How to Slay a Dragon (and Reach a Public Audience)

If you ever fall asleep and wake up in a strange fantasy world, there is no reason to panic. Even if you have never rolled a d20 or published an article on Tolkien, you probably know you will be meeting your traveling party at an inn, dealing with a dragon or two, and feasting like it’s 1480 and you plan to commission a 124-folio illuminated manuscript account of your wedding that will also be printed for distribution to a wide public readership. [1] You know these things because a facsimile of the Middle Ages has been host to wizards, jinn, and paladins since Lord of Rings, since Gothic fiction, since 1000 Nights became 1001. And now you can know that medieval history holds all the answers you need to survive and triumph in a five-volume fantasy trilogy.

At least, this is the premise of my new book, How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages (Tiller Press, 2001). It is a handbook for heroes that uses fantasy tropes as allegory to teach medieval history–and a little bit about critical interpretation of sources along the way. Throughout the book, you take on the role of an illiterate peasant (a Chosen One?) called to a quest (slaying a dragon, saving the princess, figuring out what to do while the princess saves herself), and every chapter presents a common trope–the more magical, the better–as a problem to solve.

Befriending the Enchanted Forest might not be possible because enchanted forests do not exist, but Muslim and Christian rulers alike showed off their power and riches with silver forests filled with golden chirping automatons. Medieval patterns of evangelization and conversion demonstrate the exact opposite of Bringing the Old Gods Back, but the Sphinx guarded the desert outside the Fatimid capital, and Abu Ja’far al-Idrisi (d. 1251) wanted to know why. (Caliphs were more interested in staging races up the Great Pyramid and throwing torchlit parties at Giza.) If you have ever needed to survive some shrieking eels or use linguistic evidence to reconstruct Early English beacon warning systems, How to Slay a Dragon is the book for you.

From the standpoint of writing the book, on the other hand, one of the big advantages of working with an editor and sales team at a major publishing house was to see what did and did not appeal to them along the way. The ideas seem basic, especially from a classroom point of view, but the publishers’ explicit acknowledgment of them suggests both their necessity and a feeling that they are lacking in the overall public discourse on the Middle Ages.

The “medieval world”

It was vital to me to write about a “medieval world,” not just the western Europe that underlies traditional fantasy (or as I like to put it, A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to Fifteenth-Century Germany and Tenth-Century Cairo). What “medieval world” does and should mean in scholarship is constantly in flux, but I ultimately settled on a spiderweb approach: the economic and cultural networks that criss-crossed the world around the Mediterranean, with branches stretching out to the Sámi, Mali, Sumatra. My editor was thrilled that this approach acted as a counterpoint to narratives of the mythic white Middle Ages, and suggested that the push to diversify the fantasy genre has made average readers hungrier for a historical accuracy hunt in the medieval Islamic world as well.

Analyzing primary sources

Although most of the 1000-1500 word chapters bring together information from three to eight secondary sources and the occasional primary, several chapters zoom in on one or two primary sources, for example, John of Morigny’s Liber florum (“How to train a wizard”) and Bertrandon de la Brocquière’s Le Voyage de Outre-Mer (“How to cross the barren wastes”). [2] My editor thought readers would respond really well to my method of talking the reader through the source bit by bit, gradually revealing its own genre elements and how we should not take primary sources at face value.

Being specific about time, place, and origin

Because How to Slay a Dragon is essentially Medieval Studies 101 using a fantasy epic instead of a timeline as its narrative, I tried to be very specific about the time and place of every anecdote, event, or text. I was surprised at how strongly my editor stressed this point as well. But even more, she insisted that I include background information about primary sources. Once again, I think it’s a good lesson that people are hungry for firsthand access to actual medieval writing and material objects, but also to know how to understand them.

You, the hero

Throughout the process, the strength of the book’s quest through-narrative was the biggest point of contention between my editor and me. My original vision was to use the tropes as an excuse to talk about the “cool parts” of medieval history (need to cross a cursed swamp? Let me tell you about bathhouse ghosts and London’s public toilets). But the marketing team in particular pointed to the self-insert, immersive aspect of fantasy gaming (computer and tabletop) and even fanfiction, not just reading, in terms of how people engage medievalist fantasy. After all, as Tolkien himself pointed out in “On Fairy-Stories,” part of the eternal appeal of fantasy is the escape into another world–your escape.

Although the first three points are foundational to how I, a medieval historian, approach the Middle Ages, I find it significant that my editor and marketing team believe so strongly in their place in books aimed at a popular audience. And if you are interested, of course, I invite you to see an example of how they can play out in How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages.

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] The text and its illuminations are translated in Jane Bridgeman, The Celebrations at Pesaro for the Marriage of Costanzo Sforza & Camilla Marzano d’Aragona (26 – 30 May 1475) (Brepols, 2013).

[2] Claire Fanger and Nicholas Watson (eds.), John of Morigny: Liber florum celestis doctrine / The Flowers of Heavenly Teaching: An Edition and Commentary (Brepols, 2016); C. H. Schefer (ed.), Le Voyage d’outremer de Bertrandon de la Broquière (Ernest Leroux, 1892).

The Bible, or Reading the Bible? The Authority of Lay Religious Teachers in Fifteenth-Century Germany

In his 1479 printed Beichtspiegel (Mirror for Confession), lay barber and Meistersinger Han Folz of Nuremberg used rhyming verse to teach his readers about the triangle of rew, beicht, buß (contrition, confession, penance); the dangers of purgatory; and above all, the seemingly endless numerical lists of vices and virtues that so characterized fifteenth-century religious literature. [1] There was no need to limit oneself to the seven deadly sins and seven cardinal virtues when there were also four sins that cry to heaven (one of which is, however, the silent sin), six sins against the Holy Spirit, and nine alien sins.

By 1479, a wealthy, prominent, and educated burgher like Folz evidently had little to fear from widely disseminating orthodox religious writing in the vernacular to instruct other laity. Indeed, while he printed the original Beichtspiegel himself, the text was later printed in an anthology alongside didactic literature by clerical authors. Nevertheless, the lack of authority of office led him to ground his authority throughout the Beichtspiegel via textual citation. More specifically, via a single type of citation. Folz cites “Levitici am vierundzweinzigisten capitel” (Leviticus 24); he cites “quarto Regum quinto” (4 Kings 5); he cites “Luce sedecimo” (Luke 16). [2] Throughout the entire Beichtspiegel, almost all of his citations take the same form, and without exception they come from the same source: the Bible.

Initial of the book of Genesis in the Wenceslas Bible (also known as the Bible of Wenceslaus IV); Vienna, Austrian National Library, Codex 2759–64 (1389 CE).

It was not for lack of knowledge of other religious texts. Folz’s Latin was good enough for him to accomplish two different translations of the Life of Adam and Eve, and his immense corpus of surviving poetry, songs, and Carnival plays reveals an extensive familiarity with the more theoretical or theological ideas that lay beneath the “mass market” Christianity of his day. [3] Furthermore, in his medical texts, Folz shows he understands the utility of citing earlier authorities through his references to Galen, Avicenna—and Augustine. [4] In the Beichtspiegel, his decision to rely solely on the Word of God as authority was indeed a decision.

Das wort gottes could be rallying cry of the Reformation because the late Middle Ages got there first. The Bible’s position as the focus of lay arguments in favor of the early Protestant movement, we have long known, was rooted in its already-existing popularity in lay religious life, not its absence. [5] In addition to the enormous amount of [[vernacular biblical material available to lay readers]], pastoral care manuals and priests’ prefaces to Bible translations emphasized the need to make scripture accessible to the laity.

Sandra Corbellini has noted a second important emphasis in pastoral texts encouraging lay Bible use: the act of reading scripture—independent of the specific contents—as an act of peri-mystical devotion reminiscent of monastic meditatio. One of the fifteenth century’s most influential preachers, Bernardino of Siena, preached that “the more you read and study [the Bible], the more sweetness you get, the more you feel the taste of God. If you try it, you will know; otherwise not.” [6]

No matter how rhythmic Folz’s verse (not really at all) or how perfect his rhymes (very imperfect), it is undeniable that his rote lists of sins and virtues put one in the mindset of learning facts, not the prayerful devotion Bernardino suggests. However, popular teaching’s legitimization of the act of reading scripture from the act of learning from reading scripture had its parallel at the more learned level, too.

Ian Christopher Levy’s aptly named Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages shows how the theological debates of the turbulent period between 1370 and 1430 so often turned on the question of who had the authority to determine what constituted a correct—therefore authoritative—interpretation of scripture.[7] The act of correct reading, separate from the interpretation itself, was important enough to be its own flashpoint for debate and worse. The act of reading was inseparable from the determination of authority.

The opening of the Ottheinrich Bible, the earliest surviving illustrated manuscript of the New Testament in the German language, commissioned by Ludwig VII, Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt; Munich, Bavarian State Library, Cgm 8010, p.2 (c. 1430 CE).

In that light, the specific method by which Folz cites the Bible merits attention. With the exception of a couple of places where Folz refers briefly to a Bible story to illustrate his point, all biblical references take the same full form: book and chapter. (Verses were not regularly numbered and used until far later.) His citations are purposeful citations of the Bible as a book, not just a text.

Folz, moreover, is not the only fifteenth-century German layman to seek this association. 1460s-era lay apocalyptic prophets Livin and Johannes Wirsberger of Egerland were exquisitely aware of the precariousness of their position, given the dark fears of the devil corrupting ignorant lay people into proclaiming false prophecies. Their few surviving letters feature insistent deferrals to the Church as the ultimate judge of true and false messages, but also their authority to write anyway. [8] One favorite tactic? The citation of scripture by book and chapter.

Folz and to some extent the Wirsbergers direct their readers’ attention to the Bible as a book—inseparable from directing readers’ attention to the authors’ familiarity with the Bible as a book. They seem to signal not just their religious knowledge, but the fact that they are able to access it through reading the Bible.

The possibility that religious authority could lie in the act of reading scripture raises questions about the relationship of laity and clergy, and just as importantly, public perception of “clergy” and/versus “lay” in the realm of popular, vernacular religious teaching. In an era filled with das wort gottes and significantly increasing urban literacy rates, further investigation will hopefully help illuminate intersections between contemporary religious culture, benefit of clergy, and—yes—a priesthood of quite a few additional believers.

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] Hans Folz, “Beichtspiegel,” in Hans Folz: Die Reimpaarsprüche, ed. Hanns Fischer (Beck, 1961), 188-210.

[2] Folz, 195 (4 Kings 5); 202 (Leviticus 24);204 (Luke 16).

[3] See, for example, John D. Martin, “Dramatized Disputations: Late Medieval German Dramatizations of Jewish-Christian Religious Disputations, Church Policy, and Local Social Climates,” Medieval Encounters 8, no. 2–3 (2002): 209–27.

[4] Folz, “Pestregimen in Versen,” in Fischer, 412-428; “Pestregimen in Prosa,” in Fischer, 429-437.

[5] Although research on the use of the Bible in German-speaking lands has generally lagged behind studies in other regions, Anthony Gow’s work offers an excellent introduction to the medieval situation as well as briefly touching on earlier scholarly efforts: Gow, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm: Bible Reading in Lay and Urban Contexts of the Later Middle Ages,” in Scripture and Pluralism: Reading the Bible in the Religiously Plural Worlds of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Thomas J. Heffernan and Thomas E. Burman (Brill, 2005), 161-191.

[6] Translated in Sandra Corbellini, “Instructing the Soul, Feeding the Spirit, and Awakening the Passion: Holy Writ and Lay Readers in Late Medieval Europe,” in Shaping the Bible in the Reformation: Books, Scholars, and their Readers in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Bruce Gordon and Matthew McLean (Brill, 2012), 24.

[7] Ian Christopher Levy, Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), xi.

[8] Frances Courtney Kneupper, The Empire at the End of Time: Identity and Reform in Late Medieval German Prophecy (Oxford, 2016), 115, translates: “Thus should you act justly in your reason and take to heart what the lords Matthew in 23, Mark 13, and Luke 21 all say.”

The Book of Margery Kempe and Its Vision

Altarpiece: Scenes from the Life of St. Catherine of Alexandria, Germany (Swabia) c. 1430-1450.

Margery Kempe, the protagonist of the Book of Margery Kempe, did not like to talk about her visions, as my previous blog discusses.

The Book is not shy about her reasons. Acting but not telling her audiences in church or on pilgrimage creates the persecution on behalf of Christ she so desires. She explains her innermost visions to high clergy in order to seek their confirmation that her revelations do come from God.

Recent research has added demonstrated an additional theological dimension. Kempe’s externalization of her special piety and concealment of her true gifts are a saintly imitatio (or hagiographical tropes), but not of contemporary saints she admires like Birgitta of Sweden. Instead, she crafts a life following the romance template of the early Church virgin martyrs, whose legends were wildly popular in the fifteenth century. [1] These saints have intimate encounters with Christ that remain their secret, but display their Christian heroism by enduring persecution and death for their faith.

Some scholars have argued that the result is a unique theology of time. Kempe essentially lives the legendary past in the present, collapsing chronological eras into a single sacred time. However, her fifteenth-century contemporaries fail to recognize her imitatio and scorn her for her behaviors. Thus, the distance between the era of the virgin martyrs and fifteenth-century England also causes the (very partial) ostracization that allows Kempe to recapitulate St. Katherine and St. Cecilia. She inhabits a collapsed past-present that demonstrates and criticizes the “historical specificity” of both women’s holiness and religious authority. [2]

Despite her imitatio of saints who kept their secrets, however, Kempe did indeed talk about her visions. She shared her “high contemplations” with a series of priests, bishops, and men who would become her confessor—in many cases, people she barely knew and would never see again. The Book also portrays her describing her visions to her scribes, one of whom was her son. Nor are her disclosures merely a matter of compliance with discretio spirituum, that is, the need to seek authentication of the divine origin of visions from a Church authority. Concealing her visions from the general public, Kempe has little need to seek legitimization for her own safety or public sanctity. From a hagiographical perspective, too, the succession of Church officials unfamiliar with her instead of a longtime confessor is more reminiscent of Marguerite Porete’s failed attempt to insulate herself from heresy charges than of late medieval holy women.

A pilgrim woman from Robinet Testard’s ‘Le roman de la rose’ in Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 195, f.86v (15th century).

Kempe’s concealing and revealing of her visions are a case study for common patterns of self-disclosure. [3] People make decisions about divulging personal information by balancing the reward (human connection) with risk (loss of control over public identity). Thus, we share our most private information with the people closest to us, with whom we seek ever-closer ties and whom we trust the most not to misunderstand or repeat the information. We also share more personal details with people we barely know, because we have to build a relationship from the ground up, and there is little chance of a repeated interaction being affected.

Thus, her imitatio—her sanctity—anchors Kempe-the-protagonist even more fully in the social web of the present, rather than making her a “woman out of time.” Equally or perhaps more importantly, it allows Kempe-the-author to anchor the Book more firmly in the demands of fifteenth-century devotion.

Kempe’s repeated disclosure of her visions to numerous clergy does not simply authenticate her visions. Rather, it draws the reader’s attention to their presence in Kempe’s life and in the Book again and again. Like its protagonist’s desire to live the past in the present, the lavish descriptions of her visions and the repeated references to them allow the Book to have it both ways, as it were. On one hand, it can tell the story of its non-virgin, unmartyred virgin martyr: a (semi) pariah in the world, who is sustained by her hidden intimacy with Christ. On the other, the visions and dialogues mirror the format of much fifteenth-century devotional and didactic literature. The visionary discourse highlights the Book as a text that teaches its audience rather than defending its subject.

In this light, the “stereotypical” nature of Kempe’s visions and the apparent failure of the Book as hagiography can be seen as both purposeful and successful. Kempe’s externalized piety is, frankly, more interesting to most modern readers than yet another mystical marriage. [4] Thus, we are also more interested in the Book’s goals with respect to Kempe herself: justification of her earlier actions, perhaps, or a full-blown hagiography aimed at jump-starting a public cult after her death. [5]

The bibliographic evidence tells a different story for medieval readers. Kempe the author earned the unusual distinction among women mystical writers of having her work published in the early decades of print. Printer Wynkyn de Worde’s “A shorte treatyse of contemplacyon…taken out of the boke of margerie kempe of lynn” trims down the Book almost exclusively to Christ’s monologues to Kempe. [6] This can be seen as a failure of Kempe the protagonist to establish herself as a person and as a saint, to the extent of emphasizing what she tried to conceal. [7]

It is that effort to conceal, however, that allows the Book to do the opposite: draw Kempe’s visions into the foreground. It isn’t ironic that Margery Kempe and her Book became famous at the end of the Middle Ages for her hidden visions rather than the life she lived. Instead, it is exactly what Kempe the protagonist and Kempe the author wanted.

[1] Sarah Salih, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England (Brewer, 2001), 166-169.

[2] Catherine Sanok, Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints’ Lives in Late Medieval England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 122-26.

[3] See, for example, W. B. Pearce and S. M. Sharp, “Self-Disclosing Communication,” Journal of Communication 23: 409-25.

[4] Karma Lochrie, Vickie Larsen, and Mary-Katherine Curnow, for example, have even argued for the comedic possibilities of Kempe the protagonist and of the Book itself: Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991); Larsen and Curnow, “Hagiographic Ambition, Fabliau Humor, and Creature Comforts in The Book of Margery Kempe,” Exemplaria 25, no. 4 (2013): 284-302.

[5] Katherine J. Lewis, “Margery Kempe and Saint Making in Later Medieval England,” in A Companion to The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Lewis and John H. Arnold (D.S. Brewer, 2004), 195-215.

[6] The text of Shorte Treatyse can be found in The Book of Margery Kempe: The Text from the Unique MS Owned by Colonel W. Butler-Bowdon, Vol. 1, ed. Sanford Brown Meech with Hope Emily Allen (Oxford University Press, 1940), 353-57.

[7] See, for example, Lewis, 215; Anthony Goodman, “Margery Kempe,” in Medieval Holy Women in the Christian Tradition, c.1100-c.1500, ed. Alastair Minnis and Rosalynn Voaden (Brepols, 2010), 226.