A most strange witch pamphlet: A Most Certain, Strange, and True Discovery of a VVitch (1643)

In this guest post from Sheilagh O’Brien, we learn a little more about where she discovered the interest and insight for her recent article on the Witch of Newbury, now fresh off the press on the Cerae website!


My interest in the Witch of Newbury came about in the early stages of researching my doctoral thesis on witch trials during the English Civil Wars (1642-1649). Two facets of the major pamphlet on the Witch of Newbury, A Most Certain, Strange, and True Discovery of a VVitch, struck me: the first was that the case took place outside of the English legal system; and the second was the weight it gave to the physical testing of the witch.

Pamphlets on witches – like those on the Witch of Newbury – give us what Marion Gibson has described as a ‘privileged view of an element within the development of a very specific and enduring myth […] which intersects in increasingly complex ways with what we perceive to be real.’

The pamphlets are often the most detailed records we have, not only for trial proceedings, but for what occurred around them. But even in those cases where we have multiple sources, including trial records and pamphlets, there are many details which we lack about the pre-trial testing, and how communal pressure was applied – if these things were even recorded at all.

That is not to say the records we have don’t provide many other detail, which often startle and confuse the unwary reader. Reading accounts of witches in early modern Europe, you rapidly become desensitised to the many bizarre and disturbing claims made by people who had been bewitched, or who had confessed to having done the bewitching. In the East Anglia trials I examine in my thesis there are many instances of this: in one narrative, swarms of lice were reported to chase down and attack a witch’s victims in broad daylight; another witch claimed to have two familiars in the shape of hounds, with boar bristles on their backs.

Another woman confessed she had seen the Devil in the shape of her recently deceased children, one saw him in the form of her dead husband. Some even said he dressed like a gentleman, and wanted to be their husband. Others claimed to have met the Devil as a little boy on a country road, or a talking dog in a lane late at night. In fact if there is one thing that can be said for early modern witch trials in England, it is that the details of each case are as unique as the person accused.

But these extraordinary details come from within a framework that does become familiar when you work on this area. These witches were accused by their neighbours, following confession they were brought before a magistrate or JP and informations and examinations were set down on paper. After this they would be placed in gaol, awaiting trial, usually by first the Quarter Sessions and then by the Assize courts. These cases were tried under laws we know and understand, and in a structure that by and large remains unchanged across the period.

But the woman killed at Newbury doesn’t fit into any of the normal frameworks. She doesn’t even have a name, because those who found her didn’t take her to trial. Instead the soldiers who saw her arrested her, tested her to see if she was a witch – as they thought – and then executed her that very day. This incident therefore gives us an unusual opportunity to see what a group of men claimed to have done when confronted by what they believed to be a witch. The circumstances of her death make the ‘Witch of Newbury’ one of the most unusual cases of witch persecution (as opposed to prosecution) in early modern England.

It is the extraordinary circumstances of the Witch of Newbury’s death which gives us unusual insight into witch beliefs outside of the legal system. Through texts like A Most Certain, Strange, and True Discovery of a VVitch we actually hear the story of people who believed they were confronted by a witch. Yet even here we are dealing with a second hand source, and so these ideas and the text in which they are found must also be critically examined. Although the ideas were not filtered through the framework of the English court system, they are still filtered through the framework of a witch pamphlet.

The Witch of Newbury was not the only woman attacked and killed by soldiers near or on the site of Civil War battles. The women who died may not have faced a court, but they were persecuted for many of the same reasons other women and men were prosecuted for witchcraft: The attackers judged them to be witches, in part because they thought them to be immoral. Or as one witch in Suffolk would confess: “pride and lustfullnes had brought her to this, […] for she had the deuill w[i]thin [her]”.

Whether the Witch of Newbury likewise regarded herself as having the Devil inside her, we can never know. Certainly her attackers believed that her actions, however potentially innocuous they may have been, were proof of the terrible and terrifying powers of a witch. As unusual as her case is, she met the same fate as more than five hundred others across England and thousands more across the early modern Christian world.  Understanding how her attackers conceived of her and the steps they took to prevent her from harming them, gives us access into a world that is both very different, and alarmingly similar, to our own.

You can read Sheilagh’s full article, ‘A ‘Divellish’ Woman Discovered: The Witch of Newbury, 1643’, by clicking here.


