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Five months on from our previous post, work has been proceeding apace at the ‘Learning French in Medieval England’ project — or, as literally no-one is calling it, ‘Tretiz Towers’. Our primary focus at the moment remains the work that we’re doing on the project’s central strand: namely, producing a digital edition of the Tretiz‘s 17 extant manuscripts. The days of Word documents, however, are thankfully behind us: thanks to the sterling work of Dr. Charlotte Tupman, the project’s TEI consultant, we’re now getting to grips with XML encoding, and ‘marking up’ our earlier transcriptions into a machine-readable format that will be both dynamic and easily-searchable. As we’ve become more familiar with the ins and outs of XML, we’ve been asked on several occasions to clarify how exactly this strange new language works, and to that end, we’ve produced a brief introduction to XML, with particular reference to our project, over on the Modern Languages and Cultures blog. Encoding is certainly a rewarding experience, and one that forces us to think critically about our editing philosophies and methodologies; when making text machine-readable, everything has to be justified, and sidestepping difficult questions simply isn’t an option. The real reward, though, will be seeing the edition in its finished form, and making the first of the many discoveries that we anticipate it to enable.
The project’s outreach and communication arm has also stepped up a gear over the past few months, with both Tom and I speaking at multiple events to academic audiences and the broader public. I kicked things off in May with a presentation at Academics in Quarantine, an online conference series, while Tom, fresh from an appearance on BBC Radio Devon, gave a fascinating talk on French in Medieval England as part of a round of public engagement events organised by the team at Agile Rabbit (available to watch online). More recently, Tom has also presented at the online Medieval French Seminar series organized by academics in the UK, where he explored questions of Latinity in the Tretiz, investigating links between Bibbesworth and Latin word-books and nominalia. We’ve also produced guest posts for various other outlets, with Tom investigating two British Library manuscripts of the text over on the Values of French project blog and Edward producing the introduction to XML mentioned at the start of this post. The project’s Twitter account (@MedievalFrench) remains a hive of activity, with regular #TretizTuesday posts (highlighting intriguing or unusual aspects of the text) pushing us towards a respectable 350 followers.
The coming months will be crucial to the project’s success, as we look towards completion of our encoding and the subsequent investigation of broader questions that underpin the Tretiz‘s composition and reception. We hope you’ll join us for the journey, whether on our Twitter page or on our project website, and look forward to bringing you another update soon.
Research Associate, ‘Learning French in Medieval England’
Writing in 1879, the great Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins bemoaned the recent felling of the poplars at Binsey near Oxford: ‘All felled, felled, are all felled’. To him, those trees represented something precious, a ‘sweet especial rural scene’. Had he been alive in 1615, he might have felt similarly outraged about what had taken place in the manor of Dunkeswell since the suppression of its Cistercian Abbey in 1539. The fate of the woodland once managed by the abbey is described in the Norden Survey, a fascinating document put together in the years 1615 and 1616. The surveyor does not mince his words, but launches a broadside at those whom he described as ‘intollerable spoylers’ and bemoans the fact ‘that there is no punishment of offenders’. He is almost poetic in his description of the woodland of the manor, stating how ‘This Mannor within theis fewe yeares was the best timbered Manno’ in the west partes.’ However, much of that woodland had now been devastated. The survey had been carried out with the involvement of eight local jurors and they had been obliged on their oaths to give the names of these ‘offenders’. The surveyor is unstinting in his criticism of the greedy tenants. He describes how ‘All the timber and wood is wasted, beinge of late the beste manor of wood and timber trees in Devon’.
Thanks to the generosity of a local private benefactor, the whole of the Norden Survey is freely viewable online via London Metropolitan Archives. The entry for the manor of Dunkeswell can be found in document CLA/044/05/041 (images 245 to 262 inclusive). What this survey reveals is how actively and effectively the local woodland resources had been managed during the late medieval period by its monastic lord. Timber had been used for many purposes by the convent, and its effective management was essential to the economy of the abbey. The grandest of the trees would have been used for the monastic buildings, especially for roofing timbers. Much wood was required for domestic items such as doors, flooring and shutters, and for the agrarian economy. The nearby Augustinian nunnery of Canonsleigh Abbey had an annual fair where cart wheels were sold – we know this from the building accounts of Exeter Cathedral. The woodland at Dunkeswell would have been used for similar purposes, as well as for fencing, ploughs etc. A constant supply of firewood was required for heating and cooking. To satisfy all those varying requirements, the abbey had to manage its woodland carefully and sustainably. Different areas of woodland were earmarked for different purposes, with some left to grow into the largest trees for roofing timbers etc. Harvesting of the woodland would have been carefully controlled to ensure that sufficient supplies of each kind of timber were always available. Dunkeswell Abbey was fortunate that the Devon landscape and climate were so amenable to the growth of woodland. Other religious houses had to call on benefactors such as the king or other nobles to provide the largest timbers from their forest resources.
