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Skip to content MenuSearch for: Crime Fictions: Premodern/Modern Posted on  by Bruce Holsinger

This fall at UVa I’ll be teaching a senior seminar called “Crime Fictions: Premodern/Modern.” The class will explore the literature of crime in medieval and early modern England, from Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, alongside historical crime fictions set during the same era. We’ll read stories of murder, theft, subterfuge, and brutality, all with an eye to thinking comparatively and transhistorically about the nature of crime and its detection. While it won’t be a history class, I will assign a number of background and contextual readings that provide some basic information about criminal subcultures, early forms of detection and policing (what were a coroner’s duties in medieval London?), criminal trials and punishment, and so on. Also on the syllabus will be some selected readings on the history and style of crime fiction as a genre and a mode.

The topic is limitless, of course, so rather than attempting a responsible survey of the subject I’m organizing the seminar around a series of premodern/modern juxtapositions to help us distill the dark essence of crime fiction across the centuries. The syllabus will include several modern works of historical crime set in premodern England, and this is where I could use some help in coming up with additional titles. While I’m now an active writer of medieval-set crime fiction, I know comparatively little about this subgenre more broadly, and I’m sure there are some sizzling reads out there that students would love and that could teach us a lot about the subject in ways I’m not considering. 

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Note that the historical “fit” doesn’t need to be perfect–as long as there’s a rough correspondence between the date, theme, and/or setting of the premodern text and the modern crime novel–and note that the class is specifically about crime fiction written or set in England, which is why, e.g., The Name of the Rose won’t be on the syllabus. Here are just three examples of the sorts of pairings I’m interested in:

  1. Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play and the anonymous medieval morality play Everyman. Unsworth’s wonderful novel, which I taught last year in a historical fiction class, thrusts a troupe of medieval actors into the middle of an unfolding crime and its cover-up in rural England in the late Middle Ages. Like the novel, the medieval play explores issues of guilt, culpability, and the theatricality of crime and sin, and Death figures as a central character.
  2. Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death and Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. Franklin’s novel is set during the reign of Henry II and deals with issues of anti-Semitism, female agency, and detection, all revolving around the murder of a number of children in a medieval city. The novel was directly inspired by the Prioress’s Tale and similar medieval stories of blood libel and scapegoating, so the pairing here will help bring out themes of culpability, religious difference, and intergenerational violence.
  3. C.J. Sansom’s Heartstone and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Obviously very different contexts, but the juxtaposition will allow us to talk about the roles of royal authority, war, and national geographies in shaping the cultures of crime in early modern England. Sansom writes some of the most compelling historical detective fiction out there, and partnering Heartstone with the sordid criminal tragedy portrayed in Macbeth should inspire some great discussion.

Again, there are innumerable pairings one could come up with, so I’m eager to hear more suggestions. (And no, A Burnable Book won’t be on the syllabus, though I may run a chapter or two of the sequel by the class at some point…) Thanks in advance for the input!

Tagged Crime Fictionshistorical fictionsyllabus | 7 Comments |Heorot in Vermont: Homage to Booktopia

Posted on  by Bruce Holsinger

On the weekend of April 11-13 I traveled to Manchester, Vermont for Booktopia 2014, a three-day celebration of books, reading, and all-around bibliophilia that I can’t recommend highly enough—-it was one of the real highlights of the tour for A Burnable Book. Now in its fourth year, Booktopia is the brainchild of Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness, who also host the popular podcast “Books on the Nightstand,” which you can find and download here. Each spring Ann and Michael bring six or seven authors and hundreds of book lovers to several locations around the United States for retreats that feature small-group interactions among writers and readers in a variety of informal settings. This year’s Booktopia retreats take place in Manchester, Vermont (site of the original Booktopia in 2011); Boulder, Colorado (May 16-18); and Asheville, North Carolina (August 22-24).

Now, don’t go trying to register for this year’s events unless you’re prepared to eliminate with extreme prejudice several dozen registered attendees and wait-listers. Booktopia is wildly, fanatically popular, with weekend events booking up within minutes of on-line registration going live. Several times over the course of the weekend I spoke to Booktopians who related, with vague, haunted looks in their eyes, the elaborate lengths to which they went to assure themselves of a spot: multiple browsers and computers working the registration URL simultaneously, locked office doors guarding against intruders during the registration window, friends and relatives going online at just the right moment to attack the page all at once, NSA employees blackmailed and extorted to hack into the “Books on the Nightstand” system, and so on.

