Tag Archives: Chaucer

St Valentine’s – a minor day in a medieval calendar packed with festivals

The feast of St Valentine has been associated with love since the Middle Ages. Back then Valentine was one of many saints honoured in the Christian calendar alongside major religious festivals, such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

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The martyrdom of St Valentine in British Library Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 243.

In medieval times people lived their lives according to the liturgical – or ceremonial – year. But many festivals on the religious calendar also tracked seasonal changes, marking the darkest and lightest times of year, times of planting, harvesting or using up stored food, or signalling the need for people to tighten their belts in periods of traditional shortage.

Little is known about the St Valentine who was martyred on February 14. There are several Valentines in the Catholic martyrology so it’s unclear whether he’s the same saint mentioned by John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer, the first English poets to associate the feast of St Valentine with the mating impulses of birds – which were thought to begin looking for their mates on February 14 (this may have been associated with the sounds of the first songbirds after winter).

But what we do know is that Valentine was not one of the more important saints venerated by medieval people – nor was his feast one of the 40 to 50 festa ferianda, or celebratory festivals, which required people to abstain from work in order to fast and attend mass.

Candlemas

Far from being the main event in February, as today’s British high street retailers would have us believe, St Valentine’s Day was vastly overshadowed by Candlemas on February 2 – or to give it its proper name, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary – which commemorates when Christ’s mother presented her holy child in the temple 40 days after his birth.

Each parishioner participated in a solemn candlelit procession before hearing mass and offering a penny to the church. How people celebrated the rest of this work-free day is not clear – though records of other religious holidays reveal that singing, dancing, playing games, drinking, watching plays and feasting were standard forms of entertainment, despite being frowned upon by church officials. Secular distractions aside, Candlemas had huge popular appeal because it celebrated spiritual renewal through Christ’s light in the darkness of winter. It heralded the end of the cold season and the candle stubs blessed by the priest were believed to ward off evil and protect the bearer from harm for the rest of the year.

Shrovetide

Another festival that has echoes today was Shrovetide, a carnival period before Lent that ran from Septuagesima Sunday until Shrove Tuesday – or as it is popularly known, Pancake Day (Mardi Gras). Shrovetide was similarly well-liked because it provided the opportunity to make merry before the strict rules governing diet, sex and recreation kicked in for the 40 days of Lent, when fasting was obligatory and marriages forbidden.

Second only to the festivities witnessed throughout the 12 days of Christmas, when excessive feasting, music, dancing, and games were the order of the day, Shrovetide, was a time for ordinary people to indulge in food, drink and raucous entertainments, watch plays, and play the popular – but dangerous – game of football.

Wood carving of two youths playing ball on a misericord at Gloucester Cathedral. Gloucester Cathedral, CC BY.

Shrovetide also had a practical function. It legitimised the consumption of the last of the food stored over winter before it turned bad, allowing people to prepare mentally and physically for Lent at a time when there was traditionally a shortage of food. The carnival atmosphere also offered a release from the frustrations of winter. Taking its name from the act of shriving – or confessing – sins, Shrovetide captures the very essence of how the medieval calendar absorbed, governed and brought meaning to everyday life.

To everything a season

Of course, there were many other holy days, or holidays, providing occasions for celebration. Christmas, Easter and Pentecost (which celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples after Christ’s ascension) were the principal religious periods – balancing penitential fasting and solemnity with time away from work, merriment and gift giving. And the outdoor revels of early May and summer also played an important role in people’s lives, giving rise to secular rituals such as “Maying” (gathering blossoms and dancing around the Maypole, etc), mummings and various forms of secular and religious plays. Events such as these took full advantage of the spring and summer months, with warmer days providing ample opportunity for large numbers of people to gather together outside and celebrate the natural seasons of rebirth and growth.

The complex seasonal rhythms of the liturgical year remained consistent in England right up until the Reformation, when the observance of saints’ days was abolished and events in the temporal cycle were modified. That some of the Catholic feasts, such as Valentine’s Day, Shrove Tuesday and Halloween (All Hallows Eve) survived the Reformation to remain in our cultural calendar today, is undoubtedly due to the rituals and traditions that secular folk attached to them, an issue that brings us full circle to St Valentine.

Be my Valentine

By the end of the Middle Ages, the meaning of Valentine’s Day had expanded to incorporate human lovers expressing their feelings in hope of attracting or reaffirming a mate. In February 1477, one would-be lover, Margery Brews, sent the oldest-known “Valentine” in the English language to John Paston, referring to him as her “right welbelouyd Voluntyn”. At the time Brews’s parents were negotiating her marriage to Paston, a member of the Norfolk gentry, but he was not satisfied with the size of the dowry offered by her father.

The earliest English Valentine from Margery Brews to John Paston. British Library.

The couple married shortly after, so Margery’s heartfelt letters clearly appealed to her beloved. While we have to wait until the Tudor period to witness the now familiar concept of bestowing material gifts on one’s Valentine, it is Margery’s Valentine that best captures the essence of how the saint’s day transformed from being a lesser-known feast on the medieval liturgical calendar to one of the most important days of the year for hopeful and hopeless romantics, regardless of religion.

