Tag: research

Stitching The Details

There’s a phenomenon — I’m sure you’ve experienced it — where you’ll learn a word that you’re sure you’ve never heard before and will probably never hear again, and then almost as soon as you’ve learned it, you start seeing it everywhere. It’s like a conspiracy: the world knows you just learned that word, and now it’s in every newspaper article, every blog post, every conversation with friends, and you find yourself wondering how it is that it took you so long to learn it, when clearly it’s everywhere.

I would like to propose that a version of this phenomenon exists for research. You’ll embark on learning about a topic you knew nothing about before, and as soon as you’ve got a little bit of information about it, suddenly you’re noticing that information everywhere, and wondering how it is that you never paid attention to it before.

In my case, the topic is medieval fashion, and specifically, twelfth-century clothing. This is a period I work on as both an author and an academic, but as a literature-focused researcher rather than a historian, I rarely find myself worrying too much about concrete, material details. This is a weakness when I have my author hat on, though, and I suddenly find that material culture matters a lot and need to go figure out the architecture and what any of my characters are wearing before I can proceed.

I’m currently editing The Wolf and His King, a queer Bisclavret retelling I originally drafted in 2019. It’s quite literary in style (partially in second person and partially in verse, for starters), and focused a lot more on the metaphorical resonances of werewolfism (which I’m using partly to explore ideas about chronic pain/illness) than on the exact practicalities. Still, those who know ‘Bisclavret’, one of the lais of Marie de France, will know that clothing is a crucial part of the story: Bisclavret needs his clothes to transform back into a human, and when they’re stolen, he’s trapped in wolf form until they’re restored to him.

The centrality of clothing in the story meant I couldn’t brush over it as an inconsequential detail in my novel, though of course I did in the early drafts, because I never layer in the important details until way too late in the process. Clothes are not incidental: they are fundamental to the plot. And although Bisclavret, and by extension this novel, is not set in a very specific identifiable year — it seems to be set in a version of Brittany onto which Marie is projecting a lot of Anglo-Norman cultural details; for starters, it has a king — I wanted that clothing to be historically plausible, even if accurate is a rung further up the ladder that I’m not exactly on right now.

A manuscript image of a woman writing at a sloped desk. She holds a pen in one hand and a knife in the other (for erasing mistakes). She's wearing a simple veil to cover her hair, and a loose overtunic without sleeves, revealing the dark blue sleeves of her undertunic.
Marie de France, as pictured in BnF Ms. 3142 (late 13th century)

I started with YouTube videos by reenactors. While I don’t find videos a particularly useful way to learn most of the time, this is one area where they really shine. “Get ready with me, twelfth century edition!” will demonstrate far more clearly how many layers people are wearing, how they’re put on, how they’re fastened, and which parts of the clothing need a second person to help with them, than any lengthy treatise in text will do. As well as reenactors demonstrating their twelfth-century fashion, there were others digging into the manuscript images and sculptures to provide visual references to other reenactors to help them understand the styles of the time — references that any passing author might also find beneficial.

I knew, theoretically, that I would need manuscript images and other visual evidence, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea what manuscripts to look at, and with the loss of the British Library’s digitised collection, I wasn’t even sure where to start with looking for digital images, since I’m not very familiar with other libraries’ interfaces. So these videos were a great shortcut to understanding the resources I would need to work with, and giving me the basic information. From there, I was able to progress to books and other written descriptions — now that I had a picture in my head of what the terminology referred to, I could follow the descriptions in a way that I hadn’t been able to when they were all very abstract to me.

Since then, though, I’ve been seeing clothes everywhere. Every time I see a manuscript image, I find myself looking at the sleeves and the headgear, trying to guess what century it’s from before I read the caption. Scrolling on Tumblr, I ran across pictures of a reenactor showing off her latest outfit, and found myself going, “Ooh, those buttons look quite fourteenth century,” before checking the tags and determining that they were supposed to. And when reading a book that lavished descriptions on the character’s newfangled dress and its buttoned sleeves, I was able to side-eye it for being about a century early with those. Six weeks ago, I would not have noticed that, and I would not have cared.

14th Century buttoned sleeves on a men’s cotehardie, via Project Broad Axe

Or, most obviously, I was at the Fitzwilliam Museum with my mum earlier this week, and we were in the medieval art gallery. “Look,” I’d say, pointing to a manuscript image, “that looks a bit like the clothing I’ve been looking at, except slightly different hair and headgear.” Lo and behold, very early thirteenth century.

I suspect this newfound knowledge will make me very boring when reading historical fiction and watching TV/films — now I have a whole new thing to be annoyed about! As though grumbling about a TV show being two years early with the term homosexual in English wasn’t pedantic enough!* — but it’s also given me access to a whole new world of art history. While I’ll probably never be super invested in modern art history, as a non-visual person, I understand much better now what we can learn from pictures and sculptures, and I have something to look for when examining those artworks that allows me to understand them in more depth than just a casual “hehe funny medieval image”, or whatever I was doing before.

In fact, I so much can’t stop noticing the clothing on every medieval image I look at that I’m starting to wonder how on earth I managed to know nothing about medieval clothing until now — and how my vague guesswork when writing the early drafts of this book managed to be so far off the historical reality. (In my defence, though, I usually work on Ireland, and stories set in the very distant past, and in any case, trying to use Táin Bó Cúailnge to understand Irish clothing would have you thinking people often wore 27 shirts simultaneously.)

