Dr Bex Lyons is a Teaching Associate in English and Personal Development. She is a late medievalist with research interests in book and reading history, particularly female owners and readers of Arthurian literature in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England. Her BoB lecture ‘Medieval Romance: Unexpected Journeys and Meetings’ considers the transformative value of the arts and humanities in modern and personal contexts, using herself and her experience of reading medieval romance as a case study. I caught up with Bex over a cup of tea, to talk about her research, her academic journey, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the therapeutic benefits of river swimming.
So Bex, who inspired you to go to university?
Well, I’ve always loved books. And I think I can probably trace that back to my mum, because she always took me to my local community library once a week to pick out a new book. And so that really instilled a love of reading into me. She always wanted to go to university herself, so I think she was really supportive and encouraging when I said, you know, I love academia. I love learning. I want to keep doing this.
Also the English teachers that I’ve had. I don’t know what it is about the English teachers that I’ve had in my life, but they all seem to have been really inspirational in their own ways. Particularly a lady called Ms Waters from my secondary school who was terrifying to all the other students. She had this really scary Victorian way of dressing and she was one of these teachers who could control a room without raising her voice, just with a look. And one day on my birthday, she came and knelt down next to my desk and she said, ‘all the best people are born today, you know?’ It turns out she had the same birthday as me! She really brought out the best in me in terms of love of learning.
What were your expectations for yourself as a student?
Probably fairly low. When I moved to Bangor from London as an undergraduate, I had taken a gap year. I had gone off and traveled and become marginally independent by doing that. But when I moved to university, it was my first extended period of living away from home. And I didn’t even know how to boil an egg for the appropriate amount of time. So I was really busy learning how to be an independent adult, and sometimes my studies took a bit of a back burner to that and, you know, all the fun exploration that you do as a teenager.
So I started as an undergraduate in 2005, and graduated in 2008, the month before the financial crisis hit. And I look at the students that I teach now and I think a lot of the pressures that they face I didn’t necessarily feel in the same way. I get a lot of students coming to me now and saying, ‘I really need to differentiate myself’ because it’s so competitive out there. I totally get why they feel this pressure because I think the world has changed. And I do think that things are much more challenging now, especially economically, and the pressure to know who you are, and to be able to specialize so early on.
I think there’s a lot to be said for meandering. I’m a great meanderer, my life was taken lots of meandering turns. And to me, that’s been a real blessing and a privilege and I just wish that I could grant space to my students to do some of that meandering. You know that Baz Luhrman song ‘sunscreen’, he says some of the most interesting people I know at 40 didn’t know what they wanted to do.
I’ve made a career out of enjoying reading books. So it’s going to sound so cheesy, but find your bliss and follow it. If you can. I realize that sometimes following your bliss and making money don’t quite tally up, but if you can make it work, it’s great!
Following from that, when you came to the end of your undergraduate, did you know that you wanted to go into academia? Or did you know specifically what you wanted to do after uni?
When I finished my degree, I did feel a bit burnt out and a bit fed up of essays and exams and studying. So I got a job the month after I graduated working as an editorial assistant for Arden Shakespeare, which was, you know, Dream English Literature Graduate Job!
I worked as an editor and worked my way up in academic publishing for a few years, but I always had this like niggling doubt, this feeling that I was missing something. Because although I was editing other people’s writing, and working with authors really closely, I wasn’t producing anything myself research wise, and I think that part of me really missed doing that.
So, in 2010, I started a part-time masters at King’s College London, because I was working in London at the time, while I was working full time as an editor, so I’d run off to seminars and then run back to work and make up the hours. And by the end of that two year, part-time masters, I really felt like I hadn’t 100% dedicated myself to either my academic work or my publishing job. And I thought, right, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to do it properly. So I decided to quit my glamorous career in publishing, and go and do a PhD full time and be a student again. Everyone thought I was mad, but I wouldn’t change anything for the world. I wouldn’t look back at all.
So at university did you ever feel stressed? And if so, how would you go about managing that stress?
Yes, I think probably more so the older I got. Particularly during my master’s, when I was juggling work and studies, I found that very pressured, very stressful. And what do I do to counteract that? Well, I’m a qualified Yoga instructor – that’s one of my many hats.
Yeah! So I do a lot of Yoga and breathing techniques. Being in nature as well. During my PhD, I moved down to Wiltshire or the Shire, as I affectionately call it, and I live really close to this patch of ancient woodland. For my PhD, I’d be sitting at my laptop for 14 hours a day, sometimes. Just hunched over, not seeing sunlight, eating absolute crap. And so taking myself out for a walk in the woods was, for me, a really good way to reset, rebalance and re-center. So being in nature and yoga – two top tips!
I know you’re a fan of wild swimming, as well.
I am! This is a more recent thing. So last summer when we had that blissful, beautiful, hot, long summer, I just used to go and fling myself in rivers and swim about, so I’d also recommend that – very de-stressing. Being in nature, that’s where it’s at.
Obviously the whole mindfulness discussion is so popular nowadays. For students, it’s just so important, especially if you are spending, as we do, just so much time in your own head thinking and writing and you’re really just not in contact with the rest of your body at all, and it’s the essential fusion of the mind and body that we forget…
Absolutely, I mean, even just something as simple as breathing and actually paying attention to your breathing can really re-centre you. So even if you have to stay at your desk, and you don’t have the time or liberty to go anywhere else, just pay attention to what your breathing is doing, and really try and slow it down. Breath a bit more deeply. That will help.
What inspired you to become an academic?
So the thing with academia is, I just love it. Even with all its systemic issues…there is so much that is probably quite wrong with academia, like precarity and issues with contracts. But for all its faults, it’s the only job that I’ve had, where my mind is stimulated.
