‘The Medieval Woman in the Western World’ – meeting report

We’d like to say thank you to Marco Prost for his talk on the medieval woman and the western world. It took us on a journey of 12th century adventure – battles, romance, jealousy, adultery and death! What was particularly striking were the parallels that Marco drew between tropes in contemporary romance stories and the lyric poetry of the Troubadours who portrayed courtly love in the 12th century. Marco quoted a poem by  Bernart de Ventadorn (Tant ai mo cor ple de joya) and handed us an extract from André le Chapelain so-called Art of Courtly Love (De Amore). In the latter, le Chapelain examines a variety of 12th century stories about courtly love and draws up a set up rules which he believes underlined them. Rules include ‘He who is not jealous cannot love’ and ‘He whom the thought of love vexes eats and sleeps very little’.

Marco informed us that the ‘femme fatale’ figure can also be traced back through time and is present in the myth of Tristan and Iseult. With a jovial expression, Marco added that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette was not at all original – Iseult commits suicide at the sight of a dying Tristan. Such love was viewed by romance writers as the ‘perfect’ love and referred to as ‘amour fine’. A 12th century author, Marie de France, who is known for her ‘lais’ (short stories)  explained that perfect love must always end in death.

Another very pertinent part of Marco’s talk was his discussion of consent in 12th century texts. Indeed, ‘consent’ is a rather modern term to use. However, Marco explained that there did appear to be an element of choice for the women depicted in stories such as Tristan and Iseult as the male character desires for the love to be mutual and waits for the woman’s approval before acting. He quoted a lovely line (in translation) from Bernart de Ventadorn’s poem: ‘She holds me in balance like a ship on the wives’, which refers to the male protagonist’s agonising wait for his lover to submit to his desires. Marco subsequently problematised this idea by discussing the prevailing elements of misogyny in 12th century narratives (such as the woman having little time to make a decision). At the time of these writings, marriage was not an act of love but an alliance, and therefore women had little say in choosing their husband. Marco acknowledged that these romances of courtly love were an inversion of the political reality of the time. Nevertheless, this idea of consent reflected the changing attitude of the church. In the 12th century the church started to recognise the wedding ceremony as a sacrament and therefore insisted that the will of both parties was considered.

Thanks again to Marco and everyone who attended, we are back next week with a history talk on mixed race relationships and women’s magazines in 1950s Britain (13th March, 4-5pm, HumSS280).




‘The Medieval Woman and the Western World’ 6th March, 4-5pm, HumSS280

Our next talk will be given by Marco Prost from the Centre for Medieval Studies at Reading University. His title is ‘From Bernart de Ventadorn to Denis de Rougemont: The Medieval Woman and the Western World’. The meeting is on 6th March, at 4pm in HumSS 280. We look forward to seeing you there!

Marco’s abstract:

How far into the past should we track the cultural idealization of women as objects of male desire? In Love in the Western World (also translated as Passion and Society) Denis de Rougemont has argued for a specificity of the western conception of love, whose origin may be precisely traced back to the 12th century, the age of troubadours’ lyric and courtly love, such as illustrated by Bernart de Ventadorn’s poems (Tant ai mo cor ple de joya) or André le Chapelain so-called Art of Courtly Love (De Amore).

That era saw the rise of a celebration of the admired and beloved “Lady”, a trope which appears to help the recognition and respect of women’s own will, while also trapping them onto an impossible throne of sovereign perfection. Even more important for de Rougemont, though, is the legend of Tristan and Iseult, where love and death would prove as two interconnected desires, which have shaped our modernity. Maurice Barrès’ Jardin sur l’Oronte (1922) will illustrate how vivid and structural such a paradigm can be in works of fiction fascinated with the medieval period.


Meeting Report: ‘Reflections on Writing the Female Grotesque’ by Karina Lickorish Quinn

A big thank you to Karina Lickorish Quinn for her fascinating talk at the network. Thanks also to those who attended – it was brilliant to see some new faces alongside our very loyal members.

Karina introduced the group to a variety of theories exploring the subject of the grotesque before treating us to some extracts of both her published and unpublished fiction. She illustrated how her creative process is influenced by her doctoral research and advised the group not to ignore academic writing as a source of inspiration. At the beginning of her talk, Karina defined the grotesque by presenting us with a series of decorative work which depicts human faces interwoven with foliage. This highlighted the hybrid nature of the grotesque and its absurdity. She then outlined the theories which have so far inspired her fictional works such as ‘OÖGENESIS’ which won the White Review short story prize in 2016.

One theory in particular which took a prominent place in the talk was Julia Kristeva’s theory of ‘abjection’. According to Kristeva, the abject is something which threatens stability and order because it disturbs the boundaries between the inside and the outside of the body. It reminds us of our body’s slow decay and eventual death. Examples include pus, menstruation, and excrement. A particular ‘grotesque’ image with which Karina confronted us was the ‘pregnant crone’. Karina showed us a photograph of a model created by Cindy Sherman of an old woman giving birth to an ambiguous string type substance which resembles sausages. She asked the audience how they responded to this ‘abject’ image. When it first appeared on the screen, faces around the room displayed reactions such as curiosity, horror, amusement and repulsion. Karina argued that Sherman’s model would be seen by philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin as the epitome of the grotesque since it is an image of ‘death giving birth’ and ‘decaying flesh’.

It is impossible in a short report to demonstrate the ambiguity, intensity, and intrigue of Karina’s writing so we’ll leave you with an extract she presented to us from ‘OÖGENESIS’ …

“Before the week was out, in an act of extravagant contempt for her mother’s wishes, Georgia had developed two more pairs of nipples – a set on her abdomen and a set on her groin. The sprouting of thick, black hairs followed soon after: from each nipple erupted a stiff, dark tendril so coarse that it resisted any form of depilation. The aestheticians at the beauty salon, who valiantly but vainly applied everything from hot wax to electrolysis, were horrified; but while Jane remained under a dark cloud of humiliation for the rest of the day, Georgia seemed wholly unashamed of her aberrant hirsutism. Quite the contrary: she seemed to get a perverse satisfaction out of standing in front of the mirror and stroking the long black strands, curling them tenderly around her fingers.”

If you’d like to read more about Karina’s creative writing, have a look at her website: https://www.karinalickorishquinn.co.uk/


Next Meeting: ‘Reflections on Writing the Female Grotesque’ 27th Feb, 3pm, HumSS144

Hello everyone

Our next talk will be by Karina Lickorish Quinn who is doing her PhD here at the University of Reading. She is from the department of English literature and Creative Writing. Her title is ‘Reflections on Writing the Female Grotesque’.

The talk will take place on Monday 27th February at the earlier time of 3pm in HumSS 144.

Here is Karina’s abstract:

The grotesque is a powerful means for writers to challenge the male gaze, subverting the idealisation of the female body as static, passive, and restrained with the portrayal of the female anatomy in all its unaffected corporeality. The female grotesque overflows: she lactates, menstruates and births. Powerfully transgressing boundaries, both her own biological barrier, the skin, and the barriers imposed by society in the form of taboos, the female grotesque is dynamic: she is exciting and troublesome in equal measure.

Alongside providing an introduction to the theory behind the female grotesque and her portrayal in works of fiction, this paper presents the reflections of a creative writer of the female grotesque, exploring the artistic process from the spark of inspiration through the ethical dilemma of how much a writer might ‘borrow’ or ‘steal’ from others to the battle of capturing a vision on the written page. Perhaps most vexing is the thorny question of whether literature can really change societal discourse at all.

We hope to see you there next week!

Meeting Report: ‘Surviving the English Civil Wars as a Widow’, 20th February, by Hannah Worthen


Hello everyone!

Thank you again to Hannah Worthen for her really interesting talk about widows in England during the 17th century. Thanks also to everyone who attended. It was great to see some more new faces.

Hannah started off her talk in a very novel way by showing us a tweet she had written as part of a challenge to summarise a thesis in less than 140 characters. It read: “Discovering the petitions of Early Modern War Widows in order to better understand women, war and survival throughout history.”

Hannah outlined the profound impact of the civil wars by stating that 7% of the population of England, Wales, and Scotland died between 1642 and 1651 due to fighting in the civil wars as compared with only 0.7% during World War 2. Hannah spoke to us about a variety of primary sources in which widows are represented including pamphlets and petitions (see images on her power point in the photo above). Society viewed widows both as objects of pity but also as a threat since their newfound single status would permit them to sponge off rich bachelors. In addition, they were sometimes viewed as sexually deviant!

Hannah began her documentary analysis by providing some examples of sources in which widows were portrayed by men who were either royalists or parliamentarians. Some of these documents were created in order to highlight the cruelty of the other side. One royalist, B. Ryves, tries to demonstrate the nepotism in parliament by writing that the widows were crying outside parliament whilst subsidies were given to others who were less impoverished. Hannah added that during the civil wars, it was common to find characterisations of England as a widow.

Hannah’s main focus, however, was on the petitions with which women applied either for pensions or for land to be returned to them. These petitions were usually written by scribes who were either relatives or literate members of the parish such as priests. Parish members were often keen to help widows so that they were less of a financial burden to the local community. Hannah explained that the petitions were normally written in the third person and are rather formulaic. Certain phrases crop up repeatedly. For example, many write that they are living off “borrowed bread” and list a number of small children (the word “small” being key) who are now hungry. Hannah provided us with three fascinating case studies of widows from Kent who had applied either for the return of their land or for a pension. My favourite example was Mary Blaithwaite whose husband died fighting for parliament. To fit in with the image of a widow as an object of pity, she refers to a parable in the Bible and uses highly emotive language. After little success with her manuscript, she decided to go to print. Mary Blaithwaite even sent a rather ominous letter to Oliver Cromwell which essentially informs him that he should take pity on her because he would want his wife to be protected if he ever died.

The enthusiasm expressed by our audience during the Q and A was a testament to Hannah’s really fascinating research. If you would like to find out more, follow Hannah on twitter @HannahWorthen

We look forward to seeing you for our talk next week on the female grotesque. It will take place at the different time of 3pm, in a different room HumSS 144



Next meeting: ‘Surviving the English Civil War as a Widow’, 20th February, 4pm, HumSS280

Our next talk will be given by Hannah Worthen from the History department at the University of Leicester. Her title is ‘Objects of Pity?: Surviving the English Civil Wars as a widow’. The meeting will take place on 20th February at 4pm in HumSS280.

Hannah’s abstract:

During the English Civil Wars (1642-1651) warfare arrived on the doorstops of the homes of civilians across the country. Women waved their husbands off to war, many of whom were never to return. What was life like for these war widows during this incredibly turbulent period of English history? This paper will firstly examine the representation of widows in printed pamphlets during the Civil War period: how they were depicted as poor, suffering and used as a metaphor for being left bereft and alone. Then, it will outline the methods that many war widows used to survive. By petitioning for pensions and appearing in front of Committees at Westminster, many widows successfully negotiated a more secure life for themselves and their families.
See you on the 20th!

Meeting Report: Employment and Empowerment in Saudi Arabia

Thanks to Mona Almunaiey for her fascinating talk today on women’s empowerment. She examined how gender norms are institutionalised in the labour market in Saudia Arabia. She outlined that Saudi law is based on a patriarchal interpretation of Islam. As an example, Mona spoke of the concept of qiwama which refers to a man’s responsibility to look after a woman. Mona explained that this has been interpreted into a law that women need a male guardian’s approval for purposes such marriage, applying for jobs, and even access to healthcare. For example, a woman’s legal guardian can provide authorisation online either each time she applies for a job or sign that she is authorised for life.

After discussing the gender norms in Saudi Arabia, Mona spoke about life there since King Abdullah came to power in 2005. He was known as a reformist who encouraged the education and employment of women. Under his reign the number of female graduates increased dramatically. He provided incentives for hiring women since many graduated with degrees in 2008 and were looking for work. Foreign workers are often cheaper to higher. One of the reasons for hiring women was economic since foreign workers in Saudi often send money out of the country. Women can now work in most sectors: education, medicine, in beauty salons and as cashiers. However, the work place is highly segregated. Offices have separate entrances for male and female staff, restaurants have male-only and family sections, and banks have separate male and female spaces.

Mona argued that even though women now have more opportunities to work, they are still very much restricted by gender norms. Day care is very expensive and spaces are very limited. Women are still expected to comply by dress codes such as wearing no make-up. It also can be difficult for women to travel to work because there is no public transport, they are prohibited from driving, and it is culturally unacceptable for women to take a taxi. There are also no laws about sexual harassment.

Thanks again to Mona for her wonderful paper and to everyone who attended. We will see you again in two weeks!