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.



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?



[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).


Ovid’s Medea in the Medieval and Early Modern Period (12th December)

Medea crashes Jason’s wedding party. Source: Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, Royal MS 20 D I, f. 37v.

To jump right into discussing the various ways Medea was fashioned and re-fashioned throughout the Middle Ages is tempting but ultimately a shallow and unfulfilling approach. To read her medieval versions without understanding the social, religious and cultural background that generated them is not to read her at all.[1]

Over the course of a long history that stretches back to Greek mythology, there have been many versions of Medea, all overlapping with and building upon each other. Predominantly, it is as the archetypal murderous mother that she is most often remembered, but this is not the only label she has borne. Treacherous daughter, murderous sister, enchantress, potioneer, and wronged wife are also titles she has counted among her own.

The daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis and a granddaughter of the sun-god, Helios, Medea fell in love with the hero, Jason, helping him to outwit her father and steal the Golden Fleece. It is Jason’s betrayal of her love for him that prompts the extreme acts of infanticidal revenge that made her name synonymous with ‘wickedness itself’.[2] However, this betrayal also paves the way for the depiction of a more sensitive, emotional Medea that writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer capitalised upon to recast her in a more fitting, less threatening, manner.

Whatever else she may be, Medea is indisputably a cause of fear. In the medieval period, she became particularly menacing to an English audience in period that was undergoing seismic social and cultural shift. Her actions capture the attention of writers through the ages, almost reluctantly so. The Elizabethan poet and playwright, Thomas Achelley, dismissed the transgressive behaviours of Medea and her ilke as the actions of “ethnicke examples”, emphasising the distance between her and the women of Protestant England – the implication being women should be grateful for this distance.[3] And yet, for all Achelley dismisses Medea as unimportant, he and others are incapable of leaving her alone. Her narrative is not one that easily allows the author / reader to move on, being as reluctant to let go as Medea herself was over Jason. Beyond the apparent end of her own tale, Medea crosses over into roles in the tales of other characters. In the Metamorphoses, for instance, she reappears at the beginning of the Theseus narrative as the wicked stepmother, trying to arrange Theseus’ poisoning to guarantee the furtherance of her own son’s prospects.

She is the subject of plays by Euripides and Seneca (which survive) and one by Ovid (which does not), but as access to surviving Greek tragedies was limited through the medieval and early modern period, it is Ovid’s version of her, found in Book VII of the Metamorphoses and Heroides XII, that is most important to her medieval and early modern presence. This month, we will be looking at two translations of the Medea narrative in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Chaucer’s retelling within The Legend of Good Women; and the very end of William Caxton’s The History of Jason.

This months texts:

  1. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. A. D. Melville (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, reis. 2008), ll. 1-402.
  2. Ovid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses: The Arthur Golding Translation, 1567, J. F. Nims, trans. A. Golding (Paul Dry Books, Inc, new edn. 2000), ll. 1-513.
  3. Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The Legend of Hypsipyle and Medea’, The Legend of Good Womenin The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edn, ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 1580-1679.
  4. William Caxton, History of Jason, John Munro (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1908), ll. 19-40.

The Latin poet Publius Ovidius Naso – Ovid – was born in 43 BC and was the only one of the great Latin poets to see the beginning of the Christian era. Ovid is one of the most influential poets in Western literature, and the fifteen books of the Metamorphoses, counting approximately 250 stories and spanning from the first chaotic moments of creation to the rise of Rome, is his most ambitious work. Ovid was banished from Rome in 8 AD for immorality before the Metamorphoses was completed, and issues of speech and silencing run through the tales like a thread, always reminding the reader of their storyteller’s unjust exile to Tomis. Almost twenty percent of the tales Ovid tells recount silencing of a kind and speech loss has long been identified by scholars as a key aspect of the transformations.[4]

Arthur Golding was born in Essex in 1536, and although he dropped out of university during the reign of Queen Mary, he read the classics thoroughly as a young man and their translations from the Latin and French became his life’s work. His 1567 translation of the Metamorphoseswas the first to translate directly from Latin into English, and it rapidly became the standard Ovid in English, remembered now as “Shakespeare’s Ovid”. Its popularity inspired a wave of Elizabethan translations of Ovid’s works, and its significance to the English literary canon was seemingly confirmed, when in 1915, Ezra Pound deemed it, “The most beautiful book in the language”. Golding also produced numerous volumes of John Calvin’s sermons and treatises, a translation of Caesar’s Commentaries, an account of a 1573 murder that took place in London, and an account of the London earthquake of 1580.

