Thursday, 2 August 2012

Guest Post by Amy Ellis-Thompson: Manuscript culture: poets, scribes and compilers or the modsnottor mon of the medieval manuscript

Consideration of the medieval manuscript is not merely that of a single hand in an isolated monastery, etching words of devotion into a well-treated animal hide, but a train of investigation that spans the entire medieval period. Manuscript culture applies to all literary production before the introduction of the printing press, from Germany into England by William Caxton in the 1470s. Although early medieval manuscripts were primarily religious and Latinate, the four extant vernacular poetic codices (Exeter, Vercelli, Cotton Vitellius or ‘Beowulf’ and Junius) contain between them the entire gamut of Old English literature that we read today. Late Medieval manuscript culture considers the parallel existence of print and manuscript in the 14th and 15th century. As print became dominant, the scribal system fell into disuse, and the use of ‘rude speche’ and ‘olde bookes’ was homogenised into the faster-moving dissemination of printed pamphlets and sonnet sequences. 

Scop poetry in the Old English Exeter Book
The manuscript itself problematizes our modern perception of both book and author. Authorship in the Anglo-Saxon period was not of the importance it is today, so the textual production and culture of the Old English poem comes to the fore in the absence of an authorial biography. The compiler of a manuscript florilegium (excerpts of other writing; literally a gathering of flowers) does not seek to present a single authorial voice, but constructs a complete entity from a diverse selection of vernacular poetry. The codices of Old English poetry are often themselves hearkening back to tradition: gatherings of poems based on earlier oral traditions of a scop or Anglo-Saxon minstrel. Such self-conscious references to orality (seen, for example in the scop poems Deor and Widsith of the Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, compiled c. 950) makes the Exeter Book a collective product of the Anglo-Saxon imagination.  Despite the restricted literacy of tenth century Anglo-Saxon England, the codex was written within a literate, monastic context, drawing upon secular and religious sources for its Christian readership.

The important consideration for the modern reader is that there is no single author of the codex: when we read the Exeter Book we are considering a manuscript arranged by a compiler. This may or may not be the same person as the single scribe who copied out all of the poems over a length of time, who differs again from the original poets of each text, who may have written the texts generations apart. There may potentially be more than fifty authors of the Exeter Book. Without explicit information regarding the original composition of each poem, they can be considered within the context of a single volume: the arrangement in which they have been placed by the compiler.

The other three extant Anglo-Saxon vernacular poetic codices – the Vercelli, Cotton Vitellius or ‘Beowulf’, and Junius manuscripts – are also florilegia, although arguably not as diverse in theme and style. The Exeter Book ranges from the Christology beginning the codex through saint’s lives, elegiac narratives, maxims, riddles, a bestiary triptych and homilies, entirely in verse. Although the Exeter Book is the most diverse collective example of early vernacular poetry, there is a lack of uniformity to all four codices.

Beowulf begins: immortal lines from the Cotton Vitellius manuscript
The structure of a single manuscript, and the compilation of a diverse range of poetry, is tantamount to a consideration of what that codex offers the reader. The ordering of the manuscript, in the absence of any information about the original authors of the poems, can help us make sense of what the compiler of, for example, the Exeter Book is trying to achieve, what wisdom can be gained from reading the manuscript as a whole from start to finish. Basically, what the point of the entire codex is. Palaeographical and codicological evidence (see Patrick Conner) has shown that the Exeter Book codex is made of three separate manuscript booklets. However, it is not written in stone (or etched on pig-hide) what literary issues bind each booklet as one entity within the entire codex. Each reader, considering the literary themes of the poetry of the Exeter Book alongside the codicological facts of how the manuscript as a physical book was put together, may come up with different suggestions to this engaging riddle.