A similar fanaticism inspires the discrete events structuring the weekend’s festivities. After a gorgeous drive up from Albany (the closest airport) along historic Route 7, I arrived in time to participate in an opening, get-to-know-you event called the Yankee Swap, a bookish version of a White Elephant gift exchange. Everyone brings along a gift-wrapped book (a cherished favorite, an impulse buy in the airport, the nearest book to your front door), and all are placed on a table in the middle of the room. (My book was Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, one of the scariest works of suspense I’ve ever read.) Each participant gets a ticket with a number, and the facilitator within each group draws numbers to determine the order. As the exchange proceeds, each player can either keep the book chosen at random from the table, or swap his/her book for a more desirable book chosen by a previous participant. You’re also asked to talk about why you brought the title you did, so we all learned just a little bit about each other while swapping books.

My number was drawn relatively late in the game, so we were quite a ways into the swap when it came to my turn. I don’t remember what book I opened (sorry!), nor which book I ended up with (sorry again!), but I do remember what book I wanted: a beautiful hardback copy of Irène by Pierre Lemaitre, a French police procedural described in lavish and loving detail by the Booktopian who’d brought it along. The book had already inspired several “swaps” (the polite Booktopian word for “Blatant Fucking Theft”), but we were far enough along that I thought I might just be safe.

No so. Just as I’d grown complacent, assuming Irène was mine to keep, Holly, an ostensibly pleasant young woman from Chicago, engaged in a bit of newcomer hazing and, with devastating wit and great aplomb, lifted the book from my hands to laughter and delight from the crowd. “You should have seen the look on your face,” several dozen Booktopians guffawed over the remainder of the weekend. Holly’s name for the balance of Booktopia was simply “Chicago,” and it was difficult to treat her civilly, though I tried my best.

I spend so much time describing an icebreaker because it’s indicative of the bookish camaraderie characterizing Booktopia more generally–and here I should say a few words about my fellow authors in Manchester for the weekend, who all gathered for dinner on opening night. Two of them are bestselling memoir writers: Kelly Corrigan, author of Glitter & Glue, who delighted the crowds with her equally moving and hilarious accounts of her life as a daughter, a mother, and a writer; and Gail Caldwell, whose New Life, No Instructions explores the nature of survival, and who offered some poignant reflections on the power of friendship and community in the face of loss. The first afternoon I participated in a session on historical fiction with P.S. Duffy, author of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, a sweeping historical novel about World War I. Penny was a smart and delightful interlocutor, and the session was a great way to kick off the weekend. There was also a historian among us: the great John Demos, Professor Emeritus at Yale and the Bancroft-winning author of The Unredeemed Captive, among many other works. John was at Booktopia to promote The Heathen School, his fascinating study of a “civilizing” school in early nineteenth-century Connecticut. I also spent a lot of time with the English writer Rupert Thomson, whose haunting novel Secrecy imagines the tangled life of a wax sculptor working in Renaissance Florence. I had previously read Rupert’s Soft (2012), his amazing novel of manners set in contemporary London. He was accompanied by his publisher at Other Press, the brilliant Judith Gurewich, a practicing psychotherapist who can talk about Jacques Lacan and the publishing industry with equal fluency. It was also a pleasure to meet Sara J. Henry, a previous Booktopia author based in Vermont and attending as a guest this year (if you haven’t already, check out her literary suspense novels Learning to Swim, which won multiple awards, and more recently A Cold and Lonely Place). We were joined at dinner by the incredible staff of Northshire Bookstore, a learned group of retailers and marketers who have created a truly awe-inspiring shrine to reading in the middle of rural New England. Yet it wasn’t all navel gazing and mutual admiration, as we discussed some of the many factors changing the face of commercial publishing these days, as well as the challenges these transformations present to authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers.

The two individual author sessions I did on Saturday (one in the morning, the other in the afternoon) were just extraordinary, some of the most rewarding exchanges I’ve had since the novel came out. The two facilitators, Earle Ray and Jennifer Entwhistle, were delightfully provocative, and they asked sharp questions of their own while fielding attendees’ comments and queries with grace and ease. I couldn’t have asked for smarter session leaders or better, more engaging audiences.

The weekend’s culminating event came on Saturday night, when the six featured authors spoke to a crowd of several hundred at Northshire Bookstore. Each of us was asked to speak for about ten minutes on anything we wanted to. Contributions ranged from Rupert’s provocative reflections on the rustic house in Tuscany where he wrote several of his novels to Kelly’s condensed story of her writing life, its chronology helpfully signposted with the #1 books on the New York Times bestseller list from year to year.

My own contribution to the festivities was a retelling of Bede’s story of Caedmon from the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Um, what? I know, I know. But I wanted to evoke the Caedmon story to talk about the many ways in which my own fiction writing has been inspired by medieval literature itself as well the medieval capacity and patience for inventive story-telling. The tale of Caedmon (which you can find in convenient form here) is often imagined as the legendary beginning of English literature, but it’s also very much about the power of story as a medium of cultural transmission and translation.

