self-care, self-indulgence, and finding self

The year turns toward Lent, but I might be forgiven for thinking we were already there. Easter comes late this year, and I must admit that so far 2017 has been a hard span of weeks for me, where the existential dread caused by current politics at home and abroad has become tangled up in endless colds and now bronchitis. It has been hard to be productive when my nursery age daughter and I have spent the past two months passing germs back and forth, streaming noses and fevers and thick soupy coughs. I read an article today about women’s experience of vaginal birth and was brought to remembering quite vividly Grace’s birth, the strange hours where I felt outside of time and of anything but the crushing bonds of my body; where I felt I was in a tunnel that fell endlessly into the dark.

And yet, of course, light broke; she slipped out into the world suddenly, and today I woke up feeling all at once more like a person again. Medicine: in her case a very ancient kind, of being curated into the world by midwives whose practices may have changed over the centuries but who – in a straightforward case like mine – ultimately just let the body do what it knows, from primal memory, how to do… And in my case the world-changing gift of antibiotics. Over-prescribed: but not, apparently, in this case. Four doses in and I still feel exhausted, of course, still rattle and heave when I cough, but I don’t feel that the tunnel is all there is.

This is all very self-indulgent, which hopefully you’ll forgive; I need to bring myself back to a place where I can feel good and confident about both work and health, and for me finding that place has always been about scrabbling with words, reconstructing myself with letters. Before I could write, I dictated stories to my parents to write down; I have always needed to put words together to be put together myself.

I found myself thinking about self-care in all this. Since just before new year, when I got the first of now four colds in the space of nine weeks, I have indulged myself a bit. Let myself slack off work, watch a bit more TV, take more hot baths. We’re constantly told of the value of self-care, and I heartily recommend it. In general, though, the popular approach to self-care is a bit more like Parks and Recreation‘s “treat yo’self”, where Tom and Donna take indulgent days off to have pedicures, buy swag, and eat good food. Treat yo’self is an incredibly valuable mantra, and we all deserve to use it. But I think it’s not really self-care, except in a superficial sort of way. Real self-care is about establishing habits of prioritising one’s mental, physical, emotional and spiritual needs. In other words: hard work, especially in the midst of sickness, parenthood, paid work, housework.  It means re-evaluating your priorities and making hard decisions about what you can and cannot do.

I suppose I have thought about this not just because of my health, but because I am now (as of a week or so ago) halfway through my Leverhulme fellowship. Tick, tock. Three years feels like so very long at the start, and despite having ten months’ maternity leave in the middle there, I’m now halfway through. It frightens me into desperate longing for efficiency and yet into a more likely reality of paralysis. It brings up those feelings I have written on before: what happens next? What do I do if I can’t find a job after this? Will I look back on this time and think I’ve not done enough?

None of us will ever do enough. Enough is a hungry word, isn’t it, that O and U? It can expand open-mouthed and swallow everything you’ve got. I am going to try not to think about enough at my shoulder, and instead get well. Stay healthy, if I can, and aid the chance of that by living more healthily, more mindfully. And do what needs to be done and beyond that what I can do, in my work and family and community. Not enough: more than.


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Choosing not to give: Academic culture

In the last couple of days I’ve read two articles that both made me a bit sad. This one, “Look What They Make You Give”, is Elizabeth Rodwell’s reflections on turning down a tenure track job and what sacrifices she’s made to establish an academic career. This one is an anonymous author’s frustrations with her professor-husband and the way her own career has been put on hold.

Alone in a country where I (initially) knew almost nobody, I didn’t feel the romantic sense of adventure I had expected. I just felt isolated. All the more so when I returned to Texas and found myself craving a greater balance between work and life. With my marriage a casualty of both my fieldwork and my relentless focus on my career above all else, I was also back on the dating market at age 35.

  • Elizabeth Rodwell

I want him to be respected for it, just not at my expense. I’ve got a degree, but I’ve been a bit busy to write any books myself. I’m the one always on her own with the kids at parties, or on family days out, museum trips and cinema visits, because he was always “working”. Don’t get me started on people who think academics have “lovely long holidays”.

