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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:

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.

A Public Medievalist’s Little Red Book

Review: Richard Utz, Medievalism: A Manifesto (Kalamazoo and Bradford: ARC Humanities Press, 2017). 95 pages, $15.00/£11.99.

Reviewed by Paul B. Sturtevant (

Over the past generation, the humanities have been changing immensely—both due to pressures from within as well as from without. Long gone are the days, if they ever really existed in the first place, of the cloistered ivory tower academic, whose sole job was to dutifully retreat from the world into a quasi-monastic world of study, commentary, and teaching the occasional novice.

And good riddance, too. Many academics have chafed at the increasing pressures from government initiatives and University directives to increase their public engagement. But a new crop of scholars have taken on this mantle with enthusiasm. And while it may not necessarily be where the public might expect this to arise, several scholars in the dusty-seeming discipline of medieval studies have been leading the charge.

It is because of this context that Medievalism: A Manifesto by Richard Utz, part of the Past Imperfect Series at ARC Humanities Press, is so important. It offers an affordable, much-needed call-to-arms to those medievalists still on the fence about working for, among, and with the public. This book—especially its final chapter, which comprises the real “manifesto” of the volume—should be required reading for every medieval studies Ph.D., and taped to the door of many a public history professor. For some, many of its ideas will seem obvious, while for others they may offer a profound challenge; but this fact says more about the current state of the professoriate than about this text.

Like every good manifesto, this little volume is stuffed with heretical ideas. The first chapter, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?: The Middle Ages, Ourselves” is a case study of pulling down the sacred cow of some historians: total objectivity. Utz weaves together the story of his parents and his own coming to love the Middle Ages with a brief overview of the state of the field. The heretical idea here is that no medievalist, no matter what some may profess, is cut off from broader cultural ideas about the Middle Ages—in short, that they can never, nor should they, truly remove themselves (and their passions) from their work.

The second sacred cow that Utz attacks, in Chapter 2, is that of unquestionable academic authority. Medieval studies, as a discipline, began very much as an amateur affair. But since its nineteenth-century beginnings, the field has rent itself from, and placed itself above, the “mere” amateur love of medievalia. This professionalization was a good, perhaps even necessary thing. But the consequence is a current world where most medievalists only talk to other medievalists, writing in high-status but low-readership journals in an impenetrable language of their own creation.  This system is not just unsustainable, it’s morally wrong. Scholars have an obligation to not just to uncover new knowledge, but disseminate it to the best of their ability.

The next three chapters form a sort of second part of the book, each marked out as an “intervention”. Each intervention (in Eastern Bavaria, Atlanta, and within the world of religion) outlines a different plot of fertile soil for the interested public medievalist. In all of these locations, there are ready ways in which medievalists can, and should, engage with the public to positive effect, to present a more complex and nuanced image of the past and its relationship with the present and future.

The final chapter, as mentioned previously, is the best of a good bunch (probably because it is the most direct and concise). In it, Utz presents six brief manifestos for the public medievalist. They, boiled to their essences, are:

  1. Medievalists are not so different from other lovers of the Middle Ages;
  2. The best work in medieval studies recognizes the history of the public’s engagement with the topic;
  3. Medievalists should tear down the barriers to understanding our subjects, and write not just for our colleagues, but for everyone;
  4. Academic hiring and promotion committees should recognize, reward, and incentivize good public engagement;
  5. The amateur interest in the Middle Ages in our culture is a blessing, not a curse; medievalists should embrace it, use it, and learn from it; and
  6. Traditional academia has its place, but the world needs a new kind of medievalist—one unafraid to engage with reception, popular debates, the media, and accessibility.

Taken together, these form a powerful call for medievalists to go forth and engage with the broader public, to create, in his words, “a more truly co-disciplinary, inclusive, democratic and humanistic engagement with what we call, for better or worse, the Middle Ages” (87). While the rest of the book should not be skipped, if you must read only one chapter, read this one.

From the above, it should be obvious that I feel strongly that this book is not just good, but necessary. That said, it does slip up in a few places—not least occasionally falling victim to a problem of “do as I say, not as I do”. To its extreme credit, ARC Humanities Press has offered it for $15/£12 (and as an e-book for less) which lowers one barrier to entry considerably. But some of the other barriers remain. For or example, Utz rightly castigates other medievalists for speaking only into their particular echo chambers in a language needlessly riddled with convoluted constructions, opaque jargon, and assumptions of prior knowledge. But, especially in the first two chapters, I found that Utz employed some of this very style, which left me occasionally scratching my head. To his credit, Utz admits its seductive power over him. Speaking of the BABEL group, he admits:

their demiurgic polysyllabicity, which I personally find exhilarating, may present an insurmountable barrier for those amateurs who have never called the “ruined towers of the post-historical university” their home” (22).

Yes, this is a book by a medievalist and for medievalists. And yes, in order to be “taken seriously” among some academics, there may be a need to flex one’s proverbial polysyllabic muscles, and simply name-drop all the academics a reader “should be expected to have read” (pity the poor master’s student who picks up this book). But if one is to increase accessibility through increased comprehensibility, the work, as they say, begins at home. I do not fault Utz for writing a book that shouts into the very echo chambers that he criticizes. It is there that this message needs to be heard. But I do hope that his next monograph is written for a wider audience.

