The Routledge History of Medieval Magic: Reflections on a Big Editing Project

I’m very pleased to announce that the Routledge History of Medieval Magic, edited by Sophie Page (UCL) and me, has been published.

As editors we’re very happy with it and we hope others will be too.  Seeing it in print has prompted me to reflect back on the process of editing such a large volume over several years. We started the planning back in 2013, when the publishers Ashgate approached Sophie about editing a volume on magic for their Research Companions series. (As some of you may know Ashgate was later taken over by Routledge, so it’s now a Routledge Histories volume.)  Sophie asked me if I was interested in sharing the editing and, thinking that this would be an interesting way to get up to speed on the field, I said yes.

Planning the volume, we were clear that we didn’t want to produce a survey of the history of medieval magic. We knew of several other history of magic surveys which had substantial medieval sections and were either recently published or in the pipeline. Instead we wanted to produce a guide to researching in the field. The study of medieval magic has grown very rapidly since the 1990s and we felt there was a need for a volume that outlined the new developments and highlighted possible future directions that research could take. We also wanted some methodological reflections: how can (or should) medievalists define magic? Sophie’s idea here was to get several short pieces from scholars with very different approaches, and ask them to comment on one another.

Together we drew up a rather long wish-list of possible contributors. Here it was good to have a co-editor since we were able to pool our expertise and lists of contacts. Sophie works on magical texts and knew exactly who was doing interesting work in this area, while I had a better knowledge of scholarship on the Church, condemnations of magic, and the rise of witchcraft stereotypes. We also thought about our own contributions: I remember sitting in the British Library café with Sophie saying ‘We should have a chapter on gender and it should cover this, and this, and this…’ so that became mine.

Once the publisher had accepted our proposal we wrote to our entire wish-list. Gratifyingly, many of them said yes – more, in fact, than I had expected. This made it a very large volume, with a total of 35 chapters, and that brought some logistical challenges. Our authors worked very hard and were exceedingly patient, but it took considerable time to liaise with that many people, comment on drafts, sort out images, etc, and we needed to be a bit flexible about deadlines, since the contributors were also busy with many other projects.  All this meant that the volume took rather longer than planned, especially when we had to factor in my and Sophie’s other commitments to funded projects, other publications, and a period of maternity leave.  Routledge were very patient, and so too were the authors who submitted chapters early on in the project – and we are very grateful for that.  My advice to anyone considering a large editing project like this would be not to underestimate the time involved, or the need for a long (and, to a degree, flexible) timescale!

Nonetheless I am very glad we did it. We have managed to be very comprehensive in terms of the people working in the field, ranging from recent PhDs to senior scholars, and taking in contributors from the UK, continental Europe, and North America. I am also pleased about the range of angles we have managed to cover – thinking about concepts and definitions of magic, magical texts, authors, themes, and condemnations of magic. The book has certainly inspired me to think about where I want to go next!

Catherine Rider, Associate Professor in Medieval History

Announcing a New Project: Warhorse: The Archaeology of a Military Revolution?

We’re happy to announce that the new Warhorse project in Archaeology, led by Prof. Oliver Creighton, now has a website and blog up and running.

‘Warhorse: the Archaeology of a Military Revolution?’ is a three-year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.  For the project the team of archaeologists and historians will be conducting the first ever integrated and systematic study of that most characteristic beast of the Middle Ages — the warhorse.  As well as being a famed weapon of war, the medieval horse was an unmistakable symbol of elite social status closely bound up with the development of knighthood, chivalry and aristocratic culture. Crucially, in developing a new archaeological approach to the subject, the project hopes to add something different and distinctive to our understanding of horses but also, by extension, to speak to some of these other intriguing and much-debated topics.

For the first post on the project blog, see here.  Please do have a look and follow it over what should be an exciting few years.

