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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.

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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.

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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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edwards Mills, PhD student

Arabic in the Archives: Keeping Up with the Canons of Medieval Toledo

Arabic has not tended to be regarded as a language of medieval Europe, despite being spoken across parts of the Iberian Peninsula for nearly 800 years and indeed elsewhere too (Sicily, for example). Study of the south of the peninsula has been assigned to ‘Arabists’, often placed within Middle Eastern or Islamic history departments, whilst the northern kingdoms have been methodologically situated with studies of Latin Christendom. Yet, in reality, medieval Spain defies easy catagorisation. Its societies were multi-religious, multi-cultural and more often than not multi-lingual, and cultural, linguistic and economic interaction took place across the Peninsula throughout the Middle Ages. Recent research into the ever-porous borders between Spanish kingdoms has started to change how we imagine medieval Spain, and to break down methodological divisions between ‘north’ and ‘south’, but this also has implications for the languages expected of medieval Hispanicists. The city of Toledo is a good example. Toledans continued to speak and write in Arabic for some two hundred and fifty years after the city’s capture by the Christian king of Castile, Alfonso VI, in 1085. By the start of the thirteenth century, the period covered by my PhD research, the documentary records of Toledo Cathedral were being produced in both Latin and Arabic. Moreover, the local Arabic-speaking population were beginning to take up office as cathedral canons, meaning that both languages, as well as Romance (early Spanish or Castilian), would have been used on a daily basis in the cathedral chapter.

Amman at night in Ramadan
Amman at night in Ramadan

The high bar set by the medieval clergy of Toledo thus provides a challenge today if we are to try to fully understand these complicated and multi-lingual societies. As such, last summer saw me in Amman, Jordan, kindly sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to attend a language course in order to improve my Classical Arabic. I studied at the Qasid Arabic Institute, one of several language schools in Amman, and an institute with a reputation for excellence in Classical Arabic, that is, the language of the Qur’an and many medieval documents. The school operates across the academic year, with autumn, spring and summer terms, although the latter, running from mid-June to the end of August, is both the most intense and the most popular, drawing students from across Europe, America and Asia. I had taken several years of Arabic classes on joining, but Qasid accepts students at all levels, from complete beginners to those who wish to study Arabic poetry. The school runs a range of programmes, but the one that caught my eye was their course aimed at reading Classical Arabic, with additional classes available for those interested in medieval religious texts. I had four or five hours of lessons a day in small groups (sometimes as small as three to a teacher), and we were set a rigorous drill of homework every night for the following morning. It was certainly not a holiday! It was however incredibly enriching, and also very stimulating to learn in a linguistically immersive environment as using Arabic every day in Amman, despite the many differences with medieval usage, nonetheless involved putting into practice much of what I had learnt. By the end of the course, I was able to produce a translation of one of the early thirteenth-century charters I am working on for my PhD (the only full translation into any other language), and had been part of an extra class studying medieval commentaries on the Qur’an.

In addition to daily Arabic classes, it was also a great pleasure to explore Amman’s vibrant culture and history, and that of Jordan more broadly. Petra, the Dead Sea, and the Dana Nature Reserve were all remarkable. However, as an historian, I was particularly delighted to visit two twelfth-century crusading castles (Karak and Ajloun), the breath-taking Roman city of Jerash, and two eighth-century desert castles, Qasr Amra and Qasr al-Kharanah. These belong to a series of castle buildings, mainly caravanserai and hunting lodges, built by royal members of the Umayyad dynasty (660-750), which stretch through the deserts of Jordan, Syria, Israel and Palestine. It was a great privilege to be able to visit them, and to be reminded of the vibrancy of medieval Islamic culture, which had connections far beyond the region – among the remarkable frescos at Qasr Amra is an image of an early eighth-century Visigothic king of Spain!

