Monthly Archives: February 2018

Editor’s Choice: Caroline Palmer talks The Montpellier Codex

The Montpellier Codex
The Final Fascicle. Contents, Contexts, Chronologies
Edited by Catherine A. Bradley, Karen Desmond

No, this isn’t the latest Dan Brown, it’s actually on medieval music. The Montpellier Codex, a manuscript dating from the thirteenth/early fourteenth century (perhaps) is one of the most important sources for our knowledge of early music and particularly motets (it’s the largest single collection of them) – many pieces are only found here, and if it had been lost, we would never have been aware of them.

However, it’s always been something of an enigma, and particularly its very last section – the “eighth fascicle” – which contains most of the unique pieces located here, and doesn’t really match the rest – it’s a mixture of the old and the very new in terms of technique, notation, and style, and no-one has quite been able to deduce what it’s doing there, or why.

The essays in this volume concentrate on this final section. They look at such matters as the relationship between the fascicle and the rest of the manuscript; the scribal hand in which it’s written; and what it contains. There are also analyses of the pieces themselves. And the book is rather delightfully completed with an essay on the performance and recordings of some of the music. Apparently the conductor wanted “non-wobbly” tenors who would not be “too self-consciously virile”. I’m going to try not to think about this at choir practice tonight.

It will actually appeal to a wide range of audiences, more perhaps than it might at first seem – obviously to early music scholars, but also to those interested in manuscript studies/the transition to the printed book, and art historians (there are two chapters on the illuminations within the manuscript; it’s very lavish), amongst others.

Related titles:
Hermann Potzlinger's Music Book Young Choristers

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Studies in Old Norse Literature

We are Carolyne Larrington of the University of Oxford and Sif Rikhardsdottir of the University of Iceland and we have recently started up a new series for Boydell and Brewer, Studies in Old Norse Literature. When Caroline Palmer suggested it to us, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to showcase the interesting research going on in Old Norse literary studies. For Old Norse-Icelandic has, after medieval French, the largest corpus of texts dating from the medieval period and yet many of these remain unedited, or have not been re-edited since the nineteenth century. Old Norse-Icelandic literature is extraordinarily varied, encompassing a huge range of Christian, secular and heroic poetry and prose writings, treatises about language, encyclopaedias, saints’ lives, histories, ballads, short-stories, and much more. In the last twenty years, new, often electronic, editions of key texts in different genres have begun to appear, stimulating work across the whole domain of Old Norse-Icelandic literary study to find fresh ways of engaging with a whole range of genres.

Thus, in recent decades, previously overlooked or understudied genres have been coming to the fore as focus for literary-historical projects. From the 1990s onwards, the fornaldarsögur (‘legendary sagas’), epic adventures of heroes, trolls and monsters, once derided as fantastical and unserious in comparison with the much more famous Íslendingasögur (‘sagas of Icelanders’), began to attract critical attention. These sagas were no longer regarded as merely escapist fantasies, but rather began to be read as having serious things to say about gender, ethnicity, power, kingship and politics. A team of international scholars has been editing afresh the elaborate court-poetry mode known as skaldic poetry; though this work is still in progress it has begun to drive new insights into this complex, highly metaphorical form of verse. More recently still, eddic poetry, composed using the simpler metrical forms more suitable to relate the exciting narratives and dramatic dialogue of gods and heroes, has come back under the spotlight. Work on less-well-known poems, some questioning the existence of the divide between the two modes, is beginning to appear. The romance genre, including those sagas which are translations from Old French originals, adapted to Norwegian court tastes, and the indigenous riddarasögur (‘sagas of knights’), composed in imitation, have also excited critical interest, as cultural-historical research moves forward into the relatively neglected fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Iceland.

New cross-disciplinary emphases have made their impact in the Old Norse-Icelandic field. The implications of the ‘affective turn’, sometimes known as ‘history of emotions’ study, is represented by the first book in the new series, Sif Rikhardsdottir’s Emotion in Old Norse Literature. Exciting new comparative work across literary genres inspires Siân Grønlie’s The Saint and the Saga Hero, the second book in the series. Forthcoming titles include a study of changing thinking about Christianity, its theology and its institutions and their reflections in contemporary Old Norse religious literature. Different kinds of excitingly cutting-edge work harnessing the knowledge generated by neighbouring disciplines – whether psychology and social history in the analysis of varying Old Norse masculinities, cartography and geography in an investigation into medieval Scandinavian thinking about maps, or religious and art history in the study of distinctive Scandinavian manifestations of the cults of different saints – are fuelling future projects in our series.