Uncovering Manly Eunuchs in the Byzantine Empire

Could a eunuch be considered “manly” in the early Byzantine Empire? This is the question Michael Stewart has set out to answer in the fourth article for Volume 2 titled “The Andreios Eunuch-Commander Narses: Sign of a Decoupling of Martial Virtues and Masculinity in the Early Byzantine Empire?”

In this guest post, Michael sheds some light on where this article came from and why he chose to publish it in Ceræ.

‘Narses’, from the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

The genesis for this article sparked from a moment of crisis. In September of 2012, I received the results back from the examiners of my University of Queensland Doctoral dissertation, ‘The Soldier’s Life: Martial Virtues and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Early Byzantine Empire’. Put simply, in this work, I argued that martial virtues and images of the soldier’s life represented an essential aspect of early Byzantine masculine ideology.

One of my key chapters explored how the seminal early Byzantine historian Procopius utilised the Greek concept of andreia (translated rather loosely in English as manliness and/or courage) in his books on the Emperor Justinian’s mid-sixth century reconquests of Italy. I felt at home with the writings of Procopius. Indeed, my work on the historian had begun in 2000 with my 2003 San Diego State University Master’s thesis, ‘Between Two Worlds: Men’s Heroic Conduct in the Writings of Procopius’. So I received a jolt to my confidence when it was this chapter that had largely prevented me from passing without changes. While my examiners largely enjoyed the chapter, which eventually would be published as ‘Contests of Andreia in Procopius’ Gothic Wars’, Parekbolai 4 (2014): 21-54, they observed correctly that I had glaringly omitted discussing the Byzantine general Narses’ status as a eunuch-general. Indeed, one examiner concluded that the fact that a eunuch could command Byzantine armies undermined somewhat my larger conclusion that Procopius and other Byzantines believed that the field of battle represented a masculine realm.

Disheartened at first, I went back to Procopius to chart out and explore his depictions of Narses. At this stage, I discovered that Procopius’ views on Narses were more complex than most scholarship and I had generally believed. Intrigued, I began comparing Procopius’ account with other literary sources, Byzantine and Western. What was surprising to me, was how little most of these ancient writers had to say about Narses’ eunuch-status. Indeed, even anti-Byzantine Western accounts tended to praise Narses’ martial qualities and overall virtues.

Content that the case of Narses did not undermine my larger conclusions, I inserted a short section on Procopius’ views about the eunuch-commander into my response. Happily these changes were accepted, and my dissertation was approved in early January 2013. I still, however, had a nagging feeling that if I wanted to move my work forward I needed to delve deeper into the ways these innovative eunuch-soldiers were perceived in the Byzantine and non-Byzantine world. So I continued to research and write, and—somewhat hesitantly, decided to post a nascent version of this piece on my academia.edu website: https://uq.academia.edu/MichaelStewart. The reaction was immediate. Two top-scholars on Procopius and Byzantine eunuchs encouraged me with helpful insights on how the piece could be improved.

These positive and negative criticisms allowed me to continue honing the paper. This development was aided further by an invitation to give a paper at the 2014 conference for the Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, ‘Breaking Down Barriers: Eunuchs in Italy, 400-625, a talk that touched on some of the themes in this current article. Satisfied that the paper might be worthy of publication, I stumbled upon Cerae’s call for papers dealing with the theme ‘Transitions, Fractures, and Fragments’. The growing prevalence of eunuchs leading Byzantine armies from the sixth century certainly represented a key transition from the classical to the early medieval Byzantine world. A firm believer in open access, and seeking to publish a piece in a journal from my adopted homeland of Australia, Cerae seemed the proper choice.

Once again, in order to answer the pithy critiques of the journals two anonymous examiners, some more hurdles needed to be overcome. Yet, like the process I learned as a youth growing up in the state of Vermont of making 1 gallon of maple syrup by boiling 40 gallons of arduously collected sap, the result was worth the long process. In conclusion, then, the current piece must be seen as a truly collaborative piece. My thanks to everyone who made it possible, and keep those comments coming, because, as I have learned, that is surely the best way onward for any scholar.

You can read Michael’s full article, “The Andreios Eunuch-Commander Narses: Sign of a Decoupling of Martial Virtues and Masculinity in the Early Byzantine Empire?”, by clicking here.

