Boccaccio, Lydgate & the Fall of Arthur (9 September 2020)

Next Meeting: Wednesday 9th September, 4-6pm, via Zoom

No poet can mark time with such profuse demonstrations of energy, can so readily make twenty words do the work of one.

Derek Pearsall

The texts we will be reading this week are taken from Giovanni Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium (c.1355-1373) and John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes (c.1431- 38). Boccaccio’s De casibus is an encyclopaedic collection from late in his career, a moralising history written in Latin on the impact of Fortune on the great and those around them:

I shall relate examples of what God – or (speaking their own language) Fortune – can teach them about those she raises up. And, so that there can be no accusation against any specific time or sex, my idea has been to present succinctly – yet still with useful detail – those rules and other famous persons, women as well as men, who have been overthrown from the beginning of the world until now.[1]

Lydgate’s Fall of Princes, meanwhile, is ostensibly a translation of the De casibus, but despite repeatedly claiming ‘Bochas’ as his auctour, Lydgate’s true source is Laurent de Premierfait’s De Cas de nobles hommes et femmes, a 1409 French prose translation of Boccaccio’s De casibus.[2] Lydgate expands considerably upon his French intermediary and at 36,365 lines, the Fall of Princes is not only the longest extant Middle English poem, but it is also the longest English language poem, with only Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (34,650 lines) and John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (32,356 lines) coming close.[3]

Commissioned in 1431 by the ‘myhti prynce’, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, the purpose of the Fall of Princes was to show that great men fall because of the depredations of Fortune, but that it is also possible to avoid her attentions through good behaviour. To this end, Gloucester requested that Lydgate add the moralising envoys following the tales, so that those reading might recognise their own missteps and correct themselves. Altogether, Lydgate added sixty-nine envoys, making them perhaps his most substantial original addition to the story collection. Close study of the envoys reveals their advice to be broadly ethical as opposed to specifically political or legal, which fits within the difficult line Lydgate had to tread in compiling the Fall of Princes for his patron. J. Allen Mitchell writes, 

Lydgate rationalizes and moralizes contingent events in a monitory rhetoric of human accountability, thereby making misfortune into another name for irresponsibility. The responsible prince, according to this advisory idiom, should not fear misfortune and may indeed aspire to overmaster Fortune.[4]

Gloucester, however, was a contentious figure, and his abrasive and persistent pushes for more power during the minority government of Henry VI demonstrate ‘his willingness to allow personal ambition to jeopardize the wider good of the kingdom’.[5] He chafed against the limitations imposed upon him by the council of lords, resenting the greater authority of his older brother, the Duke of Bedford, and persistently sought full authority as regent of England. Following the coronation of Henry VI in 1429, Gloucester manipulated the weak constitutional position of the council and played the seven-year-old king off against the lords, being the first to exploit ‘the dependence of the monarchical system upon the private person of the king’.[6] In 1432, Gloucester orchestrated a coup in attempt to transfer government directly to the court, bypassing the council, and it has been speculated he was also responsible for goading Henry VI into challenging the lords in 1434.[7] In compiling the Fall of Princes, Lydgate was therefore put in the awkward position of showing a cast of powerful men thrown down by Fortune for their sins, while simultaneously trying to cast Gloucester as a (somewhat implausible) exception to this rule. 

Unlike Lydgate’s patron, the version of King Arthur Lydgate presents is not an irresponsible figure. Detached from the flaws that might make him deserving of punishment in other versions of the Arthur legend, his misfortunes in the Fall of Princes are solely due to the actions of others: he is thrown under Fortune’s Wheel by ‘unkynde blood’ rather than any missteps of his own. In this sense, Lydgate’s King Arthur is a truly tragic figure. David Lawton suggests that Lydgate’s Arthur episode is an intentionally political parallel, observing that the detailed lists of Arthur’s conquests in France would not fail to recall to readers Henry V’s own French victories, still very recent history. Lawton further observes, ‘Arthur’s fall is attributed solely to Mordred’s rebellion while he was acting as regent in England, the position held by Gloucester while Bedford conducted the French war.’[8] The tale of Arthur, therefore, becomes a site of tension, as Lydgate’s professed aim under instruction in writing the Fall of Princes (as a moral manual for great men) conflicts with the written message of the stories he is telling. This has contributed to the charges of incoherency laid at Lydgate’s feet over the years, but seems to be more indicative of the poet’s personal struggle in balancing the goals of his patron with his own observations from his ringside seat in the Lancastrian court.

Like Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium, the Fall of Princes was wildly popular during its own time, but by the eighteenth century, the reputation of both poem and poet had dwindled. In 1802, Joseph Ritson scathingly described Lydgate as ‘this voluminous, prosaick, and driveling monk’ in his Bibliographia poetica (termed ‘an outburst of dyspeptic anti-clericalism’ by Derek Pearsall) and Lydgate’s literary reputation has still yet to recover from the impact of this diatribe.[9]

Topics for discussion:

  • What is familiar/unfamiliar about Boccaccio’s and Lydgate’s versions of the Arthur narrative?
  • Consider the role of Fortune in both texts. How do they compare? 
  • What do we make of the extensive detail Lydgate adds regarding the geography of lands Arthur conquers? 
  • How does Lydgate portray the knights of the Round Table, and England under Arthur overall?
  • What is the effect of making Mordred emphatically Arthur’s cousin instead of a bastard son? 
  • Looking at lines 3095-3122, what do we make of Lydgate’s description of the death of Arthur?
  • How accurate/appropriate is Lydgate’s moralising envoy at the conclusion of the text? How does ‘Bewar euere of vnkynde blood’ compare with Boccaccio’s moral reminder that ‘Only the humble things can endure’?
  • Lydgate has long held a reputation for bad poetry; from what we have read, is it deserved?  

[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, The Downfall of the Famous, trans. Louis Brewer-Hall (New York: Italica Press, 2018), pp. 1-2

[2] Premierfait translated Boccaccio’s De casibus twice: the shorter 1355-60 version, which is missing books VIII & IX, in 1400, and the extended version in 1409.

[3] Nigel Mortimer, John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes: Narrative Tragedy in its Literary and Political Contexts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 1.

[4] J. Mitchell, ‘Telling Fortunes in Lydgate’s Fall of Princes’, Ethics and Eventfulness in Middle English Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 88.

[5] Mortimer, p. 54.

[6] John Watts, Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 120.

[7] Mortimer, p. 57.

[8] David Lawton, ‘Dullness and the Fifteenth Century’, ELH, Vol. 54, No. 4 (1987), p. 784.

[9] Mortimer, p. 3.

Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale and Boccaccio’s Decameron IX.6 (19 August 2020)


Next Meeting: Wednesday 19th August, 4-6, via Zoom

Chaucer became familiar with Boccaccio’s work during his travels to Italy in the late 1360s and early 1370s. Although some critics have speculated that he might have met an aged Boccaccio during his time in Florence, Leonard Michael Koff has cheerfully dismissed this theory as ‘a “tyding” worthy of Chaucer himself’.[1] Whatever their personal relationship – or lack thereof – Chaucer drew heavily on Boccaccio’s texts throughout his career. His Knight’s Tale is indebted to Boccaccio’s Il Teseida, as are parts of the Legend of Good Women, which also draws on the De mulieribus claris. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is based, in part, on Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, and the Monk’s Tale draws inspiration – and, indeed, a number of individual tales – from the De cassibus virum illustrium.

Yet, despite the extent of this knowledge and the breadth of Chaucer’s borrowings, the question of whether he was familiar with the Decameron remained unanswered until relatively recently. As John Findlayson has argued, despite the manifold similarities between Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the Decameron, scholars have lacked a so-called ‘smoking gun’ – a rhetorical echo or reproduction that could prove, beyond doubt, that Chaucer was responding directly to Boccaccio’s text.[2] This ‘“Chaucer did not know Boccaccio” clericalism’, as Findlayson termed it, was, he argued, predominantly driven by a desire to stress Chaucer’s originality and tended to downplay the depth and complexity of Boccaccio’s text.[3]

In 2013, however, Jessica Harkins illustrated that Chaucer’s translation of four key terms in the Clerk’s Talefortune, dishonest, arraye, and yvele – proved that he was responding directly to rhetorical constructions in Decameron X.10.[4] This, she argued, was the ‘smoking gun’ that critics had been missing. With this connection made definitively, it is now safe to assume that the Franklin’s, Merchant’s, Pardoner’s, Reeve’s, and Shipman’s Tales – all long considered strikingly similar to tales from Boccaccio’s Decameron – were similarly influenced and inspired.[5]

The Reeve’s Tale and Decameron IX.6

Unlike Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale, which is the third tale told on the way to Canterbury, Boccaccio’s version falls on the penultimate day – relatively late in the cycle. On the ninth day, the crown is held by Elissa, who, for the first time since Day One, declines to select a topic for the day’s stories. Instead, she states that

I purpose not to restrict you to any special subject, but will have each discourse according as it pleaseth him, holding it for certain that the variety of the things which will be said will afford us no less entertainment than to have discoursed of one alone; and having done thus, whoso shall come after me in the sovranty may, as stronger than I, avail with greater assurance to restrict us within the limits of the wonted laws.

