Just over two months ago, we announced the start of a new project based at the Centre for Medieval Studies here in Exeter: Learning French in Medieval England. Our aim is to produce a digital edition of Walter de Bibbesworth’s Tretiz, a rhymed French vocabulary of the mid-thirteenth century that has attracted significant critical interest for its insight into multilingual medieval England. Today, we’d like to take a few minutes to bring you up to date on what we’ve been up to since then, and offer a few hints as to where we might be heading in the near future.
Of course, it’s been a busy couple of months in the wider world as a whole, and the Covid-19 situation has, as you’d expect, had a knock-on effect on our project. In particular, the cancellation of the 2020 International Congress on Medieval Studies, where Edward Mills was looking forward to presenting on the project, has been very disappointing — although we are all of course in complete agreement with the decision reached by the committee. On a day-to-day level, we’ve shared the experience of researchers around the world in suddenly adapting to working from home, a task that has (in our case) been made far easier by the incredible work of the IT team here in Exeter. We’re very grateful to them for everything that they’ve done at very short notice, from bringing forward the roll-out of a new VPN to opening up access to Microsoft Teams; without their tireless work over the last month, our project (and much of medieval studies in Exeter more broadly) would have struggled to continue working during this uncertain period.
It’s thanks to support from colleagues, both within and outside of the medieval studies community, that we’re able to bring you up to date on some exciting developments in the project over the past few months. Since our initial blog post a couple of months ago, our work has been focused on transcribing the manuscripts of the Tretiz, many of which have (thankfully) been digitised by libraries in the UK and abroad. Transcription is the first step in our editing process, and aims to produce an accurate representation of what’s on the manuscript page before we start making editorial decisions: at this stage, that means we’re expanding abbreviations and recording anything that strikes us as particularly noteworthy, but not normalising letters such as ‘u’ / ‘v’ or ‘i’ / ‘j’ (two pairs which are often used differently in medieval manuscripts to how they are today). We’re also preserving the original word-spacing found within each manuscript, which can be a slightly counter-intuitive experience; it does, however, provide some valuable insights into the attitudes and decisions of our individual scribes.
As you can see, we’re transcribing in Microsoft Word. This might seem like an odd decision: why not transcribe straight into an XML editor such as oXygen, which is where we’ll soon start encoding? There are three good reasons for this. The first is a practical one: specifically, it gives us a shallower learning curve at the outset. We’re all already familiar with editing documents in Microsoft Word, and can do so instantly with very quick results — putting ‘ME’ to mark glosses in bold, marking difficult-to-read characters in red, and so on — which means that, at this early stage, trends and patterns across different manuscripts are far easier to see in Word documents than they would be in XML. The second reason is rather more subtle: under the hood, XML and Word documents aren’t all that different. That little ‘x’ at the end the filename in the picture above stands for ‘XML’, as since 2003, all Microsoft Office applications have used XML ‘under-the-hood’ (see Microsoft’s own summary for a useful little overview). In effect, this means that we can produce our transcriptions in Word, before then exporting them into XML and marking them up in oXygen. As long as we’re consistent in our formatting, a simple find-and-replace should allow us to preserve most, if not all, of our annotations.
The main rationale behind our decision to use Word at this early stage, though, is one of time. While we start transcribing the manuscripts and indicating what features we’d like to encode, the team in Digital Humanities can observe our decisions, take on board our project’s aims, and get to work on deciding how to represent them in our final XML files. For instance, should we make a point of identifying abbreviations in different Tretiz manuscripts, and if so, how should we represent them? These are questions that it will take time to answer, and by getting underway with our transcription in as low-maintenance a way as possible, we can allow these conversations between the different members of the team to continue for longer, giving rise to more — and better — solutions in the process. As things stand, we’ve fully transcribed four manuscripts of the Tretiz, with several more underway, so there’s plenty to keep us occupied.
Aside from our manuscript transcription, we’ve also started work on how the project’s website will look. Since this is where we’ll be hosting our edition, it’s important for us to get this right, and so at this stage we’re focused on producing ‘wireframes’. A wireframe is essentially a mock-up (in our case, hand-drawn) of what the site could look like, which a developer will then take and transform into a working web page. Not everything that starts life on paper will eventually make it to the website, of course, but working on design at this stage will give us a useful sense of what’s possible (and, within the project’s limited time-frame, realistic) once the site goes live.
