Tag Archives: Beowulf

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 4 and final

Although it continues to be a ridiculous reporting backlog I have, yet it does advance, and we now reach the last day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo. This is always the hardest day, because the dance is the night before but the first session starts early so that play closes in time for people to head home. I suppose I should just be grateful that for the first time in my attendance I wasn’t presenting first thing Sunday morning… But some people of course were, and since they included both a friend and someone talking about the Picts, there I duly was.

536. Pathways to Power in Early Medieval Northern Europe

  • Jan-Henrik Fallgren, “Early Medieval Lordship, Hierarchies and Field-Systems in Scandinavia and the British Isles”
  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “State Formation within the Localities: a comparative approach to land management and productive processes in early medieval England and Northwestern Iberia”
  • Óskar Sveinbjarnarson, “New Evidence for Emerging Power Structures in Northern Pictland”
  • Douglas Bolender, “A Household Perspective on State-Formation in Medieval Iceland”
  • This was a tightly-focused session. All were looking for answers to the same question: what can we say about how social hierarchy and power emerge in the northern edges of Europe in the post-Roman centuries? For Dr Fallgren one answer lay in farm organisation: he saw a pattern of central big houses, often long-houses, with surrounding fields with a marked-out perimeter in all of Öland, Gotland, Ireland, England and Pictland. This meant ignoring a considerable amount of variation about how this was done in practice and I thought the similarities he was detecting risked being more or less demographically determined, but if the causation could be more clearly worked out there’d be something to say here all the same. Álvaro, in the way that perhaps at the moment only he can, was also comparing widely, England, Ireland and Spain, emphasising that there was never a mythical autarkic peasant moment on which lordship comes to be imposed in any of these societies, but that still, lordship and organisation of settlement do intensify together in ways that we can observe in the historical and archæological record.1 His paper was valuable for emphasising that despite this, that lordship does not include everyone and Spain especially shows us lots of small independent proprietors continuing alongside and between the big coagulating lordships in their areas.2 For Mr Sveinbjarnarson, working with the much less forthcoming evidence from the erstwhile Pictland, where he had been digging at the fort complex of Rhynie, the significant time was the fifth and sixth centuries, when after a period of breakdown we see wealth acculumation and deposition as hoards, prestige imports reaching this far north again, an increase in size and decrease in numbers of fortifications, big old forts being reactivated and so forth. I think we sort of knew this but Mr Sveinbjarnarson was able to colour in a lot more of the picture than I knew about.3 Lastly Professor Bolender, who had the hardest job in some ways: although there is textual evidence for settlement organisation in early Iceland in the form of Landnámabók, ‘the book of the taking of lands’, finding enough of any kind of archæology to challenge it is very difficult; one question asked him what tools, roads or place-names might add to the enquiry, to all of which his answer was pretty much “the evidence doesn’t exist!” For now, Landnámabók‘s picture of initial large farms set up by the earliest settlers then infilled by smaller settlements, and eventually large consolidated interests emerging seems at least not to be contradicted. Iceland of course offers that initial purely peasant society which Álvaro was stressing didn’t exist in his areas, and it’s interesting to see the same dynamics nevertheless emerging, but I did think that the messages of this session might have been even clearer if one of the papers had tackled an area where large landownership never went away, like Southern Gaul, just to get a better idea of what they were seeing that was close-to-universal and what that was specifically extra-Roman. Still, to want so much is already a sign that the comparison was forcing some quite high-level thinking!

Then, I think we couldn’t face the canteen lunch and went into town for nachos. This was a good idea from the point of view of food, but less good from the point of view of timing, as we returned late for the last session of the conference, which was this one.

