Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Romance of the Middle Ages

As today is National Libraries Day ( go on, hug a librarian...) it seems an appropriate one on which to publicise the new exhibition at the Bodleian here in Oxford, which I have not so far visited.

The Romance of the Middle Ages celebrates the stories of medieval romance and how they have influenced our culture, literature and art over the last thousand years. It includes the dramatic love stories about King Arthur and Tristan and Isolde as they are illustrated in sumptuous medieval manuscripts, alongside works of art and draft papers by J.R.R. Tolkien, Philip Pullman and Monty Python, the last on public display for first time.

Romance of the Middle Ages poster

The exhibition draws on the Bodleian’s outstanding collection of manuscripts and early printed books containing medieval romances. These range from lavishly-illustrated volumes to personal notebooks and fragments only saved by chance. Alongside these will be works of art from across Europe that illustrate romance legends; these include ivory carvings, jewellery and caskets, on loan from national museums and collections.

Romance writing developed in Britain after the Norman Conquest and flourished as a form of storytelling right through to the Middle Ages, forming the basis for many kinds of later drama, poetry and prose fiction. This colourful exhibition tells how these compelling medieval stories have inspired writers and artists across the centuries; from the early modern period (including Shakespeare, Ariosto and Cervantes) through to medievalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (including Walter Scott, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris) and, finally, to contemporary versions and adaptations (including manuscripts and drafts by J.R.R. Tolkien, Philip Pullman and the Monty Python team). From the Knights of the Round Table to the Knights that say ‘Ni!’, The Romance of the Middle Ages exhibition tells the fascinating story of medieval romance across the ages.

Highlights of the exhibition include:
  • The Song of Roland – the earliest copy of France’s national epic (mid-12th century)
  • Exquisite ivory carvings from France (14th century)
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – One of the most precious manuscripts of Middle English poetry. On loan from the British Library (c.1400)
  • The Red Book of Hergest – amongst the most important books written in Welsh, containing The Mabinogion and many other texts, on loan from Jesus College, Oxford (c.1400)
  • William Caxton’s The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye – a copy of the first book ever printed in the English language (1473/4)
  • A draft illustrated page from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1946)
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail – Terry Jones’s own working copy of the screenplay for the film, never shown to the public before (1973)

An online exhibition (http://medievalromance.bodleian.ox.ac.uk) with the same title was launched on 29 January. It features nearly all the items on display in the exhibition room, along with many additional items. A 12-min video with the curator of the exhibition and scholars from the University of Oxford introducing the exhibition and the ideas behind it is also available. Twitter hashtag is #BODromance

Events accompanying the exhibition include lunchtime talks, special school activities and a show A Love Like Salt inspired by the exhibition to be held in the Divinity School, Bodleian Library on 20 April.

The companion volume of the same title, The Romance of the Middle Ages by Nicholas Perkins and Alison Wiggins is published by Bodleian Library Publishing and can be purchased in the Bodleian Shop or online at www.bodleianbookshop.co.uk Paperback, 152 pp, 70 colour illustrations, ISBN: 9781851242955I, £19.99

The exhibition is free and is located in the Schools Quad of the Old Bodleian. It is open Monday to Friday 9-5, Saturdays 9-4.30 and Sundays 11-5. It will be closed on Easter Day.

Adapted from the Bodleian website

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