At Canonsleigh Abbey the richness of their woodland resources are described in the records of the Court of Augmentations. This was the organisation established by Henry VIII’s government to oversee the disposal of monastic property for the king’s profit after the suppression at the end of the 1530s. The records itemise the woodland plots at Canonsleigh showing how they contained trees at varying stages of growth. Just as at Dunkeswell, the abbey would have had their own foresters who provided for the careful management of the woodland.
Over sixty years after the dissolution of the monasteries, there was clearly still a strong local memory concerning the rich woodland resources that the monastic houses had once maintained. The level of control over those resources had clearly declined drastically since the manor of Dunkeswell passed into lay hands, firstly those of John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford. When the Norden surveyor arrived in 1615, he was forthright in his condemnation of the free-for-all that had taken place across the woodlands of the manor.
What the Norden Survey helps to show is just how useful those records produced after the dissolution can be for the study of religious houses in the later medieval period. For example it also describes a set of long leases made by the abbey, some for the term of 100 years, that were still running in 1615. The last abbot, John Ley, could probably see that he was living in very uncertain times, and wanted to bind his temporal resources into local society to provide some stability. What he could not have anticipated was that his abbey, together with all the other religious houses of Devon and Somerset, would be swept aside in the whirlwind of suppression that took place in early 1539.
Des Atkinson, PhD Student
Five hundred years ago this week the monarchies of England and France met in the meadowland of the Pas-de-Calais. Today these flatlands are largely nondescript for the traffic that flashes past them on the A26, ‘l’Avenue des Anglais’, but even now the fields six kilometres to the east of Guînes, on the edge of the village of Balinghem, carry the sign ‘le camp du drap d’or’, or, changed somewhat in translation, the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
Here Henry VIII of England and François I of France, and the clerical and seigniorial hierarchies with which they governed, faced one another for a formal encounter that continued for a fortnight. It was the first meeting of these young monarchs – François was 26 and Henry was 29 – whose kingdoms had been in a state of war with one another for most of the past decade.
It was a conceived as a point of departure and certainly for François whose first years of rule had seen the successful extension of his military might beyond his borders, he surely anticipated this as the first stage on which he would be recognised unequivocally as a broker of Europe’s balance of power. Yet it was also the fulfilment of a rapprochement to which the ministers of both sides had applied themselves with serious purpose already for two years. At a diplomatic summit convened in London in October 1518 a pact pledging non-aggression had been agreed by the ambassadors of both kingdoms, and those of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and the Papal States. The rhetoric of this pact reached for a yet higher purpose, a universal peace for Christendom to protect its integrity from the advance of the Ottomans at its eastern frontier. But the realpolitik was the common imperative for a pause in the costly competition for continental overlordship. Money and conflict within the political nation were the inherited problems of the last late medieval rulers; now there was another threat, by June 1520 (when Martin Luther was the subject of the papal bull Exsurge domine) clearly focused on the horizon: a schism in the institutional church.
What both kingdoms hoped to carry away from le camp was something more than a pledge, a substantive treaty that might at least spare them from conflict on one of their frontiers. But common ground of such a pragmatic kind is rarely sufficient between ambitious heads of state to secure a settlement for the long term and their two-week interlude at their common border yielded no treaty. Rather, its tangible effect was to inscribe the self-image of the two reigns, still at the beginning of their course. This was a political summit performed as a pageant: in their trains, François and Henry paraded nobility, knighthood, prelates and clergy, the two presiding estates of their kingdoms; and the third, productive estate was a palpably present, in the hundreds of household staff attendant on each one of the principals, and in the machinery that supported them, manmade and land-raised, horses (for war and for carriage), hunting dogs and hawks.
The vast supporting cast was staged for presentation to either side with visual and aural accompaniment that self-consciously demonstrated the kingdoms’ claim to cutting-edge artistry. The choristers that performed with the English prelates wore the portcullis pattern vestments which Henry’s father, Henry VII, had provided for the Tudor family chantry – configured as a Lady chapel – at Westminster Abbey, new in 1520 and the costliest architectural and artistic project witnessed in living memory.
