Five Wounds: Touching History


I’ve just finished reading my copy of Katherine Edgar’s Tudor novel, Five Wounds. Set during the Pilgrimage of Grace, it imagines the bloody rebellion against the dissolution of the monasteries from the perspective of a teenage girl. As the north rises in protest, Nan Ellerton is wrenched away from the world she knows by her father, and forced to choose which side she stands on.

The opening line is taken from a Book of Hours, a symbol of the religion Henry’s reforms would ultimately destroy:

Oh kindly Jesu for the wound of your left foot keep me from the sin of envy…

This prayer echoes through the whole book, a reminder of the world that is being swept away. In late medieval England, the Five Wounds of Christ were objects of deep religious emotion. Prayers like this one are found everywhere, from the scribbled margins of cheap prayerbooks to the most expensive and beautiful illuminated manuscripts. One of the first manuscripts I ever touched – the bizarre, home-made Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 61 – contains not only prayers to the Five Wounds, but also a crudely-sketched image of a shield. It contains the four wounds to Christ’s limbs and the fifth heart in the centre, drawn with little dashes around the edges, as if they were stitched onto a banner. In other manuscripts there are vivid, blood-red images of the wound pierced through Christ’s side, sometimes rubbed away by devout readers who touched, and even kissed, the page.

Magic figures and the Wound of Christ from a prayer roll

London, British Library, Harley MS T. 11. Prayer Roll with Wound of Christ

What strikes me about this prayer is that, in picturing Christ’s wounds, it pictures something that is empty space, a rent in the body. It tries to make tangible that which is by definition intangible: an opening where no opening should be. And that’s how history itself often seems to work. We look back into the past and try to touch it, to feel it, to make it seem real. We try to overcome its intangibility. Five Wounds achieves this perfectly, making you want to reach out and touch Nan’s world.

The great thing about good historical fiction is the way it teaches you without you even noticing – especially if you read it as a child or a teenager. I must have been nine or ten when I first read Cynthia Harnett’s A Load of Unicorn – so, slightly younger than the intended audience of Five Wounds – and a passing description of medieval printing and paper-making stayed with me, detailed enough that it’s still what I have at the forefront of my mind when I’m reading about real medieval book culture. The detail in Five Wounds has this blend of painstaking accuracy and lightness of touch. I liked that a minor lord’s name links him to a manuscript of Handlyng Synne that still exists; a relic kept by women stands for a whole culture of medieval piety. You don’t have to puzzle out these links, but they’re there if you recognize them – or there for you to recognize later on – and that’s what makes this world seem real enough to touch.

You can read an extract of Five Wounds here.

Wolf Hall: Women Mired in Catholic Illiteracy, Take Two

St Margaret, reading. From Anne Boleyn's Book of Hours, London, BL, King's MS 9, f. 62v.

St Margaret, reading. From Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours, London, BL, King’s MS 9, f. 62v.

I promised myself I wouldn’t blog about Wolf Hall. Everyone else is doing it. Yet, here I am, timing myself to twenty minutes for this. Because I loved Wolf Hall. I loved the book and I loved the first episode of the TV series. I think the candlelight works, I think it looks amazing, and, frankly, you could sell me most anything with Damien Lewis and Mark Rylance and I would be happy.


Wolf Hall has a bit of a woman problem, and it’s a familiar woman problem. In order to make Thomas Cromwell sympathetic, you have to oust Thomas More. You have to get rid of that image of kindly, noble, gentle Paul Schofield in A Man for All Seasons, lovingly educating his daughter in Humanist ways and standing up for his conscience.

One of the ways Mantel achieves this, in the books, is to give Cromwell a family life – and, personally, I found the opening paragraphs of Bring up the Bodies, stunningly poignant and brilliant. It opens with “His children are falling from the sky” and then shows that Cromwell’s hawks are named after his dead daughters. In the TV series, this family intimacy plays out in a scene where Cromwell sits with his daughter on his knee, letting her leaf through a gorgeous facsimile prayer book, while she comments that she’d like to learn Greek, as well as Latin. Kate Maltby, who’s been tweeting the series, has written a lovely review that comments on the historic validity of this, linking Cromwell’s daughter to other precocious young women educated in Greek. From the medieval side, I found both Cromwell’s closeness with his daughters, and his reading-aloud of his son’s letter, nicely authentic: I could see echoes of the Paston family there, and Rachel Moss has shown that our image of distant medieval fathers is misguided.

