David Scott-McNabb, Chaucer, and the concept of a half-alien culture

This post has been a long time coming – first because I wanted to do some background reading on it, and then because it took quite some time to get the background reading and my notes from Scott-McNabb’s paper in the same place – an oddly difficult task. My modus operandi for the last… while has been to move both notebook and photocopied chapter back and forth between uni and home, neatly making sure that one of them was always on hand whenever I thought of this post, but never both.

HOWEVER. Let that not deter us! On the 25th of August, David Scott-McNabb, of the University of Johannesburg, on the topic of The Jokes of a Half-Alien Culture: The Case of Chaucer’s ‘Tale of Sir Thopas’. This paper delivered two things: an intriguing re-reading of the humour  in Sir Thopas, and many provoking thoughts on the nature of reading at several century’s distance.

First: Sir Thopas

Scott-McNabb gave us a concise introduction to the humour of Sir Thopas: for instance, the combination of dissonant elements in conventional description. The description of Thopas’ physical form, for instance, is structured conventionally, but contains the rather unimpressive comparison of the hero’s complexion to ‘pandemayn’ (white bread).

Monty Python's knights, singingSir Thopas has been assumed to satirise Flemish knighthood (since Thopas hails from Flanders). One set of readings argues that Thopas is inherently ridiculous, and incapable of doing, wearing, saying or appreciating anything which is not ridiculous.

With this in mind, Scott-McNabb turned to the Lancegay which Thopas bears when setting out. He noted the mixture of convention and dissonance: you expect a knight to set out, but you expect him to be fully armed, not carrying a Lancegay. Because Thopas is read as a bit ridiculous, the Lancegay is usually assumed to be an ineffective, perhaps even effete, sort of weapon.

BUT WAIT, says David Scott-McNabb. What is a Lancegay? First he went around asking weapons curators, and no one has a Lancegay or even a picture of a Lancegay. No dice there.  Next he looked in the literary canon: Lancegays appear in one other source, also from the early 1390s, Gower’s Confessio Amantis, where the God of Love carries a fiery lancegay.

So, what sort of weapon is it? Scott-McNabb gave us a French source, Guillame de Saint André, of the 14th century, who credited the Bretons to be skilled with the use of dardes, gavelots, et lancegaies. All of these were thrown down from the ramparts at the attacking French, so evidently, a lancegaie is a missile weapon. A deadly missile weapon at that – an English record from 1450 says that Isobel Thresham’s husband was murdered by being impaled with a lancegay.

Who owned lancegays? David Scott-McNabb found records of lancegays in the inventories of the armouries of Thomas of Woodstock and the Earl of Arundel, when they were inventoried by  Richard II in 1397. He also found – apparently previously uncited – records of  lancegays in Bolingbroke’s wardrobe accounts for the late 1380s.

Who cares about lancegays? Richard II, Henry VI and Edward IV, Scott-McNabb told us, all tried to prohibit the carrying of lancegays specifically as well as making more general prohibitions on armed men wandering about the countryside. In Richard’s case, the clause in question was issued twice – once in 1983 (7 Richard II 1383 cp. 13) and again in 1397.

These records confirm the French evidence that a lancegay is a missile weapon, but it seems more versatile: a light, short spear, which could be carried by a lightly armed warrior in peacetime, be he on horse or afoot. It seems to be useful for stabbing, thrusting, charging, and throwing. And it’s sufficiently menacing that a king feeling a bit wary doesn’t want people wandering about brandishing them all over the countryside.

A chap with a lancegay, David Scott-McNabb concluded, is not ridiculous, or ‘cute’, as some have called Thopas.

But a lancegay is funny, in the hands of Sir Thopas. Why? It’s that bucking-expectations thing: you expect a knight to be fully armed for jousting, if he’s in a romance (illustrations to medieval texts, as well as literary depictions, shape that expectation). Thopas’ lancegay is funny, not because it’s a a wussy weapon, but because it’s too modern and too realisitic. It’s something one might carry in real!England, but inappropriate for romance!land: Thopas has to go home and fetch a lance as soon as he encounters a stranger in the forest who wants to joust against him.

So what?

Medieval: a woman readingI’m going to expand on this in another post, I think. But David Scott-McNabb was using this to demonstrate that, when we go along with what looks funny enough to us, we can easily miss what was intended to be funny about the text.

It was an interesting paper, and the Great Quest To Find Out About Lancegays made for entertaining listening. I also found it a pleasing discrete example of the nifty things you can do with a combination of literary close reading and detailed historical research: I know the student who asks me most often how to do a close reading showed up to hear this paper; I’m hoping it helped them, as well as pleasing me.

MEMC lecture recap – ‘Adventures with Langland’

Or, What I did on my sabbatical, by Lawrence Warner

A couple of weeks ago – on Wednesday the 17 of August, in fact* – the MEMC (formerly CMS) lunchtime lecture featured Lawrence Warner, who’s been busy noseying about in archives, looking at marginalia in medieval and early modern manuscripts/books of Piers Ploughman. The paper itself was a rather fun one, featuring lots of pictures of scrawly writing, organised in more or less the order he looked at them. And, notably, one hand-drawn picture of a dog baiting a bear, in which Lawrence put his artistic skills to the test by copying out someone else’s marginalia before he cottoned on that he could use his cameraphone for this sort of purpose.