The pageant was an expression of the nations’ magnificence, but in the English party there was a painstaking effort to represent the regions of the Tudor kingdom. Here, perhaps, was an early indication of Henry’s notion of an imperial monarchy which would take shape over the next decade, as the leading lordships of provincial England were summoned to stand foursquare with their king. For the West Country, there were six delegates: Sir John Arundell and Sir Piers Edgcumbe representing the far west; John Bassett and John Bourchier standing for the north of the region (from Umberleigh to Bampton); Sir William Courtenay of Powderham and Henry Courtenay, earl of Devon, whose anchorhold was the region’s only city, Exeter, its estuary and its eastern march. Earl Henry, aged just about twenty-two, was already remarkably close to the centre of royal power and serving as a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. Alone among the West Country men he was positioned in the principal royal train as they took the field at Guînes. A sequence of tournaments punctuated the programme there, and in the lists the earl excelled; he was one of the only English knights to emerge undefeated from each one of his jousts. His conspicuous prowess can only have further burnished the king’s favour and scarcely a year later he received a portion of the attainted lands of the Yorkist traitor, Edmund Stafford, duke of Buckingham. In 1525, Henry conferred on Courtenay the title of Marquess of Exeter.
The west of England still carries some trace of its part in the performance five hundred Junes ago: some of the personal archives of Earl Henry and Sir William Courtenay remain in the Powderham collection. At Berkeley Castle, there is a fabric fragment believed to be from one of the very tents that were pitched on the field.
Just over two months ago, we announced the start of a new project based at the Centre for Medieval Studies here in Exeter: Learning French in Medieval England. Our aim is to produce a digital edition of Walter de Bibbesworth’s Tretiz, a rhymed French vocabulary of the mid-thirteenth century that has attracted significant critical interest for its insight into multilingual medieval England. Today, we’d like to take a few minutes to bring you up to date on what we’ve been up to since then, and offer a few hints as to where we might be heading in the near future.
Of course, it’s been a busy couple of months in the wider world as a whole, and the Covid-19 situation has, as you’d expect, had a knock-on effect on our project. In particular, the cancellation of the 2020 International Congress on Medieval Studies, where Edward Mills was looking forward to presenting on the project, has been very disappointing — although we are all of course in complete agreement with the decision reached by the committee. On a day-to-day level, we’ve shared the experience of researchers around the world in suddenly adapting to working from home, a task that has (in our case) been made far easier by the incredible work of the IT team here in Exeter. We’re very grateful to them for everything that they’ve done at very short notice, from bringing forward the roll-out of a new VPN to opening up access to Microsoft Teams; without their tireless work over the last month, our project (and much of medieval studies in Exeter more broadly) would have struggled to continue working during this uncertain period.
It’s thanks to support from colleagues, both within and outside of the medieval studies community, that we’re able to bring you up to date on some exciting developments in the project over the past few months. Since our initial blog post a couple of months ago, our work has been focused on transcribing the manuscripts of the Tretiz, many of which have (thankfully) been digitised by libraries in the UK and abroad. Transcription is the first step in our editing process, and aims to produce an accurate representation of what’s on the manuscript page before we start making editorial decisions: at this stage, that means we’re expanding abbreviations and recording anything that strikes us as particularly noteworthy, but not normalising letters such as ‘u’ / ‘v’ or ‘i’ / ‘j’ (two pairs which are often used differently in medieval manuscripts to how they are today). We’re also preserving the original word-spacing found within each manuscript, which can be a slightly counter-intuitive experience; it does, however, provide some valuable insights into the attitudes and decisions of our individual scribes.
As you can see, we’re transcribing in Microsoft Word. This might seem like an odd decision: why not transcribe straight into an XML editor such as oXygen, which is where we’ll soon start encoding? There are three good reasons for this. The first is a practical one: specifically, it gives us a shallower learning curve at the outset. We’re all already familiar with editing documents in Microsoft Word, and can do so instantly with very quick results — putting ‘ME’ to mark glosses in bold, marking difficult-to-read characters in red, and so on — which means that, at this early stage, trends and patterns across different manuscripts are far easier to see in Word documents than they would be in XML. The second reason is rather more subtle: under the hood, XML and Word documents aren’t all that different. That little ‘x’ at the end the filename in the picture above stands for ‘XML’, as since 2003, all Microsoft Office applications have used XML ‘under-the-hood’ (see Microsoft’s own summary for a useful little overview). In effect, this means that we can produce our transcriptions in Word, before then exporting them into XML and marking them up in oXygen. As long as we’re consistent in our formatting, a simple find-and-replace should allow us to preserve most, if not all, of our annotations.
