2019 - Winter

“Gawain On Location”: An Interview With Professor Denis Renevey About This Autumn’s Course Taught Between The Universities of Lancaster and Lausanne

Image: A reading session near Lud’s Church © Chiara Ceppi

Authors: Emilie Badoux and Paola Rodriguez

This autumn semester, Unil and Lancaster students were brought together for a course on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight “on location”, which led them from the wilderness of Northwest England to the Swiss Alps. In addition to a few sessions before the trips on campus, the course was composed of two intensive weeks of reading, learning, exploring and going on adventures!

During the Lancaster week, participants of the course spent the first day in Lancaster University and in the castle, before visiting the historic house of Hutton-in-the-Forest and the castle of Carlisle on the second day. The third day marked the most adventurous part of the trip, since it brought the Gawain enthusiasts to Gradbach bunkhouse, a scout camp bunkhouse in the Peak District from where they could walk to Lud’s Church, an impressive natural site and possible inspiration for the Green Knight’s Green Chapel. The next day was spent partly in the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, where they were able to learn more about weapons and armours in the Middle Ages.

The Unil week started at Romainmôtier, where the participants stayed at the refuge of Champbaillard, and visited the well-known Romainmôtier Abbey. This week also included sessions where the students had the opportunity to present and discuss their topics and ideas for their assessment of the course. After a walk in the forest on the second day, everyone left Romainmôtier to visit the Château de Chillon, before spending the night at a chalet in Les Diablerets. The next morning, they were given the opportunity to “hunt” wild animals by trying to track them and spot them in the mountains. The trip ended with Les Diablerets covered in snow the next morning, before the participants had to say goodbye and leave for Lausanne or Lancaster.

Of course, in addition to visits and sightseeing, the trips were an opportunity to enjoy stimulating reading sessions and lectures which encouraged the students to consider the relationship between space and narrative in Gawain in many different ways. Sadly, it is impossible to summarise them all here, but that just means you have to take the course in two years time!

Denis with a cat

Image: Denis with a cat in a pub in Romainmôtier © Paola Rodriguez

Hi Denis! Although we were both part of this experience, we wanted to get your perspective for this MUSE Magazine issue! So first question: where did the idea of this new collaboration with Lancaster University come from?
I don’t know exactly who started the overall collaboration, but it is the rectorates of the universities of Lancaster and Unil who started what they call their “privileged partnership”, so it happened at a very high level. And then of course the international relations were responsible for making arrangements with the universities and members of the universities.
For this trip in particular, I can’t remember whether it was me or Clare… Well, what happened is that the collaboration with my colleague Clare Egan started as I heard about her appointment: she was appointed as the new teacher in medieval English at Lancaster — there was none when the partnership started. So she was appointed soon after the beginning of the partnership, and as soon as I heard, I was delighted because it meant I had someone I could collaborate with, and I invited her to the Chaucer Weekend [i. e. the Chaucer in the Alps Weekend that happens every spring semester]. So the first time we met, Clare Egan, and Liz Oakley-Brown as well, came for one of the Chaucer Weekends, and that Chaucer Weekend on that occasion was on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. They really enjoyed that weekend, and I think what they really liked about it was also the fact that there were first-year students, MA students, and perhaps even Doctoral students, so a mixture of students from different levels, and it was not formal at all, we learned to read aloud, and so on. So that’s how it started, and then I think we got to know one another quite well, and I can’t be sure, but I may have said I’d heard about the Romanticism partnership and suggested we should do something, we agreed that we should, and that’s how it started.

Why choose Sir Gawain and the Green Knight specifically?
In fact, the first idea with Clare when we decided that we wanted to do a course together was to do something on northern literature, northern authors. One of the reasons is because Lancaster is more or less in the North, and because we’ve got this FNS project in Lausanne about “Late Medieval Devotion to Northern English Saints” — for that project, we have a doctoral student working on northern literature, particularly hagiographies, and Christiania Whitehead is working on that as well. So we agreed that it would be nice to do that and select texts from the north of England, and we had already made a kind of selection of texts, and then we thought “as a first, it may be a bit too difficult to organise, so why not go back to something that we know quite well?” They had already experienced a kind of informal setting, that is, at the weekend, so why not Gawain?
That’s one of the reasons. The second one of course is that the wilderness and the idea of location work really well with a text like Sir Gawain. If you look at other romances, from Chrétien de Troyes and so on for instance, location is much more vague than what we’ve got in Sir Gawain. Even “The Carle of Carlisle” [the other text that the students studied for this course] is not as specific, so I think location is really central to that poem, so it was really appropriate to choose this text.

