Medieval Round Table 2009
Papers for 2009
The theme chosen for 2009 is Emotions and Identity.
Reading Justinian's Byzantium: East v West; Chronicle v History
The reign of Justinian (emperor 527-65) and his wife Theodora is particularly famous for 4 things: the building of Hagia Sophia (and other churches); the codification of Roman Law; the closing of Plato's academy; and the recovery of the Western Roman Empire from the Vandals (north Africa) and especially the Ostrogoths (Italy). It is the last of these that is particularly emphasised in virtually every book on the subject, drawing on the reign's most famous historian, Procopius, who wrote his Wars in 8 books, modelling his writing on Thucydides. On the other hand a contemporary chronicle by John Malalas tends to be ridiculed as a jumble of inconsequential tidbits. This paper will argue the reverse and suggest that Justinian was not particularly interested in the recovery of the West (at least not for long) and that his real concern was in preserving his Eastern empire; that Malalas' chronicle, written in low-level Greek, if interpreted sympathetically, is a better guide to the period than the classicizing Procopius; that consequently the notion of the Roman Empire being basically an Eastern (Byzantine) Empire essentially begins with Justinian; and that misinterpretation of the period has resulted from a classicizing bias that has promoted good (i.e. classicizing) Greek in a respected genre (History) at the expense of a despised genre (Chronography) written in demotic Greek.
At the first session of the Round Table for the year we spend some time planning the meetings, both possible papers and a refreshment roster. We will also set a theme for the year. So please consider whether you may have some research you would like to present, or other suggestions for Round Table discussions.
At our first meeting for the year in February we decided, rather belatedly, to see if some of our work this year could be based around the theme of ‘emotions’. As always, we’ll give priority to anyone, especially a graduate student, who wants to give a paper on any topic from their own research, but we’ve sometimes found it useful to try and orient our meetings around a theme.
‘Emotions’, or ‘the history of emotions’, is a current topic for a number of interdisciplinary centres around the world and, as it happens, there is a proposal growing out of the University of Western Australia to bring some people together to work on this theme (more news on this as it develops). To start us thinking about this theme, the March meeting will be a discussion of several readings.
The first reading is an overview on the philosophical history of emotions by Martha Nussbaum, really just to orient us around some of the larger debates.
The second is from a thematic collection on ‘anger’ and the third works from some Middle English texts. We suggest we focus on McNamer’s discussion of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, as it might be a text with which many are familiar.
Paul Freedman, 'Peasant Anger in the Late Middle Ages' in Barbara Rosenwein (ed.), Anger's Past: The Social Uses of an Emotion in the Middle Ages, Cornell University Press.
Sarah McNamer, 'Feeling' in Paul Strohm (ed.), Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Middle English, Oxford University Press.
A copy of each of the last two readings has been placed in the red box labelled Medieval Round Table on the top shelf behind the door in the English Department kitchen, second floor, John Medley West. Copies may also be borrowed from the Information Desk in the Baillieu library. Both volumes are also held in the Baillieu Library: follow the links in the citations above.
6 April - Cancelled
London Commissary Courts and Prostitution
Though the Church frowned upon prostitution, the prostitute herself – and the act of prostitution – were apparently of little concern to church courts and the community. Despite the emphasis the Church placed on the moral wrongs of prostitution, the evidence found in late medieval church court records seems to suggest that when prostitutes found themselves before the court, it was rarely the result of an act of prostitution. More often than not, a close reading of the records reveals that when prostitutes were charged, they were typically charged with a secondary crime: theft, adultery, fornication, bawdry, or sex in some public space that breeched social codes of decency. Those charges that dominate the courts are indicative of the real concerns of the community: crimes of pimping and bawdry, for example, outnumber charges of prostitution three to one. Charges of defamation – the vast majority of which involved sexual slander – similarly outnumber charges of prostitution. Based on a close reading of a sample of cases taken from the commissary court records of late medieval London, this paper examines what the records can tell us about contemporary attitudes and concerns towards the prostitute, prostitution and bawdry.
What is Emotion? A Medieval Case Study
The first and shorter part of the session will reconstruct Thomas Hoccleve's emotional reaction to his 'wilde infirmitie'. Predominantly, these emotions are grief, anxiety and frustration at not being believed cured. The text demands much of its modern reader. How are we to interpret these expressions of emotion from a distant past?
The second part of the session is a conversation about some of the problems inherent in defining and discerning emotion in medieval texts. I will use a small section from Jerome Kagan's What is Emotion?: History, Measures and Meanings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) 'Facial Expressions', pp. 92-3, as a springboard. This book isn't about medieval emotion but it contains some controversial ideas about emotion. I am relying on audience participation, so please be prepared to share your ideas about emotion or methodologies that track emotion, or readings that will add to the discussion. It would be great if these could be related to specific medieval historical contexts or literary texts.
