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Writing The Transformation of the Roman West

The invitation to deliver a Plenary Lecture at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo in 2016 set me thinking about how to tackle what I had come to regard as the major problem in late antique and early medieval studies. How can we bring together the excellent, but very divergent, scholarship of recent years? On the one hand there has been wonderful work on the socio-religious history of the period, spearheaded by Peter Brown, and on the other there have been major studies of socio-economic and political changes, where the contributions of Chris Wickham and Michael McCormick are just the tip of an iceberg. The solution that I chose to follow was to find a way to quantify religious change, and to set the figures that I came up with against other figures: numbers of barbarians, the size of the Roman army and of the imperial bureaucracy. That the number of barbarians was comparatively low was no surprise. The arguments of Walter Goffart have made everyone look carefully at the scale of migrations, although, of course, the current migration crisis in the Mediterranean has brought home the reality of people on the move. But with regard to the figures for the Church the result was a surprise even to me, despite the fact that I had been looking at the ecclesiastical accumulation of property for ten years or more, and had already argued in 2013 that around a third of the property of Western Europe was in ecclesiastical hands by the end of the seventh century. It had not struck me, however, that one might be able to estimate the number of clergy in the immediately post-Roman World, and even when I delivered the plenary at Kalamazoo I had still not realised the full extent of the documentation available. The task would have been extremely difficult before the publication of the Prosopographie chrétienne du bas empire, but I was also lucky enough to make contact with a project on priests in the late-antique/early-medieval world which is being run by Robert Wiśniewski in Warsaw. The fact that the resulting figures are directly comparable to the figures that have been advanced for the late Roman army allowed me to describe Late Antiquity as a period which saw a change from a secular society dominated by the Roman army and its needs

to an ecclesiastical society dominated by the Christian Church. When I showed a draft of my work to Chris Wickham he described the change that I had identified as ‘ecclesiasticisation’. Although the resulting book does deal with the barbarian migrations, it is essentially concerned with what the Roman World looked like in 300 and what the Western European World looked like in 600. I was concerned to characterise the change over those three centuries, rather than to explain it, although of course comments on the barbarians, on the actions of some ecclesiastics, as well as on the emperors and the senatorial aristocracy hint at some elements of an explanation. The barbarians themselves were not numerous enough to cause the massive changes that took place in Late Antiquity, although the failure of the imperial leadership to deal with them was a major issue. The reactions of churchmen to the general crisis of the period, and the impact they had on the population at large, which have been central to Peter Brown’s work over the last twenty year, are clearly central. But there is obviously a good deal more work to be done. For a start, I would argue that we need to add precision to our understanding of the ecclesiastical accumulation of wealth. Exactly when did gifts of land to the Church become more important than gifts of treasure? What impact did this have? It is worth remembering that an aristocrat could easily replenish his moveable wealth from property while he still possessed enormous estates. Did the Church’s accumulation of property have an impact on how land was exploited? In some regions the answer is unquestionably

 

‘yes’, but can we generalise? And there is a further question that is becoming ever more pressing, and which I only referred to in passing. What was the impact of the Justinianic Plague? The work which is being spearheaded in part by Michael McCormick is putting the Plague firmly on the map, as Kyle Harper’s recent study has made abundantly clear. But we need to look carefully at the chronology. The Plague is a development of the 540s. How much had changed already before it hit the Mediterranean? Most of the barbarians were already settled in Western Europe or North Africa by that time. Of the major groups of incomers only the Lombards had yet to find their place in the world. I don’t doubt that the impact of the Plague was massive, but had the shift from endowing the Church with property rather than treasure already taken place, or is it primarily a shift of the late sixth century? And if so, is the change a reaction to a situation that was taken by some as apocalyptic? Here we hit a major evidential problem, because the charter record, which allows us to quantify property, only becomes significant in the seventh century, whereas references to treasure can be found throughout the corpus of Church writing in the fifth century. That, I would suggest, is the problem that most needs addressing. But I hope that the initial conclusions of this short book at least demonstrate that we have to combine what have hitherto been separate socio-religious and socio-economic areas of study, because only by combining the different approaches can we fully get to grips with what appears to be the major change in Late Antiquity.

By Ian Wood

What’s going on with university pension schemes in the United Kingdom?

What’s going on over there?

So far, academic staff (lecturers, researchers, librarians, curators, IT staff, technicians, administrative staff) at about 68 universities in the United Kingdom–pretty much every university incorporated before 1992–have been on job action for a total of fourteen days in February and March.  In between strikes, they are working to rule, and are now planning a big strike to hit during final examinations in the late spring, targeted at each institution to hit the largest number of students taking examinations and the time at which assessments are most often due.  It’s a massive engagement.  Almost more interesting than the strike itself has been the huge presence on social media.  Academic staff all over the UK are tweeting constantly, building wikis, filing freedom of information requests, researching details about opposition activity and posting them to Facebook, and sending information in large bits and bytes to each other.  Their biggest issue now on this front is consolidating all these masses of material.

What is the main issue?  Well, the touchpaper is a rather complicated question of the riskiness of the pension scheme.  It’s a pooled scheme with all the members, administered by the University Superannuation Scheme (USS).  Government regulations on the financial risk of possible pension liabilities mean that recently an evaluation of the USS suggested it was at the outer edge of acceptable risk, and could be in a deficit situation going forward, especially if some of the member institutions were to fail.  The other member institutions would have to pick up the pension obligations of those employed by any failed post-secondary institutions (called the “last man standing” issue). Individual institutions were asked if they found this amount of risk acceptable, and some of them (possibly 42%) said no.  The USS and Universities United Kingdom (UUK, the overarching body) decided to impose draconian changes to the plan in order to reduce the risk, and the result has been extensive negotiations, strikes, occupations by students (twenty different institutions as of 15 March 2018) in support of the academic staff, massive amounts of anger and outrage, and and the usual chaotic failures of governance and accountability.  Some universities are not on strike because they could not get enough members out to vote, others could have made strides to resolve the problem except that arcane procedural rules prevented debate, and some vice-chancellors have demonstrated leadership and accountability–but the majority have not. The University and College Union (UCU) seems sporadically to be at the negotiating table with the UUK, after a proposed settlement was rejected with contumely earlier this week by academic staff.

What is the real issue here?

Many issues are in play.  The pent-up anger that has a lot of academic staff out carrying signs does not necessarily reflect a deep understanding of the apparent problem: the pension regulations, the end of the final salary option, investment de-risking, a gradual shift from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans.  More importantly, academic staff at most universities in the UK feel disrespected, ignored, not consulted, not treated with the dignity that is appropriate.  And they are certainly right.  But more fundamentally, many of them are speaking about the issue as part of the corporatization of the university, the commodification of higher education, the loss of the post-secondary institution as a place of informed debate and open discussion.  And that is also appropriate.  Anger has being built up over a period of years, over the great rise in tuition fees (and the absolute lack of any concomitant resources put into teaching and learning), the great rise in compensation for vice-chancellors and the almost nonexistent salary improvement for academic staff, the rampant casualization of academic labour, and so forth.

