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. 


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

Splintered: Women in Academia


Woman faces the glass ceiling, from “Women’s History” on

Last week I attended Challenging Inequality: A Workshop for Women Historians at UK Universities. Although I was listed as speaking about inequality in Oxford specifically, what I mostly talked about were the particular problems facing women early career researchers. The day was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, since many participants wanted to be able to talk about their specific experiences of institutional sexism and would not like those disseminated further.

This morning one of the participants circulated an article she’d read online about Australian women historians, which has the incredibly optimistic title “How women historians smashed the glass ceiling.” The article itself is a little more circumspect, but overall has a positive impression of the Australian academy’s gender parity:

Compared to both the male-dominated STEM disciplines, and other social sciences like philosophy and political science, Australian history has been remarkably feminised.

This was the conclusion of a recent ANU enquiry into the status of gender in the social sciences. The results, published in 2014, found that history was “the discipline most changed by feminist scholarship.” When it came to “improving the participation of women” and “mainstreaming feminist approaches and gender scholarship,” history departments were judged “impressively successful.”

The image of the glass ceiling is in many ways a problematic one. While it’s a useful way to visualise a systemic barrier to success for women, it suggests that the only real problem is women moving upward, and if they exert enough pressure they will eventually break through it. I noticed when googling the term that stock photos of it are always of white women in business attire either wistfully pressing or aggressively smashing against the barrier, beyond which there are fluffy clouds – suggesting if they break through that, the sky’s the limit. But women historians have been HoDs and vice chancellors now, and it hasn’t “fixed” sexism. Many women historians are likely to feel that the glass ceiling is actually a box, exerting pressure from all sides and potentially isolating them, too.

Which is one reason the Challenging Inequality day was useful – while in some senses it was exhausting hearing so many accounts of systemic sexism – from being passed over for jobs to microaggressions in the common room to outright harassment and abuse – it was also, I think, reassuring for many of us to reiterate that these are serious issues and we do have a right to be angry about them. There was a lot of anger in the auditorium that day – as well as plenty of knowing laughter and sympathy.

Two of our speakers were involved in the production of the Royal Historical Society’s gender equality report, and they spoke about how the report came into being and what the results said. Over the course of the day many people reiterated how important the report had been in convincing colleagues that sexism is still a genuine problem in the discipline of history. As many of us know, it can be easy for our personal experiences to be dismissed; cold hard statistics are a little more difficult to discount. So we were grateful for this data. 21% of the historians employed in the UK responded to the survey, which makes for a very good sample group.

History has a roughly equal gender balance among school and university students, but more than 60% of academic history staff are male and, according to the latest HESA figures, only 20.8% of history professors are female. … The situation is far worse in some sub-fields of the discipline, where careers are made (or not): the Economic History Society, which has been tracking the problem for 25 years now, reports that not only their membership but also attendance at their events routinely divides 75% men to 25% women. Although cultural history usually has a better ratio, intellectual history or international history often has an even worse one.

The report has some very sensible suggestions about how to embed a culture of equality, from recruitment (addressing invisible bias in shortlisting and interviews) to daily departmental work/life balance (work on integration back into the department post-parental leave) to promotion (redefining success not just to reflect publications but also service and outreach). It unfortunately does not really address questions about disability and race, and there is very little about robust responses to sexual harassment cases (which is sorely needed, judging by this Guardian report). But it does provide a sort of baseline for what women should be able to expect within the academy – a “meets minimum standards” sort of mark, I suppose, for what we should hope for within our departments, but which many women have worryingly reported they are not receiving.

There was also a lot of discussion over the course of the day about a need for more radical change. My gut feeling is that there need to be concrete, specific changes made within the academy to help level the playing field further: but that also we need to consistently, insistently protest against the appearance of the playing field. Maybe we’re making it easier to get into, but it still stays much the same old playing field even if the players have changed. History as a profession needs to reshape itself to incorporate its differently abled, mixed gender, racially diverse bodies; it needs to treat all of them as human beings with innate dignity and value, rather than trying to remodel them to fit an old-fashioned norm of what a historian “looks like”. Its public and private faces need to reflect a diverse profession, not replicate hegemonic norms. We are not all alike; we aren’t all “leaning in” to become alike.

