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Medieval History on screen: Consulting on White Princess

Eminent Churchillians have been all a-quiver. Darkest Hour has carried their subject far beyond his familiar home in the Culture pages of the serious newspapers to set him trending, everywhere. And the academic eminences have themselves been pulled into the spotlight, called on to share their expertise in every media forum, from the Today programme, to the Chris Evans’ Breakfast Show, just in case any of us had forgotten how Britain found itself in the spring of 1940.

But this flurry of attention has left them conflicted. They have been in awe at the spectacle of Neville Chamberlain’s gaunt, grey profile reanimated so perfectly that it might be an original newsreel, remastered in HD. But then they have been deeply troubled to see cabinet meetings convened in the War Rooms in May 1940 when everyone – of course, literally, everyone – knew they did not move there until September when the bombing started. And the spectacle of their Grand Old Man stepping on to the Tube to focus-group with the Great British Public has left them positively queasy.

Churchill on the tube: the much-discussed scene from Darkest Hour

Watching their discomfort, the medievalist might be heard to mutter, ‘Welcome to our world!’. Conscious anachronism for dramatic effect – the PM reaching out to ordinary people in their time of peril his people in time – is often the least of our worries when our period makes it on to the screen. Apparently the Middle Ages are so remote from anything that the viewing public knows (or cares to know) that there is no question of trying to recreate it as it was. On the contrary, as a Lost World, there is a licence wholly to reinvent it. So the Benedictines of 13th-century Italy become Mafiosi in a mountainous redoubt – The Name of the Rose (1986) – the battling of Bruce, Balliol, Wallace and Edward I becomes a Six Nations match at MurrayfieldBraveheart (1993) – and the professional tournament circuit between Crecy and Poitiers is recast as something akin to a mad, muddy summer of festivals, from the Big Weekend, to V, via GlastoA Knight’s Tale (2001).

And now, in the pursuit of Box Office (or Box-Set) success, it seems there is a determination to make the medieval truly out of this world. Judging from the messages in my inbox, it does seem that there are viewers of Game of Thrones who are quite satisfied that its medieval vision, more Middle Earth than Middle Ages, has more to offer than the other one, so tiresomely grounded in, erm, history.

So, it was with no small scepticism that I responded to an approach to act as historical consultant for the filming of a mini-series of Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess, her novelised account of the union of the houses of York and Tudor after 1485. The BBC TV series based on the prequel novel, The White Queen, had met sharp criticism for its sense of period which was flimsy even by the usual standards and was a poor reflection of Gregory’s own commitment to research.

Meeting the producers and directors, I was struck immediately by their up-front acknowledgement that the screen has generally got the Middle Ages wrong. I was also impressed by the research they had already done. The producers and I digressed very happily on Cardinal Morton and the pre-Reformation church. The director slated to supervise the Battle of Stoke (1487) displayed a disarmingly detailed knowledge of the formation of the battles, that is the deployments of force mobilised by Henry Tudor and the Yorkist rebels. She also knew a good deal about the German musketeers and their legendary leader, Martin Schwartz. I have to admit it was difficult not to be enticed by the prospect of bringing to an audience an historical moment in which we glimpse the coming Military Revolution, archers rendered obsolete by the handgun. Their grasp of the dynamics of the period was matched by an awareness of the landscape and environment in which it was played out. Before I became involved, buildings that were right for a fifteenth-century story had already been chosen as locations, Sudeley Castle, Gloucester and Wells cathedrals. I was especially pleased to find that the production team were well aware of the role of Gloucester in the short life of Henry Tudor’s eldest son, Prince Arthur, who for a time was entrusted to the tutelage of the abbot of the Benedictine monastery.

Arthur, prince of Wales

I agreed to take on the consultant role and soon found myself following the crew on their tour of these West-Country locations to give the nod – and certainly the occasional critique – to the scenes they were staging. Of course, White Princess is above all a portrait of a marriage and the bread-and-butter filming had no need of my watchful eye, as Lizzie (i.e. Elizabeth of York) and Henry Tudor played out their lively relationship framed only by flickering candlelight and the faint suggestion of linenfold panelling. But the story also tells how that relationship weathered the storms of a realm still profoundly unsettled after the Battle of Bosworth. The team were eager to show the armed rebellions that repeatedly cut through the connubial calm of Mr and Mrs Tudor. By far my longest day on location was spent at a picnic bench in Bradford-on-Avon taking the director through each turn and twist of the day’s fighting at Stoke. I also did my best to talk her out of representing Warbeck’s hastily abandoned stand-off at Taunton as a battle. Ever with an eye to diversity, she warmed to the reality of cosmopolitan armies. Now I was called on to check the accuracy of the non-English dialogue, and after verifying the insults with which Schwartz and his men showered their opponents, I was also given charge of the exchanges at the Burgundian and Spanish courts.

Battling it out at Stoke

The team were excited by the prospect of staging battles but the other set-pieces that punctuate the drama, the ceremonial of coronation and marriage, made them strangely agitated and anxious. Above all, it was the fact that these were conspicuously sacred acts that seemed to unsettle them, that they would now be obliged to orchestrate priests and their liturgy. Of course, it was no problem to establish the rite used for the first Tudor coronation; Henry and Elizabeth’s marriage ceremony is also well-documented. The greater challenge was condensing it to a handful of scenes, significant in the context of the ceremony itself but suited also to the dramatic pitch the director had determined for this episode. Here too there was a problem of language, or at least for the actors. Of all the tasks I took on, the strangest was surely speaking the Latin into my phone’s voice recorder and emailing it across so that Kenneth Cranham – playing Cardinal Morton – could capture the fifteenth-century enunciation.

This at least was a little less out of my research comfort zone than my final task, poring over the fabrics in the costume department to pronounce on the colours and textures that were right for Lizzie and wrong for Lady Margaret Beaufort. In fact, the King’s Mother’s wardrobe is as well-documented as her personal piety. By the 1490s, it appears the only colours she could countenance wearing were ‘tawny’ and black. The costumiers took this message to heart, although their designs evoked somewhat less of a sense of late medieval contemptus mundi piety than they did of Maleficent.

Lady Margaret  Beaufort (far right): contemptus mundi
Maleficent (left): contemptus omnium

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was also a moment’s tension over how to clothe a cardinal (Morton). They seemed to have bulk-bought purple chenille before I came on board so it was a battle to bring them to an acceptance that Morton’s generation was the first to be dressed in the classic red costume.

A purple cardinal approaches…

Of course, the predictable result was that many of the pains that I and others took over six months did not make the final cut. The ceremonial suffered especially, snipped and trimmed between close-ups with the liturgy consigned to a dimly audible backtrack. What aired, first in the US in April 2017, and in the UK in November, showed much more of the personal than the historical drama. But it did succeed in challenging at least some of my preconceptions. There was a genuine interest on our Middle Ages in the team – producers, directors, actors – that suggests that all is not yet lost to the likes of John Snow and Tyrion Lannister.

