Tag Archives: Medieval Studies

Malcom Barber and Keith Bate on letters from crusaders and pilgrims

Posted by David Cota, Senior Marketing Coordinator

Letters from the East presents translations of a selection of the letters sent by crusaders and pilgrims from Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine. There are accounts of all the great events from the triumph of the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 to the disasters of Hattin in 1187 and the loss of Acre in 1291.

In this guest blog editors Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate reflect on the letters they selected for their volume.


There are fascinating and vivid chronicles in the Ashgate series, many of which have been expertly analysed with the aims of determining the motives of the writers, the influences upon them, and the circumstances in which they were composed. We see the letters complementing these, since, even in the hands of a self-conscious author like James of Vitry, Bishop of Acre, they were subject to the more immediate pressures of life in a frontier society, whereas the chronicles were often polished and rewritten in order to demonstrate the literary accomplishments of the authors or to promote the cause of a patron. Letters from the eastAs with the chronicles we’ve tried to translate most of the letters in their entirety because we wanted to limit editorial steer as much as possible, and because future trends in analysis can’t easily be forecast. Parts of the text which might seem inconsequential today may well be the subject of study tomorrow.

Of course the act of selection is in itself an imposition not faced by the translator of a complete chronicle, but in the case of letters the quantity of material available makes this inevitable. It might be helpful to explain some of the considerations which lay behind our choices. Some letters are presented as stand-alone texts, but we have tried to group others in a variety of different ways: thus we have participants in a common enterprise like the First Crusade, the huge but ultimately fruitless effort to persuade Louis VII of France to lead a new expedition to the East in 1160s, and the collection put together by individuals such as James of Vitry. In the end, though, there’s no real consistency of approach among the writers themselves; indeed, this might be seen as part their attraction as sources. At one extreme there are pragmatic appeals for help, often in the wake of disasters; at the other, an extraordinary description of the fantasy land of Prester John, produced in Germany around 1165 as part of the imperial propaganda campaign against the papacy. Less elaborate but equally intriguing is a forged letter of 1193 purporting to be from Rashid al-Din, leader of the Syrian Assassins, emanating from the chancery of Richard I. Here, the Assassin leader assures Leopold of Austria that, despite allegations to the contrary, the king had nothing to do with the murder of Conrad of Montferrat in Acre in April the previous year. Other letters, while basically factual, may for different reasons not be quite what they seem: it’s been argued, for instance, that the two famous letters by Terricus, the Templar preceptor, apparently written in 1187 and 1188 after the battle of Hattin, are in fact compilations intended to excite a reaction in the West from which aid in the form of men, money and supplies might flow.

Particularly eye-catching are the personal touches. These men and women lived in a very different world, but their humanity still resonates. When, in 1097, Stephen of Blois described to his wife, Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror, the generosity of Alexius, the Byzantine emperor, one sentence reflects on what must have been a source of continual irritation between the two of them. ‘Your father, my love, gave many great presents, but he was almost nothing in comparison with this man.’ Stephen was not the only one whose thoughts turned to home. In 1120, Ansell, Cantor of the Holy Sepulchre, sent a cross made from wood taken from the True Cross to his friends at Notre Dame in Paris. In the accompanying letter, he recalled his time with them. ‘Although it is now twenty-four years since I left you and your church where I was nourished and educated, my love for you remains fervent and in my mind I still live in your church with you.’ Sometimes, though, the letters betray frustration and anger caused by the bitter experience of failure. Conrad III, King of Germany, who felt humiliated by the retreat from Damascus in 1148, believed he had been betrayed, apparently by local Franks, despite the fact that it had been ‘a unanimous decision’ to attack the city. Nor was the Muslim enemy the only hazard. In 1216, James of Vitry was on board a ship which was, accidentally, almost rammed by another vessel, causing panic among the voyagers. ‘And there arose a great cry from everybody; and there was heard crying and weeping, and people confessing their sins in both ships. Some people began jumping from one ship to the other, according to which they thought to be the stronger, while others took off their clothes and tied any silver and gold they had around their bodies in case they could swim to safety.’ In contrast, bravery, both mental and physical, is the outstanding impression left on the reader of the letter of John of Villiers, the Hospitaller Master, writing from Cyprus in late May, 1291, after Acre had disintegrated around him. He knew he had not long to live, having been ‘mortally wounded by a spear’, but had nevertheless escaped to Cyprus, ‘our heart heavy and our body in pain’.

