There are seven poets who have written poems to light up the little universe of the book: Jane Beal, Gail Berlin, Albrecht Classen, Thom Foy, Katharine Jager, A.J. Odasso, and Katherine Durham Oldmixon (Garza). Each poet has contributed a group of nine poems, and in reading and re-reading these verses, readers may be able to discern themes that unify each group like constellations are connected by stars in the night sky … There are eighty-eight constellations in the night sky. In the microcosmos of Hail, Radiant Star!, there are just seven: the Crown, the Lyre, the Pegasus, the Lion, the Ship’s Keel, the Twins, and the Virgin. Yet hopefully there is enough light from them to brighten a reader’s heart.
–Jane Beal, editor of Hail, Radiant Star!: Seven Medievalist Poets
The tender scene, so beautiful in the forest,
when the maiden sits in the middle of the path that runs
through the trees, and the unicorn lays his head in her lap:
Incarnation of God! What magic is in the world?
The hunters draw closer, but still, you lie at peace
like a newborn baby wrapped in swaddling clothes
and laid in a manger. The woman with you cannot
imagine how the sword will pierce
her own heart, too.
My article, “Zebel and Salome, the Virgin Mary’s Midwives: Doubt, Faith, and the Miraculous in a Medieval Legend,” now appears in Midwifery Today 131 (Autumn 2019), 44-46.
“The birth of Jesus is perhaps the most famous birth in the world. It is called the Nativity (meaning “the Birth”) and represented in homes, churches, and communities by iconic Nativity scenes at Christmastime, when it is celebrated by Christians (and many non-Christians) worldwide. Nativity scenes recall figures from the birth and infancy stories of Jesus preserved in the gospels of Matthew and Luke as well as extra-biblical sources, including Christmas carols: a stable with a star shining over it; domesticated animals like the ox, ass, and sheep; angels, shepherds, and Magi (also known as the Wise Men or Three Kings); and Joseph and Mary, come from Galilee to Bethlehem to participate in a Roman census, and of course, the baby Jesus lying in a hay-filled manger.
“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed –
the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head;
the stars in the sky look down where he lay –
the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.”
“Away in a Manger” (late 19thc.)
Figures that we almost never see depicted in Nativity scenes today are Zebel and Salome, the midwives who were long believed to have attended Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. That’s because no midwives are named, or even mentioned, in the Nativity accounts in the biblical Gospels of Matthew and Luke. But in the late-antique and medieval periods, several well-known written documents and visual sources depict two midwives with Mary when Jesus was born. These midwives, Zebel and Salome, play a vitally important role in such depictions: their doubt and faith, their practical knowledge and spiritual authority, are used to verify the miraculous nature of the virgin birth.”
The images in the six tapestries called The Lady and the Unicorn (or La dame et licorne) participate in network of inter-connected meanings or, perhaps, in four levels of meaning. The imagery includes sacred (allegorical) and secular (literal or historical) senses in the service of the artistic representation of late-medieval Catholic virtue among the nobility. This is certainly tied to the patrons of the tapestries, the Le Viste family of Lyon, France.
The Le Viste family arms are represented in each of the tapestries, indicating their patronage of these extraordinary works of art. Scholarly consensus originally held that Jean IV Le Viste commissioned them, which makes sense because he was in possession of at least three sets of large tapestries, apparently including The Lady and the Unicorn, that are mentioned in his will and were given upon his death to the eldest of his three daughters, Claude. However, there is another argument attributing patronage to Antoine Le Viste, cousin germain of Jean IV Le Viste, perhaps in honor of his affianced, Jacquelin Raguier, whom he married in 1515. (1) Scholars have long doubted that these are wedding tapestries, however, because if they were, by tradition, they would represent the coats of arms of the families of both bride and groom: these six tapestries represent only the Le Viste family arms, and so it is unlikely that The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries were made to honor a nuptial celebration.
