It has been ages since I went to visit the Roman baths at Bath. I think the last time was a school trip when I was somewhere around year nine – certainly not for a while. (I don’t count the very nice afternoon I spent there a couple of days after returning from the US for a friend’s hen do, as the purpose of that visit was strictly to visit the Pump Room rather than the baths themselves.) I recently had the opportunity to go along and visit the baths properly on my travels, and I thought now was as good a time as any to refresh myself with the evidence for the baths that we have. I’ve been trying to incorporate as much material from Bath into my teaching as I can – this is part of a broader pedagogical commitment to using as much Roman Britain evidence as possible, partly for my own professional development and partly to incorporate provincial evidence alongside more mainstream Roman and Italian approaches. Last year’s Religion, Myth and Ritual course, for instance, made good use of Bath as a site that demonstrates syncretism (the combination of local and Roman deities, as in Sulis Minerva), and also the expansion of Roman religious structures into the provinces. It has turned up less in this year’s Roman Life Course teaching, but I wanted to see the site for myself and decide what I made of it.
The site is well presented and preserved – the free audiotour, narrated by Alice Roberts, also gives you plenty of light background information on what you are seeing (although I will say I found it rather less informative than I would have liked – something I didn’t feel with the audiotour of the Royal Academy’s Bronze exhibition, even for commentary on the Greek and Roman items). The visitor is quickly given a sense of the scale of the complex, how little of it is actually on display compared to how much is buried beneath the streets of modern Bath, and the sort of activities that would have taken place there. The intersection of bathing and religion is a fascinating one, particularly given the provision in the bathing complex of a pool of water pumped directly from the sacred spring (courtesy of a surviving lead pipe similar to the one found at Carleon); the reconstruction of buildings from the temple complex also suggest that the practice of incubation took place here. This is the posh name for when people seeking an oracle or healing slept overnight in a small purpose-built structure in the temple courtyard; they would then report their dreams to the local priest, who would interpret them. The act of sleeping in the god’s domain overnight was also itself supposed to act as a cure.
This week I’ve finished writing up my responses to this year’s load of module evaluation forms – I wrote a little bit about them last year, although under different circumstances. This year, we have a new shiny system – although the forms are still completed manually, they are processed by computer, which means that all the clever number-crunching stuff is now delivered to one’s inbox in a shiny PDF. Along with a duplicate e-mail containing the same shiny PDF along with data in three other PDFs which do not appear to be particularly distinct from one other, but never mind, it’s the main one that’s interesting. Particularly clever is the fact that the scanning machine can capture written responses, so as well as the prettified data the PDFs also contain scans of what students actually wrote – meaning the time I put aside to carefully type them all up was wasted, but that’s a small price to pay for progress.
When I last wrote about these module evaluations, I expressed quite a bit of frustration about the conflicting feedback, and the problems with actually identifying anything concrete to do about the sort of comments that completely contradict each other. For that reason, I’m usually a big advocate of using things like the CIQs and one minute papers to engage with students on a micro-level rather than wait for the final assessment when it’s too late to solve problems that have affected students throughout the course. But this time around, a couple of things stood out, and I do have a few things that I want to do differently next time.
I have finally got around to reading Freud’s essay on the uncanny [link to PDF]. I first decided I wanted to read it when I was thinking about monsters for the Harryhausen paper. My thought process then was concerned with trying to work out what anxieties the Clash of the Titans monsters were expressing, particularly those from the 1981 film which seemed to miss the usual flashpoints of the Cold War or Nuclear Winter. I’ve been dwelling on this, because there’s another way of reading monsters, which is as a way of symbolising psychological fears. For instance, every alien film can be seen as expressing fear of the unknown, either in terms of what might come at us from it or what happens if we start exploring it and venturing beyond our natural limits. Slasher films and horror films in general also work well with this sort of model, particularly those which have monstrous female protagonists like Carrie, The Exorcist or The Hunger.
My observations about reading monsters psychologically were formed mainly by Barbara Creed’s excellent book The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, which identifies seven archetypes of the monstrous feminine found in film: archaic mother, monstrous womb, vampire, witch, possessed body, monstrous mother and castrator. These ideas primarily focus on horror films and their kin, so despite a reference to Medusa symbolising the vagina dentata, there wasn’t much to play with on the Harryhausen front. (I also found the analysis of the films lacked any consideration of the effect of these monsters on the female spectator, but that’s a bugbear I have about a lot of film studies literature.) Creed relies heavily on Kristeva’s idea of the abject, the sense of repressing the horrific and writing out the rejected and abject from our semantic system, but Kristeva built her ideas on Freud’s essay on the uncanny. So I thought I would go back to source and see whether those ideas have anything to offer in terms of explaining classical monsters.
