Category Archives: Travels
Year First Visited Clipstone
- “…monarchy could take advantage of the proximity of the great game reserves created in the royal forests such as Sherwood…The forest was a legal definition, associated with Forest Law. Perhaps one third of England was under this law during the twelfth century. The law was intended to protect the beasts of the chase and to encourage their welfare so that they would thrive and enable the kings to have vast stocks to hunt.” (9)
- “The presence of Sherwood Forest was a key reason for the monarchy’s interest in Clipstone. Forest Law was introduced by the Normans to a land that was not used to such restrictions. Although there was a concept of the ownership of woodlands and the animals within them during the Saxon period, if those animals strayed into another man’s wood he was free to hunt them. Deer were not the preserve of the monarchy alone. The Norman idea of a forest set aside for the enjoyment of the king alone comes from the laws of Charlemagne and northern France.” (24-5)
- “Forests were such a symbol of royal power and authority that Henry II reneged upon his wartime promise to reform the Forest Law…The law therefore became a stringent political tool and a survey of the forests in 1175 was carried out in person by the king…it was partly the tension caused by the extents of the forests that contributed to the outbreak of civil war between John and his barons…Magna Carta attempted to redress the balance but had no great effect…The Charter of the Forest in 1217 agreed to the removal of all land added to the forest by Henry II…but it was not until Henry III came of age that he ordered the enquiry of 1227 which fixed the extent of Sherwood so that the east of Nottinghamshire ceased to be forest.” (25)
- “The penalties that could be imposed upon the local population at Clipstone for poaching the king’s deer, or even for cutting down the trees upon which the animals relied for their habitat, were severe….Although the 1217 Charter of the Forest removed the death penalty for poaching there were still a severe punishments [sic] for transgression…the Forest Law was so unpopular and controversial that even his [Henry II’s] own treasurer Richard Fitzneal wrote disapprovingly of it in the Dialogues de Scaccario: “The Forest has its own laws based, not on the common law of the realm, but on the arbitrary decision of the ruler; so that what is done in accordance with the law is not called ‘just’ without qualification but just according to forest law.” (27)
Exciting news! I have received the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation Fellowship to participate in the Sherwood Forest Archaeological Training Field School 2016. This program runs August 8th-12th. The Field School is organized by Mercian Archaeological Services CIC and is located at the ruins of King John’s Palace, Kings Clipstone, Sherwood Forest, in Nottinghamshire, England.
As the web site states, “This is not an ordinary field school – this is a ‘Training Field School’ where you will learn about all aspects of archaeological excavation and receive hands on training and learning from archaeological professionals in the heart of Sherwood Forest.”
The following, by way of an introduction to the project, is edited from my grant proposal…
The benefits of this project to myself, my students, my discipline, and my university fall into four categories: continuing education, pedagogy, community outreach, and future scholarship.
In addition to the archaeological training, the site describes:
“As part of the field school attendees will have the opportunity to learn all about Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood, outlaws, foresters, the landscape of Sherwood Forest in medieval times, the forest law, courts, offences and judiciary, the Palace at Clipstone, monasteries, chapels and hermitages, hunting parks, Nottingham Castle, Sheriffs and much much more about life in Medieval Sherwood Forest.”
These particular themes are essential aspects of my research and teaching. This experience will provide practical knowledge and a unique perspective to complement my previous academic study.
The list above of topics covered in the Field School are ones that often are included in my courses. For instance, Robin Hood is a unit in my medieval literature study abroad course (link to blog post on that: “English Studies Abroad: A Gest of Robyn Hode“), Henry II and Richard I are kings I frequently include in historical background discussions, religious buildings and castles are prevalent settings for texts, forest law is key to histories (particularly with respect to royal rights), and courts and law in general provide context for understanding the medieval world view. In addition, in my courses with medieval content, I teach several texts that fall into the genre of romance, a significant body of work of the time period. The forest and hunting are ubiquitous aspects of these texts, and it is important to provide historical context to students about these unfamiliar settings. As the Field School site states, Mercian Archaeological Services CIC has “interpreted the surrounding lordship [around King John’s Palace] as a ‘designed’ medieval romantic hunting landscape.” In essence, this is the exact setting of these romance texts, and taking photos and videos of this example of landscape will be helpful for many students who find it hard to imagine it. I intend to video interview the experts at the site in order to create a compilation that I can share with my students.
Given that I teach not only medieval literature, but also early world literature, the Bible as literature, and classical mythology, archaeological sites are recurring elements of my courses. Much of what we read in these courses was found in such sites or is continuing to be found. We study the site at Troy, the location of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, the burial site at Sutton Hoo, the recent discovery of Richard III’s skeleton, among many others. In some courses, I require my students to visit the Fitchburg Art Museum, which has ancient artifact collections. Indeed, my courses are some of the few at Fitchburg State that provide exposure to archaeology as a method of studying the past.
More recently, I have started beginning my courses (particularly general education courses) with “why are we studying this subject” units, which I have found effective in helping students to think about the value of their courses and curriculum, rather than simply defaulting to thinking they are required to take certain subjects. For example, I begin my World Literature I course with a unit that includes readings and discussion related to the idea of present and historical deliberate destruction and appropriation of cultural heritage. In particular, we study the destruction by ISIS of archaeological sites in the Middle East and the protection of library collections in warzones by private citizens, many of which have direct connections to the texts we read in the course. By foregrounding the class with such a unit, students begin to understand the value of what we are studying (i.e. if cultural heritage – including literature – is targeted for destruction and is key to preserve, then what we study is important), and I have seen a marked increase in investment.
However, as I have not previously participated in an archaeological dig, my understanding of the workings of these sites and how artifacts are discovered and preserved is theoretical, which makes deepening our study of and fielding questions about these subjects difficult. In the past, I have invited working archaeologists as guest presenters to provide students more context, but having my own experience to impart will be far more consistently beneficial.
Given my expertise in medieval topics and in Robin Hood in particular, I have been asked to present various times on the topic, including this one:
Participating in the Field School will provide a new dimension to such talks. I will especially volunteer to speak at local historical societies in addition to academic venues such as those above. I also am considering proposing a National Endowment for the Humanities summer program workshop on the topic of Robin Hood, which has the potential to bring scholars from around the country to Massachusetts and Fitchburg State.
Finally, in terms of my own personal research, I would like to pursue two separate approaches. The first article I would consider is the pedagogical benefits of such an experience, exploring the effect on teaching and learning early literature from being able to incorporate practical knowledge into courses. A separate article, also pedagogical, would be to consider incorporating archaeological field experience into study abroad courses. The second topic would be the applications of archaeological study to medieval literary studies, thinking about how the interaction with the physical affects our reading of the textual.
As a public scholar, I intend to write a series of day-by-day (pre-, during, and post-) blog posts on the academic, pedagogical, and personal aspects of the experience. I am co-founder of MassMedieval as well as The Lone Medievalist Project, so stay tuned for a blog series and photolog!
