Monthly Archives: June 2018
Unlike a road sign on its baffling road network, Leeds IMC appears to us in plenty of time, and we’re always expecting – nay, anticipating – it.
“OK, who’s going to go? Sean, do your usual Monday to Thursday at that weird motel?”
Since it’s Leeds and not the Dustbowl Badlands it’s a world-wide hotel chain, not a motel, and yes, I’m good. Good? I love it. A spotless, anonymous hotel, a walk to work rather than an hour’s drive in furious traffic, a day surrounded by books rather than screens and printers, and the wonderful responses of our readers. I love it.
Plus of course, the joy of being in the beautiful Parkinson Building in most un-Suffolk-like proximity to two terrific cafés where a coffee, a handful of pastries and crisps (variety is important) can be had at bargain (Northern) prices. A guilty pang hits me every time: they’ve undercharged me and my conscience shouts, “Admit it, thief!”. But no, that’s really the price of an awesome Danish in Leeds.
Anyway, to business. At 8am the hall is silent, with book displays hidden under sheets looking for all the world like sleeping ghosts. Time to get up, Casper, there are books to be sold! Get the credit card machine running. Wave it about a bit in the hope of finding a connection, holding high-tech equipment but feeling like a water diviner. Maybe it’ll work, maybe not. Caroline has the knack, maybe she can work her magic?
Check the cash box – never enough pound coins. Keep an eye on them.
First enquiry. First customer. The first of many meetings for CLP. Give the books a shuffle, straighten the catalogues. We’re off. New faces, familiar faces, even a few conference buddies, though as I’ve only been attending for five years it’s still a bit too soon to actually talk to them just yet. It’s good to see them though.
Conference Neck starts to develop, that constant scanning down the length of our display then back to the right and around, like a slow, glitchy radar.
Conference coffee breaks are always welcome for the rush to the stand that accompanies them. Keep a wary eye for the stray cup in need of a coaster. By the time the rush recedes the coffee machines are spent. Oh well, the fabulous Leeds staff will fix them, we’ll manage.
Lunch is a wolfed-down cake, like breakfast and elevenses but larger, possibly outside in some glorious sunshine if the weather’s playing ball.
Despite the raised risk of spillages and those dreaded rings on covers, Monday’s wine reception is always fun – No, nothing for me, thank you. I’m counting in my head and alcohol won’t help, though I’d certainly worry less.
7.30pm and we can cash-up and appraise the day. Books have been sold or reserved. One of them must be this year’s surprise, the title that sells out within a day or two, leaving us kicking ourselves. There’s always one, and we love it really. Readers have come, authors have been met, editors conspired with. What a pleasure it is to be near the heart of this community even if only for a few days. How gratifying to hear so many kind words. No, thank you!
But now it’s time to head out for that much-needed ‘proper’ meal.
I have been interested in the reception of Italian literature in medieval Britain for some time, especially in the context of urban culture and the spread of humanistic values across Europe. When Michele Campopiano suggested that we hold a conference at the University of York to bring Italian medieval scholars together with British scholars working on Italian reception, it seemed to be the perfect opportunity to share our research agendas and to start some new conversations about the two-way dialogue between Britain and Italy in the late Middle Ages.
From this conference, we selected eight papers to form a volume which illuminates various aspects of cultural interactions between the two nations – not just literary exchanges but also political and commercial interactions, including important new historical studies of the fortunes of Italian migrants in Britain during the Middle Ages.
Our contributors were able to make use of the excellent database assembled by Mark Ormrod and his team, ‘England’s Immigrants, 1330–1550’, funded by the AHRC. This database enables researchers to find individual immigrants by name, nationality, or occupation, building up a picture of multicultural England during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. Of the 1,600 immigrants from Italy during that period, many specified their city of origin – Genoa, Venice, Florence – indicating the dominance of sea trade links as the magnet and conduit of immigration.