But it’s not just the visual depictions of clothing that I’ve found myself paying attention to — it’s also the descriptions in romances and stories. I was recently rereading Yvain, as you do, because Yvain is my favourite cat person, and I came across a scene in which he is dressed in fine clothes by a maiden, who fetches a needle and thread and sews his ‘shirt’.

Many of the terms I’d come to recognise from my clothing research were absent from the translation, which referred to a ‘shirt’ and ‘pants’. Fortunately, I happen to own a copy of Yvain in Old French (who doesn’t, amirite), so I could check the terms used in the original: chemise and braies. Ah, I thought. This was why I had mistakenly assumed everyone was wearing trousers and had forgotten we were in a tunic-dominated world. There’s nothing wrong with the translation of ‘braies’ as ‘pants’ — actually, I think it’s rather good, since it kind of works in both UK and US English, with braies in this period being somewhere between underpants and trousers. But the image that ‘shirt and pants’ created in my head was not one that resembled any of the manuscript images from this period.

A medieval manuscript image showing three men. The man on the left is wearing an orange tunic which has been tucked up into his belt, revealing light-coloured underwear tucked into green legwear that has been laced to the top of the underwear (fastenings not visible). He wears a light-coloured cap to cover his hair. In the middle is a man wearing a blue tunic, a light-coloured cap, and seemingly nothing on his legs. On the right is a man stripped only to his braies -- loose underwear rolled at the waist, falling to mid-calf, with the bottom hoiked up and attached to the waist. He is also wearing a cap, despite being shirtless and bare-legged.
Braies in the Morgan Bible (13th Century)

And as for the sewing…

I had never understood the sewing. I had skimmed straight past the reference to sewing, assuming vaguely that maybe there were some repairs or tailoring needed before he could wear this ‘shirt’. It didn’t occur to me that this could be part of putting the shirt on. But one of the things I learned during my research was that the tight sleeves of the nobility, in this world before buttons as fastenings or elasticated fabric, would be sewn every time they were worn. What I was seeing in this text, suddenly, was the material culture casually referenced in the literature in a way that I hadn’t previously had the knowledge to perceive.

Chrétien, of course, sees no reason to explain what this means. He’s not writing for an audience 900 years in the future; unlike a fantasy author trying to make sure their readers can follow the worldbuilding, he doesn’t need to say, “And then she sewed his sleeves in the tight fashion favoured by the nobility, demonstrating his high class and the regard in which she holds him,” or whatever, because he doesn’t need to. His audience would have understood that. I, until very recently, didn’t, and as such, the literary texts alone couldn’t teach me how clothing worked.

Back, then, to Bisclavret, and to The Wolf and His King. It became apparent that I would need to rewrite all of my clothing descriptions, but that should have been a simple edit, a mechanical change. Except, of course, that some of the clothing I was now looking at would have required a second person to help with it, and in several of these scenes, Bisclavret got dressed alone. Some would be easier to resolve than others, but it wasn’t the logistics that caught my attention about that — it was the symbolism.

In ‘Bisclavret’, as in some other French tales like Guillaume de Palerne, clothing is significant as the mechanism by which humanity — and sanity, with which it’s often conflated — is bestowed. Bisclavret is able to be human when his clothes are restored to him. Yvain, recovering from a period of madness in the woods, becomes conscious of his nakedness and clothing is needed to fully restore him to society. Guillaume and his beloved (I’m sorry, I don’t know her name in French, I only know her from the Irish Eachtra Uilliam, where she’s Melior — I assume it’s something similar) can be sewn into the skins of animals as a disguise (sewing again!) and therefore functionally become animals, temporarily, but their humanity is eventually perceived not because their skin becomes visible through gaps in the stitching, but because their human clothes are visible through the gaps.

A marginal illustration from a medieval manuscript, showing a deer with a person's face visible in its stomach and their human feet replacing the deer's back legs.
A person dressed as a deer. Roman d’Alexandre,
Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 70r (14th Century)

I knew this, which is why I knew that clothing was too significant in this story to be treated carelessly in my retelling of it. But I hadn’t thought about the implications of needing those clothes to be sewn by somebody else, or at least laced (potentially possible to do alone, but extremely difficult, especially if you’re not hypermobile like me and can’t bend your arms in weird directions). How this ensures that humanity and identity must always be granted by somebody else: created and validated by the observer. If humanity requires being dressed, and being dressed (for a high-class character) requires somebody else’s help, then humanity is also dependent on that other person to deem you worthy of it and participate in that act of recreation.

And when I put it like that it seems… well, obvious. In my own work on gender, I’ve explored how this is culturally contingent and dependent on external observers to recognise and validate behaviour and belonging. I think this is one of the reasons that the Cú Chulainn of Táin Bó Cúailnge has such a complicated and embattled masculinity: he’s alone (except for Láeg) for most of the text, defined by opposition rather than by community or society. In his case, this overlaps significantly with his humanity and the way he walks the boundaries of the monstrous. (If this interests you, I have an open-access article on the subject.)

So of course Bisclavret can’t be officially and fully human until he’s seen and recognised as human by others. I just hadn’t realised how much the act of getting dressed — not merely the act of being dressed — was a part of that.