From the 10th to the 14th century, the medieval manuscript exists in a very different context. The monastic scribe and Christian emphasis shifted into a commercial venture. The 14th C illuminated Auchinleck manuscript, for example, allows us to raise issues of authorship and identity on a different level to that of the Old English Exeter Book. It is a collection of Middle English lays, copied by four of five different scribes, and its use of both the vernacular and impressive illuminations suggest it is a commercial venture. L.H. Loomis proposed the production of the Auchinleck manuscript in a London ‘bookshop.’ Recent criticism has suggested that the scribes were not working in a physical ‘bookshop’ under one roof, but were operating under similar scribal principles. There is an undeniable sense of unity and ordering throughout the entire manuscript. The use of the vernacular shows issues of national, rather than authorial identity: England struggling to reclaim its language and identity over three hundred years after the Norman Conquest. Like the Exeter Book, the Auchinleck MS tells its own story of culture, authorship and the literature being read by a pre-Chaucerian generation

Eye-catching: the visually appealing pages of the Auchinleck Manuscript, containing Middle English lays for the 14th C secular reader.
The medieval manuscript allows us to read more than Old or Middle English literature: it allows us to read the medieval reader themselves. Manuscript annotations show us which elements of a medieval text were emphasised or even disputed. The 15th C red-ink annotations on the 14th C Middle English devotional vernacular prose text The Book of Margery Kempe (see Kelly Parsons) provide us with a laymen’s reading alongside a text scribed by Carthusian monks. The annotations in red ink underline and repeat for emphasis words in the text referring to ‘seculer pepil,’ and women, as well as the readers own ‘amen amen amen(s)’ of affective piety in the margins. Not only do we have a medieval spiritual biography, but a record of the particular chords it struck with a late medieval reader.

The Book of Margery Kempe: annotations in different hands add small drawings and comments around the text.
Manuscript study allows us to read around the words of the Old or Middle English poem itself, considering poets, scribes, compilers and annotators, as well as the culture of textual production, to consider ‘authorship’ in an entirely different and fascinating way.

Amy Ellis-Thompson is an MA student in Medieval Literatures at the University of York. Contact email:

Further Reading:

Brown, Michelle P. ‘Anglo-Saxon Manuscript Production: Issues of Making and Using,’ in A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature, eds. Philip Pulsiano and Elaine Treharne (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001).

Conner, Patrick W. ‘The Structure of the Exeter Book Codex (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501)’, in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: Basic Readings, ed. M. P. Richards (London, Garland Publishing, 1994), pp. 301-315.

Jayatilaka, Rohini. ‘Old English Manuscripts and Readers,’ in A Companion to Medieval Poetry, ed., Corinne Saunders (Wiley and Sons: Oxford, 2010), pp.51-64.
Lerer, Seth. Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1991).

Parsons, Kelly.  Kerby-Fulton, Kathyrn and Hilmo, Maidie ed., 'The Red-Ink Annotator of The Book of Margery Kempe and his Lay Audience,' in The Medieval Professional Reader at Work: Evidence from Manuscripts of Chaucer, Langland, Kempe and Gower, (Canada: Victoria, 2001), p. 143.

Shonk, T.A. ‘A Study of the Auchinleck Manuscript: Bookmen and Bookmaking in the Early Fourteenth Century,’ Speculum, 60 (1985) pp. 71-91.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Guest Post: Historical Writing in Medieval England: A Very Short Introduction - Michael Tansini

When people think of medieval literature, they think of the Knights of King Arthur searching for the holy grail, hordes of Vikings running around various parts of Europe, and Beowulf overcoming the monstrous Grendel (and, if the 2008 film starring Ray Winstone is to be believed, overcoming some pretty serious Oedipal issues). The idea of some medieval monk or cleric writing genealogical histories does not filter through to public consciousness, or, if it does, it is only before a Monty Python-esque giant foot stomps on the poor writer. However to ignore historical writing in the Middle Ages, and especially writing in England is to ignore some of the most exciting literature of the whole period. 
(Alas, there are no historical writings about the Giant Foot outbreak of 1178) 
When we think of history today, it is of dates and events and people that can be clearly traced with historical records and archaeological evidence. In the High Middle Ages (roughly late 11th to early 14th century) it was different. Many noble families, especially in Norman England and France, could barely trace back their family line three of four generations. The lost grandeur of Rome inspired many to attempt to create an ancestral link to justify their present rule. Moreover the Norman invasion of England had resulted in the overthrow of English government. Though the basic Anglo-Saxon administrative framework remained, English religious leaders and landowners were removed in favour of Norman ones; the English language, which had been unique in Europe for featuring a good deal of historical writing, rapidly fell out of use. So in the twelfth century, when historians such as John (or Florence, depending on which critic you believe) of Worcester, Henry of Huntingdon and Eadmer, start writing histories of Britain, and in particular the Anglo-Saxon ‘English’, it must be seen in the context of radical societal upheaval. 
(A Medieval scribe, looking bored)
Nor is this historical writing limited to the English. Orderic Vitalis was an Anglo-Norman clergyman whose monumental ‘Ecclesiastical History’ is symptomatic of divided loyalties. He praises Henry I as a lion but condemns William the Conqueror for his Harrying of the North and describes the Norman subjugation as a ‘yoke’.  Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ is often derided as falsifying and myth-making but it also represents an attempt by Welsh Britons to commemorate their own history that English writers (like Henry of Huntingdon) have ignored). Geoffrey was the first writer to depict King Arthur as we recognise him, and his depiction of Arthur’s life and Merlin’s Prophecies were the foundation for the growth in Arthurian literature.

