How can we build a feminist medieval maritime studies? That’s the question I asked at the London Medieval Society‘s latest colloquium, Medieval Seas. I was delighted to be invited to speak but didn’t really have time to write a brand-new fifty minute paper. So the Society’s secretary Claire Kennan came up with the excellent idea that I could be “in conversation” over lunch, which involved giving a short paper and leading a discussion. With sandwiches. What’s not to love?
Although there were only five other speakers, the day gave a great snapshot of how maritime studies are really entering the mainstream in medieval studies, and not before time. As a multidisciplinary field, it offers all kinds of possibilities for rich intellectual enquiries.
Aisling Byrne asked us to reconsider the Irish Sea in romance and its shaping of narrative space; David Harrap revealed a fascinating liturgical experiment used for christening a ship in Henry V’s reign; James Barratt somehow made fish heads incredibly interesting – by revealing London’s complex sea trade; Alfred Hiatt made a persuasive case for integrating maps into literary study; and Craig Lambert showed us the fantastic Medieval and Tudor Ships database.
As for me, I introduced a few of my preliminary thoughts on Women at Sea as a potential research project, and argued that medieval maritime studies needs to be a more inclusive space. The historiography of the medieval sea is dominated by men – both in terms of who has traditionally written it, and who it is written about – but medieval women are constantly found on or in the sea, crossing the water or working in trades that rely on it. Meanwhile, the queer potential of the sea as a boundary-crossing space, and the function of ocean as a means of travelling not only between places but between cultures, means that the field really should be more inclusive in truly intersectional ways. A feminist maritime medieval studies needs not only to consider minority experiences in the past but also needs to work – along with the broader field – to incorporate the rich ecosystem that exists below the surface of our academic output, that is all the complicated factors related to privilege and opportunity that may leave some scholars feeling like flotsam and jetsam rather than prized cargo in an industry wracked by the turbulent waves of the REF, TEF, shrinking funding and casualization.