Doomsday Book

Opening line: ‘Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.’

Willis - Doomsday Book coverKivrin has always wanted to go to the Middle Ages. Fortunately for her, a history student at University of Oxford in 2054, time travel is possible, though still relatively new technology. When it is time for her to go, her tutor Mr. Dunworthy still holds misgivings about how her other tutor is running the ‘drop’ and whether Kivrin should be allowed to go at all. When the net technician collapses after sending Kivrin through, no one is able to confirm where or when Kivrin was sent to, and the only person who seems to care is Mr. Dunworthy. Oxford is put under quarantine; the Head of History is somewhere in Scotland; Balliol College is filled with detainees, including a group of American bell ringers and a student’s insufferable mother; Mr. Dunworthy has taken in his friend’s twelve-year-old grand-nephew while she takes charge of the situation in the hospital; it’s Christmas, and, as his secretary frequently informs him, the college is nearly out of lavatory paper. While Mr. Dunworthy tries to manage the confusion in the future, Kivrin arrives in the fourteenth century, and also collapses. She recovers, only to realize that she doesn’t know where she is or where the drop is for the rendezvous. Undeterred, Kivrin records her observations: of her hosts, the manor house, the village, the church, and the preparations for Christmas. She becomes enmeshed in the lives of Lady Eloise, her mother-in-law, and her two daughters, Rosemund and Agnes, and of the village priest, who believes Kivrin is a saint sent from heaven to help them in their hour of need. Kivrin thinks that finding the rendezvous before Lady Imeyne decides she’s a runaway nun and sends her off to the bishop is the worst of her troubles — until the first of them falls ill with the ‘blue sickness’, and Kivrin realizes exactly when she is.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a detailed, fascinating, and devastating book. Willis’s attention to detail captures characters’ idiosyncrasies with wit and compassion, creating fully-developed characters. This is the second time I’ve read Doomsday Book (I actually listened to it as an audiobook this time around), and it is still as wonderful and terrible as the first time I read it. The quote from the New York Times on the cover calls the novel a ‘tour de force’, and it really is. The first three-quarters of the novel are about the daily lives of Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy in their parallel timelines; there are difficulties, but they seem manageable at the time. And then people start dying, and it doesn’t stop.

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Waking up

There’s nothing like a conference to get your academic brain working again. Ever since I started teaching at my university, I’ve had a bit of impostor syndrome. Everyone called me Dr. C., but I wasn’t doing what for years had defined my academic life. Instead of immersing myself in medieval research, I was teaching grammar and rhetoric to students who have trouble understanding what “criteria” were or the difference between summary and analysis. Although it appears that I am succeeding as a composition instructor, I still haven’t felt like I’m really being an academic.

Enter the Texas Medieval Association conference. The president of TEMA (and convener of the conference) suggested that I present a paper based on my PhD research as an introduction to this new network of colleagues, which I am. I’m presenting an updated version of the Avalon paper I presented at the International Arthurian Society — British Branch conference last year. Rereading my Avalon chapter was like drinking a fine red wine after six weeks of my students’ essays. I’d finally had enough distance to see that my supervisors and examiners were right: I can write damn good prose.

My paper isn’t until the last session tomorrow afternoon, but that hasn’t kept me from mingling with colleagues. The first person came up to me after I asked a question during a panel’s Q&A. Five years of attending conferences in the UK, and I was never able to get a question in during the Q&A sessions (though I did talk to many people during the tea breaks) — and at the first session at the first American academic conference I attend, I ask a question, with a follow-up question. I surprised even myself. Perhaps it was the environment — Americans are known for being more extroverted than the British, and this is evident at conferences — and perhaps it was because the paper dovetailed with my own. But I also think that teaching outside of my field and making a place for myself in a new institution’s department has given me the confidence to speak out publicly in academic settings. I spend at least nine hours a week speaking in front of groups of twenty after all.

I’ve started to settle into a rhythm with teaching and I hope that by doing so I can begin to carve time out for my own research. This conference has woken up the research part of my brain and I have a list of books and articles that I’m itching to read.



While going through some papers in my office this week, I came across a print out of the Old English poem Deor, which we read in the Medieval Reading Group last year. The poem in Old English is beautiful with its rhythm and alliteration, which, unfortunately, a Modern English translation can only hint at.

The poem tells of several different episodes from legend and history in which individuals met disaster, and the final stanza touches on the poet’s own troubles. Each stanza closes with the refrain: Þæs ofereode,  |   þisses swa mæg.’ That passed away, and so may this from me.

You can read the poem online (both in Old and Modern English): here. It’s a slightly different translation from the one I have printed out from the reading group.

