Medieval Round Table 2012

Winchester King Arthur's Round Table cake by Hannah Vanyai
Winchester King Arthur's Round Table cake
By Hannah Vanyai

Papers for 2012

6 February

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

Associate Professor Véronique Duche, School of Languages and Linguistics, University of Melbourne

Amadis in Arthur’s Court

Among Chretien’s novels, Cligés has received little critical attention up to date. This second of five chivalric Romances, also named The Fake Dead, is divided into two parts, or two nearly separate stories. The first focuses on Alexander’s adventures - especially his love story with Soredamors, whereas the second consists in the adventures of his son, Cligés - especially his love story with Fenice. Although the romance uses Arthur’s court as a backdrop, much of the action takes place in Constantinople. This paper aims at showing that the most famous Renaissance chivalric novel, Amadis, and in particular the fifth Book, is deeply indebted to Cligés. Structure, place of action, characters and themes are, however, reinterpreted in a humanistic spirit.

5 March

Venue: North Theatre, Old Arts

Dr Helen Hickey, University of Melbourne

Helen will be presenting this paper at the Romance in Medieval Britain conference at Oxford at the end of March ( The conference coincides with a major exhibition, 'The Romance of the Middle Ages', at the Bodleian Library (

‘A Knight Rides Forth’: Bodies, Borders and Romance in Late Medieval English Literature

Early medieval romance literature with its themes of adventure, love and battle has been a compelling narrative for the modern West. But by the early fifteenth century in England, the genre was inflected with topicality as much as nostalgia, with practicality as much as fantasy. The problematic role of romance in several of Thomas Hoccleve’s poems tracks the literary and historical valences of this change. In the Remonstrance to Sir John Oldcastle (c1417), Hoccleve instructs the Lollard to read romances in order to cure heretical thought. ‘Rede the storie of Lancelot de lake, / Or Vegece of the aart of Chiualrie’ (ll. 195-196). Secondly, in the Dialogue (c1422) Hoccleve depicts himself as an ‘unromantic’ body ‘nat shapen be / to prike or prance’ (l. 824). Thirdly, he positions romance as generically French and locates chivalric conduct in France. The materiality of these motifs entails perverse reading, a ‘romance body’ and geographical place. More importantly, they specify the author’s own body and the trappings of romance: equine prowess and French ‘romance poses’. Hoccleve’s verses can be interpreted as didactic, to support Henry V in his battle against Wycliffism (Remonstrance), and parodic, written to entertain his patron, Humfrey Duke of Gloucester (Dialogue from the Series). Equally, they can be read as the instantiation of an existing medieval stereotype of performative chivalry. This paper explores and unravels some of the dynamics between earlier forms of romance literature and the preoccupations of fifteenth-century France and England in the multilayered interpretive frame of Hoccleve’s verse.

The Romance of the Middle Ages Exhibition

The Bodleian Library has mounted a major exhibition centred on medieval romance, which coincides with the ‘Romance in Medieval Britain’ conference. ‘The Romance of the Middle Ages’ includes manuscripts of The Song of Roland, Horn, Havelok, Tristan texts and works of art, and Arthurian romances such as The Awntyrs of Arthure and The Wedding of Sir Gawayne and Dame Ragnell. Amongst the highlights are the Vernon Manuscript, John Rate’s book (Bodleian MS Ashmole 61), the Red Book of Hergest, the Percy Folio and the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (the last two on loan from the British Library). The exhibition continues the story of romance up to the present, with contributions from Shakespeare, Spenser, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Monty Python.