It appears my study abroad course is getting even more publicity! There is a mention here in this local newspaper, The Sentinel and Enterprise, article:
For anyone who has known me for any length of time, one fact quickly becomes apparent: I’m an avid Robin Hood fan. I have been for as long as I can remember. My first clear memory is watching Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, and my college dorm room was decorated with a poster of Flynn in his best heroic pose from the film – that poster now graces my dining room wall. I have an extensive collection of Robin Hood memorabilia that I’ve been amassing for over 20 years. All of this to say, I simply could not leave the outlaw off the syllabus in this course, even though we are not going to make it to Nottingham. This post only serves as a small snippet of an introduction to the character.
One of the first mentions of Robin Hood recorded is in William Langland’s fourteenth-century Piers Plowman. The site “Robin Hood: The Facts and the Fiction” contains a good online resource, as it pulls out from the Skeat version of the three parallel texts (A, B, and C) the passages related to the outlaw legend. The most significant is in Passus B.V in which the sin Sloth lists his shortcomings:
I can nouȝte perfitly my pater-noster as the prest it syngeth, But I can rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf erle of Chestre, Ac neither of owre lorde ne of owre lady the leste that euere was made. (B.V.401-3)
In a similar fashion as Saint Augustine who castigates his younger self at the beginning of the Confessions for loving to read the stories of Aeneas and Dido rather than to focus on God, Sloth here admits to knowing the stories of Robin Hood rather than any prayers or Christian stories. The implication is that the stories of Robin Hood are well-known popular tales at this time. In the guide to an exhibit at the Robbins Library in 2006-07, John Chandler writes, “Sloth’s familiarity with drinking songs about Robin Hood, but utter lack of knowledge of things spiritual, also reflects the concern of the Church for the souls of people who likely attended mass grudgingly, but could readily recite popular songs.” This echoes Augustine’s disgust with himself over the same issue. And, yet, we all know the popular stories continue to be “more fun.” As a side note, this particular line also plays a role in my interest in memory in Passus V of Piers Plowman. Directly afterwards Sloth talks about forgetting his responsibilities and what he owes to others, making forgetfulness a part of the sin he personifies. The Robin Hood line too speaks to memory in that he can remember what he wants to, just not what he “should.” Selective memory, we call it today.
It is this popularity that makes Robin Hood a frequent presence in early printed books. For the first part of the week (which was, again, interrupted by snow – I’m beginning to feel that Mother Nature has a grudge), we read selections from the TEAMS Robin Hood and Other Outlaws. In particular, we read the “Early Ballads and Tales,” which mostly originated in the fifteenth century. For whom were these tales written? In their introduction to the text, editors Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren state:
The audience has been a matter of speculation. Some have thought it was close to the discontented peasantry who were central to the 1381 revolt (Hilton, 1976); another view saw the ballads as a set of general complaints from the lower gentry (Holt, 1989). Neither party has accounted for the lack of agrarian and tenurial issues, apart from the unusual episode of the knight in the Gest. Another commentator has seen the dynamic of the ballads in the struggle for power in towns themselves and the forest as a fantasy land of freedom (Tardif, 1983). As a result of these debates there now seems general agreement that the audience was not single, that it represented the social mobility of the late Middle Ages, and the myth was diffused across a wide variety of social groupings who were alive to the dangers of increasingly central authority, whether over town, village, or forest (Coss, 1985).
The “general agreement” that these tales indicate the “social mobility of the late Middle Ages” and that they appeal to a “wide variety of social groupings” seems like an accurate and useful way to think about them.
The early ballads are quite different from the Robin Hood that has evolved down to us today. Yet, at the same time, we see familiar characters and characteristics. Robin’s home in the greenwood (wherever that greenwood may be – Sherwood Forest or ones nearby) is fairly constant. One of my favorite memories is visiting the Major Oak in Sherwood (photo below). It is an incredibly peaceful location, and it is easy enough to imagine Robin and his merry men living a life of unabashed freedom under its branches.
Also, his companion Little John is generally always nearby. The other familiar figures get added over time. Maid Marian, for instance, seems to be an addition when the tale is transformed into plays performed on May Day. Robin’s association with the spring is seen in the early ballads. In “Robin Hood and the Monk,” the tale begins, “Erly in a May mornyng” (l. 10). In “Robin Hood and the Potter,” the season is summer, yet no less descriptive of nature and its bounty:
In schomer, when the leves spryng,
The bloschoms on every bowe,
So merey doyt the berdys syng
Yn wodys merey now. (ll. 1-4)
It is no stretch to see how these stories, which laud the greenwood, the newness of leaves, and the singing of birds, became associated with the May Day celebrations. And it is no surprise that Robin needed a lady; thus, Marian was born.
The outlaw himself is not the noble gentleman who only thinks of the poor and the plight of the common man. He is the common man in the ballads, described as a yeoman, and we see him frequently not showing what we have come to know as his trademark chivalrous mercy to his opponents. Indeed, many of the texts end with the death of the opponent. For instance, in “Robin Hood and the Monk,” Little John unceremoniously hauls the monk who betrayed his friend to the ground and kills him as another man Much kills the page with him simply to keep him quiet:
John smote of the munkis hed,
No longer wolde he dwell;
So did Moch the litull page,
For ferd lest he wolde tell. (ll. 203-6)
It is a bloody scene with little in the way of any kind of mercy for those who oppose the outlaw or his men. Robin Hood’s famous nobility and chivalrous nature are later inventions, added and manipulated for the needs of his various audiences throughout the centuries.
For the second part of the week, we turned away from the late medieval origins of Robin Hood and looked instead at the evolution of the legend and its continued popularity. To that end, we read Stephen Knight’s article “Remembering Robin Hood.” Also, while it feels a bit odd to do so, I assigned my students to listen to/watch a lecture I gave a couple of years ago on this very subject, entitled “Robin Hood, the Once and Future Hero.” The lecture is here for those interested in it:
My point in this lecture is that there are many qualities the Robin Hood legends possess that have kept them alive and vibrant for centuries. One of the major qualities is that greenwood I mentioned earlier. While there are challenges in being exiled from society, “outside” of the “law,” there is also freedom in not having to answer to authority, in seeing those who are corrupt receive the justice they deserve (but might not receive if protected by society). Robin is often depicted, in whatever incarnation, as freely roaming the woods, doing what he wants when he wants to do it, making his own law and living his own code. This is appealing to a variety of people, not the least of which would be children who sometimes chafe against adult authority, which explains why the legend became such a popular children’s story:
[H]is popularity with children and the relatively powerless continued long after the popular vogue of the other medieval romance survivals faded…[H]is identification with unsophisticated readers, especially children, during his extraordinary extended vogue may well explain, even though there is no categorical evidence, his peculiar place in the company of children. (Brockman 68)
Or, as Joseph Falaky Nagy, writes:
The narrative tradition about Robin Hood, which throve in folklore and the popular literature of England from the medieval period to the nineteenth century, reflects the worldwide fascination with the figure of the outlaw, the man who exists beyond human society and has adventures which would be impossible for normal members of society in their normal social environments. (198)
Robin Hood is in a position, that space between civilized and uncivilized, doing what we only think about doing, that speaks to those who, for one reason or another, seek an escape from limitations.
