Middle English Word of the Moment

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Word made flesh #1

Now this is interesting.

The story is that of the Levite’s concubine from Judges (King James and Latin Vulgate): 
Judges 20.4: I came into Gabaa, of Benjamin, with my wife, and there I lodged: 5 And behold men of that city, in the night beset the house wherein I was, intending to kill me [volentes me occidere], and abused my wife with an incredible fury of lust [incredibili libidinis furore], so that at last she died. 6 And I took her and cut her in pieces, and sent the parts into all the borders of your possession: because there never was so heinous a crime, and so great an abomination committed in Israel. 7 You are all here, O children of Israel, determine what you ought to do.
According to the earlier narrative, the men who came to the house desired not to murder him but to rape him.  The host, reminiscent of Lot, offered his virgin daughter and his guest’s wife rather than the guest: “I will bring them out to you, and you may humble them, and satisfy your lust: only, I beseech you, commit not this crime against nature on the man” (“educam eas ad vos ut humilietis eas et vestram libidinem conpleatis tantum obsecro ne scelus hoc contra naturam operemini in virum”, Judges 19.24).  When she returned to the host’s house and fell dead on the threshold, her husband took her and cut her into twelve pieces, which he sent “into all the borders of Israel” (Judges 19.29.  The outrage summoned the Israelites, whom he addressed as above; and war was the result[1]. This is an image of the key scene from a 13th century Bible Moralisée (sadly blurry):

Österreicheische NationalBibliotecke Codex Vindobonensis 2554 fol. 65v, copied from Caviness 148.

The upper two images are of the corpse being brought home on an ass, and then being divided for distribution.  The lower two are of Jerome and Augustine helping Lady Philosophy  down from the ass of paganism, then giving the twelve books of the Patriarchs to the apostles.

But note the very deliberate visual parallels.  The corpse and Philosophy are helped down from the ass, Philosophy drooping in a way that imitates the inertia of the corpse.  As the corpse is dismembered into twelve parts for demonstrative distribution about the land, Philosophy is fragmented into twelve books to be distributed via the apostles.  Even the divided body parts are very flat and square, resembling images of the parts than the parts themselves, and lacking the curves that usually mark the feminine.

So the books are directly glossed as the dismembered body parts, which are themselves implicitly converted to relics and offered for idolising perusal, their femininity negated.  The female body of Philosophy, meanwhile, appears to have been constructed entirely of the books into which she is fragmented (and she has no more agency of her own, even when intact, than does the corpse). Word is made flesh – just as the words in the books are written on the dismembered flesh of the sheep who kindly donated the parchment.

This also raises the question of the female body as text.  It is not an autonomous text, however, but glossed, interpreted and directed by men – and the written word itself is essentially a male-dominated medium, so in converting to words the body that had temporarily escaped the Levite’s control, he reasserts his ownership and control. It becomes a commodity to be distributed according to the gift and will of its owner, with no more meaning than he chooses to assign it.  The woman’s experience of rape is not heard, only the man’s experience of theft.

Nevertheless – the woman has become Philosophy, and distributed to the inspiration of men’s intellect.  Grammatically feminine, of course, so she must be depicted by a woman, but it’s not a bad reincarnation for a gang-raped concubine, surely?

[1]   Which I’m sure was a great comfort to her.

Cited: Caviness, Madeline H. Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle, and Scopic Economy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

101st post.

Well, the last one was one of a series, so I couldn't really make a big deal of it being the hundredth.

So, it's been a busy semester, and not quite over yet - I've still some marking to do. It's also looking to be a challenging one next semester. The university has only offered me one marking position, which is almost $10/hour less than a TA position and only 37.5 hours total, as opposed to the 130 of a TA position. I had three marking positions last semester and barely scraped by, and now a) I'm to be moving out and renting next semester and b) on a third the income. So I shall have to go begging an RA position.

In addition, of the two courses I'm taking next semester, the mediaeval one is (theoretically, at least) to be conducted in French, and the other is - very modern. 18th century! They have regularised spelling and all!

Motivated by this, and the fact that I have a whole lot of thoughtful notes in my notebook for last year's Restoration course that I never did anything with, I've started a new blog called Protestants and Printing Presses (and other Newfangled Fripperies). It will only be updated intermittently, but it a mediaevalist-encounters-the-early-modern blog, as I'm chary of turning this one into an anything-goes blog. All my early modern posts from here have been exported over there, but they remain at their original locations as well.

And, in searching EEBO for woodcuts to use as a background to the title, I found a highly amusing title page which immediately turned into an inaugural post.

Meanwhile, I have some more posts on the Gilte Legende waiting to be polished up for here, and a delicious-looking book on mediaeval women and the gaze which I am looking forward to reading and responding to, so I may actually get a slight little holiday before next semester starts!

Merry Christmas to you all out there. I'm having one!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cleopatra D IX: MS V, ff. 118-168. South English Legendary.

A fragment of an otherwise unknown manuscript of the South English Legendary.



Parchment, 51 ff., 265 x 165 mm with the text block 205 x 112 mm. Written in one column of 40 lines. Folios in twelves, with ff. 1-5 of the first quire lost and the final quire in eight. The last leaf is blank. Written in two hands, both Anglicana approaching textura, very clear. B is rounder with smaller strokes. A writes ff. 118-149v (John Evangelist, Thomas of Becket), B ff. 149v-166 (Theophilus/Virgin, Cecilia, Gregory). No decoration save the “traditional blue initials flourished in red with marginal extensions”, not filled in (Görlach, Textual tradition 112). All folios but the last numbered in modern foliation.



The end of a manuscript of the South English Legendary, lacking at least five leaves from its first quire and probably several other quires containing a more complete collection of the poems. The South English Legendary is a popular collection of saints’ lives in vernacular verse, surviving in many manuscripts, originating in the Worcestershire/Gloucestershire region in the late thirteenth century. Görlach observes that it seems to have been confined to this region “for the first 50-80 years of its existence, spreading into the Midlands only in the second half of the 14th century” (Revision 9). The legends contained in this manuscript are (Brown 267-68):

- 118r: The final eight lines of St John the Evangelist (Him sende here his ringe a3en & þonked him also...). ½ p.

- 118r-149v: St Thomas of Canterbury, followed by his Translation (Gilberd was Thomas fader name þat trewe was & god...). 32 ff.

- 149v-155v: St Theophilus, with Miracles of the Virgin (Seint Teophle was a gret man & gret clerk also...). 7 ff.

- 155v-158v: St Cecilia (Seint Cecile of noble kinne ibore was at Rome...). 4 ff.

- 158v-166v: St Gregory (All þat beoþ in sinne i-bounde / And þencheþ godes merci to abide...). 9 ff.



Görlach’s study of the dissemination and variations of the Southern English Legendary, together with the dialect and orthography of this version, led him to place it in the Gloucestershire/Oxfordshire region (Görlach, Textual tradition 112). Its acquisition by Prise may suggest a religious house in Gloucestershire, as he enacted the dissolution of many houses there and apparently none in Oxfordshire (cf. Pryce; Ker, Sir John Prise), although there is no evidence that he acquired it directly from its original location rather than from another collector.



Görlach judges both hands in this manuscript as belonging to the middle of the fourteenth century.


Later provenance and position within codex.

At some point during the sixteenth century the manuscript, or possibly its remains, fell into the hands of Sir John Prise, employed by Henry VIII during the 1530s to close down monasteries in the west of England (Ker, Sir John Prise 5). Prise’s aversion to altering or rebinding the manuscripts in his collection (ibid) suggests that it would have passed on to Cotton (presumably via one or more intermediaries) alone, unbound with any other manuscript within the codex. The gap in foliation between the previous manuscript and this, however, suggests the presence of two blank leaves, possibly used by Prise to enclose this fragile fragment to prevent the loss of further leaves (if indeed it was fragmented at this point).

While Prise may have been more concerned with the preservation of the original state of his manuscripts than many of his contemporaries, his attitude was not entirely reverent. Ker mentions the “numerous, strongly Protestant and anti-Becket” notes in Prise’s hand written in the margin by that legend: “What arrogance is this! of one that had spent his tyme more in merchandize hauking and hunting than in lernyng” (qtd. in Ker, Sir John Prise 21). Precious his books may have been to Prise, but ultimately utilitarian.

There is also the possibility that Prise may have received the manuscript intact. This is perhaps more likely: history was his subject, not the vagaries of poetic saints, and a mere fragment of such a text might have not seemed worth preserving. If, then, it passed on to Cotton as a whole and was fragmented by him (see introductory post), he may have bound it with another two leaves to distinguish it from the ‘serious’ matter of the volume, or to hold it together pending proper binding. This is another question on which the manuscriptitself could shed light, as the age and wearing of the outer leaves of the manuscript and of the sheltering leaves ought to give some clue as to how long each has spent unprotected.



Perhaps fittingly, considering its position as the final manuscript in the codex, this manuscript’s value as a witness lies less in its contents than in its later history. The poems it contains, with minor variations, survive in more complete manuscripts and have been published several times, while their cousins and progeny live on in texts such as the Canterbury Tales and the Gilte Legende. On the other hand, its treatment at the hands of Prise (and possibly Cotton) stands with the fate of the psalter in Royal 13 D I in testimony to the likely fate of a good many such manuscripts at the hands of the Protestant antiquarians. The violence visited on the ‘body’ of this manuscript seems to evidence a need to correct and subdue a recalcitrant creature amongst the diligent, precious subjects better beloved of their keepers. As such, the mystery of its missing leaves and the firm rebukes written in its margins form an appropriate counterpart to the quiet survival of the Brief Chronicle, and to the repeated studying and reproduction of the Liber Alani de Ashbourne.




Brown, Carleton. A Register of Middle English Romance and Didactic Verse. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1916.

Görlach, Manfred. The textual tradition of the South English Legendary. Leeds: University of Leeds, 1974.

