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Actually, when Lopez rounded off his career with that synthesis, it was already out of date.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
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”:
LVII. 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
LVIII. 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 : 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.
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.
John Stow, A Survey of London (London: 1603), 329.
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.
English Lyrics of the XIIth Century, ed. Carleton Brown (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1932), 221.
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 (texte, glose, 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: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=28583
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.
“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: http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/medieval/fairfax/images/00083090.jpg
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 thesuggestion 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.
In our forthcoming METS edition, Six Scottish Pieces: Courtly and Chivalric Poems, Including Lyndsay’s ‘Squyer Meldrum’, Rhiannon Purdie (University of St Andrews) and I bring together six Older Scots poems that reflect on two of the most significant themes of Older Scots literature: Sovereignty — both of the nation and individual — and Good Governance — how best to rule the public realm and the private body of the self. Over the coming months we’ll write about each one, beginning here with a Complaint for the death of Margaret, Princess of Scotland.
Princess Margaret was the eldest daughter of James I of Scotland, author of The Kingis Quair. She was (unhappily) married at the age of eleven to the French dauphin Louis (later Louis XI). She died aged only twenty on 16 August 1445, and at the subsequent inquest into her death, extremely interesting information was revealed about her wider literary activities.
Margaret’s entry to Tours on the occasion of her marriage. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS fr. 93r
The dauphin’s chamberlain suggested that Margaret had fallen ill through lack of sleep, caused by the long hours she spent each night writing rondeaux and ballades:
the King asked him what caused this illness and he replied that it came from a lack of sleep, as the doctors had said […] and often she was busy writing rondeaux, such that she sometimes made twelve in a day, which was not good for her.
To date, no poetic compositions by Margaret are known to survive and it is possible that those poems reportedly written by Margaret were lost when Louis XI ordered the destruction of his wife’s papers shortly after her death. However, it is also possible that Margaret’s work survives without attribution alongside the known work of her female attendants and others in her literary circle. Poetry by two of the women named in the inquest as Margaret’s fellow writers (Jeanne Filleul and Marguerite de Salignac) survives alongside verse by other contemporary royal and aristocratic French women and their attendants in a series of fifteenth-century French manuscript anthologies and one early sixteenth-century printed collection where it appears in named form and anonymously. That the work of these women survives both in named and anonymous form lends hope to the idea that verse by Margaret might also survive in anonymous form, perhaps in the same manuscript and printed anthologies.
As well as writing verse, Princess Margaret also owned a number of books. I have written elsewhere about the likelihood of Margaret’s having read the recently composed French romance Cleriadus et Meliadice (c. 1440–44), Wingfield, Emily. “‘And He, That Did it Out of French Translait’: Cleriadus in France, England and Scotland, c. 1440–1550.” Neophilologus 95.4 (Oct. 2011): 649–60. Available online at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11061-010-9239-8. which her lady-in-waiting, Prégente de Mélun, borrowed from Marie de Clèves, the wife of Charles d’Orléans, and she is also known to have had a chest (kept by another lady-in-waiting, Annette de Cuise) which contained “un livre qui parle d’amours, et de chansons et ballades, et aucunes lettres d’estat” (a book about love, with songs and ballads, and other letters of estate). In addition, she owned a verse paraphrase of the Book of Job, Les Vigiles des Morts, written by Pierre de Nesson, the uncle of another poet and female attendant in Margaret’s circle (Jamette de Nesson), and we know too that she gave a richly decorated book of hours to one Abbot Nicolas Godard when she commissioned the founding of a chapel at Saint-Laon in Thouars, where she had hoped to be buried.
Margaret’s death appears to have inspired an outpouring of literary grief and five complaints about her — four in French and one in Scots (edited for METS) — are extant.
1. The first poem about her death was written by the French court poet, Blosseville, and appears (in Paris, BnF, 9223, fols 65v–66) alongside verse by other members of Margaret’s courtly circle.
