Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Review: 15th International Saga Conference (5-11th August 2012, University of Aarhus)

Anna Millward writes:

If I remember correctly, Þórr did not wear tight spandex and dance about on stage waving his hammer.[*] The Norse mythological cosmos was not made up of different dimensional ‘bubbles’, and saga scholars were chained to their desks in dusty old offices, not trekking around the Icelandic wilderness in a battered old Landover. In fact, I thought academics discussed metre and metaphors, not smells and sign language. Yet these quirky papers set the tone for what was to be an inspiring 15th International Saga Conference (University of Aarhus, 5th-11th August): pushing the boundaries, thinking outside of the box, and engaging in a discourse beyond that of the medieval saga.

Of course, the traditional Old Norse super-heroes were there in full force: John Mckinnell, Margaret Clunies Ross, Lars Lönnroth and Ted Andersson to name but a few of the world-leading experts in the Scandinavian scholarly community who gathered together to show-case their most recent research and inspire awe (…or strike terror?) into the hearts of aspiring young scholars. Boasting over 330 participants attending five parallel sessions running over five days, the 15th International Saga Conference was by far the biggest Saga Conference yet -- and as the Glastonbury of academia, Old Norse ASNaCs did not want to miss out. Descending on Aarhus like a troop of shield-maidens (sorry conference boys), the Cambridge crew donned their byrnies in preparation for battle on the academic stage. Yet the Saga Conference turned out to be a surprisingly friendly event: more festival than feud.

Headlining for Cambridge were Dr. Judy Quinn and Dr. Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (the Shirley Basseys and Tina Turners of the Old Norse world, if you will). Judy Quinn’s paper, ‘The Shallowed Depth of the Eddic Past’, explored the notion of cyclical time in eddic heroic poetry, whilst Elizabeth Rowe discussed the interaction between different historiographical genres in her paper, ‘Saga or Annalistic History? Icelandic Interactions of Genre and Concepts of History’. Both scholars gave a first-class performance, and made a valuable contribution to current scholarship.

Of course, no head-liners would be without their (no less amazing) support acts. A whole host of PhD ASNaCs (both ongoing and recently completed) took to the stage to ‘wow’ the academic community with their most recent work. Amongst them, Emily Osborne, Vicky Cribb, Brittany Schorn, Jo Shortt Butler and Jeff Love did the Old Norse literary buffs proud, whilst Paul Gazzoli and Rosie Bonté held up the fort for Scandi history. Even former ASNaCs Eleanor Barraclough (who has since passed over to ‘that other place’) and Emily Lethbridge (usually found on Icelandic horse-back or in a Landrover) did Cambridge proud as they mixed saga landscapes, literature and place names into a delightful interdisciplinary cocktail.

Amidst coffee breaks, trendy conference rucksacks and the world’s most spectacularly luminous yellow cake, ASNaCs attending the 15th International Saga Conference in Aarhus joined with the rest of the Old Norse community to give a memorable performance. Presenting a variety of papers, Old Norse ASNaCs offered experimental ideas and new approaches to Norse scholarship, resulting in dynamic and stimulating discourse. Although the specially-brewed ‘Saga Ale’, no doubt helped the academic conversation flow, Aarhus was an exciting and intellectually challenging event enjoyed by all. Even the ‘ASNaC groupies’, (who escaped the terror of giving conference-speeches) engaged in Norsical discussions and had fun (though being tricked into singing at the Conference Dinner was marginally less amusing). It’s great that such a small department like ASNaC has so many people active in the Old Norse arena; not only is it a testament to the increasing popularity of the medieval Scandinavian world, but it means that ASNaC can continue to really make a positive impact in the field of Norse studies. So forget the rainbow flags currently sweeping Scandinavia: this is Old Norse Pride, and ASNaC an important part of it.

*this was actually a video-clip: unfortunately, no scholar dressed up as Þórr-in-spandex.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

A Dark Age Life? Alex Woolf on Æthelstan, the First King of England

Alex Woolf writes:

English history before the Norman Conquest of 1066 has something of the flavour of a back-story. Like those early parts of a Harry Potter novel that occur before Harry returns to Hogwarts, it is necessary for understanding what follows but it is not really part of the story. English kings are only numbered from the Conquest (though this is a strange coincidence, the first king to be numbered thus was Edward III) and the proverbial assertion of  ancestral antiquity is that one’s forebears ‘came over with the conqueror’. Before this comes the Anglo-Saxon period which is a curious in-between time, traditionally known as the Dark Ages, that separates the Roman period from the Middle Ages proper. Over the last generation or so there has been a concerted effort by scholars working in the field to bring it in from the dark and terms such as Late Antiquity, covering the period up to about 650, and the Early Middle Ages, more vaguely defined, have gained wider currency. Beyond the core of specialists, however, even amongst other academic historians, surprise is still sometimes expressed that we who work on the period before the middle of the eleventh century regard ourselves as medievalists; the Middle Ages, surely, was a world of knights in armour, castles, cathedrals and crusades?

While the Norman Conquest has always provided an easy hook upon which to hang the changes of the eleventh century in England, these changes were not confined to one country alone but affected all of western Europe to a greater or lesser degree. The Feudal Revolution, which saw serfdom replace slavery and the rise of manorial estates, provided the economic basis for a greater degree of professional specialisation reflected in the rebirth of towns and the appearance of merchants and craftsmen who had their own households quite distinct from the farming communities where the bulk of the population still lived. Historians debate how rapid these changes were. One school, led by French scholars such as Georges Duby, Pierre Bonnassie and Guy Bois, speak of la mutation de l’an mil, arguing that the change was rapid, occurring within a generation in each part of Europe it reached. Perhaps this reflects the French tradition of revolution? Others, including most Anglophone historians, imagine a more gradual almost imperceptible transformation taking place over, perhaps, as much as two hundred years. Again, this may reflect our recent experience of constitutional change. The world before the Feudal Revolution was a world of lords and peasants. Most land was held by free farmers who owned riding-horses and weapons and who supplemented the labour of their families with that of slaves. Serfdom existed but was largely confined to the greatest estates, in most areas only those belonging to the King or the Church. Elsewhere in the land lords wanted not rents and renders from their men, for there were as yet no towns and few opportunities to spend surplus income, but their support in legal and military activities. They had no need for craven and malnourished subjects they could rackrent, but for men who would ride with them to court and battle.

One of the by-products of the Feudal Revolution, when it came, was an explosion in the production of texts. Initially an education that included reading and writing was still largely provided by the Church and most writers were in Holy Orders of some sort but the increasingly complex economic world with which the clergy were now engaged led to a much greater degree of integration with secular society. Secular interests thus began to impact more on literary production. Complex theology continued to attract much attention from some writers but others produced works on history, administration and even texts written largely for entertainment. One of the new genres which took off in the course of eleventh and twelfth century was the secular biography. Prior to this the vast majority of lives were written as hagiographical exercises to promote the cult of a man or woman considered to be a saint. In the eleventh century several German kings and William the Conqueror were the subjects of such secular biographies and in the early years of the twelfth century we see lives appearing for Louis VI of France and Roderigo de Vivar, El Cid, amongst others. In the same period the terse annalistic chronicles of the earlier period which recount little more than the deaths of kings and prelates and the occasional battle (sometimes without even giving the result) are replaced by complex reflective histories in which the authors are not afraid to voice their scepticism for some of their source material.

