The Scribblings of a Codex-Curious PhD Student

Author: Rebecca Pope

Missing Manuscripts and the Ghosts of the Women Who Read Them

Part 2

Read Part 1: “Hit Waried Hit Wayment as a Woman”

Having presented the literary evidence for a female audience of The Awntyrs off Arthure in Part 1 of this paper, I will now discuss how this text could have come to exist in female textual communities.

So little evidence survives of female textual communities, particularly for romance and so-called “secular” texts. I would argue that texts like the Awntyrs typically considered “romance” challenge conceptions of “devotional” and “secular” literature, and as such an investigation into the networks for devotional texts can be useful in reconstructing the textual networks of romance, with these texts often circulating together, and being compiled into the same books. The alliterative Morte for example, which survives in Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91 along with the Awntyrs, was transmitted in the same exemplar as The Privity of the Passion, which also appears in this manuscript.

Scholars such as Carol Meale have commented on the evidence’s ‘scattered and fragmentary’ nature; ‘ranging from internal references in literary texts…

This storie is also trewe, I undertake,
As is the boke of Launcelot de Lake,
That wommen holde in ful greet reverence.

                          ‘Nuns Priest’s Tale’, The Canterbury Tales ll.3211-13

to inscriptions made in surviving manuscripts and (on rare occasions) citations within probate records and inventories” (Readings in Medieval English Romance, 1994, p. 209). Evidence of female ownership and thus also readership is almost exclusively found in devotional literature, evidence being compiled from marginal inscriptions and bequests in wills. This however, might say more about the status of certain books, and it has long been argued that romance were unlikely to be included in wills (by either men or women), unless they belonged in very luxurious manuscripts.

The manuscripts I am considering do not come into this category. They are relatively inexpensive paper books, sparsely illustrated (if at all), and produced in small booklets compiled into larger miscellaneous codices, owned by members of the middling class. That is not to say that they weren’t valuable to their users, in fact the Thornton’s copy of Awntyrs is witness to a loving repair of a torn page. These books are commonly referred to as household miscellanies, read within the domestic sphere. Both the Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91 and Princeton University Library MS Taylor 9 versions of Awntyrs are found within this context, as part of a collection of texts belonging to a gentry household. The implications of reading within this context suggests that women must have formed part of the audience, through either reading the texts themselves, or by having it read to them. Yet few traces of their interaction with these books survive.

One brilliant example is Cambridge University Library FF.1.6, also known as the Findern Anthology (CUL Ff.1.6) produced in Derbyshire in the fifteenth century, it includes texts by both Chaucer and Lydgate, as well as romances and numerous vernacular religious lyrics. There are over 30 scribal hands evident in the codex, and at least 2 of them women. It has been suggested that the Findern Anthology represents members of the local community, both men and women, sharing and copying their literature into one large anthology.

More can also be discovered from looking at the social and personal networks of women reading devotional literature, particularly that of women in religious houses. Though evidence is still fragmentary, and no library lists survive from female institutions, through inscriptions and dedications within manuscripts, as well as classmarks and ex libris within the books, a literary culture can be shown to have existed within female religious communities, especially within the larger houses, such as Syon Abbey, and of particular interest to my study, Barking Abbey of Essex. This was the second largest female religious house of medieval England and held a substantial library. It is known that they had a librarian and from the Abbey’s fifteenth-century ordinal accounts the nuns can be shown to be engaging in a distinct literary culture: it describes how on the first Monday of Lent , on the chapter house floor, the Barking librarian spread a carpet and placed on it all the books from the book cupboard (armario) she then read each nun’s name aloud, together with the name of her borrowed book from the previous year and, if the sister had finished the book she placed it on the carpet with the others, before the books for the next year were then given to each nun. Since the ordinal states that the community numbered about 50, the abbey must have had a book collection at least that large.

Mary Erler, following David Bell, has done much to trace the books of Barking Abbey and other female houses, and Erler goes far in illuminating a reciprocal relationship between the nuns at Barking and the lay women of the local community, as well as the familial connections through which many texts were transmitted. (Woman, Reading, and Piety in Late Medieval England, 2002). Books and texts came to be shared along personal, social connections, from mother to daughter, books borrowed, gifted, and bequeathed to friends and family. Those living in religious communities were, as Erler shows, very much involved in these personal connections, showing that books came to be transmitted from secular female communities to religious communities, and vice versa.

It is where these two intersect, the textual communities of female religious houses and those of regional, aristocratic, gentry and mercantile households, that is of particular interest to me.

The two London copies of Awntyrs share a connection with Barking in some way. The scribe of Lambeth Palace Library MS 491’s dialect has been mapped to this location, and the later sixteenth-century names which appear in the manuscript belong to London Mercers who owned property in Barking, one writing: ‘Thomas Patsall of Berkyng’, in the margin. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 324 shares this mercantile connection, with Thomas Johnson, citizen and draper of London, whose name appears in the margins of this manuscript, having owned two tenements in ‘Berkyng in the counte of Essex’. There seems to be a vibrant literary culture which existed between this part of Essex, with its proximity to London (and now a borough of London), and the merchants of the city.

There was also an active literary culture at Barking Abbey. The nuns of the abbey in the fifteenth century were increasingly drawn from gentry and mercantile families, with many wealthy London merchants choosing to send their daughters to this nearby prestigious house. The nuns can also be shown to be reading texts around death and purgatory, having owned a devotional miscellany  British Library MS Harley 1706, which contained texts such as ‘Craft of Dying’ along with some of Lydgate’s minor poems, including ‘Death’s warning’.

