Medieval Ghost Stories: miracula, mirabilia, prodigiosa (August 15, 2018)

 


Ghost, spectre, wraith, spirit, shade, spook, phantom, apparition, poltergeist, bogey, haint – the profusion of terms, with their different origins and linguistic histories, with sometimes distinct but often overlapping meanings, testifies to a continuing, evolving but seemingly fundamental anxiety concerned with the possibility of an afterlife and, more specifically, the idea of a restless soul or spirit of the deceased. From the vapours of Homer’s Odyssey to Plutarch’s account of the ghost of a murdered man, haunting the baths at Chaeronea, whose groans and shrieks caused terror amongst the people, or from the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father urging vengeance to Sweet William’s Ghost (Child Ballad 77), begging his still-alive fiancée to free him from his promise to marry her, literary ghost stories have taken a plethora of forms and functions.

Medieval ghost stories are both like and unlike earlier and later spectral traditions. Predominantly taking the form of unquiet spirits – souls of men and women caught between heaven and hell – they have often been seen as inhabiting a textual space somewhere between Christian teaching and vernacular belief, though as this month’s reading testifies much theological thought could be bound up in the spectral matters, while popular folkloric beliefs existing beneath – and separate to – Christian orthodoxy are rarely easily apparent, despite the best efforts of some historians of medieval popular culture. While the modern ghost story often aims to entertain the reader by frisson, the pleasurable enjoyments of medieval ghost stories are often various: they could be morally edifying, spiritually consoling, and occasionally downright terrifying.

Early Church writers and Latin historians are largely quiet on ghostly matters. St Augustine of Hippo in the De cura pro mortuis gerenda (c. 420-22) was adamant that the dead could have no influence on the lives of the living; and gave little credence to accounts of the spectral return, whether in dream or in waking life. At best, such visions of the dead were the workings of God; usually they were the manifestations of error. Pope Gregory the Great in his Dialogi of c. 592, however, seems to have accepted the presence of ghosts – specifically, restless, penitent souls – as part and parcel of the Christian experience. Nonetheless, Augustine’s views seem to have held sway – or perhaps it was simply that, in that age of Christian expansion, tales of spectres and the restless undead were too close to non-Christian belief systems.

Whether it was a result of the doom-laded portents surrounding the year 1000, the development of the concept and place of Purgatory in the early twelfth century, or the great outpouring of Latin literature – and especially the historiographical renaissance of the 1100s – that reanimated earlier suppressed vernacular beliefs in ghosts and other folkloric anxieties, from the turn of the first millennium the ghost returned to haunt the pens and imagination of many Latin writers.

Some Churchmen saw the potential for capital – both spiritual and financial – in the fascination with ghost stories. Peter the Venerable (c. 1092-1156), abbot of Cluny, at the zenith of its power under his authority, included several tales of ghostly apparitions in his De miraculis, representing ‘the pinnacle of the twelfth-century use of the ghost story for the specific institutional advantage of a monastic foundation. Many of these stories demonstrate Peter’s “external” political concern to defend Cluny’s interests as a territorial and financial unit’. In one tale from the De miraculis, for instance, the ghost of a baron appears, begging the forgiveness of the abbot for encroaching on lands near the abbey’s holdings.

Many other writings were less materialistic in orientation. Jacques Le Goff ties the outpouring of ghostly complaints to the consolidation of the belief in Purgatory around the twelfth century. Certainly a common theme of such tales at this time centre on spirits condemned for a specific time to Purgatory to atone for transgressions in their life, and who seek the help of the living to alleviate their torments – typically through intercessional prayer.