In the Weekly Activity for Robin Hood, the students were asked to pick a film featuring the character (alas, with the exception of the animated Disney version, as it is an “easy” choice) in order to think about its representation of the outlaw, particularly considering how it stacks up against the original tales. There are many lists available of Robin Hood films; one, for example, is on IMDb, if you feel like a marathon (or you could just raid my DVD collection!). What, might you ask, is my favorite? The Adventures of Robin Hood will always have a special place in my heart and, thus, is in a class of its own. Also, it tends to be the iconic image of the hero. The live-action Disney The Story of Robin Hood with Richard Todd is also one I return to often; I think the music makes it particularly special. Interestingly enough, in that one, Robin does not start off as a nobleman. The silent version with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., is incredible; the full version is available on YouTube, which I have included below. The athleticism of Fairbanks combined with its charming simplicity is, in a word, wonderful. (I also have a soft spot for it because I received as a gift several original props from the film. They are a centerpiece of my collection.) The most recent Robin Hood with Russell Crowe is disappointing on many levels. Although it attempts to return to the grittiness of the original tales, it fails to capture the lightness and freedom so inherent in the legend. It does, nonetheless, speak to the idea that the story is malleable and can be applied to different situations in various time periods (here, Magna Carta).
Next week: we visit Oxford and Tolkien.
PS In my spare time (what little there is!), I am reading the King Raven trilogy by Stephen R. Lawhead. It reimagines the Robin Hood legend in Wales and sets it during the time of William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror. It is a new take on the story, but, so far, it is working well, and I am far enough in that I can recommend it.
Brockman, B.A. “Children and the Audiences of Robin Hood.” South Atlantic Review 48.2 (1983): 67-83. Print.
Chandler, John H. Robin Hood: Development of a Popular Hero. Exhibition Guide. Robbins Library. University of Rochester, 2006-07. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.
Dixon-Kennedy, Mike. The Robin Hood Handbook: The Outlaw in History, Myth and Legend. United Kingdom: Sutton, 2006. Print.
Fortunaso, Robert. “Robin Hood: The Facts and the Fiction.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.
Holt, J.C. Robin Hood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993. Print.
Knight, Stephen. “Remembering Robin Hood.” European Journal of English Studies 10.2 (2006): 149-61. Print.
Nagy, Joseph Falaky. “The Paradoxes of Robin Hood.” Folklore 91.2 (1980): 198-210. Print.
Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. Eds. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren. TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.
What do you do when you realize that you and another professor at a different university are both teaching Thomas Becket in the same week for study abroad courses? Why, you wheedle that professor into writing a guest post, of course! Actually, it didn’t take much arm-twisting. Cameron very graciously – and very quickly – agreed to guest for us in my ongoing English Studies Abroad series.
Cameron Hunt McNabb is an assistant professor of English at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. She specializes in medieval and early modern drama, and she has articles published or forthcoming in Neophilologus, Pedagogy, and Early Theatre.
To begin, I’d like to thank Kisha for inviting me to guest post here. She has been a fountain of creative and engaging pedagogy for me, so it’s an honor to contribute to one of her projects.
My study abroad course is following similar lines as Kisha’s, though we are traveling in May for 2 weeks and thus taking the whole Spring semester to prepare. I am also co-leading the trip with our Victorianist, so we’ve organized the course historically, and I’m primarily responsible for materials pre-1700. So far, we have covered Beowulf in connection with Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire gold hoard, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Arthurian myth, and the York Corpus Christi plays and the city of York. This past week, I wanted to cover two major figures in English history—Thomas Becket and Thomas More—as transitions between the medieval and early modern periods, before we usher in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (which we will see in May at the Globe), alongside Stratford, the Globe, and early modern London next week. (For fun, I also assigned the rather historically-accurate “Shakespeare Code” episode of Doctor Who).
As the truncated syllabus above demonstrates, my choices in assigned reading and discussion topics thus far have been conventional. Our readings and discussion for this past week, though, break from the norm. For one, I’m not actually taking our students to Canterbury this May. Given our limited time frame, we had to choose between Cambridge and Canterbury, and the Cantabrigians had it. Therefore, for this past week, I was less concerned about introducing my students to Canterbury Cathedral specifically and more concerned about how the narratives of Becket, and later More, could contribute to our trip overall.
And two, instead of choosing primary texts, I picked popular, artistic depictions of Becket and More. Besides Simon Schama’s A History of Britain series that students watch each week, I assigned them to read T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (because one cannot get enough Eliot!) and watch Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for all Seasons (because one cannot get enough Orson Welles!). These two texts served as backdrops for my lecture “Two Undoubting Thomases” and the discussion that followed.
Although we had already surveyed the city of York, and inevitably its minster, we had not spent much time reviewing the ecclesiastical structures and architecture of medieval and early modern England. I felt that Becket and More would make excellent case studies for these issues. So, I began Wednesday’s class by playing the Te Deum (which is referenced in Murder in the Cathedral) in order to expose students to some medieval liturgy as well as offer a taste of the kind of liturgical experiences we will encounter during our trip, such as attending evensong at St. Paul’s. I also used this opportunity to discuss the design of English cathedrals—transepts, quire screens, nave, chapels, etc.—to prepare them for the numerous cathedrals, other than Canterbury’s, that we’d visit on our trip. I also highlighted, for purposes of practicality, that cathedrals can be their compasses, (almost) always quivering east.
Then we explored the tale of two undoubting Thomases, facing off against two powerful Henrys. The similarities between these two—even the players’ names are the same!—gave force to Eliot’s telling lines: “We do not know very much of the future / Except that from generation to generation / The same things happen again and again.” The histories of Becket and More reify the power struggle between the political and ecclesiastical systems within England and interrogate issues of allegiance and supremacy. The almost-400-year gap between them reveals how pervasive—and unchanging—those struggles and issues were within medieval and early modern England. Some students wryly noted the irony in the oft-repeated line from A Man for all Seasons, “This isn’t Spain. This is England.” Unfortunately, what it meant to be England wasn’t that far from what it meant to be her Continental counterparts. Thus, the stories of Becket and More showed students the nefarious shadows within the radiant stained glass of those lofty cathedrals. We concluded by reflecting how More’s famous last words apply equally to both undoubting Thomases: “The King’s good servant, but God’s First.”
Surprisingly enough, Mother Nature actually let us have class this week. Due to last week’s snowstorm, Chaucer, unfortunately, has been cheated, which causes me much pain. Nonetheless, we have forged ahead as best we can, particularly as we acknowledge with both excitement and a bit of nervousness that our travels are getting very close indeed. “Ay fleeth the tyme, it nyl no man abyde” (The Clerk’s Tale, l. 119).
Before making the trip to Canterbury, I just wanted to finish up a bit with last week’s stay in London. I mentioned in my last post that the journal activity was focused on the Nowell Codex and, in particular, Beowulf (and its digitization). For a “crash course” in paleography, as one of my students called it, I think it allowed everyone to gain exposure to some of the issues in preserving manuscripts as well as in reading/transcribing them. I was indeed happy with many of the observations and reactions. I’ll let them speak for themselves. Here are a few excerpts:
“The actual, physical manuscript can barely be touched, and yet here we are with visual access to it, in less than a minute I had it pulled up on my computer, ready for viewing. I can zoom in and see the words, written in a language I do not speak or read, but nonetheless, they are as clear as if the manuscript lay open on the table before me.”
