Glopes, Pransawtes and Twyfyls: The Edge of Language in Middle English Drama

By Jenni Nuttall

Five dragonflies and four mayflies. Coloured engraving by J. Newton, ca. 1780, after J. Barbut. Wellcome Trust Collection

Like mayflies which live only for a day, some words have a single attestation in the surviving written records of English (at least as far as current searches can ascertain). The Middle English Dictionary is careful to record these one-off words in medieval English. It gives entries, albeit very brief ones, to the rarest words, allocating them the same status (at least in one way) as the most common words which have very full entries. So why are we so fastidious about, and why should we be interested in, this most ephemeral of language?

Sometimes these one-off words come about by chance – a word might have been widely used in day-to-day speech but only got snagged in writing once. Sometimes the opposite happens: a word is deliberately invented by someone at a particular moment for a particular purpose. This latter kind are called nonce words, named by the Victorian lexicographer James Murray after the phrase ‘for the nonce’ (i.e. for a specific, one-off purpose).

Some of the most deliciously odd nonce words in the Middle English Dictionary — words like ‘glope’, ‘pransawte’ or ‘twyfyls’ — are preserved in the late medieval Towneley Plays, named not for their place of performance but for the owners of the manuscript in which they are collected. Once thought to be a cycle of pageants performed in Wakefield in West Yorkshire, it’s now recognised as ‘a disparate collection of plays, of varied origin and production requirements’.

A quilt by B J Elvgren depicting the Chester Mystery Plays

Wherever the plays came from, their authors had to meet the demands of writing verse drama in long stanzas requiring lots of rhymes. While many poets nowadays veer away from full rhymes as a matter of style, medieval verse-dramatists bend words or invent words to arrive at rhyme no matter what. So in ‘Herod the Great’, the invented adjective ‘myghtyus’ (i.e. mighty-ous), rather than the usual ‘mighty’, is formed to rhyme with ‘gracious’. Or in the ‘Judgement’ play, the compound adjective ‘ill-dedy’ (i.e. ‘ill-deed-y’), describing those who are sinful, is coined to rhyme with ‘greedy’ and ‘needy’.

What would an audience think about these coinages? Would they notice them as new or unusual? These plays were written before the first dictionaries, so perhaps anything goes. Yet the playwrights seem to bend language for oddity and amusement’s sake. Can one be ‘deed-y’ in the same way that you are ‘greed-y’ and ‘need-y’? ‘Mightious’ isn’t exactly like ‘gracious’ because we have ‘mighty’ already. Like a grotesque on a misericord or a weird scene in a manuscript margin, we might think of nonce words as ornamental deformations at the edges of verse and vocabulary, not accidental ‘error’ but wilfully ‘wrong’ invention.

My hunch is that medieval dramatists and audiences appreciated the very peculiar qualities of one-off words. When Herod is presented with the plan to slaughter the Innocents, he narrates his reaction with a one-off word rhyming with ‘hope’ and ‘pope’: ‘my hart is rysand / Now in a glope’ (meaning that his heart is aflutter). Middle English already has the verbs ‘glopnen’ and (much rarer) ‘glopen’, both meaning ‘to be afraid’. A number of Towneley’s one-off words are, like these verbs, derived from Old Norse, being Northern dialect words which don’t get recorded elsewhere in Middle English. But even allowing for that, I think this word is strange. Did you hear what he said? A glope! But what’s a glope? Is he emboldened or afraid? Herod becomes a rambling double-talker in a play that sits uneasily between humour and horror.
Folios 5v and 6r from Huntington Library MS HM 1, the manuscript of the Towneley Plays’

In the Doomsday play, the devil Titivillus (famous for collecting up mumbled prayers and chatter in church, and for making scribes make mistakes) helps other devils conduct an appraisal of the bad souls come for judgement. One devil mocks a sinner’s ‘pransawte’, a blend of ‘prance’ and ‘saut’ (meaning a leap or tumble) which describes quite perfectly those twirls of delight we make in a fancy new outfit. Tutivillus calls out a woman who wears ‘twyfyls’, which might be a lispingly pronounced ‘trifles’ or a mix of ‘twice’ and ‘trifle’, some adornment that comes in a pair. Nonce words like this represent the devilish abuse of language, and also the fashion and artifice which distracts us from what really matters and the ease of error. Yet, at the same time, they are highly evocative.

Towneley’s nonce words don’t get picked up and used elsewhere. Are they thus ultimately failures? My research on poetic neologisms suggests uniqueness was consciously preserved: poets often invent neologisms modelled on earlier examples but don’t so often repeat an earlier poet’s own nonce words. Remaining a mayfly is thus a mark of success. And maybe nonce words can have meaning in their near-meaninglessness, as revealed centuries later in Seamus Heaney’s lovely poem ‘Nonce Words’ (which you can read at the foot of this page).

Heaney’s speaker takes a wrong turn on a drive which leads to a snatched moment of contemplation parked up on a freezing day. In the cold, he seems to apprehend his own mortality. Shivering, he blesses himself in the name of ‘the nonce / and happenstance’, the chance that has brought him here. The title nudges us to spot Heaney’s own nonce creations. He, like the Towneley dramatists, exercises his right to personalise language, to invent words which live as briefly as mayflies or, as the poem tempts us to think, as briefly as humans and their creations, unique and ephemeral.  Yet thanks to the careful custody of lexicographers, nonce words can outlast their brief moment — how, Heaney asks, might we do the same?

Jenni Nuttall is a Lecturer in English at Exeter College, University of Oxford. She tweets and blogs about medieval literature at @Stylisticienne and stylisticienne.com, and has recently written about the history of gibberish for Aeon.co and History Today.

15th Century Booktrade and Learning in the time of Lockdown

By Aoife Ní Chroidheáin

Reblogged from The Conveyor 


How have our reading practices changed during Lockdown? As somebody working with 20th century samizdat material for my doctoral thesis, I was surprised to find some of the most revealing answers to this question at an event centred round the 15th century booktrade project which took place in the Italian Embassy, London. In this blogpost I will reflect on the links between the printing and reading practices associated with 15th century booktrade and those of the later years of the GDR.

Over the last three months, we have seen the spirit of resilience and comradery fostered in communities across the world, supporting people through the adversity of the coronavirus pandemic. It would seem that the life advice Boccaccio imparted to us in the wake of the Black Death in his Decameron (1354), is still as apt as it ever was: “in our communities we can find solace”.

Written between 1348 and 1353, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron contains stories told by a gathering of ten young people who had escaped to a villa outside Florence in order to flee the Black Death. Boccaccio’s frame story comprises a miscellany of tales: romantic, tragic and comedic, and ultimately offers a literary retreat from the pain and hardship of life in a time of plague. However, what emerges specifically from Boccaccio’s work is not just the importance of community, but also the curative power of literature.

