Monday, January 23, 2012

The Medieval Image in the 21st Century

On Saturday, I went to Cambridge for the Magdalene College Triennial Festival Symposium, which this year was entitled 'The Medieval Image in the Twenty-First Century'. It was held in the beautiful Cripps building (pictured) which was suitably 'new' medieval.

I tweeted some thoughts on the papers during the day (#medievalimage) but I thought I would pull together some of my notes and observations from the symposium.

As the symposium's title might suggest, many of the papers focused on image and vision. Jaqueline Tasioulas gave an interesting paper on the physical effect of falling in love, focusing on Chaucer's awareness of the dangers of the gaze and contemporary optical theory. Charles Moseley and Bill Burgwinkle discussed some differences between medieval and modern ways of seeing; Burgwinkle illustrated his keynote talk with some brilliant but very gory images of the death and torture of saints from BN Francais 51, reading them through contemporary film theory.

Others focused more on medievalism: the term 'neo-medieval' was heard several times throughout the day. Carolyn Dinshaw spoke very interestingly about twentieth- and twenty-first-century images of medieval green men (whom she referred to as 'vegetable men'), beginning her talk with reference to Kingsley Amis' The Green Man (1969) and ending with the ubiquitous green 'man', Kermit the Frog.

Nora Berend's paper offered an analysis of the reappearance of the cult of King Stephen of Hungary and his crown in twenty-first century conservative Hungarian politics: her talk reminded me of the brilliant work by Bruce Holsinger along with many other medievalists of the 'neo-medieval' turn in world politics over the last decade.

Lesley Coote focused in her paper on the use of CGI in the TV adaptation of Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth, suggesting that CGI techniques make the modern viewer feel as though they are really there, thus producing a 'fake real', filling the gaps in a fragmented, postmodern idea of history. Coote's paper made me wonder about medieval tourism, which has shifted from touring castle ruins towards a more interactive historical tourism, for example the atmosphere at Medieval Times. Have our changing ideas of historical tourism (from ruins to interaction) come about alongside this use of modern cinematic effects to recreate the medieval for modern viewers?

Kathleen Biddick's fantastic keynote built on her previous work in the fields of medivalism and postcolonial studies to offer an overview of medievalism in the twenty-first century. Her talk made fascinating use of 'modern medieval' resources such as Skyrim, as she suggested that the shift in medievalism since 2000 has been towards a more global Middle Ages. What I found most fascinating from her talk, was the persuasive idea (which Biddick borrowed from Nezar Alsayyad and Ananya Roy's 2006 article 'Medieval Modernity: On Citizenship and Urbanism in a Global Era') of the medieval as a 'transhistorical analytical category' - thus a medieval whose meaning is divorced from its period implications.

Following Biddick's talk, I wondered about the economics involved in medievalism. Biddick ended her keynote with an advert for a house for sale: a medieval building, which was advertised as having an original medieval great hall, but with high-tech conveniences. Biddick remarked that this could all be yours, for £1.5million. Is it the case that we have to be wealthy (or educationally privileged) in order to access the Middle Ages? Other papers mentioned the importance of financial donations in order to preserve medieval artefacts, such as the manuscripts housed in Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum. Furthermore, many of the artefacts and stories we have that survive from the Middle Ages concern the wealthy. To what extent is our modern-day relationship with the Middle Ages governed by cash?

A particular highlight was the performance of a Middle Scots poem specially commissioned to be set to music for the Festival, and which was performed by a cellist and counter-tenor (whose names I unfortunately cannot remember). The piece was haunting: at once medievalist and utterly modernist.

Overall, it was a fantastic day of very well-balanced papers, which meshed together brilliantly. It would have been nice to have had more time to draw the day's themes together - this was a small conference, and so a useful discussion could have been held following the papers. However, I think most people made use of the opportunity to talk over a drink after the symposium had ended, and I have certainly come away feeling positive and enthused about the ongoing scholarship in the field of medievalism studies.