Unfortunately I didn’t say quite what I wanted to at the podium. I was asked to go first (thanks, Michael!), I was a little nervous given the huge crowd, and it was only once I sat down that I realized why exactly I’d felt inspired to talk about Caedmon to the Booktopia audience in the first place.

Let me explain. Caedmon’s tale, and arguably the English literary tradition, begins over a thousand years ago in a monastery’s great hall: a space a bit like Hrothgar’s Heorot in Beowulf, a mead-hall that serves as the setting for the ritual exchanges of stories and legends that make up much of early English literature.

And I’d argue that Booktopia is one of the closest modern equivalents to the medieval mead hall: a convivial fellowship of dozens and hundreds of faire folke united by their passion for well-crafted narratives, and gathered together for the simple but profound purpose of swapping stories they love and want to share over good food and flowing drink.

Really flowing drink. As that age-old aphorism has it, “What happens at Booktopia stays at Booktopia,” so I can’t reveal the true extent of the debauchery in Manchester that weekend. I will tell you that it involved a wrestling ring, Vermont microbrews, a miniature pony, and lots of whiskey. But the story of Booktopia is above all the story of books: physical books, passed from hand to hand and reader to reader. That’s the Booktopia I’ll remember most fondly, and with deep gratitude to all the new friends and fellow fanatics who made it possible.

Tagged Books on the NightstandBooktopia 2014Northshire Bookstore | 4 Comments |#twittertakeover for @harpercollins

Posted on  by Bruce Holsinger

On Friday, while still recovering from the book tour, I’ll be doing a Twitter takeover (hashtag #twittertakeover) for HarperCollins (@harpercollins), tweeting various and sundry Thinges Medievale relevant to A Burnable Book and other topics. Please make any suggestions for tweets below or on the great medium itself, where you’ll find me at @bruceholsinger. You can follow the hashtag back over the last few months to see the glorious #twittertakeover feeds of Laura Lippman, Amy Tan, and Wally Lamb, fellow HarperCollins authors who also did this for a few hours. Thanks very much to Elizabeth Semrai and the marketing gurus at HarperCollins for the opportunity!

Tagged #twittertakeoverA Burnable BookHarperCollins | Leave a comment |Chaucer’s Book Launch…and Gower’s Shame

Posted on  by Bruce Holsinger

The Troilus Frontispiece, from Cambridge, CCC MS 61

So today is Launch Day, with a party in downtown Charlottesville to celebrate the publication of A Burnable Book. Given the occasion and the setting of A Burnable Book—London 1385—I thought I’d share some recent archival discoveries concerning one of the most famous book launch parties in history. I refer, of course, to Chaucer’s book launch for Troilus and Criseyde, which took place on March 6, 1386—a Shrove Tuesday, when the annual cycle of revelry was at its height before the Lenten season of self-denial. The cream of the English aristocracy and artistic avant-garde assembled that afternoon in the yard before Westminster Palace to hear the renowned poet read from what was already being described as his greatest work

There’s a wonderful contemporaneous illustration of Chaucer’s reading at the launch party (the so-called Troilus Frontispiece) that shows the poet standing in a rostrum, holding forth to an audience of lords and ladies assembled for the great occasion. Chaucer read a number of stanzas from the poem, concluding with the famous apostrophe that sent his “litel boke” out into the world to find its illustrious way:

Go, litel book, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, er that he dye,
So sende myght to make in som comedye!
But litel book, no makyng thou n’envye,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, whereas thou seest pace
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

While basic information about the Troilus launch (date, location, reading selection, etc.) has been known to scholars for a long time, there are two new pieces of evidence I’m delighted to announce. First, I’ve uncovered an eyewitness account of the festivities that for the first time reveals the extravagance of the launch party while giving us a glimpse at the audience–which, mirabile dictu, included King Richard II. The account comes from an unpublished continuation of the Anonimalle Chronicle that survives as a bit of marginalia in one of the early manuscripts of the Troilus (previously unrecognized, the notes occur on the verso of fol. 124, and are visible only with the assistance of ultraviolet light). I won’t quote the description in full, just enough to convey a sense of the wonder and excess inspired by the occasion:

And lo! When Father Chaucer closed his book,
Our blessed King did all the feast commence.
Kids carved down the back, quartered swans,
Tarts ten inches across; it gladdened my heart
To see the board overspread with splendid dishes,
Like a cross richly adorned with rings and stones.
As for the third course, that would quite amaze you!
For it was all of salted beef, laid down at Martinmas,
Scented herbs with the meat, with good wild-fowl
And twenty hens for the head of the household.
And there were birds prepared on silver skewers,
Barnacle-geese and bitterns, and snipe with their bills,
Skylarks and linnets, dusted with sugar,
Woodcock and woodpeckers, piping hot,
Teals and titmice, to take what he wants;
Stews made of rabbit, and sweet custards,
Pastries and pies that cost a high price,
Diced meat, called ‘mawmene’ because it fills your maw,
Every dish for two costing a full mark or more,
A sum to make your stomach sing with happiness.

