Interview with Olivia Colquitt

Our next seminar will be taken by Olivia Colquitt on the topic of ‘Death and Desire: Mermaids in the Medieval Imagination’. 18:00, 13 June. 

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

I’m from St Helens, a town wedged between Liverpool and Manchester, which is terribly lucky, since my hometown is unfortunately lacking in stuff to do, meaning I can soak up the culture of the big cities. In fact, I studied my BA at Liverpool and its close proximity means that it’s become a second home for me. While you can’t find as many medieval marvels as there are in Durham, the North West of England is certainly not short of historical interest.

What brought you to Durham?

Medieval literature was the first thing to ever truly click with me and I yearned to take things further. Where else could be better to delve deeper into the Middle Ages than Durham? The city’s rich medieval history and the fantastic research taking place at the university made it a no-brainer, and I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to study here.

What is your favourite thing about the medieval/early modern period?

To me, the Middle Ages seem both a fairy-tale and an intensely gruelling period: an age of chivalry and courtly love on the one hand, and one of plague, strife, and fear on the other. I think it’s these blurred margins between reality and fantasy, evoked so compellingly in medieval romance, that have always drawn me in. Looking at the magnificent courts such as Eleanor of Aquitaine’s in Poitiers, for example, one can never quite be sure to what extent fairy-tale is influenced by real life, or real life is emulating romance.

What does your research focus on? 

Having studied both English and French as an undergrad, I’ve always been interested in how texts evolve geographically and temporally. My Masters here at Durham gave me the chance to move further North and track the cultural transmission of ideas in Old Norse literature. I’m currently working on my MA dissertation, which explores the approaches to honour, love, and sovereignty in the French, English, and Norse versions of Yvain. My PhD will examine the French and English Melusine, and look at how monstrosity is linked to identity construction, dynastic legacy, and the conceptualisation of the right to rule.

What do you plan to focus on in your seminar?

Mermaids are such a well-known figure in the modern world, particularly in current fashion (I can’t help noticing all the ‘mermaid hair, don’t care’ t-shirts), but my research has proven these seductive sirens to be highly enigmatic. During my seminar, I’ll be exploring the development of the mermaid throughout the Middle Ages, considering her roots in antiquity, and reflecting upon her symbolic associations.

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

As I said earlier, studying medieval literature ignited a flame in me that I’ve never experienced before, so I find it quite difficult to imagine what else I’d be doing. That said, I would love to write historical novels and offer an insight into the lives of some of my medieval heroes and heroines, such as William Marshall, Empress Matilda, and Jacquetta Woodville.

Do you have a favourite medieval/early modern text?

Although my research hones in on English adaptations of French material, my all-time favourite text is what I like to call an ‘original home-brew’: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While its Arthurian elements and romance motifs link it to a plethora of other texts, this poem is so wonderfully unique. The Green Knight, the beheading game, and the detailed alliterative verse make it such a vivid read that time and time again I find myself turning back to it. I’m even collaborating on an independent animation of it!


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