Megan L. Cook and Elizaveta Strakhov, eds., John Lydgate’s Dance of Death and Related Works (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2019). A free online edition accessible to students, with linked explanatory and textual notes and introductory material.
John Lydgate, The Dance of Death, ed. Florence Warren and Beatrice White. EETS o.s. 181. (New York: Kraus Reprint, 1971). This edition is much less easy to follow than Cook and Strakhov’s but its introduction contains useful information, particularly about manuscript history.
How do modern interpretations of danse macabre respond to the medieval tradition beyond the replication of the skeleton images themselves (i.e. in Saint-Saëns’ music)?
What are the impacts of presenting this performance in an outdoor setting as opposed to framed by architecture or other structural elements? (Another interesting example to discuss might be the ending Bergman’s Seventh Seal, which includes a famous outdoor danse macabre.)
What do you notice about the different kinds of interstitial or in-between space in this painting – between stone and paint, people and paint, and between the people and skeletons in the painting? What do you perceive as happening in those spaces?
Danse macabre seems to use its combination of text, art, architecture, and performance to acknowledge an important reality that death both is and is not an equalizer. How might we use the imagery and tradition of danse macabre to talk about this idea in our own time and understand it better?
How do danse macabre’s visual and poetic aspects give us some new languages for thinking about experiences of repetitiveness, especially where the only structure becomes one of underlying anxiety or dread rather than the usual things that structure us?
Seeta Chaganti, “‘A Certain Slant of Light’: Reenacting Danse macabre as Dance,” in Strange Footing: Poetic Form and Dance in the Late Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 99-143. The University of Chicago Press has graciously made a pdf of this chapter available, free of charge. Please visit the University of Chicago Press for more information about my book.
Amy Appleford, Learning to Die in London, 1380-1450 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).
Elina Gertsman, The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages: Image, Text, Performance (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010).
1. One way to understand the construction of the lai is to examine the situation of the protagonist, Lanval. What is Lanval’s problem at the beginning of the lai ? in the middle ? at the end?
2. What does the lai tell us about Lanval (e.g. descriptions by the narrator or by other characters)? How does the text show Lanval behaving? Does he behave like his description? (Be able to point to elements in the text to defend your answer.)
3. Analyze the scene where Lanval meets the fée (fairy). Where does it occur? How is the fée described? How does Lanval react? Etc.
4. How is the queen described/presented? (What is she doing at the beginning of the episode? How does she react when she sees him? How does she interact with Lanval?)
5. What are the “stages” of Lanval’s trial? What exactly is he accused of doing? Do you know any (famous) similar stories?
1. How were marriages decided in the Middle Ages (for the wealthy)? Who chose the husband/wife? with what criteria ? What kinds of results might you expect (for either spouse) under such a system?
B. You and the characters
1. How do you react to each of the characters? Is your reaction positive, negative, ambivalent?
2. For each character, make a list of the qualities and actions that explain your reaction.
3. For each character, explain how the narrator characterizes them (what expressions are used in the text). For whom does the narrator have sympathy? In other words, who does the narrator portray positively? negatively? Try to distinguish between a reaction based on your moral system, your ideas about what is right or correct, and how the story actually presents each of the characters.
C. Medieval literature often uses symbols to suggest feelings and ideas (modern literature does too, of course). What symbolic value does each of the objects take on in the lai?
Robert Henryson’s version of the fable, “The Preaching of the Swallow,” is available in David J. Parkinson’s edition of Henryson’s poetry for the TEAMS Middle English texts series. It is in Middle Scots, a language spoken in lowland Scotland from roughly 1450 to 1700 (if you would like to read a Wikipedia entry about this language written in Scots, see here). As Professor Jennifer Brown explains here, “This edition, like all of the TEAMS editions, is extremely student friendly. It contains a glossary, a bibliography, and footnotes that explain the Middle English,” or in this case, Middle Scots, “making it easy for a student to navigate as they learn the language.”
It might surprise you that manuscripts were still being made, for example, during the life of Shakespeare, but Harley MS 3865 is, in fact, a handwritten copy of a collection of Robert Henryson’s fables printed in 1571 by the Edinburgh printer Thomas Bassandyne (interestingly, Harley MS 3865 may have been based on a extensively illustrated version of Bassandyne’s edition, which is now lost). If you have access to Early English Books online, you can explore the surviving copy of Bassandyne’s curious book. It’s not easy to read: much of it is printed in a now very rarely used typeface called “Civilité,” based on a late medieval and early modern “lettre courante” hand, designed in France by Robert Granjon (d. 1590) to be used in books for children. Surprisingly, the morals of the fables are printed in a Roman typeface”
Other useful tools for teaching and research
The fundamental story of the Swallow fable is very old. Like most of the old fables, it was told and retold, and often refashioned, through the Middle Ages (and likely into the present day!). Medieval Latin versions of the fable are therefore easy to come by, for example, here and here. You might also want to read a translation of a twelfth-century French version by Marie de France: her version is notable for the treachery of various birds. You can find links to additional versions on the mythfolklore.net website, here, and through the Aesop wiki. Here is Laura Gibb’s translation of an early version of the fable into Modern English for the Oxford World Classics series:
THE SWALLOW AND THE OTHER BIRDS
Some birds who had flocked together saw a man sowing flax seed but they thought nothing of it. The swallow, however, understood what this meant. She called an assembly of the birds and explained that this was an altogether dangerous situation, but the other birds just laughed at her. When the flax seed sprouted, the swallow warned the birds again, ‘This is something dangerous; let’s go and pull it up. If it is allowed to grow, people will make it into nets and we will not able to escape the traps that they devise.’ The birds mocked the swallow’s words and scorned her advice. So the swallow went to the people and began to make her nest only under the roofs of their houses. Meanwhile, the other birds refused to heed the swallow’s warnings, so now they are constantly being trapped in nets and snares.
