Friday, June 30, 2017

Medieval in the modern world

The University of Manchester (image from Wikimedia Commons)
It's Friday night, and I'm on a quiet train on my way back from the Medieval in the Modern World conference in Manchester. This is the third iteration of the conference, which will next convene in Rome in late 2018. The ethos of the conference is to look at (in a rigorous, analytical, and scholarly way) how the Middle Ages survives in the modern world.

The relevance of the medieval to modernity is the bread and butter of my scholarship, and I was delighted to be presenting at #MAMO2017. I met up with some people I hadn't seen for a long time, met a lot of smart and interesting people, and generally had a great time chatting about medievalism, gender, race, and how great the cakes were.

This post is my attempt to summarise some of the incredibly rich research and the ideas that came out of the conference that I think will influence my thinking for quite some time. Of course, every scholar will have a slightly different take home message. As someone interested in sexuality and gender, it was always going to be that aspect of the conference that would stick with me the most. But, there were some very clear themes that seemed to come up again and again that seemed to reflect current thinking about the medieval, medievalism, and the contemporary world. Many of these these themes overlapped, but I thought it might be useful to jot them down here for future reference. I apologies in advance for any mistakes, omissions, or errors - I blame a tired brain after 3 days of excellent and inspiring conversation.

1) The medieval is political (and it's not pretty)

I would much rather this were not the case, but it was impossible to deny that the dominant theme running through so many panels and conversations over coffee, cake, or wine, is the co-opting of the Middle Ages by white supremacists, social conservatives and, in short, all kinds of unsavoury people. This isn't something I  was unaware of, but the fact that this was a thread running through so many panels - on nationalism, on social media, on film, on games - was sobering. It made me realise that, as comfortable as I am in my feminist scholarship bubble, that there is something sinister, something dark going on in my discipline, that I really need to pay more attention to.

What MAMO2017 was great for was the reinforcement that I can do something about this. It felt like a real call to attention and action and I've come away with a whole host of ideas for ways to counteract this racist, ahistorical appropriation of the Middle Ages. In some ways, medieval studies has never felt more like social activism and I am equipped and ready.

2) Authenticity vs realism

The distinction between authenticity and realism in medievalism is not at all new - this is a question that has concerned film and games researchers for a good while. However, it seemed that this was a question that kept coming up during the conference. Victoria Cooper (@drsyrin) gave a really nice definition of each of these at the start of her talk:

Realism = current understanding of the Middle Ages.
Authenticity = conforming to expectations of what 'feels' right or 'appropriate'.

This conceptualisation of authenticity was a light bulb moment for me. I spent the rest of the conference thinking about that idea of the Middle Ages as a 'feeling' - this idea that the 'medieval' is affective (I wrote this down in capital letters in my notebook). If the Middle Ages is a historical period whose primary aim is to make you feel something, as medievalists do we need to address or speak to this? I need to think this through a little more, but there's definitely something there... watch this space.

3) The medieval is raced (but how?)

I owe this subheading to Cord Whitaker (@CordCWhit) who joined the conference by pre-recorded YouTube video. Well known for his work on medieval studies and race, Cord was part of a round table session on medievalism and race, where the erasure of diversity from medieval studies and from medievalism was front and centre. Dorothy Kim (@dorothykim98) put forward an important question: the personal is political, but is your scholarship? (The answer is always yes).

I've seem a tweet doing the rounds recently that calls out Doctor Who for its implicit assumptions about race. It points out that when a character who is meant to regenerate and be created entirely new is regenerated a dozen times as a white man, that is not a neutral act, it is a deliberate and meaningful act. MAMO2017 did a really good job (compared with every other medieval studies conference I've been to) of making that deliberateness overt. With medieval studies, particularly given the co-option of the field and discourse by - not to put too fine a point on it - racists, it is so important to question what is seen as the default, the norm, the unquestioned.

The conference continues tomorrow, so I recommend you follow the hashtag #MAMO2017 on Twitter if you're at all interested. I've certainly taken away a lot of things to think about.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

In praise of the independent scholar

a laptop lies in grass at a park

'Independent scholar' - it's the label on a conference name badge or schedule most likely to draw embarrassment, dismissal, or scorn. A term used to describe someone who undertakes academic work but who is not affiliated with an academic institution, the independent scholar has a long but troubled history with the academy that generally revolves around some designation of them as a second-rate researcher - an enthusiast, rather than a professional. (There's been some debate on what exactly independent scholars should call themselves, some of which you can read on the NCIS website).

I think it's time that we re-evaluate the independent scholar and their position in academic research. The landscape of higher education research and employment continues to change in ways that affect the status of independent scholars. I'd argue that we are at a crucial moment for independent scholarship in the UK (and perhaps elsewhere) and this post is my manifesto for why and how the academy needs to start giving non-affiliated scholars the respect they deserve.

