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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.

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

Research Postcard: Courtesy Books and College Libraries

Emmanuel College, Cambridge

As an undergraduate, I spent quite a lot of time in and around Emmanuel College, Cambridge. One of my best friends was a student there, and in the spirit of putting inter-collegiate rivalries aside, we visited each other fairly frequently.

A not-insignificant portion of my undergraduate dissertation was written, as was his, in the throes of ‘writing sprints’ in his room, fuelled by gallons of tea and the constant reminder that the College canteen did excellent desserts. One place I barely set foot in, though, was the College library; as a member of another College, I wasn’t really supposed to be there anyway, and even the most cursory of tours felt somewhat transgressive.

It was something of a surprise, then, when I realised that I’d need to go back to ‘Emma’ in the course of my PhD research. At the moment, I’m investigating the tradition of so-called ‘courtesy books’ produced in Anglo-Norman, and specifically the text known as Urbain le courtoisUrbain survives in 11 manuscripts, ranging from the sumptuous and meticulously-produced to the altogether-less-impressive (such as MS Douce 210), but only nine of them have been edited. By the standards of many medieval texts, such comprehensive coverage would warrant a pat on the back and a sense of pride at a job well done, but in the case of Urbain, the fact that two manuscripts remain excluded from discussion becomes something of a problem. These two additional manuscripts – one of which, as you will probably have guessed by now, is at Emmanuel College – remind us that medieval manuscripts can often be characterised by what Bernard Cerquiglini has termed varianceUrbain is effectively a compilation of fairly pithy advice on how to behave at court – kneel before your superiors, don’t drink to excess, and so on – but the order in which an individual scribe presents his material, as well as the decisions that are made regarding what to include and what to leave out, can tell us a great deal about how the didactic process was imagined in Anglo-Norman texts. The two manuscripts that remain unedited could, I thought, offer valuable clues for unpicking the relationships between the various witnesses to the text of Urbain, and with this in mind, I realised that investigating the manuscript held by Emmanuel College in person would be an essential step in looking to understand the textual history of this peculiar piece.

For any manuscript to have survived to the present day is a remarkable achievement, and one that can be largely put down to the tireless work of the many Special Collections departments up and down the country. As custodians of works that are hundreds of years old, manuscript libraries are well within their rights to set their own rules about who can access their collections, and what you’re allowed to do with them during your visit. The rules at Emma are fairly standard for smaller libraries: no liquids or pens were to be brought into the room, and I was to be supervised by a member of staff at all times while consulting the manuscript. I was also asked to provide a letter of introduction, signed by my supervisor (and, in a charming throwback to an age before email, printed on University-headed paper). The only surprise came when I was told photography would not be permitted, a policy which many larger collections are increasingly relaxing in the age of ubiquitous smartphone cameras.

Before consulting any manuscript, it’s a good idea to look up its entry in the catalogue to get a sense of its layout and contents. Many medieval manuscripts, in spite of containing multiple texts, didn’t come equipped with contents pages in the way that we might expect today, and so the catalogue, whether it’s a fully searchable web database, a dusty print volume, or somewhere in between, plays a vital role in telling you where to look for the item that you’re after. In my case, the catalogue as I consulted it was an intriguing mix of the old-school and the modern, taking the form of a digital scan of the 1903 paper ‘handlist’, freely available through the wonderful Internet Archive. There are, of course, many things that a catalogue, print or otherwise, cannot help you to expect, and one of these was the remarkable dimensions of the manuscript. My eyes having somehow managed to skip over the small note on the size of the manuscript, I walked into Emma’s Special Collections reading room expecting to meet a book of similar dimensions to MS Douce 210: approximately A4 size, or possibly slightly smaller. What I didn’t expect was to be handed a book that could sit comfortably in one hand, measuring just 11cm by 7cm, into which the scribe had somehow managed to cram up to 200 words on each individual page.