And the account goes on. There are some other pertinent details I’ll be sharing at a later date. For now let’s just say that the launch party got a little wild as the evening progressed, and Ash Wednesday didn’t dawn sober for this particular crowd!

The other piece of evidence I have uncovered is rather more sobering. As I’ve noted on this blog before, Chaucer was a longtime friend and literary rival of sorts with John Gower, the protagonist of A Burnable Book and the author of a number of important if (to the general public) little-read works in French, Latin, and English. As is well known, Gower completed his Vox Clamantis, a long Latin elegy, during the same week in which Chaucer completed Troilus and Criseyde. No evidence has been uncovered suggesting how Gower might have celebrated the occasion–nor would we expect it to, given the comparatively thin documentary record attesting to the details and circumstances of Gower’s life.

Well, as it turns out, Gower did host a launch party, which was to take place in the herb garden of the Augustinian Priory of St. Mary Overey in Southwark, where the poet let a house for a number of years. We can now speak with some authority about this event, as it’s mentioned explicitly in one of the priory’s account books, on a missing quire two of whose folios were recently rescued from the bindings of an eighteenth-century printed prayer book (again, details forthcoming). Here is the portion of the account book in question:

For marking thi occasioun of the publicacioun of Vox Clamantis, or Voise of One Man Cryinge, In Lattine, written by oure blessid auctor Ioahan Gouwer, thise sixte daye of Marche, in the yere of oure Lorde one thousande three hundride eighty and sixe, as followeth:

Two hammes wel seasoned: 2s.
Salte-fishe, four and twenty: 1s. 4d.
Ale, from Wm Bustons ales on the highe strete: 2s. 5d.
Chese: 4d.
Brede, iv loves: 3d.

And the list goes on…though not for long. It wasn’t to be an extravagant feast. Just a small gathering of friends and supporters–including Chaucer, of course, and the prior of St. Mary’s. But note the date at the top of the account entry for Gower’s launch party. Yes, you guessed it: March 6, 1386–the precise date of Chaucer’s launch party for Troilus and Criseyde. The conclusion is unavoidable: Geoffrey Chaucer planned his book launch quite deliberately to conflict with John Gower’s!

It was the ultimate literary insult, and apparently Gower never recovered. There’s a scribbled note in the account book entry at this point that tells us what Gower read on the occasion. Too overcome with disappointment and jealous fury to read from the Vox Clamantis, the long Latin work he had hoped to celebrate that day, Gower pulled out the sole manuscript of his earlier French poem, the Mirour de l’omme, and recited perhaps the bleakest passage in his entire corpus:

I want to tell you a little about nothing. When one imagines he has a handful of it, he must go away completely empty. All was nothing, however much man now has, and all this nothing returns to nothing through nothing, which causes everything to be annihilated: it is nothing that in itself contains all evils. Whenever I recall nothing, I have to heave many a sigh, because I see so many evils come forth from nothing, for all have their desire in the nothing that belongs to this world. That nothing makes them desert their God for a nothing that must revert to nothing and become more vile than dung.

It’s an appropriately dark sentiment for the great disappointment that was the launch party for the Vox Clamantis. Imagine it: your best and most famous friend, plotting his book launch for the very day and time you’ve planned yours! Adding insult to injury, Chaucer even winkingly dedicated his book to Gower on that day, reading aloud a stanza that drew nothing but peals of laughter from the assembled aristocrats–all of them in on the joke and imagining poor John Gower cowering in the priory across the river, prattling into the Southwark breeze. I’ll close the post with that stanza, and I’d ask you to think today about poor Moral Gower, and the difficult friendship that defined so much of his writing life.

O moral Gower, this book I directe
To thee, and to the philosophical Strode,
To vouchen sauf, ther nede is, to corecte,
Of your benignitees and zeles gode.
And to that sothfast Crist, that starf on rode,
With al myn herte of mercy ever I preye;
And to the lord right thus I speke and seye…

Tagged A Burnable BookChaucer’s Book LaunchJohn Gower | 1 Comment |Chaucer and the Do-RagPosted on  by Bruce Holsinger

On the eve of publication day, looking for some distraction, I’ve been scanning through the earliest visual depictions of Geoffrey Chaucer, trying to refine a physical description of the poet. We have little direct evidence concerning Chaucer’s appearance, of course, aside from his self-deprecating words in the prologue to the Tale of Sir Thopas (put in the mouth of the Host):

He in the waast is shape as wel as I;
This were a popet in an arm t’enbrace
For any womman, smal and fair of face.
He semeth elvish by his contenaunce,
For unto no wight dooth he daliaunce.