But from my perspective as a medievalist the issue is really a deeper one.  The pension plan which was already altered significantly in 2014 (with effect in 2016) with its generous employer contributions (something around 17%) was to my way of thinking a legacy of the days when being an academic in a post-secondary institution was truly a lifelong commitment.  Retired members still supervised students, gave lectures, offered advice, served on some committees, turned out for all major celebratory events, and generally continued their involvement with the institution to which they had devoted their lives.  Some might indeed move away or retire elsewhere, or bop about the world, but the home college, the place of collegial and collegiate life, would always be there.  Hundreds of years ago a retiring fellow would simply close the doors of his (always “his”) rooms more often, and would expect to stay in those rooms up to and briefly after death.  Burial in the college cloisters would then take place, so that the fellow and tutor remained on site, albeit no longer to be consulted directly.  Admittedly, longevity was not advanced, and most fellows would die at what would today be well before retirement age (recollecting that Bismarck set a retirement age at which the German government expected the vast majority of the citizenry would be dead, and the shift in life expectancy has not sufficiently altered that age).  But the notion of a lifelong post as a lecturer and researcher in a university, a universitas, a guild of one’s fellows: that notion remains active, though perhaps not as consciously as it once was.

How does this really connect to the medieval university?

For me the connection is threefold.  First, the idea of a strong and continuing pension, a defined benefit pension which members of academic staff could count on for their old age, proffered a genuine reason to accept a lower salary, higher workload, and perhaps other complications of the UK university world.  It was a secure and settled option, and it offered academic staff the opportunity of paying no attention to this matter because it was settled and secure.  Peace of mind, and the time to focus on research and on teaching are in some ways priceless benefits.  The pension plan that was in place at UK universities was a very large piece of a social safety net.  Its inception must have been the strong duty of care for members that went back to the foundation of many colleges and universities before and just after the Black Death in Europe in the fourteenth century.  Although this particular incarnation of the pension plan dates only to 1974, when the pooled system established itself as a way to look after all academic staff in the UK (at 68 institutions but 350 employers), the idea inhered that institutions of higher education owed a duty of care through life and death to their academic staff, who settled in their jobs in their 20’s and remained in them until their 80’s or later, well after their working life was technically over at 65 or 67.

Second, the university remains for many a world of the “monkish ideal of contemplation.”  One of the most interesting things in the social media blitz going on is the extent to which individuals do not know that they are already well down the road towards a defined contribution pension scheme, and the current issue is more about how to rebalance the scheme so that the actuaries find the risk more tolerable, not about whether to be on this scheme on not.  So much printers’ ink, so many blogs and so very many lengthy conversations about the sellout of the university to the corporate world, and yet academic staff still, at a profoundly fundamental level, expect to be left alone to do their work.  Moreover, largely, they are.  Elements of control and bureaucratization are arriving, more every decade, but the basic system of teaching students, perhaps with PowerPoint rather than a lecture, and assessing student work and assigning grades at the end of the course or the year or the program: this remains remarkably the same.  The basic undergraduate degree has remained largely the same for many centuries, involving study for a few years to learn the basic elements and processes of a discipline, and taking examinations at the end of the course. So also does the system of doing research.  I have colleagues who have taught the same course on the same day of the week at the same time for their entire academic careers, and yet it does not seem to occur to them that this is a rare blessing.  Their lives have a pattern and a predictability that makes them rather like the medieval monks who taught Donatus at 7 a.m., perhaps making way for the friar who taught canon law at 10 a.m..

Still not convincing.  Is there a more tangible connection than this notion about how academics still live in an ivory tower and keep at this vocation to the last minute of their lives?

Well, my third and strongest connection is the role of Oxbridge, Oxford and Cambridge, in the brouhaha.  Some, though by no means all, of the colleges at these two universities have pretty deep pockets, having been in existence for more than eight hundred years.  They have been jittery about the pension fund before, and have contemplated ways to exit the scheme.  However, both universities (after some procedural fun and games, admittedly) reversed themselves, and Cambridge in particular has been establishing the high moral ground, with tweets and letters to the editor of The Times by its relatively new (and Canadian!) vice-chancellor.  In his letter to the editor, Stephen Toope argues: “reducing students to mere consumers makes sense only if the value of universities is simply economic. That would be a fundamental error. Universities have helped successive generations to achieve their potential in these places of breathtaking discovery and disruptive insight” (Letter to the Editor, The Times, published 16 March 2018).

The Oxford and Cambridge colleges are not wrong to feel concern about the “last man standing” provisions, since the principal concern of their governing bodies (which, unlike North American universities, include predominantly the academic fellows of the colleges) has to be the continued existence of the colleges.  There is no question but that the UCU and USS are taking advantage of Oxbridge, as their documents often refer to the Oxford and Cambridge colleges somewhat obliquely.  Take, for example, this point: “The deficit remains within the affordable means of the scheme’s 350-plus sponsoring employers – including the oldest and most prestigious universities in the country – to recover, over time.”  This reference to “the oldest and most prestigious universities in the country” is an obvious ploy to indicate that all will be well because there are deep pockets in the scheme.  Moreover, the distinction between the 68 universities and the reference here to 350 employers clearly cuts apart the colleges inside universities from the universities themselves.  In the early days of the strike action, much time was spent excoriating the fact that the employers expressing concern with the risk element including specific Oxbridge colleges, which were counted as if separate entities from the university.  And yet, the colleges are not directly involved in the whole strike, since the pension scheme is for all academic staff, through their university appointments.  It’s all a bit confusing, with Oxford and Cambridge being used both to allay fears about the future viability about the scheme, and to raise fears about whether the plan is sustainable.  The medieval universities cannot win in the modern media blitz.  Toope’s interventions, initially positive, faded to platitudes in a meeting with students who had been occupying his central administration building at Cambridge, and the scholars of Oxford and Cambridge are stepping forward to make strong arguments.  Compare, for example, Nicola Headlam, who is part of an Urban Transformations project funded through the School of Anthropology at Oxford. She is among the more indefatigable tweeters, and she argues in a tweet @networknicola on 7 March that: “[t]he debate on pensions is also a debate on restoring academic democracy, restoring academic community, restoring academic honour and restoring goodwill.”  The great medieval doctors of learning–Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, and Bonaventura–would all have approved entirely.

Any conclusions?