Qasr al-Kharanah
Teresa at Qasr al-Kharanah (August 2016)

Undertaking an intensive Arabic course in Jordan was a very enriching experience, and extremely helpful in allowing me to access the full scope of source material, very little of which has been translated, from thirteenth-century Toledo. I am very grateful to have been supported by the AHRC South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership, the sponsors of my PhD, whose generous Student Development Fund, aimed specifically at skills and language training, covered my tuition fees, accommodation and flights. A number of other funding sources are also available for students wishing to study Arabic, and anyone interested in applying would be advised first of all to contact their own university, but also to research Amman-based financial support, such as the British Institute in Amman, who offer visiting fellowships and grants.

If you are a researcher working on areas in which Islamic and Christian societies co-existed or collided, then I would encourage you to consider the many options available for learning Arabic. It will not only open up a wider range of source material to your study, but will also allow a more comprehensive approach to these complex and diverse societies. The medieval past doesn’t always provide a model for inclusivity and tolerance, but it certainly has much to teach us about the value of multi-lingualism and the sheer practical benefit of learning another language.

Teresa Witcombe, PhD Student (Exeter and Bristol)

Mediterranean Saints in Early Medieval Rome

I’m very much looking forward to joining the community at Exeter this coming autumn, and I would like to take the opportunity to introduce myself and my work.

Maya Maskarinec

Currently I’m finishing up a project: a study of saints from abroad in early medieval Rome. The city of Rome guided me to this project. Wandering through Rome—one of my favorite pastimes—led me to puzzle about the city’s many saintly presences. On the Tiber Bend, for example, we find, in close vicinity, churches for the marvelous wonder-worker St. George, the soldier-saint Theodore and, conveniently close to the Tiber, for St. Nicholas, a bishop with a reputation for assisting travelers in distress.[i] All three of these saints are ‘saints from abroad’, that is, saints who, according to their hagiographical legends, lived and died in locations outside of Rome. What are these saints doing in Rome?

 Ferdinand Gregorovius
Ferdinand Gregorovius

The rise of ‘Christian’ Rome tends to conjure up images of Peter and Paul and the catacombs with their many martyrs. In the words of Ferdinand Gregorovius’ magisterial (1869-1872) History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, a new Rome ‘rose again from out of the catacombs, her subterranean arsenal’, her Empire ‘transformed into an ecclesiastical system, with the pope as its center.’[ii] But when we look within the city walls we find that the new spiritual topography was shaped, as much, if not more, by saints from abroad.

The period I’ve considered is from roughly the 6th to 9th centuries. This isn’t because saints from abroad weren’t present in the city beforehand. Already the earliest list of saints venerated in Rome, the mid-5th-century Depositio Martyrum, includes North African saints: St. Cyprian and Sts. Perpetua and Felicita.[iii] Nor, of course, does the introduction of saints from abroad come to a halt in the 9th century. However, the reason to focus on the period from shortly before the ‘reconquest’ of Italy by Justinian’s armies in the mid-6th centuries through the 8th century is that this was a period in which Rome was still very much part of the ‘Byzantine’ world of the Eastern Mediterranean. Correspondingly, saints who belonged to the ‘cultural koine’ of the late antique/early medieval Mediterranean world readily settled in Rome.

The story I’ve tried to piece together is how and why these saints were settled in Rome and what impact they had on the city. It is a story of Byzantine administrators and Roman ecclesiastics, but also of communities of immigrants and Romans, their names long forgotten, who patronized saints from abroad for the protection and support these saints offered. Fragmentary as the evidence is, it helps wrench us away from an image of a monolithic papal Rome that grew out of its own ‘native’ sanctity.

The presence of these saints in Rome reflect their patrons’ Mediterranean horizons. Once in Rome their legends maintained the memory of the far-flung locations from which they were purported to originate, adding particular inflexion to the city. Moreover, these saints, just like their Roman counterparts, were in dialogue with the monumental Roman past into which they entered, imbuing it with new Christian meaning.

Take St. Hadrian. According to his passio, St. Hadrian was an administrator who converted to Christianity and was martyred in Nicomedia. His relics were said to have been brought to Constantinople soon after his death. What better location in Rome for a Constantinopolitan administrator-saint than the Senate House!

