On ‘creepy’ literature

I gave a paper on Emaré at the IMC this year. It touched on quite a few of the related texts, from close analogues like La Manekine to the confusing mire of the Aarne-Thompson index 510. So I started with a plot summary of the part that’s common to most of these texts (but not Chaucer and Gower’s Constance tales, interestingly): there once was a king whose wife died, and when his daughter grew up he fell in love with the daughter and decided to marry her…

Now, I prefaced this with “this is the basic story. It’s creepy, but we’re all medievalists, we’re used to creepy”, or words to that effect. I think I also described La Bele Hélène de Constantinople as creepy in the way it explicitly links food and sexual access – the love interest keeps making propositions to her while she responds with ‘no seriously I have had enough of love, I’m just really hungry…’ and the condition for access to food is listening to more of his propositions. Fun times!

I thought of this as part of my pretty laid-back presentation style. When presenting plot summary, I like to make it amusing. I once described the point in the Chevalier au Lion where Yvain falls in love with Laudine as “everyone has a type, and Yvain likes his women beautiful and crying”. This works for me: the rest of my presentation style is casual, and I save the big words and complicated sentences for the big and complicated ideas parts of the presentation.

After this paper, someone I knew – not well, but we’d clicked at a conference some years ago – came up to me and said “thank you so much for being upfront about how creepy it is!” I can’t remember the exact words she said, but she felt we talk so often about deeply screwed-up narratives like this with poker faces, as if we’ve somehow not noticed it’s creepy.

I’ve seen that happen. But I wonder if something else happens in academia: that we all assume everyone knows x text is rape central, or super skeevy about race, or whatever… and forget to specify. Or we specify in solemn, feelings-free terms, such as “The catalyst event in Emaré is that of family dysfunction and paternal failure”…

Rachel Moss describes the incestuous father trope as pointing to and problematising the most threatening possible failure of patriarchal authority – that of the most powerful figure (the father) against the least (the daughter) in a family unit. That is, critically speaking, a much more solid description of the text than ‘creepy’ (and I got to that later in the paper, when getting down to nuts and bolts of analysis). ‘Creepy’ is a feelings word – it describes how something makes you feel, not the thing at hand. You can point to a bunch of things that are reliably ‘creepy’ (following a fellow conference goer around and waiting until they’re maximally alone and least able to leave before asking them to engage in sexual activity or to hang out in private space, to cite one well-known example), but not all those things are alike. Horror movies are creepy; personal-space-invaders are creepy; and the guy I once worked for who hired pretty female shop assistants and weedy male ones and no ugly women or buff men was creepy: but these things are all comparable on the same axes.

I wonder, though, if it’s worth flagging anyway. Not at the expense of more specific analysis of a text, situation, yadda yadda. Perhaps not always in the very casual way I do it – it wouldn’t work for everyone’s style, and I suspect there will be times, if there haven’t already, where I risk coming across as flippant rather than aware. But what my acquaintance seemed to get out of it was validation. Or reassurance that I did in fact know that what I was dealing with was, well, creepy. Liable to induce feelings of discomfort and a sense that things are not as they ought to be. As far as I can tell, this framing didn’t make her, or me, or anyone else, less able to analyse the text and tropes at a more specific and sophisticated level, and I don’t know if perhaps it annoyed others who didn’t report this to me.

Something similar happens to me in amateur theatre. I do lighting and sound tech, so I get involved in a production very late, compared to the cast and directors and such. I might have had one meeting early on, to find out about the set design, but I don’t get involved in choosing or working with the script until very late. And not infrequently, I come in and find there’s something that to me is glaringly Problematic, and no one else seems to have noticed. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is spectacularly sexist, for instance: everyone got that, but no one, not even the guy wearing the oversized nose prosthesis and singing about eating children, spotted the anti-semitism (let alone the fact that ‘eating children’ takes it up to blood libel, ffs). I’m not saying I want no one to ever stage Problematic shows (you’d lose so many classic musicals), but I would feel so much better if I could be sure it was done in spite of Problematic (TM) Elements rather than in blithe ignorance of them.

This isn’t an essay on Trigger Warnings, although yeah, obviously one way of dealing with this is to give them.1 My interest here is how you talk about this kind of material, when you do talk about it. You don’t necessarily have to be super casual about it – my boss showed a class a battle scene from Ironclad recently and discussed violence and affective response in clear, relatively formal language. She still made room for ‘how did you feel about that?’ – and was able to take those feelings and build them into analysis with a skill I can only hope to achieve one day.

I don’t have a prescription for how everyone should do this, at all. But I’m conscious, now, that there are benefits to highlighting the creepy factor, complementary to the importance of analysing the things that make something creepy and what the creepy thing is supposed to be doing in wider context.

  1. I prefer to describe this function as Content Note rather than trigger warning – it gives you more scope, doesn’t assume the only reason one would benefit from advance notice is Official Trauma, and allows you to give advance notice of, say, both BDSM content and rape related content without implying they’re morally equivalent. We haven’t got to this part of the debate yet in academia, but I grew up in fandom and my approach to content notes was forged long before it became the academic discussion du jour.

