in Late-Medieval Literature
HETTA ELIZABETH HOWES
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about your new publication Transformative Waters in Late-Medieval Literature! To begin with, can you please provide an overview of your work?
Women are frequently depicted as unpredictable, difficult to categorise and prone to transformation in medieval religious writings. Water is equally elusive: rivers, wells and seas slip and slide out of the readers’ grasp as they alter in metaphorical meaning. My book, Transformative Waters in Late-Medieval Literature, considers a large span of watery images in a small cluster of late-medieval devotional writings by and for women, in order to explore the association between women and water in the medieval religious imagination. Using writings by Aelred of Rievaulx, Julian of Norwich and a number of anonymous translators – as well as medical, scientific, and encyclopaedic works – it argues for water as an all-purpose metaphor with a particular resonance for women. Its chapters are organised around a number of particular usages of water as a means of mediation and exchange between the human and the divine, from crossing a stream to dissolving in the peaceful sea of God’s love. Through analysis of such recurring tropes, my book reveals that whilst water can be used to hint at transformation of the soul, and greater access to the divine, male authors also use the very same metaphorical material to regulate such access for their female readers.
Why is your book important?
Well, it’s the first full-length study of imagery of water in devotional writings for women, so I think that’s pretty important! Whilst a lot of studies tend to focus on one kind of water (rivers, fountains, the sea) in a range of different genres, I take the opposite approach in Transformative Waters. By focusing on one specific genre – devotional prose for women – I can more easily take account of the full range of watery references, rather than narrowing down to just one type. In doing so, I reveal the fascinatingly flexible approach that these authors have to the metaphorical material of water and I can also start to draw some conclusions about the gendered use of the element. Secondly, I think the relationship between women and water, not just in medieval devotional prose but in literature, art and culture throughout the whole of history, is so well-established that we almost take it for granted – there’s still a lot of work to do in unpacking and scrutinising it. I hope my book can play a small part in that conversation.
Your cover is really striking! Tell us about it.
Thanks! I’ve actually had this image filed away for years, in the hope that it might one day make its way onto the cover of my book. A friend of mine sent it to me after a conference presentation I gave on women and water in medieval literature and I’m very glad she did! The image is a close up of the corner of a full-page miniature, from the Breviary of Martin d’Aragon (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale MS Rothschild 2529). The manuscript is incredibly lush and colourful and the image I’ve chosen is of the zodiac sign Aquarius, a woman who is pouring water from a jug. The image feels perfect for my book. Two key components of Transformative Waters are the relationship between women and water, and the transformative power of water as an element, so I feel very grateful to have been given permission by the Bibliothèque nationale de France to use such a representative image! The woman’s body and the water she pours are visually distinct but also intimately connected, because the water has the appearance and texture of her own hair. So, not only does the water seem to represent the long-standing association between women and water in literature, art and culture, but it also looks as though the water is mid-transformation. Another detail I love, and which feels particularly relevant to Transformative Waters, is that the water has been kept in a vessel. In medieval devotional literature, women’s bodies are often compared to a jug or other water-vessel, but here water is being released from that vessel, to flow forth across the bottom of the page. For me, this speaks to metaphors of contained versus free-flowing water in devotional literature. Male authors tend to try and use imageries of water to regulate women’s devotion, but the element is apt to slip and slide out of their grasp, thanks to its fluid and flexible nature, and the transformative potential of free-flowing water is vast.
What was your research process like for this work? When did you decide that you wanted to explore the metaphor of water in religious literature?
This book really has been a long time coming for me. I started thinking about water in medieval devotional literature during my MPhil in Medieval Literature at Cambridge. I remember coming across two particularly influential books that year: Aelred of Rievaulx’s De institutione inclusarum, which makes an appearance in every single chapter of Transformative Waters, and Elizabeth Robertson’s Early English Devotional Prose and the Female Audience. I was struck by the complicated and gendered dynamics between Aelred and his female addressee, in De institutione inclusarum, and by Robertson’s persuasive exploration of his use of imagery. Stemming from these finds, water in devotional literature became the topic of my PhD and, whilst Transformative Waters has departed significantly from my thesis in a number of ways, there have been three enduring interests for me: the relationship between women and water in literature; the way male authors use this association to their own advantage; and the way women reclaim the idea of their bodies as excessively watery. In terms of research process, one of the real challenges has been limiting the study – once you go looking for the relationship between women and water in medieval literature, you’re very quickly overwhelmed by possibilities! And, of course, finishing the book during lockdown has also been quite challenging…!
