Rivers and Literary Geography in Twelfth-Century Historiography (19th February 2020)

Map of the course of the River Severn from Gloucester to Cardiff, 1595 (London, British Library, Cotton MS Augustus I.ii.17) 

Sources of both abundance and destruction, life and death, rivers have always had a powerful hold over humankind. They run through every human landscape, whether mythical or actual. In the Book of Genesis, the geography of humanity’s first home is defined by a river that flowed through Eden and separates the into four headwaters, creating the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers. According to classical mythology, the boundaries of the underworld are likewise demarcated by rivers: the Acheron, Cocytus, Phelgethon, Lethe, Ariadanos, and of course the Styx. Even the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BCE) tells of a catastrophic river flood sent by angry deities to destroy all life.[1]

Next meeting: Wednesday 21st February / Room 3.66 / 3-5pm

This month we are reading a selection of twelfth-century historical texts by Geoffrey of Monmouth, William of Malmesbury, and Gerald of Wales. We will approach these texts using the critical theory of literary geography, which is outlined in a short essay by Neal Alexander. We will examine the real and imagined geographies in these texts, focusing on rivers and their function as borders. In particular, we will analyse the representation of River Severn and the River Usk and the border towns of Gloucester and Caerleon.

Rivers as Borders

The Wales-England Border, which was officially established by the Acts of Union in 1535 and 1542, is demarcated by two rivers: the River Dee to the north and the River Severn to the south. However, rivers were used as borders in Wales long before the sixteenth century. Della Hooke and Maren Clegg Hyer note that ‘rivers and watercourses were often taken to mark territorial boundaries from an early date. Early Welsh laws regard a major river as one of the “stays” of a boundary, a “stay” denoting a limiting feature’.[2] The River Severn, which runs through the counties of Shropshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucestershire, is a natural, political, and symbolic border between England and Wales.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, rivers function as one of the primary divisions of the landscape. Geoffrey describes the ‘three noble rivers’ of Britain, including the Thames, the Severn, and the Humber. The Thames divides the south of Britain, and flows through the main locus of power, London (or Troia Nova); it also forms a major trade route between Britain and the continent. The Humber divides the south of Britain from the north (including Scotland), and the Severn divides England from Wales. Geoffrey recounts the division of Britain between Brutus’ sons, Locrinus, Albanactus, and Kamber. He notes that Kamber ‘received the region [of Britain] across the river Severn, now known as Wales’ (HRB, 23). Geoffrey also describes how the archbishopric of Caerleon was ‘separated from the two former diocseses [York and Canterbury] by the Severn’ (HRB, 72). For Geoffrey, then, the Severn is a national border and an ecclesiastical boundary.

Geoffrey also comments on the etymological origins of the River Severn. In Book II of the Historia, he recounts the story of Habren, the illegitimate daughter of Locrinus and Estrildis. Erin Murphy notes that ‘[a]s a bastard, Sabrina [Habren] represents the excess and instability of reproduction and figures a threat to dynastic lineage’.[3] Maddan, the son of Locrinus and Guendolena, is the rightful heir of Britain: he symbolises the union between England and Cornwall as his mother, Guendolena, is the daughter of Corineus, the king of Cornwall. After Locrinus’ death, Guendolena takes revenge and orders

Estrildis and her daughter Habren to be thrown into the river now called the Severn [Sabrina], and issued instructions throughout Britain that the river should be named after the girl; she wanted Habren to enjoy immortality since her own husband had been the girl’s father. Hence the river is called Habren in British even today, although in the other tongue this has been corrupted to Severn [Sabrina]. (HRB, 25)

The story of Habren is memorialised through the name of the river Severn. Etymologies are a recurrent motif throughout the Historia, and Monika Otter suggests that ‘the many uses of place names, topography, and space in the Historia form a resonant, coherent, motif pattern that is key to Geoffrey’s poetics’.[4] Geoffrey uses his invented etymologies to emphasise the instability and mutability of language. In the story of Habren, he states that the river is called ‘Habren’ in British, but also notes that it has been ‘corrupted’ to ‘Severn’ in English. Geoffrey resists directly naming the English language – which he refers to as the ‘other tongue [alia lingua]’ – but the substitution of ‘Habren’ with ‘Sabrina’ emphasises the loss of British sovereignty and erases the connection between people and place.

Borders are both real and imagined. Although Geoffrey claimed the Severn marked border between England and Wales, the river ‘passes from Wales into England without at any point marking the division between the nations’.[5] Philip Schwyzer points out that

Geoffrey’s claim that the Severn marked the original – and, by implication, essential and inalienable – border between England and Wales remained current for centuries. Even after the domains of the old Marcher Lords had been extinguished forever by the Union of England and Wales under Henry VIII, chroniclers and chorographers continued to take the old claim seriously.[6]

The River Wye, which originates from the same source as the Severn and runs through the border towns of Hereford, Chepstow, and Monmouth, more accurately represents the border. Geoffrey’s near contemporary, Gerald of Wales, recognised the Wye as the ‘modern boundary between England and Wales’ (Descriptio, p. 226). However, he did note that the Severn was a historical border, and that ‘[f]or many years this river formed the boundary between Cambria and Loergia, or Wales and southern England’ (Descripto, p. 225). By the twelfth century, the Wye represented the real, contemporary border, while the Severn represented an imagined and symbolic border.

In his introduction to Mapping Medieval Geographies: Geographical Encounters in the Latin West and Beyond, 300-1600 (2013), Keith D. Lilley distinguishes between medieval geographical traditions and geographical imaginations.[7] Traditions represent forms of geographical thought and knowledge, while imaginations refers to the geographies of texts and images. But traditions and imaginations are often intimately connected. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s claim that the Severn was the national border between England and Wales demonstrates how an imagined geography become a geographical tradition.

Texts

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia regum Britanniae
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (‘The History of the Kings of Britain, c. 1138) is a complete history of the British kings from Brutus of Troy to Cadwaladr. We are reading three short extracts from the Historia, including the description of Britain; the divison of Britian and the naming of the Severn; and the description of Caerleon. Geoffrey’s description of Britain demonstrates the influence of other insular writers such as Gildas, Nennius, Bede, and Henry of Huntingdon. The tripartite division of Britain in the Historia was often used to legitimise British sovereignty (especially over Scotland).

William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum
William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (‘The Deeds of the English Bishops’, c. 1125) is a survey of the bishops in all the dioceses of England from Augustine’s arrival in Canterbury in 597 down to the 1120s when the work was being written. For the period after Bede’s death in 730 it is the most single important source of English church history. William’s Gesta is an early example of chorography, and we are reading a short chapter on the diocese of Worcester, which includes a description of the city of Gloucester on the River Severn.

Gerald of Wales, Itinerarium Kambriae and Descriptio Kambriae
Gerald of Wales was a Cambro-Norman writer. The Itinerarium Kambriae (‘The Journey Through Wales’, c. 1191) records Gerald’s travels around Wales with Archbishop Baldwin in 1188 to preach the Third Crusade. Meanwhile, the Descriptio Kambriae (‘The Description of Wales, c. 1194) is an ethnography the Welsh people which constructs them as ‘objects of study and interest rather than as subjects of history’.[8] We are reading a couple of chapters from the Descriptio on the rivers of Wales, as well as Gerald’s account of his travels through Caerleon, Newport, and Cardiff.

Brut y Tywysogyon (Peniarth MS 20)
The Brut y Tywysogyon (‘Chronicle of the Princes’) is the Welsh language continuation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae. This version of the Welsh Brut in Peniarth MS 20 begins in 682 with the death of Cadwaladr and ends in 1332. We are reading the entries for 1171-5. The entry for 1171 records the submission of Rhys ap Gruffydd – the Lord Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth (South Wales) – to Henry II at Newnham on Severn, as well as the burning of Caerleon by Iorweth ab Owain and his sons, Owain and Hywel. After the murder of Owain, Iorweth and Hywel repeatedly attacked Caerleon until Henry yielded the city in 1175.

Questions

  • How can we use the critical theory of literary geography to approach these texts?
  • What types of geographies are described in these texts? (i.e. real, imagined, national, regional, local, institutional)
  • How do these descriptions utilise the locus amoenus topos?
  • How do rivers function as borders and boundaries?
  • What do you think of Geoffrey’s story of Habren and the etymology of the River Severn?
  • What is the significance of the border towns of Caerleon and Gloucester?
  • How can we compare the descriptions of Caerleon by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gerald of Wales?
  • Antonia Gransden has commented that ‘[t]he twelfth century was, until the literary developments of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, pre-eminent for descriptive writing’.[9] Have you read any other texts produced in the twelfth century that demonstrate a similar interest in descriptive detail?
  • To what extent does genre influence the representation of the river? Consider the differences between history, description, chorography (the study of provinces, regions or cities), itinerary (travel writing), and ethnography.