Something that the book conveys particularly well, I think, is the variety of contexts in which Anglo-Italian cultural exchanges took place – not just through trade and banking, as Ignazio Del Punta, Bart Lambert, and Helen Bradley describe in such rich detail, but also through diplomatic, political, and literary connections. Carolyn Collette’s article on Richard de Bury opened up, to me, some new insights into Petrarch’s friendships with influential Englishmen and how these might have acted as channels of cultural exchange. Michele Campopiano’s article on Italian law manuscripts in the Minster Library at York provides an important reminder that London may have been the centre of medieval trade but did not have a monopoly on knowledge transfer and cultural production. Victoria Flood’s article on the spread of political prophecy from Italy in the thirteenth century suggests the role of popular culture in moving ideas and modes of expression from one country to another. My own article, on the influence of Italian urban histories in medieval Britain, and Margaret Bridges’s article on the representation of Italy in Higden’s Polychronicon, both point to the significance of Italian humanism in shaping medieval historiography and the emergence of an urban identity in Britain.
If there is one theme that brings together these different contexts of cultural exchange it is the rise of the city and a commercialized economy in Britain from the late thirteenth century. With its powerful city-states, Italy had led the way in modelling the political structures of urbanization and arguably played a crucial role in bringing Britain into the European mercantile arena. By setting out the variety of contexts in which British and Italian cultural practices were in dialogue with each other and how they helped to shape the medieval worldview at a time of urban economic growth, we hope to have started some new conversations about transnational exchanges in the medieval world.
Professor of Medieval Literature at the University of Bristol
Helen Bradley, Margaret Bridges, Michele Campopiano, Carolyn Collette, Victoria Flood, Helen Fulton, Bart Lambert, Ignazio del Punta
Here, to mark the new paperback, Dr Crombie looks at her book’s reception thus far.
Around 1500 Kerstine Gowaers a ‘zuster in het St-Jorisgasthuis’ in Ghent left her bed to the Hospital of Saint George, administered by the Greater Crossbow Guild of Saint George. Such bequests are far from uncommon, but this donation, to an institution run by a crossbow guild struck me as unusual. Why would a woman choose to leave her most personal object to a guild whose public persona was both masculine and militaristic?
In studying archery and crossbow guilds I did not want to write a military history. There are, of course, mentions of war and violence in the book, indeed chapter one is devoted to military service and to the early years of guild history and their links to civic defence, even civic autonomy, in Flemish cities around the year 1300. Guild-brothers continued to serve in war into the late fifteenth century, but they were never just soldiers or civic defenders. From their first appearance in civic sources, the guilds were communities, they cared for their members, they built bonds in feasting and in conviviality, they maintained chapels, and they put on great spectacles that dominated civic space as few other events ever did. The drama of competitions, the pomp of entrances, the civic pride bound up in sporting events, and the sheer excesses of their annual feasts were what attracted me to the guilds. Such varied activities, and such varied membership (with one feast allowing a plumber to sit down to dinner with Anthony the Great Bastard of Burgundy, eldest natural son of Philip the Good duke of Burgundy), have, I hope, helped this rather niche sounding subject to engage a variety of different readers.
The first review of the book I saw appeared in History and was written by David Nicholas, one of the most influential historians to have written on medieval Ghent. I remember nervously waiting for the downloaded PDF to open, knowing that this was a reader who knew far more than I did about the Low Countries, and who would spot any errors or generalisations in a way not even my viva examiners would have. I was relieved that the review was extremely kind, calling the book an ‘excellent study…on a topic that most earlier literature has dealt with only superficially or in local studies.’ The most recent review I have seen was by another North American historian who knows far more than I do about Flanders, and whose book was one of the first to stimulate my interest in the guilds, Peter Arnade. Writing in American History Review he commented that a study of guilds is ‘long overdue’ and called the book ‘carefully researched’ confirming that ‘shooting guilds are best understood as civic associational groups and not merely martial.’ In between there have been other very kind reviews, though several Belgian writers have also noted spelling or transcription errors, with Jelle Haemers in Renaissance Quarterly pointing out that I ‘should have taken more care for quotations of Middle Dutch sources,’ but he also calls the book an ‘important work for scholars of guild activities and urban Flanders in particular, and late medieval community life in general.’ Writing in Continuity and Change Peter Stabel also pointed out spelling mistakes, but was kinder toward the research and purpose of the book. They are, of course, correct to point out errors and my students will know I always point out such carelessness in their work, and I can only hope there are no typos in this post!