Reconstruction of the Interior of the Senate house: UCLA Digital Forum. Photo Credit: Curia interior, UCLA Experiential Technologies Center, © Regents, University of California
Reconstruction of the Interior of the Senate house: UCLA Digital Forum. Photo Credit: Curia interior, UCLA Experiential Technologies Center, © Regents, University of California

When Pope Honorius (r. 625-638) dedicated the senate house to St. Hadrian the architectural changes were minimal. The marble revetment and benches where the senators had once sat remained in place. This was then a site that continued to hearken to its imperial legacy and yet, whose saint proposed a radically new vision of empire. A new Rome was taking shape, still grounded in its imperial, Mediterranean, past.


Dr Maya Maskarinec, Lecturer in Medieval Mediterranean History

[i] The earliest surviving written attestations of a church dedicated to Nicholas at the Tiber bend date from the time of Pope Urban II (r. 1088-1099). However, circumstantial evidence (in particular a column inscription from within the church) suggests a significantly earlier date.

[ii] Ferdinand Gregorovius, Geschichte der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter: vom V. bis zum XVI. Jahrhundert (1859–1872), edited by W. Kampf, 4 vols. (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1978; first edition 1953-57); trans. A. Hamilton, History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, 8 vols. (London: Bell, 1894–1902), here 1.1, pp. 10; 17-18.

[iii] Depositio Martyrum, ed. R. Valentini and G. Zucchetti, in Codice topografico della città di Roma II, Fonti per la storia d’Italia 88 (Roma: Tipografia del Senato, 1942): 17-28.

Anarchy in the UK?

I’m delighted to see the fruits of a recent Exeter-based archaeological research project on the conflict landscapes of the 12th century published in book form. The co-written title Anarchy: War and Status in 12th-century Landscapes of Conflict, a volume of synthesis which is the principal output from the project, has just been published by Liverpool University Press, and a more specialist volume on archaeological surveys carried out during the fieldwork phase of the work is available through Archaeopress.

LUP book coverArchaeopress book cover

On the one hand it is a time to breathe a sigh of relief to see volumes that have seen such an investment of energy finally ‘out’. But the moment when fresh copies of your own books arrive on your desk it is also a time when a researcher will also reflect on the reasons for carrying out the work in the first place, ponder areas where the work headed off in directions that you didn’t quite anticipate, and think about future plans…

In this case, the research root of the work was an AHRC-funded project on the historic town and castle of Wallingford, which I had the pleasure to run with colleagues at the Universities of Leicester and Oxford, in partnership with local groups. While the main focus of this project was the evolution of a townscape from the late Saxon through to the post-medieval period, as the work developed we became increasingly aware of the place’s pivotal role in the civil war of King Stephen’s reign, in the 1130s, 40s and 50s. The place was the Angevins’ flagship castle for much of this infamously bitter conflict and resisted three protracted sieges, making it the most besieged place in England at the time. But relating the colourful accounts of these complex actions by chroniclers, involving numerous sieges, counter-sieges, raids and armed clashes, to the actual landscape of the town and its surroundings proved immensely challenging — no more so than in trying to locate the many ‘lost’ siege castles built around the town between 1139 and 1153.

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Reconstruction of Wallingford under siege in the mid-12th century. The site in the foreground is a reconstruction of one of King Stephen’s siege castles. Artwork by Richard Parker.

My deepening curiosity about what archaeology could (and could not) tell us about this bleak but fascinating period and its ‘real’ impact on society and landscape led me to develop a project that would aim to marshal and interrogate the full range of available archaeological evidence, and conduct fresh fieldwork to explore on a range of sites. In terms of historical work on Stephen’s, there of course exists a vast historiography, with a raft of key volumes written and edited by towering figures of medieval history. In contrast, precious little had been written of the period’s archaeology.

Blogger surveying
The blogger helping conduct a geophysical survey of a siege castle at Corfe, Dorset.

