Obituary: Lynette Muir - full obituary and funeral address
As, sadly, colleagues will already be aware, Dr Lynette Muir, former Reader in the Department of French Language and Literature and Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies, died on 2 July 2007.
Lynette Muir read for an external London degree in French at the then University College of the South West, Exeter, graduating with First Class Honours in 1951. She went on to complete a PhD at University College, London on Pierre Salas Tristan, an early sixteenth-century version of the Romance of Tristan. Teaching appointments at the University of Exeter and the University College of Ghana followed, separated by several years school-teaching in Eastbourne.
Lynette Muir was appointed Assistant Lecturer in the Department of French at Leeds in 1961, becoming Lecturer in 1963 and Reader in 1975. She rapidly became a mainstay of the Department, carrying the central responsibility for teaching and research supervision in medieval literature; mainly due to her inspiration, the Department had a steady stream of postgraduates working on medieval subjects. She also took an active part in day-to-day administration. In parallel, she steadily developed a reputation as one of the foremost European scholars in the fields of medieval French drama and Arthurian romance. She produced a series of influential articles in major journals including French Studies, Romania, Studia Neophilologica and Medium Aevum, her arguments being presented with what one reviewer described as charming vigour and enthusiasm. Her diverse and lengthy list of publications also includes editions of medieval texts, translations and monographs, including Liturgy and Drama in the Anglo-Norman Adam (1973). This, the first full-length study of the twelfth-century French play, Adam, one of the acknowledged masterpieces of medieval literature, provides an absorbing analysis of the sources and liturgical associations of the play, its staging and performance and its theological and psychological unity. Lynette Muirs interest in French religious drama in part reflected her own firm commitment as a practising Christian. In 1981, a new edition of the text of the Passion de Semur by one of her research students was published, with an introduction by Dr Muir setting this fifteenth-century French play, belonging to one of the five major groups of French Passion texts, in its place in the wider context of French and European medieval drama. Her various research interests gave rise to a number of childrens novels, including The Unicorn Window (1961) and Nicholas and the Devils (1985). She was also a considerable poet. Apart from her publications, Dr Muir did much to further the study of medieval literature through her regular participation in international conferences. Most importantly, perhaps, she was herself the starting point for what has become the triennial colloquium of the Socit Internationale pour ltude du Thtre Mdival (SITM). In 1974, with the help of colleagues from the Centre for Medieval Studies at Leeds (or Graduate Centre, as it then was), she was able to bring together (at Tetley Hall) an international group of medieval drama scholars, get them to talk to each other and get them to watch plays. That essential and, it is not too much to say, at the time revolutionary emphasis on the value of crossing national boundaries and on practical drama was at the centre of her vision, and is at the centre of SITM colloquia still.
Within the University, Dr Muir enjoyed a very active involvement with the Graduate Centre (later the Centre and now the Institute) for Medieval Studies from its earliest days, serving as Deputy Director (1972-77) and Director (1977-82). Her zeal, wisdom and imaginative scholarship were essential ingredients in securing the successful establishment of the MA in Medieval Studies and the flourishing growth of the Centre as a vibrant intellectual unit. Lynette Muir was a lively, engaging and enthusiastic person with a facility for making friends and inspiring affection. Not only was she well known, well liked and well respected by fellow scholars throughout the world but she also had the ability to communicate her enthusiasm for medieval matters to a much wider audience, including her students and the general public. When she took (early) retirement from her University appointment in 1983, a close colleague observed that so zestful a personality could never have been satisfied with purely bookish endeavours. Acting and stagecraft came naturally to her, whether she happened to be involved in the York or Chester Cycles of Mystery Plays, or in devising a Christmas pantomime for the local parish. She ably chaired the committee that supported Jane Oakshotts production of the York Cycle given on campus as the final event of the centenary celebrations in 1974-75 of the foundation of the Yorkshire College of Science. She also staged a mummers play based on King Arthur at a national Star Trek Convention (I am a Spock man myself, she was heard to observe), and wrote regularly for the Star Trek fanzines.
Retirement allowed Lynette Muir the opportunity to pursue her scholarly interests unabated. In 1985 she published Literature and Society in Medieval France: the mirror and the image 1100-1500 and The Biblical Drama of Medieval Europe followed in 1995. Drawing on the fruits of over forty years research and scholarship, the latter volume presents a comprehensive survey and analysis of the surviving corpus of biblical drama more than 500 plays from all parts of medieval Christian Europe. A further childrens novel The girls of St Cyr (1994) drew on Lynette Muirs work on the 17th-century school of St Cyr, and was itself part of a wider interest in girls school stories. In 1996, she co-edited a source-book on Nicholas Ferrar, founder of a 17th-century religious community at Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire. Dr Muirs final book published in the week of her death is a parallel study to her 1995 volume but concentrating on non-biblical plays from the same period: Love and Conflict in Medieval Drama: The Plays and Their Legacy chronicles the legacy of stories these plays provided for Shakespeare and Lope De Vega and other writers for the professional theatre companies of Elizabethan England, Golden Age Spain and the rich baroque theatre of France.
