Thursday, 27 November 2014

Pastoral Care of Women in John Mirk's Festial

Joanna Witkowska – PhD Department of English
The few women saints that the Festial concentrates on are the Virgin Mary, her mother St. Anne, St. Margaret, Mary Magdalene, St. Catherine, St. Elizabeth and St. Winifred. Due to the details of those saints’ lives and their lifestyles, the sermons that refer to them in this collection of sermons revolve around the topics of virginity, chastity, motherhood and marriage.
In the Festial, virginity is presented as superior to marriage. Mirk writes that Christ “louid specialy alle þat woldon leven in chastite...” (Powell 2009, p. 181, l. 20-1). Thus, though both vocations are presented by Mirk as blessed by God, virginity is preferred. A good example is the calling of St. John, who, according to the sermon on the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, was engaged to Mary, but chose to follow Christ, leading her to moral ruin. God is also presented as favouring chastity because marriage is inseparably connected with procreation, and therefore sex. The Festial states that “fleschly cowpul of mon and womon ys vnclene in hymself, þerfore leue wel þat oure Lady [the Virgin Mary] (…) conseyved not of coupul of mon, but only of þe Holy Gost, so þat heo [was] clene of al maner fulþe touchyng conseyt of mon” (Powell 2009, p. 56, l. 32-5). It is the “fulþe touchyng” of men that makes the act unclean. There is no similar mention of women, perhaps because this sermon is addressed to women, and they have to be warned against sin, which may come from male influence. In sermons about male saints, where male virginity or chastity are strongly advocated and praised, women are the temptresses, in either human or demonic form, and men are warned against them.
This subsection on virginity and chastity has not yet been fully developed, as my focus so far has been on marriage and motherhood; overall, marriage and motherhood are inseparable in John Mirk's Festial, and the main division is between actual and spiritual marriage and motherhood. As the previous subsection stated, chastity is considered superior to matrimony in the Festial, and consequently spiritual marriage and motherhood are considered superior to ordinary marriage and motherhood. The most basic definition of a spiritual marriage is that it is a transcendent relationship between a nun or saintly woman and God, similar to the relationships male saints or clerics could have with the Virgin Mary. Spiritual motherhood is the relationship between, for example, a mother superior and the other nuns in a convent, or a female saint and the people she converts to Christianity, or her female followers in a convent-like environment. Almost all female saints that are mentioned in the Festial are spiritual mothers and wives. In entering a spiritual marriage, they choose God over mortal men, which is praised, because in this way they distance themselves from Eve, who chose Adam over God. Mirk mentions this in the marriage sermon, when he describes the rite of marriage (Powell 2011, p. 254, l. 68-71).
The main physical wives and mothers of the Festial are the Virgin Mary, her mother Anne, and Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. The principal conclusion I have drawn from their lives is that they seem to possess more agency than their husbands; the Virgin Mary is the prime example of this. Mary's marriage is not a typical one, and she can even be seen to have two spouses, God the Father and St. Joseph (Parsons 1996, p. 77). In the sermon on the Nativity of Christ, Joseph decides to take Mary to Bethlehem for protection during her pregnancyand goes to look for midwives when Mary asks him to. In the sermon on Epiphany, he takes care of Mary when she is resting after her labour, using a large part of the Three Kings' gold to ensure her health and comfort. Showing Joseph in this light provides an example for the husbands of the parish, highlighting how they should treat their pregnant wives.
However, the Annunciation sermon presents Joseph as a holy 'old' man, who “knew þat scheo [Mary] hadde made a vowe (…) þat scheo wolde neurer haue parte of mannus body” (Powell 2009, p. 94, l. 64-5), but who still decided to marry her, even after he learned of her pregnancy, though only because of a miraculous angelic intervention. He appears to be a useful tool in God's plan, and is supposed to take care of the Virgin, but lacks other characteristics of a real husband; he cannot consummate his marriage and he must help with Mary's birth, which makes him almost a midwife and gives him feminine characteristics. Pamela Sheingorn writes that church art of the time, which presents both Joseph and God the Father as old menreinforces the idea of fatherly protection as extended by a husband. This church art also stresses both paternal and maternal characteristics of a husband, as it includes images of God cradling souls in his lap, following the Jewish notion of the souls of the dead resting on Abraham's Bosom (Parsons 1996, p. 81). However, the difference between the Virgin Mary's earthly and heavenly spouses is that while the Father-God does not lose His masculinity when He gains the feminine features of a mother, Joseph’s depiction as a tender, caring and passive father, combined with his old age, renders him a feminine figure, less respected as a man, almost a housewife. Thus, he is mocked in some medieval writings (Parsons 1996, p. 84, 106) and refused a halo in paintings (p. 84).
My research still requires more context from other sermon collections of the time, and more development of all of its subsections, especially the section on virginity and chastity; childbearing and breastfeeding are also important. Additionally, I have yet to focus on the women sinners in the text. What I have discovered, however, suggests Mirk's awareness of his female parishioners' pastoral needs, which might have influenced the popularity of the Festial.

