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 laura.varnamATuniv.ox.ac.uk.

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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Teaching with Twitter: An Experiment with Chaucer’s Troilus

This rather long post begins with a reflection on my teaching methods for my first and second year courses on Old and Middle English literature at University College, Oxford. I then introduce the context and background for my experiment of using twitter with my second year students to engage creatively with Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.

Context: Teaching Methods

I like to experiment with different methods in my teaching and to take advantage of all the resources that the university has to offer. This term I took my first year students to the Bodleian Library with the Univ librarians to use the hand-press printers (see previous post here). This experience will help them to understand print culture when they study Renaissance Literature next year. We also had a class at the Ashmolean Museum with Dr Jim Harris, handling and learning to ‘read’ Anglo-Saxon objects, such as the decorative brooches that students encounter in poems such as Beowulf. I linked this in to our class on the structure of Beowulf, in which I asked the students to think about John Leyerle’s influential article on ‘interlace’ structure. This article directly compares the Beowulf-poet’s style to the decorative patterns found on objects such as the Sutton Hoo belt buckle or in

Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle

the carpet pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Focusing on the material culture of a text’s production and period is an important part of my own research (see the post about my work on The Book of Margery Kempe and devotional objects here) and I think that it’s important that students think about texts as part of the range of practices that a culture employs, from building churches to going on pilgrimage, producing visual art to staging dramatic performances.

In my second year teaching this term, I have been working with my students on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. In their final exam, the students have to write a critical commentary on a passage from the poem so they need to know the poem and its style in considerable detail. My colleague Jenni Nuttall (@stylisticienne) has produced some invaluable resources for Troilus commentary, from her Reader’s Guide to the poem to the Poetics Primer on her blog. I frequently make use of both in my teaching.

One of my primary strategies for helping to students to engage with the poem and become familiar with it over the term, is my Chaucer Reading Group. The group was inspired by my undergraduate experience at Durham when my tutors ran a similar group and allowed eager undergrads to take part. It was a real pleasure to read through the Canterbury Tales with Corinne Saunders, John McKinnell, and David Fuller, all of whom read with skill, passion, and good humour. I realise now that it was a formative experience for my thinking about how to engage students in medieval literature.

‘Joie’ and ‘Troie’: Reading Chaucer Aloud

This term, my Chaucer Reading Group met six times and we read from Books I, II, III, and V of the poem (we didn’t have chance to read from Book IV but we studied passages from it in my normal classes). During the reading group, we all read aloud from the poem, going around the group, and stopping to discuss passages in detail as we go. I am a great believer in the importance and value of reading aloud, for any literary period, but especially for the Middle Ages when texts were read aloud and experienced communally (see here for the ‘Troilus frontispiece’ from Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 61 which depicts Chaucer reading aloud to a courtly audience)

Reading Troilus with my second years is always a joy and it is wonderful to see how the students develop their readings as we go through the term and look in detail at the narrative as it unfolds. Reading aloud has a number of advantages. Students gain a better sense of the pace of the poem. The dramatic quality of the dialogues between characters comes to the fore (in previous years we have experimented with dividing the roles between students- one will read Criseyde’s lines, one Troilus, one Pandarus, and one the narrator). The poem really comes to life when read aloud. We’ve simultaneously laughed at and recoiled from the exchanges between Pandarus and Criseyde. We’ve been frustrated with Troilus’s courtly excess but sympathised as he waited for Criseyde’s promised return. We’ve watched with a mixture of anticipation and fear as Criseyde has fallen in love with Troilus and then, inevitably, betrayed him. Reading Troilus aloud is always one of the highlights of my term and I always notice new things about the poem in collaboration with my students.

Troilus Twitter Experiment: The Background

This term, in our final reading group, I decided to experiment with using twitter in my teaching of the poem. As many of you know, I am something of a twitter-addict! It’s a wonderful way of connecting with medievalists in the field and I’ve had a number of fascinating twitter conversations that have made me think about texts in new ways (talking about The Book of Margery Kempe as ‘fan fiction’ with Kathryn Maude, for example).