All that being said, it remains a worthwhile book, with messages that deserve to be read and repeated. While it does not mark the beginning of the effort towards vigorous public engagement among medievalists, it can be hoped that this volume might consider more of them to join the cause.

Disclosure: This reviewer received a free copy of the book in exchange for this review.

This article is posted twice. You can also find it on Public Medievalist website:

Gendering Death in Middle English Translations of the Epistre Othea

Middle English writers, regardless of their knowledge of classical myth, occasionally swap genders of characters in Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea (c. 1400), a work in which Christine’s invented goddess Othea instructs Hector of Troy in virtues, including those that might help him avoid his own death. The two independent fifteenth-century translations, Stephen Scrope’s Epistle of Othea (c. 1440-60) and the anonymous Lytle Bibell of Knyghthod (c. 1450), both misrepresent women as men, sometimes by accident, and at least once, I argue, to signal participation in alternative iconographical and textual discourses.

Stephen Scrope initially uses the masculine pronoun “his” for Echo in the texte of two manuscripts and the feminine “hire” in the third, but all three manuscripts correctly identify her as a “womman” in the glose (chapter 82). The translator of the Lytle Bibell of Knyghthod admonishes the reader not to be like “Narcisus the mayd,” followed by feminine pronouns throughout (chapter 16), although Narcissus is a “yong man” when he is the object of Echo’s affections (chapter 82). These alterations represent clear misunderstandings and I would suggest, in the Bibell’s female Narcissus, a stereotypical association of women with pride. However, the confusion of Atropos, a female Fate, as male in both translations should be traced instead to contemporary images of Death in the later Middle Ages.

In classical texts, the three Fates control the threads of all human lives: Clotho weaves, Lachesis measures, and Atropos cuts each life thread. Because the final task falls to Atropos, it is easy to see how she became associated with Death. In Christine’s three-part chapter, a poetic texte introduces Atropos, a moralizing glose warns the reader to remember that death that will eventually come, and a spiritual allegorie clarifies that Atropos signifies death and ultimately should evoke the Resurrection and eternal life for Christian audiences (chapter 34).

Christine supervised the production of illuminated miniatures in Paris, BNF fr. 606 and London, British Library, Harley MS 4431. The image marks Atropos as a woman with a bared and sagging breast even before the texte introduces her:

Harley 4431 fol. 111r


Ayes a toute heure regart
A Atropos et a son dart
Qui fiert et n’espargne nul ame;
Ce te fera penser de l’ame. Gabrielle Parussa, ed. Epistre Othea (Geneva: Droz, 1999), chapter 34, lines 2-5.

[At all times have regard for Atropos and her spear, who strikes and spares no soul; that will make you think of your soul.]

In the image, Atropos menaces the Pope and princes, as well as other figures without ornate headgear, illustrating how Atropos-Death spares no soul and is the great equalizer.

The French term for death, “la mort,” is grammatically feminine and would seem to lend itself to a feminine personification, but Middle English lacked such gendered nouns, and late medieval writers in general were less strict about matching the genders of personified figures to French or Latin nouns. Without access to the illumination, there is but one textual indicator that Atropos is female: Christine’s use of the feminine past participle, in the first line of the allegorie: “Atropos, qui est nottee la mort” [Atropos, who is noted as death]. In medieval manuscript copies, the feminine “ee” ending could be obscured, misread, or willfully ignored by a scribe or translator, but that may not have mattered for English poets who likely imagined Death as a masculine entity.

The skeletal and presumably male figure of Death was far more common as a Christian image than Christine’s complex and unusual image of Atropos-Death.Millard Meiss, “Atropos-Mors: Observations on a Rare Early Humanist Image,” in Florilegium Historiale: Essays Presented to Wallace K. Ferguson, ed. J. G. Rowe (Toronto, 1971), pp. 151-59, notes that Christine’s female Death is unusual.  Even early printed editions of the Othea, retitled Les cent histoires de Troy [The Hundred Stories of Troy], by Pigouchet, LeNoir, and Wyer (in English translation) revert to presenting Atropos as a threatening skeleton.

Pigouchet, Les cent histoires (c. 1499/1500)

Neither Scrope nor the Bibell translator had access to Christine’s image of Atropos, and in the English literary milieu, male images of Death predominate. Chaucer’s thieves in The Pardoner’s Tale set out to find and kill a male Death (e.g., lines 699-700, 710, etc.). Death in Piers Plowman leaves no man standing in battle and is marked by masculine pronouns (C.22.96-105). Lydgate depicts Death as a male swinging “his sythe [scythe]” in The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man (lines 24825-828), a translation of Guillaume de Deguileville’s Le pèlerinage de la vie humaine, which originally featured an old woman as Death.Text from Geoffrey Chaucer, Riverside Chaucer, ed. by Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987); William Langland, Piers Plowman: The C-Text, ed. Derek Pearsall (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1978); and John Lydgate, The Pilgrimage of the life of Man, ed. F. J. Furnivall, EETS, e.s. 77, 83, 92, 3 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1899-1904). However, Lydgate recognizes that the Fate Atropos is female: in Troy Book 3.4925 and Fall of Princes 1.5006-33 and 3.3665-78, he refers to Atropos as feminine and to the Fates unambiguously as three sisters (by name in these instances but also elsewhere collectively).John Lydgate, Fall of Princes, ed. Henry Bergen, EETS, e.s. 121,122, 123, 124, 4 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1924–27); and Lydgate’s Troy Book, ed. Henry Bergen, EETS, e.s. 97, 103, 106, 126, 4 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1906–35). Death is male, but Atropos is female.