As well as providing me with some potent fodder for angst, metaphors, and symbolism in my creative work on this story, it raises questions about the lai itself. In the early part of the tale, Bisclavret transforms in secret. How, then, is he getting dressed? Is he wearing lower-class clothing with loose sleeves and simple lacing, and therefore sacrificing some of his noble status to maintain secrecy in the act of becoming human? Is there an unnamed and unremarked servant who knows his secret, and helps him? (That could be a story in its own right.) Is his clothing, and therefore his humanity, always partial — does he return dishevelled with unsewn sleeves and wonky laces and need to have them discreetly fixed before he’s seen by anyone who matters? (Again, the unremarked servants come into play…) Is he, in fact, hypermobile and capable of managing his own fastenings, even the most awkwardly positioned ones? (I am in your medieval texts, diagnosing everyone with hEDS, muah ha ha ha.)** Or is Marie’s imagined Brittany and vague fantasy past an area in which everyday clothing logistics aren’t applicable?

I don’t have answers, and I also wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to assume I’m the first person to have thought of this. Unlike medieval Irish literature, where any deviation from a small list of well-covered topics will mean you can rapidly find yourself plumbing the bibliographic depths and emerging only with an obscure reference in a racist book from the 1880s, if you find anything at all, medieval French literature is abundant with scholars and readings of these tales from all sorts of directions. Quite possibly somebody has examined the lais from a ‘fashion history’ perspective, and drawn conclusions about what the characters must be wearing to make the story viable.

Even if they haven’t, having seen those references in Yvain to a maiden sewing Yvain’s clothing for him, references I skimmed straight past until I understood what was being described, it’s clear to me that these stories are describing, using, engaging with the material culture of their day and assuming that their readers know what they mean. Perhaps we were always supposed to assume that Bisclavret had somebody in his confidences who was helping him obtain his humanity — in which case his wife’s fear of him may also be betrayal, because he trusted somebody else with that knowledge and not her. Or perhaps we were always supposed to read into the types of clothing he might have been wearing to be able to manage alone, and how this in itself represents a subversion of the natural order because it isn’t what a baron and knight should have been wearing.

What I know for sure is that learning about medieval clothing for the purposes of writing fiction has revealed something about the stories themselves that enhances my academic understanding of them — once again, storytelling and scholarship work together. When I get inside the story and try to tell it from the inside, I understand better why it looks the way it does on the outside. I begin, temporarily, to wear the clothes of its authors, and to understand how the seams were sewn.

And I will be forevermore irritated by the anachronistic use of buttons in fiction. That too.

*Although in defence of my pedantry, the coining of the term homosexual and the shift to thinking of sexuality as an identity rather than a behaviour was actually pretty significant in the development of queer history, so having a character be accused of ‘homosexual’ activities in 1890 felt like a glaring anachronism. Bodies would probably have got away with it if I hadn’t been rereading Halperin’s 100 Years of Homosexuality that same week, though. [back]

**I don’t really believe in diagnosing fictional and historical figures with things but if I were going to, the fact that Cú Chulainn is notable for the way his knees bend backwards, he wakes up too quickly from sedation, and he needs a special hard bed or he can’t sleep… yeah that boy is hypermobile for sure. [back]

NB: Medieval clothing is, as we can see, a topic I’m new to. If there are any errors in this post, or you have any suggestions for further reading on the topic of how clothes are used in romances and lais, please let me know in the comments.

06/10, Ĉano–Heredo (TBA Readalong)

We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin together and exploring the worldbuilding and writing process, following the chronology of the book. New to the readalong? Jump to 17/09, Eraro, to start from the beginning, or join us wherever you like! (But beware spoilers if you haven’t finished the book yet…)

On Saturday the sixth of October, Isabel goes to Grace Whittock’s laboratory in an attempt to identify the poison that’s killing her and, hopefully, make an antidote. She’s hoping that either she can break down the poison itself to determine its ingredients, or that the experience of being back in a real lab for the first time since she ran away from home will trigger some more memories of the circumstances of being poisoned, giving her crucial clues. Mostly, what she triggers is a panic attack, the process too much a reminder of her father and everything he did to her – and everything he taught her to be.

This section was a killer to research, I have to say. I’ve already told you that I am Extremely Not A Scientist; I dropped Maths at fifteen and all sciences at sixteen, and the fact that I got A*s in my GCSE sciences was a sign that I am very good at taking exams, not that I understood anything in the papers. As such, I had never heard of high performance liquid chromatography or mass spectrometry when I started writing the earlier versions of the scene, and I definitely didn’t know how they worked.

All the earlier versions of this scene were… bad. Because Isabel was originally admitted to hospital much earlier in the book, the scene didn’t start existing at all until Draft VI, and by that point, most scenes were fairly decent and just needed refinement. Not this one. It was entirely Fake Science, just bullshit and vibes, and there was no way that anything Isabel was doing in that scene would have given her any useful information whatsoever.

Now, my target audience are teenagers, and most of them are probably not experienced chemists with significant expertise in this particular topic. So I probably could have got away with this, and my editor would have let me. But I know how I annoyed I get when a book doesn’t bother to make the details accurate; I was conscious that some of my readers would be adults and, given the nerd quotient of my circles of acquaintance, possibly chemists; and I knew that I needed to write for the teen with a special interest in toxicology as much as I needed to write for the one who barely knew which way up a test tube should go.

This was… challenging.

First, I had to figure out what sort of science was actually needed her. That was a process, especially as I was still refining the details of the poison. I spent a bunch of time reading about electron microscopes before putting that aside, for a while. My internet searches gradually led me to high performance liquid chromatography as a Thing You Could Use To Separate Out Ingredients, which seemed hopeful, and mass spectrometry as a Thing To Identify Ingredients, which seemed even more so, but I still didn’t know how they worked.