I have come across a number of interesting ways of using twitter to think about medieval texts. Academics who have tweeted medieval poems in 100 tweets (Elaine Treharne tweeted Beowulf; Christene D’Anca tweeted Troilus; Eric Weiskott tweeted Gawain and the Green Knight in 101 tweets as the poem has 101 stanzas). There have been projects asking students to tweet throughout their courses and engage with their peers and other twitter users, such as academics (see Josh Eyler on Adventures in Student Engagement; Kisha Tracy’s use of twitter in a course on the Crusades; and Mary Flannery’s article on teaching a course on Troy using twitter). As a social media platform, twitter fosters debate and exchange and I like the idea of students engaging with other academics both in the UK and internationally. One of my twitter followers, an undergraduate student working on Old Norse texts, Josefina, commented on one of my recent tweets that she has really benefited from twitter discussions with academics and she has even been inspired to start a debate herself, setting up a poll for users to vote on their preferred Old Norse character (Gudrun or Brynhild!)

Getting Creative with Twitter

I was particularly inspired by Sjoerd Levelt who has tweeted and blogged about his use of twitter in teaching the Iliad as part of a course on ancient and classical civilisation. (For a description, see here) Levelt set an assignment whereby students has to tweet as certain characters from the Iliad (for whom he had devised twitter-handles or names) and he highlighted the importance of ‘perspective‘, telling the students to ‘think, for example, of what your character can know, what they would find important, how they would view certain actions and events, what kind of language they would use’ (Levelt) What I particularly liked about this activity was its creative focus. The students had to compose tweets as certain characters and they were encouraged to tweet ‘at’ other characters and to use hashtags creatively. My own students at Univ are incredibly creative and when I teach Old English, I often have a class in which I ask the students to produce their own creative translation of any of the Old English poems that we have studied. (This has produced some incredible material, from a rap version of Bede’s story of Caedmon’s Hymn to a puppet show of The Battle of Maldon, retold in limericks!)

So for my last reading group, I decided to ask my students to come up with twitter-handles, tweets, and hashtags for Troilus and Criseyde. As this was motivated in part by a desire to allow the students to think creatively and freely about the poem, I didn’t set detailed parameters but if I was using twitter as an official in-class activity, I would think more carefully about this next time (Mary Flannery reflects on the importance of having a plan in her article on ‘Teaching with Twitter’: ‘social media needs to be clearly relevant: students need to know why they are using it and what they will get out of it’, p.4). I told my second years that our use of twitter was experimental and they were happy with this (and for me to blog about the results). So, what did my students come up with?

Troilus Twitter: The Results

  1. Twitter-handles

For Troilus:

  • @lil’Troy or @TroyBoy [reflecting the relationship between the fate of Troilus and the fate of Troy]
  • @weepy_warrior [emphasising Troilus’s tears as part of his performance as a courtly lover]
  • @twixt-wyndes [referring to Troilus’s state ‘betwixen wyndes two’ in the Canticus Troilus of Book I, line 417]
  • @god_of_bataille [referring to Book II when Criseyde sees Troilus through the window, II.630, foregrounding the importance of how individuals are seen in public in the poem]

For Criseyde:

  • @hevenysshwoman [reflecting the narrator’s description of Criseyde in the temple in Book I:104]
  • @Criseyde_you_look [punning on ‘made you look’ and reflecting the trend for twitter handles to be humorous, but also on how crucial public perception of Criseyde is to the poem]
  • @monobrow_Cris [referring to the portrait in Book V:813 when we suddenly discover that Criseyde has a monobrow, and how this reminds us again of the narrator’s role in controlling our knowledge of key facts and interpretations]

For Diomede:

  • @MrStealYoGirl [reflecting Diomede’s active role in Criseyde’s betrayal of Troilus, and also reflecting an internet meme]
  • @tongelarge [referring to Diomede’s portrait in Book V:804 and our discussions of Diomede’s carefully planned speeches to Criseyde]

The students also thought about other characters who would be tweeting. The goddess Fortune was a particular favourite, with suggested twitter-handles of @wheelerdealer, @hotwheel, @slipperywheel reflecting the image of Fortune’s wheel in the poem. In our classes we frequently discussed A. C. Spearing’s view of the narrator of Troilus not as a character but a ‘sequence of narratorial first-persons’ (quoted in Nuttall, Reader’s Guide, p.6), so one of the students suggested that the narrator would tweet from @Spearing_fan. One student thought that Criseyde’s father, Calchas, who betrayed Troy and defected to the Greeks might tweet as @ILoveGreece. Another student thought about the envoy in Book V when the narrator dismisses his book (‘Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedye’ V:1786) and suggested that @litel_bok might tweet as follows: ‘Tehee, off I go! @Virgil @Ovid @Homer @Lucan @Stace’ The tweet reflects how Chaucer dismisses his book and sends it to follow in the footsteps of his great classical auctours, as a twitter-user might tweet ‘at’ other users, hoping for a response.

2. Tweets and conversations

A number of the students experimented with tweeting particular moments from the poem:

Book I, temple scene, Troilus and the God of Love: Troilus walking up and down ‘byholding ay the ladies of the town’ (I:186), his pride and arrogance in criticising lovers (‘surquidrie’ I:213) and the sudden change that comes over him when the God of Love shoots him with his arrow (I:237-8)

  • Troilus tweets ‘blynde be you fooles, loveres alle #ByholdingAyTheLadies #surquidrie’
  • God of Love replies ‘Oi Oi, no man fordon the lawe of kynde’
  • Troilus replies ‘#weilaway What feele I do, I dey, I dey!!!!!!!!!!!!!’

Book I, Troilus falls in love and Pandarus resolves to help him. Troilus tweets a cryptic message encouraging Pandarus to contact him (cf I:416-7 winds of fate from Canticus Troili). Pandarus replies asking for Troilus to ‘DM’ or direct message him, the tweet highlighting the role of secrecy in the affair. In Book II when Criseyde is beginning to fall for Troilus, Pandarus then tweets the image of the ruby in the ring with a winky face emoticon (II:585), alluding to the troubling nature of Pandarus’s role as go-between in the poem.

  • Troilus tweets ‘TFW you are blown between the winds of fate’ [TFW: That Feeling When]
  • Pandarus replies ‘DM me x’
  • Pandarus tweets ‘the ruby is set wel within the ring 😉 ‘

Book V, Criseyde is tweeting from the Greek camp and Troilus responds bitterly.

  • Criseyde tweets, ‘I’m meeting loads of new people in the Greek camp #siegeswop’
  • Diomede replies with the smiley face emoticon with heart-shaped eyes: 😍
  • Troilus replies, ‘you can tweet but you can’t write me a decent letter’

Book III consummation scene, Pandarus tweets ‘MFW [my face when] I read an olde romaunce’. The students thought that this might also come with a GIF! (III:979-80, ‘fond his contenaunce, / as for to looke upon an old romaunce’)

Book V, Criseyde tweets ‘Any good present ideas anyone, I’ve only got this brooch #feelingconfused’ This arose from our debate over Criseyde giving Diomede the brooch that belonged to Troilus (V:1040-41, ‘and ek a broche- and that was litel nede- / that Troilus was, she yaf this Diomede’)

3. Hashtags

When we discussed hashtags, we thought that all the characters would be following the #TrojanWar and that if personal tweets were also tagged with the Trojan War, it would replicate the way in which Troilus and Criseyde’s affair takes place in the context of the war.

In the course of our classes we discussed Criseyde’s concern for her ‘honour’ and reputation, and what the public might be saying about her. The students suggested that #jangle might be used to tag the gossip about Criseyde (in Middle English ‘jangling‘ covers spiteful gossip, idle chatter, tale-telling, quarrelling). In the poem the narrator uses it in Book II when Criseyde has fallen for Troilus (‘Now myghte som envious jangle thus: / ‘This was a sodeyn love’, II:666-7) and in Book V Criseyde uses it when she is trying to convince herself that she will not listen to ‘wikked tonges janglerie‘ (V:755) and she will return to Troy.

Case Study: Pandarus

One of my students, Jess, produced a brilliant twitter profile for Pandarus (thank you to Jess for allowing me to share it here!). For the twitter-handle she chose ‘@PuppetPandy’, foregrounding Pandarus’s role in orchestrating the affair between Troilus and Criseyde. For his profile description, she had Pandarus describe himself as ‘lover of proverbs, dab hand at matchmaking’ and gave him a website that highlighted his voyeurism in overseeing the affair.

Jess Pandarus

The top trend was ‘#IHateTheGreeksBecause‘, reflecting the Trojan War context. Pandarus used #tresoun when questioning whether Criseyde would return from the Greek camp, which tied in to our discussions of betrayal in the poem (Calchas betraying Troy and his daughter when he defects to the Greeks, for example). Troilus was tweeting as ‘@onlyfoolsfallinlove’ and Diomede was ‘@babemagnet’. Criseyde was ‘@ThatGirlCriseyde’, emphasising her public prominence.

In the tweets, Jess wanted to highlight the passage of time, in particular the time that has elapsed since the beginning of the affair and Criseyde’s betrayal (Chaucer extended the time frame from his source, Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato- Book V:8-14 begins by telling us that three springs have gone by since Troilus say Criseyde in the temple in Book I). In her presentation, Jess talked in particular about the final tweet in which Pandarus tweets Criseyde, ‘I kind of hate you btw, lol.’ This refers to Pandarus’s final speech in the poem in Book V when he declares to Troilus, ‘I hate, ywis, Cryseyde; / And, God woot, I wol hate hire evermore!‘ (V:1732-33) We had considerable debate about this speech in class (whether we felt that it was justified, why Pandarus would resort to such a severe condemnation of his niece). With the use of ‘lol‘, Jess wanted to explore the ways in which statements on social media can be undercut or defended as a joke if they are followed by ‘lol’ or a winky face, making the author’s intention difficult to discover (and of course ‘entente‘ is a key word in the poem, especially concerning Criseyde).


After the students had presented their creations, I asked them what they had learned from the experiment. Here are some of the points raised:

  • tweeting from the perspective of the characters helped the students to think about Chaucer’s characterisation (including how difficult or easy it was to tweet as certain characters)
  • it was fun to ‘update‘ the emotions of the characters into the language of social media, which in some ways reflected Chaucer’s own updating or ‘medievalizing’ of the Trojan story
  • it highlighted the humour of the poem (especially when thinking about Pandarus, a character who often polarises opinion in discussion!)
  • it raised interesting questions about time in the poem (we discussed whether Troilus would be ‘live-tweeting’ from the temple in Book I)
  • the connection with other social media platforms such as instagram (Criseyde looking out of the window and seeing Troilus riding by in his armour in Book II would make a good instagram picture)
  • Criseyde’s fear that she will become a byword for infidelity could be replicated on twitter by her being ‘trolled‘ by hostile followers, provoking a twitterstorm of debate about her actions

One key theme in the poem that proved difficult to replicate on twitter was the secrecy of Troilus and Criseyde’s affair and the importance of keeping it out of the public eye. With twitter being such a public platform, it is unlikely that Troilus and Criseyde would tweet about their love for each other! We also discussed the moments when Chaucer gives us access to Criseyde’s thoughts and then reports her speech. If Criseyde was tweeting both her private thoughts and public utterances, this would replicate our reading experience as of course we have access to both, but the characters within the poem do not. We also discussed the complexity of tweeting from Criseyde’s perspective in Book V once she is in the Greek camp. Barry Windeatt comments that one of the effects of the narration in the final Book is that Criseyde ‘slips ever further out of focus’ and that the ‘reader’s baffled sense of ‘losing’ Criseyde in the narrative shares in the bafflement and pain of Troilus himself’ (Troilus and Criseyde, p.288).


I really enjoyed my creative twitter experiment and I would certainly consider making use of twitter in other classes in the future, perhaps with a focus on student writing in addition to creative outputs. Mary Flannery reflects that twitter improves student writing as being confined to 140 characters requires students to be precise and focused, especially when tweeting the argument of an essay (Flannery, pp.6-7). If I used twitter again I think I would do this kind of activity as I often find that students can struggle to articulate the central argument of an essay and breaking it down into five tweets, for example, might be a helpful way of establishing their basic premise in stages.

Thank you very much for reading. If you have also used twitter in teaching, please do let me know! Comment below or tweet @lauravarnam


Thank you to my second year English students at Univ for participating in this experiment and allowing me to quote from their work: Jess, Jennie, Seamus, Ben, JH, John, and Alex.


Thank you to Mary C. Flannery for letting me read her article.

  • Mary C. Flannery, ‘Teaching with Twitter: A Medievalist’s Case Study’, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching, 22.1 (2015), 99-109
  • Jenni Nuttall, Troilus and Criseyde: A Reader’s Guide (CUP, 2012)
  • Mark Sample, ‘Practical Advice for Teaching with Twitter’, Chronicle of Higher Education , August 25 2010 (here)
  • Barry Windeatt, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: Troilus and Criseyde (OUP, 1992; repr. 2002)
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#WorldBookDay: Printing in the Bodleian


For #WorldBookDay the Univ librarians, Elizabeth and Emily, arranged to take my first year English students to the Bodleian library to use the hand-press printers and print one of Shakespeare’s sonnets! We had a fantastic time and I wanted to share some of the photos of our experience. We decided to print one of Shakespeare’s sonnets because the Bodleian is currently running a project to collect together all of the sonnets, printed on hand-presses from around the work. You can read about the project here and follow @bodleiancsb and @theBroadPress for photos of submissions as they come in. This is part of the Shakespeare 2016 events that mark 400 years since the death of Shakespeare. (For Oxford events, check out the Oxford Shakespeare 2016 website here)

I asked my students which sonnet they would like to print and Victoria suggested sonnet 65:

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O! none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

In order to print the sonnet, first we had to set the type:

The type has to be inserted (upside down) into the composing stick (see above, bottom right) and spaces are added to fill up the line. Once all the lines of our sonnet had been set in the composing sticks, Elizabeth had to fit them together and set them in a frame ready to transfer to the printing press.

The sonnet was then transferred to the printing press and we prepared the ink, ready to roll onto the type itself. We were printing in cobalt ink (or Univ blue, one of our college colours!)

We then did a proof copy… and found a number of errors! Especially with the letters ‘p’, ‘q’, ‘b’ and ‘d’ because when you’re setting type it can be very easy to confuse them! (Hence the expression, ‘mind your p’s and q’s). Here’s my student Daisy checking the proof copy with Elizabeth:


Our favourite spelling mistake was  ‘imqregnadle’ which should have been ‘impregnable’! (We had confused our q/p and d/b!) We also printed ‘dreath’ for ‘breath’, whoops! (See below)


Luckily Elizabeth was able to correct the errors before the final print. The students then took it in turns to print copies of the sonnet on the hand-press: inking the type, putting the paper in, turning the handle to roll the paper and type into the press, and then pulling the handle to print.

Once the students had finished, it was my turn!

We left the printed sonnets to dry out and Elizabeth is going to print them all with the Univ crest and the title of the sonnet (I will update this post with the finished product once I have it).

We’d like to say a big thank you to the Bodleian’s print room for having us and the Univ librarians for organising such a great experience. Thank you all!


My Univ English students


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The Seven Works of Mercy: Part I

In the church of All Saints North Street, in York, is a fifteenth-century stained glass window that depicts the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy. The window was donated by the family of Nicholas Blackburn and shows Nicholas, with his distinctive bushy beard, performing six of the seven Corporal (or bodily) Works of Mercy.


Nicholas Blackburn (left), visiting the sick. (All photos copyright L.Varnam)

This charitable schema was derived from the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:34-44 when Christ declares to the saved:

“For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me. Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee? Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee? And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.”

Based on this, with the addition of burying the dead from the Book of Tobit, the Seven Corporal  Works of Mercy were as follows:

  1. Feeding the hungry
  2. Giving drink to the thirsty
  3. Giving hospitality to the homeless
  4. Clothing the naked
  5. Visiting the sick
  6. Visiting those in prison;
  7. Burying the Dead

In the window at All Saints, Nicholas Blackburn performs the first six (the window itself, donated by his family, could perhaps be seen to perform the seventh, burial- or at least commemoration of- the dead).


Feeding the Hungry


Giving drink to the thirsty


Giving hospitality to the homeless


Clothing the naked


Visiting the sick


Visiting prisoners

The Corporal Works of Mercy were matched by the Spiritual Works of Mercy which were focused on less practical matters: instructing the ignorant, counselling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving injuries, comforting the sorrowful, and praying for the living and the dead. (For more on this, see Cullum in the references below).

The Works were portrayed in stained glass windows, as we have seen, and in church wall paintings, such as at Pickering in Yorkshire (see paintedchurch.org for details). Such visual depictions helped the laity to keep these charitable actions in mind when in church and they could be referred to by parish priests during their sermons.

The Works were also the subject of a carol by the fifteenth-century poet John Audelay (see Stylisticienne for a definition of carol; Audelay’s book is edited for TEAMS by Susanna Greer Fein here). The carol’s burden or chorus declares “Wele is him and wele schal be, / That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé” and the carol lists the primary corporal works (in bold) plus one of the spiritual works (in italics).

Fede the hungeré; the thirsté gif drenke;
Clothe the nakid, as Y youe say;
Vesid the pore in presun lyyng;                    [visit, lying]
Beré the ded, now I thee pray —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

Herber the pore that goth be the way;          [shelter]
Teche the unwyse of thi conyng;                          [ignorant of your wisdom]
Do these dedis nyght and day,
Thi soule to heven hit wil thee bryng —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him etc.

In the second part of the poem, Audelay goes on to explain why it is advisable to have “peté” [pity] on the poor:

And ever have peté on the pore,
And part with him that God thee send;          [share what God sends thee]
Thou hast no nother tresoure,
Agayns the Day of Jugement —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him etc.

The pore schul be mad domusmen               [judges]
Opon the ryche [rich] at Domysday;
Let se houe thai con onsware then,                 [how, answer]
Fore al here [their] reverens, here ryal aray— [royal array]
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him etc.

In hongyr, in thurst, in myschif — wellay! —     [allas!]
After here almus ay waytyng:
“Thay wold noght us vesete nyght ne day.”
Thus wil thai playn ham to Heven Kyng —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him etc.

It is advisable to share what we have with the poor because there is no other treasure that can be offered up on Judgement Day. The poor will judge the rich and if the poor have been “after here almus ay waytyng” [for their alms ever waiting], they will “playn” to the king of heaven that the rich “wold nought us vesete nyght ne day” [would not visit us night or day]. In Middle English the verb ‘pleinen’ means to complain, to appeal to, but it also means to make a legal complaint or accusation (MED here). The poor will not just lament their pitiful state before God, they will express a legal grievance against the rich.

In the second part of this post (to follow), I will show how the Seven Works of Mercy, and the attitude towards the poor recommended by Audelay’s carol, is crucial to the advice given in the fifteenth-century romance, The Awntyrs off Arthur, by the grisly ghost of Guinvere’s Mother!


All photos of stained glass taken by Laura Varnam.

John Audelay, ‘Works of Mercy’ carol, from TEAMS edition here

P. H. Cullum, ‘”Yf lak of charyte be not ower hynderawnce”: Margery Kempe, Lynn, and the Practice of the Spiritual and Bodily Works of Mercy’, in Arnold and Lewis, eds., A Companion to the Book of Margery Kempe (Brewer, 2004), 177-93

Seven Works of Mercy wall paintings: paintedchurch.org

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Ain’t Misbehavin’: How to Behave in the Church and Churchyard

ChurchIn the section on sloth in his Instructions for Parish Priests, John Mirk (fl. c.1382-1414) suggests that parishioners should be questioned during confession about their behaviour in and around the church:

Hast þou come to chyrche late
And spoken of synne by þe gate?
[…] Hast þou letted any mon
Þat to chyrche wolde haue gone?
(BL Royal MS 2 B 1)                                             Hast þow spoken harlatry
Wythynne chyrche or seyntwary? (p.36)

[Have you come to the church late, and spoken of sin by the gate? Have you hindered any man that wished to go to church? Have you spoken harlotry within the church or sanctuary?]

GossipA major part of the priest’s job was to ensure that the church remained a sacred space at the heart of the community. Being late for church or hindering anyone else who wanted to attend was sinful (as I discussed in my earlier post on a medieval proverb) and indulging in ‘harlatry’ (ribald or obscene speech) at the churchyard gate or within the church itself endangered the very sanctity of the space by polluting it with profane language.

[BL MS Royal 6 E VII, men talking]

Mirk expends considerable energy on good and bad behaviour in the church in his Instructions. And the reason for this is as follows:

For cryst hym self techeth vsSt Helen's Abingdon
Þat holy chyrche ys hys hows,
Þat ys made for no þynge elles
But for to pray In, as þe boke tells;
Þere þe pepulle schale geder with Inne
To prayen and to wepen for here synne. (p.9)

[For Christ himself teaches us that holy church is his house, that it is made for no other thing but to pray in, as the book tells; there people shall gather within to pray and to weep for their sin]

Mirk is referring here to the most important idea of the church, drawn from Genesis 28:17, that it is the house of God and the gate of heaven. It is a sacred space (as I discussed in an earlier post), in which the congregation gather to pray and to perform penance for their sin.

But this did not mean that it was a perfect space without sin. As Mirk’s Instructions demonstrate, the congregation needed to be reminded continually about how to behave in the church and therefore safeguard the sanctity of the space.

So what did Mirk encourage the parish priest to teach to his congregation?

3et þow moste teche hem mare
Þat whenne þey doth to chyrche fare,
Þenne bydde hem leue here mony words,
Here ydel speche, and nyce bordes,
And put a-way alle vanyte,
And say here pater noster & here aue. (p.9)

[You much teach them further that when they go to church, bid them to leave their many words, their idle speech, and foolish amusements, and put away all vanity and say their Pater Noster and Ave Maria]

First, he must encourage the laity to swop their idle speech for the two most important prayers that every medieval Christian must know, the Pater Noster (Lord’s Prayer) and the Ave Maria (Hail Mary).

Having controlled their tongue, parishioners should then discipline their bodies. They should not stand or lean against a pillar or wall in the church, they should kneel upon the floor ‘and pray to god wyth herte meke / to 3eue hem grace and mercy eke’ [pray to God with meek heart to give them grace and mercy]. When the gospel is read they should stand, when the bell is rung for at the elevation of the host (when the consecrated bread is held up by the priest during the mass), they should kneel and say the following prayer:

Ihesu, lord, welcome þow be,Host
In forme of bred as I þe se;
Jhesu! For thy holy name,
Schelde me to day fro synne & schame. (p.9)

[Jesus, lord, you are welcome in the form of bread as I see you. Jesus! For your holy name, shield me this day from sin and shame]

(Elevation of the Host, BL Egerton 1070)

Seeing the consecrated bread during the Mass had real benefits for parishioners. Mirk explains that on the day that the host is seen, the parishioner will not lack food, idle words and oaths will be forgiven, and sudden death will be avoided! The sacred sight of Christ’s body in the host is a powerful form of protection.

Having detailed good behaviour in the church, Mirk then warns against bad behaviour in the churchyard, a space that was frequently used for secular purposes in the late Middle Ages, as Mirk’s comments indicate:

Also wyth-ynne chyrche & seyntwary
Do ry3t thus as I the say,
Songe and cry and such fare,
For to stynte þow schalt not spare;
Castynge of axtre & eke of ston,
Sofere hem þere to vse non;
Bal and bares and suche play,
Out of chyrch3orde put a-way. (p.11)
[Within the church and sanctuary, do as I say: singing and shouting and such behaviour, you should not spare to discourage; do not suffer your parishioners to throw axle-trees or stones, playing at ball or barres and such games, out of the churchyard put them away]

The followBalling marginal note appears in the Bodleian library manuscript Douce 103 of Mirk’s Instructions, detailing additional games that should be banned: ‘danseyng, cotteryng, bollyng, tenessyng, hand ball, fott ball, stoil ball & all manner other games out cherchyard.’ [dancing, playing quoits, bowling, tennis, hand ball, football, stool ball]

Mirk’s text and the marginal note gives us a fascinating insight into different types of medieval games. ‘Castynge of axtre’ was a game which involved throwing an axle-tree (the bars to which the wheels of a cart were attached) and ‘barres’ is a form of the game ‘prisoner’s base’ or tag. In the marginal note, stool ball is a cross between cricket and baseball, and ‘tenessyng’ is tennis, which in the Middle Ages was a kind of handball. The Walters Art Museum had an exhibition called ‘Checkmate! Medieval People at Play’, pop over to their website for some great images of medieval games and further information on the sports mentioned here.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite manuscript images of games: monks and nuns playing baseball in Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264

Baseball in the Middle Ages Rivalry in sports is not just something of our time. Nor is baseball. Both date back to at least the fourteenth century, when this image was made. What is less likely encountered in a baseball game today are the teams: monks vs nuns. The scene is from the margin of a medieval page, the location used to make fun of people. The manuscript contains a romance, popular among the medieval nobility. Somewhere, someone in a castle had a good laugh about these religious men and women playing ball.  Pic: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264 (14th c). Browse the entire manuscript here. More enjoyable marginal drawings like this are found in this Tumblr post.


John Mirk, Instructions for Parish Priests, ed. Edward Peacock, Early English Text Society o.s. 31 (1868)

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