As a result, Atropos becomes male for our English translators, eliding the dual genders present in Christine’s complex allegorical interpretation. Scrope uses a male pronoun and also errs in his translation of Christine’s texte, which tells readers to take heed, “Bothe to Acropos crafte and to his spede [strength].” Perhaps Scrope misread “dart” as “d’art,” which explains the translation of “crafte,” but the reference to strength is his addition. The Bibell translator’s rhyme royal stanza expands significantly on Christine’s figure:

Take hede alsoe toward Attropos,
Whose dolefull dart confoundyth many a knyght.
For thee were better be take among thi fooes
Then to abyde the sterne stroke of hys myght.
To hym perteyneyth the eend of every wyght.
He spareth nother hye nor lowe degre.
He is full hard; in hym is no pyte. (Chapter 34, lines 1-7)

The five instances of masculine pronouns leave no doubt that the Bibell translator imagines a strong, stern, malevolent male Atropos. Both translators, when imagining the figure that will cut down Hector of Troy and other accomplished knights, can only conceive of a strong man.

This may be particularly true for the Bibell translator, who inserts Atropos into later chapters 90-91 that depict the circumstances of Hector’s death. Christine’s Othea laments Hector’s impending demise, and Christine uses the narrative to instruct her reader in virtues Hector failed to acquire. But the Bibell translator presents a voice assertively insisting that death would be forestalled if Hector would just exercise the appropriate virtues:

Remembre wel alsoe that thou schall dye,
Werof the tyme I schew by my wordes certeyn.
Atrops schal withdraw hys hand to [until] thou disobey
Kyng Priamus, thi fader, wyche schal do hys peyn
Thee to require [entreat] and make turn ageyn
Fro the journey [battle] dolorous. Wefor, therof bewarre,
For to [until] this performed be, deth schal ey thee spare. (Chapter 90, lines 1-7)

The opening of the next chapter reports the specific way Hector will die and dangles the prospect of his salvation before Hector/the reader:

Yet I schal thee tell how thou schalt escape
The grett stroke of Atrops, yf it so wyl be. (Chapter 91, lines 1-2)

In the Bibell’s formulation, Atropos will restrain the fatal blow and Hector could plausibly escape death if he is virtuous (and not stooping, unarmed to despoil a king’s corpse). Death becomes what Hector and all readers are ultimately fighting and arming themselves to battle. By rendering Atropos masculine, the Bibell translator creates a central antagonist opposed to Hector and every bit Hector’s equal in strength, hardiness, and masculinity.

Such a move denies a female classical figure control over late medieval Christian readers, and both translations blunt Christine’s provocative image. But whether the translators accidentally misunderstood or actively removed a potentially feminist image, their translations demonstrate the power of dominant (read: male) iconographic and textual traditions over Christine’s more imaginative, female exemplar of Death.

By Misty Schieberle, University of Kansas

The Donkey and the Boat

When looking at the history of the eleventh-century commercial upturn in the Mediterranean – which accompanied a similar upturn in the North Sea, focussed on Flanders – many historians have not got significantly beyond the conceptual framework of Roberto Lopez’s work, summarised in his The commercial revolution of 1971, for whom, as he schematically put it, demographic growth caused agricultural progress, which in its turn caused more surpluses which could be traded; this, plus the ‘freedom and power’ of Italian cities – unlike their Muslim counterparts – and their flexible commercial contracts and credit operations, was enough to make the ‘European’ commercial revolution of the central middle ages happen.

Actually, when Lopez rounded off his career with that synthesis, it was already out of date. Cairo does not appear in its index, but in 1967 Shelomo Goitein had published the first volume of his A Mediterranean society, about the commercial activities of the communities of Cairo Jews whose Judeo-Arabic letters and documents, above all from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, were thrown into the geniza – not an archive, but a huge waste paper bin, hundreds of thousands of bits of paper – of the Ben Ezra synagogue, one of the two main synagogues of Fusṭāṭ, Cairo’s commercial sister city, in our period. Geniza scholarship has been highly active ever since, in the hands of Goitein’s pupils and their pupils; in recent years by far the most significant book on geniza economic issues has been Jessica Goldberg’s Trade and institutions in the medieval Mediterranean, of 2012. From all this work, a clear picture of a Mediterranean-wide trade by Jewish merchants could be established. It started in the late tenth century, well before the Italian cities got a look in, and was focussed on selling Egyptian flax to Muslim-ruled Sicily and Tunisia to be made into linen cloth and sold on, whether inside those two regions, or on to Muslim Spain, or back to Egypt.