  • Anon

Both of these women are casualties of academic culture – as well as sexism, of course. Rodwell sacrificed health and personal happiness to try to advance her career; by the time she was offered the fabled tenure-track job, she’d remarried and had children, and wasn’t willing to relocate thousands of miles away – a sensible decision for her family, but one that meant she was chastised by a mentor for not being willing to “commute from one coast to another — visiting my husband, babies, and stepsons only on the weekends”. Anon, meanwhile, has taken on the lion’s share of childcare and domestic servitude in order for her husband to work round the clock. He, apparently, doesn’t even know how to unload groceries into the fridge. Or rather, I suspect he would learn perfectly well how to do it if he were on his own, but since he has a wife to do it, he can fall back on the persona of the charmingly impractical professor, learned in arcane knowledge and elbow patches, and helpless as a baby when it comes to ironing and paying bills.

I don’t have anything radical to say about either of these articles, and certainly nothing I haven’t already said before on this blog. But what I will say is that I stopped thinking “yes, whatever it takes” about achieving a successful career quite some time ago. Mostly since I had my daughter, but even before then. I do not, and almost never have, worked 14 hour days, and I certainly can’t now, when my husband takes Grace to nursery at 8am and I leave the house at 4.30 to pick her up. I almost never do any work at the weekend, not even checking email. Perhaps in some ways I’ve got more efficient in using my time since I had a baby and I know I have less of it to myself – but also I just sometimes have to let things slide. I have not published as much as I could have done, or perhaps should have done. I’ve not been to all the conferences I could have been to. There are opportunities I’ve missed.

But I don’t regret them. In the late afternoon and evening, I belong to first my child and then my husband – and to other friends and family, when we have time to catch up. I belong to myself, too, the parts of myself that aren’t about work but are about reading novels, taking baths, cooking nourishing meals, watching interesting TV, painting my nails in colours that even in the depths of January make me smile, remembering warmth.

I used to want to be brilliant. Of course I still do want that too; I’m still an ambitious person. But the sum of my life is not my job. I have a year and a half left of my Leverhulme post, which will mean in the end I have been at the University of Oxford for six years. Six years in which I have become, I think, a better teacher and writer – but I hope also a better ally and friend. None of this will have been a waste, whatever happens. I have already started to think about what comes next. I know that I will not be willing to relocate our family for a job unless it’s not only a brilliant job, but it’s also in a place that offers my family opportunities, and that means my husband isn’t wrecking his own career. So I will mostly be looking for commutable opportunities, which limits my potential jobs quite a bit. And I am no longer willing to take very short term contracts that offer us no security. It may be that I have to leave academia, which would be a source of great grief for me. But I do have ideas of other things I might do, and have already started building connections to establish them, just in case. I will always be Dr Rachel E. Moss; I will always have taught hundreds of bright and interesting young people, and I will always have talked about my research with some of the cleverest, kindest people around.

I drew a line in the sand for myself a long time ago. Will I regret the distance of that line from the shore in years to come, that I drew it too far up the beach, will I think I should have risked more? Perhaps. But I will know I drew that line so I was not at risk of drowning: not just for my sake, but for those I love.

Posted in Academia, Academic Parenthood | Tagged , | 18 Comments

Saracen Lumps: Medieval Islamophobia Today

Googling the word “saracens”, the first three pages of results are mostly about sports teams. So when I saw this story about anti-Muslim hate crime in Cumbernauld, Scotland, I was struck by the accompanying photo of the graffiti.


While “Saracen” has for centuries been used as a term to identify Arab and Muslim peoples, the ever-reliable OED places it in frequency band 4 for usage – which means it’s not a terribly rare word, but that it’s not a word that’s likely to be heard or seen very often, either. Its most recent sample usage is dated to 1905. That, alongside the Latin Deus vult (God wills it), immediately made me think of the early use of the term “Saracen” – the context of the Crusades.

To passe over the grete See To werre and sle the Sarazin.

John Gower, Confessio Amantis I.363

In 1095, according to the chronicler Robert of Rheims, Pope Urban II’s call for crusade were met with the cry “Deus vult”. It may seem rather strange to see the rhetoric of the eleventh century replicated in spray paint in modern Britain. However, as the scholar Jonathan Lyons has noted, anti-Islamic discourses in the modern world, which “operate silently in the background as they shape our statements about Islam and the Muslims”, originate with the Crusades, categorising Muslims as “irretrievably outside the bounds of civilized society, reduced in status to little more than animals,” obliterating the many different cultures, languages and customs of the quarter of the world’s population into one violent, hateful, uncivilised stereotype: the Saracen.