Oliver Creighton, Archaeology

 

Two Exeter books shortlisted for 2019 Current Archaeology Awards

We’re pleased to announce that two books with medieval themes written by Exeter academics have been shortlisted for the 2019 Current Archaeology Awards, in the ‘Book of the Year’ category – see here. Nick Holder (Honorary Research Fellow, History, and English Heritage) has The Friaries of Medieval London, a survey of these important religious houses; Professor Stephen Rippon (Archaeology) has Kingdom, Civitas and County, an examination of the longue durée of British landscape.  Do have a look at the eight nominations and perhaps vote for one of the two Exeter books, or for one of the other excellent books on the shortlist. Voting closes on 11 February 2019 so don’t delay!

Nick Holder writes about his book: “As a crossover historian-archaeologist I set out to write a book about the lost religious landscape of medieval London. On the face of it the subject wasn’t very promising: there are very few documents surviving from the friaries’ archives and there’s barely a friary wall surviving above ground in London. But with some patient searching in traditional archives such as The National Archives at Kew, and in newer institutions such as the London Archaeological Archive of the Museum of London, I was able to piece together a substantial body of evidence about what the friaries looked like and how the friars used their London bases. I also asked four colleagues to help me out in the areas where they had particular expertise: Ian Betts (floor tiles), Jens Röhrkasten (spiritual life), Mark Samuel (architectural fragments) and Christian Steer (burials). We try to move beyond the ‘local history’ of London and consider wider themes such as the way that the mendicant orders seem to reinvent themselves as more traditional monastic orders after the shock of the Second Council of Lyon in 1274, which, in effect, closed down several small religious groups.”

Stephen Rippon writes about his nomination: “Too much research is constrained by traditional periodization, and this inhibits our understanding of the past. In Kingdom, Civitas, and County I have therefore taken one topic – the development of territorial organisation within the landscape – and mapped this across three periods that have traditionally been studied quite separately: the Iron Age, Roman, and early medieval periods. I hope that I show far greater continuities within the landscape than have been previously identified, which mean that our countryside of today has roots that go back several millennia.”

Best of luck to both!

Fifteenth Century Conference 2019: Calling Academics and PhD Students with 15th-Century Interests

Exeter will be hosting the Fifteenth Century Conference this September, an annual conference for anyone with interests in the Fifteenth Century. This has come about mainly because of the hard work of PhD student Des Atkinson, assisted by me, James Clark, Eddie Jones and our Hon Research Fellow Jonathan Hughes.  The theme will be ‘England and Mainland Europe in the Fifteenth Century’, which we’re interpreting very broadly to include a range of topics and disciplines.  I’ve posted the call for papers below. If you have fifteenth-century interest please consider sending in an abstract, and please also draw other people’s attention to it.

Catherine Rider, Director, Centre for Medieval Studies

Call For Papers: Fifteenth Century Conference, University of Exeter, 5th-7th September, 2019

England and mainland Europe in the fifteenth century

Poggio Bracciolini, the Tuscan Papal Secretary, after meeting Henry Beaufort at the Council of Constance, followed the bishop of Winchester to England to serve as his Latin secretary between 1419 and February 1423. Poggio was critical of the English climate and the preoccupation of English bishops with politics at the expense of learning, and during this period he offered the following assessment of this country in a letter to the Florentine humanist Niccolo de Niccoli:

‘I began travelling with my lord; but there was no great pleasure in the travelling, since I could find no books. Monasteries here are very rich but of new foundation; they have been built no more than four hundred years ago. If older ones survive they have no secular books, but are full of the most recent works of the doctors of the church and especially the ecclesiastics. I also saw carefully compiled inventories in which there was nothing of worth of humanist studies. And nothing interesting indeed.’

Poggio Bracciolini, Lettere, vol. I, ed. H. Harth (Firenze, Olschki, 1984), translated in A. Petrina, Cultural Politics in Fifteenth-Century England: The Case of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (2004), p. 62.