In his brilliant little book, The Rise of Universities, Charles Homer Haskins argues that in the Middle Ages the theologians and professors of canon law rose to bishoprics and appointments as cardinals, describing them as “all the great array of doctors angelic, invincible, irrefragable, seraphic, subtle, and universal” (68), and describing the medieval university as “the great age of professorial control” when “in a quite remarkable degree, the university was self-governing as well as self-respecting” (68-69).  (He has a few pointed remarks about boards of trustees and state intervention in universities in the present day of 1923.) Haskins’ strong views point to a deep and continuing tradition about the autonomy and centrality of the role of academic staff in the university today.  Despite all the changes and modernizations to the university, the fundamental interaction remains that of a teacher and a student learning together.  Anything that jeopardizes that interaction occasions extensive commentary and complaint.  Some might think that strikes are a modern invention as a way to re-establish a better balance of academic staff as decision-makers.  But, the first strike over university autonomy was at Paris in 1200, the second in 1229.  Striking at universities is a venerable tradition.

A note on my sources

The reference to the “monkish ideal of contemplation” comes from Ian Angus, Loves the Questions: University Education and Enlightenment (Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2009), p. 44.  Angus constructs a model of seven ideas of the university: the classical humanistic tradition, the modern research and teaching university, the public university, the multiversity, the democratic university (an ideal from the 60’s which inspired Angus), the corporate university and the network university (the emerging new form).  Readily available as a digitized book on the internet is the gem, Charles H. Haskins, The Rise of Universities (New York: Henry Holt, 1923); the lectures were originally given as the Colver Lectures at Brown University in 1923.  For background and information on the current issues in the United Kingdom I am particularly indebted to the queen of information, Alison Roberts, Curator for European and Early Prehistoric Collections in the Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

By M.J. Toswell, University of Western Ontario, and author of Today’s Medieval University 

Curating Coconuts

Monty Python and the Holy Grail begins by insisting on the impossibility of coconuts in medieval England, and we all love the scene. But this comic insistence that coconut cups could never have existed in medieval English and European homes extends to their curation in museums today, and museums are one of the only ways most people will ever engage medieval scholarship. Museums struggle to categorize coconut cups, and the almost total absence of scholarly research on medieval trade goods like coconuts adds to the challenge facing museums.

In these conditions, museums make do with traditional truisms that are really myths. Echoing Monty Python, many exhibits highlight the strangeness of the coconuts. The Art Institute of Chicago calls them “curios” suitable for curiosity cabinets, as does the Walters Museum. The Met emphasizes the weirdness of coconuts in Europe, even during the global colonial period when European ships sailed all over the world. The stories museums tend to tell about European coconuts simply reinforce the most people’s perspectives, as today coconut cups do seem like strange curios. Retelling the same old myths does not educate anyone. Instead these stories continue to present the medieval past as though Europe was detached from the rest of the world. Researchers must see past Python’s jokes and begin to investigate material culture. Curators must use this research to demonstrate that non-European objects and people existed in medieval Europe. To put it simply, all museum-goers are part of medieval history, and our exhibits can and should reflect that fact.

The scholarly sort of activism involved in highlighting the presence of non-European objects and people in medieval Europe sits squarely within the mission of museums. The blog People of Color in European Art History focuses on the depiction of premodern people of color in European painting and book illumination. The blog fills a gap. As the author says, “the focus of this blog is to showcase works of art from European history that feature People of Color. All too often, these works go unseen in museums, Art History classes, online galleries, and other venues.” Even NPR has noted that “the perspective of racial identity is an afterthought…in major museum curations.”

NCO208952 The Columbus, or Pallisade Cup, 1492 (see also 355575 and 355578) by English School, (15th century); Courtesy of the Warden and Scholars of New College, Oxford; English, out of copyright

People of Color in European Art History is not a museum or a history book, and it is not alone in demonstrating popular enthusiasm for the cultural complexity of the Middle Ages. The Philadelphia Renaissance Faire’s insistence on a plausible (if fictionalized) diverse historical narrative is another example of this. There is great interest among both scholars and the general public in learning more about the diversity of the premodern world. Medieval European coconuts offer an excellent opportunity to highlight the interactions of Europe with the rest of the world centuries before the “Age of Discovery.”

Perhaps coconut history proves that medieval people were better than we are today at imagining ways to communicate across languages, religions, and countries (Ganim and Legassie, Cosmopolitanism and the Middle Ages, 3). But perhaps that is our fault as researchers and curators. Museums are wracked by budget cuts, without the staffing or space to expand exhibitions, or the time even to update current signage. University researchers are likewise trapped in endless work. But as the stakes get higher and higher, surely we hang together or we hang separately. In collaboration, then, we must find ways to articulate the European Middle Ages’ delight in its connections with the wider world.
Coconuts may be part of the answer.

By Kathleen Kennedy

Advice from a Medievalist Working in Publishing

Hwæt! It’s a medievalist … in publishing!

Yes, it’s true. My name is Sarah Kelley Brish, and I am a medievalist. What’s more, I’m a medievalist employed in a job directly related to my degree! Gasp, shock, disbelief!

That’s a common response from people when they hear what my degree is in. Just as often, I get asked, “What on earth does someone do with a degree in that?

This really is a great question. What do I do with my degree? I have a pretty cool job: I work as a desk editor for Medieval Institute Publications at Western Michigan University, and also for ARC Humanities Press.

I bet you’re wondering, “What does a desk editor do?” Well, I get to read a lot of fascinating works on a variety of medieval (and sometimes other academic) topics. There are books (monographs), collections of essays, journals, and various other types of materials that I get to help prepare for publication. What kind of prep work gets done? The biggest thing that I do is proofread and make notes on things that really stand out – typos, missing dates or page numbers, inconsistent formatting – things that need to be added or corrected by the author(s) before the copyeditor can give the volume a really thorough cleaning. Each publisher has a special set of guidelines, style guides for the technical term, which authors need to follow when they submit a volume for publication. I go over each volume I receive to check that the authors have indeed followed the guidelines, and I make notes where things don’t follow the guide. After I make all my notes, the volume is returned to the author so that the formatting and other minor issues are corrected so things are up to snuff before the copyeditor works on it. This may not seem like a critical job to some, but it really is a useful step in the editing process that can save time and effort.

So, how did such an intriguing career opportunity come about? While I was studying at the Medieval Institute, I was able to forge relationships with those who worked and studied at the Medieval Institute and Medieval Institute Publications, and through them I was able to make connections with others in the world of academic publishing. Making connections at the university, and the International Congress on Medieval Studies, was invaluable in achieving this opportunity.

If working for a university press is something that might interest you, I’d like to offer some words of advice: Look at a few different style guides, especially Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) and the Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA) Style Guide. You don’t have to be an expert at them, but get familiar with them and learn how to use them. Also, ask for help. You may be afraid of asking too many questions at the beginning, but, in my opinion, it is much better to ask many questions and learn from them. Take the feedback you get from each editing job and use it to improve your methods and knowledge.

