Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Sutton Trust Summer School in ASNC

Dr Elizabeth Boyle writes:

From 17th - 20th August, the ASNC Department hosted our first Sutton Trust Summer School in Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic. The students who took part came from state schools all over the country, from Barnsley to Ross-on-Wye, Stockport to Peterborough, in order to experience life as an undergraduate at Cambridge. The School began with an introduction to Anglo-Saxon History from Prof. Simon Keynes, followed by an introduction to the Vikings from our Head of Department, Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh. As in the case of real undergraduate study, the information gained in these lectures was then consolidated in small-group supervisions on Anglo-Saxon and Viking-Age History, led by PhD students and Junior Research Fellows in the ASNC Department. In the afternoon, Dr Richard Dance introduced the students to the basics of the Old English and Old Norse languages, and again this was consolidated in supervisions which focused on Old English and Old Norse literature.

The second day began with an introduction to medieval Welsh language and literature from Dr Paul Russell. This involved lessons in how to hang a mouse in medieval Welsh (and if this makes no sense to you, I suggest you read the Mabinogi). Afterwards, I gave a seminar on medieval Irish literature, which included some lively discussion on the 'Death of Conchobar'. In the afternoon the students were given a research assignment in the reading room of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, which resulted in some superb presentations on some of the Anglo-Saxon and medieval Welsh manuscripts in the Parker collection. The students then had the opportunity to see at first hand the manuscripts they had researched and spoken about.

The final morning included a lecture from Dr Fiona Edmonds on cultural contacts in early medieval Britain and Ireland, followed by supervisions on Celtic History led by post-doctoral researchers in the ASNC Department. The Summer School ended with a session on university admissions, applying to Cambridge, and opportunities for studying medieval culture more widely, which was led by Dr Andrew Bell, an Anglo-Saxon historian who is also Admissions Tutor at Gonville & Caius College. The aim of the Summer School was to offer students a taste of life as an ASNC undergraduate at Cambridge: the disciplinary breadth of the Department is such that the students got an intensive, whistle-stop tour of medieval languages, literature, history and palaeography over the course of a few brief days, but they were unflagging in their enthusiasm, their ability and their dedication. We hope that the Summer School will inspire all the participants to go on to university and to further their interest in the medieval world.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Pictish symbols

Phil Dunshea writes:

The mysterious carved symbol stones which cover Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus have always possessed a rather otherworldly quality. The people who left them – known to the Romans as the Picts, or ‘painted ones’ – disappeared from history in the tenth century, when they were effectively subsumed into the medieval kingdom of Scotland. By the twelfth century the Picts had acquired near-mythical status:

“Who will not espouse love of celestial things and dread of worldly things, if he considers not only that their kings and princes and people have perished, but also that at the same time their whole racial stock, their language and all remembrance of them have disappeared?”

The stones they erected, ornamented with elaborate swirling motifs and wild beasts, are best described as abstract. The examples with more intelligible pictures usually seem to depict conventional aspects of Dark Age aristocratic life: Christianity, hunting, warfare, land ownership and so on. But a new theory, put forward by Professor Rob Lee of Exeter University, suggests that there may be more to it than that. Lee and his team think these symbols might actually be a script, and that the stones are covered with writing. The media has pounced: “New Written Language of Ancient Scotland Discovered”, as the Discovery Channel’s website proclaims. Or “Ancient Language Mystery Deepens”, as the BBC more soberly put it.

Hilton of Cadboll replica (from Wikimedia Commons)

Why the excitement? It’s mainly because the Pictish language has always been something of an enigma. Other than their stones the Picts left very little trace of themselves (there is no surviving Pictish literature, for instance). Bede, a Northumbrian scholar writing at the beginning of the eighth century, makes it quite clear that the Picts did have their own language, but modern scholars have very little to go on in their attempts to work out what it might have looked like. Place-names and the names of Pictish kings (which occasionally appear in medieval texts) suggest that it was a Brittonic language, part of the same family as Welsh. That might imply that the Picts had not always been all that different from the rest of the Brittonic-speaking inhabitants of Britain, who once stretched from Cornwall to Lothian. It may only have been with the coming of the Romans, and their famous walls, that anything became distinctively ‘Pictish’. Clearly the Welsh and Pictish languages were different by Bede’s time, perhaps because the latter had been isolated long enough for it to develop along different lines. Without a more extended sample of Pictish writing, however, there is not much more that can be said.

Monday, 9 August 2010

PASE project to be featured in BBC documentary

ELB writes:

The Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England project, which was undertaken jointly by the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic, University of Cambridge, and King's College, London, is to feature in a BBC2 documentary on 'Domesday' tomorrow at 8pm, as part of the BBC's 'Norman Season'. Further details about the project can be found on Cambridge University's news page.