Anchorites, Monks and Medievalists: A Day Trip to Haselbury Plucknett and Forde Abbey

What better way to celebrate the end of exam marking at Exeter than to spend a summer’s day wandering around medieval sites in the Southwest?

On 1 June, two PhD students and I took a day trip to the parish church at Haselbury Plucknett in Somerset and Forde Abbey in Dorset. The main reason for this outing was the visit to Exeter of Joshua Britt, a PhD student from the University of South Florida, who is working on medieval anchorites. Anchorites were individuals who pursued the religious life by being enclosed in a cell, often attached to a church. Josh had come to Exeter to meet with our resident anchoritic expert, Prof. Eddie Jones, and to look through the archive of the late Rotha Mary Clay (author of The Hermits and Anchorites of Medieval England), currently in Eddie’s care. Josh was also interested in talking to me, having heard that I will soon be working on a new Latin edition of the Life of Wulfric of Haselbury by John of Forde. Wulfric was an anchorite who lived in a cell attached to the parish church of Haselbury Plucknett from 1124×25 until his death in 1154. In his time, he was a very well-known figure: his reputation reached the ears of the pope and St Bernard, and he was consulted by King Stephen. In the early to mid-1180s, at a point when memories of Wulfric were beginning to fade, his life and deeds were documented by John, prior and subsequently abbot of the nearby Cisterican house of Forde. Josh’s presence in Exeter provided the ideal excuse to indulge our mutual research interests and to visit both sites. One of our own PhD students, Tom Chadwick, also came along for the ride. Tom was happy to take a break from writing up his thesis and to offer his in-depth knowledge of local ales and ciders (the latter being much appreciated by Josh).

2017-06-01 11.01.32
Haselbury Plucknett church (the vestry to the right stands on the site of Wulfric’s cell)
2017-06-01 11.12.05
Tom and Jerry check out the medieval church

We set off from campus by car at 9.30 and arrived at Haselbury Plucknett just before 11.00. Here we met Jerry Sampson, a local archaeologist interested the medieval structure of Haselbury’s church. A thorough renovation by the Victorians means that little now remains of the church’s medieval fabric so Jerry’s help in interpreting the site proved crucial. He pointed out the extant medieval features and explained that the northern side probably retained the footprint of the twelfth-century church and Wulfric’s cell, the latter lying underneath the current vestry. The Life offers interesting glimpses into Wulfric’s cell, which seems to have consisted of an inner and outer room, with one door into the church and one window to the outside world. Much of our discussion centred on the exact arrangement of the cell and any other buildings, such as a stable and a room for Wulfric’s servant, which might have been part of the complex. Jerry has plans to carry out a geophysical survey on the site so some of these questions may be answered in the near future.

2017-06-01 12.15.29
Tom, Jerry and Josh at the ford (Tom holds a copy of the ‘Life of Wulfric’)

Next we wandered round the village, looking for the bridge and ford over the river, scenes of two of Wulfric’s miracles. The probable location of the latter was found down a public footpath at the side of the village inn – although, it must be admitted, the gentle stream at the bottom isn’t particularly impressive. By now, it was 13.00: like any good medievalists, we had managed to spend quite a lot of time looking at very little.

We then made our way to Forde Abbey and the home of Wulfric’s biographer, John of Forde (c.1150-1214). Forde Abbey was a Cistercian house and the second home of a community initially founded in 1136 at Brightley in Devon. Brightley proved unsuitable and five years later the community relocated to the present site, a crossing point on the River Axe – a ford – from which the new house took its name. The abbey was dissolved in 1539, shortly after Abbot Chard had undertaken an ambitious building programme and much of what remains of the medieval complex dates from this period. The estate passed through several hands until the Prideaux family bought it in 1649 and remodelled the extant buildings to form an impressive, if architecturally dissonant, stately home.

Forde
Forde Abbey
2017-06-01 14.32.57
The monastic east range

The Chard Tower, the abbot’s lodgings, the north side of the cloister, the east range (which contained the monks’ dormitory), and the chapter house are the most visible extant remains of the Cistercian abbey – and of these, only the chapter house and the east range date from John’s time. The chapter house and the ground floor of the east range (now the cafe) can be accessed without tickets to the house. Those venturing inside the house may find it difficult to get to grips with the monastic geography of the building – the historical information provided focuses more on its early modern and modern inhabitants.

2017-06-01 16.00.02
Tom and Josh get medieval

Fortunately, the final room of the house leaves you to your own devices with a selection of Cistercian habits, so even if the medieval history of the house is underplayed, you can still look the part. Outside, the gardens are nicely landscaped, very well maintained, and include a number of water features. At the far end of the gardens, the Great Pond seems to be monastic in origin, but, while of interest to the medievalist, it is not as impressive as the Centenary Fountain, which shoots a spout of water surprisingly high into the sky several times a day.

