Modern in the Medieval Classroom

 

From 10th-15th July 2016 over 500 medievalists descended upon Queen Mary for the 20th biennial New Chaucer Society Congress – you can read more about the society and the congress here. This lively and engaging conference provided medievalists with the opportunity to hear hot-off-the-press research and working papers in a range of diverse fields – from manuscript studies to ecocriticism.

However, it was also a great forum for discussing pedagogy. Many researchers are dedicated to improving their teaching style and practice – and medievalists have the extra tricky task of convincing students unfamiliar with the time period that Chaucer and Marie de France are just as exciting as Shakespeare and Joyce.

 

Opportunities for forging international dialogues about pedagogy – and for discussing honestly and openly the successes and the unforeseen hiccups along the way – are relatively limited. With that in mind, I wanted to share some thoughts inspired by a roundtable I attended: ‘Medieval and Modern in the Classroom’, organised and chaired by Katharine Breen from Northwestern University in the States.

 

The panel was interested in considering how modern literature and media can be productively brought into dialogue with medieval literature and a number of scholars were invited to share their teaching models and practices. At her university, Stephanie Batkie tackles the inevitable ‘narrative of progression towards the modern’ which a survey paper can produce by inverting it – rather than beginning with Beowulf and ending with Paradise Lost she now begins with the Renaissance and works backwards. Kara Crawford regularly pairs Frankenstein with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, to help students engage with questions about multiplicity of voice and unreliable narrators.

 

Sarah Townsend urges her students to identify the parallels between medieval mystery plays (which focus on events from the Bible, particularly from the life and death of Christ) and modern retellings of the Passion of Christ, such as the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Her students only start to perceive the energy and comedy of the mystery plays when she encourages them to verbalise the language and perform the plays with gesture and props. This year, her students performed ‘Joseph’s Troubles About Mary’ with some modern updates to help communicate the play’s message across time – Mary, it was decided, should be reading a bodice ripper when Joseph confronts her about her pregnancy.

 

Whilst all these ideas had me scribbling furiously, there is one common worry amongst teachers of medieval literature, particularly at undergraduate level: will the modern supersede the medieval in such models? If you teach Frankenstein alongside The Canterbury Tales then will students leave the seminar room believing that the medieval can only be interesting if read through the lens of the modern? Modern books, films and TV series are a tried-and-tested hook for getting students more interested in medieval modules but will it create the impression that the modern, in some sense, does the medieval better? A number of potential solutions became clear during the roundtable presentations and subsequent discussion.

 

First of all, transparency is key if the modern is going to be successfully brought into the medieval classroom. It is worth checking in regularly with students – to find out why they think you are asking them to look at the modern alongside the medieval and to get a litmus test of their attitude towards the older literature. This can help pinpoint any potential problems early on, so that the necessary tweaks can be made.

 

Secondly, the medieval should always be given room to breathe, even when the modern is an integral component of the course. This model is demonstrated effectively at Queen Mary by Alfred Hiatt and Jaclyn Rajsic with the module Arthurian Literature from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Game of Thrones. Whilst a number of post-medieval manifestations of Arthurian literature are considered on this module, the first chunk is dedicated to the medieval. This gives students a chance to fall in love with the original Arthurian legends – and maybe even to miss them when the course moves forward in time.

 

Finally, ‘relevance’ needn’t be overstressed. Whilst it is always worthwhile to consider the parallels between past societies and literatures and those of the present day, the weird and wonderful aspects of the Middle Ages can be just as engaging. Millions of viewers tune into Game of Thrones for the dragons and white walkers as much as for the human relationships and politics. Similarly, the werewolves, demons and superhuman saints in the Middle Ages are sure to make for exciting seminars.

 

Find out more about our English programmes (including the modules Hetta will be teaching)

Professor Julia Boffey on the 20th Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society

From 10-15  July 2016 QM is hosting the 20th Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society, a forum for teachers and scholars of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400).

Often called ‘the father of English poetry’ because he was one of the first literary authors to write extensively in English, Chaucer was born in London and had close connections with the city, living in a house above Aldgate for some years. His best-known work, The Canterbury Tales, consists of stories supposedly told on a journey made to Canterbury by pilgrims who meet at an inn in Southwark, just south of the Thames.

The New Chaucer Society is an international body, with members from North America, the UK and Europe, Asia and Australasia. Its 2016 Congress will bring together over 500 members for four days of lectures, papers, workshops, and discussion panels. The activities include poetry readings (Lavinia Greenlaw will be reading from her latest book of poetry, A Double Sorrow, which imaginatively recreates Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde); an evening of medieval music by Opus Anglicanum; Patience Agbabi talking about ‘multilingual Chaucer’; and a performance of a medieval play, The Pride of Life, by a theatre company from Toronto (Poculi Ludique Societas).  The paper sessions include talks on torture and violence in the Middle Ages, on digital approaches to working with medieval manuscripts and texts, on Chaucer and medieval science, and on global Chaucer.

Medieval Algate
Medieval Algate

Mile End resonates with Chaucerians on a number of counts.  On the main eastern approach route to London, it was close to Aldgate and Chaucer’s place of residence in the 1370s and 1380s.  In 1381 it was the location of King Richard II’s encounter with a large company of Essex rebels involved in what has become known as The Peasants’ Revolt. Queen Mary’s own community of twenty-first century medievalists looks forward to welcoming Congress participants and to introducing them to a part of London rich in Chaucerian associations.

Find out more about the event

Register for the event

The Henry Crabb Robinson Project

To explore the new Project website, please click here.

For much of the nineteenth century, Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) was a ubiquitous figure in London literary life. Sociable Sunday breakfasts at his home in Russell Square were famous, as readers of A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession know. The evening might find the bachelor Robinson at his club, the Athenaeum in Pall Mall. He would often take a very long walk to call on an old friend, such as the novelist Mary Hays in Greenwich. As he walked, he read. And whatever his destination, Robinson talked. Staples of his conversation were the rights of religious dissenters, the abolition of slavery, the genius of Wordsworth and Goethe – and the inability of these two great poets to understand each other. He had many personal memories to recount. If he was less inclined to discuss the provincial, dissenting education he had ‘suffered’ in Bury St Edmunds and Colchester, he would linger on his trip to Germany in 1800-1805. There he had studied at the University of Jena, rapidly becoming the foremost British mediator of the Kantian revolution in German philosophy. In 1804 he had given private lectures on this topic to Madame de Staël in Weimar – now rediscovered and published after 200 years. Then, as the first foreign correspondent of The Times, Robinson had reported on the Spanish Peninsular War from Altona. Travelling under a false German passport as ‘Heinrich Robinson’, he narrowly escaped capture by Napoleon’s troops. He published translations and articles, aspiring to success as a ‘literator’. It was as a solicitor, however, that he made a comfortable living, and gained the social status that enabled him to promote the foundation of the University of London. And almost every night, the indefatigable Robinson described and reflected on his experiences in his diary. Robinson took great care of his own manuscripts, leaving them to Dr Williams’s Library, of which he was a trustee.

The Henry Crabb Robinson Project will publish Robinson’s most important manuscript works with Oxford University Press, both in hardback and on Oxford Scholarly Editions Online. The series editors are Timothy Whelan (Georgia Southern) and James Vigus (QMUL). The Reminiscences, one of the great nineteenth-century autobiographies, is uniquely self-effacing: Robinson arranges the account of his life around his descriptions of the people he encountered and befriended. The enormous Diary (from 1811), including the travel diaries, will be edited in subsequent phases of the Project. The OUP edition will replace all previous editions, which were radically selective. The Early Diaries (pre-1811) are being edited by Philipp Hunnekuhl (Hamburg). A team of special subject area editors, assembled to reflect Robinson’s polymathic interests, will contribute to an edited collection entitled ‘All Our Knowledge is Reminiscence’: Essays on the Reminiscences of Henry Crabb Robinson. Editing and reflecting on Robinson’s prolific manuscript writing is necessarily a team effort.

Friends often upbraided Robinson for his excessive modesty. He spoke out on behalf of many writers and their works, but too rarely for his own. Sara Coleridge, daughter of Robinson’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge and one of his many female correspondents, remarked to her diary on his ‘talent and quickness’. My own path has distantly echoed that of Robinson: I worked for three years at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, and have settled in London. This experience has given me a first-hand opportunity to admire Robinson’s achievements as a polylingual producer of ‘informal’ texts. No-one better absorbed, adapted to and embodied the spirit of his age. This unobtrusively brilliant writer has left his 21st-century editors with a challenge, in the best sense.  

From January 2016, the Project will be affiliated with the new Queen Mary Centre for Religion and Literature in English.

James Vigus, j.vigus@qmul.ac.uk

Humans of the SED: Bridget Escolme, Part I – Authenticity in Early Modern Drama

I am constantly surprised at how old-fashioned some newspaper reviewers are. I’ve done a few cuts of Shakespeare texts, as a dramaturg, and with Hamlet it’s great because there are different versions of it printed in Shakespeare’s time, so you can use 400 year old editions of the play to help you cut it. One of Hamlet’s soliloquies is only there in one text, and because the director I was working with wanted a shorter version, that was one of the easy ones to cut. The Daily Telegraph reviewer was outraged! But given one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries thought it was all right one soliloquy down, I thought we could cut it if we liked! (And Shakespeare’s dead, so he won’t know…)

Bridget Escolme

Quite a lot of reviewers have a strictly realist idea of what theatre should be like. The idea that you can’t have in early modern performances people of different racial backgrounds, different ages, different sexes, seems daft to me. If you want to be really literal, you’d have to have to cast Measure for Measure with Viennese actors only. Those plays were made for an all male company, and no one cried: “What’s that young man doing playing that young woman?”. The actors told the story; women weren’t allowed on stage, so you told the story using men. Each casting is going to produce different meanings, and that’s fascinating.

The only claim for authenticity that I would make for cross-casting is that the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries were created for what we might now think of as highly meta-theatrical spaces. They weren’t made for theatres in which you sat in the dark and shut up apart from the odd laugh, and peered into a space that was pretending to be real. These were spaces where everyone could see each other, whether by daylight or candlelight, and the actor could just turn around and talk to the audience. So the idea that somehow the actor would erase his presence as an actor is quite silly; at the Globe reconstruction today, too, if an actor were to talk to him or herself for too long, it would seem odd and dull – , because the audience are palpably there.

England and the Continent: Reflecting on National Boundaries

At the moment I’m working out how many double chocolate cookies to order for a symposium I’m organizing this month called National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies. The event will gather early career researchers from across the UK, France, Italy, Holland, Germany and Croatia to make new friends and talk about how we all might work better together. Planning and participating in the symposium is helping me to think more about what it means to do ‘English’.

The Renaissance was a multilingual place, but we often study the period one language at a time. As a graduate student I ran into a problem that people studying pre-modern English literature often face: that in general the writers we’re reading had language skills that are much better than ours.

In sixteenth- and seventeeth-century England any boy who went to grammar school, or girl who was privately tutored, would study Latin intensively and might also have picked up some Greek, or learned other vernacular languages through phrase books and foreign travel. Latin and French were international languages. English, which pretty much no-one on the Continent spoke, was not.

When I chose to study French and German to A-Level, and then picked English for an undergraduate degree, I sort of knew that studying languages alongside English made a useful combination (e.g. for learning grammar). But I hadn’t realized how foreign languages could expand my sense of what studying English is.

I ended up writing a doctoral thesis on British responses to a sixteenth-century French poet called Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartas. Now my research has developed to the point where I routinely work on Scottish, French and Latin sources, and need to seek out advice and discussion from people with different expertise. So there’s a real practical value in being able to chat with colleagues from a range of different disciplines and backgrounds over cookies.

The British Academy, who have provided generous funding for September’s symposium, have been running a languages programme to promote the value of language skills for the humanities and social sciences. Queen Mary’s English department is a natural home for multilingual English studies since there are several research groups that are demonstrating how knowing a language, any language, besides English is a valuable asset for studying English.

There’s the team at Global Shakespeare who are examining the Bard as a global cultural phenomenon whose plays and poems have been translated into every major language and performed and adapted in many theatrical traditions. The Centre for Early Modern Mapping, News and Networks investigates international communication networks in early modern Europe. And the department has numerous members working on postcolonial studies and world literatures who are examining how English culture became a global culture as it came into contact with other languages.

Thinking about England’s cultural relationship with the Continent is especially timely as the debate intensifies ahead of the coming referendum about whether we should draw a thicker national boundary between Britain and the European Union. One job for English studies is to improve our understanding of how far and in what ways this island’s cultures have, for better and worse reasons, intermixed with other cultures. Reading across languages helps us hear the voices that went into making our language and literature in the present.

Grace in Literatures in English: Conference Report

On Friday, 19 June, delegates from the UK, from Switzerland, and from Portugal arrived at Queen Mary to explore different forms and concepts of grace from the early modern period to contemporary literatures. The idea for a conference on Grace in Literatures in English was sparked during the planning stages of the 2014/15 Postgraduate Research Seminar Series. The intellectually highly stimulating discussion was ample reward for many months of preparation, endless e-mail threads, and some last minute panic.

Panels included papers on theoretical conceptions of grace, amongst them Kleist’s and Schiller’s, as well as on grace in Shakespeare, Beckett, Joyce, Frank O’Hara, Edwin Denby, J. M. Coetzee, and Geoffrey Hill. Our two keynote speakers, Ita Mac Carthy from the University of Birmingham and Susan Jones from the University of Oxford, offered perspectives on the notion of grace in Italian renaissance culture and on how grace was rewritten, or rechoreographed, in the twentieth century.

The range of papers showed that grace is a term, notion, or concept that means diversely different things in different periods and genres as well as for different writers and critics. This made for a fruitful exchange, during which explorations of forms of monarchical address in the Early Modern period entered into conversation with eighties dance videos. It became apparent throughout the day that the discussion of grace cannot be contained within one art form but that grace needs exploration as much in the symmetry of prose, as in geometrical shapes, the dance of people, puppets, and even machines.

At the end of the day we had perhaps not found grace but are confident that there is much room and enthusiasm for further exploration of this multivalent term.

Tweets from the day can be found under #GraceinLits. A programme for the day can be found here.

My trip to the ‘Zoo (or: how to get the most out of an international conference)

On Wednesday 13th May, I trundled off to Heathrow airport for my first ever trip to America and my first ever trip to an International Conference, where I would be both presenting and chairing. The International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University is the biggest medieval conference on the annual calendar. It takes place somewhere called Kalamazoo (‘Zoo, for short) which no one but medievalists and my Granny has ever heard of – it apparently features in a Glenn Miller song, (I’ve Got A Gal In) Kalamazoo, which she sang down the phone to me before I left for my travels. 3,000 scholars descend on this small town every year – even the security guards at the airport knew about us – and the congress features over 550 sessions of papers, panel discussions, round tables, workshops, and performances, as well as a really amazing exhibit hall full to the brim with books. For a PhD student with little experience of such a big conference the prospect was more than a little daunting. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on what (not) to do to get the most out of an international conference.

Be organised!

Okay, something of an obvious one to start, but by far the most important lesson I learned from my K’zoo experience was to plan ahead, both socially and academically. All your bibliography gathered in one place is an excellent opportunity to meet your academic heroes. But when you’re at one of the biggest conferences in your field, don’t just assume you’ll be able to get chatting with them and then go for a spontaneous coffee. I found that most people had been booked up by other interested parties weeks, even months in advance. So if there’s someone you really want to speak with then drop them an email before the conference to make sure you can secure some time with them!

Similarly, don’t be that person frantically trying to print off your paper moments before you’re due to deliver it. Even if the conference venue is geared up for these last minute panics, things can still go wrong and the unnecessary stress might overshadow the moment you’ve travelled all that way for: to present your research to people from all over the world, who are interested in the same thing! If you have your paper ready to go before the conference begins then you can spend your time enjoying the talks, rather than skipping that really useful panel in order to make last minute changes or finish writing your conclusion.

Know where you’re going

The Western Michigan campus, where the conference was being held, was absolutely huge – so big that shuttle buses had been organised to take participants between various buildings. I must have got lost at least three times and going to the room where I would be presenting the day before was a small step that made the talk itself less stressful. No one wants to arrive two minutes before, flustered and hot brandishing a memory stick wildly only to find out there isn’t actually a projector in the room.

Be genuine

Everyone talks about ‘networking’ when you go to a big conference. Regardless of one’s opinion on the concept it goes without saying that these events are a great place to meet like-minded people, to find out who is working in a similar area to you and to have a fangirl/boy moment when you run into the professor who has written your favourite academic book. All over the conference postgrad students were launching themselves at more established academics, proffering business cards (I didn’t have any of these, a decision I’m very comfortable with). With this in mind, I decided it was best to only approach people if I had actually read and engaged with their work (not just because they were a ‘big name’) or if I wanted to talk to them about their paper. People could sense who was being genuine and who was just ticking names off a list – taking this approach might mean fewer conversations, but hopefully longer and more meaningful ones!

Socialise

After a very tedious journey to the conference (including a missed connection and an unexpected night in Chicago) all I wanted to do was curl up in my room and watch Grey’s Anatomy. But some of the best connections I made at the conference were in the cafeteria, at conference dinners, or wine hours. I can’t pretend that I had any intellectual conversations at the infamous K’zoo ‘dance’ but watching a bunch of medievalists doing the YMCA and then getting down to Beyonce’s Single Ladies was not to be missed.

Embrace Social Media

Twitter and Facebook aren’t for everyone, but an international conference is one place where I think they’re genuinely useful. I could avoid a huge phone bill texting people by checking Twitter and Facebook to find out where everyone was meeting/to hear more about the social and academic events going on through live tweeting. On a less serious note it also became a useful outlet for expressing opinions on the dismal, monastic dormitories us students were all staying in, rooms which would not have been out of place in a prison drama. Next time I’m taking a sleeping bag…

 

“The moves may change, but the groove remains”: Old Men Grooving and the Joy of Dance

I seem to exist in two utterly different worlds. My name is Bret Jones. I am a PhD student in the Drama Department at Queen Mary. I am also a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent with the dance group Old Men Grooving (OMG), a group of older guys who are reclaiming dance and getting back our groove. This was not a designed career move. We had been put together for an internet commercial for Christmas jumpers for a national retailer. The next thing I knew, the video had gone viral. Something about the incongruity of older guys – ‘dads’ – doing a form of Hip Hop seemed to have resonated. The decision to go on Britain’s Got Talent was unexpected. One of the original guys became injured, and we got a new member who was a friend of one of the existing group. We all had some kind of dance background, in clubs, or competitions, or a bit of performing. Some of the group danced in Hip Hop clubs in the 1980s and 1990s, when many of the moves you see in these young dance crews were invented and developed. What is often missing is what we can bring – the ‘feel’, the ‘groove’. We dance because the music tells us to. The groove is who we are.

Of course, Britain’s Got Talent plunges us into the very depths of popular culture, but what is clear is just how complex and rich this culture – musically, kinaesthetically, and emotionally – actually is. It has been three weeks since our audition was broadcast, and the YouTube video has reached over 15 million hits:

We’ve had to jump on board the Facebook wagon to help spread the word. After all, Britain’s Got Talent does require audience support. The ‘feel good’ factor that seems to be very much a part of the response is actually a connection to something very profound within people. The younger audiences seem to like ‘Dad dancing’ done by guys who actually can dance and know how to express our own groove. The older audiences seem to identify with that love of dance that they once had, but that never really died. It’s still there. We’ve even created a little ‘Dad Dance’ that people can learn and join in with us:

The Anglo-American culture seems to relegate dance to the young, but this is not true in other cultures. We, in OMG, remember what it was like to dance in clubs and what that dancing meant to us as individuals, but also to the larger community. Dancing can help bond us, as well as be a means of personal expression. We have at times been humbled by the responses. We recently had a comment by a woman who lives in chronic pain, but who said that we had helped to lift her spirits. Yes, we are out there to have fun, but to have our dancing touch people in profound ways has been very moving.

My own dance background is in older forms like American rhythm tap and Lindy Hop, Swing, etc. However, this is directly related to later forms of African American dance, such as Hip Hop. Still, it has been a learning curve as a dancer. As hard as that has been, it has also been a joy. That, I think, lies at the heart of it. We are reclaiming dance as part of who we were and as part of who we still are. The moves may change over time, but the groove remains. We feel as young as ever when we dance, and so do the people who watch us. Unlike some of the young dance crews, we don’t dance at the audience. We share our joy with them; and they share their surprise and joy with us. We are both equally validated. This has engaged both body and soul, and although the body may ache at times, the soul is soaring. We need the support of all people, young and old, so that we can continue to reclaim dance for everyone, to make dancing part of our own continuing development as human beings, to embody and to share joy. In the end, it’s about joy.

Video: Digital Humanities Lecture – Jonathan Hope, ‘Books in space: hyper-dimensional reading’

On April 29th 2015, Professor Jonathan Hope (Strathclyde) delivered our Annual Digital Humanities Lecture on ‘Books in space: hyper-dimensional reading’. The lecture can be watched in full below:

Digital tools allow us to ‘read’ vastly more text than any human could manage in a lifetime. They also allow us to make comparisons between texts, genres, and periods based on projections of those books into multi-dimensional spaces. Some have hailed the advent of ‘culturomics’ – but what kind of ‘reading’ is this, and how can we ‘read’ spaces which are beyond the imaginative capacity of human minds? I’ll consider the promise, and the opportunities, of digital methods applied to large collections of texts – and I’ll also consider how these tools and methods might change the nature of our object of study. Most of my examples will be drawn from Shakespeare and the Early Modern period.

Jonathan Hope is Professor of Literary Linguistics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. His research has consistently attempted to bring insights and techniques from linguistics to bear on literature. He has published Shakespeare’s Grammar, a systematic descriptive grammar of Shakespeare’s language, aimed at editors and literary scholars, and Shakespeare and Language, which represents the next step in this process, as it attempts to historicise concepts of language (now and in Shakespeare’s time).

In the Digital Humanities, he has been working since 2003 collaboratively with Michael Witmore and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in experimenting with the use of a computerised text analysis program, Docuscope, on Shakespeare’s texts. In 2012, he was invited by the Folger Shakespeare Library to direct a Summer Institute in Digital Humanities, funded by the NEH. The Institute brought together 20 Renaissance scholars, at varying stages of their careers, and with varying amounts of digital humanities experience, to the Folger for three weeks, to work with an outstanding group of visiting faculty on the practicalities and, most importantly, the theorisation of digital humanities in research into the Renaissance. The second iteration of this Institute will take place summer 2015.

His project, Visualising English Print brings together computer scientists and literary scholars as partners. It will break new ground in computational science, developing new techniques that better support humanist thinking. They aim to innovate in the literary sphere, showing how the introduction of computational thinking and the new tools they develop for applying it can be used to lead to new understandings of literature, language, and their development.

Tips from Prize-Winners

We are delighted to announce that three of our academics have recently been recognised in the QMSU’s Teaching Awards. Dr Natalie Pollard won the Postgraduate Teaching Award (for her teaching on the MA module ‘Forms of Modernism’); Professor Julia Boffey won the Postgraduate Research Supervisor of the Year Award; and Dr Sam McBean won the Assessment and Feedback Champion Award.

Here, the three prize winners give their top tips for success:

Dr Natalie Pollard (on what makes for an effective MA class)

  • Interpretation, critique and dialogue as live interaction – not lonely brow-scratching! Complex ideas are read together as part of everyday life, and the social stakes of what we say and do. ​
  • A space of intellectual and creative risk-taking – of ‘serious play!’ – where learning is mutual and surprising.
  • Most important of all is the good – the really good – conversation.

Dr Sam McBean (on what makes good feedback)

  • Point to the strengths

I always try to start my feedback by summarizing for the student what I got from their piece – what the argument was, what points were made. I think it is important to let students know what stands out about their work and what they’ve managed to most clearly convey to their reader. Sometimes we might think of feedback as constructive criticism but it is just as important to outline what a piece of writing has achieved. From my experience, students respond to reading what it is that was successful about their writing and this helps them to model their future assignments on what has worked in the past.

  • There’s always room for improvement

No assignment is perfect! And it shouldn’t be. Students who score a 2:2 should get clear feedback on what they need to do to reach that 2:1; students who score a 2:1 should be able to understand what they need to do to get that 1st; and students who get a 1st should get feedback on how to edge their work into MA level or even towards publication. In my feedback I always try to give clear pointers on how a piece’s strengths might be brought out. For example, while I try to explain what might not have worked as well, I also often tell students where certain parts of their writing edged into a higher grade point. This gives them clear direction on not only what was less successful but also examples from their own work of what could be developed into stronger future work.

  • The feedback is in the detail

Students are always told to “evidence” their claims in their work – close reading, close reading, close reading! I think the same applies to lecturers when it comes to feedback. I always try to evidence my feedback by pointing to particular examples in students’ work, being clear about what I think works or where improvements could be made. Just like I tell my students to avoid vague language in their work, I try to aim for clarity in my feedback. It is through attention to detail that I think students can really achieve an understanding of their grade and the ability to work towards improving their critical writing skills.

Professor Julia Boffey (on what makes an effective PGR Supervisor)

  • Work *with* students to find and shape a worthwhile topic that will interest both them and you, and will enable them to play to their strengths
  • Keep in touch with them, even (perhaps especially?) during periods when they may not be producing written work for discussion
  • Keep them thinking about life beyond the PhD, as well as about completing it (what will they want to do next? how best can they be preparing for this during the PhD? what kinds of contacts/activities/training will help them prepare for what comes next?)

You can read more about the QMSU Teaching awards on their website.

English Studies: The State of the Discipline, Past, Present, and Future

Perhaps all I wanted to do was to confide or confirm my taste (probably unconditional) for literature, more precisely for literary writing. Not that I like literature in general, nor that I prefer it to something else, to philosophy, for example, as they suppose who ultimately discern neither one nor the other. Not that I want to reduce everything to it, especially not philosophy. Literature I could, fundamentally, do without, in fact, rather easily. If I had to retire to an island, it would be particularly history books, memoirs, that I would doubtless take with me, and that I would read in my own way, perhaps to make literature out of them, unless it would be the other way round, and this would be true for other books (art, philosophy, religion, human or natural sciences, law, etc.). But if, without liking literature in general and for its own sake, I like something about it, which above all cannot be reduced to some aesthetic quality, to some source of formal pleasure, this would be in place of the secret. In place of an absolute secret. There would be the passion. There is no passion without secret, this very secret, indeed no secret without this passion. In place of the secret: there where nevertheless everything is said and what remains is nothing – but the remainder, not even of literature.

–   Jacques Derrida, ‘Passions: “An Oblique Offering”’, trans. David Wood, in Derrida, On the Name, ed. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 27-28

Less well-known than his more famous (and frequently bowdlerized) elaborations of ‘textuality’, this formulation of Derrida’s pertaining to ‘literary writing’ articulates an unconditional relation to such writing which would put some pressure on familiar historical attempts to ‘defend’ literature qua sub-field of the ‘humanities’. If the homology isn’t hubristic, a similar concern lies behind our attempt, in this book, to bring together a collection of approaches to the discipline of English Studies which affirm literature in all its difference.

English StudiesEnglish Studies: The State of the Discipline, Past, Present, and Future, is a text which hopes to articulate something of what is affirmed by the singular investments made in this subject by its practitioners, whilst avoiding the good conscience and defensive commonplaces found in the frequently-reductive journalism on the topic. The last hundred or so years of literary scholarship (and yes, ‘theory’) have given the lie to the claim that our wing (or crypt) of the humanities must or can somehow be ‘defended’; for who could presume to ‘defend’ something so dangerous, so enigmatically performative (and performatively enigmatic), as literature?

The book comprises a sequence of essays – organized, with a little licence, around the idea of the ‘past’, ‘present’, and ‘future’ of the discipline – which cohere around the necessity not of intervening on behalf of the discipline, but gesturing toward some of the ways in which this intervention is constitutive of the discipline. Accordingly, the publicity material for the book will tell you that it ‘[Brings] together a proposal for English to be understood as a “boundary practice”; an exploration of the study-guide genre; an account of Derrida’s “the university without condition”; a consideration of how the subject might negotiate current technological changes and government interventions; the dilemma of cognitive literary criticism; a case study of English and “employability”; and the relationship between English in Higher Education and Secondary Education’. Nowhere in this collection is the ‘identity’ of the subject taken as read; indeed, an interrogation of this putative identity is shown to be methodologically fundamental to the affirmations of English Studies we find here. At some remove from ponderous debates about ‘canon’ (which take as read an idea of the discipline’s unwavering formal interior), and equally apart from insolent attempts to define the ‘essence’ of literature, the essays collected in this volume localize the importance of English Studies and its constitutive autocritique, historically, politically, epistemologically, and ethically.

English Studies… began life as a conference held at Queen Mary in June 2013. Our call for papers began: ‘Faced with pressure to quantify and commodify our research and our teaching through the narrow and potentially homogenizing parameters of concepts such as “impact”, many researchers and teachers in English departments seem to retreat from the challenge of affirming what it is that we value in the study and teaching of English.’ These pressures, if anything, have been exacerbated since then, and so this book is intended not as an overview of the ‘state of the discipline’, but as an invitation to continue discussions in this vein – discussions which, we believe, are crucial to the discipline’s future(s).

“A serious – and often seriously funny – writer”: Researching Beryl Bainbridge

My book on the novelist Beryl Bainbridge, imaginatively entitled Beryl Bainbridge, was published at the end of 2014, but the origins of the project go right back to my undergraduate degree. I first read Bainbridge’s According to Queeney (2001) on a final-year contemporary literature module at Hull and confess I wasn’t sure what to make of it. There was something peculiar, ambiguous and intriguing that I found hard to pinpoint, something which undercut the sentimental cover image of a rosy-cheeked Hesther Thrale mère et fille. I filed it away in the mental folder marked ‘deserves further scrutiny’.

As I got towards the end of my MA at UEA and my thoughts turned to PhD research, I dusted off that folder and alongside a series of ludicrous and unmanageable projects, Bainbridge stood out. I also remembered Jane Thomas, who had introduced According to Queeney to the reading list at Hull, talking about how scandalously Bainbridge had been neglected by academics. These memories sent me hurrying to the UEA library to see what else she had written and whether I could face spending three or four years in her company.

Huw Marsh, 'Beryl Bainbrudge' (Northcote House, 2014)
Huw Marsh, ‘Beryl Bainbrudge’ (Northcote House, 2014)

I started to read Bainbridge’s back catalogue, first in a fairly piecemeal fashion and then more systematically. All sorts of connections began to emerge, not just between the earlier novels, which loosely follow the contours of Bainbridge’s adolescent years in and around Liverpool, but also between this period and the later historical novels like According to Queeney and Master Georgie (1998), which tended to be treated as a separate phase of her career. It seemed that whether she was writing about her own past or the world-historical past, Bainbridge was always asking questions about the nature of history, memory and representation. She was also engaging with pressing debates in contemporary fiction and criticism (particularly from critics concerned with the nature of the postmodern), and whilst her exclusion from these debates seemed wrongheaded it also provided me with a viable project.

In the absence of a raft of Bainbridge scholars, the application process was largely a matter of putting out feelers to see who was interested in supervising the project. Fortunately a number of potential supervisors expressed an interest, including Mary Condé at Queen Mary. I chose QMUL not just because I thought Mary would be a great supervisor, which she was, but also because of the Department’s reputation. And by reputation I don’t mean just the Top Trumps metrics of league tables and KPIs, but rather the comments and recommendations of tutors and other people who know the department and the atmosphere it fosters. It was also a shortish bike ride down the canal from where I lived, which helped.

I enrolled part-time for the first year and applied for and was awarded AHRC funding from the second year onwards (this was pre Block Grant, which ages me). The research itself was fun – genuinely – and although there must have been moments of crisis I seem to have blocked them from my memory. I was fortunate that early on I spotted a tiny, two-sentence report in the Guardian saying that the British Library had bought Beryl Bainbridge’s personal papers, and even more fortunate that they let me access the papers before they had been catalogued. It was exciting to know I was the first person to study these documents and I never quite knew what I was going to find. Sometimes I would trawl through final drafts or proofs that varied little from the published texts and at other times I would find an alternative ending, or an unpublished play, or an erotic doodle in the margins of a letter. It was hard to avoid getting side-tracked by tantalising detective work on fragments from diaries or letters, but dead ends and wild goose chases are all part of the process.

The archival work helped me develop a stronger understanding of how Bainbridge constructed her stories and of the underlying research she stripped away to create her elliptical novels. It also brought to the fore questions of fact and fiction and the ways in which Bainbridge narrativised the past in its many senses. Among the documents is a scrapbook prepared by Bainbridge, which gives a ‘key’ to the people on whom she based characters from her early novels, including photographs and short bios. For the biographer, this would have been invaluable, but for the literary critic schooled in postructuralism and suspicious of biographical readings it presented a series of questions: how much ‘weight’ should I give to Bainbridge’s claims that her early novels were fictionalised memoirs? Do they even work as such? If so, why were they published as novels? And are there any connections between these fictionalised autobiographies and her later fictionalised histories? It also spoke to a series of questions I had been asking about the ways in which Bainbridge’s personality and her anti-analytical attitude toward her work affected its critical reception. There was a tendency, I noticed, to dismiss Bainbridge’s novels as the ‘slight’ or ‘minor’ work of an eccentric, and to overlook the depth and complexity of the fiction itself.

All of these questions were complicated by the fact that Bainbridge was alive – and able to answer back – while I was researching and writing the thesis. I ummed and ahhed about whether to contact her, but when it was announced she would open the summer fete in the Suffolk village where my girlfriend (now wife) grew up, it was practically unavoidable. (N.B. Please be aware the above photo was taken some years ago and I have since rethought my hair choices. And yes, that is Terry Waite, who lives in Hartest and invited Bainbridge to open the fete.) We subsequently arranged an interview and spoke for a couple of hours, fuelled by strong cups of tea. As I expected she was welcoming but guarded and reluctant to analyse or attribute meaning to her work. The interview didn’t fundamentally change the direction of my research, though I’m glad I took the opportunity to meet her and it helped fill one or two gaps in the documents. In fact, it was worthwhile just to visit the Camden townhouse that formed the setting for several of her novels, complete with full-sized stuffed buffalo in the hallway and airgun pellet hole in the ceiling from when her mother-in-law tried to shoot her.

Such was the apparent eccentricity of Bainbridge’s life that it’s tempting to focus on the anecdotal when writing about her (see paragraph above), but when I reflect on it now I hope my research has helped to reveal what a serious – and often seriously funny – writer she was. Not only did my PhD inform my recent book but it also opened up avenues for current and future research projects on history and historicity, comedy, and contemporary canon formation. One of the things I love about research is that it opens up questions rather than closing them down.

As is sadly so often the case, an upsurge of interest in Bainbridge’s writing arrived only after her death, but there is a growing sense that she is now gaining the recognition she deserved. KCL recently staged an exhibition of her paintings, suggesting a whole new side to her artistic practice, and a biography is forthcoming from her friend and assistant Brendan King. More controversially, in 2011 the Man Booker committee awarded Bainbridge’s Master Georgie (1998) a posthumous ‘Best of Beryl’ award in recognition of her record five appearances on the Booker shortlist without a win. Too little too late, perhaps, and that seems to be the view of Mark Knopfler, singer and guitarist with giants of eighties rock Dire Straits, who I will forever associate with interminable childhood car journeys and my conviction that ‘Money for Nothing’ was about a man who got his ‘chips for free’. The lead single from Knopfler’s new solo album is entitled ‘Beryl’ and includes the lines ‘Beryl/Every time they overlooked her/When they gave her a Booker she was dead in her grave’. I may have spent years researching Bainbridge but I did not see that one coming…

Empty Words: Writing Medieval London

In this post I publish my PhD thesis, ‘Verba Vana: Empty Words in Ricardian London’, which was completed in 2012.

Two things prompted me to publish my project here. Firstly, three years after submitting it, I have finally reached the stage where I’ve forgotten enough of the thesis to no longer be embarrassed by it. Secondly, while I have moved sideways in the intervening three years (staying in HE, but moving into the administrative sphere), I remain interested in developments in the field. In particular, recent and on-going discussions about London scribal practices suggested to me that there may be broader interest in my discussion (and transcription/translation) of the 1388 Guild Petitions, including the Mercers’ Petition – sometimes thought to have been written by Adam Pinkhurst.

The links below lead to two pdfs of the thesis (the first contains the body of the thesis, the second the appendices and bibliography). These faithfully reproduce the thesis that was passed by my examiners: Professors Ardis Butterfield and Mark Ormrod. The thesis does show signs of intellectual naivety, and my weaknesses in palaeography and languages will be obvious. But it also contains some fresh analyses, both of canonical literary texts (Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Gower’s Confessio Amantis, Clanvowe’s Boke of Cupide) and little-studied civic documents (including extracts from Letter-Book H and the Westminster Chronicle, as well as various petitions). As such, I hope this thesis may prove useful to some.

Feel free to contact me (r.ellis@qmul.ac.uk) with any questions or comments you may have.

Thesis

Volume 1 – Thesis (*.pdf)

Volume 2 – Appendices (*.pdf)

Abstract

Verba Vana, or ‘empty words’, are named as among the defining features of London by a late fourteenth-century Anglo-Latin poem which itemises the properties of seven English cities. This thesis examines the implications of this description; it explores, in essence, what it meant to live, work, and especially write, in an urban space notorious for the vacuity of its words. The thesis demonstrates that anxieties concerning the notoriety of empty words can be detected in a wide variety of surviving urban writings produced in the 1380s and 1390s. These include anxieties not only about idle talk – such as janglynge, slander, and other sins of the tongue – but also about the deficiencies of official discourses which are partisan, fragmentary and susceptible to contradiction and revision. This thesis explores these anxieties over the course of four discrete chapters. Chapter one, focusing on Letter-Book H, Richard Maidstone’s Concordia and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Cook’s Tale, considers how writers engaged with the urban power struggles that were played out on Cheapside. Chapter two, examining the 1388 Guild Petitions, considers how the London guilds legitimised their textual endeavours and argues that the famous Mercers’ Petition is a translation of the hitherto-ignored Embroiderers’ Petition. Chapter three, looking at several works by Chaucer, John Gower, the Monk of Westminster and various urban officials, explores the discursive space that emerges following justified and unjustified executions. Chapter four, focusing on Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale and John Clanvowe’s Boke of Cupide, contends that the crises of speech and authority that these poems dramatise can be productively read within the context of the Merciless Parliament of 1388. Through close textual analysis, this thesis analyses specific responses to the prevalence of empty words in the city, while also reflecting more broadly on the remarkable cultural, linguistic, social, and political developments witnessed in this period.

Full Contents

Volume I

Preliminary Materials

Declaration
Abstract
List of Tables
List of Figures
List of Abbreviations
Acknowledgments
Notes on Quotations and Appendices

Introduction

A Prelude: The Variable Fortunes of Nicholas Exton
Introduction

1. ‘Chepp, stupha, Coklana’:  Ricardian Cheapside and Urban Power Struggles

Introduction
Conceptualising Late Fourteenth-Century Cheapside
‘[T]am tubis & fistulis ducatur per Chepe’ (4.3): Order and Transparency in Letter-Book H
‘[I]nsurreccionem congregaciones & conuenticule’ (5.2): Sir Nicholas Brembre’s Anti-Associational Rhetoric
‘Mediam dum rex venit usque plateam’ (275): Mediation in Richard Maidstone’s Concordia
‘For whan ther any ridyng was in Chepe/Out of the shoppe thider wolde he lepe’ (I.4377-78): Conflict Irresolution in Chaucer’s Cook’s Tale
Conclusion

2. ‘[D]olium, leo verbaque vana’: Strategies of Legitimation in the 1388 Guild Petitions

Introduction
The 1388 Guild Petitions: Context and Form
Group One: Modelling Petitions
Group Two: Expanding Models
Group Three: Experimentations with Language, Rhetoric, and Voice
Recontextualising the Mercers’ Petition: The Mercers as Translators
Analysing the Mercers’ Petition: The Mercers as Innovators
The Language of Petitioning: A Second Mercers’ Petition
Preliminary Conclusions
‘[O]ue graunt noyse’: Strategies of Legitimation
Conclusion: Verba Superflua

3. ‘Lancea cum scutis’: Language and Violence in Exemplary Narratives and Historical Records

Introduction
The Rest is Never Silence: Chaucer’s Manciple’s Tale and Questions of Doubt
‘Hold conseil and descoevere it noght’ (III.779): Gower’s ‘Tale of Phebus and Cornide’ and the Triumphing of Silence
Gower’s ‘Tale of Phebus and Cornide’ in Context
‘This thing is knowen overal’ (III.1893): Gower’s ‘Tale of Orestes’ and the Fame of Death
‘Diverse opinion ther is’ (III.2114): Clytemnestra’s Death and Orestes’s Shame
‘[T]ho befell a wonder thing’ (III.2172): Gower’s Women and the Problems of Tale-Telling
Gower’s ‘Tale of Orestes’ in Context: The Many Lives and Deaths of Clytemnestra
The Life, Death, and Afterlives of John Constantyn, Cordwainer
‘[U]t volunt quidam’: Constantyn, the Westminster Chronicle, and the Spread of Public Speech

4. ‘[P]ira pomaque regia thronus’: Judging Speech in Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale and Clanvowe’s Boke of Cupide

Introduction
‘[S]he brast on forto wepe’ (Boke of Cupide, 210): Competitive Speechifying
‘[A]l that euere he wol he may’ (Boke of Cupide, 16): The Failures of Regal Authority
‘[W]hat may been youre help?’ (V.459): Supplanting Monarchs    277
‘[W]ith that song I awoke’ (Boke of Cupide, 290): Revisiting the Aesthetics of Irresolution
‘I can for tene sey not oon worde more’ (209): The Boke of Cupide and the Politics of Irresolution
‘[Y]e get namoore of me’ (V.343): Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale and the Politics of Irresolution

Conclusion

 

Volume II

Notes to Appendices

Appendix 1 – The Stores of the Cities

1a) Text and Translation

Text
Translation

1b) Additional Comments on Stanza 1
1c) The Stores’ description of Lincoln: A Walking Tour?

Appendix 2: The Variable Fortunes of Nicholas Exton

2a) Nicholas Exton’s indecentibus verbis

Text
Translation
Manuscript Image

2b) Nicholas Exton’s Slander

Text
Translation
Manuscript Images

2c) Nicholas Exton’s Pardon

Text
Translation

Appendix 3 – John Godefray’s False ‘cappes’

Text
Translation

Appendix 4 – John de Stratton’s Forgeries

Text
Translation

Appendix 5 – Richard Norbury, John More, and John Northampton’s Insurrection

Text
Translation

Appendix 6 – Brembre’s Proclamations

6a) Proclamation 1

Text
Translation

6b) Proclamation 2

Text

6c) Proclamation 3

Text
Translation

6d) Proclamation 4

Text
Translation

6e) Proclamation 5

Text
Translation

6f) Proclamation 6

Text
Translation

Appendix 7 – The 1388 Guild Petitions

7a) The Pinners’ Petition

Text
Translation

7b) The Founders’ Petition

Text
Translation

7c) The Drapers’ Petition

Text
Translation

7d) The Painters’ Petition

Text
Translation

7e) The Armourers’ Petition

Text
Translation

7f) The <…>steres’ Petition

Text
Translation

7g) The Goldsmiths’ Petition

Text
Translation

7h) The Saddlers’ Petition

Text
Translation

7i) The Cordwainers’ Petition

Text
Translation

7j) The Embroiderers’ Petition

Text
Translation

7k) The Mercers’ Petition

Text

7l) The Cutlers, Bowyers, Fletchers, Spurriers, and Bladesmiths’ Petition

Text
Translation

7m) The Leathersellers and Whittawyers’ Petition

Text
Translation

7n) The Tailors’ Petition

Text
Translation

7o) The Anglo-Norman Mercers’ Petition (Partial Transcription)

Text

Appendix 8 – The Mercers’ Petition and the Embroiderers’ Petition Side-by-Side

Appendix 9 – Anti-Victualler Statute

Text
Translation
Manuscript Images

Appendix 10 – Table of Correspondences among the 1388 Guild Petitions

Table 4 – The Correspondences amongst the 1388 Guild Petition
Notes to Table 4
Key to Petitions
Key to Accusations

Appendix 11 – A document associated with the Leathersellers and Whittawyers’ Petition    508

Text
Translation

Appendix 12 – Official Responses to John Constantyn’s Execution

12a) Brembre’s Petition

Text
Translation

12b) Royal Warrant

Text
Translation

12c) Royal Ratification in Letter-Book H

Text
Translation

Appendix 13 – William Mayhew’s Protest

Text
Translation

Appendix 14 – Further Images from Letter-Book H

Bibliography

Manuscript Sources
Reference Works
Primary Sources
Secondary Sources

‘Asymptote’: Introducing a Literary Magazine

I’d like to introduce you all to Asymptote, an online journal of international literature and translation that I help to edit. The name (I had to google ‘asymptote’ at first) is a term from analytical geometry: a line towards which a mathematical function tends towards infinitely but never meets. It’s intended to describe the way a translation creatively mimics the effect of a text in another language, without ever replicating it entirely.

The journal’s main aim is to counter the lack of diversity in literature by translating the best new writing from all over the world into English (and sometimes other languages too). In not quite four years the journal has featured new writing and art in 65 languages from 93 countries, including previously unpublished work from David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, J.M. Coetzee, José Saramago, and many others. You can always read the work in its original language too, and hear a clip of the author reading from it in their mother tongue. All this is beautifully illustrated by a different guest artist each month.

Asymptote calls itself a journal, but, to my mind, it might be better described as a literary magazine. Each quarter we feature new poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction in translation, as well as interviews and reviews. In addition, there are always two special features. The first of these is the Writers on Writers feature, in which an underappreciated or emerging writer is introduced succinctly by a better known one. The second varies from issue to issue – recent examples include features on self-translated drama, English “Diaspora” writing, and Taiwanese fiction.

Even my own section – criticism – is different from an academic journal. The section mostly comprises reviews of recent translations, and essays on the subject of world literature or translation, but we ask our contributors to write for a broad audience, avoiding the use of scholarly apparatus. Having said that, we have featured the work of many academics, including, recently, David Kaufmann (George Mason University), and Jacob Emery (Indiana University). Every now and again we include a more scholarly piece of literary criticism, such as an essay by the Argentine cultural critic Gonzalo Aguilar (forthcoming in January).

The team now comprises upwards of 70 multilingual people living all over the world, many of who have never met another Asymptote member. We communicate using email and Skype, and organise all our projects using an online platform called Trello. The global reach of all these people is impressive – if I ever need to get in touch with a writer or an academic, chances are somebody on the team has their email address.

In just four years, we’ve not done too badly. Calling Asymptote “an amazing cultural force in the literary community”, PEN America proposed that we join forces in 2015 to commission pieces that would otherwise not make their way onto a publisher’s desk. We have been nominated Magazine of the Year alongside the London Review of Books, our April issue last year was plugged in The New Yorker, and our July issue was picked up by BBC Culture.

This January, along with a couple of other London-based team members, I’m hosting an event to celebrate the journal’s anniversary. On Monday 19th January, Adam Thirlwell (twice one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists), acclaimed translators Daniel Hahn (from Portuguese, Spanish and French) and Deborah Smith (from Korean), and Stefan Tobler (Publisher of And Other Stories), will come together at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon to discuss their favourite translated books, and the current state of global literary translation. All are very welcome, but get your tickets before it sells out!

Asymptote is an international not-for-profit organisation, and we rely entirely on donations to keep us afloat. We’ve just launched a new fundraising campaign to raise money to hold a translation contest, and to organise more events like the one in January. If you’re feeling generous around this time of year, or simply found something you liked in the journal, please consider supporting us.

Finally, we have vacancies! If you’re interested in joining us, you can see the available roles here, or if you’d like to contribute, our submission guidelines are here.

And Laugh We Did: ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’

As one of the Department’s resident medievalists, most of my teaching concerns heroes and monsters, knights and ladies, and magic and the supernatural. However, this year, I’ve had the unexpected pleasure of co-teaching (with Ruth Ahnert, Una McIlvenna, Anthony Ossa-Richardson, and Harriet Phillips) a new module on Renaissance drama.  Aimed at second year students, ESH280 Renaissance Drama explores four key themes in the plays of early modern England: London; metatheatricality; strangers and others; and law and justice. My research is in late medieval and early renaissance drama, so it’s been a real treat to learn more about the drama of a slightly later period, and even tease out parallels and points of contact with the material I work with more closely.

Of all the plays we have read this semester, one stands out as both uniquely modern, but also curiously indebted to medieval literature and culture:  The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont. First performed by a cast of schoolboys in 1607, it has recently been revived and is currently playing at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse at The Globe. So, on a dark and rainy December evening, the ESH280 team left Queen Mary and travelled to the Southbank, ready to be transported to early-seventeenth-century London, where the play is set.

With its candlelit stage and galleried (for which read, uncomfortable) seating, its historically accurate costumes and carefully researched staging, ‘authentic’ is certainly one word that readily sticks to any account of Adele Thomas’s production. However, far more than a history lesson, this is a production that reminds us how formally daring, how generically subversive this play really is.

The premise is relatively straightforward: a grocer and his wife turn up at the theatre to watch a production of a play called The London Merchant, but unhappy with the way that play seems to be proceeding, they interrupt the action and demand their apprentice, Rafe, be given a role as the knight of the play’s title. Watching Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn as the grocer and his wife air their views while chewing noisily on popcorn and passing drinks to other members of the audience, I was struck by how modern – how post-modern, even – this play can feel. Centuries before Punchdrunk, before You Me Bum Bum Train, here’s a play exploring how we as audience members experience theatre and, in turn, how our experience as audience members can affect or even change the fabric of the play we are watching.

But strangely, this, the most curiously current of all the play’s many conceits, is also one of its most medieval. Long before the proscenium arch, before the fourth wall had been put up, separating actors from their audiences, medieval drama thrived on a dynamic that frequently placed spectators at the heart of the action. To take just one example, in the late medieval morality play Mankind, not only are audience members required to pay to make the chief devil appear – thus neatly paying the actors’ wages – but they are also duped into singing a dirty little ditty, a ‘Christmas song’ that has little to do with the birth of Christ, and rather more to do with lavatorial misadventure.

Mankind was probably performed at inns and other venues in and around East Anglia in the second half of the fifteenth century; quite some way then from the candlelit stage at Blackfriars where The Knight of the Burning Pestle was first staged. However, both plays share a kind of crazed exuberance, a recognition that active involvement is often the best way of making, playing with, and sometimes even disrupting meaning. They also thrive on comedy – by which I mean less the classical genre than the ability to make you bellyache with laughter. And laugh we did. Raucously, rambunctiously, and probably uncouthly. It’s a reaction that is somehow so central, but can often fail to come off in a classroom. And if that isn’t an advertisement for the current performance, I don’t know what is.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 11 January 2015.