Another Leeds CFP

As if the beheadings weren’t enough, I seem to have cooked up a medieval-isms type session proposal with Amy Burge.

Gender and Medieval Otherness

Gender difference has generally been conceived as binary – identities and roles of masculinity and femininity are defined by their difference from one another. So too has the Middle Ages often been seen as ‘other’ – as strange and unfamiliar to an apparently more liberated ‘modernity’. We seek proposals for 15-20 minute papers that deal with any aspect of these connected strands of ‘otherness’ – gender and the ‘medieval’. We welcome proposals focusing on medievalism and post-medieval sources, as well as comparative approaches to medieval sources.

Please submit abstracts of approximately 200 words to Amy Burge (amy.burge@ed.ac.uk) and Amy Brown (amy.drown@unige.ch) by Monday 26th September.

On Co-Writing

This summer, I did a thing I have never done before in academic contexts: co-wrote something. And co-presented it!  I got together with a friend who’s an MA student of our department in Geneva, and we put together a paper entitled “text-image relationships in medieval and modern Arthuriana”, for SAMEMES 5. We were comparing medieval manuscript illumination strategies to the modern fandom gifset, which seemed like fun when we proposed it, and stayed fun, but also turned into an argument we’re proud of and want to pursue further.

Those who’ve been around for a while will know I was very impressed with Kathleen Neal’s advice on the Buddy System for Humanities Publishing. Unlike Kath, I haven’t had a prior career in the sciences, but I do have enough friends in other faculties to know that the isolation of the humanities scholar is unusual. I’m gonna quote Kath here again, because Kath is wise:

When I was a scientist, publication was a joint effort. Sure, one person would take primary responsibility for writing up the findings, but then the rest of the team would chip in with numerous draft iterations with tracked changes and comments to address. […] the appointed person would prepare the final draft and send it off. When the reviewers’ reports came back, we would instantly share them among the team, and then meet to go through them the following day, discussing which points we thought required only an explanatory response to the editor, and which would require further research or rewriting to address. We’d make a plan, delegate the tasks, and ultimately, the ‘chief’ author would coordinate everything back into a resubmission (or whatever was needed). In this way, the emotional and intellectual burden of receiving the feedback was shared, and ways of approaching and thinking about receiving the feedback itself were modelled positively and pro-actively.

Kath’s advice on how to establish similar support for sole authors is solid. And I think most of us, in the humanities, are trained to think of co-working – especially at early stages of one’s career – as a burden rather than a blessing. Perhaps it’s the hangover of terrible group presentations in undergrad. Perhaps it’s a product of our source materials – although increasingly, funding is going to collaborative projects, and if you want to do anything digital humanities at all, it’s probably better to do it in a team.

I would like now to offer a paeon to co-writing. Granted, clearly I was lucky in my choice of collaborator – if I was assigned a fellow postgrad to work with, it might not end so well (and no assigning authority would put a senior-ish PhD student with an MA student). But assuming one chooses ones writing partners because you think well together, well.

  • It was easy. It was so easy. I can think some great thoughts alone; so can my co-writer Olivia. But I at least found it much easier to wrestle thoughts into shape as a collaborative exercise – I put forth something, she’d respond; we bounced ideas off each other and ended up with a surplus of material much much faster than we would have alone.
  • Motivation turns out to be easier to sustain when there’s someone else involved. I expected the guilt factor (I have to do this on time or it will stress out Olivia!), but I hadn’t calculated for the fact that having someone else reading the words you put on the page and being excited about them makes a world of difference.
  • Editing was much less stressful – including cutting out stuff. The question I had to ask myself was ‘does this point I’ve made best showcase Olivia’s forthcoming point’, and not ‘is this point good enough’. It turns out to be very easy to kill your darlings if you want to save someone else’s darlings more.
  • The built-in audience did a little bit to counteract the slightly impostor syndromey effect you get when you’ve written something and you can’t tell if it’s total bollocks or if it’s stating the bleeding obvious. Doesn’t get rid of it entirely, but having someone there who responds with “I like that! I can do something with that!” was a great change from thesis-writing.
  • It was also much easier to set up a clear structure and keep to it while writing – we had to, or we’d loose track of each other.

A couple of things about this experience were, I think, idiosyncratic to us: we worked best when we did the bulk of the work physically together. I assume most academic co-authors don’t necessarily do that – but it made the research phase much more fun, meant that we didn’t need to read the same things (I didn’t read Mulvey’s Death 24x a Second but I sat next to Olivia while she did, and got the highlights reel; likewise, she did not read the stack of weird articles on tumblr pornography I read, but ranting about them to her quickly helped me sort out what bits were useful and what were just weird).

A little way into the writing, I realised what the process reminded me of. I was taking casual improv classes this summer, and I spend a lot of time hanging out with an improv comedy group here, and the basic principles are very similar. One of the three cardinal rules of improv is “make your partner look good” – you don’t go onto a stage trying to showcase yourself, you go on to showcase how great your parter/teammates are. Along the way, you probably end up looking fabulous, but you won’t if you focus on yourself.