All in all, this was a fun day out – and we happily toasted the success of our trip with some ale and cider when we returned to Exeter. However, for those with a more general interest in medieval history, these sites are of limited interest. Unless you’ve read the Life of Wulfric (which is readily available in translation), you won’t really get much out of the church at Haselbury Plucknett – this is a site for Wulfric enthusiasts only. Indeed, the carved wooden ceiling and “Norman” cellar of our lunch stop, Oscar’s Winebar in Crewkerne, probably has more to appeal to the general medieval tourist! In contrast, Forde Abbey is certainly worth a visit, but is better suited to a family outing on a sunny day than a research trip. While there are significant medieval structures remaining at Forde, the estate is oriented more towards its later history and horticulture than those seeking the medieval.

Haselbury Plucknett Church: Entrance is free.

Forde Abbey: Entrance to the house and gardens costs £13.00 (although there is a 10% reduction if you buy tickets online) and opening times are restricted.

Dr Helen Birkett, Lecturer in History

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page

Sarah Hamilton, New Haven, CT: What’s the Use of Cursing?

It’s unusual for British universities to be in a position to buy medieval manuscripts. Yet the recent publicity given to the discovery of a unique leaf from the Sarum Ordinal printed by William Caxton in the 1470s amongst the binding fragments of various manuscripts and early printed books purchased by the University of Reading in 1997 testifies to the public interest in such materials. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, on the other hand, is in the fortunate position to be able to purchase entire medieval manuscripts as they come to the market. And I was lucky enough, when visiting Yale to deliver a paper to a conference on Medieval Rites: Reading the Writing last month, to consult one of their more recent purchases, Ms 1172, in the congenial surroundings of this beautiful modernist building.

Beinecke
Exterior: Beinecke Library, Yale University (image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
Beinecke interior
Interior, Beinecke Library, Yale University (image courtesy of Yale University)

Ms 1172 is a chapter book owned and used by the eleventh-century cathedral chapter of Beauvais. It includes rites for the sick and the dying, two sermons to the Virgin, and a copy of Usuard’s martyrology; obit notices for various members of the Beauvais community were added in its margins over the course of the following century. Amongst the texts added in a slightly later eleventh-century hand is this text of an excommunication formula followed by antiphons, responses and a prayer.

Medieval excommunication, that is exclusion from the Church and Christian society, has its roots in the biblical, classical and early Christian pasts. An episcopal prerogative, the declaration of a formal excommunication sentence was accompanied by curses in a formal process of anathema or cursing using formula like this one, which was added later on a blank folio just before the start of the martyrology.

I am currently collecting examples of such supplementary  texts as part of my research into the afterlife of the Carolingian penitential state through a study of the records of excommunication rites and episcopal culture in the tenth and eleventh centuries. To date I have found some 30 examples of similar ad hoc formulae in manuscripts written across northern Europe and the former Frankish Empire in the tenth and eleventh centuries; ad hoc because most of them are different from each other; no doubt others exist, as yet unidentified by earlier cataloguers. Most of these, like this example, were added into the manuscript some years after it was first copied. They make for an interesting corpus because, although the Carolingians practiced and codified excommunication, they never thought to record its liturgy.

Yale MS
New Haven, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS 1172 (image: Sarah Hamilton)

This particular example interests me as it is one of only four examples I know of when such an ad hoc excommunication formula was integrated into a fuller service. My research suggests all four of these examples are eleventh-century and they all have links to northern France. The text of the excommunication formula in the Beinecke manuscript is unique, but seems to have been improvised from a stock of phrases, as these can be found individually across various other examples.   The service which follows is similarly made up of commonly circulating texts, all of which have their roots in the ninth century. The initial antiphon, Congregati sunt (inimici nostri) (Our enemies are gathered together), and response, Disperge illos (in uirtute tuo) (Shake them so that you know it is none who fights for us than you, Our God) comes from the feast of Maccabees on 1 August, and appears in the earliest chant manuscripts from the tenth century. The prayer, Hostium nostrorum quaesumus domine (O lord we pray put down the pride of our enemies and overthrow it with the strength of your right hand), is from the ninth-century Carolingian collection, the Hadrianum Sacramentary, specifically from the ‘Mass in time of war’. By the later Middle Ages this particular Mass set had come, at least at Rouen, to be specifically associated with protection against enemies, being rubricated ‘Contra hostes’.

Quite why the canons of Beauvais recorded this rite in their chapter book is a question for another post. But it is worth pointing out here how texts like this can help to investigate wider questions. These include one puzzling those who work on liturgical texts: why, in an age where liturgical performance was largely dependent on memory, churchmen recorded in writing certain rites. It can also contribute to research into the transition between the rational, well-recorded ninth-century world of the Carolingians and the seemingly more ritualistic, less well-recorded, more ritualistic post-Carolingian world. The afterlife of the Carolingian world is currently the subject of both the HERA-funded project, After Empire: Using and Not Using the Past in the Crisis of the Carolingian World, 900-1050, and a more informal work of a larger network of scholars, The Transformation of the Carolingian World: Plurality and its Limits, 9th to 12th Centuries. By highlighting how rites like this one bridged the divide between oral performance and written record, and at the same time represented a real change from Carolingian to post-Carolingian practice, we will begin to investigate these areas.

