The Middle English ‘popular’ romances used to be shunned in academia, but they are so entertaining that they are now back in fashion.
The biennial Medieval Romance in Britain conference, which is dedicated to the study of these romances, began in the UK in 1988 as a very small-scale event, but it has grown and grown and has become global (the 2016 conference was in Vancouver).
In the classroom, it is now normal to have some popular romances (Sir Orfeo, Sir Launfal, Sir Gowther) on the syllabus, alongside works by Chaucer, Gower, and so on. Nevertheless, despite this renewed attention, in many respects we still know very little about the popular romances. Most of them are anonymous; they do not survive in authoritative texts, and the immediate social milieu in which they were produced and for which they were intended is usually unclear. And these are not the only mysteries: until very late in the Middle Ages the people that composed these romances wrote them in verse, but we have little idea about what kind of verse this is.
The form of poetry used by Chaucer and Gower, rhymed iambic verse, is still being written today, but that is not the case with the verse found in many of the Middle English romances, where, astonishingly it is still necessary to begin with the most basic question: what did these poets think they were doing?
To address these questions, we brought together an international team of experts and invited them to focus on the form in which these romances have been transmitted. On the one hand, this is the material form, the manuscripts or early prints, which often offer the only clues about readership, provenance, and social context. On the other hand, there is the verse form, the analysis of which can offer insights into style, literary context, and the manner in which texts were transmitted and performed. The advantage of combining these two approaches, material philology and the study of verse form, is that these approaches are mutually illuminating.
If you are interested in verse form, the physical book is always important: the lay-out of poems on the actual page is a crucial aspect of verse form. And, conversely, if you are interested in how these poems were transmitted, the metre and rhyme scheme of surviving texts contain clues about the text, and sometimes even the visual lay-out of that text, as a manuscript scribe would encounter it.
There are eleven essays in all, and between them the contributors deal with a great many romances (Sir Orfeo, Gamelyn, Sir Tristrem, Bevis, etc.), including ones that do not usually get a look-in (Cheuelere Assigne, Generydes, Amoryus and Cleopes, and Caxton’s printed romances). Because one of the essays deals with illustrated manuscripts of Middle English romances, we pushed the boat out and included several colour reproductions of manuscript illuminations in addition to the usual black-and-white images. Thanks to an award from the Neil Ker Memorial Fund and the University of Bristol the cost of this is not reflected in the price of the book.
On the eve of Ghana’s independence from British rule, the country’s first radio programme dedicated to the broadcast of original literature aired from Accra, the capital of Ghana (then the Gold Coast). From 1955, The Singing Net, provided writers, poets, playwrights, journalists, and academics with a platform to share their writing with their fellow Ghanaians. Contributions to The Singing Net were compiled along with selected pieces from other literary broadcasts to create the anthology Voices of Ghana: Literary Contributions to the Ghana Broadcasting System, 1955-57, another first in Ghana’s literary history. To celebrate the publication of the revised second edition of this landmark volume, editor Victoria Ellen Smith shares an insight into her research.
The first time that I saw the original 1958 edition of Voices of Ghana was when Martin Swanzy, a son of its compiler, Henry Swanzy, sent a copy to me in 2009. When I opened this small hardback book of mid-brown with its bold green printed title, I found a handwritten inscription on the first page:
To Sam van Eeghan
from the compiler June 1958.
The original recipient was the compiler’s brother-in-law, who received his copy three months after it was published by the Ghanaian government’s printing press in March 1958. It was generously loaned to me when I began researching mid-twentieth century Ghanaian literature and its dissemination through the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Gold Coast Broadcasting Service (which became the Ghana Broadcasting System on independence in 1957). I didn’t realise it at the time, but I would keep this copy in constant use over the coming years as I researched its content and publication history in preparation to edit the 60th anniversary second edition. As I write, the original 1958 copy sits, as usual, on my desk. In assisting me to bring about a new 2018 edition, its pages have become rather more thumbed than when I received it and the corners and spine of the cover are now frayed and delicate.