This transformation of the textual record is, to a great extent, what separates the Dark Ages from the later period. The paucity and terseness of the earlier source material makes it very difficult to get a sense of distinct personalities or indeed the balance of individual contribution as against Zeitgeist in historical process. The decline of the ‘Dark Ages’ as a paradigm in modern scholarship largely reflects the shift away from ascribing historical change to individual agents and instead to focussing on underlying tensions in society and long term process. So long as one eschews interest in the contribution of individuals in anything other than theological debate then one can shed light on the Early Middle Ages. Sarah Foot, the Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Oxford, has thus set herself a Herculean task in attempting to write a 250 page biography of an Anglo-Saxon king whose fifteen-year reign is recounted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, our best narrative source for the period, in only 84 lines of the printed edition, 73 of which comprise a single poem dealing with a battle which lasted a single day. At the outset Foot describes Æthelstan, the First King of England as ‘a biographical treatment’ ‘rather than an examination of Æthelstan’s life in the context of his times’ (p.3). There can be no doubt that Foot’s subject, Æethelstan, who reigned from 924 until 939, is a worthy one. It is common now to identify him as ‘the grandson of Alfred the Great’ but for much of the middle ages he was at least as well regarded, perhaps even more highly, than his grandfather who attained his title of ‘the Great’ only in the thirteenth century. Alfred has benefitted since the late sixteenth century from the rediscovery and wide dissemination of a contemporary life written at his court while he still lived, by Asser, the Welsh Bishop of Sherborne. Asser’s Life of Alfred is unique as a secular biography from England before the mid-eleventh century and seems to have been inspired by, and to some extent modelled upon, one of its few rivals from the whole of Europe, Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, written some seventy years earlier. Anglo-Saxonists have long been aware that but for Asser’s book Æthelstan, rather than his grandfather, might well have been the stand out pre-Conquest king. While Alfred’s direct rule never penetrated far north of the Thames, Æthelstan extended his realm as far as the Firth of Forth in 927, becoming the first King to rule all the English. 

Monday, 20 August 2012

Sutton Trust Summer School in ASNC

Dr Elizabeth Boyle writes:

The Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic continues to be very proud of its association with the Sutton Trust, a philanthropic organisation which seeks to promote social mobility through education. Each year we host a Sutton Trust Summer School in ASNC for a small group of talented young people, from non-privileged backgrounds, who are about to begin their final year of school. The purpose of the Summer School is to allow them to experience university life, attending a range of lectures, seminars and classes on all aspects of the ASNC undergraduate course: from Anglo-Saxon history to Old Norse literature, from palaeography to medieval Welsh law. This year we welcomed eleven teenagers from a wide geographical area, including students from Wales, Yorkshire and London, all of whom were bright, enthusiastic and willing to sacrifice a week of their summer holiday in order to learn about all things medieval.

The Sutton Trust Summer School in ASNC, 2012

One of the highlights of the Summer School, as ever, was the afternoon spent in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College. The Parker sub-librarian, Dr Suzanne Paul, introduced the students to the Parker collection, and then the students spent an hour preparing presentations on manuscripts including the Parker Chronicle and the Old English Bede. After giving their presentations, the students had the opportunity to study the manuscripts in detail, as well as looking at other important items from the collection.

Admiring medieval manuscripts in the Parker Library

In Old Court, Corpus Christi College
Participants also had the opportunity to experience a supervision, the small-group teaching which is characteristic of Oxford and Cambridge. Each of them had chosen the topic in which they were most interested, and were supervised individually or in pairs by doctoral students and early career researchers in the ASNC department.
Finding Anglo-Saxon things to stand in front of ...
During the Summer School the students stayed at St John's College, and were able to indulge in typical Cambridge activities, such as punting on the river and attending a 'formal hall' dinner. We hope very much that this week will inspire them to apply to elite universities, such as Cambridge, for their undergraduate studies.

The grown-ups (allegedly): Ollie (residential supervisor), Becky (CAMbassador and ASNC graduate), and Lizzie (academic co-ordinator of the Sutton Trust Summer School in ASNC)

And, despite the fact that most of the students had never studied a word of Latin before they arrived on the course, the expert teaching of Dr Rosalind Love ensured that, by the time of the disco on the last night of the Summer School, they were all able to get into trouble for swearing profusely in Insular Latin. No matter what the participants go on to do in life, that is one invaluable skill which will always stay with them.