Medieval Nightingales (11th July)

Peckham's nightingale
Historiated initials from John Peckham’s Philomena, The Hunterian Museum, Special Collections, MS Hunter 231 (U.3.4)

Next meeting: 11th July 2017 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

The long history of the nightingale in European literature spans from Homer to T.S. Eliot, and over the course of this history, the meanings attributed to the bird have varied greatly. The nightingale’s most notable feature is its song and this evolved a myriad of meanings in vernacular literature over the course of the medieval period. The variation in interpretations (which has included springtime, the poet or poetic muse, and romantic or sexual love) has been described by Albert R. Chandler as showing ‘how sentiment and imagination vary with the nationality, epock, and individuality of the writer’. [1]

In The Odyssey, the earliest poetic appearance of the nightingale, the bird’s song is heard as Penelope speaks of the grief that catches her when she is left alone and awake at night. Penelope interprets the nightingale’s song as being that of Pandareus’ daughter, lamenting her son Itylus, whom she killed by mistake. This story then survives in its most complete and well-known form in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as the story of Philomela. The violence of the Ovidian myth has provided one explanation for the nightingale’s song often being described as a lament; however, according to Wendy Pfeffer, the significance of the Philomela myth to the medieval world was limited to ‘bequeath[ing] to medieval Europe the word “Philomela” as a synonym for “luscinia”, the classical Latin word for nightingale.’ [2]

It was not until John Gower’s retelling of the Ovidian myth as part of his Confessio Amantis in the late fourteenth-century that the sisters’ transformation into birds was expanded. Gower interpreted the nightingale’s song once more as a lament, but for a lost virginity rather than a murdered child. His nightingale sings, “O why, O why ne were I yit a maide?” and rejoices in her new avian form, as it means a respite from the shame:

“Ha, nou I am a brid,

Ha, nou mi face mai ben hid:

ThoghI have lost mi Maidenhede,

Schal noman se my chekes red.”

(Confessio Amantis, ll. 5985-8)

Elsewhere, the nightingale appeared often in the lyrics of the Provencal troubadours, though as a motif it was rarely developed upon and in the few lyrics where the bird does have a clearly identifiable function, it is either a messenger or representative of the poet himself. Among the Carmina Burana, there are twenty-one poems in the Benedictbeueren manuscript that reference the nightingale. In these, it is primarily as a harbinger of spring that the bird is recognised, although it also appears as either a symbol of love or an incitement to love. One poem in particular within the Carmina Burana associates the song of the nightingale in the early evening with sexual intercourse, which links to the image of the nightingale as a sexual motif as suggested in The Owl and the Nightingale.

Overview of the texts

  • The Owl and the Nightingale is an anonymous Middle English poem and is the earliest English example of verse contest, featuring a debate between the two birds on their flaws. It survives in two manuscripts, ff. 156-68, Jesus College, Oxford, MS. 29 and ff. 233-46 of British Library M.S. Cotton Caligula A.IX, both of which have been dated to the late thirteenth century. The poem itself is thought to date from between 1189 to 1216, this due to the prayer for the soul of King Henry at lines 1091-2: ‘Þat underyat þe king Henri: Jesus his soule do merci!’ Throughout the poem, the birds reference a Nicholas of Guilford as a worthy judge and all-round excellent person and the poem ends with the pair flying to find Nicholas so he can settle their debate once and for all.
  • John Peckham’s Philomena has been called one of the greatest of the thirteenth century. Surviving in over thirty manuscripts, it is the first broadly popular poem known to have used the nightingale to represent the Passion of Christ and represents a culmination of elements taken from both Old French and Latin religious verse. The nightingale is said to represent the Christian soul as it meditates on the history of mankind, from Creation through to Redemption. At each hour, the nightingale sings a different song to relate another piece of Christian history, culminating at the hour of Nones and the Crucifixion when the song reaches its crescendo and the bird dies.
  • Two Nightingale Poems by John Lydgate show two separate attempts at engaging with the religious nightingale tradition. The first, ‘The Nightingale’ is loosely based upon Peckham’s Philomena and while it follows the same seven-part structure of a prologue, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and an epilogue, it differs significantly from Peckham in addressee, interpretation, and conclusion. The second, ‘A Sayenge of the Nyghtyngale’ is a dream vision, in which an angel instructs the poet-narrator on the true meaning of nightingale’s song. After having thought it symbolic of Venus and Cupid, the angel repeatedly insists, ‘Thyn aduertaence is gouerned wrong’ (l. 57) kand explains the nightingale actually sings in praise of pure love by grieving the suffering of Christ. This second poem ends abruptly and was seemingly abandoned.
  • ‘Laüstic’, a Breton lai by Marie de France, survives only in a single manuscript, known as Harley 978. It is the shortest of the texts we will be looking at and the only European example. The nightingale here represents adulterous love, as a young woman uses the excuse of listening to the song of the nightingale to explain her presence at the window to see her lover. The death of the nightingale at the hands of the cuckolded husband signals the end of the illicit communication between the lovers, and Michelle Freeman has suggested it to symbolise the cutting out of Philomela’s tongue in the Ovidian myth.[3]