After a series of tales that mostly revolve around deceptive lovers, elaborate disguises, and sexual licentiousness, Pamfilo, who is often considered representative of ‘Reason’ in the text, tells a familiar fabliaux: two gentlemen, having fallen in love with a peasant’s daughter, Niccolosa, come up with an elaborate ruse to gain access to the house; provided with lodgings for the night, the daughter’s lover sneaks into her bed and is ‘joyfully received’, while the mother, having become confused by the familiar ‘cradle-trick’ motif, climbs into bed with Adriano, the other friend. In the morning, Pinuccio (also confused by the placement of the cradle) climbs into bed beside the girl’s father and reveals everything about his night’s exploits. After an ensuing kerfuffle, the friends eventually convince their host (with his wife’s help) that Pinuccio had, in fact, been sleepwalking and, with her father none-the-wiser, the pair leave – though Pinuccio, we are told, returned to visit Niccolosa regularly.

The similarities between Boccaccio’s narrative and the Reeve’s Tale are self-evident. However, as Carol Falvo Heffernan argues,

the essential plot of the Reeve’s Tale is found in five analogues that are earlier than Chaucer’s tale: the French Le Meunier et les II clers and De Gombert et des II clers, the German Das Studentenabenteur and Irregang und Girregar, and the Italian Decameron 9, 6.[6]

The ‘cradle-trick’ motif is common to many fabliaux and, indeed, to all six cited here. Like Chaucer’s version, the French Le Meunier also includes the framing conflict of the wheat theft, lending an unsettling revenge element to the sexual ‘play’ that follows. However, the reason for the theft – ‘to satisfy the hunger that destroys them’ – is markedly different to the purposeless spite that seems to motivate Chaucer’s clerks.

In contrast, the element that is unique to both Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale and Boccaccio’s Decameron is the moment at ll. 4214-27 (p. 3 in Boccaccio’s version), where the wife catches herself going to the ‘wrong’ bed, corrects herself, and reflects on the consequences of the mistake she believes herself to have avoided. This moment of self-reflexive interiority is seized upon by Chaucer and used to very different effect.


Indicative Questions and Topics for Discussion

  • Contrast the constructions of the central characters. How do they vary between Boccaccio’s and Chaucer’s version? What are the effects of these changes?
  • Consider the significance of revenge in Chaucer’s text.
  • How do the differing narrative styles of Pamfilo and the Reeve influence their respective versions? Do either Boccaccio or Chaucer attempt to undercut their narrators’ interpretations, in any way?
  • Consider the passage at ll. 4214-27 and the middle of p. 3 in the Decameron. How does this moment of self-reflexive interiority function in each text? Why does Chaucer decide to keep this moment?
  • How does class – and class intersections – function in each respective text?
  • Pamfilo states that his tale will ‘shew you how a good woman by her quick apprehension avoided a great scandal’; the Reeve, in contrast, claims that his text proves the falseness of the Miller and thus the appropriateness of the proverb ‘Hym thar nat wene wel that yvele dooth’. How appropriate and/or representative are these morals?


[1] Leonard Michael Koff, ‘Introduction’, in The ‘Decameron’ and ‘The Canterbury Tales’: New Essays on an Old Question, ed. by Leonard Michael Koff and Brenda Deen Schildgen (London: Associated University Press, 2000), pp. 11-18 (p. 18).

[2] John Finlayson, ‘Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale’, Studies in Philology, 97 (2000), 255-75 (p. 256).

[3] Ibid., p. 256.

[4] Jessica Harkins, ‘Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale and Boccaccio’s Decameron X. 10’, Chaucer Review, 47 (2013), 247-73 (p. 248).

[5] These tales are thought to correspond, respectively with X.5, VII.9, VI.10, IX.6 and VIII.1.

[6] Carol Falvo Heffernan, ‘Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale and Reeve’s Tale, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and the French Fabliaux’, Italica, 81 (2004), 311-24 (p. 315).

The Prologue to Boccaccio’s Decameron (5 August 2020)


Next Meeting: Wednesday 5th August 2020, 4.10 – 6, via Zoom 

In 1352, four years after the Black Death had decimated Florence and much of Western Europe, Giovanni Boccaccio completed the Decameron. This work was a collection of 100 tales told by a brigata of seven young women and three young men as they self-isolate in a country palace far from the disease and devastation of the cities. Set against a backdrop of plague and the associated moral degeneration of the Florentines, the Decameron revels in play, art and frivolity, ostensibly championing companionship, collectivity and compassion above all else.

Boccaccio and his works

Boccaccio was a Florentine lawyer, administrator and sometime diplomat, who spent six years studying canon law at the university of Naples in his teens and early twenties. A disciple of Petrarch, the so-called ‘father of the Italian renaissance’ whom he met in 1350 and remained close with until the former’s death in 1374, Boccaccio stood at the intersection between the medieval past and the renaissance future.[1] While critics have often tried to claim him as either a ‘medieval’ or ‘renaissance’ writer, Igor Candido has argued that what made the pair so distinctive was that they were able to devise

a new point of access to the unity of classical and medieval knowledge by creating an intellectual paradigm markedly different from that of Dante and leading toward a sort of modern consciousness.[2]

Today, Boccaccio is most famous for the De cassibus virorum illustrium (On the Fates of Famous Men), which was composed between 1355 and 1360; its counterpart, De mulieribus claris (Concerning Famous Women), written between 1361 and 1362; and the Decameron. All three were revised in the early 1370s.

The Decameron is considered an early masterpiece of Italian vernacular prose and went on to influence such writers as Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales utilise a similar structural conceit, in addition to reworking a number of the tales themselves.[3] These included the tale of Griselda (X. 10), which is, in turn, borrowed from Petrarch and reworked in the Clerk’s Tale;[4] the first two tales of Day Eight, which John Findlayson has argued influenced the Shipman’s Tale;[5] and, elsewhere, Findlayson has also noted that episodes from III, 4; VII, 4; and VIII, 7 of the Decameron parallel episodes from the Miller’s Tale.[6] The tales draw from a wide range of cultures (including Italian, Indian and Persian folklore, via translations) and encompass genres ranging from romance to tragedy and from fabliaux (or novelle) to anti-clerical satire. They are regularly urbane, with a strong mercantile focus and the Decameron achieved particular success amongst these social groups.[7]

The title itself is derived from the Greek words déka (‘ten’) and hēméra (‘day’) to represent the ten days over which the tales are told; yet, as Thomas C. Stillinger notes, it is also a play on ‘Saint Ambrose’s Hexameron, a book of Latin sermons on the six days of Creation’.[8] In contrast to the ecclesiastical bent of the title, the sub-title, Prencipe Galeotto, is a complicated intertextual reference to Galleheult, a minor king from the Lancelot-Grail cycle who facilitates the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. The reference, as it stands here, comes via Dante’s Inferno, in which Francesca blames the romance (which she brands a Galeotto) for inducing her to commit adultery. By adopting Francesca’s textual designation alongside a play on Ambrose’s ecclesiastical Greek, Boccaccio foregrounds the playful, irreverent and intertextual nature of the Decameron from the very beginning.[9]

Such intertextuality is continued throughout the tales themselves as well as in the pseudonyms of the brigata, which correspond with characters from the works of Ovid (Philomena), Virgil (Elissa) and Petrarch (Laura), among others. Through the character of Filostrato, Boccaccio also includes himself in this illustrious literary line up; the title of his earlier vernacular work, Il Filostrato (1335-40) roughly translates as ‘the one cast down by love’, which is also the same theme given to the tales told on Day Four, when Filostrato is ‘King’.