The narratives of these ghostly miracula show evidence of the influence of Gregory the Great. Other writers, such as William of Malmesbury and Gervase of Tilbury, seem to recount stories of the undead in a different, but never wholly unrelated, form of the mirabilia, or marvel. Such tales of wonder could serve many purposes. William, for instance, recounts his ghostly tales as means of registering his disquiet over necromancy and, perhaps, to associate it with certain forms of continental speculative philosophy. Gervase of Tilbury, however, adapted the form to a less strenuously ethical mode: for him, mirabilia were predominantly tales of sophisticated court entertainments. Related to mirabilia are the prodigiosa or ‘unnatural marvels’ of William of Newburgh, contained within his Historia rerum Anglicarum, and which are, perhaps, neither as didactic as William of Malmesbury’s ghostly tales, nor as overtly entertaining as Gervase’s slightly later spectral diversions.

Despite some of these generic, formal considerations of miracula, mirabilia and prodigiosa, it should be noted that any distinctions are hazy, and insisting on easy classifications is a pointless task. Ghost stories, like ghosts themselves, are liminal entities, existing at the margins of generic classifications, or buried deeply – though perhaps not too permanently – within a morass of other textual matters and materials. Tales of spectres rarely stand alone. Just as modern ghost stories may be contained within horror fiction, stories of the supernatural, or tales of the paranormal, or within a range of larger genres – weird fiction, thrillers, the gothic – so medieval ghost stories exist within a multitude of literary forms and genres: religious exempla, theological textbooks, the histories of a people, specula of marvellous phenomena, romances, sagas. They could be, and usually were, grouped with other miraculous, marvellous or ‘unnatural’ phenomena – tales that many, of later generations, might want to describe as uncanny. Indeed, there is something curiously pervasive in the ghost story, as it reappears again and again in new forms, alongside new tales, and contradictory theologies.

Texts
This month’s reading consists of selections from five important, and diverse, writers. Though the extensiveness of medieval writings on spectres is at least as wide as modern and contemporary writings on ghosts, I have here selected only clerical writings in Latin. A future reading group may wish to consider later vernacular writings on spectral encounters, and in a wider range of genres.

The first set of extracts are taken from two of the most important Latin Church Fathers, St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and Pope St Gregory the Great (c. 540-604). Though their respective writings on spectral afterlives are short, their influence on later ecclesiastical writers was profound. Crucially, they assumed very different positions of the possibility of ghostly hauntings. For Augustine, famously, the dead, by their very nature, have no ability to interfere with the lives of the living. The spirits of the dead, awaiting judgement, have no ability to appear to the living – at least of their own volition. For Gregory, as so often, the position seems to have been different. Not only can the unquiet spirits of the dead appear (at least to learned, pious men), but they can also ask for service from the living. The extracts are taken from Augustine’s De cura pro mortuis gerenda (c. 420), a letter written to his fellow bishop, Paulinus, detailing the care to be had for the dead, and the fourth book of Gregory’s Dialogi (c. 593), which deals with the souls of ordinary Christians. The latter proved influential on later writers’ use of the ghost story as miracula, ‘in that they are not hagiographical accounts of saintly episodes but stories which use the extraordinary – the appearance after their death of ordinary people – to uphold and exemplify theological or moral points which the writer wishes to emphasise.’

The second group of spectral tales come from three English writers of the twelfth and early thirteenth century: William of Malmesbury, William of Newburgh and Gervase of Tilbury. William of Malmesbury (c. 1090-1143) was an enormously important historian of the twelfth century – at the very vanguard of the historiographical renaissance that was to include Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey of Monmouth and William of Newburgh. His De gestis regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings) was begun in 1125 and, indebted to Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731), represents highpoint in the revival of English literary and intellectual culture following the post-Conquest years. As Rodney M. Thompson notes, ‘in his scholarly and literary achievement William is on the one hand unique and outstanding, on the other representative of his concerns, traditions, virtues and limitations of Benedictine monasticism. He was living near the end of the great age of Benedictine scholarship, and though he apparently sensed that new forces were at work, associated with the continental Schools, he had little contact with them.’ Within his broad gestis are various anecdotes of the deeds of supernatural events, which are notably free of historical scrutiny. Also noteworthy is William’s disapproval of certain acts of necromancy (communication with, and/or summoning of the dead), which in the tale of Two Clerks of Nantes he associates with speculative philosophy.