The Merchant of Venice and the Sublime

STC 22296, title pageWe are delighted to publish our next article for Volume 2. The article is by Kathrin Bartha (Freie University Berlin) and is an attempt to apply the basic principles of the aesthetic discourse on the sublime, beautiful and grotesque to William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

In this guest blog post, Kathrin explains what happened when she introduced Shylock to the Sublime.

As an undergraduate student I was involved in a research project that looked at Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and its significance for post-War Germany. At the centre of attention was Shylock the Jewish moneylender as a cultural figure and stage character. The project examined the changes in the perception of Shylock since 1945, understanding them as “conflict-ridden attempts at coming to terms with the German past: the Shoah, guilt and remembrance and German anti-Semitism.”1 The Merchant of Venice was on my mind while being a student assistant in this project, and my attempts at understanding the play and its afterlife resulted in two essays. But it was not until I was introduced to the aesthetics of the sublime and grotesque in a seminar completely unrelated to the play, that I felt I had finally ‘got’ it. I felt I had found my own access to formerly mysterious scenes — like the last Act with its curious ideas on music as a conclusion to the play.

The seminar that had so infected my thinking focused on the discourse of the sublime from Romanticism to post-Modernism, tackling accompanying aesthetics on the way, such as the beautiful and the grotesque. We learned that the sublime is something between an emotion and an experience. One of the main issues this experience negotiates is the relationship between subject and object: it narrates an encounter with an object or an ‘other’ too vast to grasp, followed by an overpowering emotion of terror, pain and pleasure. Edmund Burke, one of the foundational thinkers of the sublime, describes a certain sequence of events in this experience: First, the excess of the encounter fills the perceiver so completely that the faculty of judgement is blocked, and language fails. This encounter is accompanied by a negative pleasure, a delightful horror which, through its forcefulness, threatens to annihilate the subject. As a consequence of this crisis, writers such as Immanuel Kant and William Wordsworth have described the subsequent transcendence of the human mind over ‘matter’. Other writers however, many of them post-modern, have criticised this form of transcendence and tried to rework a different, maybe more ethical, conclusion to the experience.

With its interesting dynamics between subject and object, or body and mind, the discourse on the sublime gave me tools to see potential aesthetics represented — and played up to — by characters in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, for example, is constructed as theologically and aesthetically grotesque, but as a reaction to this objectification happening to him, he also plays up to this role with an increasingly ‘monstrous’ behavior. Studying the discourses on the sublime, beautiful and grotesque, along with reading precious critical discussions of the play, enabled me to perceive power relations and to read imagery I hadn’t seen before.

And so my essay is an attempt to apply the basic principles of the aesthetic discourse on the sublime, beautiful and grotesque to The Merchant of Venice. I argue that the structure of the play parallels the model of the traditional sublime, as it deals with a subject-object binary and meditates on the relationship between the material (body) and the transcendental (mind). However, the play is also rich in disruptive — or grotesque — forces that unsettle this binary structure and the attempts at sublime transcendence.

Learning about the history of emotions, such as the sublime or the melancholic, enhanced my understanding of scenes I had been subconsciously turning over in my mind. I learned that thinking with emotions, and through them, was worth it. I also learned something about the central role that emotion takes in thought and creativity, how experiencing art is often entangled in it, and how it can connect us to the past. Emotions are usually old. If I can “feel” a play from the 16th century, for example, it must be relevant to my context.

My essay was woven from two different threads. One came from grappling with a complex play, the other from being fascinated with the sublime as an emotional experience. I appreciate this Shakespeare play so much because it represents a history of applying aesthetic, theological and biological principles to society’s others (in this case the attributions of Christians on Jews), while simultaneously exploring the way these acts of objectification come back to haunt the objectifiers. The Merchant of Venice seems to show all this in a playful, embodied way.

1. Quoted from the project website “Shylock in Germany: The Reception of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice after 1945”: http://www.geisteswissenschaften.fu-berlin.de/en/v/shylock/index.html

You can read Kathrin’s full article, “Grotesque Encounters: Reading Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice along the Principles of the Sublime, Beautiful and Grotesque”, here.

In Search of Early Modern Disgust

disgustWe’ve just published the second article in our rolling release of Volume 2. The piece is by Richard Firth-Godbehere (Queen Mary University of London) and considers how Thomas Wright’s 1604 work, The Passions of the Minde in Generall, might have fitted into his overall mission as an English Catholic preacher, particularly when read via Wright’s understanding of Thomas Aquinas’s passion of fuga seu abominatio.

