Sunday 31 January 2010

Threat to Palaeography at KCL

Palaeography is a discipline which lies at the heart of what we do in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic. Therefore, it is with great alarm that we read of the threat to palaeographical teaching and research at King's College London. KCL has the only established Chair of Palaeography in Britain, and its present incumbent, Prof. David Ganz, has been told that funding for his position will cease at the end of this academic year. This is part of a wider movement of 'strategic disinvestment' (i.e. job cuts) by KCL, and rumours abound that 22 academics from the Arts and Humanities alone stand to lose their jobs. Indeed, an eminent linguistic philosopher, Prof. Shalom  Lappin, has also been informed that his job will no longer be funded after August of this year. Unless undergraduate and graduate students are taught palaeographical skills, and unless academic palaeographers continue to research and publish on all aspects of historical forms of writing, our ability to read and understand historical documents - the skill which lies at the heart of all historical inquiry - will cease. A Facebook group has been formed to support the study of palaeography at KCL, and to encourage people to write to the principal of KCL in protest at this shortsighted move.

Friday 29 January 2010

Iron Age gold in the National Museum of Scotland

ELB  writes:
While in Edinburgh for the purpose of giving a seminar in the Celtic and Scottish Studies department of the University, I found time to see the display of four recently-discovered Iron Age gold torcs at the National Museum of Scotland.

gold torcs, from the National Museum of Scotland website

The torcs are on public display for another week or two, after which they will be taken to be valued under the Scottish law of Treasure Trove; following this, they will be allocated to an appropriate museum. The torcs, which were discovered near Stirling by David Booth during his first outing with a metal-detector, are beautiful, and while two of them appear to be of native origin and design, the other two are not. Of those, one, which survives in two fragments, is of French origin, possibly from near Toulouse, and provides evidence either of international trade, or the movement of people or prestige objects, between Continental Europe and the region which is now Scotland, in the period c.300-100 BC. The fourth torc is even more interesting, and, according to the National Museum, is unique.

detail of torc, from National Museum of Scotland website

The shape of the fourth torc is characteristic of designs found in north-west Europe, but we are told that the craft skills used to make the torc suggest a goldsmith trained in the Graeco-Roman world. The implications for our understanding of international trade, and the exchange of prestige objects, in pre-Roman Britain are yet to be fully understood, but this exciting find, while not as large as the Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire Hoard, is surely just as significant, albeit for an earlier period. If you're in Edinburgh before 10th February, I highly recommend taking a look at these breathtaking finds.

Monday 25 January 2010

Schools event: The Early Medieval World

The Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic will be invading York on 20th March, for a one-day event aimed at Year 11 and 12 students and their teachers. The conference, for which there is no charge (lunch and refreshments provided too!), is entitled The Early Medieval World, and will be held at St Peter's School, York. This event is being arranged for students who might be interested in studying medieval history, languages and/or literature at university, but have not had the opportunity to explore such things at school and would like to find out more about them. Topics to be covered range from multi-culturalism in early medieval Yorkshire to medieval Celtic influences on English literature from Shakespeare to Tennyson. Further information can be found in the conference programme.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Queen Eadgyth in Magdeburg

Levi Roach writes:

This week's discovery of what purports to be Queen Eadgyth's body in Magdeburg, Germany, will, if confirmed scientifically, certainly be an important one. It has long been known that Eadgyth was laid to rest in Magdeburg, but since her body was transferred from its original tomb in 1510 it was not known precisely where it might lie. Although the body alone tells us little new about the politics of the era, it provides an opportunity to reflect upon the events of the early tenth century and gives us a tangible counterpart to the evidence of our written sources.

