My research concerns the narration of the Hundred Years War in medieval/early modern literature. The conflict flared intermittently between 1337 and 1453 (arguably until 1558) and dominated foreign policy for two centuries. Inevitably, it was the context in which robust articulations of national identity were framed; but it was dogged by besetting ironies they struggled to evade. The first was political: while the conflict galvanised hostility towards the French, its justice relied on the claim that Edward III had a better right to the French throne than his Valois rival – that he was, in effect, more French than his foes. The second was cultural: the extent to which French and English were linguistically and culturally enmeshed made bellicose attempts to crystallise the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ transparently problematic.
My monograph (The Hundred Years War in Literature, 1337-1600, Boydell and Brewer 2016) is the first full consideration of Hundred Years War literature as a corpus. It explores how writers navigated these paradoxes, faultlines in national/political identity in this period, which set far-reaching precedents for constructing ‘French’ and ‘English’ in a context in which the two were barely distinguishable. It then demonstrates the longevity of these habits of thought in how the conflict continued to operate as a conceptual matrix of national/political identity long after it had ended: the sixteenth-century’s crafting of a nationalistically nostalgic medievalism, ending with the portrayal of the conflict on the Elizabethan stage.
This led me to the discovery of John Page’s The Siege of Rouen: a remarkable account of Henry V’s siege of Normandy’s capital in 1418. Rouen was a wealthy, heavily fortified ducal capital, so confident that it offered asylum to the twelve thousand refugees fleeing Henry V’s terrorisation of the rest of the duchy. But when the English took the river and supplies ran out, the citizens faced surrender or starvation. To eke out their resistance they expelled from the garrison those who were too old, too young or too weak to assist in its defence, including those to whom it had initially offered refuge. Not permitted to pass through the besiegers’ lines, these bouches inutiles (‘useless mouths’) were forced to remain in the ditch surrounding the city walls for several winter months, where they slowly died and were left unburied. Page records Henry’s ‘kyndenesse’ in feeding the people (once, on Christmas Day); he baulks at another incidence of his ‘mercy’, allowing babies born in the ditch to be hauled over the walls in baskets for baptism before being returned by the same method. Page’s charity as a Christian finds itself uncomfortably pitted against his loyalty as a subject, in a fascinating stymie of his identity and allegiance as a narrator. Mine is the first modern critical edition of the text, previously little known to scholars.
I have co-edited with art historian Laura Slater an interdisciplinary collection of articles entitled Representing War and Violence, 1250–1600, proceedings from a conference we organised in September 2013 (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2016). The contributions span history, literature and art history. Contributors include Richard W. Kaeuper, Christina Normore, Anne Baden-Daintree, Andrew Lynch, Sara V. Torres, Anne Curry, David Grummitt and Matthew Woodcock . It studies the ways in which medieval artists, writers, politicians and apologists depicted, narrated and documented the violence in their societies, and the ethical implications of their representations and mediations.
Future research plans
My next project will be a monograph on the genre of eyewitness writing more generally than just the Hundred Years War, in the medieval and early modern period. This dilemma of writing war as eyewitness and aggressor was keenly felt: English apologists and historians had little choice but to extol their sovereigns and their causes, yet doing so held them in an ethical bind. Due largely to the traditional institutional structures that divide the medieval from the early modern, as they do the literary from the historical, eyewitness writing has received little consideration as a literary genre in its own right, rather than a subset of history. Tracing its trajectory across these turbulent centuries offers important insight how a turbulent regime-change told itself its own story; and more widely, into the emergence of a form and its struggle for ethical self-definition.
Starting with medieval eyewitnesses (Page, the Chandos Herald, Froissart, Monstrelet, Venette, certain Brut chroniclers) and ending with their sixteenth-century successors (Riche, Coningsby, Gascoigne, Churchyard, Grey, Spenser), my book will argue for the emergence and transformation of eyewitness literature as a form, conscious of itself as a separate and more difficult genre than simple ‘history’; but also grappling with fundamental moral dilemmas less acute in non-eyewitness historiography more generally, especially the narration of atrocity as aggressor. What exactly defines an eyewitness, and how we determine eyewitness status for anonymous or pseudonymous texts (since authors used avatars to elude such direct identification), will be important questions. But interestingly, the word eyewitness itself appeared at just this point, first attested in 1539. Medieval writers had other ways of expressing the idea, such as the idiom ‘to see at eye’, but it is no coincidence that the birth of the specific lexeme coincided with a new kind of scrutiny attaching to the genre, caught in the throes of newly thinking of itself as a genre. Medieval/early modern historiography is a subject of increasing critical interest, but my research is unusual in asking this kind of over-arching question, enabled by the genuine longevity of its focus. What I propose is not the familiar conclusion too frequently offered by early modernists using medieval stereotypes as their straw men, that the sixteenth century oversaw the overhaul of a form as the Middle Ages knew it, but rather a way of reading the continuity and discontinuity of the two periods as something other than a progress-narrative. The same ethical sparks ignited these questions in all their incarnations, and the reasons for the genre’s evolution deserve a complex and subtle consideration that, as yet, they have not received.
At the same time, I am planning a student edition of accounts of the Hundred Years War. This will be an unusual kind of edition, inspired by Helen Barr’s The Piers Plowman Tradition and Julia Boffey’s Fifteenth-Century English Dream Visions. Instead of focusing on theme or genre, the texts in my anthology will be united by the major political event that they document, tracing the ways in which it shaped the literature of its historical moment and beyond. It aims to make it more natural to think about texts in context, and drive history and literature closer together in how students encounter the medieval.
In the longer term, scholarly editing is a field in which I hope to do more work, specifically exploring the potential for a collaborative digital edition of the Middle English prose Brut chronicle.