Further Links:
A reading of Margery’s letter in Middle English is available on this page.
An earlier blog post on medieval Valentines is available here.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mermaids: The Lure of Sirens' Song

If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing. [J.M.Barrie, Peter Pan]

For as long as I can remember I’ve been enchanted by mermaids. One of my earliest memories is watching the Japanese anime version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Released over a decade before Walt Disney’s movie, the anime film broke my heart by remaining true to the original ending of Andersen’s tale (published in 1837), in which the mermaid dies after sacrificing everything to gain the love of a prince she saved from drowning.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

As a little girl who demanded a happy ending for the brave, faithful and selfless mermaid, I recall fleeing to the bathroom in tears as she perished and turned to sea foam. From that moment I fell in love with mermaids and wanted to be part of their world as much as Andersen’s Little Mermaid wanted to be part of ours.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

My older self still has that childlike fascination and feeling of injustice at the Little Mermaid’s story, but mermaids also appeal to me more broadly because they embody mystery and duality: as hybrid creatures, they help to define what makes us human.

As part of my ongoing research into mermaids, I’ve been looking into the multi-faceted character of the sea-maid and the element in which she dwells. Last year, part of my research fed into a special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Words and Music, which is being repeated on Sunday 27 July 2014, 6.15pm (GMT). Produced by the brilliant Philippa Richie, my programme is inspired by the different ways in which mermaids have been a well-spring of creativity for composers and writers from diverse cultures across time. All kinds of sea maidens are included, from Dvořák’s tragic water sprite Rusalka, who asks the moon to tell her beloved how she feels in the famous ‘Song to the Moon’, to Gershwin’s ‘trollop’ Lorelei, whose liberty and sexual allure prompts the human singer of her tale to aspire to be a femme fatale of similar calibre. With dramatic readings by Toby Stephens and Amanda Root, I couldn’t have been happier with the result.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The programme begins with the lively and colourful mermaid lagoon in Barrie’s Peter Pan, and an evocative piece of music inspired by one of the most famous and influential water sprites, Undine, or Ondine, whose name is first recorded in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus (1493-1541). Originally the name Undine defined the species of elementals inhabiting waterfalls and forest pools, but by the nineteenth century it had become the forename of a water nymph that fell in love with a human and married him to gain an immortal soul. Undine’s story became incredibly popular in the nineteenth century when the German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué wrote a novella, Undine (1811), about her ill-fated marriage to a knight called Huldebrand. Her story is similar to The Little Mermaid, and it inspired the work of several composers, including Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Henze.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Alluring and often deadly, we see a darker, predatory and sexual side of mermaids at the forefront of the extract taken from a thirteenth-century encyclopaedia, De Proprietatibus Rerum, written by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicanus, or Bartholomew of England.

Later, we hear how explorers like Christopher Columbus attempted to make sense of the new creatures and worlds that they encountered in the Age of Exploration. Columbus’s observation that mermaids ‘are not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face’ seems to imply that he saw manatees rather than the arousing, yet sexually unavailable fish-maidens conjured by imaginative sailors.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

By contrast, Haydn’s canzonetta, ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ (1794), offers a more playful rendition of the mermaid’s seductive call to ‘follow, follow, follow’ her beneath the waves. One of a small number of technically simple songs composed for performance in a drawing-room setting by a solo voice and keyboard, the expressive flourishes and unrelenting liveliness of the piano’s watery soundscape complements the simplicity of Anne Hunter’s charming lyric.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

In Walter de la Mare’s ‘Sam’, a mermaid is used to contrast the self-doubt and inexperience of youth with the playful confidence and self-awareness that comes with old age, while T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, uses the mysterious and uninhabitable underwater world to reflect the narrator’s feelings of sexual inadequacy and, more generally, the individual’s isolation in the modern world:

I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black. We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown. [T.S. Elliot, Extract from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’]

Several of the pieces that made the final edit draw upon the mermaid’s lack of an immortal soul to explore love and difference. While Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is the most famous example, Oscar Wilde’s The Fisherman and his Soul (1891) turns the motif on its head to highlight the conflict between physical love and spiritual salvation, and individual happiness versus social expectation. The very form of mermaids – part animal, part female – is ideally suited to negotiating such tensions, a concept that is also brilliantly tackled in Daniel’s ‘Ulysses and the Siren’ (1605), as we find Ulysses (the Latin counterpart of Odysseus) impervious to the siren’s lure. Writing during a new wave of exploration, Daniel’s poem addresses the pursuit of honour and renown achieved through an active life, not averse to war, versus passivity and the pursuit of individual pleasures closer at hand. For Ulysses, the promise of fame is more attractive than the siren’s song.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

As time permits, and my research develops, I’ll dive deeper into the legends associated with mermaids and the infinitely complex ways that mankind has used them over time. But for the moment, dear reader, I’ll leave you with an invitation to hear the mermaids singing on Radio 3 this Sunday

You can follow the progress of my work on mermaids on this blog and here.

