Interview with Lavinia Collins, author of The Warrior Queen

Lavinia Collins is the author of The Warrior Queen, part one of a new Arthurian trilogy. This post, an interview with Collins, is the second of two exploring this new work.

As a medievalist, Lavinia, you must have a keen awareness of not only the medieval stories of Arthur, but also of the countless modern adaptations in literature, art and film. So what motivated you to write your own take on these timeless tales? What does your trilogy do differently to everything that has come before, and which writers/tales would you say have inspired your version the most?

Hmmm, what a good question! There are several aspects to what motivated me to write. I really loved all the medieval versions, and I wanted to be able to share them, and a least a small part of some of the stories they contain, with a wider audience, but especially in a way that would make it immediate, and recuperate a point of view that I felt had been largely missed; that of Guinevere. A large part of it was also just to please myself. I really enjoyed getting lost in the Arthurian world as I understood it, and I really wanted to share that with other people.

I felt, also, that the way that we come into contact with it now is quite sanitised. Especially, actually, the relationships between the characters. I think we like to believe that people in legend didn’t get caught up with silly, worldly things like sexual desire, and I felt like there was room for something more raw, more immediate, and more personal from the point of view of Guinevere, something that didn’t try to excuse her of any responsibility by making her passive, or gloss over any of the problematic elements of her character which have resulted in so many versions polarising her into either a lusty shrew or a doe-eyed moron.

One of my great inspirations in terms of modern adaptations was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, which I love, but which I always felt was slightly wanting in its depiction of Guinevere. Bradley did great work in the recuperation of Morgan le Fay, but this was almost at the expense of Guinevere (which I will talk a bit more about later on), and that left me wondering if there wasn’t another story to be told there, that had been lost a little; in feminism’s desire to redeem the witch, we had forgotten the woman at the centre, who has been variously condemned and marginalised in different ways.

I felt like there were a lot of adaptations for children, and then Marion Zimmer Bradley (who I will talk quite a lot about, and my conflicted feelings about her adaptation, which I love, but which I feel didn’t do an awful lot of good for our idea of Guinevere) who did an incredible job of recuperating Morgan le Fay’s point of view, and quite a lot of film and TV which focussed heavily on the men and marginalised the women or stereotyped them. Mainly, it was that the fascinating, powerful Guinevere that I read in the medieval version didn’t seem to me to be represented in any satisfying way in any of the adaptations I had come across, and it was high time someone got on to it!

 

Guinevere, in all her capricious complexity, has always been one of my favourite characters of the Arthurian world. What made you choose her as your protagonist, and why did you depict her in this particular way?

A large part of it had to do with what a raw deal I thought Guinevere was getting in all the modern adaptations of Arthurian legend. It just seemed that this immense, powerful personality that is so clear in Malory’s book, and to an extent in Chrétien de Troyes was constantly being reduced to something more “tasteful” and therefore less individual, less interesting and ultimately less good. I suppose it’s partly to do with squeamish Victorian moralising (thank you for that, Tennyson) and the mistaken belief of film and tv executives that we can only like a woman that we think is “good”. I found the whole way she was dealt with in every adaptation rather disappointing compared to what I imagined when I read Malory. Even the Mists of Avalon (which I absolutely love) somehow cannot manage to present both Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar in a positive light, which is very frustrating, and ends with her making Gwenwhyfar into a hysterical, agoraphobic religious fundamentalist without charm or interest or power. I thought that this was such a shame.

I am sure so much of the paring down of Guinevere’s character in modern treatments comes from a kind of prudish, judgemental need to “justify” the affair with Lancelot. The most annoying manifestation of this is versions that suggest that she was already in love with Lancelot when she married Arthur. I’m not saying this isn’t valid, I suppose what I am saying is that it isn’t interesting. It’s just apologism. People feel the need to say “she did what she did because of x,y,z,” or they, like Bradley, make her passive and weak in the face of something or other.

But in Chrétien de Troyes and Malory she certainly doesn’t seem weak or passive — and besides, this isn’t interesting. It’s symptomatic of a need to put women into this box, or that box. A tragic heroine, an unfaithful wife. I was sick of reading and seeing her depicted as a victim, as passive. Certainly, as a woman that’s not very interesting to watch or read. I hated the idea that we can only like Guinevere if we feel sorry for her, and I felt like what I read and saw in modern adaptations never matched up to what I read in the medieval versions. I strongly felt that her story was one that had not be properly told, at least not in a way that I thought did any justice to the powerful character I read in Malory’s and Chretien’s texts.

 

In your take on the Arthurian legends, Guinevere is shown to have a close and deeply personal relationship with the Round Table, and both she and the physical object (as well as some of the other characters in the novel) possess a sort of Otherworldly, Celtic-inspired magic. Can you talk a little about your decision here?

People know the “Round Table” as one thing, and on a popular level most people only know that it was the table that Arthur’s knights sat around, and have no idea that it originally belonged to Guinevere. I wanted to reimagine this object which itself has come to be metonymic of a certain type of male comradeship from a different perspective, to imagine it meaning something personal to the woman to whom it originally belonged, and to suggest that both our idea and Arthur’s idea of the significance of the table isn’t its whole story. I also wanted to include some medieval-romance-style magical objects that weren’t just the typical ones dwelt on by other versions (Excalibur has some “Otherworldly” elements, but it’s certainly not given the same narrative weight in my version as in the movie Excalibur, for example). The table kind of became a symbol, a focal point that illustrated for me the idea that in the past we have perhaps approached these events from a kind of Christianised, male-centric position, and I wanted to show how how something as central to the Arthurian knights as the Round Table could have meant something so different to Guinevere.