Now, in this guest post, Richard shares his experience on the trail of an elusive early modern concept of disgust.

My article comes out of the research for my thesis, Understanding the Opposite of Desire: A Prehistory of Disgust 1598-1762. My overall work involves a linguistic dissection of the ways people tried to grapple with the idea that desire has an opposite, and the many ways those who tried to understand the passions described it. Succinctly put, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw English thinkers round on five keywords: abomination, aversion, eschewing, horror, and disgust. Each of these is an opposite of desire, but each has its own baggage, its own history and its own usages in a variety of discourses. As my article outlines, ‘abomination’ was often associated with a religious discourse. To feel abomination was to feel something towards that which God would reject: sin. Disgust, however became associated with another type of desire, the opposite of the desire for moral and material beauty, and in the early to mid-seventeenth century became a sort of anti-aesthetic sentiment through the British Taste school of Joseph Addison, David Hume, Lord Kames and so on.

My interest began, as often things do, with my love life. My wife, I am sure she doesn’t mind me saying, use to suffer from Emetophobia: fear of vomiting. Central to this particular phobia is a strong sense of disgust and sympathetic magic, coupled with an aversion to certain situations. As a mature student just beginning to become interested in the history of emotions, disgust became a focus, but when I attempted to find it in the historical record before about 1750 it, to my shock, wasn’t, quite, there. This is not to say a feeling we might call revulsion wasn’t there, just that the concept or idea of disgust itself was half-formed. It relied on secondary vocabulary and inference: words such as ‘vile’ and ‘loathsome’ were used. These described how revulsion felt or what was revolting to a degree, but not what revulsion was. My search for a disgust concept prior to c.1750 took me back to Middle English in the fourteenth century; to early uses of abomination alongside the fantastic word ‘wlotsomnes’: the best pre-c.1750 candidate for what we now understand of disgust. This word and the concept it signified was lost, and in its place a struggle raged in medieval thought for what was only ever called the opposite of desire. Aquinas claimed it had no name, while described it as a sort of fearful hatred, or fear, or hatred, or neither; it was rather unclear and confusing.

What was clear is that our feelings of repulsion and revulsion aren’t as simple as the English word ‘disgust’ paints them to be. Not everything we are repulsed by disgusts us, and not everything disgusting is repulsive. We can be repelled from venturing outside by a raging storm, while disgust can hold a strange fascination, even humour, through the scatological and our fascination with deformity. The Hebrews and Greeks knew this well. When St Jerome translated the Bible, he imposed upon over half a dozen words with subtly different meanings the word ‘abominatio’. This ranged from a word for the abomination of rotting meat to a word for the abomination of using more than one type of weight in trade. This was the source of the medieval and early modern historians’ confusion. A concept as clear as mud in the Vulgate; it flitted between that which is utterly vile and that which is merely a nuisance. Aristotle and Plato weren’t much more help, describing these feelings simply as ‘aversions’, the only clear example of which being the aversion amongst Greek philosophers from being specific about what aversions were. All that could be said for sure is that these things are the opposite of what we desire and so that is pretty much anybody said about them, until the seventeenth century.

This is where Thomas Wright comes in. Wright stands at the vanguard of an attempt to understand the passions in the light of the growing dissolution with the various schools of scholasticism. It is a discussion of the opposite of desire that would continue to the middle of the eighteenth century, and be touched upon by Catholics and Protestants, Hobbes and Descartes, the Cambridge Platonists, Natural Philosophers, Physicians, and the British Taste School where finally the idea of disgust as the emetic, anti-aesthetic sympathy that opposes beauty and desire, rather than just something of or in bad taste – took hold in English vocabulary. With a little help from Dr Johnsons popular dictionary.

This brings us back to Emetaphobia. Research has shown that many phobias have an element of repulsion or revulsion, often misconstrued (in my opinion) as disgust. Someone afraid of flying has a particular aversion to flying, combining claustrophobia, fear of a lack of control and other factors personal to that sufferer. Equally, an agoraphobic feels a strong sense of repulsion to open spaces, part of which is fear, part of which is something else – something not quite in our modern vocabulary. My argument is that it used to be in our vocabulary: as horror, or eschewing, or aversion, or abomination. My quest is to tease the uses of these words out to help us understand these passions as understood in the past, and these emotions as felt in the present.