References

[1] Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller, ‘Rivers in History and Historiography: An Introduction’, Rivers in History: Perspectives on Waterways in Europe and North America, ed. by Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), pp. 1-10 (p. 1).

[2] Della Hooke and Maren Clegg Hyer, ‘Introduction’, in Water and the Environment in the Anglo-Saxon World, ed. by Maren Clegg Hyer and Della Hooke (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017), pp. 1-14 (p. 3).

[3] Erin Murphy, ‘Sabrina and the Making of English History in Poly-Olbion and A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle’, Studies in English Literature, 51.1 (2011), 87-110 (p. 91).

[4] Monika Otter, Inventiones: Fiction and Referentiality in Twelfth-Century English Historical Writing (Chapel Hill, NC and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), p. 69.

[5] Philip Schwyzer, ‘Purity and Danger on the West Bank of the Severn: The Cultural Geography of A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634’, Representations, 60 (1997), 22-48 (p. 24).

[6] Philip Schwyzer, ‘A map of Greater Cambria’, in Literature, Mapping, and the Politics of Space in Early Modern Britain, ed. by Andrew Gordon and Bernhard Klein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 35-44 (p. 35)

[7] Michael A. Faletra, Wales and the Medieval Colonial Imagination: The Matters of Britain in the Twelfth Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 156.

[8] Keith D. Lilley, ‘Introduction: mapping medieval geographies’, in Mapping Medieval Geographies: Geographical Encounters in the Latin West and Beyond, 300-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 1-20.

[9] Antonia Gransden, ‘Realistic Observation in Twelfth-Century England’, in Legends, Traditions and History in Medieval England, ed. by Antonia Gransden (London and Rio Grande: The Hambledon Press, 1992), pp. 175-99 (p. 176).

Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan (20th February)

Portrait of Gottfried von Strassburg from the Codex Manesse (f. 364r)

Next Meeting: 20th February 2019 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

Very little is known about Gottfried’s life. He died in 1210 before finishing Tristan. Along with Hartman von Aue, who translated two of the romances of Chretien de Troyes into German, and Wolfram von Eschenbach, who is best known for the Parzival, Gottfried is one of the great writers of German Arthurian romance. W. T. H Jackson writes that

[o]f all the German courtly poets, he [Gottfried] gives immeasurably the greatest evidence of formal learning – his knowledge of the classics, his skill in the formal style which some rather unwisely persist in calling rhetoric, his acquaintance with French literary, and his grasp of mystical theology and its terminology – all these stamp him as formally trained, as a magister or dominus.[1]

Later writers and Gottfried’s continuators referred to him as meister (master) – rather than hêr (sir) – which designates educational or social status. Gottfried’s occupation is uncertain: he was probably a member of the urban patriciate of Strassburg, but he could have also been a local urban or episcopal secretariat.

 

Overview

Gottfried’s Tristan ‘is the most ambitious and sophisticated treatment of the story in German’.[2] The story begins with the romance of Tristan’s parents, Rivalin and Blancheflor (King Mark’s sister). Gottfried also dedicates a large portion of the text to Tristan’s youth, including his education by his tutor Governal, his arrival at King Mark’s court, and his adventures in Ireland. The main narrative focuses on the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde.

Like many Tristan texts, Gottfried’s version is incomplete. The poem (19,416 lines) breaks off as Tristan is contemplating marriage to Isolde of the White Hands. The remainder of the plot, including Tristan’s marriage, his return to Isolde, and the deaths of Tristan and Isolde, can be reconstructed from Gottfried’s Anglo-Norman source, the Tristan of Thomas (1170-5). Two later poets, Ulrich von Türheim (1235) and Heinrich von Freiburg (1290), continued Gottfried’s narrative in Tristan; however, they used Eilhart von Oberge (1175) as their main source rather than the Tristan of Thomas.

Gottfried’s Tristan is extant in fourteen complete manuscripts (including three now lost), as well as twenty-one fragments from seventeen manuscripts. The manuscripts were produced between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, primarily in the Upper Rhineland and Central Germany.

 

Selected Extracts

In addition to the prologue, we are reading a selection of chapters from the Penguin edition of Tristan translated by A. T. Hatto.

Chapters 15 and 16

In ‘Chapter 15’, Tristan and Isolde mistakenly drink the love-potion (or liebestrank) that Queen Isolde – Isolde’s mother – intended for King Mark and Isolde. Gottfried was the first writer to make Tristan offer the cup to Isolde before he drank it. ‘Chapter 16’ describes the anguish and pain of the lovers before they succumb to their desires; it also includes one of Gottfried’s commentaries or discourses.

Chapter 22

In this chapter, Melot and King Mark hide in an olive tree to discover Tristan and Isolde’s adultery; however, Tristan recognises their shadows and alerts Isolde. The lovers deceive Melot and Mark and disprove the rumours of their relationship. In the following chapter (not included), Melot and Marjodoc trick Tristan and provide evidence of adultery. Isolde is subsequently tried by the Bishop of the Thames and at the final judgement she convinces the court of her innocence.

Chapters 25 to 28

These four chapters describe the banishment of Tristan and Isolde from King Mark’s court, their refuge in the Cave of Lovers, their discovery by King Mark’s huntsman, and the return of Tristan and Isolde and their final parting. In the final chapter (not included), Tristan flees to Brittany and the text breaks off as he is considering marriage to Isolde of the White Hands.
Questions for discussion

  • How does Gottfried’s Tristan compare to other versions of the legend? (Béroul, for example). Why does Gottfried choose to follow the Tristan of Thomas?
  • How does Gottfried address his audience in the prologue?
  • Denis de Rougement proposes that the Tristan story ‘set passion in a framework within which it could be expressed in symbolical satisfactions’.[3] How are love and desire described and articulated in Gottfried’s Tristan?
  • What is the function of the love-potion – or liebestrank – in Gottfried’s Tristan?
  • Is Mark a jealous husband or a pathetic figure?
  • How do the discourses on love (pp. 202-4) and surveillance (pp. 275-9) comment on the narrative of the text?
  • What is the significance of sight and vision in the text?
  • Gottfried appropriates represents various discourses from religious allegory, hagiography, mysticism, Ovidian love-discourse, classical historiography, medieval Platonism, Christian salvation history, and Arthurian romance (among others). How do these discourses function in dialogue with each other?
  • William D. Cole describes the Cave of the Lovers as a ‘bizarre, multivalent, and ultimately undefinable symbol’.[4] Is it possible to interpret the meaning of the Cave? What could it signify?

 

References

[1] W. T. H. Jackson, ‘Tristan the Artist in Gottfried’s Poem’, in Tristan and Isolde, ed. by Joan Tasker Grimbert (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 125-146 (p. 125).

[2] Mark Chinca, ‘Tristan Narratives from the High to the Late Middle Ages’, in The Arthur of the Germans: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval German and Dutch Literature, ed. by W. H. Jackson and S. A. Ranawake (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011), pp. 117-134 (p. 120).

[3] Denis de Rougement, Love in the Western World, trans. by Montgomery Belgion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 22-3.

[4] William D. Cole, ‘Purgatory vs. Eden: Beroul’s Forest and Gottfried’s Cave’, The Germanic Review, 70.1 (1995), 2-8 (p. 2).

King Arthur and Glastonbury (18th April)

Next Meeting: 18th April 2018 / Room 3.62 / 3-5pm

Glastonbury is a village situated in a secluded spot in the marshes, though it can be reached both on horseback and on foot. It affords pleasure neither by its situation nor by its beauty.[1]

Located in Somerset, Glastonbury Abbey is a site of popular myth and legend. In the Middle Ages, the Abbey claimed to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea, and it is also the legendary burial site of King Arthur.

Hagiography and Historiography

In the 1129, the monks at Glastonbury commissioned William of Malmesbury to write the official history of the Abbey, as well as the life of Saint Dunstan, who was the first abbot of Glastonbury (and later became the Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London, and Archbishop of Canterbury).

William’s original version of De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie has not survived. The text is extant in two thirteenth-century manuscripts. Both manuscripts include several interpolations relating to the legend of Joseph of Arimathea, the relics of Saint Patrick and Saint Dunstan, and the exhumation of the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere. These interpolations were introduced into the text between 1171 and 1247.

In the 1130s, the Welsh cleric Caradoc of Llancarfan, who was a contemporary of Geoffrey of Monmouth, composed the Vitae Gildae for the Glastonbury monks. Caradoc claims that the sixth-century British monk ‘Gildas Sapiens’ – or ‘Gildas the Wise’ – wrote De excidio et conquestu Britanniae while at Glastonbury. Caradoc was also the first writer to associate King Arthur with Glastonbury, and the Vitae Gildae includes the earliest version of the story of the abduction of Guinevere.

