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In my previous post for the Centre for Medieval Studies blog, I promised a much-needed follow-up to my interview with the storyteller Rachel Rose Reid, whose retelling of the medieval French Roman de Silence is currently touring around the country. This week, we’ll be talking about some of the more challenging questions raised by the text, and their impact on how she has interpreted the text and devised her own piece.
Returning to your interpretation of Silence, I was struck by the way in which you begin Part 1 of the story. Why did you start your retelling of Silence by recounting your own story — that is, the story of how you came across this wonderful text?
There were a couple of reasons: firstly, Heldris (the narrator-figure in Silence) doesn’t ‘start the story with the story’ either! Instead, we have this intriguing prologue that offers an invective against avarice. While I don’t begin my retelling in quite the same way, I do think that my own introduction serves a similar purpose — that is, to involve the audience in my storytelling, and to begin ‘weaving’, together with them, the world of the story. Immersion isn’t everything: whenever I come back to moments of honesty like this one, where I tell my own story, I’m being authentically present with the audience. There’s something in that interaction which means that people follow you: they trust you, and you’re able to ‘catch’ them if you feel that they need to be brought back into the story.
… and, of course, Heldris does this throughout their own story, interacting — or at least presenting an interaction — with his own audience. There are points where he’s very direct about this: just before he reaches Silence’s birth, Heldris promises the audience (in the English translation) ‘a lively tale without any further fuss or ado’!
… and this itself raises a fascinating question: why does the story (as Heldris tells it) start so far beforehand? Heldris could easily have started the story with the birth of Silence, but chooses not to: instead, there’s a focus on this question of inheritance, which makes up a large part of the first part of Silence. On a personal level, the inheritance question — which of course ‘sets up’ the motive for Silence to present as a different gender later in the story — is something that I’m very interested in. I’m part of a collective called Three Acres and a Cow, which has really opened my eyes to the different relationships that people have had to land over the centuries; it seems that, although we’re many generations down the line from the world of Silence, there’s still very much a legacy there, and the attitudes towards land and inheritance that Silence documents are still evident in the present day. A few years ago, I visited several Cornish towns with a story about suffrage, and people told us that their own aunts had missed out on inheritances for this same reason: it had gone to particular male relatives, in this case just before changes were made to inheritance law. I’m fascinated by the cultural landscape that informs tales such as Silence, by what it would mean to hear about changes to the law such as these; and by whether Evan’s actions would have been considered provocative or commonplace.
And yet, modern academic work on Silence – with some exceptions – really hasn’t shown the same interest in the inheritance question. One particularly dry description of the opening conflict between the counts sees it as nothing more than a ‘debate over primogeniture’, and in general, it’s the questions of gender that have dominated scholarship, with Simon Gaunt noting (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that Silence ‘appears to engage deliberately with problems that interest modern theorists.’
Questions surrounding gender are more ‘front-and-centre’ in Part 2 of my retelling, of course, but the two ideas about inheritance and women are of course intimately connected. I’m interested in both questions: about who would have listened to this story, and how contentious the material about land ownership would have been. It’s been really satisfying to work with medievalists, including medievalists who aren’t necessarily familiar with the Roman de Silence itself, but who work on the general period during which it was produced. Even if the insights that come out of these conversations don’t make it into my retelling every night, it’s really fun talking to academics who can help to inform my telling of the story, answering some of the more esoteric questions. One question that’s intriguing me at the moment is that of what Cornwall would have meant to the audience of Silence: would it simply have been ‘somewhere far away’, or would it have had a more concrete opening?
That’s a tricky question to answer, but there has increasingly been a tendency in research to stress the ‘connectedness’ of the medieval world, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the audience of Silence to be aware of Cornwall, at least in the context of a lot of the Arthurian material that locates Arthur in this area. The very fact that the manuscript of Silence has survived in Britain at all is testament to cross-Channel movement: it is, after all, written in a dialect of French that shows relatively little Anglo-Norman influence, with far more of a Picard ‘feel’ to it. One theory suggests that the manuscript was composed around the late 13th century as part of a marriage dowry, only reaching England as a piece of plunder late in the Hundred Years’ War.1 Histories of manuscript provenance are, in the end, personal stories — much like the stories that you bring alive in your retelling.