Addressing the allegorical nature of the text, Victoria Kirkham has argued that each of the women correspond with either one of the four cardinal virtues (Prudence – Pampinea; Fortitude – Filomena; Temperance – Fiammetta; Justice – Lauretta) or three theological virtues (Hope – Elissa; Charity – Neifile; Faith – Emilia).[10] The men, in contrast, are typically seen to embody the Greek divisions of the soul: Reason (Panfilo), Anger (Filostrato), and Lust (Dioneo). Taken together, Kirkham argues,

The attributes and actions of [Boccaccio’s] frame narrators, often in monitory contrast to the behavior of characters in the stories they tell, come to advocate emblematically the harmoniously ordered soul that Everyman should have.[11]

Despite the apparent harmony promised by this multiplicity, the endless layering of intertexts, referents, and allegories – combined with multiple frame narratives – results in a text that eludes easy interpretation or categorisation.

The Cornice

The frame narrative (or cornice) of medieval tale collections is often little more than a narratological conceit – as the incompleteness of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales illustrates and as the later continuations (in which the group finally reach Thomas Becket’s tomb at Canterbury) further underscore. Here, too, despite the strength with which the plague is evoked and engaged with in the prologue, the conclusion to the Decameron is brief and rather rushed. After the tenth story of the tenth day, Panfilo – the group’s final ‘King’ – declines to pass on the laurel wreath, suggesting that, while they have all conducted themselves with honour, the time had come to return to Florence and, accordingly,

As the new day appeared, they arose and the seneschal having already despatched all their gear in advance, they returned, under the guidance of their discreet king, to Florence, where the three young men took leave of the seven ladies and leaving them in Santa Maria Novella, whence they had set out with them, went about their other pleasures, whilst the ladies, whenas it seemed to them time, returned to their houses.

Rather than returning to the social issues of the frame narrative, Boccaccio concludes by defending his work against detractors. The aftermath of the plague is unremarked upon and, it seems, life continues as normal.

The abruptness of this ending might seem to uphold the suggestion that frame narratives are often of little significance and, indeed, various French and English translations of the following centuries regularly dispensed with the contextualising frame. Yet, the contrast between the real-world plague, so vividly depicted in the prologue, and the idyllic pseudo-utopia of the group’s country escape unavoidably conditions the reader’s experience, and Boccaccio’s detailed evaluation of the moral positions enjoyed by various types of ‘survivor’ implicitly demands that the reader evaluate the group on the same terms. However integral we consider the frame narrative to the overall interpretation of the tale collection, the introduction raises some pertinent – and timely – questions about the place and role of literature during a time of pandemic.


Topics and questions for discussion

  • The prologue to the Decameron (and, indeed, much of Boccaccio’s wider corpus) seems to veer between unusually proto-feminist and more essentialist (and misogynistic) depictions of women. How does gender – and gender roles – function in this prologue?
  • What types of consolation are offered, here, and which, if any, appear to win out? Does this shift across the proem and the prologue itself?
  • To what extent does this prologue appear to provide a key – or rubric – through which the rest of the text can be read and interpreted?
  • How does perspective function in this text? What is the position of the author and of auctoritas more generally?
  • How are class, society and social order presented and/or constructed in this text? How does the juxtaposition of plague and locus amoenus facilitate this discussion?
  • To what extent should the Decameron be understood as ‘pandemic literature’? Can the subsequent tale collection be separated from its contextualising prologue? Does it matter?


[1] Wayne Rebhorn, ‘Introduction’, in The Decameron, ed. and trans. by Wayne Rebhorn (London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2015)

[2] Igor Candido, ‘Introduction’, in Petrarch and Boccaccio: The Unity of Knowledge in the Pre-Modern World, ed. by Igor Candido (Berlin and Boston: de Gruyter, 2018), 1-14 (p. 3).

[3] The question of whether Chaucer was influenced by Boccaccio’s Decameron is one that has been remained unanswered until relatively recently. Despite the manifold similarities that had seemed to connect the two texts, as Jessica Harkins notes, ‘the absence of what Finlayson calls “a smoking gun”: a clear and definitive example of Chaucer’s use of Boccaccio’s language’ had hampered definitive identifications. Harkin’s article goes on to address what she identifies as one such ‘smoking gun’ in Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale. Jessica Harkins, ‘Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale and Boccaccio’s Decameron X.10’, Chaucer Review, 47 (2013), 247-73.

[4] Harkins, ‘Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale’, 247-73.

[5] John Findlayson, ‘Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale, Boccaccio, and the “Civilizing” of Fabliau’, Chaucer Review, 36 (2002), 336-351.

[6] John Finlayson, ‘Chaucer’s Absolon and Boccaccio’s Decameron’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 103 (2002), 403-407 (p. 403).

[7] David Wallace, Boccaccio: Decameron (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 2.

[8] Thomas C. Stillinger, ‘The Place of the Title (Decameron, Day One, Introduction)’, in The ‘Decameron’ First Day in Perspective: Volume One of the ‘Lectura Boccaccii’, ed. by Elissa B. Weaver (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), pp. 29-58 (p. 31).

[9] Wayne A. Rebhorn, ‘Introduction’, in The Decameron, trans. and ed. by Wayne A. Rebhorn (London: W.W. Norton and Co., 2015).

[10] Victoria Kirkham, ‘An Allegorically Tempered Decameron’, Italia, 62 (1985), 1-23 (p. 19).

[11] Kirkham, ‘An Allegorically Tempered Decameron’, p. 19.


Around the World with Medieval Women Poets (16 July 2020)

Blog post by Rebecca Newby

Next Meeting: Thursday 16 July 2020, 16.00 – 18.00, to be held via Zoom

Izumi Shikibu

c. 970 – 1030, mid-Heian Japan

Izumi Shikibu was a poet at the Japanese imperial court in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, the middle years of the Heian period (794-1185). As a member of Empress Akiko’s entourage, she was a low-ranking member of the court under Emperor Ichijo (r. 986-1011). Nonetheless, her contemporaries recognised her exemplary poetic ability and in her own lifetime she became one of the ‘thirty-six immortals’ of Japanese poetry selected by prominent bureaucrat Fujiwara no Kintō. She married twice and was a lover to both Prince Tametaka and later his brother, Prince Atsumichi, after Tametaka’s death. As was standard for women of this period, her name is a composite of her husband’s role as governor of Izumi and father’s position as secretariat or master of ceremonies (‘Shikibu’). Yet her life of love and passion earned her the nickname of ‘The Floating Lady’.

Torn between worldly ties and physical desire, Izumi Shikibu left a wealth of passionate love poetry, fueling rumors that purported that she was a femme fatale with numerous lovers besides her two husbands and two princely lovers.

Chieko Mulhern, Japanese Women Writers: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook (Greenwood Press, 1994), p. 154.

She composed verse in the tradition of court love poetry, and often combined romantic and erotic longing with lamentation about the sorrow and transience of life, and later Buddhist contemplation.

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

Unaware of my black hair in disorder I lay,
when, first, he parted it; he’s the one I miss.

Shikibu’s celebrated ‘diary’ or ‘pillow-book’, Izumi Shikibu Nikki, recounts her affair with Prince Atsumichi over nine months (1003-1004), as well as other episodes at court, and has been published in several translations (see bibliography). The memoir, written in the third person (she calls herself ‘Onna’ or ‘The Woman’), includes 140 ‘waka’ poems rather than short ‘tanka’ poems, meaning that each one contains thirty-one syllables in five lines (5 + 7 + 5 +7 + 7). Imagining the thoughts of those involved in her memories, she weaves together a narrative of ‘alternate ardor and indifference on the part of the Prince, and timidity and yearning on the part of Izumi’.[i] Other major themes include Izumi’s search for consolation for the death of her first lover with his brother, and their fear of court gossip. The poems, which tend to be inserted between the prose ‘entries’ in ‘call and response’-type pairs, prompt the reader to pause and reflect, and present the experience of love as fantastical and dream-like.

Because I planted
A cherry tree at a house
That nobody visits,
I now use the cherry flowers
To beautify myself.

The cherry tree
In my garden has blossomed,
But it does no good:
The woman, and not a tree,
Is what draws the visitors.

