Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Simon A. Gilson, Dante and Renaissance Florence (CUP, 2005)

Contained in the Proemio to Cristoforo Landino’s Comento on the Divine Comedy is a chapter that comprises the full text of one of Marsilio Ficino’s Latin letters and in which he presents Dante’s coronation with laurel. The scene is surely one suggested by Dante himself when he prophesies his return to the Baptistry to be crowned as poet laureate: ‘con altro vello | ritornerò poeta, e in sul fonte | del mio battesmo prendero ‘l capello’, Par. 25. 7-9. This coronation is brought about through the agency of the poet, vates Landino himself, and the text reads:
‘recently your [sc. Dante’s] father Apollo, made pitiful from my long weeping and your eternal exile, sent Mercury to enter the devout mind of the divine poet Cristoforo Landino. Having assumed Landino’s appearance, he used his wand to awake your sleeping soul, his wings to take you inside the walls of Florence, and finally he crowned your temples with Apollo’s laurel’, ‘nuper tuus pater Apollo, et longum flectum meum, et diuturnum tuum exilium miseratus, mandavit Mercurio, ut pie Christophori Landini divini vatis menti prorsus illaberetur; Landineosque vultus indutus, alma primum virga dormientem et suscitaret, deinde alarum remigio te sublatum menibus Florentinis inferret; denique Phebea tibi lauro tempora redimeret’ (Comento, Procaccioli ed., I, 268, 6-11; trans. Gilson, p. 191). I cite this passage from Simon Gilson’s new book on the Renaissance rezeption of Dante because it is a rather densely-textured attempt to reintegrate Dante as auctor in Florence’s cultural history. Landino as commentator becomes an auctor, and is divinely inspired just like Dante. The Comento is trading in the authority of Virgil’s Aeneid with Mercury’s remigio alarum (cf. ‘de’ remi facemmo ali al folle volo’, Inf. 26. 125), but he is also doing so through the voice of Marsilio Ficino, another of Florence’s vates. The commentary impulse is nicely revealed here, where the commentator seeks to establish his own auctoritas through the excerpted voices of other auctoritates, ventriloquising, imitating and emulating. And now the commentator himself must be up to the job of praising the great poet and needs inspiration, not just ingegno. The Commentary becomes another work of poesia in a way, written by a Poeta.

The illustration, which also forms the dustjacket to Gilson’s book, shows Dante crowned with laurel outside the city walls of Florence, with the city in the background beside the mountain of Purgatory. (Does that mean that Florence is Hell?) It’s by Domenico di Michelino and is a tempera on panel in the Duomo in Florence, and dates from 1465 (232.5 x 292 cm). Dante holds a book, his Comedía, from which rays of light shine forth. It’s almost a holy book. So Dante stands with one of Florence’s great literary treasures, the Comedy in front of Brunelleschi’s Duomo, one of Florence’s great architectural treasures. The Landino/Ficino quotation above shows how important it is to repatriate Dante (and there’s much discussion in the Renaissance about bringing Dante’s bones back to the city) by having him re-enter the city, a kind of obsessive complex over his forced exile caused by the city itself.

Gilson’s book is in three parts. The first, entitled ‘Competing cults: the legacy of the Trecento and the impact of humanism, 1350-1430’, pp. 21-93, treats mainly of Boccaccio and Petrarch and the dichotomy of Dante reception between these two poets. Boccaccio is the great admirer, copier, compiler of Dante’s work, and his own writings are hugely influenced by Dante. Petrarch is notoriously cool towards Dante and is often characterized as unimpressed with Dante’s so-called ‘humanist’ credentials. The rest of the book, then, is broadly about how this dichotomy of denigrating Dante or glorifying him runs throughout the Renaissance and its reception of the Poeta. The second part, entitled ‘New directions and the rise of the vernacular, 1430-1481 (pp. 97-160), looks at Dante as a civic and linguistic model, and at critical judgments of Dante’s poem. The third part is about Cristoforo Landino’s Comento sopra la Comedia, which dates from 1481. Much material, all of it fascinating, it certainly is required reading for any bibliography on ‘The Afterlife of Dante’. My only criticism is that such is the spread of material there was not more time to work out the implications of the positions humanists were taking in respect of Dante. Often Gilson identifies loci of Dante resonances in humanist texts but does not proceed to ask why those localized occurrances might be interesting or significant. It’s not a serious criticism really because now the material has been put together. But I was often left wanting more. It is extremely well documented with a wonderful bibliography. Cambridge University Press’s usual high stardards of finishing the book have left little to correct for the paperback.

Tuesday, 26 December 2006

Lesley Grant-Adamson, Guilty Knowledge (Faber, 1986)

Trinity Rare Books is a wonderful second-hand and antique bookshop in Carrick-on-Shannon (that's in Co. Letirim, in the northwest of Ireland, for my international readers) and I paid a visit on Saturday to wish Nick and Joanna festive greetings. They have good stock in the shop, especially Irish literature and local material. There are some nice early McGaherns and you often see lovely Kavanaghs and Yeats there. There's even an early Ulysses, though I don't think that's for sale. I picked up a couple of nice things, including Arsenio Frugoni, Incontri nel Medioevo (Bologna: il Mulino, 1979), and a copy of Carlo Levi’s Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, as well as the book I review below. The Frugoni is a collection of previously published articles, some of which are very famous, such as his very interesting work on circumstances surrounding Boniface VIII's jubilee year of 1300 (the year in which Dante sets the Commedia). His daughter Chiara is a famous medieval historian too. Mad Christmas dinners in that house, I should think. I once went in to Trinity Books after they'd bought a load of wonderful Italian stuff and picked up copies of Peter Armour, The Door of Purgatory: A Study of Multiple Symbolism in Dante's Purgatorio (Oxford: OUP, 1983), and his Dante's Griffin and the History of the World, as well as John Took, "L'etterno piacer": Aesthetic Ideas in Dante, John Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion and Rachel Jacoff (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Except for the last all hardbacks, and all in great shape. I actually thought I was having a mirage to see all that stuff in one place in what is the least densely populated part of Western Europe. I may have started to hyperventilate or at least make some form of alarming moaning noises. You just never know where or when a book is going to turn up. Of course it's the stuff I didn't buy then that still sticks in my mind, like Patrick Boyde's Dante Phylomythes, to be republished imminently in paperback, or Anthony Cassell's Dante's Fearful Art of Justice, or the folly purchase which would have been three volumes of Edward Moore's Studies in Dante (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896). But I'm getting over it, and was very grown-up about the whole thing. I've nearly forgotten about them. Three years later.

Lesley Grant-Adamson's third novel is called Guilty Knowledge and was published in 1986 by Faber. The novel's heroine, Rain Morgan, a gossip columnist with the Daily Post, hatches a plan to get a junkit to the Cote d'Azur for a few days in the depths of winter. She will interview Sabine Jourdain, the mistress of a famous artist, who rumour has it wants to talk. Off she goes with her on-off lover, a cartoonist named Oliver, and before you know it they are up to their necks in it. It seems that Rain and her questions have been the catalyst in a whole series of murderous events that leads even to her own safety being threatened. At the heart of the mystery seems to be the reclusive and brilliant artist Marius Durance and the group of glamourous people around him. There are the high-powered dealers, Benjamin and Merlyn Joseph, and Philippe Maurin, the charming gallery owner. And then the remains of Durance's coterie of beautiful women, Sabine herself, and Barbara Coleman. It seems the minute that Rain starts asking questions, both Sabine and Barbara are being urged not to speak, by the Josephs and by Maurin, but what could they have to say that threatens everyone?