540. Peasants and Texts

  • Helen Cushman, “Marcolf’s Biological Warfare: Dialogue, Peasant Discourse, and the Lower Bodily Stratum in the English Solomon and Marcolf
  • Sherri Olson, “Peasants, Texts, and Cultures of Power”
  • Shane Bobrycki, “The Peasant and the Crowd in the Early Middle Ages”
  • Maj-Britt Frenze, “Textualized Pagans: Depicting the ‘People of the Heath’ in Conversion Era Anglo-Saxon England”
  • Because of the late return, I can tell you nothing about Ms Cushman’s paper, which I entirely missed; my apologies for that. Professor Olson, however, mounted a strong argument from fourteenth-century court rolls from Elmlea and Durham that despite the popular picture of peasant societies as being illiterate, these ones both generated and disputed with written records, from their own agreements (kept at home, apparently) right up to the court rolls itself, which were sometimes consulted by peasant plaintiffs; while not by any means all themselves literate, they were still what the more theorised among us would probably call a textual community, bound by a shared interpretation of what these texts that governed their tenures meant.4 Shane, whom I met in Cambridge years ago and had not seen since, gave us an erudite run-down of shifting attitudes to crowds in the largely élite-written sources for the early medieval West: the Romans distrusted all forms of public crowd, for all that the élites needed their approbation, but in the early medieval context crowds were sometimes good, the legitimate forum for validation and expression of justice, righteousness and so on. Unless, argued Shane, that crowd was made up of peasants, in which case pretty much all our sources still consider them dangerous and illegitimate and use the language of ‘rusticity’ only for things they want to denigrate… Lastly, Ms Frenze did that most Kalamazoid of things, trying to strain new meanings out of Beowulf and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Her conclusions were roughly the same as Shane’s: the ‘heath’ is dangerous, though for Bede Christian blood could sanctify it. I had managed to dodge all the Beowulf papers so far, so I guess I had to catch one, and I do understand why there are always so many, but if the deliverer of one doesn’t at least acknowledge the problem of dating the poem I’m afraid my response to them will always be sceptical.

And so that was that! Goodbyes were said and we variously made our ways to our transports, for us a train to Detroit and then a plane out the next morning after a small amount of cautious sight-seeing around that post-lapsarian city, and back to the groves of UK academe. But it was a good conference, more surprisingly like Leeds in demographic than usual but with most of the people I’d hoped to see seen and many things learnt. I always hope to make it to Kalamazoo again, but one has to know about one’s schedule so far in advance to mesh it with a UK teaching job that it takes forethought I rarely possess. Next time, though, I might now be exalted enough not to settle for the dorms…

1. Álvaro’s cites here seem worth giving, they being Susan Oosthuizen, “The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia and the Origins and Distribution of Common Fields” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 55 (Exeter 2007), pp. 153-180; Aidan O’Sullivan, Finbar McCormick, Thomas R. Kerr & Lorcan Harney (edd.), Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100: the evidence from archaeological excavations (Dublin 2013); Fergus Kelly, Early Irish Farming: a study based mainly on the law-texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD (Dublin 2000); and Thomas Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland (Cambridge 2000).

2. The best cite for this case may still be Pierre Bonnassie, “Du Rhône à la Galice : Genèse et modalités du régime féodale” in Konrad Eubel (ed.), Structures féodales et féodalisme dans l’occident méditerranéen (Xe-XIIIe siècle) : Bilan et perspectives des rercherches. Colloque Internationale organisée par le Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique et l’École Française de Rome (Rome 1980), pp. 17-44, online here, trans. Jean Birrell as “From the Rhône to Galicia: origins and modalities of the feudal order” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 104-130.

3. He cited Leslie Alcock, perhaps his “Early historic fortifications in Scotland” in G. Guibert (ed.), Hillfort Studies: essays for A. H. A. Hogg (London 1981), pp. 150-180, or his “The Activities of Potentates in Celtic Britain, AD 500-800: a positivist approach” in Stephen Driscoll and Margaret Nieke (edd.), Power and Politics in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland (Edinburgh 1988), pp. 22-46. I’m not sure how the field at large feels Alcock’s stuff has held its value but I learnt an awful lot from it when I was still insular in my interests.