For the characters in the Decameron, storytelling offered a moment of welcome reprieve from the difficulty of their life circumstances:

It behoveth us live merrily, nor hath any other occasion caused us flee from yonder miseries […] we shall pass away this sultry part of the day, not in gaming,–wherein the mind of one of the players must of necessity be troubled, without any great pleasure of the other or of those who look on, but in telling stories, which, one telling, may afford diversion to all the company who hearken. (Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio, trans. by John Payne (New York: Walter. J Black, 1886), pp 13-15)

Just as the characters in the Decameron came to each other and began storytelling in order to keep up morale, many members of the public today have turned to the creative arts once more to seek solace in this time of crisis. In the academic community, open-access online events have widened the scholastic community and created inclusive, virtual learning groups open to the public. Speaking at a recent webinar, Professor Cristina Dondi (Oakeshott Senior Research Fellow in the Humanities, Lincoln College, Oxford) noted that this movement towards wider educative inclusivity harkens back to key moments in the 15th century with the democratisation of learning through the era’s burgeoning international book. However, Dondi also reminded webinar attendees of how much further we must go in order to facilitate wider access to scholarly materials in archives.

As the Principal Investigator for the ‘15cBOOKTRADE Project’ at Oxford, Dondi was in the unique position of being able to offer insight into importance of the digitisation of historical texts. The aim of the project was to use the material evidence from thousands of surviving books from the 15th century to address five fundamental questions relating to the introduction of printing in the West. These questions included investigation of reading practices, the evaluation of the books’ contemporary market, the dissemination and visualisation of these texts, and finally, the use of illustrations.

For Dondi, and indeed many other academics, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the absolute necessity of digitisation of historical texts in order to create open-access learning communities befitting the social and academic developments of the 21st century.

‘The Dawn of Printing to Digital Access’

Circumnavigating current lockdown restrictions, the Italian embassy in London recently facilitated a webinar on ‘The Dawn of Printing to Digital Access: the benefits of making books available to everybody’. The event, hosted by Ambassador Trombetta and moderated by Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, brought together international experts engaged in promoting wider accessibility to books of historical and cultural significance (to read more about this project, follow the hashtag #ItalyRestArt).

Image of #ItalyRestArt showing manuscripts

The webinar was focused on highlighting the progress of the digitisation of Italian incunables, while also looking to the future of digital access to historical books more generally. Organised into four main parts, the webinar opened with words of welcome from Jon Snow and His Excellency Ambassador Trombetta. This was followed by the introduction of previously recorded video statements from major players in the recent cultural preservation movement in Italy, featuring recorded messages from Anna Laura Orrico, Italian Minister of State for Culture and Tourism, and Andrea De Pasquale of the National Central Library of Rome. The third part of the webinar consisted of brief individual lectures from the panel in regard to their engagement with and promotion of digital access in their own fields. Among these panellists were Don Fabrizio Cicchetti, Antonio Padoa Schioppa and Prof. Cristina Dondi, who each offered insight into various aspects of digital preservation and access.

Representing the private foundation supporting this vital digitization of these texts, Marc Polonsky, of The Polonsky Foundation, shed light on the Foundation’s commitment to cultural preservation and wide dissemination. Polonsky credited the collaborative nature of the digitization project for fostering unique partnerships between project stakeholders from both the public and private sectors. According to Polonsky, this collaboration facilitated the establishment of high standards of best practice (both academically and technologically) which could be adopted as a developmental framework for future projects.

While each of these leaders related fascinating thoughts, it was Dondi’s lecture, however, that resonated with me the most. This was due to her inspiring engagement with the study of Material Culture, bringing the riches of cultural treasures not just to those in academia but also to the wider public.

Dondi began her talk by referencing the importance of developing resources that facilitate online access to research materials for precisely the moments in time when researchers cannot travel to archives and research libraries. Indeed, the current climate of the global pandemic is evidence for the necessity of accessible, transnational online learning resources.

In the last two years, the digitisation project of the Incunables of the Benedictine monastery of Santa Scolastica at Subiaco, the first printing place in Italy, a collaboration between the National Central Library in Rome and the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) of which Dondi is the Secretary, however, made these Italian cultural treasures available online anywhere in the world at the push of a button. In doing as much, Dondi noted in her talk that for scholars of the incunables, the restrictions placed on archival research due to Lockdown have in this way been surmounted. For many undoubtedly grateful scholars, the online access to these materials will allow them to continue their research projects unhampered by the social and political upheaval around them. If this outcome were not applaudable enough, then the popularity of Dondi’s recent exhibition ‘Printing R-evolution and Society, 1450-1500. Fifty Years that changed Europe’ at the Museo Correr, Venice (September 2018-April 2019) has demonstrated just how vital  digitisation work is for the wider public as for academia. This exhibition documented the impact of the printing revolution on the economic and social development of early modern Europe using hundreds of freely available digitizations from many European and American libraries.

‘Printing R-evolution’

A journey of discovery which used digital tools and innovative methods of communication, the exhibition presented data gathered by the 15c Booktrade project (University of Oxford) about the History of the Book. The exhibition highlighted how, already by the year 1500, millions of books circulated in Europe, not only for the elite, as often claimed, but for everyone, including a large production of schoolbooks. In those, first, decades, printing coincided with experimentation and enterprise. Printed books were the product of a new collaboration between various sectors of society: knowledge, technology, and commerce, with ideas spreading widely and quickly as never before.

Dondi’s close engagement with the study of material culture was of particular interest to me, as my doctoral project investigates the ‘unofficial’ literary scene of the GDR in the 1980s, specifically through in-depth case studies of magazines printed in a samizdat capacity.

By researching each of the magazines’ diverse literary content, the different ways in which these magazines were produced, and the readership practices that surrounded them, my thesis will offer insights into the creative self-expression of the East Berlin literary scene and examine whether this phenomenon can be understood as part of the wider samizdat movement seen in many Eastern bloc countries. My thesis explores what these magazines tell us about the function, possibilities and limitations associated with publication beyond print in a totalitarian regime. Although my topic of research differs greatly from Dondi’s work in terms of historical era and social circumstances, in essence both areas of research are fundamentally preoccupied with the same investigative question: what can the physical form of the book reveal about the people behind its printing?

In the scholarly community, as in many other sectors in society, academics have had to adjust their ordinary methods of research in order to continue with their projects. Working From Home and using online learning tools have helped educators create an academic space (albeit, a virtual one) in this time of crisis. Attending webinars such as Dondi’s ‘The Dawn of Printing to Digital Access’, where international experts shared their knowledge and supported each other and the wider scholastic community allowed myself, and doubtless many other academics, to use our time in isolation fruitfully and thoughtfully. It would seem, therefore, that despite all changes and disruptions, many of us, like in the time of Boccaccio, have taken refuge in our communities, the stories and studies that we hold dear, as we continue to go on learning in the time of Lockdown.

