‘Spices I have, in my Ships’: Crusaders, Caricatures and the Medieval Kitchen

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The image above comes from a manuscript made in the late fourteenth century. The company of the French king, Charles V, sit at a lavish dining table as they watch a re-enactment of the Crusades – complete with an impressive prop ship captained by the legendary hero Godfrey de Bouillon:

A ship with masts, sails and rigging was seen first; she had for colours the arms of the city of Jerusalem: Godfrey de Bouillon appeared on deck, accompanied by several knights armed cap-a-pee: the ship advanced into the middle of the hall, without the machine which moved it being perceptible. Then the city of Jerusalem appeared, with all its towers lined with Saracens. The Ship approached the city: the Christians landed, and began the assault; the besieged made good defence; several scaling-ladders were thrown down; but at length the city was taken.

This interlude brings together jingoistic nationalism with the celebrations of the feast. The association between celebratory food and the triumphal caricaturing of a subdued foreign enemy may seem strange, but it’s deeply rooted in medieval culture. Feasts were filled with symbols of status and hierarchy, with reminders of wealth and dominance. Nicola McDonald writes about the way a medieval delicacy known as ‘the Turk’s head’ – a  pie made to resemble a dark-skinned, long-haired man’s head with a luridly coloured filling, and flavoured with cloves, pepper, sugar and pistachio – reflects the same dehumanising attitudes towards ‘exotic’ foreign enemies that we find in the Crusader romances of the period.

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A Saracen or Ethiopian Crusader battles a Sea-Monster in a Fourteenth-Century Prayerbook

For kings – but also, increasingly through the medieval period, for prosperous people much further down the social scale – images of exotic foreignness went hand in hand with the luxury items for the table. As Charles V and his companions watched their interlude, they ate food flavoured with spices brought in on the same sea routes the Crusaders had followed in reverse.
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Medieval manuscripts are filled with recipies for ginger, for saffron, for cinnamon and mace. By the fifteenth century, we find recipes mentioning not only the spices, but also a new ingredient – sugar – and a play performed around 1500 has a character describe the exotic cargo of his merchant ships: ‘Spycis I hawe..In my shyppes..Gyngere, lycoresse and cannyngale’ (‘Spices I have … in my ships … ginger, liquorice, and galingale’). In the same year, the cosmopolitan text Information for Pilgrims to the Holy Land foreshadowed a hundred foodie blogs in conflating quality of ingredients with obscurity of their source, advising: ‘Of peres..suche other comfytes, the further ye gone the better shall ye fynde, as well as grene gyngere’ (‘As concerns pears … and other such preserves, the further you travel the better quality you’ll find, and the same with green ginger’). These spices serve as metonyms for the geographies from which they come, representing the wide reach of English and French trading ships and the prosperity that enabled Western European nations to import their cargoes.

Recipies blend with medical remedies, with spices featuring in both. In one textbook on surgery, in a fourteenth-century manuscript, we find the recommendation to give patients ‘fleisch..sauerid with swete spicerie, as canel, gynger’ (‘meat … seethed in sweet spices, such as cinnamon, ginger’); in another, copied in the fifteenth century by Yorkshireman Robert Thornton, the list of ‘spices þat are hate: gynger, longe pepir, white pepir, aloes epotik’ (‘spices that are heating: ginger, long pepper, white pepper, liver-coloured [hepatic] aloes’).

Some concoctions sound fairly unpleasant to modern readers – in the 1325, we find instructions for cooking pike or turbot with almond milk, spices, saffron and sugar – though others sound more familiar, such as the ‘good hypocras’ made of wine and spices – mulled wine – recommended by John Lydgate in the fifteenth century. In the Middle English romance Reinbrun, found in the London Auchinleck manuscript of the 1330s, we hear of merchants bringing expensive and varied stocks including spices:

Gingiuer and galingale,
Clowes, quibibes, gren de Paris,
Pyper, and comyn, and swet anis;

Fykes, reisyn, dates,
Almaund, rys, pomme-garnates,

Kanel and setewale …

(Ginger and galingale,
Cloves, cubeb [pepper], grains of Paradise,
Peper, and cumin, and sweet anise;

Figs, raisins, dates,
Almond, rice, pomegranates,
Cinnamon and turmeric … )

These spices were popular – luxury items, certainly, but in the category of luxuries affordable to quite a lot of reasonably well-to-do people, and as a treat, to more. Official documents relating to legal weights and measures give an intriguing insight, recording that ‘warys that be sold by the lb., as peper, saffryn, clowys, mace, gynger and suche other..be called Sotyll Warys’ (‘goods that are sold by the pound, as pepper, saffron, cloves, mace, ginger and such others … are called Subtle Wares’). The term ‘subtle’ suggests refined luxury, but the idea of buying a pound of ginger – let alone saffron – would be beyond most keen cooks’ budgets today.