Topics for discussion

  • How do we read Lydgate’s efforts to engage with the nightingale tradition? Is he convincing in his arguments? Consistent?
  • In ‘The Nightingale’, Lydgate describes himself as a translator of Peckham’s work. How effectively does he engage with his source material? Can ‘The Nightingale’ be better described as anything other than a translation?
  • Is ‘The Sayenge of the Nyghtyngale’ what we expect from a dream vision?
  • How do the extracts from ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’ portray the nightingale? What themes arise that we don’t see elsewhere?
  • Given the portrayal of the nightingale in ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’, why might John Peckham have felt the bird suited a religious retelling?
  • How is the nightingale used in ‘Laüstic’? How is this different to the English nightingale traditions seen in the other texts?
  • How relevant are the classical myths in relation to the vernacular nightingale traditions that emerge in the text? Is the recurrence of the name “Philomena” as name for the nightingale significant?
  • Which of the interpretations of the nightingale’s song is most convincing? Do any of them supersede the others?

References

[1] Albert R. Chandler, ‘The Nightingale in Greek and Latin Poetry’, The Classical Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2 (1934), p.78.

[2] Wendy Pfeffer, The Change of Philomel The Nightingale in Medieval Literature (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1985), p. 2.

[3] Michelle A. Freeman, ‘Marie de France’s Poetics of Silence: The Implications for a Feminine Translatio’, PMLA, Vol. 99, No. 5 (1984), p. 869.

Further reading

A Short Analysis of The Owl and the Nightingale

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Mary Magdalene: Saint and Sinner (12th April 2017)

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Mary Magdalene in the desert, British Library, Egerton MS 2125 f. 215 v.

Next Meeting: Wednesday 12th April / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

Mary Magdalene: Introduction

Repentant prostitute, aristocratic decadent, devote follower of Christ, virulent preacher, troublesome woman, apostle to the apostles – the many sides of Mary Magdalene have been constructed and reconstructed for centuries. She is a composite figure, drawn from at least three figures in the Gospels, whose mythic biography has been supplemented by many other literary legends.

The three texts we read this week are a short selection of Middle English popular works on the Magdalene. Performance ties all three text – the stanzaic Life (c. 1280) contained in the Short English Legendary owes much to contemporary verse romance; John Mirk’s account (c.1400) is a sermon to be read on her feast day; the Digby Mary Magdalene (c. 1475) the most ambitious – and longest – Middle English drama extant.

We read all of the SEL’s Life and Mirk’s sermon from the Festial, and just a short range of extracts from the Digby play.

The Genesis of Mary Magdalene

The Gospel of Luke (8:1-3) explicitly names Magdalene (‘Magdala’ was a town on the western Sea of Galilee) as an early supporter (or patron?) or Christ:

After that, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out—and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

Mary Magdalene is also named as one of the witnesses of the Crucifixion (Mark 15:40, Matthew 27:56 and John 19:25). Mark 15:47 and Matthew 27:61 also name Mary Magdalene as one of the witnesses of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Christ:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

In all four Gospels, Mary Magdalene – sometimes alone and sometimes with female companions – is the first witness to the resurrection. In John 20:1, Mark 16:9, and Matthew 28:1 she discovers the tomb is empty. John 20:16 and Mark 16:9 state that Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance was to Mary Magdalene, with no mention of others.

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). John 20:16

Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. Mark 16:9

Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Matthew 28:9

According to Luke and Mark, the apostles did not believe Mary’s report of what she had seen.

