Within: Understanding Monstrosity in Medieval Romance’ for our final seminar of the Easter term and academic year. We chatted with Hannah about monsters, gender roles, and more in our interview below. 

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

I’m from the Lake District in Cumbria, so I’m a true Northerner at heart. People normally know the Lakes because they’ve been on a geography/D of E/walking trip. It’s a beautiful place and I was so lucky to grow up there. As a child, I thought Britain was full of mountains and sea-coasts, as my family always went on holiday to Scotland. For a while, I was scared of flat places because I was so unused to them!

What brought you to Durham?

I came to Durham to do my Masters in Medieval Literature. I had actually never visited before I arrived in September with an excessive amount of belongings to move in for the year. I fell in love with Durham almost immediately – the beautiful castle and cathedral, the fantastic English department, and most of all the people. Everyone has been so friendly and welcoming.

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

It’s such a beautiful thing to see how much continuity there is across the centuries in human experience, even while so much has also changed.

Oh gosh, so many things! Two of the aspects I love most about the literature of the period are actually kind of contradictory. Firstly, I love how, particularly with romance, you often end up reading things that if you took them literally would be utterly ridiculous. For example, in Bisclavret by Marie de France, when the lady finds out that her husband is a werewolf her first reaction is to ask whether he is naked or dressed in wolf form. Not exactly the first thing that would be on my mind! In Amis e Amilun, there’s another good example – a lady doesn’t mind that her husband has killed their children in order to save his friend because they can always have more children, whereas his friend is irreplaceable … luckily the children turn out to be alive anyway! But then the other aspect I love about medieval literature is the total opposite. I love moments when you are reading a text that is so many centuries old and yet completely speaks to you, so that you recognise exactly the same emotions we have today. It’s such a beautiful thing to see how much continuity there is across the centuries in human experience, even while so much has also changed.

What does your research focus on?

My research focuses mainly on medieval romance and lais (shorter narratives similar to romance). I look particularly at the representations of women, gender roles, sexuality, and narrative patterns. I’m also really interested in monsters, hence the focus of this seminar!

What led you to your area of interest?

I first fell in love with the medieval period when reading a collection of short romances about Sir Gawain in preparation for my first year at university. One of these was The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, a fascinating text that I’ve barely stopped thinking about since. Across my first two years at university, I often found myself writing about gender relations. I wrote a dissertation on clothing in medieval romance, again focusing particularly on how this shapes the presentation of female characters, and how these characters sometimes use clothing to create their own subversive kind of power. Then I did a module on the medieval supernatural, which was an incredible experience and introduced me to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s work on monstrosity (amongst others, of course). Since then I have been mulling over how monstrosity relates to femininity, and this has combined with several other things to shape my main areas of research.

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

I want to introduce some theoretical ideas about monstrosity, before examining how monsters work in often surprising and subversive ways in medieval texts. I’m going to focus particularly on how monsters relate to social and gender roles. Considering monsters in relation to gender, I’m hoping to take a quick look at the idea of ‘sexy monsters’ (as I like to think of it): how do monsters negotiate gendered and sexual identities, and to sex acts?

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

I’d probably be a rocket scientist. Just kidding, I’m not actually sure what that is… I think I would be working in arts education or perhaps publishing. When I was younger I always wanted to be a writer, but I haven’t done a lot of creative writing over the last few years. I’d like to get back into it at some point I think, but probably not as a career! I think I’d quite like working in children’s publishing (confession: one of my favourite books is The Gruffalo. Which is totally related to monsters actually, so I might have to bring it up in my seminar!), or in literary publishing more generally. I really like proofreading and editing, so I think that would suit me quite well!

Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?

I think it has to be The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle. It’s not often discussed, but I actually think it’s an incredible narrative and one that raises lots of interesting questions. I also love The Awntyrs off Arthur and of course Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In fact, I basically just like anything with Gawain in. In case you hadn’t noticed, I think I’m a little bit in love with Sir Gawain. I think he might be the reason I’m a medievalist to be honest – in which case, Gawain: THANK YOU.

Join us for Hannah’s seminar on Tuesday, 21 June at 7 pm at the World Heritage Visitors Centre. Wine and snacks will be provided. The seminar will be followed by our summer party. All are welcome.

Interview with Robyn Orr

On Tuesday, 7 June, Robyn Orr will present her paper ‘Navigating Childbirth and Wet Nursing in Early Modern England’ at the next MEMSA seminar, which will take place at 6 pm at the World Heritage Visitors Centre. We interviewed Robyn about ‘sunny’ South Shields, early Modern babies, and more:

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

I am from ‘sunny’ South Shields on the coast, which is the only constituency since the Great Reform Act of 1832 to have never elected a Conservative M.P. It also has three Greggs and two Dickson’s pie shops on the short high street. I was weaned on pastries. I’m studying on the Early Modern History M.A. until September (which is when I enter the scary adult world). I graduated from my B.A. (Hons) History at Newcastle University in June 2015.

