Back to the Future? Look North – It’s Positively Medieval!
My name is Gillian and I am an AHRC funded
first year PhD candidate at the University of Manchester. The focus of my
research is the medieval religious dramas (known as the mystery plays) that
originated from areas of the north of England, specifically those associated
with the cities of York and Chester, along with those contained in the Towneley
manuscript that appear to have some connection with the Wakefield area. I did
my undergraduate degree in English Literature at Manchester where my passion
for medieval literature soon became apparent. Having achieved a First Class
B.A., I went on to study my M.A. in Medieval Studies also at the University of
Manchester. Hard work is rewarded at Manchester – I got a scholarship which
enabled me to study for a Master’s with all fees waived!
Medieval literature may seem rather irrelevant to a modern society, but I believe that there are important challenges that we face today on global levels that have precedent in medieval society. Negotiating borders and boundaries, tensions inherent in religious beliefs and differences, the global economic and environmental challenges we face today – all of these, I contend, were of concern to medieval people who imagined the consequences of these challenges in ways which could appeal to an everyday, non-academic audience. The texts of the religious dramas are, on a very basic level, re-workings of Christian biblical narratives that depict the story of the bible from Creation to Doomsday. But they are also much more than that. People wrote how they spoke well into the seventeenth century (and in some cases well beyond this) and so what you can also tell from these stories is where these plays could have been best understood, in the region in which they were written. They are regional texts written with a preferred audience in mind. Part of the humour which, perhaps surprisingly, runs through these plays, depends upon local dialects – they promote regionalism as a mode of belonging just as much as any religious persuasion. My research is currently investigating the plays’ depiction of Noah and the flood from the three different regional perspectives of York, Chester, and the West Riding of Yorkshire (Wakefield). The questions I am posing are whether the differences between the plays’ dramatization of similar material is influenced by the environment of their production – do they display an acknowledgement of the very real threat of global environmental disaster caused by flooding that is of concern to everyone today? Do they promote inclusive community reaction and therefore action? Or do they display more individual responses that reveal exclusions and self-interest? During the summer months I will be visiting both York and Chester where the plays are being staged again. I want to ask the people who go to see these plays today what they get out of them, why do they still go? Why do the cities still produce these plays? What relevance do they have in today’s society? Can they be produced to appeal to a multi-faith international community, or do the choices taken by the producers of these modern versions maintain notions of civic imperialism and Christian elitism? My research will investigate these plays as transtemporal texts to suggest that each rendering of familiar material has specific differences in order to offer a very regional mode of both belonging and questioning as the following medieval images reveal. The first image is from a manuscript housed in the John Rylands library – look at all the fantastical beasts, and then see how the raven pecks at the eye of the corpse not among the chosen few on Noah’s ark. Were Noah and his family the first boat people, early refugees?
There are twelve people in the image below, but only eight made it onto the ark – go figure!
How do the texts respond to/replicate/question these contemporary images?
(www.inthemedievalmiddle.com) A really useful website detailing the lastest research areas of key medieval scholars and the relevance of medieval literature to modern society.
(www.alc.manchester.ac.uk) A key contact point for all current information regarding entry requirements, course components, etc. in the School of Arts, Languages, and Cultures at the University of Manchester.
(www.luminaruim.org) A veritable treasure trove of free to access information/essays/texts on all things medieval.
(www.medievalsociety.blogspot.co.uk) Blog from the Manchester Medieval Society which is run by current academics who are all at the cutting edge of research in their fields. All are welcome to join and join in!