Enigma no more: Cool new palaeography resource


It was about time this came to our rescue, though one must lament the lack of abbreviation support.

Originally posted on In Thirteenth Century England:

Despite the fact that this sounds like a publicity blurb, I’m not involved in any way in this – absolutely no kickbacks have changed hands. (Can a kick change hands? Mixed metaphor? Anyway, I digress.)

The main point is, the interwebs have been lighting up with this new resource, which I am linking here for the benefit of those not on (or in contact with those on) any sermon studies newsfeeds which is where the sh**has really been going down. I’m talking about ‘Enigma’ – a tool which helps you to identify uncertain words in medieval Latin palaeography. The truly wondrous thing about it is that it permits wild card searching for unknown / uncertain letter forms, including the first letter/s, making it more functional than a conventional palaeography dictionary for those tricky cases.


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Dante in Inferno: the devil is in the detail (of perspective)

One of my favourite parts of Dante’s Commedia is the end of Inferno, canto 34. Having surveyed all nine circles, the two poets reached the abode of Lucifer, lo ’mperador del doloroso regno. They went down Satan’s fur and out of Hell, but, as Dante soon learned, they crossed the centre of the Earth and experienced a reversal in gravity, causing Satan to appear upside down.

Medieval iconoography found a nice way to deal with this in the famous Yates Thompson manuscript 36The verticality of the egress (di vello in vello giù discese poscia [...] e aggrappossi al pel com’om che sale) is rendered horizontally, yet the passage of time is clearly visible in the posture of Satan, before and after, the descent, giving a sense of movement that creates unexpected realism on the manuscript leaf.

British Library caption: Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil witnessing the gigantic figure of Dis, with his three mouths biting on the sinners Cassius, Judas, and Brutus, and Dante and Virgil emerging from the Inferno, in illustration of Canto XXXIV in the Inferno, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 62v.

Dante was puzzled, thinking that they had made a volte-face and returned to Hell. The narrative representation of this infernal topography is something I always come back to in awe and fascination. In Henry Cary’s translation: (emphasis is mine)

Turn’d round his head where his feet stood before,
And grappled at the fell as one who mounts;
That into Hell methought we turn’d again.
“Expect that by such stairs as these,” thus spake
The teacher, panting like a man forespent,
“We must depart from evil so extreme:”
Then at a rocky opening issued forth,
And placed me on the brink to sit, next join’d
With wary step my side. I raised mine eyes,
Believing that I Lucifer should see
Where he was lately left, but saw him now
With legs help upward. Let the grosser sort,
Who see not what the point was I had past, 
Bethink them if sore toil oppress’d me then.
“Arise,” my master cried, “upon thy feet.
The way is long, and much uncouth the road;
And now within one hour and a half of noon
The sun returns.” It was no palace-hall
Lofty and luminous wherein we stood,
But natural dungeon where ill-footing was
And scant supply of light. “Ere from the abyss
I separate,” thus when risen I began:
“My guide! vouchsafe few words to set me free
From error’s thraldom. Where is now the ice?
How standeth he in posture thus reversed?
And how from eve to morn in space so brief
Hath the sun made his transit?” He in few
Thus answering spake: “Thou deemest thou art still 
On the other side the centre, where I grasp’d
The abhorred worm that boreth through the world.
Thou wast on the other side, so long as I
Descended; when I turn’d, thou didst o’erpass
That point, to which from every part is dragg’d
All heavy substance. Thou art now arrived
Under the hemisphere opposed to that,
Which the great continent doth overspread,
And underneath whose canopy expired
The Man, that was born sinless and so lived. 
Thy feet are planted on the smallest sphere,
Whose other aspect is Judecca. Morn
Here rises, when there evening sets: and he,
Whose shaggy pile we scaled, yet standeth fix’d,
As at the first. On this part he fell down
From Heaven; and th’ earth here prominent before,
Through fear of him did veil her with the sea,
And to our hemisphere retired. Perchance,
To shun him, was the vacant space left here,
By what of firm land on this side appears,
That sprang aloof.”

John Foxe and King John

King John is a figure that has often been used and abused, in literature, Reformation historiography, even art. My doctoral work on an important chronicle from his reign (the Crowland Chronicle, for those who have been coming to this blog in the past) is almost finished, but I have now discovered that the famous John Foxe, the 16th-century author of the Acts and Monuments, popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, had used parts of the Crowland Chronicle in his discussion of King John.

