>On relics, medieval and modern, sacred and secular

>Sorry for the silence, especially given that I’d promised to get back to blogging more regularly. Blame “LeechBlock,” a plug-in for Firefox. It lets you bar yourself from certain websites during times you set, and I set it to bar me from Blogger (among other things) from 9-5, M-F, to help me focus on my work. And I haven’t been getting up early enough to start the day with a post, and by the end of the day I need to get away from the computer because my back is killing me. I need to be at the computer during the day because I’m working on a editing project that is due very, very soon, but unfortunately, I tweaked my back a couple of weeks ago, so that sitting has been uncomfortable — so you can understand why I don’t want to do it for long.

Anywho, that has nothing to do with the subject of this post, which is all about relics, because this summer I got to see — and even hold (sort of) — my very first relics (one of them right here in Rust Belt State, no less!). Perhaps you find that surprising, given that I’m a medievalist and grew up Catholic, but I think there are some reasons for the belatedness of my encounters with relics. (And also, as the post title suggests, one of these “relics” is neither Catholic nor medieval. But I’ll get to that.) First of all, the Catholic subculture I grew up in — midwestern, suburban, largely well-off — was kind of trying to pass as WASP, I swear. I have another post in mind in which I might try to explain that more, but you’ll have to take that as a given now. At any rate, I don’t think I even *learned* about relics until I was studying medieval literature, or if I did, the Catholics who taught me scoffed at them. And though I’ve seen many, many reliquaries in museums, it’s not often that the relic is still in it (or if it is, it’s not visible). This especially true in the US and the UK, for obvious historical reasons.

I must have felt this lack on some unconscious level — how can I call myself a real medievalist if I haven’t seen a relic?! — and managed to turn this summer’s travels into “Dr. Virago and the Quest for Relics.” OK, that’s not *all* I was doing, but I did consciously seek out three encounters with relics, and then accidentally encountered another one in a museum closer to home. The last one, the one in the museum, was one of the few rare visible relics in a museum-owned reliquary; it’s the least exciting one, especially since it was the last of the relics I saw this summer, but I thought it was kind of serendipitous and funny that all this time I could have seen a relic in my own backyard. The overseas ones were the ones I actually sought out.

The first one was the hand bone of St. Etheldreda in St. Etheldreda’s church in Ely Place in London (just off of Holborn Circus and next to Charterhouse St). My quest to visit St. Etheldreda’s started when I purchased a book called Secret London (or was it Hidden London?? I don’t have it to hand now) on my first day in London this summer — to kill time at Waterstone’s on Malet St. while waiting for my room at College Hall to be available. Both St. Etheldreda’s and its neighbor, Ye Old Mitre pub, were in the book, and since they weren’t far from Malet St., I decided I wanted to pay a visit to each — the pub because it looked adorable and the church because, OMG!, a relic you can see! of a pretty cool Anglo-Saxon saint whose Life by Aelfric I’ve used in Old English and so know something about.

I went to the pub first with my friend Mark on a pub crawl that also featured the Princess Louise, the Cittie of York, and Blackfriars, all of which I recommend. But I’ll have to do a separate post on those, especially so I can post pictures of Blackfriars, which is an *extraordinary* Art Nouveau extravaganza, and of the Mitre, which really *was* freakin’ adorable (although its history is tied up with Reformation and the Bishops of Ely in kind of a nasty way — at least according to history of St. Etheldreda’s on their web site). And so when I was looking for something to do with my friend C. and we decided on another pub crawl, I talked her into starting at the Mitre, but only after we paid a visit to St. Etheldreda’s first.

St. Etheldreda’s was cool and fascinating not just because of the relic. Since the late 19th century, it’s been back in the hands of Catholic church, so there were stained glass windows and statues commemorating Catholic matyrs to the Reformation who were all associated with the church or its nearby neighborhood, including Carthusian monks from the monastery up the street on Charterhouse St. The Carthusians were commemorated in the stained glass window made in 1964, and scenes of their execution lined up with scenes of the Passion. Yeah, not subtle. But it’s pretty extraordinary to see such religious propaganda in England on the *Catholic* side of things. And while it must not have riled people up in 1964 in England, imagine such a thing being installed in Northern Ireland at the same time (or a decade later!). It’s weird to think about the history *and* the present of religious strife in England and its dominions and to look at that window in peace in a quiet church on a placid little street in London today. You can see the window itself, as well as the statues commemorating other martyrs, here.