I’d like to offer a little bit of personal advice as well: Don’t be afraid to start something, or fret yourself into inaction. These things are very easy to do, and it creates a vicious cycle. The best thing you can do is try. Jump right into a project, ask for feedback. Learn how you can improve, and carry on. Enjoy the opportunity each project offers – some will be to work with very interesting material, others to learn something new about the style guide for a particular volume. (This is constant! The CMS is like an ever-evolving puzzle, with something new to discover every time you work with it.)

I really enjoy what I do. I get to work from home, in my own space and on my own time. Even though I work apart from many of my colleagues at the universities and publishers, I get to work with some really great people. I also get to read a variety of fascinating material. My first-ever project was to work with a volume on Anglo-Saxon law codes! Talk about some kind of excitement! And how about learning that a scholar whose work you read during your own studies is putting out another volume, and you get to help get it published?! Honestly, there is some fangirling (for me, at least…) that goes on at times (behind the scenes, of course – professionalism is always key!).

And with the recent fascination with medievalism in the media, I can be extra useful in trivia games. “Yeah, I knew Thor’s hammer’s name before it was cool.”

By Sarah Brish

Developing a Press Website

In the Spring of 2015, Medieval Institute Publications brought me on to work on various IT projects. One of those was the creation of a new website to represent the consortium of Medieval Institute Publications, Arc Humanities Press, and Amsterdam University Press. Since we wanted a highly customizable platform for the site that could adapt to our changing needs, we went with the Content Management System (CMS) WordPress. Many people are familiar with the basic version of WordPress through the free blogging service at WordPress.com. However, hosting your own installation of WordPress gives you access to the full functionality of WordPress. This gave us the freedom to do the variety of things that you see on the site today.

Design
There was an Arc Humanities Press site hosted on Weebly prior to the creation of the consortium site. This became the template for our new website. Whereas WordPress gives developers more freedom than platforms like SquareSpace, Wix, and Weebly, it requires a little more technical skill to produce a professional looking website. To make design quicker, we use the Visual Composer plugin. Plugins are like apps for WordPress which extend its functionality. The plugin makes it easy to create great looking page layouts with little to no coding knowledge.

Fine-tuning of the website’s design is done using CSS code. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) instruct browser on how to display the bare-bones of a website. CSS is a fairly easy language to learn and provides a lot of control over the appearance of a website.

Responsive Design
If you are reading this, there is a high possibility that you are on a smartphone or tablet. Up to forty percent of visitors to this site do so through a mobile device. Developing a website that is easy to use and looks professional across a myriad of screen sizes is an important concern for modern web-design. Our website theme was designed to be responsive, but the way it rendered our product catalog made browsing book titles on a phone difficult. To deal with this we use the WPTouch Pro plugin to implement a special mobile theme whenever someone visits on a phone.Each browser has a User-Agent which indicates the browser, operating system, and device the browser is running on. Websites use these to determine how a site is rendered. This makes it easier to browse our website and look through the product catalog on phones.

Ecommerce
As a press, we want to sell books. We use the popular e-commerce plugin WooCommerce to manage and display the titles on our website. One of the biggest challenges for the site is that WooCommerce was not designed with book sales in mind. It is further complicated by the fact that we don’t sell the books on the site. Rather, our website directs buyers to our distribution partners ISD and NBN. These needs are dealt with using a few plugins as well as some custom PHP code.

Currently, we don’t have an automated process to export ONIX data to the website. The data must be exported, processed, and then uploaded to the website. This process is time-consuming so we are looking at options for a more direct solution in the future.

Encryption: HTTPS
The Internet can be a dangerous place and we want to make sure that you are safe when you visit our site. Sites that have encryption show “https” before their domain name rather than “http.” Modern browsers also generally show a green padlock next to the url to let you know that the encryption is working properly. Not only does HTTPS keep anyone from snooping on what you are viewing on our site, it gives you confidence that someone hasn’t switched out anything as the data travels between the server and your computer.

Analytics: Yes, We Are Watching You
We use Google Analytics to track visitors to our website. This gives us statistics about where people visit from and what pages they are viewing. Google Analytics doesn’t track IP Addresses, the equivalent of a mailing address for your computer, meaning that everyone is anonymous. Analytics allow us to determine if a particular page or product is popular or if a new interest in MIP–Arc books has appeared somewhere in the world. So whether you are from Goiânia, Brazil to Auckland, New Zealand, Beijing to London, thanks for visiting us.

By Caleb Molstad

 

 

 

 

Writing for The Past Imperfect series: A How-To Guide to the Easy Life

How did you figure out the format of a 30,000-word book?

So I had it easy. I wrote a 50,000-word book in 2014 and discovered that I really loved focusing in and writing an introduction and three chapters.  It seemed to me that the field of medieval studies really needed to get on board with shorter and edgier books, and I went to Leeds to pitch the idea.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that Simon Forde had already set up such a series and given it the brilliant title of The Past Imperfect.  So instead of trying to argue for a series with shorter books I found myself being asked what ideas I had for a book in the series.

Okay, so how did you figure out the topic?

That was the second way I had it easy.  I’ve been teaching a first-year introduction to medieval studies at University of Western Ontario for the past five years, and it’s been a tricky experience.  All the introductory texts available to me and written in the last couple of decades have a real lurch towards history, and our program at Western is explicitly interdisciplinary.  From the beginning I wanted to look at institutions, culture, ideas, art, literature, and especially religion, in addition to history.  So, the only solution that I could think of was to use freely available online websites.  This proved easy for some topics, such as manuscripts and their making, and tricky for others.  Websites for the crusades are too detailed or too polemic, and those for the early history of Islam are too polemic or too general, or both.  As a result I found myself digging into various older textbooks and scholarly works, and uploading single chapters here and there. I did a lot of scanning.

I felt strongly that one topic I should cover was the start of universities, which turned out to be rather tricky.  If you are avoiding Wikipedia, and I am, you have to pick individual universities to get a few squibs of information about their foundations.  The wonderful Fordham website put together over twenty years ago and still useful though gradually decaying, has some useful early statutes.  But the story of the founding of the universities has to be teased out, or I have to assign the whole class Charles Homer Haskins’ brilliant little book The Rise of the Universities from a wonky online scan that they won’t like at all, just for three hours of class discussion.  I had a similar problem with medievalism, which has a lot of fairly detailed analyses of specific texts but not so much in terms of introductory explanations and simple applications.  As a result, it occurred to me that combining the two, and researching the modern incarnation of the medieval university would be a good idea.  And it was.

What advice do you have for the actual research and writing of a Past Imperfect volume?

