Tag Archives: medieval literature

A trip across the pond some time ago

I don’t know about you, but in the current medical and economic climate, I am finding my identity as a researcher quite hard to maintain. As Dirk Gently would have put it, its waveform has collapsed. I have been letting correspondence about research projects and plans drop, just because I can’t see through to a point where they will be practical again, and I was already doing this before the pandemic to be honest. I am also, concomitantly, finding it increasingly hard to engage with the research that people are still managing to do, or at least present, like the recent virtual International Medieval Congress, which I didn’t attend. I mention this mainly because it’s one reason I’ve found it hard to get round to writing this post about the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2017; I was there and I learnt things and I had fun, although I wasn’t really presenting anything new, but it seems very far from what matters now. But maybe that means it’s important to retain, and in any case it did happen, however unlikely that large a gathering now seems. So here we are, an account. Continue reading

A Compensation Coin, then, Two Rooms of Budding Byzantinists

I have been neglecting this blog, I’m sorry. I can only assure you that this is not out of laziness; rare has been the day of 2015 so far in which I have not written a couple of thousand words, but much less of this has been in the kinds of document that will ever have a readership than I would like, and much of that which has been is a long way off getting to that state… In particular, I have about thirty thousand words of a book manuscript (enthusiastic first-draft words, but words), and at the other end of the scale of scale, about four thousand words of exhibition copy of various sorts which were really hard to keep short. The fruits of all of this will be announced in their due season, of course, but just for the moment let me make up for the long silence with a picture of a coin, and then a conference report.

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953

Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953 (reverse)

This is a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes (969-976), and it’s connected to what I’ve been doing at work lately in several ways. In the first place, it is a little way down the slippery slope of decreasing fineness that Byzantine gold coinage descended in the tenth and eleventh centuries; it looks pretty shiny, but all that glitters is not gold… That’s not news exactly, but it’s one of the types we’ve been blasting with x-rays to find out what more its metal can tell us. Secondly, it’s one of the coins that’s going in the next exhibition on the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute, which is why I happen to have an image of it handy, And, thirdly, because as you can see it shows the Virgin Mary, identified in Greek, ‘theotokos’, motherbearer of God, crowning Emperor John with some help from a Hand of God, it was among the coins that my first research enquiry at the Barber, some time ago now, involved me getting out to scrutinise because of being a depiction of divinity in Byzantium. And with that, you see, we connect to the conference report, because the person who asked me about this coin was also presenting at the conference against which the blog backlog now laps. So!

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Every year since 1999, the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham has held a postgraduate colloquium to showcase its research. In the last few years this has grown somewhat to become an international event; the fifteenth colloquium, on 24th May 2014, had thirty different speakers from fifteen different institutions in seven different countries, organised by necessity into two parallel strands, and I know because I was there. I usually don’t report on postgraduate presentations here, figuring that students are not necessarily fair game for such exposure, but there was such a lot of good stuff said here that I want to give some account at least, so I will give you the running order of the papers I saw and then offer some remarks about the ones I found most thought-provoking. The theme they’d chosen was “Language as Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean (330-2013)”, and you see below how that was reflected in the papers on offer.

    Keynote address

  • Maria Georgopolou, ‘Διγλωσσία: bilingualism as a cultural paradigm’
  • Session 01

  • Zuzana Cernáková, “Language of Fiction: representations of Byzantium in twelfth-century French literature”
  • Kirsty Stewart, “Beast Literature and the Vernacular in Byzantium, 1261-1453”
  • Jeff Brubaker, “The Language of Religious Union: the Greek-Latin Disputatio of 1234″
  • Theofili Kampianaki, “John Zonaras’ Treatment of the Roman Past in his Epitome of Histories
  • Session 03

  • Eileen Rubery, “Making and Meaning in the Frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (600-800 AD)”
  • Katherine Harrison, “From Ancient Lapidaries to Christian Allegories – Textual Sources on Stones and Their Impact upon Gemstone Icons in Byzantium”
  • Sandro Nikolaishvili, “Translation of Byzantine Symbols and Language of Power to Medieval Georgia”
  • Georgia Michael, “The Visual ‘Language of Death’: new interpretations of aspects of idolatry and worship of early Christian funerary art (3rd-4th centuries)”
  • Session 05

  • Panagiotis Sotiropoulos, “Visual Representation in the World of Late Antiquity: religious origins of a gaze attracted by new public and private sights”
  • Miranda Williams, “Language and Propaganda in 6th-Century Africa”
  • Daniel Kelly, “Hagiographic Evidence for Continued Language Diversity in Post-Crises Byzantine State”
  • Lilly Stammler, “One Spiritual Beneficial Tale from the Life of St Andrew the Fool in South Slavonic Translation”

Continue reading

If you didn’t like that CFP, why not try this one?

The frontiers thing not catching your imagination? Perhaps you’re thinking: “So divisive! I want to look at what brings people together. Why couldn’t our subjects just all have been friends?” Well, Amy Brown of the Université de Genève has something made for you:

Elusive affection: Proposed session for Leeds IMC 2015 July 6-9

Organisers: Amy Brown (Université de Genève, amisamileandme), Regan Eby (Boston College)
Call for Papers (two speakers sought)
Deadline for abstract submission: 20th September
Send abstracts to: amy.brown@unige.ch (will be forwarded to Regan Eby from there)

What is affection? Can we reliably locate or describe the features of affection between medieval persons, real or fictional?