So I spent a bunch of time on YouTube. I’m not generally someone who finds videos a useful way of learning, but I needed to see the machines I was talking about. And there are a lot of videos out there! Unfortunately, a lot of them were more focused on explaining the science of these machines – i.e. what was going on behind the scenes. Which was great (I didn’t understand any of it), but it didn’t really help me with the questions a writer needs to answer:

What parts of the machine would the character interact with? What safety equipment would they be wearing? In what form do they receive information/answers? At what point in the process can something go dramatically wrong? (And, crucially: Was this the correct equipment/process to be using for what I needed the character to achieve in this scene?)

So, it was time to recruit help.

Off I went to Facebook, then, and put out a call for help: did I know any chemists who would be able to help me?  

It turned out I did. See, I went to Cambridge for my undergrad degree, which is notoriously full of absolute nerds. People talk a lot about “networking” as an advantage of Oxbridge-type universities, and while I have yet to make friends with a rich benefactor who will fund everything I ever want to do, I was heavily involved in the ballet club. And the ballet club had a higher-than-expected number of scientists in its ranks. And because we did shows together, we would add each other on Facebook, and now, years down the line when they were off being proper researchers in Chemistry and the like, they would see my call for help, and they would answer.

Thanks, Zoe. After several essay-length messages, a foray back to YouTube for help figuring out the basics, several video tutorials and probably a Crash Course explanation or two later, I returned:

Screenshot of Facebook messages. My message reads:
okay, so steps involved... (assuming the person who owns the lab already set things up to a certain extent)

1. soak the pellet (or possibly 1a. extract contents from special coating and 1b. add the contents to solvent? depends if the coating would break down otherwise i guess)
2. filter the solvent
3. inject the solution into the machine??
4. machine goes brrr 
5. pretty graph time 
6. test tube party 
7. do more science on what is now in the test tubes

The reply is cut off at the bottom, but the first line reads: 
Yup that is a great summary - I would assume your solvent can
I’m clearly great at this.

The science was a go.

Now, I can’t promise that everything that happens in this scene is 100% scientifically accurate. Again, I am assuming that the majority of my readers are not experts in this field, and will not be able to call me out on it, but also, I needed to write it in a way that was both accurate enough not to annoy those who knew more than me, and simplistic enough to be possible to follow for those who, like me, had zero scientific background. Eek!

This, I discovered, was really hard. When I’m writing about dance or music, I know enough about the topic to be sure which details are important, and which are unnecessary technical vocab that your typical reader won’t understand and doesn’t need. (Sometimes I still get overly technical, but it’s usually for effect.) I know when to name a part of an instrument, and when not to; I can simplify a description, and still be pretty confident that I’m accurately describing the steps a dancer is doing, and won’t annoy any ballet dancers reading it. Because I am a ballet dancer, and if I am not annoyed, then that’s a good metric.

But with science, with this scene, I didn’t have that knowledge. It was far harder to determine which terms and details were essential, and which could be jettisoned, and when I only knew one way of doing something, hastily learned from YouTube, it was a challenge to simplify a description while keeping it accurate. It took hours. I think a spent a solid week working on this scene, between the research and the multiple attempts at rewriting it, which, considering I only had about four weeks total to do that round of structural edits, was a lot.

And somewhere in the middle of that process I decided that everybody in The Hummingbird Killer was just going to get stabbed, because I was never doing that again.

When I was done, I sent the scene to a different scientifically-minded friend, who hadn’t heard me describe what I was trying to do, and asked her if it seemed to make sense and whether she could follow it. Only when she told me that it seemed plausible did I breathe a sigh of relief, and move on with the book – narrowly avoiding missing my deadline, because this chapter seriously pushed me to the brink.

This scene is also why I was extremely relieved and happy to receive a lovely blurb from Emily Suvada. For those who don’t know, Emily Suvada wrote an extremely science-heavy YA trilogy starting with This Mortal Coil, all about gene-editing and the like, and is a scientist herself. Now, I don’t know what she thought of this scene specifically, but she liked the book overall, which means my science must have been convincing enough not to annoy her as a scientist. The relief was immense.

Here’s Emily’s blurb:

Praise for The Butterfly Assassin:

"Dark, vivid and uncompromising, The Butterfly Assassin is an utterly addictive story of violence, trauma, and hope -- I told myself 'just one more chapter' well into the night." -- Emily Suvada of This Mortal Coil.

There are a couple of fun bits of foreshadowing in this chapter; I’m conscious, however, that a couple of the readers of this blog series haven’t finished The Butterfly Assassin yet, and I don’t want to spoil anything for them. All I’ll say is that I was leaning heavily on doubles in this one, and the associations Isabel makes between characters when panicking isn’t random.

This is also where we begin to get more hints of Grace’s backstory. As mentioned earlier in the series, her mother was Hummingbird. She gives us very little information about what this entailed, but the fact that she offers this information as solidarity with Isabel who is afraid of the person she realises she’s capable of being – afraid of turning into her father, afraid of how much she’s inherited from him – tells us a fair bit about the emotional side of that process, and some of what Grace may have grappled with in the past.

Grace’s mother was a contract killer, but one who often relied on poisons. Grace’s focus on antidotes takes on a new significance in the light of that, especially when we know, as we do from earlier drafts, that her mother killed her father. How else is a teenager meant to process that, except to try to learn to protect themselves in any way that they can, because they never know if they’ll be next? Grace wasn’t directly trained by her mother, but she was shaped by her work nonetheless.

Isabel, on the other hand, was trained. Quite the little scientist. She is entirely capable of becoming her father, and entirely determined not to, which shapes many of her choices going forward.