The network of the geniza has, by now, been added to the western-centred picture which Lopez inherited from his predecessors. It is now generally recognised that the Pisans, Genoese and Venetians simply added themselves to this network by force, and in the twelfth century they established trade treaties with the major Muslim powers (as also with Byzantium) which gave them the same sort of rights that local merchants had. The Italians largely took over the carrying trade by 1200 or so, shifting much of it northwards, as Lopez and indeed his nineteenth-century predecessors thought already, and it stayed that way.

This picture isn’t in itself dramatically wrong. But it is partial, and misleading because it is partial. Because just a thought about basic economics will remind you that most exchange isn’t trans-Mediterranean shipping, but local, and then regional. You have to grow produce, raise animals or mine metal and stone locally; you then often have to turn them into artisanal products such as clothing and iron tools, either locally or somewhere accessible; only then do you have something to be traded, either locally/regionally (which is the commonest situation) or interregionally. Who produces? Who sells? Who buys? Where does the motor of exchange start, and what keeps it going? Those are the questions which are going to give form to the infrastructure of exchange. The maritime network depends entirely on that infrastructure; without it, the goods won’t even get to the coast. If you start with the maritime network, it is only too common for historians to neglect the local, sometimes almost entirely; it is less sexy, more workaday. It gets mentioned casually and then moved on from; it isn’t analysed in any detail. But it is the core; you need to start from there if you want to understand the economic system as a whole. And this means studying the donkey, not the boat. In this lecture, I will look at Egypt and Sicily across a long eleventh century, European regions which have dramatically different source-bases for the period (above all letters in Egypt, archaeology in Sicily) to see what insights can be gained by doing just that.
By Chris Wickham

See Chris Wickham speak at the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies!



The Dance of Death and #WhanThatAprilleDay17

As avid lovers of all things dark and spooky, Elizaveta Strakhov and I are thrilled to be editing a volume of Middle English poems on death. The centerpiece of our collection is John Lydgate’s Dance of Death, a fifteenth-century translation of a French poem about the Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre.

The Dance of Death

As famously illustrated by Hans Holbein and others, the Dance of Death was a popular visual and poetic motif throughout late medieval Europe. A personified Death, often represented as a skeleton, addresses individuals from every level of society, from the Pope down to the hermit and the lowly laborer, and compels them to “dance” with him.

The End of Mankind, Hans Holbein the Younger 1497/1543, National Gallery of Art

In the Verba Auctoris (Words of the Translator) Lydgate explains how he saw the Danse macabre, a French literary version of the motif, written on the walls of the Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris, and how the clerics there encouraged him to make an English version, which was then installed on the walls of St. Paul’s Churchyard in London:

Like the exawmple which that a Parise                                 Paris
I fownde depicte ones on a walle,                                         once
Ful notabely as I reherce shal.                                              as I will tell
Ther of Frensshe clerkes taking acqueyntaunce,                 French clerics; making
I toke on me to translaten al
Owte of the Frensshe Macabrees daunce.
Bi whos avyse and cownseille atte leste,                              advice and counsel, at last
Thurh her sterynge and her mocioune,                                 their;guidance; counsel
I obeyed unto her request,
Therof to make a pleyne translacioun                                   complete translation
In Inglisshe tunge, of entencioun                                          Into the English language
That prowde folkes, whiche that ben stoute and bolde,        valiant and brave
As in a myrrowre toforn yn her reason
Her owgly fyne may clierli ther beholde.* Text from The Dance of Death, Edited From MSS. Ellesmere 26/A.13 and B.M. Lansdowne 699, Collated with the Other Extant MSS., ed. Florence Warren, intro. Beatrice White, EETS o.s. 181 (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), 2-4. Glosses and punctuation are our own.                             ugly end
*As in a mirror, in advance, in their mind, / their ugly end may clearly there behold.

The sixteenth-century antiquarian and chronicler John Stow had this to say about the St. Paul’s Dance:

There was also one great Cloyster on the north side of this church inuironing a plot of ground, of old time called Pardon church yard, wherof Thomas More, deane of Pauls, was either the first builder, or a most especiall benefactor, and was buried there. About this Cloyster, was artificially and richly painted the dance of Machabray, or dance of death, commonely called the dance of Pauls: the like whereof was painted about S. Innocents cloyster at Paris in France: the meters or poesie of this dance were translated out of French into English by Iohn Lidgate, Monke of Bury, the picture of death leading all estates, at the dispence of Ienken Carpenter, in the raigne of Henry the sixt. In this Cloyster were buryed many persons, some of worship, and others of honour: The Monuments of whome, in number and curious workemanship, passed all other that were in that Church. John Stow, A Survey of London (London: 1603), 329.

In its original setting in the St. Paul’s Churchyard, the Danse Macabre would have been situated in a rich multisensory context: the center part of the churchyard would have featured tombstones, including the increasingly elaborate transi tombs favored by fifteenth-century nobles. (Transi tombs, also known as cadaver tombs, were an elaborate vogue in funerary sculpture, whereby a desiccated or decaying image of the tomb’s bearer was carved into its lid.)

Tomb of a Gentlewoman, British Library MS Additional 37049, fol. 32v

Merchants and food-sellers who set up shop in the areas outside the churchyard would have passed through with carts of merchandise. The nearby charnel house must have smelled — if not of decaying flesh, then of lime and other methods used to mask the scent. A viewer/reader of the Dance would have heard chants and prayers from within the cathedral and associated chantry chapels as he or she walked among the arcades where the Dance was displayed.

Such visitors might have sought out the panels that spoke most to their situation — or they might have avoided them, since the poem casts a critical eye on most levels of society. For example, the poem offers this exchange between Death and the “Gentlewoman Amerous”:

Dethe to the Gentilwoman amerous
Come forthe, maistresse of yeres yonge and grene,                     mistress; fresh
Whiche holde yowre self of beaute sovereyne.                              sovereign, e.g. the highest
As feire as ye was sumtyme Pollicene                                           fair, once; Polyxena
Penelope and the quene Eleyne.                                                   Helen
Yitte on this daunce thei wented bothe tweyne,                             Yet; both; two
And so shul ye for al yowre straungenesse.                                   despite; haughtiness
Though daunger longe yn love hathe led yow reyne,                     power; reign
Arested is yowre chaunge of dowblenesse.                                   halted; faithlessness

The Gentilwoman answereth
O cruel dethe that sparest noon astate,                                         no estate
To olde and yonge thow arte indefferente!                                     indifferent
To my beaute thou haste i-seide check-mate.
So hasti is thi mortal jugemente,                                                    swift
For yn my yowthe this was myn entente:
To my servyce many a man to a lured.                                           to have lured
But she is a fole, shortli in sentemente,                                          fool; concisely;
That in her beaute is to moche assured. Text from The Dance of Death, Edited From MSS. Ellesmere 26/A.13 and B.M. Lansdowne 699, Collated with the Other Extant MSS., ed. Florence Warren, intro. Beatrice White, EETS o.s. 181 (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), 56. Glosses and punctuation are our own.                                        too much

As it is often portrayed in medieval literature, Death functions in the Lydgate Danse Macabre not as just an end to life. It is also functions as an active reminder that the living must prepare themselves for this act of leave-taking by settling their accounts, reconciling with their loved ones and generally amending their ways to ensure a good death and salvation in the life thereafter. The stanza, in particular, reminds the young and flighty of the transient and ephemeral nature of physical beauty and worldly possessions.

Beyond the Dance of Death

On #WhanThatAprilleDay17, which celebrates the beauty and glory of weird old languages, we are thrilled to present some of our favorite Middle English poems about death. Our collection includes a number of poems that, like Lydgate’s Dance of Death, feature a dialogue between Death and those about to be compelled to “trace the footyng” of his dance. But fifteenth-century writers were preoccupied with death on a broad scale, and we came across many fascinating poems that we ultimately had to leave out of our collection.

One of the most interesting categories of writing about death concerns the physical signs of the approach of death. The Proprietates Mortis (Properties of Death) poems are short pieces that derive from Latin originals. They are found in medical collections, where their practical purpose is evident, but they also appear in anthologies dedicated to more spiritual concerns, where they could have been used as a meditative aid for Christians contemplating their own mortality. Here, they serve as a reverse sort of blazon, where instead of physical beauty, the body is anatomically detailed in its decay and corruption. Two Middle English versions are included in Carleton Brown’s English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century. The version found in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 416 follows (the glosses and punctuation are our own):

Whanne thyn hewe bloketh,                                                          complexion; becomes pale
And thi strengthe woketh,                                                              diminishes
And thy nose coldeth,                                                                    grows cold
And thy tonge foldeth ,                                                                   speech fails
And thi soule the atgeeth,                                                              goes out from
Sore thee shal rewe Severely;                                                       regret
Olde synnes and new,
That thou noldest wepen                                                                did not weep
And thi synnes leten,                                                                      relinquish
Whanne thou shalt underfon                                                          suffer
After thou hast here don.
On the flore me thee strecceth,                                                      on the floor I lay you out
Of thee me litel recceth,                                                                 rate, value
Tho that hast be so proud.
Ne shaltow have but a clout,                                                          Nor shall you; shred of clothing
Gif thou wouldest that here wyten                                                  If you would have purified yourself while you were alive
Thanne were thou not biswyken. English Lyrics of the XIIth Century, ed. Carleton Brown (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1932), 221.                                                    deceived

These poems about the process of death take a keen interest in the human body, but they are outdone by poems that describe the process of decomposition and putrefaction that occurs. The Disputation Between the Body and the Worms is probably the best-known example of this genre, evocatively illustrated in London, British Library MS Additional 37049, a Carthusian miscellany from the fifteenth century.

