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?


The Awntyrs off Arthure (20th April 2016)


Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324

Next meeting: 20th April 2016 / Room 2.47 / 3-5pm

The Awntyrs off Arthure is a Middle English Alliterative poem thought to have been composed between the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The text tells two stories, each of which feature Gawain as the protagonist. The Awntyrs is preserved in four manuscripts: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 491.B, Thornton MS, Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 91, and Ireland Blackburn MS, Robert H. Taylor Collection, Princeton, New Jersey. The text contains distinctive features and variations in each of these manuscripts, suggesting that none of the texts can be perceived as the ‘original’. The complexity of the poem’s composition suggests that it was purposefully created as a literary piece, rather than descending from an oral tradition.

Previous generations of criticism on the themes of structure and unity in the Awntyrs have traditionally suggested that the poem represents a poorly joined bipartite narrative with little to indicate a relationship between the two sides. Ralph Hanna builds upon on Herman Lubke’s theory that the Awntyrs constitutes two separate poems joined together by a third party, in his 1974 edition of the text, splitting the two ‘halves’ completely and giving them the subheadings ‘The Awntyrs A’ and ‘The Awntyrs B.’ At best, it was conceded that the poem ‘remains a remarkable fragment of the same kind of poetic art as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but a fragment only’. However, A. C. Spearing’s seminal comparison of the structure of the Awntyrs with the diptych marks the beginning of a new wave of criticism, more interested in arguing for some kind of unity than against it.

  • Should the Awntyrs be read as two distinct and separate poems joined together by a later hand, or a single and coherent poetic structure?
  • If you think that the poem is formed of two separate halves, how and why might the two parts have been joined to create the poem that we have now?
  • If the poem should be read as a single and coherent text, how do the two storylines interact with one another?
  • Do theories of structure effect the way in which the text should be read?
  • How might images of mirroring and reflection be important to the text?


The warnings that the ghost of Guinevere’s mother address two of the central elements of romance narratives: love and war.

  • What do you make of the presentation of Guinevere’s mother?
  • Is there any significance in the fact that these warnings are given to Gawain and Guinevere?
  • Is national identity an important theme within the poem?


The Lincoln Thornton Manuscript also contains the only surviving copy of the Alliterative Morte Arthur. This text comes similarly close to a criticism of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in its discussion of fortune and King Arthur’s dream:

“Freke,” says the philosopher, “thy fortune is passed
For thou shall find her thy fo; fraist when thee likes!
Thou art at the highest, I hete thee forsooth;
Challenge now when thou will, thou cheves no more!
Thou hast shed much blood and shalkes destroyed,
Sakeles, in surquidrie, in sere kinges landes…” (AMA 3394-3399)

  • Are there any parallels between these lines, and the questions Gawain asks of Guinevere’s mother?
  • What does the Awntyrs suggest about fortune?
  • Does Arthur’s solution to the combat between Gawain and Galeron answer the problems of conquest raised by Gawain himself in the first part of the poem?

‘Erec et Enide’ and ‘Geraint mab Erbin’ (18th March)

Gregynog is located in that region of Wales which is generally called “The Middle Borderland”. Of all the Welsh border country this middle area epitomizes the physical and human characteristics of a border region in geographical terms. The uplands of Central Wales extend long fingers of land to the east, such as the Long Mountain and the Kerry Hills, while also in this same region tongues of riverine lowland reach westwards far into Wales, as in the Upper Severn, or Vale of Powys, near which Gregynog lies. This is also a region in which after many centuries of conflict two peoples and two languages have reached a situation in which although each strives to maintain its identity, both also integrate into a region which is essentially transitional in character.[1]

The gallant knight errant often crosses a variety of borders as he journeys through the landscape of medieval romance. So too did the several members of the MEMORI Reading Group as we traveled – albeit on a bus, rather than on a noble steed – from Cardiff to Greynog Hall for the inaugural MA English Literature Conference.

At Gregynog, the Reading Group revisited Chretien’s de Troyes’ Erec et Enide and Geraint mab Erbin from the Mabinogion. For this session, the group consisted of a range of regular members mixed with some new faces, but all of the attendees are currently enrolled on the English Literature MA programme, and have studied some medieval literature.

Many members of the group were familiar with Chretien’s other romances, or other manifestations of the Arthurian legend, although the Welsh text was a little more unfamiliar. The group discussed a range of topics, including: the various court scenes; the aggressive dwarf; the poor vavasour; the stag hunt and the sparrow hawk contest; the marriage of Erec/Geraint and Enid(e); and we also considered why the two tales differ in their style and form. As ever, the group was engaged with the material, and the session provided good opportunity to reflect on and to further appreciate the intricate relationships between these two texts.

Three MA students, who regularly attend the MEMORI Reading Group and Research Seminar, also gave their first papers at the conference. Charli Pruce spoke on ‘Knowledge and Power in the High Medieval Renaissance’; Sarah Jones talked about ‘Escapism, Danger, and Medievalism in the Secondary Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis’; Arthur Usher presented on ‘Ill-Speaking in Malory’s Morte Darthur’; and Olivia Mills delivered a paper on ‘Mountains, Myth and Magic – Welsh Landscape in Children’s Fantasy Literature’.

After two days of in rural Wales, the group returned to Cardiff. The Reading Group will reconvene in April in our usual location, when we will be reading the Awyntwrs of Arthure. All welcome.


[1] Harold Carter and J. Gareth Thomas, ‘Gregynog – The Regional Setting’, in Gregynog, ed. Glyn Tegai Hughes, Prys Morgan and J. Gareth Thomas (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1977), pp. 1-10 (p.1).


Welcome to the website for Cardiff University’s Medieval and Early Modern postgraduate reading group.  Here we will be posting upcoming meetings, readings, questions and issues for discussion, along with links to useful resources and events.

The reading group is affiliated with Cardiff School of English, Communication and Philosophy’s Medieval and Early Modern Research Initiative (MEMORI).