How to give a good conference paper

Image result for keep calm and conferenceThis week I was invited to speak alongside my medievalist colleague Dr James Sargan at one of the English Faculty’s careers lunches for graduate students on the topic of ‘how to give a good conference paper’. Thank you to Ellen Brewster (English Faculty Grad Teaching and Careers Officer) for the invitation, my fellow speaker James, and all the graduates who came along and asked questions.

I thought I would write up the top tips that I shared and some of the issues that came up in the questions. I’ve been attending conferences and giving papers for almost 15 years now so I have a fair amount of experience but it’s always great to share tips and learn new ideas, so if you have any additional suggestions or tips that have worked for you, please do comment below or tweet me!

The main piece of advice that James and I started with was the importance of making the conference work for you. There are many reasons why you might attend a conference: to get your work out there, to network with peers and senior academics, to learn more about your field or a related field. But it’s also important to think about what you are hoping to get out of the conference for your own research and for your current situation. As a graduate student, it is important to give papers at conferences of course, but it’s also important to get the thesis done! So don’t overstretch yourself and sign up to too many conferences, try to choose them carefully and think about what each one might add to your CV.

I tend to work to the one month rule when I’m thinking about applying for a conference. (And if you’d like to read my post on writing conference abstracts, you’ll find it here). I tend to think that a conference takes me around one month of full work, so if I’m considering whether or not to apply, I think about whether I realistically have that time (and by ‘full work’ I’m thinking in terms of Mon-Fri 9-5, but this can be spread out of course). This is working on the basis that it will take me: one week to do the abstract, two weeks to write the paper, and one week to go to the conference (plus getting organised beforehand, travel, and resting afterwards!). Obviously this varies, depending on whether I’m presenting new research or whether it’s something that I’ve already got. As I have a very busy teaching job and a range of other commitments, do I have a month that I want to dedicate in the next year, for example, to this conference?

When James and I talked about making the conference work for you, one thing we were thinking about was using the conference as a place to test out work in progress. I think that graduate students often assume that a conference paper has to be perfect, finished work. I don’t think this is always the case and personally I find a conference a great place to test ideas and get feedback. (This is especially the case once you’ve finished graduate study and no longer have a supervisor as a first port of call for feedback!) For the most part- and I’ll talk about audience more below- conference attendees are happy to help with suggestions and it’s a great way to test your work in front of an audience of experts who might come up with all sorts of ideas and references that you hadn’t come across before.

A related point is what the conference might lead to– are you proposing to give a paper on a new section of the thesis that you need to get done? If you’re post-PhD, do you want to work up some material that you’d like to publish as an article and you want to get some feedback on it? It’s also worth thinking about whether the conference is already advertising future opportunities. I went to a conference in 2017 for which the organisers had already secured a special issue of a journal, so I knew that- depending on the quality of my own paper!- there might be a publishing opportunity afterwards. Don’t necessarily think about the conference as an end in itself. How will the conference help your written work and your CV? (You can also get advice from your supervisor on this sort of thing and it’s always worth doing this, your supervisor will have plenty of experience on the conference circuit and will know which conferences might be the most productive and useful).

When you’re writing your paper, I think the best strategy is to start by setting up the paper in its context. Is this new research, a work in progress, are you hoping to get some feedback on certain issues or questions? Is this part of your thesis that speaks to the wider argument you are making? Are you trying out a new theory on your material or are you building on something that you’ve explored elsewhere? Starting with some context about you and your work always helps to orient the audience and to get them on side! And it’s a nice easy way into the talk too, so can help with the nerves!

The audience you are speaking to could be quite broad or very specialised, depending on the conference itself and the theme. Take this into account when you are planning your paper and thinking about the level of detail to include. If it’s a broad conference, don’t assume that everyone will be coming into the room with the same level of expertise! I always find it useful to define key terms, theories, and texts anyway, regardless of audience, as it helps me to make sure that I am being precise about these issues for my own benefit. What are the key pieces of information that the audience needs to know in order to follow your paper effectively?

You also need to think carefully about the scope of the paper. For the most part, the 20 minute paper is the most common format (although many conferences also include roundtables and shorter, ‘lightning’, talks these days too). The key thing is not to cram too much in! You can’t give your entire thesis in a paper! It may be that the paper exemplifies your overall argument in the thesis- and certainly you can make that point- but in my experience you can really only discuss 3 things in detail in a paper. That might be 3 examples from the text that you are close reading; 3 stages of argument which might start with a theory, apply it to a text, and then discuss what this means for the critical field… etc etc. There are all sorts of permutations but I find it useful to have this in mind as a structure.

If I’m using powerpoint, I might have a slide which states the structure of the talk, so: the key question I am asking or exploring, the key examples, the key text and theorists. It’s always helpful when you’re listening to a talk if the speaker signposts where they are going and repeats those stages of argument throughout so that you know where you are in the talk. (The title of each powerpoint slide can also signal that).

In terms of powerpoint and whether to have a script to speak to notes, this is a very personal issue and depends on you. I always use a script. This is because I can control the timing more easily and it enables me to be precise about what I want to say (I tend to waffle if I go off script!). It also means that I feel slightly less nervous because I know that I just have to deliver what I have in front of me! I always practice my paper a number of times though so that the delivery isn’t boring and also so that I am absolutely sure I have the timing right. Powerpoint is helpful for delineating structure, as I said above, but it can also be great if you need to show images or key passages of text that you are close reading.

Sticking to time is such a crucial part of giving a paper! For one thing, it’s basic good manners to the chair, your fellow panelists, audience, and conference organisers. Please do stick to time, there’s nothing worse than having to cut some off when you are chairing, or indeed to have your paper cut off before you’ve made your key arguments! For a 20 minute paper, I tend to plan to speak for 17-18 minutes because then that gives me time in case I do any ad-libbing or in case the session starts slightly later, it just gives me a bit of wriggle room!

When I write the paper, I write it in my speaking voice. (And yes, I also script in the jokes!) You will have to speak the paper aloud and you need to be able to explain things in a clear and straightforward way for your audience. (Personally, I’m a fan of reading aloud for any kind of writing and this is why my tutorials in Oxford still involve the students reading passages of their essays aloud- it really helps you to edit/critique your own work and makes you ‘own’ your own statements. There’s no where to hide when you have to say things aloud!) I would say that my speaking voice for conference papers is slightly less formal than my academic writing (but without losing the precision of argument of course).

One of the things that James and I were asked in the questions was how to be a good audience member and how to deal with audience questions. These two issues go hand in hand I think. It can be terrifying getting up in front of a room of experts to give your first paper but don’t forget that you are an expert in your own research so have confidence in the work you have done. I have to say that I tend to scan the audience and if I see someone smiling and nodding, I may direct a significant portion of the paper at them! So be a friendly audience member and support your fellow speakers!

On the subject of asking questions, this is a tricky one. It can be very difficult to come up with a question, particularly when you are new to conferences, and for a very long time I never used to ask questions (partly also because I was scared to draw attention to myself!) But as a speaker, there’s nothing worse than no one wanting to ask you a question or even offer a comment, that can feel very dispiriting. Damian Fleming was having a discussion on twitter this very weekend about the ‘it’s more a comment than a question’ response, and actually, if it’s genuine, this can be very helpful. If you can think of a relevant article or have another example that might be useful to the speaker, do offer that up, either in the questions or perhaps afterwards in private conversation or by email. I have often found it helpful if someone says, ‘I came across something similar here’ or ‘I found xyz’s work on this topic helpful’. That sort of genuine feedback and assistance can be very valuable. Just don’t do the ‘asking a question and making it all about your own research’ thing! That’s bad manners and isn’t helpful to the speaker!

Genuine questions that will help the research are also always welcome, as long as they’re not combative! Obviously we all aspire to academic rigour and that’s an important part of the conference, but there are constructive ways of asking such a question. (‘I was really interested in what you said about xyz, could you explain that further or how does that argument account for xyz?’) It can be helpful- for audience members too!- if you signal places in the paper where there might be questions you would like to be asked. So, ‘I haven’t got time to discuss xyz here, but I’d be happy to talk more about it in the questions’. If a speaker does that, it’s nice if someone follows it up! As an audience member, it can be nice to ask a general question based on the panel’s shared theme. Perhaps you noticed some interesting connections between the papers, you could ask the speakers to say something about that.

In terms of answering questions, I think that the best advice is to be honest! I have definitely been asked questions where I just have no idea whatsoever about the context or text, it might be something on the edges of my research, or I haven’t yet had chance to explore that angle. Just say so! And thank the attendee for the question and say that you will certainly explore that further. Sometimes, if appropriate, I have said that I don’t know but I wondered if anyone else on my panel or the room did. (As more experienced conference goers, it can be helpful if we look out for these sorts of situations and help people out if we can!) Give it your best shot to think about and answer the question on the spot, but don’t worry too much if you can’t come up with something stellar there and then- it might be that at the coffee break you might have a chat with the questioner and more ideas might emerge. It’s really difficult to go straight into questions after you’ve just delivered your paper!

If anyone has any further tips or suggestions for asking or answering conference questions, please do let me know. Or indeed on this topic in general. Thanks again to Ellen Brewster for inviting me to speak on this topic and to my colleague James Sargan for his excellent talk and all the discussion in the questions. And good luck if you are giving your first paper in the near future!

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The Bumper Blogpost of Conference Planning

In April this year, I co-organised a major three-day conference (Margery Kempe Studies Image result for keep calm and conferencein the Twenty-First Century) and I thought it would be useful to write a post on my blog about my experience of planning and running this event. I had some experience of running a conference before as I did the domestic arrangements for the 2017 Medieval Architectural Representations conference at University College, Oxford, but I didn’t do the finances for that and I wasn’t responsible for thinking about the overall shape of the conference (apart from helping to choose the presenters). Organising a conference is an important part of academic life and it’s a great experience for your CV, but it is also a lot of hard work! I would say that I am pretty organised person and I definitely planned ahead when it came to organising the Margery Kempe conference but even I found that there were things I hadn’t thought of, things that took much longer than anticipated, and things that I wish I had done differently! Thanks to all the folk on twitter who contributed their thoughts to this discussion and while this post is not exhaustive, I hope it will help first-time conference planners and will give a realistic insight into the things that you need to think about if you are organising an academic conference.

NB this is based on my personal experience in the humanities- please do comment below or tweet me @lauravarnam if you have other suggestions and a big thank you to everyone on twitter who offered their thoughts!

Time scale

Give yourself plenty of time to organise your event! For our three day conference, I think my co-organiser and I started to organise it seriously about 18months before the event but we had been discussing the possibility at least six months before that. In part this is because you need to invite and confirm keynote speakers who are often booked up well in advance (- even myself, I don’t think I want to take on anything else now before October 2019!! I have enough things on my plate!). And you will also need to check if your preferred venue is available. But also you need to have time not only to organise the conference but also to apply for funding– and this is crucial. You’ll need to check out the deadlines for funding applications and also when outcomes of those applications are likely to be known, because it can be the case that if you don’t get the funding, you can’t go ahead with some aspects of the conference, so you need time not only to apply but to wait for the outcome. Also, don’t underestimate how long it will take you to fill in these applications!!

We put our ‘call for papers’ out in July 2017 with the deadline of October 2017 (for more on this see below). It took about a month to make the decisions about who to accept, if I remember rightly, so we wrote to participants in November 2017 (this meant that people knew 4-5 months in advance if their paper had been accepted). We then posted the programme on our website in January 2018 and the conference took place in April 2018. (We had planned out the programme much earlier in terms of timings, numbers of sessions, breaks etc, but we ‘populated’ the programme with the speakers etc in the Dec/Jan). We posted abstracts on the website too so that people could see what they were getting when they came to the conference!

When timing registration, you will need to know from your venue how far in advance they need numbers for catering. For our venue, I think it was 7 working days in advance. I closed registration 10 working days in advance so that I had chance to compile the figures. If I remember rightly, we had registration open for a month but for the first week to ten days, it was speakers only (this was because we had a maximum number for registration of 70 and we had about 30 speakers, so we needed to make sure that they registered first!). I had to send the information to be put on the website for registration (which was done through my university’s online store) a couple of weeks in advance, so I needed to make sure that I knew the registration fee etc in good time (for more on finances see below).

Keynote Speakers

In the humanities, keynote speakers are experts in the primary area of the conference and they will be asked to give a longer talk (usually 45mins plus questions). If you have parallel sessions, the keynote or plenary talks are the ones that everyone attends. They are important for setting out the parameters of the conference and speaking to key themes, and they often ‘open’ or ‘close’ a conference. At the Gender and Medieval Studies conference earlier this year in Oxford, there was an Early Career keynote speaker and I thought this was an excellent idea. It’s a great way to showcase new work in the field and to make conferences more inclusive.

For the Kempe conference, we had four keynote sessions over the three days. One of them was a collaborative plenary in which two scholars who frequently speak and write together gave their keynote together, which was fantastic. As well as including their own new research, the opening keynote speaker set up key ideas about the conference (reevaluating Margery Kempe in the modern world, the current state of the field) and the closing keynote speaker offered concluding remarks based on the discussion over the three days. Doing this kind of keynote, especially the concluding remarks, is a lot of hard work! So when you invite someone to give a keynote lecture, it is best practice to ask the potential speaker if they would be happy to do that particular ‘job’ as part of their keynote.

In the UK, when you invite keynote speakers, you normally cover their costs as a way of thanking them for their hard work. This includes their accommodation, travel expenses, and waiving the conference registration fee (so you therefore pay for their catering while they are there). So you will need to factor these costs into the finances.

When you write to invite a keynote speaker, make sure you include all the important details about the conference (date, location), your vision for the conference, if you would like them to talk about anything in particular, and set out what you will be able to offer them in terms of covering their costs. The most important thing is emailing the keynote speakers in plenty of time! We asked our speakers at least a year in advance and we suggested the proposed conference date. Once they confirmed that they were able to make that date, we then confirmed the venue etc . Without the keynotes, the conference can’t really start to get off the ground!

Timing and length

There are a number of things to bear in mind when you’re deciding when to hold a conference. As well as your own commitments, and giving yourself plenty of time to organise it, you should check the dates well in advance with keynote speakers and take account of things like term dates (it can be very difficult for academics to get away at certain points of the academic year, and some universities have limited accommodation/facilities for conferences during term as of course they are being used by current students and for teaching). Term dates vary in the UK, Europe, and US of course, so bear this in mind in terms of who your likely audience is in terms of participants too. Try not to clash with major conferences! In my field, that’s the Leeds International Medieval Congress in the first week of July and the big medieval conference at Kalamazoo in the second or third week in May. This year was the New Chaucer Society meeting in Toronto in the second week in July too. It may be that you want to ‘piggy back’ onto a major conference, though- if everyone is in the UK for Leeds, you could have your conference a few days before or after (although bear in mind that people are tired after a big conference too!). You won’t be able to please everyone in terms of timing but you can try!

You should also think about what time of day the conference will start and finish as this will have an impact on how many night’s accommodation people need or whether they can travel home on the same day etc.

You will also need to think about how long the conference should be in terms of days. A one day colloquium might be enough if you are starting off a major project (like the Fan Fiction Theory and the Premodern World colloquium that I attended in Oxford last week). Or for a major reassessment of a field, two or three days might be better. We did three full days for the Kempe conference and this also enabled us to have a dramatic performance on one of the evenings and a conference dinner on another. Think about whether you want to have excursions, evening entertainment, or even more relaxed informal sessions one afternoon. I had a great suggestion on twitter (from Elaine Treharne) about small symposiums of around 25 invited speakers, with research questions circulated beforehand. There are lots of possibilities so do think creatively!


You may not have a huge amount of choice in terms of venue because of the options available in your institution but you should certainly make sure that the venue is accessible (see accessibility below) and that it is suitable for your purposes. We ran our conference at my college, University College, and the best lecture room that we had had a maximum capacity of 80, so that had implications for the numbers of attendees. There was also a seminar room near to the lecture theatre that we could use for tea/coffee breaks and lunches, and there was a foyer/entrance hall that we could use for the registration desk. There were two sets of toilets nearby and a lift. The lecture room had all the relevant AV equipment (see below). There were lockable cloakrooms for delegates to leave bags and coats. There was a water cooler in the room.

Types of Session

In the humanities, we usually have the following:

Keynote papers: 45/50mins with questions (1 hour session)

Three paper panel: 3 x 20min papers with questions (1 hour plus at least 15mins for questions, if not half an hour- especially if people run over or there are any issues with the session, i.e. technical problems!)

Roundtable: often 4-5 participants who speak for 10mins each plus questions (40-50mins for talks and then 20-30 for questions and discussion, or even more since discussion is the primary purpose of a roundtable)

More recently I have seen conferences doing ‘lightning talks’ where a small group of participants talk for 7mins and then there’s discussion.

