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I’m in the midst of preparing a lecture on the use (and abuse) of King Arthur by twelfth- and thirteenth-century historians in Britain. This has been a real privilege, since a desire to study the ‘history’ behind the myth was one of the reasons I chose my particular undergraduate degree and institution, more years ago than is generally mentioned in polite society. As a bright-eyed eighteen year old, I envisaged my future as revolutionizing the understanding of this murky figure. Ah, the naïvety of youth! Somehow, despite being older and considerably more cynical now (if not necessarily very much wiser), being invited to take on this task feels like ‘arriving’, or at the very least, achieving a long-forgotten goal. It’s been a fair while since I considered the literature on this topic, so I thought a compilation here of what I see as the most pertinent and recent arguments would be a useful exercise for me, if not of gripping relevance to the rest of you. You have my permission to look away if you so desire.

Speaking of the abuse of history, this is *not* the King Arthur I’m going to be discussing…

My task in this guest lecture is to fill in “what happens to Arthur in (medieval) historians’ work after Geoffrey of Monmouth”, and I’m planning to adopt an essentially chronological structure on the day. In this forum, however, I’m going to begin from the other end with where Arthur and Arthurian history ended up in Edwardian times, since we’re all about the thirteenth century here.

…nor, for that matter, is this…

The pendulum of opinion concerning Edward I’s identification with Arthur has swung between two poles since the early 20th century: what we might call the romantic and pragmatic. R.S. Loomis, himself a noted Arthurian devotee, long ago took issue with what he saw as Sir Maurice Powicke’s excessively political reading of Edward’s understanding of Arthur.[1] Powicke had commented, as if in passing, that Edward’s procession to Glastonbury and the pageantry that attended his, and Queen Eleanor’s, ceremonial disinterment and reburial of the remains of Arthur and Guinevere was intended as a demonstration of the subjugation of Wales. Loomis argued that, instead, Edward was genuinely a devotee of Arthurian literature, and that, at the very least, “sentiment too was involved”.[2] I think it would be fair to call this the minority view. Rather more recently, Michael Prestwich assembled the evidence for Edward’s association with Arthur and found it to be unexceptional and unfocused: part of his general embeddedness in the culture of chivalry, but not constituting a particular dedication to an Arthurian cult.[3] Rather curiously, however, Prestwich went on to declare that it was “not clear what [Edward’s] purpose was” in going to Glastonbury in 1278.[4] Read the rest of this entry »

If I were a more organized individual – and none of that snorting thank you – I’d have been prepared with a stimulating and intelligent contribution to the celebrations for today’s 797th anniversary of the first issue of Magna Carta, 15th June 1215. Trust me, when it’s the 800th anniversary, there will be dancing llamas.[1]

For now, you’ll have to make do with a pretty picture of one of the four surviving engrossments of the first issue, the famous British Library Magna Carta (although, they actually have two of the 1215 issue, one of the 1225 reissue from Henry III’s minority, and – as an inspeximus – a number of versions of the 1265 reissue under the baronial government of Simon de Montfort, addressed to different counties[2]); and a link to their marvellous manuscripts blog, which is also celebrating this auspicious occasion with some pictures and commentary. Their series of Treasures in Full, which has a section dedicated to the Magna Carta and its context is well worth a visit, and you can click through to it from the image below.

Magna Carta

London, BL, MS Cotton Augustus ii.106

I admit to being a Magna Carta fan, not that I recommend it as bedtime reading, unless you are suffering advanced insomnia, but I think this talismanic document is one of the reasons I am a medievalist. I remember first being taken to look at it as a child of seven, and despite their having nothing but high school historical education, the awe in which my parents held this manky bit of old skin. They had – in fact still have – a poster of the Augustus engrossment, complete with English translation, which hangs (of all places) in the spare toilet at their house in Melbourne. It’s amazing how many hours people tend to sit in there, gazing at it… (If you’re curious, the opposite wall has the Rosetta Stone, and the side wall has a piece of medieval stained glass from the Burrell Collection. My folks were well into collecting ‘cultural’ artefacts when they travelled in the 1980s. Their house is an eclectic and joyful muddle of souvenirs elevated to the status of museum pieces.) I think I absorbed their reverent attitude long before I understood anything about King John and his barons; the wonder of being in the presence of such ancient written thoughts; a vague but powerful sensation of the significance of historical documents. I still often make a pilgrimage to St Pancras to look at it when I am in town.

So happy birthday, Magna Carta. And thanks for everything.


[1] There will also be a conference, and a bunch of other events to mark the occasion. I can hardly wait! See the Magna Carta 2015 webpage for more info: http://magnacarta800th.com/
[2] I take these figures from the most recent and thorough census of extant copies, prepared by Nicholas Vincent and Hugh Doherty for Sotheby’s on the occasion of the sale of the 1297 engrossment formerly owned by Ross Perot, see: The Magna Carta (Sotheby’s: New York, 2007). The BL copies are: (1215) MS Cotton Charter xiii.31a; MS Augustus ii.106 (shown here); (1225) MS Additional 46144; (1265) Cotton Claudius ii. (Statutes etc.) f.128v (138v, 125v); and MS Harley 489 ff. 4r-8v.

