Tag Archives: Middle Ages

Medieval Winter Sports

For centuries, countless children and adults have found joy in our dark winter days by participating in pastimes like snowballing, tobogganing, and skating. Though the snow hasn’t quite reached us yet, here are a few seasonally inspired images of winters past to brighten the short December days…

medieval-snowball-fight-maestro-venceslao

Fresco depicting January at Castello Buonconsiglio, Trento, Italy, c. 1405-1410.

Fresco depicting January at Castello Buonconsiglio, Trento, Italy, c. 1405-1410.

Fresco depicting January at Castello Buonconsiglio, Trento, Italy, c. 1405-1410.

snowballs Oxford Bodleian Douce 135

Snowball fight in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 135. Book of Hours, Use of Rome.

Snowball fight in Walters Art Museum, W42512R. Flemish, c. 1510.

snow fight in Tacuinum Sanitatis (c. 1390-1400)

Snowball fight in Tacuinum Sanitatis (BnF NAL 1673), c. 1390-1400.

December the Book of Hours of Adélaïde de Savoie (Musée Condé 78, fol. 12v), c. 1460-1465

December the Book of Hours of Adélaïde de Savoie (Musée Condé 78), c. 1460-1465.

Tobogganing in 'The Golf Book', British Library MS Addition 24098.

Tobogganing in the margins of ‘The Golf Book’, British Library MS Addition 24098.

Tobogganing in the margins of ‘The Golf Book’, British Library MS Addition 24098.

Tobogganing in the margins of ‘The Golf Book’, British Library MS Addition 24098.

Skating and tobogganing in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 5.

Skating (?) and tobogganing in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 5.

Allegory of Winter by Ambrogio Lorenzetti fresco in the Palazzo Publico of Siena, c. 1338-1340.

Allegory of Winter by Ambrogio Lorenzetti fresco in the Palazzo Publico of Siena, c. 1338-1340.

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.

'Smale Stufe and Goodes': Elizabeth Woodville's Signature and Will

On Friday I posted about contemporary depictions of Elizabeth Woodville. Today, I’d like to share four other documents relating to her.

The first, British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, is a fourteenth-century book of Arthurian Romances. Originally owned by Charles V and VI of France, the book passed to John, duke of Bedford (the first husband of Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg) in the early fifteenth century.

British Library Royal 14 E iii, King Arthur's Court.

British Library Royal 14 E iii, miniature of King Arthur’s Court.

It was later owned by Sir Richard Roos of Gedney and his niece, Eleanor Haute, who inscribed ‘Thys boke ys myne dame Alyanor Haute’ on folio 162. However, it’s another name, ‘E. Wydevyll’, inscribed just above Eleanor’s that makes this manuscript so interesting. It may refer to Elizabeth’s brother, Edward Woodville, but it could equally be a reference to Elizabeth, perhaps even her autograph, from a time before she was queen.

'E. Wydvyll' in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 162r.
‘E. Wydevyll’ and Eleanor Haute’s inscription in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 162r.
The first folio of the book also contains the names of two of Elizabeth’s daughters, ‘Elysbathe the kyngys dowter and Cecyl the kyngys dowter’, providing a clearer connection between the book, the royal household, and the queen.
The names of Elizabeth's daughters in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 1.
The names of Elizabeth’s daughters ‘Elysbathe and Cecyl’ in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 1.

Another document that leaves us in no doubt what Elizabeth’s royal signature looked like is a letter from the queen to the Bishop of Lincoln dated 1477. A professional scribe copied the actual letter, but ‘Elysabeth’ signs it at the bottom.

Letter from Elizabeth, with her signature, to the Bishop of Lincoln.
Letter from ‘Elysabeth’ to the Bishop of Lincoln, 1477.
This autograph is almost identical to the one she signs in 1491, confirming receipt of her annuity from Henry VII.
Elizabeth's signature from 1491.

Elizabeth’s signature from 1491.