While the narrative of the glass ceiling suggests we smash boundaries, what really happens with circumventing the glass ceiling is usually that we “lean into” conventional practices, co-opting them so that we succeed. If we really want to break through the glass ceiling, we need to fundamentally change the values of history departments in the UK from relentless focus on publications to an appreciation of the multiplicity of “soft skills” modern academics can bring to the table, which we’re all supposed to acquire and yet somehow don’t make much of an impression at interview or in promotion panels. We need to celebrate the different gifts historians have – as talented teachers, marvellous managers, co-operative collaborators – rather than saying all those matter but only really looking for 4* publications. We need to actively strive to increase the diversity of our departments, not just hope it happens by seeming friendly and making sure a token woman or person of colour gets added to a shortlist. We need a kinder academy, but one that does not lack courage. And this is not a journey minorities can take by ourselves; when I talk about a kinder, braver academy, I mean all of us, together.


By @deonnawade

Posted in Academia, Conferences and Symposia, Feminism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Only connect: Academia and isolation

Last week I was feeling a little down-in-the-mouth. It was just before the start of term in Oxford, and so my inbox was filling up with circulars about upcoming seminars, invitations to drinks evenings, notices about upcoming dinners… Most of which I can’t attend.

In pretty much all ways I have a very privileged life – I’m going to say that straight up now. My husband has a permanent job at a good law firm. It’s the kind of law firm where you don’t make megabucks but you do interesting work and you mostly get to leave by 6pm, which in lawyerly circles is pretty humane. I am just starting the second year of a three year fully-funded fellowship that pays a respectable salary. We now own our own home and we have a lovely one-year-old daughter. A few years ago, post-PhD, my husband struggling to find legal work during the recession and when I was just struggling to find academic work full stop, this life would have seemed like a rosy dream. I love it and am very lucky.

However, I live an hour away by train from my place of work. Factoring in getting to and from the station, it’s a two hour journey each way that off-peak costs £36.60 for a day return and over £75(!) during peak hours unless bought significantly in advance. As nursery shuts at 6pm on the dot and it’s a 15-minute walk from our house, I normally do the pick up, and my husband does the morning drop off. One or occasionally two days a week during term time (less during vacations) I come into Oxford, stuffing some teaching, meetings etc into as few hours as I can, relying on the good will of my in-laws or the ability of my husband to sometimes get out of work early to make sure our daughter gets picked up and put to bed. The rest of the time I work from home.

I mostly really enjoy working at home. It gives me a lot of flexibility, although it does require a good deal of discipline (that I sometimes lack!) to stay focused. But I admit that I do sometimes feel a bit isolated and removed from university life. Before I had a baby, I would quite often stay over one night in Oxford, taking advantage of the college’s reduced rate for members to use guest rooms – a real perk, I know. But from late pregnancy – when I was suffering from SPD and increasingly limited in my mobility – onward, this became impractical. Now it’s something I can only really do for special events like conferences.

We live in Birmingham for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s where my husband’s work is based, and given his lengthy hours in an office, it makes much more sense for us to live near his work, since I have a mostly-research job and so need to be on-site far less often. It’s also far, far cheaper – I just did a quick google and the median rent in Oxford is £1599/month. The median rent in Birmingham is £702. We were able to buy a home for well under half the price of the average house in Oxford – the median price of which is an eye-watering £485k! Finally, Kieran’s parents live only thirty minutes away from Birmingham, which is very handy when we have a small child. Moving there was a very simple decision,  and I don’t regret it for a minute.