4. The theory in question would be Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: written language and models of interpretation in the 11th and 12th centuries (Princeton 1983), accompanied in Professor Olson’s citation by Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 2nd edn. (Oxford 1993, 1st edn, 1979). These two books certainly have kept on giving…

All the nodes should be named after Geats

Here’s a pleasing little thing: courtesy of Doug Moncur’s Thoughts of a Knowledge Geek I have recently learned that there is a type of computer cluster, in which you link up many normal desktop PCs as nodes to one server so that they become, essentially, extra memory and CPU for it, that is called a Beowulf cluster. This is apparently because (says Wikipedia) the first ever one of these was so named, by its originator Dr Thomas Sterling, because it ‘had thirty men’s heft of grasp in the grip of his hand’. I rather like that.

A 64-machine Beowulf cluster at Michigan Tech University's Computational Science & Engineering Research Institute

A 64-machine Beowulf cluster at Michigan Tech University's Computational Science & Engineering Research Institute

Post scriptum: I had not, when I wrote this, seen this at In the Medieval Middle, but now that I have found it while looking for something else, I wish I’d written this first so they could have linked to it…

Seminary LIII: brain-stretching new take on late Anglo-Saxon England

Sometimes, not as often as one wants but perhaps as often as one can deal with, one gets as an academic to see research presented that you know is going to be really important. It’s like being at the first gig of a truly incredible new band, except with a rather better chance that the scholar will get a deal for his album (though neither will get paid anything for it, I have to point out). You try and soak it all up, but actually it’s stuff that will change the way you think and you can’t understand it straight away; only once you’ve been able to work out what of what you understood before remains and how much you have to re-envision will you know what you have learned. Now, I was pretty tired and spaced-out—the summer is really messing with my usual Circadian polyrhythms—but this is the state in which I left the Institute of Historical Research on 10th June after Chris Lewis had presented a paper called “The Ideology and Culture of Anglo-Saxon Government” to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar. It was too rich to summarise; I feel like the only way I could get its points over to you is to type up my notes, but there are lots. So I’ll just try and explain the set-up and then say that if you see Chris, and he appears in many places, urge him to get this written up. It could be a book, it could be an important book, and it might get us through some increasingly stagnant debate about how powerful the Anglo-Saxon royal government was and out into new thought about how to understand what it did and why.

The Shires of England in the Tenth Century, hosted at the University of Wisconsin

The Shires of England in the Tenth Century, hosted at the University of Wisconsin

Chris expressed this stagnation when he said that he thought that, for Anglo-Saxon England, there just isn’t the evidence to give a sustained political narrative: we’ll never do it, and all work on such things only advances us halfway there, like Zeno’s paradox. What we can do is explore our evidence in a modern way, looking at ritual, language and organisation, exploiting the sources (coins, documents, art, material all alike) for ethos rather than dates, and in general attempting to compile an ideological understanding of the enterprise of English government, what it was doing, why and how rather than the tiny details of when and where. He thus wound up with an approach that could be called instititutional history, political thought or social history, but was really many things at once. So, for example, there is a debate on when England was divided into shires, and who had this big idea. It has died down, mainly because it can’t be given a single answer. Chris instead described what we can know about shires: that they were linked to the centre in a uniform way, that they were not universal (Rutland is its current tiny anomaly because it was never allotted to a shire, for example) or always fully manned, they don’t match bishoprics perfectly, that they were done in stages without a big plan but apparently with a consistent ideology, that they stay more or less fixed, and that the actual borders are dictated by (and therefore a source for) local politics to an astonishing degree. Lists like this were a big feature of the paper, and kept demonstrating that really, when we step back from the detail questions it’s possible to group quite a lot of evidence together to describe these large themes (if you’ll forgive the Byzantinist pun) and we do in fact know a lot, or at least can.