Since 1921, when A.F. Kendrick identified the tapestries as having been made in the medieval tradition of the “allegory of the senses,” modern viewers have been taught to read five of the tapestries as representative of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch:
Sight: The Lady holds a mirror up to the Unicorn.
Hearing: The Lady plays the harmonium.
Smell: The Lady makes a chaplet of flowers while a nearby monkey sniffs a flower.
Taste: The Lady apparently gives a small, round, white sweet to a bird (which the bird holds in one claw while the other rests on her left hand).
Touch: The Lady grasps the horn of the unicorn.
The sixth tapestry, which admittedly does not fit well with this scheme, may represent a sixth idea, such as the will (“a mon seul desir”) (2), or, enigmatically, relinquishment (because the lady is placing her necklace in a casket – unless, of course, she is actually taking the necklace out of the casket).
Two other different but nevertheless cogent interpretations of the The Lady and the Unicorn have been put forward in recent years.
In 1997, Kristina Gourlay argued the The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series is not so much an “allegory of the senses” as it is a representation of the “iconography of love.” Looking to Richard de Fournival’s thirteenth-century Bestiare d’Amour, which contains a chivalric version of the mystical hunt of the unicorn story, she focuses on the tapestry that depicts the lady with the unicorn in her lap and develops an argument re-interpreting The Lady and the Unicorn as a story about the progress of a romance. In her scheme:
Taste becomes the initial “pursuit”: this is symbolized by the bird, read as a hawk, who represents her lover and the hunt of love motif; the small, round, white object she gives to the bird is not a sweet, but a pearl (which may represent the soul).
Hearing becomes “harmony” in the romantic relationship;
Smell becomes “recognition,” for she is weaving the chaplet of flowers for her lover as a token of her returned affection.
Sight becomes “capitulation,” symbolized by the unicorn in her lap;
Touch becomes “capture” when the Lady holds the unicorn’s horn in her hand and the myriad smaller animals in the tapestry are all depicted as collared.
Finally, A mon seul desir, difficult to explain with the allegory of the five senses, becomes “resolution”: to symbolize marriage, the Lady lays aside her own “device,” her necklace, in preparation to take up her husband’s arms. (3)
In 2000, Marie-Elisabeth Bruel read the tapestries in terms of noble virtues portrayed as allegorical female figures in the Roman de la Rose, equating “sight” with Oiseuse (idleness), “touch” with Richesse (wealth), “taste” with Franchise (candor or freedom of the spirit), “hearing” with Liesse (joy), “smell” with Beauté (beauty), and “a mon seul desir” with Largesse (generosity). (4) Bruel’s model, reading The Lady and the Unicorn in terms of an influential medieval literary work, has been followed by others who have read the tapestries in light of the works of Jean Gerson and Christine de Pizan. (5)
According to these three major interpretations of the series as whole, as well as related studies, the Lady may represent the soul (anima) and the soul’s responses to the senses. She may represent the ideal woman, either in her virtue or her desirability as a lover (or both). She may be inspired, to some degree, by well-known medieval literary works. Furthermore, she may be intended to glorify the nobility of the Le Viste family, woo a spouse into the Le Viste family, educate the daughters of the Le Viste family in the virtues they should possess or advertise the marriageability of the young women in the Le Viste family.
Recently, in her a careful heraldric study of the tapestries, Carmen Decu Teodorescu has suggested that the particular coats of arms represented in the tapestries belonged to Antoine Le Viste, not to Jean IV Le Viste. (6) First noticed by Marice Dayras in 1963, the changes made to the Le Viste family arms in the tapestries were hypothesized by Carmen Decu Teodorescu in 2010 to be a “mark of cadency.” Such a mark is “used in heraldry to indicate by its addition to an armorial the birth order of a male heir. The cadency mark has been traditionally used to differentiate between different branches of a family which bear the same arms.” (7)As has been observed, “Cette hypothèse est renforcée par le fait que son blazon se trouve sur la rose méridionale de l’église Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois de Paris qui a été commandé par Antoine Le Viste par un marché passé en 1532.” (8)
There are four distinguishing differences in this series of six tapestries: the differences are between banners, the lady’s hair length, the presence or absence of an additional woman, and the wearing of shields (or capes) by the lion and the unicorn.