I really liked this distinction, raised by Prof. Peter T. Struck of UPenn, in a recent interview with The Chronicle on his hopes for and concerns about teaching a free online unit on Greek myth (you can read it here). I particularly liked his comment: “Great education is transformative. Data transfer isn’t.”

I wonder if I have been educating students, or shoving data at them. I hadn’t considered the difference terribly consciously until now. I hope I’ve done at least some of the former. Yet I fear that some of my – and my colleagues’ – obsessions tend to focus on data transfer, perhaps because it’s the easiest thing to notice when it goes wrong or fails. When a student hasn’t realised that a unit requires a certain footnote style, for instance, it’s noticeable: you mark an essay and groan as you write for the sixth or seventh time, ‘please note, footnotes are required by all history units…‘, and wonder why you bothered spending a whole tutorial on research and citation skills if nobody was listening.

We’ve thought and talked a fair bit about how to do this better next time, for example by doubling the tutorial time dedicated to discussing these skills, by redesigning relevant assessment to emphasise key skills, changing the format of the tutorial, and so on. This week, however, a colleague and I realised in the course of our conversation that most of the measures we’ve considered involve an increase in our responsibility, as if all we – as teachers – must do is ‘more’ and that will fix it. We began to think that, instead, we might need to force each student to assume these responsibilities for themselves: this, as we said to each other, is a more valuable thing to teach them in the long run than how to conform to MHRA style.

In light of Prof. Struck’s comments, I now see this little case study as a discussion of education vs. data transfer, and I’m pleased that we arrived independently at the notion that the former was preferable. The question remains, how to do it in practice. Education is a darn sight harder to do and to design than merely dispensing information. Somehow an eagerness for knowledge, and both the tools and the motivation to seek it for oneself have to be conveyed. Can this be done when the time allotted to a unit is no more than 22 lecture and 10 tutorial hours?

Any suggestions?

So, excuse me while I blather on about this. As I was saying, gender is a complex historical phenomenon, and part of a much bigger social matrix. In this post I want to talk about one example, Katherine Paynel, a widow in late 13th-century England, whose case helps, I think, to dispel a few mythical assumptions of the kind that students tend to make about the position of women in medieval society.

Katherine’s story hasn’t yet completely been unpicked – this is one of the projects sitting in my ‘to do’ tray at the moment, and will sadly remain on the back burner for a few months yet while I finish up my thesis. However, what we do know indicates that she was a woman of some independent means, and certainly a woman of character. Katherine was a tenant in chief of the king,[1] having jointly inherited the lands of her father, Adam de Periton, with her nephew, Robert, and sister, Isabel;[2] but she is known to us principally because a letter she sent to the chancellor, John Langton, c. 1292,[3] survives in The National Archives, Kew, as SC 1/27/113. In my rough translation,[4] it reads:

To her own very dear special friend in God, if he please, Sir John de Langton, chancellor of our lord king, his own liege and erstwhile mother,[5] if he please, Katherine Paynel, greetings and her blessing and [herself] always ready for your commandments. Dear lord and son, I have great joy in the heart from your advancement and may God be praised for the grace which he has given you that all men love you, and [for] that perserverance which ought to remain all your life; that is my prayer and it has been and will be as long as I live. As to that, dear lord, it is known to you, if it please you to remember, that since our first meeting I have had a difficult task to sustain and guide myself and my children with scarcely any aid. But, blessed be the Lord, they are agreeable enough to me, and humble, and each of my sons has some livelihood, and my daughter can take counsel with them when she desires. Dear lord, my younger son, Stephen Paynel, prays and requests me often that I send him to court in service or company where he can acquire sense and manners, so that he can recover the goods (pust aver recoverir) after me if he should be of service. And indeed, lord, I now have no sure aquaintance except, if it please, yours. Thus, I pray and request you, dear lord, for love of me and for all friendship that by your counsel and aid he may be entrusted to you yourself, lord, or to your bailiff. And I, lord, will work on his behalf for the costs in every way in my power, if by that he may support himself. Dear lord, concerning this prayer may you wish by your letter to tell me through this same bearer; and often, in all other matters, your pleasure; and concerning your state of body and health, which may God cause to be good and long. Lord, I commend you to God and His sweet mother.

Reading this letter in light of some of my complaints from the previous post, let me point out a few of the most salient points.

First, this letter constructs a gendered world in which men and women are both participating, actively yet differently. As a widow with children Katherine is in some ways the chief of her household: her children remain under her guidance to some degree, despite that they seem to be adults. They are ‘humble’ and agreeable to her; and she on her part ‘stuggles’ to sustain and guide them. Her sons’ role in life is clearly distinct from that of her daughter – the sons have livelihoods, while the daughter implicitly does not – and yet the daughter is not described as an empty or passive instrument. She can ‘take counsel’ with her brothers ‘when she desires’, and is thus recognised as a person who (a) has desires, and (b) has affairs in which she may require advice. Part of Katherine’s role as mother, which is clearly articulated here, is to establish and advance careers for her sons by whatever means open to her. One of those means is this letter. Read the rest of this entry »

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

You can also find my academic profile on Academia.edu

Twitter: @KB_Neal

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