Category Archives: Humour


A Black Country Motte-and-Bailey

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As I mentioned a few posts ago, one of the last things I did before leaving Birmingham professionally behind me in August 2015 was squeeze in a visit to Dudley Castle, which came as something of a surprise to me. … Continue reading

Beat this for impact!

In the English academy it’s all about impact these days, unless it’s all about networks or public engagement, those are very hot too. But mainly impact, by which we mean, for those not reading in the language of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (may it live forever?), changes in the way people outside the university environment do things on the basis of our work. This is sometimes seen as hard for medievalists to produce; not a lot of people do things on the basis of their understanding of the Middle Ages in the first place, so first we have to make them do that. Of course we do produce this effect via both our teaching and our book sales outside the Academy but we’re not allowed to score those, don’t ask me why. So this is rightly attacked as not fit for purpose yet we still look, desperately, for ways in which we might be able to show impact as so defined. Well, check this out for a direct influence on modern economic behaviour from my work:

Ovelia modiale, nou nascut

“Ballachulish has given birth to a new Ripollesa lamb, born yesterday:

Ripollesa sheep Ballachulish with new lamb Ovelia Modiale

“I’ve named her Ovelia Modiale in honour of my brother-out-of-law, Jonathan Jarrett whose paper on the use of cows, sheep and possibly pigs as monetary units in 10th century Catalonia is a must read. Our tiny new lamb (3.8kg at birth, so small) probably is not yet worth a modius of grain, but I’ll love her all the same….”

And you can click through the picture for more details should you really want them; he refers, of course, to my most recent actual publication, a while ago now and something I hope will be changing soon. Now, admittedly there are problems with this as an impact case study. Firstly, it’s in Catalonia, though the people involved are still UK voters; secondly, as far as I know they only named one animal on the basis of the paper, so it’s not exactly public policy; and thirdly, of course, this was December 2014, so loved or not that lamb is still long-eaten chops by now, though you could claim that that just represents the propagation of the effect of my work into the local environment… But still: I’m betting not many other medievalists can claim this kind of impact! Thankyou to the Crofter and the Croft

Seminar CLXXIX: mocking Irish clergy in the tenth and eleventh centuries

Once returned to the UK after the trip to Catalonia lately recounted, I was happy to be heading back to the Institute of Historical Research, whose Earlier Middle Ages Seminar has in these last two years run to a shortened programme in the summer. First up in the summer 2013 series on 22nd May was Elizabeth Boyle, an old acquaintance from Cambridge. I would therefore have been down to London for this anyway, but her title, “Lay Morality, Clerical Immorality and Pilgrimage in 10th- and 11th-Century Ireland”, also intrigued. Since the IHR has been in exile for some years now, it took some finding, but finally with us all gathered in a huge basement room where we could hardly see people come in to find us, Lizzie told us a couple of excellent but odd Irish stories and drew some tentative points of bigger social import out of them.

Folio 53 of the Book of Leinster

Book of Leinster, folio 53” by Áed Ua Crimthainn et al (12th century) – Laighean53a at web site of Trinity College, Dublin. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The common links between the stories are firstly that they are next to each other in the so-called Book of Leinster, secondly that they both involve unnamed kings acting to correct the morals of Irish clerics fallen into sin, and thirdly that they relate to pilgrimage, which was where Lizzie had come in as she was at this time working on a project comparing contacts with Rome between England and Ireland in the tenth and eleventh centuries.1 This seems to have been a period in which there was both a substantial rise in pilgrimage (which has certainly been detected in Catalonia too, though there it could be just more evidence; not so in Ireland, where there is actually far less evidence than in the centuries before) and also a current of scepticism about the practice.2 This was neatly expressed in an anonymous ninth-century verse Lizzie gave us in the handout (in both Old Irish and her translation, but I shall stick to the latter because I can’t really even pronounce the Celtic languages, let alone understand them):

“Going to Rome:
great hardship, little benefit.
The King you seek here:
if you don’t take Him with you, you won’t find Him there.”

These stories are in something of the same vein. In the first, Cethrur Macclérech (‘Four Junior Clerics’), the protagonists, whom Lizzie compared to gap-year students, head for Rome and are put up by ‘a renowned man of the Franks’, who makes roughly the above point to them and persuades them to accept a living from him in exchange for their prayers. They go to Rome anyway but when they come back he throws a local hermit out, who is obviously delighted by this further adversity (apparently really),3 and they are just moving in when one of them says, “May it be lucky,” at which point the king responds: “‘Out of the country with them! they are heathens! Let them not even drink the water of the country.'” So they head off dejected, but next day while washing in a stream a box floats down to them and bounces into the arms of their leader (called a bishop, now) and he sends it back to the king. It turns out to contain six bars of silver and one of gold, all of equal weight, and the king expounds this as an allegory on the days of the week and Sunday observance, but accepts the clerics back as long as they never think of “‘luck'” as long as they live. It looks as if there were several moral points knocked into a single story here, but the point about luck being superstition is the one the scribe ran with.

Manuscript depiction of medieval Rome as widow during the period of the Avignon Papacy

This is really nothing to do with the post, but it came up as I searched for medieval images of Rome and is just too much fun not to include, Rome shown as a widow during the residence of the papacy in Avignon. Seriously: how many of the Avignon popes were good husband material, Mrs Allegorical Rome? Consider your options! “BNMsItal81Fol18RomeWidowed“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The second interested me more, since I found in it faint points of contact with other stories I know dimly, not least from Chrétien de Troyes, that feature a King of the Greeks (and there are five more of these in the manuscript, apparently).4 Here, that king is the unfortunate butt of the story, but certainly its moral champion. A bishop who has gone to Rome on pilgrimage determines to go on to Jerusalem, and meets a “wonderful king” of a land on the way who points out to him that “God is in every place” and installs him as the royal confessor, and indeed also treasurer. Because the king was frequently out, the bishop heard the queen’s confession more often than the kings and eventually wound up, er, giving her something worth confessing, an incident that quickly becomes habit-forming. The king is told and comes back and besieges his wife and the bishop in their ‘stone mansion’. She won’t open up and in the night the bishop repents, does 300 prostrations and faints, and the angels come and carry him to his church, where he wakes and gratefully starts celebrating nocturns. The king then hears and realises his suspicions are misplaced, so goes to abase himself before the bishop, who is at least conscious that he hasn’t really deserved this break (“It is not upon me alone that disgrace from the devil has been exercised”) and resumes his pilgrimage. The real winner here is the queen, to whom the king had to pay compensation for false accusation so that she would remain with him (which is Irish law, not Roman, as Lizzie noted). The point here is supposed to be that we can’t know what God will or won’t forgive, but again it seems clear that there’s a lot of other points you could make with this tale.

The early medieval Gallerus oratory in County Kerry

A stone mansion of the sort imagined by our story-teller? The early medieval Gallerus oratory in County Kerry. The linked page gives you a handy short account of the debate over the Céli De.

The points that Lizzie chose to emphasise, at least, hung around the purity of the clergy. This is a fairly obvious target of both these stories, albeit perhaps an incidental one, but there was at this time in Ireland some dispute over the peculiarly Gaelic clerical movement known as the Céli De, ‘clients of God’, who do not easily fit into our categories either of reformers or hermits, being something of both and not enough of either for the Gregorian Reform movement and those moving within it to be quite happy with them.5 They did undertake lay ministry and confession, and these were far from the only tales about how that could go wrong (a style of story I attempted to classify as “swyve or shrive?” in questions, gleefully ignoring the fact that this only works in a different dead language). Whether the clerics here are actually supposed to be Céli De is unclear, however (though the bishop of the Gaels in the second story is so called in its last line) and the manuscript context may even suggest that these were tales in which Céli De poked fun at their mainstream, travel-happy brethren. In the end what was mainly clear here is that there were some moral arguments going on that the writers and users of this manuscript and those who copied its tales were pursuing through low humour, and anything we might want to say beyond that about authorship, purpose and reception was hard to settle. But medieval use of humour is itself worth remembering, and unlike many these stories’ fun has held some of its meaning.6

1. The Book, or Lebor na Nuachongbála to its old friends, is Dublin, Trinity College MS H 2. 18, and is printed as R. I. Best et al. (edd.), The Book of Leinster, formerly Lebar na Núachingbála (Dublin 1954-1983), 6 vols, or so says Lizzie’s handout. Meanwhile, investigation by web reveals that this paper is now published as E. Boyle, “Lay Morality, Clerical Immorality, and Pilgrimage in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century Ireland: Cethrur macclerech and Epscop do Gaedelaib” in Studia Hibernica Vol. 39 (Dublin 2013), pp. 9-48, so you can follow up the references and see if the conclusions changed from what I heard if you like!

2. The locus classicus here is Kathleen Hughes, “The Changing Theory and Practice of Irish Pilgrimage” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 11 (Cambridge 1960), pp. 143-151, but I guess there must be more now, and that Lizzie will be providing yet more shortly! The Catalan side of things is covered, again classically, in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Els primers comtes catalans, Biografies catalanes: sèrie històrica 1 (Barcelona 1958, repr. 1980), pp. 302-313.

3. Lizzie’s translation has it as: “‘I give thanks to God’, said the hermit: ‘My earthly king ejecting me; my heavenly king coming into it.'”

4. Chrétien de Troyes, Cligés, ed. P. Kunstmann in Base de français médieval, online here, last modified 31 July 2013 as of 27 April 2014, ll. 43–58. For interpretation I’m only immediately able to proffer Barbara N. Sargent-Baur, “Alexander and the Conte du Graal” in Arthurian Literature Vol. 14 (Woodbridge 1996), pp. 1–19, but there must be something more general about the world of the Greeks in romance… Aha! Regesta Imperii proffers Rima Devereaux, Constantinople and the West in medieval French literature, Gallica 25 (Cambridge 2012), which I haven’t seen but must at least be relevant.

5. Lizzie cited the work of Westley Follett, Céli Dé in Ireland: monastic writing and identity in the early Middle Ages (Woodbridge 2006) here, but her handout also offers Aubrey Gwynn, The Irish Church in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, ed. G. O’Brien (Dublin 1992), which may be what Follett is kicking against? I dunno guv’, this is really not my field!

6. Jokes are a medium hard to interpret over a thousand years and a linguistic divide, but that doesn’t mean they should be forgotten: here Lizzie cited, as would I have, Guy Halsall, “Introduction: ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got the key'” in Halsall (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 1-21.


An alternative manifesto for this blog

“If I could live in any decade, it would definitely be the 960s.”

Probably as thinking humans you all read The Onion already and saw this when it was new, or when Another Damned Medievalist also linked it (though I can’t now find where she did so), but it appeals on so many levels…

“… Everyone was in this vibrant period of transition between Byzantine autocracy and fealty to large landowners, just trying to discover themselves. For a brief moment you had this optimism that made you feel like you could just stick your thumb out, hop in a passing cart transporting waterfowl, and go. Didn’t even matter where—you’d just take it easy at the next fiefdom and figure it out. Who was going to tell you no? The king? Edgar the Peaceable was on the throne and he didn’t care. It was a simpler time…”

I mean, I’m probably more a fan of the 970s myself—so many exciting possibilities as Europe begins to have access to gold again, even if it comes with a side-order of Muslim military campaigns of terror in Spain and Southern France, Norman ones of opportunity in Southern Italy and Viking ones of conquest in England… But the arts were so much more ambitious!—but he’s totally right about the 980s. That can only seem like a good decade if you don’t remember it!


Flat out for Sutton Hoo

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The Easter holiday was short in the UK last year, but this didn’t stop some of us making good use of it, and for me this included, somewhat to my surprise, an Anglo-Saxonist roadtrip. This excellent idea was one of … Continue reading

Trust some of the experts, some of the time

Partly because I had forgotten pretty much any of what was in it, and therefore how much use the students would find it, and partly because I owned a copy thanks to a patron’s generosity and it was annoying me that being true as well as the former, I was over the summer reading Margaret Gelling’s Signposts to the Past, an attempt to write an accessible account of what we can safely gather from English place-names and to stop people reading them wrong. This often comes close to being, and in the introduction is explicitly, an appeal to people to just take the experts’ word on trust because it’s too complicated for laymen, a stance that I never warm to, being more of the persuasion that if one can’t explain something in ten minutes in a pub one doesn’t understand it.1 However, Dr Gelling did provide one excellent type case that I thought merited recounting, its ethnic essentialism not withstanding:

The Anglo-Saxons had three words derived from the same stem as the verb ‘bury’ which they occasionally used in place-names to designate tumuli. These are byrgen, byrgels, burgæsn…. Either byrgen or burgæsn (probably the former) is found in two minor names in Oxfordshire, Berring’s Wood in Glympton and Berins Hill in Ipsden. There are early spellings for both these names, and the derivation is certain in the first instance and probable in the second. This etymology was put forward for both names in Gelling 1953, superseding a long-standing antiquarian association of Berins Hill in Ipsden with St Birinus, the apostle of the West Saxons, who was the first Bishop of Dorchester on Thames. There was an unexpected sequel to this when, by the sort of ghastly coincidence which place-name students must always look out for, an important pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery recently came to light at a spot now called Berinsfield north of Dorchester OXF. This discovery led to immediate speculation about the derivation of Berinsfield from byrgen, which would have proved continuity of tradition about the cemetery from early pagan times. The caution prompted by the failure of the name Berinsfield to appear in any of the sources consulted for the place-name survey of Oxfordshire proved justified, however, and inquiries revealed that Berinsfield had been invented by a local historian for the benefit of the airfield situated there, and that he intended it to commemorate Bishop Birinus. Although the false derivation from byrgen had a short life, it managed to appear in at least one Ph.D. thesis, and the incident makes a salutary cautionary tale…. It is worth noting the circumstances in which this name, although of quite recent invention by a very well-known local historian, took root and appeared genuine to a team of archaeologists who knew the area initimately. The sequence of events appears to have been: (1) the antiquarian association of Berins Hill near Ipsden with St Birinus of Dorchester; (2) the invention of the name Berinsfield for an airport near Dorchester, presumably on the model of Berins Hill; (3) the alternative derivation of Berins Hill from byrgen in Gelling 1953; (4) the discovery of the cemetery at Berinsfield by archaeologists who knew that Berins- could be from byrgen.2

