Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Undiscovered poems in the Black Book of Carmarthen?

Exciting news from the National Library of Wales, where ASNC doctoral student Myriah Williams, and her supervisor Professor Paul Russell, have been working a thirteenth-century manuscript, the Black Book of Carmarthen. By scanning the manuscript with ultraviolet light, they have revealed that its sixteenth-century custodian may have erased one or two things. The great hope is that, by using photo editing software, some of the 'vanished' text may still be recovered. For more information, read the this post on the National Library of Wales website.

Monday, 23 March 2015

A Centenary: David Jones, Y Gododdin and the Great War

When Varsity finally get round to asking me about my favourite piece of art in Cambridge, I’ll say ‘Vexilla Regis, by David Jones’. It’s on the ground floor in the house at Kettle’s Yard, just behind Jim Ede’s bedroom door. It is an easy thing to miss. There’s barely room to turn around, so you can only see the picture up close, and you get it to yourself. Also in the room: a bed, an arrangement of pebbles on a table top, and a shelf with Henry Moore’s Head (which is like something dug up by an archaeologist: or ‘first and foremost a stone’, as Ede put it). Over the bed, pictures by Alfred Wallis and Ben Nicholson. Ede’s household gods, perhaps.

There are lots of things I like about Vexilla Regis. One is the title, taken from a hymn by a Merovingian court poet:

Vexilla regis prodeunt,
fulget crucis mysterium,
quo carne carnis conditor
suspensus est patibulo.

The standards of the king come forth,
the secret of the cross revealed:
there in flesh, the flesh’s maker
by the beam is hung.

Another is that it is secretive as well as secret. It’s done with graphite and water colour, and it’s pale and knotty. Once you make out the hills and trees, it starts to feel like a map. You spot bits and pieces of ruined masonry, overgrown pillars, wildness and wreckage but also things sprouting and running. Certainly it has something to do with the end of Roman Britain, but I’ll leave it at that.[1]

Mapmaking was a skill Jones had learned on the Western Front, mostly while crawling around no man’s land at night-time.[2] He was at the front for more than two years, far longer than most of his fellow war-poets, and had arrived there in time to see what had been a relatively ‘intimate, domestic life’ turn into relentless mechanical slaughter. Conscription plugged the gaps with strangers. The loss of companionship affected Jones profoundly.

Trench map by David Jones © National Library of Wales

This year marks the centenary of Jones’ entry into the Great War. Precociously aware of his father’s Welsh origins, Jones had been desperate to join a Welsh regiment. In the end, he enlisted with a ‘London Welsh’ battalion, and crossed to France in December 1915. The previous spring, during basic training near Llandudno, Jones recalled nights spent on guard duty, watching the sea from the Great Orme and pretending he was a lookout for the king of Gwynedd. 

On the Great Orme, Llandudno

Thoughts like this shaped Jones’ war. The idealism didn’t last long, but his connection with the past only grew deeper and more real. Aware that he was fighting in a new kind of war, Jones felt that being in battle was, for the private infantryman, essentially the same experience it always had been. Distinction between past and present, at times, virtually broke down. The battle honours of the regiment liturgised Namur, Blenheim, Salamanca, Sevastapol, but ringing in Jones’ head were Brunanburh, Camlann, Catraeth, and ancient, vaguer ‘border antipathies’. Most of the soldiers around him had their own versions, the result not of propaganda or jingoism, but the simple fact of being there. 

Battle Honours of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Jones' regiment

All through his time in the trenches, Jones carried, alternately, the Oxford Book of English Verse and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury in his pack. Reading them almost constantly, he grew frustrated that the ‘greats’ of Quiller-Couch and Palgrave now felt remote, too comfortable, for ‘they knew no calamity comparable with what we knew’. Thomas Dilworth, in his excellent David Jones in the Great War, argues that literature predating the canonised poetry of the anthologies had more resonance for Jones in this strange, particular reality.

