Tag Archives: King Arthur

Medieval Depictions of Stonehenge

The current controversy over plans to build a tunnel under Stonehenge has made me think about medieval depictions of the site again. Over the years, I’ve come across various descriptions of Stonehenge in medieval chronicles, but I haven’t thought seriously about them since preparing volume 1 of John Hardyng’s Chronicle. This post aims to gather together the earliest accounts and images of the stones.

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A view of Stonehenge. Image taken by Sarah Peverley

Written and revised between 1129 and 1154, Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, or History of the English, lists the stone circle as the second of four marvels in England. Henry’s brief but thought-provoking description conveys the sense of wonder and mystery that medieval people experienced when seeing the stones. Unsurprisingly, the response is the same for many visitors today.

Quatuor autem sunt que mira uidentur in Anglia […] Secundum est apud Stanenges ubi lapides mire magnitudinis in modum portarum eleuati sunt, ita ut porte portis superposite uideantur. Nec potest aliquis excogitare qua arte tanti lapides adeo in altum eleuati sunt uel quare ibi constructi sunt.

There are four wonders which may be seen in England […] The second is at Stonehenge, where stones of remarkable size are raised up like gates, in such a way that gates seem to be placed on top of gates. And no one can work out how the stones were so skilfully lifted up to such a height or why they were erected there.

Translation taken from Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana E. Greenway, p. 23.

In addition to being the earliest medieval reference to the site, Henry’s account has the accolade of being the first to provide the name “Stanenges” or “Stonehenge”. The etymology of “Stanenges” is up for debate, but it  derives from either the Old English words for stone and gallows/hang (i.e. hanging stones), because the sarsen trilithons look like medieval gallows, or the Old English words for stone and hinge, because the lintels suspend, or hinge, on two standing stones.

egerton-3668-2-3

Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum. London, British Library MS Egerton 3668, ff. 2v-3r

 

At the same time that Henry of Huntingdon was composing the Historia Anglorum, a Welshman named Geoffrey of Monmouth, was writing the Historia Regum Britanniae, or History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1138). Geoffrey’s account of British history became one of the most influential works of the Middle Ages. It also provided a mythic origin for Stonehenge. In his account of the reign of Aurelius Ambrose, an early British king, Geoffrey describes how Aurelius sought a fitting monument to mark the burial site of the British chiefs slaughtered at Amesbury by Hengist, a tricksy Saxon leader. Merlin (of King Arthur fame) informs Aurelius of a structure in Ireland called “The Giant’s Ring” (aka “The Giants’ Dance” or “The Giants’ Carol”), an ancient stone circle with magical healing properties that will stand for all eternity if erected at the burial site. Merlin agrees to bring the stones to England (they are too heavy for normal men to lift!) and departs for Ireland with Aurelius’s brother, Uther Pendragon (King Arthur’s father), and Uther’s men. A battle between Uther and the Irish king ensues, during which the Irish are defeated. Uther’s men build devices to transport the stones, but they only work when Merlin employs his superior knowledge to improve the designs. The stones are taken to Salisbury and erected as a monument to the dead. Later, Aurelius and Uther are buried at The Giant’s Ring.

Here are the relevant extracts for those wishing to read Geoffrey’s account in full (skip ahead if the summary above is enough):

As Aurelius looked upon the place where the dead lay buried, he was moved to great pity and burst out in tears. For a long time he considered many different ideas about how to memorialise this site, for he felt that some kind of monument should grace the soil that covered so many noblemen who had died for their homeland […]  Merlin said to him: “If you wish to honour the grave of the men with something that will last forever, send for the Ring of Giants which is in now atop Mount Killaraus in Ireland. This Ring consists of a formation of stones that no man in this age could erect unless he employed great skill and ingenuity. The stones are enormous, and there is no one with strength enough to move them. If they can be placed in a circle here, in the exact formation which they currently hold, they will stand for all eternity.” […] “These stones are magical and possess certain healing powers. The giants brought them long ago from the confines of Africa and set them up in Ireland when they settled that country. They set the Ring up thus in order to be healed of their sickness by bathing amid the stones, for they would wash the stones and then bathe in the water that spilled from them; they were thus cured of their illness. They would even mix herbs in and heal their wounds in that way. There is not a stone among them which does not have some kind of medicinal power.” When the Britons heard Merlin’s words, they agreed to send for the stones and to attack the people of Ireland if they tried to withhold them. At last they chose Uther Pendragon, the brother of the king, along with fifteen thousand armed soldiers to carry out this business. Merlin was chosen so that they could be guided by his wisdom and advice. When the ships were ready, they set sail, and, with prosperous winds, made for Ireland. [Battle ensues and the Britons are victorious] Having achieved this victory, the Britons went up Mount Killaraus and gazed at the ring of stones in gladness and wonder. As they all stood there, Merlin came among them and said: “Use all of your strength, men, and you will soon discover that it is not by sinew but by knowledge that these stones shall be moved.” They then agreed to give in to Merlin’s counsel and, through the use of many clever devices, they attempted to dismantle the Ring. Some of the men set up ropes and cords, and ladders in order to accomplish their goal; but none of these things were able to budge the stones at all. Seeing all of their efforts fall flat, Merlin laughed and then rearranged all of their devices. When he had arranged everything carefully, the stones were removed more easily than can be believed. Merlin then had the stones carried away and loaded onto the ships. [The stones are transported back and celebrations are held…] the stones were set up in a circle around the graves exactly as they had been arranged on Mount Killaraus in Ireland. Merlin thus proved that his craft was indeed better than mere strength.

Extracts taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, trans. by Michael A. Faletra (Broadview Press, 2008), pp. 150-53.

arundel-10-f2

An early copy of Geoffrey’s Historia. London, British Library MS Arundel 10, f. 2r

Geoffrey’s account of Stonehenge was repeated and adapted by chroniclers until the sixteenth century. The first to recycle and embellish it was Wace, who completed his Roman de Brut, a history of Britain, in 1155 and provided three names for the stones:

Bretun les suelent en bretanz
Apeler carole as gaianz,
Stanhenges unt nun en engleis,
Pieres pendues en francis.

In the British language the Britons usually call them the Giants’ Dance; in English they are called Stonehenge, and in French, the Hanging Stones.

Wace’s Roman de brut A History of the British: Text and Translation, ed. and trans. by Judith Weiss, pp. 206-07.

A fourteenth-century manuscript of Wace’s text in the British Library also contains one of the earliest visual depictions of Stonehenge.

stone-henge-egerton-3028-f30

Merlin building Stonehenge in London, British Library MS Egerton 3028, f. 30

Another early fourteenth-century illustration accompanies a copy of the Scala Mundi, or Ladder of the World, in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (pictured below). The Scala Mundi is an anonymous diagrammatic chronicle covering world events from creation to the early fourteenth century. Its depiction of Stonehenge occurs, once again, in the reign of Aurelius Ambrose, next to the statement “Hoc anno chorea gigantum de Hybernia non vi set arte Merlini deuecta apud Stonhenges” [That year the Giants’ Carol of Ireland, not by force but by the art of Merlin, was conveyed to Stonehenge]. The text pictured across the stones reads: “Stonhenges iuxta Ambesbury in Anglia sita” [Stonehenge located near Amesbury in England]. The Scala positions Merlin’s removal of the stones within the broader context of world history by placing it in the same period as Pope Felix III and Emperor Zeno.

corpus-christi-college-ms-194-fol-57

Stonehenge in a copy of the Scala Mundi in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 194, f. 57

While the images above are recognisable as Stonehenge, the most accurate illustration  dates to around 1440 and can be found in another copy of the Scala Mundi (Douai, bibliothèque municipale, MS 803). It was rediscovered by Christian Heck in 2006.

screenshot-2017-01-13-09-48-52

Stonehenge in the Scala Mundi in Douai, bibliothèque municipale, MS 803, f. 55

 

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Close up of Stonehenge in Douai, bibliothèque municipale, MS 803, f. 55

The image shows four trilithons in a circle, with tenons protruding from the lintels. While this configuration and the visibility of the tenons on the lintels is not entirely accurate, the image does appear to have been drawn by someone who knew what the stone circle looked like or had been given a technical description of how the lintels were fixed to the standing stones. But of course, not everyone was as well informed as this illustrator. The mystery and magical allure of Stonehenge and its construction continued into the fifteenth-century when the Northern chronicler John Hardyng commented on the stones:

Whiche now so hight the Stonehengles fulle sure
Bycause thay henge and somwhat bowand ere.
In wondre wyse men mervelle how thay bere .

[Which now are called the Stonehenge full sure
Because they hang and are somewhat bowing.
In wonder, wise men marvel how they keep from falling.]

John Hardyng. Chronicle, ed. by James Simpson and Sarah Peverley, 3.1915-17.

Writing towards the end of the Middle Ages, Hardyng captures the same sense of wonder that Henry of Huntingdon articulated over three centuries earlier. Today, almost nine hundred years since Henry put ink to parchment to record the name of the stones for posterity, the site still has the power to captivate and confound. Whatever happens regarding the proposed tunnel, we owe it to future generations to protect the integrity of the site and allow it to continue dazzling those who gaze upon it in all its awesome splendour.

For more on the terminology and building of Stonehenge, follow this link.

Lovers of stone might also enjoy Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s wonderful book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman.

 

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’:

The Appeal of King Arthur Across the Centuries

This is an illustrated transcript of The Appeal of King Arthur, a feature I wrote for BBC Radio 3. Broadcast on 24 June 2013. Downloadable as a BBC podcast here.

King Arthur returns his sword in British Library MS Additional 10294.

King Arthur returns his sword in British Library MS Additional 10294.

Picture the scene. Arthur, legendary king of the Britons, glances pensively across the glassy surface of a deep blue lake. The softest of ripples breaks the brooding silence as a glittering sword cuts the surface, flashes reflected sunlight, and thrusts towards heaven held aloft by a slender arm clad in shimmering samite, signifying that Arthur rules by divine providence. ‘Listen!’ interrupts Dennis, a medieval peasant rising from the dirt to mock Arthur’s investiture of Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, ‘strange women lying in ponds, distributing swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.’

This scene from Monty Python’s award winning Spamalot is part of a musical send up of the Arthurian myth that has appealed to audiences the world over. Its satirical irreverence makes it an odd bedfellow for other Arthuriana in the public imagination like Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur or the BBC’s Merlin, yet each retelling of the myth is testament to its enduring hold across the centuries. What is it that continues to draw us to Arthur’s story and why does it lend itself to such radically different treatments?

Monty Python's Spamalot

Monty Python’s Spamalot

Arthurian fiction has always flourished during periods of social and dynastic collapse. In the twelfth century, the first complete account of Arthur’s reign in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, furnished Britain with a national epic to mitigate a succession crisis. Fast forward eight centuries, to Kennedy’s assassination and we find his presidency idealised as the Camelot era, or, more recently, Merlin, running for five successful series throughout a global recession. In each example Arthur is a touchstone for strong leadership and accord, showing what society could achieve, but never does.

Merlin introduces Galahad to the Round Table. BnF Français 343.

Merlin introduces Galahad to Arthur and the Round Table. BnF MS Français 343, folio 3r.

Beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

Beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, British Library Arundel 10, f. 2.

While Geoffrey uses the legend to reimagine British history as a series of seamless dynastic successions attuned to the imperialism of his Norman overlords, Merlin espouses a multicultural Britain, free of class distinctions, where magic, not race or social background, is a focal point for prejudice. Magic becomes a moral barometer reflecting popular anxieties and aspirations. While Morgana uses it for personal gain, Merlin’s magic is socially beneficial, helping characters like Arthur and Guinevere, the servant-come-queen, fulfil their potential for common good. As we sympathise with Merlin’s struggle to reconcile personal and public responsibility, his endless vigil for Arthur’s return parallels our contemporary desire for stability in social and economic adversity.

The BBC's popular Merlin series

The BBC’s popular Merlin series

Literature produced during the Wars of the Roses, similarly manifests the concerns of its original fifteenth-century audience. Written when aristocratic factionalism encroached on, and overturned, royal authority, Thomas Malory’s highly influential Morte Darthur depicts the desolation of the Arthurian kingdom as a constitutional crisis reminiscent of the struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York. Remarkably for a medieval romance, it articulates the voice of the lower born men facilitating the noble feud. The silent masses that ordinarily acquiesce to royal power grow weary of war and switch their allegiance to Mordred.