Prof. Sarah Hamilton

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page

Digital Resources for Medieval Research and Teaching

There has been a huge proliferation of online resources for research and teaching in Medieval Studies in recent years, so much so that it’s hard to keep track of them all. So we’ve put our heads together and come up with a list of some of our favourites – though this is by no means exhaustive.  We hope this will be useful to people researching at all levels but it may come in particularly handy for our second-year undergraduates, who are beginning to think about dissertation topics at this time of year, and for our MA students who are getting started on their dissertation research in earnest.

 

General Reference for a wide variety of topics and periods:

 

The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, a large (if slightly patchy) archive of translated sources; some are full texts, others extracts.

The International Medieval Bibliography (provided by Brepols, access through the Uni e-library search engine); MLA Bibliography (access ditto) – these are the two main resources for finding research that’s been produced on a topic. The latter is specific to Modern Languages research, the former is Medieval Studies.

Online dictionaries – for French, the Anglo-Norman Dictionary and the DEAF (Dictionnaire électronique d’ancien français available in French or German only) are the best. For Latin, the DMLBS (Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources as well as the online Lewis and Short. For English, the Middle English Dictionary (MED).

British History online is very useful for following up charters, roll entries, etc. The search facility is quite good as it has a wild card option, though you will need to anticipate the variant forms of a name in order to find everything relevant.

In French, but covering primary material in various languages including Latin, is arlima.net (Archives de literature du moyen âge). A good place to start when looking for lists of manuscripts of a particular work, basic information e.g. about authorship and length, or bibliographical suggestions. The completeness of entries is rather uneven (some are excellent, some are basically shells) but it is being updated all the time.

http://www.medievalarchaeology.co.uk/ Portal for Europe’s foremost society for the study of medieval archaeology; contains many useful links.

Pastscape: Online database for the historic environment in England and a key starting point for the study of any medieval site or building.

Digimap allows users to find and download Ordnance Survey maps of any date and scale; invaluable for researching medieval landscapes, sites and settlements and depicting them.

 

More specific sites that we like, in no particular order:

 

http://www.esawyer.org.uk/about/index.html and http://dk.usertest.mws3.csx.cam.ac.uk/ for Anglo-Saxon charters. The former provides texts of (almost) all Anglo-Saxon charters as well as summaries of modern scholarly commentary, alongside full details of all surviving manuscripts etc., whilst the latter is something of a companion site, which for those signed up provides images of almost all surviving single sheets, along with maps and other useful materials for teaching (and studying) Anglo-Saxon England.

The Monastic Manuscript Project site, especially the page containing a list of links to archives and libraries with digitized medieval holdings  It’s presented as a resource for the study of early medieval monasticism, but, really, it’s of use to anyone working on medieval manuscripts.

Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. An outstanding digital edition of an invaluable primary source for medieval political history.

Wellcome Images: database of images from the collections of the Wellcome Library in London. Invaluable for studying the history of medicine (European and worldwide) but also much on manuscripts, religion, science and more. The Library also runs a blog, with some good medieval content.

Thesaurus Exemplorum Medii Aevi – database of stories and motifs in medieval exempla, useful for finding references to particular topics or establishing which authors tell which stories. A French site but it provides some English keywords for searching.

Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France is one of the most significant recent digital projects in medieval literary studies – it explores the transmission and mobility of Francophone literature across Europe via a database of the manuscripts of six important textual traditions, including Classical material (romances of Alexander and Troy, Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César) and Arthurian romance (Lancelot, Tristan).

Finally, for information on French-language and Occitan-language material specifically, Jonas, the ‘Repertoire des texts et des manuscrits médiévaux doc et d’oïl’. Again, this is a resource which is improving all the time, and aims for exhaustivity.

Thanks to Helen Birkett (History), Oliver Creighton (Archaeology), Tom Hinton (Modern Languages), Elliot Kendall (English) and Levi Roach (History) for suggesting their favourite websites.

Catherine Rider (History)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page

Widening Participation: Exploring the MEDIEVAL and Early Modern Worlds

I recently participated in a campus visit for Year 9 and 10 school pupils as part of Exeter’s Widening Participation scheme to encourage a larger pool of students to consider a degree in the humanities. I offered the pupils two workshops in historical studies, focusing on the medieval and early modern worlds. I selected these topics, partly, because they represented my own areas of expertise and, partly, because I wanted to provide a (hopefully, welcome!) alternative to the predominance of modern history in the current school curriculum. The experience of planning and leading the workshops was very illuminating and prompted some reflections on my own attitudes to the differences between education at school and university, and the influence which these differences have on the responses of students to the work we assign them.