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Comparative lists, giving the prices of various items – some luxuries, some common purchases – bear out the (relative) availability of spices. In a letter of 1471, one member of the Paston family writes to another, off on business, asking ‘sende me word qwat price a li. of peppyr, clowys, masis, gingyr, and sinamun’ (‘send me word – what price is a pound of pepper, cloves, mace, ginger, and cinnamon?’). As early as the thirteenth century, we find surnames redolent of the spice trade: Roger Spice, William Gingerer, Simon Pepperwhite.

The rich fragrance of spices, and their appealing colours and shapes, lent themselves to imaginative imagery, much of it drawn from the Old Testament. Wycliffe’s Bible translates the ornate lists of spices and aromatics in the Song of Songs into English as ‘fruytis of applis, cipre trees, with narde; narde, and saffrun, an erbe cleipid fistula, and canel, with alle trees of the Liban, myrre, and aloes, with alle the beste oynementis’ (‘fruits of apples, cypress trees, with nard [incense]; nard, and saffron, a herb called cassia, and cinnamon, with all trees of Lybia, myrrh, and aloes, with all the best ointments’).

The same lyricism, and same profusion of spices, is put to very different, and sadder ends, in the Middle English elegy Pearl, where the speaker laments over his dead daughter’s grave and declares:

That spot of spyses mot nedes sprede
Ther such ryches to rot is runne:
Blomes blayke and blwe and rede
Ther schyne ful schyr agayn the sunne.

(‘That spot must spread with spice-plants,
Where such richness has run to rot,
Blossoms yellow and blue and red
Must shine there, clear, against the sun.’)

As this lament reminds us – like the familiar imagery of the myrrh brought to the baby Jesus and foreshadowing his death – spices are also associated with the colder side of religious life. The preparation of spices for medicine gives rise to more monitory and penitential metaphors, such as this description of penitence, found in the didactic Book to a Mother:

Þe soule..pouneþ in a morter of hure conscience monye and diuerse bitter spices of hure synnes. 

(‘The soul … pounds in the mortar of her conscience many and diverse bitter spices of her sins.’)

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‘Thiese serpentes … with white peper theym feden.’

Spice suggests both sanctity and penitence, both sweet taste and bitter medicine, the mingled attraction and danger of the exotic. A (fictional) letter from the great conqueror Alexander claims that dragons – serpents – fed on white pepper.  In Cynthia Harnett’s children’s novel A Load of Unicorn, the ringleaders of a Lancastrian plot against the Yorkist king Edward IV use a quick-witted Cockney spice-peddlar as go-between, and his seemingly innocent tallies of wares conceal a careful scheme to record covert sympathisers to the cause: “I’ll put them down as peppercorns in my list of spices.” 

The same link between spices and enemy threat crops up in Mummers’ Plays, which were recorded in versions from the medieval period onwards. There are several versions of the St George Mummer’s play – one here – and it makes use of the stock characters of medieval interludes and romances: St George, the enemy Turkish knight, the King of Egypt’s beautiful daughter. Early versions give St George a jingling rhymed challenge in defiance of the Turkish knight:

“I’ll slash him and stab him as small as the flies!
And send him to the cookshop to make mincepies!”

Later on, the homely English ‘cookshop’ is replaced with a more exotic location. In 1899, we hear:

“I’ll hack him up as small as dust,
And send him to Jamaica,
To be made into mince-pie crust!”

Here, ‘Jamaica’ probably functions not so much as a ‘real place’ as it does as a generalised symbol of the exotic, a mingled image of racial alterity and of the sugar and spices of mincemeat. Yet the racist undertone is pointed up by a third alternative, which has the valiant St George vow to send his Turkish adversary ‘to Satan, to make his mincepies!’.

Charles Causley’s brilliantly chilling Christmas poem ‘Innocent’s Song’ – which gives the Coventry Carol a run for its money – exploits the same imagery, with its description of the evil King Herod as a ‘smiling stranger/ With hair as white as gin’. Echoing the medieval ‘Saracen’s Head’ delicacy, or the Mummer’s Play with its Turkish knight chopped into spiced mince-meat, Causley’s poem transforms the human figure into a concoction from the medieval kitchen:

Why does he ferry my fireside
As a spider on a thread,
His fingers made of fuses
And his tongue of gingerbread?

Why does the world before him
Melt in a million suns,
Why do his yellow, yearning eyes
Burn like saffron buns?

The image, like the earlier texts, turns a once-real threat of danger into something both more exotic, and more palatable. The texts exoticise and parody images of foreignness in a way that makes us uncomfortable, linking to a disturbingly long tradition of caricatured, indeterminate foreign Others – Saracen, Turkish, Jamaican, Ethiopian; they also draw on the seductive scents and tastes of spices to cover up – like rotten meat – the unsavoury hints of nationalistic propaganda lurking beneath.

But, there is another side to this coin. The images and anecdotes, recipes and remedies and lists of prices for spices here prove to us that medieval English men and women were not cut off from a world of cultural – and racial – difference. Even ingredients we tend not to expect in medieval cooking – sugar, for example, or cubeb peppers, cumin, turmeric – are all there alongside the more traditionally-expected mace, ginger and cinnamon. In the same way, these texts and images are part of a wider reminder that medieval England – and medieval Europe – were not unvaryingly white spaces. The Medieval People of Color project – which I’ve mentioned before, and which regularly receives abusive comments for its excellent work uncovering the histories and images of medieval people of color – gives a fascinating and complex picture.

It’s hard to guess at what ordinary medieval people – of whatever skin colour – thought of the images around them, or of the geographies evoked by the spices that passed through their kitchens. But we can at least look at this history and acknowledge it, think about it, work its images of strangeness and familiarity into our understanding of the medieval past.

Happy Christmas!
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With thanks to Ruth Allen for the St George Mummers’ Play, Sjoerd Levelt for the baby dragon in the margin of BnF Latin 919, and Emma Goss for food styling. 

References:

Food History Almanac, Vol 1, ed. Janet Clarkson (2014)

Peter Millington, ‘Textual Analysis of English Quack Doctor Plays: Some New Discoveries’, Folk Drama Studies Today (2003), 97-132.

Nicola McDonald, ‘Eating People and the Alimentary Logic of Richard Coeur de Lion,’ in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance (Manchester: University Press, 2003), pp. 124-150.

Images in this post are taken from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Ms. fr. 2813; London, British Library, Add MS 4213o; Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 919; Musée du Petit-Palais L.Dut.456 and London, British Library, Royal MS 10.

The medical textbooks are to be found respectively in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1396 and Lincoln, Cathedral Library MS 91. The play with the spice-merchant’s ships is found in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, in Dublin, Trinity College MS 652. The Information for Pilgrims to the Holy Land is found in London, British Library, Cotton Appendix 8. The Book to a Mother is found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 416.

 

A Siege of Herons and a Winter Forest: Carols, Poems and Stories for Christmas

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When I emptied out my desk in search of Christmas cards, I realised I’d been stockpiling quite a bit. Wrapping paper with yew and ivy and Christmas berries on it; stocks of illuminated manuscripts; multiple versions of deer in winter (I understand you can buy a Primark Christmas jumper with queer deer now, too); lots of birds sitting in amongst the illuminated branches and Christmas greenery. I’ve got birds on the tree, too, and my housemate made a wreath with mistletoe, holly and fir cones from Cambridge Botanic gardens (she works there). And I’ve been cutting back the laurel and ivy hedges in the back garden so I’ve got a mug full of ivy berries.

IMG_3428 It’s all traditional Christmas imagery – the outside brought inside; the reminders of winter forests. But for medieval people, Christmas was not just a mid-winter festival; it was also the culmination of the fasting season of Advent and the beginning of the Twelve Days of Christmas, the traditional time for Christmas games and feasting and also for hunting the animals to provide the Christmas food. The religious festival itself had a plangent and brooding undertone, which you can see from carols such as the mournful Coventry Carol, the austere, foreboding and triumphal ‘Out of Your Sleep/Arise and Wake’ and ‘Adam Lay Y-Bounden’, with their glances out from Christ’s nativity to the Harrowing of Hell it foreshadows. These carols shift our attention, from the expected centrality of Christ’s nativity, to focus on the narratives that run alongside, and outside, this one.

In Carol Ann Duffy’s modern Christmas poem Wenceslas, some of this atmosphere is recreated in a series of strange juxtaposition between inside and outside, celebration and sorrowing, feast and funeral. With deceptive nursery-rhyme cheer, the poem begins:

The King’s Cook had cooked for the King a Christmas pie,

Wherein the swan
Once bride of the river,
Half of forever,
six Cygnets circling her,
lay scalded, plucked, boned, parboiled,
salted, peppered, gingered, oiled;

and harboured the Heron,
whose grey shadow she’d crossed
as it stood witness,
grave as a Priest,
on the riverbank.

Now the heron’s breast was martyred with cloves.

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Heron, hanging from a hook, in the shape of a letter T (London, BL MS Add. 82957)

Inside the Heron inside the Swan –
In a greased cradle, pastry-sealed –
a Common Crane,
gutted and trussed,
smeared with Cicely, Lavender, Rose,
was stuffed with a buttered, saffroned
golden Goose.

Within the Goose,
perfumed with Fruits, was a Duck,
and jammed in the Duck, a Pheasant,
embalmed in Honey
from Bees
who’d perused
the blossoms of Cherry trees. 

You can read the whole poem online in the Guardian, with one of the beautiful images Stuart Kolakovic made to go with it, but if you can, look at the book – the layout is beautiful, scattering the lines amongst the images in random groups like little flurries of snow. This piecemeal, meandering structure reflects the disparate prior voices Duffy brings together – stealing the image of the heron-priest from Dylan Thomas, echoing the fifteenth-century feast atmosphere of Caput apri defero, and ending with a sideways glance at George Herbert’s seventeenth-century prayers.

As we read the poem we move from the strangely mournful image of the swan on the winter river, to a brief glimpse straight out of a saint’s life (‘now the Heron’s breast was martyred with cloves’), to a self-consciously old-fashioned list of ingredients reminiscent of Sophie Grigson quoting Elizabeth David (‘Pot-herbs to accompany this;/ Roasted Chestnuts, Red Cabbage,/ Celery, Carrots, Colly-flowre’).

Much of this is very medieval. Especially towards the end of the period – in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – people constructed their books in the same way we might use a notebook, or even in the way we might use a shelf on a bookcase: to bring together often-used bits of writing. So you find everything from recipes and jotted notes about the washing or the neighbour’s boundary, to copies of legal agreements or medical prescriptions, to stories, poems and prayers, saints’ lives, and recipes.

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‘Here biginneth a Boke of Kokery’ (London, BL MS Harley 4016, detail)

One such recipe gives details for the preparation of the second bird in Duffy’s faintly elegiac listing of waterfowl, with a practicality that undercuts her image of the living bird standing predator on the riverbank:

The heyroun schal be diyht as is the swan and it come quyk to kechen. The sauce schal be mad of hym as a chaudon of gynger & of galyngale, & that it be coloured with the blood or with brende crustes that arn tosted.

Another recommends that:

Cranys and Herons schulle be euarmud [wrapped] wyth Lardons of swyne and rostyd and etyn wyth gyngynyr.

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‘Inside the swan inside the heron …’

The details of these recipes – perhaps not the prevalent ginger, but certainly the bread sauce and the wrapping of a bird ready for roasting with strips of fatty bacon – sound timeless, not so very different from the way many of us might cook a turkey or a goose for Christmas Day.

But the medieval choice of bird here – the heron – was a wildfowl, suggestive of icy lakes and cold grey rivers rather than cosy farmyard domesticity. In medieval bestiaries, we read that herons represent those who shun and fear ‘the disorder of the world’, and whose spirits seek to soar upwards. The collective term for a group of herons is a ‘sege‘, the same word that in modern English is spelt ‘siege’, an the word symbolises the strange sense of mingled threat and danger with which these birds are associated in a string of medieval (and post-medieval) lyrics, carols and stories: both predator and prey, linked both to the Christmas feast and to the chilly winter riverbank outside the court.

In the otherworldly romance Sir Orfeo, a king’s wife is abducted into a supernatural kingdom as she sleeps, and the king sees her – silent and surreal – only when she rides out to hawking in a company of sixty ladies who pass him by unspeaking:

And ich a faucoun on hond bere,
And riden on haukin bi o rivere.

Maulardes, hayroun, and cormeraunt;
The foules of the water ariseth,
The faucouns hem wele deviseth;
Ich faucoun his pray slough …

(And each one carried a falcon in her hand,
And rode, at hawking, by the river.

Mallards, herons, and cormorants:
The fowls of the water arise;
The falcons well their way devise;
Each falcon slew his prey …)

It’s eerie: the lost woman has become transmuted from prey to predator: first the victim of a hunt, she now plays out in dumb-show the same dynamic, caught in an enchantment just as the water-birds are caught in the talons of the falcons.

This type of hunting provides the backbone for a charged episode in Rosemary Sutcliff’s spare, poetic novel Knight’s Fee, set in the eleventh century. The young protagonist, Randal, slips out unnoticed to confront his foster-father’s enemy as the men ride to a heron hunt, and the tension of his uneven match with this man is foreshadowed in the tension of the birds above the river bank:

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Guillaume Tardif, Book of Falconry (Glasgow, University Library, MS Hunter 269, detail)

… The heron climbed desperately the blue circles of the upper air, striving to gain height to use her own weapon, her dagger bill; and behind her the falcons mounted steadily, dark-winged death on her track. Randal could hear the hawk bells ringing, a shining thread of sound as thin as lark song, as they climbed, and narrowed his eyes to follow the deadly chase. Up and up and up into the sunlit blue and silver of the February sky, until at last the foremost falcon, soaring like an arrow from a bow, overtopped her and stooped, avoiding the despairing dagger thrust of her beak, and made his kill.

