An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

November 7, 2013

"It's very hard to untangle them": Interview with Stephanie Trigg

Professor Stephanie Trigg is a member of the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Australia. The author of several books - most recently Shame and Honour: A Vulgar History of the Order of the Garter (2012), she is on the editorial boards of multiple journals and is a Chief Investigator in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History fo Emotions, She was interviewed for Medievally Speaking by Helen Young.

HY: Thank you for taking the time to talk Stephanie. Can we start with how you first became interested in the Middle Ages?
ST: I first encountered the Middle Ages through books like Michael Alexander's translations from Old English, The Earliest English Poems, which I loved. I also remember reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in translation and as an adolescent, thinking it was one of the most highly charged, erotic pieces of writing I'd ever read. I now look back at that reading and wonder what was all that about? I also remember The Gentle Falcon, a wonderful children’s book by Hilda Lewis, which is about a young English girl who is appointed as one of the handmaidens of Isabella of France, Richard II's second wife. It's about another girl called Isabella, who is a French cross-dressing spy. 

So that was my first introduction to historical fiction. At university I started doing English subjects because I loved them and in second year I did a wonderful subject called from “From Epic to Romance” and my tutor was James Simpson, now at Harvard. That was a wonderful introduction to Norse mythology, to Troilus and Criseyde, to Dante, to Chr├ętien de Troyes. I think once I began to see medieval literature I stopped seeing other things and it became so clear that that was what I wanted to do. So I started doing all the history of English language subjects that I could and Old English, and I did an Old Norse elective. Once I'd found that area, I stopped seeing other possibilities. 

I don't think I ever made any smart choices about career development. I think I just stopped doing things that weren’t medieval. So it was really almost a negative choice in some ways but I was fortunate to be able to just go ahead and study what I really had come to love. And then I was able to go and research and teach the texts I love. So it's really about passion.

Students sometimes ask what will be a good way to get into that field. It's really hard to give advice because I think that the conditions for young scholars are now so very difficult and very different from what they were when I was going through, but on the other hand, that is the best advice: if you aren’t doing something that you really love then what's the point?

Medieval Studies is only going to have a future if it's populated by people who really, really want to be there. You wouldn't go into medieval studies because you wanted to have a highly paid academic job. That would not be the obvious route, would it?

HY: No, no, that is very true, it is something of a niche market.

ST: And yet it's one of the most theoretical and sophisticated areas of literary studies. 

HY: Now you work on both Medieval Studies and on Medievalism, at times that’s within one project. You began mainly with Medieval Studies – I'm thinking about your edition of Wynnere and Wastoure  (1990) – and that more traditional approach. What turned your interest towards Medievalism?

ST: Again, I don't think I ever thought: “now it's time to do Medievalism.” Wynnere and Wastoure was my PhD thesis and when that was published, my thinking was why shouldn't I work on Chaucer? Why should I not have that pleasure now, of working on Chaucer? So the Chaucer book, Congenial Souls (2002), became the next project.  I thought of it as a reception study but then my other interests, that are much more sociologically and politically motivated and oriented, made it so clear that it wasn't going to be an intellectual history, it was going to be a political, ideological, sociological history. It became a form of medievalism because it became such a long duree kind of history. It tapped into patterns of Medievalism, especially because the 19th century was such an important period for Chaucer studies, as it was also, of course, for Medievalism. It was always written with an eye to the longer implications of medieval studies: what sense we make of Chaucer now and why do we read Chaucer the way we do? Through what patterns of historical readership and reception? So that's where reception studies and medievalism studies came together.

HY: Do you then see Medieval Studies and studies of medievalism as being inherently connected?

ST: Yes, I think they have to be. It's very hard to untangle them even though in disciplinary and institutional terms, there are a lot of vested interests at stake in keeping them quite separate. I would think that the two things are very closely related, partly in subject matter, partly  in institutional terms. They also have a lot in common in the methodologies that we use and, in fact, it's getting harder and harder to distinguish them for a number of reasons. 

So, for example, if you look at say, contemporary historical fiction writers, fiction writers often want to research the Middle Ages. They’ll go to the library and use the books that Medieval, Literary or Historical Studies students would use or they will go on the web and search things online. Increasingly, the materials that it's possible to find online are the materials that are either shared by Medievalism – say re-creation groups [like the Society for Creative Anachronism] – and Medieval Studies or the lines have become so confused that it's actually very hard to tell the difference. 

