Thursday 30 October 2014

Festival of Ideas 2014: a visitor's impression

Sandra Leaton-Gray reports on the ASNC Festival of Ideas. 

I was delighted to be able to visit ASNC during the Festival of Ideas recently to learn about all things Viking and more besides. Initially I was merely planning on going in a coat-holding capacity with my 16 year old son, Conrad, who has a passion for runes, Norse military tactics, and so on.  However I was soon swept along by the different talks and started to understand what all the fuss was about. First of all we attended a lecture on the beginning of writing. I had never really thought this through at all and had rather taken writing for granted, What baffled me was how I could not have realised people would initially be writing on wood with knives, as some vague part of my brain assumed it was all about ink and vellum, which with hindsight was a major and fairly obvious misconception. You can't just bump off a goat for its skin every time you want to write down something quickly, after all. I was also fascinated by the accounts of marginalia written by early scribes, who appear to have spent their days rather cold and damp, with errant pets and similar kinds of utilitarian concerns we share today. 

Next I heard all about Vikings in Cleveland, which was surprising as I had previously imagined Vikings to be horn-helmeted types, largely confined to the area immediately around the Jorvik centre, various Scottish and Northumbrian islands wherever monks did their thing, and most of Lincolnshire. This is on account of my embarrassingly patchy mental map of the Viking world that, prior to the ASNC visit, apparently embracing nearly all the popular myths in a manner wholly unfitting for someone whose ancestors came from the Viking village of North Thoresby.  I was particularly intrigued to hear about the various forms of impact Vikings had had on Cleveland, and that it was possible to track their language even still in local dialect (as it seems to be, to some extent, in Lincolnshire today). 

I then spent a bit of time surfing the Internet looking at Viking ships, with the help of someone from the department who had taken note of my horrified question about female sacrifices and who encouraged me to learn more about the context of this. I am still convinced I had a narrow escape, being born in the 20th century, although my son assured me that I shouldn't worry as the Vikings took the good looking ones home with them, which was diplomatic of him in the circumstances, I felt. 

Finally the high spot of the day for me was being invited to judge an Icelandic warrior, aka obvious psychopath, who was clearly not the kind of person that you should let loose with a sword after the consumption of mead. We were allowed to vote on the various moral dilemmas in the story, and consult with historical and legal experts in order to come to our decision, but whatever we did, the situation got worse and worse for the poor victims of the psychopath's crimes until they were left destitute and without issue. What was really lovely about this session however is that the children present took it incredibly seriously and asked some really astute questions that helped the debate along a great deal. Perhaps we should stick them in a time machine and get them to arbitrate in 10th century Iceland next time? 

All in all this was a terrific day out and I left a lot wiser.

Many thanks to Sandra for this report. We also are grateful, of course, to Dr Debby Banham, Ben Guy, Julianne Pigott, Jo  Shortt Butler and all of our undergraduate volunteers for putting on such a wonderful programme for our guests.

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