A few thoughts on Martin Luther

A few thoughts on Martin Luther

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the reformation. On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther made his name by nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church. This simple act of criticism represented something bigger than one monk with an axe to grind. It started a deluge of criticism, complaint, and debate regarding the nature of the church, its doctrines, its authority, and even its history. From one German principality, Luther’s name and complaint echoed across Germany, Europe, and across the seas into England and Scotland.

The story of Martin Luther and the reformation has always fascinated me. I remember reading a short narrative of Luther’s story for my A-Levels and becoming transfixed by it. The lowly monk who challenged a worldwide institution and won. It reads more like a work of fiction than fact. But it’s not a story. It’s history. It actually happened, and therefore there are consequences.

Travellers ambushed outside a small town during the Thirty Years War by Sebastian Vrancx
Travellers ambushed outside a small town during the Thirty Years War by Sebastian Vrancx

Around 15 million died in the Thirty Years War, a war that began between the protestant and catholic principalities. In England, John Foxe records 284 deaths of Protestants caused by Queen Mary. During the Bartholomew massacre in France somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 (figures vary widely) died. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Many others died in multiple countries for either the Protestant or Roman Catholic faith. Then there is the upheaval itself. The ordinary people were suddenly told that their faith was wrong and had been for centuries. Whole swathes of what people considered to be ordinary and sustaining aspects of their lives were altered, removed, or dismantled. In England at least, the Bible could suddenly be read in English, the Mass was no longer considered supernatural in property, but simply claimed as a re-enactment, purgatory was declared as a lie and prayer for the dead made meaningless, and saints could not offer help in this world. The list goes on.

There are many other consequences of the reformation. Depending on your beliefs, people in European countries either found the true religion, removed themselves from the true religion, or still got it wrong whatever they did. Max Weber first suggested that the reformation also brought about the ‘modern’ world, encouraging innovation and capitalism. Its effects echo down the centuries in a variety of ways and, perhaps, gives us some pause for thought about how we should handle events in our own time.

If for a moment, we try to put ourselves in the shoes of ordinary people in the sixteenth-century, then the changes would appear overwhelming. For those who found themselves in Protestant controlled territories, their core beliefs and practices were overturned and made illegal within one generation. For those remaining under the care of the papacy, then there is the horror of such huge swathes of fellow Christians breaking from the church and declaring war upon it. For the ordinary person on either side of the confessional divide, the reformation was something to conform to; something to survive through. It provokes a familiar feeling. In a few ways the world that developed in 2016 in the West, of Brexit and Donald Trump, leads to a similar level of disruption, uncertainty, confusion, and outright fear in 2017. Yet, in the same way, life plods on. People adapt. Whether there are parallels to be made between then and now which prove fruitful remains to be seen, but certainly ‘history’ continues to play a role in the present and will continue to help shape our future, whatever that might be.

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Robin Hood, Doctor Who, and the emergence of the a modern rogue!

Robin Hood, Doctor Who, and the emergence of the a modern rogue!

Ask anyone today what is Robin Hood all about and you will be almost certainly told that he stole from the rich to give to the poor.  This is Robin’s main motif, and his most popular attribute.  Robin Hood is an example for the modern day clash between the rich and the poor.  He is also an example of the tension between those in power (the government for example) and those under their control.  Robin Hood is the hero for the ordinary person against the greed and control exacted over them by the powerful.

He is much like Doctor Who – he has the moral and social right on his side but only because he is in conflict with the people in charge – he is a maverick and an outsider.  Like the more recent manifestations of Doctor Who, Robin Hood has had his past life taken from him and he is now the creation of his enemies.  But he won’t run away and hide, instead he fights for what he believes in, and that fight is very much the fight of the ordinary person.  We can therefore understand him and his plight, support it and defend his actions even when they are close to crossing the line.  Robin steals – this is bad – but he does so for a better, higher purpose, and only against those who – we would like to believe – deserve to be stolen from, because they themselves have robbed us; not literally of course, but certainly figuratively; through their careful and ruthless (we believe) use of capitalist systems and rules and laws. Doctor Who similarly sides with the oppressed and needy over those in power.