As you can see, our latest design — sketched very roughly, and not at all indicative of what might actually be possible — is very much centred around allowing users to choose how they interact with the text, its manuscript traditions, and our critical notes, in whatever combination they choose. We’re always keen to hear from readers who are interested in using our forthcoming edition of the Tretiz, so please do if you have any thoughts on our design, or any requests for what you’d like to be able to do with the Tretiz once it launches. Remember to follow us on Twitter @medievalfrench for all the latest project updates, as well as a weekly close look at particular aspects of the text itself on #TretizTuesday. We’ve also just launched our project website, which we warmly invite you to explore if you’re keen to learn more about both the Tretiz and the project itself.
We hope that this latest update has given you a sense of how the project’s progressing, as well as providing some degree of entertainment for all our readers who are stuck inside. We’ll be back in a couple of months’ time with another post, when we’ll be shining a light on some of the more specific challenges of transcription.
Tom Hinton and Edward Mills
Learning French in Medieval England project
Since I’ve been on maternity leave I’ve not surprisingly been pondering all things to do with pregnancy and baby care. I’ve also been thinking about medieval pregnancy advice, since it’s a topic I’ve touched on during my ongoing research on medieval fertility and infertility.
Medical texts are probably the medieval sources which give most information relating to pregnancy and these works have been studied by many medievalists and early modernists. We hear in these sources about ways to facilitate (or sometimes prevent) conception, see if a woman is pregnant, predict the sex of an unborn child, and reduce the risk of miscarriage, as well as about weird food cravings, childbirth, and more. But medicine was not the only source of advice.
By the later Middle Ages preachers also sometimes commented on conception, pregnancy and baby care, with a view to advising fellow clergy and ultimately – through those clerics’ preaching – laypeople about good and bad behaviour. Their advice was much more limited than that of the medical writers and it hasn’t been well studied. One exception is an article by Peter Biller, published in History Today in 1986 (vol. 36, issue 8). Biller quotes a manual written to educate priests by the fourteenth-century English cleric William of Pagula, which tells priests to advise pregnant women to avoid heavy work. Biller also raises a larger question about whether priests – often the best educated people in their communities – were one channel by which learned medical knowledge relating to pregnancy might reach women. This is something I’d like to look into more, but certainly William was not the only cleric to give advice relating to the health of pregnant women and their unborn children. Three thirteenth-century preachers, Jacques de Vitry, Guibert of Tournai, and Stephen of Bourbon also did so. In addition to preaching themselves, all three put together long collections of sermons and exempla, short moral stories which preachers could use to make moral points in an entertaining way, and scholars have long used these stories as sources for a wide range of aspects of medieval life, including popular belief, marriage, magic, and more.
These stories often focus on the dire consequences of bad behaviour, as a dramatic way of making the point that certain activities were sinful. Thus in the case of pregnancy they tend to emphasize the safety of the unborn child, but when they do so their purpose is often to make wider points about correct behaviour in marriage. Thus Jacques includes in a sermon on marriage an exemplum about a man who hit his pregnant wife while he was drunk, causing her to miscarry (Sermones ad status, Paris, BN MS lat. 17609, f. 134r). Jacques included this story in order in order to stress the evils of marital discord and show how alcohol could make this worse, but there is also a message here about the appropriate treatment of pregnant women, as an especially vulnerable group.
Another topic that interested both preachers was sex in pregnancy. As scholars such as Dyan Elliott have shown this topic was debated by theologians, because it offered a case study for discussing the acceptable limits of sexual activity within marriage. Both Jacques and Guibert (quoting Jacques’ story) criticised men who insisted on having sex with their wives in late pregnancy. According to Jacques:
‘I have heard of certain men who harassed their pregnant wives, who were close to giving birth, because they did not wish to abstain for a moderate amount of time. Nor did they spare the pregnant women, because the child was killed in its mother’s womb and deprived of baptism. This lust is cursed, which denies God the soul of his child.’ (BN MS lat. 17509, f. 135v)
But both Jacques and Stephen of Bourbon also give happier information about cravings in pregnancy. They take it for granted that the audience will know of these and so they use them as a way of illustrating an unrelated point about prayer. People who dislike praying, Stephen says, are ‘like a pregnant woman who is disgusted by sweet things and loves to taste bitter things.’