2. The next set of memorial verses concerning Margaret survives at the end of a book of hours, commissioned by Margaret’s sister, Isabella, the duchess of Brittany (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS lat. 1369 (p. 446)). Four stanzas in the voice of the deceased dauphine are framed by two initial stanzas addressing the Virgin Mary and describing Margaret’s consciousness of her impending death, and a concluding stanza in which the writer prays for the redemption of his/her own soul. In the intervening stanzas the dauphine is imagined as bidding farewell to those she knew.
3. The next anonymous French text, known as La Complainte pour la mort de Madame Marguerite d’Escosse, daulphine de Viennoys (“Lament on the death of Madame Margaret of Scotland, dauphine of Vienne”), survives in Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal 3523 (pp. 461–73), The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS 71.E.49 (fols 335r –40v) and Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS fr. 1952 (fols 52r–61r). It comprises thirty-six stanzas, each of ten octosyllabic lines, and the poem as a whole is divided into two halves. In the first half, the speaker requests that God make the natural world weep with him and requests 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 Arsenal manuscript contains a significant body of verse by the French poet, Alain Chartier. There survives a story — later depicted visually in a pre-Raphaelite painting by Edmund Blair Leighton — in which Margaret was said to have kissed the sleeping poet; when asked why she kissed Chartier, Margaret reportedly replied, ‘I did not kiss the man, but the precious mouth which issued so many excellent words and virtuous lines.’ Although the story is most probably apocryphal — Margaret was very young at the time of Chartier’s visit to Scotland and he was dead by the time of her arrival in France — it does reflect both Margaret’s known association with poets who also served in official capacities at the French court and the shared material contexts of the Complainte and Chartier’s works.
Margaret of Scotland and Alain Chartier, Edmund Blair Leighton, 1903
4. In its third (and latest) manuscript witness, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS fr. 1952, the Complainte pour la mort de Madame Marguerite d’Escosse is prefaced by another, hitherto unknown and therefore unpublished, Complaincte de feue ma dame Marguerite descosse daulphine de viennoys faicte a chaalon en champaigne pour son piteux trespassement (“Lament for my late lady Marguerite of Scotland, dauphine of Vienne, written at Châlons in Champagne for her sad passing”) (fols 40r–52r). Comprising forty-five mainly ten-line stanzas, and written in the elaborate rhyming style favoured by the Grands Rhétoriqueurs, such as Jean Marot and Jehan d’Auton (e.g., “Hee, Dieu! quel perte / Nous est ouverte / Et descouverte, / Durement verte”; “Ah, God! What a loss / is presented to us / and revealed, / cruelly unripe” (fol. 41v)), the poem anticipates the sentiments of the better-known Complainte in its call for universal mourning, outcry against Death, and its extended praise for and cataloguing of the princess’ virtues and physical beauty. I will be discussing these texts in further detail in a forthcoming monograph on the literary texts associated with Scotland’s royal women in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The seemingly genuine expressions of grief articulated in this poem’s concluding stanzas and the poem’s title would suggest that it was composed very soon after Margaret’s death, in Châlons, perhaps by a member of her courtly and literary circle, and the same might well be true of the first Complainte — and its Scots translation. We know that Margaret was associated throughout her life with court administrators and servants who combined their day-to-day activities with the production of verse. As such, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that those same courtiers were prompted to express their grief for Margaret’s death in a medium they shared with her on an apparently daily basis.
In the second part of this blog, I discuss the Scottish translation. I demonstrate how it parallels and anticipates literary traditions better known from fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Scottish literature and how it accords thematically with the far broader Scottish tradition of advice on personal and public governance.
Brueghel’s Children Games (1559), now at Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
In his painting, Children’s Games (1559), Flemish artist Peter Bruegel the Elder, famous for his works depicting the popular, ludic world of peasants, illustrated at least eighty different games that children played during the sixteenth century. Most of the games Bruegel portrayed in the picture involve toys and physical games, such as dice, knucklebones, dolls, marbles, balls, and hoops. However, many of the games depicted in the picture were not objects, but rather types of mental games, or role-playing activities, including mock sacraments (wedding, baptism, and Holy Mass), “Dethroning the King,” and, a personal favorite, “the Pope’s Seat” (wherein youths hoisted one of their comrade up on their shoulders, perhaps crowning him as a mock pontiff). Bruegel’s catalogue of children’s toys, although executed for moral reasons, is the pictorial equivalent of the French writer Rabelais’s listing of 217 games, most of them likewise involving mind games and mimicry, in his Gargantua, written some fifteen years before.