About 230 years after Pope Urban II’s call to crusade, someone composed the English language romance The King of Tars. Here is John Chandler’s summary of the storyline:

The Christian king of an eastern land named Tars has a beautiful wife and an even more beautiful daughter. The sultan of nearby Damas hears tales of the princess’s beauty and demands her hand in marriage. The king of Tars refuses, as the sultan is not Christian, and a war ensues. The king of Tars quickly finds himself losing the war, and the princess offers to wed the sultan to end the bloodshed. After some convincing, the king and queen accede to her request, and the sultan takes the princess to Damas. Despite the princess’s beauty, the sultan refuses to wed her until she converts to Islam. That night, the princess has a dream reassuring her that everything will turn out for the best if she does not stop believing in her heart in the power of Christianity. The princess pretends to convert and is wed to the sultan. She quickly becomes pregnant, and when the child is born, it is a formless lump of flesh. Recognizing the misshapen child as a sign of spiritual or religious conflict, the sultan rightly accuses the princess of false conversion, and she responds by proposing a test of faith. Each of the parents is to prove the power of his or her religion by praying that the lump-child be given form. The sultan places the lump on his altar and prays but to no avail. The princess asks that a priest be freed from the sultan’s prison and bids him baptize the lump. Upon baptism, the lump-child gains human form, and the sultan recognizes the power of Christianity: he himself converts. When the sultan is baptized, the power of his new faith is made apparent by a change of his skin from black to white. The sultan then joins forces with the king of Tars; he asks his people to convert to Christianity, and if they do not, he executes them. The poem ends with another battle, wherein the Christian sultan of Damas and king of Tars fight five Saracen kings. The Christians are victorious, and the principals, we are told, live a happy life and are accepted into Heaven.

In this romance, the product of a Christian-Muslim marriage is a child that is no child: it is a formless, lumpen thing that cannot really be classed as human.

For lim no hadde it non,
Bot as a rond of flesche yschore
In chaumber it lay hem bifore
Withouten blod and bon.
For sorwe the levedi wald dye,
For it hadde noither nose no eye
Bot lay ded as the ston.

In this story, baptism does more than save the child’s soul; it provides the very breath of life that converts the useless flesh into a pretty human baby named John. The sultan is delighted to see his new child, but the princess says that unless he is christened, the sultan cannot be considered part of their Christian family:

“Bot thou were cristned so it is —
Thou no hast no part theron ywis,
Noither of the child ne of me.”

There is no longer any part of the Saracen in the child, whose father is God. Only by being baptised can the sultan once again become his father.

The Cristen prest hight Cleophas;
He cleped the soudan of Damas
After his owhen name.
His hide that blac and lothely was
Al white bicom thurth Godes gras
And clere withouten blame.

Just as the lump-child’s past self is obliterated by baptism, the sultan loses not only his name, but also his colour. Through God’s grace, he is white – and “without blame”. His body was black like sin, and now it is pale and good.

That Islamophobia was also tied to racism, even if racial categories were different in the past than today, is clear in this narrative. The foreign body becomes foreign body, like a mote of dust in the eye: an irritation that must be washed out before it becomes an infection.

Several hundred years later, many indignant white people insist that “all lives matter”. But as the defiled walls of a Scottish mosque make clear, (perceived as) black bodies are lumps waiting for excision from an imagined white body politic, not human flesh and blood.


Today I popped into my local Muslim bakery, which sells amazing cakes and also hot curry baguettes. Hot curry baguettes for lunch for £2.50! A pleasant lady in hijab sold it to me, and admired my sequinned jumper, which has a huge robin stitched onto it. “It’s nice for the festive season,” she said. I agreed. The war on Christmas certainly doesn’t start here in Birmingham, with any of these good people I’m glad to call my neighbours. I’m pretty sure the Christ Child, born as a refugee to an unmarried couple, wouldn’t think any of them are formless lumps.

Hark! The herald-angels sing
Glory to the newborn king;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.

Merry Christmas, to those of you who celebrate: and to everyone – peace of the season, and good wishes for the next year to come.