Grant-Adamson's novels often have a female detective, or in this case just a nosey journalist who wants to get to the bottom of a murder (or two), and her strength is in the way she draws women who are both frightened of the situations they find themselves in, and determined to understand those situations. In this story Rain and Oliver are constantly about to catch a flight back to England but Rain wants to talk to one last person to put another piece of the puzzle in place. She is always about to say enough, this story isn't worth what's happening, but at the same time she is constantly making connections that draw her deeper and deeper, until eventually she gets in a little too deep. The book is well structured and interesting, though the title, Guilty Knowledge, does not quite work for the story and is, perhaps, a little banal. It's a pity because it is not written that way. It gets a little complicated at the end as the different threads are being brought together, but the killer and their motives (keeping it gender neutral there for you) have a powerful simplicity, like all the best murder stories. And the whole book has been preparing you for that simplicity.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

Two Exhibitions: A Perspective

Yesterday I went to London to see the Renaissance exhibition at the V&A, and the Velázquez exhibition at the National Gallery. A quick trip to Unsworth's opposite the British Library was worth it in that I picked up a copy of Burrow and Doyle's Thomas Hoccleve: Facsimile of the Autograph Verse Manuscripts, EETS S.S. 19 (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society, 2002) for the princely sum of £34.99, a very good find. The facsimile reproduces three autograph manuscripts of Thomas Hoccleve, containing all his verse except the Regiment of Princes. The manuscripts are very well known, Huntington Library, San Marino, MS HM 111 & 744, and Durham, University Library, MS Cosin V. III. 9. They were all produced between 1422 and 1426 (when Hoccleve died), and are important not just as witnesses of Hoccleve's verse, but also because they are the earliest examples of an English poet creating a 'Book' of his own verse, a 'Collected Works'. As witnesses to a poet's self-presentation, they are extremely interesting. So after blowing money on that I couldn't afford the catalogues for either exhibition.

The V&A exhibition is entitled At Home in Renaissance Italy, and it runs until Janurary 7th, 2007. It is a collection of objets, of household stuff, both high class and low class, all thematically displayed in sections entitled Sala, Cucina, Camera, and Scrittoio. They display works from the Tuscan region, and the Veneto, so it gives you a chance to compare and contrast. The exhibits range in date from about 1400 to about 1600. The two things I was really looking forward to in this exhibition somewhat disappointed me. I wanted to see what they did with marriage dowry chests, known as cassoni, and how they presented marriage gifts etc. There was curiously little on the subject. They did have some gifts, hankerchiefs, a couple of rings, etc, and they were interesting. But there was only one cassone and it was really quite basic. Having read Cristelle L. Baskins, Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy, Cambridge Studies in New Art History and Criticism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), as well as Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Women, Famil y, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane, (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), esp. the marvellous chapter 'The Griselda Complex' on the very elaborate and fascinating dynamics of exchange and dowries in Renaissance Florence, I was wanting more from the exhibition. The other disappointment was the section entitled Scrittoio. Now I love this kind of thing. Nothing is more satisfying that getting into someone's study and having a root around. And apart from the marvellous Antonella da Messina St Jerome in His Study and the Labours of the Month by Luca della Robbia, which was originally in the de' Medici study, and a couple of impossibly delicate cameos, it was a little...lacking in a narrative. But it may well have been the nature of the material, lots of bits and bobs, and hard to hang a story around it.

The National Gallery's exhibition is simply entitled Velázquez (and runs until 21 January). Nothing else. Not 'The Early Years', 'The Late Years', 'The Lost Years', just 'Velázquez'. So presumably they are trying to give us a snapshot of the artist's output and his greatness. They have set themselves a tough job with so few works, only 46 in all, and many of the superstar paintings are not represented. What is there is certainly of a high quality, and it was a bit of a thrill to see the two 'Kitchen Scene' paintings, dating from about 1618, one of which has a small window in the background through which we can see the Supper at Emmaus. This painting is in the National Gallery Dublin, and I'm very fond of it. The other, at the Art Institute Chicago, lacks the background scene. There is a progression from the early, more domestic settings done when the artist lived in Seville to the later Court paintings, with huge monumental portraits, and mythographical scenes. To be honest it's the early stuff that really moves me, like 'An Old Woman Cooking Eggs' (1618), or 'The Water-Seller of Seville' (1618-1622). And of all the court paintings the most beautiful, in my opinion, is the 'Portrait of a Young Man' (1625-9, Cat. 21/X5573, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). There's something so intimate and quiet about it, it's not flashy or for an obviously powerful client. His face is clear and frank, someone who knows a little too much of court-life but thinks he knows when his time will come, either to seize his opportunity or to get out altogether. Light streams down on his face from a full and high source. The rest of the painting has been executed with quick brushstrokes, and much of the canvas has been left unfinished, except for the extraordinary face. There's something ever so slightly pouting about the mouth, perhaps a kind of self-regard one might associate with such a powerful court. But this is off-set against the rather tender shadows around the nose and chin, and the beautifully steady eyes. It was worth going to the exhibition for this portrait alone.

Both exhibitions are well worth seeing, but neither will change your life.

Monday, 20 November 2006

Walled Gardens

I recently heard a discussion about Wi-Fi on the radio and they used the expression 'walled garden'. It is a marketing and e-commerce term used to describe the way a company providing a service, such as Wi-Fi, will only allow you to access and purchase products and services provided by them. It essentially creates a monopoly, which can be for profit, as in the case of company, or for protection, as in the case of schools that have a closed network environment. The term's creator is thought to be John Malone (former owner of Tele-Communications Inc., bought by AT&T), but I can't resist citing the Wikipedia entry on this term, which under History says:

"The first use of the term "walled garden" to describe a protected collection of information may date to Alcuin of York, the English scholar who established Charlemagne's famous library. In 796, he sent some of his pupils back to his old school at York to retrieve a number of rare manuscripts: "I say this that you may agree to send some of our boys to get everything we need from there and bring the flowers of Britain back to France that as well as the walled garden in York there may be off-shoots of paradise bearing fruit in Tours."

Alcuin is probably punning on the etymology of 'Paradise', which is from a Persian word for enclosed garden. The background of such an image is undoubtedly the Canticum canticorum, and the image of the hortus conclusus (for example at Ct 4. 12; translating ּּגַּן נָעוּל). It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word gan (garden) shares the same root as defend (ganan), whereas the Indo-European root of the word, gher, means to grasp or enclose (see Blomley, 'The Borrowed View: Privacy, Property, and the Entanglements of Property', Law and Social Inquiry, 30 [2005], 623). So the 'walled garden' has a complex set of associations between protecting/defending and enclosing or cutting off.

Look, too, at the illustration, which is from Vienna, Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, MS 2617, f. 53r, a copy of the French translation of Boccaccio's Teseida. This manuscript contains an extraordinary set of illuminations by Barthélemy van Eyck commissioned by King René of Anjou. In the above illumination you see Emilia sitting in her enclosed garden, surrounded by all manner of flowers, as the two Theban prisoners look out at her from their cell. There is even an article that identifies all of the flowers in this garden and tries to tell which month of the year it is: Marie-Thérèse Goussett, 'Le jardin d'Émilie', Revue de la Bibliothèque Nationale, 22 (1986), 7-24. Emily is being protected in her garden, cut off from male company, essentially a kind of prisoner. The two men, looking out from their window, are prisoners too, but have the 'freedom' to look, and both fall in love with her at this moment. Notice how she does not engage with them, she has her back to them and is engrossed in making a garland of flowers. In the Italian text she is a bit of a flirt with the boys and she knows that they are looking at her.

And think then of the 'walled garden' in Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, and how he is playing with the genre of the sacred paradisal garden full of wonderful birds and flowers, but also containing a structure, in which we find Venus, and those who have been destroyed by love. It's a kind of nightmarish claustrophobic hot-house within the walled garden. And like surfing the net within a 'walled garden' environment, Chaucer is trying to make sense of love with what he is allowed access to within the garden.

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Peter S. Hawkins, Dante: A Brief History, Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006)

Eagerly anticipated, Peter Hawkins' new Dante: A Brief History is a wonderful read. There are five chapters in all, 'Dante's Life and Works', 'Dante's Journey to God', 'Dante's Beatrice', 'Dante's Religion', and finally 'Dante's Afterlife'. Since Hawkins' principal interests in Dante have been from a theological perspective, teaching as he did for some time at the Yale Divinity School, and now directing the Luce Program in Scripture and the Literary Arts at Boston University, the book is very much a meditation as much as it is 'A Brief History'. It is not aimed at a Dante specialist, but rather at a reader interested in some of the 'big ideas' around Dante. So Hawkins returns again and again to the idea of Beatrice, what she means, how she is to be interpreted. Indeed his chapter 'Dante' Beatrice' is a powerful and very challenging reading of this difficult figure. And Hawkins is not content with the standard view of the Commedia, and it is this that is so refreshing about the book. In the prologue he recounts how he returned to his undergraduate copy of the Commedia, to the great crowning scene in Purg 27, only to find his youthful marginal comment: 'Yawn'. His reading was taken up with greater enthusiasm in graduate school and subsequently and Hawkins wonders how the Commedia turned from a Yawn to a Passion. Unembarrassed questioning is the hallmark of the book.