But I do get lonely sometimes. Academics have a reputation for being introverts. Quite a few are! But liking books and your own company (and perhaps, like internet photo memes, enjoying wearing sweaters and looking wistfully out of a window while stroking a cat) doesn’t necessarily an introvert make. I get a lot of energy out of social encounters. Last week I realised the only people I had spoken to that working week besides my husband and child were the nursery staff and cashiers at supermarkets. Then this week I’ve come into college twice and been invigorated by conversations with many different colleagues, enjoyed meeting new students, and felt inspired by contact with fellow medievalists. But it’s not something I can afford to do – timewise or financially – very often.

I know quite a few academics in my situation. Many people can’t afford to live in the cities in which their universities are based, or need to make compromises on location to best suit the needs of all their family rather than just themselves. Many of us, even though who live near our workplaces, can’t make events that are regularly scheduled to start at 5pm when we need to pick up our kids or perhaps undertake other caring responsibilities. I’m sure a few of you have also looked over the seminar lists and events calendar for the new semester and realised that attending any of them will take planning and negotiation with your partner/spouse/offspring. I think this is something that universities should taken in account – many assume that their employees will live nearby, and many departments still schedule their events as if it’s still 1950 and if you’re going to a seminar you’re either a bachelor or your wife will be taking care of the kids and the dinner while you enjoy academic discourse and port.

This is one of the reasons I love the internet. I will admit upfront that I fritter away too much time on inconsequential things online – but as well as providing me with huge numbers of useful resources for my work (seriously, research for me would be so much harder if I had to go to an actual physical library every time I needed a book, rather than using my Oxford login to access e-texts), it has also given me an academic community. This was really useful to me during my maternity leave, when I felt very far removed from my work and colleagues. But it’s perhaps even more vital to me now, when I’m grappling with research and I don’t have people to just pop into the SCR for a coffee and a brainstorm with. and hey, at least with Twitter you know there’ll be someone around at any hour, timezones be damned!


Posted in Academia, Academic Parenthood | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

#ifmenhadperiods:transphobia, antisemitism, and gestational bodies

#ifmenhadperiods popped up on my twitter dash today – primarily through tweeters pointing out that there is in fact a large category of men who may indeed menstruate: trans men. Casual cissexism aside, the most popular tweets on this hashtag seem to be expressing a general frustration with the patriarchal status quo. Kraken Syllabub gets to the heart of this in a series of eloquent tweets that frame the problem not as “what if men had periods”, but “what if bodies that menstruated were – and had always been – socially privileged?”:



Cis (white, heterosexual) men have historically been very good at othering pretty much anyone who isn’t a man who performs masculinity in a narrowly proscribed set of ways. Which has meant women, trans people, gay people… And people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds to their own. Which got me thinking about late medieval/early modern myths of the menstruating Jewish man.

Jewish people in medieval Europe were regularly stigmatised, ghettoised, penalised and made victims of violence. While Willis Johnson has convincingly problematised the earlier scholarly conviction that medieval people routinely believed that Jewish men menstruated, by the thirteenth century Jewish people – men and women – were believed to suffer from an annual disabling bloody flux in gruesome commemoration of the crucifixion of Christ. This seems to have originated in the traditional understanding of the death of Judas; while the Vulgate states that “his middle burst and all his guts poured out”, medieval commentators came to the conclusion that his bowels came out through his anus. This grisly form of death also became associated with heretics, such as Arius, who according to the early Christian author Arator used a public toilet, down which all his intestines suddenly flowed.