The Disputation Between the Body and the Worms, British Library MS Additional 37049, fol. 34v

Cambridge, Trinity College MS B.14.39 contains another evocative example, written in thirteenth-century Middle English. We quote the text and translation provided by Margaret Laing:

Ex cerebro bufo. De spina scorpio. Venter
Asscaridum vermem. Lubrica lingua parit
Ex pulmone trahit quoddam genus asspidis ortum
Wose warit wid prute abeit amadde;
Of heore brein wl waccen a cade.
A worim of herre tunke. That maden her lesunge
On neddre of herre liste; that liveden vid onriste
Fli scuite niid & onde; ther comit of scome and sconde
Of herre vombe wacchet onglitauaches
That glutit and livit bilacches
The woriste neddre in the rug bon
Of the letchore wacces on
Asse this bitit in dede liche; bitit the soule in helle piche
Iesus that is us alle boven; leit us alle to mercie comen.

From the brain a toad. From the spine a scorpion. The stomach
(produces) a thread-worm. From the tongue appears a maw-worm
From the lungs a certain kind of viper derives its origin.
Whoso fares with pride they are driven mad,
From their brain will wax a caddis;
A worm from their tongue who here told lies;
An added from their lights who lived in wrongdoing (with unright);
A fly shows malice and envy that come from shame and disgrace.
From their belly wax (or wake) maw-worms
(Those) that glut themselves and live by laziness.
The worst adder in the back-bone
Of the lecher waxes alone.
As this happens in the dead body it happens to the soul in the pitch of hell.
Jesus who is above us all, let us all come to mercy. “Confusion ‘wrs’ Confounded: Writing Systems,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 100.3 [1999]: 270

In honor of #WhanThatAprilleDay17, we’ve also filmed a video of Megan reading this poem out loud. Enjoy!

Death was a multifaceted concept in late medieval England, almost as varied and adaptable as Middle English itself — the poems included here represent just a tiny slice of Death’s appearances in late medieval literature.

by Megan Cook and Elizaveta Strakhov


A Lydgatian Christine de Pizan?: The Lytle Bibell of Knyghthod (c. 1450)

A Lydgatian Christine de Pizan?: The Lytle Bibell of Knyghthod (c. 1450)

One would not expect that Christine de Pizan could be confused easily with John Lydgate, and yet the 1808 Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts identifies a work in British Library Harley MS 838 as “An old Peom [sic], upon Hector of Troy, with the Glose, & Moralite; perhaps by Lidgate.” About a century later (1909), Lydgate scholar and Troy Book editor Henry Noble MacCracken correctly identified the work as a Middle English translation of Christine’s Epistre Othea. James D. Gordon (1942) then edited the work and bestowed upon it the subtitle “A ‘Lytil Bibell of Knyghthod,’” a title I have adopted to distinguish this work from other versions of the Othea.

Christine’s Epistre depicts her invented goddess of prudence, Othea, advising Hector of Troy how to be a worthy and chivalric leader by transforming 100 classical myths into exempla illustrating worldly and spiritual virtues. Each chapter includes a poetic texte, a glose moralization with learned citations of philosophers, and a spiritual allegorie with quotations from Church Fathers and the Latin Vulgate. Along the way, Christine stakes her claim to intellectual authority and defends women against antifeminist stereotypes.

As humorous as it may seem initially to conflate proto-feminist Christine with the far more conservative and often antifeminist monk Lydgate, the Bibell in fact invites such a comparison. Although Christine wrote in couplets and quatrains, the Bibell translator composes all his poetic material in rhyme royal stanzas, the form invented and popularized by Chaucer and heartily embraced by Lydgate. For the Harley cataloguer, the Trojan content and prose moralizations must have recalled Lydgate’s Troy Book, which covers the Trojan saga and mentions Othea by name, and perhaps the Fall of Princes moralizations, as well.

That cataloguer also would have been confronted first with, not Christine’s Prologue or Othea’s exhortations to Hector, but instead with the Bibell translator’s original Proem, a 168-line rhyme royal composition that rationalizes the tripartite components of Christine’s exempla (texteglose, and allegorie). That rationalization takes the form of meditation on Trinitarian systems – three hierarchies of angels, three estates of humanity, and three types of souls – with references to religious content such as God’s providence, the Old and New Testament, the Church as highest of the estates, and the reproof of sin. Gordon’s subtitle and my title draw on the translator’s own conception of the work as a “lytle bibell” directed at those who wish to acquire virtues to aid them in this world and the next (Pro.105). Alongside the religious matter, the Proem evokes the translator’s real or imagined dullness – laments of his “rude wytt,” his poor “makyng,” and his “symplenes” (Pro.127-40) – a popular topos but also one that Lydgate employed regularly.

At a glance, then, the poem does resemble Lydgate more immediately than Christine. Other content supports the cataloguer’s assumption, too. The Bibelltranslator emphasizes that the good knight must be “armed with prudent polecye” (Pro. 122), echoing Lydgate’s urging of his readers to exercise prudence and other virtues to forestall misfortune (e.g., Fall of Princes, 6.253-60). The translator also concludes the Proem by clarifying his desire to explain his material “oppynly / Unto the wlgar [vulgar], pleyn to understondynge / Of every wyght desyrous for to stye / The whele of Fortune to the suppreme wonnyng” (Pro.162-65). In other words, he wants to write clearly in order to arm every reader with the ability to stop Fortune’s wheel at its highest point. The notion of stopping Fortune’s wheel extends Lydgate’s concept and promises a reward for the diligent reader, and it recurs throughout the Bibell as an addition to Christine’s Epistre.

