In lieu of content… PHOTOS!

Sorry folks, I sort of fell into a disorganised sludge again. But I had a nice Christmas and an excellent New Year – I hope you can say the same for whatever celebrations you celebrated, if you celebrated any celebrations.

In lieu of content, proof that I have been exercising my rusty photographic skills:

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Ely, mark two, or, In Which We Are Not Gothic

Today I sat a series of complicated French tests, for which I was drastically underprepared but also pretty blasé. For some reason, despite having an Actualfax Anxiety Disorder and everything, exams don’t phase me. Today’s marks are probably not a credit to my language-retention skills, but on the other hand, I think I scared the oral examiner with the force of my enthusiasm. Not my fault they gave me a prompt about the usefulness of student evaluations for assessing university teaching, is it?

After something like four hours of French testing on subjects that I mostly don’t care about, though, I am not succeeding at focusing on work this afternoon. So here, have some more photos from Ely!

View of the nave of Ely Cathedral, looking toward the main entrance/exit

Large nave is large. Not the oldest part of the building – that’s the trancepts – but still, as I understand it, part of the Norman construction project. Look at the lovely lines – tall, yes, but simple and rounded. No fan-vaulting, either. Compare to the – later, showier, French – Gothic finery of St Gatien de Tours. Who’s on Team Norman Architecture? Anyone?

I’m also pretty fond of the colouring on the ceiling – it’s from the 1839 restoration.

Aisle - Ely CathedralThis is, I think, the North aisle – although if it’s actually the South, no matter, they look the same. The roof here intrigues me – it’s like they were thinking of fan-vaulting but couldn’t quite be having with this strange new continental idea. The surfaces of the arches are rough, and aside from along the spines it’s hard to see the individual bricks. I’m not sure what’s going on there – perhaps they were plastered over at one point? Note the continued lack of Gothic fripperies on the columns, too.

Fun fact from Wikipedia: the stone to build Ely Cathedral was bought from Peterborough Abbey (which owned quarries) for a price of 8000 eels a year.  That’s what I call putting your local economy to work.

Long view of the Prior's Door: dense 12th-century scuplture on columns and lintelI love love love this style of carving/decoration. Look at it! It’s so… definitive. This is the Prior’s Door, which dates to the 12th c. Enlarge it and look closely at the columns: I’m finding a lot in those floral shapes, the solid curves, and the knotwork on the capitals, that reminds me of earlier Hiberno-Saxon art styles. On the other hand, look up to the top left of the arch. What’s with the break in the curvy leaf pattern to give us that spiky, line-drawn leaf?

Lintel and arch of Prior's DoorHere’s a close up of the lintel. At least I think it’s the lintel. Is that a lintel, folks? OK.  So. Let’s talk about the human figures here. Humanoid figures, rather. That’s God up there, or possibly Jesus, chillin’ in his oddly vulvar-shaped heaven.* He reminds me of this God here (warning, huge file) in MS Junius 11. Vulvar Oval shaped heaven? CHECK. Special Godly version of the Boy Scout salute? Check. Except our God, or possibly Jesus, is carrying a cross, whereas Junius 11’s has a book: and our chappy fills up his whole border. He’s a little bit better proportioned, but not much.  I’m thinking, and correct me, O Art Historians of the internet, if I am making this up, that some Gothic influence is showing through in the proportions of the Angels; in the sheer detail of the clothes and facial features; and in the fact that God, or possibly Jesus, is looking right out at us instead of down at something else in the picture.

Oddly, he’s breaking the bounds of his border. I’m pretty sure I remember my supervisor saying that border-breaking is one thing you’d use to tell if a picture (French) was late 13th or 14th century – as opposed to the twelfth, where people stay within the borders they’re given. Not sure what’s going on here.

Let’s call that a day! I have more pictures of Ely, though, so expect to hear more on this topic soon. 🙂


* Heaven shaped like a… ok, possibly not so odd then.

Arthurian Images and Iconography, or, how to mix post-modern theoretical papers with traditional close readings

Getting back on the recapping report – perhaps my favourite session at the IAS was a Monday session entitled Arthurian Images and Iconograpy: Theorizing Lost and Invented Geographies and Monuments in Arthurian Literature. It was an immensely popular session – people sitting on the floor again – and immensely fascinating for the number of different methodologies across the four papers, which the session participants managed to hold together more or less cohesively. My preference was, by far, for Michael Twomey’s close-reading, historically grounded approach, but all four papers were interesting and it was an excellent case study of how seemingly disparate approaches can hang well together and inform one another.

A view from Cadbury Hill

Not Actually Camelot - view from Cadbury Hill, facing away from Glastonbury. Taken on an IAS excursion.