Voices of Ghana was the country’s first anthology of poems, short stories, plays and essays in which the works of forty-nine Ghanaian writers including Albert Kayper-Mensah, Geormbeeyi Adali-Mortty, Amu Djoleto, Andrew Amankwa Opoku, Frank Parkes, Efua Sutherland, Henry Ofori, Kwesi Brew, Joyce Addo, J.H. Kwabena Nketia and Cameron Duodu come together, with the addition of the Trinidadian-born poet MacNeill Stewart, to present narratives that were maintained by oral tradition, reinventions of folklore, and new tales of city life. The book has a two-part structure – ‘The Countryside’ and ‘The Town’ – which represents the apparently opposite worlds of the traditional, rural and the modern, urban. However, many pieces explore the tension found in the complex transition between these worlds. The collection ends with a number of pieces that depict the historical events of independence and articulate the writers’ hopes for a new era in the country’s history. The final piece is Ghana’s first national anthem which has a rather controversial history of its own, as I explain in the introduction to the second edition.
Most of the literature in Voices of Ghana was originally broadcast on The Singing Net, the Gold Coast Broadcasting Service’s first literary radio programme. It gained material for a weekly 14-minute Sunday evening programme through submissions from staff at Broadcasting House as well as both new and established writers who listened to the programme when it aired across the country from the capital, Accra. Competitions were also mounted to encourage those with a passion for writing to submit work for consideration. The 1955 playwriting competition, for example, asked for short plays written in any of the languages that were used for broadcast: English, Akan (Twi and Fante), Ga, Ewe, Hausa and Dagbani. In addition, a play’s narrative could be ‘Traditional, Imaginative or the Pathway to Independence’ – a set of themes that evidently found their way into the structure of the anthology. There are no known recordings of The Singing Net, which aired from 1955 to 1966, but research suggests that Voices of Ghana reflects that which was broadcast on the programme.
Born from radio, the printed anthology not only enables understanding of mid-twentieth century Ghanaian literature but also the broadcast culture of a time when programme makers and writers were responding to Ghana’s unique position as the first sub-Saharan nation to gain independence. In his Foreword to the new edition, The Singing Net contributor Atukwei Okai refers to the text as ‘a literary time capsule’ and ‘a great “archaeological” find’ – one which James Currey has now made available to a new generation of readers. The second edition includes an unabridged copy of the original text with the addition of a new Preface, Foreword, Introduction and annotations. However, its cover differs dramatically from that of the first. The striking 2018 edition draws on the symbol of the 1950s microphone and the national insignia of the Ghanaian flag with its red, gold and green stripes and central black star.
Sixty years on, this collection of writing is as engaging as it was at the dawn of Ghana’s independence; and the additional editorial material is intended to introduce new readers to these works through a celebration of the broadcast culture from which the literature came.
Victoria Ellen Smith is a Lecturer in the Department of History, University of Ghana, Legon.
Voices of Ghana: Literary Contributions to the Ghana Broadcasting System, 1955-57 (Second Edition) will be published by James Currey in September 2018 in hardback for £60/$99 RRP. A paperback edition for African countries will also be made available from James Currey for £9.99 (Sub-Saharan Publishers will publish an edition for Ghana and Nigeria).
Published earlier this year as part of our longstanding Worlds of the East India Company series, Kay Saville-Smith’s Provincial Society and Empire presents an unusual take on the Company and on the men and women who sought success and advancement in the East Indies. For these are not the people we might expect – City bankers, successful merchants and the sons and heirs of London elites – but people already on the edges of that society, out in the provinces of England, and in this particular case very far out in Cumbria. Who were these men and women? What took them to India? What did they do? How did they do? What wealth, connections, new ideas and outlooks did they bring with them on their return, and what effect did these have on Cumbria? Kay Saville-Smith (Director of the Centre for Research, Evaluation and Social Assessment in Wellington, New Zealand) explains more, including how this was not the book she planned in the first place….
