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


The Darnley Portrait (c. 1575)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions for discussion

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Martin Parker: Ballads and Broadsides (10th May 2017)

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Next meeting: Wednesday 10th May / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

Martin Parker was the most celebrated and famous balladeer of the seventeenth century. His extant corpus contains over eighty ballads, pamphlets, broadsheets, and chapbooks, but it is hard to judge the true size of his canon due to the catastrophic survival rates of cheap seventeenth century texts, the incomplete record of everything that was published during this period, and because of a suspicion that his initials may have been misapplied to the works of less known writers in order to boost sales. His first ballad appeared in 1624, and tells the story of a Cornish murder, while the last text to bear his name was a chapbook entitled The Most Admirable History of that Most Renowned Christian Worthy Arthur, King of the Britaines, in 1660. Before 1660 the last entry in the Stationers’ Register to bear his name was a chapbook published in 1647. This thirteen-year silence coincided with a clampdown on ballads and balladeers by the Government, led by Captain Bethan; Parker is also believed to have died during this period, probably sometime in the early 1650s. A satirical elegy for Parker appears in 1656, within a book entitled Death in a New Dress, OR Sportive Funeral Elegies and references in the 1653 and 1654 editions of Merlinus Anonymous suggest that Parker had died.

It is suspected that Parker was an innkeeper of some kind due to references to this profession in both his own work and that of others. There a few references in other people’s work that Parker may become entangled with the law on a number of occasions. He was singled out for special attention in a puritanical petition, signed by 15000 people and delivered to Parliament in November 1640, which, among other things, said that Parker’s work was ‘in disgrace of Religion, to the increase of all vice, and withdrawing of people from reading, studying, and hearing the Word of God, and other good Bookes’.[1] Parker’s later work certainly contains strong royalist themes, which angered Puritans and earned him the title ‘The Prelates Poet’, not an uncommon insult for the King’s supporters at the time. He is thought to have taken over the running of the royalist newsbook Mercurius Melancholicus after its editor John Hackluyt was arrested and imprisoned.

Although primarily remembered as a balladeer, Parker was proficient in many different forms. His early work mainly concerned the ups and downs of young, married life, often with a rural setting, but he moved on to journalism and current affairs, royalist ballads and pamphlets, adapted old stories and legends into histories, and, on occasion, dabbled in serious poetry. We’re reading quite a broad selection of these different genres and forms to try and get a sense of the range of which Parker was capable. The texts are as follows:

Householde Talke (1629) – One of Parker’s earliest extant ballads. His early work is mainly pastoral and domestic, focusing on marriage and young – mainly rural – lovers. This particular ballad gives advice about jealousy.

The Rape of Philomela (1632) – This is a rendering of Ovid’s account of the rape of Philomela from his Metamorphoses. It is often regarded as Parker’s only extant attempt at ‘real’ poetry. It is prefaced by a few short poems from contemporaries praising the work.

A True Tale of Robin Hood (1632) – An account of the Robin Hood story, which places a strong emphasis on truth. Part of what could be called Parker’s English Heroes series, which include works on King Arthur, St George, and Guy of Warwick, though unfortunately the latter two are not extant. He is also credited with an adaption of the Valentine and Orson romance, of which only eleven lines have survived.

Britaines Honour (1640) – Parker was well known as a writer of current events, and seems to have been considered a generally reliable reporter. This ballad reports on the Battle of Newburn (1640), but is more focused on telling a story of heroism, weaved together with myth, and strong anti-Scottish feelings, not unusual in Parker. It is also a heavily royalist text. By this time Parker had become one of the premier royalist writers working in England.

The Poet’s Blind Mans Bough (1641) – This is the most personal of Parkers many works. It is a text that primarily hits back at critics of Parker and also bemoans the trend of anonymous publication.

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  1. Who do we think Parker was writing for? Do each of these texts speak to the same audience? Is there a consistent authorial voice?
  2. Is there humour at work in any of these text? If so, how does it work?
  3. Why is truth so important to Parker in many of his texts? How does truth work in the selection we have here?
  4. What is the purpose of the extended preface, including the complimentary poems, that proceed ‘The Rape of Philomela’? Do we agree with them?
  5. Is Parker’s a good translation of Ovid? How closely do we think Parker engaged with the Latin original?
  6. How does Parker engage with the legendary material he utilises? Is his Robin Hood what we expect from a Robin Hood text? How does the Galfridian myth enter into ‘Britaines Honour’?
  7. Are Parker’s politics on show in all of these texts? In which do they come out most strongly? Are they consistent?
  8. Parker employed many different forms and styles over the course of his career, how do each of the forms we’re looking at here affect the texts?
  9. What do we make of the woodcuts? Are they what we would expect from woodcuts of this time? Can they tell us anything about the texts?
  10. Do we think that Parker was a good writer?