In terms of my decision to emphasise the Celtic “Otherworldly” elements, really it’s just that these personally attracted me to the legends. I have never enjoyed versions which strip away the magic and try to get too historical, and I felt as though the Celtic versions have their own particular character and flavour. It’s simpler than magic too; it’s a connection to the land, to others like oneself, to the places of home. It also helped me to create the sense that I wanted of various conflicting worlds that can never quite match up with one another; the Breton culture that Guinevere grows up with, and British culture in Logrys; the desire to conquer and the longing for peace; safety and being trapped; loyalty and desire. It just became an integral part of that, the conflict between different ways of seeing and understanding the world.

 

Gender roles, and cultural differences between masculine- and feminine-appropriate dress and behaviour, serve to create an interesting tension within the book. Logrys (Britain) is shown to have a much more rigidly masculine/feminine divide, whereas the line between genders is more blurred in the Breton world of Carhais. Guinevere must negotiate the differences between these two worlds and their norms. Guinevere’s challenges in adapting to her new surroundings as a foreign princess (in other texts she’s variously depicted as being of Roman or Welsh descent) are rarely depicted, let alone in terms of gender differences. What were your reasons behind both the differences in cultural gender norms, and in showing Guinevere’s struggle to assimilate into her new culture?

There were several reasons for this. Firstly, I have to confess that my imagining of Breton culture is largely extrapolated from my study of early medieval Irish Celtic culture and the evidence that survives of a society in which women were able to (even if they did not usually) take on warrior-roles. This is part of the reason that I chose to link Guinevere with Medb (who I spelled in a more non-medievalist friendly way in the novel!) from the Tan Bo Cualinge, because I wanted to create a sense that Guinevere belonged to an culture that both had ancient roots and that was on its way our as Arthur’s new world was beginning to conquer the lands around it. I felt like the relationship between Arthur and Guinevere has typically been portrayed in very simple terms as a kind of political marriage that neither were very emotionally invested in. I didn’t think that this was very interesting, and I felt that the story of love across conflicting cultures, and a more complex relationship between them would be much more interesting, for me at least!

But aside from this is also part of a deeply personal interest in this element of the story. We know how common it was for queen to be married outside of their home countries into foreign courts where the language and customs were strange, and yet this is something which, as you say, is rarely discussed in Guinevere’s case at all. I thought to gloss over the experience of finding oneself almost alone in a foreign place and expect to marry a stranger was a part of the medieval female experience that I wanted to deal with.

Gender was also something that I wanted to deal with more generally in the book. I was tired of film and TV versions where Arthur is wet and weak. My decision to have Arthur as this incredible alpha male and Lancelot as more shy, more sensitive, less typically masculine is partly based on my own reading of Malory, but partly based in my own interest in the limits that this expectation of extreme masculinity places on the men of medieval society. I wanted to create something that asked interesting questions about the gender roles at play, and that also acknowledged that this was a question that people were asking themselves in the Middle Ages –there’s a general idea that they all just accepted the status quo, but if that were true, there would be no Wife of Bath’s Tale, would there?

 

As a fellow medievalist I’m interested in the world you’ve created in your retelling, which takes so much from the medieval corpus, but also nods to post-medieval Arthuriana in its depiction of a bow-wielding princess. Like all the best retellings (in my opinion!) of the Arthurian legends, the temporal setting is not a faithful rendering of any specific historical moment. Can you talk a little about the world of the Warrior Queen?

I certainly wanted to create something that wasn’t slavish to any particular time. I always feel let down by versions that as desperate to locate it in a particular time. That was why I found that King Arthur film so boring, and actually that was one of those things that annoyed me about my favourite modern version The Mists of Avalon; both laboured a historical moment, and if anything the stretch for historical credibility makes it less believable. It’s as though the more you try to explain, the more the gaps show.

What I wanted to create was something not that was like a historical time, but that was like a medieval text. Obviously, it’s in modern English, and there’s quite a lot of racy material that wouldn’t have made it past a monastic scriptorium, but I did want to create the sense of a mythical medieval past. There are some elements, like magic, which I took inspiration from the medieval romance tradition. (I’m afraid that there are also some nerdy medievalist jokes hidden in there, for anyone who can spot them…) That said, there are some elements that just don’t translate across time, and I really wanted to create a world, and a Guinevere with whom a modern audience could engage, and I hope that I have done so.

 

You do particularly interesting things with Kay. Worlds apart from the mean ginger clod of Disney’s Sword and the Stone, your Kay is a dark-haired, fay-like knight who, in keeping with his role as seneschal seems to see all. You dedicate your novel to your own Kay –what made you choose to present Kay in this way? Is there a real-life inspiration for your portrayal of this often awkward and maligned character?

Poor Kay! I am always upset by the treatment my all time favourite Athurian knight gets. Even in serious academic Arthurian criticism, I have come across unfounded Kay-bashing. One even suggested that, in the episode where Lancelot steals Kay’s armour after what can only be described as at the very least a homoerotic sleepover and rides about dressed as him being excellent at fighting, that this was done because Kay was ‘the weakest link’ in the chain of Arthurian knights and needed a reputation boost! Hardly fair on the knight who single-handedly kills two of the kings in the war with the five kings…!

Kay –and especially Malory’s Kay –seems to me like the only knight who knows how to have fun, and he is always unfairly sidelined in modern adaptations. It is almost as though adapters think that Arthur can only have one friend, and will get confused if he has any more buddies than Lancelot. Every single film and TV version I’ve seen make Kay a sort of meanie older brother who Arthur immediately forgets, when this is far from the case in the medieval versions. Arthur explicitly says that his desire to kill the Emperor Lucius is the result of Kay’s wounding in battle, and the moment that Arthur pulls the sword from the stone in Malory is followed by his intensely poignant question to Ector, “So you are not my father, and Kay is not my brother?” and yet Kay is erased from almost every adaptation, except in the episode at the beginning when he forgets his sword. I thought it presented an interesting relationship to explore, that of the foster brothers.

As a court-bound seneschal, it seemed to me that he was a fitting friend for Guinevere, who, as a woman, is also bound to stay within the castle while the other knights go journeying about. The decision to incorporate a kind of “Otherworldly” nature to Kay was based on the Welsh versions of Arthurian legend, where in ‘The Lady of the Fountain’, I think, that Kay has some supernatural skills, and I thought this combined well with how I wanted to use the Otherworldly elements.