Brother against brother: the Destruction of Arthur's Realm. British Library MS Additional 10294.

Civil War: The Destruction of Arthur’s Realm as depicted in British Library MS Additional 10294.

While Malory leaves us in no doubt that the people are ‘new-fangle’, or inconstant, the text reflects genuine concerns about the role of large groups in maintaining or changing the status quo. Malory’s Arthur prompts its audience to ask persistently relevant questions: where does true power reside, how is it transferred legitimately, and what is the relationship between a leader and his people?

Detail of Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, British Library MS Additional 59678, f. 35r.

Detail of Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, British Library MS Additional 59678, f. 35r.

Those questions also underpin Dennis the peasant’s rant in Spamalot, as the satirical collision of royal absolutism and proletarian power opens up serious debate about modern systems of governance under the guise of Arthurian parody.

As a narrative of nation and community exploring the human condition, Arthur’s rise and fall is the story of civilisation itself locked in an endless cycle of beginnings and endings. That is why Arthur has and always will be the once and future king.

Arthur stood on top of the names of all the kingdoms subject to his rule. British Library MS Royal 20 Aii.

Arthur stood on top of the names of all the kingdoms subject to his rule. British Library MS Royal 20 Aii.

Edward Burne-Jones's 'The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon'.

Edward Burne-Jones’s ‘The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon’, one of many popular Victorian depictions of Arthur .

Medieval Christmas

This is an illustrated transcript of Medieval Christmas, a feature I wrote for BBC Radio 3 Nightwaves. Downloadable as a BBC podcast here or here.

It’s cold outside. Inside a large fire burns brightly filling the room with intense warmth. The occupants inhale the scent of decorative evergreens, drink sweet wine, and tuck into a hearty meal. Later they play games, listen to music, dance, sing carols, and exchange seasonal gifts and greetings. For many of us, this scene feels like a snapshot of the celebrations to come on the 25th, but it’s not. It’s Christmas in the Middle Ages.

Calendar page for February in British Library MS Additional 24098 'The Golf Book'.

Calendar page for February in British Library MS Additional 24098 ‘The Golf Book (Sixteenth Century)’.

If we could go back in time just over six hundred years, the festive season would be both familiar and strange. Then, just like now, Christmas preparations began weeks in advance, but what people busied themselves with before celebrating the birth of Christ was very different. Advent was a time for fasting, slaughtering and salting animals that wouldn’t survive winter, and participating in irreverent customs like the Boy Bishop ceremonies held on the Feast of St Nicholas, when children would be elected to preside over all the tasks assigned to real bishops, except mass. Effectively in control of the bishopric, the boy bishop and his attendants would travel throughout the diocese offering blessings, declaring holidays, singing, and dispensing treats. In return they’d receive gifts, hospitality and entertainments.

Christmas preparations on a calendar page for December in 'The Golf Book'. British Library MS Additional 24098.

Christmas preparations on a calendar page for December in ‘The Golf Book’. British Library MS Additional 24098.

Preparing for Christmas. 'The Golf Book', British Library MS Addition 24098.

The Winter Season. ‘The Golf Book’, British Library MS Addition 24098.

Rituals like this, and the election of Lords of Misrule to oversee the festivities in noble households, were part of the popular carnival entertainments associated with the season. Temporarily letting the underdog have his day, by throwing aside the normal order of things in a controlled period of misrule, was incredibly popular and made the peasants more accepting of the feudal system that restrained them for the rest of the year.

Feasting in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

Feasting in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

Mummers from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

Mummers from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

Christmas Day marked the start of an indulgent period of at least 12 days of feasting, though truly extravagant festivities in royal and noble households might extend for 40 days beyond Christmas to Candlemas in early February. The lengthy nature of the celebrations was due to several factors, the most practical being the difficulty of travelling in the winter season, the abundance of fresh meat, and the fact that there was little agricultural work in the dark winter days.

