Home » In conversation with…
Category Archives: In conversation with…
The Centre for Medieval Studies at Exeter hosts a lively programme of activities throughout the year, a number of which are only possible through the generous support of Emeritus Professor Nicholas Orme. Nicholas is a renowned and well respected scholar with expertise in the history of the medieval Church, education, and childhood. He is also well known for his local studies of the Southwest. This year, as part of the annual ‘Orme Day’ festivities, we invited Nicholas to tell us more about the origins of these interests and how they developed. He also explained how he first came to Exeter and why he continues to support our activities at the Centre.
Q. When did you start studying medieval history?
‘I was a historian by the age of six. I know this because, when I was at infant school, we had to write every day in a little book called a ‘newsbook’ and I wrote a story about a prince and a princess. But instead of ending it ‘…and they married and lived happily ever afterwards’, I said ‘they married, but then he died and his brother became king’. And the teacher wrote in the margin, “Oh, Nicholas, what a sad story”. But what I had realised at that age was that, unlike literature, history doesn’t stop. I had elder brothers who had history books at home and I must have read something like The Life of Henry V: Henry wins Agincourt, marries the king of France’s daughter, and then he dies – and it all changes. So history was there at a very, very early age.
But my ‘Damascus road’ moment came a lot later, when I was 20 and was in the vacation of my second year [at university]. My parents had retired to the Forest of Dean, which was a very run-down area in those days, and we had no car. I really found it a very depressing place to spend the vacation.
But my brother came over with a car and we went to a village called Newland. It’s a pretty village with an interesting church and when we were wandering round it, I saw a cottage gate which said on it ‘The Old Grammar School’. And I thought to myself, ‘why on earth should there be a grammar school in this village?’ In the history I had done hitherto, nobody had ever mentioned education. And on investigating this place, it turned out it was a medieval, fifteenth-century, grammar school foundation.’
Q. When did you start researching medieval schools in depth?
‘In my third year, I did a Special Subject on Richard II’s reign. Although I did labour very conscientiously on the political history, the thing that really got me was the discovery of collegiate churches. I knew about monasteries and one had done Bede, Cistercians and that sort of thing. But I suddenly realised that there were these things called collegiate churches, which were very commonly founded in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They fascinate me because they are all sui generis – and I always find monks boring because they’re so uniform. I discovered that collegiate churches very often had schools, as well as hospitals, alms houses, and things – and that built on my personal discovery of Newland grammar school.
So when I was in my third year and wanted to do research, I went to see my tutor, Bruce McFarlane, saying I wanted to do something that combines national history and local history. I made three suggestions to him and, of the three I mentioned, he said schools would be the thing to do. And ever since I’ve enjoyed these two things: national and local history. I’ve never wanted to do local history that was entirely self-contained, because it’s the interplay of the general and the local that interests me. And, of course, you’ve got that with a school because you’ve got a curriculum that’s beyond the school itself. So when I became a postgrad, I started to work on schools and I did a thesis on schools in the West of England, based on Gloucestershire.’
Q. When did you come to Exeter?
‘In the summer term of my second year of research, my supervisor stopped me in the quad and said that Exeter was looking for a one-year appointment. What had happened was that they hadn’t had any applicants – or one or two very poor ones! Bertram Wolffe, who was at Exeter then, was a pupil of my supervisor and had written to him asking if he had anybody suitable. So I said to Bruce McFarlane, “do you think it would help with my CV?” And he said, “yes, it would because you’ll get a year’s teaching experience and that will stand you in good stead for getting a permanent job”. They advertised the post as half-teaching, half-research – but it turned out not to be that at all, as you might imagine!
I was very lucky while I was here because three [permanent] posts came up. They had a very small number of applicants for the three jobs to the extent that one of them had to be filled with a temporary chap so that they could have a look at him before they decided whether to keep him on. But I was one of the other two who came in, so I was very lucky.’
Q. When did you start to become interested in medieval Devon?
‘It wasn’t for a long time that I got into Devon. First of all, I wrote a book and it took me an awful long time. It is difficult when you start teaching, isn’t it? Writing your courses… For the first few years I was just doing the courses and the teaching all year. I only did the research in the vacation so I didn’t get the DPhil for five years after I started here, which wouldn’t be allowed now. And then it took me another four years to publish it, because it needed a lot more work to turn it into a book. I’d been here nine years before my book came out, which, again, wouldn’t be allowed nowadays! And then what I couldn’t publish from the thesis in the book, I put into a second book on the West of England. And that’s when I decided I had to get up on Dorset, Devon and Cornwall – and came to realise that the Cathedral archives had wonderful stuff. Then I started to work on that and got involved in the locality.’