One of the improv class facilitators gave us a metaphor one week: when you walk into a scene, with the prompts you’re given (usually a place and a relationship, sometimes an object, and some kind of constraint, like, you can only utter three words at a time), you don’t come in with the full scenario constructed in your head like a cathedral. If you do that, as soon as your partner veers away from your predicted script, you freeze.

Instead, you bring a brick. You bring one brick to build your cathedral, and your partner brings a brick, and then you add another, and soon. This would be a terrible way to build an actual cathedral, but it’s how you do great collaborative creative work. You have to be convinced that whatever your collaborator could do with your stuff plus their stuff is as good as what you could do with your stuff plus their stuff. And that the things you can do with the thing they produced from your stuff plus their stuff is better than the things you could do with your own stuff alone.

… that’s too many things and stuff for one paragraph. You get the idea. I’m pretty sure this is how playing music, especially jazz, works; and how dance works, and a whole lot of other things. It’s very far removed from the standard model of humanities  academic thought, and I’m not saying I want to eschew private projects forever, but it certainly is a nice break from the Solo Academic model. (It remains to be seen if it stays this nice by the time we’ve written it up and sent it off for review, though…)

CFP for Leeds 2017 session: COME TALK BEHEADINGS WITH ME

Excuse, again, the blogular silence. But I have a cunning plan for Leeds IMC 2017: it involves beheadings. One of our MA students here in Geneva is working on decapitation, as you do, and I’ve consequently become interested in beheadings almost by proxy. I pounced on at least one person at Leeds this year crying “talk to me about beheadings!!”

So, in order to cater to this peculiar interest, let’s talk beheadings at Leeds IMC 2017. I’m reasonably certain the aforementioned Geneva student will give me a proposal; I have something I can work on myself, but don’t have to (it’s not thesis-related), so if I get enough interest I’ll happily step back to moderator status.

Without further ado: a CFP. It’s a bit vague, but in essence, if you have an interesting case of beheadings and you want to talk about it, get in contact with me.

Losing Their Heads: Beheading Narratives, Gender and Social Roles

CFP – panel for Leeds IMC 2017

Organiser: Amy Brown, University of Geneva

‘The head of woman is man’: so what to do with a headless woman? What does it mean (other than death) to lose one’s head? What meanings can the severed head have? How do medieval narratives treat women who decapitate others, or bring about decapitations? How does the gender of the decapitator and the decapitatee affect the symbolic value placed on the body, the head, and the process of decapitation? What social norms are violated when a body is beheaded, and which are upheld?

This session is open to proposals dealing with any genre, language, or source type: romance, hagiography, sermons, art, relics, artefacts. I have discussed with potential participants texts such as the Old English Judith, the life of St Edmund, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the artistic represention of John the Baptist’s death, but that’s by no means an exhaustive list.

‘Gender’ in this context should be interpreted as applicable to masculinity as well as femininity, and to specific variations in gendered performance according to social role. (Eg: if you’ve got a beheading story that does something interesting in the way it differentiates between, say, men of one class or race and another, I’m just as interested in that as I am in masculine-feminine oppositions).


Send proposals to:

amy.brown AT unige.ch by the 5th of September.


Brief heads-up: both Kiera and Amy are doing Leeds this year!

Once again, because Leeds love scheduling Amy’s Middle English papers to clash with Anglo-Saxonist panels she’d really like to attend, we’re on at the same time.

So, if you’re not attending s 1123 on Wednesday at 11.15, ‘Feasting in Middle English Romance’ (Amy – paper on Emaré), or 1101 Wed at 11.15, ‘New Voices in Anglo Saxon Studies (Kiera – on St Chad), you’re clearly missing out. In fact even if you do attend one of those, you’re missing out on the other one. Difficult.

She doesn’t need makeup to be attractive: or, what a load of bollocks

I realise it’s a bit weird to leave an academic blog stagnant for nearly a year and then come back with a post about makeup, but bear with me. This is actually a post mostly about perceived and performed professionalism.

Of late I have seen one too many uses of “she doesn’t need makeup to be attractive”, most intended as compliments (none addressed to me, interestingly) and I would like to set that phrase on fire. I am a woman who does not wear makeup, and I would like to set that phrase, and everyone who thinks it’s a complimentary evaluation, on fire.

1. Taking things literally

Allow me to begin by taking the statement at its face value: Lady X does not need makeup to be attractive. By implication, other women do. Presumably Lady X has particularly excellent genes: how is this a reassuring compliment to her? I can understand saying that to reassure someone who is hesitant about going outside (or to any given event) without makeup – it would be misplaced, for reasons I will cover in a minute, but understandable. But for the most part, these pronouncements are directed either at habitual non-makeup-wearers or regular makeup-wearers (sometimes by facebook meme generators that do not actually know anything about your grooming habits!), supposed to make those people feel better by comparison to other women whose beauty is presumably makeup-induced.

