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2017: A Year of Reformation

As any veteran of the funding process knows, the next best thing to the elusive gold dust of ‘reveIance’ is the calendar-bound quality of ‘timeliness’. And nothing demonstrates timeliness or engages the public more effectively than a significant anniversary. Anniversaries are potent application fodder for a variety of topics, but have been particularly important for those wishing to raise the profile of the Middle Ages in recent years. So if 2015 was the year of Magna Carta and 2016 can be remembered for the great re-enactment of Hastings, what medieval commemorative delights can we look forward to in 2017? Well, this year’s historical headlines look set to be dominated by one man and the movement in which he was prominent: Martin Luther and the Reformation.

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Martin Luther: Face of 2017

2017 marks 500 years since Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberger church in an act widely recognised as the start of the Protestant Reformation. This heralded decades of religious conflict, violence and destruction, and reconfigured the cultural and political face of Europe. Whatever your feelings about the Reformation, it must be recognised as a major milestone in European history and the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses an event worthy of commemoration. Unsurprisingly, Germany is the focus of this year’s celebrations. The Luther 2017 project has been gearing up for the anniversary for several years and a full list of commemorative, largely non-academic, events can be found on its website. For those with a more scholarly interest in the topic, a list of the various Luther- and Reformation-themed conferences taking place across Europe and the US this year is provided by the Reformation Research Consortium. Many of the events listed concentrate on the significance of the Reformation for the early modern and modern world and look forward rather than back. However, there is also much to engage those interested in later medieval religion – and several such conferences are occurring within the UK.

The University of Huddersfield and Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, both use the anniversary as a prompt to bring medievalists and early modernists into further dialogue. In Huddersfield in April, scholars will investigate the impact of the Reformation on material and visual culture between 1400 and 1600, while September’s conference in Cambridge will explore how people chose both to remember and to forget aspects of the Reformation. In contrast, in June, scholars in Oxford will use the anniversary as the end-date for the ‘After Chichele’ conference, which focuses on the intellectual and religious character of the later medieval English Church.

Characterising 2017 as a year of Reformation also offers food for thought in terms of contemporary politics. It is undeniable that 2016 saw seismic political shifts in Europe and the US, the effects of which have yet to make themselves fully known. Although there are relatively few truly useful parallels to be drawn between now and the early sixteenth century, those relating to new media and social division carry at least some resonance. As in 1517, new communications technologies have already had a major impact on events and look set to influence things yet further – be that through attempts to regulate the fake news circulating on Facebook or the inauguration of a president who threatens to govern via Tweet. Likewise, we must feel a similar sense of unease to our sixteenth-century counterparts as we witness the unexpected overturning of a status quo and see our communities fractured by fear and mutual misunderstanding. We live in uncertain times – and, if 1517 is anything to go by, then this will only set the pattern for many years to come.

Helen Birkett, Lecturer in Medieval History

Writing a Biography of William the Conqueror: Lessons of Past and Present

By Guest-Blogger David Bates

When, at the start of the presentation of my new William the Conqueror, in the Yale University Press English Monarchs series, to the University of Exeter on Wednesday 16 November, Levi Roach asked how long I hadIMG_0798 been writing the book, I was tempted to answer that it has taken both fifty years and three years to write. The reason for the first date is that I decided, while still a postgraduate student at Exeter between 1966 and 1969 supervised by Professor Frank Barlow, that the book I eventually replaced in the English Monarchs series, David Douglas’s William the Conqueror, had not fully exploited the sources available in France and in due course set out to do something about it. The second is explained by a conversation in 2013 with Robert Baldock, who formally commissioned my William in 2000, that convinced me that I had to confront directly the changes in the writing of history that have taken place since the 1960s and the ethical problems of writing about William, a man responsible for huge historical changes and the loss of many lives and much misery.

It is a source of great personal delight that my presentation of William to the University of Exeter was placed within the dual framework of modern issues related to student employability and of a research seminar. The presence at the event of people with memories of the 1960s and of current undergraduates and postgraduates was exactly what it required. In contrasting the apparent informality of teaching and learning in the 1960s with the structured present, with its Student Satisfaction Surveys, I used my career, which has IMG_0805involved national responsibilities for the way in which history is studied, to argue that attitudes on all sides must be challenging and fair-minded. I deployed a comment by Frank Barlow that I was ‘fearless’ to suggest that the essentials of my student experience were that I was made to feel part of serious intellectual discourse and, during my postgraduate years, a full member of the historical profession. For all the changes that have taken place since then, Exeter was a fine university – as it is now. In choosing to present the book to the University, I was recognising this. Frank Barlow, to whom the book is dedicated, was very important, as were many others. I deliberately paid tribute to my undergraduate tutor Bertram Woolfe and to George Greenway. The decision to present my book to a current undergraduate, thereby looking to the future of History at Exeter, felt like an appropriate – indeed beautiful – way to acknowledge the long-term achievements of many colleagues and students, alongside the responsibilities that we all bear.