James Clark

In Conversation with Conrad Leyser on Medieval Church Reform

Interviewers: Tom Douglas and Max Blore (3rd year undergraduates)

 

On Wednesday 22 November 2017, Professor Conrad Leyser (University of Oxford) visited the Centre of Medieval Studies here at the University of Exeter. Prof. Leyser presented a paper entitled ‘The Cult of the Virgin Mary and the History of the Family in the Middle Ages’ and we were fortunate enough to meet him and interview him informally for half an hour beforehand. As final year history students studying The Medieval Reformation as our special subject with Professor Sarah Hamilton, we had discussed Leyser’s views on church reform and were excited to hear his take on some of the questions we had prepared. It was a great opportunity to hear from someone currently engaged in an area of scholarship relevant to our recent studies and also to discuss broader issues such as periodisation and approaches to sources which are key to understanding the Middle Ages as a whole. We decided in particular to focus on how Leyser’s approach to Medieval history has been influenced by his previous work on Late Antiquity, as well as his concept of reform and how it links to other developments such as changes in family structures and the institutionalisation of the Church. Prof. Hamilton had provided us with a context to work with from our seminars and was also present at the interview to contribute some of her thoughts to the conversation. The opportunity to discuss what we had learned with Prof. Leyser in person was both illuminating and insightful, and will hopefully stand us in good stead for our upcoming coursework essays!

 

Question: Your previous research is on Late Antiquity. How did you become interested in the Medieval period?

Conrad Leyser: There was a lot about the Medieval period as a whole at home. Both my parents were medievalists, so my interest in the period seemed bizarrely natural, and this continued into my undergraduate degree, when I was most interested in the High Middle Ages — the eleventh and twelfth centuries. But then in my third year I did a paper about St Augustine and this converted me to Late Antiquity. It helped me twig that everything that is there in the eleventh and twelfth centuries came from somewhere. The cult of the saints, monasticism, clerical hierarchy — all of these are formed in that late Roman period. So when it came to doing a doctorate, I felt I needed to go back there, and then eventually go forward again…about 30 years later that started to happen!

 

Q: How do you think that your research on Late Antiquity has informed your approach to writing medieval history?

CL: Well…entirely! Studying Late Antiquity gave me some sense of the long span and in essence provided me with the basic groundwork that you need and use all the time in studying the later period. Historiographically there’s still a kind of gap, a sense of them and us, even between Late Romanists and Early Medievalists studying exactly the same period. The general feeling is that this issue of periodisation is just kind of resolved, and studying Late Antiquity gives you a sense that you might start to do something about it.

 

Q: What in your view marks one period from the next? What marks Late Antiquity out from the Medieval period?

CL: Well I would start from the premise that you have to flatten it out. You can’t presume that there is any difference between, for example, the third century and the sixth, or the sixth and the ninth. The presumption right now is that wherever you want to locate it, there is a kind of ‘fall’ into the medieval period (and this is a fall because “medieval” is still a bad brand). People are still trying to locate this drop, and, distressingly, colleagues and ex-colleagues of mine have sought to reinvent a kind of medieval turn, which is really quite destructive. What’s good about Late Antiquity is that it has pushed a kind of continuity in terms of thinking which extends up to the late eighth and ninth, and even into the tenth and eleventh centuries. There’s a culture war that’s been going on since the Renaissance, when the idea of the Middle Ages was invented as a kind of shameless self-promotional move, and now our challenge is whether we can come up with something different in terms of periodisation. Late Antiquity is a start but in economic terms it’s still not fully established. There are very few jobs in Late Antiquity — these jobs are either ancient or medieval — but it’s our best hope yet of offering a different narrative. So, I’m not going to answer the question of ‘when do the Middle Ages start’ because that’s basically an evil, satanic question!

 

Q: One big word for the Middle Ages is reform, the subject of much of your research. What would be your definition of reform?

CL: ‘Reform’ is a claim — it has no big content. It’s the opposite of something like heresy which is a kind of accusation; like orthodoxy, reform is a claim that people will have to accede to. Who’s going to want to stand in the way of reform?! Some people will make a fuss, but in a sense you’re trying to isolate these people, smoke them out and neutralise them by saying, ‘right, we’re going to have reform’. You see this very much happening in a modern university context — there are constant reforms and they are a way fundamentally to organise people. Reform is not necessarily all top down; in the university context it’s not all managerial. Sometimes you get people on the ground saying we want this to happen, and there’s an attempt to persuade up and say to the hierarchy, ‘look, you guys are standing in the way of reform’. In essence, ‘reform’ is an accusation that’s meant to unsettle people for whatever purpose. It will have a particular context at any given point but that’s what reform does.

 

Q: You’ve previously categorised the tenth century as ‘pre-reform’. When does reform in the Middle Ages start for you? What are the most important factors and who do you see as most important in it?

CL: I have a lot invested in the tenth century. But for me, there’s a bigger fish to fry than ‘when does reform start’ which is ‘when does the Church start to exist as an autonomous institution?’ Right now I’m interested in testing the hypothesis that the tenth century is when this starts to happen. Up until the tenth century, the Church is a network of households. There are points, notably in the fourth century and then again in the eighth and ninth, when it has a massive steroid injection of imperial patronage to make it look a lot bigger than a network of households, but then in both cases that patronage drops away. But when the Carolingian empire falls in the Latin West, churchmen, especially bishops, and in particular in north Italy start to think, ‘this empire falling apart thing happened before when the Roman empire fell apart, and it’s happening again now. Let’s look what happened back then. Oh! The Church kept going while the empire fell apart…we can do this!’ In the fifth and sixth centuries when the Church kept going it’s not really self-conscious. Someone like Gregory the Great had no interest in constructing a church; he thinks the world is going to end and is just concentrating on getting to tomorrow before the Last Judgement. But in the tenth century they are building a new world. Churchmen are thinking ‘we can do this and we don’t need imperial patronage, we’re a cosmopolitan network of highly educated men, on we go.’

This is constitutive of the Church’s free-standing thing in the Latin West and reform is a consequence of that. Whereas the eleventh century is stereotypically seen as a move away from, and reaction to, the so-called corruption of the tenth century’, it is instead a product of that tenth century formative moment and it’s to do, crudely speaking, with globalisation. If your priest or bishop is somebody you know, then they can be married, they can do all sorts of things with yours and their property, but it’s fine because you know them and trust them. But if you don’t know them and they’re a career cleric who is part of this mobile, cosmopolitan elite swanning in, then it becomes critical that they don’t have any dependence and that you scrutinise their financial transactions very carefully, and then you can trust them. So in other words I’d then place reform roughly in the second half of the tenth century as a kind of criteria by which to assess the productivity of the clergy who are no longer operating in a face-to-face society. Certainly, reform is not the consequence of tenth-century corruption; that’s the function entirely of eleventh-century propaganda.