If the cataloguer dug further into the Bibell, he would also be confronted with Christine’s extensive citations of philosophers, Church Fathers, and the Vulgate. Neither Stephen Scrope (1397-1472) nor some scholars believed that Christine was personally responsible for her work, given all the learned authorities she cites, especially those in Latin and not the vernacular. While modern scholars have countered this skepticism effectively, the medieval translator Scrope suggests that Christine instead commissioned the work from famous doctors at the University of Paris, whose education would have granted them access to the French and Latin texts used. Lydgate may well function the same way for the Harley cataloguer. And, should anyone suppose that Christine’s sometimes-radical defenses of women might have given the cataloguer pause, alas! The Bibell translator restores expected antifeminist views of some women, like Circe, while leaving intact other positive interpretations if the woman distinctly exemplified virtue. By destabilizing one of the staples of Christine’s oeuvre, the Bibell translator made the clear identification of his source a bit more difficult.

“If only the cataloguer had gone back after completing the entry for the Queen’s Manuscript!” British Library, Harley MS 4431, fol. 95v:

Faced with an unrecognizable poem, the early cataloguer relied on what he knew of later Middle English literature to describe the work in Harley MS 838. It is amusing to imagine the cataloguer running off his list of known Lydgatian qualities: “Rhyme royal – check! Dullness – check! Troy – check! Long and moral – double check!” Of course, my joke elides the portions of the Bibell where the translator is inventive, clever, and attentive to his English audience’s knowledge (or lack thereof) pertaining to myth, alchemy, and hermeneutics. Yet even though the catalogue entry disguised the Bibell’s true identity for well over a century, the cataloguer’s mistake turns out to be a surprisingly astute observation, at least insofar as it characterizes the Bibell translator’s original contributions.

The METS edition that I am currently working on makes the Bibell available for analysis as not only a translation of Christine’s work but also an adaptation that situates her French original within English literary, religious, and political contexts, alongside Stephen Scrope’s independent translation.

by Misty Schieberle

University of Kansas

“Here follows her epitaph […] translated into the Scottish tongue”

“Here follows her epitaph […] translated into the Scottish tongue”

Princess Margaret of Scotland (d. 1445)


As I observed in my previous post, the Older Scots Complaint for the death of Margaret, Princess of Scotland is a translation of a French complaint produced on the death of Princess Margaret (d. 1445), daughter of James I of Scotland and wife of the dauphin, Louis (later Louis XI): Complainte pour la mort de Madame Marguerite d’Escosse, daulphine de Viennoys. The latter poem comprises thirty-six stanzas, each of ten octosyllabic lines, and is divided into two halves. In the first half the speaker requests that God make the natural world weep with him and asks the same of the French and Scottish royal houses. He then proceeds to document Margaret’s virtues before crying out against Nature and Death itself. In the second half of the poem the voice of reason counsels the previous speaker to accept the inevitability of death rather than rail against it and reminds him that God did not spare even his own son from death.

The Scots poem is extant in two manuscripts of a mid-fifteenth-century chronicle, known as the Liber Pluscardensis (LP). This Latin prose chronicle of the history of Scotland was composed by an unknown author for the abbot of Dunfermline during the 1450s and completed by 1461. Material evidence suggests that the Complaint formed part of the chronicle at an early stage of its history, and was composed somewhere between 1445 and 1460. The jury is still out on its authorship, but it bears a very close relationship to the other poem included within the LP known as De Regimine Principum Bonum Consilium (DRP). Beginning with a metaphor of a good king ruling his kingdom as a harpist successfully maintains the harmony of his harp, this poem (written during the reign of James II, and perhaps especially between 1455 and 1460) calls for reformation of the contemporary justice system and relationship of king and counsel.

Oxford Bodleian Library MS Fairfax 8, fol. 190r:

At the end of Chapter VII, the chronicler laments that “Death, who snatches away all living things equally, without distinction of persons, snatched away that lady after a short illness” and he recalls seeing Margaret “dead and embowelled and laid in a tomb at the corner of the high altar, on the north side, in the cathedral church of the said city of Chalons, in a leaden coffin.” He then introduces the Scots adaptation of the French Complainte which follows in Chapter VIII:

Here follows her epitaph, which was placed upon her tomb after her death, in the French tongue; only it is here translated into the Scottish tongue, by command of that lady’s brother, King James II. of famous memory.

Two features of this introduction are worthy of note. Of interest first of all is the description of the poem as an “epitaph” “placed upon [Margaret’s] tomb after her death.” Such texts — displayed on tombs or hung on hearses — did exist, a prominent example being a lament on the death of Richard duke of York, father of Edward IV, who died at the battle of Wakefield in 1460.