These comments are patchy and without more research it’s not clear what they add up to, but they do show that medieval preachers were willing to discuss pregnancy and give advice and information. It’s also interesting that much of that advice focuses on men’s behaviour (at least in the case of men who behaved very badly towards pregnant wives) rather than women’s. At any rate there is more here to investigate.
Catherine Rider, Associate Professor in Medieval History
One of the most striking discoveries of modern scholarship on medieval documentary traditions has been just how widespread forgery was. Almost every major religious house was involved in falsifying documents at some point; and many witnessed multiple waves of forgery. Those responsible were not backstreet rogues, but leading members of the ecclesiastical establishment – abbots and bishops, scholars and schoolmasters.
A case in point is Thietmar, bishop of Merseburg between 1009 and 1018. Thietmar is best known to modern students as the author of a chatty chronicle, which furnishes our most detailed narrative of socio-political developments within Germany in these years. Yet Thietmar was not simply a historian; he was also a forger. To modern eyes, these may seem like very different activities: the historian seeks to illuminate the past, the forger to obscure it. In the Middle Ages, however, they went hand-in-hand. One of the main purposes of narrative history was to secure the rights and reputation of the family or (more often) religious house in question; and so it was with Thietmar. His bishopric had been dissolved in 981 and refounded in 1004, only five years before his own appointment. In writing his Chronicle, Thietmar sought to justify the act of refoundation and lay claim to episcopal rights lost in the intervening years.
It’s here that forgery came in handy. A chronicle might set out a programmatic case for restoring rights, but such arguments were unlikely to gain traction without documentary proof. And so it was that Thietmar came to produce a diploma in the name of Otto II (r. 973-82), claiming to grant the forest of Zweckau to Merseburg. A real document to this effect may once have existed. But this is not it – it’s clearly a fake, modelled on an authentic diploma of 974 (also in favour of Merseburg).
That this document is a forgery has long been known, as has Thietmar’s involvement in its production (he writes about the diploma at length in his Chronicle). What has escaped notice is one of the more subtle signs of falsification. When recounting the grant of Zweckau, Thietmar lays great store the fact that Emperor Otto II confirmed the diploma ‘with his own hand’ (manu propria: see image below).
This is an allusion to the process by which the royal/imperial monogram at the bottom of the diploma came into being. Alongside the seal, the monogram was the main means of authenticating a document. And particular importance was accorded to the so-called completion stroke (German: Vollziehungsstrich) here, the final cross-stroke, which would only be drawn once the grant had been approved by the ruler. Some kings took on the duty of drawing this final stroke themselves, as Thietmar’s account suggests. But this was not a universal practice, as modern scholarship has noted. Within the Ottonian period, Otto III (r. 983-1002) seems to have been the first to do so regularly, starting in the mid-990s; thereafter Henry II (r. 1002-24) also periodically did so. Earlier, there are few if any signs of such autograph completion; then the norm was for the scribe responsible for the closing elements of the diploma (the eschatocol) to produce the entire monogram.
Why does this matter? Because Thietmar’s forgery creates the impression of autograph completion (as mentioed in his Chronicle): the cross-stroke on the monogram is notably thinner than the other vertical and horizontal strokes, suggesting that it has been added in a separate stage. Yet here Thietmar has been too clever by half. In aiming for verisimilitude, he has fallen into subtle anachronism, presuming that the documentary practices of his own day were prevalent in the 970s. His contemporaries may have been fooled, but Otto II wouldn’t have been.
Dr Levi Roach, Associate Professor of Medieval History
Vestez vos dras, biau douz enfaunz,
Chaucez vos brais, soulers, et gaunz.
De une corroie vous ceintez —
Ne di pas ‘vous enceintez‘,
Car femme est par home enceinte
Et de une ceinture est ele ceinte.
Put on your clothes, my sweet child: don your breeches, shoes, and gloves. Lock up your belt-buckle — but do not say ‘knock up’, for a woman is knocked up by a man, but is locked up within a belt.