My favourite example is when I was working on the Song of Wade that Chaucer mentions. I was trying to find out about Wade's boat because there's a very funny reference to it in Speght's 16th century edition of Chaucer, where he says “oh, because the matter is long and fabulous and very familiar I'm not going to go into it here,” but there is no record of Wade's boat. So there's a lot of historical speculation around this topic, asking what Chaucer is referring to? When I was researching this, and I was using the web as one does, the more I looked at it, the more I seemed to be on the track of something and yet once I delved into it, it was clear that the site I was looking at was actually a Tolkien site, a site designed to elucidate the textual historical references in The Lord of the Rings

In fact, there was a boat in The Lord of the Rings. It wasn't Wade's boat at all but it had become impossible to tell the difference unless you really, really dug down into the site. So in terms of the use of sources, the attitude toward sources that we use at the archive, Medievalism Studies and Medieval Studies are often quite similar. I also think that medieval literature and culture often has a medievalist component built into it. It's often looking back on its own past. Obviously Medieval Studies doesn’t have that pre-Modern versus Modern divide that Medievalism depends, on but I think that it's becoming harder and harder to tell the difference between them, quite rightly, really.

So I think that Medievalism has the Medieval built into it and I think that the Medieval had Medievalism built into it too, and that that intersection quite productively helps us deconstruct or undermine that idea of the Medieval as completely Other to the Modern. 

HY: Yes it’s interesting, and you see it among students. I'm seeing a lot of graduate students now coming to Medievalism but not from a Medieval Studies background.

ST: Yes, yes, that's right, they come from fantasy or they come from 19th century recreation, from Dickens recreation societies or something like that. I think that's because there is such a crossover between Medieval Studies and medieval fantasy or medieval historical fiction writers that reading historical medieval fiction is almost coded as geeky, as historically other, as Medieval Studies is. The relationship between them is very dynamic, very mobile at the moment.

HY: I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, which you’re one of the leading investigators in. It has the Medieval Studies aspect, and there’s potentially room for Medievalism in there too. Could you explain what it actually is and what it does?

ST: It is the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE). Its historical brief is 1100 to 1800 and the main purpose there is to look at changing social, cultural, linguistic, literary, artistic, musical expressions and representations of the emotions and the passions, or the affects or sentiments. There's a lot of discussion about the terminology.  “Emotion,” of course, is not even a medieval word but we're using it in that umbrella sense. We are interested in historical change; one of our little logos is “emotions make history.” 

In terms of Medievalism, I have to say it's not really set up as a Medievalism project. Yet, there is one of the four research programs, the one that I'm coordinating, which is called “Shaping the Modern,” which does allow, in the first instance, for the extension of that historical period from 1800 into 19th and 20th century and early 21st century history, particularly in an Australian context. The big question is what happens to pre-Modern European emotions and emotional patterns when they are transported, along with the settler/colonial culture, into an Australian context and how do they interact with Indigenous cultures?. But that is more about historical and cultural transitions rather than looking back on the Medieval. 

On the other hand, one other part of that “Shaping the Modern” program is to think about heritage culture. There, we are looking, especially in a nationalist context, at the emotions people evoke when they think about the pre-Modern European past in Australia. So that will play out very much in the performance strand. So if we are going to play Handel's Messiah every Christmas in Australia, why, what do we feel about that? What emotions get brought to bear on that? When we perform European Medieval music in Australia, when we look at European art in the pre-Modern sense, again, what emotional responses does that elicit?

Then, how do contemporary Australians look back, emotionally, back onto the past. So that's how those things kind of work. So it's probably not standard Medievalism in that kind of way. That is probably a slightly separate project but you can see that they are certainly analogous.
HY: And finally, you're starting to work on a new project yourself? 

ST: At the moment it's called “The Speaking Face.” The Chaucer project was about the long history of Chaucer reception, and the following big book on the Order of the Garter was about the long history of a medieval form of ritual practice from the 14th century through to the 21st. 

This project is the cultural history of the trope by which the face is said to speak. So the standard form of that is: “he looked at her as if to say….” He doesn’t say anything, but his face seems to speak. I'm interested in the way that this expression of the face is often put into a first-person direct speech expression. Chaucer was already using that trope and I'm interested in looking at the history of that through poetry, fiction, perhaps through drama as well. 

HY:  Thanks very much for your time and sharing your thoughts. Good luck with the new project.        

Stephanie blogs about academic life, medievalism and more at Humanities Researcher.