But more than anything, the fact that Kay has been chronically ignored in adaptations gave me a lot of room to do what I liked with him, to explore elements that hadn’t been explored, which included the domestic life of Camelot, the relationship between the foster-brothers and the conflict of the old ways of the Otherworld and pagans with the new Christian world ruled from Camelot at its centre. I’ve been surprised, too, (and pleased, of course) to the widespread positive reaction to my depiction of Kay; it seems that people were as interested in Camelot’s untold stories as I am.

As for my own Kay, well that would really be telling, wouldn’t it? My own Kay is someone without whom I could never have written The Guinevere Trilogy, and who is a huge part of my life. Apart from that, I’m afraid I’m going to keep the rest to myself. A girl’s got to maintain a little mystery, eh?

 

Finally: why does the world still need Arthur, after an existence in nearly a thousand years of myth and legend? What purpose do you think these characters and their stories serve in our modern world?

 

Ah, that’s the million-pound question for all medievalists, isn’t it? I think Arthurian legend is part of the fabric of British identity, and we will always need it. Obviously, I wouldn’t be interested in medieval literature if I didn’t think this, but I do strongly believe that we can learn so much from the stories that we tell about ourselves (so perhaps you can learn a lot about me from what I have decided to tell!) and that it will always be important both to read what is old, and to remake it so that it fits within our own modern understanding.

I love all the medieval versions of Arthurian legend, and I could never hope to replicate some of the great works of the Middle Ages, but equally since they are in Middle English, or Old French or Latin, these are lost to the vast majority of people looking for a good read. But they are a good read, and I felt that it was really important to create a version that was entertaining, but that also communicated what I wanted to convey from my own understanding of these medieval texts in a way that would be immediate, accessible and engaging for a modern audience. It would be such a shame if these stories were lost, or if they only survived on a popular level in forms that really didn’t capture the powerful complexity of the wonderful characters. I hope that at least I have been able to add a small amount to that great task of passing on this wonderful literature and legend.

 

L. C.

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You can find out more about Lavinia Collins and her work here…

The Warrior Queen (Part I of the Guinevere Trilogy) is available athttp://www.amazon.co.uk/THE-WARRIOR-QUEEN-Guinevere-Trilogy-ebook/dp/B00IPRC0TE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1393635696&sr=8-1&keywords=lavinia+collins

A Champion’s Duty (Part II of the Guinevere Trilogy) is available at:http://www.amazon.co.uk/CHAMPIONS-DUTY-The-Guinevere-Trilogy-ebook/dp/B00JD35Z3W/ref=pd_sim_sbs_kinc_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1FSNYAXHG8E0B6RNQY64

Twitter: @Lavinia_Collins

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lavinia.collins.904?ref=hl

Blog: www.vivimedieval.wordpress.com 

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Review: Lavinia Collins – The Warrior Queen (Part One of the Guinevere Trilogy)

Lavinia Collins. The Warrior Queen (Part One of the Guinevere Trilogy). Not So Noble Books, 2014. £2.99.

Lavinia Collins’ The Warrior Queen is the latest in a millennium-long line of Arthurian retellings. This post is part one of a two-part special  – part two is an interview with the author.

the warrior queen lavinia collins

Lavinia Collins’s background in medieval literature is evident in The Warrior Queen. The author holds a Masters and is currently studying for a PhD in this subject, and this comes through in the frequent nods to the medieval inheritance of her characters and their stories: the Round Table accompanies Guinevere upon her marriage to Arthur; Merlin ends up trapped in the earth by Nimue; Morgan emphasises that the scabbard is more precious by far than Arthur’s sword, to name just a few examples. Collins’ book is also an implicit homage to the later feminist reworkings of these stories from the 1980s to the present in its prioritisation of the female characters and their experiences. However, Collins’ novel, whilst paying due respect to the heritage of her material, moves beyond the scope of previous works to present us with the next step in this chain of Arthurian evolution.

The most obvious development comes in the form of Collins’ protagonist, Guinevere. Unlike Morgan le Fay, a female character of the Arthurian world who has found new life in the works of a swathe of modern feminist writers admiring her strong-willed magical independence, Guinevere hasn’t found quite the same burst of new life in recent literature. This capricious, demanding, strong-willed lady has always been my favourite Arthurian character – to me she comes across in the medieval literature as one of the most multi-faceted, complex and realistic – but sadly she just hasn’t had the treatment in modern adaptations that she deserves (except perhaps in William Morris’ beautifully sympathetic poem The Defense of Guenevere, which captures, for me, the essence of this powerful, sensual queen).

Not so in Collins’ world. Guinevere – the Warrior Queen herself – is a strong, flame-haired, leather-clad, bow-wielding princess of a Celtic Breton peoples who have been conquered by Arthur’s armies. The entire novel is narrated via this character’s perspective, and Arthur himself, in keeping with most Arthurian literature – medieval or modern – is not a character that the reader ever really gets close to. The king drifts in and out of Guinevere’s experience, and therefore her narration, as wars, his close relationships with his male companions, hunting and drinking remove him from her presence.

The novel traces Guinevere’s experiences from fighting alongside her fellow Bretons against the might of Camelot before being defeated and shipped off from her home in Carhais as a peace bride to Arthur, the famous war king, by her father, and her gradual adaptation to her queenly role, the courtly environment, and her new country’s people and expectations. The beauty of Collins’ adaptation of this material is that, like all the best Arthurian reworkings, she offers fresh new perspectives on characters and their potential motivations, whilst keeping within the framework of the basic plot as found in Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century Morte D’Arthur. Guinevere is a warrior princess whose connection to the Round Table is more than that of a mere marital dowry. Kay’s usual sullenness is given a mischievous, fay-like twist. Merlin’s actions in ensuring Arthur’s destiny have bitter consequences for Guinevere. Expect all the standard characters of medieval Arthuriana in this novel – Guinevere, Arthur, Lancelot, Morgan, Merlin, Nimue, Kay, Gawain – but characterised in thoughtful new ways.