 

Q: Your lecture today is about the history of the family in Medieval Europe. How close does our modern perception of family come to how it was understood in Medieval Europe and how does the concept of the family change from Late Antiquity to the Medieval period?

CL: I think that the Medieval period, and specifically the tenth and eleventh centuries, is formative of the modern notion of the family. I think that the key transition that I will attempt to set out is from the family as a legal unit which it is in a Roman context to the family as defined by blood ties, which is how we think of family today. We presume the family is a natural collection of people related by blood, but that’s a historically specific notion. I’m not a family historian and I’ve come to this by working on the clerical hierarchy, but a key index in this shift is the development of a group of men who reproduce without having sex i.e. priests. And so you get a nature versus culture split-out. There are two groups of men, some of whose property transmits through their generation biologically of heirs and some of whose property transmits institutionally. And the Virgin Mary is the kind of god-mother of this shift.

 

Q: A lot of your writing goes into great depth about rhetoric and interpretation of sources. What is it that you look for when you first approach a source and has your approach to sources changed across your career?

CL: I did my research in the second half of the eighties when the linguistic turn was happening in the UK in the humanities. Although I lived it more vicariously than I actually read it, I had friends who were skimming through Derrida and the rest of it, so that was, I guess, formative. I’m not at that level, but someone like Foucault is a key presence and there is an intuition behind this thinking that’s come to seem more and more important — that people writing in the past are different and we cannot understand them. Especially when you work on the history of religion, it is critical that you not presume that a Christian now has anything to do with a Christian then. There is also a wider premise that the self is not the same. Without saying that people in the Middle Ages didn’t have interiority, I would say that when we pull of all these ideas together what we have is a sense that the words people in the Middle Ages said were always a public performance and they are not telling us how they felt. Any attempt to say that you really knew what it was like to be, say, Augustine, is already a methodological fail. Whereas in the ‘80s there was a sense of the need to ‘forget all this crusty old scholarship’, I’m now as interested in manuscripts than deconstructionism, which are key to understanding how culture and memory really work. Now I use a bit of culture theory and a bit of manuscripts whilst retaining the sense that all of the record we have is a highly mannered performance. You have to start with the presumption that it’s a show and in decoding them have to try to catch who the audience are, what the effects of that performance might have been. Especially in the context of religion, finding a way to render that that doesn’t trigger people to say that’s reductive is certainly something to strive for.

 

Quick-Fire Round:

Gregory the Great or Gregory VII?

Well I really love Augustine but Gregory the Great. Gregory VII was a maniac!

Peter Damian or Liudprand of Cremona?

 Well that’s a tough one. A few years ago I would have said Damian but now Liudprand. He tells better stories. He’s also Augustinian.

Cluniac or Cistercian?

Cluniac. Cistercians are nasty, Starbucks-empire builders!

An Abbot Returns

‘We’ve found a body. We’d like you to help us with our enquiries’. An unnerving telephone message to pick up amid the usual end-of-term pressures, but as it turned out I was wanted only as a witness at a distance of some 550 years.

Image courtesy of Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Canterbury Archaeological Trust have been leading an excavation at St Albans Cathedral as a prelude to the construction of a new welcome centre which is the centrepiece of their project, Alban, Britain’s First Saint, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

St Albans Cathedral

The dig has already offered up fresh insights into the early history of the Benedictine Abbey, uncovering the footings of the apse chapels that were a central feature of the devotional scheme of the Norman church built by Paul of Caen, the Norman monk entrusted with the revival of the old Saxon monastery by Archbishop Lanfranc of Bec. Paul’s abbey was quite different from the St Albans known from later medieval sources, not least in the attention given to saints’ cults other than the so-called protomartyr, Alban. The Norman church was made ready to receive altars and relics of the then more modish English saints, Cuthbert and Wulfstan.

Lanfranc of Bec, depicted in Oxford, Bodl. MS Bodley 569.

The unidentified burial has been revealed after clearing a sequence of much later burials, of those citizens of St Albans who worshipped at the former abbey in the eighteenth century when it served as the town’s parish church. Beneath these remains the archaeologists have uncovered the traces of a substantial rectangular structure which would have projected southwards from the abbey’s presbytery. At its centre they have found a brick-lined tomb chamber still holding its original incumbent. The skeleton is of a male in advanced old age. To find a medieval burial intact was surprising in itself since earlier excavations have shown that the site has had a long history of the disturbance – and robbing out – of the higher status pre-Reformation graves. Even more unusual was the presence with the skeleton of three papal bullae.

Image courtesy of Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Each one bears the inscription of Pope Martin V (1417-31), the pontiff whose election at the Council of Constance ended the Great Schism which had divided the Latin church at the height of the Hundred Years War.

Pope Martin V

While the presence of the bulls allowed the burial to be placed loosely on the abbey’s timeline, there was nothing more in the material evidence to suggest an identity.

So it was time to turn back to the texts. St Albans Abbey is well known to medievalists for its historical writing and a rich seam survives from the fifteenth century. For the period of Martin V’s pontificate in fact there are three substantial texts, an annal, a book of benefactors and a biography of an abbot. Each of these recount how Abbot John Whethamstede journeyed over the Alps in 1423 to attend the ecumenical council at Pavia.

Pavia

While in Italy, he also made the journey to Roman Curia in the hope that he might secure an audience with the pope. On arrival he was struck down with a mortal illness and since plague was raging through the peninsula, causing the council delegates to swap Pavia for Siena, it was assumed that he would die. Pope Martin offered him the aid of his own physicians and when no cure could be worked, sent one of his officials to administer extreme unction. When all hope was lost, the abbot experienced a vision of St Bernard of Clairvaux, and on waking his recovery began.

When he was restored to full strength, he finally secured his hoped-for papal audience and, thankful for his survival, determined to do his best for is abbey by requesting three significant privileges from the pope. He was amply rewarded: Martin assented to his request and issued three bulls which the abbot hoped would distinguish St Albans from its Benedictine peers: to dispense the monks from the traditional abstention from meat during Lent; to permit the use of a portable altar at the monastery’s studium at Oxford and at their hostel in the city of London; to allow the abbot and convent to farm the income from the churches under their jurisdiction to laymen. Abbot Whethamstede gathered up his bulls and promptly returned home to St Albans.

Abbot Whethamstede as depicted in the St Albans Book of Benefactors, BL MS Cotton Nero D VII

Martin V’s bulls were an early success in a long career. Whethamstede held the abbacy twice, stepping out of office in 1441 when his health again failed but returning in 1452 and remaining then until his death in 1465, when he was probably at least 75 years old. He is remembered now for his achievements as a scholar and bibliophile, for his pioneering interest in Italian humanism and for his friendship with Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, younger brother of Henry V, and Protector during the minority of Henry VI. Yet his monks always remembered his audience with Pope Martin and in the biographical sketch they entered in their book of benefactors, they made much of his ‘three-fold’ character, surely a nod towards the bulls he had brought them all the way from Italy.

