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Archive for the tag “Canterbury Tales”

Ten great films set in the Middle Ages….


Well, I confess I only know a few of these, and am disappointed that one of my personal favourites, Kingdom of Heaven, doesn’t make this list.



SHW is back

Today in 1495, Jasper “Tudor”, Earl of Bedford died …

William Caxton and the Birth of English Printing

caxton 2It is always a pleasure to visit the sumptuous J. Pierpont Morgan Museum and Library located in the Murray Hill section of New York City.  Built in 1906, designed by the esteemed architectural firm of McKim, Meade and White, it is breathtakingly beautiful as well as a unique source of medieval riches, housing one of the smallest yet select collection of illuminated manuscripts and medieval art.  Every once in a while, the curators dip into this archival treasure trove and fish out something that makes spending the exorbitant exhibition costs well worth it!  This year, they have given us a tiny but interesting group of printed manuscripts from the late 15th century produced in Ghent and London from the printing press of English merchant and diplomat, William Caxton.  Caxton came twenty years after Johann Gutenberg but apparently wasted no time learning the craft and using his knowledge of English, Latin and French to produce key works of literature, ranging from the Bible to Chaucer and Malory, an early encyclopedia as well as the first illustrated English book, “The Mirror of the World” published in 1481.

In this, of course, he was helped along by those highly intelligent royals – The Plantagenets – starting with Margaret of York (Duchess of Burgundy) who patronized the finest book artists in Europe.  On display is one of her illuminated manuscripts called “Apocalypse” written or translated by the scribe, David Aubert, and published in 1475.

caxton 3William Caxton Lunette, Morgan Library

In 1476, probably encouraged by Margaret,Caxton set up a press at Westminster Abby with illustrious clients such as Earl Rivers and the future Richard the Third.  Sadly, while much emphasis is placed on Margaret’s and Edward IV’s encouragement of Caxton, there is no mention of Richard the Third in the exhibit. As Ricardians know, Richard had a library of his own and was a great champion of the English language as well as a patron of Caxton.  Two books on display – one an unusual Canterbury Tales with woodcuttings and a volume simply called”The Royal Book,” a much-used edition with a leather embossed cover and rubricated lettering, date directly from his reign (1483).

caxtonThe Canterbury Tales, 1483

Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most intimate exhibit is a printed indulgence from the workshop of Caxton requesting that Richard Hopton, headmaster of Eton College, be forgiven for promoting war against the Ottomans. Included is the papal seal of Pope Innocent VIII – a blood-red wax replica of what looks like a mitre worn by a bishop. The seal was so carefully broken that it retains a perfect shape.

Perhaps the most important takeaway of this exhibition is Caxton’s work to help stabilize the English language by promoting one dialect – the so-called London dialect – which went on to form the basis of modern English.

The Exhibition last through September 20, 2015.

Pilgrimages Then & Now

The topic of pilgrimages recently came up & I thought to write about the history of & recent resurgence of one of the most popular pilgrimages in the Middle Ages, the Camino de Santiago. There are many different routes leading to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, but the most popular is the one almost all of them (except the trail out of Portugal) meet up with at some point: the Camino Francés.

The Camino de Santiago actually traces a much earlier path called “The Milky Way” which led to the end of the Earth (or Finisterre), but most pilgrims stop at the Cathedral in Santiago to pay respects at the tomb of St. James the Greater. During the Middle Ages, only 2 other pilgrimage routes were more popular: the one leading to Rome, & the one leading to the Holy Land.

Pilgrims came from all over Europe, at all times of the year. The more well-to-do were able to make their pilgrimages in the spring to fall, while the poor would most likely only get permission from their lords to go in the winter.

Vast numbers of pilgrims’ hospitals were established all along the route, and it was for the most part guarded by the Knights Templar. Remnants of Templar churches can be found all along the Camino Francés, most notably the round church at Eunate, just outside of Pamplona. None of the medieval hospitals are in operation as such today, but you can walk past ruins of them all along the Way. While the pilgrims’ hospitals are now gone, you can still find lodging in many convents & monasteries along the way, & even in some churches. Given the size of the ruins I have seen of these hospitals, however, I’d have to guess that the numbers of pilgrims they served were huge.

The pilgrimage to Compostela was widely known in England. Chaucer’s Bath of Wife made a pilgrimage there, according to the “Canterbury Tales,” while in real life, Earl Rivers made his own way to Santiago. It is unknown if Richard III ever journeyed to Spain, but he did make pilgrimages to Canterbury, Walsingham, & other religious sites in England. However, even today, the journey is not easy. It is physically, mentally, & spiritually grueling, & many times the hardest thing you have to battle is your own inner voice suggesting that you quit. Unlike medieval pilgrims, however, modern pilgrims do not have to contend with battles between Moors & Christians or worry about bandits stealing their horses.

At several places along the Way, pilgrims then & now encounter places made famous by the tales of Charlemagne & romanticized in “The Song of Roland.” In fact, the Valcarlos Route over the Pyrenees follows the route taken by Charlemagne & Roland, and ends at a small village called Roncesvalles (Ronceveaux in French), which has greeted pilgrims & held daily masses for them for over 1000 years.

If you want to get a feeling for how medieval people lived, or see first-hand places & things that Richard III would have been familiar with, walking the Camino Francés is a good way to do it. The towns you walk through, especially the smaller ones, are still on their medieval footprint. In areas where fighting was heaviest, the towns are situated on tops of steep hills, always a welcome site after a long, hot day’s walk, I can attest.

At the end of your journey, you reach the Cathedral in Santiago & are rewarded with your own Compostela with your name written in Latin on it, so long as you can prove you walked the last 100 kilometers. You are also allowed to give the statue of Saint James that sits behind the altar a hug, & then descend into the crypt where his coffin is. Being a few feet from the grave of someone who knew Jesus is a heady experience today, so you can imagine how medieval pilgrims felt about it. All pilgrims, ancient & modern, do get to use the scallop shell as their personal device or on their coat of arms, if they have one. Unlike medieval pilgrims, however, modern pilgrims do not get time off for good behavior from Purgatory or other indulgences.

There are many good online sources where you can research & plan your own Camino, if you feel called to go.

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