The Ellesmere Portrait

The portrait from the Ellesmere manuscript (ca. 1410) shows a silver-haired fellow, pale of cheek and trim of beard, with a round face and a wryly angled brow over eyes tinged a dark brown. The portrait from Harley 4866, a manuscript possibly compiled under the supervision of Thomas Hoccleve, who may have known Chaucer personally, shows an older poet with a forked white beard, his eyes downcast and a bit tired (possibly from having to read all the Hoccleve on the page before him).

The Hoccleve Portrait

While it’s hard to say what Chaucer really looked like, then, we do know what he wore on his head: a do-rag. While Wikipedia erroneously claims that the “earliest uses of do-rags in history are [sic] found in 19th century Ethiopia,” the evidence of Chaucerian adoption seems unambiguous (to me, at least), and it explains a lot about Chaucer’s hip-hop sensibility and the more general urban aesthetic guiding his poetical invention. The guy lived over a London gate, after all, absorbing the urban vibe and the clamor populi for years on end. That Chaucer was still rocking a do-rag into his elde says a lot about the man’s sense of personal style and the brash, youthful irony of the Retractions, likely written late in his life.

Anyway–just some random Chaucerian thoughts and observations to share on the eve of The Great Unboxing of A Burnable Book.

Tagged A Burnable BookChaucer and do-ragChaucer portraits | 1 Comment |A Theft of Love: How Geoffrey Chaucer Stole Valentine’s Day from John Gower

Posted on  by Bruce Holsinger

It’s a “fact” well known to students of medieval English literature that Geoffrey Chaucer was the inventor of Valentine’s Day, an attribution made on the basis of a famous line from the Parliament of Fowls (here modernized; for the Middle English original see below): “For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place to choose his mate.” It’s a beautiful moment in Chaucer’s oeuvre, rightly celebrated as a hallmark of poetic love in English literature.

Wikipedia claims that Valentine’s Day “was first associated with romantic love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages, when the tradition of courtly love flourished.” Scholarly sources, too, attribute the probable founding of Valentine’s Day to Father Chaucer. The Riverside Chaucer, though more qualified in tone than the Wikipedia entry, puts it thus: “The Parliament of Fowls is surely the most delightful–and possibly the first–celebration of Saint Valentine’s Day ever written. No one knows how 14 February became one of love’s ‘halydayes’…Perhaps Chaucer himself hit upon the pleasant idea of enlivening the dreariest of winter months with an occasion redolent of spring.”


But perhaps Chaucer fucking stole the idea for Valentine’s Day from one of his contemporaries, friends, and long-time literary rivals: John Gower. Since it’s Valentine’s Day and four days from the US publication of A Burnable Book (a historical thriller that features Gower as the protagonist), I think it’d be a shame not to make the case for Gower as an equally likely candidate for the invention of a tradition celebrated to this day in myriad sickly bursts of chocolate, flowers, and love.

First, the sources. Just as Chaucer wrote of St. Valentine and his day in the Parliament of Fowls, Gower wrote two ballades to St. Valentine and later collected them in his compilation of lyrics, the Cinkante Balades. One of these ballades, Saint Valentin plus qe null Emperour, evokes not only the saint but the ‘parlement et convocacion‘ held ‘a son jour’:

St. Valentine, greater than any emperor,
Holds a parliament and assembly
Of all the birds, who come on his day,
Where the female takes her mate
In proper love;

Though virtually unread by scholars of medieval English literature these days, Gower’s Cinkante Balades are a remarkable and significant set of poems, one of the few surviving vernacular lyric cycles by an English author before Wyatt. R.F. Yeager, the dean of Gower studies, compares them to Petrarch’s Rime sparse: “As does Petrarch in the Rime, Gower offers a narrative of an (ultimately unsuc­cessful) love affair as seen en pastiche through the eyes of a first-person lover whose poems to and about his lady explore the range of his feelings.” Though written in French (Anglo-Norman, or “the French of England,” in current parlance), the Cinkante Balades stand as a unique testament to the thriving tradition of vernacular lyricism in late fourteenth-century England. Chaucer, whose strengths lay in narrative poetry rather than lyric, never came close to rivaling the Cinkante Balades in his own short poems.

Second, the evidence. The dating of both of these works has been a matter of enduring guesswork and fierce disagreement. The dating of the Parliament of Fowls is highly speculative. It could date from as early as 1380 (written around the marriage negotiations between Richard II and Anne of Bohemia), or as late as the 1390s, and most of the scholarly guesses at the poem’s date are based on biographical or political allegories that leave a lot of room for doubt. Likewise, the two Valentine poems in Gower’s Cinkante Balades could date from practically any moment in the poet’s career. While their sole manuscript witness is British Library Additional MS 59495, the so-called Trentham Manuscript that was dedicated to the newly crowned Henry IV in 1399, the poems themselves span Gower’s adult life.  While they could be late productions, they could equally well be juvenilia (i.e. written in Gower’s youth). Gower was born as early as 1330, so we could even be talking about the 1350s here, decades before the Parliament was a gleam in Chaucer’s eye. (If you’re interested in following up on the technicalities of dating, you can click here, here, and here for starters.)