This was my first time investigating a manuscript without having the luxury of a photo to fall back on later, and I have to confess that this constraint led me to interact with the manuscript in a surprisingly different way. My main task was the same as it often is when consulting manuscript versions of texts – transcribe its contents for comparison with other manuscript witnesses – but this time, I found myself transcribing in a much more conservative manner. Abbreviations were left unexpanded: for now, the question of whether qe .referred to q[e] or to q[ue] would have to wait, as I sought to record as much information as possible, as accurately as possible. In short, I realised, I was trying to create a photograph without actually taking my phone out of my pocket. This kind of ‘slow photography’, however, was in its way more useful, and more engaging, than any 5000 x 3000-pixel JPEG ever could be: correction and every decoration, I was engaging with the manuscript in a much closer fashion, treating it as far more than just a repository of folia containing potential image data. It took me approximately 90 minutes to fully transcribe two and a half folios out of the approximately 200 that make up the manuscript, and in that time I found myself realising just how intricate, and how time-consuming, the medieval scribal process could have been.

There was, however, one more task for me to complete before MS 106 was returned to its box. One curiosity of Emma’s library is its own copy of the catalogue: readers consulting Special Collections are invited to leave their mark on this unique copy, which is printed with blank leaves in between each standard page in order to allow space for readers to add notes. These usually take the form of publication announcements, with pencilled-in additions indicating that (say) item no. 36 from a given manuscript has recently been published in the 2009 edition of a major medieval studies journal. Occasionally, however, a more personal story would emerge, and as I added my own note to the catalogue, one of these presented itself to me. While I was clarifying the contents of item no. 13 in MS 106, I came across a letter on the opposite page from a certain Ruth J. Dean, informing the Librarian that she has discovered details of the context to one of the pieces in this very same manuscript. More information would be available, she noted, ‘in my forthcoming revision and updating of John Vising’s Anglo-Norman Lannguage and Literature, which I hope may be finished in the course of another year.” If the letter can be dated, as the top-left indicates, to 1983, then Ruth Dean’s optimism about the speed with which her work could be finished was somewhat misplaced, with Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts not being published until 1999. Nevertheless, it was a great pleasure for me, as someone who uses Dean’s life-work on an almost daily basis, to add my own reference to Emmanuel’s catalogue using a numbering system that she herself devised.

Thanks to Dr. H. C. Carron at the Library of Emmanuel College, Cambridge for allowing me to consult MS 106, and to all of the Library staff for their warm welcome and willingness to answer my innumerable questions.

Edward Mills, PhD Student, Modern Languages

The Feast of Orme

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Prof. Nicholas Orme in discussion with Exeter PhD student Henry Marsh

Wednesday 29th March saw medievalists from across the University and the city gather for the climax of the Medieval Studies calendar in Exeter. This annual day of events, generously sponsored by Prof. Nicholas Orme, has long included both a postgraduate seminar in the afternoon and, in the evening, the public Orme Lecture. This year, however, the programme was extended by an additional talk in the morning, a change that made for a packed programme of events. The additional talk complemented the longstanding aim of the day, which allows us to showcase some of the research being undertaken by our PhD students as well as hosting a prominent visiting speaker. The ‘Feast of Orme’, as it is informally known, is always a memorable day, but the general feeling is that this year’s ‘Feast’ was particularly intellectually nourishing.

The day began with a ‘work-in-progress’ session led by Ryan Low, a Marshall Scholar studying for an MPhil in medieval history at UCL. Ryan’s unbridled enthusiasm shone through as he laid out a selection of his research questions for comment and discussion. Ryan outlined the broad aims of his project, which is centred around producing a bibliography that aims to ‘rehabilitate’ the thirteenth-century inquisitor and Dominican prior Bernard Gui. A lively discussion ensued, touching on all five ‘phases’ of Bernard’s life, while also bringing in questions of Gui’s own Occitan identity and how he would have presented himself. This ‘nerdy little kid’, as Ryan memorably described him, was to grow up to become ‘a regional actor with international clout’; in the wake of such a stimulating and thought-provoking presentation, we were all left hopeful of a similarly bright future for Ryan’s project.