Jones didn’t start writing In Parenthesis until the end of the 1920s. (On finishing All Quiet on the Western Front he reportedly responded with ‘Bugger it, I can do better than that. I’m going to write a book.’[3]) The poetry in In Parenthesis is intensely vivid, and allusions to Jones’ private world are integral to its sense of reality. No man’s land is recalled as a place of ‘enchantment’, like Pennant Govid or Annwn; explosive upheavals in the earth bring Twrch Trwyth to mind; men asleep in trench corners are ‘like long-barrow sleepers’. The allusions are not there to romanticise, but to present the Great War as Jones himself experienced it, and to align this catastrophe, symbolically, with other, older ones.
Christopher Williams, Battle at Mametz Wood (1918)

Jones furnished each of In Parenthesis’ seven parts with lines from Y Gododdin (a poetic compendium of war and disaster from medieval Wales). Y Gododdin has been praised for its realism: Gwynn Jones thought the soldier’s advance gan wyrd wawr, ‘with the green dawn’, the phrase of a man who had seen first faint morning ‘with a poet’s eye’. In Parenthesis finds matching lyrical detail amidst devastation. On the title page, Jones used what he took to be the most significant line of all: Seinnyessit e gledyf ym penn mameu, ‘his sword rang in mothers’ heads’. The deaths of Britons at Catraeth and at Mametz Wood, where Jones’ battalion suffered one hundred and eighty causalities and he himself was badly wounded, were to him rehearsals of the same ‘loveless’ defeat.  

David Jones
The author wrote simply that In Parenthesis is ‘about some things I saw, felt, and was part of’. Eliot, Auden, Greene, Yeats and Stravinsky all counted it among the greatest of any Modern poetry.


Last October I met Colin Wilcockson, former ASNC and Emeritus Fellow of English at Pembroke, for lunch at his college. Colin had been friends with Jones and, like everyone else who had met him, described him as the warmest and kindest of men. Afterwards, in the SCR, Colin unsheafed a portfolio he had with him and carefully spread the contents over a table. Unexpectedly, each bundle was a handwritten letter from Jones, glossed and re-glossed, sometimes illuminated, bursting with marginalia. In one of them, I glimpsed a mischievous return address, ‘Saes Canol’. Jones had rented a room in Harrow, Middlesex, in the 1950s. It was, he said, ‘his dug-out’. He died in 1974. 

[1] Kettle’s Yard closes for refurbishment on 21st June 2015, and will not reopen until 2017: see it now!
[2] Jones sometimes thought of himself as ‘Walter Map’ (Walter being Jones’ rapidly-discarded Christian name, and Walter Map the name of a twelfth-century Welshman who served Henry II).
[3] Incidentally Jones writes delightfully on swearing: ‘Private X’s tirade of oaths means no more than “I do not like this Vale of Tears”… the “Bugger! Bugger!” of a man detailed, had often about it the “Fiat! Fiat!” of the Saints’.

Monday, 2 March 2015


Caitlin Ellis, a doctoral candidate in ASNC and president of the CCASNC committee, writes:

Our annual graduate-led conference, the Cambridge Colloquium in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (CCASNC), took place in the English Faculty on 7th February 2015.

This year was the largest, best-attended CCASNC—both conference and dinner—to date and our wonderful, engaged audience ensured that discussion never ebbed. Our popular bookstall with a range of publications from our Department, the University of Wales Press and the Viking Society for Northern Research provided another focal point. Selected proceedings of this conference itself will appear in a forthcoming edition of Quaestio Insularis.

CCASNC 2015 Committee: Ben Guy, David Callander, Nicholas Hoffman, Katherine Olley, Caitlin Ellis, Rebecca Shercliff

The theme of this year’s Colloquium was ‘Communication and Control’. We welcomed our keynote speaker Professor Stefan Brink and ten postgraduate speakers from several countries. Despite the breadth and variety of subject matter, common themes emerged from the papers: modes of contact between societies; the diffusion of cultural concepts; the intentions of authors, compilers and scribes.