After a studious, careful, and deliciously pedantic review of the evidence, I see no even mildly compelling reason to believe that Chaucer’s poetic evocation of Valentine’s Day came first–and no reason not to grant John Gower the coveted title of Prime Mover of St. Valentine’s Day. Indeed I think the Valentine poems are much more likely to be Gowerian juvenilia than mature works. Why? Well, when you’ve read as much Gower as I have (and I’ve read practically all of Gower over the last few years), you start to get a feel for the fellow: his likes and dislikes, his biases and prejudices, his habits and his heart. The Valentine ballades just feel like early Gower to me, and I’m beyond convinced that Geoffrey Chaucer stole Valentine’s Day from the older and–let’s face it–the better man.

But you know what? I’ll let you, reader, be the judge. Here are the two passages in question. First, in a suitably drab brown, I’ve given you Chaucer’s lines, in the original Middle English and a modernized version by Gerard NeCastro. Next you’ll see John Gower’s Saint Valentin plus qe null Emperour (in Yeager’s edition and translation)highlighted in a vivid red to mark the poet’s almost certain invention of Valentine’s Day as we know it. We report, you decide. Enjoy!

From Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parliament of Fowls:

And in a launde, upon an hil of floures,
Was set this noble goddesse Nature.
Of braunches were here halles and here boures
Iwrought after here cast and here mesure;
Ne there nas foul that cometh of engendrure
That they ne were prest in here presence
To take hire dom and yeve hire audyence.

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make,
Of every kynde that men thynke may,
And that so huge a noyse gan they make
That erthe, and eyr, and tre, and every lake
So ful was that unethe was there space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.

And right as Aleyn, in the Pleynt of Kynde,
Devyseth Nature of aray and face,
In swich aray men myghte hire there fynde.
This noble emperesse, ful of grace,
Bad every foul to take his owne place,
As they were woned alwey fro yer to yeere,
Saint Valentines day, to stonden there.

This noble goddess Nature was set upon a flowery hill in a verdant glade. All her halls and bowers were wrought of branches according to the art and measure of Nature. And there was not any bird that is created through procreation that was not ready in her presence to hear her and receive her judgment. For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place to choose his mate. And they made an exceedingly great noise; and earth and sea and the trees and all the lakes were so full that there was scarcely room for me to stand, so full was the entire place. And just as Alan, in The Complaint of Nature, describes Nature in her features and attire, so might men find her in reality. This noble empress, full of grace, bade every bird take his station, as they were accustomed to stand always on Saint Valentine’s day from year to year.


From John Gower, Cinkante Balades:

Saint Valentin plus qe null Emperour
Ad parlement et convocacion
Des toutz oiseals, qui vienont a son jour,
U la compaigne prent son compaignon
En droit amour; mais par comparison
D’ascune part ne puiss avoir la moie:
Qui soul remaint ne poet avoir grant joie.

Com la fenix souleine est au sojour
En Arabie celle regioun,
Ensi ma dame en droit de son amour
Souleine maint, ou si jeo vuill ou noun,
N’ad cure de ma supplicacion,
Sique d’amour ne sai troever la voie:
Qui soul remaint ne poet avoir grant joie.

O com nature est pleine de favour
A ceos oiseals q’ont lour eleccion!
O si jeo fuisse en droit de mon atour
En ceo soul cas de lour condicioun!
Plus poet nature qe ne poet resoun,
En mon estat tresbien le sente et voie:
Qui soul remaint ne poet avoir grant joie.

Chascun Tarcel gentil ad sa falcoun,
Mais j’ai faili de ceo q’avoir voldroie:
Ma dame, c’est le fin de mon chançoun,
Qui soul remaint ne poet avoir grant joie.

St. Valentine, greater than any emperor,
Holds a parliament and assembly
Of all the birds, who come on his day,
Where the female takes her mate
In proper love; but by comparison
Of such a thing I am unable to have my own part:
Whosoever remains alone is unable to have great joy.

As the phoenix is alone in its home
In the region of Arabia,
Just so my lady in the place of her love
Remains alone, where whether I wish it or not,
She has no care about my supplication,
Because I know not how to find the pathway of love:
Whosoever remains alone is unable to have great joy.

Oh how Nature is full of favor
To those birds who have their choice!
Oh if, instead of my state, I might be
In just that same situation of theirs!
Nature is more capable than reason is,
And in my state it senses very well the path:
Whosoever remains alone is unable to have great joy.