This somewhat risqué passage of French verse, written by Walter de Bibbesworth in mid-thirteenth-century England, would no doubt have provoked a few giggles among its audience. Its humour is difficult to capture in translation, but is clear even to those of us whose French is more than than a little rusty: punning on the near-homophonic Middle French verbs ceinter (‘to do up a belt’) and enceinter (‘to impregnate’), the author offers a cautionary tale in how even the smallest of phonetic alterations can have a major (and often-unintended) impact on the meaning of a phrase.
The passage in question is from the longest of three medieval French texts attributed to Bibbesworth: the Tretiz. The Tretiz is an unusual text in many ways, presenting itself as a rhyming vocabulary that offers one-stop-shop for all your advanced French vocabulary needs, from brewing beer to describing one’s own body. Walter de Bibbesworth promises at the outset that he will not teach ‘le fraunczois qe cheascun siet dire’ (‘the French that everyone knows’), but instead claims that his text was written ‘pur gentyls home ou pur fyz de gentyls home enfourmer de langgage’ (‘to teach nobles or their sons language’). Despite this rather unexciting opening statement it soon becomes clear — partly through Bibbesworth’s aforementioned obsession with homophones and wordplay — that the Tretiz is no ordinary phrasebook or dictionary. Instead, the reader is treated to a 1,000-line rambling tour of all manner of scenarios, ranging from a detailed list of the noises made by assorted wild animals to an odd little anecdote about a dwarf whose attempts to fish in the river Seine are constantly frustrated by inclement weather.
Despite these strange digressions — or, perhaps, because of them — the Tretiz has become something of a touchstone for scholars working on language use in medieval Britain. Over the years, it (along with its remarkably varied tradition of Middle English glosses) has been referenced in research on subjects as varied as lexicography, social history, and language change, often with respect to both English and French. Much of this valuable work has, however, been limited by an incomplete editorial tradition: the latest critical edition of the Tretiz, produced by William Rothwell in 2009, offers a superb insight into the text’s glosses but is limited in scope to two of the text’s 17 witnesses. With previously-unknown manuscripts of the Tretiz emerging as recently as 2011, it has become clear that, as Rothwell himself noted as early as 1990, ‘The whole corpus of Bibbesworth manuscripts needs to be made available eventually in a full critical edition for use in lexicographical work on the development of both English and French.’
It is therefore very exciting to announce that, over the next 15 months, the work of producing the first complete edition of the Tretiz will be carried out in the Centre for Medieval Studies here at Exeter! Dr. Thomas Hinton (Senior Lecturer in French) has received funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council Leadership Fellows scheme to develop a digital critical edition of all 17 known manuscripts of this challenging and fascinating text. I’m writing this blog post as the second member of the project team: for the next 15 months, I’ll be working alongside Dr. Hinton as the project’s Postdoctoral Research Associate. Dr. Hinton and I will be collaborating with the University’s own Digital Humanities team to ensure that our edition becomes a vital resource for researchers from various disciplines, as well as one that makes full use of the flexibility and connectivity offered by the standards of the Text Encoding Initiative.
However, our project also has a broader aim: to raise awareness of the importance, both historically and in the present day, of multilingualism and language-learning. While much of our research as medievalists is built on the ability to read more than one language, there is a growing concern that language uptake in UK secondary schools is in decline, with students increasingly denied the opportunities to explore other languages and cultures. A medieval rhymed vocabulary might seem an unlikely solution to this very modern problem, but we’re keen to stress that, as the Tretiz itself shows, Britain has never been monolingual, and that understanding the complex connections between languages can only make our work — and, indeed, our lives — better.
We’re looking forward to providing several updates on this blog over the coming months as our work on the Tretiz starts to take shape. In the meantime, we warmly invite anyone with an interest in the project to follow us on Twitter, where we’ll be sharing shorter snippets from our investigations — and, once a week, some very special #TretizTuesday excitement!
Research Associate, Learning French in Medieval England project
One of the pillars of the Medieval Studies community at Exeter, Emma Cayley, left the university over the summer to take up a post as Head of School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at Leeds. Our loss is Leeds’s gain, as I know from personal experience having been hired and served my probation during Emma’s highly successful stint as Head of Modern Languages here (2011-2016). This post is intended as a collective vote of thanks for the sixteen years of service Emma gave to the medieval community at Exeter.