Poggio’s dismissal of English intellectual culture points to a wide range of interactions between fifteenth-century England and its neighbours in continental Europe, and it raises many questions that have interested scholars in recent years. What was the nature of interaction between England and continental Europe? What kinds of exchange (political, economic, cultural) took place, when, and how? What was the role of courts, cities, and the Church, as well as individuals, in this process?  How was England perceived elsewhere in Europe, and how did the English perceive Europe and the wider world in their turn?  How did cultural and intellectual exchange with continental Europe interact with the growing body of vernacular writing, in many genres, being produced in England, and with local and national senses of identity?

At a time when this country’s relationship with Europe is once again uncertain it seems appropriate to use Poggio’s comments to host a conference that considers this same question during another period of doubt and transition. This conference aims to address, however broadly, the different ways in which the late medieval kingdom of England could be considered in religious, political, social, economic and cultural terms as either a part of Europe, or apart from Europe – a nation with a separate identity.

This year’s Fifteenth Century Conference will be hosted by the University of Exeter, which is home to a community of late medievalists across several disciplines. We welcome papers from scholars at all career stages from PhD students to established academics, on any theme connected to this subject, from any discipline working on the fifteenth century.  This may include, but is not limited to, papers on local, national and European identities and myths; cultural exchange; the transmission of knowledge (including vernacular culture); political, social and intellectual networks; trade; the Church; heresy; social unrest; travel and perceptions of the wider world.

Please submit abstracts of up to 200 words, and a short biography, to Professor Catherine Rider (Director, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Exeter) at c.r.rider@exeter.ac.uk by 28th February 2019.

 

Research Postcard: An Exeter Life of Thomas Becket

John Grandisson, the bishop who presided at Exeter in the turbulent middle years of the fourteenth century – the age of the papacy’s Avignon exile, the Black Death and the bloodiest battles of the Hundred Years War – has long been celebrated as a man of learning whose love of books brought some of the finest illuminated manuscripts into the Cathedral Library. He left his mark – that is to say, his ownership inscription and many marginal notes, underlines, comments and corrections – on a wide variety of books, including those still at Exeter.

Grandisson’s family arms as the frontispiece to his psalter

Yet surprisingly there is only one text that is attributed to him as his own work. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS 493 (fos. 1r-50v) contains a Latin life of Thomas Becket which is described in its original red-ink rubric as having been curated usefully and historically (compendiose et historice…collette) by John de Grandisson, bishop of Exon. Arranged in four parts, the text narrates the martyr’s progress from birth to death and canonisation, from the city of London which he honoured (decoravit) as his family home, to his final reward from Pope Alexander III of his name being added to the catalogue of martyrs (martyrum cathologo addendum decrevit), after which his feast was always celebrated. As the colophon acknowledges, the life is not an original composition. The text is founded on the Quadrilogus, the composite life of the archbishop first compiled by Brother E – his name may have been Elias – a monk of the Benedictine abbey of Evesham, which attempted at a synthesis of the accounts of Becket’s chapter colleagues at Canterbury, William and Alan of Tewkesbury, and his friends, Herbert of Bosham and John of Salisbury.

Becket’s murder as depicted in a ceiling boss at Exeter Cathedral

The cult of saints was the meeting-point of Grandisson’s interests as a prelate and a scholar: it was a means of stability and spiritual nourishment for the faithful facing the uncertainty of present times; for church and clergy it was a link with an illustrious past and a source of inspiration. Perhaps his greatest gift to his cathedral was a vast, two-volume Legendary which drew together the narratives for the feasts celebrated throughout the year. His Becket life appears to have been an early step towards this project, possibly compiled in his first decade at Exeter, or even before. He made reference to it in an exchange with his old master and mentor, Jacques Fournier, who ended his career as the Avignon Pope Benedict XII and died in 1342.