But for now, I want to know your thoughts. Did the science convince you? If you’re a writer, have you ever written a character whose expertise is wildly unlike your own? Do you love the research part of writing, or do you fudge it until the last possible minute and have to rewrite everything with the details? And how did you, as a reader, feel about Isabel’s failure to determine the formula’s formula and therefore its antidote in this scene?

No post tomorrow (“She sleeps through Sunday”, Chapter 19 tells us), so I’ll see you back here in a couple of days.

Lament, Protest, and Letting Men Cry

This Wednesday, I attended a symposium about Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, ‘The Lament for Art O’Leary’. Even if you don’t know much else about early modern Irish literature, you might be familiar with this lament if you’ve read A Ghost in the Throat, which revolves around the act of translating it. Before this week, that was my sole exposure to the lament, too;1 having been composed in the late eighteenth century, it’s later than most of what I work on. But I’m interested in caoineadh (keening, laments) as a genre or motif because of the work I’ve been doing on Oidheadh Con Culainn, which involves a number of laments, so I thought it would be useful context for me.

The symposium was organised by Vona Groarke, writer in residence at St John’s College, Cambridge, and the Cambridge Group for Irish Studies. It combined academic discussion of the lament itself (the historical context of its composition; its manuscripts and transmission; issues of translation) with creative responses to it (a panel of poets discussing works they’d written in dialogue with this lament; two of its translators discussing their approach; a musical performance of works inspired by/relating to the lament), allowing for a multi-disciplinary and multifaceted approach.

I’ve got to say: I think this might be my favourite format for a conference. There’s something about having a whole day to focus on a single text that allowed me to take in far more information than I ever can at any conference where I’m having to adjust my brain to an entirely new topic every half an hour. More to the point, the mixture of academic context and creative responses is exactly what interests me about engaging with historical material, and I felt inspired both creatively and academically by the discussion.

I didn’t write down who said it, but at one point somebody during the day said that creative writing can be a form of critical commentary on the text. I absolutely agree. I discussed this a little a few weeks ago when I wrote about retellings and academia, and I loved hearing from others who found creative reworkings to be a way of understanding a text. That emphasis on textual response was refreshing for me, as medieval Celtic Studies often doesn’t engage too much with that; I would like to see more of it.

What follows is going to be a mixture of me reporting on what I heard at the symposium, and also my own thoughts and ideas that arose in response to it, or which had been percolating for a while and were brought to the surface by it. Bearing in mind that I’m working from memory and my own imperfect notes (which are in insular minuscule because I write notes like an act of personal violence against my future self), I apologise if at any point during this blog post I misrepresent the arguments made by the speakers; moreover, I’ve left out a lot from the day if it didn’t directly relate to my own creative and academic ideas. All errors are on me.

As I mentioned above, I went in not knowing too much about the lament itself. If you’d asked me, I would have said that it was an eighteenth-century poem. I quickly learned that this was an inaccurate representation of it. It was pointed out during the discussion that Eibhlín Dubh, the lament’s composer, would not have considered herself a poet, nor been considered one by eighteenth century Irish standards, and the lament did not belong to the formal, written, poetic tradition. Nor was it written in the eighteenth century, although it was composed then. It wouldn’t have been written down until some time later, probably in the early nineteenth century, because it’s a product of an oral tradition.

There was a wonderful phrase used by Angela Bourke about this: she likened the written text to a documentary about a dance performance. The documentary is not the dance, although it gives the audience a way of perceiving it. The living performance is the dance. This stuck with me throughout the day, and I found myself wondering whether dance was, actually, a key way one could engage with the lament. A repeated theme throughout both academic and creative discussions was that lament begins in the body, that it is an embodied, physical act. Could you choreography Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, I asked myself? Would it be meaningful to choreograph it, or would the loss of the verbal elements destroy something fundamental about it? What would that choreography look like?

I have a lot of thoughts about what that choreography would look like, few of which I’m capable of articulating verbally. I came to the conclusion that it would be meaningful, and also that I would not be good enough as a choreographer to do it. But I have a strong idea of what my creative vision and approach would be to that, and I would love one day to find a way of making it happen.

To return to the symposium itself, though, and specifically to the discussions of oral tradition, which were eye-opening… From Tríona Ní Shíocháin’s talk about oral compositional practice, I learned how the lament incorporates repetitive, formulaic phrases belonging to a broader tradition of lament. Ní Shíocháin discussed how the shared traditions of caoineadh and the use of these formulaic rhythms problematises the very concept of single authorship: how the lament should not, perhaps, be considered a unique and original work of single genius, but the climax of a much larger tradition and a multivocalic tradition.

There was a lot of discussion throughout the day about caoineadh as a tradition belonging to women, in both the academic discussions and the creative ones. I found this particularly mentally stimulating, because I disagree: my own work looks at texts in which laments can be as much a masculine tradition as a feminine one. There were moments that threatened to become uncomfortable (a remark about ‘female bodies’ and how the speaker would not elaborate on the topic for fear of getting in trouble made the audience laugh, because of course the idea of being ‘cancelled’ for transphobia is hilarious and the only reason one shouldn’t make overly simplistic binary remarks, right), but for the most part, I found this gap or omission in the discussion to be something that made me think more about my own research. And not always for the reasons I expected.

For example, I loved the session featuring three poets giving their responses to the lament — I hadn’t expected to, because I don’t know a great deal about modern poetry, but I found it incredibly engaging. The first poet, Fran Lock, read aloud works of hers inspired by this one, talking about grief, talking about looking for a framework for expressing personal emotions in pre-existing work, and finding it in Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, which is so much angrier than elegy. I loved listening to the work, letting the rhythms of it happen to me, feeling the emotions it evoked. But it was the second poet, Mícheál McCann, who really got my brain moving.