On the specifics of producing a provocative and edgy short-form publication I have the following pieces of advice:

look aslant at our subject, and think about some simple and provocative questions to set you off.  What was childhood really like?  (There was an article in a national Canadian newspaper in February that actually spent the first half on Philippe Ariès’ completely discredited theories about how parents did not love their children.)  Did Robin Hood exist?  There are lots of solid scholarly works on this now, but the last helpful general study was a long time ago.  Why are medieval numismatics important?  My students spent an avid hour in January this year investigating medieval coins, and thinking about how coinage would work in the multi-coinage world of the Middle Ages;

Write for an audience that is not scholarly: your grandmother, your first-year student, your brother-in-law, the general and engaged public that we all think we usually write for but really do not;

Figure out how to keep your focus very very tight on this project.  I did it by working and writing only on this project for a set period of time, and pushing everything (and I do mean everything) aside until it was done;

Don’t give too many papers on the project, as you will have too much material; I gave one paper at a very preliminary stage, when it was most useful to me, and after the book was submitted I gave a public talk on the subject and realized how much fun it was to talk about, which confirmed my sense that this kind of project is genuinely a public good;

Keep writing.  Don’t stop.  You need to break through the desire to be a graduate student and write a footnote once every fifty words or so.  Have faith that you know what you’re talking about and just talk about it.  You can put in very occasional footnotes, but if your prose normally bristles with annotations, you may have to take heroic measures or you may not be suited to doing this.  Which brings up the next point:

The tough one: think hard about whether you are really suited to kind of project.  I have a colleague who agreed in December to write four thousand words on one text he has known and loved for thirty years, for an encyclopedia-style volume.  Had he sat down on the day he agreed and written four thousand words (okay, maybe over the weekend), he would have had the job done, and he would have had the references he needed for the job at the tip of his brain.  However, he decided the only way to do the project was to work at the text for several weeks, then to read and reread every piece of criticism that had ever been written about the text, and then to read all the theoretical models that might be important for thinking about this text.  By the time he had done all that, he was prepped for fifty or ninety thousand words, but four thousand was completely impossible for him.  It took him several more months to shed all that extra knowledge and write the short piece as requested.  If you would experience the same urge to read and reread everything, the likelihood that you would be similarly paralyzed would be high.  If you could survive experiencing the urge to do all that and manage to curtail your scholarly desires, then perhaps you could do this project.

Any concluding thoughts?

I really had it easy on this project.  I picked a topic that we all know about, but that we do not necessarily really know about, and I got to investigate it from the lens of medievalism, which gave me a line to drive right through the argument. This allowed my focus to be fierce and clear.  And I produced the first book that my mother and my brothers and my aunts have read, and even my sister-in-law’s mother demanded a copy.  Since my previous total of books that I have written that were read by my family was zero, zilch, and bupkus, this is already a win.  Sadly, I do have to report that they tell me that this looks kind of easy and they could do it too.  So I had it easy, but apparently I made it look easy too.

by M.J. Toswell, University of Western Ontario, Canada

Writing Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great is not one of the neglected figures of history. Interest in him as the founder of a dynasty, a nation builder, a university founder, a scholar, a poet, a warrior, and, in latter days, even a lover, has, over the past millennium made him an all-round wonderful guy. For one Victorian writer, he was the “most perfect character in history.” When I was approaching the job of writing a new book about Alfred, it became clear that Alfred might, however, have benefited from a higher degree of neglect from some of his biggest fans.

Many historians, beginning with the Welsh bishop Asser, have invested a lot in Alfred’s reputation. Alfred died in 899, leaving behind him an unsteady peace with his Viking neighbours and a national defence system still under construction. The flattering biography written by Asser, one of Alfred’s favourites, was also incomplete at the time. Asser stopped writing in 893, when it seems new Viking wars and his own responsibilities as a bishop disrupted court life. Until the nineteenth century, historians took Asser at his word in all he said about Alfred. Then, however, new textual criticism revealed that Asser’s biography had picked up a few extra stories along the way, including the story about how Alfred had burnt some cakes at a moment when he was living as a refugee—the moment was real, the cakes not. Asser’s work varies in its reliability as history by modern standards, but scepticism about his authorship altogether, which found some followers in the 1960s, goes too far.

But what is the right degree of scepticism to employ when writing in a biographical tradition which came to life in the 890s? The ealdorman (or duke) Æthelweard (a distant cousin) boosted Alfred’s reputation as an author in a Latin Chronicle written in the 970s, and from there Alfred never looked back. William of Malmesbury, one of the most important of early medieval historians, made Alfred the pre-conquest hero of his History of the English Kings—written for one Alfred’s descendants. By the eighteenth century, Alfred’s biographers were crediting him with founding of the English constitution and creating most aspects of its legal system, which they believed to be the best in the world, ever. American revolutionaries and their English Tory enemies fought over Alfred’s story, so that by the time of the French Revolution he was both an Enlightened democrat and model monarch. His radical credentials were reiterated by biographers in the nineteenth century, until by the beginning of the twentieth century he found himself keeping company with proto-Nazis and White Supremacists. That this lumped the first “king of the Anglo-Saxons” together with the über-Aryan Vikings in the context of whacky racial theories is ironic, to say the least, and has unsurprisingly damaged his standing. More recent popular portrayals of Alfred have treated him as a bit “wet” beside the cooler Nordic invaders who terrorized England in his day, perhaps indicating a cultural divorce which will do him no harm in the long run.

My role in writing a new book about Alfred the Great in the Past Imperfect series has not been to rehabilitate or defend Alfred. What I have tried to do is not only place him in his historical context (though there is a fair bit of that), but also within his shifting contexts across history. I have drawn on recent scholarship that has begun to make Alfred look a bit more like a real person—with undoubted and important achievements, no doubt, but also with faults and limitations. Alfred himself muddied the waters from the beginning by establishing his own PR machine, which has been mis-represented as “propaganda”, a loaded word that in itself suggests a sinister characterization of Alfred in twentieth-century context. In his own time Alfred used all means available to defend what he believed in—including his own family’s power, but also the rule of law, as well as literature and art. He welcomed people from various nations across Europe, and their contributions to his kingdom. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he used the latest IT to tell his subjects of his ongoing achievements—its archive of the past, and year by year updates on current events, make it an extremely low band-width hybrid of blogging and tweeting, but serving similar purposes.

I hope I am forgiven for quoting the last sentence of my own contribution to the Alfredian avalanche: “Recovering from a Victorian reputation as the ‘most perfect’ person ever would certainly be difficult, especially for a man adopted by white supremacists, but a disabled youngest son, who lived homeless as a refugee, before re-founding and reforming his kingdom in the face of unrelenting violence, and a long-term hero of radicals and revolutionaries, might have a chance.”

By Daniel Anlezark

Demons in the Middle Ages Q&A

What is the book about?

The book looks at different ways that demons were understood in medieval Europe, from the era of the New Testament texts to the time of the witch hunts in the early modern era, so approximately 1500 years.

You say the book is about demons, but what exactly are demons?

