Spaces of Memory in Medieval English Romance

Edit: Since conducting this interview, Jamie has published a book on this topic, entitled Middle English Romance and the Craft of Memory. See more about his book here.
MedievalIn this research conversation, Dr Jamie McKinstry discusses his PhD thesis on Spaces of Memory in Medieval English RomanceHis thesis is freely available through Durham University Library’s etheses service.

Your thesis is entitled the Spaces of Memory in Medieval English Romance. Is there a fundamental link between space and memory? 

I suppose we can say that memory itself depends on an awareness of space or perhaps, more accurately, an avoidance of it.

From Plato and Aristotle the importance of place in the art of memory has been emphasised. This includes locational memory, such as the famous tale of Simonides of Ceos who, having left a banqueting hall which subsequently collapsed, used the remembered positions of the diners in order to identify their bodies. It also includes the more conceptual, metaphorical philosophies of memory: images are created which are set into different places so that they can be easily recollected from the past to suit a present situation.

Space, the antithesis of place, is synonymous with the present moment, and exists to be ordered with reference to the past. A new present is always being encountered. Time never stops and, in medieval romances, can be aligned with the journey of a knight, the audience, and the narrative.

You are looking specifically at medieval English romances. Why is the treatment of memory especially prominent or interesting in these narratives?

Medieval romances (for my research I restricted myself primarily to those written in Middle English in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries) are inherently episodic. A characteristic of these tales, allied to this structure, is that everything happens for a reason – events are designed to resonate across a narrative often spanning great distances of space and time. However, characters often forget what they have already witnessed and make mistakes. Indeed, the romances almost encourage this temporary lapse by introducing dazzling moments of present distraction, strange events never witnessed before (therefore lacking a clear memorial reference), or the challenge of remembering the identities of those who arrive disguised or incognito.

In such moments the moral and thematic unity of a tale is put under great strain but is usually rescued by an audience who recollects via certain memorial cues. These ‘cues’ can be literal or physical (the same place being re-entered or through a recognisable object such as a ring) but also more metaphorical and symbolic, therefore putting great emphasis on the more creative aspects of memorial work.

So whilst the literary characters struggle to remember, the audiences of these tales were expected to notice and recollect the thing that had been forgotten based on familiar “cues.” Were the same types of cue used in lots of tales of the period, then?

We have to be cautious about assuming that we know what a medieval audience would have noticed during a particular narrative event or, indeed, what would have been most memorable. My research addressed this in two ways.

Firstly, we have the deeply conventional, generic nature of these tales. Although some are quite striking in their originality and use of unexpected plot twists, they often contain similar elements such as the questing knight, individuals put at the mercy of the sea, rightful heirs separated from their wealth and lands, and lovers that are prevented from being together. This would have created a certain amount of familiarity and expectation, enhanced no doubt through the appearance of familiar characters (King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain) and their particular legendary and literary reputations.

Secondly, these expectations would be enhanced by the well-known plot structures of the406px-Sir_Gawain_first_page_670x990 Arthurian cycle and the cyclical pattern of romance. The questing knight will always return to the court at the end, any promises that have been made will be honoured, lovers will be united, and the rightful heir will return so that correct lineage can be preserved.

These assurances give a form of security, allowing an audience to weather the more unexpected events of a narrative. The ritual is a prominent concept in memory theory which orders and preserves events within which come spaces or gaps in that ritual: events never witnessed before are made even more unusual by the sea of convention and familiarity that surrounds them. This creates great freedom for memorial work – something must be wrought from the present chaos such as an object, an emotion, or a phrase, which looks back to something more familiar. It is only then that we can reaffirm exactly where we are in the tale, and the narrative (or ritual) can continue. These can be frightening moments but as was noted by Aristotle, and is echoed by modern memory theorists, the best memories are those which are the most vivid or extreme.

The romances encourage an audience to embrace such moments and use them to both look to the past and prepare for similar unprecedented events in the future.

In the last few years we have come to understand a lot more about the ways in which, neurologically and psychologically, memory functions. Have any of these newer cognitive theories informed your approach to these older texts?

As you suggest, there has been a great deal of research into memory over the last few decades, facilitated by sophisticated brain imaging technologies that have allowed the workings of memory to be mapped to specific parts of the brain (the hippocampus, for example). This has led to theories of declarative memory (the memory of facts) which is divided into episodic and semantic memory (the memory of specific events and general knowledge about the world, respectively) and procedural memory (the memory of skills). Of course, much has also been revealed through the study of memory’s failure in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

I have found many similarities between these definitions of modern medicine and psychology and that which the classical and medieval memory theories sought to explain. Perhaps this should not be that surprising – in examining how memory is expressed and explained we are dealing with a fundamental component of human cognition and existence. Indeed, it is the expression of these ideas in the romances which reveal just how universal the expectations and implicit understanding of memory can be.