After lunch, our attention turned to the day’s second set of speakers, whom we welcomed as part of the afternoon postgraduate seminar. First to present was Tabitha Stanmore, one of our AHRC DTP doctoral students who is supervised jointly by Ronald Hutton at Bristol and Catherine Rider at Exeter. Her paper examined the economics of the occult in late medieval and early modern England. Drawing on an extensive range of primary testimonies from both before and after the 1542 Witchcraft Act, she demonstrated that there existed an astonishingly developed market for the services of so-called ‘cunning-folk’, with rates of payment regulated by a complex unwritten system that took into account the value of magic to the client, as well as the perceived ‘difficulty’ of the magic to perform. The system could even account for discounts being offered to repeat customers. Clearly, as Tabitha showed in her fascinating presentation, the cloak-and-dagger world of witchcraft, with its ‘introducers’ and ‘dark corners’, was far from lawless.

Speaking next was Tom Chadwick, a final-year PhD student at Exeter. Tom based his presentation around an aspect of his thesis, inviting us to consider the polysemic and often-problematic term Normannitas. The term, coined in the nineteenth century in imitation of Romanitas, has been used since to present, as Tom aptly put it, a monolithic and deceptively uniform understanding of ‘what made the Normans Norman.’ The problem, Tom demonstrated, is that the multiple chroniclers writing in the eleventh and twelfth centuries defined Norman identity in different ways. Dudo of Saint-Quentin, for instance, attributed different levels of ferocity, belligerence, cunning and celerity to each successive Norman monarch, whereas William of Jumièges, writing a century later, declined to mention the former (ferocitas) entirely. The waters of Tom’s research were further muddied by the fact that still more chroniclers, namely William of Poitiers and the anonymous author of the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, dispensed with any idea of the Normans possessing a distinctive ethnic identity at all and focused instead on their Frankish enemies and the figure of William the Conqueror. As Tom’s presentation skilfully showed, the perception of Norman identity across these chronicles is inconsistent, with Norman traits also being used to describe other gentes, and peripheral chronicles rejecting the notion of Normannitas entirely. Tom’s lively contribution elicited a wide range of questions from a room full of intrigued medievalists, and certainly proved that his talents for communicating research go far beyond re-enacting the Battle of Hastings and getting ready to kill some Saxons.

Our third speaker was Ryan Kemp, another AHRC DTP student under joint supervision by Bjorn Weiler (Aberystwyth) and Sarah Hamilton (Exeter). He offered an equally intriguing reflection on part of his own PhD research: the provision of spiritual aid on the battlefield by bishops to their kings in England and Germany. In this comparison of ‘sacral landscapes’, he noted that portrayals of divine intervention described in twelfth-century English sources often required the intermediary of a bishop’s prayer to function properly. One particularly interesting example, which Ryan read with admirable fervour, is the case of Bishop Oda’s assistance to Æthelstan, as presented by Eadmer of Canterbury in his Life of St. Oda:

For while King Æthelstan was fighting, his sword shattered close to the hilt and exposed him to his enemies, as if he were defenceless… Oda stood somewhat removed from the fighting, praying to Christ with his lips and in his heart… [Oda] listened to the king and immediately responded with these words: ‘What is the problem? What is worrying you? Your blade hangs intact at your side’… At these words all those who were listening were struck with great amazement, and casting their glance towards the king they saw hanging by his side the sword which had not been there when they had looked earlier.

Bernard J. Muir and Andrew J. Turner, eds., Eadmer of Canterbury: Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald (Oxford: OUP, 2006), pp. 13-15

Lively tales such as this one are comparatively absent from the German tradition, a curious contrast that proved to be the germ of a great deal of discussion.