Both Bruegel and Rabelais, therefore, shared a broad conception of what games and gaming objects were. As can be seen with its subtitle, Playthings in Early Modernity: Party Games, Word Games, Mind Games, the inaugural tome of the Medieval Institute Press’s series “Ludic Cultures, 1100-1700,” similarly formulates a far-reaching and diverse definition of play and games. In her introduction to the volume, Alison Levy, the editor, uses the term “plaything” to encompass all sorts of objects, not only the more familiar and timeless board games, dice, and decks of cards but also less tangible things such as tricks and rumors. People, too, are included in this expansive definition since counts players, whether gamblers, dinner guests, or dance partners as playthings, each a theme from the fifteen essays in the volume.
The volume draws inspiration from the work of the cultural historian, Johan Huizinga, known mostly for his masterpiece, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1919), a book that opened the doors to the serious study of late medieval culture that scholars of his generation had passed over in favor of political and diplomatic history. However, Playthings in Early Modernity draws on his more philosophical work, Homo Ludens (1938) in which Huizinga found elements of play in every aspect of human society (although he focused mostly on the West), including areas not normally associated with play such as war, law, and philosophy. Levy alludes to Huizinga’s influence when she writes that play was more than just “a pastime, a leisurely pursuit, but also a pivotal way of life, a strategic psychosocial endeavor.”
Giuseppe Maria Mitelli’s print, Il Giocatore (Bologna, 1675)
The fifteen essays in the volume expand on the approach in Levy’s introduction. They range temporally from the fourteen to the eighteen century, and span the globe from the Iberian Peninsula to Vijayangara Empire in India. Moreover, they develop her idea of the plaything. Several of the essays investigate the materiality of games— the geographical depictions on Elizabethan playing cards, the ambiguous morality of the games sheets of seventeenth-century Bolognese artist, Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, and the spatial memorization necessary to play many of the games found in Ascanio de’ Mori’s Giuoco piacevole (1575). Other essays focus on the mental aspect of games that often involve trickery and deceit. In this vein there are essays on the practical joke that Machiavelli and his friend Francesco Guicciardini played on his hapless host in the small Emilian town of Carpi and the game of cat and mouse that crypto-Jews (conversos) played against their captors in the prisons of the Spanish Inquisition at Cuenca.
The collection, as a whole, breaks new ground by exploring the concept of plaything and by extending it to different modes of play, different times, and different places. Each of the essays emphasized the materiality of games, whether physical or mental. However, they never lose sight that playthings involved the performance of human actors.
As I worked on editing and translating the verse and prose contents of MS Harley 2253, a recurring pleasure and intrigue rested in trying to spot the literary tricks of a playful and instructive scribe. He certainly shows a penchant for linking poems of disparate types by finding (or adding) verbal repetitions to endings and beginnings. He also likes to juxtapose wryly matched items by setting them side by side on the page. And he loves puns and multilingual jokes. We can’t really know why he toyed with these maneuvers, but, in reading Harley 2253 straight through, we can discover and enjoy them. He may have been a professional entertainer, or simply a schoolmaster, or a secular chaplain for a household, or mainly just a witty lawyer. Very likely, he was a charismatic confection of all these types.
Some delightful instances of his youthful wit may be found in another of his manuscripts, MS Harley 273, where his presence may be dated some twenty to thirty years before his hand and mind began to create the marvelous Harley 2253 project. Harley 273 shows us that he worked with an older scribe and that, together, they not only made sure that the young scribe learned his clerical lessons, but they also shared lighter moments, sometimes drawing droll animal heads on initial letters or funny hybrid creatures in the margins.