The Exhumation of King Arthur

By the late twelfth century, Glastonbury Abbey ‘was in a state of financial and ecclesiastical crisis’.[2] In 1184, a great fire at Glastonbury destroyed the monastic buildings. Reconstruction began almost immediately, and the Lady Chapel was consecrated in 1186 or 1187; however, work on the abbey was postponed by the death of Henry II (1189), which ended financial support and royal patronage.

In order to raise funds, the monks of the abbey commenced a series of propaganda exercises, and used holy relics and the bodies of saints to promote Glastonbury as place of pilgrimage. The bodies of Arthur and Guinevere were discovered in the cemetery at Glastonbury in 1190 or 1191. In both of his accounts of the exhumation, Gerald of Wales recalls how a Welsh bard had told Henry II about the location of Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies. Gerald was the first to explicitly identify Avalon – the resting place of Arthur – with Glastonbury.

Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies were re-exhumed in 1278. At Easter, Edward I visited the Glastonbury with his wife, Eleanor of Castile, and on the 19th April he instructed the bodies to be moved to the high altar. The exhumation asserted that Edward I ‘was a legitimate successor to the Arthurian imperium’.[3] Following the conquest of Wales in 1282, Edward took possession of Arthur’s crown in 1283, and held a Round Table at Winchester in 1284. His grandson, Edward III, also visited Arthur’s tomb with his wife, Philippa of Hainault, in 1331. 

The Legend of Joseph of Arimathea

The legend of Joseph of Arimathea was popularised in thirteenth-century French Arthurian romance. In the first part of his trilogy of Arthurian romances, Robert de Boron describes how Joseph of Arimathea used the Holy Grail to catch the last drops of blood from Christ as he hung on the cross. Robert also claims that the descendants of Joseph brought the Grail to Britain.

In the mid-thirteenth century, the story of Joseph of Arimathea was interpolated into William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie. These revisions asserted that Joseph was the original founder of Glastonbury, which subsequently bolstered the reputation of the abbey. John of Glastonbury also expanded the story of Joseph in his Cronica sive antiquitates Glastoniensis ecclesie, using the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus – also known as The Acts of Pilate – and the first part of the Lancelot-Grail cycle, L’estoire du Graal, as his main sources for the apostle’s life.

The legend of Joseph of Arimathea also survived into the later middle ages. In the fifteenth century, John Hardyng included the story of Joseph of Arimathea in the two versions of his Chronicle (1457 and 1464). As Edward Donald Kennedy points out, ‘[t]he account of Joseph afforded Hardyng an ideal story to use to counter Scotland’s claims to preeminence as a Christian nation’.[4] Hardyng’s Chronicle also contains a grail quest – which is unprecedented in the chronicle tradition – and Galahad’s achievement of the Grail occurs before Arthur’s war against Rome and the final battle between Arthur and Modred.

Texts

Gerald of Wales

Gerald wrote two accounts of the exhumation of King Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury. The first account is contained in De principis instructione (c. 1193), while the second – and more detailed – account is included in Speculum ecclesiae (c. 1216). Gerald claims that he was an eyewitness of the exhumation, but Richard Barber has challenged his claim to authority.

Ralph of Coggeshall

Ralph was abbot of Coggeshall, near Colchester in Essex. He wrote his Chronicon Anglicanum in around 1223, and the entry for 1191 includes an account of the exhumation of Arthur and Guinevere.

Adam of Damerham

Adam was a monk of Glastonbury Abbey in the thirteenth century. He wrote a history of the abbey entitled Historia de Rebus gestis Glastoniensibus, which is a continuation of William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie from 1126 to 1291. Adam was also an eyewitness of Edward I’s visit to Glastonbury in 1278 when the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere was opened and their bones were moved to the high altar.

(NB: Adam’s account of the second exhumation in 1278 is taken from John of Glastonbury’s Cronica)

Vera historia de morte Arthuri (c. 1200)

Written around 1200, the Vera historia de morte Arthuri is extant in four manuscripts. Two manuscripts – London, British Library, Cotton Titus A. xix and Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 186 – include materials relevant to Glastonbury, such as excerpts from the works of William of Malmesbury and John of Glastonbury. In Paris Biblioteque de l’Arsenal, 983, the Vera historia is interpolated between chapters 178 and 179 of the First Variant version of the Historia regum Britanniae. Richard Barber and Michael Lapidge have suggested that the Vera historia was originally composed in Wales.

John of Glastonbury, Cronica sive antiquitates Glastoniensis ecclesie (1350s)

The Cronia survives as a complete text in seven manuscripts. The main sources for John’s Cronica are William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie and Adam of Damerham’s Historia de Rebus gestis Glastoniensibus. John’s Cronia is ‘highly derivative’,[5] and he uses a selection of chronicles, hagiography, and romance to construct a history of Glastonbury Abbey.

Questions for discussion

  • What are the motivations for the exhumation in the accounts by Gerald of Wales, Ralph of Coggeshall, and Adam of Damerham?
  • What is the significance of royal and ecclesiastical authority in the different accounts of the exhumation of Arthur and Guinevere?
  • How does Arthur’s tomb function as a site of public memory?
  • Philip Schwyzer classifies the exhumation of Arthur as a sub-genre of the inventio topos that participates in an act of ‘colonial archaeology’.[6] How are the materials and artefacts of British history appropriated in these texts?
  • Catherine Clarke argues that local landscapes are ‘central to the fashioning of monastic identity and its connection to images of the nation’.[7] How is the landscape of Glastonbury represented in these texts?
  • Why does Gerald of Wales undermine of the myth of Arthur’s return?
  • How do the texts – particularly the Vera historia and John of Glastonbury’s Cronica – engage with models of Arthurian history in chronicle and romance?
  • How do Gerald of Wales and John of Glastonbury align the story of Arthur’s death by Geoffrey of Monmouth with Glastonbury?
  • Can the relocation of Arthur’s resting place to Gwynedd in the Vera historia be read as a response to the growth of Glastonbury legends in the 1190s?

Useful links

Glastonbury Abbey

Digital reconstruction of Arthur’s tomb

Glastonbury in the news

Recent excavations at Glastonbury

[1] William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum: Volume One: Text and Translation, ed. and trans. by M. Winterbottom with the assistance of R. M. Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 2.91.1.

[2] Valerie M. Lagorio, ‘The Evolving Legend of St Joseph of Glastonbury’, Speculum, 46 (1971), 209-31 (p. 210).

[3] John Carmi Parsons, ‘The Second Exhumation of King Arthur’s Remains at Glastonbury, 19 April 1278’, Arthurian Literature, 12 (1993), 173-77 (p. 176).

[4] Edward Donald Kennedy, ‘John Hardyng and the Holy Grail’, Arthurian Literature, 8 (1989), 185-206 (p. 197).

[5] James P. Carley, ‘Introduction’, in The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An Edition, Translation and Study of John of Glastonbury’s Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1985), pp. xi-lxii (p. xi).

[6] Philip Scwhzyer, Archaeologies of English Renaissance Literature (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 55.

[7] Catherine A. M. Clarke, Literary Landscapes and the Idea of England, 700-1400 (Cambridge: Brewer, 2006), p. 68.

Queens and Queenship in Shakespeare’s First Tetralogy (9th August)

800px-Darnley_stage_3

The Darnley Portrait (c. 1575)

Next meeting: 9th August / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

In 1592, the pamphleteer, poet and playwright Thomas Nashe wrote that the Elizabethan plays which drew their subject matter from English Chronicles should be celebrated because, through them:

our fore-fathers valiant actes (that have lyne long buried in rustie brasse and worme-eaten bookes) are revived, and they them selves raysed from the Grave of Oblivion, and brought to pleade their aged Honours in open presence: which, what can bee a sharper reproofe, to these degenerate effeminate dayes of oures?[1]

Nashe was referring to those plays which we now call the ‘English history plays’, which enjoyed enormous popularity in the 1590s. Whether a result of nationalistic pride, anxieties about the country’s future, or otherwise, the last decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, in particular, saw a proliferation of plays produced which dramatised events of the country’s ‘glorious’ and often bloody past. These plays were well-attended, making these iterations of history accessible to a vast number of theatre-goers. Nashe articulates a notion that dramatising English history was laudable not only for its celebratory patriotism and memorialisation of the past, but also because such plays could have a particular utility: to help to recall and revitalise traditional chivalric values, and to revive a ‘valiant’ national history for the public eye and imagination.

