Ben Jonson’s The Underwood: A Selection



Next Meeting: Friday 12th April, 15:00-17:00, in Room 2.47 of the John Percival Building

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was one of the most prominent playwrights, poets, and prose writers of Renaissance London. He is most well known as the author of twenty plays, including Everyman In His Humour (1598) and Volpone (1605), and as one of the most significance masque writers of the early Stuart court, writing thirty-six masques in total. This month, we are looking at a small selection of poems taken from the posthumously published poetry collection entitled The Underwood(1640).

The Underwood was the third collection of poetry to be published under Jonson’s name, following both Epigrams (1612) and The Forest (1616), though the poems contained within Underwood are thought to have been written across Jonson’s career. Jonson wrote, at the start of the collection, that:

‘as the multitude call timber trees promiscuously growing a ‘wood’ or ‘forest’, so am I bold to entitle these lesser poems of later growth by this of ‘underwood’, out of the analogy they hold to The Forest in my former book, and no otherwise’[1]

Though Jonson here seems to imply that the poems contained within Underwood are products of his later life, it seems that he initially wrote a number of them many years earlier. This short preface to the collection does suggest that Jonson had some hand in the preparation and ordering of the volume, though it is unlikely that he prepared the final version for publication given that a number of poems by other writers have managed to slip in, including 39, which we are reading, and which is now believed to have been written by John Donne.

The Underwood came to influence a whole generation of poetic volumes printed in the 1640s, which preserved relics of poets who were dead and gone by the time their works were published’.[2]This led to a ‘cult of resistant nostalgia’, in which dead poets who praise a world which had past and left behind it war and division.[3]Some of this resistant nostalgia is evident in the selection of poems we are reading, and may reflect a Jonson’s view that he was not valued as he once was.

Our primary focus is on An Execration Upon Vulcan, number 43 in the collection. This poem tells of the fire that befell Jonson and destroyed his house in 1623, devouring a number of unpublished and unfinished works of Jonson’s. Jonson rewrote some of the texts he claims were destroyed while others, such as the description of his walk to Scotland and back, would not be rewritten and so were lost to us forever. It appears that Jonson may have written, and circulated this particular poem much earlier than 1640, as Jonson’s neighbour, and devotee, James Howell wrote of a second fire in Jonson’s house that it was ‘the second time that Vulcan hath threatened you. It may be because you spoke ill of his wife, and bin too busy with his hornes.’[4]From the reference to Vulcan, and Vulcan’s wife, it seems likely that Howell had read a version of An Execration Upon Vulcan. It also seems that Jonson had not learned his lesson from the first fire!

Questions/Discussion Topics

  1. How does An Execration Upon Vulcan seem to view different genres? Does a potential hierarchy of literature emerge?
  2. How does the tone shift within An Execration Upon Vulcan? Is it consistent throughout or does it change? How does Jonson construct himself throughout the poem?
  3. Can a discourse of censorship be identified within An Execration Upon Vulcan?
  4. How does Jonson construct death throughout the elegies? Is there a similar discourse of death/loss that runs across the selection?
  5. Is there a noticeable difference between 39, the elegy by Donne, and the other elegies? Is Jonson attempting to mimic Donne’s style?
  6. To what extent are these poems about age and the inability of an aging/dead poet to affect the world around him? Are they nostalgic?
  7. How far is A Speech According to Horaceconcerned with contemporary politics and European affairs?
  8. Do these poems appear to speak to one another in any coherent way, or have they simply fallen where they were dropped?

[1]Ben Jonson, The Underwood, in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson: Volume 7: 1641: Bibliography, ed. By David Bevington, Martin Butler, and Ian Donaldson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 79-295, p. 79.

[2]Colin Burrow, ‘Introduction: The Underwood’ in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson: Volume 7: 1641: Bibliography, ed. By David Bevington, Martin Butler, and Ian Donaldson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 71-6, p. 72.

[3]Burrow, ‘Introduction’, p. 72.

[4]James Howell, Epistalae Ho Elianae. Familiar Letters Domestic and Forren: Partly Historical, Political, Phylosophical(Hum Mosely: London, 1645), Section 5, p. 23.

King Lear’s Endings: What Makes A Tragedy? (18th July)

By Richard Davies

Cordelia death

Textual Provenance and Problematic Versions

‘King Lear presents the most fascinating, important and contentious textual issues of the entire Shakespeare canon. The play exists in two early authoritative texts, the Quarto (Q1) of 1608 and the Folio (F) of 1623. For many years, it was presumed that each text was an imperfect and incomplete version of a lost, longer original. Consequently, King Lear was usually printed in a “conflated” text: that is, in an attempt to give readers and audiences as many as possible of Shakespeare’s words, editors combined the two texts into a version of the play that was longer than either of the early texts’.[1]

These opening lines from the textual introduction to the play in The Norton Shakespeare provides an appropriate overview of the scale of task we are presented with when we consider the textual provenance of King Lear. Why is it that scholars seem resigned to the study of a play that is an amalgamation of versions? What is most striking about this is that the question of studying the hybrid version of the text was not considered in any real depth until Michael Warren and Gary Taylor edited The Division of the Kingdoms in the late 1970s; such an approach was commonplace and considered as usual, not out of the ordinary. In the grand scheme, this is a remarkably recent shift in the academic paradigm.

General Consensus

The Division of the Kingdoms is a seminal text in the study of ‘new bibliography’ or ‘new textuality’ and the collection of essays contained therein proffers a collective argument that the texts in question, namely the Q1 of 1608 and the Folio of 1623 “represent independent and coherent versions of the play which should not be combined.”[2]The very first essay in said collection is a contribution by Steven Urkowitz entitled ‘The Base shall to th’ Legitimate: The Growth of an Editorial Tradition.’ That word ‘tradition’ is one that continually occurs in the writings surrounding this subject matter raising the prospect that the plays exist in collated formats because of the tradition of doing so. By the end of the twentieth century, Ioppolo notes, such a tradition had begun to be challenged:

There was a general consensus that the two texts were sequential – that is, that the Quarto represents a first complete stage of the play and the Folio represents a later stage, which may be Shakespeare’s revision of his own play.[3]

I do not wish to address the matter of revisionism here, rather consider the fact that these plays are now thought to be different versions of the same play. Such a consensus must lead scholars to question the validity and, indeed, the value in pursuing a composite which is highly unlikely to represent anything seen on the early-modern stage.