The falcon – the traditional adversary of the heron – features in a medieval carol, too:

Lully lullay, lully lullay,
The faucon* hath borne my make** away                              *falcon      **mate

He bare him up, he bare him down,
He bare him into an orchard brown,

In that orchard there was an hall,
That was hanged with purple and pall,

And in that hall there was a bed,
And it was hanged with gold so red.

And in that bed there lith a knight
His woundes bleeding day and night

By that beddes side ther kneleth a may
And she weepeth both night and day. 

And by that beddes side ther standeth a stoon
Corpus christi* writen thereon.                                                 *Body of Christ

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Bird of Prey, Stained Glass at Monks Risborough

The carol lifts us up, listening, into the spaces between things, spaces governed by unmoored prepositions – up, down, and finally the repeating ‘away’ of the refrain, that places the action beyond the reach of the speaker. John Stevens argues that the carol echoes a much older romance, the story of Yonec by Marie de France. The protagonist of the story is a woman who is imprisoned in a tower by her jealous husband. Her lover takes the form of a dark-winged goshawk and flies through her window, proving his good faith to her by taking the Eucharist (the Body of Christ) in a Christian mass. Suspecting infidelity, the jealous husband surrounds his wife’s tower window with iron spikes, which mortally wound the hawk. A trail of blood leads the woman to a city of silver, where she finds the hawk-knight on his deathbed. Fleeing away, she hears the bells of the city tolling for his death, and when her son is born, she seeks out the tomb of his dead father to inspire him to revenge.

It’s possible the carol is evoking some – or all – of this, but the romance is mingled with religious iconography – with the weeping maiden as the Virgin Mary, the wounded knight as Christ and the tombstone bearing its Eucharistic message. Because it is a ‘carol’ – a poem with a refrain – it became caught up in later celebrations of Christmas, and drawn more centrally into the religious narrative of the nativity.

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In Alison Uttley’s novel A Traveller in Time, a teenage girl, Penelope, goes to stay in the ancient manor farmhouse of her aunt and uncle, and finds herself slipping backwards in time. Uttley bases the novel on the Babington plot against Elizabeth I, the (doomed) plan to free the captive Mary Queen of Scots, led by the impetuous young Anthony Babington, a Derbyshire squire living in the manor house on which she sets her story. Uttley’s story is full of Penelope’s sense of fear and involvement, of dislocation from her time, and it echoes with carols and with scenes of winter weather:

The stars slowly faded as I stood there, the brightness was dimmed, a cloud seemed to move over the surface of the heavens and an icy stillness made me shiver with apprehension. Then there was a sound so faint I felt it with my own extreme consciousness, a movement as the earth listened also. A few feathers of snow shimmered through the air, then more and more, great flakes came fluttering down, caught in their beauty by the light from an unshuttered window, heralding a snowstorm.

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‘Grene growth the holy’ (London, BL MS Add. 31922, f. 37v (detail)).

The details of the novel keep reminding us that Penelope knows more – or should know more, in the present day – than the people around her, including the ultimate fate of the plot unwinding around her. In particular, Uttley has a repeated theme of familiar songs.

When asked to sing for her sixteenth-century audience, Penelope is forced to explain how she already knows a song brand-new to her audience, and at Christmas, she hears the lady of the house, Mistress Babington, learning a new Derbyshire carol to sing for her husband. It’s another version of the Corpus Christi Carol:

Down in yon forest there stands a hall –
The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring
It’s covered all over with purple and pall –
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

In that hall there stands a bed –
The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring –
Covered all over with scarlet so red –

And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

At the bed’s foot there grows a thorn –
The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring
Which ever blows blossom since Adam was born –
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

                                Over that bed the moon shines bright –
                                       The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring –
                               In sign that our Saviour was born this night –
                                                              And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

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‘Down in yon forest there stands a hall’

Here, the austere medieval carol is transformed into a more celebratory Christmas song, its refrain explicitly devotional and its conclusion triumphantly related to Christ’s nativity. The mysterious imagery of the earlier version, with its ties to supernatural and romance narratives, is replaced with a well-known image of the thorn that ‘ever blows blossom since Adam was born’, an image that ultimately derives from the Latin Vulgate version of the Christmas reading from Isaiah: ‘And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’. In the Latin, the word for ‘rod’ is virga, a green stalk, and it puns on the word virgo, the Virgin Mary, from whom Christ – the descendent of the royal house of Jesse – is to be born. It’s the sort of prophetic punning link between Old and New Testament that medieval religious thinkers found particularly reassuring, and it draws the odd carol onto firmer religious ground, away from its strangely resonant ambiguities.
Much later, in Scotland, we find another version surfacing, clearly part of the same tradition and closely linked to the earliest, medieval carol:

The heron flew east and the heron flew west,
The heron flew to the fair forest,

there she saw a lovely bower,
Was a’ clad o’er wi’ lilly-flower,
And in the bower there was a bed
With silken sheets, and weel down spread,
And in the bed there lay a knight
Whose wounds did bleed both day and night;
And by that bed there stood a stane,
And there was set a leal* maiden                                               *loyal
With silver needle and silken thread
Stemming the wounds when they did bleed.

