Friday, 29 March 2019

Singing the News: Ballads in mid-Tudor England (Thursday 25 April)

For the first lecture at our new venue - Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution at 16-18 Queen Square - I am particularly pleased that the branch will welcome Dr Jenni Hyde. Jenni is an academic, working mainly at Lancaster University, secretary of the Bolton branch of the Historical Association, and deputy chair of the HA's Branches and Members Committee, of which I am the chairman. She is also a musician, and the confluence of history and music has been a focus of her research.

Today we are bombarded by news, on television and radio, in newspapers, online. In the sixteenth century news travelled slowly, most artisans and labourers and many others could not read, and censorship and spying in an era of cataclysmic change were rife. Yet people were curious, they wanted to know what was going on, they had opinions and no doubt prejudices, and they wanted to express them.

One way in which ideas could be expressed and information passed on was through singing and listening to popular songs. The vernacular words and memorable tunes of sixteenth-century ballads made them accessible to everyone. For us they are an important resource for understanding the views and attitudes of the common people as Henry VIII broke with Rome and divorced or beheaded his wives, as Protestants, Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans vied for ascendancy or asserted freedom of conscience, as England faced the might of Spain. Rhyme and melody became keys for passing on news, stories and ideas.

In her lecture Jenni Hyde will use live musical examples to demonstrate how the singing of ballads enabled the people of mid-Tudor England to make their own contributions to debates about the issues of the day whatever the restrictions the powerful sought to impose on freedom of speech.

Jenni Hyde's lecture will be followed by a brief Annual General Meeting at which those attending will be presented with the branch's annual report and accounts and details of the programme for the 2019-20 season.

Mike Short 

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

New ways of 'reading' and contextualising the Lindisfarne Gospels (Thursday 28 March)

The British Library is one of our greatest cultural repositories. It houses more than 150 million books, manuscripts, newspapers, magazines, prints, drawings, maps and other items, adding 3 million more every year. Its recent major exhibitions have included Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (2015) and Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths (2017). From October 2018 until last month it presented Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. It was a superb exhibition of varied artefacts, many beautifully crafted in clay or metal or jewels or hide with ink and paint and demonstrating yet again how inappropriate the term 'Dark Ages' is when applied to the early medieval period.

One of the many wonderful artefacts displayed in the British Library exhibition was the Lindisfarne Gospels, produced around 715-720 in the monastery at Lindisfarne and arguably the most spectacular manuscript to survive from Anglo-Saxon England.

We know that the scribe and artist of the Gospels and the texts that accompany them (eg the letters of St Jerome) was Eadfrith, 'bishop of the Church of Lindisfarne' from 698 to 722. He did this 'for God and St Cuthbert'. The work was bound and given its cover by Ethilwald, 'bishop of the Lindisfarne-islanders'. Billfrith 'the anchorite' added rich decoration to both the cover and the text, creating a case or binding of jewels and precious metals. These latter have gone, probably taken during the Viking raids on Holy Island.

We know about the creators of the Lindisfarne Gospels from an inscription written by Aldred, a monk of the late tenth century who was based at Chester-le-Street, near Durham. Aldred also added, in Old English, some annotations and a word-by-word 'translation' of the Latin text - the earliest such rendering of the Gospels in English.

The Lindisfarne Gospels fulfil an exceptional role in our cultural heritage: as a treasure for historians, theologians and anyone who appreciates beautiful things produced with consummate skill and craftsmanship. But how are we to understand the circumstances in which they were created 1,300 years ago, the motivations of Eadfrith and his colleagues and Aldred, the audience for which they were intended, the reasons why they have survived for us to study, wonder at and treasure? Our guide for this month's lecture on the Lindisfarne Gospels in Michelle Brown, Professor Emerita of Medieval Manuscript Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Professor Brown summarises her research interests and expertise as 'The role of the book as a cultural medium. The palaeography, codicology, art history and socio-historical context of medieval manuscripts. Late antique and early medieval history, archaeology and the material culture of Europe and the Levant. Art and spirituality, historic and contemporary'. It is our good fortune that she is coming to share with us some of her insights into an early medieval cultural landmark that continues to intrigue, fascinate and delight.

Mike Short