The main rationale behind our decision to use Word at this early stage, though, is one of time. While we start transcribing the manuscripts and indicating what features we’d like to encode, the team in Digital Humanities can observe our decisions, take on board our project’s aims, and get to work on deciding how to represent them in our final XML files. For instance, should we make a point of identifying abbreviations in different Tretiz manuscripts, and if so, how should we represent them? These are questions that it will take time to answer, and by getting underway with our transcription in as low-maintenance a way as possible, we can allow these conversations between the different members of the team to continue for longer, giving rise to more — and better — solutions in the process. As things stand, we’ve fully transcribed four manuscripts of the Tretiz, with several more underway, so there’s plenty to keep us occupied.
Aside from our manuscript transcription, we’ve also started work on how the project’s website will look. Since this is where we’ll be hosting our edition, it’s important for us to get this right, and so at this stage we’re focused on producing ‘wireframes’. A wireframe is essentially a mock-up (in our case, hand-drawn) of what the site could look like, which a developer will then take and transform into a working web page. Not everything that starts life on paper will eventually make it to the website, of course, but working on design at this stage will give us a useful sense of what’s possible (and, within the project’s limited time-frame, realistic) once the site goes live.
As you can see, our latest design — sketched very roughly, and not at all indicative of what might actually be possible — is very much centred around allowing users to choose how they interact with the text, its manuscript traditions, and our critical notes, in whatever combination they choose. We’re always keen to hear from readers who are interested in using our forthcoming edition of the Tretiz, so please do if you have any thoughts on our design, or any requests for what you’d like to be able to do with the Tretiz once it launches. Remember to follow us on Twitter @medievalfrench for all the latest project updates, as well as a weekly close look at particular aspects of the text itself on #TretizTuesday. We’ve also just launched our project website, which we warmly invite you to explore if you’re keen to learn more about both the Tretiz and the project itself.
We hope that this latest update has given you a sense of how the project’s progressing, as well as providing some degree of entertainment for all our readers who are stuck inside. We’ll be back in a couple of months’ time with another post, when we’ll be shining a light on some of the more specific challenges of transcription.
Tom Hinton and Edward Mills
Learning French in Medieval England project
Since I’ve been on maternity leave I’ve not surprisingly been pondering all things to do with pregnancy and baby care. I’ve also been thinking about medieval pregnancy advice, since it’s a topic I’ve touched on during my ongoing research on medieval fertility and infertility.
Medical texts are probably the medieval sources which give most information relating to pregnancy and these works have been studied by many medievalists and early modernists. We hear in these sources about ways to facilitate (or sometimes prevent) conception, see if a woman is pregnant, predict the sex of an unborn child, and reduce the risk of miscarriage, as well as about weird food cravings, childbirth, and more. But medicine was not the only source of advice.
By the later Middle Ages preachers also sometimes commented on conception, pregnancy and baby care, with a view to advising fellow clergy and ultimately – through those clerics’ preaching – laypeople about good and bad behaviour. Their advice was much more limited than that of the medical writers and it hasn’t been well studied. One exception is an article by Peter Biller, published in History Today in 1986 (vol. 36, issue 8). Biller quotes a manual written to educate priests by the fourteenth-century English cleric William of Pagula, which tells priests to advise pregnant women to avoid heavy work. Biller also raises a larger question about whether priests – often the best educated people in their communities – were one channel by which learned medical knowledge relating to pregnancy might reach women. This is something I’d like to look into more, but certainly William was not the only cleric to give advice relating to the health of pregnant women and their unborn children. Three thirteenth-century preachers, Jacques de Vitry, Guibert of Tournai, and Stephen of Bourbon also did so. In addition to preaching themselves, all three put together long collections of sermons and exempla, short moral stories which preachers could use to make moral points in an entertaining way, and scholars have long used these stories as sources for a wide range of aspects of medieval life, including popular belief, marriage, magic, and more.
These stories often focus on the dire consequences of bad behaviour, as a dramatic way of making the point that certain activities were sinful. Thus in the case of pregnancy they tend to emphasize the safety of the unborn child, but when they do so their purpose is often to make wider points about correct behaviour in marriage. Thus Jacques includes in a sermon on marriage an exemplum about a man who hit his pregnant wife while he was drunk, causing her to miscarry (Sermones ad status, Paris, BN MS lat. 17609, f. 134r). Jacques included this story in order in order to stress the evils of marital discord and show how alcohol could make this worse, but there is also a message here about the appropriate treatment of pregnant women, as an especially vulnerable group.