I hope you can see why this is bullshit. It does not reflect the actual state of attractiveness of many makeup wearing people, or their reasons, or the way non-makeup wearers get treated. Admittedly, I have not as an adult received much pushback for not wearing makeup: possibly this is because I am reasonably conventionally attractive? I think being visibly gender-nonconforming in dress or hair also affects my experience here: if someone’s going to give me grief they start with that.

Nor, as a lady deemed to be acceptably attractive in body and face, do I find it particularly ego-boosting to be told so, especially if the emphasis is placed on something I can neither change (my face) nor curate (I can decide how some parts of my body are framed or presented by the rest of my clothes). And I really, really do not like compliments that hinge upon comparison to other women.

2. Covert implication: also bollocks

Of course, my literal interpretation of that statement is missing something. The implication is not that other women need makeup because they are ugly, but they need makeup because they feel unattractive. The platonic ideal of No-Makeup Woman does not need makeup to feel attractive.

Well, that’s shit, isn’t it. We’re supposed to feel better because other people feel more insecure than us? (I don’t. See above re: teenage experience. Insecure people may lash out at the secure or oblivious.) We’re supposed to feel like we’re doing something right here? To celebrate having somehow escaped the pervasive self-image crisis of modern (western?) womanhood?

Nah. Sod that.

3. Completely missing the point: a primer

Plenty of people have written on why the wearing of makeup is not about feeling attractive, or not primarily. I haven’t saved many links because, well I don’t do makeup, so this section is not as well-cited as it might be. Makeup might be about feeling better in yourself, but that relies as much on artistry, colour combination, specific aesthetics as it does on ‘will people think I’m ugly?’ (This is why I still have makeup, and occasionally wear it to parties: I like pretty colours. Pretty colours on my face: good. Although whether it’s good enough to warrant keeping a collection of makeup that I wear twice a year, I am unsure.)

There is also a lot of pressure to wear makeup in the workplace and other social spaces. This Jezebel article gets it in a nutshell: a small amount of makeup is considered standard grooming. Women get pushback if they do not comply with this. (I don’t much: but either I’m oblivious, or my workplaces have been particularly tolerant.) I know I read once, but can no longer find, a particularly good article on how not all women have the same privileged capacity to say ‘fuck it’ to makeup. Summary: I, being white and reasonably healthy and average weight, would not get the same kind of pushback than women who are fat, disabled, or non-white do. Women in those categories, to varying extents depending on context, have to do extra work not to be read as sloppy, unprofessional, schlubby. I can give you a good cite for how this affects trans women: if you happen to be a trans woman who does not wish to wear makeup, or skirts, or is more butch than femme, your whole gender identity gets raked over the coals. Femininity grooming is pretty much mandatory for trans women, both in terms of access to medical help and in terms of asserting their gender identity in the public sphere. Julia Serrano’s Whipping Girl talks about this and other ways that standard misogyny takes on particular forms as applied to trans women.

And, to be honest, I can see it might happen that the same mechanism falls on me: I am mentally ill. I always look tired, because I always am tired. The older I get, the more my face shows it. I happen to have bosses, students, colleagues who are pretty accomodating and whose assessment of my capacities doesn’t seem to be hugely impacted by this, yet. But the day might yet come where I decide that being seen to Put Effort Into grooming via makeup is a necessary way to signal to all and sundry that I haven’t completely Given Up (a terrible stigma for the mentally and physically ill, Giving Up or Letting Go).

Wearing makeup is rarely primarily about one’s attractiveness. Sometimes it is, though: I have known women (and men!) who felt their skin was hideous and should never be seen without foundation over it. These people often recognise that well-applied makeup is a separate aesthetic code: you could be objectively unattractive and yet have killer eyeliner, in the same way you could be ugly and have fantastic clothes. In my experience these women are often very attractive, but my thinking so or saying so does not change the fact that makeup is a weapon in their coping-with-shit arsenal. I don’t feel like praising the no or low-makeup wearing population at their expense helps anyone, here.

4. Not wearing makeup: also not about attractiveness

I did not decide to give up wearing makeup (in professional settings) because I felt I was attractive enough without it. I stopped wearing makeup because I could not deal with the weird reactions I got in an office setting if I alternated between makeup and not-makeup. I quote from an old blog post, made shortly after I began teaching:

The only professional setting where I wear makeup is conference dinners and the like, and not always even then. I used to wear makeup occasionally, when the whim took me, but now I reserve these whims for outside of work. People react really strangely to makeup/no-makeup fluctuations. If you wear makeup and then suddenly stop, people assume you’re lazy/disorganised/cranky or something similar. If you don’t wear makeup and then suddenly do one day, people assume you’re trying to Make An Impression, or that you’re sad or stressed and covering it up. Apparently people really want my face to look consistent. As I generally prefer not wearing makeup, that’s what I stick with.

None of this is about my attractiveness. It’s about social codes and following them, or not following them, and about people being particularly unsettled by fluctuations in one’s attitude to said codes.