British Library MS Harley 1706 Belonging to the Nuns of Barking Abbey Folio 19v

British Library MS Harley 1706 belonging to the Nuns of Barking Abbey
Folio 19v

A.I. Doyle has provided convincing evidence that this manuscript has been copied from another owned by the nuns of Dartford Priory in Kent, who also owned a copy of the Middle English prose Brut, which of course contains some Arthurian material and is also found circulating with Awntyrs in Lambeth Palace Library MS 491. (Doyle, ‘Books Connected with the Vere Family and Barking Abbey’, Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society ns.25, 1958: 222-243).

Lastly, I want to draw attention to a claim made by Rosamund Allen about the possible patron of the Awntyrs (‘Place-Names in The Awntyrs Off Arthure: Corruption, Conjecture, Coincidence’, B. Wheeler ed. Arthurian Studies in Honour of P.J.C. Field, 2004: 181-198). The text’s reference to specific geographic locations places it within the Cumberland-Westmorland border region of England. It also makes several references to Scottish, Irish, and French lands, which Allen, and others, have shown to be associated with the prominent Neville family at the time of the poem’s supposed composition in the 1420s. Previous to Allen, scholars have suggested Ralph Neville as patron, but Allen points instead to his wife, Joan Neville, neé Beaufort, illegitimate (made legitimate) daughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. An identification of Joan as patron would make the references to the adultery of Guinevere’s mother much more poignant, and it is with her mother, rather than with either of her husbands, that Joan chooses to be buried.  Joan, Countess of Westmorland, was a powerful and wealthy woman, not to mention fertile, with 16 children in total, 14 by her second husband Ralph Neville, 10 of which survived into adulthood. Her children alone, her sons through dukedoms and her daughters through marriages, created a wide reaching network throughout England, from Norfolk, to Durham, to Salisbury, to Kent, Buckingham, and York. One of her daughters, Lady Cecily Neville, becomes wife to Richard 3rd Duke of York and mothers two Kings of England. Joan Beaufort therefore has, as the ghost of Awntyrs declares: “kinges in my kyn knowen for kene” (l. 139). Most significantly perhaps is the status of her youngest daughter, Joan, or ‘Jane’ Neville, who just so happened to be a nun at a London religious house.

There is no evidence of either of these women ever knowing of The Awntyrs off Arthure, but it is through such familial networks, intersecting between lay and religious communities, that texts came to be transmitted, and it is just one of the ways I am imagining the Awntyrs and similar texts, all of which survive so poorly, could have been circulating; being shared and read by women.

“Hit Waried Hit Wayment as a Woman”

Missing Manuscripts and the Ghosts of the Women Who Read Them

Below is a shortened version of the paper I delivered at MEMS Summer Festival on Saturday 18th June 2016. In Part 1 I consider literary evidence to argue for the female audience for The Awntyrs off Arthure, the fifteenth-century Arthurian romance that forms the core of my doctoral research. Part 2 focuses on how this text could have come to exist in female textual communities .

I want to argue that The Awntyrs off Arthure would have been read by women. The text’s reception amongst female audiences has not been previously considered beyond an acknowledgement that household miscellanies were often read within a domestic context – where women also lived. As one of the many ‘Gawain romances’ the text has been conceptualised as having a predominantly male audience; the great deeds of Sir Gawain acting as an example of chivalric behaviour to the knights and gentleman reading the texts. The text was copied by men, and certainly the only names to appear in the books before the late sixteenth century are the names of men: Thomas Patsall, John Patsall, Richard Thornton, William Thornton, Thomas Yrlonde. But these men, of course, did not exist separately from women.

 I believe that this text also could have appealed to a female audience, and that they may have in fact been the primary imagined audience for the poem. More than half of its lines are taken up by the conversation of two women; mother and daughter, queen and corpse, in a longer and more complex presentation of female character than any other surviving Middle English Arthurian romance of the same period – quite a bold claim, but one I’m going to stick to.

The Awntyrs off Arthure (hereafter Awntyrs) is a poem of 728 lines, in rhyming 13-line alliterative stanzas, presenting two episodes, or ‘adventures’. The first begins with a hunt, where Queen Guinevere, accompanied by Sir Gawain, is separated from the rest of the royal hunting party in Inglewood forest.

With the changing of the weather, the eclipse of the sun, hail and rain, there appears a figure out of a lake:

There come a lowe one the loughe in londe is not to layne

In the lyknes of Lucyfere laytheste in Helle

And glides to Sir Gawayn the gates to gayne

Yauland and yomerand with many loude yelle

Hit yaules hit yameres with waymynges wete

And seid with siking sare

“I ban the body me bare

Alas! Now kindeles my care

I gloppen and I grete”

Awntyrs ll. 83-91

(There comes a lowly one out of the lake – the earth does not lie/In the likeness of Lucifer, most hideous in Hell/And glides to Sir Gawain who blocks the path/It howls and wails with many a loud yell/And says with a soul-sickening sigh/“I curse the body that bore me/Alas! Now my child is my grief/I despair and I weep”)*

This figure is the animated corpse of Guinevere’s mother. The description of her takes place over seven stanzas (just over 90 lines) and begins first with the wailing of the ghost. The ghost, not yet identified in the narrative as Guinevere’s mother, is described using particularly gendered vocabulary: it “yaules” (howls) it “yameres” (wails), with “waymynges wete” (weeping tears). There are also numerous references to motherhood as the ghost curses her mother; “I ban the body me bare”, and despairs for her own child; “now kindeles my care” (now my child is my grief), “I gloppen and I grete” (I despair and I weep).  The despair of the ghost is then, through the verbal linking of the poem, connected to and mirrored by the character of Guinevere, who also despairs and weeps, the opening line of the next stanza reading “Then gloppenet and grete Gaynour the gay” (l. 92). The womens’ weeping is thus woven into the poetic structure of the text.