Sudden, uncontrollable, bloody, defecatory death was associated with the worst sort of traitors – heretics and Jews, who had betrayed Christ. By the fourteenth century, the belief that Jewish men regularly bled from their anuses was an accepted enough part of the medical canon that it was discussed seriously at the University of Paris, where it was concluded that Jewish men had cold, wet humours, resulting in a superfluity of gross blood. Of course, medieval humoral theory also posited that women were dominated by cool, wet humours (men were as a broad category hot and dry). Now, this excessive Jewish blood was articulated as being passed through haemorrhoids – but medieval medical writers also considered a cause of haemorrhoids in women to be excessive menstrual blood. We  can see that there are not too many steps between thinking Jewish men regularly bled, to thinking Jewish men had feminised bodies, to thinking that Jewish men menstruated. It was used later in the middle ages and throughout the early modern period as a reason for seeing Jewish men as essentially unmanly, grotesque and fundamentally wicked.

So in answer to the question #whatifmenhadperiods, the answer is – if they were white Christian heterosexual men, yes, tampons would probably be free and you’d get stickers to collect in every pack of your favourite menstruating heroes. But if men who are outside the norm are perceived as having menstruating bodies, that is likely to be used as another stick to beat them with: they are grotesque because they are menstruating men; they are grotesque because menstruation means they are not men. Transphobia and antisemitism, like many other oppressions, enjoy pinning their victims between a rock and a hard place.


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From Charlemagne to Brock Turner: Building Homosociality Across Time

TW for discussion of rape, gang rape and death by sexual violence. 

Yesterday Rachel Stone published a very interesting blog post on Carolingian homosociality, which I was flattered to read was inspired by a twitter-conversation with me. In her post, she considers ways in which Carolingian society constructed homosocial environments, identifying four key strands: team-building, establishing group identity, patronage networks, and teaching homosocial practice.

Interestingly (for me, at least) enough, these are themes that are central to my own research, even though my period of consideration is several centuries after Rachel’s. It has reinforced my determination to host a small conference on homosociality across time later in this academic year – especially since thanks to the Leverhulme Trust I have the assurance of some funding for it! I’m really hoping to bring together scholars from antiquity to the modern day to think about homosociality: its foundations, manifestations and processes. I expect we’ll see a great deal of historical continuity in terms of the key elements that make and maintain homosocial culture, even if their form varies over time.

As you’ve probably guessed from the content of my blog and the papers I’ve given lately, I’ve recently been preoccupied with the role sexual violence plays in establishing homosocial culture – namely that seemingly-innocuous activity we call male bonding. I’m in the midst of working on a range of medieval examples that I hope will find their way into print in the not-too-distant future, and since I’m still mulling them over I won’t talk about them here. But I will give a contemporary and early modern example of the kind of role sexual violence can play in homosocial culture, which contain repeating motifs that I think originate well before either of the events in these case studies took place.

In the dim early hours of 18 January 2015, Stanford University student Brock Turner was arrested on suspicion of rape. As detectives took him into custody, a message via the application GroupMe, which allows group text messaging, flashed up on his cell phone. It read simply: “WHOS TIT IS THAT” (sic). Although police were unable to find proof that Brock Turner had sent his friends a photograph, as messages within the GroupMe app can be deleted by any group member, Turner’s unconscious victim was discovered with one breast exposed. Brock Turner was ultimately found guilty of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.

In 1740, William Duell lured Sarah Griffin, a servant girl travelling home alone on the road to Worcestershire, into a barn. He returned with several friends, who all repeatedly raped her.  George Curtis raped Griffin with a broomstick, and she later died from her injuries. Duell and Curtis were both convicted for gang rape, robbery and murder. (Follow the link to Garthine Walker’s excellent article on early modern rape that introduced me to this case.) 

These two cases are separated by centuries. They have different outcomes – Turner, as has famously been discussed all over today’s media, was sentenced to only six months in prison and has now indeed been released, while Curtis and Duell were executed. But both cases have a great many similarities: the preying upon a vulnerable women (in the first case, a woman who was intoxicated to the point of unconsciousness, the second a young girl travelling a long distance home on a night time road), the use of a foreign object to rape, and the homosocial element of involving male friends in the assault. In the eighteenth century, Duell brought his friends with him; in the twenty-first century, Turner used modern technology to allow his friends to accompany him on his attack. Turner’s assault would not be classified as a gang rape as Duell and Curtis’s clearly is: but it was a shared social experience that I hope encourages us to think more deeply about culpability and the participatory nature of rape, and emphasises the key role of male sociability in rape culture. As we all hopefully know by now, “stranger rape” of one woman by one man she’s never met before is a very rare form of assault in comparison to other situations resulting in rape. But the collective involvement of, and responsibility for, rape by men operating in homosocial cultures is an area still ripe for further research. Watch this space.

