Interview: Dr Hetta Howes
Our New Generation Thinkers for 2017 were announced at Sage as part of BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival. This week we talk to Dr Hetta Howes from Queen Mary University, London.
Virtual reality may be being heralded as the next technology to transform our experience of the world. But the desire to immerse ourselves in other realities is nothing new, argues medievalist and New Generation Thinker Dr Hetta Howes, Queen Mary's College, University of London.
While modern Britain seems to be enjoying a resurgence of interest in immersive experience – from sell-out theatre shows to the Secret Cinema's 360-degree participatory worlds, and video games that create landscapes so authentic that gamers actually lose track of time – the impulse behind the trend dates back to the twelfth century.
“In the period, meditating on the Passion of Christ meant imagining oneself present at the scene of his suffering and was an integral part of devotional experience,” says Dr Howes.
“Books which encouraged readers to place themselves in the action began to appear in the twelfth century and, by the fourteenth, they had become bestsellers.”
Dr Howes' Radio 3 programme will imitate these texts in order to take listeners on a journey. “They will hear the whip hit Christ's back, the tears of his mother, the mocking jeers, as well as quotations and readings from a variety of different texts and commissioned musical accompaniment,” she says.
Through her study of these devotional texts Dr Howes has uncovered some fascinating detail about the role of women at the time.
“I started to notice that references to water were coming up all the time. But specifically in relation to women,” she says. “I was interested in finding out why that was a gender issue? And why were the texts themselves aimed at women?”
Dr Howes believes that there is a long standing relationship between women and water that stems from a belief that women's bodies are somehow more leaky and unfinished then those of men.
“But there is also a connection between women and water in mythology. For example, water nymphs,” she says. “And also on a practical level, it is often women that are primarily involved with sourcing and collecting water for the family. So water as a metaphor is particularly useful as a metaphor for those writing for women.”
Their specific relevance for women came from the contemporary assumption that men are rational and reasonable and women are emotional.
“It was felt that, if women wanted to be closer to God, it was better for them to use their imaginations and emotions rather than try and study and take an academic path,” says Dr Howes. “Men contemplate and women do this deep emotive meditation.”
The texts were also partly responsible for the trend towards more emotive depictions of Christ at this time - they were intended to help women access the emotions present at the crucifixion.
“I would like the Radio 3 audience to have the chance to find out more about these writings, because they challenge some of the ideas and assumptions about the Middle Ages,” says Dr Howes. “People often assume – wrongly – that it was a cold, emotionless time. These writings reveal another side.
“Also, you frequently see 'Medieval' and 'Middle Ages' used as a pejorative term. These writings show that people had similar concerns: they wanted to lose themselves in an experience and take themselves out of reality.
“We see it as a dark and grisly era and yet these writings reveal a great deal of compassion.
“They also show how depictions of violence and eroticism were key issues back then – just as they are now.”