No, my problem is with Cromwell’s wife. You see, this scene is echoing bits of A Man for All Seasons: feminist papa, precocious daughter … someone has to represent the annoying intrusion of Tradition and Caution. And, just as in More’s household it’s his wife Alice, so too here, it’s Cromwell’s wife who looks dubiously instructs her daughter to leave her Latin learning for her breakfast. In the older film, More’s wife Alice is a caricature medieval Catholic woman, uninterested in More’s Humanism, emphatically rejecting to his offer to teach her to read. I’ve noted before that illiteracy this strikes a false note, it typically being medieval women who taught children to read. It belongs to a stereotype of medieval Catholicism as backwards and unbookish, a yoke energetic Humanist men (and their daughters) were throwing off, while their wives clung to it.

It’s slightly disappointing, then, in Wolf Hall, to see Elizabeth Cromwell lean across the breakfast table, disapprovingly, to hand her husband a parcel whose contents are obviously something subversive. “If you want to know,” he begins, and she cuts him off: “I don’t what to know”. It turns out that the parcel contains a book, an unbound New Testament in Tyndale’s translation. Cromwell eagerly proselytises:

“You should read it for yourself. It’s in English, that’s the point, not Latin. How can that be heresy? Read it and you’ll see how you’re misled. No mention of nuns, monks, relics, popes …”

This little speech, sounding a bit too much like a twenty-first century Biblical literalist’s view on the subject, gets shot down by Elizabeth: “My prayerbook is good reading.”

This is as neatly-drawn an opposition between (misleading, outdated Latin) Catholicism and Brave New English Proto-Protestantism as you could wish. For Cromwell, the austere, unbound, plain-looking English New Testament holds the promise of religious and social revolution, freedom from the lies of the medieval Church.

It bothers me that this scene feeds, subtly, into the twenty-first century idea of ‘The Medieval,’ which has become a code word for primitive, superstitious (and, often, Middle Eastern or Islamic) attitudes and actions. I don’t particularly like the gendering of religion in this way, in which women are repeatedly the representatives of a medieval Catholicism characterised by illiteracy and misleading superstition. I don’t like the way that it covers up a pretty well-known history of women as educators and book users. I’ll keep watching, but I’d like to know what you make of these quibbles.

Women and Folk Art in the Eyes of Male Artists: Yet more Cultural Femicide

Folk Art by a Woman - Who Knew it Existed?!

(Slightly crappy) folk art by a woman – who knew it existed?!

This post isn’t my idea, but came about when I read a comment by the brilliant Bee Jones earlier today.

She wrote:

“I have just watched The Culture Show on catch-up. All about a Tate exhibition of Folk Art. The introduction explained that it was going to focus on the real lived democracy of art which has always existed outside the art establishment. Great, I thought, this will be celebrating the explosion of women’s creativity we see every day, all over social media etc etc…but NOPE. You’ve guessed it, the programme didn’t feature a single woman artist, or even mention that women have long been underappreciated for their talent, despite being EVERYWHERE making beautiful things. So this post is about celebrating the fantastic women who regularly astonish me with their creative skills. Please feel free to share this and add your own.”

I think this is a great idea.

I’ve just watched the programme she’s referring to – it’s up for another week, so feel free to check it out if you particularly wish to be patronized by a couple of blokes. They start out with some working definitions of folk art, before oh-so-hilariously ‘insulting’ each other by applying the term to their own work. From this, we moved on to the Tate’s Folk Exhibition, which is open through the summer. There’s a nice review of the exhibition here.

Our two presenters, Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, stared at the first display, which was absolutely fascinating: a wall of objects once used as shop signs, and ranging from a beautiful, giant gilded key, to a teapot marked with fading lettering, to a pair of humble shoes. Apparently, all of this was very funny. “Anything that’s bigger or smaller than it should be is automatically funny,” commented Deller, begging a reference to Freud. After this, “we’re off to Blackpool, perhaps the spiritual home of British folk art today,” and I began to sense a pattern. The presenters explained they were looking for anything they liked the look of, “anything that makes us laugh,” basically. Here we got our first glimpse of women: as the voiceover wittered on about folk ritual, the camera lingered on a middle-aged woman wiggling her bum cheekily at us. Oh, these Northerners and their down-to-earth folk humour! Stopping by a stall selling fake tattoos, Deller tried his hand at the popular voice, explaining, “these tattoos, they’re basically like Warhols … I think, for me, that’s like what artists do, they take something from popular culture and do something with it”. It was about as convincing as David Cameron trying to tell us he, like, thinks that Inbetweeners show is more or less Shakespeare.