Four of the six tapestries contain two banners, one square and one rectangular but split on one end into two curling scrolls, while two contain only the square banner.
The Lady in the two tapestries with the single square banner has the long hair while the Lady of the four tapestries with the two banners has shoulder-length hair. The Lady of the four tapestries sits or stands alone between the lion and the unicorn.
However, in the four tapestries with two banners, a second woman of shorter stature appears with the central Lady in all four cases.
Interestingly, in one of the two tapestries with one banner and a long-haired, solitary Lady, the lion and the unicorn wear shields. In one of the four tapestries with two banners and a tall, short-haired Lady with a shorter woman near her, the lion and the unicorn wear shields, but ones different in shape from those in the two tapestries with a solitary Lady. In another of the four tapestries, the lion and the unicorn wear emblazoned capes.
Based on these major, easily visible distinguishing differences, quite possibly there are at least two different Le Viste tapestry sets here that have been combined, received, and interpreted as a single set. There may have been additional tapestries, now lost, in either set. This idea is not new, but it is significant for interpretation of meaning.
The idea that the central lady in the tapestries represents the Virgin Mary certainly has been considered, but it is not now widely accepted. This is in part because the connection with Mary is not as explicit in The Lady and the Unicorn as in other representations, like the 1480 Swiss tapestry altar frontal (discussed above), though it should be noted that some representations of the Virgin are quite simple, without halo or many identifying symbols around her. By contrast, the prominently displayed Le Viste family arms are quite explicitly and repeatedly displayed, leading art historians to investigate the historical situatedness of the works in terms of their patronage.
Yet culturally literate medieval people were accustomed to understanding the stories, visual art, and architecture around them at multiple levels of meaning: literally and allegorically. It is likely that The Lady and the Unicorn participates in such a network of meaning. Literally and historically, the tapestries may pertain to the women of Le Viste family: their virtue, beauty, and desirability. At the same time, allegorically or spiritually, the tapestries can be characterized as Marian, if not exclusively about Mary, and Christian, if not exclusively about Christ. The Lady is like Mary because the women of the Le Viste family seek to emulate the Virgin. Both the unicorn and the lion are like Jesus because the chivalric male head of their household seeks to emulate Christ. (9) Morally, the tapestries encourage multiple meditative practices, common to late-medieval lay Catholic spirituality, intended to edify the viewers with respect to guarding their senses, and thus, their souls, since the senses are gateways to the soul. Anagogically, they may represent matters unfolding in the future, including the laying aside of wealth in order to receive a heavenly crown.
One image in the series particularly evokes the idea of the virgin capture of the unicorn: the tapestry most commonly called “Sight.”
Author’s note: For further analysis of the tapestries in the context of Christian unicorn symbolism in the Middle Ages, please see my chapter, “The Unicorn as a Symbol for Christ in Medieval Culture,” in Illuminating Jesus in the Middle Ages, ed. Jane Beal (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming).
1. Sophie Schneelbalg-Perelman, “La Dame à la licorne a été tissée à Bruxelles,” Gazette des Beaux Arts 70 (1967): 253-278. She notes the former existence of an early sixteenth-century, six panel artwork described in a 1548 inventory that once belonged to Prince Erard de la Marck, Prince-Bishop of Liège, and was entitled Los Sentidos: it represented the five senses and included a sixth panel with the inscription liberum arbitrium. She interprets a mon seul desir in light of the Latin in Los Sentidos, suggesting that the Lady may use her senses according to her free will or only desire.
2. Consider, for example, the many legends of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, several contemporary in time with these tapestries, in which the virtues of a counter-cultural Christ (“stealing from the rich to give to the poor”) and an innocent Marian maid are represented in two life-like, noble characters. For discussion, see Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form, and Reception in the Outlaw Myth, Manchester Medieval Literature and Culture Series (Manchester University Press, 2015, repr. forthcoming 2017), esp. chap. 7, “The Making and Re-Making of Maid Marian.”