‘Preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done’…..so wrote Herodotus in his introduction for the Histories of the Greco-Persian wars in the 5th century BC. This description of the historian’s trade, fortified by Leopold von Ranke’s 19th-century insistence on ‘what really happened,’ remained current until at least the early 20th century and the explosion of the Whig tradition by Herbert Butterfield. Despite this, national and local identities have often depended upon the Rankean ‘scientific’ and teleological interpretation of the past, particularly because it is amenable to narratives of popular, public histories. In contrast, there is the approach taken by the pupils in my recent workshop, who happily observed that ‘history is written by the victors!’ Here effective analysis of events and patterns is done through thoughtful consideration of the position and experiences of the characters who appear in the records. The scholarly version of this second approach, which engages with the diverse perspectives of class, gender and race, is bread and butter for academic historians, but it is often perceived to be in conflict with the ideal of a collective community, which seems to require the support of Ranke’s model of historiography. The black and white shading of these positions are, of course, illusions; the pupils in the workshop were quite aware of the difficulties in examining evidence which is biased or incomplete, and of all disciplines in the humanities history is arguably the most resistant to the stereotype of postmodernist relativism. Nevertheless, even if the distance between the models of history taught in secondary and tertiary education is not so wide, many students seem intimidated by the transition. In this post I would like to discuss this issue from the perspective of working with pupils who were still in school. In brief, reflecting on this change is as useful for tutors as it is for potential students!

One of the difficulties faced by new undergraduates is the frequent requirement for them to recognise and reject some of their preconceived ideas about their chosen subject. The purpose of this demand should expand and invigorate their approach to a discipline, but it can also cause confusion and lead them to question their own abilities… A healthy sense of bamboozlement is, of course, vital for a good life (as I, and others, tell myself in most some situations). Indeed, for postgraduate research onwards ‘feeling stupid’ is, or should be, a reminder that we are scaling the peaks we once viewed from the base camps in which we produced our undergraduate dissertations. Primary and, especially, secondary education is so focussed on the linear progress of attainment, however, that some students can become so discouraged by the approach to history at university that changing programmes or dropping out entirely seem to be the best options for them. Of course, there are many valid reasons for making these choices, but it ought not to be because of premature assumptions they are not good enough to complete the challenges we set them. The Widening Participation initiative in the College of Humanities seeks to manage the leap across this chasm for students entering undergraduate programmes in its departments, especially if they come from underrepresented groups. The opportunities offered by the College include campus visits, in which pupils receive a tour of the university and attend workshops led by PhD students in the subjects that they might be interested in studying for a degree here or elsewhere.

mappa-facsimile
Facsimile of the Mappa Mundi

Designing any seminar or workshop is, of course, challenging and it is especially so when the participants differ from your usual audience. However, the potential for providing an influential experience was an effective motivation; I know myself that early impressions can be very formative… although I decided, wisely I think, to eschew simply screening The 300 Spartans or A Bridge Too Far! I doubt that Richard Egan’s recitation of his lines performance would have instilled a lasting affinity for the concept of the past not already achieved by Horrible Histories! I led the group of 19 pupils in two sessions, which I divided into discussion of medieval and Early Modern studies (no Nazis!). I began the first session by inducting the pupils into one of the finest traditions of university education: a quiz (including chocolate for the winners). I asked teams of pupils to find a list of images amongst the illustrations on, rather natty, A3 copies of the Mappa Mundi. It was produced c. 1300 and is the largest surviving document of this type and currently resides at Hereford Cathedral. The map, publicised by the cathedral’s wonderful website, is a splendid resource for offering newbies a vivid depiction of the medieval imagination…. The illustration of the Golden Fleece is especially delightful, but all of the images introduce a cultural landscape thankfully removed from the standard syllabus of the Battle of Hastings and Magna Carta. These events are, of course, important landmarks in English and European history, but this was an opportunity to provide the pupils with experience of topics which were not selected because of relevance to their national identity. The first group to find the emblems were suitably rewarded with the aforementioned prizes… Although this was not entirely representative of a university seminar, it did try to explore a different aspect of the past and the students seemed to appreciate it (or, at least, the chocolate!).