A monk, writing; caption 'geekery pokery'As well as looking at manuscripts with the entirety of Piers in it, Lawrence has been chasing up manuscripts with fragmentary quotations, including some which, as I understand it, aren’t on the standard catalogue. He’s particularly interested in manuscripts which have all of Piers and fragmentary quotations; these don’t get listed as two separate manuscript records, but Lawrence pointed out that that’s kind of strange – if the fragment were ripped out in 1700-and-something and found later, it’d be counted as a separate witness; and the fragment might tell us completely different things about the way people interacted with the text.

There are, apparently, many fun stories associated with Piers manuscripts/early books: Lawrence told us about the Douce MS (1802), which contains 64 lines of Peirs translated into heroic couplets, by a Mr Duprie – who turns out to have been a notorious forger of letters not actually by Brunetto; and Douce exposed him in the Monthly. The MSS appears to have been given to Douce as sort of payment/apology.

Lawrence also talked at length about some 18th century scholars who were busy cross-referencing their Crowley editions against ‘Lord Weymouth’s copy’, now in the Huntingdon Library – apparently there was one really fabulously detailed one, I think in Bailol College, which has alphabetical cross-refs to Harley 857 and numberical cross-refs to Lord Weymouth’s copy (my notes here say ‘Weymouth/Spellman’ but I haven’t the faintest who Spellman was. Or indeed, Weymouth).

A child, reading. Caption - Joie du livreApparently the 18th century is generally supposed to have been a fallow period for Piers scholarship. Says Lawrence, of these cross-referencing scholars: “It may be ridiculous, but it certainly wasn’t fallow”.

So, in conclusion if you wish to know why Piers Ploughman marginalia is sometimes ridiculous, often interesting, and not at all fallow, Lawrence Warner is your man.


* This will remain the lunchtime paper I remember as “the time I dropped a lemonade fruit in my own juice cup, one of my students helped me clean it up, I assumed the lemonade fruit belonged to said student, and several hours later the student came up to me after class demanding to know why I’d put a citrus fruit in her bag”.

Rude poems about Chester!

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a public lecture given by Helen Fulton, who is just about to take up her position as Professor of Medieval Literature at York (and is a graduate of the University of Sydney!). Said paper was entitled ‘Medieval Chester and North Wales: Border and Identity’, and looked at a series of Welsh literary references to the town of Chester – mostly poetry, from the genres of satire, religious lyric, and praise-poems.

Helen, who’s until recently been working at the University of Swansea, has been looking at these literary references as part of the Mapping Medieval Chester project (headed up by Dr Catherine Clarke). Chester, on the English side of the River Dee, was regarded as a border town by the English – ‘the last bastion against the rebellious Welsh’ was, I think, Helen’s description of English attitudes to Chester. As part of the project, a high-quality digital map of 15th century Chester was produced (under the direction of Dr Keith Lilley, Professor of Human Geography from Queen’s University Belfast), and is available for free online, along with seven downloadable static maps.

Helen’s been looking at Welsh attitudes to Chester: her paper yesterday demonstrated clear literary evidence of Welsh resentment toward the English people and particularly authorities of Chester, but argued that Chester’s geographical position as a town in ‘England’ doesn’t seem to have had much affect on the Welsh attitudes toward it. The Welsh objected to Chester’s presence and influence, Helen argues, in much the same way as they did to English towns which were technically in ‘Wales’ – Flint is the only place name I can recall here. They don’t see Chester, its people or environs as substantively different to English towns in Wales: the fact that it’s over ‘the border’ doesn’t matter. They do see the town as a locus of English administration and anti-Welsh sentiment; they also regard it highly as a pilgrimage site, and Helen argues that religious literature by the Welsh about the holy places of Chester is one way in which Welsh-speakers lay claim to the town and the right to be there.

In short, Chester! It’s an interesting place. I suggest you read Helen Fulton’s essay on Colonial Chester, available on the project website. It sounds like a fascinating locus of Welsh-English relations: some of the most interesting parts of Helen’s talk, to me, were the side notes she made. Like, for example, the fact that despite strict anti-Welsh laws in Chester, at one point (date of which I’ve forgotten) two individuals, father and son, named John Walsh, held high civic offices in the town. Or the fact that, in areas of Wales where both English and Welsh law applied, there are records of people who for all intents and purposes were ‘English’ pulling out Welsh ancestry in order to be tried under Welsh rather than English law. Apparently Welsh law was more lenient than English in several key areas, but I wonder what (if any) impact the decision to legally identify as Welsh might have had on the individual’s subsequent life (would people remember? Would s/he become a target of Anti-Welsh sentiment?).