To view a mini-documentary and a selection of manuscripts go to

2 April

Venue: North Theatre, Old Arts

Dr Stephanie Downes, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

Tough Love: Poetry and Politics in England and France During the Hundred Years War

Poetry about love makes unexpected reading matter for men at war. Purchased, plundered or presented, manuscripts of secular French verse crossed the English Channel in both directions throughout the Anglo-French conflicts of the later Middle Ages. Westminster Abbey MS 21, a fifteenth-century volume containing lyrics by Machaut and Christine de Pizan, bears the signatures of a group of English soldiers in France in the 1450s. How might such men have read the poems of the enemy, with their intensely emotional outpourings of desire, solitude and loss? This paper focuses on verses by Christine and her contemporary Charles d’Orleans and explores how literary emotions might constitute socially and politically expedient tools in diplomatic contexts, able to foster friendship and alliance through their articulation of a need for love.

7 May

Venue: North Theatre, Old Arts

Anne McKendry, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

William Wallace, William Thatcher and Robin Longstride: The “Australianness” of Medievalist Action Heroes

Laurie Finke and Martin Shichtman offer an intriguing reading of Mel Gibson’s 1995 film Braveheart in their recently-published Cinematic Illuminations (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). Finke and Shichtman argue that Gibson’s arch-conservative Catholic beliefs are reflected in the film’s pious depiction of the Scottish peasantry, while the downfall of the English is attributed to the secularism and corrupted moral values of Longshanks’ court (180 ff.). This positioning, according to the authors, participated in the rise of the influence of the religious right in American politics that gathered much momentum in the mid-1990s. Finke and Shichtman’s interpretation of the political and cultural work that Gibson’s hugely successful film performed - and is arguably still performing - is interestingly divergent from the majority of criticism of the film, which focuses instead on the appropriation of Braveheart by the Scottish Nationalist Party in order to generate support for devolution. What is striking about this new analysis is its intense focus on the personal character of Gibson himself, rather than his acting persona of William Wallace. Unwilling to separate the actor from his religious beliefs, the authors situate the film within a framework of Gibson’s staunchly conservative Catholic values. However, despite this deeply personal analysis of Gibson’s motivations - including citing the strong influence of his father - the fact that Mel Gibson is Australian remains, surprisingly, unmentioned.

In 2001, the less successful but still popular film A Knight’s Tale was released, also featuring an Australian actor, Heath Ledger. Determinedly adhering to the theme of social mobility, the film’s young cast contributes to a “new world” coding of the medieval that Gibson’s William Wallace similarly, but perhaps less successfully, attempts. As with Braveheart, most of the many perceptive analyses of A Knight’s Tale, including one by Finke and Shichtman, fail to mention the leading man’s nationality (a notable exception is Nickolas Haydock, who briefly mentions Ledger’s “distinctly Australian accent” in Movie Medievalism (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Co., 2008; p. 102).

In 2010, another medievalist movie featuring not one, but two iconic Australian actors was released: the latest of several dozen Hollywood versions of the Robin Hood legend, starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett. Designed to appeal to fans of Crowe and director Ridley Scott’s earlier collaboration on the Roman epic Gladiator, this Robin Hood was also released amidst talk of what one British newspaper described as “a Robin Hood tax” being imposed on banks that employed taxpayers’ funds to avoid a self-created demise in the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2008 (Mail on Sunday, 5/9/2010). The Australian-like sense of fair play that Robin Hood famously stands for is reflected in the faces of the two Australian leads and the audience is perhaps also reminded that Australia remained relatively unscathed by the GFC.

Taking as its inspiration Finke and Shichtman’s focus on Mel Gibson the man and not the actor, this paper explores the “Australianness” of the medievalist action hero and considers the appeal that Australian actors evidently offer to the makers of medievalist films. From Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, through to Gibson as Mad Max, through to the plethora of Australian and New Zealand actors peppering Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is increasingly apparent that the Antipodean character contributes much to contemporary popular ideas of the medieval hero. The sight of a famous Australian face depicting a medieval hero also engenders the intriguing ontological intersection of a medievalist film seemingly attempting to transcend the historical past it is rehearsing, with an (non-indigenous) Australian cultural attempt to capture its own Middle Ages. Through an examination of the three films outlined above, this paper attempts to establish whether, to a certain (subliminal? subconscious? Australian?) extent at least, it is the cultural, political and social mores of postmodern Australia that can provide those inflections and associations that contribute to the success of the medievalist action hero.

