Early & Medieval Works


Virgil and muses Clio and Melpomene (History and Tragedy). Mosaic, 3rd C. Hadrumentum, Tunisa.

Le Roman de la Poire
Illustration from Le Roman de la Poire, Paris, c.1260-70.

Poetry and literature of the Classical cultures of Greece and Rome generated an imaginative stock which had influence through the so-called Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages. Thus, for example, in the fifth century Martianus Capella produced The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, an allegory dealing with the seven liberal arts; a droll narrative of the curriculum which remained central in learning throughout the Middle Ages.

In the high period, the great poet Dante Alighieri made ample use of classical figures in his profoundly Christian account of all things; but he was also the radical exponent of what Charles Williams called ‘romantic theology’. As poet, he made Virgil his mentor and guide in the Divine Comedy (see READING DANTE).

The inspiration of the Muses is itself a figure of the artist’s access to a higher source of wisdom and love.


The invention and construction in poetry of the great Arthurian legend went through various retellings. In the twentieth century Charles Williams produced an extensive and imaginative cycle (see CHARLES WILLIAMS), a fresh exposition which warrants wider attention than it has received. He makes Taliessin, Arthur’s court poet, a key protagonist. Most well known of medieval literature and much studied is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But William Langland’s allegorical narrative poem Piers the Plowman remains to be discovered by most of us. Our attention to such works is likely to be well rewarded if we ask the question, What really were the subjects preeminent in their authors’ minds?

In this strand of GAPS ARTS studies topics may range from Hebrew poetry to late medieval works. The field is large, and we will only be able to treat a small selection—yet sufficiently perhaps to prompt and inspire people to read and appreciate such works more extensively themselves.

The majority of us can only read these works in translation into English, and it must be acknowledged that an author’s precise meaning or expression may not be always exactly conveyed even in the best translations. However we are well served, and may make the most of the access we have in English to the heritage of remarkable and still relevant Western poetry.

GAPS ARTS Lectures


John Lewis  •  7.00 pm. Sunday, 17 August, 2014

Marc Chagall, ‘Song of Songs’ (1957)
Marc Chagall, ‘Song of Songs’ (1957)

SOLOMON, third king of Israel, illustrious in power, wisdom, and achievements, evidently wrote the Song of Songs for a purpose, and it has been incorporated in Hebrew and Christian Scriptures despite eyebrows raised about its content.

The Song's main theme is love. It most commonly has been heavily and abstrusely allegorised to extract spiritual lessons; although in reaction more modern views treat it as simply love poetry such as might have been used at nuptials.

While the Song clearly has a dramatic form identification of the parts and places is not explicit. Hence interpretations of its purpose and meaning are many, yet seem often convoluted or offer limited satisfactory application.

Sensitive to its sensual imagery, Christian churches tend to neglect (or avoid) the public exposition of it, yet the Jewish practice of reading it publicly at each Passover gives historical pointers.

More attention to Solomon himself and the historical record leads to a quite straightforward discussion and application of this great work.

  • John Lewis M.Arch (Auck.), PhD (Otago), ANZIA, is an architect (retired) and medievalist, with interests particularly in the architecture, art and theology of the Middle Ages in the West, and relating the arts, theology and ethics.



Dr Carolyn Kelly  •  7.00 pm. Sunday, 9 November, 2014

Waitakere Ranges
Waitakere Ranges. Vida Steinert (1906-99)

Ancients avoided them;
Prophets frequented them;
Exiles traversed them;
Hermits embraced them;
Settlers conquered them;
Romantics painted them;
Scientists studied them;
Developers denuded them.

Now backpackers, ecologists
and urbanites wander about
wild places (and wonder?).

This presentation will explore the wilderness in ancient Christian spirituality, and the solace this offers contemporary city dwellers.

Carolyn Kelly Carolyn Kelly BD (Otago), PhD (Aberdeen) has been lecturer in Theology, Auckland University. Carolyn has long had an interest in the intersections of the arts and imagination, Christian spirituality and the natural world. She is currently a Chaplain at the University of Auckland (soon to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church), and an urban dweller.



Prof. Stephanie Hollis • 7.00 pm, Sunday, 22 March, 2015

The action in this allegory moves from the Fair Field of Folk to the Barn of Unity.

The characters are lively personifications of humanity and its on-going quest for Truth.