What brought you to Durham?

I remember coming to Durham on day trips as a child, so it held a nostalgic pull for me. The university also gave me a scholarship, and the University itself has a great academic reputation. It’s an all-round winner for me.

What do you love most about the early Modern period?

I have a very early Modern sense of humour (i.e. quite dark), so I love reading ballads and satire from the period. If it wasn’t for the rampant disease and legalised subjugation of pretty much everybody, I think I would have liked to have experienced it for myself.

What does your research focus on?

My research generally focusses upon the experience of pregnancy and childbirth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both in medical and sociocultural contexts. My M.A. dissertation is titled ‘‘Many sorts of knick-knacks’: The Material Culture of Childbirth in Eighteenth-Century England’. I’m examining what items people were likely to gather in preparation for a labour and for the new-born baby, and where they sourced these items from. This is dependent upon social factors, such as wealth, location, and status. So in short, I’m looking at the making, gifting and purchasing of baby clothes and bed linens.

What led you to your area of interest?

I was trying to find an undergraduate dissertation topic at the end of second year, so I started reading around my two biggest interests: family in early Modern England and international relations in Meiji-era Japan. I found a gap in the research in considering the role of the husband throughout his wife’s pregnancy and labour, so I swooped in. I haven’t forgotten about Japanese history though. I’d like to return to study this someday, hopefully in Japan.

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

My seminar will firstly focus upon answering the basic question ‘What was it like to give birth to a child in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?’ This will provide some context into understanding the mentality behind my research, as the early Modern people had ‘rituals’ they performed and abided to when experiencing a birth. Secondly, I’ll run through the main themes and justifications of my dissertation research. This will both outline what I consider the ‘material culture’ of childbirth to be, and the options available to early Modern women when sourcing the most important item, the ‘child-bed linen’.

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

I always wanted to be a midwife. That was my second career option, but I was (am) rubbish at the sciences. I also have a terrible tell. If there is an issue and I need to exude control, I’d just panic the woman in labour because I would have a frantic look in my eyes.

Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?

I love a particular ballad sheet called ‘The Mis-taken Midwife’ (1684). A barren midwife steals a stillborn child and pretends it is her own, and all hell breaks loose when her gossip women suss her out. It was based upon a true account, which has survived from the Old Bailey trials. Classic early Modern hilarity though, morphing a truly horrifying crime into a delightful sing-song.

Robyn’s seminar will take place on Tuesday, 7 June at 6 pm in the World Heritage Visitors Centre. Come out for tea and biscuits beforehand from 5:40 pm. All are welcome.

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Interview with Peter Brown

Join us this Tuesday for our next MEMSA seminar, which will feature Peter Brown (Department of Archaeology) presenting ‘The Extreme Windstorm of A.D. 1362: Contemporary Perceptions and Responses’. The seminar will take place at the World Heritage Visitors Centre at 6 pm. We interviewed Peter about medieval windstorms, his latest adventures, and more:

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

I’m from Edinburgh, U.K., and I’m in the second year of study for my Ph.D. in the Archaeology Department here at Durham. I’ve been here since my undergraduate, having completed my Masters at the end of 2014.

What brought you to Durham?

I was won over at the Undergraduate Open Day and got sucked in.

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

As an archaeologist, I am particularly interested in the medieval period because (in the UK anyway) it is really the first time that the archaeological record is accompanied by a detailed documentary record. This makes the interpretations we can make of archaeological material more nuanced than would be possible in pre- or proto-historic periods.

What does your research focus on?

My research looks at how medieval society, mainly in Britain, coped with natural disasters – particularly floods, storms and other forms of bad weather. I follow an interdisciplinary approach using archaeological and historical sources to research the topic.

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

My seminar looks at an extreme windstorm which occurred in January 1362 in the south of England using documentary as well as structural evidence to reconstruct how this event impacted medieval society. In particular I’ll look at how people reacted in the short term, what they thought about the occurrence of such a high magnitude storm, and how the event was remembered in the years that followed.

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

I’m not too sure. I do fancy living abroad for a few years to escape Britain’s bad weather, so maybe I would live somewhere sunny?

Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?

At the moment it’s the Chronicle of Anonymous of Canterbury, which not only provides some very useful information for my seminar, but is also written by somebody with some very clear theological views that really shine through in the way he recounts events.

Peter’s seminar will take place this Tuesday at 6 pm. We’ll provide tea and biscuits from 5:40 pm, with the seminar starting at 6 pm. Check out our other seminars here. All are welcome.