Gender is a major theme throughout the novel  in terms of norms, roles, and expectations. Guinevere’s native Carhais is a realm where behaviour is not restricted to the male/warrior female/damsel-in-distress gender binary of some Arthurian retellings, and Collins draws attention to Guinevere’s plight to adapt to the more stifling and rigid gender norms she encounters in her new home. Personally I felt that this development constitutes a really interesting new dimension, not only to the character of Guinevere, but to our understanding and perception of the other characters and adaptations of the Arthurian corpus that have come before, and I look forward to seeing where the author takes this in the next book.

So: what about the sex? The cover image hints at the possibility of risqué content, but how steamy is the novel? When Lavinia first told me she had written an Arthurian book, she said, with a degree of characteristic British embarrassment, that it was ‘a bit naughty’. (She’s actually written a very funny and thoughtful post on her own blog about telling her parents she’d written a ‘bonkbuster’.) Yes, there is sex in the book. No, it does not drive the plot – rather, it is interwoven with key moments in the narrative, and is an indicator of the development in relations between Guinevere and her husband. Anyone who knows anything at all about Arthurian literature on even the most basic level will know about THAT love triangle – and true to her source material, this novel sees the relationships between Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot develop gradually towards the latter half of this first book.

But I don’t want to give too much away – and at only £2.99 you really might as well read it yourself… Looking forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments below!

The Warrior Queen is the first of three books in this series, so keep your eyes peeled for part two, as well as my interview with Lavinia Collins coming up in the next instalment of this two-part blog post miniseries.

 

The Warrior Queen (Part I of the Guinevere Trilogy) is available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/THE-WARRIOR-QUEEN-Guinevere-Trilogy-ebook/dp/B00IPRC0TE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1393635696&sr=8-1&keywords=lavinia+collins

A Champion’s Duty (Part II of the Guinevere Trilogy) is available at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/CHAMPIONS-DUTY-The-Guinevere-Trilogy-ebook/dp/B00JD35Z3W/ref=pd_sim_sbs_kinc_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1FSNYAXHG8E0B6RNQY64

Twitter: @Lavinia_Collins

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lavinia.collins.904?ref=hl

Blog: www.vivimedieval.wordpress.com

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Guenevere

I was asked to write a guest post for the Ivory Diaries in a miniseries of posts chronicling Launcelot and Guenevere’s famous affair from the perspectives of various characters in the Arthurian story. The entry below charts the beginning of their forbidden love from the point of view of the leading lady herself…

I was given to Arthur with a piece of furniture – a table, to be precise – as my dowry. He ended up preferring the table.

I’m quite sure he only insisted on marrying me because Merlin told him I was trouble. Arthur always did enjoy the notion of a challenge. Merlin knew, you see, and wanted to protect his precious Arthur. He knew all this would happen with Launcelot and me. The old trickster.

But Merlin, much as he saw, had a very serious blind spot when it came to Arthur’s family. It is they that he should have paid closer attention to – Arthur’s half sisters, to be precise. Arthur created a monster (and here I don’t think I’m being too severe) when he committed that most ungodly of deeds – incest – with his half sister Morgause, and she later gave birth to a son, Mordred. They think I am ignorant of this fact, but I have many eyes and ears in this court. Just looking at that boy makes me shiver with fear. He’ll be trouble, mark my words.

I never could bring myself to touch Arthur after that. But I was still young, so young! Full of life, and wild passions, yet trapped, wasted, untouched. Bought by Arthur’s great name and his little love.

But then… him. Multitudes upon multitudes of women swooned over Launcelot – for his dark beauty, his prowess and chivalry, and his mysterious fey-touched upbringing by the Lady of the Lake. They said he’d never been overcome in battle, unless by treason or enchantment. I rolled my eyes to myself when I heard tell of his reputation, determined not to be impressed (I have always been of a contrary disposition). He arrived at court and the furore was unbelievable. All over one man! No one could be that impressive.

We held a great tournament, and as predicted, Launcelot won the day. As was customary, he dedicated all of his deeds of arms to me, as his queen. His performance had been undeniably impressive and I started to understand what the fuss was about.

But it was later, when evening fell as soft as a caress: the candles had been lit and the little insects had started their chorus, that I understood the true worth of the man. On that balmy summer night, full of hinted promise, Launcelot walked with me around my gardens. Peacocks wandered underneath the trees. Alone, all of his bravado melted away, and we were just a man and a woman, talking. We laughed, and the world itself sparkled. He truly saw me – my strengths and my flaws, all. And he loved me. It is the greatest gift of my admittedly privileged life.

Words, and a few stolen kisses, were all that we enjoyed for some time. We both fought against this adulterous, treacherous fate. But fate goes ever as it must, and eventually we became lovers. Launcelot is the truest lover that ever lived. I know women constantly throw themselves at his feet, but I also know, as surely as I know my own name, that he will never love another but me, in heart, mind or body. Something I certainly never had with Arthur.

Our love is not easy. We are often apart. Admittedly, I have a tendency to caprice and whimsy, and can make Launcelot’s life difficult in many ways, but missing someone constantly can make us behave in strange ways, and he understands that as he understands me. My bigger concern is that I’m sure Arthur’s nephews know about us… They will make trouble for us one day, no doubt. I have seen Agravain watching from dark corners as Launcelot and I talk. I have seen him whispering wickedly with Mordred. But there is absolutely no way that I am going to give up the most precious part of my life. I have too few other joys.

Some say that Launcelot and I will be the downfall of Arthur and Camelot. To them I say: have you not seen the many other fractures in this place; the wicked things that go on here, and the wicked people? Launcelot and I are the purest thing in this whole wretched kingdom, and no matter what else happens, I know that we will meet a good end, because our love is true.

