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Last week I went to the annual summer conference of the Ecclesiastical History Society, which was held here in Exeter. This year’s theme was Churches and Education, and it attracted a large turnout from scholars working on all periods, from the early church to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The president of the EHS this year is Exeter’s own Morwenna Ludlow from the department of Theology and Religion, and Morwenna gave a plenary lecture relating to her own area of specialism. This lecture, given jointly with Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe (Cambridge) focused on what early Christian writers in the Latin and Greek traditions said about the pleasures of Bible study – a fitting opening to an academic conference.
Three other Exeter medievalists also gave papers: history PhD student Des Atkinson, talking about the education of the fifteenth-century archbishop of Canterbury John Morton and his contemporaries; theology research fellow Hajnalka Tamas, talking about a fourth-century theological controversy relating to the teaching of a layman, Heraclianus; and me, talking about the medieval church and education relating to pregnancy. As ever, the EHS offered an interested, sympathetic and knowledgeable audience. It is a good place for PhD students and early career scholars, in particular, to offer papers. The audiences offer helpful feedback and the proceedings, published as Studies in Church History, offer an early publication opportunity for many scholars; indeed, one of my first papers was published there, back in 2006.
Overall there were fewer papers on late antiquity and the Middle Ages than at some of the other EHS conferences I’ve attended. Perhaps for some reason (despite the attractive medieval image on the call for papers) the theme appealed particularly to specialists on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is also possible that the Leeds conference, held two weeks before, is providing ever more competition for medievalists’ time, as well as their conference budgets. Nevertheless there were a number of interesting papers on medieval subjects: on Bede, on hagiography, on Pope Gregory VII, and on twelfth-century pastoral care, among other topics. There were also papers on other periods which dealt with questions and topics relevant to medievalists: I particularly enjoyed a plenary lecture on the role of (early modern) convents in educating girls.
Next year’s conference is on the Church and Law, and will be held in Cambridge, so I’d recommend medievalists take a look!
Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History
The annual International Medieval Congress hosted by the University of Leeds in July (and known affectionately as the ‘IMC’ or ‘Leeds’) is the highlight of the European medieval calendar – and this year saw a particularly large number of Exonian intellectual pilgrims make the journey north.
The theme of the 2017 congress was ‘Otherness’, which meant that what tends to be a rather historical gathering took on a more literary tone (be that good or bad, depending on your perspective). Medievalists certainly took the theme to heart – the word ‘other’ could be found on session or paper titles on almost every page of the programme. However, while inspiring a wide variety of takes on the topic, it proved less conducive for amusing paper titles (and meant my slightly risqué effort got more attention than expected).
Fortunately, other members of Exeter’s Centre for Medieval Studies made their mark in less frivolous ways. The elusive James Clark helped to kick off proceedings with a paper in the very first session, while his PhD student, Henry Marsh, was among those presenting towards the end of the conference on Thursday. Other speakers from our extended PhD community included Lorena Fierro-Diaz, Edward Mills, Eddie Proctor, Lenneke van Raaij, Teresa Witcombe, Tabitha Stanmore, and Ryan Kemp. Among the staff, Richard Flower, John Wilkins and Sharon Marshall carried the banner for Late Antiquity and Classics, while I represented History and the High Middle Ages. In addition, Philip Schwyzer and Naomi Howell hosted two sessions drawn from their new HERA project, ‘Deploying the Dead: Artefacts and Human Bodies in Socio-Cultural Transformations‘.
Stealth participants (attendees not listed on the programme) included PhD student Imogene Dudley, Sarah Hamilton, and our man of the moment, Levi Roach, who received a number of hearty congratulations for receiving the Longman/History Today book prize last week. Both staff members also took the opportunity to hold supervisions in person with PhD students who are usually absent from Exeter due either to their status as DTP-award holders or employment through international research projects. Alongside current members of the Centre, a number of former Exonians were also present: Prof. Julia Crick, Drs Daniel Roach and Matt Mesley, and Kieran Ball, an undergraduate at Exeter and now a DPhil student in Oxford.
Meeting up with old colleagues and friends, as well as networking with other scholars, is the lifeblood of Leeds – and while the latter normally takes place during scheduled sessions and roundtable discussions, it also frequently occurs in the coffee breaks and wine receptions that break up the action.