Many cultures around the world include demons, or evil spirits, within their cosmologies. This book is focused on Western Christian culture, so the demons it discusses are those of Christian theology. In this belief system, demons are understood to have been created as good angels, which are purely spiritual beings. However they turned against God through pride and were thrown down out of Heaven; until the Day of Judgment at the end of time, their task is to tempt humans away from the proper love and respect of God and to torment dead sinners in Hell.

Your book is about belief in demons in the Middle Ages, but why did medieval people believe in demons?

As I show in the book, medieval people had inherited a Christian tradition going back to the Old Testament, Gospels, and New Testament letters, all of which spoke about demons. Indeed, Jesus Christ himself was believed to have been tempted by the Devil and to have exorcized demons from people. This gave enormous authority to the existence of demons for Christian believers. Then in the early Christian era, many lives that were written about the great saints contained episodes in which the saint was tempted by a demon or expelled demons from others, which further embedded the idea of demons in the Christian imaginary.

I’m not sure I believe in demons. Will your book tell me whether demons are real?

The book is about the way medieval people experienced the supernatural world, and to these people, demons were very real. As I show, to the monks who lived isolated lives of poverty, prayer, and contemplation in the deserts of North Africa, the existence and temptation of demons was a fact of life with which they had to deal, and about which they wrote handbooks for guidance. To the academics of the early universities, demons were a part of a properly hierarchized cosmos and so were as real to them as was God, angels, other humans, and animals. For ordinary people, demons were real as a means of explaining the misfortunes and accidents that befell them in their lives.

El Ángel Caído, in the Parque del Buen Retiro in Madrid, Spain, which was sculpted by Ricardo Bellver in 1877. Copyright: Juanita Feros Ruys.

Are the demons you write about necessarily evil?

In Christian belief, demons are necessarily and irretrievably evil. This is not the case for all cultures, and the daimons of ancient Greek philosophy, for instance (which influenced Christian conceptions of demons), were indifferent, being necessarily neither good nor evil. As I discuss, however, while some early Christian thinkers tried to argue that demons would be redeemed at the end of time, it was quickly established as orthodox belief that demons could never be saved and indeed, would never want to be, because their evil was so indelibly rooted in them.

Were medieval people afraid of demons?

As understood in Christian theology, demons were definitely something to be afraid of. Their purpose in life was to tempt humans away from God and have them die in an unrepentant state, so that they would be consigned to the torments of Hell for all eternity. The book outlines numerous cases where people reacted in terror, even to the point of paralysis, to their experience of demonic intervention. However, we need to remember that in medieval theology, demons as agents of evil were offset by the good angels, who worked to safeguard humans from demonic temptation, and it was generally believed that every human was protected by a personal guardian angel.

Do you talk about the difference between demons and the Devil?

Yes, this distinction was important to medieval people. Demons were believed to exist in hordes, but to most ways of thinking, there was always one supreme demon, generally known as the Devil, set above them all. In Christian belief, this Devil had been the brightest angel in Heaven, known as Lucifer (the Light-Bearer), who had through pride desired to be as great or greater than God, his creator. Upon being thrown down from Heaven for his rebellion and apostasy, he had become known as ‘Satan’, a Jewish term for an adversary, because he now became the eternal enemy of humankind. Many of the stories I recount in the book depict the Devil ruling as a judge or king over the other demons.

Will your book tell me what demons look like?

Because demons were understood as spiritual creatures (former angels), technically they had no body and should not have had a physical presence, but in fact the medieval accounts I discuss in the book are full of imaginative descriptions of demons. In the earliest Christian era, it was believed that only the highly spiritual could see demons, but increasingly throughout the Middle Ages, demons were represented in various forms. These varied widely, and in many cases we can see that these descriptions drew  from social and cultural prejudices, so that demons might be said to look like peasants, or have red hair, or appear as Scotsmen, or have hooked noses. Many sightings of demons describe them as animalistic, particularly in the frightening or disgusting (to medieval people) forms of bears, pigs, large black dogs, or apes. Sometimes their appearance is indeterminate, so that they might be experienced only as a strong wind or a bad smell. I also include a number of stories where demons took on forms to tempt the unsuspecting, appearing as knights, monks, beautiful women, or even saints and angels of light.

From British Library, Arundel 484, fol. 245.

What did you most enjoy discovering when you wrote about the medieval history of demons?

I really enjoyed researching  the work of the Scholastic or early university thinkers who wrote about demons. As I discuss in Chapter 3 of the book, these philosopher/theologians tried to parse out every aspect of demonic being, entering into long and detailed debates about the abilities and rights of demons in relation to human beings, whether they could feel emotions, and, using incipient scientific understandings of the functioning of the human body, how the mechanics of demonic temptation might work. As I show in my book, for these thinkers, demons were not only a theological reality but also an interesting intellectual problem.

By Juanita Feros Ruys

The Biggest Kingdom in Medieval Europe (that you’ve never heard of!)

By territory, what is the biggest kingdom in Medieval Europe?

  1. France
  2. England
  3. Germany (German Empire)
  4. Byzantium (Roman Empire)
  5. None of the above

If you answered “5” you are correct! While England and France are the two most well studied medieval kingdoms among American and Anglophone medievalists, they are not the largest by territory. This is despite the specificity they get on maps in modern textbooks. It is also not the German Empire which did cover a swath of central medieval Europe. Nor is it the Byzantine (Roman) Empire which for most of the Middle Ages was shrinking, not growing, in territory – despite the best efforts of Basil II.

The correct answer to the question is: the kingdom of Rus’. “What?” you may say or perhaps “Where?” Both are valid questions because not only was Rus’ the largest kingdom in medieval Europe it is also the most unknown. It is rarely talked about it in medieval European history textbooks or classes, and even the scholarship on it is largely consigned to “area studies” or “Slavic studies” subgenres rather than integrated into the larger world of medieval history.

There are many possible reasons for this relegation of the Kingdom of Rus’ to the margins, but one large one is simply the fact that until recently this kingdom was not even acknowledged as a kingdom at all! The publication by ARC Humanities Press of The Kingdom of Rus’ is the first attempt to make a clear claim that Rus’ was actually a kingdom – and in so doing shift the way that we think about medieval Europe.

The Kingdom of Rus’ focuses on correcting the idea that though the rulers of Rus’ have historically been called “princes” in English-language scholarship, they should be called “kings.” This historical preference for “prince” has lowered the profile of Rus’ such that it was a “principality” or a series of principalities rather than one kingdom. The natural inclination, in English, when hearing the title “prince” is to place it lower than a king, or certainly than an emperor. In so doing, not only was Rus’ territorially on the margins, but it was politically marginalized.