Atkinson, Nancy E. “John Mirk’s Holy Women.” Papers on Language and Literature. Fall 2007, Vol. 43, Issue 4, p. 339-62.
Barr, Beth Allison. The Pastoral Care of Women in Late Medieval England. Boydell Press, 2008.
Beattie, Cordelia. Medieval Single Women: The Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2008. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.
McSheffrey, Shannon. Gender and Heresy: Women and Men in Lollard Communities, 1420-1530. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
Parsons, John C. and Bonnie Wheeler, eds. Medieval Mothering. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996.
Peacock, Edward, ed. Instructions for Parish Priests. By John Myrc. Edited from Cotton MS. Claudius A. II. London: Early English Text Society, 1868.
Powell, Susan, edA Critical Edition of John Mirk's ‘Festial’, edited from British Library MS Cotton Claudius A.II: Volume 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
---. A Critical Edition of John Mirk's ‘Festial’, edited from British Library MS Cotton Claudius A.II: Volume 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Iconography of Queenly Identity: The Balthilde Ring Bezel and the Depiction of Coitus

Stephenie McGucken - PhD History of Art 
The Balthild ring bezel is a beguiling small (12mm in diameter) gold bezel, found in Norfolk by a metal detector in 1999, dating from the seventh century. Scholars agree that the bezel belonged to Balthlid, Queen of Neustria in the mid-seventh century.
Figures 1 & 2. The Balthild Ring Bezel, Obverse & Reverse. Images: Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service.

Balthild was born in Anglo-Saxon England around 626 and was sold into slavery in Neustria after she was captured during a raid. She was purchased by Erchinoald, the mayor of the palace, who later tried to seduce her. She refused, and Erchinoald eventually gave her to Clovis II in marriage. When Clovis II died in 655, Balthild became regent for her eldest son, Chlothar III. As regent, she worked to correct ecclesiastical abuses and encouraged bishops and abbots to follow a monastic rule, all while expanding her influence with both the aristocracy and the church. In 664, Balthild retired to Chelles at the so-called request of the Frankish aristocracy, and was there until she died in 680.
The obverse of the bezel shows a frontal portrait. The lower half of the figure has been interpreted as both stylised drapery and as a body executed on a smaller scale. It is most likely the top of a garment, as the composition makes little sense as a body (with a fifth appendage).
Anna Gannon has identified the portrait as Christ, and Leslie Webster has agreed (pers. comm. July 2014). The cross shaft merges with the figure’s nose, and could be a way of identifying the figure as Christ. However, it can also be seen as the queen herself. The connection between and conflation of Christ and the queen is an intentional one: the ring stylises Balthild as Christ’s chosen queen, whose duty to her earthly King, Clovis, are second only to her duties to the heavenly king.
Figure 3. Drawing of the Balthild Ring Bezel. Image: Courtesy of the Norwich Museums Service.

The reverse image shows two figures facing each other; they stand under the sign of a cross. Both figures’ eyes are wide and their mouths are open, with their heads tilted back. The Norwich Castle Museum presents the reverse as a ‘stylised image of a man and woman making love.’ Webster and Gannon argue for a different reading: rather than a couple making love, they see it as a couple holding hands in the tradition of Byzantine betrothal rings. While the ring does draw on this tradition, it does not show them holding hands. Rather, the “hands” between the lower part of the figures represents outer walls of the labia extended to take in the penis.
Figure 4. Byzantine Betrothal Ring. Image: Christie’s.

The cross on the reverse serves as a substitute for Christ on the Byzantine ring. It represents divine approval of the marriage, and ultimately the rule – an idea that was gaining momentum in this period.
Another object type that should be considered is the Swedish and Danish guldgubbers, small gold-foil figures dating between 500 and 800 AD (Fouracre 2004). In a particular type, a couple is shown clearly embracing and kissing. While not overtly sexual in nature, this type of guldgubbers has been shown to reference marriage rites (Ratke 2006). As queen and wife, Balthild’s marriage would have implied a sexual union with the king to produce his heirs, arguably the queen’s most important role. The physical embraces represented social contract and partnership in similar, yet subtly different ways.
Figure 5. Guldgubber. Image: Sharon Ratke.