With Frank involved in writing Edward the Confessor when I was a postgraduate and David Douglas’s William so recently published, I almost feel as if I am an intellectual child of the English Monarchs series. It is also striking how large a part the writing of historical biography has played in the publications of Exeter historians, with Levi Roach’s Æthelred the Unready being only the latest in a distinguished series. I made some remarks about how much the pervasiveness of cultural history and the use by medieval historians of models derived from anthropology have made biography all the more relevant; it is only by examining the Bates, Williamlives of individual and communities that we can explore norms, scripts, and rules, quite apart from the debates around the complexities of such Spielregeln. When it comes to the specific arguments and contents of the book, I provocatively remarked that the long-term historiography can seem stale and complacent. Why is it, for example, that the story of William’s prostration before Archbishop Ealdred of York, the man who crowned him king of the English, was scarcely discussed at all by historians writing in the twentieth century? This situation has thankfully been rectified in a distinguished book by Sarah Hamilton. I then turned to the so-called ‘facts’ of William’s life, alluding briefly to numerous revisions and reinterpretations that I have suggested. These include the significance of William’s so-called ‘bastardy’, the certainty based on a neglected charter that the future King Harold and Guy, count of Ponthieu, knew each when, so the Bayeux Tapestry suggests, Guy seized Harold upon his landing in France. And so on. And so on.

William the Conqueror’s life matters for historians as much as it has always done. It was controversial for his contemporaries and the sources need to be read with this in mind. I concluded by reflecting on the necessity of examining closely the levels of violence that were permitted as part of the mechanics of rule in the medieval West. The results I think would be shocking to many. And then to suggest that England’s and Britain’s histories and the crisis of 1066 can only be fully understood in the context of a history of their relations with Europe from around 900 to around 1300. 1066 is an important moment in this history, not a dividing-line. With the cross-Channel empire created in 1066, and which endured until 1204, in mind, it is irresistible not to ask the rhetorical and counter-factual question of whether we would have Magna Carta if Harold had won the Battle of Hastings. Please discuss further!

I am grateful to Exeter colleagues for organising a deeply moving event that will remain in my mind for the rest of my life. I wish them all well now and in the future.

Prof. David Bates, UEA

Gender, Emotion, and a prize-winning Conference

Having recently passed the viva for my thesis ‘Painful Transformations: A Medical Approach to Experience, Life Cycle and Text in British Library, Additional MS 61823, The Book of Margery Kempe’, it seems like a timely moment to reflect on the past few months and years of my postgraduate study at Exeter. I am grateful to Professor Vincent Gillespie (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford) for being my external examiner, Elliot Kendall for being my internal examiner, Eddie Jones for being an ever-patient and supportive supervisor, Catherine Rider as my other, wonderful second supervisor, and James Clark for his encouragement and advice on all things postdoctoral. The Centre for Medieval Studies at Exeter is such an exciting and dynamic environment and I am excited about all of the events that lie ahead.

It might also be an apt moment for me to remind colleagues about the Gender and Medieval Studies Group, which holds an annual, peripatetic conference. The steering committee, made up of medievalists including Liz Herbert McAvoy (Swansea) and Diane Watt (Surrey), ensures the continuation of this important, multidisciplinary event each year. The group, which has gathered each year since the 1980s and which seeks to further the study of gender in medieval culture, was organised this year by Daisy Black at the University of Hull, on the theme of Gender and Emotion.

The history of emotions is a topic of growing interest in the field of Medieval Studies, with projects such as Hearing the Voice at Durham University, the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions accelerating the prominence of such enquiry. The Royal Historical Society Postgraduate Speaker Series Conference, Emotion and Evidence in the Late-Medieval and Early-Modern World’ (Cardiff, May 2016), at which I was fortunate to be presenting, also offered the opportunity for early career researchers and established scholars to exchange ideas, with a plenary from Professor Miri Rubin (Queen Mary).

Niccolo dell'Arca pieta
Niccolo dell’Arca, Compianto sul Cristo morto. Terracotta group in the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna. Mid fifteenth century.