Anne McKendry is currently completing a PhD at the University of Melbourne. Her research is concerned with examining discourses of excess and restraint in late medieval English literature and identifying the social, cultural and political work those discourses perform. She completed her Honours thesis on the topic of medievalist crime fiction and retains an interest in the medievalism of popular culture.

4 June

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

Dr Roswitha Dabke

Sancta Hildegardis: Recognition and Veneration Without Canonization

The ‘German’ Pope Benedict XVI intends to canonize Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) in October this year and to declare her the fourth female Doctor of the Church. It seems therefore timely to look at the fama she enjoyed throughout the centuries, first through her many achievements and her active involvement in the affairs of the world outside the cloister from ca 1146 to the death of her secretary Volmar in 1173. After 1173, in the years before and after her death, the help of relatives and friends, motivated by respect and affection for her, allowed the writing of her Vita and the completion, revision or copying of some of her works. Signs of continued interest in her life and work were sporadic - but occasionally spectacular - from c. 1187 to c. 1227, when the Rupertsberg convent requested the canonisation of their former magistra. Three papal letters show acknowledgement of her fama and interest in the case, but in spite of the considerable efforts of a secular canon from Strasbourg, a keen student of her theological trilogy, the attempt failed. Considering only prominent German speakers, many have since mentioned her, analysed her work or presented her or her convent through the visual arts. Modern-day Germans’ interest in her life and appreciation of her work are widespread. It is expected that the Pope will use the saint’s own words and music and miniatures from her scriptorium when he celebrates the closure of a process begun by two formidable predecessors almost 800 years ago and also adds her to the Italian, Spanish and French female Doctors of the Church.

2 July

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

Professor Stephen Knight, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

Emotion and the Development of Romance

This talk will look at the ways in which emotion is handled in the Welsh prose story 'Culhwch and Olwen' (available in translations of The Mabinogion). This can be taken as a prior model for the single-hero Arthurian romance (with some variations in the process), and so a fruitful comparison can be made with the developed handling of emotion in Erec, an early romance by Chrétien de Troyes.

6 August

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

Dr Sarah Randles, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne

The Stuff of Miracles: Religious Objects and Emotions in Medieval Chartres

The cathedral of Notre Dame at Chartres holds as its most significant relic a textile believed to have been worn by the Virgin Mary. While the precise nature of this garment was fluid, described variously as a ‘veil’, ‘tunic’ or ‘chemise’, as a result of its concealment in a reliquary since the tenth century, in the Middle Ages it was venerated principally as the sainte chemise and understood as an undergarment, worn by the Virgin at the birth and possibly also the conception of Christ.

The relic at Chartres prompted a number of material responses, some of them as a direct result of its inaccessibility. As well as the usual pilgrimage tokens, ex votos and other donations, copies of the chemise were made and consecrated as contact relics, designed to be worn by the faithful seeking the Virgin’s protection or assistance in childbirth or conception. This paper examines the nature of these objects together with the original relic and the behaviours around them, in the context of the wider medieval cult of relics, as evidence for emotional states, exchanges and communities.

3 September

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

Dr Helen Dell, University of Melbourne

More Real Than Reality: Nostalgia for the Medieval in High Fantasy Fiction

Since publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia in the 1950s ‘the “default” fantasy setting is a medieval one’ (Butler 20). In this tradition writers sometimes claim to open a way, in their work, to something ‘more real than reality’, the reality, that is, of the mundane world. That more is said to be inexpressible but fantasy claims to offer a glimpse of it. In the work of Tolkien and Lewis, the real of medievalist fantasy is linked to an otherworld which is offered to the reader as a place of bliss - a true home. Such written worlds evoke a nostalgic longing and are themselves the product of that longing. In the Tolkien/Lewis tradition these glimpsed worlds are usually sacred or spiritual in some sense though not often explicitly Christian.

