Thursday, 27 April 2017

Book of Uí Mhaine Conference, 2017

On 2nd March the Royal Irish Academy hosted a two-day conference at Dublin on the late fourteenth-century manuscript Leabhar Ua Maine or Book of Uí Mhaine. Twelve speakers presented papers on various aspects of this manuscript, ranging from early modern poetry to illumination, among whom was ASNC’s Professor Paul Russell. A small delegation of current ASNC PhD students (David McCay and myself) and professors (Prof Máire Ní Mhaonaigh; Prof Paul Russell; Dr Margo Griffin-Wilson) were among the 110 delegates, as well as ASNC alumni such as Dr Sarah Waidler, Dr Silva Nurmio, Dr Deborah Hayden and Dr Elizabeth Boyle.

Just after noon, the conference was opened by Siobhán Fitzpatrick (head librarian) and Elizabeth Boyle. The first two papers given by Dr Nollaig Ó Muraíle and Dr Bernadette Cunningham provided a context for the manuscript by exploring its origins and those associated with its production and further history. After a tea break Dr Elizabeth Boyle took the audience on a journey through the Middle Eastern historical matter, of which a wide variety can be found in the manuscript. She discussed the interpretation of this material by tying it to its contemporary historical context and the genealogical material that is found in large quantities in the book. Prof Michael Clarke continued with the exploration of the verses on world-kingship by placing them in an international context, linking the poetry with mainland European monastic cultures and tentatively positing a link with the material found in the Book of Uí Mhaine and the contents of the library of King Richard II. Although this paper marked the end of the first day, discussion on the topics touched upon during the sessions continued during the reception.

The second day opened with a paper on the dindshenchas material contained in the Book of Uí Mhaine presented by Dr Marie-Luise Theuerkauf. Prof Ruairí Ó hUiginn followed with an analysis of the genealogical tracts, comparing them to the same core of material found in the roughly contemporary Book of Ballymore and Book of Lecan and pointing to the fact that the foregrounding of Uí Mhaine material in the manuscript indicates a strong regional interest. After a short tea break the next session brought us into the realm of poetry, as Prof Pádraig Ó Macháin and Dr Mícheál Hoyne discussed the transmission and functions of the poems in the manuscript. During the lunch break many discussions were continued, and there was ample opportunity to ask the speakers questions or wander around the Royal Irish Academy to browse the shelves or admire the Book of Uí Mhaine in person, which had been put on display especially for the occasion.

The first afternoon session was dedicated to language and was started off by Dr Deborah Hayden, who discussed the version of Auraicept na nÉces contained in the Book of Uí Mhaine. After this interesting paper, it was Prof Paul Russell’s turn to delve into the language. His study of the Uí Mhaine glossary explored the relationships between this word-list and similar glossaries found in three related manuscripts, concluding by showing that their transmission took place in the reverse direction than has hitherto been assumed. After the afternoon coffee break we moved on to the last two papers of the conference. In an interesting paper, Prof Liam Breatnach explored the metrical tracts that are found in the manuscript. Finally, the conference was brought to a close by Dr Karen Ralph, who took a closer look at the illumination found in the manuscript and linked it to medieval Irish literature. This paper concluded our journey through the Book of Uí Mhaine, which proved to be a multifaceted source providing us a glimpse into medieval Irish society.

Anouk Nuyten

‘Now comes the shadow-dark dragon flying’ – Eddic Poetry and the Power of Legend

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Judy Quinn, Brittany Schorn and Carolyne Larrington share some reflections on Old Norse eddic poetry on the Cambridge University Press blog.

Cambridge University Press is also currently offering at 20% off deal for their Handbook to Eddic Poetry; get it HERE.

Monday, 24 April 2017


The annual Cambridge Colloquium in Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic (CCASNC) took place this year on the 11th February, with the theme ‘Identity and Ideology’. We welcomed nine postgraduate speakers, and our keynote speaker Dr Alex Woolf (University of St Andrews).

