‘Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination’ at the British Library

I went round this exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the Royal collection today. Any of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I got a bit distracted by finding birds in the margins. I found 17 species in total*, which is pretty good. And I mainly started looking for them because it was fun, but I do think it’s interesting that birds of clearly identifiable species seem to outnumber the invented, whimsical ones.

Admittedly, quite a few of the species were found on one particular page that seemed to have been illuminated by a genuine enthusiast, a medieval birder. Not only did it have a crane, a jay, a green woodpecker and a kingfisher, which are all striking birds, and the most unexpected bird of the lot, a seagull; it also had a pair of bullfinches. The brightly coloured male is an obvious choice to liven up a margin, but including the female seems like the work of someone who actually liked birds.

The exhibition is certainly worth a visit, even for non-birders, although personally I think I would have enjoyed it more with half the number of exhibits (as long as they didn’t discard any good birds, obviously). I just found that by the end I was losing concentration a bit.

*Great tit, chaffinch, goldfinch, robin, jay, crane, peacock, green woodpecker, kingfisher, bullfinch, common gull, pheasant, hooded crow, redpoll, magpie, hoopoe and blackcap.

‘Treasures of Heaven’ at the British Museum

So I went along to see the BM’s exhibition of medieval reliquaries. Which was a pretty amazing display of medieval craftsmanship: rock crystal, enamel, ivory, glass, and lots and lots of gold.

I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have, though, because by the time I got there I had a bit of a headache. And it really didn’t help to be peering at lots of spotlit, shiny gold, trying to make out all the exquisitely worked detail. When I came out I had to take shelter in a dark quiet pub and nurse a pint of orange and soda for a bit.

I actually think gold is a slightly unrewarding material for this kind of thing. The overall effect is spectacular; particularly, presumably, in a dark church lit only by candles: bright, shiny, warm, glowing. But the very shininess makes it much harder to pick out the fine details of the craftsmanship; it was more rewarding, I think, looking at the fine work in materials like ivory and alabaster.

Apart from the sheer quality of the exhibits, it was anthropologically interesting. The scale is staggering, apart from anything else; there was apparently one church [I think somewhere in central Europe, from memory] which had 19,000 relics. It must have been a huge industry; not just the relics themselves, but the reliquaries, altars, altarpieces. And that was just the start of it. All that religious paraphernalia — the chalices and patens and thuribles — the ecclesiastical robes, the figures of saints, the murals, the stained glass windows; the whole business must have provided employment for thousands and thousands of workers. Goldsmiths, carpenters, stonemasons, painters, embroiderers, all employed primarily to produce religious objects, either for the church or for private devotion. The Reformation must have been economically catastrophic for them: it was effectively a whole economic sector disappearing.

The other striking thing, and I know it’s not exactly an original observation, is how ludicrous the relics often are. The foreskin and umbilical cords of Christ probably win the prize in that respect, although all the other relics directly associated with Christ also tend to strain credulity: fragments of his manger, bits of True Cross, thorns from the crown, the spear that pierced his side, the sweat band, the magic sponge, all of which were claimed as relics. If you don’t believe in miracles, it’s very difficult to get into the mindset of a society that sees them everywhere; but even so, surely people must have been dubious about this stuff? Perhaps the idea was that the genuineness of the prayer was more important than the genuineness of the relic, although they certainly didn’t act that way.

Going to this exhibition soon after going to the Horniman Museum exhibition Bali: dancing for the gods, I was left thinking how ritually impoverished my own life is as a (somewhat culturally protestant) atheist. Apart from the occasional weddings and funerals, just about the only festival I regularly celebrate is Christmas — and that only consists of gift-giving and turkey. I don’t even usually do anything about Guy Fawkes Night or Halloween, let alone Easter or saints’ days or whatever. I can’t say I feel I’m missing out on an important part of life, but maybe I am. It’s hard to tell how often these events were genuinely spiritual in nature, and how much they were a kind of entertainment in a society without novels, TV, cinema and computer games to keep them amused.