The tomb of Pope Benedict XII, Grandisson’s mentor
William de Tracy’s grant of Doccombe to Canterbury, dated after 21 February 1173

It is conceivable that his compilation passed into Curial circles: a Vatican manuscript of the fifteenth century (BAV Lat. 1221, fos. 1r-27v) contains an anonymous account of Becket’s life that opens with the same incipit. There was a confirmed copy in Italy in 1492, recorded in the inventory of the library of the English College at Rome. Surely Grandisson first turned his attention to Becket because of his place in the history of the church in England but at Exeter he can scarcely have been unaware of the special resonance of the story in the western diocese. William de Tracy, one of the four assassins of the archbishop, was baron of Bradninch and lord of the manor of Moretonhampstead. His Devon lands were the focus of his penitential gift to the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury: Doccombe and adjoining lands to the value of 100s were presented to the Cathedral Priory in c. 1173. He requested commemorative masses for himself and for the new saint he had inadvertently created.

James Clark

PhD Students Wanted Again: Funding Opportunities at Exeter

It’s that time of year again – funding deadlines for students applying for PhD study are coming up.  Staff at the Centre for Medieval Studies are always keen to hear from prospective students.  Have a look at the tips and information that Helen Birkett and I posted last year in our post on ‘PhD Students Wanted’. I won’t repeat them all here, though there are new links for general information on our research and research degrees on our website. The main point is to start talking to prospective supervisors, if you haven’t done so already – see here for the list of Exeter medievalists, in History, English, Modern Languages, Archaeology and other disciplines.

But, obviously, there are new deadlines.  Here are the funding opportunities on offer this year, along with links for further information. Closing dates are quite soon!

We invite applications for several funding schemes, for entry in September 2019:

AHRC South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership 2. Closing date for applications – 18 January 2018.

Exeter University is part of the AHRC South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership, a collaboration between the universities of Aberystwyth, Bath Spa, Bristol, Cardiff, Cranfield, Exeter, Reading, Southampton, and UWE, and the Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum of Wales. For 2019 entry this scheme is offering up to 30 fully-funded awards. We invite high-quality applications from prospective students who wish to propose their own research project. In order to apply, your preferred supervisors (across two institutions) must have agreed to supervise your project. Please find further details here.

ESRC South West Doctoral Training Partnership – +3 or 1+3 Doctoral Studentship – Economic and Social History. Please find further details here. Closing deadline – 29 January 2018. Queries about whether a project fits within the ‘Economic & Social History’ remit can be addressed to either Jane Whittle or Stacey Hynd .

College of Humanities Home/EU Doctoral Studentships – up to 2 fully funded studentships. Further information here. Closing date for applications 11 February 2019.

College of Humanities Global Excellence International Doctoral Studentships – up to 2 fully funded studentships for international candidates. Further information here. Closing date for applications 11 February 2019.

China Scholarship Council and University of Exeter PhD Scholarships – Exeter offers up to 10 scholarships across all disciplines for Chinese students. Further information here. Closing Date – 7 January 2018.

Further information about funding for students from particular countries, PhDs associated with research grants, and the University’s Sanctuary Scholarship for refugees and individuals seeking asylum can be found here.

Links to external funding for Home and International students here.

So if you’re thinking about a medieval PhD, please do explore the links and get in touch!

Catherine Rider, Director, Centre for Medieval Studies

 

Breaking the Silence: An Interview with Rachel Rose Reid, Part 2

In my previous post for the Centre for Medieval Studies blog, I promised a much-needed follow-up to my interview with the storyteller Rachel Rose Reid, whose retelling of the medieval French Roman de Silence is currently touring around the country. This week, we’ll be talking about some of the more challenging questions raised by the text, and their impact on how she has interpreted the text and devised her own piece.

Rachel and ‘Silence’

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Returning to your interpretation of Silence, I was struck by the way in which you begin Part 1 of the story. Why did you start your retelling of Silence by recounting your own story — that is, the story of how you came across this wonderful text?