Taken as a whole, the book is intended to provide a series of pegs on which to hang a general history of the crusade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. To that end there’s an attempt at a chronological and thematic balance, enabling newcomers to the subject to use the letters in conjunction with good concise histories of the crusades such as Bernard Hamilton’s The Crusades (Sutton Pocket Histories, 1998). Key events – the First Crusade, the defeat at Hattin in 1187, the fall of Acre in 1291 – are all covered even though (indeed because) they are well known. The letters help to explain the enduring appeal of the crusades as an undergraduate subject; there are many more which could be mined.


Letters from the East was chosen by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our History publishing programme. View the full list of History Editors’ Choices

Carol Sweetenham shares her motivations for translating Robert the Monk

Posted by David Cota, Senior Marketing Coordinator

I had three reasons for translating Robert.” Carol Sweetenham shares her motivations for translating Robert the Monk’s work in her guest blog.


As someone who works in government I think a great deal about what constitutes narrative. And so I have been fascinated for years by the blurring of historical and fictional in the accounts we have of the First Crusade. Latin chronicles by Benedictine monks contain themes and anecdotes from popular culture. Conversely the epic cycle of chansons de geste recounting the events of the Crusade draws on written history. I wanted to translate Robert’s chronicle because it sits at this intersection of history and fiction; and there are few better ways of getting into the warp and weft of a text than translating it.

Robert the monks history of the first crusade

The First Crusade was one of the most written about events of the Middle Ages. Within a decade it had spawned at least three eyewitness accounts and a further half dozen by non-participants. It was ultimately to create, uniquely amongst contemporary events, its own epic cycle in the thirteenth century, and its reverberations continued into the sixteenth century. One text in particular, the anonymous Gesta Francorum written from a Southern Norman perspective, was adapted by three Benedictine monks into separate but related accounts: Guibert of Nogent, abbot of St Germer de Fly; Baudry of Bourgueil, Archbishop of Dol; and Robert the Monk.

Of all these accounts Robert’s was by far the most popular. It survives in some one hundred manuscripts, more by a factor of ten than any other account. It was known across Europe. It continued to be read, translated and adapted until the sixteenth century. As such it has been hugely influential in shaping our perception of the Crusade. Yet it has been largely ignored by modern scholarship. Until recently the only published version was in the nineteenth century French compendium of Crusade texts, the Recueil des Historiens des Croisades. The only translation available was equally a nineteenth century one by Francois Guizot, long since out of print, and a German one; there was nothing for English speakers. As such it was virtually inaccessible to a modern Anglo-Saxon audience. Modern analysis was confined to passing comments in other works: there was no study available. And Runciman’s dismissal of Robert as “popular and somewhat romantic” in his magistral history of the Crusades still casts a long shadow.

I thought it was more than time for a modern audience to have easy access to Robert’s work, and was delighted that Ashgate agreed to publish an English translation. Whilst I had some misgivings about using the Recueil edition given its age, I had neither time nor inclination to do an edition myself. Since then Marcus Bull and Damien Kempf have brought out an excellent new edition of the text, and much to my relief the Recueil text – and hence my translation – have stood up well.

I had three reasons for translating Robert. The first was that he brought a particular perspective to his view of the Crusade. As a Benedictine he placed it in the context of the divine plan, rooting it firmly in the context of the Old and New Testament. He was well placed to have access to a range of source material, which he wove into his main source the Gesta Francorum. He brought a shrewd and sceptical eye to the course of events: I was particularly struck by his sardonic aside that “all [the leaders of the Crusade] spoke in favour of reconciliation without any suggestions as to how it was to be achieved.” And he also brought a wider cultural hinterland reflected in for example his use of the conventions of the chanson de geste and classical authors such as Lucan and Ovid. So by translating him I felt I gained an insight into the mind of an educated and shrewd twelfth-century observer.

The second was his importance in shaping later perceptions of the Crusade. As the most popular account he had a major influence on later descriptions: for example he was the obvious source to which the thirteenth-century compiler of the Chanson d’Antioche turned for material. So I wanted people to have access to an influential source and judge its impact for themselves.