Of all the women in The Legend of Good Women, it is Medea who gets the shortest shrift. Her tale is not even given its own space, instead compressed into one alongside Hypsipyle (her predecessor in Jason’s affections). The entire episode spans a mere 310 lines and at barely one hundred lines, Medea’s legend is reduced to a footnote in what is essentially ‘The Legend of Jason’. The passionate, emotional Medea who Ovid first depicts in the Metamorphoses debating so hard with herself as she is torn between her familial duty and her overpowering love for Jason is absent in Chaucer’s retelling.

The Legend of Good Women is thought to have been written between 1380-1387 at the behest of Queen Anne of Bohemia, the consort of Richard II.  It follows Troilus & Criseyde in the chronology of Chaucer’s works (purportedly as an atonement for the wrongs Chaucer-the-poet did to women in general in his portrayal of Criseyde) and is usually regarded as a critical paradox: despite having had great time and effort expended upon it, it was apparently abandoned and is viewed by some as a failure. The Legend survives in twelve manuscripts, and there are two different versions of the prologue.

William Caxton is thought to have been born around 1422. After a period living and working as a merchant in Bruges and observing the development of new printing technology in Cologne, he partnered with a Fleming called Colard Mansion to open his own printing press. Their first publication was an English translation of the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye in 1473, which Caxton himself translated. Upon his return to England, he is credited with opening the first printing press in 1476.

The History of Jason was first published c. 1477 and is Caxton’s English translation of a French romance by Raoul Lefèvre from c.1460. The History of Jason constructs Jason as a typical romance hero, and places a great deal of emphasis upon his previous marriage contract with the Queen Mirro to nullify his bond with Medea. However, once Mirro has died (shot with an arrow through the throat by Patroclus on the orders of King Aeson), the way is opened for Jason and Medea’s reunion.

Topics for discussion
• Thinking about translation, to what extent do the two versions of Ovid’s Medea count as different texts? Where are the differences? Why might these differences exist? Or has little enough changed in the approx. 450 years that they are still recognisably the same text?
• How do the beginnings of the Ovidian Medea and Chaucer’s ‘Legend of Hypsipyle’, set up different expectations for the texts?
• How is Jason portrayed throughout these texts, and how does that influence how we perceive Medea?
• Consider the three different endings these texts present for Medea. Is the ‘Happily Ever After’ Caxton gives Jason and Medea convincing in the light of the other versions of her tale?
• What tensions, fears, and anxieties might the figure of Medea have played upon and incited in the medieval and early modern period?
• Medea is foremost remembered as the mother who killed her sons. How useful are the various labels that have been attached to Medea – ‘murderess, necromancer and sorceress’[5] – when considering her construction as a character?
• What do we think of Medea? Is she a villain? A victim? Is she ever sympathetic?

[1] Siobhan McElduff, ‘The Multiple Medeas of the Middle Ages’, Ramus, Vol. 40, No. 2 (2012), p. 191.
[2] Geoffrey of Vinasuf, as quoted in Florence Percival, Chaucer’s Legendary Good Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 203
[3]Katherine Heavey, The Early Modern Medea: Medea in English Literature, 1558–1688, p. 1.
[4] Bartolo A. Natoli, Silenced Voices: The Poetics of Speech in Ovid(Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin press, 2017), p. 11.
[5] Florence Percival, Chaucer’s Legendary Good Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 203.

Tyranny, Tyrannicide and Medieval Political Theories of Kingship (31 October)


Gustave Doré’s 1857 illustration of Canto XII from Dante’s Inferno, depicting tyrants submerged in a river of boiling blood

The medieval period was obsessed with notions of kingship and tyranny. Writers from across western Europe, in both Latin and vernacular languages, interrogated concepts of legitimate leadership across a great variety of forms and genres. The ‘Mirror for Princes’ genre was one of the most well-known (and most direct) forms of such interrogations. Examples of this genre – emerging from as early at the ninth century – typically offered actual or imaginary leaders advice on the conduct of kings, often through forms of historical, legendary and biblical exempla. The great histories of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries similarly could employ examples of the reigns of former kings as mirrors to their own times, often using the obliqueness of time to both codify and conceal contemporary political commentaries. Those same centuries saw the flourishing of a new body of political treatises that would address kingship in even more direct fashion, including such works as John of Salisbury’s Policraticus (c. 1160) and Thomas Aquinas’ De regno (1267), which we will read this month.