Indeed, we have Emma to thank for the existence of the Centre for Medieval Studies seminar which she set up on a shoestring in its first year of existence, including the key lubricant of post-seminar wine, initially on a contribution basis. Sarah Hamilton recalls that ‘even once funding became more certain, her commitment to wine and collegiality was ongoing and will be sorely missed, as will her commitment to promoting medieval Latin as well as French.’ As will surprise nobody who knows her, footwear features prominently in Sarah’s anecdotes about Emma: ‘one of my earliest memories of her is going to some MA event at the cathedral and as we left she dived into a shoe shop; on a visit to Beijing she dragged all of us into a covered market to look for shoes….’ Yolanda Plumley similarly remembers Emma’s sartorial excellence as an enhancement to the pleasure of collaborative plotting about Medieval Studies over lunch meetings. She adds: ‘one of the highlights for me of the fifteen years we spent together at Exeter was the delightful conversation that unfolded between us on debate in medieval music and literature over the twelve weeks of an MA option we once taught together.’
Emma’s unshakeable commitment to her PhD students is a common theme in their comments. Pete Knowles, who completed his PhD in 2015, describes her as ‘the best PhD supervisor I could have asked for; from being filmed leafing through the Exeter book manuscript with grout on my fingers, to translating Old French over a bottle of fizz in a pub garden one summer evening, I finished my doctorate with three years of fantastic memories and a friend for life.’ As a result of his innovative collaborative PhD programme, Pete now works as an Executive Producer for creative tech company Antenna International. More recently, Emma was instrumental in securing three Nicklaus-Cartwright PhD Scholarships in French. The high calibre of medievalist applicants led to us benefitting from the presence of Edward Mills and Coline Blaizeau, both now in the latter stages of their doctorates. As Edward comments: ‘without Emma’s decision as Head of Department to invest in PhD funding, I doubt I’d be doing a PhD today.’ Coline speaks in similarly glowing terms: ‘Emma was always kind and understanding, generous and sensitive – all things that made it easy to speak with her openly. I quickly felt comfortable in her presence and able to share my thoughts.’ Edward adds that ‘she has always been a tireless advocate for involving PhD students in the wider life of the Department: I’ll never forget going to see the Exeter Book being digitised, and seeing for the first time how much work she had put into the research and public engagement project that had led up to that moment.’ The beautiful and fitting leaving present that Coline and Edward made for Emma says it all.
Emma’s tireless positivity and enthusiasm have been a great source of strength for Exeter Medieval Studies over the past decade and a half. Her parting gift was the holding here in July 2019 of the XVIth International Courtly Literature Society Triennial Congress. I had the pleasure of co-organising this with her and Michelle Bolduc, another valued colleague whose presence in our ranks came from Emma’s vision of the breadth of Medieval Studies. Edward and Coline offered invaluable organisational help, which in Edward’s case involved giving attendees the same tour of medieval Exeter that he himself had received from Emma after accepting our PhD scholarship offer. We lost count of the number of colleagues who told us it was the best ICLS conference they had attended – and, of course, how pretty the campus is. Emma holds a number of prestigious offices within the Medieval and French academic communities, evidence of her energy, generosity and enthusiasm for these fields of study. She is currently president of the ICLS, as well as being Co-Editor of French Studies and a member of the AUPHF Executive Committee. We wish her well in all of her future endeavours, and look forward to an opportunity to welcome her back to Exeter soon!
Senior Lecturer in French
As my colleagues at Exeter know, I have spent the past few years looking at the concept of news in the Middle Ages. I’ve been considering what the idea of ‘news’ meant in the medieval world, what sources remain for news, and what studies of news in the Middle Ages might tell us about news in other historical periods. And I think they could tell us quite a lot…
This is because the modern concept of news has become intertwined with the idea of modernity, of what makes the modern world distinctive. News is seen as a crucial component of modern democratic societies, a reflection of modern communications technology, and has even been used to discuss the modern experience of time. Early modern scholars are very conscious of the close relationship between news and modernity. As a result, they emphasise the foundational role played by early modern news in the creation of newspapers and the modern news market. In these arguments, medieval news is seen as something different and “other”. It is a foil for teleological narratives of news, progress, and modernity. But the problem is that we don’t know that much about news in the Middle Ages… So how can we be sure that it was different? And what if medieval news was less different than assumed? How might that affect our understanding of news and its relationship to the modern world and modernity? There is a problematic gap in the scholarship here. Further research is needed.