Modern stained-glass depiction of the monastic founder and reformer Archbishop Oswald of York

Modern stained-glass depiction of the monastic founder and reformer Archbishop Oswald of York

Chris has another paper under work on the political unity of Anglo-Saxon England, which is an essential prerequisite to any attempt to answer what the effects, abilities and intentions of its government were, so here he confined himself to questions about that government’s ideology. The argument was thick, well-sourced and full of meat (as a Northerner, Chris will probably not mind the almost inevitable comparison to gravy I seem to be drawing). I won’t try and repeat the act, but will say that by the end we had come to a series of interesting conclusions, among which were that the ideology of late Anglo-Saxon royal government was essentially a Benedictine project (which raises questions that we’ve asked here before, apropos indeed of something to which Chris contributed, about why their project is pro-royal and not pro-papal); that this means it was restricted to areas where Benedictinism itself was powerful, and that these left short many parts of England, most obviously the North but also Kent, Essex and East Anglia; that this project was most active only over the short period 970 to 1010; that with Cnut and Edward the Confessor, first kings for a long time to have succeeded as adults and both with experience of the German Imperial court, a much more regalian and less monastic ideology was begun; and that over many other parts of England and times of its history a quite alternative royal and Christian ideology may be propagated through the minster churches that disseminated ideology where the monasteries were fewer and unreformed. He also pointed out that the Normans were able to partially adopt both of these ideological systems.

Silver `Pointed Helmet type penny of King Cnut, 1026

Silver `Pointed Helmet' type penny of King Cnut, 1026

Points of discussion arose over much of this, of course (not least the coins: Stephen Baxter and I had to agree to differ amicably over the initiative of moneyers with the royal portrait on English money, I seeing it as essentially a stereotype whose regulation was unimportant and Stephen seeing it as a vital propaganda tool that must have been controlled). One of these I raised, which was that Chris himself admitted that Cnut first continued to use the old Benedictine scheme of royal power, until the death of Archbishop Wulfstan (whereafter, as Chris pointed out, lawmaking stops; no more laws till William the Conqueror!), and that this looked a lot like the importance of Benedict of Aniane to Emperor Louis the Pious’s earlier and not dissimilar reform project, a man without whom the project simply couldn’t continue. This raises questions about why, in either case, the Benedictine project hadn’t managed to reproduce itself in a new generation of similarly able firebrands. The fact that Wulfstan didn’t, as far as we know, teach, is very interesting here. Did they not think anyone could replace them either?

Page of the only manuscript of Beowulf

Page of the only manuscript of Beowulf

Another point that is likely to interest some of my readers here is that Chris thought that though there is very little evidence which could be used to do a similar project for the `minster ideology’ of Englishness, royalty and Providence’s place for the Anglo-Saxon state, there is probably some. He noted that the Exeter Book, for example, was given to its cathedral home by a bishop who had been a canon, not a monk, and that much of its content is theologically quite irregular, and it may well tell us some of what such a person thought of in these ways. Other contenders might be the Vercelli Manuscript, and also British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A.XV, that is, the Beowulf manuscript. Chris was prompted to imagine someone reacting to the Benedictine preaching in his locality by saying to his colleagues at the minster, “look, this isn’t what I think of when I think of as the important things that make us us, this is all Roman liturgy and law. We should write something properly English” and coming up with a story harking to a distant past but full of contemporary resonance that then wound up bound with a very strange set of other things that they were interested in. It gave us pause for thought. But then, so did all the rest of the paper. The small conclusions I’ve given are only the top of the iceberg. We could really get somewhere with this kind of all-inclusive questioning that lets the sources illuminate each other. I’ve seen a manifesto like this before, in fact:

Since Aristotle, man has organized his knowledge vertically in separate and unrelated groups – Science, Religion, Sex, Relaxation, Work etc. The main emphasis in his language, his system of storing knowledge, has been on the identification of objects rather than on the relationships between objects. He is now forced to use his tools of reasoning separately and for one situation at a time. Had man been able to see past this hypnotic way of thinking, to distrust it (as did Einstein), and to resystematize his knowledge so that it would all be related horizontally, he would now enjoy the perfect sanity which comes from being able to deal with his life in its entirety.

Well, apparently, we don’t need drugs to upset Aristotle, we just need people being really clever and this was what we got. It is part of the continuing shame of the discipline that people like this can’t find jobs; what hope is there for the rest of us? But the cynic may say, the discipline can save its money here because Chris is clearly going to do it anyway, and for that we can all be thankful.