Everything to do with folk art, we were told, was ‘fun’. Oh, such fun. A T-shirt, wittily printed with a sexist joke about wives and terrorists, obviously merited being included in all of the hilarity. Seriously, if you watch this bit, it comes with a health warning, because I think I have strained my eyebrow muscles from listening to these two pontificate about unselfconscious art while looking at a T-shirt reading ‘I beat anorexia’ they’d claimed as a ‘public art work’. Nothing so folksy as sweat-shop-produced misogyny.

I’m not going to go through the whole thing – you get the gist. It was massively patronizing, with one eye on the audience snickering along with the Proper Artists. Towards the end, I held out hope we’d left the snickering behind as both men, looking at sculptured figureheads, so far forgot themselves as to sound genuinely impressed. But not for long: “it’s a classic figurehead, to have the top half person, bottom half boat … and maybe with one or two breasts exposed … preferably two! Hur hur”. One of Deller’s childhood highlights, we’re told, was a visit to the Cutty Sark, memorable for “a whole row of these topless women … I thought that was pretty cool!”

It’s perhaps no surprise, given the way this programme treated misogyny as ever so funny, that there wasn’t any discussion of women and folk art.

Back in the Tate exhibition, the presenters mentioned a woman’s name for the first time: Charlotte Alice Springall, who, with her husband-to-be Herbery Bellamy, pieced together a beautiful quilt in just one year (known, you’ll be shocked to discover, as ‘The Bellamy Quilt’). This was, apparently, very funny too: “they obviously didn’t work” sniggered the presenters, before moving swiftly on to discuss another group of people who made art (apparently), because they had nothing better to do: modern-day prisoners.

No, really. I’d say I found the juxtaposition telling of their impression of the restrictions of women’s lives, but I’m not sure they’d thought that deeply.

This was the point where I really got annoyed – because quilting is a hugely important form of folk art, which has historically been practised by women, and which has a very rich social as well as artistic history. Quilts often don’t survive, because textiles eventually wear out or rot, but the V&A tells me this quilt of the story of Tristram and Iseult was made c. 1360-1400. That’s a full century earlier than the most famous written English version of the story, in Malory’s Morte Darthur.

In the past, women needed to make quilts – not because they ‘didn’t work,’ but because it was a practical way to recycle fabric and a necessary means of keeping warm. But they also turned quilting into an art form, as the York museum of quilting will show you. It’s only fairly recently that quilts have been treated seriously as art works. In the last century, for example, Lucy M. Boston (who also wrote beautiful children’s books)  declined to have her quilts exhibited at Kettle’s Yard Folk Museum in Cambridge, because she felt they were things to be used, not art to be exhibited.

In fact, barely five minutes had gone by, after Bee posted her response to this show, before women were swapping images of work they’d made. I’ve got permission to share this beautiful quilt, made by the author Cassandra Parkin.



And here’s the one she’s working on now:

quilt 2

Aren’t they beautiful?

I love Bee’s idea, and if you would like to add images or comments about women’s art – whether you’ve made it, your friend made it, or you just happen to love it, I’d enjoy that. And please consider sharing Bee’s post with people you know: we could discover some brand new women folk artists!

There is now a hashtag, Artbywomen, where you can share images, links or anything else you like about women’s art, especially women’s folk art. Enjoy!

‘Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance’: On Cranach and Christina of Denmark

'Venus' by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1532.

‘Venus’ by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1532.

The image above – Cranach’s ‘Venus,’ painted in 1532 – might be familiar to you from exhibition posters of a few years back. In 2008, the Royal Academy put on a show dedicated to Cranach, and this tiny painting, blown up to poster size, was briefly pasted all over the London Underground as an advert … until somebody complained. I remember the debates this story sparked, with some arguing that the painting sexualises a pubescent female body, others claiming that any female nude is unacceptably objectifying, and others again insisting that we cannot judge Renaissance art on the same scale as we judge other images. One thing was clear: people reacted far more strongly to this image – whose context is the German Renaissance – than they might have to the more familiar image of Venus by Botticelli or Raphael. Because this image was more unfamiliar, its details seemed more stark and more shocking.