Variations and Different Lears

There is significant variance between the two versions of Lear not just in terms of layout and spelling but also significant differences in content: over 1,000 words differ between the texts and Q1 contains 285 lines not in F1 and F1 a further 100 lines not considered in Q1. Composite versions, I contest, cannot really be considered to be Shakespeare’s King Lear but, moreover, a synthesis of parts of Lears that generations of editors have stitched together. As Stanley Wells puts it:

‘To split asunder the two texts of King Lear is a work of restoration, not of destruction. We shall lose it no more than a wraith born of an unholy union; we shall gain a pair of legitimate – though not identical – twins’.[4]

To further the metaphor, rather than representing a ‘best fit’, a collated Lear is more akin to a garment that has been woven together from two separate items of clothing so the finished article is neither one thing nor the other – a hat that nobody really wants.

Tragedy and Endings

Michael Neill has commented on Early-Modern theatre that “Elizabethan tragedy showed itself unusually knowing about the relation between mortal and narrative endings.”[5] If we are to go along with the consensus first argued for in Divisions of the Kingdom, the question is how this affects the content of the plays. ‘Tragedy’ encompasses a range of definitions and is primarily, in this context, used as a label for a distinct set of Shakespeare’s plays including King Lear. A question that occurs is how far the concept of tragedy is affected by the changes described above; how the notion of tragedy alters and shifts between these respective editions. Endings are significant moments in Shakespeare’s plays but contain significant moments in themselves. I want to get to the bottom of how they vary across versions and editions and to what extent that affects our perspective on tragedy. The Prince’s lament, “Never was there a tale of more woe / than this of Juliet and her Romeo”, Mark Antony’s rallying war-cry, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” and Othello’s blood curdling statement to Desdemona, “Sweet soul, take heed of perjury. / Thou art on thy deathbed” are each significant moments in Shakespearean tragedy – none of these is identical across editions, however and I want to ask the question of how they do change an audience’s perception of the action as it happens on stage.

‘Howling’ Lear

To use a specific example, no moment of tragedy is more significant than the figure of Lear entering on stage “with Cordelia in his arms” (Q1;F.V.iii.SD253;SD230) shouting “Howl, howl, howl.”[6]Or, if we are to follow the example of Q1, “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” The inclusion, or exclusion, of a single word makes it quite different. The triad of howls with which audiences are familiar is concise and it adequately conveys Lear’s torment and anguish. The trio of howls presents a clear insight into his mind which, after all the ravishes of mistreatment to which he has been subject in the thrust of action in the play, he is now able to see clearly and admonishes those responsible, “Oh, you are men of stones!” (Q1;FV.ii.253;231) Consider, though, that in Q1, his unbroken quartet of howls might be considered more in-keeping with the levels of grief that he experiences – his sobbing is uncontrolled and one might argue that this is precisely how he feels given that he enters the stage carrying the lifeless corpse of his youngest and truest daughter. If ever an event were designed to make a man mad, surely that is it. It is curious that even this most famous of Shakespeare’s moments of tragedy differs between versions.

Texts 1 & 2 – Norton ‘Concurrent’ Lear and ‘Arden’ Lear

The Norton Shakespeare publishes the Q1 and Folio editions concurrently so the variants between the texts are evident whereas Text 2 is a standard example of what a modern, conflated text looks like. Changes in Lear more generally are briefly touched on above. My dissertation concentrates on the very final passage of the scene from Lear’s entry through to the final speech by Edgar/Albany. You need not read all of each of the scenes; I have included them for context.

Text 3 – ‘Shakespeare’s Tragedies as Working Scripts’

A brief text raising a lot of key questions about the Lear texts with which modern scholars work. The piece provides some insight and broad brushstroke overview of ‘new bibliography’ without overloading the reader with jargon.


Questions for consideration

  1. How do we define tragedy? Does such a definition differ depending on whether we focus on Shakespeare relative to others? Does it differ within Shakespeare itself?
  2. How many ‘significant moments’ can be said to be present in the relative final scenes? Is this important?
  3. Michael Neill has claimed that ‘tragedy never wants to end’; writers continually wish to defer the end of the writing process as it leads, necessarily, to oblivion. Is this a sentiment which is obvious in the extracts or in one extract more than the others?
  4. Does one character more than the others evoke more dramatic sympathies in the relative extracts?
  5. What are your thoughts on the very final speech being allocated to Albany and Edgar respectively in the various scenes?



[1]Grace Ioppolo, ‘Textual Introduction to King Lear’ in The Norton Shakespeare, pp. 2327-2329 (p. 2327).

[2]The Division of the Kingdoms, ed. by Michael Warren and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

[3]Ioppolo, p. 2327.

[4]Stanley Wells, ‘Introduction: The Once and Future King Lear’ in The Division of the Kingdoms, ed. by Michael Warren and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 1-22 (p. 20).

[5]Michael Neill, Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 206.

[6]I have used quotations from The Norton Shakespeare. The play is published contemporaneously in this edition. F.V.iii.231

Arthurian Masques in the Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson and John Dryden (27th June)

This month we are looking at two Arthurian masques from either end of the seventeenth century. The first is Ben Jonson’s Speeches at Prince Henry’s Barriers (1610) and the second is the masque that ends John Dryden’s Arthurian semi-opera, King Arthur; OR The British Worthy (1691).

Jonson and Dryden were among the preeminent writers of their days, with both writing for their respective kings, James VI of Scotland and I of England and Charles II. Both also wrote dramatic Arthurian texts, though neither was written for the king you might expect. Jonson’s Speecheswas written on the occasion of James’ eldest son, Prince Henry, being invested as the Prince of Wales, while Dryden’s semi-opera was eventually performed for William III, of whom Dryden disapproved, despite the text originally being meant to honour Charles II, and then James II.