We’re big fans of The Book of Margery Kempe, can you tell us how this work fits into your book?
I’ve noticed that Margery Kempe is increasingly popular with my students, and I think it’s because she’s such an unwieldy marmite character. I really enjoy researching her, but I wouldn’t be able to stomach her on a pilgrimage! However, I’m so glad that she is finally getting the critical attention she deserves. Research into her Book has really accelerated in the past decade or so – just last year Laura Kalas published her excellent study, Margery Kempe’s Spiritual Medicine, and Alicia Spencer-Hall has drawn some very convincing parallels between Kempe and Kim Kardashian. I’m thrilled to be adding my findings to this ongoing conversation. Most of the chapters in my book are preoccupied with works by male authors, addressed to women. But in the final chapter I turn to the writings of women – especially Kempe and Julian of Norwich – to explore how they respond to Passion meditations and other devotional guidebooks which cast their bodies as excessively fluid. I argue that Kempe uses her tears to facilitate an exchange with Christ in which she can become a more active participation in his sacrifice. The gospel of John tells us that, after Christ was crucified, both blood and water flowed from the wound in his side. I read Kempe’s meditations as a fulfilment of that equation – Christ offers the salvific blood and she offers water, in the form of tears.
Has medieval literature/studies always interested you?
I actually didn’t read much medieval literature until I started my BA in English. My mum did read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with me when I was at school, and a very proactive English teacher at my sixth form shared some Middle English with me. I remember being entertained and fascinated, particularly by the language, but it wasn’t until the medieval literature course of my BA that I really became hooked. Medieval literature can be completely bizarre and weird, but it can also feel really familiar and comforting. I love it for both those reasons.
What is one thing you really want readers to take away from your work?
That’s a tough question! I think I’d like readers to take away a renewed appreciation of the authors I consider, from Margery Kempe to Aelred of Rievaulx. Sadly, medieval departments seem to be under an especial attack in universities at the moment. Some of them are being decimated entirely. But the literature of this period is so rich. Understanding and appreciating it can help us to understand and appreciate all the literature that has come afterwards. So many of the tropes I explore in Transformative Waters – from cleansing the soul to empathy with a suffering body to women as excessive, as “too much” – are still resonant in writing and culture today. We can learn a lot about ourselves by considering both the stark differences but also the surprising similarities we find in writers like these.
What is next for you?
Whilst I’d definitely like a bit of a direction change for my next project, I’m not ready to leave women and water behind entirely. I touch on the History of the Emotions in Transformative Waters, and I’ve been working closely with the Wellcome-funded Pathologies of Solitude project at Queen Mary over the past few years (you can listen to the podcast series I presented for them here. Building on these new avenues, I’m interested in exploring the relationship between women’s solitude and the landscape, especially water, in literature throughout time. I’m currently working on an article which explores these ideas in The Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley’s feminist adaptation of Beowulf, but I’d like to expand this research into a book-sized project in the next year. So, watch this space for the next monograph, I hope!
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Sadly we’re all still living and working through a pandemic, one consequence of which has been the shift of conferences from in-person to online. Have you been taking part in virtual conferences? What have been your experiences?
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to attend any virtual conferences so far – between finishing the book and moving teaching online, it’s been a very full-on year! But I’ve had two roundtables on Medieval Water Studies accepted at the Leeds International Medieval Congress and I’m really looking forward to those. Whilst I miss the travel and in-person interaction of conferences, it does seem like the virtual spaces can be a lot more accessible. Moving forward, we need to make sure, as an academic community, that we don’t lose that level of accessibility when things go “back to normal.”
HETTA ELIZABETH HOWES is a Lecturer in Medieval Literature at City, University of London and a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker.
Images: Sign of the zodiac: Aquarius, fifteenth century Breviary of Martin d’Aragon (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale MS Rothschild 2529). Reproduced courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.