The Yorkshire canon, William of Newburgh (1136-98), included a short collection of prodigiosa, or unnatural marvels, within his Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs). The subject of previous MEMORI reading groups [here], William’s work is of great importance to historians of the twelfth century, as well as students of historiography. His famously well-balanced, considered and at times idiosyncratic history of contemporary English affairs led him to be described as ‘the father of historical criticism’ by Edward Augustus Freeman in the nineteenth century. Parts of his work has also proven attractive to those working in folklore studies (as well as more dubious historians of the paranormal) for its depiction – questioning, open-minded, sometimes hesitant – of revenants, vampires and the famous ‘green children’ of St Martin’s Land. In his account of the Buckinghamshire Ghost, the Berwick Ghost and the Hound’s Priest, several critics have seen what they estimate to be Scandinavian influence – and a general belief in the former Danelaw in the existence of monstrous nightstalkers. Unlike several other monastic depictions of ghosts at this time, it is notable how important the role of lay persons – as opposed to the priests – are in the resolution of the narratives.

Gervase of Tilbury (c. 1150-1220) was an English canon lawyer, statesman and writer. Born in Tilbury, Essex, a manor in the hands of Henry II, Gervase spent most of his working life within the extensive Angevin network across northern and western Europe. He travelled widely, taught canon law at Bologna, found service in the court of William II of Sicily, Henry of Anjou, and William of Champagne, Archbishop of Reims. Sometime after the death of William II of Sicily, Gervase settled in Arles, and was later made Marshal of the Kingdom of Arles by Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor (and grandson of Henry II). Between 1210 and 1214 Gervase wrote Otia imperialia (Imperial entertainments) for his patron, as well as some devotional works. The Otia imperialia is an encyclopaedia of mirabilia (or marvels), and an important example of speculum literature. As a survey (speculum), the book is divided into three parts – history, geography and physics – and contains a wealth of many tales and wonders, including several ‘ghost stories’, all of which were devised as courtly, intellectual entertainments for Otto’s court.

Questions for discussion
1. How do Augustine and Gregory negotiate what we may loosely consider as ‘classical’ (or, in other instances, Judaic) traditions relating to funerary rites, and/or conceptions of the spectre?
2. What are the purposes/roles of Augustine’s and Gregory’s writings?
3. Is it possible to reconcile Augustine’s and Gregory’s writings on spectres, or are they mutually exclusive?
4. Do (all) these Latin writers present similar or very different conceptions of (a) ghosts and (b) ghost stories when compared to modern and contemporary presentations of spectres and spectral narratives?
5. Consider the corporeality (or incorporeal nature) of the ghosts in these texts
6. Ghost, revenant, spectre, spook, apparition, nightstalker, shade – is a taxonomy of ‘ghosts’ possible? Is it useful?
7. To what extent do these texts reveal an interplay between Church teaching and popular folklore?
8. Miracula, mirabilia, prodigiosa – to what extent do the generic literary presentations of these ghost stories affect the way we understand them?
9. Given all this generic and formal play – messiness, might be a better word – the obvious question is, what counts as a ghost story?

 

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Mary Magdalene: Saint and Sinner (12th April 2017)

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Mary Magdalene in the desert, British Library, Egerton MS 2125 f. 215 v.

Next Meeting: Wednesday 12th April / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

Mary Magdalene: Introduction

Repentant prostitute, aristocratic decadent, devote follower of Christ, virulent preacher, troublesome woman, apostle to the apostles – the many sides of Mary Magdalene have been constructed and reconstructed for centuries. She is a composite figure, drawn from at least three figures in the Gospels, whose mythic biography has been supplemented by many other literary legends.

The three texts we read this week are a short selection of Middle English popular works on the Magdalene. Performance ties all three text – the stanzaic Life (c. 1280) contained in the Short English Legendary owes much to contemporary verse romance; John Mirk’s account (c.1400) is a sermon to be read on her feast day; the Digby Mary Magdalene (c. 1475) the most ambitious – and longest – Middle English drama extant.