Eadgyth and Otto, Magdeburg Cathedral

Eadgyth was the daughter of King Edward (899-924), the son and successor of Alfred the Great (876-99), and the sister of King Æthelstan, the first king to rule all of the English (924-39). She ended up in Germany as a part of a dynastic alliance forged between Æthelstan and his continental neighbour, King Henry I of East Frankia/Germany (919-36). The kings arranged that she be sent over to wed Henry's eldest son, Otto (the later Otto I or Otto 'the Great' of Germany), thus confirming the pact. This was an important alliance indeed as it brought together the two most powerful European rulers of the time: Henry, who ruled a massive kingdom, stretching from Schleswig-Holstein in the north to the Swiss and Austrian Alps in the south; and Æthelstan, who had successfully taken York from the vikings, for the first time unifying all of what was to become England.

Monday 18 January 2010

The Staffordshire Hoard

Prof. Simon Keynes writes:

'The Staffordshire Hoard (or perhaps more accurately the 'Hammerwich Hoard', after the place where it was found) is certainly a very significant discovery, and represents a most welcome addition to our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon material culture in the seventh century. It includes a large quantity of gold fittings removed from swords and associated military equipment, such as sword pommels and scabbard bosses, and on the face of it looks like the most obviously valuable parts of war-gear captured from a defeated army. Yet most interestingly, it also includes a golden cross, which had been crumpled up in order to make it fit into a container of some kind, and also a folded strip of gold (perhaps removed from a wooden cross) bearing a rather crudely written Latin inscription calling for God's aid against His enemies.

The interpretation of this extraordinary find will depend in part on its composition, and in part on whatever can be established about its date, whether from analysis of the gold, or from the script on the gold strip; but it is difficult to resist the supposition that it represents loot taken from an East Anglian army sometime in the second or third quarter of the seventh century, and brought back through the east midlands and along Watling Street into the heartland of the kingdom of the Mercians (the vicinity of Tamworth and Lichfield, Staffordshire). The hoard thus substantiates what we knew or could suspect about the power, wealth and predatory activities of the Mercians in the seventh century, most famously during the reign of Penda (c.632-655); and it gives us something, from Mercia, to set alongside the rich inhumation cemeteries of Kent, or the burial mound at Taplow (Buckinghamshire), or the royal burial ground at Sutton Hoo (Suffolk), or the complex of buildings at Yeavering (Northumbria), or the more recently-discovered chamber grave from Prittlewell (Essex). In his Ecclesiastical History, written in 731, Bede provided the context for our understanding of all these sites, with his tales of the English kings and kingdoms in the seventh century; and as more is discovered, the larger picture comes into sharper focus.'

An appeal is now underway to raise the necessary funds for the entire hoard to be kept in the West Midlands, where it was found. Prof. David Starkey launched the appeal, describing the hoard as 'gangland bling'.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Men went to Catraeth...

Dr Mark Williams writes:

This term some of the Part II students will be looking at the supposedly Old Welsh poem, or rather set of elegies, known as Y Gododdin. It's an opportunity for them to immerse themselves within the knottinesses of a particularly tricky body of material, which is bedevilled by serious textual difficulties.

The standard account of the poem is that its core consists of a series of brief elegies upon the warriors of the Gododdin people of south-eastern Scotland. This was a British (that is to say, Brythonic-speaking) tribe, one of the kingdoms of the 'Old North' which fell, one by one, to the Anglo-Saxons. The poem is supposed to have been composed around the year 600AD by one 'Neirin' or 'Aneirin', to commemorate the fallen warriors of the Gododdin who fell in a disastrous raid deep into enemy Angle territory. The internal narrative of the poem suggests that the ruler of the Gododdin, the otherwise-unattested Mynyddog Mwynfawr, gathered warriors from his own territory and the rest of the Brythonic world, and feasted them in his hall at Edinburgh for a year. His return for this was their unquestioning loyalty to him, even to the death. As the poet says, 'they drank pale mead, and it was poison...' Mynyddog's plan, it seems, was to mount a raid upon the strategic settlement of Catraeth in Yorkshire, modern Catterick, and to retake it from the enemy. According to the poem, all the three hundred splendid, gold-torqued warriors perished.