Certainly, the episode was well enough remembered for the abbot to be laid to rest with these trophies, and the biography tells us that the chapel Whethamstede built for himself was, yes, projecting southwards from the presbytery.

A fitting reburial is planned. And so, unexpectedly, it seems the first to be welcomed across the threshold of the abbey’s new welcome centre will be one of its own abbots.

James Clark

PhD Students Wanted!

Thinking about doing a doctorate in Medieval Studies, but unsure how to turn that initial idea into a formal funding proposal? This post offers some guidance on the process – as well as some information about what the Centre for Medieval Studies at Exeter has to offer for PhD study.

From idea to application

So you’re interested in doing a PhD… What should you do next?

  1. The first step is to identify a potential project. This means reading up on the past and current scholarship in the field, locating your main primary source materials, and finding a new angle, question or approach to the topic.
  2. Once you’ve done this, then you should look for an appropriate supervisor for your project. The research interests of your potential supervisor should overlap significantly with those of your project: sharing geographical, chronological and/or thematic foci is essential. You have probably already read some of their work when researching your topic. Your potential supervisor should also have some familiarity with the main genre of primary sources you’re going to use. At this stage, you should try to identify an initial list of three or four possible supervisors.  In order to check what they are working on at the moment and what topics they are happy to supervise, check their university webpage, which generally lists research interests, publications, and areas of supervision they can offer.
  3. Next contact a potential supervisor via e-mail. Include a brief summary of your project either in the e-mail itself or as an attachment, and ask whether they would be interested in supervising research on this topic. You should also give some indication of your marks for both undergraduate and postgraduate work – they will want to know that you are capable of pursuing study at this level.
  4. You may get a variety of responses to your e-mail. Some scholars may feel unsuited to the project or be unable to supervise another student at this time. Others may want you to develop the project further and then get back in touch. Others may be interested in your project and want to discuss it with you. They will also probably request a writing sample to get a better idea of your abilities.
  5. At this point, apply to the university (or universities – you can apply to more than one and it is often sensible to do so to maximise your chances of funding) through whatever their application process is.  Generally it’s an online form.  Check dates for funding deadlines (or ask the university’s postgraduate office if they’re not on the website).  Funding deadlines are often much earlier than application deadlines.
  6. If your potential supervisor is happy to supervise your project, you should now work with them to draft an application for funding. Competition for doctoral funding is intense and your potential supervisor’s input will be crucial in putting forward a strong application. You should try to meet with them in person or virtually to discuss your project, partly, to get to know each other a bit better – after all, you’re intending to work closely with this person for the next 3-4 years!
  7. Finally, listen to the advice of your potential supervisor and respond to their criticisms on any draft proposal – it will make your application better and will create a positive impression. Your potential supervisor will also have knowledge about the institution that is useful. Your application will need to show that you either have the skills required to use your primary sources or that you will be able to acquire them early on in your project – your potential supervisor will be able to advise you on training what is available at the chosen university. They will also be able to help identify colleagues who share interests with your topic or approach – this will strengthen your case for the fit between your project and that particular research centre.

Funding deadlines tend to be early in the new year so the time to start the process is now!

What about Exeter?

Want to work with leading experts in the field and enjoy the delights of leafy Devon? Then why not look at what Exeter has to offer! The Centre for Medieval Studies hosts a large, interdisciplinary community of scholars with particular strengths in medieval history, archaeology and Old French – and we’re looking for new PhD students to join us!

Several, highly competitive, funding options are available.

  • The AHRC SWW DTP Studentship competition opens on 27 November 2017 and the final deadline is 11 January 2018. There will be no Open Day in Cardiff this year, but students can sign up for virtual information sessions until 1 November.
  • Funding is also be available through Exeter’s internal schemes. The Doctoral College is holding an Open Day from 12.45-18.30 on 15 November for prospective MA and PhD students with talks on Exeter’s research facilities and funding options. It is also a good opportunity to meet your potential supervisor and other medieval staff in person. More details about the Open Day and how to sign up for it can be found here.
  • Finally, ESRC SW DTP Studentships (for Economic & Social History applications) are also an option – more information on this competition will be available soon.

Helen Birkett (Lecturer in History) and Catherine Rider (Director, Centre for Medieval Studies)

Building your CV, One Castle at a Time

When I started my PhD in medieval archaeology the reason was simple. There was a very clear gap in the understanding of medieval castles I wanted to address and formalising it as a piece of research seemed the next sensible step. So here I am researching why castles were demolished in the Middle Ages and what that looks like archaeologically.  (Hopefully!) the results will carry weight and might change how people think about the subject.

As I’m approaching the end of my project, I’m thinking about what I might do afterwards. I would love to stay involved in academia but don’t know if there’s space. It’s a competitive field and, while I love the research and the teaching, it may prove very difficult to land that permanent academic post. What I do know is that I’d like to stay involved with discussions around castles and medieval archaeology – and becoming a university lecturer isn’t the only way to do that.

CSTVoluntary work is a one way to keep a foothold in the field. Two years ago I joined the board of the Castle Studies Trust. We’re a small charity with no staff and a budget of around £15,000. We fund research projects into castles with a limit of £7,500 per grant. The Trust doesn’t get directly involved in the fieldwork or interpretation, but we do get to choose which projects we support, which, in turn, helps to shape current research in this area. What happens is that groups interested in carrying out research on particular castles apply to the Trust with projects that have been fully planned and costed. We then send these applications to a panel of castle experts who assess them and provide recommendations for funding. Finally, the board of trustees decide which projects to support, based on these recommendations. For those interested in applying for a grant, the application process opens in September and closes on 15 December. The Trust will confirm awards in February.

Castell Dinas Bran
Castell Dinas Bran in Wales, the site of one of the Castle Studies Trust’s most recent projects..

Regardless of what happens to me next, I have found volunteering with a heritage organisation a very useful experience. I’ve talked to archaeologists working in the field about their projects and have been able to pick their brains about my own research questions. I’ve learnt much more about castles and how they worked, and have broadened my perspective on the topic. My work at the Trust also shows that I am passionate about heritage: I’ve made the effort to do outreach, I’ve gained practical knowledge of the challenges of preservation, and I’ve been forced to consider the public benefit of projects submitted to the Trust. I’ve also gained a much stronger understanding of the funding process. By assessing applications and giving critical feedback, I’ve learnt what makes a strong application – and will be able to apply these lessons when I go on to make grant applications of my own. It’s also been a useful opportunity to build my professional network.

Importantly, it’s also given me transferable skills which will be useful outside the context of medieval archaeology. Becoming a trustee, even of a small charity, requires you to be an active volunteer and to take on some major responsibilities. You have legal duties, such as scrutinising accounts and doing your bit to ensure funds are spent in line with your organisation’s objectives. You also gain experience of governance, i.e. being in charge of an organisation. Finally, with the Castle Studies Trust I’m also specialising in communicating the results of our work, so I have demonstrable experience of communicating with different audiences and developing skills I wouldn’t get the opportunity to do so otherwise.