[1] The Third Speech of the Lord George Digby, to the House of Commons, concerning Bishops, and the Citie Petition, the 9th of Febr: 1640

The auctoritas of Geoffrey of Monmouth

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

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

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

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

William of Newburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Leland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Dryden, Theories of Translation (20th July 2016)


Next Meeting: 20th July 2016 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

John Dryden was born on the 9th August 1631, and died on the 1st May 1700, at the age of 68. He was a hugely successful playwright, critic, poet, and translator who dominated the English literary scene in the later seventeenth century. Dryden became the first Poet Laureate in 1668 and was fiercely loyal to the Stuart kings, even though their reign was not always smooth. After the deposition of James II in 1688 Dryden refused to swear the oath of allegiance to William and Mary and so fell out of favour. He was stripped of the Poet Laureateship, although Christopher Hollis has argued that this was because Dryden was not willing to work for a regime in which he did not believe, rather than because of the new royals did not want his services.[1]

Without the salary that accompanied the title of Poet Laurette Dryden turned to translation as a source of income. He translated, among others, The Satires of Juvenal (1693), The Lives of Plutarch (1693), and The Works of Virgil (1697). The full list of translations from Fables Ancient and Modern is as follows:

  • Palamon and Arcite: or, The Knight’s Tale
  • Meleager and Atalanta, out of the Eighth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • Sigismonda and Guiscardo, from Boccace
  • Baucis and Philemon, out of the Eighth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • Pygmalion and Statue, out of the Tenth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • Cinyras and Myrrah, out of the Tenth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • The First Book of Homer’s Ilias
  • The Cock and the Fox: or, The Tale of the Nun’s Priest
  • Theodore and Honoria, from Boccace
  • Ceyx and Alcyone
  • The Flower and the Leaf: or, The Lady in the Arbour. A Vision (wrongly attributed to Chaucer)
  • The Twelth Book of Ovid His Metamorphoses
  • The Speeches of Ajax and Ulysses. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book XIII
  • The Wife of Bath Her Tale
  • Of the Pythagorean Philosophy. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book XV
  • The Character of a Good Parson; Imitated from Chaucer, and Inlarg’d.
  • Cymon and Iphigenia, from Boccace

Interspersed with the translations are literary compositions completely of Dryden’s own design:

  • To Her Grace the Duchess of Ormond
  • To my Honour’d Kinsman, John Driden of Chesterton
  • The Monument of a Fair Maiden lady, Who dy’d ay Bayh, and is there Interr’d

Dryden’s translations of Chaucer were used by future poets as a way into Chaucerian translation, and were the authoritative editions for many years afterwards. Dryden saw himself as being within a continuing tradition of great writers, and worked to present himself as exactly that, with strong links to the literary past. He was the first to dub Chaucer as ‘the father of English literature’ and wrote that ‘Shakespeare was the Homer, or father of our dramatic poets’ in An Essay on Dramatic Poesie (1668).

Questions for discussion

  1. How does Dryden’s theory – or perhaps theories – of translation change over time?
  2. Do we agree with Dryden’s theory that translation should be an essence capturing exercise, rather than an exact science? Does this endanger the integrity of the text?
  3. Does it seem likely that Dryden’s views on translation changed, or did he see a way in which looser translation could be used to build a canon?
  4. In what ways is Dryden attempting to construct a canon, with himself as the latest in that line?
  5. Is it problematic that the same man building the canon is also the primary mediator of that canon to the general public? Dryden kick started an age of translation into vernacular English, and also adapted a number of Shakespeare plays including The Tempest (1667) and All for Love (1677), an imitation of Antony and Cleopatra.
  6. What techniques does Dryden use in these extracts that we might recognise as being medieval? Do any of the techniques seem especially Chaucerian?
  7. Dryden chose to translate The Knight’s Tale, The Tale of the Nun’s Priest, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and gave us The Character of a Good Parson; Imitated from Chaucer, And Inlarg’d. What does the choice of tales tell us about the canon Dryden is trying to construct? Is it relevant that at least two of these tales are among the most romance like within Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales?
  8. For those who know the other texts translated in Fables Ancient and Modern, can the selection from Chaucer be linked to these other, more classical, texts? Where does The Flower and the Leaf fit into this selection?


[1]Hollis, Christopher, Dryden (New York: Hookell House Publishers LTD., 1974), p. 151

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Topics for discussion:

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