 

When did Robin Hood start giving to the poor?

It is interesting then that this whole aspect of Robin Hood was only really developed in the nineteenth century, quite late in the history of the legend.  The idea was there in a latent form in the very earliest tales.  Robin refused to steal from the impoverished Knight, he also returned his money to him when he managed to take it from the Sheriff.  But it was not explicit nor even the key message.

One man in particular can be credited with drawing out this moral aspect to Robin’s tales.  That man is Joseph Ritson (1752-1803), a Jacobin from Stockton-on-Tees, who collected together all of the remaining extent materials relating to the Robin Hood legend and published them in two volumes in 1795. Ritson acknowledged that much of the source material was of later origin than he had expected and that he had found much less than he had hoped. Nonetheless, he felt confident that he could form a fragile ‘life’ story of Robin Hood that was accurate to history. Ritson admitted that Robin was a robber and a thief, but that he had been taken in to the hearts of the people as he was an ‘honourable thief’ and rouge. He further argued that

in these exertions of power, he [Robin Hood] took away the goods of rich men only; never killing any person, unless he was attacked or resisted: that he would not suffer a woman to be maltreated; nor ever took any thing from the poor, but charitably fed them with the wealth he drew from the abbots.

– Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood, p. ix.

Ritson’s interest in Robin Hood stemmed from his political opinions and fitted into the context of his times. In 1791 Ritson had visited Paris, and returned with an enthusiasm for the republican form of government that the French had recently established after their revolution.  Ritson believed that the French had freed themselves from the corrupt institutions of the past, and wished England would do the same. Ritson’s Robin Hood encapsulated that spirit. 

Walter Scott also followed a similar line in his Ivanhoe (published in 1820), giving Robin Hood and his men key roles in the story. Scott refers to Robin as Locksley basing this on an anonymous manuscript from the seventeenth-century, but unlike Ritson ignores the sixteenth-century claim that Robin was born a nobleman. Between Ritson and Scott the modern disjointed characteristics of Robin Hood emerges. Like Ritson, Scott described Robin and his men as merry and cheery and also, as decent and patriotic.

In chapter 32 of Ivanhoe, Locksley and his men rest after besieging the Castle of Torquilstone and rescued the Lady Rowena. They have amassed a seizable bounty after their success, but due to their customs ‘no one ventured to appropriate any part of the booty, which was brought into one common mass, to be at the disposal of their leader’.  Locksley distributes the wealth fairly amongst all those who took part in the siege.  When the Lady Rowena approaches Locksley to offer thanks, Scott has her affirm his tendency to defend the oppressed:

 

As Rowena bent her steed towards Locksley’s seat, that bold yeoman, with all his followers, rose to receive her, as if by a general instinct of courtesy. The blood rose to her cheeks, as, courteously waving her hand, and bending so low that her beautiful and loose tresses were for an instant mixed with the flowing mane of her palfrey, she expressed in few but apt words her obligations and her gratitude to Locksley and her other deliverers.—”God bless you, brave men,” she concluded, “God and Our Lady bless you and requite you for gallantly perilling yourselves in the cause of the oppressed!—If any of you should hunger, remember Rowena has food—if you should thirst, she has many a butt of wine and brown ale—and if the Normans drive ye from these walks, Rowena has forests of her own, where her gallant deliverers may range at full freedom, and never ranger ask whose arrow hath struck down the deer.”

“Thanks, gentle lady,” said Locksley; “thanks from my company and myself. But, to have saved you requites itself. We who walk the greenwood do many a wild deed, and the Lady Rowena’s deliverance may be received as an atonement.”

– Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1820), ch. 32.

Ritson, Scott and other literary writers of the nineteenth century were less bothered with authenticity or historical accuracy, and more interested in creating atmosphere. This meant that the myths and legends of Robin Hood solidified and took on their modern appropriations at this time.  Robin as provider to the poor, and enemy of the rich fitted into discourses about wealth, power, and authority that was prevalent in the nineteenth-century, and remains so (perhaps even more so) today. In this sense Doctor Who is a modern day Robin Hood, but only in so-far as Robin Hood himself was characterised 200 years ago. In that sense Robin Hood himself is equally a modern invention.

 

Sources

Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: a collection of all the ancient poems, songs, and ballads now extant related to that celebrated English outlaw (2 vols., 1795).

Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1820) Online Here

Image: ©BBC

The first tales of Robin Hood

The first tales of Robin Hood

This is less of a blog post and more of a brief list of the earliest Robin Hood tales.  All pre-date the sixteenth century in terms of their initial creation, but not necessarily in terms of when they were written down.  I have taken the details from J.C. Holt’s Robin Hood (dated 1982) in which five initial MSS are listed.

  1. Robin Hood and the Monk (dated 1450) – This tale was included with a prayer against thieves and robbers as well as a treatise on the seven deadly sins, various poetic and moralistic materials.
  2. Robin Hood and the Potter (dated c. 1503) – This is part of a MS collection of romances and moralistic pieces.
  3. A Gest of Robyn Hode (printed early-16th century) – The Gest seems to be a drawing together of various Robin Hood tales into one large poem. It is likely to be representative of the legend as it existed at that point, but is not comprehensive as confirmed by the survival of other stories that are not included here.  It was printed fist in Antwerp in the early sixteenth-century by Wynken de Worde with three further editions produced with minor corrections and additions up to 1534.  It was probably derived from a single written source, dated to the early fifteenth-century.
  4. Percy Folio (published 1765) – derived from a MS probably from the early fifteenth-century, this document contained Robin Hood and his Death (closely resembling the Gest) and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (which shares some subject matter with a play which only now survives as a fragment in a MS dated c. 1475). Thomas Percy was Bishop of Dromoe, Ireland and had it published in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.
  5. Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar (c. 1417) – a ballard.

Although all surviving early texts of Robin Hood date to the fifteenth century or later, these were certainly all based on earlier oral traditions probably beginning sometime early in the thirteenth century.  There were therefore over 200 years between when the legend began and the versions that we now have as evidence.  Holt notes that ‘they spring, not from the point of origin of the legend, but from different stages in its growth’ (Holt, p. 12).

Further Reading

J.C. Holt, Robin Hood (Thames & Hudson: London, 1982)

The legend of Robin Hood

The legend of Robin Hood

How do we look at both the ‘real’ history and the myths and legends as they were portrayed and used in the early modern period? For the last week I’ve spent the afternoon train ride away from work to read up on the Robin Hood legends.  My sudden interest isn’t really all that sudden at all.  Myths and legends are of interest to me, especially within the context of how these depict knowledge and history in any given era.   However, in this case my decision to read up on the subject has been drawn on through my television habits.

I’ve recently been watching the 1980s Robin of Sherwood series created by Richard Carpenter.  Although the show was cancelled after only 3 seasons, it hooked a generation through a gritty but also at times light-hearted retelling of the myths.  The music, provided by Irish folk group Clannad added to the feel that you were entering a world of legend, rather than real history, but the show managed to mingle both very well.

This got me to thinking about what was behind all these legends?  How accurate was the portrayal on screen and how had the legend developed?  There is some evidence to suggest that Robin Hood was a real man, but not much, and most is circumstantial.  It’s not really important anyway.  The legend of Robin Hood and his merry men is what matters.  It has become an integral part of British culture continuing today in films, television, even comic book adaptations.  It is also, still, an oral tradition, told and retold by each generation – a collective and personal tale that becomes a part of us, an influence on the things we think, and the way we act.

What surprises me is relatively how recent many aspects of these legends are.  In reading J.C. Holt’s Robin Hood (published by Thames & Hudson in 1982 and then as a second edition in 1989) I have learnt that the earliest surviving manuscripts to contain tales of Robin Hood date, at best, to the fifteenth century.  A brief reference to a man knowing of the ‘rhymes of Robin Hood’ in William Langland’s Piers Ploughman (1377) is our earliest written evidence.  Holt tells us that the tales were most likely started in the latter half of the fourteenth century, written down in the fifteenth, and reformed and solidified in the sixteenth.  Originally there was no Maid Marian, no stealing from the rich to give to the poor and no Friar Tuck.  Even the claim that Robin was active during the reign of Richard the Lionheart was not necessarily true in the earliest tales.  Like any legendary tale, the stories of Robin Hood have changed for each generation, evolving and producing variations according to need, location, and context.  Most recently, and as an example of how the legends can adapt, between the two editions of Holt’s book, the aforementioned Robin of Sherwood television series introduced a Saracen character into the ‘merry men’ which was then reused in Hollywood’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1991.  He was not part of the legend before, but he is now; a new addition for late twentieth-century television and movie addicts.

Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991)

If the addition of a Saracen is a twentieth-century addition to the legend, then Maid Marian is a sixteenth-century addition.  She only came into the tales via Robin Hood’s involvement in the May Games.  The early tales are also unconcerned about the idea of stealing from the rich, to give to the poor.  This comes in very late – the nineteenth century to be precise. Initially Robin Hood is an outlaw with a conscious; he ‘invites’ travellers to dinner then demands payment.  If they tell the truth about what their purse contains (this inevitably only happens when the man is poor) then they are allowed to go on their way unmolested and usually helped in defeating some trouble that they are about to encounter.  If they lie (usually a sign that they are rich) then that money is taken.  If anything, the tales include an element of anti-clerical posturing.  Robin Hood steals happily from the monks at York.  He is not so bothered about secular landlords.  Robin does enter conflict with the Sherriff of Nottingham but this is not primarily a morality tale about Norman overseers or unfair taxes.

In the early stories Robin is assuredly a yeoman.  There is no question of his status.  That changed in the sixteenth-century.  John Leland – the famed antiquary who travelled England’s monasteries during the time of their dissolution – described Robin as nobilis (i.e. a nobleman).  He had likely seen a prose life of Robin Hood (in reality a hotchpotch of the various tales and legend s rewritten from poem and ballad to prose) that claimed the hooded man as a nobleman.  In 1598 Anthony Munday wrote two plays in which Robin featured as Robert, early of Huntingdon.  Therefore, within a century Robin Hood had managed to do what few people could do in life – he had traversed the social hierarchy from lowly yeoman to the son of a nobleman, turned outlaw and thief.

It seems to me that the rise of a print culture solidified and impacted on many legends and myths in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries.  The tales of Arthur and Merlin were also repositioned and reworked because of the printing press. This is just one part of a wider trajectory for legendary stories – oral transmission continued and still continues an important part of this.  What all of it makes me wonder is how a study of mythology at this time might impact on our understanding of Protestant attempts to retell their history.  The reformation required a revised past; the question is, how much of this was real history and how much mythology?  I think that is still an open question, which has never fully been answered (if a definitive answer is at all possible).

Further Reading

J.C. Holt, Robin Hood (Thames & Hudson: 1982).

The popularity of William of Malmesbury in the sixteenth-century

The popularity of William of Malmesbury in the sixteenth-century

The Gesta Regum Anglorum, compiled by William of Malmesbury in the thirteenth century had an interesting role to play in the English reformation as well as England’s refocused history.  A search of Early English Books Online (EEBO) suggests that in the first fifty years of the sixteenth century the Gesta Regum Anglorum featured in only five printed texts.  In the last fifty years of the century it featured sixteen times.   The figures from EEBO are however not a fair judge.  Although EEBO contains over 100,000 out of 125,000 printed texts listed in the ESTC the search will only bring up references found in associated metadata (titles, author, publisher etc.) and for those texts which are searchable via a transcript (a small proportion of the entire database).  We therefore need to dig a little deeper.

According to Antonia Gransden, William of Malmesbury was the first man since Bede to produce a corpus of historical works.  Gransden tells us that he absorbed both Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman traditions of historiography and added ‘his own individual genius’ (Gransden, v.1, p. 167).  However, since the thirteenth century other histories had taken its place often, but not always absorbing the contents of their earlier progenitors including Malmesbury.  Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon is the prime example and was, in the earlier portion of the sixteenth century, the standard medieval history upon which all contemporary histories were built.  The English reformation changed all of that as a new need to revisit older histories became paramount to establishing the new church order.

The reformation posed a problem for those who studied the past; England’s history was largely written by Monks and as such revealed a very Roman Catholic view of the past.  Protestant writers therefore looked beyond the Polychronicon and other recent histories in the search for clues hidden between the lines of older histories in the hope of showing that the Roman Catholics had hidden, corrupted or even lied about various truths.  The works of William of Malmesbury were one such text.

Whether or not scholars realised the extent of William of Malmesbury’s corpus is however debatable.  Whilst lists of works by John Bale in his Catalogus cannot be fully trusted as accurate, his list of 21 works for William of Malmesbury (Bale, 1559, 186-7) suggests that scholars were at least aware of his prolific nature.

On William of Malmesbury’s historiographical compunction, John Foxe (in his Acts and Monuments) appears to have realised that, for the most part, William could be trusted to show a critical awareness of his evidence, but that he could fall short sometimes when dealing with monastic origins.  William of Malmesbury’s source base was equally prolific as his own written corpus.  The Gesta Regum Anglorum and Gesta Pontificum Anglorum were derived from a careful reading of nearly all historians, biographers and hagiographers from the Anglo-Saxon period up to his own.  In a sense, Malmesbury provided Foxe with a clear amalgam of anglo-saxon scholarship, helpfully divided between church matters (Pontificum Anglorum) and secular events (Regum Anglorum).

William of Malmesbury also provided Foxe with a version of history at once hostile to the Anglo-Saxons.  Gransden describes the conception of the Anglo-Saxons in the Regum as a lustful and gluttonous race, lacking in religious observance (Gransden, p. 173).  Helpful for Foxe also was William of Malmesbury’s preference for Canterbury over York during the controversies over the supremacy of those two archbishoprics.  It was important for Foxe to support his chief patron, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker by declaring the supremacy of Canterbury in older histories.

On the surface it would seem, therefore that William of Malmesbury had a resurgence in popularity (and therefore of knowledge) in the latter half of the sixteenth-century. His history of the papacy and history of English kings was noted by John Bale, used by John Foxe, William Hollinshed, and John Stow, and was collected and examined by Matthew Parker. We must be careful, however, in this argument. The use of William’s works also by Polydore Virgil in the late 1520s suggests that this use was nothing new. William of Malmesbury also appears as a source in the fifteenth-century Fabyan Chronicles and, vitally, in Higden’s Polychronicon.

The alteration, it would appear, is largely a mirage. The sheer number of scholars working on history by the end of the sixteenth century, compared to its beginning, skews the evidence. William of Malmesbury was used more – and in different ways – by these later scholars only because history was again viewed as important. In the earlier portion of the century only a few scholars – primarily Polydore Virgil – bothered to write officially about the past. Some other histories did return into favour – such as Matthew Paris – but it would appear that William of Malmesbury had always been popular.

The evidence in sixteenth-century histories suggests that most scholars still looked at William’s manuscript chronicles where possible, rather than to simply rely upon later citations in the Polychronicon and elsewhere.

 

 

 

John Joscelyn’s Old English dictionary – its construction

John Joscelyn’s Old English dictionary – its construction

Archbishop Matthew Parker had his Testimonie of Antiquitie published using a special Anglo-Saxon font, developed by the printer John Day on his behalf (and through the archbishops own pocket).  The font was reused in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments and various other works designed to support the Protestant viewpoint of early medieval Britain.  Creating such a font was an expensive business.  Peter J. Lucas estimates these fonts to have cost Parker in the sum of £200.  It was a highly technical and complex job.  John Day was, however the appropriate printer to be approached as he already employed a large Dutch workforce, well-known for their technical skill as type-founders.  This has been discussed in detail by Elizabeth Evenden in an article about the ‘fleeing Dutchmen’. Continue reading “John Joscelyn’s Old English dictionary – its construction”

Using Moodle to create a publicly facing online training website

6660068989_42915e9f3dIn January 2015 the School of Advanced Study officially launched its new online research training website for arts and humanities postgraduate studies. The purpose of this site is to part-fulfil the School’s remit to offer research facilitation services across the country and in part to make more use of the work that SAS staff already do on a regular basis. Continue reading “Using Moodle to create a publicly facing online training website”