I argue that what fits the medieval to represent something more real than reality is, above all, an effect of the signifier of periodisation which places it, retrospectively, in the middle, between the Classical world and the Renaissance. The signifier “medieval” is hospitable to fantasy first and foremost by virtue of its negative or empty status, as defined only in relation to what it is not, the ancient and modern worlds; the “Middle” produces the Age as having no title of its own.1 Its significance is topographical; it is a space between. By functioning as an empty signifier it creates a framed space which lends itself to the production of fantasies of the more real than reality. These fantasies may be ambiguous because the medieval, often associated with the childish and the primitive, is both desired and reviled. This ambiguity suggests the idea of a medieval unconscious, the medieval as a site of repressed desires. If, as Freud maintained, negation is the hallmark of repression then what is most strenuously denied may be what is desired but prohibited.

Lewis took an interest in Freud and argued, even after his conversion to Christianity, that Freud should be treated with respect on his own ground, ‘the actual medical theories and technique of the psychoanalysts’ (Mere Christianity 89). Armand M. Nicholi, Jr, has written the debate Freud and Lewis never had, on ‘God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life’. I should like to stage here, in miniature, a similar debate between Tolkien, Lewis and Jacques Lacan on the subjects of desire and reality. I do not think Lewis would have made the concessions for Lacan that he made for Freud. Nonetheless they would have agreed on the ‘desire which no experience in this world can satisfy’ (Lewis, Mere Christianity). But for Tolkien and Lewis, the desirable reality which could be glimpsed in fantasy fiction truly awaited the saved soul in the world to come, whereas for Lacan the elusive object of desire, produced by a trick of language, was always already lost.

1. Cf. Carl A. Rubino’s Middle Age, ‘that long, dark era which has even been denied a name of its own’ (55). See also Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s musings on the implications of being the Age in the middle (Medieval Identity Machines 21). See also Brian Stock: ‘The Renaissance invented the Middle Ages in order to define itself: the Enlightenment perpetuated them in order to admire itself; and the Romantics revived them in order to escape from themselves. In their widest ramifications ‘the Middle Ages’ thus constitute one of the most prevalent cultural myths of the modern world’ (qtd. Christopher Page, Discarding Images xvi).

1 October

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

Professor Stephanie Trigg, University of Melbourne

The Weeping Child

Chaucer, Langland and Malory all use the proverbial simile of the weeping child, but to different emotional purposes, in the context of describing anger and self-pity (Absolon), innocence (Piers Plowman, B-version, Passus I) or contrition (Lancelot in the Healing of Sir Urry). This paper will explore the relationship between proverbial expression and the performance and representation of emotion in late medieval literature, working with William Reddy's concept of an "emotive" but thinking about the difficulties of textual and interpretative precision in an unstable manuscript culture of textual mouvance.

The paper will focus on the examples from Chaucer and Malory and draw out the comparisons and similes between the two instances of grown men weeping like children. What can the study of proverbial expressions add to our comprehension of medieval emotions?

I will bring a handout with the main passages I want to consider, but you might like to look at Chaucer's Miller's Tale and Malory's The Healing of Sir Urry.

Interlinear translation of Miller's Tale:

I can't find a good online edition of Malory, but if you have a version based on the Winchester MS, it's the last section of The Tale of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guenevere; and if you are using an edition based on the Caxton text it's Caxton XIX, 10-13.

I may also refer to this article which offers a Lacanian reading of the Malory text:

12 November (second Monday due to Melbourne Cup)

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

Dr Keith Lilley, Queen's University, Belfast

Digital Cartographies and Medieval Geographies

The ‘spatial turn’ witnessed by the humanities in recent years has coincided with a digital revolution in scholarly practices of many medievalists worldwide. The multidisciplinary approaches employed by medievalists are well-suited to collaborative ventures in digital technologies and medievalists are currently at the vanguard of digital humanities research. One particular example of this concerns exploring medieval perceptions and conceptions of space, place and landscape, through the use of ‘spatial technologies’ and digital and digitised ‘mapping’. Using recent research projects as a basis, this paper offers some critical reflections on the connections between these ‘digital cartographies’ and ‘medieval geographies’, opening up new insights into medieval worlds, including understanding how maps were produced in the Middle Ages, creating new geo-visualisations that help re-imagine medieval urban landscapes, and providing multimedia platforms for broadening access to medieval maps and mappings.