So far, so unfortunate. The text, however, only survives in a Welsh manuscript that dates from the 13th century, some 700 years after the poem's presumed date of oral composition, 'betwixt which regions', as Shakespeare put it in The Tempest, 'there is some space.' Within this tiny manuscript, known as the Book of Aneirin, at least two strata of text are discernible, known as the A-version and the B-version, and within these we find doubled or even tripled stanzas. (That is to say, variations of the same lines crop up separately in the A and B versions.) The A-version is clearly more 'modern' than the B-version, which alerts us to the fact that the texts have been copied and recopied between the 7th and the 13th century. One version of the poem seems to have circulated for several centuries in the British kingdom of Strathclyde, before passing to Wales around 800AD; but another seems to have reached Wales soon after the total collapse of the Gododdin kingdom in 638AD, hence the two widely differing versions. And at each layer of oral transmission and copying, scribes and reciters chose (sometimes) to update lines or phrases which were becoming too archaic to be comprehensible to them. New stanzas may have been rustled up, so that the poem is like a comet, streaming through time and continually gathering new material into its wake. It's like the old question about the car which has been so patched-up that no part of it is original - is it still the 'same' car? What relation does the poem as we have it in 13th century dress bear to the poem that Aneirin may have composed 700 years before?

Saturday 16 January 2010


Velda Elliott writes:

If there’s one thing that Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice have taught us, it’s the need for a USP: a Unique Selling Point. Once you’ve been an ASNaC, that’s never a problem again!
After graduating, I trained to be a secondary English teacher (which I chose over History because the pay was better – either would have been an option); not an eyebrow has ever been raised that I studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic rather than English Literature, from the day I interviewed for the PGCE to my most recent promotion. In fact, in many ways it made me a better prospect for schools, because I had studied linguistics as part of my degree, and too few English teachers know the first thing about teaching English Language, a subject which is increasing in popularity all the time. It made me stand out from the crowds too – the interviewer might not be able to remember the whole name of the course, but they’ll remember you were the person who studied the interesting subject. It’s not just in teaching that this is an advantage – careers for arts students tend not to be subject specific, and being the person who read something out of the ordinary gives you a little extra shine.

People are fascinated by the fact that I studied ASNaC; it’s a conversation starter, often when they approach me, having heard about it from someone else. Esoteric and at the same time immensely interesting, it’s the subject that everyone knows a little about, but never enough. They’re always ready to talk about it, find out what it was, why you chose it. It’s a subject that never fails to impress, and raise a smile.

Friday 15 January 2010

Adding to The Western Canon

Dr Mark Williams writes:
The great literary critic Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon contains no work of Celtic literature in the huge ‘lifetime’s reading program’ at the back of the book. Not one, in any of the six possible languages. Accordingly, and feeling keenly this dreadful oversight on Bloom’s part, I have taken it upon myself to provide the necessary supplement.

Cornish and Manx are out. The Ordinalia, Beunans Meriasek, Beunans Ke and so on (Cornish medieval drama) have great charm, but we're following Bloom in taking 'great aesthetic interest' as the criterion for inclusion here. Similarly, there's little worth reading in Manx unless you are a specialist. As for Breton: well, the poet Anjela Duval
has much to recommend her, especially her passionate environmental consciousness. Here's one I like:

Wednesday 13 January 2010

In August 2010, the Department will be hosting a Summer School in association with The Sutton Trust. The aim of the Summer School is to give Year 12 pupils an insight into the life of a Cambridge undergraduate - participants stay in a College, attend classes and lectures, and take part in social activities - and it is particularly aimed at those who attend state schools without a tradition of sending students to Oxford or Cambridge. The ASNC Summer School will offer participants the opportunity to learn about the history, languages and literatures taught in the Department and to attend lectures given by leading historians and literary scholars. Students will also get a chance to see Anglo-Saxon and Celtic manuscripts at first hand during a visit to the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College. For more information, see the Cambridge University Summer School webpages.