Mícheál’s forthcoming work includes a poem called ‘Keen for A–‘, which uses Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire as a springboard to depict a gay relationship in modern Northern Ireland. He talked about poetry of the AIDS crisis as a starting point for queer elegy, and considered the wildly different connotations and resonances of blood in those kinds of poems versus for Eibhlín Dubh. He discussed whether queer love in poetry is always expressed as elegy, because it cannot be permitted to last, and discussed the grief of things that aren’t safe to name or keen aloud.

But what really struck me was when he came to justify his use of this ‘female text’, as Ní Ghríofa puts it, to discuss a marginalised masculinity and to express a different kind of grief. How it might seem, to some, that he was co-opting a tradition that wasn’t his, when in fact, he was seeing resonances across categories and across boundaries of gender and sexuality. He discussed the marginality of queer voices within the Irish literary tradition: who can and cannot speak in the tradition as it exists, and who has been omitted?

This, immediately, ignited the part of my brain that had written down, in an earlier talk: “women’s bodies and women’s songs? but — earlier laments can be spoken by men. modern gendering of bodies and of voices? who have we cut out of this tradition?”

See, the idea that keening/caoineadh is a female tradition is a modern one. I mean ‘modern’ in the technical sense here, not in the sense of ‘recent’ — e.g., I’m including the eighteenth century in this. We heard during talks at the symposium about professional keening women, who could weep dramatically even for a stranger in exchange for fairly decent pay at the time, and were essential to any respectable funeral, and of course, this specific lament is explicitly a lament from a woman’s perspective. That caoineadh has been, in certain times and places, the primary domain of women is undeniable.


There are also, definitely, texts where men participate in caoineadh. Some have argued for a distinction between abstract mourning laments and those spoken specifically over a body, suggesting that the latter is more specifically a feminine activity, but still I disagree. In the fifteenth-century Oidheadh Con Culainn, for example, it is Conall Cernach who first speaks a lament over Cú Chulainn’s dead body; it’s referred to as a ‘laoidh’ rather than a ‘caoineadh’, but the young warriors of the Ulaid are ‘ac caoinedh’ Cú Chulainn. Ac caoinedh. Keening, specifically: these young men, participating in this supposedly female tradition. (I discussed this somewhat in my article about Láeg in Oidheadh Con Culainn.)

Then, of course, there’s Cú Chulainn’s famous lament for Fer Diad in Táin Bó Cúailnge. Some have argued that this doesn’t technically count as caoineadh; others have argued that it’s a misogynistic co-option of women’s voices and women’s place in society by a male hero; others have seen it as an act of protest by the marginalised and politically powerless youth fighting on behalf of others.2 All of these explanations suggest that the very act of a man lamenting another man requires justification, a reason for it to occur, and that in itself is because we are assuming, based on the modern tradition, that caoineadh is a female tradition.

In the coffee break that followed the poets’ session, I sought out Mícheál McCann to discuss this with him. I told him that I thought his work absolutely belonged to the Irish tradition — that men had been keening men for centuries, in familial contexts and homosocial contexts and perhaps, depending on your reading, homoerotic contexts too. We discussed Cú Chulainn’s lament for Fer Diad, and the fact that even if caoineadh were an exclusively female tradition, there’s something strange about the automatic reading of a man performing ‘feminine’ activities as inherently misogynistic, parodic, or appropriative. Why don’t we assume that that could be genuine? Why can’t a male character also perform femininity, without that being seen as a bad thing?

When we assume that gender boundaries are rigid, we pass judgment on those who transgress them, and in doing so, limit our understanding of those same characters. I have, of course, argued for a transmasculine reading of Cú Chulainn, and my main purpose in doing so is to gently suggest we look at how gender is being constructed in this text and all the ways in which characters do or don’t live up to those ideals, rather than taking as read what we think the categories should be. One thing we may choose to consider as part of those constructions is the act of lamenting: who does it, and for whom?

I have often been disappointed by discussions of Cú Chulainn’s lament for Fer Diad that allow for gender fluidity only because they deny the possibility of homoeroticism. Leaving aside the fact that I believe treating caoineadh as a women’s job is erroneous, there’s something very odd about arguments which think the only reason Cú Chulainn laments the way that he does is because he is casting himself in the role of female admirer of male beauty. This is incomprehensible to me as an argument. Is it so impossible that he could be situating himself as a male admirer of male beauty? Are we so determined to impose a heteronormative view that the only way a man could lament another man is to take on a woman’s role?

I am always happy to explore the ways male characters embrace femininity and problematise masculinity — but not at the cost of acknowledging the possibility of homoerotic desire, seriously. It’s 2023, let’s stop being afraid of that as a concept.3

What I think would be actually interesting to discuss in the context of this particular act of caoineadh is something that was brought up at this symposium, too: laments as an act of resistance, an expression of injustice and a call for change. The idea of the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire as an anti-colonial work recurred throughout several talks, highlighting the way it contrasts the rightful social status of Art with how it has been taken from him by English aggressors. Mulligan, too, has discussed Cú Chulainn’s lament for Fer Diad in the context of social protest to some extent (see fn. 2).