Nezar Alsayyad and Ananya Roy, 'Medieval Modernity: On Citizenship and Urbanism in a Global Era', Space and Polity 10.1 (2006): pp. 1-20. (accessible online at


The image of the Cripps Court Orangery was taken by Deryck Chan (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons. The picture of Kermit the Frog was taken by Eva Rinaldi (Flickr: Kermit) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Testing Virginity: The Middle English Way

It’s windy, it’s dark, and it’s the first day back at work after the festive holidays. So to cheer us all up, what more could you wish for than a weird medieval virginity test: specifically, the virginity test proposed by the Sultan of Babylon in Floris and Blancheflur, a Middle English romance dating from the mid thirteenth century.

Floris and Blancheflur, a romance extant in four manuscripts dated between 1260 and 1400, tells the story of Floris, the pagan son of the King of Spain, and Blancheflur, the Christian daughter of a slave woman, who are raised together and fall in love. Through his parents’ plotting, who disapprove of their relationship, Blancheflur is sold to merchants who gift her to the Sultan of Babylon, where she is imprisoned in a fortified tower with other maidens, guarded by eunuchs.

When he hears of Blancheflur’s fate, Floris goes to her rescue and manages to enter the tower, concealed in a basket of flowers. The lovers are reunited and go immediately to bed, but are later discovered by the furious Sultan. They are sentenced to death, however the Sultan’s advisors take pity on the children and persuade him to spare their lives. All are reconciled and their identities revealed: Floris is knighted and marries Blancheflur, before returning to Floris’ kingdom to rule as King and Queen.

The Sultan proposes a virginity test in order to help him select a new wife from amongst the captive maidens each year. On the Sultan’s request, the women are brought into an orchard, ‘The fairest of al middelhard [The fairest in all the world]’ (649). In the orchard lies a well, the water of which comes from ‘Paradis’ (659) and which is lined with gravel of ‘preciouse stone’ (660). The test proposed by the Sultan is that the women should ‘waschen here honed [wash their hands]’ (667) in the water. ‘Yif ther cometh ani maiden that is forleie [If any woman approaches who is not a virgin]’ (665), the water ‘wille yelle als hit ware wo [scream as if it were mad] / And bicome […] so red so blod [as red as blood]’ (668-9). Such a woman is then put to death. Yet when a virginal woman washes her hands, ‘The water wille erne stille and cler / Nelle hit hem make no daunger [The water will flow silently and clearly / Posing no danger to the woman]’ (674-5).

The symbolism of a fountain or well being associated with virginity is a folk motif. I found several examples of wells or fountains being used to measure virginity. These include two wells (one muddy, one clear) being used as a chastity index; a well that if an unchaste woman were to dip her arms into it, her skin would boil away; and a spring which wells up if the woman is not a virgin (Thompson, 412).

The association of wells with virginity is also present in the Middle English romance Bevis of Hampton. A dragon is besieging Cologne and before going to fight it, Bevis dreams that ‘a virgine / Him broughte out of al is pine [a virgin relieved him from all his pain]’ (2689-2690). Injured whilst battling the dragon the next day, Bevis is thrown into a nearby well.

The welle was of swich vertu

A virgine wonede in that londe

Hadde bathed in, ich understonde

That water was so holi

That the dragoun, sikerli

Ne dorste neghe, the welle aboute

Be fourti fote, saundoute.

[The well was of such virtue

A virgin living in the area

Had bathed in it, I understand

That water was so holy

That the dragon, truly

Did not dare approach nearer the well than

Forty feet, undoubtedly] (2804-2810).

The water in the well heals Bevis and he defeats the dragon.

The particular virginity test in Floris and Blancheflur is unique to the Middle English version of the romance. In the Old French Floire et Blanceflor on which the Middle English romance is based, if an unchaste woman crosses the stream it becomes muddy: ‘quant il I passe pucele / Lors est li clere et bele / Et au passer de feme éue / L’eve en est lués toute méue [When a virgin crosses [the stream], the water remains clear and beautiful, Yet when a non-virginal woman crosses, the water becomes smeared with mud]’ (1811-14).

This makes the Middle English romance version more visceral than the Old French; Kathleen Coyne Kelly has noted the parallel between the fountain which runs with blood and screams and the moment a virgin is penetrated (9). By visually reminding us of the loss of virginity at this moment of testing, it seems that the Middle English Floris and Blancheflur places more emphasis on this testing than other variations of the romance.