Harley 273 is, like Harley 2253, available in color facsimile at the British Library Catalogue, Digitised Manuscripts site: www.bl.uk/manuscripts/, s.vv. “Harley MS 273” and “Harley MS 2253.” I recommend that you go there and see for yourself, for example, the funny creature with rooster feet, bunny ears, camel hump, and a ruff on folio 58rb, the cowled critters on folios 59rb and 95va, and the woman’s head with a hairnet on folio 102vb. These were all made, I think, by the Harley Scribe in his youth.
A listing of the doodles and drolleries that attach to the juvenile oeuvre of the Harley Scribe can be found in my recent article, “The Harley Scribe’s Early Career: New Evidence of a Scribal Partnership in MS Harley 273,” The Journal of the Early Book Society 19 (2016): 1-30. Although I don’t reproduce these doodles and drawings in the article, it would be wonderful for this hidden dimension of the famous Harley Scribe to become more widely known. Therefore, I urge you to go to the digitized facsimile and view the artistic creativity enjoyed in a pedagogical scriptorium, circa 1314-15. Here was an atmosphere of convivial learning that nurtured the literate playfulness of the Harley Scribe.
I also urge you to delve into the incomparable Harley Lyrics, and especially the rich world that exists in and beyond them when they’re read amid the unusual strategies of the Harley Scribe. Quite deservedly, he’s now seen as a major personality in the cultural history of Middle English literature. A new generation of Harley studies—seeing the manuscript as a whole artifact and the product of an artful compiler—promises to disclose much that we didn’t know before about his literary tricks and games.
Are there any specific rewritings of your works you would recommend?
Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales ys a brilliant, sharp, exuberant remix of my Tales of Caunterburye. Thys booke of poemes doth go tale for tale, genre for genre. Agbabi’s verse doth honor my werke and yet steppe biyond yt ynto newe places and tymes. As Ich am tryinge to do wyth my (unfinisshed, ARGH!) tales, Telling Tales doth capture everich mood from raunchinesse to anger to love to hearte-breake and biyond. Agbabi’s Telling Tales ys pure amazingenesse and sholde be yn everiche course ytaught. And ther are manye othir wondirful riffs and adaptaciouns of my Tales, swich as the booke of Kim Zarins yclept Sometimes We Tell The Truth, the which ys a YA novel yn which the Caunterbury pilgrims are nowe studentes on a scole trippe.
As you know, METS was founded by Russell Peck, a devotee of your famous frenemy, John Gower. Last year, Valentine’s Day sparked a war between “Team Chaucer” and “Team Gower.” What would you say to rally your troops?
Doth eny oon reallye enjoye the poesye of Gower? Hys octosyllabiques are lyke a nurserye rhyme recited yn a slow-movinge car on a road full of potte-holes: both boringe and bumpye. Eny thinge ye kan ymagine that ys fun, ynterestinge, engaginge, cool: the poetry of Gower doth flee from thos thinges. Gower ys lyke the opposite of Hamilton. Gower gave the ordir to cancel Fyreflye. Gower ys responsible for everye disappointinge album made by an otherwyse good bande. Gower ys the literarye equivalent of goinge to the refrigerator aftir getting home and ye are hungrye but the onlye thinge yn the refrigerator ys ketchup packets and questionable cheese. Gower ys the Batman of being tedious. Ich do dare Gower supporteres to come up wyth sum manner of social media stunt to defend their belovid Gower on Whan That Aprille Daye; that ys, yf thei trewelye enjoye hys writinges. (All respect to the yncredible and admirable Russell Peck, but Ich must speke the trouthe concerninge Gower or elles falsen som of my mateer.)
Finish this statement (because you never finish anything): If I were to write a poem about Valentine’s Day today, it would feature…
…a duck who ys loneli and doth lyve in a solitarye duck hermitage. He hath a powerful duck sword but he dareth nat take yt from the stone monolith yn which yt hath been placid. The duck thinketh alwayes upon hys lost love. Oon daye, a raven doth come to the duck and saye… [fragment endeth]
If you had to pick, which METS edition would you say is your favorite?
