How Black is Middle Dutch Moorish black?

by Sophie Jordan

Moriaen is black, and so is his suit of armour. Like the Green Knight in the English tradition or Ither in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, Moriaen’s most noticeable trait is the colour of his equipment, which matches his body. The Christian son of an Arthurian knight and a Moorish princess, Moriaen comes to Arthur’s court and surprises its members by demonstrating that he has all the qualities of an Arthurian knight, despite his unusual appearance.

But is this black knight necessarily Black? Should we understand the fearful reactions and the rejection he initially experiences as racist?

In the 13th century Middle Dutch text, Walewein, the Dutch equivalent of Gawain, encounters the eponymous hero Moriaen in full armour. Walewein’s first thought is that the fierce foreigner must be the Devil:medieval manuscript image of a black knight with Latin next to it, decorative green foliage border

Figure 1 Historiated Initial representing the black knight Walewein by Astrid Anquetin, especially commissioned for this blog post – not to be reused without permission

‘Nochtan waende Walewein bet / Dat ware die duvel dan een man / Daer si waren comen an, / Maer dat hine horde nomen Gode / Men had hem niet mogen ontstriden ode / Hine ware die duvel oft sijn geselle / Ende ware comen uter hellen, / Omdat sijn ors was so groet, / Ende hi was merre dan Lanceloet, / Ende daertoe sward, alsict seide.’ (l.480-489)

‘Nevertheless [Walewein] deemed that this was a devil rather than a man whom they had come upon! Had they not heard him call upon God no man had dared face him, deeming that he was the devil or one of his fellows out of hell, for that his steed was so great, and he was taller even than Sir Lancelot, and black withal, as I said afore.’ (translation J. Weston)

Because of the focus on Moriaen’s looks in this and other descriptions, it is hard to tell whether his black skin is perceived as one part of his identity or whether it is racialised. Walewein’s association of a physical trait with a moral judgement seems to fit the common definition of race, and being so negatively charged, his reaction might be interpreted as racist – meaning that the racial type of the large black Moor is classified and compared to others. Of course, by using the image of the Devil, black could not be ranked lower, both symbolically and morally.

Yet Moriaen, regardless of the wordplay which links him to his country, does not represent the people of Moriane overall. On the contrary, both his story of disinheritance and isolation, and the absence of other black characters in the plot single him out as a lone wolf. While his skin colour certainly stands out in Arthur’s country, it doesn’t identify him as a representative of Moorish high society. Since the inhabitants and customs of Moriane are barely sketched, there is no opportunity for a collective stereotype to form on the basis of the black knight’s portrayal, either among the white characters or the tale’s readers.

Figure 2: St Maurice as black knight, Statuette commissioned by the Abbess of Medingen in 1506 to celebrate the convent’s patron saint

On the other hand, Moriaen’s skills and his great physical strength, suggested by his tall figure in the above quotation, help him gain the other knights’ respect and the king’s praise. These chivalric qualities, inherited from his father, are more than enough to convince Walewein of Moriaen’s worth and to balance out the initial doubt provoked by the hero’s blackness. On several occasions, Moriaen is even favourably compared to Lanceloet, who is traditionally Arthur’s best knight.

Although dark skin is interpreted as hellish, the narrator insists on dissociating appearance and internal being: Moriaen’s skin colour and his more personal traits are dealt with separately, making him a supposedly ugly but no less powerful hero. Blackness is not essentialised, nor is it therefore racialised.

Where at first there seems to be a wide gap between ideal knighthood, as outlined in Arthurian romance, and Moriaen’s dark appearance, the narrator’s focus on action and courtly values fully restores the Black Knight’s potential to be accepted in Camelot. This is the tale of a knight who ultimately succeeds in his quest and receives great honour, just like any other.


Sophie Jordan completed the Master of Studies in German this summer, and she is now studying the anthropological aspects of the question of skin colour as difference at the University of Manchester.

Recommended reading:

Claassens, Geert H. M., and David F. Johnson. King Arthur in the Medieval Low Countries. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2000. Google Books,

Devisse, Jean, trans. William Granger Ryan. ‘Christians and Black.’ The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II, Part 1, ed. David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates Jr.. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. pp.31-72. A&AePortal,

Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. New York; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Cambridge core,

Applying for Your Medieval PhD: A How-To Guide

By Caroline Batten Mary Boyle and Alexandra Vukovich

Looking to apply for a PhD in a medieval research area? We’ve got your back! This month, OMS held a workshop for students on Oxford’s MSt programme in Medieval Studies, and now we’re making those insights available more widely. We’ll give you our three top tips first, and then answer some Frequently Asked Questions underneath.

The advice below is specifically for applying to PhDs in the UK. You’ll find that American and European PhD programs are often very different from UK ones. Whereas in the UK your degree is research only, in American PhD programs you spend two years doing coursework before you begin your dissertation, and the whole process takes longer (5-7 years, as opposed to 3-4 years in the UK). Different countries in Europe offer different PhD structures: some are research-only, some are project-specific, others involve significant coursework and training. Be sure to research the different PhD programs available to you in different places, to help you decide what kind of program might be best for you.

  1. Be bold!

With your research proposal, you’re selling both yourself and your project, so you want both to be as eye-catching as possible. You need to tell your readers why your project is exciting; what gap in the discipline it’s filling; and why you’re the right person to do it. But being bold is also about approaching the people you think can help you – ask as many people as possible to read over and comment on your application, because that will make it much stronger. This point also stands for approaching potential supervisors.

  1.  Be definite!

One straightforward way to sell yourself and your project is to make it clear that you know what you’re doing – even if you don’t actually feel like you do. So make sure that you’re telling your reader exactly what you’re planning to study (define your corpus); how you’re going to structure your project; and what you’re hoping to find out, even including some potential conclusions.

  1.  Develop the topic in dialogue!

At an early stage, approach people whose research you find interesting and talk about your topic with them. Your choice of supervisor is probably the most important decision that you’re making at this point. Your supervisor, or supervisors, don’t necessarily need to work on exactly what you’re working on, but they do need to be a person or people with whom you can imagine having a long-term working relationship. They need to be someone with whom you can have an honest conversation, and from whom you can accept constructive criticism.