3. Carmen Decu Teodorescu, “La Tenture de la Dame à la Licorne: Nouvelle lecture des armoiries,” Bulletin Monumentalde la Société Française d’ Archéologie 168:4 (2010), 355-67.
6. Kristina Gourlay, “La Dame à licorne: A Reinterpretation,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 130 (Sept. 1997): 215-232.
7. Marie-Elisabeth Bruel, “La tapisserie de la Dame à la Licorne, une représentation des vertus allégoriques du Roman de la Rose de Guillaume de Lorris,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts(Dec. 2000): 215-232.
8. See Anne Davenport, “Is there a sixth sense in The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries?” New Arcadia Review 4 (2010): http://omc.bc.edu/newarcadiacontent/isThereASixthSense_edited.html and Shelley Williams, “Text and Tapestry: The Lady and the Unicorn, Christine de Pizan and the Le Vistes” (Diss., Brigham Young University, 2009).
9. See, for example, Carl Nordenfalk, “The Five Senses in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 48 (1985): 1-22, esp. 7-10.
This essay examines the treatment of music as a theme in the fourteenth-century Latin Polychronicon of Ranulf Higden and the English translation of the universal history by John Trevisa. Both compiler and translator were preachers, with special interests in encouraging monastic and priestly preachers, and it appears that they received and transmitted stories concerning music that could serve as moral exempla. This becomes clear through an analysis of stories in five categories: the origins of music, famous musicians as moral exempla, music and sexual morality, music and national identity, and music and wisdom. Key figures examined include Tubalcain and Pythagoras, Socrates, King David, Emperor Nero, Caedmon, Saint Dunstan, Syringa and John, the Cardinal of Rome, while key people groups considered include the Cretans, the Irish, the English, and the Normans. The essay concludes with reflections on the connection between music and wisdom evident in stories retold about Socrates and Pope Sergius I.
A medieval bestiary is a manuscript book that contains “scientific” descriptions of creatures alongside “spiritual” interpretations of those creatures; these derived from an older text called the Philologus. In the Middle Ages, the traits of certain animals were associated with Christ’s life, the Devil’s threat, or the Christian’s spiritual progress. Five entries in medieval bestiaries were particularly associated with different stages of the life of Christ: the unicorn with the Incarnation; the pelican and the lamb with the Crucifixion; and the phoenix and lion with the Resurrection.
The Unicorn was associated with Christ’s Incarnation because of the myth that a unicorn could be calmed and captured by a virgin’s purity. The Pelican, because of belief that this bird pierced its breast to feed its young with its own blood, and the Lamb, because of the descriptions of the atoning sacrifice of the lamb found in Scripture, were associated with the Crucifixion. The Phoenix, because of the myth of how it rises from its own ashes, and the lion, because of the story that it roared its cubs back to life again, were associated with Christ’s Resurrection. In addition to these meaningful connections, many medieval people associated Light (“God is light, and there is no darkness in him”) and the Star (“I am … the bright Morning Star”) with Jesus because these were associated with him in scripture. In medieval bestiaries, the Annunciation to Mary, which presaged the conception and Incarnation of Christ, was associated with the light that shines on an oyster because light and dew were believed to help create the pearl inside the oyster. In general, the star was associated with Christ’s birth because the Magi followed it to find the Savior.
The nine poems below were inspired by these images and ideas in the Christian tradition. In the opening poem, “Kyrios,” the speaker sees a collection of animals at a circus and, inspired by their grandeur, wonders if she is hearing from God and asks God for mercy. In the closing poem, “Logos,” the speaker meditates on the sacred name, Jesus, which in the medieval period (as today) was often abbreviated IHS.
Kyrios, I’m curious –
did I hear you right
in the dark?
