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Brushes and mouths (but not dental hygiene) in the Jeu de Pèlerinage humaine

BnF MS fr 24303 Penitance
Detail from BnF MS fr. 24303 F. 15, Source: gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

I’m currently preparing a paper for Leeds IMC this year on the Jeu de Pèlerinage humaine — the fifth playscript in the collection owned by the Carmelite convent at Huy, which forms one of the core groups of texts we are focusing on during the project.   In several ways this script stands out from the others in the manuscript: most obviously, it’s been carefully and closely adapted for performance from part of a popular and widely-disseminated pre-existent allegorical narrative poem, Guillaume de Deguilleville’s Pèlerinage de vie humaine.  The Pèlerinage was often illustrated as part of its manuscript transmission (some of its rich iconographic traditions were the subject of a doctoral thesis by Michael Camille in 1985), and many of its allegorical characters, indeed, are described quite minutely within the text, in terms of their idiosyncratic physical appearances, bodily attributes, clothing and acoutrements: descriptions which can result in some very peculiar illuminations! (You can see something of what I mean by browsing the dossier of images from BnF MS fr. 829 published in the recent edition of the second recension of Deguilleville’s poem by Graham Robert Edwards and Phillipe Maupeu).

This very particular manuscript tradition provides an unusual context for the Jeu de Pèlerinage.  Not only can the text of the play, unusually, be compared to a known and apparently widely-read narrative source, allowing us to uncover ways in which its adaptors conceived of and effected the transfer from first-person narrative to performed, embodied theatre; we can also think about the ways in which the poem’s iconographic and visual traditions might have inspired, or otherwise impacted on performances.  Might illuminations of the Pelerinage provide pointers or starting points for thinking about how the Carmelite sisters who copied the Jeu de Pèlerinage may have designed their performance attire (if indeed they did perform the play they anthologised, and if they performed it in attire other than their habits)?   What might an eventual performance have looked like, in terms of of visual effects, articles of clothing and objects that could have been integrated into the play?

The idea of looking at manuscript iconography to provide some ideas about this seemed good in principle: then I came up against the character Pénitence, who – along with her companion, Charité — explains in a long and detailed speech the ways in which she mediates access to the Eucharist.   Pénitence is described by the narrator of the Pèlerinage as, surprisingly, holding a brush or ‘balay’ in her mouth (‘Entre ses dens, en sa bouche / Ot balay, qui plus me touche’, ed. Edwards/Maupeu, p. 242).   The narrator admits that this is rather odd, to say the least; she holds the brush in her teeth, he notes, ‘courtoisement’ (in a dignified, courtly manner), and ‘moins sage point n’en sembloit’ (she didn’t seem at all less wise for it).  Indeed, had anyone else but her chosen to behave in this way, ‘Pour hors de sens on le tenist’ (one would have considered them to be out of their mind).  I think that’s probably a fair assessment.

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Pénitance and Charité, detail from London, BL MS Harley 4399, F. 14. Source: www.bl.uk
BnF MS fr 12465 Pelerinage Pénitance et Charité
Detail from BnF MS fr. 12465, F. 11. Pénitance and Charité. Source: gallica.bnf.fr / BnF
BL Ms Add 38120 Penitance et Charité F. 18
London, BL MS Add. 38120, F. 18. Pénitance and Charité. Source: www.bl.uk

While it’s perfectly possible, of course, for a narrative poem to describe a woman holding a brush in her mouth, and then purport to relay the long and detailed monologue that she proceeds to utter, as soon as one brings physical performance into play, some very obvious problems start to arise.  The Jeu de Pèlerinage removes the narrator’s description of Pénitance completely: as a character in the play, she just appears in the playing space at the ‘right’ time, and begins to speak.  But, as part of her discourse, she actually explains the signficance of the orally-carried brush, as well as other objects she carries in her hands — and these lines have all been retained in the Jeu. Which leaves me with the question – how does an actress play the part of Pénitence and hold a brush in her mouth?  Did she actually walk ‘on stage’ looking like this (and did everyone start laughing?), but remove the brush for speaking?  Or, is this a sign that the Jeu de Pèlerinage was perhaps not designed for physical performance at all?  But if that were the case, why go to the trouble of adapting it as a play-script and/or copying it in an anthology of play-scripts in the first place?