Reproduced with kind permission from the Ivory Diaries.

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Carnivalesque #98

Hello readers! Those of you who follow me here and on Twitter may have noticed that I’ve been a bit quiet over the past few months. Personal stuff (don’t worry, all fine now!), my first chapter and  imminent PhD upgrade (fingers crossed!) have all kept me busy, but now I’m ready to get back into the swing of things! How better to do this than by hosting the latest edition of Carnivalesque? I’m pleased to present, for your delectation, a round-up of the cream of recent blog posts ancient and medieval (and possibly the first ever Carnivalesque with an underwear theme!). Enjoy!

Let’s start with some serious stuff: In his latest post on the bonæ litteræ blog, David Rundle asks What is Private History? in response to the recent surge in public history academic programmes and events.

Also taking a step back to contemplate the academy – this time in terms of the study of medieval literature and the importance of remembering the love we hold for our disciplines – the Suburban Academic considers public ‘activism and outreach’ of medievalists within the wider context of the state of the humanities in “I am an Anglo-Saxonist” or, What a Medievalist Looks Like.

Also on an Anglo-Saxon theme, The Freelance History Writer delves into the life of Eadburh, Queen of the West Saxons – ‘infamous for being an evil queen.’ But was being wilful and reckless the greatest crime of King Offa’s daughter?

This blogger also turns her hand to an altogether less vilified Anglo-Saxon figure in her post on Alfred the Great, Anglo-Saxon King of Wessex, exploring how this famous king worked to bring about the conditions for a unified England, fought off the Danes, and the many reforms he made during his reign.

Hopping forward to 1263, in her post From fighting to friendship: the Largs Viking Festival Beoshewulf discusses the Battle of Largs and a modern-day festival in the west of Scotland to commemorate a battle that was never actually won…

Travelling from Scotland to the heart of London, the London Unveiled blog gives an insight into a modern medical institution with a very medieval past in a post dedicated to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum. From a vision of St Bartholomew in the Middle Ages to Sherlock Holmes’ first meeting with Dr. Watson in ‘A Study in Scarlet’ – this hospital has a rich and fascinating history (both real and literary), and the museum sounds well worth a visit.

John Hodgson considers marginalia in his post on the John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog: Life on the Edge: Marginalia. This is a fantastically informative resource on different types of marginalia: if you want to know your drolleries from your manicules then this is the place for you.

Sticking with marginalia for the moment, Sarah J. Biggs at the British Library has posted another absolute corker on the Medieval Manuscripts blog. Knight v Snail highlights one particularly interesting example of marginalia common to several manuscripts in the later Middle Ages in a curious case of inter-species violence…

But it’s not all antipathy between the species! Sometimes animals can help humans out – although not always voluntarily… Dr Hannah Newton tells us about one example of animal assistance on the Early Modern Medicine blog in her post Wet Beds & Hedgehogs. Apparently one of the many weird and wonderful early modern remedies for bed-wetting was a ‘hedg-hog dryed.’ Definitely a powerful incentive to hold it in until morning!

Loitering in the nether regions for our next two posts, S.J. Pearce considers notions of underwear and class in Umayyad, Underwear, Upper Class… This piece wins the prize for most frequent use of the word ‘underwear’ in a medieval blog post. And for punning about pants. Amazing!

Rebecca Unsworth explores that most fascinating of later medieval clothing items, the codpiece, in Oranges and Syphilis: The Use of the Codpiece as a Pocket on the Unmaking Things blog. Was the codpiece the male equivalent of a handbag? Did it become ‘a pocket in which a gentleman kept his handkerchief and purse and even oranges, which he would pull out before the ladies’ eyes and hand to them’? Or is this a load of sixteenth-century stuff and nonsense?

For another bit of light-hearted historical humour turn your attention to the Ivory Diaries – a new blog set up by medievalists at the University of York, where ‘Any relation to actual persons, all dead, or actual events, is entirely deliberate and highly desirable.’ The latest post is by Little John of Robin Hood fame, where he admits that it’s not as straightforward being one of Robin’s outlaws as one might expect!

We started on a serious note, so let’s end on one too. Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary gives us this hugely informative piece on Grammar in early modern English, taking his readers through the gamut of early modern grammatical foibles from noun inflections to gerunds to syntax. A valuable resource for anyone interested in this era of the English language.

With that I leave you to your cup of tea and these fantastic posts, proving once again that our ancient and medieval past is still very much alive and kicking. Enjoy!

**Disclaimer: I take no responsibility for the pants-related posts in this issue of Carnivalesque. It was you, the medieval blog-reading public who nominated these posts. You have only yourselves to blame for what is clearly a bit of an obsession with the nether regions of history.**

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The Arthurian Tradition: Annales Cambriae

Since starting my PhD in January I’ve taken a bit of a break from my Arthurian Tradition series of blog posts because being immersed in fifteenth-century Arthurian literature for my thesis meant that hopping back to the early medieval Arthur felt a bit jarring! But now that I’ve nearly finished the first chapter of my thesis (well, almost!) I feel a bit of mental liberty to dive further back in time again. In the last post in this series I left you with the Historia Brittonum – an ostensibly ninth-century text detailing the abandonment of Britain by the Romans and the subsequent period of upheaval, plus Vortigern, his tower, and Merlin; and the heroic figures of Ambrosius and Arthur. This time we turn to the Annales Cambriae

The Annales Cambriae (the Welsh Annals) were written in south-west Wales around 960-80 (somewhat ironically) in Latin. Who wrote them, why they were written or who they were written for are all things I’m finding very difficult to discover – I would be very grateful to anyone who can elucidate upon this. The earliest extant copy of them survives in British Library MS Harley 3859, folios 190r-193r, dating from the first half of the twelfth century and bound in the same manuscript as a surviving copy of the Historia Brittonum. There are several other copies of the Annales in later manuscripts.