The third and perhaps most important reason was his skill as a storyteller. Robert shapes the Crusade into a tight and logical narrative arc, culminating in a paean to Jerusalem and bookended by two major speeches: that of Urban II at the beginning of the Crusade and his opponent the emir Clemens at the end. His account is a vivid one full of drama, event, humour and pathos. And more than that, he has an ability given to few writers: to conjure up scenes in a few words which open a brief window to the twelfth century. Saracens cluster like flies round rotting meat. A heap of straw is blown apart by the wind. Peasants wait in dazed acquiescence to be slaughtered. For me Robert brings the Crusade alive in a way no other chronicler quite manages, and I wanted to share that freshness and excitement with a modern audience.

As translator you want above all for your author to be read and enjoyed. You are there as a medium to make him (rarely her) accessible to a modern audience rather than as an author in your own right. I wanted academics and in particular students to appreciate Robert. So I was delighted when I was approached at Leeds IMC with the words “I know who you are – you’re Robert’s translator! My students use him all the time.” Definitely mission accomplished, I felt.

Carol Sweetenham


Robert the Monk’s History of the First Crusade was chosen by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our History publishing programme. View the full list of History Editors’ Choices

Prester John on BBC Radio 4

Posted by Hattie Wilson, Senior Marketing Executive

On Thursday 4th June, Melvin Bragg’s BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time will discuss the legend of Prester John. The story of the mysterious oriental leader Prester John, a ruler of a land teeming with marvels who may come to the aid of Christians in the Levant, held an intense grip on the medieval mind.

Keagan Brewer (University of Sydney, Australia) has translated a number of sources from which we have inherited our knowledge of Prester John. Published within the Crusade Texts in Translation series, Prester John: The Legend and its Sources presents each source both in their original language and in their English language translation.

Ashgate are also soon to publish the dramatic tales of fifteenth-century Ethiopian travellers on the road to Renaissance Italy. Matteo Salvadore tells a story of reciprocal acceptance and transcultural collaboration as it unfolded throughout the Mediterranean and Red Sea. Prester John and the Birth of Ethiopian-European Relations, 1402-1555 will publish in the Transculturalisms, 1400-1700 series in 2016.

In Our Time will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 9am (GMT). You can listen again after the broadcast by visiting BBC iPlayer.

Prester John titles published by Ashgate:

Prester John: The Legend and its Sources Translated by Keagan Brewer, University of Sydney, Australia; Crusade Texts in Translation series.

Prester John of the Indies: A True Relation of the Lands of the Prester John, being the narrative of the Portuguese Embassy to Ethiopia in 1520, written by Father Francisco Alvares. Volumes I-II, edited by C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntingford; Hakluyt Society Second Series. (This is a print-on-demand title.)

Gonzalo de Berceo and the Latin Miracles of the Virgin, Feminae’s Translation of the Month

Posted by Alyssa Berthiaume, Marketing Coordinator

Ashgate is proud to announce that Gonzalo de Berceo and the Latin Miracles of the Virgin, edited by Patricia Timmons and Robert Boeing, was selected by Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index as their translation of the month.

Timmons & Boenig NEWFeminae includes journal articles, book reviews and contributing essays on women, sexuality and gender during the Middle Ages. Each month indexers of Feminae select a translation significant to these themes. By choosing a translation each month, viewers have more opportunity to see a vast collection of newly translated medieval texts with its focus on women and gender studies. Currently, Feminae has over 1800 records of translations, now with Gonzalo de Berceo and the Latin Miracles of the Virgin within their collection.

In Gonzalo de Berceo and the Latin Miracles of the Virgin, Patricia Timmons and Robert Boenig present the first English translation of a twelfth-century Latin collection of miracles that Berceo, the first named poet in the Spanish language, used as a source for his thirteenth-century Spanish collection Milagros de Nuestra Señora. They include the original Latin text, translations of the Latin Miracles, including analyses of “Saint Peter and the Lustful Monk” and “The Jews of Toledo.”

To view the full contents and read the preface, click here.