***

Aoife Ní Chroidheáin BA (Hons) MSt (Oxon) is DPhil Candidate in Medieval and Modern Languages at the University of Oxford and holds a scholarship in the Leverhulme Doctoral Centre Publication Beyond Print. Aoife’s doctoral research entitled Dangerous Creations: Power and Autonomy in East Berlin’s Samizdat examines the unofficial literary scene in East Berlin from 1980-1990.

Reaching out with medieval manuscripts

By Tuija Ainonen

What do you get when you put together an excited group of medieval manuscript specialists and ask them to discuss blogging and teaching with digitized manuscripts? The answer: trumpets, drapes, marginal animal appearances, fake back-drops, cries of agony, laughter and lots of good advice.

A worldwide audience (from California to New Zealand!) gathered in three online sessions that were organized as additional evening events for the International Medieval Congress (IMC) at Leeds, 6–9 July 2020. The organisers were very pleased to see that each session had well over 100 participants. Our speakers shared their experiences on using digitized medieval manuscripts for teaching, and for reaching out to various audiences via social media, mainly through blogging and tweeting. 

Blogging manuscripts with #PolonskyGerman

Tuija Ainonen, Andrew Dunning and Henrike Lähnemann (all of University of Oxford) opened the sessions by discussing their experiences on blogging for Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands – A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project. The project is in the middle of a three-year collaboration between the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford and the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. Funded by The Polonsky Foundation, the project seeks to open up the medieval German manuscript collections of two world-class libraries for research and reuse. The two libraries will digitize c. 600 medieval manuscripts of Germanic origin between 2019 and 2021.

Watch to hear some thoughts on writing project based blogs on a variety of topics.

In the first session each presenter highlighted a blog post they had written. By opening up their writing processes they provided some useful tips for what to do, and what they would do differently. Even with specialized projects the aim is to write to non-specialists, so using approachable language and sentence structures is essential. As illustrative images are taken from digitized copies, it is crucial to provide readers with the manuscript shelfmark, folio reference and a link to the digital copy. It is important to follow the libraries’ attribution and guidance for terms of use that are provided in the meta-data of the images. However, the best place of the shelfmark is perhaps not on the title of the blog post. 

Teaching the digital codex 

In our second session Mary Boyle (University of Oxford), Julia Walworth (Merton College, Oxford) and Leonor Zozoya-Montes (University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria) continued the theme of manuscript outreach. Discussions considered teachable features and pedagogical approaches to teaching with digital codices. Teaching the Codex was launched at Merton College, Oxford with a colloquium in February 2016, and it has since published formidable blogs on teachable features and links to paleographical and codicological training resources.

Listen to great insights into how to approach teaching the digital codex.

Their individual and collective insights provided the listeners with lots of new ideas and thoughts. Perhaps the not-so-pretty manuscripts also deserve more time in the limelight provided by blogs. Various teachable features and manuscripts that cover multiple texts provide fertile ground for highlighting medieval manuscripts from various different viewpoints.

Blogging manuscripts for the general public

In our final session Alison Hudson (University of Central Florida) and Alison Ray (Canterbury Cathedral Archives) took us through a whirlwind of images and advice on good social media practices as they showed us examples of their twitter and blog behaviour.  

An excellent brief introduction to successful tweeting and blogging practices with medieval manuscripts

With a handy and useful group of guidelines for continuing our journey on blogging and tweeting with medieval manuscripts, one particular thought is worth repeating here. We as manuscript researchers and readers are in the best position to showcase and promote the work we do. Blogs provide us a handy way of showing ways in which medieval books are still relevant today, and how the old authors, compilers, scribes and readers of old continue to speak to current audiences.  

Blog writing challenge

In preparing for these three sessions we encouraged our readers to submit blog proposals for potential future blog posts in the participating platforms. A good initial crop of intriguing proposals were discussed during the sessions, and we anticipate to publish several of them in the coming months. While the initial deadline of proposals was to ensure inclusion in our sessions, it is still not too late! 

Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands – A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project continues to accept proposals showcasing to a general readership manuscripts digitized within the project. From 257 manuscripts (and counting!) to choose from, which one would you highlight and why? Proposals for blogs should be sent in the first instance to Andrew Dunning (andrew.dunning@bodleian.ox.ac.uk) or Matthew Holford (matthew.holford@bodleian.ox.ac.uk). Blogs of 500-750 words submitted by 22 August will be eligible for the Polonsky German blogging challenge. A panel will select the most successful blogs and will award prizes at the Dark Archives Conference 8-10 September 2020.

The Blogging with Manuscripts sessions were organised in collaboration with Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands – A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project, Oxford Medieval Studies, Teaching the Codex, and Dark Archives

Updating a Medieval Mystery Play: The St Edmund Hall Apocalypse

Reblogged from the Judgement Page of the Oxford Medieval Mystery Cycle site hosted by St Edmund Hall.


In the beginning, there was Drama Cuppers. Not one member of the final cast of Teddy Hall’s 2018 entry in the freshers-only drama competition expected to be part of it, and the cast was only settled, and rehearsals only began, about a week before the first performance. To universal amazement, we not only pulled off our abridged and chaotic production of The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon, but made it through to the finals, after which we were nominated for several awards. Having been warned that Teddy Hall was not well known for its pursuit of the dramatic arts, we were giddy with our own success. Yet even with these strange beginnings, we could never have predicted what it would get us into.

Later that Michaelmas, Professor Lähnemann, having heard about our Drama Cuppers exploits, approached director Emma Hawkins (2018, Fine Art) about her plan to host a Medieval Mystery Play Cycle, asking if she would be interested in organising a group from Teddy Hall. Based on the popular form of entertainment across Europe in the Middle Ages, the plays were to narrate the greatest hits of the Bible, from the Creation to the Last Judgement, and to be staged at various locations around the college. Emma took the news back to us — and we laughed at her. Us, whose only theatrical experience in Oxford had been an absurd fairy-tale play in which a feminist Snow White rejects her housewife role and retells her own story (having one of the dwarves play her part in drag) — us perform a serious play? About the Bible?

Well, naturally, we accepted the offer. We’d been told we could adapt the script we had been given, which was a modernised version of the Last Judgement from the Towneley Plays. That, we decided — or, rather, hoped — gave us the freedom we would need to pull off something like this. And yet, of course, while we wanted to have fun with it, we were also very conscious that the last thing we wanted to do was to offend anyone in our audience, which was to have an unusually high concentration of vicars. We chose the Last Judgement on the grounds that Revelation — as commentators have noted for more than a millennium — already has some… interesting material. However, we did not think about the other implication of performing the Apocalypse, which is, of course, that nothing comes afterwards. We’d agreed to do the Big Finale, the Last Word on the Matter, the One to End it All, Literally: so it was going to have to be good.