 If only early career offices looked like this. London, British Library, Add MS 11850.


  • Should I do a PhD/DPhil?

A doctorate is a hugely rewarding experience, giving you the time to fully devote yourself to research and learn how to be a scholar. It is, of course, a necessity for a career in academia, but can also prepare you for work in museums, libraries, archives, the rare books trade, publishing, a variety of cultural institutions, the foreign service, translation and interpreting, (and the list goes on!) as the skills you will gain are important for all kinds of work. But the unvarnished truth is that PhDs are intensive and demanding. You must be, or become, comfortable working independently, planning your own time and meeting the deadlines you set. You must spend many hours a week working on one singular project, requiring intense focus and commitment. For some people this sounds like heaven; for others it would make them miserable. You should do a PhD if you’re certain that you want to spend the next several years working very hard on one research project.

  • What if I’m sure I want to do a doctorate, but I don’t have a project?

A doctorate is 3+ years of intensive work, so you need to be sure you’re working on something you find compelling. If nothing has suggested itself to you yet, you could brainstorm about topics you’ve studied so far, and see if anything suggests itself. Ask yourself if any of your secondary reading has left you with unanswered questions. But it might also be that you need to finish your Master’s before the idea will suggest itself, and taking time out of academia might actually help focus your creativity.

Equally, you are not bound to your project once you begin, and you can make changes. If you feel you definitely want to do a doctorate and want to get started, talk with people who know your work, and they may be able to help you to work up a project. For some people, it is better to wait and apply when you are sure. For others, it is better to get the application in, and make your final decision later.

  • How do I identify the right institution?

The right institution for you will have several key features:

  • The institution will offer specific resources, support, and mentoring to its postgraduate students. Your chosen department will also have resources particular to its needs and yours (seminars, specific research clusters or groups, access to manuscripts, digital resources, strong libraries, etc).
  • The institution will have a strong and supportive community (large or small!) in your chosen field, so that you have colleagues with whom to collaborate, commiserate, and share ideas.
  • Most importantly, the right institution for you is the institution at which your chosen supervisor works. As noted above, your supervisor will make a huge contribution to your PhD experience. Any institution can be the right institution if you’re working with a person or people who offer you support, aid, encouragement, and thoughtful, critical feedback.
  • Which department/faculty should I approach?

This may be a question you are asking yourself if you’re doing an interdisciplinary Master’s. Ask yourself where you feel more at home: where does your methodology or topic fit best? Look at statistics for places and funding. Most importantly, talk to people who know your work, and especially your potential supervisor. Finally, remember that many institutions will allow you to have two supervisors in different disciplines. Being in one department/faculty doesn’t bind you to that department/faculty in the long-term and your research may well lead you to a different field later.

  • Do I need to approach supervisors before sending in an application?

Ideally, yes! It is not required for a PhD application that you have a supervisor in mind, and many applications are successful without a future supervisor listed. But your proposal will be stronger with feedback from a potential supervisor, and their support within the institution will be useful. It is always a good idea to talk to potential supervisors, to exchange ideas about your project and to learn about the different forms of support that their department/faculty might be able to offer. Another good reason to approach supervisors before applying is that, based on your proposal, they may be able to direct it to targeted funding (e.g., part of an ongoing project or a large grant) for your doctoral studies.

  • How do I approach potential supervisors?

Shoot them an email! It can feel hard at the moment to get in touch with someone you don’t know well, as you don’t just bump into people at seminars. But academics understand that you have to look around for potential supervisors at a variety of institutions, and they welcome enquiries from talented young researchers with interesting projects. They’ll be excited to hear from you! They may even be able to direct you to relevant projects with funded doctoral places attached. You may want to talk to your current course convenor and/or your tutors who may be able to guide you about whom to contact based on your interests.

  • When should I start work on my application?

Now! Get your initial thoughts down on paper, and you can start editing and discussing from there. An application is very much a work in progress, so jot down your ideas, along with any source material and bibliography that looks promising. It will be easier to put together a project once you have all of the component parts in place.

  • How long should my first draft be?

Aim for a few hundred words shorter than the word limit at this stage, to leave plenty of room for revisions.

  • How many drafts should I do?

As many as you need, but be realistic about when it’s time to stop! Remember: this is only a proposal and no one expects you to have all the answers. Your research questions and how you plan to explore them (source material, approaches, auxiliary tools) are much more important than speculative conclusions, at such an early stage.

  • Where can I find out about funding?

You should join subject-specific mailing lists (such as those you’ll find on Jiscmail or H-Net). There is also a PhD-specific section on Have a chat with your potential supervisor or with current doctoral students, who might be able to tell you about lesser-known scholarships or funded places on existing projects, like this project, which funded fifteen doctoral places over three years (all students have now started). Use this tool to find funding opportunities at Oxford specifically.

An Excerpt from Anne Louise Avery’s Reynard the Fox

Looking for an exciting new retelling of the stories of the dashing and anarchic medieval folk hero Reynard the Fox? Look no further. OMS is honored to share with you the opening chapters of Anne Louise Avery’s new rendition of Caxton’s 1481 English translation of these Middle Dutch tales, now available from The Bodleian Library press.

Click here to download the pdf

Modern Politics, Medieval Monuments in Turkey

By Alexandra Vukovich

Over the course of its 1500-year history, the late Roman building known as the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) has served as the setting for many ceremonies, religious, political, and more often than not, a combination of the two. On July 24, 2020 Hagia Sophia served as a political theatre for a symbolic re-conquest of the building via its reversion to a functioning mosque. For those who saw this ceremony as a form of erasure of the Byzantine past, it was quite the opposite. The polyvalence of the Roman building, synthesizing a Roman basilica, Byzantine church, Latin cathedral, Ottoman mosque, and museum, is evident in the fact that it has served as a template for religious architecture that the Ottomans and, more recently, Turkey have exported internationally. Furthermore, Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine past was key in the (re)-staging of the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, which combined the narrative of the city’s capture with the Turkish government’s current political project.

There have been many excellent articles written on the politics of the reversion, including this useful series in the Berkeley Forum, and the post-reversion months saw a number of international discussions of the issue. I have written elsewhere against essentializing Hagia Sophia’s reversion to a mosque, which can be viewed in terms of global conservative tendencies, but must also be viewed in terms of Turkey’s national and regional politics. After all, the foundation of the Ayasofya müzesi/Hagia Sophia Museum in 1934 has been re-framed, by the Turkish government, as an act of self-colonization, a nod to secular western sensibilities of that time. That the reversion of Hagia Sophia was designed to boost Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s programme of de-secularization, a stridently anti-secularist and anti-Kemalist political programme, should now be clear. However, following a series of interlinked crises,  the fanfare around the recent reversion of several Byzantine monuments has failed to resuscitate the regime’s initial popularity, and has further contributed to the growing political and economic power of the country’s religious authority, the Diyanet.

Although the reversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque drew the world’s attention this past June, it is neither the first nor most recent Byzantine-era building to have been reverted by the Turkish government. Already in 2011, the decision was taken to revert the Iznik Hagia Sophia—the site of the 787 CE Church council, convened to address the first Iconoclast Controversy—to a mosque. This move was followed by the reversion of the Trabzon Hagia Sophia in 2013. Following the opening of the Hagia Sophia Mosque in June, there was speculation as to whether the decision taken to revert the Chora Museum would be acted on. It came as a surprise when it was decided that the building, which had recently undergone a full restoration of its late Byzantine mosaics, would again become a functioning mosque. The impetus for expressions of concern about what might happen to the middle and late Byzantine mosaics and frescoes housed in these buildings, revolved around whether and how these would be covered during prayer times and beyond. For example, for the July 24 prayer, the apse mosaic depicting the Mother of God with the Christ child was loosely covered with white cloths held in place with ropes and pulleys, which still remain in place. Various solutions have been trialled for the Trabzon Hagia Sophia, including an opaque screen and a large light fixture that brightens or obscures the Byzantine frescoes located in the main prayer space. As for the Chora, it appears that a system of automatic, retractable screens has been installed to cover the mosaics.

The main controversy surrounding the mosaics was centred around the orientalist trope of ‘Islamic iconoclasm’—in reality, aniconism, with moments of iconoclasm mirroring those that shook the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries. However, the line of argument positing these reversions as a ‘return to’ a previous, aniconic state, elides the long and varied history of these monuments as Ottoman mosques. Over the course of the 600-year history of the Ottoman Empire, during which the abovementioned buildings functioned as mosques, their Byzantine iconographic programmes remained on (at least) partial display. After the Chora was converted to a mosque in the early 16th century, many of its mosaics remained visible for at least a century following the conversion. Some mosaics, including the cycle of the Holy Virgin, remained visible throughout the Ottoman period. This is why the building was informally known as the ‘Mosaic Mosque’. Historians, including Cyril Mango, Nevra Necipoğlu, Çiğdem Kafescioğlu, have pointed to the fact that travel accounts (those of Guillaume-Joseph Grelot in the 17th century and Cornelius Loos in the early 18th century) from the Ottoman period describe, quite accurately, Byzantine mosaics and frescoes in Hagia Sophia. Therefore, some figural art, including the (now-covered) apse mosaic of the Mother of God, was on display for much of the Ottoman period and only covered later in the 18th or early 19th century. Following the 1847 restoration of Hagia Sophia—during which many mosaics were uncovered then re-covered—the official re-opening ceremony, held on July 13, 1849 in the presence of Sultan Abdülmecid, was accompanied by the publication of two books: by Gaspare Fossati (1852) and Wilhelm Salzenberg (1854). Both books depicted the building in its Ottoman context with the re-covered mosaics displayed. Following the foundation of the Hagia Sophia Museum in 1934, the plaster from the 1847 restoration was removed, and the restoration work undertaken (between 1934 and 1953) revealed that the mosaics were still intact.

Recent events call attention to the reality that now, as in 1847, heritage management is a top-down matter. For now, the partial or full obscuring of figural art in these buildings aside, their integrity has not been seriously compromised, unlike the total destruction of sites like that of Sur in Diyarbakir or the flooding of Hasankeyf, actions which dispossessed and displaced numerous people. I have argued elsewhere that heritage management is best undertaken democratically. Employing a top-down institutional rationale to heritage only reinforces the gap, in terms of time, expert knowledge, and value, that exists between the administrators (whether the local ministry of culture and tourism or UNESCO) of cultural heritage and the wider population. Furthermore, the criteria for conservation often privilege a valuation based on the metrics of age, state of conservation, and monumentality to ascribe meaning to designate cultural heritage sites. Oftentimes, this sort of valuation overlooks the varying sites of memory, unofficial and overlapping, that make a site valuable to a given community. At times, this layering, later stripped away by modern archaeology, is what conserved ancient structures; for example, the Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Tripoli or  Old Palmyra. The stripping away of layers often occurs because monuments are political instruments, a sort of museum-ified regalia of the state (and nation), functioning as proof of its legitimacy. However, layered monuments like Hagia Sophia resist linear narratives. When viewed diachronically, such monuments can be a powerful didactic tool for a complex social and political history, one that can easily counterbalance the tunnel vision of modern cultural politics.

Introducing Oxford’s Invisible East Programme

By Arezou Azad, Principal Investigator and the Invisible East Team

Today, in the popular imagination, the vast and pivotal region that stretches from eastern Iran to Tibet, known as the Islamicate East, is notorious as the cradle of terrorism, violence and war. And yet, during the half millennium that followed the coming of Islam (8th to 12th centuries CE), this same region witnessed a mixing of cultures and religions that was both unique in itself and extraordinarily influential upon neighbouring societies (a pluralism and dynamism that is captured in the term “Islamicate” and in the image of lapis lazuli as the prized gem traded from Badakhshan, Afghanistan). One cause of this apparent contradiction is the lack of any single, coherent research programme dedicated to the study of the Islamicate East. Moreover, the field appeared to lack the sources for such a study — until now.

Local texts from Afghanistan’s Bamiyan and Ghur regions in this time period have recently become publicly available. They include documents, letters and literary fragments that were written by local Jewish and Muslim traders, business people, clerics, mothers and fathers, poets and rebels. They attest to an array of relationships, of coexistence, cooperation, and conflict between people of different religions in the 11th to 13th centuries CE.  Several hundred more local texts from the medieval Islamicate East found in parts of the modern states of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the wider Central Asian region (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Khotan in China) have also not yet been analysed for their historical content.

The new Invisible East programme at the University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute brings the medieval Islamicate East to the forefront of historical research by studying these local texts. The programme is funded for the next five years (2019-25) with a core staff of seven researchers funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and European Research Council (under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme Grant agreement No. 851607). The research projects are part of the Invisible East programme directed by Senior Research Fellow at the Oriental Institute, Arezou Azad.

Specifically, Invisible East involves the transcription, translation and analysis of these texts, most of which reflect everyday, local use – such as, receipts, personal letters and legal opinions – while others are literary in nature.  The initiative incorporates a range of languages, including Early New Persian, Judeo-Persian, Arabic, Bactrian, Khotanese and Pahlavi, and sheds new light on the political, financial and legal infrastructures at the granular level, historical writing, linguistics, and cultural and religious diversity in the medieval Islamicate East.

The core goals of Invisible East are:

• To understand the roles played by different stakeholders (political, religious, legal, financial) in the construction of multicultural communities and societies across the Islamicate East;

• To ascertain how texts and material culture help us understand relations between Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Christians, and other faiths in the Islamicate East; and

• To establish how the Persian language developed and interacted with other languages (Arabic, Hebrew and others) in the multicultural Islamicate East.

Invisible East will also result in valuable new resources designed to support further study at a variety of levels, including a digital corpus.

The Invisible East team currently includes researchers Tommy Benfey, Pejman Firoozbakhsh, Zhan Zhang, and AHRC co-investigator Hugh Kennedy. Another post-doctoral researcher is currently being recruited. The Programme Coordinator is Neil McCartney.

To get in touch, please write to: You can follow us on Twitter and Instagram @invisible_east, and look out for more posts from our project here on the OMS blog.

Sending Letters and a Unicorn: How Medieval Nuns Coped with Social Distancing

by Lena Vosding

Three nuns hand a letter to a messenger. Illumination in the Matutinale of Scheyern, Germany, 13th century. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Clm 17401 (1), fol. 16r (61r) (BSB).

The current pandemic, as horrible as it is, seems to have heightened public awareness of pre-modern solutions to modern problems. Blog posts have looked, for example, at St Corona, the Black Death and precedent lock downs, or the strategies medieval anchoresses used to cope with the loneliness of their cells.

Medieval anchoresses and nuns in enclosure also provide a good example of how to maintain relationships without meeting in person. Despite digital communication tools we all have experienced that it can be quite difficult to feel a real sense of community without in-person encounters. So which strategies for coping with social distancing can nuns who only had pen and paper at hand teach us?

Symbolic communication

Conversation also was considered a risk for enclosure: A window, once probably covered with fabric, that allows visitors to speak to the nuns (speaking window). Convent of the Poor Clares in Pfullingen, Germany (Wikipedia commons).

Medieval nuns who chose enclosure to approach the divine through contemplation, developed ways to ensure that families and friends would not forget them – and to show that their prayers benefited society. One of the most effective ways was to develop letter writing to an art form, and overcome distance by imbuing the words with transcendent symbolic meaning. This involved a balancing act: Theologians frequently warned that letters could be disruptive and let the loud, mundane world into the convent. After all, letters were always associated with secrecy, individuality, physical presence, and material goods. St Jerome, for example, carried letters with him and talked to them like to his friend,[1] and St Augustine considered letters to enable greater intimacy than would be possible when the person was physically present but silent.[2]

Many sources reveal how nuns crafted letters in conformity with their rules. Important evidence can be found in the letter books from the Benedictine nuns of Lüne, the largest cache of female writing from late medieval northern Germany.

First Strategy: Virtual Encounters
The passage about gold and silver in letter book Hs 15, Convents Archive Lüne, quire 27, fol. 8r (Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel / Kloster Lüne)

The nuns drew on the imaginative potential of letters to overcome distance and to build a sense of community with their families, friends, and other convents, for example, by sending saints as envoys: “Since we are related, it would be appropriate to come to your wedding feast. […] Yet God has chosen me to my own wedding, and he planted me in this earthly garden of paradise. […] So, I wandered around the heavenly fortress of Jerusalem and asked all the dear saints to come out for you.”(Lüne Hs 15, quire 28, fol. 2v). Depending on the recipient, these can be different saints: Mother Mary shall be the merciful host; St Michael shall ensure that only the best things happen to bride, groom, and their guests; St Matthew shall help them to keep their worldly wealth without striving for it too much; St John shall bring their offspring blessing; and St Anne, St Catherine and St Ursula with her 11.000 handmaidens shall always be companions in time of need (Lüne Hs 15, quire 27, fol. 6r-8r). These imaginary envoys could also carry elaborately described symbolic gifts: e.g. pearls and gemstones of a golden necklace, described and interpreted as the virtues and blessings that shall adorn the recipient’s soul (Lüne Hs 15, quire 28, fol. 14r-quire 29, fol. 1v). The nuns argue that, because of their vow of poverty, they cannot afford those expensive gifts, but send a letter instead: “We wish to ask from you that you receive it with the same love as that with which we have written it. If we could have written it in gold and silver, we would certainly have done so. Therefore accept our goodwill as a token” (Lüne Hs 15, quire 27,fol. 8r).

Second Strategy: Sending Gifts (and Unicorns!)
A little unicorn depicted on the so-called Christmas Tapestry, one of the impressive tapestries the nuns of Lüne embroidered in the 15th century (Restaurierungswerkstatt, Klosterkammer Hannover).

A little unicorn depicted on the so-called Christmas Tapestry, one of the impressive tapestries the nuns of Lüne embroidered in the 15th century (Restaurierungswerkstatt, Klosterkammer Hannover).

In other letters, real gifts became metaphors as the nuns interpreted and explained the details. Such gifts ranged from books and devotional pictures to little jugs, dresses, or even two young unicorns. The sender advices the recipient to build a fence around the pasture and to heighten it soon, because “the unicorns jump around so merrily” (Lüne Hs 31, fol. 82r). While it remains unclear what the real gift might have been, the unicorn was a symbol of purity, virtue, and of chaste love, which could only be tamed by a virgin. Thus it became an allegory of the incarnation, in which the virgin was equated with Mary and the unicorn with Christ. The gift for the nun could have been toys, an animal shaped gingerbread, a pastry model, or an embroidery of the creatures.

Third Strategy: Showing Empathy

The empathy palpable in those exchanges is also expressed directly whenever the nuns ask about the wellbeing of a friend in another convent: “I would like you to tell me that you are feeling better. Otherwise I cannot find peace”(Lüne Hs 15, quire 9, fol. 5v). This is also manifest in their deep sympathy for a mourning mother: “I understand that you are in pain and distress, because love is always deep between mother and Child.” The recipient shall soothe her heart to prevent “falling ill with excessive melancholy and tears”, and think of Mother Mary, who had to witness the cruel death of her son. To her she may confide her suffering, for Mary “knows from experience how a grieving mother feels” and will comfort her (Lüne Hs 30, fol. 39v). The nuns also do not hide yearning for their fellow sisters in neighbouring convents: “Give my greetings to the crows and ravens. When I sit here in my cell and hear the crows sing and see the ravens hopping in the snow, I think of my beloved sisters in Lüne” (Lüne Hs 31, fol. 158r). By verbalizing their empathy, the nuns connected emotionally to their social network, and this connectedness enabled them to resist in times of crisis. The nuns survived the Black Death as a community – and the Reformation, for them an even deadlier threat, alive and kicking now in the 21st century.

Fourth Strategy: Crafting words
A nun (sister Elspeth Stagel) writing at a lectern. Illumination in the sisterbook of Töss, Germany, 15th century. Stadtbibliothek Nuremberg, Cod. cent. V, 10a, 3ra (Wikipedia commons).

A nun (sister Elspeth Stagel) writing at a lectern. Illumination in the sisterbook of Töss, Germany, 15th century. Stadtbibliothek Nuremberg, Cod. cent. V, 10a, 3ra (Wikipedia commons).

The nuns in Lüne valued their letters to such a degree that they copied and kept them in their convent’s archive. In this way, they served for continuous edification, to encourage remembering the social network, and to provide examples for teaching the novices how to write. The skill of conveying not only information but also emotion is one that can only be acquired by continuous practice; it was, and still is, an art to write letters that are clear and do not allow for misunderstanding. When communicating through written words alone, appropriate wording is of vital importance. Not surprisingly, the twelfth century saw the invention of letter writing manuals, when societal structures were becoming increasingly complex and demanded expert networking skills. These manuals offer  examples of wording for all sorts of situations, so that the message is understood as expected and a close relationship can be established, even if you do not see or hear each other.

Therefore, when we feel lonely in the enclosure of our homes, a carefully written letter can comfort us. The search for the right words can bring order to one’s thoughts. It sends the mind on a journey to another person in a different place, and also provides the recipient with an individual, physical sign of company. So, why not make the effort for a friend and go on a journey of the mind yourself?

Dr Lena Vosding is a postdoctoral researcher working at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford. In her book, she examined the Lüne letter books in terms of form and function. To learn more about the project, the letters, the nuns and their current counterparts in the convent, see the six L.I.S.A. episodes about Lüne Abbey:

Episode 1: Lüne Abbey (the history of the convent and its current inhabitants), 08/19/2020

dark portrait of 1500s woman

Founded in 1172, Lüne Abbey developed into a prosperous religious centre for the Lüneburg region. The Benedictine nuns formed a strong network with other convents in Northern Germany and joined an influential reform movement in 1481. In the 16th century, they transformed into a Protestant community after a prolonged struggle with the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. The project ‘The Nuns’ Network’ explores this phase of change and reform in the 15th and 16th centuries, examining the significance of the Abbey and the communication strategies of the nuns based on letter books. These contain almost 1800 letters providing information about pastoral care, debating devotion and theology, and giving insight into daily life in the convent. The letters also highlight the role of rhetoric and learning for women living in strict enclosure.

Episode 2: The Letter Books (the materiality and content of the manuscripts), 08/26/2020

person paging through an old book about A5 sized

Among the numerous treasures of Lüne Abbey, the three letter-books are one of the most significant holdings. Into the three hefty tomes, the nuns copied nearly 1,800 letters and accounts from their correspondence during the 15th and 16th centuries. They offer an insight into the nuns’ lives from their own perspective. Particularly revealing are the arguments surrounding the Lutheran Reformation; the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg finally succeeded in nominally turning the convent into a Protestant community – but the women documented their arguments and preserved the record of it to this day in their Abbey.

Episode 3: The Role of Women (on the high esteem in which nuns were held), 09/02/2020

tapestry showing lions with wigs

The Lüne letters give in-depth insight into the special role of women in religious orders. In medieval society, women were subordinate to men, being in the munt (under the guardianship) of their fathers and then of their husbands, only as widows gaining full control over their legal affairs. This was different in female religious houses. The prioress and other office holders took on a variety of significant roles for the community, and it was a high responsibility to lead the monastic community consisting of several hundred people. The esteem for religious women was based particularly on their status as brides of Christ (sponsae Christi), at the side of the highest king, leading to a elevated rank in the medieval hierarchy. This position was an obligation but also a source of pride for the women as many of the letters show.

Episode 4: The Editing (on the complex process of making the letters accessible), 09/09/2020

close up of black manuscript writing

Editing the letter books from Lüne Abbey is a complex process which relies on the regular exchange between the team members in Düsseldorf, Oxford and Wolfenbüttel: the letters need to be deciphered, structured, commented upon and encoded to make the networks of the nuns accessible again. The edition allows full and fascinating insights into the knowledge structure, the communication and the rhetoric of the nuns. But the letters reach beyond that: private and personal aspects of the life of the women in the convent become visible and relatable, 500 years after they were first written down.