----- An East Midland Revision of the South English Legendary: A Selection from MS C. U. L. Add. 3039. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1976.

Ker, Neil R. “Sir John Prise”, The Library 5th series 10 (1955): 1-24.

Pryce, Huw. “Prise, Sir John (Syr Siôn ap Rhys) (1501/2–1555).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP, 2004. 03 Dec 2009.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A study of Cleopatra D IX: MS IV, ff. 90-115. Epistola ad regem Edwardi III.

A manuscript of the Epistola ad regem Edwardi III, by William of Pagula (?-1332), written c. 1331, complaining of the practice of purveyance. The manuscript dates from the late fourteenth century (or early fifteenth), attributes the work to Archbishop Islip, and is unique in the volume in being the only manuscript in paper.



Paper, 26 ff. No description of the manuscript has been published.



A long complaint and advice tract against the practice of purveyance, particularly as it is imposed on the surrounds of Windsor Forest. Addressed to the young Edward III, it is in the form of a long list developing a formal argument, with most points beginning with the formula “O domine mi rex...”. Similar to the slightly later Speculum regis Edwardi III, it is sometimes referred to as Recension A of the Speculum. This label derives from Moisant, who published both works in 1891 and decided that the Speculum proper was merely a later revision of this Epistola. In labelling it the Epistola, I follow Boyle, whose work establishing the authorship, relationship and differing intents of both tracts is now considered definitive (Boyle, “Oculis Sacerdotis” & “Speculum”).



Judging by internal evidence - allusions to Edward’s youth, his sister, his recent assumption of full authority, recent treaties with France, contemporary local events and the author’s statement that forty years have passed since Edward I instituted the laws of purveyance in the eighteenth year of his reign – Tait and Boyle both judge that the Epistola was written early in 1331 and its companion Speculum a few months later (Tait 112-13; Boyle, “Oculis Sacerdotis” 107). William of Pagula died in 1332 (Boyle, “Oculis Sacerdotis” 100; Nederman, “William of Pagula”).

This particular manuscript, however, has not been the subject of discussion by either (or later by Nederman, who approaches the text as a legal historian and not a codicologist). Boyle mentions it in passing as a fourteenth-century witness (Boyle, “Speculum” 330), but specifies neither a more precise window of production, nor his reasons for judging it so. If he is correct, however, two things would point to a later date within that century:

-The attribution to Archbishop Islip dates it firmly after 1349 (the date of his provision to the see), and suggests a date still later, as the venerable blur of time obscured the fact that the Epistola had already been in circulation for some years, and possibly heightened the prestige of Islip’s name to the point where it would improve the reception of a text credited to him. I would tentatively suggest that this manner of attribution would increase in likelihood with the natural reverence following his death (1366).

- This manuscript is written on paper. According to Thompson, the first paper mills in France were those in Troyes, not built until 1348. England did not follow suit until shortly before 1490, although some paper made its way to the island via Gascony, largely from the mills of Bordeaux (634-35). Although Thompson gives dates neither for the earliest English uses of paper, nor the establishment of the earliest Bordeaux mills, this suggests that a date before the last quarter of the century would be very unlikely.

More precise dating could be achieved by consulting the manuscript, as a manuscript of 26 folios ought, by means of watermarks, to reveal at least a tempus a quo and place of origin for its primary materials.


Origin and authorship.

The Epistola was written by William of Pagula, as Boyle has established (“Oculis Sacerdotis”), though later manuscripts attribute it to Archbishop Simon Islip. Boyle calls it a “localized appeal from the location of Windsor Forest for letters of protection” against the practice of purveyance, written during William’s time as vicar of nearby Winkfield (Boyle, “Oculis Sacerdotis” 99 & 107).

The origin and scribe of the present manuscript, however, are unknown. Knowledge of the paper’s watermarks, in consultation with paper supply routes (if that information is available) could indicate some of the most likely centres of production, but is unlikely to yield any definite evidence due to the quantities of French-imported paper swamping the English paper market until halfway through the sixteenth century (Shorter 16) . A Gascon origin is perhaps more likely in any case, as paper was in commoner use in England’s continental holdings than on the island well into the fifteenth century (Thompson 634-35).

Whether the manuscript was made on the continent or in England, the use of paper (as expensive as parchment due to rarity) and the fact of its preservation long enough to be bound with the other manuscripts in this volume may suggest a reasonably high level of production, possibly for presentation or gift. The level of professionalism, of course, could be quickly determined by consulting the manuscript.


Later provenance and position within codex.

Whatever the date of the Epistola manuscript, it is undoubtedly the youngest in the codex, grouped with them and ordered according to its contents rather than its own age. While the concerns the Epistola expresses are tantalisingly similar to those of the chronicler of the previous manuscript, and the town of Pagula (Paull) is also in the Yorkshire region, there is no evidence to connect the two. Certainly the style of the short chronicle bears no resemblance to the formal, didactic Latin of William of Pagula. Given the discrepancy in their age, any thematic similarities are likely to be due to Cotton’s judgement, and their juxtaposition in the codex is adequately explained by the approximately chronological ordering of its contents up to this point.


Lacunae and potential.

The majority of the lacunae, in this case, can be filled by consultation with the manuscript, as they are largely codicological and a good deal is known about the circumstances of its contents’ composition. Such an examination would narrow, though not eliminate, the broader gaps in our knowledge of the origin and history of the manuscript itself, shedding light on the circulation and popularity of both the text and the medium of paper in fourteenth-century England, together with the social implications of both.




Boyle, Leonard E. “The Oculis Sacerdotis and some other works of William of Pagula.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th series 5 (1955): 81-110.

----- “William of Pagula and the Speculum Regis Edwardi III.” Mediaeval Studies 32 (1970): 329-36.

Moisant, Joseph (ed). De speculo regis Edwardi III, seu tractatu quem de mala regni administratione. Paris, 1891.

Nederman, Cary J. & Cynthia J. Neville. “The origin of the Speculum Regis Edwardi III of William of Pagula.” Studi Medievali 3rd series 38 (1997): 317-329.

Nederman, Cary J. “Pagula, William (d. 1332?).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP, 2004.  (03 Dec 2009).

Shorter, A. H. Paper making in the British Isles: An Historical and Geographical Study. Devon: David & Charles, 1971.

Thompson, James Westfall. The Medieval Library. 1939. New York: Hafner, 1957.

A study of Cleopatra D IX: MSS III, IIIa, ff. 84-88, 89. Fineshade collection.

A collection of letters and a chronicle relating to the civil wars of 1321-22, from the priory of Fineshade, with a related proclamation from 1325 attached.


III: Parchment, 5 ff. Single column of 40 lines. Two letters and a petition transcribed, followed by a short chronicle and some notes. In two hands, one predominant, with occasional corrections suggestive of composition rather than copying in the chronicle and no similar errors in the previous documents. A, the primary scribe, uses a rounded and rather irregular Anglicana, with heavy downstrokes that can tend toward the blotchy, irregular minims, and a rather awkward serpentine ‘s’ whose lower bowl sits noticeably below the line. B, who writes less than half a page on 87v before A resumes on 88r, uses a contemporary Anglicana that is smaller and more regular, with consistently angled curves and controlled decorative flourishes on his maiuscules. Miniscule ‘a’ is typical of the differences between the two hands: A’s lower bowl varies in size relative to the x-height, to the extent that the eye is sometimes broad and sometimes almost non-existent, while the upper bowl is left open as the pen-stroke trails off. B’s ‘a’ has a lower bowl that is usually consistent with the x-height, while the upper bowl is firmly closed with a broad stroke. Some pages also have contemporary marginal notes, in a hand that appears to belong to A, though smaller and in a lighter ink.

IIIa: An official proclamation of the judgement against the traitors at Boroughbridge, issued 1322 or 1325, on a smaller sheet of vellum, approx. 250x150 mm (Haskins, “Proceedings” 511). Added later, according to Sayles, which accords with Ker’s assessment that only ff. 84-88 originate from Fineshade (Ker, Libraries 87). The text of the judgement is written lengthwise on the page, in a clear, contemporary hand. Two titles have been added at a later date, one “at least as late as the middle of the fourteenth century”, the second modern (Haskins, “Proceedings” 510-11). The first is partly obscured by a torn corner of the parchment (the bottom right?), and reads “COMENT LE CUNTE DE LANCASTRE FU ACOUPE DEVANT …[?la bataille de Pount de Burgh et jugee a] LA MOR[?t...]”. The second is smaller, inserted between the first and the text, and reads (more accurately) “Judicium in Barones captos apud Burgh Bridge” (qtd. in Haskins, “Proceedings” 511).



- 84v: A copy of the king's letters of prohibition issued to Engayne and others forbidding attendance at a meeting at Doncaster, November 1321. Chronologically, follows the previous entry. Latin, ½ p.

- 84v-85r: A letter of summons from Lancaster to John Engayne, urging him to attend a meeting at Doncaster on 29 November, 1321. Anglo-Norman, 1 p. Incipit:

A honurable homme et nostre trescher amy, Monsure Johan Dengayne, Thomas, / Counte de Lancastre et de Leycestre [etc], saluz / e cheres amitez. Sire, pur les granz periles et oppressions et grantz maux, qe nous / sentoms et entendoms... (qtd. in Haskins, “Petition” 483; in all quotes from Haskin’s editions, it must be assumed that he has regularised punctuation and spelling.)

- 85r-86r: A petition drawn up by Lancaster’s adherents for the forbidden meeting at Doncaster. It may have been composed at the meeting or in preparation for it, as there is no evidence that it ever took place (Haskins, “Petition” 479). Anglo-Norman, 1 p. Incipit:

A touz honours e reuerences, &c. Sire, pleysea a vostre seynurie sauer come plusurs e de-/-uerse greuaunces qui sont monstrez a nous e a nos autres bon piers de la tere... (qtd. in Haskins, “Petition” 483).