There were a couple of reasons: firstly, Heldris (the narrator-figure in Silence) doesn’t ‘start the story with the story’ either! Instead, we have this intriguing prologue that offers an invective against avarice. While I don’t begin my retelling in quite the same way, I do think that my own introduction serves a similar purpose — that is, to involve the audience in my storytelling, and to begin ‘weaving’, together with them, the world of the story. Immersion isn’t everything: whenever I come back to moments of honesty like this one, where I tell my own story, I’m being authentically present with the audience. There’s something in that interaction which means that people follow you: they trust you, and you’re able to ‘catch’ them if you feel that they need to be brought back into the story.

… and, of course, Heldris does this throughout their own story, interacting — or at least presenting an interaction — with his own audience. There are points where he’s very direct about this: just before he reaches Silence’s birth, Heldris promises the audience (in the English translation) ‘a lively tale without any further fuss or ado’!

… and this itself raises a fascinating question: why does the story (as Heldris tells it) start so far beforehand? Heldris could easily have started the story with the birth of Silence, but chooses not to: instead, there’s a focus on this question of inheritance, which makes up a large part of the first part of Silence. On a personal level, the inheritance question — which of course ‘sets up’ the motive for Silence to present as a different gender later in the story — is something that I’m very interested in. I’m part of a collective called Three Acres and a Cow, which has really opened my eyes to the different relationships that people have had to land over the centuries; it seems that, although we’re many generations down the line from the world of Silence, there’s still very much a legacy there, and the attitudes towards land and inheritance that Silence documents are still evident in the present day. A few years ago, I visited several Cornish towns with a story about suffrage, and people told us that their own aunts had missed out on inheritances for this same reason: it had gone to particular male relatives, in this case just before changes were made to inheritance law. I’m fascinated by the cultural landscape that informs tales such as Silence, by what it would mean to hear about changes to the law such as these; and by whether Evan’s actions would have been considered provocative or commonplace.

And yet, modern academic work on Silence – with some exceptions – really hasn’t shown the same interest in the inheritance question. One particularly dry description of the opening conflict between the counts sees it as nothing more than a ‘debate over primogeniture’, and in general, it’s the questions of gender that have dominated scholarship, with Simon Gaunt noting (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that Silence ‘appears to engage deliberately with problems that interest modern theorists.’

Questions surrounding gender are more ‘front-and-centre’ in Part 2 of my retelling, of course, but the two ideas about inheritance and women are of course intimately connected. I’m interested in both questions: about who would have listened to this story, and how contentious the material about land ownership would have been. It’s been really satisfying to work with medievalists, including medievalists who aren’t necessarily familiar with the Roman de Silence itself, but who work on the general period during which it was produced. Even if the insights that come out of these conversations don’t make it into my retelling every night, it’s really fun talking to academics who can help to inform my telling of the story, answering some of the more esoteric questions. One question that’s intriguing me at the moment is that of what Cornwall would have meant to the audience of Silence: would it simply have been ‘somewhere far away’, or would it have had a more concrete opening?

That’s a tricky question to answer, but there has increasingly been a tendency in research to stress the ‘connectedness’ of the medieval world, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the audience of Silence to be aware of Cornwall, at least in the context of a lot of the Arthurian material that locates Arthur in this area. The very fact that the manuscript of Silence has survived in Britain at all is testament to cross-Channel movement: it is, after all, written in a dialect of French that shows relatively little Anglo-Norman influence, with far more of a Picard ‘feel’ to it. One theory suggests that the manuscript was composed around the late 13th century as part of a marriage dowry, only reaching England as a piece of plunder late in the Hundred Years’ War.1 Histories of manuscript provenance are, in the end, personal stories — much like the stories that you bring alive in your retelling.