Cirque du soleil,
and the cabinet of curiosities,
is still spinning in a lost memory in my mind …
But now, the little boy is dancing
with the little girl, casting light with the lantern
on the wall, dreaming and singing
of a future better than the past:
will you embrace them,
will you embrace us?
Kyrios! Kyrios! I reach out my hand
toward the light from your Star,
as I behold the circus animals in the ring
all of them roaring – lion, lamb, unicorn,
pelican and phoenix, bursting into flames –
as a red cardinal transforms into a parrot
and the valley of peace is pierced
by the beak of my lover’s soul, fearful
and yearning for our embrace, our
embrace, dear Lord! Have mercy, Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison – his mouth is so sweet against my mouth.
Kyrios, I’m curious –
did I hear you right
in the dark?
In his Ars praedicandi sermones, in traditional yet rich metaphoric language, Ranulf Higden compares Christ to a fountain, a shepherd, a rock, a lily, a rose, a violet, an elephant, a unicorn, and a youthful bridegroom wooing his beloved spouse. Ranulf encourages preachers to use such metaphors while using them himself, rendering his text a performed example of what he encourages. This text is clearly linked to two others: Ranulf’s Latin universal history, the Polychronicon, and John Trevisa’s English translation of it. In the Polychronicon, Ranulf relates the life of Christ, utilizing some of his own rhetorical suggestions from his preaching manual. He also depicts a cross-section of good and bad preachers, including Gregory, Wulfstan, Eustas, St Edmund, and one William Long- Beard and his kinsman, who exemplify (in different ways) the wisdom conveyed in Ranulf’s instruction in the Ars praedicandi. This essay suggests that the literary relationship between the preaching manual and the Polychronicon supplies additional support for the idea that the audience of the latter was not noblemen exclusively, but also clergymen who preached and had responsibility for the care of souls (cura animae).
In Rivendell, after Frodo has been attacked by Ringwraiths and is healing from the removal of the splinter from a Morgul-blade that had been making its way toward his heart, Gandalf regards Frodo and contemplates a “clear light” that is visible through Frodo to “eyes to see that can.” Samwise Gamgee later sees this light in Frodo when Frodo is resting in Ithilien. The first half of this essay considers questions about this light: how does Frodo become transparent, and why, and what is the nature of the light that fills him? As recourse to Tolkien’s letters shows, the light is related to the virtues of Frodo’s character: love, self-sacrifice, humility, perseverance. The light in Frodo also is related to the light in the Phial of Galadrial, which comes from the Earendil’s Silmaril set in the heavens above Middle-earth, which is called the Morning Star. Because “Morning Star” is a name for Jesus in the New Testament, the light within Frodo may be interpreted, symbolically, as the Christ-light.
The second half of this essay considers how this light was ignited in Frodo, specifically by asking: who is Tom Bombadil, and what does he have to do with the light inside of Frodo? The essay explores multiple explanations for the long-standing, critically-debated mystery of Tom Bombadil’s identity, ultimately showing that he must be interpreted at multiple levels of meaning simultaneously. Intriguingly, Tom Bombadil has parallels to the first Adam and the second Adam, Jesus, especially in his role as “Eldest” (or ab origine) and in his ability to bring light to Frodo in the grave of the barrow-wight, save him from death by his song, and heal him from spiritual “drowning” – a word that Tom uses to describe Frodo’s terrifying experience in the barrow and which relates to Frodo’s original childhood wound: the primal loss of his parents, who drowned in a tragic accident. When Frodo receives healing from this trauma, he is strengthened to endure what he later experiences on his quest to destroy the Ring.
My essay, “Tolkien, Eucatastrophe, and the Re-writing of Medieval Legend,” appears in Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society 58 (Winter 2017).