Even works now considered literary had a strong historical background. It is important to note that while there was the difference between ‘fabula’, roughly translating to a story and a ‘historia’, history, these genre boundaries were far from fluid. Thus the writers Wace and Gaimar wrote literary stories about the history of England in Anglo-Norman which contain clear genealogical elements in addition to their underappreciated literary merit. And Jordan Fantosme’s Chronicle, though often shelved in the history section of a university library, uses a flexible metrical structure, dashing heroic speeches and bloody battles in a portrayal of Henry II’s war against the Scots.
(Henry II in less murderous times)
This can only be a rudimentary sketch of the exciting and (from a literary perspective) underappreciated burst of historical writing in England. I have not mentioned the historical writers of the thirteenth century, notably Matthew Paris, nor the wealth of writing on the Continent. It is a type of writing which undermines genre, ethnic national boundaries as quickly as these boundaries are set up, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Michael Tansini is an MA student in Medieval Literatures at the University of York

List of Works Mentioned
Eadmer, Lives and Miracles trans. and ed. Muir and Turner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006)
Gaimar, Estoire des Engleis, trans. and ed. Ian Short. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, trans. and ed. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977)
Henry of Huntingdon, History of the English People 1000-1154, trans. and ed. Diana Greenway (Oxford: OUP), 2009
John of Worcester, Chronicle, trans. and ed. McGur, 3 volumes. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998)
Jordan De Fantosme, Chronicle ed. R.C Johnson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981)
Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History trans. and ed. Marjorie Chibnall 6 volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1969-80)
Wace, La Roman de Brut, trans. and ed. Judith Weiss (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002)

Two interesting Critical Studies
Gransden, Antonia. Historical Writing in England 550-1307. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974)
Partner, Nancy. Serious Entertainments: The Writing of History in Twelfth Century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Guest Post - Visualizing the past: transforming medieval history into action documentaries

I'd like to welcome guest blogger Nicole Tomlinson to The Medieval World today! Nicole is the staff writer for Battle Castle, an action documentary series on medieval castles starring Dan Snow that will premiere on History Television in Canada on February 23, 2012 and is scheduled to air on Discovery Knowledge in the UK this Spring. BBC Worldwide has distribution rights for the series, so international air dates will be announced in the future. For the latest updates, like them on Facebook ( or follow on Twitter ( Also, be sure to check out their great page over at, and the latest trailer for the show here.

Welcome, Nicole!
Presenter Dan Snow in the castellan's tower. Credited to Medieval Media Inc.
1271. Northern Syria.

Outside the crown jewel of Crusader castles, a powerful Mamluk army led by a usurper king prepares to lay siege. Armed with the mighty trebuchet, they’re here for one reason – to seize Crac des Chevaliers and drive Christians from this land for good.

Inside, a castellan and his elite group of knights gaze upon their enemy, and the walls that will determine their fate. Strong, precise stones, laid by their predecessors, now in danger of being destroyed. Their castle was borne of conquest and domination. If it falls, so will the vision that raised it.  

Castellan who defends Crac des Chevaliers in 1271 in the first episode of the Battle Castle series. Credited to Medieval Media Inc.

As staff writer for the action documentary series Battle Castle, I’ve seen this bit of past played out hundreds of times. In history books, in my head, and on screen. And I still get shivery and goose-bumpy when I think of it. I feel that it’s a natural reaction. As human beings, our urge to experience yesterday is as powerful – and undeniable – as the epic siege that challenged Crac des Chevaliers more than 700 years ago.