And it wasn’t just the length of the celebrations that were staggering by modern standards, but the volume of guests that were catered for by the wealthy. In the 1390s Richard II hosted the most lavish banquets, employing 300 cooks and servants to feed 10,000 people with 28 oxen, 300 sheep and innumerable fowl served up each day.

The romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, vividly evokes the spectacle of a royal banquet, telling us that each course was brought out to ‘the blaring of trumpets’, ‘kettledrums’, and ‘pipes’, as each couple shared ‘twelve dishes, good beer and bright wine’. Food would include wild boar, fowl, pies, stews, bread, cheeses, puddings, and large rectangular shaped pastries filled with minced meats like pork, eggs, fruit, spices, and fat, the precursor of our mince pies. Before and after the hubbub and splendour of the banquet, raucous revels like tournaments, dancing, and playing games, would occupy guests.

Feasting at King Arthur's Court in British Library MS Royal 20 D iv.

Feasting at King Arthur’s Court in British Library MS Royal 20 D iv.

Celebrations in noble and gentry households were much smaller in scale, but just as impressive. A letter from Margaret Paston to her husband John, written on 24 December 1459, outlines festive activities that their neighbour Lady Morley had banned the previous year when mourning the loss of her husband: ‘there were no disguisings [masques],’ she said, ‘ nor harping, nor luting, nor singing, nor no loud pastimes’ only ‘playing at the tables, and chess, and cards’ was allowed.

Dice games in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

A dice game in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

At the lowest end of the social spectrum, peasants celebrated with dancing, singing, dice games, and mummings, where participants would don masks and visit local households singing and asking for Christmas charity. Christmas day was a quarter day, which, rather miserably, meant that peasants had to pay rent to their lord, but they received gifts of food, ale, clothing, and firewood in return, and this was one of the rare times that they would get to eat meat. They too celebrated for the duration of the twelve days of Christmas, returning to work after the feast of the Epiphany on 6 January.

tres riche feb

February as depicted in the Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry.

It’s through the poorest people that we see the true essence of Christmas in the Middle Ages: a spirit that speaks to our own age of austerity. For them, Christmas was about simple inexpensive pleasures, spiritual contemplation, and spending time with family and friends free from the obligations of work and rank.

***

Another post on Medieval Christmas, including a fourteenth-century recipe for the precursors of our mince pies, is available here.

View more of ‘The Golf Book’, one of the books used to illustrate this post, here. Technically it’s not ‘medieval’ as it was produced in the sixteenth century, but it gives a nice sense of the Christmas season.

For more images from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264, a medieval copy of The Romance of Alexander, click here.

The Real Game Of Thrones – Power In 15th-Century England

On 26 October 2013 I had the honour of presenting a paper at BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival. The theme of the festival was ‘Who’s in Control?’. Below is a transcript of the paper that I gave. It can be listened to, or downloaded as podcast, here.

The TV series Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice novels has taken the world by storm. Following the political intrigues and battles of several noble families wrestling for control of the kingdom of Westeros, the series’ heady mix of sex, violence, betrayal, and chivalry, has captured the hearts of all who love a good old yarn about politically astute dwarves, bearded men brandishing swords, and women in floaty dresses riding dragons.

Game-of-Thrones-game-of-thrones-20131987-1680-1050

Quite incredibly, the inspiration for Martin’s epic fantasy is a real medieval civil war known as The Wars of the Roses; even the dragons of Daenerys Targaryen, draw upon the heraldic devices of Henry VII, the first Tudor king, with whom she’s partially aligned. Just as Martin looked to the past and reshaped the events he found there to appeal to a twenty-first-century audience, so people living through the fifteenth-century war used the stories of the past to discuss power and promote peace among their contemporaries.

In November 1457, John Hardyng, a 79 year-old veteran of Agincourt, made his way from Lincolnshire to London to deliver a unique account of British history to King Henry VI. The huge book that Hardyng carried provided details of every monarch that had ruled Britain, real and mythical. Opening with a gripping account of ancient queens attempting to rule independently of their kings, and aggressive giants dominating a land racked with civil war, Hardyng composed the text in response to the weak governance, increased lawlessness, and aristocratic factionalism that triggered the Wars. Using the lens of historical narrative to focus on Henry VI’s lack of control, Hardyng hoped that the good and bad examples of kingship in his book, and the historic desolation caused by civil unrest, would inspire the king to reassert his authority and restore peace.