Q. Why did you decide to support medieval studies at Exeter?
‘When I left [the history department] I was not replaced, which annoyed me. There were only two medievalists left: Sarah Hamilton and Julia Crick. So I thought, they need some support, we need to keep medieval history alive. So I said to Simon Barton [then in Modern Languages], “would you like to have the resources to bring in a special lecturer?” The idea was it should somehow fire people up, both students and the general public – although it’s obviously difficult to get somebody who relates to both. But we have managed quite well over the years – we had a very good one on Magna Carta, for example. And I have got a bit of spare money and I don’t want to give it to my Oxford college, which has got far too much, and plenty of other donors. I’d much rather it came down here where it can be useful.’
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.
It’s not all that often that some news genuinely makes you jump out of your seat in excitement. One such occasion came for me a couple of months ago, when my email inbox, usually reserved for reminders about overdue library books, served up a cracker: namely, that a storyteller, Rachel Rose Reid, was working on a retelling of the thirteenth-century French text, Le Roman de Silence, and was looking to connect with academics who could inform her work. For someone like me, who works with medieval French texts as part of his PhD, this opportunity was just too good to pass up.
Funnily enough, though, the wave of excitement that the email inspired — and that saw quite possibly the fastest email reply I’ve ever written — was probably not too dissimilar to the eagerness felt at the moment when Rachel’s source text was first uncovered. The story of behind the Roman de Silence is almost as famous as the Roman itself: it survives in just one manuscript, currently in the care of the University of Nottingham’s Special Collections, which was discovered as late as 1911 in a box marked ‘old papers — no value’.
It’s with the narrative of the Roman de Silence, however, that Rachel really works her magic. After King Evan of England declares that no woman shall ever inherit in his kingdom, one of his vassals, Cador, agrees with his wife Eufemie that their newborn daughter, Silence, should be raised as a boy. There follows a debate between the allegorical figures of ‘Nature’, who unsuccessfully attempts to persuade Silence of the folly of their ways, and ‘Nurture’, whose intervention leads to Silence undertaking a range of traditionally masculine pursuits. These questions of gender and upbringing form some of the key themes of this 6,000-line piece, which Rachel has separated into a trilogy. With all this in mind, I jumped at the chance to find out more; still buzzing from the free press ticket to a performance the night before, I sat down to talk to Rachel about how she went about adapting Silence, as well as her own experience with the work.
So first things first … you’re known as a ‘storyteller’, and work with both children and adults. Many of the people reading this blog might not be all that familiar with what exactly it is that a modern-day ‘storyteller’ does; could you give us a brief introduction of what you try to achieve when you work with stories like Silence?
The first thing to consider when talking about ‘storytelling’ as a vocation is really just how many ideas it encompasses. There are many different storytelling traditions around the world, and these all adhere to their source material to different degrees; I suppose that a Shakespeare performance would be at one end of this spectrum, where going to see (say) Hamlet several times, you’d expect to see a very similar performance on each occasion. In that case, then, there’s got to be something in the performers’ interpretation of the text that would bring it alive for you. At the other end of the scale, we have the folk traditions that are still alive in Ireland and Scotland, where the storyteller will know the ‘marks’ that they have to hit, but won’t be too concerned about sticking rigidly to a certain pace as they move through them. I work with both forms: in performance poetry, my words are the same every time, whereas in shorter storytelling – up to about 20 minutes – I have ‘markers’ and improvise between them. Silence, though, is an epic endeavour, and requires some combination of the two. I’m more certain of what I will be saying and doing, so that I can take the audience on a complex narrative and emotional journey, but my relationship with the audience in my performances is far more porous than you might otherwise expect from the image conjured up by the word ‘performer’. In a way, my work is a combination of the skills of stand-up comedy and guiding group meditative visualisation: even if Silence contains many of the same elements from night to night, every show is made different by the different audiences. I try to create a synergistic relationship between myself as the storyteller and the audience, where can I respond to things that we experience in the room while still remaining inside the ‘landscape’ of the story.