For me, Silence is very much a story about how humans — whether the characters in Silence, or the owners of the manuscript — try to structure the world. Each of us has ways in which we try to structure our world in order to make everything okay; in the case of the characters in Silence, it’s society that has trapped people into certain ways of being. That’s one of the reasons why I try to present Eufeme (King Evan’s Queen, who fulfills the ‘Potiphar’s wife’ trope) as a more rounded character. Heldris might try to give us some understanding of her motivations, but there’s more to be said here: Eufeme might seem to be terrible, but if you look at how she got to be where she is, the only place where she can enact real change is in the personal realm. Only Merlin sits apart from this, and his laughter — which I’ve always read as cosmic, not cruel — seems to me to be saying, ‘look at all these humans, who think they can control and set up these structures.’
Working with Rachel has been an absolute privilege, and it’s been wonderful to re-acquaint myself with the Roman de Silence after a few years, particularly in the form of a retelling as lively, engaging, and powerful as hers. Rachel has transformed a story whose characters are often read as ciphers — ‘Silence’, ‘Euphemie’, ‘Eupheme’ — into an intensely human tale, while preserving its focus on questions that connect the medieval and the modern.
For more information about Silence, see the show’s website.
Rachel has toured Parts 1 and 2 of Silence during 2018, supported by Arts Council England, and is currently writing the final section. She is seeking partners, hosts, and grants to make it possible for her to perform the whole of her adaptation (possibly two sets of two-hour performances, so may require an overnight experience) at various locations during 2019. Please send ideas, suggestions and offers to ; for more information, see silencespeaks.strikingly.com and rachelrosereid.com.
Edward Mills, PhD Student
1 More recent work on the manuscript, however, has argued for an earlier dating of the early 13th century, based on an analysis of paratextual features such as illustration. See Alison Stones, ‘Two French Manuscripts: WLC/LM/6 and WLC/LM/7’, in Ralph Hanna and Thorlac Turville-Petre (eds.), The Wollaton Medfieval Manuscripts: Texts, Owners and Readers (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2010), pp. 41-56.
Well, term has started and campus is suddenly full of students again. Here in the Centre for Medieval Studies we’re catching up with existing colleagues and students, as well as welcoming some new ones. We have several new PhD students starting in History and Archaeology and would like to welcome them to our community of postgraduates, along with new students on the MA History with medieval interests. It’s also a good time to celebrate some successes from the last year. In particular, congratulations to Tom Chadwick, who got his PhD last year. Tom has posted several times on the blog (for example, here) about his research on the Normans.
This term we have an exciting seminar programme, running every other Wednesday – details here. All staff and students with medieval interests are welcome! One highlight is at the end of term, when Roger Collins (University of Edinburgh) will be giving our first Simon Barton Memorial Lecture, on ‘Faith, Culture and Identity in Medieval Spain’. This was a topic close to Simon’s own research and we hope to make it an annual event.
We’ll also be hearing from staff and students on the blog – next week, PhD student Ed Mills.
Wishing everyone the best for the new term.
Catherine Rider, Director, Centre for Medieval Studies
Inspired by Levi’s call for Leeds and Kalamazoo papers on the blog a few weeks ago I thought I’d post one of my own for Leeds 2019…
I’m currently in the process of putting together a session (or two, if there’s a lot of interest) on Fertility and Infertility for next year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds. I’ve been working on a long-term project on medieval attitudes to infertility for some time, and have written about it on the blog before. Infertility and childlessness crop up in a wide range of medieval texts and my sense, from discussing the subject informally with other medievalists over several years, is that quite a few people are now working on this and related topics from a variety of angles, building on what is now a large and sophisticated body of work from historians of medicine in particular. It would be nice to bring some of these scholars together and think about future directions for the field.
So, if you’re working on medieval fertility/infertility/reproduction related topics and would be interested in giving a paper, please get in touch with me by 15th September – email@example.com. Papers that approach the subject from any angle or source base are welcome, and could include people working on history of medicine, literature, demography, marriage, etc. And if you are more organized than me and have already made your Leeds plans but would be willing to chair a session, please also get in touch.
Catherine Rider, Associate Professor in Medieval History
A couple of weeks ago, on Saturday 17th March, a few staff in the Centre had a stall at the University’s Community Day to showcase some of the research we do relating to Exeter Cathedral. We had interest from people of all ages, asking questions about our projects, the pictures and maps we were showing, and about life in medieval Exeter more generally. Here is a short taster of the research by Sarah Hamilton, Oliver Creighton and me that was on display. We’re also in the early stages of planning a larger scale project which looks at the history, archaeology and manuscripts of Exeter Cathedral, and if you’d be interested in hearing more please feel free to get in touch with me.