There is also the ‘poster session’ where individuals produce a colour poster of their research (usually A2 size or bigger) and stand their their poster to discuss their research over refreshments. We did this at the Kempe conference and it worked very well. A poster can be a good way of articulating key research questions for work-in-progress projects and I think presenters can get a lot out of discussions with delegates.

Another great idea that I can across at a conference I went to and then used at the Architectural Representations conference, is the ‘collaborative session’. We did this on the final afternoon of the conference and it was an 1 hour and 30mins session. Everyone participated and we divided the delegates into groups of 8 and gave them each 4 key questions to discuss. The questions were the key points from the conference (i.e. ‘how do we define architectural representation’, etc) and we encouraged everyone to contribute their own ideas from their own fields and research. This was in part to include the delegates who were not giving papers so that we could make use of all the expertise in the room. The session was a really good way of pulling together the key themes that had emerged from the conference and we asked each group to write their key points down on post-it notes which at the end of the session, we then stuck to flipcharts to pool all the ideas. These were then available for people to look at during the coffee break before the final plenary. Another good reason to do this as organisers, is if you are planning to produce a volume of essays based on the conference! You can make use of the conference audience to answer key questions that you might want to address in the introduction to such a volume (things like definitions, methodologies, any drawbacks to the topic etc).

Call for Papers and Choosing Abstracts

You can see our call for papers on the Kempe website here. The call for papers is important to get right because you are setting out the aims/objectives for the conference and offering ideas for the areas that potential papers might address. We asked for abstracts to be no more than 300 words plus a short bio of the speaker.

We were overwhelmed by the response and we had to make some difficult decisions about whose paper to accept. My best advice for writing a call for papers is to be as precise as you can be about what you want the abstracts to do, as this makes it easier to then choose between them!

As a result of having to make these decisions, I wrote a post on my blog here about how to write conference abstracts (I rather wish I had done this before the conference!) For me and my co-organiser, it was important that the abstract conveyed the paper’s argument clearly, that it was relevant to the overall theme of the conference, and that it was presenting new and original material.

But when you’re putting together a conference programme, you also need to think about the coherence of the overall programme and how the sessions are going to work. If you are going for the ‘three paper’ panel format, you need to think about how the panels will fit together. We ended up with two ‘four paper’ panels at the conference (which were slightly longer with more time for questions). We also introduced the poster session as we want to give more people the chance to present their work at the conference. We were also planning to have a ‘collaborative’ session for discussion, as described above, but in the end we decided to have another paper session because we were already turning down at least 15-20 people (we had 25 slots for papers in the conference) and we decided we just had to have more people to speak!

It was really difficult to choose the final 25 and we did have to reject some very good papers either because they didn’t fit in with the conference theme as a whole or with the particular sessions that we then decided on. We also had to turn down colleagues and friends, and that was tough! But as organisers, you have to make tough decisions on a purely academic basis. We also wanted to make sure that we had a diverse range of participants, from grad students and ECRs to more senior academics, and in terms of gender/race, and in terms of academic approach. We were particularly looking for ‘new approaches’ to Kempe in the 21st century and so we were deliberately flexible about what those new approaches might be. One piece of advice I had in response to my twitter thread was that as conference organisers you can’t just accept the papers that fit with your own work or your own ideological standpoint. You have to make sure that the conference is open to a variety of academic viewpoints and methodological approaches.

When we had finally chosen the papers we grouped them together and gave the sessions titles to indicate the shared themes of the papers (often this was quite broad, like ‘theorising identity’, ‘sights, sounds, senses’, ‘dialogues’, ‘historicity’, ‘performances’).

The Programme

One thing you will need to think about when you are planning is whether you want parallel sessions or not. For the Kempe conference, we didn’t as we wanted everyone to share the whole conference experience and to be a part of the conversation throughout.

If you do have parallel sessions, think carefully about how you divide the speakers and what impact this may have on the likely audience. Don’t programme famous senior scholars against postgrads or ECRs for example!

You should also make sure that you have plenty of tea/coffee breaks at the conference and plenty of time for lunch! Conferencing is tiring and thirsty work, so make sure that you have breaks to refuel and also for participants to chat informally and get to know each other. Networking is really important at conferences and you want to make sure that people get plenty of chance to meet each other. In fact, you might want to start with the breaks and plan around them when you start to brainstorm the programme!

If you have a conference dinner, you might want to have a break beforehand so that people can change too.

Check out the programme for our conference to see how we worked out the timings here.

Chairing sessions 

You will need people to chair the sessions and keynotes. You can do some of that yourself but you should also ask others to chair too- it’s good experience for grad students so don’t just ask established academics. I was running around during the conference a lot too and in fact had to get someone to substitute for me as chair for one session because I had to go and meet the performers who had arrived to rehearse for their play later that day!

Make sure you give chairs clear instructions in advance and set out your expectations at the beginning of the conference too. We asked chairs to just introduce speakers very briefly- name, institution, current research if relevant- but we had slightly longer introductions for the keynotes. We wanted people to stick to time very clearly and we said that at the beginning of the conference. It’s so important that as a speaker, you time your paper before the conference and you don’t take up more time than you have been allotted as it is unfair to other speakers. It can be a good idea as organisers to have a ‘five minutes’ sign to wave discreetly at speakers but chairs should be prepared to interrupt and ask speakers to stop if they are going over time.

It’s also important for chairs to manage the questions at the end of the session effectively- try not to let one person dominate the questions, be prepared to ask a question yourself if there are no hands up immediately (I always note down questions as I listen if I am chairing a session), and try to make sure that the questions are distributed equally between speakers (if I find that one of the speakers hasn’t had a question, I will ask one myself- it’s horrible to get no questions or comments!).

Conference Badges, Stationery, and Swag

At our conference, we decided to just include names on conference badges, with a space to include preferred pronouns. This gives people the choice to include their pronouns if they wish to, rather than making this a requirement- as organiser, I put my pronouns on my badge and the postgrads running the registration desk told participants at registration to customise their badges as they chose.

Similarly, we encouraged participants to put their twitter handle on their badges. One good suggestion I received on twitter was to have a traffic light system on badges for whether you are happy to be tweeted or not (ie red for no, yellow for yes to paper but no to photographs, green for yes to both), so this is something worth considering (more on twitter etiquette and policies below). Chairs should also check with speakers and announce at the beginning of sessions whether papers can be tweeted or not.

We chose not to include titles or institutional affiliations to make the atmosphere more welcoming for all and so as to not discriminate in any way by career stage or institutional affiliation. A great suggestion I had on twitter was to include interests on the badge instead (topics like gender or queenship, authors like Chaucer or Margery Kempe etc). This is a great way for people to start conversations at conferences, rather than the potentially difficult ‘where are you from’, ‘what stage are you at’ etc. Even ‘what do you work on’ can be a fraught question, especially if you are feeling under pressure (as a grad student or an ECR finishing a first book, etc), so ‘what are your interests’ seems like the perfect question to me!

On the practicalities of badges, I personally prefer one with a safety pin. Badges that clip on can be very difficult for women’s clothing! And while lanyards are nice, if you are a short woman like me, they can come down to your waist and make for very odd interactions with fellow attendees when they look to see your name!

We wanted to keep our stationery budget fairly low but you will need to think about whether you want to provide conference folders, paper, and pens (this can be done fairly cheaply if you buy things in bulk or online). Your college or university might have branded folders, notebooks, pens that they can give you as part of the conference package for using their facilities.

Conferences ‘packs’ should include:

  • welcome letter (with contact details for the organisers, important info such as conference hashtag and twitter account, accessibility info, codes to enter buildings etc)
  • map of conference location
  • name badge
  • programme
  • abstracts of papers (we decided to make these available online a couple of weeks before the conference to save on paper)
  • advertising flyers (we included flyers from publishers offering discounts on relevant books- some publishers will also make a donation to the conference in return for including their flyers, we used this money to add to graduate travel bursaries; flyers for relevant conferences coming up etc)
  • forms for graduate bursaries or expenses reimbursement as relevant

On the question of conference swag, this will depend on your budget! We’re talking things like the conference tote bag or pen or badge. For the Margery conference, we produced ‘Team Margery’ badges (very cheap to do via this excellent eBay site). We were going to do tote bags but decided to forgo the expense and put the money into graduate bursaries instead.

AV Equipment and Internet Access

Check and double check, and check again!! If you have delegates using powerpoint, get them to send their presentations to you in advance of the conference so that you can preload them onto the laptop in the room and do make sure that you have tested the laptop, projector, and any other equipment that you might need. Carry a USB stick with you if someone needs to transfer a presentation or has a last minute updated version that they want to upload. Make sure that people know if they can use their own laptop or not. The policy for the room we were using was that we had to use the equipment provided so we had to transfer all presentations on a USB stick. If you can, make sure that you have access to a printer or photocopier to do last minute printing of handouts although ideally, participants should bring those with them (make sure that you email delegates just before the conference to confirm numbers so that they know how many handouts to bring). You should also check if the laptop has internet access in case anyone needs to show online materials. We also had a delegate who needed sound so I made sure that I had tested the speakers and knew how to use them.

You should also make sure that you can provide wifi internet access for participants. Many UK delegates will be able to log in automatically via eduroam but others won’t (including academics who don’t currently have a university affiliation) so make sure that you have access codes that you can issue to individuals.


Make sure you ask for dietary requirements as a part of registration and make sure you give all of this information to your caterers and check with them very carefully that they are able to fulfil the requirements listed. You should also keep a check on this during the conference itself.

Make sure there is plenty of water available throughout the conference and when you are planning the catering, do think about the following:

As well as tea/coffee, make sure there are caffeine free alternatives- decaf tea/coffee, peppermint tea, etc- but also plenty of water, fruit juice, elderflower presse etc.

This also goes for drinks receptions- it’s not all about the alcohol! Make sure there are nice alternatives to wine/beer so that the event is inclusive.

Snacks– now I love a biscuit or a sugary snack, and a piece of cake will set me up nicely, but it’s also important to have other snacks too (including gluten-free). It’s great to have fruit available, both fresh fruit and also dried fruit and nuts make good snacks as well.

Lunches– this is dependent on your budget of course but think about whether you want to do hot food or sandwiches, or buffet style. I’ve been to conferences that have had excellent sandwiches and wraps, plus plenty of fruit, salad, and some sweet desserts too. At the one day colloquium I just attended, it was buffet style with cold meats, veggies with dips, quiche, crisps etc. There’s lots of possibilities!

Committee and Helpers

I would definitely recommend having a buddy to help organise the conference! (Thanks to my partner in crime, Laura Kalas Williams!) Having two or three of you to organise means that you might have access to two or three different institutions in terms of where to hold the conference, funding you can apply for, etc. It’s also essential for sharing the workload and having someone else to discuss major decisions with (such as which abstracts to accept!). You can also help each other keep on track with what needs doing and if one of you is under pressure, the other can take over and vice versa.

You might also want some extra people to help during the conference itself- manning the registration desk, showing people to rooms, meeting latecomers, doing last minute photocopying, and just being an extra person for delegates to talk to if they have questions. We employed two graduate students as helpers and through our generous funders, we were able to pay them an hourly rate as well as waiving their conference fee which I think is a fair recompense for their help. (Grad students are often exploited because it’s ‘good experience’ for them but I was keen for them to be paid for their work).

You should also make it very clear that if any delegates are experiencing any problems or any form of harassment, that they should come and speak to you about it. I was once harassed at a conference and I was too scared to speak to the organisers (I was a grad student and lacking in confidence- I did email the organisers after the event and they said that I should have spoken to them at the time, but they were senior male professors and I didn’t feel able to do so. Perhaps if it had been made explicit that I could have spoken to them, I might have done so… Obviously we always hope to foster positive environments where harassment does not happen, and making the procedure clear for reporting problems is a part of this).


This bit is complicated!! Do take advice on this if you have a department finance officer or if there are conference planners in your university. I had an excellent conference manager in my college who was able to advise on all sorts of aspects of the process and the English Faculty finance officer was fantastic in handling the money and paying the bills for us. A big thank you to both of them for their assistance!

NB you should not be handling the money yourself! Someone in admin at your university should be able to do this for you- make sure you make enquiries at the beginning of the process. Most universities have some sort of ‘online store’ where people can pay to register for the conference and that money will then go into a university account (in my case it went to the English Faculty who then handled all the bills). You will need to send the relevant information (registration fee, optional extras, information required- like dietary requirements, opening/closing dates for registration) to the people who run the store in plenty of time for them to set it up.

You will need to make sure that you can cover the costs of the conference and this will come from the conference fee but also from funding that you have applied for (- and funding can also cover graduate/ECR bursaries below).

Costs include:

Aside from the individual catering costs for each delegate (teas/coffees, lunches, and dinner / wine reception depending on what you are planning), these are the costs that you will need to account for to start with:

  • travel, accommodation, registration fee for keynote speakers (discussed above)
  • room hire (this can be very expensive!)
  • stationery (discussed above)
  • helpers during the period of the conference itself (we waived their registration and also paid them an hourly rate)
  • reduction of registration fee for graduate students
  • any additional activities involved in the conference (in our case, the costs of the theatrical performance plus the performers’ travel expenses)

For our conference, we applied for lots of funding so that we could cover the majority of the expenses noted above already, before any money came in from registration fees. Anything that wasn’t covered by that funding, needed to be absorbed into the cost of registration, so those were the ‘additional costs’. Be aware that some funding will only cover certain kinds of costs. I.e one of our funders wouldn’t cover catering but was happy to cover travel expenses and accommodation; one funder wouldn’t cover the theatrical performance that was an extra part of the conference; none of the funders would cover the stationery so that became an ‘additional cost’.

Registration fees for each individual delegate then covered their individual catering plus a portion of the ‘additional costs’. The catering costs for our conference were the teas/coffees and lunches. The conference dinner was an optional extra. Our wine reception was very generously funded by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship.

When you are calculating the registration price, you will need to think about how many delegates need to attend in order for you to break even and cover your costs. For example, say it costs £50 per delegate for their catering but your additional costs are £500, if you set registration at £70 per delegate, then 25 people need to attend for you to break even (£500 divided by 20). And of course that is 25 people paying full price. If you decide that graduates/ECRs should only pay £60 and ten graduates register, you still need another 20 full price registrations to make back the £500. (I also built in a slight buffer to cover any unanticipated costs and that was lucky because we had one cost that I thought was covered from one pot of money but it turned out they wouldn’t cover catering, so I had to absorb an extra £110 at the last minute!) Do take advice on the finances from your university’s finance officers / conference planners. This is all based on my personal experience and I am not a trained finance person!!

Graduate/ECR Bursaries

We did two things to make the conference more accessible for graduates and ECRs. We reduced the registration rate (£60 rather than £85) and we had travel bursaries that we distributed between applicants after the conference. As part of this, we had an optional donation during the registration process so that those wanted to could make a voluntary payment of £10 to add to the bursary pot (I borrowed this idea from the Gender and Medieval Studies conference, it’s a great idea). We also had specific money towards graduate bursaries from two of our funders (the University of Oxford’s John Fell Fund an the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literatures), thank you to both of them for that. Do try to make as much effort as you can to offer reduced registration or travel bursaries, it really does help!

Conference Dinner

One thing to consider is the conference dinner. Expense is a key consideration here as well as making sure that the food will be suitable for all requirements. An expensive conference dinner can mean that graduate students and ECRs cannot afford to attend. You should think about whether the conference dinner is included in the registration fee or as an optional extra (I think it’s probably better to make it an optional extra because of expense).


Alicia Spencer-Hall and Alex Lee have put together a brilliant document on accessibility so do check it out here: Making Medieval Conferences More Accessible

Website and Twitter

We set up a conference website and associated gmail email account (you’d be amazed how many emails you amass, it’s best to have a separate account to keep them organised!). On the conference website we posted the call for papers, programme, info about postgrad/ECR bursaries, how to get to the venue, registration details, how to contact us. You can check out the website here to see how we set that up. In retrospect, I would also add twitter info and guidelines, and accessibility info here too.

We set up a conference twitter account (@ConfMKempe) and we also had a hashtag that we publicised way in advance of the conference (#MK21st). Tweeting is an important part of accessibility– those who cannot attend can still follow the conversation and participate. If it’s possible (and it wasn’t in our case), some conferences are now live streaming panels (I’m thinking of the excellent initiative at the Leeds International Medieval Congress which live streamed the panel on disability and accessibility in the academy which was made available on Facebook- here if you’d like to catch up).