Being a trustee has been a really rewarding experience and it’s something that I would encourage others to do, particularly early in your career. Although, according to Young Charity Trustees, the average age of trustees in England and Wales is 57, don’t be put off – many charities are looking for younger members to join their boards. They want the new experiences and points of view that you can bring to the organisation. If you’re interested and want further information, the Young Charity Trustees group has some useful materials here.

Volunteering with heritage groups is a great way to contribute to an area you care about and to gain experience for your CV. I’ve found that in small organisation, such as the Castle Studies Trust, one person can make a colossal difference. But most important of all, I’ve found volunteering to be fun. So if there’s an organisation whose values match your own, offer to help them out. And if you want to know more about the Castle Studies Trust in particular, check out the video below.

Richard Nevell, PhD student in Archaeology

Forgery comes to Exeter!

It brings me great pleasure to announce that the Arts and Humanities Research Council has seen fit to fund my new project, ‘Forging Memory: Falsified Documents and Institutional History in Europe, c. 970–1020’. This aims to place forgeries at the heart of our understanding of the growth and development of historical consciousness at a key period in European history. Starting from the the deceptively simple observation that the later tenth century is the first time when the forging of documents can be attested across the Latin-speaking West, it seeks to investigate what this meant on the ground.

 

Medievalists have, of course, long known that falsified documents can be just as interesting as the real MGH Diplomatathing. Nevertheless, forgeries continue to receive less attention than their authentic counterparts. In part, this is a matter of inertia. Particularly when using older editions, it is all too easy to slip into the tendency of ignoring those marked up as ‘forged’ (conveniently relegated at the back of the volume, in the case of the older Monumenta Germaniae Historica editions). More to the point, perhaps, forgeries often lack context. Whereas we know a fair bit about where and when most authentic documents were produced, it is difficult to ascertain the same for forgeries – documents which by their nature seek to hide their true origins. Studying them therefore requires a great deal of contextual knowledge about the forger and his (or her) aims, a fact which has discouraged synthesis and generalization.

 

Still, when we can date and localize forgeries, they offer a wealth of information. Precisely because forgers were not constrained by the realities of their day, these documents tell us much about their hopes, dreams and ambitions; they were the blank canvases onto which the monks and clerics of the Middle Ages projected their ‘ought world’ (to use Karl Leyser’s memorable turn of phrase). In this respect, we are lucky to have a number of closely datable forgery complexes from the later tenth century. Five of these will form the basis of my investigation, which will result in a book-length study: the counterfeit diplomas and papal bulls of Pilgrim of Passau (970s); the Worms forgeries, associated with Bishop Hildibald (980s); the purported papal privileges of Abbo of Fleury (990s); the Orthodoxorum charters, concocted under the auspices of Abbot Wulfgar (mid- to later 990s); and the forged and authentic diplomas associated with Leo of Vercelli (late 990s).

D Arn 161: forged by Pilgrim of Passau
D Arn 161: forged by Pilgrim of Passau

The intention is to use these case studies as a springboard to consider broader themes of memory and institutional identity in these years. They have been selected in order to give maximum geographical Gearyrange within a tightly defined period; they have also been selected to give a balance of monastic houses (Fleury, Abingdon) and cathedral chapters (Passau, Worms, Ivrea). Each forgery complex is unique; and I hope to give due weight to the specific as well as the general. By examining a range of cases, however, I also hope to avoid getting lost in the detail. The interest of these documents lies in the fact that each act of forgery was not simply one of wishful thinking (though it was often this too); it involved a creative engagement with the past, the formulation of an alternative history of the religious house in question. By examining this phenomenon at the turn of the first millennium – a period identified by Patrick Geary as a decisive one where attitudes to the past are concerned – the study will add depth to our understanding of these developments.

 

Exeter Cathedral
Exeter Cathedral

In pragmatic terms, the project will run 21 months (effectively two years), with the first nine of these spent on archival research. Thereafter, the focus will be on writing up and disseminating findings, with a strong public outreach element. During this time, I will organize panels on the subject at a number of international conferences. The project will be then capped off with a public exhibition at the local cathedral in Exeter, which boasts its own fascinating collection of forgeries of the mid-eleventh century. This will be complemented by an end-of-project conference here at Exeter on ‘Forgery and Memory between the Middle Ages and Modernity’. Anyone interested in getting involved is strongly encouraged to !

Dr. Levi Roach, Lecturer in Medieval History

After Empire: Revisiting Europe’s Iron Age

What happens after empire? In an age in which Europe continues to grapple with its colonial past, there could scarcely be a more timely question. Yet while the Fall of Rome is frequently invoked within political debates (for better or for worse), the same can scarcely be said of the Carolingian Empire, which spanned much of northern and western Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries, fundamentally transforming the continent’s political landscape.

The Carolingian Empire
The Carolingian Empire

The decision of the HERA partnership to fund a major project investigating the aftermath of the Carolingian Empire – the ‘transformation of the Carolingian world’, to use the favoured terminology – is therefore to be warmly welcomed. Sarah Hamilton has already written about the project’s aims and her contribution, so I would like to take the opportunity to reflect more generally on the post-Carolingian period, in the light of the project’s inaugural conference in Berlin last month.

After Empire

As Stefan Esders, our host, explained in his introductory remarks, the core idea behind the project is to view the tenth century not simply as a prelude to the central Middle Ages, but as a development out of the Carolingian age. The focus is therefore on change as well as continuity, on seeing how similar texts and ideas came to take on new meanings in the post-Carolingian world. These themes came through strongly in almost all of the papers (helpful summaries of which can be found by searching #UNUP on Twitter). A common refrain was that texts and ideas developed in the Carolingian period continued to be used and applied within the tenth century, whether in the form of local institutional histories (Koziol), notions of identity (Diesenberger), legal materials (Esders), liturgical laudes (Welton) or normative ordinances (West). Yet such apparent continuity can be misleading, as these (and other) speakers noted: even when copying or imitating Carolingian texts or genres, tenth-century writers repackaged these for the present; this was not a case of stagnation or idle nostalgia, but of strikingly new variations on existing themes. Then as now, invoking the past was a powerful rhetorical tool, but not one which should be mistaken for straightforward continuity.

 

Nor it was not all about continuity either. The focus of Sarah Hamilton’s paper was rites of excommunication, which are first recorded in the tenth century. This raises important questions about the impetus behind such acts of codification. Similarly my own paper touched on some of the earliest examples of imitative script – that is, self-consciously archaic writing – from Europe, whilst Sarah Greer provided a thoughtful consideration of the foundation of Quedlinburg, one of the most important new convents of the tenth century. There was, therefore, plenty new going on in these years. But just as change can often be detected within continuity, so one must be careful not to exaggerate the novelty of these developments: new texts, rites and convents certainly came to the fore, but these often owed much to the past.