Despite the prominence of news as a topic for modern and early modern scholars, little work has been done on news in the Middle Ages. Various scholars have touched on this area, but few have thought about it in depth. This means that some of the most basic questions haven’t really been answered, including, for example, what does medieval news look like? After all, this is a period before the emergence of traditional news media such as newspapers. Getting to grips with the basics as well as thinking about the more sophisticated aspects of this topic has proved hugely stimulating. It’s rare to find such an obvious and interesting topic for which there is still so much work to do!
And, hot of the press this month, my article ‘News in the Middle Ages: News, Communications, and the Launch of the Third Crusade in 1187-88’ presents my initial thoughts on the topic. In this piece, I discuss why historians have been slow to tackle medieval news and how we can identify news in our medieval sources. I also explore how news was transmitted through a case study relating to the Third Crusade. I track the dissemination of three related news stories in 1187 and 1188: the defeat of Christian forces by Saladin at Hattin, the subsequent fall of Jerusalem, and the launch of the Third Crusade by Pope Gregory VIII. As a case study, this turned out to be both more complicated and more revealing than expected – but you’ll have to read the article to find out more!
However, there is still much more to say on news in the Middle Ages – and I have more work in the pipeline. Over the coming year I hope to complete two further articles on this topic. One will focus on the manuscript context of our extant news sources from 1187 and 1188, and draws on research funded by the British Academy Neil Ker Fund. Here I will grapple with the problem that none of our original news sources survive – all we have are copies. My article will investigate when, where, and how this material was copied, and what the act of copying tells us about the relationship between news and history in the Middle Ages. The second article will discuss the relationship between news and the medieval experience of time. This responds to arguments made in early modern scholarship about news and the emergence of a ‘modern’ sense of the present. As you might imagine, I am somewhat critical of this view…
In fact, there is so much to do that I have roped in a group of other scholars to help me explore this topic. From 2019 to 2021, I am leading a collaborative project on ‘News and News Cultures in the Middle Ages’, supported by a Small Research Grant from the Leverhulme Trust. This project brings together a variety of established and early career researchers with interests in communication, information networks, public opinion, and – of course – news. We are working together to produce a volume summarising what medieval news is, how it was disseminated, and how it functioned in society. It is intended to lay the foundations for future studies on news in the Middle Ages and to be the go-to work for scholars from other periods and disciplines. Hopefully, it will make this topic front page news!
Five hundred years ago, Henry Courtenay, earl of Devon (d. 1539), marked the coming of the New Year with a rare and costly gift for his king, Henry VIII: oranges (Earl Henry’s accounts do not record how many). Oranges were not unknown at the royal table – indeed Henry is known for his fondness for marmalade, then a rare Portguese treat which the king secured from an importer in Exeter – but they were an undoubted luxury, shipped from Iberia.
The Courtenay accounts do not tell how much the earl paid for them but he was clearly anxious over his investment as they do show the chain of paid assistants who saw to it that the precious cargo was carried down river to Greenwich Palace without mishap. Earl Henry, who was in the early stages of his rise to the status of royal favourite (which would culminate in his creation as Marquess of Exeter in 1525) was evidently determined to make this the most memorable of New Years. So solicitous was he of the twenty nine year old Henry’s enjoyment, he even paid a passerby to give up his cap, so that the royal head might be spared during a bout of snow-balling.
The giving of gifts at the new year was a well-established custom among the social elite in England long before the coming of the Tudors. Jocelin of Brakelond, monk of Bury St Edmunds, recalled at the turn of the thirteenth century that gift-giving at the Feast of the Circumcision (calculated in the Julian calendar as 1 January) was a ‘custom among the English’. In an account which to modern readers might carry a much later seasonal echo, Jocelin thought of his own abbot, Samson of Tottington (1180-1212), and asked himself ‘What can I give him?’. His choice was characteristic of a medieval Benedictine: he compiled an inventory of the churches held by the abbey showing their rentable value. Samson, Jocelin reported, was ‘very gratified’.