Jonson and Dryden had both held ambitions of writing an Arthurian epic, but neither succeeded in their endeavour. Indeed, it does not seem as though either got very far in their designs, both pleading a lack of funds as the greatest barrier, though Dryden did lay out how he imagined his epic would be constructed. Instead, they channelled their Arthurian efforts into musical spectacles. Both were assisted by a prominent artistic name of the period; Inigo Jones designed the set and costumes for Jonson’s masque, while Henry Purcell wrote the music for Dryden’s semi-opera.

Speeches at Prince Henry’s Barriers

Jonson was commissioned to write this masque at the behest of Henry and his mother, Anne of Demark, to celebrate his investiture as Prince of Wales, at the age of sixteen. Before this, Jonson’s royal commissions had generally come from James, and it is possible to see him trying to please two masters within the masque. Henry’s ideas of kingship were far more militaristic, and protestant, than James’, who favoured a more diplomatic, some would say passive, form of kingship, which leant further towards Catholicism. Henry was viewed by many of his contemporaries as the best hope of protestant Europe, and the court that grew up around the young Prince has been linked to the old Elizabethan war party. Henry had an interest in Arthurian matter, and it is said to have been at his request that Jonson made the masque’s theme Arthurian.

The masque features Arthur as a star, bestowing a shield on Meliadus, played by Henry, who is called forth by Merlin and the Lady of the Lake, to find the House of Chivalry in ruins. Meliadus is then treated to a brief sketch of British history by Merlin, which is supposed to teach the young Prince how to be a good king. Merlin’s history features both great military kings, but also has a focus on the economic and social benefits of peace and sound domestic governance.

As the title suggests, the masque was the prelude to Barriers, which lasted much of the night and saw Henry take a great many blows. These barriers represent the last time Arthurian drama and martial spectacle would be linked together, a tradition that stretches back to the Round Table Tournaments first held during the reign of Edward I. It seems likely that these particular barriers were staged, at least to some extent, so as to ensure Henry was not humiliated by too successful a challenger. The barriers were contested on foot, as James had refused his son’s request for horses on the ground of cost.

King Arthur; OR The British Worthy

Dryden’s wroteKing Arthurin 1685 to praise Charles II, but the Duke of Monmouth’s invasion cut its premier short, and Charles II died before the performance could be rearranged. It was then meant to be performed for James II, but he was deposed by William III and Mary II before it could be staged. Dryden claimed that by the time it was finally performed in 1691, with William III on the throne, much of the pieces’ beauty had, had to be cut because it was too complimentary towards the deposed royal house of Stuart. Dryden had no love for William, remaining a Jacobite until the end of his days, and actually resigned the Poet Laureateship because he refused to swear allegiance to the new king.

The semi-opera deals with Arthur’s final battles against the Saxons as he drives the last of them from England’s shores, and also with his romantic pursuit of the fair, blind Emmeline, whose sight Merlin returns. The text is full of spirits and magic, most of which Arthur must fight, with Merlin presiding over all things in his flying chariot. The text culminates in a dual between Arthur and the Saxon king Oswald, which Arthur of course wins. After this victory, Merlin prophesises England’s future, in masque form, detailing the kings who will follow Arthur in a not dissimilar way to Jonson’s Merlin.

The semi-opera was, at the time, the most expensive production ever put on the London stage, and the actor who played Emmeline refused to face the audience when she sang because she feared people would judge her for the faces she had to pull in order to reach the right notes.

7d25d4fc3abb060950fc5f3752b61f5aInigo Jones’ design for the House of Chivalry from Speeches at Prince Henry’s Barriers

Questions/Discussion Points

  • How does Jonson navigate the differing models of kingship held by James VI and I, and his son and heir Prince Henry?
  • Do we think that the Barriers could be taken wholly seriously? Is there something inherently comic about people pretending to joust whilst inside?
  • How is James VI and I constructed in Jonson’s masque? Compare him with Prince Henry’s Meliadus.
  • Can we see any criticism of William III in Dryden’s masque? Is there anything overtly pro-Stuart?
  • What purpose do we think Dryden’s masque plays at the end of the semi-opera?
  • Can the medieval Arthurian tradition be spied in either of these texts? How medieval are they? Are they more classical? Or are they not concerned about aping a particular style?
  • What is the role of Merlin in these texts? How is his character constructed?
  • How do the two versions of history constructed by the two Merlins interact? Where they disagree, what might the significance be?
  • How do you imagine the staging of these two masques? How would these work as dramatic pieces?
  • How much do either of these texts draw on the Arthurian legend?

The Canterbury Tales: Fifteenth-Century Continuations and Additions (23rd May)

Next Meeting: 23rd May 2018 / Room 2.47 / 3-5pm

By Rebecca Newby

Picture1.pngDetail of a miniature of Lydgate and pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, at the beginning of the prologue to the Siege of Thebes. Attributed to Gerard Horenbout. c. 1516-1523. British Library MS Royal 18 D II f. 148.

Introduction: ‘Hurlewaynes meyné’

When all this fressh feleship were com to Caunterbury, | As ye have herd tofore, with tales glad and mery, | Som of sotill centence, of vertu and of lore, | And som of other myrthes for hem that hold no store | Of wisdom, ne of holynes, ne of chivalry, | Nether of vertuouse matere, but to foly | Leyd wit and lustes all, to such japes | As Hurlewaynes meyné in every hegg that capes | Thurh unstabill mynde, right as the leves grene | Stonden ageyn the weder, right so by hem I mene (The Canterbury Interlude, ll. 1-10).


Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400 at his residence near Westminster Abbey without providing his fictional pilgrims with an opportunity to reach the end goal of their journey: the city of Canterbury and the relics of St. Thomas à Becket in its cathedral. On the contrary, at the time of Chaucer’s death, the Canterbury Tales as we know it today would have been little more than a pile of rough and working drafts, fair-copies and loose leaves.[1] It most likely fell to the poet’s son Thomas Chaucer, alongside remnants of his father’s literary circle and professional scribes, to arrange the fragments of the Tales into the relatively coherent manuscripts of the fifteenth century. Many gaps in the material remained, however; not least the promised account of the pilgrims’ arrival at Canterbury Cathedral and the return journey to Southwark.

Thomas Chaucer’s cohort of scribes and compilers were apparently hopeful that other bits of the Canterbury Tales would turn up, and left room in their manuscripts for the ends of ‘The Cook’s Tale’ and ‘The Squire’s Tale’, tales left unfinished by Chaucer. Though admirable, their optimism made little difference: no other tales or parts of tales materialised and no more of the frame narrative appeared (nothing written by Chaucer, anyway). Their optimistic pagination is useful, however, in that it tells us there was a general dissatisfaction with the incomplete state of the Canterbury Tales. The medieval ‘editors’ of the Tales were not content to allow the pilgrims to, like the ‘Hurlewaynes meyné’, the Maisnie Hellequin of old French popular superstition, wander the world on horseback debating for eternity.[2]

The Four Types of Additions and Continuations

The work of the fifteenth-century continuators suggests that this sentiment was not limited to the early ‘editors’ of Chaucer’s tales. Within a few decades, several poets had contributed their own additions to the Canterbury Tales. The modern editor of the Continuations and Additions John M. Bowers classifies the literary efforts to expand Chaucer’s work as follows: (1) The pilgrimage narrative was supplemented to allow the pilgrims to reach Canterbury, then begin their return trip toward Southwark, in John Lydgate’s Prologue to the Siege of Thebes and in the anonymous Canterbury Interlude and Merchant’s Tale of Beryn. (2) The gaps in the intermediate frame-narrative were bridged with ‘spurious’ links for tales lacking authentic prologues. (3) Tales left incomplete (i.e. those which trail off in the middle of things) were provided with conclusions. (4) And a pilgrim who never told a tale, the Plowman, was given a chance to make his contribution. Perhaps the most memorable of these are the Prologue to the Siege of Thebes, in which Lydgate imagines himself as Chaucer the pilgrim’s replacement in the Canterbury company, and the Canterbury Interlude, which tells of the Pardoner’s misadventures with a barmaid named Kit.

Historical Context

Though business was business, the unfinished state of the Canterbury Tales was more than simply an aesthetic and commercial inconvenience. As Bowers indicates, the desire to deliver a volume that at least had the appearance of completeness may also have been driven by various political motives. The Lancastrian dynasty was not secure following the deposition of Richard II and his suspicious death in 1400, and diplomat Thomas Chaucer was one of the major players in this precarious establishment, particularly under Henry V, the first English monarch since 1066 to hold court in English rather than French. The production and circulation of Chaucer’s poetry coincided with the push to promote the English language as part of a growing nationalism during the more tumultuous days of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453).

It also had a role to play in the domestic trouble the Lancastrian regime was having with the Lollards, the followers of John Wyclif (d. 1384), who were using homely English (rather than elitist Latin) in their quest to reform Western Christianity. For the Lollards, the production of a courtly text in English, the main subject of which was a pilgrimage, by Thomas Chaucer and the Lancastrians would have been a proverbial spanner in the works. The continuations and additions to the Tales can thus be read as a commentary on contemporary social anxieties and the larger dynastic imperatives at work in the early fifteenth century, which saw Geoffrey Chaucer posthumously inaugurated as the father of the English language.


John Lydgate’s Prologue to the Siege of Thebes (c. 1420), BL Arundel 119, fols. 1a-4a

John Lydgate was born in c. 1370; he became a monk in 1385, and was then ordained as a priest in 1397, when Chaucer would have been in the later stages of writing the Canterbury Tales. Lydgate probably also encountered Thomas Chaucer around this time. According to Bowers, an allusion to the Treaty of Troyes at the end of Lydgate’s poem and its general address to Henry V indicates that it was finished after May 1420 and before August 1422. Both Lydgate’s clerical background and his reverence for Chaucer are evident in the work.

In the prologue, Lydgate represents himself as falling in with the pilgrims at their inn in Canterbury, when he comes to the town to perform his vow to St. Thomas for recovery from an illness. He is received in the hall of the inn by the host and invited to join the company of pilgrims in their return journey to London. At sunrise on the following morning they all start off, and before they have ridden a bow-shot from Canterbury the host turns to Lydgate and asks him to tell some merry tale: he obliges with an adaptation of the Roman de Thèbes (c. 1175). The prologue to the Siege begins with a pastiche of the opening of Chaucer’s General Prologue, complete with references to the zodiac, April showers and blossoming plants.

Evidently Lydgate enjoys this idea of composing an additional Canterbury Tale, and thus, as it were, taking up and continuing the unfinished work of his admired master. And as a clergyman, he is also looking to reclaim the monastic authority and integrity lost in Chaucer’s portrayal of the Monk. For most of the twentieth century, scholars dismissed Lydgate’s prologue as a cheap imitation of Chaucer’s verse. More recently, however, Lydgate’s prologue has been reassessed as ‘an intelligent commentary’ on ‘The Knight’s Tale’, which uses a calculated poetic strategy to ‘encompass all the preliminary material in a single, loosely constructed past-time unit before commencing the new narrative action’.[3] It is included here because it attempts to extend and complete the frame narrative of Chaucer’s Tales.

The Canterbury Interlude or The Prologue to the Tale of Beryn (c. 1420), Northumberland MS 455, fols. 180a-235a

The Canterbury Interlude or The Prologue to the Tale of Beryn tells of the pilgrims’ arrival at Canterbury and their visit to the shrine of St. Thomas, the story of Pardoner and Kit the Tapster, and the company’s departure for the homeward journey back to London. All of this precedes the interpolated, non-Chaucerian Tale of Beryn, the second tale told by the Merchant, which appears in one fifteenth-century manuscript of The Canterbury Tales (the Northumberland manuscript). Beryn was inserted so that it would precede ‘Melibee’, as well as the tales told by the Monk, the Nun’s Priest, the Manciple and the Parson. As Bowers observes, the anonymous Beryn poet thus expands the overall arrangement of the Tales to fulfill the design of the return trip promised in the General Prologue.

