Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Dreaded Question

Right now, there is one question that I really struggle to answer. Every time someone asks, my mind goes blank. So far, I've babbled for a bit until they get bored. But I still dread the simple question

So what is your PhD actually about?

I dread this question because, at this early stage, I don't really know. I don't have an abstract, an argument or any findings whatsoever. But I can tell you what motivated me to do this project.

I am really interested in gender, and how it's taught and how it's performed. (SPOILER - I've been a femininst since before I knew what the word was.) By the time I found out what the word was and what it meant, I was an awkward teenager who felt awful because she wasn't very 'good' at being a woman. So a lot of my early self-centred feminist thought was about what being 'good' at being a woman meant. And while my horizons have broadened since then, I'm still interested in what it means to 'do' gender, for men and for women. (If this is sounding like a poorly-phrased echo of Judith Butler, that's probably because it is.)

More importantly, I'm interested in how people learn to 'do' gender - modern sources are easy to pinpoint and analyse because there are so many (film, television, school, parents, magazines, blogs, music, music videos, peers, adverts). So I wanted to know more about the sources that were available to late medieval people.

I am really interested in 'popular' culture and what 'normal' people were doing. Specifically, I'm interested in the overlap in consumption between 'high' and 'low' culture. Where we see several sources grouped together (as in household books), there are all sorts of texts thrown in there. How did people navigate them? Did they read in different modes for different texts? If similar ideas/concepts are contained in different types of texts, how does the presentation of these ideas differ? How did their response vary depending on which exact member of the household they were?

Again, this stems from my own interests today - I don't exclusively consume 'high' culture: I consume plenty of 'popular' culture too. (Although if watching RuPaul's Drag race is wrong, I don't want to be right.) 

Based on those two things, I am looking at a medieval miscellany aka. household book - Oxford Bodleian Library MS Codex Ashmole 61. It's a collection of 41 texts housed in a pretty unfancy manuscript. There aren't any illuminations, just a few choice illustrations of shields, flowers, and a grinning fish. No, seriously. The breadth and number of texts means that there is a lot of scope for reasearch. 

This brings up the second, lesser Dreaded Question: can this project contribute to scholarly knowledge? Well, yes. I think. Admittedly, a fair bit has been written about some of the texts in the MS, mainly the romances (The Erle of Tolous, Lybaeus Desconus) and the conduct texts. (How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter and How the Wise Man Taught His Son). So these aren't texts that have been totally overlooked by scholarship.

But there are two main ways that I think this PhD could contribue. Firstly, I'll be looking at some of the more studied texts in this specific context. There are quite significant varitions between some of the version in Codex Ashmole 61 and elsewhere. That'll be interesting, right? Secondly, not much work has been done on this manuscript as a whole: apart from one PhD thesis and two resulting articles from the mid nineties, I can't find anyone else who has written about this manuscript. 

So, if I were to offer you an 'elevator pitch' now, it would probably run as follows:

My PhD explores the reception and audience of Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 61. By studying the contents of this household book, I hope to develop our understanding of how gender identities were formed, enforced, and negotiated in the late medieval period.

No comments:

Post a Comment