And teaching, as you know, because I’ve taught you Phoebe – I love teaching. And when I first started teaching during my PhD up in York, it was like a revelation to me, because research can be so arduous sometimes and so thankless. You can spend days in archives and not find anything useful, but you go and teach a class and that’s instant gratification because you can see these young minds being inspired. And you’re connecting with them. And I just think it’s such an important, beautiful thing that I’m so privileged to be able to do, and I don’t know any other job that would let me have all of that
That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard! I also love your nails.
Thank you! It’s my hen weekend, next weekend, and I said, ‘make me look like a unicorn!’
Do you think a connection can be found between your passion for river swimming and your career as a late medievalist?
Ooh I like that question. Yeah, I think there is a connection, and I think that connection is my own hedonism. Because life is very short and death is long, and so I like to do what makes me happy and those two things make me very happy.
Well there we go – that was quite easy! Have you got a favourite Arthurian legend?
Anything about Morgan le Fay! Morgan le Fay is my home girl. I just love her…so for those who do not know, I’ll explain:
She’s Arthur’s half sister, King Arthur that is, and she often pops up in Arthurian legends to antagonise him and his knights in some way or to kidnap someone, or to just generally be a bit of a pain. But I think she’s awesome because if you didn’t have Morgan le Fay during times of peace, you’d have a lot of very fat lazy knights who are just feasting and dancing and not getting any exercise. So I think she keeps them on their toes. And the fact that it’s her lap that Arthur’s head rests on when he goes on this final voyage to be healed of his wounds in Avalon, I think it shows that, you know, she’s alright.
Keep the men in check! So I know that for your lecture, you want to integrate personal anecdote with your research, so in light of that, how can the values of your lecture which, as I was reading, are centred on medieval conceptions of fantasy, magic, love, chivalry, relate to the contemporary day?
So my lecture is obviously aimed at a general audience rather than medievalists, so that was the first thing I had to bear in mind and not be too geeky and specialised. But what I really want to do is to explore the value of the arts and humanities quite broadly in modern contexts. And I’m using myself as a bit of a case study, because what really struck me when I first got into medieval literature as an undergraduate was not how weird it was. So some of my fellow classmates were like, ‘Oh, I can’t read this, Middle English is to it too weird, too hard, I can’t do it.’
But what struck me was how familiar so many things felt. The same things crop up: love, friendship, death. Medieval people have the same worries and fears and preoccupations as we do. And so to see myself in a literature that was so alien in so many respects, felt really meaningful, and it still does to me.
And this is partly why my specialist area of research is looking at women reading Arthurian Literature in 15th and 16th century England, because I’m a woman who reads Arthurian literature, so for me it’s really fascinating to see how they were doing it back in the day. And I think that being able to see yourself in people who are from totally different contexts to you is such an important lesson that carries through to every aspect of life.
I think that’s really inspiring as well, because we, especially some students, often think of the academic world as this ivory tower where you go to get a degree, and then you go into the ‘real world.’ So to be able to have that outlook on academia, where what you’re doing is still very much rooted in the personal and still wanting to inform how we’re living today. It’s really, really refreshing.
I think it’s just so important, especially now when people who Shall Not Be Named want to build walls, or separate us from the European Union…I think it’s really important to remember that we are all connected and that we’re all much more similar than we are different, and I think studying medieval literature really reminds me of that. And I think I never want to forget that.
How on earth do you go about researching the women who read Arthurian literature?
Lots of rummaging in archives! That’s my happy place, being surrounded by medieval manuscripts, poring through them, looking for readership marks in the margins of books, or sometimes you see women writing letters to each other about stuff that they’ve read and it’s a bit like being a detective. It’s very cool.
And finally, who is your favourite drag race superstar?
*gasps* How did you know?!?
Because I follow you on Twitter and every time you respond to me, it’s always a gif of RuPaul’s Drag Race…
How amazing is that? I mean, just that in itself, that you follow one of your tutors on Twitter. That did not happen in my day, which I think is brilliant. Oh, favourite, favourite favourite? Possibly Latrice Royale whose saying, ‘Good God Girl, Get a Grip’ is kind of a mantra for life I feel.
Can you make any links between RuPaul’s drag race and your research?
Yes, definitely. drag queens are fierce. And I love them and again, hedonistically speaking, they make me very happy. I think, because I’m a very tall woman. Your readers will not know this, but I’m 5 foot 11. And I’ve always kind of struggled to feel feminine. And so I think seeing drag queens, who are so tall, so super feminine – I’m just very jealous. And I guess the feminine really interests me in all its iterations and the construction of gender. I teach a lot of this stuff in my classes.
Any there any drag queens in medieval England?
Well! One of the units that I did on my masters at KCL was queer theory. And one of the things that we looked at was some court cases that showed people living in medieval London as different genders and living trans lives, which was amazing. And there was this one case, now I’m going to get all the names wrong, but I think it was someone called John, and they were born biologically male, but were living as a woman and working as a prostitute, as a woman. But I don’t think they were in court for that. I think they were in court for theft or something.
So it’s really interesting, seeing all these layers and the names that were used in the court documents to refer to this person. So certainly, gender has always been much more complicated than just the male/female binary.
Again, this ties back to the fact that these ideas are not new. What a lot of people regard as a contemporary phenomenon of being able to question one’s gender, or to be able to look at gender in a different way, is not by any means recent.
And that’s another reason why I think that looking at medieval and earlier literature and other documentary records is so important because we are living in a post-Victorian era, and potentially I think the Victorians might have a lot to answer for. So it’s important to go back and realize that these things are much more complicated and fluid and interesting than perhaps we might think.
This interview was carried out and transcribed by Phoebe Graham, BILT student fellow.
Check out Bex’s medieval journey below…