The poet revives Chaucer’s pilgrims with considerable charm, propelling them into various comically inappropriate escapades around Canterbury. It is Chaucer’s Pardoner who falls most foul of the poet’s laughing continuation of the pilgrims’ misadventures, however. He is cast in the starring role of fabliau-type quest to swindle and bed the barmaid, which leaves him, despite his perceived superiority, beaten, sexually humiliated and shivering all night in a dog’s kennel – much to his shame and embarrassment. And yet the poet’s caustic portrayal of the Pardoner’s misfortune perhaps distracts from some of the more pressing questions left unaddressed by his continuation: an update on which of the pilgrim’s tales had the ‘best sentence and moost solace’ thus far, for instance. Unfortunately, the manuscript itself is missing leaves at the end, and so the pilgrims never reached their journey’s end, their final destination back at the Tabard Inn. Indeed, because of this material circumstance, we do not even know whether the Beryn poet wrote a return to Southwark into his expansion of the frame narrative.

The Canterbury Interlude may well have been composed later than the tale it precedes. It has been dated plausibly to the year 1420 by Bowers and Peter Brown, both of whom align it with the Canterbury jubilee of that same year, celebrated every half-century since the martyrdom of St. Thomas in 1170.[4] This event was a significant and lucrative ‘tourist’ event as well as ‘a prime occasion to reassert the validity of pilgrimage rituals against the Lollards’. As both scholars argue, it is therefore tempting to believe that the 1420 jubilee provided this continuator, as well as John of Lydgate, with the religious occasion to attempt to complete Chaucer’s literary pilgrimage to Canterbury.


Questions for discussion

  • How do Lydgate and the Beryn poet adapt and/or invert some of the themes and characters in Chaucer’s text? e.g. Lydgate’s self-portrait vs. Chaucer’s Monk
  • What do you think were the motivations for continuing/adapting the Canterbury frame? Did they just want to finish it?
  • How well do the continuations resolve some of lingering questions/dangling threads left unanswered by Chaucer’s unfinished frame narrative?
  • What do you think about the treatment of the Pardoner? Is there a narrative/poetic justice at play here?
  • How do you see the relationships between the different Canterbury pilgrims shifting? As well as their relationship with the Host? What are the implications of this?
  • Do you think the arrival at Canterbury and the visit to the cathedral were the only things required to end the text? If not, what else?
  • Do these texts go any way to providing a more satisfactory ending to the Canterbury Tales?

Useful Links



[1] John M. Bowers, ‘General Introduction’, The Canterbury Tales: Fifteenth-Century Continuations and Additions, TEAMS (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992), p. 1.

[2] Ricardus de Maidstone, ‘Notes’, Alliterative poem on the deposition of Richard II, ed. Thomas Wright (London: John Bowyer Nichol & Son, 1838), p. 53.

[3] James Simpson, ‘“Dysemol daies and fatal houres”: Lydgate’s Destruction of Thebes and Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale’, in Helen Cooper and Sally Mapstone, eds., The Long Fifteenth Century: Essays for Douglas Gray (Oxford, 1997), p. 25; Phillipa Hardman, “Lydgate’s Uneasy Syntax’, in Larry Scanlon and James Simpson, eds., John Lydgate: Poetry, Culture, and Lancastrian England (Notre Dame, 2006), p. 25.

[4] Peter Brown, ‘Journey’s End: The Prologue to The Tale of Beryn’, Chaucer and Fifteenth-Century Poetry, ed. Julia Boffey and Janet Cowen (London: King’s College London Medieval Studies, no. 5, 1991), pp. 143-74.

Martin Parker’s ‘The Most Admirable Historie of That Most Renowned Christian Worthy Arthur King of the Britaines’ (1660) (24th February 2018)

Next Meeting: Saturday 24th February 2018 – Gregynog Hall

king A

The MEMORI Reading Group is, this month, meeting at Gregynog, as part of the MA in English Literature’s Postgraduate Conference. In this away fixture, we will be reading Martin Parker’s The Most Admirable Historie of That Most Renowned Christian Worthy Arthur King of the Britaines (1660), as well as a short extract from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, subtitled ‘The Reassurance of Fratricide’. The references for these texts are as follows:

  • Martin Parker, The Most Admirable Historie of That Most Renowned Christian Worthy Arthur King of the Britaines (London: Francis Coles, 1660)
  • Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991)

Below is a brief sketch of Martin Parker, largely taken from the May 2017 blog post on the MEMORI Reading Group’s blog entitled ‘Martin Parker: Ballads and Broadsides.

Martin Parker was the most celebrated and famous balladeer of the seventeenth century. His extant corpus contains over eighty ballads, pamphlets, broadsheets, and chapbooks, but it is hard to judge the true size of his canon. His first ballad appeared in 1624, and tells the story of a Cornish murder, while the text we’re reading was a chapbook entitled The Most Admirable Historie of that Most Renowned Christian Worthy Arthur, King of the Britaines, entered into the Stationers’ Register on the 5th April 1660, the last time Parker’s name would appear there. Before 1660 the last entry to bear his name was a chapbook published in 1647. This thirteen-year silence coincided with a clampdown on ballads and balladeers by the Government, led by Captain Bethan; Parker is also believed to have died during this period, probably sometime in the early 1650s. A satirical elegy for Parker appears in 1656, within a book entitled Death in a New Dress, OR Sportive Funeral Elegies and references in the 1653 and 1654 editions of Merlinus Anonymous suggest that Parker had died.