It’s important to have a policy for twitter which is made clear to audience members. I went to a workshop recently in which we were asked not to tweet, partly to create a safe space for open, honest, and provisional discussion of challenging topics, and for some meetings, a non-tweeting policy is the right one. For many conference though, twitter is a key part of the academic practice (and in fact just this week I saw an example of a conference actually taking place on twitter rather than in real life, as it were! I’m very intrigued to see how this will work- to find out more check out the War Through Other Stuff twitter account). If you are going to encourage participants to tweet, make sure that you make it clear that speakers and attendees can opt out of having their papers tweeted and/or photographs taken. (See the traffic light system discussed under ‘conference badges’ above).

During the conference

You will be busy!! You will be running around organising things and making sure that things run smoothly. You may have to miss sessions and you will exhausted! But it’s your responsibility to ensure that everyone else is having a great time!

You may not want to give a paper at your own conference because of how much you will have to do, so bear this in mind when you are thinking about the planning and programming.

I had a little emergency kit with me during the conference- bottle of water, paracetamol, cereal bar (and chocolate stash) in case I didn’t get lunch- as well as important things like USB stick, spare pens, spare maps of the college, cash just in case, phone charger (and my new favourite thing, my portable power ‘juice tube’ that has enough charge to charge my mobile up once!). I also made sure that I had the phone numbers for the college lodge (our porters are also trained in first aid) and for the conference manager and domestic bursary for any problems with catering etc.

After the conference

You will be exhausted and need a break!! But then you will need to wrap up the admin, in particular the financial admin. Although it’s tempting to think that everyone is done by this point, there is important work still to do, so try to get on it asap! Make sure you thank your speakers and participants. Write up a blogpost summarising the key takeaways from the conference (mine is here). Write any reports that are required by the funding bodies. And get those bills paid and expenses claims sorted! If you have forms that keynotes need to fill in and sign in hard copy, give those out during the conference and get them back asap. Get graduates students applying for travel bursaries to do the same otherwise these things can take a long time to sort out (- I speak from experience and apologise for the length of time it took me to clear up some of the admin after the conference, although a couple of things were out of my control!)

A big thank you to everyone who helped me to organised my conference: my Margery Kempe ‘other half’, Laura Kalas Williams; Lila Arezes and the team at University College, Oxford; Katie MacCurrach in the English Faculty at Oxford; Sian Witherden and Hannah Lucas who were our graduate helpers; all the funders for their generous support (University College, Oxford; University of Oxford’s John Fell Fund; Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literatures; Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship); and all the fantastic participants at the conference.

And a big thank you to everyone who commented on this issue on twitter! Please comment below if you have any suggestions or thoughts to add!

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Reflections on Rejection, Revision, and Resubmission

Ariadne weeping

Ariadne weeping (Huntington MS HM 60)

Rejection sucks. I think we can all agree on that. And rejection in an academic context especially sucks. Job applications, grant applications, and research submissions. And I think this is because- however much we know that our real selves are not determined by the outcome of our academic work- these kinds of rejections feel personal. Blood, sweat, tears, and hours of work go into every application, every article, every book proposal, and it is really difficult to separate the way we feel about ourselves from the way we feel about our academic work. Sometimes, academia feels like this:

Toy Story meme

I know because I’ve been there! So what I want to do in the post- which I’ve been promising on twitter for a long time!- is to think a bit about rejection and academic feedback in terms of academic articles and to offer some advice, both my own and that of the excellent twitter hive mind, for how to deal with rejection and how to approach revisions plus top tips for how to deal with reviewers’ feedback and how to put things into perspective.

An important caveat here is that, as ever, I am writing from my own personal experience- and I recognise that I am writing from a position of privilege as I do have a permanent job. The situation for PhD students and ECRs is very different now from when I finished my DPhil and I am aware that what my teaching job has given me (in some ways) is time. It took me ten years to write my monograph but I was employed throughout that period (and for more on the ‘journey’ that was my monograph, see this rather long post here!). I have also had a lot of fantastic support along the way but sometimes it has felt rather lonely too, and this is where the amazing, generous, and supportive community of #medievaltwitter really came into its own. So one thing that I actively try to do is to pay that forward and support others, whether that is by face-to-face mentoring in Oxford, letting people read my book proposal (hit me up if you think it would help!), and offering to read and give feedback on academic work (again, let me know if you need a second pair of eyes on something medieval and if I can help, I will!). And I also try to write useful posts in this blog that as well as offering personal reflections, also give top tips and useful advice. Many of which in this case came from the twitter hivemind, so thanks to everyone who replied to my tweets a month or so ago on this topic.

It began many years ago… The story of the article that I thought would never see the light of day!

My impetus for writing this post comes from the fact that this year I had an article on Margery Kempe published that has been through a number of different incarnations before it finally came out in this form in Nottingham Medieval Studies:

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 14.56.21

So I thought I would start by talking a bit about how my article got to this point, as one of things that isn’t visible when you see a new academic publication is its back story! My article started out more than ten years ago as a chapter of my DPhil thesis! When I reshaped the thesis into a book, I ended up removing all the Margery Kempe material to make way for more relevant things (more on this here) but I had always thought that chapter 3 of the thesis, on Margery Kempe and her parish church, could work as a stand alone article. I wrote it up as an article of around 8,000 words and sent it to a journal about two years after finishing the DPhil, and I had it read by a professor who works on Kempe before I sent it. The professor seemed to like it but the journal wrote back after they had received one reader’s report and said that there were lots of problems with the article. I can’t remember the specifics because I was so traumatised by the negative feedback (which probably wasn’t phrased all that negatively actually!), that I immediately put the offending piece of work in a deep drawer and resolved never to think of it again. This probably wasn’t the best idea! I probably should have addressed the feedback and written back to the journal, and then they may have sent it out to a second reader, but I didn’t feel confident enough to do this so I just left it…

And left it… and then a couple of years after that, I decided that I really should try to do something with it. After all, I still fundamentally thought that I was on to something with Margery Kempe’s relationship with her parish church. In the original article, I had basically hung the argument on two quotations from Kempe scholarship that I was doggedly determined to disprove (you know that excited moment you get when writing a thesis, when you find something that someone has said and you go, ‘Aha! You are so wrong and my thesis will prove it!’). I had two such comments that, to be fair, I had probably slightly overinflated. One was about Kempe’s marginality and one declared that Kempe and the church were in opposition to each other. My original article tried to do two things, argue for Kempe’s centrality and argue for the importance of the church as a stage for Margery’s performance of mystical authority, but when I came back to it for the second time, I realised that Kempe scholarship had moved on, particularly after the publication of the Companion to The Book of Margery Kempe so I decided to ditch the first part of the argument in the way that I had framed it and come back to Margery and the church.

One of my favourite pieces of Kempe scholarship is Gail Gibson’s discussion of Margery as a ‘self-styled saint’ in her wonderful book The Theatre of Devotion. So I thought I would come back to this idea and argue that Margery’s interaction with the church further represents her as a saint… But then I went back to the Companion and realised that the brilliant Katherine Lewis had already made this argument… So I thought I would try to think about Margery more specifically as a patron saint of the church, given that in one of the major episodes that I’m interested in (chapter 67), Margery saves the church from a fire that is sweeping through King’s Lynn because of her prayers. I thought this was quite a good idea but it didn’t really account for the other episode that I was interested in, when Margery is in the church and a stone and beam from the roof fall on her head and back, and miraculously, she is saved (chapter 9). And then I couldn’t really think of enough ‘new’ things to say, so I put the article away, again!

By this point it must have been about six years since I wrote the thesis chapter. I had sent in my book proposal to Manchester University Press and I was waiting to hear back. So I needed something to do and since I didn’t have the energy to start from scratch, I decided to go back again to the idea of Margery and the church! By this stage I had finally had another article accepted for a journal (on Margery Kempe, devotional objects, and performance identity, available here to download) so I had slightly more idea what I was doing! So I decided to go back to basics and to ask myself why I thought Margery Kempe’s parish church was the most important place in her Book and not only what the church is able to do for Margery but what Margery herself was able to do for the church. I was able to reexamine Margery’s interaction with the church as a lay parishioner because by this point I had been working in more detail on the texts that come under the heading of pastoral care, the material used by priests to teach the laity about the faith and also about how to behave in and interact with their spiritual home, the parish church. Once I’d had this idea, I had a meeting with a colleague and told her all about it and she made a brilliant point- Margery Kempe’s Book is full of places, important ones such as Rome and Jerusalem, so how was I going to prove my point, that her parish church is the most important place in comparison with those key spaces for medieval Christianity?

Good question! And this meant that I actually wrote an entirely new first section of the article which argued the case for the orientation of the Book around King’s Lynn, Margery’s hometown, and more specifically around her parish church. The new abstract for the article now looked like this:

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 15.53.22

I ended up with a really extensive article- in some ways, more of a book chapter!- but luckily for me, Nottingham Medieval Studies journal is flexible about word count and thankfully the anonymous readers were sympathetic to the reasons for its length. I still had changes to make though. I hadn’t really addressed the importance of Rome in Margery’s Book (after all, her mystical marriage to the Godhead takes place there!), so I went back and wrote a new paragraph to take this properly into account. And there were various other things as well. It probably took me a couple of weeks to make the revisions and then I sent it back in and it was accepted, hurrah!

So this is a ‘revise and resubmit [but to a new journal!]’ story that has a happy ending! I suppose I want to draw a few points out of this that I think might be helpful.

Top tips

Firstly, that no research is ever wasted! You can come back to it later and develop it with a fresh pair of eyes- even years later!

Sometimes rejection is a good thing! I think that if the article had been published eight years ago, it wouldn’t have been as ambitious in its arguments or, hopefully, as useful to Kempe criticism. I think it was far narrower in scope and intent. So now, I am very pleased that it was rejected but also that I persevered with it. The kernel of the idea was still the same, I just needed to reframe the arguments and be more interesting in setting out what was at stake. It was no longer about arguing with two particular sentences in existing Kempe criticism, I wanted to make a broader point.

Now I definitely wasn’t thinking in these terms when the original article was rejected so now I want to move on to think a bit about how we can deal with rejection but also with revising after reviewer feedback.

The dreaded reviewer 2…

But first, I had fun googling ‘reviewer 2’ memes. It’s always reviewer 2, isn’t it?!

Now one of the things that is so frustrating about anonymous peer review feedback, is that sometimes you get the mean, hurtful, and just plain wrong comments of reviewer 2 (and really, editors should be mindful of this when they are sending feedback to authors. It was definitely not helpful to me when I received a piece of feedback that said ‘the author of this paper knows nothing about the Middle Ages’, which is clearly WRONG and hurt like hell at the time!). When you get that kind of feedback, it is even more difficult to be objective! And that sort of comment should be immediately ignored and sent back from whence it came!!

But even when the criticism is fair and constructive, sometimes there can be a lot of it and it can feel like a mountain to climb. And it can feel like a criticism of your very identity, even though it is just a comment on your essay! And even when actually you’re being asked to do some revisions because ultimately, your essay has been accepted.

So how can we best deal with reviewer feedback? Here are some of my best tips and the tips from the twitter hive mind:

Discuss the feedback face to face with a peer, mentor, or friend. This will help you to be more objective. An outsider might read the tone of the feedback very differently and an academic peer or mentor can help you to sort the feedback into categories.

When I think about types of feedback, I think there are probably two types- the ‘useful / not useful’ and the ‘doable / not doable’ and these can intersect. Some feedback is useful and interesting but not doable in the context of your essay (due to word count restrictions or because really it’s outside the scope of what you want to do). I think it’s important that you are writing what you want to write- some feedback is clearly the ‘if had written this article, it would look like this’. Some of that feedback you can discard, it’s not useful and you need to stay true to your vision of the piece. But of course you also have to accept constructive criticism and not be so arrogant that you refuse to make any changes at all! Feedback is always a balancing act and it was a long time before I realised that you don’t have to implement every single suggestion that you are offered. You can write to the editors and explain what you have done and what you have not been able to do or chosen not to do- and the academic justification for those decisions (it can’t just be that you’ve had a tantrum and just don’t want to!!)

When I’ve read through the feedback and discussed it with an academic colleague (or my Mum!), I then write a list of the points that I need to address on a separate piece of paper in my own handwriting, and I put the reviewer comments away. I find it much easier to address the comments if I’ve rewritten them in my own hand and in my own words, and once I have sorted out the ones that I do and do not intend to address. At the top of this piece of paper, I also write down any compliments from the reviewers so that I can refer back to the positive comments if I get a bit overwhelmed! Doing revisions is always tough, however much you know you need to do them and that they will make the essay better in the end, so it’s nice to have some positive affirmation too!

If you need to do some thinking in order to decide what your response is to each point, then do that in a separate document or by hand. Write down the points and the free write your immediate response next to each one. Why does a particular criticism make you feel anxious or fill you with dread? Thinking about how you feel about the feedback can help you to sort out your emotional response from your objective, academic response. Maybe this was a paragraph that you worked really hard on and found tough, and it still isn’t right! Or maybe this is a point that, if you were really honest with yourself, you would agree was a problem area from the start.

I then tend to divide these ‘action points’ into ‘easy, medium, and hard’ and use that to help me prioritise how and when to address them. I usually do some easy ones first! So that might be adding in some factual information or tinkering with a footnote or slightly changing the phrasing here and there. Medium points might be rethinking the argument in a couple of paragraphs where the argument seems unclear or reading a new piece of criticism and taking account of it. Hard points require serious thinking! I had to rewrite the conclusion of a recent piece and I had to write an important caveat for the introduction, explaining what was (and wasn’t) in the scope of the article. I tend to do ‘hard’ revisions first thing in the morning when I’m at my sharpest or I build up to them by crossing off lots of easy ones first!

Here are some of the other responses that I received on twitter when I asked my followers how they deal with feedback:

Helpful comments from twitter!

Early Modern Studies research hub recommended this blogpost: ‘How to Respond to a ‘Revise and Resubmit’ from an Academic Journal: Ten Steps to a Successful Revision’

Karl Kinsella tweeted, ‘the simple recognition that everyone gets rejected from high-flying professors to PhD students helped me. It’s part of a scientific process that creates knowledge.’ It definitely helped me to know that I wasn’t in it alone!

Laura Sangha noted the importance of getting someone else to read the feedback for you, ‘the rejected are prone to read much more into it and to read it more negatively than it might be intended’.

Johanna Katrin Fridriksdottir said that ‘it’s often helpful to let it lie for a while and when you get back to it the comments don’t seem as bad and revising doesn’t seem as insurmountable as when the rejection is still raw.’ This is great advice! Don’t necessarily jump into the revisions immediately (especially if you know you are tired or overworked already because it’s the end of term for example!)

I follow lots of great writers on twitter and Melanie Hewitt suggested working on a separate, unrelated piece: ‘different subject matter, style etc. Then when you return to the original work it gives you a fresh eye‘.

Novelist Liz Fenwick also offered great advice, ‘first sleep on it… then separate out the useful from the non useful / subjective… then see if it chimes with my inner voice thoughts- those niggling noises in my head that tell me something isn’t right.’ This is a great point about criticism chiming with ones inner voice, sometimes we know that the criticism is justified and that bit in the essay that we knew deep down was problematic, does in fact turn out to be so!

Another creative writer Jane Newberry commented, ‘aim to cut out emotion- it’s never personal. I try to regard a rejection as part of ‘the process’ of writing. The rejection does not mean that the article/writing is bad, flawed or wrong- more likely it’s just the wrong person reading the material.’ This is great advice, sometimes it’s the wrong readers and the wrong journal! (But choosing the ‘right’ journal would be the subject of another blogpost!)

And in an ideal world, the reviewer’s aim isn’t to be personal and hurtful. I am new to actually doing peer review myself but when I wrote my first review, I realised how much easier it was to list criticism of a piece than to write down praise! I was quite shocked at myself actually as I always try to be kind and enthusiastic- I know how this process feels from the other side! But just like marking student essays, we can spot the problem areas really easily but we shouldn’t neglect to point out all the good too. Now I make sure that my reviews are equally weighted and give praise where it is due because that is so important!

Ellie Mackin suggested, ‘set a time limit and let yourself feel awful and then move on. Also, try to keep perspective on it- an article rejection isn’t the end of the world (ha, obviously easier said than done). Remember everyone gets rejected’. I definitely agree- let yourself have time to wallow and do whatever makes you feel better- binge watch Netflix, go for a run, stuff yourself with ice cream… but then start over!

Daniel Sawyer gave this helpful comment, ‘even negative reports which completely miss the point can sometimes be useful as a demonstration of exactly how a reader might miss the point– sometimes reports which felt unjust have still helped me reframe and clarify.’ This is a great point, sometimes we think we have been clear about something but when you’ve been writing an article for a really long time, it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees!

