Why nuns?

When I went to the SGSAH (Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities) induction in Edinburgh at the beginning of October, we were told to come up with a two or three word way of answering the dreaded question “so, what is your PhD in?” The idea is that you answer it in a way that people will want to ask you more questions.

So, from now on, my answer to that questions is ‘lesbian nuns’. It’s a bit of a misleading answer, as queer theory is only a small part of my thesis, but my theory is (and so far I have not been proven wrong!) that no one will *not* be intrigued by this.

There’s a lot of follow up questions from that, but the most common are

  1. What got you interested in that?
  2. So, do you want to be a nun, then?

In this blog post I’m hoping to, very briefly, answer those. I think a lot of people accidentally fall into their research. No, I don’t want to be a nun. I do find them fascinating and while my interest is primarily in early medieval monasticism, the idea of people completely giving up a ‘normal’ life to pursue their faith is something I find interesting, admirable and also terrifying. Growing up in a clergy household, the idea that faith is something you live out as a vocation has been around me from a very young age – but it’s not something I feel drawn to in any sense other than the academic. Talking to people who do feel a potential calling to the monastic life in the 21st century has been really valuable but I don’t study nuns because I want to be one.

When I started university, a bright-eyed 18 year old back in 2010, I was convinced I was going to specialise in 20th century Russian history, to the point that I almost took a Russian language course in first year. (I blame sharing my birthday with Leon Trotsky and the November Revolution, and being the ‘token Marxist’ at my school.) I’d never done medieval history in any real depth and had never considered it as something I might be interested in doing. In first year, I had to take a compulsory medieval module, and to be honest, I haven’t looked back. I discovered a world which was so different from my preconceptions – one of my reasons for steering clear of anything before the 19th century at school was its focus on mostly-rich, entirely-white men. Discovering that radical ways of doing history can be applied to the 7th century just as much as the 20th was a real eye-opener for me, and an approach I want to take forward.

Studying early medieval nuns means I can apply feminist and queer theory to texts which haven’t necessarily been considered in those lights before. I can tell the stories of women who have been marginalised throughout history – women’s and gender history tends to focus much more on modern women, so I can see a real gap where these voices can be heard, and where they can have a real impact on the dominant discourses. The General Synod of the Church of England has only just allowed women to become bishops, and it’s only been just over 20 years since they were admitted to the priesthood. And yet, in 664, Abbess Hild hosted the Synod of Whitby, one of the most important events of early medieval English Christianity. She taught bishops, fostered cultural development in her patronage of Caedmon and was known as an advisor to elite ecclesiastics and secular rulers. Not all women were able to enjoy such power and authority, but all too often ‘it’s always been like this’ is used to justify the subordination of marginalised groups.

So why do I study long-dead nuns?

Because women’s voices need to be heard today as much as in the past.

Because theoretical approaches allow for creative thinking.

Because I see real opportunities for new developments in the field.

(And because if the academic career fails, I already have so much material I can use for slightly-dubious queer historical fiction…)


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