Exeter Cathedral and its World: Sarah Hamilton focused on Cathedral MS 3518, a liturgical manuscript which lists, among other things, the saints commemorated by the Cathedral community each day. This includes the major Christian saints as one would expect but it also includes a number of more local saints from the South West of England, such as Nectan of Hartland and Petroc of Bodmin. Looking at these saints is one way to understand how the medieval clergy of Exeter Cathedral thought about their local history, and people had fun trying to spot the saints’ names in the images of the manuscript (surprisingly tricky: I never did find Rumon of Tavistock…).
Medieval Medicine in Exeter Manuscripts: I was looking at Cathedral MS 3519, a collection of medical treatises and recipes from the early fifteenth century, particularly some of the ones relating to pregnancy and fertility. Recipes like these are often striking for their weirdness (at least to modern eyes) – eating animals’ reproductive organs to stimulate men’s and women’s fertility, for example – but they are also a fascinating way to think about medieval people’s health concerns.
What Lies Beneath? A Geophysical Survey of Cathedral Green, Exeter: Oliver Creighton contributed some images from a geophysical survey of the Cathedral Green that he undertook last year with other staff and students from Archaeology. This was probably the most popular part of our stall, as people tried to interpret the black and white images and work out if there was a Roman road underneath the cloisters.
And if anyone wants to hear more about one of Exeter Cathedral’s most famous manuscripts, the Cathedral is holding an afternoon event celebrating the Exon Domesday on 17th April: see their website here for more details and to book.
Senior Lecturer in History
Medievalists love their subject. As a medievalist, you not only spend most of your working week researching the medieval past, but you probably visit medieval sites in your spare time too. And during these visits, you’ve probably taken photo after photo of castles, abbeys, churches, houses etc. In fact, there’s a good chance that you have a whole cache of photos sitting on your computer from visits to various medieval sites. So what can you do with those photos? Well, instead of boring your nearest and dearest with them, why not submit them to the Wiki Loves Monuments photography competition?
Wiki Loves Monuments, the world’s largest photography competition, starts on 1 September and runs until the end of the month. It’s a chance to tap into a huge audience and shape how the online community perceives the medieval past. Images are an important way of presenting historic sites, both for understanding them and inspiring further interest. So, if there is a site you care about, why not share your pictures of it through this competition?!
What’s special about Wiki Loves Monuments is that it links up to Wikipedia and its huge audience. In July, 4.4 million people read Wikipedia’s article about archaeological sites in the UK – 4.4 MILLION! That’s an enormous number of people – and it’s an audience that wants to learn more about our subject. We can help promote this by sharing images of our favourite medieval sites to illustrate Wikipedia articles. Any images submitted to the competition will be under an open licence, meaning anyone can reuse them.
More and more, researchers are using Wikipedia to share information. The Hillforts Atlas Project run by the University of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh have shared a large chunk of their data with Wikipedia so that it will be easier for people to find information about these sites. Images of medieval manuscripts from the British Library are being shared under an open licence to accelerate research. Adding your photos to Wiki Loves Monuments is a great way to take part in a bigger movement helping to promote the medieval past.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a competition without prizes: the top ten photographs will get prizes, and the best image will win £250.
All entries are welcome as long as you took the photos yourself. They could be photos taken especially for the competition, or ones you took ten years ago and haven’t found a use for yet. So go to the competition website and explore what heritage sites near you need photographs.
And, just think, your images could soon have an audience of millions!
Richard Nevell, PhD student in Archaeology
Last week I went to the annual summer conference of the Ecclesiastical History Society, which was held here in Exeter. This year’s theme was Churches and Education, and it attracted a large turnout from scholars working on all periods, from the early church to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The president of the EHS this year is Exeter’s own Morwenna Ludlow from the department of Theology and Religion, and Morwenna gave a plenary lecture relating to her own area of specialism. This lecture, given jointly with Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe (Cambridge) focused on what early Christian writers in the Latin and Greek traditions said about the pleasures of Bible study – a fitting opening to an academic conference.
Three other Exeter medievalists also gave papers: history PhD student Des Atkinson, talking about the education of the fifteenth-century archbishop of Canterbury John Morton and his contemporaries; theology research fellow Hajnalka Tamas, talking about a fourth-century theological controversy relating to the teaching of a layman, Heraclianus; and me, talking about the medieval church and education relating to pregnancy. As ever, the EHS offered an interested, sympathetic and knowledgeable audience. It is a good place for PhD students and early career scholars, in particular, to offer papers. The audiences offer helpful feedback and the proceedings, published as Studies in Church History, offer an early publication opportunity for many scholars; indeed, one of my first papers was published there, back in 2006.