As a filmmaker, how do you transform our visions of the past into one cohesive, compelling, and factually-accurate documentary? In the Battle Castle universe, it started with inspiration and culminated in a powerful fusion of knowledge and imagination. Part of my role along the journey from vision to visualization has involved historical verification. From building periods to army positioning to the weather, part of my job was to ensure that our team was “keeping it real” on screen. But when you’re making factual shows about events that transpired before the age of visual capture, sometimes “keeping it real” can be a real challenge.

Take a castle’s construction. Half the time of each of the six Battle Castle episodes – which profile Crac des Chevaliers, Chateau Gaillard, Dover Castle, Conwy Castle, Malbork Castle, and Malaga – is spent exploring how these strongholds were built. Every one has changed since the period they were raised in. For some, we have a pretty clear idea of what was built when. For others, history is not so forthcoming.

In Malaga, Spain, the Castillo de Gibralfaro and its surrounding defences were particularly difficult to represent. The relative lack of heritage investment, dearth of archeological work and issues with over-restoration meant pulling bits of information from multiple sources to model what the castle is best believed to have looked like in 1487 when it was besieged. The city walls, which are virtually non-existent today, were recreated exclusively from historical representations.

In France, Chateau Gaillard presented a whole different challenge. The castle was demolished in the late 16th century, leaving little more than ruins on most of the site. Though archeological works give us a good idea of what the castle looked like in its prime, it was a very difficult location to film. In this case, CGI and visual effects were brought in to pick up where the present leaves off to carry us back to 1203 when Philip Augustus of France launched his attack against it.

Once the Battle Castle team tackled the builds, we then faced the sieges that tested them. The second half of each of the six shows profiles an epic attack that each of the castles faced. Again, some aspects of these battles are well-documented … others go virtually unmentioned.

Southwest side of Crac des Chevaliers; a focus point of the siege.  Credited to Medieval Media Inc.
In England, showcasing the section of the outer wall that was targeted when Prince Louis of France invaded England in 1216 proved to be anything but straight-forward, as much of it was modified after the siege. In addition, discerning which tunnels were carved into the chalk cliffs by whom, and when, also required some investigation – though historians are fairly certain they can distinguish the medieval tunnels from later war tunnels, it’s still impossible to tell for certain which were carved by French underminers and which were cut by the English garrison attempting to intercept them.

For Conwy Castle and Edward’s other “Iron Ring” fortifications, as well the Teutonic Knights’ Malbork Castle, we had access to a wealth of information about exactly how and when each were built. But in Wales, details of Madog ap Llywelyn’s backstory and contemporary chronicles of the rebellion he launched in 1294 are relatively sparse. And in Poland, details of the siege that Malbork Castle faced in 1410 pale in comparison to accounts of the attacks other castles faced. 

 And then there’s the mighty Crac des Chevaliers. Though we had relatively ample access to historical information on the castle’s build and its siege, as well as the help of current experts, I felt like no matter how much we found out, it wasn’t quite enough to satisfy my desire to know what really happened … in excruciating detail.

While we were making the show, I kept thinking that if I could go back to 1271 in northern Syria, I’d have a field day. I’d take in everything from the exact distance the Muslim army was from the castle to which day they attacked its outerworks to if the ground was slippery or mucky to how a giant trebuchet sounds when it fires to if there was a smell of sweat and fear in the upper castle.

I’d try and speak to the castellan in broken French, asking him questions about how it feels to be besieged. Then I’d attempt to find a translator to speak with Sultan Baybars about his offensive. Once they found out I was from the future, they’d probably press me to reveal the outcome of the battle – and well, I’d have to tell them to watch the show and find out. And, let’s face it … it would be a little awkward. 

Sultan Baybars. Credited to Medieval Media Inc.
Fortunately (or unfortunately), this ill-fated foray into time travel never transpired, and Battle Castle was created, by necessity and design, from the perspective of the present. I suppose that, by making the series, the Battle Castle crew has rewritten history – for our characters, ourselves, and for our audience. As factual programmers, sometimes it’s tempting to think it would be much easier to make these shows if we could live in the past. But as visually-driven storytellers, we’re reminded it’s the technologies of today that allow us to capture these incredible moments in time and share them in whole new ways.

As a writer, I can’t promise that every detail appears on screen as it was. In fact, I can promise some don’t. Certain aspects of our history will always remain a mystery … and as much as we like to think it would be great to have all of our questions answered, maybe it’s better that way. What I can promise is a compelling, factually-driven journey – an epic adventure into the past, visualized like never before.