With funding from the Leverhulme Trust, to whom we are hugely grateful, the two-year project saw a research team working in archives, record offices and of course in the field, where we carried out new surveys of a selection of sites — primarily castles, siege castles and settlements — across England.  A characterising feature of the work was the way we investigated this conflict’s archaeology at a series of different scales — from analyses of individual artefacts (such as weaponry and dress accessories) to the physical remains of fortifications and their landscape settings, and through plotting datasets at regional and national scales, including the coinage, which tells us so much about shifting patterns of royal control.


Part of a frieze on the west front of Lincoln cathedral dating to the 1140s. The scene on the right represents the ‘Harrowing of Hell’, with Christ releasing souls from the mouth of hell while standing on the devil. An appropriate image for the mid-12th-century Zeitgeist?

AnarchyUK [Converted]
Map of devastated zones in the conflict of Stephen’s reign, based on a database of twelfth-century chronicles.
In terms of the big question for historians — whether we genuinely see ‘anarchy’ in mid-12th-century England, or whether revisionist views that downplay the levels of chaos and violence are vindicated — what did our work show? Anarchy in the UK or business as usual? Is it playing safe to say that the material evidence of archaeology shows a bit of both? On the one hand, everyday material culture, such as pottery for example, shows precious little evidence for any Anarchy-period ‘event horizon’ in the archaeological record, and there are signs that in certain spheres, such as sculpture for example, this was a period of experimentation and investment in the arts. On the other hand, our mapping of conflict events and, for example, coin hoards (which can be argued to provide an index of insecurity) show that in those areas of the country where it was focused, the conflict hit the landscape hard. The fortification of churches and even cathedrals (Hereford’s had catapults positioned on its tower!) was just one indication of how the rules of war were being stretched. The focus of conflict in the Thames Valley and Wessex also shows that this was not a struggle over peripheral or separatist regions, but for the very heartland of English kingship. But the area of life brought into the sharpest focus by the archaeology is the rise to prominence of local lords and of the seigneurial image —not just through castle-building, but through investment in sculpture within parish churches and through an unprecedented boom in monastic foundation, for example. As local lords made their mark on local landscapes, this was unmistakably a period of image-making as well as war-mongering.

Oliver Creighton is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Exeter

Thinking about Medieval Infertility

I’m on research leave this term and working on an ongoing project which looks at attitudes to infertility and childlessness in medieval England.  Although there has been a great deal of work in recent decades on topics such as marriage, family structures, childhood and reproductive medicine in the Middle Ages (and in other periods) less attention has been paid to what happened if a married couple did not have children.  This could have serious repercussions: children were often needed as heirs and as a means of support in old age, as well as wanted for the pleasure they brought. Not surprisingly, then, infertility is mentioned in a wide range of medieval sources.  They include medical treatises and recipes which gave advice to help a woman to conceive or a man to beget a child, and which have received some attention from scholars such as Monica Green, as well as from me.[1]  Less well studied are the religious texts which mention infertility, such as Bible commentaries, sermons, and saints’ lives.  These works discussed a type of story that recurs several times in the Bible and in hagiography, when a previously infertile woman miraculously gives birth to a special child late in life.  Women who fell into this category included the biblical Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, as well as the apocryphal St Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary.

Infertility Image
Birth of the Virgin, one of several biblical figures said to have been conceived miraculously after a long period of infertility: Giovani da Milano, c. 1360 © Wellcome Images

I’m currently in the process of picking up the threads of my research after a longish break and I’ve been thinking about the two questions that people ask me most often when I say I’m working on medieval infertilty.

1. They always blamed it on the woman, didn’t they?

This does seem often to have been the case, but things were not always that simple.  The stories of miraculous children from the Bible onwards did tend to talk about women, specifically, as infertile.  The medical texts were more nuanced. The widely copied twelfth-century medical compendium Trotula, for example, emphasized that could be impeded ‘as much by the fault of the man as by the fault of the woman,’ although it devoted more space to women’s infertility than men’s.[2]  However, because we have so few records which describe the experiences of sick people in the Middle Ages it is difficult to know whether men or women were more likely to seek treatment for reproductive problems in practice.