“I enjoyed this week’s activity a lot. As someone with a deep love of history, I enjoy seeing the original source of things that are important to culture. Being able to see the original Beowulf manuscript, even online, helped me to realize just how old this work was and how important it was as well. I hope we can see the text in person when we visit the British library!”
“I can safely say that I’m glad technology has advanced enough that we don’t need to hand write things like manuscripts anymore. Though the workmanship and effort put into it are beautiful (and most definitely were before it was damaged and old), as a writer, I’ve never been more thankful for my laptop and Microsoft word than after a “crash course” in how to read medieval writing. I can’t imagine having to write (or read) manuscripts like Beowulf, and editing them must have been like a game of telephone, with all the variants in lettering.”
“The way that this website describes translating from Old English to modern English sounds a lot like copying and reading DNA. Characteristics and personality traits are broken down into lettered sequences that are coded in ways to mean different enzymes and proteins that become essential building blocks for human DNA. The only difference is that DNA coding works backwards, from final product to basic pieces, and decoding Beowulf had a harder time with using the basic pieces to create a final product.”
In particular, the British Library podcast, featuring Julian Harrison, Curator of Medieval Manuscripts, seemed to spark a lot of interest, especially among those students who have not had the opportunity to study the text itself (sadly, time does not permit us to take a look at it in this course).
On Monday, as I indicated above, we played catch-up and were at least able to encounter The Canterbury Tales through The General Prologue. We worked on the exercise I described in my London post, which included locating points on a Google Map that correspond to each of the pilgrims. I found that there was a great deal of value in this project. First, we had to read the descriptions in The General Prologue very closely and carefully. Working in pairs, students took one pilgrim at a time and examined the information Chaucer embeds into his narrative. There was much relief when a pair drew someone like the Clerk – so clearly from Oxford!
A second benefit of this exercise is that it forced us to look up those words and places that we tend to gloss over. Where exactly is Middelburgh and why would the Merchant be associated with it? Where is the Knight’s Tramissene? Where is the Stratford-at-the-Bow from which comes the Prioress’ French? Moreover, what is a Franklin? What does a Summoner do?
As a further benefit, there are those pilgrims about whom we know few details, and no locations are directly mentioned. In that case, where might the Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Arras-maker, the Dyer, and the Weaver be located, particularly in London? If the Yeoman is a forester and he is described as wearing a hood of green, with what or whom might we connect him (though outside of author intention on this one)? While some of the student choices were a bit (or a lot!) of a stretch (it seems all of the pilgrims could either be located in a random church or a random tavern), it was interesting to watch the close reading and the further discussion, research, and thinking through of the descriptions. I would like to do some tweaking of this exercise and use it in future classes. If you are curious about the results, take a look at our Canterbury Tales Google Map:
On Wednesday, we turned to Thomas Becket, taking a look at his murder and his very real presence at Canterbury. I am fascinated by the monuments in his honor. The display (pictured below) is very powerful, particularly with its pairing to his name in red letters on the floor. Even more, however, is the single candle which now resides in the place of his original shrine, destroyed in Henry VIII’s crime against humanity called the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The candle is a simple testament and yet captures perfectly the reverence held for the saint. Add in the utterly stunning stained glass stories of his martyrdom and miracles and it is quite an experience, one I am looking forward to sharing with my students. Speaking of stained glass, in class, we took a look at some of the windows; they are sometimes so difficult to see en masse in person. A useful resource, the Medieval Stained Glass Photographic Archive, while not complete, provides a map of Canterbury and locates photographs of the stained glass in their actual locations.
One of the ideas I always return to when I consider Thomas Becket is how he is a political martyr. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes Becket’s change of habits after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury: “A great change took place in the saint’s way of life after his consecration as archbishop. Even as chancellor he had practised secret austerities, but now in view of the struggle he clearly saw before him he gave himself to fastings and disciplines, hair shirts, protracted vigils, and constant prayers. Before the end of the year 1162 he stripped himself of all signs of the lavish display which he had previously affected.” Before this moment, he is a constant companion to Henry II, often fighting beside him as well as enjoying the pomp of their positions. His disputes with the king, though related to church matters, are of a distinctly political nature, having more to do with Becket’s unwillingness to recognize Henry’s authority than any defense of the faith, Christ, or God.
Naturally, Grim and other biographers write him in terms of his sanctity. Grim states, “Behold the simplicity of the dove, behold the wisdom of the serpent in this martyr who presented his body to the killers so that he might keep his head, in other words his soul and the church, safe; nor would he devise a trick or a snare against the slayers of the flesh so that he might preserve himself because it was better that he be free from this nature!” Yet he also describes the accusations the four knights use against Becket. They call, “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor of the king and kingdom?” Becket replies, “Here I am, not a traitor of the king but a priest; why do you seek me?” Later, right before attacking him, one of the knights cries, “I don’t owe faith or obedience to you that is in opposition to the fealty I owe my lord king.” In a letter archived in Roger of Hovedon’s chronicle and sent from William, Archbishop of Sens, to the Pope describing the murder, the Archbishop states, “they immediately, on the king’s behalf, denounced him [Becket] as a traitor.” Becket’s murder is indeed shaped as a matter of treason; he chooses his role as archbishop – or, as he is given dialogue by Grim, as a priest – over his duty to obey Henry. You throw in then the machinations among Henry, Becket, the Pope, and others in the years before that day in Canterbury, and the political nature of this murder become even more apparent. The differences between such a framework for martyrdom and the way other types of saints’ lives are constructed creates a great deal of potential, as do the differences between the historical reality (with embellishments and gaps in factual knowledge) of an archbishop’s death and the hagiographies which are more literary constructions.
To take a brief look at this concept, we focused on analyzing the structure of Chaucer’s The Second Nun’s Tale as an example of hagiography. In class, we considered the elements of Cecilia’s life and what was necessary to create her story. Then, we turned to what we had read of Edward Grim and Roger Hovedon’s accounts of Becket’s life and death. There are a fair amount of similarities, as we might expect in the construction of a saint’s life. However, where they diverge often exists in this space between literary construction and historical figure.
As I was doing my reading for this week, a fascinating personal connection developed. It has been years since I have done any reading about Becket and his murder, and, at the time, I remember finding one particular fact interesting. For some reason, however, it did not sink in. One of the knights who murdered Becket, indeed is given credit for striking the first blow, was William de Tracy. For those who haven’t made note of my surname, do so now and you will see why my interest was again piqued. For the record, I do not claim to be related in any way, but the name is enough to fire up my imagination and curiosity.
This time around, I stopped to do a little digging. William de Tracy took his name from his mother, Grace, whose father is believed to be the illegitimate son of Henry I (Barlow 235-6). Now I ask myself – he is of Norman descent, yes? Thus, I turn to France. I am finding conflicting stories about the exact location from whence the family came, but one of these stories includes a little hamlet in Normandy near Bayeux called Tracy-sur-Mer. The fun part? My family and I stayed in Tracy-sur-Mer (chosen simply because of the name) last summer. Oh, how everything is connected and circles around.
