Spotlight on Robert Mills

14 October 2013

Bob Mills

This week the spotlight is on Robert Mills, Reader in Medieval Art, Department of History of Art.

What is your role and what does it involve?

I’m a medievalist, which means I’m responsible for introducing students to the visual culture of a period of roughly a thousand years, extending from the fall of the Roman Empire to around 1500. I teach courses on the BA and MA in History of Art, including, this year, an MA special subject on ‘Human and Nonhuman in Medieval Art’. My PhD was on representations of pain and punishment and I have longstanding interests in the history of gender and sexuality, so I also build these topics into my teaching.

I’m currently involved in ‘Past Imperfect’, a new visual culture research seminar which explores recent concerns with the past and its place in the present. This term we’re considering notions of the ‘posthuman’, a conversation that will culminate in a workshop exploring the relationship between art, viewing bodies and changing concepts of the ‘human’. Right now I’m in the early stages of a project on human/animal relations in the Middle Ages, so these issues are close to my current interests. 

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

This is my second year in History of Art at UCL. Previously I taught for eleven years in the English Department at King’s College London, where I also did a stint as director of the Queer@King’s research centre. As you can see from my career path, I don’t like being pushed into disciplinary boxes.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

Queer@King’s, a project which I set up with colleagues at King’s in 2003, was immensely rewarding. Over the years I coordinated some fantastic lectures and events, including symposia on ‘Sex and the Sacred’, ‘Sexuality and the Archive’, ‘Queer Pedagogy’ and ‘Queer/Animal’. I’m particularly proud of the graduate students whose research we supported, some of whom are now making a name for themselves in queer/LGBT studies.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list

My next book, Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages, goes to press in the next couple of weeks so I’m working flat out putting the finishing touches to the manuscript. Mine will be the first large-scale analysis of sodomitical themes in medieval art. 

Seeing Sodomy includes almost ninety illustrations, ranging from depictions of cross-dressing and gender transformation to sodomites being roasted on spits in hell. I’m off to Lincoln in a few days’ time to photograph the cathedral’s Romanesque frieze, which includes a scene thought to represent punishments in hell for sodomy. Just before the start of term I spent a few days clambering around churches in central France, photographing similar subjects.

My favourite image in the book is a manuscript illumination of Saint Jerome going to morning prayers wearing a woman’s dress. Ostensibly the scene has very little to do with sodomy—Jerome cross-dresses unwittingly after some of his fellow monks plant a dress in the churchman’s room as a means of impugning his virginity—but I begin the book with this image because it helps articulate the differences between modern and medieval attitudes to gender presentation and to what we call “sexual orientation.” 

I’ll be speaking about some of this material at my Lunch Hour Lecture, which will be held at UCL next week on Tuesday 22 October.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

I can never decide on my favourite anything. Pet Shop Boys are on my iPod right now. I recently re-watched the films of Derek Jarman in connection with a sideline project on Jarman’s medievalism; I still find his Blue (1993), a mournful lament for a generation cut down by AIDS, incredibly moving. 

Writers I particularly admire include Michael Cunningham and Edmund White, but if I had to pick a novel to take with me to a desert island it would be a toss-up between George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

Why did the tofu cross the road?

To prove she wasn’t chicken.

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

My boyfriend plus a few of my other favourite people.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Travel more. Dress better. Worry less.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

When I was ten I wrote a musical, heavily inspired by David Wood’s The Gingerbread Man. It was pretty good.

What is your favourite place?

The Suffolk Coast between Felixstowe and Southwold. It’s only a couple of hours from London but I love how remote it still feels.