Leeds Report # 4, or, the one with all the riches in.

Until I see a footnote, that's just an opinionQuite a number of lit scholars I know tell me that they don’t go to Leeds because there aren’t enough lit papers to make it worth their while. While I concede Leeds is tilted toward the historical side of things, I actually found that really handy. For one, conferences are good way of picking up on interesting historical discussions – and a medievalist who isn’t interested in history is a very odd medievalist indeed. But more importantly, for me as a noob, the fact that there were fewer lit papers meant you kept seeing the same faces enough times that you eventually got to know some of them.

Session 616, the title of which I have forgotten, but which was chaired by Ad Putter, stands out in my mind because it lead to me meeting not only Ad, but also the eminently excellent Gareth Griffith, and one Rebecca Kerry, whose taste in medieval romances turns out to dovetail nicely with my own. As my week in Bristol for the IAS was punctuated by the recurring necessity of flinging myself on the mercy of Gareth in order to find out where I was going and what I was doing, having met him in advance was rather handy. And I had a lovely conversation with Rebecca at the IAS while we waited for something, which is how I know she has fabulous taste in ME romances.

Whatever the title of this session may have been, it dealt mostly with the handling of wealth in Middle English texts.

Rebecca Kerry – Gifts and Loans in A Geste of Robyn hode

This paper was structured around the debated reading of one line, in which Robin makes a loan of what is supposed to be four hundred pounds, but Little John measures out either ‘eight and twenty score’, or ‘eighteen score’, depending on the manuscript. Editors usually amend this reading to ‘eighteen and two score’, but Rebecca argued that ‘eight and twenty score’ is the correct reading.

In her interpretation, the loan is not a loan but a gift – she notes that the knight engages Mary as guarantor, but Mary can hardly be expected to pay back the loan. The subsequent arrival of the cellarer of St Mary’s with 800 pounds, of which Robin’s men soon liberate him, is heralded as Mary’s repayment of the loan, lending a farcical element to the entire deal. And then when the knight returns, Robin doesn’t ask for repayment, but instead gives him more.

She then talked about the difference between a gift exchange economy and a commodity economy (Ad Putter’s terminology). The Abbot of St Mary’s, to whom the knight owes money, clearly operates on a commodity economy, with the aim of amassing profit. Robin, on the other hand, seems to operate on a gift economy, with the aim of amassing debtors. In a commodity economy, once items have been exchanged or debts paid off, the two parties can part ways. Gifts, on the other hand, are rarely exchanged at exact value: gifts increase and proliferate, and cement social obligations between parties.

Rebecca argued that the two economies co-exist in A Gest of Robyn Hode, but the poem overall is more positive toward a gift-exchange economy.

Megan Glass – Feasting in Middle English Romance

Very Merry KnightsLooking specifically at the Auchinlek MS (for reasons of time and convenience), Megan’s paper raised questions about the social values associated with feasting in romance. The 14th century, despite famine, plague and social unrest, was a time of ostentatious feasting amongst the nobility, and she found it striking that feasting is so rarely featured in romances. Evidence from the Auchinlek MS suggests that when feasting is featured, the focus is not on wealth itself – food, decoration and entertainment are given relatively little attention compared to gifts and the guests. While both gifts and guests may be ostentatious and wealthy, the focus is on the feast’s role in creating and maintaining social bonds and cohesion.

Gareth Griffith – Weath, fantasy and reality: MSS of Middle English Romance

Gareth’s interest is in what descriptions of wealth meant to ME romance authors – specifically, whether the audience identified with, or aspired to the level of, the characters who possess wealth. Gareth works on this rather nifty project, and the paper in part came out of his research there.

He started by looking at how much wealth manuscripts themselves display. He had a fabulous graph of manuscript dimensions, which we all looked at, very seriously, until he pointed out that all it told us was that most of the romance manuscripts are more or less book-shaped (that is, around 20x30cm give or take). He found no relationship between size and ostentation. Then he told us about some of the whacky outliers, such as two Bod. MSS which are tall and thin, or Bod. 264, which is really huuuuuge.

Liber - a medieval MSAs a tentative trend, he found that really fancy manuscripts tended not to have detailed descriptions of wealth. Gareth says it seems like people who can afford fancy things perhaps weren’t so interested in *descriptions* of fancy things, but he noted other factors, such as the high level of description in alliterative poems compared to prose or rhymed text. He also noted that some regional mansucripts seem to be trying to be fancier than they are – he talked about the Lincoln-Thornton MS (i didn’t write down the actual MS number) which has fancy capitals and illustrations despite having scruffy, apparently non-professional script.

There wasn’t a hard-and-fast argument here (or if there was, I didn’t write it down, which is always possible), but Gareth told interesting stories about manuscripts for 20 minutes! This is something I appreciate in a paper.

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3 Responses to “Leeds Report # 4, or, the one with all the riches in.”

  1. Annelise Says:

    Does that last point imply that wealthy and less-wealthy people tended to read different things… That you don’t often have a single text copied into manuscripts of varying quality? Or that, while some texts were read across classes, descriptions were altered depending on the audience?

  2. Leeds Report #7, or, more fun with Middle English « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] several examples of particular traceable manuscripts. Then, drawing on similar data to that which Gareth Griffith was using in his paper, he talked about the general presentation of romance manuscripts, and noted that those which come […]


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