Wednesday 22 December 2010

Medieval Furness: Texts and Contexts

Dr Fiona Edmonds writes:

I am writing to tell you about the AHRC-funded project ‘Hagiography at the Frontiers: Jocelin of Furness and Insular Politics’ and the associated conference ‘Medieval Furness: Texts and Contexts’, which will take place on 8th July, 2011. I am the Co-investigator on the project; the other participants are Dr Clare Downham, University of Liverpool (Principal Investigator) and Dr Ingrid Sperber (Research Associate). The project will run for two years, from July 2010 until July 2012.

The aims of the project are threefold: to bring forth editions and translations of two texts (Jocelin’s Lives of Patrick and Helena); to conduct research into the cultural context in which Jocelin was working; and to further knowledge of Jocelin’s work amongst the general public, particularly in Cumbria and North Lancashire. The writings of Jocelin of Furness have not attracted a great deal of scholarship, although there has been a resurgence of interest in his work recently, as witnessed by Dr Helen Birkett’s book The Saints’ Lives of Jocelin of Furness (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2010). The study of Jocelin’s work has been made more difficult by the absence of satisfactory published editions of certain texts, notably the Life of St Patrick. Jocelin’s writings are, however, of great interest to scholars of twelfth-century Britain and Ireland

Furness Abbey (image from Wikimedia commons)

One of the most interesting features of Jocelin’s work is his interest in the Celtic world: Jocelin not only wrote a Life of Patrick, but also a Life of Kentigern (a North British saint and the patron of Glasgow) and a Life of St Helena, whose Brittonic origins were stressed by Jocelin. Jocelin also composed a Life of St Waltheof (d. 1159), who was abbot of Melrose in the Scottish Borders, a leading monastic reformer in northern England and a stepson of the Scottish king David I. It is interesting to ponder the extent to which the location of Furness Abbey (pictured) facilitated Jocelin’s connections with, and interest in, the Celtic world. The Furness peninsula lay at the outer edge of the Anglo-Norman realm and Furness fell under Scottish rule for a time. The inhabitants of Furness were culturally and linguistically diverse and the location of the peninsula – protruding into the Irish Sea – facilitated contact with Ireland and the Isle of Man. My role in the project is to investigate the cultural and linguistic history of medieval Furness and to study Furness’s network of daughter houses, many of which were located in Ireland and Man.

The project’s main themes will be explored in our day conference ‘Medieval Furness: Texts and Contexts’. The conference will take place at the Abbey House hotel, Barrow-in-Furness; the programme is copied below. The conference is supported by the University of Liverpool and the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, University of Cambridge. Please contact Dr Fiona Edmonds to obtain further information and a booking form.


9.00 Registration
9.30 Opening remarks: Keith Stringer (Lancaster University)
9.45 Janet Burton (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David)
Furness, Savigny and the Cistercian World
10.15 Hugh Doherty (University of Oxford)
The twelfth-century benefactors and enemies of Furness Abbey
10.45 Tea/Coffee
11.15  John Reuben Davies (University of Glasgow)
The Life of St Waldef, abbot of Melrose
11.45 Marie-Therese Flanagan (Queen’s University, Belfast)
The Life of St Patrick, patron saint of Ireland
12.15 Seán Duffy (Trinity College Dublin)
Ulster, Dublin and the Irish Sea Region in the age of Jocelin
12.45 Lunch
2.00 Helen Birkett (Edinburgh University)
Jocelin and the literary legacy of Furness Abbey
2. 30 Jason Wood (Heritage Consultancy Services)
Furness Abbey: art, literature and tourism
3.00 Closing Remarks: Richard Sharpe (University of Oxford)
3.30 Visit to Furness Abbey
6pm Conference dinner 

Friday 10 December 2010

Dr Mark Blackburn on Radio 4 tomorrow

Dr Rory Naismith writes:

On Tuesday 6th December, Dr Mark Blackburn, keeper of coins and medals at the Fitzwilliam Museum and reader in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic, was interviewed for Radio 4's programme iPM. His discussion on coins, medals and how they reveal our history can be heard tomorrow (Saturday 11th December) at 5.30pm, and will be available on the BBC's iplayer facility thereafter.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Digital Resource for Palaeography

Congratulations to Affiliated Lecturer in ASNC, Dr Peter Stokes, who teaches Palaeography in the department, and who has just been awarded a prestigious Starting Grant from the European Research Council for a project to develop a 'Digital Resource for Palaeography', based at the Centre for Computing in the Humanities, at King's College London. The details of the project can be found here.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

CFP: Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas

The next Spring Meeting of the Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas will be held on Saturday 19 March 2011 at the University of Cambridge. The Leslie Seiffert Lecture will be delivered by Professor Emeritus Richard Hudson of University College London.

Papers are invited on any topic within the History of Linguistics, and will typically be of 20 minutes’ duration with 10 minutes for discussion. All proposals, including title and abstract (maximum 250 words) should be sent either electronically or by post to the address below by 31 January 2011. Notification of acceptance of proposals will be made by 18 February 2011.

Booking forms will be available on the Henry Sweet Society website ( from early January, and must be returned by
9 March 2011.

For abstract submissions and further information please contact:

Dr Deborah Hayden
Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic,
University of Cambridge
9 West Road,
Cambridge CB3 9DP, UK

The Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas was founded in February 1984. Its aims are to promote and encourage the study of the history of all branches of linguistic thought, theoretical and applied, and including non-European traditions. Its fields of interest include the history both of the major subject areas of linguistics and also of more specialised topics, such as writing systems, literacy, rhetoric, and the application of linguistic ideas within professional and technical fields. It also publishes the biannual journal, Language and History.

Thursday 2 December 2010

2010 Quiggin Memorial Lecture

This is a reminder that the 2010 E. C. Quiggin Memorial Lecture will take place today at 5pm in Room GR.06/07, English Faculty Building, 9 West Road, Cambridge.

Prof Liam Breatnach, School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, will speak on: 'The early Irish law text senchas már and the question of its date'.