Golden Fleece
The Golden Fleece

I had hoped to devote most of the workshop to discussing a ‘source-book’ of documents on medieval medicine (continuing my focus on the more graphic features of the period!), but the interest of the pupils and teachers inclined towards discussing the general practice of studying history at university: the structure of the degree, the choice of modules, the format of lectures and seminars, the criteria for assessment… These questions would perhaps not inspire them to specialise in the Middle Ages, but it was a useful primer for the general study of history. It was also, as most teaching is, very insightful for me; many aspects of academia that I take for granted (degree classifications etc) were unfamiliar to the students. Holly and Kate, the undergraduate historians who were supporting the school for the entire visit, were probably more useful for this! We did eventually turn to discussion of a medieval source: the rules for doctors in Frederick II’s Constitutions of Melfi (1231). Identifying sources which represented the experience of a university seminar, but were accessible for a mixed group of year 9 and year 10 pupils proved difficult. Although they were willing and had some good ideas, the difference between these stages of education was apparent in the reaction of the different year groups to the material. This was not, I think, because the source was too esoteric or difficult to understand of itself, but because of general intimidation by the perceived complexities of it. This was also apparent in their reaction to the Early Modern texts in the second session: records from the trial of Charles I (1649) and accounts of the Battle of Lexington (1775) by British and American correspondents. Although initially surprised by this reticence, I realised that it was little different from the feelings many of our undergraduates display and, after some prompting from myself and the teacher, the pupils managed to summarise the principal points of both of these sources.

I was genuinely excited by this opportunity to teach school pupils, especially because the brief permitted me to use material so different from that on the usual secondary school syllabi! While I hope it was useful for the pupils, it was definitely a fascinating and informative day for me. It can often be frustrating for tutors when undergraduates have difficulty grasping the content or implications of a particular source, especially when, after so much time above the clouds, if nowhere near the summit (!), it can be difficult for us to see these difficulties ourselves.This workshop reminded me of just how much basic understanding and intellectual engagement I expect from my students – and how daunting it might be to deal with such unfamiliar material. It is something I will bear in mind when teaching classes in the future when, perhaps, one of these pupils might become one of these students!

 

Zoe Cunningham is a PhD student in the School of Law, affiliated to the Centre of Medieval Studies

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page

James Clark in Champaign, IL: A French Noblewoman Makes her Monastic Vows

In the heart of the American Mid-West, two and a half hours from Chicago, in the University twin town of Urbana-Champaign is a rare gem of a collection of medieval manuscripts.

MainLibrary_Urbana_Illinois_4582
Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL

 

An early translation of the Rule of St Benedict

UIUC MS 98
UIUC MS 98, fo. 1r. Photo courtesy of the Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL

Among them is a French translation of the Regula Benedictiitself a relatively rare survival, particularly from such an early date (c. 1270), although vernacular versions of the rule were widely attested. The translation is also distinguished by an opening illumination (fo. 1ra) with an unusual depiction of Benedictine sisters gathered before the sainted father of the order and maker of the rule, clutching what would appear to represent their profession statements.

 

A nun’s vows

Pasted on to the lower margin of Chapter 58, ‘On the manner of receiving sisters’, (fo. 25r), is an original profession statement, written out in a formal textura hand on a separate slip of parchment (now trimmed). The statement is in the name of one Claudia de Brilly, who identifies herself as making her profession of vows to become a sister of the abbey of St Sulpice and St Glossinde at Metz in the presence of Abbot Benedict of the abbey of St Arnould in the same city. The family of Brilly were lords of Touffreville and Villers-Bocage.

UIUC MS 98 2
UIUC MS 98, fo. 25r. Photo courtesy of the Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This Benedict can be identified as Benoit Juville who held the abbacy of St Arnould between 1545 and 1566, defending the ancient abbey church even as the Emperor Charles V laid siege to Metz in 1552. Abbé Benoit was forced to lead his brethren to the relative safety of the city’s Dominican convent, although the Imperial siege ultimately proved unsuccessful. The sisters of St Glossinde, however, held firm and, for all the tensions outside, young Claudia’s early years under vows were uninterrupted.

 

A symbol of continuity

In several different ways the manuscript represents continuities in medieval monastic history: the remarkable resilience of female observance at Metz, which began in the 7th century and persisted until August 1792; the enduring role of Metz, once the crucible of the Gorze reform, as a monastic hub; and the survival of the ceremonial of profession, and the materiality of the rule within it, even as the boundaries, indeed the polities of the old European Christendom came apart at the seams.

Prof. James G. Clark, at Champaign, IL

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page

Family History and the Cistercians in Late Medieval and Reformation Devon

Titles from BBC TV’s family history series, Who do you think you are?

In just a few years, family history research has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Proof of this will be apparent to any professional researcher arriving at the National Archives or – perhaps more especially – at a regional record office or heritage centre. Now they will find themselves explaining to the staff that unlike their typical visitor they have in fact called up this charter or that diocesan register for its own intrinsic interest and not simply because of some passing reference to a presumed ancestor. Of course, this surge of interest in family research might fairly be said to have been the salvation of county and city archives, which have seemed ever more vulnerable in face of local authority austerity. In fact the courage of some to cut loose from the direct control of councils owes much to the foot-fall they have seen from self-taught researchers of all ages with a passion discover more about their own past.