The description of the “grisly goost” (l. 111) continues, with more wailing, weeping, and mad murmuring, described in the following lines (perhaps the best lines of any alliterative poem ever):

Bare was the body and blak to the bone

Al biclagged in clay uncomly cladde

Hit waried hit wayment as a woman

But on hide ne on huwe no heling hit hadde

Hit stemered hit stonayde hit stode as a stone

Hit marred hit memered hit mused for madde


On the chef of the cholle

A pade pikes on the polle

With eighen holked ful holle

That gloed as the gledes

ll. 105-110, 114-117

(Bare was the body and black to the bone/All clotted with clods, un-comely clothed/It cursed, it bewailed, like a woman/But no skin, no form, no covering it had./It stammered, it stood stunned as a stone,/It muttered, it mumbled, it murmured for madness.[…]On the top of the neck/A toad bites into the skull/With eyes sunken and hollow/That glow as the coals.)

'A disputacion betwyx þe body and wormes’ British Library, MS Additional 37049, c.1460-1500, folio 32v

‘A disputacion betwyx þe body and wormes’
British Library, MS Additional 37049, c.1460-1500, folio 32v

The ghost then continues to be characterised by language specifically related to motherhood. Not only does she make comparison of herself in life to the rose and to the lily, the flowers typically associated with the Virgin Mary, but she also evokes the grief of a mother who has, through death, lost her child:

Now am I caught oute of kide to cares so colde

Into care am I caught and couched in clay

Lo sir curtays kniyght

How delfulle deth has me dight

Lete me onys have a sight

Of Gaynour the gay

ll. 151-156

(Now am I trapped in grief of death for my child, so cruelly/Into grief am I trapped and covered in clay./Oh, Sir, courteous knight,/How dreadful death has injured me!/Let me only have a sight/Of Guinevere the gay.)

In this passage the ghost implores Sir Gawain, who is blocking her path from the Queen, to only have a sight of her beautiful daughter “Gaynour the gay”. The narrative thus creates a depiction of the ghost which is both frightening and pitiful, the sorrow of her suffering in death, separated from her child, is amplified by the grotesque blackened corpse plagued by toads and serpents. Guinevere is as beautiful and young as her mother is rotting and dead. The text is participating in the pervasive memento mori tradition of the late-medieval period, the dead queen acting as a mirror for the young beautiful one. In this, it has links to the legend of The Three Living and the Three Dead, the poetic version of which shares Awntyrs’ unusual verse form. But Awntyrs is doing much more than this; the function of the ghost goes beyond the warnings of Guinevere’s mortal fate. Both Guinevere and her mother have been developed into multifaceted female characters.

Awntyrs is principally derived from two texts, the first, The Trental of St Gregory, has the ghost of St Gregory the Great’s mother visiting her son to ask for prayers to ease her suffering, as a reminder to remember the dead. The author of Awntyrs adapts this parent-child relationship, presenting a more intimate mother-daughter relationship, emphasised further by the ghost’s first uttered words, cursing her own mother and despairing for her child, linking the three generations of women together, living and dead.

The ghost’s function is not, however, simply to remind her daughter to pray for her, but is also to impart advice. The ghost offers spiritual and practical guidance to the Queen, teaching her meekness, mercy, pity for the poor, charity, chasteness, and the worth of these values, not just to Queen Guinevere, but to the salvation of all King Arthur’s kingdom. As Paul Lee states in his study of Nunneries, Learning and Spirituality in Late Medieval English Society; ‘Women had an important role in the sanctification of the domestic sphere, in noble and gentry households, where they were responsible for the religious education of the children and the servants’ (Lee, 2001, p.141). The text extends this into the Arthurian world, the Queen being responsible for her royal household, as well as for all of her subjects, acting as an example to all. This example is being set for the reader too, the words of the ghost giving them advice on how they can also lead a good spiritual life. Through this presentation of the two female characters, the poem is acting as an exemplum text, surviving as it does in household manuscripts and subscribing to the same conventions of both devotional and conduct literature known to have been read by women, such as ‘How a Good Wife Taught her Daughter’, which also appears in several gentry household manuscripts.

The author also expands upon the poem’s other principal source text, the alliterative Morte Arthure, in which Guinevere is just a minor character, only mentioned for her adulterous relationship with the usurper Mordred which takes place while the King is on campaign in France. The poet of Awntyrs likely expected his audience to be familiar with the earlier poem, and sets the Awntyrs at the beginning of Arthurs’s reign, before his conquests in Europe, rather than at the end. As a kind of ‘prequel’ to the alliterative Morte, the Awntyrs also focuses on female sexual behaviour, and develops this theme further, it is Guinevere’s mother who is the adulteress, warning her to “be war of my wo” (l.195) for she did “brake a solemn vow” (l.205), that is the marriage vow, her sins being “love paramour, listes and delites” (l.213). Functioning as a mirror for Queen Guinevere, her mother represents both her past and her future to come, the future that has been prophesied – the future that the readers have already read. The ghost’s role is also developed further as it is she who delivers the prophecy of King Arthur’s death and the downfall of the entire Arthurian court to Queen Guinevere, whereas this prophecy in the alliterative Morte is shown to King Arthur in a dream by Lady Fortune. The ghost in Awntyrs reveals the usurper to be just a child in the King’s court, “The barne playes at the balle/That outray shalle you alle” (The child that plays with the ball shall be the one to destroy you all; ll. 310-11). By representing the usurper as just a child, the role of mother is once again being evoked, as is the implication that Guinevere has agency to alter events by following a more spiritual life.

These women thus serve as examples to their readers, those who would benefit most from this example being women. They are also given agency: Guinevere is given equal role in governing Arthur’s court, enacted in the second half of the poem, when Guinevere asks mercy of the King to save the lives of the two fighting knights. The poem then ends with Guinevere writing into the west “wisely” (l. 703), that is with learning and spiritual insight, having remembered her mother’s lessons, she requests songs and prayers and “a mylion masses” (l. 706) for the Arthurian court.

