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The 13th century Monks’ Common Room at Battle Abbey is hosting a film installation about 12th century writer Marie de France throughout the summer months. Photograph © Zoe Oliver

Marie in the Margins takes over Hastings Museum, Battle Abbey… and Kalamazoo

This week, the combined power of the 12th and 21st century female workforces have led to a successful invasion of the historic grounds of Hastings Museum and Art Gallery, Battle Abbey and Western Michigan University. Erica Smith writes about this quiet and long-planned conquest.

Performers Lily Kim and Siddy Bennett feature in the film.

Last summer, St Leonards-based experiential theatre company ExploreTheArch started investigating the writings of Marie de France, the first known female writer of ‘adventure stories’, to put pen to paper. Spirited, a performance based around three of her extraordinary short stories, led to an Arts Council England project grant. The new project, Marie in the Margins, explores the relationship between three contemporary women working in the creative industries and the ground-breaking medieval female author. A video installation with music by Ruby Colley focuses on writer Hannah Collisson, artist Yasmin Aishah and me – graphic designer Erica Smith.

The video will premiere simultaneously at Hastings Museum and Art Gallery and Battle Abbey. Hastings-based creatives Siddy Bennett, Lily Kim, Tatenda Michael Manyarara and Philly Piggott also appear in the work.

The installation and film will be screened in the Battle Abbey Common Room throughout the summer season. Entrance is included in the admission fee to the English Heritage site.

Writer and performer Hannah Collisson features in the video installation and is running writing workshops for local school children in Hastings Museum. Photograph © Alexander Brattell

Workshops at Hastings Museum

From Monday 9 to Friday 13 May, ExploreTheArch theatre company and its partners are running a week of inspirational creative workshops for local children at Hastings Museum and Art Gallery. The workshops are timed to link with an International Congress on Medieval Studies, which features the project’s video installation as part of its virtual performance platform.

Funded by the Museum and Heritage Lottery Fund, this workshop programme celebrates the twelfth-century author of adventure stories, Dame Marie de France and other working women like her. Marie was writing on English soil a hundred years after the Norman invasion at a time when female illustrators were also practicing their craft across Europe.

Throughout the week, primary school children will be reimagining Hastings Museum as an abbey where they will be learning about medieval life and work.

Primary school children from all over Hastings are encouraged to imagine the museum as their abbey or workshop and are working with Dame Marie’s modern counterparts – female cultural innovators who live and work in Hastings today.

Hastings Museum and Art Gallery’s Learning Officer, Foteini Athanasiadou, and Curator of Archaeology, Philip Hadland, welcome 60–90 children to the museum every day to explore writing, scribing, illustration, music and artefacts from the museum collection.

UCL historian funded by the British Academy, Dr Emily Joan Ward has joined ExploreTheArch’s practitioners to contribute historical context. Each of the workshop leaders, including me, weave our personal experience of migration into the programme, reflecting the journeys that Dame Marie and her peers, many of them women and children, made across the channel.

Dr Emily Ward and pupils from Key Stage 2 explore the museum and its grounds together.

“Migration has been a constant part of British history for centuries”, Dr Ward notes. “The conquests of England in the eleventh century further encouraged the movement of people into, out of and within the British Isles, affecting individual lives but also leaving a lasting impression on language, culture and society. It is important to share this history with children learning about the impact of the Norman Conquest at school.”

The children taking part in the project are encouraged to engage with this female workforce history, empowered to aspire academically and to think about their career choices – and to feel that medieval history is relevant to their lives today.

Philip Hadland from Hastings Museum has selected some medieval domestic items from the museum collection to give a flavour of Marie de France’s world. Shown here is a silver coin depicting Henry II. Marie lived and wrote at an unknown court, but she and her work were almost certainly known to King Henry II of England. This coin would have been legal tender during Marie’s time. Perhaps she used one of these to buy her writing materials?

Bringing the C12 female workforce into the 21st century

The workshops are accompanied by ExploreTheArch’s Marie In The Margins video installation, funded by Arts Council England and Hastings Borough Council. Director Gail Borrow worked with cinematographer Rod Morris and editor Sarah Gomes Harris. The film up-ends traditional assumptions about the role of women in the middle ages.

Gail Borrow explains, “Medieval women are predominantly positioned at the heart of the home, symbolised as mothers of newborn babies in madonna imagery. This project highlights medieval women working on the fertile margins who reflect the vibrant female workforce in Hastings’ cultural sector today.”

Reaching all the way to Kalamazoo!

On Friday 13 May, Borrow will present a section of Marie in the Margins at an international academic symposium organised by Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. The presentation is part of the week long International Marie de France Society symposium.

Me (Erica Smith, left), Yasmin Aishah and Hannah Collisson exploring medieval writer Marie de France in very different ways.

Assembling my installation in the Battle Abbey Common Room. Photograph © Alexander Brattell

New experiences and ghosts from the past

It has been a privilege to be involved in the exploration of Marie de France’s work. This time last year, her name was unknown to me. Over the last twelve months, I have helped to write, and performed in, a play about her, learned how to scribe early gothic text with a goose feather, been the subject of a film and learned how to teach history and lettering to eight- and nine-year olds.

As I prepared my writing desk as part of the installation in Battle Abbey on Wednesday, I felt the connection with those scribes and illustrators from the days of yore.

After the Battle Abbey gates clang shut at night, I think the ghosts of the Abbey will be fascinated to explore my desk, Hannah’s convertible writing table/chair and Yaz’s bed. And if you haven’t ever visited Battle Abbey, I recommend you come and have a look at them too!

Yasmin Aishah preparing her installation in the Battle Abbey Common Room. Photograph © Alexander Brattell

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Posted 16:57 Friday, May 13, 2022 In: Arts News

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