In looking further into William de Tracy and focusing on his role in the murder and the aftermath, it is fairly well accepted that de Tracy was present at the court in Bayeux at which the relations between Henry II and Becket completely disintegrated: “Tracy was certainly at Henry II’s court at Bur-le-Roi, near Bayeux, at Christmas 1170, where Becket’s conduct, and above all his excommunication of the bishops who had crowned Henry, the Young King, earlier that year, was angrily discussed” (Franklin). At the Cathedral, the knights tried it seems to wrestle Becket on to de Tracy’s back, as he was not wearing armor, in order to carry him out of the church. As I mentioned, he is credited with the first blow, the one that also injured Becket’s biographer Edward Grim. Grim writes:
He had barely finished speaking when the impious knight, fearing that [Thomas] would be saved by the people and escape alive, suddenly set upon him and, shaving off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God, he wounded the sacrificial lamb of God in the head; the lower arm of the writer was cut by the same blow.
Grim’s descriptions go from gruesome to worse as he describes the vicious murder.
The aftermath of Becket’s death is where the story gets more mysterious. Most accounts castigate the four knights, demonstrating God’s vengeance, or their hopes for such, on them. William, Archbishop of Sens, in the same letter as above, hopes that “their memories may be visited with everlasting maledictions.” There are some more charitable: “Tracy seems to have been the first to come to his senses: in a confession to Bartholomew, bishop of Exeter, apparently made in Devon shortly after the murder, he said that his heart sank and he feared that the earth might open up and swallow him” (Franklin). This image of remorse is a poignant one (not that I am trying to redeem my name!). One of my personal favorite legends is the report that, as de Tracy traveled to the Holy Land to serve as a Templar, part of his penance from the Pope for his deed, God would not allow him to reach his destination as winds prevented him from making the journey. Eventually, there were rumors he died of leprosy in Italy. Another asserted that he and his fellow conspirators were buried at the door of The Temple Church in Jerusalem. It seems more likely that he did indeed make it and return, establishing leper hospitals and chapels in attempts to redeem himself. All in all, quite the stories.
Next week: we take a side trip to read about Robin Hood.
Barlow, Frank. Thomas Becket. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Librarius, 1997. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.
Franklin, R.M. “Tracy, William de (d. in or before 1174), one of the murderers of Thomas Becket.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP, May 2006. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.
Grim, Edward. “The Murder of Thomas Becket.” Trans. Dawn Marie Hays. Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham U, May 1997. Web. 12 Feb. 2014.
Roger of Hovedon. “The Chronicle: On the Disputes between Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and King Henry II of England.” Trans. Henry T. Riley. Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham U, Oct. 1998. Web. 12 Feb. 2014.
Thurston, Herbert. “St. Thomas Becket.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent, 2009. Web. 12 Feb. 2014.
London, thou art of townes A per se. Soveraign of cities, semeliest in sight, Of high renoun, riches and royaltie; Of lordis, barons, and many [a] goodly knyght; Of most delectable lusty ladies bright; Of famous prelatis, in habitis clericall; Of merchauntis full of substaunce and [of] myght: London, thou art the flour of Cities all. – “In Honour of the City of London,” William Dunbar
As I discussed with my students this week, London creates some interesting difficulties, at least in terms of finding the physical remnants of the medieval city. That annoying Great Fire of 1666 has a lot to answer for! In some ways, however, the destruction is an opportunity for a little literary archaeology.
As background, we read the chapter “Images of London in medieval English literature” in Ralph Hanna’s Cambridge Companion to the Literature of London. He begins his discussion with Dunbar’s poem as well. He notes that Dunbar is a “tourist . . . not only from outwith the City but outside the realm itself” (22). Dunbar’s poem demonstrates a respect, not for the royalty, but the merchant class. He lauds, “Upon thy lusty Brigge of pylers white/Been merchauntis full royall to behold” (ll. 33-4). As Hanna asserts, this focus “reveals that it had become possible, on the edge of the early modern period, to appreciate openly what in the Middle Ages may have been too problematic for discussion. A great many medieval literati, both authors and readers, will have found . . . mercantile culture a problematic concept, if not an outright oxymoron” (21). To illustrate this point, Hanna turns to older accounts and descriptions of the city.
In class, we took a look at one of these: William FitzStephen’s 12th- century “Description of London,” which often appears as a prologue to his life of Thomas Becket. Hanna comments that FitzStephen “scarcely see[s London’s] commerce” (23). He may have a point; however, he does overlook some key lines. FitzStephen touts, “Every morning you can find those carrying on their various trades, those selling specific types of goods, and those who hire themselves out as labourers, each in their particular locations engaged in their tasks. Nor should I forget to mention that there is in London, on the river bank amidst the ships, the wine for sale, and the storerooms for wine, a public cookshop.” Later, we see even more direct mention of the middle class: “Middlemen from every nation under heaven are pleased to bring to the city ships full of merchandize.” This description is followed by a poem extolling the goods brought into the city. These lines may not comprise as high of a percentage as that in Dunbar’s poem; however, they are significant. Further, in another of Hanna’s examples, Richard Maidstone’s late 14th-century Concordia (The Reconciliation of Richard II with London), there is a distinct grandeur granted to the middle class as they gather for the processional of the king:
Then after this a decked-out troop from every guild.
Their suit proclaims that each one is quite separate:
A goldsmith, a fishmonger, and after him
A mercer bent on trade, a seller of fine wine,
A grocer, baker, painter, and a stonemason,
A knife-maker, a barber, and an armorer,
A carpenter, a shearer, tailor, shoemaker,
A skinner, dyer, shopmonger, a smith as well,
And here the bowmen, butchers, and the thatchers too,
The lorimers and drapers too, they came along;
A sheather, girdler, were here, a weaver there,
A chandler and a waxmaker were there as well;
A brewer and a stirruper, a joiner too,
As well there was a fruiterer and poulterer.
Among these guilds a welcome “A” stands on an “R”
[ . . . . . . ]
A glover, pursemaker, a taverner, a cook:
From each one’s suit of clothes, his craft was clear to see. (ll. 79-95)
Hanna addresses these lines as a “dressed up” London, and perhaps we can also chalk it up to the fact that this particular work is “only” a hundred years prior to Dunbar’s. Nonetheless, it indicates that the mercantile activity of London was not as absent from the literature of the city as Hanna makes it seem.
We did not take a look at Maidstone’s Concordia as a class; however, it is a rich text. In particular, it is a vivid description of traditional processional routes throughout the city. The two stops made by the king particularly relevant to our travels are St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey. Hanna offers his thoughts concerning the significance of these locations: “[T]he king enters St Paul’s to make his offering to the City’s patron, St Erkenwáld, a famous Anglo-Saxon’bishop of London. But near the procession’s conclusion, the king effectively atones for any possible dereliction from or dilution of proper royal religious sympathies by a stop at Westminster Abbey” (25). The king’s stop at St. Paul’s is to honor the city and his stop at Westminster, traditional coronation site, honors the kingdom, demonstrating that the two are not always one and the same; indeed, they find themselves in conflict frequently.
