From Dalhousie to Durham: Kathleen Cawsey on a Medieval City, Medieval Literature, and…Misogynistic Dentists

Professor Kathleen Cawsey from Dalhouise University in Canada is a visiting scholar here in Durham, hosted by the Department of English Studies and St Cuthbert’s Society. She chatted with READ about the research she is doing while she is here, the links between medieval literature and modern fantasy, and how the Wife of Bath’s Tale connects to modern rape culture via the Dal dentistry scandal. 

What brings you to Durham?

I am on a year’s sabbatical from Dalhousie – a year’s leave from teaching to do research. I’m a prof’s brat and my Dad had a sabbatical in Sheffield when I was nine, and I wanted to create a similar experience for my kids.

In terms of Durham specifically, there is such a great community of medieval scholars here that it’s a really exciting place to be. I’m an extrovert, so I tend to get sick of my own brain; I need people who get me excited about ideas, and whom I can bounce ideas off of in turn. The medievalists in the English department have been so welcoming, and have given me lots of ideas already. The Mothertongues seminar series that Neil Cartlidge and Venetia Bridges have been organising has been really good; and of course IMEMS, the English department, and St. Cuth’s Society have so many things going on that I have only been able to go to a small portion of them.

What have you been doing in your time so far? What do you make of the City?

During the weeks I’ve been working on my book for the most part. It’s a project to try and deduce how English writers thought language worked – since all of the philosophy of language we have from the Middle Ages is in Latin, and is from an elite segment of society. I gave a paper on this at the for the Mothertongues seminar, and I’m working on one for the Medieval Insular Romances Conference in Cardiff.

On weekends and school holidays I become a tourist with my husband and kids. We have a timeline on the kitchen wall of all the places we’ve visited – though I’m afraid it tends to skew towards the earlier centuries!

Durham city is a gem – I feel fully justified in just wandering around with my mouth agape and calling it research. I try to pop in to the Cathedral every now and again just to sit. It’s lovely to be able to walk everywhere. I much prefer the North of England to London or even Oxford (I’ve lived in both places). My husband wants to move here permanently.

Among other things, you’ve written about the ways in which modern fantasy draws on medieval themes. Given the popularity of Tolkien, Game of Thrones, and similar, is it an exciting time to be a medieval scholar?

Yes, it is, although there’s a bit of the Chinese curse “may you live in exciting times” woven into that, because medievalists are also grappling with the appropriation of the Middle Ages by the alt-right movement. But yes, I’m of the “get them interested and then teach them the facts” school of medievalists, and have no problem with people coming to Medieval Studies via fantasy and gaming. That’s how I myself got interested in medieval literature – I avoided medieval lit for three years of an undergraduate degree, but (luckily) I was in a really structured program and had to take it in my fourth year, and found myself sitting in class thinking, this is what I read for fun! The kicker was when I realised I knew the ending to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – I must have read a modernized version as a kid without remembering it.

Most medievalists wouldn’t think so, but fantasy writers can also provide interpretations of medieval texts that are as valid as scholarly interpretations. Tolkien and Lewis, of course, were medievalists themselves; and Guy Gavriel Kay (a Canadian fantasy writer) gives a very convincing reading of Malory that I haven’t seen anywhere in the scholarship.

Putting medieval and modern worlds together is a theme that follows through to your forthcoming English Department seminar, which undoubtedly will win the prize for most intriguing title of the year: ‘The Wife of Bath and Modern ‘Rape Culture’ – The Case of the Dalhousie University Dentistry Scandal’. It all sounds very Sherlock Holmes, but can you give us a sneaky clue as to what the ‘dentistry scandal’ is about? And where does the Wife of Bath come into it?

I never thought of Sherlock Holmes when I invented that title! It’s just that in Canada, everyone has heard of the “Dal Dentistry Scandal” (google it and you get over 20,000 results). Basically, a couple of years ago a group of fourth-year, male dentistry students formed a private facebook group that contained extremely misogynistic posts. The CBC (our BBC) got ahold of some screenshots and the news went national; it was all over both mainstream media and social media for a good few months. In the middle of the uproar, I was teaching the Wife of Bath’s Tale – which begins with a rape – and realized, mid-sentence, that the various reactions to the way Dal was dealing with the scandal were identical to the way students responded to the Wife of Bath’s Tale.

In an age of great political anxiety, do you think it’s important that literature scholars try to link their work to ‘real life’?

Yes and no. I think ‘relevance’ is a bit of a trap – if you only read literature to make it more ‘relatable’ (a word I absolutely loathe) then you’re really missing the real power of literature. Stories are about the only thing out there that can get us out of our own heads and lives – I’ve been a medieval knight, a detective, a cat, an old woman, an autistic person. Vladimir Nabokov can make me feel what it’s like to be a paedophile – and I definitely do not want to reach the point where I can “relate” to that!

At the same time, I think it is equally a trap to sit in our cosy little institutions and totally ignore what is going on in society. I object to the idea that the intellectual life, university life, is somehow not ‘real’. Literature has had, and will continue to have the power to change the world – and I don’t think you can be a good literature scholar and ignore that.

What’s on the top of your ‘reading for pleasure’ pile at the moment? Any recommendations for our readers?

Right now I’m reading “The Twelfth Night,” because we’re going on a trip down south for the February break week and I couldn’t not take the kids to a play when we’re in Stratford, even though they might be a little young (they’re 6 & 8). I’ve read it before but I’m rereading it so I can explain to them. I just finished the latest Louise Penny book – a Canadian mystery writer who is really good (though I always advise people to start at book four or five, because that’s when she really gets going). Becoming Hitler by a friend of mine at Aberdeen. And I’ve been rereading some YA books I read the first time I was in England to see if my daughter is old enough to enjoy them – Mollie Hunter’s The Stronghold is one I would recommend even to adults.

Kathleen Cawsey will be giving a talk in the Department of English Studies entitled The Wife of Bath and Modern ‘Rape Culture’ – The Case of the Dalhousie University Dentistry Scandal; check our website for further details. You can reach Kathleen on Twitter as @k_cawsey.

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