I hope to develop, if not answers, then further hypotheses around these questions in the coming weeks!  In the meantime, if anyone has any comments or ideas, I’d love to hear them.

–Liv.

Costume demo videos from Barking performances

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Aurélie and Sandy enjoy donning their habits backstage!

Aurélie and Tamara (who was our fabulous stage manager for the Barking Abbey plays last month) have put together a series of videos showing the particular liturgical vestments we used, as well as the ways in which we put together our replica medieval Benedictine nuns’ habits for those of us performing in the roles the sisters would have taken.  You can watch them on our YouTube channel here, along with our other films.

Thankyou again to everyone involved, especially Sandy (Cantrix/Mary Magdalen, modelling the women’s costumes) and Christoph (Priest/Jesus, modelling the men’s)!

-Liv.

 

Barking Abbey Easter Plays: More Photos!

Photo 09-04-2018, 10 56 46I’m currently in the process of conducting research interviews with some of our performance group who took part in Monday’s Barking Abbey Elevatio and Visitatio Sepulchri, thinking about their experiences of participating in the creative process and the feelings generated by the final events at La Maigrauge and the University of Fribourg.  I’m only part-way through this process but the discussions I’ve had so far have been fascinating.  One point that has come up more than once is the way in which viewing images of the performance taken from the nave and the choir of the Abbey church of La Maigrauge has sparked within participants intriguing new reflections and new perspectives on their experiences.   So, with that in mind (and also because we have some fabulous stills and photos, for which huge thanks to Tamara Haddad and Céline Sidler),  I’ve put a bigger selection here for both performers and interested readers to enjoy…

– Liv.

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Rehearsing the Barking Abbey Plays

 

Dress rehearsal at Maigrauge Abbey, Fribourg. Elevation and adoration of the host
Dress rehearsal at Maigrauge Abbey, Fribourg. Elevation and adoration of the host

Our performance of the Barking Abbey plays is approaching quickly and as a first time director, staging it has confronted me with some expected challenges but also with some surprising questions that have changed my perception and given me new knowledge of the plays. We started rehearsing mid-February; the idea was to have at first only one rehearsal a week and to record the songs to give the actors the time and the tools to prepare at home. It however became rapidly clear that songs needed to be rehearsed together, particularly when the singers did not all have the same level. People used to singing modern songs but who could not read music felt a little lost. Learning medieval chant by heart is not that easy if you are not used to hearing and singing it. The tune does not appear clearly and if you cannot read music, you struggle to sing the songs. The problem I encountered was that some people could immediately sing them quite well (with the sheet music) and we could then work on movements and emotions, and that others took a long time to do so because they needed to learn them by heart. These rehearsals taught me that however easy it is to forget the importance of usic when reading the play, it is impossible to ignore it in performance. Rehearsing music needs time and when watching what Smoldon insisted on calling ‘music-dramas’, it takes a central place. The performance is an almost constant song and brings to life in unexpected ways the words on the page, creating moving or beautiful moments but also prolonging some of the texts I thought rather short and turning them into challenges for our actors. Singing changes the experience of the play for the actors as well. I play the small role of a novice and when I sing with other actors I feel bound to them in a community where we communicate with one another, more so than when we only move together during the procession. The time the song takes, the necessity to listen to and to be aware of each other, make it a communal experience even when we are standing in different parts of the church.

Dress rehearsal at Maigrauge Abbey, Fribourg. Procession following the Harrowing of Hell sequence.
Dress rehearsal at Maigrauge Abbey, Fribourg. Procession following the Harrowing of Hell sequence.