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Interview with Catherine Ellis

Our next MEMSA speaker is Catherine Ellis (Department of Modern Languages and Culture). Catherine will present ‘Who’s Eating Who? Consumption and Control in the Ideal Eighteenth Century Brothel’ on Tuesday, 10 May at 6 pm at the Durham World Heritage Visitors Centre. In our interview, we discuss libertines, sex, great art, and more:

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

I’m from Rochester, a former Dickensian heartland now famous for a brief flirtation with UKIP. I was born in Chatham, in a former Victorian workhouse, which explains my love of second helpings at dinner and sing-alongs in pubs, and my morbid fear of pitbull terriers.

What brought you to Durham?

I first came to Durham in 2009 to do my BA in French and German, during which time I was taught by my current supervisor and introduced to the wonders of eighteenth-century French literature. Before that happened, I was resolutely opposed to studying anything pre-Zola, but the allure of pornography, satire, and evil libertines was just too much to resist. I went to Oxford for my Masters, but Durham drew me back with its natural beauty and its excellent French department. After spending so many years in the North East, living anywhere that doesn’t have birdsong, good markets, and affordable beer is now simply unthinkable.

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

I’ve a huge soft spot for Rococo art. Give me a day at the Wallace Collection to stare at the Fragonards and the Bouchers and I’ll be a happy woman. I am also grateful to the early modern period for giving me the gifts of tea and coffee culture, without which I would not function as a human being.

What does your research focus on?

My research focuses on literal and metaphorical moments of ingestion in texts depicting sex work in mid- to late-eighteenth century Paris, and explores how the meal provides a moment of tension in which ideas of social, political, gendered, economic and bodily hierarchies and norms can be destabilised. In short, I find out what, why and how people involved in sex work eat, and what it means beyond just filling their stomachs.

What led you to your area of interest?

An excellent module on libertine literature in my fourth year, feminism, and an irrepressible appetite.

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

My paper offers a peek behind the doors of several utopian brothels devised by eighteenth-century French and English writers, and explores how eating and drinking is used to depict and to undermine female power.

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

I would possibly be teaching English abroad, or working in literature and publishing in some way. I care too much about books and learning to stray too far from either. More realistically I would probably have launched myself into the London-centric millennial nightmare at 21, bankrupting myself for a box room in Zone 5, trying to earn sufficient money for food by working as a barista, and writing ‘witty’ medieval and early modern-themed listicles on my lifestyle blog in a quest for social and intellectual fulfilment.

Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?

You can’t beat a bit of Laclos. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is stunning, even if I now find it hard to read without thinking of John Malkovich’s face. It’s a wonderful face, but it’s erased my own mental image of Valmont more than I would like.

Catherine’s seminar will take place this Tuesday, 10 May. Tea and biscuits will be provided from 5:40 pm, with the lecture beginning at the usual time at 6 pm. Check out our other seminars here. All are welcome.

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Interview with Marcus Meer

Augsburg

Our first MEMSA speaker of Easter term is Marcus Meer (Centre for Visual Arts and Culture), who will present ‘The Visuality and Spatiality of Heraldic Conflict in Late Medieval Augsburg’. This seminar will take place on Tuesday, 26 April at 6 pm in the World Heritage Visitors Centre. We discussed his research and latest adventures:

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

I’m originally from Germany, which is where I did my undergraduate degree in history and linguistics at Bielefeld University. Somehow I became more and more interested in medieval history, and suddenly I was doing a masters in medieval history at Oxford. The year after I was working as a research assistant at Münster University, Germany, but I soon felt like coming back to the UK.

What brought you to Durham?

It was a coincidence, really. I was reading a paper by Christian Liddy I really liked, and I was looking for more of his publications online. Then I found his profile on the Durham website, where the sidebar advertised Ph.D. scholarships for visual culture. So I thought, Why not give it a try and apply?

What do you love most about the medieval period?

I think the most interesting thing about the medieval period is its reception in the present. At the same time, it is referred to as a gruesome time what we have sort of overcome through a triumph of reason, or, whenever it suits the argument, it is referred to as the cradle of our Western culture. When I look at medieval sources, the actions and thoughts of medieval people are usually neither fully foreign nor familiar to me, but I enjoy trying to understand them, and the ways in which medieval people tried to communicate them.

What does your research focus on?

My Ph.D. research investigates and compares the use of heraldry as a means of visual communication in the medieval cities of England and Germany. Although heraldry was a ubiquitous element of medieval urban visual culture, it still tends to be seen as an aristocratic phenomenon, while heraldic display in cities remains underexplored.

What led you to your area of interest?