The following year, on 10 April 1492, Elizabeth made her will at Bermondsey Abbey, where she was residing. She had nothing of consequence to bequeath to her surviving children, so she left her blessings and instructions for her ‘smale stufe and goodes’ to be used to settle any debts ‘as farre as they will extende’:

‘In Dei nomine, Amen. The xth daie of Aprill, the yere of our Lord Gode MCCCCLXXXXII. I Elisabeth, by the grace of God Quene of England, late wif to the most victoroiuse Prince of blessed memorie, Edward the Fourth, being of hole mynde, seying the worlde so traunsitorie, and no creature certayne whanne they shall departe frome hence, havyng Almyghty Gode fressh in mynde, in whome is all mercy and grace, bequeath my sowle into his handes, beseechyng him, of the same mercy, to accept it graciously, and oure blessed Lady Quene of comforte, and all the holy company of hevyn, to be good meanes for me. Item, I bequeith my body to be buried with the bodie of my Lord at Windessore, according to the will of my saide Lorde and myne, without pompes entreing or costlie expensis donne thereabought. Item, where I have no wordely goodes to do the Quene’s Grace, my derest doughter, a pleaser with, nether to reward any of my children, according to my hart and mynde, I besech Almyghty Gode to blisse here Grace, with all her noble issue, and with as good hart and mynde as is to me possible, I geve her Grace my blessing, and all the forsaide my children. Item, I will that suche smale stufe and goodes that I have be disposed truly in the contentacion of my dettes and for the helth of my sowle, as farre as they will extende. Item, yf any of my bloode wille any of my saide stufe or goodes to me perteyning, I will that they have the prefermente before any other. And of this my present testament I make and ordeyne myne Executores, that is to sey, John Ingilby, Priour of the Chartourhouse of Shene, William Sutton and Thomas Brente, Doctors. And I besech my said derest doughter, the Queue’s grace, and my sone Thomas, Marques Dorsett, to putte there good willes and help for the performans of this my testamente. In witnesse wherof, to this my present testament I have sett my seale, these witnesses, John Abbot of the monastry of Sainte Saviour of Bermondefley, and Benedictus Cun, Doctor of Fysyk. Yeven the day and yere abovesaid’ [from J. Nichols, A Collection of all the Wills, now known to be extant, of the Kings and Queens of England, pp. 350-51].

Elizabeth died on 8 June 1492. Four days later, she was buried beside Edward IV at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

St George's Chapel, Windsor

St George’s Chapel, Windsor

 

‘Smale Stufe and Goodes’: Elizabeth Woodville’s Signature and Will

On Friday I posted about contemporary depictions of Elizabeth Woodville. Today, I’d like to share four other documents relating to her.

The first, British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, is a fourteenth-century book of Arthurian Romances. Originally owned by Charles V and VI of France, the book passed to John, duke of Bedford (the first husband of Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg) in the early fifteenth century.

British Library Royal 14 E iii, King Arthur's Court.

British Library Royal 14 E iii, miniature of King Arthur’s Court.

It was later owned by Sir Richard Roos of Gedney and his niece, Eleanor Haute, who inscribed ‘Thys boke ys myne dame Alyanor Haute’ on folio 162. However, it’s another name, ‘E. Wydevyll’, inscribed just above Eleanor’s that makes this manuscript so interesting. It may refer to Elizabeth’s brother, Edward Woodville, but it could equally be a reference to Elizabeth, perhaps even her autograph, from a time before she was queen.

'E. Wydvyll' in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 162r.
‘E. Wydevyll’ and Eleanor Haute’s inscription in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 162r.
The first folio of the book also contains the names of two of Elizabeth’s daughters, ‘Elysbathe the kyngys dowter and Cecyl the kyngys dowter’, providing a clearer connection between the book, the royal household, and the queen.
The names of Elizabeth's daughters in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 1.
The names of Elizabeth’s daughters ‘Elysbathe and Cecyl’ in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 1.

Another document that leaves us in no doubt what Elizabeth’s royal signature looked like is a letter from the queen to the Bishop of Lincoln dated 1477. A professional scribe copied the actual letter, but ‘Elysabeth’ signs it at the bottom.

Letter from Elizabeth, with her signature, to the Bishop of Lincoln.
Letter from ‘Elysabeth’ to the Bishop of Lincoln, 1477.
This autograph is almost identical to the one she signs in 1491, confirming receipt of her annuity from Henry VII.
Elizabeth's signature from 1491.

Elizabeth’s signature from 1491.