I used to receive pushback for wearing or not wearing makeup when I was in my teens. From other girls, this often took the same form as it had when I was ten and not yet wearing a bra: she who has not kept up with her peers in adopting the incremental signs of progression from child to adult must be made aware of this failing. But of course, unlike the ‘training bra’, makeup is not an on/off question: if you do the makeup wrong you can be mocked for failure, or for trying to hard, or, or. This is not about my attractiveness, but about my age (I was younger than my peers), my intelligence (I stood out as a high-achiever in book smarts, ergo, people needed to take me down a few pegs in areas where I was lacking) and the disparity between my social standing among my peers (low) and perceived teachers-pet-ness.

From adults, the makeup pushback was not about my attractiveness either. It was about whether I was seen to show the right respect for the right situation. Wearing makeup to school was foolish (and, let’s be honest, a waste of time, since the only permissible makeup was nude shades – but I did my time trying to follow my peers in rebelliously wearing metallic blue shadow and being asked to wipe it off). Not wearing makeup to your cousin’s engagement party was, I was shocked to discover, Wrong. I just didn’t feel like wearing makeup that day, and ended up fighting with my mother over it. I won, because it’s easy to win an argument as a teenage girl by saying ‘are you saying I don’t look pretty enough the way I am?’. I completely missed, at the time, that the code being enforced was not about my prettiness but about showing respect by dialling up the formality of your grooming. I was applying makeup to please myself, when I felt like it, but not learning the implicit social codes that govern what situations require certain grooming signals as signs of importance or respect.

I have memories from my teens of being reduced to tears by my inability to get my eyes symmetrical, and giving up entirely. Now that I rarely wear makeup, I am out of practice, and the same frustration returns when I take it into my head to get out the mascara and eyeshadow and the like. I can’t do it properly, it’s easier not to bother. This, too, is not abut my attractiveness. This is about whether I can perform a skill that other people either manage naturally or make look effortless. This is about it being safer to outright defy a femininity code than to attempt to comply and fail. (And yet. I keep the stuff around, and practice occasionally, because I am happy to not wear makeup but am not yet happy with being someone who cannot apply makeup.)

Do I want to be seen as attractive, in social and professional spaces? Well, yes, sort of. Not specifically sexually attractive, but I want to be seen as approachable, or well-groomed and in control, or memorable (hot tip: bright red tall combat boots with otherwise feminine outfits are a great way of being remembered at conferences! Completely buzz-cut hair also works). I don’t need makeup to do that, but in my case the decision not to is not based on an assessment of my inherent attractiveness but a preference for using other tools: dress, nonconforming but interesting hair (which conveys I Put Effort Into This Look even if it is nonconformist), the curation of an online persona, etc.

I have the good fortune of being reasonably nice to look at, but that is a temporary state of affairs- I am in my late twenties and my face shows tiredness and stress more now than it used to. I will go grey, get wrinkles, get fatter or thinner, etc. Maybe one day I will decide makeup is worth the effort, as part of my professional ‘face’. I can already see the circumstances that might bring that about, and they aren’t about my innate attractiveness, and especially not about my sexual attractiveness. They’re about grooming, formality, compensating for perceived weakness, and perceived professionalism. I want to be seen as someone in control of her presentation. Right now it is easier to do that without makeup, for me. I am going to be very, very frustrated the day that changes, but it may.

Medieval Tourism with Amy: Medieval (and early modern) Stuff in Morocco

Look, I’m pretty much incapable of going anywhere without looking for the local medieval things to gawp at. Morocco has some pretty good medieval things to gawp at. Also, it has sunshine in January, which was a large part of my motivation in going there in the first place.



El Badi palace, Marrakech

This here Saadian palace was built in the late 16th c and demolished in the 17th. It was built by sultan Ahmad al-Mansur: the pavilion still standing to the right of this picture was his audience pavilion; the one on the left was dedicated to his chief concubine; just out of view and now destroyed was his personal retiring pavilion (he did not live in this palace for the most part), and off to the bottom right were guest pavilions for hosting embassies. The guest accomodation was sunk below garden level, and surrounded by tall thick walls – this made it much cooler than outside by orders of magnitude.


El Badi palace from just above the gardens

This shot, from just above the sunken gardens, shows the strange condition of the walls: I believe the holes were used to affix marble cladding, which was subsequently looted by Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 17th to clad his new palace in Meknes.


The Pavilion of Fifty Cubits, with its under-floor irrigation system exposed.

El Badi has been restored by a joint team from Morocco and one of the Spanish universities, so it is quite well signposted and has a little exhibition room as well. Less well-curated were the Saadian Tombs, built by the same al-Mansur. There were renovations going on in the gardens, which were quite well maintained, but very little signage in the actual tomb complex.