The relevant pages for Kagan's book are available on Google Books. The Baillieu does not have this book but a review of it is available on the Times Higher Education web site; thought-provoking, to say the least. Particularly interesting are the allusions, in this review, to Kagan's emphasis on language and labelling.
Negotiations of Space and Gender in Brennu-Njáls Saga
In this paper I shall argue that mapping the social spaces represented in the text of Njáls Saga produces an accurate representation of hierarchies, values and gender associations within early Icelandic society. The entirely rural character of the society emphasizes the farmsite as a venue for consequential social performances. Through its centrality as a permanent site, the farmhouse on occasion becomes a quasi-public forum. It is visible and accessible to a wide range of people, although powerful exclusions operate to prevent some farm residents from active participation within this space. The intersection of gender, age, temperament and, especially, household status determines the extent to which individuals are able to negotiate a visible space for themselves within this arena.
The relationship between space and gender is complex, and cannot be reduced to simple binary constructions. Gender itself appears to be a potentially fluid category, with men and women occupying adjacent, and occasionally overlapping, rather than opposite positions, although the attribution of masculinity is constantly privileged over that of femininity. This paper argues that spatial categories are, with some exceptions, similarly flexible and proximate. This leaves the society without constant recourse to permanently and differently gendered spaces in which gender differences can be maintained, resulting in tension and negotiation at the spatial and social boundaries of gender identities.
‘Place is a boundary outside the universe’: Eriugena on Locus
This paper draws attention to the unusual conceptualisation of locus (place) as ‘a boundary outside the universe’ proposed by the ninth-century Irish philosopher-poet Eriugena in his Periphyseon (c. 864)and argues that such a conceptualisation was present in Irish writings more than two hundred years earlier. That is, it had its origins in Ireland, albeit those origins were greatly influenced by Patristic writings. Like most Irish writers, Eriugena had a preoccupation with cosmological order (or what he called Natura). Humankind's position in that order and how they could return back to God through contemplation of Nature was the axis around which the Periphyseon was crafted. As such, he developed a highly original thesis on how that could occur which was tied to his version of Maximus the Confessor’s doctrine of theophany: the appearance of God in ‘everything that is understood and sensed’. Eriugena’s conceptualisation of ‘place’ was an absolutely central component of that thesis. This paper considers the Patristic materials he had direct access to and weighs them against Irish materials, using Adomnán’s De locis sanctis and the Metrical Dindsenchas to argue that his conceptualisation was already part of early medieval Irish thought. From this, it will become obvious that ‘place’ in early medieval Irish writings and Eriugena was an object of thought rather than an object of sense - defined in terms of Eriugena’s contemplative conceptualisation to be considered - and as a mnemonic device or ordering principle.
Celts, Saxons and Detectives: The Political Medievalism of Peter Tremayne
Peter Berresford Ellis is a prolific author of predominantly popular Celtic history. Under the pseudonym Peter Tremayne, he also writes a successful series of detective fiction set in seventh-century Ireland and featuring the redoubtable Sister Fidelma. Tremayne’s work is an example of the productive intersection between the medieval and crime fiction; it also illustrates the extreme care given towards presenting an “authentic” Middle Ages that is a key characteristic of medieval crime fiction. But is there a deeper purpose to Tremayne’s medieval crime project than simply selling a lot of books? The Sister Fidelma series is overtly political, challenging received assumptions about gender, religion and Saxon colonialism from the perspective of an idealised Celtic utopia. In so doing, Tremayne engages in contemporary historiographical debate and promotes his own historical agenda. In addition, the Sister Fidelma Society promotes itself as a pseudo-academic forum, with its own conference-like gatherings, in what appears to be an attempt to generate cultural capital and direct intellectual gravitas towards Berresford Ellis’s reputation as an historian. Through an examination of the politics of the Sister Fidelma series, Berresford Ellis’s historical work and contemporary Irish historiography it becomes apparent that Peter Tremayne’s performance of the medieval is irreversibly intertwined with the contemporary historiographic agenda of Peter Berresford Ellis.
Functions of Direct Speech in the Early Irish Laws, Sagas and Hagiographies
The recent release of Robin Chapman Stacey’s Dark Speech: The Performance of Law in Early Ireland, has once more brought to the fore the significant role that speech and language played in early Irish thought and practice. Stacey’s analysis of the law codes has emphasised how the performative nature of these tracts assisted in maintaining social stability, upheld by individual communities in a land with no central government. Stacey’s conclusions provide valuable insight into the way that social interactions and power negotiations were conducted in early Ireland, and these conclusions can be profitably applied to other sources of early Irish history. Despite their prolific outbursts, speech and especially female speech has been largely ignored in studies of early Irish hagiography. In contrast female speech in the sagas has been seen as negative and destructive, diminishing the competency and effectiveness of these fictional figures. This paper examines the different ways performative speech was used to create and perpetuate images of authority and power in early Ireland, and how the laws, sagas and hagiographies interacted to legitimise these constructs.
