Selections from the Auchinleck Manuscript (14th June)

Harrowing of hell BL MS Arundel 157 f. 110
Harrowing of Hell, London, British Library MS Arundel 157, f. 110

Next meeting: Wednesday 14th June / Room 2.46 / 3-5 pm

This month we will be reading some of the minor texts from Edinburgh, NLS, MS Advocates 19.2.1, the early-fourteenth-century miscellany known as the Auchinleck Manuscript.

Long known for its collection of Middle English romance, the miscellany also contains a significant number of religious texts, moral texts, and a fabliau. There are forty-four items in total, of which eighteen are romances. Several of these are unique to Auchinleck (the stanzaic Guy of Warwick, Reinbrun, Lay le Freine, Roland and Vernagu, Oteul a Kniȝt, Sir Tristem and Horn Childe). Derek Pearsall notes that the bulk, or approximately 3/4, of the manuscript consists of popular romance. [1] Yet nineteen items are religious tales, saints’ legends, and didactic texts, and, again, many of these – thirteen, in fact – are unique to the manuscript.

We will be reading some of the other, lesser known texts: two debates, a ‘closet’ drama, and an ABC. Photocopies of alternate versions of the texts will be supplied where Auchinleck is missing lines since, unfortunately, the manuscript has sustained significant damage through the removal of its miniatures in the past.

The readings:

  • þe Desputisoun Bitven þe Bodi & þe Soule. Versions of this dream vision / debate text occur in six manuscripts, including the Simeon and Vernon MSS. See
  • The Harrowing of Hell. This ‘closet’ drama, composed in rhyming couplets, is also included in the late-thirteenth-century miscellany, Oxford, Bodleian, MS Digby 86, and in the early-fourteenth-century London, British Library, MS Harley 2253. A number of lines are missing from the version in Auchinleck. See
  • The Thrush and the Nightingale. This debate poem on the virtues and vices of women is also included in MS Digby 86. See
  • Alphabetical Praise of Women. This poem, a unique text, has a French source which also appears in MS Harley 2253. See


Topics for discussion:

  • The mixture of secular and religious texts in the manuscript, as well as the intermingling of secular and religious themes and imagery within texts. The Alphabetical Praise of Women, for example, justifies praise of women by the virtue of the Virgin Mary, yet also includes lines such as these: ‘Ouer þe se, þat ebbeþ & flouþ, | Is non so swete in his reles, | So is a cosse of womannes mouþe; | For priis of spices ichir ches, | Most of vertu & namcouþe’ (ll. 180–4).
  • Miscellaneity; Helen Phillips’s ‘chance, incompleteness, and unlooked-for juxtapositions’ [2]
  • English identity. Susanna Fein captures the novelty of the miscellany and its collection of vernacular texts, many translated from Anglo-French, describing them as ‘first-time-in-English literary works for edification and entertainment’. [3] Venetia Bridges questions an inward-looking sense of English-ness, arguing that booklet eight, including The Thrush and the Nightingale, gestures towards a multilingual, learned identity. [4]
  • Versification, including mixed versification within texts
  • Audience: family? the young? aspirational? Chaucer……?
  • Aspects of oral performance
  • Speeches
  • Genre


[1] Derek Pearsall, ‘The Auchinleck Manuscript Forty Years On’, in The Auchinleck Manuscript: New Perspectives, ed. by Susanna Fein (York: York Medieval Press, 2016), pp. 11–25 (p. 13).

[2] Helen Phillips, ‘Auchinleck and Chaucer’, in Auchinleck Manuscript, ed. by Fein, pp. 139–55 (p. 143).

[3] Susanna Fein, ‘Introduction: The Auchinleck Manuscript: New Perspectives’, in Auchinleck Manuscript, ed. by Fein, pp. 1–10 (p. 6).

[4] Venetia Bridges, ‘Absent Presence: Auchinleck and Kyng Alisaunder’, in Auchinleck Manuscript, ed. by Fein, pp. 88–107 (pp. 104–7).