Mermaids: The Lure of Sirens’ Song

If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing. [J.M.Barrie, Peter Pan]

For as long as I can remember I’ve been enchanted by mermaids. One of my earliest memories is watching the Japanese anime version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Released over a decade before Walt Disney’s movie, the anime film broke my heart by remaining true to the original ending of Andersen’s tale (published in 1837), in which the mermaid dies after sacrificing everything to gain the love of a prince she saved from drowning.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

As a little girl who demanded a happy ending for the brave, faithful and selfless mermaid, I recall fleeing to the bathroom in tears as she perished and turned to sea foam. From that moment I fell in love with mermaids and wanted to be part of their world as much as Andersen’s Little Mermaid wanted to be part of ours.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

My older self still has that childlike fascination and feeling of injustice at the Little Mermaid’s story, but mermaids also appeal to me more broadly because they embody mystery and duality: as hybrid creatures, they help to define what makes us human.

As part of my ongoing research into mermaids, I’ve been looking into the multi-faceted character of the sea-maid and the element in which she dwells. Last year, part of my research fed into a special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Words and Music, which is being repeated on Sunday 27 July 2014, 6.15pm (GMT). Produced by the brilliant Philippa Richie, my programme is inspired by the different ways in which mermaids have been a well-spring of creativity for composers and writers from diverse cultures across time. All kinds of sea maidens are included, from Dvořák’s tragic water sprite Rusalka, who asks the moon to tell her beloved how she feels in the famous ‘Song to the Moon’, to Gershwin’s ‘trollop’ Lorelei, whose liberty and sexual allure prompts the human singer of her tale to aspire to be a femme fatale of similar calibre. With dramatic readings by Toby Stephens and Amanda Root, I couldn’t have been happier with the result.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The programme begins with the lively and colourful mermaid lagoon in Barrie’s Peter Pan, and an evocative piece of music inspired by one of the most famous and influential water sprites, Undine, or Ondine, whose name is first recorded in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus (1493-1541). Originally the name Undine defined the species of elementals inhabiting waterfalls and forest pools, but by the nineteenth century it had become the forename of a water nymph that fell in love with a human and married him to gain an immortal soul. Undine’s story became incredibly popular in the nineteenth century when the German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué wrote a novella, Undine (1811), about her ill-fated marriage to a knight called Huldebrand. Her story is similar to The Little Mermaid, and it inspired the work of several composers, including Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Henze.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Alluring and often deadly, we see a darker, predatory and sexual side of mermaids at the forefront of the extract taken from a thirteenth-century encyclopaedia, De Proprietatibus Rerum, written by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicanus, or Bartholomew of England.

Later, we hear how explorers like Christopher Columbus attempted to make sense of the new creatures and worlds that they encountered in the Age of Exploration. Columbus’s observation that mermaids ‘are not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face’ seems to imply that he saw manatees rather than the arousing, yet sexually unavailable fish-maidens conjured by imaginative sailors.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

By contrast, Haydn’s canzonetta, ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ (1794), offers a more playful rendition of the mermaid’s seductive call to ‘follow, follow, follow’ her beneath the waves. One of a small number of technically simple songs composed for performance in a drawing-room setting by a solo voice and keyboard, the expressive flourishes and unrelenting liveliness of the piano’s watery soundscape complements the simplicity of Anne Hunter’s charming lyric.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

In Walter de la Mare’s ‘Sam’, a mermaid is used to contrast the self-doubt and inexperience of youth with the playful confidence and self-awareness that comes with old age, while T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, uses the mysterious and uninhabitable underwater world to reflect the narrator’s feelings of sexual inadequacy and, more generally, the individual’s isolation in the modern world:

I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black. We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown. [T.S. Elliot, Extract from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’]

Several of the pieces that made the final edit draw upon the mermaid’s lack of an immortal soul to explore love and difference. While Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is the most famous example, Oscar Wilde’s The Fisherman and his Soul (1891) turns the motif on its head to highlight the conflict between physical love and spiritual salvation, and individual happiness versus social expectation. The very form of mermaids – part animal, part female – is ideally suited to negotiating such tensions, a concept that is also brilliantly tackled in Daniel’s ‘Ulysses and the Siren’ (1605), as we find Ulysses (the Latin counterpart of Odysseus) impervious to the siren’s lure. Writing during a new wave of exploration, Daniel’s poem addresses the pursuit of honour and renown achieved through an active life, not averse to war, versus passivity and the pursuit of individual pleasures closer at hand. For Ulysses, the promise of fame is more attractive than the siren’s song.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

As time permits, and my research develops, I’ll dive deeper into the legends associated with mermaids and the infinitely complex ways that mankind has used them over time. But for the moment, dear reader, I’ll leave you with an invitation to hear the mermaids singing on Radio 3 this Sunday

You can follow the progress of my work on mermaids on this blog and here.

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The Minstrel's Tale: Making Music for The Canterbury Tales

‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote… Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages’

So begins the most famous piece of Middle English literature: Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. For the last four months my students and I have been preparing a stage adaptation of Chaucer’s unfinished story collection for performance at The University of Liverpool.

Geraint Williams as Chaucer in our production of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (photo: Meave Sullivan)

Surprisingly, theatrical versions of Chaucer’s Tales are rare. The bulky nature of the collection makes it difficult to stage in its entirety and some of the individual stories need a great deal of abridgement to make them work on stage. Bringing the imaginative power and scope of the tales to life in the theatre similarly provides a great challenge for even the most inspired director and stage crew. Not only do the fictional fourteenth-century pilgrims travel from London to Canterbury as they share their stories, but the tales they tell take us everywhere from Oxford to Asia, Northumberland to Syria, ancient Athens to the fairy-inhabited forests in King Arthur’s day.

