Medieval Round Table 2019

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

Papers for 2019

4 March

Michael Warby

Celts, Clans and Canon Law (or Pinker and Patriclans)

The effect of the medieval Church’s canon law marriage system (monogamy, mutual consent, no divorce, no adoption, no cousin marriage, stigmatisation of illegitimacy) was to undermine clan structures by limiting the ability to maintain extensive, cohesive and robust lineage systems. The consequent effect of replacing socially ‘large’ clans, able to provide a range of protections and benefits to their members, with socially ‘small’ families increased the institutional coherence and effectiveness of both the Church and secular authority.

The operation of the clan structure in Ireland also provides an example, within the scope of historical documentation, that sheds light on the sharp narrowing of surviving male lineages across Eurasia after the development of (plough) farming and pastoralism until the development of chiefdoms and states.

This paper explores why clan structures persisted in the Celtic fringe of Ireland, Wales and Scotland, concentrating on Ireland as a natural experiment where the effects of the persistence of Brehon law, and thus failure to adopt the Church’s marriage system, displays the connection between the Church’s marriage doctrines, the institutional strength of the Church and the evolution of medieval states.

Michael “Lorenzo” Warby is a director of Multisensory Education, which puts on medieval and ancient days for schools. He is currently writing a book on marriage, to be published by Connor Court.

1 April

Carol Williams, Monash University

Ars Antiqua and Ars Nova: Ancients and Moderns?

In 1324 Pope John XXII condemned the edgy new musical style known as Ars Nova in the papal bull Docta sanctorum patrum and became the second pope to legislate for wide sweeping changes to liturgical music, the first being Pope Gregory the Great (540-604). He condemned the new music using highly charged language and accused the “followers of the new school” of depraving melodies with discants, intoxicating the ears of listeners and manifesting wantonness in their lascivious melodies. Similar extreme language is found in book 7 of the encyclopaedic Speculum Musicae by Jacobus (c. 1260-c. 1330). He accuses these moderni of corrupting, reproving and annulling the sound theory of the ancients. This conflict between the ancients and moderns was both the catalyst for creativity and an indicator of social change. There is no better illustration of this than the satirical Roman de Fauvel in which the French court and the Avignon papacy were pilloried. One of its versions was amplified and illustrated with musical settings from some of the most innovative composers in Paris and the glamorous new style of the polyphonic motet was put to political purpose. This paper examines the conflict between the ancients and moderns in early 14th century Paris against the backdrop of the violent socio-political change occurring at the French court in Paris and the struggle between Church and State gathering strength in Avignon.

6 May

Stephen Knight, University of Melbourne

Merlin and the Environment

Medievalists have been for some time looking at how major texts, like The Canterbury Tales or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, represent views of the environment and its meaning.  But a fuller contact with that theme can be traced through some of the mythic figures from the medieval period, who can be shown as representing changing versions of environment-oriented thinking over time.  Robin Hood is an obvious example, with some interesting but not very complex significations across time.  A more variable and revealing figure to study is Merlin, or Myrddin, who represents ways of contrasting the natural world and the socio-political alternatives to it from the late sixth century to the audio-visual present.

3 June

Anya Adair, University of Hong Kong

Old English Law and the Constructing of Legal Time

Newly-composed codes of law surf a wave at the limen of preceding legal history and proceeding legal renovation. Modern statutory composition, however, tends to be deeply suspicious of retrospectivity: new laws achieve their authority by extinguishing the authority of what has gone before them. Within this modern legal-textual temporality, the value of prescriptive law has a finite duration as it lives along linear time. It is text born already under the shadow of its future invalidation. But early medieval English legal text responds to (and constructs) time in a very different way. Here, textual value and legal interest are in many ways compounded with the passing of time. In the retrospective re-creation of past beginnings found in the introductions to Anglo-Saxon law codes, in the imaginative and affective aesthetic created by the language and form of the codes themselves, and even in the textual flexibility resulting from their significant degree of manuscript mouvance, we find a construction of legal time which resists straightforward categorisation according to modern understandings of legal authority. The temporal authority of the Old English law code is achieved not by denial or rebuttal, but by bringing the past forward to make polyphonic the voice of the new present. In this system of law-code composition, there is no break with the past; l’ancien regime transforms itself into and is transformed out of the new regime: it precedes from its own past and present. This talk demonstrates the ways in which Old English law codes behave as a kind of literary text. These codes, straddling the legal and the literary, emerge as texts with their own imaginative aesthetic, temporal force and legal authority.