I’m still working out exactly where the balance of attitudes lay, and how significant male infertility was thought to be.

2. Did they see it as a punishment or judgement from God?

Here the answer is complicated. Medical writers tended, unsurprisingly, to focus on the physical causes of infertility, such as imbalances of the humours or serious deformities in the reproductive organs. They may have believed that God was behind these physical problems but if so, they do not say so.

Rather more surprisingly, religious texts also shied away from presenting infertility as a judgement of God.  Indeed, some writers went out of their way to say that this was not the case: the thirteenth-century compendium of saints’ lives, The Golden Legend, emphasized when it retold the story of the conception of the Virgin Mary that God might cause temporary infertility in order to allow a child to be born miraculously later on.[3]  The fact that they emphasized this so strongly may suggest they were arguing against a common opinion – but it is hard to be sure.


I’m still working out what all this means.  What was the range of views and who held them?  Which ideas were widely shared in the sources, and which were the unusual views held by only one or two writers?  My plan over the next few months is to put together a journal article exploring the religious sources so I’m hoping to know more soon.

Dr Catherine Rider, Lecturer in Medieval History

[1] See especially Monica Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine (Oxford, 2008); Catherine Rider, ‘Men and Infertility in Late Medieval English Medicine’, Social History of Medicine 29 (2016), 245-66.
[2] The Trotula: an English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine, trans. Monica Green (Philadelphia, 2002), p. 85.
[3] The Golden Legend, trans. W. G. Ryan (Princeton, 1993), vol. 2, p. 132.

‘Ugly’ Manuscripts: MS Douce 210, Oxford

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

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

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

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

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


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

Say hello on Twitter @edward_mills!


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

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

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

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

The Spanish Inquisition Revisited

Commenting on the inability of human societies to predict forthcoming calamities, the Los Angeles Times recently ran a comment piece headed ‘No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition – or Donald Trump’. There have been some dire predictions about the baleful impact that the new President might have not only in the US, but across the world. So, while we wait to see how his presidency might evolve, I thought I’d investigate the parallel suggested by the article and see what insights the early history of the Spanish Inquisition might offer to our current situation. The case of Diego Rodríguez Lucero, an infamous Spanish Inquisitor who ran away with his mission and took it to barbarous extremes, provides some food for thought for our own times.

Lucero took over as Inquisitor in Cordoba in 1499 but it was not until after Queen Isabel of Castile’s death in 1504 that he embarked on a McCarthy-style mission to eradicate not ‘Reds under beds’, but Jews under pews. Since Isabel and her husband Fernando of Aragón signed the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, there had officially been no Jews living in Spain, but the cities in Andalusia and in the north contained sizeable populations of people of Jewish origin – some recent converts to Christianity, some from families which had converted over a century previously. The descendants of many of these earlier converts had risen to occupy plum positions in the church and town hierarchies, or in the service of noble masters, and there was an underlying resentment towards them and a continuing sense of their ‘otherness’ which spilled over into violence. Fernando and Isabel’s Spanish Inquisition was created in 1478 to root out false converts, but Lucero’s attack on people of Jewish origin was more widespread and more vicious than anything that the institution had overseen before. On 22 December 1504, he had 107 people burnt at the stake as heretics in Cordoba. A learned cleric known as the Maestro de Toro witnessed this auto de fe and was horrified to hear several of the dying victims cry out to Jesus and the Virgin and call for notaries to record that they had died as Christians. In Granada, the famously pious and gentle Archbishop Hernando de Talavera was targeted as a renegade Jew, along with all his family. In 1506 there were more than 400 people detained by Lucero in Cordoba’s Alcázar, whose families loudly protested their innocence, and there were tales of torture, sexual violence, and accusations which were financially-motivated.