And finally this great piece of practical advice from Julia Walworth: ‘a very successful senior academic told me that each time they submitted a research article they also addressed an envelope to an alternative publication. Kept said envelope to remind self that there is always an alternative’.

This is such good advice, there is always an alternative! You can revise and resubmit, rethink and start over, put it aside for years and come back to it… But just keep going! If you have any thoughts or advice, please do leave a comment or tweet me!

you got this meme

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#TeamMargery: Collaboration, Compassion, and Creativity

‘Whan thes good women seyn this creatur wepyn, sobbyn, and cryen so wondirfully and mythtyly that sche was nerhand ovyrcomyn therwyth, than thei ordeyned a good soft bed and leyd hir ther upon and comfortyd hir as mech as thei myth for owyr Lordys lofe, blyssed mot he ben.’ (The Book of Margery Kempe, chapter 30)

When these good women saw this creature weep, sob, and cry so wonderfully and mightily that she was nearly overcome therewith, then they ordained a good soft bed and laid her thereupon and comforted her as much as they might for our Lord’s love, blessed may he be.

This is one of my favourite moments in The Book of Margery Kempe. Margery is travelling to Rome from Jerusalem and she meets with a woman who has an image of the Christ child in a chest. When they come into cities, the woman takes the Christ child doll out of the chest and places it in the laps of worshipful wives who dress it in shirts and kiss it as though it were God himself. When Margery sees this tender devotion and care for the doll, she weeps and sobs but rather than the women becoming annoyed with her emotional outburst- as we do find elsewhere in the Book– they transfer their care and attention to Margery herself. They tuck her up in bed and they comfort as much as they can.

IMG_5960As well as being one of my favourite moments in the Book– and a moment that I have been working on in my current research on Margery Kempe- this episode for me encapsulates, both academically and personally, the wonderful kindness, compassion, and collaboration that we saw in action at the Margery Kempe conference in Oxford earlier this month. My co-organiser (Dr Laura Kalas Williams) and I will be writing a blogpost about the conference together but I wanted to offer some of my own personal reflections on what the conference generated, both for Margery Kempe Studies in the 21st Century and for the kind of academic scholarship that #TeamMargery initiated, in the three days that we worked together.


The Kempe MS sweets

Collaboration was both a key theme and a practical activity at the conference. Liz Herbert McAvoy and Naoe Kukita Yoshikawa gave an inspirational collaborative keynote on the influence of Mechthild of Hackeborn’s Book of Ghostly Grace on The Book of Margery Kempe. My co-organiser Laura Kalas Williams revealed the recipe in the Kempe manuscript– for medicinal cough sweets or dragges- and her Swansea colleague Theresa Tyers produced the sweets themselves so that delegates could taste them for the first time in four hundred years. Food historian Ivan Day gave a wide-ranging talk on the history of sugar that introduced us to its importance in the creation of sweets with devotional images imprinted on them, a religious sweetness that you could literally taste and ingest. (Laura Kalas Williams’ article on the recipe and the discourse of religious sweetness in The Book of Margery Kempe will be forthcoming in the next Studies in the Age of Chaucer). And of course the conference itself would not have happened without the collaboration between myself and my Margery partner in crime, Laura. Working together over the past eighteen months to bring this project to fruition has been fantastic and sustaining, and shows what is possible when we work together as scholars and support one another’s work.


The Two Lauras

Collaboration, cooperation, and kinship between women was also a theme that emerged strongly for me during the conference. In my paper I talked about Margery Kempe’s creation of strong emotional bonds with other women (building on Kathy Lavezzo’s 1996 article on the Book, ‘Sobs and Sighs between Women’) and Anthony Bale revealed the identity of one of Margery’s important female supporters in Rome, known in the Book as Margaret Florentine, as a result of his collaboration with Daniela Giosuè and their work in Italian archives. In her extraordinary keynote, drawing together the major themes of the conference and the new directions for Margery scholarship, Diane Watt began by thinking about her own personal relationship with Margery Kempe and what it means to grow with the Book through an academic career. We were also delighted to have Clarissa Atkinson with us at the conference, author of the first major book on Kempe, ‘Mystic and Pilgrim’, and Clarissa proposed a toast to Margery and the future of Kempe scholarship at the drinks reception, kindly sponsored by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS).

The personal intersected with the themes of the conference in a number of ways. Both Anthony Bale and Diane Watt outed themselves as the Margery Kempes of twitter and facebook, respectively, and in the light of the entertaining- if also somewhat extreme- reactions of online commentators (and trolls) to Margery Kempe, we began to ask what it might mean to be a ‘friend’ of Margery Kempe, to be #TeamMargery, as our conference badges proclaimed. Rachel Moss gave a moving paper (that grew out of this excellent blogpost) in which she explored what it might mean to see Margery Kempe as a model for a more humane and emotional academy, an academic identity that does not divorce the personal from the public and intellectual. Those of you who were at the conference may remember that my own paper begin with my own almost uncontrollable imitatio of Margery as in the light of Rachel’s honesty and my own personal circumstances that particular week, my emotions surfaced in a way that I wasn’t expecting. But the compassion and support of the conference delegates throughout the three days- for myself but for each other too- was testament to the power that we have as communities to sustain and encourage one another. Laura and I have been most grateful and incredibly touched by the messages of thanks we have received from delegates since the conference, in particular those pointing out the warm, supportive, and inspiring sense of community and for this we thank everyone who attended the conference and hope that the #TeamMargery ethos will continue long into the future!


The Queynte Laydies as Marge & Jules

Creativity is the final theme that arises in my initial reflections on the conference. There was a wealth of creative academic scholarship on display. Papers that explored modern creative responses to the Book (Robert Gluck’s novel Margery Kempe, the poetry of Sarah Law); imaginative new theoretical engagements from queer theory to disability studies; and not least Sarah Salih’s fascinating keynote in which she compared Margery Kempe with the provocative performance artist Marina Abramovic. (To find out more about Abramovic, there is a fascinating interview here) We were also very lucky to witness the performance of the play ‘Marge and Jules’ in the University College chapel by the talented ‘Queynte Laydies’, Sarah Anson and Máirín O’Hagan. The performance staged the meeting between Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich and was a powerful performance of female friendship, talent, and imagination (both that of Marge & Jules, and Sarah and Máirín, whose personal connection pervades their performance and gives it an incredible authenticity). Unsurprisingly, there were moments in the performance that brought a tear to my eye.

Laura and I could not be more delighted by the way in which the speakers and delegates banded together in #TeamMargery for three fantastic days that not only showcased brilliant academic scholarship but also produced a wonderful feeling of solidarity, friendship, and support. At the conference we were thrilled to launch the Margery Kempe Society and we hope to continue the work that the conference started, promoting the study of The Book of Margery Kempe in ever new and more creative ways. Please do join #TeamMargery!

To find out more about the conference, you can find the programme and abstracts on our website here and you can explore the conference hashtag #MK21st here. And please do follow us on twitter, @MargerySociety, and email us via the Margery Kempe Society webpage to become a member.



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Writing Conference Abstracts

Conference imageA little while ago a postgrad student on Twitter asked for some advice about writing abstracts for conferences, so I thought it would be worth canvassing opinion and writing up a short post on my blog. Thanks to all who replied to my tweet and to those who sent me links to their own blogposts on the same topic (links below). This is a topic that I’m particularly interested in at the moment, having just had to decide between many fantastic abstracts for the conference that I’m running Margery Kempe in April this year and having also being involved in choosing the papers for the Architectural Representations conference in 2017. The advice below represents my other thoughts and that of the twitter hive mind, but do leave comments or tweet me if you have other ideas!

Firstly, other great blogs on this topic.

Catherine Baker’s post: A five part plan for pitching your research at almost anything. This post is especially useful because it gives an outline for the structure of an abstract.

Melissa Ridley Elmes’ post: Writing an abstract for a conference paper. Really useful advice on the abstract and the accompanying materials that you might be asked for (bio, CV) and Melissa also includes a final version of an abstract plus draft versions for comparison.

Liz Gloyn’s post: How to write a conference abstract. Very helpful, especially on responding to the CFP.

And finally Dimitra Fimi has a great post on tackling your first academic conference paper once you’ve been accepted! This is very useful reading if you haven’t given a paper before so that you can plan ahead and think about the process of writing the paper.

[Do let me know if you know of other useful posts that I can link!]

A digression on time:

When I’m thinking about putting in an abstract for a conference, I always think about the time involved. I tend to find that going to a conference is a month’s work for me. It usually takes me a working week to come up with an abstract– to look at the primary material and have the initial idea, to do the necessary secondary reading, to write and revise the abstract. Then when it comes to writing the paper, which is usually quite a while after the abstract has been accepted, I usually need to plan for around two weeks work. A week to do the research (and remind myself of the topic) and a week to write the paper (a twenty minute paper which, for me, is around 8-9 sides of double typed A4, perhaps around 2,800-3,000 words). And then the conference itself is usually a week of time or slightly more, depending on the location of the conference. (The time of the actual conference itself, travelling, preparing to travel and getting over it!). Obviously this is my own time frame and I’m sure some people work much more quickly than me and some take more time, and I have definitely had conferences where the paper has come together more quickly! This is especially the case if I am presenting on research that I have already done. If I’m doing something new from scratch, it can definitely take longer! But whenever I’m tempted to put in for a conference, I tend to think about whether I have a ‘month’ of time to dedicate to it. (And this isn’t necessarily time that I am entirely dedicating to it of course- I have a busy teaching schedule and other commitments, but it helps me to visualise/imagine what I’m potentially signing up for!)

So here’s my best advice for writing conference abstracts, and as I say above, this is partly related to having read many such abstracts recently!

Advice for writing abstracts

Titles: snappy and interesting! I do love an intriguing title and often the ‘quote from the text : explanation’ format is popular in literature conference papers. But do make sure that the title really does explain what the paper is going to be about! More recently I’ve tended to find that I choose more explicitly descriptive titles. I want the organisers to know exactly what I’m discussing and how it relates to the theme of the conference. And it’s always helpful for delegates (especially when there are parallel sessions) to know what they’re getting!

My recent titles have included (and the full abstracts are below):

For the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in 2017, the focus of which was space and place: ‘”Thu hast many awngelys about the, to kepyn the bothe day and nygth”: Margery Kempe’s Body as Sacred Space.’

For the Coarseness of the Brontes conference: ‘Coarseness, Identity, and Understanding in Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte.

For After Chichele: Intellectual and Cultural Dynamics of the English Church, 1443-1517: ‘”What the church betokeneth”: Architectural Allegory in the Fifteenth-Century.’

I tend to like to use one of the keywords from the conference CFP in the title, to signal that my paper is ‘on topic’

Be clear about how your paper will speak to the conference theme: this is so important! Sometimes there are conferences that we want to go to and we have to sort of twist or shape our research to fit. And sometimes that works well! But you want the organisers to see that you have really thought about how your expertise and ideas will contribute to the overall theme of their conference. They have chosen this theme for a reason and the coherence of the programme is an important factor in choosing which papers to accept. More often than not I tend to come up with something ‘new’ for a conference, and for my career stage, it is nice to be challenged and to think about striking out into new areas or to seize the opportunity to work on a text that has always been on my ‘to do’ list. As a graduate student though, I often wanted to present research that I had already been developing, so postgraduate conferences or conferences on my specific research area tended to be the best for showcasing my graduate research.

I should also note here that if you are rejected from a conference, that doesn’t automatically mean that your paper wasn’t good enough! We had a huge number of submissions for the Margery Kempe conference but we had to think about our theme (twenty-first century approaches) and we had to think about the shape of the conference as a whole when we were choosing which papers to accept and how the panels might look. There were so many amazing papers to choose from but we couldn’t accept everyone so we had to think about what we wanted to achieve in the conference as a whole.

It can be very difficult to be accepted onto a big conference, especially when there are pre-arranged panels to which you submit your abstract. This happened to me when I first applied to go to the New Chaucer Society congress in 2014. The session I applied for had three slots and there were thirty submissions! It’s not surprising I wasn’t accepted! When I saw the final programme though, I noted that the abstracts that were accepted had a very clearly stated argument and I don’t think that my idea was very well worked out when I submitted it.

As well as sticking to the theme and making sure that your paper is relevant, a conference abstract should be specific, precise, and have an argument. And this is why I tend to need a week or two weeks to work on an abstract. If you just outline the general topic or area then the organisers have no idea what you are arguing and what the paper will really contain. If they can see a precise argument and the evidence that you will discuss, this makes it much easier to judge whether the paper will be relevant to the theme of the conference. This also makes it easier for you in the long run! Especially when you come back to write the paper after a few months have probably passed! The clearer you can be about the precise argument and content when you submit the abstract, the easier it will be to write the paper later.

I would recommend being specific about the content, approach, and relationship to the critical field too. As a literary scholar, I identify the text and, more importantly, which specific moments in the text that I am going to discuss. In a 20 minute conference paper, I tend to find that you can only really discuss three examples in detail, so I like to think in these terms which I’m planning. In fact, in recent papers on Margery Kempe, I have tended to have one episode in the Book which I then discuss in great detail (close reading, historical context, art/visual culture background etc). Less is more when you have 20 minutes so don’t try to propose too much! I overestimated what I could achieve in my paper for the After Chichele conference (the abstract is below, I proposed talking about three texts, in the end I only did two so I was definitely over ambitious in that case!).

It’s important to identify the approach to the material- in my case that it usually the key critical theorists that I will use and how/why- and then I think it’s important to show where your work fits into the current critical field. I will usually reference a couple of scholars or critical articles that my paper will build on or challenge. This is another reason that you should do your research when you are writing an abstract. It can be frustrating to read an abstract that seems to have been written in a vacuum, when you know that there are a number of key critics who have written on this precise area! How will this paper propose something new if there’s no recognition of current research?

Referencing the critical field also means that you can then state why and how your approach is new. What will your paper add to current discussion? What have you noticed that no one else has picked up?

Practical points:

Stick to the word count: if they ask for 300 words, don’t write 500 words! This sounds obvious but not everyone does this in my experience.

Get a friend to read your abstract: not just for proof reading but to see if they can see what you’re getting at! The conference organisers, especially for wide-ranging conferences, may not be an expert in precisely your area of expertise so it needs to be clear and accessible. It can be especially useful to get a friend to read your abstract and compare it to the CFP to see if they think it sounds relevant. It might sound perfect in your head but to an outside it might not be clear precisely how the paper is ‘on theme’!

If they ask for a brief bio, be brief! My current bio is: ‘Dr Laura Varnam is the lecturer in Old and Middle English Literature at University College, Oxford. Her monograph, The Church as Sacred Space in Middle English Literature and Culture, is published by Manchester University Press in 2018′. Before the book was published, I would say something like, ‘she is currently preparing a book entitled…’ or ‘her current research focuses on xyz’. Or for graduate students, ‘her PhD project focuses on…’ or ‘her MA thesis will examine…’

Do check out the links at the top of my post for further great advice and please do tweet me (@lauravarnam) or leave a comment below if you have other thoughts on this topic.

Below are some example abstracts that I had accepted for conferences in 2017. They are a range of lengths and are for a range of different conferences. (And they are not necessarily perfect!)

Example Abstracts

Gender and Medieval Studies Conference 2017 (theme: space and place)

‘Thu hast many awngelys abowte the, to kepyn the bothe day and nygth’: Margery Kempe’s Body as Sacred Space

Dr Laura Varnam, University College, Oxford

This paper will examine the representation of angels in The Book of Margery Kempe and will argue that their presence as guardians around Margery constructs her body as a sacred space with the capacity to heal. Two episodes in The Book establish Margery’s relationship with angels: firstly, when she sees ‘many white thyngys flying al abowte hir on every side, as thykke in maner as motys in the sunne’ and God tells her that they are angels (ch.35); and secondly, when the madwoman sees ‘many fayr awngelys’ surrounding Margery and is healed by her presence (ch.75). Drawing on Gail Ashton’s argument that angels both ‘highlight and elide sexual difference’ at the site of the body, I will explore the gendering of Margery’s body and consequences of the body-as-sacred-space for official church space.[1]

Angels were ubiquitous in the visual culture of medieval Norfolk churches, from angel roofs to stained glass windows, and their presence was crucial for the conception of the church as sacred space. Angels played an important role in the representation of sacred bodies, from protecting the chastity of St Cecilia in Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale to accompanying the Virgin to heaven at the Assumption. In the context of vernacular representations of angels and theological arguments about their gender, corporeality, and relationship to place, I will show how the presence of angels consecrates the body of Margery Kempe as a mobile sacred space with the ability to perform miracles in marginal locations.

The madwoman in Margery’s Book is banished to a marginal space on the edge of the town but as a result of Margery’s angelic intervention, she recovers her sanity and is reintegrated into official church space by undergoing the ‘churching’ ceremony. I will conclude by showing how Margery’s body establishes both a connection and an opposition between the madwoman’s chamber (as a healing space) and the church (as a space of gendered reintegration).

