The Africa Oxford Initiative (AfOx) is a cross-university platform with the aim of facilitating equitable and sustainable collaborations between researchers based at the University of Oxford and African universities, as well as increasing the number of African students pursuing postgraduate degrees in Oxford.
AfOx’s flagship project is its Visiting Fellowship Programme. The programme provides exceptional African researchers with an opportunity to spend up to eight weeks at the University of Oxford to focus on a research project of their choice. The fellowship also provides the opportunity to build international networks and collaborate with Oxford-based scholars.
This year, the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages is delighted to be welcoming a visiting researcher, Dr Gibson Ncube, who will be working on a project with an MML Research Fellow, Dr Dorothée Boulanger.
Gibson Ncube holds a PhD from Stellenbosch University and has received several research fellowships.
During his time in Oxford, Dr Ncube will be working on a project about Queer Ecologies in Contemporary African Literature and Cinema. This study explores how literary and filmic texts creatively challenge normative frameworks that thrive on hierarchization and exclusion. Instead, they celebrate new forms of human and inter-species alliances and solidarities.
We look forward to welcoming you to Oxford, Dr Ncube!
Seb Dows-Miller, an MSt student at Merton College, introduces some of the intriguing beasts he has encountered in the medieval Bestiary which is held by his College library.
When was the last time you tried to draw a lion? How did it go? It’s definitely not easy!
Now imagine you’re a medieval monk or nun, working in a dimly lit library with not much other than a candle to light up your work. You’ve been asked to draw pictures to accompany a bestiary, a medieval text that talks about the behaviours of different animals, many of which live in far-off lands or don’t exist at all.
You’ve never seen a lion, nor has anyone you’ve ever met, and the only clues you have about what they look like are drawings by other monks and nuns, who don’t really know what a lion looks like either. Do you think your drawing would be any good?
We actually have examples of drawings done in conditions like these. Manuscript 249 in the library of Merton College, written in a mixture of Latin and Anglo-Norman (a dialect of French that was spoken in England after 1066), contains one of only three surviving copies of a bestiary by the poet Phillippe de Thaon.
The manuscript has been at Merton since 1374, and in it there are close to 50 line drawings containing all sorts of animals.
The image below, for example, shows a lion hunting a zebra, and was almost certainly drawn by somebody who hadn’t seen either animal before, but it’s still pretty good!
Some of the drawings are less successful… The one below depicts the ‘cetus’, a mythical creature that has been written about since Classical times, generally assumed to be modelled on a whale. Clearly nobody had ever got close enough to realise whales don’t have scales!
Among the mythical beasts in the bestiary, we also find a ‘monocheros’ (unicorn). While we usually think of the unicorn as being very similar to a horse, according to Phillippe de Thaon and those who copied the text it was actually closer to a ‘buket’ (goat)!
What was the purpose of this text? Nowadays we have all sorts of books and TV programmes talking about the behaviour of animals as we understand it, and so in that sense the bestiary isn’t too different to the way most of us think about wild animals today.
Unlike our modern approach, however, medieval bestiaries are usually quite religious in flavour. They talk a lot about what the behaviour of animals apparently tells us about the teachings of religious texts such as the Bible. The community spirit and self-sacrifice of ants, for example, is said to tell us a lot about the way in which Christian society should be organised.
So, did the readers of our bestiary only want to get down to the Christian message of the text? We can’t be too sure, but it was almost certainly more complicated than that. Whatever the texts themselves say, people reading and copying bestiaries probably wanted to find out more about the natural world just as much as they wanted to hear any religious messages.
Another important question is: who read this text? We can be sure that once it had arrived at the college, Merton’s copy was read primarily by men who were members of the college, but was this always the case? The text is dedicated to Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), wife of Henry II of England, and so there was at least one intended female reader!
The fact that this particular bestiary was written primarily in Anglo-Norman, rather than Latin, which is very unusual for this part of the Middle Ages, suggests that the text’s audience was probably quite broad, and may have included people who didn’t know how to read Latin. Just as we use books with pictures to teach children how to read, could bestiaries have been used to help teach medieval learners?
What’s going on here? The picture below shows an ibis eating (possibly) a snake, but the picture has been cut off at the bottom of the page. This probably doesn’t mean that the illustrator just ran out of space, but rather that someone later on, when putting a new binding on the manuscript, trimmed off the bottom of the page to make it fit.
Meanwhile, this poor onoscentaurs (centaur) has had the top of his head trimmed off! We see this a lot in medieval manuscripts, where later re-binders have cut off images or sometimes even text. The most recent re-binding of Merton MS 249 took place in the 17th century, so it could have happened then or even earlier.