Medieval notions of kingship and tyranny were influenced by a vast, and ever-growing, spectrum of texts, including the Bible, the works of Augustine, classical and contemporary histories, and the works of classical philosophers, such as Cicero and Aristotle. These political theories wove together divergent currents of thought that were both ancient and modern, attempting to reconcile theological discourses with philosophical concepts of natural law and the all-important question of tyrannicide. Moreover, they were also written for a wide spectrum of audiences, dedicated to Kings, Chancellors, and Archbishops, and read at both European courts and the Papal curia. The breadth of this readership meant that the didacticism inherent in any work on kingship must be carefully moderated and modulated in accordance with the demands of those leaders. Furthermore, the fascination with legitimate kingship and its tyrannical (but not altogether indistinguishable) other extended beyond the philosophical treatise, textbook and Latin history, and the genres of romance, fable and hagiography, among others, would frequently interrogate and dramatize notions of correct leadership, political legitimacy, usurpation and tyrannicide.

The Intellectual History of Tyranny

The word ‘tyrant’ originally derives from the Greek word ‘tyrannos’ (τύραννος), meaning ‘monarch’ or ‘leader of a polis’. In its earliest-recorded context, the term signified a authoritarian ruler, free of negative or illegitimate connotations. It was not until around the fifth century BCE that a distinction arose between a legitimate ruler, who ruled with the support of government and a tyrant, who did not. The first major interrogation of tyranny was conducted by Socrates (c. 470 – 399 BCE), who argued that, just as subjects had a duty to obey the laws, the ruler had a duty to ensure that laws were made honestly and with legitimate reason. Once one of these precepts were violated, the ruler was deemed a tyrant and the contract between polis and ruler was broken. This left subjects free to break the law in the service of the common good and, in certain situations, justified tyrannicide.

This view was broadly corroborated and expanded by later classical intellectuals, including Plato (c. 428 – c. 347), Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) and Cicero (106 – 43 BCE). However, despite the post-Classical importance and prevalence of both Platonism and Neoplatonism, very few of either Plato’s or Aristotle’s works were available in the Middle Ages. As a result, the structuralist conception of government laid out in Book Seven of Plato’s Republic was glimpsed only through the works of Cicero, whose own De re publica was written in imitation of Plato’s great work and, emerging later still, through the works of Aristotle.

In contrast to the relatively clear-cut and homogenous attitude to tyranny (and, indeed, tyrannicide) evidenced by Classical philosophers, these theories became complicated with the emergence of Christianity, and especially the Church’s prohibition on murder. For instance, despite his familiarity with the works of Cicero and Neoplatonists such as Plotinus, Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE) wrote nothing that could properly be termed political theory. As a result, both medieval and modern scholars have tended to extrapolate theories of statesmanship, kingship and tyranny from arguments on legitimate rule in a bid to construct something akin to an Augustinian theory on tyrannicide. These arguments have typically centred on Book XIX of his City of God. In Chapter 14 of that book, Augustine establishes a broad framework for the relationship between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’, arguing that ‘those who care for the rest rule (the husband the wife, the parents the children, the masters the servants); and they who are cared for obey (the women their husbands, the children their parents, the servants their masters)’ (City of God, XIX, 14). Although Augustine argues that slavery itself (in this interpretation analogous to the subjects of a ruler or tyrant) is only possible in a postlapsarian world, he argues that it must be tolerated because:

the apostle admonishes slaves to be subject to their masters, that they may themselves make their slavery in some sort free, by serving not in crafty fear, but in faithful love, until all unrighteousness passes away, and all principality and every human power be brought to nothing, and God be all in all. (City of God, XIX, 15)

This passage, read in this interpretive framework, has been broadly interpreted as Augustine’s belief that a tyrant, or unjust ruler, must be tolerated in this world because anything temporal is secondary to eternal life.

As a result, whilst tyranny remained a discourse that was both available to and utilised by medieval writers and historians, it would not become the subject of interrogation or theorisation in the Latin Middle Ages until 1159, when John of Salisbury (c. 1120 – 1180), one of the most important figures of the twelfth-century renaissance, completed his Policraticus – a political treatise dedicated to then-Chancellor Thomas Becket. A long, wide-ranging work that covers such issues as the body politic, kingship, contemporary history, the vices of the court and contains a sustained attack on flatterers, the Policraticus is most famous for its defence of tyrannicide. John’s is a powerful and comprehensive theory of tyranny, arguing that there are different types of tyrant: private tyrants, ecclesiastical tyrants and monarchical tyrants.