All welcome.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Author, authority and books in Benevento

Dr Rosalind Love writes:

Ten days ago I stepped off the crazy whirl of Cambridge term-time to attend the 6th Congress of the International Medieval Latin Committee, at Naples and Benevento (10-13 November). After inaugural speeches at the University of Suor Orsola Benincasa in Naples, two coach-loads of medieval latinists embarked for Benevento, causing total gridlock, a cacophony of car-horns and colourful Neapolitan execration. At the rather quieter city of Benevento we witnessed a remarkable event: the coming-home of the first item to be repatriated under the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009. In 1943 the Allies bombarded Benevento, flattening most of it, including the Cathedral and the Metropolitan Chapter Library. The manuscripts were taken to safety in a hand-cart, but in the confusion one went missing and ended up for sale in Naples, where it was bought in 1944 by an English officer, Captain Ash. The book, a 12th-century illuminated missal in characteristic Beneventan script, and was bought at auction in 1947 for the then British Museum and catalogued as MS Egerton 3511. Later, although Benevento had proved its original ownership, requests for the missal’s return foundered on legislation preventing the British Library from ‘alienating’ any of its holdings, and even when the Spoliation Advisory Panel, set up to examine the loss of artefacts during the Nazi era, judged in 2005 that the book should go back to Benevento on loan, the BL’s rules about the safe-keeping of its manuscripts prevented it. A British journalist, Martin Bailey (of The Art Newspaper), and then more recently a lawyer, Jeremy Scott, took up the case, which was ultimately swung by the 2009 Act. Jeremy Scott finally handed the missal (which had travelled inside a box inside officially-sealed wrappings inside a padlocked case – after all that, thankfully a satisfyingly fat codex!) over to Monsignor Andrea Mugione, the Archbishop of Benevento (in the picture below, with Dr Mario Iadanza, Director of the Office of Culture in the Archdiocese), in the presence of us medieval latinists, the great and good of Benevento, and a hoard of paparazzi. It was rather a moving moment, not least because the handing-back took place within minutes of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

After that excitement, it was down to business for the 200 of us attending the Congress, whose theme was ‘Auctor et auctoritas’. I was there to represent a research project with which I’ve been involved since 2007, ‘Boethius in Early Medieval Europe. Commentary on The Consolation of Philosophy from the 9th to the 11th centuries’, funded for five years by the Leverhulme Trust and headed by Professor Malcolm Godden, of the University of Oxford, with Dr Rohini Jayatilaka as full-time researcher (see the project website). Written in about 525 as the exiled Boethius awaited execution, the Consolation is a remarkable work which is thought to have been ‘rediscovered’ in the late 8th century by Alcuin, and then steadily gained in popularity, prompting translations into Old English and Old High German, for example. Lady Philosophy’s effort to console her ‘pupil’ meant confronting BIG questions of universal interest: why evil people often seem to prosper, why bad things happen to good people, what true happiness is, how humans can have free will under the gaze of an omniscient God with a divine plan.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Public lecture in ASNC

On Thursday 2nd December, at 5pm, Professor Liam Breatnach, of the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Ireland, will deliver the 2010 E. C. Quiggin Memorial Lecture, in room GR.06/07, English Faculty Building, 9 West Road, Cambridge.

The title of his lecture will be: 'The early Irish law text Senchas Már and the question of its date'.

Edmund Crosby Quiggin (1875-1920) was the first teacher of Celtic in the University of Cambridge. His extraordinarily comprehensive vision of Celtic studies offered an integrated approach to the subject; his combination of philological, literary and historical approaches paralleled those which his older contemporary, H.M. Chadwick, had already demonstrated in his studies of Anglo-Saxon England and which the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic continues to seek to emulate.
The E. C. Quiggin Memorial Lecture, established in 1993, is delivered by a scholar who is invited to Cambridge for the occasion, on aspects of philology and the textual culture of the Celtic and Germanic languages and literatures taught in the Department.

The lecture will be followed by a drinks reception. Everyone welcome.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

ASNC on Radio 4

Tomorrow morning (Thursday 11th November) at 9am, Dr Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, lecturer in Scandinavian History in ASNC, will be one of the guests on Melvyn Bragg's Radio 4 programme 'In Our Time', where the topic of discussion will be the 'Volga Vikings'.

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Volga Vikings.
Between the 8th and the 10th centuries AD, fierce Scandinavian warriors raided and then settled large swathes of Europe, particularly Britain, Ireland and parts of northern France. These were the Vikings, and their story is well known today. Far fewer people realise that groups of Norsemen also travelled east.
These Volga Vikings, also known as the Rus, crossed the Baltic into present-day Russia and the Ukraine and founded settlements there. They traded commodities including furs and slaves for Islamic silver, and penetrated so far east as to reach Baghdad. Their activities were documented by Arab scholars: one, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, recorded that the Volga Vikings he met were perfect physical specimens but also "the filthiest of God's creatures". Through trade and culture they brought West and East into regular contact; their story sheds light on both Scandinavian and early Islamic history.
James Montgomery
Professor of Classical Arabic at the University of Cambridge
Neil Price
Professor of Archaeology at the University of St Andrews
Elizabeth Rowe
Lecturer in Scandinavian History of the Viking Age at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge
Producer: Thomas Morris.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Snorri is my homeboy

As Christmas fast approaches, what could be a better present for a loved one than a 'Snorri is my homeboy' t-shirt? Or a 'What would Byrhtnoth do?' mug? The ASNC Society, run by undergraduates in the ASNC Department, have some fantastic merchandise, from umbrellas to aprons; ideal for the medievalist in your life.

Friday 29 October 2010

The Saga-Steads of Iceland: A 21st-Century Pilgrimage

We would like to alert you to the adventure-cum-academic-project which is about to be undertaken by one of our Research Fellows, Dr Emily Lethbridge. Her blog can be found at, but we also include an outline of her project below.

Dr Emily Lethbridge writes:

I complete my term as a post-doctoral Research Fellow (in medieval Icelandic literature) at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in December 2010 and I am planning an ambitious and exciting project for 2011. I intend to move to Iceland in January 2011 in order to embark upon a year-long '21st-century pilgrimage to the saga-steads of Iceland'. I will drive from the UK to Denmark, where I will catch a ferry from Hirtshals over to the Faroe Islands, and then on to Iceland, weather at sea permitting. Once in Iceland, over the course of the year, I will travel around and across the country reading each one of the 13th-century Íslendingasögur (the Icelandic family sagas) in the physical landscapes in which they and their 9th-, 10th-, and 11th-century action are set. I will live for the most part out of my Land Rover ambulance and will move from farm to farm on the basis of introductions I already have and growing awareness and interest in the project. I want to talk to people I meet about their personal interests in, and responses to, the sagas and I hope to persuade people to tell oral versions of sagas they know, or episodes from sagas that are local to their part of the country.
* * *
In addition, I will draw on published 19th-century travel accounts by figures such as William Morris, W. G. Collingwood, and Sabine Baring-Gould, comparing what they found on visiting the saga-sites with what is to be found now. As I travel, I will write up my experiences and the end-product will be a book that will be published by a mainstream commercial publisher, and will be of interest not only to those who are already knowledgeable about Iceland and familiar with the sagas, but the wider British reading public. In essence, the book will be about Iceland and its unique landscape, the sagas against and within that landscape, the Icelandic people and their relationship with the landscape and the sagas, and continuity and change in Iceland from medieval to present times. The book will be illustrated with my photographs.
* * *
The financial collapse in 2008 and the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 flung Iceland onto the global stage--albeit under a cloud, literally and metaphorically. British perceptions of Iceland are (often negatively) based on the after-effects of these events--i.e. the lock-down of international air travel--and on images of a bleak and inhospitable landscape used as the backdrop to 4-by-4 car adverts. I want to redress this situation by communicating to the British public how much more there is to Iceland. Most of what is written about Iceland for general consumption is based on the superficial experiences of commercial writers who have little or no previous knowledge of the country, its history and culture, and most importantly, the Icelandic language. I speak Icelandic fluently, however, and I know rural parts of the country well (and how Icelandic rural life works) as a result of working on a dairy farm in the north of the country.
* * *
Beyond the book, additional project outputs will be high-profile media coverage (national newspapers, magazines, radio), and I will also keep a blog in which I will report on my progress. By these means, I hope to communicate something of the remarkable character of Iceland--founded on informed knowledge and experiences--to the wider, non-academic public in the UK.