- 86r-88r: A short chronicle of the civil wars of Edward II, focussed primarily on the battles in Yorkshire in 1321-22. The final eight lines on 87v and all of 88r comprise a roll of the dead, executed, imprisoned and exiled after Lancaster’s final defeat at Boroughbridge. Haskins notes that this list apparently has a common source with a similar roll in MS Egerton 2850: each omits some names contained in the other, and the ordering of the names suggests that the original was in two columns, which one copyist read from left to right while the other read down (Haskins, “Chronicle” 74). Latin, 3 ff. Incipit:

Anno dominice incarnacionis .M°.CC°. octogesimo quintodecimo et regni regis Edwardi / .xx°ij°. et etate Edwardi filii predicti regis Edwardi quartodecimo. Cum idem rex transfre- / -tasset in Flandriam causa pacis inter regem Francie et comitem Flandrie, vt dice- / -batur, reformande... (qtd. in Haskins, “Chronicle” 75).

- 88v: A list of other historical notes which Haskins labels “various entries of no interest” Haskins, “Chronicle” 73). Presumably they were of some interest to the chronicler, but we are left to speculate as to their content. Latin, 1 p.

- 89: An official issue of the judgement against the rebels of Boroughbridge. Names Lancaster and Hereford personally, leaving the remainder general. Anglo-Norman, 1 f. Incipit:

Pur ceo que vous .j. home lige nostre seignur le Roi, contre vostre foi, homage, e ligeaunce, fausement e treiturousement / pristes sa ville e son chastel de Gloucestre... (qtd. in Haskins, “Proceedings” 483).

Although Planta’s catalogue, still the official catalogue of used by the British for the Cotton collection, describes this manuscript as a whole simply as “Fragments relating to the civil wars”, even this brief summary of the contents reveals a greater cohesion of purpose than the term “fragments” implies. Gathered as they are, this manuscript – and here I include the additional leaf – tells a story, and rather a personal one. The first three documents seem to be copies of those possessed by John Engayne with relation to a single fraught political event of late 1321, and the chronicle, while it begins with the generalised lurid speculation and frequent inaccuracies that characterise rumour-informed accounts of Edward II’s earlier reign, becomes both more accurate and more emotionally invested as it approaches the final battles of 1321-22, with its sympathies firmly in the baronial camp. The addition of the judgement adds a literal closing page to a grim chapter of recent history, recalling the epitaphical list of the victims of Boroughbridge incorporated by the chronicler into his final pages.


Hardy dates the chronicle at 1327 (395), though the narration ends in 1322. It shows no awareness of the invasion and overthrow to come in 1326-27, unless this is noted among the entries on 88v. The judgement was issued in the aftermath of Boroughbridge in 1322, but Sayles demonstrates that this manuscript is among those re-issued as a general warning in 1325 (61), at which time sufficient copies were made and distributed that “the chronicler would have had little difficulty in securing one for his own use” (57).

Origin and authorship.

An unknown canon from the Augustinian priory of Fineshade in Northamptonshire (Ker, Libraries 87). The letters and petition have been transcribed from another source, by the same hand (A) that appears to have composed the chronicle. Several errors, corrected by the same hand interlinearly or midway through the line, are suggestive of composition rather than copying: for example, on several occasions on ff. 87r and 87v the scribe simply changes his mind on word order. The relation of A to B is unknown, though they seem to be working in close collaboration, but A appears to be the dominant force in writing the chronicle and collecting the supporting documents.

Given the location of Fineshade, therefore, it is curious that the letters and petition focus on events in the north, and the chronicle in addition shows a first-hand knowledge of events in the north beyond what can be accounted for by those documents. Haskins conjectures that the author is a northerner, “probably from somewhere in the county of York, for his account becomes at once more accurate and detailed as the scene shifts, in the spring of 1322, to the region of Boroughbridge and Pontefract” (“Chronicle” 74). Although this precedes Ker’s establishment of its origin, the point remains valid. We must suppose either that the chronicler was a northerner who moved south to Fineshade sometime between 1322 and 1325, or that he had access to the personal memories of someone heavily involved in the final stages of the baronial rebellion.

Both may be true: while the style of the chronicle seems to show a level of personal investment that may be indicative of a local’s attachment, a canon writing at Fineshade had a possible witness in the person of John Engayne, the local baron and a follower of Thomas of Lancaster. Richard Engayne had founded Fineshade in the 1208 (Knowles & Hadcock 137), and the pope’s confirmation in 1223 gave the establishment the right to elect their own prior without consent of the Engaynes (Serjeantson & Adkins 135). Nevertheless, they seem to have retained a close enough relationship with their erstwhile patrons that the priory (or the canon personally) could borrow and transcribe the letters and petition that were presumably among John Engayne’s personal papers.

This being so, there is a possibility that the memory and personal involvement reflected in the chronicle belong to John Engayne, shared in conversations with the canon who was writing what amounts to a history of Engayne’s experiences. Engayne died in 1323 or early 1324 (Dugdale 466), so perhaps it is not too great a leap to speculate that the chronicle may be partly coloured and motivated by reverence for his memory.

If, on the other hand, we hypothesise a smaller role for Engayne, limited to the loan of his papers (possibly by his estate after his death), we return to the supposition that the chronicler himself was a Yorkshireman, who moved to Fineshade after the disturbances of the civil wars. In this scenario, it may have been the move itself – from a place shaken by events that were justifiably felt to be of national importance, to a place less impressed by or less knowledgeable about those events – that prompted the impulse to record, to draw a comfortingly cohesive history from the catastrophe.

Later provenance and position in codex.

There is no evidence of the movements of the manuscript after its composition, and no later additions save the mid-fourteenth-century title on the final leaf. Fineshade was dissolved in 1536 (Knowles & Hadcock 137), and the manuscript may be presumed to have fallen into private hands at this date, if not before. The date and source of Cotton’s acquisition are not known, but it seems to appear on none of his loan lists, so was probably not among his most popular possessions with his fellow antiquarians.

Lacunae and potential.

- Perhaps the most frustrating lacuna is one that could easily be solved by examining the manuscript: the contents of those “various entries of no interest”, which have the potential to add tantalising clues (though possibly no answers) to the question of the date, circumstances and motivation of authorship.

- The field of candidates for authorship is pleasingly narrow, given the probable size of Fineshade at this period. However, without details of the names and biographies of all the canons resident in the 1320s, there is little evidence to pursue beyond that point.

- The exact relationship between Engayne and the chronicler is probably not discoverable. It may be possible, however, to find out a little more about the final two years of Engayne’s life, and whether his experiences in the war hastened his demise a year later.



Dugdale, Sir William. The Baronage of England. London, 1675.

Haskins, G. L. “Chronicle of the Civil Wars of Edward II.” Speculum 14 (1939): 73-81.

----- “Judicial proceedings against a traitor after Boroughbridge, 1322.” Speculum 12 (1937): 509-511.

----- "The Doncaster Petition, 1321." English Historical Review 53 (1938): 478-485.

Ker, Neil R. Medieval Libraries of Great Britain: A List of Surviving Books. London: Royal Historical Society, 1964.

Knowles, David & R. Neville Hadcock. Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales. London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1953.

Planta, Joseph. Catalogue of the manuscripts in the Cottonian Library deposited in the British Museum. The British Museum: Department of Manuscripts. London: Hansard, 1802.

Sayles, George. "The Formal Judgments on the Traitors of 1322." Speculum 16 (1941): 57-63.

Serjeantson, R. M. & W. R. D. Adkins (eds). “Houses of Austin canons: The Priory of Fineshade or Castle Hymel”. A History of the County of Northampton v. 2. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1906. 135-36.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A study of Cleopatra D IX: MS II, ff. 80-83. Breve chronicon.

A brief chronicle arranged by year from 1066 to 1304, extended to 1314 in another hand, with a later addition in a third.


Vellum, quarto (Hardy 352), 4 ff. Brereton mistakenly includes this manuscript and the following to f. 88 in her foliation of the Liber Alani de Ashbourne (see previous post), suggesting that it resembles those manuscripts at least superficially in layout, script and quality of parchment.


A brief chronicle with three different periods of authorship. Incipit “Anno ab Incarnatione millesimo sexagesimo sexto”; explicit “In die nativitatis ejusdem Johannis” Baptistae (qtd. in Hardy 352).


According to Hardy, it imitates the Chronicle of Wigmore to 1279 (though scantily), then continues independently to 1304, where the first hand ends. The second hand continues through to 1314, while a single entry in a third hand notes the truce between France and England in 1341 (352).


Origin, authorship, later provenance.

The nature of the chronicle and the multiple authorship suggest a religious house. Hardy notes that local references would suggest Gloucester or nearby Wales, with influence from Wigmore, Herefordshire (Hardy 352). As Sir John Prise was very active in the dissolution of the religious houses in Gloucestershire, and had a penchant for collecting chronicles (Ker, Sir John Prise 5), it is possible it passed directly into his hands in 1535 or 1539, and thence to Cotton by a similar path to the South English Legendary fragment.


Lacunae and potential.

The brevity and imitative quality of this chronicle leave few clues as to its history, and have drawn it little attention from those scholars who have studied the manuscript. It sits, quiet and unassuming, in approximately the middle of the codex, least remarked of all. However, it is perhaps this very unremarkable nature that makes it valuable. A comparison with the Lichfield and Fineshade chronicles, together with some of the many other small-scale monastic chronicles by religious houses around this period, has the potential to establish a valuable pattern against which to judge impulses of conformity and diversity, inspiration and influence, in historical writing of the day.


Brereton, Georgine E. (ed). Des grantz geanz: An Anglo-Norman poem. Oxford: Medium Ævum 1937.

Hardy, T. Duffus. Descriptive catalogue of materials relating to the history of Great Britain and Ireland v. 3. London: Rolls Series 1871.

Ker, Neil R. “Sir John Prise”, Library, fifth series, 10 (1955): 1-24.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A study of Cleopatra D IX: MS I, ff. 5-79. ‘Liber Alani de Ashbourne’.

A book of historical lists, annals and stories from Lichfield Cathedral’s library, written or commenced by Alan of Ashbourne, vicar of Lichfield.


Vellum, small folio (Ward 198), 75 ff. Written on the recto of the first folio is “Liber Alani de Asshhburne Vicarii Lichf”. According to Brereton’s description of one item in it, that section at least has three columns with 50 lines (with an initial in red). Brereton describes the whole as being “in the same hand throughout, except for a few later additions on columns and pages left blank for the purpose” (vi). The accuracy of this assessment is questionable, as her examination of the remainder of the manuscript is cursory, to the extent that she includes the next two manuscripts in the number of folios she allots to this [*]. However, the error suggests that the hand, and perhaps the layout, of the manuscript are at least superficially uniform throughout.


Historical lists and annals, local and universal, all in Latin save one Anglo-Norman romance. Although Des Grantz Geanz, a foundation poem recounting the mythic pre-history of Britain, survives in several manuscripts, this is the only witness to the longer redaction. It has been published by Brereton in a facing-page edition with the shorter redaction. There has been no edition of the remainder of the manuscript.

- 5v-24v: Annals from the beginning of the world to 1291 (or possibly 1292). Latin, 20 ff..

- 25r-37v: A list of the popes from St Peter to John XXII (Jacques Duèze, papacy 1316-1334), until 1317 according to Planta’s catalogue. Presumably this is an a quo date calculated on the ascension date of the last pontiff listed. Latin, 13 ff.

- 38r-69r: Annals of the deeds of the English, from the death of Hengist to 1377. In at least two different hands. Neither Ward nor Brereton mentions at which year the hands change, or how much space the first leaves for subsequent additions. Latin, 32 ff.

- 70r-71r: Des Grantz Geanz, long redaction (281 octosyllabic couplets). Anglo-Norman, 2 ff. At the foot of the first page is a jotting, presumably intended for a decorative header to the poem:.

Incipit tractatus de terra Anglie a quibus inhabitabatur in principio ante aduentum bruti . que terra primo vocabatur Albion . et postea a bruto britannia. Deinde Anglia nuncupata est. (qtd. in Ward 198).

The first four lines are:.

Ci put hom saver comen.

et quant et de quele gen.

Les grants geans primes vindren.

et Engleterre primes tindrent.


- 72r-74r: A list of the Archbishops of Canterbury, from Augustine to the investiture of John of Stratford (1333). Latin, 3 ff.

- 74r-79: A history of the bishopric of Coventry and Lichfield to 1347, with additions in a later hand to 1388. Latin, 5ff.

The selection and arrangement of the contents suggests a careful overall design. There is a balance between dry lists and narrative chronicles, and the field of vision narrows steadily from the universal to the national to the local. Given this level of organisational integrity, the apparently incongruous presence of an Anglo-Norman mythic romance in the midst of Latin prose histories provides a picturesque example of the flexibility of mediaeval understandings of genre..

Date, Origin and Authorship.

The library of Lichfield Cathedral (Ker, Medieval Libraries 115), c. 1323-1334 with later additions, Alan of Ashbourne and others..

Brereton dates the manuscript “with certainty” (vi) between the deaths of Simon of Mepham (1333) and Alan of Ashbourne (1334), on the grounds that the book records the death of one and is written by the other. This precision, however, rests on the assumptions that the book was written (or compiled) within the space of one year, and that it is primarily or exclusively the work of Alan of Ashbourne’s own hand. The first assumption is undermined by the book’s length, as well as Brereton’s own observation that the manuscript “consists of historical miscellanea and is written in the same hand throughout, except for a few later additions on columns and pages left blank for the purpose” (vi). This suggests that it was intended to function as a continuing record. If so, the vicar could have initiated it as a project any number of years before, rather than writing cover to cover within the space of a year. Greenslade asserts, based on internal evidence, that he began it in 1323, the year after his appointment at Lichfield (8).

The communal function implied by the long-term nature of the layout also complicates Brereton’s second assumption: although the majority of the work of compilation does seem to fall before his death, the book may have been initiated or directed by the vicar, without being written by his hand..

The addition of later entries up to 1388 and the inclusion (in transcription) of at least two works composed earlier (Des Grantz Geanz and the annals of the world) further complicate notions of any hypothetical authorship or definite date of composition. In particular, it is suggestive that the early annals end in the year 1291 or 1292. In 1291, a fire broke out in the Lichfield complex severe enough to burn at least the monastery to the ground (Knowles & Hadcock 192). Might the author have died in this fire, or stopped writing in the upheaval of rebuilding and recovery? The coincidence of dates suggests that while Alan of Ashbourne was compiling his own history of the bishopric, he collected or directed the collection of several other historical documents already belonging to Lichfield Cathedral – possibly including a (fire-damaged?) manuscript of a short chronicle written within fading living memory. The unfinished incipit the first page of Des Grantz Geanz strengthens the impression of a haphazard work in a constant state of composition, never polished and final.

His work appears to have been adopted on his death by his immediate community, enough to be referred to and intermittently updated for the next half century. By 1390, the manuscript seems to have fallen out of use as a record, superseded, forgotten or simply filled, and updates ceased..

The manuscript as a whole, with a history more accessible than most small-scale monastic chronicles can boast, provides valuable glimpses of possible motivations behind such an undertaking. Local and personal motivations sit side-by-side with a broader sense of national purpose. For example, if the first item (annals of the world) was written locally, as seems reasonable, a factor in the vicar’s decision to include it could well have been neighbourly reverence for the memory of its author and his not inconsiderable undertaking, from a man engaged in one no less ambitious. On the other hand, its contents demonstrate an anxiety to set local concerns, to which the majority of his efforts will be dedicated, in a universal context. Similarly, his local history and history of England suggests that he was among the many across England who felt prompted by the civil and natural disturbances of the 1320s to impose some order on events and dignify them with the name of history.

Later provenance and position within codex.

The picture is complicated around 1450 by Thomas Chesterfield, prebendary of Tervin in Lichfield Cathedral, who made a copy of Alan of Ashbourne’s chronicle and donated it to Lichfield Cathedral. It survives as MS Bodleian 956 pp. 113-229, and the inscription of the donor’s name on this copy led to the attribution of the authorship of both manuscripts to him in subsequent centuries (Greenslade 8-9 & notes; cf. Planta). The presence of two copies of the collection at Lichfield complicates their subsequent history.

The Franciscan house at Lichfield was dissolved in 1538, though other parts of the Lichfield establishment remained, including the cathedral, which is still in use today (Knowles & Hadcock 192). One of the two manuscripts, however, seems to have remained in the library of Lichfield Cathedral, as it was consulted there by William Whitelocke in the composition of his own history of Lichfield Cathedral in the late 1560s (Kettle, “Whitelocke”). This was probably the Chesterfield manuscript, as Whitelocke attributes the chronicle to him. The absence of both from the catalogue compiled by Patrick Young c. 1622 (Ker, “Young’s catalogue” 152 &c) suggests that both passed into the hands of a private collector at some time after 1670. Perhaps Whitelocke, “[o]ne of the few clergymen of the period to make a significant contribution to antiquarian studies” (Kettle, “Whitelocke”), felt it would be no disloyalty to his cathedral to allow such a manuscript to pass into the burgeoning library of some fellow antiquarian; or possibly the private circulation of his histories piqued someone’s interest in his source. The original Liber may also have been retired from the cathedral library prior to the dissolution, and fallen into private hands then.

Whether directly or through several intervening libraries, it was in Cotton’s hands by 1608, when he loaned it to Archbishop Bancroft (Tite 44-45). The loan entry reads only “Lichfield chronicle”, suggesting that at this time the manuscript was still circulating independently.

As for Chesterfield’s manuscript, this may be the one referred to in a note written c. 1617 in Bodleian Twyne 22 as the property of Thomas Allen (Tite 215). As Cotton indisputably possessed the original manuscript by that date, and had probably already bound it into the existing codex, Allen’s may very well have been the fifteenth-century copy – although it is also possible that he owned one of the manuscripts of Whitelocke’s adaptation.

Lacunae and potential.

- Basic codicological details and paleographical details are lacking, together with information about the contents of each section.

- As noticed above, this manuscript contains the sole surviving witness to the long redaction of Des Grantz Geanz. The second redaction, more than a hundred lines shorter, first appears in 1333, leading Brereton to suggest that this manuscript may be the source from which the second was abridged (vi). The lack of evidence regarding the origin of those manuscripts makes speculation somewhat futile, although it seems safe to say that both are evidence of an increased interest in this poem from the late 1320s onwards. If this is the case, judging only by the surviving manuscripts (which may not be representative), Lichfield Cathedral seems to have been a little ahead of the literary fashion.

- Many of the suggestions made above rest on the history of Lichfield from 1290 until Alan of Ashbourne’s death, particularly the local writing culture and the effects of the fire. For these, the chronicle itself may well be the best source we have, if it were available..

- The irregular number of folios – 75 does not divide easily into any set of regular quires – may suggest the addition or removal of folios or leaves after the primary stage of assembly. An examination of the manuscript could potentially confirm or deny this, as well as giving some indication of where changes may have taken place, potentially informing our understanding of how the vicars of Lichfield understood and interacted with their book as a historical document.


Brereton, Georgine E. (ed). Des grantz geanz: An Anglo-Norman poem. Oxford: Medium Ævum 1937.

Greenslade, M. W. The Staffordshire Historians. Staffordshire Record Society, fourth series, 11 (1982).

Kettle, Ann J. “Whitelocke, William (c. 1520-1584).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP, 2004. [http://www.oxforddnb.com.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/view/article/29318, accessed 03 Dec 2009].

Ker, Neil R. Medieval Libraries of Great Britain: A List of Surviving Books. London: Royal Historical Society, 1964.

--- (ed). “Patrick Young’s catalogue of the manuscripts of Lichfield Cathedral”, Medieval and Renaissance Studies 2 (1950): 151-168.

Knowles, David & R. Neville Hadcock. Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales. London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1953.

Planta, Joseph. Catalogue of the manuscripts in the Cottonian Library deposited in the British Museum. The British Museum: Department of Manuscripts. London: Hansard, 1802.

Tite, Colin. The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton’s Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use. The British Library. Bury St Edmund’s: St Edmundsbury Press, 2003.

Ward, H. L. D. Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum. London: British Museum, 1962.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A study of Cleopatra D IX: Introduction.

For an earlier mention of my investigations into this manuscript, see this post. Some things mentioned in it turned out to be incorrect or were dropped from the final study because I pursued a different angle, but I’m leaving it as is.

BL Cotton Cleopatra D IX has received only intermittent scholarly attention, and that piecemeal. Here a poem has been isolated from its manuscript and published, there a list of names or saints’ lives has been analysed for its relation to other such sources. One line – and not the most reliable - from a single chronicle has repeatedly been quoted to add weight to arguments that Edward II’s relationship with Piers Gavaston was sexual, with no consideration of the source.[1] As the codex is an early seventeenth-century assembly of disparate fourteenth-century texts, it has received no consideration as an entity; and it might reasonably be argued that it ought not. The authors and scribes of the various manuscripts contained in it certainly intended no relationship to the others, and Cotton’s assembly of it has no great psychological or historical significance. Moreover, the manuscripts contained in it are generally obscure enough that there must remain serious lacunae in our comprehension of the provenance and movements of the component parts, until the moment of their combination.

However, the mysteries and tantalising clues of their histories are precisely what have the potential to inform our broader understanding of the composition and later reception of manuscripts of this type. A collection of this type provides a ready collection of facts, impressions and resulting hypotheses – all potentially mistaken but all valuable to speculate around - of circumstances, motivations and habits of composition, and simultaneously of the treatment which the manuscripts were likely to receive at the hands of the early modern antiquarians.

Combined and bound by Cotton around 1616, the volume contains three large manuscripts (the Liber Alani de Ashbourne, the Epistola and the South English Legendary fragment), between which are bound two briefer manuscripts (a brief chronicle from Gloucestershire and the Fineshade chronicle collection). There is a considerable degree of order and intent in the collection and arrangement of the manuscripts in the volume, but it remains a superficial imposition. This volume was one of many assembled by Cotton from similar manuscripts in the mid 1610s, and as such is part of a larger project in which page size and number of folios seem also to have been a weighty consideration.

The codex begins with what Cotton probably considered the most valuable or useful of the book: the Fineshade collection was borrowed by Archbishop Bancroft in 1608 and consulted by John Selden c. 1617 (Tite 45 & 215), and before it fell into his possession had been copied and incorporated into other histories of the bishopric and the county. The first four manuscripts are reasonable uniform in size and nature, as well as appearance and layout if Brereton’s error is indicative (see later entry on the Liber Alani de Ashbourne). There is some thematic continuity, also, between the concerns of the Fineshade chronicler and William of Pagula’s reproaches against Edward III’s governance (mss III-IV). All are products of fourteenth-century England, although there is a possibility that the Epistola (ms IV) was copied in Gascony, and Cotton appears to have gone to some effort to arrange them into chronological order, which would require more than a passing glance at their contents.

The fifth manuscript, a fragment of the South English Legendary, stands out: popular culture, non-historical (at least to post-Reformation eyes), highly Catholic, middle English and clearly incomplete, the only elements in common with its companions seem to be its size and date.

A possible clue to its inclusion can be found in the original fly-leaves of the volume as Cotton bound it. Until 1913, the codex had fly-leaves formed of two leaves from a fourteenth-century psalter. The same psalter was also cannibalised for binding material for at least twenty-five other newly assembled Cotton volumes c. 1615-1618, most of which what appear from Planta’s catalogue to be similar historical collections, often local or monastic. Carley and Tite document this fragmentation, and have concluded that the remaining bulk of the psalter, which was bound into what is now Royal 13 D I, was intended by Cotton simply as filler after he removed something else from that volume (97 &c). The psalter has now been reunited with its missing leaves, rebound in 1913 as Royal 13 D I*, but its traces leave a useful record of Cotton’s activities in the mid 1610s.

As demonstrated by his treatment of the psalter, Cotton’s approach to his library was utilitarian rather than reverential, and he frequently fragmented or rebound manuscripts according to convenience of consultation. Sharpe observes that items “were bound together that were often consulted together” (69). This codex seems only to half embody that impulse: the first four booklets can all be described as fourteenth-century local histories with a broader political view, but the South English Legendary fragment stands alone. Perhaps it was added, being an appropriate size, simply to complete the bulk of the volume for binding, as with the psalter in Royal 13 D I. If this was the motive, we cannot exclude the possibility that Cotton himself is responsible for dismembering the complete South English Legendary manuscript as he did the psalter: they are, after all, both overtly Catholic texts with little of interest to offer Cotton’s generation of antiquaries. Perhaps we ought to seek its missing leaves in the pastedowns and fly-leaves of other Cotton volumes.

Individually and as a group, from a literary perspective or a codicological, there are difficulties with using the contents of Cleopatra D IX as a historical source. The scope of vision of each is local and limited, and much of the information unique to these manuscripts can’t be relied upon unless verified from other sources. Similarly, there are simply too many lacunae to construct a firm picture of their composition, transmission, later history and collection, so they serve as a definite historical example neither for their own time nor for Cotton’s. On the other hand, there are benefits to using texts like these as a historical source. I do not mean the more mundane benefits that Haskins points to when he praises the Fineshade chronicle’s ability to augment and correct another manuscript’s list of the dead and punished after the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322 (Haskins, “Chronicle” 74-75). This sort of information-gathering has its place, of course, but only as it helps us understand more broadly the human and cultural implications behind the development of these manuscripts.

For example, the multiple layers of composition and contribution evident in each of the first three manuscripts provide a valuable example of the dangers of applying modern assumptions to a term like “author”. The presence of Des Grantz Geanz in the Liber Alani de Ashbourne, meanwhile, performs a similar service for the term “historical”.

In addition, comparison with other similar manuscripts could also provide the grounds for a detailed and powerful study of the motivations behind much of the historical writing of this period. Edward II’s reign, with its natural and civil upheavals and perceived perversions of the natural order upon which society was built, seems to have prompted a flurry of chronicles and other similar documents, suggesting a widely-felt need both to record momentous events to impose some imaginative order on them. While these manuscripts seem to belong, to varying degrees, to that tradition, they also give us a glimpse of a flurry of possible personal motivations informing the writing, from duty to the local parish to displacement from home, from higher instruction to memories of the dead.

The information gathered in the entries to follow is of necessity incomplete, even beyond the true lacunae imposed by time and obscurity. Only one page of the manuscript has been sighted in its assembly – f. 87v, reproduced in the appendix below. The remainder of the information is collected and deduced from the attentions of other scholars, some of whose interests lay in very different directions to my intent. For example, William of Pagula’s Epistola has received a respectable amount of attention, and much is now known about the circumstances, motivation and dating of its composition; but not one description of this manuscript is to be found. Brereton has published Des Grantz Geanz, from the Liber Alani de Ashbourne, but commenting on the contents of the other sections of the manuscript is out of her purview. This information, then, is incomplete, and many gaps could be filled by a simple trip to the British Library.

It should be also noted that in its assembly, I have deliberately engaged in speculation. Many hypotheses have had to be revised as new evidence came to light, and doubtless as many of the remainder would be proved incorrect if only all the information guessed at were available to us. I make no apology for it, however: the exercise of speculation in considering a collection such as this must be an end in itself, opening up possibilities and raising valuable questions about the individuals involved and the push and pull of cultural motivations in play, about what they believed they were doing in the act of writing, whom they thought they were serving and how, what “history” meant to each and how the community around them interacted with their text. The caveat remains, of course, that such speculation is only valuable – only safe – so long as one never forgets where it begins, and where it must end.

[1] “Quem filius regis intuens in eum / tantum protinus amorem iniecit quod cum eo firmitatis fedus iniit, et pre ceteris morta- / -libus indissolubile dileccionis vinculum secum elegit et firmiter disposuit innodare” (f. 86r, qtd. in Haskins, “Chronicle” 75), usually translated with varying degrees of luridness that occasionally almost match the Latin. References are typically to Haskins, occasionally mentioning the codex by pressmark. (See my previous post).


Brereton, Georgine E. (ed). Des grantz geanz: An Anglo-Norman poem. Oxford: Medium Ævum 1937.
Carley, James P. & Colin G. C. Tite. “Sir Robert Cotton as collector of manuscripts and the question of dismemberment: British Library MSS Royal 13 D. I and Cotton Otho D. VIII.”
The Library 6th series 14 (1992): 94-99.
Haskins, G. L. “Chronicle of the Civil Wars of Edward II.”
Speculum. 14 (1939): 73-81.
Planta, Joseph.
Catalogue of the manuscripts in the Cottonian Library deposited in the British Museum. The British Museum: Department of Manuscripts. London: Hansard, 1802.
Sharpe, Kevin.
Sir Robert Cotton 1586-1631: History and Politics in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.
Tite, Colin.
The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton’s Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use. The British Library. Bury St Edmund’s: St Edmundsbury Press, 2003.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Muddling a manuscript

So, in an attempt to get all this information straight in my head, I’m going to do a blog post about it.