Mentioned 12 times, she is amongst the most frequently named of all women in the Gospels. She is not mentioned in any other book of the New Testament. Her role as first witness to the Resurrection is not included in Paul’s epistles, even when he recounts the catalogue of Christ’s post-Resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. 1 Corinthians 15:3-11

Creation of a Composite Saint

The canonical Gospels make no mention of Mary Magdalene’s life before she was cured of the seven demons. Her reputation as a repentant notable sinner – or prostitute – is not supported in the New Testament, but is a result of her conflation with other women of the Gospels.

Pope Gregory the Great, in a homily of 591 is the first figure of the western Church to emphatically conflate three figures mentioned in the Gospels into the composite ‘Mary Magdalene’: first is Mary Magdalene herself, the others are Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus (John 11:1-2), and a nameless ‘sinful woman’ who washed Christ’s feet with tears (Luke 7:36-50). Gregory’s Homily XXXIII is the key text:

She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?

It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.[1]

Thus the seven demons driven out of Magdalene became the seven deadly sins, with lust (and with it pride and covetousness) being foregrounded. She was further associated in later legends with Saint Mary of Egypt, a repentant prostitute who lived, in later life as a hermit.

A single ‘life of Magdalene’ appears first in a sermon attributed to Odo of Cluny in the tenth century – and multiple versions sprang from it. The dominant account in the West claimed that Mary, after the time of Christ’s Ascension, travelled to Provence in a rudderless boat; preached in Marseille and Aix-en-Provence; and then spent 30 years alone in a wilderness as a contemplative hermit.

Magdalene in Europe

Magdalene has particular importance in France, and especially in Provence, the site of her principal shrines. The Abbey of Vézelay claimed to possess its body, and grew into one of the greatest pilgrimage sites in Europe; a grotto at Sainte-Baume was widely believed to be MM’s abode during her abode in the wilderness. The tradition that she and Lazarus brought Christianity to the Gaul in the first century – thus providing the French Church with a distinct, yet still reconcilable, history to the rest of Latin Christendom had deep patriotic appeal in both medieval and post-medieval times.

In England, the cult of Mary Magdalene was prominent enough for Bede to have mentioned her feast day in his Martyrology (c. 720). But the real explosion of her popularity occurred in the later Middle Ages. Only 3 or so churches were dedicated to her at the time of the Conquest; some 35 are listed by the mid twelfth century; by the late fifteenth century England now possessed over 200 churches dedicated to the Magdalene. Sherry Reames summarises her widespread, and polysemous, appeal:

For the late-medieval Mary Magdalen was an exceptionally multi-faceted saint, who served many different functions for different segments of the population. She was the archetypal sinner who repented and was redeemed, supplying a powerful illustration of God’s forgiveness and an example of reform that was potentially relevant to every Christian, although it could also be narrowed to provide lessons for female sinners or sexual sinners in particular. Because of her own transformation from sinner to saint, she was the patron saint of moral rebirth and regeneration and of institutions founded for that purpose, including convents for former prostitutes and hostels for pilgrims. Because of her loving care for Christ’s body when she washed His feet and went to the tomb to anoint His body after death, she was often held up as a model of active charity; hence she became a favorite patron of hospitals and confraternities that engaged in works of corporal mercy. Since she was also believed to be the Mary whom Jesus praised for having “chosen the better part” (Luke 10:42) when she sat quietly at his feet instead of attending to the mundane chores of the household, she provided an appealing patron and model for cloistered nuns, monks, and others who had chosen lives of contemplation rather than worldly activity.[2]

Texts

As indicated above, the textual traditions of the Magdalene legend are long and diverse. As so often, the key text for most English accounts lies in the Legenda Aurea, or Golden Legend by Jacobus de Varagine. We are reading a small sample of the different forms in which the legend was popularly known in English – a notably romance-like stanzaic hagiography, a short prose sermon, and selections from a long dramatic rendering of the late fifteenth century.

The account of Magdalene known as the ‘Early South English Legendary Life’ is first found in Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 108 (c.1280); it is also found in the Auchinleck MS of the 1330s. The vita is not part of the SEL proper, but most probably an older text inserted into (and adapted partly into the style of) the SEL by a patron or scribe of the SEL.