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Prof. Nicholas Vincent in full – and entertaining – flow as he gives this year’s annual Orme Lecture

After a quick pause for coffee, the gaggle of excited medievalists reconvened for the day’s centrepiece: the Annual Orme Lecture. This year’s speaker was Nicolas Vincent, Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia. His lecture retraced the life and the afterlife of Henry of Bracton, ‘England’s greatest medieval lawyer’. Readers with long memories may recall that Bracton has made an appearance on this blog on a previous occasion; Nicolas Vincent’s lecture, however, offered an entirely new reflection on this singular figure. Both Bracton and the book of law that bears his name have, as Prof. Vincent demonstrated, frequently been interpreted as representing a ‘quintessentially English’ strand of legal thought, with the influential Frederic William Maitland dismissing the Roman law evident in Bracton’s work as nothing more than ‘poorly-applied varnish’. By retracing the textual history of Bracton’s Treatise, however, Vincent demonstrated masterfully that Maitland’s ‘flower and crown of English jurisprudence’ was not one man’s work alone. Instead, this 500,000-word codification of English legal practice was far more likely the product of multiple voices, and almost certainly flowed forth from the minds of scholars who were far closer to the ‘thought-world of the Continent’ than that of any ‘little England’. On the day on which Article 50 was triggered here in the UK, it was refreshing to learn that, even in the thirteenth century, scholarship could be ‘a thoroughly European affair’.

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Catherine Rider poses a question to Nick Vincent over a glass of wine
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Alcohol-fuelled conversation continues into the night…

Medieval-, Bracton- and Europe-inspired conversation continued into the night, first at the wine reception after the talk and then at dinner in Zizzi’s in Gandy Street. It was a long and full day, but certainly the high point of this year’s medieval calendar. All of us at the Centre for Medieval Studies would like to extend our sincerest thanks to our visiting speakers, as well as to all of those who gave up their time to help make the event such a success. We now head towards the Easter vacation feeling re-energised and inspired by five truly outstanding presentations, each of which demonstrated, in its own way, the vibrance and relevance of the research connected to medieval studies at the University of Exeter.

Edward Mills is a postgraduate research student in the Department of Modern Languages.

Mapping the Troubadours: Miriam Cabré at the Centre for Medieval Studies

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Guillem de Berguedà. Image from Paris, BnF, MS français 12473, fol. 178r.

The Medieval Research Seminar has been particularly active of late. Hot on the heels of Anne Lawrence-Mathers’ fascinating discussion of medieval magic and Sarah Hamilton’s insight into reading and understanding rites, we were very fortunate to play host, on 10 March, to Miriam Cabré. Miriam works at the Universitat de Girona, Catalonia, and has published widely on courtly cultures of medieval Occitania and on the troubadours more broadly. Miriam’s presentation was entitled ‘Literary landscapes and real itineraries: The reasons for mapping the troubadours’. Her paper offered an insight into her latest project, which explores the role played by the troubadours in a broader pan-European culture, while focusing specifically on one particular aspect of her research: attempts to ‘map’ the networks of production and patronage of these works and poets in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Maps, as Cabré noted, are powerful tools in the hands of literary scholars, and have formed the front-matter of many an introductory text on the subject of troubadours. The production and use of any map, however, is fraught with implicit choices, which can have an important impact on how the works that they accompany are represented. Should the ‘boundaries’ of the map, for instance, represent borders of a linguistic or a political variety? In the context of the troubadours, how should maps represent the relative political importance of individual regions, or individual courts? Many maps (re)produced as front matter to troubadour anthologies ignore Catalonia entirely, and focus totally on the south of modern-day France: what is gained (or lost) through this decision?