Posted in Medieval History | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Leeds IMC sessions: approved!

Just a quick one to say Women at Sea will be making a reappearance (hopefully not the last) at Leeds International Medieval Congress 2017 – we have had our two sessions approved. Here is what you can expect:

Women at Sea, I and II

Tales of women at sea populate the realms of  literature and history, as well as the shadowy space  between fact and fiction. They call our attention to  questions of agency and otherness. The sea can seem  to be dominated by men in economic and martial terms,  and the woman at sea is often set adrift by men who  on land have ultimate power over her. But perhaps at  sea, a woman enters a more generative and  transformative space. The woman at sea is frequently  unmoored, lost, vulnerable, her direction chosen by  wind and fate. Yet the sea may also open up a more  feminine, queer, imaginative space: the woman adrift  in a place of transformation, negotiation and  transition in which she can re-cast her sense of  self. For women the sea is a space of otherness, but  also a space where their identity can be imagined and  performed. While the edge of the ocean is a boundary,  the open sea seems boundless. It defies linearity.  Thus, women in oceanic narratives can inhabit a  different temporality than is available in narratives  defined by land. They enter an exceptional space, a  place where bodies need not be territories.

Session 1505:

Paper -a          Black Andromeda: Manuscripts, Seascapes, and Race in

Medieval France (Language: English)

Speaker:          Anna Klosowska, Department of French & Italian, Miami

University, Ohio

Paper -b          Queer Seas, Stranger Tides: Sea-Changing Bodies in

the Digby _Mary Magdalen_ Play (Language: English)

Speaker:          Daisy Black, Department of English Language, TESOL &

Applied Linguistics, Swansea University

Paper -c          Chaucer’s Watery Bodies and Bodies of Water

(Language: English)

Speaker:          Roberta Magnani

Paper -d          ‘That swerde ys myne’: Queer Identity and Malory’s

Ladies of the Lake (Language: English)

Speaker:          Amy Louise Morgan, School of English & Languages,

University of Surrey

Session Time:     Thu. 06 July – 09.00-10.30

Session 1605:

Paper -a          A Sea-Faring Woman: Gudrid and the Journeys to

Vinland (Language: English)

Speaker:          Elizabeth Cox, Department of English Language, TESOL

& Applied Linguistics, Swansea University

Paper -b          Shipbuilders, Settlers, and Sailors: Viking Women at

Sea (Language: English)

Speaker:          April Harper, Department of History, State University

of New York, Oneonta

Paper -c          Maritime Protectresses in the Mediterranean: From

Artemis and Victoria to Lucia and Mary (Language:


Speaker:          Jessica Tearney-Pearce, Woolf Institute, Cambridge /

St John’s College, University of Cambridge

Paper -d          A Promise of a Safe Journey: Margery Kempe as a

Talisman (Language: English)

Speaker:          Einat Klafter, Foundation for Interreligious &

Intercultural Research & Dialogue, Université de


Session Time:     Thu. 06 July – 11.15-12.45

Meanwhile, I will be speaking at Session 705, “Homosocialibility and Male Bonding in Medieval and Early Modern Europe”, with the paper “‘Of meyrth the causse’: Male Bonding and Rape Culture in Late Medieval England”, and will be moderating Session 620, “Gender, Sexuality, and Medieval ‘Otherness’ in Medieval and Modern Literature”. It will be a busy few days! Hope to see you there.


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He Was Provoked: Internalising Misogyny

TW: Domestic Violence

On 14 August 2016, 29-year-old Alex Nicholson bundled his wife (her name is not given) into the boot of his car and drove out into the countryside, where he abandoned her. Mrs Nicholson had apparently stayed out all of the previous night, and on her return home had admitted to “wrongdoing” that the court did not admit into evidence. Nicholson received a suspended prison sentence and lost his driving licence for a year.


The Daily Mail article on the story received a number of comments, some of which were supportive of Mrs Nicholson and critical of what the commentators saw as too-lenient sentencing. A number criticised Mrs Nicholson and extended sympathy to her husband. The comment from Gae46 – at the bottom of the image above – particularly struck me, as it reminded me of a court case from many years ago: 620, in fact.