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‘Text page in three narrow columns, with one line for each year (abbreviated ‘an’ for ‘annum’), most remaining blank. This is the first page of the annals, starting with the year 447. In the third column, the long entry for 516 tells of Arthur’s victory at the Battle of Badon, in which he “carried the cross of Christ upon his shoulders for three days.”’ Taken from the British Library digitised manuscripts website.

Professor Ronald Hutton highlights the importance of the Annales to the development of the early Arthur because ‘it represents the first attempt to locate Arthur in exact time.’1 The project of placing Arthur within a specific chronological set of events reveals itself in two dates within the text: 516 and 537 (or 518 and 539, depending on the text’s base-line).  On these given dates, the chronicle outlines two battles, offering the bare-bones of their geographical locations and the names of some of the battles’ participants, as follows:

516: ‘The battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders [or shield] for three days and nights and the Britons were victors.’

537: ‘The battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut perished, and there was death in England and Ireland.’

Arthur is figured in this text as Christian (outwardly at least), and presumably a warrior of some description to have fought at these two battles. We cannot tell if he is a king or battle leader from this passage, although the fact that he is mentioned by name suggests that he is an important figure. There is little else that can be effectively established from these entries, except that he won the first battle and lost his life at the second. We do not know if there is a familial relationship between him and Medraut, who is probably a prototype of the later medieval Mordred. Is he the illegitimate progeny of Arthur’s incestuous liaison as in subsequent literature? Were they on the same side, or adversaries?

The reference to Arthur bearing the cross on his shoulders or shield (the words for each are identical in Old Welsh) echoes the passage in the Historia Brittonum which states that Arthur carried the image of the Virgin Mary into battle, and it has been suggested that the compiler of the Annales Cambriae would almost certainly have read the Historia. Interestingly, It has been suggested that the entries for both battles in the Annales might have come from different sources, because the entry on Badon ‘gives the name of the battle, like the rest of the chronicle, in Latin, while that on Camlann gives it in Welsh.’ 2

In a later version of the Annales than the one found in the Harley manuscript, there is also another line pertaining to Arthurian legend:

573: The battle of Arfderydd between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddolau son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; Merlin went mad.

Here an interpolation adds another element of the Arthurian legends in the form of Merlin, but intriguingly this is a good thirty-six years after Arthur is said to have died at the Battle of Camlann.

These passages provide us with the first mention of Medraut/Mordred, placing him in battle with Arthur, but whether by his side or against him is impossible to tell. Slowly then, we are starting to see the gradual development of the Arthurian legend over time and place.

(On a side note: my favourite entry in the Annales is for the year 721, which simply states ‘A hot summer.’ In Britain?! I find this almost harder to believe than the historical Arthur.)

Full text of the Annales Cambriae available at: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/annalescambriae.asp

1 Ronald Hutton. “The early Arthur: history and myth.” The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend. Edited by Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. pp. 21-35 (p. 25).

2 Ibid., p. 26.

 

Further reading:

Bromwich, Rachel, ed. The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature. Cardiff: Cardiff University Press, 1991.

Dumville, D.N., ‘Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend’, History, (62): (1977),173-92.

Higham, N. J. King Arthur, Myth-Making and History, London: Routledge, 2002.

Hutton, Ronald. “The early Arthur: history and myth.” The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend. Edited by Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. pp. 21-35

Morris, John. British History and the Welsh Annals, Arthurian Period Sources 8. Chichester: Phillimore, 1980.

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6 Months into the PhD

At the end of 2012 I wrote a blog post explaining Why I Decided to Quit My Job and Move 200 Miles to do a PhD. Now, half a year later, I take a look back at the first six months of my PhD and consider the highs, the lows and what it’s been like to adjust to the student lifestyle again.

Firstly, I feel I should apologise to all PhD students past and present. I realise now that I came into this whole thing with swaggering over-confidence. I’d been working full-time while I did my Masters part-time, and refused to believe that a PhD could be any harder than that. But what a learning curve the past six months have been, and I don’t just mean from hitting the books! I can’t remember any time in my adult life that I’ve done so much soul-searching, or been on such an emotional rollercoaster. And this is why.

Structure

Studying for a PhD involves a tremendous change in lifestyle when compared to the 9-5 working-week structure that I’ve become used to over the past five years. Despite cursing at times the 7am Monday alarm in my editorial office jobs, that working week gave my life a sense of rhythm and routine that I didn’t appreciate at the time. Being a PhD student means being in complete control of your time – no seminars or lectures to attend (unless you choose to audit Masters classes, which I did with Latin) and very few deadlines. Even my supervisions are only once a month. This might sound like heaven, but in reality it has probably been the change that I’ve found it hardest to adapt to. Being alone with the books all week has left me at times feeling isolated and a bit adrift, lost in a sea of reading material. I’m very lucky though, because my department has a dedicated working space for PhD students – we are allocated a desk each, so I have the option to go there when I need some company and sanity (although a room full of PhD students very rarely offers the latter!).

Time Management

This brings me onto time management. When I started my PhD I said very resolutely to myself that I’d maintain my 9-5 working ethic and do a full working week, every week. I have since realised that there are serious problems with this plan. Doing a PhD demands very different skills to working in an office. It’s intellectually exhausting in a way that editing never was for me. Have you ever tried reading and writing scholarly criticism for a full 7-hour day, 5 days a week? It’s nigh on impossible. I found I was beating myself up for procrastinating (like rewatching all 7 seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 6 months) or doing life admin-type tasks in the middle of the working day and not being consistently productive from 9-5. Doing a PhD requires not only the grunt work of reading, but also flashes of inspiration – and these don’t necessarily come when they’re bidden. I tend to get them at the least opportune times, like when I’m in the shower, singing Alanis Morissette’s back catalogue, or working out at the gym. So I’ve made peace with other ways of working, and have realised that giving myself a mental break is just as vital as doing the hard work of reading, writing and thinking.

