Paper Trails: Can Anachronistic Technology Justify Anachronistic Analogies?

Morgan Library MS. M.817 fol.001r

Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde focuses its narrative tension through paper: the material itself is essential to the plot of the poem. Troilus both confesses his admiration for Criseyde and later expresses his anxiety about her fidelity through his correspondence. Pandarus’s entire identity is encapsulated by his role as the mediator of these paper communications. Criseyde’s eventual betrayal of Troilus is heralded by her neglect of paper in answering Troilus’s missives. Most striking about paper in this poem, however, is the fact that it is an anachronistic technology at the center of a ‘Troy’ where Martha Rust intriguingly notes that clay tablets would have been in use.[1] Where Orietta Da Rold highlights Chaucer’s deliberate attention to paper itself as a material that underscores both plot and character development while making visible—and tangible—that plot’s most visceral themes,[2] paper is clearly too pivotal for its anachronistic presence to be incidental. This invites the following question: in centering this anachronistic technology, does Troilus and Criseydeinvite further anachronistic engagement? 

Note the particular attention paper turns on the fact of Criseyde’s unfreedom; when Criseyde initially voices her aversion to Troilus’s romantic attentions, she uses terms of enslavement: 

Allas! Syn I am free,

Should I now love, and put in jupartie

My sikeresse, and thrallen libertee?

Allas, how dorst I thence that folie?[3]

Fixed between ‘freedom’ and ‘thrallen libertee’, Criseyde articulates her position as a commodity object to be brokered between her socially ambitious uncle Pandarus and the reigning prince of Troy, Troilus, who now desires her. Despairing of the “constreinte” and “peyne” that categorize liaisons such as that she now faces,[4] Criseyde continues to underscore the unfreedom of her position: a position that connects her to Igor Kopytoff’s 1986 struggle to recuperate the enslaved body as a recognizable subject, insisting that the enslaved is only a commodity whilst in transit between the homeland from which they have been stripped and the new social nexus by which they will once again be individuated (though, still exploited).[5] This certainly proves to be the case for Criseyde: once Book V of the poem sees her brokered to the enemy Greek camp in exchange for a more valuable Trojan prisoner of war, Criseyde’s use of paper letters take serve to removeher from circulation. The end of transit has delivered into a new space: she has been reunited with her father, delivered from the siege plaguing Troy, and offered protection from Greek soldier Diomedes. Criseyde’s new context has created a new platform from which her paper letters allow her to distance herself from Troilus’s erotic gaze and royal power. Paper replaces her formerly accessible body with letters that Chaucer himself can describe but never render in full (despite fully reproducing Troilus’s letters); Criseyde as a subject eludes masculine access through her deployment of letters.

Muse, perhaps Clio, reading a scroll (Attic red-figure lekythosBoeotia, c. 430 BC)

Female letter-writing in Troilus and Criseyde reacts against the circulation of Criseyde’s body by using paper to protect that body—to distance it from danger, to make it inaccessible, to force a recognition of her cognition rather than foreground the sexual desirability of her form. Paper highlights the ways in which Criseyde as a female object is ‘unfree’ as a commodity in the social interactions between men…and its anachronistic powers invite scholarly interface with another female figure whose unfree, commodified, body is only removed from circulation through her deployment of vernacular English letters that serve to protect her body by making it inaccessible to the man who sees to re-enslave her. 

So… If Troilus and Criseyde invites anachronism by situating this anachronistic material at the heart of its letter-driven plot, then what are the comparisons to be made between Criseyde’s unfree, commodified female body using paper to free herself from circulation and, the unfree African-American female body of Harriet Jacobs, whose fictionalized avatar ‘Linda Brent’ used paper just as Chaucer’s Criseyde did?  

When Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl[6] enters the ‘slave narrative’ genre—already well-established by male authors—it revolutionizes genre conventions for women by emphasizing the precarity of their bodies as erotic objects to subject-actors empowered by law and social-standing to fetishize these bodies at will. Her work—like Criseyde’s words—active the enslavement, commodity, and subject vs. actor dichotomy articulated by Kopytoff. Jacobs’s is an extraordinary case: she is the first African-American woman to entirely self-author her own autobiographical anti-slavery narrative[7] and as a literate figure she deploys the act of letter-writing in her quest for physical and legal emancipation. Jacobs famously involves elements of fiction in her autobiographical narrative—changing her own name and that of key figures in her life, openly disavowing the use of concrete place names or timelines in the very Preface to her work.[8] Her narrativized, self-as-character, ‘Linda Brent’ wields letters as Criseyde does: both figures rely on paper to remove her body from circulation, from erotic fetishization, and to place their bodies beyond the reach of the empowered male figure who fetishizes her.

Harriet Jacobs; Gilbert Studios,1894

Jacobs’s case represents an extraordinary one: she famously escaped the chattel-slavery of antebellum North Carolina not by fleeing the state, but by hiding in a garret in an abandoned shed on her freed grandmother’s property for seven years. Throughout this time, Jacobs wrote letters “back” to both her grandmother and to the man seeking to re-enslave her.[9]However, she carefully arranged to have those letters post-marked from various addresses in Boston, New York, and even Canada. When we think of the importance of letters to Jacobs, we must understand her letters first as pieces of paper. The material itself—difficult to come by for an enslaved person, illegal to wield as a writing or reading material, absolutely necessary to Jacobs’s pursuit of freedom and the literal difference between her life and death—proves essential throughout Incidents. Upon realizing that she lacks knowledge regarding mailing addresses, streets, etc. that will make her first letter authentic, Jacobs writes of her self-as-character Linda Brent being saved by a scrap of a New York newspaper an ally happens to discover in his pocket: a scrap of paper in the pocket used to insulate a glass bottle purchased the day before. Paper here is not for reading. Its usefulness as insulation and the ordinariness that makes it forgettable all allowed it to engineer this moment: where it can now help secure human emancipation. Paper protects Linda Brent’s body by obscuring her whereabouts; it forces a reckoning with her voice—what she asserts is her “cunning”[10]—while her person remains inaccessible. No longer an object in circulation or transit, paper allows Brent’s subjectivity to be seen.

Paper allows both Linda Brent and Criseyde to undermine female unfreedom in exactly the ways that Sarah Stanbury describes when positing women’s medieval letter-writing as assertions over the female right to privacy, to private space, and to autonomy over the body that in choosing privacy can choose to exit circulation in the public sphere.[11] Stanbury writes: ‘…letters formalize and isolate private from public zones as they materialize a portion of an individual thought and transport it across time and space.’[12] Through paper letters, might be able to commit this anachronistic analogy pairing Jacobs’ Linda Brent to Chaucer’s Criseyde?

This is the question orienting the current Paper Trails investigation. 

Both Brent and Criseyde are women in positions of unfreedom who circulate paper in lieu of their bodies to achieve emancipation from sexual exploitation. Both women represent English language, literary, and epistolary ‘firsts’;[13] and both foreground the importance of paper as material means of undermining unfreedom. Is this enough, however, to situate Troilus and Criseyde at the center of a new kind of ‘global Middle Ages’ research, one that connects text using the paper that defines both works—and continues to define their reception as scholars navigate these disparate texts from the same material, and can make the same theoretical moves in both works? Is this further evidence. of ‘technology’ engendering new conversations across new planes of engagement: does this kind of scholarship reinscribe paper’s place as a technology alongside advances of the recent digital work? Questions abound, but the work continues… 


[1] Martha Rust, ‘Love Stories in Paper in Middle English Verse Love Epistles,’ Journal of the Early Book Society 15 (2012): 101.

[2] Orietta Da Rold, ‘Paper in the Medieval Imagination’ in Paper in Medieval England: From Pulp to Fictions. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 199-200. 

[3] Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, ed. Stephen A. Barney, II. 771-4. 

[4] Ibid, II. 776. 

[5] See: “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[6] Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin, 2nd ed. (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2009).  

[7] Jocelyn Moody, ‘African American Women and the United States Slave Narrative’ in The Cambridge Companion to African American Women’s Literature, eds. Angelyn Mitchell and Danille K. Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 116.

[8] Jacobs, Incidents, 2.

[9] Jacobs, ‘Competition in Cunning’ in Incidents, 163-8.

[10] Jacobs, ‘Competition in Cunning’ in Incidents, 163-8.

[11] Sarah Stanbury, ‘Women’s Letters and Private Space in Chaucer,’ Exemplaria 6.2 (1994): 271–285.

[12] Ibid, 274. 

[13] As stated earlier, the letters depicted in Troilus and Criseyde are English literature’s first vernacular correspondence, making her the English literature’s first female letter-writer to use the vernacular. Similarly, Harriet Jacobs is the first literate African-American woman to write her own narrative of enslavement. See: Moody, ‘African American Women and the United States Slave Narrative’, 116.


The Pictorial Cycle and Iconographic Practices of Cambridge, University Library, Kk.1.7

By: Dana Malefakis

MS Kk.1.7 contains The Pilgrimage of the Soul – the Middle English adaptation of Guillaume de Deguilleville’s fourteenth-century poem Le Pèlerinage de l’Âme. All of the extant manuscript copies of the Soul reserve space for illustration, indicating that miniatures played an integral role in the manuscript tradition of the Soul. Close comparison of the scenes chosen for illustration reveals an archetypal programme of illustration. Most copies show preparation or completion of twenty-six scenes, and these scenes show a high degree of consistency in subject and, often, iconography.[i] In Kk.1.7, a total of seventeen scenes are illustrated, and possibly one or two others are missing due to loss. The illustrator made critical decisions not only about which moments of the narrative would receive greater emphasis, but also about the iconography of these scenes, thereby deciding how they were presented and constructing reader responses. 


CUL, Kk.1.7, fol. 1r. Copyright Cambridge University Library

Much of the variation in Kk.1.7 might perhaps be attributed to the strong associations of the illustrated scenes with visual iconography, as seen in medieval pictorial representation and also in medieval drama.[ii] Rather than offering a faithful representation of the text, many of the miniatures rely on conventional pictorial prototypes and draw on extratextual traditions. The first illustration depicts the figure of Death piercing the sleeper with a spear, while the naked soul with hands in prayer is lifted up from his sleeping body into the clouds by the hands of God (fol. 1r). The motif of the departing soul with hands in prayer being carried into the heavens was popular between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, particularly in the prominent Ars moriendi tradition, which was heavily illustrated in England.[iii]

CUL, Kk.1.7, fol. 3v. Copyright Cambridge University Library

The angel and devil then lead the soul to judgement, and the soul is placed between them in the composition (fol. 3v), which recalls common medieval representations of the allegorical battle between good and evil, as illustrated fully in The Castle of Perseverance, a morality play of the early fifteenth century that visually ‘stages’ the division between a good advisor and an evil advisor.[iv]

CUL, Kk.1.7, fol. 7r. Copyright Cambridge University Library

The third miniature, on fol. 7r, is the presentation of the soul for judgement, and the proceedings are to be presided over by archangel Michael, as he ‘hast promyss’ to the ‘souerayn king to do iustyce and ȝeue iugement to all maner of peple’ (lines 16, 17-18 on fol. 4v). However, Michael is not depicted.

The illustrator adopts the authoritative tradition of Christ as Judge, figured as a Man of Sorrows, one of the most popular devotional images.[v] As is standard of the tradition, Christ’s arms are raised to show the stigmata, his bleeding side wound is exposed, and his face drips with blood from his piercing crown of thorns. The tiered angels flanking Christ enthroned on a rainbow and the inclusion of the trumpet also mirror depictions of the Last Judgement. The depictions of this scene in the other witnesses are precisely referential to the text. The scene in Kk.1.7 is not entirely responsive to the text, and its iconography refers to extratextual traditions. Christ in this scene attains greater visual potency than Michael. 

CUL, Kk.1.7, fol. 32v. Copyright Cambridge University Library

In another scene, however, on fol. 32v, the soul’s merits are weighed against his sins, and Michael is depicted instead of Justice, who is rendered prominently in most of the other witnesses. The iconography of Michael holding the scales was prevalent in medieval English wall paintings and reflects this illustrator’s tendency to conform to pictorial iconographic formulae.[vi]

CUL, Kk.1.7, fol. 46r. Copyright Cambridge University Library

As the pictorial cycle progresses, scenes of torture abound. One such scene (fol. 46r) purports to show ‘þe schap of þe firof purgatory’. The other manuscripts that illustrate this scene are consistent. They present the soul on his back ensconced in flames within concentric circles.[vii] The equivalent miniature in Kk.1.7 diverges from this treatment, as it shows a devil blowing the flames of Purgatory at two souls. This iconography is more generalised, for the torment of sinners in Hell was a well-worn theme with a varied iconography in the visual arts. 

CUL, Kk.1.7, fol. 37v. Copyright Cambridge University Library

In the Hell visions of Saint Paul and of Saint Patrick, sinners are shown suspended by different body parts above fire.[viii] The illustrator of Kk.1.7 adopted this iconography twice, as four souls on fol. 37v and three souls on fol. 56r hang from hooks by various limbs above a blazing fire. 

The subjects of the programme of the Soul manuscripts that have been omitted in Kk.1.7 did not typically appear in medieval visual arts, and so they do not carry the same visual associations as the previously mentioned subjects in Kk.1.7. There was no established iconography associated with the figure of Lady Liberality, for instance, and the scene in which the soul hears the story of Lady Liberality is not included in Kk.1.7. Other scenes are omitted in favour of ones with greater visual resonance. The scenes in which Justice testifies against the soul, Mercy pleads in the soul’s defense, and Christ’s grace outweighs the soul’s sins are not included in Kk.1.7, though they appear in many of the other witnesses. The scene in which the soul sees people he knew on earth does not have a set iconography in pictorial representation and is again omitted in Kk.1.7. 

The fact that illustrations were conceived as a part of the manuscript tradition of the Soul and that the miniatures in Kk.1.7 are associated with visual iconographies would suggest that there was a desire to emphasise the visual and encourage the visualisation of the ‘pilgrimage of the soul’. Connections to extratextual traditions would have been readily made by means of the miniatures in Kk.1.7. The miniatures may have then functioned as complementary extensions of the text, as aids to meditative activity. The function of miniatures in late medieval English vernacular literary manuscripts cannot be generalised, but close analysis of those in the individual witnesses of a text is essential. Slight variations in the choice and treatment of the miniatures should be considered, for even minor differences would have offered a different experience for the reader. 


[i] For a chart of the subjects chosen for illustration in each of the Soul manuscripts, see Rosemarie Potz McGerr, The Pilgrimage of the Soul: A Critical Edition of the Middle English Dream Vision, 2 vols (New York: Garland, 1990), I, pp. xlvii-xlix.  

[ii] Connections between Le Pèlerinage de la Vie Humaine and medieval drama have been discussed by Edgar T. Schell, ‘On the Imitation of Life’s Pilgrimage in “The Castle of Perseverance”’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 67 (1968), 235-248. 

[iii]See David W. Atkinson, ‘The English ars morendi: Its Protestant Transformation’, Renaissance and Reformation, 6 (1982), 1. 

[iv] See Schell, 241.

[v]  See Catherine R. Puglisi and William L. Barcham, eds., New Perspectives on the Man of Sorrows (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2013). 

 [vi] See Richard F. Johnson, Saint Michael the Archangel in Medieval English Legend (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005), p. 148. 

 [vii] Descriptions of the depictions of this scene in the other manuscript copies of the Soul are reported in Lesley Suzanne Lawton, ‘Text and Image in Late Medieval English Vernacular Literary Manuscripts’ (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of York, 1982), p. 125. 

 [viii]See Jan N. Bremmer, ‘Christian Hell: From the Apocalypse of Peter to the Apocalypse of Paul’, Numen, 56 (2009), 308.