Friday 22 October 2010

Festival of Ideas - Saturday 23rd October

Dr Elizabeth Boyle writes:

Tomorrow the ASNC Department will be holding an 'Anglo-Saxon Treasure' afternoon, as part of Cambridge University's Festival of Ideas. From 1.30pm until 5pm, the Department will open its doors (on the 2nd floor of the English Faculty Building, 9 West Road, Cambridge) for an afternoon of fun, ideas and activities. Young children will be able to colour in 'Anglo-Saxon brooches', and make rune-sticks, and for the grown-ups there will be a talk from Prof. Simon Keynes on the Staffordshire Hoard, Dr Richard Dance will be performing excerpts from the Battle of Maldon in Old English, and Dr Rory Naismith will be speaking about Anglo-Saxon coins. Dr Debby Banham will also be on hand to help visitors concoct some Anglo-Saxon herbal remedies. We look forward to seeing you there.

Prof. Simon Keynes will be giving his expert assessment of the Staffordshire Hoard (pictured)

Monday 18 October 2010

Life after ASNC

Dr Elizabeth Boyle writes:

The Sunday Times magazine carried an interesting interview with ASNC alumnus Dr Tom Shakespeare (Pembroke, 1984), and his daughter. Tom is an ASNC legend, on account of his being the first editor of Gesta Asnacorum, the scurrilous publication of the ASNC undergraduates, but he is best known to the wider world as a sociologist, author and campaigner for disability rights, and he currently works for the World Health Organisation. The link to the article is here, but unfortunately it requires a subscription to the Times website to see it. For those of you who can't see it, here's a link to what a few other ASNCs have got up to since they graduated, and here's a link to news about our alumni events (with Tom Shakespeare on the left in the photo from the 1980s alumni reunion). On 25th September, we were delighted to welcome many of our alumni back to the Department for a drinks reception with live music; our next alumni event will be on 24th September 2011, so if you are an alumnus or alumna of the ASNC Department, please do put that date in your diary. We are always delighted to hear about what our alumni are doing, so do contact the Department if you have any news for us.

Monday 11 October 2010

Dates for your diary

Dr Elizabeth Boyle writes:

The new academic year began on Tuesday 5th October, and we were delighted to welcome many new faces (as well as many familar ones) to ASNC, including twenty-five new first year undergraduates, a dozen new M.Phil. students, four new doctoral students, and our new lecturer in Modern Irish, Dr Margo Griffin-Wilson, an expert on the poetry of Dáibhí Ó Bruadair, who has previously taught Irish at Harvard University and the University of Utrecht.

In the year ahead there will be, as usual, a number of major public lectures in ASNC. Details will follow in due course, but the dates to remember are:

  • 2nd December, the 2010 Quiggin Lecture, to be delivered by Prof. Liam Breatnach, School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies
  • 17th March, the 2011 Chadwick Lecture, to be delivered by Prof. Wendy Davies, University College London
  • 9th May, the 2011 Kathleen Hughes Memorial Lecture, to be delivered by Prof. Thomas Charles-Edwards, Jesus College, Oxford
We look forward to seeing many of you there.

Friday 1 October 2010

Icelandic at Cambridge

Vicky Cribb writes:

There is more to Iceland than banking crises and volcanic eruptions, as you will discover if you come along to the Modern Icelandic language classes offered by the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, with generous support from the Icelandic government. The classes, which are free of charge, are open to all members of the University and cater for beginners and intermediate students (depending on demand). They are not assessed but are taught on an informal basis, combining grammar instruction with practice in speaking, listening and reading.

There will be introductory sessions for both levels on Friday 15th October: beginners at 3 pm in Rm G-R04, intermediate at 5 pm in Rm S-R25 of the English Faculty. All members of the University are welcome.

For more information about the classes and learning resources, including links to online courses and Icelandic media sites, as well as opportunities for further study, see the Modern Icelandic webpages.

Instructor: Ragnheiður Guðmundsdóttir ( Until 15th October, please address any queries about the course to Vicky Cribb:

Michaelmas Term Timetable:

Beginners: Michaelmas Term 2010, classes start 15th October and end 3rd December: 1 x 50 min/week, 3 pm, Friday, Rm G-R04, English Faculty.

Intermediate: Michaelmas Term 2010, classes start 15th October and end 3rd December 2010: 1 x 50 min/week, 5 pm, Friday, Rm S-R25, English Faculty.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Modern Irish Classes 2010-11

Dr Deborah Hayden writes:

Thanks to the continued generosity of the Irish government, the Department of ASNaC will again offer Modern Irish language classes this academic year at beginners, intermediate and advanced levels. The course is free to all members of the University of Cambridge; individuals who are not affiliated to the University but are interested in attending are also welcome and are encouraged to contact the Head of Department, Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh (

The Modern Irish Resources page on the ASNaC website has also been updated, and now includes many useful links to online dictionaries, broadcast media sites, Irish language immersion programmes and academic organisations.

All language classes for Michaelmas Term 2010 will take place in the English Faculty on the Sidgwick Site at the following times:

Beginners: Tuesdays at 5 p.m. and Thursdays at 3 p.m.

Intermediate: Mondays at 4 p.m. and Thursdays at 5 p.m.

Advanced: Wednesdays at 3 p.m. and one other hour TBA

In addition, there will be an Introductory Meeting for all interested students on 6 October at 1 p.m. in the ASNaC Common Room, English Faculty, Sidgwick Site.

If you have further questions about the classes, please feel free to contact the instructor, Dr Margaret Griffin-Wilson (

We hope to see many of you there!

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Modern Glosses

Dr Denis Casey writes:

In recent years the internet has become an indispensable tool for medieval scholars, with websites such as the Early Irish Glossaries Database, Parker Library on the Web and the Celtic Digital Initiative providing access to texts and images to users around the world. Websites, like any other medium, have both their advantages and limitations but an interesting, most likely unplanned, though certainly useful side effect has been produced by That website, as its URL suggests, is a vast archive of useful material not always readily available in every library. The beauty of this service is that some of the actual digitized volumes themselves were formerly owned by well-known scholars and their annotations offer interesting insights into the texts and their interpretations of the texts, just like any medieval gloss or commentary.