The flexibility that the series offers allows room for the more traditional single topic monograph, looking in detail at particular areas, as well as essay collections which maintain a tight focus on a clearly delineated subject. The first three authors in the series are well-established authors with international reputations, but follow-up volumes will include cutting-edge work by younger early-career researchers. The series encourages well-thought-out proposals still in their early stages, where editorial knowhow can help shape the project, and completed manuscripts. As the series editors we discussed the possibility of moving forward a project on literary genre in medieval Scandinavian writing which has been bubbling under among various international networks for a good while, and with the addition of Massimiliano Bampi to the editorial team, the Critical Companion to Old Norse Literary Genre is in preparation; a project workshop is scheduled in Venice this spring in order to talk through key theoretical concepts and to sharpen our sense of key themes and striking individual case-studies.

We are delighted that an idea that was only properly formulated a year ago has taken off so spectacularly. The two books already published have worthily inaugurated the series, a third volume is in production and a steady stream of other projects are feeding into this exciting venture. We are both pleased and proud to have helped create a space where – given the international emphasis on interdisciplinarity above all – the thoughtful literary monograph can find a home, alongside, of course, literary-critical analysis that makes use of theoretical framings from related disciplines. Our series aims both to reach out to scholars whose interests lie in Old Norse-Icelandic and related fields and to enable researchers to communicate their findings both beyond and within the academic community of medievalists, highlighting the growing interest in Old Norse-Icelandic literary culture. We look forward to seeing how our series will develop and flourish, opening up provocative and refreshing new approaches to Old Norse-Icelandic literature.

Proposals for Studies in Old Norse Literature may be sent to Boydell and Brewer, or to the editors ( and (

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Ngugi’s 80th Year

Some author publisher relationships stand the test of time.

James Currey (the man) first met James Ngugi (as he was then called) in June 1962 at the ‘Conference of African Writers of English Expression’ held at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda … an event more often referred to as the first African Writers’ conference. Ngugi was a student at Makerere at the time, and asked Chinua Achebe to read the manuscripts of two novels that he had written: The River Between and Weep Not, Child, both of which would be published as early entries in the newly established Heinemann African Writers Series. At the conference Ngugi challenged the emphasis on English as the acceptable means of expression for an African writer and went on to develop these ideas in his novels and plays, pledging to make Gikuyu his first choice of language for his writing.

His influential 1986 book of essays, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (published by James Currey and EAEP in East Africa) has also stood the test of time and was recently listed on the Observer/Guardian’s 10 best books on International Struggle (along with eg Said’s Orientalism).

James Currey notes that, ‘Ngugi has transformed our attitudes to the literatures of Africa. His early novels and plays show that he was a master of fiction and playwriting and he became famous round the world wherever English is read. However, it was when he turned to using Gikuyu that he was detained and the Kenyan government showed how they feared the power of his writing and drama on ordinary people. Decolonising the Mind became a pioneering statement of worldwide influence.’

In 2017 before the Nobel Committee announced Kazuo Ishiguro as the winner of the Literature prize, Ngugi wa Thiong’o had again been rumoured as one of the favourites to win. But this had happened in previous years, and Tee Ngugi in Kenya’s Daily Nation suggested that his father on not winning would be quite likely just to say ‘“Perhaps next time,” … while looking forward with enthusiasm to reading or writing a story, or telling or listening to one.’

Later in 2018 we will be publishing Ngugi: Reflections on a Life of Writing, edited by Simon Gikandi & Ndirangu Wachanga.

Sending 80th Birthday greetings to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who was born on 5 January 1938 in Kamirithu, Kenya.

All power to Ngugi’s pen in the year ahead.

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Editor’s Choice: Caroline Palmer talks Pietro Monte Collectanea

The prolific Jeffrey Forgeng is doing his best to maintain the Boydell Press armour and weapons list single-handedly. Here, he offers a translation of a wide-ranging treatise by the Spanish-turned-Italian solder, Pietro Monte, written at some point in the 1480s. It is quite extraordinary. Not only does it offer advice on the usual jousting techniques, the right sort of armour to wear, how to fight with a sword, etc. – but it takes a much more “holistic”, almost modern view, thinking about the psychology of motivating an army and soldiers, and how each type of person will behave in a certain way.

And I have never before read a detailed description of the medieval equivalent of water-wings/flotation devices!

This is an absolutely crucial resource for knowledge of military matters, fighting techniques, etc. at the time; it really does give huge insights into the role of the knight, and what actually happened. But because it has had a rather complicated textual history (which need not detain us here…), it’s been rarely consulted. Forgeng’s easy, readable translation will change this. A number of illustrations of contemporary battles, armour and weapons illuminate the text further.

It will appeal of course to historians (notably military ones, of course, and those looking at chivalry), but also to re-enactors.

Related titles:

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