The Great East Window of York Minster: Towards an Understanding
The Great East Window of York Minster was glazed between 1405 and 1408 by John Thornton of Coventry and his workshop. Earlier writers on the iconography have commented on the unusual selection of Old Testament scenes which precede the main Apocalypse cycle. The particular approach of this study is through analysis of how these scenes would have been understood using contemporary devotional and didactic sources, comparison with other art works and with special reference to the Use of York liturgy and the York Play. A complex theology of the Mass is revealed, celebrated as Corpus Christi in York since 1322, a theme uniting different parts of the window. A follower of John Wyclif had been burnt at the stake in 1401 and this paper enquires if the window may also be read as a reply to Lollard heretics. Only six months before the glazing contract for the Great East Window was signed, the Archbishop of York had been executed for treason, and the representation of church and state relations is also considered at this turbulent time in English history following the usurping of the throne by Henry of Bolingbroke in 1399.
Suggestions for background reading:
French, Thomas, York Minster: the Great East Window, 1995. CVMA summary catalogue of all the glass. Bail f 748.592843 FREN
Selections from English Wycliffite Writings, ed. by Anne Hudson, 1978. Especially pp. 19-29. Bail 270.5 SELE
Brown, Sarah, York Minster, an Architectural History, 2003. Esp. pp. 217-220. Archit 726.650942843 BRO
Dodd, Gwilym & Biggs, Douglas (eds.), Henry IV, 2003. Bail 942.041092 HENR/HENR. And there is a new book on Henry IV by Ian Mortimer.
The Mirour of Mans Saluacioune, ed. by Avril Henry. ERC B f 821.1 SPECULU or another ed. of Speculum Humanae Salvationis, one of the sources of iconography.
9 November (2nd Monday due to Melbourne Cup Day)
Images of the Witch of Endor in Medieval Manuscripts
The biblical figure of the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28) has been largely ignored in the mass of historical and art historical literature written on the subject of witchcraft in recent decades. She should not have been ignored, I would argue, if only for the reason that she is the most commonly depicted witch figure in European history. But the story also constitutes a critical exemplum on visions and ghostly apparitions, divining and necromancy, magic and witchcraft. In this paper I want to explore illustrations of the story in medieval manuscripts. These illustrations are largely unknown and are thought to be quite rare, little more than a prelude to a new interest in the story that develops in tandem with the prosecution of witchcraft from the later fifteenth century. While (the quite numerous) medieval images display nothing like the same fascination with the woman’s spectacular power and magical techniques that appear in the later period, they do testify to a tension between the views of authorities such as Augustine and Flavius Josephus and a gradual focus in the fifteenth century on the woman of Endor as the central figure in a drama that leads to the loss of King Saul’s life and kingdom.
Preliminary reading (optional):
1 Samuel ch. 28
Stuart Clark, Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (OUP, 2007), pp. 123-33, 236-46
Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society (University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 11-22 = first half of chapter 1 - ‘The Rejection of Ghosts.’ Pages 11-22 are on Google books.
A copy of the reading is available from the Baillieu Library information desk.
"Emotion" has been our theme for the year and I am winding up our Round Table year with a presentation on emotion – unprecedented! My paper is an exploratory venture prompted by a notion that if people are talking about the representation of emotion in the Middle Ages, then the Middle English religious lyrics constitute an extraordinarily rich source that to date, to my knowledge, has not been considered, at least in view of recent work on emotion in other areas. Affective devotion found expression in a large body of anonymous meditative lyrics and in these texts spiritualised emotion is depicted with a clarity and intensity that must be hard to find in other medieval sources. I'm interested in this spiritualising of emotion and the psychodynamics underlying it. I'm also interested in the way the strategies of medieval rhetoric merge with meditational techniques in these texts, which predominantly read as immediate subjective visionary experience. Thirdly, I'm interested in the medieval vocabulary for emotions. Linguistic research has shown that terms for emotions are culturally specific and have shifted in their meanings over time, so shifts in terms and meanings, in so far as we can identify them, may contribute considerably to our understanding of medieval culture. And if medieval jollity counts as an emotion, we might even be able to get seasonal with a carol or two! But my paper is already too long, so no promises.
As in previous years, we are planning to go out for dinner after this final meeting for the year. If you would like to come to the dinner then please email Andrew Stephenson so that we can confirm numbers by Friday 4 December. (Once we do confirm numbers then we are committed to pay for the number booked for, regardless of late cancellations.) The dinner will be at Il Vicolo, 50 Grattan Street in Carlton. We have arranged for a set price menu, with choices. Gluten-free and vegetarian options will be catered for by request on the evening. The cost will be $40 per person; wine will be provided free of charge.