This year, networking even made its way on to the dancefloor when, after several hours of enthusiastic dancing at the annual disco, I was propositioned by Aberystwyth PhD student Nathan Greasley about possible sessions for 2018. Nathan had attended my paper on Monday and it was this, rather than my dance-moves (always a triumph of stamina over style), which prompted the request. It may have been after 2am, but, evidently, keen medievalists never rest…
With the conclusion of yet another Leeds (and with my ears still reeling from what had been a frighteningly loud disco), my thoughts turn to the value of this event. It is hard overstate the importance of the IMC to the European medievalist community. Despite the wide time period and different disciplines covered by Medieval Studies, medievalists have managed to forge a strong and cohesive sense of identity – and, on this side of the Atlantic, Leeds has played a significant role in this. It provides a venue for European medievalists to meet regularly en masse and to present and discuss the latest research in their fields. The to-and-fro of scholarly exchange and the general bustle of the congress helps to re-energise tired teachers and to reassure PhD students of the wider value of their work. And, as the relationship between the UK and Europe fractures, it seems even more important to attend the congress and maintain long-forged links between scholarly communities on opposite sides of the Channel. But Leeds is also, simply, an opportunity to celebrate the arcane pursuit of Medieval Studies and the joy of working with medieval sources.
Having said this, attendance at Leeds remains an expensive affair and means that younger scholars, especially those without external funding, don’t always find it easy to join in the fun. The cost of registration and accommodation is pretty high and unlikely to decrease, especially as the financial effects of Brexit hit the UK economy. The bursaries offered by the IMC organising committee go a small way towards mitigating this cost. Yet, despite the barriers to attendance, I believe it is important for PhD students to experience this event at least once. It offers an opportunity – unrivalled in Europe – to share ideas and network with a wide variety of junior and senior scholars. This can lead to future collaboration and can help to establish reputations in a very competitive job market. The best way to participate in Leeds is, firstly, by presenting a paper and, secondly, by doing so in a pre-organised session rather than submitting an individual paper for consideration by the organising committee. Being part of a pre-organised session helps to ensure the coherence of your panel, which, in turn, will help to attract a larger audience. So, if you know others working on similar research themes, be pro-active in organising a session and don’t be afraid to invite more senior scholars to join you – even if it is just in the role of session moderator. The theme of next year’s congress is ‘Memory’ (which looks set to reassert history’s dominance at Leeds), but sessions and papers can be proposed on any topic – the theme is there to prompt rather than define content. The deadlines for submitting proposals are 31 August for individual papers and 30 September for sessions. These dates aren’t that far in the future so it might be best to follow Nathan Greasley’s example and start your preparations now… See you there next year!
Helen Birkett, Lecturer in Medieval History
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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’.
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.
The following is a review of John Eldevik’s Episcopal Power and Ecclesiastical Reform in the German Empire (CUP, 2012). It was originally produced for an online review platform; but, since it never appeared, it is now ‘published’ here in lightly revised format.
One of the most fraught issues in the study of the Middle Ages is the timing, nature and causes of the changes which encompassed western Europe between the early and central Middle Ages. These irrevocably altered the face of European society, with effects that are felt to the present day. Robert Bartlett speaks in this connection of the ‘making of Europe’ and R. I. Moore writes of a ‘first European revolution’, the greatest socio-economic transformation between the Fall of Rome and Industrial Revolution. Yet despite the obvious significance of these developments, there is little agreement as to their timing, scale or causes.
John Eldevik’s book is therefore to be welcomed. It engages intelligently with old debates from a new angle: that of the humble church tithe. The tithe derives from Near Eastern traditions of dedicating a tenth (or similar portion) of produce and income to religious activities. It figures prominently in the Hebrew Scriptures and came to influence Graeco-Roman traditions of religious charity; it was also a Christian custom from earliest times, though it only became a formal requirement over the course of the early Middle Ages. As part of this process, tithes were placed under the oversight of bishops, and it is this which makes them such a useful way into debates about social and religious change: since tithes were an essential source of wealth and authority for prelates, they can tell us much about their practices of lordship and patronage.
