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Introduction: ‘The Watlyng Street Circuit and the Field of Classicist Letters’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2016

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Summary

Walsingham's historiographical writings are valued widely for their description of major events like the Rising of 1381 and for their opinion about the enigmatic character of Richard II. In sum, as James Clark has written, Walsingham's ‘narratives are the staple source for more than forty years of English history’. Walsingham's apparent partisanship toward the Lancastrian regime has been especially influential, with many scholars adopting the chronicler's interpretation that Richard II slid into ‘tyranny’ in the later years of his reign and thus deserved to be deposed. In one of his more infamous charges, widely cited by scholars, Walsingham said that the king's men were ‘knights of Venus rather than of Mars, showing more prowess in the bedroom than on the field of battle’ (‘milites plures erant Veneris quam Bellone, plus ualentes in thalamo quam in campo’). Fundamentally overlooked, however, in this passage as well as in his writing more generally, is Walsingham's long and deep engagement with classical literature as a political vocabulary, an interpretative engine he shared to a profound degree with several other major writers of the late fourteenth century, including Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. As this study will show through an examination of his classicism, Walsingham's politics are considerably more nuanced than has been assumed.

Between 1380 and 1394, while precentor and head of the scriptorium at St Albans, Walsingham wrote a number of significant classicist compositions that have attracted scant attention from historians and literary scholars alike: hiding in plain sight, these texts include the Prohemia poetarum, which is an accessus ad auctores, or ‘introduction to the authors’, comprising some twentynine excerpts, with commentary, from classical and medieval writers; the Historia Alexandri magni principis, a life of Alexander the Great modeled in part on the popular Historia de praeliis romance; the Archana deorum, a complete summary of and commentary on Ovid's Metamorphoses that is often indebted to Alberic of London's mythography; and the Ditis ditatus, which is a version of the Ephemeris belli Troiani attributed to Dictys Cretensis.

Of Walsingham's four major literary texts, only Archana deorum has been edited for publication. The Ditis ditatus has been edited as a doctoral dissertation; two other doctoral dissertations treat the Prohemia poetarum, while the Alexander remains wholly unedited.

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The Classicist Writings of Thomas Walsingham
`Worldly Cares' at St Albans Abbey in the Fourteenth Century
, pp. 1 - 16
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2016

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