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Serious Academic: Why I Engage Online


Another victim of the “selfie epidemic”

Today The Guardian has done a stellar job of stirring academic twitter out of any summer doldrums it might be experiencing by publishing the clickbaity “I’m a serious academic, not a professional instagrammer”. The premise of the article is that the anonymous author, a PhD student, is frustrated by supposed pressures to engage in social media for self-promotion and impact and wants to focus on their research. I’m not going to bother debating the finer points of their article, because quite frankly if you are reading this blog you probably think social media is more a force for good than evil in academia. But I thought I might talk briefly about why I do it, and why for me it is valuable.

I started this blog a few years ago, without any real idea of what I wanted to do with it, but wanting a place to deposit “loose ends” – undeveloped academic ideas that it would help me articulate by writing down, and that I thought might be interesting enough to other people to make them available to read rather than shoving them in a file somewhere. The blog has, in its modest way, grown a good deal since then. Nearly 2500 of you subscribe via WordPress, and I know I get a lot of readers via twitter, too. Once or twice a blog post of mine has gone semi-viral, increasing my normal number of hits for a post – usually in the few hundreds – by the power of ten. I am not in the blogging big leagues; I’m not even in the academic blogging big leagues. But in comparison to how many people have bought my book, or read my articles, I have a lot more impact here.

And that to me is exciting. I like that I engage with my professional peers here, and that my blogging has lead to other opportunities – a post I wrote on my pregnancy helped inspire the Swansea symposium I co-organised recently. I also really like that my blogging engages people outside the academic sphere. You don’t need a PhD to read my work, but in all honesty very few of you are going to buy my expensive monograph, and your public library probably won’t either. I wish all my work could be open access, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. In the meantime we can still have conversations. I have been privileged to experience people leaving comments saying my work has moved them, made them think, has even helped them deal with problems in their own lives. I am lucky to have you here, gentle readers!

Twitter is a much faster-paced format than blogging. Even for the internet-phobic academic, blogging is just-about-acceptable as an academic activity: it is long form, it is thoughtful, it can even contain references! Tweeting is seen by some as slapdash and frivolous. Again, I’m not going to justify using twitter, as many of you will come here via a tweeted link and I don’t need to preach to the choir. Twitter is as morally neutral as a road, or a computer. We can use it in intelligent, kind, stupid, pernicious, lazy, irritating, repetitive and even dangerous ways – just as you could use a road or a computer. It’s down to the driver or operator, after all. I use academic twitter as a place to vent, to make friends, to find links to new research, to promote my own work, and to keep tabs on events I’m not physically able to attend.

Some of this can be categorised as “serious”, and some would not be. “Seriousness” is a dangerous sort of quality to chase after in our careers, I think. We are all serious, in that we are all human beings with innate dignity. A preoccupation with appearing “serious” in academia is usually synonymous with appearing “professional”, but as I’ve discussed many times on this blog, what it means to appear “professional” in academia is usually predicated on ableist, sexist, and racist norms. For myself, I enjoy seeing colleagues tweet selfies from a conference, write about their problems finding childcare when school holidays don’t match semester dates, or sharing a humorously-captioned (yet meticulously referenced) image of a manuscript as light relief from a long day in the archive. Because my colleagues are funny, tired, punchy, eccentric, angry, delightful people who love their work and sometimes hate their industry, who have all different kinds of bodily and emotional experiences as academic professionals, and whose online presence reminds me it’s ok to be me. Who queued online for 3.5 hours yesterday in a failed attempt to buy Harry Potter theatre tickets; who has over the first year of parenthood mostly only read romance novels and YA fiction; and who is a serious academic not despite those things, but because of them. Dr Rachel E Moss, at your service.