We hope you enjoy.

Nicole Tomlinson

All of the images in this post are property of Medieval Media Inc. and taken from Episode One: Crac des Chevaliers. This is the first episode from Battle Castle's forthcoming series. 

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Recommended Reads: Introductions to Medieval History

Just a few books I recommend to introduce you to Medieval History ... 

 If anyone has any others they'd like to suggest please put it in a comment below :)

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Heroes in Literature, Part 2: Ogier the Dane

Ogier the Dane (French: Ogier le Danois or Ogier de Danemarche; Danish: Holger Danske) was a widely known and exceptionally popular hero both during the medieval period and later. He was known for being one of Charlemagne's finest knights. The legendary character first appeared in The Song of Roland (c.1100), and is the central hero in La Chevalerie d'Ogier de Danemarche (c.1200). La Chevalerie is a chanson de geste (Old French epic) that details the tale of Ogier the Dane. The form that has survived to the present day was likely composed around 1200 by the poet Raimbert de Paris.

La Chevalerie d'Ogier de Danemarche
According to the poem, Ogier was the son of the Duke of Denmark and a hostage at Charlemagne's court in his youth. His father had neglected his duties to Charlemagne, and as a result Ogier was imprisoned in the fortress of Saint-Omer. Here Ogier met and fell in love with the mother of his son, Baudouinet. Ogier was later knighted for his heroic deeds in a battle against the Saracens to defend Rome. There are several accounts of Ogier's heroism after this, including the tales of how he won his sword (Courtain) and steed (Broiefort).

The story then jumps forward to tell of events concerning his now grown up son Baudouinet. In a pivotal part of the poem, Ogier's son plays chess with Charlemagne's son (Charlot) and wins. Charlot was obviously a pretty sore loser; he became so angry that he struck at Charlot with the chessboard and killed him. Ogier then tried to kill Charlot in an attempt to avenge his son, which resulted in Charlemagne banishing him. 

After a series of other dramatic events (including Ogier's second attempt on Charlot's life) it happened that the Franks had to go to war against a pagan enemy which only Ogier could defeat. When Charlemagne requested his help, Ogier agreed but only on the condition that he was granted permission to murder Charlot beforehand; Charlemagne had to accept in order to save his kingdom. However, when this moment arose God sent a divine message via St. Michael. Ogier was told he must be content with simply giving Charlot a box on the ears! Because of this Ogier was able to turn his unused strength and might on the enemy. During the battle he reportedly killed a giant in single combat, and rescued the daughter of the King of England. The story ends with Ogier's marriage to her.

12C tomb of Ogier and his comrade at the hero's apparent resting place in Meaux, also featuring figures from Carolingian epic (including favourites Bishop Turpin, Roland and Olivier)
Beyond the Epic
Wall painting of Ogier in a church in Denmark
Due to Ogier's popularity, the Chevalerie version of the story was extended with other adventures, such as Roman d'Ogier en alexandrins, c.1335. Another version of the tale of his youth (Les enfances Ogier) was recorded c.1275 by Adenet le Roi and presented to the Queen of France. The story was also published in late fifteenth century Paris, and reissued many times throughout the sixteenth century. However, Ogier's popularity was not restricted to France. He was well known all over Europe, in particular Northern Europe. His story was included in the thirteenth century Old Norse collection of Carolingian narratives, known as the Karlamagnús saga. It is likely that the translation of this was the cause of Ogier's growth in popularity in Sweden and Denmark. He was even featured in two church murals which can be dated to around this time.  A Danish version of his tale was printed in 1534, titled Kong Olger Danskes Krønike. 

Statue at Kronborg Castle, Denmark
By the nineteenth century the hero had become a national symbol of the Danish people. A new version of his story was recounted in the famous fairytale Holger Danske by Hans Christian Anderson (1845). A large statue of Ogier now sits at Kronborg Castle in Denmark.This is to fit with the Danish legend that in a time of great need when the kingdom is threatened by a foreign enemy, Ogier will rise from his sleep and save his country.

  • Willem P. Gerritsen and Anthony G. van Melle (eds.), A Dictionary of Medieval Heroes (The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 2002), see pp. 186-8 for the section on Ogier the Dane.
  • Kronborg Castle website