Some of the same debates were in my mind this weekend, when I went to the National Gallery to see their current exhibition – ‘Strange Beauty: The Masters of the German Renaissance‘. Like the earlier exhibition, it’s fronted by a Cranach nude, in this case ‘Cupid Complaining to Venus’.

'Cupid Complaining to Venus,' by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1525

‘Cupid Complaining to Venus,’ by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1525

I’ve seen no evidence that the use of this painting to advertise the exhibition raised any complaint at all, so it’s my sad duty to break it to you that there really isn’t an international feminist conspiracy to censor all art everywhere. Yes, I know. And Santa isn’t real. But what I didn’t know before I went to this exhibition was that there’s a long history of objections to Cranach’s work, rooted in a rather different set of prejudices and concerns.

In the nineteenth century, when the National Gallery opened, there was a sense that German Renaissance art was ugly and inferior to the work of Italian artists. Would-be donors, including Prince Albert, tried quite hard to foist some of their collections on the gallery, who responded that they Knew Their Stuff and didn’t want any of this Cranach shite when they could be buying Botticelli.

The first couple of rooms in the exhibition were set up to demonstrate the limitations of this attitude, and they were fun. Panels of an altarpiece were set out so that you could walk around them, seeing the inside and outside. Another altarpiece showed Joseph grumpily rummaging in his purse for coins to pay the priest at the temple for the infant Jesus’s presentation. The real-life context of these paintings was obvious: you couldn’t help seeing their function as objects in front of which people would have knelt and prayed. This impression was deepened by the painstaking realism of small details: you could read the pages of the books of music and arithmetic in Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors,’ and pick out the neat secretary script on a roll of paper clutched by a town clerk in his portrait. The attention to detail carried through to intricate prints and tiny, beautiful pearwood game-pieces, which featured portraits of their owners. The famous picture of Anne of Cleves is one of these, and it’s about two inches across.

All of this realism, though, contrasted sharply with what nineteenth-century curators of the Gallery had seen as the ‘ugliness’ of German Renaissance art: its asymmetry, its distortions and stiff postures. This was exemplified by the depiction of the Virgin. Where Italian madonnas are often young and beautiful, here there were pictures of Mary represented as an older woman with her face distorted from weeping, with her body twisted in sorrow, displaying heightened, almost grotesque emotion.

What was fascinating about seeing all of these paintings together was that you could trace the influences both of the realism and detail, and of the asymmetry, in the portraits of real people that hung alongside the religious art. The portraits by Holbein (but also by other German masters, some of them anonymous) showed tilted half-profiles with quirked lips or slightly raised eyebrows, with meticulously realized details. They seemed real, alive, arresting.

In this context, the Cranach Venus looked, to me, oddly insubstantial, and her symmetrical face and graceful pose seemed bland or oblivious rather than suggestive. The painting was unsettling in a way it might not have been if I had seen it surrounded by similarly beautiful and calm Italian Renaissance women. I’d expected to find this painting easier to respond to when surrounded by contemporary work by other German artists, but instead I found it more enigmatic.

The contrast between Cranach’s idealised Venus and the portaits of other women around the room was striking. I concentrated on this of princess Christina of Denmark, painted by Holbein in 1538 for the newly widowed Henry VIII. At this point Henry was 47, and on the lookout for wife number four. Christina was sixteen, and already a widow.

Christina of Denmark, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1538. The National Gallery

Christina of Denmark, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1538. The National Gallery

Dressed in sumptuous billows of dark fabric, fur edging and a demure widow’s cap, Christina gives the impression both of physical stature, and status in the world. It is a complete contrast to Cranach’s slim, child-like, naked Venus. In fact, these clothes look most similar to those of the richly dressed men whose portaits hang around the room. Near to Christina stand ‘The Ambassadors,’ painted by Holbein just a few years before and immortalizing two French diplomats in England.

Hans Holbein the Younger, 'The Ambassadors,' 1533. The National Gallery

Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘The Ambassadors,’ 1533. The National Gallery

The two men look, like Christina, older than their years: Georges de Selve, on the right, was just twenty-five when this picture was painted, less than a decade older than the sixteen-year-old princess. His dark, rich, fur-trimmed clerical robes echo Christina’s mourning dress, and it’s hard not to read both her clothing and her direct gaze as another kind of diplomatic statement, aligning her with these negotiators rather more than with the Venuses and saints who surround her.