Dr Muirs funeral took place on 10 July at St Michaels Church, Headingley. The funeral address was given by an old friend of Dr Muirs, the Reverend Canon John White, LVO, Vice-Dean of St Georges Chapel, Windsor Castle. Many of those at the funeral have commented on how well this captured Lynette Muirs achievements and character, and, to make it available to a wider audience, the text of the address is published below.
Funeral Address by Reverend Canon White
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. (Rom. 12 v 9 &10);
-words of St Paul when writing to the Christians in Rome.
Forty one years ago this September, in the nave of Ripon Cathedral, whilst still greeting people after my ordination to the diaconate, I was briskly accosted by an enthusiastic youngish woman whom I had never met before;
Will you be in my play? The vicar says you can!
I had no idea of the consequences of my rather hesitant yes. I could not have realised at that moment that the invitation to be in her play was to something much more than acting out the role of Adam from her translation of the Anglo-Norman text , for it included joining those privileged people who were given a part in her life.
Life for Lyne Muir was a dramatic experience, the world a stage and all men and women players upon it. [Shakespeare; As You Like It. II vi 139] Life as drama was for Lyne more real than life as experienced in the hurly-burly of the everyday. She saw no reason to read a newspaper and often caught up with newsworthy events some months or years after they had been reported. But this was not because she wanted to be detached from all that is human; she counted nothing human as alien, being very conscious of her own God-given humanity. [Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto Terence, Heaton Timorumenos ]. It was that she sensed that you could touch that humanity most intensely through the creative insights of the imagination. She inhabited the world of the medieval mystery players on their rumbling carts, with as much, if not more, clarity of perception than she walked the streets of her beloved Leeds.
Over the years her conversation became primarily about her most recent discovery, usually of the text of a little known play and how that discovery added to her latest thoughts on the influential role of drama in developing European society. This stream of consciousness was then punctuated by fragmentary vignettes of the doings of her family and friends, or of her travels.
Lyne dismissed the post-modern contemptuously (very much as she dismissed structuralism) and understandably so, because she not only believed in the meta-narrative, the over-arching story line which seeks to make sense of our confusing life experience, - she not only believed in that, now often despised, meta-narrative, she lived within it. It took me some time to realise how unwise it was to try to appraise critically the sacred text of her lifes drama. To do so was to destroy its mysterious meaning, in much the same way as Shakespeares text has been slaughtered in the matrix for generations of school students by an insensitive teachers analytical dismembering. For Lyne there had to be a crucible in which the imagination could work its creative miracle and she would not allow any assault on the integrity of that vessel lest some of its content should be spilled and lost. Imagination was for her the famous stone that turneth all to gold [George Herbert Teach Me My God and King] it was effectively the mark of Gods image in humankind.
No one who is prepared to go on the somewhat lonely pilgrimage into the pursuit of a unified meaning and purpose for everything can lack eccentricity; such a person is by nature off centre from those of us who make up the general pedestrian mob. Lyne was no exception to this law of human nature. She had a personality marked by sharp contrasts, as many here will remember only too well.
She was generous to a fault both in giving away her material possessions and giving away her irreplaceable time. But she could also be careful to the point of parsimony when it came to her own needs. Her abhorrence of any kind of waste she put down to her Scottish genes, in a typically non-politically correct assessment. Only a year ago when helping to prepare for a drinks party she had allowed me to arrange in her house, I discovered at the very back of her refrigerator a plastic packet of smoked fish that was many months beyond its sell-by date. When I suggested I should throw it away she became quite angry seeing it as yet another manifestation of my turpitudinous wastefulness. It would be alright she said as it was sealed in plastic. Only when I pointed out that bag was bloated with the gas of its decomposition did she allow that it might go into the waste bin!
She had great integrity as a scholar and did not follow that reprehensible habit of some contemporary historians of refusing new information if it challenges a carefully crafted and polemical hypothesis. But she simply would not admit to being wrong in the progress of a conversation. In fact if you caught her out she would immediately re-order that bit of the plot of life, Of course, what I really meant to say was This habit disclosed an insecurity deep within her which did not allow her the confidence to admit that she could make mistakes. Having, as she readily confessed, little visual aesthetic sense, when looking at the sculpture on medieval French cathedrals she was quite likely to accredit a fairly recent restoration with genuine antiquity and lest this sculpture should find its way into an illustrated lecture it was important, but very difficult, to discover a way to persuade her of her mistaken attribution.