Quedlinburg Abbey
Quedlinburg Abbey

The cardinal lesson of the conference – if it might be distilled into one – was therefore that we must be wary of overstated claims about both continuity and change: the same texts and artefacts can mean very different things within different contexts, while different texts and artefacts may fulfil very similar functions. Perhaps most importantly, the papers all underscored the vitality of the ‘long tenth century’ as a period of transition between the early and central Middle Ages. It has long been my belief that historians of the period could learn a great deal from scholars of Late Antiquity – who have transcended the ancient/medieval divide so well – and it is promising to see steps in this direction. Indeed, as Patrick Geary noted in the concluding discussion, it would be nice to see more experts on the eleventh and twelfth century integrated as the project continues. It is only when we start to shed our identities as ‘early’ and ‘central’ medievalists that we will truly start to understand these fascinating and dynamic years.

Quedlinburg Abbey: a tenth-century depiction
Quedlinburg Abbey: a tenth-century depiction

 

Whether there are any lessons to be learned here for a nation facing the prospect of Brexit and dreaming of ‘Empire 2.0’, is perhaps a question best left to a different day. For the time being, it looks as if the future of tenth-century studies is bright; this ‘Age of Iron’ (as Cardinal Baronio once called it) may yet come to be appreciated in its full diversity and complexity.

 

Dr Levi Roach, Lecturer in Medieval History

Self-Defenestration, Squatting and Structural Stress: The History and Conservation of St Nicholas’ Priory, Exeter

For some years now St Nicholas’ Priory, in the area of Exeter off Fore Street known as ‘the Mint’, has been closed to the public. However, conservation work continues and plans to reopen at least parts of the priory are afoot. The building is managed by Exeter Historic Buildings Trust (EHBT) and I recently met with the Trust’s representative, Lesley Lake, to discuss the priory’s history and its future.

The priory’s history goes back to shortly after the Norman Conquest. Gytha, Harold Godwinson’s mother, owned numerous properties in Exeter including St Olave’s Church; after the newly crowned King William defeated a rebellion by the city of Exeter in 1068, he gifted the church to Battle Abbey. In 1087 the monks from Battle who had been sent to take over the abbey’s new property decided to establish a Benedictine priory nearby as a sister house of Battle and dedicated it to St Nicholas. Over the following centuries the priory expanded, with most of what remains today dating from the fifteenth century.

St Nicholas Priory
A reconstruction of the priory in the fifteenth century by Richard Parker

Along with many other similar sites, much of St Nicholas’ was torn down following the Dissolution in 1536, leaving only the northern and western ranges standing. An amusing account survives describing how several local Exeter women attacked the workmen who came to dismantle the rood screen within the church, chasing one up the tower and forcing him to leap out of a window to safety. In spite of (or, rather, because of) their religious fervour the women were arrested and the remaining buildings were sold off. Eventually the priory was purchased by Robert Mallet in 1562, whose family leased the property for the next two centuries and converted part of the buildings into a mansion. During the mid-seventeenth century it was divided into two separate dwellings and Mint Lane was created, though it was not until 1864 that the dwelling over the lane connecting the two ranges was pulled down to widen the lane to the size it is today. In 1820 the Wilcocks purchased the building known as the ‘Priory’ and converted it into five premises for rent – the property was eventually sold to Exeter Corporation in 1912 and opened as a museum in 1916. Meanwhile, in 1775 the Roman Catholic Mission moved into a tenancy in another part of the extant buildings, the ‘Refectory’. Eleven years later, Lord Hugh Clifford of Chudleigh purchased the buildings for their permanent use, leading to the construction of the Roman Catholic church in 1788 and the Roman Catholic school of St. Nicholas in 1855. By 1959 the church and school had left the premises and in 1991 the Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust put the buildings on the market. In 1995 Carol Griffiths came across the empty and decaying Refectory and set about its restoration, founding the EHBT in 1996 and securing the lease of the property in 1998.

Norman cellar
The Norman cellar

Today, the priory complex remains divided into these two sites: the ‘Priory’ or ‘St Nicholas’ Priory’ to the west; and the ‘Refectory’ at 21 The Mint to the north. ‘St Nicholas’ Priory’ is a Grade 1 listed building and is owned by Exeter City Council. It includes the Prior’s chambers, guest chambers, kitchen, a Norman cellar, and retains an original plaster ceiling – most of these rooms have been restored to resemble a Tudor dwelling.

Roof timbers
The Refectory roof timbers

The Refectory is a Grade 2* listed building and is leased by the EHBT from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Plymouth. The eighteenth-century Catholic church and the nineteenth-century school buildings are still extant and stand on the site of the chapter house and priory church, with a walled garden replacing what was once the roofed cloister. During the mid-seventeenth century the Refectory was sub-divided into several storeys and now contains the Refectory on the top floor, a flat, and a three bedroom house. Both the flat and the house are currently occupied and are the only income stream the EHBT have for the property outside of donations. The medieval roof timbers in the Refectory are particularly impressive and come from trees that were felled between 1439 and 1453.

Oak screen
The infamous oak screen

The conservation of both sites has proved challenging. Squatters took over the Refectory in 1999 and stripped a Georgian cupboard of its panels for firewood. A little later, the refurbishment of roof was interrupted when the initial contractors went bankrupt – leaving the work unfinished and the medieval roof protected by only tarpaulins. The current closure of the Priory has been caused by significant structural problems, in part thanks to a large and heavy oak screen from the fifteenth century whose weight has been bearing down on the Norman cellar beneath. This problem is currently being solved by suspending the oak screen from a steel arch above, which is also designed to fortify the walls. In spite of these setbacks the EHBT and the Council have resolutely continued with their restorations. Of course, such hard work requires funds and, according to the EHBT, a total of £819,000 has been raised so far, much of which represents the award of Heritage Lottery Fund money for the project.

Although there is still plenty of work to be done and many organisational matters to resolve, enough should be completed for the Priory to open to the public for the Heritage Open Days festival in September. Parts of the site should also be open on 22 and 23 July, while on 21 July a special reception is planned for organisations who would potentially like to use this space for exhibitions, theatrical performance, or even ghost-hunting! If you have an event and would like to make use of this space, then you should contact EHBT via enquiries@ehbt.org.uk – Lesley and the members of the trust will be very happy to hear from you! Hopefully, there will soon be plenty of diverse events to attend within these two fascinating buildings.

Tom Chadwick, PhD student in History

Widening Participation: Exploring the MEDIEVAL and Early Modern Worlds

I recently participated in a campus visit for Year 9 and 10 school pupils as part of Exeter’s Widening Participation scheme to encourage a larger pool of students to consider a degree in the humanities. I offered the pupils two workshops in historical studies, focusing on the medieval and early modern worlds. I selected these topics, partly, because they represented my own areas of expertise and, partly, because I wanted to provide a (hopefully, welcome!) alternative to the predominance of modern history in the current school curriculum. The experience of planning and leading the workshops was very illuminating and prompted some reflections on my own attitudes to the differences between education at school and university, and the influence which these differences have on the responses of students to the work we assign them.