Cabré outlined some of the opportunities that her project presents, particularly in emphasising the role of Catalan courts within the broader realm of Occitania. The map being produced by her team, she explained, will be digital: built from the ground up, it will use dynamic ‘layers’ to represent the movements of the troubadours’ courtly patrons, the activity of individual troubadours themselves, and key topographical features as they affected movement and literary production. Miriam offered an advance ‘sneak peek’ of some early builds of her map, demonstrating how useful it will be in visualising the itineraries and disparate geographical references implicit in works by troubadours such as Guillem de Berguedà. She presented an extract from Guillem’s Be·m volria q’om saupes dir (‘I wish someone would tell me …’), replete with place-names, as a particularly compelling example of the insights that this kind of mapping can offer:

Ja·N Ponz Ugz no·s lais adurmir,
qe segurs es q’om li deman
Rochamaura, qe fai bastir,
e la forza de Carmenzon;
e·ls murs q’a faitz a massa gran
lo reis los fara desrochar,
e·ls vals de Castellon razar.

[‘Let Sir Pons Uc not slumber, / For it is certain he will be asked to hand over / Rocamaura, which he had built, / And the stronghold of Carmenzon; / And the king will tear down / The thick walls walls he has had built / And raze the valley of Castellon.’]

Maps, as recent endeavours such as Medieval Francophone Literary Cultures Outside France have shown, can be powerful tools in helping researchers to appreciate the physicality of the literatures that we study. As Cabré’s Troubadours and European Identity: The Role of Catalan Courts project will aim to demonstrate, maps remind us that texts such as those contained in troubadour chansonniers were, ultimately, products of a particular time and place, composed in the context of specific geopolitical events. As Miriam herself explained, the broad scope of her project is reflected in the composition of the project team, which includes specialists in multiple disciplines and benefits from a healthy variety of approaches. The intersection between disciplines of ‘medieval studies’ was reflected in the audience for the talk itself, which boasted a healthy attendance of both literary scholars and historians.

All of us at the Centre for Medieval Studies would like to offer our thanks to Miriam for a fascinating and thought-provoking presentation, which certainly gave us all an opportunity to reflect on the potential of digital and multidisciplinary approaches for our own research. Miriam’s visit was organised by Dr. Thomas Hinton, a lecturer in French at Exeter who himself specialises in medieval Occitan (and who, in the true spirit of interdisciplinary, provided the translations for this blog post).

Edwards Mills, PhD student

‘Ugly’ Manuscripts: MS Douce 210, Oxford

Not all manuscripts are pretty. Many, of course, are absolutely gorgeous: one need only look at the British Library exhibition on the Royal Manuscripts collection from 2011, or the accompanying TV series, to be dazzled by phenomenal illuminations or intricate pen-flourished initials. There is, however, a real danger that in focusing predominantly on these examples of elaborate decoration and ornate pen-flourishes, we lose sight of the far more mundane works that are more representative of day-to-day book production in any period. Last year, there was a certain amount of controversy surrounding the popularity of the @medievalreacts Twitter account, which reproduces images from manuscripts without accreditation or acknowleding their sources. Aside from the obvious copyright and intellectual property issues in play here, one particularly troubling concern, voiced by Sarah Werner (and given some context by Kate Wiles in a History Today article), is that this sort of history-as-spectacle

…capitalize(s) on a notion that history is nothing more than superficial glimpses of some vaguely defined time before ours, one that exists for us to look at and exclaim over and move on from without worrying about what it means and whether it happened.

One response to this from medievalists has been to embrace those manuscripts which, by contrast, would struggle to find a place on any Twitter feed. Again, the blogosphere is our friend here: Jenneka Janzen’s 2013 article on ‘boring, ugly and unimportant’ manuscripts is a powerful manifesto in favour of looking at ‘manuscripts that get a short-shrift’. This kind of manuscripts – un-illuminated, un-illustrated volumes – may also have suffered from damage in the years since their compilation, further setting them apart from their Twitter-friendly counterparts. Such manuscripts, however, remind us that the medieval book was not always an accessory to be displayed, eliciting ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from an audience of impressed bookworms. As obvious as it may be, it is worth remembering that the ‘codex’ (the technical term for a bound book) was functional as well as pretty.