By the mid-thirteenth century the presentation of New Year’s gifts was conspicuous in royal circles. On one occasion, Henry III purchased 307 rings for distribution on 1 January. In 1242 he presented Beatrice of Savoy (c.1198-c.1267) with the figure of an eagle set with precious stones at a cost of £100, perhaps the equivalent of upwards of £70000 by today’s values. Although by no means routinely recorded, magnates and prelates in pursuit of royal favour adopted the custom, conscious of its currency. In mainland European courts it had become an established part not only of ceremonial practice but also of its political power-play. In the French court of the Valois monarchs the custom was refined as the étrennes, the giving of gifts to start the year with an element of surprise. This seems to have passed into the English royal court with the coming of the Tudors, perhaps another of the French and Burgundian tools of royal authority absorbed during his exile by the first Henry Tudor.
In the reign of his son, Henry VIII, the politics of New Year’s gifts reached a new intensity. The king’s accounts of his purchases and presentations are a precise index of who was present in – and conspicuously absent from – his favour. In their turn, those courtiers, magnates and churchmen aiming to turn the increasingly factional climate to their advantage gave New Year’s gifts a permanent place in their armoury. Never more so than after 1534, in the struggles to profit, and not to lose, from the King’s Reformation. At the decade’s end, after the deaths of two queens, the dissolution of most monasteries, and popular rebellion, the anxieties at the turn of the year were feverish. Henry Courtenay himself fell foul of the court politics at the year’s end in 1538 and was executed in the first week of January 1539. As it happened, Bishop John Vesey (1519-54) had been among the king’s company during that New Year and royal largesse extended to the bishop’s cohort of servants. One of the last monastic superiors still standing at this time, Thomas Goldwell, prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, sent £20 of gold as his New Year’s gift to the king on 15 January 1540 just eight weeks before he was compelled to surrender his ancient monastery into the king’s hands. Thomas Cromwell’s final and most fateful gift to his king on what turned out to be the last New Year’s Day he would see was his first meeting with Anne of Cleves (c.1515-57). Sadly for Cromwell, the king found he ‘liked her nothing so well as she was spoken of’. On 30 June 1540, writing from the Tower of London as the king’s ‘most miserable prisoner and poor slave’, he tried to persuade his master to remember the encounter differently. To no avail. Cromwell was executed at Tower Hill days later.
The traditional—and still popular—image of the ‘feudal’ political order of the Middle Ages is one of anarchic knights and overmighty barons pursuing selfish ends to the detriment of peace and justice. Our teleological narrative thus explains the emergence of the modern state by the rise of centralised monarchies which abolished private conflict and introduced ‘commonweal’. The medieval aristocracy, in this telling, is a negative force, a symptom of the collapse of the Roman imperium and an impediment to human flourishing.
However, recent work has questioned this characterisation of the baron’s role in government, as well as the benevolence of centralised governments themselves. Is the vilification of medieval lords not another case of history written by the victors? ‘Noblesse oblige? II’ intends to build on the foundation laid last year by hosting a further discussion and reevaluation of baronial government in the Middle Ages, focussing particularly on the ways in which nobles created, practised, and participated in government throughout Europe.
The two-day conference will be held at the University of Exeter on the 30th of April and 1st of May 2020. Papers of twenty minutes in length are welcome from both emerging and established scholars of baronial political culture, with special reference to questions surrounding their role in government. Examples within this theme might include the political nature of a baro, connexions between the governmental and religious reform at the aristocratic level, images of good governance in vernacular texts, noble opposition to tyranny or cooperation with royal initiatives, or the place of aristocratic women in government. We aim to incorporate a broad chronological range of papers, and especially invite explorations of change over time. We also welcome points of comparison with aristocratic political culture from outside Europe or Christendom.
Please submit abstracts of no more than 300 words to the conference organisers, Dr Gregory Lippiatt and Mr Sebastian Rider-Bezerra, at , along with the applicant’s name, affiliation (including independent scholar), and a 150-word biography. We hope to have bursaries available to assist postgraduate, unwaged, and international participants. We eagerly look forward to receiving and reading all submissions.
The deadline for submissions is 20 December 2019.