To take an interesting example, consider the case of the Ancient Laws of Ireland series. That six-volume edition and translation of the corpus of medieval Irish law was based on the earlier work of the mid-nineteenth-century scholars Eugene O’Curry and John O’Donovan, but not completed until 1901. It was widely castigated for errors in transcription and translation (not necessarily the fault of O’Curry and O’Donovan); to prove the point, Eóin Mac Néill, the great Scholar-Revolutionary, published a translation of two of its texts in 1923, shortly after emerging from jail and taking up the post of Minister for Education in the new Irish Free State, during the civil war. A later scholar and former Free State ambassador to Weimar Germany, D. A. Binchy (who incidentally left fascinating pen-portraits of Hitler, von Bruning and others in the pages of Studies), spent much of his career editing and translating various legal texts and finally produced a six-volume diplomatic transcript of the known legal manuscripts: Corpus Iuris Hibernici (1978). Nonetheless, many of the texts have neither been reedited nor retranslated since the publication of the Ancient Laws series. Luckily, at least some volumes from Binchy’s library found its way into the collection of Stephen B. Roman, who subsequently bequeathed them to J. M. Kelly Library, St Michael’s College, University of Toronto. Among these are at least three volumes of Binchy’s annotated copies of the Ancient Laws, which are now available on Anyone who has dealt with the complexities of (and frustrations attendant upon) working with medieval Irish legal texts will appreciate the help of one of the most notable scholars of medieval Ireland. Here are the links to volume 1, volume 3 and volume 4.

Friday 17 September 2010

Investigating Ragnar Shaggy-Breeches

Dr Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, Lecturer in Scandinavian History in ASNC, writes about her current research on Ragnar Loðbrók:

One of my current research projects has to do with a legendary Viking named Ragnar Loðbrók. His nickname means ‘Shaggy Breeches’, and my husband likes to refer to him as ‘Ragnar Shaggy-Pants’. According to Ragnar’s saga (here illustrated by Niels Skovgaard), Ragnar got his nickname from the time that he killed a serpent, protected from the monster’s venom by a suit of fur clothing dipped in tar. As you might expect, by killing the serpent he won the hand of the lovely Thora. The story of Ragnar was very popular in Iceland in the Middle Ages, and Ragnar was believed to have been a real person, and even the ancestor of certain Icelanders. My project is to survey these references to Ragnar and to investigate what he meant to different authors. So far it appears that Ragnar was quite a malleable character. He could be the ancestor of the royal houses of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, or he could be the representative of the evils of the pagan age, before Christianity came to Scandinavia. The author of Njal’s Saga uses Ragnar to establish that some Icelanders come from a noble background, in contrast to the author of Egil’s Saga, which uses Ragnar to symbolize the old order in Norway, which the new order of Iceland sets itself up against. Significantly, there is no text in Old Norse that lists all the descendants that have been attributed to Ragnar, or that showed Ragnarr as the father of Icelandic settlers and of Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish kings. Evidently the ease with which his legend could be adapted led to such a proliferation of material that later Icelanders were unwilling to deal with it all – but I am.

(The caption of the illustration says ‘Thora sees Ragnar, and he sees her.’)

Monday 13 September 2010

The influence of Old Norse on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Dr Richard Dance writes about his current research project, an etymological survey of words derived from Old Norse in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

The language of the Scandinavians who settled in Viking Age England had a profound influence on the history of English, including its vocabulary. A number of important, everyday Modern English words have been traced back to Old Norse (e.g. die, egg, ill, law, leg, low, seem, sky, take, window, not to mention the pronouns they, their and them), and there are hundreds of other likely instances in texts written during the Old and Middle English periods. The sociolinguistic context of the contact between speakers of Old English and Old Norse in the Viking Age, and the mechanisms by which material was transferred from one language to the other, have been the subject of important research in the last several decades (see notably M. Townend, Language and History in Viking Age England: Linguistic Relations Between Speakers of Old Norse and Old English (Turnhout, 2002)). But there is still much work to do in order to understand the loaned vocabulary itself, particularly the Scandinavian influence on the lexicon of the great medieval English literary monuments composed in the North or North Midlands. My current research project explores one important work, the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

A view of 'Lud's Church', Staffordshire (possible inspiration for the 'Green Chapel'
in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Photo: Dr Richard Dance 

Despite its celebrity as one of the pinnacles of Middle English literary achievement, and, what is more, though its vocabulary has frequently been held up as one of the most striking known instances of Scandinavian influence, there has been no complete etymological survey of Norse loans in Sir Gawain. This is perhaps because the identification of a list of these words is a task accompanied by so much uncertainty: the number of lexical items in the text whose development could be attributed to Norse input is very large, but (once we get beyond the obvious candidates) there is surprisingly little consensus about which exactly to include. At a minimum there are just over a hundred different words in Sir Gawain demonstrably derivable from Norse on the basis of comparative formal criteria (these include phonological ‘tests’ like the presence of a distinctively ON /sk/ in words like skete ‘quickly’, to be derived from ON skjótt rather than OE scēot- with its initial palatal, cp. MnE shoot). At the other extreme, taking into account the etymological labels and other remarks of the historical dictionaries, the glossaries (and notes) of the standard editions and assorted other studies, I have so far collected more than 450 total instances for which some influence from Norse has been suggested, including many for which the evidence is much shakier (amongst the more interesting and tentative are words like fysken ‘scamper’, gryndel ‘fierce’, runisch ‘rough, violent’). The disparity between these two extremes is nicely indicative of the difficulties that beset the etymological identification of Norse loans in general, and which result from two basic deficiencies in the pool of evidence: on the one hand the sheer formal similarity of Old English and Old Norse, which has self-evident consequences not only for the relatively easy transfer of material between the two, but for our capacity to identify it after the fact; and on the other the patchiness of the record of both languages in the periods before and during which contact took place. The first step in the investigation of these words cannot therefore be a simple matter of compiling a list of ‘bona fide loans’; but the grounds upon which Scandinavian influence has been identified need careful scrutiny and considered presentation before any further analysis can be undertaken. Taking Sir Gawain as my sample, my project therefore aims to discover not only what can be achieved by a thoroughgoing collection of all the many and various suggestions for Norse input in scholarly publications, it also sets out to be a reassessment of the methodological underpinnings of a subject central to English lexical history, whose principles have seldom been set out or discussed since the magisterial work of Erik Björkman (Scandinavian Loan-Words in Middle English (Halle, 1900–1902)).