The opening session began with ASNC’s own Rebecca Thomas discussing the multiple identities of Asser behind his Life of King Alfred, followed by Thomas Kearns (University of Durham) providing a detailed look into the charters of Oswald of  Worcester and his ideological vision of the Benedictine reform in the tenth-century. To close was Katherine Olley (ASNC), who took us further afield to Norway and gave an emotive description of attitudes towards birth scenes in Old Norse legendary literature. Discussions continued throughout the coffee break, when the next session brought us something slightly different in the form of archaeology. Danica Ramsey-Brimberg (University of Liverpool) presented a microcosm of Viking age burials in the Irish sea region and its political context, with Ben Allport (ASNC) following with an in-depth look at regional identity in medieval Norway, using a mix of both archaeological and saga evidence. Closing this session was a discussion of identity and diet in the Anglo-Saxon conversion period by Samantha Leggett (University of Cambridge), who very deftly provided a scientific discussion of teeth in a way which was not only understandable for those of us who were not archaeologists, but which was highly engaging.

After breaking for lunch – and an opportunity to browse the bookstall! - we were delighted to welcome Dr Alex Woolf, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of St Andrews, as our keynote speaker. Dr Woolf presented a skillful discussion on ‘Imagining English Origins before the Viking Age’, and led us from Germanic mythology to Welsh genealogies and English toponomy. He looked at a range of elements contributing to the identity of the English, including his idea that the character Hengest had its origins in a gloss on the Latin name for Kent. There was much food for thought, and a productive and thought-provoking question-and-answer session followed.

The third and final session continued to provide a broad range of topics, opening with a fascinating discussion from Rachel Fletcher (University of Glasgow) on the first Old English dictionary by William Somner in 1659 and its influence on the field. Following this, Steve Walker (University of Birmingham) spoke on ideological battles between secular and ecclesiastical elites in Britain as an ongoing issue which has modern-day implications. Finally, we had Kathryn Haley-Halinski (University of Iceland/University of Oslo) to close the day with a focus on the Rus in the Volga region as found in the writings of Ibn Fadlan, as part of the Viking Age diaspora.

In many ways, the closing papers reflected the overall feel of the colloquium; detailed analysis of very specific and very different topics, of which all were nonetheless strongly connected to each other by ties of identity. Indeed, it was a predominant theme of the day that one cannot study a subject in isolation; identities and ideologies are both forged through engaging with other cultures, politics, and landscapes.

Post-colloquium, lively conversations could be found in the Red Bull in Newnham, where the dialogue of identity and ideology continued in a more informal setting. Formal dinner followed at Wolfson College, and we enjoyed a drinks reception and excellent three-course dinner.

The quality of this year’s CCASNC was consistently high, both of the standard of papers presented and of the questions they raised. The CCASNC committee would like to thank all those who came, and all those involved behind the scenes, for making this year’s colloquium so successful.

Alice Taylor

(CCASNC co-president)

Voyages Along the North Way, Past and Present

Hardangerfjorden Hordaland

Ben Allport, PhD Candidate

A well-known textual source for Viking Age Norway, known as Ohthere’s Voyage, relates the account of a Norwegian trader at the court of King Alfred the Great in the 870s-90s. Ohthere had journeyed from his home in the far north of Norway both northeast to the White Sea and south along the coast to the town of Hedeby (Schleswig) in modern Germany. From his home to a town called Skiringssal at the entrance to the Oslofjord he describes the route he is sailing as the ‘Northway’, one of our earliest attestations of the term that would become ‘Norway’ in modern English and ‘Norge’ in modern Norwegian. It is a unique text which attests to the sailing prowess of Viking Age Scandinavians and also to the friendlier contacts between the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse at a time which we tend to view through the lens of the Viking invasions.
Folgefonna National Park

Last year, from September to November, I got the opportunity to make my own voyage to ‘Northway’. Generously supported financially by the Scandinavian Studies Fund and the Sydney and Marguérite Cody Studentship, I spent three months based as a visiting researcher at the University of Oslo (Universitetet i Oslo) – but I made sure I had an allowance to do some travelling! When I wasn’t trawling through Norwegian history books, and attending (and occasionally giving) seminars or lectures in the ever-friendly Faculty of Archaeology, History and Conservation in Oslo, I was able to visit the varyingly autumnal and snowy forests of the Oslomark, experience the beautiful train-ride to Bergen, visit some of the Viking historical sites of Western Norway, and even fly to Tromsø, deep within the Arctic circle, to speak at the most northern University in the world, taking in some northern lights in the process.