» The images are all from the British Museum collection, because those are conveniently online, although the exhibition has many items borrowed from other institutions.

Top is the St Eustace Head Reliquary, German, ca. 1210.

Then a reliquary cross in cloisonné enamel and gold, Constantinople, early C11th. The Virgin is flanked by busts of St Basil and St Gregory Thaumaturgus.

The little bundle is a relic of St Benedict, one of over 30 relics in a single German portable altar from 1190-1200.

Last is the iron bell of St. Cuileáin in a copper alloy shrine, from Ireland, a C7th-C8th bell in a C12th shrine.

for reverence of his Sabot day

I downloaded a reader app for my iPhone and, browsing around Project Gutenberg for something public domain to read, I came across A Chronicle of London from 1089 to 1483, as transcribed and published by a couple of C19th antiquarians. There’s an awful lot of bureaucratic stuff about the mayor and sheriffs of London, and who’s in the Tower at the moment, which doesn’t have much interest for the casual reader. But there are enough little anecdotes like this one to hold the interest:

And in this yere, that is to seye the yere of our lord a mlcclviij, there fel a Jewe into a pryve at Teukesbury upon a Satirday, the whiche wolde nought suffre hym selfe to be drawe out of the preve that day for reverence of his Sabot day: and Sr. Richard of Clare, thanne erle of Gloucestre, herynge therof, wolde nought sufrre hym to be drawe out on the morwe after, that is to say the Soneday, for reverence of his holy day; and so the Jewe deyde in the preve.

This is in 1258, shortly after the death of Hugh of Lincoln and 30 years before England became the first country in Europe to expel its Jewish population.

The iPhone isn’t ideal for reading, but if you choose a fairly low-contrast combination of colours for the page and the text, it’s entirely manageable. I haven’t read anything very long yet, but if I was going on holiday I think I could do worse than take a dozen assorted books on my phone: a few Victorian novels, some poetry, who knows. Hell, if you’re willing to actually pay for the books, you can get ones which are still in copyright. The Chronicle actually works quite well because I can just dip into it from time to time and read a few pages without worrying about losing the thread.

‘Byzantium 330-1453’ at the Royal Academy

The latest blockbuster exhibition at the RA is Byzantium 330-1453. It’s a big show, but then it does survey a millennium’s worth of art from a big empire.

It’s odd; I think most people who have even a general interest in history and culture have some knowledge, however sketchy or inaccurate, of classical Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. But the thousand year-history of Byzantium is somehow not part of that, and I was very aware going around this exhibition of how little I knew. It makes you think that perhaps the Great Schism of 1054, which separated Catholic and Orthodox christianity and so in some sense split Europe into east and west, is the pivotal moment in the continent’s cultural history.  

[ Editorial aside: every time I start to say anything I find myself very aware of my ignorance. But even at the best of times I tend to hedge opinions around with qualifications, and for stylistic reasons there’s a limit to the amount of verbiage I can hang onto a sentence. So let me say up front: I don’t want you to think that I think I know what I’m talking about. I don’t. ]

Voltaire apparently described Byzantium as ‘A worthless repertory of declamations and miracles, a disgrace to the human mind’, and there seems to have been a general dismissal of Byzantine culture by a lot of western writers. I’m not sure the exotic and peculiar version in Yeats’s poems is actually any more flattering, either. Perhaps it’s because if you’re from the tradition that sees the Middle Ages as a regrettable regression between the classical civilisations and the Renaissance, Byzantium looks like a bit of a mistake: they started as Romans, spent a few centuries developing a medieval aesthetic and then stuck with that for the next 500 years until the Renaissance came along and moved art forward again.

Or at least, I imagine the ‘stuck in a rut’ theory is a horrible caricature, but there does seem to have been a somewhat rigid artistic culture. The exhibition leaflet explains that between 730 and 843, the Byzantines had an iconoclasm. Which firstly means, of course, that a lot of the early transitional art was destroyed.* But also, to quote the exhibition leaflet, ‘Following the failure of iconoclasm the Triumph of Orthodoxy was celebrated in pictures and with an explosion of artistic activity. … Orthodoxy was declared to be the use of icons; and icons declared the nature of Orthodoxy.’