Using comparative literary analysis, this essay examines three case studies from J.R.R. Tolkien’s oeuvre, in which Tolkien practiced eucatastrophic rewriting: his folk-tale, “Sellic Spell,” in which he re-creates the Old English poem Beowulf; his poem, “Princess Mee,” in which he re-envisions aspects of the myth of Narcissus and the Middle English dream vision poem, Pearl; and the character of Éowyn from TheLord of the Rings, in which he re-imagines the fate of Brynhild, a shield-maiden and valkyrie from Norse legend. In each case, Tolkien rewrites the original so that sorrow is transformed into happiness in Tolkien’s new versions. As part of the analysis of these transformations, this essay also considers a possible personal motivation as well as a larger purpose behind Tolkien’s artistic choices: his relationship to his beloved wife, Edith, and a desire to convey to others the hope he found in his own Christian faith.
“The poets Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Donne were aware of the existence of medieval world maps. Evidence from their writings clearly shows that the poets were familiar with the genre and had seen cartographic examples of it. They may also have read prose descriptions of the whole world that sometimes journeyed with, and sometimes journeyed separately from, cartographic mappaemundi. The poets each used such maps metaphorically in their poems about women, juxtaposing woman- as-map in their reader-viewer’s inner eye in poetic contexts they created to represent male desire. That desire is figured in a would-be lover’s lament that turns to satiric complaint in Chaucer’s “To Rosemounde” and in a conqueror’s lust that turns to violent assault in Shakespeare’s “Rape of Lucrece,” while in Donne’s “A Valediction: Of Weeping,” it is expressed with tender empathy in an increasingly complex, metaphorical meditation on the tears shed by both lover and beloved on an occasion of parting.1 In order to understand this thematic sexualization of the mappaemundi, it is relevant first to consider the contemplative and educational functions of world maps in medieval Christian culture.”
The Wycliffite Bible (WB) is the first complete Bible in English, extant in over 250 manuscript copies, and it had an extensive influence on late-medieval and early modern English culture. Translated from the Latin Vulgate, it consists of biblical books in prose and verse along with academic prologues. It is extant in two versions, the earlier (EV) and the later (LV), which often were transmitted with commentaries as well as liturgical and exegetical aids. Elizabeth Solopova’s edited volume contributes significantly to the scholarship of the late medieval English Bible already produced by Henry Ansgar Kelly (The Middle English Bible: A Reassessment, 2016), Mary Dove (The First English Bible, 2007, and The Earliest Advocates of the English Bible, 2011), and Anne Hudson (The Premature Reformation, 1988), work which is well-contextualized by broader studies on the medieval Bible by Frans van Lière (An Introduction to the Medieval Bible, 2014), Susan Boyton, and Diane Reilly (The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages, 2011), and the quintessential Beryl Smalley (The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, 2nd ed., 1989).
My co-authored essay, “The Lais and Fables of Marie de France,” now appears in Major Authors and Movements in British Literature (Gale, 2017), edited by Kirilka Stavreva, accessible through The Gale Researcher.
“This article provides a brief introduction to the poetic works of Marie de France including her lais, fables, dream vision of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, and hagiographical poem about Saint Audrey. A survey of Marie’s literary sources and immediate cultural context is followed by a discussion of the role of magic, romance, and gender in her poems. After a look at the major social and political themes of Marie’s writing, the article concludes with an examination of her influence on later medieval literature.”
The moving, richly allegorical poem Pearl was written in Middle English by the anonymous poet who likely also penned Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In it, a man in a garden, grieving the loss of a beloved pearl, dreams of the Pearl-Maiden, who appears across a stream. She teaches him the nature of innocence, God’s grace, meekness, and purity. Though granted a vision of the New Jerusalem by the Pearl-Maiden, the dreamer is pained to discover that he cannot cross the stream himself and join her in bliss—at least not yet. This extraordinary poem is a door into late medieval poetics and Catholic piety.
Part 1 of this volume, “Materials,” introduces instructors to the many resources available for teaching the canonical yet challenging Pearl, including editions, translations, and scholarship on the poem as well as its historical context. The essays in part 2, “Approaches,” offer instructors tools for introducing students to critical issues associated with the poem, such as its authorship, sources and analogues, structure and language, and relation to other works of its time. Contributors draw on interdisciplinary approaches to outline ways of teaching Pearl in a variety of classroom contexts.