The chapter on 'Dante's Religion' is one of the most succinct and interesting treatments of the subject I've read in a long time. One might think that such a subject would be necessarily full of platitudes and truisms but much that is fresh is brought to his analysis of the 'personal faith story' in the Commedia as well as some wonderful pages on the many smiles of the poem (pp. 122-130, which readers will recognize as a sythesized treatment drawn from his recent PMLA article).

The final chapter is a gorgeous discussion of 'Dante's Afterlife', mainly concentrating on visual workings and reworkings of the poem. Nothing is out of bounds, nor too low-brow for discussion. It's all in the mix, and it's a great mix. We get Robert Mankoff's cartoons for the New Yorker discussed with Edward Frascino's, or the Dante's Inferno Hell Test you can do online, or William Blake beside the wonderful Botticelli's drawings. Especially interesting is the lengthy discussion of Sandow Birk, whose 'Puppet Movie' I hope to see soon, and Birk and Marcus Sanders' three volume 'translation' into California youth-speak. There is also much on Gary Panter's reworking of the story, especially his Jimbo in Purgatory. I really didn't know the work of these post-modern interpreters of Dante and I'm very glad to have done so. The chapter made me rethink some old divisions and boundaries between so-called high and low culture. For example, think of Dante's own re-writings of the Aeneid at the beginning of the Commedia, how it is at once a rewriting and a surpassing.

He made me really think again about the importance of parody, humour, and anachronism in 'reading' and 're-reading' texts. Look at the rather wonderful Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog, for instance and think about how consonant it is with Chaucerian textual strategies, and the extremely interesting dynamic with the 'guest bloggers' Katherine Swynford and Sir John Mandeville. Think about the way that the paratexte is nothing if not a polyphony of voices around the text, an interaction, a reading, a misreading, and think about the way many medieval commentaries and glosses are just like medieval blogs. The blog page sends you to links of other blogs, but also to other more general websites. And the links themselves are clever, like the link to the 'New Me Society'. Quotes, pointing hands, notae, page numbers, all occur in the margins, all direct your attention to somewhere else, all invite you to reread, to rethink.

It's fair to say that Dante: A Brief History got me thinking and rethinking. It's a significant contribution to recent criticism and will be enjoyed widely. Read it.

Friday, 10 November 2006

Archaeology Ireland 20/3 (2006), Special Supplement on The Faddan More Psalter

It is hard to imagine a more important manuscript discovery in my lifetime than that which occurred in July of this year.

Reports have mainly been restricted to the national and international press, necessarily undetailed and somewhat sensationalist. Archaeology Ireland 20/3 (2006) have now published a special supplement (ISBN 0953442640) entitled The Faddan More Psalter, providing more detail and superb photographs. There are six pieces in the supplement: Patrick F. Wallace, director of the National Museum of Ireland, has a short piece entitled 'A Stroke of Extreme Good Fortune'; Eamonn P. Kelly, Keeper of Irish Antiquities, National Museum of Ireland, has two pieces, the first called 'The Manuscript Discovered', including a fairly detailed description of exactly what is there, and the second 'Other Finds from the Faddan More bog'; Raghnall Ó Floinn, Head of Collections, National Museum of Ireland, has a piece entitled 'Identification', about how he copped that the only fragment of legible text, in ualle lacrimarum, came from Ps. 83. 7, and how that is the Gallican number 83, not the Hebrew 83, but the Hebrew 84, and no it was not about the destruction of Israel, and no it was not a sign of the novisssimi, which seemed to be what some wanted to believe; a learned piece by Bernard Meehan, Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College Library, helps to contextualize the importance of this discovery (more anon); and finally, Rolly Read, Head of Conservation, National Museum of Ireland, has a piece on the enormous conservation challenges presented by the codex.

Meehan's piece summarizes what is important about this MS. Its date is early, c.800, making such a discovery truly exceptional. Its original leather cover or wrap has been preserved, and only two other comparable manuscripts have covers, the Cadmug manuscript, and the Book of Armagh. The manuscript was produced on a lavish scale, not much smaller than the Book of Kells or the Macregol Gospels. A peek at the top corner of the first page (which is still too fragile to open yet) reveals a highly decorated page. It seems to be the letters TUS, and the higher parts of the other letters are just visible. It could be BEATUS, which might well be BEATUS UIR, the opening lines of the first Psalm. The image of a bird is visible, as well as other decorative features such as inked lozenges and a yellow and red positive-negative cross design. From the folio estimations made by Kelly it appears to have 52 or perhaps 54 leaves (104-8 pages, that is), and at ten words to a line, and 29-30 to a page, the Faddan More Psalter had plenty of vellum for the complete text of the Psalms as well as a couple of other pages of decoration. Meehan says that he only ever expected that we would widen our codicological knowledge of the period with a leaf or two turning up in the binding of a book somewhere, but never in his wildest dreams could a complete manuscript be discovered. Meehan also poses a number of questions that have you hopping off your chair with excitement: Will a fuller examination of script and decoration confirm or alter the initial supposition about the date of the manuscript? To what extent is the manuscript decorated? Does the manuscript contain any text other than the Psalms? Does a colophon name the scribe, his monastery or the date he was at work? Was there more than one scribe? Was the text glossed? What kind of pigments were used? Is the leather cover contemporary with the manuscript, is it attached, and is it decorated?

It is very fragile, and much of it will probably never be recovered, but what is left might well change the way we think about the ninth-century Irish and their Psalters.

Sunday, 5 November 2006

Italian Culture, edd. Ó Cuilleanáin, Salvadori & Scattergood (Four Courts Press, 2006)

Languages appear to be in decline here in the UK. Annual surveys show that large numbers of students have stopped studying foreign languages at schools. Such declines will have a sharp effect on university teaching and in turn how departments rise to the challenge of teaching such students. Whether they will choose to learn a language at university is quite another hurdle.

When the professor of Italian Studies at Trinity College, Dublin (my alma mater) retired, there was a celebratory study day to mark her many years of service to the department. The papers given comprise the articles in this book. The title contains no reference to it being a Festschrift, and Professor Salvadori is in fact one of the volume's editors, so it should be considered a testament to the intellectual vibrancy of the department and to its broad range of interests, as much as it should be considered an homage to its former head of department. A highlight is Peter Armour's contribution on poet-friends in Dante's Florence, a paper he had to deliver sitting down he was so ill. His death, shortly thereafter, was a sad sad loss to Dante studies.

The opening article, written by Corinna Salvadori, is a moving and fascinating account of the history of Italian in the College. Provost John Hely-Hutchinson thought it would be 'highly useful to have Professors of modern languages established in the College', and before long two professorships, one of Italian and Spanish, and one of French and German, were established (in 1776). It was not met with universal approval. One Senior Fellow described the decision as 'pernicious', and wondered would the next step be a Professorship of Horsemanship. Languages, like horsemanship, were 'polite accomplishments' and 'teachers of modern languages, fencing, and dancing masters, and horse-riders, are not always the most eligible companions for youth' (p. 13). Part II of Salvadori's article then discusses the subject in College from the 1960s onwards. It is the story of dedicated teaching staff faced with neglect and disinterest. It is stunning to read the account of Provost Watts coming in to Salvadori's office to explain calmly that the department would remain open simply because it was the cheapest department in the College to run and thus its closure would make no significant saving. The department was for years run by just Corinna Salvadori and Clotilde Soave Bowe, both of whom taught a breadth and load that would not be considered possible now. External examiners would consistently praise the high quality of the degree and with incredulity learn it had all been done by just two people. In the 1980s the department expanded slowly but steadily offering ever stronger and broader preparations for its students. Medieval studies has certainly been the department's forte with two of its staff, Salvadori and Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, being accomplished critics of the work of Dante and Boccaccio respectively. And it is Dante who looms so large at the absolute heart of the department, the man who made it all worthwhile.

He is the good man behind the great woman in this story.

I beg indulgence for a moment while I tell one anecdote. I was coming to the end of my first year in Italian and was feeling martyred at the huge amount of work we had to do. I'd taken Italian ab initio and felt I was utterly suffocating under verbs and paradigms and god knows what. An evening of poetry had been arranged in the department and Seamus Heaney was invited. Having extricated myself from some piece of work, I went along. Heaney read his translation of the Ugolino episode, in his Fieldwork (1979). It was stunning and beautiful. Corinna Salvadori got up to read the Italian. You could hear a pin drop. She read it with beauty and music and power and horror, and the hair raised on the back of my neck and my stomach churned, and I realized I was in the presence of something great. That evening I made my mind up to continue with Italian and to make an Eramsus application to go to the University of Bologna for a year. And after that all was changed, changed utterly.

It seems that people are returning to this idea that languages are a 'polite accomplishment'. Nothing is further from the truth, nor a more dangerous fallacy. A language that produces something like the Commedia cannot be accurately described as either polite or an accomplishment.

Saturday, 21 October 2006

Everyday, dir. Annie Ryan, written by Michael West

Everyday, directed by Annie Ryan and written by Michael West in collaboration with the company, is Corn Exchange's latest production. It runs in the Samuel Becket Theatre (Dublin) until 28th October. Anyone who saw their award-winning Dublin by Lamplight last year will certainly not have missed this production because they will have known to expect something special. Everyday is no exception. It is nothing short of a tour-de-force of theatre, with performances that stand out for their accomplishment and power. It follows the day in the life of a host of characters all trying their best to keep the frayed threads of their lives together. Despite the large number of characters, and the complex plots, you are immediately engrossed and completely involved. You care about each character, and find yourself laughing out loud uncontrollably one minute while the next being on the verge tears. The characters' lives interweave with great subtilty, à la Kieslowski (Trois Couleurs), almost touching each other, but with no one character having any overall sense of the big picture. And there is great playfulness too, with lots of meta-theatrical moments. One 'intertextual' moment stands out: Mark O'Halloran and Tom Murphy sit drinking cans of beer talking about their lives, how they got their girlfriends pregnant, and what they'll do next. It is a real Adam and Paul moment, full of artful resonance, clever and funny. It's a play about a changing Ireland, with Nadia, a Ukrainian immigrant working as a childminder and a waitress, dealing with the selfishness that Irish economic success has bred so virulently. Another wonderful moment, Aiden, the failed musician who cannot come to call himself an English-language teacher, introduces himself to Nadia and in a breakthrough moment, describes himself as a teacher. Her response is beautifully drawn by Louise Lewis, who you can just see reacts with a sense of respect for his profession, coming from another culture that still prizes the old-fashioned jobs. It is just one of the many very delicate moments in the play and is indicative overall of its great sensitivity and power. Go and see it.

Friday, 13 October 2006

Mark Atherton, Teach Yourself Old English (Hodder & Stoughton, 2006)

They say if you speak three languages you're trilingual, two languages, bilingual, and one language, English. Languages appear to be a problem in schools in England. With fewer and fewer students taking a modern language, and with the structure of 'English' teaching changing so rapidly, these issues directly impact upon the preparation of students when they arrive at university. The problem is that at school everything is neatly divided up into subjects. Someone thinks they'll do English, not having much of an interest in modern languages, say, and sit in front of medieval texts for the first time. They are shocked to discover that what they are looking at is not just 'English', but texts that are deeply influenced by Latin, and/or French, all mixed in with Anglo-Saxon. Literature in the middle ages was not monolingual and approaching it that way will not work. So when students sit down with Mitchell and Robinson's A Guide to Old English, it is increasingly the case that they don't know what they're looking at. The kind of students they had in mind when writing this book were so vastly differently-prepared than students today. Not more or less prepared, just different. Undoubtedly there is less systematic teaching of grammar; I heard a graduate student the other day ask what an inflected language was. Somebody who wants to know what an inflected language is should not start with Mitchell and Robinson. They need to start somewhere else and only then move on to M/R (still the textbook used for the Oxford syllabus). The perfect starting point is Mark Atherton's new Teach Yourself Old English. It is aimed at someone who has not studied OE before, but who would like to get to read texts as soon as possible. So it does not start with lists of paradigms or inflections. It starts you reading straight way, shows you how firmly rooted the words you use every day are in the Old English language, and gets you enjoying it from the start. It's a serious book but not at all stuffy. The Teach Yourself series is excellent by the way, and the Teach Yourself Sanskrit is the one used here in Oxford, so let the snobs be silent. The book comes with a CD in which you can hear all of the texts being recited and repeated and hugely helps the way you learn your verbs and vocabulary.

It's an enormously useful textbook and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Saturday, 7 October 2006

Antonio Vivaldi, Griselda RV718; Ensemble Matheus, Jean-Christophe Spinosi, 2006

In 1735 at the Teatro S. Samuele in Venice the opera Griselda, written by Antonio Vivaldi, was first performed. This year saw the release of the Ensemble Matheus' recording of this little-known work, under the direction of Jean-Christophe Spinosi (Naïve: OP30419). Their efforts were rewarded with the prestigious Diapason d'Or and the reviews have all been glowing.

The story of Griselda has its first major outing in fourteenth-century Italy where it appears as the final story in Boccaccio's great story-collection Decameron. It became a real bestseller, however, when Francesco Petrarca translated the tale into Latin and included it into his collection of Letters of Old Ages (Res seniles), and indeed it split off from the Seniles and was copied separately and disseminated extremely widely. Chaucer encounters the story and incorporates it into his Canterbury Tales as the tale told by the Clerk of Oxenford. And the story has had a very prestigious lineage of adaptation in French from the fourteenth century onwards.

Vivaldi's Griselda, whose libretto was written by Apostolo Zeno and revised by none other than Carlo Goldoni, presents considerable differences in plotting. The most striking is exactly why Gualtiero tests his patient wife: to convince his people of her worthiness. The very opening of the opera has the people reject Griselda, while Gualtiero wants to marry her. In order to convince them of her virtues he proceeds to test her. While the plots turns a little...baroque at times, it is fascinating to think of Chaucer and his represenation of the people who follow the mercurial will of their leader, accepting the new bride-to-be with alacrious amnesia. The Clerk calls them unsad and evere untrewe, exactly the opposite of Griselda, who is sad (long ago pointed out by Brewer). This is a key theme in the tale, key virtues in medieval literature. For Vivaldi, on the other hand, Griselda's repudiation by the people is a device to introduce another suitor (Ottone) who declares his undying love for her, while the young daughter (Costanza), spirited away long before, and now recalled to 'play' bride-to-be, has her own heartbroken lover (Roberto).

You need a map to follow the rest of this so I shan't go into it here, but the music is fantastic, the recording super, the research wonderful.

Thursday, 5 October 2006

Averroes In Our Time

Listen to Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 this week discussing Averroes with Amira Benninson, Peter Adamson, and Sir Anthony Kenny.

Dante places Averroes last in a long list of pagan philosophers who are in Inferno because they could not enjoy the Christian revelation. But they are in Limbo, a strange sort of stasis without pain, a middle existence of hope without hope: 'sanza speme vivemo in disio' (Inf. 4. 42). Averroes' name appears with Aristotle's as bookends to a long catalogue of philosphers. Aristotle is the 'maestro di color che sanno', and Averroes is he 'che 'l gran comento feo', that is, he who produced the celebrated Aristotelian commentary. The influence of Averroes' thought in Duecento-Trecento Italian poetry is much debated, especially how and in exactly what way it influenced the dolce stil nuovo and in particular Guido Cavalcanti. Cavalcanti is the great unspoken character in the Commedia, once Dante's primo amico, the only trace of him appears in Inf. 10 where his father asks movingly: 'mio figlio ov'è? e perché non è teco?' (l. 60). Dante's reply has been explained in various ways, and remains ambiguous and strange: 'Da me stesso non vegno: | colui ch'attende là, per qui mi mena | forse cui Guido vostro ebbe a disdegno' (61-3).

Sunday, 24 September 2006

The Queen (2006), dir. Stephen Frears

Originally intended for TV, Stephen Frears' account of the Queen (Helen Mirren) during the week between Diana's death and funeral at first glance does not really seem the stuff of a serious film. Opening with pictures of Tony Blair's landslide victory brushing aside eighteen years of Tory government the Queen is shown receiving him and inviting him to become her tenth PM. Comic moments abound and the temptation to caricature must have been unbearable, especially for the portrayels of the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen Mother.

'That week' is seen here as a kind of fault line between a public who maintains a stiff upper lip ('It's what other countries admire us for!') and a public who responds to media manipulation and grooming. Tony Blair (Michael Sheen, looking disconcertingly like a young Rik Mayall) is then the PM with his finger on the pulse of the public, the man who was able to reflect the grief of the nation and quiver his chin in front of the cameras ('the people's princess', the phrase worked up by a wonderfully unpleasant Alastair Campbell ). It is fascinating to watch the film now and to feel so tired of exactly those attributes he's being praised for in the press during 'that week'. Now it's all part of the spin, then it was empathy.

The Queen wants to do her mourning in private on her Balmoral estate, 'with the boys'; the public want her crying on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, and Tony keeps ringing her to tell her that opinion polls are turning against her. It might not seem likely, but the film manages to carefully draw out the viewer's sympathy and the Queen is shown as a woman who took an oath of public duty, not to be a media darling or to occupy a temporary position but to dedicate her whole life to her people.

The climax of the film is beautiful. A large fourteen-point stag is spotted on the Balmoral estate and Phillip wants to take the boys out stalking to take their minds off things. This is a scene that has probably been repeated in royal families for a thousand years and more. The hunt is traditionally a passtime of royalty, and the stag has a fine aristocratic and noble heritage. The Queen goes out to a remote part of the estate and gets stuck in a stream in her Land Rover. While waiting for help she looks around in appreciation at the beautiful scenery and is overcome with the grief and upheavel of the previous days. The beautiful stag appears and comes very close to her and acknowledges her, almost bowing. She gestures back, and when she hears the hunt approaching, shoos the stag away to safety.

Just before she leaves for London Phillip tells her that the stag had been shot by a paying guest on a neighbouring estate, a merchant banker from London. She goes to visit the carcass on the estate and pays her respects. It is not that she finds it easier to show emotion over a dead stag than a dead daughter-in-law (though I'm sure many would read it that way), but rather the stag is the end of a whole way of life. Now the estates must take paying guests to keep their heads above water, and the stags are hunted by bankers rather than royals. It is the end of a way of life. And of course Diana is the goddess of hunting, and the stag's death is too the death of the former princess. Earl Spencer talked about Diana the hunter becoming the hunted, and this surely forms a subtext for the royals hunting the stag but being eventually killed by a member of the 'public', someone after the stag for a thrill and a story back with the city folk over dinner.

Helen Mirren is amazing, and the film is careful and artful.

Saturday, 23 September 2006


This is a prototype for Swiss watchmaker Jaeger Le-Coultre's new 'Gyrotourbillon', a very exquisite, very advanced design of watch which will be released in super-limited editions over the next few years. It has been developed by Eric Coudray and designer Magali Métrailler. This movie gives a sense of its almost impossible balance and complexity, and beauty. You feel almost like a medieval king watching something exotic and incredible: come orologio che ne chiami | ne l'ora che la sposa di Dio surge | a mattinar lo sposo perché l'ami (Par. X. 139-141). The clock Dante is talking about here is an early chime clock calling the monks to their prayers for the first of the canonical hours. Time belongs to God here. And Paradiso is a good place to have a clock, with its balance and measure and order.

Enjoy the Gyrotourbillon and think of Heaven.

Illuminating the Renaissance

Before I went away for the summer I took a trip out to Bennett & Kerr where I wanted to pick up a copy of the Manuscript Tanner 346: A Facsimile, intro. Pamela Robinson. What I actually got was her own copy (or one of them at least), with her corrections in the margins. Very nice. While out there I met Richard Gameson, whom I had not met before. But when you are in B & K, out in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside, in a medieval bookshop on a farm, you cannot really ignore another browser like you would in shop in the big city. It would be like trying to pretend you weren't passing someone on the Himalayas, or in the Arctic Circle. So it was a great pleasure to talk books with him, who knows a great deals about books.

But B & K had just acquired a large part of the library of Janet Backhouse, former Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Library, who died in Nov. 2004 at the too early age of 66. There were boxes and several shelves full of books from her library. It was quite sad to find yourself picking through her books, seeing her notes and cards in books. No matter how big your library gets, nor how learned you become, it will still end up in a secondhand bookshop, picked through by students and scholars trying to build up their own libraries with that book they've been searching for for years. And these in turn...

What I did pick up was a copy of catalogue of the Illuminating the Renaissance exhibition held at the Royal Academy in London Nov 29, 2003 - Feb. 22, 2004. This was an extraordinary exhibition and I remember it vividly. The catalogue had sold out. Backhouse has kept her invite to the opening ceremony of the exhibition, some newspaper reviews, and some of her Sotheby catalogue entries from the 70s for manuscripts featured in the catalogue. There is such a sense of care and attention to detail in these cut outs and inserts, and I found it quite moving.

And you get a sense of inheriting something, of needing to continue in the care and the attention to detail, not just for the sake of the subject, but for the sake of those who have gone before you and who have given so much. It's so easy to get carried away by the polemical and egocentric way many scholars open their work by explaining that every single scholar who has gone before has been so thick not to see this centrally important aspect but not to worry you're reading the real thing now (and can some wealthy American university please hire me and triple my salary, by the way). But just as you'll turn to dust, and your library will be dispersed, so too will your scholarship need to find a sympathetic reader who wishes to nurture rather than to destroy.

While in New York I passed a group of children all getting on a bus going to their summer camp, with the harrassed-looking teacher trying to make sure her charges were all accounted for. I read their t-shirts and thought it could be applied in lots situations and professions: Work Hard and Be Nice.

Friday, 22 September 2006


What a long time it has been! I've been away for the past five weeks, in Ireland, then in Italy, and now back. Have much to say, but am going to try to spread it out over a couple of posts so that it doesn't all feel breathless.
First, I read two books over the holidays. Alexander McCall Smith's Morality for Beautiful Girls (Abacus, 2003), part of his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, was not quite the read I had been expecting. They are not quite 'detective' stories, though some detecting does go on. Set in Botswana, the series has Mma Ramotswe as the heroine, a feisty and intelligent woman who runs a small detective agency. The blurbs and reviews are often very flattering about these books, and I've seen them being read on beaches, buses, etc. But I was disappointed. Perhaps the best way of describing the book is that it is charming, but maybe not in a good way.
The second book I read was Hugo Hamilton, The Speckled People (Fourth Estate, 2003). It is a beautiful read. The book is told in a child's voice, speaking his truths and things as they seem to him, with sometimes devastating simplicity and power. It is such a difficult voice to work with but Hamilton controls it utterly so that you hear him and more importantly you start to listen to him. A memoir in the traditional sense it is not. Nor can it really be considered 'The Early Years' volume. It is about the language crisis played out in his house between an Irish father who would only allow Irish to be spoken in the house, and a German mother, who communicated with them in German. English is the unspoken and unspeakable. It creates an atmosphere where you feel everything so keenly, words become hugely important. It was an utter pleasure to read and I think it can be legitimately considered a modern masterpiece of Irish writing. Read it.
I have also been making my way through Carol Ann Duffy's Rapture (Picador, 2005). I think it is interesting and at times very delicate and beautiful. I'll review it again I think.

Wednesday, 16 August 2006

νῦν μοι χάνοι εὐρεῖα χθών

M.L. West, in his Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique, applicable to Greek and Latin Texts (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1973), tells the story of Eduard Fraenkel's traumatic experience as a young student with Friedrich Leo:
"I had by then read the greater part of Aristophanes, and I began to rave about it to Leo, and to wax eloquent on the magic of his poetry, the beauty of the choral odes, and so on and so forth. Leo let me have my say, perhaps ten minutes in all, without showing any sign of disapproval or impatience. When I was finished, he asked: 'In which edition do you read Aristophanes?' I thought: has he not been listening? What has this question got to do with what I have been telling him? After a moment's ruffled hesitation I answered: 'The Teubner'. Leo: 'Oh, you read Aristophanes without a critical apparatus.' He said it quite calmly, without any sharpness, without a whiff of sarcasm, just sincerely taken aback that it was possible for a tolerably intelligent young man to do such a thing. I looked at the lawn nearby and had a single, overwelming sensation: νῦν μοι χάνοι εὐρεῖα χθών. Later it seemed to me that in that moment I had understood the meaning of real scholarship." Fraenkel is right of course, true scholarship is about getting the detail right, from which the large picture may be drawn. His epiphany about the nature of real scholarship I think also has something to do with modesty, about realizing how little you know. And there is something important in the gentleness of Leo, in his patience and humane treatment of his young and brilliant student; literae humaniores indeed.

Last week I invested in Petrocchi's Commedia secondo l'antica vulgata. It was published in four volumes between 1966-7 with Mondadori in Milan, and has now been republished with Le Lettere in 1994 as "Seconda ristampa riveduta". This might best be translated as a "corrected reprint edition". Pp. v-vii in Vol. 1 (Introduzione) explains what has been changed:
Purg. IV 132 per ch'io ➛ perch'io
XV 18 salendo su ➛ salendo sù
XXI 9 giù surto ➛ già surto
XXVIII 91 lo sommo Ben ➛ lo sommo ben
Par. XI 62 et coram patre e coram patre
XII 59 viva vertute ➛ viva vertute,
with a couple of these changes having appeared in the 1975 "Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi" text produced by Petrocchi. All modern editions and commentaries on the Commedia reproduce the Petrocchi edition, (the editions of Lanza and Sanguineti have not yet made an impact), but I was getting more and more impatient checking variants in the library. Some things you just need to have right beside you, all the time. The variants really are how the text was read as well as copied, so the criticus apparatus is as valuable to those interested in reception history as it is to textual critics.

Sunday, 6 August 2006

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

The great soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf died in Austria on Aug. 3rd. Alan Yentob, the creative director at the BBC said that her early recording of Strauss's Four Last Songs was for him a 'heart-stopper'. I could not agree more. The nuances and depths of her performance are utterly astonishing.

When she was a guest on Sue Lawley's Desert Island Disks she chose eight of her own recordings. That's class. She was also Stormin' Norman's aunt!!

Saturday, 5 August 2006

Campin in the Cloisters

On my last couple of days in New York Betsy (who also stayed on for a bit) and I decided to visit The Cloisters, the medieval collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. Though it is a trek up to 190th St., it was well worth it and had me rueing that uninspiring trip to the Met on Saturday evening. It was frankly pointless to drag everyone across Central Pk with little time after the final session to listen to a guide discuss works with a banality that might be interesting to 'tourists' but to a group of professional medievalists was just not on. Why didn't we go to the Cloisters instead? Why didn't we scrap the Plenary session on Friday morning on Exhibiting Art, and have those three professionals talk about three objects in the Cloisters and the problems confronting curators today? After you get over the fact that the whole place is fake, you realize that The Cloisters is beautiful. It's been constructed in a park and made look like a medieval monastery with a beautiful view out over the Hudson. What you find inside is wonderful. It's very evocative. Particularly noteworthy are the extraordinary Unicorn Tapestries, the Robert Campin Annunciation, detail of which above, and the exquisite Hours of Jeanne d'Evreaux. Do not miss the Cloisters on a visit to NY.

A visit to Twelfth Street Books (11 E 12th St., between 5th Ave./Univ.) proved interesting. It's a wonderful bookshop, full of quality secondhand books across a wide range of subjects. I picked up a copy of Toja's edition of Arnaut Daniel's Canzoni (Sansoni, 1961), and Bruno Nardi's Saggi e note di critica dantesca (Riccardo Ricciardi, 1966). Those were the 'finds'; other acquisitions: Teodolinda Barolini, The Undivine Comedy, Eugene Vance, From Topic to Tale, Donald Howard, The Idea of the Canterbury Tales, and JD Burnley's Guide to Chaucer's Language, all for considerably cheaper that the s/h stall in the conference. Never mind.

During some time eating & drinking in the Coliseum (312 W 58th St, opp. TimeWarner Center) one of the screens had CNN playing continuously. You realize how really deeply in trouble this country is when you watch the news for five minutes. CNN were running a very lengthy report, based on events in the Lebanon, entitled: "Is this the end of the world?" I swear. They had all sorts of nuts, Jews, Catholics, fundamentalist Christians (don't know what religion they are...), Republicans, the usual. This was a serious report. They were seriously asking whether we were witnessing the novissimi. Not on a lifestyle channel, or a religous freaky nut channel, or a pseudo-history channel. CNN. The national news. Ok, I know that decision makers and people who think don't watch CNN, but I'm afraid people who vote do. Oh boy. A real shiver-down-the-spine moment that was.

Tuesday, 1 August 2006


This post might also be considered a missive, for I write from the city of New York, sitting in exhaustion after five days of the 15th International Congress of the New Chaucer Society. It was a long conference, and perhaps too long. I'm staying in Empirestateview's apartment, and you really can see the Empire State Building from the apartment! The heat right now is oppressive, but I'm excited to be here.

I'm still digesting the conference and the papers, but hightlights included Caroline Barron talking about her discovery that Thomas Usk worked as a scribe for the Goldsmith's Guild, and Marion Turner's brilliantly suggestive piece on the Mercer's Petition and the House of Fame. There was also an extremely interesting paper by Catherine Eagleton on astrolabe texts and instrument texts in the 14th and 15th centuries. She is a formidable authority on the subject. Sessions also dealt with the subject of Adam Pynkhurst, does he matter? etc. They were very interesting sessions, except for some of the crazy textual people who seem to think that they have a direct line to the truth and are as ruthless as Microsoft about proprietorial opinions. A most undignified scene was witnessed in response to rather stimulating paper by Steve Partridge, whose very important edition of the glosses in the Canterbury Tales manuscripts is anxiously awaited by many, but alas I have completely forgotten her name nor the nature of her cavil. Come dice Virgilio a Dante: guarda e passa.

One of the great mysteries at the conference this year, like a veiled Greta Garbo or Jackie Onassis glimpsed darting into some exclusive residence for a moment, was the identity of Chaucer hath a blog. David Wallace, in a presidential address I shall leave to more authoritative people to comment upon, took a potshot at the blog, but the whole auditorium chuckled together, clearly showing everyone is reading him. It's a very clever blog. I recommend it.

The little book display was very disappointing. I don't know why it isn't a bit bigger, and the little second hand section was way overpriced. I dithered about buying the Bodley 638 facsimile and should have just bought the bloody thing, but I went back just a bit later and it was gone. Doh! Did pick up a copy of SAC 23 though. I also visited the Strand Bookshop, which reputedly has 18 miles of books. You kind of believe it when you walk in. It overwhelms you. I picked up a copy of Kretzmann, Kenny & Pinborg's Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy for 15 dollars. I think that was very good value.

It was great to see the gang again, like Myra, Mary and Betsy (from way back when in NCS in Glasgow, imagine), and I also caught up with Claudia from Florence, who is here researching. (now she is a textual scholar!). It was a most happy coincidence to see her. And I had dinner with Jeremy, an old friend whom I do not see often enough.

New York is a beautiful city. I was expecting energy, a 24/7 kind of place, but I wasn't expecting to be so aesthetically pleased with the place...if that makes any sense. The architecture is of such high quality. I love the place, and I shall definitely be back.

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

When I count to three, you'll have a PhD

This is Mr Paul McKenna. You may know him from such classic books as Easy Weight Loss and Quit Smoking Now. He is currently engaged in a libel action with the Daily Mirror over claims that he is a fraud. In a series of articles by Mr Victor Lewis-Smith, it was claimed that Mr McKenna bought a PhD from the venerable Lasalle University in the US of A (it's in Louisiana, in case you're passing, or flying over it). You might think that it's a cut and dried affair. Either he has a PhD or he doesn't. Lasalle University's founder actually made up the accreditation body for the awarding of its degrees. Em. Yes. You heard correctly. He set up the Council for post-secondary Christian Education (and nobody thought that sounded dodgy...), and had his university award degrees accredited by it. Mr McKenna claims that he was simply one of the many 'unsuspecting' students duped by this Mr Kirk. Except that it means his PhD has not been accredited. But Mr McKenna claims that the essense of his defamation has been that he bought his degree. As Mr Lewis-Smith wrote: "I discovered that anybody could be fully doctored by Lasalle within months (no previous qualifications needed), just so long as they could answer the following question correctly: 'Do you have $2,615, sir?'
In his evidence today, Mr McKenna insisted that he submitted a thesis of 50,000 words, and had spent over 500 hours of work on it. He has earned this degree.

Now that got me thinking. Let's say that he worked 6 hours per day, a rather low estimate I admit for one to be engaged in the type of research adequate to the level of the degree of PhD. Let's call it the benefit of the doubt. Let's say that he did not work weekends. In fact, let's say that he worked a four-day-week on his research, another low estimate for one to work on one's research I admit. But let's call it the benefit of the doubt.

That means that he finished his PhD in 20 weeks. This is clearly a man who values his timely rather highly.

Saturday, 8 July 2006

Simone dei Crocefissi, National Gallery London

Just back from a couple of days in London at the British Library, a bit of book shopping, and a trip to the National Gallery. The shopping was good: I picked up Skeat's own copy of Furnivall's edition of Harl. 7334 published for the Chaucer Society in 1885. Very pleased, and for a fiver; a bargain I rather think. I was very pleased to go to see one the National Gallery's newest pieces, on loan from the Soc. of Antiquaries. It is a small panel painting entitled 'Dream of the Virgin' by a Bolognese artist called Simone dei Crocefissi (c.1330-1399). He is famous for four large crucifixes in Bologna (at the Palazzo Comunale, S. Giacomo Maggiore, at the Museo S. Stefano, and at S. Giuseppe) which gave him his nickname. He worked mainly in Bologna and became one of the city's most prolific artists during the period.

This painting, dating c.1370-80, shows Simone's use of striking and unusual devotional imagery. The Virgin is shown asleep, being read to by a female companion seated at the end of the bed. Out of the Virgin's side springs a piece of wood upon which hangs Jesus, although a cross is not actually represented. The usual interpretation is that it represents the lignum vitae, the Tree of Life. The composition might be divided between the upper section and lower section divided by the horizontally-placed Virgin. Thus she is the connection between Christ's death on the cross and Man's redemption. The blood of Christ is often represented in altar-pieces as flowing out of his side (sometimes being collected in cups by angels), but this is nicely mirrored by the Virgin having her own side wound out of which comes the suffering of her son on the cross. Christ's redemption is depicted by a hand that protrudes from the dream space to help Adam and Eve out of Hell. She sleeps with her head resting on one hand and her other arm by her side. The pose is very natural and rather delicately done. She is sleeping on a colourful duvet cover that looks very modern, really. Notice how the whole scene is framed with architectural imagery, towers and roofs that are all very reminiscent of Bologna itself. The piece is not of the very highest quality, and this is only too evident when you turn right around and look at the Wilton Diptych behind you. This beautiful gem never fails to impress me, no matter how many times I see it. But if Simone's work is not of the highest artistic quality it is at least unorthodox in a way the Wilton Diptych certainly is not, and surely betrays an intellectually lively audience striving for devotional expression.

For those who wish to read more I recommend Robert Gibbs, Grove Dictionary of Art, s.v.; ibid, 'Two Families of Painters at Bologna in the Later Fourteenth Century', Burlington Mag. CXXI (1979), 560-68; ibid., 'Bolognese Trecento Painting', Burl. Mag. CXX (1978), 237-8; Victoria Markova, 'The Annunciation from the Collection of Moscow's Pushkin Museum and Certain Aspects of Simone dei Crocefissi's Later Works', Burl. Mag. CXX (1978), 4-6. See also Massimo Ferretti, Rappresentazione dei Magi: il gruppo ligneo di S. Stefano e Simone dei Crocefissi (Bologna: ALFA, 1981)[Exh. Cat.].

Monday, 3 July 2006

Thank You For Smoking, dir. Jason Reitman (2005)

This is a very funny satire ripping the proverbial out of the Smoking debate in the US. The story is told through the eyes of Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a media spokesperson for Big Tobacco. His job is make sure the public is informed about all those things the anti-smoking campaign cannot prove, and when that does not fail, throw money at the problem. His nemesis is a Senator Finisterre (William H. Macy), who is sponsoring anti-smoking bills in the Senate. The whole movie revolves around the idea of spin, spin by the people for and against smoking. Naylor goes to Hollywood to convince an uber-cool exec (Jeff Magall, played by Rob Lowe) there to make a movie where the stars smoke. The result is a very funny scene where they work out the ridiculous storyline: smoking in space, the final frontier. Meanwhile a journalist, Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes) is writing a piece on Nick and sleeps with him hoping he will talk off the record. He does, and the result is a very funny "exposé". His recovery is even funnier.
This is a very enjoyable, clever, and funny film, poking fun at the complete humbug we are subjected to by big business and politicians and political correctness.

Thursday, 22 June 2006

In Our Time: The Spanish Inquisition

Listen to Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time on The Spanish Inquisition, with John Edwards (Emeritus Fellow in Spanish, The Queen's College, Oxford), Alexander Murray (Emeritus Fellow in History, University College, Oxford) and Michael Alpert (Emeritus Professor in Modern and Contemporary History of Spain, University of Westminister). Very enjoyable.

Wednesday, 21 June 2006

The Paston Letters

BBC Radio 4 Women's Hour Drama has adapted The Paston Letters and is broadcasting it all this week. Norman Davis' edition, first published in the 1970s, has been republished by the Early English Text Society in two volumes. The Paston Letters span 1422-1509 and are a treasure trove of detail about life in a medieval family.

Tuesday, 6 June 2006


In these days of hose-pipe bans this is appropriate. I just want to tell you about this word.

I have been reading Emilio Pasquini, Dante e le figure del vero: la fabbrica della Commedia (Milan: Mondadori, 2001), and he used the word rabdomantico. The word means a diviner, or more specifically a water diviner (or a dowser, as they are also known).

It comes from the Greek ῥαβδομαντεία, f. ῥἁβδος meaning 'rod', and μαντεία meaning 'divination, prophetic power'. Someone who practises this is called a rhabdomancer. P. G. W. Glare (in the Oxford Latin Dictionary) records the word rhabdos ~i, f. A rod-shaped phenomenon allied to a rainbow. ~os..generis eiusdem ad uirgae rigorem perlongum colorata nubecula dicitur, Apul. Mun. 16.

Monday, 29 May 2006

Sylvia Huot, From Song to Book (Cornell UP, 1987)

Sylvia Huot's 1987 From Song to Book: The Poetics of Writing in Old French Lyric and Lyrical Narrative Poetry is a stimulating study of the way that medieval French literature developed, during the late-thirteenth and fourteenth-century, a more acute sense of authorship, evinced, she argues, in the changing form of the vernacular codex. The author has clearly a wide knowledge of medieval French manuscripts, especially of the Roman de la Rose. Indeed the RR, she argues, is the great presence throughout the period, providing a model for how poetry can be constructed and how multiple authorship is inscribed and theorized. The crucial mid-point is a fault line where Guillaume de Lorris takes up the continuation of the allegory, changing its focus, and incorporating new themes while weaving together that which has already been written. The idea of the continuation is also explored, as a readerly and writerly response. Think, for example, of the Response to Richard de Founival's Li Bestiaires d'amours, especially the gendered voicing: the response is in the voice of a woman, though that does not necessarily mean that the author was female.

The most interesting part of the book is the third part, "Lyricism and the Book in the Fourteenth Century", which deals with the rise of the single-author codex, especially in the work of Machaut and Froissart. The former provides an especially vivid instantiation of the new sense of authorship in the period and the sense of the control and interaction between the writer and the reader. The book traces the development of a "writerly poetics of courtly lyric and lyric narrative" (p. 329), and it is extremely competent, stimulating, and will strike so many chords to anyone who reads Chaucer, for example. A great companion volume to this book, which I am reading too, is Kevin Brownlee's Poetic Identity in Guillaume de Machaut (Wisconsin UP, 1984). Brownlee is a brilliant scholar and this book is a tour-de-force. Important things happen in France in the fourteenth-century and the direction of English poetry in the period is completely alive to it.

Wednesday, 24 May 2006

Katherine H. Tachau, "God's Compas and Vana Curiositas", Art Bulletin 80 (1998), 7-33

Somehow it seems unconventional to review an article but some articles are really every bit as stimulating and informative as plenty of books around now, so I've decided to review briefly Katherine H. Tachau's wonderful article entitled "God's Compass and Vana Curiositas: Scientific Study in the Old French Bible Moralisée", Art Bulletin 80 (1998), 7-33.

Her view is that the Bibles moralisées appeared during a time of intense intellectual ferment in Paris at the beginning of the thirteenth century, and that to some (like Peter the Chanter), this appeared as an age of spiritual crisis. Her view is that "as a genre, the Bibles moralisées were created, affected, even motivated, by scholarly clergy who shared the latter Weltanschauung, and that they designed the Bibles moralisées to instruct not other scholars but royalty, especially the French kings" (p. 7). The article proceeds to read several fascinating folia of some thirteenth-century Bibles moralisées and discusses, in particlar, the way that pagan Eastern thought was represented in the form of astrologers, and are constantly seen as challenging and encroaching upon the divine sciences. The mechanism of reading these double images is fascinating, with the unmoralized 'original' representation sitting in a roundel above its moralized version, all sitting beside the text. Learning how to read these images is, in a very real way, learning how to read many medieval texts. She concludes: "Seen in that early thirteenth-century Parisian context, the depiction of the compass-wielding God in the first image of the Old French Bible moralisée would not have conveyed to its educated or royal viewers any approbation of the scientific study of the material world. Rather, the painting voices first of all the biblical exegetes' conviction that only God - not astronomers or philosophers - encompasses the entire created order" (p. 27). There is much else to be said about this learned article, but let your own curiosity dictate some attention to it. You will not regret it.

Tuesday, 16 May 2006

Alice Oswald, Woods etc. (Faber, 2005)

There's some great poetry around these days. I am not going to review Seamus Heaney's District and Circle. He has said that he feels like an over-ploughed field, so my own words would do nothing to help that. There are very learned reviews elsewhere doing better jobs than I could. I read District and Circle on Easter Sunday morning as the sun shone full on my face. It is a beautiful collection and was like listening to a childhood relative use words I had long forgotten.

Alice Oswald's third collection of poetry is entitled Woods etc. and is a stunning work. Her second volume, Dart, made her a well-known figure, with a long single poem following a river. These poems are about what she sees around her in her home in Devon, the elemental images of the earth, the moon, water, stones. Such things. Her ancestor is very definitely Ted Hughes, but they are very different. There is something less physically robust about them and at the same time they are more physically sensitive. I hardly know which poem to reproduce here, each time I read it I want to put a different one down here. This poem is the title poem in the collection, 'Woods etc.':

footfall, which is a means so steady
and in small sections wanders through the mind
unnoticed, because it beats constantly,
sweeping together the loose tacks of sound

I remember walking once into increasing
woods, my hearing like a widening wound.
first your voice and then the rustling ceasing.
the last glow of rain dead in the ground

that my feet kept time with the sun's imaginary
changing position, hoping it would rise
suddenly from scattered parts of my body
into the upturned apses of my eyes.

no clearing in that quiet, no change at all.
in my throat the little mercury line
that regulates my speech began to fall
rapidly the endless length of my spine.

Thursday, 11 May 2006

Manuele Gragnolati, Experiencing the Afterlife (U. of Notre Dame Press, 2005)

Manuele Gragnolati's book Experiencing the Afterlife: Soul and Body in Dante and Medieval Culture is the seventh volume in 'The William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante Studies' published by the University of Notre Dame Press. It is an extremely interesting read and comes highly highly recommended. Based on the author's Ph.D. thesis at Columbia (1999, sup. Barolini), the book looks at concepts of pain and suffering in the thirteenth century and how these were incorporated into the notion of Purgatory by Dante. Exactly how do the damned in Hell, and the souls in Purgatory suffer and how does corporeality (and lack therof) affect this suffering? G. looks at Bonvesin de la Riva's Book of the Three Scriptures and argues that the second Red Scripture provides a conceptual model of experiencing the suffering of the Passion that is analogous to the kind of experiencing of suffering the souls undergo in Purgatory. He also argues that Dante's embryological theories, outlined by Statius in Purg. 25 is a (poetic) sythesis of competing theoretical positions on the formation of the soul, form plurality of forms (Bonaventure, Bacon et al.) to unicity (Albert, Thomas, et al.). He asserts that Dante 'plays with the ambiguity within unicity of form's understanding of the soul, but also that he vacilates between the principles of unicity and plurality, arriving at his own original position on personhood, which allows for the perseverance of identity in the afterlife and at the same time maintains the significance of the body materiality' (p. 87). These are important points and provide important philosophical and theological reasons for why the body's materiality is so interesting in the Comedy. G. argues in addition that, in consonance with much Northern Italian eschological writings, the resurrection of the body was seen as a fundamental part of death, that everything that happens after one dies is merely a process until the soul is reunited with the body on the Day of Judgment. These are powerful considering when reading Dante's experience of the afterlife, for he is experiencing it as no-one else is, both in body and soul.
There is much more to say about this book, such as the re-focussing on those aspects of Dante that are indebted to rich veins of popular medieval culture, largely ignored by the critics who sought to place him in a highly Scholastic and learned tradition. This is a very enjoyable book, it is clear, concise, and argued with assurance.

The book has also got me thinking about Eleonore Stump's lectures here in Schools on Evil and Suffering, on the different kinds of pain, on the evil of suffering (or not), and Thomas Aquinas' definition of love.

Friday, 5 May 2006

Studies in the Age of Bargains!

I try not to gloat but sometimes a little piece of luck comes my way and I find a bargain that is just too joyous to be quiet about. The other day I went into the Mind bookshop on Walton Street and found Vols. 1-22 of Studies in the Age of Chaucer, a find that I really never thought would happen. I got it for a super price too. I don't know how many articles I have photocopied over the years from this journal, or which I have promised to go back to read again in the library, and now I can (not) read them on my very own shelf. I am also a member of the New Chaucer Society and so have the newer numbers of SAC, so do not have many to make up the complete set (23-25, if anyone's offering!). Sheer joy.
I also picked up a copy, in Jericho Books, of Rewriting Chaucer: Culture, Authority, and the Idea of the Authentic Text, 1400-1602, ed. by Thomas A. Prendergast and Barbara Kline (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1999), also for a bit of a bargain (£4.50!). There are quite a number of interesting articles in this collection, dealing with the very important issue of what the early scribes did to Chaucer, how that was dealt with by the earliest printers (who sometimes had access to manuscripts that are no longer extant, Caxton for example), and how they interacted. The freedom scribes felt, and the very different concepts of 'authenticity' that circulated in the period, all create hugely complex problems for modern editors and readers of Chaucer's work, problems that are unlikely to be solved any time soon. At least that is until someone finds a holograph copy of the complete works of Chaucer. What's the alternative, then? Read Chaucer from transcriptions of Hg, or El, or in parallel texts like the Chaucer Society publications done by Furnivall? Or on CD-ROM facsimiles with hypertext links to other readings? The Riverside Chaucer in this scenario would become obsolete and students would read from their computers and turn the leaves of digital manuscripts. But editing will still be required, presumably. So what kind? And, if the Variorum Chaucer really is so methodologically flawed as everyone says then will Kane's principles be expanded (exemplified in his Piers Plowman edition) and applied to Chaucer? And who will that be?

Monday, 1 May 2006

Happy Birthday Blog

I am one today! Happy Birthday Me. This blog was started on this day exactly twelve months ago. Aww. Thank you to my faithful and loyal readers, and here's to another year of interesting films, plays, books, and poems.


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