Love of God, romantic love, and love between monastic peers or loyal knights: these and other kinds of love are well attested across the range of medieval sources and periods, but historians of friendship recognise the difficulty of bridging the gap between felt affection and the literary tropes of love. Love might be spoken or written of in situations where the parties were unlikely to feel positively toward one another, such as in reconciliations and peace treaties. In other cases, sources might borrow from the scripts of romance, friendship at court, or family in order to characterise a peculiar relationship, such as an opposite-sex friendship. Some forms of affection might be indicated without reference to the vocabulary of love at all.

We invite medievalists from any period or discipline to propose a paper relating to the history of affection, unconventional affectionate bonds, or approaches to situations in which we have insufficient data for firm conclusions concerning the presence or absence of affection in lived experience. The abstract for Amy Brown’s paper (focusing on 14th c english romance) is below, and we would particularly like to complement this paper with evidence from other periods or other literary traditions.

Sir Lancelot in the Friend Zone: strategies for offering and limiting affection in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur

Amy Brown, Université de Genève

In erthe is nothing that shall me let
To be thy knight loud and still

This promise appears in the Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur not as a proposition to a beloved, but as Lancelot’s counter-offer in rejecting the Maid of Astolat’s romantic desires toward him. This text features a negotiation sequence, not found in other versions of the Astolat narrative, in which Lancelot and the Maid attempt to articulate the terms of a relationship which is both like and unlike that of romantic love.

This paper aims to do two things: firstly, to set out the history of the concept of affection (linguistically distinct from the 12th c) and its overlap with medieval ideas of love. Secondly, to read the Maid of Astolat segment of the Stanzaic Morte as an instance in which comparison and analogy with familiar relationship types is used to establish affection at the core of an unconventional bond, that of opposite-sex friendship.

Final note, especially since Amy intends to distribute this CFP to Swiss colleagues: proposals for papers in English preferred, but we enthusiastically endorse the idea of panelists (esp. early career researchers) unaccustomed to working in English. Amy can volunteer moral support and/or editing assistance if helpful, and we will aim to moderate questions with opportunity for clarifications and translations as needed.


(Hey Amy, with an interesting topic like this, you should totally have a blog amirite?)

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.

Seminar CXLVI: heroes and gods at Old English courts

My declaration of intent has proved sadly hollow, and what was feared has come to pass: I am more than a year behind with my seminar reports. I live in hope of catching up, but the time to do so is proving hard to find. Nonetheless I plug on, and today I do so with the fact that on the 17th October 2012, the David Wilson Lecture was given to the British Museum and University College London Institute of Archaeology Joint Seminar and the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar by Professor Barbara Yorke of Winchester, with the title, “Weland, Woden and Anglo-Saxon Court Culture, c. 600-900″, and it was really interesting.

The earliest manuscript of the Old English Boethius, British Library MS Cotton Otho A vi

The earliest manuscript of the Old English Boethius, British Library MS Cotton Otho A vi: not the easiest read… Image licensed under Creative Commons.

What Professor Yorke was trying to do with this piece was find ways to describe the culture of Anglo-Saxon royal courts once princely burial fades out in the early seventh century, depriving us of our best index of what people in power thought was impressive and culturally significant. With no Sutton Hoo treasures to guide her, she therefore resorted to literature on heroes and their deeds, in which relatively few texts, and not least of them the Old English translation of Bœthius’s Consolation of Philosophy, which is quite a step away from its original, have to do quite a lot of work. That forces one to rely on figures who come up a lot, and there the obvious ones are Woden, probably the head of the Anglo-Saxon pagan pantheon, and Weland, a smith-hero of fable most famously depicted on the Franks Casket as you see here.

Front panel of the Franks Casket, in the British Museum, showing Weland the Smith on the right and the Adoration of the Magi on the left;

Front panel of the Franks Casket, in the British Museum, showing Weland the Smith on the right and the Adoration of the Magi on the left; image from Wikimedia Commons

To categorise Woden as god and Weland as man is probably too simple, however: by the time Bede wrote about Woden, which he was seemingly happy to do, he was no more than a distant ancestor shared by many of the Anglo-Saxon royal families, with a father as well as sons, eheumerised into humanity, whereas Weland, though likewise mortal when he shows up, was a worker in precious metal (at least for the Bœthius writer) whose forge is eternal and who escapes captivity by ascending into the sky in a flying suit he’s made.1 In that last it’s hard to pick what references might be being made: Dædalus, another famous craftsman, is an obvious one but Ascension by a character both human and divine would also have had other resonances in the late ninth or early tenth centuries… The depictions on the Franks Casket throw Weland and other stories we don’t recognise into a sea of references from the Bible, Roman history and Roman myth as if all these things had a message to communicate to the same audience. And the Bœthius author doesn’t stop there, Heracles also turns up with very similar qualities (demi-god, worker in metal, cunning). There’s a particular importance to the word `craft’ here, which has the sense of `crafty’ as much as `craftsman’ in the Old English, if not rather more so. These were all characters who could see cunning and unconventional solutions to problems, be they diverting a river through a mucky stable or penetrating enemy strongholds in disguise, to pick two possible examples. This, along with bravery and fearsomeness, seem very likely to be characteristics people thought important for kings, rulers and nobles to possess throughout this period, but it is definitely nice to be able to show some basis for believing this in evidence of the time.2

Scutchamer Knob, Oxfordshire

Scutchamer Knob, Oxfordshire, also known as Cuckhamsley Hill and behind that, sometime long before, as Cwichelmes Hlaew, `Cwichelm’s Barrow`. Sure, it looks nice enough in daylight… Image from Wikimedia Commons

The other line of argument, a lesser one, that was pursued which might interest readers of this blog was an attempt to link the Old English Bœthius back to the court of King Alfred, in full knowledge of Malcolm Godden’s arguments against this.3 This was only tentative, and really more aimed at getting us to think of Alfred as this sort of king than to categorically refute Godden. After all, consider the Alfred of Asser: an artificer (clocks, ships), a lateral thinker and an organiser (clocks, again, but also fortresses, army rotas), a warrior and, if not ascending to Heaven by his own direct agency at least aiming that way due to suffering and great responsibility piously met.4 This formed part of a larger final point about the continuing sacral flavour of kingship, with such figures’ burials still being `known’ in the Wessex landscape in Alfred’s time (Scutchamer Knob above being a mangled version of an Old English phrase meaning Cwichelm’s Barrow and Wayland’s Smithy, indeed, so-called in the tenth century too, very close to where Alfred fought the battle of Ashdown).5 In part this was a kind of continuity, no doubt, but it was also a symptom of the great inventiveness of the minds generating our sources in borrowing, adapting and modifying motives from almost anywhere to make the men they praised seem as contemporary as they did ancient. It makes me think of chronology-mashing speculative fiction writers like Michael Moorcock, generating figures like Jerry Cornelius who are (often unwitting) members of many different mythologies simultaneously, or indeed the fun that an unjustly-forgotten author called John James had writing the life story of the man he invented to fit behind the Odin (and perhaps also Woden) myths.6 The writers Alfred and his successors could find may not have been as many as he would have wished, but they should probably not be reckoned any less, well, crafty than ours…


1. The Bede reference is in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book I chapter 15, which you can find in your edition of choice or here. For Weland I have much less idea what to cite: this Encyclopedia Britannica article‘s a start…

2. For an argument that fearsomeness may have been very important to early medieval kingship, see Régine Le Jan, “Timor, amicitia, odium: les liens politiques à l’époque mérovingienne” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 217-226. This, for me, fits quite nicely with Weland’s vengefulness and violence; part of the king’s charisma is that he might just kill you out of hand and no-one could gainsay him. Professor Yorke was arguing that the reading of the Franks Casket that sees it as providing good and bad examples of conduct in the manner of Bede’s History was mistaken, and that they were actually all favourable models including the ultra-violent and genocidal ones, by means of this kind of reasoning.

3. Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23; cf. Janet Bately, “Did King Alfred Actually Translate Anything: the Integrity of the Alfredian Canon Revisited” in Medium Ævum 78 (2009), pp. 189–215.

4. Asser, De rebus gestis Alfredi regis, most easily accessible in Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ and other contemporary sources (London 1983). It is probably off-colour to wonder how many days’ agony in the privy (Asser, c. 74) might have been reckoned to equal three days’ hanging in a tree, or indeed one hanging on a cross, but you have to admit this kind of lecture makes the comparison seem less originally horrible. Not that we know what was actually wrong with Alfred, of course: see Paul Kershaw, “Illness, power and prayer in Asser’s Life of King Alfred” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 10 (Oxford 2001), pp. 201-224.

5. For really illuminating discussion of this kind of thing, including these two cases, see Margaret Gelling, Signposts to the Past: place-names and the history of England (London 1978, repr. 1979), pp. 154-161.

6. With Moorcock it’s just hard to know where to start, he’s written so much and so much of it really quite similarly generic from when he was cranking out a novel every month or so in the sixties. I think his most enjoyably reference-messy one that I’ve read is The Condition of Muzak (London 1977) but you do have to have read about twenty of his other books before the play with the recurrent characters and storylines seems impressive rather than perverse and obscure, I suspect. As for James, the book in question is Votan (London 1966), which is bloody marvellous (both marvellous and bloody) and was succeeded by the hardly-less splendid Not For All the Gold in Ireland (London 1968) which takes the same character stamping unawarely through the world of Celtic myth too.

Seminars CIV & CV: two from off my map

Let me try and keep up the pace with a couple of quick notices of seminars I was at in October last year. (They’ll have to be quick if I’m ever to catch up.) Both are from the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford, where on the 17th October Hilde de Weert spoke with the title, “Empire and Information during the Twelfth-Century Chinese Crisis”, and the next week Jan Dumolyn gave us, “‘Let Each Man Carry on with His Trade and Remain Silent’. Politics and Urban Literature in the Later Medieval Netherlands”. Both of these are later and in different countries than I really know anything about, so my own thoughts on them are pretty limited, but they were both very interesting and I do want to try and get that across, at least.

Map of the empires of China in the early twelfth century

Map of the empires of China in the early twelfth century

Dr de Weert crammed an incredible amount of information into her paper, which was as well in some ways as I for one really needed the context. Her work here was on information networks in Song China as found in notebooks of commentary exchanged by the administrative élite of the period and country. There were apparently an awful lot of these, a genre that it’s really hard to parallel from the west, sort of worked-up commonplace notebooks with things like demographic information, maps, pieces of historical writing, proto-ethnography and anything that a well-off civil servant was interested in, which would then be published (apparently at state expense because they administered those expenses in the relevant areas—this was one of the many parts of this system I had trouble getting my head round) and circulated and responded to in kind. This gives you two things that Dr de Weert was exploiting in this paper, firstly the actual networks of contact between these administrative intellectuals, an empire of letters but with a system of contact much more like academic publishing than personal correspondence, and secondly a brilliant source for the transmission of political ideologies, which was, if you like, where De de Weert’s story really started. She was looking for language of and initiatives towards centralisation and standardisation, and the descriptions of the previous era, in which the Sung court had been penned into the South by the Mongol Empire, use pejorative terms of it (‘the small court’) to help give grandeur and context to the new bigger and more demanding imperial operation of the thirteenth century. For Dr de Weert what this showed was a set of local élites who had internalised the imperial mission, and guaranteed that even if the empire held them only loosely and ineffectively it could still count them as members, and be sure that they too would so count themselves. There I saw some parallels with the way that Rome bedded down in the post-imperial West of the early Middle Ages, or indeed the Holy Roman Empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but I was much more fascinated by the exotic, and yet parochially familiar (because pseudo-academic) source material, these notebooks that we in the West just have nothing much like from any period I know about. Except maybe blogs, a point made by Dr de Weert in the questions, if one’s blog were provided by the City Council or similar!