There was one wonderful point in the performance when you actually asked the audience to contribute — you asked us what words we would use to describe a forest scene …
That’s one obvious example, but in storytelling, ‘involving the audience’ is something that also happens even when the audience aren’t speaking! This question of audience participation is actually really intriguing for me in the specific context of how Heldris de Cornuaille, the author named in this text, would have worked: there’s a moment later in the story when the counts of France are debating how their King should react to receiving a letter, and whenever I think of this particular episode, I’m reminded of Grace Hallworth, a storyteller originally from Trinidad, who will always invite her audience to ‘chip in’ with their thoughts at any ‘decision point’ in a story. I’ve always wondered whether this sort of audience interaction would have happened during medieval storytelling: would the performers of texts like these have elicited debate from their audiences? One element in my version of Silence was only added a couple of days ago, and it was done in response to audience engagement: whenever I used to quote Heldris’ line that ‘some people swore in sorrow’ (when asked to swear loyalty to the law that women will be barred from inheritance), audience members used to call out — totally unprompted — that it was the women who were doing it, so I started asking my audiences who they thought it was. We often assume that that questions like these are rhetorical, but I’m not so sure …
I was very struck by one of the modifications that you made to the text: that of the wedding. In Heldris’ text, the wedding (between Cador and Eufemie) finishes before the counts’ feud that leads to women being barred from inheritance, and you weave a wonderful scene with minstrels from different countries telling increasingly elaborate stories …
Medievalists will know that the chivalric interactions between Cador and Eufemie in Silence are essentially a giant send-up of the Tristan and Isolde legend, but my audience — many of whom of course aren’t medievalists — won’t. That’s why I elaborate the minstrel scene when I tell Silence: so I can set up a repeated idea of what a ‘romantic story’ is, before the audience get to see me taking the mickey out of it! What’s more, these stories are the kind of ‘romantic story’ that we’re flooded with in popular culture today — what about rom-coms, where we essentially repeat the same narrative over and over again?
There’s often a contradiction in how people see the medieval period: somehow, popular culture imagines it both as a ‘purer time’ characterised by chivalry and knights in shining armour, and yet also as an epoch of abject misery and filth. What were your experiences of working with this particular period of history?
What is key to me, in bringing this story alive, is for my 21st-century audience to find the many connections that exist between our own experiences, those of Heldris, and those of the characters. We’re not doing faux medieval re-enactment here: I don’t want the audience to be scratching their heads over obscure terminology, or despairing over sections that seem over-egged to the modern ear. However, I’ve found that the plot points at the heart of Silence only need minor alterations for them to be understood today. Heldris has so much to say about topics that are both thrilling and troublingly familiar for us to hear today: equality, identity, religious dogma, sexual abuse, the damage done by an overbearing patriarchal structure … The legal matter of land and title is still going strong, too, both in our unspoken social norms and in the aristocratic echelons around which Heldris centres the story. Sometimes I think that the reason the text went missing for a few hundred years was simply that it was exhausted … In this text, I’ve been delighted to discover that this medieval writer-storyteller uses so many of the techniques that my peers and I use: satire, flippancy, sarcasm, self-deprecation, timing, and alternating between colloquial chat and grand dramatic imagery. I’m not planning to perform in rhyming couplets, but in working on this project, I have found great joy in discovering the world of medievalists, too. I’m looking forward to sharing this adventure with more medievalists, and I hope that by 2019 we will have several places where the entire story can be told.
As you can tell, Rachel and I certainly had a lot to talk about — so much, in fact, that we’ve decided to split this interview over two blog posts! In the second part of our interview, we’ll be talking a little more about some of the more specific challenges posed by retelling Silence, specifically how Rachel responds to the challenging topics addressed by the text.
Rachel Rose Reid 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
Interviewers: Tom Douglas and Max Blore (3rd year undergraduates)
On Wednesday 22 November 2017, Professor Conrad Leyser (University of Oxford) visited the Centre of Medieval Studies here at the University of Exeter. Prof. Leyser presented a paper entitled ‘The Cult of the Virgin Mary and the History of the Family in the Middle Ages’ and we were fortunate enough to meet him and interview him informally for half an hour beforehand. As final year history students studying The Medieval Reformation as our special subject with Professor Sarah Hamilton, we had discussed Leyser’s views on church reform and were excited to hear his take on some of the questions we had prepared. It was a great opportunity to hear from someone currently engaged in an area of scholarship relevant to our recent studies and also to discuss broader issues such as periodisation and approaches to sources which are key to understanding the Middle Ages as a whole. We decided in particular to focus on how Leyser’s approach to Medieval history has been influenced by his previous work on Late Antiquity, as well as his concept of reform and how it links to other developments such as changes in family structures and the institutionalisation of the Church. Prof. Hamilton had provided us with a context to work with from our seminars and was also present at the interview to contribute some of her thoughts to the conversation. The opportunity to discuss what we had learned with Prof. Leyser in person was both illuminating and insightful, and will hopefully stand us in good stead for our upcoming coursework essays!
Question: Your previous research is on Late Antiquity. How did you become interested in the Medieval period?
