The Vulnerable Academic Body

Royal 6.E.vi, f. 296v. detail

In 1518, John and Alice Phipes were brought before the church court in the diocese of Lincoln, England, on suspicion of idolatry. They had not been worshipping a graven idol in the sense we might expect; instead, they kept a cradle near their bed and ‘it is used as if there were an infant in it’. Had the Phipeses lost a baby, or had they never had one? Did they rock the cradle at night for comfort, the back-and-forth motion a substitute for a body that could no longer be held by a pair of arms? Or was the cradle a talisman, a charm to conjure a wish into crying, cooing life? The spare court record tells us nothing of how John and Alice used the cradle, or what they thought it meant; but that they were indicted for it suggests that they had disturbed somebody enough that they had reported them to the authorities, that they had breached the socially acceptable boundaries of grief or desire.

I read this court record on a cold day in November 2017, my right arm aching from a bruise left by a pre-operative blood test, a week before a surgeon removed the lining of my womb. My veins have always been difficult to find, which seems funny for someone who has been told she wears her heart too much on her sleeve. I looked at the purpling mark on the skin of my inner arm and thought about what I was about to give up – any possibility of having another child – and what I hoped to gain, which was the chance for a healthier life. My bruised arm remembered holding the weight of my newborn daughter’s head, and I felt a tenderness close to pain: thinking of her, and of Alice and John five hundred years ago, with their empty arms and empty cradle.

William Beckwith McInnes , “The Empty Cradle,” 1908

This kind of empathetic identification with people in the past can be discouraged as an unprofessional response for a professional historian, as if our vulnerable bodies are not a powerful means of connecting with a past that exists otherwise only in archives, in libraries, on paper; or on parchment, skin stripped of its vulnerability, flesh smoothed out of imperfect hairy life into something flat, ready to be written on by someone else’s hand. Undergraduate students come to me preoccupied with the need to be ‘objective’ in their study of history, and in their early essays diligently replicate the schoolroom expectation that there is no space for I in academic work. They are taught to obliterate their own narrative voice; they believe excising themselves from their texts, like scraping a skin into parchment, is a step toward becoming a serious historian. You are not a tabula rasa, I tell them.

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But still, like all teachers, I have a hard time learning the lessons I try to convey to my students. On another grey afternoon, this time in June of last year, I was lying in bed in the major casualties ward of the Accident and Emergency department of my local hospital. Hooked up to a monitor, I used my iPhone to send apologetic emails to the history faculty at my university, saying it was likely I would not be able to fulfil my examiner’s duties. After my transfer to the Acute Medical Unit I made calmly reassuring phone calls to family members, saying there was probably nothing to worry about – but I might have a blood clot in my lung.

It turned out I actually had three. Once an overachiever, always an overachiever. This, I had the sense, was probably a big deal; but all the same, I felt guilty for dumping extra work on my colleagues at a busy time of year. And as an early career researcher with the hourglass of my research fellowship ticking down toward zero, I felt I needed to go back to work as soon as possible. A few days after my hospital trip I presented at a major conference, afterwards spitting red into the sink of my hotel room as my body adjusted to the various side effects of blood thinners. I could do this, I told myself; no lousy pulmonary embolism was going to beat me. Keeping up this pace of work, however, proved untenable, and a while later I was signed off work for several weeks. It did feel like a defeat, a personal failing. After all, there wasn’t anything that wrong with me, right? Just three specks of darkness where there should be none in my left lung.

In my attempt to be a responsible professional, I gave myself very little breathing room: not for the first time, and nor, I fear, the last. Maintaining a ‘professional’ appearance and demeanour while also working the lengthy hours, with multiple outputs, that the modern academy demands is a privilege that relies on being able to make choices to centre one’s career without the distractions of having a disabled body, or caring responsibilities, or the nagging worry about making rent. Trying to be a ‘serious academic’ in these circumstances can feel a little like having a blood clot in your lung. It’s not always fatal, or at least not at once: but it’s exhausting, draining, as day by day it becomes harder to breathe.

Academia is supposedly interested only in what our minds produce, which should make the playing field utterly equitable. But instead it can not only ignore its employees’ lived – embodied – realities, but even worse, make us feel we need to apologise for them. When we ask universities to accommodate our human needs rather than incorporating them, we are accepting an ableist understanding of the academic landscape, where we apologise for our human frailties instead of embracing them as part of what makes us the thinkers, writers and teachers that we are. If historians accept a model of professionalism that expects us to excise our bodily vulnerabilities and our affective ties, we also lose a fundamental means of connecting with our historical subjects. By incorporating our embodied experience into our lives as scholars, we not only make a radical claim for our value to the academy as complete people –  we also gain the skills to draw lovingly out of fragmentary evidence what it might have meant to be a person in the past.

A few months after my pulmonary embolism I made that decision to have an endometrial ablation. No longer able to take hormonal birth control, my periods had once again become an exhausting, messy burden. I was already sure I only wanted one child, and it surprised me what a painful thing it was to eliminate the possibility of carrying another baby. I wondered if other historians had read the Phipes case and felt a sympathetic pang over their empty cradle; if they have, it is not written anywhere that I can find. I might be accused of reading too much into two scant sentences, of mapping my own history onto people of the past. Yet no one comes to the business of writing history as a blank slate; our own stories are written all through us, changing the way we see the past, and how we feelit. These days I tell my students that to write history that matters we must embrace the ways in which our own pasts and presents have brought us to a place where we can be truly intimate with our subjects. An intimacy of the daily grind, punctuated by everyday joys and grief; of an empty cradle rocked in the dark of night, for comfort or in hope.

Rachel Moss is a lecturer in medieval history who tweets @menysnoweballes and blogs at rachelemoss.com

Lead image: James LePalmer, Omne Bonum (Absolucio-Circumcisio), c. 1360-c. 1375, Detail of a historiated initial ‘C'(lericus) of a group of clerics and a group of concubines pointing to an infant in a cradle, British Library