I have been working on this material intermittently for a number of years, and my approach to the etymological arguments has evolved as I have collected more and more suggested loans. Over the next few months I intend to prepare the main elements of my research for publication. This task has been greatly facilitated by the generosity of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), whose ‘Fellowships’ scheme has enabled me to take an additional term of sabbatical leave in order to work on Sir Gawain. Looking further ahead, I hope that my survey of the vocabulary of this important text will sow the seeds for a large-scale, collaborative project to collect words of possibly Scandinavian origin from a great many more Middle English texts.

Wednesday 8 September 2010


Congratulations to Dr Denis Casey who has won the 2010 Irish Chiefs' Prize in History, which is awarded by the Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains in association with the History Department of Trinity College, Dublin and History Ireland magazine. Dr Casey recently completed a PhD in ASNC and, from October, will be teaching Celtic History in the Department while Dr Fiona Edmonds is on research leave.

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.

Saturday 31 July 2010

The Best Statue in Cambridge

ELB writes:

Proof that there's more to ASNC than just Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic: Hugo Gye, who graduated this summer with a B.A. (Hons) in ASNC, features in the current issue of Cambridge University's award-winning alumni magazine, CAM. Hugo's contribution is the latest in a series of articles in which undergraduates write about their favourite piece of art in Cambridge. Hugo chose the statue of Lord Byron, which is located in the Wren Library at Trinity College, and he writes eloquently in praise of the 'lazy, drunken, hedonistic' student (not that we encourage that sort of thing in ASNC, of course). The magazine can be downloaded here, and Hugo's article in on p.13.

Statue of Lord Byron, Trinity College, Cambridge

Friday 9 July 2010

ASNC Open Day

On 23rd June ASNC welcomed more than sixty potential applicants and their parents to our departmental Open Day, which was held in the English Faculty Building on West Road and in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College. Senior members of the ASNC Department gave short talks on the various papers available to our undergraduates, from Old Norse to Palaeography, Celtic Philology to Anglo-Saxon History. There were also talks on various aspects of the University's admissions process. After that, our visitors had the opportunity to see a number of Anglo-Saxon and medieval Welsh manuscripts at the Parker Library, including the Corpus Glossary (an early ninth-century manuscript containing a glossary in Latin and Old English, which provides some of the earliest evidence for the Old English language), the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and a Latin copy of the medieval Welsh law texts known as Cyfraith Hywel.

CCCC MS 197B, an eighth-century gospelbook (image from

In addition to our departmental Open Day, we also had a stand in the Law Faculty at the main University Open Days (on 1st and 2nd July), and over the course of those two days dozens more potential applicants dropped in to the Department to find out about what we do. We hope that many of the people who visited us over the course of the Open Days will be joining the Department as new undergraduates in October 2011.

Monday 5 July 2010

Woruldhord Project at Oxford University

Anna Caughey writes:

On behalf of Dr Stuart Lee and the Oxford University Faculty of English, I am pleased to announce the launch of the Woruldhord Project, which opened on the 1st of July 2010 and is now receiving submissions.

The Woruldhord Project is a joint initiative of the Oxford University Computing Services and the Faculty of English. It aims to combine the expertise of literary scholars, historians, archaeologists, art historians and linguists together with material from museums, historical sites and members of the general public to create a comprehensive online archive of written, visual and audio-visual material related to Old English and the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Project is currently inviting contributions from anyone researching or teaching on the Anglo-Saxon period at a university level. We are particularly interested in images, audio/video recordings, handouts, essays, articles, presentations, spreadsheets, databases, course notes, lesson plans and materials used in undergraduate teaching, but welcome submissions of any type.

Any material submitted will be made freely available worldwide for educational purposes on the Project Woruldhord website, hosted by the University of Oxford. However, all intellectual property rights in the material will be retained by the contributor, contributors will be named on the site, and all visitors will be provided with a citation guide enabling them to properly acknowledge the authors of the resources. Contributors can also, if desired, attach links to their own or their University’s website to their contributions,
increasing their own web presence.

Timed to correspond with renewed public interest in the Anglo-Saxons following the recent discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, this project presents an excellent opportunity to apply computing technology to the study of Anglo-Saxon literature, history and culture. It also aims to allow members of the public across the world to access rare or difficult-to-obtain material as well as the expertise of specialists in the field. We hope that academics and teachers are willing to share this material, especially if they feel it will be of benefit to the discipline. The Woruldhord Project follows on from the Great War Archive, a very successful project which
collected manuscript material, letters and other materials from the First World War from March-November 2008.

To submit material to the project, simply visit This page will take you through the simple-to-use submission process where you can upload your object and provide some basic information about it. Other pages that may be of interest include: the main website, the project blog, our 'help' section including a 'how to get started guide' and an FAQ, and a discussion group for the project

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to email the project at:

Thanks in advance for any contributions you may send!

Friday 25 June 2010

Film Review: or, why ASNC is good (or possibly bad) for your health

Velda Elliott writes:

It might have been a mistake, but a friend dragged me to see Russell Crowe as Robin Hood recently. She loved it. As an ex-mediaeval historian I had a few more problems: specifically my blood pressure. I know it was set just outside ASNaC’s jurisdiction, but there’s definitely some transferable knowledge.

Now, I understand that they almost certainly had an historical consultant – after all they did get right the fact that chain mail weighs a tonne. Well, okay, maybe three stone, as if you were running around all day with a small child strapped to your back. Robin has to ask Marian to help him off with it before he can bathe. The fact that later in the film Cate Blanchett, a twig of a woman who has most certainly not spent years growing used to the weight, manages to turn up to battle in full chainmail and then fight – hey, I’m not even going to go there. Some romantic licence must be allowed.

Russell Crowe as Robin Hood

So they almost certainly did have an historical consultant, even if they did ignore eighty, eighty-five per cent of what s/he said. Let’s not go into calling the king ‘Your Majesty’ 350 years early, burning a body instead of burying it, wielding a broadsword one-handed, or the boats which needed another 500 years to be invented. I did have an actual head-slapping moment when King John refused to sign the Magna Carta, because, actually, in fact, sorry, he DID ACTUALLY SIGN! The woman sitting next to me looked a bit startled.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Cath Cnucha: a twenty-first century adaptation

Dr Elizabeth Boyle writes:

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting pupils from the City of London Academy – Islington and the Central Foundation Boys’ School who came to Corpus Christi College to find out about university life, and about applying to study at Cambridge. After a series of events and lunch organised by Corpus's Admissions Tutor, Dr Melanie Taylor, I had the opportunity to offer pupils a taster lecture, so that they could experience one of the more unusual subjects one can study at Cambridge, namely Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic.

Some of the wonderful pupils from the Central Foundation Boys' School

We discussed some ideas about 'translation', and how the act of translating an historical source can break down barriers, both linguistic and cultural, and shed new light on the past. But we also talked about the way one chooses to translate a text, and how that can open up the text to new audiences (both Ciaran Carson's translation of The Táin [Penguin: 2007] and Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf [Faber & Faber: 2002] are good examples of this).

Creative talents from City of London Academy - Islington

Friday 11 June 2010

Parchment, Print and PHP: ASNC Leading the Way

Dr Denis Casey writes:

A recent report on how university research in the arts and humanities is serving society (and how its impact may be effectively measured), undertaken by the not-for-profit policy research organisation RAND Europe, has singled out ASNC's Early Irish Glossaries Project for praise.

Under the heading Research Can Have Planned and Unplanned Impacts, the report highlights the impact that the purpose-built database of that three-year project (undertaken by Dr Paul Russell, Dr Pádraic Moran and Dr Sharon Arbuthnot) has had.
There are often unexpected impacts from a research project. For example, in the Faculty of English, an AHRC-funded project on medieval Irish glossaries developed a sophisticated database which had the unanticipated impact of becoming a model for other such databases in other fields.
The report was commissioned jointly by the University of Cambridge and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Thursday 3 June 2010

ASNC Open Day

The Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic will be holding an Open Day for prospective undergraduates (parents welcome too!) on 23rd June. Details, and a booking form, can be found here. Senior members of the department will give introductory talks on each of the various papers offered as part of the ASNC degree, and there will be a buffet lunch. In addition, there will be a trip to a College library, with an opportunity to see an exhibition of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic manuscripts. Booking for this event is essential. However, there is also the opportunity to visit the department more informally as part of the University's general admission Open Days on 1st and 2nd July; there is no need to formally book for the July events, although we would be grateful if you could let us know in advance if you plan to visit us.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Recent Discoveries for Anglo-Saxon England

ELB writes:

Important new research by ASNC Department members Prof. Simon Keynes and Dr Rosalind Love is highlighted in Cambridge University's Research Horizons newsletter this month. As Research Horizons puts it:
Recent headlines might give the impression that to strike Anglo-Saxon gold you need a metal detector but, as ASNC academics Professor Simon Keynes and Dr Rosalind Love discovered, there’s still plenty awaiting the historians and literary scholars who depend on texts.

When a 14th-century compilation of historical materials that had lain undiscovered in the library of the Earl of Devon for centuries went under the hammer at Sotheby’s, an eagle-eyed expert (and former ASNC graduate student) spotted that it contained a copy of a much older and incredibly rare text. It was the Encomium Emmae Reginae, a highly charged polemic written on behalf of Queen Emma, wife of King Æthelred the Unready and then of King Cnut, in 1041. But, unlike the only other surviving copy, it was preserved here in a version with a different ending, added after the accession of her son Edward the Confessor in 1042. Coincidentally, a related discovery was made in Oxford, where papers of a 16th-century antiquary were found to include a long-lost section from a biography of King Edward, written soon after his death in 1066.
Both ‘new’ texts have now been studied closely at ASNC, and interpreted in relation to each other. ‘The variant ending of the Encomium is rather explosive in its implications for our understanding of how Edward’s accession was perceived by contemporaries, spinning it as the longed-for restoration of the Anglo-Saxon royal line,’ explained Professor Keynes. ‘And it provides the perfect context for understanding a poem, now fully recovered, which describes a magnificent ship given to Edward at precisely that time,’ added Dr Love.
Prof. Keynes and Dr Love are publishing their study of this important new material in the forthcoming volume of the journal Anglo-Saxon England and this can already be accessed online (or purchased by those who do not have institutional access to Cambridge journals).

Monday 24 May 2010

15th Oxford-Cambridge Celtic Colloquium

Ronni Phillips writes:

The Oxford-Cambridge Celtic Colloquium took place last Saturday, 22nd May. It was held in the Old Music Room at St John’s College, Cambridge, with a dinner afterwards in the Upper Hall, Peterhouse. The Colloquium is a conference for postgraduate students from the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, held alternately at each institution, and is now in its fifteenth year. This year there were eight speakers, four from Oxford and four from Cambridge, representing a variety of disciplines within the Celtic Studies field.

The programme was as follows:

11am: Tea and Coffee, Old Music Room, St John’s College

Session 1 
Chair: Veronica Phillips

11.30: Kelly Kilpatrick (Oxford), ‘The Medieval Perceptions of the Pre-Christian ‘cemeteries’ of Ireland: a Toponymic Analysis of Senchas na Relec, Aided Nath Í ocus Adnacol and Related Dindshenchus’.

12.00: Dr Denis Casey (Cambridge), ‘Sources for the Annals of Clonmacnoise’.

12.30: Patrick Wadden (Oxford), ‘Cath Ruis na Ríg: Literature and History in the Twelfth Century’.

1.00: Lunch, Old Music Room, St John’s College

Oxford-Cambridge Celtic Colloquium 2010

Session 2
Chair: Robert Crampton

2.30: Angela Grant (Oxford), ‘Rith and Anyan: the Nature of Magical Transformation in Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi’.

3.00: Kelly Randall (Cambridge), ‘(Re-)defining Translation Style: Structure and Variation in Cyfranc Lludd a Llefelys’.

3.30: Owain Wyn Jones (Oxford), ‘Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei Chwaer/The Prophecy of Myrddin and Gwenddydd his Sister’.

4:00 Tea and Coffee, Old Music Room, St John’s College

Session 3
Chair: Jon Wolitz

4.30: Natalia Petrovskaia (Cambridge), ‘The Origins of Delw y Byd’.

5.00: Philip Dunshea (Cambridge), ‘The Sub-Roman Afterlife of the Hadrian’s Wallforts’.

7.00: Dinner, Upper Hall, Peterhouse

Friday 21 May 2010

Vacancy in the ASNC Department

Teaching Associate in Modern Irish

Applications are invited for a part-time post in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, available from 1 September 2010. The successful applicant will be expected to teach Modern Irish language to University students at all levels, develop online resources to support this teaching, and contribute as a member of the team to the scholarly life of the Department. A good first degree and relevant postgraduate qualification are essential, as well as a good understanding of IT as it relates to language teaching and learning. Given the strong research culture in the Department, developing research activity commensurate with stage of career is desirable. Further particulars can be downloaded from here or obtained from the Departmental Secretary at 9 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DP.

Applications, including a curriculum vitae, completed PD18 (Parts I and III), covering letter and the names of three referees should be sent to the Departmental Secretary at the above address by the closing date. Referees should also be asked to write directly to the same address by the closing date.