For me, Silence is very much a story about how humans — whether the characters in Silence, or the owners of the manuscript — try to structure the world. Each of us has ways in which we try to structure our world in order to make everything okay; in the case of the characters in Silence, it’s society that has trapped people into certain ways of being. That’s one of the reasons why I try to present Eufeme (King Evan’s Queen, who fulfills the ‘Potiphar’s wife’ trope) as a more rounded character. Heldris might try to give us some understanding of her motivations, but there’s more to be said here: Eufeme might seem to be terrible, but if you look at how she got to be where she is, the only place where she can enact real change is in the personal realm. Only Merlin sits apart from this, and his laughter — which I’ve always read as cosmic, not cruel — seems to me to be saying, ‘look at all these humans, who think they can control and set up these structures.’

Rachel with Hayley Cotterill, Senior Archivist at the University of Nottingham, in front of the manuscript of the Roman de Silence.

Working with Rachel has been an absolute privilege, and it’s been wonderful to re-acquaint myself with the Roman de Silence after a few years, particularly in the form of a retelling as lively, engaging, and powerful as hers. Rachel has transformed a story whose characters are often read as ciphers — ‘Silence’, ‘Euphemie’, ‘Eupheme’ — into an intensely human tale, while preserving its focus on questions that connect the medieval and the modern. 

For more information about Silence, see the show’s website.

Rachel has toured Parts 1 and 2 of Silence during 2018, supported by Arts Council England, and is currently writing the final section. She is seeking partners, hosts, and grants to make it possible for her to perform the whole of her adaptation (possibly two sets of two-hour performances, so may require an overnight experience) at various locations during 2019. Please send ideas, suggestions and offers to ; for more information, see silencespeaks.strikingly.com and rachelrosereid.com. 

If you’re reading this shortly after publication, and happen to live near either Amsterdam or Birmingham, Rachel will be bringing Silence to you on 3rd and 8th November respectively!

Edward Mills, PhD Student

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1 More recent work on the manuscript, however, has argued for an earlier dating of the early 13th century, based on an analysis of paratextual features such as illustration. See Alison Stones, ‘Two French Manuscripts: WLC/LM/6 and WLC/LM/7’, in Ralph Hanna and Thorlac Turville-Petre (eds.), The Wollaton Medfieval Manuscripts: Texts, Owners and Readers (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2010), pp. 41-56.

Ex Historia – Call for Papers

This week, we’re advertising a call for papers for Exeter’s postgraduate history journal, Ex Historia.  Over the years quite a few of our medieval PhD students have been involved with Ex Historia and it’s published several medieval articles and reviews, so if there are medieval postgraduates out there (at Exeter or elsewhere) who want to submit something, then please get in touch with the journal team!

Please refer to MRHA Style Guide for style requirements and use British spellings in all cases except for direct quotations which use alternative spellings.

Please email all submissions as Word attachments to exhistoria@exeter.ac.uk, ensuring that your name is not written anywhere on your document in order to ensure that the refereeing process is blind. If you have any questions about the process or the journal, please do not hesitate to email the address above.

The deadline for submissions is Friday 14 December 2018 for original articles and review articles and Monday 28 January 2019 for book reviews, but we would certainly appreciate any early submissions.

 

Medieval Romance, Modern Storytelling: An Interview with Rachel Rose Reid

It’s not all that often that some news genuinely makes you jump out of your seat in excitement. One such occasion came for me a couple of months ago, when my email inbox, usually reserved for reminders about overdue library books, served up a cracker: namely, that a storyteller, Rachel Rose Reid, was working on a retelling of the thirteenth-century French text, Le Roman de Silence, and was looking to connect with academics who could inform her work. For someone like me, who works with medieval French texts as part of his PhD, this opportunity was just too good to pass up. 

Funnily enough, though, the wave of excitement that the email inspired — and that saw quite possibly the fastest email reply I’ve ever written — was probably not too dissimilar to the eagerness felt at the moment when Rachel’s source text was first uncovered. The story of behind the Roman de Silence is almost as famous as the Roman itself: it survives in just one manuscript, currently in the care of the University of Nottingham’s Special Collections, which was discovered as late as 1911 in a box marked ‘old papers — no value’.

