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Reading the Mother from Antiquity to Shakespeare: Critical Approaches to Maternity in Premodern Texts

6 July 2012 - 7 July 2012

King's College, Cambridge

The explosion of scholarship on motherhood in the last three decades has, at its basis, a general acceptance that the modern Western maternal ideal - the image of the loving, tender, full-time mother - was 'invented' in the 18th century, marking a distinct break from earlier constructions. Yet this occludes the fact that premodern motherhood was far from monolithic and was the object of intensive representation and contestation: from the classical world to medieval and early modern Europe, maternity was constructed through a wide variety of texts and contexts and for diverse social, political and aesthetic purposes. Recently, scholars have begun to examine some of these constructions in their rich historical and textual specificity, in the process raising important questions about genealogies of modern maternal discourses that start only from the Enlightenment period.

Reading the mother in early texts imposes particular demands and constraints, not faced by those working on later material, such as a dearth of maternal writers and voices, the significance of literary genres and rhetoric, different medical conceptions of the maternal body and reproduction, alternative configurations of family, kinship and political organization, limited historical documentation and contingencies of textual transmission. Under such conditions, what reading practices might we bring to bear on mothers and maternal tropes and imagery in these texts? Can a responsibility to historical context and generic and formalist concerns be combined with contemporary philosophies and theories of the maternal? This workshop aims to encourage dialogue between classicists, medievalists and Renaissance scholars on the critical problems and possibilities of reading motherhood in premodern texts.




1:00pm: Registration and coffee

2:00pm-4.30pm: Session 1

Miri Rubin (QMUL): Imagined Maternities: Text and Image from Medieval Europe

Liz McAvoy (Swansea): From Miles Christi to Motherhood of God: Julian of Norwich Rewrites the Language of the Anchorhold

Finn Sinclair (Edinburgh): TBA

7.00 for 7.30pm: Dinner, Saltmarsh Rooms, King's College

SATURDAY JULY 7th: G21, FACULTY OF CLASSICS, CAMBRIDGE (*note change of venue from previous day*)

9.30am-11.00: Session 2

Beatrice Priest (Cambridge): Mary on Dante's Mount Purgatory: Young Mother or Virtuous Exemplar?

Peggy McCracken (Michigan): Nursing Animals: Intimacy, Contagion, and Maternity in Medieval Narratives.

11.00: Coffee and tea

11:30am: Session 3

Angeliki Tzanetou (Urbana-Champaign): Civic Motherhood and Athenian Tragedy

Ellen Oliensis (Classics, UC Berkeley): Mothers in Ovid's Amores


2.00-4.00pm: Session 4, (G21, FACULTY OF CLASSICS)

Chris Laoutaris (UCL): Demonic Knowledge: Maternity and the Archaeologies of Witchcraft in Early Modern England

Kathryn Moncrief (Washington): "Then let them anatomize Regan": The Reproductive Body, Performance, and King Lear

Concluding comments

There is no conference fee and the conference is open to all members of the Faculty. (Attendance at conference dinner can be booked for a reasonable price, reduced for graduates.) For more details, please contact Mairéad McAuley (

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