You can read Richard’s full article, “For ‘Physicians of the Soule’: The Roles of ‘Flight’ and ‘Hatred of Abomination’ in Thomas Wright’s The Passions of the Minde in Generall”, here.

‘Nonsence is Rebellion’: John Taylor’s ‘Nonsence upon Sence, or Sence, upon Nonsence’ (1651-1654) and the English Civil War

John TaylorYou may know that we’ve moved to a rolling release format and have just published the first article for the volume.

The piece is by Emily Cock (University of Adelaide) and examines the political content of John Taylor’s

Nonsence upon Sence, or Sence Upon Nonsence: Chuse you either, or neither (1651–1654), challenging the customary dismissal of this poem as light-hearted nonsense verse.

Now, in this guest post, Emily recounts how Taylor’s work came to her attention.

In my Honours year I decided to edit and annotate an early modern text for my thesis project. To this end, I was skimming through titles in the library catalogue when this entry, understandably, caught my attention:

The essence, quintessence, insence, innocence, lye-sence, & magnifisence of nonsence upon sence: or, Sence upon nonsence. The third part, the fourth impression, the fifth edition, the sixth addition, upon condition, that (by tradition) the reader may laugh if he list. In longitude, latitude, crassitude, magnitude, and amplitude, lengthened, widened, enlarged, augmented, encreased, made wider and sider, by the addition of letters, syllables, words, lines, and farfetch’d sentences. And the lamentable death and buriall of a Scottish Gallaway nagge. Written upon white paper, in a brown study, betwixt Lammas day and Cambridge, in the yeare aforesayd. Beginning at the latter end, and written by John Taylor at the sign of the poor Poets Head, in Phoenix Alley, near the middle of Long Acre, or Coven [sic] Garden. Anno, millimo, quillimo, trillimo, daffadillimo, pulcher. London: n.p., 1654.

It was a difficult thing to resist. My intrigue grew as I discovered countless texts by John Taylor (1578–1653) in our microfilm collection, but only one book about him. By the time I made it to the microfilm machine to read the three editions of this ‘nonsence’ (which proved both hilarious and utterly bizarre), I had learned that Taylor was indeed one of the most prolific and popular writers of the early to mid-seventeenth century, and a bona fide self-made celebrity, but that his work had virtually disappeared after his death.1

Nonsence upon Sence, or Sence, upon Nonsence: Chuse you either, or neither was printed in three parts by an unknown London publisher in 1651 (parts one and two, in quarto) and posthumously in 1654 (part three, in octavo). Its only subsequent printing was an extract in Noel Malcolm’s The Origins of English Nonsense (London: Harper Collins, 1997), and there were no sustained literary critiques. As I collated and re-typed the three editions and unpacked each piece of nonsense, I learnt the truth of Gertrude Stein’s observation about editing: ‘I always say that you can not tell what a picture really is or what an object really is until you dust it every day and you cannot tell what a book is until you type it or proof-read it. It then does something to you that only reading never can do.’2 In my case, engaging with Taylor’s writing at the level of the comma led to my first academic obsession as an undergraduate, and the understanding that, contrary to Malcolm’s reading of Nonsence as light-hearted nonsense verse, Taylor’s text was actually a passionate blast against the political and religious upheavals gripping his beloved London. Taylor’s nonsense, as T.S. Eliot said of King Lear’s, ‘is not vacuity of sense: it is a parody of sense, and that is the sense of it’.3

Taylor has long been a favourite with historians seeking colourful details and anecdotes of London life, but as a writer he has been thoroughly under-examined. In ‘Nonsence is Rebellion’, I therefore highlight the political content of Nonsence, and the stylistic features that Taylor employs to express his critique in his dangerous times.


  1. See Bernard Capp’s The World of John Taylor the Water-Poet 1578–1653 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

  2. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas 1933 (London: Penguin, 1966), 124.

  3. Quoted in OED Online, s.v. ‘nonsense, n. and adj.’, <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/128094> [accessed June 2013].

You can read Emily’s full article, “‘Nonsense is Rebellion’: John Taylor’s Nonsense upon Sense, or Sense, upon Nonsence (1651–1654) and the English Civil War”, here.

