Some old London maps


To live in a city with such a distinguished history as London causes the mind to often whiz back in time. One way of doing that is to muse over the city’s streets, court, gardens, palaces, etc, that have gone up and down over the centuries. I like maps, and not any maps; the older, the better, I say. They tell stories, some that may still be told, others that have turn to stone. Here are two of my favourite maps, and, nisi fallor, some of the most detailed representations (if not the most) of London before the Great Fire of 1666.

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Showing London from the Tower to the East to Gray’s Inn to the West. Taken from John Norden’s Middlesex, dated 1593. Each map is 9½ inches by 6¾ inches. Click to magnify.

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Same as above. Showing the city of Westminster from the Strand to the East to Westminster Abbey to the West.

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This map generally goes by the name of Faithorne, the engraver, but in reality the credit is due quite as much to Richard Newcourt the elder (d. 1679), who was the draughtsman. It is selected for a place here because, the date being 1658, it shows the City as it was before the Fire. Showing the heart of the City, with St Paul’s cathedral at the centre and going as north as Bunhill. One may even count the houses on each street. And I live right there, off Charterhouse square. Click to magnify

Latin in Medieval Britain


Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 9.37.54The conference is set to begin this afternoon. I will try to cover David Howlett’s lecture on Making the Dictionary and tomorrow’s sessions. I am particularly looking forward to Neil Wright’s talk on The twelfth-century renaissance in Anglo-Norman England: William of Malmesbury and Joseph of Exeter, Charles Burnett’s Arabic in medieval British Latin scientific writings and Paul Brand’s The Latin of the early English common law.

I hope the weekend accommodation at St Anne’s College will not make one think too much of the medieval period.

Moral relativism in the medieval church: St Nicholas


Today’s the feast of St. Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra (that’s in present-day Turkey). I thought it suitable to share with you a story from the life of the saint whose name I bear (as my middle name).  There were many lives of St. Nicholas written in the Middle Ages, but Jacobus de Voragine’s account in his Golden Legend (c. 1260, a medieval bestseller) is by far the most exciting of all. He begins by saying that after his baptism, baby Nicholas would only suck on his mother’s breast on Wednesdays and Fridays, emphasising Nicholas’ early commitment to a life of fasting and abstinence. Then he goes on to relate the many miracles the saint performed in the company of sailors. Right after his death, a cult spawned and people of all sorts began to trust the saint’s power. The story I include below involves a Jew, an icon, a handful of thieves and an apparition and does something very strange indeed.  It seems to suggest that theft and iconoclasm could lead to conversion to medieval Christianity. This way, it serves as an example of something nobody would dare suggest for this period: that the medieval Church admitted of moral relativism, showing that actually nothing is intrinsically wicked, that faith transcends questions of good and bad, right and wrong.

Another Jew saw the virtuous miracles of St. Nicholas, and did do make an image of the saint [an icon], and set it in his house, and commanded him that he should keep well his house when he went out, and that he should keep well all his goods, saying to him: Nicholas, lo! here be all my goods, I charge you to keep them, and if thou keep them not well, I shall avenge me on you in beating and tormenting you. And on a time, when the Jew was out, thieves came and robbed all his goods, and left, unborne away, only the image. And when the Jew came home he found him robbed of all his goods. He questioned the image saying these words: Sir Nicholas, I had set you in my house for to keep my goods from thieves, why have you not kept them? You shall receive sorrow and torments, and shall have pain for the thieves. I shall avenge my loss, and refrain my frenzy in beating you. And then took the Jew the image, and beat it, and tormented it cruelly. Then a great marvel occurred, for when the thieves departed with the goods, the holy saint, like as he had been in his array, appeared to the thieves, and said to them: Why have I been beaten so cruelly for you and have so many torments? See how my body is hewed and broken; see how that the red blood runs down by my body; go fast and restore it again, or else the wrath of God Almighty shall make you as to be one out of his wit, and that all men shall know your felony, and that each of you shall be hanged. And they said: Who are you that says to us such things? And he said to them: I am Nicholas the servant of Jesus Christ, whom the Jew has so cruelly beaten for his goods that you took away. Then they were afraid, and came to the Jew, and heard what he had done to the image, and they told him the miracle, and delivered to him again all his goods. And thus came the thieves to the way of truth, and the Jew to the way of Jesus Christ.

P.S. The gravitas of my suggestion must not lead anyone to think that this is anything but a pleasantry. Admittedly, the mere thought that the Jew’ infliction of derivative damage on St Nicholas marshalled him to conversion does not need any further witty suggestions. This disclaimer comes as a result of a reader’s (he knows who he is) denunciation of my suggestion that conversion to faith justifies the use of any kind of morality. This reader must remember our chat over lunch today.

The rise and fall of a medieval woman from cheese to oat: Matilda de Briouze


The study of medieval women has become quite trendy in the last decades or so. The narrative sources can tell us quite a lot about some women who have been able to escape the rigid and circumscribing expectations of most medieval authors. Perhaps there is no better example than the exceptional figure of Matilda de Briouse (1155-1210), wife of William, one of English king John’s top barons. Her misfortune was to collide with the unyielding king John, who locked her and her son up for debt, defiance and (some) caprice. Many know the story of Matilda’s rise and downfall, but perhaps few are those who have read the engaging account of the Histoire des ducs de Normandie et des Rois d’Angleterre, an Artesian verse narrative written in Old French in the first quarter of the 13th century. Praised for its precision and analytic depth, the Histoire takes an unprecedented interest in Matilda, ‘singing’ the last years of her life:

This William of Briouze had a fearless lady as his wife, born in the lands of the King of France; she was the daughter of Bernard of Saint-Valéry, the good knight; her name was Matilda. She was beautiful, very wise, very valiant and very vigorous. None of her barons ever mentioned a word against her. She kept up the war against the Welsh and conquered much from them. She had been loyal to king John, who treated her badly, although she offered him many gifts. She once made the queen a gift of 300 cows and a bull, all of them white, except the ears which were red. This lady once boasted to Baldwin count of Aumale her nephew that she owned no less than twelve thousand milk cows. And she kept bragging that she had so much cheese that if a hundred of the strongest men in England were besieged in a castle, they could defend themselves with her cheese for a whole month, so much that they would not use it up and always find more to throw down the battlements.

Cheese didn’t keep her from being captured by the king, after her husband fell out of royal favour. There have been many attempts to exhaust the possibilities of John’s volte-face against William and his family, and perhaps historians have relied too much on the prejudiced views of clerical chroniclers. For one reason or another, Matilda was locked up together with her son in 1210 and starved to death. The Histoire preserves a disturbing endnote of her and her son’s demise:

When he arrived in England, the king imprisoned Matilda and her son in the castle of Corfe and ordered that a sheaf of oat and one piece of raw bacon be given to them. He did not allow them to have any more meat. After eleven days, the mother was found dead between her son’s legs, still upright albeit leaned forward against her son’s foot, as a dead woman. Her son, who was also dead, was found sitting straight, bent against the wall as a dead man. So desperate was the mother that she had eaten her son’s cheeks.

A bit on the side lane, I should add that it is curious that the renowned chronicler Matthew Paris, writing in the 1250s, described William of Briouze’s coat of arms as containing three garbs or, that is three golden sheafs of wheat or oat or some other cereal. As far as I know, there is no other evidence of Briouze heraldry. This might be Matthew Paris’ way of honouring Matilda’s death and adding fuel to his denunciation of the king.

The ‘Kaiserchronik’, a project of imperial proportions


Perhaps at £950,000 of funding, any humanities project would be deemed imperial. In the case of the Kaiserchronik project, this is actually true. This evening, Mark Chinca and Christopher Young from the University of Cambridge talked about their recently AHRC-funded project at the gathering of the Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies (CLAMS) at King’s College London. With medieval historiography having been lately overshadowed by other, more fashionable discussions of cultural and economic history, this was indeed a refreshing opportunity to reflect on the relevance of talking chronicles, textual criticism and the rise of the vernacular in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The Kaiserchronik (The Chronicle of emperors) was a major historiographical enterprise began in Marburg towards 1150 in vernacular verse. The chronicle covers the reigns of Roman and German kings and emperors, from the earliest times to the twelfth century. The title of Kaiserchronik was not given until the 19th century, it seems, and that only because the author, at some point in the narrative, considered himself to be a chronicler. In any case, the structure, layout or narrative strategies at work in the chronicle would not normally authorise it to be referred to as a chronicle, at least according to Gervase of Canterbury’s notions or indeed those of modern scholarship. Of what I’ve heard, it seems to me that the Kaiserchronik would be better called ‘Kaisergeschichte’. Yet, these notions such as authorship and designation are themselves the product of a later age, so they shouldn’t bother that much.

Written in Middle High German (in use between 1050-1350), the Kaiserchronik represents, as Chris Young pointed out, the earliest verse chronicle anywhere in medieval Europe. It is unique in its focus on the (Western) Roman empire, its extensive use of heterogenous sources and the display of the tension between classical learning and popular culture, which both try to carve out their own discursive space in this insufficiently studied text. There are 11 complete manuscripts and 26 fragmentary witnesses which indicate the existence of three recensions, one around 1150, another c. 1200 and a third c. 1250, each with corresponding continuations, themselves poorly studied. Two editions have been produced in the past but none can rival with the ambitions which Mark and Chris laid out in this evening’s talk. The project intends to produce a full tabular critical edition of the chronicle, followed by a translation, commentary and a host of studies bearing on all aspects of text and context. The editors also intend to digitise the manuscripts in the public domain.

Mark and Chris argued that the traditional view on 12th century German vernacular should be modified to accommodate recent findings, in particular a readjustment of the place of vernacular works on scientific and popular knowledge, largely ignored by modern scholars. There are some 200 MSS of vernacular German in existence from the 12th century and more than 40 in the period before 1100. Certainly, this calls for reflection on the place that Germany occupied on the stage of history writing in the context of the rise of the vernacular, as Gabrielle Spiegel has famously argued, most notably in her book Romancing the Past: The Rise of Vernacular Prose Historiography in Thirteenth-Century France (1993). However, unlike Spiegel’s argument, it is unclear to what extent, if any, aristocratic concerns inspired a reawakening of the German historical consciousness, leading to a fresh exploration of Roman imperial history through German lenses.

Chris’ survey of recent scholarship on the Kaiserchronik revealed both the inadequacy of our current understanding of the text and the importance of preparing a critical edition that considers the complexity of the manuscript tradition, the intricate questions of authorship and readership and the context for the production of this text. In particular, Mark flagged up the difficulty of forcing different typologies upon the text. The two scholars each warned against generalisation, showing how unsatisfactory past attempts at explaining away the tension of notions such as Roman versus German, Christian salvation versus ethnical celebration, finally Church versus State can be.

The question of the chronicle’s relationship to other influential works of contemporaneous date, namely Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, where king Arthur was given discursive life and fame for all historical eternity, and the Roman de Brut, an adaptation of Geoffrey’s work by Wace. Patronage may have played a greater part in all this than previously thought. On the one hand Matilda, daughter of king Henry I of England and wife to emperor Henry V, on the other Eleanor of Aquitaine, the epitome of twelfth century political and cultural networking. Their role, if any, in the production of the Kaiserchronik remains, at least for now, unclear.

As the team leaders themselves conceded, there are far more questions than answers out there, but perhaps five years will vindicate most of these unknowns.

The postmodernist vision of history through Baudelaire’s ‘Le Charogne’ (I)


Having recently read Gabrielle Spiegel’s The Past as text, I realised how important it is to reflect on the articulation of text and reality. The more recent poststructuralist views that everything is textuality may ultimately be a foolish experiment, but it has the potential to cast light on some of the problems arising from the attempt to recover a textual past, particularly relevant to historians working with written sources. As a medievalist, I am fully alert to the tension between, say, a medieval chronicle and the world that the text tries to signify and reflect. If we add the fact that the text is the sum total of the experiences, many of them textual, of the conscience (author) behind it, then we get a sense of the importance of considering different theories on the nature of reality, the relevance of causality, the extent of human agency, etc, in brief, the unresolved tensions contained in that piece of text. In what follows, I would like to reflect on the relationship between a postmodernist view of history and the metaphor of the carcass in Baudelaire’s poem ‘Le Charogne’ to see if one can place, aesthetically, postmodern textuality in the realm of silent putrefaction.

My favourite description of the postmodern world(view) is that offered by Ihab Hassan:

Postmodernism is ‘indeterminacy and immanence; ubiquitous simulacra, pseudo-events; a conscious lack of mastery, lightness and evanescence everywhere. a new temporality, or rather intemporality, a polychronic sense of history; a patchwork of ludic, transgressive or deconstructive approaches to knowledge and authority; an ironic parodic, reflexive, fantastic awareness of the moment; a linguistic turn, semiotic imperative in culture; and in society generally the violence of local desires diffused into a terminology of seduction and force.”

It may not be difficult to find most of these attributes predicated on the world around us. The displaced person, the hero of this age, is the alienated subject of his own objectivity, a silent hero condemned to forget about any notion of condemnation, locked in a nostalgic cage whose absent object of desire belongs to a world outside the cage that cannot exist and never truly existed. This figure generates a sense of history based on a past world that seems to be within reach but in fact never existed, or if it did, may never be recovered, or if recoverable, may never reach a stability of meaning capable of true signification. As Jacques Derrida put it, there is no outer text, no arbitrator, no system of value one can reach out to for a sense of this-is-true-while-that-is-false. Everything falls back on itself, history collapses into self-referentiality, the past becomes an impossibility, for the text, the only means of establishing a nostalgic relationship to the past, is itself constitutive of that nostalgia and seems, moreover, to push its object further into the past, the more we attempt to get closer to it. The only way to approach this tyrannical yet precarious text is to dismantle it, or, as it has become fashionable nowadays to say, to deconstruct it. Gabrielle Spiegel has warned against the dissolution of history under the torrid sun of deconstruction, and this is where Baudelaire’s metaphor of the carcass, set under the burning sun of our hypertrophic awareness, starts to become more or less commensurate with some postmodernist vision of history.

Rappelez-vous l’objet que nous vîmes, mon âme,
Ce beau matin d’été si doux:
Au détour d’un sentier une charogne infâme
Sur un lit semé de cailloux,

Les jambes en l’air, comme une femme lubrique,
Brûlante et suant les poisons,
Ouvrait d’une façon nonchalante et cynique
Son ventre plein d’exhalaisons.

The text is poison, containing within it a tournament of rival interpretations, each competing for a piece of stable meaning. The relics of the historical past are sentenced to slow decay, unless the historian turns his attention to the mournful silence of the dying body. Turning the signifier upside down, ‘les jambes en l’air’, the observer-historian takes note of the multiplicity of signification that the relic of the past may present upon a closer examination, remembering that a poisonous contradiction (‘d’une façon nonchalante et cynique’) governs all attempts of revealing and understanding what the text may conceal. The dismantling of the text into an endless chain of interpretations, each pointing to complementary and conflicting possibilities, reveals the semblance of life that the historian bestows on his dead patient. In an act of resuscitation, we catch a glimpse of what-was-but-never-truly-was, because the deconstructionist historian produces a double effigy, one that preserves the seeming unity of the supposed expression of the past, and another which displays the multilayered-ness thereof:

Les mouches bourdonnaient sur ce ventre putride,
D’où sortaient de noirs bataillons
De larves, qui coulaient comme un épais liquide
Le long de ces vivants haillons.

Tout cela descendait, montait comme une vague
Ou s’élançait en pétillant;
On eût dit que le corps, enflé d’un souffle vague,
Vivait en se multipliant.

To be continued.

The Wicked Fairy at the Manger, a strategic mistake


Last night the church of All Souls Langham Place came alive with the students’ Christmas dinner. One highlight was Hugh Palmer, the rector, who dressed up as Father Christmas and told a poem – rather subversively, I should think, overturning the traditional roles of patron-client involved in dealings with the big fat man – outlining the true meaning of Christmas. The poem was published by U.A. Fanthorpe in 2002 and follows in the footsteps of C.S.Lewis’ Screwtape Letters and Shane Tharp’s Christmas in Hell, which I will reblog here as we come closer to Christmas Eve.

The Wicked Fairy at the Manger

My gift for the child:
No wife, kids, home;
No money sense. Unemployable.
Friends, yes. But the wrong sort –
The workshy, women, wogs,
Petty infringers of the law, persons
With notifiable diseases,
Poll tax collectors, tarts;
The bottom rung.
His end?
I think we’ll make it
Public, prolonged, painful.
Right, said the baby. That was roughly
What we had in mind.


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