The poem thus dedicates over half of its length to the ghostly interaction of Guinevere and her mother, as Gawain, the supposed main character, stands silently in the background. As soon as the ghost appears, the episode is no longer an adventure of Gawain, but of Guinevere. In the second episode too, although it is a fight between Gawain and an unknown knight, neither is the champion (unconventional for ‘Gawain romances’ where Gawain usually comes out on top). The knights are equally matched and in the midst of killing one another when Guinevere steps in, leading to them both according and forgiving each other’s wrongdoings. She is the unspoken heroine of this poem and as such, it makes sense to me that this text would have been written for an intentional female audience, and it is likely too that it was read by women, for its devotional instruction as much as for its entertainment. However, as no material evidence survives for the female readers of Awntyrs they become just ghosts to researchers, and they certainly haunt me.

*All translations are my own and are far from perfect. I’m no Simon Armitage.
Read Part 2 of Missing Manuscripts and the Ghosts of the Women Who Read Them

Making Connections…

Congress Convert

Part 2: #NCS16

After a brief rainy repose in the Lancashire Pennines, staying with family and recuperating from the IMC, I travelled back to London for Congress #2, The 20th Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society, (hereafter NCS) held at Queen Mary University of London 11th-15th July.

This was four days of papers presented by some of the most established scholars in the field of late-medieval literary studies. I came away with a full notebook and many significant things to think about.

One of the words that best defines the NCS for me is nexus. The congress was the coming together of late-medieval English literature scholars, a series of papers connected together through ‘threads’, and a perfect opportunity for professional networking, but aside from all of this, there was a definite focus on the networks of Chaucer and his contemporaries and on the relationship of readers to their texts.

The theorising on these networks began in the plenary session: Did Shakespeare Live in Chaucer’s London?  with Paul Strohm, Helen Barr, Farah Karim-Cooper, Bruce Holsinger, and Gordon McMullan each considering the two “Fathers of English Literature”, their relationship with one another, as well as their relation to the City of London. Some of the most meaningful questions to arise from this session revolved around how far a writer can define place, as well as what influence the city can have on an authors’ writing: what shared experiences can it offer to two authors separated by time, but inhabiting the same environment? Is there a collapsing of time within the writings of these two London authors? And can a city really belong to a single author, when so many writers were simultaneously inhabiting and creating within London, both Chaucer and Shakespeare being part of their own social group who were responsible for inspiring and sharing their writing?  Should the question instead then, be about London’s Chaucer, rather than Chaucer’s London?

Bruce Holsinger provided an eloquent response to this problem, stating that we should view London not as a palimpsest, as so many have done, as a place written over anew by each author, but we should instead view is as a miscellany, as these texts and their authors being in conversation with one another by the accident of their physical proximity, occupying the same space, but removed from their original context. This codicological analogy interrupts the narrative which is written by the canon, of one great author inheriting the London of the other great author who preceded him. It instead presents the idea that this is a narrative we have invented through our want to see a miscellany as anything other than miscellaneous. The obsession with the author is our own.  Quite a bold statement for the opening session of a conference named for an author and his legacy. But as the following sessions of the week proved, Chaucer, though pervasive, did not dominate, there were as many – if not more – papers presented on not-Chaucer, representing the diverse literary culture of the period. This was exciting for me, an advocate for the anonymous text, for the authorless, and for a non-hierarchical understanding of culture.

The nexus theme was continued in the first panel I attended; Networks in Late-Medieval Manuscripts, organised by Michael Madrinkian. This included Tony Edwards presenting on non-networks, suggesting that ‘reading communities’ could be less about common readership and more to do with like circumstances and regional patterns of transmission dictated by factors other than taste. This worked well in dialogue with Michael Johnston’s paper on provincial scribal networks, which focussed on trying to provide a narrative of literary culture for the areas outside of London, principally through looking at the scribes copying documents and also literary texts within provincial locales. Johnston’s paper was then contrasted by the final paper of the session presented by Simon Horobin. Horobin presented a convincing case for the potential circulation of Troilus and Criseyde during Chaucer’s own lifetime outside of the courtly context, in copies which have either not survived or are fragmentary, concluding that a lack of surviving evidence does not constitute evidence that there were a lack of copies, thereby challenging the accepted narrative that Chaucer’s audience was restricted to the court during his own life and opening up the audience to a wider urban context. This panel was of incredible use and interest to my own research, the networks of a fragmentary textual transmission being central to my thesis. It also raised an important methodological question: when pursuing literary networks, how does the missing corpus disrupt the network ‘narrative’, and how do we overcome it? A problem I am still trying to work out as I continue researching the transmission of the fragmentary Awntyrs and its literary networks.

It is in this session that I asked my first question of the congress, to three scholars whose work greatly underpin my research (particularly Johnston, whose Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England (2014) presents an argument for several of the manuscripts containing The Awntyrs off Arthure as belonging to a gentry literary culture, of forming part of a ‘gentry ideology’ in the later Middle Ages, and whose work on this matter I hope to contribute to in my thesis). The confidence gained from presenting at Leeds, and from engaging in discussion there, carried over to the NCS. Asking a question to a room filled with half my bibliography would have been much too daunting a prospect a year ago, but on this occasion I had the confidence to assert my opinion, showing just how much I’ve gained from the past few months and, in particular, from the conference experience.