‘Preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done’…..so wrote Herodotus in his introduction for the Histories of the Greco-Persian wars in the 5th century BC. This description of the historian’s trade, fortified by Leopold von Ranke’s 19th-century insistence on ‘what really happened,’ remained current until at least the early 20th century and the explosion of the Whig tradition by Herbert Butterfield. Despite this, national and local identities have often depended upon the Rankean ‘scientific’ and teleological interpretation of the past, particularly because it is amenable to narratives of popular, public histories. In contrast, there is the approach taken by the pupils in my recent workshop, who happily observed that ‘history is written by the victors!’ Here effective analysis of events and patterns is done through thoughtful consideration of the position and experiences of the characters who appear in the records. The scholarly version of this second approach, which engages with the diverse perspectives of class, gender and race, is bread and butter for academic historians, but it is often perceived to be in conflict with the ideal of a collective community, which seems to require the support of Ranke’s model of historiography. The black and white shading of these positions are, of course, illusions; the pupils in the workshop were quite aware of the difficulties in examining evidence which is biased or incomplete, and of all disciplines in the humanities history is arguably the most resistant to the stereotype of postmodernist relativism. Nevertheless, even if the distance between the models of history taught in secondary and tertiary education is not so wide, many students seem intimidated by the transition. In this post I would like to discuss this issue from the perspective of working with pupils who were still in school. In brief, reflecting on this change is as useful for tutors as it is for potential students!

One of the difficulties faced by new undergraduates is the frequent requirement for them to recognise and reject some of their preconceived ideas about their chosen subject. The purpose of this demand should expand and invigorate their approach to a discipline, but it can also cause confusion and lead them to question their own abilities… A healthy sense of bamboozlement is, of course, vital for a good life (as I, and others, tell myself in most some situations). Indeed, for postgraduate research onwards ‘feeling stupid’ is, or should be, a reminder that we are scaling the peaks we once viewed from the base camps in which we produced our undergraduate dissertations. Primary and, especially, secondary education is so focussed on the linear progress of attainment, however, that some students can become so discouraged by the approach to history at university that changing programmes or dropping out entirely seem to be the best options for them. Of course, there are many valid reasons for making these choices, but it ought not to be because of premature assumptions they are not good enough to complete the challenges we set them. The Widening Participation initiative in the College of Humanities seeks to manage the leap across this chasm for students entering undergraduate programmes in its departments, especially if they come from underrepresented groups. The opportunities offered by the College include campus visits, in which pupils receive a tour of the university and attend workshops led by PhD students in the subjects that they might be interested in studying for a degree here or elsewhere.

mappa-facsimile
Facsimile of the Mappa Mundi

Designing any seminar or workshop is, of course, challenging and it is especially so when the participants differ from your usual audience. However, the potential for providing an influential experience was an effective motivation; I know myself that early impressions can be very formative… although I decided, wisely I think, to eschew simply screening The 300 Spartans or A Bridge Too Far! I doubt that Richard Egan’s recitation of his lines performance would have instilled a lasting affinity for the concept of the past not already achieved by Horrible Histories! I led the group of 19 pupils in two sessions, which I divided into discussion of medieval and Early Modern studies (no Nazis!). I began the first session by inducting the pupils into one of the finest traditions of university education: a quiz (including chocolate for the winners). I asked teams of pupils to find a list of images amongst the illustrations on, rather natty, A3 copies of the Mappa Mundi. It was produced c. 1300 and is the largest surviving document of this type and currently resides at Hereford Cathedral. The map, publicised by the cathedral’s wonderful website, is a splendid resource for offering newbies a vivid depiction of the medieval imagination…. The illustration of the Golden Fleece is especially delightful, but all of the images introduce a cultural landscape thankfully removed from the standard syllabus of the Battle of Hastings and Magna Carta. These events are, of course, important landmarks in English and European history, but this was an opportunity to provide the pupils with experience of topics which were not selected because of relevance to their national identity. The first group to find the emblems were suitably rewarded with the aforementioned prizes… Although this was not entirely representative of a university seminar, it did try to explore a different aspect of the past and the students seemed to appreciate it (or, at least, the chocolate!).

Golden Fleece
The Golden Fleece

I had hoped to devote most of the workshop to discussing a ‘source-book’ of documents on medieval medicine (continuing my focus on the more graphic features of the period!), but the interest of the pupils and teachers inclined towards discussing the general practice of studying history at university: the structure of the degree, the choice of modules, the format of lectures and seminars, the criteria for assessment… These questions would perhaps not inspire them to specialise in the Middle Ages, but it was a useful primer for the general study of history. It was also, as most teaching is, very insightful for me; many aspects of academia that I take for granted (degree classifications etc) were unfamiliar to the students. Holly and Kate, the undergraduate historians who were supporting the school for the entire visit, were probably more useful for this! We did eventually turn to discussion of a medieval source: the rules for doctors in Frederick II’s Constitutions of Melfi (1231). Identifying sources which represented the experience of a university seminar, but were accessible for a mixed group of year 9 and year 10 pupils proved difficult. Although they were willing and had some good ideas, the difference between these stages of education was apparent in the reaction of the different year groups to the material. This was not, I think, because the source was too esoteric or difficult to understand of itself, but because of general intimidation by the perceived complexities of it. This was also apparent in their reaction to the Early Modern texts in the second session: records from the trial of Charles I (1649) and accounts of the Battle of Lexington (1775) by British and American correspondents. Although initially surprised by this reticence, I realised that it was little different from the feelings many of our undergraduates display and, after some prompting from myself and the teacher, the pupils managed to summarise the principal points of both of these sources.

I was genuinely excited by this opportunity to teach school pupils, especially because the brief permitted me to use material so different from that on the usual secondary school syllabi! While I hope it was useful for the pupils, it was definitely a fascinating and informative day for me. It can often be frustrating for tutors when undergraduates have difficulty grasping the content or implications of a particular source, especially when, after so much time above the clouds, if nowhere near the summit (!), it can be difficult for us to see these difficulties ourselves.This workshop reminded me of just how much basic understanding and intellectual engagement I expect from my students – and how daunting it might be to deal with such unfamiliar material. It is something I will bear in mind when teaching classes in the future when, perhaps, one of these pupils might become one of these students!

 

Zoe Cunningham is a PhD student in the School of Law, affiliated to the Centre of Medieval Studies

Family History and the Cistercians in Late Medieval and Reformation Devon

Titles from BBC TV’s family history series, Who do you think you are?