[c350 words]

[1] Gail Ashton, ‘Bridging the Difference: Reconceptualising the Angel in Medieval Hagiography’, Literature and Theology, 16.3 (2002), 235-47.

After Chichele: Intellectual and Cultural Dynamics of the English Church 1443-1517

What the Church Betokeneth: Architectural Allegory in the Fifteenth Century

Dr Laura Varnam, University College, Oxford

This paper will examine the renewed relevance of architectural allegory as a tool of pastoral education and community-building in the fifteenth century. It will focus on the Middle English adaptations of two major traditions of architectural allegory: Robert Grosseteste’s Templum Dei, in which the body of the believer is the temple of God, and William of Durandus’s Rationale divinorum officiorum, in which the church is built out of the living stones of the congregation. The critique of the material church by the Lollards, represented in its most extended form by The Lanterne of Liȝt, cast a long shadow over the fifteenth century but it was challenged by the enthusiastic and dynamic programmes of church restoration, decoration, and transformation that lead to the period being characterised as the great age of church-building. This reinvigoration of the material church and its ornaments was supported and paralleled by archbishop Chichele’s emphasis on public worship and communal devotion, for example in his promotion of national saints and elaboration of the liturgy. The three Middle English texts that I will discuss emerge from this context. The first, the Templum Domini, is found in British Library MS Additional 32578 (dating from 1405) and is a Middle English adaptation of the first six chapters of Grosseteste’s pastoral handbook. The poem is relevant to ‘crystyn peple alle’ but it is especially addressed to priests who must prepare themselves as temples for receiving Christ, which is particularly resonant given Lollard critiques of the priesthood. The second text, known as What the Church Betokeneth, is found in British Library MS Additional 35298 (late fifteenth-century), alongside the saints’ lives of the Gilte Legende, including Erkenwald, Edward the Confessor, and Winifred, which is perhaps suggestive of the legacy of Chichele’s national agenda for the church. What the Church Betokeneth is a prose adaptation of passages from Durandus and, as I have argued elsewhere, the text subtly translates the gothic architecture of the Latin original to the English parish church. The text also includes an interpretation of liturgical rituals, the material objects of the church, and a delineation of basic pastoral material such as the Ten Commandments and the articles of the faith. The text builds the ideal community into the architecture of the church, from the poor represented by the pavement to the preachers represented by the roof, and furnishes the building with all the pastoral and liturgical teaching necessary for its successful operation. The final text that I will discuss was edited as the Magnificencia Ecclesie by Henry Noble MacCracken in 1909. It derives from Trinity College, Cambridge MS R 3. 21 (1471-83), a religious miscellany owned by the London merchant Roger Thorney. Also drawing on Durandus, the poem employs the allegorical interpretation of church architecture in order to teach the reader why they too should honour and magnify the church. I will argue that all three texts aim to reinforce the importance of the church, as a building and a community, in fifteenth-century devotional life.

[c500 words. NB when I gave the paper, I only discussed two of the texts- What the Church Betokenethand the Magnificencia Ecclesie– doing the other tradition in the Templum Domini was way too much for twenty mins!]

The Coarseness of the Brontes: A Reappraisal

Coarseness, Identity, and Understanding in Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë

Dr Laura Varnam, University College, Oxford

In Daphne du Maurier’s 1960 biography of Branwell, she argued that his unhappiness was caused by ‘his inability to distinguish truth from fiction, reality from fantasy’ and that he ‘failed in life because it differed from his own “infernal world”’.[1] In this paper I will show how du Maurier’s biography presents a shifting view of ‘coarseness’ as a mode of behaviour and a creative force that both attracts and repels Branwell, and indeed du Maurier herself as biographer. In a review of the biography in the Times Literary Supplement, du Maurier’s attitude to Branwell was described as ‘merciless- but warmly merciless, for she seeks to understand him’ and I argue that this understanding proceeds from du Maurier’s attempt to psychologise Branwell’s coarseness and determine its role in his infernal world.[2]

As a child, du Maurier portrays Branwell’s coarseness as an assertion of masculinity and confidence, when he stands in the kitchen at bath time, ‘glorying in nudity’ and recognising the physical difference between himself and his sisters.[3] Once deep into the ‘infernal world’ of Angria and Gondal, du Maurier presents Branwell and Emily colluding in an imaginative coarseness that has its roots in the Haworth landscape; striding over the moors, they ‘vie with one another as to who could produce the more fearful fantasy, the more desperate character’.[4] This competitive, imaginative coarseness is initially presented as an attempt to assert independence from Charlotte, the sister with whom he created Angria and who was far more successful in freeing herself from the dangers of the ‘infernal world’ than her brother. In one episode, du Maurier presents Branwell attempting to introduce coarse characters unknown to his sister into the Angrian world but the results are unsuccessful; Branwell’s fiction betrays a ‘childlike innocence’ that is ‘untouched’ by the ‘coarse humour of moorland acquaintances’ and results in a literary naivety.[5] Coarseness here represents a reality of experience that is tantalisingly out of reach to the poor, closeted Branwell; in literary terms, it is to be desired.

But when Branwell falls in with the Luddenden Foot bargees, he becomes fascinated with these ‘rowdy, rough, coarse men’: their way of life represents freedom and independence. The parson’s son from Haworth could ‘feel anonymous and secure’ and, moreover, deliberately rebel against the intellectuals of the Royal Academy by going to ‘the opposite extreme’.[6] Here du Maurier presents Branwell as recognising the performative power of coarseness as a mode of self-fashioning. This recurs at the end of the biography when du Maurier describes Branwell’s isolation from his sisters, ‘thrust out, abandoned’ as a castaway. Coarse behaviour is no longer a refuge but a weapon, both to regain their affections and to take his vengeance for excluding him: ‘if they withdrew their love from him, he must behave violently to win attention… if a peaceful household would not include him, then there should be no peace.’[7]  Du Maurier’s representation of Branwell’s coarseness is not intended to condemn his dissolute behaviour but to understand how the clever, excitable red-haired boy, master of Sneaky the wooden soldier, had come to be devoured by an infernal world of his own making.

[c500 words]

[1] Daphne du Maurier, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (Gollancz, 1960; reprinted Penguin 1972).

[2] The Times Literary Supplement, November 18th 1960.

[3] Infernal World, chapter 2.

[4] Infernal World, chapter 5.

[5] Infernal World, chapter 7.

[6] Infernal World, chapter 8.

[7] Infernal World, chapter 16.

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‘I have never felt Mary more’: Teaching Medieval Gender in the Modern Classroom

Image result for rogier van der weyden the deposition

Detail of the Virgin Mary from Rogier van der Weyden’s ‘Deposition’

Last week the Gender and Medieval Studies Conference was held in Oxford (and a massive thank you to Rachel Moss, and to Gareth Evans, for all of their excellent organisation). It was a wonderful conference with all sorts of fascinating papers- which is always marvellous- but it was also a space for brave scholarship, a place of inclusivity and community, and an opportunity to raise important questions about teaching medieval gender in the modern world, and I am delighted to have been a part of it!

I hadn’t put in a paper to speak at the conference but when the opportunity arose to contribute some reflections on teaching medieval gender, I thought I would throw my hat into the ring. I approached the proposed session by talking to my own students about this topic- about how they had experienced, understood, and engaged with medieval gender topics in their Middle English paper with me last term (and I should note here that I had my students’ permission to share their thoughts). I also read and reread some excellent articles and blogposts online, to stimulate my thinking on this topic. (I’m thinking here of Roberta Magnani’s piece in The Conversation about powerful men silencing women, an article by Mary Paterson on Naomi Alderman’s and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and many of Rachel Moss’s excellent blogposts, in particular this one on ‘Professionalism’, Gender, and Emotion in the academy).

Lucy Allen, John Arnold, and Panayoti Volti were also on the roundtable with me and we each contributed five minutes or so of our own thoughts about teaching medieval gender in our own institutions and situations. It’s not for me to ventriloquise others’ perspectives here, but below is a rewritten version of my own contribution to the roundtable, and at the end of the post, some reflections on the discussions that arose out of the roundtable. One thing that I would say at the outset is that I am speaking from a position of privilege in many ways (in academic terms, for example, as a lecturer in an Oxford college) and that I am very much speaking from my own experience of my teaching my own students. That said, I hope that in the roundtable we began a productive conversation and opened up important issues for everyone to think about, whether teaching or research staff, undergrads or postgrads.

‘I have never felt Mary more’: Feeling, Empathy, and the Present Now in Hoccleve’s Compleynte Paramont

Image result for rogier van der weyden the deposition

Detail from van der Weyden’s ‘Deposition’

The week when the call for contributions to the roundtable came through, I was teaching Hoccleve’s Conpleynte Paramontthe complaint of the Virgin at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion. Earlier in the term, my students had studied a variety of texts including Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, Pearl, and a class on medieval religious culture that covered the Lollards, attitudes to devotional imagery, passion meditation, Christ’s body, and- in a range of media, from stained glass to Middle English lyrics- the Virgin Mary. But my students’ responses to Hoccleve’s portrayal of the Virgin in the light of the roundtable prompt that I shared with them, really got me thinking. And what they said resonated with a comment that Alicia Spencer-Hall made during her fantastic plenary session session bringing medieval texts into direct, provocative, and fascinating contact with modern pop culture. Alicia said that must ‘speak from who and where we are.’ I found that to be a very powerful- and empowering- statement and it relates to the Virgin Mary in Hoccleve’s poem, and to my students in my classroom. Who Mary is- the very human mother of Jesus- and where she is- at the foot of the cross at a very particular moment in linear narrative time- is fundamental to the operation of the poem.

And at this moment Mary is- as in the emotive detail from the van der Weyden painting at the top of this post- full of sorrow for what she can see happening before her very eyes (‘my ioye hath made a permutacioun / with wepyng and eek lamentacioun’, lines 13-14). But she is also, I would argue, full of anger and rage. Her son, her son, has been wounded and shamefully displayed naked for all to see on the cross. (‘this me sleeth, that in the open day / thyn hertes wownde shewith him so wyde / that alle folk see and beholde it may’, 85-87). Alicia talked about the politics of visibility and this is so important here in the poem (as indeed Sarah Stanbury has argued in an important article on ‘The Virgin’s Gaze: Spectacle and Transgression in Middle English Lyrics of the Passion’ (PMLA 106.5, 1991).

Image result for van der weyden deposition

Detail from van der Weyden’s ‘Deposition’

If you’re not familiar with the poem, it begins with Mary addressing a number of important figures- God, the Holy Ghost, Gabriel, Elizabeth, the woman in Luke 11 who blesses the fruit of her womb- and asking all of them why they didn’t tell her what was coming. Why they didn’t tell her that the birth of Christ would end with his tragic death. And here I was reminded of the fertile quotation from R. S. Thomas’s poem ‘Abercuawg’, quoted by Annie Sutherland in her brilliant plenary, which explored productive connections between anchoritic iconography and The Handmaid’s Tale. Annie quoted the lines from ‘Abercuawg’ in which Thomas says, ‘I am a seeker / in time for that which is / beyond time’ and it struck me that this applied to Mary’s situation at the opening of the poem, as well as to our potential response to her. She is both ‘in time’- at the foot of the cross, in the narrative time of the poem- but she is also, and always, ‘beyond’ that time in our knowledge of how her story unfolds and her exemplary and transcendent role as the Blessed Virgin Mary, as we shall see.

Only Simeon, Mary says- who told her in Luke 2:34-35 that a sword should pierce her soul- truthfully expressed what her role as the mother of Christ would really mean, in the end. In her address to Gabriel, Mary reminds him of when he appeared to her at the Annunciation and hailed her as full of grace, asking why he didn’t warn her that that grace would be ‘veyn’ and ‘failing’ [vain and transitory, 33]. She then asks the Holy Spirit:

Whi hast thu me not in the remembraunce / Now at this tyme right as thu had tho? (22-23)

Mary feels abandoned, deserted, even somewhat tricked. This is not the fully formed exemplary Virgin Mary that we often find in medieval lyrics, the woman who has already taken on her public role as the Mother of God and the intercessor between humanity and the divine. This is Mary, mother of her son Jesus, who is asking everyone who had a hand in her transformation into the handmaid of the Lord, why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell me that this was going to happen?

And when I asked my students what they thought about the poem, in the light of the other material they had encountered about the Virgin Mary, one of them said: ‘I have never felt Mary more.’

I thought that that was a striking and empathetic thing to say and it got me thinking, for this roundtable in particular, about teaching exemplary medieval women and how both medieval and modern readers/viewers might respond to them. (Roger van der Weyden’s ‘Deposition’ is an extraordinary depiction of the embodied, emotional, tearful responses of Mary and those at the foot of the cross and I couldn’t resist using it to illustrate my post and my point here). It was Mary’s emotional, angry, present response that drew my student in, that made him ‘feel’ along with her. When she addresses the Holy Spirit, she emphasises present time and space with proximal deixis: ‘whi hast thu me not in thi remembraunce / now at this tyme.’ In her brilliant book, Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion (2010), Sarah McNamer talks about medieval lyrics as ‘scripts for the performance of feeling’, texts that ‘explicitly aspire to performative efficacy’ (p.12). Hoccleve’s lyric was efficacious- it worked- in precisely this way for my student, who suddenly found himself able to connect with Mary in the present now through the emotional script of the poem. Mary had been beyond his present time but he had found her in her present emotional time in the poem.

Exemplarity was an important issue throughout the conference (and it’s something that I am currently working on in relation to Margery Kempe for the conference that I am running with Laura Kalas Williams in April). Catherine Sanok argues in her book Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints’ Lives in Late Medieval England (2007), that exemplarity initiates a ‘complex negotiation of relations between the sacred past and the social present’ (p.176), exposing both continues and discontinuities, and she notes that interpretation is ‘not fully governed by the text’ (p.14), it is informed by and imbricated in the interests and experiences of the reader . Teaching an exemplary woman such as the Virgin Mary in an accessible and present fashion is a challenge for the modern classroom, I think, but by truly feeling our way into the Virgin’s perspective, it is a powerful opportunity to enable students to connect with her, to seek for her in her medieval time but also in the present now, at this time.

Hieth hider: A Call for Presence

At the end of the poem, when the Virgin has begun to grow into her new public role, she addresses mankind and urges them to ‘hieth hider’ to look upon her Son and see for themselves how he has suffered for their sins. It is a powerful call for presence and sight (and indeed, for site): to truly see and to place yourself in the poem, at the foot of the cross.

One of the things that struck me in the roundtable discussion and in the connections between my short paper and the contributions of the other panellists, was the extent to which we were all thinking about and beginning to explore our own presence in the classroom and what our own identities, and those of our students, bring into the room at any given time. And how those identities and cross currents need careful negotiation and support. So I wanted to add here some of the additional ideas that I shared at the end  in the discussion, from my own perspective as a tutor in Oxford.

I have frequently found it to be a positive strategy to share my own experiences of academic life with my students, whether that is in the context of my blog (my honest description of the process of writing my monograph discussed here) or verbally in the classroom (for example when I’ve discussed my experiences of rejection when submitting academic articles and how to deal with less-than-constructive feedback from peer reviewers). In my first study skills class with my new freshers in October, I always ask them who they think the ‘critics’ are that are writing the secondary reading that they are assigned for their essays. The students often find it surprising that the answer is me, us, their tutors, and that the process of getting from initial idea to published article is a complex one, often fraught and full of anxiety, and moreover, requiring much rewriting and revision. And I use this as a way of openly discussing with the students the feedback that I give them on their own essays- which I hope is productive and constructive- and we talk about perfectionism and the weekly Oxford essay (often produced at speed due to the tight deadlines here), and reframing the essay as a work-in-progress that will be developed further in tutorial discussion and refined again during revision for exams.

During the roundtable discussion, Katherine Lewis commented that we learn through teaching and I think this is exactly right. Firstly, in the sense of refining our own thinking about key topics in the discipline or our own research- I can’t imagine how I could have written my monograph without regular contact with my bright and sparky students at Univ, who always challenge me to develop and refine my ideas- and indeed this blogpost is a case in point! But also secondly, and perhaps more importantly, in the ways in which students ask questions that we are not expecting. They come at a topic from their own perspective and challenged our preconceived ideas of medieval texts and the discipline we are working in, and that is vital for keeping our own thinking fresh and alive.