We read all of the SEL’s Life and Mirk’s sermon from the Festial, and just a short range of extracts from the Digby play.

The Genesis of Mary Magdalene

The Gospel of Luke (8:1-3) explicitly names Magdalene (‘Magdala’ was a town on the western Sea of Galilee) as an early supporter (or patron?) or Christ:

After that, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out—and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

Mary Magdalene is also named as one of the witnesses of the Crucifixion (Mark 15:40, Matthew 27:56 and John 19:25). Mark 15:47 and Matthew 27:61 also name Mary Magdalene as one of the witnesses of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Christ:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

In all four Gospels, Mary Magdalene – sometimes alone and sometimes with female companions – is the first witness to the resurrection. In John 20:1, Mark 16:9, and Matthew 28:1 she discovers the tomb is empty. John 20:16 and Mark 16:9 state that Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance was to Mary Magdalene, with no mention of others.

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). John 20:16

Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. Mark 16:9

Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Matthew 28:9

According to Luke and Mark, the apostles did not believe Mary’s report of what she had seen.

Mentioned 12 times, she is amongst the most frequently named of all women in the Gospels. She is not mentioned in any other book of the New Testament. Her role as first witness to the Resurrection is not included in Paul’s epistles, even when he recounts the catalogue of Christ’s post-Resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. 1 Corinthians 15:3-11

Creation of a Composite Saint

The canonical Gospels make no mention of Mary Magdalene’s life before she was cured of the seven demons. Her reputation as a repentant notable sinner – or prostitute – is not supported in the New Testament, but is a result of her conflation with other women of the Gospels.

Pope Gregory the Great, in a homily of 591 is the first figure of the western Church to emphatically conflate three figures mentioned in the Gospels into the composite ‘Mary Magdalene’: first is Mary Magdalene herself, the others are Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus (John 11:1-2), and a nameless ‘sinful woman’ who washed Christ’s feet with tears (Luke 7:36-50). Gregory’s Homily XXXIII is the key text:

She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?

It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.[1]

Thus the seven demons driven out of Magdalene became the seven deadly sins, with lust (and with it pride and covetousness) being foregrounded. She was further associated in later legends with Saint Mary of Egypt, a repentant prostitute who lived, in later life as a hermit.

A single ‘life of Magdalene’ appears first in a sermon attributed to Odo of Cluny in the tenth century – and multiple versions sprang from it. The dominant account in the West claimed that Mary, after the time of Christ’s Ascension, travelled to Provence in a rudderless boat; preached in Marseille and Aix-en-Provence; and then spent 30 years alone in a wilderness as a contemplative hermit.

Magdalene in Europe

Magdalene has particular importance in France, and especially in Provence, the site of her principal shrines. The Abbey of Vézelay claimed to possess its body, and grew into one of the greatest pilgrimage sites in Europe; a grotto at Sainte-Baume was widely believed to be MM’s abode during her abode in the wilderness. The tradition that she and Lazarus brought Christianity to the Gaul in the first century – thus providing the French Church with a distinct, yet still reconcilable, history to the rest of Latin Christendom had deep patriotic appeal in both medieval and post-medieval times.

In England, the cult of Mary Magdalene was prominent enough for Bede to have mentioned her feast day in his Martyrology (c. 720). But the real explosion of her popularity occurred in the later Middle Ages. Only 3 or so churches were dedicated to her at the time of the Conquest; some 35 are listed by the mid twelfth century; by the late fifteenth century England now possessed over 200 churches dedicated to the Magdalene. Sherry Reames summarises her widespread, and polysemous, appeal:

For the late-medieval Mary Magdalen was an exceptionally multi-faceted saint, who served many different functions for different segments of the population. She was the archetypal sinner who repented and was redeemed, supplying a powerful illustration of God’s forgiveness and an example of reform that was potentially relevant to every Christian, although it could also be narrowed to provide lessons for female sinners or sexual sinners in particular. Because of her own transformation from sinner to saint, she was the patron saint of moral rebirth and regeneration and of institutions founded for that purpose, including convents for former prostitutes and hostels for pilgrims. Because of her loving care for Christ’s body when she washed His feet and went to the tomb to anoint His body after death, she was often held up as a model of active charity; hence she became a favorite patron of hospitals and confraternities that engaged in works of corporal mercy. Since she was also believed to be the Mary whom Jesus praised for having “chosen the better part” (Luke 10:42) when she sat quietly at his feet instead of attending to the mundane chores of the household, she provided an appealing patron and model for cloistered nuns, monks, and others who had chosen lives of contemplation rather than worldly activity.[2]

Texts

As indicated above, the textual traditions of the Magdalene legend are long and diverse. As so often, the key text for most English accounts lies in the Legenda Aurea, or Golden Legend by Jacobus de Varagine. We are reading a small sample of the different forms in which the legend was popularly known in English – a notably romance-like stanzaic hagiography, a short prose sermon, and selections from a long dramatic rendering of the late fifteenth century.

The account of Magdalene known as the ‘Early South English Legendary Life’ is first found in Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 108 (c.1280); it is also found in the Auchinleck MS of the 1330s. The vita is not part of the SEL proper, but most probably an older text inserted into (and adapted partly into the style of) the SEL by a patron or scribe of the SEL.

John Mirk’s Festial was produced in the late fourteenth or very early fifteenth centuries. It is a collection of vernacular sermons for the major feasts and saint’s days of the liturgical year. The sermons typically rely on legends, exempla, popular tales and hagiography (rather than, say, scripture). It was circulated very widely in England: 40 extant MSS contain at least one of Mirk’s sermons; 18 editions of the sermons were printed between 1483 and 1532. Mirk was a canon at Lilleshall Abbey, Shrophsire.

The ‘awesomely eclectic’ (Coletti 1979, 313) Digby Mary Magdalene has been described – with some justification – as ‘the most extravagant play in the whole of early English drama’ (Coldewey 1993, 186). The play was composed sometime in the late fifteenth century, in an East Anglian dialect, surviving only in MS Digby 133. It is over 2100 lines in length. It is divided into two parts. The first deals with the privileged private life of Mary, her inheritance of Magdalene castle, her life of debauchery, and her conversion from it. The second part dramatizes Mary’s public life of good works – including the conversion of the King and Queen of Marseilles, her apostolicity, and later retirement from the world. But it is much more than a dramatization of the familiar life of Magdalene – its action ranges from the Holy Land to Marseilles, as well as Heaven and Hell. It is peopled by a huge cast (50 speaking parts) of saints and sinners, allegorical abstractions and earthy sailors. There are several worldly tyrants and one tempting tavernkeeper, ‘wytty and wyse’. There is also a burning idol and a moveable ship.

Questions for discussion

  • Which aspects of Magdalene’s sanctity has been emphasised in each text? (penitent? Loving service to Christ? Active charity in the world? Contemplative withdrawal into solitude?)
  • What are the implications and significance of Magdalene’s preaching in Marseille? Influence / importance to Lollardy?
  • Sex and the second chastity? How do we read Magdalene’s place among the virgin saints?
  • Like the Stanzaic accounts of Margaret and Katherine, the SEL Mary Magdalene vita borrows frequently from the conventions of secular verse romances. What is the significance of this for readers? What does this say about the relationship between the genres?
  • The use of the rudderless ship motif?
  • To what extent do these texts engage with the idea of Magdalene as the First Witness (of the Resurrection)? Male clerical authority?
  • What does the prominence of Mary’s vita indicate about the relationship of the cult of Magdalene and the Gospels?
  • What are the implications of these texts to our understanding of writing women in the Middle Ages?
  • How do we read Mary’s ‘tedure love’ (Mirk, 36) for Christ; and His ‘love of hur’ (Mirk, 44)?
  • ‘[W]han the fadyr saw hys wyf dedde and the chylde borne and grasping towarde the modur pappes, he began to wepe and wrynggyd hys handys and was so sore and so woo on uche syde that he ne wyste whatte he mythe done.’ (Mirk, 76-8). Comment on the role of family in these texts.
  • What are the proper uses of wealth and money? Do both texts share the same views?