Directing this play has also resulted in a near-obsessive interest for liturgical vestments, movements and rituals, which had not been my prime concern when working on the play earlier. When Tamara Haddad, who is in charge of costume and I sat down to look more closely at what I thought were rather lengthy ‘stage directions’, we noticed the amount of information missing from the Barking Ordinal. The description of the officiating priest wearing ‘a cope’ which had seemed until then pretty straightforward now raised many questions: what colour was that cope, was it worn over an alb or a surplice, would the priest have worn stoles as he normally did under a cope, would the cincture have gone over or under the stole, how does one tie a cincture, would the stole have been crossed as it was during mass, what colour was the stole, how wide, how long, should the cope have a hood, do we really need to put our actors in cassocks no one will see, would priests have worn a maniple in such celebrations? We also discussed and argued over processional orders, how to cense a sepulchre containing a consecrated host, how to hold a monstrance, how to hit your breast when confessing, etc. Thankfully, a Dominican friar helped us answer those questions which were obvious to the writers of the Ordinal but certainly not to 21st-century literary scholars. Research into costumes and movement taught us about our knowledge (or lack of) and the knowledge and assumptions of the manuscript composer. It also made us realise the complexity and the precise symbolism of liturgical vestments and movements.

Aurélie

Upcoming performances: 9 April Barking Abbey Easter plays!

flyer final(1)Our performances of the Barking Abbey Easter plays will take place in Fribourg on Monday 9th April.  We will be performing at the Cistercian Abbey of La Maigrauge (3.45pm, with Vespers following the performance, for which audience members are welcome to stay) and the Aula Magna in the University of Fribourg  (7pm).  Come and join us: entry is free and open to all at both venues, and further information can be found in our trailers here and here:

Filmed Excerpts from the Performances of the Huy Nativities

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Janine Barrett, Sarah Knoepfli, Daniela Lurman-Lange, Diana Helfer and Jasinta Lurman perform the visit of Mary’s mother and sisters to the Holy Family in the Huy Nativity, Eglise St Ursule, Fribourg, Dec. 17.

Following our performances of the Huy Nativity in December, we have prepared a short film featuring excerpts from the two indoor performances (the church of St Ursule in Fribourg and the chapel of the Carmel du Pâquier), as well as stills from the outdoor performance (University of Fribourg).  Many thanks to Tamara Haddad for editing these excerpts.

The production and this footage in particular will be discussed by Dr Olivia Robinson in July 2018 at the International Congress of the New Chaucer Society, Toronto.

New: Documentary on our ‘Huy Nativities’ by Alma & Georges, University of Fribourg…

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Gloria in excelsis deo: Cléo Lange and Diana Helfer as shepherdesses Eylison and Mahai at the appearance of the Angels.

A huge thankyou to the wonderful performers, helpers and audience members who took part in our Huy Nativities in December 2017: the performances were so moving, atmospheric and thought-provoking.  Christian Doninelli at the University of Fribourg has made a short, free documentary film about our opening night at the Ursuline convent in Fribourg — watch it on the University’s Alma & Georges’ website here!

Our next performances will take place in the week of the 9th April 2018: we will be staging the Barking Abbey Harrowing of Hell and Visitatio Sepulchri, with a new performance script established by our doctoral student, Aurélie Blanc.  More information about dates and times of the performances will be available here soon…

The Huy Nativities: Fifteenth-Century Christmas Theatre from a Carmelite Convent / La Nativité de Huy: du théâtre du XVème siècle provenant d’un couvent Carmélite

Announcing the project’s first performances: two short Nativity plays which originated in the Carmelite house of the Dames Blanches in Huy (Belgium). Performed in partnership with the Ursuline sisters of Fribourg and the Carmelite sisters of Le Pâquier by an all-female cast.

Attendance is free and open to everyone!

13th December: Eglise des Ursulines (Rue de Lausanne 92, 1700 Fribourg), 20:00

14th December: Aula Magna, Université de Fribourg (Avenue de l’Europe 20, 1700 Fribourg), 19:30

15th December: Carmel du Pâquier (Route du Carmel 67, 1661 Le Pâquier-Montbarry), 19:30

Nous annonçons notre première mise-en-scène: deux courtes Nativités, provenant de la maison Carmélite des Dames Blanches de Huy (Belgique). Celles-ci seront jouées par une distribution entièrement féminine, en partenariat avec les sœurs Ursulines de Fribourg et les sœurs Carmélites du Pâquier.

L’entrée est libre et les pièces sont ouvertes à tous!

 

Accounting and Remembering

The extent to which commemorating the dead is tied up with money in the late Middle Ages (and indeed later) has been forcibly brought home to me this week, as I’ve been transcribing some entries from the surviving book of obituaries of the medieval convent I’m currently working on, the Dames Blanches de Huy.