The following year, on 10 April 1492, Elizabeth made her will at Bermondsey Abbey, where she was residing. She had nothing of consequence to bequeath to her surviving children, so she left her blessings and instructions for her ‘smale stufe and goodes’ to be used to settle any debts ‘as farre as they will extende’:

‘In Dei nomine, Amen. The xth daie of Aprill, the yere of our Lord Gode MCCCCLXXXXII. I Elisabeth, by the grace of God Quene of England, late wif to the most victoroiuse Prince of blessed memorie, Edward the Fourth, being of hole mynde, seying the worlde so traunsitorie, and no creature certayne whanne they shall departe frome hence, havyng Almyghty Gode fressh in mynde, in whome is all mercy and grace, bequeath my sowle into his handes, beseechyng him, of the same mercy, to accept it graciously, and oure blessed Lady Quene of comforte, and all the holy company of hevyn, to be good meanes for me. Item, I bequeith my body to be buried with the bodie of my Lord at Windessore, according to the will of my saide Lorde and myne, without pompes entreing or costlie expensis donne thereabought. Item, where I have no wordely goodes to do the Quene’s Grace, my derest doughter, a pleaser with, nether to reward any of my children, according to my hart and mynde, I besech Almyghty Gode to blisse here Grace, with all her noble issue, and with as good hart and mynde as is to me possible, I geve her Grace my blessing, and all the forsaide my children. Item, I will that suche smale stufe and goodes that I have be disposed truly in the contentacion of my dettes and for the helth of my sowle, as farre as they will extende. Item, yf any of my bloode wille any of my saide stufe or goodes to me perteyning, I will that they have the prefermente before any other. And of this my present testament I make and ordeyne myne Executores, that is to sey, John Ingilby, Priour of the Chartourhouse of Shene, William Sutton and Thomas Brente, Doctors. And I besech my said derest doughter, the Queue’s grace, and my sone Thomas, Marques Dorsett, to putte there good willes and help for the performans of this my testamente. In witnesse wherof, to this my present testament I have sett my seale, these witnesses, John Abbot of the monastry of Sainte Saviour of Bermondefley, and Benedictus Cun, Doctor of Fysyk. Yeven the day and yere abovesaid’ [from J. Nichols, A Collection of all the Wills, now known to be extant, of the Kings and Queens of England, pp. 350-51].

Elizabeth died on 8 June 1492. Four days later, she was buried beside Edward IV at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

St George's Chapel, Windsor

St George’s Chapel, Windsor

 

Picturing The White Queen: Medieval Depictions of Elizabeth Woodville

The BBC’s new drama series The White Queen began on Sunday. Based on the Cousins’ War novels by Philippa Gregory, the series focuses on Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s queen, who rose to power during a turbulent period of civil war in England known as The Wars of the Roses.

The coronation of Elizabeth, played by Rebecca Ferguson, in the BBC's The White Queen.

The coronation of Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) in the BBC’s The White Queen.

White Queen Coronation

As a medievalist who specialises in this period, I’m delighted that the real life ‘Game of Thrones’ is finally taking attention away from the ever-popular Tudors. Sure, the TV series takes liberties with characterisation and plot – it isn’t for purists who want to learn the facts of the period, see historically accurate clothing, or discover how real medieval people spoke and thought – but it’s a way into some of the complex power relations, family ties and events that typified late fifteenth-century England.

This post is for those wanting to know more about what the real White Queen might have looked like and what she wore in contemporary, or near contemporary, images.

Portrait of Elizabeth at Queen's College Cambridge.

Portrait of Elizabeth at Queen’s College Cambridge.

The image of Elizabeth most commonly seen in books and online is that above, one of the three painted panels of her at Queen’s College Cambridge. In the painting, Elizabeth wears a black gown with patterned gold collar and cuffs. The style of her gown is typical of English dresses circa 1475-85. Commonly referred to as a ‘transitional’ dress, it bridges the gap between the V neck Burgundian gowns of the mid to late fifteenth-century and the square-necked early Tudor gowns. The shape of the wide collar is rounded, and it fits over a tight bodice. Her sleeves are tight-fitting with turned back cuffs. Elizabeth has a fashionably high forehead (thought to be beautiful in the Middle Ages) and her hair is pulled back and covered by a truncated henin and cointoise (veil). What looks like an extension of the veil beyond the back of the henin perhaps suggests that it is a butterfly henin, which had structured wires extending from either side to lift the veil higher.