Table of Contents
With many thanks to my co-editor, our editors at the MLA, and all of our contributors!
My biographical essay, “Christina of Markyate,” now appears in British Writers Supplement,Vol. 24, ed. Jay Parini (Farmington Hills, MI: Gale/Cenage Learning, 2018), 59-73.
“Born into an ambitious Anglo-Saxon family in Huntingdon, England, not long after the Norman Conquest of 1066, Christina of Markyate was a spiritually-minded child who grew up to resist the marriage her family had planned for her and devote herself instead to a chaste life as a religious recluse and, later, prioress of Markyate. Like other medieval English women writers, such as Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, her autobiographical reflections were shared orally with an amanuensis who preserved them for her, their religious communities, and future readers. A monk of St. Albans Abbey copied Christina’s hagiographical Life in the fourteenth-century manuscript, Cotton Tiberius E1, which was lost for many centuries. It was damaged in an eighteenth-century fire, and only rediscovered, transcribed, translated, edited, and published by C.H. Talbot in 1959. In addition to this rich, textual resource, two other textual sources recall Christina Markyate’s special existence: the Gesta Abbatum, a chronicle of St. Albans Abbey compiled in the 1250s, which mentions her, and the St. Albans Psalter, a richly illuminated manuscript which was altered for her personal use.”
“Pearl is an extraordinarily beautiful, fourteenth-century, dream vision poem. It is infinitely rewarding to teach, but notoriously difficult to do so. That is because the poem requires a level of literacy that college students do not always possess. In order to read Pearl, whether in Middle English or in a Modern English translation, students must be brave enough to encounter not only poetry, but medieval poetry; not only medieval poetry, but a specific dream vision poem densely packed with biblical and classical allusion; not only a dream vision with a literal meaning, but one with several layers of meaning: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. Although students may not come to the poem with the skills to understand the poem at first, by reading key precursor texts and studying Pearl in different contexts, students can learn to read Pearl, and in the process, learn how to become better readers overall.”
•How is the symbol of the pearl transformed throughout the poem?
•What is the nature of the relationship between the Pearl-Maiden and the Dreamer?
•How might we interpret this poem literally, allegorically, morally, and anagogically? What parable, fable, and fairy-tale motifs appear in the poem?
•Is the dreamer consoled at the end of the poem? If not, why not? If so, how?
My essay, “Joana Torrellas and the Spanish Inquisition,” now appears in Midwifery Today 121 (Spring 2017), 42-43.
“Joana Torrellas was not a witch. She was a Catholic midwife from Valencia, Spain, who lived during the fifteenth century. She married and had five children, three sons and two daughters. After being widowed, she moved to Teruel to live with her daughter, who was married to the town jailer, Joan Gil.
As part of her normal practice of midwifery, Joana recited prayers, such as the Prayer of St. Cyprian, which were contained in a small book that had been given to her by her mother-in-law (who was also a midwife). Joana usually placed nómina (literally, “the names”), a necklace with a pendant on it or in which were written the names of Christ, around the necks of laboring mothers, and she asked for the blessing of the Virgin Mary during the birth. When a woman was about to birth the placenta, she would place a book with a crucifix in it under the woman’s feet in order to help facilitate delivery.
This kind of “spiritual midwifery” was apparently welcome in Valencia, where Joana was from, for it occasioned no scandal. But in Teruel, where Joana was an outsider, her normal practice might have been unusual …”
This book enhances our understanding of the exquisitely beautiful, fourteenth-century, Middle English dream vision poem Pearl. Situating the study in the contexts of medieval literary criticism and contemporary genre theory, Beal argues that the poet intended Pearl to be read at four levels of meaning and in four corresponding genres: literally, an elegy; spiritually, an allegory; morally, a consolation; and anagogically, a revelation. The book addresses cruxes and scholarly debates about the poem’s genre and meaning, including key questions that have been unresolved in Pearl studies for over a century:
What is the nature of the relationship between the Dreamer and the Maiden?