In 1396, Margery Nesfeld was seeking legal separation from her husband Thomas on the grounds of cruelty. A witness, Joan White, reported that:

she saw the said Thomas throw Margery, his wife to the ground with a club and beat her severely with the same and afterwards he drew his baslard and gravely wounded her in the arm and broke the bone of that arm, commonly called ‘le Spelbon’ and he would then have killed her that night if he had not been prevented by this witness, the said Margery, her fellow witness, and John Semer, then servant of the same Thomas.

Her account was corroborated by Margery Speight. John Semer then appeared in court as a witness for the defence, who said:

Margery left her home in the parish of Bishophill and went to a house, the which this witness does not remember, in the city of York without and contrary to the said Thomas, her husband’s mandate and precept, and stayed there from noon of that day until the darkness of night. When she returned to the house shared by the said Thomas and the said Margery his wife, Thomas asked why she had left her home against his will and precept. She replied that she wished to go where she would against the will of the same Thomas her husband, and then Thomas, seeing Margery’s rebellion, struck her with his fist in order to chastise her.

Margery was not granted the separation. Unfortunately we have no account of the judicial decision-making process, knowing only that the court rejected the petition. In 1396, a married man and householder was responsible for the moral as well as the physical health of his household. Women were not meant to go out wandering on their own, especially not after dark. The fifteenth-century poem Why I Can’t Be a Nun blames Dinah for her rape because ‘for sche bode not stylle, / But went owte to see thynges in veyne’.  In effect, to use a more modern term, Dinah was ‘asking for it’. The implication that harm, both physical and spiritual, will come to women who leave their proper sphere is found in Caxton’s The Knight of the Tower, a 1483 translation of the fourteenth-century Livre pour l’enseignement de ses filles du Chevalier de La Tour Landry. In one of the knight’s stories, a woman goes out at night to see her lover, and ‘she felle in to a pyte whiche was twenty fadom depe’. She is miraculously saved after praying and repenting. She seems to be guilty of both the sexual misconduct of having a lover and social misconduct: that is, leaving her home at night. It is easy to blur the line between these so that the act of leaving the appropriate feminine space of the house for the physically dangerous outside world becomes associated with falling into a ‘pyte’ of sexual misbehaviour. If a woman goes ‘as it were a gase / Fro house to house to seke the mase [diversion]’ (How the Goodwife Taught her Daughter), she will reap the consequences.  In the court’s eyes, as well as her local community’s, Thomas was undoubtedly seen as justified in punishing his wife for spending hours away from home. He was not entitled to punish her so severely that she broke her arm: yet despite the fact Margery had two witnesses, the court clearly preferred John Semer’s account of the night, where instead of beating his wife with a club he gave her a single blow with his fist.

In this case, Margery had two women as allies. It would not surprise me if her local community of women were not necessarily so supportive, though, just as I was unsurprised to see that many of the comments on the Mail article that sympathised with Alex Nicholson were written by women (or at least commentators using female names). This week there has been a lot of discussion about why the majority of white women who voted in the US presidential election voted for Donald Trump, when he has repeatedly demonstrated contempt for women’s agency as well as their bodies. As many writers have pointed out, a lot of it is to do with racism. White women historically have tended to side with white men over women of colour, and it is women of colour who are most threatened by a Republican presidency. But enmeshed in that white supremacy is also misogyny – a misogyny that many women have internalised.

White women who voted for Trump are more likely to be conservative, evangelical, over 45, and lacking a college degree. It’s not that the Democratic Party hasn’t served the needs of these women; it’s that patriarchal authority is an evangelical norm and a conservative value, and many women adhere to it, too. Women are vastly outnumbered in leadership roles in evangelical institutions. And women without college degrees, who voted for Trump in large numbers, are also more likely to be stay-at-home moms, dependent on a husband’s income.  The conservative evangelical vision of America, so mainstreamed into the Republican Party, sees white women as delicate, maternal, and dependent, not authoritative and powerful. Trump knows this, and he plays on this racialized gender anxiety…. Claiming black and brown men pose a threat to the safety and sexual purity of innocent white women is a very old trick, one used to justify slavery and segregation. To white men, Trump promises the restoration of diminishing supremacy over both women and people of color. To white women, he promises a return to a simpler time, when their race alone made them exceptional and worthy of special protection.