Portrait of Elizabeth. Queen's College, Cambridge.

Portrait of Elizabeth. Queen’s College, Cambridge.

Portrait of Elizabeth from the Royal Collection, Windsor.

Portrait of Elizabeth from the Royal Collection, Windsor.

Portrait of Elizabeth in the Ashmolean Museum, c. 1500.

Portrait of Elizabeth in the Ashmolean Museum, c. 1500.

Almost all of the other oil panel paintings of Elizabeth are based on the same image and derive from the sixteenth century, but there are some beautiful contemporary images of the queen in late fifteenth-century manuscripts and stained glass.

In the window of Little Malvern Priory, Elizabeth is shown kneeling in prayer with her family. She wears a blue, fur-collared Burgundian gown with a deep V neck, revealing a golden kirtle and white partlet; accompanying the gown she has a red, ermine trimmed cloak, and a heart-shaped, or horned, headdress, with a padded roll and decorative jewel, matching the decoration on the lectern.

Elizabeth

Elizabeth and three of her daughters in the stained glass at Little Malvern Priory

A similar image occurs in Canterbury Cathedral (below). The pious Elizabeth is shown praying opposite her husband, Edward IV, with their children behind them. Her attire is different to that in Little Malvern Priory: here she is crowned and wearing a white and gold patterned gown symbolising purity beneath her purple cloak. A rosary and cross hang down from her belt.

Edward IV and Elizabeth in the Royal Window, Canterbury Cathedral.

Edward IV and Elizabeth in the Royal Window, Canterbury Cathedral.

The Luton Guild Book contains another pious image of the royal family, kneeling before Bishop Thomas Rotherham and the Trinity. Elizabeth wears a blue and gold Burgundian gown, with a brown fur collar, partlet, deep green girdle (belt), a purple and ermine trimmed cloak, and a black hood. The women behind her sport butterfly henins.

The Luton Guild Book. Frontspiece, circa 1475.

The Luton Guild Book. Frontspiece, circa 1475.

The purple cloaks in the last two images seem to nod to Elizabeth’s coronation attire, which William Ballard, a fifteenth-century herald, describes as ‘a mantyll of purpull’, that she later exchanges for a ‘surcote of purpull’. She is also shown wearing purple in a miniature in Lambeth Palace MS 265, which shows her brother Anthony Woodville, second earl Rivers, presenting a book to the royal family.

Anthony Woodville presents a book to Edward IV, Elizabeth and Prince Edward. Lambeth Palace MS 265.

Anthony Woodville presents a book to Edward IV, Elizabeth and Prince Edward. Lambeth Palace MS 265.

One of the most striking images of Elizabeth is in the Worshipful Company of Skinners’ Fraternity of Our Lady’s Assumption Book, which shows her in a stunning red and ermine trimmed surcoat, and a blue cloak trimmed with gold. As Joanne Laynesmith (née Chamberlayne) has discussed in her work on Elizabeth, medieval queens were traditionally virgins, so Elizabeth’s status as a mother and widow was deeply problematic. Whoever commissioned the image was clearly trying to address her unconventional status and align her with representations of the Virgin Mary: the ideal mother. Elizabeth’s hair is loose (a common way of depicting virgins, especially Mary), she wears a blue cloak associated with purity, and holds an orb and sceptre, just as Mary does in images presenting her as the Queen of Heaven. By constructing Elizabeth’s motherhood in ‘strikingly Marian terms’, the artist distances her ‘from ordinary women’.

Elizabeth in her coronation robes (Worshipful Company of Skinners Fraternity Book)

Elizabeth in her coronation robes (Worshipful Company of Skinners’ Fraternity Book)

Assumption of the Virgin Mary. London, Skinners' Company.

Coronation of the Virgin (loose hair and gown similar to Queen Elizabeth’s). Worshipful Company of Skinners’ Book.