Izumi’s style and panache sustained her fame through the Middle Ages in Japan, making her a celebrity in the Muromachi period (1333-1568), and she continues to be regarded as one of the foremost poets of the Golden Age of Japan:

Her poems are passionate and free, exploding with brilliance; the wealth of her imagination is like heavenly chargers coursing the void; and her freedom of expression is rare. She must be accounted the first poetess of our land.

Edwin A. Cranston, ‘The Poetry of Izumi Shikibu’, Monumenta Nipponica, 25.1 (1970), 1-11 (p. 1).


Qasmūna bint Ismā’il

c. 12th century (possibly 11th century), Andalusia

Qasmūna was an Arabic-language Jewish poet based in medieval Andalusia (Spain), and was most likely active during the twelfth century. She was one of the very few Arabic-writing women poets of the Iberian Peninsula whose work has been preserved, and her Jewish faith makes her unique in this group. Little else is known about her life. The fifteenth-century compiler as-Suyūtī records a few biographical details about Qasmūna, including her close relationship with her father, who apparently provided her with an education and consistently challenged her poetic wit and expertise. Her poetry also suggests that she was beautiful, and that she was unmarried. Only three survive. One of them appears to be an exchange between Qasmūna and her father, placed into rhyming couplets, in which he prompts her to ‘finish the verse’, and she turns his complaint about a woman into an ‘astronomical simile’:

I have a friend whose […] has repaid good with evil,
considering lawful that which is forbidden to her.[ii]

Just like the sun, from which the moon derives its light
always, yet afterward eclipses the sun’s body.

The offender in question has presumably overstepped the bounds pertaining to her as a woman. Here she is recast as an ungracious moon, who periodically obscures her generous benefactor, the sun, without whom she cannot shine. Qasmūna thus takes the old Arabic formula which commonly compared the face of the lover to the full moon and creates a new analogy that emphasises the moon’s dependence upon the sun.

In the preamble to her most famous poem, she reflects that she is beautiful, but laments that she is not yet married:

I see an orchard
Where the time has come
For harvesting,
But I do not see
A gardener reaching out a hand
Towards its fruits.
Youth goes, vanishing; I wait alone
For somebody I do not wish to name. 

The speaker imagines herself to be a fruit-bearing garden ripe for picking, suggesting a desire for romantic relations and perhaps also for children. As James Mansfield Nichols writes, the delicate imagery and formal properties of Qasmūna’s verse distinguish her from the ‘boldy amorous’ and ‘teasing’ poems of her Hispano-Arabic peers. She ‘expresses a consciousness of her own charms with modest indirection’, and her laconic poetry is infused with a profound sense of solitude and a longing for companionship.[iii] In fact, we find the word for ‘alone’ (mufrad) in the penultimate line of the poem above repeated in her contemplation of a wild deer, whose reclusive grace and beautiful eyes remind her of her own isolation. There is an emotional intensity to her work that speaks across the ages.

Slender though her poetic legacy is, it is enough to establish Qasmuna as a distinct voice from twelfth-century Judeo-Muslim culture. She survives as a unique representative of her time and place: a cultured Jewish woman steeped in Arabic literature and writing on Iberian soil. Her poems show polish and give hints of an original mind capable of bending the old formulas to its own ends.

James Mansfield Nichols, ‘The Arabic Verses of Qasmūna bint Ismāʿil ibn Bagdālah’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 13 (1981), 155-58 (p. 158).


La Comtessa de Dia (Beatriz?)

c. 1175 – 1212, Occitan trobairitz (female troubadour)

Comtessa de Dia was a trobairitz or female troubadour in the Provençal region during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. She was in fact one of around twenty-one trobairtitz who participated in the literary culture of the troubadours during this period, who typically idealised their domna (courtly lady) through song.

In this light, we are extraordinarily fortunate to possess a group of songs that tell us what the normally silent domna of troubadour lyric actually said when she sang in her own voice.

Matilda Bruckner, ‘The Women Troubadours’, Speculum, 67.4 (1992), 865-891 (pp. 867-8).

The Comtessa seems to have moved in prominent circles. According to her vida (biography), she was married to William of Poitiers but her love poems appear to be addressed to Raimbaut d’Aurenga, although some scholars have associated her with his nephew of the same name, Raimbaut IV.[iv] Matilda Bruckner, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White have also found intertextual connections between the Comtessa’s lyrics and that of notable troubadours Bernart de Ventadorn and Azalais Porcairagues.[v] These songs, composed in the Occitan language or langue d’oc, are set to the music of the flute; four cansos (stanzaic love poem) and one tenso (debate) survive. A chanter m’er de so qu’ieu non volria / I must sing a song I’d rather not, in which she plays the part of a betrayed lover, is the sole cansos by a trobairitz to survive with its music intact in Le manuscript di roi (c. 1270) of Charles of Anjou:


I must sing of what I’d rather not,
I’m so angry about him whose friend I am
for I love him more than anything;
mercy and courtliness don’t help me
with him, nor does my beauty, or my rank, or my mind;
for I am every bit as betrayed and wronged
as I’d deserve to be if I were ugly.

It comforts me that I have done no wrong
to you, my friend, through any action;
indeed, I love you more than Seguis loved Valenssa;
it pleases me to outdo you in loving,
friend, for you are the most valiant;
you offer prideful words and looks to me
but are gracious to every other person.

The singer is angry with her lover because he has ‘wronged’ her, though she herself has given him no cause for this betrayal and loves him more than anything. Significantly, however, this betrayal does not seem affect the speaker’s sense that she is worthy of his love. She continues to praise her own perfect nobility and beauty, and repeatedly warns her lover that his excessive pride will only bring harm to him in the end. The speaker’s steadfast confidence in herself and her abilities might reflect the complex position that the trobairitz herself occupied in troubadour lyrics: as she sings, the usually silent lady moves into the position of the lover, but in the system of courtly values, she cannot full vacate the role of domna, since the male addressee cannot replace her without upsetting the normative hierarchy. Thus, the Comtessa develops a paradoxical portrait of a domna through her complaint as a lover, and shows that far from being shackled to tradition, the trobairitz had something altogether different to say from their male counterparts.

The women poets insistently refer to themselves as domna, but they allow that designation a range of variations that exceeds the troubadours’ desire to fix her in the positive mode of their hopes and desires or the negative one of their fears and complaints.

Bruckner, p. 877.


Gwerful Mechain

c. 1462 – 1500, Wales

Gwerful Mechain was a Welsh-language poet famous for her erotic and devotional poems, and her ‘cywydd’ to Jesus Christ is extant in at least forty-nine manuscripts.[vi] Katie Gramich observes that the survival of a substantial number of her poems testifies first to the ‘full participation’ of women in the dominant Welsh bardic tradition, not as a fringe group, but as a central part of the culture, but also to the perceived compatibility of religious devotion and jubilant sexuality during this period.[vii] Her body of work shows her engaging in poetic dialogues with her male peers, in which she often rebukes them for the exclusiveness of their gendered perspectives, and for their failure to appreciate the female body. In fact, perhaps her most deliberately provocative work is I’r cedor, or To the Vagina (c. 1480), in which she responds to Dafydd Llwyd of Mathafarn’s Cywydd y Gal, a poem in praise of the penis:  

I proclaim that the quim is fine,
Circle of broad-edged lips divine,
It’s a valley, longer than a spoon or hand,
A cwm to hold a penis strong and grand;
A vagina there by the swelling bum,
Two lines of red to song must come.
And the churchmen all, the radiant saints,
When they get the chance, have no restraints,
They never fail their chance to steal,
By Saint Beuno, to give it a good feel.
So I hope you feel well and truly told off,

All you proud male poets, you dare not scoff,
Let songs to the quim grow and thrive
Find their due reward and survive.
For it is silky soft, the sultan of an ode,
A little seam, a curtain on a hole bestowed,
Neat flaps in a place of meeting,
The sour grove, circle of greeting,
Superb forest, faultless gift to squeeze,
Fur for a fine pair of balls, tender frieze,
A girl’s thick glade, it is full of love,
Lovely bush, blessed be it by God above.