The chronicler from Crowland abbey, writing in the early thirteenth century, gave an assessment of John’s reign, now famous with all students of Angevin history:

Ibi igitur morbo invalescente, diem clausit extremum xiiii. kalendas Novembris postquam regnaverat annis xvii. mensibus v. diebus iiii: princeps quidem magnus, sed minus felix, et cum Mario fortunam utramque expertus: munificus et liberalis in exteros, sed suorum depredator, plus in alienis quam in suis confidens, unde et a suis ante finem derelictus est, et in fine modicum luctus.

In Antonia Gransden’s translation:

He was indeed a great prince, but rather an unhappy one, and, like Marius, experienced both good and bad fortune. He was munificent and generous to foreigners but a robber of his own people. He confided more in foreigners than in his subjects. And therefore he was deserted by his people before the end and was only moderately happy at the last. Historical Writing in England (London, 1974), 343

The end of Foxe’s account of the reign of king John (I, 14) weaves two threads: John’s legendary poisoning by a monk of Swineshead Abbey in 1216 and the king’s alleged contempt for the Catholic Mass, which must have charmed Foxe more than anything else. He wrote (emphasis mine):

And in the same selfe yeare, as kyng Iohn was come to Swinested Abbey, not farre from Lincolne, he rested there two dayes, where as most writers testifie þt he was most trayterously poisoned, by a Monke of that Abbey, of the sect of Sisteanes, or sainct Bernardes brethren called Simon of Swinsted. And concerning his noble personage, this witnesse geueth Roger Houeden therein: princeps quidem magnus erat sed minus felix: atque vt Marius vtramquè fortunam expertus. doubtles (saieth he) kyng Iohn was a mighty Prince, but not so fortunate as many were. Not altogether vnlike to Marius the noble Romaine, he tasted Fortune bothe waies, much in mercy, in warres, sometime he wonne, sometime again he lost. Munificus ac liberalis in exteros fuit, sed proditionis causa suorū depredator, plus aduenis quam suis confidens. He was also very bounteous and liberall vnto straungers, but to his owne people, for theyr daily treasons sake he was a great oppressour, so that he trusted more to foreiners then to thē.


Among other diuers and sondry conditions, belonging to this king, one there was, whiche is not in him to be reprehended, but commēded rather, for that being farre from the superstition which kynges at that time were commonly subiect vnto, regarded not the popish Masse, as in certain Chronicles writing of him may bee collected: for so I find testified of hym by Math. Parisiensis, that the king vppon a time in hys hunting, commyng where a very fat stag was cut vp and opened (or how the hunters terme it, I cannot tell) the king beholding the fatnes and the liking of the stagge: see sayeth he, how easily and happely he hath liued, and yet for all that he neuer heard any Masse.


Foxe was wrong to attribute the pronouncements on John to Roger of Howden (Roger wrote a Chronicle but was dead by 1202). Yet, that was understandable, as Foxe found the annal in a work which had relied on Howden’s Chronicle up to a point and established a certain affiliation to the latter. On the other hand, it is rather puzzling that Foxe kept the attribution to Howden when the work from which he worked was known to his contemporaries (Leland and others) as the Memoriale of Walter of Coventry.


David Eldridge’s ‘Holy Warriors’. A review

Screen Shot 2014-08-12 at 10.27.17

I recently went to see David Eldridge’s latest play ‘Holy Warriors’ at the Globe with the medievalist’s usual hopes and fears, vacillating between the exultant ‘how cool, the third crusade comes alive again!’ and the suspicious ‘these post-moderns are gonna massacre (Acre-style) history again!’. Having read no reviews before the performance, I let myself be taken in by a very unexpected narrative of universality, circularity and political moralism, driven by a two-speed plot.

The first half of the play reads like simple-English Wikipedia. A in media res kick-off does not preclude the monotony of the usual crusade narrative, rendered in extreme yet disproportionate historical accuracy, with too much detail and facile character sketches. Saladin captures Jerusalem, Pope calls for a Crusade, kings Richard of England and Philip of France manage to join forces against their common enemy in the East despite deep-seated contentions, they make battle, Richard returns from the East and dies a historically-accurate death. It all seems like medieval annals incarnate on stage, rushed, undigested, impetuous yet lacking depth. When all seems lost (to me at least), the play shifts gear and lands Richard in Purgatory, while his shadowy mother puts on a Vergilian ‘tunic’ and takes up the task of showing her dead son the future of the Holy Land down to the modern period. End of the first part – the curtain falls, only there are no curtains at the Globe, so we are left with a sense of wonder as to where this is going.