My PhD research is concerned with the importance Norwegian regional identity in the Viking Age. Norwegian regional identity remains strong even to this day, with different areas even adopting different official dialects that distinguish them from the official language Bokmål, understood abroad as ‘Norwegian’. My trip therefore allowed me to get to grips with both the modern and medieval regional identities of Norway; I learned of the stereotypes that are still very much alive. The residents of Bergen (bergenser) are renowned for being loud and obnoxious (source: an Oslo resident), while those of Trøndelag (the area surrounding Trondheim), are moustachioed, bucolic, and wear leather jackets (I’m not joking about the moustaches, the so-called the trønderbart – google it).

St Olafs Church, Avaldsnes

My trip took me to locations such as Avaldsnes in Rogaland, the place from which Harald Fairhair, the semi-legendary unifier of the Norwegian kingdom, reigned supreme over all of Norway from the 870s to 930s – if you ask a resident of Rogaland, that is (or watch the fantastically mythologised video at the Avaldsnes Nordvegen museum). Someone from Oslofjord might suggest that Harald only ruled Western Norway and Trøndelag; a trønder might dispute even that. Although this late ninth-century figure may be controversial, it is clear that the modern Norwegian concept of history goes back much further than one might expect, particularly given the English (a term used advisedly) tendency, sprung of Victorian attitudes, to view 1066 as the starting point in British history, ignoring the different peoples and cultures of prior centuries. One person in Oslo even proudly told me that she had gone to school at Avaldsnes and had used to jog on Harald’s burial mound. Not one of the many mounds at Avaldsnes has been identified as Harald’s – and indeed the only written evidence that it exists at all locate it five miles away, in Haugesund. Who knows which particular tumulus had taken on this special significance for her, but to a certain extent it doesn’t matter; it is enough that, to this individual, history, identity and the landscape were all bound up together.

At one point I was able to make it as far as Ohthere’s homeland: the county of Troms, well within the Arctic circle, a land of sheer, dark cliffs that tower over the small settlements dotting the coastline. I was there in late November, and witnessed the beginning of the period known as ‘mørketiden’ – literally ‘the dark time’ – when the sun goes down for the winter. I walked across a frozen lake in Tromsø in the midday twilight, while people walked their dogs and skated around me. At night the skies were lit with the ‘nordlys’ – the northern lights.

As I described these sites to my dad over the phone, his first question was: ‘why do people decide to live there?’ Admittedly, his ideal of weather is decidedly more Mediterranean than mine; my choice of destinations (having previously spent years in both Iceland and Norway) tend towards cooler temperatures. However, at first glance, it is hard to imagine what would have induced Ohthere’s ancestors to settle in such an apparently hostile environment. A couple of centuries ago I’m sure it would have been argued that some sort of primordial romantic spirit drove the initial intrepid settlers to a place where nature so forcefully exerts its power over man; something similar probably drives modern tourism. 

However, the fact remains that this migration was made, and was indeed made time and again, by both the Sámi (the earliest settlers of the region) and the Norse, all of whom sought after the plentiful resources which lurk in abundance beneath the barren landscape we like to picture. During the Viking Age, northern Norway (or Hálogaland, as it was known to Ohthere) may well have been the economic powerhouse of Norway; the shorelines of the region are dotted with the remnants of major fisheries up to 1500 years old. In the Viking Age, the residents of Hálogaland (the Háleygir) were renowned for building the largest sea-going vessels, and this is confirmed by the largest boathouses, which suggest the existence of ships of up to 40m long. As Ohthere informed Alfred, ‘he was a very rich man in those possessions which their riches consist of, that is in wild deer. He had still, when he came to see the king, six hundred unsold tame deer.’ Besides this, the far north offered precious metals and items prized as luxuries throughout medieval Europe – furs and walrus ivory.

