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The Epistle and the Email: Medieval and Early Modern Women’s Writing and Online Teaching

Dominique Hoche
West Liberty University

Epistolary-writing studies is one area of the medieval and early modern world that lends itself well to online teaching. Because of their exposure to social media, students are familiar with the intimate nature of letters. They recognize the rhetorical techniques and tricks because they have learned to use them themselves and are familiar with (and forgiving of) the inevitable misunderstandings that will occur. Now that they are learning remotely rather than in person and are told to practice social distancing, students are even more aware of the need for social connection and have new appreciation for writing as a way to connect.

Multicultural Studies in Literature is usually taught focusing on nineteenth- and twentieth-century North American writings. When I teach it, however, as an upper-division course with about fifteen English majors, I emphasize medieval and early modern European women writers. I focus on the letters available to us from these writers and begin with Perpetua of Carthage (d. 203 CE) to illustrate the challenges of being a convert and ultimately a martyr in the early Christian church. We discuss Dhuoda of Uzès (ca. 843), whose letters she combined for her son into a handbook, the Liber Manualis, because she was determined to not be lost in time as just another mother; she combined her life experiences, education, observations, and knowledge with puns, numerology, and acrostics to keep her son entertained and educated. We perform the play The Passion of the Holy Virgins by Hrotswirtha of Gandersheim (935–1001) so that my students can “get into the skins” of the women we are reading. I end the semester with Veronica Franco’s (1546–91) letters and poems to illustrate the life of the cortigiana onesta, or honest courtesan, as she was called, and discuss the lives of sex workers. Finally, we look at Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Noble-Man and his Sister (1684) and discuss how online writing can build or destroy a reputation.

Women’s writing in the Middle Ages shares many aspects of early modern epistolary novels. Though the letters may be addressed to specific persons or to a general audience, there is always a sense that the written word is not meant to be private; it is expected that the letter will be read out loud, copied, sent to other readers, and responded to in turn. Early modern epistolary novels are often constructed to mimic real life; medieval women’s writing reflects their actual, authentic lives and views. Early modern epistolary novels, on the other hand, hold a sense of self-consciousness that is very similar to medieval women’s writing, even to the levels of the extreme self-awareness of our modern “influencers” and bloggers. From this foundation of epistolary writing, we can explore privacy, public response, and self-consciousness with the discussion forums used in an online class. I encourage my students to be cognizant of the intimacy of the discussions and to respond authentically even though they are aware it is a construct. 

It is the intimate and yet universal nature of the works that have survived that make up our canon of medieval and early modern literature. It is this very nature that lets these works appeal to us and to students in the classroom, and now online (in my case, first-generation college students whose familiarity with medieval and early modern literature is limited to the standard works seen in high-school textbooks). Although a student may sit quietly in the classroom, dutifully taking notes on a text they have (or have not) read, the online requirement for students to respond to each other in discussion forums causes the intimate nature of the works to blossom. I am constantly told “I had no idea that anything this old could be this applicable to my life!” Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint (1421), for example (although used in a different class), truly garners this response, especially after I have the students read the free-verse version of his soliloquy on depression and social anxiety.1 Again, that experience of intimacy appeals to students and inspires debate.

Another way that students find connections to the world of medieval and early modern women writers is through their own experiences of posting their opinions online. We make a post, a comment, a tweet, that is personal to us. Will anyone like it, or reply or share our sentiments? The question is how to replicate this experience in an online class? Using Dhuoda’s letters, for example, shows them how it felt to be a medieval mother and how it must have felt for her to weave herself and her life so closely and intimately with her text and its advice on how to be a man. It is a self-portrait that demands a response. One of the assignments I will use this fall is to have my students write to a classmate about one of Dhuoda’s letters as if they themselves received it from their mother (Dhuoda). I will ask them to reply as any normal teenager. What would they tell their friends? How does this reflect on their own experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic or Black Lives Matter protests? What is their opinion on Dhuoda’s thoughts on how to survive in a toxic and violent wartime environment? In addition, after they have responded to each other, I ask them to respond to Dhuoda herself. The responses will be uploaded to the learning management system and graded according to a standard rubric. This will be used as a formative assessment of not only what they learned about Dhuoda, but also how they are linking the old with the new.

Students respond much better to each other in online forums when they have met each other first; that is a fact that has been proven again and again in research about online communities. The immediacy, clarity, and personal support of online responses also causes a reaction that validates our personal feelings: that burst of dopamine that makes us feel good and loved and wanted. This spring, when we all went from being in-class to online, held its myriad difficulties, but we still had the advantage of knowing that our students could put a name and personality to a face. This fall we may face the same opportunity; my university is planning on starting the semester in mid-August with in-seat classes, but who knows what October may bring? I am making plans right now to quickly restructure my class and to take advantage of the first month’s precious seat time. 

This impending mid-semester transition from a standard classroom environment to an online environment will most likely happen without the buffer of spring break. Going overnight from in-seat to virtual will force us to rebuild our courses unless we have prepared for that eventuality, which is exactly what I am doing. I will begin the semester with them writing physical letters to each other—pen and ink, just as the women writers wrote—so that they will share an informal experience and get to know each other. Informal communication is a vital part of creating a sense of community, and even though we may transition overnight to an online class, I think it is important to keep a balance between formal online assessment projects and informal material projects. Later in the semester, I have an in-class activity with goose quill feathers and modern ink: I offer students uncut goose feathers and have them cut the feather properly for writing, teach them how the feather functions as an ink well, and have them practice writing on paper that is close to parchment. If I lose my students to online work before this class happens, I will still encourage them to try this material experience with any large feathers they may find at the park or in their backyards. This is where I think the bond between students will be the most successful: in building a sense of community not only online, but in doing common physical activities outside the class: learning how to sew using wool cloth and linen thread; learning how to cut and write with a goose quill; visiting museums virtually and describing the scenes of medieval and early modern life that they find in manuscripts (I like to have them find pets or animals to start); getting together over Zoom or a similar platform and performing a medieval or early modern play. 

A sense of community can be built in an online class, but it takes time and needs to be built up over weeks, whereas with face-to-face it can happen in one or two class meetings. An authentic presence in an online class is impossible without extreme self-awareness; otherwise, one ends up creating a persona. Epistolary writing allows our students to observe the nature of privacy, to learn how their peers respond to them, and to develop the self-consciousness necessary to succeed in an online environment where intimacy is inevitably artificial. The initial social connection of the classroom will be vital to the success of the class and for the personal success of each student if and when they lose their physical connection to their peers and their professor because of COVID-19. I want them to keep the sense of community that in turn will generate a perceptive and sincere connection with each other, and I hope this will enable them to respond as authentically as they can.

Dominique Hoche is a Professor of English at West Liberty University in West Liberty, West Virginia. She is a coeditor of The Prose Brut and Other Late Medieval Chronicles: Books Have Their Histories: Essays in Memory of Lister Matheson (Boydell & Brewer, 2016). Her recent research focuses on textiles and clothing during the time of the Danelaw in England and she is an avid sewist who makes period appropriate Viking/Scandinavian and medieval clothing.

1 Carl James Grindley, “Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint: Extracts from A Free Verse Translation,” The Glasgow Review 4 (1996).

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