Excitement at last

Earlier this year I thought I’d never feel that familiar excitement of following an idea to see if it led anywhere interesting. At last the Boeve research is beginning to feel exciting. Having narrowed my focus down, for now, just to the etymology of the name, some really interesting things are beginning to happen. The original work I did last year on this remains pertinent, but taking it in more depth is providing a better sense of control and detail. The records, of course, are the problem, wherever one looks they are either in Latin, but it is now a matter of tracking down what the Latin glosses. That leads to some further interesting possibilities, not least Butcher’s Row in Southampton. Or maybe that lost Saxon warrior and his bow. Only time will tell as I pick through the elements. In fact, my other strand of research prompted this microscopic process when I read Tolkien’s scholarly analysis of the name Nodens.

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A Missing Piece

For a long time now I’ve been trying to track down a reference to Celtic mythology which certainly bears on the episode in Boeve when the hero is wounded in the thigh by one of the lions which attacks him and menaces Josian. At long last I found details of the essay that discusses the Celtic myth and thanks to the patient help of the Interlibrary Loans service at the Central Library I now have Proinsias Mac Cana’s ‘Women in Irish Mythology’. It has opened up important lines of enquiry and new considerations about the way female characters are presented in Boeve. So I now have to go away and read more about this. Meanwhile, the etymology of names and their relationship to wider issues continues to tantalise, and I still haven’t laid to rest the matter of the swallows, which realistically look more like eagles or hawks, so more etymological enquiry is needed. It’s hard to believe it’s July already, but this is a task that keeps fragmenting and is all the better for it.

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Work on Boeve continues slowly. It is really a matter of taking all the elements already identified and seeing where they lead, but I believe I’ve been on the right track all along. There is definitely good reason to take the first part separately from the ‘Continuation’ and to regard this as dealing with a range of issues specific to its original agenda, and then to deal with the ‘Continuation’ and its rewriting of those issues for a different purpose. At that point it became a different political text.

I’m still working on the potential for Boeve to reflect an earlier local legend of the kind referred to in Dr. Speed’s book, as well as having being composed for Sotonian patrons. I’m inclined to challenge the standard reading that asserts that a tale like Boeve must have been composed for an aristocratic patron, no matter how lacking the text may be in unequivocal marks of this origin. The work on the etymology of names is tricky, and Speed’s account is unsupported by historical references, but these matters need to be explored in depth in order to understand the text and its development.

The chance to get out in the fresh air and begin work on the garden has undoubtedly helped to restart the writing by providing some complete diversion – I have recently heard it described as perfect for mindfulness – but reading Slavoj Zizek again, and Terry Eagleton on Walter Benjamin, have both been helpful with rethinking the construction of history in Boeve.

Meanwhile, Bevis has become a paradigm for my other research interest; and with the news of a proposal for Southampton to become the next City of Culture I have already suggested that Bevis should be given a higher priority as part of the cultural history of the City. I hope to reinforce this point further in the near future as Bevis could be a valuable addition to our cultural landscape. The Bevis trail I have proposed would pick up the local traditions as well as the literary origin, which, although fictitious, could be linked through the references in the story to places and events that can be accommodated to the remaining ‘footprint’ of the medieval town.

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May, swallows, and geese

As mentioned in April’s post, I was in search of Rhona Beare’s articles on these birds, and although old and strange, they are oddly productive. Barlow’s book is back beside me, and Anglo-Saxon history, though very chaotic in the pre-Conquest period, is where I am still finding the most useful material for understanding the opening of Boeve. Inevitably, almost, dear old Derrida’s différènce is helping to untangle one part of the story from another when due consideration is given to how it really separates out. So, for now, the so-called Continuation is not my focus. I’m trying to understand what the story is doing before that takes over. It has long been established that the Continuation is different in many ways, so it needs to be considered for its separate status. When the time comes, I shall consider why it was tacked on to the original, but without understanding the point of that original the impulse behind the Continuation is bound to be rather out of focus.

Although I think I am making some progress with the original, I think I probably need refer only to the earliest MSS because to propose any oral version may be unnecessary. The dating does not need to be based mid to late 12th century historical events, although these are undoubtedly relevant. Nevertheless, the original MS may just as easily have been created in the 13th, looking back as the chroniclers constantly did to events in earlier times in order to comment on their own, wryly perhaps. Indeed, I believe now that a narrow focus on the date has obscured much of the interest that lies in the opening of the story, and therefore skews understanding of the later relationship between the original and the Continuation.

Meanwhile, the matter of the hero’s name and the name of his horse require further investigation and careful consideration. It remains difficult to see the logic behind creating a hero whose lands are so closely associated with Southampton (if that’s what they are!), if the work is to be focussed on the lords of the largest castle in West Sussex. The Anglo-Norman poem itself does not name Southampton, only Hampton. The fourteenth-century Middle English poem names Southampton in various spellings, and it may have been so called in intermediary redactions, but if we accept that these all derive from the Anglo-Norman version of the thirteenth century the disconnect between Southampton and Arundel must be addressed and understood. In the thirteenth century the only link between the two Anglo-Norman settlements was the pilgrims’ road to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury that started at Southampton’s western quays. The Pilgrim’s Gate, and a nearby place known as ‘Pilgrim’s Pit’ testify to this in Southampton’s medieval records. There was at that time, according to the Victoria County History, no actual coast road, which was a Victorian development. The medieval pilgrims’ road ran east to Arundel where there was a convenient stop-over, and the road is of some significance to the story of the poem, as is Becket’s earliest biography. But dating again comes into play at this point, as it does in the case of Edward the Confessor’s shield!

However, the biggest question to be tackled in relation to the earliest version of the poem that we have evidence for is the matter of the hero’s name, which appears to have no connection with anything on this side of the Channel except the son of a Southampton merchant. If it is a coincidence it is a mighty strange one, given that the date of the poem and the dates of the son are very close. And what relationship do they, together or separately, have to either St Bovo of Fraxinet, or Bovo of St. Bertin?

It has taken me years to get to the point of being able to ask some of these essential questions.  The answers I originally proposed were judged unconvincing and although I can now see why, they have at least given me some foundations on which to build, not just an argument and set of theories, but the confidence to take on the task. As part of that confidence building I’d like to credit Dr. Luke Sunderland for an email he sent which spurred me on to consider further the significance of a woman speaking English, even while I was looking at the swallows and geese.


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April, and some excitement

Maybe not the sort of thing to get everyone excited, but a great article on Fraxinet has proved a bit of encouragement, so too has finding work by a Durham scholar. Frank Barlow’s book on The Godwins is sending me in the direction of work by Rhona Beare and back to Walter Map. I don’t doubt now that Boeve contains comments on royal family lineage as its literal level rewrites the history and land-rights of the Godwin family to obliterate them in favour of the Anglo-Normans. But it does not seem to support ruling faction. This only relates at present to the very first part of the poem. It will fit the Continuation later, but that really is another story, and I believe at present that the text is a great deal more ‘self-aware’ than it seems – almost as if one has to read past the fiction – which would be reasonable for a medieval text. So much reading to do!

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A bit of progress

The day has been unexpectedly productive! Progress remains slow as I try to get my head around the relationships the define the start of Boeve and their historical contexts. There are undoubtedly connections between them, and they may be anti-Matildine, anti-Angevin, or just snide in a story of familial betrayal, but they are there. And this is just looking at the start of the first version of the story. It gets more complicated when we get to the Continuation, but I’m not there yet. Although I know where I have to go with it.

I am not persuaded that Boeve needs to be dated as early as J-P Martin and Judith Weiss have proposed in their work. Indeed, being snide about the Angevins as the writer looks back would work very well – what a family! Everyone was betraying everyone else – more or less – in contrast to Boeve’s paternal uncles and cousins, and the Saracen girl who loves him. The contrast between those who are loyal to Boeve and those who are treacherous needs further work, but at least I have managed to put some ideas together today.

There is much more to do on places, and still a good deal to rationalise as far as the historical elements are concerned, but I’m grateful for any progress in this difficult task. And only this morning I was wondering if I should just forget all about Boeve, and Haumtone, and Harhundel!

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How white was the valley?

A reference of course to the origins of Arundel as a place, and it looms in my thoughts as massively as the chunk of rock on which the castle stands. Research led me in the direction of the romance Of Arthour and Of Merlin, which, taken with Tristran/Tristan and some reading of the VCH: Sussex entry really got me thinking along the lines of ‘cultural geography’. I now think this is too much of an umbrella term. Having come to the point of (almost) accepting Judith Weiss’s conclusions regarding Boeve and the d’Albini family, I still find the cluster of names in Boeve to be in need of more detailed work. There is certainly more historicising to do before we understand why the names, and the allusions they evoke, appear in this poem. The more I read the more I find unanswered questions, such as whether the ‘man  tried by fate’ motif evokes St Eustace only to position this evocation against the biography of Eustace son of King Stephen? He seems to have been a ‘bad thing’ even if he was never a king.

In view of the fact that I am really intent on working out the restructuring Bevis now this often seems like a digression, but I remind myself that it will eventually contribute to the section/chapter on Genre, even if it is only a few sentences.

And this is something else that keeps rattling in my head – there is so little contextualising of Bevis in relation to Boeve, as well as so little historical contextualising of the A/N poem. Hunting for articles is an ongoing task, but at present the most exciting reading is D.H. Green’s book on The Beginnings of Romance.

I’m also considering posting here some of the work I did last year on the naming of Boeve and echoes of his name in Southampton’s records, and elsewhere. There is definitely a connection, but it is more complex that I originally thought and although I didn’t persuade the experts, it may interest other researchers. It’s a task for another day, though.

It was also good to discover recently a new thesis in preparation on Motherhood in Romance.


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