Elizabeth wears the same outfit, minus the gold trim on the cloak, and has the same loose hair in one of my favourite manuscripts: Liverpool Cathedral Manuscript Radcliffe 6. Containing the Hours of the Guardian Angel, and still in its original textile binding, this incredible little book has an extremely rare miniature of a presentation scene between two women. The woman presenting the book, almost certainly Joan Luyt, presents the golden Guardian Hours to the queen ‘with euerlastyng ioy’.

Liverpool Cathedral MS Radcliffe 6, Hours of the Guardian Angel. Joan Luyt presents the book to Elizabeth Woodville

Liverpool Cathedral MS Radcliffe 6, Hours of the Guardian Angel. Joan Luyt presents the book to Elizabeth Woodville.

Though Elizabeth’s secret marriage to Edward IV caused great controversy in the 1460s because she fell short of the traditional standard of being an unmarried virgin of considerable status, we would not know this from contemporary depictions of her. The legacy left by the artists that immortalised her in painted glass, parchment and panels, is of a beautiful, powerful and pious individual, who could fulfil the role of mother to all Englishmen. While these images clearly convey an ideal, it’s worth remembering how medieval artists pictured Edward’s bride the next time The White Queen distracts us with inaccurate necklines and zips!

The Chester Noah Play: Directing Silence and Rain

This month I directed The Chester Noah Play with The Liverpool University Players for the Moby Dick on the Mersey festival at The Merseyside Maritime Museum.

Noah and his Family n the 'Ark' (lent to us by Spike Theatre)

Noah and his Family in the ‘Ark’ (lent to us by Spike Theatre)

Part of a larger ‘cycle’ of medieval plays telling the story of Christian history from Creation to Doomsday, The Chester Noah Play was originally performed in the fifteenth century by the Waterleaders and Drawers of Dee, a professional guild responsible for bringing water to the citizens of Chester from the River Dee. The connection between the subject matter of the play and the guild’s work with water is deliberate, and helps to underscore the symbolic connotations of water as a salvific element with the power to destroy and redeem. By producing and performing the play, the Waterleaders and Drawers demonstrated their own piety and desire to be saved and helped spectators acknowledge the importance of redemption in their lives. While the actors adopt the role of God’s chosen few, those watching unwittingly become representatives of sinful mankind; they stand outside the ark in the space occupied by the flood, symbolically drowning as they watch God cleanse the world of sin.

Noah's children enjoy an anachronistic moment in the ark

Noah’s children and their wives enjoy an anachronistic moment in the ark

Other notable features of the play include information about medieval shipbuilding, a comedic but moving portrayal of Mrs Noah, who refuses to get on the ark if her ‘gossips’ (friends) can’t be saved too, and detailed directions revealing how the medieval actors staged the boarding of the animals and created the illusion of Noah sending forth a raven and dove (a prop bird attached to a cord on the ark’s mast).

An angel returns the dove to Noah with an olive branch

An angel (Mary-Jayne Cooper) returns the dove to Noah with an olive branch. Japhet’s wife (Charlie Wilson) makes it ‘fly’

Featuring as part of a family-friendly event, our production was never intended to be an academic exercise to gain insights into early stagecraft, but using the original script and stage directions, and performing outdoors to an audience who were free to move around in close proximity to the actors, nevertheless taught us a great deal about the power and appeal of the medieval drama.

One of the greatest challenges in lifting the play off the page was deciding how to deal with having so many characters ‘on stage’ throughout the performance, when most hardly say a word. The play is dominated by speeches from God, Noah, and, to a lesser extent, Mrs Noah, yet Noah’s three sons and their wives are physically present throughout interacting with them.

The hardest section to direct in this respect was the opening ‘scene’ in which God justifies the deluge and instructs Noah how to build the ark. God addresses Noah after only a few lines, so the actor playing him – Alex Pardey – needed to be visible from the start; it was distracting to have Noah walk on as the speech had just begun. The family also needed to be ‘on stage’ from the start because Noah addresses them with ‘Have done you men and women all…’ immediately after thanking God for promising to save them; it seemed incongruous for them to not be in Noah’s presence until that point.