Whilst the Policraticus had a relatively small reach in the years following its completion, by the thirteenth century its influence was so wide that Frédérique Lachaud has rightly defined the text as ‘a cultural phenomenon’.[1] The full text survives in 60 manuscripts, and many more in abbreviated forms. More broadly, it was summarised, paraphrased, quoted, and even directly plagiarised, throughout the coming centuries and influenced the work of many twelfth- and thirteenth-century theologians, legalists, historiographers and poets, including: Peter of Blois (c. 1130 – c. 1211), Nigel Longchamp (d. 1200), the anonymous author of The Song of Lewes (1264), and Henry of Bracton (d. 1268), author of an extensive treatise on common law. It continued to be of influence in the early modern period, being printed at least twice in the sixteenth century (Paris, 1513; Leiden, 1593), and was almost certainly known to Ben Jonson who drew much material from it in Timber.

By the thirteenth century, however, the intellectual world was being revolutionised again by the mass translation of the works of Aristotle, including the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. These translations, and the commentaries that soon followed, galvanised intellectual – and, consequently, political – thought and life; many of the men responsible went on to write significant commentaries on tyranny, applying the structural analyses of Aristotle to their own political circumstances. Robert Grosseteste, the influential Bishop of Lincoln, was responsible for the first extant Latin translation of the Nicomachean Ethics and notably sent an abbreviatio of his memorandum on tyranny to Simon de Montfort in May 1250. However, it was the Dominican Friar, Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) who truly epitomised and championed the synthesisation of Aristotelian thought with the principles of Christianity.

Aquinas’ theories of kingship and the construction of society are based largely on Aristotle’s own distinctions (Monarchy, Autocracy/Tyranny, Aristocracy, Democracy, Oligarchy). Drawing, again, on the works of Aristotle, Aquinas argues that man is an inherently social and political creature. Unlike animals, which are each equipped with the necessary senses and instincts to survive entirely alone, man, he argues, is equipped with the reason necessary to gain knowledge, materials, aid and services from others better suited to each task than himself. This necessitates the existence of a collective, which, he argues, must be governed and led – preferably, as we will see, by a single individual. This Aristotelian and structuralist conception of society is the principal framework for his theories of both kingship and tyranny. Although Aquinas addresses these themes in a number of his works, including his Commentary on the Sentences (1252-56), and Summa Theologiae (1265-74), it receives its most extensive and exclusive treatment in the De regno (1267). This was Aquinas’ longest exclusively political work and was originally intended for Hugh II of Lusignan, King of Cyprus. However, following the intended recipient’s death in 1267, Aquinas abandoned the work, completing only the first Book and the first six chapters of Book Two. The work was taken up and completed by Tolommeo of Luca.

Today we are reading extracts from John of Salisbury’s Policraticus and Thomas Aquinas’ De regno to interrogate how political thought on both kingship and tyranny evolved over the course of the Middle Ages.


Questions/Topics for Consideration:

  • How do these texts present a) kingship and b) tyranny? To what extent are the two constructions inter-reliant and interrelated? How do these constructions vary between texts?
  • To what extent are these texts similar? Different? What are the effects and meanings of these similarities and differences?
  • How do these texts negotiate authority – whether secular, religious, textual, patristic?
  • What do they mean for contemporary kingship and constructions of kingship?
  • As texts fundamentally to do with power, how does the nature of the dialectic between text and power function in each source?
  • How political are the texts themselves?
  • Thinking of your own research and what you know of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century contexts of these texts, how do their theories (and the repercussion of those theories) impact or reflect broader societal and literary concerns?
  • How do these texts make use of their authorities both implicitly and explicitly?

[1] Frédérique Lachaud, ‘The Medieval Afterlife of the Policraticus’, in A Companion to John of Salisbury, ed. by Christophe Grelland and Frédérique Lachaud (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 377-438 (p. 377).

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Richard Davies

Cordelia death

Textual Provenance and Problematic Versions

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

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

General Consensus

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

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

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

Variations and Different Lears

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

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

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

Tragedy and Endings

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

‘Howling’ Lear

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

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

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

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

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


Questions for consideration

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



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

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

[3]Ioppolo, p. 2327.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speeches at Prince Henry’s Barriers

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

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

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

King Arthur; OR The British Worthy

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

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

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

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

Questions/Discussion Points

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

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

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

By Rebecca Newby

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

Introduction: ‘Hurlewaynes meyné’

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


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

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

The Four Types of Additions and Continuations

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

Historical Context

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Questions for discussion

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

Useful Links



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

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

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

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