The majority of reviews have been positive, recognising the significance of the guilds as vibrant multifaceted communities (another criticism was my overuse of ‘community’…a habit I apparently cannot break!). The only negative review I have seen was that of Hans Mol in BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review he felt ‘Het belangrijkste is dat de militair functionele en machtspolitieke aspecten slecht uit de verf komen,’ and criticised me for not describing the weapons, their price, their development and use in battle. The book, he says, is only half successful because it focuses on the guilds’ ‘sociaal-culturele functie.’ This social-cultural function of the guilds was what I set out to look at, and despite the criticisms, I hope that others will enjoying finding out about guild-sisters, about an elaborate entrance ceremony featuring a (wooden) elephant, about seals and visual culture, about where members sat and what they ate at feasts in medieval Bruges, and about the different ways of becoming part of a medieval urban community.
On 17 June, 1958, the hardback edition of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was published by the London-based publishing house William Heinemann. The landmark novel, which follows the life of a fictional clan in pre-colonial Nigeria, has been translated into 60 languages and has sold over 20 million copies worldwide. Ask a person on the street if they have ever read a book by an African author, and they are most likely to answer with Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
The 60th anniversary of the publication of Achebe’s masterpiece was celebrated in style with a marathon reading of all 24 chapters at London’s Southbank Centre. Booker Prize winner Ben Okri and our very own James Currey, the man behind Heinemann’s African Writers Series, were in attendance.
To celebrate the upcoming anniversary, we thought we would share some anecdotes from the James Currey imprint archives about the publication of one of the most important books in African Literature.
The importance of Government College, Umuahia
Chinua Achebe attended secondary school with many would-be authors: Christopher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi, and Chike Momah to name just a few. The colonial boy’s school Government College, Umuahia, was modelled along the lines of Eton, and had its pupils reading Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte and Thomas Hardy. Chinua Achebe started his literary career as an editor of one of the school’s magazines, The Eastern Star. The school grounds could have been the inspiration behind the ‘evil forest’ in Things Fall Apart, a former burial ground for outcasts in the backwoods of Umudike-Ibeku.
The road to publication was not smooth
The 1950s represented a time when it was near impossible for an African writer to have their work taken seriously by a London publisher. Chinua Achebe found his work rejected by publishing houses on the grounds that many believed fiction written by an African had no financial prospects. Achebe’s handwritten manuscript could have also been lost forever after he posted it to a typing agency and they refused to return it. Luckily, Angela Beattie, Achebe’s boss at NBC, turned up at the agency’s office demanding that they post back the typed version to its author in Lagos.
Acclaim and Heinemann’s Africa Writers Series
It was when the manuscript reached Alan Hill, a publishing innovator at William Heinemann, that Things Fall Apartfinally took off. The firm’s educational department, which sold books to Africa, decided to publish the book after a glowing eleven-word report from their reader Professor Donald MacRae, which read “This is the best novel I have read since the war”. The hardback edition was published with a print run of 2,000, without the publishers touching a word of it. It was met with critical acclaim from the TLS and The Observer, and launched the Heinemann’s African Writers Series, of which Achebe become the first advisory editor.
- Achebe and Friends at Umuahia, The Making of a Literary Elite by Terri Ochiagha, Paperback £17.99, April 2018
- Reading Chinua Achebe, Language and Ideology in Fiction by Simon Gikandi, Paperback, £17.99
Available from Boydell & Brewer in the UK only
- Chinua Achebe, A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Paperback, £16.99
- Africa Writes Back, The African Writers Series and the Launch of African Literature by James Currey, Paperback, £19.99