An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

February 7, 2024

Once Upon a Mattress

Vaguely Medieval, Genuinely Silly, Wildly Entertaining:
New York City Center’s Encore! Concert Production of
Once Upon a Mattress (based upon The Princess and the
by Hans Christian Andersen)

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty,
La Salle University

Medievalism as stage musical is a small subgenre.  There is Camelot, which may not have aged well given the short run of the recent New York revival at Lincoln Center.  On the other hand, Spamalot’s current Broadway revival is doing well at the box office and has garnered generally positive reviews. Twang—the disastrous Robin Hood musical—closed shortly after it opened in London in 1965, bankrupting its backers, and seems never to have been revived. Less panned critically, but nonetheless never revived, has been the 1975 Joan of Arc musical, Goodtime Charley. Pippin, the 1972 musical about Charlemagne’s first son, continues to be a favorite among college and high school theater groups, and there was a successful 2013 Broadway revival, which I reviewed here on April 30, 2013. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s A Connecticut Yankee, from the Twain novel, both had a successful initial run and has seen the occasional revival. To this short list of stage musical medievalisms, we might well add Once Upon a Mattress.

Mattress opens in 1428 in medieval Samarkand, a kingdom ruled over by the devious Queen Aggravain (Harriet Harris) and the mute King Sextimus the Silent (David Patrick Kelly). The King has long been cursed by a witch never to speak until a mouse devours a hawk, and, over the years, any mouse within ten feet of the court has fled in terror whenever a hawk shows up. But the central concern in the kingdom is finding a suitable bride for Prince Dauntless the Drab (Michael Urrie), because a royal edict has forbidden anyone else in the kingdom to marry until he does: “Throughout the land, no one may wed, ‘til Dauntless shares his wedding bed.”  Twelve princesses have failed to win the Prince’s hand because they were unable to pass a series of impossible tests devised by the Queen, who wants to keep her son to herself. Aggravain has been successful in disqualifying potential princess brides with help from her partner in crime, the Wizard Cardamom (Francis Jue).

Tensions at court are heightened when Sir Harry (Cheyenne Jackson), the Chivalric Knight of the Realm, finds out his lover, Lady Larken (Nikki Renée Daniels), is pregnant. Sir Harry is the court and the musical’s resident “himbo,” who, in a running joke, loves Larken almost as much as his shiny silver spurs. To solve his domestic problem, and to allow every other couple in the kingdom to wed, Sir Harry sets out on an arduous two-week quest to find a suitable princess, finally coming across Winnifred the Woebegone (Sutton Foster).  Winnifred is the Princess of Swamp Castle located in a land of bogs and marshes; only the peasants live on the kingdom’s few patches of dry land. Sir Harry escorts Winnifred back to Samarkand, where she appears to be anything but marriage material. She swims the moat around the castle, is shabbily dressed, is alternately uncouth and clear-sighted, and wants to be called “Fred.”  In short, she is just the kind of nightmare daughter-in-law whom the Queen would immediately reject, and, of course, just the kind of girl who immediately wins Prince Dauntless’s heart.

To nip her son’s attraction to Winnifred in the bud, the Queen and the Wizard devise a sensitivity test, placing a single pea under the twenty mattresses on Winnifred’s bed.  The previous unsuccessful princesses had had to pass tests in science, history, mathematics. But the body of a true princess will be so sensitive that even the small lump caused by a single pea, twenty mattresses removed, will prevent her from falling asleep. Winnifred passes the test, stumbling the next morning into court a sleepless zombie. But, when the Queen refuses to consent to Winnifred’s marriage to her son, the previously ineffectual Dauntless grows a spine and barks at his mother, telling her, in no uncertain terms, that he will indeed marry Winnifred. This response—like that of a mouse devouring a hawk—renders the Queen mute and restores the King’s voice, as Dauntless and Winnifred happily head off to the altar.

Encore! Productions at City Center are concert, rather than full-fledged stage, performances.  The series is in its thirtieth season.  Rehearsals and production runs are limited. There are no sets. The orchestra is not quite as large as it would be for a Broadway production, and props and costumes are functional and generic.  The plot of Mattress is admittedly silly, but this production works. The songs may not be all that memorable, but the full-throated cast is clearly having the time of their lives. Ham acting is the rule, not the exception, and the whole production comes together as a seamless whole.