Fortunately, we were gifted with a fascination for theology (both having survived A Levels in Religious Studies with Christianity), a love for Monty Python, and, at least in Alex’s case, a well-oiled understanding of poetic metre (and in Amy’s, a willingness to learn, but some confusion about why it mattered or even what it was). The first round of edits on the original script were made by Emma’s friend, Benedict Mulcare; then we took over, spending eighth week of Hilary repeatedly staying up until the ungodly hours composing and versifying, intoning Miltonic speeches and satirising Brexit — despite Amy’s Law Mods being the following week. As we moved towards the Easter vac, we dragged in as many of our friends as we could cajole, bribe, or blackmail, kicking and screaming, into our cast. We managed to do most of our casting before the vacation, and thought things were well settled. Except for the fact that we hadn’t actually finished the script yet.

We kept on working, though, including making some further revisions to the script whilst on holiday in Germany (never let it be said that we don’t take our Bible seriously) and, although this might not have been entirely conducive to our cast’s learning their lines, things seemed to be going well. Then, in the week before the production, we lost our Jesus (the sort of sentence that by then felt quite normal). Fortunately we found a new one just in time (Joe Rattue, Somerville), who managed to learn his lines within seventy-two hours: which can only be described as a Godsend. This last-minute change was not as difficult as it might otherwise have been, largely because we had done perhaps one rehearsal up until this point — our original readthrough for the purpose of casting — and so Joe really hadn’t missed much.

Suddenly, it was Saturday of noughth week, Trinity Term 2019, and we were outside the Norman church that is the St Edmund Hall library, hearing someone in a cassock preface our play in Middle English: a bit of a contrast to what came next. Yet, to our amazement (a feeling we were beginning to grow accustomed to), there was laughter — rather a lot of laughter. And then there was clapping — rather a lot of clapping. Amongst it all there was some puzzlement, but, well, the Word of God has long been subject to that. We had turned the Last Judgement into a satirical comedy, we were the finale to some very poignant and very learned plays, and we seemed to have managed it without offending anyone. One might even have called the resulting applause rapturous. (Sorry.)

Jump forward now past Prelims and the Long Vac: it is Michaelmas Term 2019, the wine has been flowing in true Oxford fashion, and directing, producing, casting, budgeting, marketing, costuming, and starring in (in various combinations) a full-length production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in a single term feels like a splendid and utterly foolproof idea. Several weeks deep into the all-consuming chaos that followed, Professor Lähnemann approached us again, bringing news of a Second Coming of the Medieval Mystery Cycle, and asking if, after the success of the previous year, we would like to revive the Last Judgement in an expanded version. Again, as though we didn’t already have enough on our plates, we jumped at the chance (this time laughing not with derision but with glee), and, as soon as Earnest was over (with reviews and everything!), set to work on a heavy rewrite of our old script.

Now we had the time, there was a lot we wanted to do. For all our comic intentions, we had some serious messages we wanted to get across. Our first task was to thoroughly expunge, or at least address in a constructive manner, some of the (quite literally) Medieval attitudes that still lingered from the original script. We were alarmed to discover, for example, that Tutivillus, our suave arch-villain, was historically a precursor of racist blackface figures.[1] Secondly, we had tried in our first adaptation to satirise the misogyny of the original: by having the demons treat feminists as comparable to murderers and violent criminals, we hoped to demonstrate the absurdity of the antiquated attitudes found throughout the piece. However, having already had the same demons condemn Donald Trump and co., we realised that then having them criticise feminists made our satire confusingly inconsistent: we wanted sympathy for the devils as they tore apart the Republicans, but not when they did the same to the feminists, so one of them would have to go. This feminist point also hinged perilously on an explanation from Jesus at the end of the play, which, with such limited rehearsals, was in grave danger of being accidentally missed out in performance — as, indeed, it ultimately was.

So, how to resolve these issues? Well, Tutivillus was going to be replaced by Satan, who, to take a leaf out of the seventeenth century’s book, was to be a satire on the Brexiteers. (Alex, writing Satan’s soliloquy, spent far too long finding parallels between Leave Campaign slogans and the fall of Lucifer.) Deeming our feminist efforts sadly unsalvageable, we scrapped the misogyny altogether.

The other thing we fancied was a frame narrative: partly because we thought it would give us a chance to look at Revelation as a text with a complex history, written in uncertain circumstances by an uncertain ‘John’, its canonical status fought over for millennia, its eschatological implications long scrutinised. But mostly because we thought it would be funny.

After going through many possibilities (an early Church synod debating which books were suitable for inclusion in the canon, like they were reviewing X Factor auditions, was a front-runner), we settled on St John himself in the act of writing his Apocalypse. The play, then, was to open with the Angel imparting the Revelation to John, who would bumblingly commentate on the proceedings, interrupting at crucial moments to get an explanation of, say, how the simple breaking of seals could produce such catastrophic events, and how Christ could also be his own Father (except not really). Two years in sixth form of learning all the possible Trinitarian heresies were about to come in handy as we made John utterly fail, over and over again, to toe the line of orthodoxy.

That background theological knowledge could also be troublesome, however. As we read the original play, it occurred to us that the Jesus of the Book of Revelation is, to put it mildly, somewhat different to the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels (at least the gentler ones). The Jesus of the future seemed to place far more emphasis on vengeance and retribution than the great exponent of forgiveness described elsewhere in the Bible. In writing our version, we wanted to explore this problem. We were intrigued by the idea that the story of Jesus has, in large part, been shaped by centuries of translation, reinterpretation, and political and social change, and that his true character may have been lost somewhere along the way. In the 2019 version, we wrote a closing speech in which our Jesus explained that although his role in Revelation would be a deviation from his previous character, his hands were tied by the story set down by John: he was the product of thousands of conflicting beliefs.

In our second version, however, we took an alternative approach. Our frame narrative would allow us to address the reasons for Jesus’ drastically different presentation in Revelation. That said, we thought it might seem a little presumptuous to suggest that a short comedic play written by two students could so easily succeed where aeons of scholarship have failed, and so we opted for farce over realism. Rather than trying to answer the unanswerable question of how exactly millennia of reinterpretation and (mis)translation shaped the Book of Revelation we know today, we simply wanted to ask the question of others, who had Theology degrees and might do the legwork for us.

Once again, we worked through several variations of this story. Initially, we were quite fond of the idea that John was simply illiterate, and didn’t have a very good memory either, but eventually we decided on him not just having any ink. Ultimately, though, our point remained the same — although we had already reworked Jesus’s closing speech from last year’s, we were still keen to further challenge literalist notions of Revelation in a more direct, or at least more slapstick fashion, facetiously suggesting that the whole thing is the half-remembered notes of a man without a pen.

The second script, in all its twenty-five-page glory, was finally finished by the third week of Hilary term. We found a wonderful cast, including our third Jesus; we ordered the most ludicrous array of props, including four rubber horse masks (white, red, black, and pale), which are now decorating our houses; we rehearsed until the end of term, and all in all, we were ready to put on quite the show.

And then the real Apocalypse decided to upstage us.

We still hope that the second version of our play will one day get to be performed, perhaps at next year’s Mystery Cycle. But there’s no need to wait until then. ThE 2020 Judgement play script is available to read in all its sparkling glory on the Judgement page of the Medieval Mystery Cycle website hosted by St Edmund Hall. For the complete experience, you can also read the 2019 Judgement play script, see photographs of the performance – and watch the complete 2019 Judgement drama unfolding!

***

Alex Gunn and Amy Hemsworth are second-year students at St Edmund Hall, Alex reading English and Amy Law and German Law)

Opening Medieval Manuscripts

By Henrike Lähnemann

This article first appeared on KnowItWall.

Opening a book unfolds a new world. In the case of the pocket-sized prayer-book Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Lat. liturg. f. 4, it is one of magic and surprises: gold dragons, an orchestra of angelsnuns and biblical figures (see figure 1 below) populate the margins of 584 packed pages. The black ink is laced with black, red, blue, and gold letters but even more colourful is the text itself, an idiosyncratic mix of flowery medieval Latin and vernacular poetry.

To find the significance of this visual and linguistic firework, it is necessary to trace the manuscript back to its origin and decipher or rather decode its text and decoration, as well as the link between the two. The Low German dialect is that spoken in Lüneburg, one of the centres of the Hanseatic League, the most important trade area in Europe before the EU. Lüneburg’s salt production financed Medingen, the convent in which this prayer-book was written around 1500. Every nun wrote several manuscripts as part of her personal devotion, each of them a jigsaw piece of a different shape and colour, constructing a bigger picture of female piety and agency.

We are extremely lucky that we can reconstruct their physical world in greater detail than perhaps any other medieval community. This is because the convents on the Lüneburg Heath survived as religious institutions through both the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and the Napoleonic Secularisation of the 19th century. The women had a remarkable staying power — and fortunately, they never disposed of any of their possessions: the world’s oldest spectacles, for example, were found under the choir stalls of the neighbouring convent Wienhausen. The convents’ sewing and writing tools, as well as their breathtaking architecture all provide a window into the rich spiritual life of the late Middle Ages, into a time when the nuns wrote letters, played the organ, educated girls, and looked after a large and prosperous community.

These books reveal to us not only the physical world in which the nuns lived, wrote and read manuscripts, but also the spiritual realm that they aspired toward. It is a world that cannot be seen with the physical eye. Rather, it has to be grasped with the ‘visio spiritualis’ (spiritual vision) and ‘visio intellectualis’ (sense of intellectual understanding). Their monastic training enabled the nuns to look beyond: when the priest raised the bread above the altar, the nuns could truly see the Christ-child being lifted from its cradle, taste the heavenly meal, hear the angels sing and feel the divine vibrations of a whole world dancing with joy.

This macrocosm of late medieval devotion is mirrored within the microcosm of the Oxford prayer-book. The book is meant to be carried around: at a size comparable to about six smartphones (stacked two wide, three high), its sturdy leather-covered boards just about fit into a hand. It had small clasps since it was mainly made up of parchment — an unruly, springy material which reminds us of the shape of the animal it was once part of. It could be read while dressing, walking along the cloisters to the nuns’ choir for the Office of the Hours or attending mass. Red lettered instructions served as stage directions for the spectacle of convent life, as a reminder to perform their prayers and meditations with heart, hand and voice. This was particularly important during the parts of the service in which the nuns could not actively participate.

On Easter Sunday, a whole parallel choreography unfolded. While laypeople physically worshipped the cross that the officiating priests carried through church, the nuns up on their choir made a spiritual offering “on the harpstrings of their soul”. After the clergy sang Victimae paschali laudes, the congregation answered with the German hymn Christ is upstande which promised that God will be the comforter (God de wel unse trost syn, 70v). The scene is imagined in the margin of a later page, where a boy with a flower wreath holds a song bubble containing the opening line of the hymn. Then, the voice of the writing nun calls out in jubilation, commenting on the song in mixed Latin and Low German: O dulce carmen, o mellifluum verbum “God wel vnse trost syn”! Wen wy den hebben, so enbeghere wy nicht mer, wy behouen ock nicht mer; ergo consolamini in hijs verbis. (O sweet song, o mellifluous word “God will be our comfort”! If this is the case, we neither want nor need anything else; let us take comfort in these words!)

In the next rubric, the nun is encouraged to embrace Christ in the “arms of her soul” and to greet him as her bridegroom coming to rescue her. Easter became an existential moment when engaging with the true meaning of the liturgy enabled the nun to be part of salvation history. All of this happened through the power of this pocket prayer-book, which came to the Bodleian through a series of sales after antiquarians came to view these devotional manuscripts as objects. However, the tactile quality of this book appealed differently to these collectors than it did to the nuns who wrote it and engaged with it on a daily basis.

And yet, the appeal of the book endures. Sensual experience (no white gloves allowed!) is the clue to recover a lost world, the real “Sound of Music” of nuns and laypeople singing together, the nuns in their white habits, the Lüneburg crowd in their Sunday best. Their songs of praise happen in a world full of gold, images and moveable parts (201v shows a paper veil covering a gold initial; 131v has a paper clipping of a flower girl pasted over a cut in the parchment (see figure 3 above)). Its enduring appeal lives on in the successors of the medieval nuns, namely in the Protestant women of today (see YouTube video below) who continue to share their passion for their historic buildings and spiritual heritage with the community around them, just as their predecessors did. They even wrote a cookbook with regional recipes Das Feuer hüten (in English: Tending the Hearth) and continue to welcome visitors into a world full of heavenly experience.

Click here to see a video of the Abbess of Lüne presenting her concept for the convent.

Conference Report: Found in Translation

By Diana Denissen

Professor Henrike Lähnemann’s interactive keynote lecture (picture by Henrike Lähnemann)

On Saturday 19 October, I attended the morning of the first conference of the Greene’s Institute, ‘Found in Translation’ (full programme). As the call for papers stated, scholars working in any field of the humanities are often very aware of ‘translation loss’: the precise meaning of important ideas and concepts shifts when translating them from one language into another and the literary language of the original cannot be fully grasped when reading a translation of a text. ‘I am frustrated that my students are not able read important texts in the original language any more’, said one of the conference participants. However, only thinking about translation in negative terms, using words as ‘loss’ or ‘compromise’ is too limiting. The aim of the ‘Found in Translation’ conference was, therefore, to take another, more positive angle and ask what is actually found in translation. In the remainder of this blog, I will briefly describe some recurring themes discussed during the morning of the conference.