The anxious, grieving man, deprived of joy,
Lives with a darkened mind; it seems to him
His share of sorrows will be everlasting;
But he can think that in this world wise God
Brings change continually: to many a man
He offers grace, assured prosperity.
But others he assigns a share of woe.
About my own plight now I wish to speak:
Once I was a minstrel of the Heodenings,
Dear to my patron, and my name was Deor.
I held for many years a fine position
And loyal lord, until Heorrenda now,
That skilful poet, has received my lands,
Which once my lord and master gave to me.
That passed away, and so may this from me.

Rumour has it that a number of years ago the School of English was experiencing some upheaval, and that during this time faculty were known to recite the refrain of this poem: Þæs ofereode,  |   þisses swa mæg. It’s not a bad motto.

Forgiveness in ‘Melusine’

One of my favourite scenes from the Middle English Melusine comes just after Raymondin has been convinced by his brother to break the promise he made to his wife to never see her on Saturdays. Melusine has been cursed to turn into a half-serpent on Saturdays and she can only attain salvation if her husband agrees to never see her or to denounce her in public.

Up until this time she has been a model of virtue, overseeing their lands with justice, supporting the Christian community by building churches and monasteries, and raising their ten sons well. But one Saturday, Raymondin’s brother passes on a rumour that Melusine is having an affair and in a fit of jealousy Raymondin goes to see her. He makes a hole in the door to her chamber and sees her in the bath, serpent tail and all.

What do you expect at this point? Shock? Horror? Revulsion? But no, Raymondin is instead immediately struck with remorse. He banishes his brother from the castle for causing him to betray his wife, and then laments, ‘Alas, Melusine, of whom all the world spake well, now have I lost you for ever. Now have I found the end of my Joy… Farewell all my joy, all my comfort, and all my hope.’ He is so distraught that he spends the night in anxious grief.

And yet, Melusine returns to him at dawn on Sunday as usual. She knows he has seen her, but she knows also his remorse and repentance. When she gets into bed he sighs with ‘great suffering of heart’. Melusine holds him and asks, ‘My lord, what aileth you, are you sick?’ and then comforts him, saying, ‘Worry not, for if it please God you shall soon be whole.’

Raymondin answers, ‘By my faith, sweet love, I feel much better for your coming.’ You can almost hear the relief in his voice.

You might not think love is rare in medieval romance, and it isn’t, but it is unusual to see it in married couples. Medieval romance tends to focus on the lovers before they get married, rather than afterward, and often the woman in the couple is already in a loveless marriage. In Middle English romance the married couples who stand out who are still in love with each other are Sir Orfeo and Heurodis (in Sir Orfeo) and Melusine and Raymondin (in Melusine). Rarer still is the level of tenderness seen here in Melusine, both here and later when the curse takes Melusine away from her family. After Melusine has been cursed to stay in the form of a dragon until Judgement Day, Raymondin retreats to a hermitage, where he spends the rest of his days praying for Melusine’s salvation.

Medieval Meander

Today I led a walking tour of medieval St Andrews. We started at the museum where I work and then for 1.5 hours we went to the castle, St Mary on the Rock, cathedral, Dean’s Court, Queen Mary’s House, Blackfriars, and many other sites of medieval importance that are still standing in our town. The group consisted of about twenty people, most of them retired age or older, and we had beautiful weather. Though nervous, I had a lot of fun.

About to give my talk on the cathedral. (Photo courtesy of Lola.)

About to give my talk about the cathedral. (Photo courtesy of Lola.)

Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves: several people kept vying for a place next to me as we walked from place to place, asking questions, others still thanked me for an interesting tour, and my informer in the group told me that people talked about the sites I was pointing out as we walked from one place to another. All in all, I would say it was a success. I might even do it again.

Ode to Oxford

Oxford, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.*

  1. Red brick houses and sandstone colleges;
  2. University Parks, so green and full of trees;
  3. Squirrels and dragonflies and songbirds;
  4. Libraries full of books and silence;
  5. Dear friends, old and new;
  6. Medieval colleagues;
  7. Streets filled with memories;
  8. Christ Church Meadow and the avenues of trees;
  9. G&D’s, Ben’s Cookies, and the Covered Market;
  10. The dreaming of spires and ringing bells.

Someday, I would love to live here again. Until then, I am content to visit, and fortunate to know more and more people who live here.

The International Arthurian Society British Branch conference was interesting and I very much enjoyed getting to catch up with colleagues and get to talk to other people who are actually working with Melusine and Thomas of Erceldoune, and to have my thesis topic validated by my colleagues, both senior and new. A successful conference indeed! Now to spend the rest of the week in various libraries and spending time with friends…!

* I am not Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I write academic papers, not sonnets.