Long ago and far away… Palamon and Arcite fall in Love with Emily ('The Knight's Tale)

Long ago and far away… Palamon (James Rooney) and Arcite (Charles Adey) fall in Love with Emily (Katie Overbury) in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ (photo: Meave Sullivan)

In Chaucer’s original work, we likewise embark on a literary journey, exploring a range of medieval genres which come with their own unique registers of language, tone, imagery, and pace, and a variety of scenes including everything from large battles, shape-shifting crones, epic boat journeys, and sex up a pear tree. So how does one start to lend coherence to Chaucer’s diverse story collection in performance? What can be done to make what works on paper work on the stage? Well, dear reader, here beginneth ‘The Minstrel’s Tale’…

Head Minstrel and Composer Alex Cottrell and I

Head Minstrel and Composer Alex Cottrell and I with The Liverpool University Players’ psaltery

Once I’d worked out what script I wanted to use – Mike Poulton’s brilliant adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company – the first thing that I discussed with Rio Matchett, the third year English Literature student that I asked to direct the play, was how we might use music to invite connections between the tales and flag up the different worlds and genres that the tales belonged to.

Chaucer’s narratives are littered with references to songs, music, and dancing, so the myriad of musical possibilities for illustrating the different tales was similar to the wide generic range of the tales. Having previously worked with composer Alex Cottrell on a stage adaptation of Goblin Market, I wanted to employ him as ‘Head Minstrel’ and composer; he has a fantastic way of capturing the essence of texts and their characters in his musical scores.

Charlie Wilson as Guinevere in The Wife of Bath's Tale

Charlie Wilson as Guinevere in The Wife of Bath’s Tale (photo: Meave Sullivan)

We asked Alex to keep the music medieval in flavour (but not necessarily historically accurate) and simple in style, working with the small group of instruments available to us (harp, psaltery, Irish flute, and bodhrán). In our abridged version of Poulton’s script, we had elements of the General Prologue and three types of tales: fabliaux (comic and bawdy stories), romances (tales of love and chivalry), and moral tales. We wanted a unifying composition to open and close the play, and repeatable themes to signify which literary genre was in operation. Alex’s themes would act as musical ‘bookmarks’ to invite comparisons with other tales belonging to the same genre and underscore what kind of language, characters and events the audience were about to see. This allowed us to exploit the breadth of the tales in the best possible way, and highlight the differences between them, without detracting from the pilgrimage and storytelling motifs that bound the whole together.

Several tales came with authentic medieval lyrics embedded within them, which we asked Alex to retain and link with the most appropriate style of music for the tale.

Chaunticlear and Pertelote singing love songs together, 'My lief is faren in londe'.

Chaunticlear (George Trier) and Pertelote (Imogen Wignall) singing the medieval lyric ‘My lief is faren in londe’

Armed with a psaltery, which he learnt to play in less than two weeks, our head minstrel developed several themes. The first was a ‘romantic’ and stately piece for ‘The Knight’s Tale’ and the start of ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, played on the psaltery. An a cappella lyric sung by Emily in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ (‘Of every kind of tree’) followed a similar kind of tune: simple but with a courtly aspect that wouldn’t be out of place in a royal household. Musical Director, Darren Begley, put the actors through a crash course in singing medieval tunes and things started coming together.

Nicholas (James Rooney) and Alison (Charlie Wilson) just before 'I have a gentle cock' is sung.

Nicholas (James Rooney) and ‘Naughty’ Alison (Charlie Wilson) just before ‘I have a gentle cock’ (photo: Meave Sullivan)

A spritely tune entitled ‘Tales Less Tasteful’ was composed to open and close the comic and bawdy stories like ‘The Miller’s Tale’. Using all of the instruments, but especially the flute for its lively melody, it evokes a bustling medieval market place or tavern. Two sombre pieces, more ecclesiastical in tone, were written for the psaltery to accompany ‘The Monk’s Tale’ and the ‘Pardoner’s Tale’, and Alex improvised a discordant piece to make the death of the Pardoner’s rioters more emotive (‘Thus fell all three’).

The Host, The Knight, The Miller and the Cook

The Host (Dominic Davies), Knight (Daniel Murphy), Miller (Shamus Cooke) & Cook (Alex Webber-Date) (Meave Sullivan)

He developed a jaunty but simple accompaniment for ‘I have a gentle cock’, which Alison’s suitors in ‘The Miller’s Tale’ sang with gusto, while the chickens of ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’, Chaunticlear and Pertelote, serenaded each other with a slow simple rendition of ‘My lief is faren in londe’, which we recycled with a faster tempo for the chase scene that closes the tale.

My favourite piece by far was the introductory/closing piece written for the harp called ‘Aweccan’ (‘awaken’ in Middle English) because it captured perfectly the essence of spring and the ‘longing’ for pilgrimage felt by Chaucer’s pilgrims in the ‘General Prologue’. Opening with four bars that imitated church bells calling out the faithful, the positioning of the piece, as Chaucer opened speaking a few lines of Middle English and later closed the play with a plea to ‘pray for all poor pilgrims on the road’, worked beautifully and marked the play’s movement between the real and fictional worlds, the past and the present.