Episode 5: A Key Finding (on the learning of the nuns), 09/16/2020

person reading notes ad looking at a manuscript in soft lamp light

An important part of the editing process is the commentary contextualising the style and content of the letters. A key finding is how scholarly learning and oral culture meet and mix in the letters, showing how the nuns operated on an equal footing with the learned male clergy. In a letter accompanying a gift of wine for the Provost, the young nuns for example show off their Latin learning – with more than a bit of self-deprecating humour. Such a letter could be read out aloud e.g. at a convent feast and thus re-enter the oral sphere of the monastic setting.

Episode 6: The General Interview (on the international collaboration), 09/23/2020

book pages yellowed, book opened half way

The last part of the series the two Principal Investigators, Eva Schlotheuber (Düsseldorf, History) und Henrike Lähnemann (Oxford, German Literature), in form of an interview talk about the genesis, challenges and perspectives of the Lüne letters project. What is the knowledge basis required to work with medieval letters and what challenges does the interdisciplinary collaboration between history and German Studies face; how is the project charting new territory? The exchange between the two investigators also focuses on new methodological approaches, the fascination of the letter books and the important question whether the letters could be considered private. And above all – what is the message of the letters for us today?

What Happens When We Expand the Chronology and Geography of Plague’s History?

(Or Why Yersinia pestis is a Good ‘Model Organism’ in These Pandemic Times)

By Monica H. Green

This short essay is a companion to, and summary of, a lecture of the same title given by Moniwca H. Green at Oxford on 16 March 2020. You can now watch the video of the lecture on the Oxford Medieval Studies YouTube Channel.

Planning for the following presentation was done in early January 2020, before almost anyone had a clue that the world was about to be immersed in a new pandemic event. Originally meant as a presentation to Byzantinists, the talk was reframed to capture the essence of the larger work I have been doing the past 24 years to reframe the history of infectious diseases in a global framework of analysis. Although still focused on the history of plague (the main disease I’m working on at the moment), my central argument is that an evolutionary approach to the history of infectious diseases gives a powerful new way to understand pandemics past and present, and hopefully a way to avert similar events in the future.

The linchpin of all this work are new ways the biological sciences are contributing to the investigation of disease history. These contributions are of several kinds, but the most important have come from genetics. These function at two levels. First is phylogeny, the work of constructing “family trees” showing the evolutionary development—the “familial” relations—of microorganisms. Everyone will likely have noticed the phylogenetic trees published almost daily for the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Here’s the one from 9 February, showing genomes just sequenced in England:

SARS-CoV-2 has only been around since about November 2019, so far as we know right now. But prior to its arrival, there have been major diseases circulating around the globe for centuries. Tuberculosis, for example, although almost certainly originating in the eastern hemisphere, was present in the western hemisphere (the Americas) for at least the past 1000 years.

The present talk focuses on the story of plague, the disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The talk focuses on summarizing the ways in which genetics—by reconstructing the evolutionary history of the pathogen—has told us things about plague’s history that we never previously had an inkling of. It has told us how deep plague’s history with human populations has been (back to the Late Neolithic). It has suggested how broadly plague may have spread in the past (across the Eurasian steppe in the Bronze Age; throughout east, central, and western Eurasia and even into Africa in Antiquity and the Middle Ages). Here’s the latest phylogenetic tree of Yersinia pestis, with the major pandemic events marked:

Oxford 2020 slide - Naming and Numbering Pandemics.png

Source: Zhemin Zhou, Nabil-Fareed Alikhan, Khaled Mohamed, Yulei Fan, the Agama Study Group, and Mark Achtman, “The EnteroBase use’s guide, with case studies on Salmonella transmissions, Yersinia pestis phylogeny, and Escherichia core genomic diversity, Genome Research 30 (2020), 138-152, fig. 5. Labeling: M. H. Green, 2020.

Note the shaded areas: the Neolithic transition; the Justinianic Plague; and the Black Death. Historians have known for generations of the latter two events, of course, because we have eye-witness testimony of both events, as well as many other kinds of evidence. What is stunning, however, is that we also now also have aDNA for those events. “aDNA”—the other new kind of evidence genetics has put on the table—is short for “ancient DNA,” molecular fragments that have been retrieved from people who died of the plague. This has been pieced together fragment-by-fragment, allowing us to understand how those strains of Y. pestis compare to modern strains (all the non-shaded circles on the tree). That comparison, in turns, allows us to make inferences about where the different historical strains circulated, and begin to investigate what animal species hosted them.

But telling the story of a one-celled bacterium is only part of the history we need to reconstruct. How was the disease transmitted over such long distances? Why at particular times, but not others? Getting the “human” part of these stories connected to the history of the pathogen is the work that historians now need to do. The present talk, therefore, gives a sketch of what we know about plague’s history and what questions are currently being investigated. In the question-and-answer session at the end, we covered a variety of topics, some having to do with the specifics of plague’s history (especially the many questions we still have about the Justinianic Plague of Antiquity) but also the urgent questions we face in the present day, faced with a pandemic event that gives every sign of being as cataclysmic for its implications on world history as the Black Death of the later Middle Ages.

Humankind has faced pandemics before. We don’t know nearly as much as we should about them, however. There is much to do in making better sense of pandemic events of the past and in better understanding what they might teach us to better face an uncertain future.

Sources for more information:

I’ve written up a teaching guide about the “new genetics paradigm” which explains in more detail what has happened in genetics in the past couple of decades and why it has been so transformational for our “pandemic thinking.” This and information on my other publications on plague can be found at the following link:

Monica H. Green is a historian of medicine and health. Follow her on Twitter @monicaMedHist and get in touch at

Exploring Oxford’s nature through medieval eyes

By Andrew Dunning

You won’t see them in a typical tourist guide, but Oxford is home to several fabulous nature spots within walking distance of the city centre. Among my favourite discoveries during this year’s lockdown were a circuit through Wytham Woods, Godstow Abbey, and Port Meadow and a cross-country route along the Thames River to the Harcourt Arboretum (the fields can be mucky, but perseverance gives a prize of peacocks and piglets). When it was announced that the Oxford Open Doors festival would be online this year, I set out to present Oxford’s nature with a medieval twist.