Photo: Alastair Muir of The Telegraph

The second half deconstructs the Middle-Eastern conflict, playing on allegory, moral intent and a sense of ‘what happened then is still happening now’, bringing a millennium of western intervention in the Holy Land (which surreptitiously becomes a disenchanted ‘Middle East’ on stage) into a bubble of ambiguity and cross-pressures. The usual suspects are there: Napoleon, Lawrence of Arabia, Blair, Bush and a medley of soldiers of all flags. This second half does not rush through, but seems to put on a didactic tone, insisting with each scene that all is semper eadem. 

The play does not lack in humour. How could it at the Globe anyway? Yet the humour has the hallmarks of the medieval mystery play, where the Anglo-French squabbles and a ridiculous Pope who dies upon learning of the fall of Jerusalem are sure to prompt some bursts of cachinnation from the audience. After a furious charge through history, the observant King Richard asks her motherly guide: ‘What is the Soviet Union?’, bordering on the absurd.

The music is splendid, but only in the first part. Plainchant joins Arabic monody to spectacular effect, whereas a constant effusion of frankincense from two suspended burners cocoons the stage from the modernity of its surroundings. The spell vanishes like smoke in the second part as period music dissolves into cacophonies of electric guitar riffs and grenade-like explosions.

This is a play that depends heavily on its historical background, whether medieval, modern or contemporary. History, not actors, take central stage, and this may be an inconvenience to many who are not well-versed in either crusade history or the Middle-Eastern conflict. Yet, like a good Aesopian fable, it rubs a clear lesson in: while we may learn our past, we rarely learn from it.

You don’t speak (Old) French? Get out of my courtroom!

Studying medieval cultures and societies is a hushed business, as everything we have to guide our thoughts and our imaginations is visual, whether written, pictorial, epigraphical, etc. The only noise the medievalist can hear is that of her or his own exerted faculties, harassing the evidence from all sides. The subject of language culture, however, has always engaged my haunted imagination. How did they speak back then? Who spoke what, with whom and on what occasion? Fortunately, all is not lost, and scholars have been able to recover some of that noisy world prior to the wire recorder and MP3 encoding. Although we may not be able to get into the fray of medieval spoken language (Latin, vernacular, for Western Christendom), we may still tell a meaningful, evidence-based story of how languages evolved, of what language was spoken along which lines in roughly what context. Michael Clanchy’s book From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307  (medievalists will now say, Oh boy, not him again) is the Starship Enterprise of scholarship on medieval language cultures, offering some significant and powerful answers to many of our questions about spoken and written language in Medieval England. His is the kind of work that a student of medieval England humbly goes back to every time new evidence breaks the floodgates of hypothesis and speculation.

Here’s how I ended up with Clanchy again today. I was reading this morning an interesting account of a protracted legal dispute between two medieval English monasteries over possession of marshland. Some of you may have guessed, it’s the famous Crowland-Spalding case (nothing to do with basketballs, my less medieval-minded reader!). In case you don’t know, the abbeys of Crowland and Spalding are in Holland, Lincolnshire, just north of Peterborough, both Benedictine, both fairly powerful in the Fenland area. The case is fascinating and shows, better than any other bit of evidence, the kind of legal hard-work that preserving your land (or fighting over your neighbour’s) required. The dispute began in the late 1180s and was only concluded in the early 1200s, during which time the abbot of Crowland (the narrative limelight is on him) explored all possible judicial avenues to secure his (legitimate) claim. It’s interesting to see the amount of seeking, pleading, defending, demonstrating that went into the early career of this abbot of Crowland – none other than my doctoral hero Henry of Longchamp, the brother of William, chancellor of England; if you read my blog every so often, you will have heard about good old father Henry.