But back to the relic. The guide book said it was kept in the sacristy and if we asked nicely, we’d be able to see it. So, we asked nicely. And the man (lay caretaker?? he wasn’t a priest) who we asked cheerfully marched up to the altar and the sacristy, opened the decorated coffin the relic is kept in (which I actually didn’t see from my vantage, but you can see it here), brought over the reliquary, and *handed* it to us! OMG! I’m *touching* a relic — weird! (To this day I keep thinking I could have turned to C. and said, “Run!” and we could have disappeared forever with the relic of St. Etheldreda. Not that either of us would have *really* done that, but it amuses me to think it.) And actually, we weren’t really touching the relic itself — just the surprisingly heavy reliquary, which was hand-shaped and had a little window through which you could see the bone. The web site says it’s an “incorrupt” part of her hand, but it looked like a bone to us. And it had a bright red spot painted on it — anyone know what that’s about?

So that was my first relic, and being the kind of person fascinated with the macabre, I was fascinated with it, even though, in retrospect, it wasn’t all that exciting. No, there was a *much* more exciting set of relics awaiting me at the Basilica San Domenico in Siena, Italy: the finger and *head* of St. Catherine of Siena. I have C. to thank for this, too, because she saw them first and told me I had to see them because they totally topped St. Etheldreda. And boy, was she right!

You can’t take pictures of St. Catherine’s head, and my measly camera wouldn’t have been able to handle it anyway, because you can’t get very close — the chapel is roped off. (You can get much closer to the finger — at which I stared for a considerable time — but again, no pictures.) But luckily, there are images out there on the web that I can borrow. OK, prepare yourself to be a little grossed out.

Are you ready? It’s pretty grotesque, so I thought I’d warn you before you scroll down.
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Here it comes, St. Catherine’s head:


Now *that’s* an incorrupt relic! (OK, it’s partially corrupted, but it qualifies for incorrupt status.) Weird, huh? I was kind of creeped out and utterly fascinated at the same time. It was like rubbernecking at an accident. Standing and contemplating all of this, I had one of these moments where I thought, alternately, “What kind of weird freak-show religion did I grow up in?????” and also “Wait, *am* I Catholic? This is totally weird and alienating to me.” It was one thing to hold a reliquary with a bone in it and think, “Hm, interesting!” and another to look at this and be kind of dumbfounded, as I was.

But you know what? It’s not just medieval Christians and modern Catholics who preserve and display the dead among the living…and that brings me to the modern, secular “relic” I also paid a little “pilgrimage” to, back in London, and this was also thanks to that quirky guide book and my residence in Bloomsbury in a UCL dorm this summer. Have you guessed yet what modern, secular relic I visited?

That’s right, Jeremy Bentham! Here’s good old JB, with his wax head, this time in pictures I took myself:


And lest you think Jeremy’s presentation is much more decorous than Catherine’s, let me remind you that underneath those clothes stuffed with straw is JB’s skeleton. And those are his clothes and accouterments. And once upon a time, JB’s preserved head was also on display — between his feet! — as you can see in this picture from the nearby display [WARNING! Another grotesque human head coming!]:



(Sorry about the blurriness — because of the glass case, I couldn’t use flash. But perhaps some of you are grateful you can’t see that mummified head clearly!)

Bentham called this little display, which he arranged himself before his death in his will, his “auto-icon,” so he had to be thinking of the religious valences of the word “icon.” And sure, given that it’s Bentham the Utilitarian we’re talking about, he was probably *playing* with that notion and had no intention of being actually venerated. But still, the little display that University College London has erected around him — not to mention the UCL Bentham Project as a whole — isn’t all that different in its curatorship and its tone of appreciation from the display of Catherine’s head and the San Domenico web site. The Dominicans and UCL may be fans of, respectively, Catherine and Jeremy for different reasons, and Bentham’s fans don’t expect him to intercede in the spiritual realm for the them, but they’re fans nevertheless.

The other thing that unites Catherine and Jeremy — besides the division of their heads from their bodies! — is that both heads have been the object of theft. Catherine’s head was originally secretly brought to Siena from Rome, where the rest of her body lies, and it’s now under such tight lock and key because of subsequent attempts to steal it. And JB’s head is no longer on display because of an infamous theft of it by King’s College London students in the 1970s. What is it about mummified heads that make people want to steal them?!?!