Whether it’s because of the strong identification of a artistic tradition with a religious identity, or because the icons were seen primarily as devotional objects rather than artworks, to my untrained eye they all look very similar. And indeed if you see, say, C19th Russian icons, they still all look fairly similar. It’s like statues of Lenin in the USSR: originality really wasn’t the point. In fact, when it came to statues of Lenin, originality would probably have been actively suspicious; I don’t know if the same dynamic is at play with Byzantine icons.

Anyway, getting back on to more solid ground: you should go to see this exhibition because it has lots of nice stuff in it. Icons, of course, both painted and in the slightly ridiculous medium of micromosaic; lots of carved ivory; manuscripts, featuring all sorts of attractive scripts, mainly Greek but some Arabic, some Cyrillic and some completely mysterious; chalices and other items inlaid with precious stones and fabulous little enamel designs; jewellery, coins, ceramics and textiles. The first few rooms are chronological, but other rooms are arranged by theme: ecclesiastical objects, domestic objects, icons, the interaction between Byzantium and the West, the influence of Byzantium on nearby cultures and so on. It is, as I said, a big exhibition, and a lot of the items are small, finely worked objects that really deserve close examination, which is never easy in a busy gallery; I don’t think there’s any straightforward solution to that, though.

The exhibition website isn’t very comprehensive, although there’s an education guide in PDF form which has some nice pictures.

* incidentally, there’s a lot of discussion around at the moment of science vs. religion, and whether science is compatible with religion; meanwhile defenders of religion point to the great works of devotional art from the Hagia Sophia and El Greco to Bach. It’s worth pointing out that art and religion haven’t always had the easiest relationship either, which is why so many English churches are the proud owners of statues that have head their heads knocked off.

» the picture is taken from the website of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, although the work, a tiny 9 × 7.4 cm C14th icon of St Theodore Stratilates in mosaic, is in the RA exhibition.

Links

1000 AD survival tips

Kottke pointed out this thread, a discussion starting from this question:

I wanted to ask for survival tips in case I am unexpectedly transported to a random location in Europe (say for instance current France/Benelux/Germany) in the year 1000 AD (plus or minus 200 years). I assume that such transportation would leave me with what I am wearing, what I know, and nothing else. Any advice would help.

The discussion was picked up at kottke.org and Metafilter.

All those threads are deeply fascinating for what they say about people’s attitudes to the past (and indeed their historical knowledge or lack of it). Most of the responses seem to fall into one of two types; the ludicrously over-confidant: “With my crazy future knowledge verily I will become as a God! I will invent the steam engine! And antibiotics!” and the opposite: “Aargh! By local standards I will be ignorant, stupid and freaky and so I will be burnt as a witch/raped/murdered/die of exposure/murdered again! I won’t last a week!”

I obviously have too high a faith in human nature, because it seems to me that clearly the right thing to do is find the nearest settlement (probably not very far: Europe wasn’t as densely populated then, but most places would be under cultivation), act in as non-threatening a manner as possible, look willing to help in any way possible, and do a Blanche DuBois: rely upon the kindness of strangers.

You’d be unlikely to end up as anything more successful than a serf, and if you happened to turn up at a time of famine or war you’d almost certainly be fucked, but I still think it’s your best chance of survival. The Middle Ages were pretty brutal, but that doesn’t mean that everyone then was either a bumbling idiot or a psychopath.

» The illustration is from the Lindisfarne Gospels and so about 300 years too early for the question, but hey-ho.

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The Mabinogion trans. Sioned Davies

I didn’t do my normal thing of looking for appropriate reading materials before going on holiday — I mean, I’d already read How Green Was My Valley and Under Milk Wood, so there didn’t seem to be much point in looking for anything else.*

But when I was running out of reading matter and went to the bookshop in St David’s, I was half-looking for something Welsh and settled on the Mabinogion. I knew the name but nothing else about it; as it turns out, it’s not one work at all; it’s a selection of medieval Welsh stories from several manuscripts. Some of them form connected groups, but it was the C19th translator Lady Charlotte Guest who put this selection of stories together and gave them their usual title.

See

Many of them are set in the court of King Arthur, and the most conventional seemed just like the equivalent English stories. I’m open to persuasion that, as the translator’s introduction claims, there is some kind of distinctive Welsh character to them; but I can’t bring myself to care very deeply. I tend to find all those medieval romances kind of boring.

Some of the stories are more distinctive, though, and more interesting: most notably the ‘four branches of the Mabinogi’ from which the collection takes its title. I think with most Arthurian stories, even though they feature magic and strange creatures, they operate according to a narrative logic that seems familiar to us, whether because it was in some way the ancestor of the modern novel, or because of the regular bursts of of medieval revivalism that have revisited the material. With the ‘four branches’ that doesn’t seem true: they are odder and untidier. It’s hard to explain; you might have to read them if you’re curious.

They reminded me slightly of the Haida stories translated by Robert Bringhurst, so I wonder if it’s a property of oral storytelling that we just get glimpses of in the remnants of oral culture that survive here and there in manuscript form. Partially perhaps it’s an episodic form: the story teller pulls together various episodes and mini-stories, and the emphasis is different every time, without perhaps the need to tidy it into a neat overall narrative. Or maybe there’s a kind of dynamic that’s created when you’re telling stories to people who already know them. 

This is apparently a very new translation, only in the shops a week or two before I bought it. I can’t possibly assess it as a translation, since I don’t know any Welsh and haven’t read any other editions, but I found it readable and the introduction and notes were helpful, so I give it a thumbs up.

*No, not really. It just didn’t occur to me to think about it until too late, for some reason. Incidentally, How Green Was My Valley was, in a slightly cheesy way, a much better book than I was expecting. I think I ended up leaving my copy in Tokyo, though.

The picture, incidentally, is a bit of cosplay from a fan of the Korean MMORPG called Mabinogi.

Links

Cranach at the Royal Academy

Now this is my kind of exhibition. I don’t what it is I find so appealing about the Northern Renaissance; obviously, artists like Dürer, Van Eyck and Breugel are among the all-time greats of European art, but I love it all: van der Weyden, Memling, Bosch, Holbein, and indeed the star of this show, Lucas Cranach the Elder.

I like the Italian stuff as well, but there’s something about these northern painters I can’t get enough of. Maybe, as someone with a soft spot for the medieval, it’s because the continuity with the medieval is in some ways more obvious in the north. Maybe it’s because I am myself northern European; maybe there really is a northern sensibility — a gothic sensibility, if you like — which runs a great deal deeper than one might imagine. Or not.

portrait of a Saxon Princess, Lucas Cranach the Elder

Whatever the reason for them, it’s amazing how much difference these preferences can make. The other day I went up to see the Cranach, but the ‘From Russia‘ exhibition was still running at the Royal Academy and the queues were horrendous, so I popped in to the Pompeo Batoni at the National instead. Batoni was an C18th Italian artist who did history paintings and portraits, many of them English aristos doing the Grand Tour. I didn’t bother to blog about it because I just found it so boring. In the Cranach, on the other hand, I liked every single work, even the ones were it didn’t seem like he was really trying.

And there are a few like that; apparently he was famous at the time as a quick man with a brush, the person to go to if you’d just built a new castle and needed a dozen paintings on assorted themes to brighten up the place. He had a big workshop and churned out lots and lots of work, including many repetitions of the same themes. Compare, for example, these portraits of Martin Luther, all in different galleries: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Cranach was a friend of Luther’s, and as well as portraits of Luther he painted biblical scenes illustrating Protestant themes, illustrations for Luther’s German translation of the bible, and other Protestant propaganda material; yet that didn’t stop him taking commissions for prominent Catholics. There was a marvellous portrait of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg who was working on a Catholic version of the bible in German, painted as St Jerome, the man who translated the bible into Latin. He’s sitting in his suitably German-looking study, wearing his red cardinal’s robes, surrounded by animals, including a lion, a parrot, a squirrel and a family of pheasants.