How did Lucero get away with such extreme behaviour, which transgressed the Inquisition’s own rules and regulations, and indeed, the legal and moral codes governing civilised behaviour in his society? How was he able to present his conduct as acceptable? These questions seem to have more than an echo of relevance today. Firstly, to justify his hard line, Lucero created a narrative. He claimed that the whole country was about to be swamped by Jews returning to their old religion. Marauding bands of ‘prophetesses’ were sweeping through the countryside ‘judaising’ and that the houses of many notable figures were being used as ‘synagogues’. This created a climate of fear and King Fernando eagerly gave him the go-ahead for a crackdown. Lucero was no respecter of truth. Where there was no evidence, he had no problem in inventing it. Prisoners who were later released told tales of child detainees being taught Jewish prayers in order to incriminate their elders, and confessions extorted through torture, rape, and humiliating treatment such as being interrogated naked. Lucero had to resort to gagging and beating victims dying at the stake in order to prevent them crying out about the treatment they had suffered. It was thought that one of the reasons he ordered such large-scale burnings was to conceal evidence of the extremes he had gone to. But large-scale autos de fe energised the populace, stoked the climate of fear and fed the demand for more. If there were so many heretics, so the line went, then very harsh measures were needed to stamp out the menace. Like many institutions today which harbour unsavoury characters, the Inquisition closed ranks and protected him, fearing for its reputation if it admitted that its own rules of conduct had been broken. Lucero’s actions were also popular among certain sections of the community. People enjoyed seeing ‘evil’ punished. One local cleric commented that ‘people want there to be a lot of heretics, to see them arrested and burnt’. In addition, Lucero made sure that there were plenty of beneficiaries from his actions: key figures were bribed or rewarded with property and positions confiscated from his victims. The king’s secretary was one of these beneficiaries and prevented appeals on behalf of those accused from reaching the monarch, who rejected their approaches as ‘bribery’. Lucero exploited a political power vacuum in the aftermath of Isabel I’s death (Fernando was technically only King of Aragón), and a local crisis over poor harvests and outbreaks of plague. He was applauded by hard-liners for appearing to provide strong political solutions in the face of a breakdown of law and order. For Fernando, he provided a symbol of his continuing power and control in Castile.

‘For moving his tongue in another way’ – Goya’s take on the Spanish Inquisition

But Lucero did not enjoy his impunity for long. A broad coalition of nobility, townspeople and clergy gathered evidence of his misdeeds and made their case to the Queen, the Pope, to foreign governments and archbishops. They succeeded in forcing the resignation of the Chief Inquisitor. His replacement, Archbishop Cisneros, had Lucero removed as Inquisitor and set up a board of enquiry to examine the evidence against him. The trial documents form the basis of what we know about him today. In this first concerted action against the Inquisition, the campaigners against Lucero edged towards a concept of human rights which would soon find an echo in Bartolomé de las Casas’ defence of indigenous people in the New World, and be articulated further in Spain’s comunero rebellion of 1520. But although they were successful in removing one of its most notorious figures, the Inquisition continued to hold Spanish society in its grip for another 300 years. It seems that by that time people had, indeed, come to expect it.

Teresa Tinsley, PhD Student

Stay Silent or be Damned! Modern Portrayals of the Medieval Cleric

The late medieval English cleric gets a pretty raw deal in film, TV and in popular histories. Where they appear at all, they are often ciphers, materialising merely to fulfil some dramatic function such as crowning a usurping monarch, or conducting the marriage of a pair of love-struck aristos.

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Friar Tuck experiences existential crisis

Those priests, bishops, nuns or friars who do get a speaking role, almost always appear as sinister and pretty unpleasant pieces of work. They are certainly not people you would have wanted to meet in the ale house! One notable exception of course is that deeply anachronistic character, Friar Tuck. He appears in all of those Robin Hood adaptations as a robust and comic foil to the noble Robin, and wanders around late twelfth-century England unaware that he cannot yet exist. The Franciscan friars made their arrival in England in the 1220s, decades after the demise of good King Richard.

