The Quest for Castleford's Chronicle

In 1327 in the north English town of Castleford, an aged knight, long retired to the cloister, put down his pen. He had just finished the final rhymed couplets of a 39,437-line chronicle of the history of Britain, from its founding by the Syrian princess Albina and her 32 shipwrecked sisters, to the imprisoning of the current English king, Edward II, in a castel,

Honurabelie þarin to duel.

Certes, in þe castel of Berkelaie,


old english letter

him twelf knightes night and daie.

drawing of king looking through telescope

"At least that's my theory about him, that he was trained as a knight," says Craig Bertolet. A graduate student in English and comparative literature, Bertolet is helping to edit the text known as Castleford's Chronicle for publication. He ticks off his proof. "The things that tend to be embellished from his sources are about arms and armor, types of siege engines, names of different parts of the castle walls ..."

The knight-chronicler's name was possibly Thomas of Castleford (it's written on the first page, although in a more modern hand than the rest of the manuscript).

Perhaps Thomas Bek, who is listed as a witness in a Castleford church document from 1269. But probably not, since "This Thomas Bek must have lived to be extremely old, by medieval standards, if he were an adult witness in 1269 and were also the author of a chronicle finished in 1327 or later," according to Caroline D. Eckhardt, head of the comparative literature department at Penn State and director of the Castleford project.

He was probably not a cleric. "There's no theology in Castleford's Chronicle," says Bertolet. "Everything is purely physical. A saint is born, performs miracles, and dies—not necessarily in that order."

dragon under “N”

He was not much of a poet. "You know he loves stories," says Bertolet, "and for that time, most stories would be told in verse. Like an epic, a chanson de geste. He must have conceived of this chronicle as a literary document"—as an entertainment, rather than a textbook, which might be written in prose—"because his verse vehicle is painfully bad. He's just not good at it. But he feels he must write in it. He's a good storyteller, but a dreadful poet. He rhymes things like bear and port, two words that God never intended to be rhymed in Middle English."

He probably worked alone. "There's no way we can say," says Bertolet. He grins. "But unless there were a company of really bad poets living in the north of England . . ."

Castleford's Chronicle exists in a single manuscript, now in a library in Gottingen, Germany. It is one of only seven chronicles written in English before 1600, and the fourth oldest of the lot. Its first published edition, the work of Eckhardt and some 20 of her graduate and undergraduate students, is "forthcoming" (a word Eckhardt uses with some hesitation) through the Early English Text Society.

Said Eckhardt, introducing Castleford's Chronicle to a graduate class on Middle English Literature, "It makes you appreciate Chaucer. The one thing Chaucer doesn't do is this —" She read a few lines of badly rhymed verse, the English harsh and guttural. The class laughed. "And yet," said Eckhardt, with a smile, "it also has a charm of its own."

Caroline Eckhardt had come to class carrying three ream-size boxes and a framed poster. The burden canted her small frame backward, but in no way impeded her characteristically brisk pace.

The basement room was hot, the 12 chairs around the table filled.

A medieval carol ("Gabriel fram haven-king," according to a note on the chalkboard) warbled from a boombox. The tune (said the note) was the same as that of the "angelus ad virginem" mentioned in the late 14th-century Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer.

A tin of Oreo cookies sat at the table's center.

Four more students came in as Eckhardt began her preamble, agreeing to extra time for term papers, passing around a comic strip that struck her as funny, passing around a new volume of medieval poetry.

She raised the framed poster. "This one I'm not going to pass around. It's a favorite physical object of mine."

hooded man on window sill “Castleford”

It was an enlarged photograph of a very unextraordinary medieval manuscript page. No gorgeous miniatures. No gold leaf. No half-human monsters cavorting in the margins. One large capital, an "M", midway down the first column, had at one time been red, and the first letter of each line had sported a red slash through it, but the red had faded to a ruddy brown, hardly more vibrant than the light-brown ink of the body of the text.

Eckhardt gazed at the page, the Merlin section from Castleford's Chronicle. "This brownish ink is totally familiar to me," she said, "as if it were the only normal color of ink."

She propped the poster up in the chalk-well of the board.

"I will pass around these three boxes worth of stuff. Those of you who did the paleography assignment will remember this as the manuscript you were asked to read, the one with that weird version of the Norman Conquest that turned into a story of family revenge, with William the Conqueror's sister Elaine getting a short haircut—" Eckhardt had assigned a few columns of Castleford's Chronicle for the manuscript-reading exercise, she had said earlier, so that the students, when they grew exasperated by the scribe's loops and curls and minims, couldn't go find a printed text in the library and crib the "right" answers. Nor could they guess what might be in the text: No other account of the Conquest, which is "among the very best documented historical episodes of English and Northern European history in the whole Middle Ages," she said, mentions this Elaine and her shameful treatment at the hands of England's Harold.

As the boxes circled the table, scattered "oohs" came from students surprised by their weight: They were full of black-and-white photographs of page after page of two-columned scrawl, 448 photos in all. Eckhardt nodded. "The reason for passing around all this has to do with the reality of the text. It's very long." She let the students linger, flip through the photos.

"It would be a neat topic for a bibliographic essay," she said lightly. "You'd be done in half an hour." Those students not engrossed in the odd pages laughed. "There's very little known about the author. There's only one manuscript. Virtually nothing has been written about it except a very brief mention in Wells' Manual, a German dissertation, an American dissertation of 1890, would you believe, and some unpublished conference papers.

"It's nearly 40,000 lines of nearly virginal Middle English verse. That doesn't happen much anymore. And until one of you finds an unknown manuscript, it won't happen again. There are no other long Middle English poems waiting to be edited."

A student held up a page: a complete gray smear.

Lisa Ruch, a doctoral student sitting to Eckhardt's left, gave a short laugh. "That's Albina," she said. Several of her classmates looked at her sharply; all knew she was doing her dissertation on the Albina legend.

"Can you read this?" one asked.

Eckhardt answered. "It was a very interesting project trying to dig it up with u-v light. V "It makes a really neat opening to this chronicle," she continued. "Albina and her sisters get packed up in a rudderless boat and sent off into the ocean." The story, in her telling, is snappy, matter-of-fact. They land on an island. Name it Albion after Albina. The Devil sees his opportunity. When Brutus arrives from Troy and renames the island Britain, he finds "there were giants in the land," the descendents of Albina and her sisters, and kills them.

"So patriarchy triumphs after all," Eckhardt concluded. "But the very presence of this opening gives primacy to Albina. Lisa's been working on it. There are up to 89 different medieval versions."

"Ninety-eight," Ruch interjected.

"It's popular literature," continued Eckhardt.

Eckhardt first became interested in Castleford's Chronicle in the late 1970s "because I was looking for something else," she told the interviewer for a local radio program sponsored by her department. She speaks softly, in a gently nasal monotone, each phrase oddly curled up at its end in a questioning flourish. Her speech patterns are distinctly medieval, great interweaving chains of thought linked with a simple "and."

"I was working on the tradition of Merlin prophecies," she said, "and how they were used politically in the 15th century, when people took them very seriously—in fact some of the political parties that were active at the time of the War of the Roses would make the claim that people should join up with their side because their leader had been prophesied by Merlin three or four hundred years earlier to be the next king of England—and I was looking at the connections between politics, history, and literature—prophetic literature—in that time period, and came across, periodically, references to chronicle material that I couldn't find. And this was one of the chronicles that would be referred to in passing in a footnote. And I could never run the thing down.

"At first I thought that I was just being careless in my library search.

"I would find little references to it, little descriptions of it, a paragraph about it in a handbook, and I could not find the published version, although it was said to be forthcoming as long ago as about 1890—always forthcoming and never having forthcome."

The interviewer laughed.

"I finally wrote a letter to someone in whose article I had found one of those footnotes—the article was from about 1940—and I got an answer back from him, a very personal letter. In fact the opening lines were an expression and an explosion of his own frustration at the situation- -"

From Angus McIntosh, University of Edinburgh, late 1979 (undated): "This manuscript seems doomed to non-publication and it is, as you say, worthy of a better fate."

Finding the manuscript had never been the problem: It was known to be at the University of Gottingen, languishing in the archives, unread and for practical purposes unreadable. But the printed version, with all the puzzles of handwriting and vocabulary neatly resolved, the version a Merlin scholar could thumb to check a few lines in the middle (they turned out to be lines xxxxx to xxxxx) seemed, as McIntosh said, "doomed." There was a handwritten transcript of the manuscript from the 19th century (a first step toward a printed edition) and a 47-page dissertation from 1890 (another step). McIntosh had been given this preliminary work by the Early English Text Society upon agreeing to complete an edition. Then came World War II. Returning from the war, McIntosh learned that a Swedish scholar, Frank Behre of the University of Göteborg, had begun working on Castleford and had published a section. McIntosh sent Behre his materials and asked the Early English Text Society to transfer their interest.

"Generous," said the radio interviewer.

"He went on to become a wonderfully productive scholar," said Eckhardt of McIntosh.

But the Castleford never came out. Behre, in Sweden, stopped answering McIntosh's letters.

Eckhardt, too, got no answer from Sweden. "I more or less gave up on the whole thing," she told the radio interviewer, "except it kept intriguing me." She finally received word from the University of Göteborg that Behre had died; the disposition of his papers was unknown. "Time went by ...

"And then there occurred one of those wonderful interventions of fate." Stanley Weintraub, a Penn State professor to whom Eckhardt had mentioned her quest, took a lecture tour to Göteborg in 1984 and was assigned a guide who knew the son of Professor Behre; Weintraub contacted the son and convinced him to write to Eckhardt.

A few months later, said Eckhardt, "I went to Sweden, tapped on the door of this house in Göteborg, feeling very peculiar because here I come, a total stranger, saying, 'Please let me see your father's papers.'" After two or three days rooting through boxes from the attic, she emerged disappointed. "It was clear to me that there was no edition that was anything like completed."

She returned by way of London, bringing two crates of material that had belonged to McIntosh: the 19th-century transcript (eight full notebooks), the 47-page dissertation, McIntosh's 5,000 glossary slips (each a yellowed 3x5" card scrawled, in McIntosh's own archaic script, with a single word and its possible definitions), a set of ultraviolet photographs of the damaged first page of the manuscript and McIntosh's transcript of it. McIntosh said he was "committed to other projects" and told Eckhardt to do whatever she wanted with Castleford.

Ever the medievalist, Eckhardt accepted her fate. She shipped the crates to Penn State, augmented them with a complete set of photographs and microfilms of the manuscript from Gottingen, and announced, in a 1986 conference paper, that an edition of Castleford's Chronicle was "forthcoming."

"One of my favorite lines," says Lisa Ruch, "is 'He smote him over the head with a mattress.'" She laughs. "Spelled matras. It turned out to be a kind of a broad axe."

Ruch and Bertolet spent much of the summer of 1993 working on the glossary for the edition's third volume, combing a 20-volume print-out of the computerized concordance of the Chronicle's 15,939 different words. To create the concordance, a list of every occurrence of each word, for a total of 253,346 entries, Eckhardt's students downloaded their transcript onto Penn State's mainframe computer. Then her colleague John Harwood, an associate professor of English, adapted a standard concordance program to handle the Chronicle's unusual letter forms (þ, which make the different "th" sounds, and

old english letter

, a gutteral "gh") and extraordinary length (longer than Dante's entire Divine Comedy, from Inferno to Purgatorio to Paradiso).

To Ruch and Bertolet fell the task of glossing the 300-or-so uncommon words. Those that appeared only once or twice, they suspected, had either been mis-transcribed or were truly of linguistic interest.

One of these was "erchon," which turned out to be "urchin": a hedgehog.

Another, "wok" (which is a form of "voke": arrogance) remained long undefined, despite their ransacking every published dictionary (English, Scots, Latin, French) and the assistance of the editors of the Middle English dictionary (still in progress) at the University of Michigan. "The meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary," wrote Eckhardt to her Michigan colleagues, "(a Chinese cooking pot, an oak, weak) do not fit at all."

"We laugh our heads off doing this," Ruch says. "It keeps us sane."

Ruch was an undergraduate when she first met Eckhardt. "I took a class on the legends of King Arthur, and she passed around a page of Castleford. She said, 'Can you read this? If so, you can work on the manuscript.'" Ruch pauses, remembering. "It was kind of like a puzzle," she muses. "It was Guinevere going off to the nunnery."

She started working on the Castleford project as a junior in 1987, transcribing text from the photographs of the manuscript, keying it into the computer, formatting it, proofreading. She went to Indiana University at Bloomington for a master's degree in English and wrote a paper on the Legend of Albina, which opens Castleford's and many other medieval chronicles. "I sent a copy to Dr. Eckhardt, and she said, 'This could be a dissertation.' So I came back to Penn State. I wanted to work with her." Ruch has applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) dissertation grant to support her work on "The British Foundation Legend of Albina and her Sisters: A Study of its Sources, Development, and Place in Medieval Literature."

"I have really good pattern recognition," she explains, when asked how, as an untrained undergraduate, she was able to make out the scribe's archaic hand. "I'll remember exactly where something is on a page, in the library. Dr. Eckhardt, seeing that, said to me, 'You'll be a medievalist.'" Ruch laughs. "I wanted to do 20th-century Spanish."

Craig Bertolet, on the other hand, always knew he wanted to be a medievalist. "I could recite the kings of England before I could recite the presidents," he says, grinning. "My mother would say I was always interested in the Middle Ages because my parents were middle-aged when they had me." He read Dante at 14 "because it looked cool," adding Chaucer and Malory before he left high school. He earned degrees in English and history at Millersville State University, "taking every medieval and Renaissance course they offered," then came to Penn State for graduate school. "One of my first professors here said there were no opportunities in medieval literature at Penn State. Two days later I had a class with Dr. Eckhardt, and she came in with her arms full of Castleford."

Bertolet joined the project in 1988; by 1989 he had been put in charge of the student researchers. "I organized meetings, checked copy, made sure the corrections were getting done. When I had several pages of corrected proofs, Dr. Eckhardt and I would sit at the computer and type changes in together, bickering and arguing all the time. I was more conservative than she was. But the more I got into it, the more she would respect my judgment. She would take advantage of my memory for names and dates. I would take advantage of her knowledge of the chronicle field, of other scholars working in it. When I couldn't find something out in the library, she always knew whom to call. We did a lot of e-mailing, a lot of networking at conferences. We're not lichens, but we worked very symbiotically."

Bertolet was supported by Eckhardt's NEH grant as a research assistant in 1991-92, and won his own NEH dissertation grant in 1993. Surprisingly, he is not writing on Castleford, but on "The Rise of London Literature: Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and the Poetics of the City in Late 14th-Century English Poetry." As he explains, "Every English department wants a Chaucerian. There's more demand than for a Chronicler."

Both he and Ruch intend to be, like Eckhardt, university professors specializing in medieval languages and literatures.

"What's the profit in this sort of research?" the radio interviewer had asked.

Eckhardt began slowly, as if the word "profit" might in these hands be a weapon. "You need to assume a certain attitude toward the past," she said, "you need to assume that it is good to find things from the past and to bring them to visibility. And once you make that assumption—for me, because I am a medievalist, it is second nature—this project will offer a whole variety of things."

For one, she explained, the chronicle shows an unusual interest in the status of women.

"There are multiple images of women, and what you might say is that there's a very modern perception that the characters of women and the actions and motivations of women are as variable as those of men. The chronicle focuses on male behavior, but insofar as it also depicts women it shows that their range of behavior is comparable to that of men. In that sense, it is undoing the stereotype that the Middle Ages always saw women as either Mary or Eve."

The Albina legend, which Ruch is analyzing for her doctoral dissertation, and the Chronicle's unusual version of the Norman Conquest, on which Bertolet wrote his master's paper (see sidebars), are two of several examples of Castleford's odd interest in women. A third is his story of King Lear.

Eckhardt chose this section of the edition-in-progress for her graduate class to discuss. "What surprised you?" she began. She nodded to one of the students filling the hot basement room.

"Lear came back. Cordelia survived," he offered, puzzled. "I guess we're all post- Shakespeareans," he added. "We're all expecting a tragedy, and this is a happy ending."

"Yes," said Eckardt. "You come to the end and— Oops!" The students laughed. "You have to reread it." She paused, then explained. "This chronicle Lear has been around since the 12th century, since Geoffrey of Monmouth. Shakespeare doesn't so much change the ending, as collapse it. He skips Cordelia's five years of rule and makes the story into a tragedy."

A second student interjected. "The 18th-century version is happy again."

"Yes! Yes! The ending of this thing oscillates." Eckhardt glanced around the room, said suggestively, "Somebody could look at what sustains this version up to the 16th century, then makes the tragic version acceptable."

An older student sitting against the wall raised his hand. "There's a suggestion that after Cordelia things kind of fall apart. Even though it is a happy ending, the thing I took from it was the suggestion of an unhappy ending."

Eckhardt answered quietly, carefully. "I think you may have misread one word. Will you get out your texts?" The students flipped through the print-outs Eckhardt had provided from the Castleford computer bank, while over the rustling she read, in her ever-questioning voice,

And Cordoil dueld in Brittaine styll, All þe contres yiolden to her wyll, Fully fyfe yier þe regne to weld— Vnto her cosynes come of aeld, Ryse agaynes her þan þai begane, And þe kyngdome sua of her wane.

"You've picked up the warning note," she continued, drawing out the words, lingering, as if expecting the student to interrupt her, "but you've translated wane as 'wane' and it's really 'won,' as in 'winning.'" Her delivery turned crisp again. "You have to watch the vowels in this northern dialect. 'And Cordelia dwelled in Britain still,'" she translated, "All the country yielded to her will, Fully five years the reign to wield— Until her cousins came of age, To rise against her then they began, And the kingdom so of her won."

A student interjected, "While we're talking about looking at lines carefully, could we look at what Cordelia tells her father?"

Eckhardt nodded vigorously and called for volunteers to read, their neighbors to the left to translate. "We're at line 3387," she said, "Scho sayd to hym—"

She nodded at the first volunteer, the post-Shakespearean student, who fairly fluently read some 14 lines of the Middle English, clear in this modern typeface, all its abbreviations filled in.

"Good!" said Eckhardt. "I don't know if she's scared, or she's saying, 'Oh for Pete's sake, Daddy!' There've been comments over e-mail from some of you this week about whether or not there are touches of comedy here. Larry? We've given you some time to figure out what this means." She turned to the student on the reader's left, who translated quickly but not especially accurately; she broke in. "She says, 'It's simply unnatural, Pops, to love another before yourself.'"

She looked up, scanned the room. "If you ever hear someone say again that no one discovered the self before the Renaissance," she said in a low voice, "I hope you'll paste them up on the wall. Figuratively speaking, of course." She nodded at the second volunteer. "Line 3401."

This student read more haltingly than the first; the translation was even more broken.

"Can someone smooth that out?" Eckhardt asked. "Philip? Was that a wave? No? Just scratching your ear? That's dangerous around here." She smiled, but her eyes still worked the room. "This is a northern dialect, probably a little earlier than Chaucer . . ." Abruptly she gave up, translated, "'It really doesn't work to love another more than yourself. All other loves are transitory. And anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to hide something.' Okay, 3411?"

The third student read with a somewhat Spanish inflection, as if trying to smooth over the guttural forms on the page. But the verse would not bend that way. The meter—already irregular—broke down, caught the student's tongue, and she reached the end of her section with obvious relief.

Eckhardt nodded sympathetically. "She's a little longwinded," she said, meaning Cordelia. "In fact, this whole chronicle is a little longwinded. And you don't know whether to glorify that by calling it anaphora—those of you teaching rhetoric know what that means—or just to call it repetitious."

A last reader's pronunciation, more guttural, sounded more fluent; the last translator, however, stumbled through only a few lines before giving up and pleading, "I don't know what that last bit means."

"Ending þowe sett," Eckhardt read in a querulous tone. "'Put an end to your asking, Dad, this is stupid.'" The students laughed.

"Now you know what she says," she turned to the student who, some 20 minutes ago, had asked the original question about Cordelia's speech. "What was your question? Are you looking for the salt? 'I love you as much as meat needs salt'? It's there in Shakespeare, that more pragmatic image, but not here."

Caroline D. Eckhardt, Ph.D., is professor of English and comparative literature and head of the comparative literature department, N433 Burrowes Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814- 863-0589. Her research on Castleford's Chronicle has been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society, and the Deutsche Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD).

Craig Bertolet is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in comparative literature; he has received funding from NEH and the University. Lisa Ruch, a doctoral candidate in comparative literature, was a Custard Fellow in Comparative Literature and has been supported by NEH funds. Other graduate students working on the project include Hayley Charney and Pat Nickinson. All four students have also held assistantships and taught undergraduate courses in comparative literature. Among undergraduates working on the project, Bryan Meer, a world literature major, received an NEH younger scholars grant for his research.

Castleford's Chronicle will be published in 1995 by Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society.

Last Updated June 01, 1994