Historical background and criticism

http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/reames-middle-english-legends-of-women-saints-john-mirk-sermon-on-st-mary-magdalen

http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/reames-middle-english-legends-of-women-saints-early-south-english-legendary-life-of-mary-magdalen

Haskins, Susan, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor (London: HarperCollins, 1993)

Jansen, Katherine Ludwig, “Maria Magdalena: Apostolorum Apostola.” In Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity, ed. Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 57-96.

__________. The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000)

Jones, Rachel, Mary Magdalene as Counter-Heroine: late Middle English hagiography and social order. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University (2014)

Saxer, Victor, Le Culte de Marie Madeleine en Occident des origines à la fin du moyen âge, 2 vols. (Paris: Libr. Clavreuil, 1959)

Thompson, Anne B., “Narrative Art in the South English Legendary“, JEGP 90 (1991), 20-30

Theresa Coletti, ‘The Design of the Digby Play of Mary Magdalene’, Studies in Philology, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Autumn, 1979), pp. 313-333


[1] Gregory the Great, Homily XXXIII

[2] Sherry Reames, ‘The Legend of Mary Magdalen, Penitent and Apostle: Introduction’, Middle English Legends of Women Saints (TEAMS Middle English Texts Series, 2003); available at http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/reames-middle-english-legends-of-women-saints-legend-of-mary-magdalen-introduction

Georgius Agricola, De re metallica (1st June 2016)

Next meeting: 1st June / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

Georgius Agricola (the Latinised version of his birth name George Bauer), was a German Catholic, humanist, scientist and engineer. There’s not a lot written on him, but the Wikipedia entry is a good introduction for our purposes.

Agricola devoted himself to philology, philosophy, medicine, physics and chemistry as a young man, as part of the “New Learning” of Renaissance Humanism. He was a town physician in Joachimsthal (in the heart of Germany’s ancient industrial centre), where he made many of his early observations on mining, engineering and other ‘metallic arts’ or mineralogy and metallurgy.

He was friends with the greatest scholars of his day – Erasmus, Melanchthon, Meurer and Fabricus – and was admired by each of them, save in his Catholic faith, which caused him to be expelled from several posts in several Lutheran German states. He died, apparently, in a fit of apoplexy brought on during a discussion with an irksome Protestant theologian. Such was the violence of the theological feelings against him in his final home at Chemnitz that his body was refused burial, and had to be carted 50km away to Zeitz.

He published very widely – not only on mining, geology, mineralogy and allied subjects, but also on medical, religious, critical, philological, political and historical matters.

De re metallica was his greatest achievement. It was the first authoritative (and exhaustive) account of mineralogy and metallurgy to be written; and the work remained the premier account of the subject for 180 years. It passed through 10 editionsns in three languages in a few short years. As learned as the book is, most of the information seems to be new – and is certainly not found in the works he cites in his preface. He personally supervised the drawing of the woodcuts (the first technical drawings of their kind), though the woodcuts themselves were completed after his death – the book being published in 1556.

Topics for discussion:

1. The relationship between metallic arts (a) alchemy
(b) agriculture and husbandry
2. The interrelation of word and image (how do the texts work alongside each other? Can they be divorced from each other? Are they separate texts? How do they relate to other book-visual cultures, including MSS?)
3. Do these images have value outside of the metallurgical context? What values?
4. How can we read these texts sociologically? Perhaps in terms of:
(a) family
(b) class
(c) individual and community
5. In a text abounding with dogs/animal workers; trees/timber are there ecological concerns to this text?
6. Completed in 1550, to what extent is it useful to talk about this text in terms of the temporal and philosophical epochs medieval/early modern, and Renaissance / humanism?
7. Rationalisation and myth – how do we read these in the text?
8. Why do certain sections not have accompanying illustrations? Cf. Book I and the PDF on Health of Miners? How do we read the silence of the illustration?
9. Do the images carry meanings that the words do not?