The unique manuscript of the Chronicle Hardyng wrote for Henry VI. British Library MS Lansdowne 204, f. 168v.

The unique manuscript of the Chronicle Hardyng wrote for Henry VI. British Library MS Lansdowne 204, f. 168v.

Composed in the twilight years of Henry’s reign before Yorkist propaganda rewrote history to legitimise Edward IV’s seizure of the throne, Hardyng’s text offers a unique snapshot of how men of middling rank like him, perceived kingship and the exercise of sovereign power on the cusp of wars. Though the end of this real-life Game of Thrones with the death of Richard III and the accession of Henry Tudor has traditionally dominated the popular imagination, it’s the origins of the wars that reveal the most about how late medieval people understood power and who was in control.

Hardyng, like other Englishmen, believed that kings were divinely-appointed to protect the interests of their people and kingdom. Ordinarily kings could only be judged by God, but in exceptional circumstances, when a monarch neglected the common good, the voice of the people could be viewed as the voice of God and a king could be ‘unkinged’ by his subjects, as Richard II had been in 1399. Traditionally the nobility provided wise counsel to the king and he made judgements based on that advice and his own personal will. However, the unique circumstances of Henry VI’s reign forced the Lancastrian government to redefine how royal power worked on more than one occasion.

The trouble with Henry VI’s reign started before he was born. His father, Henry V, was a strong ruler, who governed effectively and pleased his people with great military victories during the Hundred Years War. When he died prematurely at 35, the dual monarchy of England and France passed to the nine-month old son that he had never seen. A council made up of family members and other nobles, similar to the small council set up to advise Joffrey Baratheon in the Game of Thrones, governed for the baby king until he was able to rule independently.

Henry V (National Portrait Gallery)

Henry V (National Portrait Gallery)

The council took great care to uphold the notion that true power resided in the king alone, despite the fact that he couldn’t articulate his own wishes. Little Henry’s presence was required for all formal acts and public ceremonies to legitimise decisions made in his name.

Unfortunately, the length of Henry’s minority meant that some of the king’s relatives grew rather too accustomed to the power that came from managing Henry’s sovereignty and, like Tyrion and Cersei Lannister in Martin’s fantasy, found themselves vying for control of the young king. Henry too grew so dependent on others that when conciliar rule ended he frequently failed to assert his own will and was easily manipulated by those closest to him. This led to factionalism between those who had the king’s favour and those who didn’t.

By 1450, losses in France, financial difficulties at home, corruption in local courts, and unchecked violence between noblemen, culminated in a public uprising. The protestors issued bills criticising the ‘evil’ councillors that encroached on royal authority, and called for the king to empower ‘honourable knights and honest judges’ to remove those who had acted for personal gain instead of the common good.

Similar bills would be issued throughout the decade, most strikingly by Richard, duke of York, the father of Edward IV and Richard III, who used the theme of bad counsel to increase his own political role and disempower his rivals. By aligning his own grievances with those of the common English men, York eventually found himself elected Chief Councillor and Protector of the Realm when Henry VI suffered a mental breakdown was unfit to rule.

Though York held things together while the king was incapacitated, providing the strong and arguably fair leadership that the country had lacked for so long, the new arrangements for administering royal power only served to undermine the king’s authority in the longer term. York’s protectorship alienated Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, who gave birth to Henry’s heir, Prince Edward, in October 1453 and sought to act as regent while her husband was compromised.

Richard, duke of York, and his son Edward IV. Ludlow Church.

Richard, duke of York, and his son Edward IV. St Laurence Church, Ludlow.

Even when the king recovered his wits, he continued to be an uninspiring figurehead doing little to control the problems afflicting his realm. While the duke of York quietly seethed as many of his decisions as Protector were overturned, Queen Margaret and others continued to mitigate Henry’s inadequacies by redefining sovereign power as a tripartite entity encompassing king, queen and prince. This was especially important after the battle of St Albans, when the duke of York and his supporters took control of the king from their political rivals.