The reference to St. Erkenwald leads us to another very “London” poem. It has been a while since I have taken a look at the late 14th-century Saint Erkenwald, but, if I may be forgiven for quoting myself in an article I published a few years ago, “Defining the Medieval City through Death,” it is clear that the poem and the saint are distinctly London: “This work has long been acknowledged as a text intimately tied to the city [London] in which it is set. The poem’s opening prologue sets the text firmly within the English city, describing it as the ‘metropol’ and the ‘mayster-toun,’ ‘the chief city’ . . . [T]he pseudo-history of London is recounted throughout the course of the text – how Brutus founded the city and so forth – all of which is situated in chronological relationship with the life of Christ, the effect of which is to create a parallel timeline for the city . . . The Saint Erkenwald poem represents a nexus of these images – historical and contemporary London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and a saint with strong urban ties” (200-2). St. Erkenwald is a local saint, London’s patron, his story resonating with the inhabitants of the city even as his body is physically present in St. Paul’s.
In order to prepare for our visit – and perhaps lessen the element of shock in being there – we spent some time in groups in class researching the medieval histories of four of the “must see” sites we will get a chance to experience: St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, and Temple Church. General discussion focused on the rebuilding or, at the least, the building on to of these landmarks as well as how William the Conqueror keeps showing up in these histories. Beyond that, we took wild turns: learning about Templars, considering the separation between London and Westminster, wondering about the “oldest surviving door in England” in Westminster Abbey, thinking about how churches keep being rebuilt on the same locations, and reflecting on the crown jewels.
From London’s history and literary representation, we will be turning to London author Chaucer, starting our journey to Canterbury in Southwark with his pilgrims. I say “will be” because we have been delayed by Mother Nature’s strange preoccupation with snow. However, I’ll speak to our good intentions for playing catch-up.
The starting point is as always the famous lines from The General Prologue (in translation as we are encountering the text in class):
It happened that, in that season, on a day In Southwark, at the Tabard, as I lay Ready to go on pilgrimage and start To Canterbury, full devout at heart, There came at nightfall to that hostelry Some nine and twenty in a company Of sundry persons who had chanced to fall In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all That toward Canterbury town would ride. (ll. 19-27)
As I was rereading, I decided I wanted to think about our pilgrims in a different way than I have taught them previously. Given our focus on physical locations and locating literature within its geographical context, I thought it would be interesting to decide as a group upon locations that correspond to each of the pilgrims. To that end, I created a separate Google Map from our class project just for The Canterbury Tales, and, through discussion and some digging into the text, we will fix these locations. Some provide no difficulties – the Wife of Bath being the most obvious. However, others will require some close reading, research, and/or further extrapolation (based upon professions or other clues in the text). For those pilgrims whose tales we are also reading – these include the Cook, the Merchant, the Man of Law, the Pardoner, and the Second Nun – we can, if need be and is possible, use their prologues to help us. I have already posted locations based on their journey, including quotations from various prologues that allow us insight into where the travelers are. Snow willing, I will post again when we have completed this activity. I think it should be intriguing to see the results.
As a side note: I am always amused by the Cook’s Tale. It’s just such a romp (and, for our purposes, a London romp), and, though it provides little in substance, it leaves us with Perkyn’s friend’s prostitute wife. It’s almost unfair that it stops there.
The journal activity of the week is focused on the Nowell Codex. As we intend to visit the British Library to see the Beowulf manuscript (fingers crossed it is not pulled from display for some reason), I wanted students to have some background so they would be more knowledgeable about what they will see. To that end, we are reading through and examining a series of sites:
- British Library page on the Beowulf manuscript (both the video and the podcast, located at the end)
- British Library Sir John Ritblat Gallery page
The activity includes responding in journals about the information learned in these sites as well as reflecting on the experience of looking digitally at this manuscript. Part of the intention is to take a whirlwind tour of medieval manuscripts by looking at the Beowulf in particular. I am curious what the students will pull out for this exercise.
Next week: we will continue our journey to Canterbury.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Librarius, 1997. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.
Dunbar, William. The Poems of William Dunbar. Ed. Bellyse Baildon. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1907. Print.
FitzStephen, William. “Description of London.” Florilegium Urbanum, 10 Dec. 2013. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.
Hanna, Ralph. “Images of London in medieval English literature.” The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of London. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. 19-33. Print.
Maidstone, Richard. Concordia (The Reconciliation of Richard II with London). Ed. David R. Carlson. Trans. A.G. Rigg. TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2003. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.
Tracy, Kisha G. “Defining the Medieval City through Death: A Case Study.” Urban Space in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age. Ed. Albrecht Classen. Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture 4. New York/Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009. 183-204. Print.
This week in English Studies Abroad has been Arthurian readings and discussions. You might ask, how do you cover Arthur in one week? The obvious truth is you can’t. The subject is vast, wide, and never-ending. So settle in for a long winter’s post! My approach was to tackle some of the medieval texts on the first day of class and then move into the post-medieval Arthurian tradition on the second in order to get a sense of how authors have manipulated, deployed, and co-opted the legends.
Some thoughts of the week…
Continuing in the spirit of considering our readings in light of locations we plan to visit, we took a look at the sections related to Stonehenge in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. The story goes that Aurelius wanted to erect a monument to honor those loyal men who had been slain by the treacherous Saxon Hengist. Merlin advises that he relocate the Giant’s Dance from Ireland:
“If you are desirous,” said Merlin, “to honour the burying-place of these men with an ever-lasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand for ever.” (Book VIII, Chapter X)
Pulling Stonehenge even more fully into the Arthurian tradition, Merlin is accompanied by Uther Pendragon on this expedition, fittingly so given that their mission leads to a battle with the Irish, who must be thoroughly routed. I am always amused at how Merlin, his mischievous, devlish side coming out, sends the men to try their luck at moving the large stones while he simply watches and chuckles at their fruitless efforts. It is reminiscent of the later iconic story of Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, when everyone else tries and tries to remove it to no avail. Here Merlin waits until they pretty much give up and then he comes to their rescue:
Merlin laughed at their vain efforts, and then began his own contrivances. When he had placed in order the engines that were necessary, he took down the stones with an incredible facility, and gave directions for carrying them to the ships, and placing them therein. This done, they with joy set sail again, to return to Britain; where they arrived with a fair gale, and repaired to the burying-place with the stones. (Book VIII, Chapter XII)
Of course, the exact nature of these “contrivances” and “engines” is left to the imagination. After all, we can’t give away all the secrets, can we? I try to imagine the ships it would require to sail away with Stonehenge, but it boggles the mind.