 

The origins of family history

Title-page from John Weever’s Ancient funerall monuments (1631)

The fashion for family history and its place in prime-time TV may be a recent development but, of course, the tracing of family lines does have a long… pedigree. In England its origins as a subject of scholarly enquiry are usually traced to the years between the Break with Rome (1534) and the outbreak of the Civil War (1642). The early anxieties and later ambitions of the Tudor monarchy gave rise to statutory measures for the regulation of social status and the use of a growing governmental bureaucracy to subject the political nation and the authority they exerted in their own provinces to ever closer, central scrutiny. Henry VIII initiated a cycle of heraldic visitations which continued at regular intervals – with the exception of the years of civil war – until the Glorious Revolution. The crown’s heralds held local elites to account for the arms, and, of course, the titles to which they were accustomed to lay claim. The coming of the visitors caused families to recover their records, create a synthesis and in many instances, to commit them to parchment in a genealogical roll. They were helped in their response by new forms of national and regional history: William Camden’s Britannia (1586) brought the histories of the nation’s counties into focus for the first time; John Weever’s Ancient funeral monuments (1631) gave its readers a glimpse of a distant ancestry which might be their own; in Monasticon Anglicanum (1655-73) William Dugdale and Roger Dodsworth pieced together the testimony of old monastic cartularies and chronicles still widely scattered in the libraries of provincial gentleman.

 

Family history in the late Middle Ages

Before the relationship between crown and political nation was challenged, and changed, in these years, it is generally assumed that ideas of family identity were not so well focused and that noble and gentry society did not demonstrate the same enterprise in the recording of its own history. The adoption and use of (coats of) arms remained fluid until the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The proof of the right to particular arms or indeed to an inheritance as a whole might be mustered ad hoc but was not a routine feature of noble or gentry discourse. Genealogy as a concept was well understood but was pursued for the most part only in clerical contexts where the descent of emperors, kings, and pontiffs provided a chronological framework for a chronicle narrative, and a narrative of the founder of the monastery and their family line offered a degree of institutional security to a convent community. It has often been suggested that the very first sign of these impulses passing over into lay circles was the making of the Rous Roll, the genealogical history compiled by John Rous, perhaps for Anne Neville before the Battle of Bosworth (1485).

John Rous’ roll

 

Family history research in fifteenth-century Devon

Yet a manuscript from the Courtenay archives at Powderham Castle, near Exeter, now digitised by specialists from Exeter University’s Digital Humanities team, Charlotte Tupman and Graham Fereday, may present something of a challenge to this conventional view. The Courtenay cartulary has only recently been returned to Powderham and has not been available to researchers for nearly forty years.

Panel 4_Medieval cartulary_first leaf
The Courtenay cartulary

It was first brought together in the third quarter of the fourteenth century and its principal contents track the Courtenay family’s acquisition of the old Norman barony of Okehampton which became the mainstay of their medieval earldom, and their commercial development of new towns at the east – Colyford – and the west – Kennford – of their domain. Perhaps as much as fifty years after the manuscript was begun, c. 1400-1425, quires were added at the front containing a family tree and family chronicle. Unusually at this date, the structure of the tree is formed not only of lines and roundels but also with the stem and branches of a tree, formed with broad strokes of a bright green paint. It begins not with the Courtenay family themselves but with the forebears they claimed, with the earldom, the Norman families of De Brionne and De Redvers who held respectively the shrievalty and nascent earldom of Devon in the first generations after the Conquest.

Baldwin 1
The opening of the Courtenay family tree

The tree follows the Courtenays from their arrival in England from their original French home at Chateau-Renard in the Val de Loire, their intermarriage with these Norman baronial lines and their claim of the earldom finally recognised by Edward III in 1340. It continues with the succession of Earl Hugh III de Courtenay (d. 1377) who married Margaret de Bohun (d. 1391), granddaughter of Edward I, whose marriage portion included Powderham. Their fourth son, Sir Philip Courtenay (d. 1406), built the castle and it is his descendants who recovered the earldom. The family chronicle expands this narrative and is illustrated with the blazons associated with each generation of the Courtenays and their forbears.

Cartulary 13v
The Courtenay family chronicle showing the family’s arms

 

Cistercian sources

Forde Abbey

The research of these fifteenth-century Courtenays was based largely on the foundation history of the Cistercian Abbey of Forde, of which they were patrons. The text that is woven around the tree, and continues on into the cartulary not only records the names of each generation, their marriages, issue, obituaries and their place of burial; it also includes passages from the (now lost) longer narrative of the fortunes of the Forde colony of monks from their first settlement at Brightley near Okehampton in 1133 down to the beginning of the fourteenth century. While a number of Cistercian houses compiled genealogies of their founders, it is rare to be able to demonstrate their direct transmission into the records and books of a lay household. Without the monastic original how far the Courtenays copied a Cistercian manuscript is unclear but it seems likely that the visualisation of their tree and the arms in their lineage – each finely painted and picked out in gold leaf – represent their own creative input. In doing so, the corporate, institutional identity which charged the Cistercian narrative was overlaid with its precise counterpoint, an expression of dynastic lordship. Interestingly, the territorial outlook of the original, which represented the White Monks reaching out across the West Country, was retained more-or-less verbatim no doubt because its tone of seigniorial ambition was well-suited to the Courtenays’ own purpose.