An additional merit of such dramatic renderings of history, Nashe suggests, derives from the fact that they could provide ‘sharp reproof’ of the more indulgent, less masculine Elizabethan days of the early 1590s. In this view, the valour demonstrated in history plays was made all the more vivid by their contrast to the supposedly ‘effeminate’ contemporary moment of their dramatic construction and production. Carol Banks titles an article after Nashe’s words, and provides some discussion of the broader, sixteenth-century connotations of the term ‘effeminate’.[2] According to Banks, Nashe uses the word ‘effeminate’ to mean not only ‘womanish’ – or, perhaps, ‘unmanly’ – but employs its wider definition as ‘a virtual antonym to military valour and honour’. Indeed, there are numerous moments of nostalgia for this apparently dead or dying chivalric code throughout the first tetralogy (perhaps most notably, but not exclusively, through the person of Talbot in 1 Henry VI).

At almost the same moment that Nashe was writing these words, William Shakespeare (possibly with collaborators, and perhaps even with Nashe himself) was writing some of his earliest plays and contributing to the increasingly popular history play genre. In 1591 to 1592, Shakespeare wrote his ‘first tetralogy’ of history plays. He probably began with The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (more commonly known as The Second Part of Henry VI, or simply 2 Henry VI), then Richard Duke of York (The Third Part of Henry VI, or 3 Henry VI), before returning to First Part of Henry VI (or 1 Henry VI). Though usually performed in isolation, The Tragedy of King Richard III (more commonly just Richard III) follows on from events of the Henry VI plays to complete the tetralogy; this play was also likely to have been written last of the four.[3] The first tetralogy dramatises a telescopic version of the ‘Wars of the Roses’, the period of civil unrest that followed the death of the great English martial king, Henry V. Shakespeare begins with the coronation of Henry VI, depicts the ongoing battles against the French, shows the emergence of a Yorkist line of claimants to the throne and the battles that result from these factionalist divisions, dramatises Richard III’s machinations against his own family, and ultimately concludes with his defeat and the ‘healing’ of ‘civil wounds’ with the union of the Houses of Lancaster and York that is symbolised by the marriage of Henry Tudor (the new King Henry VII) and Elizabeth of York.

Many of Shakespeare’s formative years as a dramatist, then, were spent writing these ‘intensely nationalistic’ (English) history plays.[4] By depicting the rise and eventual victory of the first Tudor king at the beginning of his career, Shakespeare’s earliest plays seem, ultimately, to contribute to the genre’s politically expedient, propagandist aims to contribute to the so-called ‘Tudor myth’ and ‘support the right of the Tudors to the throne’.[5] However, the first tetralogy does not simply serve to straightforwardly glorify the Tudors, aggrandise the past, or offer simple ‘reproof’ to an ‘effeminate’ present in a manner Nashe seems to deem commendable. Rather, these plays explore a number of complex issues that Shakespeare would continue to address throughout his career, for example: what is the nature of divine providence and what happens when it is meddled with? What makes a ruler (a king?) effectual or ineffectual, just or unjust? What role do (and should) women play in political and social action?

Indeed, though the first tetralogy’s primary focus is, as suggested by the plays’ usual titles, on the martial conflicts and political machinations of the kings and key male players of the Wars of the Roses, significant space and importance is also afforded to women: the wives of influential nobleman and the kings’ queen consorts. These figures occupy different and intriguing spaces in a group of plays which dramatise, primarily, a masculine, masculinised conflict. History playwrights ‘remained [largely] committed to a notion of historical truth and are bound by the received record concerning the major events of the past’,[6] ‘records’ referring to (chronicle) accounts by the likes of Thomas More (c. 1519), Edward Hall (1548), and Raphael Holinshed (1577 and 1587) among others. Nonetheless, embellishment of the historical ‘fact’ and/or emphasis on moments the playwright deemed important or interesting was common practice. When Shakespeare writes compelling female characters and addresses the matter of queenship and female rule in the first tetralogy (and in his history plays more generally), therefore, it is difficult to divorce such depictions from the knowledge that they were rendered in a moment of longstanding, independent female sovereignty, of a true Queen Regnant whose (even recent, direct) ancestors were depicted in these plays and their sources.

At the beginning of the 1590s, when Shakespeare was writing his earliest (history) plays, England had been under the rule of a female sovereign for around four decades. Though this was a lifetime for many and, indeed, a lifetime for Shakespeare himself (born in 1564, eleven years after Mary Tudor’s coronation and half a decade into what would become Elizabeth Tudor’s forty-five years on the throne), the question of female rule was no less contentious. When John Knox wrote that ‘to promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature’ in his 1558 pamphlet The first blast of the trumpet against the monstruous regiment of women, he was contributing to a familiar, longstanding discourse about the (in)appropriateness of female power and authority. By dramatising the actions and voices of the women who sat on the throne of England before the Tudor queens so thoroughly, Shakespeare’s first tetralogy appears to contribute to these (continued) questions about the rights and roles of women, and encourages audiences to interrogate the actions and individuals traditionally valued in our historical accounts.

Questions for discussion

  1. Are there any significant or particularly interesting departures from, or ‘faithful’ similarities to, Hall’s Chronicle in the Shakespeare extracts?
  2. How relevant are Chronicle texts and other sources to the writing of (these) history plays? Is there a sense that Shakespeare is not just striving to represent history, but also to re-present history? If so, why?
  3. Is it appropriate to consider the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III as a cogent ‘tetralogy’? Do the portrayals of Margaret and Elizabeth vary between these plays or even between these scenes?
  4. Can we identify an aesthetic of queenship in these texts? Or, what makes a queen a queen?
  5. Are queens represented positively, negatively, or otherwise in these extracts? Does our reading change/depend on the plays’ late Elizabethan context?
  6. A lot of these scenes focus on (women’s) speech and language as a means of accessing power. Why do you think this is? Is it effective?
  7. How is marriage presented in these texts? What about love and lust?
  8. How do Margaret and Elizabeth respond to the men who proposition, befriend or antagonise them? How do these men respond to them? How are their bodies used (by themselves, or by others)?
  9. The queen’s primary responsibility was often considered to be to produce a legitimate (and preferably male) heir to the throne. How do these scenes represent the queen (as) mother or queen regents?
  10. And finally, what’s up with John Knox?

 


[1] Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Divell (1592).

[2] Carol Banks, ‘Warlike women: ‘reproofe to these degenerate effeminate dayes’?’, in Shakespeare’s histories and counter-histories, ed. by Dermot Cavanagh, Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Stephen Longstaffe (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2006), pp. 169-181 (p. 170).

[3] Jean E. Howard’s ‘Introduction to The First Part of Henry the Sixth’ gives a good, concise overview of the first tetralogy’s compositional dates. The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edn, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt et al (New York: Norton, 2008), pp. 465-474.

[4] Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (London and New York: Routledge, 1965), p. 2.

[5] Ribner, The English History Play, p. 2.

[6] Jesse M. Lander, ‘William Shakespeare: The History Plays’, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 489-494 (p. 490).

East meets West: Medieval European Travellers and the Great Khans of Mongolia (8th March 2017)

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Marco, Niccolò, and Maffeo Polo presenting the Papal Letters to Kublai Khan, MS Bodl. 264, Part III, f. 220 r.

Next meeting: 8th March 2017 / Room 2.04 / 3-5pm

Genghis Khan and The Mongol Empire

Genghis Khan (b. 1162, d. 1227), born Temüjin, was the founder and first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, which was the largest contiguous land empire in history. Originating in the steppes of Central Asia, the Mongol Empire eventually stretched from Central Europe to the Sea of Japan, extending northwards into Siberia, eastwards and southwards into the Indian subcontinent, Indochina, and the Iranian plateau, and westwards as far as the Levant and Arabia.

Temüjin rose to power in the late twelfth century. When his wife, Börte, was kidnapped by the Merkit tribe, Temüjin united the rival Mongol tribes under his rule through political manipulation and military might. With the help of Toghrul, Khan of the Keraites, and his childhood friend, Jamukha, Temüjin defeated the Merkit tribe, secured the return of his wife, and went on the defeat the Naimans and Tatars.

Temüjin was elected khan of the Mongols in 1186. In the following year, however, Jamukha attacked Temüjin defeated him at the Battle of Dalan Balzhut. Temujin and his patron Toghrul were subsequently exiled. In 1197, the Jin dynasty initiated an attack against the Tatars, with help from the the Keraites and the Mongols. Temujin commanded part of the attack, and after his victory the Jin restored him to power. In 1201, Jamukha was elected Gür Khan, which caused Temüjin to declare war on him.  After several battles, Jamukha was turned over by his own men, and Temüjin was victorious.

By 1206, Temüjin had managed to unite or subdue the Merkits, Naimans, Mongols, Keraites, Tatars, Uyghurs, and other disparate smaller tribes under his rule. He was acknowledged as Khan of the consolidated tribes and took the new title, ‘Genghis Khan’. The title Khagan – or ‘Great Khan’ – was conferred posthumously by his son and successor, Ögedei, who took the title for himself.