And I think underlying both the religious relics and the secular one are our complicated relations to death and (im)mortality. The two heads, especially, seem to want to keep the memory of and admiration for these two figure alive, to show the ways they conquered death, whether spiritually or intellectually, but they also announce our universal mortality, and in that way serve also as memento mori. Catherine and Jeremy likely had very different attitudes towards the meaning of that mortality, but they couldn’t escape it, and they each seemed consciously attentive towards that — Catherine refusing to eat anything but the Eucharist at the end of her life and JB writing his will with instructions about his “auto-icon.”

And it’s probably my own obsessions with/fears of death that has me so simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by these relics.

>The evolution of a professional identity (or: why I had a better time at NCS Siena than Swansea)

>When I first saw my friend G. at NCS Siena, he said something like this: “Virago, I have to say, I’m a little surprised to see you here, because when I saw you at Swansea, you didn’t seem to be having a very good time.” And back in this post from two years ago, I hinted at why.

But NCS Siena was a completely different experience for me, and I don’t think it was just because it was in Siena and not Swansea (although geography does play a part in this). It was different from the start, back when we were all submitting panels and abstracts. First of all, my friend H. approached me about putting a panel together, and that was the first step in what made me feel more involved, and less of an outsider, where this conference is concerned. (I should mention that part of my outsider status is that I don’t work on Chaucer — although my current work sometimes makes reference to him — but NCS seems, in the last few iterations, to be more and more open to being about the “age of Chaucer,” as its journal, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, suggests.) And then when the panels were all arranged and the CFP came out, I felt my current work fit one of the panel proposals much more than it had last time. What’s more, I’d since met one of that panel’s organizers, so I didn’t feel as though I was sending a proposal out into the unknown quite as much. Two years ago, on the other hand, I was rejected from a panel, then told I was rejected from the conference as a whole, and then finally told a spot was found for my paper — as I detailed here. And the panel on which I finally presented — along with my friend G. — was a truly miscellaneous panel in the last time slot of the conference, and it didn’t really generate questions very useful to my project. This time around, though, I was accepted to the panel to which I applied, which was a good fit for my paper. More on how that all went — very well, I think — in a bit.

At any rate, before it even started, NCS Siena was already proving to be a better conference for me than NCS Swansea had been. And it continued to live up to its auspicious beginning. And yes, part of that was Siena — but not just because Siena is a more historically rich place with more things to do. [Digression: in defense of Swansea, the weather was better there, the opportunity for good running was better (something that was once important to me), the bay was lovely (I’m a fan of water, of which Siena has none – not even a river, which struck me as odd), and I’m a weirdo who prefers the British climate and flora and fauna to Italian in the summer (though I did like the presence of cicadas, which reminded me of home – both Kansas where I grew up and the Great Lakes region I live in now). But that’s the subject for another post.] The geography of Siena was better for my mood than Swansea’s was — and perhaps better for the mood of the conference as whole. At Swansea, there were a few people who stayed off campus, but most stayed in the dorms, which weren’t terribly comfortable. But not only that, it meant that we were too much together, I think. So many meals were taken together in the dining hall that you were too often faced with the conference equivalent of the high school lunchroom hierarchy — will I get to sit with the cool kids? And it was hard to escape the campus, situated as it was outside of the city. The edge of town was a long walk away, and the center of town was a cab or bus ride away. And so you were either trapped or, worse, stranded, if the people you knew had escaped and left you behind. But in Siena, we were in many different hotels, and the Arcobaleno, where I stayed, was lovely and comfortable — best sleep I’d had in awhile! And I had a conference buddy this time — my friend The General — which eased any and all anxieties about finding company at meals or on excursions. And even at a hotel 2km outside of the city center as the Arcobaleno was, it wasn’t hard to reach that center, and there was plenty to do there, of course. I actually regret not playing hooky a little more from the conference to be a tourist. I had the morning after the end of conference for that, but that left time only for a couple of things. Anyway, back to my main point here: I think less anxiety brews, and there’s less posturing, when the conference itself isn’t the only focus of your energies, and when you’re not always forced together. And the Siena sun and heat, which could have made people cranky, seemed to mellow people out, to slow us down — we were all in it together, we were all a little sweaty, we all dressed a litte more casually because of it (a strong effect on attitude, I think — especially with all those previously unseen medievalist man legs in shorts!) and hey, we were in Siena!