The bulk of the book is made up of three case studies of episcopal tithe rights between 950 and 1150. The bishoprics chosen span the Empire: Lucca in Tuscany, with its rich private charter material; Mainz in Franconia, with its detailed narrative accounts; and Salzburg in Bavaria (as it was then), with its own well-preserved documentary records. The picture that emerges is one of substantial but subtle change in the mid- to late eleventh century. Before this time, tithes were prized for their socio-economic and symbolic value, which derived in no small part from the bonds created by their lease and exchange. Yet as we move into the second half of the eleventh century, such transactions are increasingly frowned upon. This change played out differently in each region. In Lucca, Bishop Teudgrim granted away a large proportion of tithes in 983, in the sort of action which later reformers would roundly criticize. As Eldevik notes, however, this act stood in a long tradition, and probably represents a last-ditch attempt to secure the position of the bishop in the face of local challenges from the cathedral chapter and city. That such actions were no so ill-advised as one might imagine is suggested by later developments; though attitudes towards the granting of tithes as livelli – a kind of temporary lease popular in Italy – changed, they did so gradually, and little effort was made to regain earlier rights. In Salzburg, on the other hand, tithes were regularly exchanged, but as time wore on bishops sought to assert greater control over these transactions. A key moment came in the episcopate of Gebhard (1060–88), who as an outsider to the local political scene needed to rely more heavily upon traditional episcopal prerogatives than his forbears. Still, as at Lucca, change was gradual and earlier grants were seldom overturned. At Mainz, on the other hand, developments more neatly fit the traditional narrative of church reform. Here Archbishop Siegfried’s attempts to reclaim tithes in Thuringia look like a textbook imposition of reformist demands for the restoration of lost rights; yet, as Eldevik notes, the bishop’s efforts were as informed by immediate territorial and political considerations as by religious ideals.
It is thus clear that something changed between 950 and 1150, but this cannot be explained in terms of reform alone (at least as traditionally conceptualized). Indeed, Eldevik is acutely aware of the danger of taking reforming rhetoric at face value; as he points out, reformers not only misrepresented previous tithe arrangements, but frequently concealed their own motives for doing so. Yet this is not to say that reform has nothing to do with developments. Local practices of holding, granting and leasing tithes were influenced by prevailing conceptions of episcopal office; and as these developed, this inevitably had a knock-on effect. Still, since tithes were deeply embedded in local networks of patronage, the manner in which reforming ideals were implemented (if at all) was shaped by local considerations. In a sense, therefore, the key lesson of Eldevik’s study – as indeed much recent literature on the subject – is that similar changes can be traced in multiple regions without resorting to external ‘reform’ as the sole explanation. In fact, in none of these cases were developments spearheaded by the pope, and they largely pre-date the heyday of ‘Gregorian’ reform. More important than reform may have been attitudes towards lordship. Here Eldevik draws parallels here between his findings and those of Thomas Bisson, who sees the eleventh century as a period of sudden and abrupt change in patterns and practices of lordship.
Eldevik’s refusal to present a simple model of change is both refreshing and frustrating; it avoids reducing the complexity of the phenomena he examines, but risks leaving the reader (or at least this reader!) wondering what it was that actually drove such developments. By asserting that changes in episcopal tithes should be understood as part of broader shifts in patterns of lordship, Eldevik may well be on the right track – but he also in a sense dodges the question. If the eleventh century does indeed see the development of a new kind of territorial lordship à la Bisson (suggested tentatively at p. 259), then why was this so? Are we seeing the long arm of monastic reform (a possibility mooted at pp. 266–7), or are we witnessing longer-term developments out of the Carolingian era, as Charles West might argue? There is clearly much work to be done here! Though Eldevik may not have explained these changes, he elegantly demonstrates that any attempt to do so will need to take tithes seriously – and that alone is no mean accomplishment!
Dr Levi Roach, Lecturer in Medieval History
2016 has had its fair share of popular medievalism in the media. However, for video game medievalism in particular, this year has been one of record-smashing and new frontiers. From the blockbuster cinema experience of Warcraft: The Beginning bringing in over $400 million (making it the most successful video game franchise film of all time) to the bestselling new Minecraft handbook Medieval Fortress, stock images from the Middle Ages continue to stand front and centre in the modern imagination. But is this commercially-driven movement positive for ‘medieval studies’, as we understand it, or is it a step in the wrong direction?