Genghis had four sons by his wife Börte, including Jochi, Chagatai, Ögedei, and Tolui, and he divided his empire among them; however, Genghis did not name his eldest son, Jochi, as his successor as there was widespread doubt over his paternity. Chagatai declared that he would not accept Jochi as his father’s successor and threatened to go to war with his brother. To avoid civil conflict, Genghis named his third son, Ögedei, as his successor.

Three of the descendants of Genghis Khan – Güyük Khan, Möngke Khan, and Kublai Khan – are described in the travel narratives of John of Plano Carpini, William of Rubruck, and Marco Polo. Güyük Khan reigned from 1246 to 1248, and he was the eldest son of Ögedei Khan. Möngke Khan reigned from 1251 to 1259, and he was the eldest son of Tolui Khan. Kublai Khan reigned from 1260 to 1294, and he was the second eldest son of Tolui Khan.

Kublai Khan established the Yuan dynasty, which ruled over present-day Mongolia, China and Korea and he assumed the role of Emperor of China. By 1279, the Mongols had conquered the Song dynasty and Kublai became the first non-native emperor to conquer all of China. By the time of Kublai’s death in 1294, the Mongol Empire had fractured into four separate khanates or empires, each pursuing its own separate interests and objectives: the Golden Horde khanate in the northwest; the Chagatai Khanate in the middle; the Ilkhanate in the southwest; and the Yuan dynasty in the east based in modern-day Beijing

The Travellers and their texts

John of Plano Carpini (c. 1185-1252)
John of Plano Carpini was a Franciscan Friar from Umbria in Italy. Pope Innocent IV sent John to Mongolia and, acting in his official capacity as a papal legate, he delivered a letter written by the Pope on 13th March 1245 to Güyuk Khan that requested the Mongols to stop persecuting Christians.

John’s History of the Mongols exists in two different versions – a longer one and a shorter one – that survive in a number of manuscripts. The best manuscript of the History is Corpus Christi, Cambridge, MS. 181, which contains the longer version of the text along with William of Rubruck’s Itinerary. The History of the Mongols was also included in Vincent of Beauvais’ thirteenth-century encyclopedia, the Speculum Historiale.

William of Rubruck (1220-1293)
William of Rubruck was a Flemish Franciscan missionary. He accompanied King Louis IX of France on the Seventh Crusade in 1248. On 7th May 1253, he set out on from Constantinople on a missionary journey to convert the Tatars to Christianity, and he followed the route of John of Plano Carpini through Asia. William was granted an audience with Möngke Khan, and presented his report to King Louis IX on his return.

William’s Itinerary only survives in eight manuscripts. The three manuscripts at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the one at the British Library, are the sources of all the extant manuscripts. The Itinerary was partially edited and translated into English by Richard Hakluyt in the late seventeenth century, and the Hakluyt Society published a full translation of the text by William Woodville Rockhill in 1900.

Marco Polo (1254-1324)
Marco Polo was a merchant traveller from Venice. In the 1260s, Marco’s father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo Polo, travelled through China and were invited to the court of Kublai Khan, who asked them to deliver a letter to the Pope. Kublai asked the Pope to send him 100 Christian scholars who were familiar with the Seven Liberal Arts and he also requested that an envoy bring him back the oil of the lamp in Jerusalem.

Niccolò and Maffeo returned to Venice in 1269, and Marco met his father for the first time. The death of Pope Clement IV in 1268, and the three-year election of Pope Gregory X, prevented Niccolò and Maffeo from immediately fulfilling Kublai’s request. In 1271, Niccolo and Maffeo set out for China with Marco. Just as they were leaving Acre, the Polos were recalled following the election of the new Pope, who provided them with letters and gifts for the Great Khan. The Polos eventually arrived in China around 1275, and they presented the oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to Kublai Khan. Marco soon became a favourite of the Great Khan: he was sent as an emissary throughout the empire, and he described each of the territories he visited to Kublai on his return.

The Polos travelled throughout Asia for 24 years, and Marco returned home in 1295. At the time, Venice was at war with the Republic of Genoa, and Marco was captured in a naval battle and imprisoned by the Genoans. While in prison, Marco met the Arthurian romance writer Rustichello da Pisa, and he dictated his travels to Pisa who wrote them down in Italian-French as Livre des Merveilles du Monde. Marco’s account of his travels in Asia was translated into Tuscan, Venetian, German, Latin, and Court French during his lifetime.

The Travels survives in 150 manuscripts, but the original manuscripts have been lost. The extant manuscripts are divided into two groups: A and B. The ‘A’ texts are best represented by Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 1116, a Franco-Italian version that was written in Italy during the fourteenth century. Meanwhile, the ‘B’ texts derive from a lost version that preserved the content, but not the style, of the original text. These texts include the sixteenth-century printed text by Giovanni Battista Ramuiso and the early fifteenth-century Latin manuscript that was discovered in Toledo in 1912.

Questions for discussion

  1. How do these texts negotiate the different genres of itinerary, historiography, ethnography, autobiography, and/or romance?
  2. What is the significance of the first-person narrative?
  3. How is the reader/audience constructed as part of the narrator’s journey?
  4. Do the different roles and/or occupations of the travellers inform their narratives?
  5. How are the different Khans presented in each of the texts?
  6. How are conversion and religious conflict described in the texts?
  7. What is the function of letters, envoys, and interpreters in the texts?
  8. Mary B. Campbell observes that ‘[t]he travel book is a kind of witness: it is generically aimed at the truth’.[1] Are these texts committed to truth, or do they slip into fiction?
  9. Kim M. Phillips argues that the ‘desire for information and for pleasure were two chief impulses guiding late medieval readers’ interest in travel writing on Asia’.[2] How do these texts describe the customs and lifestyle of the Mongols, while also presenting them as a source of wonder for the reader?

 


[1] Mary B. Campbell, The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 2-3.

[2] Kim M. Phillips, Before Orientialism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), p. 2.

Representing Crisis in Contemporary Historiography: The Murder of Thomas Becket (1st February 2017)

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Alabaster panel depicting Thomas Becket’s Murder, England, 1450-1500

Next meeting: 1st February 2017 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

The murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his own cathedral and, supposedly, on the orders of Henry II, was major crisis point in the conflict between secular and ecclesiastical power in the twelfth-century and sent shockwaves through Western Europe. One of the ways in which this shock manifested itself was in an outpouring of literary production. Ten Lives of Becket were produced within just seven years of his murder, and there are records of many more – including one by a woman – which have not come down to us. Often written by men personally acquainted with Becket, these hagiographies were predominantly written with the purpose of promoting his canonisation (achieved in 1173) or to bolster the ‘Cult of Becket’ that, in the years following his murder, had spread across Western Europe.

However, this event is also widely recorded in the contemporary historiography of the period. As the Becket Affair involved three key figures of institutional power – Henry II, the King of England, Thomas Becket, the head of the Church in England, and Pope Alexander, the leader of Christendom – it posed a particular representational challenge to contemporary historiographers. Many negotiated this by drawing substantially on the Lives and utilising their discourse – which, by the 1180s and 90s had become institutional in its own right – to safely represent this event. Others, however, including William of Newburgh, remained troubled by Becket’s involvement in secular affairs, unable to reconcile the worldly Chancellor with martyred saint, and this scepticism manifests itself in their histories

 

Overview of Thomas Becket’s Life

Thomas Becket was born on 21 December c. 1119 in Cheapside, London. In c. 1143 he acquired a position in Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury’s household, and was made Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154. In January 1155, he was made Chancellor by Henry II and, as a result of his success in that post, he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury on 3 June 1162.

Becket’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury was an unpopular one.[1] Tradition dictated that the monks of Canterbury elected their own Archbishop – usually a Benedictine of their own house. Not only was Becket a figure of secular power, but he was only ordained as a priest the day before he assumed the archbishopric. By overriding this established ecclesiastical custom in order to put his friend and loyal follower in power, Henry II hoped to be the de facto ruler of both secular and ecclesiastical affairs through Becket.

However, on 10 August 1162 Becket resigned the Chancellorship to focus exclusively on his new ecclesiastical role. This early indication of trouble was confirmed when Becket refused to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon in January 1164, which decreed that any ecclesiastic found to have committed a crime should be tried in secular, as well as ecclesiastical, courts. Becket’s refusal to grant the increase of secular control over ecclesiastical affairs infuriated Henry II, and, on 2 November 1164, Becket fled to France, where he remained for six years, under the protection of Pope Alexander and the King of France.

The coronation of Henry, the Young King on 14 June 1170 by Roger, Archbishop of York, was seen – and, probably intended – as a direct insult to Thomas Becket. However, by 22 July 1170, a tentative peace had been reached and, on 2 December 1170, Becket returned to Canterbury. Despite the supposed peace, at the end of his sermon on Christmas Day, Becket formally excommunicated de Broc, and a number of churchmen who had sided with Henry II in the dispute. Four days later, on 29 December 1170, Becket was brutally murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four men who had come directly from Henry II’s court.