Reading further in Geoffrey’s Historia, we focused in particular on the sections detailing Uther’s reign and then Arthur’s origin story. Our discussion led us to the collective origin stories of Merlin (parentage, early history, etc.) and what he is both capable of as well as the choices he makes and their effects on the Arthurian world. In this case, the choice to use his skills to transform Uther into the form of Gorlois in order to sleep with Igerna is a trade-off – an anti-Christian act which brings about the creation of the great king Arthur:
The same night therefore she conceived of the most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to posterity. (Book VIII, Chapter XIX)
The ramifications of this choice – his “ends justify the means” attitude – is not fully explored by Geoffrey, but later authors, of course, run with it. In the discussion of Merlin’s parentage, I was even able to work in my previous research into the role of his mother in various incarnations of the story. She’s quite a character, particularly with her ability to manipulate speech in order to protect herself and her son.
As an example of Arthurian romances, I chose Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Conte du Graal. There were a couple of reasons for this choice. One, a couple of students in the class took my Middle Ages class last semester and read Cligès and Le Chevalier de la Charrette; thus, I wanted to assign a different text. Two, Le Conte du Graal provides opportunities for different discussions: the representation of Arthur, the development and definition of a knight (and an Arthurian knight at that), the tradition behind the popular concept of the Grail, certain customs (real or fictional) Chrétien embeds in the narrative, the interaction between the religious and secular, the romance form (with a digression into the English/French similarities and differences), the French interest in and contributions to the Matters of Britain, among other topics. It’s a rich text and serves as a useful window for our brief foray into the medieval Arthurian world.
Also, speaking of mothers, we have here a fascinating one. She prevents Perceval from knowing about his true heritage in an attempt to protect him – and herself, as it happens, from more grief. Her advice shapes Perceval’s early development in the text, even as he misinterprets her. Her death occurs early, yet she continues to influence his choices, requiring him to leave the side of his lady out of concern for her.
On a personal note, I have always been particularly fascinated by the Fisher King (coincidentally, another figure I have spent a great deal of time researching in the past – our teaching reflects our own interests, no?) and was again upon this re-reading. This time around, I was struck by his soothing qualities. He is in great pain, unable to stand, though he lifts himself up to the best of his ability in order to honor his guest. His demeanor is no doubt courtly and courteous, as any number of characters are in this and other romances. Yet, his persona appears more than that as I read, as if his courtliness is less performance (as so often it comes across) and more an intricate part of him. His disability seems to soften (but certainly not weaken) him. Perhaps part of this impression lies in his willingness to express his suffering as indicated by one of his few lines of dialogue (in translation, as we read it in class):
“Friend, now it is time for bed. Don’t be offended if I leave you and go into my own chambers to sleep; and whenever you are ready you may lie down out here. I have no strength in my body and will have to be carried.” (422)
Though we are given little insight into his history or his societal role, I would hesitate to say – at least as I mull my reaction this time – that the Fisher King is rendered “real” by his hardship.
As a segue between the medieval Arthurian world and the post-medieval one, I had assigned Tolkien’s recently-released The Fall of Arthur; however, I was a bit overly ambitious in the amount of reading assigned and thus made this one more optional. It does, however, fulfill its intended role well, as a work written in Old English alliterative verse at the same time that it pays homage to the literary tradition concerning the collapse of Arthur’s kingdom. Even from the beginning of the poem, Tolkien captures the Old English sense of elegy while marrying it to the collapse of the Arthurian world:
As when the earth dwindles in autumn days and soon to its setting the sun is waning under mournful mist, then a man will lust for work and wandering, while yet warm floweth blood sun-kindled, so burned his soul after long glory for a last assay of pride and prowess, to the proof setting will unyielding in war with fate. (17)
I look forward to spending more time with this work in a future class.Due to the fact it is a rather well-known modern rendition of Arthurian literature as well as the fact it conveniently paired well with our other readings, I chose to assign the first sixty pages of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. This section parallels Arthur’s origin story that we read in Geoffrey of Monmouth, providing fodder for discussion, particularly as Bradley’s work is so focused on telling the story from the women’s perspective, which is not a concern of the Historia. There is an echo in Mists of the tension between the Christian and pagan found in early medieval texts influenced by or written in the time of conversion. At the beginning of the novel, Merlin and Viviane identify a need and a desire to allow the two to live in harmony n parallel worlds; as Viviane states:
“We must have our own leader, one who can command all of Britain. Otherwise, when they mass against us, all Britain will fall, and for hundreds and hundreds of years, we will lie in ruins beneath the Saxon barbarians. The worlds will drift irrevocably apart and the memory of Avalon will not remain even in legend, to give hope to mankind. No, we must have a leader who can command loyalty from all the people of both the Britains – the Britain of the priests, and the world of the mists, rules from Avalon. Healed by this Great King . . . the worlds shall once again come together, a world with room for the Goddess and for the Christ, the cauldron and the cross. And this leader shall make us one.” (14-5)
Geoffrey’s “most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to posterity” is expanded by Bradley into a king who will “command loyalty from the people of both the Britains – the Britain of the priests, and the world of the mists” and who “shall make room for the Goddess and for the Christ.” There is still the sense of manipulation by Merlin as he orchestrates the creation of this king, though the story shifts with Igraine’s fore-knowledge (and her reluctance and initial disgust) that she has been chosen as mother to this savior. Bradley, intentionally or unintentionally, parallels Igraine’s story with that of the Virgin Mary, whose pregnancy as well as the special qualities of her son are also foretold. And, just to belabor a point, we have returned once again to the subject of mothers.
Bradley weaves in the concept of the Waste Land, so integral to the Fisher King narratives, in a rather effective way. Viviane explains to Igraine about the relationship between a king and his land:
“In the old days . . . the High King was bound with his life to the fortunes of the land, and pledged . . . that if the land comes upon disaster or perilous times, he will die that the land may live. And should he refuse this sacrifice, the land would perish.” (22-3)
The barren Waste Land of the Fisher King is so affected, it is often said, because he himself has been rendered impotent. Bradley inserts this idea into her novel by claiming that kings take blood oaths, and, if they refuse to honor these oaths, their people and lands will suffer the consequences. It is a much less metaphoric connection between the king and his land, attributing to the lord an active role in maintaining the health of his kingdom. Any may sacrifice his blood to counter disaster (or refuse to do so), yet, in the metaphoric reading, an impotent king can do little to rectify his situation (on his own at least – a hero is required).
Special side note: Stonehenge makes its appearance again in a story rife with Druids and the “old religions.” It is referenced as a “ring of stones . . . in a great circle” that is “precisely calculated . . . so that even those who did not know the secrets of the priests could tell when eclipses were to come, and trace the movements of stars and seasons” (55). And, thus, across the centuries, the record of Merlin’s deed in bringing Stonehenge to England echoes in the modern Arthurian tradition.
A section of the film version of The Mists of Avalon:
In class, we split up into smaller groups to take a more in-depth look at some of the writings in Alan Lupack’s Modern Arthurian Literature, particularly the sections on “The Victorians” and “The Modern Period.” We did some small group bonding while discussing different readings, getting a feel for the reasons authors co-opt the Arthurian world. Its flexibility, malleability, the sheer magnitude of the stories and characters, and the possibilities of a “once and future king” were theories we explored.
As before, here is the link to our ongoing Google Map project. And this is the link to a collection of some of our online readings in Readlists. Our Storify journals are also taking shape here.
Next week’s stop: London!