Something else that struck me in the roundtable discussion was that teaching itself is always a work-in-progress and a relatively junior academic, I still have a lot to learn! Not least in terms of learning more about, for example, research in the field of education or particular theoretical approaches, such as queer theory. And that brings me back to time, which is such a pressing concern in Hoccleve’s Conpleynte. Many academic readers might empathise with me when I say that my own most frequent ‘complaint’ or worry these days is that ‘I haven’t got time.’ With increasing workloads and pressures to publish more, teach more, do more public engagement… the list goes on, it can feel difficult to find the time to do everything that we feel we should do or indeed that we want to do (and there’s definitely an entire blogpost in this issue!). But academia, like life, is a messy, complicated, imperfect business- we can never do everything, we have to make difficult choices. But I think that if one of those choices is being honest with our students about the ways in which our own identities and feelings intersect with our teaching practice, in order to show that our classrooms are open and empathetic spaces for them- and us- to explore those identities in all their complexity as modern readers of medieval texts, then we will have made good use of the present time, the present now.

Additional reading:

Check out the twitter hashtag for the conference: #gms2018

Sarah McNamer, Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion (2010)

Sarah McNamer, ‘Feeling’ in Paul Strohm, ed, Middle English (2007)

Catherine Sanok, Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints’ Lives in Late Medieval England (2007)

For more of my thoughts on the Virgin Mary, see my guest post on Women’s Literary Culture and the Canon blog, on Margery Kempe and the pieta

And do leave me a comment below if you have any thoughts or contributions to the above!

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The Monograph: Thoughts and Reflections

MUP catalogue book

[This is a long post! Scroll to the bottom for the highlights!]

A confession: there was a time when I thought I would never, ever, in a million years, see my book in print. Let alone with a snazzy cover in a catalogue for Autumn/Winter 2017/18 by Manchester University Press! I say this because there may be some readers out there who feel the same. Who feel the pressing weight of The Monograph. Whose emotional response to thinking about The Monograph is complex, deeply felt, and full of conflict. I hear you, I empathise, and I want to say that you will get there. You can do it and you will!

Thanks to the lovely comments and likes on twitter, I’ve decided to write this post to reflect on my experience of writing my monograph and to offer some thoughts, reflections, and advice. I hope that it will be of some use. But I should say from the outset that my monograph has been a long time in the making (I finished my DPhil in 2007 and my monograph will be out in 2018) so I fully appreciate that my experience is unique in many respects, especially in the current climate of precarity for ECRs, graduate students, and many other researchers and teachers. I am enormously grateful to my college- University College, Oxford- and in particular to my colleagues in ‘Team English’ (Tiffany Stern, Nicholas Halmi, Ollie Clarkson, Ashley Maher) for sticking with me and supporting me during this process. And also to my twitter friends and medievalist colleagues, but more on that later.

Rejection and Starting Again

So let’s start at the beginning. Before my book was accepted by Manchester University Press in 2016, an earlier version was rejected by Oxford University Press. This was probably around 2009/10 and I am now extremely grateful to the OUP monographs committee that they did reject it! It was not that great! Obviously rejection hurts and at the time I thought it was the end of the world, but I had two readers’ reports that actually gave me lots to think about. In reality, the ‘book’ that I was proposing was really just ‘the thesis’. At that stage I couldn’t think much beyond what I had written for my DPhil (a study of sacred space in Middle English religious literature) and the proposed book was unbalanced. For one thing- dare I say it!- there was far too much Margery Kempe! Two of the proposed five chapters were on Margery Kempe, as they were in the DPhil, and both readers agreed that that didn’t work. One of the readers also felt that the really interesting part of the book was the final chapter- on sacred space and material culture (devotional objects in the church, the church itself as material building)- and they said that the theoretical engagement in that chapter was worth pursuing much more rigorously and throughout the book as a whole.

So my book had been rejected and I was at something of a crossroads. So I made a bold decision and decided to completely reinvent the book. Starting with taking Margery Kempe out altogether! Shocking, I know! Now Margery takes up around five pages in the monograph, and this decision had two consequences. One: it made room for completely new material. Two: it liberated Margery! And enabled me to work on her for articles. I think that this really helped. It meant that I was able to publish individual pieces on Margery alongside working on the longer-term project on the monograph and it also meant that I had another string to my bow. I am now organising a multi-disciplinary conference on Kempe in April 2018 and my next medieval book (yes, there is a point at which you can think about the ‘next’ book!) will be purely on Kempe. So one piece of advice I would give for reworking thesis material into a book is to make the big decisions and cut what doesn’t work. It doesn’t mean you lose it for good and you could even turn it into an article!

Cutting to make room for new ideas

So having cut Margery from the monograph, this left me with the following from the thesis: one key text as the focus of one chapter; something worth reworking from the final chapter; two texts that I’d used in the thesis introduction that hadn’t really done as much work as I thought they could; and lots and lots of room left for new things! So my first step was to decide on the ‘new’ material that I wanted to work on. Now that I was rethinking the entire project, what did I wish I had done in the thesis originally? Well for a start, I knew I needed to think about the liturgical ritual for church consecration- there’s where ideas of medieval sacred space start- and I knew that I wanted to do some in-depth research on the Lollards and their attitude to church decorations and to church buildings. Why was the church and its sanctity such a focus for debate at the end of the fourteenth and into the fifteenth centuries? I also knew if that I used the texts from my thesis introduction elsewhere in the book, I would need a new text to focus my new book introduction around. This was when I found The Canterbury Interlude, an anonymous fifteenth century continuation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in which the pilgrims finally arrive at Canterbury, enter the cathedral, and engage with the space around them. This was the perfect testing ground for my ideas about the church, sacred space, community, and material culture.

Fast forward a few years and I had the following under my belt: new introduction (which went through at least three different drafts, gradually integrating my ideas with my close reading of the Canterbury Interlude); new first chapter on church consecration (which I had sent to an architecture/liturgy scholar for feedback); and a map of what the rest of the book looked like. But at this stage, for various reasons, I had completely lost confidence in the project. I think this is very common for academics working on their first book. It felt like a mammoth task. The OUP rejection was still hanging over me (along with various article rejections on top of that!) and I didn’t really have a lot of time to devote to the book, because I have had a full time teaching post since I finished the thesis (side note: a teaching job which I absolutely love and which, in many different but indefinable ways, has helped me enormously- weekly tutorial debates with my students has sharpened my critical thinking, teaching a wide range of texts has given me a confidence in dealing with my period, I could go on!).

The Proposal

At this stage, I couldn’t even think about submitting a book proposal. Who would want to publish a book that I didn’t think existed properly?! Enter my brilliant friend, the historian Jan Machielsen. He asked me how the book was going (at the time, a dreaded question!) and after describing all of the work I had done, and following it up with some kind of self-defeating comment like ‘but it’s not really a book yet’, he asked me why I hadn’t submitted a book proposal because it definitely sounded like a book to him! I had a mere ten days to go before the start of term and I protested that there wouldn’t be time to write a proposal, that would be ridiculous, completely out of the question… But my friend challenged me to just sit down and write one. And do you know what? I did! In the back of my mind, I was thinking about submitting the book to Manchester University Press so I sought advice on their website for book proposals (here) and then I just sat down and wrote it. I have never been more surprised in my life- the book was actually there, it had a form, it even seemed to have an argument!

My advice on book proposals then is: just do it! Even if you think you’re not ready, you don’t know precisely what you want to say etc, etc, etc, just write it! I had been procrastinating, talking myself out of it, minimising the thinking I had done over quite a long period of time. So just have a go, you might surprise yourself! And it’s always better to have a terrible draft that you can edit, than a blank page!

If anyone would like to see my proposal, please do give me a shout. I am very happy to send it over. It includes a summary of the overall argument, a chapter breakdown (indicating chapter length, and any elements that had been published elsewhere), a description of the intended audience, the relationship of my work to the field (including any published books that might represent ‘competition’ to my book), and recommendations for potential readers. (Some publishers ask you to do that). (I am very grateful to my friend Jan and to a number of colleagues for sharing their proposals with me. And to my former supervisor who gave me feedback on the proposal- and much of this project throughout!)

In terms of the choice of publisher, I chose Manchester because of the series that they publish in my field (Medieval Literature and Culture) and because I had read recent books in that series that really spoke to my own work (Helen Barr’s Transporting Chaucer and Johanna Kramer’s Between Heaven and Earth: Liminality and the Ascension of Christ in Anglo-Saxon Literature). I was attracted by the topics of both books and the authors’ use of theory. I had a second publisher in mind in case MUP rejected my proposal but my understanding is that it is ‘good form’ to only send out a proposal to one at a time, so I sent my materials to Manchester.

I emailed one of the editors and they said that they would like to see the proposal plus an introduction and a chapter. So I sent my newly revised intro and the chapter based on the new material on church consecration. Manchester have been exemplary throughout the process I must say, especially in communicating with me exactly where we were in the process. So I knew when the materials were out with readers, I knew roughly when to expect feedback, and so on. I cannot recommend them highly enough! (And I am definitely not on commission to say that!)

The Readers’ Reports

So I received two readers’ reports on my proposal and chapters- both of which were thankfully favourable!- and I had to write a response to each report and send it back to the publisher. Both reports raised important points about the way in which I was going to make a case for my use of a range of different theorists in the book and one had important reflections on my claims to interdisciplinarity. There were also some individual comments on particular passages in the chapters. I wrote about a side of A4 in response to each report- fundamentally agreeing with the issues raised and suggesting ways in which I would address them. There were one or two points that I didn’t entirely agree with so I registered my thoughts on those too. I would say that it was important to be honest about how you deal with the comments and don’t necessarily just agree because that’s what you think the publisher wants to hear! Think carefully about the impact of the comments on what you want to do and reply in a careful, rigorous manner. The material then went to the editorial board and I received an acceptance decision shortly afterwards. From sending in the proposal to the acceptance, it was probably around seven months, which seemed very quick to me! And in the meantime, while I was waiting to hear, I worked on an article on Margery Kempe.

Contract Stage

At the contract stage, one thing that you have to do is to agree the date upon which you will deliver the manuscript. When I originally sent in the proposal, I thought that April 2017 would be realistic but when it got to contract stage, I knew that that would be impossible because of other commitments. So I emailed my editor and asked if we could put the submission date back to September 2017. And the editor was fine with that! Naturally I was nervous about asking but actually, again I think it’s better to be honest. I’m sure publishers don’t like it when manuscripts are late, and sometimes that’s inevitable, but being realistic about the deadline in the first place will make you feel happier. Don’t underestimate how long it will take for you to finish the book! And indeed to do all the really important things like checking the footnotes, formatting it properly, etc etc. It really does take a long time!

This is also the point at which things like copyright and images might come up. I was allowed 10 images in my book and for nine of them, I used photographs that I had taken myself. I did need to get permissions to publish those images though, so make sure you think about this early as it can take a while for these things to be sorted out. One image I had hoped to take, I didn’t have time for in the end so I used a free image from Wikimedia Commons. My editors were able to advise on this too. Copyright is probably more complex for people working in later periods, so do make sure you check this with your editor as soon as you can.

Finishing the Manuscript

So I had about 16 months from contract to submission, which including two summer ‘vacations’ (by which I mean breaks from teaching). I had one chapter that wasn’t really researched and had quite a sketchy argument, so I planned to do that in the first summer. Then I planned to redraft it over the Christmas vac; redraft the penultimate chapter in the following Easter vac; and then work on everything in the summer before the September submission. This basically worked out as planned but in the summer before submission, I did a lot of rewriting. I can’t emphasise enough just how much rewriting I did! I thought chapter 1 was ready- I rewrote the entire thing. I thought the introduction only needed a few tweaks- I rewrote the entire thing. I had a colleague read the final chapter and she gave me a lightbulb moment: the material I started with, I should have ended with. So I rewrote that as well!

That isn’t meant to scare you, readers! But to say, don’t worry- you can keep rewriting, and you will keep rewriting as everything comes together. The intro I sent with my book proposal did have some problems but I couldn’t have addressed them without having written the rest of the book. Ideas that ended up in the final chapter turned out to be more important than I anticipated, so some of them backtracked into the rest of the manuscript. Connections across the book started to emerge (it’s a thematic book, so I should have expected that!), so again, I reshaped and smoothed things out.

Time Management: Hold Your Nerve!

At this stage, my best advice is to hold your nerve! And to divide everything up into small tasks. You cannot work on the entire book at once, it’s impossible and it feels overwhelming. So I organised my time by dividing up the weeks and working on chapters alternately. I switched back and forth weekly so that I could keep on top on most of the chapters at a similar rate but I also made sure to start with the chapter that I thought needed the most work. (On time management, I didn’t know about Raul Pacheco-Vega’s brilliant blog back then but I recommend it to everyone now!)

On a daily basis, I made lots of lists of jobs that needed doing- divided by things that could be done at home and things that needed the library, and by difficulty (hard, medium, easy). I tried to have a range of tasks per day- hard things in the morning (when I work best, and so that I felt like I had ‘achieved something’), easy tasks in the after-lunch slump etc. I would lump together lots of footnotes that needed checking so that I could maximise library time. I tended to do rewriting at home because I felt comfortable that way and also felt less distracted.

I also spent a significant amount of time proof-reading the final document, checking references, and formatting. Once your book is accepted, I would recommend that you start to learn the formatting style for the publisher as soon as you can so that you get used to it and it becomes second nature. Having to re-format is very time consuming, but it might make a difference to the word count and you don’t want to suddenly find your document is bumped up by 5,000 words at the end!

I also made lots of use of twitter for support and accountability! A big thank you to everyone who supported me, it meant a lot! I would tend to tweet in the morning about precisely what I wanted to achieve that day and then tweet my progress in the afternoon. It gave me accountability to myself, and I did have some feedback from some grad students and ECRs that it was helpful to actually ‘see’ the process that I was going through. It can be difficult to imagine what writing a monograph is like, so I wanted to be transparent about the process.

This was definitely the stage of the project where I needed strong emotional resilience and self-belief. And my friends, family, and tweeps really helped here (from my monograph-finishing buddy Alicia Spencer-Hall to my former student who left me flowers outside my office door!) So do try to have a support network in place if you can. And make sure that you take care of yourself and take time off. For me, this involved getting enough sleep, exercising (I run), having something fun to watch (Netflix) or read (thrillers!) in the evenings. You cannot work all the time!

Final Report

Once I handed in the finished manuscript- on the day of the deadline!- I then had to wait for a further reader’s report. Given that I handed in just before the autumn term started, I received the final report on the manuscript in January- which was extraordinarily quick I thought! The report was very positive, which was wonderful, but there were some corrections to do. Some involved slightly rethinking small parts of individual arguments. Some involved topping up a little bit of critical reading. They were all very do-able but I had a very busy Hilary Term, so I wasn’t able to finish them until March. I appreciate that with the pressures of deadlines and the REF etc it is tempting to do things as quickly as possible, but I would say that it is important to think carefully about the corrections and give them the time they need.

I think this is also the stage at which I completed some forms for the publisher about marketing the book. I had to provide ten keywords about the book; provide three key questions that the book answers; and I had to write three different versions of the ‘blurb’ or summary of the book (a 250 word version, a 140 word version, and a 350 character version!). I also had to provide key marketing points which included bullet points highlighting the books strengths and contributions to the field, and the intended audience. I also had to choose the front cover image (another photo that I took myself).

Again, all of this took quite a lot of time to think through and I did ask for feedback from my former supervisor to see if I was pitching it all effectively. One thing I would recommend when doing this, is to start by answering the questions very quickly off the top of your head. The temptation is to reread the entire manuscript but that can mean you get bogged down in the details. This is the stage when you want to get across the big ideas in an interesting and eye-catching way, so just go for it! You’ve written the book, you know what it’s about it, so tell people!

What do you mean there’s more to do?!

Similarly, all the bits and bobs that take time once it’s actually finished! I corrected the proofs this summer and it took me about a fortnight (not continuously, but as my main focus of work). I did the old fashioned method of reading a hard copy of the proofs and comparing line by line to my submitted copy, with a ruler. I would try to read aloud in my head, as sometimes you see what you think is there, rather than what is actually there. I marked up the proofs in red pen and then noted the corrections by hand on a separate sheet of paper. I had hoped to mark up the pdf of the proofs but technologically, this was beyond me, so in the end I typed up the corrections onto a word doc (once the publishers agreed that I could do that). This also meant that I could double-check all of my corrections as I went. It took probably a full day of typing them up. (There really weren’t that many, overall, which was excellent! And they were mostly minor and/or errors that were mine in the first place! Goodness knows why I had written ‘the priest’s arms’ at one point when I meant the ‘priest’s sermon’?!)