The METS edicioun of the Guyde to the Galaxye For Hitch-Hikeres Ywrit ys my favourite. Nat onlye ys thys earlye thirteenth centurye storye of Arthur de Dent and hys friend Oxenford Prefect a wondirful tale of journeyinge and mirthe, but the METS texte doth restore several sequences lost yn the EETS edicioun. To yive an ensaumple, yn the original EETS edicioun the cavils of the editours dyd leade to the omissioun of several keye verses from the sequence yn which the Engine of Endless Impossibilitye ys described, the which are yncluded by the METS edicioun. And eke the METS edicioun doth ynclude al of the poesye of the Vosgons yn both the original Vosgon and yn the thirteenth centurye Englisshe translacioun. Trewelye, thys shal be the standard edicioun of the Guyde to the Galaxye For Hitch-Hikeres Ywrit for yeares to come and shal leade manye a student to thys belovid and classique otherworlde journey text that ynspired Dante. Thankes to METS, manye a reader shal learne the good sentence of ‘Panique nat.’
You’ve been tweeting frequently about current events and you’ve mentioned HEART a few times. Could you explain what HEART means and why it’s as important as STEM?
STEM ys a wondirful coinage and a worde of great powir. Yt doth combyne a chorus of relatid approaches and fieldes ynto an easilye-wieldable phrase. We neede swich a worde of great powir for the arts of language and societye as well. Ich have tried to use the litel terme HEART: Humanityes, Ethiques, Artes, Rhetorique, and Teachinge. Lyke STEM, thes technologies are vital for the yeares to come, vital for the planet, vital for ower lyves and societye. Ynnovacioun kan, sholde, and must come from these technologyes of HEART that kan fynde bettir and more capacious wayes of livinge, communicatinge, creating, ymagininge, and beinge togethir.
Given the “crisis in the humanities,” and current threats to its national funding, what can we do to keep these vital projects alive and support HEART? On social media and in action?
Showe love. Be proude. Be loud. Yt nys nat onlye the solitarye werke of the scoler yn the archive, nor the excellent laurels of revered organizaciouns, nor the golden reviewe of an acclaimed booke — thogh al thes thinges be ful honorable and sustayninge and necessarye, yt ys the shewinge of love yn practice, yn teachinge, and yn readinge, and yn sharinge ower werke wyth the worlde, that doth moost clearlye and loudlye proclayme the ymportance of the beate of HEART. Be nat humble. Be nat quiet. Get out ther and showe how ymportant the werke that ye do kan be.
So, what features of the modern university are actually medieval?
Well, not much really: the structure, the ceremonies, the relative autonomy, the system of decision-making, the faculties, the curriculum, the architecture, the symbols and costumes, the roundly pragmatic approach to learning. Okay, so actually an enormous amount.
Why don’t I already know this?
People who talk about the university today tend to fix its origin point in Western Europe, especially in Germany, with the Humboldtian development of two ideas: the university as the home of the genius professor, the brilliant researcher surrounded by hordes of students and junior colleagues running a massive and original project; and the idea that the university espouses a process of learning, a dialectic engagement that takes the individual student from ignorance to a system or style of learning and to knowledge of one discipline or subject on a deep and substantial level. The first notion, that of the genius faculty member, probably does belong more to the nineteenth century than to the Middle Ages (though I could contest that too), but the second one, usually seen as the way in which the university system re-founded and reorganized itself, is actually a profoundly medieval notion taken from the earliest universities.
What parts of the modern university are completely medieval?
The physical structure of many modern universities reflects the medieval ecclesiastical quadrangle, the buildings set in a square, with staircases at regular intervals corralling the students into up-and-down movement for their living quarters and study space. The large green space in the centre of the modern quad reflects the medieval cloisters, and gives students an outlet, a place to play games and relax. When they get themselves into trouble with other students or with the inhabitants of the town or city, they immediately invoke the university’s code of conduct or other rules about its autonomy and right to police its own. That too, reflects the medieval benefit of clergy, and all universities today fiercely defend their right to discipline their own students and faculty, their autonomy from oversight. The organization of most universities into faculties, and the system for approving curriculum, the system of student aid, fundraising events and efforts, the honorary doctorate, even the division between professional schools (some of them graduate schools) and the more general undergraduate program: all these elements are completely medieval.