The Auchinleck Manuscript, ed. by David Burnley and Alison Wiggins (National Library of Scotland, 2003) <;

The Auchinleck Manuscript: New Perspectives, ed. by Susanna Fein (York: York Medieval Press, 2016)


Nightingale (2)
Unknown A Nightingale; Bats, about 1250 – 1260, Pen-and-ink drawings tinted with body color and translucent washes on parchment Leaf: 21 x 15.7 cm (8 1/4 x 6 3/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Christine de Pizan and ‘la Querelle de la Rose’ (14th December 2016)

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the Queen, London, British Library MS Harley 4431, f. 100r

Next meeting: 14th December 2016/ Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

Christine de Pizan (c. 1364-1430?), poet and biographer of King Charles V, was the first professional female author of France. Widowed before the age of 25, responsible for several dependants, far from her native Venice, and beset by multiple lawsuits, she appears to have made a living through book production and the copying of manuscripts before beginning to write her own poetry. Her Epistre au dieu d’Amours (Letter of the God of Love), written in 1399, is a defence of women which criticises amongst other texts the influential thirteenth-century allegorical dream vision, Le Roman de la Rose, in which the Lover pursues and finally achieves his object of desire, the Rose. In the Epistre she mocks the ingenuity the Roman presents as necessary to win the Rose, arguing that the difficulty involved in seduction disproves the antifeminist case against women:

And Jean de Meun’s The Romance of the Rose,

Oh what a long affair! How difficult!

The erudition clear and murky both

That he put there, with those great escapades!

So many efforts made and ruses found

To trick a virgin — that, and nothing more!

And that’s the aim of it, through fraud and schemes!

A great assault for such a feeble place?

(Christine de Pizan, Epistre au dieu d’Amours, trans. by Thelma S. Fenster, ll. 389-97)

The Querelle de la Rose, or Debate of the Rose, began during the early years of the fifteenth century and was seemingly initiated in person rather than sparked by the Epistre. Although the debate encompasses other texts, such as a sermon and treatise against Le Roman de la Rose by Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, at its core are the epistles exchanged between Christine de Pizan and the three royal secretaries, Jean de Montreuil and Gontier and Pierre Col. Christine attacked Jean de Meun’s portion of the Roman for its antifeminism and what she understood to be its encouragement of immorality. More pertinently, she challenged the educated male admirers of the text. Thelma S. Fenster and Mary Carpenter Erler write that Christine’s intervention was perceived as an intrusion into a scholarly, masculine world:

Christine’s rebuke of Meun stirred their proprietary feelings, along with some irritation at her woman’s audacity. She was a feminine interloper in an exclusively masculine discourse, one that flourished between the secretaries and the authors they admired, on the one hand, and among the members of their own group, on the other. The literary practice they represented had never hesitated to write about women, though it rarely did so with the expectation that women themselves might be its respondents. Now the Epistre and the Dit would invite their public, one that Christine well knew included other women, to scrutinize the Roman, and to do so in a critical way.

(Fenster and Erler, Poems of Cupid, God of Love, p. 5)

The Readings:

‘The Debate Epistles’, from Christine McWebb (ed.), Debating the Roman de la rose: a critical anthology (New York: Routledge, 2007)
Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, The Romance of the Rose, trans. by Charles Dahlberg, 3rd edn. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995)
Christine de Pizan, Epistre au dieu d’Amours, trans. by Thelma S. Fenster, in Poems of Cupid, God of Love, ed. by Thelma S. Fenster and Mary Carpenter Erler (Leiden: Brill, 1990), pp. 34-89

A brief timeline of the debate:

1399:  Christine writes the letter to Cupid or Epistre au dieu d’Amours. The poem draws attention to the antifeminism of Jean de Meun’s continuation of Le Roman de la Rose, exposing to ridicule its illogical and inconsistent portrayal of women.

June/July 1401: Christine attacks Jean de Montreuil’s commentary on Jean de Meun’s continuation [epistle 4]. Montreuil’s commentary on Le Roman de la Rose has not survived.

September 1401: Gontier Col, secretary to the king, writes to Christine, requesting that she send him a copy of her letter to Jean de Montreuil [epistle 3].