Another topic that interested both preachers was sex in pregnancy. As scholars such as Dyan Elliott have shown this topic was debated by theologians, because it offered a case study for discussing the acceptable limits of sexual activity within marriage. Both Jacques and Guibert (quoting Jacques’ story) criticised men who insisted on having sex with their wives in late pregnancy. According to Jacques:
‘I have heard of certain men who harassed their pregnant wives, who were close to giving birth, because they did not wish to abstain for a moderate amount of time. Nor did they spare the pregnant women, because the child was killed in its mother’s womb and deprived of baptism. This lust is cursed, which denies God the soul of his child.’ (BN MS lat. 17509, f. 135v)
But both Jacques and Stephen of Bourbon also give happier information about cravings in pregnancy. They take it for granted that the audience will know of these and so they use them as a way of illustrating an unrelated point about prayer. People who dislike praying, Stephen says, are ‘like a pregnant woman who is disgusted by sweet things and loves to taste bitter things.’
These comments are patchy and without more research it’s not clear what they add up to, but they do show that medieval preachers were willing to discuss pregnancy and give advice and information. It’s also interesting that much of that advice focuses on men’s behaviour (at least in the case of men who behaved very badly towards pregnant wives) rather than women’s. At any rate there is more here to investigate.
Catherine Rider, Associate Professor in Medieval History
One of the pillars of the Medieval Studies community at Exeter, Emma Cayley, left the university over the summer to take up a post as Head of School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at Leeds. Our loss is Leeds’s gain, as I know from personal experience having been hired and served my probation during Emma’s highly successful stint as Head of Modern Languages here (2011-2016). This post is intended as a collective vote of thanks for the sixteen years of service Emma gave to the medieval community at Exeter.
Indeed, we have Emma to thank for the existence of the Centre for Medieval Studies seminar which she set up on a shoestring in its first year of existence, including the key lubricant of post-seminar wine, initially on a contribution basis. Sarah Hamilton recalls that ‘even once funding became more certain, her commitment to wine and collegiality was ongoing and will be sorely missed, as will her commitment to promoting medieval Latin as well as French.’ As will surprise nobody who knows her, footwear features prominently in Sarah’s anecdotes about Emma: ‘one of my earliest memories of her is going to some MA event at the cathedral and as we left she dived into a shoe shop; on a visit to Beijing she dragged all of us into a covered market to look for shoes….’ Yolanda Plumley similarly remembers Emma’s sartorial excellence as an enhancement to the pleasure of collaborative plotting about Medieval Studies over lunch meetings. She adds: ‘one of the highlights for me of the fifteen years we spent together at Exeter was the delightful conversation that unfolded between us on debate in medieval music and literature over the twelve weeks of an MA option we once taught together.’
Emma’s unshakeable commitment to her PhD students is a common theme in their comments. Pete Knowles, who completed his PhD in 2015, describes her as ‘the best PhD supervisor I could have asked for; from being filmed leafing through the Exeter book manuscript with grout on my fingers, to translating Old French over a bottle of fizz in a pub garden one summer evening, I finished my doctorate with three years of fantastic memories and a friend for life.’ As a result of his innovative collaborative PhD programme, Pete now works as an Executive Producer for creative tech company Antenna International. More recently, Emma was instrumental in securing three Nicklaus-Cartwright PhD Scholarships in French. The high calibre of medievalist applicants led to us benefitting from the presence of Edward Mills and Coline Blaizeau, both now in the latter stages of their doctorates. As Edward comments: ‘without Emma’s decision as Head of Department to invest in PhD funding, I doubt I’d be doing a PhD today.’ Coline speaks in similarly glowing terms: ‘Emma was always kind and understanding, generous and sensitive – all things that made it easy to speak with her openly. I quickly felt comfortable in her presence and able to share my thoughts.’ Edward adds that ‘she has always been a tireless advocate for involving PhD students in the wider life of the Department: I’ll never forget going to see the Exeter Book being digitised, and seeing for the first time how much work she had put into the research and public engagement project that had led up to that moment.’ The beautiful and fitting leaving present that Coline and Edward made for Emma says it all.