Perhaps one of the best demonstrations of the value in so-called ‘ugly’ manuscripts, however, is to be found in the form of a manuscript held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford: MS Douce 210. In comparison to some of the codices with which it rubs shoulders, Douce 210 certainly doesn’t attract many plaudits as Bodley 264 or Bodley 401. One rather acerbic nineteenth-century commentator commented that Francis Douce, upon purchasing it at a sale in 1700, ‘can’t have had to pay much for it’.1 It certainly isn’t much to look at: significant water damage has rendered parts of certain folios borderline illegible, whereas gaps in texts suggest strongly that individual folios, and occasionally entire quires, have been lost.2 Despite its ‘ugliness’, however, this manuscript – dated, albeit uncertainly, to around 1300 – is far from devoid of value. The value, by contrast, comes much more from its contents than from its presentation, as Douce 210, unlike the other manuscripts mentioned above, contains not one or two lengthy texts, but rather a much larger number of shorter ones.

This sort of manuscript presents problems for codicologists – scholars of the construction of the medieval book, interested in why certain texts were copied or bound together in a single manuscript. Is Douce 210 best described as an ‘anthology’, implying a degree of intention on the part of the compiler? Is it a ‘miscellany’, a term generally associated with precisely the opposite intention? Is it something else entirely, such as a recueil, a ‘composite book’, or a ‘commonplace book’? The debate surrounding the multi-text codex and how to represent it has rumbled on for many years, and has given birth to some truly terrifying article-titles, my personal favourite being J. Peter Gumbert’s ominous-sounding Codicological Units: Towards a Terminology for the Stratigraphy of the Non-homogenous Codex.3 With Douce 210, the overriding impression left is one of unity, rather than randomness: all of the texts within it respond to a need to educate and instruct, a need borne out in texts as diverse as satires on the ‘three estates’ of medieval society, sermons on mortality, and the only surviving execution of the Corset, a commentary on the Sacraments commonly attributed to Robert of Greatham. If the dating of the manuscript to around 1300 is correct, then it also provides the earliest version available to us of the Lettre de l’empereur Orgueil, a moralising narrative warning against the ubiquity and temptations of pride.4 As an insight into medieval didactic practices – here conducted in both Latin and Anglo-Norman French – and as a vision of the modes of instruction that underpinned them, Douce 210 goes a long way towards demonstrating that looks certainly aren’t everything.

 

Edward Mills is a PhD student in the Department of Modern Languages.

Say hello on Twitter @edward_mills!

 


1 The commentator in question was Paul Meyer, one of the great philologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His less-than-sympathetic remarks (in French) can be found here. Paul Meyer, ‘Notice du MS. Douce 210 de la Bibliothèque bodléienne à Oxford’, Bulletin de la Société des anciens textes français, 6 (1880), 46-84. Meyer does, however, include a valuable table of contents for the manuscript.

2 This fascinating blog post from the British Library’s conservation team sheds some light on the ways in which manuscripts can be damaged – and how attempts to repair them can sometimes backfire!

3 J. Peter Gumbert, ‘Codicological Units: Towards a Terminology for the Stratigraphy of the Non-Homogenous Codex’, in Il codice miscellaneo. Tipologie e funzioni: Atti del Convegno internationale, Cassino 14-17 maggio 2013, ed. by Edoardo Crisci and Oronzo Pecere (Cassino: Università degli Studi di Cassino, 2004), pp. 17-42. A useful overview of the debate over terminology can be found in Ardis Butterfield, ‘Afterword’, in Insular Books: Vernacular Manuscript Miscellanies in Late Medieval Britain, ed. by Margaret Connolly and Raluca L. Radulescu (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 301-07.

4 The text of this piece, attributed to Nicole de Bozon, was edited in the early twentieth-century and is available online here. Nicolas Bozon, Deux poèmes de Nicolas Bozon : Le char d’orgueil ; la lettre de l’empereur Orgueil. ed. by Johan Vising (Gottenburg: Elanders Boktryceri Aktiebolag, 1919).

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