‘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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