Emma’s tireless positivity and enthusiasm have been a great source of strength for Exeter Medieval Studies over the past decade and a half. Her parting gift was the holding here in July 2019 of the XVIth International Courtly Literature Society Triennial Congress. I had the pleasure of co-organising this with her and Michelle Bolduc, another valued colleague whose presence in our ranks came from Emma’s vision of the breadth of Medieval Studies. Edward and Coline offered invaluable organisational help, which in Edward’s case involved giving attendees the same tour of medieval Exeter that he himself had received from Emma after accepting our PhD scholarship offer. We lost count of the number of colleagues who told us it was the best ICLS conference they had attended – and, of course, how pretty the campus is. Emma holds a number of prestigious offices within the Medieval and French academic communities, evidence of her energy, generosity and enthusiasm for these fields of study. She is currently president of the ICLS, as well as being Co-Editor of French Studies and a member of the AUPHF Executive Committee. We wish her well in all of her future endeavours, and look forward to an opportunity to welcome her back to Exeter soon!
Senior Lecturer in French
As my colleagues at Exeter know, I have spent the past few years looking at the concept of news in the Middle Ages. I’ve been considering what the idea of ‘news’ meant in the medieval world, what sources remain for news, and what studies of news in the Middle Ages might tell us about news in other historical periods. And I think they could tell us quite a lot…
This is because the modern concept of news has become intertwined with the idea of modernity, of what makes the modern world distinctive. News is seen as a crucial component of modern democratic societies, a reflection of modern communications technology, and has even been used to discuss the modern experience of time. Early modern scholars are very conscious of the close relationship between news and modernity. As a result, they emphasise the foundational role played by early modern news in the creation of newspapers and the modern news market. In these arguments, medieval news is seen as something different and “other”. It is a foil for teleological narratives of news, progress, and modernity. But the problem is that we don’t know that much about news in the Middle Ages… So how can we be sure that it was different? And what if medieval news was less different than assumed? How might that affect our understanding of news and its relationship to the modern world and modernity? There is a problematic gap in the scholarship here. Further research is needed.
Despite the prominence of news as a topic for modern and early modern scholars, little work has been done on news in the Middle Ages. Various scholars have touched on this area, but few have thought about it in depth. This means that some of the most basic questions haven’t really been answered, including, for example, what does medieval news look like? After all, this is a period before the emergence of traditional news media such as newspapers. Getting to grips with the basics as well as thinking about the more sophisticated aspects of this topic has proved hugely stimulating. It’s rare to find such an obvious and interesting topic for which there is still so much work to do!
And, hot of the press this month, my article ‘News in the Middle Ages: News, Communications, and the Launch of the Third Crusade in 1187-88’ presents my initial thoughts on the topic. In this piece, I discuss why historians have been slow to tackle medieval news and how we can identify news in our medieval sources. I also explore how news was transmitted through a case study relating to the Third Crusade. I track the dissemination of three related news stories in 1187 and 1188: the defeat of Christian forces by Saladin at Hattin, the subsequent fall of Jerusalem, and the launch of the Third Crusade by Pope Gregory VIII. As a case study, this turned out to be both more complicated and more revealing than expected – but you’ll have to read the article to find out more!
However, there is still much more to say on news in the Middle Ages – and I have more work in the pipeline. Over the coming year I hope to complete two further articles on this topic. One will focus on the manuscript context of our extant news sources from 1187 and 1188, and draws on research funded by the British Academy Neil Ker Fund. Here I will grapple with the problem that none of our original news sources survive – all we have are copies. My article will investigate when, where, and how this material was copied, and what the act of copying tells us about the relationship between news and history in the Middle Ages. The second article will discuss the relationship between news and the medieval experience of time. This responds to arguments made in early modern scholarship about news and the emergence of a ‘modern’ sense of the present. As you might imagine, I am somewhat critical of this view…
In fact, there is so much to do that I have roped in a group of other scholars to help me explore this topic. From 2019 to 2021, I am leading a collaborative project on ‘News and News Cultures in the Middle Ages’, supported by a Small Research Grant from the Leverhulme Trust. This project brings together a variety of established and early career researchers with interests in communication, information networks, public opinion, and – of course – news. We are working together to produce a volume summarising what medieval news is, how it was disseminated, and how it functioned in society. It is intended to lay the foundations for future studies on news in the Middle Ages and to be the go-to work for scholars from other periods and disciplines. Hopefully, it will make this topic front page news!