Performing the Past: Text and Act in Eighteenth-Century Music

In an article for our inaugural issue, Hannah Lane (Australian National University) examined how emotions of tenderness and pain were performed and expressed on the single-action harp. Introduced to France in the mid-eighteenth century, the single-action harp reached the zenith of its popularity in pre-revolutionary Paris.

Now, in this guest post, Hannah recounts her attraction to the single-action harp as a subject of research and how her performance on the instrument informed her work.

Mme de Genlis

Mme de Genlis

In 1761, the Parisian theatrical impresario Charles-Simon Favart described the single-action harp as “the instrument à la mode; all the ladies are mad to play it.” Eminently suggestible and subject to the whims of fashion, I felt a similar level of intoxication upon first hearing this instrument and later playing it. In my case, it wasn’t the rush of the zeitgeist, rather it was the sensation of entering a world of feeling outside of my own experience, a rich colour palette of unfamiliar emotions, each containing more subtle nuances than I had previously experienced. As a performer, I found myself asking questions that ranged from the specific (“What emotions were associated with the single-action harp in late eighteenth-century France and why?”) to the vague and seemingly unanswerable (“How did it all feel for the performers and the audience at the time?”). I decided to seek some empirical answers through my doctoral research into the musical influence of one particular harpist, the extraordinary musician, writer, pedagogue, and proto-feminist, Félicité de Genlis (1746–1830). Genlis helped launch the aforementioned fervour for the single-action harp in Paris. Her mother, Madame du Crest, utilised the young Genlis’s prodigious musical talent to help the family survive the financial ruin brought about by Genlis’s aristocratic, spendthrift father. Much to the discomfort of the young Genlis, Madame du Crest proffered her daughter as musical entertainment at acquaintances’ dinner parties in exchange for financial remuneration or perhaps a second-hand gown. I was drawn back into a more practical line of inquiry through reading Genlis’s accounts of her first experience with the single-action harp. The results of this inquiry led to my article for Ceræ Journal. I was struck by the obvious importance of Genlis’s initial independent experimentation with the instrument outside of her musical instruction; this seemed to be a major factor in both her virtuosity and her emotional connection with the harp, which lasted the length of her very long (for the time) life.

Lutherie, Harp Organisée in Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Spring 2013 Edition), Robert Morrissey (ed), http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/.

Lutherie, Harp Organisée in Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Spring 2013 Edition), Robert Morrissey (ed), http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/.

In real-time performance, the application of historically informed performance practice will always be, as early music specialist Dr. Andrew Lawrence-King once put it, an act of “educated spontaneity”. As many have made pains to point out, we cannot ever truly know exactly how this music was performed. The aim of such a practice, at least from the perspective of a musician communicating with an audience, is not to reconstruct the past but to enliven this music for today through understanding as much as we can about its meaning at the time of creation. So what can we draw upon to educate ourselves in preparation for those magical moments of spontaneity? Of the surviving material evidence for music before 1800, one of the most important artefacts we have at our disposal is the instrument itself. For example, there exist a reasonably large number of original single-action harps from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, some of which can and have been restored to playing condition. In the case of the subject of my article — the French Louis XVI era single-action harp — we are lucky enough to have an instrument maker, Beat Wolf, who has dedicated his life to the careful study of the restoration and reconstruction of these instruments so that harpists today can play music from the late eighteenth century on a new-old instrument. Playing this instrument provided the beginning of a very small answer to the very big question of “how did it feel?” Time and the freedom to experiment as well as patience and a good dose of humility on my part allowed the instrument to become my teacher. This produced some satisfying results: musical discoveries made independently of any textual or pedagogical instruction were later reflected in primary source texts. I remember feeling thrilled when, upon discovering that I could produce three distinctly different tone colours if I played at different points along the length of the bass strings, I found an exact description of this phenomenon in Louis Charles Ragué’s pedagogical harp treatise Principes de Harpe… (1786). I was reminded of this experience later in a discussion with historical harp pioneer, Maria Christina-Cleary, where we agreed that in the relationship between the historical instrument and the musician, we — the musicians — are most definitely secondary in the equation and the instrument will dictate its terms of engagement. Musicologists, cultural historians, and performers have much to learn from each other both through text — our critical study of primary texts in their many forms — and through act — our practical study of historical instruments. My search for those moments of educated spontaneity continues but one thing I know is that in performing the past, you have to meet it on its own terms.