Kathleen Coyne Kelly began with “The Eco-Tourist, The Heritage Industry, and Arthurian Legend”. She talked about our desire to seek out the past by actually going there, and noted that what we seek is ‘historical fantasy’, not either the present or past reality of the site.1 She called it ‘a kind of nostalgic eco-pornography’. Her theoretical grounding was in current work on nostalgia; she talked about sites associated with modern authors as well as a series of places associated with Arthurian legend (a particularly good combination of the two is Merlin’s Cave, a backformation from Tennyson into the Cornish landscape). She discussed current debates about ‘heritage’ tourism – commericalised bogus history?; she noted that often association with a mythical or historical figure results in revitalisation rather than preservation; and that such desire for the past is often linked with a desire to connect with the natural world (but that these ‘natural’ experiences are equally artificial).

This paper raised a whole bunch of interesting ideas for me, but as you can probably tell, I connected better with the concrete parts – the examples of places; the discussion of current debates on heritage management – than the theorising. Also apparently we’re now all post-tourists? I had barely begun to be a tourist!

Next up, Michael Twomey gave a paper entitled “Sir Gawain and the Green World”. You’d think that everything there is to be said about the forest in SGGK has been said, and said, and said again, but in this case, Twomey was arguing that Bertilak’s castle is not an uncivilised outpost in an isolated wilderness. Rather, he argued, the environment is heavily managed – the hunting scenes, in particular, tell us of a local lord who is engaged with and carefully manages the forest parts of his domain. The poem, according to Twomey, is ‘ultimately anthropocentric’ – and Gawain is no more in the wilderness at Hautdesert than is a modern tourist at a heritage-managed site.

Twomey talked in great detail about forest law, which mediated conflict between the king and the nobility over rights to the forest and its produce, particularly game, but also timber and other products. Now, I have apparently taken down a bunch of technical information, like a glossary of terms for forest management, but not the key points of the argument. However, I have a note here saying that the Wirral had been disaforested at the time of the poem’s composition (i.e., it was no longer legally a forest, and thus not subject to forest law). I think Twomey may have argued that Gawain’s passing out of the Wirral and into Bertelak’s domain is passing out of the wilderness and into human domain. He also noted that, if Bertelak holds the land from Morgan le Fay, then either it is her royal forest, or she and Bertelak both are squatting on Arthur’s territory: this ambiguity is never cleared up in the text.

I liked this paper, with its pleasing mix of historicised landscape study (landscapes seem to be the It Thing right now! What gives?) and close-reading. I could see connections to the previous paper, and the overall theme of tourism, but I think to really draw them out you’d need to work with both studies of managed and unmanaged landscapes in ME romance, and something historiographical. If Gawain isn’t in the wilderness after all, why do we all want to think he is? You could tie that back to nostalgia very easily, I think, but Twomey didn’t go far down that road.

On the other hand, he has himself been an SGGK tourist.

View from Caldy Hill to Wales over the River Dee

View from Caldy Hill to Wales over the River Dee

Third up was Gillian Rudd, with a paper entitled ‘The Wilderness of Wirral in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. Much has been said about the Wirral and will be said many times over yet, I’m sure: but Gillian herself is a resident of the Wirral! She began with a description from

Wirral Peninsula is placed between the River Dee and the River Mersey, overlooking both the Welsh Hills and the spectacular Liverpool skyline. Well connected to the rest of the country, Wirral is the ideal location for those wanting to get away from it all.

And then – after some commentary on nostalgia on which I haven’t got coherent notes – we set off to ‘get away from it all’ with Gawain – into the Wilderness of Wirral. Rudd filled us in on some information which I gather originally came from J.A. Burrow – the Wirral was a well-known refuge for ‘malefactors’. However, its disaforestation in 1376 removed the legal protection for outlaws. Does Gawain know this? Which of those two facts does he know?2 Are we, the audience, in Gawain’s mind, or someone else’s? “What is the space,” Rudd asks, “and how can you act in it?”

At this point my notes become a bit incoherent and focus on facts that seemed fun to me: Gillian Rudd thinks that the word “freke” at this point in Middle English is starting to pick up the connotations of “freak” – I’d really love to see that explored further!; she talked about shifting boundaries between the real/unreal, and the possibility that Gawain might be fighting off the terrors of the Wirral in his head rather than reality; she posited that the ‘twist’ is that you think you’re in another world but you’re not.3 The question of why Gawain sees no animals in the forest came up: clearly they live there, but he doesn’t see any. Does he want to believe he’s in an untouched landscape?

Finally, or at least, last among the things I wrote down, Rudd asked us if Gawain could be recast. Is he the hero going into the Otherworld, or the Other entering Bertelak’s court?

Arthur Uther Pendragon celebrating solstice at Stonehenge

Arthur Uther Pendragon celebrating solstice at Stonehenge

The final paper – and by far the most amusing – was Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Schichman, with Arthur Pendragon, Eco-Warrior. There is absolutely no way I could reproduce this paper: so much of it relied on the fabulous photographs, on powerpoint, of Arthur Uther Pendragon, a gentlemen much concerned with ecogological preservation (because the king and the land are one), and strongly opposed to English Heritage, who restrict and market access to sites of national importance, such as Stonehenge. Finke and Shichtman talked about the heritage industry’s dependance on the idea that the past is done and should be preserved, as opposed to Arthur Uther Pendragon’s desire to live the past, and in fact his claim to be the past, living. ‘In Arthur’s view, past and present are mutually constitutive’, I have in my notes.

This paper was well constructed: Shichtman discussed Arthur Pendragon’s life and career, and Finke provided commentary and theory-informed insights. I found it far better than the first paper, in terms of the tight relationship between facts and theory: I felt that here, it wasn’t just that links were being made between fact and theory, but that each illuminated the other indispensably. Of course, by the time we got to this paper I had the benefit of all three previous papers’ touching on the same theoretical concepts, so that helped. Regardless, it was a presentation which sparkled with humour and oddity, but also genuine engagement with Pendragon and his goals, as well as broader social issues.


1. Mea Culpa. Interestingly, when in New Zealand I zealously avoided LOTR-related sites, preferring to keep Middle Earth in my head; but evidently I am not content to keep the past in the past!
2. Another question worth asking, which neither Rudd nor Twomey did, is: does the forestation, or disaforestation, of the Wirral even -apply- in Gawain’s ‘verse? I am all down with Arthurian legend being used to work out real social concerns of the contemporary audience, but my gut instinct is that one of the features of the fantasy-past is that resemblances to the present are serve one of two purposes: because you need the similarities there in order to work out whatever it is your anxiety is; or because the -absence- of that feature would force you/ your audience too far out of their comfort zone. I’m not sure that particular legal status of the Wirral at the time of writing fits into either category (although the legal connotations of ‘forest’ certainly could fit one or the other).
3. This point intrigued me, since it’s the polar opposite of my friend and colleague Kylee Nicholls’ argument, which she trotted out in a paper at ANZAMEMS, that Gawain’s problem is that he walks out of the “real” world and into the world you find in romances -about- Gawain, and cannot figure out what on earth he’s supposed to do or be. I lean toward Kylee’s theory, but I’d like to see more of Gillian Rudd’s logic: I expect that the two arguments have much in common in the building-blocks.

IAS update #1

It seems that I finished off the Leeds posts: but I was not done there, oh no; in fact, the conference which was my primary excuse for being in England in the first place was the International Arthurian Society’s Triennial Congress, at the University of Bristol.

I liked Bristol! I liked the city (I have a worrying fondness for scruffy port towns), I liked the university, and I liked the villages up above the city in which the university is nestled. I enjoyed the company of the IAS’s most excellent members – although, without the benefit of pre-forged internet acquaintances, I found Bristol much harder going than Leeds so far as social anxiety goes.

Reward for information leading to the return of lost marblesTo add to it, I was on the end of my trip, and the end of my energy supply: two very lovely friends of mine each took me under their wing for a day in Oxford prior to the IAS, but from the time I woke up on Sunday morning I was scrabbling to keep track of where and when and why I was. I missed my train to Didcot, but, fortunately, caught the next one and made my original connection. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I hadn’t, of course, but the powers that be had seen fit to reserve my seat Didcot>Temple Meads at a table-seat, and to arrange for me to share it with two excellent individuals whom I had previously met at ANZAMEMS in Dunedin. When we all piled off the train we ran into a scholar from UWA, and sallied forth in the one taxi in search of our respective accommodations.

I then commenced with what turned out to be my policy for the week: not knowing where anything was, or what I was supposed to be doing, and flinging myself upon the tender mercies of Gareth Griffith, and the somewhat more intimidating beneficence of Elizabeth Archibald in search of the answers to these questions. This tactic paid off: I recommend it for the terminally confused!

Monday morning saw me:

– miss breakfast

– select a cafe, which proceeded to be my breakfast-eating, tea-drinking and paper-writing home base for the rest of the week

– getting lost between said cafe and the university

Three cats on a manhole cover– adopted by a tiny, fuzzy, enthusiastically affectionate black kitty in a steep pedestrian alleyway behind a church. Kitty loved me! Kitty was quite determined that I not be allowed to stand back up after bending down to pet hir, and certain that my job in life was to be nuzzled and purred at and climbed upon.

Accordingly, I wandered into the conference venue in a state of lateness, where I ran smack bang into the aforementioned Gareth Griffin. I posited that lateness to conferences is entirely acceptable when one has been adopted by a wee black kitty, and he concurred.

After that, I went to some papers! And I might even tell you about them when I am not running late for something else!

I went to Ely to visit St Audrey

Flagstone in Ely cathedral - here stood the shrine of St Ethelreda

I lit a candle for her.

Close-up of the statue of St Ethelreda at the east end of Ely CathedralBut I don’t think she could’ve heard me over the din.

View from the transept of Ely cathedral - a christian rock band rehearsingRave in the nave. I kid you not.1

A signboard announcing Rave in the Nave

I have… complicated feelings about my own hagio-tourism. A lot of it’s historical curiosity and artistic appreciation. But then. I was raised in a really protestant environment. I developed a sense of connection to the past, to traditional liturgy and saints at the same time I was losing my faith. The faith’s gone but I still have a sense of connection to, say, St Audrey, one which doesn’t fit with either my upbringing or my current state of atheism. Maybe it’s just that I wrote an essay on her once. I don’t know.

I also don’t know why I’m telling the internet at large this.

Speaking of supernatural encounters on church grounds…

Transept of Ely Cathedral, with TARDIS, Daleks and Cybermen


1. In all fairness, Rave in the Nave seemed like a pretty cool production (it was being rehearsed as I came through). I’m just not sure that there’s any way to hit on more of my religious angst at one time than put up a mass youth event with what looked like a tilt toward the evangelical side, in a church dedicated to St Audrey, on the day I decide to pop in. Wait. I can think of one way, but fortunately, there were no truly vicious atheists around to mock these guys. If you feel like mocking in the comments, keep it gentle, OK? Yes, it’s incongruous and the name is ridiculous, but be gentle, as a favour to me.

Internets, meet my travelling companions

1. Macguffin

Macguffin isn’t mine. He came home from Canada with my housemate K, after some weeks being smuggled about amongst her various cousins and evading the efforts of more serious grown-ups to get rid of ‘that green thing’. Macguffin went to New Zealand with us in February, and he leapt upon the opportunity to go to Europe with me:

MacGuffin (flourescent green toy) at ThornHere he is in the church at Thorn

And he is rather annoyed that I wouldn’t let him have a pint in the Eagle and Child:

MacGuffin in the Eagle and Child - below a signboard which says "it comes in pints"

2. Yvain, the Thesis Lion

Yvain does belong to me, and he came to New Zealand too. This is Yvain and MacGuffin and I, about to speak ex ex-cathedra1:

Macguffin, Highly and Yvain speaking ex ex-cathedra

He also went to Europe, and was present at all my papers, if not visible. He was very comforting to have with me in Paris (fact: fuzzy lions understand both French and English! This is not much use since he doesn’t speak, but it’s comforting to think that he, at least, knew what was being said around us).

Yvain visits the Tour Eiffel

Fact: we went out to the Tour Eiffel to take a cliché photo of MacGuffin for K’s relatives. Yvain, however, shares my opinion of the Tour Eiffel: it’s ugly and boring and the crowds made me anxious, so we went away quickly.

Also fact: one of the many ways that you can tell Jon Jarrett is a truly excellent individual is that he made not one snide remark when faced with Highly curled up on a couch cuddling a fuzzy orange lion. I was very tired by the time I got to Oxford, O internets.2

Yvain’s main purpose in life, though, is to be small enough to fit in a pocket and durable enough to be beat up on when I don’t like my thesis. Which is a lot of the time.

Yvain also comes to class with me. Initially, I’d thought I might need to employ him to break up some of the vociferous arguments about fairies which characterised my first few weeks in the King Arthur course (a sort of ‘no one not holding the lion gets to speak’ trick), but he ended up just living in the bottom of my bag and getting scruffy. This semester, though, he’s been introduced to the students. I have absolutely no idea what the students who don’t already know me think of this, but I think it totally counts as modelling good academic anxiety-management techniques if you share your stuffed lion with the students who are giving their papers that week. Right?

And honourable mentions go to…
Wulfstan Puppy, whose formerly-white belly is permanently stained with the coffee stains of my honours year.
Augustine Bear, who has somehow become the patron saint of marking.
Isidore of Seville, my BA graduation bear.

1. The chair is, or was, a retired bishop’s chair from Christchurch Cathedral, NZ; it was living in the small museum at the base of the tower.
2. Resolution for next time I travel: fewer books, more teddy bears! If nothing else, it’s cheaper to post teddy bears home when you’ve bought too many books.

I meant to post this in March…

But here is a wall in a pub in Dunedin, New Zealand, which has been… added to, shall we say, by medievalists. Zoom in and read the scribbles around the edge. You should find commentary in Latin, Old English and Welsh. Also I think we were responsible for the injunction to swim between the flags; and I can’t read the writing on the far bottom left, so I don’t know what language it’s in or whether we did it.

A chalkboard wall with a picture of a buxom woman. Insults in various dead languages scrawled around her.

We also did this:

A chalkboard with a couple arm-in-arm. Added Latin text: "Semivir"There’s an ‘S’ in the light of the camera flash.

And that, folks, is why medievalists are the most fun to travel with.