Having taught literary texts like The Awntyrs off Arthur to generations of undergraduate students, I’m certainly experienced in explaining the ways in which repeating (and paying for) masses for departed souls would have been thought to have an effect on their experiences in the afterlife, expediting their time in Purgatory; and in exploring the ways in which the worlds of the living and the dead so frequently intersect in this and in other contexts in the literature of the Middle Ages.  However, although I was fully aware of this practice in theory, seeing its real-life application play out still caught me by surprise: I found transcribing the convent’s obituaries, particularly those relating to its local donors, with their minute enumeration of amounts, annuities or objects donated, and their monetary assessment of the relative value of those objects, quite uncomfortable.

Even more uncomfortable, I noticed, were the entries where I had to transcribe notes added by a very much later hand to the original (usually medieval) obituary. These notes seem to have been undertaken by someone in the seventeenth or eighteenth century overhauling the convent’s books, particularly their sources of income.  Beneath several of the earlier obituaries, this hand has quite sharply noted that prayers for X or Y individual are no longer necessary, since the source of income has long since stopped, or they could never find any evidence that it was paid in the first place, and that the entry was, therefore, “un abbus” [an abuse].

Perhaps it was because these entries related to ‘real-life’ individuals who had lived and died – individuals who, moreover, I had sometimes come across before in other documents relating to the administration of the house, such as in the convent school’s accounts, and who, presumably, believed sincerely in the power of the sisters’ prayers to determine the destination of their souls – but I was surprised by how much this affected me, and how merciless or financially hard-nosed it seemed.  The experience of transcribing these obituaries is bringing home to me again just how much and how profoundly the sensibilities and approaches to death prevalent in the culture in which I have been raised differ from those of western medieval Christendom, and just how very distant and foreign my own beliefs, emotions and responses to death are from those of the women whose lives and experiences I am investigating.   I knew this already, of course, in an intellectual sense: but the practice of working through the transcription of these obituaries has made me feel it in a slightly different way.

On the one hand I feel relieved that I don’t associate death, and the fate of a soul after death, so closely with totting up financial gain, and measuring time spent suffering in Purgatory. On the other, however, I’m intrigued, but also comforted, by the idea of a community in which the names, familial relationships and loves of the dead are never lost or forgotten, because they are recorded and repeated formally by generations of sisters, and are thus commemorated long after their passing.  A community, in short, in which regular memorial practices are a core group activity, and in which the line between living and dead members is, therefore, neither rigid nor always obvious.

Liv.

Read-through en français!

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Herod and his Clerc
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Jane Bliss as Herod’s Fool

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last month, for the first time, we were able to see and hear two of the convent plays central to our project in their original medieval Walloon French, when we held a staged read-through in Oxford.  Aurélie and I had translated one of the project’s play scripts into present-day English earlier this year, for an improvised read-through at the Medieval English Theatre conference – we were very keen to see how a group of theatre specialists reacted to the play, and to see how it worked spatially, and this event gave us lots of ideas and pointers.  However, because our participants were primarily first-language English speakers, and were specialists in Medieval English drama, we didn’t feel that it would be helpful to use the original medieval script.   However, our recent read-through was mostly populated by members of the Oxford Anglo-Norman Reading Group – and so, with a group of Old and Middle French-language specialists at our mercy, it was a great opportunity for us to hear the medieval words themselves: to appreciate the varying diction, registers, tones and rhythms which our plays deployed in their original linguistic format, and to grasp more concretely something of their aural qualities and their formal features.

One of the most interesting things we noticed was the large area which was clearly needed for parts of these plays – particularly those sections involving the three kings, which seemed to us to be very processional and stately.  This had been evident at the Medieval English Theatre conference too, but having to stage our second read-through in a middle-sized room rather than in a large theatre space, as we had at METh, really drove this home – there was nowhere near enough space.   Also interesting was the change in spatial needs from one play to the next, and the corresponding change in tone, and in aesthetic and visual experience: might these plays have intended for performance in very different spaces within the convent?  The plays seemed to work very frequently with sudden changes of speed or tone – movement to stillness, song to speech, anger to calmness or devotion, for example.   This was something which came over much more strongly in performance than it had when reading the scripts.

