CeSMA at Kalamazoo: Cross-Cultural Studies of the Book

Birmingham CeSMA, in conjunction with the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign, sponsored a panel at Kalamazoo this year on ‘Cross Cultural Studies of the Book’ which meant little old me, your friendly neighbourhood web editor, took my research stateside for the first time (and braved my first transatlantic flight) to make some friends in the ‘Zoo across the pond.

Having heard some rumours about the on-campus accommodation, which many of my colleagues were resolutely enjoying with a sense of festive cameraderie, I settled myself in the Holiday Inn and hoped that jetlag wouldn’t be too bad.

The campus of WMU (Western Michigan University) was beautiful, and we were blessed with amazing weather (should have brought suncream), and the conference has an impressive infrastructure that includes regular shuttle-buses that run between the different hotels and the different buildings of campus. I didn’t get lost once, either, which is more than I can say about my various times at the Leeds IMC where, on entering the union building, I always seem to open doors to find something different behind them from what I expected.

The intrepid presenter, trying not to look too jetlagged, or too nervous pre-paper. 

CeSMA’s panel was on the Friday, the third day of the conference, and by then I was feeling like a true American. I’d got a little more used to the timezone, and waking extra early was making me feel very virtuous and productive.


Our panel began with Carol Symes from the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign giving a paper on ‘Before and beyond the King’s Book: Reading the Material Remains of the Domesday Survey’. Carol’s paper was a fascinating look not just into the Domesday book and how it was compiled, but also into our own (mis, sometimes)conceptions of how it came about.

I was up next, with my paper on everyone’s favourite (and by far the best) saint, Saint Margaret of Scotland, ‘English Books at a Scottish Court: The Books of Saint Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093)’. In my paper, I argued that these books were essential artefacts for understanding the roles that foreign queens were expected – and indeed needed – to play at the courts they married into. Carol very kindly invited me to publish this in her journal, The Medieval Globe, so keep your eyes peeled for that!

Our final panellist was Sean Winslow of the University of Toronto. There had been a bit of shuffling around, and some panellists unable to attend, so Carol and I invited Sean to join our panel, which was not without controversy! Sean was speaking on ‘The Ethiopian Book between Christendom and Islam’, and this raised some interesting issues about framing a cross-cultural panel and considering the book as a global object. For Carol and me, making northern European Latin-based medieval studies globally-focussed and outlooking is an essential issue, and the panel was a great opportunity to develop an outward-looking conceptual framework for future work.

Much better than plastic cups

The conference was just as rich in extra-curriculars as it was in academic papers. Aside from the famous disco, there was ‘wine hour’ every day which provided an excellent opportunity for catching up with friends and colleagues from around the world, some excellent stalls to tempt us, and activities of every kind.


I had a wonderful time at Kalamazoo, and it was brilliant to connect Birmingham’s CeSMA with the medieval studies work going on at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign. It’s worth the jetlag, and the fact that you have to ride the airport train past Trump Tower to get to Chicago central train station and on to Kalamazoo. I’m sure this is the beginning of a long and beautiful transatlantic partnership of scholars.



Claire Harrill

University of Birmingham

CeSMA Web Editor

International traveller??



CeSMA Seminars this term

Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages – Research Seminars

All Seminars are held on at 17:15, Arts Lecture Room 8 

Tuesday 24th January 2017

Diane Antille (Neuchâtel)

‘Women and Goldsmiths’ Works in the Fifteenth Century: The Case of Charlotte of Savoy’

Tuesday 7th February 2017

Sam Van Shaik (British Library) ‘Bilingual Manuscripts from the Silk Road’ 

21st February 2017

Robert Swanson (Birmingham)

‘Strategies of Parochial Management in Late Medieval England: Three Cambridgeshire Contrasts’ 

7th March 2017

Francesca Dell’Acqua (Birmingham)

‘The Normans in Southern Italy: What the Salerno Ivories Tell Us’

21st March 2017

Holly James-Maddocks (Birmingham)

‘The Illuminators of the Middle English Poetic Tradition’

EMREM Summer Trip to Ludlow Castle

Every year, the EMREM Forum, a student-run interdisciplinary research group covering the early medieval to the early modern, runs a historical summer trip. This year, it was to Ludlow Castle in Shropshire, and it featured history, scones and the Bindery Shop where they make replica early modern prints and bindings.