“The same human instincts appear in classical and medieval theory and in our own science”

Whereas today we might discuss eidetic traces (the strange links that drift back into memory from a present moment), the classical and medieval theories would appreciate a memorial catena or chain, physically (but of course metaphorically) linking past episodes with a current event. In the unexpected and apparently unpredictable world of romance the creation of such recollections or links proves invaluable. Likewise, some recent research has examined memory’s ability to simulate possible future events; this is usually explained by the way in which the subject imagines various outcomes of a future event and so, when one does prove to be correct, the future event is already a ‘memory’. The medieval romances employ this technique many times in prophetic dreams but this was also essential to the medieval concept of memoria (the general term for memory) which stressed the importance of creatively adapting memory to suit a current context. The same human instincts appear in classical/medieval theory and in our own science; the romances, through their extreme narratives of life, demonstrate why this is the case – that is, why we are always trying to remember something.

So in a way these medieval narratives have already explored that peculiar link between memory and the future which modern science is gradually catching up with. Are there any other ways in which the medieval and the modern tie together? You mention that these romances are typically “extreme narratives of life,” so can they tell us anything about modern studies of trauma, for instance, which has become a vast area of research?

These extreme narratives were designed as such to really test human strengths (both physical and moral) and also to challenge the stability of the institution of chivalry itself, questioning whether this ideal image is compatible with the fallibility of the humans who are attempting to follow its rules and conventions. The famous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an excellent example of this: Gawain wishes to protect his own life at the expense of the promises he has made to the lord who is his host. As a result we have some very real, often poignant, human reactions to death, abduction and injury. Although these texts are often sparing in the insights they give into an individual’s thoughts and emotions, the symbolic actions which are adopted can be very telling indeed as people shut themselves away, flee the court, renounce all their worldly wealth, or bear their battle scars for all to see.

mac10vAThis latter example links nicely with your mention of trauma (the term deriving from the Greek for wound). Modern trauma studies, including recent research into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from examples of warfare and childhood abuse, has highlighted the longevity of traumatic memory (which does not always have to stem from an initial physical wounding). Characters in romances are often similarly altered by their experiences (indeed, this is an important way in which a knight learns), but often they are also physically altered by their experiences. Battle scars become an additional symbol of identity much like heraldic emblems and given the lack of insight into the interiority of characters, great emphasis is placed on what can be seen and, crucially, others’ reactions to this. Through physical wounding, disguise, or other changes in appearance, the past is inscribed onto the bodies of characters and, as they still occupy the same body that they did before this altering event occurred, they therefore carry both their old and new identities simultaneously, allowing us to see who they were and what they have become. I have recently explored this concept in an article discussing memory, the body and trauma in romance.

We have moved from the medieval to the modern in this conversation. Looking at a shorter timescale, what lies in the future for you? Where are you going to take your research next?

The medieval period was, of course, a pre-Cartesian culture that acknowledged the inter-relation of the mind and body. Today this is also a hugely influential dynamic in medicine as it is recognised that to treat the whole of a condition we must appreciate the range of its influence on the patient – psychological conditions can have profound somatic effects and, likewise, explicitly physical illnesses can have great impact on the mental wellbeing of an individual. The medieval period was sensitive to these relationships and it found its expression in medieval medicine, religion, philosophy, and literature.

My current work examines the bodily treatment, expression and understanding of mental states of inertia in the Middle Ages. Today we might call this depression, the nearest equivalent in the medieval period perhaps being melancholia. However, I wish to look at the wider physical understanding of internal, mental suffering which actually had a wide variety of corporeal definitions and expressions. Frequently defined as a physical illness, it was treated corporeally, and not always in connection with the head – sometimes remedies were prescribed that had some connection to an imagined source of the sadness. In terms of the conception of mental stasis or inertia, which even today we struggle to recognise through its inherent interiority, I am interested in how humans have always sought physical avenues to communicate this suffering to themselves and for the benefit of others. The term “heavyness” appears in the Middle Ages to mean sadness and this physical impression of the condition extends beyond the head (headaches, insomnia) to sensations of  incarceration, pushing down, and even imagined mortality. This research includes examining medical remedies, medieval accounts, poetry and mystical writings and the larger consideration of the interaction of medicine and metaphor between these sources.

What I hope to reveal, as with my memory work, is the inherent creativity which is connected with mental states and, in this instance, is given form through literal and metaphorical depictions of the physical body. The Middle Ages could offer imaginative possibilities and expressions for real human existence and experience, coloured of course by its specific historical and religious contexts. However, these necessarily different approaches, when unravelled and interrogated, can also alert us to the ways in which we order and express our interior thoughts, feelings and memories today. I always believe that when looking at literature of this age, the more unusual or unexpected images or phrases are the most revealing (an authentic medieval case history of a melancholic person imagining they had tusks springs to mind or, from the world of romance, a woman cradling the body of a decomposing knight whose smell has filled an entire chapel, or the bizarre wounds that appear at a given point as in the romance of Eger and Grime).

It does, of course, take time for us to understand why these forms of expression were being used but, in deciphering their methods, we are taken to the very heart of medieval thought. This leads us to discover, more often than we may think, that we have found ways to express the same thing – just in a different way.

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