Who is an independent scholar?


The traditional definition of an independent scholar is often given as a hobbyist - someone who conducts research on a particular topic but who is not paid to do so. An obvious example familiar to many is the local historian; someone who spends time in archives, gathering source material and evidence relating to the history of a community; local museums and archives are often reliant on these independent researchers.

I'm aware that many people undertake research outside of academia in both the private and public sector; industry, pharmaceuticals, and policy are all areas where intensive research is undertaken and published. While not primarily academic, I still don't consider these researchers to be independent scholars because they are still being paid for their work - they are not unaffiliated.
Frederick J. Furnivall (1825-1910)

Independent scholars have been part of academic research for a considerable time, not least in the two fields in which I conduct most of my research: medieval studies; and popular romance studies. Few medievalists who work with Middle English texts will not have heard of Frederick James Furnivall, who established the Early English Texts Society (EETS) and edited over a hundred medieval texts. My University's library held an almost complete collection of EETS texts which I spent many hours reading during my doctoral studies. Yet, aside from a position teaching English and grammar at the Working Men's College which he co-founded, Furnivall was not a University-affiliated researcher; as Antonia Ward has pointed out, he remained 'outside the academy' for his entire life.

In the relatively new field of popular romance studies, a number of researchers could be classed as independent scholars: Laura Vivanco is a particularly prominent example, whose work is regularly cited in publications and conference papers by researchers who are affiliated with universities. Popular romance studies is a research field populated with readers, authors, librarians and others whose identity doesn't fall into the category of university-affiliated academic, but whose contributions to the field are nonetheless significant.  



So what's the 'problem' with independent scholars? 


I'm going to outline the 'problem' with independent scholars with the caveat that I don't think this is a 'problem' that independent scholars themselves can or should solve. One of the most common complaints about independent scholars is that their scholarship is not up to standard: the quality of their research is seen as lacking; they have not published in the top journals; and their methodological and subject-knowledge is considered not as up-to-date. 

Sometimes, this might be true - Furnivall, for instance, never had any work published by an academic press and he did not conform to contemporary standards of academic writing; Antonia Ward argues that it was his "idiosyncratic prefatory style which excluded him from the Victorian academy" (p. 45). Yet, many of these accusations are a result of the exclusion of the independent scholar from knowledge jealously guarded by universities. If independent scholars are denied access to training, resources, and recognition (all things hoarded by universities) then it is surely self-evident that they will not be as familiar with the latest research methods, or have access to the most current research in the field.

In a research world where it can costs hundreds of pounds to subscribe to academic journals or to buy monographs, where conferences are priced according to an assumption that your institution will pay for you, and where your institutional affiliation (or lack thereof) is a deciding factor in your eligibility for funding or acceptance of your manuscript, the unequal gap between university-affiliated researcher and independent scholar is stark


Why this matters now: changing demographics of independent scholarship 


So why do I think the question of independent scholars is so important right now? To me, it's clear that in an increasingly fractional and fractured higher education research environment, we've not only got many more independent scholars, but the demographic is changing. Today, the designation 'independent scholar' is equally applicable to a recent PhD graduate who is continuing to carry out research while in precarious, adjacent or adjunct employment (or unemployment), or to a teaching fellow who is paid only for their teaching and not for their research (such as yours truly). This is also a refutation to the (still persistent) idea that independent scholars are not employed by universities because they are somehow 'not good enough'; researchers work independently for many reasons (work-life balance, freedom to research 'unfashionable' topics) including the fact that there are not enough paid research jobs for all the excellent, qualified candidates.

In a postdoctoral climate where publications can make the difference between getting an academic job and not, it's unsurprising that so many precariously-employed people are effectively working as independent researchers, even when the research environment is so stacked against them. It might be easy for an independent scholar who has already established a reputation to get published and to be invited to speak at conferences and events, but this is so much harder for a new PhD graduate who has yet to make their mark, and it seems like there are so many more people in this position now. The revival of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS), a 'non-profit organization providing professional affiliation, support services, and camaraderie to scholars outside of tenured academia', is a good indication that this is a timely issue.

Possible changes to the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK might also change things for independent researchers (possibly in their favour). For those unfamiliar with REF, it's a rating exercise that takes place every four or five years where the research published by academics employed in universities is rated by panels of their peers, after which research funding is distributed based on rankings. It's a pretty big deal in UK higher education.

While we won't know for sure until Summer 2017 what the next REF will look like, what's been proposed for the next cycle is that rather than academics themselves 'owning' their research (meaning that institutions can effectively 'buy' in star researchers just before submission), any research published during an employment contract will be 'owned' by the employing institution and won't be able to be taken to another institution. In other words, if I am employed by University A and publish a journal article while working there, when I move to a new job at University B that piece of research can't be submitted by University B for the REF as it was undertaken while I was working elsewhere.

The status of independent, non-affiliated scholars is currently unclear but this new rule potentially opens up a benefit for those who want to return to an academic job, as they'd technically be free to take their research anywhere with them (as it isn't 'owned' by an institution).



What we can do


It's important to recognise the difficulties associated with being an independent researcher: empathy can go a long way. There is a great list of articles with advice for independent scholars (here called freelance academics) on the Vitae website. Here are my own suggestions of five relatively simple, practical steps that university-affiliated researchers can do to help support and value independent scholars and their research contributions.If you've got any more suggestions I'd love to hear them in the comments.


1. Offer discounted conference fees.


Independent scholars (which includes teaching fellows and those with no access to research expenses) can find conferences prohibitively expensive. Because big subject-area events are usually the place to network and share research findings, many independent scholars will pay to attend and pay out of their own pocket. This can often be very expensive (prohibitively for some). Many academic conferences offer lower fees for students and unwaged people. If you're organising a research event, try offering a lower registration fee for independent scholars. Hosting at least some events in the evening or streaming them online also makes your event more accessible for those with a non-research day job as they no longer have to take a day of annual leave in order to attend. Writing a statement of who is welcome to attend that specifically invites independent scholars is a nice, inclusive touch.


2. Make the most of independent scholars' connections to the community or industry.


Independent scholars often have close connections with local enthusiast groups, libraries, charities, and companies. This might be because of their historical exclusion from academia (you've got to find your friends somewhere) but it means they have developed strong relationships in areas that university researchers often have not. In recent years, university-affiliated academics have had to provide evidence of their research 'impact' beyond the academy; working with independent scholars is a great way to do this, making use of their particular skills and experience.


3. Include independent scholars as co-investigators or researchers on funded projects.


Many UK funding bodies require principal applicants to have a job or some other formal relationship with a university (an example of this was raised in a Times Higher Education piece from 2012 and it's still the case for most big funders). This means that many independent scholars miss out on opportunities for funding and the prestige that goes with it, because they are simply not permitted to apply for it. Researchers who are employed by universities can help by including independent researchers on their bids where they can gain experience, skills, and reputation. The potential for increased research impact when including independent scholars is an added benefit. 


4. Make your research open access.


The cost of academic publishing is not a new subject of discontent amongst academics. However, many of us are able to largely ignore or sidestep these inconveniences due to our institutional subscriptions (or a research budget that allows us to purchase materials). Many independent scholars do not have such an option. While I'm not advocating sharing publications with non-affiliated colleagues (although I'm sure we've all done this), one thing university-affiliated researchers can do is store your publications in an open-access repository so it can be accessed freely. Your institution almost certainly has one, or you can post on your blog or sites like Academia.edu (although this option is not unproblematic, as this Forbes article points out). Making a pre-typeset copy of your research available freely is actually a requirement for the Research Excellence Framework in the UK; an excellent additional benefit is that it allows far wider access to your work and means that independent scholars can get access to up-to-date scholarship. If you edit an academic journal, you might also consider making all or part of it open access; the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, the main journal in the field of popular romance studies is fully open access; and the Open Library of Humanities hosts a range of open access journals.

5. Co-publish with independent scholars.


A barrier for independent scholars can be that their lack of institutional affiliation limits their options for publication. They are thus more likely to seek out alternative presses that might offer less rigorous editing or have a less specialist peer review panel, thus perpetuating the perception of independent scholarship as less rigorous. If university-affiliated researchers made a point of co-publishing with independent scholars, this would help address this barrier.  


I'd love to hear more ways we can support our independent scholar colleagues, so let me know in the comments!

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I cited Antonia Ward's chapter "'My Love For Chaucer': F. J. Furnivall and Homosociality in the Chaucer Society," in Medievalism and the Academy, ed. Leslie, J. Workman, Kathleen Verduin, and David D. Metzger (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), pp. 44-57.

The image at the top of the post is by Picography and is used free for commercial use from Pixabay.

The image of Frederick J. Furnivall is from his Wikipedia page and is in the public domain.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Wikipedia, research and representation

Editathon in Edinburgh (photo: Eugenia Twomey)
Admit it, academics out there - you've used Wikipedia. Maybe today, almost certainly this week, you've used "the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet" (and yes, that is from the Wikipedia page on Wikipedia) to check a detail on something you're teaching, researching, or talking about with people in the pub.

And that's totally fine. I love Wikipedia. I use it all the time. I even encourage my students to use it. And even though we probably tell them to find a more 'reliable' or 'peer-reviewed' source to cite in their essays, really, what could be more reliable than Wikipedia, whose (as noted on the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia) "level of accuracy approached Encyclopædia Britannica's".

But that same article also notes that a common criticism of Wikipedia is its systemic bias, that it is not always entirely truthful and that it is vulnerable to manipulation. This can be summed up by a simple question: who writes Wikipedia? Wikipedia conducted a survey in 2013 and found that only 13% of its editors were women. It is this side of Wikipedia that causes many people to remain skeptical about its usefulness, particularly to researchers.

What is more problematic are issues of representation. For a start, Wikipedia is dominated by English content; while English content accounts for only 12% of all of Wikipedia, the number of users, edits, and total pages (including categories, templates, and images) is by far the highest (check out the stats for yourself). So if you're someone who doesn't speak English, there's a lot of Wikipedia that won't be accessible to you. Equally, the dominance of English language content on Wikipedia (and on the internet more widely) is likely to also mean that the culture and media of non-English speaking places is less widely represented. Even within English pages on Wikipedia, there are huge gaps in representation when it comes to women. This is something I'd always been aware of but it really hit home for me when I was working on a recent research project on early twentieth-century Scottish women authors.

My plan was to explore fiction holdings in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh of Scottish women who wrote romantic fiction set in Scotland between 1908 and 1940. As is fairly common at the start of a new research project, I wanted to find out as much about the different authors as I could. So, as many others I'm sure do, I ended up on Wikipedia. But, after a point, Wikipedia couldn't help me, because some of the authors I was looking for were simply not there. For example, Robina Forrester Hardy (1835-1891), who is listed as a Scottish poet on Wikisource, does not have a Wikipedia page. In fact as of today, only 16.93% of Wikipedia biographies in English were of women (data from Women in Red).

This lack of representation of women (and many others who are not white, Western, men) on Wikipedia is a real problem. Our students have grown up with Wikipedia and see it (as do I) as a quick and reliable source of basic information. But that basic information is not as comprehensive as it might claim to be if so much of what makes up and has made up the world is excluded.

This concern is what has led to a string of 'editathons' across the world. These often locally-organised events are supported by Wikipedia and seek to fill in gaps in Wikipedia's provision. Many groups have made use of the model of editathons to add pages of women in art (National Museum of Women in the Arts), or just women in general via WikiProjects like Women in Red). My own institution, the University of Edinburgh, has run editathons to raise the profile of women in science and Scottish history.

These events, often run by Wikipedians in Residence (people who work in libraries, universities and other organisations to build a relationship between the organisations and create pages relating to that institution's mission or aims) and teach people how to create and edit Wikipedia pages before helping them write new content on notable women, places, histories or events. There's a helpful guide to running editathons on Wikipedia (where else)?).

So, I've decided, as part of this current project, to add what information I can to the existing pages for the women authors whose works I've been looking at. This includes Annie Shepherd Swan, who wrote over 200 novels, was a founding member of the SNP and who was one of the first women to stand for election in 1918 (she didn't win). This is information that would have been more difficult to find out if it wasn't on Wikipedia. Indeed, Annie Swan's page was only created in 2010 as part of a project to add missing pages. Compare this to S. R. Crockett's page - a contemporary of Swan's who wrote similar novels but who enjoyed less commercial success, his Wikipedia page was created in 2004.

It's true that Wikipedia is not the only place women are absent; their place in the English literature canon is far from established (something that is hopefully changing). But adding content to Wikipedia on these women is something high impact and low effort that I can do to make a difference now. In fact, it's probably something we should all do; after all, we all use it...right?

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The photo used is from the University of Edinburgh History of Medicine Wikipedia edit-a-thon for Innovative Learning Week in February 2016. The photo was taken by Eugenia Twomey and is used here under a CC-BY-SA license). 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Cabbage patch kids: contemporary romance novels, Scottish Kailyard literature, and Annie S. Swan



For those unfamiliar with late-nineteenth century Scottish literature - a group that would have included myself until a few months ago - the term Kailyard might not mean all that much. A term coined by the poet Ian Maclaren in 1894, kailyard, literally means ‘cabbage patch’ and describes works published at that time set in "isolated rural communities whose dramas revolve around the doings of the minister or the dominie, tracing arrivals, departures, weddings, funerals and the pitfalls of petty presumption.” (Watson, 2007, p. 339).

Ian Campbell in his book Kailyard (1981) writes that Kailyard fiction was prominent between 1880-1900 and was characterised by: rural setting and concerns; transport featuring prominently (primarily the railway); class distinctions; a lack of change (although people can change their lives through education or self-help advancement; Christian values; and realism (pp. 12-16). Hugely popular at the time, it wouldn't be hyperbolic to say that Kailyard defined Scotland at the time for many readers of popular fiction both in the UK and elsewhere; "for a six-year period from 1891 until 1897, Kailyard authors ranked in the top ten annually in the American best- seller lists” (Cook, p. 1054).

Why have I been reading about Kailyard fiction? I'm conducting a research project, Romancing Scotland, looking at early-twentieth century romantic fiction written by Scottish women authors. The National Library of Scotland has a whole collection of novels by authors like Annie S. Swan (1859-1943), D. E. Stevenson (1892-1973), and Jean S. Macleod (1908-2011) whose works have been practically erased from the history of Scottish literature.

Annie S. Swan, arguable the most famous of the three authors, was probably one of the most well-known and prolific (she wrote at least 162 novels under her own name) authors of her time, but her name is routinely left out of anthologies and discussions of Scottish literature. Even when critics discuss the Kailyard (not always appreciatively) they are more likely to associate Kailyard with the male authors J. M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame) or S. R. Crockett. (NB: Barrie actually wrote to Swan on several occasions to admire her work and fame).

Why is Annie S. Swan so often overlooked? It's obviously partly because she is a woman, although other Scottish woman writers of her time retain their place in Scottish literary history (e.g. Catherine Carswell or Margaret Oliphant). I think that a key reason Annie S. Swan is so ignored by the 'literary establishment' is because for much of the twentieth century she wrote romance novels.

Kailyard fiction contains many elements which were also present in early-twentieth century romance - mainly, people-centred emotional drama. It's also undoubtedly true that Swan influenced later writers such as D. E. Stevenson whose first novel, Peter West (1923), contains many of the elements also present in Swan's writing, such as a romance between a laird and a lower-status woman (or vice versa), a small community described in minute detail, long passages of dialogue, and descriptions of travel and landscapes of Scotland.

In turn, D. E. Stevenson's works were republished later in the twentieth century, likely informing the work of later authors like Jean S. Macleod, who wrote more than 100 romance novels for Mills & Boon, many of them set in Scotland and sharing many of the same elements as Swan and Stevenson's works. Jean S. Macleod wrote all the way up to 1996 - incidentally five years beyond the publication of Gabaldon's Outlander (1991), a book that claims (not erroneously) to have influenced much of the subsequent craze for Scottish-set romance fiction in North America.

So, for me, there is a clear line that can be traced from the Kailyard fiction of Annie Swan all the way through to today's popular Scottish romances. While today' authors are more likely to cite Walter Scott or Robert Louis Stevenson as influences (both mainstays of Scottish literature) I wonder if the writings of women like Swan, Stevenson, and Macleod, themselves drawing on Scott and R. L. Stevenson, might also have a (mostly invisible) role to play in the development of Scottish popular romance. In short, are today's Scottish popular romances literary cabbage patch kids? 

I'm going to be giving a paper on this topic at the Popular Culture Association conference in San Diego next month so I'll write a follow-up post after that with more about these three Scottish women authors. 




References

Ian Campbell, Kailyard: A New Assessment (Edinburgh: Ramsey Press, 1981).

Richard Cook, "The Home-Ly Kailyard Nation: Nineteenth-Century Narratives of the Highland and the Myth of Merrie Auld Scotland", ELH, Vol. 66, No. 4 (1999), pp. 1053-1073. 

Christopher Harvie, No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Scotland Since 1914 (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1981).

Roderick Watson, The Literature of Scotland: The Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). 

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The photograph of Eilean Donan Castle is by Sorin Tudorut (@sharpixdigital) from the free-for-use website unsplash.com. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

How romance controls your sex life: Medieval advice for modern girls

Today's post, appropriately coinciding with Valentine's Day, is about sexualisation in medieval and modern advice literature for young women, in particular the way that 'romance' is used to control young women's behaviour. It's drawn from a longer journal article just published in the Journal of Gender Studies which you can read via the journal's website.*


As a teenager, I thought I was pretty clued up about love, sex, and relationship stuff. I'd attended some sex education classes at school, I'd definitely spoken to my friends about it, and I also read a lot of advice columns in magazines like More, Just Seventeen, and Bliss. For many girls my age, these magazines provided an additional (and, for some, perhaps only) source of information about the adult world of dating, relationships, and sex.

As I've learned more about the lives of medieval women, it has become clear that my generation was absolutely not the first to rely on written advice, or wise words from older friends or family. In fact, in the late Middle Ages in England (from the fourteenth-century onward) conduct texts specifically for women and written in the vernacular became more popular.

One of the most popular of these texts is How the Good Wife Taught her Daughter and was composed around 1350. It survives in five manuscripts today that date from 1350-1500, indicating that it was popular. It's written in Middle English rhyming verse from the perspective of a mother to a daughter, and is quite short - only 209 lines long. The text is quite colloquial and proverbial, and offers the imagined daughter advice on day-to-day bourgeois life - go to church, make sure you pay your tithes, manage your household - as well as advice on dealing with men and negotiating a potential husband.

Reading this text, it becomes clear that the advice given to the young woman is designed to control her behaviour. She is told where to go (not the the market or the tavern) and how to go there:
When you walk on the path, don’t walk too fast
Nor turn your head from side to side
[…] Go not as though you were a frivolous person (lit. a goose)
From house to house, to seek distraction (57-58; 61-62)
She is warned not to accept gifts from men ‘for good women, with gifts / May have their honour lifted from them’ (93, 94). She should not wear fancy or fashionable clothes, and certainly must never meet men alone. In short, while the advice might be framed as for the benefit of the young woman, it also reveals how worried older generations were about what young people were up to, especially as they were now living away from home in town and cities much more often than before.

This prurient concern from an older generation has echoes in the sexualisation debates of the twenty-first century - the idea that young people are becoming 'too sexy, too soon' and that this is damaging their ability to form lasting, romantic relationships. Generally, this concern has focused on overly-sexy clothing (high heels or padded bras for children), music videos, television, movies, video games, online content, and magazines. Predominantly focused on the effect on young women and girls, reports commissioned by multiple governments (Scottish; UK; Australian) in the twenty-first century outline the extent of public and media outrage.

And we can see echoes of medieval restrictions in modern advice too. I looked at articles and agony aunt questions on the website MyBliss.com, a companion lifestyle website to the now-defunct magazine Bliss containing (mostly heteronormative) advice on health, beauty, friendship, love and sex, aimed at teenage girls aged 14–17. Girls are advised not to wear overly fashionable (read sexualised) clothing; an article entitled ‘Love Lessons’ that promises to point out ‘where you’re going wrong’ and how to ‘bag that lad’ has ‘don’t be too fashionable’ as its number 1 tip. Elsewhere, girls are advised that ‘not all lads like obviously flirty girls’ and ‘superflirts make boys want to run a mile’ and that  men are 'put off' by women who have too many sexual partners.

MyBliss is clearly attempting to engineer particular kinds of (non-sexualised) gendered behaviour in its advice by claiming that it leads to romantic failure. A bad reputation can damage a woman's romantic chances and thus the threat of remarks is enough to control her behaviour and make her careful how she behaves around men for fear of being called a slut, slag, tart, or similar. In short, if you don't follow the advice given, you won't get the romantic happily ever after you're hoping for. This is the patriarchy at work, where men are allowed to do things that women are not (men can still have the romance even if they've also had the sex).

According to these texts, the key to romantic success for young women in both the Middle Ages and twenty-first century is to shut up, cover up, and stay home. Today, on V-Day, it seems like the right time to call out this kind of discourse to put an end to this narrow way of thinking about young people, sex, and romance and look for a different kind of sexual, feminist future.


I've blogged about this research elsewhere on Thirty-Fifth Century Romance (March 2015 and July 2016) and in a short piece at Notches, Thinking Medievally: The Sexualisation Debate and Medieval Advice Literature.   

* If you can't access the article (i.e. if you don't have a University or Library login) and would like to read it drop me an email (amy.burge@ed.ac.uk) and I'll send you an eprint copy.

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The image is by Jessica Ruscello @jruscello from the royalty-free Valentine's Day collection at unsplash.com.

Monday, January 30, 2017

How romance is political

Spiegeltent, Sheffield Festival of the Mind (credit: A Burge)
I was alerted to a thread by Camille Hadley-Jones (@camillehjones) on Twitter yesterday that called bullshit on “Romancelandia declaring itself politics-free, created for escapism, only supposed to be about happy things”. Hadley-Jones rightly says that “Romance has always been political. Not the bland "it's feminist bc it's the only genre for women by women [but also] the erasure of servants, the poor, POC, LGBTQ, etc AND the emergence of those voices.”

She writes, "Romance writers and readers make political acts every day. It's political to write. It's political to read. What you choose to read or write […] Derives from your personal politics. Deciding to write/read smalltown romance with zero diversity is political.”

It’s true that in straightforward representation terms, there is a lack of diversity in popular romance publishing. I was on a panel at the Sheffield Festival of the Mind in September 2016 with authors and editors from Harlequin Mills & Boon. Following a question from the audience about diversity in romance novels, I pointed out an imbalance in how different races and cultures are depicted. A Senior Editor for Harlequin Mills & Boon who was on the panel highlighted some examples of diversity in the publisher’s output, but ultimately concluded that the diversity of the company’s output depended on 1) what readers wanted to read, and 2) what authors sent them. The argument was that Harlequin Mills & Boon would love to publish more diversity, but authors are not writing diverse characters, and readers don’t want to have them in their books (although this seems a little self-perpetuating). Laura Vivanco has written more about the panel discussion on her blog.

All this is essentially to say the same thing as Hadley-Jones; romance, like almost everything else in popular culture, is political.

I think romance is political in three core ways. First of all, writing a romance is a political act on the part of the author. Hadley-Jones points out that it’s not just what you write, but it’s what you don’t write that reveals your politics. So, only writing white protagonists, or having heroes and heroines drawn from an oddly narrow vision of the world (where are the Chinese or Ghanaian heroes?) is a (deliberate or unconscious) political act. In others words, romance reflects the political world and views of its authors.

This isn’t a new thing. Medieval romance, the precursor of today’s modern romance novels, had a similar role reflecting contemporary politics. In fact, this is one of the many reasons historians and literature scholars read medieval romance today – to find out what people thought about what was going on at the time. For example, it’s commonly been argued that the fourteenth-century growth in romances with characters who gain social status through marriage is indicative of shifting social boundaries with a growing gentry class, to whom status was vital. There are also large numbers of crusade-inspired romances with characters and settings either in the Holy Land or with Saracen (Muslim) characters – these continued to be popular long after the actual Crusade wars ended, reflecting the long legacy of the conflict.

Romance is political because of its settings. I’ve written in my book, Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance, about how the places mentioned in romances changes over time in accordance with shifting geopolitics. Later versions of the medieval romance Bevis of Hampton contain far more geographic references to sites associated with Crusade, trade, and pilgrimage, as well as detail of travel between these places, reflecting new ways of mapping, and understanding medieval Europe. Modern romance novels too, have changed; while romance novels in the first half of the twentieth-century were set in real North African countries, such as Egypt, or Morocco, from the 1980s onward, most sheikh romances were situated in fictionalised Emirates located on or near the Arabian Peninsula. As British and American politics shifted, so too did the settings of romance novels.

Reading a romance novel can also be a political act on the part of the reader. While it is true that readers might be more likely to read romances with diverse characters if such stories were more prevalant, there is still an extent to which we as readers are political in our choices of what to read. As the Senior Editor said on the panel in Sheffield, publishers make choices about what to publish based on what readers buy. By extension, then, if we buy romance novels with diverse characters, publishers like Harlequin Mills & Boon will be more likely to publish them.

But what’s more reading about different places and people is a really good way to broaden our minds and become more diverse in our thinking. Indeed, before Harlequin purchased the British company Mills & Boon in 1971, almost all romance novels published in North America were set outside of North America. While readers were eager to read ‘home-grown’ stories, they also appreciated the ‘armchair’ travel they were able to do by reading novels set in, for instance, the Netherlands (Betty Neels was a popular author at the time who set many of her novels in Holland).

In letters to Harlequin magazine, a subscription magazine run by the publishing company, it is clear that readers gain much from reading about other places. C. Hotzinger from Placentia, CA, writes:

“I too have found them full of information about other countries. For instance, it was Harlequin books that taught me the people of Scotland are Scots, not Scotch, and (for Mrs. Downs, who wondered in her letter what court shoes are) I have decided that they are what we Americans would call ‘pumps’ or ‘heels.’ Harlequin magazine vol. 1. no. 4.
Mrs C. M. Rinehard, of Pacifica, CA comments:


“I especially enjoy Betty Neels’ stories as I have traveled a good bit in Holland visiting relatives and I get out my Road Map and follow the story and I can even picture some of the roads. Now I see you have an Atlas out, and I will order that soon and learn some more geography as I read.” Harlequin magazine, vol. 2. no. 12.  

The catch, of course, is that these readers are reliant on the depictions of authors, who are themselves affected by political and cultural tides.

Finally, researching romance is political. In the most obvious way, simply defining oneself as a romance researcher is a relatively significant statement from which (some) people will make all kinds of assumptions (I’ve written about my experiences as a #seriousacademic researching romance elsewhere on this blog). Time and again, myself and my colleagues have to justify, defend, and uphold the importance of researching romance and taking it seriously. This is a political act.
But beyond this, it matters what we research when we research romance. Choosing to focus on questions about race, sexuality, disability (as several fellow researchers do) is deliberate and important in changing the way we, as researchers, authors, and readers, think about romance as political. In other words, as researchers, we have a responsibility through our research to show the ways romance is political.  

So, when I compared the way medieval and modern Orientalist romance represent romantic relationships between Christians and Muslims, I was able to conclude that, despite claims to contrary, romance novels are not necessarily more open-minded in the way they deal with cross-cultural, cross-religious relationships. Looking more closely at the cultural identities of Harlequin Mills & Boon romance heroes, I have collected data that shows the narrow cultures from which they are drawn (spoilers: they are never African or East Asian) (you can read more about my research on cultural masculinity here). And, extrapolating from fictional romance slightly, I’ve looked at the way medieval and modern advice literature for young women exploits cultural understanding of romance to control their behaviour (an article on this will be published in the Journal of Gender Studies in February 2017).

As I see it, romance is deeply political, and it’s up to us, as readers, authors, and researchers, to say so.  

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Playing with history: the problem with historical gaming and education

I love games. Board games, card games, computer games - I'll try all of 'em. I didn't grow up in a particularly game-y house, so the recent growth in popularity of tabletop gaming - up 20% in the past year, according to research quoted by the Guardian newspaper - has been really exciting for me. 

Reproduction of a lithograph by T.A. Steinlen (from Wellcome Images, operated by Wellcome Trust)

As a medievalist, I am a particular fan of historical games, especially those set in the Middle Ages. There is something about immersing yourself in a medieval game-world that really makes the period come alive. Examples of these kinds of games are:
  • The battle-simulation game Lion Rampant.
  • The board game Lancaster (set in England in 1413).
  • The computer game Crusader Kings (which has a sequel, Crusader Kings II).
  • The videogame series Assassin's Creed (variously set during the Third Crusade, the late fifteenth-century in Italy, and Ottoman-era Constantinople).
  • The board game Bruges (takes place in mercantile fifteenth-century Belgium).
  • The medieval version of the ubiquitous Sims franchise, The Sims Medieval.

My interest in these kinds of historical games is part of the reason why I attended an event hosted by Blackwell's bookshop in Edinburgh called 'Gaming with History'. A collaboration between academics and games developers, the evening asked the following of panellists:
  • How does the games industry make use of history?
  • What role does it play in shaping historical knowledge? 
  • How can it be interacted with?
I learned quite a bit about how historical games are created in order to strike a balance between gaming and history. Creators will often look to the specific history of a period for help constructing the game's rules. I even found out that board games were used in centuries past to train the military. 

The latter part of the event focused on the use of historical games in education. There are LOADS of games out there that claim to be or have been used in some kind of educational context; this list, on Jeremiah McCall's website, gives a pretty good idea of the number of educational historical games out there. The benefit of games for learning has been discussed for a long time - one 1992 article reviewed 67 studies dating as far back as 1963 looking at whether games help students to learn (they conclude that "subject matter areas where very specific content can be targeted are more likely to show beneficial effects for gaming"). The panel (and the audience) at 'Gaming with History' were certainly in favour of games being used to make the study of history more interesting.

But therein lies the problem. Most of the historical games we have (especially the medieval ones) tell particular stories - of Europe, of white people, of men. Alternative narratives are often excluded from these games. Now this isn't necessarily a problem in and of itself (gaming has long been recognised as a less diverse cultural medium) but when we are using those same games to educate young people, this lack of diversity becomes more of an issue. Statutory guidance for the English National Curriculum - that determines what is taught in schools - states: 
"History helps pupils to understand the complexity of people’s lives, the process of change, the diversity of societies and relationships between different groups, as well as their own identity and the challenges of their time." (my emphasis)
If the games we use in education never feature women or people of colour, or, worse, routinely present certain groups of people negatively (e.g. Muslims in the Crusade-era games) this is perpetuating a dangerously homogeneous and one-sided view of history that isn't meeting that guidance. In short, the lack of diversity in historical games is a problem.

Some might point out that the lack of diversity in games simply reflects the historical past - game creators are using the research produced by historians. While it is important for the academic study of history to be diverse (which, to its credit, it is increasingly doing), I'm not sure historical-accuracy is an excuse that works for gaming. I've written, in the past, about how contemporary historical romances set in the medieval period change elements of the past to make it more palatable for modern readers (e.g. they ensure the heroine is at least 16 years old before she gets married). Why, then, could historical games not do the same - adapt their historical settings to make them more diverse? Gamers have long enjoyed 'fantasy' wargaming scenarios, where historically anachronistic combatants battle each other (Caesar vs. Richard the Lionheart, anyone?). So why not extend that fantasy to include women, people of colour, those with disabilities, LGBT+ people? Why not make games a place where alternative histories can be told? 

What seems more likely, to me, is that rather than history not being diverse, it is the modern world of gaming that lacks diversity. The sexism entrenched in gaming was highlighted in 2014 by #Gamergate and its fall-out, but it's clear that gaming (in the UK at least) is still dominated by white men, who live (and learn) predominantly in North America and Europe. As ever, when it comes to history, the choices of whose story to tell reveals much more about the modern world than the past. 

I should point out that at the 'Gaming with History' event some people in the audience approached me afterwards to suggest historical games that do focus on the experiences of women and minorities. A few to mention include:
  • Night Witches which tells the true story of an all-female Soviet night-bomber regiment in World War Two.
  • Steal Away Jordan, a role-playing game about slavery and "the social and psychological implications of life in a society where people can be property".
  • any game by Emily Care Boss who has created some brilliant games about love and dating (and there's a medieval variation for Under My Skin called 'Ere Camlann).

So why not try one of these games next time you want to play a historical game? Because history (including the Middle Ages) is full of incredible, fascinating, game-worthy women and it's about time we made time for their stories.