Medieval Round Table 2013

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

4 February

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

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

Histories, Heroes and Early Britain

National and Christian histories from the early British and English period are not normally considered in the context of the secular heroic narratives also deriving from those cultures. Yet there are some interchanges of detail between the two genres, and the ultimate text from this period, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, can be seen as a condensation of the two genres into historicised heroic narrative - which may in itself be an explanation of the remarkably dynamic force of the story of Arthur in the subsequent period. This talk will study the nature of the historic and the heroic genres in early Britain, and in particular examine the process of their hybridisation and ultimate condensation.

4 March

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 1, Old Arts

John Crossley, Monash University

Old-fashioned Versus New-fangled: Reading and Writing Numbers, 1200–1500

MCMXIX is hard for us to read; 1919 is much easier. On the other hand, for medieval readers the opposite was the case. Changing from the old-fashioned Roman numerals to the new-fangled Hindu-Arabic numerals seems to have been a slower process than is generally accepted.

In this paper I consider how people slowly changed their ways of reading and writing numbers and give some examples ranging from amusing to abstruse. Often people in the Middle Ages were like us reading a Latin text: when they came to a number such as XVIII they used their vernacular, just as most of us would say ‘eighteen’, rather than ‘duodeviginti’ when reading the text in Latin - and they even wrote in the same style if they were French: Roman numerals were manipulated to write ‘Quatre-vingts’ in the French way.

Standard books on palaeography usually briskly dismiss the introduction of these new numerals with a remark to the effect that Hindu-Arabic numerals first came into significant use about 1200 and were in general use by 1400. Closer examination shows that there was a mixture of styles, including combinations of the two systems, used in the period 1200-1500 and that the uptake of the new numeral was slow, problematic and spasmodic. I shall give an account of my first steps in quantifying the evolution of the change of practice.

8 April (second Monday due to Easter)

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 1, Old Arts

Melissa Raine, University of Melbourne

Personal Taste and Social Threat in Malory’s Morte Darthur

Examples of luxurious food consumption are not hard to find in late medieval English texts and records; however, strikingly few subjective descriptions of taste are recorded, and those that do exist often signify exceptional circumstances. This paper explores the expression of potential threats to social order through the representation of individuated bodily pleasure in food, focusing on the "Poisoned Apple" episode in Malory's Morte Darthur. At Guinevere's "privy dinner', personal pleasure is associated with bodily imbalance and excessiveness, which subverts the communal logic of feasting and the chivalric ideals upheld by this activity. I will also discus the significance of Launcelot's death by starvation in light of Malory's food symbolism, particularly in relation to the Tale of Gareth.

6 May

Venue: South Theatre, Old Arts

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

PhD Completion Seminar

Sacrificial Knights, Extravagant Kings, Emotional Christians: Discourses of Excess and Restraint in Late Medieval Literature

Discourses of excess and restraint inform medieval social practices, political systems and literary texts. This thesis applies three methodological approaches to the literature of fourteenth-century England in order to explore how medieval authors express, negotiate and occasionally resolve these contradictory impulses.

The first section considers two canonical texts, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, through a psychoanalytic framework. Following scholars who have “medievalised” literary theory, part one invokes Lacan’s analysis of courtly love and Bataille’s economics of waste to explicate the narratives of extravagance and sacrifice that structure both texts.

Part two’s historicist approach interrogates the political upheavals of Richard II's government, the disintegration of feudal hierarchies and fourteenth-century sumptuary laws. Troilus and Criseyde hints at an unusual intervention by Chaucer into this political turmoil, while The Clerk’s Tale counterbalances Griselda’s suffering with contempt for the “peple.” Similarly, the debate poem Wynnere and Wastoure and Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal rehearse the economic, political and social implications of laws that attempted to constrain conspicuous consumption.

The final section of this thesis explores medieval religious emotion. Penitential treatises such as Robert Mannyng's Handlyng Synne describe excessive sins and punishments so improbable they begin to resemble narrative entertainment. But this rhetorical excess is absent from secular didactic texts such as “How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter” that recall the burgeoning middle class. Finally, religious emotion is explored in relation to Margery Kempe’s turbulent conduct and Julian of Norwich’s austere contemplation.

The discourses of excess and restraint that pervade medieval social, political and religious practices reflect the significant economic and cultural changes affecting England in the late Middle Ages. This thesis interrogates their literary embodiments through the methodological frameworks of psychoanalysis, historicism and religious emotion.

3 June

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

Bob DiNapoli, University of Melbourne

Can’t a Guy Get Some Sleep Around Here? A Re-Reading of Bede’s Account of Cædmon

Bede’s account of how the illiterate and tone-deaf cowherd Cædmon came by the gift of song has long served as a foundational narrative in the modern study of Old English poetry. And for good reason: its compelling picture of this hapless nobody, so implausibly singled out, finishing his life composing vernacular religious poetry in a monastic scriptorium, remains iconically apt. Whatever its value as literal, documentary history, it offers us an uncannily plausible account of the circumstances that allowed the majority of the extant Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus to be composed and preserved. For this very reason, along with Bede’s status as an early medieval pillar of orthodoxy and the near-universal anthologising of his Cædmon-story in introductory student texts on Old English, we tend to overlook just how odd a tale he tells.

In this talk I wish to consider it as an untypical miracle story that borrows any number of elements from biblical and hagiographical narrative but employs them tangentially to the usual arc of any edifying religious narrative of the period. From the wry humor of the socially-embarrassed cowherd fleeing a party because he couldn’t sing (and being harried into his dreams by a figure commanding him to do just that) to the mystery of his nocturnal visitor’s identity, Bede’s carefully crafted narrative embodies the formative ambivalences that must have attended the inception of vernacular religious poetry in Anglo-Saxon England, a genre whose deeply traditional and deeply pagan elements of vocabulary, diction and imagination frequently complicate the expected smooth flow of Christian orthodoxy.