One character who struggles greatly to make it on to celluloid at all, let alone into the era of the talkies, is John Morton, chancellor to Henry VII and cardinal archbishop of Canterbury. Morton was present at the notorious meeting of the royal council in June 1483 when Richard duke of Gloucester, soon to be the scoliotic king Richard III, had William Lord Hastings taken out for summary execution. However in a recent TV adaptation of this celebrated moment, a pair of unidentified clerics were portrayed as sitting in the room, saying nothing (as usual), and then being ignored while the action moved on. In real life, both Morton (then bishop of Ely), and his episcopal colleague, Thomas Rotherham, archbishop of York, were arrested and imprisoned, and it seems likely that only their clerical status saved them from an early visit to eternal life. But why would we want to hear from them? Morton subsequently went on to become archbishop of Canterbury after the death of the previous incumbent, Thomas Bourchier. There can be few more overlooked clerics than Bourchier.

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Elizabeth Woodville, the ‘White Queen’

In another great TV moment, Elizabeth Woodville, that famous White Queen, who was by now the sorrowing widow of the defunct Edward IV, was shown in Westminster Abbey where she had sought sanctuary with her younger son, Richard duke of York. The man who arrives to persuade her to give over young Richard into the tender care of his usurping uncle is, according to the TV script writer, Henry duke of Buckingham. The fact that it was actually archbishop Bourchier is clearly an inconvenient fact that cannot be allowed to get in the way of a good piece of ‘historical’ dramatisation. Bourchier gets it in the neck from academic historians: he has been described as the teflon archbishop for managing to survive at Canterbury despite being the man to crown Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII. Little wonder then the poor public get no sight of him.

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Thomas Wolsey, Tudor villain

John Morton’s time at Canterbury takes us into the Tudor era, and by the reign of Henry VIII, the only cleric in existence seems to be Thomas Wolsey. Now there for once is a man who gets to say plenty in any film or TV adaptation, especially when his words condemn him as some self-serving, bloated windbag, ripe for a well-deserved downfall (hurrah for the Reformation!). As for all those sinister, foreign and clearly murderous Jesuitical characters who pad around movies of Elizabeth I, no more need be said.

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Janina Ramirez presents a popular past

But returning to the medieval period, there are times when even those who should (and may) know better succumb to the temptation to sex-up our silent clerics for the purposes of entertainment. In her TV series on the medieval monasteries, the frequently seen Janina Ramirez presented a very tired old narrative of those long-vanished religious houses. From their distant golden age when heroic monks tamed, or at least endured, wildernesses, she drew a contrast with the later centuries when the fat monks of Westminster chomped their way to a decadent and sclerotic monastic twilight. The feuding monks of twelfth-century Bury as recounted by Jocelyn of Brakelond must have been an aberration in Janina’s eyes. Also overlooked by her were the nuns of many Yorkshire religious houses who struggled on through the centuries, despite their grinding poverty.

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The mysterious ‘Bishop of the Black Canons’

To finish, we must look again to Robin Hood and to that mysterious churchman, the Bishop of the Black Canons. His appearance alongside the wicked prince John (played with glorious style by Claude Rains in the 1938 movie), shows us another clerical villain (none more devious and scheming!). The Augustinian canons of the time would have been surprised to learn that they had a bishop, never mind that he was so in cahoots with the princely John Lackland. The wicked ‘bishop’ confirms the rule that if a cleric speaks, he must be a very bad person indeed.

Des Atkinson, PhD student in History

Exeter’s Hotel Fire and Historians: A Different Kind of Impact

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Fire takes hold of the Royal Clarence

Mid-morning on 28 October I received an urgent request from BBC Spotlight to provide historical background on an emerging news story in Exeter: the Royal Clarence Hotel had just caught fire.  Within a few minutes I was in Cathedral Yard and watched in despair as the flames spread across the building.  More than 150 fire-fighters, police and ambulance crews had already filled Cathedral Green.  Over the next hour the knot of journalists increased to several dozen and I remained there for most of the following four days as the fire took hold of the building and refused to be put out.  Requests by other journalists increased and I eventually gave more than 50 interviews to local, regional, national and international media in print, radio and television.  These began at 7am on site but the latest one, at 10.30 pm, took place at home when the BBC organised it so I could Skype.  However, the chaos of papers in my study was picked up upon by the engineer who suggested that I should tidy the background – I hadn’t the heart to point out that I had spent 10 minutes to make it, as I thought, look respectable.