Piers Plowman

William Langland is thought to have lived around 1332 to 1400. Almost certainly born in the West Midlands, he appears to have lived much of his life in London, which is the setting for some of the events described in the early parts of his poem. The poem takes the form of a series of dream-visions told in the first person by a narrator who calls himself Will.

The satire and the drama that we find in Chaucer are so to speak ornamental. They are present in Langland as fragments of personal experience. He hates abuses, and the abusers, not only because they are evil but because he has been their victim. He knows, far more deeply and immediately than his great contemporaries, exactly what happens to the underdog.

—Terence Tiller.

Langland wrote three versions of Piers Plowman between about 1370 and 1387. The best-known version (‘the B text’) has a Prologue, called ‘The Fair Field of Folk’, which is followed by ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman’, in Passus 1 – 20.

Langland’s image of late medieval English society in the Prologue to Piers Plowman invites comparison with Geoffrey Chaucer’s depiction of contemporary society in the Prologue to his Canterbury Tales. Both poets reflect, in very different ways, the religious and social upheavals of late fourteenth-century England, particularly the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and the Wyclffite (‘Lollard’) criticisms of the teaching of the church and the behaviour of the religious orders, which found expression in the Protestant Reformation. Langland’s satire on contemporary society, however, has behind it the urgency of his quest for a timeless and universal Truth.

There are a number of translations around now: that by AVC Schmidt (Oxford, OUP, 1992) is the most faithful to the original.

Stephanie Hollis Stephanie Hollis, B.A, PhD, is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Auckland. Before retirement she was Director of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies.




Dr Michael Wright  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 17 May, 2015

Chaucer is often seen as the first figure in the main stream of English literature, so that if someone has read one piece of medieval English, it is very likely to be the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales.


This is good, but our familiarity with Chaucer, who is seen as a beginning, hides that fact that this work is, in several ways, radically new. It was innovative for Chaucer to write for his intended audience in English; it was innovative to write a framed collection of stories in which the tales and the tellers were in such a lively dramatised relationship; it was innovative to see the nuanced complexities of the kind of daily life we recognise as something more interesting than a simple failure to live up to the ideal.

I shall talk about a few passages from The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales with a hope that I can share some of my delight and intrigue. There will be (a few) pictures.

– M.W.

Michael Wright Michael Wright, M.A. (Oxford), PhD (NE), was a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Auckland, where he is currently Honorary Research Fellow.



MICHAEL HURST •  Sunday 30 October, 2016, 7.00pm.


Michael has generously agreed to present something on the theme of Michael Wright's planned lecture (which he is unable to give).
Hurst's presentation will, of course, be great -- don't miss this opportunity!

Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most famous action drama, is set in the Germanic early Middle Ages. The King of Denmark has died, and is succeeded by his brother, who marries the old king’s widow. This is not unusual: in the real world, Canute invaded England and deposed Aethelred the Ill Advised, then married Aethelred’s widow. But Hamlet, the old king’s son and new king’s nephew, feels there is something wrong. For some reason, however, he does not take the obvious action, although he would be accepted as king, and is quite willing to kill people (one on stage, two off, plus an unspecified number of pirates). With the help of his nerdy friend from University, he needs to discover some truth. Nimble and decisive enough in mind and body, he lacks the assured basis for action that a medieval character would enjoy. – Dr Michael Wright.

'Hurst, unquestionably our finest and most versatile male actor, has established himself as one of our most adventurous and exciting directors of Shakespeare. And to watch him at work is to see instinct and intellect combine in a way which makes effort seem effortless. He might look like one who's making it up as he goes along -- in a sense he is -- but his invention is underpinned by a sure sense of stagecraft and driven by a love for the grandly theatrical.'  -- Review by Peter Calder of The Large Group's production of Hamlet, N.Z. Herald, 16.5.03.

Michael HurstMichael Hurst, ONZM, is one of our very well-known and loved actors; also drama director and writer, mostly on stage and television.
He has often directed and performed in Shakespeare's plays, and has much to say about Hamlet.



Dr Michael Wright
Sunday, 30 April, 2017,7.00 pm

Margery Kempe was born in about 1373 in Lynn, now King's Lynn, in Norfolk, and composed her Book in the 1430s. For hundreds of years she was known by a selection of brief sayings, of unexceptionable and unremarkable piety, extracted from her Book, and printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501. In 1934 a manuscript of the Book was found in an English country house. There was general excitement at the prospect of reading a piece of life-writing by a devout Englishwoman who was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich. The Book was published in a modernisation by Colonel W. Butler-Bowdon, the owner of the MS, and a little later in a scholarly edition. The excitement was replaced by a sharp indrawing of breath as readers digested the contents.

British Library

British Library,
Additional MS 6183

Margery Kempe was a divisive figure in her own lifetime: she was imprisoned by the Mayor of Leicester on suspicion of Lollardy, and reproved and threatened with imprisonment by a variety of ecclesiastics. On a pilgrimage to Rome, her fellow pilgrims threw her out of the group, and only let her back in on the promise that she wouldn't talk about religion all the time. On the other hand, she was supported and encouraged by a number of learned clerics and religious figures, including, indeed, Julian of Norwich, who seems to have taken her seriously, if not literally.

Margery Kempe was a woman of considerable intelligence and very great independence of mind and courage, who yearned for official acknowledgement for her self-imposed life of chastity and poverty, and who nonetheless enjoyed a joke and a drink with good-looking men. She could not read or write, and yet her Book, and the experience it narrates, were heavily shaped by the religious writing of her time. Her constant search for validation seems to indicate an uncertainty, if not division, in herself, and she divides our responses as modern readers. The Book shows us a lot about the context in which she moved, as well as Kempe herself. This talk will be an introduction to reading The Book of Margery Kempe.

Texts of The Book of Margery Kempe

A useful online annotated edition in Middle English is at

The original modernisation by Butler-Bowdon was published in Oxford World's Classics in 1936, reprinted 1954. If you can find a copy, it's a good version.

B.A. Windeatt did a translation for Penguin in 1985. This is the version you'll find most easily, but it's a bit far from the original for my taste.

The new Oxford World's Classics version by Anthony Bale (2015) is easy to read and preserves quite a bit of the flavour of reading Kempe.

Michael Wright Michael Wright, M.A. (Oxford), PhD (NE), was a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Auckland, where he is currently Honorary Research Fellow.



Dr Michael Wright

Sunday, 22 April, 2018, 7.00 pm

Between 1608 and 1612, before leaving the London theatre industry and going back to Stratford to manage his investments in property and municipal bonds, Shakespeare wrote four plays often called "the romances".

These plays have implausible plots involving loss, exile, recognition, and reunion, but The Winter's Tale is the most improbable of all, constantly calling attention to its own lack of verisimilitude. It is dark and tangled, some of the language almost defies interpretation, and the tone only starts to lift with the description of Antigonus being eaten by a bear while his travelling companions die in a shipwreck.

At the end, a statue of Queen Hermione, thought dead for sixteen years, apparently comes to life: we seem to be expected to take this as a happy ending. My talk will especially consider the experience of an audience watching this piece of make believe.

The Winters Tale

A good edition is Stephen Orgel's in the Oxford Shakespeare (OUP, World's Classics, 1996).

Michael Wright M.A. (Oxford), PhD (NE), was a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Auckland, where he is currently Honorary Research Fellow. .



Michael Hurst
Sunday, 20th May, 2018, 7.00 pm

Michael comes to GAPS ARTS from a season of performing AN ILIAD at Dunedin's Fortune Theatre.

He will delight and excite us with an account of it, and whet our desire to have it come to Auckland.

Excerpts from a review by Terry MacTavish
Excerpts from a review by Terry MacTavish:

An Iliad is sublime theatre the like of which we rarely see, centred round a towering performance by Michael Hurst that may well itself pass into legend. Hurst has remarkable skills of voice and movement to tell the epic poem on the Trojan War by Homer, ancient Greek father of European literature.

Iliad is the legend of the massing of Agamemnon's Greek army to sail to Troy in Asia Minor, to retrieve beautiful Helen who has been carried off by Paris, and of the power struggle between King Agamemnon and Greek hero Achilles, leading to a final conflict between Achilles and Hector, Prince of Troy.

There is a mix of the stately for Homer's verse, contrasted with colloquial commentary that allows for reflection on the insanity of war. Ancient Greece relied on oral tradition, and bards and praise-singers knew vast screeds of poetry by heart. It is tempting to imagine Hurst as the natural descendant of such spell-binding storytellers.

Michael HurstMichael Hurst ONZM
is an acclaimed actor; known especially as a marvellous exponent of the great plays of Shakespeare, and also here of Homer's Iliad. He has huge experience in theatre including as director and writer for stage and television.