Dr Hetta Howes (above), a lecturer in medieval literature at Queen Mary University of London, teases the emotional links in our interconnected world – all lubricated by liquids.
Tell us about yourself
I grew up in Skipton, North Yorkshire, where I could usually be found reading a book. So, it was no surprise to anyone when I decided to do a degree in English Literature. I did my BA and MPhil at Newnham College, Cambridge and then moved to London to do a PhD on the role of water in medieval literature at Queen Mary, University of London. I’ve been at Queen Mary ever since and have spent the last year as a lecturer there, in the School of English. My research is very interdisciplinary, so I’m lucky that Queen Mary emphasises the study of gender across the humanities and is home to one of the biggest Centres for the History of the Emotions in the UK. As well as medieval literature and women’s writings I also enjoy cats, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and dancing. I can still usually be found reading a book.
What is the area of your research?
I’m interested in the role of water in medieval literature, and its relationship to women. In the medieval period, women were believed to have a physiological make-up that was excessively wet. This association was understood as the scientific cause of a number of feminine qualities, stereotypes that still endure to this day – that women are more emotional and cry more than men, that they find it difficult to control their emotions, and that they talk too much (as speech and water are frequently linked in medieval writings).
My doctoral thesis, which I’m currently turning into a book, asks to what extent this medical belief bears out in religious writings from the late-medieval period, both in texts authored by women, and in guidance literature for women – texts written by men, which advise women on their religious lives. More recently, I’ve expanded this project to include other fluids. such as blood, oil, honey, spit and urine.
My research examines how these different liquids are used to delineate the religious lives of medieval men and women. It explores the role these fluids play in everyday medieval life, and how these become transformed on the written page. I’m especially interested in how fluids are used to enhance the immersive experience of Passion meditation, a devotional practice where readers are urged to imagine themselves present at the Crucifixion of Christ and empathise with his suffering. My research asks how fluids are used by authors to forge an emotional connection between spectator and subject, reader and Christ in Passion meditation.
What is the importance of this research?
We live in a world where the president of the United States was revealed in the run-up to his election to have boasted about groping women, and where water has become an aspect of global discussion about pollution. These concepts may seem unrelated, but my research reveals an important overlap.
It traces misogynist rhetoric back to the middle ages, and shows how it is entrenched in the belief that women’s bodies are excessively wet but, simultaneously, unclean. For example, metaphors in religious writings equate cleaning a woman’s soul with cleaning fetid water sources – drawing parallels between women’s bodies and polluted rivers. This should have an immediate relevance to a twenty-first century audience.
Dr Hetta Howes is a lecturer in medieval literature in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University of London. Her research has explored the relationship between women and water, tracing misogynist rhetoric back to the middle ages. Her new project will examine the part that fluids play in medieval life and how this might connect to today. Dr Howes is interested in how women are treated or portrayed in medieval literature, and how women’s writing challenges or subverts various medieval female stereotypes as well as challenging our own modern preconceptions of women in that time. She is one of the ten 2017 New Generation Thinkers whose research will be made into radio and television programmes for the BBC, in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).