The story had a tag which gave it national status: the fire was destroying ‘England’s First Hotel’.  It seemed inappropriate in the midst of a disaster to nit-pick and state that this might not be the case, so I had to carefully note the Royal Clarence as being ‘long known as England’s first hotel’.

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Todd being interviewed at the scene

It transpired that I was in an advantageous position (situated within the police cordon and placed in the media area) and it was an ITN reporter who realised that only I had any knowledge of the historic nature of the buildings.  In that opening hour I was given access to senior fire officers and relayed details of the buildings’ physical constructions and histories – I was able to draw upon the investigations which had been made by the now defunct Exeter Archaeology Unit.  On one side of the main hotel building lies two merchant town houses of the early 1600s and behind the hotel block is a range of other similar buildings in the High Street, one at least of which was built in about 1500 or earlier, and these are more significant architecturally than the hotel itself.  To my great relief the fire service stressed the saving of these merchant houses – these men and women achieved a near miraculous survival as the backs of the buildings, which adjoin the hotel, were already alight.  Even so, while these fires were largely put out by Saturday, they continued to flare up and smoulder for the following few days.

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High Street buildings that backed onto the Royal Clarence

By chance it was only a few months ago that I had acted as general editor for Jannine Crocker’s Elizabethan Inventories & Wills of the Exeter Orphan Accounts, a two-volume collection of documents published by the Devon & Cornwall Record Society (currently available by request through www.stevensbooks.co.uk) and it appears as though two of these High Street buildings have extensive inventories of the late 1500s.  These provide a sense of use which bring alive these magnificent buildings – Exeter at its best.  The publication of these documents is timely in that they will be useful in the imminent reinvestigation of these buildings.

On the second day of the fire, while the buildings were still burning, I was asked by Exeter City Council (ECC) to give a lecture on the disaster in the following week.  Media appearances had made me a familiar face and I had previously worked with ECC on a number of projects.  The council identified a public need to gather and a lecture would give a focus to this.  Instead I suggested that I contribute to a session in which I would invite those building archaeologists who had extensive understandings of the buildings.  I organised the event, all the speakers volunteered their time, and the venue, the Barnfield Theatre, was filled to capacity (300 seats).  Another 150 people were turned away.  A repeat event was similar.  The first session was filmed by the council and is online via youtube. What has emerged is a passionate interest and support amongst the public for the city’s built heritage.  I have rebranded the bloc of buildings ‘St Martin’s Island’ and this has been widely taken up.

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The site of the Royal Clarence on Cathedral Green and the extent of the damage revealed

This past fortnight Exeter experienced a palpable sense of shock and loss; the Clarence was a familiar building located in the most prominent part of the city.  Until now the city’s most famous fire had been that of its theatre in 1887. This was followed by German bombing in WWII that destroyed more than a thousand buildings and killed hundreds of people. The fire at the Clarence, as traumatic as it was, gives just of what the loss must have felt like for Exonians two generations ago.

The experience has raised questions, for me personally, beyond merely the use of the present to understand the past.  It became obvious that a historian’s presence at the fire was important but it required putting aside all other commitments and dedicating nearly a fortnight entirely to it.  I was aware that Exeter University recieved a considerable boost in its media presence during this fortnight but also that it was taking a different form to that in which impact is normally measured.  Perhaps what the experience has most clearly shown is one way in which historians can make a tangible contribution in terms beyond standard academic considerations.

Dr Todd Gray, Honory Research Fellow in History at Exeter

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