Interview with Sam Bailey

Our next MEMSA seminar will be by Sam Bailey, entitled ‘Disability and Transhumanism in the Works of Scarron and Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin’. This seminar has been postponed until further notice – the blog will be updated when details become available! Until then, read ahead for a fascinating interview about Sam’s work. 

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

I’m from Oxford and my family are from a little village in Derbyshire near Bakewell, of Bakewell tart fame. In the marketplace there’s one shop that sells Bakewell tarts and another that sells Bakewell puddings, which were invented by mistake when someone tried to make a jam tart but messed it up. As luck would have it, the result was delicious. Anyway, the two owners stand outside their shops shaking their fists at each other all day, yelling insults and arguing over whose is better.

What brought you to Durham?

You’ve got to go where the money is. I suppose the supervisors are pretty good too. Last year I bought my supervisor a cardboard cut-out of Grace Jones – his favourite pop star – to decorate his office. He’s away on research leave at the moment so someone else is temporarily using his room but assures me that Grace is still there.

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

Working in the seventeenth century, something that I am in equal parts frustrated by and grateful for is that literature was frequently not published in ways that we would today think of as publishing. For example, I work on poems that were ‘published’ by being recited out loud in cabarets or salons, copied down (sometimes many years later) and circulated surreptitiously and anonymously in manuscript form among closed circles of friends. This leads to lots of wildly different variants of the same poem and of course nobody really knew for sure who wrote what. These manuscript pages were then bound together by collectors in what’s called a recueil or a manuscript miscellany full of poems, essays, songs and plays, mostly anonymous and totally disorganised. As you can imagine, this is both a blessing and a curse for a researcher. It’s also something that’s easy to forget when we’re used to reading scholarly editions of the complete works of any given seventeenth-century poet where the editor has organised, cleaned up, modernised and cross-referenced all the known variants. Although I understand the need for these editions I can’t help but feel they are a misrepresentation of the chaotic, irregular nature of the source material.

What does your research focus on?

I’m interested in representations of disability in seventeenth-century French literature, particularly obscene poetry of the kind that was written and circulated illicitly in cabarets. My thesis reads these poems through the lens of various theoretical understandings of disability and the human body. I find that the poems themselves can teach us as much about the theory as the theory can help to ‘unlock’ some of the complexities of the poems.

What do you plan to focus on in your seminar?

I’m going to talk about one of my favourite poems – a self-portrait by Saint-Pavin – alongside a similar self-portrait, this time in prose, by another author called Scarron who was far more famous and also wrote lyric poetry, though he is/was less well-known for this. I’m hoping to draw out some commonalities and differences with regards to how they self-mythologise as disabled authors writing about their embodied experience. If I have time I’ll then link it all to Montaigne, as an extra special treat for anyone who’s managed to stay awake that long.

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

This question is all-too pertinent during the strikes. Academics are increasingly becoming disenchanted with a profession that has unmanageably high expectations to the point of becoming exploitative, discriminatory and thoroughly unenjoyable. Lots of really great scholars talk about leaving the profession, and indeed do leave it, for these reasons. I have worked for several years as a part-time publishing and research assistant at the Voltaire Foundation, a small academic press in Oxford, so I’m thinking of pursuing publishing as a career option. 

Do you have a favourite medieval/early modern text?

To stretch the definition of ‘text’, I’d say the Recueil Conrart, which is a 50-volume manuscript miscellany named after the man who compiled it. Due to its enormous length (each volume is over 1000 pages long) and eclectic nature it hasn’t really been comprehensively studied so has proven to be quite the untapped goldmine. If I had to choose one poem it would currently be a great little fable by Madame de Villedieu that I recently worked on in class with my translation students. It’s about a cat who runs across the rooftops of Paris and sneaks into houses to observe all kinds of illicit encounters and report back to a gossipy cricket. I like to think that this is what my cat does when I’m not around but she probably just sits there and licks her butt.


Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 12680, 17th century; photo by Sam Bailey.

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