 

Overview of the Texts

William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum
William of Newburgh (c. 1135 – 1198) was an Augustinian Canon, cloistered at Newburgh Priory in Yorkshire. His Historia (1196-98) was written at the request of Ernald, abbot of the nearby Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, and covers the years 1066 to 1198. For much of his earlier material, William draws most prominently on Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, and John Gillingham has recently proven that William of Newburgh used Roger of Hoveden’s Chronica as an ‘essential skeleton of information’ for the years from 1148.[2]

The Chronicle of Battle Abbey
The Chronicle of Battle Abbey, written sometime after 1155, tells the history of the abbey from its foundation in the late eleventh century until the 1180s. As well as being a history of the affairs of Battle Abbey, the Battle Abbey chronicler intended his work to provide a legal guide for the next generation of monks. He was probably the Abbey’s representative at legal disputes and had a high regard for Henry II’s legal administration.

Roger of Hoveden’s Chronica
Roger of Hoveden (Howden) (c. 1201) became parson of Hoveden, Yorkshire, following his father’s death in c. 1174. He was also a royal clerk at the court of Henry II from around this time and continued in this office until just after the King’s death in 1189. The extract we are reading is from his Chronica. Antonia Gransden has argued that, whilst Roger relied on letters for his account of the ‘Becket affair’, the narrative seems to be his own.[3]

Edward Grim’s Vita
Edward Grim was a clerk from Cambridge who was in Canterbury visiting the Archbishop at the time of his murder. He was an eyewitness to the murder and was wounded trying to protect Becket from his attackers. His subsequent hagiography was one of the earliest Vita (c. 1174) and had a substantial influence on subsequent hagiographical and historiographical engagements with the event.

Gervase of Canterbury’s History of the Archbishops of Canterbury
Gervase of Canterbury (c. 1145 – c. 1120) was a Benedictine monk of Christ Church, Canterbury and was ordained by Thomas Becket in 1163. The extract we are reading is from his Actus Pontificum Cantuariensis Ecclesia, a history of the archbishops of Canterbury.

 

Topics for discussion

  • How is martyrdom constructed and represented in these texts?
  • How does the institutional alignment/positioning of the historians inform and influence their depictions of the ‘Becket affair’? Is the enormity of the crisis enough to overcome these ties?
  • David Knowles has observed that ‘all but eight years of Thomas’ adult life were notoriously deserving of criticism rather than admiration.’ How do these historians reconcile the problematic nature of Becket’s life with his martyrdom?
  • How do these texts depict a) Henry II, b) Thomas Becket, and c) Pope Alexander, d) the knights, and their roles in the conflict? How and where is blame ascribed?
  • How do these texts make use of rhetoric/rhetorical devices?
  • How does the type of history (i.e. institutional, national) that is being written affect the way that historians engage with this event?
  • William of Newburgh was writing with a copy of Roger of Hoveden’s Chronica before him. How does William of Newburgh adapt his source text and, more generally, how do the historians respond to hagiographical materials (i.e. Grim’s Vita) that were in wide circulation at the time? What are the significances of their changes in emphases, additions, elisions?

[1] R. W. Southern, The Monks of Canterbury and the Murder of Thomas Becket (Canterbury: Friends of Canterbury Cathedral and the William Urry Memorial Trust, 1985).

[2] John Gillingham, ‘Two Yorkshire Historians Compared: Roger of Howden and William of Newburgh’, Haskins Society Journal, 12 (2003), 15-37 (p. 24).

[3] Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England c. 550 to c. 1307 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1974), p. 226.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Medieval Werewolves (23rd November 2016)

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The werewolves of Ossory in Gerald of Wales’ Topographica Hibernica (London, British Library, Royal MS 13 B. viii, f. 18r)

Next meeting: 23rd November 2016 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

One of the first stories of the transformation of a man into a wolf occurs in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Book 1 of the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of Lycaön, the king of Arcadia, who served human flesh to Jupiter when the king of the gods wandered the earth disguised as a mortal. Lycaön’s ‘gruesome banquet’[1] breaches the laws of hospitality, and Jove retaliates by transforming him into a wolf:

Lycaön fled to the country
where all was quiet. He tried to speak, but his voice broke into
an echoing howl. His ravening soul infected his jaws;
his murderous longings were turned on the cattle; he still was possessed
by blood lust. His garments were changed to a shaggy coat and his arms
into legs. He was now transformed into a wolf. But he kept some signs
of his former self: the grizzled hair and the wild expression,
the blazing eyes and the bestial image remained unaltered.
(Metamorphoses, I.233-9)

Ovid’s story of Lycaön fits into the broader thematic structure of Book 1 of the Metamorphoses, which focuses on the depravity of humanity. In response to Lycaön’s treachery, Jove holds an assembly of the gods, and he announces his intention to send a flood to destroy mankind for their crimes. Only Deucalion and Pyrrha survive the flood, and they produce ‘new race of miraculous birth’ (Metamorphoses, I.252) who repopulate the earth.

Stories of werewolves were also popular in medieval Europe. Werewolves became associated with the romance tradition in which a man – baron, knight, or king – became trapped in a wolf’s body through the treachery of his wife. Marie de France follows this plot in Bisclavret (1160-1215), which was the source for Melion (c. 1170-1267) and Biclarel (1319-22). Meanwhile, the French romance Guillaume of Palerne (1200), which was translated into English in the fourteenth century, recounts how the hero was changed into a wolf through his stepmother’s enchantments.

The medieval werewolf is a rational creature. As Amanda Hopkins writes, these stories demonstrate the werewolf’s

gentle behaviour, his human mind and sensibilities [which are] trapped inside an outer form that was indistinguishable from a wolf. If a werewolf attacked someone, it was with reasoned purpose: to express the injustice done to him and often to identify the culprit.[2]

The benevolent nature of the medieval werewolf contradicts our modern view of the werewolf as a vicious, cannibalistic creature; however, the Wolfsbane potion helps today’s werewolves resist their killer instincts. Remus Lupin – who was surely everyone’s favourite Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher – frequently used the potion during his lifetime.

 

Overview of the texts

Five different manuscripts contain one or more of Marie’s lais, but only one thirteenth-century manuscript – London, British Library, MS Harley 978 – contains all twelve.

Melion survives in a single thirteenth-century manuscript, Paris Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, 3156, f.343r, col. 1-344r, col. 4 – 1268.

Biclarel is extract from first redaction (A-text) of Le Roman de Renart le Contrefait, which is included in MS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1630, anc. 7630, de la Mare 284. Biclarel appears in f.188 col. a- f.190, col. D. The manuscript dates from the fourteenth century.

Arthur and Gorlagon survives in a single fourteenth-century manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson MS B 149, pp. 55-64. The story originates from the twelfth century.

 

Questions for discussion

  • How does the werewolf challenge the boundaries between human and animal? How do the different accounts of transformation from man into wolf compare with each other?
  • Marie writes that ‘[a] werewolf is a ferocious beast which […] devours men, causes great damage and dwells in vast forests’. Do the werewolves in these texts conform to or defy this description?
  • Is Biclarel ‘a mere imitation’ of Bisclavret?
  • Medieval werewolf stories traditionally explore the opposition between marital love and feudal service; however, Arthur and Gorlagon focuses on the question of ‘what women want’. Is this text a parody of the werewolf romance? What other texts also revolve around this central quest?
  • Biclarel and Melion are more explicitly misogynistic that Bisclavret and Arthur and Gorlagon. Why do you think gender politics are central to medieval werewolf stories?
  • In medieval werewolf stories, adulterous women are often punished ‘publicly and voyeuristically’. How do these texts legitimate violence against women? Is it significant that the wife goes unpunished in Melion?
  • Why do to you think King Arthur was later included in werewolf romances? Is the Arthurian setting relevant in these texts?
  • Does the medieval werewolf story constitute a genre in its own right? If so, what are its defining features?

 

Further reading

Medieval werewolves

‘One thing I know’: Werewolves Are a Thing

The Werewolf’s Indifference

Naked came the werewolf

 

References

[1] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. David Raeburn (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), I.164.

[2] Amanda Hopkins, ‘The Medieval Werewolf’, Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, University of Warwick. Available at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/ren/news_and_events/researchblog/werewolf/ [accessed 18th November 2016].

Geoffrey Chaucer, Dream Visions (26th October 2016)

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Next meeting: 26th October 2016 / Room 1.26 / 3-5pm

Alongside romance, dream visions formed one of the most popular genres of literary writing in the later Middle Ages. Chaucer wrote four dream visions before he wrote the Canterbury Tales, and his dream poetry draws on a range of classical and continental sources, especially French dream visions and love lyrics from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Chaucer’s choice to write dream poems was paralleled by the dream visions of his English contemporaries, including William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the Gawain-poet’s Pearl, and was emulated by fifteenth-century Chaucerian followers such as John Lydgate (The Complaint of the Black Knight) and James I of Scotland (The Kingis Quair). As a genre or mode, the dream vision is capacious and flexible: it can accommodate narrative, dialogue and debate, lyric, both the real and the allegorical, and both secular and spiritual concerns.