'Destroyed all the world shall be': God (Martin Poile) talks to Noah (Alex Pardey)

‘Destroyed all the world shall be’: God (Martin Poile) talks to Noah (Alex Pardey)

Having everyone on stage from the beginning prompted questions about how much of God’s speech the family is meant to hear. Do they hear the entire thing, the part addressed to Noah, or none of it? If they do hear, how do they react to the world’s impending destruction? Do they wail and cry, or remain silent and fearful?  If they don’t hear God, what are they doing on stage during his exchange with Noah? Are they silent statues, coming to life only when Noah addresses them? Are they miming activities from daily life, oblivious to the fate of the world? Though the play gives no indication, the latter seemed unlikely because Shem responds to Noah’s ‘Have done…’ by saying he is ready with the tools needed to build the ark; he does not require further explanation or encouragement. For me, this swung it. The family had to hear God’s speech.

What really surprised me was how dramatically the tone of the play changed when I experimented with different ways of directing the silent family in that crucial scene. Asking them to kneel down in prayer as God spoke, with only Noah rising to engage with Him created a very sombre tone. God and Noah became the focal point of the scene, the family were marginalised, and any human response to the flood that they might have conveyed by reacting to God’s news was lost. Though calmer, more reflective and probably more in keeping with the tone of medieval productions, I wanted the audience to connect with what was being said at a basic human level and consider how it would feel to be told that the world was going to end.

We still began with the family kneeling in prayer (demonstrating the piety that prompts God to save them in the first place), but I asked them to rise in shock and fear, gasping and consoling each other as they heard God declare ‘Man that I made will I destroy’. Aside from displaying raw emotion and prompting the audience to consider what they would do, having the actors console each other meant that Noah’s ‘Have done…’ became a way of telling his family to put their emotions aside and get on with fulfilling God’s command to build the ark.

Shem, his wife, and Mrs Noah learn of the coming flood (Madelaine Smart, Liam Hale and Rio Matchett)

Shem, his wife, and Mrs Noah learn of the coming flood (Madelaine Smart, Liam Hale and Rio Matchett)

In other ‘scenes’ directing the silent family was made easier by stage directions embedded in the dialogue and an instruction stating that the family should mime building the ark. When they help to bring the animals on board, the play states that images of the animals mentioned in their speeches should be painted on boards, so it made sense for the family to bring a series of boards on as they delivered their lines. We used a combination of boards and puppets to appeal to the children in our audience and add a little comedy as the actors mimed pushing and squeezing animals onto the prop boat that Spike Theatre had kindly lent us.

Bringing on the animals (Alex Ferguson and Geraint Williams as Ham and Japhet)

Bringing on the animals (Alex Ferguson and Geraint Williams as Ham and Japhet)

Staging the other silent star of the play – the flood itself – was another challenge. British weather being what it is, there was always a possibility that it would rain on our performance, but we didn’t want real water and the problems that it would bring: wet actors and costumes, fewer spectators, and a slippery boat! Despite the fact that medieval plays often involved interesting special effects (the fireworks coming out of the devil’s arse in The Castle of Perseverance or the withering of Salome’s hand in the N-Town Nativity spring to mind), the medieval guild may not have attempted to represent the flood. There is no way of knowing for sure. Yet I wanted to have something theatrical to bridge the two parts of the play: pre- and post- deluge.

The family celebrate as the flood ends

The family celebrate as the flood ends

I took inspiration from Mark Dornford-May’s 2001 production of The Mysteries – Yiimimangaliso, which represented the flood with an actor pouring water into a bucket. Our God – Martin Poile – brought on a large watering-can labelled ‘Act of God’ and poured water into a large pot labelled ‘Earth’, while counting out the days of the flood. This allowed the family to act out a long sea voyage that made them sick and weary, contrasting nicely with their jubilation when the flood began to subside. The audience seemed to like the symbolism of the watering-can and I was delighted with the way the scene showed that God was in control.

Act of God rains down on the earth

Act of God rains down on the earth (Mary-Jayne Cooper and Martin Poile)

And how did we stage God’s final act and gift to Noah’s family, the inaudible but visually stunning rainbow? Well this image will explain far better than words can…

Sunshine on a Rainy Day: Our Rainbow

Sunshine on a rainy day: our umbrella rainbow

You can watch the play here:

Cast Interviews here:

Images from our production are available here.
Information about the original medieval play is available in our Programme.