Tuesday 16 July 2019 marks the 650th anniversary of the death of John Grandisson (1292-1369), Exeter’s longest-serving bishop. The cathedral and the diocese have been shaped by many hands over many centuries but arguably it is Grandisson, who led the diocese for forty-two years from 1327, whose imprint has proved the most enduring.
Before his tenure, Exeter was seen as something of a poor relation among the cathedrals of medieval England. When he arrived the cathedral church itself was unfinished, building work having stalled repeatedly due to the shortage of funds. By the time of his death, its appearance, and its reputation, were transformed. Exeter Cathedral had become a beacon for worship in the west of England, and the cultural and creative centre-point of the city, county and diocese.
Grandisson was born to be a leading figure in public life. His family were aristocrats from Herefordshire with blood ties to many of England’s greatest noble dynasties; they could even claim a connection with the Plantagenet royal family. His background would have ensured his rise to the top in any walk of life but as a boy John was recognised for his intellectual talents and he was sent to study at Oxford and Paris, then the most prestigious university in Latin Europe. At Paris Grandisson came under the influence of one of the leading minds of the time, Jacques Fournier, whose own career as a churchman was one of the most significant of the age, leading the battle against the notorious Cathar heretics and culminating in his election as Pope Benedict XII in 1334.
From university John moved on to the city of Avignon in southern France, then the capital of the Roman papacy. He was set fair for a career in the papal court but his talents marked him out as a potential leader of the church in England and in 1327 Pope John XII appointed him to the bishopric in Exeter. It was something of a back-handed compliment: his predecessor, Walter de Stapledon had just been murdered by a London mob leading an uprising against the government of King Edward II (1307-27). Exeter was well-known for its poverty, the poor state of its buildings, and its remote position at the outer reaches of the realm. It was a far cry from the cultivated world of princes and prelates Grandisson had known all his life. ‘I find myself not only at the ends of the earth’, he wrote, ‘but in the very end of the ends thereof’.
Grandisson’s first priority was to finish the cathedral church. Making use of materials which had been stockpiled, he oversaw the completion of the nave, including the vaulted ceiling with its bosses carved with vivid images still in situ today. He also added new features which had not been envisaged by his predecessors, probably the Minstrels’ Gallery on the nave’s north wall, and a chantry chapel which he intended for his own tomb.
Grandisson not only completed the cathedral church but also invested in a dramatic re-development of the church of St Mary at Ottery, turning it into a collegiate church. Just about a dozen miles east of Exeter, Grandisson made Ottery St Mary a grand gateway to his diocese. His mitred head can still be seen on a corbel stone at one end of a nave arch.
Grandisson also invested in the working life of the cathedral. He provided books for the use of the cathedral canons, liturgy and music to assist them in their worship and learned texts of theology, canon law and science to ensure they could meet the demands of their ministry in the city and diocese. The books were placed in a purpose-built library, the first in the cathedral’s history, and perhaps the first in the west of England – it was another hundred years before there was a library at Wells Cathedral in Somerset.
Grandisson’s cosmopolitan early years had given him a love of stylish furnishings and during his career at Exeter he commissioned many remarkable artworks. An ivory diptych now in the collection of the British Museum depicts a finely carved images of the crucified Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
An exceptional set of Mass vestments were made for him: an orphrey, an ornamental border cloth, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and a chasuble, now kept in the museum of the church of St Sebastian at Ponta Delgada in the Azores display some of the very finest embroidery in gold and silver-gilt thread, known as Opus Anglicanum or English work because the skill was unmatched anywhere in Europe.
More important than building work or the furnishings, Bishop John applied his genius to the practice of worship in the cathedral. He was fascinated by the long history of the church and the lives of the saints whose feast-days filled the calendar. He made his own collection of these histories to be used in the cathedral, finely copied in a folio manuscript which is still kept in the Library & Archives. The life-story that fascinated him most was that of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury under Henry II (1162-70), whose determination to keep the church independent from the king and his government led to a long dispute, exile and finally roused four of Henry’s knights to murder him in his cathedral. Becket had turned his back on his career as a courtier, its privilege and political influence, and committed himself to his church and the people it served. For Grandisson he was the perfect role model.
Grandisson was also interested in the sight and sound of worship. He created a new Ordinal for the Cathedral, that is the manual that set out how the clergy were to process, where they were to stand, and what parts of the liturgy were to be spoken and sung. Today, the Cathedral Choir still turns to Grandisson’s guidance for the Christmas Eve service that carries his name.