Mattress has an interesting production history.  The original production opened off Broadway in May 1959, but quickly moved uptown to a Broadway venue for an extended run under the direction of George Abbott.  The then little-known Carol Burnett made her Broadway debut in the role of Winnifred.  Burnett was subsequently replaced in the role by the veteran television comic actress Ann B. Davis.  The seven-month national tour of the show after the Broadway production closed saw first Doddy Goodman and then Imogene Coca play the Princess—a role clearly designed for a comedienne with broad physical and vocal comic skills. In the road company, the great Buster Keaton played the part of the mute King. The Burnett production was adapted for television in black and white in 1964 and then again in color in 1972.  A third television production in 2005 saw Tracey Ullman as the hapless Princess, and Burnett, in a nice turn, as the Queen.

Mattress is filled with what François Amy de la Bretèque has called elements of the medieval imaginary, and what Andrew B.P. Elliott has dubbed historicons.  The musical offers a castle, a king and a queen, a prince and a princess, a brave knight, ladies in waiting, a quest, a royal challenge, a curse, a jester, a wizard, and a minstrel (the part has been cut from the City Center production), as well as references to Camelot, dragons, and witches, among other items contemporary audiences expect to find in an accurate, as opposed to an authentic, portrayal of the medieval. To the list of the musical’s accurate medievalist elements, the Encore! Production adds the name of Winnifred—now, thanks to David Lowery’s 2021 film The Green Knight, an early medieval Welsh saint to be reckoned with—a Swamp Castle—later familiar to audiences from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail—the musical number “Song of Love,” which encapsulates the entire plot of another vaguely medievalist musical, the much-revived 1987 Into the Woods, and a gender bending use of a familiar Arthurian name, Aggravain. The City Center production is under the musical direction of Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the artistic direction of Lear Debessonet, and the creative direction of Clint Ramos.

One Upon a Mattress with original music by Mary Rodgers, original lyrics by Marshall Barer, and original book by Jay Thomson, Marshall Barer, and Dean Fuller, from the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Princess and the Pea, at New York’s City Center in an Encore! Concert Production, January 24-February 4, 2024. Running time: 150 minutes with one intermission.

October 31, 2023

Sullivan: Eleanor of Aquitaine, As It Was Said

Eleanor of Aquitaine. As It Was Said. Truth and Tales about the Medieval Queen
by Karen Sullivan. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2023. First Edition. vi+270pp. $45,00. ISBN 978-0-226-82583-0/ 0-226-82583-3.

Reviewed by Gabrielle Storey

University of Winchester

Fans of Eleanor of Aquitaine will undoubtedly appreciate this new work on her by Karen Sullivan, who has examined the literary evidence from a close perspective. In her introduction Sullivan posits that her work will rise above the speculation that other biographers of Eleanor have often turned to, in an attempt to fill the gaps left by the evidence. As is sometimes, but not always the case and as Sullivan notes, biographical works of Eleanor have sought to assess Eleanor as a proto-feminist icon, or read the chronicles with too light an analytical eye. This work seeks to redress some of the misconceptions we have of Eleanor through literary analysis.

Sullivan’s approach to the material is chronological, but not biographical, instead providing a useful interrogation of the literature that discussed each period of Eleanor’s life. In the first chapter on Eleanor as heiress and queen of France, Sullivan addresses the folklore tales that introduced a mysterious wife as a demon, and drew parallels with the arguable foundations for Louis’ repudiation of Eleanor because she was a demon (30-1). This is a tall tale for the modern reader, but one that seems to have captured the imaginations of some of the contemporary chroniclers. Sullivan deftly unpicks the literature and the authors, pushing the reader to consider the mindsets and preconceptions of medieval writers, and indeed how Eleanor may have viewed and represented herself knowing the frame of mind of chroniclers. Sullivan’s detailed interrogation of the literature opens up new avenues of thought, and she introduces several histories that new scholars of Eleanor may not be immediately aware of, which is beneficial for students and scholars alike. In the second chapter, ‘The Crusader’, Sullivan excavates the literary records of the many men who were thought to have had romantic liaisons with Eleanor during this period, and considers why these stories arose: a welcome discussion that does not solely focus on Raymond of Antioch, as is often the case with such examinations. 

What is one of the most intriguing chapters is the discussion of Eleanor and the courts of love: with its foundations in Marion Meade’s original biography in 1977, much work on Eleanor since has sought to unravel the truths and connections between Eleanor and the ideals of courtly love. In the third chapter Sullivan argues for the merit that Eleanor was a great patroness of poetry and courtly love, pushing against the ‘minimalist scholarship’ that has assumed that legendary tales about Eleanor were false (80). This may be an assessment that some historians grapple with: often we are to frame our interpretations on the evidence in front of us and not be speculative. Yet Sullivan invites us to ponder the wider ramifications of such interpretations and consider that greater understanding may be sought by parahistorical approaches. The strengths of this book lie in its wealth of evidence and the author’s superb knowledge and skill through which each piece is considered as its contribution to our understanding of Eleanor.