Another excellent panel on manuscript studies which succeeded in challenging the way I now think was the session How They Thought Then, organised by Katherine Zieman and Sarah Noonan. In particular Daniel Wakelin’s paper ‘Reading Boring Manuscripts’ forced me to reassess some of the assumptions I have made about the books I study. After teasing us with images of luxurious manuscripts, of books with fun marginalia, tears, and intriguing details, he then proceeded to show us the sheer quantity of plain pages, the pages which never get digitised or tweeted because we value the rare, the strange, and the beautiful over the blank. Wakelin then questioned the interpretations of these blank books as being unused, as having not engaged their readers, and argues instead for a consideration of these books as aesthetically pleasing in their own right, or as perhaps as having signified a different type of reader engagement, an intense, absorbing type of reading, or continuous reading, which may not incite the same types of marginal engagement as other types of text. This has forced me to problematize my own readings of some of the copies of Awntyrs and its related texts, which appear frequently in very boring manuscripts. I have taken these to represent books not intended for consumption, but as Wakelin observed, the very blankness of the page could signify a type of conscious consumption; the blank indicating excess space and thus excess wealth. Likewise, it was questioned whether this layout could be to aid performative reading, where marginal annotations would distract the performer, who similarly may not be reading with pen in hand. Wakelin successfully reminded us of the dangers of imposing our own conceptions of aesthetics and taste onto a medieval reader, and likewise the danger of assuming that they did not read like us; we can sit and lose ourselves in a novel, why could it not be possible for the medieval reader to engage in a similar practice of reading?

Proving Daniel Wakelin’s point. The only slide tweeted from his paper is that featuring fun marginalia.

Manuscript studies were a prominent feature of NCS this year, with numerous papers discussing the material form and function of the book. Many of these were contemplating the miscellany, on how to interpret this, the most uncategorisable of books, something scholars have been trying to do for years. In the panel Queer Manuscripts: The Textuality of Error, Kathleen Kennedy applied Queer Theory to the miscellany, calling for us to stop over-categorising, to stop trying to define the book on our terms, and to simply accept and delight in the miscellany; “allowing it to just be miscellaneous”, bringing us back full circle to the codicological analogy proffered by Bruce Holsinger in the opening session.

This recognition of the literary past and the books that have transmitted it as a diverse, jumbled, collection of multiplicitous histories is significant; it allows us to discard the singular narrative of culture that the canon has built. Culture is not linear, nor ordered, it is amorphous, as complex as the people that engage in it. Furthermore, medieval literary culture remains fragmentary. By viewing books as a nexus, a literal binding together of texts, but also as the connection between the people that read them, we may be able to reveal some of the  text’s meaning to its readers. By considering the social and historical networks of these texts, we can begin to interpret that which is missing. Although I suspect this will never deliver us a fully satisfying narrative, thinking about literary culture in this way may allow us to represent it without having to impose our own rules, we would be able to  delight in the miscellany of the past.


Congress Convert…

Part 1: #IMC2016

On the first Sunday of July I made the pilgrimage that all medievalists must at some time make, journeying North to Leeds and to the International Medieval Congress (otherwise known as the IMC). The congress, this year a gathering of an astonishing 2,205 medievalists from 49 countries, was the first big conference I have attended since beginning the PhD. It was both exciting and exhausting.

I presented a paper as part of a strand of three panels titled ‘Guiding the Mind of the Beholder’, with all nine speakers focussing on the materiality of texts as determinant of their meaning and use. My session, #S309, was the last of the strand, taking place on the Monday afternoon slot in a very warm room, which I was very happy/nervous to see full of people. It is by far the most fun I have had giving a paper. I received lots of insightful and helpful questions, and was able to situate my paper against the other 8 speakers of the strand, resulting in interesting conversations and intersecting ideas. Not only this, but I got to meet people working in my specific field from all over Europe, with members of the panels coming from Germany, Austria, Italy, and France, as well as the UK. To be immersed in a room with people speaking different languages across one another, united by their interest in codicology, was something rather special and was the perfect antidote to my post-Brexit blues.

I was grateful for the scheduling of my paper on the first day of the congress as this gave me very little time to worry over my paper (written in classic me-style; last minute in the early AMs) and meant I could enjoy the rest of the week completely relaxed, able to soak up all the congress had to offer (which is an awful lot).

I have posted a version of my paper here for all those interested in reading it.

IMC Highlights

The sheer scale of it all. Seamless in its organisation, with so many people on hand to help, there are so many fascinating sessions that you can’t possibly attend them all. This is, however, all part of the fun. One of my favourite panels, #S525: ‘Women Who Hunt: Ecocriticism, Gender Theory, Posthumanism’, I attended out of pure interest, rather than relevancy – IMC gives you the time and space to explore peripheral topics, which are often the most enjoyable, and it is one of the best things about having a conference span four days.

The political engagement. Far from being stuck in the medieval past there was a distinct buzz in the air of medievalists discussing the latest political shit-storm that is Brexit. I overheard and engaged in numerous conversations that showed the strength of feeling of the academic community against the recent political disasters of the UK and the determination to overcome the negative consequences it will no doubt cause to the europeanness of things like the IMC. The #femfog discussion that took place further showed the power of the community voice, with #femfog trending by Wednesday lunchtime. This, along with the sessions I attended at both IMC and the New Chaucer Society Congress organised by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS), has encouraged me to more closely align my Feminism with my identity as a researcher, the papers given in these sessions demonstrating that the two can be brilliantly brought together to the benefit of scholarship.

The atmosphere. I suspect I am not alone in disliking ‘networking’ – the term as much as the action. It is often forced, awkward, and the very prospect of having to do it makes me uncomfortable. Yet, at IMC it felt much more natural; the atmosphere was unlike that of any other academic event I have so far attended, with the overwhelming majority being open to talking to complete strangers. The wine receptions certainly help with this, as does, of course, the infamous IMC ‘disco’. But more, I think it is the open spaces, the sunshine, and the people who were all there for the same reason, that is, to enjoy research.

On my first day, before my fellow UKC PhD and partner-in-wine SK arrived, I wandered the campus alone feeling slightly overwhelmed, observing the many people embracing and animatedly chatting with friends and colleagues they had not seen since the previous years’ congress. By the end of the Thursday, as I sat on my train, slightly hungover and struggling to stay awake, I could completely understand why people make the trip year after year. I was a congress convert. And I imagined that next year, when I returned, there would be several people who I would greet with equal enthusiasm, having not seen them since the last IMC…perhaps there will be a slightly overwhelmed PhD student observing us who I can smile at, walk over to and strike up a conversation with.