She was genuinely interested in patterns of human thinking. She insisted that her imagination was peopled with words and ideas and not with pictorial images. But she hated for you to change your mind on anything. This could be tricky for one so intellectually fickle as I am. Over forty years I have changed my mind on a daily basis and on a wide variety of issues. But in the manner that she still supposed I liked the same food today as I did four decades ago so she also held me to opinions that I had expressed as a green young curate. It was only recently that she recognised that I was in my sixties, and she said that this surprised her as she still thought of me as being in my twenties! Once you were written into the plot it was very difficult to step out of character without being slightly rebuked for doing so.
But all this gentle eccentricity was completely overshadowed by her exceptional gifts of friendship and warm non-judgemental openness. Although it was tempting to believe that when she did emerge rather reluctantly into the present day she thought of it more in the context of the nineteen thirties than the early twenty-first century, she was completely without those social prejudices based on race, politics, religion and sexuality that have leaked over from the end of Empire into todays British social life. She was to all who knew her an entirely trustworthy friend who, at every opportunity, would give us the benefit of the doubt. She was completely loyal, and so used to going the extra mile [Matt. 5 v 41] that ultimately she did not recognise that she was doing so. Her friendships included the members of her family. She delighted in their success, she gave them support and endless encouragement and felt rightly secure in their deep affection for her. They were the still centre of her busy social life and their faithfulness was something she valued above all else.
I think, as one who received an unfair share of her friendship that it is her greatest gift to us. Not only in that we received it, but that through her example of loyalty and love we are renewed in our hope for the future of humankind. It is that loving friendship we will most miss and for which we should have nothing else but gratitude.
But there are other gifts that should be cause for thankfulness. For instance in an age that makes pragmatism sacred she has left us a challenge that we should ask about the nurturing of our creative imagination. A comment by George Steiner [Grammars of Creation p 279] has etched itself onto my mind and seems particularly appropriate for this moment;
Yet human exultation and sorrow, anguish and jubilation, love and hatred, will continue to demand shaped expression. They will continue to press on language which, under that pressure, becomes literature.
For Lyne the catalyst in this fiery process was the imagination. This was the miracle that transformed the base metal of disparate experiences into the mysterious glory of the common human spirit
For those of us who share her Christian religious faith she has been a remarkable example of how the Grace of God can be realised and recognised through the complexities, the failings and the triumphs of our human nature. Lyne was not a quiet soul, she fidgeted her way through her work and apparently through her prayers too. Yet this moth-like flitting seemed to be around a steady flame; a flame which was not of her making or of her imagining but is the Light of the World. [John 12 v 46] It was not sufficient for her that she should remain faithful to her churchgoing, to her reading of Scripture and to her prayer, it was essential to her that God should not be deprived of his creation by her action or inaction. [cf Charles Peguy; Le Porche du Mystere de la Deuxieme Vertue. No present was too mean not to find a place of display on her shelves, even after it had been broken and inexpertly stuck together with the wrong kind of glue. This because it represented the giver and that redeemed it even though it had become a fragment of its former self. Lyne knew that it was her responsibility to give true value to what God had created for his own self. [ Augustine Confessions Book 1, i]
To those who did not share her religious faith she was able, nevertheless, to demonstrate how our common humanity is woven as much into our intellectual pursuits as into our domestic lives. She was a popular lecturer and a very successful writer because of her genuine enthusiasm for her subject and also because like every great dramatist she thought first of her audience. Poets, I confess, can be selfish and thrive on exclusivity and obscurantism, playwrights cannot, for if they try they will soon find they have no audience and the audience is their life-blood.
Lynes approach to modern technology was somewhat akin to the way one might face picking up a small sharp-toothed rodent. However, she became computer friendly and felt some satisfaction in that she had mastered word-processing sufficiently for it to become part of her daily life. The answer-phone however she held somewhat at arms length. Occasionally, if necessity required it, she would leave me a brief clipped message which in true Biggles style she would end with,
As I had then to accept the finality of that attempt at contact, now we all have to accept what is for us an ultimate temporal ending.
Our gratitude for what she has meant to us may help as we try to accept our moment of closure. Our knowledge that she has left behind not only a substantial collection of published works but a vast throng of people, ex-students, colleagues, friends and family, who will seek to preserve her memory and will have been in some way significantly changed for the better by knowing her, may mitigate the sharpness of our sorrow.
We are all here today to do our last service for Lyne in whatever for us, individually, is the best way we can. It is much more important at this moment that we share our common sense of thankfulness and loss than that we pursue any divisions of belief. In this we will keep alive her own generosity of spirit and her equal honouring of all those she loved. Let us in the mystery of our common friendship with Lyne contemplate together, in humility, the mystery of death, for then I believe we may all discover some new reasons for hope and a few indications of meaning and purpose in our human living.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.
Published: 6 July 2007