Helen Cooper

Helen Cooper is a professor of English at Cambridge, and the author of The English Romance in Time.

Some 25 years after Alsace had been returned to France at the end of the Second World War, I took an opportunity to work there for a few months, in the belief that it would improve my French. A few bare facts about the contested history of the region had stayed with me from school history lessons, but they couldn’t have prepared me for what I walked into. The mix of languages was the...

John Skelton should be one of the great figures of English poetry. He is widely regarded as the most significant poet in the 130 years between the death of Chaucer and the flourishing of Thomas Wyatt; but it has to be said that the competition for the top ranking south of the Scottish border is not very fierce, and until the 1930s such a judgment would have struck most people as bizarre. His...

“The Pastons were minor Norfolk gentry who were doing their best to rise in the world. They would be no more distinctive than scores of other comparable 15th-century families were it not for their habit of preserving the letters they wrote: letters that constitute the period’s most comprehensive archive of private papers, and for many years the only one known. They were discovered in the jumble of documents left by the impoverished second Earl of Yarmouth, himself a Paston, in 1735. When they were published fifty years later, the edition sold out within a week. Since then, and despite the discovery of other collections, they have made their writers the most intimately known family of the English Middle Ages. The lives of kings and princes may be more celebrated, and we may have far more records relating to the major aristocratic families, but the Paston letters supply individual voices. The correspondence extends over four generations of both men and women – indeed, her letters make Margaret Paston, wife of John Paston I, one of the most prolific woman writers in Middle English.”

‘Yes, yes, Mr Burne-Jones,’ Benjamin Jowett is reputed to have said as he inspected the artist’s newly completed Arthurian murals in the Oxford Union, ‘but what does one do with the Grail once one has found it?’ This sounds almost as much the definitive question as the Grail was the definitive quest, but Jowett’s objection is more radically misconceived...

In 1644, the Puritan cleric John Shaw journeyed up to Westmorland to instruct the local people, who, he had been told, were sadly lacking in knowledge of the Bible. The need was confirmed when he interrogated an old man whose long life in the wake of the Reformation seemed to have left him entirely ignorant of all matters theological and ecclesiastical. When pressed as to whether he knew...

In George Peele’s Elizabethan play The Old Wives’ Tale, a character called Jack interrogates the ‘wandering knight’ Eumenides: ‘Are you not the man, sir (deny it if...

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