On a hot midsummer day in the early fifteenth century, Margery Kempe, a mayor’s daughter, beer-brewer, mother of fourteen, pilgrim, and religious visionary, walks back from York with her husband John. Between sips of beer and bites of cake, a thought occurs to John. ‘Margery,’ he asks his wife, who has recently taken a vow of chastity in Christ’s name, ‘if a man came along and said he was going to cut my head off unless you had sex with me again, would you let him do it?’ Margery thinks for a minute. Then: ‘Yes, John,’ she says. ‘I’d let your head be lopped off rather than turn back to our old uncleanness.’ John shakes his head. ‘You, Margery,’ he says, ‘are no good wife.’
I vividly remember encountering this story in The Boke of Margery Kempe, sometimes considered the first autobiography in English, when I was first studying medieval literature as an Oxford undergraduate. I was struck by its alienness: Margery’s devotion to a Christ who appears periodically at the foot of her bed for chats mapped onto nothing I had experienced in the largely secular world of 21st-century Britain. But it rang with familiarity, too. I could readily imagine this squabbling pair trudging along, John’s shoulders slumping in the face of Margery’s fiery conviction, dust from the hot road swirling round their feet.
Such moments of strangeness, illumined by flashes of the familiar, first drew me into the world of medieval literature. I am now entering the second year of a DPhil in the subject at Oxford. My research focuses on failures of feeling in relation to the tradition of highly emotive, Passion-centred medieval devotion known as ‘affective piety’. While late medieval devotional texts often work to stimulate the devotee’s compassion by encouraging them to imagine the crucifixion’s pains—vividly describing, for instance, the blood crusting on Christ’s whipped back—we also find references to devotees failing to feel as they ought. Some medieval Christians apparently responded to divine suffering not with melting tears, but with apathy, frigidity, exhaustion, or even callousness. I focus on these ‘stony-hearted’ devotees to ask: what are the challenges of feeling according to the logics of medieval devotional texts? What are the consequences of feeling isolated from your community’s dominant affective paradigms? And where might resistance to those affective paradigms ultimately lead?
I love hunting for these glimpses of aberrant, alienated (un)feeling, and Oxford is a wonderful environment for my studies. The community of medievalists here is vibrant, warm, and supportive. I’ve learned so much from interacting with scholars whose approaches range from the historicist to the palaeographical to the theory-oriented, at the weekly Medieval English Research Seminar and beyond. I’ve also had the opportunity to forge my own research community through setting up a biweekly Queer and Trans Medievalisms reading and research seminar, which looks to uncover threads of queerness and transness in medieval texts. Alongside my DPhil research, I have produced several forthcoming chapters for edited volumes on these themes. I am passionate about reading for traces of marginalised lives through history, and am grateful to have had the freedom to research and teach on these topics while pursuing my DPhil research.
I’m also invested in making medieval studies research accessible to audiences beyond the academy. I have written general-interest articles exploring the intersections between medieval and contemporary culture for the Oxonian Review and Times Literary Supplement, and have been hugely inspired by the public-facing work of several medievalists in the faculty. Ultimately, I want as many people as possible to have the experience I got to enjoy at Oxford: of falling utterly in love with the baffling, bizarre beauty of medieval texts, and feeling for the ways in which they continue to resonate in our modern lives.
Rowan Wilson is a DPhil candidate in English at University College, Oxford. Their work on topics ranging from medieval marginalia to the history of emotions is published or forthcoming in journals including the Review of English Studies and the Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures. They also write fiction, and their novel-in-progress, Can These Bones, was shortlisted for the 2022 PFD Queer Fiction Prize.