Conrad Leyser: There was a lot about the Medieval period as a whole at home. Both my parents were medievalists, so my interest in the period seemed bizarrely natural, and this continued into my undergraduate degree, when I was most interested in the High Middle Ages — the eleventh and twelfth centuries. But then in my third year I did a paper about St Augustine and this converted me to Late Antiquity. It helped me twig that everything that is there in the eleventh and twelfth centuries came from somewhere. The cult of the saints, monasticism, clerical hierarchy — all of these are formed in that late Roman period. So when it came to doing a doctorate, I felt I needed to go back there, and then eventually go forward again…about 30 years later that started to happen!
Q: How do you think that your research on Late Antiquity has informed your approach to writing medieval history?
CL: Well…entirely! Studying Late Antiquity gave me some sense of the long span and in essence provided me with the basic groundwork that you need and use all the time in studying the later period. Historiographically there’s still a kind of gap, a sense of them and us, even between Late Romanists and Early Medievalists studying exactly the same period. The general feeling is that this issue of periodisation is just kind of resolved, and studying Late Antiquity gives you a sense that you might start to do something about it.
Q: What in your view marks one period from the next? What marks Late Antiquity out from the Medieval period?
CL: Well I would start from the premise that you have to flatten it out. You can’t presume that there is any difference between, for example, the third century and the sixth, or the sixth and the ninth. The presumption right now is that wherever you want to locate it, there is a kind of ‘fall’ into the medieval period (and this is a fall because “medieval” is still a bad brand). People are still trying to locate this drop, and, distressingly, colleagues and ex-colleagues of mine have sought to reinvent a kind of medieval turn, which is really quite destructive. What’s good about Late Antiquity is that it has pushed a kind of continuity in terms of thinking which extends up to the late eighth and ninth, and even into the tenth and eleventh centuries. There’s a culture war that’s been going on since the Renaissance, when the idea of the Middle Ages was invented as a kind of shameless self-promotional move, and now our challenge is whether we can come up with something different in terms of periodisation. Late Antiquity is a start but in economic terms it’s still not fully established. There are very few jobs in Late Antiquity — these jobs are either ancient or medieval — but it’s our best hope yet of offering a different narrative. So, I’m not going to answer the question of ‘when do the Middle Ages start’ because that’s basically an evil, satanic question!
Q: One big word for the Middle Ages is reform, the subject of much of your research. What would be your definition of reform?
CL: ‘Reform’ is a claim — it has no big content. It’s the opposite of something like heresy which is a kind of accusation; like orthodoxy, reform is a claim that people will have to accede to. Who’s going to want to stand in the way of reform?! Some people will make a fuss, but in a sense you’re trying to isolate these people, smoke them out and neutralise them by saying, ‘right, we’re going to have reform’. You see this very much happening in a modern university context — there are constant reforms and they are a way fundamentally to organise people. Reform is not necessarily all top down; in the university context it’s not all managerial. Sometimes you get people on the ground saying we want this to happen, and there’s an attempt to persuade up and say to the hierarchy, ‘look, you guys are standing in the way of reform’. In essence, ‘reform’ is an accusation that’s meant to unsettle people for whatever purpose. It will have a particular context at any given point but that’s what reform does.
Q: You’ve previously categorised the tenth century as ‘pre-reform’. When does reform in the Middle Ages start for you? What are the most important factors and who do you see as most important in it?
CL: I have a lot invested in the tenth century. But for me, there’s a bigger fish to fry than ‘when does reform start’ which is ‘when does the Church start to exist as an autonomous institution?’ Right now I’m interested in testing the hypothesis that the tenth century is when this starts to happen. Up until the tenth century, the Church is a network of households. There are points, notably in the fourth century and then again in the eighth and ninth, when it has a massive steroid injection of imperial patronage to make it look a lot bigger than a network of households, but then in both cases that patronage drops away. But when the Carolingian empire falls in the Latin West, churchmen, especially bishops, and in particular in north Italy start to think, ‘this empire falling apart thing happened before when the Roman empire fell apart, and it’s happening again now. Let’s look what happened back then. Oh! The Church kept going while the empire fell apart…we can do this!’ In the fifth and sixth centuries when the Church kept going it’s not really self-conscious. Someone like Gregory the Great had no interest in constructing a church; he thinks the world is going to end and is just concentrating on getting to tomorrow before the Last Judgement. But in the tenth century they are building a new world. Churchmen are thinking ‘we can do this and we don’t need imperial patronage, we’re a cosmopolitan network of highly educated men, on we go.’