While perusing this narrative, my attention was drawn to a detail which seems to have escaped Clanchy’s clinching scholarly fist. In the midst of this now-you-can-have-the-land-now-you-can’t, the abbot of Crowland had another go at claiming seisin (possession) of the marsh and initiated an inquiry in 1191. It was made before a county court, for which knights were needed to stand as jurors. Three were empanelled, but it soon turned out that they were a fraud, having been paid by Spalding to play the knightly part to tip the scales in its favour. We don’t know exactly how they were exposed, but the story goes on to say that two of them had not been knighted (literally girded with a sword, as this was the main ritual for knighting in that period), whereas the third – and here’s the chantilly in your lattè – could not speak French (Gallice loqui non noverat)There is a clear implication here that a knight had to speak French, but what about court language? Paul Brand has argued that in the second half of the 13th century, French was the language used in pleading in royal, county and city courts as well as the language of legal instruction. The language of pleading, yes, and that implies the overall language of court, spoken by those who were not necessarily pleading, just like our juror knight wannabe. The strongest evidence for this is the amount of French legal words that were absorbed into Anglo-Latin over the centuries, to the effect that a great deal -if not most- of common law terms have a French root.

If that was indeed the case, then one needs asking what the sham knight was hoping to achieve by entering a French-speaking court equipped like a modern average Englishman, that is with broken or zero French. Was he hoping that silence would get him through the proceedings or was the tension between French and English languages (as the assumption is that the impersonator was a low-born Englishman) spoken in the county court more pronounced than what scholars have previously assumed? In which case, our ‘knight’ would have had some chances of success, perhaps getting away with a few technical French words learned on the spot.

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 9.48.35from the Second Continuation of the Historia Croylandensis, Rerum Anglicarum scriptorum veterum tom. I. Quorum Ingulfus nunc primum integer, cæteri nunc primum prodeunt., ed. W. Fulman (Oxford, 1684), 458


Money and the pope’s ears

Some of the best puns come from medieval writers. Some of the most expected puns come from medieval chroniclers, like this one, drawn from the chronicle I’m editing:

“Instabat igitur constanter dictus Falcasius et perseveranter prece et pretio aures pulsare apostolicas usque ad impetrationem litterarum a sede apostolica domino regi Anglie destinandarum”

Therefore, the said Faulkes de Breauté constantly and persistently, through supplications and money-gifts, strove to obtain letters from the pope addressed to the lord king of England”

Faulkes de Breauté was an English baron of Norman descent who had rebelled against king Henry III, kidnapped one of the royal justices, threw himself into Bedford Castle, was subsequently besieged, defeated, exiled and disgraced. He then tried to explain himself to the pope and to the king. That’s when the cited text comes in. 

Literally, Faulkes sought to make himself heard by pope Honorius III. The expression here aures apostolicas pulsare – which seems to occur only in this text – means to ‘beat the apostolic ears’, to hit them hard, why not, even to make them pulsate (laterally, in the Lateran palace, I should say).

For the pope to yield to Faulkes’ plea, his ears needed to ring with the sound of coins (pretium) and supplications (preces). But coins, most of all.

The emperor that had been emperor before he was crowned emperor: Otto IV and Ralph of Coggeshall

I am used to medieval chroniclers giving me a treat every time I read their works. Ralph of Coggeshal is no exception. He was a Cisterician monk writing at the abbey of Coggeshall in Essex in the 1220s. He is famous for his account of John’s reign and many different bits and pieces that serve the expositional interests of English medievalists. I am interested in Ralph because his work is very similar to that I am doing my doctoral work on, the Crowland Chronicle. But back to Ralph.

His chronicle has been titled ‘Chronicon Anglicanum’, the English Chronicle and records all sorts of events under discrete annal headings (in 1066 AD this happened, in 1150 AD this, etc, etc). When he gets to 1209, he writes that “Henry duke of Saxony, brother of emperor Otto (the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV), came to England.’ Then he mentions that clouds fought with the sun for a long time in February and then comes back to Otto IV, only to say that he was crowned emperor by pope Innocent III that very year.

How exciting is that? Some scholars have raised serious doubts about the narratological value of medieval annalistic chronicles (Hayden White, high five!), and I think this is the sort of thing they might have had in mind. There is no conceivable narrative sequence (let alone a plot) that may be discerned in this annal. This naturally raises the question whether the annal was designed as we now have it in Ralph’s autograph manuscript or whether Ralph was planning to redraft it.

Anyhow, this is the sort of thing a student of historiography does when confronted with annals and their authors. And Ralph is not alone in this. Sometimes, however, chroniclers who enjoy recording dry strings of disconnected events can turn the tide on annalistic narrativity, as my Crowland chronicler did on many occasions. But about this anon.


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