September 1401: Christine responds with the requested letter [epistle 2 sets out her account; epistle 4 is the document requested].

September 1401: Gontier Col responds, insisting that Christine retract her views [epistle 5].

September 1401: Christine responds, restating her position that Le Roman de la Rose is an immoral text which endangers its readers [epistle 6].

October 1401: Christine writes to Pierre Col, brother of Gontier and Canon of Paris and Tournai [epistle 7].

February 1402: Christine sends the collected correspondence to Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France, asking for the Queen’s approval and support for her efforts to defend women from clerical antifeminism [epistle 1].

Further epistles were exchanged after Christine sought the Queen’s support. Several of these can be found in McWebb’s anthology.

Topics for discussion:

  • The (dis)continuities between the two excerpts from Le Roman de la Rose. The first passage, describing the beginning of the dream and Amant’s first sighting of the Rose, was written by Guillaume de Lorris; the second, the ‘plucking’ of the Rose, is taken from Jean de Meun’s continuation, composed nearly half a century later.
  • The balance between condemning a text’s presentation of women and condemning its moral status. To what extent does Christine’s argument veer towards promoting censorship of texts on the basis of immorality? How is her audience reflected in the tone and detail of her letters?
  • Humour in the Epistre au dieu d’Amours
  • Authority
  • Modes of argument
  • Modes of address between the correspondents
The Lover plucks the Rose, Le Roman de la Rose, 14th century, BnF, fr. 1576, f. 109r

 Further reading (French):

Mystery Plays – The Nativity


The Mystery Play Cycles were performed in several English towns for the Feast of Corpus Christi, which occurs eleven days after Pentecost in the liturgical calendar (in May or June). In the late Middle Ages this feast was enormously popular with the laity. The play cycles, performed annually on this date, aimed to dramatise salvation history from its beginning, Creation, to its ending, Judgement Day.

Each play belonged to a particular trade guild whose responsibility it would be to stage the performance each year. The Nativity plays which we will be reading belong in York to the Tilethatchers, in Coventry to the Shearmen and Tailors and in Chester to the Wrights.

The Texts

‘The Nativity’, The York Plays, ed. Richard Beadle (London: Edward Arnold, 1982)

‘The Pageant of the Company of Shearmen and Taylors in Coventry’, The Coventry Corpus Christi Plays, ed. Pamela M. King and Clifford Davidson (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), pp. 83-111

‘The Wrightes Playe: De Salutatione et Nativitate Salvatoris Jesu Christi‘, The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 97-124

Topics for Discussion:

  • Representations of political power
  • Joseph’s doubt
  • The representation of time: episodic, liturgical, teleological
  • Versification
  • Language: use of French and Latin; the incorporation of theological explanation and its associated vocabulary into Middle English

Death and exile in Troy – 5th August 2015

The MEMORI reading group meets on Wednesday the 5th of August, from 3:10 to 5 pm,  in Rm 2.04a/b to discuss a selection of readings on the themes of death and exile in Troy.

The readings:

  • Benoît de Sainte-Maure, Le Roman de Troie, midtwelfth century, ‘Briseïda encourage l’amour de Diomède’, dix-neuvième bataille’
  • Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, late 1330s, Cantos vi to viii
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, 1380s, Book V, ll. 582–1869

While the great epic romance of Troy provides much material for discussion, we will be focussing specifically on the themes of exile and death, events which bring the love affair of Troilus and Criseyde to an end. The affair between these two characters is a significant medieval addition to the ancient tale of the Trojan war, taking place between Troilus, son of Priam, and Criseyde, a character evolved from a conflation of Briseis and Cryseis, Trojan captives of Achilles. In placing the love affair at the heart of Il Filostrato, Giovanni Boccaccio greatly amplifies the romance between the two characters from its source in Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Le Roman de Troie. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde follows the plot of Il Filostrato, although the influence of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophaie redirects the focus of the text to an exploration of fate, fortune, predestination and human agency.

