Dr John S. Lee’s The Medieval Clothier is remarkable in at least two ways: it gives us wonderful insight into the industry that formed the backbone of medieval England’s economy, and it introduces our brand new series, Working in the Middle Ages. Yes, most of us have felt – or feel – like we’re working in the Middle Ages but what was work really like then? The series will tackle different trades, professions and industries and add greatly to our knowledge of the economy, society and the day-to-day life of ordinary people.
Since cloth-making powered England’s economy in the later Middle Ages, Dr Lee’s book is an ideal choice to open the series. He demonstrates the huge impact that the industry had on society and, in a very real way, on the landscape of the country. But he also introduces us to individuals, explaining their business methods and showing us how the riches accumulated by some were used to shape the community around them.
We usually think of casual wage-earners depending on work offered by wealthy entrepreneurs as a very modern phenomenon. Yet six centuries ago, many people in medieval England earned a living in a similar way, as numerous cloth-workers relied on work organised by wealthy clothiers. Clothiers put out raw materials for spinners, weavers, fullers and other cloth-workers to process, often in their own homes, who were paid by the clothiers for their labour.
Cloth-making became England’s leading industry in the late Middle Ages – no other industry created as much employment or generated as much wealth. Clothiers co-ordinated the different stages of production and found markets for their finished cloth.
Like the modern ‘gig’ economy, the benefits of this system were hotly contested. One group of cloth-workers protested that clothiers ‘give us so little wages for our workmanship that scarcely we be able to live’. Another, a band of weavers, accused ‘the rich men, the clothiers’ of setting a single price for their work. Clothiers like Thomas Paycocke, who died in 1518, left bequests in their wills to ‘my weavers, fullers and shearmen’. He gave additional sums for those ‘that have wrought me very much work’.
A few clothiers were able to amass great wealth from this industry, constructing lavish mansions and elaborate church memorials, which can still be seen today. Thomas Paycocke’s house at Coggeshall, Essex, built to impress in 1509-10 with its stunning woodcarving and elaborate panelling, is now a National Trust property. The carvings still display Thomas’ initials and the merchant’s mark with which he branded his cloth as a sign of its quality. The wealth of Thomas Spring ‘the rich clothier’ of Lavenham, Suffolk, caught the attention of the royal court’s poet, John Skelton, in 1522. The screen constructed to surround Spring’s tomb in Lavenham church in Suffolk engaged craftsmen familiar with commissions for the royal court.
Some clothiers were even celebrated as pioneers of factory production. William Stumpe bought the former abbey at Malmesbury in Wiltshire and by 1542 had filled the monastic buildings with weaving looms. John Winchcombe (c.1489-1557) was remembered as an innovator who put his workers together in a single workshop in Newbury. He was praised in the popular story ‘Jack of Newbury’, written two generations after his death.
This book offers the first recent survey of this hugely important and significant trade and its practitioners across England. It provides a step-by-step explanation of the cloth-making processes. The markets where clothiers sold their cloth are explored, as are the places in which they lived and worked. Clothiers interacted with local and national governments, lobbying to influence legislation as well as being the subject of regulation. Also included are extracts from clothiers’ wills and a gazetteer of places to visit. From the Compton family’s memorial brass in Beckington church to Thomas Wild’s residence in the Commandery at Worcester, you can use this book to explore the houses that the clothiers built and the churches that they endowed, which still shape so much of the English landscape today.
I was delighted to see the recent appearance of the paperback edition of The Art of Swordsmanship by Hans Lecküchner. The hardbound edition of my translation of Lecküchner’s 1482 treatise came out three years ago. I had chosen to translate this work among the many dozens of surviving medieval combat treatises because of its importance to the burgeoning academic and athletic domains of historical combat. Although the one-handed sword is a staple in modern reimaginings of medieval swordplay—as indeed it must have been in the Middle Ages, given the ubiquity of the weapon in contexts plebeian and aristocratic, military and civilian—written sources on its use are astonishingly rare before 1500. This is in dramatic contrast to the plethora of texts on wrestling, dagger-play, combat with the “hand-and-a-half” sword, and various forms of armored and mounted combat.
Lecküchner’s treatise might easily be overlooked as representing a marginal weapon-form: the langes Messer is chiefly found in the German-speaking areas, though weapons related to this single-edged, lightly curved utility sword were in use elsewhere. I agonized for a long time over a suitable translation. The closest modern equivalents are the machete and saber, the closest medieval English terms are wood-knife or hanger. In the end I settled on “falchion” as being relatively ergonomic and rare enough that it might be plausibly repurposed. But I also toyed with simply “sword,” and I did use this word for rendering the customary title of the work (Messerfechtkunst). While the treatise ostensibly focuses on a relatively obscure weapon, the techniques actually apply to any weapon that handles like a one-handed sword—single vs. double edge notwithstanding, since Lecküchner uses both sides of the weapon. Lecküchner must be regarded as our chief surviving source on the use of the one-handed sword in the Middle Ages: this fully illustrated manuscript of 400+ pages has no competitor. To judge by the reviews I have seen, the importance of Lecküchner’s work has not been lost on its readers.