One concern with this book is that at times it reads very speculatively despite its professions to do the opposite: although most of the points are substantiated with literary evidence and subsequent analysis, some of the narrative is punctuated with ‘it was thought’ and ‘this was thought’ which does not establish a level of authority in the writer’s argument. The book serves its purpose in that it contains a close analysis of medieval texts, contemporary to Eleanor and some written after her lifetime; however it is very much a book of questioning our assumptions (whilst on occasion inviting more speculation). This is not a biographical work – and nor does it claim to be one – and therefore for those interested in Eleanor it should be read alongside a biography that makes strong use of the numerous charters and letters attributed to or concerned with Eleanor.

In all this book builds upon some of the work that Michael R. Evans undertook for Inventing Eleanor and is a welcome examination of the literary sources, familiar and unfamiliar. However, it lacks an engagement with some of the most recent work on co-rulership, power, and other royal studies scholarship which would round out Sullivan’s assessment of Eleanor. It is well-written, examines an impressive breadth of literature and offers food for thought on our interpretations of the literary evidence. Eleanor is certainly not a figure who is going to stop gaining attention anytime soon, and this book would be useful to anyone with an interest in medieval literature and queenship. There are some phrases and terminology which may be inaccessible for the lay reader, however the structure of the work, including endnotes, helps overcome any other accessibility concerns. On the whole it is a useful text for Eleanor scholars seeking a fresh approach to her life and the evidence.

Gabrielle Storey

University of Winchester

August 1, 2023

Grupo de Estudos em História Medieval (GEHM): A Post-Mortem Analysis

GEHM: a post-mortem analysis 


Leandro César Santana Neves 

Luiz Felipe Anchieta Guerra 


The rise and fall of GEHM 

In early 2020, the Grupo de Estudos em História Medieval (GEHM), also known as the Study Group of Medieval History, emerged as a result of the proactive efforts of undergraduate students from the State University of Montes Claros (Unimontes), Brazil, who were engaged in exploring themes related to the Middle Ages for their bachelor theses. The primary purpose behind the group's establishment was to provide a safe and conducive platform for Unimontes students to engage in scholarly discussions concerning their research themes and concepts.  

Although formally supervised by Professors Vinícius César Dreger and Robson Murilo Della Torre, the group operated under the stewardship of an undergraduate leader (Karolina Santos initially held the position). While the original plan was to foster a workshop environment through regular face-to-face gatherings at the Unimontes campus, the unforeseen outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 compelled the group to swiftly adapt to the new reality of remote interactions after the first and only in-person meeting. 

The transition, however, turned out to be highly advantageous for GEHM, as it offered a unique opportunity for undergraduate students, graduate students, and professors from various institutions and regions across Brazil to participate actively in the meetings, thereby introducing diverse perspectives and specialized knowledge. It was at this time that GEHM started to incorporate other members from outside of Unimontes as members and collaborators, including Luiz Guerra (now a masters’ student at Unimontes) and Leandro César Neves (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro - UFRJ), the authors of this text, as well as Prof. Dani Gallindo (Federal University of Pelotas - UFPel). 

Furthermore, this shift facilitated the inclusion of guest speakers, typically authors of the texts under examination, enriching the debates and sparking the notion of extending invitations to international scholars to create a genuinely global community. Commencing with Richard Utz (Georgia Tech) and subsequently featuring other eminent scholars like Louise DArcens (Macquaire University), Ronald Hutton (University of Bristol), and Daniel Wollenberg (University of Tampa), GEHM's seminar series has, to date, welcomed an impressive cohort of over 30 academics hailing from five continents, ranging from aspiring graduate students to seasoned and retired professors. As a result, these seminars have garnered considerable attention and interest from a wide-ranging and diverse international audience spanning the entire globe. 

Following the resounding success of its international endeavours, GEHM ventured into hosting its inaugural conference, the 2021 Global Medievalisms Conference, which garnered participation from over 300 registrants, attracting attendees and guests from across the globe. Notably, the conference transcended the boundaries of the traditional Anglophone sphere, drawing enthusiastic involvement from regions such as Asia, Western Asia, Eastern Europe, and Central and South America. It was considered an absolute success, and groundbreaking by the standards of medievalism and even medieval studies conferences in Brazil at the time.  

Embracing its newfound global audience, GEHM made a decisive choice to maintain its activities exclusively in the online domain, even as the COVID-19 restrictions began to ease. The group has maintained its international aspect, regularly welcoming guest speakers and hosting special events. In continuation of this trajectory, the group successfully organized its second international conference in 2022, named Global Medievalisms II. 