This is constitutive of the Church’s free-standing thing in the Latin West and reform is a consequence of that. Whereas the eleventh century is stereotypically seen as a move away from, and reaction to, the so-called corruption of the tenth century’, it is instead a product of that tenth century formative moment and it’s to do, crudely speaking, with globalisation. If your priest or bishop is somebody you know, then they can be married, they can do all sorts of things with yours and their property, but it’s fine because you know them and trust them. But if you don’t know them and they’re a career cleric who is part of this mobile, cosmopolitan elite swanning in, then it becomes critical that they don’t have any dependence and that you scrutinise their financial transactions very carefully, and then you can trust them. So in other words I’d then place reform roughly in the second half of the tenth century as a kind of criteria by which to assess the productivity of the clergy who are no longer operating in a face-to-face society. Certainly, reform is not the consequence of tenth-century corruption; that’s the function entirely of eleventh-century propaganda.
Q: Your lecture today is about the history of the family in Medieval Europe. How close does our modern perception of family come to how it was understood in Medieval Europe and how does the concept of the family change from Late Antiquity to the Medieval period?
CL: I think that the Medieval period, and specifically the tenth and eleventh centuries, is formative of the modern notion of the family. I think that the key transition that I will attempt to set out is from the family as a legal unit which it is in a Roman context to the family as defined by blood ties, which is how we think of family today. We presume the family is a natural collection of people related by blood, but that’s a historically specific notion. I’m not a family historian and I’ve come to this by working on the clerical hierarchy, but a key index in this shift is the development of a group of men who reproduce without having sex i.e. priests. And so you get a nature versus culture split-out. There are two groups of men, some of whose property transmits through their generation biologically of heirs and some of whose property transmits institutionally. And the Virgin Mary is the kind of god-mother of this shift.
Q: A lot of your writing goes into great depth about rhetoric and interpretation of sources. What is it that you look for when you first approach a source and has your approach to sources changed across your career?
CL: I did my research in the second half of the eighties when the linguistic turn was happening in the UK in the humanities. Although I lived it more vicariously than I actually read it, I had friends who were skimming through Derrida and the rest of it, so that was, I guess, formative. I’m not at that level, but someone like Foucault is a key presence and there is an intuition behind this thinking that’s come to seem more and more important — that people writing in the past are different and we cannot understand them. Especially when you work on the history of religion, it is critical that you not presume that a Christian now has anything to do with a Christian then. There is also a wider premise that the self is not the same. Without saying that people in the Middle Ages didn’t have interiority, I would say that when we pull of all these ideas together what we have is a sense that the words people in the Middle Ages said were always a public performance and they are not telling us how they felt. Any attempt to say that you really knew what it was like to be, say, Augustine, is already a methodological fail. Whereas in the ‘80s there was a sense of the need to ‘forget all this crusty old scholarship’, I’m now as interested in manuscripts than deconstructionism, which are key to understanding how culture and memory really work. Now I use a bit of culture theory and a bit of manuscripts whilst retaining the sense that all of the record we have is a highly mannered performance. You have to start with the presumption that it’s a show and in decoding them have to try to catch who the audience are, what the effects of that performance might have been. Especially in the context of religion, finding a way to render that that doesn’t trigger people to say that’s reductive is certainly something to strive for.
Gregory the Great or Gregory VII?
Well I really love Augustine but Gregory the Great. Gregory VII was a maniac!
Peter Damian or Liudprand of Cremona?
Well that’s a tough one. A few years ago I would have said Damian but now Liudprand. He tells better stories. He’s also Augustinian.
Cluniac or Cistercian?
Cluniac. Cistercians are nasty, Starbucks-empire builders!
Interviewers: Éléonore Raymakers, Emma Prevignano and Lauren Lloyd
The second part of the interview conducted by our undergraduate magic specialists with Prof. Anne Lawrence-Mathers, when she presented a paper at Exeter’s Medieval Research Seminar on 15 February. Here the questions cover the material culture of magic, Merlin and, finally, Anne’s prognostications for 2017…
Q: How valuable are material objects to the study of magic?
ANNE LAWRENCE MATHERS: Apart from books and the technological side of things, not a lot survives. Professor Roberta Gilchrist, from the archaeology department of the University of Reading, did a whole project looking for evidence of magical artefacts. She looked for anything associated with magic across a massive span of medieval English burials and came up with hardly anything. Also people like Audrey Meaney, a long time ago, have looked into earlier Anglo-Saxon burials – in that period people were buried with grave goods – still had to speculate pretty ferociously about whether things were possibly magical in use or not. Recognising a magical object, when you see it, is quite difficult. I only wish there were more of the astrological magical objects, like talismans and the signs because there are fascinating texts on making rings, seals, signs, and instructions pretty much on how to trap your genie in a bottle! But until you get to the Renaissance, oddly, virtually none of it seems to survive. It is much easier to find this stuff from fifteenth-century Italy than it is from thirteenth-century England.
Q: Some historians tend to project back from the Renaissance and the early modern period, do you think that is a useful method?
ALM: It all depends on what your evidence base is: if you want to research the approach to magic in a particular place and time, then you need to have the specific evidence. But, if you have got an evidence trail that takes you back to Antiquity and then starts again in the early modern period, I think it is fair to assume that there was some continuity in between.
CATHERINE RIDER: One of the things I find really useful from early modern studies is that the evidence is so detailed, so we can sometimes shed light on very cryptic or brief references to practises in the Middle Ages. You can’t know if it was exactly the same thing, but it is a possibility.
ALM: Going back to where we started, it helps to go against the idea that all this was carelessly lost in the Middle Ages because they were too dumb to recognise an interesting scientific text when they saw one.
INTERVIEWER: I guess Italy is quite a different representative model for magic than everywhere else…
ALM: Yes, you do get far more continuity even in things like educational institutions and practices; just basic confidence with Latin takes a long time to build up somewhere like in Anglo-Saxon England.
ALM: What I found so fascinating was that medieval authors had a lot of fun with the figure of Merlin. Until I actually sat down and read all the romances from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that bring Merlin in, I had no idea that Merlin could be considered one of the first superheroes. It is fabulous stuff: when Julius Caesar’s affairs are going badly, for example, and he doesn’t realise that his wife is betraying him by having an affair with half the members of his court, Merlin appears to reveal this and then of course, being a magical character, after throwing the cat amongst the pigeons, he can just disappear again. Another one I liked was when a war bearing a resemblance to the crusades is going very badly and again Merlin comes in – I think disguised as a stag – and reveals his identity and it is great because, like with Superman or Batman, everyone has heard of him. He uses his magic and his magical knowledge to solve everybody’s little problems and gets them all going in the right direction and almost literally flies out like a superhero. I think it is the fact that, certainly on the romance side, authors were playing with the character and treating him as a fictional character but staying within certain bounds at the same time, because, what I said with that, this is definitely Merlin. This starts with the incredible fraud carried out by Geoffrey of Monmouth and I don’t have the skills or the inclination to go back to the pre-Merlin phase. I just don’t believe anyone is ever going to find the original Merlin.
Q: With that said, do you think anyone can actually claim Merlin, either the Welsh or the English, who would you say has a right to claim him?
ALM: Geoffrey makes it pretty clear that the sources he is playing with come out of Wales. He claims to be “Geoffrey of Monmouth, the only one who can translate this long lost book into the British language”, whatever ‘the British language’ meant. When he wrote his Latin Life of Merlin, he is sort of riffing on the Welsh poems and he is doing it in poetry whereas in the prose Latin chronicle he is really creating a whole new Merlin. So, he’s pointing you to Wales. Unfortunately, his version of those poems in the Life of Merlin is actually older than any of the surviving Welsh poems.
Q: Now, for the final question on Merlin; what is the significance of Merlin’s association with natural magic in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain verses portrayals of him in other accounts?
ALM: I think in the History, Geoffrey is going out of his way to be very cutting edge and he is also showing off that he and his friend Walter the Archdeacon of Oxford and presumably other bright young men from the court of the bishop of Lincoln, such as Henry of Huntingdon, and the other ones he namechecks at the end of the book, have been doing their scientific and historical research. I think he is almost making Merlin the figurehead for a display of cutting edge science as perceived from England in the 1130s.
Q: Going on from that, it’s in Book VII, and it’s quite different from the others, so do you think it could be viewed as an initiatory text for later esoteric novels due to its literary style?
ALM: Yes, he was very clever and very good at Latin composition in all sorts of genres! The poetic life of Merlin is a beautifully done pastiche of a certain style of Latin poetry and does draw on poems which were presumably accessed in Welsh as we don’t know if they were translated into Latin this early. So, he seems to be reading across all sorts of things! The figure who sticks in my mind and the whole depiction of the Roman world and the lost Roman baths and buildings at Bath itself, and the idea that Britain once had this King Bladud who created Bath by tapping into the natural powers of the hot water and the springs at Bath, and then even a version of Daedalus. He is the one who constructs himself wings and flies off to London, overdoes it, gets exhausted and comes crashing out of the sky to his death roughly where St. Pauls would have been. He is pulling together all these ideas and stories, that his readership would have heard of, but wouldn’t necessarily be experts on. This is how Geoffrey gets away with it.