Inside the Saadian tombs

There was no signage whatsoever near this room, but from the layout I’d hazard that that recess contains Ahmad al-Mansur’s sarcophagus, which would make the three in the outer room his most trusted Jewish advisors. His eldest son has a separate room, and the rest of his family were further away, but signage in el Badi* palace informed me that buried closest to al-Mansur were a select coterie of Jewish advisors. The Jewish quarter in Marrakech is very close to the Kasbah quarter, apparently al-Mansur’s doing.

  • Using el for the palace and al for the sultan is making me twitch, but the palace was consistently referred to in English and French as el Badi, whereas the sultan’s name was given with the standard transliteration al-Mansur.

Casablanca had no medieval things to gawp at – it was a pretty tiny village until the French colonial expansion – but it did have a gorgeous coastline. Behold:



Hassan II mosque seen from along the coast.

Fez, now Fez had interesting medieval stuff. It has the oldest university in the world, al-Karouine, which is not open to non-Muslims. I and my companion tried valiantly to find the front doors and photograph them, but to no avail.


The Merenid tombs above Fez (late 13th or 14th c)

We did succeed in finding the Merenid tombs, which were imposing and tomb-like, as promised.


Merenid tombs and the hills beyond

And there was also Borj Nord, a 16th c fortress erected by the same Ahmad al-Mansur of above, to keep an eye on the rebellious city of Fez (his Saadian predecessor had taken the city, but the locals were not particularly co-operative).


Borj Nord and the Fez Medina beyond

Fez has a very, very big medina. We did find the Ville Nouvelle, but it was boring and slightly creepy (no women to be seen in any of the cafes, although plenty coming and going on the streets), so we did not stay.

Somewhere in the medina we found the al-Attarine madrasa, a 14th c foundation that once housed students from the university.


Al-Attarine Madrasa: 14th c with 19th c renovations and some modern conservation efforts.

Some effort had been made toward conservation, but this – perhaps even more than the Saadian tombs – really made me wish some generous benefactor would pay to have it done over as a slice-of-life museum.


Courtyard of al-Attarine Madrasa from one of the upper floors.

I only got up to the middle floor here, but it seems like all the student cells are intact: tiny little cubicles , opening onto the courtyard or the aisles above it. The courtyard must have filled up at prayer time – one whole wall (the one in the first picture) is taken up with showcasing the mihrab.

I have no grand conclusion here, but observe: there are interesting medieval and early modern things in Morocco.


Who Doesn’t Love a Plague Pit? (most people except for me!)

Sorry for my radio silence on this blog recently, but in my defence I have a stack of awesome new content because I was in Europe for research and fieldwork. So this post is dedicated to my first dig of the 2015 season – Thornton Abbey!

The Thornton Abbey Project has been running for several seasons now and is a field school for my beloved University of Sheffield. However you can also score yourself a spot on the excavations upon application via their website, and its always a very multinational excavation. This season there were Brits, Canadians, Americans, Hungarians, Indians, Francophones, Icelanders and of course… Australians! To read more about the Thornton Abbey project click here. The project leader is Dr Hugh Willmott from Sheffield, a great man, who begun this project to find the post-medieval manor theoretically built in the grounds by one of the families who owned it post-dissolution… the manor is yet to be found, sorry Hugh!


the fortified gatehouse of the abbey

Thornton Abbey is in “rural” (what passes for rural in the UK) Lincolnshire and what is left of the Abbey is open to the public as an English Heritage run site with the surrounding paddocks privately owned and tenant farmed. We were digging in the fields surrounding the Abbey, where the older church turned Abbey Hospital (or so we think) were located and where some other associated buildings once stood – very much a case of finding a series of small walls (youtube clip).


see… a series of…


… not so small walls…

Here is my extremely brief run down of the site’s history:

  • Some early Anglo-Saxon activity and possibly Roman wares found, not too sure about intervening years until the Norman period (bad Anglo-Saxonist that I am…)
  • Priory founded on the site in 1139 by William le Gros, Count of Aumale, Augustinian/black canon house
  • 1148 raised to status of abbey
  • 1180 le Gros buried at Thornton
  • 1274 patronage passed to the Crown
  • 13th century much of the building works are in progress
  • 1382-1389 fortification of the gatehouse, likely due to the peasants’ rising
  • Survived the dissolution because it became a secular college 1540s under Henry VIII
  • Closed in 1547 as a training institution and went into private ownership

NOW TO THE PLAGUE PIT! Due to the sensitivity of working with human remains I cannot put any of my photos of the skeletal material up here, so for anyone looking for cool skelly pics, sorry. You’ll just have to use your imaginations.

Next to what the team believe is the monastery’s hospital lies a quite large cemetery. This is not a typical high-medieval, nicely laid out cemetery but, we think, at some point, a mass grave for victims of the plague. Which, if I may say so as a funerary archaeologist is PRETTY DAMNED COOL! From my understanding it wasn’t really a massive pit of bodies per se, a little more organised than that, but by no means the individualised burials of people who have died separated by time.