'Do not feed the minstrels'. Aweccan being performed on the harp.

‘Do not feed the minstrels’. Aweccan performed on the harp by a time-travelling harpist from the Italian Renaissance.

There are naturally lots of ways that the direction of the play, the set, the costumes, and the doubling or tripling of parts helped to invite parallels between the tales, as Chaucer did in his original text, but the incorporation of music and medieval songs equipped our modern audience with an emotional and moral barometer to aid them on their theatrical journey through the medieval tales.

Afterword: Happily, Alex was inspired to produce an album of neo-medieval tunes, inspired by  his compositions for the play. Several of the tunes, ‘The Knight’s Tale’, ‘Aweccan’, and ‘Thus fell all three’ appear on the album, alongside a new medieval remaining ‘1478’ and a pleasing reworking of ‘Summer is Icomen In’, which the pilgrims sang at the start of our play.

Read more about the composition process from Alex here.

Listen to, or purchase, Alex’s Canterbury Tales album ‘Untold’ below:

Watch a short feature about ‘The Music of The Canterbury Tales’:

The Minstrel’s Tale: Making Music for The Canterbury Tales

‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote… Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages’

So begins the most famous piece of Middle English literature: Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. For the last four months my students and I have been preparing a stage adaptation of Chaucer’s unfinished story collection for performance at The University of Liverpool.

Geraint Williams as Chaucer in our production of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (photo: Meave Sullivan)

Surprisingly, theatrical versions of Chaucer’s Tales are rare. The bulky nature of the collection makes it difficult to stage in its entirety and some of the individual stories need a great deal of abridgement to make them work on stage. Bringing the imaginative power and scope of the tales to life in the theatre similarly provides a great challenge for even the most inspired director and stage crew. Not only do the fictional fourteenth-century pilgrims travel from London to Canterbury as they share their stories, but the tales they tell take us everywhere from Oxford to Asia, Northumberland to Syria, ancient Athens to the fairy-inhabited forests in King Arthur’s day.

Long ago and far away… Palamon and Arcite fall in Love with Emily ('The Knight's Tale)

Long ago and far away… Palamon (James Rooney) and Arcite (Charles Adey) fall in Love with Emily (Katie Overbury) in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ (photo: Meave Sullivan)

In Chaucer’s original work, we likewise embark on a literary journey, exploring a range of medieval genres which come with their own unique registers of language, tone, imagery, and pace, and a variety of scenes including everything from large battles, shape-shifting crones, epic boat journeys, and sex up a pear tree. So how does one start to lend coherence to Chaucer’s diverse story collection in performance? What can be done to make what works on paper work on the stage? Well, dear reader, here beginneth ‘The Minstrel’s Tale’…

Head Minstrel and Composer Alex Cottrell and I

Head Minstrel and Composer Alex Cottrell and I with The Liverpool University Players’ psaltery

Once I’d worked out what script I wanted to use – Mike Poulton’s brilliant adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company – the first thing that I discussed with Rio Matchett, the third year English Literature student that I asked to direct the play, was how we might use music to invite connections between the tales and flag up the different worlds and genres that the tales belonged to.

Chaucer’s narratives are littered with references to songs, music, and dancing, so the myriad of musical possibilities for illustrating the different tales was similar to the wide generic range of the tales. Having previously worked with composer Alex Cottrell on a stage adaptation of Goblin Market, I wanted to employ him as ‘Head Minstrel’ and composer; he has a fantastic way of capturing the essence of texts and their characters in his musical scores.

Charlie Wilson as Guinevere in The Wife of Bath's Tale

Charlie Wilson as Guinevere in The Wife of Bath’s Tale (photo: Meave Sullivan)

We asked Alex to keep the music medieval in flavour (but not necessarily historically accurate) and simple in style, working with the small group of instruments available to us (harp, psaltery, Irish flute, and bodhrán). In our abridged version of Poulton’s script, we had elements of the General Prologue and three types of tales: fabliaux (comic and bawdy stories), romances (tales of love and chivalry), and moral tales. We wanted a unifying composition to open and close the play, and repeatable themes to signify which literary genre was in operation. Alex’s themes would act as musical ‘bookmarks’ to invite comparisons with other tales belonging to the same genre and underscore what kind of language, characters and events the audience were about to see. This allowed us to exploit the breadth of the tales in the best possible way, and highlight the differences between them, without detracting from the pilgrimage and storytelling motifs that bound the whole together.

Several tales came with authentic medieval lyrics embedded within them, which we asked Alex to retain and link with the most appropriate style of music for the tale.

Chaunticlear and Pertelote singing love songs together, 'My lief is faren in londe'.

Chaunticlear (George Trier) and Pertelote (Imogen Wignall) singing the medieval lyric ‘My lief is faren in londe’

Armed with a psaltery, which he learnt to play in less than two weeks, our head minstrel developed several themes. The first was a ‘romantic’ and stately piece for ‘The Knight’s Tale’ and the start of ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, played on the psaltery. An a cappella lyric sung by Emily in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ (‘Of every kind of tree’) followed a similar kind of tune: simple but with a courtly aspect that wouldn’t be out of place in a royal household. Musical Director, Darren Begley, put the actors through a crash course in singing medieval tunes and things started coming together.