What parts of the modern university seem medieval, but are a kind of re-created medieval?
That would include many, though not all, of the ceremonies. The inception ceremony, when a student is accepted at a university, survives only in a few places today, but the graduation ceremony (where the students steps forward, or in the Middle Ages upwards onto the dais of the masters) remains. The colourful regalia of today is a kind of recreated medieval element, as in the original medieval universities of the twelfth century the students and masters would have worn black gowns resembling the undergraduate robes of today, almost always with a cap of some kind. Undergraduates today generally do not have to debate and argue in public venues in order to win their degrees, but the concept of winning the degree by defending one’s written work still lives today with thesis degrees (the doctorate in particular).
What is this book really about?
The book explores the medieval foundations of the modern university, first in Bologna in 1098 and Paris shortly thereafter, perhaps earlier in Salerno with the first medical school, and slightly later in Oxford. It analyses the liturgy and ritual, the structure, and the curriculum that a medieval student would have pursued and a medieval master would have attempted to instill. And it essentially points out the advantages and disadvantages of this highly autonomous and yet highly connected system of learning; universities generally had charters from both ecclesiastical and secular authorities, and very much played one off against the other in order to keep their own privacy and independence intact.
The importance of artistic connections between England and the Low Countries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries has long been well recognized by scholars. This has meant considerable attention to the influence of the work of Netherlands artists and the import trade in their work. Netherlands musicians’ compositions also were for a time regarded as the most perfect models for imitation or inspiration in Britain and across the Continent. Some today still insist that the high point of Western music was achieved in the perfection of the compositions of Josquin Des Prez, and that the history of this art thereafter was a period of decline from which it has never recovered. In literature and drama the Low Countries connection was significant but less influential across the Channel, though Everyman, translated from the Dutch Elckerlijc, is regarded as a unique “masterpiece” which surpasses the artistry of the original. Nevertheless, attention to other translations, and to book production bringing Low Countries’ work to England, is well worth our study. This observation applies in the case of Mary of Nemmegen (published c.1518), adapted from the Middle Dutch play Mariken van Nieumeghen and offered to English readers in an anonymous translation from the press of the Antwerp printer Jan van Doesborch. Both texts, along with a rendering into modern English of the Dutch drama, are now offered in a new edition prepared in collaboration with Martin Walsh and Ton Broos. This edition has been published by Medieval Institute Publications.
Mary of Nemmegen is worth our attention for a number of reasons. Most prominent, however, are the parallels with the Dr. Faustus legend and its presentation of the occult and witchcraft. Both Mariken, who became Mary in the English adaptation, and Faustus had their inception in approximately the same historical moment, a time when there was an unusual interest in magic and a rising hysteria about witches.See Jeffrey Burton Russell,Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), who concludes his very useful study with the comment that witchcraft in the late Middle Ages was “the first stage of a long period of witch delusion” and “in another sense . . . a manifestation of the innate and perennial darkness of the human soul” (289).Mariken van Nieumeghen may be dated in the earliest decades of the sixteenth century, with Willem Vorsterman’s edition (but not the direct source used by the English translator) issued in c.1515. A “Faustus junior” seems to have been first noticed as “the chief of necromancers, astrologer” and practitioner of other forms of black magic, albeit a fraud, by the Abbot Trithemius as early as 1507, while in 1509 “Johan Faust” was granted a bachelor of divinity degree from the University of Heidelberg.See E. M. Butler, The Myth of the Magus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), 122, and Philip Mason Palmer and Robert Pattison More, The Sources of the Faust Tradition (rpt. New York: Haskell House, 1965), 84, 86–87. In the mid-sixteenth century Erfurt Chronicle, “Faust” is quoted as saying that he cannot retract the pledge he has made in a pact with the Devil written out in his own blood (“mit meinem eigenen blut gegen dem Teufel verscrieben”) “to be forever his, with body and soul.”Ibid., 117. The pact is repeated in the story of Faustus as trickster and magician in the English Faustbook used by Christopher Marlowe, in whose play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus it is identified as a binding “gift of deed.”Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 141 (A-text 2.1.60) and 142–43. For the “certain Articles” described in the English Faustbook, Marlowe’s presumed source, see P. F. Gent., trans., The Historie of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus, ed. William Rose (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1963), 68. Mary too makes an agreement with the Devil, though to be sure in her case it does not involve a written document. Her agreement with Satan meant that she would abandon her name and adopt “Emmekin.” She was not to make the sign of the cross, and the trajectory of her life thereafter turns her away from her devotion to the Virgin in favor of a life of dissolution, frivolity, and accessory to crime. Ultimately she will be forced to register deep disappointment with her life. Faustus also will look back on his life, much of it wasted in idle trickery, as futile, for which he falls into existential despair, which in Søren Kierkegaard’s terminology is the sickness unto death.For an excellent discussion of despair in the period under discussion, see Susan Snyder, “The Left Hand of God: Despair in Medieval and Renaissance Tradition,” Studies in the Renaissance 12 (1965): 18–59. Predictably, his life ends in damnation when the “jaws of hell” open up to receive him, perhaps literally interpreted in Marlowe’s drama as an actual stage prop, a hell mouth.Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 282 (B-text, 5.2.120), and the editors’ note.
Mary/Emmekin also has reason to despair, but in contrast to Faustus’s fate is able to break her bondage to the Devil. Like Faustus, she had subordinated her will to him and become (to borrow the words of a later commentator on witchcraft) the Devil’s “owne instrument.”William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (Cambridge, 1608), 61. Upon her return to Nemmegen after a dissolute life of crime as the Satan’s accomplice in Antwerp, only by chance or providence is she was able to come to a full realization of the dark depths into which she has sunk, having given herself body and soul to her seducer, the Devil. To this she life had fallen and continued thus for many years following her initial crisis when she was shamed and accused of being a harlot by her aunt, weakened so as to be vulnerable to the Devil’s entrapment of her. No elaborate conjuring had been necessary, but only, in her loss of moral direction, by simply naming the Devil she made him appear materially before her.This is a motif in folklore, as cited by Douglas Gray, Essays on Medieval English Popular Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 30. For the special vulnerability of the “holiest virgins and girls” to such entrapment, see the Malleus Maleficarum 2:93D (trans. Christopher S. Mackay, The Hammer of Witches [Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 2009], 277). Idle words have power. But in spite of the many years that followed of servitude to Satan, sunk deeply in disobedience to the Powers of the Good, she will be able to rebel against her slavery and emerge from her darkness of soul. From her new perspective, she will be able to look back on her life with full realization of her sexual, moral, and ideological failures. In this she will find “hope beyond hopelessness” (again Kierkegaard’s phrasing) as she sets out to activate the process that eventually rescues her from the permanent darkness of damnation, contrary to the threat of the pit which was to be Faustus’s inheritance.
Upon her return to Nemmegen, Mary/Emmekin, witnessing the annual wagon play, a morality that mirrors her own condition,For the text of the wagon play see Marikenvan Nieumeghen, where it has the title Masscheroen. It is not provided in the English text. experiences conversion and is brought to tears, which are a sign of contrition, a mark of inward spiritual cleansing. Mary’s weeping places her in direct contrast to Marlowe’s Faustus, who in his despair is unable to weep, for he is not able thus to free himself from his enslavement to evil. “[T]he devil draws in my tears. . . ,” he laments, unable to lift up his hands to heaven, unable because, he cries, the demonic powers “hold them” fast.Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, ed. Bevington and Rasmussen, 193 (A-text, 5.2.31–34). But if he is not able to free himself from his despair at his condition by his own act, neither can Mary emerge from despair by herself after her conversion experience: she requires the rites of the Church.