A number of participants discussed the orality of medieval narratives and what happens when elements from this oral tradition are transmitted, or rather ‘translated’, to a written tradition. ‘The enclosing of the saga within codicological boundaries’, Brian McMahon named it in his paper. Julie Dresvina pointed to the fact that some stories from an oral culture ‘slip through the cracks’ such as in The Book of Margery Kempe, a text in which Margery Kempe is a ‘compulsive storyteller’. Godelinde Perk’s discussion of Modern Devout Sister Books from the Low Countries, which contain biographies of exemplary members of religious communities, revealed similar elements of orality. In addition to this, Godelinde stressed that her paper, which focussed on Middle Dutch texts for an English-speaking audience was, of course, already an act of translation – and therefore interpretation – in itself. Ilya Sverdlov also pointed to this in his paper on the complex practice of translating Icelandic compound (place) names into English.

Another interesting aspect discussed during the conference was how the present can inform an understanding of the (medieval) past. Julie Dresvina explained how modern day memes helped her to grasp both the centrality and the marginality of medieval misericords (small wooden images on the underside of a folding seat in a church). Sander Vloebergs used modern dance to establish a connection between modern and medieval bodies, transmitting the female saint’s life of Lutgardis of Aywières to contemporary dance: https://artistictheologylab.com/portfolio/videos/.

The morning ended with professor Henrike Lähnemann’s interactive keynote lecture on the impact of Luther’s Bible translation (watch the first part of the keynote on youtube and follow the exercises on the handout). When we were asked to write our ideas about Bible translation on post-it notes, they varied widely, ranging from ‘translating the Bible is impossible’ to ‘we should translate the Bible in as many ways as possible’. According to Luther, translation was a process of ‘letting go of the letters’ (the title quote of the keynote lecture, taken from the Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, fol. b2r) and focussing on a translation that would make sense to a contemporary audience. During her final reflections, Professor Lähnemann stressed that ‘translation is political’. What is found in translation is a world that is more open and more connected. Translations allow for more dialogue and understanding across language boundaries, across space and time, and even across different media.

Thank you to the Greene’s Institute for organizing this wonderful conference.

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Diana Denissen is a Swiss National Science Foundation post-doc mobility fellow. She works on late medieval religious literature and women’s writing from England and the Low Countries. Her monograph Middle English Devotional Compilations will be out in November of this year. You can follow Diana on twitter under @folioscribbles or on her website.found in translation

Lively discussion during the conference (picture by the Greene’s Institute)

Introducing the MSCA-IF project “Women Making Memories: Liturgy and the Remembering Female Body in Medieval Holy Women’s Texts”.

19 September 2019 Godelinde Perk

“Weren’t intelligent women in the Middle Ages seen as witches?” one of my theology undergrads once asked “Could they even read and write?”. These questions illustrate how many still think of the Middle Ages as “the Dark Ages” (an epithet long rejected by scholars), a time in which women lacked opportunities for education, reflection, and agency. Numerous texts by medieval women writers testify to reality being far more complex. What is more, many of these texts are religious in character: often, the earliest known text by a woman writer in the vernacular is a mystical, visionary or devotional text. These works suggest that life as a nun, devout laywoman, a “semi-religious”, or lay-sister (a kind of free-lance nun), allowed women to find “a room of one’s own”, to Virginia Woolf’s phrase. My name is Godelinde Gertrude Perk, and I am a Marie Skłdowska Curie Fellow at the faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages (supervised by Professor Henrike Lhnemann) and am delighted to introduce my two-year project “Women Making Memories: Liturgy and the Remembering Female Body in Medieval Holy Women’s Texts”, which started on the first of September 2019. (This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 842443.)
 

initial of nun
“Historiated initial of a nun”. Detail from London, British Library, Sloane 2468, fol. 227v. England, c. 1420.

Medieval women writers responded to and transformed the religious ideas of their times; my project investigates how they did so. Considering both well-known figures (Julian of Norwich), and lesser-known ones (the Sisters of the Modern Devout), it situates their texts in a particularly omnipresent but often understudied context, the liturgy of the Mass and the Divine Office. It should be kept in mind that devout women from medieval Europe frequently took part in the Divine Office (the monastic hours), nuns and lay-sisters, even several times a day, and strove to attend Mass as frequently as possible. They therefore knew the words, sounds, sights, and movements of the liturgy by heart: we find numerous references to these sensations and words in their texts.

senior sister
Bronze sculpture by Samuel Crommelin on the site of the Diepenveen convent, depicting a senior sister encouraging a novice. Photo: JanB46 (Wikimedia)

Using thick description and close reading, I will investigate the role of memories of the liturgy in their works, analysing these texts through the prism of memoria, the medieval art of remembering. Medieval culture saw memoria as essential for moral behaviour and literary invention; medieval devout women deployed memory arts daily when meditating. The liturgy indirectly taught an art of memory as well. Because of the many sensations and movements the liturgy entailed, this art of memory involved both body and mind. Exploring the function of memoria therefore illuminates the role of the body in these women’s writings. The project, then, will unveil what and how medieval women’s texts want us to remember.

https://www.digitaleetalages.nl/dam/moderne-devotie/zusters-van-het-gemene-leven/Zwedera%20van%20Rechteren%20in%20Zusterboek%20Diepenveen.jpg/_jcr_content/renditions/cq5dam.web.200.320.jpeg
The Middle Dutch Sister-Book under discussion, compiled by Griet Essinghes. Deventer, Deventer Library, MS 101 E 26 KL, fol. 111v-112r. The Low Countries, 1524.

The project is uniquely international and multilingual; it is the first to juxtapose female-authored texts in different north-western European vernaculars, reflecting how medieval women’s devotion was not bound by national borders. I will compare six vernacular (auto)biographies and visionary texts in Middle Dutch, Middle English, and Middle High and Low German. They date from 1300 to 1500 and originate from the European regions now known as the Netherlands (the Diepenveen Sister-book, in Middle Dutch), Belgium (Mechtild van Rieviren’s visions), Germany (the Medingen prayerbook), Switzerland (the Katarinentaler Sister-book), and The United Kingdom (Julian of Norwich’ A Revelation of Love, and The Book of Margery Kempe). At the end of the project, I will have revealed European parallels and interactions between texts and writers. Ultimately, I endeavour to amplify medieval women’s voices and illuminate their significance to Europe’s cultural and spiritual heritage. This European quality is my reason for applying to the MSCA-IF, and for it being based at the Faculty for Medieval and Modern Languages and the University of Oxford, which hosts many academics considering medieval European religious and literary culture.

st matt
“The symbol of the Evangelist St. Matthew: the angel, writing.” Detail from a thirteenth-century French Book of Hours.  The Hague, Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum & Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS KB 132 F 21, fol. 484v.  