Nicholas (James Rooney) and Alison (Charlie Wilson) just before 'I have a gentle cock' is sung.

Nicholas (James Rooney) and ‘Naughty’ Alison (Charlie Wilson) just before ‘I have a gentle cock’ (photo: Meave Sullivan)

A spritely tune entitled ‘Tales Less Tasteful’ was composed to open and close the comic and bawdy stories like ‘The Miller’s Tale’. Using all of the instruments, but especially the flute for its lively melody, it evokes a bustling medieval market place or tavern. Two sombre pieces, more ecclesiastical in tone, were written for the psaltery to accompany ‘The Monk’s Tale’ and the ‘Pardoner’s Tale’, and Alex improvised a discordant piece to make the death of the Pardoner’s rioters more emotive (‘Thus fell all three’).

The Host, The Knight, The Miller and the Cook

The Host (Dominic Davies), Knight (Daniel Murphy), Miller (Shamus Cooke) & Cook (Alex Webber-Date) (Meave Sullivan)

He developed a jaunty but simple accompaniment for ‘I have a gentle cock’, which Alison’s suitors in ‘The Miller’s Tale’ sang with gusto, while the chickens of ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’, Chaunticlear and Pertelote, serenaded each other with a slow simple rendition of ‘My lief is faren in londe’, which we recycled with a faster tempo for the chase scene that closes the tale.

My favourite piece by far was the introductory/closing piece written for the harp called ‘Aweccan’ (‘awaken’ in Middle English) because it captured perfectly the essence of spring and the ‘longing’ for pilgrimage felt by Chaucer’s pilgrims in the ‘General Prologue’. Opening with four bars that imitated church bells calling out the faithful, the positioning of the piece, as Chaucer opened speaking a few lines of Middle English and later closed the play with a plea to ‘pray for all poor pilgrims on the road’, worked beautifully and marked the play’s movement between the real and fictional worlds, the past and the present.

'Do not feed the minstrels'. Aweccan being performed on the harp.

‘Do not feed the minstrels’. Aweccan performed on the harp by a time-travelling harpist from the Italian Renaissance.

There are naturally lots of ways that the direction of the play, the set, the costumes, and the doubling or tripling of parts helped to invite parallels between the tales, as Chaucer did in his original text, but the incorporation of music and medieval songs equipped our modern audience with an emotional and moral barometer to aid them on their theatrical journey through the medieval tales.

Afterword: Happily, Alex was inspired to produce an album of neo-medieval tunes, inspired by  his compositions for the play. Several of the tunes, ‘The Knight’s Tale’, ‘Aweccan’, and ‘Thus fell all three’ appear on the album, alongside a new medieval remaining ‘1478’ and a pleasing reworking of ‘Summer is Icomen In’, which the pilgrims sang at the start of our play.

Read more about the composition process from Alex here.

Listen to, or purchase, Alex’s Canterbury Tales album ‘Untold’ below:

Watch a short feature about ‘The Music of The Canterbury Tales’:

'I am already sick of love': Medieval Valentines

The earliest expressions of love linked to St Valentine’s Day are found in the Middle Ages. The most famous is Geoffrey Chaucer’s reference to Valentine’s Day in The Parliament of Fowls, which depicts birds choosing their mates on the feast day: ‘For this was on Seynt Valentynes day, Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make’ [For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes to choose his mate, lines 309-10]. Less well-known is the fact that several of Chaucer’s contemporaries – Otton de Grandson, John Gower, Sir John Clanvowe, Christine de Pisan and John Lydgate – also wrote about Valentine’s day and helped to further its connection with romantic love.

Venus collecting medieval hearts in Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 606.

Venus collecting medieval hearts in Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 606.

In the early fifteenth century, Charles d’Orléans, an important member of the French aristocracy and prisoner of the English since the battle of Agincourt, addressed the earliest ‘Valentine’ poem to a lover during his imprisoment in the Tower of London:

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,                               I am already sick of love,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,                                 My very gentle Valentine,
Car pour moi fustes trop tart née,                     Since for me you were born too soon,
Et moy pour vous fus trop tost né.                    And I for you was born too late.
Dieu lui pardoint qui estrené                             God forgives him who has estranged
M’a de vous, pour toute l’année.                       Me from you for the whole year.

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,                              I am already sick of love,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,                                My very gentle Valentine,
Bien m’estoye suspeconné,                               Well might I have suspected
Qu’auroye telle destinée,                                   That such a destiny,
Ains que passast ceste journée,                       Thus would have happened this day,
Combien qu’Amours l’eust ordonné.                How much that Love would have commanded.

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,                             I am already sick of love,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée.                                My very gentle Valentine.

Charles d'Orléans writing in the Tower of London, British Library Additional MS Royal 16 F II, f. 73

Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower of London, British Library Additional MS Royal 16 F II, f. 73

The oldest known love letter associated with Valentine’s Day in the English language also survives from the fifteenth century. Preserved in the British Library, it is part of a larger collection of letters written by members of the Paston family of Norfolk. The Valentine letter, written in February 1477, was sent to John Paston by Margery Brews, who swiftly followed it up with another message in reply to Paston’s lost response. In the two documents she tells her ‘welbelouyd’ [well-beloved] John that she has asked her mother to encourage her father to increase her dowry, but that an increase may not be possible, so, if he loves her, he should be prepared to marry her without the pledge of more money. Her remarks about feeling wretched and longing to see John strike a particularly poignant and timeless note, as does her request that ‘non erthely creature safe only your-selfe’ [no earthly creature but yourself] see her letter. Since Margery and John did eventually marry – presumably making Margery the ‘meryest mayden on grounde’ [the happiest maiden on Earth] – her letters are offered below as a testament to the power of love and the emergence of Valentine’s Day in medieval England.