Overall there were fewer papers on late antiquity and the Middle Ages than at some of the other EHS conferences I’ve attended. Perhaps for some reason (despite the attractive medieval image on the call for papers) the theme appealed particularly to specialists on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is also possible that the Leeds conference, held two weeks before, is providing ever more competition for medievalists’ time, as well as their conference budgets. Nevertheless there were a number of interesting papers on medieval subjects: on Bede, on hagiography, on Pope Gregory VII, and on twelfth-century pastoral care, among other topics. There were also papers on other periods which dealt with questions and topics relevant to medievalists: I particularly enjoyed a plenary lecture on the role of (early modern) convents in educating girls.
Next year’s conference is on the Church and Law, and will be held in Cambridge, so I’d recommend medievalists take a look!
Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History
The annual International Medieval Congress hosted by the University of Leeds in July (and known affectionately as the ‘IMC’ or ‘Leeds’) is the highlight of the European medieval calendar – and this year saw a particularly large number of Exonian intellectual pilgrims make the journey north.
The theme of the 2017 congress was ‘Otherness’, which meant that what tends to be a rather historical gathering took on a more literary tone (be that good or bad, depending on your perspective). Medievalists certainly took the theme to heart – the word ‘other’ could be found on session or paper titles on almost every page of the programme. However, while inspiring a wide variety of takes on the topic, it proved less conducive for amusing paper titles (and meant my slightly risqué effort got more attention than expected).
Fortunately, other members of Exeter’s Centre for Medieval Studies made their mark in less frivolous ways. The elusive James Clark helped to kick off proceedings with a paper in the very first session, while his PhD student, Henry Marsh, was among those presenting towards the end of the conference on Thursday. Other speakers from our extended PhD community included Lorena Fierro-Diaz, Edward Mills, Eddie Proctor, Lenneke van Raaij, Teresa Witcombe, Tabitha Stanmore, and Ryan Kemp. Among the staff, Richard Flower, John Wilkins and Sharon Marshall carried the banner for Late Antiquity and Classics, while I represented History and the High Middle Ages. In addition, Philip Schwyzer and Naomi Howell hosted two sessions drawn from their new HERA project, ‘Deploying the Dead: Artefacts and Human Bodies in Socio-Cultural Transformations‘.
Stealth participants (attendees not listed on the programme) included PhD student Imogene Dudley, Sarah Hamilton, and our man of the moment, Levi Roach, who received a number of hearty congratulations for receiving the Longman/History Today book prize last week. Both staff members also took the opportunity to hold supervisions in person with PhD students who are usually absent from Exeter due either to their status as DTP-award holders or employment through international research projects. Alongside current members of the Centre, a number of former Exonians were also present: Prof. Julia Crick, Drs Daniel Roach and Matt Mesley, and Kieran Ball, an undergraduate at Exeter and now a DPhil student in Oxford.
Meeting up with old colleagues and friends, as well as networking with other scholars, is the lifeblood of Leeds – and while the latter normally takes place during scheduled sessions and roundtable discussions, it also frequently occurs in the coffee breaks and wine receptions that break up the action.
This year, networking even made its way on to the dancefloor when, after several hours of enthusiastic dancing at the annual disco, I was propositioned by Aberystwyth PhD student Nathan Greasley about possible sessions for 2018. Nathan had attended my paper on Monday and it was this, rather than my dance-moves (always a triumph of stamina over style), which prompted the request. It may have been after 2am, but, evidently, keen medievalists never rest…
With the conclusion of yet another Leeds (and with my ears still reeling from what had been a frighteningly loud disco), my thoughts turn to the value of this event. It is hard overstate the importance of the IMC to the European medievalist community. Despite the wide time period and different disciplines covered by Medieval Studies, medievalists have managed to forge a strong and cohesive sense of identity – and, on this side of the Atlantic, Leeds has played a significant role in this. It provides a venue for European medievalists to meet regularly en masse and to present and discuss the latest research in their fields. The to-and-fro of scholarly exchange and the general bustle of the congress helps to re-energise tired teachers and to reassure PhD students of the wider value of their work. And, as the relationship between the UK and Europe fractures, it seems even more important to attend the congress and maintain long-forged links between scholarly communities on opposite sides of the Channel. But Leeds is also, simply, an opportunity to celebrate the arcane pursuit of Medieval Studies and the joy of working with medieval sources.