Her apostasy and crime, worst of all in sleeping with the Devil (a capital offense), has been so heinous that no ordinary priest or even bishop can give her absolution. Not even the bishop of Cologne can help her. She must go as a pilgrim seeking forgiveness to the Pope, who gives her as her penance heavy rings to wear on her arms and neck. From these she is only released after long years of suffering and prayer in a convent for fallen women at Maastrich. Her story of miraculous victory over the world, the flesh, and the Devil therefore is likened to a saint’s biography, comparable to the life of Theophilus of Adana. Theophilus likewise had made an agreement with the Devil but ultimately was penitent and so was to be remembered in the Golden Legend.See Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 2:157.
Mary of Nemmegen thus has the marks of a saint’s legend that could have found its place in such collections as Osbern Bokenham’s Legendys of Hooly Wummen, except that no other claim of Mary’s existence exists aside from the weak assertion in the text that her story is genuine. There is no documentary evidence for a convent of Mary Magdalen at Maastrich, and there are no remains of the rings allegedly venerated there, rings that had been removed from Mary by angelic visitors who had come to her in a vision. Mary of Nemmegen hence may be described as a most curious saint’s legend indeed, a fictional life of a woman who had become a witch in service to the Devil during the high season of the witch cult in Europe but who became a recipient of the holy.
To be sure, there is much more that merits our attention, including Satan’s mastery of magic and his claim to have vast knowledge to communicate to the uneducated and virginal Mary — but he will not teach her to practice necromancy, since this would allow her to have power over him. These are not entirely the black arts but include such skills as the ability to display rhetoric, a core humanistic interest among the Rederijkerskamers (Chambers of Rhetoric) of the Low Countries that were responsible for commissioning the Dutch Mariken. We do find, even in this time when ideas and practices could be dangerous, that the line between the forbidden and the accepted, as least in certain circles if not in others, could be quite blurred. Thus Mary’s uncle Ghysbryche, a priest, can possess a book of magic with which he can control the Devil, who threatens them as they set out like pilgrims first to Cologne and then to Rome. In one of the most important woodcuts in Mary of Nemmegen her uncle also holds a monstrance with the eucharistic Host before him as a protection against a most ugly Devil, a Devil now in his own deformed and animalistic shape, who is literally bouncing off a pillar in his desire to attack and presumably kill the penitent Mary. Ghysbryche’s book has the opposite effect from Faustus’s blasphemous conjuring book, but it is nevertheless a conjuring book, if of a different and benign sort. His conjuring as a means of power over the Devil and evil is validated, the affirmation of white magic in the service of the Good.
By Clifford Davidson
The Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University
See Jeffrey Burton Russell,Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), who concludes his very useful study with the comment that witchcraft in the late Middle Ages was “the first stage of a long period of witch delusion” and “in another sense . . . a manifestation of the innate and perennial darkness of the human soul” (289).
See E. M. Butler, The Myth of the Magus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), 122, and Philip Mason Palmer and Robert Pattison More, The Sources of the Faust Tradition (rpt. New York: Haskell House, 1965), 84, 86–87.
Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 141 (A-text 2.1.60) and 142–43. For the “certain Articles” described in the English Faustbook, Marlowe’s presumed source, see P. F. Gent., trans., The Historie of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus, ed. William Rose (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1963), 68.
For an excellent discussion of despair in the period under discussion, see Susan Snyder, “The Left Hand of God: Despair in Medieval and Renaissance Tradition,” Studies in the Renaissance 12 (1965): 18–59.
Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 282 (B-text, 5.2.120), and the editors’ note.
William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (Cambridge, 1608), 61.
This is a motif in folklore, as cited by Douglas Gray, Essays on Medieval English Popular Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 30. For the special vulnerability of the “holiest virgins and girls” to such entrapment, see the Malleus Maleficarum 2:93D (trans. Christopher S. Mackay, The Hammer of Witches [Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 2009], 277).
For the text of the wagon play see Marikenvan Nieumeghen, where it has the title Masscheroen. It is not provided in the English text.
Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, ed. Bevington and Rasmussen, 193 (A-text, 5.2.31–34).
See Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 2:157.