Interview with Hannah Piercy

Our first seminar of the new year will be delivered by Hannah Piercy on 9th October 2017. As usual tea and biscuits will be served at 17:40 with the seminar starting at 18:00. Below we talked to Hannah about her love of the Lake District and Medieval Romance. 

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

I’m from the Lake District in Cumbria, which I still think is the most beautiful place in the world. I love going walking and cycling when I’m at home, or when I get chance to explore some of County Durham. Even though I spend most of my time indoors reading and researching now, I’m very much a lover of the great outdoors, and I’m still captivated by the beauty of the fells every time I go home.

What brought you to Durham?

I came to Durham for my MA in 2015, and loved it so much that I decided to stay on for a PhD. Durham has such a good reputation for medieval studies, with some fantastic medievalists heading up the English department, so that was definitely one of the things that drew me here. I also wanted to get back up North after spending three years down south for my undergrad degree, and Durham seemed like the ideal place to carry on my studies while being a bit nearer to home.

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

It’s so hard to pick one thing, but I think I have to say the romance genre of literature that flourished in Europe during the medieval period. That’s what I have spent the majority of my five years as a student working on, and I’m still not over the delights of reading a romance text and finding so much that is surprising, ridiculous, and bizarre, yet at the same time so much that feels familiar. The Middle Ages feels very unheimlich [unhomely/uncanny] to me – the combination of the strange and the familiar is for me what makes it such an exciting period to explore.

What does your research focus on?

My research focuses on the representation of gender, relationships, and desire in medieval romance literature, primarily in Middle English but with some Anglo-Norman texts as well. I’m actually in the process of shifting the focus of my PhD topic – after spending a year exploring the topic of female desire, I feel that it is too broad a topic for my PhD, so I’ve decided to shift the focus to look at how obstacles to relationships are overcome in romance literature. In particular, I’m exploring the kinds of impact characters’ gender and social status have on how they go about resolving obstacles to romantic relationships – whether men and women behave differently if the person they are attracted to isn’t interested in them, and what kinds of implications this has for our understandings of gender and class, medieval and modern.

What do you plan to focus on in your seminar?

My seminar focuses on a text I’ve been intrigued by for a number of years, the Middle English Erle of Tolous. In this text, the Earl of Toulouse decides he wants to see for himself if Empress Beulybon, the wife of his enemy, the Emperor Diocletian, is as beautiful as he has heard people say she is. When his presence in the city is betrayed to the Empress, she refuses to give him away to her husband, and instead invites him to see her as she enters her chapel for mass. There’s a peculiar extract where he is watching her through a window of the chapel as she puts on a kind of performance of her beauty for him, and my seminar is really trying to figure out what is happening in this episode, and why it takes place in a chapel. I’ll be comparing this episode with other representations of churches in medieval romance, including some more salacious examples where couples have sex in a religious setting – so hopefully it will be an entertaining as well as an academic talk!

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

I think I’d probably still be doing something literary or arts focused – as one of my housemates is fond of saying, I just ‘love them words’. I actually find proofreading really satisfying, so publishing is definitely a career I’d like to look into if academia doesn’t work out. I also find things like arts education very interesting, and I’ve really enjoyed doing some work experience at my (fantastic) local theatre at home (Theatre by the Lake, Keswick), so I think anything in that kind of sector would appeal to me.

Do you have a favourite medieval/early modern text?

Someone asked me this the other day, at which point I panicked and said Malory’s Morte Darthur. As another friend said, ‘surely you can do better than that’ – which is true but also not true! I actually do love Malory’s Morte Darthur, probably because it’s almost a compendium of romance features, so it contains nearly everything I love about the genre. I love Malory’s insights into the human mind too, especially moments like Elaine of Astolat’s speech where she asks why she shouldn’t love Lancelot, as she is an earthly woman made for earthly love. But when I think about it, there is probably another text which takes the prize for me. It’s The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle – probably an unusual choice, but it’s a text I have always found not only entertaining but thought-provoking. From monstrosity to predatory female sexuality, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle has always provided me with lots of interesting ideas for research, and I think it’s a fascinating text that deserves more recognition than it has received. To add one more text to the list, I’ve really enjoyed reading some of the later romances this year in my research, including William Caxton’s translations from French romances. Paris and Vienne is one that I have particularly enjoyed, and I’m really looking forward to talking about it in my seminar on Monday. It’s pretty mad in places, and includes an episode where the heroine Vienne puts off a rival suitor by placing rotten chicken in her armpits to make her smell disgusting!! If that doesn’t demonstrate what is completely mad and marvellous about medieval literature, I don’t know what does!

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