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Here, we’re back to the images of the dying knight – with just a suggestion of the Virgin Mary in the association of the maiden with the lily, the emblem of the Virgin – but in place of the predatory falcon soaring over the orchard and the forest hall, we have the falcon’s prey, the heron, flying over the woodland.

The three carols, across three centuries, return over and over to images of the wilderness – the stooping falcon, the winter forest, the flying heron. The glances of wilderness and cold, of the terror of the hunt and the threat of discovery – recall another medieval bird image, Bede’s sparrow – blown by winter gales into the sudden light, warmth and noise of the hall and darting immediately out of the opposite window into the storm again. The tension, poignancy, and even the eerie fearfulness of these texts make them perfect for Christmas – reminders of the wilderness and darkness outside, while we sit inside reading in the warmth.

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Medieval Stained Glass, Shibden Hall, Halifax.

 

 

 

A Medieval English Islamophobic Romance, Written in the Daily Mail

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Crusaders and Saracens Battle. Boulogne sur Mer BM, MS 142, f. 153v (detail)

A few weeks ago, while I was busy with various things including signing an open letter written by my colleague*, I discovered in passing that a very small group of people I’d never met or spoken to were getting quite het up about my teaching of Medieval romance. This was, naturally, a bit of a surprise. My students seemed broadly quite positive about the course, so I put it to the back of my mind. But, this morning, I saw something on David Perry’s blog – Islamophobic rallies in Prague were attended by participants wearing the costumes of medieval Crusaders – and something suddenly clicked for me.

The criticism I’d received had come from a Change.org petition (I’m not sure whether to be insulted or pleased it’s only got 94 signatures, or rather less than a full lecture hall). The main critique focussed on our open letter, but I also came to a criticism – apparently written under the misapprehension that I’m a history lecturer, but clearly referring to my course:

“A more legitimate concern in academia should be that a history lecturer calling for this act of censorship thinks Medieval romance perpetuates Islamophobia –  a breathtaking a-historicism that really should have alarm bells ringing.”

At the time, I was bemused.

Did the writers think Islamophobia didn’t exist in the Middle Ages? Did they not realise that the Crusades took place between Christians and Muslims? Did they think Islam didn’t exist? Or was the issue that I was commenting on these romances as texts that have continued to shape our cultural imagination, rather than dusty historical documents that could not possibly have any influence on present day Islamophobia?

I suspected it was largely the last issue. Medieval romances have a peculiar status in popular imagination. If you ask most people to name a medieval story or a medieval author, they’ll come up with Chaucer. But if you start telling them the plots of medieval romances, they’ll recognise quite a lot of these before they even get close to recognising the plot of, say, The Book of the Duchess or The Prioress’s Tale. And I’m not just talking about the well-known Arthurian legends, or the Robin Hood stories. There’s a children’s picture book, which was one of my big brother’s favourite stories, which retells the tale of the Middle English romance Robert of Sicily, a text so obscure to medievalists that I often have to go through the plot when I talk about it at conferences. The plots and tropes of medieval romances are hidden in plain sight.

By contrast, history is quite regularly cited on all sides of the debate over Islamic/Christian relations (or Islamic/Western relations). President Obama has been heard to refer to the Crusades as an example of Islamophobic warfare; one response – which also claimed the Catholic Church had “almost nothing to do with” the Inquisition – was to label these wars as “a defensive Christian reaction against Muslim madmen of the Middle Ages”. While I applaud the alliteration, and look eagerly forward for the Don Draper spoof it suggests to me, ‘Muslim madmen’ isn’t exactly the most nuanced idea, and nor is it new – and this continuity is what the fiction shows us.

Medieval romances portray Islamic (or ‘Saracen’) opponents as raging, intemperate, unchecked by Christian piety. The Siege of Milan, for example, opens with a description of Saracen atrocities perfectly calculated to enrage Christian listeners:

“The Sultan, Arabas the strong
Warred against Christendom with wrong,

In Tuscany, towns did he win,
And stuffed them full of heathen kin,

The images that there should be,
Both the Cross, and the noble Mary,
He burned them in a fire. 
And then his idols he set up there,
In the churches and abbeys that there were.”

The passage is crammed with clichés. Brute force? Check. Moral absolutes? Check. Desecration of religious icons and pyromaniac destruction of culture? Check. Idol worship? Check. You get the picture. This isn’t a sober historical account of cultural conflict – and I like to imagine hard-bitten Crusaders, permanently sun-burned from years living cheek-by-jowl with their Muslim opposite numbers, sniggering heartily into their beards at the idea of Islamic idol-worshippers. But my absolute favourite detail comes in the middle lines: like a Daily Mail columnist on a slow news day, the writer crams in a topical reference to the dangers of immigration, with the hyperbolic image of Tuscan cities crammed with ‘heathen kin’. THESE MUSLIM EXTREMISTS BURNED A CHURCH: NOW THEY’RE BRINGING THEIR FAMILIES TO YOUR HOLIDAY VILLA!

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Muslim Extremists Sunbathing, circa 1499.                       Bodleian Library, MS Douce 337, f. 85r

Is the history of the Crusades that has seeped into cultural consciousness, or is it the fiction? Images of enemy foreigners, dark-skinned, brutal, impressively strong, and ferociously determined to crush out Christianity and insinuate foreign ‘kin’ into European cities, echo through Medieval romances. Long after we stopped thinking about Medieval romance, we continued to consume stories in which the enemies and anti-heroes are cast from the same mould, part of the same set of tropes.

It’s not hard to see that narratives like the one I quoted above are perpetuating an Islamophobic perspective. But, when we fail to trace contemporary tropes of Islamophobia back to their medieval sources, we miss a crucial part of the narrative.

When the Siege of Milan was likely written, some time around 1400, the world it described was already far in the past. The simplicity of noble, Christian Crusaders and brutal Saracen invaders offers both distraction from much messier contemporary conflicts (the early shadows of the Wars of the Roses, the violent inter-Christian battles with France), and also a covert message about England itself. Like the Daily Mail, the romance seeks to externalise the threat of disorder, to personify it as belonging to foreign aggressors. But at this time, the desecration of church images of ‘the Cross and the noble Mary’ – iconoclasm, that is – was a threat much closer to home. The Lollards, the heretical sect who became prominent towards the end of the fourteenth century, posed a real threat to the statues, icons, and paintings that enriched medieval churches across the country. For readers of this romance in the fifteenth century, the idea of destructive, iconoclastic violence is unmistakably mapped onto earlier images of religious warfare, of Saracen enemies, as if to insist that such a threat could only come from outside.

I suspect we want to believe that a medieval world capable of the brutality of the Crusades was motivated by simple, ideological hatred. Yes, such brutality – witnessed by historical records – is appalling, but these people were not like us. The murky, conflicted and submerged fears I see in this medieval romance make me question that assumption. This fiction allows its readers to externalise those conflicted, nagging fears that come from within and to give them simpler, more tangible forms, to translate them into stark archetypes of good and evil. It does not merely reflect a past society that hated and feared Islam; it reflects a past society that exploited the idea of hatred and fear of Islam for its own ends. This, for some people, is a disturbing idea, an idea that must be slapped down as ‘a-historical’. If we accept that medieval Christendom was motivated by something more cynical, more complex, than burning religious ideology and passionate conviction, then we’re faced with the disturbing possibility that we are, truly, not so very different from the Crusaders who committed those atrocities.

Postscript

The image at the top of my post shows armies neatly identified by their respective religious symbols: the cross for the Christian crusaders; the crescent for their Muslim opponents. But underneath this image, in pointed contrast to its militaristic aggression, is an image you might read as cultural exchange, or at least as an interesting contrast to the scene above. It shows two people sitting in a military tent – perhaps during a lull in the fighting – playing a game of chess.

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Boulogne sur Mer BM, MS 142, f. 153v (detail)

Note *

This open letter is discussed here and here. It concerned a promotional video for the University of Cambridge, which was presented by David Starkey.

Tim Lott thinks Women Benefit from Oppression (Warning: Discussion of Suicide)

I was in two minds about writing this post, but I think I will.

In May this year, Anna Mansfield killed herself. She was 44, and suffering from depression, but her family were unaware she was considering suicide, and it seems her doctor did not realise either. Despite having multiple family ties, she seems to have suffered in silence. At his daughter’s funeral, Michael Mansfield addressed this directly:

“You all know that Anna committed suicide and I feel very strongly that there’s a taboo about this and people don’t talk about it. I’ve only discovered [this] by talking about it myself. And as soon as I do, then others say, ‘Oh, funny you should say that: my brother, my sister, my father, my mother…”

He has since begun to advocate changes in the social and medical treatment of depression and suicide, including setting up a new forum, Silence on Suicide (SOS), with the aim of breaking this taboo.

Yet, the reporting around this tragedy has had its odd moments. The Telegraph,for example, chose to run a story with the remarkably insensitive headline ‘Michael Mansfield QC’s Most Difficult Case’ – as if a grieving father can only relate to his daughter’s death in a cold, quasi-professional way. Other reports dwelt at length on Anna Mansfield’s children, quoting her reported feelings of guilt at length and subtly reinforcing them by describing her husband as ‘left behind’.