Rachel Rose Reid (photo credit: Wasi Danjiu)

It’s with the narrative of the Roman de Silence, however, that Rachel really works her magic. After King Evan of England declares that no woman shall ever inherit in his kingdom, one of his vassals, Cador, agrees with his wife Eufemie that their newborn daughter, Silence, should be raised as a boy. There follows a debate between the allegorical figures of ‘Nature’, who unsuccessfully attempts to persuade Silence of the folly of their ways, and ‘Nurture’, whose intervention leads to Silence undertaking a range of traditionally masculine pursuits. These questions of gender and upbringing form some of the key themes of this 6,000-line piece, which Rachel has separated into a trilogy. With all this in mind, I jumped at the chance to find out more; still buzzing from the free press ticket to a performance the night before, I sat down to talk to Rachel about how she went about adapting Silence, as well as her own experience with the work.

 


So first things first … you’re known as a ‘storyteller’, and work with both children and adults. Many of the people reading this blog might not be all that familiar with what exactly it is that a modern-day ‘storyteller’ does; could you give us a brief introduction of what you try to achieve when you work with stories like Silence?

The first thing to consider when talking about ‘storytelling’ as a vocation is really just how many ideas it encompasses. There are many different storytelling traditions around the world, and these all adhere to their source material to different degrees; I suppose that a Shakespeare performance would be at one end of this spectrum, where going to see (say) Hamlet several times, you’d expect to see a very similar performance on each occasion. In that case, then, there’s got to be something in the performers’ interpretation of the text that would bring it alive for you. At the other end of the scale, we have the folk traditions that are still alive in Ireland and Scotland, where the storyteller will know the ‘marks’ that they have to hit, but won’t be too concerned about sticking rigidly to a certain pace as they move through them. I work with both forms: in performance poetry, my words are the same every time, whereas in shorter storytelling – up to about 20 minutes – I have ‘markers’ and improvise between them. Silence, though, is an epic endeavour, and requires some combination of the two. I’m more certain of what I will be saying and doing, so that I can take the audience on a complex narrative and emotional journey, but my relationship with the audience in my performances is far more porous than you might otherwise expect from the image conjured up by the word ‘performer’. In a way, my work is a combination of the skills of stand-up comedy and guiding group meditative visualisation: even if Silence contains many of the same elements from night to night, every show is made different by the different audiences. I try to create a synergistic relationship between myself as the storyteller and the audience, where can I respond to things that we experience in the room while still remaining inside the ‘landscape’ of the story.

 

There was one wonderful point in the performance when you actually asked the audience to contribute — you asked us what words we would use to describe a forest scene …

That’s one obvious example, but in storytelling, ‘involving the audience’ is something that also happens even when the audience aren’t speaking! This question of audience participation is actually really intriguing for me in the specific context of how Heldris de Cornuaille, the author named in this text, would have worked: there’s a moment later in the story when the counts of France are debating how their King should react to receiving a letter, and whenever I think of this particular episode, I’m reminded of Grace Hallworth, a storyteller originally from Trinidad, who will always invite her audience to ‘chip in’ with their thoughts at any ‘decision point’ in a story. I’ve always wondered whether this sort of audience interaction would have happened during medieval storytelling: would the performers of texts like these have elicited debate from their audiences? One element in my version of Silence was only added a couple of days ago, and it was done in response to audience engagement: whenever I used to quote Heldris’ line that ‘some people swore in sorrow’ (when asked to swear loyalty to the law that women will be barred from inheritance), audience members used to call out — totally unprompted — that it was the women who were doing it, so I started asking my audiences who they thought it was. We often assume that that questions like these are rhetorical, but I’m not so sure …

 

I was very struck by one of the modifications that you made to the text: that of the wedding. In Heldris’ text, the wedding (between Cador and Eufemie) finishes before the counts’ feud that leads to women being barred from inheritance, and you weave a wonderful scene with minstrels from different countries telling increasingly elaborate stories …

