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Byzantine Laments

Barbara Newman: Anna Komnene, Historian, 2 March 2017

Anna Komnene: The Life and Work of a Medieval Historian 
by Leonora Neville.
Oxford, 240 pp., £41.99, September 2016, 978 0 19 049817 7
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... In​  Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland finds history tiresome because it’s peopled with ‘men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all’. From antiquity until as late as the 1970s, most history was written by men, for men, about men. Its pages seldom noted women’s doings, and they were even more rarely its authors. In the medieval West, a few women wrote lyrics and religious texts; they did not write history ...

Safe Spaces

Barbara Newman, 21 July 2022

Uncertain Refuge: Sanctuary in the Literature of Medieval England 
by Elizabeth Allen.
Pennsylvania, 311 pp., £52, October 2021, 978 0 8122 5344 3
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... The best place​ to begin Elizabeth Allen’s study of sanctuary seeking in medieval England is the coda: ‘Sanctuary in Southwest Georgia, 1962’. Here Allen vividly recounts an incident from the American civil rights movement in which her father, Ralph Allen, played an important role. He was one of two white college students who joined 38 Black activists in a voting rights campaign ...

She was of the devil’s race

Barbara Newman: Eleanor of Aquitaine, 2 November 2023

Eleanor of Aquitaine, as It Was Said: Truths and Tales about the Medieval Queen 
by Karen Sullivan.
Chicago, 270 pp., £36, August, 978 0 226 82583 0
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... Historians​ usually exclude gossip and rumour from their sources, or use them with caution. In her new book about Eleanor of Aquitaine, Karen Sullivan does the opposite. She looks at what friends, enemies, troubadours and chroniclers as late as the 16th century had to say, often relaying it with the phrase ut dicebatur, ‘as it was said’. Eleanor has been many things to many people, from the arbiter of a Court of Love in Andreas Capellanus’s treatise De Amore to the acerbic power broker played by Katharine Hepburn in A Lion in Winter ...

Ailments of the Tongue

Barbara Newman: Medieval Grammar, 22 March 2012

Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300-1475 
edited by Rita Copeland and Ineke Sluiter.
Oxford, 972 pp., £35, May 2012, 978 0 19 965378 2
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... Fifty years ago, Walter Ong startled classicists with the proposal that learning Latin offered medieval and Renaissance boys a rite of passage not unlike Bushman puberty rites. Torn from the company of women, the initiate was sequestered with his peers in a clubhouse-like schoolroom, trained in the special language of an elite, disciplined by flogging, and formed by a regimen geared to inculcate moral and intellectual toughness ...

A Thousand Slayn

Barbara Newman: Ars Moriendi, 5 November 2020

Arts of Dying: Literature and Finitude in Medieval England 
by D. Vance Smith.
Chicago, 309 pp., £24, April, 978 0 226 64099 0
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... This book​ begins with a paradox: we speak incessantly of death, yet can’t say anything about it because it has no being. A subsidiary paradox has long puzzled medievalists: ‘It is hard to tell, when you read only the poetry of the late 14th century, that the Black Death had ever arrived,’ D. Vance Smith writes. There is nothing in all English literature to parallel Boccaccio’s famous account in the Decameron ...

‘I was such a lovely girl’

Barbara Newman: The Songs of the Medieval Troubadours, 25 May 2006

Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours 
translated by Ezra Pound, W.D. Snodgrass and Robert Kehew, edited by Robert Kehew.
Chicago, 280 pp., £35, May 2005, 0 226 42933 4
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Medieval Lyric: Middle English Lyrics, Ballads and Carols 
edited by John Hirsh.
Blackwell, 220 pp., £17.99, August 2004, 1 4051 1482 7
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An Anthology of Ancient and Medieval Woman’s Song 
edited by Anne Klinck.
Palgrave, 208 pp., £19.99, May 2004, 9781403963109
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... some versions) their faithful dog. This carol, like some of the secular ballads Hirsh includes (‘Barbara Allan’, ‘The Three Ravens’, ‘The Unquiet Grave’), exists in numerous variants that are still in the repertoire of folk-singers. Hirsh does not translate his Middle English texts, nor does he normalise spellings ‘as if to imply that all of ...

Boots the Bishop

Barbara Newman: Albert the Magnificent, 1 December 2022

Albertus Magnus and the World of Nature 
by Irven Resnick and Kenneth Kitchell.
Reaktion, 272 pp., £16.95, August 2022, 978 1 78914 513 7
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... Albertus Magnus​ , the Dominican friar born sometime around 1200 and canonised in 1931, is often called the patron saint of natural scientists, but he might as well be called the patron saint of curiosity. The 38 volumes of his collected works cover not only theology, law and logic, but almost every science known to his era: zoology and botany, physiology and medicine, astronomy and astrology, geography, mineralogy – even its troublesome stepchild, alchemy ...

Uppity Trumpet of the Living Light

Barbara Newman: Hildegard of Bingen, 20 January 2000

Secrets of God: Writings of Hildegard of Bingen 
edited by Sabina Flanagan.
Shambhala, 186 pp., £10.99, August 1998, 1 57062 164 0
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The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen: Vol. II 
translated by Joseph Baird.
Oxford, 215 pp., £36, October 1998, 0 19 512010 8
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Jutta and Hildegard: The Biographical Sources 
edited by Anna Silvas.
Pennsylvania State, 299 pp., £15.50, September 1998, 0 271 01954 9
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by Hildegard of Bingen, translated by Priscilla Throop.
Healing Art, 250 pp., £19.99, August 1998, 0 89281 661 9
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On Natural Philosophy and Medicine 
by Hildegard of Bingen, translated by Margret Berger.
Brewer, 166 pp., £12.99, July 1999, 0 85991 551 4
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... on five discs, beginning with Canticles of Ecstasy in 1994.* When their director, the incomparable Barbara Thornton, died shortly after the release of Saints in 1998, the medieval performance world lost not only an extraordinary voice, but one of its most learned and impassioned interpreters. These recordings, ethereal yet earthy, stand as a lasting memorial ...

When Medicine Failed

Barbara Newman: Saints, 7 May 2015

Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation 
by Robert Bartlett.
Princeton, 787 pp., £27.95, December 2013, 978 0 691 15913 3
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... as a requirement for sainthood, with the result that many favourites (including my patron, St Barbara) were decommissioned in the 1960s. Other casualties included the dog-headed St Christopher and St Catherine of Alexandria, who was said to have bested fifty pagans in philosophical argument. Medieval authorities may have been more credulous, but they too ...

Peasants wear ultramarine

Barbara Newman: Nuns with Blue Teeth, 10 February 2022

Perceptions of Medieval Manuscripts: The Phenomenal Book 
by Elaine Treharne.
Oxford, 248 pp., £30, October 2021, 978 0 19 284381 4
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Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers 
by Mary Wellesley.
Riverrun, 372 pp., £25, October 2021, 978 1 5294 0093 9
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The Absent Image: Lacunae in Medieval Books 
by Elina Gertsman.
Penn State, 232 pp., £99.95, June 2021, 978 0 271 08784 9
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... Almost everything​ we know about medieval culture is written on the skins of dead animals. Turning sheep and calves into parchment is a messy, smelly business. But when we read medieval texts in print editions all that mess disappears – so we no longer see what the authors of the Middle English ‘Charters of Christ’ saw when they compared God’s sacrificial Lamb to the lambs that supplied their writing material ...

My Feet Are Cut Off

Barbara Newman: Lives of the Saints, 3 December 2009

Gilte Legende Vol. I 
edited by Richard Hamer and Vida Russell.
Early English Text Society (Oxford), 496 pp., £65, November 2006, 0 19 920577 9
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Gilte Legende Vol. II 
edited by Richard Hamer and Vida Russell.
Early English Text Society (Oxford), 1036 pp., £65, August 2007, 978 0 19 923439 4
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... For every medieval manuscript we possess, scholars estimate that at least ten have perished. The compendium of Latin saints’ lives known as the Golden Legend, with its staggering thousand exemplars, must have been second only to the Bible in popularity. Compiled by the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine around 1260, it became a standard text on every preacher’s bookshelf and was translated into every vernacular ...

Cauldrons for Helmets

Barbara Newman: Crusading Women, 13 April 2023

Women and the Crusades 
by Helen J. Nicholson.
Oxford, 287 pp., £25, February, 978 0 19 880672 1
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... Few medieval enterprises​ have been as romanticised or as vilified as the Crusades. Aside from the bitter legacy of hate they left in the Middle East, they also wrought havoc in Europe. Departing crusaders routinely attacked Jews, giving them the options of slaughter or forced baptism (many preferred collective suicide). In the Fourth Crusade of 1202-4, the Venetians diverted the army from Egypt to sack Constantinople, while the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-29 devastated a flourishing Occitanian culture ...

Astonishing Heloise

Barbara Newman, 23 January 2014

The Letter Collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise 
edited by David Luscombe.
Oxford, 654 pp., £165, August 2013, 978 0 19 822248 4
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... Nine hundred years ago, a celebrity philosopher fell in love with his star student and seduced her. Peter Abelard’s once brilliant lectures grew tepid, while his love songs placed the name of Heloise on every tongue. Passionate letters flew, and the Parisian gossip mill went into overdrive – until pregnancy, as so often, betrayed the secret. Much against Heloise’s will, Abelard insisted on marriage to soothe her enraged uncle Fulbert, and spirited their child off to his sister’s farm in Brittany ...

No Peep of Protest

Barbara Newman: Medieval Marriage, 19 July 2018

Conduct Becoming: Good Wives and Husbands in the Later Middle Ages 
by Glenn Burger.
Pennsylvania, 262 pp., £50, September 2017, 978 0 8122 4960 6
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... Once upon​ a time, runs a medieval tale, a jealous wife quarrelled with another woman for flirting with her husband. As the women fought, the alleged flirt broke the wife’s nose and ruined her looks for ever, provoking her husband to have affairs in earnest. The moral of the story? ‘This is a good example for all good ladies and gentlewomen about how they ought to bear things graciously ...

Mercenary Knights and Princess Brides

Barbara Newman: Medieval Travel, 17 August 2017

The Medieval Invention of Travel 
by Shayne Aaron Legassie.
Chicago, 287 pp., £22, April 2017, 978 0 226 44662 2
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... In​ the Middle Ages,’ Shayne Aaron Legassie writes, ‘travel was nasty, brutish and long.’ Before planes, railways or steamships, it was inseparable from its etymological twin, travail – both derived from the name of an ancient Roman instrument of torture. Peregrinus, the medieval term for a ‘pilgrim’ or ‘traveller’, in classical Latin meant an ‘exile’ or ‘alien ...

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