Parker is believed to have been an innkeeper for parts of his life, possibly while active as a writer, and there are also suggestions that he occasionally fell on the wrong side of the law. Parker’s later work contains strong royalist themes, which angered Puritans and earned him the title ‘The Prelates Poet’, not an uncommon insult for the King’s supporters at the time. He is thought to have taken over the running of the royalist newsbook Mercurius Melancholicus after its editor John Hackluyt was arrested and imprisoned.

Parker is chiefly remembered as a balladeer, though he published work in other genres, including journalism, royalist broadsides, romance, and more serious poetry.

The Admirable Historie is a retelling of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthurian narrative, contained within Geoffrey’s wide-ranging mythical account of the Kings of Britain, entitled Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). Parker’s text is unusual amongst seventeenth century Arthuriana in that it is, more or less, complete, telling Arthur’s story from his childhood right through to the tragic implosion of the Round Table and Arthur’s death. This is in stark contrast to the Arthurian literary fractures that litter the period – Milton’s abandoned epic, Dryden’s multiple literary attempts, and Blackmore’s frequently ridiculed ‘heroick poems’. Parker’s text also stands out because of its adherence to the established Arthurian narrative, again unusual during the seventeenth century. Like many other Arthurian texts, however, the Admirable Historie was written during a time when authority, in this case royal authority, was under pressure; this pressure came in the form of the Interregnum (1649-60) that followed the English Civil War (1642-51), and which ended with the Restoration in 1660, when Charles II acceded to the throne.

Round Table

Some Brief Notes on the Restoration

Oliver Cromwell ruled England as Lord Protector from 1653-58, dying on 3rd September 1658, and was succeeded by his son Richard Cromwell, but it soon became apparent that the son did not have the same skills as the father, and would not be able to hold onto power. There were a few small pro-royalist rebellions between 1658 and 1660, but the restoration would not truly get under way until General George Monck made his move. Monck, who commanded the army in Scotland, saw this and did not support Richard Cromwell militarily. Instead he waited and watched as confusion reigned. Charles II had already written to him in 1655, asking for support in an attempted restoration, but Monck had not obliged. This time, however, Monck supported the exiled king. He marched his army south on 2nd January 1660, and entered London on 3rd February 1660, having met little opposition. No one knew exactly what Monck’s intentions were, for he seemed to be playing both sides. Soon it became cleaer that he had taken the side of Charles II. Monck organised the Convention Parliament, which met for the first time on 25 April 1660, and he was elected an MP for both Devon and Cambridge University; he was now master of the situation.

On 4 April 1660, after communications and collaboration with Monck, Charles II signed the Declaration of Breda, in which he made several promises in relation to the reclamation of the crown of England.

On 8 May the Convention Parliament proclaimed that King Charles II had been the lawful monarch since the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649. Constitutionally, it was as if the last nineteen years had never happened. Charles returned from exile, leaving The Hague on 23 May 1660 and landing at Dover on 25 May 1660. He entered London on 29 May, his birthday. To celebrate his Majesty’s Return to his Parliament, 29 May was made a public holiday, popularly known as Oak Apple Day He was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 23 April 1661, St George’s Day.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. The literary histories of the Arthurian legend classify this text as a prose romance. Is this text a prose romance or more of a chronicle? What elements does it draw from each form?
  2. How does the preface work in the The Most Admirable History? Does its insistence of Arthur’s historicity affect the way we read the text?
  3. Given that Parker’s Admirable Historie was published posthumously, and before the Restoration, how much can this text be described as a restoration fantasy? Is it clear that it was written before the Restoration of Charles II in 1660?
  4. How does Anderson’s theory of reassuring fratricide help us to read the Admirable History? Look particularly at the tournament scene, how it foreshadows the text’s end, and recalls England’s recent past.
  5. What is the effect of the presence/absence of usual Arthurian figures in this text? Who is missing? What roles do they play, and why?
  6. How does Merlin feature in this text?
  7. What is happening in Chapter X? Why does Parker break with the traditional Galifridian narrative of European conquest in order to send Arthur on crusade? Why does he not complete the narrative laid down in the contents page?
  8. How is succession treated?
  9. Is this a well-produced text?
  10. What do you make of the front cover image, and the image of the Round Table?


The Life of St Margaret of Antioch in Middle English (31st Jan 2018)

Next Meeting: 29th January 2018 – Room 2.46 – 3pm-5pm

By Megan Leitch

StMargaret&DragonDetail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, British Library Add MS 18851, f. 406v

They do not die easily, these zealous adolescents […] who are flayed and burned and drowned and maimed and shaved and insulted and disemboweled and roasted and have their tongues and breasts torn off, their guts and bones exposed, and are then proposed to, whereupon they answer spiritedly: no. Their endurance is superhuman – indeed, surreal. They survive ordeals that would kill any of us ten times over. Yet there is a moment of truth that no saint survives, for the coup de grâce is, most often, decapitation.

– Sheila Delany, Impolitic Bodies: Poetry, Saints and Society in Fifteenth-Century England: The Work of Osbern Bokenham (OUP, 1998), p. 71

This month we are reading the life of St Margaret of Antioch, the virgin martyr who defeats a dragon and remains strong in her faith despite horrific bodily torments. Our central focus is on Osbern Bokenham’s fifteenth-century verse Legend of St Margaret, and we will also consider the thirteenth-century prose Seinte Margarete from the Katherine Group. The texts are scanned from the following editions:

  1. Osbern Bokenham, Legendys of Hooly Wummen, ed. by Mary S. Serjeantson, EETS OS 206 (London: Oxford University Press, 1938). We will be giving particular attention to lines 1-868, which together form Bokenham’s Prologue and the Vita of St Margaret; these 868 lines will be the required reading for students on Transgressive Bodies (Week 8). The PDF also includes Bokenham’s narrative of what happens to Margaret’s body and relics after her death (lines 869-1400), which will be provided in the Transgressive Bodies course reader and discussed in the lectures. Do also have at least a glance at this interesting ‘afterlife’ section – the EETS ‘reader’s digest’ marginal comments may prove useful here.
  2. Seinte Margarete, in Medieval English Prose for Women, ed. by Bella Millett and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). This edition includes the original thirteenth-century English prose alongside a facing page modern English translation. You are welcome to just have a quick read of the translation in preparation for the reading group – we can then have a closer look at points of interest during the discussion.