Yet this is really a modern, or more appropriately an early modern, phenomenon. In the medieval world, the ruler of Rus’ bore a title in Old East Slavic (kniaz’) that shared roots with konungr, cyning, and even king. Moreover, when we look at the titles given those Rusian (people from Rus’) rulers, they are typically titles such as konungr in Old Norse and rex in Latin. In fact, according to Karl Werner, Pope Gregory VII’s Register included “152 lay addressees…

including, besides forty-five kings, eighty princes: the dukes of Poland and Bohemia, the princes of Salerno, Capua and Benevento, dux Beatrix, Duke Godfrey and the Margravess Mathilda, the doge of Venice, Duke Robert Guiscard of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily, Margrave Azzo of Este, the dukes of Suabia, Bavaria, Carinthia, Lotharingia and Saxony, the margrave of the Saxon East Mark, the dukes of Normany, Acquitaine and Burgundy, the counts of Flanders, Brittany, Blois-Champagne, Anjou, Toulouse and Provence, to name only the most important.” Werner, “Kingdom and Property,” 243-44.

Where was Rus’ among that group? It was one of the forty-five kingdoms to which Pope Gregory VII sent letters. With all of the wealth of titles at his disposal, Pope Gregory VII opted to include the Rusian ruler not among the princes or dukes (two common modern titles for Rusian rulers) but among the kings. In so doing, Pope Gregory VII acknowledged Rus’ as one of the kingdoms of medieval Europe.

The Kingdom of Rus’ stands alongside other scholarship, including my own Reimagining Europe and Ties of Kinship, which make the point that Rus’ was part and parcel of the larger medieval European world. And in so doing, it helps to create a more accurate historical picture of medieval Europe that stretches from the Atlantic sea coast to the Ural Mountains and from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean.

Credit: Wittenberg University

Christian Raffensperger
Associate Professor of History
Wittenberg University

“Secreitis that I did not knaw”:  Reflections on editing Sir David Lyndsay’s Historie and Testament of Squyer Meldrum

It has been a real pleasure to edit the rollicking Historie of Squyer Meldrum for the forthcoming METS volume Six Scottish Pieces: Courtly and Chivalric Poems, Including Lyndsay’s ‘Squyer Meldrum,’ co-edited with Dr. Emily Wingfield of the University of Birmingham:  see her blog Part 1 and Part 2.

 

Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount’s coat of arms from the 1542 roll

The Historie and The Testament of Squyer Meldrum are a pair of poems by the early modern Scottish writer Sir David Lyndsay, now best known (if he is known at all) as the author of a vast satirical state-of-the-nation play called Ane Satire of the Thrie Estaitis. In the Historie of Squyer Meldrum, Lyndsay narrates the life of an early sixteenth-century laird from Fife, William Meldrum, in the manner of a medieval romance or chivalric biography. He assures his audience that Meldrum is someone “Quhais douchtines during his lyfe / I knaw my self” (“Whose valor during his life I know myself,” lines 30-31), and that “secreitis that I did not knaw, / That nobill squyer did me schaw” (lines 33-34).

Meldrum was indeed a real person, and the Historie deals largely with historical people, places, and events. The problem for its modern readers, and above all its editor, is that the events it narrates have been partially — and mischievously — fictionalised to a degree that is often impossible to measure at this distance in time. The section of my Introduction entitled “The Historie and History” has expanded and contracted like a drunk musician’s accordion as lines of enquiry have opened and fizzled out, and details which I had imagined to be uncontroversial swelled to monstrous size.

The Historie mostly recounts heroic adventures from a brief period of the squire’s youth: single-hand combat in Ireland and France; the daring capture of an enemy ship, and finally, his great love-affair with a woman about whom we are told nothing more than that she lives in a castle in Strathearn, a long valley on the northwestern edge of Fife (lines 856, 864), and that her husband “was deid schort tyme befoir” (line 865) The love-affair is cut tragically short by an ambush staged by a nameless “cruell knicht” (line 1191) who is determined to separate the lovers. Meldrum fights valiantly, as outnumbered as any hero of romance, but is eventually left for dead, his hamstrings gruesomely sliced through. After a slow and painful recovery, he finds employment with the kindly Lord Lyndsay of the Byres, at his seat at Struthers Castle in Fife. In a hurried conclusion, Lyndsay tells us that he worked for the Lords Lyndsay for the rest of his life, never marrying and remaining faithful to his darling “Sterne of Stratherne” (“star of Strathearn”, Testament line 230) who, however, drops abruptly out of the narrative after the ambush.

 

Portrait of James V by Corneille de Lyon

Lyndsay wrote the Meldrum-poems while in semi-retirement at his own Fife estate of the Mount near Cupar, but for most of his career Lyndsay was a man at the heart of the Scottish royal court, a personal companion of James V (r. 1513-42) right from the latter’s birth. As the king matured, Lyndsay became a herald and eventually Lyon King of Arms, managing court pageantry at the highest level and engaging in multiple diplomatic missions on the king’s or court’s behalf (Lyndsay outlived his king, dying in 1555 during the minority of the infant Mary, Queen of Scots). Many of his poems were addressed directly to King James, but they were also written with a wider audience in mind: his poems were often printed almost immediately after composition and they continued to be reprinted long after his death.

 

The Historie of Squyer Meldrum (Edinburgh: Charteris, 1594), now bound together with Charteris’ 1592 Warkis: shelfmark H.29.c.23[2]. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The Historie and Testament are a bit of an exception, however: there are no extant witnesses to these texts until the 1594 print on which the new METS edition is based. Although the Meldrum-poems were listed in the table of contents for the 1582 collected Warkis, they were not actually included in them, and they formed no part of the partial collections of his works printed in the 1550s or the expanded collection of Warkis that first appeared in 1568. This suggests that the Meldrum-poems survived in private hands, to be published only long after all the historical people mentioned in them had died. This impression of having been written for a private audience — probably the social circle associated with the Lords Lindsay at Struthers Castle — is supported by the poems themselves. In the Testament, which Lyndsay constructs as a dramatic monologue in the squire’s own voice, the fictionalised Meldrum addresses not only “My Lord Lindesay” and his lady (line 205), but the younger generation of Lyndsays: “Maister Patrik with young Normand, your brother; / With my ladies, your sisteris al” (lines 208-09). The Lords Lyndsay of the Byres were distant kinsmen of the poet, and Struthers Castle is within a few miles of the poet’s own seat at the Mount, near Cupar: this is a social circle that included the poet. Additionally, there are surviving legal documents relating to David Lyndsay’s affairs which were witnessed by Meldrum, proving that poet and subject were personally acquainted.