5 August

John Weretka

Sicard of Cremona on the Consecration of Churches

The church building, as a visible expression of Christian corporate life, a metaphor for the ecclesial economy, and even as a foretaste of the splendour of heaven, has been at the centre of Christian experience for centuries. This presentation examines the long history of the church as building as it has been celebrated in hymn, treatise, sermon and polemic from late Antiquity but gives particular emphasis to the rite of the consecration of a church as it crystallised in the Middle Ages. In particular, this presentation will focus on the rite as described and subjected to exegesis in the liturgical commentary and canon law traditions, especially in the hands of Sicard of Cremona, the author of the most extensive liturgical commentary of the Middle Ages.

2 September

Jenna Mead, University of Western Australia

Editing Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe ... Again

This talk reports on a new edition of Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe for Cambridge University Press’s Chaucer’s Works series. Joseph Stadolnik (U Chicago) and I are collaborating on this project at the invitation of series editors Julia Boffey and Tony Edwards. The series recognizes that the ‘last complete edition of Chaucer was the Riverside Chaucer (1987)’ and proposes scholarly editions that ‘will contain the corpus of Chaucer’s writings, both verse and prose, in old spelling. All texts will be critically edited afresh based on new assessments of all relevant textual evidence’ (Prospectus). Two aspects of the texts attract the general editors' particular attention: ‘All texts will preserve the orthography of the manuscripts adopted as base text, something no collected edition of Chaucer has previously done. Punctuation, a neglected aspect of the editing of Chaucer, will also be fully reassessed.’

Astrolabe presents its own challenges beginning with the simple fact that the text - or parts of it - is extant in more mss than another Chaucer text except The Canterbury Tales. 33 mss survive; the most recent having been identified by Catherine Eagleton in 2003 and reminding us that that number may yet increase. This project comes at an interesting moment in the history of editing Chaucer: the expansion of scholarship in the history of the book and the ‘new’ codicology, has sharpened attention on the material object while, co-incidentally, the digitization of manuscripts, scholarly resources and the proliferation of online content have not only changed the protocols and reach of scholarship, but also the nature of the object under scrutiny. As theorists of digital texts have observed: digitization transforms a verbal text from semiotic system to binary algorithm and scholars are still thinking through the implications of this transition.

I’d like to share some of our thinking about editing Chaucer’s only ‘scientific,’ as opposed to poetic or philosophical text: a translation that, as Fachliteratur, has moved in readers’ estimation from being a complete waste of time (Ezra Pound) to challenging disciplinary assumptions about, among other things, the connections between literary and non-literary texts, texts and objects, human and non-human.

This talk will be accompanied by images. No prior knowledge of scientific instruments will be assumed.

7 October

Helen Dell, University of Melbourne

Electrifying Folk

My paper explores the world of English folk music as it went electric in the 1960s and 70s, in particular the production values of Electric Folk group Steeleye Span and how they turned narrative into drama in the way they presented the old ballads. My paper will focus on the way Steeleye’s music transformed the old songs into musical vehicles for violence, mystery, the sexual, the macabre and the uncanny, which they and their audiences associated with the medieval or archaic world. Dave Swarbrick, the renowned fiddler who played with Fairport Convention graphically explained:

  • If you’re singing about a bloke having his head chopped off, or a girl fucking her brother and having a baby and the brother getting pissed off and cutting her guts open and stamping on the baby and killing his sister - now that’s a fantastic story by any standards ... . Having to work with a storyline like that with acoustic instruments wouldn’t be half as powerful or potent, dramatically, as saying the same things electrically. Because when you deal with violence, when you deal with someone slashing with a sword, say, there are sounds that exist electrically - with electric bass, say - that can very explicitly suggest what the words are saying (David Swarbrick, quoted in Rob. Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, loc. 33)

Swarbrick’s concern was with drama rather than narration; with doing it rather than telling it. Narrative is at one remove from the action, stepping back from the scene. Drama wants to make it happen on the spot.

Bertrand Harris Bronson (1902-1986) the man who reunited the popular ballads collected by Francis James Child (1825-1896) with their missing ‘musical half’ wrote, speaking of ballad refrains:

  • Narrative … does not by its own nature consent … to be submissive to constant interruption and repetition at fixed points throughout its length, at the behest of an arbitrary and relatively uncompromising vehicle imposed to contain it by a power owning another lordship (Bronson, The Singing Tradition of Child’s Ballads. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1976, p. xxiv)

If narrative is unhappy with such constraints, drama is even more so, hence the changes in instrumentation, melodic and rhythmic changes, interference with the traditional ballad order of verse and refrain which Steeleye and other electric folk groups introduced. My paper hopes to give some account of the cultural values underlying these changes.

11 November

Meeting cancelled.