A PhD is Not Just a Thesis

I won’t lie, it’s been a bit of a shock to discover just how much PhD students are expected to cram in alongside writing an 80-100,000 word thesis. I suppose I envisaged sitting in the library for 3 years, and then Ta Dah! – a thesis.  What’s so hard about writing 80,000 words in three years, eh? But even if that was all it is, the sheer volume of material you have to read would still fill up 3 years quite well – unlike in a BA or MA, where you do your research, hand in your essay and then get a mark, with a PhD you’re supposed to be THE authority in your subject. Scholars in the outside world will (it is hoped) read your thesis. You’re supposed to know your sh*t and write authoritatively, and this requires LOTS of reading, not just on your specific subject, but all around it too. You don’t want to get egg on your face by missing out something important. Add to this supervisions; mandatory and optional training courses; writing conference papers; speaking at, attending and organising conferences; going to reading groups or organising them; Thesis Advisory Panels; taking part in the activities of the department; learning Latin, Old French, Old English and palaeography, as well as trying to write articles/chapters, teaching and marking (although I haven’t had to do the latter three yet as I’m still in my first year) and you find your time pretty well-filled.

It’s all great stuff though, and one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had since starting my PhD is the overwhelming amount of opportunities that present themselves to doctoral students – a week of AHRC-funded archives training at the National Archives at Kew in March, a two-week, all expenses paid trip to Vienna for European manuscripts training in August,  launching my very own course in Arthurian traditions at the Centre for Lifelong Learning attached to the university, and many more besides. All of these wonderful experiences wouldn’t be possible if I wasn’t here. Doing a PhD is so much more challenging and competitive than I ever thought it would be, but it is also incredibly fulfilling and rewarding.

Money

Funding. Some people have it. Some, like me, do not. I’m used to having a stable income, and the fact that I no longer have one has kept me awake at night more than any other issue at various points over the past 6 months. Wondering how I’m going to afford to live past my first year, and whether I did the right thing in leaving behind a successful career has induced panicked cold sweats. Also wondering ‘Am I actually good enough to succeed at this?’ But despite these worries, I still haven’t developed that essential ‘poor student’ approach to life. I can’t live on noodles. I can’t abide cheap wine anymore. I hate the fact that a lot of students don’t offer to buy each other drinks – it just seems so miserly. I’ve had a taste of a ‘grown-up’ world with income, and am finding it hard to go back. I’m sure this will all work itself out in time (probably when I’m so poor that I’m faced with the choice between living on noodles or starving to death). Or I’ll have to get a part-time job (not as ideal as it sounds – see above re: time management). In the meantime I’ll keep applying for funding and have everything crossed.

New Places Can Be Lonely… At First

Making new friends when you’re an adult is a funny thing. I’m an only child of a single parent, and when my mum and I used to go on holiday she understandably enjoyed her ‘me’ time with a glass of wine and a book and would always encourage me to go off and make friends. I never found this difficult – it was usually just as easy as walking up to someone of a similar age and asking them if they wanted to hang out. But when you’re an adult in a new place, it seems like social protocol gets in the way. Another newbie started his PhD within a day of me, and we bonded quickly and easily over our shared newness, but everyone else already knew each other and although they were all welcoming, it felt difficult to penetrate pre-existing friendship groups. My friends and family were all in London and Wales, and for a good few months I felt quite lonely in this new city where I had made lots of acquaintances but no real friends. I wanted to jump past the acquaintance part and get straight down to the business of being good pals. Of course friendship is something that comes with time and shared experiences, it doesn’t happen overnight. I knew that. Loneliness can amplify other issues – as it turns out a problem shared really is a problem halved, and since making a group of really lovely friends here I feel like a lot of my worries have melted away, seeming less important. We talk and laugh, and life is better.

All in All…

I’m loving it! Doing a PhD in a new city has forced me to tap strengths in myself that I haven’t had to draw on in a long time. You don’t realise how much you rely on everyday contact with loved ones until you’re apart, or how safe a routine can make you feel until you’re not in it anymore. All the inner turmoil of the last 6 months has made me stronger, more resolute, more at peace with the decisions I’ve made, and more determined to succeed and grasp every opportunity I can. I’m happy, really genuinely happy. And how could I not be? My daily occupation is researching interesting things! I cannot emphasise strongly enough how very privileged I feel to be doing what I love. You’ll often see me smiling to myself as I walk along York’s medieval streets, happy in my little medieval world.

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The Minories

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We continue our medieval tour of London by turning our feet south and heading back towards the river (and the Tower) using the street that today is called the Minories.

The Minories is a strange street name. As a child I assumed that it was something to do with Royal Mint Street which is very close by. But as it turns out, the two things are unrelated except for their shared location. If you walk down the Minories today from Aldgate, you’ll discover that it’s a fairly soulless concrete conglomeration of offices, bars and lunchtime eateries for the 9-5 workers, and that very little of medieval London remains to be seen apart from the rough positioning of the road along the old city wall.

Owing to its position on the edge of the financial district the Minories is mostly deserted at weekends, and is altogether a fairly unremarkable street. But keep walking south, following the road as it curves left and then right, passing beneath railway arches and Royal Mint Street on your left, and you’ll see not only the Tower of London ahead, but also a huge walled compound on your left that seems highly incongruous with the sights of the street you’ve just travelled along.

New Royal Mint

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Section of “Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger, 27 Goswell Terrace” showing the location of the Royal Mint.

Follow this long yellow brick wall (in true Wizard of Oz fashion!) and you arrive at a rather grand and stately building. This is (or was) the New Royal Mint. In the early nineteenth century the decision was made to remove the mint from the Tower of London following the outbreak of war with France and the resulting demands on the Tower’s space. Building work began on Little Tower Hill in 1805, and was completed in 1809. The buildings housed the new steam-powered minting machinery and residences for officers and staff, and were surrounded by a boundary (the yellow brick wall) shadowed by a narrow alleyway that officers could patrol.  The mint outgrew these buildings and was moved to Wales following decimalisation, and this structure is now used as commercial offices by Barclays.