This interpretation is one you can feed back into Christina’s history, too. As a teenager, after her first marriage ended, she lived in the court of her aunt, Mary of Hungary, who was governor of the Low Countries and a powerful woman in her own right. In 1541 she married the duke of Lorraine, and after his early death she acted as regent for their son Charles. She spent most of her life engaged in the same sorts of struggles for power that her male counterparts were busy with, and by the time she died, aged 69, her legacy was secure. She had fourteen surviving grandchildren, and the royal families of three (plus?) countries are descended from her, and her oldest son was married to Catherine de Medici’s daughter. Wiki has a really snide article on her, which alternates between representing her as an unsuccessful schemer and a Machiavel, and raises my cynical feminist antennae. If we compare her to Henry VIII and his children, who ruled England during her lifetime, she comes out pretty well.

It might surprise you to find that there’s a really creepy description of this painting in the Telegraph‘s review of this exhibition, which describes it as an icon of quiet but intense eroticism” and suggests that “somehow, we are tempted into imagining her body underneath”

Ahem. We?

I found this – and especially that tone of complicity – really grating, much more so than any comments on the Cranach nudes could have been. It seems to circumscribe Holbein’s painting, reducing the subject to a position of minimal agency, defined by her fleeting connection to an English king. For the negotiations that this picture reflect were soon ended: Christina rejected Henry’s offer, and throughout her life she spent far more time as regent than she spent as anyone’s wife. I know there are lots of paintings of medieval and Renaissance women that don’t come with so much historical backstory. Sometimes – as with Cranach’s Venus – we know nothing at all about the woman who posed for her painting. But this exhibition made me wonder how much we really know about what medieval and Renaissance viewers judged to be erotic or beautiful, ugly or grotesque, and how much we distort their work in our mind’s eyes to make it fit our expectations.


I’ve limited the number of images in this post, partly because not all of them are on wiki commons and partly because you ought to go find them – if not at this exhibition, on the National Gallery website. However, I really wanted to know what the grid of numbers in the background of this etching of Melancholia was meant for, and if you might know, please have a look and tell me!

In the ‘Medieval Mud’: When you’re a Male Renaissance Genius, it doesn’t matter if your Facts are Wrong.

I’ve just finished watching a BBC programme with the title ‘A Very British Renaissance‘. Now, I admit I was expecting to have some strong reactions to this, since I came to it from the brilliant scholar David Rundle’s blog, where he’s just written a learned and funny take-down of some of the annoying assumptions therein. As he points out, this programme was dead keen to push an image of a ‘distinctively English’ period of history, during which we Brits left our insular isolation behind and began to beat the Continent at its own game. The emerging British (= English) Renaissance was a time of genius and beauty, so narrator Dr James Fox argues, an amazing advance on the benighted, crude and murky culture of the Middle Ages. It was also, I began to realize, yet another Age Without Women.

The focus of my irritation in this post is evenly split between bad history, and dubious revisionist misogyny, so you’ll have to excuse a little back-and-forth between the two. We’ll take the first point first. People do often assume medieval England was completely cut off from the rest of the world. I’m not sure why, seeing as most people are dimly aware that the English crown owned parts of France, but there we are. I always find it interesting that people assume there were, for example, no non-white people in medieval England, and just as soon as I can afford this gorgeous-looking book, I’m going to buy it. On a more domestic level, if you read medieval recipes you’ll soon notice how many contain ingredients – ginger or saffron, pepper, oranges or almonds, for example – that remind you people had access through trade routes to distant places.

Studying medieval manuscripts, you can really get a sense of how much even quite ordinary people moved around. At the moment, I’m looking at some thirteenth-century romances and fabliaux (rude stories, if you’re interested) in a manuscript made in France. By the fifteenth century, it had been brought to Britain, and ended up in the hands of a family of East Midlands gentry – hardly the sort of people you might expect to be reading exciting foreign books. But they did.

Similarly, the British Library has just digitized what they’re telling us is the ‘first English autobiography’ – though this simplifies a phenomenally complicated story which is partly autobiography, partly dramatization – written by a Norfolk woman called Margery Kempe. She wasn’t particularly rich or socially important, but she made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem via Venice and Rome, and once she was back home she briefly employed an amenuesis (she couldn’t write) who was married to a German woman.

These are just examples from off the top of my head, to show that, actually, medieval England was full of people coming and going from the Continent – and you’ll notice we’re not just looking at men, or the aristocracy, but at relatively ‘ordinary’ men and women.