The Book of the Duchess (c.1368-72), Chaucer’s earliest dream vision and first sustained narrative poem, was likely written for Duke John of Gaunt in the years following the death of his wife Blanche, and it addresses ideas of grief and consolation following the death of a loved one. The Parliament of Fowls was perhaps composed c.1380-82, when King Richard II was negotiating for the hand of Anne of Bohemia. Yet these are much more than occasional poems. These poems deploy and interrogate theories of the origins and nature of dreams, and Boethian ideas of consolation. They explore themes of love, loss, death, and desire, and consider the interrelations of nature and culture, experience and authority, and the nature of and inspiration for poetry itself.

Questions for discussion:

  1. What do you make of the narrators? How do they compare with Chaucer’s other narrators with which you may be familiar – for instance, in The Canterbury Tales or Troilus and Criseyde?
  2. What does Chaucer suggest about the sources and nature of dreams, and their interpretation?
  3. What is the role of books in Chaucer’s dream visions?
  4. How do sleep, insomnia, and emotions feature?
  5. What do the settings contribute to the poems’ themes and questions?
  6. How do Chaucer’s dream poems portray chivalric figures? (compared to, say, Chaucer’s romances?)
  7. How do Chaucer’s dream poems represent women?
  8. To what extent do Chaucer’s dream visions demand to be read on an allegorical level?
  9. To what extent are they independent of their immediate patronage contexts?
  10. Does the Book of the Duchess offer consolation, and if so, what sort? Does the Parliament of Fowls offer any resolution to debate, and if so, what sort?

The auctoritas of Geoffrey of Monmouth

In his Anglica Historia (1534), Polydore Vergil published his scathing comments about Geoffrey of Monmouth, which subsequently ignited a debate over the veracity of the Historia regum Britanniae.[1] Quoting the twelfth-century historian, William of Newburgh, he writes that

there hathe appeared a writer in owre time which, to purse these defaultes of Brittains, feininge of them thinges to be laughed at, hathe extolled them above the nobleness of Romains and Macedonians, enhauncinge them with moste impudent lyeing. This man is cauled Geffray, surnamed Arthure, bie cause that oute of the olde lesings of Brittons, being somewhat augmented bie him, he hathe recited manie things of this King Arthure, taking unto him both the coloure of Latin speech and the honest pretext of an Historie.[2]

Vergil believed the Historia to be largely fictitious: he regarded Brutus to be an invention of the author, and he also suggested that Geoffrey’s portrait of Arthur had been highly embellished. British historians and antiquarians, such as John Leland, John Prise, and Humphrey Llwyd, were not receptive to the Anglica Historia, and they rushed to defend Geoffrey.

Yet Polydore Vergil’s objections about the Historia regum Britanniae were not new. In the twelfth century, Gerald of Wales and – most famously – William of Newburgh had their doubts about the reliability of Geoffrey’s work. Vergil, then, was merely continuing a tradition of skepticism about the Historia that had been popular since the twelfth century, and so his comments were not, necessarily, the product of Renaissance humanist doubt. This short post will consider how medieval and early modern commentators on the Historia regum Britanniae used their scholarly arguments to explore ideas of authority and authorship; in particular, it focuses on how William of Newburgh and John Leland used their evaluative historiographical practices to influence the reputation of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

William of Newburgh

Geoffrey’s most profound early critic was William of Newburgh. His skepticism of the Historia regum Britanniane is well documented in his Historia rerum Anglicarum (‘The History of English Affairs’, c. 1198), a history of the Anglo-Norman kings from William I to Richard I, which focuses in particular on the civil unrest in the reign of King Stephen. In this text, William includes a vicious attack on Geoffrey and the Historia, and the prologue to his text begins with a treatise on history and truth. He upholds Gildas and Bede as the most esteemed writers of ‘British’ history, particularly as they were committed to revealing the truth about the Britons, but he laments that

in our own day a writer [scriptor] of the opposite tendency has emerged. To atone for these faults of the Britons he weaves a laughable [ridicula] web of fiction [figmenta] about them, with shameless vainglory extolling them far above the virtue of the Macedonians and the Romans. This man is called Geoffrey and bears the soubriquet Arthur, because he has taken up the stories about Arthur from the old fictitious [figmentis] accounts of the Britons, has added to them himself, and by embellishing them in the Latin tongue he has cloaked them with the honourable title of history.[3]

In this passage, William’s main objection to the Historia is its basis in fiction [figemnta], rather than fact, and he complains that such an unreliable work has been produced in Latin, the language of authority. The contrast between fact and fiction demonstrates the unreliability of Geoffrey’s work, especially since the deeds of Arthur in the Historia have been over exaggerated. William insists that here is no justification for such ‘wanton and shameless lying’ (I.5), and dismisses Geoffrey as a mediocre historian who has ‘not learned the truth about events’ (I.5).

William’s prologue continues with a brief descriptive of the Saxon invasion by Hengist, and he lists the English kings that ruled after him, including Ethelbert, Aethelfrith, Edwin, and Oswald. According to William, these are historically accurate [historicam veritatem] events as they are accounted for in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. William then uses Bede’s account to disprove Geoffrey’s version of events, and he claims that

it is clear that Geoffrey’s entire narration about Arthur, his successors, and his predecessors after Vortigern, was invented partly by himself and partly by others. The motive was either an uncontrolled passion for lying, or secondly a desire to please the Britons, most of whom are considered to be so barbaric that they are said to be still awaiting the future coming of Arthur being unwitting to entertain the fact of his death. (I.9)

William’s juxtaposition of these accounts is clearly designed to assert the authority of Bede, rather than Geoffrey. Nevertheless, his assertion that created the Historia ‘partly by himself’, suggests that William also regarded Geoffrey as an auctor who was distinguished from scriptors, compilators, and commentators by their ability to invent their own work.[4] Technically, of course, Geoffrey only fulfills the category of scriptor as he only presents himself as a translator of the ‘British book’, which he claims was given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. By acknowledging that some of the content of the Historia regum Britanniae was unique – even it was unaccounted for – Geoffrey’s principal critic is also his most important bestower of auctoritas.

After comparing Geoffrey with Bede, William casts his final judgment over the veracity of the Historia. He interrogates Geoffrey’s account of Arthur’s reign, particularly his foreign conquests, and he remarks

how could the historians of old, who took immense pains to omit from their writings nothing worthy of mention, and who are known to have recorded even modest events, have passed over in silence this man beyond compare and his achievements so notably beyond measure? How, I ask, have they suppressed in silence one more notable than Alexander the Great – this Arthur, monarch of the Britons, and his deeds – or Merlin, prophet of the Britons, one equal to Isaiah, and his utterances? […] So since the historians of old have made not even the slightest mention of these persons, clearly all that Geoffrey has published in his writer about Arthur and Merlin has been invented by liars to feed the curiosity of those less wise. (I.14)

Here, William’s process of evaluation is framed through a series of complex rhetorical questions and juxtapositions focusing on Geoffrey and the ‘historians of old’. The rhetorical questions are designed to reinforce the authority of Gildas and Bede (even if they are not directly mentioned by name), and they imply that it would be unreasonable to doubt the reliability of two writers who recorded every detail of events. William entirely discredits Geoffrey’s attempt to fill the lacuna in insular history, and his conclusion that the stories of Arthur and Merlin Historia must be an invention, especially since they cannot be confirmed by any of the ancient historians, appears to be perfectly valid.

John Leland

The critical attitudes to Geoffrey’s Historia regum Britanniae began to change in the sixteenth century. The English antiquarian John Leland objected to Vergil’s claim that the Historia was an unreliable source, and in his De uiris Illustribus (‘Of Famous Men’, first completed 1535-6 and revised 1543-6), Leland offered a defence of Geoffrey, whom he placed alongside various other writers of ‘British’ history, ranging from the first Druids to Robert Widow. The account in De uiris Illustribus can be considered to be the first biography of Geoffrey, who is described as a man who ‘took great pleasure in reading ancient history’ and who ‘also delighted in scholarly intercourse’.[5] Leland situates Geoffrey within the clerical and academic circles of his time, and he is upheld as model of learning and authority. He praises him for his dedication to ‘British’ history as ‘he stands alone in having rescued a great part of Britain’s antiquity [Britannicae antiquitatis] well and truly from destruction through a diligence [diligentia] which is beyond all praise’ (Leland, p. 308-9). Leland presents Geoffrey as a translator, rather than an author, of his own work, and he writes that

he openly declares that he performed the task [officio] only of an interpreter [interpretis]; in other words, he translated a British history, written in the British language, and brought to him by Walter Map, the archdeacon of Oxford, into Latin. (Leland, p. 310-11)

This remark is essentially an apology for the number of inventions that can be found in the Historia, and it is also designed to counteract the comments of Geoffrey’s critics, who credited him with fabricating many of the events in his work. According to Leland, then, Geoffrey had a limited amount of creative agency, and he simply acted as a cultural mediator by transmitting an ancient account of the ‘British’ past to his twelfth century readers.