I’m trying to reconstruct a reasonably thorough codicological description of Cotton Cleopatra D IX, a codex which is an early modern collection of three, five, seven or eight 14th century mss (depending on how you count). It is, by the way, the codex that includes the short monastic chronicle of the civil wars of Edward II which I was translating [??] a while back. There’s a lot of missing information, much of it simply lost to time but a frustrating amount which could be resolved by looking at the codex. Or if any of the scholars who have, over the past century, commented on various articles within the codex had bothered giving trivial details about things like, oh, size of the page, or which pages are more worn than others, or whether the titles given to various entries are in a contemporary hand or an early modern one, or in fact only exist in the catalogue, and trifling little details like that. The most recent catalogue for the Cotton mss was published in 1802, and it’s rather cursory. I hear there’s another catalogue in process, due to be completed at the end of 2009, so this post may be rendered obsolete or proved inaccurate in several points within a few months – here’s hoping!

In brief, the main five manuscripts:

- a collection of historical writing from the Benedictine abbey of Lichfield,

- a brief chronicle from 1066-1314 from Gloucester or thereabouts,

- a chronicle with supporting documents relating to the events of 1322 and their aftermath from the Augustinian priory of Fineshade,

- a treatise of advice (speculum) to Edward III on the bad management of the kingdom,

- a fragment of a few saints’ lives from the South English Legendary, probably from the 1340s, somewhere around Gloucestershire or Oxfordshire.

We can call it six if we include the two leaves from a 14C service book which help to bind the codex as a while; seven if we count the single leaf attached to the Fineshade chronicle which appears to be an official proclamation from 1325; and, at a stretch, eight, if we count the two (almost) blank leaves binding the South English Legendary section.

So there is a certain thematic and temporal coherence, particularly if one considers the saints’ lives as historical sources on much the same footing as the other documents (as most people in this period would). The trouble is that they weren’t assembled in the 1300s – there’s no reason to think that the two whose origin we can pinpoint left Fineshade and Lichfield before they were dissolved by Henry VIII (1536 and 1538 respectively). And yet the Speculum Edwardi III is written on paper. It must have been kept very, very carefully to still be legible even by the 1500s, never mind by 2009, and I find it very hard to believe that it wasn’t bound up with other (parchment) mss very early to have survived at all. There is also thematic continuity between the Speculum and the concerns of the Fineshade chronicler in the manuscript immediately preceding it, though that may be just coincidence; but the ordering of the first four mss suggests a very careful grouping and consideration and knowledge of contents (and the historical events to which they refer), managing to approximate a chronological order for a chronologically complex group of texts. And yet, this care for the text is not reflected in the vandalism of a service book to bind them - unless it’s specifically a care for the text, not the manuscript? Or the binder had plenty of service books at his disposal (post-dissolution, presumably) and considered them far too ornate and popish (and common) to be worthy of the respect accorded to these more unique documents? Or were these four mss grouped by one person, and later bound together with the SEL fragment by another?

I’ll throw in a name at this point – Sir John Price, originally Ap Rhys (born in Wales, but built up quite a career in London before retiring to Herefordshire). He was heavily involved in the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, gathered an extensive personal library from their collections, and we know that he had at least the SEL fragment in his possession. Possibly he was the one to bind it with the two folios that surround it in the codex: we know he was opposed to rebinding volumes that were already bound, and we owe the preservation of many fine 11C volumes to his opinions in that regard. However, the SEL fragment was already broken up and had lost many leaves already (we don’t know how many because every collection of the SEL is different, so there’s no way of knowing how many legends this ms originally contained), and both the first and the last leaves extant are damaged. Preservation, in this case, would have meant protection rather than his usual more hands-off approach.

He would not, however, have been the man to bind the ms together with the other four. He may have owned them all – at least the first three of the five seem to be monastic in origin – but unfortunately the monasteries that we can identify as dissolved by Price are all concentrated around the Welsh border (Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Worcestershire). The brief chronicle from around Gloucestershire might have fallen into his hands, but he would be venturing rather afield to reach Lichfield in Staffordshire, and Fineshade (Northamptonshire) would seem to be far outside his purview. So it’s more probable that either he acquired them later, or that when his library was broken up at his death a friend with similar interests acquired those mss Price had, and this other collector combined them with one or more of his own collection to form the codex we have now. This other collector may have been Cotton – does anyone know how likely Cotton would have been to bind this sort of collection together? – but it may also have been someone else from whom Cotton later acquired this volume as it now stands.

So that’s a simple overview of what we know about the later history of the mss in Cotton Cleopatra D IX – more questions than answers. The whole codex in itself presents (or in some cases, tries to obscure) an interesting story, or set of questions, about the production and dissemination and collection of manuscripts from the fourteenth century onwards. It is, after all, essentially a collection of collections, or possibly a collection of collections of collections. I still have no firm answers to almost anything about this book, and all the visible trails are broken at least once or consist of nothing more than a single point. But we have enough that we can see the broad strokes of the picture, and a few random finer ones that don’t really make up anything comprehensible, but which allow us to consider the more human aspects behind inspiration, purpose, production, retention, collection, in ways that may not answer any questions definitely, but at least give us plenty of other interesting and more germane questions to consider.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Structure and symmetry in the Gilte Legende (1): St Julian

So, a couple of weeks back I discussed the disjointed nature of some of the vitae in the Gilte Legende (ed. Richard Hamer, EETS OS 327-8, 2006-7). I also mentioned the plethora of stories of Julians that the author tells under the entry for St Julian (v. 1 pp. 141-47) just to make sure we know which St Julian is the right St Julian; but despite the generally confused nature of that entry, the story of St Julian itself is beautifully symmetrical, and his saintly functions relate perfectly to the events of his life.

Briefly, the story is this. Fleeing a prophecy that he will kill both his parents (laid on him as punishment by a hart he was hunting), he moves away, marries and conveniently gets set up as a lord in a nicely feudal castle, as happens to so many unconnected vagabonds. When his parents find his castle, his wife invites them in, realises who they are, lavishes hospitality on them and gives up her bed to them, going to sleep elsewhere for the night. Returning home, he sees a man and a woman in his wife’s bed and kills them both in a fit of jealousy. As he emerges from the bloody chamber he meets his wife emerging, pointedly, from the chapel, and is slightly chagrined to hear her explanation. Realising that “whan I wende to eschewe this sorifull dede I most cursed haue fulfelled it” (144), he flees his castle and society and goes hermit – with his wife, who refuses to desert him. “And thanne they went togedre besides a grete flode where many men perisched, and there besides in that desert thei made a litell hospitall for to do there penaunce and for to bere ouer all tho that wolde passe” (ibid), until one day a horrible slimy smelly old leper turns up and says HELP ME ACROSS THE RIVER. Well, given the Greek-myth heritage of this story which has already been so obvious I didn’t even bother to use the word Oedipus anywhere, we know how this bit goes. He helps the leper, takes him in and feeds him and, because he's dying of cold, “toke hym in his armes and bare hym to his bedde and hilled hym diligently” (ibidetc). And lo and behold, the leper is secretly an angel sent by God to receive his penance and promise him that he will be taken to God soon. Incidentally, that “hilled” is probably “healed” but could also mean “cover, wrap” and possibly “embrace”. So perhaps it’s not surprising that if he was cuddling a leper (who probably had flu, and also fleas) in his bed, it was only “a litell after” that he and his wife both “slepten in oure Lorde Ihesu Crist”.
Just like Sir Gawain, this story invites diagrams. So:

No, I'm not procrastinating, why do you ask?
The story is driven by three revelations, each following an action of Julian’s. Pursuit of the hind leads to a prophecy, the murder of his guests is followed by the revelation of their identity and charity to the leper is followed by the revelation of the angel. In turn, each revelation leads to a journey:

I COULD continue to elaborate this picture and add all the other little structural things mentioned below and more, but I don't think Paint would let it be legible after another two lines or so.
Interestingly, the first two journeys are principally away, fleeing a prophecy and his shame respectively. It is only the third journey, instigated by God, that is a journey to a specific destination. Also, the first journey would seem to be in an upwards direction: socially, he ascends, and topographically he ends up in a nice tall castle which is presumably on some sort of a hill. But the folly of this social and earthly ascension is revealed by the consequences of his (newly acquired?) social pride, when his jealousy leads him to murder. The next journey is deliberately downwards, through the social scale and to the banks of “a grete flode”, and it is here that the spiritual state is reached which allows him to ascend correctly in the end. Or, to put it another way, his initial quest is away from his birth identity, now revealed as dangerous, to one which is more socially pleasing and validated by the community but leads to grave sin through a lack of his own self-knowledge (failing to recognise his parents), and thence towards social obscurity that leads him to discover a purer and truer identity in God.
There are other pleasing little contrast-dualities happening in the structure:

  • Most obviously, Julian’s attitude to his guests changes from the initial monstrous misunderstanding of his duties as host (and son) to his parents, to the self-sacrificing devotion he shows to an unfamiliar leper (who stands in for his spiritual father). There are shades of a similar guest in the hart, not recognised by Julian even as human until it speaks, and thereby foreshadowing his slaughter of his parents.
  • Wilderness vs. culture, where the first (initial forest, final flood) bracket the second and seem to be places of truth and self-knowing, while the second causes obscurity of the soul and blinds with frivolous things.
  • More specifically, the bedroom vs. the church. Note that, while Julian was in his bedroom being murderous, lustful, prideful, greedy et al, his wife was in the church, dutifully at her morning prayer after being beautifully hospitable and giving up her bed to the guests. Both emerge from their respective spaces of darkness and light at the same moment, and it is the sight of her that initiates the revelation of Julian’s error (“and whanne he seigh her he hadde mervaile”, 144), removing his blindness.
  • His wife has a pleasing sense of symmetry also, promising to stay with him in good time and in bad, “for sethe I haue parted with you in ioye I shall be partener of your sorw”. Their impending departure (and de-part in Middle English could also mean divide) “parts” the story into two, and there is a sense that her presence and her “part” in his fate will be a decisive factor in making this a clean break, providing a sort of rebirth.
  • The initial promise of the hart is echoed and laid to rest in the promise of the angel, the first predicting dire acts and bloody division from his parents, the second imminent peace and reunion with his heavenly father.
So, all in all, a very clever little example of certain elements from classical legend rewritten comprehensively enough to a) not feel patchy and disjointed and b) seamlessly rewrite the messages to a mediaeval Christian moral setting.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009

    Querela divina and Responsio humana in BL Add 37049 (transcription)

    For reference, this is the full text of the poetic exchange on the page discussed in the last post (BL Add 37049 20r).  Couplets are compressed onto one line for space, line breaks indicated with /.  The only punctuation is an occasional medial punctus, transcribed as a full stop.  Maiuscules follow the manuscript.  Abbreviations are expanded with italics.  The scribe made a few errors in the final lines (were they obscured in his original?) and has crossed them out, possibly with some attempt at scraping or rubbing – it’s hard to say on the colourless image.  On the first two occasions he crossed the letters out before completing the word and continued on the same line, while on the third he completed the line before realising his mistake and inserted a superlinear correction.

