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M for Merlin

Helen Cooper: Chrétien de Troyes

25 November 1999
Perceval: The Story of the Grail 
by Chrétien de Troyes, translated by Burton Raffel.
Yale, 307 pp., £22.50, March 1999, 0 300 07586 3
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... The season was spring, trees Were sprouting leaves, meadows Were green, every morning Birds sang in their own Sweet language, and the world was joyful. And the son of the widowed lady Living alone in the Barren Forest rose, and quickly Saddled his hunting horse . . . In these lines we are introduced to the hero of Chrétien de Troyes’s last romance, written late in the 12th century. He is a youth ...

Surviving the Reformation

Helen Cooper: Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

15 October 1998
The Beggar and the Professor: A 16th-Century Family Saga 
by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, translated by Arthur Goldhammer.
Chicago, 407 pp., £11.95, June 1998, 0 226 47324 4
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... This is the story of a goatherd who progressed through destitution and self-education to become the printer of the first edition of Calvin’s greatest work and one of the most respected teachers in Reformation Switzerland. It is also the story of his son, who trained as a doctor, fostered a household of four children, and died leaving 42 musical instruments, a set of skeletons and other bones of creatures ...

Through the Gullet

Helen Cooper: Medieval recipes

16 April 1998
The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy 
by Odile Redon and Françoise Sabban, translated by Edward Schneider.
Chicago, 324 pp., £25.95, September 1998, 0 226 70684 2
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... During the Christmas celebrations of 1251, Henry III and his court ate their way through 830 deer of various kinds, 200 wild swine, 1300 hares and 115 cranes. Basic supplies for the feast to mark the installation of George Neville as Archbishop of York in 1467 began with 104 oxen, 1000 sheep, 10,000 capons and six wild bulls, washed down with a hundred barrels of wine. These occasions were meant to ...

Fill it with fish

Helen Cooper: The trail of the Grail

6 June 2002
Parzival and the Stone from Heaven: A Grail Romance Retold for Our Time 
by Lindsay Clarke.
HarperCollins, 239 pp., £14.99, September 2001, 0 00 710813 3
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Merlin and the Grail: ‘Joseph of Arimathea’, ‘Merlin’, ‘Perceval’ The Trilogy of Arthurian Romances Attributed to Robert de Boron 
translated by Nigel Bryant.
Boydell and Brewer, 172 pp., £30, May 2001, 0 85991 616 2
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Le Livre du Graal. Tome I: ‘Joseph D’Arimathie’, ‘Merlin’, ‘Les Premiers Faits du Roi Arthur’ 
edited by Daniel Poirion and Philippe Walter.
Gallimard, 1993 pp., £50.95, April 2001, 2 07 011342 6
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... 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 than any answer could be. The Grail ...

Skeltonics

Helen Cooper: The maverick poetry of John Skelton

14 December 2006
John Skelton and Poetic Authority: Defining the Liberty to Speak 
by Jane Griffiths.
Oxford, 213 pp., £50, February 2006, 9780199273607
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... 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 poetry ...

Family Fortunes

Helen Cooper: The upwardly mobile Pastons

4 August 2005
Blood and Roses: The Paston Family in the 15th Century 
by Helen​ Castor.
Faber, 347 pp., £8.99, June 2005, 0 571 21671 4
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... So violent and motley was life that it bore the mixed smell of blood and of roses.’ Helen Castor quotes Johan Huizinga’s description of the waning of the Middle Ages at the very end of her book, with something approaching a denial of its relevance to her own account of the same period ...

Wholly Given Over to Thee

Anne Barton: Literary romance

2 December 2004
The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare 
by Helen Cooper.
Oxford, 560 pp., £65, June 2004, 0 19 924886 9
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... compassionate, who both visit a magic well in search of a husband. For good measure, Peele throws in a pair of genuinely nasty Furies, a clown, some melodious harvesters, and a strange talking head. HelenCooper mentions Peele’s play glancingly on two occasions, describing it as ‘a compendium of everyone’s favourite motifs from popular romance and folk tale’. That implies a generic distinction ...

Blood Running Down

Helen Cooper: Iconoclasm and theatre in early modern England

9 August 2001
The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm and Theatre in Early Modern England 
by Michael O'Connell.
Oxford, 198 pp., £30, February 2000, 9780195132052
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... 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 anything about ...

Writing French in English

Helen Cooper: Chaucer’s Language

7 October 2010
TheFamiliar Enemy: Chaucer, Language and Nation in the Hundred Years War 
by Ardis Butterfield.
Oxford, 444 pp., £60, December 2009, 978 0 19 957486 5
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... 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 most immediately ...

Miss Dior, Prodigally Applied

Ian Patterson: Jilly Cooper

17 May 2017
Mount! 
by Jilly Cooper.
Corgi, 610 pp., £7.99, February 2017, 978 0 552 17028 4
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... Jilly Cooper​ ’s work is not, so far as I know, much studied in universities. In the Senior Combination Room one lunchtime recently, when I mentioned that I was writing this review, a Very Senior Person ...

Corbyn in the Media

Paul Myerscough

21 October 2015
... refusing to believe that party activists who had ‘heard what people said on the doorsteps’ about Miliband and the deficit would vote for Corbyn. ‘My hunch,’ she wrote on 23 July, ‘is Cooper is the one to beat.’ As reality set in, her hunch became a plea, in which she was joined by the paper itself: in its editorial of 13 August, the Guardian came out for the ‘steadfast’ Cooper ...

The Shock of the Pretty

James Meek: Seventy Hours with Don Draper

8 April 2015
... over the darkness? What if the vintage fashion-shoot perfection of the Christmas scene leaves a more powerful impression on us than our awareness of the suffering of Betty and her children? Sterling Cooper, the fictional advertising agency around which Mad Men is built, is a caricature of the commercial TV system that produced the series: a pool of creative people in bitter thrall to the accountants ...

What’s Happening in the Engine-Room

Penelope Fitzgerald: Poor John Lehmann

7 January 1999
John Lehmann: A Pagan Adventure 
by Adrian Wright.
Duckworth, 308 pp., £20, November 1998, 0 7156 2871 2
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... and wrote quantities of light verse, often about rowing, for Punch. He married Alice Davis, a strong-minded New Englander, twenty years younger than himself. Their family consisted of three girls – Helen, the indulged Rosamond, Beatrix – and, at long last, the boy John. Their children’s talents must have been partly, at least, inherited, but no trace of their father Rude’s jolly German ...

My son has been poisoned!

David Bromwich: Cold War movies

26 January 2012
An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War 
by J. Hoberman.
New Press, 383 pp., £21.99, March 2011, 978 1 59558 005 4
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... and might his second career pass through leadership of actors? His change of political allegiance was accomplished painlessly. Reagan began the 1950 California Senate campaign as a supporter of Helen Gahagan Douglas – slandered by her opponent, Nixon, as the ‘Pink Lady’ – but ended it as a patron of Nixon. Looking back, he would give this transition a more compelling gloss and allude ...

Easy-Going Procrastinators

Ferdinand Mount: Margot Asquith’s War

8 January 2015
Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary 1914-16: The View from Downing Street 
edited by Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock, selected by Eleanor Brock.
Oxford, 566 pp., £30, June 2014, 978 0 19 822977 3
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Margot at War: Love And Betrayal In Downing Street, 1912-16 
by Anne de Courcy.
Weidenfeld, 376 pp., £20, November 2014, 978 0 297 86983 2
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The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush To War, 1914 
by Douglas Newton.
Verso, 386 pp., £20, July 2014, 978 1 78168 350 7
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... the age of 30 to the widowed Herbert Henry Asquith, she was proudest of her role as leader of the Souls. She thought that, for all their academic brilliance, Asquith’s children by his first wife, Helen, were poor successors to her own coterie: The clever group of nowadays is very inferior to my clever group called ‘Souls’. They are sexless and soulless, and so disloyal that they only hang ...

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