Dr Gregory Lippiatt
Leverhulme Early Career Fellow and
Lecturer in Medieval History
I’m at the beginning of a new project on ‘Popular Healing: Christian and Islamic Practices and the Roman Inquisition in Early Modern Malta’ (not medieval, but you can’t have everything), funded by a British Academy Small Grant. It’s a joint project, conducted by me and Dionisius Agius, in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter, as co-investigators. It also builds on Dionisius’s earlier ‘Magic in Malta, 1605’ project, on which I was co-investigator. I’ve written about ‘Magic in Malta’ on the blog before here and here but to sum up that earlier project examined in depth one unusual, and interesting, trial held by the Roman Inquisition in Malta. In this trial a Muslim slave, Sellem bin al-Sheikh Mansur, was tried for several counts of doing magic and divination for Christians. The project book should be out next year.
This time round, we’re hoping to answer some of the questions which the ‘Magic in Malta’ project raised for us by looking at a wider range of inquisitorial cases. In particular, it became clear that Sellem’s case was part of a much wider world of interactions taking place on Malta between the Christian majority and the substantial minority of Muslim slaves living on the islands. Many of these interactions seemed to be related to illness and healing. In particular, some Muslim slaves, like Sellem, were being accused of offering what the inquisitors deemed ‘superstitious’ or ‘magical’ ‘remedies’ to Christians – practices designed to cure illnesses, diagnose and counter witchcraft, and create or strengthen sexual relationships through love magic. Often this was a way for the slaves to earn some extra income. It was not only Muslim slaves who offered these services, however. Christian healers, both men and women, were also being accused of using magical or superstitious practices.
Our plan for the project is to compile a simple database of cases, in order to investigate this world of popular remedies in more detail. How many cases do we see, and what are the patterns of change over time? Are there differences in the services that were said to have been offered by these different healers – Christian or Muslim, male or female? How were these different healers perceived by clients, and how did the Inquisition treat them? Did clients seek out ‘magical’ remedies for particular types of illness or problem? Why did they seek out particular healers? Inquisition records are not unproblematic windows onto these questions, of course. Witnesses rarely came forward spontaneously (often they were sent by their parish priests after mentioning superstitious practices in confession), and they were often keen to present their actions in the least incriminating light. Moreover, as many scholars have shown, witness testimonies in inquisitorial records were shaped in numerous ways by what witnesses believed the inquisitors were expecting to hear, as well as by the (sometimes leading) questions asked of them. Nonetheless, the wealth of circumstantial detail in the records allows us to explore perceptions of superstitious remedies and the interactions between healers and their clients.
It’s early days yet. Our first research trip to the Cathedral Archives in Mdina is a couple of weeks away. We’re currently setting up our database, with the advice of Exeter’s Digital Humanities team, which is a bit of a learning curve for two academics without much prior experience of Microsoft Access. It’s a smallish project, with a more restricted focus than, say, the Dissident Networks Project recently begun at the Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, which also makes use of databases for Inquisition records, among other things – but we think the results will be interesting.
More at a later date on how it goes.
Catherine Rider, Associate Professor in Medieval History
The new shrine was the centrepiece of the scheme for the elaboration and beautification of the abbey church in which King Henry had invested for more than twenty-five years.
The ceremony, conducted on the liturgical feast of the translation, 13 October, drew only modest attention in contemporary annals, although the compiler of the Flores historiarum reported the immediate cure of two supplicants at the shrine, Benedict, a clerk of Winchester, and John, an Irish layman, suffering from diabolical possession.
Artefacts of the Abbey’s medieval history, an early witness to the Confessor’s foundation charter, and the magnificent illuminated Missal of the fourteenth-century abbot, Nicholas Litlyngton (1362-1386) were processed through the nave to the chancel steps for display at the High Altar. The Queen presented roses to be placed before the shrine of St Edward.
Timed to coincide with the 750th anniversary a new history of Westminster Abbey, Westminster Abbey: A Church in HIstory, has been published by Yale University Press in association with the Paul Mellon Centre.
The book explores the origins of the monastic church, its early post-Conquest history, its Plantagenet preeminence and its successive reinventions, before the Reformation as the lynchpin of a network of Tudor chantries, subsequently its brief term as a post-Reformation cathedral, reaching right up to its contemporary role as a church for the nation and the Commonwealth. James Clark, in Exeter’s Department of History, has co-authored the chapters on the high and later Middle Ages with Paul Binski (Cambridge). The book is edited by Sir David Cannadine.