‘Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!’: Saint George in Late Medieval England

The twenty-third of April is the feast day of Saint George, patron saint of England.

English interest in St George arose in the fourteenth century under Edward III, who created the chivalric ‘Order of the Garter’ in his honour in 1348. The king’s special affinity with the military saint, and his notable success in the Scottish Wars of Independence and the Hundred Years’ War, may have helped to establish St George as the patron saint of England. Banners displaying St George’s arms (a red cross on a white background) were carried into battle at Halidon Hill (1333) for example, and, according to the fourteenth-century chronicler Jean Froissart, the English used the saint’s name as a battle cry before defeating the French at Poitiers (1356).

The Garter King of Arms Kneeling before St George in British Library MS Stowe 594, f. 5v.

The Garter King of Arms Kneeling before St George in British Library MS Stowe 594, f. 5v.

In the fifteenth century, Henry V’s personal devotion to St George continued to enhance English enthusiasm for the saint. In 1415, English soldiers carried banners depicting St George’s arms into battle against the French at Agincourt and emerged victorious. The saint’s feast day was declared a double holy-day and Archbishop Chicheley ordered that it should be kept as solemnly as Christmas, which meant, among other things, that people didn’t have to work.

By the late fifteenth century, St George was sufficiently aligned with military success, chivalry and national pride, for one chronicler to create a unique mythology for the arms, linking the best kings and knights from Britain’s legendary history with contemporary sovereigns and their chivalric orders.

Completed during the civil conflict known as the Wars of the Roses, the two chronicles composed by John Hardyng begin their account of St George’s ‘red cross’ with material adapted from the Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian romance. Hardyng explains that the ‘armes that we Seynt Georges calle’ originated with Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph is said to have given a shield to Evelac, pagan king of Sarras, upon his conversion, which bore a cross of blood in token of the blood spilt at Christ’s Crucifixion. The same device, we are told, was later adopted by the legendary Christian kings, Saint Lucius and Constantine the Great, by the Grail Knight Sir Galahad, who finds Evelac’s shield before achieving the Holy Grail, and by King Arthur, who is presented with a reliquary containing Galahad’s heart in the same way that the Emperor Sigismund presented Henry V with a reliquary containing St George’s heart in 1416.

St George Killing the Dragon in British Library MS Yates Thompson 3

St George Killing the Dragon in British Library MS Yates Thompson 3

Hardyng uses the continuity of the arms throughout the ages to connect the monarchs and knights from Britain’s past to the English kings and subjects who have fought under the saint’s banner in his own times. Attributing part of his information to an enigmatic prophet named Melkin associated with Glastonbury Grail lore, Hardyng claims that, long before St George was born, the arms were used to identify the British so that each man would be able to tell his countrymen from his enemies in battle:

These armes were vsed in alle Britayne
For comon signe, eche man to knowe his nacion
Fro his enmyes, whiche nowe we calle certayne
Saint Georges armes, by Mewyus informacion,
Ful long afore Saint George was generate
Were worshipt here of mykel elder date.

Elsewhere, he states that the arms are worshipped throughout the realm, especially by kings, who take them into battle and always emerge victorious. As a veteran of Agincourt, Hardyng doubtless had the victories of Henry V in mind and wanted to suggest that his glorious military success could be repeated again if his king (first Henry VI and later Edward IV) could bring an end to the civil conflicts plaguing contemporary Englishmen and reunite them against a common foreign enemy, such as Scotland or France.

St George in British Library MS Royal 2 A XVIII

St George in British Library MS Royal 2 A XVIII

In Hardyng’s history, the arms of St George are a rallying point for all loyal Englishmen, who are encouraged to support their king and emulate the Chronicle’s best proponents of chivalry. It is no coincidence that Hardyng ends the first version of his text with a eulogy for his former patron, Sir Robert Umfraville, a Knight of the Garter under the protection of St George, who is cast as the most courageous, kindest and just knight of his generation.

It is coincidental, but nevertheless fitting, that a century after Hardyng penned the last datable reference in his chronicles (1464), William Shakespeare, the author of the most famous quotation depicting Medieval England’s love affair with St George, is believed to have been born, and would later die, on the saint’s feast day: ‘Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!’