What is the significance of allusions to Ovidian love stories and the use of liturgical time in the poem?
How does avian symbolism, like that of the central symbol of the pearl, develop, transform, and add meaning throughout the dream vision?
What is the nature of God portrayed in the poem, and how does the portrayal of the Maiden’s intimate relationship to God, her spiritual marriage to the Lamb, connect to the poet’s purpose in writing?
Noting that the poem is open to many interpretations, Beal also considers folktale genre patterns in Pearl, including those drawn from parable, fable, and fairy-tale. The conclusion considers Pearl in the light of modern psychological theories of grieving and trauma. This book makes a compelling case for re-reading Pearl and recognizing the poem’s signifying power. Given the ongoing possibility of new interpretations, it will appeal to those who specialize in Pearl as well as scholars of Middle English, Medieval Literature, Genre Theory, and Literature and Religion.
My new book chapter, “Patience on Pilgrimage: Job in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales” now appears in the Brill Companion to Job in the Middle Ages, edited by Franklin T. Harkins and Aaron Canty.
“In the CanterburyTales, Chaucer invokes the name of Job in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, Clerk’s Tale, Tale of Melibee, Friar’s Tale, and Parson’s Tale. In each case, Job serves as an archetypal, almost allegorical figure of the virtue of patience or long-suffering; he is also associated with the related virtues of humility and contrition. He participates in a wider network of meaning that connects him to issues of good moral character in marital conflicts, deserved and undeserved suffering inflicted by devils, and the penitence appropriate to people in general and pilgrims in particular. To understand Chaucer’s use of Job’s figural power, it is important to examine the biblical and extra-biblical textual milieu that influenced Job’s reception in the Middle Ages, Job’s multiple appearances in the CanterburyTales, and the overall role that Job—and the virtue of patience—plays on the pilgrimage to Canterbury.”
My pedagogical essay, “Reading in a Roundtable, Socratic Dialogue, and Other Strategies for Teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” now appears in SMART: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching 23:2 (Fall 2016): 73-100.
“The lai of Lanval thus shows the complex nature of medieval literary depictions of love in a courtly context as well as how very important chivalric courtesy really is in that context. Just as importantly, our discussion of Lanval introduces the character and reputation of Gawain, “the knight of courtesy,” who appears as Lanval’s friend in the romance and aids him in his difficulties. Therefore, students have a foundation upon which we can build as we discuss the following key questions about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in our roundtable:
What codes govern Gawain’s life, and how do they come into conflict in this poem?
What games are played in this poem, and how do they test Gawain’s character?
When Gawain makes each of his confessions in the poem (there are three), what level of self-awareness of his choices does he show, especially in relation to the codes governing his actions? What does he confess, what level of responsibility does he take for his actions, and why (and how much) does it matter within the world of the poem?
How might we, as readers, interpret the conclusion of this poem, and what might be its relevance for a medieval audience and for us?
These questions are made available to students so they are familiar with them and have reflected on them during their reading prior to coming to class.
In the remainder of this essay, I will give an overview of the contextual information I usually share with my students and the key insights I attempt to evoke from them in response to the questions about the poem. The categories for consideration include the following: (1) the codes of chivalry, courtly love, and Christianity; (2) gaming for glory—the beheading of the Green Knight; (3) Gawain’s identity revealed in the symbolism of his shield; (4) gaming for glory—the exchange of winnings; and 5) Gawain’s spiritual growth—the confessions to the priest, the Green Knight, and King Arthur’s court. My purpose in writing is to give ideas to other teachers who may wish to teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight using roundtable discussion, Socratic dialogue and other pedagogical strategies. I have found that exploratory discussion, enriched by informal but informative lecture, becomes more meaningful when the world-views of students are compared to the world-views evidenced in medieval poetry. The students tend to learn much more than they expect, and sometimes their views are changed or subtly shifted.”