Each gentle tercel has her falcon,
But I am lacking what I want to have:
My lady, it is the end of my song,
Whosoever remains alone is unable to have great joy.


Tagged A Burnable BookChaucer and Valentine’s DayJohn Gower | 6 Comments |Uterine Vellum: A Florilegium

Posted on  by Bruce Holsinger

I’ve received lots of questions about “the parchment book” in recent weeks so I’m reposting this from about a year ago. The book will be published by the University of Chicago Press in late 2015. Read on, if you dare… 

As some readers of Burnable Books will be aware, I have been at work for a while on a book called Archive of the Animal: Science, Sacrifice, and the Parchment Inheritance. The book examines the parchment record of the premodern world from a number of disciplinary perspectives (environmental and evolutionary history, media studies, literary history, zooarchaeology, theology, the history of the book, and so on). The chapter I’m writing at the moment is called, simply, “Uterine Vellum.” I’m looking at the phenomenon of so-called uterine vellum–parchment rendered from the skin of an aborted or stillborn animal–as fact, fiction, and fantasy, simultaneously an object of bibliographical indifference and the stuff of urban legend. What follows is a small gathering of passages (a florilegium, to use the popular medieval term) that I’ve found particularly useful for thinking about the subject. Uterine vellum is suited equally to the poet’s empathetic imagination and the scholar’s lofty disdain, and these passages (some medieval, some early modern, some modern) come accordingly from drama, book history, fiction, memoirs, dictionaries and encyclopedias, texts of ritual magic, poetry, and others. The advantage of a florilegium (as opposed to a book chapter) is that I can simply post these without comment, allowing the rich juxtapositions between and among them illustrate the complexity of the subject. I’d be grateful to learn of any additional passages on the subject to add to the mix.


But skinning a calf,
a three days dead calf,
is another thing altogether.
It’s like watching a birth,
not a flaying,
seeing the calf being born
a second time,
this headfirst slow emergence
from its skin
as if from the birth canal.
So dainty and delicate
in its glassy, gleaming pinks
and whites, its untried
muscles and tendons,
its organs–lungs, gut, heart–
never used ex utero.
Uterine vellum. Slunk.

-from Catherine Byron, The Getting of Vellum (2000)


Knowe also that Parchment is the only good and best thinge to limme one, but it must be virgine Parchment, such as neuer bore haire, but younge things found in the dames bellye. Some calle it Vellym, some Abertive derived from the word Abhortive, for vntimely birthe. It must be most finly drest, as smothe as any sattine, and pasted with starch well strained one pastbourd well burnished, that it maye be pure without speckes or staynes, very smoothe and white.

-Nicholas Hilliard, A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning (1598-1603)


It is with reluctance that one mentions, albeit briefly, the vexed and unresolved question of uterine vellum. Old-fashioned books about medieval manuscripts assert that the finest medieval parchment was made from the skin of aborted calves…There is some medieval evidence that aborted skin was valuable and desirable, and it is true that parchment made from this rather unappealing material or from the skins of very new-born animals does indeed look and feel like that which antiquarians call uterine vellum… But it is very difficult to believe that thousands of cows miscarried for generations, or were deprived of their foetuses in such numbers to supply the booktrade economically….If the term uterine parchment must be used at all, it should perhaps refer to a quality of skin and not to its origin.

-Christopher de Hamel, Scribes and Illuminators (1992)


3if þou wilte make letters on abortiue or bortiue, lai þi oile also þynne þeron als þou may.

-from a medical miscellany in MS Sloane 2584 (ca. 1500)


Hild, v.    To flay.
That stouffe that we write upon and is made of beastis skynnes is sometyme called parchement, sometyme velem, somtyme abortyve, sometyme membran. Parchement of the cyte, where it was fyrst made. Velem, because it is made of a calvys skynne.  Abortyve because the beeste was scante parfete.  Membraan because it was pulled off by hyldyne fro the beestis lymmes.

Lean’s Collecteana (1903), citing William Horman, Vulgaria Viri Doctissimi (1519)


To return to our master magician, whom we left, perhaps, writing the names of Angels with the blood of a bat upon virgin parchment taken from the skin of an unborn lamb, with a pen made from the third feather of the right wing of a male gosling.

-Catharine Cook Smith, In Defence of Magic: The Meaning and Use of Symbol and Rite (1931)


It is quite possible that the skins of deer and other game that people ate were made into parchment, too; and it would not be altogether surprising if it turned out, as a result of experiments now in progress, that some of what now masquerades as “uterine vellum” was actually rabbit or squirrel parchment.

-Daniel Varney Thompson, The Materials of Medieval Painting (1936)


Then he displayed a very good imitation of zebra skin made by printing the design on the skin of an unborn calf.

