Imagining the Pagan in Late Medieval England

Dr Sarah Salih participates in an interview where she discusses her new publication: Imagining the Pagan in Late Medieval England. You can read the full interview in The Medieval Herald Volume 40, available March 2020.

To begin, could you tell us a little about your studies and background, and how you came to teach medieval English?

As an undergraduate at York, I found that I liked the compulsory Middle English module more than I expected to, and then fell in love with medieval romance in the final year, went on to the then new York MA on Women in the Medieval World, and a PhD at East Anglia on virginity discourse – and was very lucky that UEA had a vacancy for a medievalist just as I was completing the PhD.

What was your research process like for this publication?

Extended! Though it has been a very long gap, this book began as a companion and response to my PhD thesis, which became my first book, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England (Brewer, 2001). One chapter of that was on virgin martyr saints, and I thought then that every saint needs her pagan. The pagan tormentors bluster and threaten, the saints pull their strings, the pagans never learn and never understand the rules of the genre. I started feeling a little sorry for them, and that got me wondering what cultural work the figure of the pagan might be doing, and whether the pagan persecutors of virgin martyr legends were the same pagan as those of, say, romances set in the ancient world

I began the book in earnest in 2005 thinking that it would be limited to East Anglian material and arranged by genre. I added more texts, rearranged the structure by concept, decided to drop the East Anglian limitation. I began a chapter on gendering the pagan and then scrapped it. I had thought at first that the methodology would be primarily derived from postcolonial theory, and that I needed to account how medieval Christians conceived of others; while this remains a strand in the book, I realised in about 2012 that it was centrally about the endurance of material things in time, and that I would need to use theories of materialism.  In 2017, it all finally came together. I realised that it was centrally a story about the pagan city, which Christians appropriate, and the pagan idol, which Christians destroy, or claim to, and that the various texts could be built into a synthetic history of that process. So now the book recounts tales of the founding of the city, the building of idols; then the period of encounter when Christians claimed the cities and expelled the idols; then there is a broader chapter on the uses and remnants of the pagan world in the late medieval present.

Boydell & Brewer stand, IMC Leeds 2019
Photo: Sofie Samuelsson

2019 is Boydell & Brewer’s 50th anniversary year, a wonderful occasion for us and our community of authors, editors and readers to remember our past and look to the future. Do you remember the first time you encountered B&B or the first Boydell book you read?

I first encountered Boydell and Brewer through their stall at the Leeds International Medieval Congress at some point in the 1990s, which is when I met Caroline Palmer, and because I had got to know Caroline, Boydell was the first publisher I thought of when I was looking to publish my first book.


This guest post is written by Dr Sarah Salih, a Senior Lecturer in Medieval English, King’s College London.

Imagining the Pagan in Late Medieval England
by Sarah Salih
Hardback, 9781843845409, £39 or $64.35

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