So … on to the second point, the argument that medieval England was a land of mud, muck and ignorance in which happiness consisted of not catching the Black Death and the highest ambition of every peasant was to own his own turnip. I’m pretty easy to wind up on this issue, because I really hate the connotations the word ‘medieval’ carries to a lot of modern writers. You read an article about women being oppressed, or creativity stifled, and nine times out of ten the author will refer disparagingly to ‘medieval’ attitudes. So, I had my agenda polished up from the start.

The programme begins with sunlit shots of Italian Renaissance sculpture, before cutting to a scene of Dr James Fox narrating as he trudges through squelchy English mud, which he compared (no, really) to the medieval period. His voiceover was all soaring phrases and triadic alliterations (which, you know, made me think of medieval poems like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Pearl … but who’s checking?), as he attributed to the English Renaissance a sparkling constellation of brilliant developments. There were our ‘first’ great paintings, our ‘first’ scientific breakthroughs, and our ‘greatest writer’.

Shakespeare, of course. The Chandos portrait. In which the earring certainly doesn't signify he was gay, ohno. There was no gayness in this programme! It didn't exist before 1967, doncha know?

Shakespeare, of course. The Chandos portrait. In which the earring certainly doesn’t signify he was gay, ohno. There was no gayness in this programme! It didn’t exist before 1967, doncha know?

All of this began, so Dr Fox explains, in 1507, when an Italian artist called Torregiano left Italy under a cloud, after losing his temper and punching Michaelangelo in the nose. I was particularly sad to see no homoerotic undertones were detected, probably because my mind is in the gutter with the ‘medieval mud’. Anyway, after this Clarksonesque bust-up Torregiano emigrated to

“Europe’s most philistine backwater … England. When Torregiano reached England, it must have felt like he’d stepped back into the past. The Renaissance had been raging in Italy for almost 200 years, but here there was absolutely no sign of it whatsoever. … The British hadn’t had time for a Renaissance. They hadn’t even had time for art.”

Dr Fox claims, with a stern frown, that medieval England ‘didn’t even have a word for painting’. I’ve used up my weekly allowance of Patrick Stewart facepalms, but you can imagine my reaction. The Middle English word for painting is, well, uh … painting. To be precise, peinture. Minor irritations like this didn’t stop me noticing that, by this stage in the narrative, we’d heard the phrase ‘craftsmen,’ used to describe medieval artists, about a dozen times. You know, because women never got in on this activity.

Unknown Artist from Giovanni Boccaccio, Des cléres et nobles femmes, Spencer Collection MS. 33, f. 37v, French, c. 1470. From this site, which is worth a look.

Unknown Artist from Giovanni Boccaccio, Des cléres et nobles femmes, Spencer Collection MS. 33, f. 37v, French, c. 1470. From this site, which is worth a look.

Certainly, I couldn’t help noticing that this was a highly masculinized world we were being shown. We moved from the nice macho nose-punch that set the English Renaissance in motion, through a line-up of eminent men: Holbein, Nicholas Kratzer (he of the ‘genuinely Renaissance mind’), John Damien, Thomas Wyatt and Thomas Tallis. Wyatt is credited, here, with introducing love poetry in the Petrarchan tradition to boring old England, which had seen no literature since Chaucer.

(That high-pitched noise  you hear is the steam emitting from my ears.)

Wyatt went off to Italy, learned to write sonnets, and came back to Henry VIII’s court to immortalise anonymous women. Keen to stress the intimate, soulful nature of Wyatt’s writing (privacy is, I notice, also a hallmark of the ‘Renaissance’ superiority, in a neat line to the Romantics’ male-dominated ‘lonely genius’ idea), Fox intones:

“Wyatt’s poems were written by hand …”

You know, I really thought he’d rise to a laptop. Or if you are less of a realist philistine than I am, perhaps you can imagine the great man sitting down to a printing press and composing away.

Printing Workshop

A Printing Press: probably not the sort of thing you choose to bash out the odd sonnet on.

Now, I love Wyatt’s poetry, especially ‘Whoso list to hunt‘. But – leaving aside the fact that the trope of young men going out into the forest to discover true love is straight out of the medieval romance Fox dismisses – these poems are predicated on a particular view of the relationships between men and women which – how can I put this? – does come across as just slightly objectifying. Just a tad. Cos, you know, representing a woman as a deer to be shot is one of those romantic gestures of which you can imagine Edward Cullen approving.

