Wednesday, 31 March 2010

An Irish History of Civilization

Dr Denis Casey writes:

A recent reading experience has left me with the feeling that perhaps I should emerge from under my cultural rock a little more often. The work that inspired this minor bout of introspection was Don Akenson's large two-volume An Irish History of Civilization (2005). That's right, An Irish History of Civilization; not A History of Irish Civilization. Akenson's intriguing work is not a history of Ireland or Irishness but a presentation of the Irish experience of world history in Talmudic form. In his preface Akenson suggests that his work is 'a collection of fictive short stories or, if you prefer, of Aggadah: very little in the way of Halachah here'.

Even from a purely 'ASNC' point of view his book is full of individually-titled pieces that provoke an examination of how we appreciate the materials with which we work and also our own relationship with them. For example, in 'The Beginning', on the passage graves along the Boyne, he remarks of their creators that 'these are a stone-aged people, but they are as far from being primitive as we are from being civilized' (vol I, p. 59). Certainly food for thought, especially when one reflects on the continuing controversy over the proposed route of the M3 motorway through the Tara-Skreen valley. In 'The Land', Akenson contrasts the pre-modern and modern Irish landscape and suggests that 'you've never been there even if you've lived there all your life' (I, p. 60). His brief tale focuses on changes such as deforestation, widespread enclosure of land, draining of lakes and consumption of bogs and concludes:

The Boyne Valley (from www.

'So all the events that happen before, say, 1600, happen in a theatre that we have never visited, and are outlined against backdrops we can only intuit. When heroic chariot battles occur in the central plains, they are on a topographical scale now impossible to duplicate; when journeys in the northern drumlins and woodlands are mentioned, they take place in a claustrophobic tangle of scree and tree that is no longer tangible; and when an adventurer crosses parts of the far south or far north, he is frequently travelling and travailing across a desert waste where there is no fodder for horses, no grass, all is heather or bog and there are only tiny settlements, most of which the traveller can pass within a mile of and never know are there' (I, pp. 60-1).

One might go to the works of Frank Mitchell (The Shell Guide to Reading the Irish Landscape, Dublin, 1986) or Fergus Kelly (Early Irish Farming: a Study based mainly on the Law-Texts of the 7th and 8th Centuries A.D., Dublin, 2000) for a discussion of the medieval Irish landscape from a more 'scientific' point of view and find a great deal to contradict the details of Akenson's description, but to do so would be to miss the point of this particular piece of Aggadah. It is the overall thrust of the stories that is critical and, as Akenson wryly notes in his prefact, 'as far as mere accuracy is concerned, not all seeming errors in the text are accidental. Sometimes even the immortal Homer only pretended to nod'!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Update: Staffordshire Hoard Saved for the Nation

Dr Rory Naismith writes:

On 23 March the National Heritage Memorial Fund pledged the final £1.285 million needed to reach the purchase price of £3.3 million set by a Treasure Valuation Committee in November 2009 for the Staffordshire hoard of 1,600 early Anglo-Saxon gold and silver objects. This news comes three weeks ahead of the scheduled deadline for the fundraising campaign. Donations contributing towards this goal have come from a range of sources, including the Art Fund, Birmingham and Stoke city councils and a successful public appeal, one anonymous donor to which gave £50,000.

Despite this important and extremely welcome step, fundraising efforts are set to continue, aiming now for the estimated £1.7 million needed by the hoard's future custodians (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and Stoke Museums) to undertake proper conservation, study and display to the public. Purchase of the hoard for the nation thus hardly marks the end of the interest and activity which it has generated: its acquisition paves the way for detailed investigation and long-term exhibition to begin in earnest.

Monday, 22 March 2010

ASNCs set York alight (literally)

ELB writes:

On Saturday 20th March, members of the ASNC Department were in York to hold a one-day conference on The Early Medieval World, aimed at Year 11 and 12 pupils and their teachers. Despite a slightly inauspicious start, involving a fire in the pub in which we were drinking the night before, and a fire alarm in the early hours of the morning at our hotel, the event itself proved to be a massive success. More than one hundred pupils and teachers - largely from schools in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire, although some had come from London, and even as far afield as Dover - gathered at St Peter's School (we loved the ASNC connection - the school even claims Alcuin as a past headmaster!) for a day of mini-lectures on themes as diverse as cultural contacts in early medieval Yorkshire to the historical Macbeth.

St Peter's School, York, who hosted our event superbly.