I will inform the general public and academic audiences of the project findings in a variety of ways, including several TORCH outputs. I am particularly passionate about appealing to non-academic audiences and helping them discover the wisdom, humour, and the fascinating lives of medieval women: in addition to publishing several academic articles, I will write a number of popular articles (available online), give popular lectures in museums and churches, possibly direct or contribute to a play, and tweet regularly from the project twitter account (@WMM_Oxford). Open Access is central to MSCA-IF projects, and I will make all outputs as freely accessible as possible.

You may be curious to know a little more about the post-doctoral researcher performing this project. I’m originally from the Netherlands, and have a background in English Literature. While doing my PhD in northern Sweden working on a dissertation tracing the evolution of Julian of Norwich’ narrative and theological thought, I developed an interest in the parallels between Middle English and Middle Dutch texts by women; my research has since shifted to a more comparative, European focus. (The texts that particularly caught my interest were the Middle Dutch Sister-books (collections of short biographies by nuns or laysisters of the sisters in the community). Some of you may be familiar with The Book of Margery Kempe; the Sister-books are similar in how they brim with with dramatic vignettes, vivid detail, pithy sayings and local colour). I also lived in Oxford during my PhD: in 2015, I spent four months here, immersing myself in its vibrant seminar culture and unique knowledge base. It was then that I met Professor Lähnnemann, whom I have since envisaged as the ideal supervisor for this project. After my PhD, I was employed as an associate professor at another Swedish university, that of Sundsvall, and looked for postdoc opportunities in order to broaden my knowledge of medieval women’s literature from north-western Europe and become one of the leading scholars in the nascent field of pan-European literary and devotional culture. (One of the academic endeavors from that time is a play produced together with two friends, which was based on the Middle Dutch Sister-Books; I hope to organize something similar in Oxford.). This year, I was awarded the Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellowship, as well as a Fulford Junior Research Fellowship at Somerville College, home to a dynamic medievalist community.

The project and the Fellowships contribute significantly to my academic and professional development, and I could not be more grateful for this wonderful opportunity and for being given the chance to return to Oxford. However, I am equally grateful to be working with many highly knowledgeable and generous scholars and to shed light upon medieval women’s minds, ultimately making their voices better heard. 


eu

Dr Godelinde Gertrude Perk, PhD
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow
Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages
University of Oxford
 

Front page image credit: “Statue of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral, by David Holgate FSDC. Photo: Rocketjohn (Wikimedia).

The Normans in the South: Mediterranean Meetings in the Central Middle Ages

By Emily A. Winkler

By some accounts, 1017 marked the advent of the Norman presence in Italy and Sicily, inaugurating a new era of invasion, interaction and integration in the Mediterranean. Whether or not the millennial anniversary is significant, the moment offered an ideal opportunity to explore the story in the south, about a thousand years ago. To what extent did the Normans establish a cross-cultural empire? What can we learn by comparing the impact of the Norman presence in different parts of Europe? What insights are discoverable in comparing local histories of Italy and Sicily with broader historical ideas about transformation, empire and exchange?

The conference brought together established, early-career and post-graduate scholars for a joint investigation of the Normans in the South, to explore together the meetings of cultural, political and religious ideas in the Mediterranean in the central Middle Ages. The three-day event (30 June – 2 July 2017) was attended by 115 delegates from all over the world (13 countries). There were 75 papers, including 3 keynote lectures by Professor Jeremy Johns (Oxford), Professor Sandro Carocci (University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’), and Professor Graham Loud (Leeds). The conference organizer, Dr Emily Winkler, opened the conference by reflecting on Charles Homer Haskins’s comments about the Normans over a century ago, and ways in which our study of the Normans might advance by considering the many meetings and relationships which developed as a result of their ventures southwards across Europe. In a special highlight talk, Professor David Abulafia (Cambridge) enlightened the delegates about the influence of Oxford historian Evelyn Jamison, whose many advances both in the history of Norman Sicily and in the scholarly careers of women academics have opened many doors, and have made possible the blossoming of subsequent studies on Norman Sicily over the past century.

The conference featured three parallel strands of sessions: ‘Conquest and Culture’, ‘Art and Architecture’ and ‘Power and Politics’. Scholars reflected on subjects including: the Normans in the theatre of the Mediterranean as a case study in proto-world dominion; manuscript images as insights into the Mediterranean networks which from which wealthy rulers hoped to profit; and nineteenth-century photography of art and architecture from Norman Sicily as a window into the uses of the past. Delegates had the opportunity to visit the beautifully-preserved Norman crypt under St Peter-in-the-East, the church which now serves as the library at St Edmund Hall, on short tours led by Dr Winkler and the two conference assistants (postgraduate students in medieval history), Mr Liam Fitzgerald (UCL) and Mr Andrew Small (Oxford). 80 people attended the conference dinner at St Edmund Hall, which was a festive occasion catered by John McGeever and his team at the college. The Principal of St Edmund Hall, Professor Keith Gull, welcomed delegates to the medieval college and thanked Dr Winkler for organizing the conference.

The conference was designed to fill a gap in Haskins Society conference offerings in the UK and Europe, and to provide a stimulating event on behalf of UK and EU members in particular, as well as Haskins members in general. It was sponsored by TORCH, the Haskins Society, the Khalili Research Centre, the John Fell OUP Fund, and the Royal Historical Society.

Oxford Medieval Graduate Conference

By Henry Drummond and Sian Witherden

One of the winners of the 2016-2017 edition of the AHRC-TORCH Graduate Fund was the Oxford Medieval Graduate Conference. In this post Henry Drummond (DPhil Music) and Sian Witherden (DPhil English), two members of the organising committee, tell us more about the outcome of the project and about their experiences with the organisation of this interdisciplinary conference.

The Oxford Medieval Graduate Conference is an annual, two-day interdisciplinary conference run by and for graduate students and early career researchers. It presents an open, friendly platform for graduate medievalists from a variety of disciplines to share their research upon a common theme. Conferences in previous years have been based upon various topics, from ‘Light’ (2008) to ‘Colour’ (2015) and ‘Sleep’ (2011). The theme for 2017—the conference’s 13th year running—was ‘Time’. 