Festival Season…

In the first of a serious of posts on what have been an exciting and formative few weeks for me as a PhD researcher I will begin, perhaps sensibly, at the beginning, which is with the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Summer Festival.

Not so well known and with much less mud than Glastonbury, the MEMS Summer Festival was great fun to be a part of and, believe it or not, was witness to much of the same community spirit…

MEMS Summer Festival was an entirely student-led event held at the University of Kent 17th-18th June. This was the second year of the event, organised to celebrate all research in medieval and early modern studies. I spent the last six months organising it, along with my four remarkable co-conspirators,  and gained so much experience along the way; experience of applying for funding, holding meetings, handling a budget, and perhaps most importantly, handling people. Although it’s clear I was never meant to go into event management, I learnt a lot about my own flaws – such as having control issues, or difficulties with prioritising, and I learnt to let go just a little bit, to handle my own expectations. I also gained confidence in talking to and taking charge of people when needed, learning that you can do these things without being ‘bossy’ – a term all women hate and something I certainly never want to come across as, but have nevertheless been described as at various stages in my life.

As we got closer to the event the Festival demanded more and more time away from my PhD, but the work was worth it to see an idea materialise. The central idea behind the Festival was inclusivity; to create a space for those of any level of experience to present and discuss research as equals. We are very lucky at my home institution to be surrounded by supportive colleagues, we have a very tangible community of research, which I believe partly explains the high number of students which, having completed the Medieval and Early Modern Studies MA at Kent, continue onto the PhD programme. It is our intellectual home and we wanted to continue to develop this, expand it outwards, welcoming all who share our interests to join, to discuss, and to build a lasting network.

There were several things that were crucial to making this happen. Firstly, it had to be free. As much as we recognise and appreciate the importance of large conferences with big-name academics presenting their ground-breaking research, this often comes with large registration fees, unobtainable to many who are then excluded from the conference experience, unable to attend that which is not specific enough, or significant enough, to their field to warrant that £40 train ticket – let alone the registration. We wanted people to be able to come just because it was interesting, to give them an opportunity to meet other interested people. We made the decision therefore to forego both the cost and the implied superiority of the keynote, whose hour-long paper when compared to the twenty minute paper or perhaps poster of a postgrad is, quite literally, worth more. We wanted to treat the research being undertaken by MA students, PhDs, Early Career Researchers, and Senior Academics as all being of equal importance to the field. To enable this we sought outside funding, perhaps the most trying part of the organisation, but so worth it. We are incredibly grateful therefore to the Consortium of the Humanities and the Arts and to the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies for jointly funding the event, and to Eastern ARC for contributing a bursary fund. They made it possible to build this inclusive space and enabled a community to come together.

This community saw a converging of archives, with an exhibit from Special Collections and Rochester Cathedral Library, practical skills, with workshops on methodology and digital practice, discussions in the form of object-orientated roundtables, intellectual knowledge present in the many papers offered, and performances of both music and drama. This was all to a mixed audience of undergraduates, postgraduates, senior academics and members of the public.

The most obvious levelling of age, experience, and knowledge was revealed in the final session of the first day, our ‘Would I Lie to You?’ quiz, where a team of MA students were pitched against the indomitable senior staff in a game of whose facts are the most false. It was as members of the audience booed, cheered, and interrogated the presented absurd facts that I felt our aim of establishing a comfortable environment had truly been met. It also provided me with my one tweet of fame, being retweeted with enthusiasm by the official WILTY twitter account.

The first day was finished off with a wonderful tableau: Invicta Voices, a London chamber choir performing pre-1650 choral pieces to us from Canterbury Cathedral’s 12th century water tower, as all the delegates stood in the Cathedral’s garden, drinking wine at a reception hosted by the always welcoming Canon Librarian of the Cathedral, Chris Irvine.

The Festival was further shaped through an intentional move away from the traditional format of conferences (a trend gaining currency in many of the major conferences) as we believed that workshops, informal discussions, and performances can be as much of a site of intellectual exchange as the traditional twenty-minute paper. Each day began with parallel paper sessions, which ranged from topics as diverse as Gothic Art, Medical History, Late-Antique Literature, Gender, and Law. After just two paper sessions per day, the Festival’s afternoons then continued with methodological and practical workshops, my personal highlights being the Painted Elizabethan Cloth workshop with the captivating and talented artist Melissa White and the ‘Taste of Medieval Life’ workshop, with the “hopless and hopeless” ale brewed by beer-enthusiast Dr Phil Slavin, who described his own brew as “two pigs in a wash”. This was paired with PhD student Stuart Morrison’s medieval breads, which were hard, dense, and certainly in need of the ale to wash them down. (It must be said that Stuart’s baking skills are superb, and I therefore blame the recipe, not the baker). This tasting workshop, as informative as it was fun, demonstrated the kindness that underpinned the success of the festival; friends and colleagues volunteering time and effort to put together sessions based on their personal interests. This kindness could be seen throughout the Festival and is something that will stay with me, the generosity of new and old friends, which began with the staff who supported our endeavour and was epitomised by the MA student who stayed for 2 hours un-stapling and re-stapling misprinted programmes on the Festival’s eve with nothing more than a promise of a thank-you pint.

After two years running this event I am sad not to be able to take part in the organisation for 2017 (though I think both my thesis and supervisor will thank me for it), but I feel confident that this research culture will continue to develop and hopeful that it will remain as defined by the kindness, generosity of spirit, and unflagging fascination with all aspects of the premodern world that I have been lucky enough to experience.