The two poets were apparently close friends, and this piece has the feel of a comeback in a playful conversation. Indeed, Gramich has managed to capture the humour, energy, and gleeful sexuality of Gwerful’s verse in her translation, as well as the structural patterns (including the rhyming couplets!). The poem is full of graphic praise of female genitalia, and Gwerful wonderfully admonishes ‘male poets’ for beating around the bush, for concentrating their compliments on the top half of the female form, and not below the waist (as they should). Gramich also notes that Gwerful’s erotic verse has a strong oral quality, and her metre seems to be full of deliberate ‘faults’ – a kind of formal rule-breaking to match her irreverent theme. Gwerful is certainly a far cry from the traditional idea of ‘the poetess’ who was expected to be delicate and modest and, whose poetry, in Germaine Greer’s words, was expected to be ‘deodorized, depilated and submissive’:

Fortunately, there is nothing ‘deodorized, depilated and submissive’ about Gwerful Mechain. Indeed, I would argue that it is her very lack of inhibition and her head-on engagement with the ‘gut truths of womanhood’ that has prevented most of her work from seeing the light of day until quite recently.

Katie Gramich, Orality and Morality: Early Welsh Women’s Poetry (Cardiff: Cardiff University, 2005), p.  3.

All the more reason for us to read her now!

Discussion Questions:

What do these poets have in common, if anything? What does this reveal about women poets of the medieval period?

What do the themes / subjects chosen by these poets reveal about the position of women (and their concerns) in the Middle Ages? Does anything surprise you?

How is the female psyche, voice, and body represented in these poems?

Are there any ways in which the ‘eastern’ poems differ from the ‘western’ poems, and vice versa? How so?

Does anything strike you about the form and structure of these poems? What do you think is lost when we read these poems in translation?

What are the rhetorical ends of these poems? How are they similar/different?




Aubrey, Elizabeth, The Music of the Troubadours (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000)

Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White, eds., Songs of the Women Troubadours (New York: Garland, 2000)

Cartwright, Mark, ‘Izumi Shikibu’, Ancient History Encyclopedia (18 May 2017) <; [last accessed 12 July 2020]

Cranston, Edwin A., The Izumi Shikibu Diary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969)

Cranston, Edwin A., ‘The Poetry of Izumi Shikibu’, Monumenta Nipponica, 25.1 (1970), 1-11

Gramich, Katie, Orality and Morality: Early Welsh Women’s Poetry (Cardiff: Cardiff University, 2005)

Izumi Shikibu and Ono no Komachi, The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, trans. by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani (New York: Vintage Books, 1990)

Keene, Donald, Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999)

Marks, Claude, Pilgrims, Heretics, and Lovers: A Medieval Journey (New York: Macmillan, 1975)

Mulhern, Chieko, Japanese Women Writers: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994)

Nichols, James Mansfield, ‘The Arabic Verses of Qasmūna bint Ismāʿil ibn Bagdālah’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 13 (1981), 155-58

Qasmuna bint Isma’il, ‘Seeing Herself Beautiful and Nubile’, trans. by Christopher Middleton and Leticia Garza-Falcón, in Arabic Poems: A Bilingual Edition, ed. by Marlé Hammond (New York: Everyman, 2014)

Qasmuna bint Ismal’il, ‘Ah, Gazelle’, in The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, ed. and trans. by Peter Cole (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007)

Thiébaux, Marcelle, The Writings of Medieval Women (New York and London: Garland, 1994)

Wallace, J. R., ‘Reading the Rhetoric of Seduction in Izumi Shikibu Nikki’, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 58.2 (1998), 481-512

Whitney Hall, John, The Cambridge History of Japan, Vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)


[1] Seguin and Valensa are legendary lovers in a lost romance. The only other mention of this mythical couple is found in a song from the twelfth century by Arnaut de Marueil called Tant m’abellis e. m plaz.

[i] Edwin A. Cranston, The Izumi Shikibu Diary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969)

  1. 15, 17, 203, 205.

[ii] Nichols considers the missing word here to be a word denoting a woman of some kind.

[iii] James Mansfield Nichols, ‘The Arabic Verses of Qasmūna bint Ismāʿil ibn Bagdālah’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 13 (1981), 155-58 (p. 155).

[iv] Marcelle Thiébaux, The Writings of Medieval Women (New York and London: Garland, 1994); Claude Marks, Pilgrims, Heretics, and Lovers: A Medieval Journey (New York: Macmillan, 1975).

[v] Songs of the Women Troubadours, ed. by Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White (New York: Garland, 2000), p. 126.

[vi] Katie Gramich, Orality and Morality: Early Welsh Women’s Poetry (Cardiff: Cardiff University, 2005), p. 3.

[vii] Gramich, p. 1.


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.


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.


  • 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.


[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).

Revisiting Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain (11 December 2019)

Yvain image
[Image:  after BNF Français 343 Queste del Saint Graal / Tristan de Léonois; f 27v at
Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain (c. 1177), is often discussed as the perfect courtly romance – an archetypal expression of the young knight in search of land, love and aventure. It is often described as Chrétien’s ‘masterpiece’,[1] ‘one of the best constructed, most captivating tales in medieval literature’,[2] and has been long-considered ‘the perfect paradigm of romance’.[3] While Yvain was not the subject of later romance cycles in the manner of Lancelot, Tristan and Perceval, the appeal of his story seems to have been felt from the outset: it certainly proved influential on later writers, with translations and adaptations being made in France, Wales, England, Scandinavia and Germany – as late as the sixteenth century.

Yet despite its status as the archetypal single-hero romance, it remains a tremendously elusive text. Its combination of parody and sincerity, optimism and profound pessimism, its structural emphasis on replication and mischievous delight in oppositions, its sense of narrative urgency and frequent digressions into scholarly rhetorical asides, often seem to inflame a desire among some critics to resolve the text’s contradictions, and to find solutions to this problem-filled romance. And yet, as Tony Hunt writes:

It should be said at once that no such essay would come near to doing justice to Yvain if it were to offer firm, ostensibly authoritative conclusions about the work’s ‘meaning’ and function, for Chrétien’s ludic, theatrical, interrogatory tone makes it clear that almost everything in Yvain is debateable, deliberately so, and that it is a deeply paradoxical work, which tests its readers’ intelligence and alertness at every turn.[4]

Chrétien’s verse is sophisticated and highly literary – a powerful example and expression of that intense writerly renaissance of the second half of the twelfth century. That said, it is notably speech-like in its expression and, usually, language. It would have been read aloud very effectively.[5] The text’s concern with the marvellous, its surprising set pieces, and narrative are all likely to have inspired discussion and debate.

Though the subject of an enormous amount of scholarly speculation, little is knowable about Chrétien’s life. He was the author of five Arthurian romances – the first of their type. First, seemingly, came Erec et Enide, followed by Cliges, Lancelot and Yvain. Sometime later he wrote Perceval, the earliest extant – and likely first – story of the grail. In his prologue to Cliges he also claims to have written a number of other texts: translations from Ovid’s Commandments and the Art of Love, as well as the tales of Philomela and Pelops from the Metamorphoses, as well as the story of Mark and Iseut la Blonde. All these translations have been lost, save possibly the tale of Philomela; no trace of the Tristan survives, although echoes of that story are present throughout many of Chrétien’s extant Arthurian romances. Two short love lyrics are also attributed to him: ‘Amors tençon et bataille’ (‘Love, Strife and Battle’) and ‘D’Amors, qui m’a tolu a moi’ (Of Love, Who Took Me from Myself’), which demonstrate clear influence of the southern French troubadour poets. Troyes, from where Chrétien hailed, or at least worked, was a major mercantile centre, a crossroads amid the merchant roads of France, southeast of Paris. It was also the residence of the count and countess of Champagne, two of the most important cultural patrons of that age. Chrétien in his famous prologue to Lancelot – the companion piece to Yvain – ascribes the text’s matière and sens to Marie’s direction and patronage. Their court attracted numerous other writers, including Andreas Capellanus, author of The Art of Courtly Love, Conon de Béthun, Gautier d’Arras, Villehardouin and Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube. At some point, possibly following the death of the count of Champagne, Chrétien was connected to the court of Phillippe d’Alsace, Count of Flanders, to whom he dedicated his final, incomplete work, Perceval.

For the last MEMORI reading group of 2019, we’re reading Yvain in the prose translation made by William Kibler.[6] Like most of Chrétien’s romances, Yvain is roughly 7,000 lines in length (6,818 to be precise) and, like all of Chrétien’s extant romances, is written in octosyllabic rhyming couplets. Few would attempt to imitate the metre and rhyme in modern English – fewer would wish to read such an attempt.