Arguably the biggest medieval title of the year was FromSoftware’s Dark Souls III, which sold an eye-watering three million copies in little more than a month of its global release in April. Not only did this immensely successful hack-n-slash RPG become the bestselling media content in North America during its first month, it also highlighted the huge amount of interest that exists for the digital Middle Ages in the modern world. Regardless of one’s own cultural heritage (Dark Souls III was commerically triumphant in Asia, North America, and Europe respectively), the Gothic architecture, eurocentric medieval weaponry, and distinctly Western mythology of the game was clearly attractive to a wide audience. What is most interesting about the Dark Souls franchise, from a medievalist perspective at least, is that it is poduced by a Japanese company and thus represents a Japanese reimagining of the Middle Ages in Europe. One might see FromSoftware’s approach as an ‘outside’ perspective on a medieval culture, although the extent to which we as Europeans are ‘outside’ our own medieval heritage is itself debatable. Of course, this idea of reimagining another society’s history is not new in digital medievalism, considering that the vast majority of media set in medieval Europe is actually produced by (and largely for) Americans. To my mind, this is largely a positive phenomenon. The further we, as a global society, distance ourselves from the Middle Ages, the easier it becomes to examine them without socio-political agendas colouring our perspectives. Dark Souls III is not a commentary on modern events or on medieval cultures, it is simply using a fantasy European Middle Ages to create an engaging world that compliments the fast-paced, nerve-wracking gameplay style. However, not all medieval game developers this year have used the Middle Ages in quite such a frivolous fashion.
Also set to become a major medieval title of 2016 is Ubisoft’s imminent release of Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection, which contains HD remasters of Assassins Creed II (2009), Brotherhood (2010), and Revelations (2011) in a single box. The Assassin’s Creed franchise, for those unfamiliar with it, sets its games in key socio-political episodes from history – be that the Holy Land during the Third Crusade, Massachusetts in the American War of Independence, or, as in this case, fifteenth-century Renaissance Italy. One of the biggest intellectual properties in the gaming industry, Ubisoft’s action-adventure series has hit somewhat of a slump in sales and review scores in recent years. No doubt it is hoped a return to some of the earliest (and undoubtedly best) outings for the company, combined with a feature film starring Michael Fassbender this December, might help rekindle Assassin’s fire. Never a company to shy away from controversy, Ubisoft’s questionable representations of history have got them into hot water on numerous occasions, often due to their portrayal of key historical characters or events. At the very least, this controversy suggests some gamers are self-aware of the medievalism at work in the games they play, and of the importance of approaching such topics with caution. Whilst the Italian Renaissance Assassin Ezio Auditore has always been a fan-favourite in the series, one might also consider the decision to avoid a remastered version of Altair Ibn La Ahad’s story from the original game – and its interesting take on twelfth- and thirteenth-century Middle Eastern history – an uncharacteristically prudent move by Ubisoft, given current geopolitics. For me personally, I am hoping the Ezio Collection might encourage the franchise to return to its medieval roots and explore some of the other fascinating chapters in the medieval history in future games. Without a doubt, the Middle Ages still has almost limitless mileage left as a setting for video games generally and my next post will examine some of the ways this has been realised, and capitalised on, by developers releasing titles in 2017.
This is not to say that the age-old genre of medieval fantasy is dying out. Before I draw my conclusions I’d like to do a quick round-up of some of the numerous psuedo-medieval fantasy video games that have sprung up this year. Total War: Warhammer ventures into new territory for the historical military simulator Total War series, building on the lore of Games Workshop’s tabletop game Warhammer to create medieval battles filled with monsters and magic. Released on 24 May, it is the fastest selling Total War game to date, accumulating half a million sales within its first few days on shelves. A week later, the latest in the Witcher franchise, the expansion pack Witcher III: Wild Hunt: Blood and Wine, received near perfect scores across the boards, cementing the Polish medieval fantasy’s place in mainstream gaming with record sales. And finally, a high-definition remake of Bethesda’s masterpiece, Skyrim, was released on 27 October, which gives players a chance to explore a fictional world inspired by Nordic mythology for a second time (or for those who have been living under a rock – a first time), complete with dragons, draugr, skalds, and runestones.
