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Lindisfarne Gospels c.715 - 720

Ita Mac Carthy is Professor of early modern Italian literature and art in our School of Modern Languages and Cultures. She also directs the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS) with Professor Richard Scholar. She recently took part in an Ideas Forum as part of 'UP North Culture + Knowledge: Growing Opportunities in the North East’. Here she discusses why Research Institutes like IMEMS can help us build a better future together for the North East of England.

Introducing the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS)

IMEMS is a community of academics, curators, students, practitioners and volunteers engaged in the interdisciplinary study of the global past. Our interests range broadly, as do our disciplinary perspectives and temporal range. As a collective of archaeologists, historians, modern linguists, museum curators, librarians, archivists, chemists, physicists, earth scientists, specialists in English Studies, Theology, Classics and more, we seek to understand better the history of human endeavour and of our natural and built environments across the broad chronological sweep from Late Antiquity (around the 3rd century) to the late 18th century. The aim of the Institute is to bring people together from different disciplines around common themes, to provide a hub where researchers can meet, exchange ideas, and really benefit from each other’s points of view. Our mission is to achieve a better understanding and appreciation of our shared past using all the intellectual and practical tools at our disposal.  

IMEMS has on its doorstep an enviable wealth of resources to study. I mean that quite literally. If you stand on our doorstep at no.7 Owengate near Palace Green, you can see Durham Cathedral to your left and the Castle straight ahead. The Palace Green Library is just around the corner, barely out of view. With places and spaces like that close by, our members have access to a treasure trove of pre-modern archives: books, artworks, artefacts, maps, coins, tapestries, weapons, domestic utensils and other legacies from Durham’s pre-modern past.

Part of our mission is to embed this local treasure trove in a global network, to champion Durham as a Heritage Site that is truly a World Heritage Site. Within this ‘glocal’ hub, specialists move freely outside their areas of expertise: historians talk to chemists; modern linguists work with theologians, librarians and curators share common interests and pool resources to probe more deeply and answer more holistically shared questions.  

Our world-class research 

Of the many interdisciplinary projects IMEMS has supported over its 30-year history, there is one project which is currently reaching a conclusive moment. Over a decade ago, the Institute supported a series of encounters between historians, historians of the book and chemists interested in medieval manuscripts. ‘Team Pigment’, as the name implies, studies the pigments used by manuscript illuminators from the medieval period, including the monks that lived in the monasteries of Holy Island just up the road off the coast of Northumberland.

Using methods drawn from the Sciences and the Humanities, Professor Richard Gameson (a historian of the book) and Drs Kate Nicholson and Professor Andrew Beeby (both chemists) lead the team that have made some remarkable discoveries by combining their expertise. They were able to identify the ink used in the Lindisfarne Gospels and the paint in the Hereford Mappa Mundi. They were able to see changes in the use of colour in over 20 books made in Canterbury from the 10th to the 12th centuries, and they found in four 11th century British books the unexpected presence of a pigment called Eygptian Blue. Their book, Pigments of British Medieval Illuminators, will be launched in just a few weeks’ time.

This is just one example among many of how IMEMS supports the interdisciplinary study of our past. 

But how does research of this kind help us regenerate our region UP North? 

At IMEMS, we are driven by the conviction that studying the history of human endeavour and of its built and natural environment is the surest way of rising to the global challenges threatening the future of humanity.

A greater understanding and appreciation of our past equips us for tackling the present world with all its perils and pleasures and helps us build a better future. Current global phenomena – from wars of religion to famines and epidemics – have had countless precedents in the global past whose particular circumstances have much to teach us. Studying the past serves to reveal mistakes we have made and occasions when we’ve failed to meet the challenges of our times. It provides resources for understanding those failures better. More positively, those same catastrophic failures have also generated man-made solutions for resolving conflict, overcoming divisions and moving beyond periods of unspeakable tragedy and turmoil.

If studying the past can help us understand the origins and trajectories of present disasters and reveal previous mistakes made, it can also equip us for future challenges and teach us how to invent new ways of overcoming them.  

Inventing Futures  

An initiative we have been working on at IMEMS is a five-year programme of research, called Inventing Futures, which will emphasise the future-oriented consequences of our past-oriented study. Inventing Futures will draw on our community’s knowledge of the past to tackle 21st-century challenges both in our region and beyond.  

What might a Future-Oriented Study of the Past look like?   

To answer this, I offer the example of one collaborative project we have been exploring at IMEMS under the auspices of the Inventing Futures programme, provisionally called ‘Violence Against Women’. This is a topic a number of us are researching from within our own areas of expertise. Before explaining how we might join forces as a project team, let me tell you how my own research has led me to this all-important subject. 