Rob Gossedge


Topics for discussion

  • Chrétien’s romances are often discussed in terms of its structure of doubling (scenes, motifs, figures, episodes). What is the significance of such a structural focus – in terms of aesthetics, the readerly experience (and interpellation), social meaning, etc.?


  • What strikes you as interesting about the opening of Chrétien’s romance (up until Yvain sets forth)?


  • Examine the Calogrenant’s encounter giant herdsman (the giant churl): what is his significance – how does it relate to other non-aristocratic figures in the text (particularly the townspeople)


  • Is this a text about wish fulfilment?


  • Can the text be seen to shape the values of a new chivalric class? To what extent and in what ways can we read this text’s ideological practices


  • Make notes on what you find interesting in the theme of marriage as it is discussed in Yvain


  • What do you see as the significance of Lunete (and helpful maidens more generally) in the narrative?


  • Many have described Yvain as a problem romance (a text which has a thorny issue at its heart). What might be this central, governing issue and how is it resolved?


  • For those of you who have read Auerback’s Mimesis (and, particularly its chapter on Chrétien): to what extent do you find Auerbach’s reading of Yvain convincing? Is it a methodology you find worthwhile pursuing?


[1] Burton Raffel, ‘Translator’s Preface’, Yvain: the Knight of the Lion, trans. by Raffel (New Haven: Yale UP, 1987), p. xii.

[2] Ruth Harwood Cline, ‘Introduction’, Yvain; or, the Knight with the Lion, trans. by Cline (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1975), p. xii.

[3] Tony Hunt, ‘Le chevalier au lion : Yvain Lionheart’, in A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes, ed. by Lacy, Grimbert (Cambridge : Brewer, 2005), pp.156-68 (p. 156).

[4] Hunt, p. 157.

[5] How well the romances’ plots could have been followed aurally in the absence of the sorts of markers that traditionally anchor audiences to the story – for instance the protagonist of Perceval is not named for several thousand lines – remains (to me at least) a puzzle. Perhaps the court of Champagne were possessed of aural skills of comprehension that we can only begin to imagine.

[6] Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances, trans. William W. Kibler, with Carleton W. Carroll (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), pp. 295-380.

Middle English Ariadne – a Chaucerian Heroide (20th November 2019)

Theseus and Ariadne
Theseus abandons the sleeping Ariadne. The goddess Athene watches, while Hypnos drops water from the River Lethe across Ariadne’s brow. Source: Red Apulian Greek vase (ca. 400 – 390 B.C) held the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Link.

Next meeting: Wednesday 20 November, 15.10 – 17.00, in Room 1.02 of the John Percival Building.

Ariadne – daughter of King Minos of Crete and half-sister to the Minotaur – is known for her long symbolic association with the labyrinth and spools of thread, and for her decision to help the iconic hero, Theseus, escape the former using the latter. After being famously deserted by Theseus, she became the wife of the god, Dionysus, who immortalised her in the stars. As a princess of Crete and granddaughter of the sun god, Helios, Ariadne is also part of a family of complex female characters, all of whom are powerful and unafraid to transgress the bounds of nature – most notably, her mother Pasiphae, whose desire resulted in the conception of the Minotaur. Other female relatives include her sister, Phaedra; her aunt, Circe; and her cousin, Medea.

It is difficult to date the Heroides exactly due to Ovid’s habit of returning to and revising his texts, but it is thought to represent some of his earliest work, estimated as between 25-16BCE. Sequentially, the epistolary collection is thought to come after the Ars Amatoria. In the Heroides, Ovid gives the women control of writing their own stories at a crucial juncture in their narratives, providing insight into the psychological trauma each of the women are experiencing at that moment. The letter from Ariadne to Theseus is the tenth included in the Heroides. It focuses on one specific moment in the Ariadne myth, that when Ariadne awakens to find herself abandoned on Naxos and her subsequent lament as she watches Theseus’ ship depart. The epistle in the Heroides is not the only time Ovid tells the Ariadne myth, but it is the longest version. The profound intertextuality of the Heroides is demonstrated in the manner the Ariadne story in the Ars Amatoria is split: it begins with the introduction of Ariadne and narration of her desertion on Naxos by Theseus (Ars, ll. 1.527-36); an interruption follows, describing Silenus and the Maenad, and introducing the god, Dionysus (Ars, ll. 1.537-48). The myth concludes with Dionysus’ appearance to the abandoned Ariadne and the offer of marriage that saves her (Ars, ll. 1.549-64).[1] Notably, it is from the moment Ovid leaves Ariadne weeping in Heroides X that he recommences with her story in the Ars Amatoria, creating a clear narrative link between the two. Ovid also briefly recounts the Ariadne myth in theMetamorphoses, where she bridges the gap in Book VIII between the longer tales of Minos and Scylla, and of Dedalus and Icarus (Met., Bk. VIII, ll. 169-182).

The Heroides has long been considered the major source for Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women (c. 1380-87), an assessment apparently supported by the poet-narrator of the Legend when he identifies the ‘epistel of Ovyde / Of trewe wyves’ (TLOGW G-Prologue, ll. 305-6) as a primary source of auctoritas. This is reinforced again in the ‘Legend of Ariadne’, readers are again directed to Ovid’s versions of women, ‘In hire Epistel Naso telleth al’ (TLGOW, l. 2220). Nonetheless, while all but one of the women in the Legend are found in Ovid, four of them are not in the Heroides – demonstrating that the Heroides are just one of a number of sources Chaucer draws upon in crafting his own versions of the legends of classical women. In the same way the Legend constructs itself as a response to the anti-feminism of Chaucer’s earlier Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1381-86), the Heroides were viewed in the Middle Ages as a response to Ovid’s ‘arguably anti-feminist’ Ars Amatoria.[2] Both texts have been considered among the less impressive works of their respective authors.

Due to its many paradoxes and difficulties, Chaucer’s Ariadne has been on the receiving end of more dedicated criticism than any of the other women in the Legend. Observing that the sole reason for Ariadne’s inclusion in the Legend is because she has been abandoned, Simon Meecham-Jones writes, ‘It is curious, then, that the woman whose conduct, albeit fortuitously, adheres most closely to medieval and Christian models of female patience has been so roundly condemned by critics.’[3] Unlike other figures in the Legend (such as Medea or the sisters, Philomela and Procne, who violently enact revenge upon their male abusers) Ariadne’s reaction to her abandonment is limited to her lament. Perhaps this is because she is confined to the island, or perhaps it is because she will shortly be rescued by the wine god, Dionysus. Regardless, her inaction has not protected her character – R. W. Frank viewed Chaucer’s Ariadne as a ‘grotesque’, and twenty years later, Sheila Delany reinforced that notion in her description of Ariadne’s exaggerated physical reaction as ‘more appropriate to a village girl than to a princess’.[4] The critical condemnation and neglect suffered by the Chaucerian Ariadne is not dissimilar to the decline suffered by her character in the Middle English period. In contrast to her influential Latin predecessors, the Middle English Ariadne is a minor character, leaving Chaucer’s Ariadne (for all the challenges it presents) as her most pronounced appearance.

Topics/questions for discussion:

  1. What is the purpose of the extended opening of Chaucer’s ‘Legend of Ariadne’ that focuses on Minos?
  2. What genre is the ‘Legend of Ariadne’? Is it hagiographical? Romance? Dream vision?
  3. Is Phaedra’s speech in the Legend a surprise? What difference does it make to our idea of the typical version of the Ariadne myth to have Phaedra be the one to come up with the plan to free Theseus?
  4. What do we think of the poet-narrator?
  5. What is the role/purpose of the gaoler?
  6. One of the criticisms that has been often levelled against The Legend of Good Women is that it just is not good. Does this criticism stand up either:
    1. As poetry?
    2. As a version of the Ariadne myth?
    3. As a retelling of the Heroides?
  7. Consider Ariadne waking up in the Legend Ariadne waking up in the Heroides – Sheila Delany describes the Ovidian version in the Heroides as ‘little short of farcical’ and suggests Chaucer successfully captures and reproduces the comic effect Ovid intended.[5] Is it comical, or something else?

[1] Despina Keramida, ‘Heroides 10 and Ars Amatoria 1.527-64: Ariadne crossing the boundaries between texts’, (2010), p. 50.

[2] Florence Percival, Chaucer’s Legendary Good Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 173.

