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.