Dr Andrew Bell, Tutor for Admissions at Gonville and Caius College, began the day with a talk on 'Thinking about Early Medieval Europe' which addressed wide historical themes, and various approaches to early medieval history. Next, Dr Fiona Edmonds, Lecturer in Celtic History, outlined evidence for British-speaking communities in Anglo-Saxon England as late as the eighth century. Fiona focused particularly on Yorkshire and Lancashire, and engaged the interest of the audience by using toponymic evidence from their own localities to support the argument for a continued British presence well into the Anglo-Saxon period.

After lunch, Dr Debby Banham, an expert in Anglo-Saxon diet, farming and medicine, gave a fascinating insight into everyday life in Anglo-Saxon England, touching on diet, clothing, and shelter. Dr Richard Dance, Senior Lecturer in Old English Language and Literature, gave the audience a highly entertaining, and interactive, introduction to the Old English and Old Norse languages. Lastly, I spoke on medieval Gaelic influences in modern English literature, focusing on the historical Macbeth. A quick glance at the feedback questionnaires suggest that there was a universally positive response to the day, with many pupils and teachers lamenting the fact that they have no opportunity to study medieval history or literature at GCSE or 'A' Level.

The Department would like to say a massive thank you to the two undergraduates, Albert Fenton and Rebecca Wilkinson, who came to York with us, and who spoke to many of the young people who attended, offering them information on everything from university applications to life as an ASNC. They were brilliant, enormously helpful and unfailingly enthusiastic. Thanks guys!

Monday, 15 March 2010

Viking-Age Mass Execution in Dorset

Dr Rory Naismith writes:

Construction work in June 2009 on a relief road cutting across Ridgeway Hill, close to Weymouth, Dorset, uncovered the chilling and utterly unexpected remains of what could only be interpreted as a mass execution. In the course of subsequent excavations, 51 skulls were found heaped next to the rest of the remains, which had been dumped haphazardly into a quarry pit. Many of the bones showed evidence of violent, even deadly injuries including blows with edged weapons to the head, jaw and upper spine. Others displayed wounds to the chest, stomach and pelvis, or defensive blows to the hands. All had been young men, aged in their teens or twenties, with a few in their thirties. No evidence of pins, brooches or other items associated with clothing was found, suggesting that the men had been stripped naked either before or after death.

picture from BBC News website

After initial speculation that the remains could have been of Roman or pre-Roman Iron-Age date, radio carbon dating of the remains in July 2009 revealed that they had been killed at some point between AD 910 and 1030. Recent isotopic analysis by NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory of the teeth taken from ten individuals has added another piece to the puzzle. These men had not been brought up eating the food or drinking the water in an area with chalk geology such as Dorset. Rather, they grew up in a climate colder than England's, probably north of the Arctic circle in the case of one individual. They had eaten a high-protein diet comparable with that known from human remains excavated in Sweden. In other words, it is likely that these young men were Scandinavians.

Further details will doubtless emerge concerning this exceptional and grisly discovery, and it is to be hoped that these will allow some sort of conclusion to be reached about what events may have precipitated the slaughter of approximately fifty vikings in Dorset. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle offers a few possible contexts. Dorset was ravaged by vikings in 998, and by Cnut's invading army in 1015. Most famously, in 1002 Æthelred II ordered the death of 'all the Danish men who were in England': the ensuing massacre took place on St Brice's day (13 November). Any or none of these events could lie behind the Ridgeway Hill execution burial. Whatever its background, it is a stark reminder of the real and very bloody violence of the Viking Age which took its toll on Anglo-Saxons and their Scandinavian opponents alike.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Staffordshire Hoard update

ELB writes:

The ASNC department's very own Prof. Simon Keynes was among the experts invited to view and discuss the Staffordshire Hoard as part of the fundraising campaign, led by the The Art Fund, to raise the money necessary to keep the Hoard in the country. Tony Robinson has an article in today's Sunday Times which discusses it further. Meanwhile, Richard Brooks, in the same newspaper's 'Culture' supplement hints that the National Heritage Memorial Fund may shortly be able to provide around £1.5 million pounds towards the cost of purchasing the Hoard, which could be added to the £1.6 million already raised to date. We await further news.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Report of H. M. Chadwick Lecture 2010

Ronni Phillips writes:

On Thursday, 11th March the ASNC Department held the 21st annual H. M. Chadwick Memorial Lecture.  The lecture was delivered by Professor Joseph F. Nagy of the University of California Los Angeles.  Its topic was "Merchants of Myth in Ancient and Medieval Celtic Traditions".  Professor Nagy began his lecture with reference to H. M. Chadwick’s work The Heroic Age, which argued that the Celtic literary ‘heroic milieu’ – like other heroic literatures – was peopled only by royal or noble families and their households, but depicted no representatives of merchants, farmers or artisans.  These mercantile figures were thus defined as representing a more cosmopolitan ‘medieval’ era, set in opposition to an ancient ‘heroic’ age.