John Hardyng’s unusual dedication of his book to, as he puts it, the ‘thre rials in unite’, demonstrates that he understood and absorbed this new association of Henry’s royal authority with the young prince and queen, but, like the duke of York, and other contemporaries, Hardyng saw imminent danger in the king’s inability to assert his will and take control of the kingdom’s governance. For all the emphasis on the sovereign trinity of Henry, Margaret and Edward, nothing could alter the simple fact that true power lay solely in the person of the king and it was the king that needed to end the aristocratic feuds that were damaging the stability of the realm.

Hardyng’s repeated use of historical exempla in his book to encourage the king to chastise lawbreakers and imitate strong leaders like Henry V makes for an interesting comparison with the less tactful observations of his contemporary Robert Burnet. As Hardyng arrived in London with his history, Burnet was being indicted for treason for saying he wished the king had died at the Battle of St Albans. Burnet complained that the king slept too much, while the queen was organising men to fight overseas, a manly activity that was Henry’s task, not hers. While Hardyng gave similar advice in his chronicle, suggesting that lawbreakers in England could be sent to fight for the king’s rights in France, he differed from Burnet in believing that Henry could still exercise royal power effectively and restore order.

As Hardyng arrived in London and prepared to submit his book, things had reached a critical juncture. The king’s Great Council convened at Westminster ‘to tackle the pressing political problems of the kingdom,’ particularly, it seems, to tackle the threat of foreign invasion, and the on-going hostilities between the Yorkist lords and the heirs of those killed at the Battle of St Albans in 1455. When discussions could not be “fully concluded,” Henry VI arranged for the meeting to reconvene in January because the ‘wele’, or good, of the land and people remained ‘in great jeopardy.’

We cannot know for certain how Henry VI reacted to Hardyng’s Chronicle; the fact that Hardyng was rewarded with an annuity several days after meeting with the king’s treasurer, Sir John Talbot, does not, unfortunately, prove that the king was delighted with the work, or that he even read it. Nevertheless, the timing of Hardyng’s presentation is crucial to our understanding of how topical the text was and how it might have represented popular opinion. According to the Abbot of St Albans, John Whethamstede, the king was inspired to seek peace between his magnates after reading several books of advice and Scripture. The theme of his address to the lords when the council assembled once again was based on the gospels’ warning that “Every kingdom divided amongst itself shall be made desolate.” In his speech Henry aligned his own desire for order with that of God, citing examples of historic and recent kingdoms ruined through civil division, and emphasising the susceptibility of war-torn realms to invasion. It wasn’t easy, but Henry obtained a settlement between the lords in March 1458, and on the Feast of the Annunciation (traditionally marking the start of the medieval new year), the citizens of London witnessed one of the most incredible spectacles of the fifteenth-century. York’s supporters and the heirs of the Lancastrians slain at St Albans processed hand in hand around London in a public display of unity. Led by the king, who walked in front wearing his crown and ceremonial robes, the queen and the duke of York walked together, symbolically showing their subservience to sovereign power.

Henry VI (National Portrait Gallery)

Henry VI (National Portrait Gallery)

Though Whethamstede may have been indulging his poetic licence by claiming that the king was inspired to take control by books of advice, the events in November 1457 and the following four months highlight the social and political currency of Hardyng’s Chronicle and the hope, however remote, entertained by men like him that the king could restore stability.

Embodying all of the topics touched upon in Henry’s speech to his council, Hardyng’s perception of royal power and the difficulties associated with others acting in the king’s name could only have been borne out of the crises that troubled Henry’s reign. Hardyng’s history is precisely the sort of book that Whetehamstede had in mind when he imagined Henry contemplating the troubles of the kingdom, and it’s precisely the sort of book that Henry might have drawn examples from in his speech to reiterate the perils of civil war and assert his own will.

Sadly, Henry’s action was too little too late. York made a move for the throne the next year and this time, he didn’t attempt to define or locate the root of the king’s impotence: he simply put forward his own superior claim to sovereignty as a descendent of Edward III through the Mortimer and Clarence line. As Prince Edward was disinherited and the succession was settled on York and his heirs, Hardyng began rewriting his history again for the king-to-be, redefining what it meant to have control of the kingdom. Though he was now writing for a strong leader, his narrative was essentially the same: there were lessons to be learnt from the past and knowledge of how previous kings had protected or failed their kingdoms was power.