Q: Lastly, your lecture today is about the meaning of Eclipses in the Middle Ages and you gave a paper for the Ordered Universe conference in Rome last April focusing on weather and how it was used to predict the future in the Middle Ages. Considering how erratic the weather has been recently, what kinds of things can we expect from 2017?
ALM: I have not done an actual astro-meteorological forecast, I meant to over Christmas, but I didn’t get around to it. But I did use the method in the Anglo-Saxon prognostics – the ones that go on right through to the fifteenth century – where you look for meteorological phenomena over the twelve days of Christmas and use those as forecasters for various things. Basically, I spent Christmas in Stratford-Upon-Avon, so this is a forecast for the Midlands; sadly it is very boring. It is going to be a completely average year as far as weather is concerned, except that every so often there will be something very nice, either in the way of some beautiful weather, or something involving golden light or even someone finding a buried treasure. Apart from that, really, really average!
Éléonore Raymakers, Emma Prevignano and Lauren Lloyd are final-year undergraduates in History
With thanks to Prof. Anne Lawrence-Mathers (University of Reading)
Interviewers: Éléonore Raymakers, Emma Prevignano and Lauren Lloyd
On Wednesday 15 February, Professor Anne Lawrence-Mathers (University of Reading) visited the Centre for Medieval Studies here at the University of Exeter. Prof. Lawrence-Mathers presented a paper entitled ‘Solar Eclipses: Signs, Portents or Science?’ and we were fortunate enough to meet her and interview her informally for half an hour beforehand. As final year history students studying Magic in the Middle Ages as our special subject with Dr Jennifer Farrell, we had discussed Lawrence-Mathers’ The True History of Merlin the Magician and were excited to hear her take on some of the questions we had prepared. It was a great opportunity to hear from someone currently engaged in an area of scholarship relevant to our recent studies and also to discuss the reasons why magic is valuable, both in its own right, and for the insight it gives into other aspects of the Middle Ages. We decided to focus on Merlin’s character and the significance of his association with natural magic in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Dr Farrell had provided us with a context to work with from our seminars and Exeter’s own Dr Catherine Rider (another important scholar whose work we have used) was also present at the interview and contributed some of her thoughts to the conversation. The opportunity to discuss what we had learned with Prof. Lawrence-Mathers in person was both illuminating and insightful, and will hopefully stand us in good stead for our upcoming exams!
Question: What attracted to you to the study of magic?
Anne Lawrence-Mathers: As strange as it might sound, it was a hobby from when I was a teenager: one of my first jobs was working in Portsmouth Central Library at weekends. Its part in the national interlibrary loan scheme was the history of magic and the occult, so I used to hide behind my re-shelving trolley and read loads of books on the history of magic – and I have been keen on it from then on.
Q: What was it about magic that captured your imagination?
ALM: I was the kind of teenager who would have been a goth if they had been invented back then! It was just something that had a serious history, but was a bit outside the mainstream. At the time the history I was taught at school was the nineteenth century and it was all extremely worthy and fact-based, one reform act after another. This just attracted me as something much more interesting.
Q: There seems to be a tendency in modern pop-culture to represent the Middle Ages as an age of superstition. Has this influenced historians’ perception of the role that magic played in that period?
ALM: I think this is part of the reason why it has taken so long for the history of magic to be taken seriously. Medievalists have seen themselves as almost on the defensive, showing that medieval history is serious. In my experience, medieval history has been very dominated by political historians and historians of the church. But magic, being categorised under superstition, is something that professional historians were a bit shy of because of the fear that it would play into the stereotype that everyone in the Middle Ages was very stupid and very superstitious and very ignorant. Because obviously only the stupid, the superstitious and the ignorant would believe in magic.
CATHERINE RIDER: Once, in a job interview, I was asked whether magic was ‘a bit marginal’. That is the kind of attitude.
ALM: The paper I’m about to deliver this afternoon, it started off with me being mildly outraged that someone, a very distinguished man [the director of the Science Museum] came to Reading and gave a paper about art relating to eclipses, art depicting solar eclipses. To give him credit, he covered the Middle Ages, but what he basically said was that the people were very stupid, that they didn’t understand eclipses and that their art is full of religious stereotypes. The same attitude is still around.
Q: The title of the paper that you are going to deliver contains the words ‘magic’ and ‘science’. Where would you draw the line between what was magic and what was science? Is it more important to accurately reconstruct their medieval meaning or is it more relevant to project our contemporary understanding? Is it even possible to make this choice?
ALM: I think that it is always worth trying to analyse the past in its own terms. So much of the older approach to the history of magic that I have read starts out with a complete assumption that we all know what magic is. That assumption is based on the work of the classic anthropologists of the early twentieth century and is basically something used by those who, for whatever reason, don’t have science to interpret the world. I think that, in the medieval world, the boundary between what was magic and what was science was moving as things changed, as new ideas and technologies arrived and were developed. My working definition is that magic was what was dangerous or forbidden in some way, so not a specific content. As those attitudes hardened, theologians and natural philosopher were more and more saying that supernatural power can only come from God or from the Devil, put very crudely. Magic usually claims to be operating with angels and trying to reach God but it is always perceived by outsiders as being in contact with demons and the realm of the Devil. That is why, I think, the boundary keeps shifting: what is considered technology is not magic; you don’t need the Devil for that. It seems to me we still have that shifting boundary in the world of science. The ethical debates over fertility and children, for example, the issue of how far is it okay for doctors to use the genetic technologies that affect a foetus before it is born. We still say that it is up to society to decide what you can or cannot do. I think there is a comparison there.
Q: To what extent is the modern historian qualified to assess the history of astrology without the specialist knowledge of science and mathematics of medieval scholars?
ALM: I don’t know about assessing it, but certainly, in my own experience, it helped a lot when I learned astrology, in a very amateur way, and learned how horoscopes were cast and how to use planetary tables. I haven’t yet learned how to use an astrolabe properly; that’s next on my list. Proper replicas are expensive; I’ve tried downloading some material from the internet and making my own Blue Peter version, but it didn’t work very well! I think that just the experience of seeing how much work is involved and how difficult those calculations are, particularly if you’re using roman numerals, can make you appreciate how difficult this work actually was.
Q: An area of your research concentrates on medieval magical texts and books in which they survive. What have been the most interesting features of this study so far?
ALM: I would say the texts classified as ‘prognostics’, which is another ‘modern term’, a rather diminishing label for a large category of medieval work and science. They include astrological texts, but not just those. They describe different techniques and technologies for making forecasts of different kinds and they come up in all sorts of collections. Some of them are about calculating the calendar, so you find them in books from big churches; others are about making diagnoses, so you find them in medical collections. Some were included into works on chronology, chronicles, and history, because of the perception that everything was linked together and that the natural world worked as this amazingly complicated mechanism with time as part of it. Calling these things superstitious and magical and just ‘little prognostics’ really diminishes them. They were really widespread and played a big role in medieval culture. Plus, these books are not very pretty or highly decorated, so they are not really sought after. Most of them haven’t been digitised and libraries will let you handle them. Sitting there reading these things is sort of fab!
Q: What is your methodology for analysing medieval texts and manuscripts. Are there any tips that you could share with us?
ALM: Particularly with texts on the borders between science and magic, I would say that you need to almost think yourself back into the way medieval readers were taught to read. Often these texts look very short and you have to go through that whole thing of analysing them according to different levels, really thinking around what’s going on. Sometimes these texts are like very simple recipes, but you, the reader, are meant to bring your whole pre-existing expertise and technological experience to it. Often you look at a magical text and you think ‘Really? Is that it? “Take three tea leaves and stir them at dawn?”’. You have to do a lot of work to try to get into what the text is really doing, unless that’s just me. Do you (Catherine Rider) have the same experience?
CR: I don’t work so much on magical texts. I have been doing work on medical recipes and they are very short. Again, it’s kind of ‘take this herb, drink this…’. There is a whole world of scientific understanding behind that and the knowledge of the properties of different herbs, and then the question of what people actually did: did they know how to prepare these herbs? So there’s a lot you have to try to understand about back then.
ALM: Even the details: for example, if this is a magical or a medical text that was around in eleventh-century England and it mentions oil, what kind of oil is that going to be? How far will they have had to source it from? How much is it going to cost by the time it reaches pre-conquest England? Same with incense, which was then only produced in a very small part of the world, and had got to be fetched a very long way by specialist merchants. If you are a bishop or a member of a monastic community fine, you’ve got agents and supply routes, but if you are outside of that how do you get it?
CR: I suppose that’s one reason why scholars have recently argued that monasteries were really good places to do magic. I am thinking of the study on Canterbury by Dr Sophie Page (UCL). In monasteries, they had the ingredients, they had the books, and if the abbot turned a blind eye then no one was really checking…
ALM: And they had the workshops! They would have had a metal working workshop, often a herbarium, certainly an infirmary and most outsiders even the abbot and prior probably, wouldn’t have known. It is like going to a chemist’s shop now: unless you are an expert, you don’t know what everything is for.
The discussion continues in next week’s post…
Éléonore Raymakers, Emma Prevignano and Lauren Lloyd are final-year undergraduates in History