1 July

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

Associate Professor Sarah McNamer, Georgetown University

Playing With Doubt

This talk participates in a current of recent work that locates forms of Christian doubt in the so-called 'Age of Faith'. It does so by approaching the subject from the point of view of affective play, as such play is scripted by literary and dramatic texts. Doubt, I suggest, can and should be considered a 'cognitive feeling' or 'intellectual emotion'. These concepts can open up new ways to explore the contours of unbelief prior to Descartes. They can also open up familiar texts: in this case, The Second Shepherd's Play. The heart of this lecture is an extended reading of this, the most beloved and heavily-anthologised of all Middle English plays. This is not, I argue, a simple, comical play designed to serve the serious ends of faith - as religious drama is so often assumed to do; rather, it is a daring experiment in "playing with doubt": doubt in the divinity of Christ, in the scheme of redemption, in the right ordering of the universe. A close reading of the literary qualities of the play - features such as wordplay, soliloquy, generic swerves, dramatic structure, characterisation and competing aesthetic registers - suggest that it appears to have been designed to generate radical, affectively-produced, existential doubt. This reading of the play invites a reconsideration of its date, its place in the history of emotion, and the borders of the medieval and the modern.

For those who would like to do some preparation:


A.C. Cawley, ed. The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle. Manchester University Press, 1958. Full edition in Middle English with notes and glossary.

A. C. Cawley, ed. Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays. London: Dent, 1974. Modernised text with marginal glosses. Good if you are in a hurry.

On the web

Links to a number of online texts at

A translation:

There are few performances on YouTube, mostly modernised and greatly abbreviated, but they may give you a sense of how the action unfolds.

5 August

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

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

French Chaucer

Eustache Deschamps’ ballade No. 285, addressing Chaucer as ‘poëte hault’ and ‘grant translateur’ looms large and often in isolation in the history of Chaucer’s French readers. But the question of how the poet looks from the other side of the Channel in the centuries after Deschamps has not often been asked. This paper considers the various sources available for tracing French readers of Chaucer’s works - from archive to internet - and suggests what modern analyses of Chaucer’s own relation to France and literature in French might stand to gain from taking postmedieval French perspectives into account. I argue that through this intellectual and linguistic reorientation we might pay closer attention to the critical vocabulary in which we think and write about Anglo-French exchange in the present, and its limitations, finally troubling the very categories of “English” and “French” themselves, whether literary, linguistic, political or disciplinary.

2 September

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

Dr Mary Flannery, University of Lausanne

Maiden Shamefastness: Emotionality and Gender in Middle English Literature

A burning blush, a wave of self-loathing, a powerful urge to cringe - all of these are recognisable symptoms of shame. Shame overlaps with and inspires a host of responses and emotions, from anger and annoyance to fear and frustration. This was as much the case in the Middle Ages as it is today; indeed, one scholar has suggested that 'we might even call shame the primal medieval emotion, so ubiquitous and various are its implications'. However, expectations regarding who ought to be susceptible to shame, and to what extent, depended upon a variety of factors, chief among them being gender. This paper introduces my ongoing research on the relationship between shame and gender in Middle English literature, focusing particularly on the concept of shamefastness (most simply understood to refer to modesty). The importance of shamefastness lies, I will argue, in its ability to shed light both on our understanding of medieval emotionality and on the performance and expectations of gender& in medieval England.

7 October

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

Hannah Kilpatrick, University of Melbourne

Angers, Indignities and Furies: Understanding an Emotion in Late-mediaeval English Historical Writing

Anger is perhaps one of the most basic of human passions, but its power to disrupt and damage means that it is also one of the most culturally determined. Late-mediaeval England inherited a range of interpretative models through which to understand or reshape anger, both positive and negative. These gave even so simple a word as ira a vast semantic range and, in the trilingual England of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, there was a small host of words with intersecting meanings that might or might not represent what we today would mean by the word anger. My dissertation will examine how chroniclers of reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III represent and understand anger - anger of their characters, of “the people” in response to bad kingship, of God and even (on occasion) of the chronicler - but in this presentation I want to consider how we can go about defining a single emotion for exploration, especially in such a diverse body of work as late-mediaeval historiography.

November: no meeting

2 December

Venue: Graduate Seminar Room 2, Old Arts

Helen Hickey and Melissa Raine, University of Melbourne

Guillemette Bolens' The Style of Gestures: Embodiment and Cognition in Literary NarrativeDiscussion of Chapter 4, "Face-Work and Ambiguous Feats in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"

For the final Round Table of the year, Helen and Melissa will lead a discussion of work on gesture. Melissa will make a brief, informal presentation on Guillemette Bolens’ The Style of Gestures: Embodiment and Cognition in Literary Narrative (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2012), outlining what she believes to be the significant contributions that Bolens makes to medieval literary criticism, and provide an introduction to some of the significant concepts that Bolens uses in her chapter on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. There will then be an open discussion of this chapter. For those of you who intend to read it, perhaps a useful starting point for this discussion would be for you to simply consider whether this chapter contributes anything new or significant to the critical reception of this text, or at least to your own understanding of it. If you are struggling for time, Melissa suggests focusing on Bolens' reading of the exchange of winnings game (139-55).

To receive a copy of Chapter 4 please email Andrew Stephenson at andrewws@