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Flotsam and Jetsam: Watery Womanhood


Photo by Dimitri Caceaune

Women are watery creatures, it seems. In mythology we fuse with fish and seals to slide fin-first through open water. In medieval and early modern medicine, our humours are wet and cool. We leak: milk, blood, amniotic fluid – and yes, even that great modern taboo, piss. In medieval narratives we are cast to sea in boats riddled with holes, and yet we reach shore whole. We lie in lakes, waiting to hold aloft a sword – that a man will take to rule and then ruin a world. (No basis for a system of government!)

It has been a watery few weeks for me. I recently returned from Women at Sea at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, and as the name suggests we were able to glimpse water from our conference room. The symposium was one of the most joyful, thought-provoking and affirming academic events I have attended. The Storify is here, which gives you a good flavour of the day. We began the day with the painful poetry of contemporary refugee women, who having fled fear and violence overseas came to Swansea in search of sanctuary. We ended the day with Daisy Black‘s retelling of the Constance legend, where she skilfully drew out the painful feminist narrative of a woman tossed from shore to shore by the demands of patriarchy, but who survived, and survived, and survived. In between we had papers that showed the queer, transformative potential of the sea – and of the dangerous power of women’s watery bodies.

Torrential rains followed in the week after the conference, before I went to my next gig – Medieval Women Revisited, hosted by the University of York. Supported by the Department of History at the University of Palacky, this was one of the first events to host scholars from central Europe who are working on women’s history. That, too, was a weekend of boundary-crossing: of languages, nations and scholarly expectations. One of the papers that particularly resonated with me was Kim Phillips’ ” The Breasts of Virgins: Sexual reputation and female bodies in medieval culture and society”. She talked about how young medieval women used ointments and binding to attempt to restrict the growth of their breasts, because breast growth was associated with sexual experience. Menstrual blood moved to the breasts, swelling them, ready to be transformed into milk. We looked at images of flat-chested, white-skinned medieval virgins, who presumably in the male artists’ minds never did anything as uncouth as leak from any of their orifices.

Men as well as women in the middle ages must have been aware of the wet reality of women’s bodies, though. In an age before tampons, incontinence towels and breast pads, the homemade solutions used by women must have made their various discharges more visible – and smellable. Meanwhile, nowadays women are so anxious about their leaking parts that they are encouraged to mask them – with scented pantyliners, vaginal douches, and incontinence pads. Yet the same cultural taboos that make women desperate to cover up the signs of their bodies having undergone puberty and birth are still so strong that many women put up with pelvic pain and incontinence for years. We hide the evidence of our watery bodies, but many of us still don’t control them.

I was left with chronic cystitis symptoms after the birth of my daughter. Although I have thankfully never wet myself, even now I sometimes feel like I can’t empty my bladder. I pushed for a referral to a specialist; I also paid for treatment by a physiotherapist, a kind woman who manipulated the muscles of my pelvis and talked about all the women she’s seen who had lived with problems for months or years, who had used the TENA pads marketed at postpartum women and been given the impression that this was their lot now; their bodies couldn’t go back to where they were before.

They can’t, of course, and the Hollywoodisation of postpartum bodies, giving the impression you can have a flat stomach and shiny hair six weeks post-birth, is a dangerous thing, too. Women at sea may cross the ocean several times, but they never exactly return to where they started. But our bodies, watery as they may be, don’t have to be painful balloons, swollen and fragile. Like Constance, in crossing the sea we can become an ocean, mermaid-fierce and free.


Copyright Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame de Strasbourg

Posted in Academia, Conferences and Symposia, Feminism, Medieval History, Medieval Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments