Helen Cooper

Helen Cooper is a professor of English at Cambridge, and the author of The English Romance in Time.

Some 25 years after Alsace had been returned to France at the end of the Second World War, I took an opportunity to work there for a few months, in the belief that it would improve my French. A few bare facts about the contested history of the region had stayed with me from school history lessons, but they couldn’t have prepared me for what I walked into. The mix of languages was the...

John Skelton should be one of the great figures of English poetry. He is widely regarded as the most significant poet in the 130 years between the death of Chaucer and the flourishing of Thomas Wyatt; but it has to be said that the competition for the top ranking south of the Scottish border is not very fierce, and until the 1930s such a judgment would have struck most people as bizarre. His...

“The Pastons were minor Norfolk gentry who were doing their best to rise in the world. They would be no more distinctive than scores of other comparable 15th-century families were it not for their habit of preserving the letters they wrote: letters that constitute the period’s most comprehensive archive of private papers, and for many years the only one known. They were discovered in the jumble of documents left by the impoverished second Earl of Yarmouth, himself a Paston, in 1735. When they were published fifty years later, the edition sold out within a week. Since then, and despite the discovery of other collections, they have made their writers the most intimately known family of the English Middle Ages. The lives of kings and princes may be more celebrated, and we may have far more records relating to the major aristocratic families, but the Paston letters supply individual voices. The correspondence extends over four generations of both men and women – indeed, her letters make Margaret Paston, wife of John Paston I, one of the most prolific woman writers in Middle English.”

‘Yes, yes, Mr Burne-Jones,’ Benjamin Jowett is reputed to have said as he inspected the artist’s newly completed Arthurian murals in the Oxford Union, ‘but what does one do with the Grail once one has found it?’ This sounds almost as much the definitive question as the Grail was the definitive quest, but Jowett’s objection is more radically misconceived...

In 1644, the Puritan cleric John Shaw journeyed up to Westmorland to instruct the local people, who, he had been told, were sadly lacking in knowledge of the Bible. The need was confirmed when he interrogated an old man whose long life in the wake of the Reformation seemed to have left him entirely ignorant of all matters theological and ecclesiastical. When pressed as to whether he knew...

M for Merlin: Chrétien de Troyes

Helen Cooper, 25 November 1999

In these lines we are introduced to the hero of Chrétien de Troyes’s last romance, written late in the 12th century. He is a youth brought up in the forest, without any knowledge of his high lineage, knighthood, the basic rules of polite behaviour, or his own name. It is so common in romances, as in fairy tales, to have the characters defined only by their status or their attributes, that the anonymity does not worry us; it feels like an intrusion into the story to attach a name to either the princess or the frog. But Chrétien’s withholding of the names of his heroes is both intentional and strategic, and if there is any quibble to be had with this newly completed set of translations by Burton Raffel, it is that he announces the hero’s name so large and loudly on the title pages. It’s all right for two of the romances, Erec and Enide and Cligès; but elsewhere, it’s not how Chrétien works.

This is the story of a goatherd who progressed through destitution and self-education to become the printer of the first edition of Calvin’s greatest work and one of the most respected teachers in Reformation Switzerland. It is also the story of his son, who trained as a doctor, fostered a household of four children, and died leaving 42 musical instruments, a set of skeletons and other bones of creatures from mouse to mammoth (he believed the latter to have belonged to a huge man), a tulip garden, artefacts from across the whole of the newly-discovered globe, stuffed crocodiles and a live elk that doubled as a lawnmower.

Through the Gullet: Medieval recipes

Helen Cooper, 16 April 1998

During the Christmas celebrations of 1251, Henry III and his court ate their way through 830 deer of various kinds, 200 wild swine, 1300 hares and 115 cranes. Basic supplies for the feast to mark the installation of George Neville as Archbishop of York in 1467 began with 104 oxen, 1000 sheep, 10,000 capons and six wild bulls, washed down with a hundred barrels of wine. These occasions were meant to demonstrate munificence such as humbler kitchens could not imitate; but humbler kitchens did their best. The Parisian householder who set down a series of sample menus for the instruction of his wife in the 1390s suggests as a ‘dinner for a meat day’ 31 dishes divided into six courses, among them veal pasties, black puddings, hare casseroled with nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon, roast rabbits, capons, partridges and carp, eels served inside-out, savoury rice, lark pasties and flans of chopped meat or fish well sprinkled with sugar. The final course consisted of fruit, sweets, nuts and spiced wine. Menus for suppers follow.‘


What about Edith?

7 October 2010

Colin Galloway points out, as an example of an English king who married someone other than a woman from France ‘or one or other of those not quite so French areas such as Flanders’, that Henry I married Edith, daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland (Letters, 21 October). So he did, just as Edward I married Eleanor of Castile, or Richard II Anne of Bohemia. But all of them also married women...

Pursued by Bearists

2 December 2004

In so far as real bears were available in Henslowe’s bear-garden, live bears could have appeared in The Winter’s Tale and Mucedorus, as Anne Barton (LRB, 2 December 2004) and other bearists have argued: it does not follow that they did. Teresa Grant, who uncovered the origin of the polar bears that Henslowe curated for King James from 1611 onwards, claimed that her discovery did indeed...

In George Peele’s Elizabethan play The Old Wives’ Tale, a character called Jack interrogates the ‘wandering knight’ Eumenides: ‘Are you not the man, sir (deny it if...

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