The construction of the castle began in the eleventh century, as the border stronghold of Roger De Lacy, a Marcher Lord. In the fourteenth century Roger Mortimer enlarged the castle into a palace, and the site was later involved in the War of the Roses, under the ownership of Richard, Duke of York. Edward IV sent the ‘Princes in the Tower’ to live in the castle, which was also the seat of government for Wales and the Border Counties. In 1501 Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon honeymooned there, and Mary Tudor spent three winters at Ludlow between 1525 and 1528. The Welsh Fusiliers were founded at the castle in 1689.
(Historical blurb by Georgie Fitzgibbon of the EMREM Committe)

The saintly ladies of the Teutonic knights

Photo 1
The interior of a 14th C. reliquary comissioned by the Teutonic commander of Elblag (Poland), Thiele von Lorich. The reliquary contains particles of numerous relics, including relics of female martyr saints. 

One of the most common misconceptions regarding the religiosity of the knights of the military orders is that they were involved in the promotion of the cults of military saints such as St Theodore, St Demetrius, St Maurice, Sts Sergius and Bacchus, and, above all, St George. The association between Templar, Hospitaller or Teutonic knights and military saints such as St George seems natural today but, surprisingly, it does not reflect medieval devotions. Except for a few statues and frescoes preserved in peripheral locations, there is little evidence that the military saints were the favourite patrons of the Military Orders. On the contrary, it seems that they inspired only limited veneration. For example the birth place of St. George in Lydda in the kingdom of Jerusalem (modern Israel), did not attract veneration from the Templars and the Hospitallers even though it was one of the major, pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land. The reason for their limited popularity is that the military saints were elevated to sainthood because of their refusal to participate in warfare which made them unsuitable to serve as examples for the knights in Military Orders who were expected to fight and kill, albeit in defence of Christians. The messages conveyed by the lives of the military saints who rejected bloodshed could not serve as guidance and inspiration to knights guarding the crusader states.


Photo 3.jpg
A close-up of the exterior of the reliquary showing a kneeling Teutonic knight wearing a white mantle of the order with a cross and praying to St Mary and Infant Christa 

The evidence from Teutonic Prussia suggests that a group of saints that were deemed more suitable to serve as patron saints of the Military Orders were women such as St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Barbara. As female martyrs who suffered death because of their faith, they possessed several qualities, well understood in medieval European visual culture, which made them suitable candidates as patrons and protectors of male communities of knights. These saints were chaste, they had dedicated their virginity to Christ, just like the Military Orders who professed sexual abstinence and had themselves sacrificed both marriage and parenthood. They too found themselves in peril in a non-Christian world that required bravery and fortitude to resist pagan suitors, incarceration and torture. More loosely, the eastern associations of St Barbara and St Catherine, a Greek saint, were a clear reference to the Orders’ Levantine origins and duties. Furthermore, female virtues of patience, modesty and humility, though unattractive for secular knights, were also something to aspire to in a military male community. Another important factor was that, almost without exception, female martyr saints came from noble families, St. Catherine in particular is described as a sovereign queen and her protection could be read as an affirmation of the wealth and nobility of the devotee.


Photo 4.jpg
The central panel of the late 14th C, mail altar of the Teutonic castle chapel in Grudziadz (Poland) showing St Catherine, visible on the right holding a sword and her wheel, and St Barbara, visible on the lest holding the tower in which she was imprisoned and a palm of martyrdom.

Female martyrs were always depicted at the peak of the ‘curve of life’ according to Aristotelian conceptions of the ‘Ages of Man’ that was so popular in later medieval convention. Always young, wealthy and beautiful they represented an idealised femininity and, in a sense, they offered a spiritual alternative to real ladies of court, a counterpart to the idealised secular knight. Knights of the Military Orders did not fight in tournaments to win the favour of the ladies of the court. In their prayers, Templars, Hospitallers and the Teutonic knights may not have wished to emulate the deeds of St. George or St. Maurice but, if the art they commissioned is to be believed, they might have hoped that their life of service will please one of their saintly female patrons: St. Catherine, St, Barbara, St Dorothy, St. Margaret of Antioch and others.

First-year Discovering Medieval Literature module trip

Philippa took students from the first-year Discovering Medieval Literature module to St Nicolas’ Place, Kings Norton, where they spent several hours exploring the schoolhouse . It seems to have incorporated reused material from abolished chantry buildings and therefore has some interesting medieval fabric; it also offers an object lesson in how to read medieval and early modern structures. The medieval church and Tudor merchant’s house are also of considerable interest.




St Werburgh of Chester and her Geese (Chestertourist.com)

Wherever you find pictures or statues of St Werburgh, there will nearly always be the image of a goose not too far away.  And not just any goose, but her favourite goose (and after all, who hasn’t got a favourite goose!) who was called Grayking.  According to one version of the miracle story for which St Werburgh is famous, Grayking along with his flock were creating havoc in a field of corn belonging to a steward named Hugh in the village of Weedon, Northamptonshire.  When Werburgh heard of this she ordered the geese to leave the field alone, at which point they, according to the words of the Flemish hagiographer Goscelin, ‘flew off and away, so that not even one small bird of that species has ever been seen on that territory’, and apparently it is true to this day that no geese can be found in the village.  However, Hugh was not satisfied with this action as reparation for his losses, and so he caught, killed and subsequently ate Grayking.  Werburgh was none too happy about this state of affairs, (after all, how would you feel if your favourite goose had just been killed?) and so gathered together the remaining bones which she then was able to miraculously reform such that Grayking was once more able to stand before her, the proud goose he once was.

Stories about geese aside, Werburgh was a very well-known Anglo-Saxon saint, and many miracles were witnessed at her tomb and further afield.  She was born in Staffordshire in the early seventh century, the daughter of a Mercian king and queen with links to royal families in East Anglia, Kent and France, and was the last in a familial line of abbesses to take charge of the monastery at Ely, following in the footsteps of her mother, grandmother and great-aunt.

She also apparently had the gift of prophecy, and was able to foretell of the rivalry for her relics that, subsequent to her death, would happen between the communities with which she was linked.  In an attempt to forestall this, she insisted on being buried at the monastery of Hanbury, Staffordshire, although upon her death in Trentham, twenty-five miles from Hanbury, the Trentham monks not only refused to hand her over, but instead locked her coffin in their crypt and set a guard by the door.  However, Werburgh’s wishes were to be fulfilled, and the Hanbury monks sent a raiding party to Trentham to recover her remains, whereupon the bolts and chains on the doors miraculously opened at their touch, and the guards were all overcome by a deep and uninterrupted sleep.  After nine years in her tomb at Hanbury, her relics were translated to Chester and when the tomb was opened, they were of course found to be intact, thus reaffirming her worth as a saint.  Chester was her resting place up until the Reformation, but then her shrine was broken up and her relics were fragmented and dispersed, although a number of the pieces have since been gathered together and placed in the position the shrine previously occupied, which is where they can be seen today, alongside the ever-present statue of Grayking the Favourite Goose.  So don’t forget, on February 3rd, the feast day of St Werburgh, be nice to your favourite goose and in that way you will avoid the saint’s displeasure!

Annual Lecture Report: Hugh Kennedy on “ISIS and the use and Abuse of Early Islamic History”

Wednesday 27th January 2016 

Dabiq, the IS magazine, which circulates in both English and Arabic.


This year, for our annual paper, we were extremely lucky to have Hugh Kennedy speak to us about ISIS and early Islamic history. This fascinating topic had the lecture room completely packed, with many listeners bringing in chairs from other rooms – quite a testament to the relevance and usefulness of medieval studies!

Hugh’s lecture interrogated the rise of ISIS, breaking down the often-quoted notion that Western intervention in the Middle East was the sole cause of the rise and popularity of IS. Instead, he linked this as one contributing factor with the failure of Middle Eastern nationalism and socialism. IS seeks to break both of these down; national borders won’t matter in the Caliphate, and neither will the will of the people – only the will of Allah.

Hugh’s lecture was especially focussed on Dabiq, the glossy magazine produced by IS as a recruitment and propaganda tool, and how it continually places IS on the ‘intellectual high ground’, representing them as the ‘true’ Muslims based on their (supposedly) superior understanding of the Hadith, and early Muslim History.

Even the name of the magazine itself is a reference to a small village in Syria, and a village which is the site of apocalyptic speculation – the place where the final battle will take place between the forces of Islam, and its enemies. The magazine is only dated by the lunar month and the Muslim calendar, and within it’s densely packed with coded language, constructed out of references to the Hadith. For example, those Muslims who reject the ‘true’ Islam preached by Islamic State, are referred to as murtadds – an early Muslim word for apostates that referred to those who rejected the early caliphs.

dabiq-5-front-back-pgsThe pictures in the magazine also recall early Islamic imagery and culture. The fighters are often pictured on horses, holding thin, curved swords, represented like early Muslim knights – with all of the same connations that a western knight might have. Pictures of beautiful young boys holding weapons also fill the pages (see right), recalling the topos of the beautiful but deadly young boy in Medieval Arabic and Persian poetry. These pictures are carefully composed shots, not candid snaps of people on the streets of Raqqa.

IS have carefully constructed an image for their ideology as one based in medieval history, and founded on a greater knowledge of the Hadith. Though they use modern technology, they use medieval imagery, and even plan to introduce their own currency with coins of real gold (despite using predominantly USD for their own transactions). Their platform is one of intellectual superiority and better knowledge of the medieval past, and this is how they position themselves as the ‘true’ Muslims, and argue for their Caliphate.

Many thanks to Hugh for a fascinating and illuminating lecture!



Death and the Afterlife in the Middle Ages – A CeSMA Day School

“Pale Death beats equally at the poor man’s gate and at the palaces of kings.” – Horace (65–8 BCE)

It is the universality of death – the great leveller – that makes it fascinating to the living. As an inescapable human experience, it also represents a compelling theme through which to explore diverse cultures across time and space. This is no less true for the study of the medieval world. On 31 October 2015, the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages at the University of Birmingham hosted a day school entitled, ‘Death and the Afterlife in the Middle Ages.’ Around fifty members of the public attended to hear four of the Centre’s academics, and one postgraduate, speak on themes relating to medieval European understandings of mortality and immortality.

Given the theme for the day, and the not entirely unintentional date chosen for it, the lectures spanned a suitably ghoulish range of topics. Dr Philippa Semper, lecturer in the Department of English Literature, opened proceedings with a dicussion of the language of immortality in Old English texts in which, we learnt, death was commonly expressed as departure. Philippa’s talk, entitled ‘Not Like the Living: The Language of Anglo-Saxon Immortality’, explored the significance of the term undeadlic (i.e. not in the form of the dead), which was chosen over liflic (i.e. in the form of the living) in the corpus to identify those who – like the walking dead – had departed from mortality yet retained an analogous state. Philippa linked this to a need for terminology distinct to these folkloric forms of life after death and distinguishable from the Catholic vocabulary of immortality.

CeSMA Day School 1.jpg Dr Chris Callow, lecturer in Medieval History, then introduced some of the most famous of the grisly revenants which stalk the pages of the Icelandic sagas in his talk, ‘Zombies versus Historians: The Case of Medieval Iceland’. Chris explained how medieval historians have sought to understand these stories of the undead, and the sorts of challenges that they might pose. Tales of heroes like Grettir the Strong, or the villainous Thorolf Lame-foot, test modern historians’ assumptions about whether the seemingly remote population of medieval Iceland shared ideas about the supernatural which were prevalent in parts of western Europe. Certainly, both Chris’s Icelandic and Philippa’s Anglo-Saxon sources contain versions of a walking dead (though it is perhaps safe to conclude that the Icelandic sources have the monopoly on ghostly seal heads emerging out of fireplaces).