Consider the variations between the fables. What is the base form of the story, and what changes get made? Especially, what’s significant or interesting about Henryson including a human eyewitness within the fable itself, who sees what happens without being able to change the outcome?
Compare the two illustrations. Harley 3865’s is very unusual: why represent the swallow as an actual human preacher? Why is the farmer just represented by a hand?
Consider the print and manuscript context (you might want to offer a little book or typeface history). The social register of different typefaces might be very interesting to talk about: why a roman typeface for the morals, and civilité for the stories?
Since antiquity, the fable tradition has involved rewriting and remediating fables. Can you imagine a modern version of this fable? Would you tell the same story? Would it still feature a prudent, but frustrated swallow and heedless small birds, or perhaps other animals (would, in fact, you prefer to tell the story with something other than birds)? Or would you illustrate the story, perhaps either in one panel (like the manuscript) or maybe in a multi-panel version? Would you include a witness to the fable (like Henryson)? Who would it be? And would your prudent character, like the swallow in some versions of the story, decide to give up on birds and — as one Latin version has it — “ad homines se transtulit” [to go over to the humans]?
The TEAMS text of The Book of Margery Kempe, edited by Lynn Staley. This edition, like all of the TEAMS editions, is extremely student friendly. It contains a glossary, a bibliography, and footnotes that explain the Middle English making it easy for a student to navigate as they learn the language.
For images and to teach some book history, the British Library has images online of Additional MS 33790, the “short text” of the Julian of Norwich’s Revelations; Stowe MS 42, the “long text” of Julian’s work; and Additional MS 61823, which has The Book of Margery Kempe.
A facing page facsimile of Margery Kempe’s book and its transcription are available here through the Kempe Project. This is great if you are teaching some paleography.
The Middle English Dictionary, to not only look up Middle English words, but also see where else they appear in Middle English texts through the Compendium
The Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible, through which you can search a word in English or Latin, as well as having facing page translations of the two languages.
Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe are two women writing at the same time and more or less the same place (indeed, we know they met one another from an episode recounted in The Book of Margery Kempe). However, their styles and content are extremely different. How does Julian’s position as an anchoress and Margery’s as a wife, traveler, and layperson shape what they say and how they say it? What differences do you detect in the fact Julian wrote her text and Margery dictated hers?
In what ways do each of these texts challenge your views of what women did and said in medieval England? Are there ways in which the texts support what you already thought about medieval women?
We know so little about the encounter between Julian and Margery. How do you imagine it went? Can you construct a dialogue using their respective texts as a basis?
What are the implications of this ostensible “world” chronicle, only actually recording history in Northwest Europe?
What roles do women play in this text?
Why is this formatted as a scroll rather than a codex?
How might this Chronique have been used by its fifteenth-century readers?
Davis, Lisa Fagin. La Chronique Anonyme Universelle : Reading and Writing History in Fifteenth-century France. Studies in Medieval and Early Renaissance Art History ; 61. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2014.
Further Reading. The theme of resilience addressed in the conclusion of this talk is developed at length in my article “Accommodating Plague.” I have also listed several recent contributions to the extensive literature on the Second Plague Pandemic that were referred to indirectly in the talk.
The inventory, transcribed and translated with questions for discussion, can also be downloaded, as well as the transcript of this video.
Spyrou, Maria A., Marcel Keller, Rezeda I. Tukhbatova, Christiana L. Scheib, Elizabeth A. Nelson, Aida Andrades Valtueña, Gunnar U. Neumann, et al. “Phylogeography of the Second Plague Pandemic Revealed through Analysis of Historical Yersinia Pestis Genomes.” Nature Communications 10, no. 1 (October 2, 2019): 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-12154-0.
Giovanni Villani, Excerpts from Book III. From Villani’s Chronicle: Being Selections from the First Nine Books of the Croniche Fiorentine by Giovanni Villani, trans. R. Selfe and P. Wicksteed (2nd ed., London, 1906; repr. online, Project Gutenberg, 2010).
How does the chronicler characterize his town? Who populates the history of this town? Which kinds of events are included in the narrative (and by extension, which are excluded)?
For Further Reading:
Katherine Jansen, Joanna Drell, and Frances Andrews (eds.), Medieval Italy: Texts in Translation. (Penn, 2009). Not online.
Dino Compagni, Chronicle of Florence, trans. D. Bornstein (Penn, 1980). Book on JSTOR.
Trevor Dean, The Towns of Italy in the Later Middle Ages (Manchester, 2000). Manchester Hive.