Jill Filopovic’s insightful article (my emphases, above) makes a very clear case that women who voted for Trump are used to deferring to male authority, and to see that not only as natural but also as desirable. The things that threaten their white male protectors thus are also seen to threaten them, and white patriarchy is very afraid of men of colour. Patriarchy cannot function as an operational system if it expects men to carry out all its work, however; it relies on multiple groups “punching down”. White women’s racism. One racial minority discriminating against another, even more marginalised minority. Sexism within minority groups. Ableism.

Surviving patriarchy is a hard task, and many women unsurprisingly make the (often unconscious) decision that it is better to be a collaborator than a victim. When someone is in direct danger of real harm, I certainly would not blame them for this. Mrs Nicholson has apparently sought reconciliation with her husband. We don’t know the full situation, of course: but I hope for her sake this is a genuine opportunity to rebuild a trusting, equal relationship, not a return to a site of domestic abuse because she sees no better options, as many women have sadly had to choose. I can, however, blame the women who were not threatened by Mr Nicholson, or even know him in real life, but who were instinctively drawn to defend him, assuming the worst about his wife. Throwing off the social conditioning of patriarchy is hard, painful work: but that is no excuse not to do it, even if rather than a fast discard it is a slow slough, inch by inch. As the political climate darkens, we owe it to our communities to be Margery Speights and Joan Whites. They may not have saved Margery Nesfeld from her marriage: but at least they tried, and let her know they saw her, that she was not alone.


Posted in Feminism, Medieval History | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Blocked: On Anxiety & Productivity

Yesterday I had to face an uncomfortable truth: I have writer’s block. This isn’t related to one specific piece of writing, but instead reflects a more general malaise in my academic writing. I had opened a blank Word document to start a book review – a fairly straightforward task – and found my stomach churning with anxiety.

I approached this in two ways that are typical for me: one, a careful, thoughtful breakdown of what might be contributing to this problem and how I might resolve it, and the other a tearful exploration of the emotional territory underlying it. Both approaches were fruitful; academic work is passionate work, and tears as well as laughter are a useful part of a process that should be heartfelt, not dryly “rational” (whatever that means).

I think returning to work after maternity leave has had a deeper legacy than I originally anticipated. I understood that ten months away from work would take a toll, and that my priorities would change; but of course before I became a parent I couldn’t really understand what becoming a mother would mean in both pragmatic and emotional terms. I think I planned pretty well for my return to work, and I was glad to return. I didn’t cry when my daughter went to nursery, and she is clearly thriving there. When work is going well, these choices seem self-evident. Grace gets socialisation and stimulation from a broader group of people than just me – and so do I!

When work isn’t going well, however, it’s easy for guilt to creep in. If I’ve had a day where I’ve barely achieved anything, what’s the point in spending so much money to have other people look after my child, and give me only a couple of hours a day with her – one at the start of the day when I’m not exactly sparkling company, and one at the end when she is cranky and tired? Now I have a child, too, my worries about my career have taken on a more urgent quality. What if I don’t get another academic job in two years? What if that’s because I haven’t made the best use of my research fellowship and – let’s be honest about what that boils down to in jobseeking terms here – publishedpublishedpublished? Ugh, just typing that makes my stomach churn again.

These worries put me under a lot of (self-inflicted) pressure. I’ve noted in the past that I work well under certain types of pressure. Fixed deadlines, my PhD supervisors discovered early on, were much more successful than flexible ones. Being busy rather than having acres of unscheduled time tends to make me use my days better. So my current situation, of having a lot of unstructured time to do research, while sounding dreamy has seemed to leave me paralysed and prone to fretting about far in the future events while failing to actually crack on with more immediate concerns.