St Margaret of Antioch probably never existed, but her cult was very popular throughout the central and late Middle Ages. Narratives of her life are extant in Greek, Latin, and many European vernaculars. Like other virgin martyrs whose legends were re-told for later medieval audiences, St Margaret was positioned as a victim of the Diocletianic persecutions of the third and early fourth centuries, in which Christians in the Roman Empire lost their legal rights and were forced to sacrifice to the Roman gods or be subject to persecution (e.g. imprisonment or death). Margaret was put to death in AD 304; her feast day is July 20 in the Roman Catholic Church (July 17 in the Eastern Orthodox Church). In the version of St Margaret’s life that circulated widely in Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea, or the Golden Legend (the expansive hagiographical collection composed c.1260 in Latin that also survives in various vernaculars and over 1000 MSS), Margaret’s ability to survive being eaten alive by Satan in the form of a dragon is described as apocryphal. Yet this episode was central to narrative and iconographic depictions of her life, and due to the way in which she emerges unscathed after being swallowed whole by the dragon, she was widely revered as the patron saint of childbirth and pregnant women – if somewhat counter-intuitively, since when she is ‘birthed’ from the dragon’s insides, the dragon explodes.

Osbern Bokenham, an Augustinian friar at Clare Priory in Suffolk, was a late contemporary of the East-Anglian monk John Lydgate and, like Lydgate, one of Chaucer’s self-described literary disciples. Bokenham studied at the University of Cambridge, receiving his BA in 1423, and later travelled to Italy (at least twice) and Spain. In the 1440s, Bokenham wrote the first all-female legendary in English, featuring thirteen saints, ten of whom were virgin martyrs. His other works include the Mappula Angliae, a c.1440 translation of part of Ranulf Higden’s early fourteenth-century Polychronicon. Bokenham wrote for the East Anglian gentry: he mentions twelve patrons in his Legendys of Hooly Wummen, almost all of whom are laypeople, and eight of whom are women. However, the sole surviving copy of Bokenham’s hagiographical collection, BL Arundel 327, was compiled for presentation to a convent. In her seminal study of Bokenham’s hagiographical collection, Impolitic Bodies, Sheila Delany argues that Bokenham offers a ‘moral-theological critique of Chaucer’ (69) and a multifaceted response to the Legend of Good Women.

The ‘Katherine Group’ Seinte Margarete was also written for a female audience. This group of five thirteenth-century Middle English texts is addressed to anchoresses, and includes two other virgin martyr narratives, the lives of St Katherine of Alexandria and St Juliana of Nicomedia. This unprecedented grouping may have been selected to tie in with the names of the three sisters who were the first audience for the Ancrene Wisse, the guide for anchoresses written in the same early thirteenth-century West Midlands dialect as the Katherine Group. The author of this version of Seinte Margarete elaborates on his Latin source, explaining points of theology for his audience, and adding sections such as the account of the Devil’s attacks on chastity and the defences against lechery, which Margaret wrings from the fiend while she tramples him underfoot.

These are some of the many insular medieval retellings of the life of St Margaret of Antioch, whose popularity was sustained in part by the assistance she was thought to give in pregnancy and childbirth, and the help and intercession she was understood to offer, especially to those who wrote or retold her legend. This popularity was reinforced in the Christian west after the First Crusade’s capture of Antioch in 1098, after which a number of relics associated with Margaret of Antioch were brought to Western Europe.

Virgin martyr tales have a self-evident emphasis on the body, as the protagonist seeks to preserve her virginity (as consecrated to God), but also prioritises her soul over her body when she refuses to change her faith despite the horrific tortures to which she is submitted. Some scholars view the graphic descriptions of tortured female flesh that this genre offers as constituting an almost pornographic form of voyeurism for medieval readers, though this view has its critics too.

Topics for discussion:

  • Purity, beauty and torture: how can we understand edifying religious literature that features shockingly graphic violence?
  • What are Margaret’s virtues, and who might be expected to emulate them?
  • What roles do emotions play in this text?
  • What about the gaze? (Voyeurism? Witnessing?)
  • What displays of power shape the narrative?
  • What is the significance of the dragon?
  • How does Bokenham’s version compare to the thirteenth-century Katherine Group version? (Explication, exemplarity, torture?)
  • How do the text and its genre negotiate traditional gender roles?
  • In what ways does the text align with feminist or anti-feminist readings?
  • What do you make of Bokenham’s response to Chaucer? Formal choices, literary models, name-dropping?
  • What are the implications of Margaret’s prayer for those on whose behalf she will intercede after her death, and the divine response (834-54) – for both Margaret (in the narrative) and Bokenham (as writer of the narrative)?
  • What do you make of Bokenham’s discussion of translatio (linguistic and hagiographic)? How are writing and relics connected here?



Bevis of Hampton: From Medieval to Early Modern (25th October)

Images taken from The Gallant History of the Life and Death of that most Noble Knight Bevis of Hampton (London: A.M., 1691)

Next Meeting: 25th October, Room 1.19 of the John Percival Building, 2:30-4:30pm 

Bevis of Hampton was one of the most successful medieval romances; it has survived in six manuscripts, each of which are different enough that A.C. Baugh declared there to be ‘at least five versions [of Bevis of Hampton], each of which is entitled to be considered a separate romance’.[1] The medieval extracts we are reading are taken from the Bevis contained within the Auchenleck Manuscript, as it is the most complete and generally considered to be the best. As well as these extracts we are reading The Gallant History of the Life and Death of that most Noble Knight Bevis of Hampton (1691), and the ‘Epistle to the Reader’ from The Famous and Renowned History of Sir Bevis of Hampton (1689). As late seventeenth texts, these versions of the Bevis story were published towards the end of the period of almost continuous publication enjoyed by the Bevis tradition.