Keith's PowerPoint presentation (pdf 22 Mb)

3 December

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

Dr Eileen Joy, Southern University Illinois

Celestial Nourishment: Notes Toward a New Commentariat

The image of the carnival is meant as a reminder that the world is far more bizarre than we usually remember: philosophy is above all else an exile amidst strangeness and surprise.
~Graham Harman, Guerilla Metaphysics

In this seminar, I will share my thinking on some of the new modes of thought within the humanities (Speculative Realism, Alien Phenomenology, Object Oriented Ontology, Vibrant Materialism, Dark Ecology, Tiny Ontology, Actor-Network Theory, Guerrilla Metaphysics, etc.) and how those new modes have led Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and I to formulate a collaborative book project, “Inhuman Actors: Tracing the Lives of Objects in Medieval Literature,” which we describe this way:

Scholars too often assume that an interest in the power, vitality and autonomy of objects emerged only recently, in genres like science fiction and fantasy, as well as within their real-world counterparts in experimental science (nanotechnology, cybernetics, robotics, informatics, bioengineering). Yet writers in the Middle Ages were fascinated by the agency of the inanimate world, by the ability of what is not human to draw us into strange orbits and speculative realms, rendering us secondary characters in narratives where human and nonhuman actors touch and transform each other. Medieval texts contain many words for such object power: virtue (virtus), magnetism, adventure (aventure), strangeness, magic, wonder. These ubiquitous medieval words open provocative ways of thinking about objects outside of use-value and miracle, without predetermined answers in history and theology. Our project will map how medieval thinkers launched their own collaborative investigations into what we call the “living arrangements” of lively, nonhuman things: the ways in which they exceed merely human stories, possess a mysterious interiority and singularity not fully comprehensible to human observers, and alter the structures of the world - and our ways of perceiving it.

“Inhuman Actors” examines two textual traditions that, in order to emphasize their experimental nature, we describe as laboratories. Each represents an important genre that embraced theologically unpredetermined speculation about nonhuman realms: the Breton lay (short, magic-filled romances often set in the realm of King Arthur, composed in English and French by both men and women) and the literature of wonders (the “Letter of Alexander to Aristotle,” detailing the marvels of distant “India,” and existing in over sixty manuscripts in over twenty different languages, and the catalogues of exotic landscapes and creatures known as the Wonders of the East). Together these texts suggest that the medieval period possessed an innovative and deeply speculative philosophical tradition in which an unfolding of the inner lives of objects may be vividly glimpsed. Typically this unfolding proceeds through the invitation to wonder that magic and the (seemingly) foreign extend: a literary thought experiment in which a stone, for example, possesses the power to change its owner’s fortunes through its radiative abilities, or a grafted tree draws a human onlooker into a realm where time proceeds so slowly that the motion-filled lives of plants and minerals become visible. The best examples of such motility are ultimately the texts themselves, which constitute both singular objects and mutable phenomena transmitted through multiple incarnations in different yet related manuscript traditions. When viewed with historical precision as well as with speculative reasoning, as individual events as well as nodes of encounter within expansive autopoetic networks, texts appear to lead lives of their own, as self-constituting systems in which the reader is just one among many intermediaries in contact with each other.