We owe a big thankyou to all those who volunteered – Huw, Carol, Jane, Graham, Kats, Audrey, Serin, Kierri and Marco – we had an excellent evening, and learned a great deal from your brilliant performances: merci!

Theatre History Podcast

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On the 7th of June the Medieval Convent Drama team had the pleasure of recording a podcast with Michael Lueger for Theatre History. I was new to such an experience and was slightly dreading it. Would I even be able to articulate words? What if I suddenly forgot how to speak English?

There was no need to worry; it was a fantastic experience and allowed us all to share our discoveries with one another, as well as with the podcast listeners. It was also quite lovely to be able to explain to someone who is not part of the project why medieval nuns are so valuable to the study of drama.

We touched on various themes: the reasons nuns performed drama, the differences between these plays and other medieval drama, the relation of the plays with the liturgy, their importance when considering gender dynamics in the Middle Ages, the examples of Barking and Huy and finally, the project’s attention to performance.

A significant aspect of our methodology consists of performing medieval plays in front of a modern audience, who might not know anything about medieval drama. Opening our project to the public is extremely valuable to us. Not only does it bring precious research information, it also prevents enclosing the project behind the university walls. One of the goals of our work is to contribute to changing the generally-accepted view that all medieval drama was performed by men. One way of doing this is, of course, by making our research known to other scholars. However, the possibility of having an impact beyond academia and of influencing how people view the past, a past through which we often define ourselves, fulfils this goal in an unexpected and highly rewarding way. Performance gives us this possibility– and we will therefore re-create convent plays in local nunneries– but the Theatre History podcast has provided the project with another way of fulfilling this aim and of reaching a non-specialist audience.

A big thank you to Michael Lueger!

Listen to the podcast here

Aurélie

Medieval Convent Drama at the H-WRBI 2017 Conference

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(The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS 71 A 24 Fol. 28r)

Aurélie and I have just returned from a wonderful two days at University College, Dublin, where we’ve been attending the 2017 conference of the History of Women Religious in Britain and Ireland (H-WRBI) network: a selection of papers covering a wide range of approaches, examples and material related to exploring the varied lives, experiences and impacts of women religious from the medieval period to the present day.  The conference theme this year was the archive: oral, material, visual and digital, and hearing such rich papers about the research projects and challenges of the network’s members has thrown up some great methodological questions for us on the Medieval Convent Drama Project – even when, as in the case of many speakers, the areas under discussion were focused on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.   

I was particularly interested to hear speakers discussing the creation and curation of digital archives, and the construction and interpretation of oral history and memory.  Several speakers analysed semi-structured interviews with sisters which they had filmed and transcribed, and which formed the raw data for their research.  We have recently set up some partnerships with a group of women’s houses in Fribourg and the surrounding area, with the intention of performing a selection of our medieval convent plays using an all-female cast within their convents, performances will be open both to the sisters and to members of the public.  We’re also planning to undertake at least one additional performance with a cast made up of sisters, as well as these public performances by non-monastic actors, in the convent spaces.  The papers I heard this week at HWRBI have really made me think more deeply about the best ways of generating, accessing and recording the sisters’ responses to participating in these events, and their reflections and/or recollections concerning the role and significance of drama as part of convent life, both in the past and in the present.   We’ve already had some very interesting informal discussions with a Carmelite sister in Belgium, whose convent generously welcomed us to view their archive and to discuss our project: these conversations revealed that drama is an ongoing part of Carmelite recreation (at least in this particular convent) to this day, and we have anecdotal evidence from some of the women’s houses in Fribourg with whom we are partnering that theatre is practiced quite regularly here too.  Making space, time and provision within our project to ask the nuns with whom we will work to think and reflect out loud on the devotional and emotional affordances of theatre, both in terms of practising it and in terms of watching it unfold in their convent spaces, could provide some really important leads for us, and recording their reflections as expressed verbally by different individuals would allow their voices, thoughts and feelings to raise some of the research questions, or to frame a part of the research agenda, which we seek to explore.