How might we as medievalists summarise this year in the gaming industry then? A year of expansion, certainly, with more people enjoying games set in medieval worlds than ever before. But also a year of waiting. By this I mean that whilst 2016 has had more than a standard helping of media creations set in, or drawing upon, the Middle Ages, this year has really been about setting up several big releases in early 2017. In my next post I will take a look at some of the upcoming titles due to hit shelves next year and consider what the immediate future of video game medievalism might be. How has 2016 been for you as medievalists, historians, or simply as gamers? Comment below and let me know. That’s it from me for now but I’ll see you next time!
Ciaran Stoker completed his MA in Medieval Studies at Exeter this year. His MA dissertation investigated video game medievalism.
On 14 October 1066 one of the most renowned battles in Britain was fought between William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, King of England, near the town of Hastings. This October, 950 years later, I and over 1000 re-enactors from all over the world, attended the anniversary event organized by English Heritage at Battle Abbey. I was present as part of The Household Anglo-Norman Living History Society, a nationwide group of re-enactors who specialize in the period 1066-1216.
Throughout the three-day weekend event re-enactors inhabited two large eleventh-century camps, one Saxon and one Norman, displaying various aspects of ‘living history’. For example, included in The Household’s section of the Norman camp was an armoury, a fletcher’s workshop, a cooking and feasting tent, a carpenter’s workshop, a chapel, a scriptorium and several sleeping tents. The actual anniversary, Friday 14 October, had been set aside predominantly as a ‘media and dignitaries’ day and involved interviews, film crews and the culmination of the long march from York to Battle Abbey by re-enactors commemorating Harold’s hasty charge down to confront William. The Household’s camp also served as a staging ground for The One Show’s groan-worthy ‘Battle of Tastings’, hosted by Dan Snow. I also ended up on national news talking about killing Saxons – see this video: Ready to kill Saxons.
On Friday at 9am, myself and two other members of the Household went to a barbers in the village of Battle to get a Norman-style haircut, one that appears on many of the Normans within the Bayeux Tapestry. Rather than merely attempting to become fashion icons, we also used the event to raise money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). Thanks to donations given over the weekend we raised over our target of £800, for which we have promised to keep the style for a month (and the JustGiving page is still open should you wish to donate!). Thank goodness the hair-cut is so fetching…
The main event occurred on the 15 and 16 October and attracted at least 16,000 spectators over the two days. On each day there were various displays throughout the abbey grounds, including medieval music, have-a-go archery and the encampments. Of course, the main focus of the event was the battle itself and thankfully for those of us re-enacting the fight it lasted for an hour rather than, as is reported, the entire day. In keeping with accounts of the battle, the recreation saw the Normans sending archers, infantry, and cavalry against the Anglo-Saxon shield wall on the hill, with The Household occupying the centre-left of the infantry.
The battle was scripted loosely around contemporary accounts, involving three attacks from each Norman contingent, two Anglo-Saxon charges down the hill on each flank, the famous, if true, piercing of Harold’s eye by an arrow and his subsequent death, and finally the slaughter of the remaining Anglo-Saxons. However, the combat itself was not scripted: although all re-enactors adhere to strict safety guidelines the combat is essentially a full-contact, competitive sport. In short, it is rather good fun!
Aside from entertaining the spectators present at the event, the anniversary also garnered a lot of media attention, with rogue camera crews and journalists roaming the site asking all sorts of questions. One of the challenges of being involved in events such as this is that the nuanced nature of academic research does not always gel particularly well with those outside of academia. The public and the media aim to understand historical events in the context of their own experiences of modern, often political, events. As such it was unsurprising that Brexit was a regular theme of the weekend and my work on Norman ethnicity, as well as the striking Norman haircut, marked me as a target for questions on this topic by journalists and the general public alike. While large words painted on the wall of the Battle Abbey visitor centre to the effect of ‘The Norman invasion was a good thing’ demonstrate a favourable, if blunt, perception of events, it is interesting to note how the event organizers, the public and some of the more passionate re-enactors focus on a perceived shared English identity between themselves and Harold and his troops. In keeping with the conquered Anglo-Saxons’ attitude to their new overlords, modern audiences see the Normans as foreign invaders; the comparisons made by some between the Normans, the EU and other groups are no doubt easy to imagine. It is unfortunate that the evident lessons concerning the continual movement of peoples and the nature of Britain as a cultural melting pot were less prevalent.