From Margery Brews to Sir John Paston

Vnto my ryght welbelouyd Voluntyn John Paston, squyer, be this bill & delyuered, &c.  Ryght reuerent and wurschypfull and my ryght welebeloued Voluntyne, I recommande me vnto yowe full hertely, desyring to here of yowr welefare, whech I beseche Almyghty God long for to preserve vnto hys plesure and yowr hertys desyre. And yf it please yowe to here of my welefare, I am not in good heele of body ner of herte, nor schall be tyll I here from yowe; For ther wottys no creature what peyn that I endure, And for to be deede I dare it not dyscure. And my lady my moder hath labored the mater to my fadure full delygently, but sche can no more gete then ye knowe of, for the whech God knowyth I am full sory. But yf that ye loffe me, as I tryste verely that ye do, ye will not leffe me therfor; for if that ye hade not halfe the lyvelode that ye hafe, for to do the grettyst labure that any woman on lyve myght, I wold not forsake yowe. And yf ye commande me to kepe me true whereeuer I go iwyse I will do all my myght owe to love and neuer no mo. And yf my freendys say that I do amys, thei schal not me let so for to do, Myn herte me byddys euer more to love yowe truly ouer all erthely thing. And yf thei be neuer so wroth, I tryst it schall be bettur in tyme commyng. No more to yowe at this tyme, but the Holy Trinité hafe yowe in kepyng. And I besech yowe that this bill be not seyn of non erthely creature safe only your-selfe, &c. And thys lettur was indyte at Topcroft wyth full heuy herte, &c. Be your own M. B.

Margery Brews, Valentine Letter, February 1477, London, British Library, MS. Additional 43490, f. 24

Margery Brews, Valentine Letter, February 1477, London, British Library, MS. Additional 43490, f. 24

Margery’s second letter to Sir John Paston

To my ryght welebelouyd cosyn John Paston, swyere, be this lettur + delyueryd, &c.  Ryght wurschypffull and welebelouyd Volentyne, in my moste vmble wyse I recommande me vnto yowe, &c. And hertely I thanke yowe for the letture whech that ye sende me be John Bekurton, wherby I vndyrstonde and knowe that ye be purposyd to com to Topcroft in schorte tyme, and wythowte any erand or mater but only to hafe a conclusyon of the mater betwyx my fadur and yowe. I wolde be most glad of any creature on lyve so that the mater myght growe to effect. And ther as ye say, and ye com and fynde the mater no more toward then ye dyd afortyme ye wold no more put my fadur and my lady my moder to no cost ner besenesse for that cause a good wyle afture, weche causyth myn herte to be full hevy; and yf that ye com and the mater take to non effecte, then schuld I be meche more sory and full of heuynesse. And as for myselfe, I hafe don and vndyrstond in the mater that I can or may, as Good knowyth. And I lete yowe pleynly vndyrstond that my fader wyll no more money parte wyth-all in that behalfe but an c li. [£100] and l [50] marke, whech is ryght far fro the acomplyshment of yowr desyre. Wherfor, yf that ye cowde be content wyth that good and my por persone, I wold be the meryest mayden on grounde. And yf ye thynke not owr-selfe so satysfyed, or that ye myght hafe mech more good, as I hafe vndyrstonde be yowe afor, good, trewe, and lovyng Volentyne, that ye take no such labure vppon yowe as to com more for that mater; but let it passe, and neuer more to be spokyn of, as I may be yowr trewe louer and bedewoman duryng my lyfe. No more vnto yowe at thys tyme, but Almyghty Jesus preserve yowe bothe body and sowle, &c. Be your Voluntyne Mergery Brews

‘I am already sick of love’: Medieval Valentines

The earliest expressions of love linked to St Valentine’s Day are found in the Middle Ages. The most famous is Geoffrey Chaucer’s reference to Valentine’s Day in The Parliament of Fowls, which depicts birds choosing their mates on the feast day: ‘For this was on Seynt Valentynes day, Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make’ [For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes to choose his mate, lines 309-10]. Less well-known is the fact that several of Chaucer’s contemporaries – Otton de Grandson, John Gower, Sir John Clanvowe, Christine de Pisan and John Lydgate – also wrote about Valentine’s day and helped to further its connection with romantic love.

Venus collecting medieval hearts in Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 606.

Venus collecting medieval hearts in Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 606.

In the early fifteenth century, Charles d’Orléans, an important member of the French aristocracy and prisoner of the English since the battle of Agincourt, addressed the earliest ‘Valentine’ poem to a lover during his imprisoment in the Tower of London:

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,                               I am already sick of love,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,                                 My very gentle Valentine,
Car pour moi fustes trop tart née,                     Since for me you were born too soon,
Et moy pour vous fus trop tost né.                    And I for you was born too late.
Dieu lui pardoint qui estrené                             God forgives him who has estranged
M’a de vous, pour toute l’année.                       Me from you for the whole year.