Again, it was quite a coincidence. I was interested in urban history for quite a while, and I came across a history paper which looked at the ‘diary’ of a medieval merchant from Cologne. Part of this diary was also a history of the family, which the merchant explained alongside the development of the family’s coat of arms. It struck me that the historian did not really discuss the use of heraldry in the historiographical argument, and that apparently townspeople were very fond of these signs.

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

I want to discuss the relation of heraldry and urban space. I will be looking at sources from mid-fifteenth to early sixteenth-century Augsburg, in which the display of heraldic signs of the commune within the space of the bishop became a matter of conflict. Heraldic signs were perceived as expressions of the affiliation and legal quality of spaces; and they were perceived and employed to claim and contest urban space.

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

Scary! I’ve always enjoyed organising things and for some reason I find paperwork quite soothing, so perhaps I could do something like conferencing and event management?

Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?

I prefer any town chronicle because they appear so eclectic in terms of their contents. I think they are a great source to look at the things that mattered to medieval chroniclers, in particular things that they thought were noteworthy – so basically anything from urban politics, economic records, and accounts of revolts, to a horse that was hauled up the town hall to have an inside joust and ‘impress the ladies’.

Join us for Marcus’s seminar this Tuesday at 6 pm in the World Heritage Visitors Centre at 7 Owengate. Come out for tea and biscuits at 5:40 pm, and then tune in for the seminar at 6 pm. All are welcome.

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Interview with Niall Oddy

christ-carrying-the-cross-1564

Our final MEMSA speaker of Epiphany term is Niall Oddy (Department of French), who will present ‘Words as Windows into the Past: “Europe” in Early Modern France’. This seminar will take place on Tuesday, 15 March at 6 pm in the World Heritage Visitors Centre. He tells us about his research, favourite past times, and the wonders of Rabelais in our interview below:

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

I’m from Leeds, specifically from a town to the south called Morley. It was separate until it was swallowed into the big city by the 1972 Local Government Act. The British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was born there but he didn’t stick around. Like Rome, Morley is built on seven hills. The similarities end there though. Unless Rome had a burgeoning Victorian textile industry?

What brought you to Durham?

The Cathedral, probably. I fancied moving to a city smaller than Leeds for my undergraduate degree, and I recalled how breathtaking the peninsula and how charming the streets around it were on a brief visit to Durham I’d made when on my way to Hadrian’s Wall. There was a history of air conditioning on Radio 4 as we drove up the A1. Anyway, there was the university’s good reputation too. So I came and stayed and I’m now approaching the end of my Ph.D. here.

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

Most historical periods interest me, to be honest: a desire for escapism and spending too much time on Wikipedia, I guess. What grips me most about the early modern period is the intellectual transformations that take place – the religious upheavals of the Reformation, new social and political settlements, and the ‘discovery’ of the New World – and people’s attempts to grasp the nature of a world that is changing around them. Whilst many of their responses seem to us traditional or archaic, these same people can appear strikingly modern. Rabelais, for instance, didn’t need Derrida or a post-structuralist to tell him that the nature of language is slippery.

What does your research focus on?

I’m working on a study of the concept of Europe in late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth century France. I investigate the surrounding ideas and related vocabulary in a variety of discourses – geographical, historical, literary and so on – in order to examine how Europe was thought about and how the various ideas of Europe were used for political and other purposes.

What led you to your area of interest?

I suppose my research was driven by a desire to excavate the dynamics of the little word ‘nous’ in Renaissance France.

I was interested in how communities define themselves and understand themselves in relation to others. And I was interested in travel writing. When reading Montaigne’s essays on America I was fascinated by his use of the pronoun ‘nous‘ (we) since he never explicitly defines who the ‘nous‘ were. Some critics have suggested that Montaigne was referring to a transnational, maybe European, community. But if that is the case why did he not use the word Europe? So I suppose my research was driven by a desire to excavate the dynamics of the little word ‘nous‘ in Renaissance France.

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

In my paper for MEMSA I’m going to be focussing on the methodology I’ve used in my thesis and hope to set out how, alongside an analysis of the uses of the word ‘Europe’ in French writing of the late-sixteenth century, we can understand and measure the importance of the absence of the word in certain contexts.

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

I’ve done a bit of teaching English as a foreign language and so maybe I would have gone further with that. Or I might have stumbled into a grad scheme. Who knows? I imagine I’d be leading a quiet, provincial life somewhere with a lot of books around me.

Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?

If I were stranded on a desert island I’d want to have the complete works of Rabelais. There is an irresistible intermingling of the bawdy and the erudite, the comic and the serious. I’m not convinced that anyone has written anything better in the last five hundred years.

Join us on Tuesday, 15 March for Niall’s seminar. Come out for tea and biscuits at 5:40 pm, and then tune in for the seminar at 6 pm. We’ll have our Epiphany Social after the seminar. All are welcome.

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