Bevis of Hampton is often classified as a dynastic romance, because it concerns the reclamation of lost, familial estates by the rightful heir.  It is a romance that ‘has it all: a hero whose exploits take him from callow youth to hard-won maturity to a serene and almost sanctified death; a resourceful and appealing heroine; faithful servants and dynastic intrigue; a parade of interesting villains, foreign and domestic, exotic and local; a geographical sweep which moves back and forth from England to the Near East and through most of Western Europe; battles with dragons and giants; forced marriages and episodes of domestic violence; a myriad of disguises and mistaken identities; harsh imprisonments with dramatic escapes, harrowing rescues, violent urban warfare; and, last but not least, a horse of such valour that his death at the end of the poem is at least as tragic as that of the heroine, and almost as tragic as that of Bevis himself’. [2]

The earliest extant version of Bevis of Hampton is the Anglo-Norman Boeve de Haumtone, generally dated to the latter half of the thirteenth century, and from there it became one of the most successful and enduring romances, with the last metrical edition appearing in 1711. Once Wynkyn de Word, Richard Pynson, and William Copland published editions of Bevis the story solidified and showed remarkable consistency, with all further editions seemingly relying on either the Pynson or the Copland edition.[3] Jennifer Fellows has suggested that both Pynson’s and Copland’s editions probably derived from a de Worde print; unfortunately, only fragments of de Worde’s Bevis prints now survive.

There were over ten editions of the Bevis story, both metrical and prose, published over the course of the seventeenth century, which represents a much more prominent position in the literary landscape than is held by any other medieval romance.  Only two metrical English romances managed to survive the influx of continental, primarily Spanish, romances that flooded the market, the other being Guy of Warwick, Bevis’ closest rival. Even the King Arthur legend cannot boast such a consistent publication history – at least in terms of narrative – as the Bevis tradition.

While the basic narrative elements of Bevis texts remained broadly consistent, the seventeenth century readers of Bevis would not have brought the same experiences or worldviews to the narrative as the thirteenth century readers of Boeve de Haumtone. Helen Cooper argued, in The English Romance in Time, that ‘the familiarity of the memes of romance, its standard episodes and motifs and phrasing, make possible a much greater and more concise subtlety of response than could be achieved by invention from scratch. The originality lies in an author’s handling of his materials, his (on very rare occasions, her) ability to disrupt, to startle, to shock. The shock may come from upset expectations, but it may also come from the recognition of something long known but in circumstances that defamiliarise it, that makes you recognise it for the first time. Such defamiliarisation can come even from an unchanged text if it is read in new conditions’.[4] Those who wrote Bevis of Hampton texts in the seventeenth century would have had to infuse them with a meaning that was readable to early modern readers, while maintaining the original memes that makes the story recognisable.

The Gallant History was published three years after The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw William and Mary replace James II as monarchs of Britain, while The Famous and Renowned History was published in 1689, just one year after William and Mary took the throne. The Bevis story was resilient to the turbulent politics that characterised the seventeenth century, continuing to be published through the death of Elizabeth I, the reigns of James I, Charles I, the English Civil War, the Interregnum, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, and into the eighteenth century.

Images taken from The Famous and Renowned History of Sir Bevis of Hampton (London: W. Thackery, 1689)

The Texts

Anonymous, ‘Bevis of Hampton’, in Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston, ed. Ronald B. Hertzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999), pp. 200-322, pp. 274-77, pp.   294-5.

Ronald B. Hertzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury, ‘Bevis of Hampton: Introduction’, in Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston, ed. Ronald B. Hertzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999), pp. 187-97.

S.J., The Famous and Renowned History of Sir Bevis of Hampton (London: W. Thackery, 1689).

Anonymous, The Gallant History of the Life and Death of that most Noble Knight Bevis of Hampton (London: A.M., 1691).

Topics for Discussion

  1. Why do you think the Bevis story managed to survive into the Early Modern period so effectively, while other medieval romances died out? How big a role did Bevis’ part as a key component of ‘The Matter of England’ play in its longevity?
  2. What does the ‘Epistle’ tell us about the reasons for writing and publishing Bevis narratives?
  3. Does the Gallant History assume existing knowledge of the Bevis story in its reader?
  4. Helen Cooper has written that, after the Reformation, romances became ‘socially dangerous. The romances were condemned for not conforming to the new theology, to the new requirements for pious and Protestant reading […]. They were condemned for having been written by those all-purpose Reformation villains, monks’.[5] Is there any discernible attempt at protestantisation in the seventeenth century versions of Bevis?
  5. Does the text care that it is part of a tradition that stretches back to the 1300s? Are the recognisably romance memes performing the same job in 1688 as they were in 1324, or do they mean something different by the end of the seventeenth century?
  6. Who do we think was reading The Gallant History in 1691? Has Bevis’ readership changed over the course of three and a half centuries?
  7. Are the seventeenth century texts invested in the Bevis story as history?
  8. How do the texts deal with betrayal?
  9. Consider the above description of Bevis of Hampton (from the introduction to to the TEAMS edition). Does The Gallant History live up to this billing, or is it too abridged?
  10. Do the various woodcuts tell us anything? Are they meant to be read, or are they simply decorative?
  11. In the end, is Bevis of Hampton just a good adventure story?



[1] A. C. Baugh, ‘The Making of Beves of Hampton’, in Bibliographic Studies in Honour of Rudolf Hirsch, ed. William E. Miller and Thomas G. Waldman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974), p. 34

[2] Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury, ‘Bevis of Hampton: Introduction’, in Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelstan’, ed. Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: University of Michigan Press, 1997), pp. 187-97, p. 187.

[3] Jennifer Fellows, ‘Bevis Redivivus: The Printed Editions of Sir Bevis of Hampton‘, in Romance Reading on the Book: Essays on Medieval Narrative Presented to Maldwyn Mills, ed. Jennifer Fellows, Rosalind Field, Gillain Rogers, and Judith Weiss (Cardff: University of Wales Press, 1996), pp. 251-68, pp. 251-2.

[4] Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p 21.

[5] Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p 38.