Putting politics aside, the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings was a great success and immensely enjoyable. The vast majority of those involved do this sort of thing as a hobby due to their passion and interest in history, and their enthusiasm and hard work is extraordinary. For my part this tangible and experimental hobby provides a new way of engaging with the past, informing people interested in their heritage about medieval history and the opportunity to disseminate my research to a wider audience – even if, as the Hastings event proved, my message isn’t really what they want to hear!
Tom Chadwick, PhD student at Exeter working on Norman ethnic identity in 11th and 12th century Normandy, England, Southern Italy and Sicily.
On Friday night I attended a screening of the 1922 film Robin Hood at the Barbican Centre in London. In addition to bringing a silent cinema classic back to the big screen, the event also showcased Neil Brand’s rousing new score for the film, which was performed live by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The new music is certainly an improvement on the soundtrack attached to the film on Youtube, however, as with most film scores, it is the visual spectacle rather than the music that stays with you.
Robin Hood was one of the most expensive and extravagant films of its day. It was an unashamed vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks, as clearly indicated by the film’s official title: Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood. Fairbanks helped to adapt the story (he is credited under his middle names ‘Elton Thomas’) and gave himself, in effect, three roles to play: first, the Earl of Huntingdon, a virtuous, chain-mail clad knight; then his alter ego, Robin Hood, marked out by his hose, goatee beard, and bow and arrow; and, underlying both, the charming matinee idol version of himself. The latter is alluded to most obviously following his defeat of Guy of Gisbourne in the opening tournament, when it is revealed that the Earl of Huntingdon/Fairbanks is afraid of women. The physically imposing and jovial Richard the Lionheart, played with gusto by Wallace Beery, finds this hilarious – and encourages all the female spectators at the tournament to mob him. Poor Fairbanks is forced to dive into the moat to escape and, luckily, isn’t hindered by his stunt chainmail.
The pace of the film is somewhat surprising. The first hour and a quarter of the story is devoted to the initial set-up in which the Earl of Huntingdon falls in love with Marian, is wronged by Guy of Gisbourne, and then abandons the crusade to save England from Prince John’s tyranny. At this point, Robin Hood makes his first appearance and the final hour of the film gallops along at a much merrier pace: Robin’s outlaw band prance all over the screen as they save the oppressed people of England; Robin rescues Marian, brutally kills Guy (the new score includes a rather nasty crack as his spine snaps), is captured by John and saved from a Sebastian-like martyrdom by the arrival of King Richard. At the climax of the film, Robin and Marian marry – and poor Richard, who seems to think that, as their monarch and their chum, he is entitled to hang out with them on their wedding night, finds himself locked out of their chamber. There is much to raise the modern eyebrow in this film, not least the bromance of lingering looks between Robin Hood and Little John – particularly in contrast to the rather chaste and motherly relationship between Marian and Robin.
For the medievalist, there is also much to amuse. The films opens with the statement that ‘history – in its ideal state – is a compound of legend and chronicle’, which, while irking the purist, probably represents popular attitudes to medieval films both then and now. The same liberal approach is evident with regard to the sets. Robin Hood’s landscape draws on the extant architecture of the medieval past and the distorted structures of medieval illustration. When the camera follows Richard’s crusader army to France, the audience is presented with an open plain and turreted castles perched on rocky outcrops, which seem culled from later medieval manuscript imagery. Back in England, Nottingham has been given similar treatment: it has the small, warped structures and large doorways of dwellings in manuscript-land. Finally, the cavernous inside of the royal castle mixes the height, space and light of a Gothic Cathedral with romanesque arches that could never have supported such a structure – and is quite different to the pokey palaces of medieval reality. This strange world also finds expression in the intertitles, which are deliberately archaized to the extent that they are sometimes a little difficult to understand on first reading. There is also a classic piece of medieval-sounding gibberish textually uttered by Friar Tuck as he prepares to test the fighting skills of a mysterious stranger:
So what did 1920s audiences want from Robin Hood and the Middle Ages? Well, above all, they wanted Fairbanks and they wanted him in an extravagant setting. Robin Hood was a high-end, lavish production that came hot on the heels of Fairbanks’ smash hits The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921). The film offered a suitably strange and archaic ‘impression of the Middle Ages’, which both accorded with audience expectations and provided Fairbanks with the fantastic backdrop needed for his latest swashbucking epic.