The archæologists just knew too much! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing! and so on. I think the thing I love most about this story is the way she could describe the discovery of a major new site as ‘ghastly’, but if I’d got implicated in a foul-up like that I might also feel the sting some time afterwards. I assume Dr Gelling was also involved in examining the Ph.D., and I would hate to have been that student, though it was hardly their fault either. But what’s the moral from the point of view of the local historian, whoever they were, that’s what I can’t figure…

1. M. Gelling, Signposts to the Past. Place-names and the history of England (London 1978, repr. 1979), e. g. p. 13: “Because place-name etymology abounds with snares of this kind, it is not possible to invite general participation in the process of suggesting etymologies. The rules have been objectively established: they are not arbitrary, but they are intricate, and few non-specialists master them well enough to be on safe ground in this branch of the study…. It is therefore important at the outset to ask people who have no special competence in the history of the English language to accept specialist guidance about the meaning of place-names…. Etymologies should be accepted from the philologists, or only revised with philological consent.” There’s probably a form you have to fill out.

2. Ibid., pp. 140-141, citing M. Gelling, The Place-Names of Oxfordshire vol. I, English Place-Name Survey XXIII (London 1953).

In which Chris Lewis tells it better

A lightweight one, to get the wheels back on the road! I’d like to dedicate this post to Ted Buttrey, who knows what I mean when I say this: there’s a particular form of academic achievement that is not often recognised as highly as it should be, which is the joke in the footnote. This is a special achievement, not just because one is always up against a word-count and it has to survive, fitter than some other reference you might have put, but also because it then has to satisfy the referees and editors that it’s worth leaving even though academia r srs bizniz and so on. If it does, though, it’s one of the few things where endnotes rather than footnotes are preferable, because it adds distance between feedline and pay-off. For example, when I was putting this virtual exhibition together, I was reading quite a lot because as you can see it’s not about something I really know much on myself, and when I found in Dick Doty’s history of the Soho mint a sentence saying that a whole history could be written from what Matthew Boulton’s correspondence revealed about the world of eighteenth-century art production, with a reference, the faff of having to find my way to the right place two hundred pages further on actually made it funnier when I found that the reference was merely, “But not by me.”1 And on the morning of the day when I first drafted this post I had just found Chris Lewis doing similar, and the passage in question is Quite Interesting so I thought I’d just quote it all.2 You don’t mind, right? The pay-off is in the second footnote, so you have to read to the end.

The origin of the name Englefield… has to be sought… in an English adaptation of the territory’s Welsh name, Tegeingl…. The processes by which ‘Tegeingl’ was Anglicized as ‘Englefield’ are perhaps illuminated by Gerald of Wales in the course of recounting a laboured joke which he alleged illustrated the witticisms of the Welsh. The joke hinged on the coincidence that Tegeingl was also the name of a woman who had slept with each of the two princes, Dafydd ab Owain Gwynedd and his brother, who ruled the territory of Tegeingl in turn. Its punchline was a supposed saying from that time that Dafydd succeeded his brother as prince: ‘I don’t think Dafydd should have Tegeingl. His brother’s had her already.28 At first sight Gerald’s shaping of the story seems to be directed against the Welsh (dirty-minded, not funny), but it also acts in a more sophisticated way to score points off the English too. Teg was the Welsh for ‘beautiful’, and Teg-engl might be (deliberately) mistaken by a quick-witted Anglo-Welsh bilingual, such as Gerald, as meaning ‘the beautiful English(woman)’. Read like that, Gerald’s unfunny joke may have concealed a clever dig at the English: by ruling successively over the province of Tegeingl the two princely brothers had taken turns with a beautiful Englishwoman.29 When English speakers first reached north-east Wales, they may well have heard the Welsh name of of the territory as Gerald later would, as teg eingl, and understood its proper name to be Eingl, particularly appropriate (if misunderstood as a homophone) when they settled in part of it.

28  Gerald of Wales, Descriptio Kambriae in Works, ed. J. S. Brewer, James F. Dimock and George F. Warner, 8 vols, RS 21 (1861-91) VI, 153-227, at pp. 190-1.

29  Walter Map would have told the same joke better.

How true those words are, even today. More serious content shortly I hope!

1. Richard Doty, The Soho Mint and the Industrialization of Money (London 1998).

2. C. P. Lewis, “Welsh Territories and Welsh Identities in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 130-143 at p. 138.