French and English fabliaux (17th February 2016)

The Summoner from the Ellesmere Manuscript of The Canterbury Tales

Next meeting: 17th January 2016 / Room 2.47 / 3-5pm

The Fabliaux genre was popular in twelfth and thirteenth century France, and around 150 French fabliaux are now extant. The genre was briefly revived in England the fourteenth century, and Geoffrey Chaucer included several fabliaux in The Canterbury Tales.

Fabliaux are traditionally set in real, familiar places, and the characters are ordinary sorts – tradesmen, peasants, priests, students, restless wives; the plots are realistically motivated tricks and ruses. The genre presents a lively image of everyday life among the middle and lower classes, but the class politics and function of these tales are often complex: some scholars suggest that they were subversive tales which were consumed by the lower classes, while others argue that they were a product of aristocratic society that were designed to reinforce social hierarchy.

We are reading a selection of French and English fabliaux, including:

Le Prestre Crucefié / The Crucified Priest (Old French / early thirteenth century / France)

In this tale, a cuckolded husband, who is also a wood carver, castrates a priest who has an affair with his wife. There are two later versions of this fabliau, including De Connebert and Du Prestre Teint (The Dyed Priest)

Li Dis de la vescie à Prestre / The Tale of the Priest’s Bladder (Old French / early fourteenth century / Antwerp

In this tale, two friars beg a dying priest to leave them his property. The Priest consents on the grounds that the friars bring their Prior with them the next day. Five friars arrive without their Prior, but the Priest insists he will only reveal his secret in the presence of the Sheriffs and the Mayor. The Priest berates the friars for their importunity, and bequeaths his bladder to them. This text is an analogue for The Summoner’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer’s Summoner’s Prologue and Tale (Middle English / late fourteenth century / England)

In The Canterbury Tales, The Summoner takes offense at The Friar’s Tale, which focuses on a corrupt summoner and his interaction with a demon. In response, The Summoner tells the tale of a dishonest friar, who wanders from house to house begging for alms.

The friar arrives at the house of Thomas and his wife: Thomas is ill, and their child has just died. The friar reassures Thomas’ wife that their child has entered heaven, but he insists that Thomas is ill because he has not donated money to the church. The friar continues to lecture Thomas, and finally asks him for money to build a cloister. Thomas tells the friar he has a gift for him, and that he can have if he divides it between his twelve brothers. The friar attempts to retrieve the gift, which Thomas is sitting on, but it is, in fact, no more than a fart.

The friar is chased from the house, and complains to the lord of the village about how he is supposed to divide a fart into twelve. The lord suggests that a cartwheel could be used to distribute the fart equally.

 

 Some possible topics for discussion

  • The body / fetishization?
  • C12th / C13th contexts?
  • Conservative (Norris Lacy) or subversive (Benson)? Reflective or corrective?
  • ‘Fabliaux are the essence of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque and violence is often a part of that humour which was directed at mixed audiences of peasantry, bourgeoisie, and nobility.’
  • The meanings generated by torture and (judicial / non-judicial punishment)?
  • ‘The episodes interrogate the “Other within” – those who function within a society and a shared cultural identity, but who transgress societal norms and act in ways beyond social or literary sanction’.
  • What are the advantages and limitations of reading the Summoner’s Tale as a response to the Friar’s?
  • Despite the scholarly emphasis placed on Chaucer’s comic tales, the English fabliau is relatively rare. Why use a form that was, to all intents and purposes, dead?
  • And how does Chaucer use the form? What are the characteristics of Chaucerian fabliaux?
  • (and if you want more, you could look at one version of Boccaccio’s handling of the fabliau form from II.iv of the Decameron: http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Italian_Studies/dweb/texts/DecShowText.php?lang=eng&myID=nov0402&expand=day04 )