Our Organising Committee was diverse, incorporating young scholars from the faculties of Medieval & Modern Languages (Dr Pauline Souleau), English (Sian Witherden, Caroline Batten, Hannah Bower), History (Anna Boeles Rowland, Jennifer Jones), Music (Henry Drummond) and History of Art (Sarah Griffin). The conference’s interdisciplinary outlook was also mirrored in the papers themselves, and speakers covered themes as varied as sacred time, manuscripts, time reckoning, visions, and time cycles. Having such a universal theme also meant that papers spanned a wide geographical area, incorporating studies on medieval England, France, Germany, Scandinavia, Iberia and Italy.

This enticingly rich selection of papers was summarised through two keynote presentations that drew upon many of the themes addressed over the two days. Prof. David D’Avray addressed the multitude of issues surrounding time’s ontological status in his Plenary: ‘Questions about Time’. The conference was brought to a close with Prof. Eric Stanley’s warning on time’s finality through his Keynote Address: ‘Indefinable Time Experienced in Medieval Living, Sinning, Doubting, Dying’.

This conference would not have been possible without the generous support of the AHRC-TORCH graduate fund. With this grant, we were able to host the event at Merton College, which was a perfect venue for a conference on time in the medieval world.  

Merton College was founded in 1264 and several of its medieval buildings still survive, notably Mob Quad, the oldest quadrangle in Oxford. Thanks to Julia Walworth we were able to offer guided tours of the Old Library in Mob Quad, which dates from 1373. During these tours, one of our committee members, Sarah Griffin, introduced our participants to the medieval astrolabes housed in the library. Astrolabes were used to measure the positions of celestial bodies and even calculate local time, so they were particularly appropriate for our conference theme.

Hosting the event at Merton also allowed us to offer a conference dinner in the historic dining hall, which still has a door with medieval ironwork. There are sculpted Zodiac Men on the nearby Fitzjames Arch, which was yet another nod to the theme of time.

Having such an exciting and well-suited venue undoubtedly helped us to attract such an international audience. This year, speakers came from all over the UK and from Germany, Ireland, Spain, Switzerland and the USA. As such, this conference has once again reinforced Oxford’s place as a centre for medieval graduate student interaction, and we are grateful to the AHRC-TORCH fund for helping this happen. We hope that next year’s conference on the theme of ‘Animals’ is just as successful. 

How do you define ‘Architectural Representation(s)’?

By Hannah Bailey

This was one of the questions discussed in a collaborative session during the ‘Architectural Representation in the Middle Ages’ conference, held at University College, Oxford, on 7th–8th April. This conference was the latest activity of an ongoing interdisciplinary research network on medieval architectural representation which began its life two years ago as a Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute project and which is currently funded by University College, Oxford. The question was designed to expose our disciplinary biases. Depending on your disciplinary background, you might assume that ‘architectural representation’ refers to architectural plans or images of buildings, the values or power-structures conveyed by actual buildings, or architectural metaphors that ‘represent’ ideas about the mind or the cosmos. We hoped that by recognizing and challenging those biases we can develop a more accurate understanding of what architecture meant to the medieval people who built, inhabited, depicted, and wrote about it.

The conference was framed by two fantastic keynote papers given by Robert Bork of the University of Iowa and Christiania Whitehead of the University of Warwick. In the first of these, which opened the conference on the Friday morning, Robert first gave an overview of medieval architectural representations, before expertly taking the audience through the geometric processes behind medieval architecture and technical drawings. Christiania closed the conference on Saturday afternoon with an exhilarating examination of how the relationship between architectural representation and narrative creates meaning in medieval hagiographical texts.

The keynotes’ very different interpretations of ‘Architectural Representation’—on the one hand, imagistic depictions, on the other, verbal-textual accounts—mirrored the diversity of materials and approaches featured in the conference papers. The speakers included historians, art historians, literary critics, archaeologists, and anthropologists, and their papers took in real and imagined architecture from Iceland to the Holy Land. We heard about architectural imagery, metaphor, and allegory in texts ranging from the age of Bede to the era of Caxton; we heard about visual and physical representations of architecture in manuscripts, on monastic seals, and on iron bag-frames; we heard about the form and decoration of real structures; we heard about images of architecture employed in the decorative schemes of actual buildings.

That diversity prompted the discovery of surprising cross-disciplinary and cross-period connections. We saw the unexpectedly architectural and the unexpectedly domestic in Italian images of St Jerome and a Middle English text about Christ. We saw architecture repeatedly figured as an object of desire. We saw it repeatedly figured as a tool of control—it was particularly exciting to see the same mechanisms used in very different times, places, and cultural contexts to construct landscapes and viewscapes of power. We were asked to think about how architecture exists in time, through time, and out of time.   

At the end of the first day of the conference, we were treated to an exhibition of architectural materials from the archive of University College, courtesy of librarian Elizabeth Adams and archivist Robin Darwall-Smith. The exhibition displayed plans, models, and documents relating to the various building campaigns of the college from the medieval period, as well as other material related to the theme of the conference, including the oldest architectural model in Oxford. This was followed by the conference dinner, held at Wadham College and enjoyed by all.

The afternoon of the second day of the conference included a session in which we broke up into small groups for discussion of the themes of the conference. The groups were given four questions to kick off the discussion. Two questions asked people to speak about their own work, and about interesting connections they’d made with other people’s work over the course of the conference.  Many of the people attending the conference who weren’t giving papers are also doing very interesting work in this area, and this session offered an opportunity for them to share their research (and in some cases, photographs!). The other two questions sought the delegates’ perspectives on issues that had come up in previous projects of the Architectural Representation network. Asking delegates to define ‘Architectural Representation(s)’ elicited responses that varied considerably along disciplinary lines; some people spoke of having the assumptions they’d brought to the conference challenged. The final question, stated simply as: ‘Interdisciplinarity?’ encouraged broader discussion of any theoretical or practical aspect of attempting interdisciplinary work. These four questions offered a starting point, but the discussion ranged widely—one group discussed parallels between castles and churches and churches as defensive structures in fact and rhetoric, while another debated the orientation of the planks in Anglo-Saxon wooden buildings. Researchers made connections with people working on different times and places, or in different fields, which we hope might spark future collaborative projects.

Being early career academics ourselves, the organizers felt strongly that the conference should be accessible to academics at all career stages. The conference expenses were substantially covered by generous support from the John Fell Fund and University College. Thanks to additional assistance from Oxford Medieval Studies and the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, we were able to offer a total of 12 bursaries to graduate students and early career academics without research allowances. We are grateful to Oxford Medieval Studies, and to all of the various institutions, societies, and individuals that contributed to the tremendous success of the conference. Moving forward, we are currently speaking to publishers regarding a collection of essays built around the theme for the conference. We hope to publish this in the near future, providing a lasting legacy for a thoroughly enjoyable and productive conference.