Medievalists will know that the chivalric interactions between Cador and Eufemie in Silence are essentially a giant send-up of the Tristan and Isolde legend, but my audience — many of whom of course aren’t medievalists — won’t. That’s why I elaborate the minstrel scene when I tell Silence: so I can set up a repeated idea of what a ‘romantic story’ is, before the audience get to see me taking the mickey out of it! What’s more, these stories are the kind of ‘romantic story’ that we’re flooded with in popular culture today — what about rom-coms, where we essentially repeat the same narrative over and over again?

 

There’s often a contradiction in how people see the medieval period: somehow, popular culture imagines it both as a ‘purer time’ characterised by chivalry and knights in shining armour, and yet also as an epoch of abject misery and filth. What were your experiences of working with this particular period of history?

What is key to me, in bringing this story alive, is for my 21st-century audience to find the many connections that exist between our own experiences, those of Heldris, and those of the characters. We’re not doing faux medieval re-enactment here: I don’t want the audience to be scratching their heads over obscure terminology, or despairing over sections that seem over-egged to the modern ear. However, I’ve found that the plot points at the heart of Silence only need minor alterations for them to be understood today. Heldris has so much to say about topics that are both thrilling and troublingly familiar for us to hear today: equality, identity, religious dogma, sexual abuse, the damage done by an overbearing patriarchal structure … The legal matter of land and title is still going strong, too, both in our unspoken social norms and in the aristocratic echelons around which Heldris centres the story. Sometimes I think that the reason the text went missing for a few hundred years was simply that it was exhausted … In this text, I’ve been delighted to discover that this medieval writer-storyteller uses so many of the techniques that my peers and I use: satire, flippancy, sarcasm, self-deprecation, timing, and alternating between colloquial chat and grand dramatic imagery. I’m not planning to perform in rhyming couplets, but in working on this project, I have found great joy in discovering the world of medievalists, too. I’m looking forward to sharing this adventure with more medievalists, and I hope that by 2019 we will have several places where the entire story can be told.

 


As you can tell, Rachel and I certainly had a lot to talk about — so much, in fact, that we’ve decided to split this interview over two blog posts! In the second part of our interview, we’ll be talking a little more about some of the more specific challenges posed by retelling Silence, specifically how Rachel responds to the challenging topics addressed by the text.

Rachel Rose Reid has toured Parts 1 and 2 of Silence during 2018, supported by Arts Council England, and is currently writing the final section. She is seeking partners, hosts, and grants to make it possible for her to perform the whole of her adaptation (possibly two sets of two-hour performances, so may require an overnight experience) at various locations during 2019. Please send ideas, suggestions and offers to ; for more information, see silencespeaks.strikingly.com and rachelrosereid.com.

Edward Mills, PhD Student

Welcome to a new academic year of Medieval Studies!

Well, term has started and campus is suddenly full of students again.  Here in the Centre for Medieval Studies we’re catching up with existing colleagues and students, as well as welcoming some new ones. We have several new PhD students starting in History and Archaeology and would like to welcome them to our community of postgraduates, along with new students on the MA History with medieval interests.  It’s also a good time to celebrate some successes from the last year. In particular, congratulations to Tom Chadwick, who got his PhD last year. Tom has posted several times on the blog (for example, here) about his research on the Normans.

This term we have an exciting seminar programme, running every other Wednesday – details here. All staff and students with medieval interests are welcome!  One highlight is at the end of term, when Roger Collins (University of Edinburgh) will be giving our first Simon Barton Memorial Lecture, on ‘Faith, Culture and Identity in Medieval Spain’. This was a topic close to Simon’s own research and we hope to make it an annual event.

We’ll also be hearing from staff and students on the blog – next week, PhD student Ed Mills.

Wishing everyone the best for the new term.

Catherine Rider, Director, Centre for Medieval Studies

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