As part of its future plans, GEHM had decided on a shift in its conference focus. The 2022 Global Medievalisms II was intended to be the last conference focused on medievalism, the group aimed to organize a more traditional Medieval Studies event in 2023, with a potential hybrid medievalism conference, combining in-person and remote elements, slated for 2024, possibly in collaboration with the International Society for the Study of Medievalism (ISSM). 

As of late 2022, GEHMs organizational framework comprised Melissa Martins Veloso, an undergraduate student, serving as the coordinator, while Luiz Felipe Anchieta Guerra holds the position of co-coordinator. In addition, Professors Vinícius Dreger and Robson Della Torre continued to provide invaluable guidance as supervisor and co-supervisor, respectively. 

On December 06, 2022, Luiz Guerra, as sole remaining member of the board, officially dissolved the group after a long hiatus of activities. The reasons for this, at the time, were not made public. 


Facing the allegations 

Fact of the matter is, unbeknownst to most participants and organisers, then supervisor Vinícius César Dreger was facing allegations of sexual assault and harassment within the University. This resulted in more and more Unimontes students distancing themselves from the group after the 2022 conference, but it was not until August 19 – when he was officially suspended by the University – and September 08 – when Unimontes started an internal investigation – that most of GEHM was made aware of the situation; and even then, the true extent of the situation was mostly unknown. A police pre-inquiry was started somewhere around this time, but this information was not public. 

Shortly after the announcement of the investigation, GEHM suffered a quick withdrawal of members and organisers as well, with Dreger himself leaving the group on September 15. The group would never convene again, and all activities were dropped indefinitely. There would be no active updates for GEHM until the aforementioned dissolution on December 06. 

Outside of GEHM, there were substantial developments over the course of the last months of 2022. As the media picked up the story, more and more details started to come to light, as well as more victims. Then Rector of Unimontes, Professor Antônio Alvimar Souza, the Civilian Police secretary desk, and Dreger’s legal team, all gave statements to the press. Following the Rector’s declarations and the media response, his office doubled down and published, on October 17, a document creating a specialized commission for reception, referral and monitoring of crimes of sexual violence and discrimination within the State University of Montes Claros. Professor Alvimar Souza won the voting for a second term as Rector, but the Governor of the Estate of Minas Gerais opted instead to name the second placed candidate. The commission was quickly unmade by the new and current Rector Professor Wagner de Paulo Santiago, on November 16, as of this moment no effective alternatives were yet provided. 

For the rest of 2022, Dreger remained barred from accessing Unimontes grounds, and the investigations proceeded both by the Police and by the University itself. In March 24, 2023, the Civilian Police announced the conclusion of their inquiry on “possible crimes against sexual freedom committed by a professor against ten students and former students. According to Police Commissioner Karine Maia: “he was indicted five times for sexual harassment, twice for photographing or recording nudity scenes, in addition to libidinous acts. With sufficient evidence gathered, the case was close and waiting to be picked by a Judge. Shortly after, on April 19, the University declared the conclusion of their own investigation, saying that a verdict had been reached, but not disclosing what that verdict would be until it was rectified by the Comptroller General of the State of Minas Gerais.  

Until this point Dreger’s name was kept in secret, being only referred to as V.C.D.A. or “accused”. This changed when, on July 18, the Official State Bulletin published that the Comptroller General “decides to apply the penalty of dismissal for the good of the public service to the servant Vinícius Cesar Dreger de Araújo”. This allowed not only the media to finally release his name, but also for people to more openly discuss it, which ultimately led to the writing of this piece. As of right now, the case is still waiting to be judged in a Court of Law, and Mr. Dreger has up to 10 days to appeal his firing. 


Damage control 

The decision to finally dissolve GEHM was unilateral. It also coincided with my (Luiz’s) decision to step down from the ISSM’s Executive Board. Both reflected how completely overwhelmed I was at the time with both executive roles, and how things became unmanageable. However, the decision to terminate GEHM had a little more thought put into it, which we shall explain now. 

Despite being a unilateral call, the group was virtually dead at the moment the decision was made: Months of no activity and radio silence raise many eyebrows. Due to the confidential situation at the time, we couldn’t publicly denounce Dregar or make any statement disclosing the issue. That said, the news was spreading by word of mouth, and one of my biggest concerns was that our members, especially the younger undergraduates, could suffer some of the repercussions, or end up being associated with Mr. Dreger’s newly acquired reputation. Thus, the decision the end GEHM was ultimately a form of damage control, to protect our members as well as the accessible content we worked so hard to produce. I opted to permanently sever the issue instead of trying to salvage what was left; after all the “brand” itself was tainted: GEHM was advertised as a “safe” environment, and it clearly failed to deliver.  

On the background, in the months preceding the shutdown of GEHM, we did our best to reach former international guests and collaborators to explain the situation, and Mr. Dreger’s role, in detail. We felt it was our responsibility to bring them the news, since we introduced them to him and promoted his work. It was only after most previous guests had received the news that we proceeded to terminate the group publicly. This also meant the termination of all partnerships, and cancellation of future planned events. We reached out to collaborators and friends in Brazil in order to first assure that our members would not be stigmatized, and also that students who were counting on GEHM for academic help could be properly supported by other groups. 

Finally, shutting down the group was not without its casualties, as some people were left without certification from previous events and the EBook project was de facto abandoned, as it was, at the time, impossible to remove Dreger’s name from it. However, now that his firing has been announced, if not revoked, this means both issues could be solved in the near future 


Our legacy, and why we will not erase our digital footprint 

In the short period during which it remained active, GEHM has become one of the most important centers of study and research about the Middle Ages in Brazil. As stated previously, the first and second iterations of the Global Medievalism conference were a tremendous success, especially in putting Brazilian medievalists at the same pulpit as those from places where research about the period is considered to be more consolidated. This leveling of a historiographical production still considered as “peripheric” and/or “marginal” can be seen in its integrity in the GEHM YouTube channel.  

Aside from the aforementioned conferences, the channel also has a valuable workshop titled “Introduction to the Study of Paleography and Medieval Manuscripts” (Introdução ao Estudo da Paleografia e Manuscritos Digitais), conducted by Fabiana Léo (UFMG) and Bruno Salles (UFOP). The importance of this workshop cannot be stressed enough, considering that Brazilian medieval research, although “triumphant” given constant omens of failure1 and ferocious attacks from the academy itself2, still faces some methodological issues, such as overdependence on certain editions of texts and the general lack of a basic knowledge regarding source materiality, given that Paleography is not a widely distributed class in Brazilian universities (when it is, it’s laser-focused on documents from the Colonial period). 

The safeguarding of the conferences and the workshop, as well as some other material, is one of the reasons why the remaining members of GEHM decided to not erase its contribution to Medieval studies from the internet, be it YouTube or other social media. It still is and will certainly continue to be an important material for researchers around the world, as well as a showing of how strong Brazilian Medieval studies is despite several disadvantages. What we have done as a study / research group articulated all of the three pillars of the Brazilian university: teaching, research, and extension. Activities open to the larger public helped a variety of students to rethink their own research projects and also to adapt their objects to more pedagogically palatable means. What Mr. Dreger did behind the curtains and what Mr. Della Torre and the students as a whole did were completely different things, and our contribution to Medieval studies as a whole is completely independent of the allegations. One does not cancel the whole phenomenology field because of Martin Heidegger’s past, nor Marxism for the acts of Louis Althusser. That said, as the GEHM label is still directly tied to Mr. Dreger, the name of the group will be completely abandoned. 


Lessons to be learned  

The GEHM experience teaches us some lessons: One of them shows the value of academic initiative and cooperation. GEHM was a completely undergraduate initiative, created by students who wished to specialize in research themes ranging from common to Brazilian Medieval studies like the reception of Vikings in contemporaneity, French chivalry, and witchcraft, but with a renewed look; to more “obscure” (by even Latin American standards) subjects, such as Byzantine eunuchism, Ethiopian Christianity, Calabrian codicology, and the depiction of Arabs in post-9/11 Brazilian school manuals. Through reunions and academic invitations, the students were able to connect with a plethora of medievalists, from undergraduates like themselves to other university professors, all eager to assist the young researchers. This academic solidarity helped create knowledge as well as friendship networks that helped everyone involved during the harshest period of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The GEHM experience also teaches us the importance of a global community of academics and what areas considered as peripherical can contribute to the production of knowledge. The majority of foreign accounts regarding the GEHM-organized activities and the dialogue fostered by these, especially by Global North’s academics, was overwhelmingly positive, and the same intensity of shock and sadness was seen when the dissolution was announced. With all due modesty, it’s safe to say that GEHM was a, perhaps the major contributor for the internationalization of Brazilian Medieval studies beyond the known borders of France and the Iberian Peninsula. The actions perpetrated by one of its members cannot erase the group’s national and global impact, and now all we can do is wish that more initiatives like GEHM may emerge, from the ashes of Unimontes or from somewhere else, organized by curious and eager undergraduates.