Most of all I wish luck to the postgraduate students who will be taking over the event and know they will have a great time redefining the Festival for themselves – I can’t wait to attend.

Take a look at the MEMS Summer Festival tweets, storified in the slideshow below:

A Month of Madness…

I have just spent three whole days at home actually sleeping in my own bed, following a month of hotels, friends’ spare rooms, sleeping in tents and even occasionally on trains. This month has been a nonstop whirlwind of firsts and a wealth of experience that I am still attempting to digest.

I decided when my second year began that I would seek as many opportunities as possible, I would get involved, I would say yes. I didn’t have the forsight to see that most of these things I was saying yes to would happen all at once.

In the last month I have seen the website for the new postgraduate journal Brief Encounters go live in my role as editor and web officer, I have organised one conference, spoken at two, and attended four. I somehow also managed to squeeze a nice relaxing trudge through the Glastonbury mud in there at some point.  (See me mid-June drinking wine out of a bag and singing in the rain to ELO…)

This say yes plan was principally to allow me to become a recluse in my drawing-ever-closer final PhD year, to allow me to build the CV and alleviate the anxieties of never gettting a job, as an academic or as anything else. But for all its busyness, this  month has been one of my best yet.

As a direct result of this busy period I haven’t had much time for writing, but several of the posts that follow will reflect on my experiences of the past month and on what they have meant for me as a PhD student just over the midway point (431 days remaining to be painfully precise).

Some may appear almost gushing in the praise of events and the people behind them, but over the last few weeks I have been genuinely overwhelmed by the researchers with whom I have been rubbing shoulders, and so offer no apologies, only admiration and an intensified ambition to become one of those elusive academics.

Links below:

cropped-royal19ci-f204v-dancingFestival Season…

The MEMS Summer Festival was great fun to be a part of and was witness to much of the same community spirit…


Congress Convert…

Part 1: #IMC2016

On the first Sunday of July I made the pilgrimage that all medievalists must at some time make…

Making Connections…

Part 2: #NCS16

Nexus is the defining word of my experience of NCS 2016. The congress was the coming together of…

An Artful Wander…

Canterbury Cathedral is a striking feature of the city’s skyline, one which I never get tired of seeing. I have been resident of Canterbury for some six years and have visited Canterbury Cathedral on countless occasions; as an expectant student exploring my new home town, as an unofficial tour guide for friends and family, and as a graduating student twice over. But it is different with each visit, altered by the time of day, the light, the point of view.  It is inexhaustible.

Our last Material Witness session Material Process: Constructing Holy Space  offered another new experience of the Cathedral as we climbed up the scaffolding of the Great South Window to see the current conservation. This window, the widest of the Cathedral, was originally built in the 1420s in Perpendicular Gothic and contains medieval stained glass from as early as the 12th century. This session made me appreciate the transformative nature of the building and its materials. The window is tilted, its materials having failed and been repaired over many years. The current project involves rebuilding the whole window, using materials and processes which replicate those of the fifteenth century. The stonemasons still carving the stone by hand, the stone still being quarried from northern France, connecting this reconstruction to the original window’s building processes and to the people who made it. This construction represents the Cathedral’s continued use as a place of worship, from its original foundation in the 6th century, to the modern day, the Cathedral is a living, changing, space, and so no two visits can be the same.

I was more than happy then, to be offered another new experience of the Cathedral as part of the bi-annual CHASE Encounters conference which took place on Friday 6th May. On an early summer’s evening on Thursday 6th May we were invited into the locked Cathedral by Canon Librarian, the Revd Christopher Irvine, who led us, key in hand, on ‘An Artful Wander’ of the Cathedral’s contemporary sculpture.

This included the remarkable altar by artist Stephen Cox (2005), carved from Aosta marble and commissioned by the people of Aosta, Italy for the St Anselm chapel of Canterbury Cathedral. The altar reflects the environment from which it was created, the valleys and mountains replicated in the stone. This piece also connects modern day worship with the medieval Saint Anselm and the construction of holy space, as it is Anselm who, born in Aosta in c.1033, expanded the Cathedral’s choir during his time as Archbishop, 1093-1109, effectively doubling the building’s length.

The piece that I found most astonishing however, was Antony Gormley’s ‘Transport’ (2010). Made from the discarded iron nails taken from the rotted medieval  timbers of St Anselm’s 12th century  building, Gormley’s sculpture is suspended from the roof of the Cathedral’s Undercroft, from above the site of St Thomas Becket’s first tomb, on display to pilgrims in the Cathedral’s crypt until 1220 when it was moved to the newly built Trinity Chapel. This sculpture embodies the transportation of Becket’s bones and is an evocative reminder of the transmutable, temporary state of the body, and the transport of the soul from life into death. The sculpture itself slowly moves, as air and light also moves through it. Its re-use of material connects the building to the body in a way which is both provocative of the historical use of the space, and that of the modern Cathedral.

This post originally appeared as a blog post for Material Witness, an interdisciplinary doctoral training programme for the interrogation of physical objects, spaces and environments by humanities researchers. You can view the original article here.

A Tear in the Page…

How did medieval people read texts? How did they use them? And why do so few survive? These are the central questions I am attempting to answer through my study of the material details of four fifteenth-century manuscripts containing the alliterative Middle English romance, The Awntyrs off Arthure.

For me, one of the most meaningful realizations of late-medieval reading practice is this detail from the Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91, also known as the Thornton manuscript for its compiler and owner, Robert Thornton, a gentleman from Yorkshire who produced two large miscellanies to be read and used by his family. This folio is the opening of The Awntyrs off Arthure text. It is dirty, worn, and most importantly, has been torn across, halfway down the page. This tear has then, at some point, been lovingly sewn back together – highly unusual for a manuscript written on paper. This tear and subsequent repair, as well as the significant colouring to the folio, is suggestive of the poem having been read over and over by Thornton’s family, especially when compared to the relatively pristine condition of some of the books’ other texts.

