Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Category: IFGM

IFGM Interpretation in Medieval Culture Symposium

The Iowa Forum for Graduate Medievalists will host a symposium next month, showcasing some of the best in recent research on medieval topics by graduate students from five different departments here at the University of Iowa. This event is free and open to the public. You can find the full programme over here at the IFGM website.

Eadswith’s Madness – November 9

Image above: London, British Library MS Cotton Cleopatra C. VIII, f. 11.  Ira (Anger), holding a shield, strikes with a sword at Patentia

Yesterday we had our second IFGM lecture of this semester, with Hilary Fox of the University of Chicago. While the transportation gods once more weren’t smiling on us—rush hour traffic and construction work—at least this time they conspired against us the night before the event, and not the day of, which was quite a help for my blood pressure!

One of the things which I like best about these lectures is how interdisciplinary they are, bringing together medievalists whose interests are highly diverse—really making the IFGM the forum that its name suggests. Both in our brown bag lunch with Hilary and at her talk itself, we got a real cross section of people from across the medievalist community here at the university, and it was good to meet new people and make new connections.

Hilary’s lecture, entitled “Eadswith’s Madness: Mental Illness, Self, and Community in Old English”, was an exploration of some issues which she hopes will be the basis of her next book project. She examined issues of mental disorder as understood by the Anglo-Saxons—in other words, not as we might nowadays classify mental disorder, because illnesses like epilepsy were considered to be disorders of the mind in early medieval England.

The human mind, for the Anglo-Saxons, was considered to be characterised by certain kinds of order—and losing those kinds of order, exhibiting traits which seemed to be common both to suffers of what we would now distinguish as neurological rather than mental illness, threatened to bring about a loss of self. Through a comparison both of literary tropes and of manuscript illustrations like the one above, from an Old English translation/transformative adaptation of the Psychomachia, Hilary demonstrated that for the Angl0-Saxons, their iconographies of anger and mental disorder overlapped to a very great extent. Both were capable of making humans into something quasi-bestial, as they destabilised the mind which was both the balancing point and the mediating link between the body and the soul. Hilary also looked at how issues of pastoral care, spatial identity, social roles and medical cures (including one striking example featuring a scourge made of cured dolphin skin!) factored into this.

All of this raises some fascinating questions about how the Anglo-Saxons theorised the body, and whether the concept of the “self” in vernacular writing really is something which emerges only in the later medieval period. The body is the tool with which you operate in the world, but it (you) also have some interior component, and these two parts of self interact in some interesting ways.

And yet I think for me the most valuable part of the talk and of the lively discussion which ensued was the reminder that we were looking not just at one way of theorising mental disorder, but multiple ways, some of which were even paradoxical, as writers struggled to reconcile differing conceptions of how mental disorder worked and what caused it (sin or an externalised demonic force, for instance). It was a salutary reminder that just as there may be multiple conflicting mainstream takes on an important issue nowadays, so to in the Middle Ages was there a great diversity of opinion. It seems such an obvious point, and yet I think one which we forget sometimes in our search for pattern and commonality.

The Troubles of Vilanera – October 24, 2012

On Wednesday afternoon, the Iowa Forum for Graduate Medievalists was host to its first guest lecturer—which meant that I, as the IFGM’s current president, was getting something of a crash course in all the practicalities involved in being a host, too. For once, technology didn’t fail on our end (the projector worked first time! based on past experience, this must be some sort of minor miracle), but rather on that of our speaker. Still, I think that beginning a talk with only a ten minute delay counts as starting pretty much on time, based on my past experiences at some conferences—and luckily our large (and talkative!) audience, led by the ever-capable Connie Berman, were able to occupy themselves during the slight wait with discussion of other medieval things.

Our speaker was Michelle Herder, a professor of history at Cornell College.

Professor Herder’s research focuses on women in religious institutions in late medieval Spain, and her talk—entitled “The Troubles of Vilanera: Monastic Decline and Failure in Fourteenth-Century Spain”—emerged from that research. Herder was arguing against the traditional framing of religious history which sees the 14th and 15th centuries as a period of decline in monasticism in general, but particularly Benedictine monasticism. While there were undoubtedly some house closures, Herder sees continuing vitality in many houses, and urges us to look at the particular rather than the general in attempting to make sense of religious change in late medieval Europe. She argues, too, that we must pay as much attention to the smaller, less successful monasteries as to the grander and more successful ones.


6a013486c64e2e970c017c32d06482970bHer paper centered on the house of Santa Maria de Vilanera (pictured above; more pictures at this link, though all the commentary is in Catalan). Established in 1326 in coastal Catalonia, Vilanera had a brief and troubled existence. Its founder, Arnau de Soler (tomb effigy pictured to the left), was a deacon of the cathedral in nearby Girona who had a distinguished if unexceptional career—unexceptional, that is, if we overlook the fact that he had an illegitimate daughter called Felipa. Arnau appears to have established Vilanera with Felipa in mind, as well as perhaps other members of his family. The first abbess is his sister, Fresca de Soler, who had previously been a prioress at another house before transferring to Vilanera.

There is little surviving documentation about the house, but we do possess one intriguing visitation record from about 1340. It tells us not only of complaints by the nuns about the house lacking financial resources, but also that several nuns—most notably one Francesca Torroella de Sant Iscle—complained of financial mismanagement and sexual misconduct on the part of Felipa, who was by now abbess. Based on hints from other records, Herder posits that the nuns were jealous of Felipa’s status despite her illegitimacy, as well as perhaps aggrieved that she was abbess despite her youth—Felipa may well have been born the year her father died, and was therefore destined to become head of the monastery from the time she was an infant. At the time of the visitation, then, she may still have been in her early teens.

We can’t prove that this indeed what happened, but it certainly conjures up an intriguing image—of a group of women telling tales about (a teenage?) Felipa canoodling with her boyfriend in the hen house, not because of silly female quarrels (and I use that terminology with a full awareness of all its deeply gendered connotations) but because of very real tensions to do with class and age difference.

Given the house’s financial difficulties and internal conflict, not to mention the warfare and plagues which periodically swept the area, it’s little wonder that Vilanera was closed by episcopal order in 1407. It didn’t have enough institutional resilience to overcome adversity—and it is to this idea of institutional resilience, of particularity, as a means of examining the success or failure of a given house, to which Professor Herder returned at the end of her talk.

I think, despite minor hiccups at the beginning, this all went off very well for a first attempt at hosting such a gathering! We had lots of questions from the audience, and a strong, multidisciplinary attendance—it was wonderful to see so many different people from across campus there. Hopefully our luck will hold for our next lecture. I should probably start making propitiatory gifts to the projector.

Iowa Forum for Graduate Medievalists – Relaunch

The Iowa Forum for Graduate Medievalists is an organisation whose goal is to support the scholarship and professionalization of graduate students at the University of Iowa with an interest in medieval studies. It’s been sadly inactive for the last few years, but I and some of my colleagues in the Department of History are getting a good old-fashioned revival underway.

The first step in this is relaunching our website, with updated information and some new ways of finding out what medievalists at Iowa are up to. You can click through to our website to find out more about us there, follow us on our Facebook page or add us on Twitter.

We hope to have a members’ meeting soon to decide on the direction in which to take the Forum—I hope we can make it a wonderful resource.

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