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Elder

And I don’t suppose Luther would have approved of the sexy pictures of naked, pot-bellied, weaselly-faced blonde girls, who all look the same whether they are supposed to be Lucretia, Eve or Venus. One of these features on the posters for the exhibition, and the National managed to gain a bit of free publicity when it was initially rejected by London Underground as being too racy for them.

As you can tell, I give the show a big thumbs-up. I just don’t understand why it should be so much less popular than ‘From Russia’. It’s just as well it was, though, because these are the kind of paintings you want to get right up to, and take in the details.

» The RA’s exhibition website is pretty rubbish, as usual. Both the paintings above featured in the exhibition but I got the images from Wikimedia Commons. The portrait of a Saxon princess (they know she’s a princess by what she’s wearing, but don’t know which one) is from the National Gallery in Washington. Adam and Eve are in the Courtauld in London.

More medievalish London

In my last Thames Path post, I commented that London’s medieval history is rarely visible except in the shape of a few street names. Which reminded me of something. When the Queen Mother (gbh) died in 2002, her coffin was laid in state in Westminster Hall for people to go and pay their respects. I was going to meet some friends for lunch, and when I arrived at London Bridge, I was startled to find myself at the end of the queue, which started in Westminster, went over the river, and ran all the way along the south bank. There was something about that moment that struck me as weirdly medieval; not just the fact that thousands of people were queuing to view the coffin of a dead royal, but the idea of a queue stretching from Westminster Abbey to Southwark Cathedral.

I know some people who think that the ceremony surrounding the Royal Family — the gold and ermine and glittery carriages — is the best reason for having them. And I can see the argument; it adds a bit of colour and texture to British life which is broadly harmless.

But it makes me twitchy. As long as the royals confine their activities to opening museums, launching ships, inspecting troops and so on, they don’t bother me at all. But all that pomp brings out the Oliver Cromwell in me. The symbolism of it all, of crowns and sceptres and thrones, of aristocrats in red robes and bishops in big hats is, well, medieval. In a bad way. And I know that very few people would admit to taking that symbolism seriously — it’s just a historical relic, right? — but it must surely have a powerful subconscious impact.

Though having said that, the massed pipes and drums of the Scottish and Irish regiments playing appropriately dirge-like music at the Queen Mother’s funeral were just fabulous.

» The photo is of the waxwork in Madame Tussauds. ‘The Queen Mother (Gawd bless’er)’ was posted to Flickr by xrrr and is used under a CC by-cc-sa licence.

The Thames path, London Bridge to Westminster

A fairly short chunk of the path; I was intending to go a bit further, but the sun went in and I wasn’t really enjoying it much so I hopped on the tube at Westminster. Still, if you use one of the traditional definitions of a city—a town with a cathedral—this section includes the three medieval cities at the centre of London; it starts by Southwark Cathedral, goes past St Paul’s and ends at Westminster Abbey.

Just to explain that, because I guess not everyone knows the history of London: the royal court and the government was based at Westminster, separated by about a kilometere of fields from London, the mercantile and legal centre where all the law courts and guilds were based. The dynamic between the two is quite interesting, I think: London had a lot of legal autonomy (and indeed money) so even in the days of apparently absolute monarchs the balance of power was less clear cut than you might think. To this day when the Queen goes to St Paul’s for some kind of ceremonial function, her coach stops at the boundaries of the City of London and she asks permission to enter. As a South Londoner it pains me to say it, but Southwark wasn’t really much more than the overflow from London over London Bridge, although because of some kind of legal quirk that meant it wasn’t under the jurisdiction of London it became the centre for bear pits, whorehouses, theatres and similarly disreputable trades. Which is why The Globe was there.

bridges

That distinction between the mercantile City of London and Westminster as the seat of government has persisted, of course: we even still refer to ‘The City’ as shorthand for the banking and financial services sector and ‘Westminster’ as shorthand for parliament and government. I find these echoes of the longer history of London interesting because so little physically remains. The Great Fire of 1666 really did burn down nearly the entirety of medieval London. Much of it would no doubt have been knocked down anyway, whether by the Luftwaffe, town planners or commercial developers; but even things like the churches, which might normally offer that kind of continuity, were lost. And most of the Palace of Westminster burnt down in the C19th as well, so that was another major medieval building lost. There are still a few left: Westminster Abbey, Southwark Cathedral, the Tower of London, the Guildhall. But there’s no part of London you can visit and feel you’re in contact with what the city was like. The oldest part of the city is a business district, so it’s all office buildings. All that’s left is the street names: Old Jewry, Cripplegate, Milk Street, London Wall, Blackfriars, Hosier Lane, Carmelite Street.

What’s amazing is that London and Westminster remained separate up until about the mid C18th. So it took about 700 years for London to spread the one kilometre westwards to reach Westminster; but in the next 150 years it spread something like 10 km in all directions.

St Paul's from the path

Anyway, you may be wondering why I’m wittering on about the history of London instead of talking about the actual walk. It’s because I didn’t find it very interesting. I decided to walk the north bank because I more often go along the southern side, because of Tate Modern, the South Bank Centre and so on. There quite a few theoretically interesting things to look at: war memorials, the Millennium Bridge, Cleopatra’s Needle, a glimpse of St Paul’s and a couple of the Christopher Wren city churches, as well as views of Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the South Bank Centre, the London Eye, the Oxo tower. And just at the end, Big Ben and Portcullis House. But it’s all very familiar; and the path goes past the City and the West End without actually having much contact with them.

It doesn’t help that if you’re walking the north bank in winter, the light is coming from over the river all the time. So everything on the other side of the river was backlit and dificult to photograph; and I really need a wider-angle lens to take pictures of buildings near me.

» Once again I’ve added the pictures to my Thames Path set on Flickr; these ones are tagged with thamespath3.

Medieval ivory at the Courtauld

The Courtauld Gallery currently has a small but perfectly formed exhibition of medieval ivories.

I do love me some medieval art. And I can really see why someone would collect ivories: they are small but full of character, and I imagine they are beautifully tactile although obviously I didn’t get my hands on the ones in the exhibition.

medieval ivory head

It’s curious to think, as well, of the trade that must have been involved to get the ivory from Africa to Paris, which was the centre of ivory carving.

I wasn’t taking any notes in the exhibition so I can’t tell you anything about this little head. I remember it was only a few centimetres tall; I think it may be a memento mori bead: the other side carved in the form of worm-eaten skull.

The V&A online

The V&A seems to have put lots more of their stuff online since I last looked, and it’s all searchable. I wondered if there was a photo of the terracotta Virgin Mary and Child I wrote a poem about a few years ago, but it seems not. Lots of other good stuff though, like this C15th English alabaster carving of Saint Michael Attacking the Dragon and Weighing a Soul that was lucky enough to survive the vandalism of the Reformation.

Woolf on Chaucer (again)

Because it’s been bugging me ever since I read the essay Aruna told me about.

This example, for me, sums up what’s wrong with Woolf’s approach to Chaucer:

“But there is another and more important reason for the surprising brightness, the still effective merriment of the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer was a poet; but he never flinched from the life that was being lived at the moment before his eyes. A farmyard, with its straw, its dung, its cocks and its hens, is not (we have come to think) a poetic subject; poets seem either to rule out the farmyard entirely or to require that it shall be a farmyard in Thessaly and its pigs of mythological origin. But Chaucer says outright:

Three large sowes hadde she, and namo,
Three kyn, and eek a sheep that highte Malle;

or again,

A yard she hadde, enclosed al aboute
With stikkes, and a drye ditch with-oute.”