Professor Nagy argued for a more nuanced understanding of representations of merchants and mercantile behaviour in medieval Celtic literature. Drawing on texts ranging widely from the early Irish glossary Sanas Chormaic to the twelfth-century Middle Irish Acallam na Senórach, he noted various depictions of characters engaging in mercantile behaviour, such as negotiating, bargaining and exchanging.  He argued that these examples reflected networks of trade, cultural and intellectual exchange that existed prior to Viking – and indeed Roman – settlement.  This was not to say that such representations of mercantilism depicted it in an entirely positive light.  Rather, Professor Nagy explained that the ambivalence with which negotiating and bargaining for goods and wealth was portrayed in some texts, and the fact that liminal figures such as the Fenians in Acallam na Senórach were often portrayed as displaying mercentile behaviour may have reflected unease about such behaviour.  In projecting it onto the marginal Fenians, it kept mercantilism safely Other, while still engaging with it on an intellectual level. 

This argument draws on some of Professor Nagy’s earlier research from his book of 1985, The Wisdom of the Outlaw.  In that book he noted that fénnidi occupy an uneasy position in medieval Irish literature as ‘social outcasts forever denied adult status’, but whose position as outsiders allows them to gain wisdom not available to fully integrated members of society and bring the benefits of this wisdom back to society.  Mercantile behaviour, perhaps, was another such marginal activity – at least within literature – and depicting fénnidi as engaging in it allowed writers to reflect on the benefits of trade and exchange while keeping it safely confined to marginal figures. 

Professor Nagy’s Chadwick Lecture will be published by the ASNC Department.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

H. M. Chadwick Memorial Lecture 2010

The 2010 H. M. Chadwick Memorial Lecture will be delivered by Prof. Joseph Falaky Nagy (UCLA) on Thursday 11th March, at 5pm, in Room GR.06/07, in the English Faculty Building, 9 West Road, Cambridge. Prof. Nagy will be speaking on 'Merchants of Myth in Ancient and Medieval Celtic Traditions'. This is a public lecture - all are welcome - and it will be followed by a wine reception.

(Nagy, Conversing with Angels and Ancients)

Hector Munro Chadwick (1870-1947) was the Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Cambridge (1912-41). Through the immense range of his scholarly publications, and through the vigorous enthusiasm which he brought to all aspects of Anglo-Saxon studies -- philological and literary, historical and archaeological -- he helped to define the field and give it the interdisciplinary orientation which characterises it still. The Department of ASNC, which owes its existence and its own interdisciplinary outlook to H. M. Chadwick, has wished to commemorate his enduring contribution to Anglo-Saxon studies by establishing an annual series of lectures in his name. The H. M. Chadwick Memorial Lecture (established in 1990) is delivered by a scholar who is invited to Cambridge for the occasion, on a subjected calculated to be of interest to the whole Department.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Is ASNaC on the rise in popular culture?

Robin McConnell writes:

The early medieval period has always been an area of exploration for the arts. In painting, sculpure, literature and cinema - in essentially all the creative media - there has been a longstanding tradition of appropriation of the medieval period as context for storytelling and entertainment. But it would be fair to say that the use of the early middle ages (or the "ASNaC period", as I like to think of it) in the arts has always been a sub-genre at best in any media; often it is so low-profile that you might call it an underground movement. Let's face it, how many people would recognise an early medieval novel that is neither Lord of the Rings or The Once and Future King if it came up in conversation? And neither of those can even be classed as 'early medieval' in the traditional sense, since they are not concerned with accurately representing the period, either historically or culturally. Likewise with films, the early medieval period has largely been overlooked. There are one or two lesser-known classics, such as 1958's The Vikings and 1952's Ivanhoe, but the fame of most films set in the early middle ages has been restricted to cult status. Even when 'blockbusters' as recent as the noughties have been made set in that period, they have usually been met with commercial and critical disappointment: take 1999's The 13th Warrior, 2004's King Arthur or 2007's Beowulf as prime examples of big-budget Hollywood treatment of the ASNaC period floundering in lukewarm critical reception and mediocre box-office takings. Such failures in the past have condemned the genre to low-budget and therefore mostly low-quality fare like Siege of the Saxons (1963) and Beowulf and Grendel (2005). Incidentally, 2007's Beowulf is fast developing a cult and has enjoyed considerable success in DVD sales.

The Secret of Kells