In this too, the real-life Game of Thrones parallels Martin’s series. Just before civil war breaks out in Westeros, Tyrion Lannister, is asked why he reads so much. He replies: ‘I have a realistic grasp of my own strengths and weaknesses. My mind is my weapon. My brother has his sword… and I have my mind… and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge. That is why I read so much!  Tyrion, like Hardyng, understands that true power comes from a sharp mind using shrewd politics to control the men with swords. Henry VI lost his throne because his mind was weak and his will was too easily controlled by others.

Medieval Babies

To celebrate the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s new royal prince, here are a few images of medieval babies being born and cared for. I tweeted many of them last year in the #MedievalBabies series, but they give such a touching insight into the world of the medieval family that they are worth presenting again.

Some of the most common images of childbirth depict the unusual circumstances of Caesar’s arrival, as he is cut from his mother’s womb:

Birth of Caesar, British Library Royal 17 F II, f. 9r.

Birth of Caesar, British Library Royal 17 F II.

Caesarean Section, British Library, Royal 16 G VII

Caesarean Section, British Library, Royal 16 G VII.

Birth of Caesar, British Library, Royal 16 G VIII, f. 32.

Birth of Caesar, British Library, Royal 16 G VIII.

Others poignantly capture, and even graphically depict, the suffering of the mother struggling with a natural birth.

Birth of Jacob and Esau in Hague MMW 10 A 11.

Birth of Jacob and Esau in Hague MS MMW 10 A 11.

Unusually graphic depiction of childbirth in Codex Series Nova 2641, Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna

Childbirth, Codex Nova 2641, Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

In contrast to the pain and suffering of the birthing process, the aftermath of childbirth is often shown as tranquil. Mother relaxes exhausted in her birthing chamber as her maidens and midwives attend to baby with clean sheets and a freshly prepared bath.

Preparing a bath for baby, Saint Jean-Baptiste Heures d'Étienne Chevalier.

Preparing a bath for baby, Saint Jean-Baptiste Heures d’Étienne Chevalier.

Birth scene in a Book of Hours, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 112.

Birth scene in a Book of Hours, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 112.

Birth of Alexander the Great, British Library Royal 20 C III.

Birth of Alexander the Great, British Library MS Royal 20 C III.

Birth of Alexander the Great, Oxford Bodleian Laud Misc. 751.

Birth of Alexander the Great, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 751.

My favourite images are those that show little children learning to walk with baby walkers or parents carrying their children around in ingenious carriers, not unlike modern baby equipment.

Christ learns to walk in the Hour of Catherine of Cleeves

Christ learns to walk in the Hour of Catherine of Cleeves.

Baby Walker in BnF NAL 392

Baby Walker in BnF NAL 392.

Baby Walker and crib in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 276.

Baby Walker in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 276.

Baby walker in Oxford, Bodleian Library Douce 353

Baby walker in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 353.

The Ages of Man, BNF, département des Manuscrits, Français 134, fol. 92v.

The Ages of Man, BNF, Français 134.

Seven Ages of Man, BnF Fr. 218, fol. 95.

Seven Ages of Man, BnF Fr. 218.

Carrying twins in the margins of the Romance of Alexander, Oxford, Bodleian Library Bodley 264.

Carrying twins in the margins of the Romance of Alexander, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

And finally… what happens to baby when the parents have to work? It goes with them!

New York Pierpont Morgan Library, MS G.24 fol. 10r.

New York Pierpont Morgan Library, MS G.24.

Multitasking mum breastfeeds, walks on stilts and balances pot. British Library Royal 10 E iv.

Multitasking mum breastfeeds, walks on stilts and balances pot. British Library Royal 10 E iv.

Working parents in July. Jean Colombe, Heures de Louis de Laval, BnF, Latin 920, fol. 11.

Working Parents. Jean Colombe, Heures de Louis de Laval, BnF, Latin 920.