You can read Hannah’s full article, “‘L’orage des passions’: Expressing Emotion on the Eighteenth-Century French Single-action Harp”, here.

Based in Melbourne, Hannah Lane is a PhD Candidate in Music at the Australian National University. As a harpist she performs regularly on early instruments: the eighteenth-century French single-action harp and the seventeenth-century Italian triple harp.

Screening the Past: Historical Fiction and The White Queen

In our inaugural issue, Laura Saxton (Australian Catholic University) examined the characterisation of the Plantagenet queen, Elizabeth Woodville, in Philippa Gregory’s popular historical fiction novel, The White Queen.

In this guest post, Laura considers the trials and tribulations of representing the past on screen in the context of novel’s television adaptation.

woodville-horizontalI presented an earlier iteration of the article published in Ceræ Journal at the International Medieval Congress in 2013. Happily, the television adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen was screening in the UK at the time, and the night before I gave my paper I watched the episode in which Elizabeth Woodville conjures up a storm in order to win the Yorkists a tactical advantage. This timing was apt — that a handful of audience members had also seen the program meant that my own description of Elizabeth using her mystical powers was more evocative than it might otherwise have been.

However, I found the novel’s television adaptation to be pertinent, not only for its visual representation of the material, but also because public commentary was focused on issues of accuracy and authenticity. The identification of anachronism — costumes had zippers and buildings, handrails — became a talking point in the British media. The focus of this criticism was different from my own analysis of the novel, but what my research did share with the Daily Mail (a phrase I never thought that I would write) was a concern with how the past is represented in historical fiction.

When teaching medievalism last year, I discussed this example in the lecture and asked my students to consider what this press coverage could tell us about the reception of historical fiction. They found the media commentary amusing and facile — why were journalists (and historians) watching telly with such a critical eye, hoping for a stray handrail or zip they could criticise? The show, they argued, was clearly not intended to educate the masses about the clothing of late medieval England. As the BBC’s long-awaited adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies screens, questions about accuracy and authenticity in historical fiction have again been raised: we have been assured that nobody on screen will be left-handed and that the actors’ teeth are not too white because these characters did not eat sugar, but there is some fear that Kate Phillips is miscast because she is too pretty and has too small a forehead to be a convincing Jane Seymour.

These elements of a program are — as my students pointed out — relatively minor, particularly when taking into account the richness and detail of Mantel’s novels; they are, however, important when considering the ways in which historical fiction is consumed. A stray zipper or too-white teeth can be jarring for an audience who expect to be immersed in Plantagenet or Tudor England, and this response can tell us much about what is read as authentic and why that might be. As I assured the class, such debates and the texts at their centre might not offer any insight into the past itself, but they are integral when considering the ways that the past is depicted in fiction, and how those depictions are read today.

My own contribution to this discourse is concerned, not with errors and anachronisms per se, but with fictional representations of the unknowable aspects of the past. Historical fiction, as a form, offers significant potential for imagining (and reimagining) aspects of the past, such as emotion, that are lost, particularly with regard to the unrecorded experiences of women. As a novel and television show, The White Queen offers avenues by which we can imagine what Woodville might have felt in response to the cataclysmic events of her life. The emotions written by Gregory are not those of the real Woodville, but belong to her characterisation of Elizabeth. Gregory is not, after all, writing academic history; she is an author of popular fiction and her representation is explicit in its fictionality.

Yet, does the novel fulfil the potential of its form? I would argue that it does not. Despite Gregory’s criticisms of previous depictions of Woodville,

The White Queen adheres to a number of genre conventions of historical romance, including the attempt by ‘the hero’ — Edward IV — to sexually assault the novel’s protagonist — Elizabeth — after which the couple fall in love and marry. By no means does this story originate with Gregory and, just as television audiences expect rotting teeth in Tudor and Plantagenet mouths, so to might readers hold that an authentic portrayal of Woodville will adhere to this narrative. However, with limited evidence to enlighten us about Woodville’s actual feelings about this assault, if it did indeed occur, the fictional realm offers a space in which we can question: is this account the only plausible or possible interpretation?

You can read Laura’s full article, “‘There is more to the story than this, of course’: Character and Affect in Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen“, here.