Yet it is also clear that this emphasis on virginity is more about ensuring ownership than ideals. Virginity would usually be tested to assuage concerns about heritage and miscegenation, yet there is no mention of any children produced from any of the Sultan’s marriages. Even so, the Sultan still tests to ensure that his harem of women are virgins. The severity of the punishment for any woman found not to be a virgin indicates how highly virginity is prized.

Darce Frenier has noted that ‘virginity [has] a manipulative value’ (37-38) in contemporary romance and the economic and social value of virginity in the Middle Ages has been well documented. This is reflected in Floris and Blancheflur, which frequently refers to women in terms of ‘merchandise’. Whilst this is not exclusively referring to their virginity, the emphasis on female virginity in the romance might suggest that the value of women is intimately tied to their virginity.

Blancheflur’s value is expressed economically; Floris’ parents expect ‘muche catell and goode [property and goods]’ (150) in return for selling Blancheflur and they receive a valuable and ornately described ‘coupe [goblet]’ (163) in return. Even Floris alludes to an economic valuing of Blancheflur as on his quest to find her he tells people that he is seeking his ‘marchaundise’ (484; 564), directly aligning the value of Blancheflur with the economic value of goods and possessions.

The Sultan similarly values Blancheflur economically, paying ‘sevin sithes of golde her wight [seven times her weight in gold]’ (508) in order to ‘own’ her. The romance has established early on that Blancheflur is a ‘mayde clene [a virgin]’ (59), thus her economic valuing is inextricably tied with her value as a virgin. By paying an enormous amount of money for her, the Sultan’s economic evaluation of the value of virginity is made clear; by keeping numerous virgin maidens in his tower, the Sultan enhances both his economic and social profile.

However, Kelly suggests that the virginity test in Floris and Blancheflur, as with many methods of testing virginity, is not perhaps as reliable as might appear. She draws attention to the second part of the Sultan’s selection process, where a flower from the ‘Tre[e] of Love’ (678) falls onto the woman whom the Sultan will then select as his wife. However, the text reveals this part of the test can, and will, be manipulated by the Sultan.

And yif ther ani maiden is
That th'Amerail halt of mest pris,
The flour schal on here be went
Thourh art and thourgh enchantement.
Thous he cheseth thourgh the flour,
And evere we herkneth when hit be Blauncheflour.

[If there is any maiden

That the Sultan values above the others,

The flower will fall towards her

Through skill and through enchantment.

Thus the Sultan controls his choice through the flower

And we expect to hear that it will be Blancheflur he chooses] (684-9).

The Sultan’s ability to manipulate the virginity test casts doubt on its reliability. Kelly argues that ‘the two signifiers, fountain and tree, participate in a destabilising exchange by virtue of their narrative juxtaposition. That a signifier can be so patently false as the tree casts doubt on the signifier immediately preceding it – namely, the fountain’ (9). If this most visually arresting virginity test can be manipulated by the Sultan, does this suggest that the women forced to participate can also control the results? And if virginity is so highly economically valued in this romance, what does it mean for the romance’s idea of wealth if the test to prove that virginity is able to be manipulated? The virginity test in Floris and Blancheflur seems to offer less clarity on these issues, not more.



References to the Middle English Floris and Blancheflur are from Floris and Blancheflour, in Sentimental and Humorous Romances, ed. Erik Kooper (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006), accessed online

References to the Old French Floire et Blanceflor are from Floire et Blanceflor, in Floire et Blanceflor: Poèmes du 18ième Siècle, ed. M. Édélstand du Méril (Paris, 1856), pp. 1-124.

Mariam Darce Frenier, Good-bye Heathcliff: Changing Heroes, Heroines, Roles, and Values in Women’s Category Romances (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988).

Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 2000).

Stith Thompson (ed.), Motif Index of Folk Literature, vol. 3 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1966).


The first image is of "Virgo", from a set of celestial cards by Sidney Hall (London : 1825). The second image is of the The "Red" or "Blood" Well in Glastonbury ( The third image is a fifteenth-century painting of the Tree of Life and the garden of Eden. All images are from Wikimedia Commons.