Now both of those quotes are from the beginning of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. But the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is not the everyday story of farmyard folk, it’s a sophisticated piece of literary parody. It’s a fable told in the language of a medieval romance. The chickens are described in terms that would be more suited to Lancelot and Guinevere:

“His coomb was redder than the fyn coral,
And batailled, as it were a castel wal.
His byle was blak, and as the jeet it shoon,
Lyk asure were hise legges and his toon,
His nayles whiter than the lylye flour,
And lyk the burned gold was his colour.
This gentil cok hadde in his governaunce
Sevene hennes, for to doon al his plesaunce,
Whiche were hise sustres and his paramours,
And wonder lyk to hym as of colours;
Of whiche the faireste hewed on hir throte
Was cleped faire damoysele Pertelote.
Curteys she was, discreet, and debonaire
And compaignable, and bar hyrself so faire
Syn thilke day that she was seven nyght oold,
That trewely she hath the herte in hoold
Of Chauntecleer loken in every lith.”

It’s as inappropriate as a Beatrix Potter story retold as a gumshoe thriller. But that’s the point – it’s a joke. Chaucer describes Chaunticleer as though he were a great knight (comparing him to jet and coral and castle walls), and applies classic courtly love vocabulary to Pertelote (fairest, damsel, courteous, debonaire); but at the same time he reminds us that these are chickens –

“This gentle cock had under his rule seven hens, to provide all his delight, which were his sisters and his concubines”

or

“Courteous she was, discreet and gracious, and companionable, and bore herself so beautifully since that day she was seven nights old…”

Later on the chickens have arguments about dreams, prophecy and medicine, with reference to, amongst other things, Cato, Cenwulf, Scipio, the Book of Daniel, Croesus, the medieval theories of the bodily humours and astrology. In other words, all the panoply of medieval scholasticism; and again, putting it all into the beaks of chickens is a literary joke.

The bulk of the story is told at the level of the chickens – they are full characters in their own little world, as is normal in fables. But Chaucer frames the whole story with bits of description at the human level, in order to emphasise the joke by effectively pulling the camera out to reveal that these courtly lovers and scholars are indeed just chickens in the coop of an aging peasant woman. The first part of that framing, at the very beginning, is where Woolf gets her quote about the sheep called Malle. There’s another similar passage at the end where the fox has just caught Chanticleer and run off with him:

“This sely wydwe, and eek hir doghtres two,
Herden thise hennes crie, and maken wo,
And out at dores stirten they anon,
And seyn the fox toward the grove gon,
And bar upon his bak the cok away;
And cryden, “Out! Harrow and weylaway!
Ha! ha! The fox!” and after hym they ran,
And eek with staves many another man,
Ran Colle, oure dogge, and Talbot, and Gerland,
And Malkyn with a dystaf in hir hand,
Ran cow and calf, and eek the verray hogges,
So fered they fered for berkyng of the dogges,
And shoutyng of the men and wommen eeke,
They ronne so, hem thoughte hir herte breeke;
They yolleden as feends doon in helle,
The dokes cryden as men wolde hem quelle,
The gees for feere flowen over the trees,
Out of the hyve cam the swarm of bees,
So hydous was the noyse, a! benedicitee!
Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meynee
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shille,
Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille,
As thilke day was maad upon the fox.
Of bras they broghten bemes and of box,
Of horn, of boon, in whiche they blewe and powped,
And therwithal they skriked and they howped,
It seemed as that hevene sholde falle!”

The lines quoted by Woolf are, in fact, comic counterpoint to the rest of the Tale. They’re not even representative of the poem they’re in, let alone Chaucer as a whole. In giving the name of the sheep, Chaucer was being deliberately banal for comic effect, because farmyards were no more regarded as a ‘poetic subject’ in the C14th than when Woolf was writing. More typical of the period would be Chaucer’s other great work (other than the Canterbury Tales, that is) – ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, a long chivalric poem about love and honour set in the Trojan War.

So how did Woolf misread the NPT so badly? Because, I would suggest, she had a completely narrow view of the Middle Ages. She seems to have completely bought into the Pre-Raphaelite/William Morris/Merrie England view of the period, which was always somewhere between a romanticisation and an outright lie. Because she has this idea that the period was one of simplicity and directness, she only sees half of what’s going on. Chaucer was, often, a very direct writer – but he could also be ironic, indirect, and nuanced. Much like Shakespeare, who sometimes did metaphysical speculation and sometimes did knob jokes.