 

From “The Sherifdome of Fyfe,” in Blaeu’s Atlas of Scotland (Amsterdam, 1654), showing Struthers and the Mount. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland: http://maps.nls.uk/atlas/blaeu/browse/92

The apparent exclusiveness of the original audience for these poems, all acquainted with both Lyndsay and Meldrum, is one of the things that makes the tone of the Historie — and the accuracy of the biography it narrates — so difficult to gauge. A modern editor needs to trawl through the very incomplete historical record to learn that the squire’s unnamed “ladie” was one Marjorie Lawson, widow of Sir John Haldane of Gleneagles (in early modern Scotland women kept their maiden name in legal documents, making them mercifully easier to trace through multiple marriages). The original audience already knew who this figure was, along with the identity of the “cruell knicht” who arranged to separate the lovers (he still resists certain identification thanks to contradictions between the poem and the scant historical records). At least some of the poem’s original audience will have known exactly how famous — or otherwise — the squire really was in his youth; what kind of relationship he really had with Marjorie; who was involved in the fatal ambush (itself a documented fact) and what happened to all concerned. They will have been able to compare the version of events narrated by the poem to the one they already knew — ready-made dramatic irony that Lyndsay could exploit to the full without worrying that his audience would mistake his meaning.

As well as knowing the squire’s real history, this original private audience will have known the poet and the nature of his friendship with Meldrum. How serious is Lyndsay’s praise of Meldrum in these two poems? We struggle to read the signals, but the reason they are so difficult to read in the first place — again, unlike in Lyndsay’s other poems — is that the original audience did not need them. Sections of my introduction were written and rewritten as I oscillated between seeing the poem as out-and-out roasting of a tiresome old windbag, and a much more affectionate and genuine tribute, albeit one mixed with teasing.

Lyndsay certainly knows how to tease, and it can be helpful to look at how he does it elsewhere. The third poem I have edited for Six Scottish Pieces is Lyndsay’s “Answer to the Kingis Flyting.” A “flyting” in ordinary Scots usage was a quarrel or a scolding, but flyting was also, in Scotland, a poetic genre in which the exchanges of insults and torrents of imaginative abuse were cast in complex verse to become a formal contest of poetic virtuosity. King James had clearly launched an opening attack on Lyndsay (now lost, assuming it had existed in the first place), and the extant poem is the avuncular Lyndsay’s deft reply. The witty (not to mention dangerous) balance between insult and affection in this address to his monarch shows just how adept Lyndsay was at teasing without causing offence, or — to look at it from the other side — at putting his finger delicately on the flaws in an otherwise admirable figure. Beginning with a humble address to James as his “Redoutit roy” (“Formidable king”, line 1), by the end Lyndsay gets away with describing him as “Ay fukkand lyke ane furious fornicatour” (line 49: James was infamously fond of the ladies). Could the Testament of Squyer Meldrum be a different form of teasing? But here is where the question of audience becomes even more acute: did the real Meldrum form part of it?

At first glance, it would appear not. The Historie concludes with the squire’s death: “Thus at the Struther into Fyfe, / This nobill squyer loist his lyfe” (lines 1589-90). The latest record of the real Meldrum is as a witness to a charter drawn up at Struthers on July 25, 1550, so he is assumed to have died not long after this and the poem is accordingly dated ‘ca. 1550’ by all modern editors. The “Date of the Poem” section of my introduction should not detain me long, I thought complacently. But although The Historie works well as an elegy for an old friend, the Testament that follows it makes for much less comfortable reading if one assumes it is about a recently deceased friend, and I kept returning to this problem as to a loose tooth. Unlike the Historie, The Testament is cast in Meldrum’s own voice: he orders up a funeral so extravagant that it would have rivalled that of James V himself (and Lyndsay would know, since he had organised the latter in his capacity of Lyon King of Arms); he boasts appallingly about the distress his death will cause to the ladies of Scotland, England, Ireland, and France, and he drifts off into outright fantasy with orders to display his arms and quasi-saintly relics at imaginary temples of Mercury, Mars, and Venus. He reveals at last that the highly complimentary Historie was in fact a commissioned ” legend of my life” which was designed to be declaimed at his funeral by “ane oratour” (lines 167, 164): “Quhen he hes red my buik fra end till end, / And of my life maid trew narratioun, / All creature, I wait, will me commend,” he concludes smugly (lines 169-71).

The pompous contrast with the attractive squire of Historie, who had modestly waved away all praise for his splendid deeds, comes as a shock — at least to us, who have nothing but the preceding Historie to go on. Nevertheless, such a negative impression of the squire’s character remains hard to square with the genuine pleasure of reading the Historie: its affectionate warmth and sheer fun feels irreconcilable with the overt satire in the brief and startling coda of the Testament, particularly if one assumes Meldrum to be dead and this his epitaph. But what if the poem were composed before 1550, with Meldrum himself a part of the audience? This would transform the satirical dramatic monologue of the Testament — perhaps performed by Lyndsay to Meldrum in front of assembled acquaintances — from a damning epitaph to a splendidly mischievous tease, inviting a response from Meldrum in the same way that a flyting would. This simple change in the dating of the poem, and thus its imagined audience, would bring the Testament into line with the jovial tone of the Historie.

There is one detail in the Testament which may support a dating within Meldrum’s lifetime. The fictionalised Meldrum appoints three members of Lord Lyndsay’s family as his executors: “David Erll of Craufuird” (David Lindsay, ninth earl of Crawford, who died in 1558); “my maister special,” John, fifth Lord Lindsay of the Byres (died 1563), and “The wise Sir Walter Lindesay . . . / Lord of St Johne, and knicht of Torfichane, / Be sey and land ane vailyeand capitane” (lines 26-28). Sir Walter Lindsay was preceptor of Torphichen priory, the Scottish headquarters of the order of the knights of St. John of Jerusalem (hence “Lord of St Johne”), or the “Hospitallers.”

Remains of Torphichen Preceptory (photo credit: Jim Knowles, West Lothian Archaeological Trust)

Although there has been some editorial controversy in the past as to when this Walter died, it can now be proven that he was dead by March 1547. If the Meldrum-poems were written after Meldrum’s death in 1550, we would have to accept that Lyndsay assigned to him an executor whom everyone knew to be dead. Maddeningly, this is not entirely impossible: Sir Walter is described as one “Quhilk knawis the coistis of feistis funeral” (“who knows the costs of funeral ceremonies,” line 25). Is this a sly allusion to Walter’s own funeral? But it is an awkward and unmotivated joke if so, whereas one can assume that the head of the Scottish knights of St John — a man who was almost certainly a veteran of the grim defence of Rhodes in 1522 — would have been more than familiar with chivalric funerals. The simpler reading of Walter’s inclusion here is that, at the time of writing, Sir Walter was as alive as his fellow executors, and this means that Meldrum was too.

 

Remains of monument to Sir Walter Lindsay at Torphichen Preceptory (photo credit: Jim Knowles, West Lothian Archaeological Trust)

Am I happy with my “Date of the Poem” section now? “Happy” is a relative term for editors: I am satisfied that I have done all I can to solve this problem. I think.

By Rhiannon Purdie, University of St Andrews

Rhiannon Purdie is Senior Lecturer in Medieval English and Older Scots at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. In 2016 she spent a semester as a Fulbright Research Scholar at the Robbins Library, University of Rochester.