Professor Catherine Clarke

Professor Catherine Clarke is a Professor of English at the University of Southampton. She coordinated the City Witness project, which was shortlisted for the NCCPE Engage Awards 2016 in the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences category.

As a specialist in medieval literature and culture Professor Catherine Clarke is fascinated with the sense of ‘otherness’ in the medieval world.

“What inspires me about my research work is that so many buildings and documents survive from the time that we’re still quite connected to - the medieval period. It seems familiar to us, and yet it is such a different, other world…almost sci-fi”, says the Professor of English at Southampton University.

One of her most recent projects, to bring back to life the lost medieval town of Swansea, is a case in point.  A story which has become interwoven into the project is that of a Welsh outlaw who was hanged by the local Anglo-Norman Lord – but came back to life courtesy of a miracle bestowed on him by a saint.

Interdisciplinary working and engagement

Professor Clarke also takes a very modern approach to a very old subject. “I’m driven by interdisciplinary working. You can’t just sit and work with text. You need to think about the history, the archaeology, the art. And that’s what I like about being a medievalist. You have to do research in a diverse range of ways in order to piece together the jigsaw.”

Engagement with the public and partners is another vital jigsaw piece, and the Swansea project came directly from a public body. “It is my only research project so far where the prompt has come directly from outside academia”, said Catherine.

Rediscovering a lost world

The call came in the wake of work Catherine and her team had just completed in medieval Chester. In this city, much of its medieval infrastructure still survives – the churches, cathedral and city walls to name a few.  

But in Swansea little survived over time, with bombs during the Second World War doing the bulk of the damage.

This presented a major challenge to Professor Clarke and the team, charged as they were to bring to life the medieval history of the city, where only the ruins from the castle are left.

“In a way Swansea posed a more exciting challenge because we had to rediscover a lost world, and we had to engage the public with it…with something they can’t see or touch. How do you make an invisible city visible again?”

Using digital tools

The modern answer to the challenge is digital technology. Maps, 3D reconstructions and even a special ‘Whodunnit’ game proved to be a part of the answer in Swansea. Catherine said: “Digital offers people an immediate sense of engagement with the stories, not just on an intellectual level, but also on an emotional level, too. As academics we get excited by the stories we discover and the public can do too!

“Digital tools offer opportunities for immersive engagement. We can create and experiment with hypotheses of how medieval Swansea might have been, in order to give people a glimpse of a lost world.”

By embracing new technologies, specialisms such as medieval history can begin to distance themselves from its reputation – fair or otherwise - of being about ‘dusty books’.

Creativity is key

But it’s not just about technology, creativity is key. In the Swansea project a digital game involves users acting as witnesses to the death of the Welsh outlaw William Cragh. They follow in his footsteps based on evidence captured in a surviving medieval manuscript, where nine witnesses to his death and miracle recovery tell their own stories. “It’s like a medieval Crime Scene Investigation (CSI)”, she says.

Intersection of the real and imagined

Both Catherine’s parents are teachers. Her undergraduate and postgraduate studies were at Oxford University, Reading University and King’s College London. Her PhD work looked at representations of pastoral places in Anglo-Saxon poetry. These green and pleasant lands, as portrayed, could often be imaginary places, which led to an interest in how such places in the imagination of the poets intersect with real places and what this tells us about place, power and identity.

Chester is one of Professor Clarke’s favourite locations because it embodies this sense of intersection.  She explained: “It’s on the border of England and Wales and medieval text survives in Welsh, English and Latin. Those writing in Latin portrayed the city through religious symbolism, the English viewed it through the eyes of colonisers – ruling their colony of Wales – and some Welsh poets wrote about Chester in a way which is quite rude and funny.”

Where next?

Where next after Chester and Swansea? Professor Clarke and her team have been awarded an AHRC grant to develop heritage tourism between Swansea and Hereford. After lighting a big spark of interest in medieval history in Swansea, she is creating a new heritage route inspired by the pilgrimage William Cragh took after being ‘brought back to life’.

At the same time, resuscitating the interest in medieval history in this part of Wales along the way.