 

Reformation reception of Cistercian history

Remarkably, there is a second manuscript in the Powderham archives which bears witness to the appropriation of Cistercian narrative for the purposes of lay family history. A parchment booklet written in the first half of the sixteenth century contains another copy of the foundation narrative and later history of Forde.

Liber tractans 1
William Strode’s parchment booklet

The booklet carries a dated ownership inscription naming William Strode (d. 1579), a major landowner in Somerset and Devon who was energetic in buying up estates at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Perhaps the pinnacle of Strode’s rise to regional power was his marriage into the Courtenay dynasty. It was his entry into the hold monastic heartland and into the region’s noble lineage which persuaded him to assimilate the same dynastic narrative – already re-purposed once, in the fifteenth century – as his own. More than a decade after the Cistercian community had itself been driven from Forde, their pioneering work in genealogy provided a template for fashioning the identity of an up-and-coming family.

 

New exhibition at Powderham Castle

Powderham Castle

The Courtenay family tree, the cartulary and William Strode’s book form part of an exhibition now open to visitors to Powderham Castle curated by Exeter’s Digital Humanities team together with James Clark and Henry French from Exeter’s Department of History.

 

James Clark, Professor of Medieval History

 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page

The Feast of Orme

2017-03-29 16.43.55
Prof. Nicholas Orme in discussion with Exeter PhD student Henry Marsh

Wednesday 29th March saw medievalists from across the University and the city gather for the climax of the Medieval Studies calendar in Exeter. This annual day of events, generously sponsored by Prof. Nicholas Orme, has long included both a postgraduate seminar in the afternoon and, in the evening, the public Orme Lecture. This year, however, the programme was extended by an additional talk in the morning, a change that made for a packed programme of events. The additional talk complemented the longstanding aim of the day, which allows us to showcase some of the research being undertaken by our PhD students as well as hosting a prominent visiting speaker. The ‘Feast of Orme’, as it is informally known, is always a memorable day, but the general feeling is that this year’s ‘Feast’ was particularly intellectually nourishing.

The day began with a ‘work-in-progress’ session led by Ryan Low, a Marshall Scholar studying for an MPhil in medieval history at UCL. Ryan’s unbridled enthusiasm shone through as he laid out a selection of his research questions for comment and discussion. Ryan outlined the broad aims of his project, which is centred around producing a bibliography that aims to ‘rehabilitate’ the thirteenth-century inquisitor and Dominican prior Bernard Gui. A lively discussion ensued, touching on all five ‘phases’ of Bernard’s life, while also bringing in questions of Gui’s own Occitan identity and how he would have presented himself. This ‘nerdy little kid’, as Ryan memorably described him, was to grow up to become ‘a regional actor with international clout’; in the wake of such a stimulating and thought-provoking presentation, we were all left hopeful of a similarly bright future for Ryan’s project.

After lunch, our attention turned to the day’s second set of speakers, whom we welcomed as part of the afternoon postgraduate seminar. First to present was Tabitha Stanmore, one of our AHRC DTP doctoral students who is supervised jointly by Ronald Hutton at Bristol and Catherine Rider at Exeter. Her paper examined the economics of the occult in late medieval and early modern England. Drawing on an extensive range of primary testimonies from both before and after the 1542 Witchcraft Act, she demonstrated that there existed an astonishingly developed market for the services of so-called ‘cunning-folk’, with rates of payment regulated by a complex unwritten system that took into account the value of magic to the client, as well as the perceived ‘difficulty’ of the magic to perform. The system could even account for discounts being offered to repeat customers. Clearly, as Tabitha showed in her fascinating presentation, the cloak-and-dagger world of witchcraft, with its ‘introducers’ and ‘dark corners’, was far from lawless.

Speaking next was Tom Chadwick, a final-year PhD student at Exeter. Tom based his presentation around an aspect of his thesis, inviting us to consider the polysemic and often-problematic term Normannitas. The term, coined in the nineteenth century in imitation of Romanitas, has been used since to present, as Tom aptly put it, a monolithic and deceptively uniform understanding of ‘what made the Normans Norman.’ The problem, Tom demonstrated, is that the multiple chroniclers writing in the eleventh and twelfth centuries defined Norman identity in different ways. Dudo of Saint-Quentin, for instance, attributed different levels of ferocity, belligerence, cunning and celerity to each successive Norman monarch, whereas William of Jumièges, writing a century later, declined to mention the former (ferocitas) entirely. The waters of Tom’s research were further muddied by the fact that still more chroniclers, namely William of Poitiers and the anonymous author of the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, dispensed with any idea of the Normans possessing a distinctive ethnic identity at all and focused instead on their Frankish enemies and the figure of William the Conqueror. As Tom’s presentation skilfully showed, the perception of Norman identity across these chronicles is inconsistent, with Norman traits also being used to describe other gentes, and peripheral chronicles rejecting the notion of Normannitas entirely. Tom’s lively contribution elicited a wide range of questions from a room full of intrigued medievalists, and certainly proved that his talents for communicating research go far beyond re-enacting the Battle of Hastings and getting ready to kill some Saxons.

