Papers and talks

Re-thinking Middle English ‘Family Romance’: Disinheritance, Unknownness and Il/legitimacy

Family and Power in the Middle Ages

Canterbury Christ Church University

7-8 April 2017

In recent decades the Middle English romances have gained sustained critical attention from literary scholars and historians, and certain themes have emerged. The matter of ‘inheritance’ might be considered as one of these themes, although it is perhaps best recognised as a framing device in the romance narratives.

There is still room for a more searching analysis of heirs and inheritance in the genre and – even more so – a consideration of the “theoretical work” of an idea such as disinheritance, in imaginative medieval literature.

Offering a counterbalance to criticism which has drawn attention to the poems’ emphasis on the restoration of rightful heirs, this paper discusses the extent to which the romances subvert the expectations of a ‘myth of the ideology of primogeniture’ (Cooper, 2004) and create space for an unexpected discourse of heroic illegitimacy.


Hidden in Plain Sight: Revealing a Medieval Ceiling

Manchester Cathedral

5 February 2017

In the summer of 2016 the Cathedral was scaffolded internally in order to install the new Stoller organ. The scaffolding allowed photographers to access the ceiling and capture images of the medieval carvings, largely hidden from view for more than 500 years. The talk presents the new images in the context of the Cathedral’s other medieval fabric and that at Chetham’s Library.


Landscapes of Exile: Women and Disinheritance in Middle English Romance

Gender and Medieval Studies Annual Conference

Canterbury Christ Church University

13-15 January 2017

Work on inheritance and dispossession in romance has tended to focus on the male protagonists. The names of eponymous romance protagonists such as ‘Bevis of Hampton’ indicate the prominent relationship beween place and identity for the male hero, for which there are few female counterparts. This might explain, in part, why dispossession for women in romance is less often framed in terms of displacement (exile) than it is when writing about male characters.

The dispossession of women in romance is most frequently viewed through the lens of the ‘wrongly-accused queen’ tale-type, to which Chaucer’s Custance – a woman cast adrift at sea – belongs. The ‘wrongly-accused queen’ category focuses on unjust punishment, rather than displacement; and it reduces the agency of the women it describes.

This paper will focus on the topography of exile in two Middle English romances and offer two alternative ways of reading exiled women in the genre. Firstly, the paper pieces together the presentation of getting lost in the wilderness in Octavian and Sir Tryamour as a route (paradoxically) to finding one’s way, drawing a parallel between the topography of exile, or disorientation, and The Cloud of Unknowing. The second reading will work towards an alternative, female-centric and literary inheritance narrative for the exiled queen in medieval romance.


Silence at sea

Women at Sea Symposium

Swansea University – National Waterfront Museum

1 July 2016

Depictions of sea travel in medieval poetry seem pertinent to conceptions of gender and identity, not only because of the ubiquitous image of the woman adrift, but because men and women seem to have different ways of being ‘at sea’. On closer inspection, of course, these distinctions begin to blur. Arguably nowhere in medieval romance are such gender distinctions more obviously tested and undercut than in Silence, where the fluidity of identity – not only of gender but socioeconomic status and nationality – is apposite of a sea-faring story.

Silence sails ‘la mer d’Engletierre’ four times in the course of the romance, while several other ships convey people and messages between England and France. In a romance characterised by wordplay and dialogue, the sea has a prominent unspeaking part. The poem and its manuscript claim attention for the sea – in and beyond episodes of sea-travel – in poignant ways. Where Silence first disembarks, an illustration is inserted that seems to speak of the protagonist’s emotional crisis.

The sea-crossings mark significant transitions: in the plot, in the protagonist’s sense of self, and in her social, economic and political status. Foregrounded in the romance is the matter of inheritance: an inheritance dispute between heiresses resulting in a law that disinherits female Silence and engenders male Silence. The latent identity of the heiress is continually at stake in the poem and its sea-crossings, reminding us of the political implications of the medieval woman at sea. The paper considers what it means to read the sea-crossings of Silence in the context of the woman-at-sea tradition, and the poem’s contribution to a nuanced reading of bodies at sea in medieval romance.



Embodying Memory: Theorising the Unknown Heir

Memory and Identity in the Medieval and Early Modern World (Borderlines XX)

Trinity College Dublin

15-17 April 2016

The paper focuses on the relationship between memory and identity as embodied by the ‘unknown heir’ hero common to medieval romance. The reading of ‘unknownness’ in the romance involves a reconsideration of the well-known type, the ‘fair unknown’.

Memory is pertinent to ‘heirship’ in a number of ways, not least in the senses of genealogy and legacy. In historical contexts, recollections of birth are essential to proofs of age and thus the ability to come into inheritance; while in popular literature, recollections of infancy (or of ‘origins’) are essential to legitimating the claims of the unknown heir. As Augustine remarks, knowing one’s origins is essential to knowing oneself; but one cannot rely on one’s own memory as insurance of identity. ‘Remembering myself’ requires external agency. For the ‘unknown’ heroes of romance there are ‘tokens of recognition’ as well as the spoken testimony of mothers or supernatural witnesses. But in the imaginative sphere of romance, the estranged child can also manage his own origin mythology: in Havelok, heroic identity emerges in the young hero’s recollections of his sisters’ murder, witnessed as an infant; in Torrent and Eglamour, the child bears arms symbolising his earlier abduction by a wild animal. Significantly, these devices memorialise moments of familial separation, rather than of birth, as the originary point of heroic identity.

The paper will trace imaginative depictions of memory (and forgetting) in Middle English romance, considering the implications of ‘unknownness’ as defining identity and as a knowledge (or truth) beyond memory.


Bloodshed and Violence: Constructing the Child-Hero in Middle English Romance

Parenthood and Childhood in the Middle Ages

University of Edinburgh

8-9 October 2015

The Middle English romances are a rich resource for exploring childhood in the medieval imagination; not least because of the genre’s popularity. The child is a flexible literary conceit – capable of articulating complex philosophical themes – and a potentially disruptive imaginative figure: focus of paternal desires to extend lineage and sustain cultural norms; but also the embodiment of transition and (ultimately) a future that parents cannot master.

The child-hero of the inheritance romance is always a highly political figure, a dispossessed heir. The presence of graphic violence and bloodshed in the construction of early childhood is a striking recurrence across the romances of Havelok the Dane, Bevis of Hampton and both variants of Octavian. The paper examines the significance of one such scene, unique to the Middle English Havelok (c. 1300), and the repetition of bloodshed imagery in the latter half of the poem.

Drawing on the work of Bettina Bildhauer, Peggy McCracken, Richard Kaueper and J. Allan Mitchell, the paper suggests ways in which the romance evokes a sense of the psychological impact of early childhood experience and offers an interpretation of the emphasis, here and elsewhere in the romances, on the sight of blood.


Myth and Legend in Medieval Manchester

Heritage Open Days @ Manchester Cathedral

12 September 2015

This first in a series of new talks will offer an introduction to the medieval history of the building and a closer look at some of the myths and legends memorialised in its magnificent architecture and decoration.