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,                              I am already sick of love,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,                                My very gentle Valentine,
Bien m’estoye suspeconné,                               Well might I have suspected
Qu’auroye telle destinée,                                   That such a destiny,
Ains que passast ceste journée,                       Thus would have happened this day,
Combien qu’Amours l’eust ordonné.                How much that Love would have commanded.

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,                             I am already sick of love,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée.                                My very gentle Valentine.

Charles d'Orléans writing in the Tower of London, British Library Additional MS Royal 16 F II, f. 73

Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower of London, British Library Additional MS Royal 16 F II, f. 73

The oldest known love letter associated with Valentine’s Day in the English language also survives from the fifteenth century. Preserved in the British Library, it is part of a larger collection of letters written by members of the Paston family of Norfolk. The Valentine letter, written in February 1477, was sent to John Paston by Margery Brews, who swiftly followed it up with another message in reply to Paston’s lost response. In the two documents she tells her ‘welbelouyd’ [well-beloved] John that she has asked her mother to encourage her father to increase her dowry, but that an increase may not be possible, so, if he loves her, he should be prepared to marry her without the pledge of more money. Her remarks about feeling wretched and longing to see John strike a particularly poignant and timeless note, as does her request that ‘non erthely creature safe only your-selfe’ [no earthly creature but yourself] see her letter. Since Margery and John did eventually marry – presumably making Margery the ‘meryest mayden on grounde’ [the happiest maiden on Earth] – her letters are offered below as a testament to the power of love and the emergence of Valentine’s Day in medieval England.

From Margery Brews to Sir John Paston

Vnto my ryght welbelouyd Voluntyn John Paston, squyer, be this bill & delyuered, &c.  Ryght reuerent and wurschypfull and my ryght welebeloued Voluntyne, I recommande me vnto yowe full hertely, desyring to here of yowr welefare, whech I beseche Almyghty God long for to preserve vnto hys plesure and yowr hertys desyre. And yf it please yowe to here of my welefare, I am not in good heele of body ner of herte, nor schall be tyll I here from yowe; For ther wottys no creature what peyn that I endure, And for to be deede I dare it not dyscure. And my lady my moder hath labored the mater to my fadure full delygently, but sche can no more gete then ye knowe of, for the whech God knowyth I am full sory. But yf that ye loffe me, as I tryste verely that ye do, ye will not leffe me therfor; for if that ye hade not halfe the lyvelode that ye hafe, for to do the grettyst labure that any woman on lyve myght, I wold not forsake yowe. And yf ye commande me to kepe me true whereeuer I go iwyse I will do all my myght owe to love and neuer no mo. And yf my freendys say that I do amys, thei schal not me let so for to do, Myn herte me byddys euer more to love yowe truly ouer all erthely thing. And yf thei be neuer so wroth, I tryst it schall be bettur in tyme commyng. No more to yowe at this tyme, but the Holy Trinité hafe yowe in kepyng. And I besech yowe that this bill be not seyn of non erthely creature safe only your-selfe, &c. And thys lettur was indyte at Topcroft wyth full heuy herte, &c. Be your own M. B.

Margery Brews, Valentine Letter, February 1477, London, British Library, MS. Additional 43490, f. 24

Margery Brews, Valentine Letter, February 1477, London, British Library, MS. Additional 43490, f. 24

Margery’s second letter to Sir John Paston

To my ryght welebelouyd cosyn John Paston, swyere, be this lettur + delyueryd, &c.  Ryght wurschypffull and welebelouyd Volentyne, in my moste vmble wyse I recommande me vnto yowe, &c. And hertely I thanke yowe for the letture whech that ye sende me be John Bekurton, wherby I vndyrstonde and knowe that ye be purposyd to com to Topcroft in schorte tyme, and wythowte any erand or mater but only to hafe a conclusyon of the mater betwyx my fadur and yowe. I wolde be most glad of any creature on lyve so that the mater myght growe to effect. And ther as ye say, and ye com and fynde the mater no more toward then ye dyd afortyme ye wold no more put my fadur and my lady my moder to no cost ner besenesse for that cause a good wyle afture, weche causyth myn herte to be full hevy; and yf that ye com and the mater take to non effecte, then schuld I be meche more sory and full of heuynesse. And as for myselfe, I hafe don and vndyrstond in the mater that I can or may, as Good knowyth. And I lete yowe pleynly vndyrstond that my fader wyll no more money parte wyth-all in that behalfe but an c li. [£100] and l [50] marke, whech is ryght far fro the acomplyshment of yowr desyre. Wherfor, yf that ye cowde be content wyth that good and my por persone, I wold be the meryest mayden on grounde. And yf ye thynke not owr-selfe so satysfyed, or that ye myght hafe mech more good, as I hafe vndyrstonde be yowe afor, good, trewe, and lovyng Volentyne, that ye take no such labure vppon yowe as to com more for that mater; but let it passe, and neuer more to be spokyn of, as I may be yowr trewe louer and bedewoman duryng my lyfe. No more vnto yowe at thys tyme, but Almyghty Jesus preserve yowe bothe body and sowle, &c. Be your Voluntyne Mergery Brews