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MS 61, fol 1v, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

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  • 22 Aug 2022 8:30 AM | Shannon McSheffrey (Administrator)

    Two former presidents of the Canadian Society of Medievalists write about one of their current projects below!

    Kathy Cawsey

    Elizabeth Edwards

    Elizabeth Edwards and I have been working on an anthology of medieval Arthurian literature for Broadview Press. We’re blessed with a fantastic team of sub-editors and translators, including another former CSM President Jim Weldon, CSM members Siân Echard, Geoff Rector, Matthew Roby, Kevin Whettter, Stephen Yeager, and Ann-Marie Rasmussen, as well as Thomas Crofts and Gina Psaki.

    Statue of King Arthur at TintagelAs we all know, the Arthur story is perhaps one of the most generative frameworks out there. (The Marvel Universe can’t hold a candle to Arthuriana!) It is voracious and enthusiastic in its absorption of other stories –Tristan and Perceval;  Morgan la Fay slash Celtic goddess Morrigan; the Loathly Lady tales – but also prolific in its invention of new characters and plots. Arthuriana is cornucopian in its forms and genres as well. Beyond literature, the story is found in art: frescoes, statues, mosaics, tapestries, manuscript miniatures, paintings; it has also made its way into music, in dances and troubadour lyrics.

    So we had a lot to choose from.

    Beyond creating a useful teaching anthology that would appeal to a variety of courses, settings, and teachers, we also wanted to create an anthology that – unlike earlier anthologies of medieval Arthurian literature – would show the diversity and reach of medieval Arthuriana.

    One of our key aims was to provide a sense of the geographic spread of the Arthurian tales in the Middle Ages. Although we failed to discover any Middle Eastern or Arabic tales, African versions, or Asian versions, the Arthurian story did make it into every nook and cranny of Europe. However, we very quickly ran into a difficulty when it came to providing evidence of that diversity in an English textbook for students.

    "Grave" of King Arthur at Glastonbury AbbeyMost languages and cultures in Europe had translations of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain or the Vulgate Lancelot, and so we easily found Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Polish, Norse, Portuguese, and many other languages that had versions of the Arthur story. However, very few undergraduates (very few people!) read all those languages, so we would have had to print English translations of all those works – which would then have lost the singular quality of the individual languages and societies. The plots of the stories would be more-or-less the same, so this wonderful variety of distinctive literature would be, essentially, lost in translation. Monmouth, translated into Italian, and translated then into English, would not be that different from Monmouth translated into Spanish, or Polish, or Norse, then translated into English.

    We were a bit perplexed – we could show the geographic spread of the Arthur tales by, for example, including a Polish fresco of scenes from the Vulgate Lancelot alongside an image of the King Arthur mosaic in Otranto, Italy, but showcasing the tradition’s linguistic and cultural diversity in a meaningful way seemed impossible. Then Matthew Roby, whom we had initially asked to translate one of the Norse versions of a French text, mentioned an Icelandic version of the prophecies of Merlin section of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Called the Merlínússpa, this work was probably composed around 1200 by the Icelandic monk Gunnlaugr Leifsson. Now again, Monmouth’s work was translated into many, many languages, so the fact that it was also translated into Icelandic is not surprising; what is startling is that Gunnlaugr Leifsson translated Monmouth’s Latin prose into poetry. Even more significantly, he did so following the model of the Norse Poetic Edda, with alliterative metre, kennings, and allusions to pagan gods. As Roby says in his introduction to Merlínússpa, “Gunnlaugr’s choice of verse therefore gives Merlínússpá the feeling of an ancient Old Norse poem.”

    We had found our key to providing a sense of the linguistic and geographic diversity of the Arthur stories: we would look for texts that translated the legend culturally, as well as linguistically.

    Elizabeth Edwards and I believe that the other important inclusion in a new anthology is just that – inclusion. We wanted to represent the diversity of Arthurian people. We believe that inclusion is simply capital-R Right, and not merely politically correct or trendy; we hope that the changes in Arthurian criticism and medieval scholarship as a whole, to increase diversity and inclusion, will be permanent, and these characters and stories will move into the canon. But we also have an unashamedly political goal of countering white supremacist images of the Middle Ages as heterogeneously Christian, heterosexual and white, with masculine and martial values and goals. We can do this not only by providing examples of racially, religiously, and sexually diverse authors and characters, but also by showing that medieval people themselves were diverse in their attitudes to race and gender. Certainly some authors and writers were extremely racist, misogynist, and homo- or trans-phobic; certainly some people upheld the most extreme examples of the Catholic Church’s rigid doctrine. But not everybody obeyed or agreed with the rules; and even within the church itself, there was debate, change over time and space, and questioning. The texts and authors we chose reflect, we hope, a diversity of attitudes and people that were present in the Middle Ages.


  • 22 Aug 2022 8:27 AM | Shannon McSheffrey (Administrator)

    Throughout the Middle Ages, the notion of “poverty” spoke to two different experiences: the first, that of the incapacitated, underemployed, and down-and-out, struggling to make ends meet and often living hand-to-mouth; and the second, that of the monastic and mendicant orders, who to varying degrees took up the mantle of poverty by renouncing property and cultivating a spirit of detachment. The phenomena of involuntary and voluntary poverty occupied the same sphere in urban centres, where the indigent and the friars both maintained a visible presence. Despite their co-existence, involuntary and voluntary poverty are usually studied separately and through different lenses. My research seeks to bridge this gap by bringing the two strands of poverty into conversation, probing the ways in which these experiences bore upon each other.

    (Povrete from a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose; London, British Library, Royal MS 19 B xiii. fol. 8r detail.jpg;
    http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=57410)

    My doctoral dissertation shed light on the nature of the relationship between the friars and the lay indigent in late medieval England, assessing whether the introduction and rise of the friars had a discernable effect on the perception and treatment of the realm’s indigent. Approaching this relationship from various angles, I used the following questions as my framework: How exactly did the involuntary poor factor into the friars’ public discourse on poverty and charity? How was the relationship between both groups presented to and/or problematized by would-be almsgivers? How did the mendicant orders conceive of their own interactions and charitable responsibilities to the poor? And lastly, is there any tangible or quantitative evidence that alms were diverted from the involuntary poor when the friars arrived on the scene?

    The questions that arose from my dissertation’s conclusions set my research on its current course. Although technically a medievalist, I feel most at home when I have one foot in the Middle Ages and another in the early modern period; accordingly, my next project will take me into the sixteenth century to examine the framing of poverty in preaching materials in the decades following the dissolution of English monasteries. As a natural progression from my doctoral research, I’m eager to explore effects of the disappearance of public-facing voluntary poverty in England’s religious landscape on discourses of poverty and charity.

     Like most scholars, I also have a few labours of love up my sleeve. My work on the poor in John Wyclif’s reformist vision reflects a long-standing enthrallment with Wycliffism and its eponym, cemented during my time at Oxford as a master’s student. My interest in nebulous constructions of poverty – and, of course, my experience navigating the job market as an ECR! – have piqued a fascination with the late medieval and early modern clerical “gig economy”; I’m hoping to dip my toes into an investigation of unbeneficed clerics in the near future.

    Currently based in Nova Scotia, I’m always excited to chat and collaborate with other Canadian medievalists and early modernists! Connect with me on twitter @hannahkirbywood.


    Hannah Kirby Wood (PhD, University of Toronto)    


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