The focus then moved from the hearth of a medieval Icelandic home to the walls of Antioch during the First Crusade, where – according to one contemporary source – a deserter saw a vision of his deceased brother mysteriously floating before him as he shinned down a rope. The deserting crusader was chastised, and returned to the besieged city. My talk, ‘Spectres in the Sources: Ghosts on the First Crusade’, introduced the audience to instances taken from the Latin narratives of the First Crusade which discuss the dead as appearing to the living. Encounters between the living and the dead in these texts show that the dead – as privileged witnesses to the hereafter – might continue to have a vested interest in the spiritual wellbeing of the living. These were not ghosts as we might understand them now; instead of haunting and tormenting, they advised and chastised the living. Looking at ‘ghosts’ in these particular sources also provide an – albeit frosted – window onto western European concepts of martyrdom and the development of the concept of Purgatory.

CeSMA Day School 2.jpg From considering textual portrayals of the afterlife to reassessing the reality of the most devastating epidemic in European history; the fourth talk of the day was ‘“That Great Mortality”: The Black Death in England’. Dr Miriam Müller, lecturer in Medieval History, argued that the current estimates for the percentage mortality rate for the Black Death are in fact conservative, and that we should look towards the higher estimates for an accurate understanding of that plague’s impact upon mid-fourteenth-century England. Miriam’s introduction to the topic included a consideration of how the plague reached English shores. More than one south-western port town claims the dubious honour of being the landing point of the Black Death (Yersinia pestis, the bacterium which causes bubonic plague, is thought to have been carried by flea-infected rats on board ships), and indeed it is entirely possible that the lethal bacterium was carried ashore at several locations during the summer of 1348. Miriam’s talk brought home the devastating impact that the Black Death would have had at all levels of society. You can stay up to date with Miriam’s research into English rural daily life in the Late Middle Ages by reading her blog, Medieval Rural Communities.

Fittingly, the final theme of the day was the material commemoration of the dead; the ‘cult of memory’ and the ‘cult of family’ in the parish churches of medieval England. The fifth speaker was Dr John Hunt, an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of History, whose talk was entitled ‘Family and Soul: Memorial, Commemoration and the English Parish Church’. John introduced us to the various ways that a knightly family might choose to memorialise their dead, or the provisions that an individual might put in place for their own body (and soul) after death. The argument was made that memorialisation within parish churches played an important role in the relationship between these churches and the local lords who chose to be buried inside them. Through several case studies, John also traced the various forms of memorial design and architecture in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, from knightly recumbent effigies – such as those of Henry de Hanbury in St Werburgh’s Church at Hanbury (Staffordshire) and the Marmion tombs at West Tanfield in Yorkshire – to intricately designed brasses and slabs.

CeSMA’s ‘Death and the Afterlife’ Day School was a thoroughly enjoyable entrée into how certain medieval cultures commemorated life, understood death, and percieved the hereafter (and, equally important, how we might go about studying these). On behalf of all the speakers, I would like to thank the organisers at CeSMA for putting the event together, and for all those who attended, contributed to discussion, and made the day so enjoyable.

Beth Spacey, PhD Candidate in the Department of History, University of Birmingham

Stay up to date with the details of upcoming CeSMA events, including a second day school later in 2016, via the CeSMA Blog. 


Sculpture of St Osmund from the west front of Salisbury Cathedral

If you’re feeling a bit under the weather at the moment then spare a thought for those people afflicted with the illnesses associated with this week’s saint, Osmund.  He is the patron saint of insanity, paralysis, ruptures and toothache, all of which are specific references to the miraculous cures that were administered to pilgrims visiting his shrine at the cathedral in Salisbury.

Osmund was one of the first of the new breed of bishops appointed by William I in the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest.  His was a newly created diocese comprising the counties of Dorset, Wiltshire and Berkshire with its headquarters at Old Sarum, the location of the first cathedral of Salisbury until its relocation in the fifteenth century to its current position about three miles to the south.  Prior to this, he was one of William’s inner circle (Osmund was in fact William’s nephew) and received a privileged upbringing in his native Normandy.  He was also one of the commissioners responsible for the drawing up of the Domesday Book in 1086.

During his time at Old Sarum he was described by William of Malmesbury as ‘so eminent for chastity that common fame itself would blush to speak otherwise than truthfully concerning his virtue’, but he was also known to be stern and strict.  He was responsible for a great deal of the development of the cathedral at Old Sarum, although his time was not without setbacks.  Five days after the consecration of his new cathedral in April 1092, a thunderstorm destroyed almost all of the roof, and damaged a large part of the building’s infrastructure, something that must have been a tad disheartening, to say the least.  This may well have been one instance where the English obsession with talking about the weather was justified!

Nor did things go entirely to plan after his death on December 4th 1099 either.  The Salisbury clerics waited until 1228 before they pulled together a petition to Pope Gregory IX for his canonisation only for it to be refused, as were subsequent attempts in 1387, 1406, 1416 and 1442.  One final bid in 1452 was successful, however – maybe the papacy had just been worn down by the Salisbury monks’ unwillingness to give up – and Osmund was finally made a saint in 1457 by Pope Callistus III, the last English canonisation for nearly 500 years until that of John Fisher in 1935.  Perhaps Osmund should also be the patron saint of tenacity and determination!

Ian’s Saint of the Week! St Frideswide

St Frideswide
St Frideswide hides from King Algar amongst the swine. Stained-glass window, Christ Church Oxford: Edward Burne-Jones (1833 – 1898)

St Frideswide is this week’s saint of the week.  Her death in Oxford in 727 is commemorated on 19th October and she is primarily associated with the city.  She was born into a royal Mercian family, the daughter of a sub-king Dida of Eynsham who held lands in Oxfordshire and the Upper Thames region.  She was destined to take up a religious life from an early age, and with the help of her father, became the founding abbess of the double house in Oxford, which has since been incorporated into Christ Church College.  Her remains were translated in 1180 to a new shrine by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, a ceremony that was attended by King Henry II, and this site became and remains the cathedral church of Oxford to this day.

There are a couple of slightly differing versions of her life which were written in the twelfth century, thus coinciding with the translation of her relics.  They both tell the story of how she was chosen by another Mercian king, Algar, to become his wife, but, since she had pledged herself to a life of celibacy, she spent three years trying to evade his advances by escaping and hiding out in and around Oxford.  It is here that the accounts diverge: in one, Algar only gave up his hunt for her when he was blinded by a bolt of lightning while in the other his quest ended when he was killed by falling from his horse and breaking his neck.  Either way the message is clear: Frideswide’s marriage to Algar was not going to happen!  There are striking similarities to the story of St. Æthelthryth, an East Anglian princess of the same period, who was also forced to flee in order to keep her virginity intact and who also subsequently founded a priory, this time in Ely in Cambridgeshire.  The symbolism of a royal princess succeeding in maintaining her celibacy despite severe pressure to marry and then actively demonstrating this through the establishment of a religious house shows how important this was to the Anglo-Saxon church, and the comparisons with the Virgin Mary are clear to see.

Chapels at Binsey in the north of Oxford – apparently on the site of a pigsty, hence the image of her hiding amongst the swine in Burne-Jones’s stained glass window, above – and at Bampton, another of her hiding places, became pilgrimage destinations, and miracles were recorded at both of these sites.  She is also recorded as curing lepers by kissing them and restoring sight by bathing the afflicted’s eyes in holy springs when she was still alive.  She lived happily to the ripe old age of seventy-seven, thus demonstrating the benefits of a good and holy life.  Let that be a lesson to us all!