So the next stage was the index! Which many of my tweeps will have heard about because I asked for lots of advice. Overall, it took me about ten days to compile the index. It’s a time consuming and detailed job, so do leave time for it! It’s important that the index does reflect the key themes and ideas of the book, and I’ll never use an index again without appreciating the work that goes into it! I had some great advice on twitter, including from Fiona Whelan who said keep it short, keep it relevant, keep it simple, and keep the reader in mind! The reader is, after all, the primary user of the index. What do you think they will want to look up? But I also had some other good advice- don’t over index! You do want people to read the whole book, and not just cherry pick things from it! My editor sent me some useful advice too, which included not indexing the broad topic of the book- ie sacred space!- because that wouldn’t be helpful! Be specific and thematic where it’s important and relevant. So I have indexed texts, places, people, things (like stained glass windows- by location and by subject). I have indexed important theoretical concepts (‘place’, ‘sacred centre’) and theorists (Foucault, Lefebvre, Douglas). I have also indexed key themes (‘competition’, ‘mapping’, ‘animating the church’). My editor sent me a useful index template so I was able to start typing items in straightaway in the right format.

Indexing definitely feels overwhelming at first, but my advice would be to start with the easy things– places, texts, people, things- and then index the concepts at the end. As you reread/search for the easy things, the themes/concepts should start to become apparent. I typed up categories alphabetically as I went and then used the search function to locate things in the PDF but I also highlighted on the hard copy too and double-checked. One thing I realised was that the PDF would say I was on page ’67’ but actually, that was page 67 of the entire document and the proper page numbering of the book itself didn’t start until eight or nine pages in! So make sure you have the actual page number of the proofs written down! Luckily I’d only done a handful of entries before I spotted this error!

I would also say that you should do it yourself. No one else knows the book as well as you do! (And sadly it isn’t practical or affordable for most of us to pay someone else to index for you).

And now?

So I think the next stage of the process for me will be checking the index once it’s been typeset and then hopefully, my book will be out in the wild in January 2018!

I hope this long post has been useful and if you have any questions or would like to share your own experiences or tips, please leave a comment here, tweet me (@lauravarnam), or send me an email

Happy writing everyone! And a huge thank you to everyone who has supported me throughout this process, and especially to the fantastic editors, series editors, and anonymous readers at Manchester University Press!


A monograph is time consuming and that’s okay! It’s also hard work- academically and emotionally. Make sure you take care of yourself!

If you get rejected, re-group, re-think, and re-submit!

Be bold and fearless when it comes to cutting and reshaping the thesis, the book will be so much better for it!

Read other people’s book proposals (email or tweet me for mine) and ask for feedback.

When it comes to writing a proposal or marketing info, just sit down and write! You can edit later.

Once you have a publisher, start using their formatting/style guide asap!

Be honest and realistic about the time you will need to complete the project.

Keep rewriting!

Ask for feedback from friends and colleagues.

Organise your time effectively (hard/medium/easy jobs, checking footnotes in bulk etc).

Use twitter for accountability and motivation!

Do the index yourself and leave time for it.

Spend time proof reading carefully.

Start thinking about permissions/copyright asap- these things take time!

Believe in yourself and hold your nerve!

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Dissertation Preparation

The first part of this post is about the teaching strategies I use to help undergraduate students prepare for their dissertations. Scroll down for a list of Top Tips for Dissertations, compiled with advice from my students!

In the English Faculty’s syllabus reform, three years or so ago now, we introduced the undergraduate dissertation. Students choose the topic of their dissertation in the Trinity (summer) Term of their second year and then hand in their 7,000 – 8,000 word dissertation in the Hilary Term of their third year (around March), so they work on the project for almost a year. Oxford students have two other coursework papers- a Shakespeare portfolio of three short essays and an extended essay of 5,000 – 6,000 words- but the dissertation is the piece of work is produced over the longest time period.

The introduction of the dissertation got me thinking. How do we prepare students for undertaking a significant piece of research over an extended time period? The time period is of increased significance here in Oxford because in the normal course of an eight week term, students write an essay a week on a new text or topic and often have to rattle through huge periods of literary at great speed! I knew that I wanted to introduce some form of structured dissertation preparation into the second year teaching here at Univ and I thought that it would be useful to write a blogpost detailing my two-stage plan. I’d be very grateful for other thoughts on dissertation preparation, so please do leave me a comment or send me a message on twitter!

Stage One: Dissertation Day

Diss Day screenshot

In Hilary Term (around February time), I organise a Dissertation Day here at Univ, which is really a mini conference in disguise! We ask each of the third year students to give a 10-15 minute presentation on their dissertation topics. They must submit a title for their talk in advance, the presentations are divided into groups of three followed by questions, and the audience is made up of the current second years and the college tutors in English.

For the third years themselves, the aim is two-fold: to allow them to practice their presentation skills (which is especially useful if they plan to go on to graduate study and give papers on their work) and to provide them with an opportunity to articulate the key arguments of their dissertation at the relevant moment in the process. We plan the Dissertation Day for around five weeks before the submission deadline. At this stage, most of the students have a clear handle on the primary and secondary material, and most of them have their key arguments mapped out, but having to articulate them to a general audience encourages them to clarify their central ideas. We also encourage the students to offer a brief narrative of how they arrived at their dissertation topic and how their ideas/approaches changed, if relevant.

We have run the Dissertation Day for the past two years and it has been a really enjoyable and interesting occasion. I think the third year students have enjoyed presenting the fruits of their research and it has been certainly been a great way to celebrate their achievements, especially when the dissertation process (like a PhD!) can be rather lonely! Our first group of third years who completed a dissertation did say that they felt some disconnection from their peers during their third year as for most of their courses at this stage they are taught  individually for supervisions or centrally in the faculty, rather than being together in their close knit college group of eight students, being taught together on a weekly basis. It was great to bring them all back together and provide a forum for sharing their research.

For the second years, there were two important elements to the Dissertation Day. Firstly, we wanted the second years to get a sense of what a dissertation might look like in the lead up to making their own choices about research topics. We wanted them to get a sense of the range of topics that are possible, the different approaches available, the scope of a dissertation, the kinds of argument that can be made, and also how exciting the process of research can be! This year’s Dissertation Day included papers on travel writing; space and place in Modernist short stories; territory and the self in American nature writing; the role of women in post-war drama; Victorian literature and science; education and observation in seventeenth-century treatises; and a number of papers on twentieth-century poetry, including work on the fragment, the idea of sincerity, and the relationship between poetry, light, and sound.

Secondly, we made it a requirement of the day that the second years participate by asking two types of question. Firstly, by asking at least one question about the content of the papers which could be beneficial to the third year students (and I made sure to outline the etiquette for appropriate questions beforehand!). Secondly, after all the papers had been given, we had a brief round up where we asked the third years to reflect on the process as a whole and the second years were encouraged to ask for their advice and tips. When talking to the students after the day, the second years felt that this was especially helpful and we hope that when they give their presentations next year, they will pass on their own advice to the new second years!

Stage Two: Middle English Research Project

Having participated in the Dissertation Day, I then ran a two week Middle English Research Project for the second years (about two weeks after the day, and just before we asked them to start thinking about their own choice of topics). For their final piece of work for Middle English (the main paper that I teach them), I asked them to do the following, which they would present in our class at the end of the two week period:

  1. Choose a text/topic to research.
  2. Close read the primary material and choose a passage to close read that exemplifies your interest in the text/topic and your key argument.
  3. Produce an annotated bibliography, abstract, and title for the topic.
  4. Reflect upon what this process has taught you about doing research.

So the idea was to give the students a trial run of the dissertation so that they could practice the key skills required. Hearing the papers at the Dissertation Day helped the students to choose a topic. I asked the students to choose a passage to close read because I wanted to emphasise that they should start with their own ideas about the texts. At the Dissertation Day some of the second years were concerned about how to produce an ‘original’ dissertation and I always recommend starting with your own initial thoughts on the text, before you begin the research process. Those ideas will no doubt change but it helps to have a record of your initial interest and response. Presenting a close reading passage also makes sure that the students are constantly attending to the language of the text itself.

I asked the students to produce an annotated bibliography so that they got used to the process not only of reading and recording secondary material, but analysing and evaluating it. I wanted them to start to recognise the trends in criticism in their topic and to identify the ‘big hitters’ in the field. If they were to teach their chosen topic, who would they recommend as the key scholars, which secondary reading should they start with, how might a newcomer navigate the field? I also wanted them to identify gaps in the field and key articles relating to their own topic so that they can start to position their own work. (I should say that I had already taught them how to use the International Medieval Bibliography and how to do their own research in their first year, so I could build on those existing skills at this stage).

I also then asked them to write a 100 word abstract outlining the topic and approach, and come up with a title for the project. This was an important part of the process because just before Christmas the students have to submit a title and abstract to the faculty for approval, so I wanted them to have had a practice run at this. I advised them to make sure that the abstract outlined a focused topic that could feasibly be achieved in the word count (7,000-8,000) and gave a clear overview of the material to be covered and a sense of the argument that might be made (although of course that is provisional at this stage of any project!).


This year, the projects that my students presented in our final class included: imagination and jealousy in medieval dream poetry; excess in Gower’s Confessio Amantis; the role of wonder in Mandeville’s Travels; material goods and clothing as markers of identity in The Book of Margery Kempe and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue; women in domestic space in secular literature; Malory’s portrayal of Lancelot in the Morte Darthur; and the meaning and function of questing in the Morte Darthur. In the class, the students presented the topics, their close reading, guided us through the annotated bibliography, and finally we brainstormed the key ideas that the process had taught them for when they begin their real dissertation work over the summer vacation.

We collected the ideas together on the flipchart (apologies for the poor photos!). Below is a summary of the key points and some extra advice from me.

Top Tips for Dissertations

  • Start by close reading the primary material and making notes of your own ideas, before you read too much secondary literature. This will help to ensure that the core ideas are your own.
  • Start your research by using electronic bibliographies (such as MLA, the International Medieval Bibliography) and library search catalogues to compile a list of current research in the field. It also doesn’t hurt to do a quick google of the topic! It can take a while for new monographs and articles to make their way onto bibliographies, so it’s worth doing a quick search on the internet (with all the usual caveats that you must make sure that any online material that you find comes from a credible scholarly source!)
  • When taking notes on secondary reading, make sure that you include all the bibliographic details, and the page numbers for any quotations that you copy out (this is crucial as it saves time later- you don’t want to be checking references in the week before the deadline for an article that you read the previous summer!) You might also want to include a brief summary of the topic of the article and the approach used, and whether or not it will be useful for your project (again, you don’t want to have to go back and reread material because you’ve forgotten what you thought about it at the time!)
  • When copying out material from secondary reading, be meticulous about using quotations marks- you don’t want to accidentally plagiarise material! In my own research, if I have an idea of my own when I’m reading secondary material, I either note it down in a separate notebook or I write it on a separate line with an arrow before it → this is my own shorthand for ‘own ideas here’.
  • You might want to keep a running bibliography of everything you’ve been reading. This will save time later and will make sure that you are in the habit of recording all the important information for footnotes and bibliography.
  • Interrogate secondary reading. Which critics do you agree with? You can build on their work but you need to think about what you can add to their approach. How can you develop their ideas, what have they missed? Which critics do you disagree with and why? What are the gaps in the secondary literature? What have the critics missed? This is where you can position your study and show how it contributes to the field.
  • Let the secondary literature guide you- follow the footnotes! You will constantly find new material to read as you make your way through the secondary material. You might want to have a small notebook or a word document that you just use as your ‘to read’ list. This will keep all the references that need following up in the same place.
  • Don’t be too narrow in your reading and don’t be afraid to read something that intrigues you, even if it isn’t on your precise topic. Sometimes, serendipity leads us to an article or an approach that we weren’t expecting, but that turns out to be incredibly fruitful. Follow your nose!
  • If you’re working in an area that is new to you, ask your supervisor for help navigating the critical field. For example, many of my students want to work on American Literature but they haven’t studied it before, so as well as reading up on their chosen texts/authors, they will need to read some general books to get a sense of the literary tradition and the field as whole first.
  • Your reading will inevitably include a range of material, embrace the interdisciplinarity! Read up on the historical context of your writer/period. You might be interested in taking a theoretical approach. You might want to bring in visual or material culture, or scientific writing, as part of your approach. Ask your supervisor for guidance if this is the case.
  • A dissertation can feel like a huge, overwhelming project (as can a PhD!) but try to break it up into small tasks that you can easily achieve. Make a list of articles that you want to read and start working through them. Plan to spend an afternoon close reading a primary text.The pomodoro technique is very helpful if you’re struggling to concentrate and be productive. See my study skills post here for more info.
  • Make sure that you have thinking time! Go to a coffee shop or sit in the college gardens and brainstorm your ideas. It is important to continually reflect upon the project and where your ideas are at. Doing this in a separate notebook or word document without all your materials in front of you can be very helpful, so that you don’t get bogged down in the detail and can think about the bigger picture.
  • You will probably find that ideas come to you when you’re doing other things, like cycling to the faculty, or working on another project, so it might be useful to have a notebook that you carry with you to jot down all these ideas in a safe place. (As my students know, any opportunity for new stationary/notebooks is very welcome!)
  • When you’re working on a large project over a long period, and you have a number of other things on the go, it can be easy to push the dissertation to the back of your mind. I’d recommend working on it ‘little and often’ throughout the year. That way it’s always there in your mind and you’re making regular progress. Set aside some time each week to work on the dissertation, even if it’s only an afternoon. This will mean that when you come back to it, you don’t feel as though you need to start from scratch and remember what you’re working on before you can get started!
  • Get organised at the beginning of the project! Set up a dissertation folder on your computer with sub-folders for: secondary reading notes, ‘to read’ list, running bibliography, own ideas, notes from supervisions etc. If you take your notes by hand, which I personally recommend if you can, get a big project notebook for secondary reading and a small notebook for ‘ideas’. Being organised from the beginning will save you lots of time and effort later.
  • Get advice from your peers! While you will have meetings with your supervisor, it can also be helpful to talk through your topic with friends. Get together with your peers with talk through your ideas and arguments. You will probably all be working on different things but it can be helpful to get an outside perspective and also to articulate your ideas out loud.
  • Don’t be afraid to change your mind (within reason obviously!) If it becomes clear that you need to add in an additional text, or you suddenly discover a theory that would be perfect for your project, or your argument starts to change (as often happens), don’t be afraid to explore these possibilities (in conversation with your supervisor to check that you’re on the right track). When I did my DPhil, I completely changed my final chapter. It felt quite scary to do that but my gut instinct was that it would make for a much better argument. I cleared it with my supervisor and in the end I was really pleased that I made the change. If you find that an idea isn’t working, don’t be afraid to rethink.
  • BACK UP YOUR WORK! And then BACK IT UP AGAIN! I cannot stress enough how important this is and how much trouble it will save you if your computer breaks or you lose your notes etc etc. I tend to save material on my laptop, usb stick, and then for crucial written work I’ll email it to myself or to a friend!

If you have any advice, as a student or tutor, please do leave me a comment and I will add it to the list!

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#WhanThatAprilleDay16: Celebrating Middle English Poetry

Today is #WhanThatAprilleDay16 which means that we are joining @LeVostreGC in celebrating medieval texts! Here’s an excerpt from Geoffrey’s announcement over at ‘In the Middle’:

“On the first daye of Aprille, lat us make tyme to take joye yn alle langages that are yclept ‘old,’ or ‘middel,’ or ‘auncient,’ or ‘archaic,’ or, alas, even ‘dead.’ … Ich do invyte yow to joyne me and manye othir goode folk yn a celebracioun across the entyre globe of the erthe. Yn thys celebracioun we shal reade of oold bokes yn sondrye oold tonges. We shal singe olde songes. We shal playe olde playes. Eny oold tonge will do, and eny maner of readinge. All are welcome. We shal make merrye yn the magical dreamscape of ‘social media,’ and eke, yf ye kan do yt, yn the material plane of the ‘real worlde’ as wel.”
As it is the Easter Vacation here in Oxford, I won’t be able to hold my Chaucer Reading Group, so I thought that I would write a blogpost instead, about one of my current favourite Middle English devotional poems and the emotion that it generates. (I’m also going to indulge myself with a discussion of Tolkien at the end of the post!)
The Pietà and the Middle English Lyric
Harley 2846

From BL Harley 2846 (15thC Netherlands)

The image of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ after the crucifixion is known as the pietà (or in Middle English, ‘pity’). The pietà was an extremely popular devotional image in the English parish church in the 15th century, appearing in stained glass (eg. Long Melford), wall paintings (eg. Hornton, Oxfordshire), and in statues and alabaster carvings. (The pietà most familiar to modern audiences is of course by Michaelangelo)

I have written about the importance of the pietà  and its devotional use, especially by women, in relation to Margery Kempe and the performance of religious identity. A summary of my argument is available on the Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon blog (here, and the full article is available open access here). In the article I discussed a number of Middle English poems in which the Virgin speaks directly to the reader as she holds the dead body of her son. In the poems and in the devotional images of the pietà, the Virgin is an exemplary figure. In one lyric, the Virgin declares ‘Who cannot wepe come lerne at me’ [who cannot weep, come learn at me] and when the self-confessed ‘harde-hartid [hard-hearted]’ narrator hears her story and sees the wounded body of Christ, he cannot help but sob, prompting the Virgin to alter her refrain to ‘Who cannot wepe may lerne at thee [who cannot weep may learn at thee]’. The Virgin’s sorrow for her son’s death teaches us the pity and compassion that we should aim to emulate.