I’m sure most of you who hang around here will have come across the awesome IRIS Project, whose mission is to give children from all walks of life an opportunity to learn about the languages and cultures of the ancient world. One of their initiatives is the Mayor of London’s Love Latin scheme, where Boris has put his money where his mouth is – after saying publically for so long that Latin is wonderful, he’s backing a scheme to get Latin into as many schools in the capital as possible, not just those in economically privileged areas. The scheme pairs volunteers with schools; the volunteers then go in to give a talk on whatever subject the school would like. Hopefully this then creates the opportunity for the school either to use the interest that generates in pupils to start teaching a new subject, to continue as members of the scheme next year, or to build on the experience in some other way.
Given that my roots are in London and that I too think it’s hugely important to let students from as many backgrounds know that classics is for them as much as it is for anybody else, signing up to be part of the scheme was a bit of a no-brainer. I wasn’t able to participate last year, which was the first year the project ran, but I was able to fit something into my schedule this year. So last week I pottered off to a primary school in Highams Park to give two Year Four classes an hour’s taster of Latin, as the beginning of their unit on the Romans.
I will admit to having some nerves about whether I’d aimed the talk at the right level – Year Four is eight and nine year olds, and while I had quite a lot to do with that age group when I was a teenager working with the YMCA Day Camps, it’s been a while since I engaged with them in a meaningful way. Thankfully, it soon turned out that I’d pitched it just right, with three activities for the hour and enough variety to keep the children engaged. They’ll be going to see the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum in May, so I finished off with a bit of graffiti – real graffiti, mind, albeit with a little bit of judicious age-appropriate editing and a very informative crib sheet (and thanks are due to Jane Draycott for pointing me in the direction of Ancient Graffiti in Context). They all got extremely excited about this, which is what I was hoping – even in a heavily supported fashion, that feeling of solving the puzzle of translation is a reward worth earning.
I’m still smiling over the feedback sheets that they’ve filled out for the IRIS project. There’s something about the unrestrained enthusiasm of that age group that makes you grin – not to mention the boost to the ego of knowing that you have earned the accolades of ‘best time in the history of school’ and ‘the best ever visitor’. Shame that sort of keenness doesn’t last when students come to fill out university module evaluation forms!
I’ve just finished reading G.K. Chesterton’s Short History of England. I don’t intend to say much about it here, but I did very much like this passage on the Roman heritage that underpins our world:
Every now and then there is discovered in modern England some fragment such as a Roman pavement. Such Roman antiquities rather diminish than increase the Roman reality. They make something seem distant which is still very near, and something seem dead that is still alive. It is like writing a man’s epitaph on his front door. The epitaph would probably be a compliment, but hardly a personal introduction. The important thing about France and England is not that they have Roman remains. They are Roman remains. In truth they are not so much remains as relics; for they are still working miracles. A row of poplars is a more Roman relic than a row of pillars. Nearly all that we call the works of nature have but grown like fungoids upon this original work of man; and our woods are mosses on the bones of a giant. Under the seeds of our harvests and the roots of our trees is a foundation of which the fragments of tile and brick are but emblems; and under the colours of our wildest flowers are the colours of a Roman pavement.
I know I’ve been a bit quiet on here lately – this is mainly due to the end of term (which I should write about at some point) and the general pile-up of work that seems to hit everyone at the end of the spring teaching season. However, before I go on holiday next week (yes, a proper holiday!), I want to take time to comment on the conference I was at last weekend, which was titled Women as Classical Scholars. The honouree was Jacqueline de Romilly, who would have celebrated her hundredth birthday on 26th March; she was a well-respected Hellenist, the first woman nominated to the Collège de France, and the second woman to enter the Académie Français. However, the conference served as a springboard to think about women as classical scholars more broadly, starting with Carmel McCallum-Barry’s paper on Italian and English women in the early modern period and moving on from there. I should take this chance to give my thanks publicly to the conference convenors, Rosie Wyles, Edith Hall and Lottie Parkyn, for organising such an excellent and intellectually rewarding event. As I said at the time, it was just what I needed after a long term of teaching – a chance to get my brain back into research mode, and to be among people who were thinking of me primarily as a researcher rather than a colleague in teaching.
I went to the conference partly to see some friends and colleagues from the US who I knew would be presenting, but mainly because I was interested in context. One of the eternally on-the-boil projects I’m contemplating is something to do with classical reception in the work of Hope Mirrlees, who is known to history as the woman who was Jane Harrison’s companion in the last years of her life. I’ve written a little about this before in an article for the CA News, which is available here if you’re interested, but it’s an on-going process of research, and I thought the conference would be a good way to get some broader context into what academic women were doing around her period. Well, I got far more than I bargained for – thanks to Jacqueline Fabre-Serris, I also got Renée Vivien’s translation of Sappho (in comparison with Anne Dacier’s). Vivien was part of the Paris South Bank movement, with which Harrison and Mirrlees also had connections, and was apparently bought the Greek text by the notorious Natalie Barney.