Having said this, attendance at Leeds remains an expensive affair and means that younger scholars, especially those without external funding, don’t always find it easy to join in the fun. The cost of registration and accommodation is pretty high and unlikely to decrease, especially as the financial effects of Brexit hit the UK economy. The bursaries offered by the IMC organising committee go a small way towards mitigating this cost. Yet, despite the barriers to attendance, I believe it is important for PhD students to experience this event at least once. It offers an opportunity – unrivalled in Europe – to share ideas and network with a wide variety of junior and senior scholars. This can lead to future collaboration and can help to establish reputations in a very competitive job market. The best way to participate in Leeds is, firstly, by presenting a paper and, secondly, by doing so in a pre-organised session rather than submitting an individual paper for consideration by the organising committee. Being part of a pre-organised session helps to ensure the coherence of your panel, which, in turn, will help to attract a larger audience. So, if you know others working on similar research themes, be pro-active in organising a session and don’t be afraid to invite more senior scholars to join you – even if it is just in the role of session moderator. The theme of next year’s congress is ‘Memory’ (which looks set to reassert history’s dominance at Leeds), but sessions and papers can be proposed on any topic – the theme is there to prompt rather than define content. The deadlines for submitting proposals are 31 August for individual papers and 30 September for sessions. These dates aren’t that far in the future so it might be best to follow Nathan Greasley’s example and start your preparations now… See you there next year!
Helen Birkett, Lecturer in Medieval History
Recently, on 24 June, I went to the annual mini-conference of the Devon and Cornwall Record Society, held at the Guildhall in Exeter. This year’s theme was Late Medieval and Reformation Parishes, to reflect the theme of the Devon and Cornwall Record Society’s next forthcoming volume, Stratton Churchwarden’s Accounts, 1512-1578, edited by Dr Joanna Mattingly.
There were two papers, by Joanna Mattingly and Clive Burgess, a historian of medieval parishes based at Royal Holloway, University of London. Dr Mattingly talked about the churchwardens’ accounts from Stratton, in north Cornwall, and gave a taster of what will be in the book. The Stratton accounts are comparatively unusual in that they span the Reformation without a break. Stratton is also unusual because several different types of documentation survive from the parish. There are two different sets of accounts relating to different parts of the parish’s activity – the High Cross, or churchwardens’ accounts, and the General Receivers’ accounts which give an overview of the parish finances as a whole. There are also documents and maps relating to a court case in 1583. This allows us to see information which is normally missing from conventional churchwardens’ accounts. Talking about this rich material, Dr Mattingly described the progress of the Reformation in Stratton, as the parishioners bought new Protestant service books and resisted having their carved wooden rood loft demolished (ultimately unsuccessfully). Alongside this activity, the everyday maintenance of the parish church continued, as churchwardens collected rents and paid for equipment, repairs and cleaning.
In his paper, Clive Burgess also highlighted the importance of the Stratton accounts. He emphasized that most work on medieval and Reformation parish records so far has examined either large urban areas such as Bristol and London (the focus of his own research), or small rural villages, such as Morebath in north Devon, which is the focus of Eamon Duffy’s 2001 book, The Voices of Morebath. Small towns, such as Stratton, are comparatively under-studied. Dr Burgess also gave an overview of the late medieval church to set the Stratton accounts in a larger context. Here he stressed in particular the amount of money which medieval laypeople spent on their parish churches. They paid for building works, altars, chantries and equipment, in exchange for being commemorated and prayed for. There were many reasons for this, including the doctrine of Purgatory (which held that prayers could help the souls of the dead), and the fact that after the Black Death a combination of circumstances meant that many parishioners had some disposable income to spend. He argued that medieval religion was essentially communal, and that late medieval parishes were one expression of this. Wealthy parishioners gave generously and in exchange, the less wealthy were expected to pray for them. One of the changes which took place in the Reformation, according to this view, was a shift to a more individualistic view of religion.
Overall, these two fascinating talks helped to bring the complex religious changes in this period to life, as well as highlighting the amount of unpublished source material waiting for studies and critical editions.
The Devon and Cornwall Record Society was founded in 1904 to transcribe and publish local records, and to promote local historical studies and genealogical research. Its publications cover many aspects of the West Country’s political, social, religious, economic and maritime history. For more information and details of how to join, please see their website.
Stratton Churchwarden’s Accounts, 1512-1578, by Joanna Mattingly (Devon and Cornwall Record Society new series vol. 60) will be published by Boydell and Brewer in spring 2018.
Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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