Patricia Timmons is an Instructional Assistant Professor of Spanish at Texas A&M University. Robert Boenig is a Professor of English at Texas A&M University

Announcing a New Series from Ashgate Publishing: Outlaws in Literature, History, and Culture

Posted by Whitney Feininger, Assistant Editor, Literary Studies

Lesley A. Coote and Alexander L. Kaufman are very excited about the future of outlaw studies and its home with Ashgate. We have assembled an international advisory board of scholars, and we welcome proposals for monographs, essay collections, and scholarly editions of primary texts.

Outlaws in Literature, History, and Culture examines the nature, function, and context of the outlaw and the outlawed – people, spaces, practices – in the pre-modern world, and in its modern representations. By its nature, outlawry reflects not only the outlawed, but the forces of law which seek to define and to contain it. Throughout the centuries, a wide and ever-changing, and yet ever familiar, variety of outlaw characters and narratives have captured the imagination of audiences both particular and general, local and global.

This series seeks to reflect the transcultural, transgendered and interdisciplinary manifestations, and the different literary, political, socio-historical, and media contexts in which the outlaw/ed may be encountered from the medieval period to the modern. We accept proposals for scholarly monographs and edited collections of essays whose focus includes literary, historical, folkloric, and cultural studies; critical editions; and translations of outlaw texts. And while the outlaw is perhaps best known as a figure from the Middle Ages, the lives of outlaws continue to live well beyond the medieval period; as such, Outlaws in Literature, History, and Culture’s chronology begins in the Middle Ages and continues to the present day.

To submit a proposal, please send either a preliminary letter of inquiry or a formal prospectus to the series editors and to Ashgate Publishing at the following email addresses:

Lesley Coote l.a.coote@hull.ac.uk

Alex Kaufman akaufman@aum.edu

Whitney Feininger wfeininger@ashgate.com

Please visit the series website or stop by the Ashgate booth at Kalamazoo for more information!

Congratulations to author Janet E. Snyder on winning the SECAC Award for Excellence in Scholarly Research

Posted by Luana Life, Marketing Coordinator

Congratulations to author Janet E. Snyder on winning the SECAC Award for Excellence in Scholarly Research, 2012 for her book, Early Gothic Column-Figure Sculpture in France: Appearance, Materials, and Significance.

Richly illustrated, this book investigates human figural sculpture installed in church portals of mid-twelfth century France. Janet Snyder takes a close look at sculpture at more than twenty churches, describes represented ensembles, defines the language of textiles and dress, and investigates rationale and significance in context. She analyzes how patrons employed sculpture to express and shape perceived reality, using images of textiles and clothing that had political, economic and social significances.

Learn more about Early Gothic Column-Figure Sculpture in France

More information on SECAC Award for Excellence in Scholarly Research

The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous – now available!

‘This volume awakens the monster as an academic topic.  Combining John Block Friedman’s historical-literary approach with Jeffrey J. Cohen’s theoretical concerns, Asa Simon Mittman and Peter Dendle have marshaled chapters that comprise a seminal work for everyone interested in the monstrous.  Wide-ranging chapters work through various historical and geographic views of monstrosity, from the African Mami Wata to Pokemon.  Theoretical chapters consider contemporary views of what a monster is and why we care about them as we do.  Taken together, the essays in The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous reveal that monsters appear in every culture and haunt each of us in different ways, or as Mittman says, the monstrous calls into question our (their, anyone’s) epistemological worldview, highlights its fragmentary and inadequate nature, and thereby asks us … to acknowledge the failures of our systems of categorization.’ David Sprunger, Concordia College, Minnesota, USA

‘An impressively broad and thoughtful collection of the ways in which many cultures, ancient and modern, have used monsters to think about what it means to be human. Lavishly illustrated and ambitious in scope, this book enlarges the reader’s imagination.’ Professor Lorraine Daston, Director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Germany

This companion provides a comprehensive guide to the study of monsters and the monstrous from historical, regional and thematic perspectives.  The collection reflects the truly multi-disciplinary nature of monster studies, bringing in scholars from literature, art history, religious studies, history, classics, and cultural and media studies. The volume includes a Foreword by John Block Friedman and a Postscript by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.

About the Editors: Asa Simon Mittman is Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, California State University, Chico, USA and Peter Dendle is Associate Professor, Department of English, Pennsylvania State University, Mont Alto, USA

More information about The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous

Read Jeffery J Cohen’s blog post about the book on In the Middle