The Departments own Julia Bolotina kicked off proceedings with the first session of the day. Bolotina examined the Lacnunga, a compendium of Anglo-Saxon medical remedies, arguing that it was a deliberate and highly valued production: a suggestion with important implications for the study of other manuscripts. This was complemented by Ryder Patzuk-Russell of Birmingham’s lucid exposition of the influence of Latin grammatica, exemplified by Bede and Alcuin, on the Old Norse theory of language, as seen in the vernacular Málskrúðsfræði and the First Grammatical Treatise. In exploring this area, Patzuk-Russell thereby underscored a common history of grammatical learning.

Having sated our appetites for beverages and biscuits, our second session focussed on sustenance of a more religious nature. Exequiel Monge-Allen of the National University of Ireland, Galway, considered the Céli Dé movement, especially the responsibilities and importance of the spiritual directors (the anmcharaid, more literally ‘soul-friends’) in penance and confession. Monge-Allen also drew interesting parallels with other Old Irish religious texts. We were then reminded of the great value of art history by Stephenie McGucken, Edinburgh, who discussed the imagery of the sumptuously illuminated manuscript the Benedictional of St Æthelwold in relation to the cult of St Æthelthryth, the seventh-century Northumbrian virgin queen turned saint. This highlighted concepts of femininity and royalty in Anglo-Saxon England.

Our keynote address was delivered by Stefan Brink, Chair in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Aberdeen, who presented us with a masterful overview of medieval Scandinavian laws, particularly the regional differences in various Swedish law codes, and a reflection on historiographical trends. Brink employed a various forms of evidence, including runic inscriptions, such as that on the intriguing Forsa ring. This talk was connected to the exciting international project on Medieval Nordic Law funded by the Leverhulme Trust and led by Brink himself. For more information on the project, which will produce translations and commentaries of all the Nordic provincial laws from the period, see here.

After we adjourned for an excellent lunch, Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, from the neighbouring Faculty of History here at Cambridge, brought a more international perspective to proceedings. Ottewill-Soulsby considered the context of the eleventh-century Andalusian geographer al-Bakrī’s account of the Bretons, touching on the channels of communication between the Christian and Muslim worlds and relations between the Franks and Bretons. William Norman, ASNC, also centred on the contact between cultures, looking at thought-provoking episodes in the Íslendingasögur of interaction between Icelanders and Celts, both in Iceland and the British Isles, and how this was influenced by knowledge of each other’s languages. Next, we received an insightful comparative study of the poetic form of the list in the Old English Fortunes of Men and the Old Norse Rígsþula, from Alexandra Reider of Yale, who revealed the multiple possible functions of the list, in these instances elucidating the course of a human life and the different rungs of society.

Following further refreshments, we returned to the colloquium’s final session, which emphasised language and power. Albert Fenton, ASNC, outlined the role of Anglo-Saxon writs as distinctive documents, stressing their linguistic and diplomatic characteristics, especially the rights of sacu and socn (‘sake and soke’) which were granted by the king. This provided a timely reconsideration of Florence Harmer’s work on writs. Once this Anglo-Saxon legal background had been established, Jacob Hobson of Berkeley gave us a closer reading of the charters of Æthelstan A, adeptly analysing their theological and exegetical aspects, in particular through the proem, dispositive clause and anathema clause. Last but not at all least, Alexander Wilson of Durham evaluated the construction of monstrosity in Sverris saga by drawing tantalising comparisons with more well-known outlaw narratives in the Íslendingasögur, looking at specific terminology for monstrous behaviour and applying theories of dehumanisation and super-humanisation.

CCASNC dinner, Gonville and Caius College

 At the close of the day, heartfelt thanks were offered to our speakers, organising committee, team of undergraduate helpers and the Department at large. We had gained an appreciation over the course of the Colloquium of how individuals and institutions communicate their control of a particular sphere––whether political or ideological, whether real or imagined––and control communication through administration, composition, selection and transmission. After drinks in a local pub, the merriment continued with a delicious conference dinner in the medieval surroundings of Gonville and Caius College.

Members of the department in conversation with keynote speaker, Stefan Brink

In short, many thanks to all of the wonderful people involved in CCASNC 2015 - your time and enthusiasm is much appreciated. We hope to see you again soon!

[All photos courtesy of Myriah Williams].