But really, what made it a different conference for me was more about where I am in terms of my professional identity and in the number of people I know (and blogging has been no small part of that, though traditional networking has helped, too). As I said to G. when he made the comment above, “It’s amazing what a difference two years and a good review in Speculum makes.” Two years ago my book was out and I had tenure, so I should have felt confidence, but I was still uncertain about whether any of it mattered, whether I mattered. The feedback we get on our printed work — the evidence of its impact — is slow to surface. And when you have a job at a place like Rust Belt University, it’s easy to think you’re disappearing, that you and your work don’t matter, that you peaked in graduate school, that after tenure you’re *stuck* rather than *secure*. But in the last two years, four positive reviews of my book came out and I started to be cited in other people’s books and articles, and my work started showing up on people’s syllabuses. And people solicited me for conferences because they knew my work. Over time I became not Dr. Virago, random drudge at RBU, but Dr. Virago, who does good work that people know about.

And this conference reinforced that effect. Here, in bullet point format, are a few really cool moments that continued to boost my confidence throughout the conference:

  • On the very first day, in the first morning break, a Known Figure whom I know and admire, but to whom I’m not very professionally close in any way (despite being FB friends with him!), crossed the courtyard to say hi to me and said, “Virago, we were just talking about you last night!” An auspicious beginning to the conference!
  • A recent PhD had one of her professors introduce her to me at dinner in town one night, and said to me, “I just wanted to meet you and tell you I’m a huge fan of your work and I’m so excited to meet you!” Seriously. I have a fan! If said person happens upon this post, I want you to know you’ll forever be my #1 Fan — I *heart* you for that!
  • One of my friends told me she kept hearing me quoted in a number of papers. Really? I told her I hadn’t heard that — clearly we were going to different panels — but she said that was a good sign: I was moving on with my work, and the work was speaking for itself.
  • The organizers of the panel I’d been accepted to told me that they had rejected papers, even after making three or four panels out of the best submissions they got. And while I feel bad for those who were rejected, it’s still nice to know you made the cut.
  • My paper went really well. I started to feel a little guilty that I kept getting most of the questions in the Q&A, but for whatever reasons, people responded to what I had to say. And they liked it and had useful suggestions (or suggestions phrased as questions). They also liked the phrase I coined to name the phenomenon I was describing, which I wish I could share with you here, but even though I fully expect people to know or figure out my real life identity, I’d still rather not be Googlable.
  • Other than some technical difficulties, the panel I organized with H went really well, too, and people were still talking about it later that day. I’ve seen at least one of the papers on it mentioned as a highlight of the conference, too, out there in the blogosphere.
  • And finally, my paper was mentioned in the one of the final round-up presentations! Woot! I don’t know if the person really *liked* my paper — she was actually maybe a bit snarky about it — but hey, all publicity is good publicity, eh? And it’s always cool to be mentioned in a summary of the conference.

Oh, and I even had a good conference as “Dr. Virago,” too. I kind of came out at this conference — although I didn’t actually name myself in the comment I made during the Q&A at the blogging session, I was happy to tell people who I was in the blogosphere. Actually, I came out in print first, in JJC‘s essay for the Chaucer blog book. And more than one person told me they were excited to know my real life identity or that they were fans of the blog. (Apparently, Dr. Virago has more fans than my real life identity. Heh.) One scholar who has always been supportive of my ‘real life’ scholarship said to me that finding out I was Dr. Virago was as exciting as finding out the Chaucer blogger’s identity! Really?

The other thing that made this conference better for me than the one in 2008 is that I know more people, and the people I know I now know better than I did then. As I mentioned above, that’s in no small part to blogging. I’m especially grateful to the In the Middle bunch for inviting me to lunch in the city the first day, when, because of the business meeting, we had more time to leave the conference site. What a lovely lunch that was! I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to join them on one of their late nights drinking prosecco in the Campo (one of the drawbacks of being in the further-out hotel). But all in all, I felt like this conference was full of fun and friends, and though I’m kind of a social butterfly and flit from group to group, I was happy in all the company I kept, however briefly.