    Querela diuina

    O man vnkynde / Hafe in mynde

    My paynes smert

    Beholde and see / Þat is for þe

    Percyd my hert

    And yitt I wolde / Or þan þu schuld

    Þi saule forsak

    On cros with payne / Scharp deth agayne

    Ffor þi luf take.

    Ffor whilk I aske / None oþer taske

    Bot luf agayne

    Me þan to luf / Althyng abofe

    Þow aght be fayne


    Responsio humana

    O lord right dere / Þi wordes I here

    With hert ful sore

    Þerfore fro synne / I hope to blynne

    And grefe no more

    Bot in þis case / Now helpe þi grace

    My frelnes

    Þat I may euer / Do þi pleser

    With lastyngnes

    Þis grace to gytt / Þi moder -eh- eke

    Euer be –þry- prone

    Þat we may alle / In to –þat- \þi/ halle

    With ioy cum sone



    The words around the wound in the heart: 

    Þis is þe mesure of þe wounde þat our / Jhesus crist sufferd for oure redempcoun [sic – I just can’t make out an i anywhere in there!]


    Christ’s words:

    Þies woundes smert. bere in þin hert and luf god aye. / If þow do þis . þu fil haf blys with owten delay

    Incidentally, the scribe originally started writing this verse higher on the page, stopping when he realised that the words would run into Christ’s halo.  There seems to be an attempt at scraping the first attempt away, and the line enclosing the text banner is thicker over the half-erased words in an attempt to hide them.  It’s probably not to much of a jump to hazard that the scribe was also the illustrator, and didn’t do anything very elaborate in the way of plotting out his page layout beforehand.  I think we also have an indication that he was thinking about the illustrative rather than the poetic side of things when copying out the second line of this couplet, in that he (automatically?) added the usual “en” to “withowten”: it rather destroys the rhythm, and could have been omitted.

    Monday, November 2, 2009

    Herte and mesure in BL Add. 37049 20r: in response to Caroline Walker Bynum

    I was reading through an article by Caroline Walker Bynum a few days ago (see below for citation), and found a few points with regards to one manuscript image she discussed that I wanted to expand.

    The article focuses on the violence and gore in many high to late mediaeval theological images, its possible implications and the differing emphases laid on images of the perforated or violated body. The manuscript is BL Additional 37049, a Carthusian miscellany which has plenty of other creatively gruesome images. I particularly like this take on the usual memento mori: you may look pretty and rich and noble even in death, but you are still worm-food, frail mortals! Specifically, Bynum examines 20r:

    British Library Additional 37049 fol. 20r. Click for full size.

    Bynum cites this image to support her argument that the wounds of Christ “evoked love”. Specifically, she notes that Christ “displays his own heart … [which] bears within it all five wounds of Christ’s body, and the accompanying dialogue… ends with the hope that we will soon come to joy” (Bynum 18). She also adds that the image “returns us to the theme of fragmentation”.

    However, although she quotes the exchange between Christ and the kneeling man, she doesn’t, to my mind, adequately examine the literal centrality of the heart on the page and in the poetic exchange:

    Querela diuina: O man unkynde / hafe i[n] mynde / my paynes smert[.] / Beholde + see / Þat is for þe / percyd my hert [...]

    Responsio humana: O lord right dere / þi wordes I here / with herte ful sore[.] / Þ[ere]fore fro synne / I hope to wynne / And greue no more [...]

    The heart is the centre and focus of the page; but also, it seems to me, of their exchange. The pain in Christ’s heart is matched by the pain in the heart of man, caused by the same sin. The mutual wound suggests a shared heart – as indeed the page represents, presenting the heart as the means of communication, the addressee of the gaze and words of each. The word “heart” is exchanged between them as is the wound, something shared and mutually comprehensible. In this way, I’d question (or at least complicate) Bynum’s interpretation of the heart as Christ’s: it seems to me the heart shared between God and man. On the other hand, by that very token, it becomes a form of mediation between the human and the divine, the common halfway point: Christ himself, as the word made flesh, the mediator for humanity before God.

    Aptly, the heart literalises the concept of “word made flesh”: it appears to speak. The central wound seems almost a mouth, and the words around it may be seen as issuing from it. Interestingly, though the image of Christ is made to speak, and the heart appears to, the man remains silent, except for the voice in the poem. Silent before Christ, or only capable of speaking through the emissary of the heart – whether that be addressing God through Christ, or one’s own internal voice of prayer, rather than the potentially destructive external voice?

    Central throughout Bynum’s article is the idea of metonymy, “undergirded by… the doctrine of concomitance (the idea that the whole Christ is present in every particle of the eucharist)” (22):

    From folk assumptions that a measure or particle (fingernails or hair) can be the person to abstruse theological debates over the mode of presence of an immaterial God, medieval culture gloried in the paradox of parts that not so much represented as were the whole. (23)

    Bynum then draws the connection between this and the mediaeval obsession with numerology, particularly the ability of the right numbers to convey truth: effectively, to stand in as a metonymical “part” that might stand for / be the whole. I’d draw the comparison, for example’s sake, with the pentangle on Gawain’s shield and its ability to simultaneously represent Gawain (or the idealised version of him) and the perfection of Christ or the Trinity[1]. She applies this to the motto inscribed around the “mouth” of the heart:

    Þis is þe mesure of þe wounde þ[a]t our Ih[esu]s Christ sufferd for oure rede[m]ptiou[n].

    Bynum points out the emphasis on the precise length of the wound contained in “mesure”, pointing out a long mediaeval tradition in which “length is a metonym for person” (20). The correct dimensions of the wound carry with them the nature of the person represented by it, and therefore, if it adheres to those dimensions, “an image of the wound was Christ” (20). However, I’d venture to add to her conclusion. It seems to me that the evidence she cites to the effect that precise numerical detailing of an object can reproduce it in its precise identity means that perhaps in this case the numerical “mesure” need not be the central concern. If “mesure” has become abstracted to the extent she describes, we might as well read “this is the nature”, or “this is exactly that wound Christ suffered and how it was given him”. In this way the heart that is the focus of the gaze of Christ, of the kneeling man and of the reader (given the layout of the page) becomes a demonstration and revelation of the words they exchange through it: the manner of the wound, the piercing sin that harms both (or all three) in the doing, a visual representation of the exact truth – the “mesure” – of the Passion.


    Arthur, Ross G. Medieval sign theory in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Toronto: Toronto UP, 1987.

    Bynum, Caroline Walker. “Violent imagery and Late Medieval Piety”, German Historical Institute Bulletin 30 (2002), 3-36. Available online on the GHI Bulletin website.

    Saturday, October 31, 2009

    Chaucer, out of the mouths (et al) of babes.

    Let it be known that 12-day-old Elizabeth is already developing literary opinions. She likes the Knight, is indifferent to the Squire, abhors the Shipman, dribbles at the descriptions of the Franklin's feasts and passes gas at the Cook. Most promising, she gets very excited about the Clerk, waves her arms enthusiastically at the idea of having more books in her room than pretty things and claps her hands to her mouth excitedly at the talk of buying books even without being able to get a benefice (tenure?). Let us hope she doesn't emulate him so far as to borrow money for books and forget to pay it back.

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009

    Choices, challenges and chance in the first part of Dryden's Conquest of Granada

    Alright, so time to 'fess up: I am studying a Restoration course this semester and am thus not always thinking about the mediaeval. So I am having non-mediaeval thoughts sometimes. Such as about The Conquest of Granada.

    I like to think I'm still not a terrible person?

    The first part of Dryden’s Conquest of Granada was written in a society regaining its confidence after the upheavals of the Civil Wars, the Protectorate and the Restoration. It depicts a nation besieged from without, blithely (and wrongly) confident in its own power despite strife and divisions within. However, Dryden does not focus on the city as a direct analogue for English society in the past generation. Instead he explores the human motivations behind each character’s shifts of loyalty that destabilise their society, challenging his audience to self-analysis in a way that perhaps they could not have stood five years before. Almanzor and Lyndaraxa stand out from the general confusion, not for their constancy, but for the control that they alone manage to retain over their own power of choice.

    The play opens to an image of a society perfectly ordered, or perfectly controlled. Powerful men – the king and the patriarchs of the leading families – sit in luxury and discuss the day’s games, a mediaeval-style tournament of male prowess and display (under the eyes of the ladies, naturally), with some fashionable local colour in the form of Spanish bulls. As in any era, the expensive and' extravagantly organised games are a display and proof of centralised power; and naturally, as the King expects, the heroes of the establishment[1] affirm their superiority over their hypermasculine opponents. The only catch is that the audience doesn’t see it. Uninvolved in the off-stage action, the audience’s point of view is limited to that of the character-turned-narrator, who thereby asserts his control of the events and world portrayed. The spectator relies on the perceptions of the most interested parties - and their complacent view of their world is soon dispelled by the “confus’d noise within” (I.I.98) that signals the beginning of civil disorder.