Leland’s biography of Geoffrey includes a lengthy scholarly attack on Polydore Vergil. Leland complains that the Italian historian

launches a frenzied attack on Geoffrey, in order to undermine Geoffrey’s authority [autoritatem] and to accumulate weight and force as well as credibility [ueritatem] for his own empty inanities. Then, for much of the earlier part of his history, this most impudent fellow is forced to follow the writer whom he has just torn to pieces with so many harsh words. But one should surely forgive this impertinence when there was practically no other authority [autorem] he could have followed. (p. 310-11)

Here, Leland asserts that Vergil is a hypocrite for discrediting Geoffrey, and then using his account to form the basis of the record of insular history in the Anglica Historia. Leland’s comments also imply that ‘English’ history, from the Saxon period through the Normans to the Plantagenet kings, and the current Tudor monarchy, depends upon early ‘British’ history for its authenticity. Indeed, during the fifteenth century, the idea of cultural inheritance between England and Wales was being more explicitly acknowledged, especially as Henry VII had used his descent from Cadwallader, the last king of the Britons, to legitimate his claim to the throne. According to Leland, then, the Historia still had political currency, and he consistently emphasises the authority of Geoffrey, the ‘good author’, in order to expose Vergil, the ‘foreigner’, as the unreliable fraud.

In De uiris Illustribus, Leland also includes an assessment of Vergil’s sources that he used in the Anglica Historia. Vergil’s account of early insular history relied heavily on Tacitus’ Agricola (c. 98) and Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (c. 58-49 BCE), both of which had grown in popularity during the Early Modern period. For Vergil, these Latin Caesar and Tacitus were more authoritative than Gildas and Bede, who lived several centuries later than the period they were writing about. Leland, however, remarks that

none of them [the Romans], as far as I know, wrote anything worth mentioning before Caesar. Besides, not everything that Caesar wrote – however much the Dunce [Polydore Vergil] makes of his statements – seems to me to have proceeded from an oracle; the same applies to many other things about the Britons which were later handed down to posterity by Latin authors. (Leland, pp. 310-13)

This assessment of Caesar is also a judgment of Polydore Vergil. Leland implies that it was unreasonable for Vergil to use Roman – and therefore biased – history in order to counteract Geoffrey’s version of ‘British’ history. Moreover, Leland also disregards the authority of Gildas and Bede, especially since the authorship of De Excidio Britanniae was subject to question after its publication in 1525, and the Historia Ecclesiastica included very little information on early ‘British’ history prior to the Saxon conquest. Leland’s detailed evaluation of his these sources interrogates the comparative methodology that Geoffrey’s critics used to disprove his account of insular history, and through his scholarly inquiry, Leland demonstrates that the Historia is the only real authority worth following.

The short biography of Geoffrey of Monmouth in De uirius Illustribus canonised the ‘British’ historian as an auctor – a term that, as A. J. Minnis points out, ‘denoted someone who was at once a writer and an authority, someone not merely to be read but also to be respected and believed’.[6] John Leland’s appraisal of Geoffrey challenged and disproved the objections of the critics of the Historia regum Britanniae, and his work later influenced the Welsh historians John Prise and Humphrey Llwyd, who both wrote defenses of Geoffrey in the latter half of the sixteenth century. These classically educated scholars and intellectuals held the Historia regum Britanniae in great esteem, rescuing its reputation from the likes of William of Newburgh and Polydore Vergil. Through their arguments, Leland, Prise, and Llwyd proved that Geoffrey’s authority and the veracity of his Historia was beyond all doubt.


This is a revised version of a paper given at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds (July 2015)

[1] This debate has been previously explored by James P. Carley, who viewed the antagonism between the two historians as prefiguring twentieth-century scholarship on the ‘historical Arthur’ that became increasingly popular among historians and archaeologists following the work of E. K Chambers and Leslie Alcock; see James P. Carley, ‘Polydore Vergil and John Leland on King Arthur: The Battle of the Books’, in King Arthur: A Casebook, ed. Edward Donald Kennedy (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 185-204.

[2] Polydore Vergil’s English History, from an early translation presented among the MSS. of The Royal Library in the British Museum. Volume 1. Containing the First Eight Books, comprising the period prior to the Norman Conquest, ed. Sir Henry Ellis (London: Printed for the Camden Society, by John Bowyer Nichols and Son, Parliament Street, MDCCCXLVI), p. 29. All further references to Vergil’s Anglia Historia are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

[3] William of Newburgh, The History of English Affairs, ed. and trans. P. G. Walsh and M. J. Kennedy (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1988), p. 29. All further references to William’s Historia rerum Anglicarum are to this edition and are given in the text.

[4] On the definitions of the auctor, scriptor, commentator, and compiler, see A. J. Minnis, Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages (London: Scolar Press, 1984), p. 94.

[5] John Leland, De uiris Illustribus, ed. and trans. James P. Carley (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2010), p. 321. All further reference to Leland’s De uiris Illustribus are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text. It should be noted that Leland’s length discussion on Polydore Vergil and King Arthur were later insertions, and the entry on Geoffrey of Monmouth in the first version of De uirius Illustribus was purely concerned with the writer in question.

[6] A. J. Minnis, The Medieval Theory of Authorship, p. 10.

Gildas and Bede, Models of insular history (17th August 2016)

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Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (BL MS Arundel 74, f.1)

Next Meeting: 17th August 2016 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

In the classical and late antique periods, continental writers were the main authors of insular history. The historical works by Julius Caesar and Tactius dominated the Roman view of Britannia and its people, while Orosius and Isidore of Seville included short geographical descriptions of Britain in their historical works, which were later used by insular writers.

In the early Middle Ages, two writers emerged who offered a more comprehensive view of the early history of Britain: Gildas and Bede.

Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (c. 540)

Gildas’ De Excidio is the earliest insular history of Britain. The early books focus on the Roman and Anglo-Saxon conquests of Britain, while the later books are more polemical, and are intended to condemn tyrants and the clergy. De Excidio is a salvation history, with the Britons presented as God’s chosen people who are akin to the Israelites in the Old Testament. The mode of Gildas’ history is essentially tragic, and he frequently laments how corruption and tyranny has consumed Britain and its people.

Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731)

Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica covers the history of England, ecclesiastical and political, from the time of Julius Caesar to the present day (731). The first book includes an account of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, and while Bede borrowed material from Gildas, he emphasises how God’s favour passed from the Britons to the Saxons instead. The first book ends with Saint Augustine’s mission to England in 597, and the following books account for how Christianity spread among the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

In the twelfth century, several historians began to write regnal histories that relied on Gildas and Bede. William of Malmesbury wrote a history of Anglo-Saxon England that continued up to the present day (1127), while William of Newburgh focused on the period from the Norman Conquest to the end of the twelfth century. Henry of Huntingdon chose to write a history of Britain from the foundation of Britain to the present day, and he continually revised and expanded his work, which eventually ended in 1154. Henry quotes Bede at length in the early books of the Historia Anglorum, and he also rationalises Bede’s account of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Geoffrey of Monmouth, however, insisted that neither Gildas nor Bede had adequately accounted for the early insular history of Britain, and his Historia regum Britanniae records the deeds of the kings of Britain from foundation of Britain to the death of Cadwalladr in 682.

The prologues that we will be discussing are testament to the legacy of Gildas and Bede, and their models of insular history.

Questions for discussion

  • What is the function of history? Do the historians all agree on the moral purpose of history?
  • How do the historians present themselves? What sort of authorial personas do they adopt?
  • What is the significance of the various literary authorities that these writers invoke in their prefaces? (i.e. The Bible, classical and Christian authors, oral and written sources)
  • In his introduction, Lake suggests the commission topos is a ‘rhetorical device designed to influence the audience’s view of the author’. Do the dedications absolve the historians of their responsibility (as Lake suggests), or do they reveal the types of social networks that they operated it?
  • Do you think these prologues are a collection of topoi or do the individual author’s feelings predominate?
  • How do the twelfth-century historians construct Gildas and Bede as authorities?
  • In the twelfth century, many historians moved away from the annalistic style of historiography. How do they construct their historical frameworks in their prologues? Do they identify any important themes that might inform their histories?
  • Why do you think that William of Newburgh attacks Geoffrey of Monmouth so vehemently?