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About the Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies

Sasmars aims to promote scholarly interest and research in Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Southern Africa and further afield. Its biennial conferences provide a forum for academics and senior students to present their work in congenial surroundings. The Society's journal, The Southern African Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, is a peer-reviewed publication which is accredited for South African research subsidy purposes. The SASMARS Newsletter has grown beyond our wildest expectations and has attracted the attention of scholars from all over the world. As a result, our 20th biennial conference in 2010 attracted the largest group of international delegates ever and served to forge important links between international scholars and their Southern African counterparts.

It has become a tradition to invite the keynote speakers at our conferences to become Corresponding Fellows of the Society and we are proud to acknowledge the following in that capacity:

Professors Jerry Brotton, Gordon Campbell, Sheila Delany, Roberta Frank, Helen Fulton, Alexandra Johnston, Susannah Monta, Edward Muir, Chris Wickham, and Henry Woudhuysen.

The latest addition to this list is Professor Carolyn Dinshaw, who was the keynote speaker at the 23nd biennial conference held at Mont Fleur in August 2016.


Number 1, 2013

Conference News

Southern African Society for
Medieval and Renaissance Studies
22nd Biennial Conference

28–31 August 2014, Stellenbosch,
South Africa
Call for Papers

The Art of Reading in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Keynote Address: Professor Henry Woudhuysen,
Lincoln College, University of Oxford

Deadline for proposals: 31 January 2014

The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies promotes scholarly discussion in all disciplines relating to Medieval and Renaissance Studies. We invite proposals for papers on any aspect of Medieval and Renaissance Studies addressing the conference theme. 

Abstracts should be no more than 250 words long.

For information about previous conferences, and the conference venue, please consult the society website:
Please send abstracts and enquiries by email to:
Professor David Scott-Macnab,
Department of English,
University of Johannesburg

David Scott-Macnab published three articles and one book chapter last year:
  • ‘Lexical Borrowing and Code-Switching: The Case of archegay / hasegaye / harsegay in the Middle Ages and Later’, Anglia: Zeitschrift für Englische Philologie, 130 (2012): 264–75.
  • ‘The Animals of the Hunt and the Limits of Chaucer’s Sympathies’, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 34 (2012): 331–37.
  • ‘The Treatment of assagai and zagaie by the OED, and of assegai by the Dictionary of South African English’, Neophilologus, 96 (2012): 151–63.
  • ‘Sir Thopas and his Lancegay’, in Chaucer in Context, ed. Gerald Morgan (Oxford–Bern: Peter Lang, 2012): 109–134. 
He also spent part of January and February as a Visiting Scholar of the Department of English, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Arizona State University, Tempe, where he delivered a public lecture on ‘The Many Manifestations of the Satanic Hunter in Medieval English Literature’.

While in Arizona, he attended the annual conference of the Arizona Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, where he spoke on ‘William Rufus and the Noonday Demon’. 

Derrick Higginbotham joined the Department of English Literature and Language at the University of Cape Town in August 2012 as a Lecturer in Early Modern Literature after finishing his appointment as a Lecturer in the Core Curriculum at Columbia University in New York City, the same school where he finished his PhD in 2010. His doctoral research analyzed representations of economic practices, specifically the production, exchange, and consumption of goods and wealth, on the English stage from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries. In each chapter of this project, he examined groups of dramatic texts from both the late medieval and early modern literary periods, including plays from the York and Chester cycles, morality plays, as well as works by Shakespeare, Jonson, Dekker, and Middleton. He is currently revising this project into a monograph entitled Commercial Passions: Economic Practice and Self-Control on Late Medieval and Early Modern English Stages. He is also in the midst of writing an article that reviews the recent production of "Cardenio" at Maynardville, and recently finished reworking an article for publication on the queerness of Isaac’s portrayal in the York cycle that is part of the groundwork for his second book project, entitled Undesirable: Queer Losses in Late Medieval and Early Modern Theaters. He had the opportunity to present a paper on Christopher Marlowe at the most recent SASMARS conference, which was a wonderful opportunity to meet new colleagues here in South Africa and from abroad.

Paul Arblaster, a delegate to the 2010 biennial SASMARS conference, writes that, hopefully before the end of this year, his introductory essay to a translation of the spiritual autobiography of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God (1587-1646), a Dutch Carmelite lay sister, will appear in the Chicago University Press series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe ( Paul's contribution is about the changes made by those who translated the Spanish original into French and Dutch. The volume includes a new English translation of the original by Dr Susan Smith, professor of Modern Languages at Hampden-Sydney College, Virginia, and the general editorial work and introduction are by Dr Cordula van Wyhe, lecturer in the History of Art at York University.

The second edition of Paul's History of the Low Countries came out with Palgrave in 2012:


George rehearsing Buxtehude, 29 March
By George King, who visited Tallinn recently

One of the world’s oldest continuously
 functioning apothecaries, founded in 1438,
on Tallinn’s Town Hall Square
(Raekoja plats).
Almost eighty kilometres across the Gulf of Finland, due south of Helsinki, lies Tallinn, capital of the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Estonia. Although the country achieved independence from the Soviets as recently as 1991, Estonia’s history is ancient and its small capital city of Tallinn is a treasure-trove of medieval delights.

Declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1997, Tallinn Old Town is described on the city’s tourist webpage as a ‘mix of historic ambience and cutting-edge culture that defines Tallinn’. The blurb adds, rather extravagantly:

Twisting cobblestone lanes and iron street lamps. Gothic spires and medieval markets. Cappuccino and Wi-Fi. This is the city's famous Old Town.

Coffee and mobile phones mingle
under the arcades of Tallinn’s
medieval Town Hall.

Having several Estonian friends living in Tallinn, I haven’t had to look far for excuses to make the two-and-a-half hour ferry trip across the Gulf from Finland on three separate occasions. I’ve been lucky enough to have spent a total of seven days wandering around those cobblestone lanes and soaking up an atmosphere I find deliriously invigorating. True, it’s openly promoted as a tourist venue, but it’s also throbbing with Estonians who are immensely proud of their heritage. Yet unlike most other European capital cities, Tallinn has managed to preserve the completeness and structure of its medieval and Hanseatic origin. Most of the cobblestone streets and properties, important state and church buildings, citizens’ and merchant’s residences, barns and warehouses dating back as far as the 11th century, are preserved in their original form. Toompea Castle sits atop Toompea Hill in the upper town and is the seat of the Estonian parliament.

Narrow streets and imposing
medieval towers dominate
Tallinn’s Old Town
The focal point of the Old Town is the Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats), a vast open space surrounded by splendid Hanseatic and later buildings. It is the site of May celebrations and, in December, of the Christmas market and a gigantic fir tree. A stone’s throw away up a narrow, curving side street is a modern micro-brewery set within an ancient building, while ‘Olde Hansa’ (housed in a 15th-century building) is the best-known of several restaurants specializing in authentic medieval dishes.

It’s a stiff climb up Toompea Hill.

A picture-postcard view of the
towers along the city wall from one of the
look-out points on Toompea Hill, with
Tallinn harbour just over a kilometre away
There is archaeological evidence of human settlement in Tallinn dating back 5000 years. Much later, a town called Qlwn or Qalaven was noted on the world map of the Almoravid by the Muslim cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi in 1154. And the Icelandic Njal’s Saga refers to Tallinn as Rafala, a variant of the name Raphael. Following the Danish conquest in 1219 the town became known as Reval in German, Swedish and Danish, and grew into an important Hanseatic trading port.

Today Tallinn is the capital of a country with a tiny population (1.3 million), yet it has much to celebrate. Not the least of these is its musical prowess, represented by internationally-celebrated composer Arvo Pärt, conductor Neeme Järvi in particular, as well as the country's advanced software technologies such as Skype, released in 2003 by its Estonian developers. 


On 1 March 2013 Sheila Delany (Emerita Professor of English, Simon Fraser University and SASMARS Corresponding Fellow) delivered a lecture to the Early Romance Studies Research Cluster of the University of British Columbia. Her topic, emerging from her latest book, was

“An atheist egalitarian in the French Revolution: Introducing Sylvain Maréchal”  

The Middle Ages was far from dead at the time of the French Revolution of 1789; to bring an end to feudal institutions was one aim of the new National Assembly. For Sylvain Maréchal (1750-1803)—classicist, poet, librarian, editor of an influential radical journal, and militant atheist—helping with the ideological side of that project was his contribution. His all-female satirical legendary (collection of saints’ lives) was meant as one weapon in that arsenal. The Nouvelle légende dorée (1790), now translated by Dr. Delany in Anti-saints (University of Alberta Press, 2012) uses various techniques to undercut and deconstruct the conventions and the ideology of hagiography. In her talk, Dr. Delany sketched some of Maréchal’s methods, along with the social and cultural context of his work.

Sheila Delany is emerita professor of English at Simon Fraser University. She is the author of ten books, including Chaucer’s House of Fame: The Politics of Skeptical Fideism (1972), Chaucer and the Jews (2002), and ‘Turn It Again’: Jewish Medieval Studies and Literary Theory (2007). Her most recent book is titled Anti-Saints: The New Golden Legend of Sylvain Maréchal (2011). Dr. Delany retired in 2006. Two medieval journals—Exemplaria and Florilegium—honoured her career with special issues.

Other talks on the new work took place at the University of Texas (Austin) in September 2012 and are scheduled for Canada’s Learned Societies annual meeting in Victoria this June as well as the Alliance Française here in Vancouver for the fall. There are also a couple of publications: “Bible, Jews, Revolution: The Pour et contre la Bible (1801) of Sylvain Maréchal” in Ot Letova. Essays in honor of Professor Tova Rosen (Beersheva, 2012) and the forthcoming “St. Genevieve in the Revolution”, in Conserveries mémorielles, a joint Franco-Québecois electronic journal.

Roberta Frank writes:

The proceedings of a 2009 London conference on "Germania Remembered 1500-2009" (dealing largely with the changing attitudes to Tacitus' Arminius and early Germans) have just appeared. My essay is entitled "Siegfried and Arminius: Scenes from a Marriage" in Germania Remembered 1500-2009: Commemorating and Inventing a Germanic Past, ed. Christina Lee and Nicola McLelland, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 425 (Tempe, AR: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2013), pp. 1-26.

My next piece to appear should be: "The Extraordinary Norse Verse of the Orkney Earldom," in The International Companion to Scottish Poetry, 1, ed. Carla Sassi (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).  Unless "Conversational Skills for Heroes" (in the proceedings of a Santiago de Compostella conference) makes it out first).
The most exciting recent publication involving one of my fields is the appearance of the first (double) volume of the collaborative edition Scaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages: entitled Poetry from the Kings' Sagas (Brepols 2013), it landed on my desk this morning. An edition by me of the "Norse proverb poem" is scheduled to appear in the next volume (2014).
General news: at Yale, I teach Old English and Old Norse (as well as English poetry) to undergraduates and postgraduates and direct a half-dozen doctoral dissertations. My husband (the medieval historian Walter Goffart) and I frequently act as faculty leaders on Yale alumni trips: this summer, a Baltic cruise; next spring, sailing in the wake of vikings from Norway to Shetland, the Faroe islands, and Iceland. We are in touch with medievalist friends from South Africa and are great admirers of SASMARS (and you). Please tell your readers to be in touch if they come to Yale: Walter is an extraordinary guide to the architectural treasures here and we love visitors. 

Helen Fulton, at the University of York in the UK (, is leading a scholarly network called 'Britain, Ireland and the Italian Renaissance: Reception and Legacy, c. 1350 - c. 1914'. The aim of the network is to bring together scholars and practitioners working on exchanges between the cultural practices of the Italian Renaissance and those of Britain and Ireland. The project has both a synchronic and a diachronic focus, and is intended to seed new networks and grant bids. You are invited to visit the project's website where you can join the network and post announcements about relevant conferences, projects, publications, and other activities.


Another of our Corresponding Fellows, Susannah Monta (University of Notre Dame), will be a keynote speaker at an interdisciplinary conference at the University of Sussex from 24th-26th June 2013. The conference theme is
Popes and the Papacy in early modern English culture. Full details can be found here.

Face to face with Noam Chomsky

by Mariusz Beclawski, Warsaw University

On 14th November 2012 I had an academic consultation session with Noam Chomsky. It took me almost two years to fulfil my dream! My interview with Professor Chomsky took place on the 8th floor of the architecturally amazing MIT Stata Center at 32, Vassar Street in Cambridge, MA, which is the seat of the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. Interestingly, Noam Chomsky’s office is next door to that of Morris Halle, whom I also met.
     I started the conversation by outlining to Professor Chomsky my PhD thesis on semantic change of Old and Middle English music nouns, e.g. dream, glee, and sound. Noam Chomsky instantly commented on the noun “glee”, which lends itself to the concept of sound symbolism (i.e. phonaesthesia). He claimed that nouns beginning with the sounds “gl-“ possess a particular phonological property which determines their “joyful” meaning. Other examples include e.g. “glitter” and “glamour”, but interestingly, even the term “grammar” falls into the category. Noam Chomsky mentioned two linguists who dealt with sound symbolism i.e. a British philosopher John Austin (1911-1960) and an American psychologist Roger Brown (1925-1997).
     I also asked Noam Chomsky about the concept of language evolution as proposed by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). It was vehemently criticized by my interlocutor who said that it was an error: “That’s mixing up evolution and change, and languages do not evolve.” Chomsky states that evolution takes place only in organisms which have genes, unlike languages, hence Darwin was wrong. Professor Chomsky hastened to add that what evolves is the human language capacity, because we are organisms. Since we have the language capacity and chimpanzees do not, so it has evolved.
     Noam Chomsky believes that the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen (1860-1943), who studied Sanskrit and English, essentially made the same mistake as Darwin. Jespersen was describing language change in pre-historic times going back 5,000 years, but it is confusing how he conceived of language change since the human language capacity has not changed for 75,000, maybe even 100,000 years.
     Next we discussed current trends and schools in semantic studies. Professor Chomsky claims that semantics is confused by dogmas, e.g. names of things like “table”, “book” and so on, are governed by a dogma which originated a couple of hundred years ago that words name things, i.e. nouns name objects, verbs name events, and so on – which is not true! Aristotle knew it wasn’t true! And the things got forgotten in the last couple of hundred years! – concludes Noam Chomsky. There is no single word in the language –  “[…] not at least that I have been unable to find […]” – which is semantically identified in physical terms. Everything is individuated in mental constructions, and infants already understand this thanks to psychic-continuity which is not a physical property. The same applies to animals and other living organisms. That is the way we look at the world, and this has to be considered when studying semantics – added Noam Chomsky.
     The next matter I asked about was the role cognition plays in semantics. Professor Chomsky stressed here the importance of the human perceptual system as it is evidenced that the human visual system interprets the world in terms of the rigid objects in motion, regular Euclidean forms in motion. It is a framework that the visual system imposes on the world and it simply influences the semantic interpretation of the world. It is coming from our internal nature, and it is probably relevant for higher animals as well.
     Finally, I asked about evidence in linguistic examination. Noam Chomsky said that indeed textual evidence in studying semantic change is necessary; however, the question arises whether textual analysis is a good source of evidence. Still, there is always experimental evidence which can also be applied like in the case of the above-mentioned psychic-continuity. That kind of analysis was already practised by John Locke (1632-1704). Noam Chomsky agrees with Locke and closes our conversation that the whole metaphysical approach to the conception of the world should be reconstructed using knowledge from the past which seems to have been forgotten now.

(Mariusz was a delegate at the 2012 SASMARS Conference at Mont Fleur. For his pictures of the conference, go to He is also the co-author of The Grammatical Structure of Legal English by Miroslav Bázlik, Patrik Ambrus, Mariusz Be̜clawski.)

The Institute of English Studies

of the University of London will be running the

London Palaeography Summer School 
from 17 to 21 June 2013.

As part of the London Rare Books School, the Institute will also be running

The Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian Book, c.600-1050
1 -5 July, 2013

This course will provide an intensive introduction to manuscript culture during the early Middle Ages, with specific reference to post-Roman Britain and Ireland, Merovingian Gaul, the Carolingian Empire and Anglo-Saxon England. The preservation and transmission of sources from Antiquity and the creation of literate Christian cultures will be examined and the historical contexts for manuscript production explored. Particular attention will be paid to wider literacy-related issues and to the development of palaeography, codicology and illumination. Study will be undertaken with the aid of digital images, facsimiles and primary sources (with valuable opportunities to examine manuscripts at the British Library). The Course Tutors are all acknowledged experts in their fields and will share their experience and perspectives.
 Course tutors: Professor Michelle Brown, Professor Jane Roberts
 For enquiries, registration and programme information:   |   Tel: +44 (0)20 7862-8680 | E-mail: | Twitter: @IES_London

Paws, Pee and Mice: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts

Posted on

Everyone who has ever owned a cat will be familiar with their unmannerly feline habit of walking across your keyboard while you are typing. One of the manuscript pictures tweeted by @erik_kwakkel ( ) revealed that this is nothing new.
Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript (photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)
 Although the medieval owner of this manuscript may have been quite annoyed with these paw marks on his otherwise neat manuscript, another fifteenth-century manuscript reveals that he got off lucky.  A Deventer scribe, writing around 1420, found his manuscript ruined by a urine stain left there by a cat the night before. He was forced to leave the rest of the page empty, drew a picture of a cat and cursed the creature with the following words:

“Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.”

[Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.]
Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (© Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

A mouse ate my Boethius! (© Corpus Christi
College Cambridge, MS 214, fol. 122r)


Hildebert distracted by a mouse. (© Prague,
Capitular Library, codex A 21/1, fol. 153r)