The story so far…

Troilus, prince of Troy, has been engaged in a long, clandestine affair with Criseyde (Briseida/Creseida), the daughter of Calchas, seer and servant of Apollo, whose knowledge of Troy’s impending destruction led him to flee the city for the Greek encampment. Wishing to save his daughter from the fate of the other Trojans, Calchas persuades the Greeks to demand Criseyde in return for their prisonor, Antenor (who will later betray the city). The secret nature of the love affair prevents Troilus from being able to halt the exchange.

Our readings begin from the point of this exchange being agreed and include the seduction of Criseyde by the Greek Diomede, an exchange of letters between the lovers, Criseyde’s failure to fulfil her promise to return to Troy and Troilus’s eventual death.

Topics and questions for discussion:

  • These texts devote much attention to a love affair taking place in the midst of a lengthy siege. While the narrator and audience are, of course, fully aware of the city’s fate, the war and its violence appear to be subordinate to the appropriate conduct of lovers. How do the contradictions inherent in this elevation of romantic/sexual love over the business of war affect the texts’ treatment of a) Diomede’s seduction of Criseyde and b) narratorial condemnation of Criseyde’s betrayal?
  • In Il Filostrato and Troilus and Criseyde, Criseyde’s gaze upon the walls of the city from the Greek encampment mirrors Troilus’s longing watch from upon the walls. To what extent is Criseyde portrayed as an exile? How should we understand her assertion to Diomede in Il Filostrato that she wishes to partake of the city’s fate alongside its inhabitants?  What is the meaning of her shifting allegiances?
  • The texts are inconsistent on whether Criseyde is the only woman among the Greeks or whether she is amongst others. What might be the reason for the inconsistency?
  • In contrast to the lengthy prelude to the love affair in Boccaccio and Chaucer, and the lengthy speeches in all three versions, the death of Troilus is an abrupt occurrence. Can this be seen as a reassertion of the brutality of war, an interruption of an escapist dream of love? If not, why not?
Creseida in the Greek encampment, Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, Morgan Library, M.371, f.44r
Creseida in the Greek encampment, Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, Morgan Library, M.371, f.44r
Troilo's last battle, Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, Morgan Library M.371, f.56r
Troilo’s last battle, Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, Morgan Library M.371, f.56r

Click here to see more from this beautiful manuscript:  Morgan Library MS M.0371

Pearl – 29th April 2015

The next meeting of the MEMORI reading group will be held on Wednesday the 29th of April in Rm. 2.50, John Percival Building.  Our reading this month is Pearl and Martha has kindly prepared the notes and topics for discussion below:


The fourteenth-century Dream-Vision poem Pearl survives in a single copy as one of four poems contained within MS Cotton Nero A. x. The other texts in the manuscript are two religious poems, Patience and Cleanness, and the romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.


Pearl begins with the figure of the Dreamer mourning his lost pearl (and deceased daughter) in a garden. The Dreamer falls asleep and enters a dream landscape in which he encounters his daughter, now transformed into the shape of the Pearl Maiden. The Dreamer questions her about her current state and she replies with Christian doctrine. The Pearl Maiden eventually shows the Dreamer the city of New Jerusalem, but, lost in his desire to reach her, the Dreamer attempts to cross the river that divides him from his daughter and wakes up.


In Pearl, the Gawain-poet uses language to combine mathematical perfection with aesthetic and poetic visual beauty. For this reason, most of the questions that I have suggested for consideration pay particular attention to the relationship between structure and imagery within the poem.

  • What is the significance of the vineyard parable to Pearl and how is it incorporated into the text?
  • The regular stanza lengths, rhyming patterns, concatenation and repetition seen in Pearl have caused to critics to suggest the pearl, pearl necklace (Ian Bishop) and rosary (Kevin Marti) as metaphors for the structure of the poem. How successful do you think any of these metaphors are to conceptualising the structure of Pearl?
  • What does the dream-vision frame add to the meaning of the poem?
  • What do you think about the presentation of the different landscapes through which the Dreamer travels?
  • How is the reader supposed to interpret the figure of the lost pearl?
  • Is the Dreamer’s sadness a fitting response to the death of a daughter or an emotional response out of measure?
  • What is the significance of the river that separates the Dreamer from his Daughter?

The Dreamer, BL Cotton Nero A.x., f.37r