At 5.30pm on 16 July Exeter Cathedral will perform a requiem mass in honour of their great bishop. In the following months further events will recall his contributions in different dimensions of church life including decorative art, the customs of worship in liturgy and music and education, learning and the making of books. Related exhibits will display some of the artefacts connected with him still held in the Cathedral Library & Archives.
The scorching summer of 2018 was a great gift for archaeologists. For the first time in almost two decades an unbroken dry spell brought features below the surface of the landscape clearly into view. These ‘parch marks’, visible only for as long as the weather holds, provide the very fullest evidence of the foundations of earthworks, buildings, roadways not only of a medieval date but reaching back across the whole timespan from the Industrial Revolution into pre-history.
It seemed counter-intuitive then to take a call from a TV researcher developing a new series devoted to underwater archaeology. In fact, there was good reason why The History Channel had chosen this moment to schedule the filming of their new series aiming to show that a stretch of inland waterway is as rich in hidden archaeology and history as any expanse of ocean. If not carrying quite the same decompression risk of diving the naval wrecks off the coastlines of Africa or Australia, you’d be best advised not to wade very far into the Avon, Severn or Ouse except when the rainwater table was at an all-time low. The series, River Hunters, takes its inspiration from the USA where searches of the waterways close to Civil War battlefields have uncovered some remarkable artefacts. Arguably the trend-setter is Beau Ouimette, whose self-produced shows on You Tube are on the brink of becoming a global phenomenon. Producers persuaded Beau to bring his unique brand of wading to Britain, to sift the course of some of our most historical significant watercourses.
Beau’s passion is battlefield history and it was hardly surprising that his schedule should take in Tewkesbury, where tributaries of the Avon and the Severn frame the site of the Wars of the Roses battle where the Lancastrian cause was decisively defeated in 1471.
Tewkesbury was not as large a battle as Towton (1461), seeing combined forces of no more than 10,000; nor did it bring a virtual blitzkrieg to the town as occurred at both the first (1455) and second (1461) battles of St Albans.
But it did represent no lesser watershed moment: the Lancastrian interest was all but destroyed. Leading Lancastrian nobility lay dead, among them, John Courtenay, earl of Devon, who had only just returned to the royalist fold. Henry VI was captured and then killed; his son and heir, Edward of Westminster, died in the melée; Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, who had led his the cause for the best part of twenty years, was forced to return to France.
The river tributaries played a central and decisive role in the battle. They were the reason that battle was drawn at Tewkesbury: the Lancastrian army had hoped to cross the Severn at Gloucester but the Yorkist force stood in their way, so they had tried to pass ahead of them by pressing further north. When the Lancastrian battle-formation was broken and the Yorkists set about a rout, the remnant of King Henry’s force fled for the Severn bank knowing that if they crossed it they might fight another day. Most were cut down by the waterside, or were drowned. The battlefield also lay in the shadow of the Benedictine abbey of Tewkesbury its own precincts bordered by the same river tributaries. In the rout some struck out for the abbey, although for the Lancastrians the only sanctuary they found was a burial place on sacred ground.
So Beau and team came in search of both the Wars of the Roses and the monastic tradition. It was the last truly hot weekend of the summer and they waded into the Swilgate south of the abbey grounds with the excitement of a day at the seaside. Perhaps those Civil War sites are very willing with their secrets but here it was slow going. By the half-day mark, the low-lying murky water had offered up only some very eclectic signs of twentieth-century life: a roadworker’s lantern and a cache of printers’ letterpress type. Early afternoon took us no further back in time but gave us the basis for a narrative: a World War 2 era firewarden’s tin helmet, a testament to the six-year vigil that watched over the abbey tower.
Predictably perhaps, it was only as the light finally began to fade, and even the ebullient Beau looked less than comfortable seven hours into his wet-suit, that the river offered a tantalising hint of medieval Tewkesbury. Pressed deep into a wedge of silt, the detector led to hand-worked pins and studs surrounding the remains of leather strips – straps? – of early date. Naturally, given it was now past 7pm, there was an immediate and unspoken agreement to interpret them as battlefield artefacts. An archer’s arm-guard: sure thing! For this monastic historian, it was the less romantic but (much) more plausible provenance of a block of dressed stone we also recovered that almost made the wait worthwhile.
Here there was evidence of the monastery’s development of water meadow south of their precinct, and perhaps of the fishery that fed the community, and kept them, more-or-less, within the letter of chapter 39 of their Rule, On the measure of food.
River Hunters is now showing on The History Channel, Mondays, @ 9pm.