Questions of gender, and the interplay with the history of emotions, made for a stimulating conference programme at the 2016 GMS. Notable papers included Amy L Morgan (Surrey), ‘“reueyd out of hir witt”: Extreme Emotion and Queer Responses in Sir Orfeo, and Jonah Coman (St Andrews), on ‘Grimestone’s book, Grimestone’s body: Freudian melancholy and creation of identity in the Advocates MS 18.7.21’. Linda E. Mitchell (Missouri), in considering the person as political in her paper, ‘“Give Me Back My Son!”: Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Political Use of Emotion’, prompted fruitful discussion on the idea of queens as suffering mothers. The keynote lecture from Katharine Goodland (City University of New York), ‘Ghostly Presences: Mariological Mourning and the Search for Justice in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy’, took reference from several medieval mystery plays in considering the ghostly presence of the Virgin Mary and Kyd’s allusions to medieval depictions of Christ’s Passion.

As well as presenting my own paper on questions of emotion and melancholic woundedness in The Book of Margery Kempe, I was also honoured to be awarded with the annual GMS Graduate Student Essay Prize – an internationally-open competition. The prize was awarded for my essay ‘“Slayn for Godys Lofe”: Melancholia and Mourning in The Book of Margery Kempe’, and includes two years’ free GMS conference attendance. The article is now published in the peer-reviewed journal Medieval Feminist Forum. As I was applauded and congratulated, I felt some heartfelt emotion of my own, proud to be the recipient of the award.

I am now co-editing a volume arising from the conference: Gender and Emotion in Medieval Culture: Uses, Representations, Audiences, with Daisy Black and Amy L. Morgan (under consideration by Boydell and Brewer).

Miniature of a fool, Bible Historiale, Paris and Clairefontaine, 1411, Royal MS 19 D III f.266r
Detail of a miniature of a fool, from Bible Historiale, Paris and Clairefontaine, 1411, Royal MS 19 D III, f. 266r

The GMS conference is a great opportunity to share research and make networking connections with other scholars who are interested in all questions of gender in the Middle Ages. It is hugely inclusive, and welcomes diverse approaches and cross-disciplinary papers from both postgraduates and established scholars. The graduate student essay prize is an excellent opportunity, and I encourage Exeter PGRs to enter a piece for the next round. I highly recommend becoming involved – perhaps at the next conference in beautiful Canterbury, in January 2017 – when Anthony Bale (Birkbeck) and Leonie Hicks (Canterbury Christ Church) will be giving keynotes. There is also a mailing list that you can join via the website to keep up to date on events.

This year’s conference closed with a riveting performance of ‘Bawdy Tales’ with Debs Newbold, a one-woman storyteller. Based on Boccacio’s Decameron, the tales were bawdy and comedic indeed, with plenty of audience participation and foolery, providing pathos and hilarity in equal measure. The show was a fitting emotional rollercoaster for what had been a conference of intellectual rigour and medieval felyng par excellence, and certainly one from which I returned with an unusually big smile on my face.

Laura Kalas Williams

Researcher in medieval literature and medicine and Associate Tutor (English department, University of Exeter)

Twitter: @LauraKalasW


The Foundations of English Law, in Exeter

Of the many celebrated names connected with medieval Exeter, Bracton is one of only a handful to claim global recognition. Bracton is known to students and practitioners of law throughout the Anglophone world as a founding father of English Common Law and the assumed author of an invaluable compendium ‘On the Laws and Customs of England’. While he is widely known as Bracton, his name should properly be written as Bratton, and he probably he hailed from one of the two Devon parishes (Bratton Fleming or Bratton Clovelly) that carry this name. A justice on the south western circuit and serving the coram rege – later the court of King’s Bench in the middle years of the thirteenth century, Bracton was probably not the originator of the book that has always borne his name but rather its subsequent editor. It was perhaps his great expertise gained from years on the court circuit, as well as his status as chancellor of Exeter Cathedral – a position he secured at the close of his career (1257) – that ensured his editorial interventions were remembered above all others. Bratton was buried in the nave of the cathedral, endowing a chantry funded from the manor of nearby Thorverton; sadly the site was lost in the building’s later remodelling.


Bracton and ‘his’ book are attracting renewed attention from Exeter researchers. Following a successful exhibition at the cathedral library and archives highlighting his work and Exeter associations curated by Centre PhD student Zoe Cunningham, this week Anthony Musson, Professor of Legal History, will deliver a keynote lecture, Bracton: Making Laws in Medieval Devon, on 11 November in the Cathedral’s Pearson Education Room at 1pm as part of the Archives Explored programme.

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