What I’d love to do some time, although I don’t know when I’ll have the time and the brainpower, is to explore lament in Táin Bó Cúailnge at more length through the framework of ‘grievability’. This is a term I learned from Judith Butler’s discussions of equality, war, and nonviolence,4 and it has struck me ever since as a crucial piece of articulating what is going on in Comrac Fir Diad. For a life to be grievable means it has value: it is a life that ‘even before it is lost, is, or will be, worthy of being grieved on the occasion of its loss; the life has value in relation to mortality.’5

Medb and Ailill have made it very clear that they do not consider Fer Diad’s life to be grievable:

‘Do you hear your new son-in-law bidding you farewell?’ 
‘Is that what he is doing?’ asked Ailill. 
‘It is indeed,’ said Medb. ‘But I swear my people's oath that he who is so bidding you farewell will not return to you on his own feet.’ 
‘Because of what we have gained by this marriage,’ said Ailill, ‘we care not if both of them fall, provided that Cú Chulainn is killed by him. But indeed we should be the better pleased if Fer Diad escaped.’ (Táin Bó Cúailnge, Recension 1, trans. O'Rahilly.)

‘We care not if both of them fall.’ Fer Diad’s life is only valuable because of what he can potentially offer to them; it is not worthy of being mourned in its own right. But Cú Chulainn, the very person who killed him, asserts otherwise. He mourns, and in doing so, protests that exact judgment. He says: this life was worth grieving, and if you will not do it, I will. In doing so he asserts that Medb and Ailill are wrong, and that there is injustice in the judgments they are making (which in turn, casts serious aspersions on their integrity as rulers, because Bad Judgment is the last thing a medieval Irish monarch wants to be accused of).

Lament as an act of protest against injustice: it’s not just for women.

Later in the day I mentioned this to Margo, my former modern Irish teacher, who was also at the conference. She agreed with my medieval examples, and pointed out that even some of the modern caoineadh is spoken by men, for men — in fact, one of the very examples (the name of which I sadly didn’t write down) given by one of the speakers was spoken by a man. Why, then, were we all agreeing that caoineadh was a female tradition?

True: the literary tradition is often male dominated, and to have a genre that is dominated by women is refreshing. True: after a few decades of scholarship agreeing that this is the case, it’s unpalatable to say, “Actually, we were wrong, men do this too.” But we agreed that this ‘boys don’t cry’ understanding of caoineadh was a limiting one, and one that denied men an outlet for grief which so many have sorely needed. Throughout the centuries men have mourned and cried and touched and held the bodies of their friends and loved ones, and nobody gains from pretending this is not the case, and portraying masculinity as untouched by these kinds of emotions.

In the final spoken session of the day, before the musical performance, two of the lament’s translators discussed their approaches to it: Vona Groarke and Paul Muldoon. Vona Groarke was clear that she doesn’t consider her work to be a translation from the Irish: she worked from seventeen prior translations to write her own version. I was astonished by the idea of having seventeen translations, or indeed, any translations to work from, since I spend a lot of my time working with untranslated texts or those that were translated once in the 19th century and never again. Seventeen! Can you imagine?! Muldoon, on the other hand, based his translation directly on an edition of the Irish text by Ó Túama. This seems to be the ‘standard’ edition, considering how many copies of it I saw in the audience during the day — which made me feel wildly unprepared, as someone who’d never even read it, I’m not gonna lie.

One topic particularly dominated (you could even say derailed) this session: the issue of blood-drinking. There is a line in the lament where Eibhlín Dubh mentions cupping Art’s blood in her hands and drinking it. This line is not in every version or manuscript, because the thing about the oral tradition is that it gives rise to a lot of variant versions, but it seems to have been fairly definitively established that it does belong to the lament and isn’t a late insertion. Having established that, there was some animated conversation about what, exactly, is going on in this scene.

At first, neither panellist could recall any other Irish examples of drinking the blood of the deceased, but fortunately, somebody else in the audience (possibly one of the other speakers? I am so bad at faces, I couldn’t recognise people when they changed locations in the room) mentioned Emer, Cú Chulainn’s wife, and Deirdre, who drinks the blood of her lover Naoise (and also of his brothers, in some versions). So I was not obliged to give an impromptu Oidheadh Con Culainn lecture, for which everybody was probably quite grateful, whether they knew it or not. But yes, this motif is very well-established in the early modern Irish tradition.6

There was some discussion following this about Classical traditions of blood-drinking, for example, the motif of preventing blood from hitting the floor so that the Furies wouldn’t come for vengeance. In Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoighaire, the blood has already touched the ground, so that can’t be the mechanism we’re thinking of here, and some instead favoured the interpretation that this is more of a ‘last kiss’, a way of taking the beloved into one’s body in the only way that is still permitted. A final intimacy.

Which makes sense. But this got me thinking, because there is one text I know of from medieval Ireland where the blood of a living character is drunk: Aided Derbforgaill. In this text, a young woman called Derbforgaill comes in search of Cú Chulainn, because she’s heard about his great exploits and wants to marry him. She’s injured, and when Cú Chulainn sucks the stone from her wound, he accidentally drinks some of her blood. As a result, he cannot marry her — presumably because the blood-drinking has created some kind of kinship bond — so she marries his foster son, Lugaid. Later, when she dies horribly for unrelated reasons and Lugaid dies of grief about it, Cú Chulainn is the one to avenge her.