I leave you with a rude poem about Chester by Lewis Glyn Cothi, who attempted to move to Chester, only to have all his possessions stolen by locals. He was rather cranky after that. Another thing which fascinated me was the diatribe against the Irish here: Chester was (is?) a port town, and evidently the presence of Irish traders in the town was a sore point for Lewis Glyn Cothi.

Chester is a town in an unwholesome land,
a town whose pedigree has never been good,
an angry Irish town, weaker than its importance,
a depressing town containing folk from Connacht,

a town of the seven sins where no-one is poorer,
a fortified turreted town where no-one is prouder,
a town with a Cheap of gluttony, their faces more guzzling,
a town where desire grows and everyone is low-life.

Many a room now run-down,
many a goblin hole, many a short fat person,
many the offspring of eight kinds of intercourse in the bushes,
many a mound of sadness and secrecy,

many a boy in a coffin will be sadder,
many a widow’s breast will be more bereft,
many a merchant’s wife more wanton with a lover,
many a tame partner more unfaithful.

Unfaithful children, they will tell lies
as men and women.
For what they did to my property,
they will sing to the beats of the sword.

-Ed. & trans Helen Fulton: this is only the last few stanzas. The full poem is available in facing-text translation here.

The best part of thesis writing…

I just wrote the most satisfying piece of thesis, bar none. No, not the final sentence, although I’ve written that too (in fact, I’m not sure about it, and will probably spend the next week fiddling with it).

The best part was, in fact, not the pretty frontispiece with Wulfstan’s handwriting on it, nor the title page (whoo! I have a title). ‘Twas the acknowledgements.

And because I’m feeling so full of affection and enthusiasm for all those so acknowledged, let me reproduce that paragraph here:

I wish to sincerely thank Dr Daniel Anlezark for his invaluable constructive input in supervision of this thesis, and for the unerring patience with which said input has been delivered. Furthermore, I wish to thank Dr Melanie Heyworth for several years of excellent and exacting teaching, in addition to much appreciated mentoring and assistance in matters academic. Thanks also go to Associate Professor John Pryor, for first introducing me to the marvelous world of medieval studies, and for enouraging me in further study. Finally, thanks must go to Drs Alex Jones, Lawrence Warner, David Juste, and the members of the Centre for Medieval Studies, Old English Reading Group and Middle English Reading Group at the Universtity of Sydney, without whose assistance, encouragement and friendship my university experience would have been considerably less rich.

So there. These people are unerringly, unbelievably fabulous, and if I’m glad of nothing else, I’m glad I did this because it meant I got to work with them.

Chastity Belts! Prof. Classen’s Sydney lecture available online

Just a quick heads-up: Albrecht Classen’s lecture ‘The Myth of the Medieval Chastity Belt’ is now available as a podcast from the University of Sydney’s website, via this newsfeed article. It may have the pictures with it- I know it took ages to be uploaded because the media people were trying to synchronise the powerpoint slides with the podcast, not sure if they actually succeeded.

In other news, my Inter-Library Loan of Prof. Classen’s Erotic Tales of Medieval Germany arrived yesterday, and I’m having a rollicking good time reading it. ‘Tis most hilarious. I heartily recommend it!

Ed: To all those still googling, the podcast is now here, in the 2008 index. Look for ‘The Myth of the Medieval Chastity Belt’.


Yeah. I just wanted to tell the universe that. It is spectacularly last minute (seminar starts in an hour). But it is WRITTEN.

It even has a conclusion, of a sort.

I was going to put it up here, but then I realised my footnoting is sporadic and consists mostly of “FOOTNOTE, DAMNIT”. So, when I get the thing cleaned up, you might get to see it ;).

York and Worcester: A Joke I Am Not Making In My Formal Paper

In 952, Eric ‘Bloodaxe’ invaded Northumbria, and all the Northumbrian lords went over to him at once. Later, when King Edmund (not the dead one) came along and took Northumbria back, Archbishop Wulfstan I of York was imprisoned because ‘he had been accused against the king’. Read: he went over to Eric along with the Northumbrian lords. Wulfstan I was later re-instated, and thenceforth (until 1016) the see of York was held in tandem with a southern see. This a) propped up the finances of the impoverished Archdiocese and b) was probably meant to tie the loyalties of the Northumbrian church more closely to the southern parts of England.

I’m about to argue that aim b) wasn’t exactly successful, with reference to Wulfstan II of York. I thought about making the old ‘like communism, works well in theory’ joke, but decided it was boring. Here are some other jokes I am not putting in my formal paper for the Centre for Medieval Studies:

* This arrangement was something like a threesome: looks good on paper, rarely turns out well in practice.

* This arrangement was something like a threesome: interesting in theory, but the end results were messy.

* This arrangement was something like a threesome: well intentioned, but loyalties were strained.

(H/T to Jeph of Questionable Content, who I believe was responsible for the original ‘threesomes are like communism’ line.)


On the other hand, while I am not making threesomes jokes before the Centre, I am using terrible alliteration. To whit: ‘the wonderous works of Wulfstan’. Yes, I have a great career ahead of me as a terrible academic punster.