So, I am taking action. You’ve probably heard of NaNoWriMo – I’ve decided to take on the academic version of #acawrimo. Mine is a modified version, as I am committing to only 500 words a day (a target that ensures I have to sit and write something every day, but isn’t a target that sets me up for demoralising defeat), and I will not write at weekends because I take work-life balance seriously. I will have set times to answer my work emails and keep Outlook shut the rest of the time. I’ve already turned off notifications on my phone so that I have to open apps to see them – I find it very difficult to not look at a notification when it pops up, even if I know it’s probably just someone liking a photo on facebook. Most importantly, though, I have bought a large weekly planner with tear-off sheets, and am going to give my days far more structure. I have core working hours based around my daughter’s nursery times. I am establishing daily, weekly, monthly goals. These are all pretty obvious things to do, but after several years of working to a termly schedule where I fitted in my research around fixed teaching commitments, and then a year which was mostly reactive in the sense of reacting to my new baby’s needs and organising our day in relation to the reality of new parenthood, structuring my work time to meet definite but self-defined objectives has become a skill I’ve lost. I think I had it during my PhD; time to find it again.

Today I’ve met my 500 word target, which doesn’t include this blog, and I’ve ticked a couple more items off my to-do list. Often I find November a horribly dreary month. This year I’m going to make it work for me.


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Stunning Daughter: Child Migrants, Celebrity Teens, & Some Medieval Connections

Recently, a very small number of the desperate group of people interned in a refugee camp in Calais have crossed a narrow sea to reach this island. It’s been well-reported that conditions at the Calais camp are appalling, which will only worsen as the camp gets more crowded and the season turns to winter. But the unaccompanied minors who have landed in Britain have not exactly received a warm welcome after potentially weeks or months living out in the cold – they have been subject to a media onslaught where paparazzi take intrusive photographs and the tabloids spend hours scrutinizing their faces for clues of their ages. 

Yesterday Guardian columnist Marina Hyde posted a perceptive piece challenging the hypocrisy of newspapers like the Daily Mail, who insist that it is an absolute travesty if anyone over the age of 18 manages to escape the Calais hell hole for life in Britain, and circles the hopeful little moustaches of late-teenage boys in hopes it will prove they are not minors, but also publish gushing articles celebrating the beauty of teenage daughters of celebrities and coyly suggest they look “older” than their years. Old enough to be legally acceptable to fancy, I suspect.

Putting aside the issue that few people seem to have raised, which is that eighteen might be a useful legal threshold to recognise the end of minority but that in social terms very few of us would nowadays assume that a teenager’s eighteenth birthday magically marks a transition into full, responsible adulthood, I found myself thinking about these “beautiful daughters” and the resonances they have with my own work – on families several centuries ago.

I gritted my teeth and loaded up the Daily Mail‘s website – which is horrendously designed, before we get to any content issues – and trawled through several pages of articles. I limited my search to the past week, and I found four stories on teenage girls who are the daughters of celebrities. All of these stories to one extent or another celebrated the girls’ appearance. 

The first story is about fifteen-year-old  Thylane Blondeau. She is working as a model, so perhaps it might seem acceptable to describe her as an “extraordinary beauty”. However, the article also mentions “it was her 2011 beauty editorial for Vogue Paris that drew international attention to the young the star, as many deemed the make-up heavy shoot to be too provocative for the 10-year-old”. Of course the Mail included a screenshot of said editorial (I have not, for obvious reasons). The second article pictured here is about seventeen-year-old Lily Rose Depp; the language is not particularly sexual, though it does talk about her “natural beauty” and radiance. The third story is about Sofia Richie, who is eighteen, and the piece is mainly full of blurry photos of her with Tobey Maguire. However, the photo used to illustrate her with Justin Bieber and which describes her as a “stunning teen” was taken when she was seventeen. Finally, “pretty blonde” Anais Gallagher is pictured in a crop top and jeans – which seems to be the extent of that story’s narrative. 

So, here we have four girls all under the age of eighteen, all famous to one degree or another because of their fathers (and in the case Marina Hyde talks about, her mother). They are girls who are considered beautiful not only because of how they look but because of their birth – much like medieval heroines.

Does this seem like a bit of a stretch? In my book on medieval fatherhood and on this blog, I’ve written quite extensively on fathers and daughters. Many medieval narratives are filled with the shadow of the incestuous father – who either actually goes ahead and makes incestuous advances, or whose behaviour is classified by psychiatrist Judith Herman as the “seductive father“, who skirts the boundaries of incestuous activity. 