I must be the only person on my blogroll who’s posted since the Beowulf film came out not to have mentioned it. That was at first just down to my peculiar scheduling of these posts, but as I delayed for that reason I realised that I was seeing more and more references to Beowulf-not-the-film in popular culture. Like this:

I begin to understand that the educated, or at least slightly educated, market for the film is bigger than I had expected. Not a lost hero after all, perhaps! And not just in pop culture either, because flicking idly through the latest issue of Speculum, Vol. 82 Pt 4 I believe, that Jinty Nelson had left around her office, I found that it opens with a paper by Roberta Frank called “A Scandal in Toronto: The Dating of Beowulf Twenty-Five Years On”, which came over to this reader very much as being the dressed-up, phoneme-spattered and fully referenced academic version of the neutral stance used by Professor Drout for his series of posts on the subject. Typically of the field, however, if I read both correctly they don’t actually agree even if their senses of the literature coincide closely. Drout’s version was of course intended for the kind of readership who would be fuddled by the high specialism of Frank’s paper, and I count myself as one of the fuddled here: what I understood, I understood mainly because of having read Drout’s posts, so that’s valuable work he’s doing there making specialism accessible. (I will be writing more about that before long due to the extreme reactions going through Van Engen’s Past and Future is giving me, but that’s for later.)

Anyway, the point is that even without the film Beowulf is pretty darn hot as topics go right now, so it’s safe for me to re-enter the blogosphere, because on 19th November I actually managed to go and see the film, and moreover in 3D, which was rather fun. I’m not going to do a real review, because more expert people than I have done so and I think Professor Nokes has probably linked to most of them. Nor am I going to use this opportunity to gratuitously include a shot of Angelina Jolie (or her CGI hwaets) in the blog (though you’ll notice that following Dr Virago‘s lead I still include the search terms); a mere picture could never convey etc., and in any case do I really want potential employers to catch me expounding on æsthetics like that? No. So, instead, merely some observations as follows.

Good things about the Beowulf movie

  • the dragon. I mean come on, whatever you may have thought of the animation elsewhere (and I went with a lot of computer types who were very snotty about it indeed), that dragon was the absolute business
  • prehensile hair
  • a realistic sense of the importance and, er, adaptibility, of renown in the Heroic Age
  • I don’t care if the Old English was mispronounced, it was intelligible enough to make maybe a few extra brave people go, `I could more or less understand that! How hard can it be?’ and I thought it was really cool

Bad things about the Beowulf movie

  • the music (and no, I don’t want a copy of the soundtrack thankyou)
  • “period” geography. Come on Gaiman, the only people who know enough to place Vinland and the Middle Kingdom also know roughly when they were and so should you
  • I don’t think the armour was actually a cunning attempt to suggest that fifth-century Danish warriors were essentially sub-Roman in terms of military apparel, though I was prepared to entertain the theory for a while
  • the ship near the beginning looked like an actual cartoon, I mean sub-Disney
  • “All the characters in this film are fictitious and bear no intended resemblance to any real persons alive or dead”, eh? Don’t be so sure, we may yet prove you wrong…
  • most of all, it would have been nice if, at any point in either opening or closing titles and credits, any mention of the ruddy poem that actually exists and can be bought and read had been made anywhere, don’t you think? Just because we don’t know who or how many people composed, wrote or edited it, or when, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t want their royalties, if they could be brought up to relevant speeds on things like, er, moving pictures, 3D, payment of writers in money, 21st-century society generally… But you get the idea! Scop wants his credit! Pah. I keep expecting more from Gaiman than he’s able to deliver.

I’ve probably now done enough damage to the sober critical and adult reflectiveness for which, in my wild aspirations, this blog is already famed, so I’ll leave it there and just say, I enjoyed that, more or less, despite the relative weights of pros and cons, so if like me you are not by profession an Old English expert it’s possible you might also. I leave you with this further evidence of the cultural embedding of our lonely Old English heritage in pop culture. First Drafts is a series of cartoons that runs, among other places, in a satirical British news magazine called Private Eye. Usually it’s some novel everyone knows well enough to get the joke; last month, it was this…

Simon Pearsall’s First Drafts: Beowulf