For Anglo-Saxon comparanda we have to look slightly forward to the mid-tenth century. In the representation of the story of Lot in the Old English Hexateuch, we are given two illustrations of Lot having sex with his daughters who have gotten him drunk in order to try to conceive so that mankind does not die out.

Figure 6. Old English Hexateuch. British Library Claudius B IV, fol. 33v. Image: British Library.

This image, unlike the ring, serves a narrative purpose, rather than a symbolic one. Bede, in his commentary on Genesis, explains this symbolism. He excuses Lot’s daughters because they did not commit incest out of lust, but as a way to ensure the human race’s survival. Bede goes on to say ‘the daughters of the blessed Lot represent the carnal thoughts of even the noblest men’ and ultimately ‘the fact that we are saved from dangers is certainly owing to God’s illuminating grace.’
In terms of the Balthild bezel, such a scene might introduce a negative light to the sexual reading, but that negativity is negated by the sign of the cross above the couple. Rather than committing a sin, they are upholding their duty to their kingdom and, ultimately, Christ.
In her book Visual and Other Pleasures, Laura Mulvey argues that the female is defined by the male’s view of her, and that she is consistently ‘tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning.’ Mulvey’s assertion that the ruling ideology that ‘the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification’ is demonstrated and overturned in the bezel.
I believe that the bezel, and its now-lost ring, was given to Balthild by Clovis around the time of their official betrothal. At the moment of giving, it presented a meaning established by the king. However, upon Balthild’s acceptance of the ring and her place, the power of the gaze is inverted. No longer is the ring a sexual image of the king and queen given to the queen to remind her of her duties. The ring upon giving is transformed, as it shifts from the possession of the male gaze to the female gaze, becoming a female conception of sex and queenly responsibility (to bear the king’s heirs, an idea implied by the sex). The Balthild bezel, then, represents an Early Medieval image of power through sexuality.

Selected Bibliography

‘Balthild, Queen of Neustria.’ In: Jo Ann McNamara, John Halbog, and Whatley, eds.
Sainted Women of the Dark Ages, pp264-178. London: Duke UP, 1992.

Capelle, T. “Siegelring.” Reallexikon Der Germanischen Altertumskunde. Berlin:
Walter de Gruyter, 2005.

Colgrave, Bertram, and Roger Mynors, eds. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the
English People. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Fouracre, Paul. “Balthild’s Ring: A Find Against the Odds or A Case of Mistaken
Identity.” Norwich Castle, January 22, 2004.

Geake, Helen. Anglo-Saxon Swivelling Seal Matrix from Postwick, Norfolk.
Supporting Information for the National Art Collections Fund Application, n.d.
Hadjadj, Reine. Bagues Mérovingiennes: Gaule Du Nord. Paris: Éditions Les
Chevau-légers, 2007.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others. London:
Routledge, 2005.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Visual and Other
Pleasures, 14–27. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1989.

Nelson, Janet. “Queens as Jezebels: The Careers of Brunhild and Balthild in
Merovingian History.” In Medieval Women: Essays Dedicated and Presented to
Professor Rosalind M. T. Hill, 31–77. London: Blackwell, 1978.

Ochota, Mary-Ann. “Baldehildis Seal.” In Britain’s Secret Treasures, 2013.
Ratke, Sharon, and Rudolf Simek. “Guldgubber: Relics of Pre-Christian Law
Rituals?” In Old Norse Religion in Long Term Perspective: Origins, Changes, and
Interactions, edited by Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere,
259–64. Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2006.

Webster, Leslie. Gold Swivelling Ring Bezel from Postwick, Norfolk. Treasure Report,

Wemple, Susan Fonay. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister 500 to
900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

‘Signet Ring.’

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

'Many have loved treachery, but none the traitor': Identity and Allegiance in Barbour's Bruce and Hary's Wallace

Callum Watson - PhD History

Treachery was one of the most serious social taboos in the kingdoms of north-western Europe in the medieval period. Consequently, the harshest punishments were reserved for traitors and oath breakers. For Scottish writers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, this problem grew all the more acute due to the nature of the conflict between the kingdom and its southern neighbour. As is often observed, Scotland had far fewer resources to draw upon than England, which meant that not only could Scotland not afford to lose assets to England, but also that serving English interests could offer more lucrative rewards than remaining loyal to the King of Scots. For instance, when Archibald ‘the Grim’ secured the earldom of Douglas in 1389, disaffected members of his predecessor’s affinity offered their services and local expertise to Richard II. Barely ten years later, George Dunbar, earl of March, who had been instrumental in the prosecution of the war in the 1380s, was incensed by the increasing political closeness of the duke of Rothesay and Dunbar’s local rival the earl of Douglas. He not only defected, but also led cross-border raids against his former adherents on behalf of Henry IV. The responses of late medieval Scottish writers to the problem of shifting aristocratic allegiance can thus be quite illuminating, as in the case of John Barbour – whose long narrative poem The Bruce, recounting the life and career of King Robert I and his chief lieutenants, was composed in the mid-1370s (Barbour 1997) – and Blind Hary – who borrowed heavily from Barbour when producing a poetic biography of William Wallace around a century after Barbour was writing (Blind Hary 1968-69).