    The eruption of combatants onto the stage – shocking after the elegant inaction and controlled, distant violence of the preceding speeches – exposes the flaws in Boabdelin’s model of kingship. In his world view, his authority and the system that sustains it are built of rock, not of people: an independent structure that stands regardless of the differences of mere mortals. Magnificent though he may be initially in confronting the armed mobs, his words have no effect because he does not realise the possibility of his subjects having opinions and agendas of their own, nor the necessity of addressing these to resolve the cause of the conflict. To manage the passions of a nation a king must surely first acknowledge them, but the competing hatreds exchanged across him – murders, superiority of family claims, racial or religious contamination - pass by unnoticed. It is his very insistence on absolute authority rather than disputation that causes the situation to escalate, recalling Charles I’s stubborn obliviousness to the depth of the currents, until the water around his stately galleon churned visibly white. Almanzor’s challenge (“I alone am king of me” etc, I.I.206), predicated on individualised honour and choice rather than state-harnessed honour and obedience, is incomprehensible to Boabdelin, alien to his stone-built tower of a world, and consequently unanswerable.

    Boabdelin’s tower, however, is soon shaken and divided by the factionalism of civil war, prompting a flurry of about-turns from almost every major character. Abdalla rebels, Abdelmelech vacillates, Boabdelin throws his lot in with just one clan of his empire, and Abenamar and Selin turn against their respective children, who both abandon filial obedience for love. Rather than let these instances simply pile up, Dryden links them with imagery of wind and water, shifting, insubstantial and helpless. Memorably, Almanzor calls Boabdelin a “weathercock of State”, who “stands so high, with so unfix’t a mind, / Two factions turn him with each blast of wind” (III.I.10-12). Abdalla applies this idea to humanity more generally when he laments the insubstantial nature of “frail reason... kick’d up in the Air / While sence weighs down the Scale”: human conscience is too easily “born away: And forc’d to count’nance its own Rebels sway” (III.I.58-63). The same imagery recurs throughout the play, undermining each individual’s attempts to explain away their decisions and changes. The effect of this is to attribute the mutability not to the direct cause of each occasion, but to basic human nature, subject to chance.

    The first major defection, Abdalla’s, is also the one Dryden examines most closely, exposing his ongoing fascination with the interior reasonings of these changes. It is initiated by Lyndaraxa’s half-promise to renege on her affections for Abdelmelech, and cemented by the excuses offered him by one of Boabdelin’s strongest subjects. Abdalla’s own consciousness of the moral implications of his decision (II.I.174-253) makes him look curiously helpless. He portrays himself as “tost” like a helpless ship between “love and vertue” (II.I.184), opposing internal forces which will decide his fate for him without the possibility of his own intervention. His plea to Zulema to second his flagging honour so it might “renue the fight” (II.I.189) also seems to absolve him of any personal responsibility for his decision, and Zulema’s persuasive arguments against that honour conveniently finish the job. After the event, he shows no hesitation in laying the blame on Lyndaraxa, using the language of the scorned chivalric lover (III.I.72-74) and of chauvinistic mistrust:

    This enchanted place,
    Like Circe’s Isle, is peopled with a Race
    Of dogs and swine, yet, though their fate I know,
    I look with pleasure and am turning too. (III.I.95-98)
    To cast Lyndaraxa as Circe implicitly turns Abdalla into unfortunate victim made bestial through womanly wiles, incapable of honour or conscious decision; but it also implies that all of Granada is peopled by men who cannot retain their shape, or lack the moral drive to wish to.

    Abdelmelech and Abdalla are equally helpless in their inability to renounce Lyndaraxa. Despite the knowledge of her changeability, each lacks the power to choose to turn away, or to take any other path than the one down which she drives them. Abdelmelech, for example, perceives that her heart “was never fix’d, nor rooted deep in Love” (III.I.164); but, through her skilful handling, he is begging permission within twenty-five lines to pledge his own constancy to the inconstant target, while Lyndaraxa mocks him with the possibility of his own future defection (“You would be perjur’d if you should I fear”, III.I.190). By the time he presses Lyndaraxa to run away with him as “proof of love to me” (IV.II.36), the city is a mess, Almanzor has changed sides and the tides of war twice, and the audience is as conscious as Lyndaraxa of the fruitlessness of any such proof. In this world as presented, no person can be proven, and a person who trusts in such proof is left vulnerable and manipulable.

    Lyndaraxa plays to reserve the moment of choice only because she is more conscious of this fact than are the men around her: she admits freely to herself that “I my self scarce my own thoughts can ghess, / So much I find ‘em varied by success” (IV.II.4-5). She speaks the unacknowledged creed of almost every other character in the play when she declares that she “will be constant yet, if Fortune can” (IV.II.7), consciously placing her own steadfastness in the power of that most fickle of deities. By contrast, each man appears to believe his current loyalty to be the only admissible possibility, leaving himself subject to Fortune’s whims.

    Almanzor is an exception within this general turmoil. The difference lies not in his stability of loyalties – he is the most infamously changeable character of all – but in his consciousness of the power of his own choices. Instead of reacting to changes in Fortune, Almanzor causes them: if Boabdelin is a weathercock turned by each passing wind, Almanzor turns himself, knowing the wind will swing to follow him. Initially, Almanzor seems to stand in opposition to human fickleness. On his first appearance, he appears to provide a stable moral centre to the play, disproving the supremacy of the old regime and epitomising a new system based on personal honour and conscience. He stands up to the irrational judgements of a tyrannical king (I.I.204-231), advocates responsibility with power (I.I.218-20), notes the weakness in the current system (I.I.226-29, I.I.285-86, III.I.10-12) and offers to fix it by pinning the weathercock with his own immovable weight:

    The word which I have giv’n shall stand like Fate;
    But now he shall not veer: my word is past:
    I’ll take his heart by th’roots, and hold it fast. (III.I.9-14)
    With these words, the king seems but a butterfly, weak and movable: Almanzor, staunch and strong, standing for eternal principle against self-interest and factions’ advice. But Abdalla’s request immediately following unsettles this comforting impression. Remaining firm to his own individual “word”, Almanzor commits himself to the ultimate social disruption of civil war. As various characters comment, including Almanzor, from that point he takes on Fortune’s role (“I am your fortune; but am swift like her”, IV.I.30), and his actions govern the consequent reactions of the remaining characters. Almanzor is characterised not as a changeable subject to the vagaries of the Fortune’s wind, but as the agent of change, steering the fortunes of others “as winds drive storms before ‘em in the sky” (III.I.526).

    The change is not in Almanzor, it should be noted, but in the audience’s growing realisation of their inability to trust any moral advocate, no matter how charismatic. The terms in which he agrees to help Abdalla (III.I.21-28), and announces to Boabdelin his intention to continue to change sides as he chooses (IV.I.54-55), are consistent with his first glorious speeches that win the stage to him. His very first line (“I cannot stay to ask which cause is best; / But this is so to me because opprest”, I.I.128-29), despite its consciousness of the arbitrary nature of any such judgement, shows a determination to retain control of the moral context of his decisions – and potentially the power to change his choice at a later date, if the first judgement should prove erroneous. By consciously assuming the power and responsibility for his shifts in loyalty, and acknowledging the possibility of Fortune changing, Almanzor reserves to himself the power of change rather than the Fortune-shaped reactions of his compatriots.

    The sheer number of these human changes, once realised, makes the whole world appear mutable. The city of Granada has little concrete existence of its own. Unlike the village and houses of Sir Samuel Tuke’s The Adventures of Five Hours or the streets and rooms and islands of Thomas Shadwell’s The Libertine, the writing of Conquest evokes no firm sense of locale. Most scenes could be set indoors or outdoors, in a hall or garden or a street, or on a blank stage. The strongest scene-painting in the play is the opening description of the bullfight (I.I.1-98), an event which takes place offstage and therefore exists only in the words of its narrators. While a hypothetical set might provide some context and colour, its effect is little next to the spoken word: the theatre’s lack of a cohesive authorial voice ensures that in most plays the characters and their words are the world. Juliet’s orchard is vividly alive, regardless of staging choices. But Granada, as a city, is barely there: she has her only substance in the minds of her inhabitants, and she is soon forgotten. As a society, she is only as substantial as a group illusion. In the first act, by questioning certain fundamental issues of social organisation - the proper nature of government and kingship (I.I.194-288), the right to inheritance and title (I.I.292-346) – Dryden destabilises the social structure binding the individual characters together. With these things recognised as insubstantial, the characters themselves are left to hold their world together unassisted. As each wanders off whithersoever he (or potentially she) would, the whole of social structure becomes illusory.

    Despite the gloominess of such a point of view, the final vision, for its first audience, need not have been so bleak. For those who made the comparison between the events in Granada and the storms of the last generation, there remains sufficient distance in Dryden’s writing that they need not have assumed Granada’s downfall was England’s. There is no consistent parallel between any character in the play and any on England’s recent political stage, though there are occasional passing similarities. Granada’s character is sufficiently foreign, especially with the real Christians hovering at the gates, that the audience could be in no danger of identifying themselves completely with the Moors who comprise her population. Dryden challenges his audience to consider the nature, causes and moral implications of the changes humans make under pressure, but England is not Granada. England has come through the wars, is not doomed, and can consider these questions in retrospect, without the danger being pulled to pieces from within.


    [1] Almanzor, the triumphant stranger, is potentially a threat, and will so prove; but at this point the speakers claim him as their hero, the epitome of those qualities that they treasure in the world their words create. Though Abenamar recognises him as "more than man" (I.I.48), he appears to consider it only a matter of degree: the challenge implicit in this difference is not recognised.