I’ve also been prompted by some of the papers at H-WRBI which explored films made by, or with the cooperation of, sisters to think more creatively about one of the outputs we will produce during this phase of the project.   We had already planned to film some of the preparation for the performances, documenting decisions taken during rehearsals and actors’ reactions to the texts, and perhaps juxtaposing some of the same scenes performed in different spaces and at different locations.  I’m now wondering if we might not be able to try to include some of the sisters’ voices here too – perhaps alongside relevant medieval and later archival material from the convents from which our plays originally hail – to create a documentary-style piece or even, perhaps, a digital ‘exhibition’ incorporating film, image and text, that focuses not just on the performance of the medieval plays from the actors’ and director’s perspectives, but also on their reception within the different religious orders and different groups of nuns who take part in their performance, either through acting themselves or through spectating.  It’s early days yet, of course, and we’ve got a lot to consider here – not least in terms of requesting and gaining permission from the various people and research repositories involved – but H-WRBI 2017 left both Aurélie and I feeling enthused and excited about the range of approaches and outputs we could potentially undertake with the Medieval Convent Drama’s research materials. 

Follow us on Twitter!   @MedConventDrama

 

 

 

Performance of Digby ‘Herod’s Killing of the Children’ play

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On Wednesday, 8th February, in New College Chapel, the Medieval Convent Drama project together with Frideswide Voices will perform Herod’s Killing of the Children and the Presentation in the Temple from the Digby Manuscript, that was copied c.1512.

Admission is free and all are welcome: the performance will start at 7pm and will last about an hour.

Download the poster here

 

Call for applications for doctoral studentship: Medieval Convent Drama

Medieval Convent Drama is a major new research project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, led by Professor Elisabeth Dutton and Dr Olivia Robinson with the collaboration of Dr Matthew Cheung Salisbury (Oxford).  We seek a student to undertake a fully funded doctoral thesis, to be supervised by the project’s collaborators, on any area within the scope of the project.

Project outline

The project will examine the understudied participation of women as actors, compositors and copyists of plays within a wide range of convent-based dramatic performances in the late Middle Ages.  Focusing on convents in England, France and Burgundy, we will: 1) investigate the manuscript presentation of all surviving convent plays from this region; 2) uncover archival evidence for the times and spaces in which they were staged, the possible composition of their casts and audiences, and the other literary and cultural activities of the convents in question; 3) investigate through performance their use of liturgical citation and translation, and ecclesiastical places, spaces and material objects as dramatic tools.  We seek to deepen critical understanding of the ways in which medieval convent communities actively shaped their own dramatic reinterpretations of Biblical and other narratives, the role this drama may have played for its performers and spectators, and the importance of this neglected tradition for broader scholarly assessments of medieval dramatic, devotional and liturgical practices.

Doctoral Study at Fribourg

The successful candidate will receive funding for three years, including all doctoral fees and a maintenance grant of approx. CHF 50,000 per year.

The University is situated in the centre of the medieval city of Fribourg, at the feet of the Jura mountains. Its established Centre for Medieval Studies, currently directed by Professor Dutton, brings together a rich group of researchers into palaeography and codicology, art history, philosophy, literature in Latin, and English, French, and other European vernaculars, medieval theatre, women’s writing, history, and musicology. Other research projects currently based in Fribourg include Fragmentarium, a network that facilitates the study of medieval manuscript fragments through online resources, and Professor Dutton’s Early Drama at Oxford project that studies plays written and staged in Oxford Colleges in the medieval and early modern period.

A wide range of financial and training resources are available to support doctoral students, including those of the Conférence Universitaire de Suisse Occidentale, which organizes regular doctoral workshops and conferences, and the Swiss Association of Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, which encourages contact and collaboration among researchers at the Universities of Fribourg, Lausanne, Geneva, Neuchâtel, Berne, Basel, Zurich.  Researchers have access to the collective library resources of these Universities, and Fribourg itself has a well-endowed medieval library.

Doctoral Student

Applicants should hold a relevant MA, MSt, MPhil or equivalent, and have experience in one or more of:

–     Medieval French literature
–     Medieval English literature
–     Medieval Latin
–     Codicology and palaeography
–     Medieval musicology
–     Medieval Theology
–     Drama and performance
–     Medieval art and architecture
–     Website management

Applicants should email CV and cover letter in English, detailing how their knowledge and expertise could contribute to the project, to Professor Dutton:

elisabeth.dutton@unifr.ch

The selection process may include an interview, possibly via Skype.

Closing date for applications: MONDAY 6th JUNE 2016