When I wrote my article, I had not come across this remarkable Middle English lyric, so I decided to share it on my blog today. It comes from Karen Saupe’s excellent TEAMS edition of Middle English Marian Lyrics (number 40; translation mine):

Thou synfull man of resoun that walkest here up and downe,
Cast thy respeccyoun one my mortall countenaunce.
Se my blody terys fro my herte roote rebowne,
My dysmayd body chased from all plesaunce,
Perysshed wyth the swerd moste dedly of vengaunce.
Loke one my sorofull chere and have therof pytee,
Bewailynge my woo and payne, and lerne to wepe wyth me.

[You sinful man of reason that walks here up and down, cast your sight upon my mortal countenance. See my bloody tears flowing from my heart’s root, my dismayed body chased from all pleasure, perished with the sword most deadly of vengeance. Look upon my sorrowful cheer and have thereof pity, bewailing my woe and pain, and learn to weep with me.]

Mary addresses the reader as though they are walking past the site of the crucifixion (rather like the lyrics in which Christ speaks from the cross, that I discussed in my previous blogpost for Good Friday here). Mary directs our attention to her bloody tears, her body that has been chased from all pleasure, and wounded by a sword of venegeance (this refers to Luke 2:34-35 when Simeon tells Mary that her child is ‘destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel’ but’thy own soul a sword shall pierce’). Mary commands the reader to look upon her sorrowful face, have ‘pity’, and learn to weep with her.

Yf thu can not wepe for my perplexed hevynesse,
Yet wepe for my dere sone, which one my lap lieth ded
Wyth woundis innumerable, for thy wyckednesse,
Made redempcyoun wyth hys blood, spared not hys manhed.
Then the love of hym and mornynge of my maydenhed
Schuld chaunge thyne herte, and thu lyst behold and see
Hys deth and my sorow, and lerne to wepe wyth me.

[If you cannot weep for my perplexed heaviness, yet weep for my dear son, who lies dead upon my lap, with wounds innumerable, for your wickedness, he made redemption with his blood, he spared not his manhood. Then the love of him and the mourning of my maidenhood should change your heart, and you desire to behold and see his death and my sorrow, and learn to weep with me.]

The Virgin’s sorrow is truly touching here as she refers to her ‘perplexed’ heaviness, that is, her bewilderment and confusion. She understands that Christ has bought mankind’s redemption with his act of self-sacrifice on the cross ‘for thy wyckedness’, but as a mother holding the dead body of her son, this is a terrible truth to bear. Christ’s death and Mary’s sorrow combined should change our hearts and help us to learn to weep.

Thyne herte so indurat is that thu cane not wepe
For my sonnes deth, ne for my lamentacyoun?
Than wepe for thy synnes, when thu wakest of thy slepe
And remembre hys kyndnes, hys payne, hys passioun,
And fere not to call to me for supportacyoun.
I am thy frend unfeyned and ever have be;
Love my sone, kepe well hys lawes, and come dwell wyth me.

[Your heart is so hard that you cannot weep for my son’s death, nor for my lamentation? Then weep for your sins, when you wake from your sleep, and remember his kindness, his pain, his passion, and fear not to call to me for support. I am your friend unfeigned and ever have been. Love my son, keep well his laws, and come dwell with me.]

But if we remain ‘indurat’, that is callous or insensitive, to Christ’s death and Mary’s lamentation, then we must weep for our own sins. But Mary does not condemn the reader in this final stanza, she urges that we fear not to call upon her for support as she is our ‘frend unfeyned and ever have be’ [friend unfeigned and ever have been] She concludes by instructing us to love her son, keep his laws, and come dwell with her, a very poignant ending to the poem.

Cultivating Pity

These pietà lyrics are intensely concerned with the cultivation of ‘pity’. Sarah McNamer in her brilliant monograph Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion (2010) has talked about Middle English lyrics as ‘script-like texts‘ which ask the reader to ‘perform compassion for that suffering victim in a private drama of the heart’ (p.1) As we see in the final stanza of the lyric, it is the ‘herte’ of the reader that the Virgin hopes to change with her own display of pity and compassion.

Pity‘ is one of my favourite words in Middle English. It has a range of interrelated meanings: a disposition to mercy; compassion, kindness, generosity of spirit; affection, tenderness; a feeling aroused by the suffering, distress, grief of another; sympathy. In Modern English ‘pity’ has lost some of these important meanings. In its definition of pity as a verb, the OED notes that ‘to feel pity for, to feel sorry for’ is often accompanied by ‘disdain or mild contempt for a person as intellectually or morally inferior.’ This could not be further from the meaning in Middle English. Pity is an emotion that creates connection and empathy between individuals, between the Christians and their God.

The Pity of Bilbo

Pity in the capacious medieval sense is also crucial to one of my favourite texts, The Lord of the Rings. (I know that we’re celebrating medieval texts today, but I can’t help celebrating Tolkien too, as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are a major reason why I’m a medievalist!) In The Fellowship of the Ring, this exchange famously takes place between Gandalf and Frodo when Gandalf reveals that Sauron is seeking the One Ring and he knows the name of Baggins and the Shire:

‘But this is terrible!’ cried Frodo. ‘Far worse than the worst that I imagined from your hints and warnings. O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do now? For now I am really afraid. What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!

Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.

‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’

‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broken in.

‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. ‘I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds. Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least. In any case we did not kill him: he is very old and very wretched.’

(from Chapter 2, ‘The Shadow of the Past’, The Fellowship of the Ring

Frodo uses the word ‘pity’ in its more modern sense, but Gandalf replies by reinstating its medieval meaning of ‘mercy’. Moreover, Gandalf explains that it is a result of his pity for Gollum that Bilbo escaped the evil effect of the Ring. The hobbits are remarkable characters in The Lord of the Rings because they are able to resist the power of the Ring to a greater extent than men and even elves. And here, according to Gandalf, it is pity and mercy that forms the foundation of that resistance.

The pity of Bilbo is a crucial lesson in The Lord of the Rings and this moment is alluded to again when Frodo and Sam finally reach Mount Doom and Gollum makes a final attempt to steal back his precious. In a rather mystical moment, Sam sees the confrontation between the ‘two rivals with other vision’:

A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice. ‘Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’

(from Chapter 3, ‘Mount Doom’, The Return of the King

When Frodo and Gollum face each other, Gollum is reduced to a ‘wholly ruined and defeated’ shape but Frodo is ‘untouchable now by pity’. He turns away to destroy the Ring and Sam is left facing Gollum, who begs for his life, whimpering ‘don’t kill us… Don’t hurt us with nassty cruel steel! Let us live, yes, live just a little longer. Lost lost! We’re lost. And when Precious goes we’ll die, yes, die into the dust.’ Sam, like Bilbo before him, cannot kill Gollum:

His mind was hot with wrath and the memory of evil. It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and also it seemed the only safe thing to do. But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again. But Sam had no words to express what he felt.

(from Chapter 3, ‘Mount Doom’, The Return of the King)

Gollum with the ringSam’s reflection that it would be just and deserved to kill Gollum, recalls Gandalf’s earlier speech to Frodo, as does his description of Gollum as ‘wretched’ (Gandalf said ‘he is very old and very wretched’). Sam has ‘no words to express what he felt’ when he sees Gollum, but it is clear that the words he is looking for are pity and mercy.

Sam lets Gollum live and once again, this is a crucial decision because once inside Mount Doom, Frodo, like Isildur before him, cannot destroy the Ring: ‘I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!‘ But Gollum makes one last attempt to take back his precious and in the ensuing struggle, he reclaims the Ring but slips over the edge into the fire below, destroying the Ring once and for all. Sam carries Frodo out of the mountain and, importantly, he asks Sam if he remembers Gandalf’s words: ‘Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over.’ Sam’s pity for Gollum re-enacts Bilbo’s pity and as a result, the quest is complete. If Sam had not found it in his heart to have pity for Gollum, the Ring may not have been destroyed.

Gandalf and Galadriel

As a footnote to this post, I wanted to mention something fascinating that I noticed while watching the special features on the final Hobbit movie, ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’. As a fan of all Peter Jackson’s films, I’m always keen to watch the extra scenes on the extended edition dvds and when I saw this moment at Dol Guldur, when Gandalf has been fighting the Necromancer, I couldn’t help but think of the pietà. (And if I remember rightly, Peter Jackson himself mentions Michaelangelo’s pietà in one of the special features interviews).

Galadriel holds the injured Gandalf on her lap and gazes upon him like the Virgin holding the body of Christ. And like Christ, Gandalf will rise again, to fight against Sauron and the forces of evil, and to encourage Frodo and the hobbits to cultivate the emotion of pity in their hearts.


Laura Varnam, ‘The Crucifix, The Pietà, and the Female Mystic: Devotional Objects and Performative Identity in The Book of Margery Kempe‘, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, 41. 2 (2015), 208-237

My guest Blogpost on Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon blog, available here

JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

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‘Abide, Ye Who Pass By’: A Poem for Good Friday

Harley 2952

Crucifixion with Mary and John, BL Harley 2951 (early 15th century)

For Good Friday, I wanted to share a fourteenth-century Middle English lyric that I have been working on recently (from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson poet. 175). It’s  written in the voice of Christ in three stanzas and addresses the reader directly from the cross:

Abyde, gud men, & hald yhour pays

And here what god him-seluen says,

Hyngand on þe rode.

Man & woman þat bi me gase,

Luke vp to me & stynt þi pase,

For þe I sched my blode.

(Abide, good men, and hold your peace, / And hear what God himself says, / Hanging on the rood./ Man and woman that by me goes, / Look up to me and cease your pace, / For you I shed my blood.)

Christ accosts the man and woman who are on the point of passing by the cross and commands them to look up at him. This address constructs the reader as a viewer of the crucifixion, present at the scene, in the very manner encouraged by Nicholas Love in the popular fifteenth-century devotional text, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus ChristIn the meditation for the crucifixion, Love urges the reader to ‘take hede now diligently with alle þi herte’ and ‘make þe þere present in þi mynde, beholdyng alle þat shale be done a3eynus þi lorde Jesu’ (‘take heed diligently with all your heart’ and ‘make yourself present in your mind [at the crucifixion], beholding all that shall be done against your Lord Jesus’). The Rawlinson lyric is insistent that the reader/viewer do this as Christ commands:

Be-hald my body or þou gang,

And think opon my payns strang,

And styll als stane þou stand.

Biheld þi self þe soth, & se

How I am hynged here on þis tre

And nayled fute & hand.

(Behold my body before you go, / And think upon my pains strong, / And still as stone you stand. / Behold for yourself the truth, and see /  How I am hung here on this tree, / And nailed foot and hand)

We are commanded to behold Christ’s body, think upon his pains, and behold for ourselves how he is nailed to the cross (although I think there is also a nice pun here on ‘biheld þi self’: behold ‘for yourself’ but also behold ‘your own self’ in Christ’s image, as the poet goes on to relate the crucifixion to the viewer’s own sins). The poet creates a moment of pause and reflection in our busy lives in which we are advised to stop, to stand as still as stone, and contemplate Christ’s agony.

Arundel 83

Energetic nailing to the cross (BL Arundel 83, early 14th c)

Behald my heud, bi-hald my fete,

And of ma mysdedes luke þou lete;

Behald my grysely face

And of þi syns ask aleggance,

And in my mercy haue affyaunce

And þou sall get my grace.

(Behold my head, behold my feet, / And of more misdeeds look that you refrain, / Behold my grisly face / And of your sins ask for remission, / And in my mercy have faith, / And you shall get my grace)

In the final stanza, Christ exhorts the reader/viewer to behold his head and feet, and refrain from further misdeeds. Beholding his grisly face, we must ask for remission (‘aleggance’) from our sins and to have ‘affyaunce’ in God’s mercy. In Middle English ‘affiaunce‘ means confidence, assurance, faith, and trust. The second definition, however, includes ‘a solemn promise, a pledge of loyalty’. If we have faith in Christ’s mercy, therefore, he promises us his grace. It is a reciprocal relationship.

York Mystery Plays (youtube video)

In the ‘Crucifixion play’ in the set of Biblical plays known as the York Mystery Cycle, Christ also directly addresses the spectators when he is raised up on the cross as part of the passion sequence. ‘Al men that walkis by waye or strete’, he begins, directly referring to the audience gathered in the streets of York to watch the staging of the Biblical story:

Byholdes myn heede, myn handis, and my feete,
And fully feele nowe, or ye fyne,
Yf any mournyng may be meete
Or myscheve mesured unto myne. (York Crucifixion, ll.255-258)

(Behold my head, my hands, and my feet, and fully feel now, before you leave, if there is any mourning that is equal or mischief that can be measured unto mine).

Here the playwright draws on Lamentations 1:12, a text that was recited in church on Good Friday and that asks ‘if there is any sorrow like unto my sorrow’ (which I can’t help singing to Handel’s tune in the Messiah!) I like the use of the verb ‘feele‘ here as in Middle English it means to experience a physical sensation, to be aware through pain or a sense of touch, as well as to have an emotional empathy with, ‘to feel’ in the modern sense. Feeling is a bodily and tactile sensation as well as an emotional reaction.


BL Additional 16997 (early 15thC)

Christ then asks God to forgive his persecutors (who nailed him to the cross) and, implicitly, the audience as whole, for whose sake he is there in the first place:

My Fadir, that alle bales may bete,
Forgiffis thes men that dois me pyne.
What thai wirke wotte thai noght.
Therfore, my Fadir, I crave
Latte nevere ther synnys be sought,
But see their saules to save. (259-64)

(My father, that all sorrows may cure, forgive these men that do me pain; what they work, they know not. Therefore, my Father, I crave, let their sins never be visited upon them, but save their souls).

[This passage draws on Luke 23:34 ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do]

Harley 2846

BL Harley 2846 (here)

One of the things that interests me about Middle English lyrics is their representation of time and space. In the York play, Christ’s speech from the cross takes place at a real moment in his life story, when he is hanging on the cross, moments before his death. In the play cycle, Christ’s life and passion are re-enacted for the contemporary viewer in real time and in the real streets of the city (both medieval and modern, as the plays are regularly performed today). At this moment in the play, Christ asks for forgiveness for mankind’s sins but this forgiveness is still to come as he has not yet died and been resurrected in the timescale of the cycle, thus fulfilling his ultimate plan.

In the lyric, I see time and space working a little differently. Christ’s speech from the cross is to some extent detached from the passion narrative. The voice speaking from the cross could just as easily be speaking from one of the ubiquitous devotional images of the crucifixion prevalent in the period, from personal devotional images such as Books of Hours (as pictured above) to communal images such as the crucifix on the rood screen in the parish church. Christ is still made present to the reader/viewer’s contemporary time, he is ‘hyngand’ (hanging) on the cross, but he speaks from a moment that is not so clearly tied to the historical narrative as it is in the York plays. He is able to speak about himself in the third person at the beginning of the lyric, ‘here what god hem-seluen says’ (hear what God himself says) and he is able to offer the promise of salvation immediately because his death and resurrection have already taken place. His forgiveness has already been granted and the lyric’s image of his crucified body is its guarantee. As long as we strive to sin no more and ask for Christ’s mercy, as the lyric instructs, his grace is assured.

In terms of space, the play and the lyric also operate somewhat differently. In the play the viewer is part of a communal audience, a group who are made to play the part of witnesses at the foot of cross in York-as-Calvary. The lyric could of course be read communally, and indeed it addresses a plural audience of ‘good men’ in its opening line, but the reference to ‘þi self’ speaks to the individual and the visualisation of Christ’s body takes place in the mind of the individual reader, it is not staged directly before them as in the play. Commanded to behold his body, I would suggest that the Rawlinson lyric creates a meditative space for the reader in which, standing ‘styll as stane’ (still as stone), we can contemplate the meaning of the events of Good Friday ‘diligently’, to return to Nicholas Love, ‘with alle þi herte.’


‘Abide, Ye Who Pass By’ from Carleton Brown, ed, Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century (OUP, 1924, repr. 1957)

Nicholas Love, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, ed. Michael G. Sargent (Exeter Medieval Texts, 2004)

TEAMS edition of the York Plays: online here

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