Fans of Fantastic Beasts may know about bestiaries: collections describing both local and exotic animals, given a moral or allegorical interpretation and sometimes sumptuously illustrated. The Bodleian Library’s MS. Bodley 764 is one example, made in thirteenth-century England. Such writings reflect a desire to harmonize research on the natural world from classical and biblical texts with lived experience.

These excerpts feature geese, bees, sheep, and peacocks at Port Meadow, the Botanic Garden, Wytham Woods, and University Parks. If David Attenborough had lived in the Middle Ages, Planet Earth might have sounded something like this.

The goose calls its night watch to witness by its persevering noise. No animal senses a human’s smell like a goose. The Gauls’ assault on the Capitol was detected by its noise. Thus Rabanus says: ‘This bird can symbolize foreseeing people, keeping a good watch over their guard.’ [Rabanus Maurus, De uniuerso 8.6.46]

Now there are two kinds of geese: domestic and wild. Wild geese fly high and in a row, and they symbolize those who live far removed from earthly status by living well. But domestic geese live together in villages, often calling out; they wound one another with their beaks. They symbolize those who, although they love a gathering, spend their time on gossip and back-biting.

All wild geese are ash-grey in colour, and I have never seen one that was multicoloured or white. But in domestic geese, there is not only the ash-grey colour but also multicoloured and white. Wild geese have the ash-grey colour because those who are far from the world take a low garb of repentance. But those who dwell in cities or in villages wear clothing of a more beautiful colour.

A goose senses the smell of a person arriving before the rest of the animals; it does not cease to call out at night, because a prudent person recognizes others, however far away, through their evil or good reputation. Therefore, when a goose senses the smell of one arriving by night, it does not cease to call out, because when a prudent brother sees thoughtless offences of ignorance in others, he should call out. The noise of geese was once of use to the Romans on the Capitol, and in the chapter every day the noise of a prudent brother is useful when he sees thoughtless offences. The noise of a goose drove back the enemy Gauls from the Capitol; but the noise of a prudent brother drives the ancient enemy from the chapter. The noise of a goose saved the city of Rome unharmed from enemy attack; the noise of a prudent brother guards his attention from being disturbed by wicked people.

Perhaps divine providence would not have displayed the natures of birds to us – unless, it may be, he wished to make them useful to us in some way.

Bees (Botanic Garden)

Bees [apes] are so named either because they cling to one another with their feet [a (by) + pes], or because they are born without feet [a (without) + pes], for they develop both feet and wings afterwards. These are diligent in the task of creating honey. They live in assigned dwellings; they build their homes with indescribable skill; they compose their honeycombs from different flowers; and they fill up their beehives with innumerable offspring in wax cells. They have armies and kings, and they wage battles. They flee from smoke and are provoked by a disturbance.

Many people know from observation that bees are born from the corpses of cattle. For to create these bees, the flesh of slaughtered calves is beaten; worms are created from the rotten gore. Afterwards, the worms become bees. Strictly speaking, however, the ones called ‘bees’ come from oxen, just as hornets are from horses, drones from mules, and wasps from asses.

The Greeks call the larger bees created in the honeycomb’s outer cells ‘castros’. Some people think they are called kings, because they lead their beehives [castra].

Among all the kinds of animals, only bees have shared offspring. They all live in one house; they enclose the borders of a single country; all their work is shared; their food is shared; their tasks are shared; their custom and produce is shared; their flight is shared.

They ordain a king for themselves, they appoint people, and though placed under a king they are free. For they also maintain his privilege of judgement, and have affection for him by the fidelity of their devotion, since they choose him as king in the same way as a deputy for themselves, and they honour him with the entire swarm. But the king is not selected by lot, because a lot involves chance rather than judgement, and often the worse candidate is preferred to the better one by the irrational falling of the lot.

None of the bees dare to leave their homes, nor go out into any pastures, unless the king has gone out first and has claimed authority for himself with his flight. They go forth through fragrant fields where they inhale the odours of the flowers of the garden, where streams flow among fragrant grasses, where the banks are pleasant. There, lively youth play their games, there men take their athletic persuits, there they find release of cares. The first foundations of the hives are laid as a delightful labour among the flowers and sweet herbs.

Sheep (South Hinksey)

The sheep is a soft wooly domestic animal, with a vulnerable body, a gentle spirit. Its Latin name, ‘ovis’, is derived from ‘oblations’, because when the ancients first began sacrificing, they did not kill cattle but sheep. Some people call them two-toothed, because some have two upper teeth along with eight others. The gentiles used to offer these especially in sacrifice.

When winter comes, the sheep grazes insatiably and tears at the grass voraciously, because it senses the coming sharpness of winter. It first stuffs itself with grass for food, since all the grass is destroyed by the freezing cold.

Sheep, as we said, represent innocent and simple people among Christians. Furthermore, at times the sheep also allegorically displays the mildness and patience of the Lord himself. A passage of Isaiah on the innocent Saviour’s death says, ‘as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.’ [Isaiah 53.7] In the Gospel, sheep are the faithful people: ‘The sheep hear his voice’. [John 10.3] And in a psalm: ‘Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet: sheep and oxen’. [Psalm 8.6–7] Two sheep represent the peoples of the nations that a man nourishes, that is Christ, on which it is read in the prophet, ‘in those days a man shall nourish a young cow and two sheep; and because of the abundance of milk he shall eat butter’. [Isaiah 7.21–22]

Peacocks (Harcourt Arboretum)

The peacock’s name comes from the sound of its call; its flesh is so tough that it hardly suffers decay, and it is not easy to cook. Concerning it, someone once said: ‘Do you admire him whenever he spreads out his jewelled wings, and can you hand him over, hard-hearted man, to the cruel cook?’ [Martial 13.70]

Because Solomon carried a peacock from distant lands, and it has different colours in its feathers, it is a sign of the gentile people, coming to Christ from remote parts of the earth, who also shine brightly, adorned with the grace of many virtues.

Andrew Dunning is the R.W. Hunt Curator of Medieval Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library and Supernumerary Fellow in Book History at Jesus College.

Exemplary difference: examples in historic music theory

By Adam Whittaker

Reblogged from The Conveyor.

‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture’, or so the famous phrase goes. And yet, we have been writing about music for centuries. We are fortunate to have such a range of medieval and Renaissance writings on music that survive, from luxurious presentation volumes to scrappy single sheets pasted into miscellaneous collection. Although we often see quite stable transmission of texts across multiple sources (sometimes across centuries), we see much greater variation in the examples and diagrams. These, it seems, were fair game for change, revision, and emendation for specific readerships and local contexts, or simply at the whim of the scribe. My research explores why these differences matter.

In the autumn of 2019 I was in Oxford as the Albi Rosenthal Visiting Fellow in Music at the Bodleian Libraries. During my fellowship, I consulted a number of music theory manuscripts, including MS. Bodley 515 and MS. Digby 90. These manuscripts contain the famous Quatuor principalia musice [Four Fundamentals of Music], most likely authored and/or compiled by the English friar John of Tewkesbury in the late fourteenth century.

First, let’s look at one similarity. Early in the text, the theorist uses a monochord (a theoretical instrument of a single string) to explain the interval of a tone; a musical step in layman’s terms, as though moving from G to A on a piano. Both sources have a functionally similar diagram, even if there are some subtle visual differences.

Trumpet-like diagram of scales of one stringed instrument

Bodleian MS. Bodl. 515, fol. 10r (detail)

cone like diagram showing scales of one stringed instrument

Bodleian MS. Digby 90, fol. 11v (detail)

We can see that both manuscripts show a monochord (horizontal line representing a string); both indicate the interval of a tone between G (low G) and A with an arc labelled ‘tonus’; and both have the indication ‘monochordu[m]’ at the left-hand edge of the diagram. Bodl. 515 shows a more artistic approach to this diagram, with its coloured labels and decorative circles, whilst MS. Digby 90 favours equal tonal spacing with notches. Despite these differences, which might be attributed to scribal taste more than anything else, the reading experience across the two sources is near identical.

However, such similarity isn’t always present. If we look at the depiction of the Guidonian hand – a kind of conceptual map for musical space that is commonplace in music theory texts – we see both similarities and differences. The Guidonian Hand mapped the six-note intervallic pattern (ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la) onto physical locations on the body which a singer could use as a memory aid while they sang. To think about how the Hand works in practice, The Sound of Music’s ‘Do-Re-Mi’ is especially helpful. Let’s consider the diagrams presented in the two sources.

Diagram of a hand, each section of fingers labelled in latin

Bodleian MS. Digby 90, fol. 21r (detail)

Diagram of a hand in red, squiggly lines to the right.

Bodleian MS. Bodl. 515, fol. 23r (detail)

There are some important differences here. You’ll notice that MS. Bodl. 515 is missing labels on joints, whilst these are clearly visible in MS. Digby 90. These are crucial! Without the syllabic markings on the joints of the thumb and fingers, this diagram serves little demonstrative function, beautiful as it is. Such a scenario poses some interesting questions and might have left fifteenth-century readers scratching their heads. Is this just a scribal error? Was this aspect of the diagram to be entered in a different layer? Did the scribe not understand the diagram they copied? Was there an error in the exemplar copy that a scribe couldn’t resolve? What use is the diagram when it is missing such key information?

This last question is of particular importance for the final comparison I want to make here. The relationship between musical durational values is a fundamental building block of music notation. Early musical notations were more context-dependent, with the same note shape being worth two or three counts depending upon the context. Theorists found many intriguing ways to discuss this phenomenon, but the most interesting for the present discussion is the idea of a note value tree.

Some contemporaneous musical treatises refer to the ‘arbor’ of Johannes de Burgundia, a figure about whom we know nothing except for a passing reference to his ‘arbor’ in a musical treatise by Petrus de Picardia (fl. 1250). Both our sources include a diagram of this type, though we see some divergence in approach. In MS. Digby 90, we see the relationships made clear in a quasi-tabular format (largest values at the bottom), with lines connecting the related mensural levels. Working from the bottom up we see that the largest note value divides into three parts, which itself is divided into three smaller parts etc.:

Diagram of upside down family tree like structure

Bodleian MS. Digby 90, fol. 45r (detail)

By comparison, we see something which takes the tree much more to heart in MS. Bodl. 515:

Red family tree in a tree-lile shape

Bodleian MS. Bodl. 515, fol. 49v

The visual appeal of this is important. MS. Bodl. 515 offers hatched details on the trunk of the diagram, with additional coloured detailing which has faded over time. In this way, the longest note becomes the ‘root’ of the tree, and its subdivisions into smaller notes become represented as branches, themselves with sub-branches. Although both sources adequately demonstrate the theoretical point, the subtly different diagrams change the nature of the text–image relationship. The tree-like construction of MS. Bodl. 515 creates a sharp mental picture for a reader to recall. MS. Digby 90, though equally clear, establishes a different mensural picture. These diagrams demand different reading practices and present theoretical material in divergent ways.

My point here is not to assign greater value to either source, but to demonstrate that what might be dismissed as ‘minor scribal variants’ really matter when we consider how a reader might engage with a text in a specific manuscript source. If a diagram containing such foundational information that was common knowledge to expert readers, then why did a scribe go such significant effort to present this in a visually appealing manner? The reader’s experience of the same text in these two sources would have been quite different. Through this lens we begin to see the way that the materiality of music theory texts is at least as important as the contents of the texts themselves, and that the diagrams and examples give us an unparalleled insight into this. These theoretical ideas are alive in the manuscripts that preserve them.

Adam Whittaker is Head of Pedagogy and Lecturer in Music at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

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, and has recently written about the history of gibberish for and History Today.