In just a few years, family history research has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Proof of this will be apparent to any professional researcher arriving at the National Archives or – perhaps more especially – at a regional record office or heritage centre. Now they will find themselves explaining to the staff that unlike their typical visitor they have in fact called up this charter or that diocesan register for its own intrinsic interest and not simply because of some passing reference to a presumed ancestor. Of course, this surge of interest in family research might fairly be said to have been the salvation of county and city archives, which have seemed ever more vulnerable in face of local authority austerity. In fact the courage of some to cut loose from the direct control of councils owes much to the foot-fall they have seen from self-taught researchers of all ages with a passion discover more about their own past.

 

The origins of family history

Title-page from John Weever’s Ancient funerall monuments (1631)

The fashion for family history and its place in prime-time TV may be a recent development but, of course, the tracing of family lines does have a long… pedigree. In England its origins as a subject of scholarly enquiry are usually traced to the years between the Break with Rome (1534) and the outbreak of the Civil War (1642). The early anxieties and later ambitions of the Tudor monarchy gave rise to statutory measures for the regulation of social status and the use of a growing governmental bureaucracy to subject the political nation and the authority they exerted in their own provinces to ever closer, central scrutiny. Henry VIII initiated a cycle of heraldic visitations which continued at regular intervals – with the exception of the years of civil war – until the Glorious Revolution. The crown’s heralds held local elites to account for the arms, and, of course, the titles to which they were accustomed to lay claim. The coming of the visitors caused families to recover their records, create a synthesis and in many instances, to commit them to parchment in a genealogical roll. They were helped in their response by new forms of national and regional history: William Camden’s Britannia (1586) brought the histories of the nation’s counties into focus for the first time; John Weever’s Ancient funeral monuments (1631) gave its readers a glimpse of a distant ancestry which might be their own; in Monasticon Anglicanum (1655-73) William Dugdale and Roger Dodsworth pieced together the testimony of old monastic cartularies and chronicles still widely scattered in the libraries of provincial gentleman.

 

Family history in the late Middle Ages

Before the relationship between crown and political nation was challenged, and changed, in these years, it is generally assumed that ideas of family identity were not so well focused and that noble and gentry society did not demonstrate the same enterprise in the recording of its own history. The adoption and use of (coats of) arms remained fluid until the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The proof of the right to particular arms or indeed to an inheritance as a whole might be mustered ad hoc but was not a routine feature of noble or gentry discourse. Genealogy as a concept was well understood but was pursued for the most part only in clerical contexts where the descent of emperors, kings, and pontiffs provided a chronological framework for a chronicle narrative, and a narrative of the founder of the monastery and their family line offered a degree of institutional security to a convent community. It has often been suggested that the very first sign of these impulses passing over into lay circles was the making of the Rous Roll, the genealogical history compiled by John Rous, perhaps for Anne Neville before the Battle of Bosworth (1485).

John Rous’ roll

 

Family history research in fifteenth-century Devon

Yet a manuscript from the Courtenay archives at Powderham Castle, near Exeter, now digitised by specialists from Exeter University’s Digital Humanities team, Charlotte Tupman and Graham Fereday, may present something of a challenge to this conventional view. The Courtenay cartulary has only recently been returned to Powderham and has not been available to researchers for nearly forty years.

Panel 4_Medieval cartulary_first leaf
The Courtenay cartulary

It was first brought together in the third quarter of the fourteenth century and its principal contents track the Courtenay family’s acquisition of the old Norman barony of Okehampton which became the mainstay of their medieval earldom, and their commercial development of new towns at the east – Colyford – and the west – Kennford – of their domain. Perhaps as much as fifty years after the manuscript was begun, c. 1400-1425, quires were added at the front containing a family tree and family chronicle. Unusually at this date, the structure of the tree is formed not only of lines and roundels but also with the stem and branches of a tree, formed with broad strokes of a bright green paint. It begins not with the Courtenay family themselves but with the forebears they claimed, with the earldom, the Norman families of De Brionne and De Redvers who held respectively the shrievalty and nascent earldom of Devon in the first generations after the Conquest.

Baldwin 1
The opening of the Courtenay family tree

The tree follows the Courtenays from their arrival in England from their original French home at Chateau-Renard in the Val de Loire, their intermarriage with these Norman baronial lines and their claim of the earldom finally recognised by Edward III in 1340. It continues with the succession of Earl Hugh III de Courtenay (d. 1377) who married Margaret de Bohun (d. 1391), granddaughter of Edward I, whose marriage portion included Powderham. Their fourth son, Sir Philip Courtenay (d. 1406), built the castle and it is his descendants who recovered the earldom. The family chronicle expands this narrative and is illustrated with the blazons associated with each generation of the Courtenays and their forbears.

Cartulary 13v
The Courtenay family chronicle showing the family’s arms

 

Cistercian sources

Forde Abbey

The research of these fifteenth-century Courtenays was based largely on the foundation history of the Cistercian Abbey of Forde, of which they were patrons. The text that is woven around the tree, and continues on into the cartulary not only records the names of each generation, their marriages, issue, obituaries and their place of burial; it also includes passages from the (now lost) longer narrative of the fortunes of the Forde colony of monks from their first settlement at Brightley near Okehampton in 1133 down to the beginning of the fourteenth century. While a number of Cistercian houses compiled genealogies of their founders, it is rare to be able to demonstrate their direct transmission into the records and books of a lay household. Without the monastic original how far the Courtenays copied a Cistercian manuscript is unclear but it seems likely that the visualisation of their tree and the arms in their lineage – each finely painted and picked out in gold leaf – represent their own creative input. In doing so, the corporate, institutional identity which charged the Cistercian narrative was overlaid with its precise counterpoint, an expression of dynastic lordship. Interestingly, the territorial outlook of the original, which represented the White Monks reaching out across the West Country, was retained more-or-less verbatim no doubt because its tone of seigniorial ambition was well-suited to the Courtenays’ own purpose.

 

Reformation reception of Cistercian history

Remarkably, there is a second manuscript in the Powderham archives which bears witness to the appropriation of Cistercian narrative for the purposes of lay family history. A parchment booklet written in the first half of the sixteenth century contains another copy of the foundation narrative and later history of Forde.

Liber tractans 1
William Strode’s parchment booklet

The booklet carries a dated ownership inscription naming William Strode (d. 1579), a major landowner in Somerset and Devon who was energetic in buying up estates at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Perhaps the pinnacle of Strode’s rise to regional power was his marriage into the Courtenay dynasty. It was his entry into the hold monastic heartland and into the region’s noble lineage which persuaded him to assimilate the same dynastic narrative – already re-purposed once, in the fifteenth century – as his own. More than a decade after the Cistercian community had itself been driven from Forde, their pioneering work in genealogy provided a template for fashioning the identity of an up-and-coming family.

 

New exhibition at Powderham Castle

Powderham Castle

The Courtenay family tree, the cartulary and William Strode’s book form part of an exhibition now open to visitors to Powderham Castle curated by Exeter’s Digital Humanities team together with James Clark and Henry French from Exeter’s Department of History.

 

James Clark, Professor of Medieval History

 

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