In Fox’s version of events, then, the English literary Renaissance began with writing in which women were objects, and this was a vast improvement on such ‘muddy’ medieval texts as Kempe’s bizarrely brilliant ‘autobiography,’ the lyrical mysticism of Julian of Norwich, the fantastic cross-dressing romances like the Roman de Silence, or the elegantly playful Assembly of Ladies, which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

We were well into the territory of the ‘Great Literary Tradition’ by this point, though, and that tradition doesn’t have room for most of the literature that gives screen time – or even a voice – to women. Still commenting on Wyatt, Fox’s colleague claimed that Wyatt’s coy description of a romantic encounter was an amazing first in the history of writing about sex:

“nobody in medieval poetry went to bed with anybody, only in dreams, that’s why this is such a radical poem.”

I’m not quite sure what was happening in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale if no-one in medieval poetry went to bed with each other*, for the tale describes the adulterous couple’s tryst in  pretty blunt terms:

“Doun of the laddre stalketh Nicholay

And Alisoun ful softe adoun she spedde.

Withouten wordes mo they goon to bedde.”

(‘Down the ladder sneaks Nicholas/ And Alison, very quietly, hurried down. Without a word more they go to bed.’ Chaucer, Miller’s Tale, ll. 540-42.)

I’d also like to share with you a poem which you won’t be surprised to learn is one of my favourite examples of unsubtle punning, which begins with the auspicious line ‘I have a gentil cok’. The poem goes on to ennumerate the virtues of this wonderful bird, concluding ‘And every night he perches him/ In my lady’s chamber’.

Perhaps Dr Fox and co. were plagued by innocence?

If you read my blog regularly, these poems will not come as a huge surprise, given what we know of medieval illumination. So I’ll take the opportunity to share this image, illustrating the Roman de la Rose, by Jeanne de Montbaston –  just as a reminder that women were sometimes at the creative helm:



Both images from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Fr 25526.

And there’s always the wonderful Talbot Shrewsbury book, comissioned to celebrate the marriage of Margaret of Anjou to Henry VI, with this image of the conception of Alexander the Great, which I like to caption ‘In bed with my dragon’:

BL, Royal 15 E VI, fol. 6r.

BL, Royal 15 E VI, fol. 6r.

There’s a reason the programme didn’t acknowledge the existence of the bawdy story I quoted, or the images I’ve shown. What we’re looking at is canonization, the process whereby certain cultural products are deemed to be self-evidently superior to others, worthy of study and attention. In this programme, the canon of medieval literature was rewritten, to include Chaucer (though a reading of Chaucer which excluded the low-status Miller’s Tale), and to exclude fifteenth-century romances, the Humanist writings that testify to the culture of intellectual exchange between England and the Continent, and the multitude of texts I write about, in which women are authors and protagonists, businesswomen as well as aristocratic ladies, thinkers and doers, and not simply mute sexual objects.

By excluding a lot of medieval culture, this programme is able to draw a straight line from Chaucer to Wyatt to Shakespeare to the Romantic Poets, whose notion of solitary (male) genius was never far from the subtext. It’s not a big leap from this, to the idea that Great Literature, or Artistic Genius, or whatever amazing idea you want to mention, is really something that all intelligent men have been able to recognize throughout history. It’s something the truly brilliant just understand, and the fact that there are no women in this picture is really not anyone’s fault: it’s just how History is.

I’ll stick to my medieval mud, thanks.


Please excuse typos – it’s the end of a very long week!

* Update

Being – as I am – ever keen to back up my arguments on this blog with the most rigorous scholarly research (actually, there is a lot of rigorous scholarly research going on in the background, I promise), I return with this comment on medieval beds and their usage. Hollie Morgan, specialist in medieval beds, opines:

“hahahahahahahaha. It’s all about sex. And beds.”

But is too tired trying to finish her PhD to comment more about it. But when it’s done, Dr. Fox is welcome to read 100,000 words on muddy medievals in bed.

In all seriousness, her PhD project constantly challenges me to think more precisely about our assumptions concerning the medieval period, and she’s helped me to express something I found unsettling about this programme: throughout it, High Art was described as if it were entirely separate from daily life. I don’t think we’ll ever get a satisfying picture of fifteenth- or sixteenth-century England like that.