I am Irish, but my area of research expertise is sixteenth-century Italian literature and art. When I was studying for my undergraduate degree in University College Cork, I spent a year in Italy on the Erasmus exchange programme and fell in love with the country. After graduating, I decided to return to Italy and to write one last essay about it, just to finally and definitively get my head round the country, its culture and its complexity. The essay became a PhD dissertation, and its focus was a sixteenth-century poem written in the northern Italian town I lived in called Ferrara. The poem by Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1532) Orlando furioso tells the story of a Christian hero (Orlando) who went mad (furioso) for love.

I completed my PhD thesis but still haven’t quite got my head round Italy and its cultural complexity. Decades later, I’m still writing essays, quite a few of them featuring men who went ‘mad for love’, and not only Italian men either. I have also studied Othello, for example, Shakespeare’s tragic hero who mirrors Orlando when he becomes wildly jealous with dire and tragic consequences. Convinced his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful and inflamed with the ‘green-ey’d monster which doth mock the flesh it feeds on’, he kills her, before running himself through with his own sword.  

In our shared cultures and past, it turns out, men who went ‘mad for love’ abound. As do their unfortunate, female victims. The somewhat romanticised tragi-heroic cases of Orlando and Othello raise fundamental questions about how we represent the most abhorrent of crimes against women in cultural terms. The causes of violence against women are, of course, many and have been over the centuries. The range of depictions in literature and art are equally broad and varied. When you teach to young people in the classroom words and images that express the age-old dynamic of gendered violence, you can’t help but ask some irresistible questions about your own time. 

Moving out from my own research into Orlando, Othello and others, the collaborative project ‘Violence Against Women’ would tackle some of these irresistible questions: 

  • How does the history of gendered violence – whether in literature, art or real life – inform or inflect our present struggle to eliminate violence against women? 
  • In today’s world of trigger-alerts and sometimes acute sensitivity to visual and verbal materials, how can we harness the power of our cultural inheritance to improve interpersonal relations and build a safer world?  
  • What do portrayals of violence against women in the literature and art of the global past reveal about the cultures that produced them? And about our continuing fascination with such portrayals? 

The plan will be to assemble a multidisciplinary team of modern linguists, literary critics, historians, art historians, museum curators and so on. Together, we would seek to understand better the history of gendered violence and abuse with a view to improving responses in society today.

We would take as our object of study depictions of violent acts against women in the literature and art of the global early modern past. Of particular interest will be recognisable characters and narratives whose profound impact on the human imaginary can be traced through imitations, adaptations, translations and other forms of artistic recreation across cultures and time. Where individuals and stories live on in successive iterations, the project will seek to chart varying attitudes to their themes and to trace genealogies of cultural response to societal violence.

Death of Lucretia, Bowes Museum  ‘The Death of Lucretia’, after Guido Reni, Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle

Take this detail from a portrait of the classical heroine Lucretia that hangs in the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. It’s by a follower of Guido Reni, an Italian painter of the 16th century. In the full image, Lucretia holds to her breast the knife she’s about to plunge into her heart as a response to the sexual assault she has just suffered at the hands of the Roman Emperor Tarquin. The story is thought to be founded on an actual atrocity perpetrated in the 6th century which played an important role in the fall of Rome. It is a prime example of the kind of artwork our project will study since it tells a story, as old as time, which continues to be told today in image, word, music and every other possible cultural form. What we will investigate are the complex connections between cultural products like this and the artists that produce them, as well as the societies that continue to engage with them by hanging them on the walls of their museums and public spaces.  

Drawing on the resources of Durham’s World Heritage Site, the project would collaborate with museums and art galleries across the region as well. Ever attentive of the need to avoid turning women’s suffering into cultural capital, we would also commit to engaging with sociologists and charities providing support for women who have suffered abuse. In so doing, we would strive to offer a crucial yet over-looked historical and cultural perspective on the global – and indeed local – campaign to end violence against women. 

This is just one example of how looking back to the past helps us look forward as well, how research institutes like IMEMS equip us to build a better future UP North. 

Find out more 

The article is drawn from Ita’s presentation at the Ideas Forum, as part of the UP North Culture + Knowledge events run in partnership with the N8 and the RSA. Find out more about UP North and join the conversation UPnorth.

Read more about IMEMS and their work.  

Find out more about studying for an MA in Medieval and Early Modern Studies 

Find out more about opportunities to study in our School of Modern Languages and Cultures.