  • Post Category:Culture

Beowulf as a chiefdom-based society

I’m just reading Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright, a book which argues that there is in fact a good theoretical basis (from game-theory) for seeing the development of human societies as directional. I believe the book later goes onto biological systems as well, but I haven’t got to that bit. Anyway, it got me thinking about Beowulf again.

Beowulf, and other A-S poetry, always read as curiously foreign. Obviously, even the date of the manuscript – C11th – *is* a very distant and foreign culture, and if you accept the C8th date for the poem, that pushes it back further. The action of the poem is dateable to around 516 (the death of Hygelac), although assuming much continuity between the events and the writing of the poem, let alone in its surviving copy, seems unwise.

Still, even given the distance between the poem and ourselves, it always seems surprisingly foreign; much more so than Roman literature, and more so, or at least very differently so, than later medieval literature as well. The insight I may or may not have gained from the Wright book is that part of that difference is because of a major shift in the very structure of the society. He traces out a sequence of societal structures, apparently as used by archeologists (from memory): family groups -> Big Man societies (i.e. a village or two loosely organised around a charismatic leader) -> chiefdoms (groups of villages lead by a powerfully authoritarian leader who often claims divine authority) -> states (centralised bureaucracy, well-defined legal structures).

The relevance of all this is that the world of Beowulf seems to fit more into the chiefdoms stage, which was characterised by, for example, one central village growing in authority and size amongst others around it, and tellingly for the Beowulf comparison, the increasingly lavish burial ceremonies surrounding the deaths of chiefs. Wright mentions the megalithic cultures in pre-Roman Britain as an example; obviously, the ship burial and the barrow burial in Beowulf seem like the same thing. Another key feature – both the Big Man cultures and chiefdoms are often characterised by the throwing of great feasts by the leader as a way of both redistributing wealth and establishing their own status, and feasting is obviously a very A-S obsession. The directness of the relationship between the ‘king’ in A-S poetry and his duguth/geoguth, and the gift culture, also feel like part of a rather smaller social unit than what we normally think of as a ‘kingdom’ (although chiefdoms could be quite big – and is it so different from the emphasis on feasting in ME poetry? And the Tudor court?).

It’s not the first time I’ve thought about this. I was struck, some years ago, by something (in Guns, Germs and Steel, maybe?) which said that the first thing Papuan tribesmen do when they encounter someone they don’t know is have a long discussion about who their relatives are – because if they can find a relationship to each other, they probably won’t need to fight. That reminded me forcefully of sequence of rather cagey encounters B has – initially with the watchman, then a courtier, then the king (I think) – when he first arrives at Heorot as a stranger. And reading the Haida poetry recently, the image of the big houses with a central firepit and a poet/storyteller/scop telling stories that could last for hours, was also reminiscent of A-S poetry.

I don’t suppose any of this would come as news to an anthropologist, but then such is academic territoriality, everything I read about Beowulf at uni was written by literary critics – or sometimes historians. And what does it matter anyway? Well, it changes the way I visualise the poem, at least. The vocabulary, of kings and earls and thanes, never quite matched to the action, but it’s so seductive that somehow it’s hard to get away from it. To think of Hrothgar as a tribal chief, and Heorot as something closer to a longhouse than a palace, carries a severe risk of going too far in the other direction – they may have had simpler political units, but they weren’t exactly hunter-gatherers. Still, it’s a useful imaginative antidote to all the baggage carried by the word ‘king’.

All of which assumes that the poem is somehow a true reflection of society in Northern Europe in the 6th? 8th? century. And since it was written down in the C11th by a Christian scribe, probably from a copy of a copy, that may be a mistake. How much of what’s in the poem is more modern stuff that’s been imposed? And it’s quite likely that the late Anglo-Saxons had a romanticised view of their forebears anyway. The Morte D’Arthur tells you more about the C15th century, when it was written, than the pre-Roman society where it was nominally set; or perhaps the C15th’s romantic view of an earlier medieval period.

Anyway. Enough.

  • Post Category:Culture