I was thinking about this in the context of these blood-drinking examples from laments and death tales. Cú Chulainn’s role as Derbforgaill’s avenger is, presumably, because she is his daughter in law. But could it not also be because of the blood-drinking, and the kinship that bestows on the pair of them? And if that’s the case, could this be related to blood-drinking in death tales? Is drinking someone’s blood a way of asserting yourself as their next-of-kin, and therefore claiming the right to vengeance for their death? It is Conall who avenges Cú Chulainn, not Emer, but he does so for Emer, and brings the heads of the slain to her. And Eibhlín’s lament certainly has a vengeful tone, even if direct action isn’t taken.

This is purely just me noodling around with ideas; this may have been proved or disproved in academic discussions already. (I intend to look at it more eventually.) But although we are not trying to prevent vengeance by the Furies, perhaps there is a vengeance connection here, via kinship: claiming the dead, claiming the right to avenge them, claiming that the injustice that has been done is against you, the bereaved.

The session ended before I’d plucked up the courage to raise my hand and suggest this possibility, so I settled for inflicting it on a friend via WhatsApp instead. (They had been receiving a few stream-of-consciousness responses to the conference throughout the day, including a lot of my thoughts about choreographing the lament.) Still, it made me think that in future research into those kinds of mourning rituals, I should definitely incorporate or at least explore the late texts and the insights they have to offer on the matter.

The final session of the day was a musical performance: an excerpt from a student composition using Muldoon’s text, and two scenes from an opera based on Groarke’s. This opera, composed by Irene Buckley, was due to be performed in April 2020, but we can imagine what happened to that (it did not happen), so we got a brief almost-premiere. I confess to being no great lover of opera, particularly of the highly ornament and warbly classical variety; this wasn’t that, and the soprano’s clear tones managed to entrance me. I could almost see my choreography in my head as the music was performed, and my body itched with the need to make it real: to embody the lament, just as the poets and academics had discussed.

I’ll finish here, before this post ends up being too absurdly long, but I’ll end with this: I left that night with two translations/versions of the lament in my bag, half a dozen new creative and/or academic ideas in my head, and a strong sense of having learned far more from the day than I’d anticipated. I was extremely glad I’d been able to go, despite the fact that it meant getting up a lot earlier than I usually do on my days off work. It was an excellent way to mark the 250th anniversary of the lament’s composition, and I hope in future to have the opportunity to explore other works from the same mix of creative and academic angles.

And if you see me writing an article with a title like ‘Boys Don’t Cry?: A Reconsideration of the Gendering of Caoineadh‘ any time soon, well… you’ll know some of what prompted it.

But in the meantime, I’m just going to be eagerly awaiting the publication of Mícheál McCann’s ‘Keen for A–‘, because I can’t wait to eventually read the whole thing. Seriously, those excerpts slapped. And I’ll definitely be checking out the other poets’ work too. Maybe it’s time for me to get back into modern poetry again.

1 I actually had mixed feelings about A Ghost in the Throat. I loved the idea of exploring one’s own feelings and experiences through translation, and the dialogue between past and present that that creates. I was uncomfortable with some of the ways gender and sex are portrayed in the book. It is very much a book about cis womanhood and cis motherhood, written for cis women, especially for cis mothers. This is fine; I don’t expect to be the target audience of every book. But it was a book that did not allow the possibility of a world in which people like me exist, and that was alienating. Ní Ghríofa at one stage focuses intently on the mare of the Lament as a female animal, and the overall impression it left me with was that she saw herself as more similar to a mare, because it has a uterus, than to a cis man, because he does not. I simply can’t vibe with that kind of distancing between sexes, and as someone who has a uterus but is very much not a woman and considers myself a hell of a lot more like a man than like a horse, I was conscious that this was a narrative I could not be part of. This may be an uncharitable reading of that section of the text. It’s nevertheless been my lasting recollection of the book, and shapes my retrospective feelings about it.

2 See, for example, Ann Dooley, Playing the Hero: Reading the Irish Saga Táin Bó Cúailnge (U. of Toronto Press, 2006), who perceives Cú Chulainn as co-opting a female role, and Amy Mulligan, ‘Poetry, Sinew, and the Irish Performance of Lament: Keening a Hero’s Body Back Together’ in Philological Quarterly 97.4 (2018), who presents the ‘social protest’ argument alongside discussions of Dooley’s reading, while still mostly presenting male caoineadh as transgressive/unusual.

3 Sarah Sheehan’s article, ‘Fer Diad De-flowered: Homoerotics and Masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad‘ in Ulidia 2 (2009) is one of the only published academic discussions of this lament that embraces homoerotic possibilities, though to read some scholars complaining about queer readings, you would think they were endemic.

4 Judith Butler, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind (Verso, 2020), and Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (Verso, 2016). I highly recommend both of these, but especially The Force of Nonviolence, which disrupts the traditional understanding of pacifism as a passive refusal to fight and foregrounds the need for active, forceful disruption of violent system and societal structures.

5 Butler, The Force of Nonviolence, p. 75.

6 It is specifically the early modern Oidheadh Con Culainn that emphasises this detail for Emer. I read an article once which discussed the fourteenth (?) century Deirdre/Naoise blood-drinking tradition as deriving from the Emer tradition, but the entire argument was undermined by not realising that Oidheadh Con Culainn is the fifteenth century text, and the early version of the story (Brislech Mór Maige Muirthemni) lacks the exact details they rested their discussion on. I haven’t looked at it further since, but based on the dates they gave for the Deirdre texts, it may well be that the Emer tradition derives from there, rather than the other way around. I was surprised no peer reviewer caught that error, as it was fairly fundamental, but I guess that’s what happens when nobody cares about the late versions of the texts :( I swear, I have read multiple articles that made similar errors or confused events of one story with the other.

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