In its most ambitious framing, the larger project of this book is to detail what happens when a literary text is approached not merely as an artefact or a historical symptom of the humans who produced it, but as an autonomous and persisting signalling system that opens an invaluable window upon the agency and life of objects that even when discursive are nevertheless also real: singular and collective, object and subject simultaneously. A thing [res] is a gathering [Old Icelandic althing] and also a parliament [Latin res publica], and our project aims to enable medieval things to add their voice to that commonwealth, creating a literary and philosophical collective in which humans and nonhumans have their say. In this way our project will hopefully demonstrate the value of premodern literary studies to the pioneering, multi-disciplinary field of object-oriented studies, and more pointedly, to the project of fashioning an ethics that does not assume humans are the world’s singular and sovereign meaning-makers.

I will also share some of the late work and thinking of Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick who, in her late lectures and writings on “the weather in Proust,” was very interested in the ontologically intermediate “queer little gods” in Proust’s novels - nymphs and dyads and other little “tutelary spirits” - but also other ontologically intermediate forces, such as the weather, or a character whose body is also a barometer, miniaturised water fountains, and so on, in order to have new ways to explore self-world relations that would take better account of the chaos and complexity of those relations, and of the world itself. In her essay, “The Weather in Proust,” Sedgwick writes,

For Proust, the ultimate guarantee of the vitality of art is the ability to surprise - that is, to manifest an agency distinct from either its creator or consumer. “It pre-exists us” is one of the ways he describes the autonomy of the work, and only for that reason is it able to offer “celestial nourishment” to our true self.

For Sedgwick, Proust’s work offers access to a psychology of “surprise and refreshment,” and this is, in a sense, a “mystical” world (one that believes in resurrections, for example, and ghosts), but it is one that emphasizes the “transformative powers of the faculties of attention and perception.”

One of the primary questions we will ask, collectively, in this seminar will be: How to better reckon this state of affairs in our encounters with texts, which are also events that “pre-exist” us in the way Proust believed? Instead of seeing the future of the humanities, and of literary and medieval studies in particular, as tied to how other disciplines might need us to learn how to read and describe reality, or how we need them to understand the “real world” or social “realities” better, I think we should get deeply weirder on our own, singular corpus (which is also at the same time an adventure into a sort of literary “realism”), working harder to to amplify what the philosopher Graham Harman calls the “allure” of objects (in our case, literary texts), which I think is very similar to Sedgwick’s “queer little gods,” and which Harman also describes as a “fleeting kiss”: neither the deep reality of the object itself which is always partially hidden from us (call this history, or interiority), nor merely its surfaces (what “appears” before us, as a sort of shifting series of spatio-temporal facades), but “a special and intermittent experience in which the intimate bond between a thing’s unity and its plurality of notes somehow partially disintegrates,” almost as if in our (scholarly) hands. And the idea might then be, not to necessarily “make sense” of a literary text and its figures (human and otherwise) - to humanistically re-boot the narrative by always referring it to the Real (context, historical or otherwise, for example, or human psychology) - but to better render the chatter and noise, the gestures and movements, the appearances and disappearances of the weird worlds that are compressed in books, and to see better how these teeming pseudo-worlds are part of my brain already, hard-wired into the black box of a kind of co-implicate, enworlded subjectivity in which it is difficult and challenging to trace the edges between "self" and "Other." This would be a reading practice that would multiply and thicken a text’s sentient reality and might be described as a commentary that seeks to open and not close a text’s possible “signatures.” Let’s maybe “get medieval” now and use the humanities as a base station for a new commentariat, a kind of monastic beehive of scribblers and scriveners seeking to build a vibrant archive for what Ian Bogost has termed an “alien phenomenology,” where medievalists would be the slow tuning-recording devices and panexperientialists of a retro-future.

Suggested Readings

Ian Bogost, “Chap. 1: Alien Phenomenology,” in Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Timothy Morton, “Objects as Temporary Autonomous Zones.” continent. 1.3 (2011): 149-155.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “The Weather in Proust” & “Cavafy, Proust and the Queer Little Gods,” in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Weather in Proust, ed. Jonathan Goldberg, 1-68. Duke University Press, 2011.