In the medieval romance Emarethe emperor Artyus is married to a beautiful queen whom he loves. She dies after their daughter Emare is born, and the baby is brought up away from the court. When she grows up (in medieval narrative terms, this is likely to suggest she’s in her mid-to-late teens in the text), she is reunited with her father:

The mayden that was of sembelant swete,
Byfore her owene fadur sete,
   The fayrest wommon on lyfe;
That all hys hert and all hys thowghth   
Her to love was yn browght:
   He byhelde her ofte sythe.
So he was anamored hys thowghtur tyll,
Wyth her he thowghth to worche hys wyll,
   And wedde her to hys wyfe.

(The maiden that was of sweet appearance, the fairest woman alive, sat before her own father. All his heart and all his thoughts were brought to love of her; he looked at her often. So he was enamoured of his daughter until he thought to work his will with her and marry her.) 

When Emare unsurprisingly rejects her father’s advances, he has her put to sea in a little boat, clearly expecting her to die adrift on the ocean. 


Capsized refugees, The Economist, 25 April 2015

Instead after days at sea, driven half-mad with hunger and thirst, Emare is washed ashore in a country she does not know.

She was on the see so harde bestadde,
For hungur and thurste almost madde.
   Woo worth wederus yll!   
She was dryven into a lond
That hyghth Galys, y unthurstond,
   That was a fayr countré.

She is rescued by the king’s steward, who thinks it’s a great pity to see a young woman so sore beset. He takes her back to the castle, gives her food and drink, and when she’s recovered finds her gainful employment as a seamstress. Eventually she marries the king of that country, and after a time is reunited with her father, who regrets his actions and so is rewarded by having his daughter – and by this time, grandson – restored to him. Emare apparently greets her father joyfully. Perhaps she had internalised the medieval cultural norm that – while decrying incest as a grave sin – blamed beautiful girls and women for the violence that happened to them:

Heo is bitacned bi theo thet unwrith the put – the put is hire feire neb, hire hwite swire… Best is the beastlich mon thet ne thenchet naut on God, ne ne noteth naut his wit as mon ach to donne, ach secheth for to fallen in this put thet ich spec of, yef he hit open fint… [H]a is witi of his death biforen ure Laverd ant schal for his saule ondsweren an Domes-dei…

Robert Hasenfratz, ed., Ancrene Wisse (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), Part 2, ll. 101-12.

(She is symbolised by the one who uncovers the pit – the pit is her fair face, her white neck… The beast is the beastly man that does not think of God, nor uses his wits as man ought to do, but falls into this pit that I spoke of, if he finds it open… [S]he is guilty of his death before our Lord and shall answer for his soul on Doomsday)

Before we get complacent about our own modern reactions to abuse of girls and women by their fathers, we should remember that this ‘hapless collusiveness’, as it might be called, has not disappeared with the Middle Ages; well into the twentieth century, a common view expressed by therapists was that girls have contributed to or even initiated incest:

These children undoubtedly do not deserve completely the cloak of innocence … [There was] at least some cooperation of the child in the activity, and in some cases the child assumed an active role in initiating the relationship… Finally, a most striking feature was that these children were distinguished as unusually charming and attractive … 

Lauretta Bender and Abram Blau, ‘The Reaction of Children to Sexual Relations with Adults,’ American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 7 (1937).

This may seem a long way away from refugee boys coming from Calais to England, or celebrity girls getting papped while trying to go about their daily teenage girl business of having coffee with friends or going to a party. But consider this: Emare is beautiful because she was young and fair and because her father was an emperor- birth status really does make people beautiful in medieval narratives, much as any teen daughter of a celebrity is “stunning” today. She is abused and nobody protects her. She becomes a refugee, though she receives a kinder reception from the state than refugees can expect today. She is a success story because she gets a job, marries, has a baby – but of course none of those things would have been possible if she had not been given help with no questions asked beside what her name was. Even then she lies; she tells the people of Galys she is Egare, and that lie is seen only as prudent in the story, because if you’re escaping from horror, you do what you need to do to survive. I have the sad certainty that the Mail and its ilk would very happily write a sentimental story about a beautiful teenage refugee girl, celebrating her exceptional story of courage and survival, while at the same time continuing to vilify the less photo-friendly victims of war, poverty and despair who are her neighbours. Though in neither case are you really human; you’re like Emare, forced to give your own story a happy ending by letting your abuser “clypte and kyssed her sote”. Be grateful, little refugee girl; things could be so much worse. 


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