The thread from this repair has been removed as the manuscript has undergone several stages of conservation, the pages are now mounted on modern paper leaves. We cannot be sure therefore that the original repair was done by the Thornton family in the fifteenth or early sixteenth century. But the holes still remain and the damage suffered by this text exemplifies how easily so many copies of it came to be lost. Other copies of the text were not so lucky; the leaves often missing their torn halves, and in fact other texts within Lincoln MS 91 were not similarly saved.

The manuscript’s construction further demonstrates that this text was valuable to Thornton, it is written onto a new page in a single column, with a larger and more decorative initial than any other text of the manuscript (compare it to the similarly beautifully decorated, but much smaller, opening of the fourteenth-century romance Sir Ysambrace ).

Opening decorated initial of 'Sir Ysambrace'

Opening decorated initial of ‘Sir Ysambrace’

This interpretation of the material can therefore give us an alternative perspective of literary consumption that bases itself not only on the survival of texts, but also on the lack thereof. The fact so few romances survive from this period is not necessarily indicative of an unpopular status, but rather, these texts were so popular they were read until they literally fell to pieces, with the poems’ other readers perhaps not  quite as dutiful as the Thorntons of Yorkshire.


Why the Immaterial Matters…

a book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements, clumsy hands. If for a hundred and a hundred years everyone had been able freely to handle our codices, the majority of them would no longer exist.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

I returned to The Name of the Rose after hearing the sad news of Umberto Eco’s passing. For me, Eco captured in his novel our love of books and the intrigue of a mystery to be solved, of the “lost” historical text set within in a labyrinth of a medieval monastic library. His portrayal of particularly unwelcoming and hostile librarians may or may not (depending on your experience) be a work of fiction, but the novel’s suggestion of a great library now lost is unfortunately an accurate one, and it made me miserable for the many books and texts now lost to us.

The majority of medieval codices, along with the libraries that once housed them, are indeed now gone.The survival rate of medieval English texts has been estimated to be at around 2 to 5 per cent [Bale 2014, 131]. These numbers, derived largely from the examination of pre-reformation library catalogues, are problematic, for how can we accurately calculate that which is missing? But they nevertheless allow us to contemplate the potential scale of books lost to us as modern researchers, and the reasons for why this may be the case.

Certainly, many books were lost in the reformation, but this would not have had such an effect on romances, which were largely uncontroversial to over-zealous reformists. It is more likely that the Middle English romances were lost as a result of the ‘wears of time’, or ‘clumsy hands’, as Eco suggests. Middle English poems were frequently produced in small, individual booklets made of paper – less durable than the more expensive parchment – and so were far more exposed to damage, particularly if left unbound, or handled with too much enthusiasm by readers.

Or perhaps these texts were just not considered worth keeping. The Percy Folio (British Library MS Additional 27879) was supposedly first discovered being used by housemaids to kindle a fire. This manuscript is witness to several unique copies of Arthurian romance in Middle English, and without Percy’s intervention, they would have gone up in smoke and resulted in a entirely different conception of popular Arthurian romance in late-medieval England.

It is not just the missing books that we have to consider, but also the missing pages within surviving ones. The integrity of a book which is lacking half its pages presents a particular problem when attempting to reconstruct the function and meaning of a text; the text is given meaning not only by its materiality (its production materials, presentation, format, illustrations etc.), but by its textual situation; by the other texts it is presented with and read against. Likewise, in a wider sense, books can only be read against other books. If we are to get a sense of the literary culture of any given period, that which is missing has to be of equal importance to that which survives.

The low rate of survival for medieval books affects the value of those that have survived the test of time. Medieval manuscripts are valuable because of their historicity, but also because of their rarity. For example, we may deem a text particularly important because only one copy of it survives, when this copy may in fact be a representative of a widely transmitted and much read text. This text may have survived poorly because its contemporary readers either didn’t care much to keep it, or the very opposite; they enjoyed it so much, and with such voracity, that the text did not survive its readers. To the contrary, a text may survive in huge numbers precisely because nobody read it, but simply were expected to own it, like the copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace that sits on my shelf and gathers dust.

So how can we reconstruct a textual history with any accuracy if most of the texts are missing?

My research is very much twisted up in this problem, of representing that which is missing from the historical record. The material details of the manuscripts which do survive often provide the answers, even if they are only partial ones. Study of fragmented texts, damaged codices, and how they compare to similar, more complete books, can tell us about how such things were read, and used, and potentially how such books came to be lost.

The four surviving manuscripts of The Awntyrs off Arthure for example, reveal that three of them were produced as paper (rather than parchment) booklets. Two of these copies are scribal exemplars, meaning they were intended to be the copy-text for reproducing the poem. These have therefore not been read as actively as they may have been had they been copies owned and consistently read by a family, as is the case with the Thornton Awntyrs of the Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91 (c.1430-50). This has evidence of significant wear and (quite literally) tear, with sections of the text missing. The only reason for its survival is perhaps its position in the very middle of Robert Thornton’s very large book, made up of 340 folios and 65 texts. Had the text circulated and remained as booklets, as I’m almost certain was the case, there is very little chance of these having survived.

Immateriality matters because of how this informs our reading of the material which does survive and vice-versa. How texts were used is important for thinking about what they meant in any given literary culture, and, as my research continues, I hope to be able to demonstrate that the survival of Awntyrs presents a window into a much more extensive literary culture, of texts being produced for active consumption by eager audiences of Arthurian romance, of a literary culture not necessarily represented by the vestigial manuscript record, but which can be reconstructed through a close examination of the texts and codices which remain.

This has been adapted from a blog post originally written for Material Witness, an interdisciplinary doctoral training programme for the interrogation of physical objects, spaces and environments by humanities researchers. You can view the original post here.

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