Illustrated page from a 1456 manuscript of the poems of Anthonis de Roovere

Illustrated page from a 1456 manuscript of a poem of Anthonis de Roovere with which Dr Dumolyn started his paper. There are quite a lot of ways in which this is not like my usual material.

Dr Dumolyn, visiting us from Ghent, also had interesting source material, to wit plays written for performance in various cities of the Low Countries in the fifteenth century. Writing this kind of material was apparently confined to a fairly restricted group (again), a guild of poets, usually well-off lettered bourgeoisie with a strong interest in the status quo. For this reason, the social messages of these plays are usually fairly conservative, and only some 30 of his 600-odd pieces of material could be qualified as `social’, but even well-off bourgeois can get annoyed (as anyone who reads the Times‘s letters column can see) so there is some scope for getting at social tensions here. For these guys the main evil was war, which disrupted everything and threatened positions, but was also obviously easy to condemn for basic moral and religious reasons. There was also, however, here and there and with certain playwrights especially, a critique of nobility of birth that looks a lot like the kind of “When Adam delved and Eve span” rhetoric used in the English Peasants’ Revolt, and workers’ complaints get used as a way of making these points, outsourcing the social critique to mouthpieces from other classes. These writers were presumably not interested in starting a revolt, and lazy workers and stupid peasants also feature quite a lot, but some of them nonetheless felt it necessary, wise or convenient to give a voice to more, shall we say, communal, feelings in their work. Discussion then centred on whether this was really a form of protest, or a palliative intended to relieve social tension and actually keep off the danger of workers’ revolt. One answer seemed to be that the plays were often staged competitively, so that writers would try and appeal to audiences so as to earn the patronage and prizes that came from winning. In cities where the social tensions they pulled on to give themselves that kind of appeal were often very real, this may have been a dangerous sort of literary brinkmanship…


1. It has been observed to me that it’s almost more interesting to note which seminars I went to that I don’t blog. Since I have such a backlog, indeed, I’m being rather harsher about culling the ones about which I just don’t have anything useful to say from my to-do list. This isn’t necessarily to do with the quality of the paper – “it’s not you, it’s me” – but sometimes, well, it is. Of course, you’d have to know where I was the term before last in some detail to spot this happening and start to guess which was which…

Finally, Kalamazoo 2011 can be told, Part I

Yes, I know, it’s September and I’m dealing with things that happened in May, it bodes badly, but I’m doing the best I can and since there were complaints from venerable parts of the blogosphere that people weren’t doing Kalamazoo write-ups any more I don’t want to let the side of obsessive completism down. So, a few scant days after the last paper I reported on I was, courtesy of the British Academy, in the USA for the 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies, yet, already. I can’t hope, at this remove, even with my notes, to give a very comprehensive summary of what I saw and did, but then I hardly have time so that’s probably OK. I’ll talk about papers for the first three posts and then say something more general after the shorter paper sum-up from the fourth day.

Goldsworth Valley Complex, University of West Michigan

Goldsworth Valley Complex, University of West Michigan

Coming in from Detroit was an easy journey, albeit expensive due to an empty but mendacious change-machine, but it badly mucked things up when I forgot, on arrival in Kalamazoo short of sleep, that I had changed time-zone again. The result was that for the first few hours on Thursday I was running an hour later than everyone else, meaning that I missed breakfast and a meeting and arrived late into…

Session 39. Generational Difference and Medieval Masculinity, I: fathers and sons in the early Middle Ages

This was a shame as it meant I missed most of Paul Kershaw‘s “Louis the Pious, Attila the Hun and the Problem of Filial Honour”, which was quite a lot of what I’d gone to see. My very short notes remind me that he was cunningly reading the Hildebrandslied and the Waltharius against each other for how fathers and sons react to each other in those texts and that it sounded as if it would all have been fun to hear. Oh well, my own silly fault. The other papers were:

  • Mary Dockray-Miller, “Glory and Bastards: Godwin, Tostig, Skuli, and Ketel”, which talked about using foster-families on the North Sea world of the eleventh century as an alternative sort of status to less-than-shining origins of birth, either because that birth kindred was still on its way up or, in the case of Earl Tostig of Northumbria‘s sons, very much on its way down
  • and Allen J. Frantzen, “Fathers, Sons, and Masculinity in the Anglo-Saxon World”. This was an erudite and eloquent but also very political paper, in which Professor Frantzen argued that feminist scholarship had, well, emasculated study of masculinity by constraining it into categories from the battle of the sexes rather than what was actually going on at the time we study, which was a combination of both extremes. I thought that the aim here, to combat or at least recognise assumptions both in our sources and in ourselves that male = power and female = weakness, was laudable, but it was a difficult paper to listen to because of hearing it as a feminist maybe would as well as as a scholar should. I also thought that the Romans should have got a bigger part in defining masculinity since the whole rationality-and-moderation topos, here instanced from Ælfric, surely goes back to them, which raises questions about our assumptions about the sources… but it was one of the richer and more stimulating twenty minutes I’ve spent sitting listening, all the same. He actually has a web-page up, apparently in preparation for the session, which sets his fellow participants reading; you may find this interesting…

So, OK, I must write less about the rest, but this will be tricky as I then stumbled on my subject area, sort of, in:

Session 75. Negotiating Monasticism in the Early Middle Ages, I: claustrum and sæculum

Virtual reconstruction of the Abbey of Lorsch c. 1150 by Robert Mehl

Virtual reconstruction of the Abbey of Lorsch c. 1150 by Robert Mehl

This was the first of a set of sessions arranged by, among others, the very excellent Albrecht Diem, and it was tempting to treat them as one can treat Texts and Identities at Leeds and just sit in familiar territory for as long as the strand ran. I didn’t, but I saw these papers, which were:

  • Hendrik Dey, “Before the Cloister: monasteries and the ‘topography of power’ in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages”, an account of the arrangement of processional spaces in late Roman cities and early medieval monasteries, finding numerous interesting parallels in the more elaborate (Carolingian) cases like Lorsch, where the monks seem to have done a lot of walking.
  • Hans Hummer, “Family Continuity and Christian Monasticism in late Antique Gaul” was a complex paper questioning work that has seen either family or lordship as the basic structures of early medieval society by showing monasticism as both or neither, determined to escape such structures but made to serve family or political agendas all the same. This also made the point that an early medieval monastery about which we know is, by and large, exceptional; how many passing references have your documents got to communities that we just can’t identify? I know mine has lots, and Hans’s too apparently.
  • Valerie Ramseyer, “Cave Monasteries in Early Medieval Southern Italy and Sicily: centers of isolation or population?” was an eye-opening paper, not least because of the scenery in the presentation, about monasteries, and in fact whole villages, built in cave networks in Southern Italy. A few of these places still function or function again as restaurants or curiosities but the paper argued that they were never, as they have been pitched when they’ve been studied at all, mere refuges or somehow a subaltern choice of habitation but elaborate, and often luxurious dwellings; the ideological assumptions and the elusiveness have left them under-studied, argued Professor Ramseyer, and I was certainly persuaded.
Byzantine-era cave settlement in Canalotto, Sicily

Byzantine-era cave settlement in Canalotto, Sicily

That had all been such fun that I stuck with the thread for:

Session 122. Negotiating Monasticism in the Early Middle Ages, II: status and knowledge

This session had been somewhat demolished, as one speaker (sadly a friend of mine—there was a lot of this this year) had puilled out and the rest reorganised to make a reasonable programme. This actually made the session more interesting than I’d expected, and we got:

  • Matheus Coutinha Figuinha, “Martin of Tours’s Monasticism and the Aristocracy”, which argued, simply and effectively, that Sulpicius Severus, biographer of Saint Martin, was basically making up the nobility of the first monks at Marmoutier in that biography, because he cared a good deal more about such things than Martin apparently did.
  • Julian Hendrix, “Defining Monastic Identity: the Rule of St Benedict and Carolingian Monasticism”, looked at the different ways various commentators used the Regula Benedicti in the Carolingian age and therefore questioned whether complete Benedictinisation was ever the aim. This has been a bit of theme in this scholarly neck of the woods, lately, as further demonstrated by…
  • Albrecht Diem, “Negotiating the Past: reform and conflict in early meieval monasticism”, which pointed out how legendary St Benedict had become by the Carolingian age, that Gregory the Great did not apparently know that Benedict had written a Rule, and that in fact the first person known to associate Benedict of Nursia with the Rule we now claim to be his was Bede; even in the ninth century, in fact, it was feasible for Hygeburc to claim that her subject, St Willibald, had introduced the Benedictine Rule at Benedict’s supposedly own Monte Cassino. Albrecht has been a Benedictosceptic for a while and I’ve heard him say parts of this before but this was a fairly devastating assault.
  • Something I also want to remember from this session is Julian Hendrix saying in question that monastic rules tend to travel together in manuscripts, and adding, “They’re cenobitic in tendency, I guess”, which is the kind of throwaway I wish I came up with more often. It should also probably be observed that of late Albrecht has been putting all kinds of resources about monasticism, bibliographies, databases, lists of bookmarks, online, and that these are all quite useful things to know about if you’re in the field.

By this stage I think I was more or less caught up on the time zones but a drink was very welcome. I have since lost such information as I had recorded about whom I met when—kids, always have backups—so I won’t try and recapture that, but I probably ought to thank Michael Fletcher straight off as he was invaluable throughout the Congress as a willing driver, orchestrator and drinking companion and I’d have had much less fun without his help. So, that covers the first day in some sort of fashion, next there will be yet another post about a Catalan stone with a funerary inscription on it then I’ll return to the report.

Seminars LXXIII & LXXIV: downgrading homicide and upgrading women

Two brief notices of the next two seminars I went to after that last one just reported, which were both Oxford ones. I have, as you know, dithered about blogging these because they are more internal than the IHR ones or even Cambridge’s CLANS series; these are Oxford speakers talking to an Oxford audience. But, Tom Lambert is a sterling chap lecturing on the course I run and thoroughly deserves the publicity, and Emma Cavell is already sort of famous, so there seems no harm in it on this occasion.

Decapitated skeletons from the Anglo-Saxon execution cemetery at Walkington Wold

Decapitated skeletons from the Anglo-Saxon execution cemetery at Walkington Wold, from Wikimedia Commons

Tom was speaking on the 8th of November 2010, to the title, “Theft, Homicide and Crime in Late Anglo-Saxon Law”. The convenors at this seminar are unfailingly complimentary, but even so, invoking the ghost of Patrick Wormald, suggesting that he had thought that with his The Making of English Law written there was nothing more to say about Anglo-Saxon law, and then saying that it was Tom’s work that had convinced the convenor that this wasn’t true, that’s high praise. All the same, Tom gave a clear and interesting account of Anglo-Saxon legislation about theft and homicide, asking why the penalties for theft are so much more vicious (almost always capital) than for homicide, which is after all a capital crime but can be compensated, or at worst result in enslavement, whereas theft is impossible to pay off. Patrick Wormald was not the only person who has tried to explain this, but Tom gave convincing arguments, largely based on the tiny sample size and the fact that many cases Patrick used as evidence of an increasing royal ‘take-over’ of homicide punishment involved victims who would already have been under royal protection for other reasons, that these explanations would not really do. Tom’s alternative suggestion, which rested in part on the differentiation in the laws between simple homicide and morðor, hidden slaying, was that killing someone was an open act, not necessarily dishonourable, in which the killer was easily identifiable (and often turned himself in, in the cases we have), whereas theft and morðor alike were secretive things where no culprit could easily be found and which was therefore dishonourable and hateful for the society of the day in a way that open conflict, which had clear and well-known consequences and regulation that needed no intervention by the king, was not. This makes sense, as long as you don’t mind remembering that people of the past, even our Hardy English Yeomen Forebears(tm), in the case of those reading (and writing) who may have such roots, were not necessarily like us in the ways they thought and acted. This is the sort of thing that the work Tom’s doing can tell us, and it’s not a small thing.1

Whittington Castle in Shropshire

Whittington Castle in Shropshire, narrative home of Fulk le fitz Wareyn

As for Emma, she spoke on the 15th November, to the title, “Foulke le fitz Wareyn: literary space for real women?” This is a subject where I have far less of a handle, but the basics were that Emma, who did her doctorate on Anglo-Norman marcher lords on the Welsh border, had been asked at her viva whether there was any literary evidence she could have used for this enquiry, had not really looked at the stuff and was therefore now making good. She was anxious to stress, therefore, that she was out of her usual field, but she nonetheless gave a very clear account of a particular romance I’d not heard of, Foulke le fitz Wareyn, which involves a disinherited hero wandering a great many lands, seducing and converting a Muslim queen and so on, before returning as the greatest knight in Christendom, getting the girl, ousting the baddies (who are substantially King John, who is made to hand back Foulke’s inheritance) and experiencing various things as a person of importance before dying in his bed and so forth. The question Emma was asking was, are the women in this text anything more than romantic ciphers? Do they in fact relate to anyone historical, as certain of the other personages involved (not least the hero and King John) kind of do, with a certain amount of genealogical fiddling?2 They do have a certain amount of agency, but not very much; indeed, the woman with the most choice of her own fate in the text, who does anything other than what her male relatives want, is an unmarried noble girl who falls for a smooth-talking scoundrel and winds up betraying her lord’s castle and committing suicide. Despite this unprepossessing set of prospects, Emma argued, the (other) women in the story can still be associated with women who did exist, and the lifestyle and life options depicted here are probably not implausible, in which case while we may lament the patriarchy and so on, and not without reason, it may also be worth noticing that the author of the romance did give himself (I assume himself…) space to show his audience these women more or less happy in their successful and famous families, who listen to and love them. The fact that it’s possible to be happy while politically oppressed is obviously a dangerous thing to acknowledge if you want to remove the oppression, but the fact also surely has explanatory value when you want to know how the situation got that way at all…


1. If you want to read Tom at work you can try his “Royal Protections and Private Justice: a reassessment of Cnut’s ‘Reserved Pleas'” in Andrew Rabin, Stefan Jurasinski & Lisi Oliver (edd.), English Law Before Magna Carta: Felix Liebermann and Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, Medieval Law and its Practice 8 (Leiden 2010). The other thing that might be useful to put here is Patrick Wormald’s list of Anglo-Saxon lawsuits, called, fittingly enough, “A Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Lawsuits” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 17 (Cambridge 1988), pp. 247-281.

2. I have linked above to an online translation of the story into English prose by Thomas Kelly, from Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (edd.), Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo 1987) apparently, and there is a verse retelling by none other than Michael Rosen, with oodles of local photographs, here, if you can adjust to the rather different style, but the translation that Emma mentioned was Glynn S. Burgess (ed./transl.), Two Medieval Outlaws: Eustace the Monk and Fouke fitz Waryn (Woodbridge 1997). Emma’s paper is in fact already in print (since delivery), as “Fouke le Fitz Waryn: literary space for real women?’ in Megan Cassidy-Welch (ed.), Medieval Practices of Space and Place, Parergon (New Series) Vol. 27 (Perth 2010), pp. 89-110, so there you are if this is your sort of stuff and you’d like better than my inexpert summary.

I should have read this the moment I got it, part VI

9780754662549

Part Three of Jennifer Davis’s and Michael McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe is called ‘Representation and Reality on the Artistry of Early Medieval Literature’, and is one of the thicker and more enjoyable sections. That said, not very much of is actually about literature as such and I suspect that some of our more literature-based readers wouldn’t really recognise the approaches. What we have is Paul Dutton doing one of his curiosity vignettes by investigating what the (historical) sources are doing when they mention rains of blood, Joaquin Martínez Pizarro looking at the Historia Wambae‘s type-scenes and asking if there’s more to them than meets the motif index, and Jan Ziolkowski going through the Waltharius for weapons geekery and asking if this makes it easier to date. Then Danuta Shanzer adds a short review paper salting these with about a hundred other references to late Antique literature and her usual bracing elision of the distance between the medieval them and the reading us.1

The linking theme here is that they’re all basically asking, “can we believe this stuff?” You know, is it, fundamentally, historical, even if we have to go through contortions to get the facts out? This isn’t really a new direction to my mind, but the ways that they are attacking their texts possibly are. For example, Dutton quite quickly shows that there is actually reasonably good evidence for red rains in Europe and that they can mostly be put down to Saharan dust swept up by strong winds; his most recent example, albeit with only anecdotal evidence, is from Münster in 1992 (watch out Theo) and discerning use of that Famous Web Search Engine finds some pictures from someone that they claim were taken during such a storm in Greece. He then spends the rest of his short paper asking why the medieval people experiencing this took it so readily to be blood? He finds various texts in evidence of the idea that for almost all medieval thinkers (as usual Eriugena is an exception), and indeed the people at large, the weather was down to God, so that if something funny happened with it it must be for a reason and the question was merely one of what. He also however suggests that by the twelfth century it was more readily accepted that there might be less supernatural causes, and Shanzer questions this by saying that just because we have a lot of scholastics willing to consider such opinions doesn’t mean that non-élite belief altered so much.2

Martínez analyses the Historia Wambae as literature, but reckons that because it is actually deviating from the type-scenes it’s exploiting in some important ways, the real path of the events it describes lies underneath like lumps under a blanket (my simile, not his). Shanzer wonders whether the type-scenes of history and literature aren’t distinct, but I wonder more seriously whether one can apply this argument, which I use happily for charters—when they deviate from the formula there’s a reason—so easily for literature, where the reason is not going to be as simple as, ‘there really was a dovecote in the courtyard but they didn’t have any meadow’.3 In short, are we actually sure that Julian of Toledo was writing history not literature, I mean, was it even meant to be true? This question has been asked in other contexts lately by Magistra and the discussion there has obviously influenced where this one goes; as so often, her blog helps me think about this stuff, so thanks are due.

Lastly, as I say, Ziolkowski gathers the very disparate historiography of early medieval weaponry—this is not the sort of subject that gets a lot of work, in part I think because it is seen as boy’s-own-history pursued only by wargamers, which is just daft given how much work has been done, for example, on ploughs and even stirrups—and so work has to be cited from the last hundred years rather than the last ten. Nonetheless, he gathers it, and finds references in the Waltharius both to current and antique weapons, and there rather runs out of steam. He is, however, I think quite correct to say that it’s only by this sort of endeavour of filling out the author’s world that we will come to be able to place the text better in its context, and I think this is the newest direction of the three, though obviously there is a need to work out why there are weapons from several periods being referenced and what the poet thinks they mean.

Romantic depiction of Ekkehard of St Gall, supposed by some to be the author of the Waltharius, writing it

Romantic depiction of Ekkehard of St Gall, supposed by some to be the author of the Waltharius, writing it

Two things strike me about these papers. The first, despite the rather bleak appraisal I’ve given above, is how much fun they are. All three main authors write very enjoyably, often just by bringing out their sources to play: Dutton is as ever masterful at this, and Pizarro, though he doesn’t provide any stand-out moments of insight, unrolls his interpretation in faultless prose. And Ziolkowski made me laugh out loud with this:

Long before pointed brass cones became fashionable, terms that had originally pertained to body armor were transferred to haute couture, and especially to lingerie. The most memorable such transference is the case of the Old French designation for “armor of the arm, arm guard”, whence the modern brassiere. Such dainties are put, of course, in the armoire.4

Just as Carl Pyrdum some time ago managed to claim any discussion of Angelina Jolie’s body as medieval studies, I think Ziokolwski here manages to annexe women’s underwear (leaving Marco Mostert only the men’s…). Now the next time I play Pink Floyd’s `Arnold Layne’ I shall think of him—but in a good way! Meanwhile, Danuta Shanzer’s wrap-up and review is fabulous, a parade of parallels; I never really feel much connection to her material, because her late antique intellectuals so clearly inhabit a different world to my earnest Benedictines and frontier warmongers, but I enjoy reading it a great deal. And she often turns interpretations completely over just for fun, as here:

Scientific methods require control groups and parallel studies from dated materials. Should we examine weapons and regalia in other epics? The Æneid? The Psychomachia? Claudian? The Anticlaudianus? Are these different epic poets’ treatments of weapons markedly different? And what of the Waltharius poet and more pregnant or symbolic weapons? The ekphrasis of a shield or Pallas’ fatal belt? Does his failure to use weapons as symbols and crucial plot mechanisms as did the great epic poets condemn him as a clunky Germanic weapons wonk?5

I mean, did you get the phrase, “clunky Germanic weapons wonk” in your breakfast reading? To whom else could we go for this stuff? But anyway. There was a second point. As I say, everyone here is engaged in trying to find truth in fiction, or at least, in records of misapprehension. It comes down to, “is the author right or wrong?” Now, maybe this is me hanging out in the wrong places but it seems to me that this approach needs, well, theorising. Because, you know, surely this is an area where literary criticism and investigation has something to tell us, the investigation and criticism of literature? Even if we want to know something as old-fashioned as ‘what was the author doing here’ there are more sophisticated, if perhaps less scientific, ways of proceeding than comparison to known historical data. All of the authors do have some discussion of the method and effect of the author’s choice of words and literary tactics, especially Martínez but the others too, but I would like to see some readings of these sources inspired by more wide-ranging approaches and I wonder then if the questions we would ask would throw some extra light on these ones.