Annis, Matthew. “The Fisher King.” The Camelot Project. University of Rochester, 2007. Web. 26 Jan. 2014.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Knopf, 1982. Print.
Chrétien de Troyes. “The Story of the Grail (Perceval).” Arthurian Romances. Trans. William W. Kibler. New York: Penguin, 1991. 381-494. Print.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. “Arthurian Passages from The History of the Kings of Britain.” The Camelot Project. University of Rochester, n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2014.
Modern Arthurian Literature. Ed. Alan Lupack. New York: Garland, 1992. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fall of Arthur. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Print.
This week, in English Studies Abroad (see previous post), we are “visiting” Bath. By “visiting,” we are focusing our study and readings on the city, as we will do with different locations (or figures) each week. For Bath, my goal is to focus on the striations of history, important not only for this particular place, but also to set the tone for the rest of class as well as provide a basic overview of British history. It’s been intriguing preparing for this week because, not being an expert in the nitty-gritty details of each city, there are aspects I am learning along with my students. I love it as it increases my enthusiasm with the material.
We started our “visit” with the city’s Roman-British history, which, of course, centers on the public baths, the hot springs being the reason people settled around it in the first place. Originally a shrine to the deity Sulis, the Romans named the area Aquae Sulis, co-opting the deity and aligning it with their Minerva. The Roman preoccupation with public baths is well-known, even to the point that they found it necessary to build them into the frontier forts along Hadrian’s Wall. I visited Chesters Fort a couple of years ago; the baths there take up about a third of the settlement (the following is a photo of the remains of the baths).
I have been having a particularly entertaining time reading about the curse tablets people would throw into the waters, hoping to get revenge on those who have wronged them. The tablets, some on display at the Roman Baths, which we will visit, are quite explicit – asking for the blood of the cursed or something a bit more or less gruesome (interesting images and background on the tablets).
When the Romans pulled out of England, we can imagine what places like Bath must have looked like, particularly a few centuries later, with the remains and ruins of their baths and stone walls. I ruminated in class about the idea that the images we see in the Exeter elegy The Ruin, if we step back from metaphorical readings, might be a glimpse of the experience of the Anglo-Saxon living with the physical Roman past.
Wondrous is this foundation – the fates have broken
and shattered this city; the work of giants crumbles.
The roofs are ruined, the towers toppled,
frost in the mortar has broken the gate,
torn and worn and shorn by the storm,
eaten through with age. (ll 1-5)
I like to think about the connection to our own journey as we explore the ruins of generations that came after this poem’s composition. Of course, it is widely speculated, and often debunked that The Ruin is written about Bath, but it is still an idea I find poetic.
The hot springs appear to have been widely known, if their appearance in the histories is any indication. Nennius, for instance, included them as one of his “Wonders of Britain,” a list often attached to the end of manuscripts of his Historia Brittonum. The pools at Bath were described as having magical properties – cooling and warming upon the desire of the bather. The reputation no doubt was increased by the perceived medicinal or miraculous, depending on your point of view, healing qualities. By the time we reach Geoffrey of Monmouth, Bath is associated with the great Battle of Badon Hill, thereby incorporating it into the Arthurian tradition to which Geoffrey’s work greatly contributes. In his Prophecies of Merlin, it is foreseen that Bath/Badon’s waters “shall grow cold, and their salubrious waters engender death” (VII.3).
A portion of our discussion has focused on Bath’s position throughout its Roman and Anglo-Saxon history as a border or frontier town. As we can see from this map of Roman Britannia (c. 150AD), Bath, not located on the map but which lies to the south and a bit to the west of Gloucester, is situated on the outer western borders of Roman-occupied territory.
By the time of King Alfred the Great, Bath was a contested area between Mercia and Wessex (and even more so as the Danes pressed in from the north, before and after the Danelaw was created).
When Alfred began building up his series of fortifications throughout the kingdom, Bath was one of these burhs, listed in the Burghal Hidage, a document containing an account of these fortifications and their taxes (always an important piece of information for kings). At Bath, he had masons use the existing Roman stone as part of their reconstruction and strengthening of the city walls.
The borderland space that Bath occupied created unique opportunities, including its development as an influential market town. That particular characteristic carried over for quite some time, particularly as it became known for its wool trade. The merchant guild was formally recognized in the 12th century. Eventually, Catherine of Alexandria became the patron saint of the city – her wheel of torture perceived in the requisite spinning wheels. How well known Bath became for its wool and textiles can be seen in Chaucer’s “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales. We find the Wife of Bath naturally associated with her clothing and her cloth-making skills: “Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt/She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt” (ll. 449-50). Readers would have more than likely been very aware of Bath’s foremost industry.
We found it of particular note that Bath, after the Norman Conquest, was purchased by John of Tours following the Rebellion of 1088 between William the Conqueror’s sons. The winner William Rufus – quite a guy. He liked to sell or grant lands and bishoprics to his personal favorites. The note-worthy part of this exchange is the fact that John of Tours was a doctor (he was at the Conqueror’s deathbed). Given the persistent belief about the healing qualities of the springs, we can perhaps speculate that his occupation led to the rise in the next century of several hospitals, St. John’s, for instance. In the 13th century, leper houses developed, segregated baths built to ease their suffering. The hospitals, as was the wont of their medieval incarnations, served as hospices for the elderly, who were often soothed by the hot baths.
There is so much more to think about, particularly the history of another of our destinations, Bath Abbey, which has fascinating historical striations on its own and is connected on every level to the city’s various pasts, from the Anglo-Saxon when it was first built to the later hospitals to its present incarnation. We can stop at medieval Bath or continue on with Queen Elizabeth I’s favor and the revival of its spas, which are extremely popular by the time we get to Jane Austen and Bath’s appearance in several of her works, including Persuasion (my favorite of the novels) and Northanger Abbey.
An exercise I found enlightening as we prepare to visit Bath is a site put together for those interested in walking tours of southern England. In its description of the walk, it overlays the outlines of medieval Bath with the present-day city. Comparing these descriptions to Google Maps (in satellite mode) is a useful way to visualize landmarks and timelines.
Our Google Map project is getting off the ground, which you can see here (unfortunately, WordPress has not caught up with the new GM embed code). Also, here is the link to a collection of some of our online readings in Readlists (including background, news articles, texts, maps, etc.).
Next week, King Arthur!
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “From The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue, lines 447-478: The Wife of Bath.” Librarius, 1997. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.
Davis, Graham, and Penny Bonsall. A History of Bath: Image and Reality. Lancaster, UK: Carnegie, 2012. Print.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. “Arthurian Passages from The History of the Kings of Britain.” The Camelot Project. University of Rochester, n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.
Manco, Jean. Bath Past. Building History, 15 Oct. 2007. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.
“Two Old English Elegies from the Exeter Book: The Wanderer and The Ruin.” Trans. R.M. Liuzza. English 401: Introduction to Medieval Literature. University of Tennessee-Knoxville, n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.
Weissman, Hope Phyllis. “Why Chaucer’s Wife Is from Bath.” Chaucer Review 15.1 (1980): 11.36. JSTOR. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.