Execution by hanging, drawing and quartering, a punishment commonly reserved for traitors (Bibliotheque Nationale MS Fr. 2643, folio 197v)

For Barbour, loyalty was the most important virtue an individual could possess:

“With a vertu and leawté
A man may yeit sufficyand be,
And but leawté may nane haiff price
Quether he be wycht or he be wys,”
J. Barbour, The Bruce, Bk. 1, ll. 367-370

In The Bruce, villainous characters are frequently portrayed as traitors, and often the greatest disasters that the Scots suffer are the result of treachery. However, switching sides does not necessarily qualify as treasonous behaviour for Barbour, and this has to do with the concept of reciprocal lordship. Ideally speaking, a vassal was expected to subordinate his own ambitions in favour of those of his lord, and be willing to put himself through danger and hardship to accomplish his lord’s aims. In return, a lord was expected to generously reward his followers for their efforts with the fruits of their combined labour. However, if a lord failed to live up to his responsibilities in this regard, a vassal had cause to repudiate a previously sworn oath and seek a lord who would behave in a more proper manner. The key example of this principle at work in The Bruce is Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray. Moray is captured by the English at the Battle of Methven and is ‘made English’. When he is eventually recaptured by Sir James Douglas, he is brought before King Robert and rebukes the king for employing guerrilla tactics against the English, instead of meeting them in open battle. This challenge to Bruce’s preferred tactics – the promotion of which is another major theme of The Bruce – indicates Moray’s dissatisfaction with the king. While he is ultimately proven to be mistaken, this serves to justify Moray’s apparent willingness to switch sides without tarnishing his reputation for loyalty. In practical terms, the appeal of this principle is plain to see. If a powerful individual grew frustrated with a lack of patronage or apparent mistreatment by a social superior, they might legitimately seek redress in the service of another. Furthermore, to do so did not necessarily mean the complete abrogation of the previous arrangement and could serve as a tool to force a renegotiation of the former relationship to the benefit of the offended party. Certainly this principle could be used to defend the actions of the likes of Malcolm Drummond in 1389 or George Dunbar in 1400.

19th-century representation of some of the key characters from Barbour’s Bruce and Hary’s Wallace (

Hary’s Wallace is notable for, among other things, its vehemently anti-English sentiment. This has been used in support of the notion that The Wallace was written as a piece of anti-English propaganda in response to James III’s overtures for peace with England, possibly in support of the duke of Albany’s attempts to use this anti-English feeling to usurp his brother’s power. However, an alternative interpretation of the poem sees The Wallace as a more conservative work, which in fact encourages its readers to hold to the traditional values for which the Scottish monarchy is supposed to stand in times of crisis. For most of the poem, Bruce is in the service of the English king and is effectively an enemy of the kingdom he should rightfully rule. When Wallace and Bruce finally meet – standing on opposite sides of the River Carron after the Battle of Falkirk – Bruce asks Wallace why he resists the English and Wallace responds that he is only fulfilling the role that Bruce himself should take. This exchange is interesting because it is the most explicit summation of Wallace’s reasoning for his actions, and it seems that this is the attitude that Hary wishes to encourage in his audience. In times of uncertainty, when the king is not fulfilling the responsibilities associated with his role, his subjects should uphold the values for which the king should stand until the king (or his legitimate heir) accepts his proper responsibilities.

Resistance to royal authority in action!

Both writers accept, and even anticipate, a degree of resistance to royal authority, but ultimately they advocate ideas designed to instil greater stability in the Scottish political community. For Barbour, loyalty was paramount, but the relationship between powerful individuals had to be reciprocal in order for them to remain stable. For Hary, the ‘proper’ response to ineffectual kingship was loyalty to the institution of Scottish kingship – if not necessarily to the king himself – particularly in times of crisis and uncertainty.

General bibliography:

J. Barbour, The Bruce, (A.A.M. Duncan ed. & trans.), (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1997)

Blind Hary, The Wallace, (M.P. McDiarmid ed.), (Edinburgh: Scottish Text Society, 1968-69), 2 volumes

S. Boardman, The Early Stewart Kings: Robert II and Robert III 1371-1406, (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1996)

R. J. Goldstein, The Matter of Scotland: Historical Narrative in Medieval Scotland (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993)