Oseberg ship; the largest North Norwegian ships would have been twice as big.

Ohthere’s Voyage also makes mention of the Sámi people (whom he terms the Finnas); the oldest indigenous population of Scandinavia. A diverse collection of peoples speaking ten different languages and pursuing many different livelihoods, the prevailing image of the Sámi is of nomadic reindeer herders; this seems to be the lifestyle that Ohthere describes. Unfortunately, interactions between the Norse residents of Norway and the Sámi over past centuries have ranged from exploitative (Ohthere himself extracted tribute from the Sámi, although the relationship is now considered to have been less one-sided) to outright oppressive. Today, discussion and inclusion of Sámi culture and history is beginning to gain the prominence it deserves, thanks in part to the efforts of scholars at Tromsø’s Arctic University. It was one such collection of scholars, the members of the Creating the New North research project, which had drawn me north in the first place, for an incredible few days where I was invited to speak at a project seminar, given a tour of the university museum and inundated with free books and articles. Throughout Tromsø there was evidence of the increasing recognition of the Sámi, including bilingual street signs – a sight familiar from parts of our own isles.

Ohthere brought tales of an alien land to entice and thrill his Anglo-Saxon audience. Today, the British knowledge of Norway is far more comprehensive, especially given its popularity as a holiday destination in these days of adventure tourism. But boat-tours of the fjords and glacier walks rarely provide an opportunity to get to grips with both Norwegian history and the modern attitudes of a culture so similar, in many ways, to our own. There is therefore still room for voyages of discovery to be made to Norway; and if anyone is in need of a new Ohthere, then it is a role I am more than happy to inhabit (please)!
*                             *                             *
I wish to extend my thanks to the funding bodies that allowed the trip to take place; to Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, Hans Jacob Orning and the Institutt for Arkeologisk, Konservering og Historie at Universitetet i Oslo; to Lars Ivar Hansen, Richard Holt, Sigrun Høgetveit Berg and the ‘Creating the New North’ research project at Universitetet i Tromsø; and to everyone I met along the way!


Saturday, 11 March 2017

New Article on Þórsdrápa from Tom Grant

Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 12 will be out soon, featuring an article by ASNC PhD student Tom Grant about ‘Þórr the War God: Polemicizing Myth in Eilífr Goðrúnarson’s Þórsdrápa’. Read more about it on the VMS facebook page here.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Chronicles in Medieval Wales and its Neighbours

Rebecca Thomas writes:

On the 25–26 May the Welsh Chronicles Research Group hosted a two-day conference at Cambridge on ‘Chronicles in Medieval Wales and its Neighbours’. The conference, organised by myself, Ben Guy (ASNC), Georgia Henley (Harvard; matric. MPhil ASNC 2010), and Dr Owain Wyn Jones (Bangor; matric. BA ASNC 2006), brought together scholars from a wide range of international institutions to share and discuss recent research on medieval chronicles. Whilst the research group is focused primarily on the study of chronicles from medieval Wales, we also invited specialists working on chronicles from Ireland, Scotland, and England, in order to facilitate wider and more comparative discussion. The Welsh Chronicles Research Group has previously organised two symposia (Bangor 2014 and Glasgow 2015), but this was our largest event to date, and proved to be an exciting and stimulating two days. 
The first day of the conference, held at the English Faculty, opened with a session focused on the early medieval period, with papers by Dr Nicholas Evans (University of Hull) on the Annals of Ulster, Dr Roy Flechner (UCD) on Chronicles and Canon Law, and myself on Asser’s use of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Discussion continued through the coffee break before the next session turned to a later period, with Dr Joshua Byron Smith (University of Arkansaw) discussing the Welsh material that Gregory of Caerwent incorporated into his chronicle and Ben Guy presenting on Brut Ieuan Brechfa, an early Tudor version of Brut y Tywysogyon, examining Ieuan Brechfa’s adaptation of the Brut and how it related to other versions. The session was brought to a close with something a bit different as we welcomed Scott Lloyd from the ‘Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales’, who gave us a presentation on the Battlefields Inventory, a project attempting to map the locations of all recorded battles in Wales. 
After lunch we were delighted to welcome J. Beverley Smith, Professor Emeritus in Welsh History at Aberystwyth University, to give the keynote lecture. Professor Smith gave a masterful analysis of Vita Griffini filii Conani (a text discovered and edited by ASNC's Professor Paul Russell), in which he drew attention particularly to the text's classical models and also to the problems of identifying later accretions present in both the Latin and Welsh versions. Observations concerning the latter led him to suggest an alternative date and context for the composition of the Vita.
The day was brought to a close with a session on chronicles in medieval Scotland. Professor Dauvit Broun (University of Glasgow) used the Chronicle of Melrose as a case study to present an exciting new approach to the study of chronicles, whilst Dr John Reuben Davies (University of Glasgow), also focusing on the Chronicle of Melrose, examined its thirteenth-century sources. Dr Owain Wyn Jones (Bangor University) had the final word of the day with a presentation on the website of the Welsh Chronicles Research Group, which provides summaries of various medieval chronicles (including bibliographical detail) as well as recent editions of certain important texts.
Dr Owain Wyn Jones presenting on the website of the Welsh Chronicles Research Group

As the first day came to an end we could reflect on what had been a wonderful day of papers and debate, and the discussion continued over the conference dinner at La Margherita, and well into the night thereafter. We still had much to look forward to however, with two sessions taking place on Thursday morning, this time held in the Divinity School of St John’s College. Dr David Stephenson (Bangor University) started proceedings with a paper exploring annalistic references to events in southern Powys in the late-twelfth century, before Henry Gough-Cooper (independent scholar) talked to us about the textual relationships between versions of the ‘Annales Cambriae’ group of Welsh Latin Chronicles. ASNC’s own Professor Paul Russell closed the session with a paper on the Latin rhetoric of Chronica de Wallia, examining its similarities to a Welsh marwnad. 
The final session opened with a paper by Georgia Henley (Harvard), drawing on her work editing the ‘Cardiff Annals’, and assessing their relationship with the annals of Tewksbury, followed by an examination of the Annála Gearra as Proibhinse Ard Macha by Dr Denis Casey (National University of Ireland, Maynooth), with some interesting food for thought on the construction of chronology in the text. Bringing proceedings to a close, Professor Chris Given-Wilson (University of St Andrew’s) took us forward to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with his examination of Adam Usk’s attitude towards the Welsh. 
There was general agreement that the conference had been a productive affair, and had sparked exciting debate and discussion. We were not the only ones who thought the conference to be exciting however. A press release on the event by St John’s College caught the attention of BBC Wales, who expressed a keen interest in learning more about Welsh Chronicles. This was how I found myself wearing headphones and sitting in front of a microphone at the BBC Cambridgeshire studio at 7.45am on the first morning of the conference. ‘Good Morning Wales’ (BBC Wales), and ‘Post Cyntaf’ (Radio Cymru) took it in turns to pose a series of questions about Welsh Chronicles, the direction of our research, and medieval Wales more generally. The idea of chronicles as a medium for recording events and sharing news caught the imagination of ‘Good Morning Wales’, with the presenter comparing the medieval chronicle to a modern-day smartphone! 
The media attention didn’t end with the radio however, and BBC Wales subsequently produced an article on the conference (‘Delving into the Welsh Dark Ages’), which can be accessed here:
Further information on the conference, future news and events, as well as information on medieval Welsh chronicles more generally (including selected editions), can be found on our website: