Tag Archives: England


The Hundred Guilder print

Side-note: One of my favorite artists, Rembrandt, was a boy in the Netherlands while the Pilgrims were there. When I was a new Sunday-school teacher, I joked that everything I knew about the Bible came from looking at Rembrandt paintings. A benefit of the Netherlands being a haven for religious minorities was that there was a Jewish quarter in Amsterdam. Rembrandt lived in and had friends there. He depicted Christ and the Holy Family as Jews (which they were, of course), using his friends as models. This was a departure from tradition. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/rmbt/hd_rmbt.htm
Look at Christ’s hands in the Hundred Guilder print. Rembrandt drew with a steel stylus, cutting lines into a copper plate. Yeah, he could draw.


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Puritans & Pilgrims

Some English people wanted to reform Henry’s Church of England. They wanted to get back to the Church’s roots. They wanted to get closer to what Saint Peter founded and Saint Paul mapped out. They wanted a more pure stripped-down no-frills version of worship, so those guys were called ‘Puritans.’

Other English people threw up their hands and said ‘It can’t be fixed. Gotta start from scratch.’ They wanted what the Puritans wanted but decided to start over in a different country. Those guys were called ‘Pilgrims’ and they moved to Holland (the Netherlands)—a country tolerant of other people’s religions.

There’s a hair salon in the village of Scrooby famous for their signature ‘do. http://www.finedictionary.com/Pilgrim.html

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The Church of England

I know—you’re sick of hearing about it. My mailman complains because he has to deliver enormous bags of angry letters and postcards from you guys. But I need to talk about the Reformation some more.

In England, King Henry VIII was butting heads with the Pope because the Pope refused to bless Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. So with all this Reformation going on, Henry said ‘Dash it—why don’t I start up my own bally church?’* and created the Church of England. Of course he put himself in charge of it. Henry kicked the Catholic nuns & monks out of nunneries and monasteries and destroyed Latin bibles and holy relics.

“Here you are, lads. Hot off the press, what?”

This wasn’t any big improvement on the corrupt mediæval Church. Henry cleverly inserted himself in between the regular shmos and God, so power descended from heaven, to Henry, to you. It was still the same old top-down power that got distributed through earthly government. Henry VIII had the Bible translated into English.** The title page has a picture of Henry in the middle of the universe with G-d above filtering His might through him. This picture is telling you that Henry gets his authority to rule directly from G-d. It’s the divine right of kings.

* I asked P G Wodehouse to write Henry’s dialogue.
** From the Oops-I-Changed-My-Mind file: Henry’s Great Bible has big chunks of Tyndale’s translation in it. I mean, Woolsey has Tyndale burned at the stake for translating the Bible, then Henry’s team uses the translation Tyndale was executed for?

Good article but it’s manner not manor:

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Aubrey Beardsley

Pen, brush and ink on paper, you guys.

As I never tire of reminding you, I’m an illustrator. So I have to tell you about this specially-illustrated edition of Le Morte d’Arthur that came out centuries after Malory and Caxton. It was illustrated by nineteen-year-old Aubrey Beardsley in 1893. Some of the drawings are—let’s face it—bizarre. But Beardsley had a breath-taking mastery of black & white. He would have made a swell cartoonist. Not only that, his style looks like it was designed for woodblock printing—so it feels right for his mediæval subject.

As the Enchanted Booklet tells it:

“William Morris’s Kelmscott Press produced exquisite limited editions, with elaborate woodcut ornamentation and vellum bindings.
J. M. Dent, a London publisher, wished to print a book as beautiful as Kelmscott’s publications but more affordable, targeting the middle class. He achieved this by using a new printing procedure with half-tone reproductions. But mostly he achieved his goal because he had the luck to meet a nineteen year old artist : Aubrey Beardsley.
The publisher recognized the unique powerful talent of Beardsley who was perfect in many ways including his eagerness to produce a huge amount of quality work for a small profit since he was working at the time as a clerk at an insurance agency.
That is how a wonderful book with 360 full and double-page drawings, borders, chapter headings, and ornaments of detailed illustrations, a total of over 1,000 decorations, arrived (in bookshops at) an affordable price.” https://enchantedbooklet.com/le-morte-darthur/

You can get your own copy: https://www.amazon.com/Morte-DArthur-Thomas-Malory/dp/051747977X

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The printing press comes to England

Poor old Tom Malory died in prison in March 1471, but his book was on its way to fame and fortune. William Caxton was a textile merchant who became interested in printing presses and decided to get one of his own. In 1471 Caxton was the first to print a book in the English language: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (A Collection of the Histories of Troy—kind of a spinoff of Homer’s Iliad where one of the supporting characters gets his own series). Caxton had a good sense of what would sell as well as what is great literature. He’d set up his first printing operation in Brussels, but—

“In 1476 Caxton returned to London and established a press at Westminster, the first printing press in England. Amongst the books he printed were Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, Gower’s ‘Confession Amantis’ and Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’. He printed more than 100 books in his lifetime, books which were known for their craftsmanship and careful editing. He was also the translator of many of the books he published, using his knowledge of French, Latin and Dutch. He died in 1492.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/caxton_william.shtml

Le Morte d’Arthur was printed in 1485. I link below to a site that shows all the pages of the first edition. You can see the typeface was trying to mimic hand-written calligraphy. It wouldn’t take long for printers to realize they could design typefaces that were meant to be printed.

This is just fantastic. You can see the original pages here: http://www.maloryproject.com/caxton_viewer.php

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Le Morte d’Arthur

sketch of King Arthur based on a painting by Howard Pyle

Thomas Malory was a gifted writer (and convict*) who in 1470 brought the Arthurian stories together and organized them into a grand epic novel. His book has a French title, Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), though the text is Middle English with some French and Latin thrown in. The title is kind of a spoiler. For a while Britain was ruled justly and happily, but Camelot was ultimately doomed because nothing lasts forever. The high ideals that shaped Arthur’s reign were abandoned with the passage of time. Even knights of the Round Table are born weak and live in a broken world. Arthur’s closest allies betrayed him. His court fell apart. It was fun while it lasted. And yet, Malory gives us hope that Arthur and Camelot may return someday: on Arthur’s tomb is written, ‘Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus’ (Here lies Arthur, the once and future king).

I was a King Arthur geek when I was a tween. I did read Malory’s book and it was a glorious long slog. The version I read wasn’t in Middle English but somehow had the flavor of it (it was a library book and I can’t remember who translated it). Malory built the ‘once and future’ Camelot** word by word—the fellowship of the Table Round; the knights with their odd mannerisms and creaky old way of speaking; the exalted idealism; the shameful weaknesses. He showed me a sword magically embedded in an anvil and stone; a lady, naked as a needle, cursed to stand in boiling water until she was rescued by a very pure knight; a weird animal whose belly made the noise of a pack of hounds; ogres; giants; awkward love triangles; the Holy Grail (the cup Christ drank from at the Last Supper). Malory conjured a dear old island that stood in that very misty spot where paganism hadn’t quite taken its leave and Christianity was just getting started.

* Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur while he was serving time—probably as a political prisoner—at Newgate Prison. The prisons of the Middle Ages seem to have been full to bursting with authors cranking out the classics of Western Lit.

**The French poet Chretien de Troyes invented the name Camelot and created Sir Launcelot. That’s a lot.

I can’t top this article about Malory and his book—

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Geoffrey of Monmouth

A wooden statue of Geoffrey of Monmouth at Tintern Station https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/6023609

King Arthur Pendragon may not have even existed. He was a figure from the mists of Welsh legend and made it into Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of The Kings of Britain which he wrote in the 1100s. Geoffrey was not good at verifying historical facts—or he liked his history fanciful—but he gave us Arthur and Camelot. I’m a hopeless romantic so I like to think there really was a King Arthur.

During the 3 or four centuries after Geoffrey’s book came out, legends and folk tales emerged under the general heading of Arthurian. Figures of Arthur’s court came into being and had their own stories or they were given stories from older lore. Knights went on quests to prove themselves spiritually worthy. They fought wickedness when they found it and offered protection to the powerless. There was a mystical quality that surrounded Camelot and all of Arthur’s Britain—dragons, beasts, enchantments, sorceresses and Merlin the wizard. There was a beautiful young queen.


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The once and future blog post

“Who so pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of England.”

During the thousand years before the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066, life for the British was one stinkin’ thing after another. If it wasn’t the Romans, it was the Angles. If it wasn’t the Angles, it was the Saxons. Or the Jutes. Or the Frisians. Everybody invaded Britain back then, it was the thing to do. Sometime during the ad 500s the British were in a life-and-death struggle to keep the Saxons from taking over their island. The Roman Empire had imploded and the Brits were on their own. The Saxons were unrelenting, ruthless and seemingly invincible. The British desperately needed a leader: someone just and moral; someone who could out-general the invaders; someone with a trusted band of mighty warrior-heroes; someone who would rally his countrymen to save their sceptre’d isle. They got one. The catch was that this chieftain and his friends were doomed—their time was to be only one brief shining moment. This chieftain? His name is Arthur.

Wow! That was some pretty good writing, huh? I should get a Brit actor like Kenneth Branagh or that Cumberbatch fella to read it out loud, backed up by an orchestra quietly playing the overture to Camelot.


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The Canterbury Tales

Assembling the pilgrims at the Tabard Inn

Who doesn’t love reading Middle English poetry?

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Here’s the Modern English version:

When that April with his showers sweet
The drought of March has pierced to the root
And bathed every (plant’s) vein in such liquor/liquid
From whose potency is created the flower

It’s the first four lines of The Canterbury Tales http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/gp-aloud.htm

The English author Geoffrey (sounds like the American name Jeffrey) Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in Middle English over the years from 1387 to 1400. It’s a frame narrative—it’s a story made up of stories. The frame, the set-up, is that a group of people are gathered at an inn, about to start their pilgrimage to Saint Thomas á Becket’s shrine in Canterbury (pilgrimage is something devout believers do, a way of connecting with God. You travel, but also pray. Today, Christians and Jews make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; Muslims make a hajj to Mecca). It’s a longish trip so the innkeeper says, “Let’s have a storytelling contest along the way. The prize for best story will be a free dinner when we get back.” So off they go.

People of every social class—nobility, clergy and peasantry—went on pilgrimages. A pilgrimage was an ideal situation for a writer doing social commentary. The story each character tells reflects an aspect of life in England at the time. The upper-class knight tells a story about chivalry and romance; the peasants tell bawdy stories and take verbal swipes at each other; the narrator tells a boring story in rhyme; the pardoner tells a moralizing story about how greed kills. 

The Canterbury Tales wasn’t the first book written in English rather than Latin, but it was a bestseller—especially when William Caxton printed it in 1483.

I ought to point out that as authors like Chaucer pioneered writing in their own language, they also shaped their language. Choices the authors made about spelling, grammar and syntax became established standards because they were being written down. Likewise, the early printers like William Caxton were establishing standards for books: size of paper and typeface design. I’ll get back to that in a few posts.

There are 24 (?) individual tales. I don’t think I’ll do my usual patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment of The Canterbury Tales because there’s some adult stuff in there that I can’t avoid since the adult stuff is the central part of some of these stories. As a Sunday school teacher who specialized in the Old Testament I got pretty good at covering those awkward family relationship moments in the Bible without actually—you know—saying what was going on but Chaucer taxes my poor powers of, uh—dissembling. I want you to enjoy your carefree middle-school-aged childhood innocence unfettered by the concerns of carpenters whose wives might be stepping out on them. You can read summaries of The Tales in the links below.


Of course the matrons of River City had Chaucer’s number. How I adore this—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvhFs2bdRpE

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Beowulf in one sentence

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Yes, you lucky readers, it’s time for my patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment of Beowulf! Ready? Hang on to your horned helmets ‘cause here we go—

The drinking song from The Student Prince ran through my head while I drew this one, so here’s the link. Isn’t that Anne Blyth adorable, though? Mario Lanza does the singing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OI3Bcgh4Jko

In Denmark King Hrothgar builds a big mead-hall it’s a big barn where his warriors can hang out and party (mead is an adult beverage) play music and listen to storytellers they’re whooping it up and making a racket at all hours which annoys Grendel who is a horrible monster who lives in the swamp near the mead-hall Grendel terrorizes the Danes every night he even kills a bunch of

them which dampens the party atmosphere none of the Danish warriors is a match for Grendel finally a young Geatish warrior named Beowulf hears about Hrothgar’s situation Beowulf sails to Denmark with 14 guys Hrothgar holds a big feast for Beowulf at the feast a little wiseacre named Unferth says maybe Beowulf isn’t up to the job the music stops Beowulf tells the crowd all about the big things

he’s done the party starts back up again but then Grendel bursts in and Beowulf fights him unarmed because he’s so strong they have a rip-roaring mortal battle and Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off so Grendel limps back to his swampy home to die the warriors party on and eventually fall asleep but things are about to get real Grendel’s mom is a much worse monster who chews gum and kills Danish warriors and she’s all out of chewing gum she comes to Hrothgar’s party and grabs Esher who was the emcee so Beowulf says I’ll handle this and tracks Grendel’s mom to a lake where Esher’s head is bobbing in the water and he thinks this must be the place so he dives down to her underwater lair at the bottom of the lake and they have a knock-down drag-em-out fight the situation looks bad for our hero but there’s a magic sword on the knick-knack shelf Beowulf grabs it and kills her with it so now no more monsters in Denmark King Hrothgar thanks Beowulf with great heaping piles of treasure they have another big party and Beowulf heads home with his pals he gives his treasure to King Higlac who rewards Beowulf with real estate and swords now we skip ahead 50 or 60 years Higlac is dead and Beowulf is king of the Geats there’s an underground cave full of treasure that’s guarded by a dragon some stupid Geat steals a bejeweled cup from the cave while the dragon’s asleep and when the dragon wakes up he knows right away the cup’s missing so he goes on a rampage and burns everything down including Beowulf’s house so Beowulf goes to the cave to kill the dragon but he’s not so young as he used to be they have a harum-scarum fiery battle Beowulf breaks his sword and the dragon bites him on the neck Beowulf’s old pal Wiglaf comes to the rescue and stabs the dragon then Beowulf cuts the dragon in half with his knife (it doesn’t say lengthwise or crosswise) but it’s game over for Beowulf that was his last fight Wiglaf builds a giant tomb for Beowulf with lots of treasure the Geats give Beowulf a viking send-off with a big funeral pyre and bury his ashes and treasure in the tomb.

Here’s a movie reviewer who gets Beowulf. https://www.salon.com/2007/11/20/beowulf_2/

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