The relationship between provincial society and empire during the long eighteenth century has long been neglected not only by historians of the East India Company and empire, but those concerned with provincial lives, regional change and the emergence of middling folk in the provincial urban renaissance. I would like to claim that tracing and exploring Cumbria’s encounter with the East Indies started as a purposeful venture designed to remedy that neglect. But I cannot. Provincial Society and Empire shows more than four hundred Cumbrians travelling to the East Indies between 1680 and 1829. It was a huge commitment of human and financial capital for the sparsely populated Cumbrian counties which have typically been portrayed as economically and socially on the margins of Britain’s global expansion and industrial transformation. It might be assumed that my devotion to uncovering that provincial investment was inspired by a sense that here was an obvious and significant story to tell. But it was not.
Only in hindsight, after the fact, has the importance of Cumbria’s encounter with the East Indies been revealed. Undertaking a history of that encounter was never obvious. The historiography of Cumbria’s eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been dominated by questions around the stalling of Cumbria’s industrialisation after a period of proto-industrialisation, the peculiarities and change in its social structure, the material and ideological construction of its landscapes, and its rendition as the Lake District. Those preoccupations shaped my original research intention: to explore the declining innovation of the Cumbrian iron industry and its association with the apparently shifting aspirations and sensibilities of its key families, the Knotts, Harrisons and the Ainslies. That research was still-born owing to one of the perennial anxieties of a historian, the removal of records from the public domain.
Sometime in March 2011, BDX 38 entitled Paul Reginald Benson Brydson of Water Park, Colton was removed from the local archives with the expectation that the records would be re-deposited. In four boxes, with a catalogue of some seventy pages and stretching from 1596-1920, there were transactions related to a succession of Cumbrian iron companies and works, estate documents, and letters. I came to Britain from New Zealand later in that year to access them. They had not been re-deposited. This was a dead end.
The idea of exploring Cumbrians’ encounter with the East Indies was a dejected, virtually flip, response to Professor Angus Winchester’s suggestion that there must be other aspects of Cumbrian history that would grab my attention. Like my interest in the Cumbrian iron industry, the idea of tracing the Cumbrian encounter with the East Indies was fuelled by my own familial connections. I was a direct descendant of the Harrisons and had kin connections with both the Knotts and Ainslies. I had found references to East Indies sojourns in all those families as well as other unrelated Cumbrian families. I knew that at least one other of my Westmerian ancestors had spent much of his very long life in India in the nineteenth century. Indeed, connections with the East Indies have always been part of my family’s ‘memories’ and are evident among my Cumbrian, Welsh and southern English kin. Those ‘memories’ undoubtedly contributed to my decision to undertake Asian history as one major, sociology was the other, in my bachelor’s degree.
I took on Angus’ challenge that I would have to show that Cumbrian encounters with the East Indies were significant for Cumbria and were, preferably, represented by some weight of numbers. Provincial Society and Empire is the result. Cumbrian counties were over-represented among the sojourners that flowed into the East Indies from the British Isles over the long eighteenth century. Cumbrian sojourners and their families were motivated by distinctly provincial preoccupations. Cumbrian attachments and networks shaped the East Indies careers of Cumbrian men and the marriages of Cumbrian women sent to India. East Indies resources flowed back into Cumbria. Many returning sojourners became part of a Cumbrian elite with parliamentary, and more importantly, local power and influence. They acquired or were enabled to develop land and build houses. They invested in iron, agriculture, banking and tourism.
I remain saddened that public access to records critical to our understanding of the Cumbrian iron industry appears lost. We must rely on Alfred Fell’s idiosyncratic, discursive and unsystematic history first published in 1908. But I have no regrets that I was forced to refocus my research. Uncovering, reconstructing and reformulating the lives of Cumbrian men and women travelling seeking their fortunes in the East Indies, their preoccupations and sensibilities has been an enormously exciting venture. It has been a fascinating process of cross-archival search, piecing together the past, and using techniques of family history and biographical research. I have been able to use the power of digital search and digitisation to ‘piece together’ fragments of the past including the letters, wills, memorials, school and East India Company records of sojourners and their Cumbrian friends and families.
Enumerating these many Cumbrian sojourners, exploring their place and familial attachments, and tracing the impact of East Indies sojourns on the Cumbrian counties have tested many narratives. It challenges the idea of Cumbria as marginal and retreating from modern world, backward and inward looking. It questions the idea that British India was ‘ruled’ by a small set of dynastic families whose connections, sensibilities and identity were forged in the East Indies. It demonstrates that the East India Company was more than about the interests of London-based merchants. This research shows that empire can not be seen simply, or even primarily, as a national project driven by political interests in the construction and legitimation of Union and a British identity. Provincial place-based networks and attachments were a material agent in what was to become British imperial expansion in India. The provincial world was deeply implicated in the East Indies and the East Indies shaped the provincial world and the constitution, influence and power of provincial social and economic elites.
First published in August 2013, Professor Kirk Ambrose’s book took an unusual approach to the monsters depicted in so much medieval art and architecture. What if these fearsome creatures articulated much more than simply fear? It’s a refreshing take on a huge segment of medieval art (specifically in the book’s case sculpture in religious buildings) and one that helps explain the extraordinary imagination that was poured into so many of these creations. Now that his book has been published in paperback, Professor Ambrose gives us his latest thoughts on the subject.
During the twelfth century, artists across Europe carved thousands of wooden and stone monsters into the fabric of churches, as well as in a variety of secular buildings. Some of these fantastic creatures correspond to types, such as sirens and griffins, with roots in antiquity. Others appear to be the spontaneous improvisations of artists, who would inventively combine motifs, such as feathers, pointed teeth, and snake tails. Why was so much artistic energy and so much expense dedicated to fashioning these monsters?
The recent, and gratifying, release in paperback of my book on monsters in Romanesque sculpture prompted me to revisit this question. I firmly believe that far from being marginal curiosities, monsters can shed light on central aspects of culture, including what is valued, what is demonized, and how creativity itself is understood. Positive reviews of my book, including those by Scott Brown (Burlington Magazine), Christopher Howse (Daily Telegraph), and Colum Hourihane (Speculum), have likewise recognized the promise that studying monsters holds. Indeed, this sentiment has continued to grow among medievalists since 2013, when my book first appeared, as attested by numerous publications and museum exhibitions dedicated to the topic of the monstrous. While a comprehensive survey would run many pages, exemplary of this trend are the exhibition currently on view at the Morgan Library in New York City, Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders, and an exhibition opening in May 2019 at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World. Museums are especially welcome interlocutors, for they effectively engage broad, diverse audiences.
I would note in a general way, however, that recent attention to monsters in the Middle Ages has gravitated toward later periods and largely focused on examples found in manuscript paintings. These trends are partly understandable given that architectural sculpture by its very nature is difficult or impossible to incorporate, say, within the context of a museum exhibition. Yet, I believe it is important to signal the continued need to consider the case of monumental Romanesque sculpture as the field of monster studies continues to develop. From the wooden stave churches of Norway to the monasteries of Portugal, from the stone fonts of England to the church portals of Hungary, carvings of monsters occupied remarkably public positions in twelfth-century life, the scope of which was unprecedented in Europe. The physical presence of sculpture, as Bernard of Clairvaux knew all too well, renders imaginary creatures salient, even to the point of distraction, for individuals as they move through built environments.
If Charles Homer Haskins’s epithet “Renaissance of the Twelfth Century” has fallen out of fashion, historians continue to recognize the period from 1000 to 1200 as transformative on many fronts, including in the domains of agriculture, literature, philosophy, technology, and, not least, the visual arts. That carvings of monsters were so imbricated into daily life during this period of fundamental change warrants attention if we are to fully understand developments in subsequent centuries. In short, I would argue that the twelfth century was a fundamental, perhaps even foundational, moment in the history of the monstrous in the West.