Dr Daisy Black, an English lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, talks about her research, which focuses on medieval and Renaissance drama, and gender and queer theory. She is one of the ten 2018 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).
Tell us about yourself
My career began with my BA in English at the University of Cambridge, and my love of medieval literature was encouraged by the vibrant images I found in the libraries’ manuscripts. I was also involved with the Cambridge theatre scene, and after graduation, worked as a manager of Cambridge’s ADC Theatre. When I found myself reading medieval plays at 3am on my late shift, I decided I should return to research.
My MA dissertation at the University of Manchester looked at sex and masculinity in comic medieval tales – namely, monks who were having sex when they shouldn’t and knights who failed to perform when expected to. I went on to study my PhD, researching time and gender in late medieval religious drama. This research found the perfect meeting-point between my love of performance and love of medieval literature. My first academic post was at the University of Hull, and I am now a lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton.
Over the last five years, I have also built up a career as a storyteller and theatre practitioner, and have produced historical performances for cultural venues including the Royal College of Physicians, the National Waterfront Museum and Manchester Cathedral. My one-woman story performances include tales of unruly women; a telling of Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale and a telling of the Bayeux Tapestry: ‘the full yarn’. Feminist, political and funny, these shows underline the relevance of medieval narratives for today’s world.
What do you do when you need to board the ark, but your friends are still in the pub?
I am currently writing a book on time and gender in medieval religious drama. It argues that the conflicts staged between men and women seen in late medieval lay civic dramas – including Joseph’s scepticism about Mary’s pregnancy and Noah and his wife’s argument about bringing her girlfriends aboard – are also debates about time. Mystery cycles tried to squeeze the disparate texts and timelines of the Old and New Testaments into one coherent narrative. Characters such as Noah’s wife resist this, highlighting anachronisms and demonstrating the human cost of divine narratives.
The comedy this produces seems surprising to modern audiences. We live in an age in which comedy and religion rarely intersect harmoniously. Yet medieval laypeople, who lived during times which saw prosecutions for heresy, used comedy to work through knotty theological problems. These included the Christian preoccupation with what it asserted was a superseded Jewish past; questions of when Christian time began; whether the Flood can succeed as an act of annihilation and renewal if humans survive it; the queer times engendered in the Towneley Second Shepherds’ Play when the Nativity is preceded by a parody involving a sheep in a manger and whether Herod’s massacre of the innocents is an attempt to tear his own pages out of history.
My book will ask how models of time are subverted when placed in dialogue with characters who experience alternative readings of time. This produces re-theorisation of the ways both gender and Judaism have been considered in medieval drama. It complicates readings of early theatre’s biblical matriarchs and patriarchs by arguing that conflicts provide crucial evidence of the ways late medieval lay producers, performers and audiences were themselves encouraged to question, experience, manipulate and understand time.
My next project will focus on food in medieval performance, and its ability to sensually cross playing spaces and audiences. It also looks at transgressive food and eating, including acts of cannibalism. It provides a context for the morally fraught feast scenes appearing in later plays such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, as well as in 21st-century performance traditions, which often place food at points of narrative conflict. It interrogates our own associations between food in entertainment and food as entertainment, asking whether our experiences as modern audiences are affected by the food we eat.
My other research interests include spectatorship, medieval lay theology and medievalism in modern board game cultures.
What is the importance of this research?
2018 has shown itself to be the year of the mystery play. With high-profile performances of the medieval plays happening in Norwich, Chester, York, this year has also seen several modern plays drawing on the medieval performances, including April’s version of Peter Gill’s The York Realist in Sheffield and the Chris Thorpe’s forthcoming cycle of six modern mystery plays set in a locations across England, including a Tourist Information Centre in Whitby. All these performances require their actors and audiences to engage in two kinds of time travel; first, to embody episodes from the Hebrew and Christian bibles, and second, to engage with the medieval spirit, contexts, anxieties and gender roles which produced the first plays.
Just as 2018 performance of the York Mystery Plays offered a new conception of time by structuring their pageants around a typological pairing of episodes from the Old and New Testaments, my research also argues for a new reading of the temporal possibilities of medieval drama that arose when medieval laypeople sought to embody and perform divine texts. Time, this monograph argues, provides an important new methodology with which to understand how gender operates in the plays.
Characters often considered ‘unruly’ or disruptive, such as Joseph, Noah’s wife and Herod may be read as articulators of complex theological, biblical and medieval negotiations of time. Given that time is experienced differently by every character represented on the medieval pageant, as well as by each individual audience member, this work challenges recent ideas of a medieval ‘queer’ time which hinge on the presupposition that there is a normative, or linear, way of experiencing time. For the same reason, the plays also complicate what medieval Europeans saw as an important distinction between ‘Jew’ and ‘Christian’ by blurring the boundaries between ‘then’ and ‘now’.
Ultimately, this research shows that moments of temporal conflict in the mystery plays provide convincing proof of lay, urban engagement with the kinds of theological and temporal problems that occupied medieval religious thinkers.
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Image: York Mystery Plays 2018: Last Judgement