John Mirk’s Festial was produced in the late fourteenth or very early fifteenth centuries. It is a collection of vernacular sermons for the major feasts and saint’s days of the liturgical year. The sermons typically rely on legends, exempla, popular tales and hagiography (rather than, say, scripture). It was circulated very widely in England: 40 extant MSS contain at least one of Mirk’s sermons; 18 editions of the sermons were printed between 1483 and 1532. Mirk was a canon at Lilleshall Abbey, Shrophsire.

The ‘awesomely eclectic’ (Coletti 1979, 313) Digby Mary Magdalene has been described – with some justification – as ‘the most extravagant play in the whole of early English drama’ (Coldewey 1993, 186). The play was composed sometime in the late fifteenth century, in an East Anglian dialect, surviving only in MS Digby 133. It is over 2100 lines in length. It is divided into two parts. The first deals with the privileged private life of Mary, her inheritance of Magdalene castle, her life of debauchery, and her conversion from it. The second part dramatizes Mary’s public life of good works – including the conversion of the King and Queen of Marseilles, her apostolicity, and later retirement from the world. But it is much more than a dramatization of the familiar life of Magdalene – its action ranges from the Holy Land to Marseilles, as well as Heaven and Hell. It is peopled by a huge cast (50 speaking parts) of saints and sinners, allegorical abstractions and earthy sailors. There are several worldly tyrants and one tempting tavernkeeper, ‘wytty and wyse’. There is also a burning idol and a moveable ship.

Questions for discussion

  • Which aspects of Magdalene’s sanctity has been emphasised in each text? (penitent? Loving service to Christ? Active charity in the world? Contemplative withdrawal into solitude?)
  • What are the implications and significance of Magdalene’s preaching in Marseille? Influence / importance to Lollardy?
  • Sex and the second chastity? How do we read Magdalene’s place among the virgin saints?
  • Like the Stanzaic accounts of Margaret and Katherine, the SEL Mary Magdalene vita borrows frequently from the conventions of secular verse romances. What is the significance of this for readers? What does this say about the relationship between the genres?
  • The use of the rudderless ship motif?
  • To what extent do these texts engage with the idea of Magdalene as the First Witness (of the Resurrection)? Male clerical authority?
  • What does the prominence of Mary’s vita indicate about the relationship of the cult of Magdalene and the Gospels?
  • What are the implications of these texts to our understanding of writing women in the Middle Ages?
  • How do we read Mary’s ‘tedure love’ (Mirk, 36) for Christ; and His ‘love of hur’ (Mirk, 44)?
  • ‘[W]han the fadyr saw hys wyf dedde and the chylde borne and grasping towarde the modur pappes, he began to wepe and wrynggyd hys handys and was so sore and so woo on uche syde that he ne wyste whatte he mythe done.’ (Mirk, 76-8). Comment on the role of family in these texts.
  • What are the proper uses of wealth and money? Do both texts share the same views?

Historical background and criticism

http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/reames-middle-english-legends-of-women-saints-john-mirk-sermon-on-st-mary-magdalen

http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/reames-middle-english-legends-of-women-saints-early-south-english-legendary-life-of-mary-magdalen

Haskins, Susan, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor (London: HarperCollins, 1993)

Jansen, Katherine Ludwig, “Maria Magdalena: Apostolorum Apostola.” In Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity, ed. Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 57-96.

__________. The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000)

Jones, Rachel, Mary Magdalene as Counter-Heroine: late Middle English hagiography and social order. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University (2014)

Saxer, Victor, Le Culte de Marie Madeleine en Occident des origines à la fin du moyen âge, 2 vols. (Paris: Libr. Clavreuil, 1959)

Thompson, Anne B., “Narrative Art in the South English Legendary“, JEGP 90 (1991), 20-30

Theresa Coletti, ‘The Design of the Digby Play of Mary Magdalene’, Studies in Philology, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Autumn, 1979), pp. 313-333


[1] Gregory the Great, Homily XXXIII

[2] Sherry Reames, ‘The Legend of Mary Magdalen, Penitent and Apostle: Introduction’, Middle English Legends of Women Saints (TEAMS Middle English Texts Series, 2003); available at http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/reames-middle-english-legends-of-women-saints-legend-of-mary-magdalen-introduction

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

https://i2.wp.com/www.warfare.altervista.org/15/Murder_of_Becket-Alabaster_panel.jpg

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

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

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

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

 

Overview of Thomas Becket’s Life

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

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

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

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

 

Overview of the Texts

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

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

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

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

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

 

Topics for discussion

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

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

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

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