#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?”:

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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

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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

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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.

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Copyright Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame de Strasbourg

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Academic Kindness: Chris Wickham, Europe, and who we want to be now

I thonke yow herteley of all kyndenes that ye have done to me before this tyme.

“This is goddis”, London, Lambeth Palace Library 853.

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Chris Wickham; image copyright aarome.org

On a warm day in May 2011, I boarded a train from Oxford to London. I was at this time living in Paris, and I clutched in my hand my cheap French mobile phone, just in case it rang. Just in case.

Shortly after five pm, it did. A soft, measured voice offered me a three year position as lecturer in medieval history  at the University of Oxford. Outside, the Oxfordshire countryside rolled by in a haze of gold light. I accepted with thanks, and when I hung up I burst into tears that had to be explained to the passengers sitting opposite me.

Yesterday, to celebrate the retirement of eminent scholar Christopher Wickham, several dozen historians gathered in the auditorium of St John’s College, Oxford, to reflect on his career. Several historians, who had been variously Chris’s students, colleagues and friends, spoke about his influence both on their work and on the wider historical community.

Professor Christopher Wickham, Chichele Professor of Medieval History, expert in social and economic Italian history from the end of the Roman Empire to around 1300, doesn’t seem like an obvious person for me to name as a significant influence on my career. After all, I work largely on the fifteenth century, and I suppose my research could be called “literary history” for the sake of brevity. But as I listened to a host of people talk about Chris’s extraordinary list of accomplishments, I thought about his kindness to me as an early career scholar, and that for me at least this rates as highly as an academic talent as fluency in multiple languages or the writing of pathbreaking books.

It was Chris, of course, who offered me the job at Oxford. Yesterday I thanked him for his words at our first meeting after I got that job. As a refreshing change from a number of well-meaning people who asked whether I’d done my “DPhil here or at Cambridge”, Chris had no assumptions that Oxford was the only place to be, or even the best place. He told me that I didn’t owe anyone anything, and if I could get a permanent job somewhere else, I should just go, without looking back. Sensible words, you’ll agree – though not necessarily what you’d expect from someone who was at the time Head of Faculty in one of the world’s most prestigious history departments. As someone who’d never done more than visit Oxford as a tourist, and who while confident she could do the job at hand was a little intimidated by the, well, Oxfordishness of it all, this was a comforting start to my new role.

In some ways it doesn’t take a great deal to be kind to other scholars, particularly if you are in a position of power. It is easy to scatter crumbs of consolation to more junior colleagues, to offer a few words that lift their spirits. But in other ways, that is being kind in only the most superficial manner. Perhaps it is merely being nice. We can, I think, often define “kindness” as merely something like “demonstrating good will”. But in Middle English, kindenesse means – amongst other things – kind deeds. I have met many senior scholars who demonstrate good will to their juniors: who will be welcoming of their presence, grateful for their contributions, and will write an encouraging word in their leaving cards at the end of yet another fixed-term contract. Senior scholars who will do kindness for their junior colleagues are rarer.

So I remember that first proper conversation I had with Chris as him doing me a kindness. I would have been entirely satisfied back then if he had simply made me welcome, seemed friendly, and offered me a few words of advice on how to do my job and how the faculty worked: in short, if he had been nice. He did all those things; but he also reminded me that I was worth more than a fixed-term contribution to the university. In the years since then, Chris has read my work, supported numerous job applications – including the Leverhulme I currently have – and never failed to make me feel as if I matter as both a scholar and a colleague.

At yesterday’s colloquium the shadow of Brexit loomed large. How could it not, when several speakers came from EU countries, and Chris’s own work is celebrated for its transnational scope? The afternoon was a celebration of Chris’s achievements, but it was also an opportunity to reflect on the ways the boundaries of “medieval history” have changed in the last forty years, mostly for the good – thresholds between sub-disciplines, periods and regions becoming more malleable and easier to cross. At a time when 15% of academic staff and 4.5% of undergraduates in the UK come from EU countries, universities are understandably anxious about the impact closing our borders might have on their intellectual culture and, more pragmatically, on their finances. It doesn’t help that the referendum campaign has been one of the ugliest in recent political memory, as British anxieties about the economy, public services and a nebulous “future” have become twisted into a knot of xenophobic parochialism. We are looking inward, and we are eating our young.

how-did-you-vote-said-pooh-leave-said-piglet-i-2915124If there were ever a time for academics to be kind, it is now. I am not calling for niceness, as that insipid meme of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet reconfirming their friendship after the referendum asks us. There is nothing particularly courageous in being nice, and indeed if it encourages us to sublimate our principles, niceness can be cowardly. Kindness, however, does require bravery; it requires us to love our friends and colleagues with an active affection, one that defends them from cruelty and promotes their interests. In a world where we may be seeing even less academic funding, where more pressure is put on departments, where fewer jobs are available and where it may be harder to meet residency requirements, people will be victims of unkindness. They will be taken advantage of, pushed to do more work than they can bear and told to feel grateful for it; they may also suffer even more than they already do on racist and sexist grounds. It will be easy to be nice to them – to smile at them in the corridor, to have lunch with them, to commiserate over a heavy marking load – and these will be good things to do. But it will be harder to be kind – to step in where we see injustices, to speak up for each other, to make the time to find out how someone is really doing and what we can do to make it better. It will be especially hard if we are victims of unkindness ourselves. And yet it is crucial that we do kindness in our institutions: our activism begins with an outstretched hand.

 

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At the Coalface: The Return to Academic Work

I’m seated at my chunky white desk in my home office. Spotify is rolling through its Southern Gothic playlist. I can hear my husband moving around on the floor below. He has begun his portion of our shared parental leave – Kieran is taking the final eight weeks – and I am officially Back At Work.

Ten months ago I officially set my “out of office” auto-message. This is the longest I have been away from a working environment in my entire adult life. Though in many ways, the past ten months have been the closest to a true coalface I am ever likely to get. My working life is a white collar one; it’s a job of the mind, and the dirtiest my hands are likely to get is the occasional ink smear. By contrast, these ten months of first parenthood have been the most intensely physical of my adult life. Some days have felt like back-breaking, mind-numbing labour. Other days have been fierce pleasures. I have calves like steel now from miles of pram-pushing – two to six every day, rain or sleet or shine – and while my stomach is stretch-marked, the flab of my upper arms has shrunk under the weight of an ever-growing infant. My body is stronger than it has been in a long time, although it is also a good deal more tired. I have barely sat at a desk in the 308 days I was on leave, and hardly used a computer.

Not that I’ve been out of touch with the academic community or wider internet entirely, of course. It’s just that most of my communications have taken place through one-handed use of my iPhone. It’s strange to be back, with the opportunity to focus for many hours at a time on only the work at hand. Right now my mind feels quite blank! After necessarily-structured days, coming back to the open horizons of an ongoing research project feels both exhilarating and a little intimidating.

Recently I was reflecting on why academic women might find maternity leave (by which I mean proper paid maternity leave for several months, not a few scant weeks off I know my American colleagues endure, barely enough time to recover from the physical processes of labour itself, never mind do anything else) a sometimes challenging experience. (Note: in the UK, maternity leave can become shared parental leave; partners have equal rights to share it. However, as this is a new law, and as at present it is still mostly women who take the lion’s share of parental leave and reap the cultural rewards and punishments of taking up to a year out of employment, I am focusing this on women’s experience.) 

No more solitude.

For many academics (particularly in the humanities), a large part of our working day is spent alone. Yes, we may well do many hours of teaching, attending committee meetings etc. But for many of us, a good portion of our week is spent alone in our offices. Even for the most extrovert amongst us, going from having quite a lot of alone time to having virtually none can be quite the challenge! I knew it would be hard at times to have another person be entirely dependent on me for meeting their needs, but I think I hadn’t quite appreciated how much I’d miss quiet time alone to think.

Abandoning vocation. 

I’ve written before about the concept of academia as a vocation  – which I consider to be a pernicious idea that contributes heavily to a culture of stress, poor work-life balance and deprioritising mental and physical health. The idea that we are somehow “called” to be academics not only encourages us to take lower salaries, do unpaid labour and move hundreds (or thousands) of miles for sub-optimal jobs: it also subtly but strongly encourages prioritising work above family. It can make women feel immensely guilty about not doing any academic work while they are on maternity leave.

As part of this, the cultural expectation in academia that we do uncompensated work (e.g. write book reviews, edit journals) can result in an expectation that this sort of work will continue when a woman is on maternity leave. It can be particularly tricky when one is part of a long term project, for instance an edited volume. I am co-editing a book of essays, and so I undertook a small amount of editorial work during my maternity leave, because otherwise we would miss publishers’ deadlines. I was fortunate in that my co-editors were very understanding about my other commitments, and indeed said they would understand if I withdrew from the project. I chose not to, but appreciated that there wasn’t an expectation I would remain part of the project – which began well before I was pregnant! In another industry, though, I would have handed over my projects to an appointed colleague (as my husband has done for his eight weeks off!). So much academic work is done through informal connections and can only really be done by the named person. It can place a heavy burden of guilt on women – what if a project has to be abandoned because you can’t do your part?

Off on a jolly. 

Add to that two notions I’ve faced myself in my time off – either that maternity leave is an opportunity for research leave, or it is a sabbatical – and the idea that one actually does not do any academic work at all on maternity leave can seem like a radical one. I have been asked several times how my research is going by well-meaning people who assume that time away from teaching and admin has left me with lots of lovely time to think and write. For the first six months of her life, my daughter would only nap for more than 20-30 minutes if she was being pushed in a pram. Even now, she usually has a solid morning nap but always requires her afternoon nap to take place while out walking. I also did not produce a baby who was happy to just chill out on a mat with a toy box while I diligently caught up on the latest journal articles. Raising an infant is a whole body experience, and it also takes up a hell of a lot of your brain power, I found. Amazingly enough, in the 30-60 minutes a day I might have entirely to myself, I chose to take a bath or read a YA novel or paint my nails. I know women who used their babies’ more reliable nap times to edit articles or write book reviews. Good for them, if that’s what they wanted to do. But it should not feel like an obligation.

The bloody job market. 

Of course, as well as the cultural expectation that academics never ever switch off is the sadly pragmatic reality that the academic job market sucks and that taking a year out of it can hurt your career prospects, particularly if you’re an early career academic. It can be very difficult to escape from the fear of “publish or die”, for instance. I had to make a very conscious and deliberate choice that I would not be writing this year, and that that was okay. I may never have another child, and I will never get this time back.

The feminism of maternity leave.

My ten month retreat into the domestic may seem to some people like a conservative move. But I view my refusal to undertake academic labour (apart from a couple of small projects I weighed up as being worth my while to complete) as a feminist decision. Women are still penalised in the workplace for taking up their legal right to maternity leave. I work for an employer that provides very generous leave; I took advantage not of a privilege, but a right.

And now I come back to work – not refreshed after a holiday, but certainly different after months of excavations in a very different kind of coalface. I have my pick axe; let’s see if I remember how to use it in unearthing the medieval past.

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Women at Sea Registration Open

Just a quick post to say that registration for Women at Sea is open! As a reminder, this is a fantastic (we hope and expect!) one day event in Swansea on 1 July – right on the waterfront, appropriately enough. Although it is a symposium mostly about medieval women, it transgresses the boundaries of space, time and discipline. Very importantly, we are joined by refugee women who will speak for their own experiences at sea in literal and figurative ways.

The registration has come out a little later than we hoped, but that is because a lot of time has been spent securing as much funding as possible to (a) cover the travel of postgrad and unwaged speakers, and (b) to ensure the registration fee for everyone is as low as it could be. At one point we hoped to be free to students; we were not able to secure enough funding to do that, but we hope an £18 fee for a day of talks, coffee and lunch seems like a good deal. Access matters.

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