Trench M aka the Plague Pit, where I was most of the dig, sans skeletons

Needless to say, coming from an Australian background where archaeological human remains are a bit taboo (for multiple reasons) I was very keen to excavate the graves. By the time I joined the dig it was the last week of the season, and it appeared that they were down to lifting the last few graves (this earliest phase appears to not be from the plague period as the individuals are in individually cut simple graves with a mixture of men, women and children – suggesting a lay population). So myself and a colleague were set to levelling some of the areas between graves to make the section nice for photography and recording… until we hit another skeleton that was not meant to be there… rude! This set the tone for the rest of the week with more and more skeletons popping up around the old church/hospital building, which is a bit inconvenient when you need to shut the trenches down for the season, but for us students it was heaven.

If I remember correctly they have lifted over 200 skeletons from the site for careful storage and research back at the osteology labs in Sheffield. It will be a great teaching and research collection, I am really looking forward to seeing what work comes out of it.

Sadly I don’t think I can give you much more detail than that, you’ll have to wait for them to publish findings or read the dig’s blog. What I can give you more info on is the plague and how it does (or does not) affect the human body and then the skeleton. Finally a medieval use for my science degree!

  • The plague or its most famous outbreak – The Black Death was at its peak in Europe c. 1347-1350 (give or take) and killed somewhere in the region of 30-60% of Europe’s population
  • Most forms of plague are bacterial and only affect the soft tissues of the body, and pretty horrifically at that. The Black Death is caused by a bacillus bacteria called Yersinia pestis
  • Did you know that China and other parts of the world are having resurgences of plague? Read more here
  • Whilst the bacteria has devastating affects on the body it rarely if ever leaves identifiable traces on the bone, therefore our only hint as archaeologist is usually the circumstances of the burial i.e. mass graves, although carbon dating to the 14th century does also help clinch it if its available
  • However if you are lucky and have good preservation sometimes you can get aDNA (ancient DNA), but not of the people, of the bacteria, and this is the best diagnostic tool of all. Often such bacterial indicators of health will be trapped in dental calculus (the oh so lovely plaque etc. build up on teeth that happens in past populations when brushing your teeth wasn’t a done thing)
  • My colleagues who work on aDNA, palaeopathology and related fields have discovered through aDNA research that there were actually several strains of plaque in the middle ages, and are studying the evolution of modern plague. Some of the research suggests that it hasn’t necessarily evolved too much… an outbreak in Madagascar in 2013 proved to be almost identical to that found in 14th century skeletons in London, clearly it is still as dangerous as ever and doesn’t need to evolve too much.

If it goes ahead in future years I can thoroughly recommend taking part, its a fun, friendly atmosphere and if you’re keen you can try your hand at not just excavation but geophysics, trench recording, find processing and much more.

And now for some more pretty pictures of the site and the dig in progress:


Archaeologists like to be silly too sometimes… being cool benedictine style!

IMG_1638 IMG_1627 IMG_1626IMG_1507


Medieval Tourism With Amy, or, the Worst Curated Castle I Have Ever Met

Because I have some kind of nonsensical compulsion that drives me to spend my birthday in places even colder, more northerly, and damper than Geneva,1 I happened to be in Ghent last weekend. And in Ghent I found many delightful things, including sweets shaped like and named after noses, and Troll’s Cave Beer. There’s a pretty spiffy cathedral, St Bavo’s, named after the son of the first Pippinid Mayor of the Palace. I managed to acquire plus-size not-elasticated and not-hideously-expensive trousers in a bright colour, and I baffled Brussels airport once again by bringing brown sugar home in my carry-on (apparently it looks suspicious on the scanner).

But far and above all these many delights of Ghent was the worst curated castle I have ever been in. And I have been to Oxford Castle, which is set up to highlight its history as a Victorian prison, complete with alarmingly cheery re-enactors. And I have been to Pillsbury Castle, which has only one sign when you get there and got Sam and I quite lost in Derbyshire this year. The Gravensteen, built by that charming chappy Phillip of Flanders,2 to whom Chrétien’s Conte du Graal is dedicated, is a most excellent castle cursed with truly appalling curation. My host told me her brother practically foams at the mouth whenever he has to think about it, but I for one greatly enjoyed stomping around the place pointing out all the Wrong Things. A+, totally worth 6 euros, would do again (armed with the original site map next time).

Without further ado, photographic evidence of the Worst Curated Castle I Have Ever Met:

South facade of the Gravensteen: to the west, an annex housing the countess’ apartments; to the east, a partially-restored gallery.

Curation problem #1: there was no portable map, so it was very hard to tell where you were in relation to other things, and even harder to reconstruct from one’s iPhone photos.

What I know about this room is that it was used as an audience chamber by the Ghent city council in the early modern period. I think it’s in the western annexe. Those buildings are marked on a 1779 map as pertaining to the ‘conseil’, so let’s go with that. From what is, as far as I can determine, the one and only article on the place,3 I have determined that someone, at some point, labelled this annex ‘chapelle’ and ‘logis du comtesse’, which makes sense, architecturally speaking. That someone was not a curator at the castle, because we will come to the hilarious mis-labelling in a second.