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A contemporary engraving of the new Royal Mint from a drawing by T H Shepherd, 1830

The Abbey of the Minoresses of the Order of St Clare

You may be wondering what this has to do with the Minories. Well, the new (or should that now be old?) royal mint buildings stand on roughly the former site of the house of the Grace of the Blessed Mary, founded in 1293 by Edmund earl of Lancaster for the nuns of the order of St Clare. It was also known as the Abbey of the Minoresses, from which the word Minories has evolved. The earl’s wife Blanche, queen of Navarre, brought the establishment’s first inhabitants over from France, and the house enjoyed several royal privileges courtesy of the earl’s brother, Edward I, including ‘exemption from summonses before the justices in eyre for common pleas and pleas of the forest.’ Even pope Boniface VIII ordered that any sentences of excommunication imposed by bishops or rectors against the house would be meaningless, and declared the nuns ‘free from all jurisdiction of the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London.’ Records also indicate that Queen Isabella was a generous benefactor to the house, and Henry IV granted it several privileges. If we recall the nearby St Katherine’s by the Tower hospital and the special attention paid to it by successive queens, a picture begins to emerge of an area surrounding the Tower of London in which royal patrons took a particular interest.

But patronage of this religious house was not limited to royalty: Elizabeth de Burgh Lady Clare bequeathed £20, ornaments and furniture to the house in 1355, as well as separate pots of money to the abbess and each of the sisters, and was buried there after her death. Another affluent London widow, Lucia Visconti was also buried there. Margaret countess of Norfolk granted a gift of rent to the house in 1382. Even John of Gaunt bequeathed £100 to the sisters in 1397. Despite this attention, successive pleas were made by the religious house for financial exemptions on account of its poverty between 1316 -1353.

The house also enjoyed some well-known guests and inhabitants. After the death of her husband, the earl of Warwick, Margaret Beauchamp was granted leave by the pope in 1398 to reside in the house for as long as she wished. Eleanor Lady Scrope, daughter of Ralph de Neville, took the veil there after her husband died. Henry earl of Lancaster visited in 1349. Thomas de Woodstock, duke of Gloucester obtained various advowsons for the house, and even had his own residence right next to the convent’s church with a door made between the two buildings so he could come and go as he pleased. Interestingly the nuns did not afford the next resident of that house the same privilege after the duke’s death.

In 1515 the house was struck down with an infectious illness which was the end of twenty-seven of the sisters, and shortly after this the building burned down. Various benefactors donated enough to rebuild the house, including funds given at the instruction of Cardinal Wolsey, but it was all for nought, because in 1539 Henry VIII nabbed the abbey.

The Minories after the Middle Ages

In the sixth year of his reign Edward VI granted to Henry Grey the duke of Suffolk a place ‘formerly called “le myneryes” in the parish of St Botolph without Algate London.’ The duke seems to have shared ownership with his younger brothers, some of whom forfeited their shares in the estate after being implicated in the Wyatt rebellion. On 22nd September 1563 the Minories were eventually bought by Elizabeth I. Sometime in the sixteenth century the abbey seems to have been demolished and a number of buildings, along with a small church dedicated to the Holy Trinity, were erected on its site. The church was also known as Holy Trinity Minories (see the engraving at the top of this post) and St Clare without Aldgate. The other buildings were used as storehouses (particularly for munitions), workhouses and official residences, as well as apartments for other private residents. One account suggests that it was also ‘rather a favourite place of abode for some of the royal musicians’ and another cites the church as a well-known location for clandestine marriages in early modern London!

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From J. T. Smith’s Ancient Topography of London

In the late seventeenth-century space was starting to become an issue, with the East India Company encroaching upon the church’s land with their warehouses.  This had the rather gruesome result of affecting the grave sites, and there are records of a ‘wholesale removal of the dead’ from the burial plots in the church grounds to make room for fresh burials, and also a newly-adopted policy of burying the dead first at a depth of six feet before moving on to the next layer to bury them at a slightly lesser depth, and so on, until finally the churchyard was so full the ‘the parishioners were sorely puzzled as to what expedient could next be tried for providing additional space for burial.’

The church was rebuilt in 1706, but gradually the inhabited houses in the precinct were replaced by warehouses and railways as the Victorian age took hold. The Minories railway station was built in 1840 as a part of the London and Blackwall Railway – a 3.5-mile (5.6 km) cable railway. The site is now a Docklands Light Railway station called Tower Gateway, which opened in 1989. In 1899 the parishes of St Botolph Without Aldgate and Holy Trinity Minories were united.

The rest is history! A holy house, munitions storage, houses favoured by musicians, a church used for clandestine weddings, a royal mint, a train station and finally some offices. The Minories have seen it all. Sadly in 1940 the Holy Trinity Minories church was bombed and destroyed, leaving behind no architectural evidence that the Minories ever existed – just a street name that confused a young Medieval Bex.

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Holy Trinity Minories (west front) from Edward Murray Tomlinson, A History of the Minories (1907)

So far we’ve been hovering along the boundaries of the medieval City of London, but join me on our next stop when we enter the City proper by crossing into that fortress and unmistakable symbol of royal power – the Tower of London. If walls could speak…

Further reading:

Barron, Caroline M. and Anne F. Sutton. Medieval London widows, 1300-1500. London; Rio Grande, Ohio, U.S.A.: Hambledon Press, 1994.

British History Online. ‘The Minoresses Without Aldgate’: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=35371

St Botolph Without Aldgate with Holy Trinity Minories: https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/St_Botolph_Without_Aldgate_with_Holy_Trinity_Minories,_Middlesex#Holy_Trinity_Minories_Parish

The Royal Mint Museum: http://www.royalmintmuseum.org.uk/history/the-royal-mint-story/tower-hill/index.html

Tomlinson, Edward Murray. A History of the Minories. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1907. Online version: http://archive.org/details/historyofminorie00tomluoft

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