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Posts Tagged ‘Hildegard Von Bingen’

The centre of the labyrinth, Cathedrale de Notre Dame, Chartres (My photo, May 2014)

The centre of the labyrinth, Cathedrale de Notre Dame, Chartres (My photo, May 2014)

I’m frequently asked, most often by bemused family members, why the Middle Ages? What claim does it have on me? There is no easy answer to that question – I’ve loved the architecture, art, and stories so long that I cannot identify a single moment or monument that began my medievalist life. That said, the labyrinth is one element of medieval life that I cannot resist. Fortunately, many still exist, and the one I know best is at the heart of Chartres Cathedral. I don’t remember if we walked it on our first visit – I was three, perhaps four, and according to my mother, constantly rushing off to look at the Cathedral’s treasures. But it seems likely that it was covered by chairs, as it was on my most recent visit, when I took myself off for a wee holiday round Brittany and Normandy in May of this year, when I took the photo on the left. I was very disappointed at not being able to walk the path of the labyrinth, but it’s just another excuse, were any needed, to visit Chartres and its cathedral again. (more…)

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Hildegard von Bingen, Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias.

You may have noticed that Monday came and went without its/my habitual medieval commentary. If you look to the picture on the left, you will see why; I’m still not sure if it was good to have the headaches without the visions. Do they still burn witches? (more…)

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This evening I indulged myself in a small act of espionage, attending the Women in Science panel at the Royal Society. You may be wondering why an art librarian would attend such an event. I am a feminist; I am interested in finding out how all women develop their careers in their chosen fields. I want to live in a world where women have every opportunity and all the support necessary for them to choose a career and to succeed therein. There have long been concerns about women working in science, about why so many of them who complete their PhDs and work in early post-doctoral positions seem to disappear when it comes to professorial roles. One panel speaker, Professor David Atwell, Jodrell Professor of Physiology at UCL, described it as a leaking pipe.

My understanding of the relationship between science and the arts is based on the Enlightment principle that they are both crucial to a balanced life. One of the central texts of the period, the Encyclopédie, ou, Dictionnaire raisoné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers, by Diderot and Alembert, emphasises that fact even in its title. One of my siblings is a doctor; I told him once that while it was his job to make people better and to save their lives, it was mine to curate, provide access to and teach people about the things that made life worth living – science thus gives the arts the space to work their magic on people. At the same time, I do enjoy science as well; one of my favourite subjects at secondary school was Chemistry (who doesn’t enjoy making potions?) and I am fascinated by the history of science, especially of medicine.

Back to tonight; the panel came from a great variety of science disciplines – cognitive development, physiology, the history of science, psychopathology, cognitive therapies (CBT), behavioural science, and biochemistry – as well as journalism, biographical studies,and librarianship. Because of an event earlier in the day – Woman in Science: a Wikipedia Workshop, a Wikipedia Edit-athon, the purpose of which was to improve and created Wikipedia articles about women in science, there was also a representative of Wikimedia and representatives of Ada Lovelace Day, which celebrates women in science, technology, engineering, and maths.

One of the opening comments made by the panel chair, Professor Uta Frith FRS, of University College London, particularly caught my attention. According to Penelope Lockwood, women need female role models more than men need male role models (‘Someone like me can be successful: do college students need same-gender role models?’, Psychology of Women Quarterly, vol 30(1), pp.36-46, March 2006). It really struck me, and made it very clear why events such as the afternoon’s Wikimedia Edit-athon are necessary. Another reason for increasing the number of similar events is the worrying statistic that only 10% of Wikipedia editors are women (Wikimedia’s own statistics, quoted by their representative Daria Cybulska). That in itself was rather shocking; someone asked if it was a case of women having less time to commit to such – largely extra-curricular – activities. Later in the discussion, women in the audience returned obliquely to this point by pointing out that women with children were frequently unable to participate fully in the life of the university including out-of-hours events, and that it would be necessary to manage such events to allow participation by all staff.

Professor Richard Holmes, Fellow of the British Academy, included in his opening remarks a timeline of remarkable women of science, including my beloved Hildegard Von Bingen, as well as women like Maria Agnesi (1718-1799), Mary Shelley (1797-1851), and Mary Somerville (1780-1872). It was discussed how such women are considered heroines and role models, which led to an examination of their early lives and education. Many people present described these women as those who knew what they want, as people who had grown up in homes where debate and discussion were the norm; they are considered strong people who would not be told that they could not work in the fields of their choice. But we are not all like that, and this was addressed as well – a regrettably brief discussion given the time constraints, but interesting in terms of recent publications on the value of introvertism, such as Susan Cain’s Quiet : the power of introverts. I do believe that introverts have a certain resilience that means that they too will get where they want to eventually, but I don’t know if women are more likely to be introverted than men. Something to think about …

Much of the rest of the decision focused on the upbringing and education of girls and how this should be addressed to give girls a stronger sense of self and to keep them working in the sciences. As regards the former, it was suggested by some panel members that there is a gender divide in the way in which parents deal with their children’s failures. Boys are encouraged to pick themselves up and try again while girls are told that it is good that they tried. Speaking from personal experience, I don’t think that this is a universal parental reaction; I think that the path people take in life is as much determined by their personality as by the way in which they are raised. It was therefore interesting to hear the cognitive therapies scientists discuss how it is also necessary to change adults’ ways of thinking, and to acknowledge that there is need for flexibility and ambiguity.

There was only one moment where you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife, I still can’t entirely understand what was said by a male member of the audience, but it was something about the shape of our brains being determined by the shape (i.e male shape or female shape) of our bodies. He mentioned Dr Helena Cronin as the source of his theories, but I can only hope that he misunderstood her arguments; unfortunately, this article would suggest otherwise. I will have to try to read her in more depth to find out more. The atmosphere of the room was in some areas icy cold and in others stormy at that point of the discussions, but the panel brought us back successfully to more productive discourse.

I have a lot to read and a lot to think about as a result of this evening’s discussions. For now, I am happy to be finding my way back into my intellectual life, and may need to celebrate this step with the purchase of an actual pair of blue stockings.

Please note: there will be a podcast of the event made available here in the days following the event (I don’t have an exact date).

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