The upper floors of the donjon (labelled, in English, ‘dungeon’, which is understandable but hilarious) and the annex house a barely-curated collection of early modern torture instruments, with no labels whatsoever. To be fair, apparently the place was used for torture and executions by the Ghent council at some point, but the curation shows no sense whatsoever of periodisation. EVERYTHING ALL HAPPENED AT ONCE, FOREVER.

The view from the top of the castle is spectacular: the river Liéve flows right past the castle, but I think that’s the Liée at a little distance. The top of the keep, labelled ‘platform / plafond’ in the two languages I read (and similar in Dutch, I am told), had clearly been restored at some point – the whole top of the tower was re-done in the early 20th c.

From what I can put together from the terrible signage and the Revue du Nord article, our boy Phillip of Flanders built the main keep around 1180. The keep than has an annex/gallery along the east side, and kitchens at the back, which the article tells me is quite similar to Anglo-Norman castles of this period. I am guessing that they would have been added on after the original building, and the west annex later still: the front of the west annex is mostly restoration, and I have no idea what’s going on with the neo-classical windows, but from the look of the vaulting I’d suggest the west annex is late 13th or 14th century? The counts of Flanders abandoned the place in the 14th century.

From glaring at the 1912 map of the site, I think this shows the west wall of the kitchen annex at the north of the keep. The brickwork parts date to the castle’s tenure as a weaving factory.

And this should be the north wall of the kitchen annex, which doesn’t seem to have been completely restored, and the north wall of the eastern annex/gallery. Note the windows on the keep wall, and compare to…

The eastern annex/gallery thing. What the hell is going on with the neo-classical windows? Something similar appears on the facade of the west annex, and the gatehouse: part of me suspects those of being early modern and this of being an over-exuberant imitation, but I can’t tell for certain.

The gatehouse, viewed from near the west annex.

And now we come to the most egregious example of bad curation in the whole badly-curated place:

Behold, the upper gatehouse. At the end of the room, wooden trapdoors letting down onto the main entry over the moat are still in place. This is clearly a defensive fortification. Yet the signs in both English and Dutch cheerfully informed us this was “originally the chapel of the count”. I must admit I was too busy ranting about how WRONG this is to check whether the French made any more sense. But, having read the article in Revue du Nord, I think I know how this vastly erroneous signage happened. The signs were done by a Dutch speaker (that I could tell – there were other cases, like the chemin du ronde, where the English translation followed the Dutch, wall-walk, instead of the French, which would have been correct). That dutch speaker had access to information in French – probably the 1770s and 1912 plans. These are in French. And perhaps this Dutch-speaker had wobbly French, or couldn’t read the handwriting, and managed to confuse chatelet (fortified tower) with chapelle. I really wish I had scrutinised the French signs in that room, that would tell me if we were dealing with poor translation, or poor transcription.

There is a slight possibility it was later used as a chapel (that cross window is odd), but the 1770s plan shows a chapel for the council (I can’t determine if that was erected after the counts left, or if that’s the chapel belonging to the original annex – either way it’s not restored) between the keep and the west annex, so I doubt it.

In conclusion: the Gravensteen castle is an excellent castle, but only if you ENJOY pointing out all the ways the curators are wrong.

Let us conclude with some nice images of the 11th c foundations under the current keep. Check that arrow-pattern and the thin slab archways. According to my companion in this endeavour I am fun to go to castles with because whenever I see something genuinely old I coo “ooooooh, look at yoooou” at it. Look at yoooou, 11th century archways, look at yoooou!

  1. It is a sad fact that all the people I know outside of Australia who might be induced to pat me, provide me with tea and chocolate, and let me camp on their spare beds: all these people live in higher lattitudes. I need to make friends in Portugal or southern France or something.
  2. When in Flanders, Phillip is known as Phillip of Alsace. Maybe the Flemish don’t want to own up to him?
  3. Marie Henrion, ‘Note sur la restauration du château du Gand’ Revue du Nord 2010/2 (n° 385), p. 383-424.

November Events

This is a roundup post of medieval studies related events held across Australia and NZ in November 2015.

Western Australia

Thursday 5 November – Friday 6 November
Symposium at the University of Western Australia: Passions for Learning in Religious Perspective: from Jerome to the Jesuits
Further details here

Thursday 19 – Friday 20 November
At the University of Western Australia: Play of Emotions: Meanings Collaboratory 2015
Further details here


Wednesday 4 November
Lecture at the University of Melbourne: “Culture, Emotions, Identities: Europe and the Oriental Other in the late Middle Ages” by Dr Mirko Sarelić
Further details here

Tuesday 10 November
Lecture at the University of Melbourne: “The Kerry Stokes Schembart Book: Festivity, Fashion and Family in Late Medieval Nuremberg Carnival” by Prof. Charles Zika.
For details see here

New Zealand

Wednesday 18 November
Postgraduate Advanced Training Seminar at the University of Canterbury: Medieval and Early Modern Digital Humanities
For details see the attached PATS CFP