1. Paul Edward Dutton, “Observations on Early Medieval Weather in General, Bloody Rain in Particular”, in Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 167-180; Joaquín Martínez Pizarro, “The King Says No: On the Logic of Type-Scenes in Late Antique and Early Medieval Narrative”, ibid. pp. 181-192; Jan Ziolkowski, “Of Arms and The (Ger)man: Literary and Material Culture in the Waltharius“,6 ibid. pp. 193-208; Danuta Shanzer, “Representations and Reality in Early Medieval Literature”, ibid. 209-215.

2. Dutton, “Observations on Early Medieval Weather”; Shanzer, “Representations and Reality”, p. 211.

3. Martínez Pizarro, “The King Says No”; Shanzer, “Representations and Reality”, pp. 212-214; cf. Allan Scott McKinley, “Personal motivations for giving land to the church in the eighth century? The case of Wissembourg” in idem, Martin Ryan & Jonathan Jarrett (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic: history from charters and charter critique (forthcoming).

4. Ziolkowski, “Of Arms and the (Ger)man”, p. 203.

5. Shanzer, “Representation and Reality”, p. 215.

6. I wish he hadn’t used the pomo brackets though; anyone who gets the joke at all doesn’t need them.

Waxing lyrical: a brief reflection on the Great Pool of Reference

'if you seen her you know the reason for the caper'

Luxoria, from a 10th-century manuscript of Prudentius's Psychomachia: 'if you seen her you know the reason for the caper'

Other blogs, especially of medievalists in the USA whose courses are more literary than my hard-history background and approach, occasionally feature poetry, not always even medieval poetry. This has never happened here, but my outdated counter-culture tendencies may still sometimes out. And it’s surprising what you can find there. Recently, I have been very much enjoying a song with these words:

Banged up in the spires of bone and glass
A heavy blue chain dragged the Pencil Kid down
Wailing for the spoils, the loot, the swag
Of Annwn and to wear the crown
Be the champ while the next contender
Answered his Mayday from behind the fender
Still only seven dangled back from the Otherworld
Still only seven breezed back from the Otherworld
Still only seven drifted back from the Otherworld
Still only seven made home base from the Otherworld

While the castle keeps on spinning
Transmissions from the One Cauldron
Nine dames making with the heavy breath
He grabs a cloud and loses the come-on
Horns of light shall blaze from the portals
Shed no light away from the revels
Still only seven dangled back from the Otherworld
Still only seven breezed back from the Otherworld
Still only seven drifted back from the Otherworld
Still only seven made home base from the Otherworld

Twilight and Jet was shacking up together
Six KG men making with the rubber neck
I’ll drink a bracer to you of hooch on the rocks
Some wiseguys say they know Studs the big ox
And the A T A of K is that constitutional
And the cat with the silver head is that emotional
Still only seven dangled back from the Otherworld
Still only seven breezed back from the Otherworld
Still only seven drifted back from the Otherworld
Still only seven made home base from the Otherworld

Art with his smile like a frozen fish
His face as grey as arsenic fly paper
Gone skirt simple over a rotoqueen
If you seen her you know the reason for the caper
She’s the kind of dame who settles her accounts
And him the hot grounder that took a big bounce
Still only seven dangled back from the Otherworld
Still only seven breezed back from the Otherworld
Still only seven drifted back from the Otherworld
Still only seven made home base from the Otherworld

This is ‘Otherworld’ by a band called Space Ritual and the words were written by Nik Turner, mainly famous now for having been the man behind the saxophone in the early days of a band called Hawkwind, where he was the first person to do that flying saxophonist thing that Madness made famous. Nik is a lovely guy, if a bit, er, under-rehearsed, but I evidently don’t know the Mabinogion, Damon Runyon or Mickey Spillane and Philip K. Dick (at a guess) as well as he does. (Edit: Michelle of Heavenfield shows her wisdom in comments by pinning down the medieval source as a poem in the Book of Taliesin called ‘The Spoils of the Otherworld’.) Because they’re all here, aren’t they, but I have no idea what Nik may have thought he was writing about. It sounds fabulously significant and ominous when it’s chanted past you so quickly you have no time to realise it’s nonsense, and just see in your mind’s eye a kaleidoscope of dissonant and disassociated imagery coming together in a weird half-imagined literary device.

Cover of Space Ritual's album <em>Otherworld</em>

Cover of Space Ritual's album Otherworld

But it struck me as I thought about Nik pulling imagery from twelfth and twentieth centuries without apparent care or distinction, that this is a lot more like the literature of our subject period than a lot of the literature of that where we just happen to live (like friends we can choose versus relatives whom we can’t). For Prudentius, for example, that’s a narrow range: the Psychomachia draws on legends from the Homeric age, the Classical one, and a newer late Antique world of martyrs who themselves however considered themselves as the inheritors of a Judaean culture going back as far as Homer if not further. (A translation is here and a text here if you would like to experience this yourself. The translation appears to be by one W. Stevens, the text is unattributed.) And one could say very similar things of Martianus Capella, and these two are medieval best-sellers par excellence if you go by manuscript transmission. A reminder, perhaps, that conventions of genre and period and the avoidance of anachronism are fairly modern things to care about.