And then the subtitle of Tim Lott’s latest piece in the Guardian caught my eye: “Michael Mansfield’s campaign to break the silence around suicidal thoughts is vital for isolated men.”

Insensitive? Possibly. But not unexpected.

Suicide is one of those tragedies very, very frequently cited in discussions about feminism.In 2013, 6233 people killed themselves in the UK – and almost four times as many men as women. Far more men than women kill themselves, and this is, disturbingly, a consistent pattern. Often, it’s suggested that this represents either an innate, or a conditioned, emotional superiority amongst women: women are allowed to show their emotions more; women are better at seeking help; it’s more acceptable for women to show that they’re ‘weak’; women have better support networks. The subtext is that women should wake up and recognise how lucky they are, how damaging feminism is, as if toxic masculinity – masculinity valorising the suppression of emotion – isn’t something feminists have been criticising for years.

But there’s a more immediate issue here. Avoiding suicide isn’t ‘weak’, any more than killing yourself is ‘strong’. And women who kill themselves aren’t necessarily lacking in ‘support networks’ – like Anna Mansfield, whose father had planned to meet her shortly after her death to discuss her depression.

I read on: the soundbite chosen to accompany the piece, in bold in the sidebar, read: “Childbirth and the oppression women have suffered have bonded them in a way that most men have denied themselves.” 

Wow.

Let’s take a minute here to remember that a woman has died. A woman whose death Lott is using for clickbait to perpetuate his tediously mealy-mouthed anti-feminist agenda.

Gee, sisters, I was feeling all down about the oppression, but now I know it’s really bonded us, I feel so much better! But this line isn’t just misogynistic bullshit: it’s also, you notice, subtly taking a pop at other men. Most men, Lott posits, have denied themselves this support. The rhetoric of self-denial, of self-mortification, suggests almost a form of intentional self-harm-by-emotion. Most men could avoid suicide, but they ‘denied themselves’ and so they died. It’s feeding right back into that myth that suicide is somehow a nobler, braver option than the alternatives. And, knowing how very, very hard it can be in some areas of the UK to get any sort of mental health support, I find it quite hard to buy.

Lott’s piece is, no doubt, a personal cry from the heart, an emotional outpouring of the kind many people aren’t able to make – especially not in the pages of a national newspaper. And you could argue it’s a very good thing he feels able to model the sort of emotional openness that Mansfield’s SOS campaign advocates. But in doing this, Lott manages to take a pot shot at his daughter (she won’t read his memoirs, which he claims is because she’s prejudiced against depression), at other men who foolishly ‘deny themselves’ support freely available, and, of course, at women. What kind of woman  (his article plants the question) can benefit from all of that female bonding, all of that “real support, the love, the crying on one another’s shoulder, the support of a large informal network that many women enjoy” – and yet still kill herself, as Anna Mansfield did?

At this point, I wonder what it is that Lott knows, and I don’t, about women with responsibilities of looking after children who – like the Mansfield children – had a rare blood disease and required a substantial amount of care.

I also wonder about the way Lott brings his perspective, unhesitatingly, to this situation. To him, a young woman’s suicide and a campaign to bring some good out of that tragedy, is an opportunity to talk about why men have it harder. We all bring in personal perspectives. And mine, reading Lott’s piece, was to remember another social trend, which is less rarely cited by those who see suicide as evidence of what women “enjoy” and what men “deny themselves”. And that, sadly, is the trend concerning cases in which suicide is not violence targeted solely against the self, but combines with toxic masculinity in filicide.

Filicide-suicide is a gendered example of violence. The statistics are difficult to recover, as researchers observe, because not all observers agree on the definitions of victims and perpetrators. Some studies include age limits as low as 13; others, as high as 20. Some studies include only biological or adoptive parents, while others also include primary care givers of other kinds, and step parents. This last is particularly relevant, since some studies indicate that 1 in 5 filicides are committed by stepfathers. But, overall, children are far more likely to be killed by male parents than female.

Both Karen Ingala Smith and Louise Pennington have written repeatedly about the way in which these types of suicide are reported, and – in particular – the disturbing ways in which they normalise this form of violence by perpetuating the same set of implications Lott puts forward.Men are just too strong, too self-denying, to show weakness; women have no excuse; women are obliquely responsible. Where Lott claims that men are excluded from a network of female support, reports of these cases regularly dwell on the male perpetrators’ relationships with their children’s mothers. In both situations, women are presented as having a responsibility to provide the ‘vital’ support that ‘isolated’ men need, while the reasons for women’s own struggles – struggles that drove Anna Mansfield to kill herself – are relegated to the background.