This shows just how important it is to remember that manuscripts change over time. The manuscript didn’t stand still after its creation, with different generations of readers having different interpretations of what makes it valuable.
There’s so much more to discover in this manuscript, so why not have a look for yourself! The text is very difficult to read (although you might recognise certain words, even if you don’t speak French), but the pictures tell just as much of a story. You can also follow the misadventures of Merton’s beasts on Twitter: @MertonBeasts.
by Seb Dows-Miller
Images reproduced with the kind permission of the Warden and Fellows of Merton College, Oxford.
DPhil student Nupur Patel (Lincoln College) gives us a glimpse into her research on sixteenth-century French women’s writing, and reflects on her journey to postgraduate work in French.
Admittedly, when I first began my Bachelor’s degree as an undergraduate of French and History, I had no intentions of pursuing postgraduate study. As much as I loved my degree, I always thought it was a distant dream to join the table of scholars at the University, and I was yet to find my own specialised area of interest. My third year was a transformational moment; I began to delve into early modern women’s writing which lit a fire in me. For my undergraduate dissertation, I came across Marguerite de Navarre, who is sometimes called the ‘Mother of the Renaissance’ for her great influence during her lifetime, and beyond. As I become more acquainted with her literature, I decided to explore her role as a playwright and patroness. In the process of reading and writing, I came across other women writers and became fascinated by questions of women’s agency and experiences. This coincided with discussions about intersectional feminism, activist movements and the global Women’s Marches which were placed at the forefront of newspapers and TV screens. These events encouraged me to study a DPhil which looked more deeply into early modern women’s agency.
My research looks at responses to the concept of modesty in the works of four sixteenth-century French women’s writers. In the early modern period, modesty was fundamental to the ways in which women are perceived and understood in society. It was means of controlling women’s bodies and sexuality, and was intimately linked to other concepts of chastity, shame and honour. In my project, I look at four sixteenth century women writers – Marguerite de Navarre, Les Dames des Roches and Gabrielle de Coignard – all of whom lived in different areas in France and show that it was possible for writers to challenge, rethink and even completely overturn modesty’s place in early modern French society. In the world of literature, they use their texts as ways to respond to modesty in ways that give them agency and liberate other women from the oppressive term. It is an empowering means for women to reclaim their bodies and sexuality from men who seek to constrain them. An important example where this takes place is late sixteenth century Poitiers, where poet Catherine des Roches lived with her mother, Madeleine des Roches. Together, the pair were known as Les Dames des Roches, and they produced three works in their lifetime: Les Œuvres and Les Secondes Œuvres – which included poetry and prose – followed by Les Missives – the first private letters to be published by women in France.
Catherine’s life was particularly intriguing, for she veered away from gender expectations of the time. Instead of marrying and having children, she chose to live with her mother with the hopes of nurturing her great passion for learning and writing. Her mother encouraged her writing, which scholars such as Estienne Pasquier and Scévole de Sainte-Marthe wrote about with great admiration in their dedications. Such figures honoured both women as very talented writers and salon hostesses. Estienne Pasquier, especially, was very fond of Catherine and recalled to his friend, Pierre Pithou, one particular moment during a salon meeting in which a flea landed on Catherine’s bosom; this inspired great wonder in him, which resulted in the publication of La Puce de Madame des Roches, a collection of poems by Pasquier and other male poets who write about this story. These poems come in the form of different languages and reveal an attempt to turn Catherine into an object of male desire. Many of the poets, including Pasquier, are mesmerised by the sight of the male flea sucking blood from her breast. Instead of reflecting male desire, Catherine chooses to reject them in her own flea poem. In her striking account of the flea landing on her bosom, she decides to make the flea a female nymph who seeks refuge from a tyrannical male god. Catherine transforms her body, once a site of eroticism, into a place of shelter and honour; she liberates it from shame and desire and turns it into artistic inspiration for her poetry. Her poem is a striking example of how a woman writer can use her writing to challenge modesty and society’s conceptions of the female body; she, and others in my study, reveal moments of empowerment within the confines of patriarchal society.
Studying Catherine des Roches and the other women in my study has been a very rewarding experience, and a great reminder of the breadth of topics that can be studied in French literature. As I try to unearth moments of early modern women’s agency, I have colleagues who study medical literature, postcolonial texts, the depiction of disabilities, and dancing manuals. As my first undergraduate dissertation taught me, when studying languages, the possibilities at endless, whether, like me, you are looking at women’s writing in the sixteenth century, or at something completely different.
A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!
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