Entombment of Christ in the restored chapel of Princess Margaret at the Church of Saint Laon, Thouars

A second point of interest is the suggestion that the Scots translation of the French Complainte was the product of a royal commission from James II — if true, this would be the only concrete example of such a literary commission being made by this king.

A subsequent Latin rubric at the head of the poem reads: “Here begins the complaint of the lord dauphin of France for the death of his wife, the said Margaret.” Here the complaint is once again positioned as being authored by a royal figure, but it is highly unlikely that Louis had any hand in its composition, given what we know of their strained relations. Furthermore, none of the surviving French witnesses link the original Complainte to the dauphin. It is the Scots author alone, therefore, who associates the Complaint with not one but two royal figures, thereby hinting for the first time that this poem might not function solely as a lament for Margaret’s death, but also as a more advisory piece related to broader notions of good princely governance.

The Complaint is an adaptation rather than a direct and close translation of the original French Complainte. Although there are a number of instances of almost direct translation, the vast majority of the poem translates the original French text much more loosely and there are a number of unique passages, including Scotticization of the natural landscape. The Scots Complaint is also written in irregularly decasyllabic lines rather than the octosyllabic lines of the original French, and comprises twenty-three ten-line stanzas rhyming aabaabbcbc, in contrast to the thirty-six ten-line stanzas of the French rhyming aabaabbbcc. This same stanza form was used later in fifteenth-century Scotland by Robert Henryson for Orpheus’ “sangis lamentable” upon the death of Eurydice (Orpheus and Eurydice, lines 134–81). Notable, too, is the Scottish poet’s frequent use of alliteration, and clearly conscious verbal patterning. Finally, the Scottish poet introduces a number of quasi-proverbial statements into the second half of the poem.

The Scottish poem maintains the two-part structure of the original French but the two parts are no longer equal in length. Rather, after an initial five stanzas of complaint in which the Scots poet follows the French in calling upon a notably Scotticized natural world to weep with him, the translator intervenes and puts a stop to the “fenyeit” (fictional) complaint and proceeds to offer the “ansuere of Resoun,” described as “very suth-/fastnes” (very truthfulness).

The translator’s privileging of moral or religious truth over poetic fiction anticipates the assessment of “feinӡeit fables” in Robert Henryson’s Fables and Orpheus and Eurydice, and there are indeed a number of other notable parallels (verbal, thematic, and formal) between the Complaint and Henryson’s works. We know that the LP was commissioned by an abbot of Dunfermline and that two of its manuscript witnesses (including one containing the Complaint) were themselves associated with Dunfermline. As such, it is entirely possible that Henryson — schoolmaster and notary public in Dunfermline — knew both the LP and Complaint for the death of Margaret, Princess of Scotland.

The increased length of the “Ansuere of Resoun” in the Scots poems turns Margaret’s death into an active opportunity for moral reflection and teaching, and a notable emphasis of this second half of the poem — and one again shared by the Older Scots poet, Robert Henryson — is the comparison of rational man to beasts and contrasting of reason and sensuality. The second half of the Scots poem is also more Boethian the original French, bringing to mind that aspect of James I’s famous poem, The Kingis Quair.

The Complaint’s use of legal and parliamentary language is also striking. Such language both Scotticizes the poem by echoing the wider legal and parliamentary discourse of fifteenth-century Scotland, and looks forward to the much denser legal and parliamentary lexis found in the vernacular poem that appears shortly after the Complaint: the aforementioned DRP.

Finally, the Complaint contains a notably political stanza that functions both as a complaint against the times and warning about the fall of (even just) princes:

Thair is nocht heire bot vayn and vanite, There is nothing here but worthlessness and futility.
Baith pompe and pryd, with passand poverte,                                Both; pride; exceeding
Weire and invy, with cankirryt cuvatis,                                            War: envy; malignant covetousness
And every man a lord desyris to be,
Quhilk has na lest; rycht now away is he                                        which [position] has no durability
And efter hym another soun will rys.                                               Soon after him another will rise up
Wyykkyt are welth and wourthy men perys. Wicked people are wealthy [or happy] and worthy men come to an untimely end.
A man weill syt thocht he be kyng with crowun,                              well set; even though
And he inclinde be for to do justis,                                                   is keen to practise justice
Thai sall never ceiss quhill at thai bryng hym doun.                        cease until they

This stanza anticipates the broad thematic focus on kings as proponents of justice in the DRP and, within the wider context of the LP, its warning about the fall of even a just monarch anticipates the death of James I narrated in the very next chapter of the chronicle.

As already noted, it is not clear whether the author of the Complaint is the same as the author of the LP, and nor is there any evidence to suggest that the Complaint and DRP share an author. The juxtaposition of the two vernacular poems is nevertheless appropriate; both within the LP and alongside the DRP, the Complaint functions as a statement that ostensibly articulates and “synthesizes the losses of two princes” for the person of Princess Margaret whilst simultaneously pronouncing on correct self- and public governance. Martin, Joanna. Kingship and Love in Scottish Poetry,1424-1540. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. p. 93.

by Dr Emily Wingfield

University of Birmingham