Our third speaker was Ryan Kemp, another AHRC DTP student under joint supervision by Bjorn Weiler (Aberystwyth) and Sarah Hamilton (Exeter). He offered an equally intriguing reflection on part of his own PhD research: the provision of spiritual aid on the battlefield by bishops to their kings in England and Germany. In this comparison of ‘sacral landscapes’, he noted that portrayals of divine intervention described in twelfth-century English sources often required the intermediary of a bishop’s prayer to function properly. One particularly interesting example, which Ryan read with admirable fervour, is the case of Bishop Oda’s assistance to Æthelstan, as presented by Eadmer of Canterbury in his Life of St. Oda:

For while King Æthelstan was fighting, his sword shattered close to the hilt and exposed him to his enemies, as if he were defenceless… Oda stood somewhat removed from the fighting, praying to Christ with his lips and in his heart… [Oda] listened to the king and immediately responded with these words: ‘What is the problem? What is worrying you? Your blade hangs intact at your side’… At these words all those who were listening were struck with great amazement, and casting their glance towards the king they saw hanging by his side the sword which had not been there when they had looked earlier.

Bernard J. Muir and Andrew J. Turner, eds., Eadmer of Canterbury: Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald (Oxford: OUP, 2006), pp. 13-15

Lively tales such as this one are comparatively absent from the German tradition, a curious contrast that proved to be the germ of a great deal of discussion.

2017-03-29 18.09.23
Prof. Nicholas Vincent in full – and entertaining – flow as he gives this year’s annual Orme Lecture

After a quick pause for coffee, the gaggle of excited medievalists reconvened for the day’s centrepiece: the Annual Orme Lecture. This year’s speaker was Nicolas Vincent, Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia. His lecture retraced the life and the afterlife of Henry of Bracton, ‘England’s greatest medieval lawyer’. Readers with long memories may recall that Bracton has made an appearance on this blog on a previous occasion; Nicolas Vincent’s lecture, however, offered an entirely new reflection on this singular figure. Both Bracton and the book of law that bears his name have, as Prof. Vincent demonstrated, frequently been interpreted as representing a ‘quintessentially English’ strand of legal thought, with the influential Frederic William Maitland dismissing the Roman law evident in Bracton’s work as nothing more than ‘poorly-applied varnish’. By retracing the textual history of Bracton’s Treatise, however, Vincent demonstrated masterfully that Maitland’s ‘flower and crown of English jurisprudence’ was not one man’s work alone. Instead, this 500,000-word codification of English legal practice was far more likely the product of multiple voices, and almost certainly flowed forth from the minds of scholars who were far closer to the ‘thought-world of the Continent’ than that of any ‘little England’. On the day on which Article 50 was triggered here in the UK, it was refreshing to learn that, even in the thirteenth century, scholarship could be ‘a thoroughly European affair’.

2017-03-29 19.19.49-2
Catherine Rider poses a question to Nick Vincent over a glass of wine
2017-03-29 21.46.21
Alcohol-fuelled conversation continues into the night…

Medieval-, Bracton- and Europe-inspired conversation continued into the night, first at the wine reception after the talk and then at dinner in Zizzi’s in Gandy Street. It was a long and full day, but certainly the high point of this year’s medieval calendar. All of us at the Centre for Medieval Studies would like to extend our sincerest thanks to our visiting speakers, as well as to all of those who gave up their time to help make the event such a success. We now head towards the Easter vacation feeling re-energised and inspired by five truly outstanding presentations, each of which demonstrated, in its own way, the vibrance and relevance of the research connected to medieval studies at the University of Exeter.

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

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page

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

Mills 1
Guillem de Berguedà. Image from Paris, BnF, MS français 12473, fol. 178r.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edwards Mills, PhD student

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page

Anne Lawrence-Mathers on Medieval Magic, Part II

Anne Mathers-Lawrence
Prof. Anne Lawrence-Mathers

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.

 

Merlin BookQ: The focus of your most recent work was on Merlin: what is it that makes him such an interesting character in the history of magic?

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?

Weather
Anne gives her forecast for 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)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page

Anne Lawrence-Mathers on Medieval Magic, Part I

Interviewers: Éléonore Raymakers, Emma Prevignano and Lauren Lloyd

Magic SeminarOn 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!

 

Portsmouth library
Where it all began for Anne…

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?

Royal 6.E.vi, f. 396v.
Magic or science?

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?

Potion
Magic in the kitchen…

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

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page