-”A ‘Skin Game’ in West Bend,” Milwaukee Sentinel (1966)


The question of uterine parchment, or skin said to be obtained from aborted foetuses, is a vexed one. Is it true? Would our farmers (who do not, of course, read or write) sacrifice thousands of their animals to the booktrade?

-Gene Washington, The School of Donnina Visconti (2000)


Let it be a Priests Garment, if it can be had, let it be of linen, and clean. Then take this Pentacle made in the day and hour of Mercury, the Moon increasing, written in parchment made of a kids skin. But first let there be said over it the Mass of the Holy Ghost, and let it be sprinkled with water of baptism.

-Anonymous, Heptameron (ca. 1490)


He questioned Brother Ambrose of the matter, and when he heard the Vision, bade him limn the Holy City even as he had seen it; and the Precentor gave him uterine vellum and much fine gold and what colours he asked for the work.

-Margaret Fairless Barber, The Gathering of Brother Hilarius (1901)


A specialty of the later middle ages is the extremely thin ‘virgin’ or ‘uterine’ parchment, which was prepared from the skin of unborn lambs. The quality of the parchment and the care taken in its selection and preparation are a yardstick for the standards of a scriptorium.

-Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages (1979)


The Latin word abortivum occasionally applied to fine parchment in the Middle Ages (though rarely) has given rise to another form of superstition which has become widespread, namely, that the finest medieval parchment, and particularly the very thin, flexible, opaque, small, thirteenth-century French Bible vellum was made from the skins of still-borne calves. There is as nearly as possible no evidence for this belief. It may be true. I have no figures on infant mortality among livestock in the Middle Ages; but I should be inclined to think that animal husbandry must have been in a very precarious condition if enough calves were stillborn in the thirteenth century to provide all the pages which pass for “uterine vellum.”

-Daniel Varney Thompson, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting (1956) 


Uterine vellum (g.) — A vellum made from the very thin skins of still-born or unborn calves.

-William Dana Orcutt, The Author’s Desk Book (1914)


The little book was originally bound in the skin of a lamb, goat, or calf—all kosher animals—and the best vellum was so-called “uterine” vellum made of stillborn or unborn animals. Interestingly, one of the oldest materials with which to make condoms was called lambskin, though made not of the skin of the lamb but of its intestines.

-Jonathan Brent, “Daydreamings on the Book” (2012)


Parchment is the prepared skin of animals, especially of the sheep and calf; the finer quality derived from the calf being properly vellum, and if from the skin of an abortive calf, uterine vellum, the whitest and thinnest kind known, employed chiefly for elaborate miniatures.

–Falconer Madan, Books in Manuscript (1893)


Undaunted, I went to an abattoir in Mainz, and found the head slaughterman wielding his cleaver. Two fingers were missing on his left hand. His apron, streaked with calf-blood, was like a rubricated letter M. Could we talk business? I asked. He said he doubted it–his hides went straight to his brother’s vellum-shop; the monks then ‘hogged them’; the trade was all sewn up. When I asked if still we might see his brother, he shrugged, put his cleaver down, took his apron off, and led me next door. We made our way past brindled cow-hides drying hairside-out over wooden beams. Holding a knife shaped liek a newly risen moon, the brother was paring hairs from a pelt held drum-tight in a wooden frame. The pelt was so small and pristing-white I could scarcely credit it.
“Uterine,” he said, catching me looking. “The dearest of all vellum.”
“You abort the calves?”
“It is not official practice. But if a cow, for some reason, should miscarry  and its calf be stillborn…”
I stroked the pelt’s soft silk, then turned to the two brothers. Mean-faced and hatched-eyed, they looked no more fond of each other than of me–the Cain and Abel of the meat trade.
“I have in mind an order for five thousand skins,” I said.
“Of uterine vellum? Impossible.”
“Not uterine. It is a larger beast I have in mind.”

-Blake Morrison, The Justification of Johannes Gutenberg (2001)


Vellum was known in the Middle Ages as “veal parchment.” The finest, which was especially thin and silky, called “uterine vellum,” was made from the skin of stillborn or newborn calves. So very many manuscripts are claimed to be on uterine vellum as to suggest an unfortunate, and unlikely, situation for medieval cows!

-Janetta Rebold Benton, Materials, Methods, and Masterpieces of Medieval Art (2009)


The extremely thin and white parchment as found in the so-called Parisian Bibles of the thirteenth century is often called uterine vellum (carta abortive, virginea); it is doubtful whether this writing-material, apart from a few exceptions, was really made from the skin of unborn calves or lambs.

-Albert Delorez, The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books (2003)


Jack Cade: Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should  be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man?

-Shakespeare, 2 Henry VI 


Tagged Medieval Manuscriptsuterine parchmentuterine vellum | 10 Comments |

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An occasional blog on writing, teaching, medieval literature, the humanities, and other subjects. If you’re looking for Bruce Holsinger’s author site please go to


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