[3] Simon Meecham-Jones, ‘Intention, Integrity and ‘Renoun’: The Public Virtue of Chaucer’s Good Women’, The Legend of Good Women: Context and Reception, ed. Carolyn P. Collette (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2006), p. 145.

[4] R. W. Frank, Chaucer and the Legend of Good Women (Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 122; Sheila Delany, The Naked Text (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 209.

[5] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 209.


Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin – 16 October 2019


Image result for medieval merlin manuscript

Merlin dictating his prophecies, taken from a c. 1400 French manuscript of Robert de Boron’s prose Merlin

Next meeting: Wednesday 16 October, 15.00 – 17.00, in Room 2.47 of the John Percival Building

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin) was written around 1150, some fourteen years after he finished his earlier – and more famous – Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1136). Geoffrey had already written the prophet once in his Prophetiae Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin), which, in addition to comprising Book Seven of the Historia, enjoyed wide independent circulation and was regularly interpolated into other texts and their marginalia.

In his Life of Merlin, Geoffrey returned to flesh out the narrative begun in his earlier text, blending the Historia’s fifth-century ‘Merlin Ambrosius’ with ‘Merlin Silvester’, a sixth-century wild-man-of-the-woods figure, to tell the story of Merlin’s life, from warrior king to prophetic madman. In the process, Geoffrey frequently builds upon, reworks and reinterprets material from his earlier Historia. Although critics have argued that the discovery of new Welsh and Scottish folkloric materials on Myrddin and Lailoken inspired Geoffrey to return to his earlier figure, there is little evidence to support this view.

In contrast to the more prosaic style of the Historia, Geoffrey’s Vita is a technically accomplished piece of narrative verse, written in elaborate Latin hexameters. While some scholars have preferred to stress the folkloric nature of the text, it is also profoundly influenced by the new learning of the twelfth-century renaissance and draws on a wide variety of textual sources and traditions, from romance to historiography; Welsh poetry to Ovidian mythology; and from Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies to Arabic astrology.

The kaleidoscopic nature of the references and allusions add to what has often been described as a frantic, frenetic text that eludes easy categorisation or definition. Just as Geoffrey’s Prophecies have been interpreted both as non-Christian and ‘legitimated by religious and biblical tradition’, the Vita has similarly been subject to conflicting and contradictory critical interpretations.[1] Neil Thomas argues that Merlin ‘reemerges, in Geoffrey’s treatment, as a saint and natural sage whose spiritual eminence acts as a magnet to another legendary saint of the early Celtic Church’;[2] Christine Chism argues that the Vita critiques the colonial emphases of the Historia by ‘explor[ing] the local, the natural and the geographically and emotionally connective’;[3] and Alan S. Montroso, drawing on modern eco-theories, has argued that the Vita ‘relate[s] the matter of British sovereignty to the problem of ecological sovereignty, or the right to capture, control, and represent the natural world’.[4] Nor is this multiplicity of readings confined to modern critics. Even in the twelfth century, the Vita was considered something of a curiosity and contemporaries, including Gerald of Wales, noted with some frustration that attempts to reconcile Merlin Ambrosius and Merlin Silvester were futile.

Whilst the Vita did not achieve the levels of popularity enjoyed by Geoffrey’s earlier texts, it nevertheless enjoyed moderate success and is extant, today, in one complete manuscript, and six thirteenth-century fragments. The continued success of the Prophecies, combined with the popularity of Robert de Boron’s Old French Merlin (c. 1200), may explain why the Vita Merlini received a somewhat limited readership and afterlife.


Topics/questions for discussion:

  1. How does the text construct a) madness and b) prophecy?
  2. What types of knowledge and authority are at work in this text? How do they intersect and to what effect?
  3. How does the Merlin of the Vita compare to other medieval Merlins?
  4. In what ways does the Vita Merlini play with genre and other textual traditions?
  5. How is the relationship between Merlin and Taliesin configured?
  6. How does prophetic discourse interact and intersect with questions of:
    1. History
    2. Authority
    3. Gender
    4. Religion
  7. How is religion constructed in this text?
  8. Close read:
    1. pp. 246-48 (Merlin’s first madness and rehabilitation)
    2. pp. 255-58 (Merlin’s miniature retelling of national history)
    3. pp.  274-76 (the ending)


[1] R. J. Stewart and John Matthews, ‘“The Prophecies of Merlin” by Geoffrey of   Monmouth (Extracts)’ in Merlin Through the Ages: A Chronological Anthology and Source Book, ed. R. J. Stewart and John Matthews (London: Blandford, 1995), pp. 46-51; Helen Fulton, ‘History and Myth: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae’, in A Companion to Arthurian Literature, ed. by Helen Fulton (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 44-57 (p. 45).

[2] Neil Thomas, ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’, Arthuriana, 10 (2000), 27-42 (p. 39).

[3] Christine Chism, ‘“Ain’t gonna study war no more”: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae and Vita Merlini’, Chaucer Review, 48 (2014), 458-79 (p. 458).

[4] Alan S. Montroso, ‘From Fantasies of Wilderness to Ecological Sovereignty: An Ecocritical Reading of the Vita Merlini’, Arthuriana, 28 (2018), 38-55 (p. 39).

David Jones: Examining Constructions of Empire in ‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’

David Jones, Portrait of a Maker, 1932, oil on canvas, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

Next Meeting: Friday 19th July, 15:00-17:00, in Room 1.45 of the John Percival Building

David Jones (1895-1974) was an Anglo-Welsh modernist artist and poet. Born in London to Alice and James Jones, Jones began expressing a strong affinity with his father’s Welsh heritage from a very young age. Indeed, in his biography of Jones, Thomas Dilworth recounts a school-trip Jones took to the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey, ‘where, at the age of twelve (careful that no one was looking), he spat on the tomb of Edward I, the conqueror of Wales.’[1]

With the outbreak of World War One, Jones enlisted with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. It was whilst he was serving with the 38th (Welsh) Division that he stumbled upon the curious sight of a priest performing Mass in an abandoned outhouse in the wastelands of the Western Front. Soon after, in 1921, Jones wrote a letter home in which he announced his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. His conversion to Roman Catholicism elicited mixed reactions from his parents; whereas James responded with an impassioned diatribe against the Catholic Church, Alice, who herself had learned the purest Catholic doctrine as a young girl, expressed far more ambivalent feelings towards her son’s conversion.

These disparate strands of Jones’ Welsh inheritance, his Roman Catholic theology, and his brutal experiences of the Great War became intertwined in his first publication, In Parenthesis (1937). Written as an attempt to articulate and understand his own experiences of the war, In Parenthesis was received with great critical acclaim, and remains the work for which Jones is most well-known to this day.

This month’s reading, however, is extracted from Jones’ lesser-known and more recently published manuscripts. Taken from Thomas Goldpaugh and Jamie Callison’s David Jones’s The Grail Mass and Other Works (2019), Jones’ ‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’ boasts a complicated compositional history. Initially, Jones planned for ‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’ to form a small part of a bigger writing project that was to encompass the majority of his writings from the late 1930s to the early 1940s. This large-scale project, however, failed to come to fruition. Through a process of re-arranging and revising the manuscripts he had already written in the ’30s and ’40s, Jones quarried material from this incomplete project to instead form much of his second epic-length publication, The Anathemata (1952).

It was not until the early ’60s that Jones returned to his unpublished writings of the ’30s and ’40s. Indeed, in a letter to Harman Grisewood, dated 28th May 1962, Jones writes that:

I’m trying to re-write that thing you liked – the dinner party with the old Roman blimp and the girl and the subaltern in Jerusalem at the time of Our Lord’s Passion. I used to feel it was crude and impious, but on re-reading it, I think I can make something of it.

David Jones, Dai Greatcoat: A Self-Portrait of David Jones in His Letters, ed. by René Hague (London: Faber & Faber, 1980), p. 192.

This overview of the history behind ‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’ as a continual process of re-writing and revision thus points to its stages of development, from a fragment intended for a bigger project to a separate text that is worthy of study in its own right.

‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’ is a series of dialogues held between a group of Roman intelligentsia. This group consists of an ‘old Roman blimp’ who is highly experienced in Roman administration, a young and inexperienced subaltern, and a young woman who is deeply interested in religion and the occult. The topic of their conversations range from the imperial expansion of the Roman empire, to the status of the colonised nations, and to the recent arrest of Christ at Gethsemane.

‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’, then, is an examination of the issues of empire and imperial expansion, all given from the perspective of the colonisers. Indeed, the voices of the colonised nations are silenced, non-existent within the text, even as their cultures are destroyed under the ruthless expansion of the Roman empire.

Questions/ Discussion Topics:

1)   How are medieval and classical influences used/repurposed by Jones in the text? What can they say (if anything) about discourses on empire in the mid-twentieth century?

2)   What do you make of each individual character? What are their views on empire and imperial expansion? 

  • the ‘old Roman blimp’
  • the subaltern
  • Julia

3)   How are the colonised nations/indigenous cultures constructed by this group of Roman imperial officials?

4)   What effect do you think it has that the colonised people do not speak/have a voice in this text? Why write a text on empire from the sole perspective of the colonisers?

5)   What do you think of:

  • the tone of the text? Are there any changes in the tone throughout the text? If so, where and why?
  • the structure of the text?
  • the aesthetics of the text? I’m particularly thinking of the geometric metaphors – how does Jones use them and to what effect?

6)   Are there any links between this text and any other of Jones’ writings/artworks you may have come across?

Also, if anyone can figure out what the line, ‘the eye and central keep, that the quincuncial fosse and fretted troia cats’ cradle a defence for, by traverse or horse-dance’ means on p. 171, then please do share! Jones is a brilliant writer, but some of his sentences do leave me at my wits’ end.

See you on Friday 19th, and happy reading!

[1]Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), p. 15.

Dramatising King John: Shakespeare and Peele


Though not published until the First Folio of 1623, Shakespeare’s King John is usually dated to around 1596. It was written after the first tetralogy and the first play of the second tetralogy, Richard II, but probably before the ‘Henriad’ (the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V). In addition to the chronicle sources Shakespeare often consulted for a number of his plays (and history plays in particular) – such as Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and Yorke (or simply Hall’s Chronicle, 1548 and 1550) and Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577 and 1587) – Shakespeare used an earlier dramatisation of John’s reign as a source for his own play. The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England was published in two parts in 1591, and was probably written in around 1589-90. The play is now usually attributed to George Peele, thanks largely to work by Brian Vickers that built on a hundred years of critical debate about the play’s authorship to identify stylistic features and thematic interests frequently seen in Peele’s other works. Peele was an Elizabethan dramatist and contemporary of Shakespeare who wrote plays such as The Battle of Alcazar and Edward I. He is also often accepted as Shakespeare’s collaborator on Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare and Peele, then, shared dramatic interests and probably even worked together. The two John plays demonstrate that the two dramatists were certainly aware of one another.

Peele’s Troublesome Reign is perhaps the earliest secular English history play, building on earlier Tudor precedents such as Bale’s Kynge Johan (c. 1538) and Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc (c. 1561). Peele’s characters are not allegorical but are real, identifiable political figures from English history. Troublesome Reign emerged at the very beginning of a decade in which the history play developed as a recognisable and popular dramatic genre. Although it rarely receives critical attention in its own right, Troublesome Reign also established a number of the conventions we see in many history plays that were written and performed in the 1590s: battles for the English throne; domestic and international conflict; questions of legitimacy, inheritance, and succession; an emphasis on the presence, action, and voices of female characters as potential wives, mothers, and political supporters; and interrogation of authority and historical accuracy.

Shakespeare’s King John also utilises a number of these conventions, but is often criticised for:

A lack of unity and telic design, episodic and faulty plot structure, absence of both a clearly defined protagonist and a governing central theme, inconsistency of style, rejection of “cosmic lore”, flat characterization and “ethical muddles,” and egregious failure to allude to the Magna Charta. [1]

These perceived weaknesses of King John are often ‘blamed’ in Troublesome Reign, itself frequently ‘[v]iewed simply as the crude prelude to Shakespeare’s greater play or even as its inferior derivative’:[2] if Shakespeare’s dramatisation of John’s reign is weak, then it must be because his source is substandard. However, this sort of approach to reading the two plays is reductionist and overlooks a lot of the experimental and interrogative challenges (some of which are mentioned above) posed by both plays and their shared content.

Peele’s play implicitly places a value judgement on John’s reign as it characterises it as ‘troublesome’. It implies something worrying, dangerous, troubling about John’s reign, and seems to participate in the subsequent historical and critical representations and discussions of ‘Bad King John’. Peele actually presents John as self-assured, decisive, and patriotic for much of the play. Perhaps we are being invited to think of the reign as troubling, the historical challenges faced by the troubled king as troublesome.

Shakespeare’s full title does not judge or comment on the quality of John’s reign. The Life and Death of King John instead suggests a more straightforward history play, a linear dramatisation of this king’s reign. As previously suggested, the play does not fulfil its suggestion: it (seemingly-arbitrarily) offers only select details from John’s reign, denying a sense of cohesion in the play (perhaps, itself, a comment on this reign). Walter Cohen characterises King John as a play that is shaped by its ‘skeptical view of traditional authority – ecclesiastical and secular alike’ and its ‘relative inattention to John himself’.[3] Cohen argues that there is thus a ‘vacuum’ in the play that is ‘filled by women and a bastard, personages generally peripheral to dynastic history.’[4] In the play’s second Act, King Philip of France interrupts Queen Eleanor and Constance’s argument, and Austria’s parallel argument with Philip the Bastard and Blanche. He says ‘women and fools, break off your conference’ (2.1.150), effectively drawing attention to the fact that these ‘women and fools’ are seizing rhetorical space and making their voices heard because they do have important things to say.

In the two opening scenes of these plays that we are looking at in this month’s reading group, we see John faced with one of the main ‘troubles’ of his reign. As Holinshed writes, the death of John’s elder brother King Richard I caused political schisms in his French territories, with some places

indeuouring to preferre king Iohn, other labouring rather to be vnder the gouernance of Arthur duke of Britaine, conside|ring that he séemed by most right to be their chéefe lord, forsomuch as he was sonne to Geffrey elder brother to Iohn. And thus began the broile in those quarters, whereof in processe of time insued great inconuenience, and finallie the death of the said Ar|thur, as shall be shewed hereafter.[5]

Both King John and Troublesome Reign show the French ambassador come to England to lay down Arthur’s claim for the English crown. Arthur’s claim depends on the custom of primogeniture, where the eldest sons inherit: as the heir to John’s elder brother, Arthur should come before John in the line of succession. Primogeniture carried authority in the later Middle Ages and also during the late Elizabethan era when these plays were first written and performed, but in their 1199 setting this ‘precedence in blood was not yet clearly established’.[6] Arthur’s claim to the English throne is juxtaposed with the Falconbridge dispute, where a bastard son of Richard I ultimately forfeits his claim to the Falconbridge inheritance in exchange for a knighthood and to be acknowledged as a ‘Plantagenet’. In the first scene of both plays, these two claims are paralleled in order to foreground the plays’ concerns with questions of legality, legitimacy, and lineage.

Topics for discussion:

• How are these two scenes similar and different? Does it matter?
• What sorts of expectations are being set up in the opening scenes of both plays?
• Are there any hints about how and why John’s reign is being characterised as ‘troublesome’ in the opening scene of Troublesome Reign? What about in King John?
• Related to the above: what sort of king is John being presented as?
• What is the role of women, bastards, and ‘fools’ here? How do they feature in the discussions of legitimacy and lineage?
• What is Queen Eleanor’s role? Does it change between the two texts? How?
• How is authority being treated/represented?
• How is family being treated/represented?
• Do you think that the multiplicity of voices serves to complicate the plot? Complicate history?
• How do these scenes correspond with any previous knowledge we have of King John? Of history plays?

[1] Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, ‘Introduction: King John Resurgent’, in King John: New Perspectives, ed. by Curren-Aquino (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1989), pp. 11-26 (p. 11). In this introduction, Curren-Aquino details some of the criticisms levelled at King John as a dramatic work, from its lack of ‘governing central theme’ to its ‘inconsistency of style’.

[2] Charles R. Forker, ‘Introduction’, in The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England, ed. by Charles R. Forker (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), pp. 1-104 (p. 55).

[3] Walter Cohen, ‘Introduction to King John’, in The Norton Shakespeare, pp. 1045-1052 (p. 1047).

[4] Cohen, ‘Introduction to King John’, p. 1047.

[5] Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587, Volume 6, p. 157)

[6] W. L. Warren, King John (Berkeley, LA and London: University of California Press, 1978), p. 48.