Quote Reference: GH05389, Closing Date: 15 June 2010
Planned interview date: 28 June 2010

The University values diversity and is committed to equality of opportunity.
The University has a responsibility to ensure that all employees are eligible to live and work in the UK.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Hidden Treasures in the Cambridge University Library

Dr Denis Casey writes:

In a previous post, Dr Elizabeth Boyle drew attention to the wealth of ASNC-related medieval manuscripts housed in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, which were recently digitised as part of the Parker Library on the Web project. Thanks to that project, the Parker Library's collection is now not only the best-known in Cambridge but also the most accessible (on this, see the recent audio slideshow on the BBC News website). The Parker Library, however, is not the only repository of such valuable material. Other Cambridge libraries also contain many interesting (and sometimes overlooked) manuscripts, not least the Cambridge University Library. To illustrate my point, let's look at one Irish manuscript in Cambridge University Library: a nineteenth-century paper miscellany, now sporting the fetching title of 'Additional MS 4182'.

Additional MS 4182, whose contents vary greatly in age and genre, contains a little something for everyone interested in Irish studies. Excerpts from the ninth-century Triads sit comfortably alongside poems ascribed to the eighteenth-century Jacobite master poet Seán Clárach mac Domhnaill, whose work has been performed in recent years by a collection of Irish and Scottish musicians and singers on BBC Four's Highland Sessions and in alternating Irish and English stanzas in a wonderful collaborative recording by Sting and The Chieftains. Alternatively, for those whose interests lie in analysis of the Irish language, grammatical sections like Ga mhéad rann san oraid? ('How many divisions in speech?') may prove interesting.

Other gems in this manuscript include two copies of an anecdote explaining the origins of the name Ó Súilleabháin (O'Sullivan), which appear to be a version of a story Míchél Ó Cléirigh recorded at the end of his copy of the Life of Saint Ruadán of Lothra (Plummer, ed. & trans., Bethada náem nÉrenn: Lives of Irish Saints, I, 329 & II, 319-20). In this anecdote, a druid named Lobán came to Eochuadh mac Máolura and made exorbitant demands of him, including that he give the druid one of his eyes! Eochuad, fearing that refusal of Lobán would result in dishonour, plucked out one of his own eyes and gave it to the druid. Saint Ruadán avenged Eochuadh by causing Lobán's eyes to replace Eochuadh's, hence the name Súilleabháin, i.e Súile Lobáin ('Lobán's eyes' - a play on súil amháin 'one-eyed'?) stuck to Eochuadh and his descendants.

The contents of Additional MS 4182 are not confined to amusing anecdotes and vignettes. A seemingly separate book bound into the volume contains a lengthy text entitled Gabháltais Shéarlais Mhóir ('The Conquests of Charlemagne'), a late medieval Irish translation of an eleventh-/twelfth-century Latin original. Douglas Hyde edited and translated Gabháltais Shéarlais Mhóir for the Irish Texts Society in 1919, but does not appear to have known about (or at least he did not make reference to) the Cambridge copy. Who knows whether this copy may represent a previously unrecognised recension of Gabháltais Shéarlais Mhóir? Even if there is nothing new in it, it still may broaden our knowledge of manuscript dissemination of that text.

Cambridge University Library Additional MS 4182 is just one of a substantial number of Irish manuscripts in Cambridge, which, although catalogued, have yet to be explored in depth (the Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in Cambridge Libraries was compiled by Máire Herbert and Pádraig de Brún and published by Cambridge University Press in 1986). Hopefully this brief note will show that, like an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, the Cambridge collections contain a vast amount of material just waiting to be properly exploited ...

Friday 30 April 2010

Ireland in Cambridge

ELB writes:

This week Cambridge has been a hive of Irish-related activity. Events began on Monday with a seminar given to the Medieval Archaeology group at the McDonald Institute by Dr Kieran O'Connor, of the National University of Ireland Galway, on élite Gaelic settlements in Ireland in the high Middle Ages. This was followed by the Kathleen Hughes Memorial Lecture, organised by the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic in assocation with Hughes Hall, which this year was given by Prof. Marie-Therese Flanagan of Queen's University, Belfast. Prof. Flanagan spoke on the twelfth-century ecclesiastical reform movement in Ireland, highlighting Ireland's manifold connections with England and continental Europe during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Prof. Flanagan noted the poor survival rate of sources from Ireland itself at this time, and pointed out that the very good survival rate of evidence from centres such as Canterbury may lead us to overestimate the importance of that Metropolitan See for the ecclesiastical reform movement, in comparison with other potentially significant centres, such as the Regensburg Schottenkloster, from which fewer sources survive.

One of the few reform documents to have survived from Ireland is Gille (Gilbert) of Limerick's De statu ecclesiae, one copy of which survives in a Durham manuscript, and the other surviving copy of which is now preserved in Cambridge University Library and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Prof. Flanagan spoke in detail about Gille's tract, identifying a number of its sources and their links to the Continental reform movement, and she also highlighted Gille's emphasis on reform at the parish level, and his focus on priests and on women.

Cormac's Chapel, Cashel - the architectural embodiment of ecclesiastical reform in Ireland

On the same occasion as Prof. Flanagan's erudite lecture, the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic also celebrated the publication of last year's Kathleen Hughes Memorial Lecture, given by Dr Colmán Etchingham, National University of Ireland Maynooth, entitled The Irish 'Monastic Town': Is this a Valid Concept?  The lecture is available from our Departmental Secretary for a modest sum, and its publication was launched by our Head of Department, Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, in the presence of the cultural attaché of the Irish Embassy in London, Mr Ciaran Byrne.

As if this was not enough, Monday's events were followed by a fascinating seminar as part of the Cambridge Group for Irish Studies series, which meets regularly at Magdalene College under the direction of Prof. Eamon Duffy. At this most recent seminar, Dr Meidhbhín Ní Úrdail, of University College Dublin, spoke about the prolific scribal culture which existed in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland. Indeed, aside from Iceland, one would be hard-pressed to think of another region in which scribal culture enjoyed such vibrant and creative life so late into the modern age. Dr Ní Úrdail's paper focused in particular on one text ('The Battle of Clontarf') which exists in almost ninety different modern manuscript copies, and she demonstrated the creative engagement of the scribes who copied the text, resulting in virtually every manuscript copy of the text containing textual variants to a greater or lesser degree (thus rendering her task, as editor of the text, that much more difficult!).

Our Irish week continued with Dr Deborah Hayden, Lecturer in Modern Irish in the Department, giving a seminar on 'Poetic Law and the Medieval Irish Linguist' at Hughes Hall on Wednesday, and that is followed today by Dr Denis Casey, who will be giving a Research Seminar to ASNC on his work towards a new critical edition of the 'Annals of Clonmacnoise'. It has been an exhausting but intellectually stimulating and immensely rich week, and is testimony to the strength and diversity of medieval Irish studies in Cambridge.

Friday 23 April 2010

The early medieval world rocks.

ELB writes:

From Christopher Lee's Charlemagne-themed concept album, to the Wild Beast's contemporary take on the Exeter Book poem Wulf and Eadwacer, we applaud manifestations of early medieval culture in modern music. Any suggestions of classic ASNC-related songs or albums gratefully received (aside from the entire genre of folk metal), but in the meantime, here's the great Christopher Lee talking about his Charlemagne album:

Friday 9 April 2010

Kathleen Hughes Memorial Lecture 2010, in association with Hughes Hall

On Monday 26th April, at 5.45pm, the 2010 Kathleen Hughes Memorial Lecture will take place in the Pavillion Room at Hughes Hall, Cambridge.

Prof. Marie Therese Flanagan, Professor of Medieval History at Queen's University, Belfast, will speak on:
Reform in the twelfth-century Irish Church: a revolution of outlook?

The Kathleen Hughes Memorial Lecture is given annually, in association with Hughes Hall, in memory of Kathleen Hughes who, at the time of her death in 1977, was Reader in Celtic in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic, University of Cambridge.

Wednesday 31 March 2010

An Irish History of Civilization

Dr Denis Casey writes:

A recent reading experience has left me with the feeling that perhaps I should emerge from under my cultural rock a little more often. The work that inspired this minor bout of introspection was Don Akenson's large two-volume An Irish History of Civilization (2005). That's right, An Irish History of Civilization; not A History of Irish Civilization. Akenson's intriguing work is not a history of Ireland or Irishness but a presentation of the Irish experience of world history in Talmudic form. In his preface Akenson suggests that his work is 'a collection of fictive short stories or, if you prefer, of Aggadah: very little in the way of Halachah here'.

Even from a purely 'ASNC' point of view his book is full of individually-titled pieces that provoke an examination of how we appreciate the materials with which we work and also our own relationship with them. For example, in 'The Beginning', on the passage graves along the Boyne, he remarks of their creators that 'these are a stone-aged people, but they are as far from being primitive as we are from being civilized' (vol I, p. 59). Certainly food for thought, especially when one reflects on the continuing controversy over the proposed route of the M3 motorway through the Tara-Skreen valley. In 'The Land', Akenson contrasts the pre-modern and modern Irish landscape and suggests that 'you've never been there even if you've lived there all your life' (I, p. 60). His brief tale focuses on changes such as deforestation, widespread enclosure of land, draining of lakes and consumption of bogs and concludes:

The Boyne Valley (from www.

'So all the events that happen before, say, 1600, happen in a theatre that we have never visited, and are outlined against backdrops we can only intuit. When heroic chariot battles occur in the central plains, they are on a topographical scale now impossible to duplicate; when journeys in the northern drumlins and woodlands are mentioned, they take place in a claustrophobic tangle of scree and tree that is no longer tangible; and when an adventurer crosses parts of the far south or far north, he is frequently travelling and travailing across a desert waste where there is no fodder for horses, no grass, all is heather or bog and there are only tiny settlements, most of which the traveller can pass within a mile of and never know are there' (I, pp. 60-1).

One might go to the works of Frank Mitchell (The Shell Guide to Reading the Irish Landscape, Dublin, 1986) or Fergus Kelly (Early Irish Farming: a Study based mainly on the Law-Texts of the 7th and 8th Centuries A.D., Dublin, 2000) for a discussion of the medieval Irish landscape from a more 'scientific' point of view and find a great deal to contradict the details of Akenson's description, but to do so would be to miss the point of this particular piece of Aggadah. It is the overall thrust of the stories that is critical and, as Akenson wryly notes in his prefact, 'as far as mere accuracy is concerned, not all seeming errors in the text are accidental. Sometimes even the immortal Homer only pretended to nod'!

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Update: Staffordshire Hoard Saved for the Nation

Dr Rory Naismith writes:

On 23 March the National Heritage Memorial Fund pledged the final £1.285 million needed to reach the purchase price of £3.3 million set by a Treasure Valuation Committee in November 2009 for the Staffordshire hoard of 1,600 early Anglo-Saxon gold and silver objects. This news comes three weeks ahead of the scheduled deadline for the fundraising campaign. Donations contributing towards this goal have come from a range of sources, including the Art Fund, Birmingham and Stoke city councils and a successful public appeal, one anonymous donor to which gave £50,000.

Despite this important and extremely welcome step, fundraising efforts are set to continue, aiming now for the estimated £1.7 million needed by the hoard's future custodians (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and Stoke Museums) to undertake proper conservation, study and display to the public. Purchase of the hoard for the nation thus hardly marks the end of the interest and activity which it has generated: its acquisition paves the way for detailed investigation and long-term exhibition to begin in earnest.

Monday 22 March 2010

ASNCs set York alight (literally)

ELB writes:

On Saturday 20th March, members of the ASNC Department were in York to hold a one-day conference on The Early Medieval World, aimed at Year 11 and 12 pupils and their teachers. Despite a slightly inauspicious start, involving a fire in the pub in which we were drinking the night before, and a fire alarm in the early hours of the morning at our hotel, the event itself proved to be a massive success. More than one hundred pupils and teachers - largely from schools in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire, although some had come from London, and even as far afield as Dover - gathered at St Peter's School (we loved the ASNC connection - the school even claims Alcuin as a past headmaster!) for a day of mini-lectures on themes as diverse as cultural contacts in early medieval Yorkshire to the historical Macbeth.

St Peter's School, York, who hosted our event superbly.

Dr Andrew Bell, Tutor for Admissions at Gonville and Caius College, began the day with a talk on 'Thinking about Early Medieval Europe' which addressed wide historical themes, and various approaches to early medieval history. Next, Dr Fiona Edmonds, Lecturer in Celtic History, outlined evidence for British-speaking communities in Anglo-Saxon England as late as the eighth century. Fiona focused particularly on Yorkshire and Lancashire, and engaged the interest of the audience by using toponymic evidence from their own localities to support the argument for a continued British presence well into the Anglo-Saxon period.

After lunch, Dr Debby Banham, an expert in Anglo-Saxon diet, farming and medicine, gave a fascinating insight into everyday life in Anglo-Saxon England, touching on diet, clothing, and shelter. Dr Richard Dance, Senior Lecturer in Old English Language and Literature, gave the audience a highly entertaining, and interactive, introduction to the Old English and Old Norse languages. Lastly, I spoke on medieval Gaelic influences in modern English literature, focusing on the historical Macbeth. A quick glance at the feedback questionnaires suggest that there was a universally positive response to the day, with many pupils and teachers lamenting the fact that they have no opportunity to study medieval history or literature at GCSE or 'A' Level.

The Department would like to say a massive thank you to the two undergraduates, Albert Fenton and Rebecca Wilkinson, who came to York with us, and who spoke to many of the young people who attended, offering them information on everything from university applications to life as an ASNC. They were brilliant, enormously helpful and unfailingly enthusiastic. Thanks guys!