Aside from being an important document for the fast-growing community of modern practitioners of historical combat arts, I find Lecküchner’s treatise a fascinating glimpse into the medieval world more broadly. The fact that the author was a parish priest suggests that the medieval clergy were more engaged in the culture of arms than is often assumed—and he is not the only German master who was in Holy Orders. The charming Nuremberg-school illustrations (almost certainly produced by an artist acquainted with Albrecht Dürer) offer insights into the representation of complex physical and physiological realities in European art at a time when the artist’s craft was undergoing some very dramatic transformations. Along these lines, I recommend the trailer by Alex Kiermayer and Hans Heim, which envisions the process by which the manuscript may have been composed.
(One of quite a few videos on Lecküchner that have been produced in the past few years)
All in all, it’s a pleasure to see the book made more accessible with the release of a paperback edition. Translating these texts has been a labor of love, and the most important moment is when I know that the effort has made it possible for others to build on my work.
Without translation there would be no Holocaust. That’s the conclusion I came to about two-thirds of the way through the research and writing for my book, Witness between Languages. It’s an idea that hit me quite hard when it occurred to me, and I resisted it for a while. It certainly wasn’t what I had set out to show when I started to think about the translation of Holocaust testimony in a fairly unstructured way about ten years ago.
A first light went on during a Masters seminar on Holocaust testimony at the University of Edinburgh, in which a group of students with a variety of linguistic backgrounds started to ask questions of these texts that hadn’t occurred to me before (a particular shout-out goes to Lauren Freede, Veronika Kövér, and Claire Ross). What happens to a text like this in translation? What does it mean for the reader’s encounter with a witness’s words if they are mediated through a translator’s voice? If victims’ experiences in the Nazi death camps are literally indescribable, are they also untranslatable? Is translation as much of a barrier as a window onto the text? Are translators able to withdraw from the text in order to give the reader a direct, unmediated encounter with the witness’s voice in the new language, or are they always present in some way, bringing their own attitudes, emotions, interpretations to the text? Whose voice do we encounter when reading a translation? All of these questions, and many more, crowded in at once, and it became clear that there was not going to be a simple answer. And, most importantly, whatever answer one could find was going to be very uncomfortable.
As soon as I started to talk about these issues, it became obvious that other scholars had been thinking along similar lines: you are never the first one to pose a particular question. I must mention here Andrea Hammel, Jean Boase-Beier, Marion Winters, Sharon Deane-Cox, and Angela Kershaw, who had all been pursuing these questions in different ways for some years, and with whom a very productive ongoing dialogue began. The more we dug into these questions, the more people we discovered who were thinking about them, the more angles and approaches we considered, and the bigger and more unmanageable the project became. Questions, as is their habit, led to more questions.
As scholars, we can analyze translation strategies, as well as thinking about how the translated text is read and received in the new context. But that very quickly seemed inadequate, and I think, returning to my opening words, there is a more radical conclusion to draw: without translation there would be no Holocaust. The execution of Nazi policy in the countries either occupied by the Wehrmacht or in collaboration with the Third Reich was made possible by an extraordinary range of translation activity, which has only relatively recently attracted the attention of scholars. Structures and practices of power and oppression required translation to function, as did resistance to them: the multinational and multilingual nature of the prisoners and personnel of the later concentration camp system meant that the camps were a particularly intense focus of linguistic mediation and translation1. The collection and preservation of knowledge, the circulation of information within occupied Europe and North Africa, and the attempts to bring this knowledge out to the world at large all depended on translation.
But there is more: without translation, we would have no concept that demonstrates the link between a whole range of developments, policies, programs, and experiences of violence, persecution, exploitation, and genocidal murder taking place across a vast geographical area, in different countries, and in a bewildering variety of linguistic cultures. Without the translation of testimonies by victims of the Holocaust, the specific ferocity of the Nazi assault on the Jews as Jews would not have acquired clear contours for those of us living after the genocide. The visibility or invisibility of other victim groups has been affected profoundly by what has and has not been translated. The Holocaust, then, as a concept that emerged in scholarship, commemoration, and political discourse in the decades following the end of the Second World War, has processes of translation written into its structure. We cannot think the Holocaust without also thinking about translation, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not (and mostly, we do not).
We rely on translation to make texts accessible to us that otherwise would not be: imagine, for example, what our knowledge about the Holocaust would consist of in the English-speaking world if we only had access to texts composed in English. Translation is at the core of almost every discussion of the Holocaust in every country, and an army of translators, professional and non-professional, has been at work since the 1930s ensuring that we have access to this knowledge. Family members and community translators and interpreters pass on knowledge, memory, and interpretation down the generations, and mediate between victims, their descendants, and broader society. I must mention here as one example amongst many the work of the translation volunteers at the Wiener Library, London, whose significant translation and digitization project has been an inspiration. Beyond this, court interpreters have made trials possible, historians translate documents or have them translated, memorials present educational material in translation, and testimonies are read in translation or watched with subtitles.
Why, then, have the astonishing achievements of translators so rarely been properly acknowledged? Why has so much of the thinking about translation concentrated on what cannot be done, rather than exploring what can? And why has it taken so long for concrete critical attention to be paid to what happens to these texts when they are translated and read in translation? The field has been expanding since the mid-2000s, with important work being done by Zoë Adams, Zaia Alexander, Sylvia Degen, Ingvild Folkvord, Dorota Glowacka, Piotr Kuhiwczak, Stephanie Munyard, Simone Schroth, Naomi Seidman, Michaela Wolf, and Sue Vice, beyond those I named above. But translation has never been ‘mainstreamed’ in discussion of the Holocaust: it is being established as a legitimate field of study through the commitment of a small number of scholars, but it is still a rather niche interest in conferences, publications, and public discussion of the Holocaust.
My book is an attempt to make the case for the defining importance of translation in Holocaust Studies, to show that something significant is missing if we do not discuss it, and to try to answer some questions. If previous experience is anything to go by, though, I’ll just end up with more questions than I started with. Perhaps another group of students will answer them for me.
I want to finish by setting out some suggestions, perhaps utopian. Not for translators, who have to deal with complex ethical questions under pressure and don’t need any advice from me, but for those who read, use, write about, cite, or publish translated testimonies:
Always name the translator (#namethetranslator is a hashtag often used by translators irritated by their persistent invisibility). If the name of the translator is not made clear in the texts we are citing, make an effort to track it down.
Always name the language of the original and provide some information about the circumstances of the translation, where possible.
Never read a translation as if it were the original text, and don’t talk about the ‘voice’ of the witness without acknowledging the translator’s contribution to it.
Whether we know the language of the original or not, acknowledge that the translation situation and the aim of the translation may have influenced aspects of the text’s language, structure, or perspective, and at least consider this issue.
If we ourselves translate even a sentence from a testimony or other source for our work, then always be explicit about what we are trying to achieve with the translation and why.
Too much to ask? To be honest, until consideration of the effects of translation becomes part of the standard methodological armory of scholars writing about testimony, I don’t think so.
The fear of damnation, the modernist sensibility and the racial politics of twentieth-century America are just some of the topics bursting out of this July’s must-reads. Take a look through our highlights and see which book you could soak up in the sunshine. Until next time!
Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke, the most famous (and important) German language poet of the twentieth century – a master to be ranked with Goethe and Heine – wrote the New Poems of 1907 and 1908 in transition from his late-nineteenth-century style. They mark his appearance as a lyrical, metaphysical poet of the modernist sensibility, often using traditional forms like the sonnet to explore the inner essence, the deep heart, of things – often, quite literally, things.
Reception and Reputation, Criticism and Controversy, 1851-2015
Mark Twain under Fire tracks the genesis and evolution of Twain’s reputation as a writer: his reception as a humorist, his “return fire” on genteel critics, and the development of academic criticism. As a history of Twain criticism, the book draws on English and foreign-language scholarship, discussing the forces and ideas that have influenced criticism revealing how and why Mark Twain has been “under fire” from the advent of his career to the present day
An unforgettable introduction to the medieval world and its culture for the modern reader. Ramon Llull wrote the Doctrina Pueril between 1274 and 1276 to provide minimum knowledge to those people – children, but also adults – who did not have the opportunity to acquire a sufficient doctrinal and intellectual education. In the late thirteenth century this meant stressing the basics of Christian doctrine and also accessing some aspects of general culture.
The hope of salvation and the fear of damnation were fundamental in the Middle Ages. This study examines how the twin themes of damnation and salvation interact with other more familiar and better explored topoi, such as the life-cycle, the moment of death, and the material world. A broad range of the literature is considered, including Sagas of Icelanders, Kings’ sagas, Contemporary Sagas, Legendary sagas and poems of Christian instruction.
A Novel of a Racial Outcast
Hugo Bettauer’s The Blue Stain, a novel of racial mixing and “passing,” starts and ends in Georgia but also takes the reader to Vienna and New York. First published in 1922, the novel tells the story of Carletto, son of a white European academic and an African American daughter of former slaves, who, having passed as white in Europe and fled to America after losing his fortune, resists being seen as “black” before ultimately accepting that identity and joining the early movement for civil rights. Never before translated into English, this is the first novel in which a German-speaking European author addresses early twentieth-century racial politics in the United States – not only in the South but also in the North.
Youth, Labour & Violence in Sierra Leone
High youth unemployment is seen as a major issue across Africa and globally, not solely as a source of concern for economic development, but as a threat to social stability and a challenge to fragile peace. But what do we really know about how lack of work shapes political identities and motivates youth violence? This book moves beyond reductive portrayals of unemployed youth as “ticking bombs” but instead argues that violence is not inherent to unemployment, but that the impact of joblessness on political activism is mediated by social factors and the specific nature of the post-war political economy.