The importance of location in Gawain is related to our next question: why study medieval literature “on location”? What makes the trips interesting for studying this field, in comparison to a course which would take place only in a classroom?
Well I think, of course it’s impossible to recuperate the past, and to believe “OK, we are in Lud’s Church and that’s what it was”, because first of all we don’t know whether that’s the real location, and if it were, it has changed, certainly, and we don’t know what those changes are, so I think that’s one thing we must remember: to be on location does not mean that we are “back” in a medieval space (laughs). That’s one thing, but on the other hand, I think it can evoke and it triggers different ways of perceiving the text just because the space is different. And in a sense, when we first organised the course I thought that the Swiss week would be a bit of an excuse, just to complement the Lancaster one, and for me it turned out to be as interesting as the Lancaster week because I think the Swiss location is as evocative as the Lancaster one, and has different qualities which Lancaster hasn’t got, but the Lancaster location had other attractions. So I don’t think that it mattered very much in the end.
And of course, to do it on location means that we’re not doing it in the classroom, and I think the relationship with the students is very different, and we get to know one another in a very different way, for instance you know now that I play my French horn on a regular basis (laughs). But I think the discussions are also different. And it’s interesting: I’ve used the debate format in a classroom and I had done so before. It went very well, but there was perhaps a bit more tension and people were not so happy to have lost and so on… In a context where we know one another and we are perhaps a bit more relaxed about how we feel about one another, I think that kind of thing is less prone to happen.
In a sense, to do something on location or perhaps outside of the classroom gives a different kind of dynamics to the exchanges, and I consider that to be quite important.

How did both of the trips go? Did they meet your expectations?
Yes, they absolutely met my expectations! I think the Lancaster week went very very well, I was pleasantly surprised by the differences as well: in Lancaster, we were on campus for most of the time — initially I thought it was not as exciting as being elsewhere, and when we talked about what could be changed about the trips with everyone, we said that spending more time in the bunkhouse would perhaps be good, but in the end I quite liked also being on campus. So yes, I think the Lancaster week worked very well, worked fine, we travelled more and we were much more on the road because of the visits that we made. The Swiss week worked very well as well, we couldn’t do everything we had planned, as the Glacier visit was not possible, but it turned out to be a perfect day, and it would have been to much to rush to the Glacier in the afternoon. I would have been interested to see how we felt up there, and perhaps talk about weather in relation to the text, and so on, but I don’t think we missed too much. We also talked about having the students be a bit more involved with the food. But pedagogically, I’m very happy about how it went. I suggested that there could be presentations by students and I think we could do that again, but perhaps we could ask for even more preparation, as for some presentations it didn’t feel like a huge amount of work had been put into preparation — but that was fine for this time. One of the differences between Lancaster and the Swiss stay was that there were more teaching sessions, whereas in Lancaster we had more reading sessions than thematic sessions. I think there could have been one or two more teaching sessions in Lancaster. The difficulty of a class like that is that we wanted to achieve a lot: to read aloud — but in my view, I don’t think that it’s enough at the Master’s level, to develop some themes — we could have done a few more, then the student presentations were interesting, it hopefully helped you to think of your essay, and then of course we had the visits, the excursions, and of course in terms of teaching it feels lighter to go to Chillon and visit the Château than the reading of four articles on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But it’s nevertheless teaching and instruction, and pedagogically useful, so I think one needs to measure all of those aspects.

Was anything more difficult to deal with?
Well, there was this little incident of the train journey to Sion [i. e. part of the group took the wrong train and got lost], but I wasn’t involved (laughs). I think the organisation went very well, and apart from that little hiccup I don’t think there were any major hiccups. I mean, one thing that I’m not sure I would change but I felt that when we were going up to the Vallon d’Ozon (Romainmôtier), some may have found it a bit difficult and slightly dangerous, as it was quite steep, in some parts. In a sense, doing that with Swiss students, I wouldn’t even have thought about it, and then doing it with the English students, suddenly I thought “oh, it’s true, perhaps they’re not used to climbing up hills like that”. So I don’t think that I would change it but I would be more aware that it potentially feels a bit more threatening for the English students. What is always a bit painful with regards to those events that are outside of the classroom is that now I’m getting the bills; I have paid the bills and now I need to be reimbursed and it takes a lot of time. Even this morning I have received information about the “randonnée”, the wilderness session, and I want to pay the person as quickly as possible because he would probably be happy to have the money. It’s been complicated because I gave my personal address when I should’ve given the university address, so we made the correction, and now I just received an email saying that they would like the list of people who took part in the “randonnée”, so I filled in the names of all the students from Unil and I have all of your last names but I don’t have the names of the English students, so I’m sending an email to Clare… Those are aspects that I don’t like very much, they’re the things that are a little bit annoying. In a sense for me the whole organisation is far from being over. For instance, Clare has to send me the tickets she bought in Lausanne, I will have to fill in the third form for reimbursement. It has to be done and of course I want to be reimbursed, but those are aspects that are [annoying]. Of course they’re unavoidable, there’s always an administrative part that’s more heavy.
Paola: that’s less fun
Denis: less fun, much less fun

Image: Group photograph in Leeds, sadly without Chiara and Liz © Hannah Davis

This trip brought students from the Lancaster and Lausanne universities together. Do you think the group got along well, and did the collaboration between the students bring something else to the study of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
Of course it’s something that one wouldn’t know [in advance], whether it would work or not, and my impression is that it worked superbly well, I mean I really had the impression that you built up a very nice relationship with the entire group. I have no sense at all of any difficulties or anything like that, so I have a really very positive impression of the dynamic of the group, between the students but also between us the teachers and the students. I was very, very impressed by the quality of the human relationships, I mean perhaps you will tell me that it wasn’t as good as I thought it was but I hope not! (laughs) But in a sense, if it was as good as I think it was, then of course, is it always going to be like that if we do it again, or was it just by chance that we had the right kind of people who were present in both groups? I really felt it worked very, very well. And I think that the little introductory session that Clare organised, which in a sense felt a little bit easy, I mean it wasn’t so much what you did, but the fact that you did something together which created a bond from the start, you know, using the spaghetti to define a space that was linked to Gawain [i. e. the students had to build a space found in the poem out of spaghetti and strings]. I thought that that was really good, and I could see that from the moment that she asked you to do it you were chatting and saying “oh why don’t we do this” and I think that was really, really great and it probably helped to immediately create a nice collaboration and friendship with the students.

What were the highlights of both trips for you?
I think that Lud’s Church visit was definitely one of the highlights of the Lancaster trip.
Emilie: Why?
Well I had seen pictures of Lud’s Church, you know, it’s on the poster there (i. e. the poster advertising the course), so I could visualise Lud’s Church, but to be there was more than I could have imagined, it was more impressive. [It was] narrower than I would have imagined. And it corresponds of course with one of the climaxes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that meeting [between Gawain and the Green Knight], I think it worked incredibly well. It came towards the end of our stay as well, so I thought it came at the right moment. It was a very powerful moment for me personally, and I think I could also see that many students were very excited about this particular space. So I think it also fit in very well with our main theme of location and the importance of space. And then for the Swiss part I think it was the wilderness [walk]. Initially I thought that it was perhaps not as well connected to the text as some of the other sessions, but I thought it turned out to be incredibly relevant to the text and to what we had been talking about and to what we talked about afterwards in the session on ecocriticism and wilderness, and I think there were some of the points that Michel Perreten made, on for instance hunting techniques and preservation of game but also the relationships between wilderness, woods and animals, that were very, very relevant to what we were talking about in the text itself. So I would say those two [were the highlights of the trips], but I could easily find some other moments that were equally as powerful.

Finally, do you have any conclusive words, anything else to say?
Well yes, I think it’s important to mention also the nice collaboration that we had, Clare, Liz, myself and Christiania: if I think of the medievalist that is Clare, I think it would have been difficult to find a better colleague for such a collaboration. So I think the collaboration with her and Liz has been from the start very nice and very easy, very relaxed. I think Clare is very much an outdoor person as well, so she combines academic qualities but also an interest in nature, in sporting activities, if one can say so, and again I think for a week like that [the one in Switzerland], or the Lancaster one as well, you can’t be just an academic, you need to have some other qualities and I think she’s got them, so it’s been wonderful to collaborate with her. I think one needs to have a good collaboration with the teachers, which hopefully then is perhaps reflected also in the group of students, hopefully, and it seemed to have worked, so the importance of the collaboration with my colleagues is to be mentioned. And yes I mean another, or second part to my conclusion is that I hope that it would be possible to have more seminars like that and that the next generation of Master’s level students will be interested in attending such a class.
Paola: Are you organising it next year?
Denis: No, next year probably not, because I have been invited to teach at the Venice International University in the autumn, so I will probably skip next year and do it in two years’ time.
Emilie: Great, thank you for having us!

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